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Ossian Arthur Seipel's Memoirs


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Chapter 2

England


We went back to England on another boat, another train ride to Rivenhall, an airfield near Chelmsford in Essex county and reported for duty at the 397th Bomb Group. The 397th, was the last B-26 Group assigned to the Ninth Air Force and was made up of the 596th, 597th, 598th and HQ Squadrons. I was assigned to the 597th squadron. The Group flew it’s first combat mission on April 20th 1944. I joined the group in time to fly it’s seventh mission on April 27, 1944.

All new crews that came in were broken up and the individuals assigned to different crews. All pilots were assigned as co-pilots for the first five or six missions to get accustomed to the combat.

The first thing I did was buy another bike. It was a lot easier than walking everywhere, and the saluting rule also contributed to the need.

 

Lt Ossian Arthur Seipel
2nd Lt Ossian Arthur Seipel  - Photo Lynn Dobyanski

I don’t recall too much about my stay there. We were assigned quarters in Quonset huts. They looked like huge halves of corrugated metal drain pipes with the ends plugged and doors cut in them. Some had windows cut in the sides with the metal folded up to form sort of awnings over them. All the buildings on the base were Quonset huts; mess hall, officers club, hospital, flight line operations all except the latrines. We did have a space to call our own though. The space was about six feet wide and ten feet long in which we had to put a cot and foot locker. You could lie in the sack and shake the hand of the guys on either side of you. The latrine was outside, made of brick and also served as an air raid shelter. There was a small upright stove in the middle of the hut and it did a pretty good job of heating it.

There was no set reveille, since only the people that were to fly that day were wakened in time to get to the mess hall for breakfast and then to the flight line for pre flight briefing. Those scheduled to fly a later mission were listed on the bulletin board in the mess, at the club and on the flight line. You really had to check the bulletin board before making any plans.

When you were scheduled to fly, one of the enlisted men from operations would come around with a flashlight and find you in your cot. He would tap you gently to waken you without waking any of the others. Of course, some were more gentle than others, and most of the time only the near dead remained asleep. Once awake you headed for the mess hall for a good breakfast. Some guys griped about the food, but I always thought it was pretty good. I’d have scrambled eggs, couldn’t get them any other way, bacon toast and coffee. Then we would go down to the flight line.

The pilots and navigators gathered in the briefing room for instructions and a first look at the target for the day. The operations officer pointed out the target, potential flak sites and the planned route, on a large map. We were briefed on the type of bombs we’d be carrying and usually get a pep talk about the necessity for getting that particular target. The bombardiers and toggeliers met in another room for their specific instructions. The other crew members went to the hardstands to ready the plane for the mission. Ordinance had already hoisted the bombs and had the ammo stored aboard.

We weren’t suppose to carry anything that could be of assistance to the enemy if it were to fall into their hands, so we had to leave wallets, letters, any other personal items that might have some reference to the group, behind. Most of us also left our insignia, indicating our rank. We would then get our parachutes, escape packets and pistols. After all of that we’d grab a final cup of coffee.

Once that was all taken care of we headed for the planes, usually by truck. After the required walk around inspection of the aircraft, everybody got aboard and we followed the operations people’s directions to the runway for takeoff position. A final check of the engines and instruments readings. Then we sat and waited for the signal for takeoff. A green light from the very pistol indicated a “go”. We were sitting in position on the taxi ways in proper order waiting for the signal from the “biscuit gun”, which threw a beam of light directed at one individual aircraft at a time. Once the lead plane, sitting on the end of the runway, got his signal, he started down the runway. The next plane moved into position on the runway and waited for his signal. At the signal it was full throttle forward and off we went.

England is noted for it’s bad weather, and we even had a procedure for taking off in low visibility conditions. The lead plane would take off and climb at a determined rate of climb, at a given heading and speed.

Number two plane would take off on signal and after wheels and flaps were up, turn left 45 degrees for a given number of seconds, then right back to the original heading and maintain the same speed and rate of climb. Number three plane, on signal, would take off and after wheels and flaps were up turned right 45 degrees for the same given number of seconds then left back to the original heading. All of the following planes would follow the same procedure and, lo and behold, when we broke out of the clouds we were in pretty good formation. A little fine tuning as we climbed to our assigned altitude and heading and we were all feeling pretty good to see the way all that training paid off. Once over the channel all gunners test fired their guns and settled down to wait for any “bogeys”.

Over enemy territory you seem to tense up a bit more, and when the first bursts of flak appear, you really tighten up. The only thing good about flak was that when they were shooting flak, there wouldn’t be any enemy aircraft, but as soon as the flak stopped you could be sure that someone would be targeted by a German fighter. The route to the target was supposed to keep us from the concentrated flak sites, but sporadic bursts were pretty common just about anywhere over the enemy occupied lands. The German 88 millimeter artillery guns were mobile and could be located anywhere. The target area was usually well defended by flak guns and you could see it for miles before you actually got to it. The flak sometimes got so thick it resembled storm clouds. It was one hell of a scary feeling, knowing that was where you were going to fly.

When flying evasive action in close formation the pilot didn’t have much chance to look around at the scenery, ‘cause he had to keep his eyes on the lead ship’s wing tip and aileron, so as to react immediately and do the same thing the leader was doing. The co-pilot had to watch out for enemy aircraft and anything else that would be of interest, monitor the instruments to see that the engines were functioning normally, and be ready to take over the controls immediately if needed. He had to act as communicator for the plane, and kept a mental record of where the group was and how to get back home if we were to get separated from the group for any reason. All crew members were always on alert for any sign of enemy fighters, and when any were spotted he had to report the number and their location.

It was necessary to maintain a formation as close as possible to insure a good bomb pattern on the ground. A close formation would also provide a better means of protection from enemy fighters. Each plane had to protect his designated range and relied on the other members of the group to protect theirs. This was supposed to present a continuous wall of tracers to an enemy attacking from any direction. It worked most of the time.
The evasive action sometimes got pretty hairy, especially for the low boxes. The formation was made up of a high flight above and to the right and a low flight below and to the left of the lead flight. These were referred to as boxes. When the lead flight turned to the left the low flight had to throttle way back in order to keep in formation, and the high flight had to throttle up for the same reason. The low flight being closer to the ground would have less time to recover in the event the air speed got so slow that a stall occurred.

The lead navigator was supposed to get you to the general target area by plotting a course that would avoid as many of the flak sites as possible and still allow for evasive action. The last few minutes before reaching the target you had to rely on the lead bombardier to find the aiming point and get lined up on target. Once he dropped his bombs the rest of the group would drop theirs. There was no evasive action during the bomb run, and it seemed like an eternity. You could hear the stuff rattling on the plane and feel the concussion from the near misses. I got hit by a piece of flak that had entered through the floor of the cockpit and rattled around a bit before hitting me on the foot. It knocked my foot off the rudder pedal, but didn’t do any damage. This was the time when everyone prayed in their own way, ‘cause there’s not much else to do. Seeing a plane go down just heightened the anxiety. It could have been you.

When the bombs were dropped the plane seemed to jump a little and handled a little easier without the two tons of bombs. After the ‘bombs away”, there was more evasive action and the formation loosened up a little. If we had not been able to find the target due to cloud cover or any other reason, we’d have to go to an alternative target, (A target of opportunity), ‘cause we didn’t want to take the bombs back home. I remember one such mission when we just dropped them in the channel just off the French coast and it set off a couple dozen or so mines that had been planted there.

Back at the base, planes with injured aboard or with any mal function required emergency treatment were allowed to land first. The others had to land in their normal time and place.

The first stop after landing was the debriefing hut, where guys from intelligence interviewed each and every person who was on the mission, about any thing that they thought might be significant. The medical staff had a drink waiting for those who need it. I remember one mission where I carried a camera man who was killed. There were no new holes in the plane, but a piece of flak got him in the forehead and took off the rest of his head as he was taking pictures out of the waist window. I was pretty shaken up about that and they gave me a whole bottle to share with the crew. It didn’t help.

I flew a couple of “window” missions, which were sort of easy. They put together a crew made up of some of the unassigned guys, and I had the pleasure of flying them. A navigator from the lead squadron was assigned, ‘cause it was essential that we be at the target area at the right time, altitude and heading in the right direction. Instead of bombs, we carried bundles of aluminum foil called “chaff” or “winnow”. We’d take off ahead of the group and fly to the target area, usually unmolested by flak. Evidently the Germans didn’t want to spend a lot of ammo on a single plane. Fighters were always a threat though. The rest of the group followed at a ten minute or so delay. Over the target we’d shove out the “chaff” and it would flutter slowly to the ground. The “chaff” was suppose to interfere with the ability of the German radar to focus in on the group. They overcame that by filling the whole area with flak. If the timing was right the group would be about a thousand feet above most of the “chaff” which by then was filled with flak bursts. I think it was pretty successful ‘cause our loss rate was lower on those days. After dropping the “chaff” it was a hurry home flight back to the base.

The Red Cross was always there at the end of a mission. They'd have do-nuts and coffee ready as soon as we left debriefing. The Red Cross girls handing out the coffee and do-nuts were a welcome sight too, and a lot of friendly flirting went on. To my knowledge nothing ever came of it.

I spent a week-end in Scotland, but can’t remember much more than thinking that it was a beautiful place, especially standing on a bluff looking at a stormy North Sea. I bought a wedding ring for myself when I was there ‘cause I was sort of proud to be married.

I also spent a week-end in London. I remember arriving after dark and taking the “Tube” to one of the suburbs, having supper and turning in. Next morning, I looked out the window to see nothing but devastation. The only building standing was the one I was in. I think that brought home to me the realization of what a bombing raid could do to a town. The next night I spent in a hotel across from Hyde Park. I met a friend of mine, Ted Bean, in the lobby as I was about to register. He had a two bedroom suite there and he welcomed me as a suite-mate if I’d share the cost. It was pretty luxurious and the food was good, but during the middle of the night we were awakened by buzz bombs going off, it seemed like they were across the street. I guess most of the natives went to the shelters, but I figured it was over by then, so I stayed where I was.

The buzz bombs were a scary weapon. They sounded like a slow outboard motor putting along, but when the sound stopped, after about ten to fifteen seconds, there was a terrific explosion. They were a terrorist type weapon, launched from France and aimed at England. They weren’t very accurate some landed in towns, some in open fields, we even had them land near our base. I heard that some even hit Ireland. Fortunately they were fairly slow and could be shot down if they were discovered in time.

Our base at Rivenhall used to belong to an English fighter group, and some time around the first of May we had an official takeover ceremony, accompanied by brass bands, bag pipes, and a visit from the royal family. In this case it was the Princess Elizabeth. In all I think it may have lasted about a half hour, but now the base was ours.

Around the middle of May we were more or less confined to base. All civilian personnel who usually worked on the base were restricted, until further notice. Colonel Coiner and all the squadron COs were not allowed to fly any missions either. That in itself was a pretty good indication that something was going on. Our letters home were held up for fear someone would inadvertently say something about our training and or what was going on. We did do a lot more low level flying and strafing practice. No one knew exactly when the Big Day would be, but there were pools everywhere if you wanted to put your money in them. My pick was June fifth ‘cause it was my wedding day. Believe it or not, that’s when it was first scheduled for.

I met a guy, a sergeant, who worked with plexiglas turrets and nose covers for the planes. He made me a pair of grips for my forty five out of plexiglass. He polished them up real fine and put one of the “Pretty Girl” pictures under the one on the right side so that you could see it when it was in it’s holster. The other side was clear so you could see the bullets. I really didn’t like the shoulder holster that was issued so I got a belt holster from the MPs.

On 6 June 44, we were wakened at about two in the morning. Everything was normal until we got to the line for pre flight briefing. There was a bigger than ever crowd of brass, including Brigadier General Anderson, commanding general of the Ninth Bomber Command. This was it. Our target was to be Les Dunes De Verreville, a stretch of heavily defended hills just inland from the beach at Normandy. Strike time was to be 0620 hours, no sooner or no later. We were cautioned that any errors made would have to be in range, and errors in deflection would not be accepted. That just meant that if you have to miss the target, make it long or short ‘cause our troops would be to the left and to the right of our bomb run.

Colonel Coiner explained a little about what our group had done leading up to this operation. It seems that all, or most of our targets had been bridges and marshaling yards since the middle of May. This was to disrupt the flow of traffic, both rail and truck, and to curtail the enemy’s ability to assemble troops and or tanks and other heavy equipment. We earned the name “Bridge Busters” for our part.

Before we were dismissed the chaplain held a brief service to send us on our way. Most everyone there attended.

Getting to the plane we noticed that each and every plane on the base had invasion stripes on the wings and fuselage. The maintenance guys had been busy all night painting them on. The captain in charge of maintenance lived in my hut and hadn’t mentioned it to anyone although he must have known about it for at least a day.

As luck would have it this was one of those mornings when an instrument take off was necessary. I think we only lost one plane on take off and that was because of a hydraulic pressure failure. The rest of us formed up at about six thousand feet and headed South. About fifteen minutes before our designated target time we dropped to about a thousand feet and formed a train of three plane elements, spaced about a hundred feet apart. We stayed at a thousand feet all the way in. There were enough tracers coming at us that it resembled a reddish curtain. I don’t think I have ever been as scared as I was on that bomb run. There wasn’t time to think about what we were doing, every movement was a reflex action and that’s what got us through it. After the bombs were dropped we made a wide sweeping turn to the right, gaining altitude as we continued until we were heading north toward England. We formed into the regular box formation for the return trip.

A good lunch and a try at a nap, maybe a few prayers, and it was back to the pre briefing for the evening raid on some fortified gun implacements at a place called Trouville. This one was to be at nine thousand feet and the strike time, 1815 hours. I flew as co-pilot on this mission and had a chance to see what a massive invasion fleet had been assembled. The anti aircraft fire was intense and it seems like they were shooting some kind of rockets at us ‘cause they’d leave a trail of smoke behind them. I reported that fact when I got back and I wasn’t the only one to do so. The intelligence guys did seem interested.

I was getting discouraged about not having a crew of my own.  I felt a lot better about flying when I was in charge.  I don’t know how the others felt having somebody else flying them through all this stuff, but I wanted to do all the flying.  I thought about it really hard for a couple of days and finally submitted a request for transfer to a P-38 group.  I had always been pretty much a go with the flow kind of guy, and did what I was ordered to do without question, but in this case I just wanted to get in to a fighter group.  I picked P-38s ‘cause they were twin engine and I felt I could handle it ‘cause I had had the twin engine experience.  Major Frank Wood, the squadron CO said he’d work on it.

I flew co-pilot for a guy named Knox for the next week or so.  He was an older guy about twenty seven I think.  We got along all right and I flew a lot of the time,  but it still wasn’t what I wanted.  I checked with Major Wood again and he told me that Knox was being groomed for a group leader position and that he and his crew would get promotions when he became group leaders, and Knox wanted me as his co-pilot.  I told him I was flattered, but I still wanted a transfer.  He explained that it wasn’t that easy and he’d have to arrange for someone from the P-38 group to give me a check ride before it would even be considered.  Great, bring him on, I was ready.

After evening mess on the 23rd of June I noticed I was assigned to fly with Knox and his crew, the next day, and there was a photographer assigned to accompany us.  That didn’t seem right to me.  Not too long ago I flew with another photographer and he got killed.  I just had a bad feeling about the whole thing.  We always tried to guess what the mission would be before it was announced at the briefing, and someone suggested Paris.  I said something to the effect that “if it’s Paris I won’t be coming back”.  I then proceeded to burn all of the letters I had been saving and gave away some of my stuff, in the event I didn’t make it back.

Next morning at briefing I was the most surprised guy in the place when they announced the Maisons-Lafitte railroad bridge near Paris as the target.  This was the groups 58th mission and my 31st.  The guys I had been guessing with the night before gave me some really strange looks.  Operations said it  would be heavily defended, and could probably expect fighters on the way in.  I had a funny feeling all through the briefing and up until we got airborne.  Everything was going well and I thought maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.

As we approached the target area we could see that it really was defended with an awful lot of flak, hanging like a bunch of small dark puffy looking clouds in an otherwise cloudless sky.  The bomb run had to be made at 9,000 feet, and that’s where the flak was.  We were flying number two position in the low box and flying through the heaviest flak to date.  The plane in the number three position took a direct hit and disappeared.  The nose of the lead plane turned a bright red just about the time he dropped his bombs.  The rest of the flight dropped when he did so we had a successful mission to this point.

An immediate left turn got us about half way around to our homeward flight course when we took a hit in the left engine.  Knox shouted that it was on fire so I feathered the engine to prevent windmilling, flipped the switches and checked the instruments.  The mainifold pressure had dropped to zero in the left engine and we were only drawing about half of what the right engine should read.  We had taken a hit in the right engine as well.  The hydraulic pressure was gone and we couldn’t close the bomb bay doors.  All in al we had had it.  We were losing altitude at about a thousand feet a minute and couldn’t keep with the formation.  At 6,000 feet, with an engine on fire, we agreed that we should leave the plane as quickly as possible.

I hit the alarm bell to signal, abandon ship, and moved my seat back to let the bombardier out of the nose, then followed him back to the bomb bay.  He jumped and I crossed the catwalk between the bomb racks, through the rear bomb bay to the waist section where I saw that the rest of the crew and camera man were already out.  I made my way back to the cockpit noting the damage to the radio compartment.  There was a hole about eight inches in diameter in the floor and also in the ceiling on the left side.  Back in the cockpit while telling Knox that everyone was out and about the rest of the damage, I grabbed my chute from behind my seat.  He got his and we made our way back to the bomb bay where we snapped them on.  I can remember standing with one foot on the catwalk and the other on the open door examining my chute to see if there were any holes in it.  It had always been a fear of mine that I’d some day have to use my chute and find it destroyed.  I still have dreams about that, but not so often these days.

After a couple of seconds we looked at each other and just dropped out. I caught a glimpse of the plane going down in a steep glide to the left with the left engine still afire.  I tumbled through the air for what seemed like a long time and to stop the tumbling I pulled the rip cord and prayed.  The chute opened and I think I swung once and then hit the ground in a field at the intersection of a railroad track and a highway.

I remember how bewildered I felt standing in a plowed field with a parachute strung out in front of me, and being so alone.  It was so quiet.  It was like I was in some kind of dream.  I could see a column of trucks in the distance and some people working in the field, but what got me was the quiet.

I immediately rolled up my chute and tried to hide it in a hedge row.  My boots had come off during the jump but I didn’t realize it until I started to walk on the plowed field.  There were about a dozen French men working in the field and I asked them in my Army taught French “ou et les Allmange”.  I think it was suppose to mean, “where are the Germans?”  They all just put their arms out to each side and turned kind of from side to side, indicating they were all around

There was a convoy of German military vehicles on the highway and two trucks pulled off and headed my way.  As I stood there wondering if I could make a fight of it with my pistol, a sharp blow to the middle of my back caused me to pitch forward to my knees, and when I looked back there was a German soldier pointing a pistol at my head.  He had come from the railroad signal tower.  He made me stand up and with the pistol poking into my back he marched me about fifty yards across the field to the waiting trucks, each with sixteen soldiers with rifles aimed at me.  A Jeep like vehicle pulled up carrying a driver and an SS major who got out of the vehicle and formally took me prisoner by saying in almost perfect English “for you the war is over”.  There is something intimidating about a big tall blond headed German officer in a black uniform and an emblem of a skull on his hat.

He asked me to unbuckle my service pistol and hand it over.  He looked at it and grinned as he said “this is a beautiful souvenir, I thank you for it”.  He told me to get in the vehicle beside him in the back seat.  The soldiers in the truck began to shout something and he stood up and spoke to them in German, probably “shut up”, ‘cause they did.  As we drove off he said that they had wanted him to turn me loose so that they could shoot me, but since I had furnished him with such a nice souvenir he'd take me to the village and turn me over to the German garrison instead.  We then drove off to the village.  I think he called it Elizabethville, or something like that.

I didn’t quite know what to think.  I do remember hearing in one of our training sessions that if you were ever taken prisoner, you were still an American soldier and the enemy was still the enemy.  As long as you remain alive they have to have some one to stand guard over you.  That guard is one who won’t be at the front, fighting against our troops.  It was our duty to try to escape, but not at the expense of our lives.  Dead we were no threat to them.  We were committed to harassing the enemy at every opportunity, and keep them occupied with us as much as possible."

Next

 

Chapter 1: Barksdale Field

Chapter 2: England

Chapter 3: Captivity

Chapter 4: Sagan

Chapter 5: The March

Chapter 6: Moosburg

Chapter 7: Liberation


 

 

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