392nd Bomb Group

Col. Lawrence Gilbert

from an interview with G.Hatton in September 16, 1989

Col. Gilbert was one of the original cadre of the 392nd when it was formed at Tucson, AZ. His slot was Group Operations Officer. During the time the Group was in combat in England, he became Deputy Group Commander and was Commander when the Group returned to the States in 1945. He remained in the service, retiring from the Air Force in 1961. He now lives in Winter Park, Fl.

I graduated from flying school in September of 1941 - just a little before Pearl Harbor. I then had three months duty in Orlando, Florida, flying twin engine Douglas B-18's. After December 7th, our unit immediately started anti-submarine patrol off the coast. The German subs were quite a threat to allied and American shipping around the Key West area, and up towards New York. Quite a number of ships were sunk just off the coast. My submarine patrol continued until February, when thirty of us were assigned to Pendelton, Oregon to join the 34th Heavy Bomb Group (a four engine B-17 outfit).

I had about three hundred hours total flying time, including flight school. Within a week, I was miraculously designated an instructor pilot on B-17's. . . to instruct and check out pilots with less time then I had- just out of Flying school. That kind of duty continued for me ,from February until the following January; eleven months. The stations that we were assigned to included Pendelton and Tucson. It was two months at each station, with the 34th B. G. through the winter of 1942. We were in Tucson during the summer of that year, when the whole group was assigned to Spokane, Washington. The mission was the same; to train youngsters fresh out of flying school, and assemble them with a crew.

We had bombardier instructors, Navigator instructors and so on. Practice bombing was done up in Spokane, but I don't recall if there was any of that over in Pendelton or down at Tucson. There may not have been any other practice bombing ranges available to us at that time.

We were attempting to train a complete crew and have it join a Group in its final Phase of training. That was a new concept ,which was later expanded and exploited with a separate entire command. We were a quasi -operational bombing group. I guess we could have gone over to England as we were and done a creditable job; but for want of an organizational plan.

After Spokane we went to Euphrates, Washington; then down to Blythe, California in December of 1942. After a month of that same type of training; very suddenly, orders came top report for duty and help form the 392nd Bomb Group. It was formed, first on paper, then it was given a number at Tucson. There, a handful of people came in [ground and air] and we started to flesh it out.

I was assigned to it along with my Squadron Commander; then Lt. Irvine Rendle. He had gone to flying school back in 1937, but there were not enough slots for commissioned officers in the lean, mean Army Air Corps of that day. He did a stint with the airlines, but as the war clouds gathered over Europe, he was recalled back to full active duty. Bo Rendle was my C. O. with the 34th B. G. and he was an excellent leader. He was to become an inspirational combat leader.

In those days, things moved fast. He was quickly elevated from Squadron C. O. to Group Commander. I went from Instructor - Pilot to Operations Officer. Two others from the 34th, the Intelligence and Communications Officers, who had been with him since Pendelton, helped take command of the 392nd.

Rendle and quite a number of us, were set to go overseas with the 390th Bomb Group( a B-17 outfit). At the time we were snatched out of Blyth, we were flying B-17's, but Rendle and I had a few hours on B-24's. That may be part of the reason they put the finger on him to start up the 392nd.

I well remember when he called me up in the middle of the night and said, "I've just been given command, not of the 390th, but of the 392nd Bomb Group! I'm taking a four person cadre down to Tucson, to start the Group. Would you go with me?"

It was a bit of a psychological shock, and it raised my eyebrows. A couple hundred of us were all primed to go with this other outfit. "Hey, you're not going overseas with those B-17 guys. . . You're starting a new B-24 unit!"

I stayed with Rendle through the training period at Tucson, El Paso and Almogordo, and finally Topeka ,Kansas. There we formed the Advance Party and left for England 30 days ahead of the rest of the Group. Captain Caley and Lt. Elder, Lt. Col. Rendle and myself, departed on July 16,1943. When we first landed, General Doolittle flew up from London. As I recall, it was a cloudy day. The weather was flyable, but it was a cold August day. I do remember we were wearing our Mackinaws. Our's was the first Liberator over there with a nose turret. We spent a month at the Headquarters of Bomber Command, where we were briefed by the Eighth Air Force staff, on how the war was being fought. We would face many challenges when our Group got over there.

I was the third C. O. for the 392nd Bomb Group; the Group had two deputies: the Ground Executive Officer and the air exec. The Group Commander was naturally, the overall administrator and leader of the base. There had to be one voice to speak for that base. I had principal staff assistants(ground and air) under me.

Their duties might be what you'd expect. Lt. Col. Joe Bush looked after and was responsible for the administration and all the problems of the non-flying personnel: mess hall people, cooks, bakers, line mechanics and so on. In addition, he administered the various mess halls for both officers and enlisted men, for both flying and ground people.

At any given time, at Wendling, there were about 3000 people in our Command. Air crew numbered l500, with roughly the same compliment of ground crew.

There were four squadrons and technically, when we were fully manned there would be three crews per plane. At times we'd range up to four, but three was our typical manning. These would be distributed amongst 36 to 40 aircraft. Three crews with ten men per crew, meant that you had 1200 people combat ready and available to fly missions. With those in hospital, on leave or in training, we'd reach our full compliment of men.

If you were flying every day, you had to rely on more than one crew to man an airplane. Seven missions in a row would tax a crew's stamina quite heavily,so we had to account for sickness and rest leave, as well as replacements for injured crewmen.

The Squadron Commander's sphere of responsibility would be to decide "who was going to fly the next day?". If his squadron happened to be assigned to lead the group that day, then he would have to select the lead crew for the six or nine element section. He might say, "Cassel. . . No, he's on leave. . . I'll have to take another crew to head that mission". If it was a difficult mission, then he would try particularly hard to pick the best crew he had.

If his squadron was not leading the group, then he wouldn't worry quite so much about who was leading his squadron. He would also concern himself about who was on that lead crew's wing. If the lead crew had to drop out(say he reported mechanical problems over the channel) the deputy lead would slide in and take over. The deputy crew was even more critical on a mission where the squadron had the lead.

Everything was operating at a terrific pace. . . It was almost frantic. At that time, I was the Group Operations Officer. That meant briefing all the crews. You know. . . walking down the center aisle to the podium, turning around and pulling down the screen, away from the map. I would point and say, "Gentlemen, this is the target for today. . . this is the bombload for today. . . . " I didn't get into a lot of the details, like the radio call signs, or how much anti-aircraft to expect. That would be covered by the Intelligence or Communications Officers. I would give the formations;"The 579th will be leading today. . . the 578th will be flying high and right. . . the 577th will be low and left. " The center was called the slot position. Originally, we'd fly four squadrons, and the fourth squadron was down low and to the rear.

This proved to be an awfully unwieldy formation. When you tried to make a gentle turn, the formation could get scattered. We cut it down to three squadrons. Nine airplanes were cut down to six per squadron for the same reasons. Nine planes proved too difficult to turn in formation. The high right element would slide way out there and almost get lost out of sight. The low, left squadron would slide underneath you and take ten minutes to let 'em get back out on top of the division.

Quick maneuvers were impossible, unlike a fighter plane who could just swing over. A bomber formation had to be turned very gently, and the lead crews were briefed along those lines.

I would fly as the Command Pilot and alternate with the Group C. O. Initially, for the first five or six we got there. Bomber Command told us, "Yup. That's the way they're doing it. " Our group and the other Groups started finding problems, and finally the word came down from Second Air Division that henceforth, the Command Pilot should stand up between the seats of the Pilot and Co-pilot for the complete duration of the mission.

Basically, our job was to look around the formation and get the Group together, so that we were in the right position in the bomber stream. That meant we were so busy with the radio, that we were no help to the pilot. Meanwhile, after an hour or so, the fatigue factor would set in because the pilot was as busy as a one armed paper hanger, flying the plane. Normally ,the co-pilot would help in the chores of flying the aircraft. Unfortunately, the Command Pilot was in that seat, but in no position to deal with the aircraft.

So it came to pass, that we stood up between the seats, in a kind of crouch. We couldn't stand up, full length ,for eight to nine hours after take-off. You got plenty tired, but the strain was such that you didn't think about it until after you landed.

The Group Commander held the ultimate responsibility. If he had to go away, on temporary duty to Bomber Command, the Air Exec. would assume command of the Group. The Ground Exec. remained in his position.

I remember a difficult times, when Rendle took leave for a week. Just before he left, his last words were, "Don't let them take any of our good people!" Sure enough, while he was gone, orders came down for us to transfer a lead bombardier out. The 14th Combat wing covered our three Groups; the 44th, the 392nd and the 491st. At Division Headquarters, if some other outfit suffered heavy losses. . . why they'd reach down into an experienced Group like ours and transfer someone out.

I objected and said that he was vital to the performance of his squadron. We couldn't spare him! Well, they wouldn't take no for an answer. I tried to stonewall it, because Col. Rendle had been quite emphatic. . . in fact, blunt about that point! We wanted to keep our group's integrity, so I held out for as long as I could. The thing finally went over the top, when the Wing Commander insisted, in no uncertain terms, "That man must be transferred. The demands of the job are greater here and you'll have to find someone to replace him. "

Command authority being what it was, I had to comply with the request. I was not looking forward to Col. Rendle's return, but at least I knew we had enough good men within the 392nd to fill the gap.

Your job as an Air Exec. is to look for men who are interested in doing their assignments as well as they possibly can. The Air Corps, at that time, had many men who were not there of there own free will. My job, as administrator, was to get to know my men as well as time permitted. . . to find out who was willing to be trained for higher responsibilities, or a job that you had a need for. New people were being sent in with limited amounts of training, and we had to bring them up to an operational level. This was done on a squadron level, where the Commanders could get to know their people and find out if a man was willing , eager and able.

"If I give this man a tough job to do, can I dismiss this job from my mind and know that he's going to carry it out? Or do I have to check on him tomorrow and the next day to see how he's doing? Did I give the right man the job?" That's a crude description of an administrator or foreman. The foreman very quickly finds out who he can depend on and who he has to watch constantly.

We were lucky to have a steady flow of good men to put into key positions within the squadrons. It's ironic, but the beginning of the mission was perhaps the most demanding in terms of skill and teamwork. . . especially if the weather was bad.

The assembly procedure began with the lead aircraft climbing to a preassigned altitude and reaching the group's assembly beacon. He would start a wide circle to the left, making sure not to encroach on a neighboring group's assembly. The next aircraft would come up thirty seconds later, find his leader and begin a ten mile circle through the crowded skies.

At frequent intervals, the leader would be firing flares out of the top of his airplane to help the rest of the group to converge on him. There were bunches of aircraft milling around, and as you came up through the clouds, you might be too far away to read numbers or tail markings. You'd head for the radio beacon and look for the green or orange flare that was your color for the day.

If everything went well, it took about 18 minutes for thirty six airplanes to complete take-offs. The assembly was usually allotted twenty five to thirty minutes to get completely and tightly formed. . . and start to the next checkpoint. Timing was critical. If you were leading the Wing, you'd arrive at that checkpoint first, and the other two Groups behind you followed at about two minute intervals.

The Wing assembly point had a built in arrangement if you were running late. The maneuver patterns were laid out such that you could cut a corner. To pick up time, the group could cut that corner, move inside and arrive at the proper place, at the proper time. If they cut it too sharp, and got there about the same time as the other lead group did, it was time for evasive action. A wide sweep out to the right and back would kill a minute or two; then you could fall into proper place behind them.

Shortly after we got into operation, each Group was assigned a "War Weary" fighter aircraft. This was to help with the strays during the Group formation and to find the Group leader. You could fly right up next to him; then if you saw one of your people obviously lost and way off in the distance, you would buzz right over to him and waggle your wings. Radio communication was held to a minimum, so you'd point, "This way!" and take off. The stray would immediately turn and head in the right direction.

After the Group was formed, The fighter aircrafts' job was to be a shepherd dog weaving in the strays and helping the lead aircraft find his proper place in the bomber stream as it crossed the Channel. If you were in bad weather or running a little late, you couldn't always be sure that the Group ahead was the one you were supposed to be tacking on to. That meant shooting on ahead to confirm their identity and buzzing back through the clouds to find your guys again. Our formation might be overrunning the group ahead, so we might have to swing way out to kill time. It was the Air Traffic control of it's day.

We had a P-47, and four of us would fly that airplane; the Group Commander, myself and the Squadron leaders were checked out in that plane. Since the fighter had no guns, and we had no training in fighter tactics, we would leave the Group at the far side of the Channel to come back home.

Normally, there were regular fighter escorts (P-47's) almost from the beginning of bomber operations. The first few missions in late '42 may not have had escort, but by early '43, P-47's were there and available. The problem was that it did not have adequate range to go with the bombers into Germany. It's gas consumption was heavy; even with a drop tank, it had to turn back and go home before

the target was reached. The Luftwaffe would wait until our fighters turned, and then would pounce on the bombers in great strength.

We also had P-38's for escorts, but they were not very effective in our theater of operations. Aside from the problems of range, there were technical problems. It couldn't turn as tightly as the German fighters at high altitude. Without an engine up in front of him to provide cockpit heat, the pilots were half frozen.

By April of 1944, the P-51 had made its appearance and was beginning to make its mark. We first saw them as early as January, in small numbers. . . but then they came in an avalanche. In spite of this, breaks in coverage still happened. A fighter group was supposed to do an escort job, but might have been late in taking off. Let's say the base was fogged in and they were twenty or thirty minutes behind schedule. For perhaps a half hour, the Group would be without their assigned cover. The German's could see all this on their radar, and then. . . Wham!

There was a concentrated drive, starting in February of 1944 which lasted until April, to try to render the Luftwaffe an impotent force. They wanted to eliminate the threat to our D-Day landing forces. By April, things had changed to where their fighters had to be careful to choose their place of attack. . . and that meant looking for breaks in our coverage. Loose formations were also prime targets, because of their decreased fire-power.

The esteem in which the American fighter pilots held the B-24's was not high; the B-17, by the nature of the beast, was able to fly tighter more compact formations then we were. We often joined the bomber stream in loose and scattered formations, whereas the Fort's were very tight and compact. Most B-24 pilots will tell you, that it was a difficult aircraft to hold in formation. It was physically demanding and after twenty or thirty minutes at altitude, you were worn out.

Initially, we attempted to fly with the B-17's because there were not sufficient numbers for them to route us independently. From July of 1943, we were scheduled by necessity, with the Forts because of the limited fighter cover available. They were bombing at 27,000 feet, which was four to five thousand feet higher than the optimum altitude for the B-24. It was not a comfortable ride, although we could stay with them by pulling excessive power. The wing lost a lot of it's efficiency up there and we burned up tremendous amounts of fuel. It was something like a boat on a lake. . . just mashing along. The tail would drop down and the nose would tip up, and the engines would suffer badly.

We realized that until fighter cover came along, of the nature of the P-51, we had to limit our penetrations to areas where the P-47's could go with us. This way, we could acquire a target at 22,000 feet and the airplane would perform much better. You could use cruise settings that would conserve fuel, at that altitude. When the Mustangs came along, we went deeper and deeper into Germany, with fighter cover all the way.

In April of 44, we were putting up all-out assaults with the primary targets being German airfields and aircraft factories. Hamm was a big railroad junction, which was of course, heavily defended. Junction yards, such as the one in Berlin, were a pretty high priority. We had to make sure that the Germans were unable to reinforce the beach-heads at Normandy.

On April 1, 1944 the target briefing was for Ludwigshafen chemical plants. It was very bad weather in Germany and the mission was led by a Pathfinder radar ship. The formation was split up by the time they reached Lake Constance, on the Swiss-German border, and unaware they were off course. We ended up bombing Schaffhausen, a few miles inside Switzerland. It turned into an international incident and there was a big board of investigation. It was, fortunately, a rare occurrence, but it marked the beginning of a period where we ranged far and wide over enemy territory.

There were several occasions when German fighters followed our bombers back to England. Towards the end of the month, there was an unusually late mission to Hamm, which encountered stiff resistance from fighters and flak. The returning aircraft were coming home in the dark, and when the fighter escort had left, they thought they were in safe territory. The attack occurred when the bombers had dispersed and were getting ready to land. It seems the Germans had been flying above the formation and there was some kind of a snafu with the British radar. Normally they would have picked up unfriendly fighters coming back across the Channel.

These attacks were generally ineffective; but there was one desperation raid in 1945, on a crystal clear night, when a single German fighter came across and strafed us. I was the C. O. for the group at this time. Our B-24's were lined up along the dispersal area, all silver and glistening in the moonlight. This was in contrast to the olive drab of '44. It must have been quite a sight to that German pilot. Streaking across the Channel, perhaps from the Dutch coast somewhere, he had remained at low altitude. About seven of our airplanes were heavily damaged and put out of commission. Four or five more got shot up to the point that they didn't fly for at least two weeks.

Our own anti-aircraft guns started firing. Then the RAF night fighters showed up and attempted to chase down the German. Our guys were reacting to everything and shooting at the RAF as well as the German. It was a panic situation at Wendling that night.

We went over to England in 1943, and I was a young 25 year old with what might be considered a pretty heavy responsibility. At times I couldn't believe the decisions that were entrusted to me; then I'd look around at the upper echelon, who were only a few years older than me. It was a very sobering experience and its hard to put into words, what you felt when we lost crews.

You didn't dare let it dwell in your mind for long. Chances are, that by the time you found out you had lost six crews, you were well into planning for the next mission. At the end of April, in 44, we even had a day with two missions. . . a very rare thing. The men on those crews could well have been just names and numbers, so maybe it didn't have an immediate impact on you. The weight of the job was, at times, inexorable and crushing. There had to be enough crews ready to fly the mission, and we were accountable to put up 27 aircraft the next day. One was left to his own devices in dealing with losses.

I stayed in the service until 1961, but my years with the 392nd Bomb Group, were the greatest experience of my life. Looking back on those times, I wonder if our condition was "unnatural" compared to other generations, in that we were raised in war time.