So there they were: this gaggle of young pilots crammed into a B-17 that had been made available to them by a friendly maintenance officer, one of their number acknowledging the increasingly agitated radio calls through the New Mexico evening from their bases's control tower with "Mumble, mumble, roger."
The idea of the whole enterprise was getting to a civilian airport in the vast American southwest in order to get flights home.
How young Fred Hill from far-off Regina, Saskatchewan, came to be in this situation makes for an interesting story, one that he related to the Roland Groome Chapter of the CAHS back in November 2000.
When Fred had graduated from the University of Saskatchewan in the spring of 1941, he had already been rejected several times by the RCAF because of what had happened to him at age 17: rheumatic fever. That being the case, Fred had applied to, and been accepted, by the prestigious school of business at Harvard University in Boston.
To enter the U.S., he needed a visa, and that meant a medical examination by a Regina doctor, who told him, "You know, if you hadn't told me about the rheumatic fever, I wouldn't have known about it."
Eureka! That gave Fred the impetus to try once more to enlist in the RCAF. He was accepted, went through manning depot at Brandon, got to stand guard at the B&G school at Mossbank and passed through 2 Initial Training School in his hometown of Regina, where he underwent another medical in December, 1941 (he recalls hearing of the Pearl Harbour attack while sitting in his parents' home in Regina).
But the rheumatic fever was noted again, "and they said, 'Out!'"
He scrambled to get to Harvard, where within months he explored the possibility of enlisting in the American armed forces. He learned that, as an alien (foreigner), he couldn't legally enlist in them -- and couldn't become a military pilot until 10 years residency had taken place. However, "a very aggressive recruiting officer" in downtown Boston "pledged 'we're going to find a way to get you in!" and started this process by sending Fred to a draft board. It had hitherto heard from young men trying to avoid the army; here was one who wanted to get into it. "They were wondering if they should send me to a psychiatrist!" Fred joked.
Next, the recruiting officer promised to get a special waiver allowing him to enlist. Fred was called up in August and sent to a local military holding unit with no fewer than 8,000 recruits, where the former Harvard business school student found himself handing out pats of butter in the mess hall. He passed the medical exam for aviation cadets and was transferred to nearby Westover Field. He was still an alien and "figured that I ever kept my mouth shut, that was the time to do it."
Exploiting his education at Harvard, he got a job as the assistant to a sergeant "who had about a third of a day's work to do" each day and "spent most of his time in the PX." Fred was also able to find out where he should be headed. As for his personal history questionnaire, he "stalled and stalled" until he heard plans were being made to send 1,200 aviation cadets to the west coast.
The train was scheduled to leave at 8 a.m. one morning; at 5 a.m., Fred was awakened by the duty officer, who demanded his file, ticked it off his list and headed off-duty at 7 p.m. Thus Fred was on the train without his citizenship having been checked.
Santa Ana, California, his next stop, was "just astounding": a base with no fewer than 20,000 men. There was a request for another personal history questionnaire, to which Fred applied his tested stalling tactics -- and incidentally found there was one officer on the base whose duty was to help young men (mostly Mexicans) acquire American citizenship in order to enlist. He even convinced a judge to suspend a major commercial lawsuit in order to swear in Fred. This still left the matter of the 10-year-waiting period before an alien could begin flight training -- but more on this later, for Fred was off to primary training at Oxnard, California, on the Boeing Stearman, which Fred found to be much heavier than its Canadian counterpart, the Tiger Moth.
Another difference: "at that time, they didn't let you see an airspeed indicator for the first 100 hours -- you had to get the 'feel'. They changed it after I went through ... they were losing too many people."
Next came a course on the Vultee BT-13 Valiant monoplane trainer, nicknamed the Vultee Vibrator ("like a Harvard, but with lower power...it wasn't exactly overpowered") and, next, an advanced flying training school at Douglas, Arizona, in July of 1943 on the Cessna Bobcat (the American version of the Crane). Near Douglas were some mountains that offered good training, but also contained severe thermals. He remembers being caught by one downdraft that flung his aircraft downward violently before he was able to regain control.
It was at this point that the 10-year residency requirement caught up to him. Graduation was imminent when the base adjutant said, "Mr. Hill, there seems to be an irregularity about your file."
Rather than be obstructionist, the officer "put his head in his hands and said, 'What are we doing to do? We have a big investment in you!"
The solution was to bounce his file "up" to Washington and ask Gen. Hap Arnold, the Army Air Force Commander, for exemption -- which arrived just in time for graduation.
Fred's next stop was B-17 training at Hobbs, N.M., from August to October, 1943. His assessment of the '17: "a great airplane!"
He adds: "From a battle standpoint, it could take so much punishment -- far more so than the B-24." The B-24's long, narrow Davis wing also imposed high wing loading in relation to the power and the B-24's major subsystems were powered by a hydraulic system, vs. an electrical system in the B-17. With the latter, "you could have wires cut, but it didn't cut everything out," he said. "The battle damage it could take was just incredible."
He graduated despite a minor embarrassment on his check ride: he successfully handled the loss of two engines on approach by turning into the good engines -- and then continued on, forgetting to put down the landing gear.
This was caught by the check pilot, "who was not impressed at all! I think I had to take another 10 or 12 hours [flying] again. They were not in the mood to put people aside because of the investment in them."
(Fred can joke now about his absent-mindedness: he and his crew once set out on a raid on Ploesti, only to have more and more electrical systems aboard the aircraft fail -- until only the airspeed indicator was working. Aborting the mission was in his mind when he noticed, out of the corner of his left eye, that all four generators were "off". Flipping them on, he coolly spoke into the now-activated intercom, "Yes, we found the trouble!"
"I think that if there was a danger over there, it wasn't Hitler shooting at us; it was me!")
Another difference between the RCAF and the AAF at that point was that operational training took place in the U.S., as opposed to overseas. Fred "crewed up" at Salt Lake City, then went to Clovis, N.M. to train -- not on the sturdy B-17 -- but on the B-24 Liberator.
It was around this time that Hill and his co-pilot, Lt. Dan Hurson, heard a rumor that training on the massive new B-29 was to take place at Langley Army Air Force Base in Virginia -- close to Hurson's hometown of Washington, which was packed with thousands of young female clerks and secretaries. They conspired to get posted to Langley, succeeded and did operational training out over the Atlantic. (Fred, incidentally, met his future wife in Washington, where the young Winnipegger was working with the British Purchasing Commission. They were married on Feb. 1, 1944.)
From Langley, Fred and his crew went to Detroit, picking up a brand new B-24, then headed south. They were to fly their aircraft into battle, via the staging route over the South Atlantic, which took them to Homestead AAFB near Miami, San Juan in Puerto Rico and British Guiana ("one runway in the forest just outside of Georgetown").
There were two routes between Georgetown and Belem: one that followed the South American coast and a direct one over the jungle -- where a downed airplane and crew would be swallowed up by the jungle. Being "young and adventurous", they chose the latter.
From Belem, they flew to Natal on the Brazilian coast, where they paused for a day ("we decided there was a 'maintenance problem' with the plane because we'd found out there was a nice beach near there"), they faced another decision: fly east across the South Atlantic in one hope or detour in order to stop at Ascension Island. As Fred remembers, "the build-up was incredible" with about 200 heavy bombers a day taking this route.
Adventurous, indeed. Despite calculating that an average of one heavy bomber and crew were lost every day on this route, they flew direct to Dakar, landing with only 20 minutes' fuel left, then headed north to Marakesh in Morocco, across the Sahara and into Tunis. There, they inquired about the possibility of gunnery training for the crew and were told, "You'll be into combat in a day or two and you'll get lots of training!"
Weighed down with an Italian motorcycle purchased by co-pilot Hurson for three bottles of Schenley's that cost only $6 in San JUan ("the crew weren't very pleased, I must say, because we got them to help us load this damned thing!") they staggered into the air and headed across the Mediterranean and into the airfield at Foggia. (The motorcycle was later sold to some army mechanics for $150 -- a whopping 2360-per-cent profit!)
Asked if he had much contact with RCAF or RAF personnel in Italy, he said, "We didn't have too much to do with them. In Italy, the biggest relationship we had was the planes that flew to Cairo to bring back booze!"
Fed "wasn't keen" on the B-24 and flew only one or two orientation missions on it (including one to Belgrade, "which wasn't much of a target") before he was transferred to a nearby B-17 unit "that had had the hell shot out of it". The logic was clear: he was a trained B-17 pilot and had no qualms about getting off of Liberators. Had he not left B-24s, "I don't know if I'd be here talking about it," he said. "The battle damage and flight characteristics were so superior."
That was proven by a raid against a heavy defended fighter assembly plant at Werner Neustadt in Austria. Fred's aircraft lost two engines on one side and the bombardier was fatally injured by flak. A pair of German fighters looked to finish off the aircraft when it fell behind the formation, with its massed firepower. The colonel commanding the group agreed to slow the formation and Fred's B-17 limped home across the Alps, one engine feathered and the other windmilling and heating up as the propeller rotated, out of oil. "We'd just landed at the base when it caught fire," Fred recalled. "They had the firetrucks out and everything. This was probably the worst mission and the plane virtually had to be rebuilt."
In the late spring of 1944, the AAF decided to transfer to the 8th Air Force in England some "command pilots" (Explaining this term, Fred said, "if you lived long enough, you were a command pilot").
As a result, Fred reported to the 305th Bombardment Group at Chelveston on D-Day. This was the veteran group (with about 50 aircraft in four squadrons) that had been brought to Britain in 1942 by Gen. Curtis LeMay.
A big push was on to disrupt German communications in the wake of the Allies' Normandy landing. "They had us very busy after that -- too busy. It was just exhausting."
Memorable from that period were raids on synthetic oil facilities near Hamburg, plus Munch and Bremen. The furthest he flew was to Leipzig and the most controversial one (among the 305th's pilots) was the one nicknamed "High Noon at Undt der Linden" -- a mid-day raid designed to disrupt German government operations in downtown Berlin.
One difference from 15th Air Force operations in Italy was the presence of large numbers of escort fighters, notably P-51 Mustangs.
A typical raid involved three "tranches" or waves of them: one to escort the bombers to the target (at which point these fighters broke off and returned to Britain); a second group taking the bombers in and out of the target, and a third group that escorted the bombers -- anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 of them -- home.
"It was a huge effort -- the daylight bombing campaign," he said. "The Americans didn't realize the kind of losses they were going to have to take. They had to pull back, and finally got fighter cover."
That was because the Luftwaffe fought with skill and daring, typified by an Me109 pilot who Fred glimpsed diving right through a B-17 formation, dodging aircraft and gunfire.
And that is why the early, pre-fighter-escort AAF bombing campaign was programmed (in terms of replacements) to absorb 2/3 losses. By the summer of 1944, "we were working to get it up to 50-50."
He added: "I think the American would have probably had to drop the daylight bombing if they hadn't developed that fighter tactic ... I know there were times when they gave very serious consideration to stopping it because the losses were just so high."
(A note for model-builders: whereas all the B-17s Fred saw in Italy were in olive drab camouflage, he noted a mix of camouflaged and natural metal birds in Britain. That was because AAF planners were unimpressed by the paint's effectiveness and, in any event, wanted the bombers lightened. "One of the first things they told us to do was get rid of the fire extinguishers and the de-icing boots, too.")
A typical mission could take up to 10 or 12 hours. It was in the air at first light, with B-17s taking off through the British fog at 30-second intervals, climbing at 150 feet a minute, eventually breaking through into clear air and forming up into groups and meeting the escorts. When Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle took over the 8th Air Force midway through 1944, he added a hazardous new wrinkle by inserting a 90-degree turn during that climb-out through the fog. In the first half of 1944, the 8th Air Force lost 500 aircraft and crews just taking off, Fred was told.
So intense was the pace that, at one point, Fred and his co-pilot would take turns sleeping for 15 minutes on the way to the target.
Particularly successful by the Allies were the attacks on oil facilities like Ploesti and Hamburg. "We knew that because we could see their fighter planes sitting on the ground."
Later that year, after no fewer than 33 missions, Fred was diagnosed with severe combat fatigue, taken off operations and sent to a convalescent hospital in Spokane. He left it just as the European war was ending in the spring of 1945.
He received a DFC for the "total package" of missions and would have got another for the Werner Neustadt mission had not his squadron adjutant not disliked him and tore up the letter of recommendation. He also received the AAF's Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.
Fred returned to Canada and spent considerable time on leave in that summer of 1945 in the Manitoba hometown of his wife, where he became acquainted with the members of the small AAF detachment that oversaw the fledgling North-East Staging Route through The Pas, Frobisher Bay and Greenland. (To keep up his flying time, he even logged some time in one of the unit's two airplanes: a Piper Cub on floats. When he got his discharge and pilot's licence, this experience earned him an endorsement for seaplanes with up to four engines!)
Of his time in combat, he said, "the guardian angel was putting in pretty good overtime in those days!"
-- written by Will Chabun