Oral Historian: Samuel Spencer, Jr.
Interview Date: 18 January 2007
Interviewer: John Bowers
Sam, how old were you when you went into the service?
I was 25 yrs. old and a bachelor, and I was from Baltimore, Maryland.
Were you drafted or did you volunteer?
I was drafted on September 12th, 1941, and I came out August 22nd, 1945. I went in to the Coast Artillery and had my basic training at Ft. Eustis, Virginia. I was getting ready to have a furlough when Pearl Harbor happened. In the next couple of days, I was in Portland, Maine, with a searchlight crew stationed in one of the outer environments of Portland.
What were you looking for with those searchlights?
Our responsibility was to put the light on any plane that came over Portland. There were probably 8 to 10 searchlight crews in Portland, which is a naval base, small in comparison to Norfolk, VA. But anyway, the Canadian White Fleet was stationed in the Portland harbor , and we were supposed to shine the light on any aircraft overhead. Later on, we were stationed out on the Atlantic coastline with a 155 mm battery a little further toward the water than we were. We were to silhouette any ship coming from Boston to Halifax where they were making up convoys. Perhaps we silhouetted some ships for the German submarines, too - we don't know. But we hope not.
You said that later you got a commission. How did you do that?
Well, the snow was about up to my knees in Portland, and I got a call from Headquarters in Boston inquiring if I was interested in going to Officer's Candidate School. I said I WAS --- I probably would have joined the Chinese Army about that time. I was accepted into the Air Corps and had my choice of becoming a pilot, bombardier, or navigator. I chose pilot training. That was in February or March 1942, but I didn't get my call until July to report to Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama. I first went to Nashville, Tennessee, and then we were sent out to Maxwell Field in the middle of August 1942. I stayed there about a week, and then I was sent to Door Field, Florida, near Lake Okeechobee from October 20th until January 3rd, 1943. Then I went to Cutter Field for basic training and stayed there from January 3rd until February 17th and in the process there, I washed out (of pilot training). I was sent back to Nashville on February 18th and stayed in Nashville until March 9th.
Then I was sent to Ellington Field, Texas, where I had basic training in bombardier. Then I went to Big Spring, TX, for Advanced Bombardier training, where I was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant on August 5th, 1943.
When you were there in Texas, what kind of aircraft were you flying?
In Texas, we were flying in an AT…an advanced trainer. A two-wing and two-engine and two-rudder plane.
And then you deployed overseas.
We went from Big Spring, TX, to Pueblo, CO, from August 25th to December 16th - where I took the advanced bombardier training. Then we went to Harrington, Kansas - we were on our way over then. We stayed there from December 17th to January 10th, 1944. Then we went to Morrison Field in Florida and that's where we left the States.
And how did you all travel to Italy?
We traveled by airplane. We left Morrison Field on January 12th and went to St. Lucia because we were having compass trouble. They had a small field there. We got down OK, but we were heavily loaded with gear and they told us that it (the landing strip) was short for a heavily loaded 4-engine plane to take off. On the far end of the landing strip was a 50-60 ft. drop off into the ocean onto the rocks. We got up all the power we could and the pilot and copilot stood on the brakes to keep it in one place until we got it revved up to full power. And then we took off and just did get off at the end of the runway - we sank down some, but got off safely. It was exciting.
Then we went to Trinidad and stayed there 1 day. Then Belem, Brazil, for a couple of days, but when we went from Trinidad to Belem, we went over Venezuela on autopilot. Everyone was relaxed and had their seat belts either off or loosened. Fortunately, the copilot had his seat belt just loosened slightly, when the autopilot had a glitch in it. We went right straight down, and everything went to the ceiling: the crew, ten gallons of water, parachutes, extra flying equipment, etc. Everything went to the top and hung there until we were about 5 to 6 thousand feet. The co-pilot got his seat belt straightened up and applied some resistance to the wheel and flipped the autopilot off. By that time, the pilot had gotten back into his seat and with their combined strength, they pulled the plane up before we hit bottom. Then everything came down on to this corrugated runway from the front to the back and it dented the water jugs and the crew some. No one got hurt, but we didn't go on autopilot again.
We stayed in Brazil for several days and took off from there to go to Dakar, Senegal, in Africa. I was watching for land with the navigator. We left there at night and were supposed to get into Africa the next evening. We saw many false horizons and when we got to where we thought Africa was, there wasn't anything but water. But we arrived safely in Dakar on January 15th and saw the Senegal police with their red fezzes and long rifles and their other costumes.
Then we went to Marrakech, Morocco, on January 17th and stayed overnight there. We nearly froze - we were at the base of the Atlas Mountains, and it got REALLY cold. We didn't have anything but cots and an extra blanket and that cold wind would come right up through the bottom of the plane.
From there we went to Casablanca. We stayed in Casablanca for ten days and we enjoyed seeing that city -it's right on the water. We went into town, and one thing I remember is the natives in their long white gowns. Everyone wore what looked like a long white sheet with some kind of fez on his head. The ones that were driving horses on carts had their whips and bony horses. If they wanted to get their horses to go a little faster, they'd holler 'VIT!" And I saw my very first underground latrine - it was very busy and right there in the middle of the town. And they had a lady there to hand you the towel, washcloth, and the soap.
Next we went to Algiers and stayed there for two to three days. Algiers is built up on the side of the hills and is very picturesque. The harbor is right down there at the foot and it was more or less a French city. The French had been there for a while and there was less Algierian than there was French influence to our eyes.
Then we went from Algiers to Tunis for 3-4 days and from there we went to Manduria, Italy. I remember flying over Sicily - we were just at rooftops and everything had the pink- or rose-colored corrugated roofs. From Manduria, we went to Lecce, which was our base from February 3rd to June 19th, 1944. That was where we flew our first missions from Lecce Air Force Base.
Let's talk about the kind of airplane you were flying and where you flew some of your missions.
We were flying a B-24 Liberator, a 4-engine bomber with a crew of 10. We carried about 2700-2800 gallons of high-test gasoline and 2 ˝ to 3 tons of bombs. The bombs were usually 500 pounders, 1000 pounders, or fragmentation bombs, which were smaller.
We flew missions into north Italy, Austria, Germany, Romania, and Bulgaria. We flew 3 missions to Starr (QUESTION), Austria; to Ploesti, Romania; 1 to Wiener-Neustadt, Austria; to Vienna, to Budapest, Bucharest, and a number of missions into northern Italy. Each mission either counted for 1 or two missions: a rough mission counted for two, while our missions into northern Italy counted only 1, and 50 was the number of completed missions that you could come home on. After about the 10th or 12th mission, you got a break or R&R - rest and 'resurrection.' About 10 days on the Isle of Capri, which was about 30 miles out in the Mediterranean from Naples, Italy, and we were put on a barge to get there. You couldn't see Capri until you were about halfway or more there. And it was just a rock, sticking up out of the water. The closer we got to it, the more intriguing it became. The rock walls went up straight out of the water. There weren't any beaches there except in two places: one on the south east side of Capri and the other on the west side of the island. One was called Capri and the little town above was called Anacapri. We were supposed to stay there ten days, but we got 3-4 extra days because while we were there, the Germans came in and mined the harbor. They had to sweep the harbor clear before any shipping was allowed in or out.
On Capri, we had accommodations in the best hotels there and we had a lot of beer drinking and a lot of singing. There were a lot of souvenir shops with exorbitant prices - we thought. Our pilot was an owner of a small vessel off Coney Island and he knew a little bit about sailing-but we didn't. So we rented a 15-foot sloop, but we couldn't go under our own authority but had to have a native from Capri as our pilot. His name was Mario - about 5 feet tall and with a real dark complexion. He was really friendly and we had a good time. We sailed all around the island and then went into the Blue Grotto. The island had a number of caves that the sea had washed into the walls there and the most famous Blue Grotto you could go in at low tide - you couldn't get in at high tide. Inside the water was this brilliant blue and the walls were also. Off the coast a little way were these rocks, and one had a big hole completely washed through it that you could go through in a boat. I got a hold of some paint and painted those rocks (on canvas), and I thought it was pretty good for me. While we were gone in Turkey, someone looted our lockers before we were shipped back to the States. That painting and other valuables we had were missing.
While we were in Naples, we saw Mt. Vesuvius - it was still putting out a little smoke. We were there in June, and in March, it had erupted, and the red-hot cinders had ruined quite a few Allied airplanes in the different airfields around there.
We flew a mission on June 11th, 1944, to Constanta, Romania, on the Black Sea - on what we thought might be our last mission. I looked out the window and could see the flak coming at us - it looked like it was inaccurate and scattered. One hit us on the left wing and knocked out the 1 and 2 engines on that side. We thought B-24's had a tendency to blow up in a few seconds, and we thought we were going to bail out until the pilot said he could get it under control if we threw out everything we had in there except us (the crew). So we jettisoned the bombs and threw out all of the machine gun ammunition and everything else except the parachutes and ourselves. We still couldn't maintain altitude - we were down 5000 feet or so and still loosing altitude and 600 miles from base. We had the Alps to go over to get back to our base, which was a higher altitude than we could maintain. So the pilot said the only alternative was to go to Istanbul, Turkey, which was about a 110 miles south. So we did. We came in with wheels down and the flare, but still they shot at us. Turkey was neutral, but they had Franz Von Papen, the German ambassador there (1939-1944). So I guess for his benefit, they shot at us to show that they were not too neutral. They came pretty close - too close, we thought. We landed, and they gave us each a cup of thick Turkish coffee in exchange for our airplane. We spent that one night in an old Turkish barracks, and slept very little because of the bedbugs - just TERRIBLE!
The next day, they took us down to the docks and to the Bosporus where they put us in a boat to the Asiatic side and boarded a train. Before we left, something like the Red Cross or another charity group, gave us cookies and candy because we didn't have any rations. We thanked them and were very appreciative until we got back to our base and figured out that they had taken it out of our pay for those cookies and candies.
We spent 28 days in the 'New Hotel' in Istanbul (June 12th to July 8th) -and it was probably the oldest hotel in Turkey. We had breakfast and lunch at the New Hotel - they had cooks in the basement and made a good omelet. I still remember about their cooking. We ate at what I guess was the best restaurant in Istanbul each night. I guess that why the meal was so good and we had such good service was because the owner was a big Turkish man. He had a son who was killed that was so much like one of our crewmembers that there was nothing that he could do for us that was too good. So we had it pretty good there.
Then we left Ankara on July 8th on a 6-seater commercial airplane with a native pilot. He flew along about 5000-6000 feet, and we could see how barren Turkey was. We did fly over a large lake in a British C-47 with just planks on either side of the plane for us to sit on. We got to Cairo the same day - flying along the coast of Israel. We stopped one time to refuel. While we were in Cairo for three days, we went out to the Pyramids and the Sphinx and rode the camels. I remember I had a terrible headache and the flies were pretty fierce.
From Cairo, we flew to Algiers for a day or so, and then flew to Naples, Italy for 2-3 days, and then to Bari, Italy, where we were getting pretty close to home. From Bari, we flew back to Lecce, our base. We were at Lecce from July 17th to September 7th, 1944, during which we flew two more missions: one was to Ploesti, a real rough target -- the oilfields and refineries in Romania; and one to France --Toulon. The order came out that no POWs or internees were to fly after they got back to base. Some of the men on our plane were struck on our next to last mission - it was my 41st mission and I had two more after that.
We finished our missions and we left September 12th from Naples going to New York on a troop ship. I remember that the Mediterranean was just as quiet as it could be and a number of flying fish would get up in front of our bow. It looked to me like they sailed for a hundred yards before they had to come back to water again. We passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Atlantic. 5000 miles out into the Atlantic, the convoy came into the path of a hurricane. I remember the destroyers and troop ships and the oil tankers would go out of sight completely in those big waves. I just wondered if they would ever come back up. A lot of the guys got seasick, and we had Limburger cheese one night. You could hardly get up the stairways because guys had upchucked.
We arrived in New York -Camp Shanks - on September 26th, 1944. I was discharged from the Army Air Corps on 22 August 1945 from Childress Air Force Base in Texas. I was glad to be home.
Tell me about the bombsights that you used. There were two types that you used.
We used the Norden and then Sperry came out with a larger one, a boxy type. Norden was almost like a cylinder, and it was preferred by most of the bombardiers. I don't know why, but I preferred it, too. It was about 18-20 inches long and maybe 8 inches in diameter.
When your plane was forced to make that landing in Turkey on just two engines, what did you do with that bombsight?
I threw it out the window before we landed.
They were classified and so that's why you had to do that - destroy it along with any other classified information: radio codes, etc. I think it was absolutely amazing that the pilot was able to keep that plane flying with two engines out on the left wing and then to make a safe landing. That must have been really hard.
Well, in training at Pueblo, they had a pilot, who tested each new pilot and had the job of taking the pilots up and to put them into emergency. One of them, I imagine, was to pull two engines on one side. I know the pilot who tested our pilot there in Pueblo, later tested another pilot who didn't react as well, and he was killed. It was a risky job, but someone had to do it - to see if the new pilots could respond in an emergency.
Your crew of 10 -- you said that one of your enlisted men was flying with a different aircraft one time and had to bail out?
Yes, the top turret man -sometimes you'd be assigned to another crew - was unfortunate to be assigned to another crew that was hit pretty badly and he had to bail out. But he got down safely although he never got back to our base or back in U.S. hands until after the war was over. But he was OK.
Then I knew of one turret man who told me after the war was over that his plane was hit and the whole turret was blown off. He was sailing through space in that turret. He doesn't remember how he got out of there but he did and parachuted safely to the ground.
The airplanes had a lot of pictures on the front - 'nose art' as they called it. Do you remember any of those?
Ours was named 'Fords Folly.' The nose pictures of the girls didn't usually have too many clothes on. I don't know anything about the tail.
Did someone in the crew usually paint the pictures or was there someone at the base there that was good at it?
I think someone in the paint shop probably did it.
But the crew could kind of select what they wanted? I guess the pilot was the main one that could choose…
I don't think he had any more than one vote.
Did the crew pretty much stay together the entire time?
Right - except for the top turret man. One time, when we were in Pueblo, our pilot got arthritis so bad that he couldn't go to altitude. So we got the pilot that took us on through all of our overseas missions - and I'm glad of it, too. I didn't have too much confidence in the first one, but the second one was A#1 -SUPER!!
The only one of the crew with whom I have contact is the tail gunner and assistant engineer. He lives in Sonoma, California, in the wine country. He later went on to become an architect in San Francisco and did well.
The others either died or I lost contact with them. The pilot - I kept in contact with him. He went to a retirement place in Florida and then got sick and moved to another one closer to Army facilities. Then he died.
Several others have died. And the ball-turret man just died here in the last year or so in Utah, and he had the most dangerous position in the whole plane because he had to be cranked in and out of that ball turret. It had a mechanism but if the communications and the mechanism went out, and something happened that the ball turret was hit or went out of alignment, he was stuck until someone came and hand-cranked him out.
What was the unit that you were in?
I was in the 344th Bomb Squadron, 98th Bomb Group, 47th Wing, 15th Air Force.
I do know that one group - they were shot up pretty badly - one plane's pilot lowered its wheels to show that it was no longer in position to resist. He was off from the formation and when the fighters came in to look him over, the bomber shot at the fighters. Because of the tail markings, the fighters knew who the fighters were - what squadron etc. This wasn't a cricket match - it was war. If you say, "I give up, and then put yourself in a fighting position again - well, the fighters tried to annihilate that group. Because they had those markings on the rudders and the wings stabilizers, they should have changed markings.