EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of the many interviews conducted by Chuck Knox for his book, The Sound of Distant Drums. The Sound of Distant Drums contains writings and interviews of many soldiers from the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Viet Nam, Panama and Gulf Wars. It makes a great book to leave out for casual short readings. You can type “Chuck Knox, The Sound of Distant Drums” into your search engine to find Amazon and other sellers who carry this book.
This presentation of “ARMY” ARMSTRONG’s story covers just one quarter of his article, up to D Day.
I was sworn in to the Army Air Force on January 14, 1943. I was drafted when I turned 18 years old, drafted out of high school. I was a senior in everything but English, I had taken 10B English 3 times, I was taking 10A English the second time, and when my dad showed the draft notice to the principal, he handed it back and said, “Maybe the Army can do something with him because I can’t.” I was on my way.
I was sent to Peoria for induction. I took the old interurban from Peoria to East St. Louis and then to Scott Field for induction. My basic training was in St. Petersburg, Florida. We lived in hotels, ate in restaurants, and our training was in the parks. I wrote home and told the folks that this is it, I’m staying. This lasted for about 3 weeks and then we were out on the golf course in tents.
My folks would not let me enlist. I said, “They’re going to get me. Well, let me get the Air Force.” The folks said, “We’re having nothing to do with it. We’re not going to sign anything.” It just happened that the 240 men I went in with went to Scott Field and they were all in the Air Force. Thank you, Lord.
What I secretly wanted to do was be an air crew member on a bomber. I knew I couldn’t make it through on the pilot deal because of all of the book work and some of those guys got 4 years of college in 6 months.
After Basic Training I was sent to Gunnery School at Tyndall Field, Panama City, Florida. That was 6 weeks and $50.00 a month for a private. The last week of Gunnery School we flew all week. My next pay check was $75.00. I had never seen that much money in my life. I had never seen $50.00 at one time. In high school we cut broom corn and made maybe $40.00 or $50.00 from which you had to buy your clothes and your school books out of and date money and model air plane money for the rest of the year.
After Gunnery School I was sent to Aircraft and Engine School, Shepherd, Texas. In Wichita Falls, Texas,tthey had the signs up downtown saying no GI’s or dogs allowed.
Aside from the warm welcome from Texas I remember some things about my initial training. It was day by day and if you flunked something on one day they just held you back a day and then you went ahead. I got held back one day because I got in an argument with the instructor. I knew I was right and he was wrong, but he was right and I was wrong. Stripes make the difference. Then I met my best friend at Gunnery School, Doug Dowel from Washington, Iowa. We graduated from Gunnery School, were sent to Salt Lake City for crew assignment, and happened to get on the same crew. Our first flight we had a flight engineer, a Staff Sergeant, and he had been through the Boeing school on the B-17.
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Before we made our second flight he was in the hospital with pneumonia. Doug was so much smarter than I was in school, we were both Gunner Engineers. Put A before D and I got the job. Well we went to school on B-25’s and B-26’s. Everything’s hydraulic. The only things hydraulic on a B-17 are the brakes and the Cowl Flap. So I had that manual and I had 3 months to memorize it. Everything else was electric. The bad part was bomb doors were electric. There was a solenoid to turn the motor on. Sometimes at the end of the runway we were in overcast and we would be in it for sometimes 20,000 feet. That solenoid would absorb enough moisture that at that altitude it froze open. So, as the engineer, you go back in the bomb bay, you have no heat, no communication, no parachute, and a 10 minute oxygen bottle. You stand on an 8 inch cat walk, 147 turns open the bomb bay doors and then after bombs are dropped, you go back 147 turns to get them back. And I had to do that 4 different times. I suggested we put a little heated blanket on top of that solenoid. Well you know how that goes. I did complain about the 10 minute bottles, and before we left the bomb group, the supply sergeant had made a 30 minute bottle which you strapped on your back.
Sometimes, we’d fly two or three 11 hour missions, and our indicted air speed was 150. But at 25,000 feet, your true air speed would be around 220. Air speed has absolutely nothing to do with your ground speed. If you’re in an airplane that cruises at 100 and you fly 100 miles in dead air, you’ll make it in 1 hour. You fly with a 10 mile an hour head wind; you will only do 90 miles in an hour.
After all our training was complete we were assigned to Europe in B-17 Flying Fortresses. After a crew assignment, I went to Pyote, Texas, for Phase Training. And this is when I had three months to learn the B-17. We had our three months Phase Training in Texas and some of it was real good, but there were some things that they should have told you, like they never had you crank the bomb doors down at altitude.
Well, they should have done that. Here you get in combat and you’re on your own, and some guys didn’t make it because they ran out of oxygen and died. In fact, one guy was cranking the doors closed, passed out, fell down in and the doors were closed enough that he didn’t fall out. His legs were sticking out of the bomb bay from the knees up, and rather than try to get him out because he was already dead, they might lose him if they open the bomb doors a little bit. They landed that way with him. And sometimes you get back and anybody that had wounded aboard would shoot a red flare, and you got to land ahead of everybody else. They had six meat wagons at the end of the runway waiting for you, and sometimes that was pretty gory. One guy walked up and said, “What do we do with an arm?”
Schweinfurt was my first raid and we lost 87 airplanes. At Kassel, here we got hit by flak, knocked a governor off the No. 2 engine and we couldn’t feather the prop. That prop out there at 8 to 10,000 revolutions is like pushing a 12 foot plywood disc through the air. Before it was over with the pilot had all 3 engines wide open, we were indicating 130 and we were loosing altitude. I think we were at 27,000 when we got hit, 400 miles to the French coast, we had lost 13,000 feet. A perfectly clear day, not a cloud in the sky, only by the grace of God the Germans didn’t come up and get us. We were found. I looked out one time, and there were 3 fighters. I thought, “oh no,” but they were flying parallel. They came into us sideways so they couldn’t fire and the old boy rolled her up on the wing, elliptical big, fat fuselage, elliptical trailing edge P-47 Thunderbolts, and then they came up with us. It seemed like the whole U. S. Air Force was there. In about 15 minutes they rocked their wings, sped away, and looked like we were going backwards.
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Some of the German fighters were using cannon shells. The FW-190 didn’t, but the BF-109 had a cannon that fired through the propeller Spinner, and it had six 303’s in the wings. Our fighters had to trigger their guns and they all fired at once. On the German air planes, the BF-109, those guns fired across and back, and believe it or not when you see them fire, you hollered “jump.” That didn’t mean jump out of the air plane, the pilot flying the air plane listened to the crew. The other pilot was on the radio to wing leads to see what was going to happen. But the pilot listened to the crew, and when you hollered “jump”, he’d kick it and those old 20 mm’s like that, right where you had been. So you prayed that they were a good shot. If they were sloppy they might hit you.
On a clear day the ball turret could see the ground, could see flashes of flak. It took an “88” 30 seconds to get up to 25,000 feet, and if we had warning of 15 seconds, we could evade it pretty good. But a bomb run was 12 to 15 minutes. The longer that guy had to get it going, the more accurate it was going to be. That’s what you’re there for, let’s do it right. But when you didn’t take evasive action and they knew that was a bomb run, that’s when they put up everything they had.
|Crew of the Powerful Katrinka. “Army” is right rear.|
Sometimes we had to make a second bomb run. That was murder. The second bomb run, they had the flak patterns all fixed for us.
One time we had a 2,000 pound bomb hang up under the wing. This was on the south coast of Normandy. We had a 2,000 pounder under each wing. Our bombs had propellers on them. They had wires through them to keep the propeller from turning, but on the second go around the arming wire was cut on the right bomb, and the propeller was turning. On the bomb run that bomb would not come off the shackles. So instead of going across Normandy we turned and went back out over the water and took the safe way home.
The pilot got permission to get out of formation and dive and pull it and jerk it and turn to get it to drop. The one waist gunner and tail gunner were also ordinance men. So one of them went up in the nose and worked the controls trying to get it to drop, and it wouldn’t do it. We couldn’t get rid of it. The Bombardier said, “Everything on the panel shows that bomb is gone.” He called the ball turret and he said “Are you sure that’s a bomb out there?” Well, you know here’s the ball turret and there’s a 2,000-pound bomb, are you sure that’s a bomb out there? Our Bombardier was a little weird anyhow. The pilot then got permission to call the base, tell them what we had. He was instructed to come over the base, 9 men will bail out, and the pilot will head for France, put it on auto pilot and bail out at the English Coast. Well, all the way back we were tightening our parachute straps. Males need their legs straps very tight so they don’t castrate themselves. By the time we got to England, I couldn’t even straighten up I had it so tight. Then when we got to the base they said “go on with it.”
I didn’t want to bale out, and I didn’t want to land with it. That’s between a rock and a hard place. I’d gone out the bomb bay, but I was afraid of the ball turret. I could have gone back to the waist. With a parachute on and a harness you can hardly get through that. I could have taken the chute off and gone through and then put it on and gone out the waist door under the stabilizer. When in an emergency you know you got to do whatever you can do. So, anyhow, we landed with it and we had jumped quite a bit. The tail gunner’s ammunition was thrown from the belts by the plane’s erratic movements. He had to take his gloves off trying to put it back in, and couldn’t get it back in, cut his hands.
So we got to land first, injured man and an emergency too. The head of the armament and his crew were there. They ran a bomb trailer up under it and jacked it up an inch from the bottom of the bomb, and another one hit a point with a screwdriver and the bomb dropped on it. It was that close to coming off. Worst landing a pilot ever made. Forty years later he came through and we were reminiscing. I said “John, the worst landing you ever made was with that 2,000 pounder that showed release.” “Oh, I greased it.” I said “You did not, you bounced 12 feet high.” “Oh my gosh, I never bounced 12 feet up.” I said “Well you did that time.” I was standing between you guys calling off air speed you about ran my knees down through the floorboard. “No, no, no.”
Well, the next reunion was San Antonio. Out of the original men, 3 were dead and 7 of us were at that reunion. So I asked the guys about that. “Oh yeah, he greased it.” Well I’ve been wrong once before, but at this reunion it was in honor of the mechanics.
Those boys never got enough credit for what they did. They worked at night, in the cold, in the rain, with a flashlight in a blackout. They walked into the propellers, they froze. At the reunion, the mechanics had red jackets on so you’d know who they were. Sunday morning we all had breakfast and everybody started heading out for home, and everybody was gone but Marian and I and a little short guy walked up in a red jacket “What was the name of your air plane?” I said “Powerful Katrinka” and he jumped back about 3 feet. I said “What’s the matter?” Here is a guy that was there for 3 years, he has seen a lot. He said, “I remember the day you guys landed with that 2,000 pounder that showed release”. I said “Yeah, but he greased it.” “Like hell he did, he bounced 12 feet high.” I cannot get the rest of the crew to accept that. I should have gotten the guys name and written to him.
As June of 1944 drew closer, D-Day was coming up. I had been there as you can see on the mission log; I had been over the area 3 or 4 times before D-Day. But we didn’t know what we were doing. We were there in April and again in June of 1944.
We didn’t know about D-Day until we went to briefing that morning. It’s like you’re going to have an operation. It’s going to be bad, but let’s get it over with.
… In Chuck Knox’s book, Sound of Distant Drums, Army Armstrong’s story continues, about 3 times as long as this excerpt. Like all articles in the book, it is an excellent and captivating article.