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 15, 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 two of three.
We had been told in our briefing that if we didn't go down with the plane, we might survive for 15 or 20 minutes of agony on a life raft. We would be much better off drowning peacefully a few seconds.
My folks could pray their way out of anything, including their only daughter dying of pneumonia and my brother, Pat, drowning at age seven. Then, they prayed their way through the depression, the grasshoppers, and the dust bowl.
Maybe I had too much education to be able to pray as well as they could, but I decided to give it a try. I had to have some outside help to keep faith in my sextant and my sun lines. I hope my voice sounded confident when I called Bill Thissell on the intercom and gave him the new compass heading and the new ETA.
Maybe someday I'll meet someone with a sweeter voice than that WAC who was running the control tower at Reykjavik. So far, I never have, but then, I'm only 80 years old.
She told us the cloud cover was above our ceiling of 30,000 feet, so she would be stacking incoming aircraft in the clouds at 20,000 feet, giving them headings to circle, and dropping each of the circling aircraft by 1000 feet at a time.
Any other field would have been closed because the clouds were down to the surface and visibility was zero. But under the circumstances, shutting down the airfield wasn't an option.
She was doing the only thing that could be done. She had to talk each airplane down onto the runway in a solid pea-soup fog.
As she brought each airplane around onto the approach leg, it seemed that, with her radar, she could judge the altitude so accurately that she was able to talk us down to the surface of the ocean. Our propellers were bringing up spray before we could see the whitecapped waves of the North Atlantic.
The East-West Reykjavik runway came right down to the water, so, talking constantly, she brought us gently up to where the white ocean water seemed to blend into the concrete surface of the runway.
I think I may also have mentioned that Bill Thissell was one hell of a pilot. Military secrecy hides these things, but I wondered how many other B-17 navigators taking off that day didn't believe, or even get, sun lines to make a course correction. They for sure didn't have Bill Thissell to bring them in.
Maybe that trip into Iceland explains why combat didn't seem as dramatic as it is pictured in the war movies. War movies during World War II were especially scary.
When we would go down to London and see a movie, we used to say we'd have come back to Bassingbourne and fly a couple of combat missions to get our nerves back in shape.
Combat got to be routine. We would be up about 3:30 or 4 a.m. The combat crews would be served eggs for breakfast. Eggs were scarce in England in WWII, and giving up their eggs seemed to be a British ceremonial sacrifice in memory of their own combat crews lost in the Battle of Britain.
Then, we would go to the briefing room where we would find out if we were to be going deep inside Germany or if we would just be making a "milk run" along the coast of France.
If we lost several aircraft on a flight, we would be given a few days off in London, where we would probably see some scary war movie and then have to fly a few more missions to get our nerves back in shape.
This brings me to the topic I have been avoiding - the bloody pajamas.
That episode must have taken place after our 10th mission. That was one of our heavy losses - our second trip to Berlin.
We had lost enough crews to shut us down for two weeks so we would be getting enough time off for new replacements and patching up aircraft. Our crew never seemed to keep the same airplane.
On our days off, it seemed some other crew was always taking our airplane out, and either getting it shot-up or shot-down. The good part of losing our airplane was that our crew would have the weekend free to go to London.
The four of us, Thissell, Green, Simmers, and I rode the train to London early one Saturday morning. Green and I had a room at a little hotel, the Regency, about two blocks from Picadilly. Thissell and Simmers were staying a few blocks away.
We would have Saturday for sightseeing, stay over that night, and take the train back to Royston Sunday afternoon.
We knew we would have to get back to our hotels in complete darkness, because London was being strict about blackouts. The buz-bomb rockets were coming in almost every night, and London was jittery.
That was why Green and I made our last stop at a little pub next to the Regency. We could have one last half-and-half in the pub with only a few steps in darkness to the hotel. We had scouted the route in daylight, even counting the number of steps from the sidewalk up to the front door.
All went as planned until we started to climb the steps. In the pitch darkness, Green bumped into a girl who had been standing on the steps. She fell down and we were afraid she was hurt.
There was another girl with her, so we had them come inside the hotel so we could see if she had been injured.
She wasn't hurt, but we found out they had come into London to see a movie and have dinner in Picadilly. They weren't watching the time and had missed the last bus out to their home in Hammersmith, a suburb of London. They didn't know what to do.
Then I made a suggestion, which was generous and maybe not too smart. I said, 'Why don't you stay in our room? I can move my stuff into Johnny Green's room." They seemed so happy to have a room.
I made my second stupid mistake. Knowing they didn't have anything besides street clothing, I said, "you can use my pajamas." Green didn't offer his, so I wasn't sure how the two girls were going to manage to wear one pair of pajamas. I found out the next morning.
Because we had a train to catch, Green and I were up fairly early. We had to knock on their door about three times before we could wake them up. When they finally opened the door, I saw that one girl was wearing the tops and the other one wearing the bottoms of my new pajamas.
Even though they had closed the door down to a crack, the scene is still etched in my mind. Funny how a guy remembers the little things. Actually, the girl who was wearing my pajama bottoms had pretty big things.
I was standing shouting something about "We have to go," and "I need my pajamas" so they opened the door just wide enough to toss out my pajamas and I shoved the pajamas into my knapsack.
We got back to Bassingbourne just in time to be put on alert for a flight the next day. We also found out that the rumors we had heard about changing crew assignments were true. Thissell was moving to a lead pilot position and I was assigned as lead navigator.
The crew rosters that day showed our co-pilot, Johnny Green, was to be moving up to first pilot with someone named Bert Stiles coming on our crew as his new co-pilot. A flight officer named Marion Bullion was to be replacing me as navigator on my original crew.
I would be flying with a senior pilot named Langford, and we were to be lead ship in the high squadron. Lead high squadron meant we were to be deputy lead. Langford's job would be to take over if the wing lead ship would be shot down.
In the confusion of new crew assignments, I had forgotten about the pajamas until I was unpacking my knapsack and putting clothes away in my foot locker.
That was when I saw that the entire crotch area of my pajama bottoms was covered with blood. I did the only thing I could think of at the time - I folded the bottoms inside the tops and packed the bloody pajamas in my foot locker.
To be continued next week
John B. O'Leary, M.D.
21729 Holman Pt. Dr.
Nisswa, MN 56468
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