You know I didn't even want to be a radio operator, I wanted to be a gunner and I was a good gunner. Little did I know the only one on a B-24 who doesn't have a gun is the radio operator. I went to school at Ft. Myers and got a top notch shooting record; but they told me "You've got to have another technical school. You can't be just a gunner. You need something in conjunction with that." I'd heard that Armorer's School was in a mud hole down in Biloxi, Mississippi and the engineers went to some God awful place near Brownsville, Texas. Now, radio school was in St. Louis, Illinois. So I said, "Yep! send me to radio school. I'm going to Saint Looey!" I went to St. Louis, just because it was the best place to go. They turned me into a gunner without a gun although I did have a very pistol.
After tech school, you're assigned to a group I was assigned to B 24's and started phase training. I went from St. Louis to Davis Monthan Air Force Base (Tucson, Arizona). They assigned crews and then you went through your phase training together.
Now I can't remember exactly when I first met the crew. It was Tucson, I know. I remember that we went into a room and they put up on a board who you were assigned to and then sometime later we got together. It was probably one of these days when you go out and everybody falls into formation and they say: "everybody that's on Ofenstein crew, fall out." You would fall out and follow someone.
The officers hung together and the enlisted men hung together, except for Johnny Wall (that's what we called him). He hung around with the enlisted guys, too. Johnny was a real regular guy he came up through the ranks mustangs, we called them.
Yeah, the pilot (Ofenstein) commanded respect, he was something else. He demanded respect and you didn't mind giving it to him because he was a good officer (he was tall about six foot six). He was the "old man" of the crew and we called him "Offy" for short. Always wore them cowboy boots; we thought he was from Texas and that's why he named our plane "the San Antone Rose".
Harry Buzzi and Dave Purner were the other officers... they were the bombardier and navigator. Harry was a big good natured nice guy... a little slow, but good natured. I think Dave was a married man at the time, so we didn't 't see much of him. Hell of a navigator though.
Vit Krushas was our engineer; Schmelzle and Hatton were his assistants. Dutch Schmelzle was fresh off a Pennsylvania farm. When we got overseas, he could never quite figure out that English money. I remember him stuffing the big bills in one pocket and the change into the other, until he ran out of big bills. Hy Hatton and Smitty (Arthur Smith) were the big city boys. Hatton was a short, curly headed guy from Brooklyn, who liked jazz. Smitty was from Boston and liked to chase girls, drink and fight. Rowlett was the baby faced tail gunner.... the youngest on the crew.
I don't think Rowlett had much family. I believe he and his brother were raised by their grandmother. He was a poker player and a pool shark. Man, he was something else; so young and innocent looking. I tell you he could go into a pool parlor and hold his own. Rowlett could handle a deck of cards and he could stack them too; he just won all kinds of money.
We went to Blythe, California and we were there for a while. Then we went on to Topeka, Kansas and from there overseas. We got leave at Blythe and had a hard time getting home and back on time. Some of us got busted.
We went from Blythe, California into Phoenix (by bus) and we had to catch a train at Phoenix (Arizona) all of us were from the east coast (when you're talking about California, Ohio is east).
Guys like Krushas had to go all the way back to Brockton, Massachusetts so it took him a while to get back. I made it back (from leave) on time (I just about got thrown off the train, but I made it back on time!
We completed our phase training up in Kansas, and received our orders to go overseas; just before Christmas of 1943.We were headed for the European Theater of Operations, southern route. We had trouble with our nose wheel in Topeka and we still had it at our next stop, Morrison Field, Florida.
After the plane took off and we made formation, you had to maintain radio silence. So I didn't have anything to do. As soon as we got over enemy territory, that was it. All I did was sit there. Sometimes that's the scariest thing to be just helpless. My job was to take over if someone else had been hit; I would take over his position. Thank God I never had to do that until the very last.
Back in training and on the flight to Dakar I had to help navigate. Between Natal and Dakar, they had a special system for communication. All you had to do was " dit" out your signal every half hour. When you first took off, you had to give them your QAL. You sent that, and it meant you were airborne at a certain time. After another half hour, if you were still on course, you just sent your signal. If they received it, that meant everything was OK. There were so many planes going across that there was not time for lengthy conversations. You got it over quick ... call them, give them your sign and dit dah-dit. They would come back dit dit and that's it.
I had so much static out there, that I dropped out our trailing wire antennae about 120 turns. I don't know how many feet that is, but it was quite far down there. There was a 3 lb lead fish on the end of that thing. The wire was grounded to the frame of the airplane and it would bleed off all the static you'd get a real clear transmission.
So, we're going over to Africa and we pass that St. Paul Rock out there in the middle of the ocean. We fly right over that thing and the navigator's heading was beautiful. We sail right straight on to Dakar. We're coming in for a landing and all of a sudden I thought: "Oh! I've got that wire out there!"
I call the pilot and say "I forgot my trailing wire." He says, "OK Roy, bring it in; how many turns on it?" "120 turns, sir" "Well, keep calling it off."
I flicked on the switch and watched it slowly winding up. We were coming down fast and I'm calling out "90 turns,85 turns 80 turns" and so on. I know we drug that wire right through the little village, at the end of the airstrip. I never did hear anything about it, but if it had hit someone on the back of the head, it sure would have killed him.
I did that one other time when we were flying out of Blythe, California. One time we went up and had stormy weather, so I let the antennae out.
You know when you get up to altitude it was really cold. Then you'd land and it would be nice and cool in the airplane. When you slid the window open and that desert air rushed in, it was like you opened an oven.
Anyway, we came down and I was standing on the catwalk above the bombay. For some reason we were taxiing with those doors open so I could see right down there onto the runway. Now here's this silver wire on the runway below me and I followed it out with my eyes. It just stretched right out behind us, for I don't know how far! The light dawned and I said to myself, "Oh shoot! That's my trailing wire down there." I ran back over to the windup switch and started to drag it in. Then I called Offy and he said, "Oh ... Don't worry about it! Just bring it."
Afterwards, the guys in the radio shack had to go out and replace the whole darn thing, it was so beat up. I did that twice once in Blythe and again at Dakar. You know what it was you put it out and tend to forget it, because those flights were so long maybe 7 or 8 hours; and you were going through all these training exercises to boot. Call the base, chit. chat back and forth in code with a key, man, by the time you get back to base and turn off your set ... well this code is still going on in your head.
I'd walk across the ramp and I could still hear dit dit dit dit da da da da dit dit dit. I'd smack my ear a few times and say, "Get out of there, you!"
On the South Atlantic trip, when we left Natal, we had to take box lunches with us. They were full of sandwiches and fruit and came in boxes like Kentucky Fried Chicken. Now, there was no toilet on a B-24, just a relief tube aft of the radio deck. If you had to take a dump, we used these Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes.
Well, we're out over the ocean and Krushas was flying the plane, while Offy and Wall were back with me on the command deck. Ofenstein went back up to the cockpit and took over the controls. He told Krushas to go back through the bombay to the fuel transfer system, up behind the wings (in the rear). He climbs up in there and starts to work. Johnny Wall and I are talking.
Offy calls me up and hands me his box lunch, with the flaps all closed up. "Here, get rid of this." So I say, "OK" and I'm carrying this box out through the cat walk. Now, Offy had been out the night before the flight and he wasn't in too good shape when he relieved himself.
So I go out through the bombay and back to the rear of the plane with Smitty, Hy, Schmelzle and Rowlett. They're cleaning their guns and what not, and Krushas is up there by the wing like he's got a balcony seat. I put that box on the floor of the plane, next to the camera hatch; I'm trying not to attract too much attention. I figure I'II get the camera hatch open and just slip this thing down real quick ... out it will go ... 1...2...3. So I get the hatch open with my left hand and reach down into the open space, real easy like. Boy! The wind catches it right in the middle. It gets caught against the side, rips it in two and zooms it back up into the airplane. The stuff starts swirling around the rear of the fuselage and we all start ducking. There's toilet paper hung on all the rudder cables and fluttering in the breeze. Meanwhile I'm running around trying to pull it all down! My God, it must have taken me two hours to clean all that stuff up. As I was coming back through to the front, I looked right into Krushas' face and we both cracked up.
You know Offy would do that to me all the time! The relief tube was right behind where I sat. He'd get up out of the cockpit and we'd be flying at 25,000 feet it's maybe 25 below zero and he'd have to relieve himself. As soon as the stuff got close to the outside of the aircraft, it would freeze up. Then it would back up and be full to the brim. Offy would punch me on the shoulder, I'd turn around, and he'd say, "Here." I would take it, he'd go back up front and there I'd be, holding that tube until it froze all the way. I always had to carry all of his waste products! Hell of a job!