The bomber boys, p.1

The Bomber Boys, page 1

 

The Bomber Boys
 


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The Bomber Boys


  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  Dedication

  Acknowledgements

  Introduction

  The Lucky Bastards Club

  Escape from Black Thursday

  Without a Parachute

  The Belly Gunner and Big Ben

  Manna from Heaven

  In memory of Bomber Boy John Conners, and in memory of Thomas Ayres

  Author’s Research Note

  Selected Bibliography

  About the Author

  NAL Caliber

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  Published by NAL Caliber, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Previously

  published in an AuthorHouse edition.

  First NAL Caliber Printing, October 2009

  Copyright © Travis L. Ayres, 2005

  eISBN : 978-1-101-14536-4

  All rights reserved

  NAL CALIBER and the “C” logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

  PUBLISHER’S NOTE

  While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

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  Dedicated to all the boys who flew the Forts

  Acknowledgments

  At first reluctant to talk about their experiences and even more reluctant to have the word hero applied to them, Anthony Teta, Peter Scott (Seniawsky), Art Frechette, George Ahern and Bob Valliere offered their time, their memories and their patience to the author. Without the contribution of any of these five men, The Bomber Boys would be an incomplete work. I have thanked them many times during this project, and I thank them again.

  John Conners was an early inspiration for this book, and his wife, Helen, was gracious and helpful. Former B-17 airmen Charles Armstrong, Jerry Chart, John Cuffman, Philip Duke, William “Jack” Ferguson, Charles Lyon, Frank Pogorzelski, Paul Spodar and Michael Swana were as open and cooperative as the original five Bomber Boys. Most of them I only met by telephone—a situation I deeply regret.

  Tom Ayres was the most talented writer I have ever personally known. He was also my writing coach, my brother and my best friend. His feedback and encouragement during this project was very helpful and greatly appreciated.

  Jim Donovan is a great agent. Every author should have an editor as easy to work with as Brent Howard at NAL Caliber.

  Special thanks to my wife, Elizabeth, and my daughters, Alissa and Tina. Each of them inspires me in their own way.

  Introduction

  In 1996 my wife and I were renting a house on a small horse ranch in Connecticut’s Totoket Valley. Our landlord was an outgoing and energetic gentleman named Anthony Teta. His friends called him Tony.

  Tony was twenty-five years older than myself, but we soon discovered we shared many common interests and we became quick friends. Because of Tony’s youthful appearance and seemingly boundless energy, I never even thought of him as being part of the World War II generation. He certainly never approached the subject.

  One afternoon as we drank iced tea on his patio, I happened to mention a television program I had seen about the Eighth Air Force and its operations during the Second World War. I was surprised when Tony said:

  “Yeah, I was in the Eighth.”

  “You were? What did you do?”

  “I was a navigator on a B-17 with the 305th Bomb Group,” Tony replied casually.

  “How many missions did you fly?” I asked, sensing a story.

  “Thirty-five missions.” He said it in the same even tone with which he might have asked, “Do you want more tea?”

  I asked more questions, but Tony changed the subject, saying, “It was a long time ago. I don’t remember many specifics.”

  Out of respect for my new friend, I let the matter drop, but over the next few weeks it kept running through my head—thirty-five missions. There had to be some interesting stories in Anthony Teta’s World War II days.

  The idea of a book on the men of the U.S. Army Air Force was not yet part of my thinking. I was already too busy writing a book about my great-grandfather, who had been a Confederate soldier at the battles of Shiloh and Stones River.

  Still, I immediately felt a connection between my Civil War ancestor and the former World War II airman. For the past two years I had worked tirelessly trying to uncover every small scrap of information available about the old Confederate. Now, here, living right next door, was a living example of the kind of men who had helped win America’s other great war.

  Later, Tony introduced his friend John Conners to me with the comment, “John was also in the 305th.”

  “You two served together?” I asked.

  “No, I was there a year or so before Tony,” Conners said. My interest had just doubled.

  “You know, I would love to sit down with you both and talk about your experiences,” I said.

  “We’re going to a meeting of Army Air Force veterans in Cheshire this Tuesday. You’re welcome to come along,” Tony offered.

  “We can talk a little on the drive there,” John seconded the invitation. I gladly accepted. In fact, I would accompany the two 305th veterans to many of the monthly meetings of the Army Air Force Roundtable of Connecticut, in Cheshire, and occasional meetings of Connecticut’s Eighth Air Force Historical Society, in Hamden, during the coming months. Soon, I was on a first-name basis with several other former B-17 airmen. As these men began to realize my interest in their past was sincere, most of them began to open up—sharing a story here and there.

  I liked it best when I could sit with two or three of the veterans at once. On those occasions, I would simply listen as the airmen bec
ame lost in their own conversations about the war. Sometimes, for a second or two as I watched Tony Teta describing a particularly vivid incident, I could almost catch a glimpse of the nineteen-year-old navigation officer he had been during World War II.

  For a history buff like me, it was heaven. It reminded me of what the great Civil War historian, Bruce Catton, had once written about his boyhood. As a youngster, Catton had sat listening as the old Union veterans of his hometown had told their war stories. Those early encounters had remained precious to Catton decades later, even after he had written his Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War classic, A Stillness at Appomattox.

  As I listened to the former B-17 airmen, I had no illusions of becoming another Bruce Catton, but I did know the makings of a good book when I heard them. I also knew I should arrange real interviews with the veterans, and I fully intended to do so, when time allowed.

  A couple of years went by. My Civil War book was finished. I still visited with my airmen friends, but other projects kept popping up. Then one day in 1998 the phone rang. It was Tony Teta. He told me that John Conners had died.

  The passing of John Conners was a cold reminder to me that if the wartime experiences of these former air combat veterans were going to be documented, someone had better get started. Like Catton’s old Civil War vets, the Bomber Boys would be gone too soon.

  As much as I knew I would enjoy conducting the interviews, I also knew the process would be time-consuming. Surely I would have to interview perhaps twenty veteran airmen to find five compelling stories to fill a book. To my surprise, my first five interviews provided the remarkable stories that make up The Bomber Boys. Granted, I sought out two of the five, when other veterans told me, “You have to talk to Peter Scott and Art Frechette.” Their stories are truly unique.

  All five of my subjects (and the late John Conners) knew each other at least casually through their involvement with one or both of the aforementioned air-veteran organizations. Three of the Bomber Boys are close friends. None of them knew each other during the war. Like many American World War II combat veterans, they are modest men. For most of their postwar years they kept their memories of the missions over enemy territory to themselves, or tried to forget those missions altogether. Friends, coworkers and even wives (sometimes especially wives) received only scant information if they asked about the war. Often the wives were grateful to be excluded from this part of their husbands’ lives. When a woman watches her spouse entangled in a violent nightmare flashback, she quickly concludes she would rather not know the details of the dream. So these men put the war years behind them and became productive, hardworking citizens, good fathers and then grandfathers.

  In their late sixties or early seventies, as careers came to an end, the former airmen found themselves drawn to their own kind. Anthony Teta first met John Conners in a restaurant where they discovered their 305th connection. The Cheshire Roundtable and the Eighth Air Force Historical Society were comfortable fraternities where the Bomber Boys could share the company of others who had “been there.” This is not to say they went to the meetings to talk about their own experiences. To my knowledge, of the five, only Art Frechette was ever a featured speaker at any of these gatherings (prior to my interviews with them), and his wartime experiences were so incredible he could hardly have avoided the limelight.

  Tony Teta, Art Frechette, George Ahern and Bob Valliere were regulars at the meetings but seemed content to listen to others tell their stories. Peter Scott was the most reserved of all. Long after I had convinced the other four to allow me to interview them, Peter remained reluctant. Finally he just said, “No.”

  Somehow, I sensed that Peter really wanted and needed to tell his story but he just was not sure about me. In a last-ditch effort, I made a promise: “Peter, if you let me include your story in the book—I’ll do my very best to get it right.” There was a long pause, and then he said, “Okay, let’s do it.”

  I interviewed Peter in his home on four occasions. After the final session, he walked me to my car and shared a secret with me.

  “I tried for years to forget about all of this stuff. It was pretty rough for the first year or two after I got back. Now, lately I’ve been having those nightmares again.” Then as he apparently saw the guilty expression on my face, he smiled and added, “Well, maybe this will finally give me some closure.”

  Peter was the last of my airmen to be interviewed. With the completion of the interviews, I knew I had five interesting and deserving stories to tell. In truth there was a sixth story I would have liked to include. John Conners was gone, and I had not known him long enough to gather very many details about his time with the 305th Bomb Group. His widow, Helen, kindly granted my request to interview her and provided much information about his life. However, like the other air vets, John had told his wife little about his life as a B-17 gunner. Finally I was forced to conclude there simply was not enough available information to write John’s story at the present time.

  Although John Conners’s story is not part of this book, his memory and spirit are. He was an inspiration for the project from the beginning, and in my mind he will always be the sixth Bomber Boy.

  Teta, Scott, Frechette, Ahern and Valliere all lived within forty miles of each other when I was writing their stories. Conners’s home was also in this same small area. It was here in this little section of Connecticut that I stumbled across two B-17 airmen who led me to the other Bomber Boys. As much as I respect and admire the character and accomplishments of these six remarkable men, I am not inclined to think the Connecticut River Valley has a monopoly on this vanishing breed of American. Go to Texas, Illinois or Utah, ask the right questions, do a little digging, and I suspect you will discover aging air veterans who once manned the Flying Fortresses, Liberators, Marauders and Mitchells. If you do, urge them to write or record their wartime experiences.

  I wrote The Bomber Boys to document the war experiences of five men, and during two years of research, I located numerous other airmen who were crewmates of the original five. Unless you yourself are an air-combat veteran of World War II, you and I can never really know what it felt like to be one of them, when they were just eighteen to twenty years old and facing death on every mission—but with their own words I have tried to put the reader in their shoes. It is an honor to tell their stories.

  —Travis L. Ayres

  Prologue

  At the end of the only parachute jump of his life, Peter Seniawsky landed hard in a German farmer’s field. He was not even sure he had actually jumped from his crippled B-17 bomber. He only remembered waking up in midair and pulling the ripcord. As he gathered his parachute to his chest, his eyes scanned the surrounding area for a place to hide from the enemy soldiers that he knew would already be searching for him and the rest of his crew.

  A small gully close by seemed to be his only immediate option. He scrambled over the edge of the gully and tumbled into a shallow stream. After pushing his parachute under the water and placing several stones on top of it, Peter climbed back up the stream bank to chance a look. He spotted someone immediately—a farmer armed with a shotgun.

  The man was walking in Peter’s direction. The young airman had never before thought of having to kill someone. It was almost a certainty that the bombs his B-17 crew had dropped on German cities had killed people. But the targets had been military and industrial sites, and the dead were unseen and abstract. This was different. Peter could clearly see the farmer’s face as he walked across his own field.

  Peter knew he could not hesitate. He had heard the stories of how German civilians sometimes shot downed Allied airmen before the German soldiers could reach them. If the farmer kept 1 walking in his direction Peter would have little choice but to kill him. He reached down to his side for his .45 automatic pistol. It was not there. No pistol and no holster. Peter silently cursed himself for his thoughtlessness in leaving his sidearm on his bunk that morning. What now?

  The man continued walking in Peter
s direction, finally stopping no more than fifty feet away. A noise had caused him to stop—the sound of a small machine gun. It was just a short burst, but when Peter looked to the east, he spotted four German soldiers emerging from the woods. They were close to a hundred yards away and they began yelling to the farmer in German. He responded, waving his arms and yelling back to them. Of course, Peter could not understand any of it, but he was certain his whereabouts were the main subject of the conversation. If any of them reached the edge of the gully and looked down the streambed, they could not help but spot him.

  In a seemingly hopeless situation, Peter looked around again for even the slightest opportunity for escape. Escape. That was too grand a word for what he was trying to do. He was somewhere deep in Germany. Where, he did not know. How many miles to the French border to the west? He did not know. Which way was west? He did not know. Even if he could miraculously reach France, what then? The entire country was occupied by Germans and French collaborators.

  He had no weapon and only a candy bar for food. He did not speak German or French and was dressed in an American aviator’s uniform. Escape was too grand a word. Peter Seniawsky was trying to survive—to evade capture, whether it be for a day, an hour or just five more minutes.

  He spotted a lone tree on the other side of the stream. If he could reach that tree without being seen and if the farmer and soldiers did not search past the stream . . . if he was really lucky. He eased down the bank, crossed the stream, climbed the other bank and began slowly crawling toward the tree. Although he could not know it at the time, Peter was beginning one of the most amazing escape adventures of World War II.

 
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