We Fly at Dawn

By John Contento, Tail Gunner, 600th Squadron

The following poem was published in the Utica newspaper The Messenger formally called Il Messegiero on February 3, 1945. A clipping had been kept tucked away in a photo album for almost 60 years by John's sister-in-law, Rose Contento.

Linda Schmidt, daughter of John Contento.
October, 2007


We Fly at Dawn

by S. Sgt. John Contento of Cortland, N.Y.

Tail Gunner in Army Air Corps now in England"

The pilot strode into the evening gloom
From the hooded light of the operations room.
He looked long and hard at the cloud-flecked sky,
There was a telltale twinkle in his clear blue eyes,
As he said to his crew scattered on
"String your hair boys, we fly at dawn."

We filled our tanks and each man checked his guns
For tomorrow's party would be no fun.
The ship was made ready, and the rest of the night,
Our sleep was disturbed by dreams of the flight.
It is always so when brave men fly.
Not a pleasant thought, "tomorrow I may die."

No matter how many missions a man may fly
He never gets over being afraid to die.
It's funny old feeling, hard to explain,
You tighten all up from your toes to your brain,
Your stomach's all empty, and your face feels drawn,
When you hear that old cry, "We fly at dawn."

We were wakened at three by a sleepy O.D.
And had a poor breakfast of powdered eggs and tea.
Then off to briefing in a loaded down truck,
Our thoughts in close harmony with old "Lady Luck."
We may sink a carrier or bomb a drome,
We'll all be heroes when we get home.

But the men who went out in the morning cold,
Thought not of medals, and heroes bold.
Most likely they thought of their girls and their homes,
And the hell they'd give those yellow goons,
For causing the war, the pain and the strife,
And for taking away the best years of their life.

The roar of the fans was like a beautiful song,
We'd be in the air, now, it won't be long.
The pilot guns the engine -- we begin to roll,
We pick up speed as the props take hold,
The big ship labors, the air fills with sound,
"Wheels up" cries the pilot, "we're off the ground!"

We joined the formation and buzzed the field below.
It's a well known custom, in the Air Corps, you know,
Then away on course, it's lovely to see,
Twelve big ships in flights of three.
Up over the mountains, and we are gone.
Right on schedule at break of dawn.

The leader glanced at his watch and noted the time,
Adjusting his throttle and starting to climb.
He glances back at the men on his wing.
The weather is stinging, the usual thing.
But we close up tight and pushed right on through,
Til finally we break out up in the upper blue.

We continued to climb, for well we knew,
If we went in low, our chances were few.
We went in high-way up in the blue.
Proud to be the lads who took them through.
If this old war has got to be,
As long as I last, it's flying for me.

Though I'm afraid each time and I swear it's the last,
My breath comes in jerks, and my heart beats fast.
I'd rather do my bit, here in the blue,
Than fight on the ground like some fellows do.
I'm doing my part and none can say,
He's taking the war the easiest way.

We're over the target and my heart skips a beat-in fact a few beats,
The altimeter's reading thirty thousand feet.
The Bomb bay opens and the fight is begun,
This time its for keeps and not for fun,
Then over the interphone, calm and clear;
"Bombs away": the cry from our Bombadier.

Watch them fall the boom has lowered,
"Good work, old man, it looks like we scored,
Pour on the coal boys, and close the doors,
We're proud of this job! My work and yours."
The engines turn over in an endless moan,
As we make a steep bank and head for home.

The Flak is heavy, but not bad -- it's way down below.
But that's not what we fear most from the foe.
"There they are!" you can see them they're coming fast,
The ME109s are coming, they've caught us at last.
They're fast little devils -- a hundred or more,
But we're ready and waiting, we'll even the score.

Pass after pass from above and head-on,
But our gunners are good and they put them to scorn,
It's a long running flight, and the stakes are high,
It's bombers vs fighters, and someone will die.
We tighten formation, and all I can think,
Is "Jesus, I'd hate to go down in the drink.

It's all over now, they've had enough.
Forty minutes of hell, and the going was tough.
The top gunner's happy, he got two of the hinies.
But the waist gunner's dead, the tail's full of rips.
We'll make it back if the engines hold out.
But we'll miss the waist gunner, the big country lout.

It's always that way when a good man goes west.
We miss him most, who knew him best.
He lived with us, fought with us, he gave us his all.
He died to save us -- he was "right on the ball."
He stuck by his guns, his aim was true,
But for his last burst we'd have been through.

So, we're back home in the late afternoon,
Through weather and ice and it's none too soon.
The gauges read low when we get there at last.
Thank God we are home - we were sweating that gas.
He sets her down, a good landing, that,
And he's tired more than I, I'll bet you my hat.

The big ship slows down and rolls to a stop,
The ambulance is there and so is the doc.
"Its' no use, fellow, he's gone, you see.
He gave us his all for the crew and me.
So handle him easy and send a cable through,
"He died for his country like he wanted to."

So we'll all go to town and get drunk,
And try to forget war and all its fighting bunk.
It's been a rough day, but cheer up lad,
We have tomorrow off, so it's not so bad!
Then by the time your hangover's gone,
We'll be ready again to fly at dawn.


See also:

  1. No Forgetting Christmas Eve Mission by Lou Stoffer, Engineer/Gunner, 600th Squadron
  2. Grinter's Crash the Day After at the Nuthampstead Air Base Both 2nd Lt. Francis Harrod and Cpl. David Flores were KIA as a result of the crash.
  3. 398th Mission: 24 December 1944 - Koblenz


Personal History Information
  1. Veteran: John Contento
  2. Tail Gunner, 600th Squadron
  3. Date of Personal History: February 1945
  4. Author: John Contento
  5. Submitted to 398th Web Pages by: Linda Schmidt, his daughter in October 2007