On a wing and a prayer

World War II vets find value in remembering

Posted: Sunday, August 06, 2000

An important era of the 20th century is rapidly passing out of living memory.

World War II had an impact on this country that still affects us today. But the people who fought the war are aging, and within the span of another generation, their voices will be lost to us as living sources of information on this pivotal period of history.

One such voice is that of Soldotna veteran Dale Trombley, a retired Air Force pilot who witnessed the end of the war in 1945. Trombley has lived in Alaska since 1964, when he was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage.

He moved to Soldotna in 1993, after his retirement, to run the Alaska Triple T Lodge bed and breakfast.

Though he has since closed the lodge, he still looks forward to a special guest who has made regular visits to Alaska to see him -- Jack Schmehil, of Muskegon, Mich. The two flew together on a B-17 G bomber, Trombley as pilot and Schmehil as tail-gunner, and together they recalled their experience of America's greatest conflict.

The Air Force was still part of the Army and called the Army Air Corps in 1942, when an 18-year-old Trombley enlisted at Louisville, Ky. He made his first solo flight in Douglas, Ga., in 1944. Schmehil also enlisted at the age of 18, in 1943, in Texas, with an infantry group. He later transferred to the Air Corps and attended gunnery school in Las Vegas.

"I got bad feet. I didn't really want to hike anywhere," he said.

Trombley and Schmehil met when they were assigned to the same plane. They faced their first crisis together in February of 1945, in a storm near MacDill Field in Tampa, Fla., when their plane got separated from the rest of their formation during a practice run. At 28,000 feet, the No. 4 engine caught fire and its cowling came off. Schmehil, in the back of the plane, said he saw the pieces flying past him.

The vibration knocked their radios out of the racks, cutting off communication. They made a rough landing, after having more trouble with their landing gear, to be greeted by an Army jeep on the runway, whose driver asked if they needed to be refueled.

"I told him no, we don't need fuel, we need a new engine," Trombley said.

Shortly after that, they were on their way to war, to be stationed at Deopham Green, England, as part of the 8th Air Force, 452nd bomber group, 730th bomb squadron. The B-17 bomber they flew was known as the "Flying Fortress." It was powered by four 1,200-horsepower engines and carried 13 .50-caliber machine guns. There were 12,731 of these planes built from 1935 until the end of the war, of which 4,750 were lost on combat missions -- more than any other type of aircraft.

Though it was a large, state-of-the-art plane for its time, it would seem small and cramped by today's standards. It lacked all but the most basic instrumentation, and it lacked heat, as well, Trombley said; its interior was the same temperature inside as it was outside.

Nor was it pressurized, as modern airliners are. The crew wore oxygen masks above 10,000 feet and could suffer from nitrogen bubbles in the blood -- the bends -- if they stayed above 25,000 feet for too long.

It had a crew of nine -- two pilots, a navigator, engineer, radio operator and four gunners. Trombley's crew named its plane "Got-to-Go."

They flew their first mission on April 14,1945, in southern France, to bomb German gun emplacements around Bordeaux Harbor.

"Everybody was tense and sweating, and I happened to catch sight of a burst of flak up ahead of us," Trombley said. "And the ball turret gunner says, 'Hey! They're shooting at us!' That made the rest of us laugh, and it broke up the tension."


Dale Trombley, left, and Jack Schmehil point out the various features on a model of the B-17 "flying fortress" they flew in World War II.

Photo courtesy of Barbara Trombley

They may have laughed, but it was a narrow escape. Trombley said he counted 78 flak holes in the plane after that mission.

They made three more bombing runs over southern France, once with 600-pound Napthlin bombs. An early form of Napalm, napthlin was a jellied gasoline that stuck to whatever it hit and burned at a searing 1,400 degrees. Trombley said most of them were leaking a little.

"I sure was glad to get rid of those bombs," he said. "They could have blown at any time, and that would have been a very hot and fast end to a good day."

In May 1945, Trombley and Schmehil took part in a "Chowhound" mission to German-occupied Holland. On this mission, they didn't drop bombs; instead they were delivering food to the starving Dutch citizens.

They could see the Germans sitting in the canals below them with their guns.

"I remember seeing this guy down there, looking back up at me," Schmehil said. "But they didn't shoot at us. The Germans had a truce; they had agreed not to shoot at us if we were dropping food."

The food they dropped was Army C-rations and canned goods, in crates, and it exploded like bombs.

"When they hit, they just flew apart," Schmehil said. "I saw one hit a man, and another one hit a shed and blew it to pieces."

Flying out of Holland, they passed over a large field where the Dutch had used thousands of yellow flowers to spell out "Thank You, Boys" on the green grass.

"I met a guy when we were on vacation in New Zealand, years later, who said he was from Amsterdam and remembered our food drop there," Trombley said. "He told me, 'I got some of that food you dropped.' He was only 12 years old at the time, but he still remembered how happy they were to get that food."

After the war ended, Trombley said he and six of his crew flew several more missions, to pick up liberated French POWs in Linz, Austria.

"Most of them hadn't been home in years, and when we flew around the Eiffel Tower in Paris, they started crying and hugging each other. It was very emotional," he said. "When we landed, one of the French generals who met us kissed me on both cheeks and thanked me for bringing them back."

Schmehil left the military after the war, but Trombley stayed on in the Air Force, retiring with the rank of major in July 1969.

For both of them, the war was the great adventure of their lives and an experience they would never forget.

"All this stuff we went through, he was 20 years old, and I was 19," Schmehil said. "How many kids today could do what we did? And would any of them want to? But we went -- and did what we had to do."

Their bomber squadron has a reunion each year; this year's will be in Colorado.

"We all get together and fight the war all over again," Trombley said. "But there's less and less of us every year."

Of his own crew of nine, he said five are still living.

He is writing his memoirs, including his war experience, for his children and grandchildren.

It has been said that the generation that fought World War II saved the world and made it a better place for those of us who have come after them. But Trombley and Schmehil, like many other veterans of their time, don't consider themselves heroes.

"We just want people to remember," Schmehil said.


Dale Trombley in the cockpit of his B-17 bomber in 1945.

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