Presentation Date: March 24, 2005
1st LT Charles J. CJ Cook USAAF
B-17 Pilot & Commander - * 94th BG (H), 334th BS, Based at Bury St.Edmonds, ~100 Mi N. of London, * 1st B-17 Named "Lady Luck"; 2nd & Last B-17 Named "Victory Gal", * Flew 35 Combat Missions; Hit By Flak & Fighters Many Times, * Shot Down Twice, But Never Captured; Returned To England Both Times,
* Many "Close-Calls" Due to Germans, Weather & Overloads of Bombs & Fuel, * Lucky Crew: All Ten Crewmembers Survived Their 35 Missions Together! B-17 Pilot & Commander
* Native of Nebraska; Always Wanted to Fly!
* Military Flight Training In CA
* Earned His Silver Wings As A Military Pilot In Stockton, CA
* B-17 "Flying Fortress" Training In New Mexico
* Crewed-Up In Lincoln, Nebraska; Final Training At Ellworth AFB, Rapid City
* Flew Intact Crew In Their New B-17 To England.
* 94th BG (H), 334th BS, Based at Bury St.Edmonds, ~100 Mi N. of London
* 1st B-17 Named "Lady Luck"; 2nd & Last B-17 Named "Victory Gal"
* Flew 35 Combat Missions; Hit By Flak & Fighters Many Times
* Shot Down Twice, But Never Captured; Returned To England Both Times
* Many "Close-Calls" Due to Germans, Weather & Overloads of Bombs & Fuel
* Lucky Crew: All Ten Crewmembers Survived Their 35 Missions Together!
* After WWII went on to an extordinary accademic and business/commercial career.
Lucky Lady, Victory Gal and 35 Missions
B-17 Commander Lt. Charles J. Cook
World War II started as a grand adventure for Charles J. Cook. The West Point, Nebraska native had always wanted to fly, and he was able to learn about flying for free in Piper Cubs, followed by PT22 Ryans, Vultees, Cessna Twins and AT6s.
And he admits he was really lucky, in many ways. Cook and the crew that served in the B-17s Lucky Lady and Victory Gal survived 35 missions together, without any of them even awarded a Purple Heart for a serious injury.
The origins of Charles Cook and his crew’s good fortune began after they came together at Lincoln, Nebraska, with their first training as a unit at Ellsworth Air Force Base, just outside Rapid City in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
One summer night on a practice bomb run over Rapid City, the crew of Lady Luck was at 27,000 feet when the bomber flew into clouds. C.J. said he called up the field to report the overcast, stating he wasn’t sure how to finish the mission if he was in cloud cover.
The base told Cook,” There are no clouds up there. You weren’t briefed for clouds.” He was then told to continue the mission from 30,000 feet altitude.
“We went up to 30,000 feet,” says Cook, “and all of a sudden we ran into a thunderstorm. As you know, thunderstorms go to lightning until they start to rain. Well, this one didn’t have lightning so we didn’t see it. It was a moonless night and we were in the clouds anyhow.”
“After we hit this thunderstorm, there were times when I couldn’t put my feet on the floor because we were going down so fast, and there were times when you couldn’t get them off the floor because you were going up so fast.”
Cook says the instrument needles in the cockpit were swinging wildly back and forth, making impossible any interpretation of where the bomber was heading. The crew had started the mission asleep in the belly of the B-17, sprawled on the floor with their machines guns and ammunition. They were anything but asleep at this point.
“They were on the deck and then they were on the ceiling, and then they were on the deck... that lasted something like eight years (sarcasm), I think. They were back and blue and were really sore for a full week afterward.”
Cook says eventually they came out of the thunderstorm in a canyon in the Black Hills, the B-17 flying straight and level - - the only direction the plane could fly without running into the hills. Ahead of the bomber were the lights of a town, and as Cook and crew came in to land, they were buffeted by driving rain and hail.
“I had to take out the knockout window in front in order to see what I was doing... and I couldn’t see anyhow. But I did make a good landing. That created a little bit of admiration from the rest of the crew, and so from then on I was the airplane commander.”
Nearly a full week after that night’s hail had piled in drifts around Ellsworth AFB, it finally melted. And the crew had healed from being bounced about in the sky.
Cook says soon after that was another night practice mission to Iowa, which was aborted due to engine trouble. The crew landed and put themselves up in a hotel in Sioux City. From a local bar napkin, they also found their nose art. <<artwork>>
“We were all set. We had our airplane commander and our nose art. So what else could happen; we were in perfect shape.”
Cook says he took his crew in a new B-17 to England, landing en route on his 21st birthday in Reykjavik, Iceland, where they stayed for three days before flying to a base in Ipswich, England. Then, word came to gather up the crew and all their belongings for a truck ride to the 94th BG(H)’s new base at Bury St. Edmunds, where they were billeted in quonset huts fully stocked with clothes.
“It turned out two days in a row the 94th Bomb Group had sent out airplanes and two days in a row, nobody came home.”
Cook says that in addition to 94th veterans, crew members from other bomb groups well remember the story of that devastating mission. Roger Freeman’s history of the 8th Air Force, The Mighty Eighth, documents the June 13 raid on Kiel, noting that after this mission to bomb German submarine yards, the 94th’s gunners prematurely started dismantling and cleaning their weapons. Luftwaffe Ju 88 night fighters suddenly appeared off the Norfolk coast and in a matter of minutes had shot down nine of the bombers.
The mission’s shattering losses led to Brigadier General Ira Eaker sending Col. Frederick Castle to lead the 94th. Castle had been at Sperry Corporation, working on the Norden bomb sight program, and had hankered to see action. At Eaker’s request he re-enlisted.
With the arrival of new B-17s, Cook says he flew his first mission to Merseburg as a co-pilot to a pilot named Peterson. Peterson was killed two days later, on Cook’s second mission, when C.J. co-piloted another B-17.
Cook says at that time in the war, “When the pilot had 35 missions, everybody in the crew had 35 missions, no matter what the numbers were. They were all granted that privilege. But they (his crew on Lucky Lady and Victory Gal ) didn’t fly the first two missions with Cook.
One way Cook says crews in the 94th improved their luck, on missions filled with either flak or aircraft cannon shells (or both), was to buy extra armor.
“Our crew saved up cigarettes, booze and whatever... and if you knew the right crew chief, you could buy armor, or extra heavy flak suits. We all wore steel helmets and flak suits. I had about two inches of steel behind me. I sat on at least two inches of steel. We had this stuff packed all over the airplane.”
B-17s were rated at 66,500 pounds gross weight, and Cook swears his ships never flew at less than 70,000 pounds, due to extra armor. And if the plane could fly, that armor often paid off. Lucky Lady bombardier Stanley Dahl could testify...
“One day a piece of flak came in through the nose, hit the bombardier on the chest, knocked him over the head of the navigator and banged him into the bulkhead. He claimed he was really hurt.”
When Lucky Lady returned home, Dahl’s chest was examined. It was black and blue, but he didn’t have even a broken rib, because he’d paid all his cigarette money for extra plates in his flak vest. Considered uninjured, Dahl did not receive a Purple Heart.
Nor did Lucky Lady‘ s flight engineer, Lester Nabors. He was hit by spraying plexiglass when a flak shell splinter ripped through his top turret - - the plastic shards puncturing his oxygen mask. When Nabors came down from the turret, Cook says the gunner’s face was covered with little spots of blood - - like he had a severe case of measles. But by definition, it wasn’t considered an injury.
“We didn’t really care about that sort of stuff very much, because we’d just as soon not be injured or have a Purple Heart than to have to argue the case.
A Mission Day with the 94th BG
Cook described the daily routine at Bury St. Edmunds this way - -
“If you were flying a mission, you got two fresh eggs for breakfast, which was served sometime after one o’clock in the morning. So a lot of people tried to go on missions so they could get two fresh eggs.
“You’d go through the mess hall and then you’d go out and hustle around with your gear. Eventually you’d go to the briefing, find out what you were going to do for the day. Then you’d get in your plane and go, and we’d bomb at noon.
“We’d fly usually at 27,000 feet, but I have bombed as high as 31,000. The ceiling for a B-17 is 35,600 feet, which was a pretty good altitude for the day.
“It was kinds of like watching a movie. You saw the flak come up, rockets come up, bursting around, the guy shot down next to you... you’d just watch it as sort of a detached thing. It was like a movie because you couldn’t really think it was going to be your turn or anything else. It was a very funny kind of a behavior pattern, but I think it probably had a lot to do with self-defense.
“We’d come out after you’d land and put away your gear. You’d go through the Red Cross line and get a cup of hot chocolate and sometimes a biscuit. Then you’d go through the medic line and you got a third of a water glass full of whiskey, and if you didn’t drink it, you had to sign a waiver. Then you’d go for debriefing.
“The debriefing room was pretty comfortable. It was the first time you were really warm after a long day at work. You couldn’t eat anything on these flights, because the average temperature at cruising altitude was 56 degrees below zero. Oranges would not thaw for days, if you could find one to take along. A sandwich was pretty hard.”
Cook recalls a debriefing after a particularly bad day. The bombers had returned from their mission individually rather than in formation, with many B-17s running out of gas.
“I didn’t run out of gas. I did everything properly, got home and was sitting there in the debriefing room. This pilot came in and the guy debriefing him just started to chew him out unmercifully because he didn’t follow the traffic pattern.
“He said, ‘Guys were just landing all over the place because they were running out of gas and I thought I didn’t have enough gas to go around the pattern again. So I just landed.’
Cook says, “When the de-briefer showed he was really upset with that answer, the pilot drew his .45 (pistol), put the gun up next to the de-briefer’s head and said, ‘You know if I was you, I’d shut up.’ The pilot was dismissed and that was the end of the conversation.”
Mission #3 11/4/44 Hamburg, Germany
The third combat mission Cook flew was his first with his crew in Lucky Lady, a bombing run on a synthetic oil factory. The bomber was hit by flak, shearing off the rudder and dorsal fin - - connecting the vertical stabilizer to the fuselage. Remarkably, there were no injuries and C.J. still flew the ship back to Bury St. Edmunds to land safely.
He says the tail gunner, Harold Bevin, got out of the tail, took one look at the missing tail section that had been just a few inches above his head, and fainted.
Cook says, “When he woke up, he was paralyzed and was taken to the hospital for several days. He couldn’t move. Finally they fed him a fifth of scotch, which knocked him out. And when he woke up from that he moved fine, and so he went back to flying.”
Cook calls this another example of luck, as just before the flak hit, the bombardier (Dahl) had proclaimed they were out of the flak area and the crew could take off the heavy flak suits. C.J. says, “He never called for early removal of the flak suit again.”
After another mission that was scrubbed, Lucky Lady landed and the crew went to the officers club, where there was only soda water and wine to drink. The crew assumed, wrongly, those libations would be too weak to make them drunk.
Lucky Lady ‘s navigator, Collins, was the only 94th BG member Cook knew besides the group’s commander, by now Gen. Castle, who wore a grommet in his officer’s hat. As Cook vividly remembers the occasion, when the general walked into the mess hall Collins walked up to him, took Castle’s hat, ripped out the grommet, threw it on the ground, stomped on it and proceeded to slur out a uncomplimentary statement to the CO.
Then, Cook continues, “You could hear a pin drop, for... I don’t know how long it lasted. It seemed like forever. Castle finally smiled and everybody went back to what they were doing originally.”
In the long run, that experience proved beneficial to Collins, because he became very good friends with Gen. Castle, and became the lead navigator for the 94th.
Mission #6 11/25/44 Merseberg, Germany
Hitting an oil refinery while flying through heavy flak, the 94th lost several planes over the target. Though not lost, Lucky Lady was damaged. She had an engine out, all of her gas tanks leaking but not on fire, and a number of big holes in her airframe. Cook says they’d fallen from formation and were losing altitude flying over northern France, when a P-47 came alongside her right wing, lowering flaps and gear - - a sign to follow.
Since the Luftwaffe was known to have repaired captured planes and flown them, Cook didn’t know whether it was an American or German pilot flying the Thunderbolt. But, as he was questioning the bomber’s ability to limp back home, there was no time to ponder.
“We had already made a decision as a crew that nobody would bail out. If the airplane was flying at all, we’d take the airplane down. We’d all had the jump-out practice and decided that wasn’t a heck of a lot of fun. We’d take our chances of survival with the airplane.”
Lucky Lady’s descent had brought her to a bombed out airport near Denain, and because of the presence of the P-47, Cook decided to land on the runway, despite hand filled craters there which made for a rough landing. Cook brought Lucky Lady down without incident.
Before long, a B-24 tried to land as well.
“He looked at the runway and must have said, ‘Oh my gosh!’, because he suddenly went over to the side, landed kind of skewed to the runway, and he ran into an unfilled hole. The airplane just went ‘plop,’ and injured his guys.
“A third airplane, a B-17, came in. He didn’t like the looks of the field either, and so he turned to the right, ran into a farmhouse and killed everybody aboard and all those in the farmhouse.”
Cook says the base all three bomber pilots had chosen for a landing field was an abandoned German base. There were no soldiers from any country at the field. The crew of Lucky Lady stayed there two nights, went into the nearby town to “scrounge some food”, and then were approached by French Underground who drove them to where a C-47 had landed to fly them home. Cook still has a copy of orders that were printed to pick up the crews of the three bombers and fly them back to England, with the names of the ill-fated B-17 crew lined-out.
Mission #1612/31/44Hamburg, Germany
The B-17 Lucky Lady had been lost, but her crew went on fighting in another Flying Fortress nicknamed Victory Gal . Their 16th mission again showed how fortunate they could be when it came to weather and fluke occurrences. The day of a repeat raid scheduled on Hamburg oil refineries, a cold front gripped northern Europe, freezing the air to nearly sixty degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and brewing up heavy ground fog at airbases through east England.
Cook says from his seat in Victory Gal ’s cockpit as she sat on the runway, the fog was so thick he couldn’t see the ground below.
“What they did was they hooked us up with a truck and dragged us out to the end of the runway. They had three spots for alignment, and when everything was all lined up, they’d say ‘go’ and away we went.”
Cook says some planes didn’t make it, and they exploded on or right after take-off. Then, heading to the target at 27,000 feet, over the North Sea, the bomber formation was fired upon by a German U-boat. A single exploding shell, without shattering the glass, completely knocked out the windscreen in front of Cook. He continued to fly the B-17 in a torrent of icy air.
“We flew with our long-johns, our uniform, our electric suits, and now our heavy leather fleece-lined suit, and still, even after all that, it was a cold mission.”
Other Missions, More Luck
On another foggy mission, Cook remembers having to land with the primitive instruments of the B-17.
“Miracles happen, and they happened that day. We actually landed on the airfield. A lot of the guys landed all over the place.”
Cook says that knowing other bombers were trying to land after Victory Gal had, they taxied the bomber blindly for a while and then got out and ran, hoping they were at Bury St. Edmunds and that no one would land on top of them.
“It was a pretty stupid thing to do, but under the conditions I guess stupid things happen and they’re pretty well accepted.”
Coming back home on the deck after another mission, all four engines quit. Cook says he doesn’t know of anything more effective at waking up a pilot than to have all four Wright Cyclone engines quit while flying at low altitude.
“We had the superchargers on to prevent the engines from quitting, from icing. But they didn’t hold out, and the engines quit anyhow. Fortunately, I hit the throttles and the co-pilot hit the throttles - - about broke my hand - - and the engines restarted before we hit the water and got home without any trouble whatsoever.”
Mission #211/14/45 Magdeberg, Germany
Mission #21 to hit oil refineries at Magdeburg, was anything but a cakewalk. Cook says accounts of the aerial battle that day claimed 256 aircraft from both sides combined were shot down. Bevins reported ten bombers from the group behind the 94th went down.
In the midst of the aerial melee, one of Victory Gal ‘s crew had a memorable moment. Cook says, “My ball turret gunner got a little excited, peed in his pants and shorted out his flying suit. He came back and he was pretty sore for awhile.”
The notes of Cook’s bombardier, Dahl, describe “Planes falling like leaves, lots of fighters - numerous fires on the ground due to aircraft crashes.”
Cook remembers the crew firing at several Me 109s, but getting no credit for a kill even though they claimed one. Fisher, the radio operator, reported ten flak holes in the bomber, and tail gunner Blevins counted ten bombers lost from the bombing group behind the 94th.
Charles Cook did have the misfortune during the Battle of the Bulge, to witness the loss of the 94th BG’s lead B-17 flown by Brig. Gen. Castle, on the December 24, 1944 mission to bomb the German fighter base at Babenhausen. The day had dawned with heavy fog, requiring the runway spotting procedure for blind takeoffs. Three bombers had exploded on takeoff, including the B-17 right in front of Victory Gal.
Cook was flying box position on Castle, below and right behind his B-17, in what could be described as a ‘diamond formation.’ He recalls flak while flying over the front lines, but none over the target. Then Luftwaffe fighters came up in a huge swarm, an estimated 250 aircraft hurtling against a formation of bombers unescorted by Eighth Air Force P-51s.
After the fighters had made a pass on the 94th, Cook watched as Castle’s B-17 banked to the left, away from the box, and down towards cloud cover which hid it from view. Cook says he still recalls Castle’s radio call to “give ‘em hell!” as the bomber fell away.
As for the men who served on Lucky Lady and Victory Gal, their war ended with a remarkable record of survival. Mission #35 was a milk run over Marburg, Germany. The crew had survived together virtually unscathed on nearly three dozen bombing raids, and with no Purple Hearts being awarded. 1st Lieutenant Charles J. Cook mustered out with a total combat time of 286 hours and 30 minutes for his role in 35 missions. As he admits, they were indeed lucky.
Following WWII, C.J. Cook capitalized on his GI Bill privileges, accomplishing a two PhDs, in Physics and Math. Plus, he founded several corporations and served as an international consultant.