The wartime Experience of Donald W. Marner
Don sitting on the wing of "Pretty Pix." This mustang was Bud's "Old Crow."
(This autobiography was written from my memory of 55 years ago with the expert help and guidance of my friend and neighbor Paul Casella. The contents of my wartime diary appear word for word as I wrote them in 1944 and 1945. There were high points in my over-3 1/2 years of military service, but what you read are the incidents I remember best. Donald Marner.)
I was 19 years old when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. I knew within a year I would be a part of World War II. Instead of being drafted - probably into the infantry - I enlisted in the US Army Air Corps on November 2, 1942 at Camp Dodge, Des Moines, Iowa.
I took my basic training at Lake Charles Army Airfield, Lake Charles, Louisiana. Then I went to Aloe Air Field, Victoria, Texas, as a mechanic on AT6 Air Corps Advanced Training for single engine pilot training. Then I spent time at Brookley Field, Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans Air Base. Then to mechanics school at Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas, for four months. Then I applied for Cadets (Pilot Training) which was cancelled due to too many applicants. Then I tried for Aerial Gunnery. Same story.
Sometime in June 1944 I went to Salt Lake City, where there was an overseas depot for deployment to either the Pacific Theater or the European Theater. It was a long, hot, dirty train ride from Salt Lake City to New York for the overseas shipment on the British Liner Mauritania. Landed at Liverpool, England, then to Sheffield for Combat Training for the Air Corps. Then a train ride from Sheffield to London.
While waiting for a change of trains at Liverpool Station I experienced my first air raid. Germany was bombing London with a new secret weapon called the V-1. It was known as the Doodlebug or flying bomb: a pilot less plane that flew at 450 miles per hour then dove to earth when the prescribed fuel ran out. One landed close. I was showered with glass, plaster and debris.
I was more than ready to leave London after that V-1 attack. The next stop was Saxmundham, England near my air base at Leiston. I spent the next 14 months with the 357th Fighter Group, a P-51 Mustang fighter group that flew fighter escort for the B-17s and B-24s that were flying long-range bomber missions over Nazi Germany.
We were one fighter group in the Mighty 8th Air Force, which consisted of 45 bomber groups and 15 fighter groups. This was the largest air force in the world, capable of putting up 2,000 bombers and 1,000 fighters on a single mission of daylight bombing. All of these air bases were located in East Anglia, England. Our air base was three miles from the North Sea and 60 miles from Nazi-occupied Holland.
At our air base the volume of noise from aircraft engines was a constant reminder of the air war. On clear days, hundreds of white condensation trails etched the sky.
In July or August of 1944 the Germans started launching buzz bombs (V-1s) from Holland over the North Sea. They flew over our air base on their way to London. The British moved anti-aircraft guns around our base. Several of these batteries were crewed by ATS girls. They had a good eye for shooting them down. One evening I watched them shoot down at least 20 of the 32 that came over. Many of these were crippled by anti-aircraft fire, which threw off their gyros and they would fly erratic and could explode anywhere near us.
Many shot-up bombers with wounded aboard would land at our air base, as it was the first that they saw after flying across the North Sea. More that once I helped carry wounded air crew from a bomber, blood running out of the floor of the plane.
4 Feb 00 (Letter to Don from Merle Olmsted)
Dear Don, I hope you can settle an argument. You were involved at one time with belly tanks, I think. I say the 75-gallon steel tanks were delivered in boxes, that's where we got the material to build shacks. However, I contend that the big 108-gallon British tanks did not come in boxes, but were wrapped with heavy paper. A couple of other guys (DeShay and Bierly) say that the 108-gallon tanks did come in boxes, and the 75s did not. I hope you can settle this! ( I remember unpacking the 75-gallon tanks when we used them, and taking them out of the boxes.) Cheers, Merle PS How were the tanks delivered to the base? To the railhead at Saxmunden, a spur track into the base, by US truck, by British truck or??
2-29-00 (Letter from Don to Merle)
I have your answer. I handled hundreds, maybe thousands, of 108-gallon wing tanks. They were not in boxes at any time that I was there. They became big in June 1944 at the time I arrived at Leiston. I started hauling them from a stockpile somewhere on our base. When the pile became low I went to a RAF air base or depot and hauled load after load back to our base. I distributed them to each hardstand. I was told to have a supply of at least a dozen at each hardstand. I also remember big RAF trucks that delivered 108-gallon tanks to our base supply. I don't ever remember handling any 75-gallon tanks, as I believe they were phased out sometime in May or June.
When the tanks were stockpiled they were wrapped in heavy brown paper. I unpeeled all the paper packing at the stockpile before I delivered them to the hardstands.
I went to mechanics school in San Antonio before shipping out. I came over as an extra or a replacement, so they put me to work hauling all those tanks, which took all day. When some crews were working late in the blister hangars on the 363rd line I helped them until 2 or 3 in the morning many nights. This is one of the reasons I know so many mechanics and P-51s with pet names.
Paper tanks were light and easy to handle compared to metal tanks. These 108-gallon ones also held more fuel. Using paper also denied the Germans scrap metal when they were dropped by Allied Fighters.
One time I was the first person at a crash site on the 363rd area, trying to get the dazed pilot out of the cockpit. The plane was smoking but I kept trying. Finally someone came to help, and we got him out OK. I wish I would have kept records so I would know who the pilot was and which P-51 it was.
Once I was sprayed by a landing P-51 whose pilot forgot to switch his 50 caliber guns off. I can still hear the six 50's bullets just over my head while I was trying to make myself little and flat on the grass.
January 1945 was the coldest and most difficult month for flying weather our group had experienced. Eighteen days of the month the ground and runways were either frozen or were covered with snow or ice. Fog was also in abundance - fog so thick you could not see a few feet ahead.
On the 14th of that month a great air battle was fought in the Berlin area. The 357th was credited with destroying 57 1/2 Nazi aircraft. That was and still is the highest one-day score among US fighter groups.
It was customary for the returning aircraft to fly over the field at full throttle (about 400 miles per hour) and pull up into a victory roll for each enemy plane they shot down. That day there were many rolls, but some were so low on gas they just skimmed in and landed.
This was a great day for the pilots, but for the ground crew the work went on all night long to get the planes ready for the next mission. The next morning we were up early, running up the engines and making sure there were no coolant, gas and oil leaks. Many times I had to help stop a gas leak at the feed elbows to the 108-gallon pasteboard drop tanks.
The pilots would arrive 15 minutes before engine start time. Ten 60 Merlins would cough into life around the airfield hardstands. The line-up would begin at the active runway. The ground crews and everyone else in the airfield area would seek a vantage point to watch the heavily loaded Mustangs take off two abreast.
Very few ground crewmen were killed at Leiston, but one of them was a friend of mine. Staff Sergeant Melvin Schueneman, a 363rd Crew Chief, along with Lt. Walter Corby flew into the White Cliffs of Dover in an AT6. They had flown to France to repair the tail wheel of Mustang B6-B, that had made an emergency landing. The B6-B was flown by Lt. Joe Cannon of Lacon, Illinois - he and his wife Josephine were good friends to Marilyn and me.
Our time at Leiston Air Field was a unique experience for us ground crews, and probably the high point of life for many of us. Most of us did not appreciate this at the time and wanted to get it over with and go home. Years later some of us realized what a fascinating time it had been. Marilyn and I returned May 8, 1980, the 35th anniversary of Victory in Europe. I still have in my possession the GI overcoat of Staff Sergeant Melvin Schueneman.
From Don's Diary
June 15, 1944 Over 1,500 of us left Camp Kerns by troop train. Spent 96 hours on train. Went through Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York and Massachusetts. Arrived at Camp Miles Standish, Massachusetts at 9:30 am June 19th.
June 20, 1944 Now under censorship alreay for P.O.E. Met Jack Kaplan and Orville Johnson here tonight. Took basic training with Johnson at Lake Charles. He's a B-29 Electrical Specialist.
June 27, 1944 Left Camp Miles Standish with a backbreaking pack: boarded the train with a band playing. Boarded the British Liner Mauritania at Boston Harbor. Sailed out of the harbor the morning of June 28th. Net several small convoys and destroyers off the coast.
June 29, 1944 Had airplane cover of a Navy Blimp. Many PBYs and an aircraft carrier-based torpedo plane. Very hot day going through the Gulf Stream off the coast of South Carolina and were chased by an enemy sub.
June 30, 1944 Chased by an enemy sub - our radar picked it up.
July 3, 1944 All anti-aircraft and rocket guns were fired at parachute target for practice.
July 4, 1944 Saw a convoy of 30 ships, which we passed at 12 noon. I sighted the coast of Ireland - first land seen. Saw my first submarine surfacing off the starboard side near the Irish coast. Ha a ceremony of the 4th by raising the US Flag and firing a gun salute.
July 5, 1944 Arrived in Liverpool Harbor in the morning. First saw the docks at noon. Saw the 35,0000-ton King George V in docks. Got off Mauritania at 9:00 pm. Traveled by bus and train 60 miles out of Liverpool to a beautiful camp 6 miles from Sheffield. The camp was originally built for bombed out refugees. Saw bombed houses and bomb craters., The sun sets at 10:30 pm and it is light almost until midnight.
July 6, 1944 I met Bill Reynolds and Sgt. George Hughes at camp. Hadn't seen them for over a year since I left them at Victoria, Texas. An English lady does our laundry, but the English money an expressions have me confused. While at Potters Hill we slept and went on hikes through Highgreen and Chapeltown.
July 15, 1944 Shipped out by train. Left from Sheffield and saw whole blocks wiped out by German bombs in the blitz of '41. At 3:30 pm we arrived in London and were welcomed by a robot plane attack. One robot plane exploded one block from the station where I was. A building and four taxicabs were blown to bits. I hit the ground during the attack and was never so scared in all my life. Five robot planes exploded in the hour and a half we were in London. Saw the terrible damage the bombing had done there. At 7:30 pm I arrived at the P-51 fighter base near Saxmondham, 3 1/2 miles from the Channel. Only a 10-minute flight from Germany. Am in the 357th Fighter Group. This group uses only P-51s and has over 375 planes to their credit - a ratio of over 6 to 1. This is really a swell base but here a person realizes there's a war on.
July 16, 1944 Sunday - I saw hundreds of Flying Fortresses going on missions to and from Germany. All day long a continuous roar and drone of Forts and P-51s bussing the field after coming back from a mission escorting the Forts. A most beautiful day today.
August 6, 1944 I had duty guarding 8 P-51s and 3 B-17s. One B-17 had 3 flak holes in it. Our Mustangs just came back from a secret mission secorting Forts and Liberators to Russia, Italy and back to England. One of our enlisted men who served as a gunner was shot down between Russia and Italy. Yesterday our squadron lost tow planes and pilots 18 miles southeast of Paris, colliding in midair. Capt. Simpson was one of them.
August 13, 1944 A B-17 exploded with a full load of bombs in midair east of the base. Of the 10 crewmembers only 10 pounds of flesh was found. Wreckage was strewn over miles.
August 14-15, 1944 Got a 36-hour pass, left Saxmundhon at 4:00 pm Aug 14, arrived in London at 7:00 pm. Stood all the way on the train. Duval Hippo and I got lost on Piccadilly Street. Slept at Washington Red Cross Club. A doodlebug went sailing overhead, scaring the dickens out of me. Had 5 buzz bomb raids when I was there. The afternoon of Aug 15th I went on a taxi tour of London. I saw Westminster Abby, where all the Kings and Queens were crowned the last 1,000 years. Also all royal marriages take place there., Saw the tombs of John Wesley, Neville Chamberlain, a former tomb of Shakespeare, and the US Congressional Medal of Honor presented to England's Unknown Soldier by Pershing in World War No. 1. Also saw St. Paul's Cathedral, which took 35 years to build at a cost of 6 million dollars. It was struck by bombs twice in the German Blitz of 1940 - 41. The most beautiful stained glass, god trimmings, and cut stone. It stands in the center of London. Saw Buckingham Palace, the home of the Royal Family. It was hit by a bomb. I saw the Royal Guards being posted. Also saw House of Parliament, London Bank, Themes River, Royal Exchange, London Tower, London Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Big Ben, No. 10 Downing Street, War Offices, Anthony Eden's Headquarters, Hyde Park and Piccadilly Circus. Saw an area ten blocks square which the Germans wiped out with 500 bombs in the Blitz. Also saw the damage the buzz bombs did four weeks ago, when it exploded near me at Liverpool Station. Beautiful day in London.
August 17, 1944 Saw the wing tear off one of our P-51s and then the plane spinning to earth. New pilot and was killed. Our fighters went to France on a dive-bombing mission. Our squadron lost one, but the pilot bailed our over Belgium.
August 24, 1944 Red air raid about 3:00 in morning and I saw a buzz bomb in flight while standing out in the cold with nothing on but my shorts.
August 31, 1944 Pay day. Was in a parade, where about 20 of our pilots were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Clusters. I received my first Bronze Battle Star.
September 5, 1944 A B-17 landed here with its right wing on fire and controls shot out, nearly hitting me and a group of English workers. Had at least 35 flak holes in it. The tail gunner and navigator were wounded. A pool of blood in the tail gunner's position, which also ran on the ground. First blood I saw drawn by enemy action.
September 5, 1944 Heard that Captain Simpson, the pilot who collided with another pilot southeast of Paris a few weeks ago, had only 6 hours to go to complete his 300 hours. Had tried to escape through the Siegfried Lines with two RAF pilots, but they were captured and shot. I have his flight jacket.
September 17, 1944 Saw one of our Mustangs piloted by Fischer crash on take-off. The plane hit the railroad tracks and was demolished, but the pilot was unhurt. Also, witness fleets of hundreds and hundreds of C-47s and gliders heading for a paratrooper attack in Holland. Two shot-up C-47s landed at our fighter base with six wounded. Yeager led our group.
September 17, 1944 Several thousand C-47s, gliders, B-17s, B-24s, and fighters were overhead, headed for Holland and the German lines. Most planes I ever in my life have seen. Everywhere you looked in the sky were hundreds of planes. Our mustangs shot down 25 Nazi planes over Holland for our loss of two. Thrilling sight to see our P-51s roll after returning from the mission. Our biggest bag of Jerries since before D-Day. The 363rd got 5. Two crippled C-47s landed here.
September 19, 1944 Major Hiro our C.O. is reported missing after a mission over the Continent. Bad weather forced a number of our Mustangs to land at other bases in England. Reports are that our group got 20 planes today. I brought a bike fro 2 1/2 pounds.
September 20, 1944 About 7 pm a buzz bomb roared directly across our hut, not more that 75 to 100 feet above us. Terrifying roar and yellow red flame had me plenty scared. Saw two others go over, one exploding a few miles from our base. At 5:00 am the morning of the 21st another roared across the field and exploded 6 miles from here. I have a piece of that one.
September 23, 1944 Saw three buzz bombs over air base very low. One exploded nearby. About 1500 anti-aircraft guns were moved in this area - this is now called Buzz Bomb Alley. All doodlebugs that are hitting England are crossing the coast in line with our base. We presume they are being launched from bases inside of Germany or Denmark.
September 26, 1944 For about the last ten days we've had two red air raid alerts each night. One at 9:00 pm and one at 5:00 am. Tonight I drove a 2 1/2 ton job to Epswitch. Was in town about two minutes and ran into a steel rod, which cut a gash in my forehead and one below the eye.
September 28, 1944 Started 3 days of K.P. Had my face re-patched. Heard that Lorena Kinsinger died and that Wilbur Yoder got married. Saw hundreds and hundreds of B-17s, B-24s and P-51s head out over the Channel for Germany at great altitiude.
September 29, 1944 While I was on K.P. at 5:00 am Friday morning, four doodlebugs passed overhead. One flew directly over me at low altitiude while the searchlights had it in their beam. I could see it very plainly, the first time I saw one in a light. At 8:30 pm another red air raid alert, and three more went over. One very close over the field. Much shooting at them but none were hit. Tow explosions were heard.
October 6-9, 1944 Had a buzz bomb raid each night. Saw many flying bombs come over our field. Several were shot down as they crossed the coast coming in from the North Sea. Saw some terrific ack-ack barrages.
October 9, 1944 Was awakened at 1:00 am by a red air raid alert. Saw a buzz bomb come over at tree-top level and explode less than one mile from our base. In the morning I went out to see it, and brought several pieces back. Two farm homes here destroyed, and many windows broken in Saxmundham. V-2s, or rocket bombs, are now hitting London.
October 12, 1944 Lt. Yeager of our squadron shot down 5 planes over Bremen. Our whole group shot down 18. So far the group has over 400 enemy planes to our credit. Three buss bombs were shot down over the coast during the night.
October 17-18, 1944 Was on guard on the 363rd line area both nights. Out of 14 buzz bombs that went over I saw 10 shot down.
October 25, 1944 Today a RAF Lancaster and Halifax landed here, after a daylight raid on Cologne, Germany. A 1,000-lb bomb dropped through the wing and a 500-lb bomb through the tail of the Halifax, almost hitting the tail gunner.
October 30, 1044 Today our group put in the air 68 planes, our squadron having 24 airborne. Yeager made Captain the 28th.
October 31, 1944 This morning I saw a B-17 shot down by British ack-ack by mistake. Plane broke into five pieces and went down flaming. All 9 of the crew parachuted safely. Several buzz bombs went over.
November 27, 1944 Our group shot down 32 planes over Germany. Yeager got 4 and Andreson3. Yeager now has a total of 12, and Anderson 17. The 362nd bagged 21 Jerries alone.
December 24, 1944 Over 2,000 8th Air Force heavies and 1,000 fighters hit targets in Germany. While the first bombers were over Germany others were just taking off here in England, a stream of planes 400 miles long. Our group shot down 31 planes in big air battles over the front line. Capt. Foy made a forced landing in Belgium but is safe. Capt. Yeager is on Detached Service in Paris. I swa one B-24 go down in the North Sea, leaving a trail of smoke behind. Our group now has a total of 511 German planes destroyed in 10 1/12 months of operations.
December 26, 1944 Saw vapor trails of tow German V-2 rockets as they were launched from the coast of Holland.
January 6, 1945 The Whole base was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for the 3rd Bomber Division's raid on Rulselberg, Germany, August 17, 1943.
January 14, 1945 Sunday. Today our group shot down 57 1/2 Jerries in an air battle west of Berlin. This breaks the old record of 38 set by another group. To date we have 582 1/2 Jerry planes destroyed, which makes us the top group for the time we were operational. We have been operational 11 months. General Doolittle recommended our group for another citation.
January 28, 1945 Today Lt. Corby and S/Sgt Shuneman were killed in a crash with the AT-6 near Dover. They were returning from France, where they had repaired Joe Cannon's tail wheel.
February 1945 Capt Browning failed to return from today's mission, but shot down a jet job, bringin his total to 14.
March 2, 1945 Today our group shot down 35 Nazi planes, bringing the group total to over 630 Jerry planes destroyed. Capt. Carson of the 362nd got 5 today, bringing his total to 27.
March 4, 1945 150 German planes were over England, bombing and strafing 6 air bases and several towns. Epswitch, Yarmouth, Woodbridge and Wichammarket were hit.
March 24, 1945 Today Lt. Jenkins was killed in a crash on the base. He was returning from a mission over Germany, his last one before going home. He buzzed and dove at the 362 hangar 4 times, but in his 5th dive he couldn't pull out in time. He hit the top of a tree, crippling hi plane, and then hit tow more trees before the plane exploded. Three haystacks burned down and the wreckage was scattered a quarter of a mile. I was only a short distance from the explosion. Lt. Jenkins had 10 1/2 Jerries and flew "Toolin Fools Revenge" with the 362nd Fighter Squadron. Our group got 17 Jerries today. Maj. Foy got one today, bringing his total to 21. They flew two missions today while 40,000 airborne troops were dropped behind the Rhine.
May 8, 1945 V-E Day. England really celebrated but I worked in the garage all day.
May 12, 1945 Capt. Paseo came back from a prisoner of war camp in Germany. He was shot down in the Spring of '44. Maj. Hiro, our old C.O. was murdered by the Germans after he bailed our last fall. Col. Spicer is safe. Lt. Dunlop, who was shot down last Jan 14th, has also been liberated. His burning plane fell apart while in a spin, enabling him to bail out safely. He also was wounded. Capt. Browning is presumed dead.
May 16, 1945 Big Parade and an inspection by the Wing Commander, General Woodbury. Everyone is sweating out the Pacific and figuring up his points. I have 57.
June 15, 1945 Left Saxmundham at 12:00 midnight and arrived at Southampton that evening. Lost my leather jacket southwest of London.
July 20-21, 1945 Spent all on a LCT at Southampton waiting for a storm to die in the Channel.
July 22, 1945 Left Southampton and arrived at Cherbourg, France at 5:30 in the evening. Very rough Channel - was sick for a while. Stayed at a former German base untio the 25th. Pete and I changed an engine in a Piffers gas truck. Saw an aircraft carrier with German jets at Chebourg Harbor headed for the States. Cherbourg is pretty badly beaten up from bombing and invasion. Went through several of Hitler's Atlantic coast gun emplacements.
July 25, 1945 Rained all day. Drove through Caen, which was leveled. Saw two American cemeteries and British ones. All through Normandy there were hundreds of burnt-out trucks and planes. Saw a large airfield 100% destroyed.
July 26, 1945 Arrived in Paris today. Pete and I got lost on purpose. Parked in North Paris Camp all night.
July 27, 1945 Drove through Chateau Therry, Luxemburg and Luxemburg City. Saw some very beautiful country in Eastern France and Luxemburg. Entered Germany at Trier at 9:30 in the evening. Stayed at an old German airbase; slept on the ground that night.
July 28, 1945 Sunday - beautiful day. Talked to the little Jerries who seem very friendly an beg for gum and candy. Hyde took my place today.
July 30, 1945 Crossed the Rhine. Saw the Siegfried Line; went through Frankfurt, which was demolished. Stayed all night 30 miles East of Frankfurt in an open field.
July 31, 1945 Went through Nuremberg today - it was badly hit. Got on Hitler's Autobahn at Nuremberg and arrived in Munich at 4:00 in the evening. Drove over 200 miles today. Drove 1070 in 13 days. Then I spent the next 8 months on occupation duty at Neubiberg Air Base, which had been permanent base for a Luftwaffe fighter wing.
On April 3, 1946, Frank Fah and I boarded a train for the French Coast for shipment home on a Liberty Ship to New York.
Dan Brenneman and Don Marner, October 1945. Photo taken inside the Burger Brau Keller, the beer garden where Hitler missed assassination by 13 minutes in October 1939, Evidence of the bomb damage could still be seen.