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

 

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

 

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

“They call him the Little Tin Guy.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Lt. Col. J.W. Wilson.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Story of WWII 306th Bombardment Group Medic William F. Houlihan

William Frederick Houlihan, age 22.

 

William “Bill” Houlihan was born December 11, 1918, in Boston, Massachusettes.  After working as a merchant marine in 1938, he moved to Detroit, Michigan, and worked for Ford Motor Company.

After the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, Bill tried to enlist in the United States (US) Navy and the US Marine Corps. Due to an ear issue he was not selected.  Bill decided to go back to Detroit and wait for what he knew was inevitable.  On February 14, 1942, Valentine’s Day,  he received his military draft notice.

After being trained as a US Army Air Force medic Bill was sent to Wendover, Utah, and became a member of the newly formed B-17 Flying Fortress 306th Bombardment Group (BG) training there.  Arriving at Wendover on June 6, 1942, Private First Class (Pfc) William Houlihan was assigned to the medical component of the 367th Bomb Squadron (BS) of the 306th BG.

Personnel of the 306th BG began troop movement to the US east coast from Wendover in late August of 1942.  Travelling by train, ship, and air the 306th BG would travel 4,000 miles to their assigned base at Thurleigh which was five miles (8.0 kilometers) north of Bedford, Bedfordshire, England.

Staff Sergeant (SSgt)* Bill Houlihan (who was nicknamed “Houlie”) crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the Queen Elizabeth (a troop ship during WWII) and was in one of the first 306th BG units to reach their destination of Thurleigh in September 1942.  [*Before troop movement to a theater of war some lower ranking military personnel were promoted to SSgt, Technical Sergeant (TSgt), or Master Sergeant (MSgt).  One reason for the rapid promotions is that it offered some protection for the men if they became a German prisoner of war (POW).  Senior enlisted men generally received better treatment in POW camps than lower enlisted grades.]

The 306th BG flew its first combat mission on October 9, 1942, to Lille, France, to bomb the steel and locomotive works located there.  Twenty-four B-17s took off from Thurleigh that day.  Twenty-three B-17s returned.  B-17 tail number 41-24510 flown by 367th BS pilot Captain (Capt) John W. Olson was downed when a German Focke-Wulf 190 fighter plane flew into the nose of the aircraft.  Three of the nine crew members survived.

It was then that the reality of war and losing friends and colleagues became part of everyday life at Thurleigh for both flying and ground personnel.

SSgt Houlihan and the 306th BG medical units manned the dispensary and hospital on Thurleigh.  But focus was on the flight line as B-17s returned from a mission.  Ambulances and medical personnel were at the airfield as the planes came into view and landed.  Personnel on the ground counted the aircraft as they were sighted.  Ground maintenance crews were there waiting to see if the B-17s they repaired and maintained came back.  Friends of crew members flying that day watched to see if their buddies were returning.  And the British living in the area surrounding the airfield would look to the sky and wonder if they would again see an American they had befriended as they observed the aircraft returning in formation or straggling back to Thurleigh.

If there were injured or wounded on board the B-17 crew would shoot off a red flare upon approach to the airfield.  Those planes were given priority landing.   As that B-17 landed the ambulance would follow the aircraft and quickly move to reach the wounded airman when the aircraft came to a stop.

 

Left to right kneeling: Captain Henry A. Danzig (423rd BS Surgeon), SSgt William F. Houlihan (367th BS Medic), Captain Charles P. McKim (369th BS Surgeon), and Sgt Clarence W. Hoheisel (367th BS Medic).  The patient is Corporal James Mitchell.

 

Removing a wounded or injured airman from the nose or tail of a B-17 could present a difficult problem due to limited maneuvering room for medics and a medical stretcher in the aircraft.  The Americans adopted the use of a special stretcher used by the British.  It was made of bamboo and would wrap around the injured airman and stabilize him during removal from the aircraft.

 

Flexible medical litter made of bamboo being used to remove an injured airman from a B-17.

 

When possible men were given some free time in the form of a day off, a pass, or leave.  Time off was a great morale booster among the troops.

SSgt Houlihan’s day off was Monday.  He tells the story of one day riding along to Belfast, Ireland, on a B-17 doing a “whiskey run” for an upcoming party on Thurleigh.  367th BS pilot Capt George R. Buckey was flying that day, and Bill’s friend TSgt Harry Brown was the radio operator.  Once in Belfast, Bill and Harry decided to take a tour of Old Bushmills Distillery while the B-17 was being loaded.  Capt Buckey told them to be back at the airfield by 5 pm because he wanted to take off in daylight.

Bill says that at the end of every whiskey production line at Old Bushmills Distillery he and Harry were offered a sample of that whiskey.  According to Bill they were “well sampled” when they noticed it was already 5 pm.  Hurrying back to the Belfast airfield they found Capt Buckey standing on the wing of the B-17 yelling expletives at them.  Bill says Capt Buckey never said anything further to him, but Harry told Bill that the pilot continued to “comment” to him on the B-17 radio frequency as they flew back to Thurleigh.

But tragedy could come to Thurleigh even from other bases.  On October 22, 1944, SSgt Houlihan was standing outside watching a formation of what turned out to be 305th BG B-17s returning from a mission.  They were based at Chelveston approximately 15 miles (23 kilometers) from Thurleigh.  Near SSgt Houlihan was the Thurleigh base photographer TSgt Francis L. Waugh who was standing on the running board of an ambulance with his camera pointed up at the B-17s.  They saw two of the B-17s crash into each other.  The crews from both B-17s were killed.  Human remains and wreckage from the aircraft rained down from the sky over Thurleigh.

 

Moment of collision when two 305th BG B-17s crashed over Thurleigh on October 22, 1944.  The B-17s altitude over Thurleigh can be observed as one notes visible Thurleigh base landscape in the foreground of the photo.

 

Bill says all Thurleigh base personnel took part in the respectful recovery of the scattered human remains.

[In the WWII 306th BG Historical Association newspaper Echoes published in April 1991,  then newspaper Editor and 306th BG veteran, Russell A. Strong,  wrote the following:

“It was a murky day in the air on 22 October, and the 306th planes were feeling their way into the field, when suddenly two formations appeared almost out of nowhere.  Two of the squadrons from the 305th Bomb Group came over Thurleigh, one from the south and another from the east, searching for the safety of their own field.

One air commander took his squadron up, telling his compatriot at 90 degrees to him to take his planes down.  All did, except for the ‘down’ tail ender, who came up instead and collided with the last plane in the other squadron.”]

But there were some happy moments during the war.  Bill was the best man at four weddings when American servicemen married English girls.

 

1944. Bill’s fourth time as best man. Left to right: Connie Walsh, John Corcoran, bride Mary Corcoran, Evelyn Walsh, and Bill Houlihan.

 

WWII ended officially in Europe on May 8, 1945.  The US War Shipping Administration in a plan called Operation Magic Carpet (October 1945 – September 1946) returned eight million Americans back to the US from the European, Pacific, and Asian Theaters.  Bill returned to the US on the ship Queen Mary.

During WWII SSgt Houlihan “Houlie” saw and experienced many things.  He had saved lives as a medic, lost friends in the war, and made many of what would become lifelong friendships.  And Bill was one of the men who got to go home.

Discharged from the US military in 1945 Bill went back to work with Ford Motor Company.  Bill would continue his education using the GI Bill, serve in various defense industry positions, and eventually retire from the US defense industry. 

On Saint Patrick’s Day in 1946 he met his future wife Ruth Jones.  They were married for 67 years.

 

 

 

Serving together in wartime can build lifelong friendships.  Bill is a member of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society and the 306th BG Historical Association.  In 1989 he served as President of the 306th BG Historical Association.  He has worked diligently to keep alive the memories of those who served in WWII.

I first met Bill Houlihan at a 306th BG Historical Association Reunion in San Antonio, Texas, in 2005.  Over the years he has shared many WWII dramatic and humorous stories with me.  Bill is one of the people who inspired me to create this WWII website.  Thank you Bill for permission to share your stories and photographs.

 

Bill Houlihan with son-in-law Joel LaBo at the 2005 306th BG Reunion in San Antonio, Texas.

 

Thank you to Dr. Vernon Williams, Abilene Christian University History Professor, for access to his WWII East Anglia Air War Project photographs and interview with Bill Houlihan which was conducted in 2005.  For more information on the East Anglia Air War Project visit http://www.angliaairwar.org .

Thank you to WWII 306th BG Historical Association Historian Cliff Deets.  Further information about the WWII 306th BG can be found at http://306bg.us.

Another publication mentioning SSgt Houlihan on this website  https://www.ww2history.org/war-in-europe/last-flight-of-a-b-17-named-combined-operations-and-emily-harper-rea/ tells the story of a 306th BG B-17 crash on the Isle of Man on April 14, 1945.

Brought Down in Flames: The Story of WWII B-17 Pilot Clayton A. Nattier

 

On August 30, 1943, Clayton A. Nattier was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps. He was 20 years old.

 

Clayton A. Nattier B-17 Flying Fortress crew, Sioux City Army Air Base, Iowa, 1944. Kneeling left to right: Sergeant Ernest Lussier (Waist Gunner)*, Sergeant Max Kimmel (Waist Gunner), Sergeant Cecil Richardson (Ball Turret Gunner), Sergeant Richard Edwards (Tail Gunner). Standing left to right: Sergeant Eugene Blaskoski (Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner)**, 2nd Lieutenant Bernard Weinstein (Navigator), 2nd Lieutenant Clayton Nattier (Pilot), 2nd Lieutenant Gerald Johnson (Co-Pilot), 2nd Lieutenant William Gregory (Bombardier), Staff Sergeant Edwin Block (Radio Operator). *Sergeant Lussier completed his combat tour flying with another crew when crew size was changed from 10 to 9 members. **Sergeant Blaskoski was injured in England and replaced by Sergeant Gerald Bump.  

 

 

The Clayton A. Nattier B-17 Flying Fortress crew arrived in England in July 1944.  They were assigned to the 306th Bombardment Group (BG), 369th Bomb Squadron, based at Thurleigh.

September 13, 1944

The 306th BG target for the day was Merseburg, Germany. The IG Farben Leuna works, the second largest synthetic oil refinery in Germany, was located there. It was also the most heavily defended industrial target in Europe protected by the Luftwaffe 14th Flak Division. Composition of the division in October 1944 totaled 62,550 persons.

 

Duration Plus (a B-17 borrowed from the 306th BG, 367th Bomb Squadron, that day) replaced the Nattier crew B-17 when it experienced hydraulic brake problems as it taxied for take off from Thurleigh. After shrapnel hit the plane near the bombing target over Germany fire burst into the cockpit on the co-pilot’s side.

 

The Nattier B-17 Heavenly Body was taxiing for take off when the plane developed hydraulic brake failure. The B-17 Duration Plus assigned to the 306th BG, 367th Bomb Squadron, replaced it. By the time the Nattier crew took off that day their first challenge was to catch up to the already airborne formation of 306th BG B-17s enroute to Merseburg. 

Approximately 30 minutes from Merseburg trouble developed in one of the four Duration Plus engines. Co-pilot Lieutenant (Lt) Gerald Johnson tried to correct the problem, but the engine eventually had to be shut down. 

In B-17 flying formation at 29,500 feet and entering the target zone, a second Duration Plus engine started to run rough. 

Then at the Initial Point (IP) where the bombers began the bomb run on the target, the B-17 was hit by shrapnel that penetrated the upper right aluminum shell of the aircraft nose. A fire was spontaneously ignited as the oxygen and oil lines were severed. Flames burst into the cockpit next to the co-pilot.  Lt Nattier gave the order to bail out.

Lt Nattier knew the fire was uncontrollable. He stated, “You know you’re going down, and all you can do is to try to give the crew enough time to bail out.”

Lt Johnson left the cockpit and proceeded to the front nose escape hatch to join navigator Lt Bernard Weinstein and bombardier Lt William Gregory according to bail out procedure.

Lt Nattier maneuvered Duration Plus out of the flying formation and put the plane into a steep dive from 29,500 feet. At a lower altitude oxygen was more readily available to the crew, and the chance of a successful bail out was improved. Then he too left the cockpit and moved toward the front escape hatch.

Clayton did not expect to have to return to the cockpit again before he too could bail out.

As Lt Nattier approached the front escape hatch he saw that the co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier had not left the aircraft. Above the noise he motioned them “Out,” but Lt Weinstein mouthed “No.” Clayton did not know what the problem was but knew he had to go back to the cockpit to change the angle of the B-17 dive to allow more time for them to bail out.

Clayton assumed the ball turret gunner, waist gunner, tail gunner, and radio operator had already bailed out through a rear escape hatch.  [They had.]  The top turret gunner Sergeant (Sgt) Gerald Bump was still on the B-17 and had made valiant attempts to put out the fire.

When Clayton got to the cockpit it was almost engulfed in flames. The instrument panel was melting. He had to reach through the flames to adjust the controls to decrease the B-17 dive angle.  His face, neck, and both hands were badly burned.

The route to the front escape hatch was now blocked with fire and smoke. Lt Nattier’s and Sgt Bump’s only escape route was to jump through the bomb bay.  The bombs had not been dropped that day.  Clayton jumped after Sgt Bump, but his parachute strap caught on the arming propeller of one of the bombs.  He pulled it loose and fell out of the aircraft.  By then he was semiconscious.

Clayton later estimated that from the time the shrapnel hit the B-17 until he bailed out was approximately five minutes.

An American P-51 Mustang fighter plane in the area piloted by Lt William McKee, III,  followed the B-17 until it crashed and exploded. The co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier had not bailed out and were killed in action.

Lt Nattier and Sgt Bump landed in a field near Halle, Germany.  Sgt Bump injured his ankle.  Lt Nattier was seriously burned and semiconscious. Cadets from a local Luftwaffe Flight School found them and transported the two airmen to the Halle jail where a medic from the school treated them.

Clayton does remember temporarily regaining consciousness a couple of times on the way to the Halle jail.  He opened his eyes once and found himself looking into the eyes of a donkey.  It seems he was thrown over the back of the animal, transferred to a small automobile (in later life he realized the car had been an early model Volkswagen), and then taken to the jail.

September 14, 1944.

Lt Nattier and Sgt Bump began their journey from Halle to a prisoner of war (POW) camp.

Lt Nattier was first taken to a Dulug Luft near Frankfurt, Germany, where he was interrogated. [A Dulag Luft was a transit and interrogation center for newly captured Allied airmen. After interrogation the prisoners were sent to permanent POW camps.] When being transported from Frankfurt to his permanent camp, he saw his five surviving crew members at the Frankfurt train station. They were sent to Stalag Luft 4* at Gross Tychow, Pomerania (now Tychowo, Poland).

September 26, 1944.

Clayton arrived at Stalag Luft 1 (SL1) near Barth, Western Pomerania, Germany, on the Baltic Sea. His bandages had not been changed since September 13, but miraculously he had not developed an infection at the burn sites. He spent his first three weeks in the camp hospital.

Lt Nattier became SL1 POW 5577.  His camp mailing address was Clayton Nattier, North Compound 2, Kriegsgefangene Baracke 202, Room 6, Stalag Luft #1, Barth, Germany.  Each room held 18 prisoners with bunk beds stacked three high.  A small wood burning stove provided them limited heat and a place to cook their meals. Food provided by the Germans was supplemented with Red Cross packages.  

Delivery of Red Cross packages to SL1 stopped from December 26, 1944 – March 28, 1945.  Packages were known to be in Sweden and on the docks in Germany but were not delivered.  Clayton describes a three month period without the supplemental food supply as one of near starvation the POWs endured.

December 1944.

Colonel (Col) Hubert “Hub” Zemke became POW 6559 at SL1.  He was captured after his P-51 Mustang experienced a structural failure over Germany. His rank made him Senior Allied Officer at the camp.  He was 30 years old.

Col Zemke was the son of German immigrants and spoke fluent German. The Col had delivered American P-40 Warhawk fighter aircraft to Russia as part of the United States (US) Lend-Lease Act, and he taught the Russians how to fly and maintain the aircraft. His language skills and experience with the Russian military would prove extremely useful. 

Clayton still speaks highly of Col Zemke and his leadership ability which greatly improved POW conditions.

May 1, 1945.

The Russians liberated SL1. There were nearly 9,000 POWs in the camp at that time.  The Russians planned to transport the POWs to Odessa, Russia, on the Black Sea.  

Col Zemke along with other Allied leaders had a different plan.

May 12, 1945.

The plan called Operation Revival (May 12 – May 14, 1945) was to fly SL1 POWs out of hostile-held territory and back behind Allied lines. B-17s from the US 91st BG based at Bassingbourn, England, flew into what was a German military airfield near Barth. American POWs were then flown to Camp Lucky Strike (one of the US camps in France for repatriated servicemen) near LeHavre.  British POWs and those POWs sick or injured were flown to England.

 

 

Nine days after SL1 was liberated by the Russians, Clayton wrote a letter to his parents.

May 10, 1945

Dear folks,

These past few days have been quite eventful to say the least. The “rotten Huns” left us on the thirtieth of April, and the Russians came in the following day. Although we can’t go just anywhere in Germany we are free outside these barbed wire fences, a wonderful feeling.

I’d like to tell you that I’ll be home in a few days but that probably wouldn’t be true. I can’t begin to tell you how anxious I am to get home, and it won’t be long I know –- a very conservative estimate would be the first of July and barely possible by July tenth. Got three letters here – one from Mother, Dad, and Jean.

Boy what a privilege it is to write a letter in ink that won’t be censored by some German.

Russians have been bringing in cattle and hogs to butcher. Yesterday we cooked our first fresh meat since England.

I’m in as good health as I ever was and feel swell – I just want to get home. Drop Jean a note and tell her I’ll see her soon.

Strawberry season should be in full swing when I get home – I can see your strawberry shortcake now Mother.

Lots of love,

Clayton

[Many servicemen throughout WWII did not want their families to worry about them. Their letters home did not always describe what they were seeing and experiencing and feeling. Clayton’s letter is an example of one of those letters.]   

Clayton would eventually sail from LeHavre on a Liberty ship back to the US.  He would return home to Concordia, Kansas, and propose to “a pretty special girl” named Jean Mails (mentioned in his letter).  Jean and Clayton got married two weeks after his return.  

Then as Clayton says he got started with the rest of his life.

 

 

 

 

*In January and February 1945, as the Soviet Army was advancing west, the Germans began marching POWs further into Germany from Stalag Luft 4 (SL4) and other Allied POW camps. The march for the SL4 POWs spanned over 80 days and an estimated 600 miles (965 kilometers). They first were marched west. Then they were marched east when Allied artillery fire could be heard to the west. On May 2, 1945, the SL4 POWs were liberated by a British unit. 

Clayton’s five surviving crew members — Gerald Bump, Edwin Block, Max Kimmel, Cecil Richardson, and Richard Edwards — returned to the US after SL4 was liberated.  They all kept in touch after the war.

A special thank you to Clayton Nattier for sharing his wartime experiences with me and answering my many questions.

Clayton’s son-in-law, Thom Mindala, wrote a book Flying the B-17 Flying Fortress which details Clayton’s wartime experiences.  

The story and photographs are posted with Clayton’s and his family’s permission.

Thank you to WWII 306th BG Historical Association Historian Cliff Deets who is an invaluable resource for BG history. Information about the WWII 306th BG can be found at http://306bg.us.

 

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 Memory Of … WWII Nun Sister Emeldine

Sister Emeldine in Holland in March 1946.

 

This story is in recognition of Dutch citizens who helped the Allies in WWII.

 

The United States (US) Army 24th Evacuation Hospital landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on June 12, 1944, six days after D-Day.  The unit followed Allied military operations through France, Belgium, and then to Holland in support of Operation Market Garden in September of 1944.  

From October 28 to December 2, 1944, the 24th Evacuation Hospital occupied the Saint Maarten Kliniek (Clinic) in Nijmegen, Holland.  This was their first hospital set up in an already existing building.  Prior to that the unit worked in a tent hospital setting.  The Kliniek had been used by the Germans when they occupied Holland.  

The Saint Maarten Kliniek is where this story takes place.

 

Top photograph of the front of Saint Maarten Kliniek in 1944.  Bottom photograph shows the back of the building damaged after nearby military operations.

 

In a 2011 oral history interview 24th Evacuation Hospital nurse Lieutenant Josephine Pescatore Reaves tells of meeting Sister Emeldine and other nuns who cared for patients at the Kliniek.  

 

Photograph of Sister Emeldine and Lieutenant Josephine Pescatore Reaves taken at the back of the war damaged Saint Maarten Kliniek in 1944. 

 

Josephine shared a story in her interview about a US Army 101st Airborne Division soldier who was dying.  His name was John Kublinski.  She, Sister Emeldine, and a Catholic priest endangered their lives to grant John’s last request.

 

    

 

If the families of those lost in WWII had known that their loved ones did not die alone but were in the hands of caring people, it may have offered them some solace in their grief.

John Kublinski and Nick Patino were buried in US Temporary Cemetery 4655 at Molenhoek, Holland.  Their bodies were repatriated to the US after WWII ended.

 

Unfortunately I could not find further information about Sister Emeldine.  She did survive WWII as is attested by the 1946 photograph of her above.

Efforts have been unsuccessful in trying to locate the three sons of John Kublinski to share this remembrance of their father.

On November 19, 1944, a German shell hit the hospital.  US Army physician Guy A. Myers and nurse First Lieutenant Katherine L. Foster were seriously wounded.

The photographs in this story are used with the permission of Josephine Pescatore Reaves.  The oral history video is used with the permission of the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. 

A valuable website with extensive information on many of the US medical support units in WWII is WW2 US Medical Research Centre

There are three other stories on this website about the US Army 24th Evacuation Hospital.  The stories are WWII Camp Shanks, New York: And a Visit by Archbishop Spellman,  An Afternoon in Paris after Liberation: And a Letter from a Parisian Lady,  and The Medics: Those Who Took Care of the Wounded and the Dying in WWII .