Shaun Illingworth: This begins an interview with Mr. John F. Homan, Class of 1951, on July 25, 2002, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, with Shaun Illingworth. Mr. Homan, thank you for sitting down with me today for this interview.
John Homan: You're welcome.
SI: Thank you, also, for bringing in all of your materials. To begin, I would like to ask you a few questions about your family. Your father was born in England. Do you know when and why he immigrated to the United States?
JH: Yes, he was born in Hull, England. He came to the United States in about 1923, married, with one child. He came over because job opportunities were practically nil in England, and his mother had some relatives in New England. He came over and went to them, and found work.
SI: Did he serve in World War I?
JH: Yes, he did. He joined the Army when he was only fourteen. His mother went to the parish priest and asked for his help to get him out. He got him out. But he then went and joined the Navy. He was in minesweepers during the war.
SI: Did he ever discuss his experiences in the Royal Navy?
JH: Not too much. That's one of the reasons I wrote this, [Mr. Homan's military record], because I wish my father had talked more about his experiences than he did.
SI: Do you have any idea of what his family's profession in England was? Were his parents farmers?
JH: No, they lived in the city. His father was a cabinetmaker aboard ships. He did captain's cabin woodwork and that sort of thing.
SI: Where did your parents originally settle in the United States?
JH: They settled in Massachusetts, I think Quincy, and he got a job in a shipyard. He had experience in ships' boiler rooms, he took new ships on trial runs. Then, that job ended and he moved to Bath, Maine, where he worked in the Bath Iron Works, another shipyard. When that ended, he had a job as a construction worker building the Bear Mountain Bridge. Then, he read a newspaper on a train one day and saw they were looking for employees at Hercules in Parlin, New Jersey. He applied and started there in about 1927, that's where he stayed until retirement.
SI: Your mother was also from Hull, England.
SI: What can you tell me about her family?
JH: Her maiden name was Lillian Hardy. Her parents were shopkeepers. England was known as a "nation of shopkeepers." I think they had a small shop, and I really don't know what they sold.
SI: Did they ever tell you how they met?
JH: No, don't recall that, no.
SI: When did you move to Parlin?
JH: Oh, I moved to Parlin when I was about three years old; that's where I grew up.
SI: What do you remember about growing up in Parlin?
JH: Oh, it was one of the greatest places to grow up you could ever imagine, very rural in those days. You could walk for miles and miles in the woods. They had all the recreation facilities you'd ever want, because of the two large plants, Hercules and DuPont. Hercules had bowling alleys, baseball field and a swimming pond. DuPont had a YMCA, with a basketball court, bowling alleys, plus a football and baseball field. Parlin is part of Sayrevillewhich had many clay banks. When they were abandoned, they just filled in with water. So we could go swimming whenever we took a hike. In the wintertime they froze over, so we had all the ice-skating we wanted. The Boy Scout troop was very active, met at the DuPont YMCA. I had a great, great time growing up, had all the recreation and camaraderie anyone could want.
SI: You were a Boy Scout.
SI: How long were you involved with the Boy Scouts?
JH: I think until I was about sixteen, yes. Ed Piech was in with me. We were both Assistant Scoutmasters. We loved outdoor activities and did a lot of hiking and camping. If they didn't do something outdoors in two weeks, why, everybody got antsy.
SI: Did you reach the Eagle Scout rank?
JH: No, I reached Star. We [were] more outdoors than studying for merit badges.
SI: What was the demographic make-up of your neighborhood? Were most of your neighbors first-generation Americans, the children of immigrants?
JH: It was a mixture. I'd say there was a good sprinkling of first-generation Americans, but the majority probably were not. It was an industrial town, Hercules and DuPont were the main employers, and practically everybody in that whole area either worked for one
or the other.
SI: It seems as though Hercules and DuPont created a community-family atmosphere in town.
JH: Oh, yes
SI: They were less impersonal than corporations today.
JH: Yes, they had their own housing villages, and DuPont had a commissary where employees could buy their food. Even the Parlin post office was at the DuPont plant.; yes, it was an industrial town but very different than today.
SI: Was there a noticeable blue collar/white collar division in Parlin, in your view?
JH: Not really. The plant managers and various managers lived in the same areas and there was no separation. I never felt that there was anything different, because we were all friends and we all "palled" around together. Both the DuPont and the Hercules executives' kids, were in the same gang and they were just one of the boys. Now, socially in the adult world, there may have been, but I wasn't aware of it because I was probably having too much fun growing up.
SI: What was your opinion of the Parlin school system? How would you rate your education there?
JH: I went to a very small elementary school right on the corner of the street and, as far as I know, I got a fairly good elementary education. Again, they were all same kids that I grew up with in the same neighborhood where everybody knew everybody. That's about all I remember there.
SI: How did the Great Depression affect your family and your neighborhood?
JH: Oh, it was severe. Rather than Hercules laying off, they cut everybody back to something like two or three days a week. When they cut everybody back to two or three days a week, you couldn't pay the mortgage, you could just about buy enough food. It was bare bones existence for that period of time. Oh, yes, I remember it-'29. I was five years old, but, I still remember it. You saved every nickel and every penny and [it was] just a hard time. My Father was never out of work, but there wasn't enough money coming in. There were four children. There just wasn't enough. The Depression went from '29 right through, maybe even up to '35, '38. So, by that time, I was doing part-time jobs to help out. There was an apartment house nearby and I would help the owner take care of it, deliver papers and run errands. Yes, I remember it, tough.
SI: Do you remember seeing transients or hobos passing through town? Other interviewees have recalled how people would knock on their back door and offer to do odd jobs for food.
JH: No, I don't remember any of that.
SI: Did your family ever discuss either local or national politics?
H: Oh, yes, being from England and being liberal, they were great Roosevelt supporters and I remember that from an early age, too. My mother wouldn't allow a Hearst paper in the house.
SI: I assume that they were supporters of the New Deal.
JH: Oh, yes very strong supporters.
SI: Did you see the results of any New Deal programs in your area, the WPA, the CCC, etc.?
JH: Oh, yes, sure. The WPA built a new section to the local grammar school. My wife's brother, a graduate chemist, couldn't find a job, so there was a New Deal program where he could teach chemistry. I don't know of any that did it, but I'm sure some went into the youth program. I forget the letters.
SI: The NYA?
JH: Yes, some of the people went to that. Yes, it was well thought of.
SI: Did your father ever take a part-time job to supplement his income?
JH: No, there just wasn't any.
SI: Did your father belong to a union? Was there any union activity at Hercules?
JH: Oh, not in that time. The union came into the plant after World War II, and by then, he was a supervisor, so he was ineligible to join the union.
SI: What were your favorite subjects or activities in high school?
JH: Well, I was on the track team and played a lot of tennis. I was more inclined to the non-technical subjects, history, economics, political science; those subjects. I guess I didn't like subjects that required memorization.
SI: You had two brothers. You mentioned that your parents had four children.
SI: I seem to be missing one.
H: Oh, a sister and two brothers,
SI: What was the age difference between your siblings and yourself?
JH: My sister was two years older, and then, I think there was, like, three years difference, and then, the younger brother, and then, another two years and another brother.
SI: Did you have any other relatives in the local area?
JH: When my father came to Parlin, he had a brother and sister in England. He arranged to have them come and live in this country, and helped them find work.
SI: Did they live in New Jersey?
JH: Yes, in Parlin, yes. They both found jobs in DuPont. Some of the relatives were in New England, but, I never met any of them.
SI: I was going to ask if you ever traveled to New England to see them.
JH: No. I did visit my grandparents in England, though, during the war, yes.
SI: Before World War II, were you able to travel beyond the central New Jersey area?
JH: During the Depression, going across the Delaware River from New Jersey was a big trip and I don't think I was ever out of an area of, say, Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, until I went in the service.
SI: Most participants say that there were few opportunities for recreation during the Great Depression. Were you ever able to go the Jersey Shore?
JH: Yes, we used to go to the Jersey Shore for a day or two, that sort of thing.
SI: Did you ever visit the World's Fair?
JH: Which one are you thinking about?
SI: The 1939-1940 World's Fair.
JH: Yes,'39-'40, I remember that, sure. Yes, I remember, who was it the famous swimmer ?
SI: Johnny Weissmuller?
JH: No, a woman. I think it was Eleanor Holmes There was a swimming show and the time capsule, I remember.
JH: I also remember Jimmy Lynch and his Daredevils [Death Dodgers] doing all kinds of car tricks, going up and through hoops. So, later on, I took my father's car to the clay banks and tried to do some of that.
SI: Did it turn out badly?
JH: Yes, it wasn't really good.
SI: Did your family discuss how events in Europe were progressing in the 1930s, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, and so on?
JH: Probably did, since my mother and father both came from England and England was surely going to be involved sooner or later, but I can't remember any of the detailed conversations. I'm sure it was talked about. I remember my father making sure he had his citizenship papers in order, if he were still an English citizen he may have been subject to being called back to England.
SI: Was that an issue for your older brother, since he had been born in England?
SI: Was your older brother born in England?
JH: My sister, the older sister.
SI: Okay. I assume that your parents were very pro-Allies when the war broke out in 1939.
JH: Oh, yes,. … There was a big difference of opinion in this country then. I remember when my wife graduated from high School in 1942, the commencement speaker was very much an isolationist. He wanted nothing to do with that war in Europe. So, there was a lot of isolationism.
SI: Did you notice any war-related rifts in your neighborhood, for example, German-Americans supporting Hitler or Italian-Americans championing Mussolini?
JH: I remember, I was working in Hercules after I got out of school when the FBI came in and took some German nationals out since it was a munitions plant.
SI: Had those workers recently emigrated from Germany?
JH: I don't know. I think there was an active German-American Bund organization in the area.
SI: Do you recall hearing about Bund activities at the time?
JH: Oh, yes.
SI: Did they hold marches or demonstrations in the area?
JH: No, I think they just had meetings somewhere.
SI: After high school, did your family want you to go on to college or join the work force immediately?
JH: During the Depression, there was no thought of affording college. There was no mention or talk about going to college. No, I was slated to go into industry.
SI: What was your job at Hercules?
JH: I was in maintenance apprenticeship.
SI: Where were you when you learned that Pearl Harbor had been attacked?
JH: I was in an ice cream parlor in Sayreville with my buddies having an ice cream sundae or something when we got the news..
SI: How much of a shock was the news for you?
JH: Oh, it was a great shock. … The totality of what it meant didn't sink in until, maybe, hours or days later but it was a shock initially. I think it was a greater shock when the total consequences became clear.
SI: Was Pearl Harbor a bolt out of the blue or had you anticipated that the United States would become involved somehow?
JH: No, it was a bolt out of the blue. I didn't realize, until I started reading history books, that it was not a surprise to our government..
SI: I assume that you had focused mostly on the war in Europe. Did you have any familiarity with the situation inAsia?
JH: No, I remember talking to an old "rummy" one day, and at that time Japan was buying all the scrap iron theUnited States could produce. This old, wise "rummy" said, "One of these days, you're going to get hit right in the ass with your old bedstead," and he was right.
SI: How did your life progress between Pearl Harbor and when you enlisted in January of 1943? Did you continue to work at Hercules?
JH: Well, at eighteen, I was working at Hercules as a mechanical apprentice. After
Pearl Harbor, I made up my mind to shoot for pilot cadet training. Why?
I didn't want to slog in the mud and the Air Corps had cache and a little glamour to it. But, I didn't have the background in math and so forth. At that time, you had to have two years of college or equivalent to get into cadet training. DuPont had a Boys Club for all the organized athletics, and the man in charge became the local high school principal. I went to see him and asked him if I got permission to work steady second shift would he let me go back to high school? He said, "Sure, come on." So, I went to my foreman, and obtained permission to work steady second shift. I then went back to high school and took all the math and science I could cram in as fast as I could.
My mother didn't want me to volunteer for the service. My father was telling me she was very upset. I didn't want to volunteer and have her think I did something that would upset her. I went to the draft board in South Amboy, asked them to draft me. South Amboy had a little newspaper and, about a week later, the next door neighbor got a copy and showed it to my mother. It said I volunteered. So, it didn't work anyway.
In order to get in the Air Force, I joined the Army in January, 1943, went to Fort Dix, and, as soon as I got to there I applied for cadet training. I had to take a whole battery of physical and written tests to pass the initial hurdle to start the process to take more tests. The testing area was, gee, it must have been a hell of a long distance away from where I was and it was January. I walked all the way there and back, and then, I had to go back the next day. It was sleeting and snowing all day. I walked all the way there and back. When back at the barracks the Sergeant saw me covered with sleet and snow and freezing. He said, "You should have asked for transportation." Now he tells me. Anyway, oh, there was a high school principal in our barracks and I asked him to tutor me in math before I took the tests. I found out I was accepted when they called a roster of names to fall out on the road at night, in the middle of January, to lay all belongings on your poncho, so they could count all of the GI issued material, so many pairs of socks, so many shoes, etc.. We marched to a train, boarded and soon a clerk came aboard. I think there were two or three names he called out to disembark.
I was one of them. That train went to Camp Edwards, Massachusetts, for artillery training. A friend of mine was on the train; that's how I knew.
So, from there I went to Mitchell Field, Long Island, for casual duty waiting to ship out to another base for more complete testing. Casual duty was KP, guard duty, any trash job they could give you. I wound up with pneumonia, I think it was. from that walk in the snow and sleet. I was in the hospital with pneumonia for ten days. When discharged, a truck took me back to the quarters which were tar paper shacks with pot-bellied stoves. I was weak from laying in bed for ten days.
As I was walking back to the shack, a sergeant was having a formation fall in. He yelled "Soldier, fall in." I tried to explain to him, "I just got out of the hospital," but he wouldn't even listen. He said, "Fall in." So, I fell in.. There was a blizzard the night before; we marched to the airfield and shoveled snow off the ramp all day One night, I remember, I was guarding a coal pile. I had no basic training, didn't know anything about a rifle, guarding a coal pile in the middle of winter at Mitchell Field, with an empty rifle, just walking up and down.
I assume openings came up in Nashville, Tennessee, for more testing. We went by train. It took, I think, two days to get from New York to Nashville. The base was in valley outside of Nashville. All the units were heated with pot-bellied stoves, burning soft coal, and so, you were all black. Every time you went outside, your nose was black, your skin was black, from the soot. Then, the real testing began: multiple physicals, written exams and psychological interviews. There were several machines that tested your dexterity and coordination, like, a lathe where you had to run one thing with your right hand and another with your left hand. I forget, they had another one where they had a smooth record with a penny-size contact in it, and you had to follow that around with a hinged stylus, to see how long you could make contact. Another one, they had a little hole in a vertical plate with a stylus, and you were supposed to hold that stylus in that little hole without touching either side, while someone recited numbers. I was going, "Bzzz," not holding it at all. Then, another one was a screen with a keyboard, numbers would light up on the screen, and they tested your reaction, how fast you could put the light out by pushing a corresponding button, while a tester behind you was shooting blanks. I then found out I had passed all the tests to become a cadet.
From there, I went to Maxwell Field, Alabama, for pre-flight training. This was strictly ground school and physical training. I was there for two months where they followed the hazing patterns of West Point. While you're an underclassman, for a month, you were not allowed off the base. You had to be at attention any time you were outside of your room, You had to eat what they called square meals. You ever hear of that?
JH: Before you sat you had to memorize what was on the table, it was family style, you … couldn't move your eyes or turn your head to look down the table. You had to eat at attention, you ate a square meal, after you're asked for a dish to be passed, put it on the plate, you had to come up square to your mouth, …, and then, when you finished, you had to put all the utensils in a certain pattern on your plate. That lasted about a month. All cadets were on the honor system, if you broke the honor code, you were supposed to turn yourself in, and, I remember, one night, we were all called out about midnight. Somebody broke the honor code, didn't turn themselves in, and they had what they called a drumming out ceremony. We were called out in formation at attention and they rolled the drums, read his offense, read his name, and [he was] out of cadets. I don't know where they sent him. …
The training was kind of rigorous, … all day. I'm not saying it was tough, compared to Ranger training or anything like that, but, the schooling and the ground school were continuous, and, I remember, they had what they called a "Burma Road." After you finished your physical training and doing your push-ups, pull-ups and calisthenics, you had to run the Burma Road and back to your barracks, and I used to get painful stitches in my side. … Rather than fall out, I would bend over and just double up and finish the run, because, if, for any reason, you fell out of physical training, it was mandatory sick call. You just couldn't go back to your barracks. You had to go on sick call. That's about all I remember about Maxwell Field.
I went to Souther Field, Americus, Georgia, for primary flight training. It was a grass field; all you had were ready rooms, some barracks and a windsock for direction. All the instructors were civilians. They only had … three or four military pilot officers for check rides. After you finished so many hours, they would give you a check ride. It was a PT-17 bi-wing, fabric wings, open cockpits, We had ground school and flying almost continuously. I remember, … oh, Lindbergh made … his first solo flight from that field, and … one of the instructors in aircraft maintenance was his mechanic. I remember him, because he always said, "You pronounce it, 'Car-bure-a-ter,' not, 'Carburetor,' it's, 'Car-bure-a-ter.'"
In primary, after about ten hours, you're expected to solo. By twenty hours you're expected to start doing aerobatics. We had Link trainer time there also. Then, you started doing cross-countries. If you liked aerobatics, you'd be doing slow rolls and snap rolls just to break up the routine.
I remember, when we first started doing aerobatics, Americus was a dry town, but, you could always buy something in a dry town. Somehow, somebody bought some champagne. We drank too much the night before I went for my first aerobatics session. I got up there and the instructor started showing me how to do aerobatics. He had a mirror up on the wing, and … the student sat in the rear cockpit, so, he could see what you were doing. I shook the stick, and he looked, and I went, like that, pointed a finger in my mouth and said, "down," and he said, "Okay." we landed. … I guess it's normal, not feel good in your first attempt at aerobatics, but, I think it was probably the champagne. We landed and then, did the same thing the next day, and I was fine. Another time he was demonstrating a loop, he put the plane in a dive and pulled it up and I tried to stiffen up; damn if I didn't blackout, in a Stearman, in a loop. He got to the top and I was hanging on the seat belt, blacked out. He then finished the loop and said, "Okay, you do one." I just remembered [that] he dived and pulled the stick back, so, I did a loop, and I never told anybody that story, I felt kind of stupid for blacking out in a PT-17.
We had one cadet in primary doing chandelles around the water tower of Lesley, Georgia. He stalled it out, and spun down through a two-story garage, and, believe it or not, all he had was a cut knuckle. So, everyone in the area was called in for an inquiry and … nobody saw anything. We all said, "We didn't see anything." Of course, we were doing the same thing. He graduated in the next class. I have an article on that in my scrapbook, …
I think the thing you learned fast in primary was that military flying is not doing what you want to do. It's precision flying. … When we took off, you were told to climb at so many feet per minute, at so many RPM, at a given heading, and level off at a certain altitude, and, when you descended, it was the same way. When you did a spin, it was not just do a left or right spin. You'd do a left or right spin so many turns to the half turn and pull out. You just didn't fly; it was precision, I think that's where you also learned a little discipline on how to fly. …
Yes, the other one that happened in primary, After I soloed I was at an auxiliary field practicing short field landings, where they put two posts and a line across with banners on it, and you were supposed … to drag it at just above stall speed, clear that line, and drop it in to see how short you could land. I didn't notice a thunderstorm was bearing down on me, I got it on the ground, and tied the plane down, and got under the wing. There was no shelter. I remembered I had an appointment with one of the officers back at the base. Rather than takeoff in a thunderstorm, I just stayed there until it blew by, and then, flew back to the base, ran in, … popped the officer a salute, tried to explain "I was out there doing this," giving an excuse for being late. He said, "What's your answer, Mister?" and I thought a minute. Well, the answer is, "No excuse, Sir," if you did anything wrong, that was your standard answer. If you tried to say anything else, you're in trouble. As punishment I had to walk ten tours, which is walking 120 cadence on a concrete ramp, out in the summer sun.… Ten tours is ten hours of walking.
The PT-17 had an inertia starter, which means there was no battery. You cranked the flywheel up, to start it. So, when you weren't flying, or in ground school you're out there, in the blazing sun, cranking engines. You didn't have other people do it; the cadets did it. …
We had to stand formal retreat every night, in the summer heat, at strict attention, and it was not uncommon for people to pass out, flop right on the ground, and they'd wait until the retreat was over and the flag was down, then, they'd go pick him up. …
SI: You were placed into pilot training directly from Nashville.
JH: Yes, went right from Nashville to Montgomery, Alabama, for pre-flight, yes.
SI: How well did you adapt from civilian life to the strict discipline of the military?
JH: From a flying standpoint, I could see the necessity, and it didn't bother me. I never considered myself a military person, as far as, come April 15, you put on summer uniforms and it may be freezing out, or, the reverse way in the fall.. I was a civilian in the service, when flying combat was concerned, I could see where your life might depend on your discipline. I accepted that.
SI: Were you aware of the washout rate among your classification group at Nashville, in terms of how many cadets wound up in pre-flight?
JH: I don't know what it was in Nashville, … I had no figures, but, in primary, it was about fifty percent. Now, a lot of that was, like me, I'd never been up in an airplane in my life, until my first ride in a PT-17, so, some of the cadets initially decided they want to fly, but, after they got in the air a couple of times, … "No, I don't want to fly." … It's nothing against them. It could happen to me, it could happen to anybody. You just say, … "This isn't for me," and the others, the ten-hour check ride eliminated many. If you didn't pass, you were out, and you had another twenty-hour check ride, if you didn't pass, you were out. The washout rate in primary training was about 50%. This was obvious by the number attending retreat.
SI: You mentioned that one cadet crashed into a garage. Do you recall any other accidents or fatalities?
JH: Not in primary, that I know of, not in my class. We had that one accident, that I know of.
SI: What was your opinion of your equipment and supplies? Were they adequate?
JH: Oh, yes. The planes were very good and they had a long standing reliable engine with good maintenance. I can't remember the name of it, Liberty or something, they just never quit.
The civilian instructor pilot I had was great. They were all, basically, old crop dusters and barnstormers and they … were, like, part of the airplane, they could fly so well.
SI: Where were your fellow cadets from, all across the country or a specific region?
JH: Well, I think all were from east of the Mississippi. I think a lot of the people from the West went to Texas orCalifornia; they had the same type of schools.
SI: How well did everyone get along?
JH: I wasn't aware of any problems. … Everybody was there to do a job. Nobody wanted to wash out. I had absolutely no indication of any problems whatsoever.
SI: No one, say, rebelled against the strict discipline.
JH: No. I remember, one time, we had an ex-boxer as a PT instructor. I think this fellow [a cadet] was fromPittsburgh, [as] I recall, and he was a sturdy chap, … a little lippy, maybe, and the instructor just invited him to box with him, and I that took care of that problem. When flying combat in a ten man plane everyone understood that failure to do the assigned job could not be accepted. On the ground discipline was another matter.
SI: When you were stationed in Americus, were you allowed off the base?
JH: Only on weekends till 11 PM, it was a very small, poor dry town, one movie theater. … I remember, the movie theater was segregated, separate entrances for blacks and separate entrances for whites. There wasn't much social life in town. Maybe … some organization was having a dance, and they'd ask for cadets to sign up … and that's about it. The only thing I remember, coming back to the base, we'd always ask the cab to stop at a watermelon field, so, we could take a few watermelons back with us.
SI: Was that your first exposure to segregation?
SI: Is there anything else to discuss about Americus, or should we move on to your next base?
JH: No-the next base was for basic flying at Bainbridge, in southern Georgia. In the summertime, it was extremely hot, and we had tar paper shacks for quarters. The airfield had concrete runways. We went to a BT-13, which was a larger plane with an enclosed cockpit. It was quite a jump from the PT-17, much higher horsepower and single wing.
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JH: The first day we went to the ramp standing at attention for an introduction talk by the base commander, looking out at the field a BT-13 taking off, stalled out over the runway, flipped over, and crashed. The Commander just said, "about face." We all turned around, and looked the other way. That was my introduction to BT-13 flying.
You started instrument flying under a hood, you flew without looking outside the airplane, also started night flying, takeoffs, landings and cross countries.
It was just more advanced than in a PT-17, and, I remember, my instructor was a very nervous, chain-smoking first lieutenant that swore like a trooper. You learned how to land and takeoff by shooting landings at an auxiliary field. We went out, shot a couple of landings He said, "Pull over to the side of the runway." He got out … on the wing and said, "Go ahead, you're on your own." He told me to do so many, and then come back and pick him up." I did so many landings and I came back to pick him up to fly back to the main base. He got on the wing and he said, "Who the hell do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?" I didn't know who Barney Oldfield was, so I didn't say anything. When I got back to the base and I started asking people who Barney Oldfield was. [laughter] I found out he was a race car driver, from that, I figured out I must have been taxiing too fast for him. …
We went out for night flying and night landings on this same auxiliary field, When we arrived we started night landing instructions. We'd do touch-and-go, you land, put the power to it, go around again, and he'd say, "Okay, you have it," and then, I'd feel his hand on the stick, … and, finally, he'd say, "I got it." He'd land it, go around again. He'd say, "You got it," and I felt his hand on the stick. We did this three or four times and he landed all three or four times. Then, he said, "Okay, drop me off." He got out on the wing and he said, "Go ahead, don't kill yourself,", … There was an auxiliary tower and an auxiliary light truck at this field.
You had to get radio clearance to takeoff whenever you were ready to go. I had clearance, took off and went around the pattern following another plane on the approach, and I heard him ask … [for] clearance to land, and … I heard the cadet in takeoff position ask if it was okay to takeoff. I heard the tower very clearly tell the Cadet in takeoff position to hold his position, "There's a plane on the approach." Something went wrong, and the cadet pulled out on the runway, and the cadet on the approach landed right on top of him, skidded, and took out the light truck, and so forth The field was then closed, my first night flight, never landed at night before without him on the stick, and they closed the field and told us, … all planes in the air go back to the main base. I was scared and nervous as hell,, I don't even know how I found the main base, I was so scared, … I started the approach, and overshot the runway by a good margin I put the power on, took it around, and came in, and landed. That was my introduction to night landing.
SI: Was it difficult to switch from a PT-11 …
SI: Yes. The BT 13 plane is heavier than the other, correct?
SI: Was it difficult to make the transition to a heavier plane?
JH: Yes. You had a lot more equipment. You had trim tabs, a radio, flaps, a two-pitch prop, and … it was a heavier airplane. … The PT-17 had very good stall characteristics. Now, this plane, … this is what happened on that takeoff I talked about when we first got there. If you stall with power on a BT 13 would just flip over due to the of the torque of the engine. You had to master that fairly soon, but, once you got on to it, after about fifteen, twenty hours, then, it wasn't a problem but, yes, it took a little careful getting used to.
SI: At this point in your training, was there any thought as to whether you would go on to twin-engine or single-engine aircraft, fighters or bombers?
JH: No, no. … Everybody took basic and then you were assigned to either single or twin engine advanced training. I do think most of the cadets at this point were hoping to be assigned to single engine advanced training and then be assigned to fighters.
SI: As we discussed earlier, you had not studied math in depth until right before joining the Army Air Force. How did you take to the technical aspects of training, navigation courses and so forth?
JH: The training methods were very good, designed to teach many subjects as fast as
possible. I had no trouble keeping up on all topics. I found out that I was good in the mechanical and engineering areas plus I especially liked navigation. In fact, in advanced, when you had night cross-countries, the pilot picked his navigator from the group in the ready room and I was getting picked every night. One night we were in centralFlorida, and the pilot asked me where we were, and I said, "I haven't the foggiest idea." That's the last time I got picked.
SI: The proper name escapes me, but, did you ever navigate by looking for landmarks on the ground and matching them to a map?
JH: Oh, yes, visual flying. We did a lot of that when going on a cross-country flights. In Georgia, there was a railroad track between almost every town, so, we used to call it "flying the iron beam." We'd just get up and follow this railroad track to this town, then another railroad track back to the starting point. That's visual navigation. The Link trainer was good navigation experience because you had to lay out your triangular cross-country course. There was a plotting board to track your course; they could even crank in wind speed and direction which you had to calculate. The plotting board would show how close you came back to the original point on a triangle course. We did have to be able to read maps and recognize ground features such as rivers, roads, towns, etc.
SI: You were still in basic.
JH: Yes, in Bainbridge, GA. Just one other incident. A few of us were in the ready room one night and we saw a fellow go running past the window with his clothes on fire. A couple of us grabbed the cockpit seats we used, ran out, knocked him down and beat the flames out. We found out he was out on the flight line cleaning parts with gasoline and smoking, which was against the rules.
SI: Were there any accidents where people walked into propellers, that sort of thing?
JH: I heard of them, but, I don't know whether they were true or somebody repeating a rumor. I don't know of any incident for sure.
SI: Did the number of accidents increase at Bainbridge? The first thing you saw at Bainbridge was an accident.
JH: There was the one I related earlier while practicing night landings, which resulted in one fatality and one fatality the day we got there.
The next phase was advanced twin engine at Moody Field, Valdosta, Georgia. This was a permanent Army base and still is. It's a Fighter Command base and that was a welcome change because we had permanent barracks, dual concrete runways and an excellent mess hall. It was a welcome change.
We flew AT10s. These were twin-engine, dual controls, plywood construction. If you had completed your primary and basic, then you should be able to fly. You've had enough training. We had a lot more instrument flying, taking off under the hood, using colored goggles and a different colored plastic in the windows.. We had a lot of formation flying and flying the beam, instrument approaches. They'd take you up under the hood and the instructor would say, "Okay, go back to the field." You had to find your way back by flying the beam. First, you had to find out where you were in that beam configuration and get on the proper beam to go back to the field. It was, again, just a lot of instrument flying, formation flying, beam flying, a little more Link trainer, just flying proficiency.
There were only a few incidents that happened there. They had left and right runways with traffic patterns left and right. When you called in for landing instructions, you were instructed to use left or right which means you're actually coming down side-by-side, one landing on the left runway and one landing on the right runway. Well, this cadet was too close to the plane in front of him for his runway, so he decided he wasn't going to go around, he just slipped over to the other runway, and cut off an instructor. I was up in the air that time and heard the instructor radio the tower to get that cadet's name and hold him at the ready room. He got a royal chewing out and had to walk around the base for a week with a sign on, "I am blind."
Another day, I was flying and the port engine lost power. It was still running, but roughly. I landed, taxied to the ramp and called for a mechanic. The mechanic got a ladder, opened the cowl, picked out a handful of cylinder head parts and handed them to me. One of the cylinder heads just flew apart.
One more. I was flying co-pilot and the other cadet was landing the plane when he started hitting the brakes unevenly. He hit the left brake, it veered left, and then, he hit the right brake, and it was going off to the right. Finally, he hit both brakes, the tail went up and both props ground into the runway. Whether I was flying or not, the instructor just gave us both a royal chewing.
Also, we had to send and receive Morse code. We never used it in the service, that I know of, but, we all had to get proficient at sending and receiving Morse code. So, we'd be walking around the base saying, "Di-da-di-dit-did-da," practicing. …
That's about it. By the time we got out of advanced, we had about two hundred hours of actual flight time. Then, you were ready for your next assignment.
This is just an aside. I remember I was transferred to Salt Lake City to go into four-engine bombers and got a ten-day leave. I decided I didn't want to waste time, so I took a bus to Jacksonville, booked a commercial flight toNewark. I was ready to check in, and somebody rushed up in front of me. In wartime, they had priority clearance for business people or Washington bigwigs to bump anybody off a plane. This fellow ran up with a priority card. I stepped back and I looked at the ticket agent, and I shook my head, you know, like this, and so, he gave me, a little nod, and he argued with this fellow the whole time, while I got on the plane. [laughter]I had the ten-day leave, and then, went to Penn Station, New York, and took the train to Salt Lake City, and stopped in Chicago for a few hours, and I noticed, in the train station, the Andrews Sisters were playing in town. Ever hear of them? Yes, so, I got a cab, ran over to the theater, watched the Andrews Sisters, got a cab back just in time to get the train to continue on to Salt Lake City.
Yes, at Salt Lake City, all the specialties, bombardier, navigator, pilots, gunners, radio operators, all transferred there to be assigned as crews. That's the first time you met your crew members. That was only a very short period of time, maybe two, three weeks at the most. left there for Casper, Wyoming, for transition training in B-24s.
SI: Can you tell me a little bit about each member of your crew? Also, at that point, did you know that you would be a co-pilot?
JH: No, not until I got to Salt Lake City. I was twenty years old at that time, and I think that, looking at [the situation] after I was overseas and flying, they picked people a little bit older than twenty to be first pilot, Our pilot was twenty-four. He was old for the Air Force. You want to talk about the crew?
JH: The Pilot was John Predgen, from Illinois. He was about twenty-four years old, easy going and a good pilot. We made a good team. He stayed in the Air Force and went to Korea, where he had a complete breakdown and does not remember anything about his experience in the Eighth Air Force.
Louis Wagner "Lou" was a highly competent and capable engineer and top turret gunner. Along with his other duties, he went back to the waist position to observe and listen when the engines were started. On two occasions he reported an engine did not sound right and in both instances that engine failed. On takeoff he would stand between the pilots and call out the airspeed and assist in monitoring instruments. He became a design draftsman at an aircraft manufacturing plant .
The Navigator was Charles Reevs "Chuck" from Wisconsin. He also was an older member about 24 or 25. Chuck was an excellent navigator with a cool head. On one mission he had his head in the blister watching the "flak" gun muzzle flashes on the ground and using a stop watch timed the bursts. On another mission, about our 20th, the lead plane wandered off course and took us over hot spots in the Ruhr Valley, getting the hell shot out of the group. He called the lead and corrected his position. He was soon transferred to a lead navigator spot. He became a Hospital Administrator.
John Dalgliesh "Pup" from Conn. was the bombardier. He was the loner on the crew so it's difficult to picture him. He was in the nose section and salvoed the bomb load when the lead plane dropped.. He became a United Way executive.
Dean Leonard was the radio operator. He sat behind the co-pilot and operated the long range radio, sending and receiving messages. I'll get to one incident with him a little later on, but, he was, as far as I know, an excellent man. He became an executive with Minn. Honeywell. I'm still in touch with him by e-mail.
Marion Cochran "Bo" was a quiet, shy Georgian waist gunner. At a reunion a few years ago, he told me if he knew what it would be like he would not have volunteered. I'll talk about an incident involving him later. After the service, he worked as a parts manager for a car dealer.
Richard Bunch "Dick" the ball gunner was from Baltimore. He had the job Andy Rooney described as the worst in the entire ETO. He squeezed into a small ball turret and was cranked out the bottom of the plane. He saw just about everything and was least likely to get out if a bail out was signaled. It got to him before we were finished, but he did his job. He became a supervisor in a steel mill.
Vernon Long was the tail gunner and I swear he lied about his age to get in the service I don't think he was eighteen, but he was a real trooper. His electric flying suit went out on one mission and he damn near froze to death; we never heard a word about it.
George Puska "Bill" was the nose turret gunner from Oklahoma. He was a smooth, silent type. Whenever he was assigned to KP he would dress in his class A uniform all spit and polish and invariably be assigned to a clean easy task. He went into his turret after getting Plexiglas in his eyes on three previous trips after some good natured bantering. He died in a boating accident soon after leaving the service.
[As of this date, June 26, 2004, there are seven out of the ten alive.]
SI: The crew was very young.
JH: Oh, yes. … Well, Chuck Reevs and Predgen were probably both about twenty-four. All the rest were younger.
SI: Did anyone have any college experience?
JH: I think Reevs did and some others had a year or two.
SI: Did you have any expectations about what you would be doing? Did you have a preference for fighters or bombers?
JH: Yes, probably ninety percent of the people going through cadet training put in for fighters, but in reality I think they looked at the ratio of losses and needs in the different areas to determine where replacements were needed. We were a replacement crew, and as soon as we got over there, we were sent to a people replacement base inIreland. There were four planes shot down from the 489th Bomb Group on one mission. There was an opening for four new crews. I think the losses were so great in the Eighth Air Force … that a lot of people were sent there.
SI: What did you think about going into B-24s? Did the B-24 have a reputation at that point?
JH: No, not that I knew. It was just the luck of the draw. Actually, B-17s were being phased out. The B-24 was being produced in greater numbers and being flown more than the 17s. It was faster, carried a heavier bomb load and had a longer range. In the Pacific they were used exclusively because of the range.
SI: What was your opinion of the B-24?
JH: I hear a lot of stories about people who didn't like them and said they weren't a rugged airplane. As far as I am concerned, any time it could get you back thirty-four times and take a beating. I have no complaints. None of those planes were built for comfort or amenities. They were crude. The B-17 and the B-24 were both crude airplanes. They were built to carry a bomb load and the crew was sort of incidental.
SI: How quickly did your crew gel together as a unit?
JH: That's hard to answer, because it was a matter of day to day training. The pilots trained in take offs and landings, formation flying and emergency procedures, etc. Gunners started aerial gunnery training on tow targets and billboard type targets in a valley. Navigation training was continuous; for example, we would have a practice bomb mission all the way from Casper, WY, to St. Louis, MO, with a film bombing, and the navigator had to do all the navigating. There were bombing target ranges in Texas. We would fly to Texas for both day and night bombing training; the bombardier would have to hit the target with hundred-pound dummy bombs. I think we gelled as a team inside of about six weeks. By the time you finished your six weeks, you have a good crew or people were replaced. We had a good crew; everybody knew his job.
SI: Can you tell me about transition training at Casper?
JH: Well, I answered a lot of it already, I think. It was our first training in night formation. I talked about going toSt. Louis on a bombing run. We were coming back at night, just over the Rocky Mountains on the east side ofCasper, and flew into a tremendous thunderstorm. The plane bounced around and we were both watching the airspeed indicator's going down, down, down. We popped the stick trying to get the airspeed indicator up until we both realized how dumb we were. The pitot tube was iced over. We both hit the pitot tube heat switch at the same time and the airspeed indicator worked. We were roaring by then. The navigator always tells us at reunions that we were below the top of the mountains when we pulled out. So, we did a 180 and landed in Lincoln,Nebraska, spent the night there, and went back the next day.
It was more continuous training in formation flying, emergency procedures, bombing, gunnery and ground school, eighteen months of continuous training with 10 days leave when we shipped overseas.
SI: Was formation flying difficult, at least at first?
JH: … It takes practice to fly formation. First, you start a little bit further out and then you move in a little bit more and a little bit more until you're flying a good, tight formation, but it takes practice. You can't jockey the controls or throttles too much. So, it's more of a smooth, careful maneuvering.
SI: What kind of physical demands did serving in a B-24 and piloting the aircraft make on you? I have been told that it was very physically demanding simply to handle the controls.
JH: Yes, there was no power assist. Everything was manual with cable controls. When you were flying formation, you were almost continuously slightly adjusting the controls and throttles using both hands and both feet. If our position in the formation was on the lead's right wing, the pilot flew, maybe, seventy percent of the mission. If you're flying on the other side, on the left wing, the co-pilot would fly. It was easier and safer flying formation if you did not have to look across the cockpit at the other plane. By the time you finished a six, seven or eight-hour mission, you were a bit worn out from the tenseness, the pressure, and the physical effort. We ate no food, because you had your oxygen mask on the whole time; we didn't eat anything or have anything to drink until possibly shortly before landing. I did four long missions in a row and I think I slept for twenty-four hours after that.
We only had a couple of incidents in Casper. We had one B-24 crash. The only story I heard is they were up with an instructor pilot when he pulled an engine back to test the crew on less than four engines. Somebody got excited and feathered the wrong one. The other one was, before you landed, after gunnery practice, all the gunners had to clear their guns and remove the shells. This one tail gunner forgot to do that, and with the plane parked on the ramp as he's getting out, he triggered the twin .50s. They were pointing down, and just worked their way up and set the B-24 on fire behind it, shot all the way across the field and hit a soldier in the leg. I remember reading the court-martial results on the bulletin board; maximum penalty of pay and grade and sent to cook and bakers' school. That was severe.
SI: Did you have a second duty on the plane?
JH: I was the engineering officer. In ground school, aircraft engineering was taught by a systems approach in that the whole was broken into the various systems such as engines, fuel, hydraulics, electrical and so forth. I worked very closely with the flight engineer on the above and emergency procedures.
SI: How close was your crew socially? Did you eat together?
JH: No, On all the bases, including overseas, the enlisted men had separate quarters and mess. We tried, but I remember, we were sent to Pueblo, Colorado, and decided all the crew would meet in a bar for a drink. The MPs walked by, saw us in there, and told the enlisted men they couldn't sit with us. So, we socialized on base, but, not in the officers' club or the non-coms' club. Overseas we played baseball and talked, and, maybe, went to a local pub together.
SI: What type of training were you doing in Pueblo, Colorado?
JH: I have no idea why they sent us there. I have a feeling it may have been overflow training, because we'd finished everything we were supposed to do in Casper, and then, we went to Pueblo and did more of the same. In the meantime, we picked up a brand-new B-24, right off the Willow Run works in Detroit. I have a copy of the invoice stating we signed for a new B-24 at a cost of $280,000. We assumed it was going to be our airplane, so, we took extra care. We did all the fuel consumption checks, babied the engines, and that's the one we flew overseas. When we landed in Prestwick, Scotland, that was the last we saw of it.
SI: You had been in the military for about a year at that point.
JH: I graduated from flight school in January. Yes, about sixteen months.
SI: By that time, did you have a sense that the Army worked in strange ways, like the famous phrase, Situation Normal: All Fouled Up?
JH: There were foul ups on missions that resulted in casualties due to either leadership failures or individual screw ups. Even the best of plans in combat go astray. After reading many books on WWII, I came to the conclusion the side that screws up the least wins. But in the flying area, I thought we received very good training with very good equipment, with very good ground crews. We had a very good crew. I didn't buy the part of non-socializing with the crew and the saluting business. As far as actually what you were being trained to do in your job, I had no problem with it. Well, going back to Casper for just a second, I remember before we could go overseas, everyone had to qualify with a .45. I couldn't hit a barn door standing next to it. So, one morning, I woke up, cold, in the middle of January, in Casper, and there was a note on my blanket saying, "Report to the firing range." Because I hadn't qualified, I was supposed to before I went overseas, and it was getting close. I went to the range, my hand was shaking, and the instructor just said, "You qualified." I don't think I hit anything.
Also, in Casper there were officers from two other crews in one building. One was Palmer and the other was Squires. Palmer wound up in our group overseas and went down and Squires went to Italy and went down. So, we were the only surviving crew out of the three from the BOQ at Casper. Okay, now, from Pueblo, we were assigned to the Eighth Air Force and we were to fly from Pueblo to Prestwick, Scotland, via Lincoln, Nebraska, Grenier, New Hampshire, Goose Bay, Labrador, and then, across the Atlantic to Prestwick.
SI: You flew directly to Prestwick, without stopping at Iceland.
JH: Yes, directly. For additional fuel we had fuel tanks in the bomb bay to allow for about a thirteen-hour flight. We took off at dusk so we would arrive in England during daylight. As we took off, all we saw were ice floes in the water until we went in the clouds; then we were in clouds flying on instruments practically the whole trip.
The incident that happened is: when we got over Ireland, there was a directional beam to follow, there was a low cloud layer. Right at that time our radios went out, so, we couldn't pick up any signals., We were flying, circling, figuring out how we were going to find Prestwick without our radio and were running low on fuel. I looked back and there's the crew with their parachutes on standing by the bomb bay. I called the radio operator back and said, "See if you can get somebody on your radio." So, he did, and then, by giving us long counts using a radio compasses from the ground, they talked us into the field.
SI: Was it difficult to pilot the B-24 on such a long flight?
JH: No, we had it on autopilot most of the time. In fact, we were nodding off part of the time. The navigator was the only one alert, he was raising hell with us for getting off course a couple of times. Once you trim the ship up and put it on auto pilot, it'll fly until you run out of gas.
We had an overnight stay in a place called Stone, England, and from there, we flew to Ireland in a B-17. Irelandwas another people depot. All the replacement crews were there for Eighth Air Force. Whenever a group needed a replacement crew, I guess they just got on the horn and called, and, boom, ready for combat. There was more ground school training there but most of it was combat veterans just scaring the hell out of us. We spent many hours on aircraft recognition. In fact, you didn't know which theater you were going to, so, you had to recognize all German and Japanese planes from black silhouettes flashed on a screen for a hundredth of a second. It seemed very important at the time. When we got over to Ireland, we were told, "Forget all that. If any strange plane comes near your formation, shoot it, no matter what it is." So much for aircraft recognition.
On June 29th,'44, we were ordered to go to Halesworth or Holton Airfield to be a member of 489th Bomb Group, 845th Squadron, in the Second Division, and our crew number was 2937. As I said before, the group had lost four planes just recently, so I assumed we were one of four replacements. In a short period of time, maybe after two practice missions, you went on a regular mission.. I flew my first mission on July 6th 1944, and it just so happened that it was a year from the day I soloed for the first time July 6th 1943.
The first mission was to bomb a shipyard at Kiel. It was a beautiful day, the sun was out, you could see forever, and we were flying over the North Sea. I thought this is not going to be a bad deal at all. When we got over Kiel, things changed in a hurry. The flak was coming up and a piece went through the waist and cut the waist gunner's mike cord. Then, I looked up and saw a B-17 group above us bombing the same target, with the bombs raining down through our formation. I then figured this might be hazardous duty.
SI: Mr. Homan will now give a description of his overseas base.
JH: Yes, the normal overseas base in England was not a standard airfield like you would have in this country. It was just runways scratched out of farm country, with country roads running through and with the farmers still living inside the base and growing their crops. All they had were MP stations at each entrance on a country road. The squadron areas were scattered about. I really never even knew where the other squadrons were. It was pure country, and, in one instance, one of our planes crashed short of landing. Most of them survived, and the wife of a local farmer came out and invited them all in for tea.
Anyway, our field was in an area called the Wash, about six miles from the North Sea, between Ipswich andNorwich. The squadron areas had Nissen huts with a pot-bellied stove. They had one little office for the squadron commander, and another little office for the squadron clerk, a lavatory building, just a concrete building with cold water for showers. The total base consisted of the squadron areas, an officers' club and mess, enlisted club and mess, headquarters' building, a tower, briefing rooms, equipment storage, base hospital, a motor pool and maintenance facilities, including a hangar. No bombs were kept on the base. They were kept at a separate depot and, when a mission was scheduled, the necessary bombs were delivered by truck for that particular mission.
SI: Since you were stationed near the Wash, the main practice mission and bombing range area in England, did its proximity affect your operations at all?
JH: Practice missions were scheduled very carefully as to time and location. These were mainly practice in assembly and formation; no bombs were dropped. There were certain sensitive areas in England that were outlined in red on a map.. Before we arrived and before the group flew their first mission, the Deputy Co (Lt. Col. Vance) was leading a practice mission. The 489th group flew through a group of B-17s returning from an actual mission. Two of the 489th B-24s collided while taking evasive action with a loss of both planes and crews-20 men.
Col. Vance, while leading an actual mission, was severely wounded but managed to get back near the coast ofEngland, ditched the plane and tried to save other crew members. After hospitalization in England, he was being evacuated to the States. The plane went down somewhere in the Atlantic and never found. Col. Vance received the Medal of Honor and now has an Air Force base in his name.
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SI: This continues an interview with Mr. John F. Homan on July 25, 2002, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, with Shaun Illingworth. Please, continue.
JH: We had maps designating red areas, hot military areas that the Germans had bombed frequently. English fighters and anti-aircraft gunners were instructed to shoot down any plane that ventured over a red area. Any time an engine was changed, it had to be what we called slow timed. Someone had to take it up and fly for four hours at a certain RPM in order to break it in before it was considered OK to go on a mission. We were assigned to slow time an engine one nice day, just cruising around, not paying attention where we went. We flew north and went over a red area. All of a sudden there were flak bursts right off the wing. I don't know whether they were trying to tell us, "Get out of there," or whether they were trying to hit us. But the message came through clear, and we made a diving turn out of there.
We adopted a pooch, and we all took care of the little pup. One day there was no mission scheduled, everybody was sleeping late with blackout shutters in place. No one got up to let the dog out, so he "peed" in the entry way. Captain Tanner, our squadron commander came in to do something. I don't know whether it was an inspection or what. When he walked in, turned the light on he found out he was standing in it. He just said, "The hell with it," and walked out.
SI: Were you arranged in the Nissen hut according to when each crew joined the group?
JH: No, it was officers from three crews' or twelve people. I believe as a replacement crew you were assigned the vacant spot. Enlisted crew members were in the same area but different huts.
While we were over there, at a reunion in 1987, we were dropped off at the base. After all those years, I wanted to see if I could find our old squadron area. I walked up a road, turned a corner and I saw a house and knocked on the door. I asked the owner where the 845th Squadron used to be located. He happened to be a Dutch pilot who came over from Holland during World War II and flew B-24s. He said, "Well, my driveway is the entrance to what used to be the 845th Squadron.." He invited us in for coffee and we had a nice chat. He also took us on a short tour and showed us remnants of the old bomb shelters.
Okay, on a typical mission you were notified by a bulletin board the day before to be on standby. You checked the bulletin board every afternoon to see if you were scheduled. If you were notified that you were flying the next day, that was a clue you'd better get to bed early. Normally, wake up call was anywhere from two-thirty to four-thirty AM. Wake up call was accomplished by the clerk coming in with a bed diagram and a flashlight, shine the light in your eyes and shake you awake. He didn't want to make any noise because the rest of the people may have come back from a mission late the night before.
You got up, went to the ablution building for a cold-water shave and shower. A shave was a must because if you tried wearing an oxygen mask for six hours or so without shaving, it would rub your face raw. We were supposed to carry a Colt .45 on missions, but with my accuracy it stayed under the mattress whole time. Then, there were trucks standing by to take you for breakfast. Breakfast was normally dried fruit, bread, marmalade, coffee or tea, or some kind of cereal with powdered milk. Air crews were on special diets. They did not feed you any food that would generate gas because, at twenty thousand feet the gas was double in volume and might result in cramps.
After breakfast, trucks took us to the flight line for briefing. Up to this point, there was no idea of what the target for the day was. In the briefing room there was a large chart with covering drapes. You found out the mission target when somebody pulled the drawstrings, then, you saw the route in and out. If you had been there before and knew it was a hot one, everybody let out a little groan. The CO would get up and give a talk on what the target was and the importance of flying a good formation. At that point, the briefing officer would tell us that if the German fighters were going down the division line and they saw a sloppy formation, that's the one they might pick on. So, they said, "It's a good idea to fly a good tight formation."
After that, the different crew members departed. The gunners went out to check their turrets and ammunition. The bombardier went out to check the bomb load and the safety pins and the engineer went out to check the plane over. At that time we had the pilots' briefing where various officers covered the formation, positions, taxi sequence, weather, secondary target or targets, type of bombs, fighter coverage, assembly and flare colors.
We were given a special information sheet to be carried in the cockpit that gave you most of the information you needed for the mission: your departure time at each point, time over the IP, where you turn on the target, the target time, your position in the division line, reference points, reference altitudes and the chaff code. Chaff was like tinsel that you threw out in bundles when you got near the target or near radar coverage. It was supposed to throw the radar off.
SI: What kind of relationship did you have with your ground crew?
JH: Our crew chief was an ex-high school principal and I got to know him fairly well. He was excellent at the job, very conscientious. If you brought a plane back shot up, the ground crew stayed up all night working in miserable English weather. They built little huts out of ammunition boxes out on the field so they could crawl in and get a little rest and a hot cup of coffee once in awhile. Our crew chief, the ex principal, told me that when he went in the service, of course, they wanted to put him in the training command. So, he said, no he didn't want to do that. He said, "For once in my life I get a chance to do something different." So, he took maintenance aircraft training. I'm sure he saved us a few times with his maintenance. He was very good.
An intelligence officer talked about fighter support, German radar positions, what their last intelligence was on their flak gun positions, except this couldn't always be accurate, because the Germans put flak guns on flatbed railroad cars and moved them around at night. So, you really didn't know where all of them were.
Then, before going to the plane, all the crew members stopped at an equipment station. You picked up your heated flying suit, parachute and oxygen mask. We wore infantry helmets that we took to the blacksmith's shop and had them enlarged so you could put your earphones underneath them. When you're in flak, you pulled your infantry helmet down and got under it. You got a flak vest, a Mae West, and an escape kit, which contained a cloth map, high energy food bars, morphine, a compass, fishing line and hooks and pep pills. The pilots were issued chest chutes, which were stored behind the seat and had to be snapped on a harness when needed.
Planes were parked on what we called hardstands scattered throughout the field. Hardstands were just little circular concrete areas to hold one plane. When we got to the plane, we stored our chutes and checked the mission information, checked the crew members concerning the inspection of their areas.. Then, we checked with the ground crew chief, the fellow I was talking about, to hear what he had to say about the airplane, if there were some little hitch, he'd let you know, like, a brake might pull left, or something they didn't get a chance to fix. Then, we did a visual inspection of all the plane, damage, tires, control surfaces and filler caps, etc.
Before boarding, it was very wise to relieve yourself before you got on the plane, because for the pilots that's the last chance they had. They couldn't get out of the cockpit for, maybe, six to eight hours.
At a pre-determined time, you took your positions on the plane, ran through the initial checklist, started the engines. Just before taxi time, a technician came onboard and set the IFF for the frequency of the day. IFF was an instrument on the plane that sent out a signal to English radar that identified friend or foe.
All signals were done with either a flare or what they called a biscuit gun. A biscuit gun either gave a red or a green signal light. When it was time to start engines, the tower would shoot a flare, when it was time to taxi, they'd shoot another different colored flare. While they were doing that, you were checking engines out, going through your checklist, and, finally, you fell into the proper taxi sequence, following in the order that was listed on your sheet. Then, you completed more of your checklist, called the crew on the intercom to make sure everybody's oxygen was in working order. Then, you rechecked all the engines.
Takeoff was almost one continuous motion. When you got to the takeoff runway, there was a plane pulled on one side of the runway, leaving room for another plane on the other side. As your turn came, you slowly moved the throttles to max power with both pilots standing on the brakes. When we got the green biscuit light signal from the tower, we let go of the brakes to start our takeoff roll. At that time the flight engineer stood between the two pilots, helping check all the instruments and calling out the airspeed. We only had a five thousand foot runway; with no wind and a full load, it normally took almost all of it to get off the ground.
Many missions required night takeoffs to enable you to reach the assembly area as it started to get light. Each group had what they called an assembly ship. Ours was called Little Cookie. It was a stripped down B-24 with polka dots painted all over it. The job of the assembly ship was to fly in the designated assembly area and circle at a precise altitude. Each group had a combination colored flare which was fired from the assembly ship so the rest of the group could find the proper area. This was especially useful for night assembly. Everyone on the crew was assigned to look for our group flare. You would then assemble on that flare and take your approximate position to move into your designated slot. We flew Cookie a couple of times. It was great. When those poor bastards were heading out, you went back to bed.
SI: Did those flights count as missions?
JH: No, no, that was just extra duty. At about five thousand feet, the waist gunner armed the bombs, by pulling the safety pins. Gunners armed all their guns and we set the autopilot on straight and level, with the idea that, if you were hit and lost your controls, (the regular controls were nothing but cables)the autopilot had servo motors at each location. If you had to bail out, you could actually pull out of formation, flip the auto switch on and if everything worked right it would fly straight and level and give you a chance to bail out. At ten thousand feet everybody went on oxygen and we called for a crew check to make sure all oxygen systems were working. When we were over the North Sea or the Channel, the gunners fired a test burst to check their guns out.
The right squadron would be high and the left one low. Now, the reason for this was that you had three formations flying in a "V." When the lead pilot made a turn, to keep the airspeeds constant, the left squadron went under the lead squadron, the high squadron went over top, so you were flying at approximately the same speed.
One time, we were on the far left, low squadron and the Group lead pilot made a left turn, and our squadron lead did not move under. As we were flying formation and not paying attention to the airspeed, we stalled out a fully loaded B-24 at about five thousand feet. Luckily, we were still over England and could recover.
The lead plane jockeyed for a precise time and altitude to cross the Channel or North Sea to fall in the division line. We headed out to the Continent maintaining a steady climb to somewhere between eighteen and twenty thousand feet. Everyone was on oxygen and crew checks began. The Germans had placed four-gun .88 batteries along the coast to give you a little welcome. Their job was to try to take the lead plane out. There was one four-gun battery at Abbeville, France, we used to call them the "Squirrel Shooters." If you flew straight and level, they were going to get somebody. At that time, we had fighter coverage. Now, the fighter coverage was in relays. One fighter coverage group would takeoff and escort you to A to B, they'd turn around, and then, at a later time another group would takeoff and take you from B to C, and then, they did the same thing on the return.
SI: Which type of fighters covered your formations?
SI: The entire time?
JH: Yes, Once in awhile, you saw a P-38, but they were used mostly for photo recon, P-47s may have still been on escort duty but I did not see any.
Every once in awhile the lead pilot would get too close to another group in front and then, you'd get a prop wash. Flying formation in a prop wash was white knuckle stuff. Our next point was the IP, which is where you turn on the bomb run, and the distance could be fifty miles or more to your target. The sad part is, if you wanted to have a good bomb pattern, you had to fly a good, tight formation. If you flew a good, tight formation and one plane got hit with flak, there was more of a chance of him taking somebody else down with him.
When the lead bombardier visually saw the target, he started his Norden bombsight and started tracking it, and, at some point, he called the pilot, and the pilot would switch it over to the bombardiers' control. So, when he made an adjustment to the bombsight, it automatically turned the plane and, when the crosshairs matched, the bombs were released. That was the signal to all the other bombardiers to salvo. I think I told you, a change in altitude on the start of a bomb run is sometimes used to avoid flak. The Germans didn't have the proximity fuses. The German .88 artillery piece was considered by all sides in World War II to be the best artillery piece of all the countries. There were a lot of close bursts, but when you could actually see the red flash in the center, you knew they were coming close. Some lead planes were equipped with radar and had specially trained crews called Mickeys or Pathfinders. If there was a chance of cloud cover, we could bomb by radar with a specially trained crew leading.
Also, in every so many formations, they would have an electronic countermeasure plane. It was a B-24 loaded with radio equipment to intercept German radio traffic and jam it. On the way back when you were over the north Sea or the Channel you slowly let down to ten thousand feet where you could take your oxygen mask off, eat a candy bar, and, if people smoked, they could light up.
Each base had what they called a "buncher," which was a radio signal that you picked up using your radio compass. So, every group could home in on their field using the radio compass on their own frequency. The formation continued to lose altitude and circled around the field as each plane peeled off in the prescribed order at a given interval to land. If a plane had wounded aboard, or were crippled, that plane fired red flares to alert the ground crews and they landed first.
When there were clouds or a low ceiling, the lead plane circled above the clouds and you peeled off at thirty second intervals heading out over the North Sea, through the clouds, at a given airspeed and rate of descent. You did this until the water was visible. So, you were going through the clouds with a plane thirty seconds in front of you and thirty seconds behind you on the same heading until you saw the water. When you saw the water, you made a 180 degree turn and homed in on the "buncher" with your radio compass. Before landing, the gunners cleared and safetied their guns. Sometimes, if missions were aborted after takeoff or after entering enemy territory, on these occasions, we landed with a heavy fuel load plus a full bomb load. The bombs, of course, were safetied before you landed. If a plane was damaged, it was the pilot's option whether to go out over the North Sea and drop his bombs before he came in and landed. I remember, one time, one of the planes leveled off too high above the runway and dropped hard, blew out the tires, and the bombs broke through the shackles, went down through the bomb bay doors and were skidding down the runway under the plane.
After landing, you taxied to the hard stand, filled out a mechanical status form, talked to the crew chief about problems, gathered up our gear, and inspected the outside for battle damage. Then, each crew transferred to the debriefing room where they relayed what they saw. This was important because if a plane was hit and so many chutes were seen, this information went to the Red Cross so they could check with the Germans to make sure, if four bailed out, that the Germans had four prisoners. We talked about where the flak guns were and so forth. At each table there was a bottle of whiskey and I took a drink after the first mission, and that's the last time I did. I was so keyed up that it didn't sit well. Then all went to the mess hall, then back to your squadron area to check the bulletin board.
I was at a reunion once where some people from England attended. One man told us about when he was about sixteen or seventeen he remembered a night they called the "Night of the Intruders." He was walking a date home along a country road and the Germans fighters followed the formation back at dusk, and waited until they were in the pattern, and shot a few down. He jumped in a ditch with his date and his date quickly left and said it was safer up on the road.
SI: At any point, either before you joined the 489th Bomb Group or, perhaps, during the mission briefings, was the theory behind strategic bombing ever explained to you, the purpose of your missions? Was the overall strategy ever explained to you?
JH: No, After the war I read books on strategic bombing. During the briefings, it was more the importance of the individual target you were going to hit, like an aircraft factory, oil storage depot, or marshalling yards. They told you why it was important to get those targets but they didn't fit it into any grand strategy. After I got out of the Air Force, I read history books stating one of the grand strategies, of course, was to reduce their fuel supply by hitting all the oil refineries, transportation and storage facilities.
On one mission we bombed a viaduct canal with two thousand pound bombs and all we knew was that we were going to bomb a viaduct. After the war I read the reason why the viaduct was an important target. The Germans were building super submarines in sections in the Ruhr Valley. They couldn't transport them by any other means but by barge through a canal to the seaport where they were assembled. So, I found out the reason we bombed was to prevent them from shipping these submarine sections. We did hit the canal viaduct square, I saw the strike photos, and the whole canal was flushed out.
SI: Overall, do you have a sense of whether your missions were strategic or tactical in nature?
JH: For a period of time before the invasion, May, June, and part of July, a lot of the missions were tactical. I wasn't there, but the group flew a lot of missions to France preparing for the invasion. Sometimes two a day. When I got there we did a few missions in France for tactical purposes and then we went back to strategic bombing. Most of my missions were strategic bombing. An exception was the breakthrough for Patton at St. Lo. We were scheduled to bomb right in front of the troops for the breakout. We went and the visibility wasn't good enough, so, we didn't drop. Some groups dropped short and killed some of the American troops. Lt. Florcyk took a direct hit in the bomb bay area. The plane disintegrated, throwing debris through the formation damaging other planes. One crewman who was standing near the bomb bay was thrown clear, landed between the lines and made it back to our line.
Then, we went back the next day and dropped and again; somebody dropped short and killed General McNair and a few hundred of our own troops. Another plane in our group was hit with only one badly wounded survivor. The Germans left him behind the next day when they retreated.
We turned around and did the same thing for Montgomery at Caen. I think there's a letter in my write up from Patton to Arnold. When Patton was trying to break through the Maginot Line, he had a lot of trouble. He couldn't get through Metz. So, he wrote a letter to Arnold, telling him that he took a pasting. He told Hap Arnold he'd like the Eighth Air Force to obliterate them. So, we did have one mission to Metz for tactical reasons. The mission log shows six missions to France and the rest were Germany.
Now, in between missions, after Patton broke out and was running out of supplies we would fly to southern England, load up on supplies, fly to a place near Orleans, France, land at bombed out airfield with craters in the runway. The Free French would unload the supplies, gas, munitions, food, and medical supplies. Then, we would just turn around and fly back to base. We got no credit for that, either. This was extra curricular activity in between missions.
SI: Aside from mechanical trouble, was there any danger involved in these flights?
JH: Yes, one plane washed out by not dodging a bomb crater on landing and another one was damaged. Until the end of the war, the channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey were in German hands. They had "ack-ack" set up and either nobody warned the pilot or he got a little careless and flew over the area and took a few hits. They were the only ones I know of in our group.
SI: Of your strategic bombing missions, were most of the targets fuel production sites? Do you know what your targets were?
JH: Yes, I know what all of them were, because of our Group history book We bombed fuel depots, refineries marshalling yards, aircraft factories, German airfields, critical production plants and industry in the Ruhr Valley. Only one time I know of that we didn't bomb a strategic or tactical target, and that was a mission to Munich. The target point was a mall in the center of the city. I could never understand that one. After the war, Life magazine showed a cathedral standing right in the middle of Cologne, all by itself, hardly damaged, and they said this was a testament to the accuracy of the Eighth Air Force. I'm sure anybody in the Eighth Air Force got a big laugh, because we bombed Cologne twice through the clouds. This was considered a tactical mission since it was a defensive position.
SI: On the mission to Munich, you just bombed the city itself.
JH: Yes, I didn't see any strategic or military target.
SI: At any point, were you instructed in what to do if you were shot down?
JH: Well, the standard instructions were: If you were captured, just give your name, rank, and serial number, try to escape, of course. We had an escape kit with some essentials. A few people in our group managed to get to the Free French underground and wound up going through Spain and back to England.
If your plane was damaged in northern Germany and you didn't think you could make it back, you had the option to go to Sweden. If you were in southern Germany, you could go to Switzerland. I talked to people who went to both places. Sweden was a Mecca. If you went there, they gave you civilian clothes, you weren't interned, you could take a job, you'd date blond Swedish gals, but, if you went to Switzerland, they were very strict, and you were interned.
Before the war ended, the Allies were flying B-24s painted black over German-occupied Norway to Sweden to bring our fellows back. I met some on the way back to the States in December of '44, and asked, "What are you doing here?" and they said, "We can't talk about it." I read about these flights after the war.
SI: Going back to your first mission, what was going through your mind when you woke up, when you were sitting through the briefing, and so on?
JH: I won't say you're anxious or really worried. I suppose I had concerns, whether I and the whole crew would be up to the task even though we had all the training, the best training in the world. I probably was wondering, "are we all up to it?" Of course there is always fear of the unknown. It was a proving situation, but, fortunately, yes, everybody on the crew knew his job, knew what to do and everybody did it. It was sort of a relief to know that you could takeoff, go through it and come back. You got one in.
SI: What was the target of your first mission?
JH: Kiel. It was the shipyards at the eastern end of Kiel Canal.
SI: What was the biggest threat to you on that mission, flak, fighters, etc.?
JH: We didn't see any fighters on that one. The flak was close and we took some damage, counting 11 holes. One piece of "flak" severed the waist gunners mic cord. The other threat was a B-17 group dropping bombs through our group. So, there were two threats, one our own.
SI: In general, how often would fighters attack your group?
JH: I think we only had about three or four serious attacks on our group. With a thousand planes in formation strung out for miles and miles, they could not pick on all the groups at the same time, so they picked on certain groups as vectored by their ground radar. If it were your turn, it was your turn. If it wasn't your turn, it was somebody else's group that got hit. There was a Kassel raid, I don't know whether you heard about that one. On September 27, 1944, fighters picked on the B-24 445th Group The lead plane made a turn before they were supposed to and fell out of the division line; they lost thirty-two out of thirty-six planes. So, it was the luck of the draw really.
SI: Some airmen say that flak bursts were mesmerizing at first. Did you find this to be true?
JH: It doesn't look dangerous when you first see it. If you're on the bomb run and you look at the groups ahead of you going through it, all you see is a black cloud. When you get in it you realize it's hazardous to your health, but from a distance it looks like firecrackers. The size or importance of the target determined the intensity of the flak barrage you got.. When you got over a heavy target, the flak barrage was thick. It looked like you could get out and walk on it. When you could see the red flash in the center, it was very close. After you flew a few missions, you knew it wasn't any fun. You knew what it could do.
SI: What would have been considered a particularly bad target?
JH: Well, any oil refinery, oil storage tanks, aircraft factories. The Industrial Ruhr Valley was just loaded with flak guns. Munich was a heavy one. Any important target was ringed with flak guns. Sometimes, if you hit a little town with a marshalling yard, you would only get sporadic flak. But, if you went after a hot one, you knew you were going to get it.
SI: Were you always able to bomb your primary target? Did you ever have to bomb your secondary or tertiary targets?
JH: … Several times we had to go to the secondary target, probably three or four times; cloud cover obscured the target and the lead pilot had to pick a different target..
SI: How many of your missions were scrubbed?
JH: … I have it written down, but, I can guess for you, probably around six or seven that were scrubbed before takeoff or in the air. Some were scrubbed after entering enemy territory. I don't know who decided to give you credit for a mission or not. In most cases, you did not get credit. I think the decision might have been, if you came under enemy fire, you got credit, but, if you got in and out and brought your bombs back without getting hit or shot at, no credit.
SI: Did scrubbed missions have any negative psychological effects on you or others?
JH: I don't think so. It was probably a relief when you didn't go on an actual mission, even though you had to make that one up. When they fired the flare from the tower indicating the mission is scrubbed before takeoff, you just piled out and went back to your quarters. So, you considered it a day's rest. Might also have thought we missed the one that did you in.
SI: I have always been struck by the fact that air combat is just as dangerous as ground combat in many cases but aircrews were allowed to live in relative comfort at bases in England, go out at night, that sort of thing. During the day you had to go back into the combat zone, but, the ground soldier is always …
JH: They're always there, yes.
SI: Did this sudden and habitual shift from safety to danger affect anyone psychologically?
JH: I saw it on one of our crew members. Probably, it affected all of us somewhat, but I don't think it affected any of us to the point where it interfered with our ability to do the job. You were probably nervous, a little jumpy. I remember, one time, after getting hit by fighters, on the next mission I called to the top and nose gunners that we had "bogeys" at two o'clock high. They said they couldn't see them, and I called them all kinds of dumb blind so-and-sos. I kept looking and saw they were two specks on the window. I finally called them back on the intercom, and I said, "They went away, fellows. They went away,"
But, yes, the ball gunner got to the point where he went on booze and Benzedrine, but, he did his job. He never shirked a mission. On our first mission to Munich, when we got up to oxygen altitude, a crew member couldn't find his oxygen mask. We were supposed to carry a spare. Everybody looked, couldn't find another oxygen mask so we had to go back and land. If we went to twenty thousand feet, he'd die. So, we went back, landed, grabbed another oxygen mask, took off, but by that time we couldn't catch the formation. If we caught them, we'd have run out of fuel on the way home. We came back in and landed, and the pilot and I were called into the CO's office for a royal chewing out. His exact words were "If it ever happens again, circle the field and throw the son of a bitch out." Then, I found out at a reunion after the war, talking to the rest of the crew, that it was a deliberate act. I didn't know it at the time.
Looking back from an advanced age it seems incredible that we could check the bulletin
board, see you were to go on a mission in a few hours and then go sleep soundly.
-------------------------------------END OF TAPE TWO, SIDE ONE--------------------------------------
JH: Everybody did his thirty-four missions.
SI: Was your crew able to stay together?
JH: Except for … the navigator. I think I told you about that.
SI: He became a lead navigator.
JH: Yes, We were on a mission in the Ruhr Valley and the lead plane went off course and started taking us over flak areas that we weren't supposed to be over. Our navigator called the lead navigator and by using reference points told him where he was. Right after that they transferred him and made him a lead navigator. All the rest of us made the thirty-four together.
SI: Did you fly with an alternate navigator after that?
JH: Yes, there were two or three. This was about our twenty-some mission. We only had another fourteen or so to go, so they didn't assign a permanent crew member. At this point we had a "G" set for improved navigation now known as LORAN.
SI: Can you tell me about your closest call or your most memorable mission?
JH: … There's one. Whenever we get together at reunions everybody remembers and talks about this mission. It was on September 18th to Groesbeck, Holland. I don't know whether people are familiar with operation code named MARKET-GARDEN and the book Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan.
We were alerted to fly a practice mission on the 17th. In briefing, we were told we were going to fly formation on the deck. We flew over the English countryside with one pilot holding formation while the other pilot pulling the stick back and forth to make sure we cleared the trees and wires, etc. We still didn't know what was going on and the rumors were spreading, "What's coming off here?", because, if you ever tried bombing that low, you'd blow yourself up. The only thing we could think of was maybe we were going to drop delayed action bombs. The next morning we went for an early morning briefing. This was our first indication of Market Garden where General Montgomery had developed a plan to drop paratroop brigades or divisions in a string through Holland and Belgiumto capture all the bridges. Then the British Army would follow up and use all the bridges to invade North Germanyand shorten the war.
We were assigned to drop supplies to the 101st Airborne Division in Groesbeck, Holland. The plan was to fly at a thousand feet then drop lower once we got on target to drop supplies. Well, reading the book A Bridge Too Far I found out that the Germans had captured the total plan on the first day. I also read that the Germans had overrun our drop zone. The 101st, to get their supplies, had to go out and clear the drop zone by hand-to-hand combat and it wasn't a very large drop zone. Our lead pilot made a run and another group interfered, crisscrossing our area. So, he had to veer off and make another pass.
As we circled around we went over Germany, we were that close. I saw German farmers in the backyard shooting shotguns or rifles at us. Then, we made another run, and he wasn't sure of the drop zone, so, we went around a third time. Incidentally, on the way in, we got hit in the top of #3 engine cowling with something, and I have no idea what it was, There was a big jagged hole and the engine lost power, but, we could keep up. On the third run, we got strafed with machine gun fire from the ground, hitting #4 engine and knocking it out. The radio operator was standing between us, and he got nicked in the fanny, yelled, and jumped on the controls. The hydraulic system was shot out. We never had that happen before and we didn't know what to expect. The hydraulic fluid came out as just vapor and the cockpit filled up with smoke, the radio operator hit, jumping on the controls, and #4 engine shot out at the same time with #3 partially gone. All this happened at about 500 feet. As I say in my write-up, it is very difficult to remember exactly what happened, or who did what, but I know one of us popped the stick forward to maintain airspeed at five hundred feet, pulled the radio operator off the controls, feathered #4 engine, and then, one of us called the engineer out of the top turret to check on the radio operator. At this time, we were down almost at ground level, and trying to climb back up.
Two of our squadron, on the same run at the same time, were hit and crashed. We got the plane up to about a thousand feet. We knew we had no hydraulics, which meant there was no power for flaps or brakes, and no hydraulic pressure to put the wheels down. There was an emergency field in England, (Woodbridge) with a ten thousand-foot, extra wide, concrete runway with five thousand-foot grass overshoots on each end. With the battle damage we had, our only shot was to go there. When we arrived, there was a plane burning halfway down the right side of the runway. So, we had to pick the left side of the runway; no brakes, we cranked the flaps down, cranked the gear down, kicked the nose wheel out. We didn't realize until we touched down that the left tire was shot out, too. There was no control with brakes or engines. If the right tire were shot out, we would have probably crashed into the burning plane. The English had a fog dispersal system with steam pipes running around the whole field. We veered off the runway and took their steam system out.
Needless to say, everybody evacuated in a hurry. We found out that the radio operator had a tracer go through his pants, underpants, and singed his butt, and that was it. We had an OSS Sgt. aboard (Office of Service and Supply), who was in charge of the drop. All I remember is, when we landed and skidded off the runway, I saw him running like hell and never saw him again. That was the one mission we always talk about.
When we were hit, we popped the stick and lost sight of the group. When the rest of the group got back, they reported us as shot down. Everybody was surprised to see us since we landed at an English base, spent the night there, and then, went back the next day. One of the planes was listed in our history book as a complete loss and had to be salvaged. I believe it was the plane we landed at that field
SI: Was anyone else in your crew wounded?
JH: No, just close ones. Bo Cochran, the waist gunner, got hit in the head with a piece of flak, that went through his steel helmet into his liner, knocked him down; no Purple Heart, no injury. The nose gunner got Plexiglas in his eyes about three different times, and the window on my side got hit once, but, fortunately, we had nobody seriously hurt. Very lucky.
SI: Were there any superstitions among either your crew or the members of your squadron? Did people go to religious services more often? I do not mean to tie religion and superstition together, but, were people …
JH: More religious?
SI: Yes, or did anyone carry a rabbit's foot, that sort of thing?
JH: … I'm really only familiar with our crew and some of the other people that were in our Nissen hut. I didn't detect any superstitions. There was very little talk from anyone about worry or fear, very little talk, in fact, practically none. Everybody just did his job and kept quiet about it, because they didn't want to upset any one else. You could tell it was getting to some people, but never a word. On our crew, I never heard a complaint. One time, after the nose gunner got Plexiglas in his eyes about three times, and we were going into the plane, he said, "I'm not getting in that turret," and neither the pilot nor myself said a word to him. He climbed in. We knew he was kidding. As far as religious activities go, probably a little more than if you were back in the States, but, I couldn't detect any great mass entrance into the religious field.
SI: You mentioned earlier that you visited your relatives in England. Can you tell me about that visit?
JH: Yes. After the low level mission I mentioned, part of the flight surgeon's job was to observe the crews, and we probably didn't know it, but were getting what they called "a little flaky." He recommended that the whole crew go to a flak home on the Irish Sea for a week. We stayed in a hotel, no military discipline, food any time you wanted. I went there and checked in. My grandmother and grandfather and aunt lived in Hull, England, over on the East coast. I stayed a day at the "Flack Home" and then took a train to Hull and visited them. I had never seen them. My Mother and Father had never been back to see them since 1923. This was '44, so it was a great experience. My Grandmother was from Ireland and she had a tremendous sense of humor and was a real live wire. My Grandfather used to play on the city football team. He and I went out pubbing, and everybody knew him. He could walk the legs off me. Of course, they were on strict rations. I, being a first lieutenant, with a little more pay than most people in England could afford to buy a lot of "goodies" on the black market.
SI: How long did you stay there?
JH: I stayed about three days. Then, I took a train back to the other side of England to check in at the flak home again, almost in time to go back to the base.
SI: Did you have any other relatives there?
JH: None that I knew of.
SI: I have heard that American officers, particularly Army Air Force officers, were well paid in comparison with the local economy. Were you ever instructed in how to deal with the British civilians? Were you ever told, for example, "Do not buy up everything in a store, because they do not have much?"
JH: Yes, they gave us instructions and a booklet in Ireland on how to behave in England. and some of the colloquial terms and how they might be misconstrued. When you went on leave in London, nobody cared. It was a large cosmopolitan city with a lot of high ranking officers and everybody was spending money. Our base was in a very rural area. We may have gone to a pub and had a few beers and that was it. There was nothing else there. We have three, four, or five couples from England come to our group reunions every year and they're a real support group. They constructed a monument on our base for us and are very appreciative of the American Eighth Air Force.
SI: Did you sense any of that attitude from the British that you came in contact with, the "Oversexed, Over Paid and Over Here" American stereotype?
JH: No, … I didn't hear any of it, but, really, we were in such a rural area that I didn't get in touch with very many English people.
JH: Except, yes, I had a couple of passes to London and, other than that, … maybe, go to a dance in the local, small town. That's it.
SI: In between missions, would you go to the officers' club on base or the town pub?
JH: Most of the time, the officers' club. The navigator was a good tennis player; we played a lot of tennis and entered a division tennis tournament. We played softball, went to the officers' club and shot craps, drank a little, that's about it, and visited some of the local pubs. I remember, I borrowed a bicycle from a navigator in our Nissen hut to go to a dance in a little town called Beccles. Coming back in a blackout with no lights on the streets or bicycle, I ran right into a Bobby and knocked him down. He confiscated the bike and called the base to send a truck for me. I never returned the bicycle to the guy.
SI: What was in like to visit London during the war?
JH: Wartime London was a hubbub of activity. The buzz bombs were still flying when I was there, but nobody paid attention to them. All of the Allied troops that were stationed in England had leave in London. You had Canadians, Australians, South Africans, Indians, US, Polish, all nationalities at the same time. The famous dance hall Palladium, or Covent Gardens was open; parks and restaurants were open. Theaters were open and. going full tilt.
It was just a big, busy city. I was in London about a month or so after the invasion, and, if you recall, when they dropped the paratroopers for the invasion, they dropped them behind the lines the night before the invasion and they had to fight their way back. They were scattered and could not fight in groups, took about a fifty percent casualty rate on that one drop. Well, they made the mistake of giving all the paratroopers leave in London at the same time, when they came back to England. One paratrooper shot and killed a cabbie. I was in London at he same time and I was in a cab going somewhere, and a paratrooper sergeant jumped in after me, and said, "What do you fly?" I'm an officer, he's an enlisted man; it figures maybe he ought to salute and say, "Sir," but, [no]. He said, "What do you fly?" and I said, "Why? What are you up to? Why do you want to know?" He said, "Never mind; "then he said, "What do you fly?" and he was serious about it. So, I figured I'd better tell him. I said, "B-24s." He said, "You're all right." I said, "What are you doing?" He said, "The C-47 pilots scattered us all over when they dropped us. "We're looking all over London for C-47 pilots and beating the shit out of them." He said, "Where are you going?" I told him I'm just going up here to a pub I heard about. He said, "I'll go with you." We went in the pub and I bought him a drink. We had a couple of drinks and I started to leave. He asked, "Where are you going now?" and I said, "Well, I know another pub I want to go to." He said, "I'll go with you." I said, "No, you don't have to come with me." He said, "We've been in town long enough now that some of my buddies might not ask you the question first, so I'm going to stay with you." He stayed with me as a bodyguard all day.
In London, the pubs closed at ten PM, so, if you wanted to do any night clubbing, you had to go to a private club. Just the four officers on our crew were wandering around central London, asking everybody where to find a private club. Finally, one Englishman said, "Well, you go up here, down the stairs to a place called the Nut House, and here's the password." You had to have a password. He said, "They don't serve liquor there, either. You have to get your own." So, we wandered around until we found a black market bottle of scotch. We went down the stairs where the door had a sliding panel like the old speakeasies, gave the password and were let in.
They were having a floor show with a male singer and right behind us, I looked up the stairs at a paratrooper captain, a big dude. He had a bottle in one arm and a blonde in the other, and when he got to the door and knocked on it, the fellow slid it back and said, "What's the password?" He said, "I don't know any password, buster, but, I'm getting in here if I have to kill ten guys to do it." These were his exact words. The doorman said," Come right in." There were servicemen from all nationalities. There was a male singer, a pretty good-sized guy. A bottle flew over our table just missing the singer. He ducked but never missed a note. The bottle hit the wall. He finished his song and he said, "Now, I believe the man that did that ought to be man enough to stand up." This drunken Dutch paratrooper stood up to go to the head, and the singer didn't know he didn't understand English, so he went over and decked him. The captain paratrooper thought that was unfair so he got up and decked the singer, and then, a big melee started. All we did was hunker down and protect our table and bottle. The manager called the MPs. The MPs came in and the manager pointed to the captain paratrooper as the one causing the problem. The MPs went up and stood in front of him and the manager was behind them. The paratrooper hooked a left, right around the MP, caught the manager on the button, and he fell like a sack, never touched the MP. The MP just motioned to him and he followed him out. So, it was wild, too, if you went to the right spots.
I was staying at the Imperial Hotel, and had booked a room earlier in the day. When I went to the room, I couldn't get in. I knocked on the door and I heard this lady say, "Please, go check at the desk." I went down to the desk and the fellow behind the desk said, "This lady is afraid to have an outside room because of the "Buzz" bombs" and he said, "Would you mind having one?" It was late at night and I said, "no, I'll take it." So, I went to the new room and a "Buzz" bomb hit in the square next to the hotel and knocked me out of bed. That was London. The buzz bombs were coming over so frequently that the alert would go on and the all clear would come on, and you never knew which was which. I'll never forget, on one alert I stepped into a doorway and some Englishman came over to me and said, "Son, I wouldn't do that. Don't step into a doorway with glass."
SI: Did you ever see a USO show or any other kind of entertainment while overseas?
JH: After one mission, right after debriefing, they said, "Go to the hangar, we have a treat for you-Glenn Miller and his orchestra." Only Glenn Miller wasn't there. They had the popular singer Ray Eberly. The band leader was the fellow that took over Glenn Miller's band after he was killed. I think it was Tex Benneke. That was a big treat.
SI: Are there any other missions that particularly stand out in your memory?
JH: I'll just tell you about one other that was memorable. This was to Magdeburg, which is just West of Berlin, a very hot target, and we got jumped by fighters, plus the flak was heavy. We got hit, but, there were no visible signs of mechanical damage that affected the plane. On the way back, the plane on our left pulled out of formation and came back in next to us. We looked over, and during the fighter attack they had taken a .20-mm in the nose turret and one in the top turret. Reading our Group history book, I found out that the fellow in the nose turret had his foot shot off, the fellow in the top turret was killed, and, when we looked, the top turret was gone, and the whole top of the plane was red from the slipstream siphoning the blood.
We went on further. All of a sudden the temperature gauge started going up on one of the engines. It was running smoothly; we couldn't figure out what was wrong. We decided to just let it run. Pretty soon that engine developed a severe vibration, forcing us to shut it down. We were still far in Germany at that point. We leaned out the fuel to the remaining engines to see if we could extend the gas mileage and stay with the formation and opened the cowl flaps to keep the cylinder heads cool. Pretty soon, that didn't work. We couldn't keep up, so, we put the mixture back and shut the cowl flaps, dropped out of formation. Since we knew there were fighters in the area I got on the radio and started calling our escort fighters for some help. I called, "Little brother, this is big brother" and gave our reference position and reference altitude. One of them came back and said, "We have you spotted." I said, "I don't see you." He said, "Look up." I looked up about four, five thousand feet above and saw two P-51s. They shepherded us all the way back to England. When we let down over the English Channel they both came down and put a prop under each wing. I always wanted to find them and buy them the best drink in the house.
SI: Did you always have good fighter cover?
JH: Yes. They were a little bit on the crazy side, but they were good. Once, they came right through formation after German fighters planes. We were instructed to shoot at anything that comes near us, but whenever they got a German fighter in their sights they just stayed right with him, right through our formation. The tail gunner told us after our P-51s went through our formation, that they shot two German fighters down. They were either foolish or didn't think much of our gunnery by coming through the formation.
SI: You experienced quite a bit of military discipline in the service, but, I have been told that the Army Air Force was not as strict in enforcing protocol as other services.
JH: Yes. Our commanding officer was the only one on the base with a car and driver and if he saw you walking along the street, he'd stop and ask if you wanted a ride. There was very little "Sir"-ing or saluting overseas. The flight discipline was there, but, not the ground discipline. I think any pilot would take disciplinary action against any crew member who screwed up on a mission.. I remember, one time, one of our crew members got a little drunk and rowdy, and we were told about it. That's about all, no disciplinary action.
SI: Were there any "cowboy antics" among the pilots, like taking planes up without permission?
JH: No. That was more in fighter planes. I remember a P-51 and a Spitfire trying to out-do one another, running down the runway with the prop almost on the concrete and then pulling up into climbing rolls. I think a lot of those stories are figments of imagination.
SI: Your bomb group was withdrawn early from combat in Europe to be retrained and sent to the Pacific. How did that affect your tour? Was that why you flew thirty-four missions instead of thirty-five?
JH: Yes. At the end of October '44, we found out that the group was going to be shipped back to the States to check out in B-29s and go to the South Pacific. I had thirty-four missions in. Captain Tanner, Squadron CO, called me in and sort of hinted that since I didn't finish my required 35 missions, I should volunteer and go back with the group. I said "No thank you, I don't think I want to do that." So, there was nothing made of it, but the Group did come back to the States, check out in B-29s, and were at the port of embarkation on the West coast when the atomic bomb was dropped. Our group, the one I was with, was a spare group. Most wings only had a standard number of groups. Ours was an extra group, probably sent over there for, pre-invasion and post-invasion. By October the Allied forces were already close to Germany, so they felt free to pull our group back to go to the South Pacific.
I flew my first mission on July 6, 1944, and the last on Nov. 9th. In a little more than 4 months, I completed my tour of 34 missions before my 20th birthday. I received a Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters and the European Theater Ribbon with 4 Stars.
SI: Were you separated from the group at that point?
JH: Oh yes. I left on November 14, '44, to Stone, England, and then to Southampton to board a small cruise ship the SS Brazil and came back to the States by convoy. We entered New York Harbor on December 23rd and went directly to Fort Dix. The office staff worked all night, and, since I lived in New Jersey, I got my leave papers on Christmas Eve day and was home by Christmas Eve. I did not see any of the crew members until many years later at a reunion
SI: What was the voyage home like?
JH: Well, it was a relatively small cruise ship, packed with people. We had twenty-one people in a stateroom for two. Also, there were US prisoners coming back. They were in cages and MP guards marched them to mess. These were people who were in our service and were charged or court-martialed.
We did hit a storm. I never knew waves could get that high in the North Atlantic. The ship I was on would go up the top of a wave, go over the top, and the props would come out of the water, slide down the wave and vibrate, and then, come back up. We had a baby aircraft carrier escorting us and the waves washed the numbers off its bow. For about two or three days it was very rough. I could never understand how all those ships in a convoy, with just one small light, could hold their positions at night. Then, all of a sudden, we must have passed into a warm current.
SI: The Gulf Stream?
JH: Gulf Stream, yes. We must have passed into the Gulf Stream because we were up on the deck in our shirt sleeves in December. When we passed the Statue of Liberty at about dawn in a haze, everyone was up on deck in complete silence.
SI: Did you travel home with your crew?
JH: No. I was separated from the crew and lost all contact. I didn't know where they went. There wasn't anybody from my crew on that ship.
SI: I am surprised that the ship was so packed at that time. Was it mostly prisoners or mostly Air Force personnel?
JH: Well, quite a few Air Force, but, there were also Army personnel and prisoners.
SI: Were there any wounded servicemen?
JH: Yes, there were some wounded aboard.
SI: Was it a Merchant Marine ship?
JH: Yes. Merchant Marine.
SI: How did the Merchant Marines treat you?
JH: Well, we didn't associate with them. The only thing we were warned of before we got on the ship was not to gamble. We were told the Merchant Mariners were running rigged games. Every spiral staircase, practically every landing on the ship had a game going. A lot of guys gambled and most lost. I had won about a thousand dollars in a crap game just before I left the base. I put that in my pocket and that's where it stayed. A pound then, I think, was worth somewhere around four dollars and twenty-five cents. They were just big pieces of paper. The pool table never saw a pool ball; there would be mound of pounds on a roll of the dice.
SI: Was gambling prevalent overseas?
JH: Card games and crap, yes. That was to pass the time, playing poker or shooting crap.
SI: Was there a lot of drinking and smoking?
JH: Yes. Well, I think eight out of ten of our crew smoked. I didn't. Drinking some, when you knew you weren't going to fly..
SI: Did you know of anyone in your squadron who would drink before flying?
JH: No, I didn't know of any overseas.
SI: Was there anyone in the squadron who could not handle the stress and had to be removed from duty?
JH: Not to my knowledge, no. There was one pilot Captain assigned to ground duty for some reason. He got drunk and disorderly at our 100 mission party and was reassigned to flying duty. He was piloting one of the two planes shot down with all hands killed on the low level mission I mentioned earlier.
SI: How did losing other flight crews affect you mentally, having to clean out their footlockers and so forth?
JH: You say, "Thank God, it wasn't me." Of course, you were sorry for the persons and their families, but you tried to not let it get to you by not concentrating or thinking about it. You had to be concerned with staying sharp for the next mission, which might be the next day. I think you have to have very strong powers of rationalization and say, "It's not going to happen to me," and try not to let it get to you. I believe it's much easier to do that at 20 rather than in later life.
SI: Did you ever have any difficulty dealing with your experiences, for example, having nightmares and so forth?
JH: Yes, after I was out of the service just for a short period, maybe a year or so after, I had some nightmares, especially revisiting some of the rougher missions. I didn't waste time when I got out of the service. I was discharged in December '45 and was back working in Hercules by January '46. By June we were married, and, by the following year, I was at Rutgers. I think the key is to go back and do things.
SI: Were you reluctant to discuss the war after you returned to civilian life?
JH: Oh, yes. The only reason I wrote this (my service record) is that I never discussed it with our children and I figured that at least they'll know for historical purposes what happened and what it was like." I didn't write it, particularly, for my experiences. I wrote it to show them what it was like for everyone in the Air Force. No, I never talked about it. In fact, my wife didn't know about the two airmen getting hit with .20-mm cannon fire until she read it in my service record.
SI: After your Christmas leave in 1944, where were you assigned to next?
JH: We were asked where we would like to go, and, if they could accommodate you, they would. I elected to go to the Southeast Training Command and was assigned to Turner Field, Albany, Georgia, to become an instructor pilot in B-25s. The officers I was instructing were West Point grads. At West Point, at that time, you could opt to be in the Army Air Force or the Army. The ones that opted to be in the Army Air Force went through primary and basic flying at Stewart Field at West Point. They were then sent to Albany for advanced training in B-25s. I did that for awhile, and then went to Bryan, Texas, to a specialized instrument instructor school. You did nothing but fly instruments the whole time you're there to become a qualified instrument instructor. I think that was a six-week or two-month course. We flew AT-6s. You know what they are?
SI: The Texan?
JH: Yes, Texan, yes. I flew those and became a qualified instrument instructor. One incident happened there, too, that might be worth relating. As part of the instrument training, we had what was called unusual positions recovery. You had to go up to a certain altitude, and the person that was able to look out would put the plane in an unusual position, a dive, turning dive, climbing, whatever, and, the person under the hood and with gyros caged, had to bring it out straight and level just using airspeed, altimeter, rate of climb, and needle ball. One day, two of us were scheduled to fly and I had already passed the unusual position tests. He was having trouble with it. I was supposed to be under the hood, and he was going to be the safety pilot. He asked me if we'd switch, so he could get more practice on unusual positions.
-------------------------------------END OF TAPE TWO, SIDE TWO-------------------------------------
SI: This continues an interview with Mr. John F. Homan on July 25, 2002, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, with Shaun Illingworth. Please, continue.
JH: Yes, I got him up to altitude. He was under the hood and couldn't see out, and I told him to cage his gyros while I put him in an unusual position. I told you earlier that we didn't do too many crazy things, but, this time, I felt a little mischievous. I put the plane in a dive and then pulled it straight up and said, "okay, you have it, pull it out straight and level." Well, there's actually absolutely no way he could do that; a stall was inevitable. Right after I told him he had it and were just about ready to stall out, the engine caught fire. I quickly told him to come out from under the hood and that I had the controls. I kicked full rudder and did what was called a "split-S and pulled out of the dive. Smoke was coming out of the engine. I leveled it out but couldn't see very well. I pulled the cockpit cover back and I stuck my head out and got my face and sunglasses covered with hot oil. So, I ripped the glasses off and threw them down in the bottom of the plane. I called the base, told them my problem and that I was coming in. The controller said" traffic is so-and-so," but, I had already been overseas and used to emergencies. I called and told him and said, "clear the field, I'm coming in on the first available runway." The windshield, at that time, was all covered with oil and black smoke. I pulled the throttle back, and coasted in and landed. The only way I could see to land was to look out the side; I couldn't see straight ahead. I got the plane on the ground and the tower instructed me to pull off the runway immediately. I pulled off on the grass where there were emergency trucks standing by. I was taking my time vacating the plane when some one yelled, "Get the hell out of there, now!"
I went back to the ready room with my face and the top of my flight coveralls black from burning oil. The instructor took one look, and said, "You son-of-a-bitch, I knew it would be you." Anyway, from there I went back to Turner Field, Albany, Georgia, and instructed some more.
This was the summer of 1945,and the war in Europe was coming to a close. The decision was made to curtail cadet training. They must have figured, with all the people trained, there were enough pilots to fight three wars. The base was being closed for cadet training and I was transferred to St. Jo, [St. Joseph], Missouri, to check out in C-46s. I think it was assumed that the war in Japan was going to go on for awhile. Nobody knew that the atomic bomb would shorten the war and, therefore, there would be a great need for transports. So, I checked out in C-46s until the atomic bomb was dropped. I, by then, had enough points to stand first in line to get out.
SI: How did you react to the news that the atomic bomb had been dropped?
JH: It was weird, nobody knew a damn thing about it. After the first one was dropped, everybody was just wandering around in sort of a daze wondering what's going on. Then, when they dropped the second one andJapan surrendered, it was almost like disbelief; everybody was geared up to go to the South Pacific. I knew I was going to go. It was like dropping a bomb on us; it came to such an abrupt end. Nobody was ready to say, "I want out." All of a sudden, the conversation changed to, "How many points do you have to have to get out?"
SI: How did you view the Germans as the enemy, both those in direct combat with you, the fighter pilots, etc., and the civilians?
JH: I probably felt bitter, because I saw England and the mass destruction,. The whole center of Hull was gutted. My Grandmother told me about the air raids. My Aunt would tell me they'd go down in the bomb shelter, and my Grandmother would throw her on the deck and lay on top of her. When you went to London, you saw miles and miles of devastation.. So, you're kind of bitter. These people brought a lot of things on themselves, but after the war, when I started reading books, they seemed much better than the Japanese, if there's anything such as niceties in war.
I read about the Sicilian Campaign. Hitler ordered a German general to kill the Italians that surrendered and General Kesselring refused to obey the order. I read about submarine warfare where the Germans originally radioed all ships to let crews to get off before they sunk them, When the English started arming merchant ships, they couldn't send warnings anymore.
There is a very interesting book about the ships sunk off Cape Hatteras that told about German captains radioing the ships to allow the crew time to get off. They would even tow them in lifeboats. In one instance a captain's wife was hurt while abandoning ship. The sub captain let the freighter captain go back aboard and take care of her.
There were, of course, incidents like the Malmedy Massacre. I never heard a factual story of a German plane shooting somebody in a parachute. You hear stories, but I never saw it or heard someone that said, "I saw it."
SI: Did you ever hear stories about men who bailed out and landed among civilians who killed them?
JH: Yes, I heard of a couple incidents, not too many. There again, your best bet was to be captured by the German military, rather than civilians.
SI: When you were overseas, how important was correspondence with home to you? Whom did you correspond with?
JH: I corresponded with my present wife who was at NJC, and with my parents. That's all. I can't say I wrote every day, but, maybe, once every two weeks or so.
SI: Was receiving mail a morale booster?
JH: Oh, yes, You looked forward to letters from home. Along those lines, the officers had to censor the enlisted men's mail. I got that duty once in awhile and I read letters from fellows on ground crews writing their girlfriends about how hazardous it is and they didn't know how long they were going to last.
SI: Are there any questions that I forgot to ask about your time in the military?
Just as an aside, after I got out of the service, I read many history books on World War II. Also, for awhile, I got on a kick reading about the Civil War and I came to the conclusion that the air war over Europe was similar to the Civil War charges. We were ordered to fly in an aluminum crate, carrying two thousand gallons plus of one hundred octane gasoline, with a six to eight thousand pound bomb load in tight formation, straight and level, while people shot at you. It just reminded me of Civil War type operations.
The Eighth Air Force had 10% or 28,000 combat fatalities in WW II out of the 280,000 for all branches of the services. In addition there were many wounded and a disproportionate number of POWs. The 489th group flew their first mission on May 30, 1944, and their last on Nov. 10, 1944. In just a little more than 5 months, 36 B24s were lost out of the 52 issued. A review of several diaries shows that during the 34 missions we experienced the following: slight damage 2, moderate damage 9, heavy damage 3 and mechanical problems 7.
SI: Charging into gunfire.
JH: Yes, charge across the field. Then, I saw a special with Andy Rooney, who covered the war up close. He jumped with the paratroopers and flew on missions; he was right in the thick of it. He was talking about all the jobs in the European Theater. He said the worst job of all was a ball gunner, because he crawled into that tiny ball, was cranked down, could see everything, there's no hiding there, and he was probably the last one to get out if something happened.
One incident might be worth mentioning. We were coming back from a mission, and I was listening to the radio, and heard a B-17 calling that they had their oxygen shot out and had to descend to ten thousand feet or below. There was a cloud cover below them. I was watching them being peppered with "flack" by at least a four-gun battery with bursts coming close. I watched two P-38s come down, fly underneath them, and then, pull up in front. The German radar picked up the P-38s and they led the radar controlled flak a merry chase around the sky while the B-17 went through. Now, I thought, "That's above and beyond!"
Then, one other time, when we were under fighter attack, the waist gunner's gun jammed. There was a clevis locking system by which he could unlock it, swivel the gun in and work on it. He unlocked it, swiveled it in and fixed the jam. We were still under fighter attack, so, he pushed it out the waist window. But in haste, he didn't lock it completely. He started firing the .50-cal., it came loose, swiveled back into the waist, knocked him down and sprayed the inside of our plane. At one reunion, the tail gunner said to me, "Remember the time Bo Cochran almost got me?" I said, "Yes. "When we landed, I went out and looked around. I saw all these flared holes in the aluminum coming out on the left side. I went around to the other side looking for entry holes but couldn't find any. I just looked at Bo Cochran; he looked at me with at me with a big grin, and that was it.
One other thing that I might just mention, when you see movies of aerial combat, there's always a lot of noise, and shouting and yelling. There was none of that on our airplane. There's no yelling and shouting. Everything was done in a fairly even keel-calm. We had a system where, if the pilot wanted me to take over the controls, he punched me in the arm, just to let me know that I had it; then, when I wanted him to take over, I just punched him in the arm. We didn't talk very much. The intercom was used for necessary transmissions only. If it came to bailing out, we just told each other, "You try to beat me out." That was it.
SI: What did your brothers do during World War II?
JH: They were too young. They were in high school.
JH: Yes. There was a four-year gap; both younger brothers were in during the Korean conflict.
SI: After you were discharged, you went to work for Hercules almost immediately. Did you give any thought to using the GI Bill at that time?
JH: Yes, I thought of it. One problem was we were married right after Irene graduated from college in June '46. I did not have all the qualifications at that point to apply to college. I went to Rutgers night school and took math, and languages to meet the acceptance requirements, and started a year later.
SI: Where was the night school located?
JH: Rutgers, on the main campus.
SI: Was it the University College building?
JH: Courses were conducted on the main campus, and when I got those behind me, I applied and was accepted.
SI: Why did you choose to major in economics?
JH: I was interested in economics, history and political science. I did not really have a strong technical bent. I don't think I'd make a good chemist or engineer, even though in my work career I was closely associated with technical areas. I enjoyed my major and did fairly well A couple of the professors offered to sponsor me for grad school, but by then, I was married, had two children and figured it was time to enter the work force.
SI: You lived at University Heights.
JH: First a trailer court across the river and then faculty housing.
SI: From what I have gathered from these interviews, University Heights was practically a veterans' community.
JH: Oh, yes, I felt sorry for my wife because there was no indoor plumbing, no running water in the trailer and she had to cook and heat with kerosene. With a young child, she probably had it harder than I did, but everybody was in the same boat. Everybody enjoyed it and we had a good time, believe it or not.
SI: You could see Rutgers adjusting to the large influx of students.
JH: Oh, yes. You mean the professors and the school itself?
SI: Yes, and that the facilities were strained to their limits.
JH: Yes, I had some courses in temporary buildings on the river. They had war surplus temporary buildings. But, most of my courses were in old homes on College Avenue. The classes were so small land they had them in the living rooms of these old homes. The professors I talked to later on all said it was one of the best times of their lives, because they were teaching people who were serious and older than their years. I was twenty-seven when I graduated.
The veterans were not afraid to speak up and the professors enjoyed themselves, as far as I can tell. We had one class of all veterans; most of us had cars and we'd go out to the park and sit under a tree while he lectured. Another time, we went to the Corner Tavern and drank beer while he held class; everybody was over twenty-one. Yes, I think they enjoyed themselves as much as we did.
SI: What was it like to go to class with a mix of veterans and kids straight out of high school?
JH: For me, it was an eye-opener. I was twenty-three when I started, and to be in a class with a seventeen or eighteen-year-old, it was a big gulf, especially if you'd already been in the service in combat and been out in the world. These were young kids so you could hardly relate to them at all. One other thing I learned is that there were a few just taking their parents for a ride. They were there for a lark and not working very hard. That made up my mind that when if and our children went to school, they were not going to do that, and they didn't.
SI: Before the war, in loco parentis was the rule at Rutgers, but that rule quickly fell by the wayside with the arrival of the veterans.
JH: Oh, yes. there was none of that. There was no handholding. There may have been for the young beginners, seventeen-eighteen but, I didn't see any of that for the veterans. My wife was a very studious person, who would stay up all night studying for exams. I was the type that took short very cryptic notes, and then, try to remember the concepts. I had an exam in one of the advanced economics courses. Of course, she took an interest in my education. I studied for about an hour the night before. For the exam I sat on the aisle. In a short while the professor came down the aisle and gave me a little poke and asked me to meet him out in the hall. He said, "You got an A, get the hell out of here." I went home and I told my wife, "It was too hard," I couldn't do it.
SI: Can you tell me about the jobs you held while working your way through school?
JH: I had gone through mechanical apprenticeship in Hercules and right after my freshman year I went to a local J&J plant and applied for part-time summer work. After filling out the application, I talked to the personnel manager for about ten minutes. She called the chief engineer. He came in and talked to me for about five or ten minutes and said, "You've got a job. When do you want to start?" I worked as a mechanic in a J&J plant all summer, and then, when I went back to school in the Fall he came to me and said, "How would you like to work all winter?" I said, "I can't. I'm going to day school full-time." He said, "We'll let you work whenever you want." After school, I worked two or three hours and some weekends. If I didn't want to go in, I didn't go in. This was unheard of in those days.
I had that job, and then, I worked in a night club as a favor to some fellow students. They needed help and asked me to help them out one Saturday. Soon, I was working there on Saturday nights and I was still working at the J&J plant. One night, the chief engineer, who was also the mayor of Milltown, came in with a party and he saw me.. He was shocked to see me working on a Saturday night, when I was working at that plant most days after school. He didn't say anything. On Monday when I went into work, he looked me up and he said, "I didn't know that you had to do that," and he said, "How would you like a transfer into engineering?" I indicated that would make me happy. He said, "Okay, I'm going to give you an increase in pay and transfer you to engineering." He became my mentor. In the middle of the last semester he offered me the job of Plant Maintenance Manager. I told him I wouldn't do it unless I could graduate as a day student. I talked to the Dean. I only had two courses to finish up and they offered them at night. He agreed that I could finish them at night and graduate as a day student. I started working in charge of plant maintenance in the last semester of my senior year.
SI: You were obviously busy with work, classes, and your family, but did you ever have an opportunity to enjoy the social side of college?
JH: No, I didn't have time for that. In addition, to make a little more money, I would usher at football games and other events. We attended concert series and some athletic events courtesy of the GI Bill, but as far as fraternity activities or social clubs, no, there just wasn't time for those. At the trailer court we had our own governing body and social organization. There was a recreation hall where we held dances and parties.
SI: Is there anything else you would like to say about Rutgers before we move on?
JH: Rutgers, at that time, was a highly regarded school and still is. I went there for an education. I think I missed a lot by not entering into the social side. There's probably a lot to be gained by joining in the social activities in a school, but it was just out of the question.
SI: During your first few years at Johnson & Johnson, did you stay in the same position as plant maintenance manager?
JH: No, I changed. They bought a plant in Illinois, and I was promoted to manager. I became friendly with a vice-president of personnel of another company. He offered me a job. I left and went with them and I stayed there twenty-five years at different spots in management, and wound up as Vice-President of Operations. That's the job I had when I retired.
SI: What did you do there?
JH: I started in personnel, went into manufacturing and after a series of management positions, I ended up as Vice-President of Industrial Manufacturing. I was in charge of five production plants, twenty-five hundred people, four hundred million dollar budget. I was involved in a lot of technical operations, even though I was an economics major. I was the only one who was not a chemical engineer to hold that position..
SI: Did your Rutgers education help you at all in your career?
JH: Not in the technical sense, but, I believe in the thinking, social ability, and that sort of thing. I think the military and Rutgers both helped in a variety of ways..
SI: You found that your military experience benefited you later in life.
JH: Yes. I don't know whether you read The Greatest Generation. I think it helped in that you were thrown into responsible jobs at such a young age. You accepted the responsibility and, if you succeeded, you gained confidence. I didn't know I had a brain until I went in the military and started going to courses with college graduates and people who had some years of college. That's the first time I even knew I could think. You learn, you think and then you take a leadership position as pilot. You also realize that you can operate under pressure. So, when you get into the work situation, you're already confident that you can handle almost any situation.
SI: Can you tell me a little bit about your family?
JH: I met my wife, Irene Piech, while we were both in high school. We were going "steady" as they called it in those days. She received a scholarship to NJC and was in the middle of her freshman year when I went into the service. She was a journalism major and editor of the NJC Caellian. She was in the middle of her senior year when I came back and we were married in June, 1946, a week after she graduated.
We have three children. Kimberly was born before I was a freshman in college. We were living in Illinois where she grew up. In Illinois, they had a system whereby the top two high school students in each county were offered a scholarship to the University of Illinois. She was awarded one. She married as soon as she graduated to another Phi Beta Kappa. He was accepted at Yale Law School and they moved to New Haven, Conn. While there, she developed an interest in law by association. She applied to several law schools and was accepted at Harvard. She's now a criminal defense lawyer in Boston.
The second is a son Tim born 1951, a few weeks before I graduated from Rutgers. He went to the University ofIllinois and then in the military. While he was in the military, he was stationed in Georgia and found it to his liking and went to the University of Georgia. He is married. He is a nature writer and has five books published with a sixth in progress. His wife has an advanced degree in science and works in research at the University.
The youngest daughter Eve was born in 1955. When she was in high school, we moved to Bucks County, PA. She graduated from Penn State as an English major and is now an editor and writer, with a keen interest in computers. She married another "Penn Stater" right after graduation, and now they make their home in State College, PA.
We have two granddaughters, Jessica and Melaura, both pretty and very bright. Spoken like a true grandfather.
SI: Is there anything that we did not cover?
H: I can't think of any.
SI: Is there anything else that you would like to put on the record?
JH: No, just at the end of my write-up, I put a little sentence saying I didn't write my service record or give this interview to indicate that I thought I had a rougher time or did more than anyone else in the service. I just wrote it to leave a history for others and our family.
SI: Thank you very much.
JH: Okay, you're welcome.
SI: This concludes an interview with Mr. John F. Homan on July 25, 2002, in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
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Reviewed by Shaun Illingworth 7/5/03
Reviewed by Sandra Stewart Holyoak 7/10/03
Reviewed by John F. Homan 12/6/04