The British Crown Colony of Malta under Siege in WWII

 

Anti-aircraft gun protecting the Grand Harbor at Valletta, Malta, circa 1940.

 

WWII Mediterranean Theater.  Map www.naval-history.net.

 

The coralline limestone archipelago of Malta became part of the British Empire in 1814.  Valletta, the capital of Malta, was the headquarters of the Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet until it was moved to Alexandria, Egypt, in the late 1930s prior to the start of WWII.  The location of Malta was considered too susceptible to enemy air strikes should Italy become a belligerent in a future conflict.  Britain did decide to build up the offensive and defensive capabilities of Malta but had not completed the task before WWII started.

Malta is located in the Mediterranean Sea halfway between Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt, and with important shipping lanes passing near Malta, it was positioned to be of strategic value to the WWII Allies and Axis countries.  In Douglas Porch’s book The Path to Victory he writes, “Malta was the only place in the central Mediterranean where bombers flying from Gibraltar to Suez could refuel.  Valletta’s Grand Harbor … supplied the only haven for British ships in a long stretch of otherwise hostile Axis sea.  Malta’s problem was that while it lay eleven hundred miles from Gibraltar and nine hundred miles from Egypt, Valletta was only twenty minutes’ flying time from Sicily.”

Malta did have some military advantages before WWII began.  It was the first country in the British Empire outside of Britain to receive Radio Directing Finding technology (a type of early radar).  It was also a “listening post” intercepting German Enigma message traffic. 

England and France declared war on Germany two days after the September 1, 1939, invasion of Poland.  Nine months later on June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on England and France.

Malta was a naval and military fortress that was essential to the Allies.  It was the only Allied base in the Mediterranean between British controlled Gibraltar and Egypt.  Allied warships and submarines used Malta’s harbors.  Bombers, fighters, and reconnaissance aircraft could fly from its three airfields and seaplane base.  

Axis Mediterranean shipping routes bringing supplies to General Rommel and the German Africa Korps during the North African Campaign (1940 – 1943) were vulnerable to Allied submarines and aircraft operating out of Malta. 

[The Axis thought it could defeat the British forces and civilian population on Malta with aerial bombardment only.  After failure to accomplish that Germany and Italy considered a land invasion codename Operation Hercules in 1942, but the plan was never executed.]

 

The first air attack on Malta by Italy was on June 11, 1940. 

Anti-artillery posts were established on Malta to defend against the fierce Italian and later German aerial bombing raids.

The only air defense in Malta at the outbreak of WWII was a small force of Gloster Sea Gladiator biplanes which were flown by the newly formed Hal Far Fighter Flight.  A Malta newspaper would later name three of the biplanes Faith, Hope, and Charity.

 

Faith Gloster Sea Gladiator at an airfield in Malta circa 1940.

 

By the end of June British Hawker Hurricane fighters arrived in Malta.  They became a component of the Royal Air Force No. 261 Squadron.

In January 1941 the German Luftwaffe X Fliegerkorps flying from Sicily launched a bombing offensive against Malta.

British Spitfire fighters would arrive on Malta in March 1942.  The Spitfires were the first to be deployed outside of Britain.  The Spitfires were a more equal match for the Italian and German fighter planes.

In April 1942 the aircraft carrier United States Ship (USS) Wasp (CV-7), then part of the Atlantic Campaign, was attached to the British Home Fleet to deliver aircraft to Malta which was teetering on defeat after intense Italian and German bombing and military and civilian supply shortages.  The Prime Minister of England Winston Churchill asked United States President Franklin Roosevelt for assistance to save Malta.  The USS Wasp would make two trips ferrying Spitfires.  Once through the Strait of Gibraltar the Spitfires would fly off the carrier. The flying distance to Malta was within 700 miles.

 

USS Wasp

 

USS Wasp with Spitfires and Grumman F4F Wildcats aboard.

 

 

Allied submarines played a significant role in the defeat of the Axis in the Mediterranean.  Sinking or damaging Axis ships sailing to North Africa with needed supplies affected the fighting capability and morale of German and Italian troops.

The Polish submarine ORP (English translation, Warship of the Republic of Poland) Sokół (Falcon) was based at the Malta Manoel Island submarine base from September 1941 to March 1944.  She was attached to the Royal Navy 10th Submarine Flotilla. ORP Sokół sank or damaged 19 enemy vessels.

 

ORP Sokół photographed in Malta circa 1943.

 

At the time of the surrender of France to Germany on June 10, 1940, the French submarine Narval was at sea in the Mediterranean and had been ordered not to visit any British ports.  The submarine commander Captain Cloarec ignored the order, sailed to Malta, and joined the Free French Naval Forces.  In December 1940 it sank after hitting a mine.

 

The population of Malta in June 1940 was over 250,000.  The first air attack on Malta by Italy on June 11, 1940, was the first of  seven raids that day.  The siege of Malta began.

During the seige the people of Malta were unified.  Shelters were dug into the limestone rock of the island.  The civilians and military worked together.  Rationing began in February 1941.  Food, fuel, and ammunition shortages were common.  Supplies would sometimes get through, but by the spring of 1942 Malta’s lack of food, water shortages, poor nutrition, and sanitation problems reached a peak.  Malta had chosen September 1942 as a surrender date. 

To aid Malta and attempt to prevent a surrender, the British developed a plan codename Operation Pedestal.  In August 1942 a convoy with 14 ships carrying needed supplies and fuel left England. Porch’s book Path to Victory states, “The ‘Pedestal’ convoy, guarded by two battleships, four carriers, seven cruisers, thirty-three destroyers, and twenty-four submarines and minesweepers, as well as more than two hundred planes, cleared Gibralter on 10 August.  For the next four days it endured a massive sea and air assault by forces alerted to the convoy’s approach by Axis intelligence.”

One of the convoy ships, Ohio, carried 10,000 tons of aviation fuel.  Ohio, an American oil tanker owned by Texas Oil Company (known later as Texaco), was requisitioned by the Allies to bring the desperately needed fuel to Malta.

After entering the Mediterranean and the ensuing intense battle, Ohio was very badly damaged.  It was abandoned twice and re-boarded twice. Ohio had been a prime target of the Axis forces.  Forty miles or so outside of Malta desperate measures were taken to get the tanker to its destination.

 

Ohio making its way into Valletta’s Grand Harbor supported by British destroyers.

 

In recounting the effort to save Ohio, curator of the National War Museum in Valletta, Mr. Debono, states that in an effort to lift the morale of those slowly guiding and maneuvering the ship to Malta, the HMS Penn played a well known song of the day Chattanooga Choo Choo loudly over its public address system. 

Mr. Debono recounts that on August 15th at 8 a.m. Ohio made its way into Valletta’s Grand Harbor being towed and supported by British destroyers HMS Penn and HMS Bramham.  It arrived to a cheering crowd and a band playing God Save the KingRule Britannia, and The Star Spangled Banner.  A crew member on a ship reported being emotionally overwhelmed by the greeting of the Maltese people that day.  

August 15th is the Feast of Santa Marija (Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady).  The Maltese continue to call the WWII convoy the Santa Marija Convoy.

After the last of its fuel was drained from the ship, Ohio split in half and sank in Grand Harbor. 

The delivery of fuel revitalized the air offensive against the Axis Mediterranean shipping routes bringing supplies to General Rommel and the German Africa Korps.

During the 1940 – 1942 Axis bombing of Malta, there had been 3,340 bombing alerts.  

Italy surrendered on September 8, 1943.  The Italian Naval Fleet surrendered in Grand Harbor, Valletta, Malta.

The George Cross was awarded by King George VI to the people of Malta to “bear witness to the heroism and the devotion of its people”  during the siege of Malta.

In 1964 the British Parliament passed the Malta Independence Act.  Malta became the State of Malta and in 1974 the Republic of Malta.

 

 

The USS Wasp was transferred from the WWII Atlantic Theater to the Pacific Theater in June 1942.  After being hit by multiple Japanese submarine torpedoes on September 15 of that year, she was abandoned and scuttled.  The wreck of the USS Wasp was discovered on January 14, 2019.

WWII Ghost Army: And A LIFE Magazine Art Contest

 
Since the WWII US Army 23rd Headquarters Special Troops unit was a secret and covert group, there was no official military patch. This “ghost patch” symbol was painted on the cover page of the Official History of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops document written in 1945 by unit member Captain Fred Fox.  The original document is in the National Archives.

 

Planning for the WWII Allied invasion of Europe began in 1943.  Operation Bodyguard and Operation Fortitude were employed as Allied landing deception plans with three objectives:  (1) to conceal the chosen Allied landing at Normandy, France, (2) to mislead the Germans as to the actual location, date, and time of the landing, and (3) to divert and keep German troops from reinforcing the Normandy area.  Operation Neptune, the naval planning phase to cross the British Channel, and Operation Overlord, the landing and battle plan, were closely coordinated for the Allied landing initially planned for June 5, 1944.  Weather conditions would eventually change the landing date to June 6, 1944.

Before the actual invasion of France, deception plans included double agents, false information passed through diplomatic channels and wireless activities, and physical deceptions such as dummy tanks placed strategically in Britain to confuse and fool any aerial German reconnaissance activity.  These methods were referred to as “Special Means.”  The British had great success using deception tactics during the North Africa Campaign [June 10, 1940 – May 13, 1943].

In late 1943 a United States (US) Army Captain Ralph Ingersoll was working with Allied planners in London to develop plans and strategy to deceive the Germans before, during, and after the planned 1944 Normandy invasion.  He had an idea to establish a separate American military deception unit.  The US Pentagon approved the idea, and a new Army unit with a mission of deception, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, was activated on January 20, 1944.  Colonel Harry L. Reader was named its commander.

Members of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops were a carefully chosen group of 1,100 men who were artists, sonic (sound) technicians, meteorologists, actors, set designers, engineers, camouflage experts, illustrators, architects, and other creative people and ordinary soldiers.  Their combined talents would be used to deceive, confuse, and mislead the German Army.

The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was organized into four units having special areas of expertise:

The 603rdEngineer Camouflage Battalion Special

Of the 379 men in this unit, many were artists recruited from New York City and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, art schools.  Using props such as inflatable rubber tanks, jeeps, artillery, and aircraft they staged visual deceptions to trick and confuse the Germans.

 

US Army Signal Corps photograph of a tank in a bag. Air compressors, bicycle pumps, or men simply blowing it up (as a last resort), would inflate it.  National Archives

 

US Army Signal Corps photograph of dummy tank assembly.  National Archives

 

Inflatable dummy tank.  National Archives

 

It took under 30 minutes to inflate a rubber tank with an air compressor.  An inflated tank weighed 93 pounds.

The Signal Company Special

This 296 man unit mastered the use of radio deception, also known as “spoof radio,” and sent fake transmissions trying to bluff the Germans as to the location, strength, and readiness of other Allied units. 

The 3132 Signal Service Company Special

The sonic (sound) effects of this 145 man group, usually used at night with sound recordings projected from 500 pound powerful speakers on the back of jeeps or half-tracks, could project previously recorded  “noise” associated with a military group changing locations or operating in a certain position.  In some scenarios the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops would “cover” a secret departure of a military unit to another location, and then they would move in and impersonate them.  With the information from a mobile weather unit and an ideal setup location, sound transmissions could be heard by the Germans as far away as 15 miles (24 kilometers).

 

US half-track military vehicle with mounted powerful speakers used for sonic deception.  National Archives

 

The 406thEngineer Combat Special

This fourth unit of 168 men was trained as combat soldiers.  They had skills in demolition, construction, and provided security for the 23rd.  With their bulldozers they could simulate the tracks of dummy military vehicles to add to the illusion of vehicle deployment.

 

Dummy tanks and military vehicles placed near the Rhine River in March 1945. The illusion of vehicle tracks was created with bulldozers used by the 406th Engineer Combat Company Special.  National Archives

 

On May 2, 1944, three units of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops sailed to England. The 3132 Signal Service Company Special was still training in the US.

Combat action started for the 23rd when a 15-man platoon from the unit was sent to Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on June 14, 1944.

All four components of this secret Army unit would be brought together in France in August 1944 when the 23rd participated in Operation Brest (August 20 – 27, 1944) to capture the French seaport of Brest from the Germans.

The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops existed to make “make-believe” believable to the enemy.  They would manipulate sight and sound to bewilder the Germans.  They had the capability of impersonating two divisions of thirty thousand men.

Creativity, deception, and courage were literally the order of the day.  When the 23rd would impersonate other units, they set themselves up for attacks by the Germans who didn’t know who they really were.

23rd Headquarters Special Troops unit deceptions and activities needed to be kept secret from both the enemy as well as other Allied units. 

Some of their tactics included set ups of dummy aircraft on dummy airfields, dummy artillery positions with dummy shells nearby, wearing their handmade shoulder patches to impersonate other units, setting up phony command posts with 23rd Headquarters Special Troops pretending to be US generals and high ranking officers, moving into the military position of an actual infantry or armored division so that the division could strategically move to another location, driving into a town with fake vehicle identification markings, or spending time in local pubs and seemingly during small talk and drinking give away secret and classified information to any potential spies in the vicinity.  Their job was a creative and theatrical show as the men deceived, manipulated, mimicked, created illusions of sight and sound, and befuddled intended enemy targets.

In Operation  Bettembourg (September 15 – 22, 1944) General George Patton’s Third Army planned an attack on the French city of Metz.  A 70 mile (113 kilometer) gap along the US front line north of Metz was critically undermanned and weakly fortified.  The US 83rd Infantry Division (ID) arrival at that location had been delayed.  The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops covered the gap by impersonating the US 6th Armored Division until the 83rd ID arrived. 

From Operation Elephant (July 1 – 4, 1944) to Operation Viersen (March 18 – 24, 1945) the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops had participated in 21 WWII operations in the European Theater of Operations.  

The Germans referred to this illusive military group as the Phantom Army.

The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops through their deceptions and impersonations have been credited with possibly saving the lives of an estimated thirty thousand Allied troops in WWII. 

Information about the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was not declassified until 1996. 

Many of the talented and artistic members of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops went on after WWII and had successful careers in the Arts.  Photographer Art Kane, artist Ellsworth Kelly, wildlife artist Arthur Singer, and fashion designer Bill Blass were a few of  those who served in the secret unit with a mission of deception.

 

A WWII Art Contest

 

This publication announced the winners of the LIFE magazine sponsored art contest. Copyright 1942 by Time, Inc.

 

In 1941 the US Navy Combat Art Program and in 1942 the US Army War Art Unit were established.  The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was activated in 1944. Artists were being sought to fill positions in these and possibly other military units.

LIFE’S Art Competition for Men of the Armed Forces drew 1,500 entries from the Army, Navy, Air Corps, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.  Pictures were submitted by military personnel assigned throughout the US and included entries from as far away as Trinidad, Greenland, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii.

Before serving in the US military Ralph Ingersoll [a name mentioned in the first part of this WWII story] was general manager of Time, Inc., and is credited in part with the founding of LIFE magazine.  He would inspire the formation of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and would be a staff officer in the deception unit.  

Was this WWII art contest a secret plan between the US government and LIFE magazine to find needed artists using the pretense of a public competition? 

The art contest did attract many very talented artists from all ranks of the US military.

 

First Prize Troop Movements by Private (Pvt.) Robert Burns. He was 25 years old and had attended the Yale School of the Fine Arts. Pvt. Burns was teaching at Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida, when he was inducted into the US Army. The painting was inspired by his first ride in a truck convoy at Fort Blanding (correct name Camp Blanding), Florida, while in military training.  Copyright 1942 by Time, Inc.

 

Second Prize Practice Landing by Sergeant Bob Majors and Third Prize Convoy Practice by Pvt. Edward Chávez.  Copyright 1942 by Time, Inc.

 

LIFE magazine art contest First Prize winner Robert Clayton Burns and Third Prize winner Edward Arcenio Chávez had successful art careers after WWII.  No information has been found on Sergeant Bob Majors.

 

 

The book The Ghost Army of World War II  by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles (her father William Sayles was a member of the Ghost Army) is an excellent telling of the story of the US Army 23rd Headquarters Special Troops in WWII.  The story is also told in a PBS documentary The Ghost Army.

Thank you to historian Dr. George Kelling who gave me the publication which announced the winners of the 1942 LIFE magazine art contest.  It is from that publication that I started connecting the possible “covert” dots between the story of the Ghost Army and the art contest.

 

The “Little Tin Guy”: And the Story of WWII 306th BG B-17 Navigator Adrian E. O’Konski

 

Second Lieutenant Adrian E. O’Konski, November 1943.  

 

Excerpt about the navigator’s job from a 1943 Army Air Forces Southeast Training Center publication:

“They call him the Little Tin Guy.

His nerves seem all metal, his mind works like a compass, and his job is to get our bombers there and get ’em back, over land, over water, through weather and rain and hail and fog — through anything!  He is better known as the navigator. 

Without the navigator, bombers would be freight loads of destruction rushing at terrific speed through tractless space but rushing without purpose, without destination.

To be classified as navigator he must be a steady-nerved, cool-headed individual capable of making lightning decisions. … He must have the brawn and the wind to move around in a plane at high altitudes, forsaking his oxygen.  He must be able to work complicated problems at dizzy heights where the average man cannot add three and six.

The best and most independent old pilots warm up to their navigators in direct proportion to the distance they have to fly.  Flying in this war is almost all long-distance flying.  The emphasis is on the navigator.  The emphasis is on the Little Tin Guy!”

 

Adrian was born November 4, 1917, to Frank and Antonia (Paska) O’Konski who owned a farm in West Kewaunee, Kewaunee County, Wisconsin.  He was one of 10 children.  Two of his siblings, Genevieve and Lawrence, died as young children.  Adrian’s grandparents had emigrated from Prussia [present day Poland] to the United States (US) in the late 1800s.

 

The O’Konski family circa late 1930s: (left to right) sitting–Tom, father Frank, mother Antonia, and Mary; standing–Stanley, Alvin, Frank, Jr., Leo, Adrian, and Anna.

 

Adrian was a schoolteacher when he enlisted in the US Army Air Forces (AAF) in May 1942.

Appointed an Aviation Cadet and due to class scheduling issues, Adrian initially attended the Flexible Gunnery School at Buckingham Army Airfield at Fort Myers, Florida, before reporting to an AAF Classification Center.  He graduated from gunnery school July 8, 1942.

After gunnery school, Adrian reported to the 52nd AAF Flying Training Detachment in Albany, Georgia.  At this AAF Classification Center the aviation cadets were administered weighted psychological tests and mental examinations to determine those men who would best be qualified to become pilots, bombardiers, and navigators.  After being classified a navigator,  Adrian began weeks of elementary navigation ground and flying training before being sent to a navigation school.  

After Classification Center graduation, Aviation Cadet O’Konski was sent to the AAF Navigation School at Selman Field in Monroe, Louisiana, for advanced training.  The School had a difficult curriculum of ground and flying instruction which was 18 weeks long.  In peacetime the course of instruction was given over a two year period.  Instruction included plotting flight direction and alternate routes, monitoring fuel consumption, locating targets and alternate targets, flying in all types of weather conditions at different times of the day and night and at different altitudes.  Pilotage, dead reckoning, radio communication, and celestial aspects of navigation were stressed.  

In a November 1943 letter to “Jocko” (a nickname for his brother, Stanley),  Adrian wrote of the importance of  “Zero Zero” in training which is the ultimate objective of the navigator.  He wrote, “Flew a Radius of Action today — that’s where you fly in one direction for a certain time.  You then must change course and get to a certain base within a given time within 2 minutes or less of the time you estimate which is determined by the amount of fuel you got.  Got there O–O on the way out 245 miles and was a mile and half minute off on the way back.  Time is so important that we must keep it to the second.  In celestial [navigation] each second off throws you a mile off — so you see what it means.”

Zero Zero navigation would play a major role in a July 24, 1944, combat flying mission to the Saint-Lô area of France.  All the instruction and flying training would prove vital in the quickly and ever changing environment of combat flying.  Comprehensive training before going to war can save lives.  

Aviation Cadet Adrian O’Konski graduated from the AAF Navigation School on November 13, 1943.  After graduation from a military school, aviation cadets were discharged from the US Army.  As was the custom, a few days later the men were again sworn into the US Army as a Second Lieutenant (2nd Lt.).

2nd Lt. Adrian O’Konski’s first assignment as an officer was crew training in the B-17 Flying Fortress at Army Air Field Ardmore, Oklahoma.

 

2nd Lt. Adrian O’Konski at the navigator’s desk in a B-17.  Note on back of photograph, “in flight 8,200 feet over Ardmore, Oklahoma.”

 

In June 1944 the B-17 Walter Sumner crew with 2nd Lt. O’Konski as navigator arrived in England ready for combat.  They were assigned to the US Eighth AAF, 306th Bombardment Group (BG), 368th Bomb Squadron (BS), based at Thurleigh.

 

306th BG, 368th BS, Sumner crew with Ground Maintenance crew based at Thurleigh, England, 1944: (left to right) sitting–Ground Maintenance crew for the Sumner B-17, no names available; Sumner crew kneeling–Tail Gunner Roy Ficklin, Jr., Ball Turret Gunner George Barber, Waist Gunner Robert Horste, Radio Operator Richard Hobbs, and Flight Engineer Roger Combs; standing–Pilot Walter Sumner, Co-Pilot Robert Scolnick, Navigator Adrian O’Konski, and Bombardier Parker Snead. Ground Maintenance crews are often the unsung heroes of the war. They worked long, hard hours to repair aircraft and keep them flying and safe for the men flying combat missions.

 

[Seven weeks after the D-Day landings at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, the British, Canadian, and American units were at a stalemate against the German defensive lines around Caen and in the bocage areas of Normandy.  Operation Cobra was an offensive launched by US Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, Commander of the First US Army, to push back and push through the German lines.  The First US Army would then be able to advance into Britanny.  The British Second Army and the Canadian First Army launched concurrent offensives with the US Eighth AAF which resulted in the success of  Operation Cobra, and the Allied lines advanced.

The plan of attack for Operation Cobra included the bombing of German defensive lines by B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator heavy bombers.  On July 24, 1944, over 1,500 bombers from the US Eighth AAF took off from England with a target destination of the Saint-Lô area of France.  Bad weather and miscommunication between the US Army and the Eighth AAF as to the directional approach of US aircraft bombing the German lines resulted in friendly-fire deaths of American troops on the ground in the area.]

In a 2008 telephone interview* Sumner crew B-17 Waist Gunner Robert (Bob) Horste recalled the July 24, 1944, mission to Saint-Lô, France, in support of Operation Cobra.  He said 306th BG B-17s were following a formation of B-24s.  A smoke bomb dropped from the lead B-24 which was interpreted as a signal to other aircraft to begin dropping their bomb load.  Bob spoke of 2nd Lt. O’Konski, realizing the bomb drop was three miles short of the designated target, got on the radio to notify Pilot Walter Sumner.  Sumner radioed the information to the other aircraft, and the mission was halted.  Bob surmised the smoke bomb released from the B-24 was accidental in that he says B-24 bomb bay doors could open in a jerking motion and that may have dislodged the smoke bomb from inside the plane as the B-24 readied for the bomb drop.  He felt that many American lives on the ground were saved that day because of the action of 2nd Lt. O’Konski.

On October 2, 1944, now First Lieutenant (1st Lt.) O’Konski completed his required 35 combat flying missions with his final mission to Kassel, Germany.

1st Lt. O’Konski rotated back to the US and was assigned to Rapid City Air Field [now Ellsworth Air Force Base], South Dakota.  It was in Rapid City that he met a local girl who would become his wife.  On January 3, 1945, Adrian married Almeda Kollars at the Rapid City Air Field Base Chapel.

 

First Lieutenant Adrian and Almeda O’Konski wedding photograph, 1945.

 

1st Lt. O’Konski completed his last operational WWII missions flying B-29 Superfortress Air-Sea Rescue over Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

For his military service 1st Lt. O’Konski was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. 

After WWII Adrian and Almeda moved to Adrian’s hometown of Kewaunee, Wisconsin.  Adrian’s mother, Mrs. Frank O’Konski, was one of the lucky mothers — her boy came back home after the war.

 

Adrian with Almeda and his mother, Mrs. Frank O’Konski, circa 1946.

 

Adrian was elected Kewaunee County Clerk and served from 1949 – 1961 before going into the local banking business.

Adrian remained in the US Army Reserve after WWII and was Commander of the US Army 887th Field Artillery Battalion Armory in Kewaunee until his retirement in 1974 as a Major.

 

 

Flyers often carried with them on combat missions a symbol of something they hoped would bring them luck.  A niece of Adrian O’Konski, Esther Nemetz, said Adrian always wore the same trousers when he flew and carried a rosary in his pocket.  The rosary was a gift from his beloved sister, Anna.

Thank you to Karen and Sharon, the daughters of Adrian and Almeda O’Konski, for their help in researching this story.  Photographs are used with the permission of the family.

*Thank you to Dr. Vernon Williams, Military Historian and Director, East Anglia Air War Project for access to his 2008 telephone interview with WWII B-17 Waist Gunner Robert Horste.  For more information about Dr. Williams’ project visit East Anglia Air War Project.

Thank you to WWII 306th BG Historical Association Historian, Cliff Deets, and 306th BG Echoes Editor, Nancy Huebotter.  Further information about the WWII 306th BG can be found at 306th Bomb Group Historical Association.

Thank you to the Kewaunee, Wisconsin, County Clerk’s Office for their research assistance.

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Lt. Col. J.W. Wilson.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

WWII Japanese “Hell Ships”: And the Story of US Army Private First Class Albert Deets

US Army Private First Class Albert Donaldson Deets.

 

Albert “Ab” Donaldson Deets was born September 22, 1919, in Dodd City, Fannin County, Texas.  He was the last of eleven children born to John and Mary Deets who farmed in the area.  He was delivered by Doctor J. M. Donaldson, and Ab received his middle name from the physician.

Ab graduated from Ector (Texas) High School.  He was tall for his day at 6 feet 4 inches.  On December 2, 1939, he enlisted in the United States (US) Army.  He already had two brothers in the US military.

 

Photograph given by US Army Sergeant John Deets (L) and US Navy Petty Officer Clifford Deets to their mother for her birthday.

 

Ab’s brother John Deets enlisted in the US Army in 1935.  His skill in baseball was noticed by a baseball scout, and the Cincinnati Reds bought out John’s US Army contract in 1937.  “Tex Deets” would spend the next three years pitching with several Cincinnati minor league teams including the Durham Bulls.  On September 27, 1940, he reenlisted in the US Army.  After the US entered WWII John transferred to the US Army Air Force and became a gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress.  He flew with the 8th Air Force, 306th Bombardment Group (BG), 369th Bombardment Squadron (BS) based at Thurleigh, Bedfordshire, England.  He completed the required 25 missions over Europe and was sent back to the US in December 1943.  In November 1944 John volunteered to fly again with a combat crew and was assigned to the 15th Air Force, 2nd BG, 429th BS, and flew 31 combat missions from Amendola Airbase near Foggia, Italy.

Clifford Deets, another of Ab’s brothers, enlisted in the US Navy on September 8, 1935.  He served on a number of ships and was temporarily attached to the United States Ship (USS) Drayton in July 1937 to search for Amelia Earhart after her plane disappeared on a flight over the Pacific Ocean.  During the Battle of Okinawa (April 1 – June 22, 1945) Clifford was assigned to the USS Neshoba that landed the US Army 96th Infantry Division in the first wave of beach landings on the island.  By the end of WWII he had attained the US Navy rank of Lieutenant.

In WWII many families had more than one child in the conflict.  John and Clifford Deets returned home after the war.

Ab did not come home.  His grave site is officially recorded as latitude 20 degrees and 41 minutes north and longitude 118 degrees 27 minutes east in the Bashi Straits of the South China Sea.

Ab’s story.

After Ab trained at Fort D. A. Russell located in Marfa, Texas, he was sent to Fort Mills a US Army post located on the island of Corregidor in the Philippine Islands.  Private First Class (PFC) Albert Deets was assigned to the US Army 60th Coast Artillery Regiment, Battery K.

[The Philippines were part of the Spanish Colonial Empire for over 300 years until Spain’s defeat in the 1898 Spanish – American War.  After the war the Philippines became a territory of the US.

The Japanese attacked the Philippines nine hours after the December 7, 1941, surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.  

As the Japanese advanced through the Philippines General Douglas A. MacArthur, Commander of the US Army Forces in the Far East, consolidated US and Filipino forces in a defensive position on the Bataan Peninsula.  The Battle of Bataan (January 7 – April 9, 1942) ended with the surrender of approximately 75,000 Filipino and American defenders.  The prisoners were marched an estimated 65 miles (104 kilometers) in what became known as the Bataan Death March. Estimates of casualties and losses during the march range from 5,650 to 18,000 Filipinos and Americans.

Corregidor was the largest of four fortified islands guarding the entrance to Manila Bay and was the last stronghold in the Philippines to fall to the Japanese in 1942.  It is from this island that General MacArthur escaped to Australia in March 1942 and famously vowed “I shall return” to the Philippines.  The final battle for Corregidor (May 5 – 6, 1942) ended with the capitulation of approximately 11,000 Filipinos and Americans including US Army and US Navy nurses.] 

PFC Deets was one of the 11,000 who became a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) when Corregidor fell.  He was sent to POW Camp Cabanatuan near Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija, Philippines.

Cabanatuan was the largest Japanese POW camp in the Far East.  At its peak it held 8,000 prisoners.  Most prisoners were Americans, but some Allies and civilians were imprisoned there also.  On May 26, 1941, the first captured Americans from the Bataan Death March arrived.  On May 29, 6,000 POWs captured at Corregidor arrived.  More followed.  The camp had poor sanitation, limited water and food, and primitive medical care.  Dysentery, malaria, and cholera were common.  Reports from prisoners noted mistreatment and torture.  Ab was a prisoner there for almost 2 1/2 years.

 [Japan signed but did not ratify the Geneva Convention of 1929 so was not bound by the laws.]

In May 1942 the Japanese started transferring POWs by sea to places such as Japan, Manchuria, and other locations to be used as slave labor.  The ships had no markings or flag indicating they were carrying POWs.  Many ships were sunk unknowingly by US submarines and military aircraft.  It is estimated that over 21,000 Allied POWs died at sea during transport by the Japanese.

POW survivors report being shoulder to shoulder in the extremely hot cargo holds of “Hell Ships” without adequate water, food, and ventilation while standing in their excrement.  Some men died, and others lost their sanity.

In October 1944 1,600 POWs including PFC Albert Deets were taken from Cabanatuan to be transported and then to be used as slave labor in industries needed to meet Imperial Japan’s war demands for things such as coal and zinc.

On October 24, 1944, the Japanese freighter Arisan Maru carrying nearly 1,800 POWs was sunk by a US submarine.  According to US Navy records, the USS Shark II or the USS Snook may have been responsible for the sinking of the Arisan Maru in the Bashi Straits of the South China Sea.  Only nine POWs survived the sinking.

 

6,886-ton Japanese freighter Arisan Maru.

 

The Arisan Maru was torpedoed at approximately 5 pm and sank about two hours later.  Japanese destroyers picked up Japanese survivors, but no attempt was made to rescue the POWs.  The official grave site of PFC Albert Deets and the others lost in the sinking became latitude 20 degrees and 41 miles north and 118 degrees and 27 miles east in the South China Sea.  Ab was 25 years old.

Three months after Ab and the other POWs were taken from Cabanatuan US Army soldiers from the 6th Ranger Battalion and Alamo Scouts with 250 – 280 Filipino guerrillas liberated the remaining prisoners at the POW camp on January 30, 1945.

General Douglas MacArthur waded ashore on the Philippine island of Leyte on October 20, 1944, fulfilling his vow “I shall return.”

 

 

 

 

A memorial to those lost in the sinking of the Arisan Maru was dedicated on October, 24, 1999, in the Memorial Courtyard at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.

 

The National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, currently has an exhibit “Prisoners Under the Rising Sun.”  Link to information on the exhibit which ends September 3, 2018, is http://www.pacificwarmuseum.org/news-events/.

Thank you to Clifford Deets, nephew of Albert “Ab” Deets, for sharing the story of his uncles and father.  Family photographs are used with his permission.

The story of the WWII liberation of Cabanatuan was the plot of a 2005 movie The Great Raid.

A “Rosie” at Willow Run: The WWII Story of Katherine Sakalay Brown

Katherine Sakalay.   

 

“Rosie the Riveter” became a cultural icon in WWII history.  But not all “Rosies” used rivet guns.  During WWII women went to work in factories, shipyards, and munitions plants.  They made war supplies and did industrial work when the men went off to war.  This story is about a “Rosie” named Katherine (Kay) Sakalay who worked (without a rivet gun) at Willow Run in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where Consolidated  B-24 Liberator heavy bombers were produced during WWII.

 

In 1942 artist  J. Howard Miller was commissioned by the Westinghouse Company War Production Coordination Committee to make posters for the war effort.  This is one of his posters.  The poster itself was not known as “Rosie the Riveter” until after WWII.  Canada had a similar poster called “Ronnie, the Bren Gun Girl.”

 

Consolidated B-24 Liberator.

 

Willow Run is remembered as one of the major manufacturers of the WWII Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bomber.  The first B-24 rolled off the assembly line in September 1942.  By the end of WWII, 8,685 B-24s were produced at the Willow Run location.

 

In 2013 Kay wrote of her working life at Willow Run during WWII.  

 

March 9, 2013

I am Katherine Sakaly Brown.  I will be 90 years old this August and now live in San Antonio, Texas.

My parents George and Eva Sakaly immigrated from Greece, my father from Bergama (then Greece, not Turkey) in late 1910 and my mother from the island of Lesbos in the early 1920s, both coming through Ellis Island on a quota.  They met and married in 1921, and I was born in 1923 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the stadium for the University of Michigan is now located.  They [the State of Michigan] declared my parents’ property eminent domain, and they had to move.  I was told I was born on the 40 yard line.

My parents moved to Petersburg, Michigan, about 60 miles north of Ann Arbor, built a home and grocery store with a gas station.  I went to school in Petersburg from 1st grade to high school graduation in 1941.

I was hired for my first job at Willow Run (Ypsilanti, Michigan) I believe in February 1942.  This plant was to build the B-24 bomber known as the Liberator.  At the time I started working only part of the structure was built, only the tool and dye shop was completed, and the remainder of the plant was wide open with construction.  We were given uniforms in about a year, and our name badges designated the area which you were supposed to be working.  The plant worked 3 shifts a day non-stop until 1945.  I believe it numbered something like 40,000 employees, trains were sent to the south to hire people to staff the factory, most of them never returned to their hometown.  All employees had to punch a time clock, in and out, and if you were a minute late you were docked 15 minutes of time.

Henry Ford was instrumental in building the factory, staffing, and producing the B-24 Bomber.  I remember seeing him walking through the plant at various times with a couple of his staff.  He was reported to be a stern, non-smoking, non-drinking, non-union individual.  There was no smoking in the factory at any time.  He did not live to see the final plane leave the plant, however, Henry Ford II was there when it was towed from the plant to the hangar.  There was a picture of this event, and I was seen in it, my rear view that is.

I first worked at a crib, which was a small station within the factory, keeping inventory of parts used and parts to be ordered.  From there I became something like a runner, taking small parts where they were needed.  Our lunch period was 15 minutes, and they would bring in caterers in portable chuck wagon types of structures.  You ate wherever you were standing or sitting.  The food was typical GI food in the military, served on metal trays; it was this or bring your own meals.  We had lockers on the second floor; these were located around the sides of the plant also the laboratories, etc. were on the balconies.

The parking lots were a nightmare.  You had to remember where your car was and which side of the plant you had parked or you would be there for hours looking for your transportation.  Car pooling was a must.  I had a 1940 Buick that we used when it was my turn to drive.  We changed cars, each passenger taking their turn, and we paid the driver when we were passengers.  I don’t remember how much we paid.  We had gas rationing; when you worked for a defense plant you had ample gas for your trips.  The coupons were a must for us.  During the first 2-3 years, most employees had to work all 3 shifts when their turn came.  Later on, when I was transferred out to the hangars, my shift remained on the day shift.

I wish I could remember when the first plane was finished and taken out to the hangar, but it was a great day for all of us.  The plant itself was a mile long in size, not counting the hangars and the administration building which were separate buildings.  From the parking lots one had to climb a very tall staircase to cross over to the factory itself, you could not walk in from the parking lot to the plant.  Your ID was checked when you got to the inside of the plant.  Badges were part of your anatomy, pictures, and IDs as to which part of the plant you had to access.

Underneath the balcony were offices for different officers to conduct their operations.  I wound up in one of them for quite some time.  There were offices up on the balconies also as well as a cafeteria later on.  If you did not have the proper identification you could not walk through the plant to look around.  You stayed in the area where you were assigned to work.  I never had anything to do with putting the airplane together;  I was always in a clerical type of job.  I never got inside of the B-24 until I was assigned to the hangar areas and then only to stow the confidential information aboard and get off.

There was an altitude chamber in the hangar which dropped the oxygen, temperature, etc. ranging from the ground level to several thousand feet in a very short time.  I got in it when it went up to 12,500 feet, and it was a light-headed feeling.  You were told to talk a bit when you were in various stages of rising altitude.  It was rather large, capable of holding several people at one time.

There was a huge mound on the grounds where they practiced shooting all the [B-24] guns.

When the planes were finished a factory pilot had to pre-flight the plane to make sure it was good enough to pass on to the United States Army Air Force.  When the weather was bad, this was Michigan, and we had a lot of nasty weather, the planes would stack up on the aprons until weather cleared up for a pre-flight.  When the planes were OK’ed by the crew, etc. they were turned over to the military that came in to ferry the aircraft where they were designated to go.  The pre-flight crew consisted of four men: a pilot, co-pilot, radio man, and flight engineer.  When they completed their check, then the plane was turned over to military pilots.  [Willow Run had 1,300 cots for military crews to sleep while they waited for their assigned B-24 to roll off the assembly line.]

 

B-24 Liberator Check List.

 

When it was no longer necessary for them to manufacture the B-24, the plant was shut down.  Their goal was to make a B-24 every hour.  I don’t know if that goal was ever reached by the end of WWII, I am sure it was.  [At its peak in 1944 a B-24 rolled off the Willow Run assembly line every 63 minutes.]

Over 8,600 aircraft were manufactured and an equal amount of parts manufactured for planes already in service.

 

In one of Kay’s great stories about Willow Run she tells of attending a meeting there with B-24 pilot James Stewart who was visiting the plant.  She said Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart was a friendly, down-to-earth man who was very tall. 

In the late 1940s Kay accepted a job with the United States (US) State Department and worked for a time in post WWII Germany.  From Germany she relocated to Paris, France, and worked on special assignment to the US Ambassador.  For her entire life Kay had a special place in her heart for Paris.

In the 1950s Kay moved to Texas and became an assistant to then US Senator and future President of the US Lyndon B. Johnson.  

Kay married Harold Brown, a Texas businessman, in 1965 and spent the rest of her life in Texas.

Kay Sakaly Brown died on July 24, 2017, in San Antonio, Texas.  In August of that year she would have been 94 years old.

 

 

I knew Kay to be a wise and spirited lady.  She was a woman ahead of her time and a wonderful friend.

 

Certificate American Rosie the Riveter Association.

 

The Yankee Air Museum located in Belleville, Michigan, at the Willow Run Airport tells the story of the WWII Willow Run B-24 Bomber Plant.  The museum’s collections span the history of aviation from WWI to present day.  For more information about the Yankee Air Museum see http://yankeeairmuseum.org/.