ON OUR WAY—WALKER TO CAIRO
Finally, April, 1944, our 462nd Bomb Group was fully equipped with shiny new B-29s. The order came to prepare for deployment from Walker Army Air Field, Kansas, to some combat zone abroad. The move was to be a secret—destination not known to us.
Loading instructions were published. In addition to limited personal baggage, each crew received a list of supplies, equipment, spare parts and extra engines its aircraft was to carry. I was designated load supervisor for the 770th squadron, and over several hectic days assisted the crews in getting all assigned items in hand and properly placed in their aircraft. Some items (such as “orange peel cowl”) were in short supply—it was not uncommon that such items would disappear at night from some aircraft and appear on others.
Our Deputy Group Commander, Col. Alfred Kalberer, was much experienced and worldly wise. He had flown for several air lines, including KILM (the southeast Asia arm of KLM). In his wisdom, he parceled out his load to other aircraft and filled his own with practical items such as a gasoline powered generator, electric refrigerator, water heater, bath and shower hardware, flushing toilet, etc. (More about these in a later story.)
As it happened, a huge storm blowing in from the north and spreading to the east coast delayed departure date. Our first destination was scheduled to be Presque Isle, Maine, but we had to wait for safe weather. By the following day, the storm had moved eastward enough so we could go part way—to Wright-Patterson, Dayton, Ohio. Next day, on to Presque Isle, with its deep snow banks telling that winter lingered on in that northern edge of the country.
The next day’s flight took us to Gander Lake, Newfoundland. There again, snow on the ground and occasional flurries in the air. We were told our next flight would be to Marrakech, Morroco. A short sleep and wee hour wake-up. At mission briefing we were given an envelope marked SECRET and told it was not to be opened until reaching mid-point of our flight. It contained information about onward stops and final destination—also secret code names and radio frequencies.
I remember the dark pre-dawn take off, with light snow falling. As we climbed for altitude and headed over the Atlantic, the sky cleared and we could see white icebergs floating below in dark waters. Our plane cruised smoothly along—hours passed—finally north of the Canary Islands approaching Africa—landed at Marrakech about 10:30 AM—ground temperature 110°F!
A bit of brunch—scrambled eggs (from powder, tough) and spam—not an encouraging first taste of wartime overseas food. Then to an old hotel—off base—quite nice. Still time for sight seeing—take off not scheduled until following night.
Saw a lovely building where President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill once met in conference—and my first view of a bidet. The ancient walled city was off-limits, but the sights, people, traffic and shops we could see were colorful and quaint. Lots of interesting leather goods in the shops—bought some for souvenirs—could never use them because of an unpleasant odor from the tanning process.
At flight briefing we were instructed (because of Atlas mountains to east) to climb westward until reaching 9,000 feet, then turn back eastward to pass over the air base at 18,000 feet, cruising altitude. The night was dark and hot! The plane was heavily loaded—its engines adjusted for cold weather flight. The rate of climb was agonizingly slow—an hour at full climbing power to get back over the field at the assigned altitude. (Some other crews were smarter and fudged a bit—passing back at lower altitude—saving considerable fuel and still above the mountains.)
At daylight we were over the Sahara—a strange new sight to us—beautiful in its own way. Hour after hour of sand in changing patterns of rolling terrain. But the flight was not without concern—number three engine “swallowed a valve” and had to be feathered. Increased power on the other engines burned fuel at faster rate.
Fuel consumption instruments at the time were not adequately tested and not trusted. Our flight engineer estimated we had enough gasoline, but barely. I asked him to verify by transferring fuel from one tank to another until pressure dropped, and record the gallons transferred. Upon doing so for all tanks, he was worried whether we could reach Cairo. I eased off power on the three good engines and slowly settled down to 9,000 feet—but no lower—wanted some height if we had to bail.
As Cairo came to view, the flight engineer said fuel was running out and we could start losing engines at any moment. My eyes searched for the nearest place to sit down—any safe place. Approaching the city, I saw an airfield—immediately cut throttles full back and glided down for a dead-stick landing. We tried, but could not reach the control tower to announce emergency approach. Gear down—flaps down—runway dead ahead—everything looked OK. But just as we were settling down for landing, a large truck pulled across the runway dead ahead of us. I knew that fuel was not sufficient for a go-around—had to land. So I let the plane hit hard enough to bounce over the truck. It worked! We rolled to the end of the runway and turned onto the taxiway. Upon opening throttles to move forward to the ramp, only one engine responded—we had to be towed.
It was a British airfield—about 15 miles from our destination—and most welcomed. At flight operations the truck driver approached and said to me, “Thank heavens you didn’t hit me. That runway was closed and I didn’t even look to see if anything was coming. But when on the runway, I glanced right and there was the biggest airplane I’ve ever seen—close, and coming right at me. I knew we were going to crash—I knew I would be killed—but somehow it didn’t happen. Thank you—thank you—and thanks to God!”
We were serviced with enough fuel for the short flight on to the American airfield—all safe and accounted for.