Note: This is not a motorcycle related posting.
I just finished a book, A Higher Call
, about an American B24 pilot and an encounter with a German fighter pilot during WWII. The book brought memories of my dad and the stories he told of his days during the war. He was a Crew Chief mechanic on a B24 in Seething, England from 1943 to 1945. The following are some of his memories.
|Sigifredo P. Perez|
1912 - 1996
B24 Crew Chief
Life was moving along just fine until that fateful day on December 7, 1941. That’s the year that threw us into war with Japan and Germany; the start of World War II. Six month later on June 9, 1942 I was drafted into the army. As it turned out, it was the Army Air Force. I didn’t like the idea of leaving since my wife, Juanita, was pregnant with our first child.
The Army was a whole new experience for me. To begin with we were lined up before a string of men that were examining us. These guys had us all stripped, completely naked, and we were checked over like some kind of fruit; some were rejected others were not. I was taken accepted.
Now, here in the Army, life was completely rare to me. They would get you up in the wee hours of the morning, march you to eat break¬fast, which I seldom ate. One of the first things we did was to get our clothes and equipment needed by a solider. It seems like we marched all day.
I was so disgusted and depressed about being drafted that when they offered us our first leave of a few days so that we could go home and get our business in order, I didn't take it. I was really depressed about the whole thing. My wife still remembers I didn't come back like the rest of the men in town and has never let me forget that. I figured second goodbyes were harder than the first.
Now in the Army I was checked and rechecked on my education which was limited to the fifth grade, but my IQ showed that I had a lot more knowledge than that. A lieutenant and a corporal held me over after we all took the intelligence test. I thought I was in trouble seeing that I was the only one left in the room. Eventually, after having rechecked my score they came over to me and began to quiz me. I told them that I read a lot and learned from that. They wanted to send me to OCS (Officer Candidate School), but they elected not to because they said I was too old. I was twenty-nine.
I guess that my IQ scores got me out of going to the infantry and instead I was sent to an Aircraft Mechanic School. This was in Shepherd Field, Texas near Wichita Falls, Texas .
I was stationed at Sheppard Field when my wife gave birth to our first son, Sigifredo P. Pérez, Jr. who was born premature. I was also home, on furlough recovering from surgery I had in the hospital at Sheppard. I was on leave for two weeks. About three months later our baby got very sick and I got an emergency furlough through the Red Cross to go home. Our local doctor, Dr. Walker tried everything to save the baby, but he died in May of 1943. I had gotten several extensions on my leave, but after the funeral I had to return to Sheppard Field. Word was we were to go overseas to England. I barely made it back in time to get my shipping orders, but I made it.
I was sent to Will Run Airfield in Ypsilanti, Michigan to a crew chief school. I made corporal at Will Run and had several weeks of training on the duties of an airplane chief. It was at Will Run that I finished my training and was assigned to a brand new B24, a four engine bomber which was manufactured right there in the huge Will Run plant that used the assembly line technique to manufacture the airplanes. This was the Henry Kaiser factory making "B24" bombers in an assembly line.
The airplane I was assigned to was number 168 or something close to that. I had to board it with all my belongings and go wherever it went. This was the first time I ever flew in an airplane and I was really nervous.
As it happened, this first flight was a short one about 15 minutes. It was the delivery of the plane from the civilians at Will Run to the military at Romulus , Michigan. This was sometime in mid-1943.
Now the civilian that delivered the plane was, I heard, a Canadian working for the plane manufacturer as a test pilot and as a regular pilot that made deliveries. He was a talented pilot making very smooth landings with these big clumsy airplanes. We called the B24s “Ruptured Cows”, but they proved their worth in Europe as they were the deciding force in the war. Even though they were not publicized as well as the B17s they were very good and kept coming back to fight another day, day after day, all through the war.
During my stay in Ypsilanti, we had weekend passes that we would use to go into Detroit. Detroit had plenty to see and places to go and big dance halls and musicians. That was what interested me. It was here that I went to the Ford Museum. This was quite a place that had almost all the machines invented to-date. It had the first light bulb that Edison made, it had other inventions by Edison, Marconi, Graham Bell and a lot of inve¬ntors like Eli Whitney and what seemed like hundreds of others. It had planes that pioneered trips into the arctic. This place was full of the first models of those inventions that are so important to us now.
More than anything it had all the early models of cars and locomotives some with the radiators and boilers made of pure bronze. I have always been mechanically inclined and this place was paradise for me. I have never forgotten the intrigu¬ing things that men invented to help change the world.
During my time in school in Romulus we were going at it hard as I was in¬doctri¬nated on the duties of a flying engineer, I had to know all the fuel and oil flows to every engine from the different wing gas tanks and the oil reservoir and all the duties that fell on an air engineer and gunner.
As it turned out, I could not do sustained high altitude flying because I had infected sinuses. Freezing conditions at high altitudes grounded me; therefore, I was given an M.O. designation of crew chief.
It was September and we had graduated from the schooling at Romulus and ready for the next step. I remember it was a cold, freezing morning in Michigan as we were awoken that early morning. I knew it would be colder in the plane so I struggled to put on a leather-flying suit, flying boots and heavy clothing for our flight. We were whisked to the airplane and in the air in no time. I was alright until we landed a few hours later in Montgom¬ery, Alabama. I was almost roasted alive with all the winter clothing I had on. I threw stuff off all around me as I couldn't even stand my undershirt as hot as it was. I'll never know why the fellows flying the airplane did not tell us we were going south to hot weather. Must have been their little joke.
In Montgomery the airplane went through a winterization process that would prepare it for cold weather flying .
Montgomery was a wonderful southern post where big trees grew and people had a leisurely pace. Montgomery was nice because we had nothing to do for several weeks, but wait for our plane. So we visited all throughout Montgomery. I got passes to go into town; Montgomery was a very large city. I remember a buddy and I went downtown and stopped for lunch at a restaurant where we ordered a T-Bone and French-fries. Well, they gave us a steak that covered most of a large oval plate. What a steak! I had all I wanted and had enough left for another meal or more.
Once the plane was ready we were alerted that we were shipping out.
From Alabama we flew to St. Joseph, Missouri where the plane went into weight and balances procedures, which I didn't get to see because I stayed in a hotel several miles from the base where this work was done.
I guess that this job at St. Joseph lasted a couple of days and after that I rejoined the plane and flew to Sioux City Army Air Base in Iowa. It was quite a base, busy readying planes to go overseas. It was at Sioux City that we were issued our clothes and equipment for wherever we were to be. Some were issued tropical gear others were issued cold weather gear. So it was here that we got our first clue of where we might be heading; the Pacific or Europe.
It was in Sioux City that I got baptized to real snow, with real honest-to-goodness snowstorms, so extreme that it was difficult to stay outside. I was issued cold weather gear so I got to use my new gear right away.
From Sioux City we flew to Camp Shanks , New Jersey, just across the Brooklyn Bridge from New York City, New York. My plane went from Sioux City to somewhere where they prepared it to be ferried or flown to Europe or wherever.
While I was at Camp Shanks I would go into the big city every night to 42nd Street, the heart of New York City. New York City was always going, round the clock. It didn't matter if it was midnight, three in the morning or daytime; it was the same with crowds around the clock. After visiting London I discovered that not even that city compared to New York City, a city so impressive I'll never forget it. It would stretch for miles in all directions. We would use the subway because it was a fast way to get from place-to-place and in 1943 it only cost a nickel to ride it. I rode these trains all the way to the outskirts of town where they became elevated tracks. I still marvel at the engineer¬ing network of the subway as it ran throughout the city.
It was at Camp Shanks that we were to leave for parts unknown. As the days passed they assembled us out on a field and told us we were shipping out. We were going overseas to war and real fighting. For a few days we practiced parachute jumping on a high trapeze tower so we thought we were flying out. As we worked we also trained to climb and go down on a net made of thick rope; up and down about 20 feet or more, this was hard work. If we had trouble getting to the top the Lieutenant in charge would yell, “ If any of you fail making it to the top and obstruct the way of the others, I'll shoot one man to save the others.” Everything was serious and deman¬ding. They would tell us that this training would one day save our lives. Later we would realize that this was true.
I forgot the exact date, but it was November and Thanksgiving Day was coming soon. We were assembled with all our gear and led to a train. They boarded us on a fast train that took us to a seaport where we were marched to a big ferry, which took complete companies of soldiers to a ship that was so big it staggers the imagination. It was the Queen Elizabeth the largest liner ever to plow in the oceans of the world. You would find it hard to believe that this ship could carry so many troops, sailors, marines, all branches of the armed forces, including WACs. We were somewhere on the high seas when thanksgiving came. We celebrated the day in the mess hall where we expected a good turkey dinner, but instead got a thick chop of pork, all fat. I didn't touch it.
They said 20,000 persons were on board for this trip across the Atlantic. During the cruise I remember I lost all my money gambling and was really broke by the time I got off the Queen Elizabeth in Scotland, but I had a lot of fun. We would have dice games on the stairways of the ship since everything was fairly cramped. In order to carry as many troops as it did every compart¬ment had six bed racks for six soldiers in a space of about six by eight feet. It was really close contact, but it was good for moral support since we were heading to the unknown. It provided a good opportunity to talk about everything especially what we would like to eat, or where we would like to be, but seldom about the war.
Another thing I saw in the promenade of the ship was an old fellow surrounded by GIs as he had a flea circus. He had, he claimed, trained fleas that would pull a little paper cart, ride a bicycle and several other feats of strength. Later, after the war, whenever I talked about this, guys would just laugh at me not believing a thing. (I later read in the Enquirer an article with pictures of the entire flea circus.)
While we were at sea we had no idea where we were headed. Everybody had his own idea and thoughts about places we were going. Mostly, we thought we were going to replace fallen soldiers, which in a way was right, but mostly it was to form a force strong enough to keep pressure building up in preparation for the biggest invasion in history. Anyway, in our discussions while on board we talked about everything including the possibility of never returning home, but this thought didn't last, it was a passing thing. We all had dreams of getting our job done and coming home to our wives, girls, mothers and fathers and family.
When we got to Scotland, I was amazed when they lowered the anchors of the Queen Elizabeth. Each anchor had a mountain of piled chain as high as a big house and each link as big as a truck. The metal was about 18 inches thick weighing, I suppose 15 or 20 tons. The anchor slid down and took this big chain with it.
I remember sharing some chocolate bars with a buddy I had met back in the states named Richard C. Kelly and as it turned out, we were to remain buddies all through the war. We would go on our passes together in the states and we continued it overseas. Richard was a slim, good-looking fellow about 5'10" tall. He was an easygoing guy that usually went along with whatever I wanted to do, but we would also do whatever he wanted to do as well. We had a good friend¬ship. Once when we were in Ypsilanti, we went to Detroit on a day pass and it happened that the Detroit Tigers were playing. We were right outside the stadium and Kelly said, “let's go in and see the game,” but I said, “no let's go and have some fun.” So I lost a chance to have seen a major league baseball game and never got to see one. I guess I wanted to have fun because we were all on edge not knowing what to expect, except that we were going to the fighting zones somewhere around the world. We thought all kinds of thoughts, about where we would go, always expecting the worst places.
Germans reported the sinking of the Queen Elizabeth while we were halfway across the Atlantic, but luckily it was not true though some submarines were reported near the area at different times during the crossing. After the fourth day we landed in Glasgow, Scotland. It was a cold day when we were ferried into Glasgow in the early morning; some Red Cross Ladies were ready with hot tea, coffee and doughnuts. These goodies were a real change of routine. While in England we had very heavy foods, fatting and different for us, especially from what we were used to eating.
Upon our arrival, everything was backwards to us, the traffic was on the left side of the road and the cars had the steering wheel on the right side. It was really a hassle for us to get accustomed to driving our vehicles on the wrong side, but even on the base we were under the rules of the host country and had to abide by their rules.
From Glasgow we took a train that traveled due south all night. It would make stops along the way to let passengers off and on. Those passengers were not in our cars, ours were full of GIs. We didn't sleep all night as we rode the train and in the morning the train kept going at a very fast pace. We had a chance to see some beautiful countryside as the train kept moving south.
It was about noon when we finally arrived at a place where we were to get off the train. We waited by the tracks and soon our transportation arrived. They were army trucks which had us load up by name and rank. We were separated into groups and loaded on these trucks. Richard Kelly and I were assigned to different vehicles, but as it turned out, we ended up in the same place. We were tired from traveling with no sleep and no rest, eating food we were not accustomed to eating, and had had no time to shower and cleanup.
The trucks roared away having left us at an air base near the coast by the English Channel where our B24s joined us. The airbase was in Seething . As we got settled I was sent to a Quonset hut or barracks that served as our home in England. We settled down to live our new life in England, as a part of the force that was to eventually win the war in Europe. I had quite a lot of experienc¬es that remain in my mind to this day.
This was November 1943 when we got settled in at Seething where the nights were so long and the days short. It also rained everyday, freezing in the morning and thawing out during the day making a quagmire hard to walk in. This was England in wintertime. I also had a hard time understanding the way the British talked. My first memory was the very next night. That first day, just at dusk our allied planes, the British, were coming back from fighting with the German planes. Apparently the Germans came right over the channel and carried on a dogfight with our fighter planes. I remember seeing several planes going down in flames over the English sky. I don't know whether they were German, British, or American, but it must have been some from each side. So this was war.
From that day on, we were under fire every night and day. The Germans were more active during the years 1943 and 1944, but they never ceased the bombing and strafing raids until the very last months of the war when our forces took the initiative and drove them back into Germany. The Germans main¬tained regular bombings over England destroying many towns, cities and air bases.
We never really had a full night's sleep because the raids were mostly at night when it was harder to defend ourselves as the Germans used the cover of the night. They had wonderful machines and navigational systems, but they would still lose a lot of bomber and fighter planes to our guns, anti-aircraft guns and fighter planes. These losses didn't stop them or slow them down, but our raids on their oil reservoirs, railroads and factories did a lot of damage. Little by little, we were gaining in this terrible conflict.
At first we were busy getting the base ready for action; we would dig ditches, build roads, and do all kinds of work on the base itself. We built some buildings and gun-holes. We cleaned the area and our barracks, which housed about 28 to 30 men each.
The first few months we were restricted to the base and didn't get passes to go off the base grounds. We would work all day and play poker at night. Of course, it was a complete blackout at night. We could not have any light showing through the windows or anywhere else because of the night bombings. We were also bombed during the day when we first arrived, but not as often.
During these early days I got a job cutting hair for the guys. I had to clean the Commanding Officer’s Headquarters, but I didn't like the idea of having to clean the CO’s quarters. I told the CO how I felt and he sent me to my airplane, but he busted my corporal stripes. So I was back to being a plain GI, but a mechanic on my B24, the one I was assigned to in Willow Run, Michigan. I worked on this airplane until December 24, 1944 when it was shot down over Germany. Before her demise our crew got a Presidential Citation for service. It was in the form of a picture with all the crew and airplan¬e.
With my plane we started to prepare for the bombing missions to Germany. This soon became a round the clock routine. Since late 1943 until the end of the war in 1945 I worked on B24s and I worked hard most of the time in real cold weather. I would wait for the plane after a bombing mission and as I directed the plane into the hard-stand I usually could tell how bad the damage was. At times I had to go over the plane very carefully, looking for hidden damage to the fuselage. Sometimes the crew would tell me they had a difficult mission and showed me the area where the probable damage could be. I always was afraid of fuel tank damage, which was the easiest to find because the tanks were rubber tanks of the self-sealing type. The sealer worked for several hours and would allow the plane to keep flying back home, but damaged tanks had to be replaced. As far as I was concerned, this was one of the toughest jobs on the whole aircraft.
The rubber bladder gas tanks were easy to handle in hot weather, but in cold weather as we
had in England, they were tough to manipulate. The first step was to get the punctured tank out, but first draining it and squeezing it out of the wing as best you could. The tanks were intercon¬nected and under the wing so the leading edge of the wing had to come off, then the under part of the wing. They had hundreds of screws, but even after everything was exposed it was still hard to get the old tank out and the new one in and insure that there were no gas leaks. We had to work very hard to get the aircraft back in action so we had our hands full most of the time, working all night to get the plane ready.
Flack would sometimes damage a cylinder or firepower and we had to change the cylinder or any parts damaged during the mission, and have the airplane ready as soon as possible. At times whole engines were damaged enough that we would replace it. In came the sheet metal men that knew the work it took to fix a damaged fuselage. For example, if a de-icing boot on the leading edge of the plane’s wing was damaged, it would take us, the mechanics, to remove it and if the damage was deep enough to damage the metal part, then it would take the body men to work on it as well. It was a long tedious job.
One early morning as I was going to the mess hall for breakfast and then to pre-flight the airplane I passed three guys going the opposite way. I glanced up at them and at the same time one of them looked at me I saw my old friend, Tony Muñoz, from my hometown of Mission, Texas. We had been in school together, but we never dreamed we would see each other again, especially in such a far off place like Seething, England. Tony was a tail gunner on a B24. I didn't see him often, but sometimes his crew would fly my airplane so I’d get to talk with him. Later I was to have quite a few anxious moments for him because I feared he had been killed or lost-in-action. On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1944 his crew took my airplane on a bombing mission over Germany. As we would always do, I went to the field and our hard-stand to wait for the return of the planes. As they started coming back from their mission, my plane had not come in so I waited; then one plane from another squadron passed by and the gunners gave me the thumbs down sign telling me that our plane was downed. I couldn't believe it. I had been assigned to that airplane in Willow Run, Michigan and had been with me in England since 1943 so I was unconvinced, but the plane that was parked next to mine came in and the gunner walked over to me and said the plane was shot down over Germany and they had seen four parachutes open. To me that spelled curtains for Tony, he was a tail gunner a very hard place to get out of even under good circumstances so I thought he had been killed. The flight line sergeant told me we wouldn't have a plane for two or three days so I went to the barracks where the gunners stayed to talk to the guys about Tony. As I walked in the first guy I saw was Tony writing letters back home. Boy was I happy to see him. I told him what had happened and he said a fellow gunner wanted his place so he could finish his tour and go home.
I had lost my airplane and felt I had lost a good friend, but at least I didn’t lose my good friend. Tony still lives in Mission and has a local insurance agency.
I remember a very sad thing that happened to an airplane from our group right at the end of the runway. A plane crashed at the end of the runway trapping three crew members in the nose section of the plane. The crash caused the top gunner turret to drop and trap the men inside the plane. The firemen and rescue groups tried to save them, but were unable to. It was an ordeal for us watching from across the field because we knew the bomb load would go off at any time. It did with a terrific blast. The guys trapped inside were all killed as the blast scattered parts all over including whole engines, plane fragments, and unexplod¬ed bombs. That tragic event still remains vivid in my mind.
The place surrounding the crash area was put off-limits for three days as we waited to see if any unexploded bombs would go off. Eventually they were left to the demolition men to go in and disarm them and secure the area. Some bombs were hard to find as they were scattered over a big area. Some ended up in ditches or in soft damp earth where their impact would camouflage them with dirt, weeds and/or mud. It was no easy task to really be sure everything was secure and free of danger. After three days the area was secured and we were left the grim task of looking for human remains.
Well I hate to talk about this, but it was some¬thing that happened. It was unreal and really it shouldn't have happened, but things happen within the operations of a war machine. The incident also happened early one morning to a truck transporting men to the flight line. These were army trucks with a canvas top cover with benches along the sides for the men to sit. Three men were killed instantly by an airplane’s propeller blades. Others died later from their injuries.
I forgot the date now, but we really got a scare during the Battle of the Bulge . In the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans stood and concentrated their forces for a last push that almost succeeded. On the night of the Battle of the Bulge, I was selected to guard our airplane. I guess I was a funny looking guy; I had a carbine, a 45 cal army pistol, a bayonet, a dagger, gas mask and more stuff. A lieutenant told me to be very alert. We were expecting German paratroopers and an invasion was very possible, but thank God nothing happened. These were anxious days, even though we knew we were not far from bringing Hitler to his knees.
As we began our raids into the countries captured by Germany, we would lose planes and their crews everyday, but our replacements and the ability to continue our constant bombing missions into the heart of Germany began to take its toll. If I am correct it was in early 1944 that we started penetrating Germany itself. We bombed some city with ball bearing factories which were the wheels of the German armies and war machine, also the air craft factories. They denied any harm, but our underground was seeing their desperation and their empire was crumbling.
All during the day we would bombard them and at night the Germans would bomb us. British bombers bombed Germany at night.
As the battle raged on day-after-day, a baby called V-1 surprised us. This was a jet type plane that depending on the amount of fuel they put in it, it would crash land and in it was an armed warhead. Their aim was bad at times, but London was their target.
One night we were walking from a little "pub" (beer bar) towards the barracks when one of those roaring V-1 flew overhead. We scrambled around as it ran out of fuel, running and looking for a ditch to hide. It spurted a few times and went down about a half mile away, but the concussion was strong enough to topple us down. Later Germany came out with the V-2, a really awesome rocket and the 262 jet plane.
One morning before daybreak I was safetying the gas tank caps on top of the wing of the B24 aircraft ready to pre-flight it when I noticed some gold streaks forming on the eastern horizon. As the streaks were forming I kept looking at one and saw it go up, up and I kept looking and saw an object going up until I couldn't see it. I kept looking until I saw the thing coming down. I got off the plane and saw the thing coming down, it was so high I thought it was coming our way, but it was not coming to our base. When it fell it seemed the ground trembled with the explosion. This was the V-2, the so-called Bon Brown Rocket and the beginnings of our space travels.
When I first heard the 262 jets coming in for raids at night. We were puzzled by the whooshing noise, which we had never heard before. It was the jet fighter used sometime in late 1944 or early 1945. These exotic and destructive machines were just imaginary things to us. They were the stories about world and universal travel that we read about in comic books, but they were now very real and in use against us by the Germans. So in fact, the space age was starting as the war was ending.
On June 6th I was pre-flighting our airplane around three o'clock in the morning when an armored car came by and wanted that I cut the engines off and I asked why so early. They answered, “This is "it"! We think it is D-Day.”
As it turned out it was the invasion of Germany on Omaha beach. I sent the plane three times on bombing runs which was very unusual since we were used to one long trip a day, to the heart of Germany, but these were short trips across the English Channel carrying antipersonnel bombs. These were packed in a bunch and were detonated and scattered over a large area exploding and scatte¬ring shrapnel over large areas.
I forgot to tell you about Axis Sally, we would once in a while hear her on the radio. We would hear a sweet voice telling us that the war was as good as lost, to give our¬selves up and surrender so we could go back home. She’d say that our sweethearts, wives, and girl friends were running around with 4Fers. She had such beautiful voice that at times we would think about it, but we knew about her and Tokyo Rose, the Pacific version of Axis Sally.
After the Battle of the Bulge it wasn't long before Germany was overrun and surrendered. Soon we were shipped back home. I installed two engines on the B24 plane that would take us home. I had installed them by myself because the rest of the crew was on furlough. I was nervous flying back. Our first stop was Vale, Wales across England about 5 hours away and from there we flew to the Azores Islands. We had a two-day stay there and Kelley and I walked to the beach and I told him, "Hey, Richard, let's go swimming," and we went in. It was nice, but we didn't know where we were or how deep it was, but I guess we were happy to be going home. As we got out we saw a Portuguese man tending goats. We talked to him, but he didn't understand so I talked to him in Spanish and he understood some. I asked him if he could get us a bottle of Champaign. He said he could so we asked him how much it cost. We gave him two dollars and he left. We had to trust him. He did come back with a green bottle. We had a little trouble opening it, but we finally got it open and drank it. We didn't feel anything, so we think it was regular soda.
The next day we had our longest flight, the flight from Wales to the Azores Island, St. Marie that took seven hours. This flight was over cloudy sky. We saw the ocean only a few times. I had a headset on and so I could hear the conversations between the pilot and navigator. I was surprised when the navigator said, "Navigator to pilot, turn 45 degrees to the right and prepare to land." I was looking out a window and it was like cotton, you couldn't see anything. He prepared to land as he went through a dark stretch of clouds and there below the clouds was a beautiful green land. The plane just kept going down straight to the runway, no turning, just straight in. I admired the accuracy of the navigator.
As we took off from there we went across the north Atlantic to Newfoundland in northern Canada during this flight that lasted 12 or so hours. We would wonder whether we were lost or something, but we eventually landed in a bleach, barren land, no trees, nothing. This was the last place in which we landed before reaching American soil. It was Bradley Field, Connecticut. I remember we kissed the ground and did a lot of bragging and hoping that the war was over for us, but no, we went by rail to San Antonio. I got a furlough, 15 days and was told to report back to San Antonio, Texas.
I went home and by coincidence, Tony Muñoz was on the same bus. It came to McAllen, Texas where we got a cab to take us to Mission, Texas, our hometown. The taxi dropped me off, I fumbled for money, but Tony said he would pay this and told the driver go on.