World War II Experiences
"Timeless Voices" Oral History Project
Hal Weekley, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
601st Squadron, Eighth Air Force
Interview recorded July 24, 2002
during EAA’s AirVenture fly-in/convention.
Timeless Voices of Aviation is a major video history project of the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture Museum. The 398th has been interviewing its members as part of the Timeless Voices of Aviation project. Because of Hal Weekley's involvement with the EAA, his Timeless Voices interview and transcription were done by the EAA.
His interview recorded July 24, 2002 during EAA’s AirVenture fly-in/convention. Hal was one of the first 48 people to be interviewed when the program started that month.
More information about the project and a current list of video interviews can be found at 398th Timeless Voices Interviews. In addition to the video interviews, some of the interviews have been transcribed to text.
Hal Weekley, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
601st Squadron, Eighth Air Force
The following article is not a direct transcript of Hal Weekley's Video Interview, but makes heavy use of direct quotes from the interview. As such the article should be viewed as a companion to the video interview.
The article below was written about 2003 by Zachary Baughman for a weekly EAA web article. Mr. Baughman position at EAA is as follows:
Zachary Baughman, EAA #656015
Timeless Voices Program Coordinator &
AirVenture Museum Collections Assistant
EAA—The Spirit of Aviation
In 2008, the article was kindly made available by Mr. Baughman and Mr. Weekley to the 398th web site.
Timeless Voices of Aviation "Voice of the Week"
Harold "Hal" Weekley
by Zack Baughman
EAA Timeless Voices Program Coordinator
This week's "Voice" is Colonel Harold "Hal" Weekley, EAA# 169329, of Mableton, Georgia. Hal was a B-17 pilot during WWII, and later flew the EAA's B-17 "Aluminum Overcast" on a regular basis.
Hal was born and raised in Carrollton, Ohio. As a young man of 20 he was at work when the war erupted for the United States in 1941. "I was working in a service station in Steubenville, Ohio - where I had graduated from high school - on a Sunday and I got the word that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Of course I was like everyone else - I didn't know what Pearl Harbor was. I thought, 'These guys mad a big mistake!' Well, I didn't really know how much power they had, but they really did make a big mistake."
Hal immediately took a civilian government job at the Fairfield Air Depot at Wright Field near Dayton. "I was working for the government as a Junior Aircraft Engine Mechanic. The first airplane I ever worked on was a P-39 that bellied in on a grass strip at Patterson Army Air Field. Before long I took the Aviation Cadets exam and I passed it. They said, 'Okay, take this letter home to your draft board and then you will be held until we are ready to take you into the Air Force.' So I took the letter home to the draft board and those lousy suckers - they drafted me! So I called back to Fairfield and told them they drafted me. They said, 'Well, as soon as you get anyplace let us know where you are.' So next thing that happened I went to a number of places and ended up at Camp Forest at Tullahoma, Tennessee in the combat engineers, in the 80th Division of the 305th Combat Engineers. I was the only one assigned to that group. As soon as I get there I wrote the Major at Fairfield, Ohio a letter and told him where I was. He called me and said, 'We're on our way.' I think there had to be six endorsements on my transfer, the last one being signed by Secretary of War Stinson, which I thought was highly unusual for the Secretary of War to be worrying about one combat engineer getting into the Air Force!"
Hal was immediately sent to Nashville, Tennessee for classification, where he was classified as a pilot. From there it was on to Maxwell Army Air Field in Montgomery, Alabama for Preflight Training. Hal's next stops were Decatur, Alabama for Primary Flight Training in the PT-17, Greenwood, Mississippi for Basic Flight Training in the BT-13 and BT-15, and finally Blytheville, Arkansas for Advanced Flight Training in the AT-9 and AT-10. Hal earned his silver wings and graduated in the top ten of his class. From Arkansas it was on to Sebring, Florida for transition training into the B-17 "Flying Fortress."
"On my way to Sebring I stopped with my mom at Steubenville, Ohio. My girlfriend Billie was there and I convinced her into going to Sebring with us. She traveled with me along with a married couple. After about three days I talked her into marrying me. So we got to Florida on August 3rd and got married August 4th, and I reported to B-17 training that afternoon." August 4th, 2003 marked their 60th wedding anniversary!
"After I completed transition training I was transferred out to Salt Lake City for a crew. Well I didn't get one there so I ended up in Ardmore, Oklahoma. Well I got there and I'm a B-17 pilot and all they had were C-47s and they were wondering what I was doing there and I was too. I stayed there for a couple of days and they said, 'Well how 'bout that? We're moving out and the B-17s are moving in.' Well I flew with the B-17s for a while and then they sent me to Dalhart, Texas for combat crew training."
From there it was on to Kearney, Nebraska to pick up an airplane and head for England. "Well I got to Kearney and there wasn't an airplane for me, so I had to take a train to Boston so I could take a ship over. I had taken my wife with me and she was pregnant with my first son. I said goodbye to her there. That was a hard way to go because I didn't know if I would ever see her again. At that time the Eighth Air Force was the worst combat condition in the world. Being on a bomber crew in the Eighth - if you lived past five missions you were on borrowed time. So we didn't have much chance of coming back, so that was pretty hard leaving her."
Once he arrived at Camp Miles Standish near Boston, Hal boarded the SS Brazil for a six-day convoy to Liverpool, England. From there he traveled to the Redistribution Center at Stone, where he stayed until his crew was selected to join the 601st Bomb Squadron of the 398th Bomb Group at Station 131 Nuthampstead. The 398th was one of the last Bomb Groups to arrive in England, as it had previously been a combat training unit in the States. Hal's crew was one of its first replacement crews in June 1944.
"I got a little training there," Hal explains, "which was fine. And then my first mission was on June 21st to Berlin. The night before a bunch of V-1 buzz bombs came through. Nobody really knew what they were, but Headquarters was upset and they decided we were going to hit Berlin. This was exactly the reverse of what I wanted to happen on my first mission. I would have preferred to go over there and have a few milk runs first, but as is usually the case with the military they throw you right in with the hard stuff first. So I started off with a hard trip to Berlin. On my twentieth mission on August 13th, 1944 I got shot down, and that was a milk run. We had thirty-six airplanes and I was the only one shot down. I don't know whether there's a difference between easy ones and hard ones or not!"
That first mission was a learning experience for Hal and his crew, and their first introduction to a bomber crew's worst nemesis - flak. "When we went to Berlin we were getting close to the area and we had fighters on us in a big battle and I called my navigator - we called him Snafy, for S.N.A.F.U., situation normal, all fouled up - I said, 'Snafy, where's the target?' He said, 'Skipper, do you see that big black cloud over there?' I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'It's right underneath that.' Instead of trying to hit an individual target, they would put up a box of flak. If they knew where we were going and what our altitude was, they would set their guns for one area and put up a box of flak, and there was nothing we could do but fly right through it."
Flak took its toll on Hal and his crew during their nineteen missions, and it eventually downed Hal's ship on his twentieth. Nearly every member of Hal's crew was injured that day. "We had nine people on board," Hal explains, "and seven of them received Purple Hearts. Over all my missions I had eleven crewmen, and nine of them received Purple Hearts, so the Air Force pretty well used us up!"
Hal's twentieth mission was to Le Manoir, France, where the 398th was to bomb a bridge over the Seine River near Rouen. As Hal stated, the mission was supposed to be a milk run for the Group, and while the flak in the area was not particularly heavy, it was accurate. Hal's ship, serial # 2102516, was riddled with flak hits and heavily damaged over the target. The crew suffered numerous injuries, but in testament to the strength of the B-17, the plane was still flying.
"The #1 engine was feathered, the #2 was on fire, and #3 was wind-milling. I had a fire in the tail and a fire in the radio room. Communications were shot out and hydraulics were shot out, and yet I still thought I could make it back to the coast. I could see the English Channel forty miles away, and my intent was to get there, but then my ball turret gunner came up and passed a message to the radioman. He passed it to the flight engineer and he passed it to me. He said, 'The wing's on fire between the # 2 engine and the wing root.' I had trained my crew that with a wing fire I couldn't do anything, so I immediately made the decision to evacuate. I didn't have an alarm bell because my communications were shot out, so I turned around and waved my hand. They were all looking at me so when they saw that - out they went. The odd thing about it was I was flying from the copilot's seat! I was leading the low squadron that day and from the copilot's seat I could see the higher lead squadron much easier. The bad thing about that was when I lost communications my wingmen had moved away from me because they saw I was on fire and they didn't want to get hit by the pieces if I blew up, but they couldn't tell me I had a problem."
"On top of that," Hal continues, "the hydraulics were located right behind the copilot's seat, and when they hit the hydraulic line the fluid started running down the floor. I had already been hit and wounded and when I saw that red fluid running down I thought, 'Man, I'm hit harder than I thought I was. I'm in worse shape than I thought!' But then later as I slipped and slid through it I realized it was hydraulic fluid."
While the enlisted men were busy bailing out of the crippled and burning B-17, Hal and the rest of the officers were still on board. "We carried our parachutes under our seats. We had a twenty-four foot chest chute, similar to what parachute jumpers today use for a reserve chute, and we put them under the seats because when we had them on we could not fit in the seat without interfering with the control wheel. We had the harnesses on and when I gave the word to evacuate I looked under my seat and there was no chute there! There was instantaneous panic until I turned around and looked at my flight engineer and he was standing there holding my chute for me. I clicked it on and off we went."
Hal and the flight engineer climbed down into the nose to tell the toggalier and navigator to bale out. Hal went to use the escape hatch in the nose, but its emergency release pins were jammed. Hal had to hold the hatch open into the slipstream with brute strength. When the toggalier and flight engineer saw the ball of fire streaming from the burning # 2 engine just four feet away, they elected to jump out the main hatch in the rear. Hal held the nose hatch open while his navigator jumped out and then he himself jumped into the wall of fire.
"I jumped out, and made it just fine. We were over enemy territory, and we were at 25,000 feet. For those of you that don't know, at 25,000 feet even in August the temperature is 50 below zero, inside and outside, and that's pretty chilly! You don't touch anything without leaving some skin behind. So you had to wear gloves and that kind of thing. One of the worst things is that you are flying with an oxygen mask on from the time you're at 10,000 feet and up, till the time you hit 10,000 feet again, and on occasion I've sat in that seat for eleven hours and never moved except to fly formation and fight with enemy fighters and flak. So, we went out at 25,000 feet, which is kind of cold. They would machine-gun us from the ground while we were hanging in our parachutes, which was kind of tacky. Here we are defenseless in a parachute and they would fire their machine-guns up at us. Knowing that I delayed my drop for four miles, so I dropped 20,000 feet or better, freefalling at 60 ft per second per second, which ends up being 120mph. Four miles takes two minutes to fall - hold your breath for two minutes and see how long that is - it's a pretty long fall, and it gets really quiet! The only thing I could hear was the flapping of my flight suit. I was laying on my back with my arms and legs up in the breeze, and all I could hear was my suit flapping in the wind."
"The first thing I thought was, 'Those son of a guns are going to get my candy!' Back in the barracks my mother had sent me these big Hershey bars, I think they cost a quarter, and I kept them in a musette bag and hung it from the rafters in case any rats tried to get into it, at least I'd make it tough for them to get to it. So I'm falling there looking up to see that everyone got out and I thought, 'Well, those son of a guns will get my candy.' And they did, but they didn't get my uniforms and the rest of my gear - which was common practice because when a crew went down - we lived in Quonset huts with eleven guys - if you didn't come back they would come back in and get your stuff - socks, shoes, coats and stuff, but they didn't get mine. The only thing I can presume is apparently when I was 22 years old I wasn't the kindly old gentleman I am now, and they said, 'If anybody is going to get out of there its Weekley, and I don't want to be wearing his clothes when he gets back!' I was the first man to escape from Europe to my Bomb Group, so when I got back I went to the unit supply building and all my stuff was there in a box - they didn't even send it back to the States. I guess my reputation proceeded me."
"After I opened my parachute the first thing I did - I was falling on my shoulder and I was wearing a brand new pair of British escape boots that I wanted to retain, and I was afraid that when I opened my chute my legs would snap down and I would lose my boots, and I didn't want to be walking very far without any boots. So I tried to move my position around with my head up and my feet down. Well I ended up in a spin and I realized immediately that I hadn't improved myself at all. So I threw my arms out to stabilize myself and then I pulled the chute and it opened. I had thought it was going to be a pretty bad shock, but it really wasn't. I ended up landing in a triangular flax field, surrounded by trees on two sides and a road on the other side. So as I came down I thought, 'Well, that wasn't so bad!' But then I hit the ground and I said, 'Jiminy Christmas!!!' I'll never forget that because I knew I hit hard!"
"After I hit, two young boys came over to me and I asked them where the Germans were, and they pointed one way and I went the other. I gave them my parachute, which they took off with. They told me to meet them at a nearby church steeple that evening. So I went over to a thicket - we got up early in the mornings, usually about 3 o'clock, and here it is 1 o'clock in the afternoon on a Sunday - so I saw that thicket and decided to rest there. What I did was take my shirt - I had a tan-colored 1505 - so I took my shirt off and went inside this thicket and hung it up. Then I went outside and looked in and couldn't see it so I thought, 'Well, this is a good place. They can't see me!' So I went back in and put my shirt on and lay down and tried to take a nap because it was in the middle of the night and I wanted to conserve my energy. There was no sense in thrashing around."
"That evening I went back to the church. I didn't locate those boys, but I found a man and his wife and a little girl. I identified myself and put my hands up - I didn't have a weapon or anything. They said, 'Parachutist?' I said, 'No, bomber pilot.' I didn't want them to think I was a paratrooper. Those guys had a reputation for being hard; I was hard, but not that hard! Well, they said, 'Come with us.' Now, you had to be careful because there was a French Underground and a German Underground. The German Underground would turn you in to the Germans for something like $500. So I looked them over and thought, "Well, let's give it a shot.' So I went with them."
"So they took me to the mayor of this town, Monsieur Dubois (sp?), he was in the leather business, but he was the mayor of this little town Brachy. He and his wife met me, and they put me up in their attic. They had a long home with a beautiful garden outside. They put me up in this little white room about ten by ten, and everything was white - the floor, the walls, the ceiling, the bed, the table, the chair - everything was white, so you knew darn well it was clean. I was there for two days because they were making my identification papers. I had two little photos of myself in my escape kit that they used. My name was Ernest Borden. I owned a little house in Créto, about halfway between there and the Seine River."
"The second day after receiving the identification papers a gentleman named Pierre Brasi came to me and he had two bicycles. So we proceeded south on the bicycles, but before we left I purchased some clothes with my escape money from the neighbor lady, whose son was forced into slave labor by the Germans. So I had on me my dog tags for identification, my hack watch, and a silver identification bracelet. Well I needed the hack watch I thought, and I needed the identification tags because I was an officer in civilian clothes, and if we were caught I needed my identification so I wouldn't get shot. I gave the bracelet to Pierre for helping me."
"We went down to the town of Yvetot, which was pretty much a central location. It was a railroad and highway crossroads just north of Rouen. I was in Yvetot for some time - I worked on a farm there. I associated with the Germans quite a bit. They would come in off the road in the evening and have dinner at the table across from me and the family I was with in the little restaurant. When I worked on the farm harvesting wheat and harvesting hay, the Germans would camp around the perimeter in the trees during the day because the Allied fighters would blow them apart if they were caught in the open. So I worked around Germans quite a bit, and there were some close calls. The French children were proud to have an American officer staying with them, and sometimes they weren't as careful as they should have been, bragging to their friends. Pretty soon I had to leave, because collaborators were shot on sight if they were found to be harboring the enemy."
For his own safety and that of the family, Hal left the farm and was moved into a town, where he stayed with a bachelor who was the equivalent of the area's district attorney. This man was a French fighter pilot at the beginning of the war until France surrendered to Germany; he later became a judge during the Nuremberg Trials. He kept Hal hidden safely for many days, until the German soldiers finally left the town. The celebration ended all too soon when word came back that 3,000 German troops were coming back to retake the town. Hal decided it was time to move on.
"I stole a girl's bicycle and rode south to Caudebec, which is on the Seine River. I had been holed up in that room for several days and I had tried to keep in shape because you never knew when you might need some muscle. But I was pedaling that girl's bicycle up and down hills and it started getting to me pretty good. I thought, 'Boy, if I get to the top of the next hill there ain't much more I can do!' Finally I got to the top of that hill and it was all down hill to the river. I coasted down to the river and found that the bridges were all gone, but a boat came across and it was the Canadian spearhead of the British Eighth Army. I identified myself and they took me to an intelligence officer. He took me to the Eighth Army HQ and I briefed them on what I knew. I was transferred down the line after some more briefings and eventually got passage back to England on a C-47 after helping the crew unload some drop tanks."
Hal was taken to Eighth Air Force Headquarters near London and interviewed about his experiences there. While being debriefed, the area was hit with V-2 rockets. Hal thought he had gone from the frying pan into the fire. "In time they sent me back to the States, on a C-54, which was not what I wanted to do. Once again, I got the exact opposite of what I wanted. I wanted to start out with a milk run and I got Berlin. I wanted to go back to the States on a ship where I could relax for a while, and they sent me back on an airplane. I really thought I was pushing my luck!"
Hal got back to the US and was debriefed once again, this time at the Pentagon. Finally he was given leave to go home and visit his wife. He boarded a packed train and headed for Ohio. "I got to the station about 4 o'clock in the morning, having left the previous evening. I got to a phone and called my wife and said, 'Open the door - I'm coming in!' That's the first she had heard from me since I was shot down. So I got a taxicab and went home. When I got there my wife was standing on the porch looking very pregnant, but beautiful as ever. Our son was born October 24th, and I was there for that."
When his leave came to an end, seemingly all too quickly, Hal was sent to Miami Beach, Florida for processing. "They decided I was a bit 'flak happy,' so they sent me to the Fitzsimmons Hospital in Aurora, Colorado for some rest and relaxation. I was there for a few weeks and had a fine time. When it was time to report for duty I had my choice of where to go," Hal states with a grin. "Since I was an evadee, our group was one of Hap Arnold's 'Little Boys,' so to speak, and the whole thing changed. They said, 'Where would you like to go, Lieutenant?' I said, 'Well, Columbus, Ohio and Lockbourne Army Air Field is only 150 miles from home, how about there?' So they sent me there as an instructor."
Hal was only at Lockbourne for a short while before asking for a transfer. The B-17's were a different machine in the wintertime, when even trying to run up an engine could be treacherous if the hardstand was covered in ice. After having all four of the superchargers fail on a takeoff, Hal decided it was time to head for a warmer climate. "I asked them if there was someplace warmer I could go, and they told me they needed T-6 instructors at Montgomery to train French pilots. I said, 'Okay.' So I was at Montgomery when the war ended."
When asked to summarize his experiences during WWII, Hal explained, "The whole thing was a tremendous experience. You're here one day and the next you're not. So you just did the best you could. If things were in your favor you made it and if not, well…Was it God, or was it luck? What was it? You just can't tell…"
After the war Hal continued his career with the Air Force, retiring as a jet instructor after 26 years of service. He then joined the FAA as an Operations Inspector, which kept him busy for 14 years before retirement. Hal was instrumental in the restoration of the EAA's B-17 "Aluminum Overcast," and began flying it in 1979 as one of its chief pilots. In the late 1980s "Aluminum Overcast" was up for a second restoration, and with Hal's urging, the 398th Bomb Group Association sponsored the restoration of the airplane in 398th Bomb Group colors. In honor of Hal's service to the US and to the 398th, the Association and EAA had the airplane painted in the markings and identification of the 601st Bomb Squadron ship that Hal and his crew were flying when they were shot down over France on August 13th, 1944, complete with the same serial number, 2102516, the call letter "H," and the 601st squadron code "3 O." Thanks to Hal and the other EAA B-17 pilots, as well as the EAA mechanics, B-17 tour coordinators, and EAA host chapters, "Aluminum Overcast" is one of the most popular aircraft in the AirVenture Museum inventory, and can be seen flying all over the US during its nationwide flying tour from April to November.
Hal has the distinction of being the only B-17 Aircraft Commander to fly a B-17 in two millennia. He has been one of the chief touring pilots with EAA's B-17 for over two decades. In 1999 Hal had the unique opportunity to return to France and visit with some of the people who had helped him evade capture by the Germans. He met with relatives of the boys he had given his parachute to, and he met the daughter of Pierre Brasi, the man who he had give his silver identification bracelet to as a gift of thanks. She in turn gave the bracelet back to Hal, and he still wears it today. In 1998 the town of Lammerville, France erected a monument dedicated to the 398th Bomb Group and Hal's crew, and Hal was able to visit the monument during his trip. After 24 years of flying for EAA, Hal flew his last flight in "Aluminum Overcast" during EAA AirVenture 2001. He retired from flying B-17s with 58 years of experience and some 5000 hours of pilot in command time in the airplane. If you ever meet Col. Harold "Hal" Weekley, shake his hand and tell him, "Thank you!"
Hal's experience is just one of many interesting stories in the Timeless Voices archive.
- Weekley's Crew - 601st Squadron - Early 1944
- Weekley's Crew - 601st Squadron - 8 July 1944
- 398th Mission Listing: 21 June 1944: Berlin, Germany
- 398th Mission Listing: 13 August 1944: Le Manoir, France
- The Last of the Combat B-17 Drivers by Col. Harold D. Weekley, USAF (Ret.) and James B. Zazas, Publisher: AtlasBooks, Softback ISBN: 978-0-9785980-0-6, Hardback ISBN: 978-0-9785980-1-3, Library of Congress Catalog No. 2006926673. The Last of the Combat B-17 Drivers is available in the 398th PX.
- Timeless Voices of Aviation
- Return to 398th Timeless Voices Interviews to view and listen to the interview.
- Lt. Hal Weekley was the Pilot of his own 601st Squadron crew.