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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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