My Life-Long Quest for my World War II Airman Father

The title "Carrying Fire" is taken from Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, in which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell talks about his own father. “I had two dreams about him after he died. I don’t remember the first one all that well. But the second one it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothing. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen that he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Notable Incidents In 398th Bomb Group History

A few notable incidents of Group history deserve mention. One non-combat highlight for everyone at Station 131, as well as local residents and invited guests (mostly young women of course), was the visit by the Glenn Miller Band on October 2, 1944. Miller was a very successful band leader and the best-selling recording artist of 1939-43, but in 1942 he put his career on hold to enlist in the Army and was assigned to lead the Army Air Force Band in morale-boosting performances for the troops. His band flew from base to base in England and played mainly in large steel hangars for homesick and music-hungry airmen. Those who remember still talk of the day his band came to Nuthampstead. One airman remembers, “That sound was something in that hangar. I thought the roof might come off. I mean, people went nuts.” Alton Glenn Miller disappeared December 15, 1944, on a flight to Paris and is memorialized today on the Wall of the Missing at nearby Cambridge American Military Cemetery. 

Glenn Miller Band With The Modernaires

Less than two weeks after the Miller Band’s visit, the 398th suffered its first fatal take off crash early Sunday morning, October 15, 1944. Three aircraft had already taken off for a second consecutive mission to heavily-defended Cologne, when something went wrong on the fourth ship. Shortly after lifting off, Command PFF plane 42-97746, crashed in the village of Anstey, just a few miles south of the main runway. Fortunately the large bomber missed all houses and crashed into the moat surrounding the old Anstey castle mound behind St. George’s church. All ten crewmen were killed including pilot William Meyran and Command pilot Charles Khourie. Fully loaded with high-octane fuel and with a full bomb load, the wreckage burned furiously and villagers were evacuated. Luckily the twelve unexploded bombs were submerged in the moat and did not explode. They were later removed by the bomb dispersal team from the base once the moat was drained, and villagers were allowed to return home after two days. 

Anstey Church and Moat

Another event from that same October 15th mission to Cologne, along with one famous photo, has become an iconic symbol of the durability of the B-17 and the courage and resilience of men who flew her. Flying through intense flak over Cologne, a 601st squadron plane, 43-38172 “Lovely Julie”, piloted by Lawrence DeLancy and Phil Stahlman, took a direct burst from an 88 mm shell in the nose section, blowing it apart, instantly killing togglier George Abbott and momentarily knocking navigator Raymond LeDoux unconscious. Although stunned and bleeding, LeDoux made his way to the cockpit to assist the two pilots who were struggling to control the seemingly un-flyable plane. The blast had blown away most of the nose, covering the windshield with debris and making it difficult to see. 

The instrument panel was torn loose and all flight instruments were inoperative. Radio and intercom were gone, oxygen lines ruptured, and a sub-zero wind was howling through the cockpit at 27,000 feet. DeLancy and Stahlman, knowing they needed oxygen and could not keep up with the rest of the formation, turned left and descended rapidly, hoping they were heading west toward England, or perhaps occupied Belgium. Without maps or other navigational aids they dropped to 2,000 feet where they picked up a pair of P-51’s who escorted them across Belgium, but with an inoperative radio they were unable to communicate with the Mustangs. 

“We might have tried for one of the airfields in France,” DeLancy said, “but having no maps this also was questionable. Besides the controls and engines seemed to be OK, so I made the decision to try for home.” Once over England, navigator LeDoux began to pick up landmarks and give course corrections that brought them right to Nuthampstead. “It was a great bit of navigation. Ray just stood there on the flight deck and gave us the headings from memory. The landing was strictly by guess and feel. Without instruments, I suspect I came in a little hot. Also, I had to lean to the left to see straight ahead. The landing was satisfactory and I had sufficient braking to slow the plane down some.”

Men waiting on the ground at Nuthampstead could hear the wounded plane long before they could see it. Instead of the characteristic deep roar of four Wright-Cyclone engines they heard a howl “like a banshee screaming.” When it came into view they understood. “Look at that nose!” someone shouted. No need for red flares or an up-wind landing this time. They watched as the once-beautiful B-17 glided in for a hot landing, taking up the entire runway with failing brakes until it came to a stop in the mud at the end of the concrete. As ambulances, medical staff and fire trucks arrived, many of the crew stumbled from the waist door, strangely silent; men in shock. Flight surgeon Dr. Robert Sweet had to pry pilot DeLancy’s hands from the wheel and help him from the plane. As Colonel Hunter approached, Dr. Sweet told him, “Colonel, that young man doesn’t want to talk to you now. When he is ready you can talk to him, but for now leave him alone.”

1st Lt. Lawrence DeLancey's crippled B-17 at Nuthampstead October 15, 1944

DeLancy's plane on return to Nuthampstead

The crew was given “flak leave” to shake off the stress, but were expected back in two weeks, just in time for one of the dreaded missions to Meresberg. For their parts in that October 15th drama, DeLancy was awarded the Silver Star for his “miraculous feat of flying skill,” Stahlman was awarded an Oak Leaf Cluster for his Distinguished Flying Cross, and LeDoux received the Distinguished Flying Cross for “extraordinary navigation skill.” 

It was DeLancy’s eighth mission and, ironically, it was Stahlman’s 35th and final mission. His crew had already completed their tour but he had been grounded with sinus problems and needed this one last sortie to finish up. One hell of a final mission! Years later Stahlman still had nothing but praise for Larry DeLancy: “Well, it was pretty traumatic, and of course he was the pilot in command and he had the whole responsibility and I have to say he did a great job.” The other crew members included Ben Ruckel, engineer-turret gunner; Wendell Reed, radio operator; Al Abro, ball turret gunner; Russell Lachman, waist gunner; and Herbert Guild, tailgunner. There were giants in those days.

On January 23, 1945,  just one week before Lt. Don Christensen arrived in Nuthampstead, the 398th’s commander Colonel Frank Hunter was killed while leading a mission to Neuss, on the outskirts of Dusseldorf. The plane took a direct flak burst in a wing and went into a steep dive and flat spin which created a centrifugal force from which there was almost no chance of escape or survival. Perhaps mercifully, such tremendous G-forces would cause most airmen to blackout. There were only a few who survived such spinning, diving crashes, and their experiences testify to the difficulties of escaping these wounded aircraft.  

Writing about that crash, pilot and sole survivor Lt. Federico Gonzalez recalled, “We received a direct flak hit on our left wing tip and it broke away flush with the outboard engine. We struggled trying to control the spin to give the men time to bail out. Nobody made it, probably because of the tremendous centrifugal force. The plane did not explode but went into a flat inverted spin. I couldn’t do anything to get it out of the spin. . . As I unbuckled and reached for my chute I was immediately thrown against the windscreen, unable to move. . . .I remember only about five turns and then nothing until I came to on the ground. Col. Hunter was dead.” [letter to Col. Berryhill] Reports from the ground also indicate that the Gonzalez/Hunter aircraft  came down in a flatspin with wings revolving around the fuselage, like a falling leaf, landed flat and broke apart.

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