World War II Experiences
"Timeless Voices" Oral History Project
Jim White, 398th Bomb Group Co-Pilot
600th Squadron, Eighth Air Force
Interviewer: Don Christensen
Interview conducted at the
398th Bomb Group Annual Reunion
Phoenix, Arizona, November 29, 2007
The 398th has been interviewing its members as part of the Timeless Voices of Aviation project. 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.
Jim White, 398th Bomb Group Co-Pilot
600th Squadron, Eighth Air Force
DC: Interviewer, Don Christensen
JW: 398th Co-Pilot, Jim White
Time of Interview: 1:03:17
DC: All right. Good morning! We’re here at the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association reunion in Phoenix, Arizona. Today is November 29, 2007. I am Don Christensen, and would you please introduce yourself?
JW: Sure. My name is Jim White. I was the Co-Pilot on Grinter [2nd Lt. Donald Grinter, Pilot] crew of the 600th Bomb Squadron.
DC: Thank you, Jim. Where were you born and raised?
JW: I was born in Los Angeles and raised in Santa Monica, California. Went to high school there. I actually joined the—volunteered for the Air Corps Pilot, or Cadet Training while I was still in high school. Two weeks after graduation I was called up, and I guess I was about eighteen and a half by that time. And went to Lincoln, Nebraska; then to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa for what they call the College Training Detachment; warehousing us for a while. Ultimately to Santa Ana Pre-flight Base [Santa Ana Army Air Base] in California.
DC: Right. What year was it that you joined?
JW: I joined, actually, December 2, 1942, approximately one year after Pearl Harbor, and I was called to active duty, I don’t know the exact date but it was near the end of February 1943.
DC: Right, right.
JW: I’m sorry—yeah, ’43. Yeah, February of ’43.
DC: So, you volunteered and enlisted?
JW: Yes, I went right into Cadets.
DC: And this was right out of high school?
JW: Right out of high school.
JW: Yep. Eighteen years old.
DC: Right! So, okay, so— Santa Ana for Pre-Flight?
JW: That’s right.
DC: I guess quite a few fellows went there.
JW: Oh, yeah, that was a big base there. I have no idea how many cadets were there, but at that base they gave us all the psychological and physical tests. And, of course, some boys were washed out there, but those of us who survived, I think it was about three months at Santa Ana, learning how to march and salute and, more or less, military etiquette and some basic weather and flying information that we would need later on.
DC: Did you have Basic Training before the college training?
DC: No? You went straight to college?
JW: I went right straight to Drake University from Lincoln, Nebraska, where I first went. I was at Drake University also for about three months.
DC: Uh huh!
JW: And there we had Morse—we learned Morse Code. And I don’t remember exactly how many words per minute, but it was something like six or ten words per minute that the pilots had to know in Morse Code. And same thing at Santa Ana.
DC: Uh—did—was it at Santa Ana that they determined—
DC: —that you would go to be a— [to] pilot school?
JW: Yes. They took the physical and mental and psychological testing we did there and, somehow, decided you were either ready for pilot training, bombardier or navigator.
DC: And they also taught you how to march, didn’t they? (laughs)
JW: Oh, absolutely! We marched, and when we weren’t marching we were running; ran everywhere!
DC: Uh huh.
DC: And then, after Santa Ana, where did you go for Pre-Flight?
JW: From Santa Ana I went—being a California boy, I was lucky—I went to Visalia, California, which is up around the Fresno area, and at a small private Flight School called Sequoia Field, and it was almost like being in a small college. We had, like, five guys to a room. Nice barracks! I mean they were actually like a motel room. Great grounds around us and, instead of a landing runway or runways in different directions, it was a big rectangular landing pad so that, whichever direction the wind was blowing, you could land directly into the wind. And, at that—in those air planes we—I flew the Ryan PT-22, which was the low-wing Army trainer at the time, and it did have the advantage of being one of the basic trainers, the only basic trainer, that had flaps, so that we learned to use the flaps in slowing the airplane down for landing and that sort of thing.
DC: Is that where you first, where you learned to solo?
JW: Yes! Now, my recollection was, if you didn’t solo in about six or seven or eight hours, you were out! And, as I recall, I soloed at about four and a half hours in the PT-22. That was an open cockpit; we had to wear helmets and goggles and scarves and the leather jackets and the whole schmear; and it was really a fun airplane to fly. We learned acrobatics; loops, barrel rolls, snap rolls, spins; all kinds of acrobatic maneuvers.
DC: And this is the first flight training you’d ever had?
JW: First. The only thing I’d been off the ground in—I won a contest when I was about ten or twelve selling the old Hollywood Star newspaper, and that [prize] was a free ride in the Goodyear Blimp (laughs) when I was about ten or twelve, and I’m sure that blimp is no longer around. That was a long time ago, back in the ’30s.
DC: All right.
DC: So, that—and then where did you go from there?
JW: Yeah, just one thing at that Visalia, there was no radio communications. The instructor pilot sat in the front seat and he had what was called a gosport; he had a, like, a microphone up to his face, and the tube went back and went into the ears or our helmets and he could scream at us if we did something wrong but we couldn’t talk back. It was one-way communications and that was kind of fun. If, you know, if he thought you were not doing something right, he’d chew you out.
Anyway, there was—in order to land you had to get a green light from the tower. Everything was by light signals. If it was red it meant don’t land; yellow or orange, whatever it was, was caution; and green was okay to land. And a lot of the students, pilots, you know, get kind of flustered and landed when they shouldn‘t have, and things like that. In fact, I almost washed out of Flying School in Primary trying to learn how to do what’s called “flying eights” around a pylon. On the upwind side you had to have a very shallow turn and on the downwind side of the pylon you had a steeper turn because the wind was blowing you away from the pylon, and the idea was to maintain some, more or less, equal distance from the pylons as you’re going in this figure eight thing.
Anyway, my instructor turned me over; these were civilian instructors; turned me over to the Army Check Pilot. A real Captain and a real tough guy, and I was, you know, really shaking in my boots. Anyway, I passed and finally went on to Basic training and that was at, again, in California; at Chico, California [Chico Army Airfield], up north of Sacramento. A beautiful field there, and we flew the BT-13. It was called the “Vultee Vibrator”—
DC: Right, right.
JW: —because it rattled, and when you were upside down the dust and dirt would fall down in your face. It was, it was, again, a fun airplane to fly and I think it was, oh, maybe in my early hours in that airplane where I really felt that I became a pilot. I could sense everything and I greased it on [referring to a “greased landing” which is a very smooth landing], and from there on I figured—prior to that I was flying, more or less, mechanically, but once I was in Basic and landed a few times and felt like I really knew what I was doing, that’s where I felt I became a pilot.
DC: All right.
DC: Yeah—and then at Advanced Pilot Training?
JW: Advanced Pilot Training we went to Douglas, Arizona [Douglas Army Air Field], which is right on the border of Mexico.
JW: A little Mexican town across the border called Agua Prieta. And, again, beautiful weather there. We—especially if you were flying in the early hours in the morning, it was fantastic weather. The sky was very smooth and we did have a lot of night training, both at Chico, which I didn’t mention, and at Douglas. And one of the things that sticks in my memory was the way they stacked us. We would have, if you could visualize a quadrant with four different quads, and there were three levels of BT-13s—and at Chico we did have radio communication—and they would say, Low Quadrant A; okay, you go up coming in and do your dive, and do whatever maneuvers you were supposed to do. And, sometimes, the guy in the high element would [make a] mistake and dive down through. And why there weren’t accidents, which there probably were, but at least not while I was there. Extremely dangerous thing! (laughs)
JW: And that was at night. And then, of course, at Douglas, one of our favorite pastimes on our cross-country—this was a twin engine airplane I flew at Douglas; the Curtiss AT-9. It was called The Chief. It was a fighter trainer. Actually, I was trained to be a P-38 pilot, and [with] that particular airplane [AT-9], they said if you could fly that you could fly anything. And at night we, on our cross-countries, our favorite pastime was to, at two in the morning, fly low over Tuscon—
JW: —and run our engines through and try to wake everybody up. (laughs)
DC: Right. What—when did you first realize that you were being trained for a B-17?
JW: Not until I graduated and got my wings and my Second Lieutenant commission at Douglas, Arizona.
DC: And what class was that?
JW: That was the class of ’44 D. That would have been April of 1944. Then I was assigned to—again, I went back to Lincoln, Nebraska, where there was an assembling of crews, and all that, and assignments, and so forth, and met Grinter [2nd Lt. Donald Grinter, Pilot]. And together we selected the crew members that were going to be on our plane. And I forget how long we were at Lincoln at that time, but it was at least several days, and there we boarded the train and went to Sioux City, Iowa [Sioux City Army Air Base], as a crew, ten guys; four officers and six enlisted. And at Sioux City is where—well, in the interim, that’s right—I should back up a little bit—after Douglas I did, they did assign me to Yuma Army Air Base which was a gunnery training school, but it also trained pilots to fly B-17s. So, as we were learning to fly the B-17, the gunners were shooting at targets, and so forth, so that it was a dual training thing. So, from there we went to Lincoln, Nebraska.
But from Lincoln we went on to Sioux City, Iowa, as a crew, and trained there for about, again, about three months. And we made long simulated bombing missions of, like, Fargo, North Dakota, and other places just to get the experience of night—that was mostly night missions. And, of course, gunnery—a low level gunnery in a B-17 was something; shooting those .50 calibers! And the pilots, at least in the group I was training with, had to fly in every position and shoot the guns in every position, to kind of get the feeling for what it was like to be in that particular spot when you’re in the air. So, it was, that was a fun time.
And we finally, after about three months there at Sioux City, Iowa—one other thing that was always so interesting to me, especially on weekends, as we were coming back from training missions, the field was just surrounded by trucks and old cars and things. All the local people, the farmers and interested people, would come and watch us take off and land on weekends. I guess they were working during the week and could only make it on Saturday or Sunday, but we always had a big audience there watching us coming in and taking off.
JW: So from—
DC: Could I—
DC: —can I just ask you, what was the maximum altitude you trained there?
JW: We got up to about 28,000 feet and that—actually, those were bombing missions with those bombs that were loaded with flour and stuff. I don’t recall dropping any actually explosive bombs there. We may have. I just don’t remember it. But I do know we dropped a lot of the stuff that was just a bag of flour, or something like that, so you could see where it hit. And that was it.
DC: Okay. And then from Sioux City?
JW: Yeah, we went back to Lincoln, Nebraska again, and at Lincoln we were assigned a brand new B-17. And the two pilots, the radio operator and the flight—the crew chief on the—the flight engineer [Cpl. Louis J. Stoffer, Engineer] we called him, on the crew, we had to take the airplane [and] calibrate all of the instruments. In other words, the instruments that were installed had to be adjusted for altitude for the altimeters and direction for the magnetic compasses, and all that kind of stuff, so that was several hours of flying to get that done. And then we finally got our orders ordering us to fly this air—brand new airplane to Prestwick, Scotland [Prestwick Airport: HQ Air Transport Command, Eastern European Wing]. We took off midmorning, as I recall, and flew all the way up to Goose Bay. No! We first stopped in Grenier Field, New Hampshire. That’s right. And at Grenier Field they gave us our .45 caliber pistols and all of our escape kits and maps of Europe that were on—which I still have—were on kind of a silk material so they would fold up very fine and you could keep them in your pocket if you were shot down and had to escape out of Germany or France.
And from, I think we were just like overnight, maybe two days, in Grenier Field, and from there we flew to Goose Bay, Labrador [RCAF Station Goose Bay], and that was really a small outpost. I mean it was remote! But, in the Officers’ Club, which wasn’t even as big as this room I’m in here, there was a great big black baby grand piano, or a grand piano, and Marlena Dietrich was singing in the Officers’ Club. So, I got to meet Marlena Dietrich! By that time, I was 20, just barely 20—it was in—this time I’m speaking of now would have been August, late August of 1944 and I was 20 in July so, just barely 20 when we flew across the Atlantic! But anyway, Marlena was there and we listened to her and we, of course, drank too much and got up in the morning with, kind of, hangovers, and from Goose Bay, Labrador our next spot was Reykjavik, Iceland [Reykjavik Airport aka RAF Reykjavik]. And during the war the Icelanders sympathized with the Nazis—
JW: —and they prohibited us from going into the town of Reykjavik because they were afraid we might get beat up or shot, or whatever, so we were restricted to the Base. But I could see the city across the water. I don’t know whether it was a bay, or whatever it was, water between the air base and the actual city of Reykjavik. And so, we were just there overnight and the weather happened to be pretty good so we took off the next morning from Reykjavik and headed to Prestwick, Scotland. And as we took off—we had our navigator by the way, he was doing the navigating, and this was—once we got up over the water, obviously, there’s no landmarks to look at so he had to navigate us by using sun shots.
JW: And don’t ask me how that works— (laughs)
DC: (laughs) Right.
JW: —because—but it’s a very complicated system of navigation. And behind us took off a B-24, probably a couple of minutes later, or five minutes later, or something, and the B-24 was slightly faster in the air than a B-17, so they were gradually gaining on our plane. And they were on a slightly more northerly heading, you know, like two degrees or three degrees, something like that. It wasn’t a major thing, but over a period of a half hour to an hour they were getting further ahead of us and more to the north of us, and we knew that one of us was wrong! But we had confidence in our navigator. He happened to be a graduate. He had passed his bar exam, and all that. He was already a lawyer. Very smart guy! Went on to become a supreme court judge in South Carolina. Harry Agnew [2nd Lt. Harry Agnew, Navigator] was his name. But anyway, we kept watching this B-24 and worrying who’s right, because there was no radio communication during the war over the Pacific—over the Atlantic Ocean. So, I never did know what happened to that B-24, but they may have run out of gas and had to land in occupied France or Belgium, or somewhere along there.
But anyway, we made it to Prestwick, Scotland and we had to have the IFF; that’s Identification Friend or Foe, which is like a transponder we use in airplanes today. But, every day we had a code we had to plug into this IFF equipment and the British gunners that were around Prestwick, of course, and Glasgow Harbor, and all that, were trigger happy! And we were down—we had to get down—and by the time we got to Scotland the weather was really bad and we had to get down, you know, maybe 500 feet or something like that. We were pretty low. And we were really sweating it out. If that IFF equipment wasn’t working they’d shoot us down! So—but, obviously, we landed. And, unfortunately, that’s the last time we saw that airplane. I’m sure it went to a Colonel somewhere. (laughs) Got his brand new airplane that we flew across for him.
But the one thing, landing there in Scotland, the first thing that we did the next day was go change some money to get British pounds and stuff, and, as you probably know, British money during the war was much wider and bigger than our dollar bills, so they had special wallets. So, we all bought a wallet and I’m sure that we got ripped off. Anyway, the one impression I had of Prestwick was that all the young girls who we were, of course, watching, had rosy cheeks and that was because of that cold, cold wind—
JW: —blowing across. And we, they put the officers up in some castle. I don’t remember the name of it, but it was, you know, a medieval-type place. Very interesting. And then, within a couple of days, we were on our way to the replacement camp near Stone, England. And there—
DC: Was that by train?
JW: Yeah, by train, to Stone, England, as a crew. All ten of us. And got off, gave them our orders transferring us there, and all that kind of stuff, the technical things, and we were sitting there—and sitting there—and all of sudden, two weeks go by—three weeks go by—and our crew, we were getting stir crazy! They wouldn’t let us off the base. So, Grinter and I went in and talked to the CO [Commanding Officer] about giving us a weekend pass to get out of this place until you assign us somewhere.
He says, “Who the hell are you guys?!” They didn’t even know we were there! I could have probably spent the rest of the war sitting there at Stone, (laughs) waiting to be assigned to a squadron somewhere, or crew. But anyway, once we went in there and requested a pass, of course they found their orders and right away we were shipped out to Nuthampstead, again by train, and arrived at Nuthampstead. And that’s pretty much my experience of crossing the Atlantic and getting to the base at Nuthampstead.
DC: And what, what month was that?
JW: That would have been early September.
JW: Yeah. Of ’44.
DC: Right. Right, so your—well, luckily your crossing was then—
DC: —was in the summer.
JW: Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah it was, but until we got—like I said, going from Goose Bay to Reykjavik, as I recall, the weather was pretty good, but from Reykjavik to Glasgow—as we were approaching Glasgow the weather really deteriorated and we had to get way down because there were no radio frequencies we could home in on. And at that point we had maps, of course, and we could locate the city and then the airport, and that sort of thing, to land at Prestwick.
DC: So, when you—when you reached Nuthampstead, what sort of training did you receive before your first mission?
JW: Okay. We had at least three weeks, as I recall, of training; flying up to the Wash and practice bombing and gunnery practice and formation; making sure we were trained properly in flying formation which, as you know, the closer the planes could fly together the more protection from the group as a whole against enemy fighters. And Col. Hunter [Colonel Frank P. Hunter, Jr., 398th Commander], and especially our—at that time our Squadron Commander was Capt. Douglas [Capt. Gene L. Douglas, Pilot], as I recall, and he insisted on really putting your wing right almost in the window of the waist gunner on your opposite side, whichever wing you were flying on. So we did a lot of formation flying practice and gunnery and practice bombing, and that sort of thing, for at least two to three weeks, something like that. It was, as I recall, early October when we flew our first mission.
DC: What do you—what do you recall about that first mission?
JW: Well… Grinter and I, well the whole crew, we drank too much when we were there. And Grinter fell off his bicycle and broke his wrist, so I flew with another pilot for the first four missions. I don’t remember his name now, but he was finishing up and Grinter couldn’t fly because of his broken wrist, or at least sprained, or whatever it was. So—and that was over—we went to Cologne four times in a row—
JW: —or three times, and then the fourth mission, or the fifth, Grinter was back on the crew. And, at that point, I was the senior pilot! (laughs) I had the combat experience, so I flew the bomb run and all— and Grinter did have big eyes; nice looking man but had big eyes—and with our flak helmets and those goggles and the leather and, you know, we were all bundled up—and the flak vest in front. All I can remember—him on the intercom. He looked over at me and said, he said, “Jim, are they always like this?” (laughs) And I said, “No, Don! This is [unintelligible soundbite] over Cologne.” which is one of the worst targets.
DC: Lot of flak?
JW: Lot of flak over Cologne, yeah!
DC: How about fighters?
JW: No, on that mission we were only attacked—by this time, you know, we had escort; P-51s, P-47s and some P-38s on shorter runs. So, at least—we were only attacked, as I recall, about three or four times in my 17 missions that I flew. And, fortunately, none of the attacks were directed at our airplane. You know, they may have flown into a low squadron or the high squadron, or whatever, but never—we were never the target as far as I know. At least we never got an airplane close enough that we really felt threatened. And our tail gunner [Cpl. John Contento, Tail Gunner], if he saw a plane coming up on our rear end, he started shooting if the guy was a mile away just to let him know there was somebody awake back there. So we were—we had a really good crew. But anyway—so, Grinter was back with us on our fifth mission and from there on our crew was together for another, maybe, few missions and then our navigator, who I mentioned was such an intelligent good navigator, was pulled off our crew to make Squadron Lead Navigator, so we flew the rest of the missions with only nine men on the crew, not ten. And that’s, that’s about it. I don’t know if you—the main missions that I remember, out of my 17, were Cologne, at least four times, I think it might have been five, and to Merseburg, at least three times—
JW: —it might have been four, because Merseburg was where the Leuna Oil Refineries were and that was, of course, a primary target to blow up all of their refining capabilities; gasoline producing facilities for aircraft and tanks and whatever they used it for. So that, but, and—I did fly one mission to Berlin. Our target there was Tempelhof Airport which, I guess, is still the main, one of the main airports in Berlin [closed in 2008]. It was a, of course, a military—Nazi German military facility during the war and that’s what our target was in Berlin.
DC: How did you feel your training in the states prepared you for your missions in Europe?
JW: Well, uh, I think it was very, very good! The only thing is, we were so unrealistic about our survival possibility. Somehow we didn’t think, you know, I think this was true of probably most crews, that they were going to get hurt or shot down or anything. And it wasn’t a case of skill! You could be the—well, take our Col. Hunter being shot down. Couldn’t be a better pilot than Col. Hunter! And you can’t see those eighty-eights [shells from a German 88 mm anti-aircraft/anti-tank artillery gun] coming at you until they explode! Fighters you can see, but the eighty-eights come up and BOOM! They’re right outside your window! So it—I—it, it made me pretty fatalistic, that if your name was on there, there was nothing you could do about it. You could be the chief pilot, head pilot of the whole bunch, and you’d still get shot down.
DC: What do you think was the scariest moment for you, or scariest mission?
JW: Well, we had a couple—several. I mean there was never a mission we didn’t get back without holes in the airplane from the shrapnel. But one time a piece of shrapnel came up through the navigator’s compartment and hit the throttle quadrants between the pilots, about six inches—it ended up about six inches from my left leg! And that was the landing where we had—all of our hydraulic fluid was lost and we had to make a no-brakes landing, which I have pictures of. Somebody on the ground took these pictures, obviously, not me. But they have pictures of after we landed with the parachutes still inflated; one out of the tail gun compartment, that caught, and they threw one, the gunners threw one out of the waist window, but that one fouled up over the tail and didn’t inflate. But the one out of the tail [did] and we really felt it slow the airplane down. But, in order to stop, we actually rolled off one wheel into the mud to actually stop us, because we probably would have gone off the end of the runway—
JW: —otherwise. And then, another mission a piece of shrapnel hit an oxygen tank which was right behind the pilots, on both sides, which I guess [were] our oxygen tanks, and it was very close to the top turret. But anyway, when the shrapnel hit that, it exploded! I mean it made one hell of a noise! And, you know, naturally your thinking, What the—What’s going on? Did we blow up or what’s happening? But it didn’t really cause any harm other than—the oxygen was pretty well out of that tank anyway, so we had plenty of oxygen to get back, but I think that was on one of the trips to Merseburg that that happened.
DC: Yeah. Did, uh—what was the age of—the average age of your crew?
JW: I was the second youngest. Our ball turret gunner [Cpl. William Davidson, Ball Turret] was, you know, like six months younger than me and the rest of the crew were in the early 20’s. Our radio operator [Sgt. Harold Johnson, Radio]—Grinter was one year older than me. Our radio operator was the old man and he was 24. The rest were in between.
DC: So, you were 20 and Grinter was 21?
JW: And the ball turret gunner was still 19; like, six months younger than me. But fortunately—well, I’ll get into the—our crash that ended my—
DC: Oh, yeah!
JW: — tour of duty over there.
DC: So, this was your 17th mission over there?
JW: On our18th mission.
JW: —was when we crashed. So, you want me to tell you about that?
JW: It was Christmas Eve, 1944. That’s during the Battle of the Bulge where von Runstedt [Field Marshall Gerd von Runstedt] had broken through and the 8th Air Force was—had not flown, I think, from around the 15th of December until Christmas Eve, the 24th. And knowing, if you know England, you know that there’s hills and dales and you can have fog in one area, clear in another, and so forth. And this was, because of the Battle of the Bulge, a maximum effort, so you took off no matter what. And here we are, flying this beat up old airplane that we’d been assigned; had the tail pretty well shot off, and holes through it, and repairs to the hydraulics. It was—the engines were not perfect and it was a full bomb and gas load! Front line support mission to somewhere around Bastogne area, you know, in the front lines at the time.
JW: And we lined up and planes were taking off at 30-second intervals and one airplane had crashed ahead of us. I forget the—I think it—Zimmerman was his name. But anyway, there was one plane that crashed quite a distance from the airfield and had caught on fire, obviously, and blown up, and so forth, and I think most of those guys were killed. At least, that’s what I heard. And then it was an instrument takeoff. Grinter and I agreed that I would get us down the runway, because I had to keep my head out of that cockpit looking at the edge of the runway—
JW: — so we wouldn’t run off into the dirt, and he would concentrate, keep his head in the cockpit, on the instruments so that once we were airborne he would take over then fly on instruments out of the fog. Well, I certainly don’t blame Grinter, but I have a feeling that he must have been, kind of, second guessing me a little bit. But I did get us down the runway and airborne and then he was supposed to take over, because bringing my head into the cockpit, I might have been—had a little vertigo there for—but I could see our left wing. It looked like it was almost ready to scrape the ground. I think we probably were 20 feet in the air, something like that. But I hit right rudder to bring that wing up and WHAM! We hit the trees!
DC: This is at the end of the runway?
JW: Right at the end of the runway. Thank goodness it was the end of the runway! Anyway, the wing was sheared off on my side and I—the pilots, have three-eighths armor-plating behind our seats, plus Stoffer, Louie Stoffer [Cpl. Louis J. Stoffer, Engineer], our flight engineer, was riding standing behind me when we took off—so, the weight of that armor-plating plus me plus Stoffer hitting my seat, broke my seat off and I went up under the instrument panel—
JW: —and I can remember pushing back with my left leg and I just fell out on the ground. And that’s, as you know, even without the wheels down a B-17 is six or eight feet off the ground. But anyway, I hit and the first thing I realized when I, kind of was conscious, was my right foot was on my cheek! It was a compound fracture. Huge broken bones and, you know, bleeding all over the place. So, my tail gunner [Cpl. John Contento, Tail Gunner], who had been riding in the radio room, wasn’t injured and he came running around and pulled me out of the immediate fire. Airplanes start burning right away. And the .50 calibers were, what they called, “cooking off.” They explode and that’s dangerous because the shell casing goes one way and [gestures in two different directions]. Anyway, he got me out of the fire.
DC: How did—how did he get you out?
JW: He—just drug me away.
DC: Through the window or—?
JW: No! I was laying there on the ground.
DC: Oh! Oh, on the ground!
JW: My left leg was up on the side of the airplane and my right leg was laying on my face! So, anyway—and then he went back to try to get two of the other boys who were trapped in the plane, who were both killed. The bombardier and the guy who was training to be a navigator They were both killed in the crash. But, anyway, by that time some of the guys from the ground, you know ground personnel, came running over and they drug me further away because they knew the airplane was going to explode any minute. And I don’t know how far we were away from the plane, but I don’t think it was more than 50 feet or so, when that thing blew! And these two guys were dragging me by my parachute harness on the ground as far away from the plane as possible, and when that concussion hit them they just flew in the air. It just blew them away. I don’t know what ever happened to them. But I was—my head was right on the ground practically, so the concussion didn’t bother me. But I did see this billowing gasoline-type firework—goes all over. It was a heck of an explosion and went up in the air pretty far. But I thought all that stuff was going to fall down on me, and I can remember putting my hands over my eyes and, just [thinking]—This is it! I just knew I was gone! But pebbles and this and that, you know, hit me, but nothing that would hurt me.
So, by that time, some other people had—after the explosion, some other people grabbed—were pulling me, and got me to an ambulance and then to the nearest major hospital, Army hospital. I think it was No.131 or 161 Hospital, and that’s when they brought this boy who was being trained to be our navigator and also worked the cheek guns out of the front of the airplane, and he died along the way somewhere.
JW: The bombardier, who was one of my closest friends on the crew, died in the crash. He was—he was smashed pretty bad from what I heard. I never saw him, of course. So, anyway, that was the end of the war for me. And I remember waking up, that—this all happened, let’s say, around ten o’clock in the morning. The mission had been scrubbed several times, so there was no glycol to get the ice off the wings and that, of course, added more weight and was one of the reasons we couldn’t gain altitude. You know, I still feel, if I hadn’t leveled that airplane, we would have cartwheeled if that wing had touched the ground. But we didn’t gain enough altitude and went right into a forest at the end of the runway.
DC: What do you think your ground speed was at that time?
JW: Hundred and—by that time we were doing 125 miles an hour.
JW: Oh, yeah! But the weight we had on the plane was maximum weight. They just, they gave us fuel for the distance of the mission and, then, whatever else we could carry was bombs. So, this was a fairly close mission into Belgium and that area. It wasn’t to Berlin or Merseburg, or something like that, so we had a maximum—I think it was around five or six thousand pounds of bombs.
JW: And, as I recall, they were high explosive antipersonnel bombs, to drop on the German tanks and troops and stuff.
DC: So, the navigator and bombardier who were—who—
DC: —who perished—
JW: Yes. I still can picture them, right like I’m looking at you, twenty; twenty-one years old. You know, they never aged like you and me.
JW: They’re, in my mind, still twenty years old.
DC: What was the bombardier’s name?
JW: Don—Dick Harrod.
DC: And who was your friend?
JW: That was him. That was the best friend on the—that—we were very compatible. And the other boy who was killed was Sgt. Flores, David Flores [Cpl. David Flores, Waist Gunner/later Navigator)], and he was a Native Indian, some—from somewhere around the Santa Fe, New Mexico, area. Another great young man and, again, he was in his—
DC: He was new to your crew?
JW: No, no!
JW: No, he was part of our original crew. It’s just that we flew for quite a while with only Harrod, the bombardier, in the nose and he could fire the nose guns, but there are two guns out of each side and that’s where the navigator—he’d rotate back and forth, whichever side the planes would [come]. So, we wanted to get another man up there, that’s why—and he had had—he was a washed-up pilot and had had some navigation training and, really, we didn’t need a navigator in the true sense because we were following a bomber stream. Now, if you were—lost an engine, or had to fly back, then you may be a stray-in and have to find your way back, but it was pretty simple. I mean it wasn’t major (laughs)—
JW: —rocket science to figure your way back. Any pilot, good pilot could have done it.
DC: Right. What—then were you sent back to the states then—
DC: —to recuperate?
JW: Well, that’s what I was going to say next. I was—of course they started drugging me up, doping me up, and I don’t remember anything until somewhere late Christmas Eve, say ten o’clock at night, or something like that, and the Ward Boy came by and he says, “Well, you—Lieutenant, you got the million dollar (laughs) —you got the million dollar wound!” Which was true. But I was in the hospital there in England—of course, in those days, when you broke the femur, which is the big bone—
JW: —in your leg, all they did was put, what was called, traction. And they put a pin through the bone around your knee and with weights off the end of the bed, and I was—I only weighed about 140 pounds then. You know, I was in really good shape. And if I moved at all those weights would pull me—
JW: —start pulling me out of bed! And then they were worried about what‘s called “drop foot.” If your other foot—if you don’t walk, if you’re in bed for a long time, you lose the muscles, or something, down there. But anyway, I was in traction there for about three months, into early April, right around Easter in April of ’44. I mean of ’45 by this time. And they finally put me in what’s called a body cast. Now that’s like a metal, an iron suit from your neck to your toes. To go to the bathroom was virtually impossible in that thing! I mean, you can imagine trying to get rid of your, whatever it is, sitting in that damn thing. But anyway, they wrapped me up in that thing and then put me on the C-47 with a bunch of other wounded people.
Oh! One thing at the hospital there in England; when the bombers, and especially the fighters, came back from missions, because the war was still going while I was in the hospital in England, some of the soldiers, Infantry guys from France were being brought back to England to the hospitals there. And a lot of them, when those P-51s would come back low to the ground when there was bad weather, they would actually go nuts! I mean, they were, they were afraid they were German fighters that were going to strafe them. And it was unbelievable!
DC: Oh! These were—these were ground—these were infantry—
JW: These were infantry men—
DC: —so they—they had had it—
JW: —from the front line.
DC: —in the Battle of the Bulge!
JW: That’s right! They were wounded during the Battle of the Bulge, or at least in France somewhere, and brought back to England, and in the hospitals there. Now if—unless they had a serious injury, they were patched up and sent back. And I would have been also but, obviously, I couldn’t fly with a broken leg.
So, anyway—what was the other thing I was—it was something I kind of forgot about there, but this—Oh! I do remember one guy stepped on a mine. This is kind of gruesome. He had stepped on a mine and was just across in the ward from me, and blew his, at least his toe, his big toe and maybe the second toe; the whole thing of his foot was pretty well blown off, and they had to come in and trim the dead flesh off so gangrene, or something—to cleanse the thing. And he would scream! I mean it was unbelievable! Just chilling. And some of us started asking the nurse, who was like, if you saw the program M.A.S.H.—
DC: Mm hm.
JW: —old “Hot Lips” Houlihan.
JW: Well, this woman was a “Hot Lips” Houlihan—cocky nurse, and she says, “Ehhhh—” We wanted this young man to be transferred. There was a private room reserved for colonels and generals and stuff and, “Hey, why don’t you put that guy up there in the room so he doesn’t keep us awake? He’s groaning and moaning and screaming and all that.” And she said, “Hey! We just want you to know that there’s people worse off than you.” And that made sense. I mean, here we were worried about ourselves and pain we had, but there’s people worse than you. But anyway, that, that was one of the things I certainly remember about old “Hot Lips” Houlihan.
JW: And then they put me on that C-47 and we flew up to Prestwick, and [they] took me to Glasgow Harbor on a, one of those little boats that goes out to the main channel, and here was the QE(1), [RMS] Queen Elizabeth (1), which was a troop ship going east and a hospital ship coming back to the United States. So, they put me on there and, of course, I’m flat like a pancake; can’t bend my waist or anything. So, they put me way down on the bottom of the ship.
JW: So here we are, for five days, zigzagging across, dodging submarines, and in my mind I’m thinking, If we take a torpedo—(laughs) that’s why they put me down there! Because there’s no way they could save me! They’d have to save the boys who could walk, or something. But anyway, we made it, and then getting off the boat, either Brooklyn or somewhere around Brooklyn, New York—getting off the QE(1), where I’m walking—there were two prisoners of war; two German prisoners are carrying me down the gangway to the dock. And it was night time, and it was drizzling rain, dark and spooky, and here this narrow walkway we were on; and I’m in this stretcher, this canvas-type thing, and this German—I’m looking up at him and he hadn’t shaved and, you know, he was grisly looking—and all of a sudden he reaches down and pulls the blanket over my head! And I’m thinking, Are they going to flip me into the water? I’d have gone down like an anchor! But, you know, obviously what he was doing—kind; he was being kind to me. Covering my face so I wouldn’t get wet from the rain. But that was a little scary!
And then, of course, I was there in the New York area, the major hospital there, for maybe a week, and then they put me on a train and sent me back to California, to Palm Springs, at the old El Mirador Hotel, which was a real fancy hotel in the ’40s. Bing Crosby and all the big movie stars used to stay there. And so, after a couple of weeks or so, they finally took—cut that cast off of me, and it’s like opening a sardine can! I mean, they had this saw and, you know, kind of nicked me here and there as they went around to cut this thing open so they can get me out of this shell I’m in. Anyway—and I looked down at that leg and, I mean, my leg was just a bone with some skin.
JW: All the muscles—it was—it was a quarter of the size of my leg today. There was just nothing there. But anyway, so then I was in bed, without the cast and all that, so I could now bend my waist and at least sit up in bed, and that sort of thing. And slowly, with physical therapy, my knee—the calcification that occurs when you don’t move a joint—by this time it was going on four months that I had not moved my knee or ankle. Well, maybe my ankle a tiny bit, but hardly at all.
So, I had a lot of physical therapy and stuff, and eventually they moved me out to one of the cabanas, which is part of the hotel, but not the main part of the hospital—this old hotel had been converted to a hospital, Army Hospital [Torney General Hospital]. And I shared that cabana with about three other officers. And, again, I was—by that time I was going on 21, or something, and feeling sorry for myself and all that. But one of my roommates in this cabin was Capt. Milton Firestone and he was an infantry medical officer; happened to be a psychiatrist. And I’m looking back on my contact with Dr. Firestone—he’d injured his back. He broke his back, or something, in France—a jeep accident. I think he got me through that period of time because you do begin to really feel sorry for yourself. I kept in touch with Dr. Firestone until he passed away a few years ago.
So, from there I just kept [getting] better and better. And they did make a brace that went, that fit over your leg up through the—around the crotch part, and a whole through the heel of my shoe, so that I couldn’t—I could walk on crutches but I couldn’t bend the knee for fear I’d re-break that bone. And I had to wear that thing for quite a while. And, actually, I was still wearing it when I met my wife, of almost 60 years, who passed away a year and a half ago. I was still wearing the brace.
DC: Wow! Yeah.
JW: So that’s—I think that’s—
DC: So, you were—you were still—were you still in the hospital when VE Day occurred?
JW: Oh, yes! VE Day! In fact, I was at, let’s see, I probably was—that was May, so I was probably in Palm Springs by then. And then, of course, VJ Day; I can remember that distinctly. There was a friend who had a girlfriend who had a girlfriend, and one of those girls had a roadster which had a back—they call them, rumble seat?
DC: Yeah, rumble seat.
JW: And my friend was in the front with one girl and I was in the back with—I remember she was a red-headed good lookin’ gal—in the back seat. And, all of a sudden, they knew that gas rationing would be over so, between us, we got enough gas and we drove from Palm Springs up to Idyllwild, which is— and celebrated VJ Day up there. Of course, I had my leg in a sling. I couldn’t walk very good and was limping around on crutches.
DC: Did you, after the war, did you stay in touch with any of your crew?
JW: We were a very close-knit crew. My flight engineer, Louie Stoffer, who, unfortunately, I don’t think is here for this meeting because of the illness of his wife, kind of got us together about 1967. And we met in that year, or the year after, in Lima, Ohio, which was the home of our radio operator, and had a fantastic time! And we met every three to five years thereafter at one of the crew’s house. One time I had the group out and we went to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, and all that, in Southern California. But, as we aged and [it] became a bigger job, we decided to just join the 398th [Bomb] Group for their annual reunion.
DC: Mm hm.
JW: And we did have several meetings where there were, you know, four or five of us here. But, guys have dropped off and, on our crew, there’s only Louie Stoffer, the engineer, and myself that are still alive; two out of ten. Yeah.
DC: Yeah, all right.
JW: But I—and then I did stay in the reserve, flying in the U.S—by that time it was Air Force Reserve—while I was going to college. And I still fly. As a matter of fact, I’m one of those UFOs; United Flying Octogenarians. You have to have—pass a current medical exam for flying. You have to prove that you flew on or after your 80th birthday in order to be a member of this group, so I couldn’t wait to turn 80! And I, as a matter of fact, I’m 83 now and I just passed my medical, so I’ll be able to fly for another two years.
DC: All right.
JW: The medicals are good for two years.
DC: All right.
JW: Pilot’s license is good for life but you have to be current, and one of those is pass the medical and biannual flight review and I’m still flying.
DC: Oh, good.
DC: Is there anything else you’d like to remember?
JW: No, I don’t think so.
[TIME OF INTERVIEW 1:03:17]
- Grinter's Crew - 600th Squadron - July 1944
- No Forgetting Christmas Eve Mission by Lou Stoffer, Engineer/Gunner, 600th Squadron
- 398th Combat Mission: 24 December 1944 to Koblenz
- Grinter's Crash the Day After at the Nuthampstead Air Base
- "We Fly at Dawn" by John Contento, Tail Gunner
- Louis Stoffer, 398th Engineer/Gunner - 600th Squadron Video Interview (28m 8s)
- Return to 398th Timeless Voices Interviews to view and listen to the interview.
- Lt. Jim White was the Co-Pilot on Donald Grinter's 600th Squadron crew.
- The above transcription was provided by Nancy Partin (daughter of Richard S. Hosman, 601st SQ pilot), April 23, 2016. Nancy is a volunteer transcriber
- The transcription was obtained from a video file.
- Punctuation, grammar and minor word changes may have been made to improve readability.
- Additional information may be shown in brackets [ ].