World War 2

World War 2 is probably the best documented event in world history. There are countless stories of individuals, communities, and countries around the world that experienced those times.  It is the intent of this website to tell the personal, the lesser known, and the sometimes untold stories of that war.
Star Photo
Freedom Wall WWII Memorial
Washington, DC

Hope, Survival, and Death: And the WWII Story of 306th Bomb Group Surgeon Thurman Shuller

 

Major Thurman Shuller, WWII 306th Bombardment Group Surgeon, with a patient circa 1943.

 

Born on May 6, 1914, Thurman Shuller was the youngest of six boys born to E.W. and Sarah Shuller on their farm located five miles north of Ozark, Arkansas.

Thurman graduated from high school in 1932 and enrolled in Arkansas Polytechnic College, a two year school in Russellville, Arkansas.  Tuition was five dollars a semester, room and board was twelve dollars and fifty cents per month,  and he earned extra money sweeping floors for twelve and a half cents an hour.  In 1934 he attended Hendricks College in Conway, Arkansas, for one year before being accepted into medical school at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, Arkansas.  [At that time one needed only medical school prerequisite courses and not a college degree to be considered for medical school admission.]  Graduating from medical school in 1939 Thurman did a two year internship at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana.

While in medical school Thurman and seven of his classmates joined the Arkansas Army Reserve.  In the summer of 1941, they were called up for one year of active duty training.  On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  The United States (US) declared war on Japan the next day.  One year of active duty turned into five years for him.

First Lieutenant (1st Lt.) Schuller trained at Randolph Field, San Antonio, Texas, graduated as a flight surgeon, and arrived on April 15, 1942, at Wendover Field, Utah, to become part of a medical unit for the newly formed 306th Bombardment Group (BG) of the Eighth United States Army Air Forces (USAAF).  The 306th BG would fly the B-17 Flying Fortress.  Dr. Shuller was assigned as flight surgeon to the 369th Bomb Squadron.  In August 1942 the 306th BG would begin the move that would take them to their wartime base at Thurleigh, Bedfordshire, England.  Captain (Capt.) Shuller left Wendover for England as the 306th BG Surgeon.  The 306th BG personnel, equipment, and B-17s would arrive at Thurleigh in September.

The 306th BG flew its first combat mission on October 9, 1942, to bomb the metalworks factories at Cie. de Fives-Lille, France.  This mission resulted in the first 306th BG combat death, Staff Sergeant (S/Sgt.) Arthur E. Chapman, a gunner on the 1st Lt. Robert W. Seelos crew.  Chapman lost his left hand and was shot in the chest by an attacking German fighter plane.  S/Sgt. Chapman died October 14, 1942.

When the bombing war began in 1942 for the Eighth USAAF there was no stated number of combat missions a flyer was expected to complete before finishing a wartime tour.  Flight crews were then required to fly until they died, crashed and became a prisoner of war (POW), were wounded or injured or medically removed from flying status, or WWII ended.  

Crew and aircraft losses took a serious toll on morale of flight and ground personnel.  The medics were at the flight line as B-17s returned from missions to care for the wounded and the dead.  The B-17 ground maintenance crews were nearing exhaustion repairing the planes and dealing with the loss of the flyers they knew.  The medics were also encountering serious flight issues such as frostbite and anoxia at high altitudes.  Other medical problems included flying and combat fatigue, flying “jitters,” and the physical and emotional stability of the men.

By early 1943 twenty of the original flying crews and some replacements had been lost.  Major (Maj.) Shuller wrote a letter to General Ira Eaker, 8th USAAF Commander, and requested a limit of 20 combat missions be established after which a flyer would be relieved of flying duties.  The response to his letter did establish a limit of 25 missions.  This change gave flyers a goal and hope that they had a chance to live through the war.

Men and aircraft continued to be lost.  There are some WWII stories that have been told over the decades and may be considered representative of the experiences and emotions felt by flyers and ground crew.  The following is the story of Capt. Raymond Check as told in the book First Over Germany written by WWII 306th BG navigator Russell A. Strong:

“Officers of the 423rd Squadron were planning a party for the night of 26 June [1943] because on this day Capt. Raymond Check, an original pilot and a very popular member of the squadron, would be completing his twenty-fifth mission, along with his navigator, 1st Lt. M. Prue Blanchette.  A short hop over the [English] Channel to an airfield at Tricqueville [France] looked like an ideal run for those winding up tough combat tours.  Because it was Check’s last ride, Lt. Col. [Lieutenant Colonel] J.W. Wilson, his original squadron commander, came back to Thurleigh to fly with him.

 

Lt. William Cassedy (left) and Capt. Raymond Check.

 

Lt. Col. J.W. Wilson.

 

As the crew was preparing for the mission, it was noted that a waist gunner was needed.  Lt. William Cassedy, Check’s regular copilot who had had his seat preempted by Col. Wilson, said that he needed a milk run as badly as the next person and would fly as the waist gunner, a circumstance which proved most fortuitous for members of this crew.  The takeoff of twenty-one planes at 1555 [3:55 pm] was uneventful, and the mission proceeded to Tricqueville under the command of Maj. Henry W. Terry.  Two planes aborted and nineteen were on the bomb run.

Col. Wilson was flying in the left seat and Check was serving as copilot as the nineteen planes turned on the bomb run.  At almost the time of ‘bombs away,’ Check’s plane was hit by 20 mm cannon fire in the cockpit area by a German fighter attacking out of the sun.  One shell exploded just above Check’s head, sending fragments into the cockpit and killing Check instantly, nearly decapitating him.  At the same time a machine gun bullet hit the flare box behind the pilot’s seat and 20 mm fragments punctured the oxygen system.

Check was dead; T/Sgt. [Technical Sergeant]  James A. Bobbett, engineer, was wounded and flames were dancing through the cockpit area, severely burning Col. Wilson’s hands and face.  Bobbett fought the fire and extinguished it.  When flares exploded, the concussion blew open the bomb bay doors and the doorway behind the top turret was filled with flames, reported Lt. Cassedy from his vantage point in the waist.

The alarm bell rang!  Lt. Lionel Drew, bombardier, squeezed between Lt. Blanchette and Maj. George Peck, a visiting surgeon who insisted on flying, and bailed out.  Those in the rear of the plane were preparing to jump when Lt. Cassedy told them to wait while he investigated; the plane was flying all right and the engines at the moment sounded good.  Cassedy pushed through the radio room, across the bomb bay catwalk, crawled through the turret frame and came up between Wilson and the bloody body of Check.  The plane was in a climb and Cassedy reached in and pushed the yoke forward to get a more level flight attitude while he assessed the situation.

Col. Wilson turned to him and motioned Cassedy to take the oxygen mask off his burned face.  Cassedy shook his head that he would not, Wilson had been flying the plane with his elbows as long strands of skin hung off both hands.  Wilson finally forced his mask off, got out of the left seat and went down to the nose where Dr. Peck was.  Sgt. Bobbett had already been there for treatment of his wounds.

Once the way was cleared, Cassedy got into the left seat, trying to ignore the body of his close friend and flying mate a couple of feet away from him.  He began to get the plane oriented for the short flight over the English coast and north to Thurleigh.  Soon Col. Wilson came back to the flight deck and, as the English coast disappeared under the nose of the plane, he motioned for Cassedy to take the aircraft down and land.  Cassedy, a second lieutenant, ignored the hand motions and the implied order and kept the plane churning northward toward Thurleigh.  He reasoned the medical treatment for the wounded would be faster and better at the home station than at some other base.  There were other problems for him to consider as well.  As they closed in on the base how was he going to handle the traffic problem and the landing pattern?

In all of the intense enemy fire, the plane had had its flare gun destroyed, and it was therefore unavailable for signaling.  The radios had also been shot out.  Cassedy did not think the plane was in condition to fly by the tower to convey any messages.  He did not want to get into the traffic pattern already being flown by the other aircraft of the group that had arrived before him.  Nor did he think that to land on one of the short runways intersecting the main runway was the safest way to get to the ground either.  There was another complicating factor in all of this, a human equation that must have run through Cassedy’s mind during these tense moments.  A big party was being planned that evening and among those attending was an American nurse.  Check and the nurse were to be married the next day.  She was in a jeep at the end of the active runway waiting with others for the momentous conclusion of Check’s tour.  Not wishing to bring his planeload of misery to a stop there, Cassedy decided to land down wind, against the incoming traffic and to take his chances.

As he came in on final approach the planes flying in the opposite direction sensed a problem and pulled up.  Cassedy brought his craft in for a smooth landing and pulled off the runway at the far end of the field, away from the waiting crowd.  When the engines wound down and the switches were off, Cassedy raised himself out of the seat and with a long, tearful look at his good friend Check, dropped down into the nose and lowered himself out of the plane.”

In a 2005 oral history interview, Dr. Shuller emotionally recounted the story of his friend, Raymond Check.  Maj. Schuller was in the base emergency room when his friend’s body was brought there.  He said Capt. Check’s funeral was the only one he attended during WWII.

In October 1943 Maj. Shuller was named US 1st Air Division Surgeon and was transferred to Eighth USAAF Headquarters at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England.

The 306th BG flew its last wartime combat mission on April 19, 1944, to the marshalling [railroad] yards at Falkenberg, Germany.  WWII officially ended on May 8, 1945.

When WWII ended the 306th BG reported the following:  38 men were killed in flying accidents after the group left the US, 738 men were killed on combat missions, 855 became POWs, 44 were evadees, 1 escaped a German POW camp, and 69 were interned in the neutral countries of Switzerland and Sweden.

Dr. Thurman Shuller returned to the US after the war ended, completed a residency in pediatrics, and practiced medicine in McAlester, Oklahoma, for 41 years before retiring.

Those who have not experienced war may wonder why WWII military reunions are still held to this day.  Speaking at a 1983 306th BG Reunion in Omaha, Nebraska, Dr. Schuller said,  “We’ve all had a great time the last two days renewing old friendships, reviving old memories, and reliving some of the experiences of so long ago.  Have you ever wondered why we have retained such deep affection for some of our wartime buddies — why periodic reunions at this stage in life can be so meaningful, so much more so than a class reunion, for instance?  Andy Rooney [American radio and television writer], who generally hits us with such everyday and simple truths, has in his book A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney included a piece called ‘An Essay on War’ in which he makes a very thoughtful statement … ‘If war brings out the worst in people, it also brings out the very best.  It’s the ultimate competition.  One lives at full speed finding strength he didn’t know he had, accomplishing things he didn’t know he could do.  Most of us get a warm sense of fellow feeling when we act in close and successful relationships with others and maybe that happens more in war than at any other time’.”

 

 

 

Captain Raymond Check had a WWII US Navy fighter ace brother, Leonard J. Check.  He was killed in a flying accident over the Philippines on January 5, 1945.

 

Dr. Thurman Shuller (left) and William Houlihan, 306th BG medic, discuss their days at Thurleigh while attending a 306th BG Reunion in San Antonio, Texas, in 2005.

 

The WWII experiences of William Houlihan are told in two other stories on this website.  See The Story of WWII 306th Bombardment Group Medic William F. Houlihan  and  Last Flight of a B-17 Named “Combined Operations”: And Emily Harper Rea.

Thank you to Dr. Vernon Williams, Military Historian and Director, East Anglia Air War Project for access to his 2005 interview with Dr. Thurman Shuller.  For more information visit East Anglia Air War Project.

Thank you to WWII 306th BG Historical Association Historian Cliff Deets and Board members Nancy Huebotter and Deborah Conant.  Further information about the WWII 306th BG can be found at 306th Bomb Group Historical Association.

WWII era photographs used in this story are in the 306th BG Historical Association Collection.