Wings Above Fear, Chapter 2

See Chapter 1

Chapter 2: The Crew of Ole Sarge

The ten-man crew of Ole Sarge was, for the most part, newly arrived to the Middle Eastern/European theatre. One of the exceptions was 21-year-old tail gunner Sgt. Joseph Kerschner. Joe had flown as a crew member on a B-24 from the States to Europe in 1942. He had seen duty the previous year in the Middle East including the already mentioned raid by the 376th on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. Kerchner was from the “Rust Belt,” and a place called Tiffin, Ohio. Tiffin was an oil and manufacturing town, and Joe was from a large Jewish family of 16 children.

Radio Operator Sgt. William Butler, one of seven siblings, was the youngest man on the crew. He was a chubby-cheeked, 20-year-old from Oklahoma who was a wiry 5-foot 5-inches tall and 141 pounds. The radio operator had a special seat on the deck just behind the cockpit facing the side of the airplane where the communications were mounted. He was normally not needed full-time at the station unless he was with the lead plane, and often doubled as the top turret gunner.

Pvt. Winston P. Ivey, listed on this mission as “Waist Gunner,” was 26 and the oldest of six kids. He hailed from the North Carolina mill town of Lumberton. There he had waiting for him a wife named Helen and baby girl who had just turned 3 named Syble. His assignment on the mission was to operate one of the belt-fed .50 caliber machine guns in the openings toward the rear of the plane past the bomb bay.

Ivey’s counterpart for this mission was second waist gunner Sgt. Leonard P. Hagar, 26, who was from West Virginia.  The two men had become close friends on over a dozen missions they had flow together since mid-October. The waist gunner was the most dangerous position on a heavy bomber, especially the Liberator, whose fuselage was super thin to increase speed. Some gunners mounted a steel plate on their machine guns to protect them against the high penetration rate of the thin-skinned airplane.

Sergeant Romeo Giagnoni, the grand old man of the outfit at 29, was from the Illinois coal country and had the important task of serving as Armorer Gunner. He was the guy who made sure all of the plane’s guns and bombs were in proper working order including the bomb release mechanism. He also helped the Bombardier arm the bombs, which could be as much as a 12,000-pound load. If a problem arose like a jammed machine gun or bomb release mechanism, he was the on-the-spot repairman.

Romeo’s parents were first generation Italian immigrants from Tuscany, and his father Osalia worked in the coal mines of Macoupin County, Illinois. Romeo and both of his brothers spoke Italian at home, so he was in his element with the locals in San Pancrazio including a young boy named Remo who played the accordion for them for a few lire in the enlisted mess.

Technical Sergeant Peter Frederick Stiles, 22, was the flight engineer and had been born in Montreal but his family had moved to Pennsylvania. He was nearly six feet tall and weighed in at only 128 pounds. He was single and had been attending college when he registered for the draft in 1941, but enlisted on his own in August of 1942. As the engineer, Pete sat just opposite the radio man on the flight deck behind the pilots. His job was to monitor the four big Pratt and Whitney, super-charged engines of the Liberator at all times, as well as the fuel consumption.

Navigator Lt. Norm Troxel was responsible for keeping the plane on course and shared the nose compartment, complete with small navigator’s table at the front of the plane, with the Bombardier. Navigation in 1943 was accomplished with old fashioned dead reckoning, landmarks, airspeed, time between checkpoints, and even the night sky.

Above 1000 feet in the unheated Liberator, temperatures could drop to as low as -50 degrees. Heated suits which plugged into the plane’s electrical system were designed to solve the problem, and those in the nose or rear of the plane could avail themselves of these but they were notorious for malfunctioning.

Norm was a tall 6-foot 1-inch Kansan with red hair and blue eyes, and had two years of college under his belt when he signed up in 1942. He was 24 years old, single, and had two older and two younger siblings back home in Kansas.

The job of Bombardier on this Vicenza mission was filled by Lt. Ward C. Walker from Massachusetts who had been the earliest of the crew to enlist in 1940 when he had completed his second year of college.  He was 25 years old and been sent by the Army Air Corps to school in the mid-west, and had there met and married his wife, Hazel, a Montana girl. He and pilot Tommy Haigh had been together in Arizona in a series of flight schools where Hazel had made them dinner in the evenings.

Bombardiers went through extensive training and also received wings similar to those of a pilot.  Positioned in the nose of the plane, he actually for a time took over the aircraft, often by the autopilot which was connected directly to the bombsite.  He calculated when to release the bombs based on altitude, airspeed wind drift and air density, and the characteristics of the individual bombs.  The instrument used by the United States was called the Norden bombsight and was extremely accurate, but was so secret in design that it was never left on a plane, but was escorted on and off by armed guard. Before graduating, a Bombardier had to take an oath of secrecy promising not to reveal how the instrument worked.

Co-pilot Albert Dilworth Matthai, 28 had been an Insurance Underwriter before the war and had first enlisted in the field artillery in February of 1941. He had also been with Haigh and Walker in various flight and training schools.  “Worth” as his friends called him was in charge of a huge array of checklists, both preflight and inflight, including the startup of the engines.  His most important job was to fly the plane should the pilot become incapacitated.

The 25-year-old pilot, Thomas Haigh Jr., hailed from a small town called Bowling Green in Virginia and was the youngest son of a widowed, elderly mother. His mother, Florence, Tommy, and his older sister Mary moved to town from the country so Florence could work as a telephone operator to support her children. Tommy was the darling of both his mother and sister and attended Calvary Church, on Milford Street a block from his home, where he was an avid participant in Sunday School programs.

Bright, outgoing and enterprising, while still a teenager, he went to work at the local grocery store, first as a cashier and later as the manager and butcher. Customers loved Tommy, and there was always a line when he was working. In high school he was known for his prowess acting in school plays. Good looking, confident, and competitive, he played first string on the basketball team even though he was only 5-foot 8-inches. At a game, you could always tell when Tommy was about to score because whole sections of the bleachers would erupt in cheers.

On March 11, 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and accounts of his adventures began to come home in letters to his mother and sister which they shared with the townspeople. With the escalation of the war, enlisted men were allowed to try for the Air Corps and Tommy had passed both the aptitude and the extensive phycological exams given by the Corps to would-be pilots, bombardiers, and navigators. He was selected as a pilot and sent on to what was called Pre-flight, Primary, Basic, and then Advance training in the Southeast Army Airforce training centers all over the country.

For a boy who had never been further than the capital in Richmond, this was big doings and a letter arriving from Tommy at the local post office on Main Street was eagerly anticipated by Tommy’s friends, coworkers, and most of all his mother. The newspaper was located just off Main Street and the owner/editor there kept citizens apprised of Tommy’s travels, and was especially excited to report in the late Spring of 1943 that he was about to get his Pilot’s wings.

The USAAF training had been tough with a more than 50 percent attrition rate in pre-flight training which consisted of six weeks of boot camp and four weeks of academics. When he went on to Primary training, he was finally in the air in a single seat bi-plane under the watchful eye of a civilian contract instructor. He was then on his way to Greenville, Mississippi to “Basics” where he learned to fly just about all the planes produced by the military.

While the wash-out rate for pilots as they advanced dropped to 30 and then 10 percent, Tommy excelled and was on his way to piloting an aircraft for the Army Air Force. An article in the local paper back home featured a picture of a beaming Tommy in his pilot’s jacket and aviator cap.

The small 1 x 2-inch column announced he was about to head to the final leg of his journey toward graduation where it would be decided if he would fly a two- or four-engine plane, and what type. The decision was made that Haigh would specialize in piloting a bomber so after he graduated, he received two more months of air time in both the B-17 and B-24 Heavy Bomber.

While the B-17 has a cabin heating system, the B-24 was unheated and pilots learned to adjust to both the temperature drop, and flying at high altitudes with an oxygen mask, which might last for hours. The B-24 with its straight wings was found to have icing problems in cold temperatures and this had to be compensated for during takeoffs. They also proved more difficult to master with limited hydraulics which only operated the bomb bay doors, brakes, the landing gear and the flaps. All of the other movements were accomplished with a series of levers and cables.

The B-24 had a restricted vision compared to the B-17, and many hours were spent on the runway simply learning how to taxi in the Liberator. She had a differential breaking system and differential thrust for ground steering which took extreme coordination and strength. More hours were spent learning to hold the Liberator in formation with constant attention to the flaps. Even more hours were spent on how to fly a wounded Liberator in every kind of situation.

Normally upon receiving their coveted wings, pilots would be given the rank of Warrant Officer; however, Tommy graduated in the top half of his class so he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. When he came home the summer of 1943 before deploying overseas, the newspaper wrote that when he dropped in to visit the stores and offices on Main Street, the town was as proud as if a four-star general had returned.  It was noted he was tall, trim, and strong, and the new wings glistened in the sun.

Pilot Lt. Thomas Haigh with an unknown lady in Cairo, Egypt; Engineer Sgt. Pete Stiles and Co-pilot 2nd Lt. Worth Matthai.

By late August Tommy was in Cairo, Egypt, where he, Worth, and Stiles used their days off to make the grand tour of the sites there. He was regularly sending pictures home of their travels to places like the Pyramids. Around mid-October, he was flying an average of two bombing missions a week to Greece, Germany, and Italy. In mid-November, about the same time, the 376th made the move from Enfidaville Airfield in Tunisa to San Pancrazio, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and designated as a commander which meant he was leading missions, as well as serving as pilot in his own airplane.

At San Pan, as it was known, there was a small theater tent where the men entertained each other with skits and plays. There was also a 376th band which was quite good, but they normally played in a nearby town with a Red Cross Center so leave was required to make the trip there. A pass to the Center was much coveted, considering the NCO club was called the Snake Ranch and the Officers Club was just a cut above, with a limited choice of food and drink.

The 376th also had a beloved mascot, a small dog named “Air Raid” who had been with them in the Middle East, and who they managed to fly to Italy when the group made the move. Air Raid had been allowed to stay with the men as long as he got a bath for fleas once a week.

On some afternoons at the base, an enemy pilot hailing from the direction of Yugoslavia and known as Bed Check Charlie made regular strafing missions into camp. After hunkering down for an hour or so, Tommy and the men would hold poker parties which were his forte. He was known as the best poker player on San Pan but he was also known as one of the best and most talented pilots at the airfield. Later, a veteran of the ground crew that day recalled that the six pilots had been chosen, along with their crews, for the mission because they were the best the 376th had to offer.

About 8:15 a.m. a green flare arose above San Pancranzio and the crews began to scramble aboard their aircraft. Access to the B-24, with its tiny entrances in the body of the plane, made ingress and egress difficult on the Liberator. As a result, good use was made of the bomb bay doors which were configured like a roll top desk, so they could remain open when the plane was on the ground. The panels retracted along the outside of the fuselage allowing the crew to enter there.

Entering the plane, the men had to be careful as they climbed onto the narrow 9-inch walkway which provided access to the flight deck and the rear of the plane. In flight, it was especially tricky on the walkway as the bomb bay doors were designed to give way if the bombs were dropped and the doors failed to open. If you were unlucky enough to misstep you got a free trip to the ground as the doors would give way under the weight of a man as well.

The 376th began to leave San Pancrazio at 8:40 a.m. with orders to fly 500 miles north to bomb the railroad repair facility at Vicenza Italy. When it was Haigh’s turn, he rolled down the runway and started to make the climb through the clouds to his pre-assigned formation place at the head of the 512th’s second element. The entire ten-man crew rode during takeoff together just behind the cockpit in the engineer and communications bay for optimum balance on takeoff.

Next: Chapter Three -The Vicenza Battle.

Cover photo: Taken in Salinas, California, before heading to the Middle East. Kneeling: Co-pilot 2nd Lt. Worth Matthai, Pilot Lt. Tommy Haigh, Bombardier Lt. Ward Walker. Back row: Waist Gunner Sgt. Leonard Hager, Armorer Gunner Sgt. Romeo Gaignoni, Waist Gunner Pvt. Winston Ivey, Radio Operator Sgt. William Butler, Unidentified, Engineer Sgt. Peter Stiles, Unidentified. Not Pictured: Navigator 2nd Lt. Norm Troxel and Tail Gunner Sgt. Joe Kerschner. 

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