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1st Lieutenant Harry O. Green

"We Were Soldiers Once, and Young"

By Perry Giles, Guest Columnist, Waxahachie Daily Light 

My name is Harry O. Green. I grew up on a small farm a few miles south of Zephyr, Texas. My parents, Robert and Beulah, raised three sons on that dry-land rocky farm. There was Bert the oldest, Joe Ray the youngest, and myself in the middle. We raised cotton, corn, oats, and wheat whenever we had enough rain. Otherwise we depended on our cattle, chickens, and large vegetable garden to get through the tough times. We didn’t have money, but I don’t remember going without.


Each day my brothers and I walked two miles to the Beard Hill Schoolhouse. There were two teachers there, and I very much enjoyed going to school. My favorite pastimes were always reading and studying. My brothers said that I was the diligent thinker of the family.


After graduating high school at Zephyr, I went on to college in Brownwood where I worked a part-time job at the local soda fountain. Mostly I cleaned up, sold candy, and served as the soda jerk. A job is a job, and it put me through college.


After graduating from Howard Payne University, I moved to Forreston to take a teaching job at the high school. There weren’t many jobs available then and the teaching position suited me just fine. I taught mathematics and science, and made many new friends in the Forreston area.


There was this one girl in the area that I really liked. Maybe things will work out for us someday. Time will tell, no need to rush... And I really liked my new job. Life was good there.


But after the big shock on December 7th, 1941, I just didn’t feel right teaching anymore. I truly felt as though I needed to do my part for the country. So I resigned my job during the Christmas break, said my farewells to the good people in Forreston and volunteered for the Army Air Corps.


I took my training at Randolph Field in San Antonio, and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant, with a pay scale of $1800 a year. I was assigned to a B-17 bomber group and sent to Gowen Air Field at Boise, Idaho for more training. I really enjoyed the flying; there was just something inside me that wanted to reach for the skies.


On 24 August 1942 we received orders to deploy overseas. We flew our planes in pairs, making many stops on our way to Dow Army Air Force Base in Maine. We got all set to cross the North Atlantic flying in squadrons and in late September, we flew from Maine to Gandor, Newfoundland. From there we took off on the North Ferry Route flying nonstop to Scotland. As we approached the Irish coast, there was a heavy fog and one of the planes in our squadron crashed onto a hillside. Finally arriving at Prestwick, Scotland, we settled down for a few days rest. It had been quite an adventure crossing the Atlantic, sobering and costly, as we found out that eight crewmembers and a flight surgeon had been killed in that crash.


On October the 6th we flew south to a new airfield, RAF Kimbolton, at Huntingdonshire, England. It was a wartime construction and was definitely not a Class A airfield. After about three days of practice missions, it was determined that these runways were not suitable for our heavy bombers. Our commanding officer, Colonel Wray, decided to move our group to a better airfield in Bassingbourn, which was a few miles northeast of London. He did this without permission and it made him truly popular with the men.


Bassingbourn was an old Royal Air Force base that the RAF had vacated and made available for us. It had permanent buildings and was a nice base, all things considered. We were surrounded on all sides by country farms, which they farmed right up to the edge of the runways. We were now set up at our first assignment. It was October 11, 1942.

Sometimes we were bombed at night. We watched the Germans come over on their bombing runs. We could see the anti-aircraft searchlights fix on a German plane and the anti-aircraft batteries would blast away. But they rarely hit anything.

I was with the 401st Bomber Squadron of the 91st Bomber Group, part of the 8th Air Force. The “Mighty 8th Air Force”, as we called it. They promoted me to 1st Lieutenant with a pay scale of $2000 a year.


We flew in bomber number 41-24447.  The name of our plane was the “Kickapoo”. Our pilot was Captain Johnny Swain from Colorado. There was Ralston the navigator, Cassius the bombardier, Wally the engineer and top turret gunner, Everett the radio operator, Artie the ball turret gunner, Bobby and Gregg the waist gunners, Herbie the tail gunner, and myself the co-pilot.


We were one of the first four groups of B-17s sent to England and one of our jobs was to help create doctrine and tactics as we pioneered the concept of strategic bombing by daylight, something that the British said couldn’t be done. We began combat operations in November of 1942, and we experimented with a variety flying formations that would give us the maximum protection against the enemy fighters. For the first few months we concentrated on the German U-boat pens in French ports, and then the U-boat construction yards in Germany.

On any day there was a mission; those crews that were flying that day were rousted from sleep at about 3:00 a.m. We would go to the mess hall for breakfast, but nervous stomachs interfered with many an appetite. After some coffee and toast, we reported to the squadron operations office to dress in our flight suits.

From there, we would go the group briefing to get the mission overview. After that, there were individual briefings for pilots, navigators, bombardiers, gunners, and radiomen. Then finally we were trucked from the barracks area to our airplanes. The tension was heavy on us, but nobody wanted to show it.

It was early in the war, and once we crossed over the Channel, we had no fighter protection. When those German fighter planes spotted us, they would turn and barrel roll right through our formation, blasting away at us with each pass. Usually they came at us from the front and we would call them out for our gunners. But as strange as it sounds for me to say, watching those German fighters in action was a thing of beauty. Those Jerry’s were very brave and they were very good. 

A mission might have a flight time ranging from six to twelve hours. The noise, the fatigue, the cold, and the terror of aerial combat, it all mounted up on us. The strain was just tremendous and it sapped more out of me than I realized.

We were in a lot of rough fighting in those early days of the war. Many of our planes came back shredded with bullet holes and flak damage; full of wounded and dead crewmembers, men with frostbite, men with a leg blown off, men with steel splinters all in their face. Some of it was worse than I care to describe.


Our 91st Bomb Group was dubbed “The Ragged Irregulars” because we were often shot up so badly, many times we could not put a full group into combat. Often times, we had to fill in with other units to make up a full bombing formation. Our ground crews were constantly patching holes, replacing propellers, replacing engines, tail sections and wings, many times working tirelessly around the clock. We would have never made it into the air without those guys.


Many days were spent flying practice missions and going to ground school training classes. The gunners spent a lot of time out at the gunnery range shooting skeet. And it wasn’t at all unusual to get totally prepared for a mission and have it cancelled on us just before takeoff. That was something that really hurt the morale of the men.


When we had a liberty, Cambridge was one of our favorite places to go. Many of the officers and men made friends with the families there, and looked forward from week to week for their day off when they were able to ride over to Cambridge and escape this war to enjoy a little civilian leisure.


February 16th was a typical mission for us. Our target was the U-boat base at St. Nazaire, France. Our combat wing put 51 bombers over the target that day and we all carried five 1000-pound bombs. Our altitude at target was 24,000 feet. There was intense flak over the target, but our bomb pattern was good and concentrated, with many bombs hitting on target.


After the bomb run, at least fifty enemy fighters attacked us, like hungry dogs on prey. Our gunners worked furiously to keep them off of us, firing burst after burst. There was so much firing and brass shell casings flying around inside the plane that you couldn’t hear. They attacked us at all angles and pressed home their attacks, flying through our formation again and again. I looked one German pilot right in the face as he passed just by our cockpit, and I tell you he had blue eyes.


Our combat wing shot down six enemy fighters that day, but also lost six of our fortresses. That was 60 of our boys lost on this one mission. My group made it back unscathed, we were the lucky ones today... That was mission No. 16 for me.


All the guys tried their best to put on a brave front. Nobody wanted to be the one to let down the crew. Everyone wants to do their part, but every time we took off on a mission, we knew the score. On just about every mission some of our planes didn’t make it back. Truthfully, our chances of surviving twenty-five missions seemed hopeless, but we just did the best we could. Sometimes I wondered if the folks back home knew what we were going through.


It was just sickening to watch your buddies shot down, one after another. At night in the barracks, it was hard enough to sleep with all the worries and stress. I would lay awake and listen to the nightmares of the other airmen. Some would scream out, and brave men sometimes cried in their sleep... Just nine more missions and I’m done with this.


On Thursday the 25th, we got up early and made all preparations for a mission to attack the marshalling yards at Abbeville, but the plan was changed at the last minute. Now, we were to bomb a commerce raider that had been spotted at Dunkirk. This delayed our take-off time by hours, as our ordinance had to be unloading and changed out for different size bombs. Plus all of our briefings and mission plans had to be undone and started over again from scratch.


Finally after all this exertion, we proceeded to our aircraft, started the engines and warmed them up, ready to taxi to the end of the runway, and then the order came down that the entire mission was cancelled. This would have been a milk run for us, and after all this, we were cancelled. No mission today after being all keyed up and focused for one. Our disappointment was very keen, and needless to say, the ground school classes received very little attention for the rest of the day. Such was the way our days went... We were totally frustrated and upset.


Late that afternoon we all gathered together in the gymnasium for a special memorial service. A Catholic chaplain led it, and there was a huge overflow crowd on hand, over 700 present I figured. The service, which began at 1730 hours, was in memory of all our personnel of the group that had been killed or who were missing in action... We needed that. It helped me a lot. I think it helped us all.


The next morning, they woke us at 0230 for another mission. After a very quick breakfast there was a briefing at 0315 hours. Today’s target was the naval construction yards at Bremen, with the port of Wilhelmshaven as the alternate target. Our bomb load was ten 500-pounders and we were to bomb today at 25,000 feet. We were at our stations by 0730 ready to go. It was cold and breezy. We taxied to the end of the runway and waited for the flair signal, and then we were rolling and airborne by 0800 hours. The weather was clear, the crew was in good spirits, and from all indications it would be a routine mission... It was the 26th of February. This would be my 17th.


Flying east toward Germany over the North Sea, the lead navigator had miscalculated the wind speed, and the strong winds blew us off course. Our group passed right over the German anti-aircraft positions on the Frisian Islands. Several aircraft took flak damage from this mistake, one fortress had to turn back, but we continued on. As we approached Bremen, it was decided to abort the primary target due to the weather, and we turned north toward the naval yards at Wilhelmshaven.


As we approached the target, nerves tensed up, you could see the flak exploding in black puffs just ahead, but we flew right straight into it. The plane jolted and bounced about, but we flew on, following our leader as best we could... Just eight more and I’m done with this.


Our bomb run was fairly good with a heavy pattern on the Reich docks and U-boat lairs. After “Bombs Away” we always said that now we’re not flying for Uncle Sam anymore, now we’re flying for ourselves. The flak was rather intense but nothing we hadn’t lived through before. But once clear of the flak, we were hounded by six twin-engine JU88’s and about twenty-four FW190 fighters. They followed us out over the North Sea and the chase was on.


We gave it full throttle and turned for England. Our gunners were firing away, short burst after short burst, lots of frantic chatter on the intercom, and then I heard it... Gunfire tearing through our wing! I shouted to Johnny, “Our No. 4 engine is on fire! The flaps are all shot up! We are losing fuel and losing it fast!”


It was very clear to us that we weren’t going to make it back to England. So we turned the plane back and tried to make a run for some dry land, any land. I turned around and took one last look at our group as they flew away from us over the sea.


It was a Friday, and I was 23 years old.


They never found us. My name is on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Cemetery in Cambridge, England.


We were soldiers once, and young... Remember us, all ten of us.


*On several missions flown by the crew of the “Kickapoo”, including their last mission, they were accompanied in wing formation by the 324th Bomb Squadron and the crew of Captain Robert K.  Morgan flying in the  “Memphis Belle”.  Just a couple of months after Lt. Harry Green and crew were lost; the “Memphis Belle” completed its 25th mission on May 17, 1943 and returned to the states to a triumphant welcome.


Biography of Harry O. Green

"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, September 17, 2005. 

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