A Talk by William Hahn to the Lewisburg Pennsylvania Kiwanis Club November 11, 1997
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share with you some of my experiences of the World War II era.
First off, my experiences were by no means unique. They occurred, you might say, in wholesale lots, everywhere.
To begin, in the early 1940's practically all of us fellows realized that sooner or later we'd become part of the armed forces, it was that simple. After all, the good guys and the bad guys were clearly defined excepting that toward the end of the war there was some blurring of just who all the good guys were.
Anyway, for most of us the procedure was to enlist in the service branch of our choice, or wait to be drafted and take our chances.
At that time I was living in Danbury, CT, and attending Danbury Teachers College. Many of us were interested in aviation so immediately after graduation in 1942, I enlisted in the USAAC (United States Army Air Corps). In January, 1943, I was called up.
Our first stop was at the Nashville Classification Center, a series of tarpaper covered barracks, heated by soft coal stoves. Here we were given a series of tests to determine whether we were to enter training as: a. Pilots, b. Bombardiers, c. Navigators, or d. None of the above.
However, there were numerous openings in the AAC so everyone got a job somewhere.
Having been deemed capable of pilot training, my next stop was Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama for preflight training. Here we learned the importance of white glove inspections, marching in formation, the preparation to be officers and gentlemen, and had loads of ground school.
At the end of about eight weeks we went on to our Primary Flight Training School. This was a civilian contract flying school in Lakeland Florida. Our airfield there is now the site for the Detroit Tigers spring training facilities.
This was the first introduction to flying for most cadets. The planes were open, two-cockpit Stearmen PT-17 biplanes, some of which are still used in air shows today. They were relatively "user-friendly," and would accept being dropped in from 8 or 10 feet, standing on their nose from long landings and too much braking, or having cadets make "one take-off, three landing flights."
My most vivid recollection here is that of the first time we went up for aerobatics and I hadn't tightened my safety belt as tight as I should have.
Next it was on to Basic Flight Training School at Courtland, Alabama, a brand new field, and heavier planes "Vultee Vibrators" (BT 13's), controllable pitch props (like shifting gears), instrument flying, night flying, and day and night cross-countries, and multitudinous memories of our flight instructor Lieutenant Regis, known to us as "Benny Boom Boom." Benny made it plain he was sick of having to wet nurse a bunch of cadets in training when he should be in combat in the wild blue yonder. He hated us and we reciprocated. I inadvertently got even with him a couple of times, but not intentionally.
It was there we began to see different types of combat planes which were flown in for cadets to inspect. This was were I got my first look at a Martin Marauder, or B-26. This was considered the hottest, newest plane in the air corps. It was flown in one day for our inspection. Its reputation had flown in long before. Variously called "Widow Maker"; "The Flying Prostitute," from its small wing area or "no visible means of support"; "A plane a day in Tampa Bay," from training accidents at McDill Field. This wasn't literally true, though there was an accident a week for about 14 weeks plus one mid-air collision and a plane literally being broken in half from being "dropped in" from too high a flare out. The B-26 was definitely considered "the hottest of the hot."
Sitting on the tarmac, it just looked mean and dangerous, sort of hunched down on tricycle landing gear, with two huge 2400 cubic inch engines and two huge four-bladed propellers.
When it left, it took every inch of the runway to get to 150 mph, its take-off speed. I remember thinking to myself, "Boy, this is as close as I ever want to get to one of those things!"
At the end of Basic Training School, we were split up into two groups for Advanced Training – single-engine advanced for potential fighter pilots, and twin engine advanced for potential bomber pilots. Benny Boom Boom recommended me for Single Engine Advanced and I was on my way.
At Craig Field Advanced Single Engine Training Base in Selma, Alabama, we had AT-6s, still frequently used in air shows by stunt pilots and teams. A really nice plane to fly other than it required a minor contortionist to start it, and had a tendency to ground loop during landing because of its narrow undercarriage. Here precision flight became more important, instrument flying, formation flying, etc.
Finally, graduation came with its wings, its gold bar, and a really handsome uniform. However, we were primarily interested in our assignment orders. I, along with a rather small group of classmates, was ordered to report to Lake Charles (Louisiana) Army Air Base. No one seemed to know much about it or what kind of plane was there.
When I arrived I was greeted by row upon row of B-26 Marauders.
Lake Charles AFB was a replacement training center for B-26 crews. Here our crew, shown in our photo, was assembled. I was co-pilot to a tall lanky midwesterner named George McCorkle and our training as a crew began. In short order I became a B-26 man with tremendous pride in our organization and affection for and confidence in our plane. We knew we were flying one of the Air Corps' hottest planes.
Our next orders were to go to Savannah, GA, to pick up a brand new B-26 to fly to England where we were to join the Tactical Bomber Forces of the 9th Air Force. Our trip over was amazing: Savannah, GA; Homestead, FL; Puerto Rico; Georgetown (Guyana); Belem at the mouth of the Amazon; down to the point of Brazil at Natal; a stop at Ascension Island in mid-ocean; then to Liberia; Dakar and across the Sahara Dessert; over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh, Morocco, then after a while to England.
Here we received our operational training for flying in the ETO (European Theater of Operations) and were then assigned to the 599th Squadron, 397th Bombardment Group.
After trial and error, B-26 medium bombers were operating at 12,000 feet altitude. Earlier experiences had shown low level tactics resulted in unacceptable losses from 40mm, 20mm, machine gun, rifle, "sticks and stones". Unfortunately, though, for us the German 88mm gun found 12,000 feet was their optimum altitude. As a result we were doing doing constant evasive action based on the time it took to track the planes for altitude, speed, direction, cut fuses, load, fire and for the shell to get up to altitude. This meant basically we had to turn every 18-25 seconds, specifically during the few seconds after the shell left the gun and before it reached altitude. Cloud cover didn't help if their guns were radar directed. We worked on the "you can fool all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time" principle.
This worked well until we reached the initial point (IP) of the bombing run when we had to fly straight and level for the bombardier for up to about a minute and a half or two. This was when we were especially apt to catch it.
My first mission came around noon on D-Day. Coastal defense guns located between Utah and Omaha beaches. It was just an amazing sight. Hundreds of ships – support and assault, destroyers all firing at special targets – smoke over the landing area, foam streaks were landing craft were heading ashore, occasional large explosions ashore – we knew men were battling down there and it was a really sobering experience.
My seventh mission was one of the two toughest we flew. When we entered the briefing hut, everyone's eyes were glued to the flight path on the map. It was a twisting line right down the Seine River to Paris, a bridge at Maisons la Fitte was our target. There was no question in our minds about that one. The briefing officer carefully explained "known gun positions" to us and concluded by saying that if we followed the course correctly we should have a three-mile wide flak-free corridor to the target. Unfortunately he forgot to tell the Germans about it.
We no sooner hit the coast when we ran into intense, accurate flak. We hunted all over north central France for that "flak-free corridor" and never did find it. The fact of the matter was that the German Army had moved its Panzer divisions up to the Seine where they set up housekeeping waiting for orders to build temporary bridges, to replace the ones we had knocked down earlier. Each division had a couple hundred 88mm guns. Our fighter escort immediately went up two thousand feet and watched. In our plane we bumped around and it sounded as though people were throwing handfuls of gravel in the bomb bay. Flak hitting us. The pilot in the plane opposite us later said every time he glanced at us, he could see more flak holes. As we plowed along, I suddenly felt a blow against my right leg, as if I'd been hit by a baseball bat. I didn't feel pain (adrenaline is great stuff), but I thought, "I must have gotten hit." It was too cramped for me to bend down, so I bent over and twisted the leg of my flying suit around and sure enough there was a hole with some blood around it. Since it wasn't hurting and we were really busy, I didn't say anything about it. Mac was piloting because we were lead-ship's right wing. We struggled to the IP, turned, and opened the bomb bay doors. They shut again immediately. We tried again. No luck. The mechanism had been damaged. By this time the group had dropped, so there we were just going along for the ride and still carrying our two 2,000 lb. bombs back home again through the same kind of flak, out to the coast – out.
When we arrived at the base we radioed that we had wounded aboard, still had our bomb load and quite possibly a flat tire or two. The tower allowed as we should circle 'till the rest of the group landed as they had dropped their bombs. Then we could come in. Miracle of miracles our tires were intact and we landed without incident though people said we were whistling like a flute when we landed. When I was helped out of the plane, I checked the hole that did the job on me and found it was the only one in the plane forward of the pilot's seat.
Our group lost six planes in that "flak-free corridor." As for our plane, they replaced the rudder, both elevators, the wing flaps, and both bomb bay doors. Also they put on 90 patches of various sizes. Incidentally, the name of our plane was "Slightly Dangerous, the Third." Yes, the group did get the bridge, with only moral support from us.
The other major hair-raising episode occurred during the Battle of the Bulge.
Just a few words to explain the battle formation normally used by our group. We had four squadrons, each of which provided nine planes per mission, or a total of 36. Since we flew in flights of six planes, three flights per "box", two boxes per group, a squadron furnished a complete flight of six plus an element of three extras who joined with another squadron element to make a "mixed" flight. Mac and I were in the extra element. This had a very important bearing on our future.
When the Germans started the Ardennes Offensive, they did so during a spell of bad weather. For a week we waited and finally on December 23, the weather broke. Our target was a railroad bridge at Eller on the Moselle River at the base of the "Bulge", about 50 miles inside German lines. We knew the bulge was packed, we also knew the seriousness of the situation.
As we started to taxi out, which has to be done in precise order so as to join up formation correctly, we heard "Chuck" (Lieutenant Eiden) and "BJ" (Lieutenant Senart) on the radio. One switched to the flight of six which was called "B" flight; the other joined us in the element of three which was part of "C" flight.
As we approached the "Bulge", we saw that indeed, the flak was thick enough to walk on.
This time we were on the leader's left wing which meant I was doing the flying, so I didn't have much time to look, expect for occasional glances, and at whatever, if you'll pardon the expression, was dead ahead.
We had had hardly gotten over the lines into enemy territory when flak got direct hits on two planes ahead of us; a third went down on the bomb run, and a fourth someplace else. We did get the bridge. After the bomb run, the group made a big 270 degree turn to the left off the target. This meant our element of the 599th in the mixed flight was on the inside and B flight, the flight made up of all 599th planes was on the outside of the turn. Because of this, B flight had a much larger radius to fly and when we all straightened out, they were behind us. To catch up to the rest of the box, Captain Stevenson dived his B flight down to pick up speed. When they slid into formation, they were below us in C flight, which was normally the low flight. At this point, the ME (Messerschmidt) 109's and (Focke-Wulf) FW 190's jumped us. The usual procedure is to attack the lower flight or flights because they have less supporting firepower. B flight took the brunt of the attack.
Here some of the memories are a bit confused. I remember seeing streaks of small puffs cris-crossing in front of us (20mm shells self destructing). There was a loud bang and the cockpit filled with smoke. Mac and I glanced at each other, but the smoke dissipated and things seemed OK. (We later found that a 20mm came through the skin of the plane, missed my knee by two or three inches, went through the control pedestal between us and exploded in the nose wheel well.) The top turret gunner, Corporal Meyers, reported another B-26 upside down over us. It was apparently Lieutenant Eiden (the one who swapped position). They rolled around us missed us and started down. Keep in mind that all this time the the group was twisting and turning in formation about every 20 seconds.
The low flight had been wiped out and now they were concentrating on us. Fortunately, they had more fish to fry and broke off as soon as we got back over the lines.
When we got back home, we found that of nine planes from our 599th squadron, only three returned (a 67 percent loss), and only one of those in flyable condition. In the entire group, only five of the 36 planes did not suffer battle damage. Lieutenant Eiden and Lieutenant Senart, who switched places, were both shot down. Let me read from the records of the 397th Bomb Group.
599_th Sqd. 1s_tLt. Pilot Eiden, Charles. Lost with entire crew on Eller mission.
KIA 1035 hrs.
599_th Sqd. 1_stLt. Pilot_ Senart, Barnard_. Lost with entire crew on Eller Bridge Mission.
Shot down 1035 hrs., bailed out, captured, taken to Daun Germany, beaten and shot thrown in ditch and covered with debris (entire crew).
Will Cook, another of our buddies, his crew, and his plane disappeared. No wreckage or bodies was ever found.* One theory was that the plane crashed unseen in one of the several lakes in the area.
For our part in the 23rd of December battle, our group received the Presidential Unit Citation:
"Conferred on the 397_th Bomb Group (M) for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy._
On the mission to Eller railroad bridge this unit displayed such gallantry, determination, and esprit-de-corps in accomplishing its mission as to set it apart from and above other units participating in the same campaign."
As I thought about how to end this very brief history, I thought of my return to the US. Something very apropos came to mind. I shipped home on the Queen Mary, and very shortly after I arrived I was marched, as were many others, into one of several cubicles where we were told we owed back income tax while we were in the service. "After all, Lieutenant, it takes money to fight a war." My "contribution" they figured was $200 (comparable to about $2,000 today) in arrears, which they informed me I didn't have to pay right then. It would be deducted from future pays.
As I review my service time, I learned much, experienced much and came to appreciate and understand even more. I would never want to change them, but I would never want to duplicate those years. I hope we never have to go through anything like that again.
* In 2006, thanks to the work of dedicated aviation archaeologists in the US and Germany the crash site of Will Cook and his crew were found, and have since been repatriated. See the following URLs for more information: