The Forgotten Man
By Tom Dougherty, Gunner, 602nd Squadron
Over the years I've had this nagging question running through my mind, and I have not been able to come up with an acceptable answer.
Back in 1945, I completed my last eight missions with a pilot whose name I can't remember. You might think one would become quite close to another when sharing experiences of this nature. This sounds incomprehensible doesn't it? I think so too, and I am ashamed to admit it. I've thought a lot about this trying to come up with some reason or even an excuse as to how this could be.
The first crew I was assigned to became like family, but we were together for almost two years before the shift from a ten man crew to nine was initiated after we had completed a good share of our missions out of England. I have always remembered every one of their names over these past fifty years, but not that last pilot.
There were circumstances during that time which may account for my memory failure. The disillusionment of being dropped from my crew when they went to nine men was obvious. Even though the decision made good sense.
George Shoptaw and I were waist gunners and he was 2nd engineer, so his specialty was much more beneficial to the pilot than mine was, in an emergency. For example, if Dixon had become incapacitated some way or other. None the less, the hurt was still there.
After talking with my Squadron Commander, Major Rooney, he suggested I "sit down" for a spell until a pilot came along with whom I would want to finish my required missions. There were ground duty jobs I could do until I began flying again.
At first I did guard duty at night where the planes were parked. Curt Cochran from the Hough crew, was the man left out on his crew so we found ourselves walking the ramps together from ten in the evening until about four in the morning. Later, I worked in the mock-ups with incoming recruits giving refresher courses on the turret equipment and the weapons systems. I also was the noncom in charge of the skeet range for a period of a few weeks.
The time was passing quickly, weeks turned into months since I had flown my last mission. I was still on flight pay and this turned out to be my biggest problem, although it hadn't occurred to me at the time.
Doing my day job allowed me a day off occasionally and on one of those occasions I went into Baldock where my girl friend lived and stayed the night at Mrs. Morches' Boarding House. Whenever I did this, I would call the CQ at the squadron orderly room after the crews had been notified of flight duty. If I was not on the list he would say, "Have a good time." This meant, no problem, stay in town.
My luck ran out that particular night. When the crews reported that morning, one gunner had gone on sick call. The Operations officer scanned the list of names to find a replacement and saw my name and noticed I hadn't flown for several months. He said, "Go wake Dougherty quickly and get him down to operations. But I was not to be found.
When I returned to base the next day, the CQ told me that I may be in big trouble and explained I was to report to operations whenever I returned to base. The operations officer was Major Templeman. I rapped on his office door and he told me to enter, but he didn't look up from his paper work. When he did, he was seething with anger and told me I had been listed as AWOL and orders were being cut reducing me to Buck Private.
I tried to explain about my day job and that I thought I had the day off. He reminded me that I was still on flight status and to be off base overnight required a written pass.
When I explained to him that I did not have to fly as a Buck Private, he told me, "That is up to you, but if you don't, I'll guarantee you'll be the sorriest Buck Private in the ETO. You didn't have to be a Phi Beta Kappa to figure out what he had in mind
My first mission with this new pilot was Jan. 17, 1945. The opening called for a ball turret gunner. I knew I was too big for the ball, but under the circumstances, I didn't have a choice in the matter.
My good friend Curt Cochran, who was in the same hut with me, was flying a make-up that day too. He was flying the tail gun position. If everything went well, this one would complete his tour of duty and he would be on his way home. The thought immediately came to mind that after this one I would ask the pilot if I could have the tail position.
We went to Paderborn, Germany that day and everything went well except for my ride in the ball. With my heavy sheepskin flying suit on, it was a tight fit getting into the ball and I couldn't manipulate the latches on the door from this fetal position.
When I squeezed down into the ball, the waist gunner had to put his foot against the door to close it and turn the locking handles from inside the plane with a big screw driver, made especially for that purpose. It was used normally to extricate a wounded gunner not for one entering the ball.
With that thought in the back of my mind, I began wondering about getting out of this ball in the event of an emergency. I realized I would be completely dependent upon the waist gunner. What if he was shot or in some way incapacitated? Cold, stark fear set in and I panicked. I became disoriented and could not find the little football shaped instrument at the front and bottom of the plane. I had not brought my guns up to the parallel position of twelve o'clock. I happened to pull back on the grips and finally got to where I could see the football. I never changed from that position until I got out of the ball after reaching friendly territory.
Needless to say, when we landed and I told the pilot of my problem, he was more than glad to give me the tail gun position, not only on the next mission, but until I finished my tour.
One of the differences with this new pilot was that we didn't see one another except when we were going on a mission. With my first crew, the officers and the enlisted men were always doing something together when we were off duty. We played catch, we would run the 50 yard dashes or do other types of sports.
The stress of flying was of itself enough to cause worry, but to make matters worse, the young woman whom I had fallen in love with and had been courting for the last four months confided in me that she was expecting. And, with each mission accomplished, I would be that much closer to the time I would have to leave England.
My mind was full of problems and for a young man who had not yet reached his twenty-third birthday, they seemed insurmountable. I even considered going AWOL but in my heart I knew this would only compound my troubles.
My tour of duty was finally completed on February 14th, on a mission to Prague, Czechoslovakia. For some reason, we were low enough on gas when we neared the English Channel, that the pilot told us we could use it as excuse to land in France. He said, "Would you fellows like to do that?" I wouldn't have, but was outnumbered eight to one. Then to top it off, we were weathered in for two days, unable to return to home base.
Since my pilot had radioed the group leader we were landing for gas, they knew we were safe and by the time we returned, my orders were cut and I was to leave for Chorley, England the next day to prepare for shipment back to the states. That evening, I went into Baldock with the liberty run to see Molly. I explained where I had been and that I was leaving the next day for a base in Northern England to be processed for stateside duty. The name of the town was Chorley which was located to the west and north of Liverpool.
The Liberty trucks would depart for the base around 10:30, shortly after the pubs close. It would offer only a very short time together with Molly and her family to say our goodbyes. To be more exact, it would not only be short, but very sad.
Whether my explanation of those troubled times will suffice for not being able to remember the pilots name, is for the reader to determine. I have no further thoughts of why, but I will always wish I could remember him.
This is a follow up to the above story:
Mention should be made that I had been trying desperately to learn the name of this man through channels connected with the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association. Les Dear, who is one of our English "Friends" to the 398th was able to come up with a name most likely to be the pilot I was searching for through comparisons with missions flown by me which were ones this certain pilot had also been a part of. He gave me the name of J. O. Gray.
I gave this name to George Hilliard, our unit contact man in our Group and on March 2, 1995 he sent me a card giving me the address of J. O. Gray. I found Gray's phone number through information and called him immediately. After that, I mailed him a letter and included a picture of our crew which had been taken on my first mission with him. In my next phone call to him, he said, yes by all means, I am the pilot in that picture and the one you finished your last eight mission with.
In both my telephone conversations with Gray, it was really noticeable that he was having difficulty with his speech. His voice sounded very hoarse and labored, to be sure. He did say in our last phone conversation that he would mail me a letter, telling me of his life after I left England.
A short time later, I received a long 8 page hand written letter from him giving a chronological listing of what had happened to him after our last mission together. He had made a career of the Air Force and retired as a full Colonel in 1963. After that he went to work for the State of Texas, retiring again in 1980.
Gray became a member of our 398th Memorial Group and was looking forward to attending some of the reunions.
A few short months after locating Jay, he passed away. This was brought to my attention when I received a Christmas card from his daughter-in-law, Mrs. J. Alan Gray in December 1995, in answer to the one I had sent to Jay.
By Tom Dougherty
Gunner, 602nd Squadron
398th Bomb Group (H)
Station 131, Nuthampstead
England April 1944 - February 1945
Personal History Information
- Veteran: Tom Dougherty
- Gunner, 602nd Squadron
- Date of Personal History: Unknown
- Author: Tom Dougherty
- Submitted to 398th Web Pages by: Dawne Dougherty