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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
P: Tell me where and when you were born?
K: I was born in Clarksville, Tennessee, on the nineteenth of November, 1921.
P: Talk a little bit about your early life. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to
K: I grew up in Clarksville, Tennessee. I went to the local Catholic elementary
school; my mother was a choir director and a big-time pianist and organist. So I
grew up with a piano in the family. I do not play. They tried but I could not qualify.
But I went to St. Mary's parochial school, and I went to high school at Clarksville
High School for a while. Then I went to St. Bernard's prep school at Coleman,
Alabama, which is a Benedictine monastery. In the meantime, I had learned to
fly. I had got my first license when I was eighteen and that was in 1939.
P: How did you get interested in flying?
K: As a kid I had built some model airplanes. One of my father's good buddies was
a captain of the local Tennessee Air National Guard squadron; his name was
John Outlaw. I knew him and admired him. They started a program at the local
airfield in Clarksville--the Knapp flying school. It was a CPT [Cockpit Procedures
Trainers] program--and I wanted to get in it. So, of course, I asked my dad and
he said, well, sonny, let's talk to John. So he invited John Outlaw to come over
and we sat on the front porch. I said very little. But my father and John Outlaw
talked and he told Pop, I think you ought to let him try it; he is big enough to do
that. Finally Pop said, well, okay, let's go. So I immediately went over to the local
doctor who was giving the physical, took a physical and signed up for the CPT
program. I soloed on a Aronca trainer. It was about 65 horsepower. That was the
first summer, and I soloed and got my license that summer.
P: You were sixteen then?
K: No, I had to wait till I was eighteen to pick up the license. I had done all the
requirements, and took the test at a Berry Field in Nashville. The guy that gave
me the exam was a Navy pilot, and he checked me out pretty good. I passed. I
went back to school. The next summer I came back, and they had an advanced
program. This time I signed up again and I took the advanced program at that
flying school at Outlaw Field in Clarksville, Tennessee. I learned to do aerobatics
in a biplane. I was flying a Travelaire 16-8, Waco TBF and another ilk--that is a
Stearman. I got pretty good at it. After I finished the course, I got a job flying in
the circus, an air circus. I was doing rolls, spins, and loops. I couldn't take any
passengers, of course.
P: I hope not.
K: No, I had a license to carry passengers, but I didn't have a commercial license.
WWII-27, Keel, Page 2
P: Well, you wouldn't want to carry them on a loop-the-loop, though.
K: I got used to it, and it was a lot of fun.
P: Would you go barnstorming--just riding around the country?
K: I would go to a lot of the country fairs in western Tennessee and western
Kentucky. I don't know how many times I did that, but a number of times. My
aerobatics instructor, interestingly enough, was an ex-Marine pilot, from the First
World War. I remember him telling me how he got paid the exorbitant sum of $5
an hour, which was a lot of money in those days. People would work for a dollar
a day. He was good, but he was really a tough instructor; he made you do it right.
I fell out of so many different ... I never did learn to do an immelan properly.
P: Those are hard to do--go way up and turn and come back down.
K: I finally got to the point where, if it was going with the torque, I could handle it, but
going in the other direction, I don't think I ever got through one of them
completely--fell out of all of them.
P: It can be really dangerous, can't it?
K: Well, if you are 8000 feet, it doesn't make much difference-you can fall a long
way. Anyway, those were my first flying days. I took my father up--it was the first
time he'd ever been up in a plane. He had let me ride up in an old Ford tri-motor.
I remember they charged $3 for the ride. I thought that was ridiculous, but Pop
paid for it and I rode it. After that I was really hooked. Anyhow, I got a summer
job working at the Vultee aircraft factory [Consolidated Vultee Aircraft
Corporation] in Nashville, Tennessee.
P: What year would this be, Henry?
K: It was before Pearl Harbor.
P: So the early 1940s?
K: Yes, it was probably 1940. Anyway, my buddies and I got jobs to work at the
Vultee aircraft plant at Berry Field in Nashville [now Nashville International Airport
(BNA). The southern end of the field is home to a Tennessee Air National Guard
airlift wing], which was only forty miles away from where I lived in Clarksville.
Well, here we go with another physical and memorizing all the charts. One of my
buddies, he couldn't see well out of one eye, so I memorized the charts and
taught him. I know the line today: D E F P O T E C. It was a 20/20 line. It's still on
the charts here at the hospital. I can pass the test while looking the other
direction. It's amazing.
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P: You'd think they'd change it, wouldn't they?
K: Look at the eye chart at any eye doctor you know. Look at his chart--that's the
20/20 line. So when the war started, there were three of us. We were working at
this Vultee plant. We lived in town and we traveled back and forth in one car.
We saved a little money. [We] thought we were doing amazingly well. Well, [then]
comes the 7th of December--was that '41?
K: It shocked us all. So we decided we all had to get in the service. So some of us
tried different places, but I went into the Air Force. That meant another physical.
Every time I turn around, I'm taking another physical. They had a depot in
Nashville. I was sworn into Army Air Corps in Chattanooga. It was a base near
Chattanooga. I have forgotten the name of it. That was the only time I was there.
They sent me from there to Nashville. In Nashville, I got a uniform and I was
taught how to march and say, "Yes, Sir!"
[Then] they sent me to [Selman Field] Monroe, Louisiana--and this is a
pre-flight training depot. I stayed there awhile. I found out really quick if I didn't
want to stand in line for everything, I had to learn to do the drills--the orders for
the drills, the commands for the drills, the foot-walking stuff. I got an Army
manual [that] one of the sergeants had corralled, and I memorized all the
commands. So the next time they wanted to know, anybody know how to
command troops? My hand goes up.
So I was made an aviation cadet lieutenant. I went to that school there,
which was primarily research and learning the ropes about a lot of routine that
you had to learn to live within the service. In the wisdom of the times, I was
offered my choice of several schools. I was already rated so I looked at the list
they showed me. The top of the list was Coral Gables, Florida. I thought. well.
I've never been to Florida. Winter is coming on. This is a good place for me to go.
So I signed on.
P: What school was this?
K: This was the Pan American Navigation School at the University of Miami at Coral
P: That was when Juan Trippe was head of Pan American.
K: That's right, and I got to Coral Gables and lived in the San Sebastian Hotel in
Coral Gables. I went to the school building over at the University of Miami. I got
twenty-eight semester hours for this school we took. It was run by the Pan
American crews. They were great; they knew their navigation well. The main
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course was celestial navigation. They looked down their noses at people who
didn't do anything but read a map and go from A to B. They taught us how to use
sun lines, how to use star fixes, and long-range-type navigation. I got to be pretty
good at it; I graduated third in the class. I thought I was busting out all the time. It
was so tough. But we'd fly all the old Pan American Clippers, down in Dinner Key
and taxi out in the water, take off at eighty knots, climb at eighty knots, and fly at
eighty knots. Sometimes we'd get up to 100 knots, indicated. We'd fly all night
long and shoot star shots. And we had to memorize seventy-five or eighty
different stars. Our instructors were skilled navigators who had been flying both
the Pacific and the Atlantic for Pan American. It was good. They knew their
business. We had to work really hard; my math was limited to only the math I
had to have. You know, it was tough for me to really bone up on all this. To this
day I can go anywhere, give me a good sextant, and I can take you anywhere.
It's that simple.
P: At this point, did you have any specific goal in mind, once you learned navigation,
about what kind of plane you wanted to fly?
K: I didn't have any choice in the matter and I knew that. There was no choice. You
were gonna take your assignments as they came up. That was explained to us
P: So there was no question about whether you wanted to be a bomber pilot or a
K: It didn't make a damn bit of difference what you wanted. You did exactly what
they told you. At this point, we were in Coral Gables and we were flying at night.
And nights, when we weren't flying, we were up on the roof studying stars and all
that. We had RSPT [Report Starting Procedure Turn] right there around us--the
triangle building at the University of Miami, where the youth center is now, that
was our drill field. We did our swimming exercises at the Venetian pool in the
middle of Coral Gables. We would run down there and run back. My late wife
lived not far away from that. That's how I met her--at St. Teresa's Catholic
Church in Coral Gables. In fact, I went to her eighteenth birthday party on
Alhambra Circle--but that is another story.
We finally got finished at this school. It took nine months to go through the
school. In the meantime, we had learned how to use a sextant and an aerial
sextant, which was a modification of the marine sextant. I don't know who
designed this thing, but it had a bubble with a mirror, a prism. By changing the
angle of the prism, you'd determine what the elevation of the star was above the
horizon, the artificial horizon. Once you had that, you had something to work
with. But we learned all this in our schooling. And exercise. Damn, we must have
run 1,000 miles. But I got promoted to cadet captain, along with several of my
buddies. We were a pretty tight clique. We pretty much ran the cadet corps. We
WWII-27, Keel, Page 5
would keep people from getting punished. We had reveille in the early morning
and we went to classes. In the afternoons and the weekends, well, we were out
chasing the good-looking Coral Gables ladies around the schoolhouse.
We got through and we graduated, and then we were told what
organizations we were going to. We had a bit of a choice, but it really didn't make
much difference. They said, we need so and so, so I ended up going to troop
carrier, troop carrier command. My first assignment was in Maxton, North
Carolina. The 314th Troop Carrier Wing, with the 50th Troop Carrier Squadron.
My roommate was from North Carolina; his name was Lonnie Hammond. Lonnie
was the first man in our class killed. When he was killed, he had on my jacket
because we had swapped jackets. It had my name on the jacket that he'd been
killed in. Everybody started looking for somebody else. Well, that didn't last long.
But he was the first man in our class killed, and he was killed flying anti-sub
patrol over the Gulf Stream. How about that?
I have been in touch with the University of Miami and am trying, now even,
to get some answers from them concerning the existence of the cadet cadre at
the university. They tend to ignore me. I've gotten the idea that maybe now
they've become a bit Leftist and don't want to talk about military anymore. I've
asked questions in the library, and they haven't answered me. The best answer I
got was from the dean of students at the University of Miami who is Bill Sandier
and who is a good friend of mine. We served in the American Legion together.
So I got in touch with Bill and told him what I was trying to do--get some factual
information on the flying school when it was there at the University of Miami. He
told me to come down there, and he'd make arrangements for me to go the
library. They had all the stuff in their archives. Well, I went on the Internet and
found a question-and-answer page on that library [called], "ask Otto." I asked
Otto what I wanted to know, which was time and place, and did they have any
records on Lonnie Hammond and so forth. And they never answered me. I told
Bill and he said, come down here and I'll take you down there. Well, I'm not in
any position to be running around. So ....
P: Well, let me get back to Maxton, now you were in Maxton and Laurinburg [North
Carolina]. What did you do there?
K: Got ready to go overseas. Immediately.
P: And you were in the C-47s by then?
K: Right, C-47s [cargo planes].
P: Talk to me about that plane a little bit.
K: All right now, being dual-rated, I was assigned as the squadron's lead navigator. I
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flew with my squadron commander, Joe McClure, who was an old airline pilot. He
took one look at my record--I took a flight with him--and he said, you fly with me. I
said, okay. So he stuck me in the plane. We always had another pilot aboard and
I was supposed to do the navigation for the whole squadron. It doesn't sound like
much until you sit down and think you're gonna take fifteen airplanes from here to
P: But they all follow the lead plane.
K: No, we went single ship. This was another thing. We didn't know it at the time.
We didn't know anything till it happened, almost.
P: The C-47, how many crew members?
K: We had five besides the pilot: copilot, navigator, crew chief, and radio operator.
P: And how many troops could you carry?
K: Twenty-one paratroopers.
P: What was the speed of the plane generally?
K: Max [maximum], 140 knots, when we dropped troops, we dropped them at 100
P: That's pretty slow.
K: Yes, that's 17 seconds until they hit the ground. We usually drop from a thousand
feet which meant 400 or 500 hundred feet above the terrain.
P Did you carry supplies, as well?
K: Oh yes, that was a main effort, once we got to Africa.
P: What was the difference between a C-47 and a C-46?
K: People. The main difference was the C-46 is about twice as big as the 47. It
carries about twice as much load, and all the controls were all hydraulically
boosted. The first time they were used, in combat... if my memory serves me,
was in the crossing of the Rhine at Vasel. By that time I had been stuck up in
headquarters and I was in troop carrier--the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing
P: I think you're right on that, I think I remember reading it. Now tell me about North
Africa. Why did you go and how did you get there?
WWII-27, Keel, Page 7
K: We flew in from Laurinberg-Maxton airbase, just two or three weeks after got
there, we flew down to Palm Beach, West Palm Beach. We lived in the Surf Side
Motel, and all we did was get our equipment to go overseas and be briefed.
What's the airbase there? I've forgotten. Morrison Field was the name of the
airbase. We were living the life of Riley. We were one block from the beach and
across the street from all the great saloons in Palm Beach. Lo and behold, we
finally get the word; we were under secret orders; [we] get to the airfield load up
and get going.
P: When you say loading up, you were loading up troops?
K: No, it was just our gear, because we got a bunch of them overseas, over-water
gear at that point, Mae Wests [inflatable life jackets].
P: These planes, I think you told me, had a G-box? [G-Box used for celestial
P: So, for that time, that was a pretty sophisticated plane?
K: They didn't have them at that time, that was later on. I never saw a G-box until
just before D-Day.
P: Okay, and you only went to North Africa?
K: That's right. And our crew--the plane I flew in--I flew with Joe McClure, who was
our squadron commander, and a guy by the name of Dunnigan. He was an ex-
flying sergeant and he was an ex. If you remember they had flight officers, which
we were a hybrid between enlisted and regular lieutenant status.
P: Like a warrant officer?
K Yes, the same way as a warrant officer and, of course, he was flying. And he
was a wonderful pilot. We got along quite well--the whole bunch of us. We had a
crew chief--I've forgotten his name--we didn't always have the same crew chief--
it depended on what airplane we were in, but the rest of us stayed together. I'd fly
sometimes right seat/left seat but most of the time, because of my schooling at
Pan-American, I was stuck with doing all the navigating. We left Palm Beach and
we went to Puerto Rico, Borinquen Field at the west end of Puerto Rico. We
stayed there a few days--unintentionally--but they had an aircraft go down on
Dominican Republic, and we had to fly a square search and try and find it, along
with several other airplanes. We did our searching and never found anything.
And from Borinquen Field we then headed for Belem, Brazil, but we couldn't
make it that far so we had to stop at the island of St. Lucia. Now, we are flying
WWII-27, Keel, Page 8
single ship; everybody is on their own.
P: It sounds out of the way to go by Brazil.
K That's the only way to get there, the distances are short enough. We had a nice
time in St. Lucia I might add, but remember, we're only one airplane. We can't
see anybody; we don't know where they are. We get into Belem and we get
briefed on the flight from there to Natal which is on the eastern extremity of the
mainland of Brazil of South America. We were flying from Belem to Natal, Brazil.
While we were there we were told to keep our eyes open. A plane had gone
down en route and that if we found it, to report it. It was Tommy Harmon.
P: The Michigan football player?
K: Yes, who had gone down in the jungles. He finally got out, I understand. Well, we
got into Natal the hard way. On the way across the jungle, we decided to be
smart and to go straight, get there as quick as we could rather than go around
P: Because Belem is at the top of the Amazon, right?
K: That's right.
P: So that's pretty heavy territory.
K: That's right. So, we started across, and we lost an engine about three-quarters
of the way across this big jungle of Brazil. We immediately turned our heading
and went out to the shoreline so we could follow the shore line into Brazil. We
got in there on a single-engine and landed safely, and they didn't have a new
engine for us. So we had to wait there several weeks before we got our engine
changed during which time we had to get into the local culture. Tommy Ellison
was our second pilot. He and I were pretty good buddies. We played a lot of
poker at the officer's club. He played blackjack and I'd play poker. By this time,
I'd been appointed as the class--something, C or D, pay officer. I had about
$25,000 strapped to my belly all the time so I could pay people when they
needed money. We made a good team; he'd clean out the blackjack game and
I'd clean out the poker game. We got to be pretty good at that. [We] saved our
money carefully. We went to a big outdoor patio party one night. These are all
Brazilian people, and they speak a bastard-type Portugese, not any way near
like Spanish. We didn't know what the hell was going on. But we liked the
music, and we liked the liquor, and we were enjoying the hell out of the women
WWII-27, Keel, Page 9
dancing and all this. All of a sudden, this guy comes in and starts shooting up
the place. I looked at Tommy and Tommy looked at me, and he said, let's get
our asses out of here. There was a wall higher than this room all the way around
the place. But we were taught, when we were cadets, how to get over an
obstacle like that. So I ran up to the wall and held my hands. Tommy stepped in
and I threw him up, and I turned around, went back, ran again and grabbed his
hand, and we got the hell out of there. The shooting was still going on when we
left. We got back and didn't tell a soul what's going on.
A couple of days later, we get the airplane engine in, it's put in, and it's
checked out. We test flew it and we get ready for Ascension Island. Ascension
Island was, I've forgotten the mileage, but it was a long way, like twelve or
fourteen hours flying time, and we were going to do this in daytime. I was
against that because I couldn't see the stars. I had to use sun lines, and that's
what I did. I remember shooting a sun line calling for 30-degree heading
alteration course to the right. [I] couldn't see an island anywhere. [We were]
twenty minutes away and we flew right over it.
P: It's not a very big island.
K: No, and I felt this is my first real test, and now I made it. We stayed there
overnight and flew from there--started for Dakar [Senegal]. We got into some
engine trouble, and we landed at Monrovia, Liberia.
P: Taking a world tour.
K: Yes, and we stayed there a day or two to get to whatever had to happen and
clean up the engines.
P: Well, did you have anybody who could do mechanical work?
K: Yes, our crew chief could do it.
P: He was pretty good at that?
K: Yes, he was very good at that. So, we finally get out of there and we get to
Dakar, and once again we get briefed. We went up from Dakar to Marrakesh
[Morocco]. Well, on the way, we got into a sandstorm, and we landed at a
French foreign outpost in the middle of the desert that had a little runway strip.
We landed and the damn airplane was almost sandblasted. It was bad. Once
again, we got to clean out all our ....
P: What time frame are we talking about by now? 1942?
K: Early summer of 1943, say June. So, we leave there and go to Marrakesh
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[Morocco] after the French Foreign Legion guys helped us with our tire problems
and whatever. We flew to Algiers [Algeria]. From Algiers, they told us where our
air base would be. It was over the Atlas Mountains and down into the desert 500
miles, this place called Ousda. That was our base. We flew training missions
out of there, and this is the first time we mingled with the airborne troops, getting
ready for the invasion of Sicily [began July 10, 1943]. We didn't know what we
were going to do but that was part of it. All the while, we were hauling goods
back and forth, everywhere.
P: What kind of goods?
K: People, gasoline, equipment, high-priority hospital equipment, stuff like that to the
front lines and whatever. And finally they decide to move us into Tunisia. We
don't think much of the desert, but at least we had an oasis nearby where we
could get water. That was the key to the airfield. We also had a complement of
gliders assigned to us, and while at this air base, over the Atlas Mountains, 500
miles south of Algiers, we had a perimeter guard and we had our airplanes
scattered around the air field. One day we woke up and the fabric off all our
gliders had been stripped by friendly Arabs, neighbors. So, that is how we got
out of the glider business pretty fast. We finally get over to Kairouan in Tunisia
and that's our air base. That's where we stayed out there for the invasion of
Sicily. Kairouan is on the southeast coast of Tunisia, down pretty far down. We
had a lot of flights from there to everywhere--to Cairo and back and forth to
Algiers--hauling troops and high priority stuff. [There was] a lot of hospital gear
[that] we hauled.
P: When did you get involved with the invasion of Sicily?
K: The invasion of Sicily was, I think, in July of 1943 [July 10]. We flew in a "V" to
"V" formation with one entire group. We were the second squadron, and we had
two missions. The first night, we went in and dropped troops.
P: Where did you drop them?
K: Gela [Sicily]. We got shot up pretty good, but my plane didn't get much. We lost
our group commander. He got shot down. When we got back, we had to load
and take in artillery, which we dropped. On the second night, we were getting
shot up pretty good, so instead of following the flight plan that we were ordained,
we took a short-cut and headed for the water. We got over the ocean, and the
Navy was there and they got their turn to shoot at us. We tried to get away from
them. We flew around the island of Pantelleria. We didn't have the colors of the
day; they wouldn't let us land; nobody would answer us. So we flew on into the
coastline on a single-engine at this point, to the coastline of Tunisia. We finally
landed on the beach on a single-engine. We walked to the main highway that
goes north and south in Tunisia-a couple of miles from the beach--caught a lorry
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and they gave us a lift back to our air base. I don't how far up, they took us to
Kairouan. We got there and we'd already been listed as missing in action.
P: Was the plane still flyable?
K: We went through the escape-and-evasion procedures to demobilize the airplane.
I've forgotten what it was; we had to disconnect this, and do this, that and the
P: But could you repair and fly it again?
K: I don't think you ever could. First, you got to get it off the beach. We were lucky
to be able to land it.
P: Tell me how would you drop in these planes? When you dropped heavy artillery,
did you drop them out of the back?
K: Out of the side. We had no back. Out of the side door.
P: They would just be extra heavy parachutes, and you'd just push them out?
K: Just push them out.
P: And you had a pretty good sense of the drop zone. Was it lit up?
K: No, nothing lit there. We were in the blind, and we weren't sure of anything, to
tell you the truth.
P: Talk about when you got involved in Anzio [one of the bloodiest battles fought in
Italy-January to May 1944].
K: We shortly moved over to Gela, to the airstrip there. It was a crowded airfield.
They had several different outfits there. Amongst others, was the Tuskegee
Airmen panel that they have. When we would fly missions out of there, all over
Sicily, down into Egypt, we'd call for air cover, which we always got. We liked to
get the British boys to fly air cover for us. We flew a number of missions.
P: What planes would the Brits fly?
P: The old Spitfires? Those were pretty good planes, weren't they?
K: Oh, yes. They were the best fighter airplanes at that time until the P-51s came
out. Anyway, we get a week pass, and we got a handpicked crew of a lieutenant
colonel by the name of Slugger Meyer, myself, a newspaper reporter from the
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Philadelphia Inquirer, and one other guy, Cy Peterman. We flew from Sicily; we
landed in Libya, landed and refueled, and then flew into Cairo. We got to Cairo,
and landed in Heliopolis and went immediately to the Shepherd Hotel in Cairo.
We ran into some British guys there and some good looking ladies, and we
decided we could stay there a couple of days. We spent one day on a trip out to
the Sphinx. I memorized a poem that night. I have never forgotten it, and I've
never written it down. I'll write it down for you somewhere. We flew from there
to Tel Aviv [Israel] for a little R&R [rest and relaxation]. We spent a few days
there at the Bristol Hotel in Tel Aviv. Our ladies enjoyed it very much. We had to
drop them off at Heliopolis on the way back, and then we flew back up to Sicily.
Shortly after that trip, we were transferred to another air base in Sicily in the north
central part of the state.
[End Tape A, Side 1.]
P: You went from there to Anzio?
K: Yes. We were stationed there. We flew eighty-two missions from there. Dropped
troops at Anzio and Salerno. We were flying medical supplies back and forth to
the mainland, to Algiers. [That] was our main stopping place.
P: Did you fly troops into Anzio when they invaded?
K: Yes, we dropped troops at Anzio, we dropped at Salerno also.
P: The enemy had a pretty good defense.
K: Yes, we got shot up, got one of the doors shot off our airplane.
P: Did they have 88s [German anti-aircraft artillery]? What did the Germans use
most of the time?
K: I don't know. We were on the ground at night. We didn't have any idea what it
was. It was just flak all over the place.
P: I've heard a lot of people talking about flying into that flak, and you can just see it.
K: Nowhere to go. You just go right straight through it.
P: Now, I guess you sort of get used to it.
K: You never get used to it, but you just sweat it out, is about what it amounts to.
P: And your plane flies so slowly, and I guess when you were dropping troops, you'd
drop 500 feet?
WWII-27, Keel, Page 13
K: We'd try to drop 400 to 500 feet off the terrain.
P: That's very low.
K: That gives them seventeen seconds until they hit the ground.
P: So you were a pretty inviting target.
K: If it was daytime. At night, we had dark cover. But daytime, we were real sitting
pigeons, that's all.
P: So, most of the troop drops were at night?
K: Quite a few of them were. We learned that much, anyway, to drop at night.
P: Now, when you would go on one of these trips, would you be pretty heavily
briefed about exactly when you left and when you were going to drop? And you
knew that some of these were going to be milk runs and some of these were
going to be pretty tough.
K: Well, we didn't know what the word meant. All we knew was it looked like it was
going to be dangerous. And they all were, every one of them over there. We got
shot at and shot up a lot.
P: Plus, you have no defense at all.
K: None. Except to get out of there.
P: What was your attitude toward that? Some people who fly are fatalistic, some
people are kind of superstitious. You know, they figure the more you fly, the less
chance you have of surviving. How did you fit into those categories?
K: I always figured that they could get them all but me. We were always afraid,
scared to death. [There] wasn't anything we could do about it; we did what we
were told. As I progressed in jobs that I had, I ended up in higher jobs--higher
echelons and in on the planning and programming. One of the things I always
tried to get everyone to do was drop at night, don't drop in the daytime. And we
did most of them except Vassel--we dropped in the daytime and we got the hell
shot out of us. Lost a lot of airplanes.
P: Now, when you dropped, would you always drop with your C-47? Would you fly in
with other planes? How many would you have?
K: We would be in "V" formation. Four airplanes here, three here, three here, four
WWII-27, Keel, Page 14
P: And they were all C-47s?
K: Right. Twelve. Three, three, three, and three. Three in "V's".
P: Then you would fly on the lead plane. And once you dropped whatever you
dropped, you had a designated exit route, and you knew where they were. You
knew where alternative fields were in case you got shot up.
K: That's right. That was part of my job, to be able to get that information together
in the pre-flight briefing.
P: And when you would fly, what would be your morning procedure? If you were
flying in the daytime, would you get up, have your briefing, then have breakfast,
and then you would take off? How did you do it?
K: Eat breakfast first, and then get briefed, and then we would go wherever we were
supposed to go. And every day we were flying somewhere.
P: How many missions did you fly, do you remember?
K: We didn't count missions, and some of them counted all our hours, to tell you the
truth. In our squadron, we had double crews so that the plane was going all the
time. You would go, [then] I'd go. Of course, I got stuck drawing lines most of
the time, but everybody flew a lot. Everybody had 500 or 600 hours the first year
out, which is quite a bit of flying.
P: That would have been enough to get you rotated back if you were flying B-17s.
That's a lot of flying.
K: Oh, yeah, we did a lot. We'd go from Algiers to Sicily and back several times in
the week. We'd have a number of different airplanes going. We finally got into
Naples. Everybody liked to go to Naples; that was the first opera I ever heard,
The Barber of Seville. We got free tickets from the USO. Very shortly after
Salerno and Anzio, when both of those were over, we were ordered back to
Africa to Maison Blanc at Algiers. We were sent to there from Marrakesh to go to
England. On the way to Marrakesh, in the wisdom of the times, we decided we
needed to go into Fez, Morocco. I don't know what the reason was, but very
little. We haven't been to Fez, let's give it a shot. We landed at Fez to get some
fuel and resupply--that was our excuse. We always had that excuse. They put us
up in a palace. We were put up in this palace in Fez. It was a big place. We
stayed in part of the harem, but it was vacant. They didn't have [one there]. We
stayed there a couple of days. We went to their Madena, did a little shopping, of
course. We went to Marrakesh and got ready for the flight back to England. We
WWII-27, Keel, Page 15
stayed there a few days, getting our equipment together properly, checking
gasoline, checking weather, checking routes, and all that. We flew up the
Eleventh Meridian. We took off from Rabat. We flew from Marrakesh over to
Rabat, refueled and staged out there to get every drop of gas that we could. We
flew to the Eleventh Meridian and headed north. The weather forecast was
almost diametrically opposite of what we hit. We hit a westerly wind on our nose,
northwest wind. We were expecting a southern wind. We didn't get it. So we
ended up flying over Spain. The Eleventh Meridian is considerably to the left of
Spain, like ninety miles or something. Before we were out three hours, we were
forty-five or fifty miles off course. So we get back, turn, and go across Spain and
Portugal. We get back on the water where we found the Eleventh Meridian and
head north again. We burned up a lot of gasoline at this point. This is a long,
hard flight. We were using a drift meter. Morning time came and from that I
calculated our ground speed and everything. I was pretty sure we were a long
way from where we were supposed to be. We altered course and flew to the left
of the Eleventh Meridian we thought. We went on up and kept flying, seemed
like forever. Finally, the time came to plot a course and head east toward Lands
End, England, where we were scheduled to fly. We go to the turning point and I
told the boss, well, it looks like we're about due, here we go. The heading is so
and so. He says, what if we miss England? I said, we'll be in France. Well, we
flew across the rocks outside of Lands End, England. We could see the rocks;
we knew we were all right. We landed there and I was sick as a dog. I had
pneumonia; I had thrown up all over the place. They loaded me in a different
airplane and took me to a hospital right then. And it was in York, England. It was
the Mass General Hospital. I was there for three of four weeks.
P: When you were flying these long distance routes, what altitude?
K: It was 7,000 or 8,000 feet, largely, dependent on the weather. We used the wind
P: Was it very cold at that altitude?
K: Oh, yes, it was always cold. We had on heavy, felt, fur-lined gear, [with] the
boots and helmets.
P: It was hard to keep warm?
K: Oh, yes, very hard.
P: Okay, you're in the hospital in York. You get out of the hospital--then what
K: Go back to Saltby, in England, which is halfway between Grantham and Melton
Mawbray. And we started flying training missions. And we flew every airplane
WWII-27, Keel, Page 16
just about every day. We'd head out.
P: You mean you're training new pilots, now?
K: No, we were training in procedures, flying formations. A few times we had
practice drops for some of the troops. In fact, from Saltby, at Arnhem [The
Netherlands], we dropped British troops.
P: Arnhem? Operation Market-Garden [Failed Allied attempt in September 1944 to
take bridges over main rivers of German occupied Netherlands.]?
K: Yes, we dropped British troops.
P: You didn't drop enough of them.
K: No, we sure didn't. When they got captured a few months later, we went into
their stalag to gather them all up and bring them out, which we did.
P: Talk about what you did on D-day.
K: We were in a stream of 1500 airplanes--a "V" of "V's". We'd been sitting on the
airstrip for two days waiting for the weather to break and someone to tell us to
go--which meant we were camped out, really, on the side of the airplane--
paratroopers and everybody. When we got the word to go, seems to me we took
off just after dark, around 9:30, 10:00, something of that nature. And we took a
long time to form up; we flew in a big, huge spiral, going up so everybody could
get fitted in easily, comfortably, until the other planes that we were going to follow
came along, and we saw them. Remember, it's radio silence. We see them go
by, got their formation lights on. Finally, the time comes when we fall in behind
them and everybody else comes behind us, and we head for Southampton. We
flew across the English Channel, and there was a submarine offshore of the
peninsula that had a radar reflector on it, and this was the first time we'd ever
used a G-box. We'd gone through the English school to learn how to use it. Our
heading, after we'd hit this submarine, was about 100 degrees and twelve
minutes flying time.
P: How was the weather at this point?
K: Scuddy. At our altitude, there were scuddy clouds all over the place. You'd be in
one and then out. We tightened up the formation to try to keep from losing
everybody. We finally get to where we see the shoreline that we'll pass over, but
it's constantly in and out of weather all the way, and we were concerned we
wouldn't see anything. Finally, we got just a few minutes away from where I
thought the DZ [drop zone] was, and we started looking, and sure enough, we
saw a green light. I told the boss, that's it. We hit the bail out button and I don't
WWII-27, Keel, Page 17
know what the hell happened to the rest of the air force, but it wasn't anywhere in
sight. All I could see was the airplanes right beside me. The man on my left
wing got shot down. He was a good friend of mine. We don't know what hit him
or how, but he was at the same elevation we were, obviously. We dropped.
P: You dropped the 82nd airborne?
K: We were dropping the 101st, which was cadred out of the 82nd. In fact, I think the
battalion number was even the same one, 506. We turned and headed back up
the east side of the peninsula. It was two-sixteen in the morning when we
dropped, and after we dropped we hit the deck, went down as low as we could
get, turned just beyond the peninsula and headed north. We were told to stay
within a mile of the coastline, and we didn't know why until we got up. About
halfway up the peninsula, the whole damn place exploded with gunfire. They had
all these rocket boats and everything going off. They had told us to stay close so
we wouldn't be in the way.
P: So you missed the worst of that then?
K: Oh, that was all true, just barely. Well, we got back and landed, I remember
climbing out of the airplane, the medic stood down at the foot of the plane and
handed us a big shot of scotch when we got out of the plane. Boy, did we need
it. We were debriefed and had to get ready immediately for more missions.
P: And the rest of the missions like more ammunition and supplies to troops?
P: You told me a story about flying into Kassel. What was that?
K: That's the next year, 1945. Kassel, Germany, crossing of the Rhine. No, it was
Vassel where the crossing of the Rhine was. By this time, I've been kicked
upstairs to the operations department of the 52nd troop carrier wing, which we
moved from Saltby. We set up a temporary airfield in Amiens, France, just
outside of Poix-de-Picardie. That was our air base. From there, we did all this
flying back and forth every day, hour after hour.
P: Were you doing a lot of flying, or mainly just organizing?
K: Well, I was doing both. Every chance I got, I'd go flying to get the hell out of the
office, but anytime there was a big mission to be planned and programmed or
something, I had to go and get involved with it. That's how I met this guy,
[General James A.] Gavin. When I first saw him out in Africa, he was a major
and I was a second lieutenant. Next time I see him, he's a brigadier general, and
I'm a first lieutenant.
WWII-27, Keel, Page 18
P: Gavin went up pretty fast. Was he commander of the 82nd by then?
K: He commanded the 82nd Airborne. In fact, I was told that he told all the crews, [I
didn't hear it], that if any of my men fail the jump, to shoot them in the head and
throw them out there-[that they had] defaulted in the face of enemy fire. I heard
this. I didn't hear it from him.
P: He was one of the youngest generals. He was only in his thirties or something.
K: I think he was the youngest two-star general they ever had.
P: I think he was the youngest since George Armstrong Custer. So, talk to me
K: We had all those missions--Market Garden--we had those. We had paratroopers
there. We had the crossing of the Rhine and Kassel. That was one of the last
ones I was on. Arnhem.
P: You were dropping U.S. troops mainly.
K: Only one time, we were dropping British troops. Mainly we were hauling stuff
back and forth all over Europe, as a matter of fact.
P: Did you still get escorts from some of the Spitfires?
P: By this time, you had the P-51s.
K: P-47s. P-51s didn't come in until almost the end of the war. And we didn't need
them. We didn't think we did.
P: At that point, you didn't because you had air superiority, but the P-47s did a lot of
damage to the German troops.
K: Oh, there's no question about it.
P: Now, at one point you told me about the 52nd wing that ran into hydroelectric
lines, at some point.
K: Oh, yeah, I lost my three roommates.
P: What happened in that circumstance?
K: This was a mission to Kassel, Germany. We were going to land and unload our
WWII-27, Keel, Page 19
troops, and it was no formation, nobody in sight, nobody knew where we were
going, should be a snap. [We planned to] get there and get back. Weather was
scuddy, like it usually is over Europe. Last thing I told them, I said, in my briefing,
I said, if the weather gets too bad, don't hesitate, turn around and come home.
This is not high-priority stuff. We can go tomorrow. I come back that afternoon,
my three roommates don't show up. They all hit high power lines on the top
ridges of German hills, and not even within sight of each other. They were all
lost. They were carrying, if I remember correctly, it was jugs of gasoline. So, I
moved on at that time. We were stationed at Poix-de-Picardie, outside of Amiens
at this point. That was our foreign base. In Saltby, back in England, we still had
a reserved, rear base. At Amiens, was the 52nd troop carrying wing
headquarters. I got transferred up there to help with planning and programming
of various other missions. Well, the troop carrier command had, I don't how many
wings, but three or four, anyway. Fifty-one and fifty-two were two I was familiar
with, and that's when we planned this crossing of the Rhine in Basel, and I
offered my advice as an old paratroop dropper: let's do this at night. Nah, we got
these new airplanes and this, that, and the other. We had C-46s then, and C-46s
were flown by the oldest crews we had, ones just getting ready to go home. We
had a point system in those days including a minimum of 500 hours, flying time
and combat time. The distinction was never very clear. Some missions are not
much combat, and another one was. So, flying time/combat time was not very
effective with us. But the point system was. You couldn't be considered unless
you had eighty points, and I had 129 points So, when I was there, I had an
opportunity to learn how to play gin rummy with my commanding general. His
name was Hal Clark; he was commanding general of the 52nd troop carrier wing.
We played in the officer's club almost every night. He owed me seven cartons of
cigarettes. I told him I would swap him something for that and he could write it
off. He said, what do you want, Henry? I said, I'd like to transfer out of here so I
could get home. He laughed. Everybody wants to go home, but, sure enough,
in the next couple of weeks, I got a set of orders transferring me to the 56th
fighter group. This is after the crossing of the Rhine at Vassel where I am
saying, no, let's do it at night. But they shot up a lot of the oldest crews, and the
46th, being hydraulically-boosted props, would just go up like a matchbox. So,
with all that behind me, I finally got transferred to the 56th fighter group. And it
was just outside of Cambridge in England. I stayed there, [it] seemed like forever
before we ever got on a boat, the Queen Mary, to come home.
P: Where did you come in?
K: New York City, Pier 90.
P: About how long did it take you to get completely mustered out?
K: Well, we got into Pier 90, and my good buddy and fellow comrade, George
Martin--we were both captains at this time--got off the boat. He was from New
WWII-27, Keel, Page 20
York; he was from Brooklyn. They said, 'well, the ferry's here. We're going over
to Fort Dix [New Jersey] and all that. He came over and he said, 'let's get the
hell out of here and go to town.' So, each one of us had been assigned X
number of troops to look after, and I called my sergeant over, and I said, you can
handle everything, Sarge? [He said] oh, yeah. George and I got in the car and
went to the Hampshire House.
P: That's right on the park.
K: That's right on the park. Right next door to the Cafe de la Poix, and we spent
some time there--several days, as a matter of fact. Finally, we ran out of money
and were so hung over we couldn't see, and so we caught the ferry and went to
Fort Dix. We checked in and nobody ever payed any attention to us being gone
at all. We checked in and they said, okay, we're going to get you out of here.
We're going to punish you for being a week late or whatever. They said, you're a
troop trained commander, and your troops are going to Georgia. I said, okay,
what am I supposed to do? They said, you're supposed to take care of
everything. What the hell does this mean? We had to have all the records on
the train, all the 201 files. So, I went to one of the sergeants, and I said, let's get
a compartment here and put all of these 201 files in there, and let's see that
nobody touches that thing. Well, it took us about three days to get there. We
stopped two or three different times and took some people on and off at various
times. One guy got a cinder in his eye and we got him off the train, I think it was
Baltimore or somewhere. We finally get into Fort McPherson.
P: That's in Atlanta.
K: Right. That's where we got off.
P: That's Third Army Headquarters.
K: I don't know. I didn't know any numbers. All I knew is, this is where we're getting
off. I called my brother and one of my buddies, and they met me in Fort
McPherson, picked me up there, and we drove back to Clarksville, Tennessee.
P: And you were done. Well, one thing I can determine. You had really good "R &
K: Oh, yes, you can bet on that.
P: You stayed at some of the best hotels in the world.
K: I spent many, many trips in Paris. When the war was over--VE Day was on May
8, we had flown into an airfield in Germany to take some POWs out of the stalag.
We didn't know anything, so, you know, where do we go? Here we go, we land,
WWII-27, Keel, Page 21
we had to stay over. Now, we got there early in the morning, and here are all
these guys coming out in fresh, clean fatigues and they smell good. This is
wonderful, we've got fifteen airplanes. We line them up, get the planes loaded,
got off the ground, get in the air, and we find out all these guys are French. We
get in the air, and we have one guy in the outfit, Frenchie Perault, who could
speak fluent French, and he was in one of the other airplanes. So, Frenchie did
the interpretation for everybody. We told them all, when we got the message,
that the war is over. That's not the way we heard it; it was a lot of chatter. We
said okay then, we don't need to go to Chateauneuf, we'll go to our alternate
base, which was Le Bourget, outside of Paris. So we landed all fifteen airplanes
into Le Bourget after announcing to the towers as far out as we could reach them
that we had all these Frenchmen. We got there and we landed and starting
unloading Frenchmen, and the place was just vacated; it was gone. My
sergeant came up to me, said, boss, I know where we can get a Jeep. I said,
let's go. We got into that Jeep and went straight to the Champs-Elysees. And
we drove back and forth from Place de la Concord to the Arc de Triomphe.
P: This was May 8? There was an incredible jubilation and celebration in the
K: It just went ape. We were walking down the street, and everybody would hand
you a bottle of champagne ....
P: Girls were kissing you?
K: Yes. We had a big time.
P: Well, everybody who got to celebrate, got to earn it. Let me ask you a couple of
questions about your service. How do you think it impacted your life?
K: It's affected everything I've ever done since, one way or another.
P: In what way?
K: I'm not sure. Some of it good, some of it, not so good.
P: Did you ever have any problems with nightmares, night sweats?
K: Oh, no, nothing like that.
P: How did it impact your character? Did it change you in any way?
K: I have often thought about that. Probably it did.
P: How so?
WWII-27, Keel, Page 22
K: I think I became much more self-disciplined. Everybody talks about quitting
smoking. When I made up my mind to quit smoking, I didn't have any problem. I
just quit, that's all. I did pretty well in school. I went back to it. When I got to
through [with the service] in Georgia, I went home for a few days. I went back to
Notre Dame. We had written to the good fathers--Billy Hennessy and I--in the
same outfit. He was from Notre Dame, and lived in Chicago. So we wrote them
and told them we wanted to come back to school. Father [John] Cavanaugh
wrote us the nicest letter back you ever saw. [It read], dear boys, come home.
P: At that time, he was president.
K: Yes. Come home to Notre Dame. We guarded that. We went to school. I met
Billy in Chicago. We drove down to South Bend [Indiana] and went into the
registrar's office, and told them we wanted to sign up. The good Father looked at
us and said, you know what you're saying? They were on a tri-semester system.
Yes, Father, we know. We want to take this, that, and the other. And then he
said, well, we can't handle you. So, we pulled this letter out and said, Father ....
P: That was the magic letter. Now, did you go on the GI Bill?
P: That's got to be one of the great decisions in the history of this country to supply
funding for veterans.
K: That's right, and it saved a lot of schools, too, from going under. Including Notre
P: Well, at that point, of course, higher education was not as prevalent as it
was later, and it made it very popular. It allowed people who had served to go
and finish their careers very quickly. They could finish their academic career in
one or two years.
K: I remember, when I got my credits--this was after they said they won't take you,
though. In fact, what happened, is the registrar said, why don't you boys do this?
We're on a three a year semester system. This is November, the next one starts
March 1. Why don't you take off the winter and come back on the first of March,
and you can get everything you want. I looked at Billy; Billy looked at me and
said, what do you think? I said, I think that's the way to go. So we spent that
winter in Miami.
P: Somehow I knew that you were going to get back to warm territory. You probably
went back to Coral Gables.
WWII-27, Keel, Page 23
K: In fact, my wife was from Coral Gables. She was a Marine.
P: Was she really? So, if you look back, Tom Brokaw talks about the "greatest
generation." What's your reaction to that terminology?
K: Well, as I read history, it's an unusual generation for all the crap we put up with,
one way or another.
P: The Depression, the war ....
K: Yes. I can remember my father, he was a great athlete. He lived to be 104. I
bought him his first set of golf clubs, but he was a great ball player. He went to
Huntington Academy in Huntington, Tennessee. One of his teachers was
George Bernard Shaw--How about them apples?--who was a guest of Professor
Briar, who owned the school, a good buddy of his from England.
P: So, you see the greatest generation was an appropriate term?
K: Yes, I think it pretty well defined it. I had a lot of various problems, and
everybody did, getting a decent job or whatever. I was offered a job as a reporter
for the Chicago Tribune. I was editor of the school paper at Notre Dame, Notre
Dame Scholastic and the sportswriter there was a kid named McCormick. Well,
his uncle was ....
P: ... owner of the paper.
K: Something like that. And they offered me $35 a week. I told them, I've got a
wife; I need more than that.
P: What did you do most of your career after that?
K: General contractor. I found out there was a lot of money in that. I went down
and took a test. Well, first I took some courses in general contracting, and I took
the license test in the state of Florida. I got one of the earliest GC [general
contractor] licenses. I still have it. Number 945.
P: And you lived in Miami most of the time?
P: What kind of contracting?
K: I had a partner for a while. We did a lot of housing. I didn't like that so I went into
the commercial end and he took the housing. I did some high-rise work. One of
WWII-27, Keel, Page 24
the last things I built was on Key Biscayne. Do you know Key Biscayne?
P: I do, indeed.
K: You know where the library is? You know all those four buildings behind it, Key
Colony? I built one of those. That's how I got down there. We've spent a lot of
time here, haven't we?
P: That's okay. Let me try to finish the interview and ask you a little bit about how
you view your World War Two experience in terms of your contribution? Some
people say, that was just my job. I was just doing my job. Other people look at it
differently, some people say I wasted four years.
K: Obviously, we did a lot of good because we won the war. It's that simple. A
whole lot about it I didn't like, but I thought we did miraculously well. I thought I
was the luckiest guy in the world. How many times I got shot at, nobody knows.
I never got a scratch. I lost my roommates, a lot of my wing men. Untold. Sy
Peterman is the guy I was trying to think of the reporter for the Philadelphia
Enquirer. Sy Peterman. We had our picture taken in front of the Sphinx.
P: Overall, you feel good about your contribution?
K: Oh, yes, I think we did something worthwhile. I think it was very disruptive in your
relationship with the rest of your family, trying to make a living and this sort of
P: One of the things we learned about this war that really made the difference, is the
American supply system. We had better supplies, more efficient supplies,
enough ammunition, food, hospital, all the stuff you had to have to win a war.
K: That's right. You got to have enough for ourselves and everyone else, too.
P: That's right, you had to feed everyone else after the war was over. Did you feel
like the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the correct
K: Absolutely. Without a question.
P: And you never had to worry about going to the Pacific theater because you had
already finished your duty?
K: I never worried about it on V-J Day. I happened to be in Paris on V-J Day also.
P: You sure know where to be.
K: Well, we were stationed in Amiens just north of that. We kept an apartment on
WWII-27, Keel, Page 25
the Place de la Concorde, or just off it. We paid $285 a month for that.
P: Henry, I think you had a little more fun than most people did during World War
K: Oh, we had a lot of fun.
P: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?
K: I don't think so. There's so much more. It's endless.
P: I think we got the basic good stuff.
K: If you need anything else ....
P: That's great. Well, on that note, I'll end the interview. Thank you, Henry.
[End of Interview.]