The Ken Elwood Crew
A Bombardier Remembers….
By George E. Schatz, Bombardier, 600th Squadron
There is nothing that I am prouder of, or find myself more fortunate to share, than my 59-year marriage to lovely Lois. But there is certainly nothing else in my career or other aspects of life of which I am prouder, or luckier, than to have been a member of the Ken Elwood Crew! We had that perhaps unexpected and rare experience to fly every mission, from practice in South Dakota to a completed combat Tour, together as an intact team. We probably became one of the first FULL crews in the 600th Squadron, perhaps even in the 398th Bomb Group to complete a combat Tour, flying our final pro-rated 32nd mission on August 8, 1944, the Groups 64th mission, thus having flown on one of every two combat missions the Group had flown by that date.
My greatest fear had been, when flak came through the nose of our B-17G over Merseburg just at Bombs away and knocked Plexiglas fragments into my left eye, besides knocking out my oxygen outlet, and being fitted with an eye-patch at an English base where we had to land during our fog-covered return, was not of combat, but that I might be kept down and have to fly some missions with the horrible specter of another crew, which, of course, signaled certain death! The reason for this allegiance to Ken Elwood should become crystal clear shortly: first of all, I happen to believe that the reason our original 398th pilots were so exceptionally good and flew such protective tight formations was their extra experience while training other replacement crews before they were formed into the 398th. And while I accept ALL 398th BG pilots as being outstanding, honesty demands that I am obligated by truth to state that Ken Elwood was the very best.
Perhaps the proof is made clear in the following: In February of 1944 while on a practice bombing mission in South Dakota, a fire in the bomb bay door motor had me and the engineer trying to turn the doors back up with the manual handle, and then we lost each of our four engines on our B-17 in turn from carburetor icing. By this time we were too low to jump and our whole crew went into our practiced toboggan mode in William Hannas radio room. Meanwhile Ken Elwood and co-pilot John Hutchison attempted to make a wheels up landing on the belly of our B-17 Flying Fortress. Elwood made such a perfect, smooth landing on a snow-covered wheat field that we neither bounced nor even suffered a hangnail. After our crew quickly exited the plane, saw that there was no fire, two men trudged towards a farmhouse to phone. It was my duty to go back into the eerie quiet hollows of our slumbering aluminum giant and rescue the then top secret Norden Bombsight. The four ambulances sent out by the base to rescue us proved to be a more harrowing trip than Elwoods landing but our entire crew was then treated by the Colonel to The best steaks in South Dakota. Elwoods belly landing had been so gentle, that after fixing the props, and lifting it, Col. Hunter flew that B-17 out of the wheat field on a metal-grid runway.
The only slightly humorous aspect of our belly landing was my awareness that my parents, Sam and Nat Schatz, were already on their way by car to the frozen climes of South Dakota to see how their young couple was prospering, and my dad had invited the entire crew out for an evening feast at a local tavern-restaurant. Although I had individually pleaded with each member of the crew not to mention the crash and worry my folks unnecessarily, my dads generosity at the bar and my mothers social skills had enticed the entire story from almost every one of them by the time we even sat down to dinner! Only our happy ending hopefully eased their fears.
Second Elwood proof: As Crew #10, in April we had flown our brand-new shiny B-17G to Nuthampstead, England via Iceland and Northern Ireland to take our place as part of the 600th Squadron of the 398th Bomb Group. A few weeks later, as we were practicing group assembly and close formation flying, one of our own B-17s bounced down hard on that generous tail section of our plane, bending a good portion of it over on one side, freezing any rudder controls. Since our plane continued to fly on a level plane, we were young (and stupid!) enough to take turns looking at the damage from our engineer Dewey B. Burts top turret, while Ken Elwood seemed able to maneuver the plane back to base and make a perfect landing, on his second try, by whatever adjustment to engines and ailerons his skill was able to figure out to get us home safe. After that, Ken was OURS! But we almost started to look forward to combat, if practice was this tough! We were wrong!
An example of the debt we also owe to that stalwart B-17G Flying Fortress still resonates with me when on June 20, 1944 we lost an engine to Flak from barges in Germanys Hamburg harbor, and had to turn back alone over the cold North Sea. Although B-24 Liberator 4-engine bomber planes can fly faster, longer, and carry a heavier bomb load than the B-17, they cant fly as high, so when we attacked the same target, B-24s were always put in the front formations so that they would not over-run the slower B-17s nor be subject to having higher-flying B-17s accidentally drop bombs down upon them. As Stan Alpert, our young navigator (still my close and dear friend, but who irritated me a little back then because he never seemed frightened of anything) plotted our course back to England, from the nose of our ship we could see three damaged B-24s already in front of us, each gradually losing altitude. Although the North Sea was too cold to sustain life for over a few minutes, there had been no known successful ditching of a B-24 as might prove possible in a B-17, and as we droned along and held our altitude, from our B-17 nose Stan tried to plot their positions as one by one those B-24s condition forced them to turn from over the North Sea into German territory and become POWs or worse.
From Allen Ostroms beautifully written and edited Flak News is a January 1996 article headlined: July 1944 Was A Bad Month For The 398th: Nine Crews Lost, Plus Five Crashes. Our Elwood Crew flew eight combat missions that month, including two to Munich and two to Merseberg, the latter considered to have the most accurate Flak in Germany! But there is little point to my relating incidents of combat, when so many of our fellow 398 comrades have experienced similar or much more painful experiences. But since one of our Elwood crews most traumatic and still troubling circumstances occurred AFTER our combat tour had ended, its development might take a moment to unfold. You might say it began on our crews 7th mission on May 29, 1944 (the 398ths 16th) to Poznan, Poland, later listed as 10-1/2 hours, and our Elwood crew flying in B-17G 42-107191, during which, although we passed south of Berlin early and expected danger every minute, nothing much happened. However, our 398s quarterly Flak News of October 1996 had this column heading: Of the 21 Fortresses On This Mission, 11 Were Destined To Be Shot Down Before Wars End. And the article goes on to list the numbers of those eleven B-17s and the crews that had flown them.
Now we must move ahead to August 8, 1944, as we flew our Elwood Crews 32nd and final combat mission: a supposed milk run just across the English Channel to drop bombs on German troops still holding Montgomerys English troops back at Caen, France. Because this was to be our final tour mission, I think it can now be told that someone came to our Quonset hut the night before and tipped us off that our last mission would be just across the Channel, the first time we had ever known our target before briefing, and we four officers danced around like idiots! They even took our crews photograph at dawn the next morning as a memento of our final mission, and with waist gunner James J. Leahys arm around radio operator Bill Hanna, and ball turret gunner William W. Rabada smiling, we were obviously very relaxed and totally confident with each other as a proven dependable crew member. Only tail gunner Arthur L. Figueira, who had been wounded on our previous mission was absent (although he earned credit for a completed tour) and our 600th Squadron Commander, Major Bruce Dailey joined our Elwood crew to fly with us as tail gunner as being the optimal position for him to monitor the integrity of our Groups formation flying.
Our Elwood crew had usually continued to be assigned to B-17G 42-107191, Tomahawk Warrior, possibly because Elwood seemed to fly untiringly from his pilots left seat by the hour, and I suspect that we had been picked by various lead crews to fly so many combat missions in such a short period was because Ken, once they had experienced him leading the high element of the High Squadron with such a very mother-hen protective tenacity a few times, appreciated his guarding presence; it followed, therefore, that I had always been given a Norden Bombsight in case the Lead and Deputy-Lead Squadron ships were impaired, plus, on our last seven or eight missions, this plane had a depression made into the floor for an automatic repeating camera just behind my bombardiers chair, that I had, so far, rather surprisingly remembered to turn on right after Bombs away! to photograph our Groups bomb strike.
We started out on this mission, though on another aircraft, 42-102536, Here's Hopin as blithely as children, feeling good about our trying to help Montgomerys men still bogged down by Nazis two months and two days after D-Day! This mission was written up in the April 1991 issue of Flak News with the headline: Many B-17s Suffered On Low Altitude Run. As the article stated, although our crew will never forget it, we had the twin problems of flying in at 13,000 to 15,000 feet (instead of the more usual 27,000 to 28,000 feet), plus, because it does rarely happen that some bombs may drop out at the moment bomb bay doors are opened, we were instructed to open those bomb doors over Channel waters, so as to avoid any possibility of injuring the Allied troops we had to pass over before we reached the Nazi troops. We flew this low in order to be certain to clearly distinguish the line between the Allied and German troops, but the open bomb doors produced an unacceptable drag, and made formation flying a bouncing nightmare. In my humble opinion, we really went in at about 8,000 feet, because every 88-millimeter gun, rifle, slingshot, and spitball the enemy possessed came flying up to us. If we later said at the interrogation that we saw the Deputy Lead go down first, and then our own immediate High Squadron Lead right in front of us, Captain John Baker, turn over on its back and go down, and others, please allow us our confusion! This bomb run seemed l-o-n-g-e-r than the whole Posen mission. It continued FOREVER! Although Stan and I had been through 31 previous combat missions, including twice each to Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, and Merseberg, we finally knew what total terror felt like. I was so scared I wanted to hide behind the bombsight, but with our Deputy Squadron Lead down, I really had to concentrate on the possibility that it might end up being me who had to distinguish between those irregular lines of Allied or German combat it certainly wouldnt be like trying to hit a hanger or a factory!
It got worse! Flak or a bullet or slingshot smashed into the pilots windshield, the glass or something hitting Elwoods eyes. We were lucky enough to be able to have Major Dailey come up from his tail position, and take over as pilot with our own Hutch. Finally, 18 days, 22 hours, and 34 minutes, it SEEMED like, we did drop bombs on the German troops, and circled out over the Channel again. We could not, not, not, believe we had actually made it! We were home safe. No, not yet!
Stan and I, after our extrications by Elwood, both in South Dakota and over England, trusted him so completely that, against all rules and regulations (and common sense) we always stayed right at our positions in the nose of our B-17 on both take-offs and landings. This might have included just a touch of laziness on our part, but there is seldom an exhilarating sensation to compare with our rare unobstructed view through the large clear Plexiglas nose of that big beautiful bird as it rushed down the runway and struggled its way into the indifferent air, and with our Ken flying it we didnt feel the slightest danger. This habit of ours probably saved our lives on this final mission! After we had peeled off and were coming in for a landing, Stan and I suddenly saw that we were just about to land right on top of another B-17 that inexplicably was coming in just slightly ahead and under us! I knew my luck had been too good, and now, after agonizing through 32 missions, we were going to be killed in the final minute of our final mission. The air above Nuthampstead must still reverberate from the noise of Stan and I simultaneously screaming into our throat mikes: GET IT UP! GET IT UP! Whether or not the pilots understood us or not, they did know enough to raise our gallant ship and go around again and Major Dailey and Hutch did make a perfect landing. All of us, including Major Dailey, were still too much in shock though, at least for those next few hours, for our Elwood crew to celebrate our Memphis Belle-like tour completion.
It would be nice to glow about our celebration later that early evening, when, after learning that Kens eyes were okay, and we retrieved the two bottles of precious Bonded Bourbon we had secreted when we left the States, and kept our solemn pledge not to touch with typical irrational youthful optimism, until we completed our tour, which had been 25 when we and our 398th flew the first mission on May 6th, but raised to 30, then 35 missions; it was our ignorance of the basis by which we were pro-rated for our 32 mission tour that will forever continue to touch us as long as we live. But for the moment we were invigorated: I have pictures of Ken Elwood and Rabada after some of us had been traditionally thrown into the base pool, and then we four properly uniformed officers walked down to the enlisted mens quarters to celebrate and grateful that Art Figueira was well enough to join us, and I was so excited that after only one drink of Bourbon, I kept falling off a bike I was trying to ride. I should also mention Kens wife was pregnant during the tour, and he must have set some kind of record for the sheer torrent of letters he wrote to her during those months, a hard act to follow for Hanna and I, the other married men in our crew. But it was all over, we thought. My only remaining fear was about the four of us going into London, now that the number of Buzz Bombs had been increasing daily, to pick up those Eisenhower Jackets we had each ordered and been fitted for at Burberrys.
The fourth bright, shining morning after our crews final mission, I was hanging some freshly washed socks and handkerchiefs out to dry on a fence railing near our hut, happy and relaxed as a clam. Then some officer walked down towards us, probably from our 398ths Headquarters, and seeing me, came over and told me that the crew that had taken over our plane, plane #191, were all killed when it exploded while it was circling around on its climb up to assembly over England! I have an old small Kodak photo of Charlie Searl and Leo Walsh on which I had written on the back, in pencil: Played ball with these two boys yesterday; today they are dead! Lost over England in our #191 plane. There were no survivors of that Searl Crew on that morning of August 12, 1944.
None of us still living have yet recovered from that news. It seems needless to relate how often, over these following, fortunate years, the question of what if that abstract formula had chanced to pro-rate us for a 33 mission tour instead of our saving 32? That giant number, 33, will persist in our brains, as in our hearts. All that morning, the four of us pondered the terrible news in our dark Quonset hut, and for days kept speculating if undetected leaking oxygen valves or gasoline tanks had been struck on 42-107191 on our last low mission of August 8th. Well never know, but those of our Elwood crew still living, will ever continue to ponder.
Ken Elwood died in 1984, a few months after Stan Alpert and I, and our wives, were fortunate enough to have a treasured meeting with Ken, for the first time in 40 years (!) at the 1984 Eighth Air Force reunion in Los Angeles. John Hutchison died circa 1999, but Stan, Bill Hanna and I, with some members of our families happily met together at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum at our 398th Bomb Group Reunion in 2000 at Savannah, Georgia. We continue to keep in touch with each other.
But the passage of time has revealed, in its gracious gifts of love and feeling and family and friends and the sheer wonder of living, the true price our young fallen companions paid, the Searls, the Bakers, Col. Hunter, and all the rest. We can weep for them now, if we did not fully weep for them then, because we could not have known, had not yet learned, then, the full worth, the full cost, of their sacrifice.
The Elwood Crew:
- Lt. Kenneth C. Elwood, Pilot
- Lt. John L. Hutchison, Co-Pilot
- Lt. Stanley Alpert, Navigator
- Lt. George E. Schatz, Bombardier
- S/Sgt. Dewey B. Burt, Engineer / Top Turret
- S/Sgt. William S. Hanna, Radio Operator
- S/Sgt. James J. Leahy, Asst. Eng. / Waist Gunner
- Pfc. William W. Rabada, Ball Turret Gunner
- Sgt. Arthur L. Figueira, Tail Gunner
Each Elwood crew member was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, European Theater Medal with three Battle Stars on completion of their 32 mission pro-rated combat tour of duty.
Transcribed by Lee Anne Bradley, 398th Group Historian in 2003.
- Elwood's Crew - 600th Squadron - 8 August 1944
- 398th Mission, August 8, 1944, Cauvicourt, France
- Many B-17s Suffered On Low Altitude Run
- B-17 "Tomahawk Warrior" A Tribute to the Charles J. Searl & Crew by Ronald M. Setter
Personal History Information
- Veteran: George E. Schatz
- Bombardier, 600th Squadron
- Date of Personal History: October 2003
- Author: George E. Schatz
- Submitted to 398th Web Pages by: Lee Anne Bradley