It’s early Sunday afternoon and my work is done, but what is there to do now, dear? The days have really been beautiful most of this past week, and it has been a pleasure to see our fighters and medium bombers overhead giving the Germans a little bit of hell just a couple of miles away. I suppose I’ll get over it someday, but right now it’s reflex to look up to the sky to identify the sound of a motor; it is not only reflex, it is also safer.
|B-17s in formation on a bomb run|
Well – sweetheart – it is now 1345. I was just getting settled when I was called to the Dispensary to take care of a couple of men. I had to probe for a few fragments and that’s why it took me so long. Since then, also, dear – the prospects for the afternoon have brightened questionably by the announcement we would have a movie at 1500 – it’s title “Pistol Packin’ Mama” – which sounds like a high class 3rd grade smellaroo. But since we all have little else to do, everyone that can be spared will undoubtedly go. What a waste of time! What a waste of a part of precious life! When I think like that – I could go mad – but I save enough reason to make myself think my way out of the mood. Darling – so many soldiers are being wounded, some to remain cripples, some not to come back – how can I complain? I should be thankful I have my health, and I am. Right now, dear, that is the important thing in this theater. After the war is over and I’m safely back home – we’ll complain – but without bitterness probably. No dear, I must not consider it a waste of time but rather a development of strength and character, and that goes for you too. I honestly believe that as a result of all this waiting, our lives will be all the richer, allthe more appreciated. It won’t be so much a question of making up for lost time – for it isn’t in fact lost time, merely expended time – the real result will be that we will have profited, and the expended time will come us in good stead. For how can I ever get really angry with you, dear, how can I ever be cross with anyone who proved herself to be so true and faithful to a fellow away so long? How can you lose your temper with me – for any length of time when you’ll stop and realize that there must have been something that held you to me when the waiting was so hard. What I mean in essence, darling, is that people who meet and marry – never experience the test of being separated and finding out whether or not it makes any difference to either of them. We know, sweetheart, – we know that even separated – we want each other and very much, and that will prevent us from ever being separated or even thinking of it.
I suppose you’ll say to yourself now that that was all a piece of rationalization. It may be – to help me out of a situation over which I have no control, but nevertheless – what I wrote, is true and we do profit basically by our knowledge that we do desire each other even after the stiffest of tests – lengthy separation.
Well – having philosophized, rationalized and having attempted to assuage my mind – I’ll get back to realities again, dear, and tell you that I love you more than anyone in the world, and all the bunk I may write to you from time to time could be translated very simply into that. That you know this I’m sure – and I’m happy that you do. We’ll stick this thing out one way or another – but sooner or later it will end – and then points notwithstanding, I’ll be coming home ––
Last night, darling, we played Bridge – in the Colonel’s room. To add a bit of zest to the game we decided to play for 1/10 cent per point – or 1 mark for every 100 points. We played only 3 rubbers – our evening being cut short due to a little activity – and I ended with a net profit of 3 marks – or 30 cents. I’m enjoying the game more and more – each time I play it, and I suppose I’m learning more and more too. I guess I’ve learned enough to realize that your opening bid is a very important one – and that’s something.
Now, dear, I’m going to run along and see this tremendous picture. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow. No mail yesterday again – but surely today – I hope. Meanwhile, so long sweetheart, my love to the folks – and
by Lieutenant Lawrence M. DeLancey
IT WAS A ‘FORTRESS’ COMING HOME..
They could hear it before they could see it! Not all that unusual in those days as the personnel at Station 131 gathered around the tower and scattered hardstands to await the return of the B-17′s sent out earlier that morning. First comes the far off rumble and drone of the Cyclones. Then a spec on the East Anglia horizon. Soon a small cluster indicating the lead squadron. Finally, the group. Then the counting... 1-2-3-4-5.... But that would have been normal. Today was different! It was too early for the group to return.
“They’re 20 minutes early. Can’t be the 398th.”
They could hear it before they could see it! Something was coming home. But what? All eyes turned toward the northeast, aligning with the main runway, each ground guy and stood-down airman straining to make out this “wail of a Banshee,” as one called it. Not like a single B-17 with its characteristic deep roar of the engines blended with four thrashing propellers. This was a howl! Like a powerful wind blowing into a huge whistle.
Then it came into view. It WAS a B-17! Low and pointing her nose at the 6,000 foot runway, it appeared for all the world to be crawling toward the earth, screaming in protest. No need for the red flares. All who saw this Fort knew there was death aboard.
“Look at that nose!” they said as all eyes stared in amazement as this single, shattered remnant of a once beautiful airplane glided in for an unrealistic “hot” landing. She took all the runway as the “Banshee” noise finally abated, and came to an inglorious stop in the mud just beyond the concrete runway.
Men and machines raced to the now silent and lonely aircraft. The ambulance and medical staff were there first. The fire truck... ground and air personnel... jeeps, truck, bikes....
Out came one of the crew members from the waist door, then another. Strangely quiet. The scene was almost weird. Men stood by as if in shock, not knowing whether to sing or cry. Either would have been acceptable. The medics quietly made their way to the nose by way of the waist door as the remainder of the crew began exiting. And to answer the obvious question, “what happened?”
“What happened?” was easy to see. The nose was a scene of utter destruction. It was as though some giant aerial can opener had peeled the nose like an orange, relocating shreads of metal, plexiglass, wires and tubes on the cockpit windshield and even up to the top turret. The left cheek gun hung limp, like a broken arm. One man pointed to the crease in chin turret. No mistaking that mark! A German 88 anti-aircraft shell had exploded in the lap of the togglier. This would be George Abbott of Mt. Lebanon, PA. He had been a waist gunner before training to take over the bombardier’s role.
Still in the cockpit, physically and emotionally exhausted, were pilot Larry DeLancey and co-pilot Phil Stahlman. Navigator Ray LeDoux finally tapped DeLancey on the shoulder and suggested they get out. Engineer turret gunner Ben Ruckel already had made his way to the waist and was exiting along with radio operator Wendell Reed, ball turret gunner Al Albro, waist gunner Russell Lachman and tail gunner Herbert Guild. Stahlman was flying his last scheduled mission as a replacement for regular co-pilot, Grady Cumbie. The latter had been hospitalized the day before with an ear problem. Lachman was also a “sub,” filling in for Abbott in the waist.
DeLancey made it as far as the end of the runway, where he sat down with knees drawn up, arms crossed and head down. The ordeal was over, and now the drama was beginning a mental re-play. Then a strange scene took place. Group CO Col. Frank P. Hunter had arrived after viewing the landing from the tower and was about to approach DeLancey. He was physically restrained by flight surgeon Dr. Robert Sweet.
“Colonel, that young man doesn’t want to talk now. When he is ready you can talk to him, but for now leave him alone.” Sweet handed pills out to each crew member and told them to go to their huts and sleep. No dramatics, no cameras, no interviews. The crew would depart the next day for “flak leave” to shake off the stress. And then be expected back early in November. (Just in time to resume “normal” activities on a mission to Merseburg!)
Mission No. 98 from Nuthampstead had begun at 0400 that morning of October 15, 1944. It would be Cologne (again), led by CA pilots Robert Templeman of the 602nd, Frank Schofield of the 601st and Charles Khourie of the 603rd. Tragedy and death appeared quickly and early that day. Templeman and pilot Bill Scott got the 602nd off at the scheduled 0630 hour, but at approximately 0645 Khouri and pilot Bill Meyran and their entire crew crashed on takeoff in the town of Anstey . All were killed. Schofield and Harold Stallcup followed successfully with the 601st, with DeLancey flying on their left wing in the lead element. The ride to the target was routine, until the flak started becoming “unroutinely” accurate. “We were going through heavy flak on the bomb run,” remembered DeLancey.
|B-17 going through flak|
“I felt the plane begin to lift as the bombs were dropped, then all of a sudden we were rocked by a violent explosion. My first thought – ‘a bomb exploded in the bomb bay’ – was immediately discarded as the top of the nose section peeled back over the cockpit blocking the forward view.”
“It seemed like the whole world exploded in front of us,” added Stahlman. The instrument panel all but disintegrated and layers of quilted batting exploded in a million pieces. It was like a momentary snowstorm in the cockpit.”
It had been a direct hit in the nose. Killed instantly was the togglier, Abbott. Navigator LeDoux, only three feet behind Abbott, was knocked unconscious for a moment, but was miraculously was alive. Although stunned and bleeding, LeDoux made his way to the cockpit to find the two pilots struggling to maintain control of an airplane that by all rights should have been in its death plunge. LeDoux said there was nothing anyone could do for Abbott, while Ruckel opened the door to the bomb bay and signaled to the four crewman in the radio room that all was OK – for the time being. The blast had torn away the top and much of the sides of the nose, depositing enough of the metal on the windshield to make it difficult for either of the pilots to see.
“The instrument panel was torn loose and all the flight instruments were inoperative with the exception of the magnetic compass mounted in the panel above the windshield. And its accuracy was questionable. The radio and intercom were gone, the oxygen lines broken, and there was a ruptured hydraulic line under my rudder pedals,” said DeLancey.
All this complicated by the sub-zero temperature at 27,000 feet blasting into the cockpit.
“It was apparent that the damage was severe enough that we could not continue to fly in formation or at high altitude. My first concern was to avoid the other aircraft in the formation, and to get clear of the other planes in case we had to bail out. We eased out of formation, and at the same time removed our oxygen masks as they were collapsing on our faces as the tanks were empty.”
At this point the formation continued on its prescribed course for home - a long, slow turn southeast of Cologne and finally westward. DeLancey and Stahlman turned left, descending rapidly and hoping, they were heading west. (And also, not into the gun sights of German fighters.) Without maps and navigation aids, they had difficulty getting a fix. By this time they were down to 2,000 feet.
“We finally agreed that we were over Belgium and were flying in a southwesterly direction,” said the pilot. “About this time a pair of P-51′s showed up and flew a loose formation on us across Belgium . I often wondered what they thought as they looked at the mess up front. We hit the coast right along the Belgium-Holland border, a bit farther north than we had estimated. Ray said we were just south of Walcheren Island.”
Still in an area of ground fighting, the plane received some small arms fire. This gesture was returned in kind by Albro, shooting from one of the waist guns.
“We might have tried for one of the airfields in France, but having no maps this also was questionable. Besides, the controls and engines seemed to be OK, so I made the decision to try for home. Once over England, LeDoux soon picked up landmarks and gave me course corrections taking us directly to Nuthampstead. It was just a great bit of navigation. Ray just stood there on the flight deck and gave us the headings from memory.”
Nearing the field, Stahlman let the landing gear down. That was an assurance. But a check of the hydraulic pump sent another spray of oil to the cockpit floor. Probably no brakes! Nevertheless, a flare from Ruckel’s pistol had to announce the “ready or not” landing. No “downwind leg” and “final approach” this time. Straight in!
“The landing was strictly by guess and feel,” said DeLancey. “Without instruments, I suspect I came in a little hot. Also, I had to lean to the left to see straight ahead. The landing was satisfactory, and I had sufficient braking to slow the plane down some. However, as I neared the taxiway, I could feel the brakes getting ‘soft’. I felt that losing control and blocking the taxiway would cause more problems than leaving the plane at the end of the runway.”
That consideration was for the rest of the group. Soon three squadrons of B-17′s would be returning, and they didn’t need a derelict airplane blocking the way to their respective hardstands. Stahlman, supremely thankful that his career with the 398th had come to an end, soon returned home and in due course became a captain with Eastern Airlines. Retired in 1984, Stahlman said his final Eastern flight “was a bit more routine” than the one 40 years before.
DeLancey and LeDoux received decorations on December 11, 1944 for their parts in the October 15 drama. DeLancey was awarded the Silver Star for his “miraculous feat of flying skill and ability” on behalf of General Doolittle, CO of the Eighth Air Force. LeDoux for his “extraordinary navigation skill”, received the Distinguished Flying Cross.