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.

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/.

A Smoking Snake: The Brazilian Expeditionary Force in WWII

 

The Smoking Snake shoulder patch of a Brazilian Expeditionary Force soldier in WWII.

 

Brazil was the only Latin American country to send ground troops overseas to fight in WWII.

 

In 1941 after the December 7th Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the United States (US) Navy was granted access to Brazilian ports in its anti-submarine campaign in the Battle of the Atlantic against the Axis.  In early 1942 Brazil granted permission to the US to establish air bases and military installations on Brazilian territory.   The South American bases were essential as staging and stopover points for aircraft and ships with destinations in Africa, the Mediterranean, and beyond.  Recife and Natal, Brazil, were particularly important bases during WWII.

The President of Brazil Getúllo Dornelles Vargas declared war on Germany and Italy on August 22, 1942, after 36 of its merchant ships were sunk in the Atlantic Ocean by German and Italian submarines.

The  Brazilian Expeditionary Force (BEF) was formed in early 1943 and had Army and Air Force branches. The BEF included about 25,700 men and women.

The Brazilian Navy was not directly part of the BEF.  The Brazilian Navy and the Allies defended air and sea transport lanes, protected convoys between South America and the Strait of Gibraltar, and made it difficult for German and Italian submarines to operate in the Central and South Atlantic Ocean and in the Caribbean Sea. 

The first group of BEF troops sailed from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Naples, Italy, in 1944.  Their mission was to fight alongside other Allied armies in the Mediterranean Theater.

The BEF Army branch was attached to the Allied 15th Army Group composed of British and US field armies in Italy.  The BEF had a notable role in numerous battles in Italy including the Battle of Monte Castello, the Battle of Montese, and the Battle of Collecchio. They captured over 20,000 Axis soldiers.

The BEF air branch was attached to the 305th Fighter Group of the US Army Air Force, 62nd Fighter Wing, 12th Air Force flying in the Mediterranean Theater. The Brazilians flew Republic P-47D Thunderbolt fighter planes from their base in Tarquinia, Italy.  Their callsign was Jambock. They flew 445 missions and destroyed military targets including 1,304 motor vehicles, 13 railway wagons, 8 armored cars, 25 railway and highway bridges, and 31 fuel tanks and munitions depots.

 

Brazilian P-47 Thunderbolt pilots wearing their distinctive white caps. Kneeling left to right: 2nd Lieutenant Paulo Costa, Captain M. Joel. Standing left to right: 1st Lieutenant A.D.S. Eustógio, Lieutenant Colonel Nero Moura, 1st Lieutenant I. Motta-Paes, 1st Lieutenant R.B. Lima-Moreira, 1st Lieutenant L.F.M.F. Perdigão.

 

When WWII ended, the Brazilian Expeditionary Force had lost nearly 1,000 men killed in action.

The Brazilian Military Cemetery of Pistoia, Italy, was established on August 4, 1945.  The cemetery closed in 1960. The soldiers’ remains were returned to Brazil and re-interred at the Monument of the Dead of World War II in Rio de Janeiro.  

The body of an unidentified Brazilian soldier was later discovered still buried in the Pistoia cemetery.  The Brazilian government elected to leave the remains of the soldier there.  In 1967 the Brazilian Monument and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of World War II was inaugurated at Pistoia.  

 

 

WWII Allies remembered. 

An exhibit in the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, to commemorate the Brazilian Air Force in WWII.

 

For additional information about the Brazilian Expeditionary Force in WWII visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazilian_Expeditionary_Force.  Also at the web page is the story explaining how the BEF got the nickname Smoking Snakes.

 

In God I Trust: The Story of WWII B-17 Ball Turret Gunner Frank Perez

Frank Perez WWII and 2010 kneeling next to the ball turret of a B-17 Flying Fortress.

 

Frank Delgado Perez was born in Los Angeles, California, on January 14, 1924. Growing up near an aircraft manufacturing plant, he became interested in airplanes. Drafted in 1943 he requested assignment to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF).

Upon induction into the USAAF Frank reported to Keesler Army Air Field at Biloxi, Mississippi, where he went through basic training and then received specialty training at the Airplane and Engine Mechanics School there. Graduates of the school became a B-24 Liberator Flight Engineer. After gunnery school at Laredo Army Air Field, Texas, and ten days leave, Sergeant Perez reported to Salt Lake City Army Air Field, Utah, where flight crews were being formed. Expecting to be assigned to a B-24 crew but due to the “needs of the service,” Frank was assigned to the Lieutenant (Lt) John J. Connolly crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress. The B-17 crew already had a flight engineer, so Frank was selected for the ball turret gunner position. The Connolly crew then went to Sioux City Army Air Base in Iowa for advanced overseas crew training.

In April 1944 the Connolly crew with other recently formed B-17 crews ferried new B-17s over the Atlantic Ocean northern route and landed in Prestwick, Scotland. Sadly, a number of B-17s and crews were lost enroute.

Transported from Scotland to England the Connolly crew was assigned to the 401st Bomb Group (BG), 613th Bomb Squadron, Deenethorpe. The base was about two miles east of Corby, Northampshire, England.

Due to scheduling and additional training received by some members of Frank’s crew, he flew his first combat mission as a ball turret gunner with the Lt Dow C. Pruitt crew on April 18, 1944. The primary target was Oranienburg, Germany. The city was the site of a Nazi nuclear energy project. Cloud cover over the city that day forced cancellation of the mission, and a secondary target was chosen. The secondary target was the Kumarkische-Zellewolle Viscose Fiber factory at Wittenburg, Germany.

April 19, 1944, Frank’s second combat mission, he rejoined the Connolly crew. The target that day was Kassel, Germany. Kassel targets included aircraft, heavy tank, locomotive, engine, and motor transport plants as well as railway works.

In 2012 oral history interviews * **, Frank spoke of the anxiety and fear felt by many men flying combat missions. He was a devout Catholic and wore a crucifix on the chain with his dog tags. Frank said before a combat mission a priest was available to those men who wanted to receive Absolution (part of the Sacrament of Penance). It offered them a sense of peace in knowing that they may not return. Frank did not drink alcohol but said if he did he would rather have had the shot of whiskey before the mission instead of during the interrogation when they returned to their base.

After the Connolly crew June 6, 1944, D-Day mission to Caen, France, Frank was hospitalized with pneumonia. He spent almost a month recuperating and then was grounded for weeks. He started flying with his crew again on July 28, 1944, with the target being the synthetic oil and ammonia plant at Merseburg, Germany. [Frank would later fly with other crews to reach his required number of combat missions. Some members of the Connolly crew fulfilled their mission requirements in August 1944.]

All combat missions were fraught with danger, but Frank spoke of a particular mission to Ludwigshaven, Germany, that became a test of his faith. Ludwigshaven was the site of large marshalling (railway) yards and a railroad depot. The bombing run that day was completed, and the B-17s turned to fly back to their base in England. Frank’s B-17 was hit by flak and began tumbling and rolling out of control as it quickly lost altitude from about 30 thousand feet. They were still over Germany. Frank could not get out of the ball turret due to the centrifugal force created as the plane fell from the sky. He saw the ground getting closer and closer. Frank called the pilot on the intercom. No answer. Then he called “anyone.” No answer.

During the oral history interview Frank asked for a moment to collect his thoughts. Even decades later, he said he felt “tongue-tied” and emotionally “thrown back” to that mission.

After a pause Frank continued his story. He thought he was going to be killed and started to pray. He prayed, “Well, God, if this is the way it has to be, let it be.” Frank said, “I was under tension and wanted to live. But when I said that, at that instant, everything was just as peaceful as it can get. [I] had my whole life flash before me … from the time I was a little kid to that moment. I mean just like a movie, but going like that [he snaps his fingers]. It’s hard to explain … like if you get killed, so what … you just don’t care.”

And then the B-17 pulled up.

The plane was flying at treetop level with only two of the four engines working. The crew began throwing unnecessary equipment and supplies out of the plane to lighten the load. Frank was still in the ball turret and was there for the entire mission. After what seemed like an eternity, he saw the White Cliffs of Dover on the English coastline. He knew they were going to make it. The B-17 landed at a B-24 base in England.

As fate would have it, Frank knew many of the military personnel at the B-24 base. After all, he had trained with them in Biloxi, Mississippi. Frank and the crew stayed there for a few days while the B-24 mechanics repaired the B-17 engines. He recalls at the B-24 base that they ate out of mess kits unlike Deenethorpe where they ate from plates. They flew the B-17 back to Deenethorpe.

Frank’s last combat mission (Mission #32) was to a synthetic oil plant in Politz, Poland, on October 7, 1944. He flew with the Lt Albert L. Hanson crew. Five B-17 crews were lost that day; three planes were shot down, but two reached neutral Sweden where the crews were interned until the end of WWII.

Frank sailed home to the United States (US) after completing his required combat missions. He was back in the US before the Battle of the Bulge began on December 16, 1944. His assignment on the ship while crossing the Atlantic Ocean was to guard German prisoners of war (POW) who would be interned in stateside POW camps.

Staff Sergeant Perez was stationed at Amarillo Army Air Field, Texas, as a B-17 Inspector when WWII ended.

Frank returned to California and earned a Degree in Agriculture from California Polytechnic University. He always had a passion for life and considered every day a blessing. Frank was very active in his church and his community. Between the ages of 78 and 88 he went hang gliding, parasailing, skydiving, and paragliding. He never lost his childhood love for flight.

 

Frank’s crucifix is pictured at the bottom left of the photograph. Years later it still remained with his dog tags.

 

Frank died January 16, 2015, two days after his 91st birthday.

One can hope that other flyers experienced the “feeling of peace” that Frank felt before they died.

 

 

Faith in God was of great importance in the hearts and minds of many people, both military and civilian, who lived through WWII. Another story on this web site, “WWII Camp Shanks, New York: And a Visit by Archbishop Spellman,” addresses the comfort that faith in God provided the men and women who fought and died in the war. In 1943 the Ground Echelon of the 401st BG stayed at Camp Shanks before boarding the Queen Mary in New York City to cross the Atlantic Ocean to England. The link to the story is https://www.ww2history.org/war-in-europe/wwii-camp-shanks-new-york-and-a-visit-by-archbishop-spellman/.

Thank you to Josie Navarro, Frank’s niece, for her help in researching this story, sharing family memories, and for permission to post the photographs.

 * Thank you to Reagan Grau, Archivist, at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.  

 ** Thank you to Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Military Historian and Professor of History, at Abiliene Christian University. As Director of the East Anglia Air War Project, he interviewed Frank Perez and many WWII  Eighth and Ninth Army Air Force veterans and also members of British communities who grew to know and love (and sometimes marry) the “Yanks.”  The link for information about the project is http://www.angliaairwar.org/.

 

WWII United States Navy “Sweetwater” Aircraft Carriers

US Navy Pier, Chicago, Illinois, during WWII. USS Wolverine (on left) alongside USS Sable.
US Navy Pier, Chicago, Illinois, during WWII.  USS Wolverine (on left) alongside the USS Sable.

 

With possible threats posed by German and Japanese submarines along the United States (US) Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, US Navy Commander Richard L. Whitehead had the idea to train Navy pilots in takeoffs and landings on aircraft carriers in the North American Great Lakes. Ingenuity was necessary to make this happen since there were no US Navy aircraft carriers in the Great Lakes.

Two paddlewheel passenger steamers already operating on the Great Lakes were converted to “sweetwater” aircraft carriers.  “Sweetwater” was a Navy slang word of the time used to describe freshwater versus saltwater ships.  

One of the two ships converted to an aircraft carrier was the Steam Ship (SS) Seeandbee which was commissioned the United States Ship (USS) Wolverine on August 12, 1942. The other ship, originally the SS Greater Buffalo, was renamed and commissioned the USS Sable on May 8, 1943.  Basically, their superstructures were removed, and a flight deck was added.

 

The-Lakers94
SS Greater Buffalo before conversion to USS Sable

 

SS Greater Buffalo conversion
SS Greater Buffalo during conversion

 

USS Sable on Lake Michigan with Grumman Wildcat fighter plane taking off.
USS Sable in Lake Michigan with Grumman Wildcat taking off

 

The homeport for these two “makeshift” aircraft carriers was the Chicago, Illinois, US Navy Pier located on Lake Michigan. Pilots attempting to qualify for aircraft carrier duty flew from US Naval Air Station Glenview, Illinois, to train on these ships.

Over 17,000 pilots were trained in takeoffs and landings. One US Navy aviator who trained on the USS Sable was a future President of the United States, George H. W. Bush.

 

After WWII, some planes that were lost during training were brought up from the bottom of Lake Michigan. Recovered fighter planes have included a F4U-1 Corsair and a FM-2 Wildcat.

The North American Great Lakes supported the war effort in various roles. See an earlier post, “Great Lakes Shipbuilding in WWII: And the Tale of FP-344,” on this website. The story link is https://www.ww2history.org/homefront/great-lakes-shipbuilding-in-wwii-and-the-tale-of-fp-344/ .

Thank you to WWII historian George Cressman for his assistance in writing this post.