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An Unexpected Visitor

On the flight back to Italy after the harrowing mission to Linz on 25 April 1945, Staff Sergeant Bill Gorrall had watched a defeated German army retreat up the Italian coastal road. Now, a few days later, the 456th Bomb Group top turret gunner was sewing his staff sergeant stripes onto the sleeve of a spare uniform when he heard footsteps approach on the wood-plank sidewalk outside his tent. That’s strange, he thought. All the men were supposed to be standing in formation at the front gate awaiting the arrival of a VIP visitor. Gorrall and his buddy, Burrell “Shorty” Martin, had just come off guard duty and were excused from attendance.

The tent flap opened, and two men walked in. One was a captain, and the other “had more brass on his uniform than I had ever seen before, including five stars,” Gorrall recollected. It was General Hap Arnold.

Gorrall called “Ten-HUT,” bringing the tent to attention.

Arnold answered, “As you were,” then looked at Gorrall’s partner.

General Hap Arnold

Shorty, who had just finished cleaning his .45, had reflexively drawn his pistol on the general, a nervous reaction to an unexpected stranger entering his tent unannounced. “He had that damn gun pointed right at the general’s belly,” Gorrall recalled.

Arnold looked from Martin to the .45, then back to Martin, and said, “Soldier, why don’t you put the gun down?”

Martin froze and just stared back at Arnold. Gorrall didn’t know if the gun was even loaded, but he knew that Shorty loved to play around with the thing, and he wasn’t about to let the commanding general of the US Army Air Forces be accidentally gunned down in his tent. He spoke calmly but firmly and said, “Shorty, put your gun down.”

Martin snapped out of his moment of surprise, lowered the weapon, and apologized profusely. It was a tense beginning to what would become a long, friendly conversation.

The captain accompanying Arnold was his driver and explained that he had gotten lost and ended up entering the base through the back gate, where there was no one posted. They had ended up on foot in the 746th Bomb Squadron area and had come into Gorrall’s tent seeking directions after hearing men’s voices inside.

“Where is everybody?” Arnold asked.

“At the front gate waiting for you, General,” Gorrall replied sheepishly. Arnold asked where that was, and Gorrall told him to “just keep going the way you were going.”

Arnold began inquiring about where the airmen were from and how many combat missions they had flown. Before Gorrall knew it, some twenty minutes had passed, by which time the general’s aides had tracked him down and were chomping at the bit to dislodge Arnold from the conversation. “We’re running late, sir,” one aide insisted.

Arnold started to leave and then turned back and asked, “What do you boys think of going to the Pacific?”

“Okay, General, whatever it takes to win this damn war,” Gorrall told him.

“He liked that answer,” the airman recalled.

Gorrall and Martin never told their squadron mates they had held up the commanding general, leaving them to stand in formation for so long under the May sun. “I bet they were plenty angry at the delay,” Gorrall reflected.

Source: William Gorrall interview with Mike Croissant, 4 September 2013.

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