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LEWIS T. HAAS

My view of World War Two-Part Two

March 17, 1999
My view of World War Two
S/Sgt. Lewis T. Haas
452 Bombardment Group (H)
730th Bombardment Squadron
Tail Gunner/Armorer
On a B-17 Heavy Bomber
Served from Dec., 1942 to Dec., 1945

B-17 High altitude bomber group assignment, training, and the birth of my son

After the prescribed course of study we were graduated, with sergeant stripes and silver wings. I was very young and very proud. Iím still kind of proud of my wings. We studied and worked very hard to earn them. While at Laredo my son Kenneth was born in Denver. I tried every way I could to be there for moral support for Helma, plus I would have been thrilled to be present when I first became a daddy. I went to the Commanding Officer, the Chaplain; the Red Cross. I even volunteered to accompany a body to Denver, but some guy beat me to it. Some poor kid got run over on his way breakfast by a ten-wheeler truck. Breakfast came early and it was still dark, I doubt if the kid ever realized what hit him. In those days a body was not shipped alone someone had to accompany it. So no soap, you would think the whole war effort would fail if I was gone a few days, oh my no, I had to be there to start school right away. Big deal! So I sat around two weeks and did nothing but move lumber from one side of a field to the other then move it back, exercise of course took first priority. Oh well, my wife is a survivor also, and much to my surprise she did very well without me.

From Laredo I was sent to Salt Lake City, Utah, for altitude evaluation and group assignments. I was there a couple of weeks, and that is where I first saw my son. Helma brought him to SLCity, and stayed until I was assigned to a B-17 High altitude bomber group at Moses Lake Washington. When she learned I was in Salt Lake she tried to get me on the phone. It wasnít as easy as it sounds. She had no clue what outfit I was in and was getting the run a round from every body. She was on long distance, and had very little money. The operator told her if she could stay on line until I was located she wouldnít start charging until I was on the line. Try that today ha! Of course those days every one was behind the war effort and had lots of sympathy for service men and their families. It took quite a while as I was in temporary quarters and on shipping alert, but finally they got to my commanding officer, and asked for me. He told her I had already shipped out. She called him a liar, and luckily it touched his funny bone.

Helma always had a way of pleasing strangers and she was feisty as the devil. She wasnít scared to sass the brass or even spit in their eye if necessary. Age and hard knocks have toned her down quite bit, but I used to hold my breath sometimes wandering what came next. Even so, there was never a day that I wasnít proud of her. Nor was there ever a time I didnít thank God that I lucked out and found her. I doubt if there was another woman who would have put up with me after the war. I came home a completely different man than when I left. Oops I better get back to the story line. They dug me out of the barracks and took me over to his office. Now itís an unwritten law in the army, you avoid the commanding officer as much as possible as often as possible, and there I was across a desk from mine that my wife had just called a liar.

The operator got off the line, but the officer listened to every word that I nervously uttered. Finally it was agreed I could meet her at the main gate if she brought her marriage and Kenís birth certificates with her. This way I could meet my son. She sent me a telegram letting me know the arrival time of her train. When I went to get permission to go to the gate and showed him the telegram, he gave me a pass to meet her train and told me to bring back the documents for him to check. I got her a hotel room and went back to camp. When I showed him the papers he gave me an overnight pass. After that I got an overnight pass every night I was in Salt Lake City. The first time I picked Ken up and hugged him he started to yell. It scared hell out of me. Turned out when I hugged him I dug a nasty scratch on his little chest with my wings, I felt like a dog, but after a little loving he was okay and we soon became buddies. Talk about a proud papa, gee I was ridiculous. Every one in the outfit hated my guts, because I got a pass every night and no one else did.

While at Salt Lake City we took high altitude tests, and those passed in the test chamber were sent to B-17 or B-24 groups, the others were sent to low altitude groups. I volunteered to make some extra tests in the altitude chamber. It was sort of interesting. One of the tests I made was to keep writing my name on a pad as we went up higher and higher. Funny dea,l after a while they tried to put an oxygen mask on me I argued that I felt real good and my writing was okay. They insisted I put on the mask, and after a few minutes on oxygen I could see my writing was all over the page, and yet I had felt really good and thought everything was fine. So you see you can be hurting for oxygen and not know it. Exception being if you try to breath from an empty walk around bottle, then you are sucking on a vacuum and canít breathe at all. Panicsville.

I was sent to a B-17 group at Moses Lake Washington. The 452nd. While we waited for a complete crew we would fly with another partial crew. We flew with the crew of a pilot named Pesch or something like that. He was the squadron screwball; he was always doing something crazy. Once after we were through flying a practice mission He flew over Moses Lake (the town) and dropped a string of 100-pound practice bombs down the main street. This was not quite as bad as it sounds, there was no one on the streets at the time and the town was just tiny in those days. The bombs were filled with sand and black powder, the explosive power was practically nil, but they made a lot of smoke, and the town complained bitterly to the air corps but no one had got the number of the plane and of course no one squealed on him so they read the riot act to the whole group and forgot about it.

At Moses Lake we flew nearly every day, eight hours a day or eight hours a night. Night flying was mostly formation practice high and low altitude. It was deadly boring for the gunners. Eight hours of nothing. Daylight quite often was also formation practice, but plenty of time was spent bombing, shooting and playing. One of my jobs was to arm the bombs, in other words pull the safety pins so in falling the little propellers would rotate off and activate the fuse so the bomb would explode on impact. This chore was taken care of at about ten thousand feet before we went on oxygen. The bombardier was supposed to notify me at ten thousand, well one day he forgot to tell me, and I was ornery enough not remind him even though I was aware we were getting too high. I suppose I was a little miffed at him for some reason. I canít imagine why he was one of the nicest guys I knew. Anyway I kept quiet and cut off my nose to spite my face, as the old saying goes.

When we got up to about twenty thousand he suddenly remembered and gave a call. I was supposed to wear a walk around bottle to do chores at high altitude, but I hated the things. I went forward and stopped at each gunner and borrowed a few breaths of oxygen, through the radio room and out on the catwalk in the bomb bays, pulled the first ten pins, back to the radio room borrowed Macís oxygen for a few breaths then out to get the last ten. I guess I should explain the bomb bays at this point. The catwalk ran from the radio room forward to the upper turret, cockpit and nose of the ship where the Bombardier and Navigator stations were. The catwalk was a beam about eight inches wide and had ropes on each side about waist high. The bombs were shackled to the outer wall of the planed on each side, ten to the side. These were hundred pound bombs, the bigger the bomb the fewer we carried.

To get to the bottom bomb pin I had to duck under the rope by hanging to the rope with one hand I could lean far enough down to reach the bottom pin. I couldnít get the pin out so I went back to the radio room and got a pair of pliers. Shultz saw me come out, but didnít see me go back in. He reported the bays clear. I was hanging by one arm fighting a stuck pin when suddenly the bomb bay doors opened and I was looking down twenty thousand feet at some very hard looking real estate. The pin finally come out and I tried to pull myself back up and couldnít, I was too short of oxygen, I could hang on but could not get the strength to pull myself up to the catwalk. I have no idea how long I could have hung on, probably not long. Mac of course knew I was out there and came as soon as the doors opened and pulled me up, helped me into the radio room and gave me air. So no harm done except one pair of pliers overboard. It scared hell out of both Heim and me. After we landed we yelled at each other a little and that was that. I suppose he could have had me busted for yelling at him, but he wasnít that kind of a guy, we always got along great.

Another of my jobs was to photograph the bombs as they fell; there was a removable panel in the radio room floor where I could aim the camera through. For some reason this job always made me nervous, I was afraid I would drop the camera, which was heavy and expensive. I donít why it scared me, cause if I had dropped it probably nothing would have happened except some one would yell at me a little, and someone was always yelling about something. Who cared? They needed something to yell about it justified their existence. Iím talking about paddle feet now (ground echelon).

The bombing range at Moses Lake was laid out in a huge bull's eye target. Over to one side, well out of the way, was an outdoor toilet for the use of the ground crew who groomed the target on days when no body was bombing. I probably donít need to tell rest, the target needed very little grooming, but all around the outhouse were bomb craters. We spent a lot of time buzzing the country in Washington terrorizing the farmers and their livestock. Sometimes we were so low that the prop wash would throw chickens all over the place, if it didnít kill them. Iíll bet it was months before they laid an egg. Spieler used to complain that his guns were digging furrows in the ground. We would fly up the canyons and shoot wild horses. We sure depleted the herds in Washington. If this seems cruel to the reader remember we were very young and were being trained to kill people. I would not do that today, nor would I go out and shoot my neighbor.

Moses Lake was fairly new when we got there. There were no barracks for the flight crews we lived in tents, every day all the dirt from Canada blew through on itís way to Oregon and every night it blew through back to Canada. They sure had good chow, steaks, chops, fried oysters all kinds of good stuff. I loved milk and every meal there was a big tub full of bottled milk and ice in front of the chow line you could have all you wanted. Most of the food was serve yourself and what was served to you was served carefully, this was a pleasant change since we were used to getting our Jell-O dumped in our mashed potatoes.

I remember when we heard we were going to a lake with swimming and boats we were quite excited, but when we got there we werenít impressed with the lake, and as for boats there was one leaky one which the officers took over. I donít think anybody was too upset about losing the boat. I guess we should have had a clue when we woke up the morning we were due to arrive and found our car was hooked to the back of a freight train. Besides flying we had a few classes we were supposed to attend and the usual calisthenics, both of which we ducked when we could. As a rule we could get away with it, as nobody knew if you were flying or not. We had a ground C.O. who thought he was a real comic his favorite joke was to call a guy in and say ďsit down sergeant; get up privateĒ. What would have been hilarious is if someone had shot the ass. Anyway Jeff and Cast got busted for some slight infraction of the rules. I was called in for skipping classes, I was sure I would get busted but he chewed me out and let me go. It was a big relief to me, I needed the money. Maybe thatís why he let me off cause I was married and had a baby. Poor old Jeff and Cast didnít get their stripes back till we went overseas.

After Moses Lake, Washington I was given a ten day delay en route to Pendleton, Oregon. I hitchhiked seventeen hundred miles to North Hollywood, California, that was where Helma and the baby were. The last ride I got was with a trucker who stopped at the top of the grapevine, which is a pass over the mountains between Bakersfield and the San Fernando Valley, and he told me he was going to take a nap. I got out and thumbed but couldnít get a ride that early in the morning. It was probably about three A.M., anyway, he had his snooze and after a couple we were on our way. That dude like to scared me to death we sure came down off that in a hurry. The road wasnít a freeway like now, it was relatively narrow then and full curves and every minute or so he would point off one side or the other and say so and so went off there last week or last year. He was probably lying but if his buddies drove like him they probably are playing harps. He let me off on the corner of Lankershim Blvd. and San Fernando Road. Those days it wasnít built up much out that far, lots of open fields.

I threw my B-4 bag in some bushes and took off running for Helmaís sister's house several blocks away. I just couldnít wait. Norma came to the door and told me Helma was still asleep and showed me her room, I went in andkissed her to wake her up. Pretty neat, she was sure surprised. After a few days in N. Hollywood we went to Vallejo California where her folks were. I sent a telegram to Pendleton asking for an exception and they gave me three more days. Didnít help much I still hated to go back. There was gas rationing and her Dad didnít have much gas, but he insisted on taking me as far as he dared. He got me through Sacramento and I started to thumb to Pendleton. I made it to the Dalles, Oregon and it looked like I wasnít going to make it on time, but an Army ambulance picked me up and I went with him to pick up a heart patient. I helped pack the guy in the ambulance and off we went, he dropped me at the gate to the base at five minutes to midnight. Five more minutes and I would have been AWOL, a serious offense in war time whether it was five minutes or five days, so I lucked out again after a certain amount of worrying.

I didnít have my usual luck catching rides on the way to Pendleton, one guy left me out at a crossroads just across the border of California and Oregon in the middle of the night, it was up in the mountains and nothing anywhere around. It was quite cold so I started walking I donít know how far I walked that night, but it was a long way. I finally came to an all night diner. I sat and drank coffee until daylight and started walking again, hooked a ride with an Army convoy as far as the Dalles Oregon. Slow but better than walking, that night I got the ride in the ambulance.

From Pendleton I went to Walla Walla Washington. It looked as if we were going to be there for a while so I had Helma bring Ken and she found an apartment. We enjoyed our stay there very much. We lived more like a normal family. I had overnight passes every night and we had private living quarters, almost like having a job and living home except the job was seven days a week.

The usual drill, formation flying, air to ground gunnery and off on our own checking out the Washington farmers and horse herds. Our pilot loved to play hide and seek or tag or whatever, anyway he liked to dodge around the clouds. He acted like that bomber was a fighter plane. On days that the sky was full of those pretty little white clouds the way that tail bucked and jumped about knocked the pudding out of me, I would ask permission to leave the tail and Tiska would laugh and refuse. He always refused; the only reason I kept asking was to give every one a chuckle. The other guys were getting tossed around also, bad for bruises but lots of fun. Some place in this story I believe I said in the very early forties very few people had flown, well I doubt if a terrible lot has flown the way we flew even today. I donít believe even private planes are allowed to pull the stuff we pulled, of course it was against the rules then too, but nobody cared except the farmers.

Iím afraid we werenít very popular in some quarters, but the dear souls were too shocked to get plane numbers so a general dressing down and a few threats were all that ever came of it. I guess the Government paid out quite a bit in damages. We were flying old beat up training planes and about every time out we would lose an engine, in fact they nick named our pilot "Three-engine" Tiska. One day an engine quit and he was unable to feather the prop and it started to windmill. This can be very dangerous if it comes off, no telling where it will go and a big three bladed steel prop can tear a ship to pieces. We headed for base as quick as we could and landed all okay, but when they attached a hoist to the prop it fell off. So we lucked out I sure wish the other guys luck had held out on February tenth the next year.

While in Walla Walla we were issued a brand new B-17 G bomber. Youíd of thought we had died and gone to heaven. As Armorer, one of my duties was to strap a 45 caliber pistol on and escort the Bombardier to the Armory to pickup and return the Norton Bomb Sight every day we flew. The sight, of course, was top secret then; probably no one had one of them except Germany, Japan and possibly Italy. We did an awful lot of shooting air to ground. We would fly very low and shoot at targets as we passed them. They were staggered from side to side so both waist gunners could get in practice shooting, also it made it so the top and ball turrets had to swing from one side to the other. There were fire controllers on the turrets so they couldnít shoot off the props or rudder which I thought was very thoughtful since my head was in line with the top turret.

The only problem was if the guns got too hot a round would fire all by itself, so fire control was over ridden. So one day that happened, as Shultz swung around one gun fired. The slug was in line with my head. It clipped every bulkhead down the dorsal fin until it got to the one in back of me, where it split in three pieces: one went out over my head, the others each side of me. Always lucky. They patched up the fin until we could get a new one. We kept trying, in fact we flew to nearly every base on the East Coast, but we never found one. Iíve sometimes wondered if that was why our tail section got knocked off so easy. Hot rounds were not unusual, the ground armorers were supposed to just load each gun's canisters with ammo, but they loaded case after case of it until some times the pilot made them unload some for fear we wouldnít get off the ground. We burned up our gun barrels every day. In fact, after a while the tracers would tumble end over end. I guess they must have had an inexhaustible supply of gun barrels, they kept passing them out and we kept on burning them up. To my knowledge no one ever complained. I suppose the powers that be figured if we were burning up gun barrels we were getting lots of practice hitting what we were aiming at. They were right. Most of us were very handy with a 50 caliber machine gun. Every fifth shell was a tracer bullet so we knew where they were going.

The crew came to the apartment quite often to see Helma and check out the baby. One night Jeff and Cast came by and Jeff said he wanted to make some pone. Thatís North Carolina for corn bread. He had all the ingredients with him so Helma turned the kitchen over to the guys. We shared the pone and other fixin's with them. Sure enough Jeff knew what he was doing, it was great. After we had been at Walla Walla a few weeks we flew down to Redmond, Oregon for a while, I canít recall why but it was to take three days of flying and clear weather. It was raining every day. Helma called the base and asked the Adjutant how long we were going to be. He replied that it was classified information and he couldnít tell her anything, but she coaxed him a little and he told her ďthey need three clear days and itís still raining. So she hopped on a bus and came to Redmond. I suppose we were there about a week, but even days were important to us cause we knew time was getting short since our training was about over.

Back to Walla Walla. and more of the same for a week or so then we flew out. We had no idea where we were headed until we were in the air so I couldnít let Helma know what to expect. This was always the case when we moved to a new station, so Mac and I had a deal. We took turns sending our wives telegrams, money was in short supply. When we got to Pyote, Texas, we found we were to be there a month so we decided to have the girls come. It was Mac's turn to notify Georgia (his wife) and of course she was to tell Helma. Damn her, she jumped on a train and went off without a word. Helma was stuck in Washington with a baby and no clue as to where I was. When she had no word she checked at Georgiaís hotel and found she had gone, didnít even have the decency to leave word at the desk as to where she was headed. Helma waited a few days and since no one at the base would even give her a phone number, she took Kenny and went to her folk's place in Vallejo. So we missed our time together in Texas.

Pyote Texas was known as the rattlesnake bomber base and it lived up to itís name, they were thick. They called Pyote a staging area and although we done a lot of flying they also fitted our bomb bays with huge rubber tanks to haul Hi-test aviation gas overseas. I suppose they figured as long as we were flying overseas we might as well make a delivery, of course it made a flying bomb out of us, but men were expendable. When the group flew out of Washington we were the only crew that landed in Texas. Everyone had engine trouble near a crew member's home town, some were quite a ways off course. We would have done the same except our crew was from back east except for myself and Cast. My wife was back where we left from and Cast went AWOL as soon as we got settled at Pyote. Tiska covered for him, so he had a week at home in Albuquerque New Mexico.

By the time Helma and I got our problem figured out we decided to not have her come. It was a long train trip to make with a six-month-old baby. I could have killed Georgia. It was coming on to Christmas time so I thumbed rides into Odessa and bought Helma a complete outfit. I got lucky shooting craps one night so had a little money. I sent her money for two hundred and spent the rest on Christmas. I knew I would lose it back if I didnít get rid of it in a hurry, in fact the losers were real upset with me when they caught up with me and I was broke. As a rule we didnít play for very high stakes. At payday we played penny ante, mid month for cigarettes and by the end of the month we were playing for matches. I carried a picture of Helma in that Christmas outfit overseas into combat and through prison camps and marches and for fifty years afterward. Now itís in my war book the gals made for me. I sure liked that getup, I think she did too.

When we got to Texas they told us to land at the municipal airport at El Paso since they were out of hundred-octane gas at Pyote. The municipal fields in those days were built for small aircraft not four engine bombers. Tiska came in low just over the fence and hit the dirt and got her stopped before we ran out of asphalt runway. Next morning we gassed up and went on the dirt. Tiska wound her up and gave her all she had, balls to the wall. We still over ran the runway into the dirt and barely skimmed over the fence, in fact he had to tip the left wing up a little to miss a little shed by the fence. Not the type of take off explained in the manuals. After a month in Texas we flew to Grande Island Nebraska.

(Continued on next page.)

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© 1999 Lewis T. Haas
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