by Randall Ark, Staff Writer
My wife and I planned a trip to New City, New York for a long-overdue visit with her cousin and her cousin’s husband. Her cousin emailed me before we left and asked if I would mind spending one afternoon of our visit with a friend of theirs, as he was a WWII veteran and had had some interesting experiences that I might like to hear about.
She said that when she mentioned to him that I was a WWII history buff and that I had spoken with and written about many WWII veterans, he perked up and told her that he needed to get some things together so he would be ready. She said, "He gained new life!"
I told her I would be happy to spend some time with him and to hear what he had to share. I was not disappointed. Charlie Mattson will be 88 years old this year. Charlie was a Tech Sergeant in the Army Air Corps, assigned to the 8th Air Force, 487th Bomb Group. A Bomb Group is comprised of four squadrons, having about 13 aircraft to a squadron, totaling about 50 aircraft.
Charlie had many medals, but he brought his "Air Medal with Four Oak Leaf Clusters," which is the equivalent of five air medals. Charlie flew 34 missions over Germany in a B-17 Flying Fortress as a radio operator. He was based in Lavenham, England, and says that his first mission was over Merseburg, November 2nd, 1944, and that his final mission was over Neuburg and der Donau, February 25th, 1945. He logged a total of 266 combat hours.
Charlie told me that every crew member on the plane had to have a working knowledge of each machine gun on that plane (a full crew on a B-17 was ten men) and that they wore electrically heated suits and gloves because the temperatures were well below zero at high altitudes, Also, each crew member had to have a rudimentary knowledge of Morse Code. I have always admired people who could use Morse code as a means of communicating, so when Charlie told me that he used Morse Code to communicate whenever they were near enemy territory, I was impressed.
He said that not only did he use Morse Code, but that each code was used with a cryptogram overlay that was different for each mission in order to effect secrecy. Charlie could transcribe 35 words a minute in encrypted Morse Code. He recalled a landing they had to make one time when it was so foggy outside that you could not see the tips of the wings on the plane. He chuckled when he told me that the crew had a much higher regard for him and his position after he helped the plane to land using his radio transmissions with ground personnel.
Another story he told me was that once just before a bombing run, when doing a routine radio check with each man’s position on the plane, he was not able to get a response from his ball turret gunner, the belly gunner. He left his station and saw that the gunner was unconscious and that had accidently dislodged his oxygen tube. Charlie had to rotate the ball turret by hand to open the hatch to get to the man. When he could finally reach him, he immediately put his own mask on him and revived him, saving his life. One of the many times that his plane had to fly through flak, a piece of metal penetrated the side of the plane and lodged itself in the casing of his radio. He proudly showed me that piece of metal and the radio tag that it hit.
The principal B-17 in which Charlie flew had a name and drawing I would never have expected to see on a bomber. My experience has been various drawings of women in provocative, scantily clad poses and a clever name to match the drawing. The writing on this plane was "Nov-Schmoz-Ka-Pop," named after a popular U.S. cartoon character – a white bearded elderly Russian hitchhiker who always had an aerial bomb near at hand. The plane added a bomb symbol for each mission it flew. The phrase, "Nov-Schmoz-Ka-Pop," simply means, "Going my way?" in Russian.
Charlie told me that his B-17, like nearly all the B-17’s used in daylight bombing missions over Germany, was not painted in camouflage or olive drab, like many planes engaged in lower level missions. They left with their aluminum skins unpainted, because with the high altitudes and the vapor trails, the paint would only make them easier to see and also the added weight of the paint was not a plus.
Charlie is the only one remaining alive out of his crew of ten men, and the 8th Air Force as a whole suffered a casualty rate of 50% in WWII. He feels that he and his crew were very fortunate compared to many others. In fact he and his men were given this certificate to show membership in "The Lucky Bastard Club."
Charlie’s duty station aboard the B-17 was the Radio Room. He said it was fairly large, had a desk and windows on each side, and was located just aft of the bomb bay. Often, Charlie had other duties beyond being a radioman. He said that occasionally he was asked by the bombardier to check the bomb bay after each dropping of bombs to be sure all the bombs "got away." He went on to say that sometimes he would have to free the release hatches if the bombs were hung up on the bomb racks, and the bombs just had to drop wherever.
It was rare, Charlie said, to return from a mission without holes in their plane caused by either flak from exploding ground artillery, or bullets from enemy fighter aircraft. He said that "flak" was his greatest concern because they had to fly through it on their bombing runs and could not deviate from their course to avoid it. He said, "Besides, you could always shoot back at fighters, many of which were destroyed by B-17’s."
The holes were always patched up by ground crews during the night while the flight crews slept. "On several missions," he continued, "Nov-Schmoz-Ka-Pop lost the use of an engine or two due to enemy gunfire. One such time, the number one (outboard, left-wing) engine burst into flames and the pilots dove the B-17 to extinguish the flames. They succeeded, but it was uncomfortably close to the ground." Parachutes were not typically worn by bomber crews.
Charlie said that they wore parachute harnesses over their cold-weather flying gear, and that often, during flak attacks, heavy vest-like flak jackets and steel infantry-type helmets were also worn. The parachute itself was a chest pack that was placed near the crewman’s station and can be donned in a matter of seconds by connecting two snap hooks to the harness.
Charlie added that it was extremely difficult to put on the chute pack and get to an exit if the aircraft was out of control. I could not help but notice the look in Charlie’s eyes at he told me of this incident and others. It was clear that he had a vivid memory of many of his missions and that in telling me about them, he was reliving each event. As a fellow combat veteran,
I know there is a certain energy and adrenaline rush when recalling wartime experiences, and this was evident with Charlie, in both his voice and body movements. Much of the information I have just related was taken from material recorded by one of Charlie’s crew members who is now deceased, so I am indebted to him and Charlie for what they recalled and for what was written before we ever met. Meeting Charlie was a pleasure for me.
As with so many of the WWII veterans with whom I speak, I feel I am in the presence of history, listening to history from an eyewitness, and these eyewitnesses are fast disappearing from our population.
I am always honored and blessed whenever I speak with a WWII veteran such as Charlie. The more I learn about these men and women of WWII, and the more I feel the events and stories as they are told by these same men and women, the more I am humbled by what was accomplished at that time in history. What they endured and sacrificed, at home and abroad, should never be forgotten or taken for granted. Each veteran has his own story and his own experience and I was able to hear Charlie’s. And, as always, when I speak with these wonderful veterans,
I am forever changed. Randall W. Ark Standing: Pilot (Freberg), ???, Navigator: (Moffat), Bombadier: (Hecox), Kneeling: Flight Engineer (Boyles), Radioman (Mattson), 1st Waistgunner (Oglesby), 2nd Waistgunner (Knoblauch), ???, Tail Gunner (Skaggs)
Posted by GPD on October 3, 2009, With 1181 Reads Filed under World War II (1939-1945). You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.