WWII American Graves Registration Service: And the Story of Sergeant John J. Kubinski

 

June 1944 Omaha Beach (Normandy, France) U.S. Graves Registration Service Collection Point for dead American and German soldiers being processed and prepared for temporary burial.  Photograph WW2 US Medical Research Centre. 

 

In WWII the United States Army Quartermaster Graves Registration Service was responsible for the care of the dead in all the branches of military service.  They worked with reverence and respect to preserve the dignity of those who sacrificed their lives.

 

WWII researcher and author, Jennifer Holik, has studied and written in-depth about the United States (U.S.) Graves Registration Service (GRS).  The following excerpts are from two of her articles:  

“In 1867 … Congress gave the Quartermaster General in the U.S. Army the responsibility of establishing permanent military cemeteries, handling burials, keeping records, and handling ongoing maintenance of these cemeteries.

When the U.S. entered World War II  … they planned to establish several cemeteries near the active front and would bring Soldier Dead to these cemeteries. Collection points would be established so the combat units could assist in the collection and identification of Soldier Dead.

The GRS in World War II were not only responsible for collecting, identifying, and burying the Soldier Dead, but also handling personal effects. The men had a system by which they worked on the stripping line to handle effects so they would be returned to the owner’s family.

GRS workers were responsible for locating suitable cemetery sites. They examined the terrain, soil quality, and distance to enemy lines. Upon selection of a site, they plotted the cemetery. Maps were drawn, processing tents were set up and the men assigned tasks. Local civilian workers were called in to dig graves and bury the dead.

It was important to bury all the dead primarily for health concerns. Decomposing bodies out in the open spread disease and lowered troop morale. It was better that the troops didn’t encounter the remains of Soldier Dead very often, lest the fear and panic they already felt increase, making them unable to do their job effectively.

Soldiers were buried for forensic reasons also. Information was gathered from the Soldier Dead to not only identify them but also gather information on how they were killed.

GRS claimed the remains of Soldier Dead from a unit, along the road side or battle ground. They worked on both sides of enemy lines in the mud, rain, deep snow, jungles and on beaches in their recovery efforts.

Effects recovered were bagged and sent to Kansas City, Missouri, for disbursement. They were cleaned of blood and grime.

When a soldier was located after death, every attempt at identification took place. The process began at the stripping line where troops initially removed explosives and equipment. Another soldier took these items to an ammo and equipment area so they could be reissued.

Next, medical sergeants stepped in with a clerk. The sergeants cut pockets and other pieces of clothing to locate identification tags and personal effects.

An Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) was created for every Soldier Dead upon receipt of remains by the GRS.

A Report of Burial contained the soldier’s name, serial number, rank, date of death, place of death, a copy of his identification tag is stamped onto the form using an addressograph machine. The report also contained the grave location of the soldier along with the man buried on either side of him. … A list of personal effects were included if any were found on the body.

If the deceased was unable to be identified then a form that allowed for fingerprinting and dental records was used and inserted into the Soldier Dead file. This form also contained space to list a physical description and information on personal effects or other things that might help identify the deceased.

The Report of Death was a form for the Adjutant General’s Office that listed name, rank, serial number, branch of service, date of birth and death, date of active entry in service, where he was killed, emergency contact and beneficiary information.

Request for Disposition of Remains. This form was sent to the next of kin to complete so the government would know what to do with the remains. The choices were:

  • To be interred at a Permanent American Military Cemetery Overseas.
  • To be returned to the United States or any possession or territory thereof for interment by next of kin in a private cemetery.
  • To be returned to [insert foreign country] the homeland of the deceased for interment by next of kin.
  • To be returned to the United States for final interment in a National Cemetery.

Disinterment Directive.  This form contains the basic identifying information on the Soldier Dead: Name, rank, serial number, date of death, cemetery name and location of grave, name and address of next of kin, condition of remains, date disinterred and remains prepared.

Not all Soldier Dead were identified because of the condition of the body when it was received by the GRS. Unknown Soldier Dead were assigned an X number since there was no serial number by which to identify them. … Unknown remains were placed into a mattress cover and the X number was painted on the bag.

The family was notified of Missing in Action and Killed in Action statuses within a couple of months of the event. When the family was notified, they were done so through the War Department.

After the war ended, the U.S. government began working with overseas officials to secure the authorization to use ports, disinter remains in private cemeteries, and to use rail and waterways to transport remains to major sea ports. Once this was in place, the government was able to contact families of the Soldier Dead to inquire about their wishes for the final burial.

The government began notifying families of the location of their Soldier Dead beginning in late 1946 and continuing for several years afterward. It is possible a family’s soldier had been buried overseas for two or more years before the family was notified of the location.

The disinterment and repatriation process took a couple years or more after the war ended. This was due in part to a shortage of materials for cases for the coffins and a shortage of metal for the coffins themselves. … When a Soldier Dead was placed in these coffins, they were sealed and placed into a wooden shipping case. The shipping case had the name, rank, and serial number of the soldier inscribed on the case.

Soldier Dead from World War II were returned home or reburied in a permanent American Military Cemetery overseas from late 1947 through 1951.”

 

Picture postcard of U.S. Military Cemetery Margraten, Holland, circa 1946.  Note: Identification “dog tags” affixed to the temporary grave markers.  Original photograph by Jean Smeets of Maastricht, Holland.  WWII Historical Collection of Josephine Pescatore Reaves, WWII U.S. Army Nurse, 24th Evacuation Hospital.

 

U.S. military deaths in WWII totaled over 400,000.  Every serviceman and servicewoman had a story.  This is the story of the life and death of  John J. Kubinski and his journey back to his home state of Ohio after WWII ended.

John Joseph Kubinski was born in Ohio on April 10, 1919, to Polish immigrants Stanley and Nellie Kubinski.  He attended Warren G. Harding High School in Warren, Ohio.  John married Susan Billock on November 29, 1941, and he was employed at the Republic Steel Corporation plant in Newton Falls, Ohio, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

On March 26, 1942, John enlisted in the U.S. Army.  His Enlistment Records noted he was 73 inches tall and weighed 149 pounds.  He was given the military rank of Private.

Private John J. Kubinski was assigned to the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division, 401st Glider Infantry Regiment, as a Glider Infantryman.  

The 401st Glider Infantry Regiment participated in the June 1944 Normandy Invasion (codenamed Operation Overlord) landing on Utah Beach with the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division.   

On September 18, 1944, 750 gliders from the 401st Glider Infantry Regiment would land in Holland as part of Operation Market Garden.  The mission of the 401st was to keep open the road between Sint-Oedenrode and Eindhoven.  The road was of vital importance as British armored units advanced north from the Belgium and Netherlands border with the objective to reach the bridge at Arnhem.  Fighting was fierce and combat losses were heavy as the 401st fought 72 days to keep the road open between Veghel and Son, Holland.

 

Waco CG-4 gliders awaiting launch in England as part of Operation Market Garden. Photograph U.S. Army Signal Corps.

 

It was in that 72 day period that then promoted Sergeant (SGT) John J. Kubinski was seriously wounded.  He was transported to the U.S. Army 24th Evacuation Hospital, which at that time was working out of the Saint Maarten Kliniek (Clinic) in Nijmegen, Holland.  It was here that John would die from his wounds.

 

Saint Maarten Kliniek, Nijmegen, Holland, circa 1940s.  Picture postcard from  the WWII Historical Collection of Josephine Pescatore Reaves, WWII U.S. Army Nurse, 24th Evacuation Hospital.

 

One of SGT Kubinski’s nurses at the 24th Evacuation Hospital was Lieutenant (LT) Josephine Pescatore.  In a 2011 oral history interview she still remembered a courageous young soldier who often spoke of his family and how much he loved them.  John asked LT Pescatore if she could find a priest for him to talk to before he died.  After visiting with the priest, SGT John J. Kubinski, age 25, died at five o’clock in the afternoon on November 16, 1944.

SGT John J. Kubinski was buried in Plot F, Row 3, Grave 50 at U.S. Temporary Cemetery 4655 at Molenhoek, Holland.

After WWII ended, John’s wife, Susan, made the decision to bring his body back to the U.S. for burial in Newton Falls, Ohio.

In November 1948 the remains of SGT John J. Kubinski were disinterred from U.S. Temporary Cemetery 4655 and travelled by train to Antwerp, Belgium.  John’s casket along with the remains of 3,384 WWII dead sailed from Antwerp to New York City on the U.S. Army Transport Barney Kirschbaum.  His casket would travel by train from New York City and arrive in Newton Falls, Ohio, on January 31, 1949.  SGT Kubinski’s casket, draped by an American flag, was met by the James Funeral Home and The American Legion.

John was survived by his wife, Susan;  his parents Stanley and Nellie Kubinski; and his brothers Alex, Edward, Stanley, and Joseph.

John was laid to rest at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Newton Falls, Ohio, on February 3, 1949.

 

Photograph of tombstone from Find A Grave.

 

 

 

Thank you to Jennifer Holik, World War II Research & Writing Center.  Links to the full text of her “The Graves Registration Service in World War II” articles Part 1 and Part 2.

Thank you to Dr. Vernon Williams, Director, East Anglia Air War Project.

Thank you to Mallory Duriak, Reference Associate, Newton Falls Public Library and the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library in Ohio.  

Thank you to WWII historian and researcher Sue Moyer.

Thank you to Carlos Alvarado, Archivist, U.S. Army AMEDD Center of History and Heritage, Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

The British Crown Colony of Malta under Siege in WWII

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

USS Wasp

 

USS Wasp with Spitfires and Grumman F4F Wildcats aboard.

 

 

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

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

 

ORP Sokół photographed in Malta circa 1943.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

WWII Ghost Army: And A LIFE Magazine Art Contest

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The 603rdEngineer Camouflage Battalion Special

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

 

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

 

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

 

Inflatable dummy tank.  National Archives

 

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

The Signal Company Special

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

The 3132 Signal Service Company Special

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

 

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

 

The 406thEngineer Combat Special

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A WWII Art Contest

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

“They call him the Little Tin Guy.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Lt. Col. J.W. Wilson.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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.