10 Little-Known Facts about American Airmen in WWII

May 8, 2020 marked 75 years since war in Europe ended in World War II. On the same date in 1945, V-E day celebrations were raucous after six years of prolonged war.

Commemorating the end of the war in Europe means remembering the men who fought it and the reality of their wartime lives.

We stand alone together” has come to define the ethos of the Greatest Generation’s WWII fight.

Today, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, “we stand together alone” captures the ethos of a very different war, one that can only be won by staying apart.

The only analogy to the current pandemic in living memory is that of WWII. It was a protracted six-year battle. Life was upended. Death was omnipresent. But it was also replete with hope for a victorious conclusion.

Few servicemen had an experience more isolating than airmen. Missions lasting the better part of a day were spent in a tin can with only one’s crew. There was an inherent discomfort in the unpressurized, unheated fighters and bombers necessitating oxygen masks and protective equipment. For Allies, the air war fought from England was the last vestige of hope in the fight for the western world when all of Europe fell to Hitler.

Let’s take a page from the past to look at ten little-known facts about wartime life in England for American airmen whose collective efforts led to Victory in Europe:

1. American troops invaded England in late 1942. It’s remembered as the “Friendly Invasion.”

Top: Airmen of the 44th Bomb Group ride bikes in Shipdham Village. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum) Middle: An English woman works on a farm abutting a heavy bomber base. B-17s are parked in the background. (Source: NARA) Bottom: Airmen of the 44th Bomb Group pictured in from of the Royal Standard Pub in Shipdham Village with the English proprietor. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum)

In late 1942, droves of American airmen descended on East Anglia, the protruding thumb of England that looks out on the Normandy coast.

Over 350,000 Americans were based in East Anglia during the War organized under the auspices of the 8th Air Force. The pastoral countryside home to farms and storybook English villages transformed into an ostensible aircraft carrier during WWII. Over 50 air bases were hastily constructed for wartime operations.

Life in villages dotting the East Anglian countryside was quiet. The brashness and vigor of American airmen clashed with the more subdued English way of life. By war’s end, a fondness transcending time developed between the English and the Americans that came to be known as the “Friendly Invasion.”

Today, an American boasting a connection to the air war is greeted in East Anglia with open arms and profuse thanks for what our forefathers did in the War.

2. Flying from the United States to Europe took over twenty hours, including an overnight pitstop in Morocco or Greenland.

Top: A B-24 in flight taken from the waist window of an adjacent B-24. Bottom: The ice caps in Greenland as a B-24 approaches BW-1 Base in Greenland. (Source: Truslow Private Collection)

Hopping “across the pond” was a prolonged endeavor. Even in the advanced B-24 Liberator, the flight from the United States to England required multiple overnight stops for rest and refueling. All told, the flight time logged from the eastern seaboard of the United States to England was over 20 hours.

Because air traffic from the United States to Europe became so congested during the war, two different routes to England were established, named the Northern and Southern route.

Air Transport Command Ferry Routes, September 1945 (Source: NARA)

The Northern route wove from Canada to Greenland or Iceland, giving crews a glimpse of the Northern Lights and icy fjords before touching down in England.

The Southern route sent crews over lush jungles in South America before hopping east to Africa, with a final stop in Morocco after navigating over the towering Atlas Mountains.

Crashes getting to combat in England were so common that airman James Mahoney recalled: “An Air Transport Command Navigator once ventured that you could navigate the land portions of both routes by merely following the carcasses of fallen planes.”

3. Bomber crews spent hundreds of hours in combat fighting the Nazis but many never stepped foot on the European continent.

Top: B-24 bombers of the 44th Bomb Group over East Anglia in formation for a bombing mission over the continent. Bottom: The cockpit of a B-24 heavy bomber. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum)

Up until the invasion of Italy and D-Day shortly thereafter, American air bases were located in England as part of the 8th Air Force.

By war’s end, a bomber crew had to fly 35 missions to complete a tour of duty and earn their ticket home. Thirty-five missions amounted to 200+ hours in combat over Fortress Europe clashing with Germans. Completing a tour spanned many months, sometimes taking an entire year.

If an airman was lucky, he never stepped foot on the ground where his war was fought. For bombers of the 8th Air Force, nearly every mission began and ended in England. In most cases, only if a crew was shot down, and survived the crash, did they touch down on the European continent.

4. American airmen wore almost 70 pounds of gear on combat missions to protect against -50 degree temperatures and enemy flak.

Top: Airmen of the 44th Bomb Group in the Drying Room on base where they donned heated flying suit and sheepskins. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum) Middle: An airman of the 392nd Bomb Group in the waist of a B-24 bomber wearing a flak vest and helmet. (Source: 392nd Bomb Group) Bottom: An airman on a practice mission treating a wounded crew. His oxygen mask and Mae West life vest are clearly pictured. (Source: NARA)

Combat flying was hell. Heavy bombers were unpressurized and unheated. On day-long missions averaging six to eight hours, temperatures in a bomber regularly hit -50 degrees.

At altitude, bare skin would freeze to the aluminum fuselage and .50 cal machine guns. Oxygen masks iced up constantly. Thirty seconds without oxygen could knock a man unconscious; two minutes without oxygen could kill him.

To combat the cold, lack of oxygen, and enemy flak that sent shrapnel careening through bombers, airmen wore over 70 pounds of gear.

Heated flying suits, sheepskins, flying boots/gloves, Mae West life vests, parachute harness, and flak helmets/vests were just some of the gear an airman sported on every mission.

The bulk and weight of the gear made it difficult for an airman to maneuver through the cramped confines of a heavy bomber, but each piece of gear played a crucial role in keeping an airman alive.

5. On every mission, an airman carried a silk escape map of Europe — even though the fabric was in short supply during the war.

Top: A silk escape map showing France. Bottom: A silk escape map showing Holland, Belgium, France, and Germany. (Sources: Wings Remembered Museum) (Source: Sims Private Collection)

If an aircrew was shot down on a mission over Europe, they relied an escape kit, which was carried on every mission, to avoid capture and make it to friendly lines. A silk escape map was one piece of the escape kit.

Roughly three feet long by three feet wide, different geographic areas were printed on both sides of a silk escape map. As the war went on, the regions changed based on the areas where Allied bombing dominated. The maps showed roads, railways, and other landmarks to help an Allied airman evade the enemy.

However, why it was printed on a most coveted wartime fabric is perhaps the most interesting story.

Paper maps proved ineffective for airmen on the run because of the noise they produced when in use. Paper maps also proved vulnerable to water. Rain caused the ink to bleed or the map itself to disintegrate.

Silk was an effective alternative: durable, water-resistant, and easy to handle. Even though it was in short supply, silk was allocated for escape maps. Over 3.5 million silk and cloth maps were printed for Allied forces during the war.

6. Even in war, dogs remained man’s best friend.

Top: Flakko at Shipdham Air Base airfiield site where ground crews prepared B-24s for bombing missions. Second: Flakko with 44th Bomb Group ground crewmen Collins, Kinning, and Villemez. Third: Rusty in the B-24 cockpit “Avenger” with 1st Lt. Peterson. Bottom: Rusty sitting atop a bomb waiting to be loaded into a B-24 bomb bay. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum)

English dogs found adopted homes at American airbases during WWII. Beloved by all the men on base, dogs became ostensible mascots of Army Air Force Bomb Groups of the 8th Air Force.

The furry friends brought comfort and joy to an otherwise somber livelihood marked by cold English days, long missions, and omnipresent death.

Roaming bombs and ammunition at American airbases in rural England, dogs adopted by bomb groups lived at the epicenter of war.

On occasion, dogs were tucked inside a heavy bomber and taken for a flight. On the famed low-level Ploesti raid, the dog “Eight Ball,” so named for the 44th Bomb Group who adopted him, flew on the deadly raid. Tail Gunner Steve Bugyie recalled: “When the guns began to fire, Eight Ball curled up under the pilot’s seat and stayed there for the rest of the mission.” Needless to say, dogs did not belong in combat.

While the sentiment that “bomb group dogs” belonged to every man who lived on base, they were typically cared for by a select few. When the war ended and American airmen were sent stateside, leaving behind their beloved pets proved torturous.

At war’s end, ground crewman John Weber consulted the British Kennel Club because he wanted to bring “El Champo,” a Cocker Spaniel adopted by the 44th Bomb Group, back to the United States. When that proved impossible, Weber paid a local farmer to care for “El Champo.” For several years after the war, Weber made a yearly trip from Oregon to England to visit his beloved “El Champo.”

7. STDs were a widespread issue on airbases that posed a threat to winning the war.

Top: Piccadilly Circus in wartime London. American airmen flocked to London on leave and overnight accommodation was available at the Rainbow Club run by the American Red Cross. (Source: American Air Museum) Bottom: Excerpt of a daily briefing from August 15, 1944, which would have been posted across an Army Air Force Base with mission-critical announcements for airmen. (Source: 44th Bomb Group Microfilm from Maxwell Air Force Base)

Demographically, American airmen were young and overwhelmingly single. According to recently analyzed NARA enlistment data, 77% of airmen in the 44th Bomb Group were single without children when they enlisted.

Sequestration on an all-male airbase, coupled with the life and death stress of combat, led sexual frustration to mount. Leave in London proved an easy release for the pent up sexual tension. From their airbases in East Anglia, American airmen flocked to Piccadilly Circus. Their presence brought rampant prostitution to the area.

With sex came widespread STDs. Referred to during the war as Venereal Disease (VD), an estimated one-third of VD cases amongst GIs were said to have originated in London.

VD posed a threat to winning the war, as afflicted airmen were grounded from flying combat missions for several days until their health improved.

Airbase leaders combatted VD with lectures, free-flowing condoms, and publicly displaying daily statistics about the number of VD cases on base. Yet, VD proved to be a protracted battle.

A 1944 Medical Report submitted by the 44th Bomb Group noted: “Repeated lectures on venereal diseases, far in excess of that required by Army regulations, have been given to all members of this command. Prophylaxis is available to men, as are condoms. Few use them. This is indicative of the carelessness of and disinterest of the men for their personal good and the good of the service.”

8. English country estates were requisitioned and turned into retreats called “Rest Homes” for war-weary airmen.

Top: Knightshayes Court was built in 1874 for the Heathcote-Amory family. During the war, it became a Rest Home for American airmen stationed in England with the 8th Air Force. Bottom: American airmen, including E.F. Wilson, at the Knightshayes Court Rest Home in April 1945. (Source: American Air Museum)

Run by the American Red Cross, Rest Homes were country estates where war-weary airmen midway through a combat tour to recharge and relax for a week.

The psychiatric strain of combat flying led to the creation of over 20 Rest Homes in England. Manor homes and country estates throughout England were handed over by their owners for use as Rest Homes.

The Rest Home program was viewed as preventative care to keep American airmen in good psychological health. An air crew was typically sent to a Rest Home halfway through a tour of 25 to 35 missions or after a particularly traumatic event.

The goal was to give American airmen a reprieve from the war for a week. Upon arrival, airmen were given civilian clothes. They slept in beds with lush linens. The breakfast menu included real eggs and bacon. Red Cross girls entertained airmen during the day with games and myriad activities on each estate. Rest Home dinners were a nightly lavish affair, including an open bar.

9. Run by the American Red Cross, “Clubmobiles” were bakeries on wheels offering rare treats at airbases — donuts, coffee, & interaction with women.

Top: Ground crews and airmen of the 44th Bomb Group Bottom: American Red Cross Workers Pose Beside the Clubmobile, nicknamed ‘Tennessee’ at An 8th Air Force Base In England, 3 November 1943. (Source: NARA)

The American Red Cross ran a robust assortment of morale-boosting activities for American airmen in England, including the “Clubmobile.”

Described as a service club on wheels, a “Clubmobile” was a London Bus retrofitted as an ostensible food truck.

Upon arrival at an airbase, a “Clubmobile” parked near the heart of combat operations adjacent the runways. American Red Cross girls brewed coffee and fried donuts from the small kitchen inside the bus. A victrola played music while dozens of men waited in line. On an average day, 5,000 donuts were served from a single “Clubmobile.”

Donuts were a treat in short supply, a result of food rationing and the English opinion they were “ethnic food.” The “Clubmobile” brought a slice of home to “donut desolate” wartime England.

10. Dances brought live music, local women, and good cheer to the epicenter of the air war.

Top: Airmen of the 44th Bomb Group at the Aero Club on Base. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum) Bottom: Band play for a dance at the 381st Bomb Group Aero Club on February 14, 1944. (Source: NARA)

Dances organized by the American Red Cross gave airmen an opportunity to blow off steam from the intense stress of the air war.

Aero Clubs on American airbases regularly transformed into dance halls featuring live swing music, often courtesy of an airbase’s band formed from the roughly 3,000 personnel who called each base home.

The 44th Bomb Group band was started by Bombardier Paul Boensch, who studied music before the war. Maintenance men in the group built music stands, and instruments were hobbled together. Boensch recalled, “Our best break came when Major Linck learned that a band of German musicians was captured at St. Lo after D-Day. Twenty-four hours later, we had all their instruments, all in first class condition.”

In addition to the live music, women from local villages were trucked to airbases for evening dances. It was a formal affair as airmen donned their best Class A uniforms.

Typically held once a month, dances proved popular with airmen with a vast majority attending the evening affairs. The music, dancing, and female company gave airmen a few hours to forget about the war.

When Shipdham was a Stranger

Shipdham Runways_2
Shipdham Air Field in April 2019.

Shipdham has occupied a prominent place in my mind over the last year and change. Some days it has consumed me in the wee hours of the morning after I finished my day job at Deloitte, but no day has passed without me at least thinking of the place, the 5,000 airmen who took off from its runways, and the thousands of ground crew and support staff who worked tirelessly to get the bombers and men airborne.

In fact, Shipdham has occupied so much air space in my life that I can’t remember the 27 years when Shipdham wasn’t in my vocabulary.

When I begin to describe the intensity with which I’ve chased this history, I’m most often met with the question: What sparked your interest now? It’s a question I often reflect on when I look back at the pace of the last 365+ days. But mostly, I ask myself with some semblance of regret and guilt, why didn’t I care before?

The history of WWII isn’t a new interest. I studied 20th century American history in college. I focused on the Second World War and the Cold War. In fact, an oral history report I wrote for the WWII course I took as a freshman featured both my maternal grandfather’s service in the Pacific, as well as my paternal grandfather Wally’s role in the European Theater (featuring the little we knew about his service). Looking at this paper 10 years later, I’m dumbfounded that the most basic facts of Wally’s war did little to shake me. The paper highlighted that Wally flew 40+ missions, extended his tour, was hit over Cologne by a machine gun nest, was Awarded the Purple Heart, and saw bombers shot from the sky. Yet, it was lost on my 19-year-old self. At the time, I lacked basic knowledge of the air war, be it flak, fighters, or the -50 degree, unpressurized bombers. Instead, I’d assumed the skies about Europe were a relatively safe battlefield. I’d assumed that since my family knew so little of Wally’s war, no research I did would close those gaps. Assumptions and apathy left no space for the questions, big or small, that have driven my research about Wally a decade later.

Noticeably absent from this paper was any mention of Shipdham, where Wally’s missions began and ended. As the first B-24 base in East Anglia, Shipdham saw 29 months of continuous combat thanks to the 44th Bomb Group that called it home base. Hastily constructed in 1942, Shipdham was the product of the American Army Air Force’s efforts to operationalize the Eighth Air Force as quickly as possible in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Seventy-seven years after the the 44th Bomb Group flew their first mission on the freshly poured runways, I became acquainted with Shipdham.

First Mention of Shipdham

With a renewed interest in WWII a decade later in 2018 (thanks to a litany of narrative non-fiction about WWII), I was increasingly eager to study the war in person. In early 2018, I nervously asked my dad to accompany me on a WWII historical tour in Europe that summer focused on the famed “Band of Brothers” story.

Screen Shot 2019-05-17 at 2.29.18 AM
Glen & Mara in Best, Holland on the Band of Brothers trip.

Shortly after I broached the idea, I received a text from my dad: “Thrilled you’d like me to accompany you on a historical tour through Europe. I think it would be unbelievable. Maybe a side trip to Shipdham where Wally spent his years, either way a historical adventure.”

I was thrilled my Dad wanted to accompany me on the trip, but I was equally curious about the foreign place linked to Wally’s service he’d mentioned. That evening, I did a cursory search of Shipdham, first learning of its location in the pastoral East Anglian countryside, then of its role in the war serving as home base to the 5,000 men who served in the 44th Bomb Group over three operational years. Three years stuck out to me – the 44th flew missions into Fortress Europe nearly three times as long as troops were on the ground fighting the same war. The time from D-Day, when the ground troops finally invaded the continent, to V-E Day,  was just shy of a year. What were the heavy bombers doing in combat in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) two years before ground forces stormed Normandy?

The Mystery of Wally’s Service at Shipdham

B-24s fly through a flak field.

The further I dug into Shipdham, the more I was met with the foreign vernacular of the air war. In an effort to decode the highly technical nature of a B-24 mission into Fortress Europe, I continued down the rabbit hole of research. As I became aware of the air war’s physical and mental toll, curiosity about the specifics of Wally’s service plagued me. Phone calls to my dad and grandmother revealed just how little Wally ever shared of the war; nearly everything he said in the six decades after the war was captured in the college paper I wrote a decade ago.

I had a nagging feeling that whatever Wally saw on his missions was so disturbing that it was both an impossible and insufferable task to relive it. Even without specific information about his missions, digging deeper into the history of Shipdham and the 44th Bomb Group alone painted a new picture of Wally as a young man in the fight of his life.

Even before I’d uncovered the specifics of Wally’s service, I struggled to reconcile how the Wally I knew – a man who disliked leaving the four walls of his home, a man who struggled to communicate with the world after multiple strokes – was also an airman in the elite 44th Bomb Group who saw untold horrors in the skies above Europe and willingly flew more missions than required because he didn’t have a wife and children at home. I asked myself this question the day this research began, and it’s remains the central driver of this work. Chasing answers to this most complex question is a deeply motivating endeavor because it brings me closer to the grandfather I barely knew in this life.

Finding any mention of Wally’s service was a needle in a haystack. The more dead ends I encountered as I scoured the web for traces of Wally, the more my will to find anything intensified. As the days passed and hope ran short, my focus shifted to locating his personnel record in the National Archives to serve as a jumping off point to dig deeper. As I prepared to push “submit” on the FOIA request for his “Official Military Personnel File,” I was met with a note from the National Archives indicating that 80% of WWII records were burned in a catastrophic fire in the 1970s.

Screen Shot 2019-05-17 at 1.09.49 AM
Article detailing the 1973 fire at the National Archives.

Excuse me, what?

I was devastated to confirm this true. The fire was an incomparable loss to preserving the collective history of the individuals who gave everything in the fight for freedom that was WWII.

I was back to square one in the search for Wally’s service record.

Uncovering Wally’s Missions

Some days later, I stumbled back to the only dedicated website about the 44th Bomb Group. It was an act of desperation to see if it was possible I overlooked some goldmine of information that would lead me back to Wally. Built in the early years of the World Wide Web, I soon realized on this second visit that there was a treasure trove of information buried deep in the 44th Bomb Group site. Lo and behold, after much clicking, a “Military Records” page revealed itself. Selecting this tile opened a search box to enter a veteran’s name.

Screen Shot 2019-05-17 at 2.01.57 AM
44th Bomb Group Database

There’s no way I’ll find anything, I thought to myself, as I hesitated entering Wally’s name.

I clicked search. 28 mission records for Wallace B. Truslow appeared. The records included the date of the mission, a list of the 10-man crew and their positions, the serial number of the B-24 flown, the city and target for the mission, and an unofficial mission summary narrative – essentially an operational summary of the mission.

I was dumbfounded. It had been under my nose all along.

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Wally’s 28 missions listed in the 44th BG database.

This was the first of many intensely satisfying moments when a compulsive search related to Wally’s service that lasted days or weeks finally yielded new information. As I excitedly called both my dad and grandmother to share the news, each emphasized this mission count could not be correct, as one of the few facts Wally ever mentioned about his service was flying 40+ missions. The discrepancy bothered me tremendously, and ignited a second furious search for the missing missions.

In short, it required digging into the dredges of the interwebs, where I located a 700-page typewritten history of the 506 Squadron that was not searchable by any modern digital tools. The appendix included a list of all 506 Squadron personnel, and I was pleased to find Wally’s name. I then began the onerous task of reading the 700 page operational history looking for any mention of Wally or his crew. I’ll spare you the details.

Crew letter (Whalen) #2_4
Emmett J. Burns Pilot of Crew of B-24 J (Wally’s Crew)

I’d managed my way through half of the 506 Squadron tome when I first saw the name “Burns,” which I instantly recognized as the name of Wally’s Captain and Pilot of the crew. Burns’ name was mentioned in relation to missions taking place in December 1944, which fell in the three month period from December 1944 to February 1945 when Wally’s record had no missions listed. I’d hit the goldmine.

I continued reading the 506 Squadron history and attempted to document the additional missions I believed Wally flew based on mentions of the Burns crew. At some juncture, it dawned on me that I should search for “Burns” in the database where I initially found Wally’s 28 mission records. If the list of missions Burns flew was different than Wally’s missions, I could review the crew lists for any additional missions listed for Burns to see if Wally was in fact listed, or if someone else had replaced him.

Back I went to the database, eagerly searching “Burns.”

46 missions appeared.

Anxiously clicking through the crew lists, the answer was right in front of me: “Wallace B Trullow.” The mystery of the mission count was a result of a simple clerical error. The spelling of “Truslow” was incorrect for 14 of Wally’s missions.

Armed with the complete list of Wally’s 42 missions, I began studying the mission summaries. Time and again, I was horrified by these objective operational histories that still managed to paint a vivid picture of horrific, continuous violence and loss.

The mission summaries also revealed the monumental historical significance of Wally’s missions: he flew tactical missions during Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge, and Operation Varsity. I knew enough about WWII to know that his participation in all three campaigns was of untold importance.

My initial plans to print the mission summaries and bring them on the WWII trip my dad and I would take that summer did not materialize. I wasn’t satisfied with what I’d found, so I set out to dig up more, which turned into the book summarizing Wally’s service that I finished for my family in September called “Wings of Steel.” I felt it imperative that our family have a record of Wally’s service, particularly because of his silence on the matter; his legacy merited preservation.


When I finished “Wings of Steel,” I had an overwhelming feeling that I wasn’t done with the research, and a series of stranger than fiction encounters solidified that feeling. Shipdham led me to Wally, then to his crew, and finally to all 5,000 men in the group. That part of the story is coming soon.

The Hell that Began and Ended at Shipdham

Shipdham Runway_3
The runway at Shipdham today.

Shipdham, where every mission began and ended, was the impetus for all the research I’ve done to date about the 44th Bomb Group. When I came to know Shipdham, my focus shifted to piecing together Wally’s missions that took place in the skies between Shipdham and the heart of Nazi Germany – the space where life and death hung in the balance. Reviewing Wally’s missions in excruciating detail painted a clearer picture of the hell that he experienced forty-two times over.

Historian Martin Bloch posited that, “Intelligence is stimulated far less by the will to know than the will to understand.” I obsess over the most granular details of Wally’s missions and days between that he spent at Shipdham because the more I know about the long seconds and minutes of combat, the more I can understand Wally’s inner life during the war.

In trying to reconcile the Wally I knew as an old man after many strokes with the 20-year-old Wally who extended his tour and flew 42 hellacious missions into Nazi Germany, I had to understand the war through his eyes. The records of Wally’s 42 missions were replete with unpredictable death, enemy fighter attacks, accidents on take off, foes in the form of weather, and horrific flak wounds. It’s hard to imagine any human not experiencing PTSD after the frequency and severity of violence and death Wally lived through on his missions. 

Becoming acquainted with Shipdham and Wally’s 10 months and 6 days there led me to often wonder who I would have been in the war, and how the traumatic memories would have shaped my life thereafter. A decade ago, I was a freshman in college writing a paper about my grandfather’s service during the Second World War. At the close of Wally’s freshman year at Los Angeles Community College, he enlisted in the Army Air Force. Seeing myself at 19, I’m reminded of just how little life Wally had lived before the war. In uncovering Wally’s war, I began to form a post-humous relationship with the grandfather I didn’t know well in this life.

The Long Legacy of Shipdham Air Base

My dad and I didn’t make it to Shipdham last summer. But we did last month. While the physical presence of the 44th has disappeared, truncated versions of the runway remain, as do the walls of the once great control tower that orchestrated the movements of the 44th. But the memory of Wally and the men he served alongside is as vibrant as ever. Standing on the remains of the concrete runway at Shipdham, Wally’s presence looms large in the heavens above, which brought three generations of the Truslow family back together for a fleeting moment.

My gratitude for the sacrifices Wally and the extraordinary men of the 44th made during the war grows exponentially with each day that passes.

Mara at Glen at Shipdham in the Club House
Mara and Glen at Shipdham Flying Club, April 2019. Glen says this is the moment when 3 generations of the Truslow family were reunited at Shipdham.


The Air War Wally Fought & My Research Sabbatical 75 Years Later

Monday marks the beginning of a 4-month sabbatical from my job in the Survey Research and Analytics Center at Deloitte to chase a story that began 75 years ago.

Before I dig deeply into how I pieced together the story of my grandfather’s fight against the Third Reich in the skies of Europe and the research I’m chasing during sabbatical, I want to lay the foundation of the strategic daylight bombing offensive in Europe and formally introduce you to the protagonist of this research.  

The Mighty Eighth Air Force Bomber Command

eighth2During WWII, the bomber boys of the Mighty 8th Air Force were the pioneers of the air war. Flying primitive technology into Fortress Europe, they struck enemy occupied Europe and Germany two years before troops landed in Normandy on D-Day. Daylight strategic bombing carried out by the 8th Air Force proved to be among the deadliest battlefields; 26,000 airmen from the 8th Air Force were killed, more than the Marines lost in every theater of the war.

B-24 Liberator

The groundbreaking B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator were the bread and butter of the 8th Air Force Bomber Command. Crews of 10 men, including a Pilot, Co-Pilot, Bombardier, Engineer, Radio Operator, and six gunners flew at 20,000 feet carrying 8,000 pounds of bombs they dropped on myriad strategic targets. The bomb bay racks gave the B-24 its notoriously bulky shape and nickname as the “flying boxcar.” The sleek shape of the B-17 “Flying Fortress” alluded to its efficacy: the B-24 could carry a payload two times the weight of a B-17 (3,000 pounds). The revelatory Norden Bombsight technology purportedly made dropping a dime in a pickle jar at 20,000 feet a possibility; the technology was top secret and airmen to protect it with their lives. Mounted above the plexiglass nose of a B-24, the Norden enabled the Bombardier to drop the payload squarely on a pre-identified target. There was one catch: it only worked on a clear day.

The Hell of Flying a B-24 Bomber

Flying in a B-24 was hell: open waist gun windows let in a continuous stream of outside air as the B-24 chugged along at 200 MPH. At altitude (typically 18,000-20,000 feet), it was -50 degrees inside the bomber, necessitating the faulty heated suits and sheepskin coveralls every airman wore. Touching one of the six .50 cal guns with a bare hand would immediately cause skin to freeze to the metal. Oxygen masks were essential on the 6-10 hour missions. Sweat and bile would cause an oxygen mask to freeze; an airman had two to three minutes to clear his mask before he died.

A B-24 in Flames from a Flak Hit and/or Fighter Attack

Weather, flak, and fighters were the preeminent enemies of a B-24 crew. Flying in formation just feet behind, above, below, and in front of other B-24s of a bomb group was no small task; propwash, or turbulence from the preceding bomber, could send a B-24 spiraling out of control. German fighters picked off B-24s with ease, sending a spiraling inferno descending to earth. Germans fighter techniques to pick off bombers devolved as the Luftwaffe’s (German Air Force) strength diminished: targeting a bomber’s fuel tanks (located in the wings) full of high-octane gas to instantly engulf a bomber in flames, dropping rockets on top of the bombers causing a massive explosion at 20,000, and eventually launching suicide missions by ramming the bombers head on.

B-24s Flying through a Flak Field

The greatest fiend late in the war was flak, or anti-aircraft fire. When I began this research, I had not yet been acquainted with flak. At first read, I learned flak was an .88 mil shell shot from a large, narrow gun on the ground that could be programmed to hit the specific high-altitude of a bomber formation. Moreover, German flak guns could target one specific bomber in a formation using sophisticated sighting devices to get a reading on the B-24’s altitude and speed. Furthermore, the Germans were acutely aware that once a bomber began its bomb run on the target, it was no longer permitted to take any evasive action; as a result, German flak guns were strategically located around key strategic targets to create “flak fields” at 20,000-30,000 feet spanning hundreds of feet deep and wide in the direct path of a B-24 formation on a target run. Flak shells materialized as puffs of black smoke filling the sky around a bomber formation. If a flak burst came within a few feet of a bomber, crews described their plane shaking and jolting.

A direct hit would rip into the thin aluminum of a bomber, sending shrapnel flying and ricocheting through the flesh of airmen. Flak wounds were invariably of the most gruesome nature.   

If a crew dropped their 8,000 pound payload and successfully navigated the weather, fighters, flak, and treacherous flying conditions to make a safe return to their base in the East Anglian (SE England) countryside, he steeled himself to do it again.

Slim Odds of Survival

Wally Bomber Gear
Wallace B. Truslow in his Sheepskins

By mid-1944, an airman had to fly 35 missions to complete a tour. The odds of survival were slim, by some estimations less than 50%.

My paternal grandfather, Wallace B Truslow was one of these airmen in the Mighty 8th Air Force. He flew 42 missions with the 44th Bomb Group from Shipdham Air Base in East Anglia. Serving on a replacement crew, he filled the gaps left by heavy casualties in the spring and summer of 1944.

The Protagonist of this Story: Wallace B. Truslow

Wally flew pivotal strategic and tactical missions, including a low-level resupply to the 101st Airborne during Operation Market Garden, 7 tactical support missions during the Battle of the Bulge, and a low-level resupply during Operation Varsity, the largest airborne operation of the war.

By the spring of 1945, Wally’s crew had been named a Lead Crew for the 506th Squadron of the 44th Bomb Group after five of his crew (him included), chose to extend their tours and continue flying missions. Wally felt that because he didn’t have a wife or children back home, coupled with his invaluable experience from the preceding 35 missions, it was his duty to continue flying until the war ended. His willingness to sacrifice his own life, even after he flew a tour of 35 missions, is a testament to his moral fiber.

On March 24, 1945, Wally’s crew led the 506th squadron on the low-level mission to drop supplies for the 17th Airborne division on the east side of the Rhine as the Allies finally invaded Germany. They flew at 150 feet dropping 2,500 pounds of supplies for the troops below. Small arms fire abounded. Two bombers from Wally’s 9-plane squadron were shot down. Simultaneously, Wally was hit by small arms fire that ricocheted through the bottom of his bomber and ripped into his right thigh. After witnessing the death of 19 of his comrades, he faced the hellacious two hour flight back to Shipdham in excruciating pain. He was later awarded the Purple Heart, in addition to the Air Medal with 5 Oak Leaf Clusters.

Telegram Wally’s Mother Received after he was Wounded over Wesel, Germany

Wally and the four men who he stayed with to continue the fight against Germany flew more missions than 99.5% of the 5,000 men in the 44th Bomb Group.

Some combination of luck, skill, timing, and teamwork kept Wally alive and flying through the end of the war, which could not be said for nearly 30% of the 5,000 men who served in the group and were either killed in action or in a POW camp.

Scars from the War

wallyYet, Wally was not unscathed by the war. In the wake of WWII, PTSD remained a diagnosis of moral weakness. Wally’s PTSD intensified as the years passed. He mentioned the war only a handful of times over the subsequent 50 years. Guilt over the women and children killed who were collateral damage of the strategic bombing offensive plagued him. Wally bled shrapnel from him right leg his entire life, a result of the wounds he sustained over Wesel, Germany. After suffering several strokes, his nightmares about the war intensified. He once tried to throw his medals in the trash; when my grandmother confronted him, he simply said, “I can’t escape the war.” He passed away when I was eight years old.

The information my family was privy to about Wally’s service during the war could be counted on two hands. He never talked about it; they never asked. Silence on the matter was an all too common theme of the Greatest Generation who saw truly unspeakable combat. A common refrain I’ve heard over the last year is that the men who were truly heroic, who fought on the front lines, are the very men who are least likely to discuss them. After unearthing Wally’s service, it’s all too clear why: what man must do to be heroic often requires more than a human body or mind can handle. If great events leave great scars, 42 missions leaves cavernous wounds.

My relationship with Wally lasted eight years in this life. By the time I was born, he’d suffered numerous strokes and lost the ability to speak clearly. I have one distinct memory of him sitting on the couch in my parents’ Idaho home sporting slacks, a long-sleeve button down, and a sweater vest, his standard uniform that always included long sleeves. A slender man not more than five foot six, he sat stoically on that couch as the day passed, notably distant from his grandkids. I sensed something different about Wally in my earliest years that made me hesitant around him. In retrospect, it was likely a result of his PTSD, which my grandmother described as an impenetrable shield he put up that became thicker as the years passed.

Wally died almost 20 years ago. WWII ended almost almost three-quarters of a century ago. Over the last year, I’ve begun piecing together a story that did not want to be told: the 42 missions Wally flew during his 10 months and 6 days at Shipdham. The 10 months and 6 days Wally spent at Shipdham flying 42 combat missions charted the course for the remainder of his life. Yet, Wally first buried his memory of the war in himself, then he took it to the grave.

Meeting the Grandfather I Never Knew

After Wally's Funeral
Wally’s Children and Grandchildren Together after his Funeral in 1999 (I’m the 8-year-old sporting spandex athleisure in the middle.)

When I began this research, Wally was in many ways a stranger to me. I’d never heard of the esteemed Eighth Air Force. Naively, I assumed flying in a bomber was comfortable, relatively safe, and kept him out of the action below. With each revelation about the nature of the air war and Wally’s role in it, the sheer horror of the war he fought kept me furiously digging for more information.

Over the last year, I wrote a book about Wally’s service for my family. On sabbatical, I’m undertaking a new writing project about the 44th more broadly, as well as building a data dashboard to include over 100,000 mission records for all 5,000 men in the group.

This journey began serendipitously, which I’ll discuss more in my next blog. The last year of obsessive research has not been unlike the dog leg’s course a bomber formation would fly on the way to a target. With the critical voice of the veteran missing, telling this story requires finding a need in a haystack 100 times over. The men I’ve come to know over the last year are what makes me relentless in this chase. Seeing the war Wally fought has formed a posthumous connection with him that I never had in this life, and it also introduced me to the remarkable men he served alongside on his crew, as well as the other 5,000 men who served in his group.