War Dogs Come in Different Sizes: The WWII Story of a Yorkshire Terrier Named Smoky

Smoky document

 

Smoky in a military helmet in New Guinea in 1944. Photograph John Aikin.

 

 

Information about Smoky from her Wikipedia page.

 

[The WWII New Guinea Campaign in the Pacific Theater of Operations lasted from January 1942 until August 1945.  In 1942 Japan invaded the Australian Territory of New Guinea (January 23) and the Territory of Papua (July 21) and overran western New Guinea, part of The Netherlands East Indies, in late March of that year. The Japanese occupation of New Guinea, north of Australia (see map below), was a strategic threat to the Allies and to Australia.]

On September 5, 1943, the Allies began an airborne operation to capture Nadzab, New Guinea.  It had an important airfield which became a major Allied air base in New Guinea.  The operation began with a parachute drop by the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the US Army and the Australian Army 2/4th Field Regiment.  An overland route to Nadzab was taken by the Australian 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion, 2/6th Field Company, and B Company Papuan Infantry Battalion.  After capturing and preparing the airfield an Allied transport plane landed the next day.

This story about Smoky and William “Bill” Wynne begins in New Guinea in 1944.  Smoky’s travels with Bill during the war took her from New Guinea, to Australia, to Biak Island, to the Philippines, Okinawa, and Korea.  When WWII ended Bill “smuggled” her back to the United States (US) (more on that later).

Follow Smoky and Bill’s WWII journey on the map below.

 

Map marking the journey of Smoky and Bill Wynne during WWII in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Map provided in Bill’s post-war memoir titled Yorkie Doodle Dandy.

 

Bill Wynne was drafted in 1943.  He trained with the US Army Air Force (USAAF) as a aerial photographer and attended mapping school.  Bill’s unit left for Australia on a Liberty ship in December 1943 and arrived in Brisbane, Australia, later that month.  On December 21, 1943, Bill with hundreds of other soldiers left Australia on the Steamship (SS) Contessa, an ironclad wooden ship, which transported them to New Guinea.  He was assigned to the aerial photography laboratory of the Fifth USAAF, 26th Photographic Reconnaissance (Photo Recon) Squadron, Hollandia Airfield Complex at Nadzab, New Guinea.  In April 1944 Bill was selected to fly combat as a aerial photographer.

[During WWII the 26th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron moved from Australia to New Guinea; to Mokmer Airfield, Biak Island, The Netherlands East Indies; Lingayen Airfield, Luzon, Philippines; Kadena Airfield, Okinawa; and Kimpo Airfield, Korea.

Photo Recon planes, unescorted with no armament for protection, photographed Japanese military installations, coastal defenses, harbor facilities, and airfields to provide vital information for the planning of Allied operations.

Reconnaissance aircraft were nicknamed “Spies in the Sky.”]

In March 1944 Bill Wynne’s tentmate, Ed Downey, was driving on a primitive jungle road near Hollandia when his Jeep broke down.  As he worked under the hood he heard a strange noise coming from the surrounding jungle.  While investigating the sound he found a little dog scratching in the dirt at the bottom of a foxhole.  He brought the dog back to the base and gave her to Hollandia Airfield mechanic, Sergeant Dare.  When Bill visited Dare and saw the dog, he offered him two Australian pounds for the dog.  Dare replied Bill could have the dog for three Australian pounds.  Bill was debating with himself how he would care for the dog in that environment, and he left.  The next day Sergeant Dare, carrying the dog with him, went to the photo lab where Bill was working and offered to sell the tiny dog to Bill for two Australian pounds, the equivalent of $6.44 in US dollars at that time.  Dare said he needed the money to get back into a poker game.  This time Bill, an ardent dog lover, said yes.  Bill decided to call her Smoky.  And so began a lifelong “partnership” between Bill Wynne and a dog named Smoky.

Taking care of a dog during wartime and in a jungle environment like New Guinea was challenging.  After adopting Smoky, Bill would give her daily baths in his helmet to keep her free of ticks and other insects.  With no dog food to feed the dog, he discovered Smoky liked bacon, ham, eggs, and bully beef (canned hash).  

But many at the Hollandia base continued to wonder where the dog came from, and how did she get there.

Whenever Bill talked to Smoky, she got very excited.  He tried out several words and names to see how she responded; names/words such as Sport, Rover, Christmas all got her excited and turning in circles.  Bill started teaching her commands and tricks; she was very smart and learned quickly.  Bill and Smoky began putting on shows for people at the base.  He took the dog with him most everywhere, and they became a team.

In 1944 a military publication Yanks Down Under had a contest to select “The Best Mascot of the Southwest Pacific Area.”  Smoky won! This recognition would be very helpful later. 

In July Bill woke up with a 105 degree fever.  He was taken to the US 233rd Field Hospital in Nadzab.  He was diagnosed with dengue fever (a mosquito-borne tropical disease).  While in the hospital Bill’s friends smuggled Smoky in, and they presented Bill with the announcement of Smoky’s contest win.  A few nurses discovered Smoky; Smoky won them over, and they asked to take her on rounds to “cheer up” the patients.  But the hospital commanding officer had to give his permission.  [The commander was Dr. Charles W. Mayo. His family was one of the founders of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.]  Dr. Mayo saw how the dog brought smiles to all who saw and interacted with her; her fame as the newly crowned “best mascot” was helpful also.  While Bill was hospitalized, the nurses would pick up Smoky (who was allowed to sleep in Bill’s bed) every morning to go on rounds and would return her to Bill’s bed at the end of the day. 

After Bill was discharged from the hospital, his squadron doctor, Dr. Beryl D. Rosenburg, offered him some recuperative leave in Brisbane — with Smoky, of course.

While in Brisbane, Bill was asked by Barbara Wood Smith, Assistant Field Director, with the American Red Cross to take Smoky to the US Navy 109th Fleet Hospital to visit the patients. This was the first hospital where they put on a planned show; they performed in eight wards that day to the delight of all the patients and hospital staff. Barbara also asked if Bill and Smoky would visit the patients at the Brisbane US Army 42nd General Hospital.  They performed in 12 wards there.  The little dog brought smiles and joy to her audiences of injured, wounded, homesick, and war-weary troops.  

In September 1944 Barbara Wood Smith wrote a thank you letter to Cpl. (Corporal) “Smoky” on American Red Cross stationery:

Dear Cpl. Smoky:

It has been several weeks now since you visited our hospital and I suspect that by now you and Bill are back at work.  You should certainly feel a nice warm glow of satisfaction at all the pleasure you brought to the patients here at our hospital.  They enjoyed your visit so much and are still talking about you.  Some of them are boys who have lain in bed for months and have gotten very tired of looking at nothing but four walls and other sailors.  We all know that laughter is something that helps people get better and you certainly administered enough of it here to improve the health of any number of our boys.

May we congratulate you for being that almost unheard of combination — a lady artiste without temperament! You entertained in eight wards that one afternoon and seemed just as full of energy and just as obliging at the end of your tour as at the beginning.  The boys particularly liked your “dead dog” act and the way you jumped up and streaked after Bill when he gave you the word.  We think that you’re a wonderful morale builder and we hope that you’ll have the opportunity to entertain a lot more boys later on, go back to Bill’s home in Cleveland and carry on the good work there.

There’s always a welcome for you here, where you and Bill will be pleasantly remembered.

Sincerely, and with thanks from all of us,

Barbara Wood Smith

Assistant Field Director

[American Red Cross letter dated September 19, 1944, © Smoky War Dog LLC]

After two weeks in Australia,  Bill returned to his squadron which had moved to Biak Island after its capture from the Japanese.

[The Battle of Biak (see location on map above, just north of New Guinea) May 27 – August 17, 1944, was an Allied victory and resulted in the capture of a strategic airfield from the Japanese.  The airfield was renamed Mokmer Airfield.  It was of vital importance as the Allies prepared for the invasion of the Philippines.]

On September 16, 1944, Bill accepted an assignment that would take him out of the photo lab and into the air flying with the 3rd Emergency Rescue Squadron looking for downed pilots.  On his first mission he flew in a Stinson L-5 Sentinel. The small plane crew was a pilot and a photographer. The aircraft sometimes flew 50 feet above the ground as they surveyed battle sites.  They found a crash site, circled it three times, saw that the plane had dived into the ground, and a tree had ripped off the cockpit.  Bill took photos as proof of the crash and that there were no survivors.

 

Stinson L-5 Sentinel. Photograph olive.drab.com.

 

When Bill returned from his first mission and the dangers of this type of flying were revealed to his friends, they asked Bill who would get Smoky if he never came back.

On Bill’s second and future missions he (and Smoky) flew in a PBY Catalina.  The usual Catalina crew was comprised of a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, engineer-mechanic, radio operator, and two medics.  Bill and Smoky were crew additions.  Bill explained that Smoky was a mascot and would bring them good luck; the crew had no problem with Smoky.  Smoky flew inside a canvas musette bag (a type of knapsack); she sometimes ran around the plane when there was no combat/rescue action.

 

PBY Catalina “flying boat” taking off in 1942. An amphibious aircraft used in reconnaissance, search and rescue, anti-submarine warfare, convoy escort, maritime patrol, and cargo transport.  On combat missions the crew called the aircraft “Cat” and “Dumbo” in an air-sea rescue. Photograph worldwarphotos.info.

 

In Bill Wynne’s memoir Yorkie Doodle Dandy written after WWII he recounted a mission that one could say is “luck” during wartime.  He and Smoky were already in the plane.  The mission was to rescue six downed men floating in a raft.  At the last minute a decision was made to send an extra medic instead of a photographer.  Bill would hear later that the aircraft and the men in the raft had disappeared. Bill counted his blessings.

As WWII progressed the next base for the 26th Photo Recon was the Philippines.  It was Smoky’s help here that Bill said she went from a pet companion to a war dog.

 

Smoky enters a 70 foot culvert running underneath an airstrip runway at Lingayen Gulf, Philippines, in January 1945. Photograph huffpost.com.

 

Communication lines needed to be strung under a runway at Lingayen Gulf, Philippines.  It was estimated that without this successful endeavor using Smoky to pull a line through the culvert it would have taken about 70 men digging for approximately three days to accomplish the job and would have shut down the airfield to Allied planes.  With daily air attacks by the Japanese the lives of many men could have been lost.  Smoky completed the job in about three minutes.

After WWII Bill Wynne recounted the story in an appearance on NBC-TV:

“I tied a string (tied to the wire) to Smoky’s collar and ran to the other end of the culvert . . . (Smoky) made a few steps in and then ran back. `Come, Smoky,’ I said,  and she started through again. When she was about 10 feet in, the string caught up and she looked over her shoulder as much as to say `what’s holding us up there?’ The string loosened from the snag and she came on again. By now the dust was rising from the shuffle of her paws as she crawled through the dirt and mold and I could no longer see her.  I called and pleaded, not knowing for certain whether she was coming or not. At last, about 20 feet away, I saw two little amber eyes and heard a faint whimpering sound . . . at 15 feet away, she broke into a run. We were so happy at Smoky’s success that we patted and praised her for a full five minutes.”
When his duties and time permitted Bill would take Smoky to hospitals to visit with the patients.  They would also put on shows for people living around the base and children’s groups wherever the 26th Photo Recon was based.

 

Smoky visits the US Army 120th General Hospital in Manila, Philippines, June 1945. Left to right: hospital patient, Smoky, American Red Cross worker Barbara Wood Smith (she wrote the letter to Smoky as posted earlier in this story), and Bill Wynne. Photograph huffpost.com.

 

The 26th Photo Recon Squadron moved on from the Philippines to Okinawa and then to Korea.  

On November 1, 1945, the squadron got orders to return to the US from Korea on the USS (United States Ship) General William H. Gordon.  One problem — the rumor (or truth?) was that US Army regulations stated no animals will go back to the US on a War Department ship.

Bill knew he couldn’t leave Smoky behind.  He devised a way to bring Smoky (hopefully undetected) aboard the ship in an oxygen carrying case.

 

Smoky hidden in an oxygen carrying case. Photograph William A. Wynne Photography Collection, Special Collections, Cleveland State University.

 

Smoky made it on board; she never barked, and the bag was not inspected.  Bill found a top bunk in a corner (the bunks were stacked five high).  The next morning, after 5,000 men had been loaded on the ship, there was an announcement that the man who brought a dog on-board needed to report to the troop office.  Bill did not respond to the announcement; he found out later that another man, his friend Randall with his dog Duke, had responded to the order. Randall was ordered to remove Duke from the ship.  But as luck would have it, as Randall was leaving the troop office a member of the ship’s crew approached him and said he would hide Duke in the hold of the ship; the sailor said he was already hiding two dogs and could fit in one more.  

On high tide the ship set sail for Washington state from Inchon Harbor, Korea.  At the start of the voyage the ship encountered rough seas, and Bill got very seasick.  Bill spent days sick in his bunk.  Men from the 26th would sneak Smoky to the upper deck for “potty” breaks; they would form a ring around her as they walked on the deck to keep her hidden.

Then came another announcement that men onboard who had brought dogs or monkeys on the ship needed to report to the ship’s office NOW.  Still feeling sick Bill made his way to the troop office and was surprised to see five other “guilty” men there.  

Bill retreated to his bunk and vowed to keep Smoky hidden.  But a US Navy officer looking for someone else discovered the dog.  The officer asked if the dog was registered to be on the ship. Bill said “no.”  An hour later he was called to report to the ship’s office.  Bill explained he was too sick to report earlier.  He showed pictures of Smoky entertaining the sick and wounded; the letter from the Red Cross thanking Bill and Smoky for helping the morale of patients in the hospital; and noted Smoky’s 1944 selection as “The Best Mascot of the Southwest Pacific Area.”  Bill was told he may have to pay a bond to bring the dog into the US and could be expected to pay up to $1,000 dollars to do so.  Bill said he would accept those terms.  Bill and the ship’s captain signed a document that cleared the ship of any responsibility for “one dog.”

 

“Declaration of Domestic Animal” document signed by Bill on November 4, 1945. US Army.

Smoky documentSmoky documentSmoky document

With Smoky officially recognized and out of hiding, Bill and Smoky put on some shows on the deck for the men.  Bill noticed that the ship’s captain and the troop commander would sometimes watch the show from the bridge and had smiles on their faces.  AND, everyday the sailors would bring Duke up from the hold to play with Smoky.

On November 13 the USS William H. Gordon docked in Seattle.  

Smoky and Bill’s story started to take on a life of its own after arriving in the US.  At one train stop on their way to Bill’s home in Ohio a man with the United Services Organization (USO) noticed Bill carrying Smoky.  After hearing their story someone called the Indianapolis Star.  The newspaper ran a story which was picked up by a wire service. 

Bill and Smoky arrived home in Cleveland, Ohio, on November 30, 1945.

Before leaving to go to war in 1943 Bill had given the love of his life, Margie Roberts, an engagement ring.  They were married September 28, 1946. 

A week after Bill arrived home the Cleveland Press asked to interview him.  On December 7, 1945, the paper ran a front page story headlined, “TINY DOG HOME FROM THE WAR.”  The New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun, and Herald America also published stories.

Smoky and Bill continued to entertain people after the war and performed at veterans’ hospitals, schools, orphanages, nursing homes, hospitals, and other organizations.  

From June to August 1946 Bill was hired by the Cleveland Zoo to be masters of ceremony for a traveling circus — with Smoky as one of the stars.  In October 1946 Bill and Margie went to Hollywood after hearing that then famous animal trainer, Rennie Renfro, was looking for an assistant to help him train dogs for motion pictures.  The job did not materialize, and they returned to Ohio where Bill took a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) [NACA would become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958.] as a member of a crew to test new de-icing equipment for aircraft.

In 1947 live television shows became popular.  One of the shows in Cleveland that Bill and Smoky became part of was a children’s show Castles in the Air.

In 1953 with a growing family Bill accepted a job with a Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer as a photographer; he would later become a writer/photographer (now called a photojournalist) and was associated with the paper for 31 years.  [Bill received many international, national, and local awards for his work as a photojournalist.  In 1973 Bill was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.]

When Bill returned home from work on February 21, 1957, he found Smoky in her bed; she had died in her sleep.  Bill said he was inconsolable.  Margie suggested they bury the little dog near “Our Tree.” [In 1940 on a bike ride though the Cleveland Metroparks System young Bill and Margie had carved their initials in a gray beech tree.] The next day, with their children, Bill and Margie found the tree, and with Smoky’s body in a shoebox they buried her. Their seven year old daughter, Susan, cried, “Daddy, Daddy, how is Smoky going to breathe?”  Bill, taken aback, told Susan that Smoky doesn’t need to breath anymore, she is in dog heaven. 

Josephine Robertson, a writer at The Plain Dealer, wrote an obituary for Smoky and told her wartime story.  The Wynne’s received a call from a local Cleveland woman after she read the obituary. Grace Guderian Heidenreich was a US Army nurse in New Guinea in early 1944.  Her fiancé, later her husband, had bought a Yorkshire Terrier for her from a veterinarian in Brisbane, Australia.  The dog was a Christmas holiday gift, so Grace named her “Christmas.” [“Christmas” was one of the words that got Smoky excited and turning in circles.]  When Grace attended a Bob Hope USO show in New Guinea, little “Christmas” disappeared.  She had photos of the dog to show Bill.  As the stories merged, Bill concluded that his little dog, found in a foxhole, was indeed one in the same.  How many Yorkshire Terriers in WWII were lost in the jungles of New Guinea?

Margie Wynne passed away in 2004.  They had raised nine children together.

In 2003 Bill was informed that a monument to honor Smoky would be placed near the beech tree in the Rocky River Reservation Metropolitan Park in Cleveland where Smoky was buried in 1947.  Bill searched for Smoky’s grave for hours and finally found the then fallen beech tree with its initials which led to finding the grave. Smoky’s remains were placed in a WWII .30 calibre ammunition case.  The monument marks Smoky’s grave and was unveiled on Veterans Day, November 11, 2005.  

 

The monument to Smoky and dogs of all wars in the Rocky River Reservation in Cleveland, Ohio. Photograph americacomesalive.com.

 

Bill said that Smoky taught him much more than he had taught her.

On April 19, 2021, Bill Wynne passed away at the age of 99.

 

Smoky is recognized as the first documented therapy dog.  Her work began in 1944 in New Guinea and continued through WWII.  After seeing the effect that Smoky had on people, Bill and Smoky continued their work after WWII.

This is a selected list of remembrances of Smoky over the years since WWII: 

— Ohio Veterinary Medicine Association “Animal Hall of Fame,” Columbus, Ohio, 1995.

— Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.  The successor to the WWII 26th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron was the 26th Air Space Intelligence Squadron which displayed Smoky’s memorabilia in 2003.

— The Imperial War Museum , London, England.  From November 2006 – May 2007 an “Animals of War Exhibit” displayed Smoky’s war blanket.

— Australian Defense Force Trackers and War Dogs Association awarded Smoky the “War Dog Operational Medal” in 2010.

— The World War II Museum, New Orleans, Louisiana, displayed a bronze statue of Smoky in a helmet in 2010 as part of an exhibit to “Animals of War.”

— The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals “Certificate of Bravery and Devotion,” England, 2011.

— Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, Brisbane, Australia, 2012.

— Australian War Dog Museum, Sydney, Australia, 2014.  Awarded the Australian “War Dog Medal.”  The award was backdated as the first combat medal to be awarded to a dog.

— Papua New Guinea, 2015.

— The Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, “Purple Cross,” December 11, 2015.  The “Purple Cross” is a rare and high honor awarded to an animal war hero.  In 163 years, Smoky was only the tenth animal to receive this honor.

 

 

Dogs for Defense was a WWII program that many people may not be aware of at this point in time.  It was a military program started after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, US Territory of Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.  Pet owners were asked to donate their dogs to be used by the military for patrol and guard duties. For more information about this program see attached link Dogs for Defense.

For even more in-depth information and stories about Smoky, William A. Wynne’s book Yorkie Doodle Dandy (Or, The Other Woman Was A Real Dog) is a great book written by Smoky’s best friend.

Another wonderful book written in consultation with Bill Wynne is Smoky, the Dog That Saved My Life, The Bill Wynne Story by Nancy Roe Pimm.

WWII Italy: And the Story of 1938 Winner of the Tour de France Gino Bartali

 

Gino Bartali, winner of the 1938 Tour de France.  Photograph July 19, 1938.  Wikimedia Commons.

 

“Good is something you do, not something you talk about.  Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.”  Gino Bartali

 

Overview of historical events in the WWII history of Fascist Italy as related to this story:

Benito Mussolini was dictator of Italy from 1925 – 1943.  He was known as  “Il Duce” (translated “the Leader”).

In 1938 German dictator Adolph Hitler visited Mussolini in Italy.  It was after this visit that Mussolini adopted anti-Jewish laws in Italy based upon Germany’s antisemitic and racist 1935 Nuremberg Laws which excluded Jews from many aspects of daily life. 

Hitler and Mussolini signed a military and political alliance on May 22, 1939, called the “Pact of Steel” (known formally as the “Pact of Friendship and Alliance”).

On September 1, 1939, WWII began with the German invasion of Poland.

Italy would join the WWII Axis countries of Germany and Japan on June 10, 1940.

Following the Allied successful invasion of Sicily in July 1943, the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, had Mussolini arrested on July 25, 1943, after the Grand Council of Fascism voted a motion of “no confidence” in him.  Mussolini was replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio.  

On September 8, 1943, at 5:30 p.m. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces, from his location in Algiers, Algeria, announced a military armistice and termination of hostilities with Italy.

With the 1943 surrender of Italy, Hitler moved increasing numbers of German troops into Italy to seize control of the country and to fight the Allies.  With German occupation of the country Italian and refugee Jews received increased scrutiny and were rounded up and deported to German labor or concentration camps for likely extermination.  

Between 1939 and 1947 an organization the Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants (DELASEM), composed of Italian and Jewish resistance groups, aided refugees and foreigners who were interned in Italy and provided support and avenues of emigration for them.  Their headquarters were in Genoa, Italy.  Main funding came through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society as well as monetary collections within Italy. The organization was legal in Italy until the September 8, 1943, surrender to the Allies.  Although illegal after that date, it continued to operate with the support of the Catholic Church. Between 1939 and 1943, DELASEM helped 9,000 Jewish refugees of which 5,000 were helped to leave Italy.

After Mussolini’s arrest he was confined to the island of Ponza, the largest island of the Italian Pontine Islands archipelago, in the Tyrrhenian Sea. He was moved to different locations the last of which was the Hotel Campo Imperatore located on a remote mountain plateau in northern Italy.  On September 12, 1943, Hitler sent a special team of German paratroopers and Waffen-SS commandos to rescue Mussolini.  The rescue was known as the Grand Sasso raid. With Hitler’s support Mussolini was set up in a puppet government, the Italian Social Republic, in Salò, Italy, which existed until the German surrender in May 1945.  On April 28, 1945, Mussolini and his mistress were caught trying to escape capture by the Allies and were executed by Italian partisans in the Piazzale Loreto, Milan, Italy.

WWII in Europe ended on May 8, 1945.

 

Gino Bartali. Photograph capovelo.com.

 

Gino Bartali was an integral part of an Italian network in WWII that worked to save and protect Jews and war refugees.  His story is representative of the many Italian citizens, resistance and partisan members, and Catholic clergy who risked their own lives in those very dangerous times.

Gino Bartali was born July 18, 1914, in Ponte a Ema, Florence, Italy. He got a job in a bicycle shop and started bicycle racing when he was 13 years old.  After racing successfully as an amateur Gino turned professional at age 21 in 1935.

In 1936 and 1937 Gino won Italy’s top bicycle race the Giro d’ Italia (Tour of Italy).  In 1938 he won his first Tour de France.  He was under pressure to dedicate his victory in the Tour de France to Italy’s Fascist leader Benito Mussolini.  When Gino refused, Mussolini forbad any celebration of his victory in Italy.

Italy joined the WWII Axis countries of Germany and Japan on June 10, 1940.  On October 9, 1940,  Gino was called to active military duty. Surprisingly, because of an irregular heartbeat which he knew about, the military doctor declared him unfit for duty as a regular soldier; Gino was assigned as an Italian Army messenger, and he rode a bicycle. 

Gino Bartali married Adrianna Bani in Florence on November 14, 1940.  Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, the Archbishop of Florence, celebrated the wedding mass. Cardinal Dalla Costa was also an integral member of the network in WWII to save, protect, and hide Jews and other refugees from capture, possible execution, and deportation to a concentration camp such as Auschwitz where they would meet their death.

After the September 8, 1943, surrender of Italy to the Allies, Gino and thousands of other Italian men submitted paperwork and were discharged from the Italian Army.  

The hope of returning to a prewar life in Italy was not to be for two primary reasons:  (1) with the end of the country’s hostilities with the Allies, the German military increased its presence in Italy and took control of the areas previously controlled by Mussolini’s Fascist Army, and (2) after the American and British invaded Calabria and Salerno in southern Italy in September 1943, intense German resistance slowed and delayed the advance of the Allies northward.

 

Map of the WWII Italian Campaign, 1943 – 1945. Note dates of battles as the Allies progressed northward.  Map medium.com.

 

In September 1943 Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa requested a meeting with Gino. He asked Gino to become part of an underground group known as the Assisi Network.  The group protected and hid Italian and non-Italian Jews, refugees, and partisans trying to escape capture by the Germans.  

What Gino provided the Assisi Network was a means to transport documents and photographs for false identity cards.  False identity cards were necessary for those in hiding to move around within Italy.  

On October 16, 1943, the Germans occupied Rome and began rounding up Jews.

Using his fame as a sports figure in Italy and Europe, Gino Bartali cycled around Italy on his bicycle with documents stuffed inside the frame and handlebars of his racing bicycle.  He wore his racing jersey with his name on it.  When he was recognized or questioned by those who saw him on the roads, Gino said he was “training” for races. Government officials had even given him a special permit for his movement through the Italian countryside.

 

Map to locate Gino Bartali’s routes through Italy as he delivered false identification paperwork.  Map explo-re.com.

 

Gino would leave his home in Florence and might be gone for days at a time while he “trained.”  He sometimes cycled 250 miles a day and travelled as far as Genoa and Rome delivering needed documents for those in hiding. 

In Tuscany alone there were 26 Catholic monasteries and convents, some of them cloistered, that sheltered Jews and refugees.  The Assisi Network was only one of the networks in Italy providing protection.  The networks tried to operate independently so as not to put each other in danger should they be discovered.

 

Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy. Photograph everipedia.org.

 

The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Italy’s Umbria region played a major role in the rescue effort.  It provided a hiding place for more than 300 Jews.  Father Rufino Niccacci, the Father Guardian of the Franciscan Monastery of San Damiano in Assisi, organized the effort to hide Jews fleeing from the Germans and to provide them with false identity cards.

Of importance in Assisi was a print shop next to the Basilica.  Luigi Brizi and his son, Trento, printed false identification papers at great danger to themselves.

Some false identification papers intentionally used the real first letters of a person’s first and last name.  The reason — if asked to write their name on a document at some point, it could protect and remind them of their false identity if they nervously and automatically started to write their true name.

But not all attempts to rescue Jews and other refugees ended well. On September 1, 1944, German troops of the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division stormed into a Carthusian monastery, the Certosa di Farneta, in Tuscany.  One hundred and fifty clergy and others were arrested.  Forty-nine of the prisoners were killed by firing squad.  The others were sent to labor camps.  Six monks and six lay brothers were shot.  Among those killed was Father Gabriele Maria Costa;  he was a friend of Gino Bartali.  

Gino Bartali’s fame was also used in different situations.  Approximately half way between Florence and Rome is a town called Terontola.  The town train station was important during WWII as it provided a railway connection between north and south Italy.  It was heavily guarded by the Germans.  It was also an important point where Jews and refugees traveling to the liberated south of Italy would change trains.  Gino knew partisans in the area, and they developed a plan. Gino would go to the railway station and boldly make it known that a “great cycling champion” was there.  He attracted crowds of people who wanted to see him and get his autograph.  The commotion caught the attention of the German guards who left their posts to disperse the crowd.  With the distraction in place, refugees were able to transfer trains without the Germans seeing them.

[After the long and hard fought battle at Monte Cassino (January 17 – May 18, 1944), the Americans moved north and liberated Rome on June 5, 1944.  The celebration of the liberation of Rome was short lived in the press since the next day, June 6, the Allies landed at Normandy, France.]

After almost a year of  his secret activities and with many bicycle races being cancelled, his excuse for “training” was questioned by some people.  In July 1944 Gino was interrogated at Florence’s Villa Triste (“House of Sorrow”) where Fascist agents would question and torture their prisoners.   A former Italian Army commander of Gino’s vouched for his innocence, and he was released.

[On August 11, 1944, the Allies liberated Florence and moved northward.  The WWII Italian Campaign ended on May 2, 1945.]

Gino Bartali is recognized for saving about 800 Jews during WWII. Four of the Jews he saved were friends hidden in the cellar of his home.  

 

Gino Bartali’s Jewish friend Giacomo Goldenberg with his wife, Elvira, and their two children Giorgio and Tea hid in the cellar of Gino’s home in Florence.  Photograph Road to Valor book.

 

After WWII Gino Bartali resumed bicycle racing.  In 1948 he won the Tour de France for the second time.

 

Gino Bartali doing a victory lap after winning the 1948 Tour de France.  Photograph disraeligears.co.uk.

 

Gino Bartali died on May 5, 2000, in Florence.  He didn’t talk about his exploits in WWII until later in life when he began to slowly and quietly share his WWII experiences with his son, Andrea.

On July 7, 2013, Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem, Israel, recognized Gino Bartali as one of the Righteous Among the Nations for his work to save Jews in WWII.   

Gino Bartali remained humble about his WWII work with the Assisi Network.  If he was called a hero, he would say, “Real heroes are … those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones.  Those are the real heroes.  I’m just a cyclist.”

 

 

Others mentioned in this story who received recognition as Righteous Among the Nations were Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa in 2012, Father Rufino Niccacci in 1974, and Luigi and Trento Brizi in 1997.

Excellent sources for more in-depth information about the life of Gino Bartali include the book Road to Valor by Aili and Andres McConnon and the documentary My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes of the Holocaust.  An informative book for younger readers is Bartali’s Bicycle by Megan Hoyt and Iacopo Bruno.

The Unsung Heroes of the US Merchant Marine in WWII: And the Story of Convoy PQ-17

 

Life-Line of Freedom – the Merchant Marine poster. Artist: Paul Sample. National Archives.

 

 

The United States (US) Merchant Marine Act of 1936 stated, “It is necessary for the national defense… that the United States shall have a merchant marine of the best equipped and most suitable types of vessels sufficient to carry the greater portion of its commerce and serve as a naval or military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency…”

In the late 1930s with the US foreseeing an approaching involvement in WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered US shipyards to build ships that would be needed in the conflict and established the US Maritime Service which was responsible for training merchant mariners and the men of the US Army Transport Service.

The Merchant Marine was a commercial, non-military fleet of ships that was effectively nationalized by the US government in WWII. The men of the Merchant Marine were civilian volunteers. 

The Merchant Marine ships had limited defensive capabilities. Guns, to provide a defense for the ships and crews, were placed onboard merchant ships and manned by the US Navy Armed Guard which was a special unit of Navy military personnel at that time.  

On March 11, 1941, President Roosevelt signed into law An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States, more commonly known as the Lend-Lease Act, which was a program through which the US sent food, oil and fuel, supplies, equipment, and war materiel to England, countries of the British Commonwealth, China, the Free French, other Allied nations, and the Soviet Union.  

On December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt declared war on Japan after the surprise attack December 7, 1941, on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, US Territory of Hawaii.  

The ships of the US Merchant Marine in WWII sailed around the world to deliver troops, supplies, food, aircraft, gasoline, oil, guns, shells, vehicles, tanks, bombs, ammunition, medicine, equipment, and needed materiel for war.  It played a critical, logistical role in the war. 

In addition to enemy warships, aircraft, and submarine attacks, the Merchant Marine vessels faced the perils of weather, icebergs, rough seas, mines, sharks, and in the Pacific Theater Japanese “kamikaze” attacks.

 

Battle of the Atlantic (September 3, 1939 – May 8, 1945).

After Italy joined the Axis countries on June 10, 1940, submarines of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) worked with Germany to interrupt and stop the Allied flow of supplies to areas of conflict.

The Allied forces of the US, Canada, Britain, Norway, and Brazil would fight against the warships, submarines, and aircraft of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine), the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), and the Italian Royal Navy. 

The most dangerous time during this campaign was from 1940 to the end of 1943 with resulting staggering losses of merchant vessels and other convoy ships.  

It was the longest military campaign of WWII.  

 

Ship Convoys.

The convoy system was intended to protect Allied merchant ships sailing during wartime.  Before the US entered WWII, convoys bound for British ports were escorted from convoy assembly points at Halifax and Sydney,  Nova Scotia, Canada, by the Royal Canadian Navy to a location in the mid-Atlantic Ocean where the British Royal Navy would meet and escort the convoy to its destination.  The US Navy provided convoy escorts after December 7, 1941. 

Merchant ships were grouped in the center of a convoy formation with warships, aircraft, and submarines surrounding and guarding the ships. During WWII there were over 300 convoy routes around the world.  Each convoy would have a two or three letter code indicating destination and convoy speed.  A convoy could only go as fast as the slowest ship in the convoy.  

 

The Arctic Convoys (August 1941 – May 1945). 

After Germany attacked Russia on June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union joined the Allies.  Joseph Stalin, the ruler of the Soviet Union, was in desperate need of military equipment and supplies to fight the Nazis.  The British began sending supplies and war materiel to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangelsk.  The first convoy from England would arrive in Archangelsk on August 31, 1941.  Convoys to Russia would continue until the end of the war.

 

Allied Arctic Sea convoy routes WWII. Map dailymail.co.uk.

 

Three primary routes used to send supplies from the US to Russia in WWII. Map US Department of State November 28, 1945.

 

The shortest and fastest route for convoys to Russia was the Arctic Sea route.

 

Besides the dangers of Axis submarines, warships, and aircraft there were rough seas, frigid temperatures, icebergs, and ice sheets, and ice buildup on the ships. Ice buildup on ships could make the ships “top heavy” and prone to rolling over. Photograph dailymail.co.uk.

 

Also making the Arctic route dangerous was the German military occupation of Norway on April 9, 1940, which provided close proximity to Allied convoys in the Atlantic Ocean, Arctic Sea, and the Barents Sea.

 

Arctic Convoy PQ-17.

PQ-17 was the first combined Anglo-American naval operation of WWII under British command.

 

Convoy PQ-17 escort and merchant ships assembling at Hvalfjörður, Iceland. Photograph Naval History and Heritage Command.

 

Convoy PQ-17 under the command of British Commodore John Dowding set sail on June 27, 1942, from Hvalfjörður, Iceland, with a destination of Archangelsk, Russia.  

[One of the ships providing PQ-17 protection was an American destroyer the United States Ship (USS) Wichita.  Hollywood actor and US Navy Reserve Officer Douglas Fairbanks, Junior, was a member of the crew.]

 

A German Luftwaffe BV 138 reconnaissance plane photograph of PQ-17 on or about July 1, 1942. Photograph Naval History and Heritage Command.

 

A German submarine U-456 sighted and would follow convoy PQ-17 shortly after it left Iceland on June 27, 1942.

The first merchant ship, the Liberty ship Steamship (SS) Christopher Newport, was sunk on the morning of July 4 by a German torpedo bomber Heinkel HE 115.  On that same day, a US destroyer the USS Wainwright, part of the covering force for PQ-17, repulsed an attack on the convoy by German torpedo bombers.  On July 4 German torpedo bombers also sank the Liberty ship SS William Hooper.  

Back in London, England, on July 4, a decision was made that would decide the fate of PQ-17.

The First Sea Lord and Admiral of the Fleet Sir Alfred Dudley Pound was notified by Swedish intelligence that German ships including the battleship Tirpitz had left Norway to intercept Convoy PQ-17.  He consulted with Lieutenant Commander Norman Denning, an intelligence analyst with the Operational Intelligence Center for the Royal Navy, who did not detect any German ship movements at that time nor did he find any radio traffic, messages from the Norwegian Resistance, or any other threat to support the rumor of the sailing of the Tirpitz.  

Despite conflicting information about the Tirpitz, Admiral Pound ordered PQ-17 protection  ships to withdraw at high speed westward (to repulse the German ships?) and ordered the remaining ships in the convoy to “scatter” and make their own way to Russian ports.

Convoy PQ-17 was abandoned when the close and distant Allied convoy protection ships were ordered to detach from the convoy.  The merchant ships were left to plan their individual routes to Russia with ship compasses that were sometimes inaccurate in that part of the world.  It was summer in the Arctic; there was no place to “hide in the dark” because there was no darkness at that time of the year. And the ships had limited defensive capabilities.

The Germans, surprised at what happened, took advantage of every opportunity to sink the merchant vessels.  The Tirpitz did leave Norway on July 5 to intercept PQ-17 but returned to port that same day because German bombers and submarines had already been very successful in destroying the convoy.

 

PQ-17 ship losses. Map forum.worldofwarships.com.

 

Of the 35 merchant ships that left Iceland, only 11 would eventually reach a port in Russia.  One hundred and fifty-three merchant mariners were lost.

In addition to men and ships, it was reported that war materiel, equipment, and supplies lost included 200 aircraft, 3,300 trucks, 435 tanks, and other war supplies that could equip 50,000 men.  

Stalin was said to be angry and unable to understand how such a disaster could happen and questioned why convoy protection was removed.  This incident would drive a wedge of distrust between the Soviet Union and the Allies.

The Arctic supply route was halted temporarily as convoy plans were studied.  On September 2, 1942, Convoy PQ-18 left Loch Ewe, Scotland, and sailed with additional escort ships to provide protection.

 

Story of WWII Merchant Mariner Frank E. Scott. 

Frank Edward Scott.  Oral History Interview for the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, on October 25, 2010. He was interviewed in San Antonio, Texas.

 

Merchant mariner Frank E. Scott, circa 1943. Photograph courtesy  of the Frank Scott family.

 

Frank Scott was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on May 9, 1925. He had two brothers, Dale and Quincy.  In 1936 his family moved to San Antonio, Texas.  He was playing touch football on December 7, 1941, when he heard about the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  

After graduating from Brackenridge High School in San Antonio in 1943 Frank went to the Merchant Marine Recruiting Office in the city to volunteer for service.  

Frank travelled to a Maritime Service base in St. Petersburg, Florida, for basic merchant seaman training in August 1943.  The training staff at the base found out he had taught swimming in San Antonio and asked him to stay on and teach survival swimming to recruits.  There was no pool at the school at the time so Frank taught new recruits survival skills in the Gulf of Mexico.  Two of the survival skills he taught were how to make a life jacket from trousers and how to jump off a tower into the water which simulated jumping from a ship.

January 3, 1944, the SS Washita.  Frank’s first assignment at sea was on the oil tanker SS Washita.  The tanker travelled in a convoy of about 200 ships to Swansea in Wales, England.  The convoy was not attacked, but at that time in the war the Atlantic route was less threatened by German submarines.  The Washita travelled back to the US, and Frank was discharged on February 2, 1944, upon fulfillment of his contract.      

[At this period of time in WWII troops and supplies were being stockpiled in England in preparation for the closely guarded secret of the Normandy, France, invasion planned for June of 1944.]

[The Merchant Marine being a non-military organization had different requirements regarding its crews.  A merchant seaman signed a contract to serve on a specific ship which may make one or more trips to various destinations.  Upon completion of the contract he had the choice to sign  another contact.  If he did not sign another contract within 30 days, he became eligible for the military draft.]

April 20, 1944, the Liberty ship SS Samuel Mcintyre.  After a visit with his family in San Antonio, Frank signed his second contract and sailed on a cargo ship the Liberty ship SS Samuel Mcintyre.  He would serve almost 9 months on this ship. The ship’s captain who Frank estimated to be around 65 years old was from Scotland and had been called back into service out of retirement. 

Job responsibilities and life aboard a merchant ship.

In his interview Frank spoke of his job and duties on a ship.

–  A  seaman’s duties included deck work, painting, standing watch, steering the ship, among other responsibilities.

–  Schedules for standing watch were midnight to 4 am, 4 am – 8 am, 8 am – 12 noon, and so forth.  One third of the crew would be on watch at any one time; a watch schedule was four hours on and eight hours off.  It was difficult to sleep between standing watch duties when traveling in the Northern Atlantic because of the long periods of daylight.

–  Tankers took about three days to unload, and cargo ships could take two to four weeks to unload.  When unloading in port, they may work for 24 hours straight. 

–  Weather was always a factor.  Storms could reek havoc on ships and convoys.

–  Crews could average around 40 – 50 merchant mariners and about 35 Navy Armed Guard.

–  Typical gun placements on merchant ships were five inch guns on the bow, eight inch long range guns on the stern, and a dozen or so anti-aircraft guns.  

–  Barrage balloons were sometimes used to deter German aircraft from attacking a ship.

–  When leaving the US the crew didn’t always know the ship’s destination.  If the destination was the Arctic or Northern Atlantic, cold weather gear and clothing was handed out after about 24 hours at sea.

–  If ships in a convoy were sunk, destroyers or dedicated rescue ships would pick up survivors, if possible.

Frank’s experiences on the SS Samuel Mcintyre.

Frank would sometimes take over steering the ship when a particular seaman got shaky or nervous in rough seas.  That seaman had survived the sinking of five ships.

On a voyage to Cardiff, England, the ship had a closely guarded P-51 Mustang fighter plane on the deck, along with tanks, and in preparation for the invasion of Normandy hundreds of full five gallon gas cans cabled to the deck.  

After the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the Samuel Mcintyre did “shuttle runs” from Cardiff to Omaha Beach with needed supplies and equipment.  

From July 15 – August 31, 1944, the Samuel Mcintyre was anchored off Omaha Beach with a loaded ship awaiting the Allied capture of Cherbourg, France. 

[As the Allies advanced towards Germany additional ports and supply lines were needed.  The focus was on the port of Antwerp, Belgium, and the Scheldt River.  Antwerp was captured by the British on September 4, 1944.  The West and East Scheldt Estuary were still held by the Germans.  The Battle of the Scheldt (October – November 1944) fought by Canadian, Polish, and British units resulted in an Allied victory on November 8.

 

Battle of the Scheldt October – November 1944. Map US Army.

 

After the Scheldt was swept for mines, the first convoy carrying Allied supplies unloaded in Antwerp on November 29, 1944.]

The SS Samuel McIntyre was one of the first ships to arrive in Antwerp.  Frank said it took about four weeks to unload the ship. While on watch he would sometimes see flares from German artillery being fired into Antwerp as the Germans were still in the area.

[Cine Rex, De Keyserlei 15, Antwerp, Belgium.  On December 16, 1944, (the first day of the Battle of the Bulge) a V-2 rocket was fired from the German SS Werfer Battery in Hellendoorn, The Netherlands. The rocket landed on the roof of the Cine Rex movie theater at 3:20 pm. Of the over 1,000 people inside, 567 people including 296 Allied servicemen were killed in the explosion.  It was the highest death toll in WWII from a single rocket.

The American movie The Plainsman was playing at the theater that day.]

The Samuel McIntyre left Antwerp and sailed back to the US in late December.  Frank was discharged January 11, 1945.

The Scott family Christmas card for 1944 celebrated the military service of the three Scott brothers and Quincy’s wife, Dottie.  They would all return home after WWII.

 

Left to right: Dale Scott, Frank Scott, and Quincy Scott with Dottie Scott in the foreground. Photograph courtesy of the Frank Scott family.

 

March 6, 1945, the SS Emile N. Vidal, one of the concrete ships of WWII.  Frank signed on the SS Emile N. Vidal in New Orleans, Louisiana.  He would have back-to-back sailings on this ship.  The ship would sail in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to ports which included Cuba and Puerto Rico.  One of the supplies transported on this ship was sugar.

[The US government in WWII contracted with McCloskey and Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to construct 24 self-propelled concrete ships at a time when steel resources for shipbuilding were scarce.  The ships were built in Tampa, Florida, starting in July 1943 at the Hookers Point shipyard at a rate of one per month.  They were named after pioneers in the development and science of concrete.  

The government also contracted the building of concrete barges with companies in California.  The barges lacked engines to propel them and had to be towed.]

Merchant mariner Alfred “Al” G. Booth, a good friend of Frank’s from San Antonio, Texas, was also a crew member on this voyage. 

 

Merchant mariner Alfred G. Booth, circa 1943. Al had a twin brother, Walter, who was in the US Navy in WWII. Photograph courtesy of the Al Booth family.
Frank, on left, with Al Booth. When back in San Antonio between contracts Frank and Al would meet and exchange stories. Photograph courtesy of the Al Booth family.

 

Frank was discharged on April 9, 1945.

April 10, 1945, the SS Emile N. Vidal.  Frank and Al would sail a second time on this ship and were discharged May 21, 1945.

July 21,1945, the Liberty ship SS Beckley Seam.  Frank, Al, and another fellow San Antonio native, merchant mariner William McCollough, were members of the crew.

The Beckley Seam delivered coal to Savona, Italy, and was still in the Mediterranean Sea when it was announced that WWII had ended.

During Frank’s interview with the National Museum of the Pacific War he proudly showed me a photograph he had taken of the American flag on the SS Beckley Seam

 

Frank Scott’s photograph caption: STARS AND STRIPES ON THE US MERCHANT VESSEL “BECKLEY SEAM” SOMEWHERE IN THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA, AUGUST 1945.  We three were there.  Al Booth, Bill McCollough, and Frank Scott. Photograph courtesy of Frank Scott.

 

 

The US Merchant Marine did not have a centralized record-keeping system in WWII, and because of that, the estimates of merchant seamen losses vary significantly.  During WWII there were about 250,000 civilian merchant mariners.  A total estimate of merchant seamen and officers that went missing or were killed varies from 5,662 to over 9,000.  An estimated 12,000 men were wounded, and over 600 became prisoners of war.  

A total of 1,554 merchant ships were sunk in WWII according to the War Shipping Administration.  

Merchant seamen were not included in the postwar Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, nor did they qualify to receive other military benefits due to their civilian status. It wasn’t until 1988 that WWII merchant seamen were recognized officially as veterans.

 

 

 

Frank Scott commented during his interview that the 1943 movie Action in the Atlantic was close to his actual wartime experiences.

Frank Scott’s brother, Quincy, came home from WWII with his own war story while assigned to the US Navy destroyer USS Borie in the Atlantic.  On November 1, 1943, the Borie rammed German submarine U-405, which had surfaced.  The two ships were locked together with the bow of the Borie resting on the foredeck of the submarine.  Until the two ships were able to separate, the Borie and U-405 exchanged small arms fire at close range.  Both the Borie and U-405 would be lost in this incident.  Survivors of the Borie were rescued by the escort carrier USS Card.

Four WWII merchant mariners that went into acting after the war were James Garner, Peter Falk, Carroll O’Connor, and Jack Lord.

A very special thank you to Frank Scott’s wife, Helen, and to Al Booth’s wife, Maureen, for providing photographs and documents related to this story.

Thank you to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, and museum archivist Chris McDougal for providing information related to this story.  The oral history interview of Frank Scott is in the museum archive.

The WWII Sinking of the USS Lexington in the Battle of the Coral Sea: And the Stories of Survivors

USS Lexington (CV-2) on October 14, 1941, leaving San Diego, California. Aircraft on the flight deck include TBD torpedo bombers, F2A fighters, and SBD scout bombers. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

 

The aircraft carrier United States Ship (USS) Lexington (CV-2), nicknamed  “Lady Lex,” was the fourth United States (US) Navy ship to be named after the American Revolutionary War 1775 Battle of Lexington. The ship was commissioned in 1928 and would serve until its sinking in the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4 – 8, 1942).

On December 7, 1941, fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), in a surprise attack, bombed Pearl Harbor and other US military installations on Oahu, then the US Territory of Hawaii. There were three US aircraft carriers in the Pacific Fleet at that time. The USS Lexington and the USS Enterprise were at sea ferrying aircraft to Midway Island and Wake Island, respectively.  The third aircraft carrier, USS Saratoga, was preparing to leave San Diego, California, following an overhaul at the Bremerton, Washington, Puget Sound Naval Yard.

The Lexington arrived back in Pearl Harbor on December 13.  The ship would return to sea to patrol the Pacific and take part in US naval operations as part of Task Force (TF) 11.

In April 1942 the Allied codebreakers at Pearl Harbor deciphered the Japanese naval operation code JN (Japanese Navy) – 25.  They had information that the Japanese were planning a major attack, Operation Mo, on Port Moresby, the capital of the Australian Territory of New Guinea. Gaining control of New Guinea would have isolated both Australia and New Zealand from their allies in the South Pacific.  

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Fleet, ordered TF 17 to the Coral Sea to counter Japanese operations. The aircraft carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown were the two carriers in TF 17.  [The USS Yorktown (CV-5) was later sunk during the Battle of Midway June 4 – 7, 1942.  The USS Yorktown (CV-10) was commissioned April 15, 1943, and served in the Pacific through WWII.)

 

Coral Sea. Map Wikipedia.

 

The Battle of the Coral Sea.  It would be the first battle in history fought between aircraft carriers.

On May 3, 1942, the Japanese landed on the island of Tulagi (a first step of Operation Mo) in the then British Solomon Islands Protectorate.

On May 4 Vice Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher, upon getting an intelligence report of the landing, ordered aircraft from the Yorktown to attack the Japanese landing group. Japanese intelligence had not reported American ships in the area, and they were taken by surprise.  

IJN Fourth Fleet Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue and Carrier Striking Force Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi began the search to find the Americans.  

With limited visibility in the area of operations, neither the Americans nor the Japanese were successful in immediately finding the opposing enemy carrier force. 

On May 7 the Japanese found and sunk the destroyer USS Sims and badly damaged the fleet oiler USS Neosho

Also on May 7 aircraft from the Lexington and Yorktown sunk the Japanese light aircraft carrier Shōhō.

American and Japanese naval forces became aware of the enemy fleet positions on May 8.  

Captain Frederick C. “Ted” Sherman, commanding officer of the Lexington, ordered “General Quarters” at 0552 hours (military time) that morning. Carriers on both sides started launching aircraft shortly after 0900 hours.  Two torpedoes hit the port side of the Lexington at 1120 hours to be followed by another two bombs.    

USS Lexington hit by two torpedoes and two bombs on May 8, 1942. Wikipedia Battle of the Coral Sea.

 

Torpedo and bomb damage resulted in a jammed hydraulic ship elevator, flooding in boiler rooms, and ruptured gasoline fuel storage tanks on the port side causing fires and explosions.  The fires could not be extinguished, and Captain Sherman ordered “abandon ship” at 1707 hours.  TF 17 destroyers and cruisers rescued sailors and marines abandoning the Lexington.

 

Sailors and marines evacuating the USS Lexington May 8, 1942. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Explosion on the USS Lexington May 8, 1942, shortly after Captain Sherman left the ship. Note aircraft being blown off the deck. Destroyer USS Hammann ship’s bow is shown in far left of photograph rescuing the crew.  National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Explosions and fires on the USS Lexington May 8, 1942. National Archives, Washington D.C.

 

By 1830 hours 2,735 surviving sailors and marines had been evacuated from the Lexington.  Two hundred and sixteen men had been killed in action.  

Captain Sherman was the last man to leave the Lexington.

The destroyer USS Phelps was ordered to sink the Lexington for several reasons:  (1) the ship could not be saved, (2) the US Navy did not want the Lexington to become a trophy for the Japanese, and (3) the US Navy did not want it discovered that the ship had been lost — at least not at that time.

The Phelps fired torpedoes into the Lexington at 1841 hours.  It was reported that the hull was glowing “cherry red” from the fires.  The ship took about an hour to sink.  

There were losses of men and ships on both sides. But the Allies had blocked the Operation Mo Japanese drive into the Coral Sea to Port Moresby.  Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue ordered the Japanese invasion force to return to port.

[The public would learn of the loss of the USS Lexington (CV-2) in June 1942.  The Fore River Ship and Engine Building Company in Quincy, Massachusetts, where the ship was originally built, was in the process of building a new ship to be named the USS Cabot.  The shipyard petitioned US Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to change the name of the ship from Cabot to Lexington, and he agreed.  The (fifth) USS Lexington (CV-16) was commissioned on February 17, 1943, and would be assigned to the Pacific.  The Japanese several times would sight CV-16 and were confused thinking the ship had been sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea. CV-16 got the nickname “The Blue Ghost.”]

 

Stories about the survivors of the sinking of the USS Lexington (CV-2) .

 

James A. Phinney III.  Oral History Interview for the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, on July 15, 2010.  He was interviewed at his home in San Antonio, Texas.

 

James A. Phinney III oral history interview July 15, 2010, in San Antonio, Texas.  Photograph video frame from 2010 interview.

 

Jim was born in Childress, Texas, on November 12, 1923, and was raised in Hugo, Oklahoma.  He graduated from high school in May 1941 and then joined the US Navy.  He was on his way to church on December 7, 1941, when he heard about the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor.

After training stateside Jim was assigned to the USS Lexington. While training in Pearl Harbor awaiting the arrival of the aircraft carrier that was out to sea, he recalled that he and his friends would run over to a nearby Dole Pineapple Company building to drink pineapple juice coming out of the drinking fountains.

Jim would board the Lexington in April 1942.  He was assigned as an electrician Seaman First Class.

On  May 8, 1942, Jim was on the flight deck checking electrical systems in the aircraft.  He caught sight of a plane flying off the port side of the ship that dropped something.  His first thought was that something fell off a plane and that “somebody has sure messed up.” It was actually a Japanese torpedo plane dropping the first torpedo to hit the Lexington

After hours of fighting off attacking Japanese airplanes and fighting fires, the crew was ordered to “abandon ship.”  

Jim related in his interview that there was a plan to evacuate the crew in groups.  He said his group had a period of time to wait until their turn to evacuate, so they went to the “ship’s service store soda fountain,” also known as the “Gedunk,” and ate ice cream.  [Ice cream in WWII was a great treat for the sailors and marines.  You will be reading about ice cream again later in this story.]

It was about 65 feet down from the flight deck to the water.  Before starting down the rope lines, Jim said they took the emergency life rafts out of the remaining aircraft (36 aircraft would be lost in the sinking), inflated the rafts, and threw them overboard.  After getting in the water, they swam to the rafts.  A cruiser was the first to try to rescue them off the raft without success.  The destroyer USS Hammann would later pick them up. He said the crew of the destroyer had to “scrub them down” because they were soaked in salt water and fuel oil.  [The Hammann would later be sunk at the Battle of Midway.]

On the way to Tonga [an archipelago of 169 islands in the South Pacific at that time a British Protectorate],  the rescued crew on the Hammann were transferred to the cruiser USS Portland.  From Tonga a troop ship took them to San Diego.

 

Tonga archipelago in South Pacific Ocean. Map WorldAtlas.com.

 

Jim’s next assignment would be on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.  

Having several shore assignments after the Enterprise, then First Class Petty Officer Electricians Mate James Phinney would be in Houston, Texas, when he heard WWII ended.

Jim, after being discharged from the US Navy, would use the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (also known as the GI Bill) to further his education.  After that he rejoined the US Navy and would retire as a Warrant Officer with over 20 years of service.

Jim passed away on September 9, 2015.

 

Julius Harry Frey.  Oral History Interview with the National Museum of the Pacific War, in Fredericksburg, Texas, on August 6, 2013. He was interviewed at his home in San Antonio, Texas.

 

Harry Frey. Photograph mynssa.nssa-nsca.org.

 

Harry was born in Laredo, Texas, on March 6, 1923.  When he was six weeks old the family moved to San Antonio, Texas.  He was 17 years old when he joined the US Navy in 1940 and had not graduated from high school.  [In 1946 after serving in WWII he would graduate from Breckenridge High School in San Antonio and continue his education.] 

Trained in the military as an Aviation Metalsmith, Harry’s first assignment was on the USS Lexington.  He was assigned to the pilot “ready room” keeping statistics on the aircraft.

The Lexington was two days at sea out from Pearl Harbor delivering aircraft to Midway Island when the ship’s captain announced that Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941.  The ship returned to Pearl Harbor on December 13.  Harry remarked in his interview that the oil on the water was about two inches thick and difficult for smaller boats to even pass through it.

On May 8, 1942, Harry was standing on the landing at the Lexington emergency battery locker of the ship’s superstructure when the first torpedo hit the ship.  Aircraft were trying to land, others trying to take off, some planes landed and were shoved over the side, and others were sent to land on the USS Yorktown.

When Captain Sherman gave the order to “abandon ship” Harry reported to his muster station on the port side of the ship near the aft (stern) elevator. The area was just above the Gedunk.  While his group was waiting to evacuate, Harry remembered the ice cream.  

From Harry’s interview, “So, I rolled off the flight deck onto the next level. There was a big lock on the hatch going into the Gedunk.  Now there was a fire axe there, so I took the axe, and it took only one blow to knock off the lock.  I went in and took my helmet off, … , and I went behind the counter and loaded my helmet with pineapple ice cream.  …  Then I went out and I tossed it up to my buddy on the flight deck.” His buddy and others rolled off the flight deck, went into the Gedunk, and got more ice cream. He and his buddies got back up to the deck, and Harry continued, “So, when they came around to muster, everybody was up there eating ice cream.”

Harry would evacuate the Lexington using rope lines.  He was wearing a life jacket but took if off because it was difficult to swim. After about 30 minutes swimming he was picked up by the destroyer USS Morris.  Again from Harry’s interview, “Someone grabbed me and hauled me up on the deck.  I must have laid there for fifteen or twenty minutes … I looked, and I saw these ox-blood shiny shoes and the trouser had a sharp crease in them and this guy says, ‘I know this guy.  He is from our neighborhood back in San Antonio.’  He was a marine on the Morris.”

Harry and others rescued by the Morris were transferred to the cruiser USS Chester and transported to Tonga and then to San Diego.

After visiting his family in San Antonio Harry was assigned to the escort carrier USS Card. The Card provided protection for convoys in the Atlantic Ocean, searched for German submarines, and would see action in the North African Campaign (June 10, 1940 – May 13, 1943).  Harry’s next assignment was the aircraft carrier USS Bennington.  

Being on the shakedown cruise of both the Card and Bennington earned Harry what the US Navy calls a “Plank Owner” card for the two ships.

After WWII Harry used the GI Bill to get a degree from Trinity University in San Antonio and a master’s degree from Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Oklahoma.  

Harry did earn some credits from Sul Ross State College in Alpine, Texas.  He said he was into roping at that time and could take his horse with him. 

Harry Frey passed away on August 22, 2016.  On July 15, 2017, his and his wife’s ashes were “buried at sea” from the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan with a 21 gun salute at the location in the Coral Sea where the USS Lexington (CV-2) sank in WWII.

 

Harry Frey’s burial at sea with a 21 gun salute on the USS Ronald Reagan July 15, 2017. US Navy.

 

 

[After my oral history colleague, Floyd Cox, and I interviewed Jim Phinney and Harry Frey, we realized they didn’t know each other while assigned to the Lexington nor that they both lived in San Antonio.  I asked their permission and passed on contact information to them.

Jim and Harry got together for hamburgers over lunch in San Antonio and talked about their experiences on the Lexington.

I forgot to ask if they had ice cream for dessert.]

 

The Patten brothers from Iowa.  

 

Seven Patten brothers assigned to the battleship USS Nevada. Photograph siouxcityjournal.com.

 

December 7, 1941, the battleship USS Nevada was berthed next to the battleship USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.  Because of battleship arrival times at Pearl Harbor, the Arizona was berthed in the usual place of the Nevada.  

The Nevada was badly damaged during the surprise Japanese attack. All the brothers survived and were then assigned to the Lexington. The Patten brothers were all survivors of the sinking of the Lexington.

After the death of the five Sullivan brothers in the sinking of the light cruiser USS Juneau on November 13, 1942, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Patten brothers served on different ships.

Floyd Patten, the boys’ father, received an age waiver during WWII to join the Navy.  Sadly he died of cancer in March 1945.  

The youngest Patten brother, Wayne, had the nickname “Patten pending” until he was old enough to join the Navy. 

The eight Patten brothers would all return home when WWII ended. 

 

Admiral Wags.  Commanding officer of the USS Lexington, Captain Sherman, had his dog Admiral Wags with him on the ship.  He was a cocker spaniel that according to the tale (not the tail) had his own muster station under the captain’s bed.

 

Picture of Admiral Wags and Captain Sherman. Photographs defensemedianetwork.com.

 

Captain Sherman was the last man off the Lexington and was able to rescue Admiral Wags.  Evacuated on different ships, they were reunited at Tonga.

Fanny Jessop Sherman, wife of Captain Sherman, wrote a children’s book about Admiral Wags published in 1943.

Admiral Wags passed away and was buried in the Shermans’ backyard with “full military honors” in 1949 at the age of 17.

 

 

Writer and WWII US Navy veteran Herman Wouk wrote two books about WWII The Winds of War and War and Remembrance that were made into two miniseries in the 1980s.  During the filming of War and Remembrance the USS Lexington (CV-16) [which at that time was designated AVT-16, training aircraft carrier] was used as a stand-in for both US Navy and IJN ships recreating battles in the Pacific.  

 

Staging on the flight deck of the USS Lexington (AVT-16) during the filming of War and Remembrance.  Photograph nara.getarchive.net.

 

The USS Lexington is now the USS Lexington Museum in Corpus Christi, Texas.

The book Stay the Rising Sun by Phil Keith has an extremely detailed  narrative of the sinking of the USS Lexington and the Battle of the Coral Sea. 

An article with more information on Admiral Wags can be found on the Defense Media Network website.

On March 4, 2018, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s expedition crew of the Research Vessel (R/V) Petrel discovered the wreckage of the USS Lexington (CV-2) 76 years after being sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea. 

Thank you to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, and museum archivist Chris McDougal for providing information related to this story.  The oral history interviews of James Phinney and Julius Harry Frey are in the museum archive.  Jim Phinney’s oral history interview can be listened to online.

Thank you to Floyd Cox, my oral historian colleague, at the National  Museum of the Pacific War.  

Thank you to US Navy veteran and US Naval Academy graduate Clifford L. Deets (Lcdr, USN ret.) for providing information on Navy terminology and Navy life.

Thank you to historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Director of the East Anglia Air War Project, for his research assistance.

 

WWII 97th Infantry Division in Europe and the Pacific: And the Story of Private First Class Harold F. McDonald

 

Private First Class (Pfc.) Harold F. McDonald, US Army 97th Infantry Division, photograph “To my Family, Harold” circa 1943/1944.  Photograph courtesy of the McDonald Family.

 

Harold Franklin “Mac” McDonald was born July 24, 1923, on a farm in Menifee County, Kentucky, to parents Frank and Anna (née Bowling) McDonald.  He had three siblings.  His parents managed the Bowling farm during the Great Depression.  The main crop of the farm was tobacco.

Japanese Surprise Attack on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, December 7, 1941.

On December 7, 1941, Mac returned to the farm after rabbit hunting. He found his father pacing the floor.  Frank told his son the news.  It was particularly upsetting to Frank hearing of the sinking of the United States Ship (USS) Nevada; Frank was a sailor on the USS Nevada in WWI.

Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, Chester, Pennsylvania.

Mac graduated from high school a term early and found a job as a machinist at Sun Shipbuilding.  

[At the beginning of WWII Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company was one of the largest shipyards in the United States (US).  During the war the company built tankers, escort carriers, hospital ships, and cargo ships for the US Maritime Commission.]

While working at Sun Shipbuilding, Mac tried to join the Merchant Marine and the US Navy.  He was rejected; he was color-blind.  When Mac heard he would soon be drafted,  he decided to return to Kentucky because he wanted to enter the military from his home state.  

Mac was a good worker at Sun Shipbuilding; he was promoted three times.  His supervisor offered him a military deferment to continue to work there.  Mac said no.  That was the first of two opportunities Mac had to not go to war.

Military Training.

Harold Franklin McDonald was inducted into the US Army on February 11, 1943.  Private (Pvt.) McDonald trained as a combat infantryman and was assigned as a gunner in a five-man mortar squad with the US Army 97th Infantry Division (ID).  He was promoted to Private First Class (Pfc.) on September 16, 1944.

Stateside training concluded in California.  During a training exercise in the surrounding hills around San Diego, California, a brush fire burned Mac’s hands, and he was hospitalized at nearby Camp Cook.  The burns became gangrenous.  A military physician told him that he could get a medical discharge.  That was Mac’s second opportunity to not go to war.  

Many of the 97th ID training exercises in California involved amphibious landings.  Mac said their “graduation” exercise was a full scale, live ammunition, amphibious beach landing on San Clemente Island off the coast of California with 500 pound bombs dropped. Many soldiers in the 97th ID thought they were going to be sent to the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO).  The US Army 97th ID was sent (first) to the European Theater of Operations (ETO).  

[According to the history of the 97th ID, it was sent to Europe instead of the Pacific because of the high loss of US military during the Battle of the Bulge (December 16, 1944 – January 25, 1945.)]

By train from California to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.

The 97th ID left California by train traveling the Santa Fe Railroad southern route through Texas.  The trip took about five days.  

[Camp Kilmer was one of the staging areas on the east coast for military units being sent to the European Theater.  Transport ships carrying military troops and supplies would depart New York City and cross the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.]

While waiting for a ship at Camp Kilmer, the troops could get a military pass to visit New York City.  One of the most famous and popular places to visit was Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Bar and Cocktail Lounge near Forty-Ninth Street.  [William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey was a US professional boxer who held the world heavyweight title from 1919 to 1926.] 

 

 

At Jack Dempsey’s Bar and Lounge in 1945, left to right: Staff Sergeant Charles Birkes, Private First Class Harold McDonald, and First Sergeant Jules Donoff.  Photograph courtesy of the McDonald Family.

 

The 97th ID sailed from New York City on February 19, 1945, on the Merchant Ship (MS) Sea Robin and docked at La Havre, France, on March 2, 1945.

In a 2011 oral history interview with the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, Colonel Harold F. McDonald, US Army Reserve (Retired), shared his experiences during WWII.

The European Theater of Operations (ETO).

Pfc. McDonald was now assigned to the 386th Infantry Regiment, Company C.

On March 29, 1945, the 97th ID was transported in 40 x 8 (40 men or 8 horses) boxcars from Rouen, France, through Maastricht, Netherlands, to the German border.  At the border the train engine was changed to the rear of the line of boxcars which were then pushed across a bridge into the area around Aachen, Germany.  As the men got off the train, they lined up in columns of two and marched toward the front lines. Mac remembers the sound of boots marching on snow, seeing dead bodies lying in a minefield, and observed the night sky lit up by artillery fire.

Mac’s company took up a defensive position across the Rhine River from Düsseldorf, Germany.  As the 97th ID position moved south along the Rhine at one time they were relieved by a US Army 101st Airborne unit. They watched the 101st add multiple telephone lines to prevent the loss of communication in the area.  Mac said they were “very impressed” with the 101st and learned the importance of redundancy.  Also, they noticed the “battle tested” 101st put their trench knives in their boots.  Mac said he and his company started to put their trench knives in their boots.

As Mac and his company advanced into Germany they encountered groups of displaced persons (DP) fleeing west, mostly Polish and Czech slave laborers who were forced to work in German armament factories.  [A DP is defined as a person outside the border of their home country when WWII ended.]

The 97th ID crossed the Sieg River in Germany on April 7, 1945, and joined the Battle for the Ruhr Pocket (April 1 – 18, 1945).  

[During the Battle for the Ruhr Pocket, Pfc. Joe R. Hastings of the 97th ID, 386th Infantry Regiment, Company C would distinguish himself in action when attacking an enemy position at Drabenderhöhe, Germany.  He would posthumously be awarded the Medal of Honor.  Mac knew him; they had played cards together.] 

After capturing a German town in the Ruhr and having some stand-down time,  Mac and another soldier “liberated” a German Opal and drove into the forested hills north of the town.  In the forest they were taken by surprise when German soldiers surrounded the car. Mac got out of the vehicle, started to put his hands up, saw a German soldier with his arms up in surrender, quickly reassessed the situation, put his hands down, took out his .45 calibre pistol, shot it into the air, and then aimed it at the Germans and said, “You are my prisoners.”  A German soldier handed his MP40 submachine gun (Allies called it a Schmeisser) to Mac in a gesture of surrender.  Mac fired  it into the air, and it jammed; the soldier took the submachine gun back from him, unjammed it, and handed it back to Mac.  A German major, in perfect English, said he would only surrender to an officer.  There being no US Army officer nearby, he decided to surrender to Pfc. Harold McDonald and asked to bury the German dead before they left the area.  The request was granted.  Pfc. McDonald ordered the Germans to line up in a column of two, and they marched out of the forest into the town where Mac’s unit was waiting for the surrendering Germans.  Mac said he and the German major talked during the march.  The major who was in charge of an artillery unit told Mac his last order was to use all of his ammunition, and then they could surrender.  

Mac said in his interview that “surrendering is an art” that may or may not be successful.

On April 25, 1945, during combat with the Germans in a partially wooded area just inside the Germany and Czechoslovakia border, a member of Mac’s unit, Pfc. John “Jack” Van Valkenberg, was shot in the abdomen by a German.  The company medic, Pfc. Charles Kuhlman, who was identifiable with a Red Cross on his helmet and on his medical bag, went into an open field to treat him.  Jack did not survive his wound.  Pfc. Kuhlman was walking back to the American line when he was shot in the back by a German.  He was within a few feet of Mac; Mac was looking at him.  Mac saw the fatal bullet exit through the medic’s field jacket pocket. The 97th called in an artillery attack on the wooded area and approximately 50 Germans surrendered.

The 97th ID had advanced into Czechoslovakia when on May 8, 1945, WWII officially ended in the ETO.  The division moved back in stages to Le Havre, France, and on June 16, 1945, set sail for Boston, Massachusetts.

The division was given a 30-day leave back in the US.

The Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO).

On September 1, 1945, the 97th ID departed Seattle, Washington, on the USS General John Pope for the Pacific Theater.  Mac said a band was playing the Glenn Miller song Sentimental Journey when the ship left.

On September 2, 1945, the Japanese officially surrendered to the Allies on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japan.

The 97th ID arrived in Yokohama, Japan, on September 25, 1945.  The division would be part the post WWII Allied occupation force with an assignment to dispose of and confiscate Japanese military property.  Mac’s company was sent to Chichibu in the Saitama Prefecture on Honshu.  One of their duties was to guard the Asan gas dump and aviation fuel tanks and to insure all military factories in the area were closed.  They found a closed factory building where Japanese uniforms were made during the war.  However, the factory owner had moved the manufacturing equipment to a dormitory housing workers and set up a production line there.  The factory was closed a second time.

In February 1946 the 97th began sending troops back to the US.  Mac recalled taking a train from Chichibu to Tokyo, Japan.  While waiting for a ship returning Allied troops to the US, he played his first game of golf at the Tokyo Country Club.

Due to rough weather in the Pacific Ocean, Mac’s military transport ship returned to Los Angeles, California, instead of Seattle.  The ship arrived at night; there were no bands or welcoming crowds.  But Mac had survived the war.  He was 22 years old.

On March 31, 1946, the US Army 97th ID was inactivated in Yokohama.

[The last official shot of WWII in the ETO was credited to Pfc. Domenic Mozzetta of the 97th ID, 387th Infantry Regiment, Company B when before midnight on May 7, 1945, he shot at a German sniper near the town of Klenovice in Czechoslovakia.

During WWII the 97th ID had liberated a prisoner of war camp in Hoffnungstal, Germany; liberated (with the 90th ID) Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria, Germany; and liberated Helmbrechts, Germany, concentration camp, a Flossenbürg sub-camp for women.

Counter-intelligence officers of the 97th ID in Japan would find $3 million dollars of silver bullion in Iida and $2.5 million dollars of stolen radium in the Osaka German consulate on October 26, 1945. In Karuizawa on October 31, 1945, the 97th ID counter-intelligence Special Agent Robie Macauley arrested 26 prominent Nazis who were hiding there.]

After WWII using the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, Mac attended the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Civil Engineering.  While in school he met a young lady, Sara (Sally) Yetter.  They were married in 1950 and had three children.

Many returning servicemen after WWII decided to stay in the US military either on active duty or in the reserves.  Mac joined the US Army Reserve.  In his civilian life, he had a successful career as a businessman and banker.  He retired from the US Army Reserve as a Colonel in 1978.

 

Retirement ceremony for US Army Colonel Harold F. McDonald in 1978. His wife is standing to his left.  Photograph courtesy of the McDonald Family.

 

Harold F. “Mac” McDonald passed away on June 14, 2012.  When I interviewed him in 2011 he had a final thought about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan that ended WWII.  When Mac arrived for occupation duty in 1945 he saw three rows of trenches dug along the shoreline around Yokohama.  During his time in Japan he observed the military capabilities of the Japanese and the spirit of the citizenry who would have fought to their death.  His belief was that many more Japanese and Allied lives, above the number of those lost in the dropping of the two atomic bombs, would have been lost if  the planned Allied invasion of Japan (Operation Downfall) had taken place.  

 

 

Thank you to Kathleen, Linda, and John, the children of Harold McDonald for their help in researching this story and for permission to use the photographs.

Harold F. McDonald’s full interview is in the archives of the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.  Thank you to museum archivist Chris McDougal for providing information related to this story.

Thank you to historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Director of the East Anglia Air War Project, for his research assistance.

Thank you to WWII historian and researcher Sue Moyer.

Thank you to historian G.L. Lamborn.

 

Escape Over the Pyrenees Mountains: And the Story of WWII B-17 Gunner “Bud” Owens

 

Francis “Bud” Owens during B-17 Flying Fortress training with the 381st Bombardment Group at Pyote Army Air Base, Texas, spring 1943.  Photograph WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society.

 

Francis Edward “Bud” Owens was born December 26, 1923, in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania.  He was one of 10 children.  

Bud enlisted in the United States (US) Army after the December 7, 1941, Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii.  He became a member of the newly formed United States Army Air Force 381st Bombardment Group (BG) flying the B-17 Flying Fortress and trained in Pyote, Texas, and Pueblo, Colorado.  The 381st BG arrived at Ridgewell, Station 167, County Essex, England, in May and June 1943.  Staff Sergeant (S/Sgt.) Owens was assigned as a B-17 gunner in the 533rd Bombardment Squadron (BS).

June 23, 1943.  In the early morning darkness the 533rd BS Ordance crew was loading bombs (with the fuses in place*) on B-17 tail number 42-30024 for a mission that day.  One of the bombs exploded and caused a series of explosions as other bombs and ammunition aboard and near the plane also blew up.  S/Sgt. Owens was in a nearby aircraft cleaning the guns when he saw a man who was still alive lying on the ground in the explosion area.  He ran over and pulled Private First Class Glen W. Burkland to safety.  For his bravery S/Sgt. Owens was awarded the Soldier’s Medal which is awarded for “distinguishing oneself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.”  Twenty-three men of the 381st BG and one civilian died that day.

July 4, 1943.  Wartime industrial installations in Le Mans, France, were the Allied targets for the US Eighth Air Force that day.  Ninety-five B-17s were deployed for the mission.  Four B-17s were lost.  

One of the aircraft lost that day was 381st BG B-17 42-29928.  Flying to the target it was attacked by Messerschmitt 109 (ME 109) German fighter planes.  After the number 4 engine and the rudder were hit and with the oxygen line to the rear of the aircraft compromised, Pilot First Lieutenant (1st Lt.) Olof M. Ballinger made the decision to drop out of formation and attempt to return to England.  German fighters continued to attack and anti-aircraft artillery flak was in the air.  B-17 Navigator Second Lieutenant (2nd Lt.) Paul H. McConnell shot down an ME 109 with machine gun fire.  Ballinger gave the crew the order to bailout.  

Left Waist Gunner Owens, realizing no one had heard from the radio operator, opened the door of the radio room discovering a seriously wounded Radio Operator Technical Sergeant (T/Sgt.) John K. Lane.  Flak had most likely hit the aircraft under the radio room, and there was a fire.  Seeing Lane’s condition and noticing his parachute was on fire, Bud pulled him from the room over to the B-17 waist hatch, put his own parachute on Lane, and pushed him out of the plane while pulling the D ring on the parachute.  He then found the spare parachute in the plane, put it on, and jumped.  [T/Sgt. Lane would be found by the Germans, treated for his injuries, and became a prisoner of war (POW).]

Bombardier 2nd Lt. George C. Williams’ parachute accidentally deployed inside of the B-17.  He was last seen moving toward the back of the plane to locate the spare parachute.  2nd Lt. Williams, Ball Turret Gunner S/Sgt. Albert G. Wackermann, and Right Waist Gunner S/Sgt. Harry W. Bauscher were killed in action that day.

The B-17 crashed and exploded in a farm field just south of the village of La Coulonche in the Normandy region of France.  

Flight Engineer and Top Turret Gunner T/Sgt. Byron J. Gronstal  became a POW.  Pilot 1st Lt. Olof M. Ballinger, Co-Pilot 2nd Lt. John M. Carah, Navigator 2nd Lt. Paul H. McConnell, Tail Gunner S/Sgt. William C. Howell, and S/Sgt. Francis E. Owens escaped capture by the Germans and were found by members of the French Resistance.

[Resistance groups in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Denmark formed escape and evasion lines to rescue British and American airmen shot down over occupied Europe and to help in their return to England.  

 

Map of WWII Pat, Comet, and Shelburne Escape Lines.  Map WWII Netherlands Escape Lines.

 

The Pat Line (also known as the Pat O’Leary Line), the Comet Line, and the Shelburne Line are noted in the illustration above.  There were other escape lines also, and routes could vary depending on German presence or activity in an area.  Resistance members and Helpers (those people sheltering airmen, providing food and clothing, accompanying them between safe houses and other locations), if caught by the Germans, could be arrested, sent to concentration camps, or executed.  

It is estimated that about 5,000 Allied airmen were helped to evade capture by the Germans in WWII.]

1st Lt. Ballinger and S/Sgt. Owens were found by local Frenchmen on July 4 after parachuting from the B-17 and were reunited while hiding in the area.  

September 1, 1943. Ballinger and Owens were moved from the Normandy countryside to Paris.

October 21, 1943. They left Paris by train for southern France with other evaders to begin the journey over the Pyrenees Mountains. 

 

The Pyrenees Mountains divide France from Spain and stretch about 270 miles (435 kilometers) from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea.  Photograph World Atlas.

 

The plan for the escape group was to climb from France over the Pyrenees to Andorra and then into Spain.  Map World Atlas.

 

The  Allied escape group consisted of seven Americans and seven French military officers.  [Not much historically is known about the Frenchmen in the group.]  The American evaders:

 

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and Boren family.

Major William T. Boren, Pilot, B-26 Marauder, 387th BG.  Aircraft crashed in France September 21, 1943.  

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and daughters Debra and Patricia Ballinger.

1st Lt. Olof M. Ballinger, Pilot, 381st BG.  B-17 shot down over France on July 4, 1943.

 

 

 

 

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and Keith Murray.

1st Lt. Keith W. Murray, Bombardier, 95th BG.  B-17 shot down near Paris, France, on September 6, 1943.

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and grandson Aaron Leary.

2nd Lt. Charles H. Hoover, Pilot, 381st BG.  B-17 shot down over Belgium on September 3, 1943.

 

 

 

 

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and cousin K. Ellis.

2nd Lt. Harold B. Bailey, Navigator, 379th BG.  Bailed out of B-17 August 16, 1943 near Paris, France.

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and brother Oscar Plasket.

T/Sgt. William B. Plasket, Jr., Radio Operator, 306th BG.  B-17 crashed near Rouen, France, on September 6, 1943.

 

 

 

Photograph WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society.

 

 

S/Sgt. Francis E. Owens, Waist Gunner, 381st BG.  B-17 shot down July 4, 1943, over France.

 

 

 

October 22, 1943.  The journey over the Pyrenees into neutral Spain started in the foothills of the mountains near Suc, France, with local guide Emile Delpy and another unidentified guide.   

French guide Emile Delpy. Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and Claude Benet (Andorra, Spain, historian).

The Americans who had been in hiding for months were weak from inactivity and lack of food.  The French provided the evaders with what food they could, but the German seizure of French provisions left the French with inadequate food supplies.  

To disguise the evaders the French Resistance and Helpers provided them with French clothing and footwear.  But the clothing and footwear were inadequate for the climb and the unforeseen weather.  An early snowstorm blanketed the Pyrenees with about three feet of snow.  

1st Lt. Ballinger due to weakness and leg cramping dropped out of the group and hid from the Germans in the area.  [Ballinger would later cross the Pyrenees on his own, with good weather, navigating by the stars and sun.  He eventually reached Gibralter, a British Overseas Territory, in southern Spain and returned to England on December 3, 1943.]

During the climb up the Pyrenees 2nd Lt. Bailey collapsed and could no longer walk.  According to interviews with surviving evaders, Sergeants Plasket and Owens dragged and carried Bailey about eight hours of the journey as the group ascended up the mountains.  The group had crossed into Spain and started their descent when Owens and Plasket collapsed from exhaustion.  Bailey and Plasket were unconscious.  Owens was semi-conscious but couldn’t move.  The guides tried to revive the three men without success.  After several attempts the guides made the difficult decision to continue on with the remaining ten evaders.  The three American airmen were left behind in the snow.  

On or about October 25, 1943.  Believed to be the date of death of the three American airmen in the Pyrenees Mountains.

Spring 1944.  Three bodies without identification were discovered in the mountains by Andorran shepherds.  They were buried in a cemetery near Arinsal, Andorra.  

1951.  An American Graves Registration unit disinterred the bodies in 1950 and positively identified them in 1951.

Harold Brunson Bailey was buried at the Lancaster Memorial Park in Lancaster, South Carolina.

William Beebe Plasket, Jr., was buried at the East View Cemetery in Salem, New Jersey.

October 1, 1951.  Francis Edward “Bud” Owens was buried at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium.  While he was being laid to rest, Bud’s family members, at that moment, were attending a Requiem Mass in his memory at Saint Mary Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

2006.  In September 1943 before being moved to Paris by the French Underground, Bud gave his military identification “dog tags” to the Duval family who had hidden him in the Normandy countryside.  In the 1980s, former Ballinger crew member Paul McConnell visited La Coulonche.  He was given the dog tags and asked to return them to the Owens family next of kin if he could find them.  Paul McConnell passed away without finding the family, and the responsibility was given to Warren Carah, son of the crew Co-Pilot John M. Carah.  In 2006 Warren presented Bud’s dog tags to the Owens family in Pittsburgh.

 

 

 

Co-Pilot 2nd Lt. John M. Carah, Navigator 2nd Lt. Paul H. McConnell, Tail Gunner S/Sgt. William C. Howell were helped by other French Resistance groups after they parachuted from their B-17 on July 4, 1943.  They crossed the Pyrenees, were helped by British diplomats once in Spain, and returned to England in February 1944.

Lieutenant Colonel John M. Carah, US Air Force (Retired), would later write a book Achtung! Achtung! Die Flugfestungen Kommen! (Attention! Attention! The Flying Fortresses Are Coming!), Memoirs of WW-II  with his son Warren Carah who edited the book.  It provides in-depth information about the Ballinger crew and the experiences of other downed American airmen in WWII Europe.  Thank you to Warren Carah for his support in the research for this story.  He can be contacted at wcarah@livingonline.com.

*In a 2013 documentary From Pyote to Fortress Europe about the WWII 381st BG, 533rd BS Ordnance Chief S/Sgt. Joe H. Willis, on the taxi strip at the time of the June 23, 1943, explosion, said in a 2003 interview with WWII Historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams that procedures after that incident were changed when loading bombs into aircraft.  Fuses were placed in the bombs after they were loaded, not before, and fewer people were allowed in the area around a plane during the loading.

A 2016 documentary filmed in France, Spain, and Belgium Preserving a Legacy: In the Footsteps of Bud Owens Belgian battlefield guide Geert Van den Bogaert leads a group from the Normandy countryside, hiking over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain, with the film concluding at the grave of Bud Owens in the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium.  Bud’s niece, Colleen Brennan, and his great-niece, Hayley Hulbert, represented Bud on the journey.  Thank you to the Owens family for providing information used in the writing of this story.

Early in WWII escape lines were mainly financed by individuals in German-occupied countries.  Later on monetary support was given by the British Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 9 (MI-9) and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).  Support included agents parachuting into occupied countries to help the Resistance and bringing maps, money, and false documents with them to help downed Allied airmen.  Pyrenees guide Emile Delpy worked with MI-9.

The WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society identifies and describes many of the escape lines used in WW2 Europe.  Search this website for additional stories about Bud Owens.

Thank you to WWII Historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams, WWII Historian and Researcher Sue Moyer, 306th BG Historical Association Historian Clifford Deets, and Editor of the 8th Air Force News Magazine Debra Kujawa.