This is the tale of an ordinary kid drawn into extraordinary experiences by the needs of his country in an all-out war.
It began at the urging of my daughter, Ellen Doyle, by setting down a few personal experiences for the grandkids. It has grown somewhat but is still limited to a narrow timeframe involving a rather small number of people. Ellen provided more than inspiration, like converting my longhand copy to a computer record.
With memory, the primary source and one thought triggering another, a rambling account is inevitable. So a rambling account is what you get and remember it's all as I remember it.
I hope you will find this part of my life interesting. I enjoyed living it, and I hope you enjoy reading it.
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THE TEN OF USA WWII PILOT'S STORY OF HIS MISSIONS AND CREW
By Myron Phillips
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Myron Phillips
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCrew Formed
Early in 1944, ten men were gathered to become crew #6, one of fourteen crews assigned to the 864th Squadron of the newly formed 494th Heavy Bomb Group for the Army Air Corps. The ten of us were fresh out of the training system. Schooled in our specialty, there were two pilots, a navigator, bombardier, flight engineer, radioman and four gunners. We were together nineteen months. We lived together, studied together, and flew together, ultimately to face an enemy we never saw. They gave us a B-24 to man: an airplane, like its crew, cautiously hurried through the system to meet the challenges of war.
I was blessed with 20/20 vision, no overbite, and enough coordination to find my way to the left seat. I was given the assignment to lead nine others into a lifetime of experience compressed into nineteen months where we lived through the gamut of feelings from boredom to terror. I had been selected to attend the B-24 Transition School at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama. Two months of intense training gave us the knowledge and skills to handle the B-24 and assume the duties of First Pilot, later known as Aircraft Commander.
Jeff Bell was our co-pilot, a rangy farm boy from Mineral Springs, Arkansas. His complexion, weathered by countless hours in the Arkansas sun, and his long, muscular arms and oversized hands were indicative of the kind of work farming really is. Jeff spoke slowly in his Southwestern drawl, sometimes painfully so! But there was nothing slow about his mind. You might impatiently wait for the next word to drop, but by then he was a mile ahead of you.
Jeff came to us directly out of flight school. He had a jump on the rest of us with a couple of years of military life. Jeff had been in the South Pacific where he served as a cook and later as a gunner on a B-17. He knew firsthand the strange names we learned of in the news, names like Raboul, Port Morseby, and other blood stained places in New Guinea. A man of many talents, Jeff was an excellent pilot, a good athlete, and, by the unanimous opinion of those foolish enough to try him, the best poker player around.
Content to serve his assignment as co-pilot, he never indicated any frustration flying the right seat. The pilots are there for each other. He was the guy who kept an eye on me through long, cold hours where stress and fatigue took their toll. This was the guy with the built-in alarm clock who got me to meetings on time.
As time passed he gave me many more reasons to name our son, born seven years later, in his honor.
Our navigator was Dick Heckman. His start with us was rocky. Always critical and cantankerous, we could never fathom why he was in his hostile state. His Boston accent, which tended to annoy the rest of the crew, only aggravated what was already a touchy situation. Whatever it was that troubled Dick, he was able to move it to the back of his mind and gradually became more laid back to fit well in with the rest of the crew. We became good friends and enjoyed our off-time together. Through all of this, the skills that made him a great navigator never left him.
Dick was little smaller than average, about 5'7", small-boned and lithe. He fit well into his tiny navigator's area. Dick was the best in his field, an opinion held beyond his friends and fellow crewman. His ability as our navigator did not go unnoticed by our superiors. Our Operations Officer, a West Point graduate, tried to convince Dick to accept an appointment to West Point, but Dick looked in other directions. In the end Dick became a significant member of the crew with mutual esteem from the rest of us. We flew so many times in horrible weather but he always got us back. With all the advances in navigation techniques, so often Dick was limited to the ancient technique of dead reckoning. We owe him our lives.
I recall a humorous incident that revealed Dick to really be one of us. I don't know what irritated him, but his temper took over when he took his chart and crunched it into a ball the size of a grapefruit and tossed it into the bomb-bay behind him. Later out of the corner of my eye I saw him sheepishly retrieve it and smooth it out with the back of the hand.
Dick's people skills continued to grow and peaked a few years later when he met a girl named Louise, who was by Dick's admission the best thing that ever happened to him.
Our bombardier, Gene Massow, was from the Midwest but moved to California as a young man. His complexion showed the results of years of wind and rain and sun. He was quiet, intense, and very smart. He was easy to get along with, did his job very well, took it seriously, and was as much determined to put his bombs on the target as anybody. Gene was an excellent bombardier, always ahead of his job. He knew his bomb sight and had that special "gift of now," or the feel for exactly when to drop the bomb.
Gene was older and two to three inches taller than the rest of us, and while none of us thought he looked down on us, he seemed to be patiently waiting for the rest of us to grow up. Dedicated to his job, he indicated he was glad to be a serious participant in the war. Yet, he often gave the impression he wished he was somewhere else. The problem was, Gene just plain missed his wife Betty. Betty was pretty, poised, and had just a dash of tomboy, all of which fit Gene to a T.
He was content to make a couple of good friends in the squadron and tended to be more serious than the rest of us. Gene lived in Los Angeles; he had a sister, Marjorie, a beautiful girl who became a movie actress. When her first film showed, we were on a restricted base status, but our group Commanding Officer (CO) gave him a special pass to go into town to "see his sister." I saw the movie years later; she was good.
Gene was adventurous, which took him into spots easy to get into and hard to get out of; signs were for someone else! Gene and one of our pilots blundered into a minor situation that gave them a little concern. Kwajalien was our last overnight on our island hopping from Hawaii to Anguar in November 1944. Kwajalien took a shellfire beating a couple of weeks earlier; there wasn't a tree standing. The two of them looked for a place to swim; they spotted what looked like the best beach around, crawled through a hole in a makeshift fence and ignored a sign that read "Flag Officers Only." In military jargon this meant generals and admirals, those who rated a flag on their cars. I don't know who nailed them, but they got them. They talked to a Colonel Kelly, our group CO, who had more important things on his mind and down-played the "high crime." He told them not to worry; still, they sweated it out for a couple of weeks but then forgot about it. It was not the crime of the century, and "get the hell out of here" could have ended it in short order.
Our flight engineer, Ernie Akins, was a capable, easygoing guy who knew his job and was dedicated to it. Ernie was of slight build, trim and agile. He seemed to move so effortlessly through the cramped B-24. He had a myriad of jobs to perform. On takeoff, he stood between Jeff and me, monitoring engine instruments. During flight, he calculated fuel consumption and switched tanks to balance the fuel load. On landing, he again took his position between Jeff and me and called out our airspeed on final approach so I could keep my eyes pointed out of the cockpit. I can still hear his voice calling out our airspeed: "120, 120, 120, 110, 110 ... you are on the ground".
On one occasion returning to base on a long mission, he asked if it was okay to shoot a little. As he spoke, he moved his right hand back and forth as you would so shooting craps. I said, "Okay," and went back to monitoring our instrument panel. Jeff was relaxing, half asleep. I was suddenly jarred by the sound of a machine gun fire. Ernie manned the top turret, twin 50 caliber; a lot of noise just four feet away from me. I jumped and yelled, "What the heck is going on?" Jeff just shook his head and said, "You said it was okay," and went back to sleep. What could I do except feel stupid? Listen, next time!
Ernie was a Floridian; I heard he did quite well as a building contractor. Ernie died in the early '90s.
Louis A Sylvester, who everyone called Sy, was our radio operator. He was a diminutive second generation Italian-American with the charisma and personality of a giant. You forgot others, but not Sy. He was a real asset to our crew, a really good radio man who never missed a letter in a message. He always said everyone could send Morse code faster than they could receive it, simply because you know what you want to say. So, a lot of guys would show off a little and transmit fast. When it came time to receive, their bravado backfired and they would louse up a message. Sy took his job seriously; the lead plane radioman transmitted the results of the mission back to head-quarters. It required accuracy.
Those who knew Sy's abilities said you could hand Sy a handful of parts and a schematic and he could hand a working radio back to you. Sy fired one of the waste guns along with other duties.
Sy and I would phone each other a couple of times a year. A few years ago, his address was no longer valid and his phone disconnected. We can only speculate on what happened. A recent newsletter reported his death in 2009.
Howard Causey was a little guy from Alabama. Of course he was little; he was our bottom-ball turret gunner. Howard was an easy-going, happy guy and a real cut-up, but sound and reliable. I gave him a lot of credit to have the guts to crawl into that small turret and sit with his knees up against his face, and having to rely on others to get him in and out. He didn't fly the last third of our missions. The ball turret was designed to protect the underside of the aircraft. It proved to be less effective than expected, and with the fall-off in enemy fighters the brass decided to remove them to save weight and bench the gunners. His death was reported in 2002.
Bill Northrup was our nose gunner and assistant flight engineer. A good guy from Texas, Bill was tall and trim, very quiet, and a willing worker. He used to kid the rest of us about getting over the target before we did. I will always remember the banner of his hometown newspaper: "Proud to be an American, Prouder to be a Texan".
Jim Galligan was our tail gunner. A big lug with a heavy New York accent, Ed never said "yes sir" or "no sir," just "yaya," even to generals. A good athlete, he was a baseball catcher who caught for a couple of good pitchers including Ralph Branca, who went over to the majors.
On one training exercise we flew low over a large oval course, firing at ground targets. At the time we were having a good time firing away at the targets passing beneath, but then Gilligan got on the intercom and yelled to me, "Hey, I think I got the guys behind us!" We were glad he was wrong!
That leaves Al Johnson, who was the replacement for the guy who broke down on our first mission. Perhaps it was circumstances or maybe it was him, but he really never fit in like the rest of the guys. He was kind of a loner who did an acceptable job but didn't take up much space in our memories.
We also were assigned three ground personnel: a crew chief and two assistants. They took care of the day-to-day physical needs of the airplane, the routine minor maintenance like oil, lube and filter, pulling the props through in the mornings, gassing up the airplane, etc.
Dwight Miller was our ground crew chief. His home was Greely, Colorado; he liked Colorado so much it seemed he could see little need for the rest of the country. Dwight was a big guy, strong and appeared well-suited for the trucking business he and a brother owned back home. Working on trucks seemed to give him caring for a big airplane. It was fun to watch him work; he seemed to do everything with ease. He seemed to like his job, but wasn't really enthused about flying. He flew as a passenger with us in changes of base assignment.
While flying out of Hawaii in 1944, we flew a night navigation mission to Johnson Island, and after a quick look never did find it. So, later when we made our heading for Anguar Island, our first day was to end at Johnson Island. Johnson Island, a small spec on the map, was discovered in 1926. The day before takeoff for the island, Dwight said to me, "Is it true you guys never found it the last time you looked for it?" I said, "Yes, but don't worry, we'll find it this time." I was told that Dwight snuck out that night and went out to the airplane to top off the gas tanks. Later down the line, I think during our layover at Saipan, Heckman and some Navy guy found a cache of booze and had a little more than their share. In the morning, Dwight cornered me and said, "I hear you had to pour Heckman on the airplane—how's he going to find anything that way?" I tried to ease his fears by telling him the Heckman could navigate better with a hangover than most of them could cold sober. I don't think he bought it, but ours was the only ride he had.
I saw Dwight four or five times at our group get-togethers in later years. He was a really fine man, successful in his trucking business but stuck with it in the end because his family didn't want it. He died in the late '90s.
Our assistant to Dwight was Bayers, from Omaha. Once, one of our gunners took sick, making us short for a mission. Bayers, qualified on a .50 caliber gun, asked if we would take him along so he could say he flew a mission. Don't tell his wife, because he promised her he wouldn't fly in a combat. A good guy, he did a good job, though I never got to know him very well. We also had a third guy named Glaros, who I had little contact with, whose job was finding parts and materials.
So, that's our crew #6, and I am proud to say I was one of them. This first meeting was rather brief, but significant: just introductions and a little chatter. I don't think any of us realized how close most of us would get or the experiences we would share. The closeness in a way was forced on us-forced to share the confines of an airplane and forced to live together in the same quarters. In time we all came to appreciate each other. We usually join with those of like mind and personalities and then do things together, but this seemed to be just the reverse. We did meld into a good working crew with few if any real personality clashes. This crew was the finest group of men I ever was associated with.
How and when did I get to the point where airplanes dominated my thinking? What were the early signs of me becoming an airplane nut? And my fascination for airplanes and everything connected with them? The sound of an airplane overhead immediately triggered me to stop whatever I was doing and look skyward to follow it across the sky. What made it fly? What held it up and how do they make it turn? I had seemingly endless questions, but there were no immediate answers. Those close to me knew as little as I did.
As time passed my interest increased, as did my questions. There were still few answers. Then, a couple of books and talking to a couple of people with some experience in flying helped straighten out a few things.
I spent summers in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, close to the county airport. There I got to see airplanes on the takeoff and landings. Governor Kohler's Ryan high wing monoplane, a replica of Lindberg's Spirit of Saint Louis, was hangered there. He flew quite a bit, and so I got to see it often.
I remember when our family was out on a drive and we saw an old World War I biplane in the corner of a pasture with a sign: "Rides $5." I begged for a ride. My Dad said, "Okay," and reached for his billfold, but he wouldn't go along, so I chickened out. I thought of this incident many times over the years and always wondered whether or not he would really have let me go. I don't think so.
I got to see airplanes over the years from time to time, just enough to keep my interest going. I didn't realize I was witnessing the development of the airplane as it evolved from the basic wood, wire and fabric craft to the sleek aluminum monoplanes of the day. I recall seeing an unusual concept while at Sheboygan. It was an early model auto-gyro, a low wing monoplane capable of short field takeoffs and landings. It worked quite well but never caught on. Maybe it was just ahead of its time or too costly.
Growing up in Milwaukee gave me the opportunity to get out to the airports once in a while. Curtis-Wright was one, a small field on the northwest side that housed a few private planes. It has since been renamed and expanded. The other field was a large commercial field on the south side. This gave me a chance to see the big airliners—big for that time, at least.
Excerpted from THE TEN OF US by Myron Phillips Copyright © 2012 by Myron Phillips. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: Crew Formed....................1
Chapter Two: Beginnings....................11
Chapter Three: Flight Training....................21
Chapter Four: A Home At Last....................45
Chapter Five: Combat....................61
Chapter Six: Going Home....................85
Chapter Seven: The 494th....................89
About the Author....................95
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