FLYING THE NORTHERN ROUTE

By Richard Hoffman, Ball Turret Gunner, 579th Squadron

© Copyright 392nd Bomb Group Memorial Association 2017 - All rights reserved
northern Route
Northern Route
Slowik-and-crew-9-9-43
Hoffman and crew

On 16 July 1943, the 392nd Bomb Group departed our Phase II training base at Alamogordo, NM, and flew to Topeka, KS, for our Phase III training. We arrived in formation, circled the city and peeled off to land. Our B-24s were the first that the people there had ever seen, they were very impressed and quite generous with us at the local bars.

During the next two weeks we flew several training flights in B-24Es, and on 30 July we received our new B-24H. This airplane had an Emerson nose turret and a Sperry ball turret. Up until that time, my gun position was a flexible .50-caliber machine gun stuck through a socket in the bellycamera door and referred to as a tunnel gun.

The first time I climbed into the ball turret, I buckled in and gave Sgt. Olson the word to let me down. That ride down the ball turret well was the shortest and the longest of my career as a gunner. Olson opened the hydraulic valve fully and the turret dropped like an anvil. My heart hit my throat and I nearly puckered the armor-plated seat before the turret slammed down on its ring at the bottom of the well. I thought I'd left the plane but it was still there. Olson laughed and admitted he'd opened the valve "just a little fast.... "

Some of our pilots desperately wanted to be fighter pilots and never quite got the desire out of their systems They really didn't like being called "bus driver" by the fighter pilots. Our squadron commander, Don Appert, was one of these, and had us flying fighter-type formations so close that you could almost walk across the wings to our wing man. He wanted his wing man to stick his wing tips right in his waist position window. The waist gunners would stare at the approaching wing tips and make obscene gestures at each other from plane to plane.

While at Topeka, two of our squadron's crewmen frequently returned from town in the early hours, disheveled and bleary-eyed, bragging about the two beautiful women with whom they'd spent the night. One night, I went into Topeka and saw these two characters stagger out of a bar arm-inarm with a blonde and a redhead. They didn't see me. What a pair of hags those women were... with hair harshly bleached and faces well-wrinkled. At least 40, twice the age of our boys.

I returned to base, told the crews what I'd seen and predicted what our two guys would tell us when they got back.

Sure enough, at around 6 a.m. they straggled in with their tales of conquest over their beautiful blond and exquisite redhead. I told them that I'd seen them with two "beauties" and casually asked if "they still looked as good this morning." After that they quit bragging, but still went to town.

Near the end of our Phase III training we were issued with desert gear. I believe this was to confuse any German spies that might be hanging around the base.

Tuesday, 10 August 1943, was a big day full of rush and excitement because we were packing and loading up for overseas deployment flight. We were trained, proud and ready to go off to war.

Our B-24, engines warming up, was sitting on the ramp near the Topeka Base Operations building when someone noticed a courier ride up and lean his bike up against the fence in front of Operations. We called our pilot, Lt. Holloman, telling him that we'd probably need a bike overseas and that there was one available, just leaning against the fence. The bomb bay doors slid open, someone made a quick dash for the bike and ran it back to the plane. We jammed it up into the bomb bay, secured it, climbed aboard, the doors slid shut, and our wheels started rolling as we taxied to the runway and then took off for Presque Isle, ME.

One of our planes that had taxied out ahead of us blasted out of the ramp area. The force of the slip stream blew a small Piper Cub observation plane half way across the ramp, while people on the ground ran from all directions to catch it.

Saying that air crews were "ornery" or" mischievous" would probably be an understatement. After all, the enlisted men were mostly teenagers (I was 19 at the time) and the officers not that much older.

Before leaving the U.S.A. we'd heard that to become really popular in England we should take a supply of lipstick and nylon stockings. I was too bashful to buy stockings, but I got several tubes of lipstick. We were also told to haul some booze with us to sell to the troops in Iceland because they couldn't get it there and paid up to $50 a bottle.

On our approach to the Presque Isle runway, our pilot was a little apprehensive and mumbled, "I hope we can make it." He thought he was on the interphone but was on the tower frequency.

A honey-voiced WAC softly murmured back from the tower, "I hope you do too.... " We were all listening and burst out laughing.

We spent two nights at Presque Isle restricted to base, but their base passes were the same as we'd used at Topeka. So we put our thumbs over the word Topeka, showed the guards our pass and slipped off to town. There was no way we were going to stay on base if we could help it. This was our last chance to walk around the good old U.S.A. before leaving for God knows how long and for some maybe forever. Concerning security: we knew better than to tell anyone our deployment plans. Despite the dire warnings we'd heard about combat, we were all volunteers, extremely patriotic, felt very brave and were ready to die, if necessary, for our country.

Most of us had developed a fatalistic attitude, especially after seeing some of our friends crash during training. Couple that feeling with a strong belief that "it can't happen to me" pretty well summed up the attitude of the average combat crewman. It was also a glamorousjob in which a man could feel pride and excitement, enhanced by the threat of danger.

On 12 August 1943, we flew up to the big new airfield at Goose Bay, Labrador, and on Friday, 13 August, we departed for Iceland. As usual, it got pretty cold and boring in the back as we droned over the North Atlantic Ocean, but our navigator, Joseph Slowick, hit our destination right on the nose and everyone complemented him on finding it in all that ocean.

Iceland-what a cold, barren and windy place. We never took off our flight clothes until inside a warm barracks. No one went into town, mainly because the locals were not very friendly.

We left Iceland for Prestwick Airfield, Scotland, the next day, but our navigator got confused and after several hours over the North Atlantic we found ourselves over land.

Our pilot, navigator and radio operator, Sgt. Chamblin, had been snapping at each other over the interphone for some time while the rest of us kept quiet. Lt. Slowick didn't know our position and Sgt. Chamblin was getting no response to his repeated calls to the ground radio stations, so Lt. Holloman ordered us to battle stations, just in case.

We reached the south end of the land mass and saw a wide expanse of ocean beyond. Then I noticed a large white sign on the ground, apparently made of a lot of rocks. I popped the ball turret microphone, and, tongue in cheek, innocently asked, "Doesn't anyone know where we are?"

All three responded simultaneously and most unkindly. When they'd settled down I said, "If you look down you'll see a big sign that says "EIRE" which, I believe I read somewhere, is the name of southern Ireland.... "

It was very quiet for a moment, then the plane pulled over into a steep and angry left bank and snarled out over the Irish Sea.

A little later, more land appeared and soon ground radio stations began responding. We landed safely at Prestwick, Scotland, and guess who got guard duty? I thought I'd done well. After all, I wasn't lost.

Our flight officers were met at the plane by some USAAF and RAF "top brass" and were given a royal "chewing out" for flying over neutral country. Our officers were totally embarrassed, but they still got a comfortable night's sleep in a nearby ancient castle while I slept over the nose wheel on our B-24.

About 5:45 the next morning, while sleeping on the nose wheel cat walk, I was awakened by the sound of approaching voices. It was just getting light, I was still in my sleeping bag, so I rolled over on my stomach, pulled out my .45 automatic and aimed it at the nose wheel opening. "It's one of those new B-24s with the nose turret," said one.

"Yeah.... Let's take a look at it," said the other.

Suddenly a head, wearing an overseas cap with a little gold bar insignia, appeared at the end of the 45's barrel. His eyes sprang wide open and his face went as white as a sheet.

"D-D-Do you m-m-mind if-if-we 1-1-look round your p-p-plane?" he stuttered.

"I am sorry, sir. You'll have to get permission from my pilot to do that," I politely replied. His head disappeared and the two hurriedly left. It was fun to put an officer in a bind for a change. It usually was one of us in a brace taking direct and vivid instructions.

Soon after the curious officers had left, my crew arrived and brought me a very welcome breakfast.

On Sunday, 15 August 1943, we took off from Prestwick and landed at Wendling, Norfolk, England, the 392nd's permanent base. One of the officers in charge of camouflaging asked me what I thought of the job they'd done. I told him I didn't think much of it, but didn't tell him that I was partially color blind and camouflage didn't register much with me.

The next day, the crew was taken to Cheddington, just north of London, for some ground schooling. Five days later we moved to Bovingdon, Hertfordshire, for more schooling, and on 26 August, we moved back to Norfolk for gunnery practice. The gunnery school was at Snettisham, near The Wash, a large bay between north Norfolk and south Lincolnshire. We shot at targets, towed by aircraft, from the shore of The Wash.

Three days later we returned to Wendling and were told our B-24 had been taken for combat modification and would be back tomorrow. But the next day, 30 August, our plane, Serial Number 42-7468, unaccountably exploded in mid-air while flying back from the modification center, killing our crew chief, a crew chief from another ground crew and flight people. It was lucky for us that we were at gunnery school when our plane went to be modified, but it was certainly tragic for our crew chiefs and the feat'-flight crew.