USS Wasp Ferries P-40 Warhawks to Iceland. U.S. Relieves British Garrison on Iceland before Pearl Harbor
Copyright 2011 Franklyn E. Dailey Jr.
Triumph of Instrument Flight
Rohna survivor Carl Schoenacker was there. The Rohna part comes later. "There,"
in one crucial 1941 period, was Iceland. Carl enlisted in the U.S. Army Air
Corps on Monday, March 17, 1941 at Rochester, New York, and shortly became
Serial No. 120023769
Here are some recollections recorded by Carl Schoenacker of his early wartime service at a key North Atlantic station in the Allies' supply strategy for Europe in World War II.
"I enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on Monday, March l7, 1941 at Rochester, N.Y. for a three-year hitch. I thought that if we went to war, it would be over in 3 years. I could not get a permanent job because of the probability of being drafted. Because I had read of the trench warfare of World War I, I wanted no part of the infantry. I was assigned to the 58th Pursuit Squadron, 33rd Group and was sent immediately to Mitchell Field near Hempstead, Long Island. Five of us arrived at New York City about 8 a.m. one morning and had to take the shuttle from Grand Central Station to Penn Station in rush hour with suitcases, an unforgettable experience! Had the natives not helped us, I am not quite sure of where we would have gone. At one point in a subway, I was on one side of a vertical bar, my arm, hand and suitcase on the other. Some kind soul helped with the suitcase or I might have become a one-armed recruit."
"At this early stage in war preparation, the Army Air Corps was not ready for the influx of men they were taking in. They did not yet use boot camp; each outfit was responsible for training its own recruits. Nothing was ready. Recruits were tightly housed in one side of a huge double hangar with planes in the other side. Quartermaster (as a reminder to Navy types, QM was a supply rating in the Army) was backordered. I enlisted in a white shirt and it was a week before I was issued clothing. It was very damp and windy. I had only a light reversible coat and froze whenever I went out. It was windy at night in the hangar too because airplanes would start on the other side and we got that breeze. These were all propeller-driven aircraft. The brick of the dividing wall did not extend to the roof, or to the rear of the building."
"Scarlet Fever hit. Each morning the 'meat wagon' would take several to the hospital. I got it in early May. Later I learned that I was one of the very first to be given a new sulfa drug. The first day I was 'completely out of it.' My bed was changed several times, but I remember only one. The second day I was better and the third I wanted to be released. I spent a beautiful May looking out the window, feeling fine. The drug really worked but because it was experimental, we had to stay in for observation."
"I missed much of the basic training. I spent June on routine detail assignments and was assigned to inside hangar guard in July. The first P-47 was built at Republic nearby, flown to Mitchell, disassembled, then reassembled. I did guard duty while this was taking place. I was issued a 45-cal. pistol which I had never fired. I recall asking my sergeant, 'What if I have to use it?' He assured me that I would not have to. I felt most insecure! All this time I was waiting for assignment to communications school at another field. That assignment never came. I was walking my post, June 21, when I heard the radio announcement that Hitler had invaded Russia."
"We were not at war but our President was very pro-British. There were several isolationist Congressmen. The America First group had many supporters. Iceland was vital for weather forecasting and also because we did not want the Nazis to use it as submarine base. The British had soldiers there. In July, our 5th Infantry Battalion was sent there to relieve some of the British. About the time that the isolationists learned that we had soldiers there, and were screaming to get our boys home, our War Department decided to send an air force squadron to protect them. I was transferred into that squadron."
"No squadron was close to full Table of Organization (T.O.). The 33rd squadron of the 8th Pursuit Group was selected. It was given 32 new P-40C planes. Pilots, other key officers and non-commissioned officers (noncoms) selected their sergeants and corporals, then other squadrons were cannibalized to fill the T.O. Radiomen came from the 58th, so I went to Iceland without schooling less than 20 weeks after enlisting. I was overseas on $21 a month in an outfit with a full T.O."
"We shipped out of New York Harbor on the steamship American Legion. I think it was the last Sunday in July, '41. We knew not where to. We headed south, which confused us. We picked up our convoy off Newport News, Virginia and that is another bit of history. Also, I learned first hand what I had read about the Gulf Stream."
"Our new planes had been hoisted onto the aircraft carrier USS Wasp. Our pilots, but not the crew chiefs, were with them. With very little training, they were to fly them off when we reached our destination. This had never been done before, but it was believed that with a small amount of fuel it was possible. I was later told that if the first three did not make it, the rest would be brought back to the states. They all made it but with some difficulty. Because of incorrect servicing, one plane covered its windshield with oil on take off. The pilot took off and landed almost blind."
"I don't recall how large the convoy was. I do recall that our ship belched smoke that could be seen for miles, as if to invite a U-boat attack. I was told that it had been scheduled for dry dock. The USS Wasp was off our starboard stern and almost rammed us one night according to a friend who was on deck because he could not sleep."
"We were stationed at Reykjavik. I think the trip took nine days, so we landed in early August. The days were still very long and the weather good for a while. Before enlisting, I worked at the world's largest sauerkraut factory at Phelps, New York. We filled a huge government order of no. 10 cans in wooden cases. One of my first duties at Reykjavik was to go to the food dump to get food. There I saw, and loaded, many of the cases of kraut I had wheeled from the labeling line to the storage room at Phelps! I could not help but remember the lot number."
"I was there two winters, which were not cold, but dark, damp, wet, windy with mud under the ice, often with just enough snow to hide the ice and mud. The Gulf Stream moderates the climate of Reykjavik. Winter temperature ranged generally from 20°F to 40°F, seldom really cold. Rarely did we see the sun. It rose in mid morning and set in early afternoon, never getting far above the horizon, and there were always clouds on the horizon."
"My second winter there we caught the tail end of a hurricane. We had hurricane force wind but little rain. Winds gusting to l00 mph did some damage! I had a dentist appointment that morning. I tried to walk across a clearing to get there, but I could not walk against the 75-mph wind. I had to go around staying near the huts. The dentist chair stool was on the wrong end. There were 2x4 supports everywhere. The dentist did not work that day. Going back I entered the clearing and stayed low. Notwithstanding, I was completely out of control. I stopped by running into a hut."
"Summers were pleasant. It was never dark. The sun would set before midnight and rise shortly after midnight. It rained easily. There were many rainbows."
"I felt very sorry for myself. My friends in the 58th had gone to school and were earning stripes. On Dec. 8th of 1941, I asked, "Where's Pearl Harbor?" The NCOs (noncommissioned officers) told me, and also said the Japs had made a big mistake, that we would steamroller right over them."
"We had been operating as if at war so life went on as usual. We lived in huts smaller than a Quonset, 12-15 men in a hut, a pot-bellied stove at one end. If it was at the end with the door all was fine. If it was at the other end, the door end was always cold. We made a stove jacket from a 55-gal. drum, and that helped to distribute the heat quite well."
"In March '42 eleven NCOs went to the states for OTS (officer training school). That changed things. I had a year's service and no stripes, but in less than seven months, I received four promotions! I made PFC, then T-5 which we called 'model T corporal.' I was a Sergeant for about a month, then in early October, I made Staff Sergeant. For various reasons, I held that rank for over 2 years. I liked it. I was above the dirty details and below the command and worry level. If there was a failure, someone above me was blamed."
" I found a mentor and dear friend in Harry Lippert from Easton, Pa. Harry was in the same position as I, he did not get to radio school either, but he did not have to because he was a radioman and ham in civilian life and an excellent one. He had a fine mind and knew more than the NCOs, which sometimes caused problems. He knew he was good, but did not volunteer. He just waited until there was a problem no one else could solve. Slowly he advanced from being a 'know-it-all' to being a respected, knowledgeable airman. Harry and I jointly owned a short wave radio and worked together whenever possible. Harry was my teacher, my radio school. As air traffic increased, radio problems on transient aircraft also increased. Because he lacked seniority and because he was reliable, Harry was usually called and I went along. All planes are different and just finding the radios, then finding the messed up radio could take hours. One summer night as I sat in the cockpit of a transient plane with a radio problem, flicking switches for Harry, I watched the sun set and a short time later rise again without getting out of the pilot's chair. Needless to say, Harry advanced in rank as I did."
"Keflavik base was built and we were to expand. This led to my first zany promotion. I was transferred into the 337th Fighter Sqdn., then into Headquarters & Headquarters Squadron of the 342nd Composite Group. Here I held the title of Assistant Group Inspector. However, this was all on paper. We did not move, my work did not change. When the war intensified toward Africa and we did not get the planes that had been scheduled for us, the paper was rescinded. I was no longer the 'assistant group snoop in the nonexistent group.' During all of this I took radios out of planes, checked them and put them back. Each morning every plane on line had to be checked. We had a few problems, mostly from worn cords or broken connections, or from pilots who forgot how to use the equipment."
"Shortly after arriving in Iceland, we learned why not to volunteer. Few of us, officers included, had short wave radios and everyone wanted to know about the World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Yankees. The radio hut was manned 24 hours. One morning one of us posted the World Series score on the bulletin board. That was appreciated so it was continued each day along with a few news headlines. This was so well received that soon we were directed to write a multi page news bulletin for the bulletin board, CO, Orderly room, and I have forgotten the rest of the distribution! The night shift was busy gathering and typing news most of the night. All because some kind radioman posted the World Series scores and a few headlines."
"In the summer of '42, a plan was devised to lure elements of the German Navy into a trap. Word 'leaked out' that the biggest convoy of all time was en route to Murmansk. Akureyri was the second largest city of Iceland. It is north of the Arctic Circle and at the south end of a long fjord. That fjord was lined with British and American warships. The town was on the side of the fjord and a landing strip south of it. Some of our planes, P-39s in this case, were sent there to intercept any German photo plane. We had four planes in the air, two high and two low from dawn till dusk, which was almost all of the time. They flew up and down the fjord only. Lippert and I were lucky enough to be included in the support team. We were elated, we were going to where the action is! We had no transports so we went by boat around the island. When we came into the fjord, we saw the many ships to be hidden from the enemy."
"The action was not to my liking. The Germans never took the bait. One of our pilots, a friend, crashed while taking off in the fog. Normally, officers had little contact with NCOs. One morning, Lieutenant Kassos was assigned to fly to the mouth of the fjord to see if it was fog free. Our fog would be gone by the time he returned, but he had to take off in it. He was scared. We talked, then as he got into the plane he talked with Lieutenant Meyers. He took off, became disoriented and flew into the hill. The field was named for him. Kassos Field was there, don't know if it still is. Meyers went on to be an ace in Europe. Meanwhile a German photo plane was spotted at Reykjavik and shot down. We who were where the action was to be had to be content to listen on the radio. I did get a geography lesson. We came back by boat the other way so I traveled completely around Iceland and crossed the Arctic Circle as well."
"Iceland was 'dry,' non-alcoholic, but men find ways to drink. Stills were attempted in the huts. One blew up and the stench in that hut was awful. The Navy had beer, several cases of which we got, the work of Lippert. Word got out and one night there was one huge beer binge at the radio hut. The officers' club had spirits. Our transportation corps had several enterprising men. One of these decided to check out the dock one sunny day. He noticed that spirits were being unloaded with no one checking trucks so he got in line! The missing whiskey was found some weeks later when the Air Force had a great party. I know this from hearsay. I was at Akureyri where the action was not."
"Harry and I did not mix with the natives. We seldom went to town. We went to the Red Cross center and enjoyed the city park, too. Largely we stayed within our group. Transportation lived in the next hut and we got on well. Pete Despard from Rochester was in Transportation. Pete and I had met on the train en route to Mitchell Field before going to Iceland. Some of us soon learned that if anything was desirable and available, Transportation had it. They were able to supplement the regular diet. One night a hungry cook came across the street to Transportation and asked to borrow a pound of butter!"
"Radio hut ate well too. We usually had someone on KP. Whoever it was knew what to do and I did it many times. You were to be the first person to report each morning, thus becoming the cook's assistant for breakfast. As soon as breakfast was over he would throw you the keys to the supply hut, next door, and tell you what to get for dinner. Whatever the radio larder needed was thrown between the huts (remember it was dark in winter), supplies were taken to the kitchen, you then asked permission to go to the latrine at which time you took the loot into the radio hut. In summer it was more difficult but not impossible. Having the mess hall and supply hut across the company street simplified the process."
"In the spring of '43 Lippert, Despard and I among others, came back to the states. We boarded the Chateau Thierry but did not leave the harbor. I assume that we missed our convoy and had a three-week wait for the next one. When we did move, it was into the very rough North Atlantic. I watched the boat beside us as the bow, then the stern came out of the water. I mentioned that I was glad not to be on that ship. The crewman reminded me that we were doing the same thing. I think the trip itself took nine days, thus we were aboard ship about a month. We landed in Boston."
"I was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Control Sqdn. at Bradley Field, (Hartford) Connecticut. Five enlisted men, and Captain Wiseman, from Iceland were in this squadron. Captain Wiseman was the Commanding Officer (CO). Logically we were known as 'Izzies boys.' Perhaps he did not wish to go overseas so soon, but for whatever reason he lost his command and I thought of us, incorrectly, as marked men. The other four were busted to private in short order, but not because of who they were, rather because of what they did. One can not be busted for doing nothing so I did nothing and asked for nothing. 1st Sgt. Ekiss was a veteran and a fair man. He understood the situation. He and I got on just fine."
"I was a misfit. The 322nd had new UHF (ultra high frequency) equipment. My knowledge was obsolete; Lippert had not taught me UHF. Picture a person excellent on an IBM Selectric, suddenly transferred into a modern computerized office, and you have my situation."
"Socially I had Pete Despard and Harry Lippert, although we were in different squadrons. Harry was married, but Pete was not and we would go into Springfield, Massachusetts. Most of the boys went to Hartford, Connecticut. There was much military industry there. Many young women worked in the factories and had money they wished to spend on soldiers, so that was the city for the guys who wanted a wild time, at low cost. Springfield was quieter, and more to our liking. Genesee beer was available which made Pete happy. Harry and Rose lived in a cabin that had been a motel before the new road bypassed the place. There were four or five military families here. There was a nice house, a large lawn and shade grown tobacco across the road. This was at Thompsonville, Connecticut, between Springfield and Hartford. It was pleasant and quiet."
"In late May or early June, I asked Ruth Buffum to marry me. We had met our senior year at Cornell. On July 7, l943 Ruth and Carl were married at her home in Elmira, N.Y. We rented one of the cabins at a cost of $5.00 per week and lived next to Harry & Rose. We lived in one room plus a shower and lavatory. I called it a room and a quarter. I think that my pay at the time was $72 per month. Ruth was teaching in Bolivar, New York."
"It was a pleasant summer. Pete would come out to dinner a few times a month. We had brought a couple cases of Genesee beer just for him. We enjoyed the lawn and Ruth enjoyed picking blueberries along the banks of the Connecticut River. Once or twice Pete stopped by and took her for a jeep ride. That was a rare privilege. Perhaps Ruth drove a Jeep before I did. In the military in war time one has to learn to expect death. Our neighbor was killed in the crash of his P-47. That was Ruth's welcome to war. She and Rose had to help a widow pack to return home."
"In September, Ruth went back to Bolivar and I went back to the base. This astounded some people but we knew that I would soon ship out and we saw no reason why she should give up a good job to be with her husband for a few weeks. It would have been a very few weeks because we shipped out in October. We were headed for China through the Mediterranean but our equipment went the other way, by rail to California then across the Pacific. I recall one of my friends, Vinny Orlando, who went with it, talking about the great railroad yards at Manchester, New York. I had lived near there for years without knowing that it was the largest transfer yard in the world, but Vinny was impressed, as I should have been."
Thus concludes Carl's Schoenacker's early war recollections of the variety of aviation support services and other duties he was called upon to provide during the creation of a northern air route to the British Isles in World War II. Carl had missed the entire radio school in the states because of Scarlet Fever yet was sent forward with the other men and expected to perform his radio technician's duties. Like so much training in World War II, his radio skills were honed by learning from a buddy whose interest in ham radio had made him an expert on the subject.
The flight that Carl Schoenacker related in which Lt. Kassos was lost is particularly poignant. Kassos was not instrument qualified, yet was sent aloft in fog to perform his mission. There was a near-zero chance that he could succeed. These losses were not combat losses. These were called "operational losses." The family was probably informed in a letter that Lt. Kassos was doing his duty and he was. The loss of the pilot who was training in the P-47 at Bradley Field would have been recorded as a "training" loss. There was the flight of a Liberator crew enroute to the China-Burma-India theatre making a stop for refueling at a field in the Middle East. The pilot would see that field just one time in his life. Someone inadvertently turned off the runway lights just as the pilot was approaching his flare out to land. The plane hit a tree. Only one crewman survived. Another "operational loss." The characterization of a human death as "combat," "operational," or "training" serves the statistician. But history should record that all such deaths occurred in the service of the nation and all advanced its capabilities.
Aircraft builders, electronics subcontractors, and the U.S. civil servants working for the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) have made important contributions to the men and women at the controls of aircraft. As the field of aviation expanded, more extensive government involvement was needed. In the years subsequent to the beginning of aviation in the U.S., CAA functions were divided between a Civil Aeronautics Board, which evolved into the National Transportation Safety Board, and the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration.
Without the generations of crewmembers and support mechanics and radio/radar technicians, military and civilian, all of whom had helped overcome very challenging obstacles to aviation's advances in all weather flight operations, U.S. military aviation's rapid response to World War II would not have been possible. One byproduct of this military buildup effort was the beginning of a worldwide air route structure. This story emphasizes flight operations and direct flight support. It would take other volumes to accord appropriate recognition to the designers and developers and regulators for their contributions.
Just as it had to the Viking's sea-borne vessels, the North Atlantic yielded to the aircraft. What had at first been heroic, though not recognized as such, became routine through the sacrifices of aviators, their flight crews, and the technical support efforts of U.S. Army Air Corps and U.S. Navy personnel, and the career airline pilots and support employees borrowed from airlines like Northeast and American.
There are a number of other essential support services involved in U.S. aviation that are not performed by military or civil servant operatives. One that deserves recognition is now called ARINC. In many airports, during most of the past seventy years, one might pass a small office whose entry door bore a tiny sign, "Aeronautical Radio Inc." Founded in 1929, "ARINC develops and operates information processing systems and services that are essential to ensuring the efficiency, operation and performance of the aviation and travel industries. The company operates global networks that use both airline proprietary and standard open protocols. ARINC supports the aviation industry with voice and data radio communications through the shared use of the assigned frequency spectrum and radio facilities, as well as satellites." The foregoing is quoted from ARINC's web site. My own direct experience was with the military counterpart operations that mesh with ARINC's services.
Each of the Armed Forces of the U.S. maintains extensive communication facilities and many of these are devoted to aviation operations. The civil airlines, too, maintain extensive communication networks to maintain contact with their stations and aircraft. It is when these all had to work together support our U.S. civil airways air traffic control system, that the airlines initiated and supported a cooperative effort that became first, Aeronautical Radio, and then ARINC. Today, this has become a $400 million dollar revenue company with over 2500 employees. It is cooperatively owned by the airlines it serves; these include international airlines as well as U.S. domestic airlines.
Radio communication is essential. Just as vital are navigation aids for flying. Jeppesen is the name most associated with both airways charts and airport approach and let down charts. Navy pilots carried H.O. 510, for Hydrographic Office #510, a loose-leaf booklet of the up to date charts necessary for flight over land or between land stations. Notams, for Notices to Airmen, would be issued as immediate advisories when a ground facility was being added or one was being put out of service. Or, for example, when bombing or strafing was going to be conducted at a military bombing range. These notams were then incorporated in new charts and the whole, the unchanged charts and the changed ones, would be re-issued to Navy pilots on a regular basis. One had to turn the old set in and get a new set. My efforts to contact Jeppesen for a sample chart to illustrate this story took me through Boeing, Jeppesen's new owners, and resulted finally in a Jeppesen operative's statement that "we do not supply archived charts for any purpose other than legal." I am sorry that I cannot introduce here a sample of Jeppesen's professional contribution. Apparently, another profession, the practice of law, has intervened.