EDITOR’S NOTE: The following feature series profiles Ellis County veterans killed in the line of service to their country during the 20th century.
The features, researched and written by Perry Giles, are read in first-person voice by area students during the annual Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Ceremony as a special way to remember and pay tribute to our friends, classmates and neighbors who gave their lives for our freedom.
“We Were Soldiers Once and Young” will appear every Sunday in the Daily Light through Veterans Day.
• First of two-part series
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember…
My name is Harry O. Green. I grew up on a small farm a few miles south of Zephyr, Texas. My parents, Robert and Beulah, raised three sons on that dry-land rocky farm. There was Bert the oldest, Joe Ray the youngest and myself in the middle.
We raised cotton, corn, oats and wheat whenever we had enough rain. Otherwise we depended on our cattle, chickens and large vegetable garden to get through the tough times. We didn’t have money, but I don’t remember going without.
Each day my brothers and I walked two miles to the Beard Hill Schoolhouse. There were two teachers there and I very much enjoyed going to school. My favorite pastimes were always reading and studying. My brothers said that I was the diligent thinker of the family.
After graduating high school at Zephyr, I went on to college in Brownwood where I worked a part-time job at the local soda fountain. Mostly I cleaned up, sold candy and served as the soda jerk. A job is a job, I was proud to have it and it put me through college.
After graduating from Howard Payne University, I moved to Forreston to take a teaching job at the high school. There weren’t many jobs available then and the teaching position suited me just fine. I taught mathematics and science and made many new friends in the Forreston area.
There was this one girl in the area that I really liked. Maybe things will work out for us someday. Time will tell, no need to rush. … And I really liked my new job. Life was good there.
But after the big shock on Dec. 7, 1941, I just didn’t feel right teaching anymore. I truly felt as though I needed to do my part for the country. So I resigned my job during the Christmas break, said my farewells to the good people in Forreston and volunteered for the Army Air Corps.
I took my training at Randolph Field in San Antonio and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant, with a pay scale of $1,800 a year. I was assigned to a B-17 bomber group and sent to Gowen Air Field at Boise, Idaho for more training. I really enjoyed the flying; there was just something inside me that wanted to reach for the skies.
On Aug. 24, 1942, we received orders to deploy overseas. We flew our planes in pairs, making many stops on our way to Dow Army Air Force Base in Maine. We got all set to cross the North Atlantic flying in squadrons and in late September, we flew from Maine to Gandor, Newfoundland. From there we took off on the North Ferry Route flying nonstop to Scotland.
As we approached the Irish coast, there was a heavy fog and one of the planes in our squadron crashed onto a hillside. Finally arriving at Prestwick, Scotland, we settled down for a few days rest. It had been quite an adventure crossing the Atlantic, sobering and costly, as we found out that eight crewmembers and a flight surgeon had been killed in that crash.
On Oct. 6 we flew south to a new airfield, RAF Kimbolton, at Huntingdonshire, England. It was a wartime construction and was definitely not a Class A airfield.
After about three days of practice missions, it was determined that these runways were not suitable for our heavy bombers. Our commanding officer, Colonel Wray, decided to move our group to a better airfield in Bassingbourn, which was a few miles northeast of London. He did this without permission and it made him truly popular with the men.
Bassingbourn was an old Royal Air Force base that the RAF had vacated and made available for us. It had permanent buildings and was a nice base, all things considered. We were surrounded on all sides by country farms, which they farmed right up to the edge of the runways. We were now set up at our first assignment. It was Oct. 11, 1942.
Sometimes we were bombed at night. We watched the Germans come over on their bombing runs. We could see the anti-aircraft searchlights fix on a German plane and the anti-aircraft batteries would blast away. But they rarely hit anything.
I was with the 401st Bomber Squadron of the 91st Bomber Group, part of the 8th Air Force. The “Mighty 8th Air Force,” as we called it. They promoted me to 1st Lieutenant with a pay scale of $2,000 a year.
We flew in bomber number 41-24447. The name of our plane was the “Kickapoo.” Our pilot was Captain Johnny Swain from Colorado. There was Ralston the navigator, Cassius the bombardier, Wally the engineer and top turret gunner, Everett the radio operator, Artie the ball turret gunner, Bobby and Gregg the waist gunners, Herbie the tail gunner and myself the co-pilot.
We were one of the first four groups of B-17s sent to England and one of our jobs was to help create doctrine and tactics as we pioneered the concept of strategic bombing by daylight, something that the British said couldn’t be done.
We began combat operations in November of 1942 and we experimented with a variety of flying formations that would give us the maximum protection against the enemy fighters. For the first few months we concentrated on the German U-boat pens in French ports and then the U-boat construction yards in Germany.
On any day there was a mission; those crews that were flying that day were rousted from sleep at about 3 a.m. We would go to the mess hall for breakfast, but nervous stomachs interfered with many an appetite. After some coffee and toast, we reported to the squadron operations office to dress in our flight suits.
From there, we would go the group briefing to get the mission overview. After that, there were individual briefings for pilots, navigators, bombardiers, gunners and radiomen. Then finally we were trucked from the barracks area to our airplanes. The tension was heavy on us, but nobody wanted to show it.
It was early in the war and once we crossed over the Channel, we had no fighter protection. When those German fighter planes spotted us, they would turn and barrel roll right through our formation, blasting away at us with each pass.
Usually they came at us from the front and we would call them out for our gunners. But as strange as it sounds for me to say, watching those German fighters in action was a thing of beauty. Those Jerry’s were very brave and they were very good.
A mission might have a flight time ranging from six to twelve hours. The noise, the fatigue, the cold and the terror of aerial combat, it all mounted up on us. The strain was just tremendous and it sapped more out of me than I realized.
We were in a lot of rough fighting in those early days of the war. Many of our planes came back shredded with bullet holes and flak damage; full of wounded and dead crewmembers, men with frostbite, men with a leg blown off, men with steel splinters all in their face. Just about every medical horror you can imagine, some of it worse than I care to describe.
After these missions, I found myself to be a bit wobbly-kneed when I first stepped back on solid earth. The urge was there to get down and kiss the ground, but I abstained from doing such a thing in front of the men.
By this point in my war, I just knew that every mission flown was one step closer to home.
(To be concluded next Sunday)
Perry Giles serves as co-chair of the Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Committee. The 2011 countywide tribute to veterans is scheduled for 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 12, at the Waxahachie Civic Center followed by a wreath presentation at the Ellis County Veterans Memorial located in front of the center.