The flight from Morrison Field, FL, to Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico, on 5 October 1943 was a pleasant one and the weather was super. When we landed in Puerto Rico, it was the first time most of us had been out of the states, apart from Mexico and Canada.
We landed and immediately told the operations officer that we were experiencing a "little" trouble on one of our propellers. Then we were assigned transient quarters.
After a few days some of us "borrowed" the resident and administrative B-25 and flew to San Juan for the weekend. We almost stayed too long because we learned that the Air Transport Command (ATC) was about to be summoned to take us over to England and fly our B-24 back to the states for repairs. I knew that would never do, especially in the light of our cargo of whisky and the "modifications" which we'd effected in Kansas.
While at Borinquen we picked up a stranded RAF navigator, Desmond Mullen, from Auckland, New Zealand. We were to transport him all the way to England. He proved to be a valuable passenger.
We took off for points south. We did stop over night at Belem, but other than that we kept moving until we reached Natal, Brazil. I remember it took almost an hour to fly over the mouth of the Amazon River. At Natal we decided we needed a rest. After about a week, the ATC was being thought of again and we had to make plans rather quickly to proceed across the Atlantic.
There was one problem: Our copilot, George Jewett, usually a very straightlaced fellow, sampled some of that green Brazilian beer and it flew all over him. For about two days that followed, whenever he would drink some water, he was in the same foul shape again. That cured George from drinking beer... period.
Bassett wasn't eager to leave Natal, he liked to go to town. Most of the crew were ready to leave, go anywhere. I had put a guard on the airplane with orders to shoot anybody who attempted to go aboard without my permission and that wasn't suiting some of the crew at all.
While at Natal, we'd bought a supply of silk stockings and Omega wrist watches as suggested by Capt. Nelson, our instructor at Gowan Field. These items, together with the whisky, worked wonders in our favor in England.
We were about one and one-half steps ahead of the ATC. Hurdle had gotten a ride to Recife, Brazil, and I was on pins and needles for fear he would not get back to Natal before the ATC did. But he made it. Just barely in time.
Overloaded, center of gravity off, contraband cargo, temperamental propeller governor, RAF Desmond Mullen and all, we took off at dawn for Ascension Island in the middle of the South Atlantic.
En route, over the blue, deep Atlantic, German U-boats were j amming our radio compass, trying to lure us off course. At this stage, Desmond Mullen proved his worth. He was a very accomplished celestial navigator and between him and Bassett we arrived at where Ascension Island was supposed to be.
Ascension Island was completely shrouded with clouds. Jewett made his first unassisted landing since we left the states - on Ascension Island. The island is about 3 miles wide and 7 miles long, and the runway is the side of a mountain that had been blasted away.
Once away from the mainland we felt free. I would not show our secret orders to anyone and nobody knew what to do with us. So we stayed until we got ready to leave or until somebody started talking ATC, then we departed in great haste. On this basis, we loitered on the island for three days and then took off for Roberts Field, Liberia, Africa.
This second half of our flight was very uneventful. Frankly I was plenty happy to see the coast as I was not at all sure of our course. We landed and it was as if we had stepped back in time a few centuries. The natives were half naked and wore loin cloths. There were big fans in the mess hall that were operated by natives pulling ropes. Needless to say, we didn't stay there but one night.
The flight north from Roberts Field to Dakar, Senegal, up the west African coast was a long one. While crossing the Sahara Desert we buzzed an outpost of the French Foreign Legion. It looked just like a movie set. At Dakar we were greeted with a loud, "Where have you been?" I lamely told about our propeller problems, but assured them it was "all right now." The operations officer had ATC written all over him. Anyway, we were nice guys and gave him a bottle of bourbon and promptly went into town to see the sights.
We saw the sights all right! Jean lost his hat in some place we went in to see a show.
People back at the airfield looked at us strangely, maybe because I would not give up a copy of our secret orders. So, after a day or two, I marched in to the operations office and filed a flight plan for the long trip north, over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakech, Morocco. We were glad to go and the base people were glad to see us go.
Marrakech is a very old city. The weather is about the same as South Carolina, and as long as nobody brought up ATC, it suited me to stay awhile. Meanwhile, I steadfastly refused to surrender our secret orders and I knew full well that to get a TWX (teletype message) through all of the bureaucratic red tape would take at least four days. Too, I rationalized, the worst possible thing that could happen to us was happening; we were headed for combat and a most certain death. Very, very few had survived combat in the European Theater and we did not have reason to believe that we were the exception. We had all volunteered for flying duty and for combat and we were going, no doubt about that. We were just taking our time-that's all.
We traded booze and a watch or two for a bodyguard and transportation down into a very old part of Marrakech called The Medina and discovered what it must have been like to live there in biblical times. We also visited some of the cafes, etc., and one place no officers were allowed. I borrowed Picking's dog tags, shirt, etc. and started answering to "Sergeant" and went where I wasn't supposed to go-along with other officers.
The picture show "Casablanca" was very popular in the States and Hurdle was brazen enough to get a staff car to take him over to Casablanca itself and return to Marrakech. I never understood how he got away with that.
However, all good things must come to an end, so we loaded up one night and headed for England. We were supposed to fly west of Portugal, then north to Land's End in England. The flight did not go as planned. After turning on our heading north, I went to sleep.
I was awakened by Jewett asking me what the lights on the ground under the right wing were. Lights'?... Hell, there weren't supposed to be any lights anywhere that we could see, but there they were.... I asked Bassett, our navigator, and he "thought" we must be over Lisbon, Portugal.
Wide awake now, I turned to a heading of 270 degrees until the lights faded away into the darkness and then resumed heading north. The thought of being picked up from France by a German listening device was a haunting one.
Shortly after dawn broke, I saw land and some letters formed by handplaced rocks on the ground that spelled E I R E. It was a beautiful sight as the gas was getting low and I had no idea where we were - and wasn't too sure that our navigators did, either. I knew then we had to be due west of England, so I took a heading of 90 degrees and hoped that the gas would hold out. There were many cargo and naval ships in the sea below and I planned to ditch our airplane as close to a ship as possible if the gas ran out.
Shortly a coastline came into view and I was determined to land at the first opportunity; military or civilian, it mattered not one whit to me. Within a minute or so I saw what looked as if it might be an airstrip and promptly landed. It was a RAF base and an American-made Jeep that came out to the airplane carried a stern-looking Englishman who said, "You can't land here!" I had already landed after a six- or seven-day trip from the U.S.A. but was perfectly willing to go back home the way I'd come if I had the authority. We got them to "lend" us some gas and give us a heading to an American base. Following this heading we landed at a place called Newquey at the southwestern tip of England.
We were told to deliver our airplane to Burtonwood Air Depot, up the northwest coast near Liverpool. We stayed at Newquey a day or so until the weather was forecast to be good enough to land at Burtonwood. We took off in the late afternoon and when we arrived over Burtonwood, the fog had rolled in from the sea. I could see straight down, but not horizontally at all. The control tower then instructed me to fly the British glide path approach system, which I did, and landed safely. Thankfully, I'd been told about some of the RAF systems in flying school.
Once on the ground, we become very concerned about our cargo of whiskey, silk stockings and watches. Since the bomb sight was no longer with us, we had put the metal safe, which the bomb sight had been in, to good use as a storage place for as many cases of whiskey as it would hold.
Hurdle, always good at procurement, came through again and commandeered a GI truck to haul us and our baggage to the assigned replacement depot at Shakespeare's old home town, Stratford-upon-Avon. I turned my plane in and got some second lieutenant to sign for it and we were on our way.
That was some "chilling" ride at night on those very narrow, winding English roads. At Stratford-upon-Avon, we exchanged what little American money we had left for British pounds and shillings and promptly got into a poker game. We were betting pound notes like they were dollars when in reality the exchange was one pound note for $4.35 American.
Crews were coming and going at a rapid rate. Thus we were shipped out via rail to Stone on 11 November 1943. Stone was near Norwich and we were allowed to visit the city once or twice. We marveled at how the people ran, not walked, almost everywhere they went. The canal system intrigued us, as a canal ran almost through the base. Next we went to Cheddington and it was there that we had our first leave to London. (It was also here we ate Thanksgiving dinner.) We arrived at the Charing Cross Station in London during an air raid. Sirens and searchlights were all over the place. Some of us went outside the station to see the excitement, but when shrapnel from the antiaircraft shells started falling all around us, we quickly went back inside.
We flew a few practice missions from Cheddington and on 27 November 1943, we were transferred to Attlebury for further flying training and formation flying. During one practice mission with the new B24H, equipped with a nose turret, Hurdle got the turret turned in such a way that he couldn't get out or turn it at all. He was climbing around in it very much akin to a squirrel in a cage. However, we landed safely, so no harm was done.
The big day came on 19 December 1943, when we received orders to report to the 392nd Bomb Group at Wendling. Our transportation was by GI truck. On arrival at our permanent base, the driver pointed to the B-24s parked on their hardstands and informed us, "Those are the very airplanes that are taking the bombs into Germany." Wow, that remark hit home and sunk in.