Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Veteran's Day


Leather patch of the 561st Bomb Squadron of the 388th Bomb Group.

My father entered the Army Air Force in January 1943. The flight records in his folder show training flights at Gulfport Army Air Field MS from July to October 1944 and Hunter Field GA in October 1944.

The next record is from December 1944 at an unstated location for "8th, 3d Air Div, 388th, 561st". We know from other records now public that he was at RAF Knettishall in Suffolk County, England. Technically a Royal Air Force base, it was used exclusively by the United States Army Air Force's 388th Bombardment Group from June 1943 to August 1945. Its only other use was for a few years more as British army supply base. There is a monument at the site.

Peter Brennan flew 33 missions from Knettishall, from November 16, 1944 to March 29, 1945. His role was togglier in a B-17 "Flying Fortress" aircraft. The togglier sat in the glass nosecone, next to the navigator who was behind and to the left. He released the bombs, and he also had a forward-pointing gun. This late in the war, my father said, the Luftwaffe were almost gone, so almost all the enemy fire was from anti-aircraft guns on the ground.

He is sometimes described on paper as a bombardier, and on a rare occasion that he talked about it, he said that technically the lead plane in the formation had a bombardier who determined when to drop, and that the toggliers in the other planes just dropped when they saw lead plane drop. A few days ago I got a better description from Dick Henggeler, 388th Bomb Group historian:
A bombardier was an officer who was able to use the Noden bombsight. A toggilier was able to arm and release the bombs manually. In the group the bombardier in the lead plane released his bombs using the bombsight. All other planes released their bombs when they saw the lead ship release.

The bombsight was very complicated to use and required a lot of training. It actually took into account air speed, ground speed, altitude, and humidity. The bombardier actually flew the plane on the bomb run remotely. I am sure that it is easier to tell people bombardier (which they could understand) rather than toggelier.

The Good Conduct Medal.
It is awarded for exemplary behavior, efficiency, and fidelity in active Federal military service. It is awarded on a selective basis to each Soldier who distinguishes himself or herself from among his or her fellow Soldiers by their exemplary conduct, efficiency, and fidelity throughout a specified period of continuous enlisted active Federal military service, as outlined in this chapter. There is no right or entitlement to the medal until the immediate commander has approved the award and the award has been announced in permanent orders. — Army Regulation, Military Awards
Peter Brennan's 33 missions are all listed on the 388th web page.

There's always more to the story than a list of data. The longest gap he had was between December 31 and Jan 20, a full 18 days. Any reason? Yes.

The December 31 mission, his tenth, was a bad one. Co-pilot Stevens was killed in action. Ball turret gunner Martin and waist gunner Sevy did not fly again. This must be the mission my father told my brother about once. He said only he and the pilot came back in good shape, and that he helped carry out a dead crew member.

He and engineer Huntzinger reappear in a new crew on January 20, and tail gunner Woods joined them January 29.

The crew they joined, Edelman, hadn't had it easy either. They crashed on January 5, apparently in Germany, attributed to flak. None died. Three men became POWs and did not fly again, but they survived the war. The six others are listed as "evadee" but that word is all we get from the available record. Did they get out together? How? Whatever happened, they were not all back in action until February 15. They were put together into their old crew as they became available for duty. The three men from the SmithO crew, including my father, replaced the POWs.

The plane from the December 31 mission, now flown by another crew, met its end in a crash on January 20, and the men were all taken as POWs.

The Air Medal.
The Air Medal is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the U.S. Army, will have distinguished himself or herself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. Awards may be made to recognize single acts of merit or heroism, or for meritorious service... — Army Regulation, Military Awards

The exact requirements for this medal varied. To some degree the "meritorious achievement" was measured by ships and aircraft destroyed and by number of missions flown in combat. The relevant example was that the Eighth Air Force Third Bombardment Division defined the criteria in April 1944 as six "Bomber, Bomber-Fighter, Photographic, Air Transport, or Observation sorties with distinction" for the medal, and then an oak leaf cluster for each six additional sorties.

At the completion of his tour my father had the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters, which makes five awards. As stated on a typed document dated April 4, the dates follow his missions 6, 12, 19, 28, and 32. Characteristically, I feel, he did not bother to attach the oak leaf clusters to the ribbon! Allowing for delays, the six awards correspond to the first 30 missions completed "with distinction".

My father completed 33 missions. The standard by this date was 35, and you better believe the men counted those missions. My sister has the paper where our father wrote out each mission, one per line, make that one per numbered line. There wasn't going to be any mistake!

Of the original Edelman crew, two had reached 35, three 34, and one 33. The three added to replace the original crew POWs, including my father, were at 33, 33, and 30. I suppose the commander could have kept most of them around to see if they could fill in another mission or two with other crews, but there must not have been enough need. And besides the main reason they weren't all at 35 together was that six of them had "evaded" after a crash and the other three had escaped serious injury from flak. They'd done enough.

But my brother recalls our father being astonished. As he told my brother, when they came in after the mission and were told that their tour of duty was complete, he felt the need to point out to the officer that he had only 33. And when told again, he actually repeated that he had only 33, causing the officer to firmly say he was all done. And then he said to my brother, still not believing it some sixty years later, "but I only had 33!".

More information at the 388th BG Association web site.

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