2nd Lt Sheldon I. Vernon, B-17 pilot 384th Bomb Group (H), 8th Air Force, Grafton-Underwood, England 1943-1944
2nd Lt. Sheldon I. Vernon, 384th Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force
I first met Sheldon Vernon about 5 years ago. His wife Zoe and my wife were close friends. Sadly, Zoe passed away last year and I had been waiting until the time was right to ask him to tell me his story about his time as a pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress in the 384th Bomb Group with the 8th Air Force.
When I approached him about the interview, he was ready and willing so we sat down on April 13th, 2010 in his kitchen. I turned on the tape recorder and asked a lot of questions. What he told me made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I sat there in awe of this quiet man who went through so much in the service of his country.
Sheldon was born in New York City and grew up in Flushing Meadow. He graduated from high school in 1939 and was working and going to college at TCNY when the war broke out. He was actually listening to the Giants football game when the news came on the radio about the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 19 years old on December 7, 1941.
Instinctively, he knew that he would be going into the military and that he wanted to fly. When he told his mother of his desire to fly, she went into apoplexy. Nevertheless, he enlisted and applied for aviation cadet. His mother had to sign the application since he was not 21 so he changed it to infantry for her benefit and then changed it back to aviation. His mother never knew about his aviation choice until he got into flight training.
He passed the flight exam and the physicals and was sworn into the Army Air Corps. That began a almost one year wait to go to flight school. In December 1942 the Army Air Corps finally called him and told him to report for training.
Sheldon went to Nashville, Tennessee to the classification center for the Army. It was the dead of winter. After about 1-2 months of tests, the Army classified him as a pilot and sent him to Ellington Field, Houston, Texas. Ellington was what was called “preflight” where he learned the principles of flying an airplane.
I asked him what his thoughts and feelings on his first flight? The answer came back immediately: “I had never flown before and frankly I was scared.”
He soon grew to love flying He started out in a Steerman PT-17 Kaydet at Decatur Alabama and he quickly learned to love flying. He also flew the Vultee BT-13 “Vibrator” but he could not remember where that was. He then went to a multi-engine school in Columbus, Mississippi and said he remembers being apprehensive about the multi-engine plane because he had two throttles to worry about.
His first solo was in the Steerman. He and his instructor shot two or three landings and on the third landing his instructor told him to pull over to the field house which he did. To Sheldon’s surprise, the instructor got out and told him to take it around and shoot some landings. He had no problem with the take off but he over-shot the landing on the first attempt and realized he didn’t have enough room and pushed the throttle up and went around and finally got it on the ground.
From multi-engine school he went to Texas to learn to fly the B-17. His reaction to his first sight of a B-17 his reaction was one of: “My God, I’ll never be able to get that thing off the ground.” But he learned to fly it and fly it well.
At the field in Texas his aircraft crew joined him and they came together as a combat aircrew. Their next stop was in Dalhart, Texas and then on to St. Louis where they got more training on a B-17 Super Fortress. They had no idea where they were headed next, although rumor had it they were headed to England or Italy or North Africa. At that time, they were assigned to a “provisional group” headed by a major. Another B-17 group came into Scott Field headed by a Lt. Colonel. That group got the aircraft and Sheldon’s group got the shaft, His group boarded a train for a three day journey to New Jersey.
The train ride from St. Louis to New Jersey was marked by the entire crew getting stomach flu. It took three days to get from Scott Field in Missouri to New Jersey arriving in the middle of the night. The Army marched them from the train to a holding area near a ship waiting to take them to England. The group was still sick as a dog.
About a week later things improved and they boarded the Queen Elizabeth for the journey across the Atlantic. The Queen Elizabeth crossed without escorts because it was fast enough to out run German submarines. On the ship, there were 18 men to a stateroom with three tiers of bunks, two meals a day, fresh water for drinking only, and shaving with salt-water. They passed the time playing poker, shooting dice. Sheldon says the best he could do was to break even.
Arriving in Scotland on November 1943 they disembarked on ladders from the Queen Elizabeth because there was no dock. Their group boarded a train and arrived at Grafton-Underwood, England, home of the 384th Bombardment Group (Heavy). Grafton-Underwood is a small village in East Anglia, northeast of London. They were the third American air group at Grafton-Underwood. The 384th BG was part of the 8th Air Force commanded by General Eaker.
When Sheldon arrived in Grafton-Underwood with the 384th a “tour of duty” was defined as 25 missions. After 25 missions you were supposed to rotate back to the US. General Jimmy Doolittle took command of the 8th Air Force in January of 1944 and raised the number of missions to 30. If a pilot had flown 12 missions or more, his tour remained at 25; otherwise everyone with 12 or less had to fly 30 combat missions to rotate back home.
Question: When and where was your first mission? “It was bombing a molybdenum mine in Norway. There was very little in the way of flak and very little fighter opposition. It was totally a “milk run”. I was the only one of my crew that flew on this mission because I got assigned to another crew filling in for that pilot. That put me one mission up on the rest of my crew. I remember when I got back they all asked me how it went.”
Question: When was your next mission? “The next mission was December 11th, 1943 and we went to Emden, Germany. On that mission we got flak and fighters. We didn’t have the P-51s at that time but we had the P-47s. The 47s could only take us just barely into the (European) continent coast before they had to turn back. This was before external tanks were put on the P-47.
We didn’t get much in the way of escorts until the 51s came over and that was in February of 1944. We had a problem with them at first because they vaguely resembled a ME-109. So a couple of them got shot down from friendly fire from the B-17s. The entire 8th Air Force was grounded for three days for aircraft identification training. There wasn’t really any resemblance to a ME-109. The 51 had an air scoop and the 109 had a clean fuselage and both had an inline engine. The P-47 bore a mock resemblance to a FW-190. The 47 had elliptical wings and the 190 had more of a straight wing. What the Germans used to do is paint the leading edge of the wings on a 190 to try and make it look like a P-47. The P-47s used to flip up on the side so the bombers could take a look at their wing shape so as not to get shot at. The 190s got wise to that.
Another thing the Germans did was to paint the cowling on their aircraft to match the color or our aircraft. It was obvious they knew the right color and I concluded that there was spying going on in England with the information being sent on to Germany in real time.
Question: What kind of formation did you fly on a bombing mission? “It was 7 ships in a squadron and 3 squadrons in a group. The lead squadron flew at mid-level and then there was a high squadron and a low squadron. It was just a big box that we flew. It was for fighter coverage and bombing pattern.
The lead crew on the lead squadron and the guy in the #2 position in the lead squadron; the lead aircraft in the high squadron and the low squadron were the only aircraft fitted with bomb sights. Everyone else dropped (their bombs) with they dropped theirs. My bombardier used to say he was a "toggleer" (not a bombardier).
At the debriefing my bombardier was asked what the method of bombing a particular mission was and he said, “Two handed toggle.” The B-17 carried a lot of bombs. On bombing the French coast, what we called “No Ball”, the targets were actually rocket launch sites and we would carry 1000 lb bombs for those missions. They would even mount externals to carry more. I think we could carry close to 10,000 lbs. The biggest challenge was taking off and climbing to altitude with max load.”
Question: How did the group form up after take-off? “The first planes flew a pattern around the field. With bad weather, we would have to climb through the clouds and try and you had to find your group. There were a few mid-air collisions. It was a mess when you had a maximum effort of 800 to 1000 planes trying to assemble. It made for a little excitement. I found the button holes in the seat cushion during those missions.”
Question: How did the changing English weather affect bomber operations? “That was before instrument and GCI and it was visual approach. If you couldn’t get in by sight you were in deep trouble because there was no ground assistance. We would get briefed for a mission and sometimes it would get scrubbed before we even went out to the aircraft.
The first time we went to Berlin the mission was scrubbed three times. They got us up a 3 o’clock in the morning for the briefing and we went out to the aircraft doing our pre-flight and whatever else we did to get ready. The gunners would mount their guns. Before we took off it got scrubbed. That happened three times before we got off the ground and flew the mission.
On the third attempt to start mission to Berlin and we were getting ready to go. I climbed into the aircraft and I was walking up to the front and I stopped at the radio compartment and saw my radio operator, Tom Corbett, just sitting there just staring. I don’t remember what I said to him, “How’re you doing?” I tried to talk to him and he just sat there. I called the rest of the guys, the gunners and see if they could get a response from him. We couldn’t get a response from him. He was in a trance. I finally had to call Ops and to send someone out to pick him up and get another radio operator. He ended up going R & R and I remember him as being really gung ho, fearless type of guy but it all got to him.
Berlin was supposed to be tough. The way they briefed us, we were told that we would be under flak fire from at least 1500 guns and the Luftwaffe would really come at us, a real concerted effort. This was the first time American bombers came over Berlin. It created a little anxiety and it got to Corbett.”
Question: Who was your copilot? “Duffy was his name. (According to 384th BG records this was 2nd Lt. John H. Duffy) He was the oldest guy on the crew, in his late 20’s. He was a mining engineer before the War in lead mines in New Mexico. It affected his skin because he had a really dark complexion.”
Question: What were you told if you had to bail out over Occupied Territory? “We had a SOP (standard operating procedure). Everyone got what was called an escape kit. It had a picture of yourself in civilian clothes and you could use it if you encountered the underground and they could fix up phony papers for you. There was French money, German money, a map, and I don’t remember anything else but this is what everyone carried. You weren’t supposed to carry anything other than your dog-tags. All the officers were issued a sidearm, a Colt 1911 .45 pistol. We were briefed if captured, name, rank and serial number and nothing else. We were to contact the underground if you went down over Belgium or France and if you went down over Germany, lots of luck. If you had to surrender, surrender to the Luftwaffe, because they still had some regard for fellow fliers.
Question: What kind of uniform did you wear while flying in a B-17? We wore heavy clothing, as much as we could put on. We wore insulated under ware and heavy flight suit. It would get down to 60 below zero. The waist gunners were the ones who really suffered because they had open windows and it was not unusual to see frost bite. You didn’t take your gloves off and touch anything metal. It was cold.
Question: What was the most memorable mission of the 30 missions you flew? First Berlin. It was a max effort. Some of the other participating groups had to turn back or hit a secondary target. My group (348th) was the first group over Berlin. (This was the first daylight raid on the German capital.) We went in and hit the target. I think the target was a factory of some sort. We always had a specific target and if that became unavailable we were to hit a target of opportunity, the middle of any town. We couldn’t do that in France. The fighter opposition was very intense and the flak was thick. They fired 88mm shells that burst around the aircraft. No one on my aircraft ever got wounded. We took some hits from shrapnel. The aircraft was never damaged to the point where we were in danger of getting back to base. The only time we ever had to turn back before getting to the target was when we lost a supercharger and we couldn’t stay up at altitude. We were in formation and had to abort the mission. When we got close to the French coast we encountered some fighters but they just broke off. On one mission we forgot to turn on our IFF (Identification Friend or Foe signal). And the next thing we got two fighters buzzing us and every hand in the bomber reached to turn on the IFF.
Question: Describe some of the other missions you were on. The ones over Germany were the toughest ones. The flak was more intense, it was their homeland. Most of the flak was not over the target but on the coast. So they shot at us going in and coming out. There were flak guns all along the coast. There was one mission where the flak was totally off and at debriefing we said those guns were probably manned by Polish patriots. There wasn’t a dimes worth of difference in any of the German targets as far as the flak and fighters were concerned. The missions I flew in May, the Luftwaffe fighters were almost absent. The February and March missions of 1944 were almost all into Germany. In addition to hitting the targets in Germany a secondary purpose was to draw the German fighters up for the P-51s to kill. The P-51 made a big difference because they could take us all the way into Germany and all the way back. We also had some P-38s but not many.
I remember seeing a P-38 in a shallow dive with a ME-109 on his tail and a P-51 on his tail. You could hear the fighter pilots talking to one another. The P-51 pilot called to the P-38 and said, “You got a 109 on your butt.” The guy in the P-38 said, “Look to Lockheed for leadership.” There was a lot of that chat going on the airways. On one missions, I believe it was the Berlin rain, the fighters were late and we got into a pretty heavy fighter attack. Someone called out on the radio, “Hey little friends, where are you?” The fighter replied we’re trying to catch up but we’re catching them as they come through. That’s the way the Germans would attack a formation, head on because there was less firepower. The fighters would hose the whole formation hoping to hit one or two and cause them to break formation. The fighters would then attack the crippled aircraft. The B-17 had a top turret a ball turret and in the “G” model guns in the nose. It seemed that they could come in between the ball turret range and the top turret range. The gun that had the greatest deterrent was the chin turret. These were all .50 caliber machine guns.
Question: What was your last mission? That was a “No Ball” target, a rocket launch site. It was almost a milk run. The one before that, Sottevest, France on the Brest Peninsula was a huge construction site which they told us was going to be a missile launch site. The flak coverage there was as intense as any target we ever hit. It was awful. We came in low, about 16,000 which made the flak guns more effective. You could hear the shrapnel hit the aircraft with a ping, ping. We were young and we thought we were invincible. If you were going to fly a mission they would get you up at three in the morning, breakfast at four and briefing at five. You felt some apprehension if you were going to fly that mission; "where was the target? or how long was the flight? Once you took off, got into formation and busy with the aircraft, you didn’t think about things. After we dropped the bombs and start back that’s when it started to hit you. Once you got on the ground you think, “Geez those sobs are trying to kill us.” We were issued uppers and they were supposed to be taken after bombs away. Conventional wisdom was once you dropped your bombs you tend to think the mission was over and you wouldn’t be as alert. After we landed at Grafton-Underwood we would go through debriefing and you got a shot of scotch whiskey.
Question: How long were you in England? I got there in November 1943 and I left May of 44. This was before D-Day. Some of those late missions were bombing the French coast, mostly launch sites for the German missiles. If they were pre-D-Day missions, they didn’t tell us about it.
Question: Who made up your crew? My co-pilot was John Duffy. My bombardier was Gabe Ferazzi (2nd Lt. Gabriel E. Ferazzi). My Radio Operator was Tom Corbett (T/Sgt Thomas W. Corbett). One of the gunners was Cochran and Birch was the Engineer and Matthijetz was the tail gunner. He was Polish. (According to 384th records these are: S/Sgt Thomas T. Cochran, T/Sgt Frank K. Birch and S/Sgt Carl W. Matthijetz. The other crew member was S/Sgt Robert M. Corfield, the only name Sheldon could not remember).
Question: Did you ever fly a mission not as the pilot? Yes, on one mission we had a pilot sit in the left seat so he could get checked out in a B-17 and I believe I flew as the Navigator on that mission. I don’t remember the mission or the guy who flew as pilot but it counted as a mission completed. On a historical note, according to 384th Bombardment Group, 544th Bomb Squadron records dated 24 April 1944, and taken from http://www.winjack3.com, 2nd Lt. Sheldon I, Vernon is the listed Navigator on that flight and the Pilot was 1st Lt. James E. Foster. The rest of his crew is listed on that “LOADING LIST FOR TODAY’S MISSION 24 APRIL 1944”.
Question: What was it like living at Grafton-Underwood, the airbase? Everyone had a bicycle and you got around on a bicycle. The closest town was Kettering and we got there by truck. London? Whenever we would stand down, we could sometimes get a two or three day pass and we would go to London. That was by train. Tell me about the Army chow? It was good. I remember on a day when we flew a combat mission we were given real eggs. Even the ground officers joined us for that meal and we got real upset about that. Those meals were supposed to be for the combat flight crews. Well the commanding officer instituted a policy that these ground officers had to fly at least one mission but I don’t that lasted too long.
Sheldon was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Unit Citations, and the European-Mediterranean-African Campaign Ribbon for his tour of duty with the 384th Bomb Group, 544th Squadron of the 8th Air Force.
Question: What did you do when you returned to the US? I was assigned as a flight instructor at Drew Field in Tampa, Florida and trained crews getting ready to go overseas. And then I sent to Ellington Field, Houston and flying as a Navigator in a C-47. That was where I met my first wife, Kay. I went back to school, the Air Force sent me back to school. I got my degree in electrical engineering at Oklahoma A & M, what is now Oklahoma State University. Then I went overseas to Iceland and spent a year up there. I came back and stationed at Tullahoma, Tennessee at the Army Engineering and Development Center. That was wind tunnel testing for the Air Force. I then went to the University of Michigan for a Master’s Degree in Engineering. I didn’t finish that because I developed polyps on my vocal chords and they sent me to Walter Reed Hospital because they thought it was cancer. After that I went to Eglin Air Force Base and then up to Washington to the Air Force Systems Command and from there to Dallas, Texas with the Air Force Exchange Service and retired from there.
Sheldon Vernon rose to the rank of full Colonel in the USAF, retiring after 30 years. He and wife and son moved to Houston where he taught at Houston Baptist University for twenty-one years.
“The Good Lord was so good to me giving me two good women where most men are lucky to get just one. My first wife, a Texas girl, led me to Christ not by any overt action, just example. My second wife was a precious gift and the Lord wanted her with him. She passed away last year. I don’t know what I did to deserve these two women and an abundant life but I thank the Lord every day for it. Thinking about all those combat missions I think the Lord was watching out for me. I wasn’t a Christian then, but he had a reason and a purpose in keeping me and my being here. So I’m thankful."
Today, Sheldon lives near Lake Houston and he is still active caring for two young German shepherd dogs. He is active in his church, Second Baptist of Houston, Texas (North Campus) as a serving deacon. He lives by the life principle; "Give glory to God and enjoy Him forever." He and his son, Greg, are traveling to England in May 2010 returning to visit Grafton-Underwood.