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The Last Mission of the Wham Bam Boys
Courage, Tragedy, and Justice in World War II
By Gregory A. Freeman
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2011 Gregory A. Freeman
All rights reserved.
August 26, 1944
THE WOODEN WHEELS OF THE HAY WAGON kept a slow but steady rhythm as it was pulled down the rough stone street of Rüsselsheim, Germany, the small bed loaded heavily with the bodies of eight American airmen whose blood ran off the back edge of the cart, leaving a long, thick trail of black sorrow on the road. Sergeant Sidney Eugene Brown, the tail gunner of the American bomber that had gone down near this German city two days earlier, could hear nothing but the rumble of the wheels, the low monotonous grumble a contrast to the previous two hours of screaming and cacophonous noise.
Brown wondered where they were going, but he dared not raise his head to look around. Most of the crowd was gone, it seemed, and that was the most important thing. It was quiet except for the wagon's drone, and Brown supposed that meant he and his companions were being taken out of the city. He didn't know what was going to happen, but it couldn't be worse than what they had been through already.
A long way from his home in Gainesville, Florida, the nineteen-year-old country boy now lay piled in a heap with seven of his crewmates, some of them his best friends. Brown had been lucid enough at the end to see several young Germans pull the hay cart to where the crew members lay on the street. He could do no more than lie there and wait. First they picked up William Dumont, the belly gunner from Berlin, New Hampshire, and tossed him into the cart with no regard, and then Brown's good friend William Adams, the nose gunner from Klingers town, Pennsylvania. As they moved down the street, Brown was the next one to be tossed in. The loading continued until all eight Americans had been heaped in a jumble, bleeding profusely, limbs broken. The heat was excruciating, especially for Brown, who still wore the heated flying suit that had kept him warm at freezing altitudes when their B-24J bomber, the Wham! Bam! Thank You Ma'am, made its run near Hannover, a German city about 173 miles away. In the August heat, with men piled on top of him and his throat aching with thirst from dehydration and blood loss, the flying suit was torturous. But Brown could not risk moving to ease his discomfort. He could not see who was pulling the cart, but he suspected it was more than just one man. And even if there were just one, Brown was in no shape to outrun him or fight him. The more he listened, the more he thought it sounded like a small group of people pushing and pulling the cart. And the voices sounded impossibly young.
Brown could hardly breathe. Under the men, he struggled for each breath of the hot air thick with the smell of blood, sweat, urine, and feces. His head throbbed with pain from the blows he had suffered, and he couldn't even tell where else on his body he was hurt. The pain was everywhere. The metallic taste of blood filling his mouth made him want to retch. Brown couldn't tell who was still alive. He knew for sure that some of his friends were gone already. After they had been grinding along for about ten minutes, Brown heard one of the men next to him let out a small groan when the wagon bumped hard over the road. He realized then that it was Second Lieutenant John Sekul, the copilot, jammed in next to him, his head close but turned away. Beaten severely and shot in the head, Sekul was still hanging on. Glad to know someone else was alive, Brown whispered to him. "John, hey, John ... move over a little. I can't breathe."
Sekul edged his body slightly away, giving Brown a tiny bit more room to suck in the fetid air that was keeping him alive.
Then he heard Sekul say something to him softly, through cut lips and broken teeth.
"Brownie ..." he whispered. "Pray."
Brown didn't say anything in return, fearful of attracting the Germans' attention. But he was thinking John, this little old Baptist boy's been praying all day.
As the wagon rolled on, Brown could hear Sekul saying the rosary, quietly, in a voice muddled with blood.
"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," Sekul whispered. "Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. ..."
The tumbrel continued and Brown made out the sound of two or three voices speaking German as they pulled the wagon along. Brown wondered what the men were going to do with the Americans.
After another fifteen minutes or so, the wagon stopped, and Brown could hear voices again. This time there seemed to be a new voice in the mix, at least one. Brown decided to risk a look. As gingerly as he could, he raised himself just slightly so he could peer over the side of the cart.
As he looked around, trying to make out the scene through the maddening pain coursing through his head, Brown's eyes fell on a man walking toward the cart carrying a two-by-four piece of lumber in his hand and looking as if he were about to get to work.
Oh my God, he's coming to finish us off, Brown thought.
Brown slumped back down and closed his eyes, knowing his only chance for survival was to continue playing dead. He did not have the strength to fight anyone. He felt the cart shake as the man pounded on the side, looking for any response from the men he thought should be dead. Then Brown could hear the man grabbing the airmen one by one and looking for signs of life, striking them hard in the head with the club if there was any doubt. Brown heard Staff Sergeant Thomas Williams, an only child from Hazleton, Pennsylvania, make a small sound as the German pulled him up, followed by a crushing blow to the skull and one last whimper.
Sekul also heard the men being finished off. He began quietly whispering again. "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus...."
Brown, hearing the whispered Hail Mary, was glad that Sekul was still alive but wished he would be quiet. Brown felt Sekul's hand, resting on his shoulder, and felt him wince, feebly clenching his fist, as the German clubbed him in the head. The whispering of the rosary stopped. Brown lay as still as he could, hoping the executioner would pass him by. He could do nothing as Sekul's life slipped away and his hand fell from his shoulder.
Brown was certain he would be next, and he was. The man swung the club hard, but because of the way Brown was laying on the bottom, the sideboards of the wagon prevented the German from getting a good angle. The blow hit Brown in the head but glanced off. The German climbed up on the cart to get a better angle on the fliers and continued beating some, but then air raid sirens filled the air, signaling yet another Allied bombardment like the one this crew had taken part in just days earlier. The man with the club and the two other Germans ran for the safety of a slit trench nearby, leaving the airmen alone.
The cart was silent now; there was no more struggling, no groans or moaning. The only sound was the sirens screaming through the air, and those stopped after a few minutes. Brown wondered if he was the only one alive in the cart but then the terrible moans and groans came again. When he opened his eyes and looked around, he saw a terrible, gory scene. His friends were beaten horrifically, their heads smashed in, with blood, brains, and skull scattered. He was certain they were all dead or dying. Brown felt like he was dying too, the pain overwhelming him at times and the situation forcing him into a deep despair.
Dear God, help me out of this, he thought.
Bombs never fell on the cemetery, but Brown was too deep in his own pain and fear to notice whether they were landing somewhere nearby. After a while, he did realize that the Germans were not returning to the cart.
The day was completely silent as Brown lay in the cart, wondering if he would be the only survivor of the Wham! Bam! or merely the last to die.
In Gainesville, Florida, Brown's parents were thinking of their boy with the wavy, dirty blond hair and hoping, praying that the war would be over soon and Gene could return home safely. In Rochester, New York, a young wife was seeking comfort with her new in-laws, reading and rereading the last letters from her pilot husband and looking forward to the next. Loved ones were doing the same in the Bronx, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Michigan.
They were worried. They were hopeful. They had no idea.CHAPTER 2
DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES
BEFORE THE LAST MISSION
BY ANY MEASURE, THE ENTIRE CREW of the Wham! Bam! didn't get the lucky hand. The men were led by Norman Rogers Jr., their twenty-four-year-old pilot, the second lieutenant from Rochester, New York. Rogers, the leader in every way of his ten-man crew, was the quintessential serviceman in World War II. Young and energetic, with a long life ahead of him and family eagerly awaiting his return, he was a good man who did not resent being called to duty and was eager to serve his country however it needed him. Rogers longed to be with his family and to resume his life in Rochester, but he also knew that he was doing something important, and he had been raised to value character and a sense of pride. The other airmen serving with Rogers all had their versions of the same story: All missed their loved ones but were focused on doing their part to defeat Germany.
The rest of the crew respected Rogers as a pilot and admired him as a friend. They knew that he had the skills to be a fighter pilot, a far more glamorous position, but he had requested command of a bomber partly because he so enjoyed the camaraderie of a large crew. Six feet tall, slim and handsome, Rogers was the second oldest of six children. The son of a captain in the Rochester Fire Department, Rogers grew up in the 19th Ward, which was like its own little village where everyone knew each other. With a sense of duty instilled in him early on, Rogers joined the Marine Corps Reserve while still at Aquinas High School, and after graduating in 1937 he intended to join the Marines. His family sent him off to New York City to join the Corps, proud to see Rogers take on such responsibility. But Rogers soon came home dejected. He had been turned down twice because of his overbite, a restriction held over from the Civil War, when soldiers had to bite off the end of gunpowder packets to load their rifles, and because he had fractured his arm as a young boy. Eleven-year-old Norm had been hitching a ride to school one morning on the ice wagon that traveled through his neighborhood, letting it pull him along as he slid down the icy winter road, when he fell and fractured his left arm badly. His parents had forbidden him from playing on the ice wagon, so Norm went on to school without telling anyone and sat through classes unable to write because he was left handed. Then he went home with his arm throbbing in pain and tried to eat dinner without letting anyone know. He never complained, sitting stoically and quietly despite the agony. The injury was discovered only when his mother noticed that he was eating with his right hand. Rogers appealed the Marine Corps' rejection but, when that failed, he entered the Army Air Corps in 1939. (In 1944, the Army Air Corps would become the Army Air Force.)
Rogers's friends and family knew him to have a tough core even though he was quiet and rather shy. He could be serious and expected his crew to do things right the first time, but they also knew him to be fair and not overly beholden to military formality. The Rogers crew avoided using military titles when they were working together, calling each other by their last names instead. The crew members and Rogers's family back in Rochester knew that he wasn't shy about jumping into a fight if he thought someone was being mistreated. In addition to defending other kids from playground bullies, young Rogers had made a name for himself by standing up to the local theater manager who ordered all the kids to leave without a refund when the projector broke before the start of Saturday morning cartoons. Ten-year-old Norman marched to the box office and informed the manager that nobody was leaving his theater until they got their money back. Soon the kids were lining up to get their nickels.
His younger brother Art was in the Marines fighting on Guadalcanal, so the Rogers family had a wealth of worries. His older brother Jack was in the Army Air Force like Norm, having entered the war late because his job as a fireman had earned him a deferment from the draft. He was training to be a bombardier. Initially Norm was assigned to the Ninth Reconnaissance Wing of the Fifth Army, but not as a pilot. For three years, he worked as an armorer on the bombers, loading and maintaining the big guns that helped them fend off enemy fighters. While serving on tropical bases—the Panama Canal Zone, Trinidad, St. Lucia, and others—Rogers tried to keep his dear mother, Jennie, abreast of his activities and assure her that he was okay. Forty-seven years old in 1940 but looking much older, Jennie was a prolific writer of letters to the editor of the Rochester newspaper and eagerly awaited letters from Norm and her other boys, because each one meant they were safe—at least recently. Trying to overcome the military censors who would remove from his letters any mention of where he was stationed, Rogers once wrote to his mother: "Now I can honestly say I've been everywhere Art has been." He knew she would piece together his previous deployments and realize he was in Iceland. Norm's letters home, however, also showed a slow disillusionment with Army life, and he told his family he was looking forward to coming home to Rochester after his enlistment was finished in October 1943.
But then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Rogers was not discharged, after all, and at that point he didn't want to be. His disillusionment with Army life turned into a frustration with not being in combat, and not being able to make a real contribution to the war effort.
When he returned home to Rochester on his second leave in 1943, Staff Sergeant Rogers reunited with his family and asked his sweetheart, twenty-four-year-old Helen Monna, to marry him. A pretty strawberry blonde with a big laugh and a warm smile, Monna proudly showed off the ring that Rogers bought her, knowing all the while that her fiancée would be gone again in just days.
When the opportunity arose to become a pilot, Rogers was ready to make the move. It was his nature to be a leader, to rally men and show the way. After preflight training in Nashville, Tennessee, and Maxwell Field in Alabama, Rogers went on to flight training at Chatham Field in Savannah, Georgia, now the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport. He became an Army Air Corps pilot with the rank of second lieutenant in January 1944. He was given the option of staying stateside as an instructor, but he turned that down. He was offered training as a fighter pilot, but he turned that down too. He chose to become the pilot of a B-24 bomber and work with a crew of men rather than fly solo. When he told his mother he would be piloting a bomber, she worried about him right away. "Fly slow and go low, Norm," she told him. He laughed and told her, "That's the surest way of getting hit!"
While in bomber pilot training in Savannah, Rogers wrote to Helen and suggested that she come there to marry him right away. They both realized this was their opportunity to get married because he was shipping out soon and had no idea when they would be together again. Helen wrote back right away saying she was coming and jumped on a train from Rochester to Savannah to meet her man. When she arrived in Georgia, she found that Rogers had never received her letter, didn't know if she had accepted his proposal, and had no idea she was showing up that day. Ever calm and cool, Rogers set about making the arrangements, and he and Helen were married in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on April 17, 1944. They dreamed of returning to Rochester as soon as the war was over and raising a family.
The next day, the new wife wrote to her in-laws, using some of Norm's stationery and proudly handwriting "MRS" in front of "Lieut. Norman J. Rogers" at the top. After explaining that Norm probably wouldn't be able to write that day because he was so busy with work, she told Jennie and Norman Rogers Sr. that Norm had gotten in from work in time to go to an 8 A.M. mass in the cathedral, then went to obtain the marriage license and a wedding ring and met two of Norm's friends who would serve as best man and altar boy. "We were married right on the altar at the chapel," she wrote. Then she went on to fill in her in-laws about her adventure in marriage.
Excerpted from The Last Mission of the Wham Bam Boys by Gregory A. Freeman. Copyright © 2011 Gregory A. Freeman. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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