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May 2017

What Did You Do In The War Grandpa?

Department of Obscure References

This is for my niece, Katie.  Recently you had said something along the lines of "why didn't anyone ever tell me that" about your grandfather.  So I thought I'd share some details about his time in World War II.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, your grandfather, along with his two best friends, enlisted.  Norman and Nathan Sandersen (sp?) joined the Army.  More specifically, they joined the Army Air Force (the Air Force was not a separate branch of the military at the time).  Their friend, Daniel (I don't recall his last name) joined the Navy.  

Here's a picture of Norman (left) and Nathan (right).  

Norman Callahan and Nathan Sanderson2

Of the three friends, only Norman survived the war.  Nathan was a ball turret gunner in his B-17 crew.  He was on a mission when his plane was shot down.  The other crew members were able to jump out of the plane, but Nathan couldn't get out of the ball turret, and died when the plane crashed into the ground.  Daniel was aboard a destroyer (perhaps the USS Indianapolis, although that was a cruiser and not a destroyer) that was torpedoed and sunk.  The story of the Indianapolis is well-known; here's one account.  Your late uncle Nathan was named after Norman's buddy.  I was named after my grandfather, but I like to think that I was also named after Norman's friend, Daniel.

Norman was a photographer in the war.  It's probably more accurate to say he was a photographic technician.  His job was to process the films that were recorded during bombing missions, so that mission planners could assess how much damage the bombing had caused.  He was part of the 8th Army Air Force.  From the photo above, I had the impression that Norman flew on the bombing missions, recording the bombing runs.  Now I don't think that's the case.  In the accounts I've read, it seems that the bombers had cameras that automatically started when the bomb bay doors opened.  Also, descriptions of the crew of the B-17 and B-24 (the two long-range bombers used by the 8th Air Force) don't list a cameraman.  Nevertheless, developing the film after each mission was an important job; planners had to know how successful each bombing mission had been.

Norman enlisted in December, 1942 and was discharged in 1945.  Reading his last will and testament (no doubt required of every enlistee) was a sobering experience.  I don't know much about Norman's time in the Army Air Force, as he wasn't one to talk about his experiences (at least not to me).  I do know that he fell out of the back of a transport once and injured his back.  Other than a few references to lovely English ladies, that's all I know.

The 8th Air Force was based in England.  They were responsible for daylight bombing of German factories, oil refineries and anything else deemed material to the war effort.  The British Air Force conducted night bombing.  US bombing was labeled "strategic" as it targeted specific sites.  British bombing was called "area" bombing as it just attempted to hit an area of interest.  Exactly why this division of labor existed is hard to say.  The British had tried daylight bombing, but experienced heavy losses and weren't able to hit their targets with any precision.  There was also a belief (thanks to experiencing The Blitz) that bombing of civilian targets (by accident or, as in the case of Dresden, on purpose [see Slaughterhouse Five]) could cause a loss of civilian morale and possibly hasten the end of the war.  It's also true that the US had developed the Norden bombsight (Norman claimed they used a spider's thread for the filament used to sight the target) which had proven to be very accurate (under unrealistically ideal circumstances).

At any rate, daylight bombing was incredibly dangerous.  Bombers flew without fighter escort between 1942 and 1944, since there was no mid-air refueling at this time and escort fighters didn't have enough fuel to make the complete round-trip.  So the bombers had to fight their way into and out of the target.  The bombers were heavily armed, and developed formation flying to increase their defensive capabilities.  Still, between the flak and enemy fighters the bombers suffered tremendous losses.  26,000 service members died, out of 210,000 deployed.  The average lifespan for the bomber crew was thirteen missions.  [Side note: this attrition, together with the requirement to complete 25 missions, led to the notion of a "Catch-22."The odds were you'd be killed before completing 25 missions, yet you couldn't be relieved of duty unless you were insane... And if you asked not to fly because you feared for your life, you were considered sane."]  Later in the war, fighters were introduced that had longer range and were able to accompany the bombers to their targets and back.  In order to avoid the flak, the bombers flew at something like 50,000 feet--higher than a passenger jet.  The bomber cabins weren't pressurized or heated.  As a result, crews had to breathe oxygen during the trip (frostbite around the mouth was a common injury) and had to wear the heavy flight suits with integrated heaters in order to avoid freezing to death during flight.

Even if you didn't fly on bombing missions, it had to have been tough work. Guys you trained with, had a beer with, left in the morning and didn't come back.  Guys too young to graduate from college were leading crews of 10 on 12-hour flights with bombs exploding all around you while you had to maintain level, straight flight in order to hopefully hit your target.

So that's what I know.  Maybe your Mom has more details.  As others have said, it was a time when ordinary men and women accomplished extraordinary things.