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S/Sgt. LeRoy W. Neal
723rd Squadron

Ground Crew - Italy 1944

Incubating the Eggs

Joe Montano, LeRoy and Leonard Pollard

Red Cross Building - Summer 1944

Montano, Russ Kamholtz and LeRoy

Red Cross Building

LeRoy & Rex Howell

Newspaper Article about LeRoy

Orders - Page 1

Orders - Page 2

Jones pays a local worker


It was a cold clear day in January of 1943, the snow covered the area of Dyer County. According to the state Gazette news, war news and want ads filled the pages ( a coke was five cents) but on the front page was a list of draftees and volunteers who were departing by bus to Fort Oglethorpe for induction in the Armed Forces.

This is being published as a tribute in a small way to all who served or supported that great military effort during World War II. The following is about one veteran, who hopefully was typical of many others who either preceded or followed him in their military careers.

Leroy Neal was the middle son of five brothers, raised on a farm at Bonicord. The oldest was deferred from the draft due to farming and a family. The next oldest was a member of the National Guard which was called into active duty early in the war. The two younger brothers entered military service after the war ended.

The oldest brother, Charles, drove me into Dyersburg very early on Jan. 29, 1943. Five or six greyhound busses were parked around the square and many draftees and volunteers along with their family and friends were present. A military officer gave us a gong away speech inside the courthouse after which we boarded the busses for the trip to Fort Oglethorpe. Lyman Ingram and Latta Richards were two of the "City Slickers" I remember on the bus with me. Riding next to me was a life long friend and school mate who would not survive ht war, being lost n France.

Red Roberts, the local wresting star was on our bus and kept the "Troops" in line by employing a few "Hammer Locks" in route during the day. Our bus experienced mechanical difficulty on Monteagle Mt. and we were stranded in the cold for a few hours. "City Slicker" Latta Richards shared his sandwich with this country boy. I didn't realize I was watching him eat to intently. We finally arrived at Ft. Oglethorpe in time to be sworn into the military before dark.

I had a deep desire to be part of the Army Air Corps but had not volunteered. The first military person I encountered was in the supply room that day. I asked him where a person might request Air Corps assignment not realizing that he like myself was also a new soldier and wasn't sure we had an Air Corps.

During the next day or two we took various tests and were interviewed also. My experience consisted of plowing, planting, and "gathering" crops. I did possess a motorcycle operator's license. Because of this license the interviewer suggested I enlist in the mechanized Calvary stationed across the road at Ft. Oglethorpe. I did not wish to be a motorized messenger riding a cycle about "no man's land" as described in W.W. I paperbacks so I declined his offer. At this point I still had not requested Air Corps duty and was so busy planning sod squares around the office area and doing other chores I never got around to that request.

The Army did grant a three hour pass to Chattanooga which three friends from Bonicord and I took advantage of. While walking to the front gate we were picking clothes tags from each other's uniforms discussing how to salute if we were to meet an officer. We were late returning to our barracks and were assigned latrine cleaning duties until pre-dawn hours. (Good old Army discipline)

After a few more days at Ft. Oglethorpe the rumor was a bout that we were shipping out. I changed locations several times in the next three years but never knew the destination before hand and usually not until we actually arrived (The troops were not to know such information).

We left Ft. Oglethorpe by train at sundown and early the next morning someone raised the window shades and I saw my first palm tree. We were traveling down the east coast of Florida on the way to Miami Beach for Air Corps basis training, not in airplanes but leaning to march and guard the hotel and beaches.

We were billeted in the nice hotels since the Air Corps had leased most of them. A total blackout was enforced and the submarine threat was real. Occasionally at night we could see the glow of oil tankers burning in the distance since the sea lanes rounded the Florida Keys.

After a couple of months we shipped out (destination unknown). Again by train and arrived downtown Chicago ILL. For radio school we were billeted in the best hotel in the "Loop" (The old Stevens Hotel). After a month or two of Morse code and radio repair we changed locations to Scottfield near St. Louis, Mo. to complete radio. After graduation from radio school we were given an hour or two of flying time in a piper cub as passengers coping radio signals in Morse code from the rear seat of the cub. At this point I still had not "requested" Air Corps duty.

About July 1943 we shipped out (destination unknown) to Los Vegas, Nev. for aerial gunnery training on the B-17 bomber. After eight weeks of gunnery training we were promoted to "Sgts" and given a furlough with orders to return to Salt Lake City, Utah after the visit home. Christmas of 1943 was spent at Salt Lake City and Kearns Army Air Base, Utah. I do remember that we were quarantined to the barracks for two weeks because of chicken pox or small pox.

The Air Corps' four engine bombers carried a crew of ten to eleven men Officers included the Pilot, Co-Pilot, Bombardier and Navigator. The enlisted men included the nose gunner, tail gunner, ball gunner left and right waist gunner, upper turret gunner and radio-gunner. At Salt Lake City these gunners trained at different schools throughout the country. They were assembled to crews with the 2nd Lt. Pilot being the "Airplane Commander".

We were shipped out to Casper, Wyo. By train to begin flight training with other crews for overseas duty. During the train ride to Casper from Salt Lake City the enlisted men and officers searched up and down the train until the crews got acquainted with each other for the first time. The young airplane commanders were given a long and hard look since each crew member's future depended to a great extent on this young Lt's ability. In later training we would realize that the safety of the crew depended upon every member of the crew and his respective job assignment around the airplane.

We arrived in Casper, Wyo. about Feb. 1944. We practiced our individual duties including formation flying, long range practice bombing missions day and night, and low level gunner practice. For this training we used the B-24 bomber which was a four engine airplane. At this point I still had not requested flight duty and although I am enjoying it I don't feel it necessary to volunteer. It seems that I have been selected. Actually due to many heavy losses sustained by the various Air Corps units overseas in 1943 there was a great demand at this time in 1944 for replacement crews and airplanes.

About May 1944 we completed our overseas training at Casper, Wyo. and were shipped by train to Pueblo, Colo. For about two weeks of formation flying, etc. From Pueblo we were trucked to Colorado Springs, Colo. where we spent a couple of days and assigned a B-24 bomber which we would ferry to our overseas base (destination unknown). We flew the new bomber to Lincoln, Neb. where it was outfitted for overseas. About June 1, 1944 we departed Lincoln, Neb. at midnight for our "first let" flight to Manchester, N.H.

While enroute from Lincoln to N.H. we flew near Ft. Wayne, Ind. The airplane commander lived in the country a few miles from the city of Ft. Wayne. We flew over the farm house about sunrise and since every young pilot desires to show off his airplane to the "homefolks" we proceeded to fly in circles very low over the farm house. His mother was waving from the lawn wearing her night gown. The chickens and livestock were sent scurrying about while the crew waved from the windows of the new bomber. After several passes we resumed our course to N.H. Her son, the pilot, the co-pilot and flight engineer would be lost in a forced landing in the Gulf of Taranto, Italy on June 20, 1944. (My diary)

We were further outfitted for overseas duty in N.H. - - - K-rations, jungle knives, machetes, life rafts, Gibson girl emergency transmitters, etc. We then flew to Newfoundland and landed at Goose Bay or Gander Lake, I'm not certain which. There we saw our first war weary patched up military airplanes returning from the European air battles to the U.S.A. The next morning we departed Newfoundland for the flight to the Azores Island off the coast of Africa.

The following morning we departed the Azores and landed at Marrech in French Morocco. There we saw the first signs of war, three hundred Italian prisoners of war were behind barbed wire. The next morning we departed the next let to Tunis, capitol of Tunisia. Seven naval vessels were lying on their sides in the harbor of Tunis. We were getting closer to the combat zone. The next morning we departed Tunis and flew across the Mediterranean Sea and landed at Bari, Italy.

The 15th Air Force in Italy consisted of B-17 and B-24 bombers plus single and multi-engine fighters. Upon arriving at Bari we were told we would not keep the new B-24 we had ferried across from the U.S.A. The airplane was assigned to the replacement pool for distribution to units in the area. We boarded army trucks for the fifty or more miles to our final destination of Manduri, Italy; home of the 450th Heavy Bomb Group. We arrived about June 6, 1944.

This Airbase had been used by the Italians and German Air Forces and had been repaired by our army personnel about six months prior to our arrival. The main buildings were constructed of limestone blocks. Our barracks were wood frame propped up here and there. At least we were not in the fox holes and trenches. The army food was a "notch" above K-rations, meaning the eggs and milk were powdered, with occasional chicken. The air base and one runway lying N.W. S.E. and was located on a large plains area with no obstruction to landing or takeoff.

As we walked among the bombers we noticed some were battle veterans and some nearly new. All had symbols painted on their noses showing how many missions flown and the number of enemy aircraft shot down by the air gunners. The personnel in our barracks included air crews with several missions to their credit so we were given the "word" as to what we could expect in the very near future.

At this point I should explain that the various overseas units required the crews to fly in a given number of combat missions. This number varied during the course of the war and also was different in each theater of combat. The 15th in Italy during this period 1944-1945 required the crews to fly 50 bombing missions. The more dangerous and heavily guarded targets counted two, such as German targets, Vienna, Ploesti, Romania, etc. During the early months of W. W. II the crews did not have replacements and were flying often and without hope of relief. Needless to say that number "50" seemed like a "long row to hoe".

Our crew was not assigned any combat missions until June 22, 1944 (my diary) which allowed us about two weeks to get settled in our new home. On June 20, 1944 (my diary) our crew was up flying practice formation close to our base at Manduria. The flight crew consisted of the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer. We radio operators had been listed to fly on the practice flight but had been removed from the roster an hour or two before flight time. We were reassigned to ground school from code practice. An hour or so after the planes had taken off we became aware that one was overhead the airbase with engine trouble. In a few minutes we learned that one had crash landed. There were only seven planes airborne so our crew left on the ground began that wait for further word on the downed aircraft. Shortly we received word that our pilot was flying the aircraft and that all aboard had perished in the crash landing which had been attempted on the beach in shallow water. The Air Corps personnel explained to us that the pilot was given orders to "ditch" in the water and avoid the risk of colliding with parked airplanes on our base.

The next day, June 21, we flew to Bari, Italy for the funeral of the three crewmen which was attended by the remainder of the crew, a chaplain, bugler and cemetery custodian. We returned to our base and were assigned a temporary pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer.

On June 22 we flew our first bombing mission. The following is a list of those missions as recorded in a "diary" I kept plus historical records. Some were relatively easy (milk runs). A few were not. We flew in a seven plane box formation, there planes forming a "V" followed by another three planes "V" followed by a single plane to complete the box. A flight crew did not fly in the same position in the box day after day but was given a box position by the mission planners. On several occasions the box position you occupied on the previous mission was hit seriously by enemy fire on today's mission. So a great amount of luck was necessary to survive.

In summary, out of eleven crewmen that left the states together, three were killed and five were wounded. The nose gunner, navigator and I were unharmed. Our crew was very fortunate due to the fact that the enemy fighter planes did not choose our formation to attack on any of the missions. The five crewmen were injured by anti-aircraft (flack). The bomber stream was quite exposed to flack during the bombing run which lasted about ten to fifteen minutes. While the bombardier was aiming and dropping the bomb load, we usually flew around 24,000 ft., breathing from oxygen masks, staying warm with heated suits. The mission varied in length from seven to nine hours. I do not recall taking any food except the hard candy, lemon drops, from our K-rations. The places we made bomb runs on were: Northern Italy, Toulon, France, Vienna, Budapest, Polesti, Germany, Hungary, Yugo, Athens, Greece, and the Brenner Pass.

After completion of fifty missions we were allowed to return home to the U.S.A. my last ride on the B-24 was from Manduria to Naples, Italy, to board a ship for the fourteen days journey to New York. We docked briefly at Algiers. The next day I noticed a young lad not more than twelve or fourteen years old mopping the deck of the ship. We learned that the lad had stowed away at Port of Algiers. Many people there had a desire to live in America.

The morning after we had passed through Gibraltar we found ourselves separated from the convoy. The ship had developed mechanical troubles. At this time in 1944 the German submarine threat had diminished but the fact was not known to us at this time. The trouble was corrected and we over took the slow moving convoy before dark that same day. We docked at New York where we boarded trains to our respective home towns. I can still see the sleepy all-night cam driver I hired from Dyersburg train station to my home.

My home was in the community of Bonicord. At this time phone service was very scattered. While on furlough a war department telegram was received on a phone there notifying the parents who lived a couple of miles away that their son had been lost in France. The lady who took the telegram on the phone asked me to deliver it to the parents. I was wearing my uniform which was the custom at the time. The time was around December, 1944. I drove the old Ford pickup to the farm house, trying to get my words together that I needed to say to the grief stricken parents. I knocked on the door. A man's voice invited me in. The couple was standing before an open fireplace. When I began to speak and stammer somewhat they began to nod their heads in unison as if they were expecting and dreading the moment for a long time. On this four miles of country road four families received similar news.

During Christmas of 1944 I was at home and also my next to oldest brother was home on furlough from the south Pacific. After the furlough I was stationed at Miami, Fla. where I applied and was accepted in the flying cadet program at San Antonio, Texas. That training was halted after the surrender of Japan in August 1945. While stationed at San Antonio I did find the courage to write to the Mother of the pilot lost in the crash landing in Italy. Her answered letter confirmed my suspicion that she had received very few details about her son's death.

On November 2, 1945 I was discharged from the Air Corps, along with thousands of other veterans, after thirty-three months of service.

Now the time is July 1984. Forty years have passed. Retirement has arrived. The two daughters are married and the four grand-daughters are present.

Note by wife, Polly:

For over twenty years Leroy had nightmares about his combat experience. For many years he would not talk about these experiences. While working at the Federal Aviation Administration office here in Dyersburg, two young brothers would go out and talk to him about World War II aviation, which they had a great interest in. This stirred his memory to relating his experiences and he hopes to find some of his crew members. Leroy and I met the last of May, 1947 and were married in August the same year. I thank him for writing this account for all interested to read and especially for our children and grand-children.

Information courtesy of LeRoy Neal

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