B-26 Marauder 320th Bomb Group

 

Remembrances of the B-Dash-Crash & My Experiences with the 320th
by John (Jack) S. Harpster, 442nd Bomb Squadron

 

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On Our Way to Combat

 

  Camp Patrick Henry

 

Camp Patrick Henry was a typical Army Post and a staging area for overseas deployment. None of us were sure where we would be going and there were lots of pools and bets made. They gave us our shipment number,FH801BH, that we had to stamp everywhere except on our forehead. Does that number tell you anything about our destination? It released no secret to us. At the camp there was very strict censorship and monitoring of all communications since America was taking quite a few losses from the German Submarine fleet called the “Wolf Pack”, a constant threat hanging just off shore. My generation might well remember the slogan of: “A slip of the lip may sink a ship”. Camp officials did their very best to assure there was no “slip of the lip”. In fact, I had censorship duty for several days and some of the efforts to tell folks and loved ones information made the letters end up looking like a ransom note. We suffered interminable delays, false start up alarms, and postponements. One day a break in the boredom was that of an abandon ship practice drill and then finally some definitive news.  We were to assemble tomorrow morning before first light for transport to .... and they stopped short there. Still didn’t know!


  The Ten-day Wonder - The Liberty Ship

 

Up at 4:00 in the morning we shouldered our packs and gear and marched to the train for yet another trip to an unknown destination. Not many minutes later we all off-loaded and were standing on a dock waiting for “Our ship to come in”. Naturally the ship didn’t “Come in” until 1:00 PM and the constant rain did little for our spirits.  It was a typical military “Hurry Up To Wait” operation. The boat we finally boarded was what they called a Liberty Ship and it had another nickname that we gave it, which was a "Ten-Day Wonder". I really don’t think it was made in ten days as was alleged, but I do know that hundreds of them were built to assist with overseas movements of men and equipment in efforts to keep ahead of the toll taken by the “Wolf Pack”. The Liberty Ship was new, rather tinny, and extremely crowded. We were bunked four deep in narrow, hard, canvas lined beds and you almost had to change positions in unison as your shoulders would bump the man above in the effort as you rolled over in your bunk.

Not wanting to enter the Atlantic at dusk, they anchored just off of Hampton Roads and then at dawn started to join up with the large convoy already forming. All in all, 52 Liberty ships were set out in lines of about eight deep and eight accompanying destroyers flanked us on all sides. It was very comforting to see this deterrent and protection against the constant threat of German U-Boats. Occasionally the destroyers would get up steam and rush off in another direction. This was easy for them to do as our convoy only averaged seven and one half knots most of the way across the Atlantic Ocean. A beautiful sight to see was that of the entire convoy quietly and smoothly slipping through the waters at night illuminated by a full moon. Of course there was no radio ship to ship communication and we could see all the signal lights flashing messages back and forth. The first part of the voyage was like a floating casino, a Caribbean Cruise what with the smooth seas, beautiful moonlit nights and the ever-constant card games.

The bliss of a pleasure cruise, however, soon changed to a fight for a place on the rail to hang to and feed the fish. We had entered a bad Atlantic storm and many were the airmen that took up semi-permanent residence on their favorite railing. Lots of troops were seasick. This was not helped at all by the food served on board, as it was absolutely terrible. For example, powdered eggs for breakfast tossed down with powdered milk, slop on a shingle for lunch and not much better for dinner. The mess line was set up below decks and stood on four cross-legged racks. One day we encountered extremely heavy seas. We were pitching and rolling and diving all at the same time. At least so it seemed. During one maneuver resembling a slow roll, the whole mess line collapsed thus living up to its name of “Mess”. Actually nobody much cared at this point. To add insult to injury, one of the Stewards was selling black market Steak Sandwiches for $5.00. It was a “Knock twice and ask for Joe” kind of operation. As a result our conscience didn’t bother us too much when we formed a Midnight Requisition Party and raided the storeroom. After that we ate much better and a lot of the green complexions also improved. Just to throw off any subs that might be in our area, the convoy on occasion would execute in mass a turn to a northerly heading and that was the signal to dump garbage. The rationale was that a UBoat might discover this track of refuse and think that we were Iceland bound, or elsewhere. I bet there were a lot of sick sharks that tried to eat our left over meals.


The Stars Reveal Our Destination

 

 
 

I recorded my thoughts of this day written in my diary as above. Please forgive the terrible handwriting, as I wanted to show you a sample of my WW II record kept throughout the war.

One of the B-26 crew Navigators had been taking celestial shots and by then we knew we were on a definite heading for Africa. And he was right. On the eve of the 18th day at sea, four ships separated from the convoy as we awaited first light to navigate into the Casablanca Harbor. At dawn a P-39 flew out to see if we were still there. It was weird to watch him as he circled and circled because later on his turns tightened and tightened until he finally fell out of his flight path in a spin and crashed into the sea. We never found out what happened to him. Later that day, all four Liberty ships docked at Casablanca Harbor.


Lousy Wine

 

The closing comment reference “Lousy Wine” was more truth than fiction. After nearly 3 weeks of confinement in the Cattle Car Liberty Ship, we were really stressed out. It took a lot of wine to forget the journey. Another thing I’m still trying to forget is the allegation they held over my head that once back at the camp, I extinguished the top mounted light bulb in our tent with my combat boot. I just can’t believe that. The diary comment reference “the natives” also rings a bell. In those days, you did not dare stop walking along the streets for a second. If you did stop, you’d be besieged by “Salesmen”. These entrepreneurs would be pushing everything from the usual watches, rings, beads, ‘my sister’, a ‘college student’, or possibly both and throw rugs and miscellany ad infinitum. Along with the pitchmen were hordes of children looking for the occasional G.I. with extra ‘chokolet’ bars. Unfortunately, the poverty, filth, and native garb along with the many camels on scene gave new meaning to me of a curse that probably originated right here in Casablanca:

 “May the Fleas of 1000 Camels Infest your Blankets”

(Continued)


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