A USAAF bomber crew waits for an Op.

A USAAF Consolidated Liberator takes off in the early morning light from a bomber base 'somewhere in England'

A USAAF Consolidated Liberator takes off in the early morning light from a bomber base ‘somewhere in England’

Many memoirs and diaries talk of the agony of waiting to go into action. For the bomber crews there was the uneasy business of facing up to operations every day or every few days. In wartime Britain the opportunities for recreation were limited. There was no getting away from the war, wherever you went.

One man had a genius for painting a picture in words for these scenarios. John Steinbeck had already gained fame from his novels, now he was in Europe as a war correspondent. During this period, on an almost daily basis, he wrote a series of telling vignettes about ordinary men and women at war :

Bomber Station, England

June 28, 1943

The days are very long. A combination of summer time and daylight-saving time keeps them light until eleven-thirty. After mess we take the Army bus into town. It is an ancient little city which every American knows about as soon as he can read. The buildings on the narrow streets are Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, and even some Norman. The paving stones are worn smooth and the flagstones of the sidewalks are grooved by ages of strollers. It is a town to stroll in.

American soldiers, Canadians, Royal Air Force men, and many of Great Britain’s women soldiers walk through the streets. But Britain drafts its women and they are really in the Army, driver-mechanics, dispatch riders, trim and hard in their uniforms.

The crew of the Mary Ruth ends up at a little pub, overcrowded and noisy. They edge their way into the bar, where the barmaids are drawing beer as fast as they can. In a moment this crew has found a table and they have the small glasses of pale yellow fluid in front of them. It is curious beer. Most of the alcohol has been taken out of it to make munitions. It is not cold. It is token beer – a gesture rather than a drink.

The bomber crew is solemn. Men who are alerted for operational missions are usually solemn, but tonight there is some burden on this crew. There is no way of knowing how these things start. All at once a crew will feel fated. Then little things go wrong. Then they are uneasy until they take off for their mission. When the uneasiness is running it is the waiting that hurts.

They sip the at, tasteless beer. One of them says, “I saw a paper from home at the Red Cross in London.” It is quiet. The others look at him across their glasses. A mixed group of pilots and ATS girls at the other end of the pub have started a song. It is astonishing how many of the songs are American. “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to,” they sing. And the beat of the song is subtly changed. It has become an English song.

The waist gunner raises his voice to be heard over the singing. “It seems to me that we are afraid to announce our losses. It seems almost as if the War Department was afraid that the country couldn’t take it. I never saw anything the country couldn’t take.”

The ball-turret gunner wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “We don’t hear much,” he says, “it’s a funny thing, but the closer you get to action the less you read papers and war news. I remember before I joined up I used to know everything that was happening. I knew what Turkey was doing. I even had maps with pins and I drew out campaigns with colored pencils. Now I haven’t looked at a paper in two weeks.”

The first man went on, “This paper I saw had some funny stuff in it. It seemed to think that the war was nearly over.”

“I wish the Jerries thought that,” the tail gunner says. “I wish you could get Goering’s yellow noses and them damned flak gunners convinced of that.”

“Well anyway,” the waist gunner says, “I looked through that paper pretty close. It seems to me that the folks at home are fighting one war and we’re fighting another one. They’ve got theirs nearly won and we’ve just got started on ours. I wish they’d get in the same war we’re in. I wish they’d print the casualties and tell them what it’s like. I think maybe that they’d like to get in the same war we’re in if they could get it to do.”

The tail gunner comes from so close to the border of Kentucky he talks like a Kentuckian. “I read a very nice piece in a magazine about us,” he says. “This piece says we’ve got nerves of steel. We never get scared. All we want in the world is just to fly all the time and get a crack at Jerry. I never heard anything so brave as us. I read it three or four times to try and convince myself that I ain’t scared.”

See John Steinbeck: Once there was a War

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