Interviewed October 23, 1991
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Line of Fire - Retrospect and Remembrance Oral History Series presented through the Concord-Carlisle Education. Coordinator: Renee Garrelick.
Please note: total tape time is approxametely 73 minutes long. The first 27 minutes contain this transcript spoken by Charlie Dee, Sr. The remainding ca. 45 minutes Renee Garrelick reads various letters written by Concord servicemen sent home to family, newspaper clippings, and archival material during the WWII era. On the original cassette, Renee calls this section "The Homefront."
Click here for audio in .mp3 format
The World War II Carpetbaggers 801st 492nd Bombardment Group, U.S. Army, Eighth Air Force
clandestine night missions were flown from a secret air force base at Harrington, England during
World War II dropping munitions and supplies to underground resistance forces in Nazi occupied
Europe from April 5, 1944 to April 27, 1945. In addition the "Carpetbaggers" parachuted agents
into France, Holland, Norway, Denmark, and Germany for spying and espionage activities. Charlie
Dee was an instrument specialist with this unique unit of the Office of Strategic Services, the
forerunner of today's CIA, and will relate their special story and contribution.
After basic training I went to Shepherd Field, Texas where I went to aircraft mechanic school. After completing that, Shepherd Field was overrun with brand new B-25Gs, brand new silver airplanes. They took the graduating class and assigned us to maintain them. We revved up the engines every morning and gassed up all these airplanes, there were hundreds of them. I decided that I had to do something to get out of Texas because I thought I was going to spend the rest of the war there. So I applied for instrument specialist school which was at Chenault Field, Illinois. Low and behold, the next day on the bulletin board there were my orders to go to Chenault.
After graduating from instrument specialist school, I was sent out to Salt Lake City air base and from there to Mountain Home, Idaho. We had our overseas training there. At that time, I was assigned to the 36th Bombardment Group Heavy and after our training as a group we were sent over to England.
Now our airplanes went on two different routes. They left Mountain Home, Idaho and went on the northern route to Bangor, Maine over to Newfoundland and then over to England. The southern route was to go to Miami Beach, South America, across to North Africa and then up to England. I went over by boat and was sent from Mountain Home, Idaho by rail to Camp Shancks in New Jersey. There we had some more overseas training. One day we all boarded this beautiful white ship called the New Amsterdam. It was in New York harbor and it was a duck ship that the United States had confiscated after Hitler had overrun the Netherlands. We left New York harbor and zigzagged across the Atlantic over the northern portion of Ireland and we ran into a storm there. We didn't mind flying but we were no sailors. I think everybody on the ship was sick. We came into the Irish Sea through the firth of Clyde, up into Glasgow Bay. We disembarked in Glasgow Bay into a little town called Gorich in Scotland. There was a big rail terminal there. Boy, we were so glad to get our two feet on terra firma!
We left there and went by rail down to the various airfields in England. I was sent to Norwich Air Base which is in the western part of England. At that point of the game, I was in the 490th Bomb Group. Some of these numbers are going to be confusing to you, but if you think they are confusing to you, they would switch you around in the Army probably to confuse themselves. So one day we got orders to leave Norwich air base for a destination unknown, to leave the airplanes behind. Well, most of our crowd went from Norwich to Harrington Air Base, which was the secret OSS base that was mentioned before, by convoy. But a lot of us went by plane, and it was what we called piggybacking. Everybody had their duffle bags and guns and just crowded into the B-24s and I flew from one airfield to another on the catwalk of the bomb bay.
This OSS was Office was Strategic Services, and that was started by President Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor happened.
We had left behind all these brand new shiny silver B-24s that all our pilots had ferried over there. We arrived at Harrington Air Base on May 27, 1944, and there we had black B-24s. Something we hadn't seen and we didn't quite understand what these black B-24s were about, but we soon found out.
It was an OSS base and it was the beginning of an outfit called the 801st Bombardment Group. At our last reunion some of the pilots were talking about the fact that the government lost a lot of the records of the 801st and they seemed to think they lost them on purpose because of some of the activity that we were involved with.
The 8th Air Force in England had 350,000 personnel. They had 112 air bases in England. On this Harrington Air Base that I was stationed at, there were 3,000 personnel. That's counting everybody from the cooks to pilots to engineers, truck drivers and what have you.
I brought pictures to give you an idea of what a B-24 was. Here we have this black B-24 and it was called a B-24D. It had modifications because there were certain things that they didn't need for the operations that we did. There was no nose turret with 50-caliber machine guns. That's where the navigator and the bombadier looked for signals from the marquis in the underground. When they had these certain signals, then they dropped their supplies. In the belly of a regular B-24, there is a ball turret, and that ball turret was missing from all of our airplanes, and over that ball turret was a plywood door, and that was called the "Joe Hole." That was where all these OSS agents jumped out of. Now they jumped at about 6,000 feet. Another modification of this B-24 was that we didn't have a lot of oxygen systems in it for high altitude bombing like the B-17s. I know you've all read about the B-17 and one of the famous ones, the Memphis Belle.
Just to give you an idea of how our fellows were involved, we had 26 aircraft missing in action, 197 airmen killed in action, and 11 airmen killed on training missions throughout England. We flew 3,000 sorties, those were different missions that we didn't complete the drop or didn't leave supplies to the marquis. We dropped 556 OSS agents and we didn't lose one agent in the drop, but if they did get captured, we didn't always know. The French marquis later in the war radioed to us that if any of the French marquises got caught waiting for these drops, the Germans took them down the road and shot them. Towards the end of the war, we made 21 bombing missions and they were at low altitude because of the oxygen situation. They bombed at 10,000 feet but after bombing runs they would come down to 8,000 feet to come back because of the lack of the oxygen systems in those planes. We dropped 4,511 tons of supplies to the French underground. These planes took off night after night with all these different supplies and agents.
An interesting thing is that we dropped 20,000 Springfield rifles dated 1903 with ammunition to the French marquis over the 10 month period that I was there. So somewhere in France there's a lot of old Springfield rifles.
One of the men that we dropped was Wild Bill Donovan, we called him, he was later head of the OSS and our pilots tell the story of how they dropped him twice and the first time they dropped him, he told them when he wanted to jump. He jumped 3 miles this side of a French village that was infested with Nazis and he finally came back complaining. The second time he had to jump, the pilot told him, "I'm running this ship and I'll tell you when to jump."
You can wonder why or how an airfield with 3,000 men can be secret. Well, it was! A few years after the war was over, General Eisenhower issued a proclamation saying that now we can tell what the 492nd Bomb Group did. A few years after the war, some of our men went down to Florida to an 8th Air Force reunion and low and behold, our outfit wasn't listed as one of the 8th Air Force groups, but we soon straightened that out. At the Air Force Museum out in Dayton, Ohio, there is a plaque out there to the 8th Air Force and the 492nd Bomb Group was not listed.
Now how did we get to get recognized. A fellow named Ben Parnell, whom you have a picture of in the brochure, wanted to find out how his brother got killed. He was a gunner and the more he investigated in Washington, the less he found out, so the more he became interested. By writing to different pilots and ground personnel in the outfit, he compiled this book, Carpetbaggers. That was the code name that was given to us by the supreme command.
I've been thinking of different things that would interest you and one of the things that I thought I'd tell you about was the buzz bombs that Hitler had invented. They played havoc with London and at one point the French underground notified our allied forces that the Germans had discovered where these black B-24s were coming from. From then on, we had to take our guns with us every time we went out on the line to work on the planes. There was a flurry of activity with some of these buzz bombs. I call them buzz bombs, it's a nickname for them but they're really called the V-1 bomb. They were launched from Belgium and France by Hitler and they were pilotless bombs. They were the cutest things you'd ever see going over, it was like the 4th of July, they had these sparks flying out of the back of them and we didn't pay much attention to them while we could still hear that motor running. But as soon as that motor stopped we knew that bomb was coming down, and of course, it became quite a bit of concern from then on.
There wasn't too much activity up where we were with the buzz bombs but London really caught the brunt of it. When I landed at Harrington Airfield, we were transported from the plane to a tent area. Some of these pictures show the tent area that we slept in, four bunks to a tent, and the fellow who drove the truck from the airplane to the tent area was Al Sabaloni, a Concord boy, and I made myself known to him as soon as I saw him. The first thing he said to me was, "Gee, Horse Macone just landed here this morning!" He was another Concord boy and his real name was Richard Macone, and Richie was a waist gunner and he had plenty of stories to tell.
I want to interject at this point, I don't consider myself any sort of a war hero. I was just over there to do my job for the country and what have you. My job consisted of instruments. There were four instrument specialists on the field and we did nothing but take care of instruments. This is our little group right here. In this group, there is an electrician, propeller specialist, the quarter instrument specialist, and the rest of those fellows are mechanics or crew chiefs. If you want to see these pictures afterwards, you can see the tents that we lived in for the 10 months.
In September of 1987, Nancy and I went over to England for a reunion of our group. Actually we've sort of broken away from the regular 8th Air Force group because you go to an 8th Air Force reunion in Miami, and there will be over 2,000 fellows there and you don't know them. Our group was a smaller, close-knit outfit. I could call every one of those fellows by their first name, and the air base was a smaller family type affair, and these reunions are great. The reunion in England was on the old airfield. We erected a monument to the 208 guys from our outfit that didn't fly home, and it quite touching. The head of the French underground came to our reunion and his name was Jean Renee, and he presented us with a certificate that our outfit had won. The French didn't give many awards to the Americans so we felt pretty lucky, but come to find out, only the commanding officer can wear the medal. The head of the Belgium underground was also at this reunion. We dropped them both into France and Belgium at various intervals. The head of the French underground, Jean Renee, was captured on one of these drops. The Germans didn't shoot him. They kept him in jail and they tortured the heck out of him. To show you what they thought about our outfit, he came to our reunion in Cincinnati a few years ago and at the fiftieth anniversary of World War II, our outfit has been invited to be guests of the French marquis in France and we're going to combine it with a trip to England to the old airfield.
Some of our fellows who had to bail out over France stayed with the French underground throughout the war, and they helped blow up bridges and do things of that nature. I always remember one day a lorry pulled into camp and a crew that we thought were lost all jumped out and we were so glad to see them. The French underground got them back to England by way of Spain. They kept passing them along to different farm houses until they got them into Spain, and then they took a boat to England.
Did they let you off the field for R&R? Yes, they did. We had passes to Northampton at various times, a one-day pass, because we worked night and day on these planes to keep them going. They used to get us into the headquarters nissan hut, and before they gave us a pass, they would instill upon us to keep our mouths shut about the operation at Harrington Airfield. I always remember one time we were in a pub in Northampton and 2 RAF fellows said to us, "Hey, we know what you're doing over there." We said, "Oh, yea!" We wouldn't dare tell them because naturally it would mean the lives of some of our guys.
Did you have any sort of working relationship with the British? You know the first 8th Air Force planes over Germany were flown with British markings on the airplane and that was in 1942. There was a RAF field near us and we learned our trade from them. They were doing this before we were. I think that one of the reasons that the B-24 was selected to do this was that it carried a bigger bomb load than the B-17 which was the flying fortress. It had a longer range than the B-17. When they made some of those trips to Norway and Sweden to drop agents, they could get back to England. One of our planes went beyond Norway, and they were running low on fuel so they decided to go to Russia and the Russians started shooting at them, so they all bailed out. They didn't have any gas anyway but they spent the rest of the war in Russia.