A Continuing Memoir
Recollections chosen from a Fortunate Life
Quentin Richard Petersen
My overseas odyssey started in July, 1944 as my crew flew our brand-new B-24J from Topeka, KS to Goose Bay, Newfoundland in two days. We stayed there for several days as McAullife went into the base hospital to find the cause of the swollen, painful lymph nodes in his groin. It was a result of infected athlete's foot rather than the venereal disease we all suspected from Jack's reported sexual feats. However, it kept us at Goose Bay through July 19.
During this break I painted the obligatory "nose art" of a scantily-clothed reclining woman and the name Defenseless on the plane's fuselage. We carefully reviewed our new "hot wing" which passed hot air through the leading edge of each wing to prevent icing, a serious threat to the ability of any aircraft to maintain lift.
We finally took off for the Azores in the mid-North Atlantic. Over the ocean we flew on automatic pilot. I dozed off and when I awoke and climbed through the plane, I found absolutely everyone, including both pilots, to be asleep! When awakened, we picked up a radio-beam and flew into Lages Air Base on Santa Maria, the eastmost island of the archipelago. We decided to walk into "town" together to see our first foreign land.
We had gone but a few hundred yards when we saw a handwritten sign at the side of the road reading;
Welcome to "overseas!" We ran, not walked, back to the airfield! Actually, I believe we had been inoculated for the Plague before we left.
In Newfoundland we had picked up a rumor that the runway on Lages was convex. Knowing that it terminated at the edge of the sea and, not being able to see its end, pilots had pulled up too soon and crashed. We saw two wrecked bombers at the side of the runway on that base.
The next day we took our chances and flew to Marrakesh, Morocco but, chastened by our experience on Santa Maria, we made no attempt to leave the base. The following day we continued to Tunis where we were to remain for a couple of days. Here, we felt it was safe to go into the Capitol, Tunisia, to look around.
Memories of my first contact with a foreign culture remain vivid. They were exotic! Men dressed in flowing robes! My shock at seeing one of them push up his sleeve to look at his wristwatch. Somehow I felt this to be an anachronism. I expected a sun-dial perhaps?
Then, each time we would pass a government building (in the Capitol these were numerous) the sentries at the gates would spring to rigid attention and present arms, scaring the bejesus out of me! I forgot that I was an officer and thus worthy of this attention.
We screwed up our courage and went into a bar where I ordered a cognac and recall that it provided an instant headache. An exciting day!
My remaining formal records suggest that on July 27 we flew from Tunis to Italy, probably Bari. We were told to remove all personal belongings from the aircraft and get into a truck. Good-bye, Defenseless, someone had other plans for that aircraft!
We were taken to another B-24 and loaded into it as cargo. Once in the air I could see that the bomb-bay doors were full of small holes. It took me a while to accept these as flak holes. Looking at these spots of light as we made the short flight to San Giovanni Airfield near Cerignola it was
We spent a day drawing canvas cots, bedding, a foot locker and supplies. Then, learned the location of the mess hall, orderly room, operations building, etc.
The Group Bombardier came by to have me check out the skills of my trade with him on a trainer of which he was very proud. He asked me to do a "run" for his inspection to which I responded, "on what?" It appeared that the unit was equipped with Sperry bombsights, and I had been trained only on the Norden bombsight!
So it goes.
The next day, July 31, the crew was scheduled for a training flight to familiarize each member with the specific procedures that he would follow in combat. As bombardier, I was also the armament officer and had responsibilities for the bomb loading and distribution of machine gun ammunition to the various positions and turrets. Members of the ground crew did the work, but I was to be sure that it was done correctly. Another duty stemmed from the fact that when loaded, the bombs are not armed. That is, if dropped they would not explode. Only when over enemy territory is arming carried out, individually on each bomb by the bombardier.
At 0400 hours on July 31 I was awakened by a whispered, "We know that you're a bombardier, but we're short of navigators right now, Lieutenant, so please come with me." Indeed, I had had six weeks of navigational training as part of my bombardier school, so the request was not unreasonable, just unanticipated.
With no expectation of flying a combat mission, that day, I was completely unprepared. At briefing I was given maps to get us to the Mogosaia Oil Storage depot north of Bucharest, Rumania, part of the Ploesti Complex of oil targets. I had a map, but no logbook, no E6B navigational calculator or, believe it or not, no watch! I had to turn these in when we left the States as I was a bombardier, not a navigator!! Good thinking, Quartermasters Corps. No point in wasting gummit money!
My confusion was compounded by the fact that I knew no one on the bomber's crew and there was no bombardier flying with us. I was to do that job too. None of the crew introduced themselves or tried to make me comfortable. They probably had no idea that this was my first mission and they missed the two members of their own crew I was replacing.
But, the worst was yet to come for this rookie!
As the formation got organized over Yugoslavia I started looking at the maps to see where we were and made a startling discovery. We were all flying in the wrong direction!! This I concluded from the observation that the railroad tracks, one of the key elements of "pilotage" navigation (the technique of directing the movement of the airship by observations of recognizable landmarks) were on the wrong side of the river! When I reported this to the pilot on the radio I was greeted by guffaws from every station on the ship. When I asked what was so funny, I was told that the map was wrong. Hey, doesn't everyone know that? Ha, Ha. I got the bombs armed before we had to go on oxygen.
The target of my first mission was a tough one. Our aircraft lost an engine to flak and could barely keep up with the group as we set course to return to Italy. Then, it was recognized that when I released the 500-pound bombs only four had left the plane. The remaining eight were swinging by their nose-brackets in the bomb bay! It was a circumstance for which I was prepared by training. I attached a walkaround oxygen bottle and, with my screwdriver, went out on the catwalk running through the bomb bay and released the armed bombs one-at-a-time. I wondered then, and have since, what the poor Romanian farmers must have thought was happening! I hoped that no one had been hurt.
My surly crew was the last into debriefing, a review of the mission by non-flying officers who interrogate crew members by the position they had been flying. When "Bombardier" was called. I raised my hand and reviewed the events described above. The tone of the follow-up seemed to suggest that I had, somehow, been at fault when the bombs didn't all drop. When the officer called out, "Navigator," the fuse was primed as I raised my hand.
"Let me see your log!" said the ground-pounder.
With two days off I next flew to Friedrichshafen Germany, to bomb the Zahnradfabrik Works. It was with yet another crew, but this time I had my own navigator, Clifford Bennett, with me. It was his first mission and he was literally scared shitless! I went to the waist and got an ammo can for him to use on his bare ass at 25,000 feet. The other thing I remember about this particular mission was flying over the Alps. Their summits were poking out of the cloud cover, reminding me of an orange jelly-candy I had fancied as a boy!
Bad weather kept me on the ground for the next week of my two and one-half week stay in combat. Into this week were crowded all the things I did in Italy besides flying bombing missions. We got our tent arranged comfortably, agreed with a little Italian boy, probably ten years old, to keep things straightened up in return for the funny-money lire he could find on the floor, went into Cerignola to see how people lived in this foreign country, and had a home-cooked meal with a (recommended) family who supplemented what little income they had in this fashion. I think I got into the town of Cerignola, proper, only one more time.
Others, who spent more time at San Giovanni than I, have written descriptions of pretty awful conditions in the town. Crippling poverty, widespread disease, begging, undernourished, children in tatters, fathers peddling their 14-year-old daughters for cigarettes were reported. In truth, I saw little of this; my revelations of the horrors suffered by our enemies were yet to
come. A number of other interesting episodes took place during this week. Everyone was called out for an obligatory meeting with an Advocate General's officer to be given the opportunity to register to vote in the upcoming 1944 presidential election. As he talked on, most of us drifted away. As it developed, few of us were old enough to vote! Then, I was notified that I would be Officer of the Day, one who has a number of trivial duties for a 24 hour period, among them, checking the sentries and guard posts to see that they were properly staffed (Halt, who goes there? etc.) I was told to pick up a Jeep at the Operations Building to carry out my responsibilities. The Operations Officer was disappointed to learn that I did not know how to drive! He had to find another OD.
Twice during this week I was sent to an office in Cerignola to train on a new navigational system called the Gee-Box. The Box, by interpreting the signals from three clandestine transmitters in the Balkans, could place an aircraft's position to within 100 yards! I didn't get too far with the training, but it turned out to have substantial importance later, as I will explain in the memoir, A BAD COUPLE OF WEEKS.
When the weather broke it was back to the Ploesti complex to hit the Steuea Romana Refinery at Campina, Rumania with yet another crew. With one day off we then flew in support of the invasion of Southern France to bomb gun positions at Toulon. No rest this time, as we took off the following morning to destroy the railroad bridge, Pont St. Esprit, in the Marseilles vicinity. This mission was the first on which I could recall listening to the transmissions of other aircraft on my intercom headphones. It gave another vision of combat as I heard men's cries as they were wounded by fire from Me109's and receive orders to bail out. Today's pilot, whom I did not know, clearly had set the radio reception differently than I was used to.
We had received some heavy flak ourselves, but until we had returned to San Giovanni I did not discover that my chest-pack parachute had been struck, burying the metal fragments in its silk rather than my chest. As will become apparent in this narrative, I am more of a believer in luck than of prayer. Luck or not, the chute had to be turned in for repair and repacking. This episode, too, had unanticipated consequences which will be described in the following memoir, A BAD DAY FOR QR.
A couple of days later my own crew (which had not yet flown in combat as a crew) was up for a training-practice mission. We redid all the stuff we had learned in staging training at Davis-Monthan Field in Tucson and got to know our navigator, Pappy Benson, who joined the crew just as we left the US.
On this practice mission, Harry Polofski was standing in the waist while Cliff Benson was firing a .50 caliber machine gun when a shell popped out to the floor without firing (a so-called "hot round") and exploded, hurting Harry's leg seriously enough to take him off combat status for a few days.
The crew now looked forward to flying together in combat, as we had trained to do since late April. As I had been doing, most had substituted with other crews over the previous two weeks. Everyone was excited to be together again.