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COLONEL BERNT BALCHEN'S B-24 AIRLINE
By Guy D. Carnine, 578th Bomb Sq.
392nd Bomb Gp, 2nd Air Div.
Colonel Bernt Baichen, U. S. Army Air Corps, was a world famous Norwegian Artic Explorer. He rescued several who had been downed on the Greenland ice cap as well as many other exploits, including North Pole exploration. There is a display in the Air Force Museum at Dayton, Ohio, honoring him.
Colonel Balchen planned an Airline to operate between Leuchars, Scotland and Stockholm, Sweden. After conferences with President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and the Swedish Government, he was given the green light to proceed with the operation. The purpose of this Airline was to return to England our B 17 and B 24 combat crews who had landed in Stockholm due to little damage or insufficient fuel to get back to England. They were interned by the government upon landing. The Swedish government did this to maintain their neutrality with the German government. Another purpose was to fly Norwegians to England to be trained to fight in the war. Norway was occupied by the Germans during world War 11. The Norwegians would escape across the border into Sweden and would remain in camps until we could fly them to England.
Our airliners were B-24s that had been stripped of turrets and armament. The planes were solid color with no markings except a Department of Commerce number on the tail. Benches were installed on each side of the bomb bay to accommodate a total of forty passengers. When they came on board with their baggage was very crowded. No parachutes were allowed on board for crew members of passengers. The flight crews were composed of 1st pilots, navigators and radio operators who had completed their combat tour.
MY EXPERIENCES FLYING WITH COL. BALCHENS B-24 AIRLINE.
Completing a 25 mission combat tour on March 5, 1944 was a very happy day. So many crews had been shot down that it didnt seem like there was much chance of completing the tour. We were disappointed that return to the States upon completion of a combat tour had been stopped.
Victor Mastron Boyce Barbee
The next day Colonel Rendle, our 392nd group Commander notified three Os US to report to his office. Myself, my navigator Victor Mastron and my radio operator, Boyce B. Barbee. He informed us that volunteers were wanted for a secret mission. Only 1st pilots, navigators and radio operators were requested. As it was not possible to return home we thought we might as well volunteer and find out what it was all about. The restriction on returning to the U.S. was lifted a short time later. This didn't help us as we were already involved in the operation.
The day after we volunteered, orders were issued for us to report to Air Transport Command Headquarters in London.
During our briefing the next day we were told this would be a secret Airline operation. We would be civilian Airline crews operating out of a Royal Air Force Base located at Leuchars, Scotland. It would take a few days in London for processing.
We were processed for a passport which listed us Airline Officials. We were sent to a clothing store and were fitted with a complete civilian wardrobe, including a top coat and a suitcase. Very nice clothes befitting Airline Officials.
We had a very nice stay in London. Real eggs for breakfast, good food with all the trimmings. Whenever you wanted to fly some where just call operations and reserve a plane. For transportation just call the motor pool and a chauffeured limousine would pick you up and take you to the Airport. Upon completion of processing we were issued orders to report to Colonel Baichen at the Royal Air Force Base at Leuchars, Scotland.
Our living conditions at the Base were excellent. Good food, a nice Club equipped with half and half beer, scotch and a wee bit of gin. Bicycles were issued to us and were put to good use riding to the nearby golf course. We paid thirty-five dollars for sets of handmade clubs and became golf addicts. We had no duties when not flying so had plenty of time to get frustrated on the golf course. One day we went to the Royal and Ancient golf course. The Club manager invited us into his office for a bit of scotch and a pleasant conversation. He also enrolled us as honorary members of the Royal and Ancient golf club.
Our other recreation was flying our UC61A four place cabin airplane. Lots of fun flying around the country side and buzzing our buddies on the golf course. One of the fellows wrecked the plane while buzzing the golf course. The plane was replaced within a few days.
It was necessary for us to fly over Norway when flying to and from Sweden. During the summertime period in that part of the world it never gets dark at our operating altitude of 12,000-14,000 feet. We never flew missions unless bad weather was forecast over Norway. The Germans had a considerable number of JU88s stationed in Norway and could easily shoot us down unless we had cloud cover. Unfortunately we didn't have the luxury of fighter escort. Sometimes the weather forecast was wrong and we would fly across Norway in the clear. It was always a mystery to us why the Germans didn't send their JU88s after us as they could have easily shot us down.
When the weather forecast was favorable we would change from our uniforms to civilian clothes, jump into our B-24 Airliners and proceed to Stockholm. While in Stockholm we stayed in rooms our government had leased in a very nice small hotel. Each morning we went to the British Overseas Airway Corporation (BOAC) office to pick up our daily per diem and ration coupons. Bread and a few other food items were rationed. It was necessary to do this daily as the weather forecast determined if we would return to Scotland or stay another day. On one mission we were in Stockholm seven days waiting on the right forecast. During this stay a formation of several, B-17s landed because of insufficient fuel to return to England and the crews were interned. Each evening while in Stockholm we went to the secret weather station in the British Embassy for a weather briefing to determine if we went back or stayed another day.
When the go signal was given forty Norwegians would be waiting to climb into the bomb bay with their baggage. This was a very crowded situation for our passengers. It was several months before we started flying our interned combat crews back to England to resume their combat tours.
Colonel Balchens plans were to extend this Airline operation from Stockholm to Helsinki, Finland and eventually on to Russia. The deputy Commander of our operation was Lt. Col. Kieth. N. Allen, who had been American Airlines chief pilot before coming on active duty. He was the pilot on the initial flight for the extension of our airline. They flew over Russian warships in the harbor and the Russians opened fire. The aircraft was badly damaged and the crew bailed out. Lt. Col. Allen remained at the controls so the other crew members could bail out and was killed. We were concerned about the possibility of being shot down by the Germans over Norway, which didn't happen, and our only combat loss was credited to our so called allies, the Russians.
It seemed this operation would last for the duration of the war. I asked Col. Balchen if I could return home and explained I would not have been here in the first place if returning to the States had not been temporarily suspended. He said if my 448th Group Commander would send me back to the States he would release me. I had been assigned to the 448th Group, even though I never had duty there.
The next day I flew our U.C.61A to the 448th Group to talk to Colonel Mason, Group Commander. After explaining the situation to him, he agreed to return me to the States upon my release from the operation. This had been a very interesting experience for me and would never have occurred if not for the temporary restriction on returning to the U.S.A.
Colonel Balchen passed away several years ago.
Vic Mastron was transferred to Stockholm as the briefing Officer for the operation. Vic passed away October 1992.
Boyce Barbee continued plying these mission until the operation was terminated near the end of the war. Boyce is enjoying life in North Carolina.