Around 6 years ago my Dad agreed to let me interview him about his war experiences. When I arrived in Longview he pulled out a manila envelope. Inside were his WW II dog tags and copies of his flight logs. I’d seen them before as child when my sister and I would sometimes rifle through his battered foot locker while playing in the attic.
Like many of the baby boomer generation I grew up bored of hearing about WWII. I had no idea what those papers, his crushed hat and other mementos represented. It was years before I got it. My dad had lived through tough times. As another Veteran’s day rolls around I wish to express my gratitude to my Dad for his sacrifice and those made by all veterans past and present.
Below is my father’s war story using his own words.
THROUGH THE EYES OF A WWII B-24 NAVIGATOR
“I still have my hat,” my Dad says, as he talks about his WWII experiences. “It looks pretty raunchy now. We were superstitious about them. They were called your lucky piece, as long as you had no problem. I wore mine most of the time I was in Italy.”
His hat must have been lucky indeed, for 66 years later he was still alive to tell me about it.
My Dad, Roger Verle Caple, grew up during up during the Great Depression. Upon graduating from High School in 1940, he had no dreams of college, he wondered if he’d even find a job. But the wheels of war were already turning. He found work at the Bremerton, Washington naval yard and by living with his sister he’d saved enough money to go to college the following September.
He was alone studying for finals on December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.
“… I decided to go to a neighborhood store to get a snack. It was there, I first heard of the bombing. The significance of the event did not sink in or how it was going to affect my future life.”
By his next birthday he was eligible for the draft. The Army Officer Aviation Cadet program offered a deferment, so he signed up.
But he said, “nobody really believed it. “
By the end of winter quarter, orders to report to Fort Kerns, Utah for basic training had arrived.
His father took him to the train depot, on March 26th, 1943.
“I was surprised when my Dad, a man who showed little emotion, gave me a big hug and had tears in his eyes.”
Life at Fort KernsDad said, “consisted of, doing a lot of marching and learning what army life was like, taking tests and receiving lots of shots.”
At a cadet classification center in Santa Anna, CA.
“…. we underwent more tests for reaction time, coordination and written tests.
I was classified as a Navigator which was my first choice.”
Then it was on to pre-flight training at Ellington Field, Texas.
He was there on July 27, 1943 when a storm dubbed the “surprise hurricane of 1943,” struck. Winds, at the storms height, were clocked at 120-130 MPH.
“I noticed a particular weirdness to the air….…. Around noon we were called out to the flight line. A storm had already started. ….. Ropes were fastened to whatever points could be found and it was our job to hold the planes down. I was not about to let go of my rope I was afraid the wind would blow me away. The heavy rain was almost being blown horizontal and stung as it found any bare flesh. I had a raincoat and gloves on but when you reach up, it left an open area around the wrists. I had bruises from it. It was a steady rain. We were out there from noon until dark…..”
For a job well done he was given the week-end off. And since his father was visiting it enabled them to spend a little more time together. It would over a year before they’d be able to see each other again.
In September, he was transferred to Hondo, Texas.
“There I received flight training in navigation. ……. on Dec. 24th I was classified as a navigator with the rank of second lieutenant.”
Almost a year after starting basic training, he was stationed at Mitchell Field, Long Island, NY, as the navigator for a combat replacement crew headed to Europe.
“There we received a brand new plane, a B-24. It was a beautiful aircraft. We named it the “The Captain and His Kids”
On March 31, 1944 they flew it to West Palm Beach and from there embarked on their journey overseas. Their trip took thirteen days and sent them to South America, over the Atlantic and to Africa, finally arriving at San Geovani Field, Italy on April 14. They were assigned to the 455th bomb group and 743rd squadron. The base was about five miles from the city of Cerignola.
“We were assigned quarters, a tent in an olive orchard. We four officers had one tent and the enlisted men had another thirty feet away. We were pleased to learn that the 743rd squadron had only lost one crew in the three months time, but not so pleased to be told that the former occupants of our tents, were that crew.“
The base had few comforts to offer. The weather was still cool.
“To heat the tent a crude stove made of a 50 gallon barrel of oil cut in half was placed in the center of the tent. Gasoline was piped from a barrel outside …. We were warned that there had been quite a few tent fires….. I was glad I chose the location nearest the door for my bunk.”
“We were also warned not to expect much from the squadron mess hall. After experiencing a steady diet of powdered eggs, spam and C rations, I agree, it was not very good.”
Italians workers did the KP duties.
“The help would raid the garbage cans after the meals and took home what they could to their families.”
A young Italian boy named Matt ran errands for his the crew.
“He’d take our laundry to town to be done by his mother. It always came back very clean, ironed and folded neatly. We paid about a one dollar for each batch of laundry. One time I didn’t have the correct amount of money so I gave Matt a package of cigarettes which had cost me ten cents. He was very happy to get that”
“They warned us of malaria and mosquitoes. We were supposed to put nets over our bed, we didn’t though. We had pills to take. The instructions were to take every day, but they turned your skin yellow and affected the liver. I didn’t see a great risk and quit taking it.”
There wasn’t much to do there when you weren’t flying my Dad told me.
“When you first go it is all kind of exciting, a new adventure, but after while it was very dreary. Sometimes we played a little softball. And I remember two or three USO shows and a few movies on base.”
“There was a lot of captured gasoline, not of high enough quality to use. People would pour it down a well and explode it for something to do. On the Fourth of July someone threw a 100 pound bomb down it…. It threw pieces of brick all over our area.”
“We could go to the officers club. It was a small place to go to relax without leaving the base. Not much was available in the way of drinks and there was little ice so what had was on the warm side.”
“Sometimes the maintenance crew would place their allotment of beer aboard our plane to cool it down. It would be below freezing at the altitude we flew. They would tell us they were especially careful servicing our plane because they did not want to lose their beer.”
On non flight days, he said, they were also free to go into the nearby towns during daylight hours.
“We hitched rides on jeeps or trucks. It was easy to find a ride. I went into Cerignola quite a bit. There wasn’t much to do there; you just walked around looking for someone to talk too. There was nothing to eat there. The people were really poor. They were eager to get candy, gum and most of all cigarettes.”
“We were not supposed to go into civilian homes. MP’s patrolled the streets checking. One evening though, two of our crew and I were approached by a young boy who asked us to come to his home for a dinner. I don’t remember much, it consisted of spaghetti and a salad. It wasn’t all that great but it wasn’t bad either. There were three generations living together. One was a young man, who had been a prisoner of war, and sent to Texas. He even showed us some pictures he’d taken at the prison camp.”
“I went to Fogia about 20 miles away. I had a high school friend stationed there. I went four or five times. And he came to see me two or three times.”
“We got some news. We got Stars and Stripes and the Ernie Pyle stories. We didn’t have radio very much, mostly in the air, but that was primarily for communication. We did hear Axis Sally a few times up there.”
The war my Dad come to fight was in the air not on the ground. And it didn’t take long for him to be reminded he was in a combat zone. Less than twenty-four hours after their arrival,
“… we were awakened by a tremendous explosion. A B-24 from the nearby 454th bomb group had exploded on take-off with a load of bombs. All ten crew members were killed. This pretty much shook up our crew, we were not yet used to such things.”
Days later they were still picking up body pieces. They were also disappointed to learn that they would not get to keep the plane they had flown over.
“We were promised another one in the future but in the meantime we took whatever was available.”
On mission days my Dad was awakened between 2-4 A.M. First there was a briefing to attend.
“Briefings were required attendence by officers. …. The briefing was conducted by one of the group leaders. A big screen would be in front with a blind pulled over it. When the briefing was ready to start, the door was closed and the blind was pulled up revealing a large map with lines showing where we were going. We were briefed on where the air craft fire would be and what the predicted fire power might be. A meteorologist named Stormy would give a weather forecast.”
Once in the air the crew would put on oxygen masks.
“We used oxygen anytime we were above 12,000 feet. Most of the flight we used it. We wore a flak vest too, but only where flak was expected. You wore a harness, so could just raise the parachute pack up, and clip it on in a hurry if you needed to. We got no parachute training. They told us there was no need to practice what you’d only do once. We were issued a 45 caliber pistol; you were supposed to carry it with you. Most though, did not. It was said to be more of a hazard if you were captured. They said you’d be alright if you had no weapon.”
The temperature while flying at high attitudes dipped below freezing even in the summer. To stay warm the crews wore electric suits under their clothes.
“The first one weren’t very good, cumbersome and failed a lot. After about a month we got better ones. We had places to plug them in, they weren’t perfect, they sometimes had hotspots and cold spots but they were better than wearing a lot of clothing.”
I asked if he remembered how he felt on his first mission.
“Not really. My first flight was on April 17th and I remember it as s a fairly easy mission to Bulgaria. I was amazed to see how many planes were in the air. When you first look out and count 200-350 planes all going the same directions. It gave you a feeling you weren’t alone – secure.”
“Soon we were given our own ship.” We named it the ‘Piece Maker And Its Ten Aides.’ We didn’t always get to fly it, though. Sometimes it was being repaired, then we flew whatever was available.”
Knowing eventually about 50% of the planes wouldn’t return to base and of those 25% lost their crews, I asked my Dad if he was ever afraid he wouldn’t return. His reply surprised me.
“I never was on a mission I felt I‘d never come back from. I had confidence I would be okay. But after I came back to the states I didn’t feel that way. I lost my confidence, I thought maybe another rotation and I wouldn’t be so lucky.”
He told me that during his stay in Italy his crew never suffered a loss or injury, but the squadron lost 6 planes, and the group 29.
“We were luckier than most. As a result,” he said, “morale among my squadron was actually pretty good. “We had our share of near misses though,” my father added
His confidence would be tested many times. The first was four days after his first mission.Their destination was Bucharest, Romania and their group lost 4 planes that day, but none from his squadron. I asked about the skill of the pilot. Had he been a factor in their survival?
“I had great faith in his skill as a pilot . He flew real well. He did have vertigo once though. We went to the right between two planes. I didn’t think we could fit in the space.”
Their tail gunner, Henry Everhart, was a bit more descriptive, that day he wrote, “We were flying along nice and peaceful when all of a sudden we peeled off the formation in the middle of a turn and did a 90 degree bank …. and went straight down……… I knew we were in a dive…we were not pulling out and thought we were out of control…..Then felt a strong force pushing me to the floor and I knew we were pulling out of a 7,000 foot dive.”
My Dad said navigation in B-24’s was done by visual sighting or dead-reckoning.
“They were just starting to use radar when I got there, only the lead plane and maybe the number two plane would have it.”
The hardest part of being a navigator he said, “was being responsible for knowing where you were. If you were in formation, you just followed the lead plane. But almost every mission someone had a malfunction and had to go back all alone. That happened to us 5 or 6 times.
But I think there was a bit more to the job than he described. The tail gunner, Henry Everhart wrote on another day, “Caple didn’t fly with us today…..only the lead ship has a navigator. I don’t like that too well. He’s a damned good navigator and knows almost ever flak position in southern Europe.”
I asked my Dad if he had ever manned the turret guns.
“I road in the turret 3 or 4 times,” he said. “The lead plane of the group carried two navigators.The second one manned the turret and aided the main one, since he had an excellent view of the ground and could more easily spot check points along the way. Though I fired a few test shots…. I never fired a shot during combat.”
His most frightening mission was one they made to an oil refinery outside of Vienna.
“Our group lost 10 planes. We were lucky we were in the lead squadron. They attacked the rear more.”
“Another mission I‘ll never forget was the one a ME-109 jumped us. He never came in front. He was on the side. He must have been the worst shot in the air. We probably had several near misses. We’d left the mission south of the Alps on the way to Munich. We had had to feather an engine and were probably flying at an altitude of 17,000 or 18,000 feet. Our pilot dove to 500 feet when we were over the Adriatic to evade him. I did see it when it was off to the side…..We weren’t sure but I think he was hit. I last saw some smoke coming out of the rear of it.
Another time the gunners kept saying they could smell smoke. The turret gunner said it was coming from the life rafts over the wings. Someone told me to pull the release cable where I was. Those that could see said one of them looked like a bunch of burnt rags as it sailed out…… We figured we had been hit by something.”
The 15th Air Force rotated crews back to the U.S after 50 missions. Some were also selected to go home half-way through their missions with the understanding they would return.
“Our crew was selected for this special rotation. “I wasn’t too happy. I had already completed 42 missions and was looking forward to having the remaining 8 by the end of July.”
They were sent to Naples on July 10th. There Dad’s orders were changed to a permanent return to the U.S.
“Apparently,” said my Dad, “someone realized 42 missions were awfully close to 50.”
About a week later they boarded the “Henry Gibbons,” an army transport ship. Once on board my Dad soon discovered there was also a large group of refugees on the ship. Most were Jewish, most were professional people in their pre-war life and all had managed to escape internment in concentration camps. They were also the only group of refugees the U.S. government allowed to enter the country during the war.
“We were kept isolated from them,” Dad recalled, “but gradually we picked up information about them. Some of the soldiers would throw cigarettes down, particularly if they were good looking girls. They were being taken to a camp in N.Y. state for the duration of the war. We were entertained by programs the skilled entertainers among the group put on. Many had performed in major theaters in Europe. The shows were much appreciated and relieved the monotony of being at sea.”
On a foggy Aug 3rd, the “Henry Gibbons” sailed into New York’s harbor.
“So many people were facing the harbor the ship was tilting,” my Dad recalled. “We were ordered to move.”
After a 3 week leave he reported to Santa Monica Ca for reassignment.
“I got the notion I’d like to be a pilot,” said my Dad, “…. I had no trouble on take offs but I did have trouble making a smart landing. ..I was eliminated from the program.”
In May of 1945 he was transferred to the Air Transport Command assigned to ferry planes back from England, in Long Beach, California.
“After I got there a decision was made to dispose most of the planes in Europe. So I saw little activity while in Long Beach that summer.”
He took advantage of the free time by exploring LA. He enjoyed going to ball games and dancing to big band names. Shortly after the war with Japan ended he was discharged.
Four years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor my Dad once again was attending classes on the University of Washington campus.
I asked him, if the war had changed him.
“I think the experience matured me a lot — going just out of my teen-age years, it gave me more of an appreciation of adult life. Going back to school I wasn’t that much older than the incoming group but I felt much older.”
Finally, I asked, did he have final message he’d like to leave about his war experience for future generations?
“War is so useless,” he said, “and it’s been going on forever.”