A Veteran’s Story

When Edward Marnell turned eighteen on January 23rd, 1942, he wasted no time. Twelve days later, he was enlisted as Private Marnell with the Air Corps.

Ed likes to laugh about how quickly he rose in the ranks. Within weeks, he was trained as a mechanic, then sent to aviation school for a thirty-day crash course on the B-25 bomber. Two days after graduating, he became acting crew chief. He boasts that while he was the acting crew chief, his plane was always ready for a mission, even if his three-men crew had to work all night to make it so.

About a year later, Ed received his overseas shipping orders. His officer wanted him for a crew chief, but only sergeants could be crew chiefs. So just like that, Ed became Sergeant Marnell and had his stripes sewn on.

Ed was then sent to Alameda, California, to leave on a transporter with 5,000 other soldiers. He remembers watching the fog roll into San Francisco as his ship sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was so beautiful that Ed told himself, “If I get out of this mess, I’m going to settle in California.” None of the soldiers knew their destination, and they wouldn’t know until they were well on their way. Finally, they were told that they were headed to Brisbane, Australia, and they were going to have to sail dangerously close to Japan to get there. When a Japanese fishing boat spotted them, there was a squirmish in which two pilots were lost.

Besides this incident and a few occasional storms at sea, Ed’s time on the transporter was uneventful. There were no planes to work on, so he spent his time playing cards, watching schools of flying fish and porpoises race in the waves, and taking his shift on watch in the crow’s nest. When given a choice of shifts, he chose midnight to 4am. Most people thought he was crazy but he knew something that they didn’t: the freshly baked goods came out of the galley at 4am.

When the soldiers arrived in Austailia, they boarded a train and another ship to get to New Guinea. Along the way, they were constantly watching for the Japanese, with good reason. The Japanese had bombed the airfield in New Guinea just before the soldiers arrived.

Ed was then assigned to a B-26, which meant he couldn’t be crew chief after all. But he kept his sergeant status, and worked with the men on New Guinea until he broke his femur and spent nine months in a West Virginian hospital. Below is a photo of a B-26 and the 19th Bomb Squad, engineering department. Ed is in the third row, eighth from the right.

19th Bomb Squad, Engineering Department, New Guinea, August 19th, 1943

Sergeant Ed Marnell turned ninety-two last Saturday (and yes, he did settle in California). We celebrated with beef stew and carrot cake, his request. Afterwards, we sat in my living room and listened as he shared about his three years with the Air Corps. His memory was impressive. He knew every date, every location, and every airplane in his stories. And it all sounded like an epic movie.

There was a cockatoo that swore like a sailor and hopped from shoulder to shoulder at meals, looking for hand-outs. The men would chill the rare keg of beer by flying it up 20,000 feet in an airplane. And then there was the memorable two-egg breakfast after six months of pancakes, pancakes, pancakes.

And though there was much to laugh about, Ed also told stories of soldiers risking their own lives to save their brothers with nothing but basic radios and navigation equipment, their quick thinking, and their own bare hands. These men deserve much respect. They are an integral part of the fabric of our history and when they are gone, they will leave a tremendous hole. I look at this photo of these ninety-six men– mechanics, radio controllers, sheet metal workers– and I wonder where they are now and what experiences they have to share. I wish I could record each and everyone of their stories.