Greetings from the Mighty Eighth

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On Monday, August 17th 1942, twelve American bombers took off for Rouen, France. They were the main force of eighteen bombers sent under Royal Air Force fighter escort. Their target was a marshaling yard. They returned to base at exactly seven in the evening. Not a plane was lost, and the only significant damage to them was inflicted by a pigeon colliding with the nose of one ship.

 
That Monday was a great celebration for the Americans. It was the first US heavy bomber raid for a unit called the Eighth Bomber Command. It proved, at least in the minds of the Americans, that heavy bomber raids could be successfully carried out in daytime with minimal casualties. August 17th was the first sputtering of a machine that would later become the US Eighth Air Force. By the war’s end, the Eighth would be the largest air force of its type in the world, able to send 2,000 bombers and 1,000 fighters on a single mission. Of the 1.5 million Americans to pass through Britain during World War Two, 350,000 of them belonged to the Eighth Air Force. Their mission was to take out the German military, not in the field, but at home, depriving it of the ability and desire to make war. Their battleground would be the skies of Europe, and their front line, the green fields of East Anglia.

 
It was England and the English that had the largest effect on the daily lives of the Eighth Air Force. It was a country most of them had not known outside of books or geography class but a place that would become their home for their duration of the war. It was the fields of England that would say goodbye to them and greet their return from a mission, it was England that wounded planes and desperate men prayed to reach. At night, or on days off, the Americans would leave their bomber fields and bicycle down old roads into towns, drinking warm beer and meeting admiring ladies and school children. When these men were lucky, they could get a pass into London. There they could see a show, watch a movie or meet a girl and perhaps forget about flying for a bit. When night fell, and the city went black and the air raids sounded, the men would go to a shelter packed with women and children and remember why they were fighting.

 
England would leave an indelible mark on the lives of the Americans who served there. They in turn would leave their mark on England. Their legacy would be left on the men and women who met them, the children who grew up with them, and in the towns and fields of East Anglia, where the young Americans lived, played and died.

 

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Somewhere in London, someone bought a handkerchief and sent it home to loved ones, where it was kept as a reminder of England and the largest single air force in the world, the Mighty Eighth.

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Christmas wishes from the Second to None

2nd Infantry Division Insignia

2nd Infantry Division Insignia

It seemed like the fighting in Europe was almost finished. The American Army was in Germany. In the east, the Red Army was in Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary, and the Canadians had entered Holland.

Now a group of men sat in a German basement less than 450 miles from Berlin. They had landed with the 2nd Infantry Division on Omaha Beach on D-Day+1. The men were proud of their division, which they called “Indian Head” after their shoulder patch. They were proud to be in a unit where their dad’s fought at Belleau Wood and Château-Thierry. They were proud of their motto “Second to None”. In four months they had travelled more than 400 miles from the hedgerows of Normandy, to St. Lo and the port city of Brest. By September 29th, 1944 they had passed through Belgium and took positions at St. Vith. Four days later, they had entered Germany.

Soldier of the 2nd Infantry Division writing Christmas cards

Soldier of the 2nd Infantry Division writing Christmas cards

The air was thick with moisture and laced with the smell of mildew and wood, wet leather and sweat. The floor was cold, with ammo and empty ration tins littered about. There was a wooden ammo crate that the men sat around. On this makeshift table were Christmas cards, printed by the division, and they took turns writing theirs, getting ready to mail them so they could reach home in time for the holidays.  Their fathers had written their parents from Europe on Christmas in 1917, in a different war with the same enemy. Now their sons did the same for them.

In 1939, Hitler gave a speech saying “No foreign soldier shall ever set foot on German soil.” The 2nd Infantry Division remembered that speech. They put it on their holiday cards and added their kicker: “Nevertheless, from somewhere in Germany, we wish you a Merry Xmas.”

By Christmas, the men of the Indian Head were no longer in Germany; they were in Belgium, near an area called Elsenborn Ridge, in a battle where 19,000 Americans would die. There, the Indian Head performed what General Eisenhower would later call “One of the finest divisional actions of the war” holding back the German 6th Panzer Army in the Battle of the Bulge.

In November and December, till the end of the war in 1945, the US Army would suffer more than 450,000 casualties, including more than 133, 000 killed in action, almost as many as the Army had lost in 1941,1942,1943, and until October 1944 combined.

A GI in that basement had written his family, before the German offensive, when the war seemed almost finished and another holiday away from home was ahead. He wrote them with pride and loneliness: “I guess Adolph had never heard of the Second to None. Have a big ‘Xmas and drink some for me, Love J.P.”

2nd germ with mark2nd with mark

Jitterbug goes to war

Avengers on their way to Wake Island

Avengers on their way to Wake Island

The greatest thrill of his life came as he landed for the first time on the deck of an aircraft carrier at sea. Two years before in 1941, Elton Dale Snodgrass was a kid who read everything in the library and lived to go bowling and dancing. In the summer of 1941 he had just graduated high school in Terre Haute, Indiana. The summer after graduation is always memorable, the last vacation before friends got jobs or went off to college. The summer of 1941 was not special for that reason alone. It was the last summer before the storms in the East and West reached the isolationist beaches of the United States; the last summer where an eighteen year old from the Midwest would only have to worry about being a teenager. In December of that year, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and changed the face of America.

CVL 22, USS Independence at sea

CVL 22, USS Independence at sea

Elton Snodgrass joined the Navy and went to Boot Camp in Great Lakes Illinois. He applied for pilot training but they made him an aerial gunner instead. Leaving Indiana, he carried two things from home, a pair of black converse sneakers he bought in high school for $9, and his nickname: “Jitterbug”, after the dance step he loved.

By November 1943, he was an Aviation Ordnance Man 2nd class, and a turret gunner on a Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo plane in Torpedo Squadron Twenty-Two (VT-22) on sea duty aboard the USS Independence. He had already seen action in the Marcus Islands, and flown raids on Wake and Rabaul before VT-22 was given a new task. The Independence, along with the carriers USS Essex and Bunker Hill, was now part of Task Force 50.3, providing air support for the US Marine landings at the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll.

On November 18th the flight crews of the Independence, along with other carrier and land base planes launched 910 sorties against Betio, bombing the airfield and other installations, flying 170 sorties the day after.

At dawn on November 20th, Task Force 50.3 again launches its planes at the island, the focus is ground targets in preparation for the invasion.  The planes land, and the naval bombardment of the island begins, and the first of the Marine assault force climbs into their landing craft. At nine in the morning, a half hour later than planned, the Marines make their way toward the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll.

The men of Torpedo 22 (VT-22)

The men of Torpedo 22 (VT-22)

VT-22 too heads toward Betio, flying continuing close air support missions.  Below, landing craft shepherd the 18,600 Marines invading the island.  The 1,900 horse power radial engine vibrates the airframe. The plane dips and climbs slightly as it navigates the tropical air.In the front of the Avenger, the pilot sees what is coming and reacts to it.  The airplane responds to his touch, his desire. Below him, the radio operator has the most room, space to man the radios and the ventral machinegun, things to keep him occupied. The turret gunner’s world is confined to a metal seat with a 50. caliber machine gun, a thin veil of Plexiglas separating him from the blue sky. He is almost like a passenger, having no control over where he is going, just knowing whatever lies ahead will be dangerous and that he cannot see the danger because he faces the rear.

Jitterbug watches the sky and waits.  He thinks of stuff from when he was a kid back in Indiana, things he carries with him in his mind. Stuff like selling strawberries in grade school, and waking up before the sun rose to work a milk route with his mother. His sister Doris, bowling with friends, the things that keep him going, things from the past he wants a future with. He thinks of Mary, the girl who waits for him. He retraces the steps of their last dance on the metal turret, the rubber soles of the black converse shoes muted by the engine noise. He carries his nickname with him too, written on his flight helmet and goggles.

Tarawa Atoll

Tarawa Atoll

There is another thing he carries, something he shares with every man on the plane and the men down below: fear. Fear as the ground at Betio flickers when the Japanese defenses open up, fear when black puffs of anti-aircraft buffet the plane, as tracer bullets fill the air with bright glowing streaks; fear that would change Jitterbug’s full head of black hair almost bald.

When they drop their bombs, they head back to the carrier. Below them the Marines are engaging the Japanese. There is smoke over the task force, and it is from the Independence. A torpedo from a Japanese plane struck its starboard side. The ship is badly damaged, its flight deck closed. Jitterbug’s Avenger makes an emergency landing on the USS Essex. The Independence sails to Funafuti, in the Ellice Islands for temporary repairs.

Two days later, the fight for Tarawa would be over. In three days, 1000 Marines and almost the entire Japanese garrison will lay dead on the island. There will be a documentary film about the battle that for the first time would show the American public the uncensored carnage of war.

Without a ship, Jitterbug’s crew flies raids with the Essex against Kwajalein before going to Pearl Harbor to catch up with the Independence as it heads to San Francisco.

In February 1944, Jitterbug would marry his sweetheart Mary while on a 30 day leave in the US. His crew would train for night flying before orders came for them to be shipped to the Pacific aboard the aircraft carrier USS Cowpens.  On a stop at Pearl Harbor, Jitterbug’s application for pilot training is approved with orders back to San Francisco. His Avenger crew head to battle in the Pacific without him, where, on their first mission they are shot down and killed.

Jitterbug would never become a pilot with the US Navy. He was honorably discharged after a week of pilot training. He returned to Terre Haute, Indiana, the place he had left in 1942. He read in the library, bowled with his friends and danced with his wife. But things were never the same as they had been that summer long ago in 1941, when high school had finished and life was waiting to be found.  Jitterbug had gone off to war and come back and life had moved on.

Elton Dale "Jitterbug" Snodgrass

Elton Dale “Jitterbug” Snodgrass

Jitterbug (right) and fellow gunner

Jitterbug (right) and fellow gunner

Jitterbug's flight helmet, goggles, shoes and other mementos

Jitterbug’s flight helmet, goggles, shoes and other mementos

The Sinews of War

The landings at Omaha Beach

The landings at Omaha Beach

When the darkness fell in Normandy on June 6th 1944, it gave time to reflect on what had happened that day. In the East, the British had secured their beachhead sectors at Gold and Sword, with the Canadians in the middle at Juno. To the West, the Americans had taken Utah and Omaha beach and scaled the steep cliffs of Pointe-du-hoc. Further inland, British and Canadian Airborne soldiers were dug in around the Orne Bridge. American Paratroopers banded together around towns like St. Mere-Eglise and St Come-du-Mont. Nearly 160,000 Allied soldiers had landed in France, another 197,000 were offshore. Now they waited for daybreak.

 
In later days, some people would call June 6th the “Beginning of the end of the war in Europe”. On this Tuesday night, that end was still a long way off. The Allies had gained a foothold, but completed few of their objectives. Hitler’s Armies had not been brought into action yet. His Armored Divisions and elite units of SS and Paratroops were still alive and well, lurking somewhere in the darkness. They too waited, to see what the next dawn would bring.

Helmet of Chief Carpenter's Mate Kennedy, 108th Naval Construction Battalion

Helmet of Chief Carpenter’s Mate Kennedy, 108th Naval Construction Battalion

On that night, Chief Carpenter’s Mate Bruce Kennedy pondered his fate around Omaha beach. He and his men had arrived in Rosneath, Scotland in October 1943. Over the next eight months they traveled from Rosneath, to Plymouth and Netley in England. They knew why they were there. All of South England was alive with men and material bound for the assault on Europe. They also knew they would be a part of it.They had painted their helmets with a blue band to identify personnel on the invasion beaches. Bruce and his group would come ashore on Omaha Beach, becoming part of the 73,000 Americans to land in France on D-Day.

 
The job given them was not glamorous or romantic or even heroic. They would not storm beaches and fight for ground inch by inch. Their task was mundane, a thankless job, but a dangerous and vital one. They were the men of the 108th Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees), and it was for them to feed the invasion, overpower the enemy not with brawn but with supplies.

 

Seabees watch trucks roll onto an Rhino ferry in Normandy

Seabees watch trucks roll onto a Rhino ferry in Normandy

Today, on D-Day, their work was curtailed by heavy seas, mines and beaches not cleared of enemy action. Tomorrow they would land more vehicles and material on flat ferries called “Rhinos” and set up piers and bridges along the shore. Tomorrow too, the Germans would start to shell them with 88mm guns, and the Luftwaffe would strafe them on the beaches.

 
As the Allies moved farther inland in Normandy, the men of the 108th Naval Construction Battalion stayed on Omaha Beach; spreading the thin trickle of supplies to the flood that eventually pushed Hitler back to Berlin. In October of 1944, the 108th was sent back to the USA and inactivated. Chief Carpenter’s Mate Kennedy would be transferred to Saipan and serve with the Seabees until November of 1945. He and the men of the Seabees were not the men in the foxholes and trenches, the men winning awards and adoration. They were the men that made the war go, made it move in a mechanical fashion ever forward, men without which battles would not be fought, and wars could not be waged. They were the men who provided the power behind the spear, the arm to the fist. They were the body without which an army could not move and support itself: the sinews of war.

It takes more than heroes

B-29 bombers fly over the 5th Marine Division cemetary on Iwo Jima

B-29 bombers fly over the 5th Marine Division cemetery on Iwo Jima

On 9:00 AM on March 26th 1945 a small strip of land in the Volcanic Islands became silent. The last major action had ended the night before, with a 300 man suicide charge by the Japanese. Iwo Jima would become the iconic battle for the US Marines in World War Two. It would also be the only battle where overall US casualties exceeded that of the Japanese. 6,800 Americans lay in the volcanic ash, in the shadow of Mount Suribachi, where the iconic flag raising took place.

When I think of Marines and Iwo Jima, I think of tough men, pushing forward yard by yard, with rifles and grenades, against a determined foe; the marine with a grenade in his hand and a flamethrower on his back. These are the men that captured the minds of Americans; the heroes of Iwo Jima. But when the heroes got in trouble who could they turn to? Who paved the way for their trek to Suribachi and immortality?

The 5th Marine Division saw its one and only combat at Iwo Jima. It was one of three Marine divisions on the island, and the only one new to fighting. William Manning was a corporal in the 5th Marine division. William wasn’t the hero who led men into battle to grapple with the enemy in hand to hand combat. William was an artilleryman, in Headquarters battery, 4th Battalion, 13th Marine Artillery Regiment. He was one of the men those heroes turned to when they needed help. Assistance so they could move forward.

William helped for the thirty-six days of the battle, then he never fired a shot in anger at the Japanese again; his next encounter with them came when the 5th Division went to Japan, to occupy it peacefully.

Napoleon Bonaparte once made the comment:

“With Artillery, War is made”

So William Manning made war, so that he could find peace, a peace that 2,416 of the 5th Division’s men would never know. But because of him and the others in the artillery, maybe a few more got to see it. Sometimes in war, it takes more than heroes.

Fatigue shirt of Corporal William Manning 13th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division

Fatigue shirt of Corporal William Manning 13th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division

Encounters with the Rising Sun

Pack of Corporal Kenney, 4th Marine Regiment

Pack of Corporal Kenney, 4th Marine Regiment

On May 6th, 1942 the death march on Bataan had happened almost a month before. Now the island of Corregidor fell to the Japanese. The men of the 4th Marine Regiment and the other defenders sat on the dock surrounded by their captors awaiting an unknown future. They didn’t know it yet, that three and a half years of beatings, humiliation, starvation, disease and cruelty awaited them. Names of places like 92nd Garage, Bilibid, and Cabanatuan didn’t mean much to them on that day.

They couldn’t imagine the Japan bound “Hellships”, cargo ships unmarked as holding POW’s to protect them from friendly fire, inside which men would die packed in the holds, with little food, or water in the tropic heat; where one in five would die at the torpedoes of American submarines.
If luck was with them and they make it to Japan, they would become slaves, working in coal and copper mines, shipyards and factories. When it is all over, one in three would be dead.
It is often said “if things could talk, think of the stories they could tell.” This pack could tell a few about a young man named Richard Kenney; A Marine who carried it from the regiment’s days in Shanghai, China, to the defense of Corregidor. Maybe it could tell us of the POW’s forced march through the streets in front of the Filipino’s and how those Filipino’s cheered the defenders and were beaten by the Japanese when they offered food and water. It could go on about the cruel days and nights of the Hellships, and of days in Osaka main Camp at Chikko. Perhaps it could tell us how Corporal Kenney died at the camp, years before liberation, and how it made it back to the United States without him.

If it could talk it might tell us these things. But it leaves us to imagine for ourselves what it saw. It bears a mute witness to history and the life of a young man who once carried it.

Welcome to my blog

Welcome to Echoes of a War. I have had a keen interest in the Second World War since I was a child. In my blog I hope to share history, personal stories and artifacts that will be of interest to the historian, collector and anyone who likes to learn about and share history.

I am new at this so I hope to learn more about blogging as I go along and connect with some interesting people.

Thanks for reading.