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Sergeant John Hiriam Adair

"We Were Soldiers Once, and Young"

By Perry Giles, Guest Columnist, Waxahachie Daily Light 

My name is John Hiram Adair. I was born in a white frame house in Forreston, the youngest of five children, and the only son of Johnie and William Adair. We lived on a farm a few miles east of town on Bullard Hill, and were members of the Forreston Methodist Church. 

During the summers I helped out Dad on the farm. I went to school there in Forreston until my junior year, when my family moved over to Avalon. My friends from school call me Johnny, but my family calls me “Johnsy”. 

After graduating from Avalon High School, I went to Texas A&M College, where I joined the Army Reserve in December of ‘42. After one year in college, I was called to serve in June of ’43, and I reported for active duty in the Army Air Corps. 

My initial training was at Sheppard Air Field in Wichita Falls, and after that there was more training in Florida and then in Kingman, Arizona at the Aerial Gunnery School. Like a lot of the other “country boys”, I was trained as a gunner, because we were better shots than those city boys. We did a lot of shooting at moving targets to hone our air-to-air firing skills. 

In May of ’44, it was on to Iowa at the Sioux City Army Air Base for combat crew training. When we arrived, they welcomed us with a band. Guess they thought that we needed a pepper-upper since we’re fixing to go over in a couple of months. 

I’ve been assigned to heavy bombardment and will be flying on a B-17 fortress. I’m with a good bunch of fellows and like them all fine so far. In my crew, we have four from Pennsylvania, one from Virginia, one from Massachusetts, one from Georgia, one from Wyoming, and the navigator is not with us yet. I hope he is from Texas. 

At first I thought that I’d be the right waist gunner, but later I found out that I would have to take the tail guns. Being the tail-gunner was pretty rough. Known by some as “Tail End Charlie”, it was a difficult spot. It was a tight little space, with lots of vibration, noise, cold, flying for hours down on your knees, with your legs doubled under you, and looking out through my small plexiglas box window. 

Before takeoff, all the gunners would gather in the radio room and then after we were airborne, we would make our way to our stations. As the tail-gunner, I had to crawl past the tail wheel, dragging my parachute behind me, and crawl on hands and knees into the tail. Once we made it up to altitude, I had to plug in my electric flight suit to keep from freezing. This was no place for someone with claustrophobia. 

One Sunday evening as I was leaving the mess hall, I looked up just in time to see my good friend from home, James King, walking past. We went to the PX and had a long visit. I hadn’t seen him in 14 months, and it sure does a lot of good to meet someone that you used to run around with. 

This Iowa countryside is some beautiful land for farming. The land is real black and these farmers have a corn patch for every cotton patch that we have back home. They have the nicest homes and more big barns and outhouses than Carter has liver pills. 

I was supposed to make Corporal on the 15th of June, but it didn’t come through. My pilot messed up the paperwork. I sure could use the extra pay, it will be $28 a month more. 

On the 20th of June, we went on a high altitude gunnery mission over Rapid City, South Dakota, and I got sick as a horse. Riding the tail is certainly no picnic. I would much rather be a waist gunner. 

I wrote to my folks and my sisters at every opportunity and very much anticipated all their letters from home. We were due a furlough before we had to go overseas, and I really looked forward to the chance to visit home once more after all this time living in crowded barracks. My leave finally came at the last of July, but it flew by before I knew it. 

The first week of August our group received our orders and headed out for Europe. It was a long journey with many stops along the way. Once I was locking the tail wheel and I inserted the crank too soon, and got a real blow on the chin. It bled a good bit, but an inch higher and it would have knocked out all my front teeth. Don’t think that it will leave a scar though. 

Along the way, we spent some time in the far Northeast. On August 9th we went swimming in one of the lakes up there and the water was really cold. We even did a little fishing and caught some small trout. I’ll bet that there are a lot of lakes up there that have never even had a hook in them. It would have been swell if we could have stayed there a little longer. 

By this time I had made Sergeant, and was drawing base pay, flying pay and a per diem for being away from my home base. I could take a lot of days like this at $10.30 a day, and I don’t care how long I’m gone at this kind of money. 

After several days of hard flying we finally arrived at the Amendola Airfield near Foggia, Italy. We were now part of the 2nd Bomb Squadron, 2nd Bomb Group of the 15th Army Air Force. 

It was pretty good here, enough to get by on anyway. I live in a tent with six other boys on my crew. We can fix it up in time so it’ll be pretty nice. The food is much better than I expected, in fact it’s better than lots of places that I trained in the States. 

One day I went swimming in the Adriatic Sea, and I am getting a rather nice tan here on the east coast of Italy. We visited Foggia one day and its just awful, all the filth as such I’ve never seen before. Those people don’t have enough to eat either. 

It was now the 19th of August and I haven’t been sent on a raid yet, but it won’t be long now from what I hear. We all looked forward to mail call more than anything else. Mail means a lot over here. 

To my disappointment, my crew was split up as replacements for the other crews in the squadron. Oh well, I have no choice to make the best of the situation. 

And then August 22nd came my first mission. I was flying tail-gunner aboard the “Tail End Charlie” on a mission to Odertal Oil Refinery in Germany. The pilot was Charles Beecham, and I didn’t get to know most of the other guy’s names... I had a real case of the butterflies. 

It was an 8-hour mission. There were no fighters in sight, but there was lots of flak over the target. The other guys said that it was only moderate flak, but it sure seemed bad to me... We hit the target real good. 

My 2nd mission came the very next morning aboard the “Lovely Lady” piloted by Lt. L. D. Campbell. The target that day was an industrial area at Vienna, Austria. This time there were German fighters making attacks through our formation.  I’m not sure I hit anything though. At 400 mph, they were a lot harder to hit than the targets we shot at back in Arizona. 

I had been told, and today I saw firsthand, that those German fighters really came after us tail-gunners. They knew that if they got the tail-gunner that our B-17s were just a sitting duck. I don’t recall ever having the jitters so bad in my life. 

On the 24th I went up again, for the third day in a row, this time flying with 2nd Lt. Thayne Thomas on the “Big Time”. The mission that day took us to the oil refineries at Pardubice, Czechoslovakia. It was a long, long haul, and I saw a B-17 that had fallen behind the group get shot down by fighters. 

The next four days I was off and spent a lot of time in the sack, as I was fairly worn out. I felt as though I was getting into the groove of this and doing a little better each time, but still it takes some getting used to with people up there shooting at me for three days in a row. 

On August 29th we were rousted out of bed at about 0330 hours. I stumbled over to the mess hall, but I can tell you that powdered eggs before 4 A.M. are not that appetizing. At the mission briefing we learned that our target for today was the Privoser Oil Refinery and the railroad marshaling yards at Moravska Ostrava in northern Czechoslovakia. Today I would be flying with 2nd Lt. James Weiler on board the “Queen”, but today I would be the right waist gunner and that was OK by me.  

Finally, I wouldn’t be back in the tail all by myself, and I quickly made friends with the left waist gunner. His name is Loren Byam, and he is from Wisconsin. I overheard some of the other guys say that today would be a milk run... Hope they are right. 

A few minutes before 0600 hours we started our engines, and at 0614 the lead plane started rolling down the runway. All the others followed in thirty second intervals. As we climbed, we formed our seven planes into squadron formation and then the four squadrons maneuvered into a box formation, which provided the best defensive cover. These twenty-eight B-17’s made up the 2nd Bomb Group. 

By the time all the different groups of the 15th Air Force fell into line, there were 599 heavy bombers and 294 fighters on this mission. My group was flying tail end of the whole wing, and my squadron, the 20th, was flying tail end squadron in our group, so there we were, right at the very back of this whole combat wing. 

We headed north over the Adriatic Sea and had some cheese and crackers before gaining too much altitude when we had to put our oxygen masks on. Gradually we climbed to 28,000 feet. Our flight path took us over Yugoslavia and Hungary, and all was going well. 

During the long flight our formation had stretched out considerably. Our group was lagging behind the others, and for some reason our squadron could never catch up with the rest of the 2nd Bomb Group and get into proper formation. On top of that, all of our fighters had gone ahead to clear out the air over the target. 

Our radioman had put Axis Sally on the intercom to listen to her music program. Then she broke in over the music and said “Good Morning to you men of the 2nd Bomb Group. Today’s your lucky day. Today you get shot down, but before you get shot down, I want to play you a song.” It was called Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones. After hearing that, you could have knocked me over with a feather. 

Just as we approached the I.P. (initial point) of our bomb run, the pilot called back for us to test our guns and put on our flak jackets and helmets. It was about then that we spotted a lone German fighter following us at a distance. He wasn’t moving in, he was a spotter... We were being dogged! 

At about 10:40 we were over the White Carpathian Mountains and flying at 22,000 feet. And then it started... Out from behind a cloud formation came wave after wave of German fighters, at 4 o’clock high. They were ME-109’s and FW-190’s, and their wings winking at me, was my first realization that we were being shot at. 

All of the sudden there were tracers flying right past us, and wild chatter on the intercom. As I started to fire back, I saw “My Baby” on fire and start to go down in a flat spin. Fighters went screaming right past us. Then “Tail End Charlie” rolled over and exploded in a giant ball of fire. 

I fired back at them the best I could... There were just too many. Must be 80 or 90 of them all around us! They came at us from every conceivable direction. 

Shellfire started to explode all inside the plane. They were shooting 20mm cannons at us, and holes appeared in our wings and in our fuselage. A fire started on the wing! Our bomb bay doors swung open and the bombs were jettisoned. 

Control cables started snapping all around me! I was hit and went down! Our plane started down on a leftward spiral. The intercom was dead. Acrid, thick smoke filled the inside and the plane shuddered and shook as she took more hits. 

We started into a steep dive, and I had to grab on to something to keep from sliding forward. Maybe the pilot is diving us to put the fire out... 

Our plane plunged down through the clouds picking up speed. Our co-pilot was the only one that was physically able to bail out before we hit. 

It was a Tuesday, the 29th, and I was only 20 years old.

Our 20th squadron was wiped out that morning, all seven planes.  

Remember us, for we were soldiers once, and young.  

*The bodies of 28 American flyers were gathered and taken to the cemetery in the small town of Slavicin, Czechoslovakia and buried in a mass grave. Although their bodies were removed after the war by the U. S. Army, the local Czech people, who viewed these men as liberators, still hold a memorial service at the site every year on Aug. 29th. The monument that they have erected to the American flyers ends with this verse, “And their ashes have returned to where it came from, and their soul has returned to the Lord who gave it to them”.



Biography of John Hiriam "Johnny" Adair   Letter to Editor


"We Were Soldiers Once, and Young" by Perry Giles, Guest Columnist, Waxahachie Daily Light: The above article appeared in the Waxahachie Daily Light on Sunday, October 8, 2006.  

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