World War II Remembrances

D-Day ceremonies earlier in June  brought back many memories of World War II. The war effort involved most of the people in the country. Automobile, commercial aviation, and maritime factories were converted to wartime weaponry and materials; unprecedented numbers of  airplanes, tanks, and ships/boats were produced. Other plants made all sorts of guns and weapons, bombs and explosives. It was "all in." This observation is made without taking anything away from subsequent wars, with tremendous sacrifices being made by many in the Korean War and the Viet Nam War, where the Draft still played a major role in placing a large number of (mostly) young men in active combat situations.

US "conscription" had been in place for all major conflict over centuries, including the American Revolution, the Civil (it was not) War, WWI, WWII, and both "Cold War" wars, Korea and Viet Nam. The "Draft" was abolished in 1973 and subsequent military service has become voluntary, as least officially, with a leadership class mainly taken from the military academies and ROTC programs while the "rank and file" is made up primarily of less educated and less affluent classes of Americans.

In WWII, the US was unprepared for a full-on international war against enemies that were both better prepared and were led by dominant personalities who controlled entire countries with authoritarian and nationalistic methods. It took several years for the US production machine to get in full gear, and protected by two vast oceans this country was able to reach unprecedented and awesome levels of war material output. That position contrasted with Russia, which had to fight Germany on land inside their own country, with crumbling armament production, but with an almost unlimited number of young men (and women) who were willing to lay their lives on the line. The United States had the option (sounds like a sterile word) of building up its forces and then entering, albeit at a late point, the fighting.

Two examples of the sort of commitment can be found in both my wife's family and my own. My father, at the time a career employee of General Motors, was responsible for approving loans for cars and trucks at GM dealerships in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and southern West Virginia. Dad was based in Huntington, West Virginia, where I was born. When the US made the commitment to go full-bore into the war, GM stopped producing cars and trucks for the consumer market, and most of their plants for both vehicles and household goods were converted to military equipment and weaponry. Dad was in his early thirties at the time with one child (me). He was transferred to Dayton, OH where as far as I can determine he was responsible for production planning and control for a Frigidaire plant that was converted to making fifty-caliber machine guns. I was about two or three, based on family photos, and my sister was born in Dayton.

I am not sure, but believe that some of these same machine guns were used by my father-in-law, Joe Simmons. Mr. Simmons was drafted before WWII and served in Panama in the army. Discharged due to family hardships when his father was killed in a railroad accident and his mother was widowed with a number of young children and no earning power, he was called up again when the war blew up, and served as a waist gunner in B-17 bombers running bombing runs out of England. Simmons had his last two flights as a tail gunner, but mainly was a waist gunner where he stood in the opening in the middle of the plane; one gun was set to defend one side of the aircraft while the other was symmetrically positioned on the opposite side. Although he had heated mittens and head gear, he lost feeling in his hands and suffered hearing losses that rendered him partially deaf the remainder of  his life. The good news in this was that the 30 missions he flew all ended safely, albeit several times on three engines and lagging the formation as the planes returned from targets over Germany.

Joe Simmons maintained a handwritten log of each flight, which he submitted to the Air Force when he completed his service in 1945. The notebook contained details of each and every mission, including the date, take-off and landing times, time on oxygen, weather and temperature, and the target and results. In addition, he noted German defensive methods including flak and enemy fighters if they appeared. The notebook was returned to Mr. Simmons many years after the war, and remains a treasured reminder with his family.

Simmons was a member of the 832nd  Bomb Squadron, in the 486th Bomb Group. The large number of both are one indication of the massive US commitment to the war. Here are some highlights from his notebook:

Mission #1 took place October 2, 1944 and targeted an Air Field at Kassel, Germany. The bomb run was at 25,500 feet with a load of twelve 500 pound "demolition general purpose" bombs. The temperature was -38 F, and bombing was done on instruments. The crew took off at 06:43 and landed at 14:48 for a total of 8 hours and 5 minutes, of which four and a half hours were on oxygen. Some rockets were seen (German defensive rockets). There were "plenty of fighter escorts" along with the bomber formation, and "no enemy fighters were seen." Flak was "moderate, light, (and) not accurate."

This sort of information was included for all 30 missions. The second mission, one day later, targeted a tank works in Nurenburg. The bomb load was ten 500 pounders, and again, no enemy fighters were seen and the formation was accompanied by "plenty of P-51 escorts." On the third mission, two days later on October 5, the flak was "heavy and accurate" and there were two hits on his plane as they had "good results" hitting an air field in Muenster.

Mission #4 took place the next day, on October 6, with the target a tank works in Berlin. Simmons underlined Berlin in his notes. On this run, there were German fighter planes attacking the B-17s and several of the bombers in the group in back of his were hit and shot down! Flak was "heavy and accurate," as well as rockets fired at the US planes. He noted that there were "there were 3 flak hits in our plane."

There was a break until October 19 for his next mission, an Ordinance in Mannheim on which the plane flew at 30,000 feet. The missions continued in November when on a run to attack a coke refinery at Neukirchen, Simmons' plane lost the #3 engine and flew back to England on its own, leaving the formation at the coast. Targets were varied and included supporting ground troops, attacking major gun installations, a synthetic oil plant and "marshaling yards."

In December, they attacked a rail yard in Koblenz, and suffered several flak holes in their plane, "enough to amount to major battle damage." In addition, they lost their #4 engine just after "bombs away" and dropped out of formation but followed the formation back to the French coast. After that, they were solo over the Channel. The temperature was minus fifty degrees at elevation!

On December 23rd, the squadron was attacked by German fighters over a railroad junction, but no planes were lost. Simmons notes that this was the first day his own group was attacked by fighters. He saw two German planes, coming in at "five o'clock." One was hit by a another B-17 gunner and went into a spin; the other one "peeled off and went away." He notes that he did not "get a crack" at either, but "didn't complain."

Mission #18 took place over Frankfurt, with a rail yard the target using 500 pounders. No enemy fighters were seen, but he saw a B-17 "blow up" over the target, and "no chutes were seen." On Mission #21, January 14, 1945, to attack the Hermann Goering steelworks in Hallendorf, 18-20 enemy fighters were "in our area," and several "were shot down by our P-51s and P-47s." He notes that 189 enemy fighters were destroyed in the action that mission!

In the 29th mission, Simmons was tail gunner, his first in that position. The next (and last) mission took place February 22, 1945. It was his #30, and was a bombing run to attack a railroad yard in south-central Germany near Ansbach. No enemy fighters were seen as well as no flak or rockets. The B-17's flew at "only" 8,500 feet, so apparently the resistance was less by that time of the war. At that altitude, the air temperature was a "balmy" minus 8 degrees.

In total, Simmons logged 218 hours of combat missions in the air, and his plane dropped 160,000 pounds of bombs! As mentioned earlier, WWII was an "all in" war, with combat ground troops, the air force, the navy, and civilians and military representatives producing the armaments to support our troops. Thousands of "Rosie the Riveters" and farmers and others were fully involved. We honor the dead and injured, as well as all the others in active service.

Following the war, my father returned to his work at GM, eventually joining a dealership and going into sales at the local level the remainder of his career. Mr. Simmons came back home to southern West Virginia. He never again would step inside an airplane for the rest of his life, and worked 42 solid years as a line operator, then foreman, in a chemical factory across the state line in SW Virginia. All four parents are gone now, part of the Greatest Generation.

Enjoy life, it's the only one we will get.

Jim George


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