Book: Hell's Angels

Previous: “I Sure Do Get Homesick at Times”
Next: “I Became a Sort of Orphan Within the Bomb Group”

“I SURE DO GET HOMESICK AT TIMES”

THE NATURE OF AIR combat created scenarios and circumstances that could never have been foreseen. The reactions of the men to these situations generated unintended consequences. Such was the case on the May 19, 1944, mission to Berlin. Milo Schultz, the navigator aboard Iza Vailable II, recalled: “As we approached the target area of the city with the bomb bay doors open and prepared to drop on the lead bombardier’s ‘bombs away,’ Ralph Sudderth, our bombardier, leaned back on his seat in front of me to kick the switch to drop bombs in train [one after another at preplanned intervals]. All of a sudden he fell off his seat and onto me. While he was on me the lead plane’s bombs went away and the group started to turn away.”

With his crewmate flailing atop him and the 303rd turning away from the target, Schultz had precious little time to react. “I figured there was not time to let the bombs go in train so I reached over and kicked the salvo switch [releasing all the bombs at once]. Letting two-and-a-half tons of bombs drop all at once makes the plane jump very quickly. Don [Johnston] had to react fast to keep us from colliding with another plane in our squadron. I always wondered what damage I did or how many people I killed, maybe women and children, because those five, five-hundred pound bombs dropping in one spot was like a blockbuster. Only God knows.”

*   *   *

ALLIED AIR COMMANDERS were growing increasingly frustrated that raids against the German aircraft industry were failing to achieve the desired effects. In fact, the Germans were in the process of dispersing their aircraft manufacturing centers to smaller plants that were less appropriate for aerial bombardment. Indeed, aircraft production increased through the spring and summer of 1944.

On the other hand those same Allied leaders began to appreciate that oil was a much more critical resource for the German war machine than they had previously supposed. Fuel was necessary to power trucks, tanks, ships and aircraft. Without it, the Third Reich would be crippled. Carl Spaatz, in particular, lobbied with some success during the early spring of 1944 for a hard-hitting campaign against oil targets. That campaign gained momentum slowly.

As part of that effort the Eighth sent more than a thousand aircraft against a set of synthetic oil plants on May 28, 1944. The raid was duly covered in the press just as most missions were. The Lincoln Evening Journal, of Lincoln, Nebraska reported: “The main force of Flying Fortresses and Liberators concentrated its fire bombs and explosives on synthetic oil plants at Merseburg, Zeitz and Latzkendorf (Lauchstedt) all within a 20-mile radius of Leipzig in central Germany. Ninety-three German planes were shot down, 32 by bombers and 61 by escorting fighters, against a loss of 34 bombers and 13 fighters.” The article did not dwell on the loss of the 34 bombers and the approximately 340 men who manned them, but went on to discuss other aspects of the raids.

That lives were lost in the raid is implicit in the article as well as others that covered similar missions throughout the war. Nevertheless, those lost lives are listed as numbers not names. Consequently it is worthwhile to examine the official and personal details of the loss of an individual within a crew, as it was men rather than numbers that died on the great bombing raids over Europe.

Acel Livingston was a B-17 crewman—a waist gunner—from Salt Lake City, Utah. During early 1944 he was the product of an American training machine that was in full stride, and he was one of many thousands of American flyers readying for overseas duty. The nation’s plans to prepare virtually an entire generation for war had seemed overly ambitious even a couple of years earlier. But by mid-war those plans were being fully realized.

Livingston, part of the Alvin Determan crew, arrived at Kearney Army Airfield, Nebraska, on March 18, 1944. The crew’s training was essentially complete by that date, and the men had already been given a new aircraft—a B-17G—to ferry to England. They stayed at Kearney only long enough to receive a clothing issue and a final flight physical before being ordered overseas. Livingston outlined what he believed was before him in a letter home:

We won’t go to combat for awhile yet. First we will go to Scotland (probably) for some more training. After we get through with that we should be pretty well trained. Then all I have to do is to complete twenty-five missions and then I can come back to the states again. That shouldn’t take so very long and from the reports they aren’t losing very many planes on those raids any more.

Acel Livingston and the rest of the Determan crew were assigned to the 303rd’s 358th Bomb Squadron, and they flew their first combat mission on April 30, 1944. Livingston was at the right waist gunner position. The target was the Lyon/Bron Airdrome in France, and although the Luftwaffe made a showing, the only hurt the group sustained was a self-inflicted one. It occurred after the mission when one of the group’s ball turret gunners injured himself as he unloaded his guns.

The crew flew their second mission, a short hop to Sottevast in the Pas-de-Calais region of France, on May 8, 1944. The group’s bombs fell wide of the target, which was a V-1 installation. Livingston wrote to his parents the following day, May 9, 1944:

As yet I haven’t heard from any of you yet but my mail isn’t catching up with me very fast. I did receive a letter from Gloria [his new wife] last night and she wasn’t feeling any too well. I sure do worry about her. . . . Well, I went to London on a pass and looked over the city. There were plenty of women there but I didn’t bother with any of them because I already have one that I think too much of to go out with any others.

The Determan crew flew their next missions on May 11, May 12 and May 15, but Acel Livingston did not fly with them. Instead, a substitute, Edward Barteau, flew at the right waist gun—Livingston’s normal position. Livingston did not mention these missed missions in his letters home, and it is possible that he was ill. He rejoined his crew on May 19 when the group hit Berlin. He wrote home three days later on May 22.

I [sic] a letter from Gloria three days ago and she says that she would probably be down to visit with you soon. I sure do wish that I was where she could come to visit me every once in awhile. But I guess that I will just have to wait until this is all over and we can all be back home together. I sure do hope that it isn’t to [sic] far off because I sure do get homesick at times. As long as they keep me busy I am alright but when they don’t I get thinking about home and I sure do get lonesome.

Livingston was indeed kept busy during the next several days. He flew the mission to Saarbrücken on May 23, the mission to Berlin on May 24, the mission to Blainville, France, on May 25 and the mission to Mannheim on May 27.

On May 26, he sent another letter home.

Oh yes, she [his wife, Gloria] told me that she told you about the new addition we are going to have to our little family. I am proud and happy but I do worry about her health so much. I know that it is going to be hard on her but with the help of our heavenly father I know she will be alright. . . . Lately I have thought about being grounded but that would never do because I would never live it down and if my time comes to go, well it will happen wether [sic] I am in the air or on the ground.

Livingston’s mention of coming off combat duty leads to speculation that similar thoughts might have compelled him to miss the missions earlier in the month. Yet there is no evidence to support such conjecture. On May 28 the 303rd mounted two missions, one to Cologne and a second to Leipzig. The Determan crew was part of the mission to Leipzig, where the target was the Molbis thermal electric power station. It was the crew’s fifth mission in six days, and it was marked by aggressive German fighter attacks. While the group made for an alternate target at Rotha because the primary target was obscured, a group of approximately twenty FW-190s hit the fifteen aircraft of the 303rd, heavily damaging three of them.

But it was antiaircraft fire that hit Determan’s ship while the formation was turning toward the target. Francis Stender, a tail gunner in a nearby aircraft, described what happened in a statement for the Missing Air Crew Report: “The missing A/C [Determan’s] received a direct hit close to #4 engine from A/A gunfire about 1435 hours in the vicinity of Leipzig, Germany. The right wing immediately caught fire. The A/C then slid under our A/C on out to the right past #2 position. The right wing came off, and the missing A/C then rolled over on its back and went down. As it did so, the tail came off about the entrance door. Personally I saw no parachutes, but some of the others on the mission report seeing one.”

The Missing Air Crew Report, or MACR, for which Stender made his statement was an official USAAF document that described the circumstances associated with the loss of an aircraft, the personnel involved, eyewitness statements and serial numbers of important equipment such as the engines and machine guns—among other information. The AFPPA-11 was the Individual Casualty Questionnaire and was completed by a witness for each casualty. The closely related AFPPA-12 was the Casualty Questionnaire and was filled out by survivors. Robert Asman—the Determan crew’s radio operator—completed these questionnaires postwar. When possible, as in the case of the Determan crew, German records supplemented the original report postwar.

In fact, the MACR shows that three men—possibly four—parachuted from the stricken ship. The pilot, Alvin Determan, was thrown from the aircraft with only one of his parachute snaps connected to his harness. Still, he made it safely to the ground and was captured at Pomssen by a German soldier who told him: “If you were English I would have shot you.” It is possible that the German was upset by the indiscriminate night bombing practiced by the RAF’s Bomber Command.

Wayne Cope, who was flying as the right waist gunner—Livingston’s normal position—was actually on the flight deck with Determan and copilot Ervin Pfahler after the aircraft was hit. Like Determan he parachuted to safety. Robert Asman was blown out of the aircraft at some point and was the third and last survivor. He recalled that a large section of the fuselage, from the radio room back, fell past him as he descended. Upon being made prisoner, he was told that three bodies were found in that particular piece of the bomber. Those bodies were of the engineer, Mervin Hendrickson; the tail gunner, Albert Carroccia; and Acel Livingston, the newly married father-to-be who had manned the left waist gun position.

In the front of the aircraft the navigator, Jackson Palmer, and the bombardier, James McCamy, also perished. It was McCamy’s first mission with the Determan crew. The crew’s normally assigned bombardier, Lamar Ledbetter, obviously missed the mission. He flew the following day and finished his combat tour on September 5, 1944. The copilot, Ervin Pfahler, was later reported by Cope to have been shot by civilians.

The body of the crew’s ball turret gunner, Manuel Vasquez, was not found with the wreckage. The Germans tallied the crewmen they captured and the men they knew to be dead and realized that one of the flyers was still missing, as they noted in one of several reports included with the MACR: “According to state police and local police 1 (one) enemy flier was presumed to be still at large and was being looked for by army personnel and firemen.”

But Vasquez was not alive. Rather, he and the ball turret had been blasted away from the bomber. Even had he survived the initial explosion he would have been doomed; there simply was not enough room in the ball turret for a gunner to wear a parachute or even to keep one close at hand. A later German report—included in the MACR—described the eventual recovery of his body: “On August 11, 1944, the corpse of the American flier Manuel Vasquez, Ser. Nr. 39693071 T 43-44 B, was found in the fields near Beucha, about 12 km east of Leipsig, in the process of decomposition.” The report further detailed Vasquez’s interment: “The dead flier was buried on August 12, 1944, 1100 o’clock on the ‘Neuen Friedhof’ (New Cemetery) of Beucha near Leipsig (western corner) in the presence of police chief John of Brandis and soldiers of Air Base Headquarters A 37/III.”

There is no compelling evidence to support Cope’s report of Pfahler’s murder by German civilians. However, included in the MACR package is the German salvage report of the aircraft, which keeps the question open. It notes: “At the place of crash, west of Albrechtshain, 4 km southwest of Brandis, 5 dead crewmembers, whose identification was taken in hand at once, were found. Identification tags were found on four bodies [McCamy’s was without].” This meant that one body, aside from Vasquez’s, was not found with the wreckage. Yet six bodies were reported buried by the Germans on May 31, 1944. It is possible that Pfahler was captured and shot, and that his body was subsequently brought together with the bodies from the wreckage.

In fact, German records of the incident were quite extensive. Another document recorded the burial arrangements for the dead crewmembers: “The American aircraft (markings not to be found out, because they had been cut out by the salvage detachment) was downed May 28, 1944, 1430 English time (shown by the wrist-watch of a crewmember) above Beucha and crashed near Beucha west of Wolfshain. There the six dead [Vasquez’s body had not yet been recovered] had been recovered by state police.”

The report continued in detail: “The bodies were undressed in the morgue of the old cemetery of Beucha. Salvage detachment Oschatz furnished the coffins and took all military equipment and private property along. . . . Coffining and burial was accomplished by the detachment of the execution platoon 2, Brandis. The funeral took place in the presence of master of state police John from Brandis. The mayor of Beucha was not present.” The report concluded with a description of the grave locations.

The Germans salvaged the bomber as outlined in a report dated June 1, 1944: “The aircraft, Boeing B-17G Fortress II, equipped with 4 radial engines Wright Cyclone 9, had crashed at two different places situated about 1200 m[eters] apart from one another. All secured implements, partly damaged very much, guns and ammunition are being shipped to the competent authorities. Wreckage of craft, saved to air base Brandis, is 90% destruction [sic].”

Among the other related documents that Livingston’s kin later received was his Purple Heart Citation and, postwar, a letter notifying them of the location of his grave: “These [translated German] records also indicated that he was buried in the new cemetery of Beucha, grave number 5, on 31 May 1944, at 5:00 p.m. Beucha is located just north of Albrechtshain.” Livingston’s mother received a Gold Star Citation from the Salt Lake County chapter of the Service Star Legion “as visible evidence of its respect and lasting gratitude.” It was the last citation in the world that a soldier’s mother ever wanted to receive.

Finally, Livingston’s mother received a letter of solace from Scottie Bergstrom, the nineteen-year-old wife of one of his friends from his time in training:

We received your letter yesterday and have been feeling very badly about it ever since. It just doesn’t seem possible anything could happen to Ace. He and my husband were together in Mississippi and were good buddies there, and slept next to each other. . . . Ace was a great guy Mrs. Livingston. He used to talk about his family a lot. Bergie [her husband] and I got a room in a hotel and Ace came up every night. He seemed to know everybody and was happy. . . . I know you all miss him terribly. Ace knows that, and he doesn’t want you to grieve for him. Yes, he does know I’m sure, and I know that where he is, he’s very happy. Let’s be happy for him. He’s better off than the rest of us. There’s no night there.

Ultimately, the families of 846 men of the 303rd Bomb Group received similar documents and expressions of sympathy and shared grief. These were the baby boys of 846 mothers and 846 fathers.

*   *   *

SEX WAS A UBIQUITOUS part of wartime life in England, especially London, the capital, and the locus of the Allied war effort in Europe. The urgency and danger of the war and the posting into the region of more than a million young, horny Americans—not to mention tremendous numbers of other Allied troops—created a sexually volatile dynamic. Dick Johnson recalled an experience: “While walking with a girl on Piccadilly Circus one evening, a newsboy hawking the London Times yelled, ‘Hey, get your paper here!’ Then in a sotto voice he said to me, ‘Rubbers, I got ’em for sale.’ When I didn’t pay any attention to him he yelled, ‘Give ’er a go, Yank, she’s fourteen.’”

“It was very embarrassing to me,” Johnson said. “And nearly every newsboy or street urchin would yell the same thing. I think that they meant that the age of consent in England was fourteen at that time. I really didn’t know.”

And prostitution was very much a part of wartime England. This was especially so in London, where many Americans—sexually charged and with money to spend—were stationed, and where many more spent their time off. Van White remembered walking a girlfriend home from Rainbow Corner near Piccadilly Circus. “There was a little chapel on the way home. They kept a sign up front that said ‘If you’re tired of sin, please come in.’ On this particular day there was a card tucked into the edge of the sign that said, ‘And if you’re not, call me at Mayfair 7345.’”

Dick Johnson recalled meeting a “nice looking young lady” at Piccadilly Circus during his first pass to London. The two of them went into a pub and chatted amicably. The conversation took an awkward turn when Johnson’s companion guessed he was a virgin and declared that she could “relieve you of this burden” for the bargain price of three pounds.

“It finally dawned on me that this gal was a mercenary, a Piccadilly Commando,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t have believed it when we first started talking.” Caught off guard, a bit self-conscious and embarrassed—and mindful of the risks of venereal disease—Johnson declined her thoughtful offer. “So, I lied that I had to catch the next bus back to base. She seemed miffed that I had wasted her time.”

Ben Smith, one of the 360th’s radio operators, discovered during a walk through St. James Park near Buckingham Palace that sex was oftentimes very public. “I was unprepared for what I saw, a plethora of ruttish couples gamboling and lying about the greensward quite impervious to the passersby. They simply spread newspapers over themselves to conceal their tender ministrations to each other.”

Previous: “I Sure Do Get Homesick at Times”
Next: “I Became a Sort of Orphan Within the Bomb Group”