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  • Mike Croissant

A Rookie Bomber Crew's Baptism by Fire (Part I)

“First mission, huh?” the veteran ball turret gunner had needled the rookie enlisted men in the waist of a 456th Bomb Group B-24 in the wee hours of 25 April 1945. “You don’t have a clue what it’s like, do you? Well, it’s real lousy, I can tell you that. You’ll find out.” It was not what radioman-gunner Corporal William F. Hallstead III needed to hear at this stage of his aerial career.


Hallstead had grown up in a well-to-do family in Dalton, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Scranton. He graduated in 1942 from the Hill School, a preparatory boarding school in Pottstown, and immediately enlisted in the AAF. Hallstead was sent to radio school and excelled so much that he ended up teaching there, but as the conflict dragged on, he wanted to do more for the war effort. He volunteered for air crew duty and received gunnery training at Tyndall Field in Florida, where he graduated proficient in the waist gun and the nose, top, and tail turrets—all but what he called “that miserable little outpost,” the ball turret. In the autumn of 1944, Hallstead reported to Westover Field, Massachusetts, for crew assignment. Lo and behold, he was assigned to the ball turret.


Hallstead met the nine other men of his new crew in the base theater, where the briefing officer assured them that it was futile to try to change their assignments. The crew seemed nice enough, but Hallstead absolutely did not want to ride into battle in a ball turret. He was too tall, and he had heard how terrible the ball was—even for those who could fit inside. When the briefing concluded, Hallstead rushed to see a classification officer. He figured that if he volunteered to do more than required, he might have a chance.


“Sir, I’ve been assigned as a ball turret gunner, but I’m a radio school graduate,” Hallstead told the classification officer. “I’d like to request reassignment as a radio operator-gunner.”

Hallstead could see his strategy had piqued the officer’s interest, for here was an enlisted man who was volunteering to take on more duties than he had been ordered to. He pulled Hallstead’s service record out of a stack on his desk.


“Well, Corporal, I see you did graduate from Chicago Radio Schools in April ‘43, but with a code speed of only fifteen (words per minute),” he said. Hallstead retorted that that was true, but that he had also taught code at George Army Airfield, near Lawrenceville, Illinois.


“We’ve got a small code classroom here,” the officer said after studying Hallstead for a long moment. “You think you could get that speed up to eighteen words a minute by the time the next group comes in for crew assignment? That’ll be in two weeks.”


“Yes, sir,” Hallstead assured him. “Absolutely.”


For the next two weeks, Hallstead was the sole occupant of his barracks as he attended code school. The code instructor fired an increasingly fast stream of Morse code at the corporal during their lengthy daily tutoring sessions, but, Hallstead recalled, “the threat of ball turretism was an effective goad.” Before the two weeks was up, the airman was certified as an eighteen-words-a-minute radio operator-gunner. Now all he had to do was await the arrival of a new crew.


The wait was not long. One day, Hallstead found his name on a newly posted list of crew assignments. He was to fly on the crew of Second Lieutenant Charles P. Pillon II.

The crew met that night in the milling crowd outside the base theater. Pillon, a big, cherub-faced man from Washington Heights, New York, would be at the controls alongside soft-spoken copilot Second Lieutenant Ed Fisher. Harry Miller, the pleasant navigator, and Joe Bongiorno, the always-smiling bombardier, both second lieutenants, rounded out the officer complement.


The enlisted men included flight engineer Ed Herpak, a flare-jawed Pittsburgher in his mid-twenties, and George Petty, a barely eighteen-year-old gunner from Mississippi. Redheaded Sam Dalton, a quiet teenager from Virginia, manned the tail turret, while the “old man” of the crew, 27-year-old West Virginian Billy Kessler, would mount the top turret. Nick Silvestro, a tough young Philadelphian who loved the ball turret as much as Hallstead hated it, completed the enlisted crew.


Though Pillon clung to basic formalities, insisting that the enlisted men call him “sir,” other military strictures were enforced lightly or not at all. Petty’s wife had made crimson scarves for each crew member, and the men wore them proudly each time they took to the air. There wasn’t an ounce of spit or polish among them.


One morning after a night training mission, the crew had to reroute when its home field was socked in with smoke from an upwind paper mill. Landing at Maxwell Field, Alabama, the motley crew clambered from its Liberator haggard, unshaven, and wearing a wide assortment of uniform parts adorned with crimson scarves. The enlisted driver of the jeep who came to pick up the men was so shocked at their appearance that he begged Pillon to have them change clothes before going to the mess hall. Pillon reflected on the issue for a moment, then directed the jeep driver to take them to a more obscure eatery on base.


By the end of January 1945, the crew had been run through its paces. To the music of a marching band, the graduated crews boarded trucks for transport to the train that would take them to Mitchel Army Airfield, a staging base on Long Island. After training on a factory-new B-24M for two weeks, the crew departed Mitchel for the European Theater of Operations on 17 February. On the trans-Atlantic crossing, the cylinder heads on the Number 3 engine exploded, killing the engine and forcing Pillon to make an emergency landing in Greenland.


There, for the next three weeks, the crewmen were stranded as they waited for a new engine to arrive. Finally, on 13 March, the crew was cleared to depart. Twelve days later, and more than a month since leaving the States, the airmen arrived in Italy and were assigned to the 747th Bomb Squadron of the 456th Bomb Group.


On 21 April, the day after Hallstead’s twenty-first birthday, the men were awakened at four A.M. for breakfast and their first mission briefing. The requirements of the squadron dictated that the crew would be split up, with Pillon, Herpak, Petty, Miller, and Hallstead together on one Liberator with other airmen unknown to them, and the others with another crew. At long last, it seemed that the crew was going to war.


With Pillon at the controls, the B-24 rolled down the runway and struggled into the air with its heavy load of bombs and fuel. Then, from his position at the left waist gun, Hallstead noticed that the bomb bay doors suddenly opened. Through the opening, he could see that the trees were getting larger, not smaller. We’re going down! he thought to himself. Then, before his eyes, the unarmed bombs dropped from the bomb bay into the farmland below. With the Liberator freed from the weight of the payload, Pillon cleared the trees, brought the ship around, and landed it safely. Hallstead soon learned that the Number 2 engine had failed on ascent, causing Pillon to abort. It seemed that Fate was keeping the crew from battle.


Hallstead got his second chance at combat on 25 April, when he was thrown again into a mixed crew for a mission to strike the rail yards at Linz, Austria. He was most relieved that Pillon was to be at the controls. They would fly in the number three position of Baker Box, just off the left wing of the squadron leader.


The spectacle of being in a nearly eight hundred-aircraft raid awed Hallstead. “Any honest former bomber crew member will admit that being part of a huge engine of destruction roaring toward a target was a unique thrill to be enjoyed all too briefly,” he later wrote. “Fear would come soon enough.”


The fear did come, but not before the drama. Over the Adriatic, Pillon called for the crew to test fire their guns. Hallstead, manning the left waist gun, unleashed a short burst from his .50-caliber Browning. The others did the same, save one.


“Pilot to waist, everybody in position back there?” Pillon called over the interphone.


One by one, the gunners checked in—all but the mouthy ball gunner who had taunted the rookie crew members before takeoff. Hallstead turned and saw the gunner splayed out on the deck next to his retracted turret, looking unconcerned.


“Ball turret?” Pillon queried.


“I never get in the turret,” the recalcitrant gunner replied.


Perhaps the sergeant saw little point in getting into the ball given the unlikelihood of German fighters showing up. Perhaps he just didn’t want to subject himself to the cold, cramped conditions in the ball. Whatever the case, it was the wrong answer.


“You’ll get into it this time!” ordered Pillon.


All Hallstead could see of the man’s expression was his eyes through his goggles, as the rest of his face was covered in oxygen mask, but his eyes and body language conveyed extreme unhappiness. The sergeant lowered himself into the


ball, pulled the hatch shut, and lowered the turret into the slipstream. The Liberator continued toward Linz and the rookie crew members’ baptism by fire.


TO BE CONTINUED . . .


Sources:

The account of Hallstead’s mission to Linz and service in the AAF, including the dialogue between crewmen, is drawn primarily from Hallstead’s unpublished memoir. Mike Croissant’s 23 September 2013 interview with Hallstead is used as a secondary source.