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.

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.

 

The “British Schindler”: The WWII Story of Sir Nicholas Winton

Nicholas Winton holding Hansi Beck on January 12, 1939, before the first evacuation by air of 20 children from Prague, Czechoslovakia, to London, England.  Photograph www.dailymail.co.uk.

 

“If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.”  Nicholas Winton

 

In December 1938 twenty-nine year old British stockbroker Nicholas Winton was planning a holiday skiing trip to Switzerland when he received a phone call from friend Martin Blake who was working with the British Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia (BCRC).  Instead of Switzerland Nicholas travelled to Prague.  [In January 1993 Czechoslovakia in a peaceful dissolution would be split into the two sovereign states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.]

What was the political climate in Europe in the 1930s?  Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933.  In violation of the WWI Versailles Treaty Germany began rebuilding its military.  In violation of the Treaty of Versailles Germany reoccupied the Rhineland in March 1936.  In violation of the Treaty of Versailles Germany absorbed Austria in March 1938.  In September 1938 England and France (without consulting the government of Czechoslovakia) and as part of the Munich Pact allowed Hitler to occupy the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia which had been incorporated into the country as part of the Treaty of Versailles.

It was at this time in history that Nicholas Winton would arrive in Prague on New Year’s Eve 1938.  He would check into the Grand Hotel Šroubek (later renamed the Grand Hotel Europa) on Wenceslas Square.  A hotel restaurant table would become his office as he met with families and helped plan for Czech refugee children to be taken to England for the duration of the soon expected outbreak of war in Europe.  

[Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.  With the invasion of Poland in September 1939 England and France declared war on Germany.]

In addition to working with the BCRC in Prague Nicholas would provide logistical support for two Kindertransport (children’s transport) flights sponsored by the Barbican Mission on January 12, 1939, which brought 20 children to England and a Sweden Red Cross flight that transported 30 children to Sweden on January 16 or 17, 1939.

Having exhausted his vacation time Nicholas returned to England and his stockbroker job on January 21, 1939.  But his work to rescue the children continued.

Nicholas’ job was not insurmountable, but he put into practice his motto, “If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.”  He needed to raise money for the transportation of the children.  He needed permission of the Immigration Section of the British Home Office to bring them into the country and was required to provide guarantor monies for them.  The Netherlands had closed its borders in November 1938 after Kristallnacht.  He negotiated with the government of The Netherlands to allow the train to pass through the country.  And he needed to find foster families, hostels, or other organizations to care for the children.

In Prague Nicholas’ colleagues working with the BCRC were hurriedly gathering documents, photographs, adding names of children to the list of refugees, and dealing with the Nazis’ requirements to allow trains of mostly Jewish children to leave Czechoslovakia.

 

The identity document of nine year old Eveline Prager needed for the Czech Kindertransport.  Photograph www.dailymail.co.uk.

 

Kindertransport trains would leave Prague, travel through Germany, pass through The Netherlands to the Hook of Holland, children would sail by ferry to England, and arrive by train at the Liverpool Street Station in London.  The foster families would be waiting at the station to meet their new family member.

 

Winton Kindertransport train route 1939. Map stephenliddell.co.uk.

 

The first Kindertransport train left Prague on March 14, 1939.  Seven Kindertransports were to follow.  The ninth train with 250 children was scheduled to leave in September 1939.  After Poland was attacked by Germany on September 1, 1939, the Germans cancelled the ninth train.  According to Nicholas’ daughter, Barbara, who wrote the book If it’s Not Impossible… about her father’s life,  no further information about the children scheduled to leave on the ninth train was found and that many of them most likely died at Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

The Czech Kindertransport rescue lasted nine months.

With the start of WWII and the Kindertransports ending,  Nicholas Winton joined the British war effort as an ambulance driver and then became a member of the Royal Air Force until the end of the war.

After the war ended, Nicholas Winton would work for the London-based International Committee for Refugees which would be integrated into the International Refugee Organization of the newly formed United Nations.  In 1948 he accepted a job with the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Paris, France.  It was in Paris that he met a Danish girl, Grete Gjelstrup.  They were married in October 1948.  

Grete did not know about the Czech Kindertransport until she found a scrapbook in their attic in Maidenhead, England, in the late 1980s.  The scrapbook she found would make the story public.

Nicholas Winton and the group of rescuers working together on the Czech Kindertransport over the nine months of its existence saved the lives of 669 children.

The Scrapbook.  At the end of the Kindertransport operation in 1939,  a volunteer in the organization, Mr. W. M. Loewinsohn, presented a scrapbook to Winton that included correspondence, data, photos, and other information gathered during the BCRC effort to rescue the children.  At the back of the scrapbook was a list of the rescued children and the names and addresses of the  families who agreed to foster them.  

 

The cover page of the Nicholas Winton scrapbook.  Photograph www.cbsnews.com.

 

In 1988 Nicholas was invited to be a member of the audience in a BBC television program called That’s Life!  The host of the show, Esther Rantzen, would tell the story of the 1939 Czech Kindertransport and show the scrapbook to the audience.  At a point in the show the host spoke of a rescued child, now an adult, named Vera (Diamant) Gissing.  Unbeknownst to Nicholas, Vera was sitting next to him.  Vera gave him an embrace and said “thank you, thank you.”

 

Nicholas Winton and Vera (Diamant) Gissing meet on February 27, 1988, on BBC television program That’s Life!  Photograph www.storypick.com.

 

In a follow-on episode of That’s Life! the next week, the host asked if there was anyone in the audience who owed their life to Nicholas Winton.  Almost five rows of “Nicky’s children” stood up.

 

Nicholas Winton, in the front row with his back to the camera, looks at the people who were rescued as children on the Czech Kindertransport.  The woman sitting in the front row is Nicholas’ wife, Grete.  Photograph people.com.

 

The “children” contacted by the BBC did not know how they were saved or who had saved them until then.

On March 11, 2003,  Nicholas Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of England.

A documentary Nicky’s Family was released in 2011.  It was narrated by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist, foreign correspondent, and author Joe Schlesinger.  Joe was one of “Nicky’s children.”  

 

Sir Nicholas Winton with Joe Schlesinger (right).  Photograph www.theglobeandmail.com.

 

Sir Nicholas Winton died in his sleep on July 1, 2015.  He was 106 years old.

Prague Post article on July 4, 2015, stated, “The first candles on the platform from which trains with Czechoslovak children of Jewish origin were leaving appeared a few hours after Winton’s death was announced.”

 

A statue created by Flor Kent of Sir Nicholas Winton with two children was unveiled on September 1, 2009, at the Prague Main Railway Station.  Photograph Prague Post July 4, 2015.

 

The British Crown Colony of Malta under Siege in WWII

 

Anti-aircraft gun protecting the Grand Harbor at Valletta, Malta, circa 1940.  Photograph en.wikipedia.com.

 

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.