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Friday, November 13, 2015

A Veteran of My Family

Veteran's Day has passed; however, a link to a newspaper article that was written by my father (Gerald Hinckley) and, was shared on Facebook by my cousin, Tiffany.  I had actually forgotten about this article that my Dad wrote in honor of my Uncle Burt.  During the 1940's, my Uncle Burt was a World War II Radio Operator-Gunner.  The following article was published in the Rutland Herald, April 28, 2008.  Here is Uncle Burt's harrowing, albeit exciting, story of his life during this era.  Thanks to my family for sharing this!  
***To differentiate any of my comments, or where I posted images, Burt's story appears in white font and was copied and pasted directly from the Rutland Herald article.***   

IN HIS OWN WORDS


Tech. Sgt. Burt Hinckley died in March 2007. His story is told in his own words, from diaries and letters he left behind, compiled by his brother, Gerald Hinckley.


Source: universityicons.com
I was in my second year at Green Mountain Junior College in Poultney [Vermont] when my draft call came, March 8, 1943. My father was working at the Rutland Induction Center as a clerk, with the additional assignment of testing eyes, when my group came through. There was some doubt about my eyes because I had been hit in my left eye with flying glass when I was a child, but they were all right.

We went by train from Rutland to Fort Devens, Mass., for processing. There was quite a crowd at the train station to see us off. I had been told that we would be tested at Devens, so I knew what was coming. We had about four hours sleep when we were given an aptitude test that separated me and one other fellow from our group for Air Force training. The rest went to the Army engineers.


Fort Devens during the 1940's - Source: wikimedia.commons
From Devens I was sent to Miami Beach for Air Force basic training. We lived in hotels in stripped-down rooms, four men to a room. Every morning we were marched two miles to our training area, back at noon and again in the afternoon, for eight weeks. On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons there were parades of more than 10,000 men. After basic training, I was sent to radio operator/mechanic school at Scott Field, Ill.

The radio operator/mechanic school was for 22 weeks. In the mechanics class, we began by building a radio receiver from a kit and a schematic. Then a transmitter the same way. From there we learned about radios in bombers, command sets of low-frequency, push-button tuning (used by pilots), antennas and repairs.


Equipment carried by a Radio-Operator - Source: Pinterest
There was Morse code training for three hours every day. We were trained to use signal lamps as well. When our classes were over, we were given a ride in a Piper Cub airplane, my first! The pilot took me up 10,000 feet, then did every kind of acrobatics he knew to see if I would be sick or panic. He was disappointed on both counts.

From Scott Field, I went to Aerial Gunnery School in Harlingen, Texas, where we fired everything from .45 pistols to 50 caliber machine guns. There were shotguns and skeet shoots, on foot and from the backs of trucks — you name it! For our final session we flew in the back of a trainer, firing 30 caliber machine guns at sleeve targets towed through the air.




LEFT: My beautiful Aunt Jean (Burt's wife) pictured with her sister in law, Mary Lou Lamphere 
(My Dad's sister and my wonderful Aunt).
After all this, I was given a 29-day furlough. I went to my brother Donnie's wedding in Maine, and met Jean Beckwith from Belfast, Maine, who would become my wife. It was a long train ride to Salt Lake City where I was picked up by the crew I would fly combat missions with.

There were nine of us assigned to a B-24. We flew all over the western U.S.


Cockpit of a B-24 - Source:  militaryfactory
We found out we were going overseas, and were given a five-day furlough. I hitched a ride to Bangor, Maine, on a B-24 that was headed for England. I had 24 hours in West Rutland before catching a train for Topeka, Kansas, arriving just minutes before our official crew photo was taken. The date was June 6, 1944, known to the world as D-Day.


Omaha Beach, D-Day 6/6/1944 - Source:  google images
From Camp Kilmer, N.J., we boarded the Athlone Castle, a converted British liner, for our trip to England. It was jammed with infantry. Breakfast was porridge and figs, then nothing until supper.

For entertainment, we could watch the boxer Billy Conn count a big wad of cash he carried with him or watch others playing poker on the fantail of the ship. There were 62 ships in our convoy and ours was short of signal men. I volunteered, and for four hours each day, sent and received Morse code messages with signal lamps. It was an interesting experience, to say the least. When we docked in England, the Queen Mary came alongside, with the Glenn Miller band aboard.

Our orders were for the 392nd bomb group in Wendeling, England. We flew there in a stripped-down B-24, whose pilot thought he was flying a fighter plane. Someone had already named our living quarters "The Purple Heart" barracks (not a good omen) and we flew our first combat mission a few days later.

We were dropping 500-pound bombs on shipyards at Bremen, Germany. We didn't see any fighters, but German flak was uncomfortably close. Their gunners had to aim at where the formation would be 17 seconds later, and they were good at it. In turn, we would throw out "chaff," which were aluminum strips about 8 inches long, through a special slot in the aircraft. This was to confuse their artillery radar, but it still was too close for comfort. Some of the flak was green or red on explosion, and we found out later the Germans used this as signals to their fighter planes. We counted 100 holes in our plane when we got back. On our second mission, our nose wheel was blown away, and the whole crew had to go to the back of the aircraft so the pilot could keep the nose up for our landing.


German Chaff - wikipedia
All of our flights except one were at altitudes of 20,000 to 25,000 feet, with temperatures from minus 50 to 65. During the night, the planes had been repaired, then were loaded with 2,700 gallons of aviation fuel and 8,000 pounds of bombs. The kind of bomb depended on the mission, but usually we carried 500 pounders.

The signal to start engines was a green flare. We taxied to our position, with a plane taking off every 30 seconds. Our runway was 6,500 feet and we weighed 65,000 pounds. We climbed to formation altitude of about 20,000 feet, looking for the flares of our lead plane. By our 19th mission, we were flying lead plane on a high-right section. Lead planes were the favorite targets of the German ack-ack crews and their fighters.


B-24 dropping bombs - Source:  modelismo-wehrmacht-info.com
Every man was cross-trained to take over another's job if for some reason they couldn't do it. I was crossed trained as a gunner, and because I could leave my post, I was the First Aid man, as well.

Our base in England was very close to the village of Beeston, and they only had one pub, "The Plowshare," or something.

One evening some of us went there. Coming from a strong Baptist family, I didn't drink, but the others sampled the stuff. A week or so later, I got a letter from my sister Mary Lou, saying my mother had a dream about me visiting an English pub. She described the place, the bartender and who was there, even to where I was sitting.


Burt with is mother, Gertrude Hinckley
Another weird experience happened in the air on our 11th or 12th mission. We were over France when our tail gunner noticed a B-24 behind and below us. Our gunner told the pilot and after a time, the pilot told him to keep an eye on him, and if it looked as though he was leaving the formation, to shoot him down.

It was a known fact that the Germans had built a few planes that looked like ours from scraps. They would try to join a formation to determine our target and radio it to their people on the ground. Our gunner dropped his guns right dead on the pilot's window, and we flew that way for the next hour and a half.

We watched him during the bomb run, and could see his bombs falling, but it was scary because we almost shot down one of our own planes.

Our most challenging mission had to be Operation Market Garden. It was Gen. Montgomery's idea to drop paratroopers behind enemy lines to capture two bridges and the Germans cut them off.

You probably know it as the *movie "A Bridge Too Far." We were carrying mortar and other ammo when we went in about 50 feet off the ground.

*Vermont DeadLine note:   The miniseries "Band of Brothers" portrays "Operation Market Garden" on an episode.  Here is the YouTube video:



We could see the Dutch civilians waving, and German soldiers shooting at us. Our bombardier was wounded, one gas tank was ruptured and our hydraulic system had been shot away. There were so many bullet holes in the fuselage it took the ground crew three days to patch them all. There were more people killed and wounded on this mission than any other we flew.

It was in the oldest plane in the fleet and the only one painted khaki that we flew the supply mission.

Later, its history became a very personal thing for me. After being repaired, it flew its next mission. As a member of the lead crew, I flew with them and we landed safely.

Its next flight was a practice one with a whole new crew. One engine quit on take off, a second engine died on the downwind leg and a third gave up on the final approach. The plane "pancaked" short of the runway and caught fire. The rest of the crew got out with only minor injuries, but the radio man, in the waist to check the landing gear, was evidently unconscious.

The ammunition started exploding and they couldn't get him out. This was the plane No. 478 that was immortalized in a painting by the British artist William S. Phillips, "No Empty Bunks Tonight."


No Empty Bunks Tonight by William S. Phillips
Our last mission was also the farthest in flight to Dresden, Germany. We made our bomb run, and started back. We were running out of gas and our pilot decided to land at a base in Merville, France. I ran out an antenna and sent a message in English to base we were landing, both of which we were forbidden to do.

I got the antenna reeled back in, and didn't say a word to anyone. Later we were told that our plane was the only one in the entire flight that they knew where we were. It was January, and every single air field in England was shut down. We flew back to our base the next day.

There were some things that even the Army recognized as being too important to let business interfere with. When we came back for our 12th mission, the return briefing was postponed because the Glenn Miller Band was giving a concert in one of the hangers.


Burton Hinckley is pictured wearing a bomber's jacket, in the bottom row, 2nd from the left.
I guess you could say our luck held because our next mission was scheduled for Berlin. Our nose wheel went through the concrete runway before take off, and the mission for us was aborted. Later, I had the opportunity to meet Gen. Jimmy Doolittle at a rest area in England. He stood and talked with a bunch of us. He was a real nice guy and certainly the most important hand I ever shook.

The official name of our crew was "Twining," but we wanted something more colorful. I had suggested "Ned's Nasty Nine." Everyone liked it, and we had our flight jackets so painted. Below the name were 29 bombs and a parachute, which I was pretty proud of.

Note: Here is another person from Burt's crew, I found online at findagrave.com:
John E "J E" Largen, Jr. 6/29/1923 to 5/2/2010

I came back to the States aboard the "Ile de France" with a bunch of wounded soldiers. After a furlough home I reported to Atlantic City, N.J., for reassignment. I had heard there was a certain captain who was looking for people to help him sell war bonds. I volunteered for this and was given a month's time on TDY. We gave speeches about our experiences in schools, factories and steel mills in Pennsylvania. I told them about our low-level mission to Holland. I finished the war as a radio flight instructor at Scott Field, Ill., right where I had started a year or so before.

Today when people express a fear of flying to me, I remind them that we flew in planes, designed, built, flown and maintained by amateurs — plus being shot at — 30 times and returned home safely.

Burton Hinckley
A pic of my sister irritating me with a plastic Coca Cola bottle,  
at a family reunion in the Senior Center, in Springfield, Vermont (1990's).  
Uncle Burt is behind me, 
and it appears he was wisely ignoring this nonsense.



Left to right:  Rose Hinckley, Mary Lou Lamphere, Edwin "Mac" Lamphere, Marjorie Anderson and Rev. Donald Hinckley
Another Veteran in our family:  In the center of this photo, above, is my Uncle "Mac" (Edwin Lamphere).  He was a a combat medic during World War II.  He survived an amazing tour of 5 theater campaigns during World War II.  Uncle Mac was a quiet, dignified man who did not speak of his career during that era, but my father was also able to obtain his story.  I shall post this, on another day.

Here I am, in the back, after graduating from Basic Training at Fort Leonardwood, MO in  November, 1996.  On this day (at age 32!) I was chosen to receive the End of Cycle Perfect Score training award, on behalf of the Battalion.  I was so honored to receive this award, and to have my parents in attendance.  
My father took this picture.

Private First Class Denise Hinckley, 
Fort Leonardwood, MO  Nov. 1996
Publication originally written by Gerald A. Hinckley (deceased on 12/29/13).  Story submitted by Denise Goodwin, All Rights Reserved.
November 13, 2015