Over There

As told to Keith by his father Edward Kenny

December 1944 to January 1945

I finished gunnery training and final pilot qualification for the P-47 Thunderbolt in Dover, Delaware. On December 16 the same week, the Nazi’s launched their counter attack in the Ardennes and were driving US forces back through Belgium. The Battle of the Bulge dominated the news, and I wasn’t surprised when orders came for Europe—the P-47 was our primary ground attack fighter. I was assigned to the 404thFighter Group but, with the front constantly shifting, my final orders wouldn’t come until I got over there.

Phyllis had been with me since we were married in June, following me camp to camp after I completed Officer Candidate School. She was nineteen; I was twenty. My Dad drove down from Detroit to see me off and take Phyl home. Delaware was our first real goodbye.

Our last night together would have to last a long time.

I boarded the Queen Elizabeth outbound from Port Newark for the UK. The Royal Navy had requisitioned the Queen Elizabeth and reconfigured the luxury liner to be a troop transport. I got the standard upgrade for new officers: a stateroom with eighteen other officers stacked in bunks three high. Mine was the dockside low bunk. We piled our B4 bags in a corner with pints of Southern Comfort. B4s were standard Army Air Force garment bags; the Southern Comfort came courtesy of the distiller.

The Queen Elizabeth was one of the fastest ships afloat. We ran at thirty knots with running lights ablaze and no escort ships—they couldn’t keep up. Neither submarines nor torpedoes could catch her, and degaussing coils kept floating, proximity mines from activating.

The voyage took five days. We didn’t move around the ship much because of the crowding. The food was standard military chow, brown, greasy, and piled high. Despite stabilizers against wave action, some officers and men got sick—not the pilots, since motion sickness would have keep us from flight status. We passed the time playing bridge, penny a point. The game was continuous. When anyone needed a break, they cashed out and another officer sat in. By the time we docked in Clyde, Scotland, I’d made fifty-six dollars and nineteen cents—a good month’s pay before the war.

Stepping from the gangplank, I was directed to a line of idling buses and lorries. I threw my B4 bag into the first lorry and climbed up. The bus behind us moved forward and started to fill as soon as we drove off. The drive from Clyde to the USAAF depot at Newcastle was 160 miles and took us through the English countryside. As soon as we jumped out, the lorry took a ‘U’ turn into a long gas line then headed back to Clyde.

I was waved to the mess tent and fell in at the end of the chow line. After dinner, a sergeant pointed me to a cot in another tent. “Be back here at 0400 tomorrow.” Next morning, I saw the bus waiting. I rushed through the breakfast line, folded a burnt meat patty into a slice of hard toast, and hopped aboard as the bus pulled out.

The Newcastle aerodrome comprised two paved runways, a control tower and a terminal building. Three WWI-vintage wooden hangars were north of the terminal. In the shadow of the open bays, mechanics leaned over workbenches and engine components mounted on frames and dollies. Four planes awaited service out front: three twin-engine Lockheed Hudson bombers and a single-engine P-40 Warhawk. A blackened engine hung from a wheeled crane beside the Hudsons. Behind the hangars was the stripped fuselage of an obsolete Brewster Buffalo. Seeing all the shot-up and discarded planes, I wondered how the pilots had fared.

As I stepped off the bus, a twin-engine C-47 transport two-hopped a landing. It wheeled onto a connecting link, taxied toward us, and revved its sputtering engines before shutting down.

“That’s yours,” shouted the sergeant above the roar of another taxiing transport. He gestured his pencil toward the newly arrived C-47 and made a check on his clipboard.

“What?” I shouted back, cupping my ear.

“Lieutenant Edward Kenny?” He sheltered his eyes from the prop wash.

“Yes.”

“That’s your flight to Paris.”

Paris? He showed me the entry on his board. “Thank you, Sergeant.” I stepped toward the plane as the cargo doors slid open.

“Here, Lieutenant, take this.” The sergeant lifted a sheet from his clipboard, a manifest for a shipment to the quartermaster at the Rothschild mansion. “You’re senior cargo officer this trip, so you’re in charge of the delivery … particularly these.” He pointed his pencil to twelve wooden crates being wheeled up to the cargo bay. “Sign here.” I initialed and signed for the fifty supply crates and the twelve listed as “highest priority.”

The ground crew loaded the cargo, distributed it around the deck for weight balance, and strapped it down. The engines restarted. I climbed in, a corporal after me. He slid the door closed and latched it from the inside then went forward.

The plane wheeled and threw me off balance. I braced with the ceiling straps and brackets along the fuselage wall then stumbled to the tube-frame seat bolted on the deck. The pilot had remained strapped in; the corporal took a seat behind him. After a short run, we hopped into the air and turned south to follow the coast. We reached the mouth of the Thames then turned east to cross the channel.

douglas_c47-a_skytrain_n1944a_cotswoldairshow_2010_arp

The Douglas C-47 Skytrain was also called the Dakota, but its affectionate nickname was “Gooney Bird,” probably in recognition of its ungainly takeoffs and landings. It did the heavy lifting throughout the war and was our main supply line. The C-47 was painted like our fighter planes to keep nervous gunners from confusing it with similar German aircraft, five wide stripes alternating white and black on each wing and around the rear fuselage. Because the Gooney Bird had a reputation for reliability and endurance, supply personnel frequently loaded them beyond listed capacity.

I’d always wanted to go to Paris. All I knew came from newsreels of Nazi’s marching under the Arc de Triomphe, and earlier, when I was three years old, of Charles Lindbergh circling the Eiffel Tower after he crossed the Atlantic. I’d seen pictures of Lindy landing at Le Bourget and crowds surrounding his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. That’s where we were headed.

We arrived midday, almost four hours after takeoff. There were no banners or flag-waving crowds for us. Nazi symbols and flags had been whitewashed or painted over with the French tri-color.

Le Bourget was a bombed disaster of cratered concrete, blackened buildings, smashed vehicles, and smoldering mountains of trash. Aircraft, mostly German but a few American and British, were crushed like snuffed out cigarette butts and shoved off the runway. C-47’s waited on refueling aprons, props turning, hoses stretched to them from trucks holding fifty-gallon drums. We taxied past to an open tarmac beside a warehouse and cut the engines.

I unbuckled. The pilot came back, and he and the corporal shoved the cargo door open. Three men walked out from the warehouse. Two privates began removing and stacking our cargo.

“Sorry, Lieutenant,” the Sergeant shouted over another C-47 cranking up, “can’t take these off your hands. You’ll have to wait for the Quartermaster.” He could see in my eyes that I didn’t understand. “Just wait here. Until he arrives, they’re still your responsibility.”

“Okay,” I shouted back. I set my B4 bag on the crates, sat beside it, and cinched my greatcoat tight against the winter wind blowing across the open field. A jeep drove up an hour later with a major and an enlisted driver followed by a deuce-and-a-half cargo truck. The sergeant waved them to me. The major walked over, and we exchanged salutes.

“You have the manifest, Lieutenant?” he asked.

“Yes, Sir. And you are the Quartermaster for the Rothschild mansion?”

He showed me his orders. I showed him the manifest. He counted the crates and cases, checked for possible pilferage, signed his name beside shipment received, and handed it back to me.

“Thank you, Lieutenant Kenny, hop in the jeep.” He waved to his crew to load the regular supplies in the deuce-and-a-half. The dozen priorities were loaded behind us in the jeep.

Chateau Rothschild was five miles from Notre Dame in Paris, beyond the lush green lawn of Edmond de Rothschild Park. The Rothschild’s, one of the greatest banking dynasties in history, had amassed a huge private fortune. Early in the war, they had abandoned their neo-Louis XIV castle. The Nazi military elite took it over during their four-year occupation and plundered most of its art and sculptures. US soldiers followed and contributed to the damage. The graffitied estate would never be reoccupied.

“Check-in’s inside.” The major pointed up the wide stone staircase. “Until new orders are cut and you’re cleared to head out to the 404th, you’ll be staying here at the chateau. Oh, and for your honesty,” he pried a board off one of the cases with a claw hammer, “take these.” He handed me two bottles of 12-year single-malt Scotch. “Cocktails at four, dinner at six, wine all day.” He smiled, saluted, and motioned for the jeep and truck to drive around back.

Snow had drifted into the corners of the cut-stone steps, and patch ice filled hollows on the veranda. I climbed then walked quickly to get out of the cold, passing through the alcove and entering through a wide doorway. The foyer reminded me of luxury hotels in the movies—except there was a large black eagle painted high on the wall. The eagle’s head had been whitewashed and given a distinctly American eagle hook to its beak. The eagle’s chest was also painted over with a red-white-and-blue American shield.

The desk clerk, a French army corporal, gave me a room key and directed a slightly built Algerian private to take my B4 and Scotch bottles to my room. “Lieutenant Kenny, you may wish to join the other officers for drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the salon,” the desk clerk said in his Maurice Chevalier accent.

“Thank you. I need to wash up first.”

“Yes, Sir.” He nodded to the Algerian private, who led me up the stairs.

My room was spacious and bare of furniture except for two cots on opposite walls. Green marble streaked white and yellow covered the lower third of the twelve-foot walls. Frescos of angels and demons adorned the upper walls and ceiling. The floor was stone mosaic with a raised corner platform and a bathtub of lavender and pink marble. Since there were no closets, I tossed my B4 on an empty cot.

The Algerian attendant drew my bath, laid out towels, refused a tip, and bowed on the way out, taking my soiled clothes and boots to be cleaned.

So far, the war was going well.

Next week see “My Night in Paris.”

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5 thoughts on “Over There”

  1. Another wonderful story from your dad’s life. By the way, I recently watched a documentary on the DC3/C47 on Curiosity Stream, a channel devoted to documentaries. What a great plane.

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    1. Thank you, James. In terms of durability, popularity, and longevity, I think the C47 was the most successful plane ever built. I wouldn’t be surprised if several are still flying.

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    1. Thanks John. I promised my Dad when he died three years ago that I would write his stories, but I haven’t done it. In his later years, I asked about his adventures and took notes. My New Year’s resolution was to write one of his stories each month. So you can find his stories posted for January and February also.

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