April Foolery (1977)

On the morning of April first I made some huge letters out of computer paper—six feet tall—and taped them to the inside of the twenty-fifth floor windows of the Lollipop Building at 100 Summer Street in Boston. Our offices looked out over the roof top of the Jordan Marsh department store a few blocks north where my friend Susie worked as a fashion photographer.

After having called Susie on the phone—with a desperate story of a man about to jump to his death from the height of my building—I waited.

And, sure enough, soon I saw her small figure emerge, camera in hand, from a doorway onto Jordan’s roof. Here is her photograph:

100 Summer St. [Susan Manning]

Cornell Days: The Big Red Wheel (~1948)

The Big Red Wheel (WCA/author at left)

When spring finally comes to Ithaca after a cold and dismal winter the students at Cornell shed their winter gear, bid farewell to the endless grey above and turn their faces at last to the sun. It is said that Ithaca sees more cloudy days per year than the Olympic Peninsula, the record holder.

Waiter's Derby
Waiter’s Derby

April’s social centerpiece then was spring house party weekend the Saturday of which was Spring Day, a more or less pagan celebration featuring weekend long “dates” (“blind” or otherwise); women allowed—under some sort of chaperonage—upstairs in the fraternity houses; more alcohol than might be prudent; and widespread organized inanity. Among these: pie throwing contests, the hotel school’s Waiter’s Derby, the architect’s Dragon Day parade entry, fraternity and sorority floats and parties, and in 1948, the recently established Inter-fraternity Crew Race.

A fifty yard course on Beebe Lake crossed above Triphammer Falls. The rules were simple: human effort only (no motors, no wind), and five crew members. This last to eliminate sophisticated racing shells. Entries comprised anything that would float from rafts of beer kegs to brass bedsteads made seaworthy.

We at Sigma Chi decided to build a paddlewheel boat. The naval architecture and ship building expertise fell to me and to Al “Oop” Thomas.

We first conceived a Mississippi riverboat arrangement with a paddle wheel on each side but soon abandoned that idea as impossibly unstable; even at small departures from the vertical we couldn’t get the center of gravity below the center of buoyancy. We had thought at first that one boat and two wheels would be easier to make. And so it became a center-wheeler with a pontoon boat on either side.

The Big Red Wheel

Al proved expert at building these using pine freeboards and a galvanized sheet iron bottom with carefully fashioned lock-seam joints. The wheel, eight feet in diameter, had eight paddles driven by a crank handle on either end to be turned by four of the strongest among us.

In deep secrecy we took the parts down to Cayuga Lake Inlet and reassembled them there for trials. It was windy and cold and the water choppy so we spent less time evaluating results than we might have. It seemed fast enough but the enthusiastic man-power overcame some of the structural elements which had to be re-detailed for strength. One crucial aspect of the design’s shortcoming went unnoticed.

48050003_BigRedWheelWe christened it the “Big Red Wheel” in homage to the world of Cornell “Big Red” sports and—incidentally of course—to the bawdy barroom song. The engine room comprised Bill Konold, Bob Rath, Ed Rorke, and Al Thomas.

Reassembled on Beebe Lake before dawn on the day of the race it passed a strength test; we were ready.

The race was almost an anti-climax. We churned forward way ahead of the competition. But owing to unexpectedly large counter-torque the stern was sufficiently depressed that we took on water at a rate large enough to cross the finish line essentially submerged. The rules had not addressed this submarine possibility and we were adjudged the winners—both for speed and originality of design.


That was the year we stayed for summer session and Bob Rath and I painted the Lansing high school building. The Big Red Wheel spent all summer on the lake gradually falling into disrepair at the hands of whoever could manage to keep it afloat.

Wm. C. Atkinson, 2016


The Hurricane of ’38

Why doesn’t any thing exciting ever happen around here?

That day I walked home from Junior High with Hughie Chapin. He peeled off on Hundreds Circle at Ledgeways and I went on to my house close by. Even if it seemed a bit calm, warm, and humid, this was an unremarkable September afternoon.

No one was home but our housekeeper Maude—Daddy in town at the office and Mother out and about in the car. Around three-thirty we became aware of a rising breeze from the southeast, coming in gusts and swaying the trees in our wooded lot. Soon green leaves began to fill the air and I went outside to see what was happening. By then the wind had risen hugely and suddenly, before my eyes, a huge oak crashed down partially blocking our driveway.

Wow! Excitement. I ran over to Hughie’s and, as I ran, other trees fell. So that by the time we two returned to Ledgeways there was nothing further remarkable about downed trees—they surrounded the house.

Unexpectedly (impossibly?) Mother arrived after tortuous weaving and backing through the neighborhood and we all decided to walk down to [Wellesley] Farms to meet Daddy at the train. The train was late. We walked back through the storm with other commuting neighbors. By then dark had fallen and at the house we discovered a large tree leaning and lunging against the second floor porch railing. Daddy took an axe and, in his business suit, cut the tree so that the top fell away allowing the trunk to spring clear. By midnight the wind had largely abated. There was no electricity and no heat nor hot water, and so to bed.

No school the next day. For weeks the air was filled with the aroma of torn leaves. The world was transformed; nothing seemed familiar. We clambered through the fallen trees playing house among the branches. Gradually after weeks and months the destruction was cleared by men, not with chainsaws, but with bucksaws, two-man saws, and axes. Fifteen mature trees came down on our quarter-acre lot; a lot underlain by ledge which gave roots only shallow purchase. The resulting piles of cordwood, neatly stacked here and there, eventually rotted away for lack of days and years to burn them in the fireplace.

The storm struck from the sea; a complete and disastrous surprise especially for those living in coastal areas on eastern Long Island and southern New England and the Islands. Although the Weather Service knew of the storm the news failed to reach the general public in time. The eye made landfall at New Haven and pretty much moved straight north up the valley of the Connecticut River. Consequently the strongest winds to the east were southerly and had added to their circulation the velocity of the storm mass itself; winds clocked at 121mph at Great Blue Hill. For decades afterward hikers in much of New England struggled over and under the decaying trunks in the forest—all pointing north.

The ocean surge was gigantic having come in on a spring tide. There are marks on the buildings in downtown Providence, Rhode Island thirteen feet above mean high water. There was little or no rain, most of it having caused flooding on the western side of the eye.

And so at last we had an answer to the adolescent’s perennial question: Why doesn’t anything exciting ever happen around here?

Later we heard funny stories about things that were supposed to have happened:

o  On the morning of the storm a lady in New Haven—let’s say—had just accepted postal delivery of an expensive barometer she had ordered from Abercrombie and Fitch. Upon opening the package it seemed to her that the needle was stuck at the extreme low end of the scale—near 28 inches of mercury. After much tapping, sure that it was defective, she repackaged it with a note and took it back to the post office.

When she returned home her house was gone.

o  A book store on Long Island had its display window blown in. One book remained on the shelf—Gone With the Wind. [At that time a contemporary novel; weightier than most.]

o  On the Web: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1938_New_England_hurricane

Wm. C. Atkinson, 2013


The Depth Perception Hurdle (1943-1944)

Things are seldom what they seem.

Among the many qualities required of every aspiring airman in the Army Air Force in World War II was the ability to distinguish the distance relationship between two similar but abstract nearby objects—that is, to decide which is closer and which farther without clues from the nature of the objects themselves or from their surroundings.  The perception of depth in this way depends upon the natural focusing mechanism of the eyes coupled with their ability to converge laterally upon any point in space.  I had no reason to believe that my eyes were any different in this regard from those of any other.

When called up by the draft at the age of eighteen in June of 1943 [just a week or so after graduating from high school] we were summoned to a building on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston to begin our induction into the Army.  After having filled out much paperwork and having sat through interviews by uniformed officers—one certainly a psychologist—we spent the rest of the day shuffling slowly through long lines stripped to our undershorts and undergoing various physical probings, needle-stickings, and examinations.  At day’s end we were free to return home for a period of about two weeks before reporting for duty and shipment out to Fort Devens and the duration.

Being drafted meant that you joined the Army in some as yet unknown and unassigned capacity: the infantry, artillery, intelligence, ordnance, etc. there being no obvious way at the outset to direct your course.  The idea of the infantry seemed worrisome—I had many high school classmates who served in that gritty service almost all of whom returned after the War.  But, as it happened on that afternoon, upon leaving for home I passed a desk with a sign and a recruiting officer looking for men to join the (then) Army Air Force.  I stopped by.  A limited number of applicants could be taken.  I filled out an application and found that I must return in a day or so for another round of induction indignities.  I went home with fantasies of flying beginning to fill my head.  It certainly seemed better than the alternatives.

At that next round I discovered that I had just barely met the Air Force body weight requirement.  The lower limit was 111 pounds for my height—I weighed in at 112.  (I had been previously turned down by the Navy V-12 college program for having been too short—I was 5’-2”.)  Among other things, after the eye test (luckily I was 20/20), there was a test for depth perception.


In a long narrow space about twelve feet from a chair was a large black screen with a small rectangular window cut out about the size of a post card.  Through the window I could see two vertical white lines about two inches apart and as wide as a pencil, both against a black background.  The operator showed me that the lines were really white sticks that could be moved by pulling the two strings he handed me; as one stick moved forward the other moved back.  The track carried a scale visible only to the operator for observing their separation.  I was to be given three attempts to set the sticks equidistant from me; side by side.  I pulled the strings watching the sticks move back and forth and stopping when they seemed even.

After my three tries the operator told me I was outside the allowed three millimeter limit and that I had failed.  My heart sank.  Was I for this to be denied the chance to join the Air Force?  “Yes; unless you can pass this test. You will be permitted two re-tests, one next week and one the week after that.”  But, gee, I had to report for active duty in a week and would be able to make it for only that one chance.

I fretted all the way home and immediately upon arriving I went to the basement and, several hours later, had fashioned a passable facsimile of the depth perception apparatus.  I began to practice.  When my father came home from work he enthusiastically joined me and we spent the evening I pulling the strings and Dad reading the scale and taking notes.  At first I wasn’t very good at it but practice seemed to work.  By the end of the week I could line up the sticks almost perfectly.  At the induction center I passed the re-test easily and began my wartime Air Force career.

Many months passed.  After induction at Fort Devens we cadets were shipped by train to Greensboro, North Carolina for a summer of basic training pretty much indistinguishable from that of any other Army service—drill sergeants, forced marches, heat, mud, mosquitoes, and poison ivy.  Thence to the University of Cincinnati for a fall of college-level courses in mathematics, physics, geography, and English.  It was during this period that were given ten hours of instruction in flying Piper Cubs.

WCA & Piper Cub J-3 (1943)
WCA & Piper Cub J-3 (1943)

Near the end of that year [1943] we were sent to San Antonio, Texas to undergo a rigorous classification process at the end of which we hoped to emerge as qualified to attend pilot, bombardier, or navigation school, graduation from which guaranteed you silver “wings” and a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the Army.  Those not considered qualified were assigned to aerial gunnery or aircraft maintenance schools and graduated as non-commissioned officers.  I had decided that my chances of getting through the rigors of pilot training were slim and settled on aiming for aerial navigation as more suited to my temperament.

Once again we were confronted by a battery of many tests to prove aptitudes in mathematics, physics, reading comprehension, balance, coordination, reaction time, spatial manipulation, etc.  And again, near the very end: depth perception.

As I sat facing the white sticks with the strings in my hand I panicked. Nothing to do but try my best. I moved the sticks; I strained to see when they seemed even; three tries; I failed. One re-test permitted the next day and so, no chance to practice even had I the means to do so. I tried to think of some practice scheme for the barracks but had to give it up.  For a long day I agonized over my fate until the final hour.  I reported to the test and found myself assigned to a different test space (there were three) and a different operator. I sat down. The operator explained the test and moved the sticks to and fro and I noticed that he was standing, not at the apparatus where he could see the scale, but behind me. He had rigged up an auxiliary scale on the wall beside me but just out of my sight. It was crudely driven by two cords along the wall that passed my left ear and, right there—between two screw eyes—was a large knot arranged to limit the motion.  If I turned my head ever so slightly I could just see it out of the very corner of my eye.  The test began.  I watched only the knot—setting it each time as best I could guess midway between the two screw eyes.  It was a slim chance depending as it did on the knot’s having no built-in bias.  But… I “passed” the test!  I could go on to preflight training and aerial navigation school!

At least a year later [late 1944]—after preflight and navigation school at Selman Field in Monroe, Louisiana where we got our commissions and won our wings, after radar navigation school in Boca Raton, Florida, after meeting our crew and flying at last in B-29’s in Lincoln, Nebraska, after bombing and gunnery practice in Peyote, Texas, and after finally arriving in Kearney, Nebraska for overseas assignment—amazingly, I faced the white sticks yet again.  I failed, but it was by then too late.  In my final interview before we were to fly overseas to the Pacific Theater the debriefing officer looked up from my record noting the failure in depth perception.  Without hesitation I told him this story.

He commended my resourcefulness and said, in effect, “It’s guys like you that we need in the Air Force.”  He stood up; I stood up and saluted.  “Good luck,” he said.

I became an Aerial Radar Navigator and was deployed to Saipan in the Marianas to fly bombing runs over Japan in 1945, and, after the Japanese surrendered, we dropped supplies to POW camps in Japan.



Chemistry (1930s)

…the book had an index entry for gunpowder.

In the depths of the Depression [ca. 1933] daddy came home one night with a lump of coal and a “recipe” that was then all the rage. The black lump was placed in a saucer and some water and ammonia poured over it, to which some blueing, salt, and a few drops of red ink had been added.  In a few days fanciful and feathery crystals of blue and green and white began to envelop the lump of coal.  The result was called a “Depression Plant” [1]—something decorative that all could afford in those desperate times.

On the Fourth of July daddy always produced a supply of fireworks, fire and cannon crackers, and weird things like “snakes”; little grey cones which, when lit with a stick of glowing punk, would erupt into an ever growing serpent of ash coiling and curling around. We could set off the firecrackers ourselves but the cannon crackers were reserved for daddy.  Out on the “East” lawn and on the back steps we set firecrackers under tin cans and broke them in half to make spitting “cat” fights. For after dark among the fireworks were Roman candles, fountains, pinwheels, and sparklers to end the day.

One year I was sent to my room for some forgotten transgression on a Fourth when daddy was making for us a special wooden cannon  supposedly to shoot firecrackers.  My punishment was exclusion from the firing.  My sister Holley told me later that it was a failure; it blew into bits. Yess!

On another Fourth, while fooling around and watching fireworks at the Bacon’s, I had several firecrackers in the bottom of my shorts pocket. Unaccountably one (but not all!) went off shredding my underwear amid frantic hopping and slapping of the smoking fabric.  I had to have a tetanus shot the results of which eventually kept me in bed for several days with a high fever and a painful and uncomfortable case of “lockjaw.”

Just before I was ten [1934] I was given a boxed chemistry set for Christmas and, for my birthday a few weeks later, a microscope kit.  The detailed memory of them has faded but the set had test tubes and some little vials of chemicals, litmus paper, phenolphthalein, some sort of spirit lamp I think, and things like tweezers, a wire test tube holder, etc.  So, I could test vinegar and ammonia as acid or base, magically convert water into wine, extinguish lighted matches in invisible carbon dioxide, and make tiny quantities of the poisonous gas chlorine, greenish in the bottom of the tube and fascinating because of its horror in the Great War.  Dark purple potassium permanganate and glycerine when mixed would sizzle and spontaneously burst into flame with purple smoke.

I could dissolve sal-ammoniac in water, put a drop on a microscope slide and, as it dried, watch the beautiful crystal feathers spread out like living ferns to fill all the field and stop.  Similarly one could watch emerging cubes of sugar and salt and, as my father showed me outside in the winter, the simple freezing of water.  One summer, in the mucky water from the pond in back, I found a rotifer with the microscope.

According to mother’s diary in 1937 [4/21, I was twelve] “Donny and Wm. made paddles for a boat and also gunpowder.”  I have no recollection of this day but I certainly remember my gunpowder of later years.

When I was almost fourteen daddy gave me a “real-life” chemistry set for Christmas.  With it was at least one book by A. Frederick Collins; “The Boy Chemist” (1925) or the “Boy’s Book of Experiments” (1927) the last mentioned being most memorable for its having an actual index entry for gunpowder.

The “set” comprised individual items that he had amassed and packed in several boxes: spherical and Erlenmeyer flasks, a retort!, Bunsen burner, ring stand, test tubes, glass funnels, a “thistle” tube, bottles with rubber stoppers perforated with holes for glass tubing, the tubing itself (in long straight pieces later to be cut with a file and softened and bent in the heat of the burner)–and chemicals.  Chemicals in real regular sized bottles.  Sulphur; potassium, sodium, and strontium nitrates; vicious (fuming) acids–sulphuric, nitric, hydrochloric.

He helped me set up a laboratory in the basement laundry room where there was water for the big soapstone laundry tubs and gas to be tubed up to the burner from a spigot he added to the two-burner wash-boiler stove. We had an old enamel topped kitchen table; we made shelves for the equipment and chemicals.

I think I spent more time bending and welding glass tubing and blowing glass bubbles than actually experimenting but as time went on several things stand out in my memory.

One was the making of oxygen and hydrogen by the disassociation of water with a direct electric current–the bubbles rising in each of two inverted test tubes filled with water.  A red-hot iron wire immersed in the oxygen would burn violently with sparks and the hydrogen tube, when inverted over the Bunsen flame, would go off with a pop reverting explosively to its original compound leaving water droplets on the sides of the cooling tube.

Another was guncotton and its dissolved form–nitroglycerine.  I started with guncotton (nitro cellulose) made by treating ordinary cotton with nitric acid then washing and drying the result.  It would burn in an instantaneous flash but I don’t remember trying to confine it as in firecrackers as described by Collins.  Just as well, maybe.

Nitroglycerine came later.  I can’t imagine how lucky I might have been for the making involved dissolving cotton in a mixture of two acids with heating over the Bunsen burner.  I learned—much later—that this reaction is highly unstable and requires precise temperature control to complete safely.  (In a similar experiment Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, lost his eyesight.) I poured the small amount of resulting yellow liquid into one of my mother’s tiny perfume bottles and suddenly realized that I hardly dared touch it further.

Finally, I arranged a flagstone on the ground below my sister’s second floor porch in back and gingerly took the small bottle upstairs and outside where I leaned over the railing and, centering it over the flagstone fifteen feet below—dropped it.  Nothing happened; and I guess I was well out of that one.

We had fun with elemental iodine crystals which we could get at the drugstore and which we treated more or less haphazardly with household ammonia.  The result was ammonium iodide, a brown substance so unstable when dried that the touch of a feather or a house fly could detonate it. We spread it “wet” in various places like the floor of my sister’s room where it would snap and crack making purple smoke under her shoes.  Later, in college, we made larger quantities but abruptly ended our experiments after an unexpected blast from a damp batch.

The rubber hose on the spigot of the washtub stove proved ideal for the making of paint can bombs.  The lid of an old one gallon can would be hammered on all ’round and a nail hole punched in the center of the top and in the side at the bottom.  With the rubber hose end held firmly at one of the holes the gas would be turned on [2]. The entering gas made a faint hissing sound and, as the can filled, the musical pitch of the hiss would rise gradually leveling off when the can was full.  Then, with a finger or a thumb over each hole, the can would be taken outside, set down, and a lighted match applied to the hole at the top.  A small flame, like a candle flame, would then burn steadily and quietly for what seemed like a long time.  Then, getting smaller and fainter, it would suddenly vanish as—BAM! the lid would be blown sky high.

We gradually learned that this was fairly harmless business and took the activity inside to the playroom where a can might be set to burn silently and maliciously under the player-piano bench beneath some unsuspecting musician.

Better and louder blasts were obtained with rectangular gallon screw-cap cans—cap on tight.  The result being a  large (and fairly neat) rectangle of sheet tin and two ends.  I learned once of a machine that shelled walnuts by a similar method.

Rockridge Pond (Bill & Loki, 1938)

Floating out onto Rockridge Pond on a home made raft we would poke the rotting bottom with long sticks.  Bubbles rose and could be captured in an overturned water-filled can.  Methane.  We ignited it to see the blue flash.

In the thirties any kid could ride down to the drugstore on his bike and buy all the ingredients for black powder in satisfyingly large quantities–sulphur and potassium nitrate; the charcoal we gleaned from the fireplace ashes.  Even potassium chlorate could be had which was a great blast and sensitivity enhancer; the only additive that would make a good homemade firecracker–plain old black powder made with only potassium nitrate was too slow for that.

Mix a little sulphur and potassium chlorate on the anvil and hit it a smart hammer blow.  Bam!  The hammer bounces as though having struck a rubber pad.

Somewhere we learned that one could take a 1/4″ machine bolt, just barely thread on the nut and fill the small cavity with kitchen, strike anywhere, match heads–the white part, very carefully shaved off the heads one at a time.  A matching bolt would be screwed carefully in and both slowly tightened to compress the charge.  Tossing the assembly onto a hard surface would detonate the match heads blowing the assembly apart.  I’m sure we never gave a thought to the potential danger of the flying bolts.

Cannon (1940)

In 1940 I made a cannon out of some 1/2 inch iron pipe and a couple of fittings.  It lacked realism and so I built a carriage that could vary the elevation, a recoil mechanism of rubber bands, and some giant 20d spikes to anchor it to the ground.  I painted it in military camouflage. We made a mold out of plaster-of-Paris and cast cylindrical slugs of lead to fit the barrel.

Dad was supportive but counseled caution—pointing out the obvious; that black-iron water pipe was not designed for use as ordnance—and so we always rushed to hide behind trees after having lighted the fuse.

The gun was a muzzle loader.  Pour in some powder (not too much the first time).  Add a small wad of newspaper, tamp it in hard.  Then the slug.  Another wad; tamp it in.  Magnesium ribbon worked well as a fuse, brilliant, hot, and slow burning.  Light the fuse; run for the tree.  The cannon bided its time: first sparks from the touch-hole and then, as though gathering its strength—boom!  We could fire a slug through a three-quarter inch pine board.

Once we took it to a small promontory overlooking Rockridge Pond where we set the barrel at an angle high enough, we thought, greatly to shorten the horizontal range.  We fired and watched for a distant splash. A second or two.  No splash?  Then, from the far shore about two-hundred yards distant, came a sharp clank.  Sheesh!  A slate roof?  A car?  We grabbed the cannon and ran pell-mell for the house.  I later learned in physics class that maximum projectile range is obtained at a barrel elevation of forty-five degrees.

One day I completed my finest batch of gunpowder.  I had used water in the mixing and grinding and had spread the black goo out onto newspapers to dry at low heat in the kitchen oven before final grinding. The finished batch half-filled one of my mother’s enameled metal salad bowls and on this afternoon it sat in the playroom at the far end of the workbench.  It contained potassium chlorate; I needed to test some.  So, at the near end of the bench, I set a pinch on the anvil and whacked it with the hammer.  Bam! As expected.  But…  What’s this?  A great hiss and rumble at the other end of the bench!  A mushroom cloud arose on a pillar of dark flame and spread out over the playroom ceiling [3]. In an instant my beautiful powder was gone and one of my mother’s better salad bowls left red-hot, blackened, and deformed—to say nothing of the soot besmirched ceiling and the smell of brimstone which soon pervaded the house.  This was around 1940 before the atomic bomb but it realistically foreshadowed that event in miniature. No one was home and I have repressed whatever lies and stories were fabricated and whatever family repercussions might have been the result.  It was my last boyhood batch of gunpowder.

My mother’s diary has no mention of this event.

[1] Depression Plant:
3 lumps of coal
6 tbs. blueing (added to laundry, the “Whiter than White” of the day.)
6 tbs. water
6 tbs. salt
2 tbs. ammonia
4 drops red ink or food coloring

[2] Not recommended for fuel gases heavier than air such as butane or propane.

[3] For years I have puzzled over how a spark could have flown the distance between the anvil and the bowl. I have lately come to suspect that it might have been the sharp shock of the hammer explosion that caused a detonation. If so, I was better out of that one than I realized at the time!

Wm. C. Atkinson, August 2002



Aeroplanes (1930-1943)

1912_2 FkaFlyer
My father, (Francis) Kerr Atkinson

My father was connected to flight as a member and builder for the Cornell Aero Club in 1912. He took part in the design and building of single-seat bi-planes which  were then “flown”—towed behind autos—around a large circuit on the playing fields above Schoellkopf stadium in order to learn flight control.  The Wright brothers had made their epic flight at Kitty Hawk only nine years earlier, and Wilbur his historic flight at Le Mans in 1908.

In June of 1919 my mother, too, took flight in an airplane over Paris. She was between assignments, having left her YMCA attachment to the AEF (American Expeditionary Forces) as a canteen girl in Bay-sur-Aube and waiting to join the Red Cross via a Friends Service group in Epernay,

In her own words:

“But in the meantime I must tell you what I have been doing in Paris. Besides relieving myself of beaucoup francs in their perfectly fascinating stores, I have managed to see quite a few of the sights and, from a strange angle for, let me announce to you the fact that on Sunday I was 700 metres above Paris in an aeroplane!  Yep, it’s the actual truth.  Joy and I were in the Hotel Petrograd for lunch on Saturday and found that there was a French aviatrix who would see that people went up in her plane for the small sum of 60 francs.  She herself didn’t take them up, but her pilot [did], a Capt. in the Escadrille. So—along with four other adventurous souls we went with her to Le Bourget on Sunday afternoon.  After waiting from 3 until 8 P.M. we all six got separate rides of about 20 min. each.  The only time I was really scared was when they hoisted me up into the little front seat and clamped a seat belt around me.  After the propeller started with a whirr and the machine actually moved I lost all fear entirely and just enjoyed every minute.”

19061501_ECA Caudron
Elsie Sterling Church at Le Bourget, Paris

“You can’t imagine how wonderful it feels to go soaring over the country, to look down on buildings, fields, roads, trees, gardens and mere mortals stalking around on the ground.  It was a wonderfully clear day and the view of Paris was superb.  We went towards the city and turned around just about over Sacré Coeur.  Underneath us lay the Seine winding along, spanned by bridge after bridge, on the left was the Eiffel Tower, and on the right was the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre and all those lovely public buildings near the river.  It was a sight I will never forget.  You had the whole city before you in a mass and at the edges stretched fields which were finally lost in the surrounding hills and they in turn in the haze of the horizon.  The ride was over all too soon, but I would have paid twice the price I think to go. The one I went up in was a Caudron.”

My own first memory of airplanes is that of having just stepped off the DL&W sleeper from New York City [probably on July 17th, 1929 with mother, my sister Holley, then three, and “Nanny” Bennett] to the platform at the Lackawanna station in Ithaca, NY where Aunt Edith [Church] had come down the hill in her new Dodge touring car to meet us.  I would have been four and a half.

Someone must have remarked an airplane in the clear sky and we all looked up.  “Aeroplanes” were hardly twenty-five years old then and still a novelty.  It was a biplane.  I was transfixed.  It was tiny but seemed to me to be extremely close like a drifting mote or toy that I could have reached out and taken into my hand and I long wondered how that illusion could have been.  Many years later I decided that it had been an optical illusion—that in reality there had been two planes flying in tandem and that my (slightly crossed) eyes had merged them into one seemingly much nearer; the way two images are fused in the stereopticon, or the way the bathroom floor tiles sometimes seem to merge and to hover in the air above the floor when you are musing on the toilet.

It was on this—or another of these Ithaca trips—that we had seen Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis as we passed through Grand Central Terminal in New York City.  It was elevated on display in the great concourse.  We climbed some wooden steps and mother lifted me up so that I could see into the cockpit [1].

For many years mother was part of a sort of therapeutic women’s “Rhythm” group who, as near as I could tell, spent their time dancing and swaying in flowing and diaphanous gowns, all with a classical Greek motif.  [Such a group would today be seen definitely as “New Age,” in fact, the same Noyes Rhythm movement exists still; I found it on the Web.

So it happened in the summer of 1932 that Holley and I were sent to Cobalt, Conn. for six weeks of family Rhythm group camp where, incidentally, I learned to swim in the lake and was exposed to the humiliation and the terror of boxing.  My memory of the adults is one of ghostly dancers in the waning light of day, in diaphanous gowns and crowned with flowered wreaths, clasped hand-in-hand, weaving in and out among the trees in the twilight.  Incongruously it was here that I first became aware of model airplanes.

The older boys—I was seven—had been given model airplanes to build at camp workshop.  They had wingspans of about 24 inches.  I was fascinated and remember that the wings were of thin silk somehow attached to bent loops of fine wire or bamboo.  At that moment all I wanted in life was to have a kit of my own to build but, in spite of tearful cajoling, I was told that I wasn’t old enough.  Model airplanes were deferred.


Planes were then uncommon enough that one always looked up at the sound of an engine overhead.  As the years passed flights increased—we would even see autogyros (planes with no wings but with helicopter-like free rotors driven by the forward motion of the craft)—and the novelty began to fade.

One afternoon in 1933 Holley and I were playing in the back yard in Wellesley [Massachusetts] by the inlet to Rockridge Pond when we heard a huge, deep, and growing noise in the sky overhead.  Suddenly, at first filtered by branches and then in the clear over the water, a huge silver airship loomed moving majestically eastward seemingly just above the treetops.  We ran pell-mell toward the house shouting for the others to “come see” but too late; it was immediately lost to view.  The next day we learned that it had been the huge American dirigible USS Akron en route to East Boston Airport.

Mother notes in her diary of 1933 that [daddy] helped William with an aeroplane and later, in 1936: “Wm. worked all P.M. on an aeroplane.”  The first was probably some crude assemblage of parts but the second could have been my first model in kit form.  It wasn’t of silk and fine wire but of balsa wood and colored tissue paper.  The company that made the kits and the glue was Megow’s.  The direction sheet spoke of “templates” so I asked Dad what was a template and he had no idea.  This surprised me because until then I had always thought he knew everything there was to know about technology.

This model was the first of uncounted successors.  I set up a card table in my room and had an old soft wood drawing board of mother’s that would take straight pins with only moderately killing finger pressure—a permanent callus formed on my thumb and forefinger from planting endless pins to secure the work over the plan outlines while the glue dried.  Wax paper, eventually shredded by the cutting, covered the printed plans so that the glue would not stick.  Eventually “X-Acto” knives replaced the stiff single-sided blades borrowed from dad’s razor.  The glue was orange “Ambroid” and later clear “Duco” cement which built up on the fingers to be eaten off in layers.  It had a sharp chemical flavor and, when not quite dry, a real bite.

Often I would be up long before breakfast for days on end to have extra time to work on the current model.  Waiting endlessly for glue and lacquer to dry was a real frustration; an introduction to the virtues of patience.

The outlines of the fuselage bulkheads and wing airfoil “formers” were printed on thin balsa wood sheets to be carefully cut out with the razor blade.  Some models had formers only for the wing sections; the boxy fuselage being made only of sticks.  The stringers, long and thin, sometimes of bamboo, were glued into notches in the formers and three-dimensional skeletons began to take shape eventually ready for covering with the tissue paper.

Covering was fun and went pretty fast.  A surface of the skeleton would be painted with banana oil which came with a brush in a little bottle and had the wonderful fruity pungency of the overripe fruit.  Then the paper would be laid on the oiled form and later trimmed around the edges.  The result when dry was loose and wrinkled but when sprayed with water (using one of mother’s charcoal drawing fixatif aspirators) and dried it shrank to a skin, tight as a drum, which could then be painted with lacquer which also came in little bottles and in various colors.

The result was a real airplane that would glide and fly when the rubber band (propeller motor) was wound up to “double” or “triple” knots and the plane released.  Some were “ROG’s” which meant they would take (Rise) Off from the Ground if given a runway with enough scope.  If the balance was right some would even land again at the far end of the basement playroom—or down the street—before veering off into some obstruction.

Daddy would sometimes take us to the East Boston Airport (now Logan) to watch the planes.  One fall [1936] mother noted in her diary that I had made a Beechcraft and in October she took me to Richard Knight Auditorium at Babson (Institute, now College) to hear Amelia Earhart lecture [she was lost in the Pacific the next summer].  We sat high up, in a balcony, and the afternoon light streamed through the vast arched windows.

I remember nothing of the lecture but after it there was an indoor model air show that used the great height of the hall to advantage.  I had never imagined that models could have been built like these—endurance models designed to circle, for hours it seemed, gradually gaining altitude and then descending, gliding down after their rubber band motors had wound down.  They were large—three or four feet wing span and light as feathers.  I think some of them weighed no more than three or four ounces.  The wings were of “gossamer”; actually films of collodion only a few molecules thick applied by immersing the wing skeleton in water, applying a drop of collodion to the surface where it would spread out instantaneously into an invisible film, and then lifting the wing through the surface to capture the layer.  The collodion rippled with rainbows like those seen in soap bubbles.

The propeller lobes were made the same way—collodion covered loops of bamboo like the wings of dragon flies.  They turned slowly, perhaps once per second, as the planes rose majestically gaining maybe a few inches of altitude at the end of each fifty foot circuit.  Each remained in the air for at least fifteen minutes it seemed.  I was fascinated but never aspired to enter that school of model building.

When I was twelve I began a really big model of five feet wingspan.  Dick Haward, a school friend, also had a big plane and for it a small gasoline engine.  We would try his engine in my model when it was finished.  It was common then to invite various school teachers to dinner occasionally and that spring my airplane was being proudly shown to Miss DeLura, the school principal.  She took it unexpectedly in hand and—crack—broke one of the stringers in her clumsy grasp.  I could have fixed it, and perhaps I did, but I have no recollection ever of having tried it out with Dick’s motor.

One Sunday in October of 1937 Holley and I were awakened unusually early by mother and dad and told to prepare for a surprise.  We drove into Boston and out to the airport.  We were to fly to New York City for the day!  The plane was, I imagine, a Douglas DC-3

Douglas DC-3, East Boston Airport 1937

and seemed in my memory to have had about two dozen seats in rows of one and two.  At 10:20a we taxied out to the runway and took-off.  What excitement!  We were enthralled.  On the way a steward(ess?) served snacks.  We landed in Newark and got to 42nd Street by 12:30.  We saw the science museum at Rockefeller Center and went to the Planetarium.  The taxis had folding jump seats in the back and we had lunch at an Automat—a wall of cubbies with glass, coin-operated doors behind which were sandwiches, chicken pot pies, shiny bowls of jello, and a corps of workers dutifully refilling the empties from behind—the grand daddy of all fast food.  Later we went to friends of mother’s [the Fairchild’s] for dinner.  We came home on the Pullman sleeper from Pennsylvania Station. This was mother’s first flight since her sight-seeing jaunt over Paris in 1919 and surely my father’s first flight ever.

At one time daddy worked on a model of his own design; a kind of helicopter device.  The rotor, elaborately constructed of thin paper, looked like an unfurled umbrella with curved vanes—like the chambers of a nautilus or the fine gills of a mushroom—on the underside.  I still have the propeller and the wooden stick frame that stretched the rubber band motor.  I haven’t the least memory of how it was supposed to have worked.

When I was fifteen I conceived and built a balsa wood and yellow tissue paper ornithopter; a plane that flapped bird-like wings.  I fashioned tiny cranks and levers out of piano wire with needle-nosed pliers.  A rubber band powered it.  It flew—sort of—mainly flopping toward the ground with a sound like a broken window shade and much sooner than I might have wished.

Gradually my room filled with models both flying and (more detailed) solid models aiming for realism.  Some were suspended on wires overhead.  My best was the Beechcraft, a biplane of about eighteen inch wingspan with staggered wings (the lower forward of the upper) and a radial engine.  I photographed them all once but the photos are now lost. Eventually the planes found their way to the attic to be retrieved several years later for the final act.

By 1942 the War was well under way.  Somewhere in that period a friend and I conceived the idea of simulating, in a small way, aerial combat.  This began by the opening of the front window of my corner room at 85 Ledgeways. Those models that would fly were wound up, anointed with kerosene, ignited, and launched out the window to circle, dive and to crash and burn in the driveway two and a half stories below.

WCA & Piper J-3

During my later service in the Army Air Force in training at the University of Cincinnati we had occasion to be taught to fly in Piper J-3s. We learned a long list of maneuvers in addition to simply taking off and landing with a minimum of jolting, careening from side to side, and bouncing clumsily back into the air. We learned to keep the nose up during turns—with the wings at an angle vertical lift is reduced.  I had trouble with the rudder controls because they were counter-intuitively the opposite of what I had learned as a kid on my Flexible Flyer. We memorized and executed a codified “series of turns” without losing track of our bearings, and had to be able to recover from a vertical tailspin in a prescribed number (like two-and-a-half) wild gyrations while trying to keep track of how many times the highway below had rotated. I was not much good at this emergency counting but in the end my instructors gave me a good report.

After the War, while a freshman at Cornell, I made a last detailed solid airplane model.  It was a B-29 carrying the markings of our 20th Air Force, 498th Bombardment Group on Saipan in 1945: T-Square 37 on which I was the radar navigator.  I have it still.

My Last Model Airplane (~1947)

[1] As of this writing I can find no proof of my ever having seen the Spirit of Saint Louis in Grand Central Station. An exhaustive Google subject and image search seems to confirm that the plane was never there on display. It is possible that it was the German plane “Bremen” on display in 1929 during one of our passages through the station. It had just completed the first east to west Atlantic crossing. But the plane was suspended in air with no possibility of having a close look.





Construction (1930s)

As school children we were endlessly fascinated by construction work, with the men and materials, but especially with the processes, the equipment and, above all, the machinery.

The machinery in general seemed muscular and open to the possibility of actually revealing to us how it might work—like anatomical drawings showing the tendons and bones of a limb.  It was angular, black, rusting, and oozed dark grease from its joints and pivots.  It ran on coal, hissing steam, and smoke.

Steamrollers had a great spoked iron flywheel on one or two sides of the engine.  The driver’s cab was filled with hand levers and long shafted steering wheels and covered with a flat canvas sun-roof that shook as the machine lurched forward and backward over the hot macadam steaming from water applied to keep the roller from sticking.

1932_Steam Shovel
Coal-fired steam shovel

Steam  shovels were tracked—as Cat’s are still—but the mighty torso of the machine carrying the awkward shovel arms and the cab and engine swiveled on a huge circular crown of gear teeth and the shovel arm, itself a gigantic rack, was thrust forward and back with pinions and greasy cables.  The shovel itself seemed to be the head of a giant beast with an articulated jaw—the hinge was the eye—and a row of huge teeth sprouting, oddly, like spiky hair from its forehead.  The teeth had no reverse reach (as on today’s backhoes) so workmen would have to hand-excavate the close-in stuff.

The behemoths clanked and smoked and, happily, were left at quitting time totally exposed and unguarded, metal chinking as it cooled, and various fluids sighing faintly to our ears as we took command of the controls to advanced the projects into the summer evenings.

Often a squat, rusty, and lurching diaphragm pump (sometimes left to run overnight) would be connected to two hoses one of which vanished into the turbid depths of an open hole or trench and the other, at labored intervals, belched forth gouts of muddy liquid into a canvas hose and then into a nearby ditch where the flow ran on to supply our dams and other grand and fleeting roadside civil engineering projects.

Hit-or-miss gasoline pump engine

Driven by a primitive one-cylinder, hit-or-miss gasoline engine—running at about 120 rpm—such a pump had a flywheel capable of carrying it, stumbling onward between frequent and random misfires, through a couple of cycles or so.  This gave it a characteristic and rhythmic but intermittent bump and breathy suck which I am certain any adult child of the twenties or thirties (who had endless time on his hands after school) would recognize instantly.

Smudge pot “bombs”

After dark the open pits and obstructions left for the night would be marked by crude black kerosene-filled spheres about the size of bowling balls with blackened wicks at the top burning dimly, smokily, and flickering in the darkness.  They were loose; but we never touched them; they seemed to us a little too dangerous—like the real bombs of our imaginations.

The heavy construction, machinery, and masonry workmen seemed mostly from southern Europe; swarthy from the sun, often mustachioed, and under banded fedoras and with bandannas at their necks.  I don’t remember much about the carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, and roofers except that they wore white canvas “farmer johns” and arrived at the jobs all together in the back of a truck. Individual autos were never parked around because they didn’t own cars as is common today.

After the workmen had left for the day we swarmed over the skeletal forms of the new house construction then burgeoning in our area, pocketing the coin-like knockout plugs from electrical boxes, sticking our fingers into the huge tubs of pristine white slaked lime left overnight by the plasterers to cure, and walking the gutters and ridgepoles arms waving widely—falling occasionally but usually able to hide the consequences from our parents.  Once, while balancing around a right-angled turn on a wooden hip roof gutter, I lost it and fell twelve feet onto a pile of bricks.  I had sprained my wrist in a fall, of course, from my bicycle [11/6/38].

Hod carrier

Often, too, we would hang around during working hours watching form-building, the pouring of concrete, and the laying of endless bricks and stones—the mortar mixed in great tubs with long handled shovels and hoes and the bricks and mortar carried, around and up ladders to high staging in wooden hods balanced on the shoulders of the carriers, to the masons who deftly plied their trowels.  We watched plasterers working their smooth magic over wire lath and were fascinated by the plumber with his roaring blow-torch pouring molten lead into oakum-packed cast iron bell-joints.  (Cinder-block and so-called dry-wall construction were not to come into use until after the War.)

Sometimes we would talk with the men and they might deign to answer questions.  Without realizing it at the time we were learning how it all goes together; how the world works.  We were even learning some small things about cultures different from our own and how to get along with them.  I can trace some of my later ability to enjoy work with others less privileged than I to encounters such as these.

As we grew older and bolder we stole.  Nails, lumber, hinges, tarpaper, shingles (the occasional piece of capped pipe—for a cannon).  Somewhere nearby and hidden in the woods a crude club house would take shape.  One day (panic!) a policeman found his way to a remote site and we had to raze that one.  But we saved everything.  We laboriously pulled and pounded out and straightened the nails and the structure rose again, phoenix-like, in someone’s else patch of woods.  It seems unbelievable, now, that we were never charged with theft.

There was the digging of tunnels, too.  Cut and cover.  It was hard, grubby work getting through the local glacial till and hacking through roots.  Damp, dark; and fun for a while but without the allure of a really swell shack with a sloping roof, a door and windows, a trap door in the floor, and an old kerosene heater.

And there were real, scary tunnels to walk through.  We would ride our bikes over to an aqueduct project nearby in Weston and sneak through a fence and into the open end of a huge pipe that we could stand up in.  We would walk in toward the darkness, our footsteps and voices echoing eerily, as the pipe gradually curved to cut off more and more of what little light filtered in from the now distant end.  As the darkness increased we would voice concern over what would happen if “they” suddenly turned on the water and then—suddenly convinced that the water was actually COMING—run like crazy for the distant opening.


But best was that sometimes there would be blasting.  Compressors and air drills shattered the silence.  The dynamite (pale yellow and waxy looking sticks) would be charged into the holes, a cap inserted and quietly wired up to the centerpiece—the iconic wooden box with the plunger in the top.  A huge blanket seemingly woven out of old steel cable would be dragged over the work by the steam shovel.  We would watch respectfully from a remove always considered too close by the workmen.  “Hey. Kids. Get back!”  The men were much closer than we were; we would step back about an inch watching and waiting.  Then, “Look: he’s about to do it.”  THUMP!  The blanket would leap mightily and little pieces of rock would fly, some falling near and behind us.  The workmen would move in and we, satisfied, would drift away in pursuit of other endeavors.


“Nilesville”: A Childhood Memoir (1930s)

In 1931 our family left a second floor apartment at 27 Claflin Road on Aspinwall Hill in Brookline for a new house in Wellesley Hills.

My parents had looked at houses for several months but finally decided to build.  A lot was found in a new and wooded area called the Hundreds Estate which later became affectionately known to its denizens as Nilesville after its owner and developer Harold Niles who had a large and elegant old house on a hill on the tract.  What was to become the geographic and demographic center of gravity of our young lives was a road loop called Hundreds Circle.  In the period between about 1925 and 1931 many of the lots were sold, houses built, and new roads made to accommodate them.  Mr. Niles took a personal interest in every prospective buyer and essayed to assemble an educated and congenial group of prospective residents.

An architect was hired, a Mr. Avery, and design and construction began apace in the spring of 1930.  There was much blasting of ledge in the construction of the garage and foundation.  In the summer and fall we would often take the old Dodge on Sunday and drive out to visit the site.  I remember these visits only vaguely; I was five and a half.  The lot was small, a quarter acre, but had room for a level lawn on the east side.  The lot was otherwise surrounded by woods with a pond in back, Rockridge Pond, owned as parkland by the Town.

We moved in to 85 Ledgeways on a snowy day early in January, a day during most of which Holley and I had stayed at the Henderson’s on Elm Street.  Mr. Henderson was a business associate of my father’s.  To this day I can see the view down the upstairs hall from my bed through the open door of my new bedroom that first night.  A view filled with a giant stack of boxes on top of which was perched our old black electric fan.

Ledgeways had not yet been paved.  By 1932 or so most of the lots had been developed but, in the depths of the Great Depression, there remained many vacant plots and tracts of open woods.  Mr. Niles commissioned none of the houses and few developers bought plots to build dwellings on speculation.  There seemed something not quite acceptable about buying a house identical to some other one nearby.  Each house, on a wooded quarter-acre plot, had ten rooms more or less with a one or two-car garage:  Capes, salt-boxes, French provincial.  Several of the houses were designed by Royal Barry Wills, a well known local architect.  None had the open plan so popular after the War.  All had two or three stories; “family” rooms, unheard of, lay far in the future.  Finished attic spaces tended to occupancy by the boys.  No family had a swimming pool and but one a tennis court.  Lawns were small or non-existent and nobody ever gave a thought to the condition of his neighbor’s patch of green.

Mr. Niles had laid out a complex and winding maze of streets up and down dale.  Each had a gravel sidewalk along which, on snowy mornings, slow and plodding, came a steaming, shaggy, and blanketed horse pulling a simple wooden V-plow upon which sat a hunched and bundled figure clutching the reins.  The only sound to break this muffled silence was the grate and grumble of the plow blade on the frozen gravel beneath.

The salient feature of this new population was homogeneity.  The adults were all professionals of about the same age (thirties plus) and all the children between the ages of zero and ten.  I was six and my sister Holley five.  These children numbered about sixty boys and girls distributed among about twenty-five families and among whom at least a dozen attended the same elementary school classes as my sister and me.  In the immediate group I can remember no only children, not a single divorce or the death of a child, and but one family broken by the Depression.

Some afforded live-in help- a maid, a cook, a housekeeper- leaving the mothers relatively free.  At our house we employed Maude Smith from Bermuda who had come with us from Brookline.  She had her own cramped quarters in the house over the garage and cooked and cleaned and cared for us for almost thirty years.  Holley and I spent endless hours talking to her in the kitchen.  Mrs. Lilja came once a week to do the laundry by hand, in a soapstone tub, using a corrugated galvanized washboard and hand-cranked wringer.  Mr. Daly toiled in the garden.  But my father pushed the mower until, as I grew older, the task fell to me.  The gentle sound of a reel mower was one of the muted, now lost, sounds of summer.

Occasionally, in the cool wetness of autumn, small bands of Italian women from another part of town silently walked the fringes of the woods moving slowly and stooping to gather mushrooms.  They seemed to us mysterious and somewhat gypsy-like.

FrozenCreamBefore dawn, milk (and eggs) were delivered to the kitchen stoop; the milk in glass bottles with wired-on paper caps and disks inside which, on freezing mornings, rose inches into the air on weird stalks of frozen cream.  The wires had endless hobby uses and were saved in a glass tumbler on the kitchen windowsill.  Unless canned there were no fruits or vegetables out of season; frozen food was as yet unimaginable.  Morning orange juice was obtained by squeezing oranges the night before.  Few had ever tasted avocados (alligator pears), artichokes, or broccoli and no one had ever even heard of bagels, pizza, yoghurt, margarine, salsa, pesto, or cous-cous.  On mornings when you were sick in bed and home from school you heard mother’s voice on the phone in the hall talking to the grocer or the butcher; placing her order for delivery that day.

Once a year or so the Fuller Brush or the Electro-Lux man would ring the bell; filling the living room with his wares while mother, trying to be polite, would finish by buying a token item or, sometimes and more exciting, an entirely new vacuum cleaner.

The community was tight-knit and revolved at first around the local Seldon L. Brown elementary school (Ms. Ella Buck, principal) although it drew from a pool larger than and somewhat separated geographically from Nilesville itself.  The Brown school was eventually converted to condominiums and today buses carry the local kids elsewhere.

Thus, we never lacked for nearby playmates and cars never became a necessary part of our social milieu.  We walked home from school for lunch and back again.  We walked, ran, and rode our bicycles everywhere.  When the time came even junior high and high school were within walking distance.  In the mornings we would gather at the shortcut by the dam at Rockridge Pond waiting for the stragglers to convene before setting off together for the mile and a half walk.  Coming home in the winter Holley and I could cut straight across the pond, running and sliding on the ice, through the snowy woods to our own backyard.

In kindergarten we sat in a circle of little green wooden chairs under which, on rare occasions, a suspicious puddle might form. In the grades we saluted the flag and recited the pledge, hands over hearts.  We sang America the Beautiful.  At recess we played I’m the King of the Castle (and you’re the dirty rascal!) and swarmed over the jungle gym and held long-jump competitions in leaping off the flying swings.  Infractions earned visits to Miss Buck’s office and we (as older boys) dropped our pencils often in order, while picking them up, to sneak a look up the skirt of the girl at the next desk.

Dick & JaneWe learned to read with Dick and Jane and to write by the Palmer Method (supposedly effortless swirling, slanting “O’s” in black ink on lined paper, wrists gracefully poised) whose upper and lower case examples ran in a panel across the top of the blackboard.  The lefties had a tough time with ink.  Our desks, screwed to the floor with seats attached, had filled ink wells in the corner and ink-stained lift tops under which we kept our notebooks, pens, nibs, gnawed pencils, grubby erasers, rulers, baseball gloves, macaroni guns, and comic books.  Except in winter, we looked forward to fire drills.  Every classroom had an American flag and an unfinished portrait of George Washington gazed down upon us.

Relatively few went off to private school.  Those who did became, of course, removed somewhat from the core group, especially as they grew older.  Through the years, the weekends, and the long summer evenings playing Kick the Can (“Allee, allee in free!”), Murder, and Capture the Flag we thought of ourselves as “The Gang”.  In the winter we skated on the pond (Hill-Dill and Crack-the-Whip) and sledded on Valley Road- running and flinging ourselves downhill on our Flexible Flyers in the days before salt and sanding.  We moved through Nilesville like a fluid never static always in motion and changing in size and makeup but with a core of stability and friendship that has lasted now for more than seventy years.  It seems truly remarkable.  I have never met another who grew up in such halcyon days.  Nilesville had insulated us more or less completely from the economic woes of the Depression era through luck, hard work, or foresight.

CaptureFew homes had more than one telephone—not even an extension.  It sat, usually, in its strangely expectant and upright blackness on a table in the downstairs hall.  Lacking a cord long enough to reach a nearby closet, no phone call  was private—all the family privy to the embarrassments of ones halting efforts to conduct a tenuous social life—especially as we got into the dating game in high school. One waited, nervous and hovering, until the moment might arrive to place the crucial call.  Sister or brother (finally!) upstairs, mother in the kitchen, and dad- not home yet but expected to burst through the front door at any instant.  Now!  Snatch the receiver off the hook, wait, wait, beating heart.  Then the operator: “Number please?” And you: “0434-J.”  Many families had party lines, the number followed by a letter.  Ours was 1546-W.  Often, before making a call, one had to wait for the other party to relinquish the line.  There was a kind of unwritten ethical code about the length of calls and about the temptations of “listening in”.

In Nilesville’s early years the adults organized elaborate New Year’s Eve parties at the Beacon School with skits and theatricals and sillyness.  At Christmastime, at least until the War, Marion Niles would have everyone in for cocoa after several hours of carol singing through the dark, chill, and snowy neighborhood.  And when it snowed it snowed!  And, although it seems impossible now to believe it, in those long-gone days it was actually pitch-black dark on moonless nights; the ebon sky filled with stars.

At Hallow’een (we had never heard of the threat “Trick or treat”) we dressed up in old sheets and carried our lighted jack-o’lanterns from house to house seeking the traditional handout and avoiding the older boys who might, and did when we were little, smash our pumpkins.  But, when we became older ourselves we, too, engaged in some nights of bad behavior of which dumping garbage and breaking street lights with stones was perhaps the worst.  Our mother would sometimes dress like an old hag, turn out all the house lights, except for one candle in the window, and terrorize the little kids who came to the door.

Early on Holley and I had a next door neighbor, Larry Rice, who spent many hours on the steps of his house fabricating fanciful stories in which we held the protagonist’s roles.  One summer he acquired a wholesale store of unusual whip tops and organized all of us into sales teams to spread them throughout the neighborhood.  Later he built a local gymnasium in the woods with a tennis court and established the Winter Sports Club (on Old Farm Road) where we boys spent Saturday mornings at basketball, ice hockey, track, gymnastics, tennis, and dodge ball under the tutelage of coach Pop Foster.  One rainy afternoon Pop took us all to one of the scariest movies I have ever seen: Night Must Fall.  Larry’s passion was tennis- he held a State doubles championship- and he coached a few of Nilesville’s boys to later excellence.

Radio was in the ascendancy. Television lay far in the future, although just before the War one family had a fascinating experimental set with a tiny two-inch screen displaying ghostly green cathode ray images.

Zenith radio (1940)

Importance was attached to getting home by five.  Between then and six on weekdays we listened to the radio- Little Orphan Annie (Ovaltine; secret Decoder Ring), Tom Mix (Ralston Chex; “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.”), Jack Armstrong (Wheaties, “Breakfast of Champions”), and Don Winslow of the Navy; fifteen minute shows one after another.  On Saturday night the “Hit Parade” was on and Sunday afternoons we had thirty minute dramas: The Green Hornet, I Love a Mystery, and the Shadow (“Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men?  The Shadow knows…”).  These sounded in the background while we played at Hearts, Battleship, or long and drawn out games of Monopoly sprawled on someone’s living room rug.  Some listened endlessly to the Boston Braves or Red-Sox ball games.

The Community Playhouse showed movie double bills, usually with a Disney Silly Symphony and a newsreel- Time Marches On with Lowell Thomas as commentator.  We laughed ourselves silly over Joe E. Brown as salesman Alexander Botts in the Earthworm Tractor series, laughed and cried with Charlie Chaplan, and fell fatally in love with Simone Simon (Girl’s Dormitory) and Kay Francis (The White Angel).  There I saw my first movie; Treasure Island with Wallace Beery as John Silver opposite Jackie Cooper’s Jim.  I see yet the evil pirate, a wicked knife in his teeth, slowly climbing the ratlines toward Jim ensconced below the crow’s nest with a pistol in each hand.

Bendslev’s ice cream parlor, at the Playhouse, often waylaid us while walking home from high school and there we would deconstruct the movies we had just seen over waffle cones, sundaes, and Cokes.

In those years the fathers went universally to their offices in town until noon on Saturdays and having even that half-day was a relatively recent departure from the six-day week.  “Weekends” weren’t invented until after the War.  The men walked to the train at Wellesley Farms station in most weathers retracing their steps every evening.

Baseball had an early toehold as evidenced by more or less perpetual pick-up play in the street on Hundreds Circle at the house of the resident coach and self-proclaimed entertainment director.  I remember elaborate and exciting games of Fox and Hounds that took us miles into the woods, into territory we hardly knew, running pell-mell, strewing bits of newsprint behind us for the Hounds.

Eventually Nilesville had its own Sunday baseball team the Whops Workers—fathers, sons, and the rare daughter who fought to the death the Cliff Dwellers from the hinterland on the other side of Nilesville’s woods.  The games were played out on the abandoned fields of the Beacon School until finally the old building burned one night in a spectacular fire and the property fell to development.  Thereafter the teams battled it out in back of the Brown School surrounded by fans, hangers-on, and dogs.  The Wellesley Townsman saw fit to report on important outcomes.

Big Little Book

We read “Big Little” books, four inches square and as thick as a Bible, featuring the likes of Dick Tracy and Mickey Mouse; a comic book panel on the left page and large print text on the right.  We pored over the Johnson Smith catalog and sent away to Racine, Wisconsin for books on hypnosis, magic, and the Rosicrucians, and for “X-ray” machines (hoping, of course, to penetrate skirts), crystal radios, real electric motor kits, “Whoopee” cushions, hand-shake buzzers, and Ouija boards.  Little, tin “putt-putt” boats steamed in the bathtub on tiny candle power.  The crack of pearl handled cap pistols snapped in the summer air teasing the nostrils with the delicious aroma of gunpowder smoke.  Occasionally we made serious attempts to hypnotize someone in the group and sometimes nervously wondered whether we’d actually succeeded.  Mysterious and unsettling.  The girls played “jacks” and we played marbles and tossed jack knives for “Territory” in the dirt.  If you could hyper-ventilate and then have someone squeeze your chest hard enough from behind you would fall to the ground in a dead faint- our first daring brushes with death.

Passing fashion ruled for at least two months at a time.  By turns it was beer jackets (white canvas, with metal buttons, on which your friends wrote their names and sayings in indelible ink), yo-yos, polo shirts, broomstick skirts, saddle shoes, and bobby socks.  We boys wore corduroy knickers above our sagging socks until our first long pants in junior high school.  The girls wore shorts in summer but never long pants not even to school, except for snowsuits over a hopelessly crumpled plaid skirt in winter.  Jeans and “sportswear” had no existence; for roughing it outdoors we simply wore our “old clothes”.

Our parents church affiliations, all Protestant, ranged from High Episcopal to Unitarian with scattered pockets of unobtrusive atheism. Christian Science and Quakers were represented.  There were no Baptists, Mormons, or fundamentalists of any stripe.  Each affiliation seemed to have as much a social component as one of religion or a tradition of previous family religious upbringing.  Mother was Episcopalian and my father had no discernible faith other than that hard work, honesty, and engineering were the only agents capable of advancing mankind.  I seem to remember that Holley and I started out in the Episcopal Church (for a few months?) then changed for several years to the Congregationalists, who made up a significant part of social Wellesley Hills, and finally descending to the Unitarians because that was where, we insisted, our best friends went to Sunday school.

In junior and early high school years our parents began to take a hand in shaping our social amenities especially in regard to the niceties of ballroom dancing and the interactions among us who had, heretofore, simply regarded ourselves as boys and girls- rough and ready members of the gang.  The elders had matured in an era of courtly Victorian formality and the monthly dances they promoted were the last pre-war expression of that old and dying order.  The Assemblies, as they were known, were the work of Mrs. Ferguson (an ample woman of a certain age, but perhaps undeserving of the epithet “battleaxe”) and her comrade in arms, Baron Hugo and his orchestra.

The Assemblies were held in an old ballroom upstairs at the Maugus Club.  Those of us new to dancing had had rudimentary instruction from our parents or more formally from others.  Dance cards were issued- only to the boys- listing the dances by number each followed by a line for a partner’s name.  As boys we scrambled to sign up our favorite girls- especially for the first and all important last dances- before they were invested by competitors.  Many a soaring hope was buoyantly realized or forlornly dashed in this process.  We dressed in suits and ties and the girls in elegant “formal” dresses; some wearing corsages on their bosoms or wrists.  Upon arrival we accosted a line of matrons and chaperones.  “Cutting in” by the boys was encouraged as a way to accommodate the “stags” and the matrons did their best to see that no unhappy girl sat for long on the sidelines.  Given even a barely discernable affinity between partners we danced as in the Irving Berlin song Dancing Cheek to Cheek– then to us the summa cum ultra of physical contact.  Baron Hugo indulged us mostly with the fox-trot and waltzes but with occasional exotica such as the polka, rumba, conga (long lines snaking around the floor), and the Lambeth Walk.  At the very end of this era the jitter-bug came swinging to the fore; a harbinger of the final end of elegant nineteenth century formality.

Our early insulation from the world at large was virtually total.  As children we knew nothing of bread lines, of Okies, of Gandhi, Prohibition, Communism, Kristallnacht, Guernica, or the Rape of Nanking.  Of “earth shaking” events I can remember only, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and the burning of the zeppelin Hindenberg.  We knew not even, really, of sex—which it seems we gradually unraveled more or less on our own from sources hidden away in our parent’s attics and dresser drawers.  Anyway, nobody ever got into “trouble.”  We began to experience the wider Town in junior high school and finally the wider World in high school but even then, in spite of the war in Europe, not really until the shock of Pearl Harbor and the advent of gasoline and food rationing and the blacking out of streetlights to darken the Boston skyline as seen from the sea.

On the Farm in Locke, NY (1932)

As adults we have sometimes speculated as to whether we were harmed in some essential way by our privilege and isolation as children in Nilesville.  Certainly there exist advantages to exposure to adversity, hardship, and the working people and cultures of the world.  My father would have been the first to espouse this idea—he sent us off to a hardscrabble, God-fearing, working dairy farm in New York State for three summers, and wouldn’t hear of isolating either of us in a “privileged and sheltered” private school.

But then, no one was ever exposed either to shallow values or to false respectability, empty materialism, ostentation, social climbing, or sham.  All our parents had a common grounding in sensibility, education, responsibility, honesty, modesty, and deep respect for others of all classes and faiths which certainly rubbed off on all of us.  Among the parents almost none drank, even socially, few smoked, and virtually nobody was overweight.

Nilesville was a narrow world within the wider world.  Inevitably and gradually its edges dried and it evaporated.  Slowly at first, as we kids grew up and left for the War and college in 1943 and ’44, and then more rapidly as we finally went off to claim our lives, as our parents died or moved to simpler spaces, and as new more disparate families displaced the original settlers.  The streets, many of the houses, even Rockridge Pond— now more a swamp than a pond—all still exist as before but our Nilesville has vanished forever.

Written on the occasion of our Wellesley High School Class of 1943 60th reunion in 2003.



“Speed-Park” (1959-1963)

Working for Henry Dreyfuss [1] at first seemed glamorous. World famous boss; office on West 58th Street in the Paris Theatre building, near the Plaza Hotel, around the corner from Bergdorf’s; surrounded by classy shops, galleries, and restaurants; Central Park’s horse drawn carriages parked outside; business lunches in the Oak Room; and the new MoMA only blocks away.

I began working there in 1952. But, after seven years (itch?), I began to have misgivings. I had advanced to the project management level and there was probably no reason that I could not have stayed on for a long career in design. In fact, not long after my announced departure, I was invited into a partnership with one of the principals who himself was leaving to set up his own shop. However, what had seemed alluring at first about industrial design—the freedom to create “exciting” new concepts—had become increasingly fraught with disillusion. “Form follows function” it was said, but often the form seemed lacking in support of the function.

I found myself in client meetings with engineers at Minneapolis Honeywell, Crane Co, Mosler Safe, Mergenthaler Linotype, etc. and gradually began to realize that I sat on the wrong side of the table. Too often it seemed to me that the engineers had a better hold on how best an item should work or be received or manufactured than we did, and our arguments as to how it should look seemed increasingly contrived. I remember an internal argument over whether a screw-head should be concealed beneath a more expensive, brushed metal cap and heard myself saying “What’s so bad about the fact of an honest screw?” And so, in 1959, I opted out. Henry gave me a nice watch.

Fortunately I had a line on a new job through a man I had met socially. Mihai Alimanestianu [2], who with his brother had escaped Ceausescu’s Romania by leaping into the night from a moving train, had invented an automated system for parking cars. He had financial backing and had an agreement with the Otis Elevator Co. to manufacture the lateral transfer machinery. He had ideas for a new version of his current device and took me on as machine designer and draftsman.

GarageSectionHe called his operation “Speed-Park.” One of my first assignments was to design his logo and letterhead as well as the advertising brochures. In addition I made several perspective cut-away renderings of the garage to make clear the mechanical principles involved.

The building of the first garage was underway on West 42nd Street. On either side of a two-lane driveway elevators moved up and down in towers which, at the same time, moved longitudinally on rails. On the elevators a comb-like forklift transfer device could pick up cars and deliver them automatically to parking niches, one-deep, on either side of the tower runway. After the motorist had left the car parked in place safety barriers rose and the car was lifted a few inches onto a grid shaped to interweave with the fingers of the fork-lift. The garage operation required only one attendant who oversaw a computer console that printed the receipts, directed the elevator to the closest available stall, and—at the end—calculated the parking fee. Owners could lock their cars.

Speed-Park Machinery

Mihai’s new device parked cars not one—but two deep on either side of the tower runway. This was more difficult because the forklift arrangement could no longer be simply cantilevered from the elevator platform; it had to roll back and forth sixteen feet on wheels. He had worked out the general mechanical arrangement and so I set to work with manufacturer’s catalogs and my college texts to make the calculations and drawings necessary for the building of a prototype—at Dreyfuss I had become a competent draftsman.

We occupied a small office on the East Side near 42nd Street. The job was interesting. It comprised structural, mechanical and hydraulic components operating in conditions of severely restricted space. Strength and deflection under load, cable and sheave arrangements, “bureau drawer” slides and squaring shaft , hydraulic extension and jacking—all had to be addressed. Office conditions, however, were stressful. Mihai’s secretary yammered incessantly on the phone and played the radio, snapping her chewing gum the while.

Eventually, to my relief, we moved to more elegant digs on East 57th Street in a building owned by Huntington Hartford, the A&P heir who was the venture’s principal backer. I had my own office and got a raise even though I had to pay for a new drafting table myself; Mihai explaining that he would compensate me later when money became less tight.

The construction of the machine prototype was now in progress at the Link-Belt plant in Lansdale, PA. I made many visits there to nurse it along. We had trouble with cycling speed because as the hydraulic oil changed temperature and density. I hadn’t the background in control theory to fix it, but Otis stepped in and added a modification of its elevator floor leveling controls.

BuildingThe 42nd Street Garage opened late in 1962. It seemed to me that it would be good to have a means of estimating the rate at which cars could be parked and un-parked using the known speeds of the various mechanical components and depending on the degree to which users might cause delays. I found a way of finding average parking rates using the volumes of overlapping prisms and pyramids whose heights were times in seconds and whose bases were dimensionless numbers of levels and bays. It was a way automatically to handle cases where elevator and tower moved simultaneously, where one had to wait for the other, and where the efficiency of the motorist became a factor.

TimeCycles-2Mr. Pinto at Otis Engineering was very interested in this work. At 42nd St. I had made stopwatch observations of my own closely confirming its results. In retrospect it would have been an ideal application for a computer program; the calculations were tedious and there were unique cases to consider. In this respect we were only a few years too early.

Mihai wanted a promotional film and so I enlisted the services of a photographer friend Peter Pruyn and an actress friend Naomi Thornton who played an attractive motorist. We made a five-minute film. Mihai was instantly dissatisfied with the result and demanded endless and frivolous changes—finally he rejected it and refused to pay the principals, and so we agreed that the footage would be returned unused to Peter.

By early 1963 some long periods of not-much-to-do ensued. I used the time to make the design and construction drawings for my eclipse spectrograph [3].

It gradually became evident that this enterprise was not going to take off. Also evident—not only to me but to others: Mihai was by nature a micro-manager and somewhat of a charlatan. For example, I packaged up the film for return to Peter and discovered too late that Mihai had secretly stolen it back from the outgoing mail. He never paid Peter or Naomi. Later he did grudgingly pay me for the drafting table, but only after having discovered that my new employer in Boston was to be a consultant on one of his future projects.

And so—time to move on. The garage operated for a year or so more but following a major tower failure—forcing drivers to wait weeks for their cars—it closed and was demolished.

Wm. C. Atkinson, 2013


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Dreyfuss

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/1989/09/23/obituaries/mihai-alimanestianu-parking-engineer-71.html

[3] See Astronomy, An Adventure (1925-present)

B-29 Combat Mission Logs of Wm. C. Atkinson, Radar Navigator (1945)

20th Air Force, 73rd Wing, 498th Bombardment Group, 874th Squadron, Isley Field, Saipan, Marianas

Crew #121
Mission- 5, Tachikawa
Milne, Atkinson [author], Shaw, Harris, Foster, Spiller, Hyman, Norris, Jensvold
Wasowski (VanWormer, photographer?)
Logs from my notes taken at the time. Selected sophomoric, ungracious, and puerile passages have been expunged. The writer was 20 in 1945.

Strike #1 (night)                                    1-2 April, 1945

Target-     No. 357, Musashino Engine Works of the Nakajima Aircraft 
                Company, Tokyo, Japan
Bomb Load-  35 500 lb HE's and 4 parachute flares.  (Gross weight 
                on takeoff 140,000 lb)
Aircraft-   T(square)-35, "Southern Belle"
Opposition- Flak moderate to intense, very accurate and coordinated 
                with searchlight batteries.  No Fighters

Southern Belle This was our first strike, our inauguration into the clan of combat flyers we had looked upon as out of our sphere of experience. We “rhubarbs” could not join in the tales and yarns of the missions to Japan. We were looked down upon and were told what it would be like, what the “score” was, but now we were off on our own to bomb the [Japanese] mainland. At last we, too, would have a tale to tell, we would “belong.”

It was not without due apprehension that we took off that night and watched, with eyes to remember all we saw, the lights and the hum of Saipan drop below under the wing and slip into the limbo [of] the night. The course was 341 true; Iwo Jima the first radar checkpoint.

[At Isley Field it was common on take off for the pilot of a fully loaded B-29 to hold the wheels to the runway until the final few hundred feet (the last two percent of the runway’s length); hauling back at the last possible instant to lurch over the road along the cliff edge; then diving full throttle for the sea far below, gaining airspeed while retracting the wheels; and finally beginning the long takeoff climb as the belly of the plane virtually skimmed the water. More than one of the crews failed at this maneuver, especially at night.]

Unlike the later missions no one slept on the 7-1/2 hour trip to the target. We were eager, ever so eager. Things had to work out; we dared not miss a trick. John (Shaw, navigator) did celestial all the way and there wasn’t an island or a ship that I missed on the radar for a wind [determination] or a fix to determine our position. Iwo appeared as a yellow ghostly friend on the scope to the right of us. John made a correction to course and we droned on [cruising airspeed 195 mph] between the stars and the vast chasm of the sea. The sea an enemy, the stars our guardians of position and course.

The time? About 0200 or thereabouts. Three hours later Norris [Capt. James R., pilot] informed us that we were within 50-100 miles of the Empire. For the first time since before takeoff the tension again became evident. Our stomachs tightened. I needed a drink of water. ‘Chutes, Mae-Wests, and flak suits were donned. Everything was checked. The C-1 set up again, RPM and manifold pressure juggled to the satisfaction by Van Wormer [Alan, copilot] and Gins [Ruskin Jensvold, flight engineer]. Spiller [Bill, central fire control], Whiskey [Walter Wasowski, left gunner], Harris [Henry, right gunner], and Rocky [Gerry Foster, tail gunner from Rock Island] checked [gun] turret operation and ammo. Max [Hyman, bombardier] turned on his switches, and checked his [Norden bomb] sight and the intervalometer. Milne [Dwight, radioman] made sure he cold get in touch with the air-sea rescue facilities by radio, John went on VHF. God, my heart was beating to beat Holy Ned.

B29 Navigator

I was to make a radar approach to the target while Max bombed visually by moonlight. It was the first time it had been tried in the Bomber Command. LeMay had taken over the 20th AF and [had] its tactical procedures changed to obtain better bombing results which [had been] fouled by the terrific winds and inaccuracies connected with the previous strikes from 30,000 ft. Tonight we were going in at 6,800 ft. Untried, damn low for B-29’s, and risky, we [were soon to discover].

[The radar was the Western Electric Eagle AN/APQ-7 or APQ-13 developed for navigation and for bombing at night and through cloud cover. It was electronically linked to the Norden bomb sight and the autopilot. By twisting a knob I could (alone) direct the plane.]

Everyone smoked.

We came in over O-Shima, the first enemy island of any size, on course. John had done us proudly. The control point showed in radar and I strained my eyes for the coast. Gradually it made itself evident and the IP [Initial Point] at Eno Shima appeared. We altered course. First flak! Capt. Norris and Max could see the orange flashes ahead of us. Although we weren’t in the [search] lights they could see icy fingers of light probing the sky in search of the “enemy”. We were alone as all night missions were flown as individual ships, formation being out of the question. Max saw the Tama River gleaming in the moonlight and the radar confirmed the position. He said he thought he could see the target and he set the sight telescope on it. Time hung motionless. Another minute. He started the rate motor and began to synchronize.

Then it all happened. Like a dream. “Lights converging on the boys ahead! Flak!” The intercom clicked and crackled. A light flashed momentarily on the wing from below and immediately snapped back. In an instant every searchlight in the area [they were radar coordinated] was on us. The ship must have shone like a Christmas tree in that intangible fingertip grip. Flak. We could hear it now. Thumping and rattling outside the ship. Odd. You’ll never hear anything like it on the ground. Max called up, “I can’t see; the goddam lights; I’ve lost the target.” Then there was a rock, a loud thump and number four [rightmost] engine roared into a mass of flame. The whole wing seemed afire and the radar compartment was alive with the angry orange light. Harris [right gunner], terrified, and justifiably so, screamed over the intercom. We were panic stricken. This was “It” really fitted in here. Max took a chance and said “Bombs away!”. Bill slithered out of his position and fumbled with his ‘chute, his hand on the bomb bay door, all set to jump. I was almost paralyzed with fear. We waited for the order to jump [I had my chest ‘chute on and my hand on the rear door handle.]. It never came. Harris broke in to say that the fire seemed to be lessening. Waited. The bombs had not gone away! The intervalometer was stuck. In the next instant Max salvoed. Everyone was confused and scared stiff, blue. Capt. Virgil Olds took over [he was from operations as backup co-pilot for support].

All this took less than a minute. The second that we were hit the Japanese lights went out! They must have been sure that we were cooked geese and gone after the ship behind us. We turned off the bomb run with the fire almost out. We never understood why [but Gins’ quick thinking with the fuel system controls can be probably credited with having saved us.] In nine cases out of ten a tank fire is fatal. The grace of God was with us. The turn was left; the bombs must have dropped a half-mile or so over.

A new scare developed. Although the fire was out the wing and flap were glowing around the edges of a hole the way a paper napkin continues glowing from a cigarette burn. It increased in size slowly and Harris kept the intercom alive and jumpy with reports of the increasing size of the hole behind #4 engine. Finally, even this ceased.

[We learned later that we had almost lost Rocky. He jerked his head left to see the sudden plume of flame pass the tail and then waited, patiently like the rest of us, for the order to bail out. Everything seemed to him suddenly eerily silent as the ship droned on for minute after minute. Finally, assuming that everyone else had bailed, and just as he put his hand on his ejection lever, he noticed that his sudden head rotation had unplugged the intercom connection to his helmet.]

The crew settled down, we made land’s end and headed for Iwo.

We had lost nearly 500 gallons of gas and the ship was so beat up that Norris and Olds decided to land at Iwo which was then only a week or so declared “secured” from the enemy. A three-engine landing on the dirt and muddy runway was successful, although it was discovered later that a Japanese shell had pierced the right wheel-well door resulting in one flat tire. Why the other didn’t blow will always remain a mystery.

Brief Cover [This photo appeared on the cover of the Air Force magazine “Brief” showing us coming in with #4 feathered at Iwo Jima that day. Iwo Jima had fallen to the Marines on March 17th.]

Iwo Jima was the most desolate and battle-scarred island I have ever seen. Nothing but volcanic ash, steaming fissures, and shell holes. The runway was dirt but plenty long [having been bull-dozed to 10,000 feet just days before].

The Marines crowded around as we marveled at the Japanese flak accuracy. We felt a blissful happy-go-luckyness that accompanied a safe return but in this case our bliss was strictly from ignorance. We didn’t know the half of it. The right inboard tire was flat, the rear section of #4 engine nacelle was blown off and the [upper] flap [skin] burned out in the resultant fire. The props were pitted with flak hits and there was a shell hole in the radar compartment; one in the floor and one in the top right over my head [evidently fused for a higher altitude]. A straight line between them missed me by about six inches.

A while later we heard the crack of a rifle and the twang of a bullet. The Marines unslung their carbines, squashed out their fags, and sauntered over to a clump of bushes not very far distant. At gun point three Japanese appeared, hands in the air, and were driven off in a 6×6 [truck].

It drizzled and rained coolly most of the time and Mount Suribachi was a sombre lump of indistinct grey rising at the end of the runway.

All thirteen of us piled into one Jeep with all our equipment and were driven to a Tinian ship. The boys serviced it, pulled the props through and we said so-long to Iwo, its war-weary soil and Marines. Back to Saipan and the sack with, at last, a story to tell. We “belonged.”

We only hoped that we were doing the Marines as much good by bombing the mainland as they did for us by securing Iwo.

T-35 returned two weeks later, flyable, but with much needed repairs still in evidence.

Lt. Pound and crew were ahead of us over the target and caught no small portion of hell themselves. Their ship T-38. They had a flap blown up and Summer sported a flak burst under his feet in the radar compartment.

[T-35 “Southern Belle” was originally assigned to the 462nd Bomb Group in China.]

Strike #2 (daylight)                                  12 April, 1945

Target-     No. 357, Musashino Engine Works of the Nakajima Aircraft 
                Company, Tokyo, Japan
Bomb Load-  5 2,000 lb HE's
Aircraft-   T-23 ["Pocahontas"]
Opposition- Flak meager to moderate and accurate.
            Fighters neutralized by P-51 escort.

This time it was a daylight formation strike with P-51 fighter cover. The same old target, #357 [Musashino Engine Works of the Nakajima Aircraft Company, Tokyo, Japan], the bane of the 20th Air Force.

Sofu-Gan was the assembly point. Sofu-Gan is an item in the very damn middle of the Pacific and at the end of the vast Nanpo Shoto extending south from Tokyo Bay. It is an item so small that it didn’t appear in the radar until we were almost on top of it and even that never would have occurred if John hadn’t had a small bit of luck on his last LoRaN fix. It is a mere finger of rock that sticks out of and breaks the surface of the sea like a stump in a swamp. Actually higher than it is wide. There is reported a Japanese navigation light thereon.

After circling in vain for some minutes we found a large formation of “T” ships, tacked on in the “slot”, and went into the CP [Control Point] at Omaezaki and thence to the IP at at Oso-Saki on the Shimoda peninsula. I could see the land at Numazu where we picked up our first flak. I was not on the [radar] set and thus could sit by Harris in the right blister to see what went on. The land was barren brown save for a few spots of side-hill cultivation and twisting roads. Then the coast again at Odawara as we paralled it and then broke out on the Tokyo plain with Musashino and #357 dead ahead.

Fuji San [This  photo  taken 13 April 1945. B-29’s of the 874th (T-square) Squadron based on Saipan, Marianas, passing north of Mt. Fuji. Picture taken from #4 in a formation of 12 aircraft. The B-29 intersecting the left ridge of Fuji is piloted by Capt. Jas. R Norris and crew (T-23) with Lt. Wm. C. Atkinson as radar navigator. This photo appeared first in Time Magazine and subsequently became part of an advertisement for the Boeing Aircraft Corp.]

It was then that I saw a black plane come barreling down through our formation with large red circles on the wings. The left engine and underside of the wing was afire. It spiraled astern and down, out of sight. I remember noticing how cracked and worn the paint seemed. It looked for all the world like a toy.

The next one was closer and exploded as I watched, the tail drifting more slowly than the fluttering fuselage and wings. Two P-51’s recovered from pursuit in a sweeping arc, slow rolled and shot up behind the formation. Lord it was a good feeling to have those “brothers -in-arms” near at hand.

Our formation neared the target. More flak. Heavy now. Then, “Bomb bay doors coming open; Bomb bay doors open, Sir,” replied the scanners and we waited, watching for bombs away. A minute or so and we saw the lead ship drop and as though the formation were one the 2,000 pounders fell away, to the rear, and to the target. I craned my neck over Harris’ shoulder in the blister. The water filtration plant the Japanese had tried in vain to camouflage drifted by. There was the stadium and the neat rows of buildings and test cells of the plant—#357. The train of explosives ripped across the eastern end—the assembly wings—like an angry stampede. All was obscured then by heavy smoke.

We turned and passed the inscrutable Fuji San riding all-wise, immortal, and serene it its perpetual bath of cloud. It gave me a sense of peace so out of tune with the work we were doing. Snow-capped and silent Fuji drifted to the rear—the symbol of the Empire of Japan.

Gins figured closely on the gas and we really sweated these last few minutes to Saipan. We could almost see the gas disappearing at its 400 gallons per hour rate. We got down with just enough to fill our cigarette lighters. Gins was OK.

Strike #3 (night)                                  15-16 April, 1945

Target-     Industrial Kawasaki and southwestern Tokyo.
Bomb Load-  184 70 lb gasoline gel incendiaries.
Aircraft-   T-29
Opposition- Flak heavy but generally inaccurate.

Here we were on another night strike to the Tokyo area. This time not without knowing what we were getting into after having been pretty well shot up on the first two strikes. I was told later by one of the boys in Squadron Operations that after our two first raids they really were worried about our safe return on this night.

The IP was made at Manazuru-Misaki and we made a “precision” radar turn [a 1/4 needle-width turn] on to the bomb run heading. We were reported to have had P-51 fighter cover but we never got so much as a look at any such comforting element in the battle.

It seems that since the last time we pulled a “nighty” the Japanese had by no means been out of practice with their damned lights and the long bluish beams groped around and finally caught us! Ow! Not again! Our props were de-synchronized to throw off the sound directed lights but there was no foiling the radar controlled ones. We climbed, turned, and twisted in a vain attempt to escape the lights. Not this time were we going to stick to the bomb run and get shot to hell. It sounded as if all the flak in Nippon was exploding in the bomb bays and returned the icy fear as it had on the first strike to the same target.

All this evasive action was doing my run no good. I had a fixed dropping angle set on the bomb pip and was to wait, make course corrections [at the radar I was connected to the Norden sight and the autopilot], and finally to tell Max to drop when the pip touched the mouth of the Tama river at Kawasaki. Every time the Capt. racked the ship up on a wing to dodge a light the [radar] scope picture would blank out. It was awful. “Bomb bay doors coming open” and that was the end of my efficiency as a “V” on that trip. The doors reflected the radar energy and produced an “H” indication on the scope. Hell’s bells! Target, coastline, and aiming point completely disappeared. The resulting confusion and maddening casualness of my intercom conversation with Max was humorous but nonetheless effective. Lucky? The bombs tacked right on to the end of a large fire and walked on through the city.

Well—then a funny thing occurred. Capt. Norris kept calling, “What’s draggin’, what’s draggin’?” and put the turbo’s and power settings to the limit. I couldn’t figure it. The air-speed crept from 250 indicated to 290! The ship was vibrating and straining in every rivet. Thence to almost 310, the red-line speed. Wow! Gins said “What the hell,” half to himself, and then Norris said “Oh!” in a very self- effacing manner. The needle on the IAS [indicated airspeed] dial crept back to normal. He had misread his airspeed by 100 mph.

The glare of the lights and the crack and thump of the flak dropped behind as we made for the sea south and east of Chosi Point. The coast slipped invisibly behind us for there were no lights to give away its position.

However, our worries were not over. About 100 miles out towards Iwo Whiskey reported a light following, it seemed, in our wake as though searching. “A light,” he said ,”like a star.” It would appear at 5 or 7 o’clock low, gradually gain altitude and move ahead to 3 or 9 o’clock level then turning as though making a pass on a pursuit curve. Switches and sights ready Rocky, Whiskey, Spiller, and Harris waited, sweating him out. Not to mention the rest of us. Finally they observed a burst of 50 cal. fire but could not tell whether it was directed at us. Either we lost him or he gave up and returned [owing] to our evasive action.

Saipan landing, interrogation, and coffee all in due course and without [further] event.

Barlow’s crew from Tinian went down over the target on this strike along with Pankin (N) and Charlie Barr (V).

Strike #4 (daylight)                                  27 April, 1945

Target-     Miazaki Airfield, Kyushu, Japan
Bomb Load-  17 500 lb HE's
Aircraft-   T-23 ["Pocahontas"]
Opposition- Flak moderate and inaccurate.  A few Japanese fighters.

We were sweating out assembly as usual. Why? He who misses assembly flies over target very much alone. We had found Sofu-Gan the time before but this was a little easier. Okino Shima was right on the tip of Shikoku (south western) and should have given a good radar return. John told me we were north of course. So, with the set on, I strained my eyes for the coast of Shikoku and finally it came in. I gave the Capt. his heading for Okino Shima.

Gad! It was close. Our ship caught the “T” Square formation on the last wheel before taking off for Ho Soshima and the target. We were at 20,000 feet and on oxygen (depressurized) so it was almost too much trouble to sit in [Harris’] blister to watch goings on.

The Japanese received us with plenty of flak though the squadron ahead picked up more than we. There was a burst or two fairly close but we heard nothing.

Those old bombs hit right squarely on the target in a beautiful pattern stating at the aiming point (a new runway) and stalking right on up through the hangars and barracks. The 497th BG ahead of us wrecked the east side of the target with an equally good pattern.

Some of the Japanese fighter pilots got pretty eager though we had only one closely pressed attack. John was looking out his window just in time to get a head on view of the attacker with his fifties flickering and ducked. Max had one hand on his sight and the other on the toggle switch and dared not relinquish the latter as bombs away was near at hand. Bill fired a burst from the upper aft and forward [turrets] (six guns) but could not depress them enough and the tracers streamed harmlessly over the Japanese’s canopy.

The formation split at sea to the south after a left turn and we returned to Base

Strike #5 (daylight)                                  30 April, 1945

Target-     Tachikawa Airfield west of Tokyo (primary).
            Hamamatsu prop[eller] works at Hamamatsu, Honshu, Japan 
Bomb Load-  23 500 lb HE's
Aircraft-   T-27 (But not the original "Torchy")
Opposition- Little flak.  No fighters.

If it was clear, no undercast, we were to fly up to Suraga Wan, make landfall at Masaki and turn to the right of Fuji San for the bomb run on the airfield at Tachikawa. However, there existed a complete overcast over all of visible Japan with only Fuji’s cone sticking out of a sea of cloud. We weren’t very long on course, Fuji had not dropped very far behind before we made a 1/4 needle-width turn in formation to the left with the volcano in the center [of the turn].

'Torchy' [T-27, “Torchy“. Capt. James R. Norris and crew. VanWormer standing 2nd. from left.]

The secondary target was urban Hamamatsu on the coast west of Omae- zaki. The banjo factory there now makes propellers. Since it was socked in the run was by radar. We made IP at Motosu-ko, the southernmost of a string of lakes northwest of Fuji, and rolled in over the cloud blanket to bombs away. Of course we dropped on the lead ship. Altitude 20,000 feet. Neither flak nor fighters were observed.

Hamamatsu is the most bombed city in Japan as it has often been used as a “secondary” for strikes to both Nagoya and the Tokyo area targets.

Scenically the trip was a flop but the clouds are a godsend as far as flak is concerned. This, our longest time over enemy territory, lasted 53 minutes.

On the weary way to Iwo Jima Milne picked up radio Shanghai and we listened to the Japanese news in English. Some reference was made [to] a probable weather strike. “They dropped their bombs an fled”. The news of the Okinawa campaign was given an unusual air by their reference to us as the “enemy”. “We attacked the enemy last night with dive bombers and strafing attacks with good results, etc.”. To be called the enemy is a little out of the ordinary on English speaking radio. I have yet to hear the Tokyo Rose.

Strike #6 (daylight)                                     5 May, 1945

    Target-     Naval aircraft works at Kure Naval Base, Kure, Honshu
    Bomb Load-  17 500 lb HE's
    Aircraft-   T-37 [never named]
    Opposition- Flak from naval units in Inland Sea moderate to intense.

In our minds there were misgivings about this mission. It looked like another “Cook’s” tour of Japan in the briefing and that is just what it turned out to be.

The plan:
Assembly at Shingu on the cycloidal tip of Shikoku.
Control point at Muroto Saki.
Turn over 34-15’N, 133-33.5’E.
IP at Mihara.
Target, Kure Naval Base.
Then a left turn to the south, back across Shikoku, and back to Iwo and Base. As it happened we were over Japanese territory for 0137 hours.

We assembled over, or rather, just off Shingu as the boys found a little flak. Very inhospitable of the Japanese. It was a rat-race! We looked and searched and circled and flew for 30 minutes looking for an extended nose-wheel or the flash of a red Aldis lamp on a “T” ship. At long last it was located and a close three minutes later we were off across the great peninsula south of Osaka to the sea between Honshu and Shikoku and on to the CP at Muroto-saki. Thence north to a TP [Turning Point] somewhere to the north and east of Mihara, the IP.

The bomb run was a good one though some of the squadrons dropped short. We encountered heavy flak from some naval vessels in the bays. Most of it was directed at B-29s ahead of us. The puffs of smoke were multi-colored, probably to identify the ships from whence [they were] fired.

I could not see the bomb impacts as we were on oxygen again but Photo-recon reported 95% damage to the target. There is another batch of aircraft that will never leave the assembly-line.

Our bombing has improved greatly in the last two months of combat operations.

Leaving the target we turned south and left in such a manner as to avoid the city of Matsuyama on the north west coast of Shikoku where heavy flak has been reported in the past. Land’s end and not a scratch.

I took the navigation to relieve John and we struck out for Iwo Jima. The sea was smooth [no whitecaps] and as a result we were unable to take accurate drift readings with the B-3 [drift-meter]. Nevertheless our DR [dead reckoning] was fairly good and we came in 20 miles right of course and Iwo. I gave Gins the ETA [estimated time of arrival] to Saipan and there followed a problem.

We hadn’t enough fuel to make Base. So to Iwo. Man, were we surprised! The air and traffic pattern was so full of B-29s short of gas and with flak damage that Walnut and Maple [control] towers at Iwo’s north and south fields were going mad trying to get all the ships in. I turned to VHF and listened to the tower calls:

“Maple tower from Happy 52. We have 300 gallons of gas and cannot stay in the air much over 45 minutes. When can you get us in?”
“Happy 52 from Maple tower. Keep circling, keep circling. There is a dreamboat at the end of the runway. This field will be closed for ten, one-zero, minutes, over.”
“Walnut tower from Mascot 35. In an upwind leg, over.”
“Mascot 35 from Walnut tower. Where are you? What is your position?.
“Mascot 35, repeat, 35 to Walnut tower. We are north of the field, we are north of the field. Give me instructions for landing.”
“Give us a call on base leg, over.”
“Brrsksk-k-k sput skt-tsnut tower to all dreamboats. Keep circling; come in over the fr-rs-st-stk and watch for a green light from the tower, over.”
“Walnut tower from Happy 52. We cannot stay up much longer, over.”
“R-akt-t skkatz-z immediately!”
Substitute and add at least 100 more calls, call signs. and ships to this and you will have some idea of the bedlam that reigned that day. The air was crowded with superforts, creaming all over the sky and nearly out of gas. Mt. Suribachi (Mt. Sonofabichi to the Marines) sat like a duck on a rock, silent but undoubtedly amused.

We circled for almost two hours and finally Mascot 37 received the OK to land. Gradually the bees were getting into the hive. Turned off the base leg and onto the landing glide with full flaps and gear down. Mushed in–and hit the runway. It was rough as hell, dirt-surfaced and filled with pot-holes and water. The mud sprayed from the wheels in a thick cloud and the dust from the prop-wash of the ship ahead obscured the strip. The ship lurched and sat back on its tail with an awful scrape. Then. “Walnut tower to Mascot 37, 37. Throttles, throttles! There is a dreamboat close behind you.” “Roger.” The props revved up and we moved ahead and pulled to the right as a ship ground past with its brakes screaming in short yelps.

Our ship joined a long line of B-29s taxiing to the parking area on a new, half-finished, “black-top” to the southeast. The dust was foul. We passed, it seemed, more B-29s than on Saipan in all four Groups. There were tail markings from all over the Marianas and all the [combat] Wings. A mess! Many minutes later a linesman waved us into a spot. Gins cut the engines. The immediate lack of noise seemed perfectly calm though the ships kept roaring and screeching by to park farther down the line.

Everyone piled out into the cool afternoon air of Iwo, stretched and had a smoke.

Rochet’s plane was sitting across from us with a crowd of interested spectators about. An ambulance had stopped by to take the tail gunner to a field hospital. He had a bit of flak in his thigh and a 50 cal. through the calf of the same leg. They had lost an engine over the target by a flak hit in the prop hub. The oil had leaked out and the engine could not be feathered [to prevent wind-milling] as the mechanism had been destroyed. It wind-milled until the engine froze with a terrific jolt. They were unbelievably lucky that the prop did not twist off and tear a gash down the side of the plane [as happened later to another]. [Rochet went down in May, rammed by an enemy fighter.]

Another ship, besides Creedon and “our boys”, had encountered an active [weather] front with severe turbulence and was almost thrown out of control. His bombs (2,000 pounders) had swung up on the shackles as the ship dropped suddenly, flattening the “tunnel”, and had then snapped down, torn off the racks, and gone away through the closed bomb bay doors. The doors hung in shreds.

[The “tunnel” was a long, padded, and severely restricted crawl-way over the bomb bays connecting the rear and forward main compartments of the airplane. [Once in the tunnel it was not possible to turn around.]

Although we were refuelled in an hour or so the field closed in. Isley Field was also rumored to be socked in. We were destined to spend the night.

Walter Wasowski and Mt. Suribachi (of flag-planting fame)

Iwo was the same only that men and machines had been at work since our first landing. There was still the drizzling rain, the grey volcanic ash, and the ever steaming fissures of sulphur and stink. We could see Minami Iwo to the south. A great volcanic cone rising from the horizon, misty purple and partly shrouded in clouds. Suribachi’s mute form receded into the mist and gloom as the last vestige of the day just gone lingered for a second and faded in the damp murk. Evening and we were still sweating out chow of sorts. Hey, bub! How about a wee bit of C- ration or a banana peel? Ignored. Nothing happened so we walked about a mile to the operations tent–this time they had one–but no chow. On the return trip to the ship we got lost but found at last the large black “T” and the 37. Just as we were getting to sleep on various piles of ‘chutes and in the tunnel a truck rolled around to take us to XXI BomCom HQ where we were fed C-ration and lousy coffee. Ran into Dick Drill and Adams, his bombardier.

The night was a long one as I tossed on the floor of the aft pressurized compartment with Harris’ feet in my face. Every so often a star shell arced into the sky–still Japanese hunting.

The morning crept in cool and mist-cloaked. The moisture dripped from the glistening ship and the silent shadows of the other planes could be seen row on row across the strip. All was at peace.

After breakfast Norris got a clearance for Saipan and at 1000 we were set to go again. Milne found and salvaged a life raft and bought a Japanese bicycle from a Marine for $20 which items we loaded in by the put-put [hatch] and left for Saipan.

The last thing I saw was Iwo’s tremendous cemetery from the air outlined in white like a great cross. Iwo is prayed for by every B-29 man in the Marianas. [The Marines suffered the heaviest casualties (50%) on Iwo Jima of any engagement in their entire history.]

Strike #7 (daylight)                                    10 May, 1945

    Target-     Oil storage depot at Tokuyama, Honshu, Japan
    Bomb Load-  17 500 lb HE's [largest overall B-29 raid to date]
    Aircraft-   T-37
    Opposition- Flak meagre to moderate and inaccurate. One fighter.

Heretofore we had been concentrating on the aircraft industries of Japan and the airfields of Kyushu in support of the Okinawa [offenses]. Now we were after the oil of the Empire. Our strategic bombing was following the pattern of the ETO [European Theatre of Operations].

We were eager and this looked like a good raid. It was! The Group won a commendation from the CO [Commanding Officer].

I slept most of the trip up but did get a radar run on Minami Iwo [to find the wind]. Iwo means rock, I think, and Minami means little. “Little Rock”. Only it’s not so little.

We assembled at the island of Okino-shima off Shikoku as we had done on the Kyushu strike. There was a small bit of flak from the island so we stayed reasonably clear of it. Got there on time this time. No sweating. Heck, Capt. Norris saw the damned point before I picked it up on the set. This T-37 hain’t got such a good radar set.

Immediately after turning on course for Oita on Beppu Wan I established myself in the blister beside Harris. We were pressurized [owing] to low oxygen in the aft tanks.

For the first time on a strike I had no fear or apprehension. I was merely interested to see what went on. I took notes and times (GCT) as follows:

0037- A flattop in Beppu Wan headed east.
0038- T-23 with Creedon and #3 smoking. He is dropping to the rear of the formation.
0042- We hit the control point at Oita or Kanuki-bana and turned for IP.
0045- I could see a fighter far to the right in a suspended pursuit curve attack on another formation. He fell away, came closer, and slid under us low at 4 o’clock. No attack.
0046- Creedon in T-23 smoking more violently.
0051- Bomb bay doors open on the deputy. Over the inland sea on course for Royodo-hama and Tokuyama.
0053- First flak for the day. Rather meagre and seemed to be only the smoke remaining from previous shots at the squadron ahead.
0054- Bombs away! Long lines of 500 pounders strung out in vertical lines below each ship simultaneously. As they fell away I saw a black object flash by twisting and spewing gas. Hell! Laugh? T-28 had salvoed his bomb bay gas tank.

I couldn’t see the impacts until we made the turn off target to the south. Those I did see were those of the 869th who were right behind us. The smoke was black and billowed in a pillar to 15,000 feet. The column was topped with a cap of white vapor. It mushroomed out at our altitude. When the bombs of the 869th struck the orange, boiling angry flames seethed up to 5,000 feet! God, what a fire oil makes. Gad, what a fire, period.

0100- Ships in the small harbors of O-shima put up a heavy flak to our left.
0104- Three flak bursts at 9 o’clock. Brown.
0112- Unidentified planes at 10 o’clock low about a mile away.
0115- Observed T-29 with one bomb bay door hanging open. We crossed the island of Shikoku south of Mitsugahama. And at
0117- we made land’s end over Tanoura and a river’s mouth.

I got a good look at Japan’s three main islands this time and all I can say is that it is the most god-awful rough and rugged country I have ever seen. Mostly barren with a few tree covered slopes. The roads seemed to be dirt for the most part and wound aimlessly through the hills. A few rice steppes and groups of houses scattered hither and yon in the valleys.

The Group won a commendation from the Colonel (Ganey) for its excellent results.

[GCT- Greenwich Civil Time]

Strike #8 (daylight)                                     19 May, 1945

Target-     Tachikawa Aircraft Works, near Tokyo (primary)
Bomb Load-  25 500 lb HE's
Aircraft-   T-37
Opposition- Little flak.  No fighters

After the abort on the Nagoya strike of the 15th and after not being scheduled for the strike immediately previous to this one we were reasonably eager to get off on this daylight mission to Tachikawa. Not, however, through any burning desire to sit and smoke cigarettes over the mainland. It was more nearly one of those “another day, another dollar” propositions. Our strikes are beginning to pile up–almost into the two digit bracket. Barlow’s crew went down with Pankin and Barr on the Kawasaki mission, their first. When buddies are lost you can’t help but wonder if perhaps you won’t be next on the list and that beaverish gleam pales and vanishes.

Briefing was, as usual, in that miserable hour between night an day when you’ve just about dropped off to sleep. The lights, the eye- rubbing, the groans, and the process of dressing in a half stupor find you presently in the briefing formation by S-2. Hardly able to stand. Off to the over-sized briefing Quonset hut at 0030.

We were to assemble this time at Aoga Shima in the Nanpo Shoto and north of nature’s insular prank, Sofu Gan. Thence to climb to 20,000 feet on course to target at Tachikawa. It didn’t look like a very rough raid.

The mess hall sported the usual [powdered] eggs, tomato juice, and coffee [with evaporated milk]. At 0130 we entrucked and drove the three or so miles to the line and T-37. VanWormer has been taken off the crew and we now have Lt. Seavey from Bangor, Me [an] extraterritorial province. Seavey found that the left outside wheel bearing was the wrong size and needed switching to get even brake clearance all around. The ground crew went to work and had the thing fixed just as we started to pull props and load. The Southern Cross hung low in the southwestern sky. We took off.

I checked the set and dozed most of the way up to assembly. Aoga came in on the set and after 15 min of circling we made formation and started for the mainland. At the start of the climb we ran into the weather that was to alter the entire mission. At 6,000 feet we disappeared into solid cloud. Wow! The formation dispersed like a broken string of pearls on a marble floor! We kept our course and climbed higher and higher. Higher still and finally at 22,000 feet we broke into the sunshine and burning blue of the sky. We leveled out at 25,000 feet. 16,000 feet of cloud!

This was all very interesting–when I found out about it. I had no more idea than the Man in the Moon that we had broken formation until Norris called up and asked me what the course was to the IP for Hamamatsu! I had assumed we had been in formation and hadn’t figured out a thing. My heart sank and I was a real beaver for the next many minutes.

The nearest B-29 must have been ten miles away. The formation was gone. The whole of Japan socked in like a cup of lousy coffee. After straightening out my muddled bombing problem [we] turned up Suruga Wan and [I] figured it would be just as easy to cross the bay with a long bomb run to Hamamatsu as to go to Motosu-ko and make a near 180 [degree turn]. We turned left and with a few course corrections were zeroed in on the yellow-green blob [on the radar] that was Hamamatsu. We passed Omae-zaka. Course 141 true.

There were, all of a sudden, ships all over hell and back. A lone wolf here, [a] three ship element there, some more single planes and a few larger groups that had managed to reassemble after making it into the clear. Some fellows were even creaming around below in the soup at the risk of an “egg” down the astrodome.

Hamamatsu was a strong indication on the scope and as soon as we came to the first sighting angle I gave Max the hack and he clutched [the Norden sight] in. It went perfectly as far as we could tell. Max’s pre-computed data needed very little adjustment on rate to check with my sighting angles. We must have hit the city dead center.

Bombs away. Just as a 17 ship formation slid in from the right and below us. They dropped at the same instant and were almost hit by our bombs. Later I heard Bob Hayes telling a wild tale of a ship that had almost dropped through their formation. Us, natch. That was an “A” Group. The 869th.

The only flak we saw was way off to the left and seemed to be tracking an imaginary ship across the sky . No fighters were seen.

Strike #9 (night)                                    23-24 May, 1945

    Target-     Southern Tokyo between Kawasaki and the Imperial Palace.
    Bomb Load-  M47-A incendiaries
    Aircraft-   T-37
    Opposition- Heavy flak. Ground-to-air rockets and a lot of stuff
                we never did figure out.

Well–we’ve definitely got our own ship now, T-37, and undoubtedly will have it for the rest of our strikes.

This was the first fire raid we’d been on since Kawasaki and ,in fact, the first night mission since then. Landfall at Omae-zaki as is the habit on all or most strikes to the Tokyo area. Some one of these days they’ll get wise; I hope not. From Omae-zaki we were briefed to proceed to a set of coordinates near the town of Toya and turn onto the run on the aiming point from there.

As we approached landfall we could see the glow of the fires, the flak, and the searchlights criss-crossed against a background of smoke. Even though we had “rope” to foil the radar controlled lights we knew darn right well that we were in for a hot time.

[“Rope”, “window”, or “chaff”: short lengths of aluminum foil in packages cut in strips of a width to match the enemy radar wavelength (0.5 in.). To be tossed periodically in handfuls from the aft camera hatch.]

At landfall the Capt. did a 1/4 needle-width turn rolling out on course for Toya right over Omae-zaki. I had to fix the IP position with ranges and bearings from Hachioji and Fuji San as coordinates are real hard to see on the ground, much less in the scope. Max and Capt. Norris could see Fuji off to the left in the moonlight and decided that it would be overcast right up to the target. Not so lucky.

We turned on the IP and just in time. Spiller and Max let out a sigh of relief as the ship leveled out between the two concentrations of lights; one to the north at #357, and the other to the south at Kawasaki. Neither saw us for a moment anyway. Harris worked his way to the camera hatch to toss out the rope at the prescribed intervals. He looked like an overgrown beetle in the flak suit and helmet. Then the lights. Max said that they’d seem to be coming toward us, almost touch the wings and then drop to the rear [fixed on the bright return from the chaff]. Wow. The rope was working and we all liked to think that it was. “Bomb bay doors coming open.”, Max informed us. The ship shuddered and lost some airspeed. It now indicated 230. The door showed somewhat on the scope though I could still see the AP. The bomb pip was lost in the ground return.

Flak could be heard now. That meant it was close. It sounded like sheets of tin, big ones, being snapped. The bursts not quite so close were like [heavy boots] being dropped on the floor of the apartment above. I could see the glow of the fires below on the fixtures in the blisters.

The intercom clicked and those dearest of all words were heard– “Bombs away.” No longer were we slaves to fixed course and airspeed. Scanners confirmed, I turned off the set and went to the blister like a two-year-old with a piano on his back. Harris was still dispensing rope.

We had a show on that night. Ground-to-air rockets were arcing upwards in white, fiery pursuit of the ship behind us. The fires cast a redness on the sky. Individual blocks and streets could be seen burning and elsewhere whole masses of city blocks were afire in sections with right-angled corners like the black spaces in a crossword puzzle. We had just flown through the smoke, rough like a cumulus cloud, and its acrid odor lingered in the plane.

Out over the bay. Safe for just a minute until we hit the opposite shore on the other side of Tokyo.

Whiskey cut in. “Sir, there’s a ship, a B-29, behind us at 7 o’clock level. She’s afire and going down. Wait. I see three, no four, ‘chutes. No more.” I craned my neck but could see nothing. Whiskey had a voice of rock over the intercom. Never rattled in the least. You’d never know but that he was as cool as a cucumber. Togane on the east side of the Tateyama was land’s end.

When your nerves are on edge you’ll fall for anything. Whiskey called in a light at 9 o’clock level and everyone got set for a night fighter pass. The amplidynes [remote gun turret motors] hummed as all the turrets swung to the left. We all waited for further developments. John, the brains of the outfit this time, quietly informed us that it was “just Venus rising in the east.”. And so it was.

Two crews from the 874th were missing. Both were pathfinders and had gone in ahead of us at about 5,000 feet which was murder. Zweifel went down with Faivre as his co-pilot. He was one of the oldest crews here with but a few missions to complete his tour. The other missing aircraft was flown by Capt. Olds, operations, and Capt. Miller, group navigator.

Olds was our stand-by co-pilot on the first of our raids and it was his quick action on the feathering button coupled with Gins results on the switch and fuel shut-off that saved us.

A submarine was reported to have picked up five guys who bailed over Tokyo bay. 875th boys.

Bill Hain on Thomas’ crew from the 499th also went down last night. He was a radar operator from Pittsburgh.

This was no “milk-run”.

Strike #10 (night)                                   25-26 May, 1945

    Target-     West Tokyo near the Imperial Palace.
    Bomb Load-  M47-A incendiaries
    Aircraft-   T-37
    Opposition- Rockets, flak, "foo-fighters," lights in a
                concentrated mass.

This strike was very much like the one before it on the 24th. There was a slight alteration of IP this time and also of the axis of attack. We were to [attack] west Tokyo in the vicinity of the palace.

Bombing altitude was 11,000 feet. A slight improvement in safety over the lesser heights of some previous nights I could mention. At least we were out of range of that god-awful automatic fire, the 20s and 40s [40mm anti-aircraft shells]. Omae-zaki is getting rather to be a joke by now but nonetheless, it was the Control Point again. We nearly missed it! John called me up to say that we should be within radar range of the coast, that is, not more than 100 miles out. I turned on the set, switched to the 100 mile range and waited. In about 15 minutes or so I was rewarded with a faint indication on the scope. It grew stronger and closer. I switched again to the 50 mile range, called up John, and spread my map. Nothing looked in the least familiar and we couldn’t match the [scope] picture with the map at all! Shaw was baffled. I unfolded the map to the east, studied it, and then the two sections to the west. The first was futile, but in the last and westernmost section there was a note of similarity to the scope indication. I called Johnny and we concluded that we were where it was almost impossible to be. True. We were west of Nagoya!!! At least 100 miles off course! Wow. West of Nagoya and about 30 miles south of Nakiri, Honshu on a raid to Tokyo. The [magnetic] variation had been set in wrong on the flux-gate compass [used by the autopilot].

The Capt. altered course along the coast to the CP. In 15 minutes we were opposite Hamamatsu and they could see the glow of the fires now at Tokyo 75 miles away. Hamamatsu was partly afire. I guess some of the boys had used it as a target of opportunity. A left correction took us over the Control Point and on course for IP. Again the boys up front could see the lights, flak, and fires. Course was checked on Ihaitake and its big brother Fuji San which glowed palely in the half-moonlight. The moon was slightly past [the] zenith.

IP. We turned. We wished we hadn’t. Lord, what a show! The Japanese had this one all figured out and we prayed that this was a one- night-stand instead of the show’s world premiere. Rockets, lights, flak, foo-fighters, phosphorous explosions and I don’t know what all.

[Everyone talked about “foo-fighters but I never heard any rational description of one or whether they existed at all. Here is another link.]

I got the position on Hachioji which checked out with the briefed bomb run.

“Pilot, pilot. See that thing out there? Looks like a rocket.” We wheeled up on one wing in an attempt to avoid it.

“It’s turning in. Looks as though it were following us.” Norris took the ailerons and Seavey the elevators. The ship went crazy in the air. Up, down, over, and back. Suddenly the “thing” exploded in mid-air and we never did find out what it was. Next on the program were the lights. We had no desire to see our names “up in them” nor in smoke either. The results were disastrous as far as my bomb run was concerned. In spite of the rope and de-synchronized props we couldn’t shake them. The scope was so screwed up from the turning and we were so seldom in straight and level flight that I stopped looking at the damned thing. I watched the dancing shadows on the top of the ship over the open camera hatch where Harris was tossing out the rope. Again we could hear the thump and whack of the flak as it exploded around our ears. The ship would heave on the close ones.

Excitedly Seavey called up all out of breath, “Drop the bombs and let’s get the hell out of here.” I don’t blame him. I was scared stiff. The bombs went “away” and we made tracks. Heading was about 40 degrees true and we were headed right for the heart of Tokyo. I told the Capt. that it was OK to turn but he didn’t hear me or something. I watched with my heart in my mouth as the transmitter pip [the scope center] slid over the very center of the enemy city. The flak was closer and louder. This took about a minute at the end of which I called again and we swung to the north, out of the lights and guns. As soon as the lights left us I turned off the set for the required 45 minutes and we turned right again to head for the sea over Chosi Point. We were confused and doing night pilotage. Harris, the Capt., Whiskey, John, and Max all had their ideas on the lay of the land and, as a result, we must have passed north, south, and under at least six Chosi Points before the grey moon glitter showed us to be indisputably over the sea.

We continued on the 090 heading for 100 miles or so then turned south to [fool] the fighters. We saw none. After turning on to a reasonable facsimile of the heading for Iwo we watched the glow of the great fires at Tokyo until we were more than 200 miles at sea. The bomb flashes were still visible at 100 miles.

T-37 had a flak dent in the wing and that was all.

Strike #11 (daylight)                                   29 May, 1945

    Target-     Yokohama
    Bomb Load-  M47-A incendiaries
    Aircraft-   T-37
    Opposition- Flak moderate and continuously pointed. Few fighters.

The first mission of any kind to Japan’s greatest port, Yokohama. Furthermore it was the first daylight incendiary raid we’d been on. Tokyo and Kawasaki were gone and now it was Yokohama’s turn.

For a break briefing was in the afternoon. This meant that we could sleep right up until chow time at 0100 and get in an extra hour. The reason for last minute briefings is the fact that the weather data had to be up to date. Evidently they expected no changes this time. When the awful hour rolled around we were nevertheless POed for all of that extra hour and the eggs and bacon left us stumbling around like sleeping pills.

Trucks, stations, engines, taxi, and at last take-off came around 0400. Later than usual so that it was daylight before we’d gone as far as Pajoros [northernmost of the Marianas]. Between Pajoros and assembly at Aoga Shima I read the latest TIME and drew a sketch of Harris as he slept in the sun by the right blister. I took a wind run on Iwo and Kita Iwo and a few hours later picked up Aoga and thanked my stars that it was daylight and not Sofu Gan.

We assembled without difficulty and climbed to 19,000 feet as we neared the coast. When the Capt. told us to don our armor-plated skivvies and ‘chutes I turned off the set and settled myself in the blister with much trouble and sweat. I had an oxygen bottle and a fouled up intercom connection. When we made landfall at Minami-Osaka (just west of old friend Omae-zaki) we depressurized and I started breathing through my Martian bagpipes all set to take notes with much effort:

0044- Landfall and general confusion as my headphone cord came undone and caught on the goddamn flak suit.
0046- Harris reports a fighter at 5 o’clock low. I almost broke my neck in a vain attempt to see it.
0055- Long pause while I proceed to get blue around the gills as I drag on an empty oxygen bottle at 20,000 feet thinking that my supply is OK as the gauge reads 350 lb/in2. I guess this… huff… thing is… whuff, whuff… broken, empty! Gotta get to the filler valve, filler valve. My head swam and buzzed, I got scared. I forced myself to crawl, well scrambled in cords, cables, maps, and armor plate to refill my empty bottle. With much exertion and completely out of breath I took deep gulps of O2 and came around in time to note that we were now over Manazawa and Fuji-gama. Whew!

0100- IP at Fuji San. Much effort expended with no rewarding view of the crater directly below us. Nothing but rice paddies.
0102- Over Sagami-gawa at Atsugi.
0103- Bomb bay doors.
0104- Fugisawa and Chogo.
0105- First flak. It was exploding just ahead of us and low and all we could see [were] the brown smoke puffs drifting by. It seemed to be continuously pointed fire.
0108- Kamakura to right, on course to target.
0108- Bombs away.
More flak, continuously pointed, and more audible than before.
0109- Over target. I leaned out and could see many fires on the south side of the city with white smoke plumes hugging the ground in a south wind. The smoke rose to the north in a great pillar with top about 20,000 feet.
0111- Futtsu.
0112- A 58th Wing ship with flak in the wing between #1 and #2 engines headed earthward and exploding in a blaze of flame.
0117- Land’s end at Amatzu.

I navigated to Base while John got in some well deserved sack time in the radar room. Milne got a radio report on some dye-marker 30 miles from land’s end well behind us. We had a wind shift and [Gins] sweated out the gas on let down from Agrihan to Saipan.

Strike #12 (abort)                                      5 June, 1945

    Target-     Kobe    
    Bomb Load-  M47-A incendiaries
    Aircraft-   T-37

Our second abort. This would have been our twelfth strike to Japan. We preflighted [inspected] the ship in the dark of morning, pulled props and took off for Iwo and the target. I was sleeping when I was awakened by an awful vibration in the ship. It stopped and I asked Harris what the score was. I seemed we had swallowed five valves in #3 engine and were headed back to Saipan. Just an hour or so out of Iwo. Norris made a successful three-engine landing at Isley Field and after getting all our equipment returned to personnel supply we hit the squadron area and the sacks.

Strike #12a                                             7 June, 1945

    Target-     Dock area of Osaka, Honshu, Japan.
    Bomb Load- 
    Aircraft-   T-37
    Opposition- Six flak bursts.  No fighters.

We all had misgivings about this one after the bad time the boys, including Creedon, had on the last Kobe raid on the 5th.

With no trouble at all we made it to assembly at Kita Iwo on time. We led the right element with Czerwinski right, Rich left, and Lt. Pound in the slot to fill in the box. Why they assembled [us] at Kita we will never know as the pilots had to fly formation [tiring] all the long way to Japan.

On arriving at Wing assembly at Okina-shima I turned off the set and went to the blister for the bomb run. There was a beautiful sight outside . The entire mass of Japan as far as you could see was solidly overcast and silhouetted against the whiteness were the P-51s. There must have been fifty of them though Max only counted 43.

That’s about all there was to the mission. On the way down the run we saw six bursts of flak, inaccurate. We dropped [bombs] and returned to Saipan without event. Definitely a
milk-run; no aircraft lost.

Strike #13                                             10 June, 1945

    Target-     Musashino Engine Works of the Nakajima A/C Co. (#357)
    Bomb Load-  7 2,000 lb HEs
    Aircraft-   T-37
    Opposition- Flak moderate to intense. Moderate Japanese fighter 

Three-five-seven again. This time out to get the reinforced concrete western section. The engine test cells. This time or never as far as we were concerned. On previous strikes the eastern, assembly, wings had been almost completely destroyed. Our Group and most of the 73rd [Wing] were out to cream this while in the XXI BombCom were to hit nine other targets on Honshu.

A yawn, a muttered curse, and early morning takeoff as usual saw us at Aoga Shima around 0700. The radar was inop, kaput, with a burned out crystal as I only later discovered, but we had no difficulty locating the island. Our headache, however, was in finding the squadron formation. We milled around for some 20 minutes looking for the flash of a green Aldis lamp or an extended nose wheel on a “T” ship. No go. Rats–this business of tacking on to another bunch or going up in hopes of mission credit alone is PP. After a little we saw on the horizon a formation on course for the target. We made off in pursuit on the chance that it was the 874th and also for a little company. Finally after 170 miles of running we pulled into formation, our boys, at landfall though not in our correct position as lead of the right element.

Since the radar was on the foul [I] could take no scope photos so, with time on my hands, I went to the right sighting station. We were bombing from 19,000 feet but were partially pressurized at 12,000 feet. Seavey and Harris reported P-51s abroad which fact put everyone at ease to some extent.

And here I stopped writing on Saipan. It was six months ago that this all happened. The position data and much else has been forgotten. I shall, however, with the use of a sectional chart and some imagination, do my best.

We made landfall at, or somewhere near, Omae-zaki or Shizuoka on Suruga Wan. The IP was, I believe, Kofu north of Fuji. Thence we headed on [a] course that included a turning point and a CP to cross up the poor souls on the ground. Fuji had lost a good deal of its whipped cream to the increasing sweet-tooth of Old Sol and looked very un-Fujiish. Black with just a trace of snow in the crevices and fluting of the cone. The ground was spotted with cloud shadows. It looked as though the target would be overcast.

As we turned, by radar I guess, over Kofu I saw what looked to be P- 51s. Specks against a brilliant, steely blue sky bit I couldn’t say for sure. The overcast increased as we crossed the mountains and approached the Tokyo coastal plain from the west. The target lay about half way between the mouth of the Ara-kawa at Tokyo and the mountains at Ome. near Musashino. Max called up to say that it looked as though the overcast ended just beyond #357 and that we probably would have to proceed to secondary. This was not good news. Using one of the most heavily flak-defended area of Japan was considered generally a poor risk from the standpoint of longevity.

The lead and deputy lead [planes] opened their bomb bay doors and the squadron followed suit. Synchronization was impossible [here] and therefor the order was given to proceed to Hitachi.

Flak. Right over #357 we broke into the clear and I could see the continuously pointed fire exploding somewhere under our right wing every two seconds or so. Smoke brownish-black.

Next, and completely without warning, the Japanese fighters appeared. I guess the P-51s had stayed back in Tokyo to strafe. There was formation off to our right, same altitude. I saw a lone fighter buzzing around it in lazy roll-throughs and breakaways. Distance slowed down motion. He disappeared. I dozed off. Z-z-z-z.

The vibration and racket of Spiller’s twin fifties snapped me to consciousness again. The turret was right behind me. The intercom was buzzing with clock position calls, high, low, level, and everywhere as the Japanese pressed the attacks.

Creedon was hit and smoking in #3 (feathered). We gathered that he was hit; King flying. Norris dropped back for top cover and the fighters dropped back to jump on Creedon who was now lagging formation. Target yet a couple of minutes away.

Several attacks were called in by Whiskey, Spiller, Max and Seavey. The guns rattled and the [empty] shells clattered into the turret covers on the bottoms. All this was a great help to John on the navigation and Gins on the panel. Bill called in a twin-engine “Tojo” at 9 o’clock high and turning in. “Yeah, I see ‘im.”, Rocky answered an instant later. The ship shook. “We got him, goddammit we got him!” I couldn’t see but Whiskey confirmed the fact that the Japanese had spun in and gone down through the overcast.

Bomb bay door opened again. King managed to overtake the squadron though McNicholl had salvoed the bombs and closed his doors to gain speed. We both fell [back] in [to formation] just in time to drop with the squadron on the engineering works. The lead did a bang-up job–every bomb right in there.

We turned right and held a course to sea before we turned again on course for Iwo. Norris stayed back for a while with King and Creedon until they made Iwo. We landed at Saipan.

Rocky and and Bill Spiller got credit (1/2 apiece) for the fighter they shot down.

The Group got two commendations, one from Wing to all Groups at Hitachi, and one from Group Command. Every bomb in the Wing had struck within an 1,800 foot circle from the AP.

Creedon, King, and the boys had a mission they’ll never forget! It all happened in the same split second. 20mm shells from a fighter at 2 o’clock low. Number three engine shot out, Creedon severely wounded in the calf, the co-pilots throttle box wrecked, all fuel and oil pressure gauges shot out, and a 20mm explosion in front of “Killer” McNicoll’s flak curtain. Mac was spun around in his seat and dazed. He [evidently scuttled] the bombs and closed the bomb bay doors and then passed out. He doesn’t remember a thing about it at all.

At this date I know that Creedon is OK and will be able to walk after several skin grafts.

After a month-long tour at Lead Crew School (special radar bombing training) in the US during July at Muroc Army Air Field in California the T-37 crew returned to Saipan in early August having heard of the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb at Hickham Field on the way back across the Pacific.

There was one more combat mission from Saipan (Number 14 to Osaka Arsenal, August 14th) and, after V-J Day, we flew two or three times to Japan to drop supplies to prisoner of war camps. On several occasions we crawled out into the bomb bay to stuff notes into the duffel and, months later, received several grateful and humorous letters from the recipients–mostly English and Aussies.

We had close friends in the 497th BG whose ship was A-16 “The Fickle Finger of Fate” piloted by Capt. Dick Fate (Bob Hayes, V; Will Kessler, N; Lonnie Snowden, CP). A-16 took off on the night of October 5th for Kwajalein on its way home to the States. They had an oil leak a few hours out and decided to return to Saipan where they crashed on Kobler Field in the early hours of the great typhoon of that date. Twenty were lost.

Group BookReference: The Twenty Niner the Combat Story of the 498th B.G., edited by Capt. Michael J. Ogden and published ca. 1946.

A letter of appreciation from Alan Richtmeyer whose father was a B-29 Central Fire Control (CFC) gunner in the Marianas. [Link pending]

Letters home from James A. Rafferty, a maintenance man of the 874th. They kept Torchy and other planes in the air.