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In continuing my research into the original airmen assigned to the John Oliver Buslee crew and James Joseph Brodie crew of the 384th Bomb Group, and of the airmen who were aboard these two pilots’ respective fortresses in the mid-air collision of September 28, 1944, I searched through morning reports, special orders, individual sortie records, and personnel records on the 384th Bomb Group’s website. I was looking for any other information about them outside of their bombing missions.
I discovered several entries in those documents regarding the men who were either original members of the Buslee and Brodie crews or were substitutes on missions when the original members did not participate. Today I present the information for the Buslee crew in timeline format. Next week I will present the timeline for the James Joseph Brodie crew.
Note that this information should not be considered complete due to sometimes illegible, incomplete, and missing records, but what I have found is included here. I have also included the Buslee crew’s bombing missions in the timeline.
Timeline of information from Morning Reports, Special Orders, Individual Sortie Records, and 384th Bomb Group website Personnel Records for John Oliver Buslee original crew members and mission substitutes:
6 MAY 1944
William Alvin Henson II was assigned to the 544th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), per AAF Station 106 Special Orders #85 dated 6 May 1944 as Bombardier of the Gerald Sammons crew.
15 JUNE 1944
Robert Sumner Stearns was assigned to the 544th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), per AAF Station 106 Special Orders #113 dated 15 June 1944 as Bombardier of the Larkin Durdin crew.
21 JULY 1944
William Henson overslept and received punishment of having to fly one extra sortie (mission) to complete his tour.
22 JULY 1944
The John Oliver Buslee crew was assigned to the 544th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), per AAF Station 106 Special Orders #144 dated 22 July 1944. Crew members were:
- David Franklin Albrecht, Co-pilot
- Lenard Leroy Bryant, Waist Gunner
- John Oliver Buslee, Pilot
- George Edwin Farrar, Waist Gunner
- Erwin Vernon Foster, Ball Turret Gunner
- Marvin Fryden, Bombardier
- Eugene Daniel Lucynski, Tail Gunner
- Sebastiano Joseph Peluso, Radio Operator
- Chester Anthony Rybarczyk, Navigator
- Clarence Burdell Seeley, Engineer/Top Turret Gunner
26 JULY 1944
The following men were assigned to the 544th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), per AAF Station 106 Special Orders #148 dated 26 July 1944:
- Gerald Lee Andersen, Tail Gunner of the Joe Carnes crew
- James Buford Davis, Bombardier of the Howard Jung crew
3 AUGUST 1944
James Davis’s crewmates Howard Jung (pilot), Thomas C. Bates (navigator), and Harold T. Perry (engineer/top turret), and non-crewmate William T. Sellars (radio operator) were killed in a flying/training accident. Jung’s co-pilot James Vrana, also on board, was seriously injured and placed on sick leave. Having never flown a mission, on 8 AUGUST 1944, James A. Vrana was released from assignment and transferred to Detachment of Patients, 4204 U.S. Army Hospital Plant.
4 AUGUST 1944
Mission 171 to Peenemünde, Germany. Target was a CROSSBOW (V-Weapons) Rocket Research & Development Complex.
5 AUGUST 1944
Mission 173 to Langenhagen, Germany. Target was the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), a Luftwaffe Controlling Station.
Marvin Fryden was (KIA) killed by flak on the 5 AUGUST 1944 mission.
Clarence Seeley was (WIA) wounded in action on the 5 AUGUST 1944 mission.
6 AUGUST 1944
The following enlisted men were promoted to Sergeant on AAF Station 106 Special Orders #158:
- Lenard Bryant
- Erwin Foster
Clarence Seeley was placed on sick leave.
9 AUGUST 1944
Mission 176 to Erding, Germany. Target was the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), the Erding Airdrome & Airfield.
James Davis joined the Buslee crew on his first mission as Bombardier, replacing Marvin Fryden.
George Francis McMann, Jr., Ball Turret Gunner of the Stanley Gilbert crew was assigned to the 544th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), per AAF Station 106 Special Orders #159.
11 AUGUST 1944
Mission 177 to Brest, France. Target was Military and Tactical, Coastal Artillery Emplacements.
12 AUGUST 1944
Mission 178 to La Perthe, France. Target was the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) “Landing Ground.”
13 AUGUST 1944
Clarence Seeley was moved from absent sick (LD) 65th Gen Hosp to absent sick (LD) 4209 U.S. Army Hospital Plant, APO 587.
24 AUGUST 1944
Mission 183 to Merseburg, Germany. Target was the Oil Industry, a Synthetic Oil & Chemical Plant.
25 AUGUST 1944
George McMann was promoted to Sergeant per AAF Station 106 Special Orders #171.
28 AUGUST 1944
William Henson was appointed 1st LT.
1 SEPTEMBER 1944
Gerald Andersen was promoted to Staff Sergeant on AAF Station 106 Special Orders #175.
3 SEPTEMBER 1944
Mission 187 to Ludwigshafen, Germany. Target was Industry, the I. G. Farben Chemical Works.
5 SEPTEMBER 1944
Mission 188 to Ludwigshafen, Germany. Target was Industry, the I. G. Farben Chemical Works.
6 SEPTEMBER 1944
Gerald Andersen went from sick quarters (LD) to absent sick (LD) 303rd Station Hospital Thrapston.
8 SEPTEMBER 1944
Mission 189 to Ludwigshafen, Germany. Target was Industry, the I. G. Farben Chemical Works.
9 SEPTEMBER 1944
Mission 190 to Ludwigshafen, Germany. Target was Industry, the I. G. Farben Chemical Works.
The following enlisted men were promoted to Staff Sergeant on AAF Station 106 Special Orders #180:
- Lenard Bryant
- George Farrar
- Erwin Foster
- Sebastiano Peluso
- Clarence Seeley
10 SEPTEMBER 1944
Mission 191 to Sindelfingen, Germany. Target was Industry, the BMW Motor Component Parts Plant.
Erwin Foster went from duty to absent sick (LD) 303rd Station Hospital Thrapston.
11 SEPTEMBER 1944
Mission 192 to Lützkendorf & Merseburg, Germany. Target was the Oil Industry, an Oil Refinery.
John Buslee was appointed 1st LT.
Clarence Seeley went from absent sick (LD) 65th General Hospital to duty.
Gerald Andersen went from absent sick (LD) 303rd Station Hospital Thrapston to duty.
13 SEPTEMBER 1944
Mission 194 to Merseburg, Germany. Target was the Oil Industry, the Leuna Synthetic Oil Refinery.
14 SEPTEMBER 1944
Robert Stearns was appointed 1st LT.
16 SEPTMBER 1944
Gerald Andersen went from duty to sick quarters (LD).
19 SEPTEMBER 1944
Mission 196 to Hamm, Germany. Target was Transportation, the Railroad Marshalling Yards.
Eugene Lucynski, flying as Tail Gunner with the Joe Carnes crew, went (MIA) Missing in Action when he was forced to bail out over Allied Territory. Seven of the crew returned to duty. The ball turret gunner was injured by flak and transferred to the Detachment of Patients, 4178 U.S. Army Hospital Plant. Lucynski was injured by flak and hospitalized from 19 September 1944 until 10 November 1944. Lucynski had replaced the Carnes crew Tail Gunner Gerald Andersen, who was on sick quarters.
20 SEPTEMBER 1944
Gerald Andersen went from sick quarters (LD) to duty.
25 SEPTEMBER 1944
Mission 198 to Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Target was Transportation, the Railroad Marshalling Yards.
26 SEPTEMBER 1944
Erwin Foster went from absent sick (LD) 303rd Station Hospital, Thrapston, to duty.
William Henson was ordered per Item #9 of Special Orders #190, AAF Station No. 106, APO 557, dated 26 September 1944 from duty to Moulsford Manor, AAF Station 511, to arrive prior to 1800 hours on 28 September 1944, TD to carry out instructions of CG, period not to exceed seven (7) days. Will leave Rest Home on 5 October 1944 to return to proper Station.
27 SEPTEMBER 1944
Mission 200 to Cologne / Köln, Germany. Target was Transportation, the Railroad Marshalling Yards (PFF Aiming Points).
28 SEPTEMBER 1944
Mission 201 to Magdeburg, Germany. Target was Industry, Steelworks.
The following airmen flying with the John Oliver Buslee crew on the 28 September 1944 mission went from duty to MIA (Missing in Action).
- David Franklin Albrecht
- Gerald Lee Andersen
- Lenard Leroy Bryant
- John Oliver Buslee
- George Edwin Farrar
- William Alvin Henson, II
- George Francis McMann, Jr.
- Sebastiano Joseph Peluso
- Robert Sumner Stearns
Subsequently, all were declared KIA (Killed in Action) except for George Edwin Farrar who was declared POW (Prisoner of War).
22 OCTOBER 1944
Clarence Seeley was promoted to Tech Sergeant on AAF Station 106 Special Orders #209.
26 NOVEMBER 1944
The following officers were appointed 1st LT:
- James Davis
- Chester Rybarczyk
6 DECEMBER 1944
James Davis was released from assigned & transferred to Casual Pool 79th Replacement Depot AAF Station 591, departed per 3 SO 341 HQ 1st Bomb Division (Completed Tour).
18 DECEMBER 1944
Erwin Foster went from duty to TD Ebrington Manor AAF Station 498 (TD 7 days).
20 DECEMBER 1944
Chester Rybarczyk was released from assigned & transferred to Casual Pool 70th Replacement Depot AAF Station 591, departed per 6 SO 355 HQ 1st Bomb Division (Completed tour).
25 DECEMBER 1944
Erwin Foster went from TD Ebrington Manor AAF Station 498 to duty (TD 7 days).
5 JANUARY 1945
Erwin Foster was reduced to Private for misconduct per 1 SO 4 HQ AAF Station 106.
Erwin Foster was appointed Sergeant per 2 SO 4 HQ AAF Station 106.
16 JANUARY 1945
Clarence Seeley went from duty to furlough (7 days).
1 FEBRUARY 1945
Erwin Foster was reclassified to the Military Occupation Specialty (612).
5 FEBRUARY 1945
Clarence Seeley went from duty to TD Palace Hotel Southport AAF Station 524 (TD 7 days).
12 FEBRUARY 1945
Clarence Seeley went from TD Palace Hotel Southport AAF Station 524 to duty (TD 7 days).
28 FEBRUARY 1945
Erwin Foster completed his tour of 35 missions.
10 MARCH 1945
Clarence Seeley completed his tour of 34 missions.
4 JUNE 1945
Eugene Lucynski was recommended for the DFC (Distinguished Flying Crosss) for Ex. Achiev.
12 JUNE 1945
Eugene Lucynski was placed on DS for an indefinite period at Y-17, Marseilles/Istres, France, effective o/a (on or about) 13 June 45 and will report to COL SAULT upon arrival at Y-17.
22 JUNE 1945
Eugene Lucynski went from DS, Y-17 Marseilles/Istres, France to duty, effective 22 June 1945.
Thank you to the 384th’s Fred Preller and Keith Ellefson for obtaining and sharing WWII reports from the National Archives for the 384th Bomb Group.
Brodie crew timeline next week…
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2021
A few weeks ago, in an article about the B-17 Lead Banana, I published a poem about that Flying Fortress by Lawrence Vallo, radio operator of the Paul Norton crew of the 384th Bomb Group. Vallo was a Native American airman and you can read much more about him in that previous post. I immediately recognized the Vallo name when I read the poem and that got me to thinking about some Norton crew photos I had in my collection.
There is a connection between the Paul Norton crew and the John Buslee crew of which my dad, George Edwin Farrar, was the waist gunner. The Buslee crew arrived at their air base in Grafton Underwood, England about seven weeks after the Norton crew. They were both part of the 544th Bomb Squadron and therefore lived in the same area of the airbase.
Note the circled 544th SQDN in the bottom right corner of the map of the Grafton Underwood airbase. I speculate that the enlisted men of the Buslee crew may have even shared living quarters with the enlisted men of the Norton crew. Among my dad’s photos from Grafton Underwood are several of the enlisted men of the Norton crew, which I share below with further descriptions. I believe all of these casual photos may have been taken in the same time period as this one of my dad and some of his Buslee enlisted crewmates.
The Buslee crew’s first mission with the 384th Bomb Group was on August 4, 1944. It was a training mission for crew pilot John Buslee. With Buslee in the co-pilot seat and Arthur Shwery showing him the ropes, that didn’t leave a spot in the cockpit for Buslee’s co-pilot David Albrecht. So Albrecht got in some training himself flying as co-pilot with the Paul Norton crew.
I think the photo (above) is of the Buslee crew’s David Albrecht on the left and the Norton crew’s Carl Guinn on the right. Carl was the Norton crew’s engineer/top turret gunner and his position in the aircraft was directly behind the pilot’s compartment. The engineer interacted with and assisted the pilot and co-pilot and was in charge of interpreting the instrument readings during flight. A good engineer knew what the combination of instrument readings meant as far as condition of the engines, etc.
I believe the photo, and most of the others included here, were taken after the completion of the August 4, 1944 mission. The next photo will explain why.
Notice the flight jacket in the above photo. The man holding it was Norton crew waist gunner turned togglier Clarence Bigley. Bigley decorated the back of his jacket with the crew’s nickname Frigham Young and twenty bombs. I don’t believe it was coincidence that the August 4, 1944 mission was Bigley’s twentieth. As for the name Frigham Young, it was a play on words on the name of Mormon leader Brigham Young as the crew’s commander, pilot Paul Norton, was reportedly a Mormon.
Also appearing in the above photo are Norton crew tail gunner John Bregant, engineer/top turret gunner Carl Guinn, and ball turret gunner Lester Noble. In the crew photo of the entire Norton crew, I cannot identify Bregant. However, I have managed to find a few school yearbook photos of him, and his thick mass of hair gives him away. I am quite certain that it is Bregant in the above photo.
The man standing on the right in the above flight jacket photo has Les painted on the front of his flight jacket. He must be Norton crew ball turret gunner Lester Noble.
It took me years to identify Carl Guinn in the photo, but with the help of his relatives on Facebook, we made a positive ID about a year ago. I could never make out the name on the front of his flight jacket, but Carl’s daughter Tracie was able to clear up that mystery. The name painted on the front of her dad’s flight jacket is Jelly. Carl was a southern boy, born in Mississippi and was living in Louisiana when he enlisted in June of 1942. At the Grafton Underwood enlisted mess breakfasts, the other men would tease Carl about his southern accent when he asked “would y’all pass the jelly.”
All four of these men of the Paul Norton crew were on the August 4, 1944 initiation flight of Buslee co-pilot David Albrecht aboard the B-17 Little Kenny. The poet of the crew, Lawrence Vallo, was aboard, too, and so was Thomas Everitt, the Norton crew’s waist gunner.
Thomas Everitt and Carl Guinn…
and Native American airman Lawrence Vallo…
who later wrote a book, Tales of a Pueblo Boy, about his life growing up in an Indian Pueblo, which can still be found on used book sites and Amazon.com.
Remember the tents in the background of the photo of my dad and three of his crewmates at the beginning of this article? The tents in that photo look to be the same tents that Carl Guinn and John Bregant are standing in front of in this photo.
Also, in both photos, Carl Guinn and Lenard Bryant are both wearing the same type of coveralls. Carl was the top turret gunner for the Norton crew, and after the Buslee crew’s top turret gunner, Clarence Seeley, was injured on the August 5, 1944 mission, Lenard, previously trained as a waist gunner, took over that position. I believe it was Carl who gave Lenard some pointers as to what tasks a B-17 engineer/top turret gunner performed.
Lenard attended radio school for a while during his training in the states, and was familiar with reading switches and settings, so probably was a quick study for the requirements of adapting to the position of engineer/top turret gunner for the Buslee crew. From his first mission on August 4 as a waist gunner, Lenard had only five days to figure out his new job as top turret gunner on the August 9 mission, not much time for any kind of formal training.
All members of the Frigham Young crew, including pilot Paul Norton, navigator John Lezenby, and original bombardier Hugh Green completed their tours with the 384th Bomb Group with the exception of one. Co-pilot Robert C. Barnes was killed while flying with a different crew on November 16, 1944.
I must conclude, considering that my dad had these photos of the enlisted men of the Norton crew in his collection, that though most men didn’t make a lot of friends outside of their own crew, the enlisted men of the Buslee crew and Norton crew must have been friends and may have even shared living quarters in the 544th Bomb Squadron enlisted housing.
I’d even like to go a bit further in thinking that my dad, from Georgia, and Lenard, from Texas, took a liking to Carl because he was a fellow Southerner. Living so far from their families in America, hearing “y’all” from a fellow airman in England probably helped them feel at home.
Wouldn’t our dads be amazed to know that their children had “met” through a Facebook group because of some long-forgotten photos saved from their time in WWII? Long after my dad, George Edwin Farrar, and Tracie and Debbie’s dad, Carl Guinn, served in that great war, we were able to find each other and make a new connection in the 384th Bomb Group NexGen family.
I have made many such connections over the years of researching my dad’s time in the war and I know I will make many more as my journey to learn more about the 384th Bomb Group and Grafton Underwood continues…
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2018
If you recall my post from last week, I recently spent an enjoyable weekend in Savannah with my three Stalag Luft IV sisters, Ellen Weaver, Candy Brown, and Laura Edge, and 384th Bomb Group veteran, John DeFrancesco. The better I get to know John, the more I am in awe of him and the other boys who served in the 384th and other Bomb Groups of the 8th Air Force in WWII. Most of the boys were just that – boys who had just finished high school or maybe had a couple of years of college. And here they were, fighting a war on foreign soil, defending our freedom, some of them dying for us. A very big responsibility for such young men.
John Joseph DeFrancesco enlisted just a couple of months after graduating from high school. He was just eighteen years old when he enlisted, but despite his young age, he was selected for the aviation cadet program and was soon on his way to becoming a pilot. No, he had never flown before, but growing up he loved looking up to the sky when he heard the sound of an aircraft engine overhead and delighted in watching them in flight. That led him to choose the Army Air Forces for his military career.
At the completion of his training, John was assigned a crew and they were assigned to the 544th Bomb Squadron of the 384th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force (a.k.a. “The Mighty Eighth”) and were stationed in Grafton Underwood, England. The 384th Bomb Group’s website displays John’s personnel data:
John does not possess a full crew photo, but he does still have the escape/evasion photos of most of his crew. Escape/evasion photos were taken to assist a crewman who was able to escape or evade capture in the event he found himself bailing out of his B-17 and landing in hostile territory.
John Joseph DeFrancesco, Pilot
Robert Edwin Simmons, Co-pilot
Jerome Calnitz, Navigator
William C. Brown, Bombardier
No photo available
Ira J. Bias, Jr., Radio Operator/Gunner
Evan L. “Dixie” Howell, Engineer/Top Turret Gunner
Charles J. Doleshal, Ball Turret Gunner
Harmon C. Hastings, Tail Gunner
Ferris J. Walker, Tail Gunner
John Allen Williams, Flexible Gunner
There were a few other men who John DeFrancesco served with on a number of missions. He flew with William E. Moon (no photo available) of the James W. Orr crew on twenty-one missions. Moon was originally a bombardier who retrained as a navigator.
John flew with Homer L. Lott of the James Robson Gilmore crew on eleven missions. Lott was a flexible gunner turned togglier and flew with John on the January 8, 1945 mission on which both me became POWs.
John DeFrancesco’s sixth mission on October 18, 1944, target Ford Motor Works in Cologne, Germany, was a memorable one. As the bombardier bent over the bomb sight, a piece of flak smashed through the Plexiglass nose of their B-17. It flew over the bombardier’s head and struck the navigator on that flight, Jack Lyons, in the arm, tearing away a large chunk of flesh and shattering his arm.
The piece of flak continued through the aircraft and came through the floor of the cockpit, lodging under his pilot’s seat. With other crew members unsuccessful in their attempts to aid Lt. Lyons, John turned the controls over to his co-pilot and went to Lt. Lyons’ aid in the nose. He cut the sleeve off Lt. Lyons’ jacket, formed it into a bandage, and applied it to the wound to stop the flow of blood.
John’s actions saved the life of Jack Lyons, as without John’s help, Jack would have bled to death before they returned to their base at Grafton Underwood. With Lt. Lyons stable, John returned to the cockpit and assumed the controls of the aircraft, bringing navigator Jack Lyons home alive.
John DeFrancesco became a POW on his thirty-fifth mission and served 144 days as a POW in Germany in the prison camps Stalag 13D (Nuremburg) and Stalag 7A (Moosburg). The story of John’s thirty-fifth mission will be the subject of a future post.
John DeFrancesco received the following medals for his WWII service:
- European-African-Middle Eastern Service Medal
- Air Medal with 5 Oak Leaf Clusters
- Victory Medal
- POW Medal
After WWII, John DeFrancesco served in the Air Force Active Reserves from 1945 until the late 1960’s when he went into the Inactive Reserves. In 1984, John retired from the military as a Lieutenant Colonel.
In 2014, John DeFrancesco signed the 384th Bomb Group’s Commemorative Wing Panel. I was honored to attend his signing and meet him and 384th Bomb Group armorer Paul Bureau that day.
To be continued in a future post…
John’s thirty-fifth mission with the 384th Bomb Group and his time as a prisoner of war in Germany.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017
One of the most famous members of the 384th Bomb Group was part of the original group, but flew in a B-17 only once. He walked on four legs and his name was Delbert McNasty.
While the group was still stateside, bombardier Robert J. Kennedy and his wife Gloria saw the pup in a pet shop window in Salt Lake City and ponied up the hefty sum of ten dollars to take Delbert home. In May 1943, Kennedy and the rest of the Jesse D. Hausenfluck, Jr. crew of the 544th Bomb Squadron smuggled him aboard their B-17 on the Atlantic crossing to their new base in Grafton Underwood, England.
The flight was twelve hours long and when they reached 10,000 feet in altitude, the crew and Delbert required the use of oxygen. Since a puppy oxygen mask was not standard equipment on a B-17, Delbert was placed in a duffel bag fitted with an oxygen hose. Delbert did not appreciate the confinement of the bag, however, and kept escaping. He was caught and returned to the bag over and over again. Delbert was later known for his peculiar behavior which was blamed on possible brain damage due to lack of oxygen during that flight. Delbert’s flight to Grafton Underwood was his last.
At the base in Grafton Underwood, Delbert spent time in the officers’ quarters and the enlisted men’s quarters and racked up offenses in both. He started relieving himself in shoes. At his “court martial” he calmly listened to the charges against him before repeating the offense. Delbert also had the habit of raiding the mess hall. Shooing him out once again, the mess officer became so exasperated he threatened to kill Delbert if he returned. The Hausenfluck crew’s co-pilot, Donald MacKenzie, stormed into the mess hall, gun in hand, and swore to kill the mess officer if any harm came to Delbert.
As the days and weeks of combat wore on, more and more of the original crews of the 544th Bomb Squadron did not return from their missions. The Hausenfluck crew did not return from the August 17, 1943 mission to the ball bearings factory in Schweinfurt. Hausenfluck and MacKenzie were killed. The remaining crew, including Kennedy, were taken prisoner. Allegedly, Delbert was adopted by a Red Cross Girl and left the 384th Bomb Group base at Grafton Underwood, never to be seen there again.
Story courtesy of James Traylor, ball turret gunner with the Hausenfluck crew, and 384thbombgroup.com.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017
Eugene Spearman, radio operator with the 384th Bomb Group, shares the last of his great stories of life in the 384th Bomb Group during WWII. He starts with the formation of his crew at Avon Park, Florida, and ends with his return trip to the United States. In between, Eugene revisits some of his previous stories and shares some new ones.
The four giant engines roared as we raced down the runway. This runway ended at the very edge of the lake. It was September 1944 and crew 56 was taking off on their first flight since they had banded together as a crew in Avon Park, Florida. Lt. Edwin Nicolai was the pilot and Lt. Ross was the copilot. All knew that we had four or five months of operational training to complete before we would be sent into combat. During that four months we made practice bombing runs, checking the skills of our bombardier, Lt. Robitzki, as well as cross-country missions testing the skills of our navigator, F/O Gilbert Parker. Also, practice missions were made where the accuracy of the gunnery crew could be checked. Under the leadership of our pilot, we were inspired to do our jobs so that the missions would be successful.
In January of 1945, we arrived at Hunter Field, Georgia, where we were given a new B-17. We flew from there to Dow Field, Maine, after buzzing the home of Lt. Robitzki on Staten Island; then on to Goose Bay, Labrador. There the snow was so deep that we had only a few inches of light above the top of the outside windows. Canadian ski troops dressed in white operated around the air base.
After a few days we took off on the snow-cleared runway, only to have a wing tip hit the snow bank on the edge of the runway. We made it into the air, but had to land again to check for structural damage. After a couple of days we again took off and headed to Rekyavick, Iceland. There I was assigned guard duty on the cold, damp, rocky side of the airport near the ocean, to guard our plane. There were no trees or grass anywhere in sight. Next we flew on to Edinberg, Scotland, where we left our new B-17 and took trucks on a long, cold ride down to a distribution center near Birmingham, England, called Stone, England. After a few days we were assigned to the 384th bomb group and 544th squadron base 106, at Kettering, England near Northampton in the Midlands.
We enlisted men were assigned to a little quonset hut where other crewmen were assigned. Some of the other crewmen in the hut had flown from one to 34 missions and had plenty of stories to tell about different targets in Germany that they had bombed and about flak and fighter planes they had faced in bombing the target.
Our trips to the flight line and mess hall were made on little English bikes. These we acquired by going down to the flight line and getting one that a previous crew member who failed to make the return flight from over Germany had left.
One crew member near my bunk was superstitious and wore the same socks on every mission. Another also wore the same overalls. Another insisted he had completed his required 35 missions, but operations personnel records showed he had only completed 34, so when he refused to fly the next mission, he was put on AWOL, and was assigned to garbage detail at the base.
It seemed like the weather was always rainy and cloudy. This made the take off and getting into formation a real challenge. On our first attempt we were unsuccessful and had to abort the mission and drop our bombs in the North Sea.
By early February the missions came real often. Early in the morning, an operational sergeant would come into the little quonset hut and say, “Wake up, Spearman, you are flying in the Nicolai crew today. Be down at briefing at 4:00 am.” After the mission, we would be debriefed. There we were given a small glass of cognac to unwind and asked to tell about any unusual event we saw on the mission, such as enemy fighters, V2 rockets, B-17s falling, etc.
One thing that I was thankful for was that a minister or priest stood holding a Bible beside the runway just before we released the brakes and raced down the runway on every mission, rain or shine. On every mission there was flak, but as the missions added up, the sighting of enemy fighters seemed to decrease. Fighter escort by the P-51’s and P-47’s was always a welcome sight, but one friendly P-51 just got real close and slid almost into the space between the right wing and tail to wave at me. I was glad to see him move out a few feet. Most of the flak were dark puffs in the sky and especially over the target, but occasionally the white tracking flak would start closing in on us. This would cause the tail gunner or ball turret gunner to yell for me to throw out more chaff. Chaff was a bundle of little eight-inch aluminum strips that looked like more B-17s on the German radar.
The ball turret gunner, Pete Bongiorno, credited this chaff for saving my life over Dresden once. Most of the missions we received flak holes somewhere in the plane, but until the 3-19-45 mission to Plauen, our crew remained safe. On this mission, Lt. Robitzki, our bombardier, was asked to fly with the Lt. Kramer crew as lead bombardier. (Lt. Kramer’s plane was sighted over Belgium at about 11,000 ft. headed back to England after the mission. His plane never did get back to the base, and is presumed to have gone down in the English Channel).
On our 25th mission on an attack on the submarine pens at Bremen, the flak seemed to zero in on our plane, No. 42-32106. First one engine went out and then another. Flak hit the cockpit and slightly wounded the pilot and shatttered the plexiglass windshield. It would have wounded the copilot if he hadn’t just relinquished control of the plane. Flak struck the tail of the B-17 killing Sgt. Bill Pleeler, and knocked the waist gunner down and backward. Some two hundred holes were counted in the plane. One unexploded shell went throught the left wing just outside my station. The fabric was ripped off the trailing edge of the left wing. Later the waist gunner and I found the little piece of shrapnel that hit his flak vest on his right shoulder. Even though it was real small, Charles Whitworth kept it as a good luck symbol.
With two engines out, and losing altitude, our condition was extremely critical. Some of the control cables had been severed. Some thoughts were given of going to Sweden or Switzerland, but finally “Nick” dove the plane into some clouds and headed back toward England at an extremely low altitude. Since I grew up on a farm in Mississippi, I could relate to what I saw just below the crippled B-17. There was a farmer plowing two horses single file just below us and the plane had caused his horses to “run away” [made him lose control of them]. Except for the skill shown by the pilot and navigator during this mission, and the durability of the plane, we would have crashed. I had witnessed other planes firing the red flares on the return to the air base, but this time we were the ones firing the red flares to indicate killed in action or wounded on board.
On one of our missions we were to bomb an airbase in Germany at a lower than usual altitude, around 19,000 ft. Since they, at briefing, had told us there was to be no flak, I decided to remove my flak suit and stand up and watch the bombs fall on the target. Just as we released the bombs, several big black clouds of flak appeared and shook the plane. I immediately sat back down and put the flak suit on, resolving to not believe those briefing officers again.
I, along with the pilot and copilot, always wore a back parachute. The rest of the crew wore a front chute that snapped on when you got ready to jump out of the plane. After the morning briefing, you always were asked to pick up your parachute as you went out to the plane. On my last mission, when I was asked which chute I wanted, I requested my back chute and asked for and was given a front chute also. I really wanted to be prepared on that last mission.
After the morning briefing, we were given a chance to pick up a candy bar. I always chose a Milk Way candy bar and placed it on my radio table to eat only after the wheels touched down on the return to home base. On one mission just after we too off, the ball turret gunner, Peter Bongiorno, came by my station and before I could stop him, ate my candy bar. This was a major disaster to me, and I was afraid my luck had run out. I sure was glad when that mission was over.
After my missions, the pilot “Nick” and I were given orders to fly back to the States. After we had flown about eight hours, and while others on the flight back home were up near the cockpit, leaving me alone in the radio room the plane suddenly dropped violently and bounced me all around the radio room. My thoughts were that I had survived all those missions and now I would be killed returning home. Then the plane settled down and I made my way up to the cockpit, where they were laughing and celebrating because they had sighted the good ole USA.
Two of the original crew 56 members had made the round trip.*
- Edwin Nicolai, Pilot
- Eugene Spearman, Radio Operator
* Other members of the original crew came back to the States later in 1945.
© Eugene Spearman, 2016
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016
Eugene Spearman, radio operator with the 384th Bomb Group, shares a story of life at Grafton Underwood by recollecting some of his own non-combat experiences.
Our New Home at Grafton Underwood
Just after we moved into the little Quonset hut as a replacement crew for the 384th BG and 544 BS at Grafton Underwood, an engineer gunner who had flown almost all of his required missions told me about his crew being shot down on a previous mission. He said they had been hit by flak and crash landed in Belgium. His pilot made a wheels-up landing and as the plane skidded for several hundred yards, finally stopped in a large greenhouse or nursery. The large greenhouse with the glass roof was completely destroyed.
As elderly lady suddenly appeared, waving her arms and yelling loudly. She said the Germans had gone in a western direction and that her greenhouse had survived. The Germans had gone in a eastern direction and her greenhouse had survived. Then the allies went in a eastern direction and her greenhouse survived. Then an American bird came along and completely destroyed her greenhouse.
If an air crewman completed his required missions (35 missions while I was flying), it was standard practice for the other crew members and friends at debriefing to celebrate his good fortune by giving him our individual little glass or shot of cognac. We celebrated with one of my friends, who according to his records had flown the required 35th mission, only to find the next morning that they awoke him and told him that their records showed he had flown only 34 missions. He was asked to fly the mission, but he refused. He was immediately charged with being AWOL and placed in the brig. Later I would see him picking up garbage around the base. I never did know just who made the error in counting the number of missions he had really flown.
One city we visited when we could get leave time was Northampton. The large double-decker English buses made a scheduled run from Grafton Underwood to Northampton. The last bus to leave Northampton was at midnight for the base at Grafton Underwood. One weekend, I went on leave to Northampton and for some reason missed the last bus to depart for Grafton Underwood. I knew that if I wasn’t in my bunk and available to fly my mission at the wake-up hour of about 4 a.m., I would be declared AWOL and would be put in the brig. I immediately checked the remaining buses and asked if any were going near the base at Grafton Underwood. One driver informed me he was going within about five miles, so I told him to let me off on the road at that point and I would attempt to walk the remaining distance and try to get there before wake-up time.
He finally stopped and told me that was where I should get off the bus. I got off at a dark, dark, cold and damp location and started walking in the direction he had pointed. After I had walked for what seemed like a long time, I suddenly saw a small light coming in my direction. I realized that I was completely lost and decided that I would have to ask whoever was coming in my direction which was the way to Grafton Underwood. It turned out that the small light was on a bicycle. When the bicycle approached, I decided to tackle the rider and ask the rider for instructions on how to get to the base. My football-type tackle of the bicycle was successful, for it turned out the rider was an elderly, small, and scared-almost-to-death Englishman. I was able to hold him in my grasp long enough to tell him that all I wanted to know was which way is it to Grafton Underwood. When I turned him loose, he left in a hurry, and I resumed my walk toward the air base. Fortunately, I made it back to the base in time to fly the next morning. I’m convinced that there was one elderly English bicycle rider on a dark, lonely road that night that wishes he had been somewhere else at that time in history.
© Eugene Spearman, 2016
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016
Eugene Spearman, radio operator with the 384th Bomb Group, shares another of his great stories, this one about his eighteenth mission, 384th Bomb Group Mission #292D.
On this day, March 19, 1945, the Nicolai crew flew as part of the squadron that made up the low squadron of the 41st “D” Composite Group. The primary target, the Braunkohle-Benzin Synthetic Oil Plant in Bohlen, Germany, was briefed as visual only, and was cloud-covered. The secondary target, which was also briefed as visual only, was not visible, so the number three target, Vomag Maschinenfabrik in Plauen, Germany, was attacked using PFF aiming.
Mission to Plauen
Our 18th mission was to Plauen, Germany. We had flown most of our missions all together with the same crew that we trained with in Avon Park, Florida. Our bombardier, Walter Robitzki, was chosen on this 18th mission to fly with the lead crew and we were given another crewman to be the one to act as togglier and drop the bombs from our plane.
In early 1945, we didn’t have as many German fighters to worry about, but we did have plenty of flak shot at us. Walter’s lead plane was also carrying hot cameras, so they were expected to leave the formation and get back to England with the bomb damage photographs as soon as possible.
After we dropped our bombs, we stayed with the formation and started returning to our base at Grafton Underwood, home of the 384th BG. Our engineer gunner, Joe Clemis, who lives in Spartanburg, SC, kept a private log of each mission and this is what he said: “No fighter opposition. Rocket almost hit our ship. The force from the explosion rocked our ship. Mission was 10 1/2 hours, 5 hours on oxygen. Weather real bad over base, but visual over target. Saw Paris and Eiffel tower, also Brussels as we descended to a lower elevation.” Our bombardier, Walter Robitzki, and crew were listed as missing and later declared killed in action.
I had tried for years to find out what had happened but was unsuccessful. In talks with my pilot, copilot, and others in the crew, no one knew any more than I did. They just didn’t return. In 1993, when we dedicated the Heritage Museum, I asked a lady employee there if she knew or could help me find out anything about Walter’s MIA status. This employee was Mrs. Phyllis Dubois from Alysham, Norwich, England. She promised to try and find some information and write me. Later, she sent me a casualty report that showed that the B-17, No. 44-8008, was sighted over Ostende, Belgium, at 11,000 feet at 1655 hours with no apparent damage. In June 2002, while looking at a webpage on my computer, I noticed an entry asking if anyone had any information about a crew that was MIA on a mission on 3-19-45. I answered the inquiry thinking that it might be someone who knew something about Walter. I was amazed and tremendously pleased to find that it was Walter’s nephew.
Needless to say, we have shared pictures, stories, and just chatted back and forth by e-mail and letters, and still have lots of catching up to do on events that happened on 3-19-45. I just wish that Walter’s mother was still living so I could chat with her.
© Eugene Spearman, 2016
- Walter Robitzki’s name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial in the UK.
- Ostende, Belgium is less than two miles from the English Channel.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016
Eugene Spearman flew two missions to Bremen with the 384th Bomb Group. The first was on March 11, 1945 (that’s 71 years and 2 days from today) to a Vacuum Oil Plant. The second, and the subject of Eugene’s story, was a few weeks later on March 30. The target of the March 30 mission was a Submarine and Warship Yard Machine Shop.
Mission to Bremen
I would like to take you back in time to when I, as a 19-year-old, found myself living in a small quonset hut with fifteen other young men in the Midlands of England. The hut had eight double bunk beds in it and I had an upper bunk. Some of the young men had flown almost all the required thirty-five missions and others had flown varied amounts. The location of the base was Grafton Underwood near Kettering, England, home of the 384th BG and 544th Sqn. The larger town nearby was Northampton.
While picking cotton on my father’s hill farm near Coffeeville, MS a couple of years before, I was scolded by my father because I took so much time watching (from horizon to horizon) the young pilots flying the AT-6’s as they flew from Columbus to Pine Bluff, Ark.
Just after completing high school, I went down to Greenwood and volunteered in the Cadet program. After basic at Keesler and being scratched from making the trip to Clemson and later to Penn State for more training, I was sent to radio school in Sioux Falls, S.D., and later to Gunnery school in Yuma, Ariz., then to Avon Park, FL, where I met the rest of the nine-man crew and took about six months of operational training. Later we picked up a new B-17 at Hunter Field, GA and after buzzing the bombardier’s home at Staten Island, N.Y., we landed at Bangor, Me. Then we went on to Goose Bay, Labrador, and Iceland, and then to Edinburg, Scotland, where we turned in the new B-17. We rode in trucks all night to Stone, England, near Birmingham, which was a distribution center. Later we were assigned to the base at Grafton Underwood.
About three or four o’clock in the morning, a sergeant would come into the little hut and wake the crewmen that were flying the mission that day. On March 30, 1945, after I had already flown twenty-three missions the sergeant woke me up and said, “Spearman, be down at briefing at 4:00 am. You are flying in the Ed Nicolai crew.” I got dressed and went outside and got on my little English bike and rode down to the mess hall. We called it Tomaine Tavern. I wondered how many other airmen had ridden this same little bike. You acquired the little bikes by going down to the flight line and getting one that some previous crewman left because he did not return from the trip over Germany. After breakfast we went to briefing where the flight commander would tell us the target for the day. If it was a rough target you would hear some aw’s and groans. Today it was the submarine base at Bremen. Next the weather officer would tell us about the weather over the target as well as at the base when we returned. Then a navigation officer would talk about the route in and out of Germany.
Then with a “Good Luck Boys-Hit the Target” send off, we would file out, pick up equipment, parachutes, etc., and ride trucks out to the dispersed planes. Dressed in the heavy flight suits, I always thought everyone looked like stuffed toad frogs.
We then taxied out to the end of the runway and awaited our signal for take-off. Standing just outside the plane during most of my missions even in rain or snow stood a man, Bro. Billy, holding a Bible. His being there was such a blessing for me. Just knowing that someone was praying for me made me feel better.
And then we roared down the runway and into the air. The 384th history log showed the mission to Bremen was the 300th mission that was flown by the 384th BG. There were 39 aircraft from Grafton Underwood and the total bomb load of 500-lb bombs was 105 tons. The elevation at target was 26,000 ft and bombing was by PF. Flak was moderate and accurate. We were in the left hand wing position and made a left-hand turn off the target and were struck by flak shortly after releasing our bombs. Pilot was slightly injured when cockpit plexiglass and copilot controls were hit. Waist gunner hit by flak in upper chest but saved by flak suit. Tail gunner was KIA when flak hit the tail section. Two engines were knocked out and plane left formation and dove into some clouds and came out “on the deck.” Landed at Eye with some 200 holes in plane. Plane was called “Snuffy,” and was S.N. (serial number) 42-32106. We were crew #143. This plane, which I thought would have been scrapped due to flight damage, was later repaired and returned to service.
The pilot, Ed Nicolai, and I flew back to the USA after the tour of missions (34) was completed. I invite you to view on your computer 384thbombgroup.com for “the rest of the story.”
© Eugene Spearman, 2016
The tail gunner killed on mission 300 was William R. Peeler. It was his twenty-fourth mission. He was the first of the Ed Nicolai crew to be killed in action.
Aircraft 42-32106 went by three names: Snuffy, Worry Bird, and VOAN. After mission 300, it went back into service only two weeks later, on April 14, 1945. It flew 123 combat missions with the 384th Bomb Group.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016
Eugene Spearman, radio operator with the 384th Bomb Group, shares another of his great stories. He starts with an explanation of how this one came about.
In 1944 and 1945, my parents were very concerned because their three boys were in combat in WWII. The eldest son of Creston Young and Claudine Hyde Spearman of Coffeeville, Mississippi, Creston Hyde, was in the South Pacific on Leyte and later Okinawa. The middle son, Dwight, was wounded just after D-Day in France, and the youngest [Eugene] was flying missions over Germany. I was the baby of the family, and my mother wrote so many letters, or V-mail, to me that I decided to write her describing a typical mission. I knew as soon as I finished the letter that it would never get by the censors, so I put it in my duffel bag, thinking that if the worse happened, she might still get to read the letter. I found the letter later. It was called:
A Typical Mission
The morning of February 15, 1945, started early for me when the sergeant shook the small bunk I was sleeping in and said, “Wake up, Spearman. You are flying today in Nicolai’s crew in B-17, No. 242. Be down at briefing at 4:45.” I, along with several other sleepy crewmen, struggled out of bed and hurriedly pulled on clothes. The place was Grafton Underwood, near Kettering, England, in the Midlands, home of the 544th bomb squadron, 384th bomb group, 2nd wing, 8th Air Force. Outside the small Quonset hut, I picked up the little English bike and pedaled down toward the mess hall, or chow hall. I had often wondered before on similar trips to the “Tomaine Tavern” (as the chow hall was known) just how many flight crewmen had owned the little bike I was riding. It was never necessary to buy a bike, nor did we have to wait any time after reaching the base before acquiring one. All we had to do was go down to the flight line and pick up one that Bill, or Pete, or Joe rode down yesterday or the day before, but did not get back across the Channel to make the return trip to the Quonset huts.
After chow I rode on down to the flight line and entered the briefing room. Our briefing was conducted by several operational officers. First, the group commander told us the target for the day. If it was a well-known place like Berlin, Hamburg, Schweinfurt, or Leipzig, a low “Ah-h-h” mingled with a few moans usually echoed around the room. Today, it is Dresden. After giving us a description of the target, the type of target, and other pertinent data, he listed the first and second alternate targets. The intelligence officer then took charge and pointed out the probable locations of flak, and fighter concentration we would encounter. The weather officer told us the cloud conditions over the target, and the expected weather conditions at the base at our estimated time of arrival back to Grafton Underwood.
A navigational officer pointed out our route in, the time of the “Bombs Away,” and the return route. With a wave of the hand and a “Good Luck, Boys,” we would rush in and put on the heated suits, wobble out to the small jeeps that carried us to the dispersed planes. I always thought everyone else looked like stuffed toad frogs in those suits. After reaching the planes, I noted that for this particular mission, our plane, #242, was christened “Stardust.” The fact that she had 29 small bombs painted on the fuselage did not impress me that she would make #30 roundtrip any easier. In fact, I shuddered to think what some German civilians would do to anyone who rode her down on German soil.
Our cargo consisted of several magnesium incendiary bombs and six 30-pound demolition-type bombs. In a few minutes we had pulled into the line of traffic of about 40 B-17’s, awaiting our turn to pull on to the end of the runway. The roar of engines as they struggled to lift the heavy load of fuel and bombs was enough to awake all the residents of the Midlands. It was an impressive sight for this country boy.
Standing just beside the end of the runway, where we made that final check of instruments before releasing the brakes, stood a minister. I don’t know what denomination he represented, but it was an inspiration to me to see him there. And then we were on our way.
All whom I know who flew missions were superstitious. My superstition was a candy bar. At the briefing, they always gave us a candy bar – Milky Way or Snickers. I always placed the candy bar on the small table in front of me and ate it just before we touched down at home on the return. On this particular mission, the ball turret gunner came by my position and before I could stop him, ate my candy bar just after takeoff. To me, that was a major disaster. It was as if all my luck had run out. He resembled one of those ostriches with that candy bar going down his throat, and I would have shot him if we had not needed the belly gun to protect our plane underneath.
It was a long flight in, with considerable flak, but few fighters sighted. A diversionary flight of B-24’s up the North Sea toward Hamburg had caused Herr Goering to use up much precious fuel to try to keep the submarine pens at Bremen and Hamburg from being attacked, while some one thousand B-17’s struck straight across Germany to Dresden.
The Germans used two types of flak. One pattern type is when they just shoot the 88MM guns into the air over the area they wish to protect. Another is the tracking flak where they use their radar to stay on the target as it moves above them. Oddly enough, the pattern flak was most effective. At the end of the 20th century, when they vote on the man of the century, I will cast my vote not for Einstein, Anderson, or Von Braun – but the man who invented this: Chaff! On a radar scope, it looked just like a B-17, and it saved a lot of country boys from having to get out and walk at 30,000 feet altitude.
It was a long flight back, but 11 hours after takeoff, we were back at the base. This mission was not one of the most important of the 8th Air Force, nor was it our worst. It was just one of many that broke the back of the German nation, and it convinced the German people as well as their leaders that they lost the war due to the strategic air power of the Allies.
© Eugene Spearman, 2016
Eugene Spearman’s words mean so much to me. They help me understand what he and the other boys of the 384th Bomb Group, like my dad, experienced on a typical mission during WWII. What Eugene doesn’t mention in his letter home is that February 15, 1945 was his very first mission.
On that mission (#267), the primary target was a synthetic oil plant in Bohlen Germany. The Mission Summary from 384thBombGroup.com describes that mission:
Heavy fog closed in quickly during takeoff operations, preventing almost half of the force from flying. The 384th Bombardment Group (H), initially ordered to provide all three squadrons of the 41st “B” group, formed itself into two reduced squadrons – lead and low – during assembly. They also picked up some aircraft from the 379th BG. The primary target was “visual only” so the secondary was attacked using radar aiming. Weather at the home base remained bad on their return, so all but one aircraft landed elsewhere.
The secondary target attacked was the railroad marshalling yards in Dresden. The Nicolai crew, actually aboard aircraft 42-102459, aka “Little Kenny,” landed away at Seething Airfield, Station 146.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016