Read an Excerpt
With the Possum and the EagleThe Memoir of a Navigator's War over Germany and Japan
By Ralph H. Nutter
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2002 Ralph H. Nutter
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Second Lieutenant Meets Colonel LeMay
It was seven o'clock on Sunday evening, 7 December 1941. I was studying in the dormitory of Perkins Hall at Harvard Law School. I heard the sound of tramping feet in the hall and the voice of my classmate Sander Johnson, yelling in a military cadence, "hut, two, three, four; hut, two, three, four." I opened the door of my room and yelled back, "Sander, I'm trying to study!"
He kept on marching with several classmates behind him, then looked back at me and said, "Throw away your books Ralph. The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. We'll all be in the army!"
My roommate turned on the radio. There were hysterical reports that the Japanese were going to bomb San Francisco. I decided that Sander Johnson was right. I pushed my books off the desk into the wastebasket.
I had tried to join the navy air arm in November but was rejected because of my eyesight and a sinus condition. Perhaps physical standards would be relaxed now that we were at war.
The next morning I went to the air corps recruiting station in Boston. At 8 a.m. there was already a line of men extending around the block waiting to enlist. I stood in line until eleven when I was finally given a physical exam. After telling me that I had failed the eye examination, the flight surgeon said, "You can always join the infantry as a private." I was horrified. As a teenager I had seen the movie All Quiet on the Western Front and read the book Over the Top, an account of the horrors of trench warfare. I wanted to avoid the infantry.
"You really want to join the air corps don't you?" the flight surgeon said. "Have you ever flown in an airplane?"
I told him I had never flown or been in an airplane, but I had always wanted to fly.
He looked at me for a moment and said, "I'm going to lunch. I'll leave the door unlocked and return at one o'clock."
I accepted his "suggestion." As soon as he was gone I memorized the eye chart and calibrated the depth perception apparatus. I passed my retest and took the oath that afternoon. I returned to law school to say good-bye to my friends and classmates.
I was shocked and surprised by comments made by two of them. "What's your hurry?" asked one. "It'll be months or perhaps a year before we're drafted."
"Yeah," chimed in the other. "You're a sucker to enlist. We'll get in another year of law school and be way ahead of you as lawyers after the war."
I made no reply. I couldn't believe that they didn't understand the crisis our country was in.
New air corps recruits were given train tickets for Montgomery, Alabama. We were to be aviation cadets there at Maxwell Field.
A tough army sergeant met us at the Montgomery railroad station and marched us to a truck for the ride to Maxwell Field. We arrived at 9 p.m. and were told there were no available sleeping quarters on the base. The sergeant then took us to an empty factory. He gave each of us a blanket and said he would return at 6 a.m. We slept on the floor with no mattress or pillow. This was not the romantic air force I had read about.
Things were no better the next day. We spent the entire day playing touch football at the athletic field. At 5:30 p.m. we lined up in our first army chow line. After dinner, a captain told us that we would sleep on the football field for the next two nights. He returned and gave each of us a blanket again. We rolled up in the blankets to keep warm.
On Wednesday morning the captain told us there were no facilities or planes available for training aviation cadets and that we could return home on a sixty-day leave.
"This is ridiculous," I told him. "I quit law school because I thought I was needed. What am I supposed to do for the next two months?"
"No one expected this war," he replied. "We have no instructors or equipment available for pilot training. If you don't wish to accept the sixty days leave, you can start training as a navigator at Mather Field in Sacramento. We have a DC-3 leaving for Sacramento tomorrow morning."
My first flight was in that DC-3 cargo plane. There were no seats, and 1 sat alone in the windowless cargo cabin with assorted military equipment. It was a most unusual way to start a military career.
I graduated from navigator school injury 1942 and received orders assigning me to the 305 th Bomb Group at an airfield in the Mojave Desert at Muroc, California. My fellow graduates and I were picked up by an army truck for transport to the base, which was located about thirty miles from Los Angeles.
We drove up a steep grade and looked down onto a desert wasteland. The temperature was over a hundred degrees. The landscape appeared to be a vast moonscape without greenery or vegetation—a godforsaken place if ever there was one. It looked like an appropriate place to train for combat. The sand blew against the windshield. I feared we were entering a sandstorm. The only examples of vegetation were cactus and Joshua trees.
As we approached the entrance to the base, we saw huge dry lakes, great flat expanses shimmering in the hot sun. There were only two buildings, and three B-l 7s (four-engine bombers called "Flying Fortresses") were parked alongside a single runway. We could see wooden silhouettes of battleships at the end of the runway. The driver let us off in front of what he called the mess hall. He recommended that we try to get something to eat before checking in.
I opened the door and saw officers eating lunch. All of the tables were crowded except for one in the corner, where I promptly sat down. The entire room suddenly fell silent. After taking my seat, I noticed that a full colonel, two majors, and a captain were at the table. As we drove up from Los Angeles the driver told us that a tough colonel named Curtis E. LeMay was commanding officer of the 305th Group. I had violated military protocol by sitting at the command table reserved for senior officers. All eyes were on me. No one at the table spoke. I knew I had done something wrong so I tried to eat as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible and leave.
I caught a glimpse of Colonel LeMay out of the corner of my eye before leaving. He was about five-foot-ten, full-faced, and stocky, with a broad chest, black hair, and piercing olive-colored eyes. He gave the immediate impression of enormous self-confidence, but without arrogance. It was a look of stern, unflappable strength and indominability, which in the next three years never changed.
He didn't look like a glamorous pilot. There was no vanity in his appearance. He didn't eat or smile while I sat at the table. I learned later that his silence and serious demeanor were not because of my presence—he was not a conversationalist by nature. It was not unusual for him to be silent, having little or no time for small talk or social amenities. He always seemed to be calm. Speech was for a purpose. He thought a man could learn more by listening than talking. He used just enough words to demonstrate his meaning and intentions.
I had experienced tough, no-nonsense professors at law school. Their approach to learning was trial by fire, so I was not surprised by LeMay. And I was pleased to have him as our leader in combat. I soon learned that his stern, disciplined demeanor was a combat asset. He always faced danger and responsibility calmly. He was not grim or gloomy that first time I saw him at Muroc mess hall—or ever in the future, no matter what the circumstances. His tough approach was the antithesis of the romantic fliers I had seen in Hollywood motion pictures. I soon learned that bombing was not a dashing adventure, but a grim, dangerous, and demanding task that required meticulous teamwork and discipline. LeMay never displayed any emotion. Physical and nervous energy were not to be squandered; they were to be conserved for essential matters.
After lunch I went to my assigned tent and met my crew: the officers I was to fly with for the next five months, a friendly and relaxed group who made me immediately at ease. O'Neill, the pilot, was a down-to-earth practical Irishman. Collins, the copilot, was the son of a northern Vermont dairy farmer. He had a great sense of humor and was almost always smiling. Galloway, a huge former Ail-American football player from Texas, was our bombardier. His repeated references to his football exploits at Texas A&M did not seem to fit in with the quiet confidence of O'Neill and Collins.
It was about 1:30 p.m. when I arrived at our tent, and the temperature must have been 110 degrees. O'Neill explained that our bomb group had only three B-J 7s. We were not going to get in much flying time with only three aircraft to be divided among the group's four squadrons. He said that our most important job at Muroc was to set our priorities, the first of which was to try to stay cool at all times. He picked up a large fire extinguisher and started squirting water on the tent ceiling.
"Unless we're flying or on other duty," he told me, "each member of the tent is assigned to squirt the ceiling with water every fourth day. The door flap must always be kept closed because the wind will blow sand into the tent. Otherwise you'll think we're in the French Foreign Legion. It's also a good idea to keep the tent flap tied down securely to keep the rattlesnakes out."
"What is there to do around here when we're not on duty?" I asked.
Collins laughed. "Aside from going to Pancho s place, nothing—except shooting rattlesnakes."
"What is Pancho's place?" I asked O'Neill.
"It's called the Inn," he replied. "Pancho's Inn. Pancho is a real pistol. She only likes lighter pilots, not bomber pilots. She calls bomber pilots and aircrew members 'truck drivers.' If she sees your navigator's wings, she'll probably call you a useless son-of-a-bitch, a goddamned gofer, or a bookkeeper. If you're persistent, I could probably get her to let you buy us a drink."
O'Neill offered to take me to Pancho's that night, since I probably wouldn't have an assignment on my first day. To put it mildly, O'Neill did not exaggerate about Pancho or her inn. Both were weather beaten. Her face was wrinkled and leathery, probably from incessant cigarette smoking and flying in an open cockpit. The screen door needed several patches. Behind the bar I saw several pictures of carefree pilots sitting in the cockpits of ancient open-air biplanes and prewar fighters. We found a seat at the bar, and O'Neill finally got Pancho to serve us drinks. She eyed my navigator's wings as if I had leprosy.
"What the hell do you need a goddamned navigator for?" she asked me. "I've been flying for twenty years. I never got lost. Are you some kind of goddamned accountant?"
I smiled sheepishly. The screen door banged. I'd been saved by a new customer. From then on, Pancho ignored me and directed her attention and scathing remarks at the new man. He was a P-39 fighter pilot.
"Why are you flying that death trap?" she asked him. "I saw one lose its tail yesterday and go straight down. The pilot couldn't even bail out!"
The next morning I learned a bit more about the 305th Group. It had four squadrons: the 364th, 365th, 366th, and 422d. I was assigned to the 366th; our commander was a major from Minnesota, Joe Preston. Preston was one of only three pilots in the entire group who had experience flying four-engine bombers. At the time of Pearl Harbor, Preston was stationed at Clark Field in the Philippines. He lost his B-17 on the ground, from Japanese strafing, on 10 December 1941. Like LeMay, Joe Preston was the strong, silent type, a man of few words.
At our first squadron meeting Preston told us we shouldn't complain about Muroc. The flat desert and dry lakes were perfect for training our inexperienced pilots and crews. It was an ideal place for emergency landings. We bad only one problem: we didn't have enough planes to fly. Preston said he would do his best to get us flying time. Until we had more aircraft we would have to be satisfied with ground training, such as it was. We were supposed to get new B-17s, but he had no idea when. I asked if I could get a sextant to practice celestial navigation.
As we walked back to the tent after our squadron meeting, I asked O'Neill to tell me about Colonel LeMay.
"Well, I don't know much more than you," he said. "At least you had lunch with him. That's more than any of the rest of us. I've been here a week and I'm still trying to get him to check me out on a B-17. I've heard some of the guys say LeMay's nickname is 'Iron Pants,' but from what I hear, he's really an 'Iron Ass.' He's as tough and rough as lie looks. They tell me he's only thirty-six. He looks older. No one has even seen him smile. He's always serious. You're lucky; unlike most pilots, he thinks navigators are necessary. He likes navigators. They say he's the best navigator in the air corps. He'll give you lots of attention."
LeMay wasn't a West Pointer. He had a degree in engineering from Ohio State. Although originally a fighter pilot, he thought like an engineer and had been flying bombers for about five years. He flew the U.S. mail during the depression and was in charge of a Chilian Conservation Corps camp. Shortly before the war he was the lead navigator for a series of practice bomb runs on ships at sea and on two long-distance flights to South America. He was as tough and competent as he looked, a man of few words.
He talked in quiet phrases with a pipe or cigar in his mouth, rather than complete sentences. He didn't repeat himself, never showed emotion, and wasn't interested in social amenities. Some people called him "Smiley" or "Old Poker Face."
"When he gives you an assignment," said Major Preston, "get it right the first time. When he asks a question, get to the point. Fie doesn't want to hear any bullshit. I hear you went to law school. He doesn't like lawyers, he thinks they're talkers, not doers. He believes talk is cheap, and that you learn more by listening than talking, so he doesn't judge people by words or promises. Fie judges them by what they do. Performance is the beginning and the end for him. He's fair, but tough as nails."
I asked Preston why LeMay always looked so stern and serious. He told me the flight surgeon said it was because he had Bell's palsy—a form of paralysis of the facial muscles on the right side of his face; he couldn't move those muscles and tried to compensate for it by keeping a cigar or pipe in his mouth. He believed in discipline and teamwork—as a matter of survival, good enough for all of us. Preston said the colonel was loyal to his people, so we were lucky to have him as our commander.
After talking to Preston and O'Neill, I was reassured about LeMay. I still didn't feel like a soldier. I had a lot to learn about discipline and teamwork. It was apparent that, with the exception of four senior officers and LeMay, we were all no more than raw recruits: civilians in uniform, inexperienced and undernamed. We needed a leader like LeMay if we were going to survive fighting the Nazis.
I soon learned that Muroc was probably the world's safest place for new bomber pilots. Most of our pilots had never even flown in a two-engine bomber, let alone a four-engine aircraft. Only LeMay, Preston, and Major De Russy had flown B-l 7s. The next day, O'Neill told me that LeMay was going to check him out as first pilot. We walked the flight line. Our first flight together as the crew of a B-17 was an experience none of us would forget. I didn't know it at the time, but it was the first of many flights I was to have with LeMay. Just before takeoff, I saw him drive up in a command car dressed in a flight suit.
"I'm going to be copilot," he told Collins. "You can ride between the seats."
This was also my first meeting with the other members of our crew. In addition to me, O'Neill, Collins, and Galloway, our bombardier, we had six enlisted men: a flight engineer, radio operator, ball-turret gunner, left and right waist gunners, and a tail gunner. Sitting at the navigator's table in the nose of the plane for takeoff and landing practice, 1 had nothing to do but listen to the interphone while LeMay checked out O'Neill as pilot. LeMay said little. Preston was right; he spoke only when necessary. O'Neill's practice takeoffs and landings were smooth, with few bumps. On the fourth landing LeMay ordered O'Neill to pull up to the hardstand.
As he climbed out of the cockpit, I heard him say to O'Neill, "You'll do."
Then he turned to Collins and said, "I'll check you out tomorrow morning at seven."
By this time our crewmernbers were on a first-name basis. Collins's first name was Warren, but we all called him "Sonny." He was a fellow New Englander, and we became best friends. I was with him in London on leave the night before he was shot down in April 1943.
The 305th Bomb Group remained at Muroc until the middle of August 1942. We waited in vain for our new B-17Fs. The cloudless skies over the Mqjave Desert would have been perfect for flying and bombing practice except for the fact that we never had more than three aircraft for our entire group. We spent a lot of time in our tents. I thought we would die of either heat prostration or boredom.
Excerpted from With the Possum and the Eagle by Ralph H. Nutter Copyright © 2002 by Ralph H. Nutter. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.