The Arrowhead Club

In the Dark of the Night

Alfred David Benjamin, 384th Bomb Group navigator
Photo courtesy of the 384th Bomb Group

Alfred David Benjamin was the navigator of the Joe Ross Carnes, Jr. crew of the 544th Bomb Squadron of the 384th Bomb Group in World War II. He was aboard Tremblin’ Gremlin with the Carnes crew on 19 September 1944 on the mission to Hamm, Germany in which the Buslee crew’s tailgunner, Eugene Lucynski, was injured. Eugene was filling in for the Carnes crew’s tail gunner Gerald Lee Andersen, who was on sick leave.

The 384th Bomb Group website provides a concise summary of the events of the mission in regards to the Carnes crew aboard Tremblin’ Gremlin as,

Lead Squadron flying spare; joined formation; aircraft struck by flak just before the IP; after dropping bombs on target, left formation, apparently under control; crew bailed out over Binche, Bel.; all crew returned to duty except ball turret gunner and tail gunner who were seriously injured.

Alfred Benjamin completed his combat duty with thirty-one combat missions and this one particularly stuck with him as he wrote a play that included the experience seventy-three years later, in 2017. His play is named In the Dark of the Night, a name he resurrected from a poem he wrote with the same name, although the subject of the poem is not of the Hamm mission. The subject of the poem seems to be Alfred’s 6th mission as mentioned in the play, a poem the play notes that he sent into Time Magazine for publication in their 50th anniversary issue.

The play is set many years after the war, in the year 1995 with the airmen in their seventies. They reminisce about the war, their bomb group, and the mission. Alfred includes a list of the play’s characters on the second page and calls the tail gunner of the crew “Vinnie.” I believe “Vinnie” is a blending of Gerald Lee Andersen, the original tail gunner of the crew, and Eugene Daniel Lucynski, the Buslee crew tail gunner who participated with the Carnes crew on the 19 September 1944 mission.

Early in the play, each character introduces himself and the character “Vinnie” describes himself as,

My moniker is Vincent Adams, former tail gunner. I am 72 now and glad I reached this age. After service I was very ill and went to the VA for medical services. I have a service connected disability and have lived on my government pension since.

Clearly, the character is fictional with a dose, or several doses, of fact. Gerald Andersen died in the Buslee-Brodie mid-air collision on 28 September 1944 at the age of twenty-one and Eugene Lucynski died on 14 April 1981 at the age of sixty-one.

The airmen go on to describe their personal histories and what led them into the US Army Air Forces in World War II. It’s clear that WWII bomber crew members came from all parts of the country and all walks of life. But they learned to depend on each other for their survival. Where a crew mate was from and how he previously earned his living was not important in the brutal existence of war.

Alfred Benjamin walks us through several missions and clues us into what it was like to serve in World War II back in the 1940’s and the entire play is well worth the read.

The story of the 19 September 1944 mission begins on page 23 of the play and continues to page 29. Alfred Benjamin expertly, and in detail, describes the mission through his characters. At this point in the play, I believe “Vinnie” is a portrayal of Eugene Lucynski, as Eugene is the tail gunner who flew this mission with the Carnes crew.

I urge you to read Alfred’s play in its entirety, and especially these pages to hear the story from one who lived it, but I will include here information I learned about his and Eugene Lucynski’s and the other airmen’s experience aboard Tremblin’ Gremlin on 19 September 1944. I’m paraphrasing here rather than quoting Alfred’s poem verbatim, so read the play to hear Alfred’s story in his own words.

The crew was flying spare and joined up with the 303rd Bomb Group, a sister group in their Wing. They were in the tail end position of the formation.

Being at the tail end, the tail gunner had to watch for enemy attack from the rear. He test fired his guns and one jammed, requiring him to work to fix the jam for half of the mission.

They ran into flak crossing the coast from England and again as they crossed the Rhine River in Germany.

Flak was also very heavy approaching the target and was decimating the formation during the eight-minute bomb run.

At bombs away, the plane jumped with a tremendous explosion on the left side of the plane resulting in a fire in Engine 3. The pilot feathered the prop and they fell away from the group. Engine 2 was leaking oil and also had to be feathered. At this point they were about a thousand feet below the group, falling back, and struggling to maintain altitude.

The pilot asked the navigator to find a route to the nearest known American battle line.

It was time to lighten the load by throwing everything possible overboard including machine guns, ammunition, flak suits, and even the ball turret.

Armed with information from the pilot, the navigator (Alfred Benjamin) calculated how much time they had until the ship would crash – 77 minutes – and how far they could travel – about 200 miles – if everything stayed the same. He plotted a zig-zag course to miss known flak fields and passed an initial course to the pilot.

The pilot noted one of the two remaining engines running rough and the temperature rising to the danger point. Engine failure at this point would doom them. Dropping to 15,000 feet and below, the pilot ordered the crew to remove their oxygen masks for more freedom of movement.

The engineer knew of a trick to make the balky engine clean itself up and explained it to the pilot – cut way back on the throttle and after the engine slowed, apply full throttle. This worked, just like it would on a Model T, with the engine backfiring and then roaring to full power by cleaning the spark plugs.

As the ship was losing altitude, the crew attempted to avoid the flak fields by flying a zig-zag pattern, but four flak blasts blew out their Plexiglas nose and the navigator was hit by a jagged piece of flak in the left hand.

The bombardier grabbed the navigation maps and he and the bloodied navigator headed for the waist of the aircraft. They kept up with their progress by watching out the waist portal for landmarks.

The flak burst that had shattered the nose also hit the prop of Engine 1 causing the plane to wobble and shake. The pilot had to feather that engine and realized they would not be able to land the plane and would have to prepare to bail out.

The navigator felt they needed only a few more minutes of flying to be over allied territory. He was Jewish and concerned for his survival if he bailed out over German-controlled territory. He asked the pilot to attempt to activate Engine 2 and reverse the feather, which the pilot did, and it came back to life.

The act saved not only the Jewish navigator, but the whole crew, as Germans were still in the area as the Allies advanced. At the time they finally jumped from the plane, there were in territory controlled mostly by Belgian Freedom Fighters, but the Nazi’s were still around.

At an altitude of about 10,000 feet, Engine 2 was running out of oil. One of the cylinders blew off through the cowling and it burst into flame. The pilot rang the bailout bell and the airmen jumped.

The navigator was in pain from the landing and was surrounded by men with machine guns pointed at him.

The ball turret gunner injured his ankle upon landing and was also in pain. But he announced they were American and their “rescuers” took them to a farmhouse to hide out as the Nazis were still in the area and would be looking for the flyers.

After nightfall, they were driven to the town hospital for treatment, where they were also fed and housed.

In the night, the tail gunner was brought into the hospital, too. He had been hit by shrapnel in the tail and needed medical attention. That would make three of the crew back together in the Belgian hospital.

The three were the first Americans the townspeople had seen since the Nazi occupation started and they were lining up outside the hospital to visit and thank them – with little gifts, tears, and joy.

The pilot learned the three were in the hospital and came to see them, then reported to the Army that the three were there and needed to be evacuated. They were moved by ambulance to a Paris hospital and then returned to their base at Grafton Underwood, England.

Alfred Benjamin ends his play on this note…

(Joe, the pilot) I hope that the Time article and this play will help to remind people of the sacrifice of our flying crewmembers.

Everybody gets up and they shake hands all around. One by one they exit through the doorway. Benny’s last in line to leave. He reaches the doorway, pauses, turns and walks to the front of the stage.

(Benny, the navigator, addressing the audience)
We leave one by one and soon we will all be gone. None of these men, they are men now but they were really just boys, they came from all corners of the country and all walks of life. They left behind homes and families and loved ones. Many went to serve and many never returned. They fought for America and the world. Their mission was to win a war. Our mission is to never forget.

Benny turns and slowly walks through the door. The stage is empty.

After bailing out over Belgium on the 19 September 1944 mission, Alfred returned to combat duty on 17 October 1944. He completed his combat tour of thirty-one missions on 20 January 1945.

Alfred Benjamin served on two missions with Eugene Lucynski and served on one mission each with two other Buslee crew members, ball turret gunner Erwin Foster in January 1945 and bombardier James Davis in September 1944.

Navigator Alfred David Benjamin of the 384th Bomb Group signed the Association’s commemorative wing panel in 2015.

Alfred Benjamin signs the Association’s Commemorative Wing Panel


Alfred David Benjamin’s Personnel Record with the 384th Bomb Group

In the Dark of the Night, a poem by Alfred David Benjamin

In the Dark of the Night, a play by Alfred David Benjamin

Previous post, The Fate of Tremblin’ Gremlin and Her Crew on Mission 196

The Coastal Star article: South Palm Beach: WWII plane wing noses its way around nation for autographs

Except for excerpts and paraphrasing from Alfred Benjamin’s play, In the Dark of the Night ©2017 Alfred D. Benjamin, © Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2022

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