We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
My name is Edwin F. Vrla. I was born in Ennis on April 5, 1921, and grew up on the family farm about four miles east of town on Highway 34, just west of the Creechville Road. My parents, Frank and Mary always raised me to pull my own weight. I graduated from Ennis High School in 1939.
I joined the Army Air Force in September of 1942 and went to Kelly Air Field in San Antonio for my basic training. Afterwards, they sent me to Sheppard Air Field in Wichita Falls where I worked as a mail clerk. It was a good job, they could have given me a lot tougher duty, but before too long I began to have doubts about my contribution to the war effort.
During the spring of ’43, I went home on a weekend pass and announced to my parents that I was going to volunteer for combat duty. This upset them to no end, and they tried awful hard to get me to keep my current assignment.
But my mind was made up; I have to do my part. I explained to them that after the war, I did not want to listen to all my cousins’ and friends’ war stories, and then have to tell them that while they were off fighting that I was sorting their mail.
After putting in for my transfer, they sent me to gunnery school at Ft. Myers, Florida. One of the things we did was to learn to shoot at moving targets from the back of a speeding truck. I trained as a waist gunner on a bomber and was better at it than a lot of those fellows from up north.
Then I was sent to Alamogordo, New Mexico where I joined a B-24 Liberator bomber crew. Our pilot was Lt. Maddux, and our co-pilot was Lt. Poore. Up front, there was Jimmy, the nose gunner, Vern, the bombardier, Frank, the navigator, and Harold was the top turret gunner. Hal was in the ball turret, and behind him, there was Rick, the right waist gunner, Tom, the tail gunner, and me, the left waist gunner. The name of our plane was “Little Lulu.”
In September of ’43, I got a furlough and went home to see the folks one last time before we shipped out. I carried my parachute to show to all the home folks, but I told them that I could not imagine myself ever actually jumping out of an airplane. Anyway, it was a good visit.
That fall all the aircrews in our unit were assembled into the 450th Bomb Group and went through group training, formation flying and all that. Our planes were basic silver aluminum with no paint job to speak of. Our tail rudders were painted white, to distinguish us from other groups. We on the Little Lulu were part of the 722nd Squadron.
I was ready to leave this place. Rain was a novelty here at Alamogordo. In ninety days here I have seen it rain just three times. It’s purely desert here, nothing like back home, nothing at all.
On November 20th we left Alamogordo along with sixty-one other brand new Liberator bombers. First, it was on to an airfield in Kansas and then onto our port of embarkation, Morrison Air Field at West Palm Beach, Florida. From there we headed south across the Caribbean, and I spent a lot of time just admiring the wondrous view.
The first stop was Waller Air Base in Trinidad, then on to Belem, Brazil. From there we flew to Natal, Brazil where we rested and got ready to cross the Atlantic. I have never in my life seen such beautiful scenery… This was some adventure.
Then it was on across the Atlantic to Dakar in French West Africa. Next stop was Marrakech, an unbelievable place in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Then it was on to Tunis, another garden spot, and finally across the Mediterranean to our base in southern Italy near the town of Manduria.
We got set up and operational in late December of ’43. This place was hot, dusty and overrun by hungry mosquitoes. They preached to us a lot about the dangers of catching malaria. Everyone looked a little yellow from those Atrabrine tablets that have become a part of the evening menu. But the Captain says, “It’s better to be a little yellow than to be a dead duck.”
Little local kids stood outside our mess hall and begged for food, holding out their empty food tins. Many times we would go back through the chow line a second time so we could give them something to eat. You could not help but feel for them.
Our first missions came early in January. Mostly we were sent to bomb railroad marshaling yards in Northern Italy and Yugoslavia, but sometimes in France.
It is hard for me to get used to getting used to working in the bitter cold of 20,000 feet. We have to wear clothes that are aggravatingly bulky. First, we put on the heaviest of long underwear. Over that goes our regular clothes, then goes on our bulging, binding winter flying-suit of leather lined with sheepskin. Then comes the yellow Mae West life preserver and over that the parachute harness.
On the head goes a warm cap and then there is the intercom headset and the throat microphone, one clamped over the ears, the other strapped snug to my Adam’s apple. My oxygen mask strapped so tight that the rubber facepiece digs into the skin and cuts off circulation to my cheeks. Top it all off with a steel helmet and finally, on the hands go thick heated gloves.
After a few hours at altitude, the cold begins to creep through my clothes. The oxygen mask grips the face like a malevolent hand, and you just want the loosen it or rip it off.
After a long flight of 4 or 5 hours, many times there was no visibility over the target and we wind up dropping our bombs on the fish in the Adriatic Sea. When that happened, there were usually lots of long faces on the base that afternoon.
Lots of fellows here burn the midnight oil, either letter writing or playing cards. After each payday, lots of sad gamblers can be seen in the mess hall. Poker and blackjack are good games for the winners, but I don’t think that the losers like it too much. Many have sworn off playing, but they don’t really mean it. What they do mean is that they are now broke and they can’t play until next payday.
The weather here turned very wet and it was hard to believe that we were stationed in “Sunny Southern Italy.” Our runway is a muddy mess and many days we have to go out and wash the sticky muck off the sides of our plane. What a way to fight a war.
Many days we were rousted out of bed at 0400, had our breakfast and morning briefing, only to have our mission scrubbed by the weatherman.
The crews that are nearing completion of their 50 missions are always a little peeved at all these cancellations. They are anxious to get this all over with and head back to God’s country, the good old U.S.A.
In February we started hitting targets inside of Germany, the Messerschmitt aircraft assembly plant and different airdromes. At the mission briefing, we are all a little starry-eyed when we see the red string go all the way up into Germany. The very prospect left one’s mouth a bit dry as we headed out toward the flight-line.
It was on one of these long missions to Germany that we heard Axis Sally on the radio calling us the “White-Tail Boys” referring to the paint scheme on our tail rudders. She said that we needed to turn back if we wanted to live. Nice to know that the sweet Fraulein is thinking of us!
After this incident, we became known as the Cottontails. And our bomb group proudly adopted the name.
A poem was written that started out, “Look to the skies and you will see, the coming of sweet liberty. Just ahead of those long white trails, are the airmen of the Cottontails.”
(To be continued)