A time to change underwear
Our trip overseas began at Kearney, Nebraska. I had fought the "battles" of Florida, Texas and Georgia and this was my first experience living on an air base in the mid-west. It was February, 1945 and extremely cold there. The temperature was zero on the ground and twenty below at flying altitudes. We lived and slept in our long john underwear and fed coal all night to the pot-bellied stoves in our barracks to keep warm. The 11-man crew had come here by train from Pyote, Texas to pick up a factory-fresh B-29 bomber. We were in the first class to graduate from this combat-crew training school. After a few days of orientation we packed our bags and took off for Palm Beach, Florida, a port of departure for overseas, This was the first leg of a journey halfway around the world to India. We could easily have been assigned to the Pacific area and gone in the opposite direction. A stroke of luck in my opinion.
Although the B-29 was a marvel of engineering for its day, it was rushed from design to manufacture too fast. During the 4 months of combat crew training in Texas we had experienced many problems with the newly designed airplane. Electrical shorts, carburetor icing, over-heating engines and sudden cabin de-pressurization to mention a few. So the shakedown cruises received our full attention but this brand-new airplane performed flawlessly and we were soon flying south. After landing in Florida, we climbed down into the well-remembered heat still wearing our long underwear. So changing out of them was the first thing we wanted to do.
Flying over the ocean the next day I stole a look over my shoulder at the coastline and wondered how long it would be until I saw the U.S.A. and home again. One hour into the flight we opened our secret travel orders and discovered to no one's surprise that our first destination was Puerto Rico. That evening we sat on a cliff and enjoyed a beautiful view of the Caribbean Sea. Sipping our ten-cent rum and Coca-Cola drinks we thought overseas duty wasn't too bad. We had another thought coming.
The following day we followed the chain of islands down to British Guyana, South America. The water below was so clear and the sand so white it was hard to tell where the sea ended and the beaches began. I told myself I would come back here one day when I had the time to enjoy this beautiful place. Exactly 40 years later I returned with several family members and spent two glorious weeks sailing from island to island. The trip of a lifetime.
The flight plan then followed the coastline across the wide mouth of the Amazon River. Mud carried by the currents changed the color of the sea below from beautiful blue to ugly brown as far as we could see. The next stop was Natal, Brazil. This was the jumping-off place for the 12-hour flight across the South Atlantic Ocean to Africa. There was a stationary weather front covering our route so they held us up for a couple days hoping for flying conditions to improve. We couldn't leave the airfield but several of the crew bought "gaucho boots" from the base Post Exchange. They came up over the ankle and by tucking the bottom of the pants inside were supposed to protect against mosquito bites. I was disappointed that I could not find my size shoe. However, later they proved a poor match in durability to the regular army GI. (Government Issue) boots so I felt better. The weather did not improve but we finally had to go on with our journey regardless.
None of us had flown across an ocean before and flying in the dark made us feel all the more apprehensive. It was a beautiful clear night when we started and the stars overhead were brilliant. Doug Howell, our navigator, kept jumping up to "shoot" them with his sextant through the Plexiglas dome over his station. Then he could plot our position on the map with the readings that he took. Doug reported we were exactly on course and that made us feel a little better about flying into the unknown dark skies.
After several hours however, we realized we were approaching some bad weather ahead because the stars began to dim. Shortly we saw lightning flashes ahead that outlined the shape of huge towering cumulus clouds. We knew they might be 50,000 feet high so we couldn't climb over and it was too dangerous to fly under them. The rain began beating on our windows, then changed to deafening hail. The airplane was tossed up and down violently by the storm. All we could do was try to keep the wings level while flying on instruments and watch the altimeter needle spin wildly in both ways. Saint Elmo's Fire, static electricity, danced all around us producing spectacular lighting effects. We knew it was harmless but it was still scary. Finally we left the storm behind us with feelings of relief but weariness for the rest of the way.
Dawn and the coast of Africa arrived about the same time but the clouds below prevented us from seeing the ground. Burger, the radar operator, told us we made landfall on course. Somehow it was not the same as seeing it with our own eyes. On and on we flew, very tired now by lack of sleep and fighting through the storm. The never-ending clouds below were discouraging us and we were actually considering what to do if we ran out of gas. At last we picked up the homing beacon from Accra and finally the radio compass needle swung around 180 degrees. Looking down in the dust and haze we saw the dirtiest, crummiest and most beautiful runway in the world.
The Accra tower operator was an attractive "WAC" (Women's Army Corps) but her skin was the color of a ripe lemon. She was taking the drug Atabrine to prevent malaria. We thought, "Oh boy, are we going to look like her in a few weeks?" Fortunately we didn't have to take the drug in India because malaria was not a problem that time of year. The next day we made a 3-hour hop to Kano, "The world's largest walled city." That sounded like an interesting tourist stop to me but we were told only military escorted groups entered the city. We were discouraged from sightseeing at all our stops going overseas. They wanted to send us along quickly and safely
The last stop in Africa was Khartoum in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. This ancient city on the Nile River gave us a glimpse of the "third world" we were about to enter. Wandering nomad tribesmen herded their live stock around the edges of the airfield. Their only homes were the tents they hauled along. The camels were everywhere in the desert carrying both people and baggage. Two days later we flew east across the Red Sea and followed the southern tip of Arabia to Karachi, India. By this time we were rapidly gaining confidence in the performance of both airplane and crew.