Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last 416th West Pointer

The West Point class of June 1943 produced many heroes, some of whom lost their lives on the field of battle, others who went on to serve their country with distinction for more than half a century after the end of World War II. Sixteen members of that class who became aviators were assigned to the 416th Bomb Group. Bill Cramsie was the first member of that group, and of his class, to be killed in action. Dick Wheeler was the last surviving member of that group. He was not only a classmate of Cramsie, they were close friends. Dick wrote the obituary for Bill Cramsie that appeared in the West Point newsletter, "The Pointer" in 1946.

Dick Wheeler passed away on December 30, 2009. After enjoying Christmas with his family, he suffered a heart attack early Monday morning. His spirit remained strong but his body could no longer keep up. He passed with his wife Alice at his side and surrounded by all of his children and grandchildren. It was my distinct honor to know Colonel Wheeler, who was clearly a hero, having won a Distinguished Flying Cross during the war and another during peacetime for his world-record setting parachute jump of 42,449 feet at Holloman AFB, NM in 1950. During the 416th Bomb Group Reunion this past September, I video-taped about two hours of discussion with Dick about his years at West Point and with the 416th. Attached here are a few short clips from that interview. He will be missed by many, but especially by those who understood his untiring devotion to "Duty, Honor, Country."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

When a Soldier Comes Home

One of the many "pass it on" emails circulating widely deals with the widened perspective that war forces upon all, but especially upon the young. That email was created by Captain Alison L. Crane, a nurse in the 7302nd Medical Training Support Battalion. Rather than simply pass it on to my email list, where it would quickly be lost in the morass of cyberspace, I decided to put Captain Crane's message and photos into a slideshow movie that could be posted here. The images will advance automatically. As background, I added the a cappella rendition of Amazing Grace by the Cactus Cuties, from Lubbock, Texas. I hope it's as inspiring to you as it was to Doris and me. To view a larger image, just use the zoom-in feature of your browser (under the "view" menu) while playing the presentation.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Matter of Aesthetics

A 90-year-old Virginia Medal of Honor winner and veteran of WWII and Vietnam has been ordered to remove the flag pole from his front yard because it does not conform "aesthetically" to the standards of the homeowners association where he lives. They want the most highly decorated combat soldier alive to fly his flag from a wall mount. The story is covered by out of Richmond.

In the first day of posting, more than 3,000 comments have been appended to the article and the issue is gaining national attention.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Heroes among us

On this Veteran's Day 2009 there are good wishes and heartfelt thanks pouring across America, but none struck me more poignantly than the one that follows here. It came as a "pass it on" email and caught my eye when I saw the name Chuck Yeager in the subject line. I have long admired General Yeager, not only for his accomplishments but for his candid, often frontal, communications. Everyone who has any interest in military aviation knows the story of Chuck Yeager. He was already a hero when I was a young boy. It's like the old Smith-Barney commercial, when he speaks, everyone listens. I had the good fortune to meet Chuck Yeager in 1973, though it did not seem like good fortune at the time.

I enlisted in the Air Force right after graduating from High School. My dream was to attend the Air Force Academy, but I wasn't smart enough to realize that one achieves that kind of goal through years of preparation. The competitive exam for a Congressional appointment was a real wake-up call. I must admit that my academic career at Horicon High School was less than stellar. However, I seemed to make up for lack of foresight with dogged determination and after ten years of reaching for that brass ring I managed to earn a bachelors degree and the brown bars of a Second Lieutenant through the Air Force's Bootstrap Commissioning Program. In May of 1972, I officially became a "Mustang", as we late-bloomers are often called. I was a relatively mature "2nd Louie" and by early 1973 was assigned to the position of Commander of the 2081st Communications Squadron at Goodfellow AFB, Texas. I had only been in the office a couple weeks when the base was hit with a no-notice IG inspection from the Air Force Inspector General himself. Yes, it was then Brigadier General Chuck Yeager. At the end of a grueling week, General Yeager had all of the middle and top level managers on the base assembled for an out-briefing. He personally took the stage to inform us that the most impressive thing he and his team had seen at Goodfellow was the base dump. It was a very long and very quiet session that followed. I was a little shell-shocked, but what that experience imprinted on me was the singular message that "good enough for government work" is not a tenable position. The lesson that General Yeager left on the table served me, and I think the Air Force, very well in the years that followed. It is probably a bit ironic (or perhaps poetic justice) that this happened in my first assignment as an officer and my final assignment before retiring was as an inspector and Team Chief on the Inspector General's team.

Today, General Yeager (one of those heroes among us) has shared another important lesson. We must all remember those who have served—be they comrades, neighbors, loved ones or just someone passing in uniform. Below is the email from General Yeager in which he details an experience that personally touches me and is worth "passing on".

We're hearing a lot today about big splashy memorial services.
I want a nationwide memorial service for Darrell "Shifty" Powers.

Shifty volunteered for the airborne in WWII and served with Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne Infantry. If you've seen Band of Brothers on HBO or the History Channel, you know Shifty. His character appears in all 10 episodes, and Shifty himself is interviewed in several of them.

I met Shifty in the Philadelphia airport several years ago. I didn't know who he was at the time. I just saw an elderly gentleman having trouble reading his ticket. I offered to help, assured him that he was at the right gate, and noticed the "Screaming Eagle," the symbol of the 101st Airborne, on his hat.

Making conversation, I asked him if he'd been in the 101st Airborne or if his son was serving. He said quietly that he had been in the 101st. I thanked him for his service, then asked him when he served, and how many jumps he made.

Quietly and humbly, he said "Well, I guess I signed up in 1941 or so, and was in until sometime in 1945 .. . . " at which point my heart skipped.

At that point, again, very humbly, he said "I made the 5 training jumps at Toccoa, and then jumped into Normandy . . . . do you know where Normandy is?" At this point my heart stopped.

I told him "yes, I know exactly where Normandy is, and I know what D-Day was." At that point he said "I also made a second jump into Holland, into Arnhem ." I was standing with a genuine war hero . . . . and then I realized that it was June, just after the anniversary of D-Day..

I asked Shifty if he was on his way back from France , and he said "Yes. And it's real sad because, these days, so few of the guys are left, and those that are, lots of them can't make the trip." My heart was in my throat and I didn't know what to say.

I helped Shifty get onto the plane and then realized he was back in Coach while I was in First Class. I sent the flight attendant back to get him and said that I wanted to switch seats. When Shifty came forward, I got up out of the seat and told him I wanted him to have it, that I'd take his in coach.

He said "No, son, you enjoy that seat. Just knowing that there are still some who remember what we did and who still care is enough to make an old man very happy." His eyes were filling up as he said it. And mine are brimming up now as I write this.

Shifty died on June 17, 2009 after fighting cancer.

There was no parade.
No big event in Staples Center .
No wall to wall back to back 24x7 news coverage.
No weeping fans on television.
And that's not right.

Let's give Shifty his own Memorial Service, online, in our own quiet way. Please forward this email to everyone you know. Especially to the veterans.

Rest in peace, Shifty.

Chuck Yeager, MajGen. [ret.]

Friday, October 16, 2009


We consolidated some poignant photos from other internet sources and background music from the USAF band into a short video clip for presentation at the 416th Bomb Group reunion banquet on September 12, 2009 at Branson, MO. It is a memorial to those veterans of the Group who recently passed away. Those killed in action, or who died before about 2000 are not included in this clip, but a project to honor their memory is currently being planned. The original video included a rendition of the National Anthem, which is not included here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Defining Moments

We can all look back at moments in our lives when something extraordinary moved us abruptly from the path that we were on and launched us on a new course. These, for lack of a better term, might be called defining moments. The journey that led to the writing of First to Fall was punctuated by a host of defining moments—so much so that I often wondered where the path was headed next. One of the most powerful episodes was the apparition of Clemie Smith's V-mail sent to Bob Basnett in June of 1944.

Nearly three years ago, on October 19, 2006 to be exact, Doris and I were visiting with Bob and Puz Basnett at their home in central Missouri. We had enjoyed a delicious meal and a couple glasses of wine when the discussion turned to Bill Cramsie. Bob shared a number of memories and patiently endured my grilling for details. Then, without saying a word, he rose from the table and walked into a nearby room. When he came back, he had in his hand what looked like a photograph, except that it was all handwriting. Although I knew of V-mail, this was the first that I had actually seen. It took me by surprise, not only because it was more than 60 years old, but also because it was signed by Clemie Smith. As I sat there, nonplussed, Doris had the presence of mind to snap a photo. As I was soon to learn, that photo captured a defining moment.

Wayne (right) holding the V-mail from Clemie Smith

The first thing I noticed was that Clemie's address (previously unknown to me) was at the top of the form. Other little details were enlightening, but the lightning bolt struck when I read these words: "Have seen Dee and she told me Bill is missing in action - and asked me to ask you if you knew anything about it." Bob had told me about the double-dates in Manhattan, but he did not remember the name of the girl that Bill had dated. Here it was—sort of. My first thought was how I would ever find someone named "Dee" in a city the size of New York.

Vmail from Clemie Smith to Bob Basnett - June 1944

It took the better part of two years and a LOT of false leads and dead ends before the mysterious Dee finally materialized. But, in the process, I learned enough about their relationship to know that Dee and Bill were far more than casual acquaintances. The revelation in Clemie Smith's V-mail was indeed a defining moment in the development of First to Fall because it brought to me a new perspective of Bill Cramsie the person, not just the West Pointer killed in action. Without the V-mail from Clemie, it is very likely that I would not have been able to follow the story to its conclusion.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Forever Young

This past week I spent an afternoon with Ralph Conte in Columbia, Missouri. This active nonagenarian was a Bombardier/Navigator with the 669th and 670th Bomb Squadrons of the 416th Bomb Group during WWII and authored the Group history Attack Bombers We Need You. Most of his 65 combat missions were flown in the A-20 Havoc. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and numerous other U.S. and Allied Nation decorations and awards. Ralph graciously consented to sitting for a video taping session and for three hours he shared many remembrances of his days in the 416th, some delightful and some insightful—all of them interesting. At the very end of the session, Ralph reflected on the process of looking back. It was a poignant moment that I thought worth sharing now. The remainder of this interview will serve as source material, along with other interviews, photos and remembrances, for an eventual documentary about the 416th.

Ralph Conte

By the way, there is a photo of the "sprightly" Wayne Downing and his charming wife Norma at:

Monday, June 1, 2009

Coming Home

Anyone who has an Email account has had more than one experience with forwarded inspirational messages. While these are always well intentioned, and often touching, they do tend to gang up on one's free time and tax one's ability sometimes to fully appreciate them. As a matter of course, I rarely pass them on. But, one came from a friend in the mail last week that I simply must share. Any copyright info was long since lost in the forwarding process but the origin is clearly a message from Ford Motor Company™. It is, in fact, a commercial of sorts. So, let's add the copyright back in and give full credit to Ford for producing the most poignant commercial that I have ever seen. Yes, even better than the Budweiser Christmas commercials. I'm not given to emotionalism, as all who know me well will quickly attest, but this video brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it. Now, even if you are a fan of the new State-owned General Motors products, you owe it to yourself to watch this one. I'm pretty sure that Ford will forgive my transgression in passing it along.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Two of the Many

On this Memorial Day, 2009, we should all pause to reflect on the many sacrifices that have assured our rights and freedoms in America. Some will enjoy a Memorial Day parade and perhaps attend a memorial service at a local cemetery. Volunteers, across the land, will be placing flags on the graves of a million or more veterans—many of them in the 128 National Cemeteries—and flying flags from their homes. It has become a fitting tradition that on this day we honor those who perished during time of war. We tend to focus on what we have gained through their sacrifice, but we ought to remember as well what we have lost. These gallant men and women were among the best that our country had to offer on the altar of peace. It boggles the mind to think what more we could have done with the benefit of their presence these many years.

William Edward Cramsie and Robert John Rooney were clearly exceptional young men. They had endured much to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in June of 1943 and to earn their wings in the Army Air Corps. They were Irishmen and proud of their heritage. They also were room mates at the academy and close friends. They served with honor and distinction during WWII flying twin-engine attack bombers in the 416th Bomb Group. Both died in action tragically, and needlessly, under heart-wrenching circumstances. These were men that could have climbed almost any mountain and certainly would have been leaders in any field of endeavor that they chose. Their loss is striking to us, but must have been monumental at the time for those who knew, loved and admired them. Although we can look back into their lives and reconstruct events, or postulate actions and emotions, it is a feeble attempt at best to recapture the essence of who they were and what we have lost. The best that we can do today is to honor their memory as a very small tribute to them and to the many that they represent.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Dolloretta "Dee" Rogers and Bill Cramsie had met at West Point while Bill was an underclassman—in a rather unusual way according to her own telling. Dee had been talking with some upperclassmen, who were friends of her sister Kathleen, when Bill walked by. She asked the cadets she was with at the time who Bill was. They broke with the strict protocol of the day and called Bill over to introduce him. Dee and Bill apparently got along famously from the start. They spent time together at academy social functions and perhaps during rare passes when Bill could get into New York City. After graduation, Bill completed his flying training at Stewart Field in Newburgh, NY not very far north of West Point. There, he would have had considerably more freedom to get away occasionally. Bill was assigned to the 416th Bomb Group in September of 1943 and was transferred with that Group to England in January of 1944. The men of the 416th were sent to Camp Shanks, on the west bank of the Hudson across from Tarrytown, NY. While awaiting the formation of a convoy, Bill and Bob Basnett met Dee and her friend Clementine Smith on at least two, possibly three occasions in New York City. After the unit arrived in England, Bill and Dee remained in touch via V-mail. When Bill was declared Missing in Action, on April 10, 1944, Dee's letters to him were found among his personal effects. The squadron commander then wrote to her explaining what had happened. In a later V-mail from Clemie Smith to Bob Basnett, Clemie mentioned that she had seen Dee and wondered if there were any further word about Bill.

Several years after the war, Dee married John R. Cleary with Clemie Smith being one of the bridesmaids. The couple made their home in Detroit, Michigan—eventually moving to southern Florida. After searching for four years, I finally located Dee Rogers Cleary. Unfortunately, time had won the race. Dee was in a medical care facility and could not provide the countless details that I longed to hear. Through the gracious assistance of her son Jack and his wife Julie, enough details were gathered to confirm that this was indeed the Dee of my search. It was in the Fall of 2008 that I finished First to Fall and sent it to press. Dee was failing, but I immediately sent a copy of the book hoping that she could at least see what had come of this quest. As she neared death during the Christmas holidays, much of the book was read to her at her bedside by Julie. As often is the case in those closing days, one's memories clear and emotions return. Dee left us quietly on December 31, 2008. In relaying the sad news, Jack wrote that the book "brought back many happy memories to her of the time she spent getting to know Bill as well as her best friend Clemie Smith." That it brought joy and good memories to her at a trying time was a huge validation for me personally, making the many hours of research meaningful.

This morning, as I poured through two weeks accumulation of emails from being out of town, I came upon a message from Jack Cleary with the attached photo from his brother Tom that I've posted here. In all of the years that I had known of Dee, I had never seen a photo of her. As I sat before my computer, transfixed by the image, I knew instinctively that I had gotten it right.

Cousin Ned

My first contact with Edward (Ned) Burr came fairly early in my research about Bill Cramsie. Ned is the current president of the alumni of the West Point class of June 1943. He shared with me, by telephone, his memories of Bill and directed me to those who might still recall details from the three years they spent at the academy. In the process, I discovered much to my surprise that Ned and I have a common ancestral trail. Sarah Burr married my GGGG grandfather, Samuel Darling, in 1782, and they had a daughter name Esther who married Stephen Sayles. Ned and I connect a bit farther up the trail from Sarah. So, the DNA match is probably not too obvious. But it was fun nonetheless to find such a distant cousin.

Last weekend, I needed to travel to Washington DC on some business and Ned invited me to spend an evening with him and his charming wife Nikki. What a wonderful experience that turned out to be! Aside from the inevitable stories about West Point and WWII, I was enthralled with Nikki's memories of landing a job at the New York Times and her later writing and publishing experiences. We enjoyed an exceptional dinner of Chicken Oscar at the local "Officer's Mess". I call it that lovingly (even though it was not) since practically everyone in the building was ex-military. The Burrs live in a beautifully appointed military retirement facility adjacent to Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The atmosphere is very "up-scale" and the dinner was prepared and served to perfection. I felt compelled to share with Ned and Nikki my experience at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City where Chicken Oscar originated. Each year, in early January, I travel to NYC for a business convention which is held on one of the upper floors of the Waldorf Hotel. In reading about Clemie Smith, I discovered that she and her sisters often played harp in the Starlight Room of the Waldorf—apparently the rage at that time. When, on my next trip, I went looking for that room I discovered very much to my surprise that it was the very room that I have been coming to for many years. A coincidence, no doubt, but only one of far too many that came along during the writing of First to Fall. It was easy for me, on my latest visit, to hear the sounds of laughter and the shuffle of New York's "upper crust" echoing from the walls.

Having schlepped my video equipment along on this trip to Washington, with the intention of capturing some of Ned's memories on tape, we spent about an hour and a half preserving for posterity some of the things that stand out in the mind of a young man at West Point. Ned is an animated and articulate speaker and I'm anxiously looking forward to editing these tapes because I know in advance that they are going to be very entertaining and informative.

The next morning, I had the pleasure of meeting Dutch Umlauf for breakfast. Dutch is also a member of the class of June 1943 and remembered both Cramsie and Bob Rooney well. I was stunned when he casually mentioned that Cramsie and Rooney were roommates at the academy. Nobody that I had previously spoken to could recall who Bill Cramsie's roommate was. From early on in the research process, I felt very much like there was a link between the two, but had no real evidence to make the connection. As in nearly every case along the way, this tidbit came unexpectedly and in the form of a revelation. I had already decided before meeting Dutch that I would be writing the story of Bob Rooney (another tragedy) as a sequel to First to Fall. How strange is that?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Great Abyss

Some time ago I was approached by a colleague who had also written a book about the 416th Bomb Group and wanted to produce a documentary about the group and its history. The proposal struck me as appealing because I had actually harbored thoughts of doing the same, even though I was totally inexperienced in the medium of videography. The project that this colleague proposed was to be a team effort that would include professional video production people and was to be funded by a public grant. I would do a share of the interviewing and we would collaborate on the narrative. It all sounded exciting. However, over several months, the project tended to lose momentum and finally stalled for lack of ability to obtain a commitment for grant funds. Over the past year, at least four of those veterans who would have been interviewed have died and a couple more have developed medical problems that make an interview impractical. One of those that passed away was Scotty Street, the last man to see Bill Cramsie alive. The death of Mr. Street was a very strong wakeup call for me personally. I began to realize that waiting is not an option if we want to preserve the stories these courageous men have to tell. About three months ago, I decided to launch an effort on my own.

Lacking even the most rudimentary knowledge of digital video or video interviewing, I went online looking for help. It was my good fortune to stumble across and a passel of friendly video experts. The site is a discussion group where practically every conceivable subject about digital video has been discussed by people who know what they're talking about. I laid out my dilemma, admitted my complete ignorance, and asked for help. Early in the process, one of the regulars who actually became very helpful later advised me to forget it and hire a professional. That was good advice, but the cost to do what needed to be done was an impossible burden. So, after more than 60 discussion list exchanges with more than a dozen experts, I assembled the basic equipment and stepped off into that wide abyss that skydivers or bungi jumpers must experience. At times, it certainly did feel like free falling. Since it would be necessary to travel across the country to do these taping sessions, I focussed on small and light equipment with the goal of fitting everything needed into an airline carry-on bag. After a lot of research and creative planning, here is a list of what my equipment consisted of:

(2) Canon Vixia HV30 high definition video cameras
(4) Rechargeable camera batteries
(1) Canon AC adapter
(2) AC/DC battery chargers
(1) Lavalier microphone with cable
(1) Shotgun microphone with cable and mounting hardware
(1) Two-piece telescoping shotgun mike boom
(2) 51" collapsing camera tripods
(1) 2' tabletop tripod
(2) 7' collapsing light stands with light fixtures
(1) 36" umbrella reflector
(1) 12" aluminum spotlight reflector
(1) Backlight fixture
(2) 85 watt fluorescent daylight bulbs (340 watt tungsten equivalent each)
(2) 26 watt fluorescent daylight bulbs (100 watt tungsten equivalent each)
(1) Folding headset
(1) Firewire cable
(1) Polarizing and color correction filter kit
(4) Extra microphone batteries
(1) 9' AC extension cord
(1) Three-way AC outlet adapter
(15) One-hour Mini DV tapes

Yes, remarkably, it does fit into a carry-on. I also carry a laptop and a flatbed scanner in a shoulder bag. My strategy is simple. I set up two cameras separated by about 15 degrees, one with a tight head shot and one with a wider upper torso shot. Each camera is fed with a different external microphone. All taping is done on battery power to eliminate any 60 Hz hum or ground loops. With this system, I have full redundancy of video and audio. I can monitor the cameras from my seated position before the subject, but do not have to do anything with them once the taping starts. This allows me to concentrate on the subject and hold eye contact. The cameras just keep recording and the unwanted segments will be cut later in editing. If there is a change in framing or audio level, I can see it and make any needed correction on the spot. Since the subject is lit with a conventional 3-light arrangement with daylight fluorescents bulbs, there is no heat or uncomfortable glare.

My first attempt with this setup was a three-day session last week in southern California with Wayne Downing, a pilot with the 416th who flew 86 combat missions in Europe during WWII. Wayne was flying on the mission in which Bill Cramsie was killed.

Wayne and Norma Downing - France 1944

He and his wife Norma (both veterans of WWII and married in France during the war) graciously invited me into their home, where a mini studio was set up in their living room. We taped nearly six hours of memories (12 hours of raw DV tape) and could have gone on even longer had there been more time. It was an extraordinary experience for me and, regardless of any amateurism that may show up in my filming, the information that was preserved is priceless.

My next interview will be with Ned Burr, a West Point graduate of the class of June 1943 who is currently president of the class alumni group. Several others are planned throughout the remainder of this year. My intention is to capture and save the raw data now and then edit the clips at a later date.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Cramsie Diary

Those who have read First To Fall realize that the diary entries written in the hand of Bill Cramsie were constructed from events, not copied from an actual diary. Ned Burr, who is the president of the alumni of the class of June 1943 and is himself mentioned in the book, wrote about the diaries in a recent correspondence: "I found [them] so realistic that it took me a while to realize that they were yours, not his." The evolution of the Cramsie diary is something that may be worth explaining. My initial drafts of First To Fall were written in a style not unlike most histories and biographies, very matter of fact. Though I was quite satisfied with the detail that was presented, the narrative lacked the emotion that I felt the story deserved. After much deliberation, I decided to hire a "Ghost Writer" to help me structure the story a bit differently. I won't go into the process here, but I was led by providence to a web site through which I met Alice McVeigh. Almost immediately, I knew that Alice was the right person to help me with the problem I was having. Little did I know that she was the granddaughter of General Maxwell D. Taylor, a West Point graduate, a West Point Superintendant and a figure who played prominently in the Normandy invasion of 1944 not to mention his extraordinary service for the following 20 years. That discovery left me with goose bumps.

Alice was the one who first suggested doing the book as a Cramsie diary. Because there is so much technical detail, I felt that sort of presentation might not work in all cases. What I ultimately decided to do was to have Alice take the personal aspects of my narrative and convert them to diary format. I then interleaved them with the technical aspects that were written from my perspective. The bulk of the diary entries were based on actual events that were gleaned from military records at West Point and at the Air Force Historical Research Agency. Thus, the story was able to be unfolded factually in both a personal and technical atmosphere. The use of different fonts for the two "voices" of Bill Cramsie and myself made the separation clear and actually helped to develop a "then and now" aspect that was an unexpected bonus.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bois des Huit Rues

The V-1 launch site at Bois des Huit Rues was well hidden within a patch of woods northwest of Morbecque and southwest of Hazebrouck in the Pas de Calais region of France perhaps better known to Americans as Flanders. The operational and personnel facilities were located within the wooded area itself, but the launch ramp was by necessity constructed at the edge of an open field to the north. The ruins of this site, designated site 623 by the German Luftwaffe, are still visible along a well posted walking path in what is now a state forest area.

The dark patch of green at the center of this satellite photo is Bois des Huit Rues
The site had been earmarked as a priority target in the Spring of 1944 and when the weather cleared on April 10th, after two weeks of inactivity, the 416th dispatched 36 A-20 bombers on a mission to destroy the secret facility. The weather forecast called for heavy overcast over the English Channel but clearing skies to the south over France. Official mission reports were conflicting in regard to the weather. The lead navigators of each of the two flights reported the results as a "bad miss" due to heavy cloud cover over the target. The 9th Air Force reports indicated, however, that weather was not a factor. Only recently, this conflicting information was resolved when a series of previously unpublished official photos included a photo from this mission. The cloud cover was very dense, as the navigators had reported, and the flights made three passes over the target before dropping their bombs. Some aircraft were unable to drop at all. The overall results were devastating for the 416th as the group lost three aircraft and two crews on that day.

Mission photo from April 10, 1944

Nine days later, the 416th returned to Bois des Huit Rues and destroyed the site. The aerial photo from that mission is revealing as the bomb craters from previous missions are clearly visible.

Mission photo from April 19, 1944

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Operation Crossbow

The V-1 "Buzz Bomb" or "Doodlebug" was still shrouded in mystery during the Fall of 1943 when 416th Bomb Group crews were training in the southeastern U.S. for low-level attack missions with their twin-engined A-20 Havoc light bombers. Nobody at that time, least of all the men of the 416th, could have envisioned the role that the V-1 would play in their future war effort. By the time men and planes had arrived and consolidated at Wethersfield RAF base northeast of London in January and February of 1944, the newly arrived 9th Air Force was learning about military targeting and political pressure.

British leaders had been briefed that a new secret weapon being deployed by the Germans along the Atlantic Wall could rain a virtually unstoppable assault of aerial bombs upon London and other British population centers. With the Battle of Britain and its savage bombings still searing their memories, the high command was determined to stop this threat before it could become operational. The code name for these secret weapon sites was NOBALL and every pilot in the British isles, knew that these sites were a priority target. That was about all that they knew about them. The air power resources at the disposal of the Allies in Britain in the months leading up to D-Day were hotly contested by three groups: the strategic planners, the tactical planners and the British homeland defense forces. The heavy bombers with deep penetrating capability into Germany were employed mainly by the strategic planners in their effort to disrupt the production of war materiel. American commanders wanted the medium and light bombers to concentrate on softening communications sites, marshalling yards, airfields and transportation lanes. The British wanted all of the air power directed at these new weapon sites to remove them as a threat to the population centers of the island. The campaign to do that was dubbed Operation Crossbow. Although some heavy bombers did attack Crossbow sites, the main weapon systems deployed against them were the B-26 Marauder, a medium bomber, and the A-20 Havoc, a light bomber. Not only did the British prevail in earmarking these units for Crossbow missions (much to the consternation of American field commanders) they also insisted that the missions be flown at relatively high altitudes since their early low-level missions in the Boston (RAF equivalent of the Havoc) sustained very high losses. Ironically, General Hap Arnold had already proven in carefully controlled tests that the Havoc was more effective against these sites at low level, but politics prevailed and the British had their way.

During the months of March through May of 1944, the vast majority of medium and light bomber missions out of England were directed at NOBALL sites. In retrospect, these missions were extremely costly. Not only did they claim the lives of many young airmen, they accomplished virtually nothing in the way of deterring V-1 deployment. After Allied raids on the V-1 sites started in the Fall of 1943, the Germans quickly abandoned plans to launch from the hardened Atlantic Wall sites and converted their operations to mobile launchers. The hardened sites were ringed with antiaircraft units and hasty repairs were done after bombing raids to give the illusion of continued operations. The Germans baited Allied intelligence and the air crews paid the price. It was a colossal ruse that the Allies did not recognize until after the invasion at Normandy. It was on one of these Crossbow missions, April 10, 1944, that Bill Cramsie and his crew lost their lives in an heroic but futile effort.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Clemie watching over us

For the past two decades, my travel schedule has included a sortie to Manhattan each winter to attend an international numismatic convention. As mentioned in First To Fall, it was on one of these trips that I was honored to meet Chris and Sheran Daniele in their home at Pelham Manor. Sherry is the daughter of Clementine Smith—a friend of Bill Cramsie's from the days when Marymount girls enriched the social life of West Point cadets. I was particularly interested in details about Clemie because of her dates with Bob Basnett while doubling with Bill Cramsie and Dee Rogers at New York City in January of 1944. The young aviators were temporarily at Camp Shanks, NY awaiting a transport to the war zone.

Last week, I returned to Manhattan and rejoined the Daniele family at Pelham for a most pleasant evening of remembrances. This historic and beautifully maintained hamlet lies on the western shore of Long Island Sound only a 28-minute train ride north of Grand Central Station. I had met Chris and Sherry's daughter Lia on my earlier visit and was happy to be able to see her again briefly on this trip as she was teaching a class of young ballerinas at her mother's dance studio in Pelham. Their younger daughter Teresa was home from college this time and I was able to meet her as well. During the research for and writing of First To Fall, I had become spiritually connected it seems with many of those who are no longer with us and Clemie Smith was one of those. As Sherry, Teresa and I conversed about things past and present I was drawn to the portrait of Clemie that rests above their fireplace mantel. It was a three-generational living snapshot with Clemie watching over us as we revisited some of her early days. The physical likeness was obvious to me and I could particularly envision her grandmother in Teresa's face and demeanor. I'm sure that Clemie is very proud.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my research has been the opportunity to meet many extraordinary people in a very personal way. The sense of attachment that accompanied these meetings was an unexpected and greatly appreciated bonus.