Editor’s Note: Sandboxx News presents a World War II series by Kaitlin Oster on the power of hope, letters, and love in seeing us through the terrors and agony of war. You can read the other installments here and listen to Kaitlin’s radio interview about the series here, or visit her website here.
Just as soon as he arrived in Maine, Harold got the call. On an early June morning, he was mustered from his sleep and ordered to pack his things and prepare to head out to Europe. He, along with his buddies Jack and Ned, his pilot Frank Kelley, and the rest of his crew, was set to take up camp in England where the 8th Air Force impatiently waited. With the help of a woman working in the hangar, Harold dictated a note home to Loretta and boarded a plane. He was going to war.
The plane that transported the soldiers was loud and hollow. Harold sat along one side and looked around him at the other men, all dressed alike – all with the same grievous look on their faces. A couple of soldiers bantered and laughed, but it was so loud on the plane that Harold didn’t bother to try and make conversation with anyone around him; Jack wasn’t seated next to him and he didn’t feel like raising his voice. He couldn’t see, but wondered what the Atlantic Ocean looked like from their altitude. When he was a boy, Harold dreamed of flying. And when he was in training, he longed for better scenery than the plains of Oklahoma. Now that it was finally happening, he regretted not having a window to look out of.
American airmen in England
The base in England was busy and filled with men who were ready for what seemed to be anything. Harold whirled around with his crew of nine others to prepare for what would be their first assignment. There was no room to rest, no room to write home immediately, just preparation for a flight over Germany. He knew this was his time to prove himself to his country – and of course – his new wife back home; he hoped she had gotten the letter from the secretary in Maine.
The air base itself was massive. It had one large runway that ran from east to west and two smaller runways – one from southwest to northeast, the other northwest to southeast. To the north of the airfield was the bomb dump, and Harold was set to do technical work on the southern point.
Their first B-17 was named “The Shack Up.” Led by the pilot Frank Kelley, Harold – along with Topin, Carl Alexander, DB Adams, Carlton Jones, Marchinski, Ryals, Joe Maschke, and Alex Milligan – prepared themselves for what would be the first of hopefully many successful bombing missions on the Jerries.
The B-17’s crew was a family; Harold was also very close with Jack and Ned, two other Flying Fortress crewmen. At night, they’d sing songs and tell stories about their girls back home, just waiting for the order to go up in the sky.
“Write Loretta home a kiss for me!” Jack winked at Harold and he laughed.
“Hey, Schwerdt! Heard you’re pretty decent at engine repair.” Harold looked up and saw a technical sergeant approaching him with a tool kit. He’d been at the camp for about a week, tinkering and training along with the rest of the new arrivals.
“Sure, what can I help you with?” The technical sergeant led Harold over to a plane and explained some issues that, although familiar-sounding, he was lost on.
“So d’ya think you can help me out?”
Harold hesitated. Then, grabbing the tool kit, he nodded and walked over to where the trouble was.
After tinkering about for a while and going on a little faith, Harold closed everything up. “Should be good,” he said as he wiped some summer sweat off his brow. England was supposed to be cold and cloudy, he thought.
The other tech sergeant looked pleased. “Great! Let’s put her in the air!” He wiped his hands on his jumpsuit, threw up his arms, and signaled the pilot. Harold panicked inside. What if he was wrong? He hadn’t seen an engine like that before – but most plane engines were similar, right? What if he did something improperly? He couldn’t tell them now.
The engine, to his pleasant surprise, kicked on almost immediately and turned, its nose towards the end of the runway. The pilot gave a thumbs up and Harold nervously watched as the plane picked up speed and grew smaller and smaller before his eyes. He felt his insides dancing while he hoped for the wheels to just lift off the ground – even a little bit. Then, effortlessly, the plane took off! The pilot kept low and did some circles over the base. The technical sergeant clapped Harold on the back, “Hey would ya look at that! Swell job, Red. I think you’ll get on just fine here.” A tension lifted off Harold’s shoulders that he hadn’t noticed before that moment; he truly felt a part of a family in the 388th Bombardment Group.
Planning out the air raids
That night, the men gathered to play cards before it was time to turn in and go to bed. They were going to start running missions in a couple of days. Tensions were high but they all seemed to do a good job of keeping it under wraps with songs and games. Ned, Jack, and Harold reminisced about the ice cream shops on their block, the busy sounds of New York, and their gals. It was unfortunate for them to be so far from loved ones, but at least they had each other.
The men were called in for a briefing at one of the Nissen Huts to discuss their next missions.
“Daytime raids, boys,” the commanding officer began, “are going to be frightening for some of you. I know a lot of you fellas are still getting settled into the 388th station here – I get that. But, we have no time to waste. Every day we spend on the ground is another day those Jerries advance around Europe.”
He went on to explain the importance of the daytime raids. Before them on a table lay an aviation map, complete with a key and writing. The navigators all huddled around in one group and looked over the terrain. The pilots, in their own circle, went over the flying formation and what steps to take in order to look after each other. Harold, along with other technical sergeants and gunners, left the Nissen Hut to finish up some last-minute maintenance on their B-17 Fortresses.
June 4, 1943
I am mailing this note for your husband. He is here now at our flying field, and I work in one of the tool cribs in the big hangar. I waited on him and I offered to help him and he asked me to write you.
I have three boys of my own and I would want some other mother to help them. I wish I could do for all the boys and I do try as I see so many of them as they take off for some distant land.
He told me something of himself and I liked him. I hope you can get a message to his mother –
He takes off early in the morning for the far place – I guess you can guess.
I shall always think of you both, and God Bless you.
(Mrs.) Laura P. Bell
Odlin Rd. R.7.D.2.
P.S. He would like to have written more, but just ended it.
Feature Image: Harold and his B-17 crew in England. (Courtesy of the author)