A Warrior Delivered

Memories of the Air War In the China-Burma-India Theater

As told to Charles T. Whalen, By his father, Charles D. Whalen (1913-1994)

In Memory of my father, Charles D. Whalen (1913-1994)

Served in the Second World War, in the U.S. Army Air Forces, from January 11, 1943 until October 29, 1945. He held the rank of Technical Sergeant, and served as the flight engineer and aerial gunner on a B-24 (Liberator) bomber. He served overseas in the China-Burma-India Theater, with the 10th Air Force, 7th Bombardment Group, 9th Bomb Squadron, from February 27, 1944 until January 2, 1945. His combat record included 47 combat missions, and 413 hours and 25 minutes of combat flying time. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and the First Oak Leaf Cluster to the Air Medal. These are his stories.

Taps

My father, Charles D. Whalen, died on New Year’s Day 1994. In accordance with his wishes, he had a military funeral conducted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. An honor guard of nine old soldiers, all veterans of World War II, and none less than 70 years of age, paid tribute to their “fallen comrade”. At the cemetery, accompanied by the sound of Taps, three volleys of rifle shots cracked in the cold January air, as the old soldiers fired a final salute. World War II had been, without a doubt, the most significant event of my father’s life. He had done his duty. He had faced death at an early age. He had experienced things that set him apart from other men. His wartime service in 1944 was the basis for stories and anecdotes which he told, and retold, for a half century afterward. He often said he could write a book about his experiences, but, of course, he never did. For his grandchildren, and those that come afterward, I have tried to remember him, and to recall some of his stories.

My Father

Charles D. Whalen was born in Chicago, Illinois, on October 26, 1913. He was the son of Thomas E. Whalen (1886-1934) and Jennie Grace Atherton (1889-1970). My father grew up in Chicago’s “Back of the Yards” neighborhood, southwest of the Union stockyards. He attended Catholic schools. He graduated from Mt. Carmel High School in 1931. His first job (1931-1933) was at the Corn Products Co. in Argo, Illinois. He worked in the “oil house”, cleaning the oil press. From 1933 to 1938, he held various jobs at the Koller Brewing Company, of which his father, Thomas E. Whalen, was founder and president. From 139 to 1940, he worked in the Johnson and Johnson factory at Clearing, Illinois. In 1940 and 1941, he was a “special policeman” for the Union Stockyards Transit Co. On July 17, 1941, he started work as a railroad switchman at the Chicago River and Indian Railroad Co. Five months later the Japanese attacked at Pearl Harbor. A year later, my father was drafted into the Army. Although he could have obtained a deferment, since the railroad industry was considered a vital defense industry, he entered the United States Army on January 11, 1943.

I have written the stories and anecdotes which follow, using narration in the first person as a literary device. Over the years, I heard my father repeat many of the Stories, with the details sometimes varying from repetition to repetition. I have used quotation marks in the few instances where I am quoting from letters my father had written to my mother.

Training for Air Combat

Thirteen months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on January 11, 1943, I began service with the U.S. Army Air Forces. For several years before entering the Air Corps, I had been interested in flying. I had taken flying lessons, and had held a civilian pilot’s license. The previous year, I had also completed a four month course in airplane mechanics and electrical systems at the Tilden Defense School in Chicago.

I had been married about 6 months when I went into the Service. I would see my wife, Rita, only a few times during the next three years.

From January to July of 1943, I was stationed at Keesler Field, near Biloxi, Mississippi, where I attended basic training, and a 19 week course in airplane and engine mechanics. At Keesler, I received the second highest grade in my airplane mechanics class.

My next post was Laredo, Texas, where, from July to September of 1943, I attended a six week aerial gunnery school.

In November of 1943, I was sent to the 331st Combat Crew Training School, at Casper, Wyoming, for 3 months of combat crew training. For the first time, I met the members of my crew with whom I would serve overseas.

The combat crew of a B-24 bomber consisted of ten men. On our crew, I served as both flight engineer and top turret gunner. The top turret of a B-24 has two .50 caliber machine guns, each capable of firing at a rate of more than 800 rounds per minute.

The other members of our crew were:

Flight Officer John G. Zehren, pilot
2nd Lt. John J. Folander, co-pilot
2nd Lt. Robert J. Crosson, navigator
2nd Lt. Charles G. Reisinger, bombardier
Staff Sgt. Ira K. McClanahan, radio operator (waist gun)
Sgt. William Bettarel, armorer-gunner (belly turret)
Sgt. John A. Hyatt, asst. engineer-gunner (waist gun)
Sgt. George J. Lawrence, armorer-gunner (nose gunner)
Sgt. Thomas A. Lawson, armorer-gunner (tail gunner)

After completing combat crew training in February of 1944, our crew received orders for overseas service in the China-Burma-India Theater.

India

Our crew left Miami, Florida for service overseas on February 23, 1944.

Our air route to India took us by way of Bermuda, the Azores, Casablanca, Tripoli, and Cairo. We finally arrived at Karachi, India on February 27, 1944.

We were to become a part of the Tenth Air Force. The Tenth Air Force had been established on February 12, 1942. Its area of operations included India, Burma, Thailand and the Bay of Bengal.

When we arrived in India, the Tenth Air Force was commanded by Major General Howard C. Davidson. A West Point graduate, Davidson had been stationed in Hawaii, at Wheeler Field, at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Using heavy bombers based in India, the Tenth carried out its mission of disrupting Japanese supply lines in Burma by bombing targets such as railways, bridges, airfields and ports. During the two years from April of 1942 to March of 1944, the Tenth had lost 75 planes in aerial combat, and average of about three a month.

After five weeks in Karachi, we received orders to report to the 10th Air Force’s 7th Bombardment Group (9th Bomb Squadron).

At full strength, a heavy bomb group, included 48 B-24 bombers, divided into four squadrons, 293 officers and 1,497 enlisted men. (In 1944, the 7th Bombardment Group included the 9th, 436th, 492nd and 493rd Bomb Squadrons.)

The Tenth Air Force was then headquartered in Bengal, at Pandaveswar. Pandaveswar airfield was about 50 miles northwest of Calcutta, near the town of Asanol.

About a week after I arrived in India, while I was still at Karachi, the Japanese Army invaded India.

The Tenth Air Force’s Area of Operations In the China-Burma-India Theater

Lashio

We arrived at the Pandaveswar airfield on April 11, 1944. Ten days later, on April 21, we flew our first bombing mission – to Lashio. Lashio, in north Burma, was an important railhead. It formed the southern terminus of the Burma Road, which linked Burma with China. Prior to the Japanese occupation, the Burma Road had been the main route of supply for China. At Lashio, we dropped twelve 500 pound bombs. For the first time, we saw bursts of flak from the Japanese anti-aircraft guns below.

Yenangyaung

Next, we bombed Kongyi on April 29, dropping forty 100-pound demolition bombs. Then, on May 1, we headed for the oil fields at Yenangyaung. Yenangyaung had been a key British defeat during the British Army’s long retreat from Burma in 1942. As at Lashio, we encountered heavy flak. This time our ship was hit in the nose by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. Despite being hit, we were able to return safely to Pandaveswar.

I can recall now a few of the meager precautions by which we were prepared for the possibility of being shot down in occupied Burma. While flying over Burma, I carried with me a piece of silk cloth. This cloth was imprinted with an American flag, and the following message:
Dear Friend, I am an Allied fighter. I did not come here to do any harm to you. I only want to harm the Japanese and chase them away from this country as quickly as possible. If you assist me my government will sufficiently reward you when the Japanese are driven away.

This message was printed in 17 different languages. Burma was a land of many ethnic groups, each with its own language, so the message I carried included translations into the Burmese, Kachin, Karen, Shan, Chin, Tamil and Malay languages.

I also carried a money belt which contained opium. I was told that the value of the opium was between $40,000 and $50,000. Opium was used as a kind of local currency in certain tribal areas. If my plane was shot down, I was authorized to use the opium to buy my way to safety.

The button of my flight jacket concealed a small compass, intended to aid my escape should I be captured. I also remember that once we were instructed that, if we were shot down, we should go to a particular cemetery, and dig up a certain grave. This grave was supposed to be stocked with a cache of food, water, guns, maps and a compass.

Myitkyina

In May of 1944, Myitkyina was the northernmost major Japanese garrison in Burma, as well as the site of a Japanese airstrip. In early 1944, Lt. General Joseph W. Stillwell, theater commander for China-Burma-India, made plans for a ground attack on Myitkyina. His goal was the reopening of a land route from India, through Burma, to China.

On May 10, 1944, as Stillwell’s forces were driving toward Myitkyina, we made a bomb run in which we dropped four 500 pounders and sixteen 100 pound demolition bombs. During the bomb run, we received flak from a battery of four anti-aircraft guns.

After Myitkyina, we flew four missions in 9 days. On May 20, we bombed Yenangyaung for the second time. On May 25, we hit the Naba Junction. On May 27, we were back again at Yenangyaung. On May 28, we made three bomb runs at Kaleymo before dropping twelve 500 pounders.

Mergui

On June 8, 1944, we left the airfield at Pandaveswar for a mission to Mergui. Mergui was a strategic port in the Tenasserim region, sough Burma’s long narrow tail which runs along the border with Thailand. Our mission was to mine the harbor at Mergui.

The route from Pandaveswar to Mergui was about 900 to 1,000 miles, much of it over open ocean. Never before had we flown to far from our base. Taking off from Pandaveswar, our crew was part of a squadron of twelve B-24s, all headed for Mergui. We took off at five minute intervals. On route, eleven of the twelve planes in our squadron turned back. Alone, we reached the target.

When we arrived at Mergui, the target was covered by heavy clouds, billowing up from the ocean below. I looked out the waist window of our ship, and I couldn’t see more than a distance of three or four feet. We approached the harbor flying at very low altitude. We dropped down to about 400 feet above sea level.

In the harbor I saw two Japanese submarines. We began to take fire from machine guns. Tracer rounds made the machine gun fire coming in look like a “fire hose”. We dropped our mines in the harbor, and then headed home on a 1,000 mile flight to our base in India.

As we crossed the Bay of Bengal, heading back to India, nightfall came. Then, suddenly, all of our navigational equipment malfunctioned. We continued to flying, in the pitch black night, without instruments. The sea below provided no familiar landmarks to guide us home. We were soon lost.

Not only were we lost over the ocean, but, after our longest flight, we were also running out of gas. We set a course based on a random guess as to the direction that led home. All we could do was to hope and pray.

Finally, on the morning of June 9, we made a landfall and found our way back to Pandaveswar. Our flight of nearly two thousand miles had lasted 15 hours.

The haunting terror of being lost over the ocean at night was something I would never forget. One night, 45 years after the war, I awoke from a nightmare, having relived in my dreams this mission to Mergui.

Flying the Hump

“The 7th Bomb Group had halted bombing missions after June 11th, and from 20 June through September, its B-24s were used to transport gasoline to forward bases in China.” - Kenneth C. Rust, Tenth Airforce Story…In World War II, (Historical Aviation Album, 1990), p. 32

A week after Mergui, our squadron’s base was moved forward from Pandaveswar to the airfield at Kurmitola. Kurmitola was located in East Bengal, about 150 miles NE of Calcutta. Kurmitola was near the city of Dacca. We were stationed at Kurmitola from June 15 until October 6, 1944.

On our arrival at Kurmitola, the nature of our missions changed. Up to now our missions had centered on the strategic bombing of Japanese supply lines in Burma. Our new mission involved the resupply of Major General Claire Chennault’s 14th Air Force in China.

The famous “Hump” airlift, from India, over the Himalayas, to Kunming China, had begun in 1942, after the Japanese Army had captured the Burma Road. The capture of the Burma Road had cut off the only land route by which China had been supplied with war materials. During the course of the Hump airlift, more than 600 planes were lost, and 1,000 men were killed.

From mid-June until late September of 1944, we “flew the Hump”. Our usual route was from Kurmitola, over north Burma, to Chennault’s headquarters in Kunming, in the south China province of Yunnan. This route is sometimes called the “Low Hump”, to distinguish it from the “High Hump” route from Assam to Kunming. Depending on the weather, flying time from Kurmitola to Kunming was about 5 hours.

Any illusion that we had about the relative safety of our new air transport mission was shattered when, on our first trip back from Kunming, we again ran up against flak at Wuntho.

During the summer of 1944, our crew did plenty of flying in China. On 32 of my 47 missions, we either took off, or landed at airfields in China. Besides Kunming, we sometimes flew down to Liuchow and Nanning, both forward bases of the 14th Air Force in east China. Liuchow and Nanning would later be overrun by the Japanese, during the culmination of the Operation Ichigo offensive in November of 1944. Other missions took us to the airfields of Luliang, Chenkung, and Yenkung, all in China.

Kunming

During the summer of 1944, gasoline was the most precious commodity in China, more precious than gold. Every ounce of gasoline needed to keep Chennault’s fighters flying in China had to be flown in from bases in China.

Our plane carried 2,342 gallons of gasoline in its main fuel tank. We also had an auxiliary tank which held 450 gallons, and a bomb bay tank which held 790 gallons. That made a total of 3,583 gallons.

Our first mission to Kunming was on September 2, 1944.

“On September 2, the Tenth AF launched an even two dozen B-24s hauling fuel to Kunming. Two days later with heavy rain thwarting most combat operations in the Tenth AF’s area of responsibility, 24 B-24s carried 32,000 gallons of fuel to Kunming. The next day 21 Tenth Liberators again flew fuel daily to the city, a service they kept up daily through September 12.” – Frederick A. Johnsen, B-24 Liberator, p. 49.

Whenever we flew air transport missions to Kunming, any gas not needed for our return flight to India was siphoned off into the storage tanks at the Kunming airfield, for later use by the 14th AF in its air war in China.

The ground crew at Kunming used to measure the gas needed for our return flight to Kurmitola by putting a long stick into our main fuel tank. This measuring stick had markings which showed how many hundreds of gallons were in our main fuel tank.

As the flight engineer for our crew, I had devised my own system for double checking the accuracy of the fuel measurements done by the ground crew. In the pocket of my flight jacket, I carried a long piece of paper. Back in Kurmitola, I had made markings on the paper, which were identical to those on the stick used to measure the fuel in our main tank.

At Kunming, just before our scheduled return flight to Kurmitola, I checked the markings on the ground crew’s measuring stick against the markings on my piece of paper. They didn’t agree.

When the bottom of the measuring stick was lined up with the bottom of the paper, the markings on “paper” and the “stick” might have looked something like this:

“paper” 2500 [ 2000 [ 1500 [ 1000 [ 500 [
“stick” 2500 [ 2000 [ 1500 [ 1000 [

If the stick said we had 1,000 gallons of gas in our main fuel tank, the paper I carried said we had less than 500 gallons.

On this particular mission, I flew with a crew that I had never flown with before. I was substituting for their regular flight engineer who either sick or on leave. This was the only mission (out of 47) where I didn’t fly with my regular Lt. Zehren and the crew I had trained with Stateside.

No one at Kunming had ever heard of my procedure for double checking the accuracy of the ground crew’s fuel measurements. It wasn’t “in the book”. I insisted on going to another B-24 and checking their stick against my paper. The measurements checked out.

I went down the line to the next two planes, with the same result –their fuel measurement sticks checked out against the marking on my paper.

Now it seemed clear what had happened. Someone had sawed off a piece at the bottom end of our fuel measuring stick. Instead of giving the true measure of the gas in our main tank, our shortened stick had overstated the amount of gas in our main fuel tank by hundreds of gallons.

Ha we taken off on the return flight to Kurmitola, we would have been short, by hundreds of gallons, of the amount of gas needed to get home safely. After running out of gas in mid-flight, our fate would have been a crash landing in the mountains of Burma.

Who cut the stick at Kunming remained a mystery. I have always believed that it was a Japanese sympathizer intent on sabotage.

I was back at Kurmitola a short time when Lt. Zehren sent a jeep over to my barracks. The drive asked me to report to Zehren at the Officers Club. Zehren told me that because of the incident at Kunming, I was the talk of the Kurmitola airfield. The markings on my piece of paper had saved ten lives, including my own.

Not long after, we were in Kunming again. Zehren was approached by two American flyers whose plane had gone down in China. They asked Zehren for a ride back to Kurmitola. Zehren referred the decision to me. As flight engineer, I made the decision not to take the two flyers with us. I couldn’t justify the added risk of the extra weight as we flew back over the mountains of north Burma.

Sometime later, I heard that both of the flyers were killed, when the next flight out of Kunming crashed. For a long time afterward, I felt responsible for their deaths. (In 1990, I watched my father cry as he recounted this story.)

Moulmein

By the old Moulmein Pagoda lookin’ lazy at the sea, There’s a Burma girl a settin’ and I know she thinks of me; For the wind is in the palm-trees and the temple-bells they say; Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay. - Rudyard Kipling, Mandalay

October 10, 1944 –

By early October, I had completed 43 missions, and in six months, had accumulated 370 hours of combat flying time. Back at Pandaveswar again, we now returned to our earlier mission of strategic bombing in Burma.

“With the beginning of October 1944, antishipping activities were stepped up with a series of heavy raids directed against the docks and jetties of Moulmein.” - The Army Airforces in World War II, vol. V., p. 237

The target for our first bombing mission since Mergui was to be Moulmein. Moulmein was Burma’s second largest port. It was second only to Rangoon. Located deep in occupied south Burma, Moulmein was an especially dangerous target. Our approach to Moulmein would take us to within proximity of at least 5 Japanese airfields.

The flight from Pandaveswar to Moulmein would be over 700 miles. “Range is the determining factor in the employment of fighter planes as escort for bombers.” (An attack on a target 500 miles away normally requires at least 4 separate fight escort missions.) – The Official Guide to the Army Air Forces, pp. 272-73.

Because this was a long range mission, we would have no fighter escort. Our fighter support would be limited to “intruder raids” to strafe Japanese airfields during the two weeks prior to our mission.

Against anticipated Japanese fighter attacks, our squadron could only rely on each B-24s armament of eleven .50 caliber machine guns. For a week before the mission our squadron practiced flying in formation.

During a pre-flight briefing, we were told that the odds of reaching the target and returning alive were “one chance in a thousand.” Ever after, I referred to Moulmein as a “suicide mission”.

Before takeoff, our commander came out to the tarmac and asked each of us if there was anything he could do for us. Then he told us that, if our bombs reached the target our lives would be “paid for”. This cold calculation of the value of human life was something I never forgot, and something I never forgave.

Taungup

On October 29, just ten days after the “suicide mission” to Moulmein, we bombed a supply depot at Taungup. This was my 45th mission. Again, our plane was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire.

Pangtonpheong

On November 7, we flew mission #46. We were ordered to blow up a railway tunnel, which ran through the side of a mountain, at Pangtonpheong, Thailand. An hour and a half after we left Pandaveswar, a radio message canceling the mission was sent. We never received this message. We flew on to Pangtonpheong. Zehren made repeated passes at the target, flying at very low levels (300 feet). He was trying to position us so that Charlie Reisinger, our bombardier, could lob a bomb into the mouth of the tunnel. We took small arms fire from the ground.

v “I have 403 combat hours and don’t know when I’ll be through.” I’m showing signs of combat fatigue. I have the shakes. I write home, trying to make light of it:

“If I don’t get away pretty soon I’ll be able to shake up a cocktail without even trying. Looks like they will make a damn good bartender of me.” - Quoted from letter, dated 10 November 1944

Hninpole Bridge

November 23, 1944. We had an escort of 35 freighters on route to bomb the Hninpole Railroad Bridge, east of Rangoon. Flak again.

“Don’t look like they will ever stop flying me. I’ve got 413-1/2 hours of combat time. [At Pandaveswar] there isn’t another enlisted man that has 400 hours and yet there isn’t any let up.” (Quoted from letter, dated 25 November 1944) Out of all the crews at four airfields, only seven men have more than 400 hours.

Lucknow

December 1 – 14, 1944

In December, I received a two week furlough to Lucknow. We went up to Lucknow by train. Lucknow is the former capital of the Kings of Oudh, who were deposed by the British in 1856. During the day, we rented bicycles, and toured various historic sites.

I remember in particular the Husainabad Imambara, known as the “Palace of Light”. I also visited the “Residency”, where the British had been besieged during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The Union Jack flew from a turret of the Residency. Until India gained its independence in 1947, by custom and tradition, the Residency flag was the only flag in the Empire that was never lowered day or night.

Every night we went out for drinks and a steak dinner, except for one night when we dined on peacock. Ever since arriving in India, I have been hungry.

I remember one night our crew was in a bar, and, as I was about to order a round of drinks, I noticed a solitary Indian drinking alone. I told the bartender to give him a drink. This was my one and only encounter with royalty, as he turned out to be an Indian Maharajah. He spoke very good English, and spent some time telling me about a trip he had once made to Chicago.

Brits

Although I served in India during the last days of the British Raj, I had only few contacts with the British in India. The reception I received from our British allies was mixed.

As a member of the U.S. Army, we were sometimes resented by the ordinary British soldier because of our higher pay. I remember an incident in a Lucknow restaurant where a British NCO angrily lectured us on the evils of the American habit of over-tipping Indian waiters. We were spoiling India for the Brits.

I also recall meeting a young English boy who insisted on taking me home to meet his parents. His parents were missionaries. Long afterward, I would remember the cool reception I received when the boy’s parents learned I was a Catholic.

As an American soldier in India, I was told to steer clear of politics, and to remember that our mission in India was to keep China in the war against Japan. However, in later years, recalling my time in India, I would say that Mahatma Gandhi was one of the two greatest men of my lifetime.

Gurkhas

The airfields where our squadron was stationed were guarded by Gurkhas, mercenaries from the mountain kingdom of Nepal, who served in the Indian Army. The Gurkhas have been called “quite simply the finest infantrymen in the world.”

Whatever my feelings about the British, my admiration for the Gurkhas was without reservation. One of the most prized souvenirs of my year in India is a Gurkha knife, called a kukri.

According to tradition, a Gurkha never unsheathed his kukri without drawing blood. I remember how, after showing us their kukris, the gurkhas used to cut their own fingers to draw blood…so that their knives would be bloodstained when they returned the kukris to their scabbards.

The Gharry-wallah

One day I hired a guide who drove me around Lucknow in a gharry, a kind of horse-drawn cab which is peculiar to India. While riding in the gharry, I was approached by a group of beggars, all of them children.

One in particular was a girl, about ten years old. She had sunken eyes, and her body was covered with sores. In her arms, she held a baby. I reached in my pocket and took out a large handful of coins. I gave the coins to my gharry-wallah (driver) and told him to distribute the coins to the children, but to give the most money to the little girl with the sunken eyes.

After the gharry-wallah distributed the coins, I motioned to the little girl to show me what she had received. She unclenched her fist to reveal just two small coins of the lowest denomination.

I remember flying into a rage and grabbing the gharry-wallah by the throat. As I held him in a choke hold, I forced him to empty his pockets and throw all of his money on the ground. The children scrambled to pick up the coins strewn on the ground.

A Hindu Temple

This incident led to one of my most vivid and exotic memories of India. To make amends for his attempted theft, the gharry-wallah proposed to take me to see a certain Hindu temple. This offer carried with it the thrill of the forbidden, since Moslem mosques and Hindu temple were off limits.

As we entered the temple, I saw a Holy Man swathed in a loincloth, seated on a cobblestone floor. As he mumbled his prayers, his attendants sprinkled the floor with water and flower petals.

We climbed the stairs to a second floor where the faithful appeared to be worshipping stone statues, called “divas”. Then we went up another flight of stairs to a room where I saw jewel-encrusted idols of Hindu deities, which were surrounded by “lace curtains” made of gold.

In Lucknow, I had been staying in a hotel managed by a Russian émigré. He had been in India for about 12 years. When I returned to my hotel, I told the Russian about my visit to the temple. The Russian told me that he had never been allowed inside this temple. The British were not allowed inside. No white man was allowed inside.

Thereafter, my afternoon’s adventure lived on in memory as a visit to a “Hindu Temple, which no white man had ever seen before”. Although I later went up to Agra and saw the Taj Mahal, I always recalled more vividly my experience of the Hindu Temple.

Home

Two weeks after Lucknow, my tour of duty overseas came to an end. We left Pandaveswar for Calcutta on December 29, and arrived in Karachi on New Year’s Eve. I left India, forever, on January 2, 1945.

We stopped over at Cairo for 5 days. At Cairo, I was 30 minutes from the Great Pyramids, but found myself too exhausted to make the short trip to see them.

We continued on, by way of Tripoli, to Casablanca. My only memories of Casablanca were of the cold North African nights, and the difficulty I had in finding an extra blanket. From Casablanca, we flew to the Azores, Bermuda and then to Miami. We landed in Miami on January 11, 1945.

I had never expected to come home alive. I still had the shakes. I remember that when I first got back to Chicago, I was in a tavern, and someone bought me a shot of whiskey. I was shaking so badly that I spilled it all, before I could get the shot glass up to my lips. I remember that, without saying anything, the bartender poured me another shot. This time, the bartender used a beer glass instead of a shot glass.

Chanute Field

After returning from overseas, I was stationed at Chanute Field, at Rantoul, Illinois. On weekends, I was able to go home to Chicago to see my wife, Rita. After just six months of marriage, the War had separated us two full years. At Chanute Field, I completed a 10 week airplane electrical mechanics course. From May to October of 1945, I stayed on at Chanute Field as an Airplane and Electrical Mechanics instructor.

I was discharged from Service on October 29, 1945.

John Zehren

“Not a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’s consent.” - Matthew 10:29

Lieutenant John G. Zehren and I flew 46 combat missions together. Not long after the War, I took a trip to Appleton, Wisconsin, Zehren’s hometown, and tried to look him up.

I found his home, and rang the doorbell. A woman answered. I introduced myself and asked for Zehren. “Were you one of Johnnie’s men?” the woman asked. The woman was Zehren’s mother.

On June 6, 1945, a sparrow had fallen to the ground. Mrs. Zehren told me that her son had been fatally injured in an airplane crash at Courtland Airfield in Alabama. Zehren had crashed just 4 months and 26 days after his return from overseas. He had been 25 years old.

A Warrior Delivered

“The Lord brings to naught the plans of nations; he foils the designs of the people…
A King is not saved by a mighty army nor is a warrior delivered by great strength…”
- Psalm 33

By any rational calculation according to the laws of probability I should have been dead in 1944. During 47 missions, our ship had come under fire from Japanese anti-aircraft batteries 11 times, and had been hit twice. 600 planes had crashed on the Hump. I had flown the Hump to China 22 times. In letters home to my wife, I always lied about how I had a safe job, but I never expected to return to her alive. Yet my life was spared and delivered.

I always felt that some intervening cause had been at work in the many strange occurrences by which my life was spared. I remember that after one mission, we were coming in for a landing when there was a malfunction of the mechanism by which the nose wheel was lowered. Fire engines and ambulances lined the runway.

If we had attempted a crash landing, the odds were that our ship would have thrown up sparks igniting our fuel tanks, resulting in a fiery explosion. In flight, I tried every procedure “in the book”, and every procedure I had learned in training to repair the nose wheel mechanism. Nothing worked.

Then I remembered a casual conversation I had, stateside, with a young airman. He had told me that his brother worked in a defense plant which manufactured B-24s. The young airman’s brother had described to him the assembly of the nose wheel mechanism, and a procedure for lowering the nose wheel that wasn’t in any of our manuals. With nothing to lose, I tried the procedure which the young airman had heard his brother describe. It worked. The nose wheel locked into place, and we landed safely.

During my year overseas, I experienced many other strange occurrences which made the difference between life and death. My life had been saved when I found the fuel shortage at Kunming. Returning from Mergui, without instruments, we had made a “lucky” guess as to the course that led home. On other occasions, during pre-flight checks of our ship, I detected potentially fatal mechanical problems by means which I could not explain to myself.

What cause delivered me, and for what purpose, remain things beyond my understanding. I believe that the Lord has purpose which we cannot understand.

Epilogue

My father was discharged from the Army on 29 October 1945. Two weeks later, on 15 November 1945, he returned to his job as a railroad switchman at the Chicago River and Indiana Railroad Company. He would work at the railroad for the next thirty years, until his retirement in January of 1975.

I was born September 9, 1946. When I was older, my father would tell me that he had hoped for the birth of a daughter. He knew that if he had a son, someday, that son might have to go to war. The deaths of 60 million people in World War II had settled nothing. There would always be wars.

In February, 1969 I was drafted into the Army. In the spring of 1970, I received orders for Vietnam. I remember my father told me that, if he could, he would take my place.

During the summer of 1979, my mother and I made plans for a family vacation in Ireland. My father steadfastly refused our invitation to join us, until the last moment, when he was that for three weeks he would be left home alone. On the day of our departure for Ireland, my father complained incessantly about everything – the traffic, the travel time to the airport, the wait for check in at the airport gate, the seats on the plane.

Finally, as our plane taxied down the runway and began its takeoff, my father looked out the window and remarked, “I guess this isn’t so bad. At least this time they’re not shooting at me.”
The day was August 12, 1979, the first day my father had been in an airplane since 1945.

In December of 1994, my father was hospitalized for what would be his final illness. The events of 1944 were long past. Two weeks before he died, as he lay in his hospital bed, my father turned to my mother and said, “I’m not going to do any more killing.” The words were his final act of remorse and repentance for his deeds as a warrior.

9th BS Personnel

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