RAF MILDENHALL, England --
“It was right after Pearl Harbor happened that my best friend and I decided to join up with the U.S. Army Air Corps,” recalled retired Master Sgt. Dewey Christopher, a former 351st Bomb Squadron crew chief, 100th Bombardment Group and World War II veteran. “We went to Oklahoma City to sign up and by Dec. 17, 1941, I was in the service.”
Christopher recently visited RAF Mildenhall as guest of honor at a ceremony renaming the Professional Development Center after him, and shared some of the stories from when he was stationed in England during World War II.
The early days
Dewey, now 96, joined the 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbotts, Norfolk, in May 1943, and was the dedicated crew chief to several B-17 Flying Fortresses during his time there, his first being ‘Skipper’.
In 1944, squadron sizes increased from 12 to 16 airplanes and some of the assistant crew chiefs were made crew chiefs, explained Gary Christopher, Dewey’s son who accompanied him on the visit to RAF Mildenhall, adding that his dad’s assistant was made a crew chief and took Skipper II, so his dad then got a new airplane – ‘Humpty Dumpty’.
“I had two Humpty Dumpty’s and two Skippers,” chuckled Dewey. “They weren’t the same models though – Skipper I was an ‘F’ model; Skipper II Humpty Dumpty I and II were ‘G’ models.”
Being stationed out in the wilds of the Norfolk countryside, Thorpe Abbotts was pretty much miles from anywhere which brought about several challenges.
“In the beginning, the 456th sub depot hadn’t come on board yet. My first engine change on Skipper I was out in the open, on my hardstand. We had to set the new engine on sandbags next to the old one, and would transfer almost every part off the old engine onto the new one – it took three days,” he exclaimed. “After sub-depot started working with us, they built the engines up for us. Then, when we had an engine change, we’d call them and say, for example, ‘I need a number three engine.’ They would bring it over, and in half a day we’d have the engines changed! It was all built up ready for us.”
The 100th Bomb Group veteran described how the elements during the days of World War II were a big deterrent in being able to work on the aircraft.
“We didn’t have any kind of cover over us and were just outside in the open – you know how the weather is over here,” Dewey said, laughing. “It gets pretty wet at times, and in 1944, England had the most severe winter weather in 100 years!
“I remember the day the snow was so heavy that airplanes were taking off and two had a mid-air collision because they couldn’t see. We heard one coming down – it hit our bomb dump and bombs started going off. Someone came over the tannoy system and said all personnel on site 1, which was where the 351st BS was, must evacuate. My buddy and I had dispatched our airplane that day and we hadn’t been in to clean up in a while; we were down to our long underwear when they came to tell us. So we had to run out in the snow, in our underwear, and go stand in an open field because they were afraid that 2000-pound bombs were going to go off!”
Luckily there were no explosions and the fire was put out – but that wasn’t the end of the day’s excitement.
“I was watching when the accident happened – the tail section was coming down in kind of a flat spin and Capt. Bill Carleton (351st BS engineering officer) was with me and told me to get in the jeep as the tail looked like it was going to hit hardstand five,” the then-crew chief said. “There was a huge oak tree there, and just as we pulled in to the hardstand, a section of the aircraft came down on top of the tree. The tail gunner had been inside that part of the plane and he came out – unhurt!”
100th ARW heritage
Dewey recalled that one of the lowest days was Oct. 10, 1943, which contributed to the 100th Bomb Group’s nickname of “The Bloody Hundredth,” due to the heavy losses they suffered.
“Our group took off for Münster, (Germany) and only one airplane came back – we lost the rest of them,” he said. “Rosie Rosenthal was flying ‘Royal Flush’ – the one aircraft that made it back to Thorpe Abbotts.”
Lt. Col. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal was a legendary pilot stationed at Thorpe Abbotts from September 1943 to September 1944, and flew 52 missions, rather than the average 25. He has been part of the 100th ARW heritage since the 100th Operations Group auditorium was renamed the “Rosenthal Auditorium” in May 2012.
Another really rough mission which also contributed to the “Bloody Hundredth” nickname happened just two days prior, Oct. 8, 1943, on the “Maximum Effort” mission to Bremen. Lieutenant Everett Blakely was flying the aircraft “Just a Snappin,’” alongside Maj. Jack Kidd, who was leading the group that fateful day. Nursing a badly shot-up aircraft that was barely flying above stall speed, they managed to make it to Ludham, an RAF fighter base on the coast of England, where they landed “gear up”and started a long slide across almost open fields.
“When the airplane stopped it hit a huge oak tree; the cockpit where Maj. Kidd was sitting was right next to it – if it had been a foot over, it would have killed ‘em all,” exclaimed Dewey. “It was just one of those oddities, especially as that was the only tree around for a great distance.”
The airplane had suffered severe battle damage and after great efforts in getting it to safety, the crew finally lost control of it right before it hit the tree. Luckily, they managed to get out of the hatches and out of the B-17 safely, along with the wounded who were also on board.
Another member of the crew on the flight was lead navigator, then-1st Lt.. Harry Crosby, also part of the 100th ARW heritage with the wing conference room named after him.
“Harry got air sick every time he went out on a mission, so he carried a sack,” chuckled Dewey. “On this particular mission he’d forgotten it and when the airplane took off, Harry got sick; he realized he didn’t have a sack and the bombardier said, ‘Harry – use your helmet.’ When they left to drop their bombs, the pilot called out, ‘The flack’s getting bad up here – put your helmets on…’ And he did, because he forgot he’d been sick in it. Thankfully it wasn’t one of my airplanes!”
Anecdotes of war
Getting aircraft parts was a big problem. Dewey’s hardstand was located right at the back of a farm. The retired crew chief said everyone knew farmer Billy Draper and his family, so much so that Capt. Carleton made a deal with the farmer to store parts in his barn.
“We weren’t supposed to have excess parts – if you had more than one they would take it away and give it to someone else,” recalled Dewey. “When we were salvaging airplanes, we’d take the parts off and keep them, which we weren’t supposed to do. There was another crash, with the ‘Red Cross girls’ on board – the pilot took them out in the plane to impress them – nobody was hurt, but the aircraft ended up crashing into Billy’s barn, killing his prize bull and revealing our secret stash!
“Thing was, that aircraft had been grounded as it needed some repairs and they sheared the tail wheel lock pin on the way out. As it came across the taxiway, it was headed right for my airplane. Every hardstand had a porta-potty out there and when the plane turned, the wing tip clipped it and turned it over,” he said, laughing. “Well, there was an armament guy inside of it and I’ve never seen anyone run so fast!”
Dewey explained the plane then hit a tree – which was the only thing that stopped it hitting his aircraft – before bouncing off it and crashing straight into the barn. The review of the accident stated that the cause was the tail wheel pin shearing.
The crew chiefs all went through training together from the very beginning in 1942, so had all known each other for quite some time when they arrived in England. They started out in Idaho, where the pilot, co-pilot and navigator were getting their training.
“Being as they didn’t have a full crew or engineer gunner, the crew chief had to fly on every test flight,” Dewey recalled. “Everything on the B-17, except the brakes and engine cowl flaps was electric, so when the motor and the actuator for the landing gear were out, you hand-cranked it. The landing gear, wing flaps, bomb bay doors and tail wheel all had a place where you cranked it up. It took 360 turns on the crank in the bomb bay to get the landing gear up!”
Flying by the seat of his pants
Dewey continued regaling his tales, adding that one night when he was on a training flight, he got a little more responsibility than he bargained for.
“One of the pilots said to me, ‘Sergeant, me and my crew are dead for sleep. We’re flying between Pocatella (Idaho) and Baker tonight – I’m gonna put the plane on auto pilot, you sit in my seat and monitor the instrument panel and radio direction beam, and we’ll be back there getting us some shut eye. When we get to Baker, wake me and I’ll turn this around then you get back in the seat, ’” he recalled. “I sat up there like a dummy all night watching the instrument panel, though I wouldn’t have known what to do anyway if something did happen. But everything turned out great.”
Dewey was stationed at Thorpe Abbotts for two years, finally returning home to his wife and son in 1945. He then went on to work for American Airlines, on early model DC-3s, which he said had the same engines as the B-17.
Today’s 100th Air Refueling Wing is proud of its heritage with the 100th BG and Bloody Hundredth, and is the only flying unit to still bear the historical nose art on its aircraft.