|John 'Des' Howarth, courtesy Stephen Hutton|
John 'Des' Howarth turns 94 years old on Wednesday February 28th. These writings are his own. I am including them with his permission in celebration of his birthday and to honour all he achieved as a USAAF Navigator on a B-24 Liberator assigned to one of the world's first Electronic Warfare Squadrons stationed in England - 36th Bomb Squadron, 8th Air Force, known as the 'Gremlins'. He served in one of the 'Squadrons of Deception', their full story told in my firm friend Stephen Hutton's book of the same name.
Des served in Lt McCarthy's crew and was in Lt Boehm's B-24 'Beast of Bourbon' when it crashed on February 19th 1945 (see previous posting). In this story Des illustrates the stark reality of war and how those such as he woke to each new day not knowing if it might be their last ...
RED FLAG OVER ENGLAND
A yellow beam of light shot across my face. Half awakening from the fantasies of a dream, I imagined the dawn breaking over Lake Huron. It was pleasant to dream without a care in the world. But suddenly, with a sickening realization of the truth, I was fully awake. I knew this was not dawn. It was still dark. It was not Lake Huron. It was Cheddington, England, and I was going back to work. I wanted desperately to go back to the world from which I had just come and never return to reality.
I looked from the glare of the flashlight and into the face of my tormentor. I recognized it vaguely as that of the CQ.
'Time to get up Lieutenant Chapman. Briefing is in 45 minutes,' he stated without emotion.
Gradually, I remembered the red flag outside the Orderly Room last evening. Another mission! For a moment, I neither moved nor spoke. Hate was welling within me. I tried to hate the young Private who brought me these good tidings, for disturbing my serenity. But I knew I didn't just hate him. He was too insignificant. I knew I hated everything. Especially I hated reality. The thought of it was nauseating.
I acknowledged him without thanks. No matter; he had already moved on to the next bed. I glanced at my watch. Three minutes to five. In the opposite cot Mac, with whom I'd lived for almost a year now, had switched on his feeble light. For a moment, I reflected on the fates that had forced us together, he as Pilot, me as Co-Pilot.
In civilian life I knew our paths would probably never have crossed. We were of different types, background and interests. A couple of years older than me, he had been a machinist in civilian life, evidently with few outside interests. While he didn't fraternize with the crew much, even on 'Ops' he treated them with respect and 'chewed them out' individually only when it was deserved. While he often seemed ready to let off steam towards the war, the Army, and its bureaucracy, he seldom used profanity and would not tolerate its use by any of the crew.
Being only Co-Pilot, it was hard for me at first to get used to the idea that it was Mac's show. But he could fly an airplane, handled the crew well, and had courage. He deserved to be sitting in the left seat.
Our Orderly was having a little trouble in waking Wally, our Bombardier, before moving on to Si's and Gordon's beds, both members of Sullivan's crew, before walking out into a foggy night with his torch cutting a path through the darkness. There were twelve of us living in these Nissan hut barracks. In seven beds the occupants slept on, a few restlessly. Wally rose slowly, muttering some epithets to no-one in particular. Like me, he had been in College when he joined the Air Corp and we had been together on Mac's crew even before leaving the U.S. Sometimes, when we had infrequent Leave, we went into London together. Luke, our Navigator, was one of those fortunately still sleeping. He wasn't going with us today, having been grounded for some respiratory problem. The fourth Officer on our crew and the oldest, he was pretty much a loner, but was a team player once we left the ground. His proficiency regarding his job was never in question.
'Lucky Devils', growled Mac, nodding to the other recumbent Officers in the hut. I didn't bother to answer. I dressed quickly, leaving on my sweater and socks in which I slept. It was too cold to sleep without them. Picking up my towel, toothbrush and soap, I hurried out into the blackness, sloshing my way through mud, heading for the wash room. It was barely visible by a crack of light slipping through the black-out windows. Inside, the glare of the dingy overhead light again made me wince. Wally was already washing. He muttered a curse about the temperature of the water. I turned the tap and drowned my face in the frigid liquid also. It bounced off the flat concrete basin and cascaded down the front of my pants to my disgust. I tucked a towel under my belt to catch the shower.
Mac entered, followed by Lt. Sandburg, Pilot of 'Rambling Wreck', and Wally. Sandy attempted to be humorous, but failed.
'Got your diversion kits ready, men? We probably won't get back to this field for a week!' It was too early to be funny, and with the weather we'd been having, there was too much truth in what he said.
'We'd better get back this week', warned Wally, knowing there was really nothing he could do about the situation. 'I've got a date with a cute little brunette in London.'
'We'll be back,' exclaimed Mac in a threatening tone, 'if we have to come home by chute. Nothing's going to stop us from coming into this field!' His remark was sarcasm directed at Sandy. They didn't get along very well. Mac wanted it understood who was the better Pilot.
We grabbed our bikes and peddled down the hill to the Mess Hall, four of us following Wally's light. Above us, stars appeared through a transparent haze like tiny pearls, although the horizontal visibility was less than twenty feet. The muteness of the sky was pierced by the increasingly loud drone of bomber engines overhead. Possibly it was one of the Mosquito Squadrons of the RAF which were returning from their nightly visit to Berlin. The Mess Hall was warm, but hardly cheery. My feelings toward the place were shared by all. The food was rotten. It had been ever since we'd been pushed out of the 'Grounders Office Mess' into the so-called 'Combat Aircrew Mess'. Their excuse was that this Mess would be serving better food and be open all hours. None of us had been gullible enough to believe it. We knew who would continue to eat steaks twice a week and chicken on a Sunday. The situation hadn't been helped any when a little runt - a former Infantry loouie - who was about as useless as a feathered prop, was put in charge of our menu.
Breakfast was lousy as usual. The powdered eggs tasted exactly like powdered eggs. I washed down the doughy pancakes with coffee - rancid as only G.I. coffee can be - and peeled an orange for dessert. We all ate in silence, too fed up with the food and apprehension of the mission to talk.
The three Officers of our plane 'Lady in the Dark', Mac, Wally and I, parked ourselves in our allotted row of chairs in the Briefing Room. In spite of a capacity crowd, it was cold and hellishly damp. On the side, there was a stove, highly inoperative. Up front was a large map of northern Europe, stretching from Brittany to central Russia. Dangling from a point located just above London were several colored ribbons.
'Where we going this time, Mac?' asked Wally. 'Any ideas?'
'Naw', Mac growled. 'Luke will tell us when he comes in.' Navigators always had a pare-Briefing before the full crews.
'Luke isn't flying with us today. I thought you knew. Been grounded for a cold or something,' I informed him.
Mac, never in a sociable mood in the morning - especially after getting in at midnight - was ready to blow his top. Under his breath he let out an oath.
'Why don't those fools in Operations use their heads instead of fouling up things this way? Who in the hell is navigating for us today?'
'Probably one of those new guys,' guessed Wally, whose tone indicated that he had no confidence in any of them and was resigned to his fate.
One by one our enlisted aircrew entered the Briefing Room. Jerry, our Tail Gunner and Jackson, our Radio Man, sat down beside Wally. Jerry had sworn he was twenty-two, but his bashful grin and youthful actions still made him the kid of the crew. He would never be more than eighteen, even if he lived to be a hundred. In many ways, he was simple. The crew kidded him mercilessly about his capacity for beer, his love of money and his faithfulness to Peggy back in Cleveland. Everyone liked Jerry. Perhaps unknowingly, they saw in him all that their complicated lives lacked.
Jackson, now a Staff Sergeant, had always gone around with Wally and me despite his Army rank. He'd been in College too. Then he'd gone into Cadets, only to be washed out as a Pilot because the Instructors said his nerves couldn't stand the strain of flying.
'Where we going? Lieutenant?' Jerry asked, his boyish smile making him look drunk.
'Marienburg in East Prussia', Wally lied with sarcasm.
Lindy looked puzzled. His knowledge of geography was negligible.
'That's near Russia', explained Jackson, catching Wally's wink.
Sergeant Mike Gregory, our Engineer, who had been dozing; sat upright. He said nothing of his obvious fear.
'Damn! We'd better not be going to Marienberg!' snarled Mac. 'We're due for a milk run'. Sergeant Waist Gunners Freeman and Bailey slid into their chairs as Major Kelly called Roll, read ship assignments, and gave out Call Signs. Adams, Turret Gunner, as usual was late and barely got into his seat beside the other Gunners when Kelly called his name.
'That's the last time that's going to happen!' threatened Mac, glaring at Adams. 'You'll be here when Briefing starts ... or else!'
Although Adams was somewhat of a screw-up, I personally winced at the rebuke. If I'd had to squeeze myself into that death trap of a belly gun, freezing my tail for several hours, knowing that if our plane got in trouble I'd be the most vulnerable of the whole crew; I probably wouldn't show up at all. I'd probably be a screw-up too.
The Navigators, busy until now making Flight Plans, entered the room. Ted Chavez, a rookie with fewer than five missions, came over to Mac.
'I guess I'm flying with you today.'
'O.K.' answered Mac, unenthusiastically. 'Where we goin'?'
Chavez moved into a chair next to me.
'Target's Magdeburg', he muttered.
Mac gave a slight shudder and swore softly. We all felt the same. Magdeburg was no damned 'milk run'. With a green Navigator, it would be even rougher. I could feel Mac inwardly cursing everything in general, and Operations in particular for saddling us with Chavez on a deal like this. Luke had flown 21 missions with us. He had even led the wing once or twice. Even though he might not have been the best Navigator in the Squadron, there were nine members of our ship 'Lady in the Dark' who were ready to challenge that he was.
After he got through, Morris, Head of Intelligence, took over. Morris was a dapper little guy, just boosted to the rank of Captain. No-one ever knew how he got into Intelligence, but there were rumors. Wally let out the story that he'd seen Morris selling shoes in one of New York's smaller department stores, and Morris hated him for it. But Wally said he wasn't kidding and Morris did hail from New York City. Personally, I didn't like him. But at times I felt sorry for him because he wanted to be one of us. He was too stupid to realize that he never could be. He strutted to stage center of the Briefing Room and gave his well-lubricated hair an affectionate pat. His tone was that of a third-rate coach asking his boys to 'win this one for the Gipper'. He spoke of us as 'we'. After Briefing, he'd go back to the sack till noon.
'Today's mission will probably be a little rough. Our target's an oil storage depot just south of Magdeburg,' Morris stated in a matter of fact manner. 'Little rough'. Translation: 'a lot of you guys won't be having dinner with us this evening, and for many others, you've probably had your last meal!' 'This will be an all-out effort for the Eighth today. We're sending up 1250 bombers and about 200 fighters. So you see, we'll get plenty of protection.'
There were a few smothered sneers from the crews. Morris made no recognition of hearing them.
'Form over Ipswich at six-fifty hours. The route is from Clacton to Heligoland. Then you cross the enemy coast just below Cuxhaven. From there, your heading is 90 degrees to the IP which is the town of Oschersleben, fifteen miles west of the oil depot. After bombs are dropped, you return the same route, coming out at Cuxhaven and Heligoland, the same way you went in. You'll be screened until you're six degrees east. by that time, you should be at bombing altitude of 21,000 feet. You will probably still see fires burning from RAF raids last night. They sent 700 Lancs and Halifaxes to Hamburg. They also sent 80 Mosquitoes to Berlin. If you stay within five miles off course you won't have any trouble with anti-aircraft batteries. Any questions?'
I wanted to ask him if he was kidding, but realized there was no point. Morris conveniently didn't make any mention of those damned Messersmitts and Focke-Wulfs who were a hell of a lot more of a problem than the flak!
Metro was about as encouraging as could be expected. There was a high pressure area centered around the Wash. That meant there was no chance of the fog getting blown off. We probably would be diverted to Scotland when we got back. That was always good for a laugh! After flying a mission for six or seven hours, you'd come back trying to get in. We'd often be sweating it out as to whether we'd have enough fuel and then would often have to jockey for landing instructions with five or six planes always in priority because of dead or injured crew or damaged aircraft. Diversion meant we'd fly another couple of hours to some Base in the remote regions of the British Isles. It would probably be an RAF Base - they always were - which meant we'd get their lousy food and go without sleep for another few hours.
Today's mission would have to be an instrument take-off. We all knew what that meant! That was getting to be tragically monotonous. Hardly a mission without a ship blowing up at the end of the runway. Hell, what a picnic! Upstairs, the weather was supposed to be good until we crossed into Germany. Then we'd probably catch the tail-end of a front. No matter what Metro said, we were always certain of flying in the soup all the way in December.
Outside, we threw our equipment on the truck and rode out to the 'Lady in the Dark'. A biting wind whipped itself with fury against the canvas covering of the truck as if in protest at our disturbing the now-approaching dawn. We stood around smoking. Gregory and Jackson checked the ship while the Gunners tested their guns. Up front at his station, Chavez was already at work. It was still half an hour before we were to warm up the engines.
'Bombs are all set', said Wally to Mac, in a matter-of-fact manner. Deadly as our payroll could be, it wasn't something most of us thought about a great deal. Then he bummed me for a smoke.
|'Lady in the Dark', courtesy: Stephen Hutton|
'Bombs are all set', said Wally to Mac, in a matter-of-fact manner. Deadly as our payroll could be, it wasn't something most of us thought about a great deal. Then he bummed me for a smoke.
'This kid know anything about navigating?' Wally asked, nodding to Chavez' compartment in the nose.
'I dunno. Probably not,' I answered. 'None of these new jokers are worth a damn. Hope to hell he can read that Gee-box.'
'Can you?' he asked, somewhat pointedly.
'Sure, in a pinch. Luke checked me out on it. Nothing to it', I lied. The Gee-box was accurate and could literally bring the plane within a few hundred yards if the Navigator knew his stuff. Unfortunately, I'd never taken the opportunity because it looked too complicated.
Overhearing our conversation, Mac muttered: 'Dammit, he'd better not foul up!'
It was seven twenty-eight when we got the green light from the caravan. Mac shoved the throttles forward. 'The Lady' lurched ahead, gathering speed as it rocketed along the runway. From my window, I could barely see the wing lights. The runway lights were so engulfed in fog that I couldn't see from one to the next - a distance of about sixty feet. Gregory called out the airspeed. We were running out of runway. At 125, Mac pulled back on the stick, and we were in the air. How he pulled her off in time I'll never know because those engines were obviously laboring. We staggered to fifty feet and I saw the end of the runway below. Then for a nightmarish moment the ship leveled off. Mac hit the throttles again and I got the gear up. We resumed climbing and thankfully all four engines smoothed out to their usual cadence. I glanced at Mac. He was sweating. So was I.
'Take her over for a while, Chappie', Mac asked quietly. 'We're o.k. now.' He sat back and relaxed.
We formed over Ipswich. At Clacton, we were at 17,000 feet. Metro for a change had been right. We'd been flying for almost an hour and a half and hadn't left England. Mac had taken the wheel again. We were flying number four position, in the slot above and behind Obenshane in 'P-Peter'. Mac was welcome to the job of jockeying this boxcar behind that Wildman. I took it for granted that Mac would make no mistakes.
We altered course five miles west of Heligoland. Five minutes more we were almost over Bremerhaven. The formation was right off course. I pointed the fact out to Mac. He leaned over toward me to see.
'Pilot to Navigator', he called over the intercom.
'Navigator to Pilot. Go ahead', Chavez replied.
'What town is that ahead?' asked Mac.
'Just a minute and I'll check.' A pause ... and then, 'Yeah, I guess we're south off course a little', answered Chavez without conviction. There was too much hesitation in his voice.
Another ten minutes went by without the formation changing heading. The undercast was now almost ten-tenths. Occasionally there was a break. Wally called out a town to our right.
'What's that town, Navigator?' growled Mac. There was no immediate answer from Chavez.
Wally finally answered. 'I think it may be Hanover, Mac.'
'No, I don't think it was Hanover', interrupted Chavez. 'I think we're just north of Munster'.
Mac just sat there, shaking his head without responding. There was no doubt who Mac would believe. Wally had been over Hanover before.
The argument was forgotten by the first puffs of flak. I remembered how fascinated I had been the first time I had seen the stuff. It was like tiny balls of black cotton bursting on a bluish-white background. Only now I realized it as grim and deadly, without beauty. At first, it was ineffective. Then it struck. One moment Thompson was on our wing, the next his ship was spiralling drunkenly towards the earth, half a wing torn off. I watched until it plunged through the billowy undercast. There were no chutes. I almost heaved.
We were first hit half an hour from the IP. Number two engine was knocked out and caught fire. I cut the switch, but she continued to burn and the prop was windmilling, so I had to feather it.
'Everybody put your chutes on, but don't jump unless I tell you', Mac shouted over the intercom, adding a few epithets for emphasis. His voice was calm, but his face belied it. 'Jackson, Bailey, help Adams get out of his turret', he ordered solicitously. 'Jerry, get back in the Waist', he added.
Surprisingly, 'The Lady' aircraft was flying, even if we did start falling behind the group. Then, in a short few minutes, a second burst came up through the nose, cutting a hole the size of a pumpkin. My plexiglass shattered. I was sure we'd had it. Mac and I were both shaken up, but evidently uninjured. Then I thought of Wally and Chavez. Both probably had been hit. I hardly noticed that the fire in the engine had burned itself out.
Mac, getting his bearings, barked over the mike: 'Everybody o.k.? Anybody hurt?'
'Yea, Chavez', Wally replied. 'Somebody please come down here and help me with him. He's hurt bad and can't function.'
Gregory grabbed a walk-around bottle and started for the nose. Then we got hit again, this time in the rudder. It was a losing battle.
'Wally, do you have any idea where we are?' Mac asked pleadingly.
'Not a clue, and I think that damned Gee-box has been knocked out. Besides, it won't work this far east anyhow,' Wally grimly admitted.
In spite of her wound, 'The Lady' remained airworthy and Mac somehow kept her on course. I knew Mac pretty well. He wasn't thinking of turning back, but he wanted to. Without a Navigator, he had no choice but to stick with the formation. It wasn't easy to go on, knowing that Chavez might die if we did. He might die anyway. Mac sat there expressionless. I thanked God I was only the Co-Pilot. I don't know whether I'd have guts enough to keep on to the target if I were in Mac's seat.
We got to Magdeburg, but we'd lost altitude. Wally had missed the IP, but still salvoed the bombs with the rest of the formation. On the way back, miraculously we ran into little flak. Mac pushed 'The Lady's' three engines to their limit, hoping we'd have enough gasoline to at least get to the coast. The aircraft kept dropping, however, and Mac and I together had to fight the rudder all the way.
Like a condemned man waiting for the switch, we staggered along, expecting fighters or flak to finish us. It seemed like we'd flown hours after leaving Magdeburg; actually it was less than one. On the horizon was the coastline. We crossed at 11,000 feet. I had prayed we'd get there. Now I swore because we were being allowed to escape. The North Sea in winter would be a worse fate than a Stalag Luft. Below, the black waves hurled their defiance at us. In those icy waters we might survive fifteen minutes if lucky.
We tossed everything we could overboard in an effort to retain altitude. It was useless. At 6,000, I called 'Mayday', telling air-sea rescue that we'd have to ditch and gave them our approximate position. I realized that probably wouldn't help too much because it was only approximate, but they took a bearing. I begged the Lord that it might work this time, remembering how several members of the crew had scoffed at the chances of ditching a B-24. We all felt Mac was the one man who could do it.
While the Rear Gunners quickly assumed their ditching positions against the rear bulkheads, Gregory and Jackson went below to help Wally bring up Chavez from the nose, which was an almost impossible feat. He had to be passed along the nose wheel in its retracted position and then, without any of them falling off the bomb bay catwalk, hoist him onto the flight deck. I couldn't help them because Mac needed me to help him drop 'The Lady' in the drink. Compared to what the three of them had gone through with Chavez, our job would be a piece of cake.
I envisioned either being killed when we hit the water or drowned in trying to clear the wreckage. Together we got the plane leveled off. I could see the waves almost lapping at the fuselage. Mac picked out a trough and set 'The Lady' down. We must have still been doing a hundred when we collided with the seemingly immovable object. Then the roof caved in. I don't remember unlatching my seat belt, nor anything else in particular; but I was gasping for air as I must have floated to the top of the cockpit. Gregory and Jackson were pulling me up through the top hatch when I came to. Wally and Mac somehow had pushed Chavex into our yellow rubber which was already inflated. Bailey and Adams were swimming towards it. Finally regaining my bearings, I found a piece of wreckage and shivering uncontrollably, tried to hang on to it in the frigid water. Jerry, probably badly injured, floated around beyond anyone's reach. Gregory wanted to go after him, but to try was suicide. Wally swore at our inability to help Jerry. Jackson sobbed unashamedly. Moments later, Jerry simply dropped out of sight. None of us spoke. There wasn't much you could say when you lost a guy like Jerry.
In less than fifteen minutes, somehow air-sea rescue found us and picked us up. It was quick enough to save Adams and Freeman from exposure, and Bailey whose leg was broken. But Chavez died before we got back to England.
Early that evening, three of us: Mac, Wally and I, walked into the Interrogation Room. Captain Morris extended his hand like a Lodge brother in greeting. We all ignored it, but stood at attention, wanting to get the ordeal over with.
'Heard you fellows had a pretty rough time. That was tough, losing those two boys', said Morris condescendingly. Yeah, we could tell his heart was bleeding!
'Yeah, it was rough', agreed Mac.
'Well, damned glad you made it. You had us worried', admitted the Captain, attempting to be affable. I could see him worrying. At the bar in the Officers' Club he'd been sweating it out. I was sorry we'd worried him!
'Let's see,' he fumbled. 'You got to the target all right?'
'Yeah', snapped Wally.
'What bombing altitude?' He questioned us about bombing, weather, turning points. We didn't know most of the answers and didn't care. But we gave him a good story. Morris continued his questioning, but it was obvious he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.
'Where did you see the greatest concentration of flak?' he asked, trying to conclude this most trying task.
'From the time we crossed the enemy coast going in till we crossed it on the way out,' Mac snarled.
Morris started to laugh, expecting another answer, but realized Mac wasn't trying to be funny. Mac glared at him in defiance. I felt foolish for forgetting to count the flak bursts every five minutes. It was the Captain who concluded with one final question:
'I don't suppose you've got Chavez's Log, have you?'
Wally surprised us all. He reached into his flight jacket and produced a crumpled, blood-spattered sheet and tossed it on Morris' desk. The Captain's face discolored. He didn't like the sight of blood.
'Thanks', he mumbled. 'That's enough, I guess.'
We started to leave.
'Oh Mac, I almost forgot', called Morris. 'I know you'll be happy to learn that you've been recommended for the DFC. The rest of the crew will get another Air Medal. I'll do all I can to expedite them', he said, smiling importantly.
Mac turned toward him in disgust, as if to swing. Wally caught his arm and pushed him through the door into the corridor.
'Why that ...'
'Forget it, Mac', Wally interrupted. 'The poor slob is just plain stupid.'
'And they offer you a medal; so everything's all right!' muttered Mac.
We trudged slowly towards our Nissen hut.
Outside the Orderly Room, the red flag was up again.
These writings offer a vivid and clear insight into wartime conditions and the dark face of war. Des survived against the odds. Even reading this one experience out of so many clearly illustrates his courage and commitment, his sheer grit and determination, and the close connection of his crew. At 94 years old, I believe this is something we need to remember and reflect on. While I'm sure all readers will join with me in wishing Des Howarth a very special birthday.
|Louis McCarthy's crew, including Des Howarth. Courtesy: Stephen Hutton|
WE WILL REMEMBER THEM!