Jedburgh teams suit up in England prior to boarding a ‘Carpetbagger’ B-24.
The crew of the 406th Bomb Squadron standing in front of the Liberator B-24 “Brer Rabbit” which dropped the “VIS” Team during the night from 1st to 2 June 1944.
Standing up (left to right): Clinton Rabbit (Pilot) – Ernest Asbury (Co-pilot) – Floyd Olson (Navigator) – Donald Leinhauser (Bomber) – Art Bogusz (Mechanic)
In crouching position (left to right): Nick Rasnak (Dispatcher) – Steve Sianis (Radio) – Mike Tauger (Tail gunner)
The first Americans to arrive at the Tempsford ‘academy’ were Robert W. Fish (now Lieutenant-Colonel), Robert D. Sullivan (now Captain) and the Group Intelligence Officer and one crew, captained by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert L. Boone of the 406th Squadron. Altogether, the party of American officers spent two months at the top secret Bedfordshire airfield. The American officers and crews found the training routine very demanding and completely different to anything they had been used to. In order that accurate drops could be made, pilots would have to get down to within 400–600 ft off the ground and reduce their flying speed to 130 mph or less. The low speed reduced the chances of damage to parachutes, as the shock is much less at the slower speed. The pilots, navigators and bombardiers each made two operational flights with RAF crews in the Halifax. The first flight involving an American trainee was made on 3/4 November but it ended disastrously when the 138 Squadron Halifax in which Captain James E. Estes was flying struck high ground in fog at Marcoles-les-Eaux. Only the tail gunner survived the crash. By 7 November, numerous training flights had been made and only the lack of suitably modified Liberators was preventing American crews from flying their own missions.
Converting to nocturnal special duty specification from daylight long-range bomber configuration was enough to tax even the most hardened of ground crew personnel. Ball turrets had to be removed and replaced with cargo hatches, nicknamed ‘Joe Holes’, through which the secret agents or ‘Joes’ dropped. A static line was installed for them and to facilitate bale outs, the hole had a metal shroud inside the opening. If the Liberator did not have a ball turret, a hole was made there. Plywood was used to cover the floors and blackout curtains graced the waist windows and navigator’s compartment, while blister side windows had to be installed to give the pilots greater visibility. Later models had their nose turrets removed. A ‘greenhouse’ was fashioned instead to allow the bombardier a good view of the drop zone and to enable him to carry out pilotage for the navigator. Suppressors or flame dampers were fitted to the engine exhausts to stifle the tell-tale blue exhaust flames. Machine-guns located on both sides of the waist were removed, leaving only the top and rear turrets for protection. In flight the entire aircraft would be blacked out except for a small light in the navigator’s compartment.
Oxygen equipment would not be needed at the low levels flown and was removed. A variety of special navigational equipment and radar aids had to be installed. The air crews learned that during the non-moon period, flights at night would be made with the use of Rebecca and an absolute radio altimeter. By means of all this equipment, the percentage of accuracy on a drop could be even greater than with ordinary visual pilotage.
Rebecca was a British radar directional, air to ground device which was originally fitted to aircraft in the RAF Special Duties squadrons. It was used to record impulses or ‘blips’ on a grid and directed the navigator to the ground operator. By varying the intensity or frequency of the blip, the ground operator (whose set was known as Eureka O) could transmit a signal letter to the aircraft. These signals could be activated from up to seventy miles away to enable the aircraft crew to pin-point its drop zone. Eureka sets, which weighed up to 100 lb, were parachuted in to Resistance groups. However, many Joes and Resistance radio-operators, not wishing to lug the set, which was heavy, or run the risk of being caught with it in their possession, refused to use it.
While training flights continued Sullivan made a study of Intelligence techniques and Fish surveyed the entire operational procedure. On 9 November King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Tempsford. Six American crews were among those who were introduced to the royal party and the following day Major Joyce, the 8th Air Force Security Officer, and Captain Stearns of the OSS arrived to obtain information and to assess progress made thus far. On 11 November Lieutenant Cross, a bombardier, failed to return when the Halifax in which he was flying was lost on a sortie to France.
These early training flights in which the Americans flew with their brother officers and men of the RAF squadrons were proving quite an education, in more than one sense of the word, as Wilmer Stapel recalls:
My first introduction flight was with a Flight Sergeant and his crew on the night of 15 November in a Halifax bomber. I rode the co-pilot position. The mission consisted of cargo and ‘Joes’ that we were to drop somewhere east of Paris. The weather was not favourable and although we reached the drop area, we were unable to complete the drop. On our way homeward we arrived at an area where we were in and out of cloud. Before the navigator could pinpoint our position, the enemy did.
We were showered with a barrage of flak before the pilot could take evasive action. No. 3 engine was hit and put out of commission. The cockpit lights were put out by the intense firing from the ground and several anti-aircraft shells burst on my side of the plane directly behind my seat. Fragments of shrapnel scattered throughout the cockpit, striking the pilot, flight engineer and radio operator.
The pilot skilfully manoeuvred the aircraft out of ack-ack range and an assessment was made of the damage and injured. While the pilot and other crew members were given first aid treatment for their wounds (none were real serious), I was asked to fly the aircraft: my one and only experience in flying a Halifax. The pilot returned to the cockpit and managed to fly the plane back to Tempsford without further incident. During all of the action I had remained unscathed. Only after landing and at the crew debriefing was it noted that some of the shrapnel had torn a couple of holes in the back of my flight jacket.
I went to bed and tried to sleep. The RAF sergeant’s crew were sent on recuperation leave while the aircraft went to the hangar to have the battle damage repaired. The sergeant and his crew were lost on the very next mission after returning from leave.
On 22 November Heflin and Fish attended a meeting in London, where it was decided to use the air echelon of the 22nd Anti-submarine Squadron and the ground echelon of the 4th Anti-submarine Squadron to form two new squadrons, the 36th and 406th Bomb Squadrons, commanded by Fish and Heflin respectively. The two men learned that as of 11 November the two squadrons had been assigned to the First Bomb Division (equipped with B–17s!) although their activation would not officially be published until 4 December. Though the Liberators were still not ready for night operations it was decided that for the next operational moon period (December), the squadrons would again operate from Tempsford but would use their own aircraft.
Six new crews were brought in from the States. One of them was led by the pilot, Lieutenant William G. McKee. Charles D. Fairbanks, the crew’s original ball turret gunner, recalls:
Our crew of ten were put on two B–17s (five on each) and flown by Ferry Command to England via Bangor and Newfoundland at night. I crawled up in a cargo hold in the forward bomb bay and tried to sleep. Even in our sheepskin coats it was cold. We were also on oxygen. When it got daylight I discovered that the cargo rack I was sleeping in was retained by one bomb shackle. One little malfunction and I could have been dropped into the north Atlantic!
We arrived at Nutts Corner in Northern Ireland. It was difficult to find because the runway had been painted to blend in with the countryside. In Belfast we boarded a steamer and sailed to Liverpool. We were fed and driven in trucks to the Combat Crew Replacement Centre at Stone after dark. None of us were familiar with the blackout and we had to hold hands to make sure we found our way from the barracks to the mess hall. Next morning we could not find the mess hall because we did not know where we had been the night before!
We were processed and several days later we were taken to Alconbury where we and five other crews were assigned to the 36th and 406th Squadrons. Our ten-man crew was trimmed down to four officers and four enlisted men. Two of them, Pasvantis and Dickenson, were sent to other outfits. I was the ball gunner but since the Carpetbaggers had no ball turret, they moved me back to the tail. Later we learned that Dickenson had been killed. He had been standing in the bomb bay with his arm wrapped around a bomb when the bombs were salvoed. He went out the bomb bay doors without a parachute.
At Alconbury we were assigned ‘C’ for Charlie, a B–24D Liberator painted dull matt black. The ‘C’ and the serial number were about the only markings on it. There were no large emblems on the wings. Later, about halfway through our tour we were given B–24Js with the nose and ball turrets out. They were painted a real glossy black. It was said that when the searchlights hit them at night the people on the ground could not see them as well as the matt black.
McKee’s crew went through indoctrination procedures at Harrington and prepared for their training flights from Tempsford. Wilmer Stapel, meanwhile, flew his second mission from the Bedfordshire airfield on the night of 10 December:
The aircraft was very sluggish and slow on take-off. We barely got airborne before the end of the runway. The climb-out was just as bad and at about 1,000 ft the RAF pilot decided to abort the flight and return for a landing. He ordered us all into our crash positions. I found out that mine was directly behind the cockpit bulkhead.
I couldn’t see what was going on but from the sound of the engines winding up, it sounded as if he had temporarily lost control of the aircraft. We began a tight spiral and proceeded down. The next thing we heard was the thumping of this heavy aircraft as it bounced on the ground. We bumped a couple of times and then the aircraft stopped. The crew immediately disembarked and I followed them. We were on the airfield but off the runway. End of mission!
On 14 December Lieutenant-Colonel Heflin relinquished command of the 406th to Captain Robert Boone and was assigned to the parent 482nd Group as Air Executive – Special Project. Major Fish became Operations Officer and command of the 36th Squadron passed to Captain Rodman St. Clair, who since 5 December had been in charge of the latest group of American trainees seconded to Tempsford. There, training missions had continued with the odd hiccup. On 17 December Lieutenant Glenn C. Nesbitt and his crew had to bale out of their Liberator in bad weather over England after a mission with the RAF over France. The bad weather grew worse and three days later the American crews returned to Alconbury without completing any further missions.
The 36th and 406th Squadrons spent their first Christmas at Alconbury playing host to a group of English children, giving them candy and gum rations that the officers and enlisted men had contributed to for several weeks. For children living under wartime austerity conditions for four years, the Yuletide festivities were a time of great excitement. For the men it was a welcome break from the perils and stress of Carpetbagger flying. It was amazing to see hard-bitten crew-chiefs handling the little children, catering for their every whim. One of the First Sergeants was even seen riding a little blond boy around on the handlebars of his GI bicycle. When the icecreams were served, many of the little ones were very excited as only some of the older ones had ever seen ice-cream before.
Two days later the festive spirit had truly disappeared with the sobering reality of the first loss of a complete crew. The Liberator, flown by Captain Robert L. Williams, Operations Officer of the 36th Squadron, ran into very bad weather during a cross-country navigational training flight and crashed into the side of a hill on the south coast with the loss of all eight crew.
Wilmer Stapel, meanwhile, was anxiously anticipating his second mandatory mission with the RAF after the original one had been aborted on the night of 10 December:
After two harrowing experiences with my RAF cohorts and another mission to go before my crew was declared combat ready, I strongly suggested to Colonel Heflin that I preferred to do the piloting myself. If I was destined to ‘buy the farm’ I’d prefer that it be at my hands if I had to go. Colonel Heflin said he would use my crew and I could be the co-pilot on the next mission. This is how it happened that Colonel Heflin, with my crew, flew the first combat mission on the night of 4 January 1944. The flight was into France and was successful. The total flight time was seven hours and no enemy was engaged.
Despite the veil of secrecy surrounding the new unit there was still little to be secretive about at Alconbury, since few men knew very many details about the Carpetbagger Project. The newspapers gave hints, if one knew which articles to read, and could read between the lines. The Daily Express of Saturday, 15 January 1944, carried an inconspicuous item datelined Geneva. Under the headline, ‘Patriots Wreck Railways’, it was reported:
French patriots last night attacked the German-held Annecy railway depot and blew up several locomotives. At Romilly, in Savoy, patriots stopped a train, forced the passengers to alight, then sent the train rushing uncontrolled along the line until it overturned.
In Belgium, patriots complying with directions given to them by the Allied Command, carried out forty-two acts of sabotage in one week on the railway tracks in the province of Hainault. They stopped trains and started them without drivers, placed bombs on the tracks, unbolted rails, destroyed signal boxes and put pumping stations out of action.
The following day, the Sunday Graphic, in a brief item, referred cryptically to ‘“Secret Airmen” whose work is a close secret and will make amazing reading after the war’.
The Germans already knew of course. Don Fairbanks recalls:
One night we really got a shock. We would listen to music coming from Germany. One night ‘Lord Haw Haw’ welcomed us to Europe. He named our squadron CO and read out our squadron numbers and said the Luftwaffe was waiting for us to come over to the mainland. We were green troops and this really got to us. We were really concerned about our safety and security on the base and all those things you think of when you’re a nineteen-year-old.
At Alconbury the flight line was becoming overcrowded with Carpetbagger aircraft trying to operate alongside the Pathfinder aircraft of the 482nd and vice versa. Fresh moves and promotions were put into effect in late January and early February 1944 which were designed to increase operational efficiency. A new base at Harrington, just west of Kettering and only 35 miles from the packing and storage depot at Holme in Huntingdonshire, was under consideration. Until it was ready for occupation it was decided to transfer several of the Carpetbagger aircraft eastwards to RAF Watton in Norfolk, where the 328th Service Group would provide an administrative headquarters.
On 7 February movement of some of the Liberators and their crews to Watton began. The Norfolk base was thought to be, in some ways, an ideal location for a month’s winter sojourn until Harrington was ready for American occupancy. The 3rd SAD (Strategic Air Depot) was already based at Watton and its role of Liberator repair and modification would greatly assist the Carpetbagger outfit. The 406th Bomb Squadron began the movement while seven crews and six Liberators were left behind to continue operations with the 36th Squadron. Skeleton ground sections and some combat crew also remained behind at Alconbury. In the midst of all this operational upheaval, on 10 February, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Alconbury. During their tour of the base they took time to inspect one of the Pathfinder aircraft and also Captain Wagstad’s crew standing beside their black-painted B–24. Sadly, Wagsted and his crew would die one month later on 3 March, when their B–24, together with another in the 36th Bomb Squadron, was lost on a Carpetbagger sortie.
By 17 February the move to Watton was complete. However, the Norfolk base was not matching up to early expectations. Watton had been constructed before the war as a permanent RAF base with purpose-built hangars, mess halls and barracks. However, no room could be found for the Carpetbagger contingent so they had to put up with life on the mud-flats on which tented accommodation had been erected.
Out of nowhere, clothes racks, shelves and packing box entrances sprang into existence. Each tent had a supply of firewood (scrounged from the local area) to last a long, cold winter. Don Fairbanks recalls:
Each tent was set up for six men. In my tent there were four men from one crew and two of us from our crew. We walked into the tent after one mission and there were six guys in it we had never seen before. We went to the First Sergeant and told him our belongings had gone. We were told that a crew had been shot down and our stuff had gone into storage with their stuff. He said we could draw our stuff from supply and go back and explain to the guys in the tent but we weren’t to upset them. It turned out that these guys in our tent were all cooks and bakers and this was why the First Sergeant didn’t want us to upset them! They were worth more to us as friends then enemies! Two did leave and we got to know the rest very well. After this we all ate like kings living off steaks and real eggs instead of powdered.
During the time the squadrons spent there, a few air raid alerts sounded. It was during one of these that in one of the Ordnance Sections, the order went out to sleep with helmets on! All in all, the men made the best of it in the short stay in the Watton mud-flats. The hiking to the main road with boots and hiding them in the bushes, putting on another pair carried along. The most difficult part of it all was finding the right bush in the dark, with a belly full of beer.
The big problem at Watton was that only grass runways with pierced steel planking (PSP) were available. These proved totally unsuitable, as Don Fairbanks recalls:
We could not operate loaded B–24s so we TDY’ed back to Alconbury for our missions during the full moon, then back to Watton. At Alconbury the four EM from our crew bunked in an abandoned mess hall. It was better than the tents at Watton. Prior to our arrival one crew had made up their bunks, went on a mission and had got shot down. Another crew was brought in to replace them. They made up their bunks, went out that night and also got shot down. We came in with two other crews and on hearing the story nobody would sleep in those four ‘unlucky’ beds. People slept on the floor first.
Although the Project was now scattered hither and thither, on paper at least, the Carpetbaggers existed as a functional unit. On 27 February the group was officially relieved of its assignment to the 482nd and the 1st Bomb Division. Headquarters, 328th Service Group, was designated as the acting Group HQ following a message signed by General James E. Doolittle. Higher headquarters passed to VIII Air Force Composite Command, based at Cheddington.