Also shown is a 1943 MP-40 submachine gun.
By the early spring of 1945, the end of the war in Europe was in sight. The Battle of the Bulge was over and Russian troops were pushing towards Berlin. But the fighting continued on the ground and in the air. Our story this month is typical of thousands of others: a young married couple, deeply in love and separated forever by the war. As with so many, much of their romance was conducted by mail. Army Air Force Lt. Jennis “Jack” Strickland was a B-24 pilot attached to the 445th Bomb Group, 2nd Air Division, 8th Air Force, stationed at Tibenham AFB in England. His wife, Kitty, was at home with their young son, Jennis III, with another baby on the way. They had met as teenagers in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 1938 and were married on September 1, 1941. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Jack enlisted and eventually was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant and sent to fly B-24s. Kitty dutifully followed him from base to base through his training until he was shipped overseas in September of 1944. In the final days before they left, Kitty and Jack managed to see each other briefly, each time not saying goodbye “just in case”. When Jack and his crew sailed for Europe aboard the Ile de France, she was pregnant with their second child. Kitty stayed at home with her infant son and found employment in the Washington, D.C. area to assist in the war effort. Her book is a reflection of so many young couples whose lives were unforgettably and often permanently changed by the winds of war.
Jack immediately began flying regular missions out of England and keeping up a steady correspondence with Kitty until a fateful day in the twilight of the war. He was closing in on the magic number of missions to earn his rotation home when his unit was reorganized and he became a member of a lead crew, formed to consolidate equipment and resources in a single squadron.
The 445th was assigned to participate in support of Operation Varsity, a major allied airborne campaign in late March of 1945. U.S. and British airborne troops were dropped into central Germany to cut off retreating Nazi forces. The 445th was tasked to conduct extremely low-level supply drops (at 300-foot altitude) using the spacious cargo capacity of their B-24s. This low level put them at risk of even small arms fire from enemy ground forces. It also meant that if the bombers were hit, there would be no chance for crews to bail out. One plane returned with burned tree branches in its engine cooling fins, the result of hitting treetops in an effort to escape ground fire. Because of the heavy loads they carried and the low altitude, the planes were also stripped of .50 caliber machine guns. Two crews from the 27 sent from Tibenham were lost that day. Jack Strickland, who had the unit’s deputy base commander, Col. Carl Fleming, flying as his co-pilot, piloted one of them.
In 1998, Jack’s widow, Kitty Strickland Shore (she remarried in 1950), published a memoir titled “Red Roses and Silver Wings”. It is an often entertaining, sometimes poignant book much of which is comprised of the accounts of their early months of marriage, the letters she exchanged with Jack when he went overseas and her life after his loss. The final moments of his life were shared by none other than the Varnum Continental’s own Tom Campbell who was flying as the co-pilot of a B-24 immediately behind Jack’s aircraft.
It was conveyed in a letter he sent to Kitty when she was writing her memoir. Tom expressed the hope that his words would not open up any old wounds as he recalled the traumatic events of that day describing the loss of Jack’s plane but also saying that he hoped it would help to explain the role that Jack played in the mission’s overall success. Here is the story (edited for brevity) in Tom’s own words:
“On the mission we were leading the whole 2nd Air Division of 240 B-24s … your husband was Deputy Head (piloting the second aircraft in the formation) with Lt. Col. Fleming, designated to take over should anything happen to the lead ship … it was a nice spring day and (we flew) over France without any worry about anti-aircraft guns … the lead ship had to be at the lowest altitude and all following aircraft few above so no one would run into the leader’s supply drop… We were at tree-top level to allow reasonable drop altitude for the following flights … as we approached the designated drop area we could see a tremendous line of men and equipment all heading … towards the Rhine River … Suddenly two tall radio towers appeared (through the smoke) directly in our flight path. The supporting guy wires left very little room to maneuver … at very low altitude. I recall slipping through with one wing low to avoid the guy wires. At this point we were flying directly behind Lt. Strickland … We could feel the plane rise as we dropped the 5,000 pounds of supplies … All we had to do was make a right turn, and bank across the river (to head for home) … As we went around the back side of (a large) hill we encountered a large concentration of German infantry. All the troops began firing their rifles at the aircraft … Suddenly, out of nowhere these came up to Lt. Strickland … The(ir) slow speed and color looked like something from a Roman Candle … I could not see any fire or damage to the engines … without any indication of trouble the nose of the ship went down slowly and they flew into the ground with all engines running… Upon impact the ship exploded in a tremendous fireball high in the air … We were so close, we flew directly through the fireball … After the mission briefing, we learned of one other aircraft lost from our flight … our overall losses (that day were) 25 aircraft out of 240. This was the biggest operation since D-Day and the last major combined effort of the war … this was the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me in all my years of flying. I can never forget what happened even to the last detail.”
Ironically, Jack’s brother was an infantry lieutenant on the ground and witnessed his brother’s plane crash, but did not know it was Jack’s aircraft. Kitty learned of her husband’s death through her mother-in-law who had been sent the government’s notification telegram. At the time, Kitty did not have a permanent address because of the wartime housing shortage.
On May 20, 1945, Kitty gave birth to a little girl (named Lynne Murray Strickland) at the Walter Reed Army Hospital. Jack’s best friend, Army Lt. Harold Holland was home on leave. He visited her and brought a dozen red roses to the hospital. He told her that Jack had asked him to bring her the roses if he was not able to be present when their baby was born. Sadly, because of government regulations at the time, Kitty’s military benefits were sharply cut off right after her daughter’s birth. She began her post-war life on her own as a widow with two young children as did many other young women of the time. In the spirit of the greatest generation, Kitty soldiered on and eventually told her story in her book.
Jack was buried at the military cemetery in Maargarten, Holland at Kitty’s request. He was 22 when he died and Kitty a year younger. Speaking of her late husband in the final pages of her book, Kitty wrote:
“He had known love. He had sired two children. He had realized just who he was and recognized his own strengths and weaknesses. He had found his God … He had lived his life with integrity and kindness and he thoroughly believed in the cause for which he gave his life … I believe he had done what God put him here to do…”
Kitty remarried in 1950 to Navy veteran Francis “Frank” Shore, 11 years her senior. Frank had served in the war as an officer aboard the destroyer USS Barton. At the time, he had a young son about the same age as Kitty’s. Together they had three more children and, eventually, a total of fourteen grandchildren. Frank died in 1987. Kitty had the opportunity to visit England shortly before she wrote her book in 1998 (a project she undertook at the request of her children). With one of her adult granddaughters, she visited Tibenham and saw the remains of her late husband’s wartime landing field.
She ended her book with these words:
“In my mind I saw the young American airmen rushing to the B-24s that were lined up on the runways, ready to start another mission. I could picture Jack, sitting in the cockpit, checking instruments, his mind on the job that lay ahead. As he glanced out the window he saw exactly what I was seeing then. I felt his presence and had the distinct impression that, at that moment, he was watching his granddaughter and me and was pleased.”
On April 25th, Jack’s outfit, less than a month after the Operation Varsity mission, the 445th flew their 280th and last mission of the war. With the surrender of Germany on May 7th, 1945, everyone’s thought turned to going home. Some would continue the fight in the Pacific while others would return home to friends and family. The 445th flew a total of 70 missions in 1945. Unit histories and personal accounts consistently record the mission in Operation Varsity as the worst of them all.
We were honored to have Tom Campbell as a fellow Varnum Continental and mourned his passing in August of last year. Following World War II, Tom had continued to serve his country in the Air Reserve and Air Guard, retiring in 1977 with the rank of Lt. Colonel. His family recently graciously donated numerous pieces of Tom’s military memorabilia to the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum.
Here’s an interesting new addition to the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum‘s World War II collection: a 1941 Soviet-made Model TT-33 “Tokarev” pistol. Known for its rugged and reliable design, this pistol (chambered in 7.62 x 25mm) was developed in the 1930s by Fedor Tokarev to replace the aging Model 1895 Nagant revolver. The pistol saw widespread use during World War II by the Soviet Union, our ally against the Axis powers of Germany and Japan.
The TT-33 was eventually replaced by the 9mm Makarov pistol in the mid-1950s, but it continued to see widespread use up to present day by other communist nations such as the People’s Republic of China and North Korea.
The black-and-white picture shows Soviet officer Alexey Yeremenko leading his men into combat against the Germans in World War II, armed with a Tokarev TT-33. He was reportedly killed minutes after this photo was taken.
The Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive of World War II, was launched just over 73 years ago. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it, “undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.”
Our January speaker, Mr. Ernest Roberts, was a staff sergeant during World War II. A machine gunner, he fought and was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. He will share his wartime combat experience with us at the January meeting.
Interestingly, the Varnum Armory Museum has a Browning .30 Cal machine gun in its collection, the same type of gun Mr. Roberts used in combat.
Please join us for this very special evening on Monday, January 9. Reservations must be received by 5 pm Friday, January 6. Call Scott Seaback at 401-413-6277 or email him at email@example.com.
TIME: 5:30 p.m. (social hour); 6:30 p.m. (dinner followed by program)
LOCATION: Varnum Memorial Armory Museum, 6 Main St, East Greenwich, RI, 02818.
By the time the Japanese launched their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago this month, Rhode Island had already been gearing up for America’s potential entry into World War II. At the mouth of Narragansett Bay and along the shoreline facing ocean waters, the Army’s massive coast defense forts were manned primarily by members of the Rhode Island’s National Guard 243rd Coast Artillery Regiment, which had been called up to Federal service in 1940 as part of the Harbor Defense Command (Company I, the Searchlight Battery, had been stationed at the Varnum Memorial Armory). Coast defense installations would soon be operational from Watch Hill to Little Compton, supporting similar installations along the Eastern Seaboard.
The U.S. Navy had maintained a massive presence in Rhode Island for many years, and a beneficiary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s preparedness initiatives was the massive pre-war expansion that included the Quonset Point Naval Air Station, new facilities at the Naval Operating Base in Newport and the Torpedo Station, the Naval Construction Battalion facility at Davisville, the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center at Melville, and auxiliary naval airfields in Charlestown and Westerly. The Navy would train hundreds of thousands of men and women at these facilities during the war.
The U.S. Army Air Force took over Hillsgrove State Airport in April of 1942 and trained fighter pilots there throughout the war. Also early on in the conflict, the Harbor Defense Command completed the construction of Fort Varnum and Fort Greene (the latter one of two sites for massive 16-inch naval gun batteries capable of hurling a 1-ton projectile some 25 miles out to sea. A second 16-inch battery was built at Fort Church in Little Compton). An integrated fire control and observation system along the coast and on Block Island controlled all the state’s coast defenses.
Almost immediately, Rhode Island’s coastline was sealed off to civilians. The military, along with civilian volunteers, patrolled the beaches. Blackouts soon went into effect as far north as Woonsocket and were strictly enforced. Meanwhile, the state’s industries, recovering from the devastating impact of the Great Depression years, continued their rapid changeover from manufacture of peacetime goods to supplying the tools of war from anti-aircraft guns, to Liberty ships and patrol boats, uniforms, rubber products, and so much more. Civilian workers rallied to the cause, including thousands of women who entered the work force in traditionally male jobs.
We’ve shared stories of the Liberty ships built in Providence and the secret listening post at Chopmist Hill in previous editions of the Varnum News. In future columns, we’ll weave a few tales about harbor defenses, PT boats, torpedoes, and other aspects of our state’s contributions to the war effort. But this month, here’s the story of Block Island’s role in the war.
The state’s populace was reeling with the news of Pearl Harbor by the end of the day on Sunday, December 7, 1941. Military bases were under high alert around the state, and the civilian population was worried about sneak attacks by … well, whoever might try (Germany was already sinking ships along our coast and on December 11, would join Italy and Japan in the war against the U.S). There would be instances of sabotage during the war as well. Our own Block Island, 8 miles from the closest point on the mainland, is actually at the greatest distance from the mainland or other islands, than any other town on the Atlantic coast. In the minds of some state and Federal officials, that put the island’s residents in jeopardy.
On December 8, an officer from the First Army Command (which covered New England) landed on Block Island and went straight to the home of William Doggett, who in 1928 had built a handsome stone cottage and tower on Beacon Hill, the island’s highest point. Doggett was told to move his family out immediately. The army was taking over the property for the duration. Six years would pass before they were to return home.
The Army wanted Beacon Hill as one of a series of six sites for eight observation towers to support the massive 16-inch gun batteries on the Rhode Island coast. Heavy caliber weapons were also in place on Fishers Island in Connecticut and Montauk Point on Long Island. The huge 16-inch weapons, originally intended for use on battleships that the U.S. Navy never built as a result of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, were being brought out of storage for coast defense. The guns could send a shell the size of a small automobile high over Block Island and some 25 miles out to sea well beyond the current site of the wind farm off Mohegan Bluffs (the USS Massachusetts in Fall River is armed with the same size main batteries). Their combined ranges could cover an arc from Martha’s Vineyard across the eastern end of Long Island.
The Doggett House with its stone tower was ready made. The Army soon built a concrete observation post disguised as a cottage adjacent to the Doggett house and completed a total of eight structures, all designed to look like summer cottages, at key points ringing the island’s coastline. Similar examples can be found today at the National Guard’s Camp Varnum in Narragansett: wood shingled on one side with 12- inch thick concrete walls facing the ocean. These fire control points were equipped with Depression Position Finders, sophisticated telescopes that could measure the distance and compass angle of any targeted ship. The information would be communicated to the Harbor Entrance Command Post at the tip of Beavertail, the Narragansett Bay Defense Command Headquarters at #Fort Adams#, and ultimately to the Army’s Regional Command Center on Governors Island in New York harbor.
In 1940, the Army had built four 40-foot by 100-foot barracks north of the Weather Bureau at New Harbor. But they were never occupied. After the war, they were sold and the owners converted them into rental apartments and a bait shop. The small numbers of Army personnel assigned to observation duty were housed in the cottages attached to the fire control posts. The Navy converted the Pier 76 Yacht Club near Champlin’s Pier into a barracks and used it during the war.
None of Rhode Island’s coast defenses were ever fired against an enemy. They were test fired several times during the war, including the 16-inch battery at Fort Greene, much to the dismay of people living the vicinity and the Block Islanders who lived under the test shells’ trajectories. (The 16-inch battery located at Fort Church in Sakonnet was never fired.) Eventually, as the threat of invasion disappeared, smaller anti-boat and anti-aircraft weapon were installed along the coastline to replace the large caliber guns.
In World War I, the Navy had maintained a significant presence on Block Island, with some 350 sailors and nurses. The old Narragansett Inn overlooking the Great Salt Pond served as headquarters. Sailors lived in tent camps, and several other buildings were taken over for various purposes and several small caliber harbor defense batteries were installed. The Navy stationed a squadron of anti-submarine patrol vessels in New Harbor throughout the war.
But when World War II came around, there were no similar plans in place. The Army and Navy’s huge presence on the mainland was considered sufficient. However, the State Defense Council in its wisdom decided that the island’s 671 residents should be evacuated. They came calling in January of 1942 and met with island officials who were adamant in their opposition to evacuation. As far as defenses were concerned, they retorted they were quite capable of enforcing a blackout from the island’s central power station. They had more volunteers for firefighting and beach patrol than needed (besides, the Coast Guard also provided an armed coastal patrol force). If any Germans tried to land on the island, said the residents, the Navy could be there by air in minutes and by sea pretty fast as well.
The mainland bureaucrats were getting more frustrated by the minute with these hard-boiled Yankees. Finally, they tried to convince the residents’ committee they might starve on the island. Not a problem. The islanders could feed themselves and live off the bounty of the surrounding ocean, thank you very much. As one grizzled islander pointed out, “you can’t trap lobsters or dig clams on Westminster Street (in Providence).” In the end, the Block Islanders viewed evacuation as running away, something they hadn’t done since the first settlers arrived in the 1600s.
The meeting ended and the state officials were sent home on the next boat. On January 28, 1942, the General Assembly passed a resolution congratulating the islanders on their bravery and their patriotism. And that was the last said about evacuation.
A number of fishermen served as volunteer observers, keeping watch for enemy submarines in nearby waters during the war. Ninety-five Block Islanders fought for their country. Only one man, Albert Gooley, was killed in action when his destroyer was sunk in 1944. We’ve told you the story of the two U.S. Navy escort carriers that bore the name USS Block Island. The first was sunk in the Atlantic; the second served through the end of the war in the Pacific. Her ships bell is enshrined in Veteran’s Park near New Harbor.
The closest the island came to the ravages of the war came in May of 1945. Rhode Island’s coast defense facilities were already in caretaker status when, on the day before Germany surrendered, Navy and Coast Guard ships sunk the U-853 7 miles east of Block Island, a well-known piece of local history. Ironically, it was sonar that assisted in the destruction of the U-853, and not the island’s fire control stations.
So what happened to the Block Island observation sites? After the war, the Doggetts returned to their home. Rather than go through a lot of red tape, the Doggetts settled for keeping the observation post and cottage the army had built on their property and restored the old cottage themselves. Of the eight observation posts constructed during the war on the island, only four (including the Doggett’s tower and the Army-built cottage) remain today. All are private homes. The Doggett’s stone cottage still stands proudly on the highest point on the island, its panoramic view now somewhat marred by a McMansion that was built in 2004 right on the coastline in front of it.