Bomber crew returns

Above: A bomber crew of the 381st Bomb Group return to Ridgewell after a successful mission over enemy territory in their B-17 Flying Fortress, 13 December 1943. (IWM FRE 1259)

1st Lieutenant John Howland was born in Casper, Wyoming, in 1920. He flew 11 missions from Ridgewell Essex, as a line crew navigator with the 381st Bomb Group. After the first three raids to Berlin in March 1944, he was transferred to the Pathfinder Force of the 1st Bomb Division on detached service with the 305th and 91st Bomb Groups, based at Bassingbourn.

He flew his remaining 19 missions as lead or deputy lead navigator, including a mission over Gold Beach on D-Day. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal with three Oak-Leaf Clusters.

Howland’s diary is in the museum’s collection. In the following excerpts, he describes the tense flight from Gander Lake, Newfoundland, to join the Eighth Air Force in the UK. His pilot was James L “Jim” Tyson; the co-pilot Bill Doherty.

Dec 17, 1943

In the Operations Room of US Air Transport Command at Prestwick airport, 1944, a woman of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and an American NCO record the arrival of an aircraft from America on a chart. (IWM D 20370)

The gross weight of the B-17 was 58,000 lbs. We had a pretty good load aboard. Each member of the crew had a bedroll, a B4 bag and an A3 bag tucked in the bomb bays. In addition, my navigator’s footlocker was jammed into the small nose compartment. Only the navigator knew that it didn’t contain those many volumes of navigation books covering every range of latitude from the North Pole to the South. Instead, my HO-218 volumes were limited to the latitude range we would be flying. The rest of the weight and space was used up by soap, perfume, silk stockings and other “wampum” items I thought might be needed in England.

We were scheduled to take off in No 3 position at 00.06 (midnight). The fuel tanks (main and Tokyo) were filled again after the engines were warmed up. Fuel capacity was 2750 gallons. Oil tanks were full with 36 gallons each. The #2 plane wasn’t ready to go, so we taxied down to take-off position in his place. It was very cold, and the snow was piled high on each side of the runway; but the plows had done a good job…

Dec 18, 1943

The Flying Control Room at Prestwick airport, 1944. In the foreground is an NCO of US Transport Command, in radiotelephonic communication with an aircraft coming into land. (IWM D 20347)

The all clear for take-off was received from the tower at 00.10 hours. Just as Jim was running up the engines a large trailer truck full of gasoline turned around in a runway intersection ahead of us. The words were hot and heavy as Bill Doherty told the tower what to do with that fuel truck. Finally at 00.21, Jim eased the throttles forward, and we started for England.

… We made a wide sweeping turn and passed the airport climbing on course at 00.28. We had never flown our ship at night before and discovered that my navigator’s light reflected into the pilot’s eyes. I stuffed my leather flight jacket up under the rudder pedals and remedied the situation.

My chart was a small-scale Mercator covering the entire distance between Gander Lake and our objective, Prestwick, Scotland. We flew a great circle course because of the shorter distance and more favorable wind Metro claimed we would have by comparison with a rhumb line course. The stars were bright. VERY BRIGHT! I took my first 3-star fix about one hour after take-off and got a ground speed of 174 knots. I had intended to use Polaris, the North Star, to determine our latitude. But we had problems. The night was so very clear, third and fourth magnitude stars looked like first and second magnitude stars. The field of view for identifying stars in the octant was quite limited … Plans for using the North Star for latitude shots were abandoned. I used other, more readily identifiable stars, such as Betelgeux, Sirius, Capella, Rigel, and Dubhe as well as the moon.

The concern of the crew about our position was obvious. The radio operator tuned in on a station that provided accurate time checks for celestial navigators. Sgt Churchill [Charles Churchill, tail gunner] volunteered his services in the nose of the ship to help the navigator. I handed him the chronometer and told him to watch the second hand and notify me immediately if it stopped. Churchill did his job well and I was relieved of the responsibility of conducting a training school when I was somewhat apprehensive myself.

The outside temperature was a modest -10C (+4F). My three-star fixes were falling in place. The first part of the trip was more or less uneventful. I obtained position reports from celestial fixes at 02.28, 03.28, 04.36 and a final fix at 05.36. The ground speeds were 197, 196, 201 and 205 respectively (phenomenal for a B-17). We were being pushed along by a strong tailwind just a few degrees off the tail. I was getting ready to take some more star shots about 06.20 when the pilot called. He told me to put my oxygen mask on as he was climbing to get over some clouds. Churchill went back to the radio room. By the time we got things rearranged in the nose of the ship and my mask in place, it had closed in all around us … We still had about 800 miles to go. I put the octant away and kept track of our course by dead reckoning.

Personnel of the 91st Bomb Group, after returning to Bassingbourn from their latest mission,
March 1943. (IWM FRE 710)

We were homing by radio compass on a strong radio beam at Dernyacross, Ireland and expected to fly out of the front within 30 minutes to an hour. The temperature was -20 deg C and we were flying smoothly at 16,700 ft. My ETA to Dernyacross was 08.41. About 40 minutes out of Dernyacross the radio compass started to swing violently and had to be disregarded. We knew the storm was affecting the signal. We flew out my ETA still confident that we would clear the front as metro said we would.

Jim decided to go down and take a look below. We dropped to about 12,000 feet and hit some very bad icing conditions … Ominously, the air speed indicator dropped to zero because the heater in the pitot tube had failed. Jim applied power, climbing to try and find an altitude where icing conditions weren’t so severe. He flew by power settings from that point on. For the Navigator, there were no stars, radio signals or power settings to turn to. All I could use was my last three-star fix position, already 2½ hours ancient. The wind was stronger than any I had ever observed from my navigator’s table. I used this to plot our position by dead reckoning.

The engines groaned as we climbed on our course to Prestwick. We finally broke out on top at 26,500 feet. Radio reception was very poor. The air was full of static, and it was cold, -45 deg C (-50 deg F). My ETA to Prestwick was 09.27. After we flew it out, I put the pilot on a corrected circle course so the wind wouldn’t blow us out of the country. There was nothing else to be done…

Finally, after descending through 10,000 feet of solid clouds (without icing) we broke into clear air at 16,000 feet … The temperature soon rose above freezing (32 deg F) and the ice melted on the pitot tube. The air speed indicator started working again and our spirits soared.

Prestwick was a fantastic contrast to Gander Lake. Gone were the piles of snow and the snowplows. Everything was green, lush dark green and damp with moisture. It looked much like New England in late spring except the trees were bare of leaves. Dozens of aircraft were scattered about the airfield; everything from Typhoons to an old Gypsy Moth trainer biplane that looked at least 20 years old.

… I sat down in an easy chair in the lobby of the BOQ and promptly fell sound asleep. I was pooped! About four hours later I became aware that someone was moving my legs. I awakened to find a scrubwoman on her hands and knees lifting each leg gently while she scrubbed the floor. I was quite flabbergasted since I had never before seen a scrub person in any establishment get closer to the floor than the end of a mop handle. It was dinnertime, and I was famished. After eating, we went upstairs to our rooms, wrote a few letters home. I went to bed early to try and make up for lost sleep.

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