An Epic Adventure on the Way to WWII
Over 12,000 B-24 Liberator bombers saw action with the US Army Air Corps in WWII. Typically flown by a crew of ten men, the majority of Liberators were lost or damaged beyond repair in combat during massive daylight bombing raids over Europe. The stories told by those who survived the lethal gauntlet of flak and fighters on 10+ hour missions bear witness to incredible courage.
Few of us have had the opportunity to consider that — even before a B-24 flew its first combat mission —she had to be ferried from the United States to Europe under the cloak of secrecy without the benefit of fighter escort or navigation aids. This is the story of one such aircraft — Slick Chick — flown by its freshly trained, but green crew (and a stowaway monkey) as they used dead reckoning, celestial navigation and no small amount of intestinal fortitude to arrive in wartime England after flying over 10,000 miles and braving dense Amazonian jungles, the storm-ravaged Atlantic ocean, vast deserts and being lost in an infamous forbidden city.
The principal author is the Slick Chick’s navigator, Second Lieutenant Phil Meistrich, who faithfully and colorfully recorded events and impressions in his log. Amplifying the account with his personal insights is retired USAF test pilot, Colonel Bill Norris, who — as a twenty-two year old Second Lieutenant himself — piloted Slick Chick and her crew across the pond 71 years ago.
In their own words:
Phil: “It was a cold and gray afternoon; the date was February 20, 1944. Our spanking new B-24 Liberator sped across the runway at Mitchell. NY with its bomb bay loaded with bags and sacks of mail that were destined for Italy. After crawling lazily into the air, we headed south on the first leg of a half-way-around-the-world trip. Our course took us over familiar’ landmarks: New Jersey shore resorts; Langley Field; Old Charleston harbor, SC: Jacksonville, FL; and finally Morrison Field in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Morrison Field, West Pam Beach, Florida
Phil: We spent three days in Florida, our Air Echelon Port of Embarkation. We listened to lectures, filled out forms, took examinations, checked our insurance, and drew up our wills. Nothing was left undone as medics saw to it that we got our quota of assorted shots. Even though we were still in the States, security regulations were in order which meant no passes, no phone calls and outgoing mail was censored. We all guessed that, ‘this is it.’ We were parting company with the good ol’ USA leaving all the beaches and beautiful palm trees behind. We were going to war.”
February 23 1944: “Our last day in the States. Wake up time was 21:30, and briefing was at 23:30 for a 0200 takeoff. The instructions of the first leg of our flight were interesting and clear.
01:30: We were at our plane loading up and checking equipment. Secret orders came aboard. which were to be opened one hour after departure.
02:01: We were airborne. A few minutes later we were in the blue just as in the song, “The Wild Blue Yonder.”
03:01: Our pilot called us on the inter-phone and read the secret orders:
Destination: 8th Air Force
This was the bloodiest spot in the world. We were to join the roughest and toughest air force destined to crack the iron skull of Nazi Germany. We were on our way!
03:20: We sighted our first island; the twinkling lights of Windsor Nassau were dancing below us. Darkness and clouds appeared as our flight progressed. The clouds soon stacked up ahead of us forcing us to climb higher. It was a beautiful sight; the clouds were silhouetted against the morning twilight. At briefing, the weather report called for sunrise at about 06:00. Cruising across the Caribbean, we caught a glimpse of Haiti and spotted Puerto Rico and St. Croix. By 09:30 we recognized Beane Island; we turned and headed for Trinidad. Visibility was limited.
10:30: Nine hours after take-off, Trinidad loomed ahead. It had the greenest water I had ever seen. A white surf rolled up to the shores, practically going past the palm trees and into the jungle. Native huts were spread out, shaded by the coconut and banana trees.”
Phil: “Waller Field was strictly an American Air Base, but definitely one with British overtones as it had left-handed traffic. Uncle Sam is very lenient; we give them lend-lease, they give us left-handed traffic. But since we were going to England, we knew we had better get used to their ways.
Our quarters were long barracks, built on long poles. We slept on cots, under what seemed like miles of mosquito netting.
After hearing dire lectures on malaria, we all decided to take our Atabrine pills and check the mosquito netting constantly.”
Bill adds: “Prior to departure for Waller, we were tasked to conduct a search of the jungle area north of the Amazon river delta for a missing British Martin Baltimore. This meant flying at a few hundred feet in this very hot and moist environment executing a square search pattern for several hours. The jungle was nearly impenetrable; you could have missed the crash sites of a dozen aircraft, but all eyes were peeled (for more than one reason).
The crew, especially the navigator, had enjoyed the night before on local booze and food. It had a demanding effect on Phils’ digestive system, not long after takeoff and he developed a severe case of diarrhea. The B-24 is not equipped for such a situation, so he had to improvise. When departing the US, we were each issued a small green draw-string bag with a deck of cards, gum, a comb, etc. Being quite dexterous, he relieved himself into the bag, with great fumes wafting up into the flight deck. Having completed the task, he had to get rid of the bag. Since he was in the nose of the aircraft, the nearest opening was the nose gear-doors.
For escape and bail-out, the doors could be opened without lowering the gear, by using a “cheater valve.” However, when one opens the doors in flight, the slipstream enters the nose wheel area with quite a force since we were flying at 160 mph at the time. He opened the doors and threw the bag into the opening. The slipstream threw the bag (and its contents) back into the aircraft and splattered it all over the nose gear assembly. Imagine the result! We still had the hot, low altitude search to complete and the odor was nearly unbearable. On the flight deck, we tried opening the side windows, but all this did was increase the draw of air from the nose area. The remaining flight was not pleasant and the cleanup was accomplished at Belem, Brazil - by Phil with some help from the gunners. With no deodorant available, we used generous amounts of bug spray.”
Phil: “We had a 06:00 take-off on 24 February to Belem, Brazil. On this leg of our journey we crossed British, Dutch and French Guiana and the mouth of the Amazon river, some 60 miles wide. After a few more miles of jungles, we scurried into Belem under a curtain of low hanging clouds. Tropical storms were commonplace and we landed without incident. Although our own engineers had assured us that the drinking and washing water were purified and were safe for consumption, it was tough to choke down the brownest water I had ever swallowed.
Most of us bought souvenirs to send home. I bought a pair of Gaucho Brazilian boots. We chose to call them Gaucho because it sounded nice, even though we all knew that Gauchos are in Argentina, not Brazil. The boots cost eight dollars and contained enough leather for three pairs of regular shoes.
While we were in the buying mood, the crew thought it would be novel to buy a monkey. The price was ten dollars; We offered five. It must not have been a fair offer; he still had the monkey, and we still had the five dollars. Like any New Yorker would do, we compromised by offering seven. He must have been from New York, too — we settled for eight dollars, which included the monkey AND the leash. I can’t recall why we named her, Daisy June, but our monkey was a pride and joy.”
Bill adds: “Somewhat deterred from the last leg, this stop avoided over- imbibing in booze and local food, but did include shopping in the local market, which included acquisition of a case of Brazilian beer in liter bottles and a spider monkey (named Daisy June). Both were acquired and stowed in the back of the aircraft without my knowledge.”
Phil: “An early morning briefing followed and we were headed for another jungle clearing much like Belem in Fortelaza, Brazil. Our little Daisy June seemed to enjoy the plane ride as she happily engaged in running all around the waist section of the plane. Several minutes later we noticed she was missing. It was heartbreaking to think she’d fallen out.
Later, she was found swinging along a control cable. As we neared civilization we followed the visible jungle clearing and the railroad to Fortelaza. Once again, racing under the threatening clouds we made our approach and landed.”
Bill adds: “The next flight to Fortelaza was uneventful (except for a period where the crew thought the monkey had bailed out). The following day we would be departing for Dakar which lied across 2000 miles of open South Atlantic.”
Phil: “Fortelaza was the jumping off point from the New World to the Old — the South Atlantic where there was 1,970 miles of nothing but water. Briefing was long and carefully plotted for this night hop; the trip was 10 hours long, and would take us through an equatorial front loaded with thunder storms. We were not alone but traveling in a conga line with other aircraft.
We were on course to Dakar. about 400 miles out when we heard an SOS from one of the planes in front of us. A short while later we received another one; his position was now behind us. As it turned out Earl and his crew had lost two engines about two hours out (350 miles) from Fortalaza. To lighten the load, they dumped all their baggage, mail and accessories and hot-footed it back to Brazil. ‘Better to run around without any pants than try to swim 400 miles,’ Earl later told us.
As predicted in briefing, we ran smack into the equatorial front and the rain began just pouring into the ship. It seemed as if we were plowing through solid water. At times our bulkheads looked like they would cave in. Then the lightning started to play with us as we rolled and rocked in the storm. St. Elmo’s fire danced across the wings, around the props and up and down the catwalk. We knew about St. Elmo’s Fire, but had never experienced anything like this. Soon, the impenetrable darkness lifted and the storm finally settled for a period. Then, all of a sudden, we encountered a series of up drafts and down drafts. The plane registered 8,000 feet at one time, then 11,000 feet the next. After about an hour of such turmoil we finally settled down to a relatively smooth and level flight, surrounded by huge white billowing cumulonimbus clouds.
Soon the sky cleared above us and every star in the almanac twinkled. Deneb, Vega and Altair were ahead of us; every navigator works this trio of stars. Celestial navigation was done all the way and from our last fix we “zero-zeroed” — the radio compass was turned on. Dakar was dead ahead. We had to sweat out our ETA, but we soon spotted the white curved beach that was our part of Africa. Three minutes later we were over Eknes Field in Rufisque Dakar in French West Africa. Another continent conquered — our third in less than a week..
We landed on the steel mat runway in a flurry of red dust. It was a delight to come from the sticky dampness of Brazil to those cool plains that were swept by the breezes from the sea.”
Bill adds: Approximately 400 miles feet wet out of Brazil, we encountered a massive equatorial front lined with towering thunder storms that produced very heavy rain, lightning and severe up & down drafts. We were soon being buffeted between 8 and 12,000 feet and covered with St. Elmo’s Fire. Everywhere you looked, there were blue plasma rolls of standing fire 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Standing lightning charges extended from the gun barrels in the top and nose turrets extending four to five feet into the black, rain-filled night. Normal St. Elmo’s danced over all windows, while charges entered the radio room through the antenna (the radios were shut off when we entered the front). Halos of fire hung onto the four propeller arcs and standing arcs extended out from the prop hubs. Inside, it danced up and down the catwalk and between brackets and cables in the aft fuselage. Truly mesmerizing, but surreal.
Upon exiting the front, we were once again in nearly clear air and celestial navigation was restored. Phil and I corrected course, recomputed our fuel and breathed a mutual sigh of relief as we drilled onward.
A couple hours later, the inter-phone filled with singing and noise. Phil, the co-pilot, Owen, and I suspected that the boys had broken open some hooch to celebrate making it through the storm and decided to leave them be. But then came a heavy thump on the flight controls followed by very disturbing vibrations. Being far from shore, I turned the aircraft over to the Owen and went back to the rear to find the crew (less the co-pilot, navigator, engineer and radio operator) snoozing under the influence of the Brazilian beer. And judging from the empty holes in the case, several liter bottles of the powerful stuff had been consumed.
The mystery of the vibrations was solved when I spotted Daisy June — wildly crazed by the St. Elmo’s fire — swinging on the control cables. That was a big relief, but — even so — that thump had me worried.
After a head count, to make sure we hadn't lost someone, I took a look outside and discovered a large hole in the bottom of the left elevator. It didn't take a detective to figure out that it was caused by a knucklehead throwing a beer bottle out of the waist window to hide the evidence. To say I was pissed off was just a tad of an understatement.
The only redeeming quality of this situation happened when Daisy June, bless her heart, swung down from a cable, scampered over to the ball turret and relieved herself in the sleeping bombardier’s ear.”
Layover in Dakar
Phil: “Dakar was a French Colony that was administered by the French. It was garrisoned by native troops: the Senegals. They were incredibly tall, carried long bayoneted rifles wore red fez caps, blue pants, khaki shirts and stunk to high heaven. The food there was terrible: very little and very lousy. The beds were like rocks and every two hours the native kids would go through the barracks and spray against mosquitoes.
To pass time, we went swimming in the Atlantic, passing through the town of Rufisque where it was an accepted local custom to relieve oneself whenever and where ever one felt like it, usually in the stream running right through town.
After spending seven long days there, waiting for weather to clear, we were finally able to depart Eknes Field and were glad to leave it behind us.
Bill adds: After crossing the ocean, we landed on a PSP (pierced steel plank) runway at Eknes Field in a cloud of red dust and taxied to the ramp. Security was provided for us by a garrison of Senegalese native troops. Our guard was nearly seven feet tall — and with the rifle — his height was awesome. He spoke no English and understood only one term, OK. So he became known as “OK.” We spent a week there with time for Chris and I to repair the hole in the elevator and the crew changed plugs in all four engines. We made a real friend of OK by giving him all the old Spark plug copper gaskets. He put them on all fingers and both thumbs. OK was a terrific guard making damn sure nobody got near our aircraft when we weren't working on it.
OK fell in love with Daisy June who loved climbing up his legs, arms and up and down the rifle. When we were ready to depart for Marrakesh, French Morocco, with our final destination being wintery England, I convinced the crew to give Daisy June to OK. Beaming the biggest smile any of us had ever seen, no English was needed to know that we had made a friend forever.”
Marrakesh, French Morocco
Phil: “Once we began flying over the Sahara Desert all signs of civilization disappeared amid endless miles of sand dunes. Occasionally we would sight a caravan trail and we spotted a French Foreign Legion outpost. The Black Mountains ahead were visible for 50 miles; we cleared the pass and headed for Marrakech, French Morocco.
Marrakesh looked fairly large from the air. The great airfield that we landed on was formerly a neat French Army and commercial airdrome, but it had since been over-run with hordes of Yankee planes, trucks and transport planes for England, Italy and the Middle East. The French airmen and planes were moved into a remote corner of the field. We were quartered in modern stucco cottages, which had formerly been occupied by French dignitaries and their families.
After listening to the mandatory V. D. lecture, we wandered into Marrakesh to mingle with the natives. Many French families and business places were located there.
Marrakesh’s biggest industry was peddling, and the native hawkers descended upon the GI’s as soon as they hit town. They offered leather goods, hammered silver, long Arabian rifles, wallets, purses, hassocks, shoes, bags and other trinkets. They would start high we would bid low; after a little haggling, we usually met somewhere in the middle.
The next largest industry was the usual one of working for the Yankee dollar. Boys of 10 and 12 years of age would pimp for the 1,500 prostitutes in the forbidden city of Medina. It was off-limits, but could be gotten into - as some adventurous Yanks found. The “taxi” was an old automobile drawn by a horse. Medina was the dirtiest, smelliest, and most crowded and depressing spot on this earth. Houses and people were packed on top of one another.
The city of Marrakesh has a unique history. Its walls were built with the remains of thousands of captives whose bodies were thrown into the lime kilns and baked into bricks that served as the fortifications. Sultan after Sultan endowed Marrakesh with palaces, mosques, gardens and citadels. The French tried pacification, but lost many lives in attempting to convert the population to Christianity.
Bill adds: Upon arriving at Marrakesh, we landed at a French Army Field. While awaiting departure for England, we acquainted ourselves with the city and surrounding area. Marrakesh was a typical Arab city but the forbidden walled city of Medina was a challenge and, stupidly, the crew officers were suckered into paying a young lad — equipped with a Fiat car body on wheels pulled by a broken-down horse — to take us to Medina.
The only way the four of us could fit in the car was to stand where the seats once were. This adventure was the mistake of the year; the attraction was dancing girls. On reaching the walled city we encountered very high 20 foot or better walls with huge gates at all four corners, manned by very unfriendly natives. It cost more US $$ to open the gates for entry.
We entered into a filthy, rats maze of very narrow corridors that were so narrow, the sides of the Fiat body banged off the walls at regular intervals and jammed hard at each turn. The market consisted of wood doors in the maze wall which were dropped and held by rope with their goods laying on the door. The flies were so thick they completely covered the meat and produce. We stopped at a door-sized opening in one maze isle and the youngster ran in. He came back and said the show was ready. We unloaded and went into a barren two-story building.
After climbing to the second floor, we entered a small room with no furniture and a couple of dirty rugs on the cement floor. Of course, more US $$ had to change hands. The “show” consisted of two girls akwardly disrobing to olive drab colored T-shirts and GI shorts. The offer of special services was made to the navigator. They seemed enamored with Phil’s prominent nose which apparently made him rather special.
We politely declined any more show activity and exited as quickly as possible, but faced the prospect of getting out of this mess in one piece. By this time we were all broke and knew that arriving at the exit gate, more US $$ would be required. When we arrived at the gate, the keepers were very upset at no more $$ and threatened to kill us or hold us for ransom. However, by a strange quirk of fate, we were all second lieutenants. With our gold bars and adept negotiations, we convinced them to take the gold for safe passage.
We thought the jig was up when the head gate keeper pulled out a bottle of acid to test one of the bars prior to accepting our deal!
Fortunately for us, the lacquer coating over the thin gold plating held to the acid test and we were allowed to depart broke, but wiser.
Phil: “On March 7, 1944 we were ordered to fly to England. Our gunners were instructed to load up their guns with ammunition.
Our flight route took us north, past Spain, Portugal and France, and into the British Isles. The prescribed course was to fly the 11th meridian, turn and go up the Irish Sea, then land at valley, Holyhead in Wales. We were carefully briefed on the neutral country of Eire, which had a very large sign on the ground saying, ‘Eire,’ and large arrows pointing to England, just in case anybody wandered too far off course.
23:45: We took off, heading on a northern course and at higher altitudes. Once in more northern climes, out came our woollies. The navigators had to make sure of their course and the 11th meridian. If we went too far east, the Jerry might come up to give us going over: too far west and we were liable to run out of fuel.
On the way, we listened in on Radio Berlin and heard the charming voice of ‘Axis Sally.’ She invited all Americans up to Stalag Luft, where ‘the beds and sheets soft and clean.’ She promised to meet us there. She also said the food there was good. When she finished, her friend — a renegade American newspaperman — spoke to his ‘fellow’ Americans. He attacked the ‘Plutocratic-Juder Bolshevik’ President of the United States. When that jerk finished, we switched to the BBC, where a charming female voice - sounding veddy, veddy British - announced a program of choice swing music, which we understood and enjoyed. All good things must come to an end and so did her program. Then the BBC reporter interrupted with a very sobering report: that day, thirty U.S. bombers from the 8th Air Force failed to return to their bases after a raid on Berlin…gulp. We were on our way to the 8th Air Force. Yipes!
We were flying over a solid deck of cumulus and turned into the Irish Sea when we got our first glimpse of the shores of England near the Bristol Channel. We flew up the coastline and followed the Royal Air Force Direction Station F7 into Valley Airport at Holly head, England. This was the end of the line. To paraphrase Walt Whitman:
The ship had weathered every storm. The English Coast was won.
Phil: “Though the B-24s were built to combat specifications in the USA, the heavy losses required that changes had to be made. We were told that we would have to hand over Slick Chick to be ferried to a modification center. As it turned out, that would be the last time we saw her.”
Bill adds: It was hard to turn over Slick Chick after all we’d been through, but — as it turned out — there was no time for sentiment. The 8th Air Force was experiencing the heaviest losses of the war and we were redirected to join the 453rd Bomb Group out of Old Buckenham airfield. With no time to wait, Slick Chick would be modified and then handed over to another crew. This photo of me with her brings back a lot of memories I wouldn't trade for anything:
Editor’s note: Following its retrofit, Slick Chick was assigned to a crew with the 449th Bombing Group out of Attlebridge airfield (only 15 miles from Old Buckenham). Sadly, on 23 April, 1945 — only 6 weeks after arriving in England — Slick Chick and her new crew were lost in combat.
After surviving their initial trial by fire flying in the dreaded “Purple 16” position, Phil Meistrich, Bill Norris and their eight crew mates quickly moved up the ranks to become the squadron’s lead bomber. They went on to finish the 25 missions required to be eligible to rotate to the States. However, when asked, they volunteered to extend their tour, eventually completing 32 combat missions including D-Day, returning to the USA. Bill Norris became one of the first US aviators to transition to jet-engined aircraft, becoming a test pliot and logging over 10,000 hours in 57 aircraft.
As of this writing, Bill Norris — at 93 years young — is still an adventure seeker.
If you enjoyed this true story, you’ll want to read this brief one about the same crew as they find out on the way to combat that they have a very serious problem and no obvious solutions:
Both of these stories are follow-ups to the original story published via Medium.com about this crew. Though short, it offers more goosebumps per word than any you have probably heard:
The newest story in this series details the crew’s first combat mission flying in the dreaded “Purple-Heart 16” position: