I Wanted To Fly
In his own words: The military career of WWII pilot William Kelly
by William Kelly
Special to Hoopla Magazine
I enlisted and chose the Air Force because I wanted to fly. I was always interested in aviation and built many model airplanes as a boy, and read many aviation magazines.
My father drove my wife, Bette, my son, Larry, and me to Pennsylvania Station in Pittsburgh, Pa., to board a train for basic training in Greensboro, N.C. There were lots of hugs, tears and kisses. It was tough leaving my family, but I was gung ho to be a pilot, preferably a fighter pilot.
On the train, I met young men from all over the state. When we arrived, we were given ill-fitting uniforms, and my shoes were too big. We were then marched to our barracks and told how we had to take care of it.
We had to run a 10-mile obstacle course to complete basic training. In a short three months, we had gone from a bunch of out-of-shape people to a group of soldiers, well disciplined and in great physical condition. I had many new friends, but six of us became special friends.
Upon completing basic training, we were sent to pre-flight training at Maxwell Field, Ala. I did no flying, but it was a beautiful base – and the Air Force threw a big graduation party for us. I went from Maxwell Field to CTD at Bucknell College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. We were re-enlisted as aviation cadets and occupied five floors of the local Hotel Sterling. There was a tailor shop in the hotel, and we all had our uniforms cut to fit. We all really looked great when marching and singing through the streets.
We studied. We learned the history of war, especially about the Germans and Russians. We had a cadet from Yugoslavia, and he really educated both us and the teacher about what was happening in that area politically. We learned Morse Code and how to send and receive it. One course was in airplane identification of both friendly and enemy aircraft.
The training we were most interested in was the flight training. We learned to fly the most basic of airplanes, the Piper Cub. We learned take offs and landings, as well as tailspins, 360s and other turns and stalls. My Cub had a 25-horse power engine and had tandem two-place seating with dual controls. My instructor weighed 295 pounds, and he sat in front of me. I received an unintended course in blind flying.
We were shipping out to Nashville, Tenn., around the first of December. The weather was miserable that winter in Nashville; we never saw the sun, and after the tests, we had nothing to do. After about 60 days of this weather and eating salami every night for supper, we six buddies were playing pool and drinking beer when an orderly came in and put a letter on the bulletin board. The letter said that anyone volunteering to go to navigation school would have their commission in six months. We talked it over, and all six of us decided to switch from pilot training to navigation school.
We shipped out and began school on Feb. 8, 1944. My final test flight was from Monroe, La., to Benito Air Base in Texas. We crossed the field within one minute of our ETA, so I passed my navigation flight test. We graduated on Oct. 1. We were then given a 30-day leave, and my orders were to report to Lincoln, Neb.
In Lincoln, our crew was put together, and we were trained to fly the B-17 bomber. When we were fully outfitted, we were shipped to Sioux City, Iowa, for transition flight training.
My first visit to an officer’s mess was at the air base in Sioux City, Iowa. I was amazed the first time I had dinner there. I learned that the mess sergeant had been a chef at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. The food was so good that I grew out of my uniforms.
I went overseas to England on the ship John Wakefield. It had previously been the cruise ship Manhattan, out of New York. It had been torpedoed by the German subs, burned, but did not sink. The Navy towed it back to the USA and rebuilt it into a troop ship.
One day on our free cruise to England, the sea was very, very rough, and the waves seemed as high as our deck. When the sea was rough, the orderlies put wet tea towels on the tables so the dishes would not slide. The dining room had about six long tables, and I was seated at the table next to the bandstand. The cook had prepared elbow macaroni in tomato sauce for dinner that evening. I noticed that as the ship rolled, the macaroni was moving back and forth on the plates.
We had just been seated and served when the ship took a big roll. I thought it was going to turn over and the dinner plates began to spill the macaroni. I left the table and stepped on to the bandstand. When the ship hit the bottom of its roll, it recovered with a mighty jerk. This jerk tossed macaroni and officers all over the room. Everything was covered with red tomato sauce, including the officer’s pinks. I could not keep myself from laughing.
At Eye Air Base in East Anglia, England, we were assigned to B-17G No. 338441, and flew most of our missions in that plane, which we named Maid for Action. My buddy Bill S. and I painted a pretty maid on the plane.
I was assigned to the Eighth Air Force, 95th Bombardment Group, and was in the 412th Squadron stationed at Eye Base in East Anglia. The duty was to partake of daylight bombing flights over targets in Germany and elsewhere.
Casualties in aircrews were mostly impersonal as compared to ground infantry ones. A plane would disappear from formation and we would look for parachutes and count them; sometimes there were none. We certainly felt bad about their misfortune and missed them, talked about them and prayed for them. We would then face the reality of wondering if we would be the next ones not to return. I have heard people say they were not scared when going into combat situations, but I do not believe that is true.
An orderly awakened us one morning about 3:30 a.m. The crew reported to the ready room and took their seats. A major came out to the platform and announced the mission for the day was to bomb the Datteln Oil Plant in Dortmund, Germany. The mission was said to be a milk run (an easy one).
We were in line to take off when the No. 2 engine began to act up. The tower advised us to taxi back to our plane’s hardstand for repairs. I did not think we would be going on the mission, so I curled up on my little desk and went to sleep. About a half hour later, the engine was repaired, and I was told to plot a course to catch up and join our 412th Squadron.
I was not watching the runways as I normally would have been doing since I was busy with my navigation problem. We were going down the runway when I noticed the end of it was getting close, I glanced at my instruments and we were only at 65 knots, and with a load of fuel and bombs. This was much too slow for taking off. Our normal takeoff speed was 110 to 115 knots. Bill mushed the plane into the air and kept it at about 50 feet and I thought this was the end; no way can we stay airborne at this speed. The plane slowly picked up speed, but as yet, not enough. Then, exactly in front of the plane was a farmer’s house with a straw roof. We could not turn at that low speed, but Bill managed to clear that house. Then the tail gunner got on the intercom and said, “The U.S. government is going to have to buy that farmer a new roof because we just blew his off.”
Another Close Call
We put our heavy flak suits on when nearing a combat zone. I had a chest pack parachute, and with the dissension vest on I could only attach it to one side of the harness. The other people were kidding me about wearing the chute that way when they were not wearing theirs. This one mission I decided that I would not wear the chute to be like the others. We ran into very heavy flak and a piece bounced off my helmet and went through the astrodome. I looked out the window after a large hit and saw a big hole in the wing. I grabbed my chute and attached it to one side of the harness, and that is the way I wore it from then on.
The 95th Bombardment Group flew 320 missions and lost 157 planes and their crews. Approximately one out of three flyers were lost. When a crew completed its combat tour missions, they were part of the Lucky Bastards Club. The war ended before I completed my tour of 25 missions, but I consider myself a member of that club. I was proud to be part of the 95th Bombardment Group, the first group to bomb Berlin.
A Strange Happening
I received two letters one day at Eye Base – one from my mother and one from my friend, Hugh Daugherty. I read my mother’s letter first, and in it was the news that Hugh was missing in action and presumed dead. In my other hand, I held a letter from Hugh. His letter was upbeat, as he told me about his experiences and a visit to Australia. I was really stunned by this strange coincidence. The remains of Hugh and his crew were never found.
On Leave In London
I attended mass on Holy Thursday in London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral. It was very crowded. I was standing there when a priest asked me to be one of the four soldiers to carry the archbishop around the Cathedral. When the time came, we picked up the gold platform, upon which the bishop was sitting, and took our place in the procession. This platform was heavy, and the bishop was also a large man. Halfway through the procession I was straining to hold up my corner. I looked over at the British soldier on the other side and sweat was running down his face. It was a long trip around the cathedral. It was a beautiful mass, and I felt privileged to be part of it.
The Royal Baptism
Lt. Bill Swanson and I visited Westminster Abbey in London one day in the spring of 1945. Much to our surprise, the Abbey was empty of people. We saw a minister rushing toward us. He asked us, “How did you two men get in here?” He explained a baptism was imminent. We showed him our ID, and surprisingly he said, “You might as well stay.”
In a few minutes, there was the sound of English trumpets. The doors opened, and the religious ministers entered the Abbey. Behind them in the procession was a person carrying a red pillow, on which the baby to be baptized was lying. To our amazement, the next two people in the procession were King George and Queen Mary. They were followed by the two young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret.
The king and queen both paused, turned toward us, and nodded to us with their head and shoulders. Bill and I had no knowledge of the proper protocol for such an occasion, so we just nodded back in the same way. The queen’s smile was even more beautiful than the one we had seen in news reels. The two princesses looked at us out of the corner of their eyes and we noticed a slight giggle as they looked at each other. Normal teenagers.
I was on leave in London from May 5 to May 8, 1945. Bill S. and I had taken in a play at a theater in Piccadilly Circus on the evening of the seventh. We both knew that the Germans and the allies were working on a peace treaty, but we prepared to go back to base the next day. However, at about 11 p.m., we heard that the treaty would be signed the next day, and that all leaves were extended three days. On the 8th, we hit the streets of London. Rumors were that Prime Minister Winston Churchill would announce the end of the war some time that day. Bill and I rushed over to St. James Palace through crowded streets. Eventually, Churchill, surrounded by other dignitaries, came out on the balcony of St. James Palace, and a huge cheer went up by the people there. He made a short speech announcing that the Germans had surrendered, and that the war was officially ended.
The end of the war announcement was followed by the loudest cheer I have ever heard. I have nothing to compare the happiness I saw that day with; these people had suffered day and night for many years, so their relief from all that had to be released. I was both lucky and happy to be there to share it with them on this day known as VE day, Victory in Europe.
News From Home
On May 9, 1945, I had a message to call the lieutenant from our base barracks. My father had been trying to reach me for three days to tell me that my mother had died on May 4. I called Dad and advised him to proceed with the funeral. If Mother had lived another four or five weeks, I would have been home because I was home the first week of June. Homecoming was both great and sad.
Home At Last
The crew received a 30-day leave, and I was home on June 2, 1945. I arrived in Pittsburgh at about 2 p.m. and walked over to my dad’s office. I knew most of the employees there, so I had a nice welcome home, although the office work was completely disrupted. Then I made a big mistake. I decided to surprise my wife instead of calling her from the office. At the time, I thought it was a good idea. However, it did not turn out very good. It so happened that my wife was house cleaning that day, and when I walked in and hollered, “surprise,” she was down on her knees, in an old housedress, scrubbing the kitchen floor. That did not bother me, but it really upset her. She had different plans for my homecoming.
At the end of the 30-day leave, I took a train to Sioux Falls, S.D., for reassignment to the Super Fortress B-29 airplane. However, I had been having eye trouble. I had some kind of infection, so they admitted me to the base hospital. They tried many treatments, but nothing worked, and my vision dropped to 20/50 and 20/40. After four months I was discharged.
Gold Star Mothers
Two boyhood friends were also in the service. Joseph Volpe was in the Navy Air Force and Hugh Daugherty was in the Army Air Corp. They both died in plane crashes that were never located. I was home now, faced with the fact that I had to visit the mothers who had fed me, corrected me and welcomed me in to their homes. How do you prepare yourself for this visit, what do you say? One day I decided I was ready to make the first visit to Mrs. Volpe.
When she saw me, she hugged me and started to cry. She sobbed as she asked me if I had the Rosary beads our priest had given us when we were altar boys. I said I had them in my pocket. She began to cry very hard. Her tears were running down my face when she told me Joe’s beads were in his personal affects. I was completely unprepared for this. She was thinking that if Joe had carried his beads, he might not have died. I never said any of the things I was prepared to say, and when I think of this visit, I can still feel those tears running down my cheeks. I think that visit was tougher than any combat mission I flew.
I built my first home in Greentree, Pa., and moved into it the Christmas of 1948. It was a six-room house on a half-acre lot and cost $8,600. My wife and I were blessed with six children: Lawrence, Robert, Margaret, William, Daniel and Beth Ann. Robert also served in the military flying helicopters in Vietnam. We sold our home and moved to Texas in 1979.
Crewmembers were life long friends as were other soldiers we met along the way. We visited when we could. We had several reunions. Memories are all we have left now, memories of our first meeting, of learning to work together and gaining confidence in each other, of drinking parties, talking and laughing together, of discussing combat missions, of our travels and adventures in England, of being in London for the end of the war, of the excitement of coming home and of having families of our own. Some memories are now dim, but occasionally, one will pop into your head as if it happened yesterday, and the faces are as they were long ago. Other times the loss of young friends in the war will bring tears to your eyes when you think of the joys of life denied them.