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Sergeant Robert D. Crumpton

"We Were Soldiers Once, and Young"

By Perry Giles, Guest Columnist, Waxahachie Daily Light 

My name is Robert D. Crumpton. I was born and raised in Ennis, the son of Mrs. Stella Parks, and we attended the Tabernacle Baptist Church. After graduating high school, I had a job working as an automobile serviceman. Working that job I learned about motors and such and how to make things tick. 

Everyone knew that war was coming and I really wanted to be part of the Air Force and to be able to fly. So I joined the Army Air Corps on the 2nd of May 1941. They sent me for training in Oklahoma and then onto Arizona. After Pearl Harbor, I was put with a bomber squadron and went to gunnery school and also studied aircraft engineering. Then it was onto Nebraska, California and Illinois for more training. 

I was made part of the crew of Lt. James Brodie. There was Lt. Lloyd Vevle the Co-Pilot, Lt. Hawkins the Navigator, Bryon the bombardier, Donnie the radio operator, Gordie the ball turret gunner, Harry the waist gunner, Willie the tail gunner, and me... the engineer and top turret gunner. We worked together for many long hours building into a team that could count on each other. We flew the B-17, better known as the flying fortress. 

Upon arriving in England, we were made part of the 545th Bomber Squadron, 384th Bomber Group, part of the mighty 8th Air Force. We were stationed at the Air Force Station 106 near the village of Grafton Underwood in Northamptonshire, England. Our airfield is where the 8th Air Force first got started here in England. The first American bombs dropped on Europe in this war, came from right here on our base. 

Our base was nice enough, but in the middle of no-where. It was situated in the countryside, surrounded by farmland and woods. We could be riding a jeep out to our plane and there might an old farmer plowing his field just a few hundred feet from us. The little town of Grafton was small, but it had a pretty little church and the people there were very nice to us.  

Our crew, the Brodie crew, was in this war until we finished 35 combat missions. Our plane was named the “Lazy Daisy”. It was the latest version, a B-17G, but in our squadron each fortress flew with only a crew of nine. We were expected to make do with one waist gunner instead of the usual two.  

The word we got was that a crew had an average life expectancy of 15 missions, but I wasn’t figuring on those odds applying to us. 

On the day of a typical mission, we were awakened at 4 o’clock and had breakfast. Most times you couldn’t eat much, just coffee and a piece of toast was about all I could stomach. Before heading out for the plane, there was a mission briefing where they gave us the Wing Order of Battle. All the while, our ground crew had been out there gassing our plane and loaded the bombs, 50 cal. ammo and our oxygen bottles. Then about 7 o’clock the “start engines” flares would fly up in an arch from the control tower. 

The bombers took off at 30 to 40-second intervals and climbed in a slow revolving spiral until we gathered at 20,000 feet and got into formation. Just taking off and getting into a squadron formation of 36 planes in this English weather was a hair-raising experience. Our 384th Bomber Group had four squadrons, which amounted to around 144 bombers trying to find their place inside the clouds. Many times you could only see the adjoining plane to the immediate right or left. This took nerves of steel and a lot of teamwork. 

Finally our group would fall into line with other groups and head out over the North Sea toward the continent in a long stream of 8th Air Force planes. The spectacle of seeing hundreds and hundreds of aircraft trailing contrails in formation was an extraordinary sight. 

Once over the channel, I would always clear my guns, fire off a couple of short bursts and rotate my gun turret, just to make sure that everything was in working order. From here on in, I spent my time straining my eyes against the bright morning sky, watching for German fighters. They were coming for us, of that there was no doubt, we just didn’t know how many and from what direction. 

Although we were in our mid-20’s or younger, these missions took an awful toll on us, both physically and mentally. The combination of extreme cold, fluctuating air pressure, constant noise and vibration, 10-hour missions and fear of being shot down by fighters or flak was almost too much to take. The stress was such that once we made it back on the ground, we were all exhausted. 

Sometimes on our days off they would show a movie for us at the base theater. We called the place “Foxy Theater”, and it was a welcome escape. But many times I would find myself staring at the screen and seeing images of yesterday’s mission; Planes in our squadron being shot apart, rolling over and blowing up in mid-air... Men tumbling through space... The sound of flak bouncing off the plexiglas of my gun turret. 

In the barracks, there was the occasional scream in the night; some of the guys had nightmares. Everybody dealt with the stress in his own way. Some walked into the woods to be alone... This was all much worse than I ever imagined it would be. I hope that all this sacrifice amounts to something, maybe someday it will. 

On a cold September morning, we were awakened at 0310 for another mission. We had our usual breakfast and went on to the mission briefing. There on the wall behind our commanding officer was our group motto, “Keep the Show on the Road.” He went on to outline our mission for the day.  It was the group’s 201st mission of the war. 

My plane was to fly the No. 2 position of the high element of our squadron. The primary target for today was an oil plant on the Elbe River at Magdeburg, Germany. This was a heavily defended target and a long flight of almost ten hours, definitely not a milk run. This one was going to be hairy. 

Take off went well, as we began our roll at 0719. Our squadron assembled without incident and we maneuvered into place with the rest of the group. Our 41st Combat Wing that day was made up of the 303rd Bomb Group in the lead, following by the 379th, and then us, the 384th Bomb Group. After we all fell in line and headed for Germany, there were a total of 417 fortresses in our formation that day, nearly four thousand men. 

I tried to keep myself occupied, going through my checklists, scanning to horizon, cleaning the glass of my turret, checking my guns, adjusting my oxygen mask, looking for a new stick of gum. 

When we neared Germany, the Luftwaffe fighters showed up without warning, but right on schedule. From my vantage point, I could see as they made head-on frontal attacks on our lead group in wedges of eight to sixteen planes together. They were Focke Wolfe 190’s, attacking en masse, coming at us as a solid group. This was a new tactic that we had not seen before. 

The Nazi fighters were like mad men in what seemed like almost suicidal attacks. I watched as one B-17 after another was shot up and fell out of formation. There were over twenty of our planes lost in the two lead groups. Each time we watched for chutes as the plane would roll over and dive towards the clouds below. And over the radio you would hear, “Come on you guys, bail out!” 

My group got through this air-battle without too much damage because today the enemy fighters seemed to concentrate mostly on the two lead groups. But watching all this carnage was very unnerving for us all, and we knew that the German anti-aircraft fire was just up ahead. 

As we came upon the target area, the flak was extreme. I looked ahead at the carpet of black bursts of smoke, and it appeared as though you could get out and walk on the steel. Some of the planes up ahead began to dip and weave a little. All of this commotion had broken up our tight formation, but we flew on through to the target, good formation or not.  

Just after “Bombs Away”, we all noticed at about the same time something unthinkable, another group of B-17’s coming right across our path. Our lead element began a quick turn and dive. We, being the high element, had to turn sharply and climb. 

Our four 1200-horsepower engines were screaming, as was our crew. Planes were sliding out of position and we slipped just below the #941 plane to our left. My gun turret nearly hit the underside of it, and all I could do shout positions to our pilot and hold on. 

As we passed underneath our lead plane, I turned from side to side looking for more planes and then I saw it... Another B-17, the #337 moving straight for me! There wasn’t time to react. 

And then a sudden jolt and a loud crack... Our wings began to fold up, and then our gas went off. 

It was the 28th of September 1944, a Thursday, and I was 24 years old. 

We were soldiers once and young. 

Remember us.

Biography of Robert D. Crumpton

"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, August 6, 2006. 

Photograph of Grafton Underwood field in England courtesy of Perry Giles, Giles Monument Company, Waxahachie, Texas.

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