380th Bomb Group Association
Newsletter 33 ~ Winter 2007/2008
DREAM TIME - A WAR STORY
by Robert W. Caputo
This is a story of one person's experience in World War II and the title grows out of the time served on the Continent of Australia (the term "Dream Time" is borrowed from the Australian Aborigine use of the term to describe the distant past of mankind). The writing was done because of the urgings of one family member and was completed in 1995. No claim is made that the story is one of a kind or especially unique, no more than each of us is some different from the other. Reproduced here by permission of the author.
Because of the length of the manuscript, we will tell Roger's story in various installments, in succeeding issues of THE FLYING CIRCUS Quarterly, as page space permits.
Roger Caputo was an NCO who was assigned to Group Headquarters, Administrative Section, in Intelligence.
It was a 100 miles ride over rough gravel roads from Darwin to Fenton Field
where Headquarters and two squadrons were to be based. The other two squadrons
had to travel still another 100 miles further south to another airstrip called
These bases plus decoy bases had been hacked out of the "Outback" by Aussie Army Engineers and they stayed on to maintain them and build our camp facilities. The mess halls and office buildings were wooden framed with the wood being cut on the job with portable saw mills. The covering was corrugated sheet iron. There were no glazed windows, only fold-out louvers to let in the air and keep out the rain which came continuously during the rainy season (the winter months of May through September). Leather shoes would become covered with green mold and clothing seemed to never dry. The dry season was just the opposite: it seldom rained and when it did, it always fell out of a thunderstorm. During the dry season the "Outback" would become dry as tinder and brush fires were common. The insects were never too bad, but we always slept under a mosquito net and we took our daily dose of medicine to ward off the yellow fever. The medication gave all of us a yellow-tinged complexion.
Home was a five-man tent with no floors and the sides were kept raised most of the time for ventilation. Other trimmings, such as a 2-foot high sheet of corrugated iron around the outside of the tent, served as a barrier against creepy crawling things such as lizards or snakes. One never went to bed at night until the bed was shaken down to flush out the scorpions or centipedes. Shoes were never put on in the morning until they had been shaken out. There was running water from an elevated water tank which in turn was kept filled from bored wells by pump. The showers and wash stands were community affairs with no privacy or screening.
Home Sweet Home, Fenton
The "private" bathroom
"What's for chow?"
Doin' the laundry
The EM's mess; looks bare!
The Red Cross girls had to look out for themselves and never wandered into our area. There is always a pecking order to human relations. The Headquarters section was located on a small hill. At the top of the hill were the quarters of the Red Cross girls enclosed by a stockade made from whatever was available. Next down the hill were the officer living quarters followed by the HQ building. Last at the food of the hill were the mess hall and the enlisted men's living area. Enlisted men were strictly prohibited from approaching the Red Cross stockade as they were not "gentlemen" and therefore not trustworthy! After one look at some of the Red Cross girls, it was obvious the enlisted men were not being penalized! The Red Cross's principle function was to serve the aircrews coffee or pastry when they returned from their missions. They were also supposed to be available to help with family problems back home. From time to time, the officers and Red Cross girls threw parties for each other and the sounds of reveling would drift down the hill on the evening breezes. In the eyes of the excluded enlisted men, it was the rankest kind of discrimination. We all had a lasting impression of how some ethnic groups, such as blacks, have been treated.
There was no way to distinguish the days of the week. They were all alike. We went to our jobs every day at 0700 and knocked off at 1700. On occasion there was work at all hours of the night and it was the combat mission's schedule that determined the need for the night work. Usually the missions were flown in the daylight hours and the airplane mechanics and other service people worked on the aircraft all night to be ready for the next day's mission. Those people had a hard life! ... and I at one time thought being an aircraft mechanic might have been great! During the hot dry season an airplane sitting out in the hot sun would be too hot to touch so the work was often done at night as the only practical time.
Reporting to work did not always mean there was something to do for the office types. We often worked hard at trying to find something to do; to look busy. These circumstances were bad for morale ... a feeling of being useless and excess baggage is not a happy circumstance. After awhile, we all started to come to the office wearing white T-shirts. On one occasion, an officer, new to the Group, walked in and he did not know whom to address, as our principal officer was not in and he left in a rage. Soon thereafter, orders came down from the Group Commander, Col. Miller, that if we didn't think enough of our rank to display it on a proper uniform, he'd be happy to relieve us of our rank. Next day, we wore regulation uniforms, long sleeves and all, buttoned up no matter how hot it was. The Aussies had a little better approach to the uniform and heat problem. Their standard tropical issue was a short-sleeved shirt and shorts. The American Military never got the message!
Part of the problem of finding something to do was not of our making. In consideration of the Aussies' feelings, the 5th AF Command placed us under the operational command of the Australians. It was they who called the shots on what to bomb and when in the Dutch East Indies. It was their backyard and they knew it well. 5th AF had its hands full trying to keep up with General MacArthur who in turn was competing against the Central Pacific Command for priorities and recognition.
The Aussies had a good intelligence service. They had installed a network of spies called "coast watchers" hidden in the hills of the territory occupied by the Japanese and they would feed timely information on Japanese movements by short-wave radio. Some of them lost their lives. The Aussies received this information, processed it, and selected targets to be bombed accordingly. It was a good arrangement and the logical chain of command was from the Aussies to our Group. This arrangement largely made the S-2 section, in which I served, unnecessary as all we did was to do a paper shuffle. The Squadron S-2 officers would debrief the aircrews after they returned from the missions; write the reports and forward them to our Group HQ S-2 Section who in turn would send them on to the Aussies. On one occasion, I was sent to Aussie HQ for an overnight stay to get acquainted with the procedures and the personnel. It was a relatively short trip on the North-South Road and I was furnished a motorcycle for transportation. I had owned a motorcycle right after high school, so I knew how to ride one. It was a great change of pace from the dull routine of office work.
The Aussies in turn lodged one of their sergeants with us. His name was Art Simpson and we enjoyed his company. He was a fine person. The idea of the exchange was to get to know each other better. In peace time, Art had served with the Australian Colonial Service in New Guinea and he had many tall tales to tell about dealing with the natives. The true natives, or aborigines, in New Guinea and to some extent in the Australian Outback, were stone age people run over by the white man's civilization. In some cases these natives would work with the Japanese who occupied their lands, but the Japanese more often than not treated them badly as compared to the more enlightened treatment they had received from the Australians and Dutch before the war. The result was a latent good feeling toward the white man which in some cases worked in our favor when it came to sheltering downed aircrews awaiting rescue by submarine or Catalina Flying Boat.
Colonel Miller, our Group Commander, recognized that maintaining a high level of morale among the aircrews was important. He decided that the aircrews should be given some R&R at regular intervals in Sydney. The straight line distance from Darwin to Sydney was 2,000 miles one way and the aircrews, in turn, would fly themselves on the trip using a bomber that was no longer fit for combat. They would be gone for a week which gave them a full five days in the city, and the other two days were used for travel. The aircrews usually returned fairly used up after 5 days of riotous living and there was always a question of how fit they were to fly. There was one disastrous incident. The Deputy Group Commander, a Major and a West Pointer, was en-route back to Darwin from Sydney with his crew; they were all tired and fell asleep and the plane was on autopilot. The airplane flew on and on until it ran out of fuel and they crashed somewhere in the Outback. No one knew where they were and some search and rescue missions were organized with several bombers trying to locate them. Most of the route from Sydney to Darwin lies over uninhabited land and the downed bomber could be anywhere. After several days they were located and the crew of the crashed bomber lit a signal fire to show their position. The fire got out of control and the bomber caught fire and burned to ashes. The crew was eventually rescued, without injury, and returned to base by a trek overland. The entire matter was sort of kept under wraps and the poor Major was quietly transferred. That incident ended the R&R trips to Sydney. Later on a new R&R city was chosen -- Adelaide in South Australia, and it was only 1,600 miles away. It was also known as a City of Churches!
In time the Command decided that ground echelon people should also be given an R&R opportunity, and we would be sent to Adelaide for a week. We were sent in small groups, sometimes with a buddy. The first trip to Adelaide, Ralph Finch was my buddy. Adelaide was a quiet town that rolled up its sidewalks early in the evening and there wasn't much to do but sit around in the hotel and get lonesome. Ralph had received a "Dear John" letter from his wife back in Massachusetts and he was heartbroken and was free to vent his sorrows with the Aussie girls. I was determined to keep the faith with my Virginia, so socially I was a fifth wheel. Prior to departing for Adelaide, I sought out the counsel of the Group Chaplain, a Captain Roark, who was a conservative Baptist Minister. I presented my social problem to him and he came up with a solution. Somehow the Chaplain had done some earlier reconnoitering in Adelaide and its church community and made contacts with people of conservative leanings, including young women who were waiting for their betrothed to return from the war. He gave me a name to look up when I got to Adelaide. Those who have never experienced the trauma of living for long periods in a single gender society are not able to understand the negative effects on an individual. You finally forget how to talk to the opposite gender and suddenly are not comfortable around them!
As best as I can remember, the young lady's name was something like Thelma Sandow. She worked in an office of some kind as that is where I had to go to introduce myself and invite her out to dinner to get acquainted. She was a typical heavy built English-type girl and wore glasses. It was obvious that her blood lines were all British. Her home was a sheep ranch about 100 miles by train north of Adelaide and she stayed with a relative near the edge of the city. To escort her home required a ride on the tram, and then a few blocks walk beyond. The trams quit running early, about 10:00 PM and to miss it was unthinkable as the walk would have been miles back to the downtown hotel. We R&R types had been warned to avoid walking alone in some parts of Adelaide after dark. The experience was that some Yanks had been assaulted and robbed when alone. The attackers were never really identified by type, but the suspicion was that they may have been some renegade Aussie soldiers bent on revenge against the flashy Yanks and their fat wallets.
There wasn't much to do in Adelaide. The beach was too far away and besides it was always too cold. A stroll in the park and the small zoo with some photo taking was about par for a visit there. But the good bed in the hotel and the excellent food were a welcome relief from camp life.
As I remember, I had two widely spaced R&R trips to Adelaide during the 20 months I was in Australia. On one of these visits, the Sandow family invited me to their home on the sheep ranch. The train ride was pleasant through the rolling hills. The Sandows resided in an old stone house, suggesting it had been passed down for several generations. Thelma's younger brother, an RAAF pilot, was home on leave after training and before he departed for duty in England. The Australians love their horses and the Sandows had several riding horses in their stable. They insisted we all take a ride together in spite of the fact that I admitted to having never been on a horse. I was assured they had picked out the gentlest horse for me. Getting on was no problem; it was staying on that presented the problem! That horse knew he had a greenhorn in the saddle and he set out to show the two of us who was in control! As we were riding alongside a fence row, my mount took the bit in its teeth, lowered its head, and burst into a high speed sprint. I knew I'd lost all control and concentrated on just staying on as the horse tried to scrape me off by brushing past the fence posts such that I was certain one of my legs would be torn off. The brother was good on a horse and came to my rescue, much to my relief. I was one grateful and humble Yank and fully acknowledged the facts. The entire affair was a great embarrassment for me and when the weekend was over I was just happy to slink back to the Northern Territory. Thelma was engaged to an RAAF pilot already on duty in England. I hope he and the brother returned home safely as after the last visit all contact was lost with the Sandow family. The Adelaide visits were great, but they did have a negative effect in that they increased the heartache for home!
The 1,600 mile trip to Adelaide was an experience in itself. There was a midpoint stop at a place called Alice Springs; it is almost dead center of the continent of Australia where it is all desert. Today, Alice Springs is a tourist resort, complete with modern motels and swimming pools. In 1943/44, it consisted of one gravel airstrip and half dozen Quonset huts, those half round things made of corrugated iron sheeting. We sometimes flew to Adelaide in a DC-3, other times a bomber was used. The food at the Fenton Base lacked variety and there was no beer in Northern Territory unless it was brought in by air or sea. A railroad existed from the South Coast to Alice Springs, but then north of Alice Springs to Darwin there existed only 800 miles of gravel road; dusty in the dry season and muddy in the wet. After the war was begun the road was maintained such that trucks could use it, but it was no interstate highway. The stop at Alice Springs was always welcome as the 1,600 mile trip required about 10 hours by air. On some occasions a bomber's bomb bay would be rigged out with a wooden bottom and at Adelaide the entire bomb bay would be loaded with beer in quart glass bottles and other good stuff. The Adelaide airport had no paved runways; it was an all-grass field which was typical of an undeveloped area. Those bombers with their specially fitted bomb bays were called "Fat Cats." One particular "Fat Cat" mission was loaded at Adelaide and took off then returned to give the town a buzz job. Some aircrew member undoubtedly trying to impress his girl. For that time a 30 ton 4-engine bomber roaring across the roof of a house doing 200 mph at 200 feet was an attention getter. At the end of the low level run, the bomber pulled up sharply (always impressive) and then the laws of centrifugal force took over; the temporary wooden floor gave way and the cargo of goodies went flying completely through the bomb bay doors and was scattered all over Adelaide! The local Adelaide paper, which we were later to see, carried headlines of being bombed by friendly forces using bottles of beer!
More to come!
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Last updated: 22 May 2014