WORLD WAR II COMBAT: GROUND TIME
Samuel Warren Cochran
Installed as a webpage on Shade Tree Physics on 11 Sep 2016.
Latest update 07 Oct 2016.
We lived in Nissen huts on the
backside of the airfield about a mile from the flight line, and our area was flanked
by woods on three sides. The huts were placed randomly on a gentle sloping ridge; the
orderly room, showers, and lavatories were nearby. Our Squadron Commander, Operations
Officer, Flight Commanders, Adjutant, and Flight Surgeon lived in the same area. We
all knew what was going on.
Personnel of the other three squadrons of the 386th Bomb Group--552nd, 553rd, and
554th--were housed in the same type of buildings, and each squadron was located on a
different part of the airfield. Dispersal was the key. Enlisted men from all squadrons
ate in the enlisted mess; officers from all squadrons ate in the officer's mess. Both
dining halls were in the general direction of the flight line about a half-mile from
the living areas. Except for briefings, we walked wherever we went; also, when our
trucks did not arrive as soon as we thought they should, we walked to the briefings.
When an enemy aircraft was in the vicinity, an alert was given. In the early days, we
were curious about alerts and went outside to see what was going on. One night a
German airplane dropped a bomb on our airfield, killing two soldiers and wounding
others. Although the bomb did not hit near our area, it motivated us to dig foxholes;
and for a few nights, we used them during alerts. However, we kept telling ourselves
that England was under a blackout and that it was unlikely a pilot always knew exactly
where he was. Convinced by our logic, we concluded that our beds were as safe as
foxholes. Before long, another enemy airplane dropped bombs on our field--this time
they were anti-personnel bombs. Those bombs were not large and operated like a land
mine--when moved or pressured they exploded. We called these "butterfly bombs." The
bomb disposal team cleared the area, and no one was hurt. For a time, we took a renewed
interest in foxholes.
Months passed before we thought of our foxholes again. Now and then, we demonstrated
the mobility of our bomb group by operating from another airdrome in England. We were
on such a maneuver when an intruding German airplane, a JU-88, was hit by our flak
gunners and crashed into "Perkatory," our airplane--the same airplane that we picked
up at Selfridge Field, Michigan, and had carried us across the North Atlantic and on
to our first combat mission.
Except for the tails,
the resulting fire reduced both airplanes to ashes. This was a blow for our crew,
especially the crew chief, Sampie T.
Through his remarkable gift with words, Sampie T. said it for all of us, "It's not
fair! It's just not fair! Perkatory was killed without being given a chance to defend
herself--no evasive action, no chattering machine guns, no opportunity to limp home."
Perkatory had completed 69 missions without an abort--one of the best records in the
When the weather was favorable, we often played games in the open area near our huts.
In fall, spring, and summer, we did not have many hours of darkness, so we usually
stopped playing before dark--we wanted some time to sleep before a possible briefing
the following morning.
In the winter, I thought it would never get daylight. The temperature was not
unbearably cold, and we never had typhoons or gales. Taken alone, the darkness,
temperature, rain, and wind were not oppressive. However, the dark, cold, fog, and
mist engulfed us and never left. I could not find a place to get warm--even my bones
were cold. I never verbalized it; but, down inside, I believed this environment was
part of the price that must be paid to wage war. Then I came to myself. This weather
was not here to torment me; neither was it an adjunct of war. This was a normal winter
for England. "Why," I reasoned, "This is the only kind of winter weather these people
have ever known; I am sure they love their land as much as I love mine." I concluded,
"If they can tolerate such weather for a lifetime, I am sure I can live with it for a
few months." After I relaxed, the weather appeared to improve.
Winter evenings took on a character of their own. After eating at the officer's mess,
we usually returned to our Nissen hut and settled in for the evening. Just about
everyone enjoyed the card game, Hearts; and more often than not, there was a game going
on. Everyone received "care packages" from the United States; we shared and always
had goodies. A couple of times a week we got bread, and now and then, a few fresh
eggs; we always had marmalade. We fried the eggs and toasted the bread on our hut's
stove. Sandwiches were garnished with marmalade, jam, and jelly. Obviously, a person
did not have to be a king to eat like a king.
Officers of the squadron censored the personal mail of their enlisted men. Many
evenings we censored a batch of letters and carried out the task with dedication. We
sat on our bunks when reading the letters; there was never a snicker, snide remark,
or discussion. Occasionally, there was a tear, but we turned our heads and pretended
not to notice. Many of the men wrote such beautiful letters, and I wished I could have
done the same. I concluded that down inside every person is a poet--some have the
courage to let him out.
Ground Time, Page 2 of of 3
Near the entrance to the airdrome, over a mile from where we lived, there was a large
home called Easton Lodge--it looked like a castle. The caretaker and his family lived
in a nearby cottage and kept the grounds immaculate. This was my first introduction
to formal gardens. I fell in love again!--this time with formal gardens. When we first
moved to Great Dunmow, in the fall of 1943, the headquarters personnel moved into
Easton Lodge. Living in a castle--that was romantic! However, when winter came, the
story changed. Fuel was rationed--headquarters personnel moved to warmer quarters.
Food for combat crews was better than I had envisioned. I enjoyed the English marmalade
and bread. English bread was made with unbleached flour; it had a hard crust and was
not sliced. I never got friendly with dehydrated scrambled eggs. We had a little joke:
"To make us believe we were eating fresh eggs, the cooks sprinkled crushed ping-pong
balls on our scrambled eggs." I never ate much breakfast before a mission and did not
drink coffee. I reasoned the anticipation of combat would keep my energy up, and I did
not want to need to use the relief tube while pounded by flak.
Every few days, I would drop by where our airplane was parked and talk with Sampie T.
or a member of the ground crew. Before becoming a pilot, I completed airplane mechanics
school at Chanute Field,
Illinois, and then worked as an airplane crew chief at
Louisiana, before entering pilot training. I understood mechanical concepts and
enjoyed learning more about the B-26. On days when I did not fly, I usually joined
others to watch the airplanes depart and return.
Occasionally, USO shows visited our station; and one time, Bob Hope and his troupe of
entertainers performed for us. In the evenings, there usually was activity at the
officer's mess; and every two or three months, we had a big party there. Religious
services were held regularly. There was plenty to do!
One of my favorite activities was strolling on country roads--I wore my combat boots.
I learned that some of the roads and bridges on which I walked were built by Roman
soldiers about the time Jesus the Christ was preaching in Galilee and when Saint Paul
was blinded while on the road to Damascus. I wondered if any of the soldiers who
constructed these roads and bridges served in Palestine when Jesus was there and
whether they saw him. At best, I lived in a tenuous world--my mission was to destroy.
These roads and bridges helped to provide a missing ingredient in my life-permanence.
London was about 50 miles to the south, and we caught the train at Bishop's Stortford,
a few miles to our west. London was less than an hour away, and trains ran every two
hours. I visited London often.
London had many faces. The relentless bombing of Britain by the Germans, The Battle
of Britain, started in late 1940; by the time the 386th Bomb Group arrived, it was
obvious that Britain would survive. Many items, including food and petrol, were
rationed, but the trains and buses ran on schedule. The hotels, restaurants, pubs,
museums, cinema and theater were open and did a thriving business. Life seemed normal.
Parts of London were flattened by bombs; however, one could pick his route and travel
the streets of London for miles and never see any sign of war. From the beginning, I
fell in love with London and with "the tube" (London subway) and could get to most
places in London in a matter of minutes. Bunk beds were on every level at each tube
station; and at night, people slept there. The sleepers--men, women, children--paid
no attention to the passengers. After a few evenings, I never noticed either.
The London theater introduced me to a world that I had never imagined. I fell in love
again--this time it was with the stage! I marveled at the craft of wordsmiths and
appreciated the skill of actors. Theater buildings were not heated, and I always sat
near the stage--occasionally, fog rolled in, making it difficult to see the actors.
Some evenings a bomb would explode nearby, causing the theater chandelier to swing
lazily back and forth; but I had the feeling that I was the only one who paid
attention to these distractions. The play never stopped.
Films opened in London about the same time they opened in New York. I saw many of the
latest movies in London; and when I returned to the United States in the fall of 1944,
I discovered that I had already seen the majority of the films that were playing
locally. I enjoyed fish and chips, or whatever food was served; however, my favorite
occasion was "high tea," I could not decide which I liked more--the food (cucumber
sandwiches, finger foods, sweets), the quality of service, or just being there. It was
not long before I observed that I liked "the good life"
--plays, latest movies, dining
out, and feeling at home in one of the most prestigious cities of the world. However,
a tug-of-war raged inside of me--I had never known this kind of life and, in an
unidentified way, wondered whether there was a sinister side to it.
Ground Time, Page 3 of 3
A related problem appeared. At our airfield, decorations related to achievements in
combat were awarded regularly--this always puzzled me. I never thought of attempting
to earn an Air Medal or a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Mysteriously, it seemed,
one day I was not decorated and the next day I was. I had no lofty goals or heroic
delusions; my sole aim was to fly each mission successfully--maintain my position
in formation, destroy targets, and bring the crew and airplane home safely. When I
put on my uniform--pinks and greens, ribbons, brown shoes, 50-mission hat--and went
to town, I became a hero. I had never known a hero and did not have the foggiest idea
about what heroes were supposed to think or how they should behave. Since I did not
have a hero mentor, I decided to behave as always. I listened a lot, talked a little,
and told a story now and then. I knew pretty much what I was, and if someone wanted
to give my life another twist, so be it. I started to understand the saying, "The
myth is greater than the man." Also, I began to surmise that nations needed heroes
and sought occasions to create them.
I kept thinking about Scotland, my breathtaking introduction to the British Isles,
and longed to return. And on one occasion, or perhaps two, I did. I caught a night
train from London and rode overnight to Edinburgh. I never saw any war damage. However,
when in Scotland, I was content--the war was far, far away.
San Antonio, Texas
June 1, 1989