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Reflections on Being
a Pilot in WWII
by Bert Hallum
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Reflections on Being a Pilot in WWII

by Bert Hallum
as told to Jerry Hoffman, Sr.



1Lt Bertrand Hallum, Jr.
I started with CPT, Civilian Pilot Training, in a class of twenty. Five of us went to the Army Air Corps, five went to the Navy, five became instructors and five flew gliders. I went to gliders .

I joined August 14, 1942. We lived in the Goldman Hotel in Fort Smith, Arkansas. They gave us khakis to wear; they fed us, but no pay. We flew at the Fort Smith Airport, and we got 30 hours flying time in either a Cub or a Taylor Craft. Phillips had the airport then.

We went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, then to Plainview, Texas for dead stick landing training.

The interesting thing about glider pilots is you go up to three thousand feet, and you circle to pick a landing spot. It is just like emergency landing in a powered airplane. We’d go up and cut the engine and make all our plans. Then we’d come in to land. We didn't ever want to be short because you didn't have the power to increase your glide. If you hit a barbed wire fence, it was just too bad.

We flew 30 hours of dead stick landing practice. It is a funny feeling to see that old prop just sitting there, not turning. Anyway, when it came time for the check-ride to finish school, one instructor washed out students coming and going. Another check-pilot there was really nice. We all hoped to get the pleasant guy. When they posted the list of who would flight check us, we kept our fingers crossed, all of us wanting the good check-pilot. Every day, the bad instructor washed out this guy or that guy.

It came time for check-ride and sure enough, I got the good one. I thought, this is the first time I’ve lucked out. I went up to kill about thirty minutes before the check-ride. It had rained and the field was partly under water. I came in for landing a bit hot because I wanted to clear the barbed wire fence. When I hit the water, the nose of the plane went down and the tail up. I jumped out and pulled the tail down, hoping no one had seen the mishap.

Suddenly, here comes the ambulances, fire trucks, and that mean instructor pilot. He said, “I’m checking you right now.”

So I said to myself, I’m washed out. He was washing them out for not doing anything wrong. Anyway, I got in, and I had on old flying boots just full of water. My feet were numb. I thought, well, I’m going to show this boy what’s going on.

The old pilots always told us, “Don't let the airplane fly you, you fly it. Hit the rudder, hit the ailerons. Don't let it fly you.” We got airborne and I started a turn and jerked it over sharply.

Everything he asked, I just did it quickly. I had nothing to lose.

When we got down, we walked over to his jeep. He said, “I’ll just tell you one thing, you’re lucky.” Then he drove off.

I thought, well, I didn't know if I was lucky I didn't kill myself, or if I was lucky I passed. I found out later. I had passed. All the other men were stanching because I almost wrecked an airplane, and I had passed. We didn't have any rank then. If you washed out, you were out of the flying program, and usually into the infantry.

We went from there to Twenty-nine Palms, California. BT-15s pulled our gliders, I think. Twenty-nine Palms was a dry lake bed a mile or two long. They towed the glider up to three thousand feet. You pulled the handle and cut loose. The tow plane then went back to get another glider. The minute the glider cut loose, you started descending for a landing. We put in another thirty hours there.

When we finished that training, we went back to Roswell, New Mexico. There we were, three or four thousand of us. Now we were staff sergeants. We pulled our own K.P. and all, but we were nobody, you might say. They didn't know what to do with us. They had too many glider pilots. This was in the latter part of 1942, I think.

They had all these staff sergeants there, so they took the ones who were less than 26 years and six months old. That was the cut-off, as I remember. All of us below that age went to cadets. The older ones stayed in gliders.

I lost my staff sergeant rating when I went into cadets. I was lower than a private there. We went to Santa Anna, California and went through all the tests. Those of us from gliders already had all of the early flight training, so that didn't hold us up. We were only there two or three weeks going through indoctrination. Then we went to King City, California for basic.

For most of the guys there, it was the first time they’d ever been in an airplane. I had about a hundred hours total by then, which was a big advantage. It was a picnic. We checked out in nothing flat. The instructor just turned us loose in the Ryan PT-22.

I felt sorry for those who washed out. They wanted to fly so badly, they’d cry. Some of them only needed a few more hours in the airplane, and they’d have been all right. They just needed a bit more time in the air. Like I said, the instructors were hard on us. They didn't care who they washed out.

Then we went to Chico, California. There, we got some instrument time in the BT-15. I wasn't ahead of any of the other guys then because I’d never had instrument training in gliders. The others were gradually catching up with my experience and the hundred hour advantage I had at the beginning was not so important now. We had a heavier aircraft, so by the time I got to advanced training, these guys who had started with nothing and me with a hundred hours were on the same level. They had enough flight training to be as experienced as I was.

Instrument flying bothered me. All I ever learned in gliders was needle, ball, and airspeed. That’s all there was to cubs and gliders, as far as instruments.

After basic, they gave us a sheet that read, “I want to be a fighter pilot or I want to be a twin-engine bomber pilot, or I want to be a four-engine bomber pilot.” I guess most of them put fighter pilot and a few must have put twin-engine bombers. Nobody wanted four-engine bombers. They wanted something with thrill, I guess. They thought in heavy bombers, you just sat there and rode not doing anything. I found out this was not so.

I’ve always said if I went through that again, I would have marked what I didn't want. It seemed like every time I listed something I wanted, they gave me something else. I know they had to split us up, I just don't know how they did it, or why they did it the way they did.

After basic, I went to Yuma, Arizona for advanced training where I received my silver wings. From there I went to Hobbs, New Mexico to check out in the B-17. I got in that B-17 and looked out the window. I thought there is no way I can fly this thing. I remember the first time I sat in that airplane I wished I had gotten fighters. Only pilots at Hobbs trained. It was called Transitional Training.

After that, we went to Salt Lake City, Utah, to pick up our crew. From there we rode in a cattle car just like livestock back to Pyote, Texas so the crew could train together. We all got back into training on the B-17. The navigator got his training; the bombardier got his, and so forth. All the pilot did was wait for the crew to learn what they each needed to know about the aircraft. The entire crew could not be involved in every flight, so it took some time.

We finished and went to Nebraska where we got our new B-17 airplane. That lasted about a week or two, so I could fly it and check it out before going overseas. As soon as I said the plane was okay, they loaded it chocked full of APO mail for overseas.

We went to New Foundland and stayed overnight there, and they briefed us. This is where the navigator needed to be really sharp. They told us if we landed in Southern Ireland, we’d be delayed for about six months. If we landed in Northern Ireland, we’d be okay. They put a tank in the bomb bays for extra fuel for the crossing. We had no problem going across. Of course, I was hoping the navigator knew his stuff. Up there, closer to the North Pole, magnetic headings are off. The flight lasted 10 or 11 hours.

They took the airplane from us as soon as we arrived. We were just the ferry crew. The ones who put names on the airplanes were probably group commanders. My commander had his own airplane. That’s the only one he flew. He let somebody else fly it one day and it was shot down.

We were in quarantine for a while. Also, they modified the airplane before it could be used in combat. They put armor plate behind the pilot. They removed the extra fuel tank and other things.

We stayed there about two weeks awaiting our assignments. Although we were quarantined, we sneaked out into town. They finally assigned my crew and me to the 303rd Bomb Group. I never saw the airplane I ferried across again.

I remember my first mission. I flew with a pilot who had flown combat before. The mission was to teach me to learn group formation flying. The next mission I flew with my crew. Each day we went to a status board to see which aircraft they had assigned us. Generally we did not have the same aircraft we had flown the previous day. After a mission, most of them had bullet or flack holes, flat tires and all. Every mission was like that. I had to fly thirty-five missions before I could come home.

Mornings before we flew, intelligence officers briefed us about the mission. Then we went by truck to our airplane parked on hardstands. Tents were along the side of the hardstands. We stayed in the tent when the weather was bad until they decided if we would fly that day.

Some old boy, some ball turret gunner, who was not supposed to load the ball turret on the ground was checking his gun. It went off and hit my airplane setting it on fire. Of course, we had all our gear with us, parachutes and all, but they were not on the plane yet. When I heard all that rat, tat, tat, I just fell to the floor. Then, I ran two or three hundred yards over into some trees. After a while, a truck came out and took us back to the barracks.

Most times it was early morning and still dark when we took off, so we staggered our takeoffs. Then we would rendezvous. Every mission was different, some were easy, others were hard. We bombed Berlin on one flight. That was an eight-hour flight. We had some flack over there. As I recall, that time fighters did not bother us too much.

What was so bad for bomber pilots on a deep mission like Munich was that the fighter escorts could only go so far then they had to turn back. They didn't have enough fuel to go any farther. We were on our own. When they got airplanes with more range, then the fighter pilots could penetrate farther and deeper into enemy territory to protect us. Before that, it could get really bad at times.

Those P-38 pilots weren't worth a darn because they would fly right through our formation trying to shake some Luftwaffe fighter off their tail. We could recognize the P-38. They would come through our formation. I don't think they were very maneuverable. Anyway, they were almost as bad as the German fighters, as far as getting in the way.

On one mission, I saw the first jet I had ever seen. It had no propeller. I said to myself, “No way.” I got back and told the intelligence debriefing people about them. We didn't know anything about jets. Word finally got out. Germany had them and perfected them, but they didn't have enough time to train pilots and build the aircraft for them. If Hitler had them earlier in the war, we would have been in deep trouble.

I lost my navigator, a young kid, just as likeable as you could want. He was a Swede from Minnesota. One day another navigator called in sick and they needed a navigator to fill in. Mine volunteered. A lot of them did extra flights because the quicker their missions were completed, the sooner they could go home. He was lost on that mission. I really hated it, because he was one of my nicest crewmembers.

Well, I got mine on a secondary target. When the weather was bad over one target, we had secondary targets. We dropped our bomb load on the lead plane’s command. When he dropped, we did. It would have been all right, I guess, because I wasn't hit the first time over the target. Nevertheless, the lead plane for some reason couldn't find the toggle switch and didn't drop, so my bombardier didn't drop either.

The Germans were shooting at us as usual. Flack was very heavy and thick. They had our altitude the second time around. Our commander did a 360-degree turn and came around back on the same heading, same altitude, back to that same target. We didn't get hit, but my wingman did. It broke right in half.

German artillery set those antiaircraft shells to go off at a certain altitude. Sometimes we would see a Luftwaffe aircraft a ways off, flying at the same altitude and we knew he was radioing back our altitude. They would set those shells to that altitude. The shells would explode where we were flying. Shrapnel went everywhere. Besides, making two runs over the same target gives defenders two chances to get you.

I was in the formation going back over the target, and I got hit in the tail. I didn't know what hit me. The guy flying behind me said that everything just exploded. My tail gunner was blown out and he did not survive. It took most of my aircraft’s tail section off.

I had ailerons, no rudder, no brakes, and a little bit of elevator. I lost oxygen, but I was still flying so I fell out of formation. We were just across the English Channel, so I wasn't worried about German fighter aircraft. I could fly the airplane, but I couldn't trim it up. When I took my hands off the wheel, the aircraft would start to bank. With only ailerons and some elevator, I flew across the Channel.

There was an emergency field just a few miles away, but I had already decided that I couldn't land that airplane. I had all the crew bail out and told the co-pilot to go ahead. He wanted to try to land the airplane. He wasn't flying it, so he didn't realize the shape it was in. I told him, “If you kill yourself, you’re a damn fool, and if you make it, you’re a hero.” Then I told him, “There are a lot of dead heroes.” He bailed out.

They told us in training ‘when in doubt, bail out.’ I radioed those limeys and they said, “Head it out to sea.” Well, there wasn't any way to head that aircraft anywhere.

I wanted to land that airplane more than anything in the world, so I kept checking it and checking it. I was up some six thousand feet, and I’d slow it down and try to control it. I had no control; the rudder pedal went right to the floor. There was no way to trim the aircraft.

I would get it flying the best I could, then I would start back to the back to bail out. When I let go of the controls, the airplane would start to bank. I made several attempts to get out before I succeeded.

I pulled the rip-cord and looked around and you know, that airplane was circling me! Those four engines were running. I had to leave them running to stabilize the airplane so I could get out. I thought those props were going to get into my shroud lines. I was just lucky it went down faster than I did. After it got below me, I quit worrying.

I watched it all the way to the ground. I heard that it hit a barn and killed a guy’s cows. When I got down so low, it was out of sight, but I could see the explosion.

I landed in a plowed field. They had taught us that just before you hit the ground, turn where you would hit facing forward. I grabbed the shroud lines and managed to turn forward. Before I hit the ground, I had started turning back and landed backwards. I finally figured I was all right. I took that parachute over and hid it in an old rotten tree, but when I went back to get it, it was gone. The supply people were hard on those who lost a parachute, because silk was so expensive. I believe they would rather lose an airplane than a parachute. The supply people gave me a hard time about that.

I had no idea where my crew was, nor where I was. I walked to a highway and thumbed some old boy down to ask where I was and where the closest airfield was. There was an American airfield four or five miles away. I made it there and they sent an airplane to pick me up. Finally, we all got back to the base. One of my gunners went through a roof. They thought he was from Mars, or some such.

England had barrage balloons up for the buzz bombs, I think. They were mostly around London. I flew into those balloons once when I was about to run out of fuel. I flew in and out of those things and finally landed at a Spitfire base. They had metal PSP taxiways that would handle the weight of our B-17. We stayed overnight there. They gassed me up, and we took off the next day.

Mission planners tried to figure out just how much gas we would need on any particular mission. If you got shot up, those rubber gas tanks were not supposed to leak, but they did.

In another episode, we were taking off in breaking daylight, and I had just got airborne when one of my crewmen called, “Lt. Hallum, we’re leaking gas pretty bad from the left wing!” Fire was coming from the exhaust of the engines. I looked out and saw fuel all over the place. I cut the throttles and settled back to the runway. We went over to the end of the overrun. It didn't hurt the airplane, but we were in the boondocks.

What had happened when they gassed that airplane was that they had not put the cap back on the tank. The low pressure of the airflow over the wing sucked the gas out.

We sat there while the other planes were taking off, right overhead, low. They took us back and gave us another airplane.


1Lt Bert Hallum shows his
"35th Mission Completed" grin.
Another thing I remember is when you’re flying formation; you’re looking right into the tail gunner’s position of the aircraft above and in front of you. You could see the twin 50-calibers and the tail gunner. He’d be nodding off. I always hoped he didn't have a dream or somebody yell “bandits” and he’d wake up and start shooting. That bothered me. Of course, those tail gunners, with nothing to do, would doze.

In the guns, every fifth round was a tracer. They finally stopped it. Tracers were to help the gunner with his lead on the target. I’m not sure it helped. The same is true with the bombs. I’m not certain we hit all the targets. But we must have hit a few because we won the war.

Koln, Germany, and Munich. (LOOKING AT HIS LOG) 9 July 1944 was my first mission. About 40 or 50 men lived in a barracks there, all officers, all assigned to the 360th squadron and we flew different days. This one old boy would kiss the picture of his wife every morning when he got up. I didn't fly that day. That evening, there weren't ten people who came back to the barracks. All the rest were shot down. So then came all new people, reassigned to our squadron. In four days they filled the barracks.

The last time I flew was November 10, 1944. In about five months I completed my tour.

The colonel over there was from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and he retired out of the service as a two star general. I saw him the other day. He flew seventy missions and was over there for three years.

I told the Colonel, “I didn't think I was going to get through.”

He said, “Bert, I didn't think you were going to make it, either.”

I said, “That was the way war was, but I made it.”

I was promoted to Captain after I came back.

When I got back, they wanted to make an instructor out of me. I told them that I didn't think I had the patience to be an instructor. I asked them what else they had to offer. They told me either helicopters or PBYs. I told them I’d take either one.

They gave me PBYs. They cut orders, and I went to Corpus Christi, Texas, to the Navy for our water training. The Air Corps used amphibious aircraft; the navy used water landing aircraft only at that time. The amphibious had wheels which folded up into the side of the airplane. We had to take the water training with the Navy. Then they assigned us to Biloxi, Mississippi at Keesler AFB, the Army Air Force Rescue School. At Keesler we got amphibious training and some land training, also. We’d take off from an airport and then land on water. We flew the OA-10A, which was an Army version.

Water take-offs were fairly simple. We would just turn loose of the controls on the water and it headed into the wind. On calm water, it was sometimes harder to take off because of the surface tension of the water. On choppy water it was easier. We’d just rock the stick a bit.

One interesting thing about a water landing is we’d buzz the tower so they could check to see if our landing gear doors were closed. Sometimes we’d come really close. Those airplanes had beds on them. They would only fly about 105 miles per hour, but you could fly 10 or 12 hours. You could take a nap on those planes. I have a commercial pilot multi-engine license for land and sea. You seldom see the both together anymore.

I stayed at Biloxi until they assigned me to the 1375th at Manchester, NJ in the Air Transport Command. I was at Keesler from May 11, 1945 to June 30, 1945.

One of our classmates was flying with an instructor and they crashed, killing both. They nosed over on landing and the airplane broke up. Pieces were all over the beach. His wife would walk the beach picking up pieces of the airplane that floated up. (Or things she thought were parts of the airplane.) She went out of her mind. She would see parts of that airplane where there were none. Still, after they recovered all the pieces, she would find something and think it was part of the airplane in which her husband died.

This period of time was full of tragedies. As another example, I remember going in the USO at Bedford, England one evening. I saw this guy coming out. He looked familiar. They told me he was Glenn Miller. Later he was killed on a flight to Paris. It was just a short hop across the channel. War was like that.

R-E-S-T-R-I-C-T-E-D

CITATION TO ACCOMPANY AWARD OF THE
DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS

HALLUM, BERTRAND 9NMI0, JR., 0-760833, First Lieutenant, Air Corps, United States Army. For extraordinary achievement while serving as Pilot of a B-17 airplane on a bombardment mission over enemy territory, 27 August 1944. Approximately five seconds after bombs away, an 88mm shell exploded in the tail of the aircraft which Lieutenant Hallum was piloting and blew the tail gunner, tail guns, tail gunner’s section, lower section of the rudder, and section of the elevators adjacent to the rudder completely off the aircraft. The aircraft started down toward the ground but by skillful manipulation of the controls, Lieutenant Hallum regained control. The shell also destroyed the oxygen supply to the waist and radio compartment and Lieutenant Hallum was forced to descend to a lower altitude. Although the slightest deviation from straight and level flight caused the aircraft to perform unpredictable movements, Lieutenant Hallum, demonstrating superior ability and coordination, effected decent and maintained control of the aircraft. Employing consummate flying skill, he started the return flight to the English Coast. Once over England, Lieutenant Hallum ordered his crew to bail out but he did not leave the aircraft until he experimented with every possible method of controlling it at landing speed. Finally, he was forced to abandon the idea of landing and turning the airplane out to sea, and he parachuted to safety. The courage, coolness and tenacity of purpose displayed by Lieutenant Hallum reflect the highest credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United States. Lieutenant Hallum entered military serving from Arkansas.