By Jim O'Leary
An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.
July 8, 2002
The following is written by John O'Leary. There are three parts to this story, so you can think of it as a reading mini-series. This is part one of three.
Some old soldiers have heroic stories to tell their grandchildren about World War II. The only story I have is one I wouldn't dare tell my grandchildren.
Sadly, it happens to be a true story, about an English girl who wore the bottoms of my pajamas while the other girl in the room was wearing the tops.
Maybe someday I'll get up nerve enough to tell them about my bloody pajamas and the Big War. At age 80, it's getting too late in life to pretend to be a hero.
Although our B-17 crew did get back from combat with the help of pair of bloody pajamas, that's such a complicated, embarrassing story, it would be better to start by explaining how we almost didn't make it to England in the first place
Our combat crew was on individual orders to assemble, the official term was "crew up" in Dalhart, Texas. We were then shipped to the staging area in Kearney, Nebraska where we were issued a brand new airplane.
Then, we took off for combat with orders to ferry the new B-17 to England by way of Goose Bay, Labrador. This would mean flying the North Atlantic route from Labrador across Greenland and Iceland in March (1944).
March was known as the most miserable month of the year in the North Atlantic, but none of us had sense enough to be scared
Well, we were maybe a little bit scared even before we stopped for fuel in Bangor, Maine. We were warming up the engines before take-off when we threw a chunk of black top from the tarmac through our horizontal stabilizer.
This meant a five-day wait in Bangor to get the tail repaired enough time to hear rumors about Goose Bay, Labrador. One mechanic told us the airfield at Goose Bay was so big a B-17 once crashed trying to take off on a taxi strip because the pilot thought he was already on the main runway.
The mechanic went on to say that the airfield was so huge you couldn't see the far end of the runways, because each runway was over three miles long.
The Goose Bay airfield would have had to be big because Goose Bay (and Gander Lake, New Foundland) were the two takeoff points for England. In spite of a three mile (it was actually about two-and-a-half miles) takeoff run, a B-17 fully loaded with gas could just barely get off the ground.
Goose Bay was all that the fellow had told us it would be. Plus, it was miserably cold and snowing when we landed. As we taxied, we could see the dwarf trees of the Arctic tundra sticking up like weeds through the snow along the runways.
The control tower operator directed us to taxi to an aircraft hard stand where a bus picked us up. There were two British air crews already on the bus singing "Roll Me Over in the Clover." first time I'd ever heard it.
We were weathered in at Goose Bay for a week. About the only excitement was one day when Tubby Simmers (the bombardier on our crew), a navigator from a Canadian crew, and I decided to hike off to the frozen part of the Bay to go ice fishing.
All we caught was one little fish that looked like a perch to me but the other navigator, who was from Canada, said it was an Arctic char.
It had started snowing and we got lost on the way back to the base. We saw an eskimo, who had also been fishing, and he pointed us to the trail back.
We never told any of our crews about that. It wouldn't have been good for them to know they would be taking off across the Atlantic with a navigator who had already gotten lost on the ground.
When the weather finally broke, we got briefed for takeoff. The meteorology officer's forecast was for clear weather with broken clouds beginning about the time we would transit the tip of Greenland. Then, the cloud cover was supposed to have stayed broken most of the way into Reykjavik airport in Iceland.
The briefing officer also said we shouldn't have a fuel problem getting into Iceland because the winds at our planned flight altitude (15,000 feet) should be from the Northwest at 40 knots. Going east, that means a bit of a tail wind.
Bill Thissell, our pilot, could handle cold engines on a B-17 just as well as he could handle a cold tractor on the farm he and his wife, Marge, worked back in Mattoon, Ill.
Funny, I would have expected a combat pilot to be a glamorous hot-rock type, only find that Bill Thissell, one of the really great ones, was a quiet farm boy who knew how to nurse cold engines
Bill got us off the ground in Goose Bay with a good 2,000 feet to spare. As we cleared the end of the runway, we saw smoke and fire just below is. It was coming from a B-17 which had taken off shortly ahead of us.
It had crashed and exploded about a half-mile beyond the runway. It was the sort of accident which could happen when it is below zero, all engines are running cold and some poor pilot is trying to coax an overloaded bomber into the air.
By the time we made 10,000 feet, I already had a radio fix on the splasher at Prince Christian Sound in Greenland. The air was smooth and Bill kept us at 10,000, feet but I overheard Bill and Johnny Green, our co-pilot, talking about the possibility of better winds higher up.
I was glad we were still flying lower because the weather was so clear that both Tubby and I, with our heads together in the plexiglass nose, could look straight down at the ice covering Greenland, like a fluffy white comforter.
Our route took us right over the snowcap at the tip of Greenland, about 100 miles north of Prince Christian Sound.
The weather forecast from meteorology had predicted clear skies, but just after we left Greenland, the clouds began to build up until we saw we were facing a solid wall of clouds. With a full load, we couldn't climb above 30,000 feet, so Thissell and Green decided to go on instruments and headed straight into the bank of clouds.
We were soon out of radio range and the clouds were solid, so Thissell climbed to 25,000 so I could get a navigation fix on the sun. We broke out above the clouds for about 10 minutes. This was long enough for me to use my sextant to get a fix by shooting three sun lines.
My heart pounded when I calculated the fix, because I knew we might be facing disaster. I didn't dare tell anyone else on the crew.
You see, the fix at the Prince Christian radio splasher had agreed with the flight forecast for northwest winds at 40 knots. My new fix (by the three sun lines) showed us to be a position where the winds would have had to have shifted from northwest at 40 knots to the southeast at 60 knots.
I knew we must have crossed a cold front to have gotten a 180 degree wind shift. Weather forecasting wasn't too accurate in those days, which could explain why the front wasn't in the forecast. It could also explain why we had gotten into a massive bank of clouds on a day which was supposed to have been clear.
If I were right about the front, I would have to give Thissell and Green a change of compass heading and a changed estimated time of arrival (ETA) for Reykjavik Airport in Iceland.
The ETA was important for psychological reasons. You see, trans-oceanic navigators, when heading for an island, such as Iceland, have a secret tradition of adding about 15 minutes to ETAs. That way, their pilots don't get worried about their navigator having missed the island when the time of the ETA arrives and there is no island in sight.
With a 15 minute add-on, pilots never have time to get worried and don't notice arriving a few minutes early.
This time, flying inside the clouds with nothing but whiteness outside the windows, there would be no island to see, so we would have to come within radio range.
And, with no visual contact, I knew we would have to come close enough to Iceland to make radio contact with the Reykjavik control tower so their radar operator could bring us down.
If I made the wrong choice on the compass heading, and missed Iceland, we would not have enough gas to get to England, or even to German occupied Norway.
The chilling reality I faced was that the weather forecast, and the fix at Prince Christian had both indicated a heading that would have led us far out of radio or radar range of Iceland.
My problem was that I knew the Prince Christian radio fix was accurate, after all, I could see the splasher tower on Prince Christian Sound.
But a few hundred miles out of Greenland had put us out of radio range so the question I had to answer was: "Should I believe the Prince Christian radio fix which I knew to be accurate or should I believe my own sextant and my three sun lines?"
If I made the wrong choice, we would all be dead. We would be running out of gas somewhere over the North Atlantic. We hadn't been issued survival gear for ditching at sea. Survival gear would not only have been useless for survival, and would only add weight to an aircraft that needed every ounce of gas.
To be continued next week
John B. O'Leary, M.D.
21729 Holman Pt. Dr.
Nisswa, MN 56468
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