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Sgt. Charles H. Crane
720th Squadron
Charles Crane

Autobiography -Memories of World War II-for my kids

By Charles Howard Crane, 720th Ordnance Crew Member

 

Having graduated from high school in June of 1941 (I was 17), I got a job working for Pratt and Whitney, a division of United Aircraft Corporation in East Hartford, Conn. I worked the "graveyard shift", from 12:00 pm to 7:00 am. Our country did not enter the war until December 7, 1941 but we were gearing up and helping our allies by supplying them and it was just a question of time before I'd be drafted or I'd enlist.

The job I had was in Parts Control (12pm to 7am) and had to do with moving the parts of aircraft engines through the manufacturing process from department to department and within a department. I was in a parts crib and the parts came to me in metal pans (if they were small) and I would record, store, issue or send them on to another department as necessary to complete the operations to be performed on them. I don't think I really knew what I was doing as I had very little mechanical training up to then and hardly knew one part from another; much less what stage of the process it was in.

For me $75 a week was very good pay back then but some former school friends, with whom I car pooled, were working on machines (grinders, lathes, drill presses) and were making as much as $200 a week with the bonuses they earned doing piecework. I remember being jealous of the money they were making but their work kept them standing at their machines and was pretty boring. I could leave my crib frequently and had the run of the place.

Some of the machine workers, having completed their expected production and more to make a bonus, would come into the crib, crawl into an empty parts bin, pull a rag over the opening and take a nap. If they stayed on the job and made more parts than were expected, the job would be retimed. Making more parts than the job called for per hour was known as "killing the job" and, if discovered, from then on they'd have to produce a greater quantity for less money.

In the fall of 1942 I was accepted at the Univ. of Conn. as a mechanical engineering student. I had been registered for the draft and it was just a question of time before I'd be called up. The idea was to get as much education as possible before entering the service and I had plenty of money saved from Pratt & Whitney.

The required courses for an entry level engineering student were very tough for me but the toughest was engineering chemistry. I didn't like chemistry in high school and I had had an awful teacher (who just happened to be my baseball coach) so I didn't learn anything there. (The coach was Hank Adamowitz, a graduate of the Univ. of Alabama's special classes for football players, where he didn't learn anything either.) I remember that most of us fooled around a lot in his class and he either allowed it or didn't see it.

When I got to the UConn campus I was given a test to see whether my background in chemistry at the high school level was sufficient to enter directly into college level chemistry and, like a fool, I passed it. I went on to get a "D" in my first semester of engineering chemistry but that was the first and last "D" I got in college.

During this period, representatives of the armed forces were visiting the campus, recruiting for the Army, Navy, Marines, etc. Having less than 20/20 eyesight the only program I could get into was the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps. Those of us who enlisted in this fashion (many engineering students with similar eye problems) were promised we would all become officers but in actual fact this enlistment only kept us out of the army for about two weeks longer than if we had been drafted (so there was minimal benefit).

Those of us enlisted in the ERC were inducted at Fort Devens, Mass and I think the date was March 9, 1943. Maybe we were somewhat elite because we were joined there by a similar bunch of engineering students from the M.I.T. and UMASS campuses. During the initial processing we were intrigued by the Army Air Corps (later the U.S. Air Force) and most of us asked for that. After a short stay at Devens we were shipped to Miami Beach to begin our basic training. It was a big secret about where our train was headed but the train cadre sent to get us displayed beautiful tans. I was thrilled.

We traveled in dirty day coaches, which were so old they had only gaslights. It was one man to a seat and we put our gear on the floor between two facing seats to straddle the gap so we could try to sleep. I think it took 4 days and 3 nights to get to Miami and it was pretty uncomfortable. For 'chow' we would walk with our mess kits through several swaying passenger cars to a freight car, which was set up like an army field kitchen with a typical army field stove and a wood fire. Usually the sliding side door was wide open while we were standing there in line (to let the smoke out).

When we got to Miami Beach we were assigned to a hotel which had been taken over by the Army Air Corps. The army seemed to have taken over the whole beach. The rooms (we were four to a room) were fine but with only the very basic furniture. Actually I stayed in three hotels during basic training, either on the beach or just across the street. One was the Barbazon, another the Shoreham and the third was the Park Central.

I can't imagine why I remember those names or the names of my roommates: Cox, Cushing and Carroll (of course we were in alphabetical order). Victor Cushing was the most memorable of the bunch. He was of Indian decent, a sardine fisherman from way up the east coast in Calais Maine. He had a terrible skin complexion, sort of blochy and dark, and he looked dirty all the time. He was sort of ugly and foolish looking but he wasn't dumb. He was very good hearted. Since he looked dirty all the time we shoved him in the shower a few times, clothes and all. I guess you could say he was often (unfairly) the butt of a joke.

Every day we practiced close order drill in Flamingo Park and Victor just couldn't do it. It was particularly funny to watch him trip himself when ever the order came to change step. When basic training was over we all went our separate ways but Victor and I were fated to meet again later on.

While in basic training those with an I.Q. above average were given an opportunity to take a series of exams under a program called Army Specialized Training. It was mostly about math, and having just left engineering studies I was sure I had done well. One night a bunch of us were sent to Lincoln Rd., North Miami Beach, where we had earlier taken the IQ tests. We were privates at the time, being bossed by a P.F.C. (private first class). Our job was to clean up the building. During the course of cleaning some of us wandered about an inner balcony and we noticed a glass panel on a door reading: A.S.T.P. (Army Specialized Training Program, Field Selection Board #--?--) so we snuck in and had a look at the files. I remember to this day how happy I was to learn that I would be sent back to college, to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The idea, I learned, was that a long war was expected at that time and a need was felt to train more technical people for the duration by sending them back to college.

 

However, my happiness was short lived. A few days later orders were cut sending most of us budding engineers to the Olds Hotel in Lansing, Michigan, to attend ordinance training at the local Oldsmobile Plant. We were to spend three weeks there learning to service 20 and 37 millimeter cannon and 50 caliber machine guns, all for aircraft.

The interesting thing about this was that the orders also called for making all of us corporals (an apparent clerical mistake) but you can believe that all of us had two stripes on our uniforms before we left Miami. Set to arrive in Lansing was a whole trainload of corporals, where it was usual to send only P.F.C.s (private first class, after completing basic training). The lieutenant in charge of our group at the hotel was very unhappy to see all these corporals and so were the P.F.C.s already there as part of a previous class. Apparently a mistake had been made back in Miami but the folks in Miami out ranked a mere lieutenant in Lansing and when he inquired he was told to mind his own business, so we got to keep our stripes.

After Lansing we were sent to Salt Lake City Army Air Base for another three weeks of study about bombs and ammunition. I don't remember too much about this except that I met a nice girl there, the city was quite high and beautiful and I remember swimming in Great Salt Lake. It was so salty you couldn't sink or drink and when I put my head down in the water my eyes became stuck shut with the brine.

Then, I was shipped to Dyersburg, Tenn. where our squadron and group were being assembled .I was assigned to the 720th Bomb Squadron, 450 Bomb Group and became a sergeant and ordinance crew chief. It seems to me we spent quite a lot of time just hanging around there, I guess until we had enough people to complete our group. After waiting some weeks, in came my old, uncoordinated friend from Maine and basic training, Victor Cushing. Apparently he had recognized my name on the roster and was promptly put on my crew.

Whereas I had been trying to get as much schooling as possible and getting very little, Victor had been sent to welding school, sheet metal school, blacksmith school, etc. I was convinced that they didn't know quite what to do with him and simply shuffled him around. I pretended I was delighted to have him.

Having obtained our full compliment of people we were then shipped to Alamogordo Army Air Base in New Mexico for our first introduction to heavy bombers (B24's) and to await shipment overseas. Actually we didn't have much to do with the planes and spent lots of time hanging around. At one point I was given a book about torpedoes, told to read up on them and teach a class about them, which I did. Totally crazy! I had never seen a torpedo. It was just another way to kill time.

We had weekend passes and I often went into the town of Alamogordo, mostly to drink beer, hang around and ride horses. There were organized beer parties to White Sands National Monument and on one pass we were taken by truck for the weekend to Cloud Croft, an old CCC camp in the mountains. I don't know what the elevation was but it was in a lovely forest of tall evergreen trees, cool and lush.

I also visited El Paso and Juarez (across the border in Mexico). The beer in Mexico was delicious. While in Juarez with my buddy each of us bought bracelets for our high school girl friends from a guy who snuck into our bar booth. The bracelets looked like gold. I sent mine on to my classmate, Mary Smith, while my friend kept his for a while. In a week or two his bracelet started to turn green so I felt I must write to Mary and apologize. To my relief I got a nice letter back from Mary saying that her's was okay.

My last pass, before going overseas, was for two weeks and I got plane tickets to fly home to Connecticut. I don't think I will ever forget the beginning of that trip. I had to take a bus from Alamogordo to El Paso, a distance of about 90 miles across the desert. Another sergeant, Oscar, with whom I was friendly, suggested that he go with me into Alamogordo, to see me off. While waiting for the bus, which was late, we had a few beers and when the driver of the bus finally pulled in he was in such a hurry to make up lost time he wanted to get rolling right away, so I had to get on board without going to the head. It wasn't long after we got rolling over the desert toward El Paso that my bladder started to hurt and there wasn't any 'john' on the bus. I was sitting next to a nice young lady and, being more shy than I am now, I did everything I could to hide my distress. Finally, in total desperation I went up the aisle to the driver and told him my problem. He said he could stop the bus and I could go around to the rear wheels and relieve myself, but if I chose not to do that we would be making a stop at a half way house before too much longer.

 

Looking out the window and noting that there was nothing but desert, and nothing to hide behind, I chose to wait but I was in great agony. I was wearing my summer weight uniform and now I was letting a little pee into my pants, but I had a magazine to cover my lap so that the girl seated next to me wouldn't see the big spot forming on the front of my pants.

 

Unfortunately the half-way house turned out to be more than half way to El Paso

and when we arrived it was nothing more than a gas station and a couple of out- houses. To add to this tragic scene another bus

had arrived ahead of us and a long line of people were already waiting to relieve themselves. In my shyness, coupled with much pain and embarassment, I ripped apart the magazine I was carrying and held one part in front of me and one behind as I raced off the bus. I was roundly cursed as I ran for one of the outhouses and got in front of the line. "Oh what a relief it was!" I still had to get back on the bus without showing my wet spots so I adopted the same magazine routine on the way back to my seat on the bus.

 

The furlough was otherwise uneventful and I don't recall much about it . When I got back to New Mexico we were soon put on a train for Newport News, VA, a large shipping port. The only recollection I have of our short stay there was, dressed only in our overcoats on a cold wet day, we lined up with our backs to some "medicos" and were told to bend over, throw the backs of our overcoats over our heads, spread our cheeks and display our rectums for examination. I've never been quite sure what they were looking for.

Soon thereafter we grabbed our duffle bags and boarded a waiting liberty ship. Liberty ships were designed especially for WWII to handle all types of cargo and hundreds of them were being quickly assembled. Our home for the next 29 days was in the forward hold, stacked in narrow pipe berths, in tiers 8' high, so close to each other that if you turned on your side your hip would hit the rump of the guy above you. We spent most of the time in the hold, eating, sleeping, playing cards or just 'bullshitting'. There were no windows. We had community showers, salt water only, and if you wanted to go to the head you had to go topsides to an open air trough on the deck, mounted across the beam of the ship, with a wooden plank top and holes to sit on. My recollection is the troughs were some 40 feet in length and filled with circulating salt water. It was not smart to sit on either end because the roll of the ship from side to side caused the water in the trough to surge from one end to the other where it would slosh up through the holes and soak our bottoms.

Our ship had a British crew and a black anti-aircraft squad. I don't remember seeing either on the way over. I guess we were just cargo to them. The food was terrible and seemed to consist mostly of thick pea soup. Many of us got very seasick and some were unable to eat. Others got very constipated. The story got around that one guy didn't move his bowels for the full 29 days we were aboard and lived to tell about it. Somebody said he had a hollow leg.

We were traveling in convoy, a convoy so large that the accompanying ships disappeared over the horizon in all directions. There must have been hundreds and we couldn't travel any faster than the slowest ship, to keep us all together. We were allowed on deck but at night there was no smoking for fear we would give our location away to lurking submarines. This trip was fairly uneventful and boring otherwise, since there were no U-boat attacks that we knew of.

We went through the Mediterranean and, after quick stops off Africa and Sicily, we went into the Adriatic Sea, on the east side of Italy. Our final destination turned out to be Bari, Italy and our entrance to its harbor was virtually blocked with other ships, which had been attacked by German bombers the night before. We were guided into the dock in a zigzag manner, threading our way between numerous ships which had been sunk or blown up the night before. A bow would be sticking out of the water here, a stern there. We disembarked on Christmas Eve, accompanied by a spectacular display of anti aircraft fire, like an umbrella over our heads. It was far more spectacular and noisy than any fireworks display I had ever previously seen. The story was that the officer on air raid alert the night before had fallen asleep and failed to warn anybody. The rumor was that he was shot but I don't believe that.

Overnight, on land, we slept in army pyramidal tents and early the next day we set out in army 6X6 trucks for our final destination, which turned out to be an abandoned Italian air base located between two rather dirty little towns, southwest of Bari, called Monduria and Oria respectively. Looking at a map of Italy its shape is something like a boot and our location would be just above the instep.

When we arrived we were directed to an olive orchard and told this is where we would bed down. It was just after Christmas and it was snowing heavily but not accumulating much because the temperature was just above freezing. There weren't any tents but each of us carried a shelter half and two persons would get together, button their halves together and manage to sleep together. I slept together with Ted Lucas, a very nice guy who had become my best friend in the service. He was bigger and a bit longer than me and we found that we were sleeping with our heads out one end of our tent and our feet out the other - but we managed. It seems to me that there was some arrangement for buttoning one's raincoat to the tent at the end but I'm not clear on this.

Ted was a corporal and an amiable guy of Lithuanian descent, who came from Hoosick Falls, New York, where he had trained as a plumber. He was not on my crew, which probably lent itself to our friendship since I didn't have to tell him what to do. He had great mechanical skills and could build or fix just about anything. This was very beneficial for me because, while I had the mechanical ability, I had little or no experience. We slept together for the next 18 months, first in the shelter halves, then in a 12'x12' pyramidal tent with others and finally in a cute little cabin we built ourselves.

I have to tell you about the cabin because it was constructed in our spare time during daylight hours and gave us great joy and comfort. Most of our work providing bombs to the airplanes took place at night as the bombing runs took off in early morning. Sometimes we needed part of the night to make what was known as "midnight requisitions" in order to obtain some of the materials for our cabin. As an example: we needed cement for our mortar but the available Italian cement was inferior so we had to get American cement from the supply tent and put it in Italian bags so it wouldn't be detected. We needed rafters for our roof so we had to go out at night with a bomb service truck and tear down a backstop which had been used by a British anti-aircraft unit for whatever games they play (We installed the rafters and had them covered before morning, with wood from fragmentation bomb crates).

When we needed heating oil for our fireplace we went out at night with our crane equipped bomb service truck and requisitioned 55-gallon drums of 100-octane airplane fuel from where it was stored in a nearby field. The drums, carefully disguised by us as oil, were located outside our cabin, with aircraft hydraulic tubing attached to deliver the fuel through the wall to our fireplace. The fuel line had a shutoff both inside and outside our cabin, for safety, and we found that feeding the fuel, drip by drip, into a sand filled shallow pan provided cleaner and much better heat than that provided by oil. Also, the price was right.

The cabin was probably no more than 10'x12', with a Dutch door at one end, a fireplace on the back wall between our two cots, casement windows (also made with bomb crates) and a half attic at each end to store stuff not in use, like gas masks and shelter halves. When we were building the cabin an Italian mason, recently discharged from the Italian army, which had by then given up, happened by and for a pair of G.I. boots we employed him to build our chimney, which tapered upward and ended with an open cupola, topped by a bird he carved. The walls and chimney were constructed of tuffi blocks (actually limestone mined from the ground, rather soft and could be shaped with an adz). We lived in this cabin for almost a year and were quite comfortable.

At that time we were considered Army Ordinance attached to the Army Air Corps. Our insignia was a little round bomb with a flame at the top, referred to lovingly as a "flaming piss pot". We were in the 720th Bomb Squadron, 450th Bomb Group, 47th Wing of the 15th Air Force. Our principal role was to supply bombs of all kinds to our squadron airplanes, B24's, on an as ordered basis. Another unit, Air Corps Armorers, actually hand cranked the bombs up into the bomb bays and when they were done we were called to go back to each plane and prepare the bombs for dropping. This amounted to putting on the tail fins, installing the nose and tail fuses and putting arming wires in place. This was the typical procedure for demolition bombs, which came in 100#, 250#, 500#, and 1,000# sizes. A typical load would be (12) 500# demolition bombs. Depending upon the mission we might load demolition, fragmentation, incendiary or time delay bombs.

 

Each bomb or cluster of bombs (as in the case of fragmentation bombs, which were (6) 20 lb. grenades with tail fins and held in a group) was attached to a shackle in the bomb bay of the airplane. A copper wire, called an arming wire, was also attached to the shackle and ran fore and aft on the bomb, and through a little propeller at the end of each fuse to keep the propeller from turning until the bomb was dropped. As the bomb was dropped from the bomb bay the arming wire was retained by the shackle, withdrawn from the fuses, allowing the propellers to turn. After a certain number of revolutions of the propellers (the bombs now well clear of the plane) the caps on the fuses would fall off, exposing the firing pins. The fuses carried a more sensitive explosive than the bombs themselves (maybe lead azide), which was needed to make a detonating wave to explode the main charge (RDX- about 1 and times the power of dynamite).

The fuses (nose and tail) were screwed into the bombs by the ordinance people (us) and were not particularly dangerous to handle except for the time delay bombs. These were tail fuses only, which could be screwed into the bombs but never taken out. If you unscrewed them 1/32 of a turn the bomb would go off instantly. (You can imagine how carefully we installed these fuses.) These bombs were designed to be dropped on an airfield to put the field out of use for a period of time. The time delay fuses were designed to detonate the bomb automatically, after it landed, anywhere from 1 to 144 hours later, unless someone tried to remove the fuse. Then the bomb would "go off" instantaneously.

 

Mostly we worked at night and 'sacked out' in the morning. All of the missions were in daylight, taking off early in the morning. We bombed oil fields, rail terminals, airfields, factories, etc., to put them out of business. I can attest that we also missed a lot, despite the highly touted Norden bombsight then in use. Usually there was one lead bombardier who told the rest when to drop but I can recall lots of photos showing that we heavily bombed some open fields. I cannot now recall all the cities we bombed but I do remember the Ploesti oil fields, Regensburg, Bucharest, Anzio Beachhead, Munich, Budapest and Weiner Neustadt. We also bombed the vicinity of Marseille, in advance of the invasion of Normandy and Southern France.

 

Sometimes our airplanes blew up right on the field where they were parked or on the runway as they were taking off. It wasn't the bombs that blew but the 2800 gallons of gasoline stored in the wings. A small generator, back of the flight deck, sometimes became ignited, causing the whole plane to go "up". On one occasion I was on the field, checking my bomb loads, when a B24 blew up on take off. It was loaded with demolition bombs but the bombs didn't blow. The load of gasoline blew up the whole works and the bombs lay on the runway, some cracked open and burning. Bombs require a detonating wave from a more sensitive explosive to set them off.

 

On this occasion it appears that the plane had not reached sufficient flying speed before trying to lift off the runway. As it tried to rise it stalled and fell like a pancake. The explosion was tremendous and fortunately I was far enough away not to become involved. In addition to the gasoline the 50 caliber shells from the machine guns started to go off in all directions.

 

Sitting in the grass near me was a fully equipped member of a flight crew. From the rear he appeared to be observing the action but was too close for comfort so I yelled to him to come with me in my truck and get "the hell out of there". At this point he toppled over and I could see that his legs were missing. It later turned out that he was the radio operator of that very same plane, having been blown clear but not even burned. He was, however, dead. As experience dictated I learned later not to run toward an explosion but away.

 

All told I was in Italy for about 18 months, until the bombing ended in Europe. Then we were quickly put on B-17's (released from action), flown to Naples, stayed overnight at Naples University and put on board the S. S. America for the trip back to the states. This was a 9-day trip (The S.S. America, was a much bigger and faster ship with no convoy). The idea was to get us to the Pacific as quickly as possible, the war not having ended there. We were given two week home furloughs and upon returning to duty we were reassigned, partly to jobs of our choice. I guess the powers that be figured we weren't needed in the Pacific and I was sent to Davis Monthan Air Field in Tucson, Arizona and assigned to work in flight operations (helping pilots file their flight plans). At this time we were starting to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the war was coming to an end. (I remember that this was the first time I'd seen a B-29 and was amazed at the size of them.)

 

With the end of the war and the inauguration of the G. I. Bill I went back to Uconn to begin again as a second semester freshman, only this time not as an engineering student. I figured my temperament wasn't suitable for engineering (more for marketing and fun). Engineering students had a tough grind and didn't have much fun (I got a proctor's job in one of the dorms and I well remember one of my residents, a burly 10th Mountain Division colonel who bunked across the hall from me, crying many nights over the difficulties he was having with his engineering studies.).

I met your mother when I was in my junior year (she was a senior). Her sorority was holding an after dinner coffee for my fraternity (Theta Chi) and I kept following her around until she caught me.

 

It was tough to get a car then and I had acquired a 1935 Ford business coupe with Dodge wheels (this was 1946 and parts of any kind were in short supply). It lasted quite a while. I was teaching your mother to drive in it when she hit a bridge that wouldn't move. This action turned the front bumper into a harp shape but I was later able to straighten it in the fork of an apple tree.

 

On our first date we went to some dive on a nearby lake. I had previously been told that she could drink me under the table (beer) and so we put it to the test. After several pitchers of beer and many dances (mostly polkas) we headed back to the campus along a narrow, winding country road. Ellie asked me to stop the car so that she could step into the adjacent field and "toss her cookies". I, being a true gentleman, pointed the car in her direction, with the headlights on, so she could see where she was puking. While this was going on, and much to your mother's embarrassment, other students were returning on the same road and all stopped to "make" the scene. She did ultimately forgive me and you kids are the result.

 

Love, Dad





Information courtesy of Charles "Howard" Crane

Link To Pictures taken by Charles




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