A few months ago, my wife a Methodist Minister, was preparing the eulogy for her uncle’s funeral which she performed at Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas. Uncle Bob was a retired Air Force Colonel who lived with his wife Jean for 67 years and who we all knew as a kind and humble man. The few times I was around him, we didn’t talk much about his military career. Little did I know what I was about to discover about Col. Robert W. Fish (Ret.) and the others he served with in World War II. Because of my wife’s research to develop his eulogy, when she used the word “Carpetbaggers,” I couldn’t figure out what in the world she was talking about. I have been a history buff for some time and WW II has been of special interest. Carpetbaggers, that’s a post American Civil War era, so who were these guys? I was about to find out. I researched and found a book out of print at “Used Books” on line entitled, “Carpetbaggers, America’s Secret War in Europe,” by author Ben Parnell. The following paragraph is the lead into his book.
"One of the nation’s best kept secrets of World War II was the CARPETBAGGERS, code name for a joint venture of the OSS, America’s newly organized espionage unit, and the Eighth Air Force. Assisting friendly underground groups, American airmen flew agents and thousands of tons of arms and supplies to those friendly forces. More than 5,000 officers and enlisted men of the U.S. Army Air Force were helped by agents of the OSS to escape from behind enemy lines. Units of the Eighth Air Force flew specially modified, black-painted B-24’s, C-47’s, A-26’s, and British Mosquitoes to carry out these clandestine operations. The low-altitude, night-time operation exacted its toll of airmen. They are among WW II’s unsung heroes."
It all started following America’s entry into WW II shortly after Pearl Harbor. Great Britain, because of its entry into the war much earlier, had established an organization entitled, “British Special Operations Executive” (SOE). They were fully operational creating and supporting underground groups such as the Maquis in France and others throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. The American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the federal agency created after America’s entry into the war was responsible for covert operations in enemy-occupied territory and was a natural link to the British SOE. As America geared up to fight on two (2) fronts in the Pacific and Europe, one of the first responsibilities of the Army Air Force was to use its limited resources to protect our homeland. One of the priorities was defending against enemy submarines that were not only sinking our merchant shipping, but also landing spies and saboteurs onto our shores. There were special bomb groups assigned to anti-submarine warfare.
As early as May 1941, the 19th Bomb Group was split into three: the 19th, the 30th, and the 41st Bomb Groups. The 41st , consisting of the 46th, 47th, and 48th Squadrons was moved from March Field, Riverside, California, to Davis-Monthan Field at Tucson, Arizona. In this move were two men who would become leaders of the Carpetbaggers, Clifford J. Heflin and Robert W. Fish. Two others who would become leaders, Robert L. Boone and Rodman A. St. Clair, joined the group early on and little did these guys know how closely knit they would become in the months and years ahead.
Robert W. Fish and Clifford J. Heflin
When the 41st Group was moved to Hammer Field, Fresno, California, in March 1942, Capt. Heflin took command. The B-18’s were replaced with A-29’s in January. The A-29, also called the “Lockheed Hudson,” was a two engine bomber aircraft built for the British, which was the military version of Lockheed’s passenger plane the L-14 Super Electra in which Howard Hughes flew his circumnavigation flight in July 1938. A total of 2,584 were built between 1938 and 1942.
A-29 "Lockheed Hudson"
Bob Fish said, “It was a poor excuse for a military aircraft, but it was better than nothing.” It had a short range with approximately seven hours flying time, it carried four depth charges, and was the best they could come up with for coastal anti-sub work.
In August 1942, the 46th Squadron was transferred to the East Coast and flew their A-29’s to Cherry Point Marine Air Station, North Carolina. During their time there, they flew most of the missions along the East Coast in the A-29’s. But the pilots and crews were also beginning to train in B-24’s for future operations. They flew hundreds of hours over water and during this period three crews were lost on patrol over the Atlantic Ocean. On March 8th ,1943, following the arrival of three new crews, General Order Number 6 was issued by headquarters changing the 46th Squadron to the 22nd Anti-Submarine Squadron (H). And in April of 1943, the 22nd moved from Cherry Point to Bluethenthal Field, Wilmington, North Carolina. Soon after the 22nd arrived at Wilmington, the crews were flying the B-24D aircraft.
The bonding of the organization took place at Cherry Point, and it was Heflin, Fish, Boone, and St. Clair who would bring them together in the following months to become the “Carpetbaggers.” On August 14, 1943, orders came for twelve combat crews to proceed in twelve B-24 VLRE (very long range built by Ford) combat aircraft from their present station to the Army Air base Presque Isle, Maine, at a time to be designated by this headquarters and thence to ***[blank in the orders for security reasons]***. The crews were moved to Langley Field where they were outfitted with all overseas movement equipment. One of the pilots, Lt. B. R. Rudolph, recalls: “As we were readying our aircraft just before taking off, the wives of our crew members, who had followed us to Langley, were standing by the fence about fifty feet from the aircraft. I went over to tell them goodbye and they asked me to be sure and bring their husbands back to them. I promised them that I would.” He did.
The twelve crews and their B-24’s arrived in late August 1943, at their new base at Dunkeswell, England, also known as U. S. Army Air Force Station No. 102. They were looking forward to anti-submarine warfare where they patrolled the Bay of Biscay and several crews including Major Fish and Major St. Clair, were lucky to survive attacks by German fighters.
In October all crews were called to a briefing and were told that there was a shift in responsibilities to the US Navy fliers who would be responsible for all maritime operations going forward. The 22nd Squadron’s special skills were needed elsewhere. The very next day on October 24, 1943, Col. Heflin and Major Fish, along with three others, were required to attend a top secret meeting at the US base at Bovingdon, Hertfordshire. Following a multitude of security checks, they were shown into a meeting room where a number of high ranking officers were already seated. They were told that the 22nd Squadron had been chosen to form a special unit to fly agents and supplies to resistance groups in Occupied Europe. The project was to be known as Operation Carpetbagger. The invasion of Europe was getting closer and the range and frequency of covert supply sorties would need to greatly increase. There was in fact one more very important reason, the American Military Intelligence Department, the OSS, wanted to get involved in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). This was the beginning of what we know today as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the OSS department head, understood there were political implications. However, because he knew his personnel were neophytes when it came to the British who had been at this for some time, the OSS would be working in close cooperation with the British SOE. That said, the actual operations and target planning would still primarily be the responsibility of the OSS.
Within a few days, some of the 22nd Squadron officers and enlisted men were ordered to Tempsford to observe and receive training in covert supply operations. Each pilot was to fly two night missions as co-pilot with RAF crews. On November 3rd, Captain James A. Estes, co-pilot in a Halifax, became the first American Carpetbagger to be Missing in Action (MIA), when the aircraft was shot down over France. About this same time the 22nd and 4th Anti-Submarine Squadrons were deactivated and two new squadrons were formed. Col. Heflin assumed command of the 406th and Major Fish commanded the 36th. They relocated to an airfield at Alconbury near Tempsford and in early December, Heflin and Fish handed over control of the two squadrons to Captains St. Clair and Boone while they were summoned to 482nd Headquarters to finalize plans for the Carpetbagger project. Captains Boone and St. Clair assumed command of the squadrons and organization for the first supply missions.
Throughout January of 1944, a few chosen crews of the 406th and 36th Squadrons would fly the first US Carpetbagger missions out of Tempsford. During this time the British and American units developed a camaraderie and mutual respect. On January 4th, Lt. Stapel flew as co-pilot with Col. Heflin on the first Carpetbagger mission. During the “moon period” (nights with full moon) of January, six missions were flown by the 36th and nine by the 406th. The Carpetbaggers were up and running.
As the Americans were acquiring knowledge from the British airmen, RAF experts gave advice on the necessary modifications to the B-24’s. The B-24 was ideal because of its fuselage design and its long range, and it truly was the envy of the RAF pilots. The aircraft used by the Carpetbaggers was the B-24D but later they used the B-24H and J models. Most were painted with special glossy black anti-searchlight synthetic enamel paint. The Consolidated B-24 became known as the “Liberator”, named by the British and was not only the most produced American military airplane of WW II, but also of all time. A total of 18,479 were built during the war.
B-24D at Harrington w/Gloss Black Finish
Agent in the "Joe Hole"
The navigation system used at first was the Gee set, but it frequently jammed over enemy territory. The Rebecca/Eureka directional system became the system of choice. This is the same system the Pathfinders, a group of volunteers within the Airborne Units (82nd & 101st), specially trained in its use to guide the main airborne bodies to their designated DZ’s in the Normandy Invasion on D-Day. It consisted of a ground beacon (Eureka) set up in the DZ which was triggered by a signal from Rebecca, set up in the aircraft. Eureka then automatically sent out signals which were picked up by a calibrated receiver that indicated the aircraft’s position relative to the DZ. When the aircraft came within a few miles of the DZ, the “S” phone was activated. It was a two-way radio system invented by the British SOE and gave a signal in the form of an upward cone which made it almost impossible to enemy interception.
Because of cramped conditions at Tempsford and Alconbury, in mid-February the two squadrons were reassigned to the Eighth Air Force Command at Walton, Norfolk. The move was disastrous because of the grass runways and the muddy hardstandings (parking locations for the aircraft). Col. Heflin was forced to move back to Alconbury. This would not work for the long term so an airfield built by US Army engineers at Northamptonshire, Harrington, for B-17 Fortress Bomb Groups was considered as a permanent home. It became available because those bomb groups were called to support Operation Torch, the US invasion of North Africa. Harrington proved to be the ideal location and facility for Carpetbagger operations. The 406th and 36th Squadrons moved to Harrington on March 25th 1944. Col. Heflin and his staff moved into the operations block and with the help of his second in command, Major Fish, an operational schedule was developed which was to remain largely unaltered throughout the short but active life of the Carpetbaggers.
Each mission took place in a 36 hour cycle, which began at 1700 hours, when the OSS in London gave a list of approved targets for the following night. At 0900 hours the CO selected the night’s targets according to the priority of requests from the Resistance groups, reception records of the groups, and availability of aircraft. The lists were then given to the OSS, who informed the reception teams as to times and recognition codes. Squadron Commanders and crew navigators were briefed at 1800 hours on all details, including the weather they could expect en route to the drop zones. The S2 officer had meanwhile given the supply depot details of the arms and/or equipment to be loaded into containers. These were then loaded into sealed containers and driven to Harrington in British Army Ordnance Corps’ trucks. Personnel to be dropped into enemy territory usually arrived in large American cars with curtained windows. The strictest security was observed during this period. They were taken to "dressing huts", where they were searched for any objects that might betray them. They were then helped into large padded jump suits and rubber helmets. During this time no one except the OSS dressers were allowed to talk to them. Just before take off the agents, or Joes as they were known, were driven to the Liberator, which was waiting with engines running. The aircraft taxied to the runway and, on receiving a green light from the tower, took off into the night sky.
As D-Day neared, transporting small commando units into France became the top priority. The first units were known as Jedburgh made up of three men, usually French, American and British. The second type of team was much larger, made up of 20 to 30 men, called the Operational Group. These units were to be flown from Harrington in troop-carrying C-47 Dakotas that had to land in occupied territory, where the units would reinforce direct action by the Resistance groups. The Dakotas returned with airmen who had been shot down and eluded capture and with wounded Resistance fighters who were wanted for consultation in London.
Commando "Operational Group" inside a C-47
As the Allied armies marched towards Germany, the missions switched to Denmark, Belgium and beyond. When the supply missions began to decrease, the Eighth Air Force used the opportunity to use three of the squadrons for night bombing. This was not an easy transition since the aircraft had to be retrofitted with the original equipment for bombing missions. For instance, US bomb release shackles were in short supply. Ground crews had to be trained but despite the many problems, aircraft were made ready. On Christmas Eve at 2300 hours, the first B-24’s took off to bomb the coastal batteries at Coubrie Point in France.
Agents and Resistance groups began to lose communications with London the farther they moved towards and into Germany in pursuit of the retreating armies of the Wehrmacht. Some loss of communication was caused by enemy jamming but it was largely due to the extreme distance involved. To alleviate this problem, British De Havilland Mosquitoes, code named “Red Stocking,” and equipped with wire recording mechanisms were flown at 30,000 feet. This proved to be the only solution to ensure reliable contact with agents in the area. It was particularly important to get agents into the mountainous redoubt areas in Germany and Austria because the Allies were fearful of the Nazi fanatics escaping to continue fighting. Another aircraft used during this time was the A-26B, known as the Invader or Super Boston. Harrington had five of these specially fitted A-26’s and they were specifically used for dropping agents into Germany. On March 19th, 1945, the first Invader sortie was flown to Dummer Lake in Germany to deliver an agent. It did not return and was later found on a moor near Bramsche, Germany, with its crew who were all killed. Included was the 492nd Group Navigator, Major Edward Tresemer.
The 492nd Group at Harrington continued dropping supplies, making night bombing runs, flying the Red Stocking operation, and making the A-26 agent drops in Germany until Germany surrendered on May 7th 1945. Although they existed for only part of the war years, the Carpetbagger Operation completed their duty with remarkable success by all measures: 208 aircrew were lost in action; 556 agents were dropped behind enemy lines, over 5,000 downed airmen were rescued, and 4,511 tons of supplies were delivered to the Resistance groups. Over 3,000 missions were flown and some 20 night bombing missions completed. The group never moved to the Pacific Theater due to Japan’s surrender after the atomic bombs. The Group was deactivated on October 17th 1945.
Many years after the war while writing a few pages to be included in Ben Parnell’s book, Lt. Rudolph would recall what kept going over and over in his mind: “What made this squadron such a closely knit and cohesive organization?” “What made it so well fitted for the Carpetbagger mission?” “Why did the men in these airplanes have such a great ability to organize and train others in the unique task of the Carpetbagger work?” And lastly, “Why did the esprit-de-corps of these few transfer to so many in the months ahead?” The answer lies within the fact that all these traits were found in the anti-submarine crews. They flew hundreds of hours of combat missions over the waters of the United States and each crew was a complete entity in itself. Their precision and accuracy in navigation while flying at low altitudes, and the high spirit of dedication to duty that had been drilled into each crew flowed down into every member of the squadron. When they arrived in the ETO, what also set them apart from a normal bomber crew were their missions. Each crew had to be self-sufficient - one plane with one crew and a target area of one-half-acre in some Nazi-occupied country. They had to fly around German anti-aircraft positions and they had to be on time with their load so those on the ground could retrieve it and return to hiding in a short period of time. If they were located by a German night fighter, they had only themselves to rely on to get out of danger and accomplish the mission. If there is anything else that is needed to answer Lt. Rudolph’s questions, I don’t know what it would be. These guys were truly some of America’s WW II unsung heroes.
1) “Carpetbaggers, America’s Secret War in Europe”, author - Ben Parnell
2) “They Flew by Night”, author – Col. Robert W. Fish (Ret.)
3) Carpetbagger Aviation Museum, Harrington, Northamptonshire, The 801st/492nd Bomb Group, “The Carpetbaggers”, author Ron Clarke
4) Wikipedia, B-24 Liberator, A-26 Invader, A-29 Lockheed Hudson