Wally Goes To War

Wally Hoffman 

© Copyright 2003 by Wally Hoffman  

Phto of B-17 on the runway.

We finally graduated from High School. Now what do we do with our lives? It was May 1939, and the Depression still had a mighty hold on the economy. Work was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. Most of the girls I knew had marriage in mind and the rest of us were trying to somehow get a job.

I had one aim and that was to go to college and some day to make my way out of the present regime. I was well aware I would have to do it on my own, as I had no scholarships, and could expect little or no financial help from my family.

In the meantime, I had registered for work at the Social Security Office, and had been notified there might be a job in Neah Bay with Washington Pulp and Paper, which is a town in the extreme northwestern part of the state of Washington. This was a logging company, which was harvesting old growth timber on the Makah Indian Reservation

I had hoped to work in the logging, but when I arrived, I found it was a general handyman job, washing dishes and doing odd jobs in the cookhouse, making beds, and cleaning the offices. For this I would receive $3.60 per day plus my room and board.

The Head Cook turned out to be a guardian angel of sorts. He had a siren and would call me from other tasks to move supplies to the kitchen, and then give me a snack as a reward. He was always making sure I had enough to eat.

I worked hard and saved my money until finally my chance to start school arrived. I was accepted to Washington State University and when it was time to leave, the cook organized a party for me. He told me, “You have finished high school and now are going to college to hide that knowledge.” He had a way of keeping my feet on the ground! At this time war was declared in Europe, which was the beginning of WW II. Little did we all know what a terrific impact this would have on our lives.

What a new world I entered as I arrived at Pullman, Washington. I was assigned a room in a men’s dormitory called Stimson Hall. We would eat in the Commons, which when full, had more students than my whole school.

This was a whole new life that I had never envisioned. I had been transported to a new world. Every morning I had to get up and go to ROTC (Rock Corp), we were issued uniforms with a blue lapel along with rifles and taught how to drill. If you continued ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corp) in your junior and senior years it led to a commission. I was then off to classes scheduled for that day. Homework came from every class, and every night there was something you had to read or do. I quickly learned the use of the library.

I soon became aware what I had earned during the summer would hardly get me through one semester. I would have to find a cheaper way to live, and somehow adjust my studies to allow part-time work. I dropped out for the second semester, but did register for a program where I could work and live the following fall semester at the Dairy and Horse Barns. I also asked to be considered as a candidate for Student Fireman at the WSU Fire Station. This, I hoped, would allow me to afford a longer stint on campus next time around.

On returning home there was no work so I applied for Unemployment Insurance. After a month they found me a job washing dishes, and soon after there was an opening on a construction crew unloading ties building a railroad spur for a new logging site on Lake Crescent not too far from where I lived. Those were green 10-foot ties and weighed about 150 pounds. At the end of the first couple of days I think every bone in my body hurt.

When that job ended, I went to work setting chokers at $5.60 a day. This was fastening a 7

8th inch cable to 5-foot diameter X 40 foot logs, which had been cut from the old growth timber harvested. These were yarded to a central siding by a huge engine (donkey) where they were loaded on railroad freight cars. It was hard and dangerous work, but come September I was off to WSU again. During this time the German s had defeated the French, and the British had retreated to Dunkirk. “The Battle of Britain” had begun in an unequalled air war, and like many others I was enthralled by the description of the dashing fighter pilots.

Soon after arriving I was invited to join the Fire Station as a student volunteer fireman. They furnished everything except our food, which costs about $8.00 a month as we got all our dairy products and meat from the Dairy Barn and Animal Husbandry Department. When we drilled once a week we were paid, plus the fire inspections. This made college much more affordable.

I did many menial jobs such as cleaning the Horse and Dairy Barns, dumping garbage, cooking hamburgers in the Bookstore, and washing milk cans at the College Dairy. But my favorite jobs were fire inspections.

The fire inspections of the girl’s dorms were a high priority for all of us guys. The House Mother always went with us, but we still managed to raise screams with scantily clad girls running for cover and slamming doors. The House Mother was always clucking and telling us to close our eyes.

I still have my badge, and in later years became a volunteer in several fire departments. Here in the Thurston County Fire District, where I live, they have dedicated fire station

training center to me, which was quite an honor.

I found in the Spring Semester of 1942 I was eligible to take a course in Civilian Pilot Training, which would give me a private pilot’s license. It also required me to enlist in the Aviation Cadet Program in either the Army or Navy upon completion of the course and the present academic year.

Although I completed my Civilian Pilot Training on May 16, 1942, it seems more like yesterday that we all raised our hands at Washington State University and said, “I do” as Aviation Cadets. We were told to go home and wait for orders. This was only the beginning of military adage we were to hear only too often: “Hurry Up and Wait”. In this case, though, I didn’t wait long. I had requested immediate assignment, so those fateful orders arrived as a telegram addressed to my home the next day.

It was a long hot trip from Seattle to San Antonio and as we entered the main gate of Kelly Field we were greeted with shouts of “Y-O-U’ L-L B-E S-O-R-R-Y”. Piling off the truck we were mustered into a barracks they were still working on. We were advised there were no uniforms until the end of the week, but in the meantime were ordered out on the drill field for our first close order drill. This wasn’t too bad in open shirts and pants, but the low-cut shoes soon were killing us along with the hot humid heat. After one of the longest hour and a half we were sent to our barracks where we drew towels and soap, and were assigned beds. We were told we would be taken to the mess hall in a half hour.

At six o’clock the next morning we were again out on the drill field although this time it was continuous physical training. After, we finished training we marched to breakfast. We then went through classification (pilot, navigator, or bombardier). After lunch we were sent for physicals and on leaving were given our shots (four in each arm) Thus ended my first day and a half in the Army.

We weren’t required to clean the barracks, but had to properly make our beds (a quarter had to bounce off the top blanket) and straighten up our personal effects. I can still remember a short 2nd Lt. Frost trying to get a quarter to bounce off my bed¸ and then tearing it apart on first inspection.

We were then sent to another area to begin Pre-Flight and divided into squadrons. There, the upperclassmen required that we turn 90-degree corners, sit at attention using only four inches of the chair, and eat square meals by making only 90-degree movements from plate to mouth. After four weeks we became upperclassmen and inflicted the same treatment to the new class.

The training during this period was very intense. The mornings were spent on continuous Physical Training, which consists of a total series of exercises for two, or three hours, plus with close order drilling. The cadet class “A” uniform was used on all parade reviews including white gloves. While standing in formation, which seemed to last for hours, spiders would float by on their webs and drape across your face. If you moved you were given “gigs”--a walking a tour at attention with a pack, rifle and fixed bayonet. The afternoon was spent in classrooms learning physics, meteorology, military code, and Morse code. These were crammed courses and God help you if you got behind.

These activities were rotated on a weekly basis and after four weeks you went to the next phase, which also included guard duty and being Officer of the Day in the guardroom. You also performed as cadet officers for the weekly retreat parade. All this time the continuous Physical Training became more intense with competition and games. The schedule was seven days a week and after 8 weeks we you went through an Officer Review Board. For evaluation

Upon completion of Pre-Flight School we were given a 24-hour pass, which was our first time off the field. The next day we received orders sending us to Primary Flight School and thought we are really on our way.

Primary Flight School took us to Avenger Field at Sweetwater, TX. (After we left they later trained the entire Women’s Air Service Pilots after we had left. at this field). The first morning of Primary Training we were divided into squadrons, and the usual PT and close order drill were followed by classroom assignments.

We were on “A” Shift which meant classes in the AM and flying in the PM. We were introduced to the PT 19, which was a low wing trainer with a 6-cylinder inline engine and a wide landing gear. Our instructor took each of us for an orientation ride and proceeded to show us the different things we would have to learn, such as a stall, spin, snap roll, and a slow roll. After those acrobatics, he would then say, “Where is the field?”-The answer wasn’t always so easy with the disorientation! I was fortunate as I had already gotten my private pilot’s license, but many others got sick and had to clean the plane out on returning. It always made your day to climb into a plane that still smelled of vomit early in the morning.

Each week we changed from AM classes to PM, and the morning flights were cold. I can remember three things about this plane: the wobble pump to prime it, the inertia starter someone had to crank, and the wide landing gear made landing easy.

I can still remember the hospitality of the people of Sweetwater. Sunday was a free day and you could go to church, either for the spiritual value or to see the pretty girls. There was always a signup sheet to go dinner, too. I can still see those huge t-bone steaks, which totally filled a huge platter being barbecued so you could cut them with a fork.

Soon we all soloed and took check rides to finish up. This eliminated about half the class.

We next found ourselves at Enid, OK for Basic. We had the same class arrangement, but on the flight line there sat the BT 13 Vultee Vibrator. This thing was a brute, and on the first flight as soon as the wheels were off the ground the instructor signaled to take the controls. This was not the forgiving PT 19, instead you cross-controlled and horsed it around the sky and still could get into a vicious snap roll. Once I figured this out, the instructor told me to take it home. Fortunately I remembered where the field was. My first attempt to land was about 5 to 10 feet above the field. This produced some very caustic remarks from the instructor. During my first night flight when I pulled the throttle back there was this huge flame from the exhaust. I thought for a minute we had blown up. Cross-country flight two of the other planes had engine trouble ending up in a cornfield and a pasture, but I made it back in one piece.

Next step found us at Foster Field, Victoria, TX. Here we followed somewhat the same schedule, but were flying the AT 6. This plane was a pleasure to fly, a very forgiving plane. You could slow roll it and come out right on the same heading. We learned tight formation flying, gunnery at Sand Island when the Navy wasn’t there. Soon graduation day was here and in formation we were given our wings. The big blow soon fell when I received my orders for transition. I was being sent to B 17s, not P 47s, my number one choice.

The first time I looked at a B 17, I thought it is huge, how could I ever fly this let alone taxi it? I have to admit after my first orientation ride with some stick time and a follow through on landing, though, I was sold on the plane. This was a plane that allowed you fly it not making you fly it. I thought I would never learn all of its 156 instruments and controls plus where they were located. It took a while to learn to taxi using the engines instead of the brakes, and I retained a tendency to land the plane before it was down on the runway. But all of a sudden I was in the left seat and getting the plane in the air and back on the ground, which even amazed my instructor.

Soon I found myself at Plant Park, Florida, for assignments of crews. We were all called out in formation. When my name was called, I listened for the nine names that would be assigned to me as a crew. We gathered around in a corner of the field. Here were 10 strangers who became a team-it seemed to happen immediately. Our orders were for Drew Field and OTU training as a B 17 combat crew.

We went through the usual training of flying formation, ground schools, ditching, bomb runs, gunnery and flying day and night on cross country runs. Some of the things they didn’t teach us were: (1) the extreme cold of flying at 30,000 on oxygen for hours, (2) actual fighter attack and how vicious the flak would be, (3) the turbulence of having to fly a combat formation for hours through choppy air and prop wash while being attacked by fighters or flak. Guess it was considered on the job training when we entered combat!

The next stop was the Air Force Staging Wing, Hunter Field, Georgia. There we were assigned a brand new B 17 G. The crew was outfitted for overseas assignment with new flight suits, jackets, including a 45 with a shoulder holster. We inspected the B 17 for every detail and then went for a four-hour check ride. The next day we were given sealed orders (not be opened until we were airborne) to Dow Field Airport of Embarkation. The gas tanks were topped off and the bomb bay was filled with mail. We took off for Dow Field, Maine, and opening our orders we found we were being sent to the North Atlantic Division, Air Transport Command. We were then given orders for the Atlantic Route to the European Theater of Operations, and were to proceed to Gander, Newfoundland, then to Preswick, Scotland.

We found Gander, but I don’t remember how. The field there was filled with B 17s and B 24s waiting for friendly weather for the hop across the Atlantic. It was midnight when we finally got parked and transported to Operations. We were advised there was a briefing at 0800 the next morning for all pilots, copilots, navigators, and flight engineers. It was after 0100 by the time we were in quarters. We were totally exhausted. At 0600 we were all awakened for breakfast 0700 and a briefing at 0800-what a short night. Little did the others or I realize in a very short period of time this would become the norm.

During the briefing we were shown maps and overall view of the next hop on the way to Scotland, along with the factor weather would play along with fuel consumption. This was when the enormity of what we were facing hit home. They then discussed the few navigational aids we would have. We had been trained to always to “stay the dot dash (A) side of the beam” but there was no beam to follow across the Atlantic. The navigator would take constant celestial readings to assure we were on course, and position for fuel consumption.

We then broke into groups. We were advised that 10 planes were being sent to Goose Bay, Labrador to relieve some of the congestion in Newfoundland. We would have a weather briefing every morning and afternoon. The weather cleared up at Gander and the North Atlantic after 6 days. We took off about midnight, and were out almost an hour when we were recalled, as the weather in Scotland had turned terrible. We just made it in as the ceiling dropped below minimum, and the field at Gander closed. Many of the other planes were diverted to Goose Bay, and to Iceland. The next day everything was socked in, even the seagulls were walking.

Finally after two days, we were alerted at 1800: there would be a briefing at 2000. This time everything looked good, the weather over the Atlantic was clear, as well as at Preswick in Scotland. We gathered all our gear together and went out to our plane and sat there until 2300 when a jeep pulled up. We were advised we could leave immediately or wait, as the weather would not hold beyond about 10 hours. However between Gander and Ireland our first landfall weather was good, beyond that there was a possible change to scattered clouds. By 2330 we were ready to taxi, and proceeded to the designated runway and were cleared for takeoff. We were finally on our way flying the Atlantic with a gyro, radio compass and the Navigator taking fixes every half hour for course corrections.

We were tired, but the adrenalin stayed with us for the long haul. Just as the navigator projected, we hit our landfall (he was a half an hour late) and he gave us a new heading for Preswick, Scotland. We were amazed at how green the countryside of Ireland looked.

Next stop was Preswick. They told us the weather the setting for the altimeter, and the wind. Soon we were starting our flare and were on the ground in Scotland. A jeep with the sign, “Follow Me.” We were soon on a parking ramp with line upon line of B 17s and B 24s. A major in a jeep drove up and welcomed us. He advised us to remove all our gear as the plane was being signed over. We were taken in a 6X6 truck to a long Nisson Hut and given English tea (strong with milk and sugar) and some kind of cookies by the Scottish Red Cross. We were advised that there would be a briefing in about a half hour. While we waited, the clouds moved in and it began to drizzle. “So,” we thought, “This is Scotland and England.” We discovered there were five other crews who had come in ahead of us waiting for the briefing.

In the Nisson Hut there was a small stage and chairs, and another major came in with a sergeant who called us to attention. We then noticed an English officer with a cane limping on to the stage. We were immediately told to sit. The English major pulled out a pipe and began to fill it, saying, “Smoke if you wish” in a broad Scottish accent. He then said “I’m here to tell you a little bit about our little island. Since you will only understand about half of what I say, Major Broad will give you all the gory details. I will answer any questions you may have.”

And so we learned about our new temporary home. All Britain was a war zone, and had been since September 1939. The British had been bombed night after night. Thousands had lost their homes, their possessions and their families. (There were 146, 900 lives lost during the Blitz.) The British welcomed us as friends and allies. But we were reminded that crossing that ocean does not automatically make you a hero. There were women in aprons and boys in knee pants who had lived through more explosives in air raids than many soldiers saw in the last war.

The British were friendly and seemed glad to have us there. They seemed more reserved than Americans. I guess that living on a small island with 50 million other people will tend to make you guard your privacy. Britons might sit on a train or bus near us without saying a word, but that doesn’t means they were haughty and unfriendly. They were usually paying more attention to us than we thought. They didn’t speak because they didn’t want to appear intrusive or rude.

I found that the British had seen a good many Americans, and basically they liked us. They liked our frankness as long as it was friendly. They were not given to backslapping, and were shy about showing affection.

The British were like Americans in many ways, but we were and are, as the saying goes, separated by a common language. Trucks were “lorries”, flashlights were “torches”, and movies were the “cinema”. There were also things we found we shouldn’t say, such as “I’m stuffed.” We learned that a bum was not a “panhandler,” it is what you sit on. “Knocking you up” was waking you up in the morning, nothing more exciting than that! When somebody told you to “keep your pecker up”, it wasn’t what we thought. It just meant to strengthen your resolve.

There were many confusing differences, such as driving on the left side of the road, using money based on an “impossible” accounting system (sit in on a poker game and you soon learn), and drinking warm beer. You soon realized they belonged to England, just as baseball, jazz, and Coca-Cola belonged to us. We learned never to tell the British how much better we did things at home. They were interested to hear about life in the US-that it isn’t all wild Indians and gangsters. We learned that it was militarily stupid to insult your allies, so we didn’t sound off about the lukewarm beer, or the way English cigarettes tasted.

We were in a War Zone, and the contrast to the States was stark. We had come from a country where our homes were safe, food was plentiful, and the lights were still on. It is estimated that 146,000 British men, women, and children have died under bombs, yet the morale if the British was unbreakable and high.

We eventually realized that the British towns might look a little shabby the shops barren, the clothing and the people seemed a little washed out. Their war had been on since 1939. The houses hadn’t been painted because the factories are making planes. The famous British gardens and parks were either unkempt because there were no men to take care of them, or they were being used to grow much needed vegetables. Britain’s taxi looked antique as the car factories were then making tanks. All clothes were rationed, and old clothes were considered “good form”.

Some Americans bragged that the whole of Great Britain (Wales, Scotland, and England) was hardly bigger than Minnesota. The British disliked bragging and showing off. They might reply that the only problem with the Yanks was that “they are oversexed, overpaid, and over here.”

After some warm food and a short processing we received orders to the 70th Replacement Depot at Stone. We were only there for 48 hours then received our orders to the 351st Bomb Group located at Polebrook Home of the 351st Bomb Group in WW II. It is located in Northamptorshire and the village of Polebrook lies in the valley of the river Neve close to the market village of Oundle. With one public House “The King’s Arm”. The RAF on a part of the Rothschild Estate constructed the initial field at the top of Polebrook Hill in 1940. The original flying fortress operated by the RAF in 1942 flew out of this field.

A 6X6 truck in Peterborough picked us up and a light rain was falling so all we looked at was a sodden looking countryside. When we arrived at the bomber base we were driven to headquarters and were met by the CQ (Charge of Quarters). He looked at our papers and escorted all of us into the group adjutant who was looking intently at a large box. When we looked in the box there was a Springer Spaniel giving birth to four puppies. He came forward and said we have been expecting you and the puppies; here you are arriving at the same time. He shook hands with every member of the crew saying, “welcome aboard” with a big friendly smile. To me this was a good omen of how the group was to be run. We needed every crew we could get and every crew was important.

We were assigned to the 509th Bomb Squadron. I then signed some papers and we were escorted to the combat mess. After eating we were all then escorted to our quarters, and advised to report to the Squadron Headquarters at 0800-tomorrow morning. We all unpacked and I ended sharing a room with our Bombardier. We also noticed the several rolled up beds, and wondered about this. But it had been a full day, and we were soon in the sack and sound asleep.

We reported to the 509th Headquarters at 0800 and were met by a captain who had a blue background behind his wings. He warmly received us, and told us some of the history of the 351st Bomb Group. They had been organized in 1942 in Spokane, WA, and came overseas in early 1943. They flew their first mission May 13, 1943. Another interesting tidbit was that a celebrity had been assigned to the Group-Clark Gable was making a film for the Army (Combat American).

The group was very short of crews and our training would be accelerated by 12-hour days. When I ask about the blue behind his wings, he said this indicated he had flown combat. We also asked not to be split up as a crew, and were advised that this was possible. However some training will see us split into separate units for combat training.

For the next few days we would be in school-aircraft identification, combat procedures for pilot’s navigators, bombardiers, radio, and gunners. We received an orientation tour of the base, and drew combat supplies. We first went to a supply area where we were fitted with an oxygen mask. We were advised that we could take two, which was recommended. We then drew heavy cold weather gear, electric flight suits including inserts for gloves and boots, gloves, helmets, flying boots, plus drawing wool socks extra shoes, etc, which would be stored in a heated equipment room. We were then split apart, the gunners going to the armament shop¸ and the pilot and co-pilot where we were instructed on flight positions, formation flying, and assembling. The gunners were instructed as to care of the guns, cleaning, reloading, etc. for altitude and extreme cold weather.

The next day we would practice formation flying at high altitude. When we got up in the morning it was pouring down rain with the clouds stacked up to about 5,000 feet, and the end of the runway shrouded in clouds. Nobody thought we be flying in this weather, but we lined up on the runway anyhow waiting for takeoff.

We were to fly at 30,000 feet in a four-plane element. After takeoff we climbed to 500 feet and then set a course for the “Buncher” at Kings Cliff. Reaching 5,000 feet we broke into brilliant sunlight. We used to say the only time we saw the sun in England was to fly over the clouds. As we picked up the signal at Kings Cliff there were the other three planes. In formation we climbed to 30,000 with only 10 feet to 50 feet separating us from the other planes, which later we found was normal. It was also cold with the free air temp reading -55 degrees. That afternoon we flew to the Wash for bombing and gunnery practice which was terrible. After 10 days of 12-hour days we were advised we were on loading for the mission tomorrow. This will be the day reckoning; could we all perform at high altitude in the cold with the enemy shooting at us?

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