War Story Interview December 4, 2003
Interviewee: Charles Hermes, Sr. Radio Operator, 97th Bomb Group World War II
Before conducting this interview, I read a book written by Newton Hoey, the navigator of my grandfather’s group during the war, which was a complete account of his war experiences written specifically for his children and grandchildren. As I interviewed my grandfather, it served as a trigger for his fragile memory, and throughout the interview, I note when he is quoting directly from the book or pointing to pictures from it. My comments and questions, as well as parenthetical explanations, are in italics.
What years were you in the war?
Well I enlisted in 1943, but we had to go to school first. Hoey went to navigator school, and I went to radio school in California. We didn’t meet each other until they formed a crew. We were formed up in Lincoln, Nebraska. We had a pilot, ball gunner, a waist gunner, tail gunner, engineer, a bombardier- we had 10 guys on the crew- sometimes 11. (Holding up the book) Did you read any of this?
I read all of it.
(Pointing to a picture in the book) These were two of the toughest targets we had Munich and Linz. It seemed every telephone pole had a 75 millimeter gun aiming at us! Let’s see… I enlisted when I was 19 and I went out to the coast of Santa Ana. That was uh, 1943. After our training, they separated us, and I went to radio school. The rest of the crew came out to California too, but they were in a different wing. We all had to train more or less the same way, and we had 10 guys.
(Pointing to a picture of a plane) I saw one of these. Chuck took me out to Route 30 one day… oh here’s a picture of me. This is Mac, the engineer, the other waist gunner, the tail gunner- he’s a real character. The officers aren’t in here. No. I think this is… 1,2,3,4,5…Somebody’s missing! Sometimes they refer to this as Amandola – part of the crew, the planes were stationed at Amandola. Part of them were over at…uh..losing my memory… Let’s skip over to this. (Flips to another page) We had to fly.. oh there’s our engineer, a good guy.
That’s the guy who’s diary was in there?
Yeah, Jack Thurston.
This is our palatial tents that we lived in. Mucky floors and everything.
(Flipping through the book) There’s Thurston and the other waist gunner.
(Sarcastically) Isn’t that a beautiful tent?
(Referring to a passage in the book that talked about the soldiers’ salary) See what we made?
(Sarcastically) Lot of money
That’s per month!
After I was over there for awhile, I got an additional 5% for what they call longevity. When you hit the third year, you automatically got a pay increase. Sometimes we’d shoot craps and play cards, and if you lost it, you were broke for a month. (Laughs) I’ll skip to where, uh, when I came out of Santa Ana. I washed out- I didn’t have the acclamation of fingers and toes with the instruments. If you had a bad record, they wouldn’t take you for flight school. So what would happen was they would give you a choice of either going into the infantry or… the gunnery school… and there was one other one. I chose radio because I went to school downtown, I enlisted in, March of 43, and I went in to the regular service after radio school. They sent a whole group of us to radio school to teach us to operate the Morse code and the ground to air and air to ground. Part of that was the gunnery school. Radio operators didn’t have so much to do so far as gunnery.. Let me show you a picture here…
(A chapter in the book titled “Linz: A Royal SNAFU” tells the origin of the word “snafu”)
That’s where the word SNAFU comes from?
Yeah “Situation Normal F-U” No it’s really Situation Normal All Fouled Up
Let’s see after I come out of radio school, I went to Yuma, Arizona for Gunnery Training. The radio operator wasn’t expected to be a gunnery. In fact, the gunnery sergeant said “Hermes, without a doubt, you’re the dumbest guy that ever went through this the place. You couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a barn door.” And I said “Yeah, I know.”
You had to shoot 18 planes out of 25. And they built a barrier on a flatbed truck to hold you in and at that time we had a clay pigeon. And on the truck we had a regular shotgun and these clay pigeons that truck would simulate a bomber going down the bomb run and these birdies come in at different angles. They were trying to acclimate you. You couldn’t hit ‘em straight on cause they were going so darn fast.
Like a hockey puck? Pass to where he’s gonna’ be?
Yeah, exactly like a hockey puck. (Laughs)
We practiced for awhile in the States as a crew and then they sent us up to Lincoln, Nebraska. I was all over the United States during this dumb war. Uh, we went up to Lincoln and we formed a new crew because our original navigator got sick. He got air sick. And why you’d join the Air Force if you get air sick, I’ll never know. When you have to throw up in a B-17, the door was in the radio room. On the bottom.
That’s where you sit?
No I sat over to the left. I’m sitting here and the trap door is over to the left. And then there was a door that went over to the waist gunner. So, uh, after, uh, let’s see… Uh, we were just talking about cigarettes… We used to pay a nickel a pack. You know how that propeller’s made? When it didn’t function correctly, you had to what they call, feather the plane, the propeller. The pilot had a method of like a key, and he could turn the propeller. It used to be this way for having no wind resistance. As soon as you turn it this way, of course, it cuts down on the speed. But the trouble is, I had to what we call feather, feather the prop and turn it mechanically so it wouldn’t cause so much air resistance. The target that we were selected to bomb if it didn’t have any bomb gunnery down on the ground and, yeah, look at that…
Ouch. Were you in there?
No I wasn’t in this one. I was in one where we lost the complete engine. There was oil spitting all over the place. The pilot had to just descend to cut down the resistance.
So what does a radio operator do? Is it air to ground or between the planes?
Between the planes. Occasionally for, uh, we used to fly a Mickey plane. What that was, the radio room was here. Like this. The radio operator was here, and the Mickey operator or radar. That’s when radar first came into existence, during the war, and we were fortunate to have a radar plane. We’d fly the lead plane. Going down the bomb run they had a formation. The lead, one, two, three, and then one down underneath.
(Pointing to a picture) Here’s what the oxygen mask looked like. When you fly high altitude most of our missions were from 25,000 up to about 29. And occasionally it would get a plane that the oxygen supply wasn’t adequate to keep all the guys on. I talked to the pilot one day and I said “I can’t stay off of oxygen for as long as you guys do. I have to go on at 10,000 feet.” He said go on at 10,000 feet and we’ll fight it for ya’. They never had any problem with it after that.
Sometimes these hoses (pointing to a photo of the hose on the oxygen masks) would get full of ice. Cause at 29,000 feet it was cold, ya know. I probably wasn’t on this mission, but these Mickey operators like the guy who wrote this book, Hoey, they had their own group that they would pull out and put with another group. So consequently we got Hoey on our about our third mission, and he stayed with us until, uh, I guess we had about 25 or so. And then he went back into the pool. But other than that we kept together.
Occasionally you had to fill in for somebody. And the worst part of it was, we’d look at the roster every night and see who was flying and where. Unfortunately we, uh, looked at one of our groups for the following morning and we weren’t listed. So the pilot said “Hit the sack, guys.” So we did. But the bad thing of this would be if you weren’t scheduled to have the flight and someone would come in and say “Hey, Hermes, you’re on flight number 32. Get up.” And I’d say “But I wasn’t picked.” And they’d say, “I don’t give a damn if you were picked or not, you’re on 32.”
And you’d be with a group of strange guys. Nine plus yourself, ya’ know. But then we’d get this Mickey operator and fortunately, he gave us a lot more, I should say, advantages. Because a group, flying over the bomb target the more scattered they are the better. They call that scattered bombing, and they caused a lot of headaches. But occasionally, we would, uh, hmm, how was that now. He told us this a couple months ago. Laverne and I went to the reunion of the group, and he finally told us. He said “Fellas, after 49 years I’m gonna’ tell you something.” We flew and all the bombers did we flew up to New Hampshire and from New Hampshire we flew up to Greenland from Greenland to the Azores to Northern Africa than into Tangiers and then into Italy, which was the bomb group’s location. That’s how we got overseas. And we always had a joke, if you were successful flying a B-17 into the Azores without crashing into the mountains that they had guarding them, you’ll make it.
He told us this on the trip. The next day, this is the navigator. (Reading) “All I can say is I had the best navigator looking after the crew and me. But the next day I got cocky. I know I can find Africa, I joked to Smitty, who was the pilot when we left Ramirachech. After that I was about thirty minutes late reaching the African coast. Then I started to worry.”
You were on this flight?
Yeah, the radio contact would’ve been able to let us hone in on the radio contact as a beam as navigational aid. But Smitty said the only radio contact was the tower for landing instructions. You couldn’t broadcast any time you felt like it. You had to get clearance. And if you screwed up, you’d end up in a Whosecow somewhere.
(Reading) “The wind had shifted to a head wind and slowed us down. As we approached the coastline, we could switch to pilotage which I felt more comfortable with. And if vision was obscured, it was back to the flight plan with no radio we could try to get under the clouds so we could use our vigils. We weren’t flying high, just 4-5,000 feet. We finally reached the coast and had no trouble finding the airport.” He said, “Man I looked at that scene and said ‘I’m gonna’ have to call Smitty. We’re not gonna’ make it. And I wasn’t about to let you guys in on it.” (Laughing) And we said “Why’d you wait forty years to tell us?”
So all that time you didn’t know you were lost?
You stayed with this group the whole time?
The Air Force is comprised of a group, my group was the 97th Bomb Group. (Pointing to the picture of a recent reunion of the 97th Bomb Group)
Yeah that was the only picture I could recognize you in.
Yeah that was me, and uh, the engineer, and the navigator.
Over in England, they used to get new planes in and they’d assign a plane to a particular crew and it was up to them to take care of it. We unfortunately get over there, and we didn’t have enough planes. So that meant we were on a strange plane with your own crew of maybe one or two new guys. After that we picked up a used plane, some of them were really used, holes in ‘em and everything, but we would pick up a plane and I have the roster at home. My first 18 missions were in 18 different planes. And later we started to run out of targets, and so we’d only fly maybe every third or fourth day. And it would take longer to get home. After 35 missions, they’d sent us home. And, I don’t know if Hoey has it in here or not, but they gave us a choice after 18 missions to take a week of and go to the Al-Capri which is beautiful or Rome.
Yeah he said he went to Rome.
Yeah but he went at a different time than the engineer and I went. I think he went with another navigator.
But then unfortunately when the war was over, I was over in oh, about the middle of June. V-E day’s in, I think June. (I later learned that V-E Day is actually May 8th)
Yeah and they put us in a pool and take four gunners and a bull gunner and a tail gunner and they’d pick out a pilot and a navigator and a radio operator so fortunately I had a radio operation coming back into the States again but that wasn’t until, June, oh, July I believe of ’45.
Oh yeah, we had these, uh, what they call groups. Our crew happened to be with the 97th Bomb Group and each group was comprised of four squadrons and our squadron we had the 340, 341, 342, and 414. People wanted to know, “How the hell’d 414 get in with and we’d say ‘We don’t know.’ But anyway, we were in the 342nd which wasn’t too bad. Uh, (reading) “The 97th was the first unit formed after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Planes and trainees were organized at Tampa, Mcdill Field, and in Sarasota, Florida than sent to Britain in 1942 as part of the Eight Air Force.”
They pulled a lot of the guys, the crews from our 97th and shipped them over to England because they were losing more planes than they could keep up with. So they’d just grab guys and throw them over there and let them fight it out. But that’s the way they treated people.
(Pointing to a photo of the B-17 dropping bombs) This is what dropping the bombs looked like.
You were asking what one of the duties of a radio operator are – this bombay door was right in and other words, I’d be sitting here and the bombay door was like at a 45 degree angle. And after we dropped the bombs, the engineer would hit a switch which would close the doors, hopefully. A couple times it got hung up.
(Laughing) So a couple times we’d have to get in there and kick those things loose. You can laugh about that stuff now but it’s so crazy the way they treated ya’. (Pointing to a photo of the plane in the book) But that’s what it looked like.
Oh, I didn’t realize he had this in there. (Pointing to a diagram of the plane) See this? Radio operator. Ball turret gunner, he had 50 caliber guns up there and the ball turret gunner, he was the one that rotated 360.
Yeah, we read a poem about a bull turret gunner.
Oh, did you?
Yeah that’s the only one of these I knew.
Here’s tail gunner and waist gunner. That was tough because that guy had to kneel on his knees and he had a little cushion for his butt and that’s the way he flew the whole time looking at the guns. And after the whole time we got outta’ there, four hours usually, he’s be cramped up so bad. (Laughing) I wonder what the guy’d look like today if he was living.
(Flipping through the book) There’s old Hoey there.
So what did you do when you weren’t flying?
Uh, try to keep the tent looking half bad or half good or whatever. We still had to march in formation and so forth, you know, typical Army they always found something for you to do. Occasionally we’d pull KP, which is Kitchen Police and you had to warsh (Pittsburghese for “wash”) out the mess kits and the tin cuts and all that crap that the cooks would throw at you.
We had a guy right next to us, heck of a nice guy, and he’d been over there for quite some time. And we got to talking with him and he said, ‘I’m flying tomorrow. I’m finally gettin’ out of this rat race. I’m up for my 35th tomorrow.’ And we said ‘That’s great.’ Well unfortunately we were flying at the same time, and his plane got shot down. On his last mission.
Did your guys have any close calls?
(Quiet- As if he didn’t want to elaborate) Yeah, a few.
(Pointing to the book) This is funny. Oh, that’s not the one. Oh, I uh, found out on I guess a day we weren’t flying. Just zipping through the dial on the radio. And I heard this woman talking. And we’d heard about her. They called her Axis Sally. She used to play Glenn Miller and all the Big Band sounds and try to discourage guys. She’d say well “Welcome Jim Turner. How are you doing? We have all our guns trained for your plane. We’ll get ya.” And this would wear on guys. If they took it seriously, they’d go crazy, ya’ know? So over in, uh, the Pacific, they had a girl over there called Tokyo Rose. She did the same thing. She’d try to discourage the guys. Nothing scared here.
(Pointing to pictures of bomb targets and maps in the book) Boy some of these targets were really tough. (Reading) “I was scared to death. We all prayed.”
(Pointing to a picture of the dentist visit to the group) I don’t remember getting my teeth inspected. (Laughing) I should have.
I hate to jump back and forth but one thing brings up another.
That’s alright. I’ll put it all together.
(Pointing to a picture) Here’s what we do. See them cleaning out the plane?
We used to have a, uh, there was six guys in the tent. All enlisted men. And down the row they’d have a tent for the officers. The officers always got treated better than the rest of them. They used to have four guys to a tent which wasn’t bad cause we’d pull the sides out and that’s how they got that shape. But to keep ‘em warm, and man did it get cold over there at times, we had to get a 55 gallon drum of gasoline, high-octane that they used in the planes. And each tent used a drum of gasoline to heat the tent. And the stove was right in the middle and we had one, two, three, four… Yeah, two, three. Damn I can’t remember how we had those.
Here this’ll give you a pretty good idea of targets. Heavy bombers- six groups of B-17s, which would be six times 17.
That’s a lot.
And six groups of B-24’s. B-24’s and B-17’s were very similar except for the design of the plane. The 24’s were kind of a stub nosed plane and they couldn’t reach distance wise like the 17’s so consequently every time we were on a mission, we were crossing our fingers hoping the B-24s were down below us somewhere and uh, that took the heat off of us and put it on them. (Laughs)
How did they pick the targets? Did they worry a lot about civilians and stuff like they do now?
No, well prime example. We used to hit Vienna and these other little towns around Vienna, we used to hit them like three times a week. Vienna at that time was a beautiful town. I never saw it but I read about it and heard about it. And we’d go down and hit them and at the same time we had a group of English bombers at our base. So we’d be taking off early in the morning and as we were coming back late in the afternoon, here came the British going right after the same time. Night and day we kept bombing that thing. And finally they gave us a sheet of paper and we had a duplication of it, and we warned the people in Vienna that we’re going to give you seven more days, vacate the city or we’ll devastate it. And it worked. And it’s something funny which a lot of people don’t know. You know how we had flack. And flak was like, you know like Christmas tinsel. And the flak, we used to have a big box of it. And anytime going down the bomb run, we’d open the packages and throw all this flack out. And the reason being was that they were metal and from down below the radar was picking up metal. Any kind of metal. So we’d throw all this flack one bundle after another and it would help us get through the bomb run.
So the radar would pick that up?
Well that’s a good idea.
This, uh, we use to refer to the Milk Run. Like toward the end of the war, we had, particularly Italy, had some towns up there that were so scattered that, uh, what do they call them, cowboys or whatever.
(Pointing to a picture) Oh, General Twining. (Looking at another picture) Here’s the guy who was next to us.
Is this the guy who died on his 35th mission?
If it would’ve lasted a lot longer I would’ve been home sooner. Because I had 31 and we running out of targets so they called the war off in Europe and I was over there in VE Day and I went home and was in the States for VJ day in downtown Pittsburgh.
That was a big thing, eh?
The only bad part of it, and I shouldn’t have done it, I was wearing my uniform, I’d been out like 2 days or 3 days and I was downtown and I stopped in Eiseley’s for a milkshake and… (Begins crying and is unable to continue the interview)
In the spring of my senior year of high school, just a few months after my generation’s day of infamy, I read Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation. When “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was voted our senior song, I realized that, collectively, we were longing for comfort in historical perspective. It was our turn to learn that unspeakable evil existed in the world, and we needed to learn from those who had been there. That book opened my eyes to a precious resource that is slipping away every day. The World War II generation is dying off rapidly and now more than ever we needed to hear their stories before it was too late. Thus, I was grateful for this opportunity to capture the story of the greatest generation’s indelible human spirit and how they mustered up enough to save humanity from its own darkest demons.
What I learned was a crash course in the job of a radio operator, that “Mickey” is not just a famous mouse, and even how one to vomit properly in a B-17. The most compelling part of my grandfather’s story, however, it what is not there. He dropped bombs from 20,000 feet and did not experience the trauma of maimed civilians or gruesome deaths of comrade soldiers, or anything else that one would expect to traumatize a war veteran. The event that brought him to tears fifty years later was not a bloody battle; it happened in a deli in downtown Pittsburgh on V-J Day, just three days after he had been sent home from the Air Force. That is all I know, and the insatiably curious journalist in me yearns for the rest of the story. The girl who was traumatized by seeing her grandfather cry is afraid to hear it, and she would rather forget the whole incident. He said he wants to finish the story for me some day, but I am not sure I want to hear the ending. This is just one of the plethora of questions I never had the opportunity to ask, and I am left to piece together what I information and perspective I have into a puzzle of a coherent war story and discern the meaning of World War II from the perspective of a radio operator in the 97th Bomb Group.
I believe that is the lesson to be learned from the greatest generation. Not only do they have stories of heroism and triumph over evil, but also they have the sadness and regret buried so deep that even fifty years later it is hard to pry out. This relates to the critiques of the war story that we have analyzed all semester; the scholars have emphasized the need to bring out the “messiness” with the moral clarity and the sadness with the glory. The whole story must be brought forth, with all its complications, in order for history to evaluate it and the future warriors and civilians to learn from it. I suppose if this is true than I have found the answer to my previous dilemma.
Ironically, my grandfather’s 97th Bomb Group was a subsidiary of the Eighth Air Force. Just like in the poem, they lived each day counting the missions they had left. His unit knew a pilot, “a heck of a nice guy,” who was shot down on his final mission, his thirty-fifth flight. Perhaps he, too, had spent a restless night’s sleep, just like character in Jarrell’s “Eighth Air Force” counting his one mission left. After hearing a true story of a tragic thirty-fifth mission, the poem is even more haunting. The “One, One, One” counting of the desperate man weighs even more heavily on my mind now, knowing that someone’s magic number thirty-five was his last.
His experiences also reflects the spirit of Jarrell’s “Losses,” which speaks from the same perspective as my grandfather – someone who bombed from above without getting close enough to see exactly what was being inflicted by the bombs they were dropping. In the interview, he refers to reading and hearing about Vienna, a city that his unit bombed repeatedly. Jarrell recalls burning “The cities we had learned about in school.” He also talks at length about his navigator and the pressures of getting the plane to the correct location for bombing. As Jarrell writes, “They said, ‘Here are the maps'; we burned the cities.” In the 97th Bomb Group, a nineteen-year-old novice navigator was charged with guiding his B-17 and the crew to Italy to drop bombs, and they nearly did not make it. Both “Eighth Air Force” and “Losses” portray common elements between both war stories, and learning my grandfather’s story makes them even more realistic and powerful.
The story of the waist gunner who had to crouch in his position with his 50-caliber weapon is eerily similar to “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” The poem makes even more sense to me now that I know that black flak is the material they used to allow their radar detectors to pick up the targets. It is the object with which the “nightmare fighters” use to inflict nightmares upon their enemy. He managed to make light of such a situation, saying that after spending so much time curled up like that, he wonders what he would look like if he were still alive today.
I also learned that “Catch-22″ is not the only cliché that Americans have adopted into the English language as a result of World War II. I learned that the word “snafu” comes from the acronym used by World War II soldiers for “Situation Normal All Fouled Up.” Though it is not out of the realm of possibility that those last two words may have stood for something else; in fact, Webster’s Dictionary even uses the expletive form as the true origin of the word. In addition to literature, photography, and national folklore, wars also contribute words that become part of the everyday language of a nation.
One aspect that differed from most of the literature we have read is that his story did not fit into the coherent narrative like many other war stories. Due to his advanced age and failing memory, most of the stories were not in any chronological or narrative order. Yet I was amazed that even as is short-term memory slowly decays, the details of and feelings behind the war memories are as powerful as ever, even if they are jumbled. Hearing them in this manner, rather than in a traditionally coherent way, brought a new perspective to World War II, a war I would have traditionally associated with clear and chronological tales.
Another characteristic of his story that contrasts it to most of our literature, especially the Vietnam War literature, is that there seemed to be no moral ambiguity among these young men. They seemed to have no doubt that good was triumphing over evil, and they were doing the right thing by contributing to it. At least if he did have any qualms about all the killing, he never expressed them. He was comforted by the fact that they were doing the right thing, and at least they gave the civilians ample warning before they obliterated their cities. This clarity that seems to be felt by so many in the World War II generation contrasts the Vietnam War sharply. It seemed this generation did not have reservations about the war, like the ones that plagued Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried. This war had a clear objective and a clearly defined enemy, which later participants in wars did not always have.
As my grandparents reach their eighties, I know that I have a finite time period to learn from them, and I am confident that the 9/11 generation can become just as great if we learn the correct lessons from history, which itself is a monumental task. We also need to learn to tell our own war story, with all its complications and nuances so that the generation after us may learn, just as I have attempted to learn from my grandfather’s experiences.