In Their Own Words #1: Eleven Stories For Veterans DayLt Col Roger Ihle, USAF Reserves (ret.), served in World War II primarily in the Mediterranean theater and, after being recalled to duty in 1951, during the Cold War until his retirement in 1961. He was involved in many of the pioneering efforts in the practical deployment of electronic-warfare systems and tactics.
I was called up to report for duty on February 28, 1941. “Eat your breakfast before you come,” the letter read. We were run through a physical exam, and those that passed were put on a bus and sent to the 35th Infantry Division at Fort T. Joseph Robinson near Little Rock, Arkansas. The whole group of about 60 men was assigned to the anti-tank company.
Our training covered everything from the firing range to 20-mile marches to navigating the backroads of the Ozarks at night without lights. Soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the division packed up and headed for Seattle, Washington, to embark for the Aleutian island where the Japanese had already landed. While loading the ships, I received orders to report to Fort Scott AFB in East Saint Louis to attend communications school and get a commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Corps.
I found the school easy except for learning Morse code. Some of the class could do 65 words per minute, but they had been ham-radio operators. I had difficulty telling the difference between the dots and dashes, but I did graduate. After completing communications school, I was selected to go to Harvard and MIT in Boston for the top-secret radar school run by the Air Force and Navy. Our classroom and lab were in an old warehouse down in the dock area, near where Old Ironsides was moored.
Upon completion of this course, four of us were selected to go to Boca Raton AFB for training in what is now called electronic warfare. At the time, it was called radar countermeasures and was top secret. We were the second group to attend this school. They didn’t know what to teach us, so we learned a little about electronic jamming and searching for and logging electronic signals. Upon completion of the course, Matt Slavin, a fellow officer, and I were volunteered to do aerial electronic reconnaissance in the Mediterranean Sea area.
Nobody knew anything about aerial reconnaissance, so we were pretty much on our own. Slavin and I were sent to Radio Research Labs in Boston to learn about what equipment we would have and what would be coming later on. We didn’t have any antennas for pinpointing enemy radar sites. Radio Research Labs outfitted us with a short-wave Halicrafter receiver and some lab models of high-frequency receivers. These were not reliable, as we found out. After three weeks of training, we packed up and went off to Wright-Patterson AFB to meet up with our crew, which was one of the last of the enlisted crews to come from the courts that had given them the choice of the Air Force or jail.
From Wright-Patterson, we flew to various air bases to show off the equipment to generals and other interested dignitaries, since electronic reconnaissance was new and we were the first B-17 to be equipped. After a stop at Andrews AFB, we went to Salina, Kansas, for overseas processing and checked our aircraft for overseas flight. Our rear door had gotten bent and a hinge broken. The base supply would not give us a new door since we were not attached to any squadron. Our crew employed their civilian “skills” and obtained a new door by midnight requisition. This procedure was used all the way to North Africa for getting parts for the plane.
I flew out of an operating base in Algeria. The officers were billeted in a commandeered house and the men in a tent village. The tents were heated by a 50-gallon barrel half full of sand. Aviation gas was dripped on the sand and lit. Every so often, a tent would go up in flames. One month during the winter, the tent village used more gas than the aircraft.
We kept up a program of flying low-level night recon to map the German radar sites. We decided to fly at 500 feet from five to 10 miles off the coastline. If we weren’t getting too many radar signals, we would go up to several thousand feet and get the enemy radar to track us. Since we didn’t have directional antennas, we recorded signal strengths and frequencies. The navigator would keep a good plot of our course and the time between checkpoints. My partner, Matt Slavin, and I always had our watches synched to the navigator’s. The navigator turned his log over to me after a mission, and it was my job to plot the course and log the signal strengths and frequencies. We would send this information up to the 15th AF headquarters. If they wished to pinpoint the radar site, they would send out recon planes to photograph the area and get an exact location. This was needed if they wished to attack the radar site and knock it out.
After flying several night recon missions without anything more serious than being fired on by our Navy ships as we broke out of a morning fog bank and landing with all fuel-warning lights on, I was set up to go with the bombers on a daylight mission. I would be flying with the 97th bomb group, so I moved over to their base and installed a receiver in one of their ships. We had an early morning briefing, so we were routed out at four o’clock in the morning to eat and attend. Our target was to be the railway yards at the seaport city of Marseilles, France. Due to bad weather, we were stood down and would try the next morning. We were off bright and early, and after forming up into squadrons, the whole group set out across Mediterranean Sea.
Guns were cleared and checked out over the sea, and we began our ascent to our bombing altitude of 30,000 feet, where it was minus 60 degrees. The B-17G was an unheated, non-pressurized aircraft with 13 .50-caliber machine guns in various mounts and turrets. To combat the cold, we wore flight clothes of fleece-lined leather and covered our faces with a pressurized oxygen mask. As we neared the coastline, we could see the enemy fighters circling over the shore, waiting for us. As we came in, they attacked. We had some replacement airmen on our crew, and they forgot to leave a cartridge in the gun chamber after the check firing. The firing of this cartridge would break the frozen machine gun loose, and then it would feed and fire properly. It is an awful feeling to see a fighter coming at you with guns firing and no one firing back.
As soon as we reached our initial point at which the bomb run started, the fighters would leave us and go around to meet us after we came off the target. It was during the bomb run, from the initial point to bomb release, that we took a beating from flak. For 10 to 12 minutes, we had to fly straight and level so the bombardier could get the aircraft lined up on the target to drop the bombs accurately. The German anti-aircraft guns turned the sky black with bursting shells. The B-17 on our wing took a hit and went down. We saw five chutes opening. All this time, I was busy logging the German Würzburg frequencies.
After bomb release, we turned south and headed for the sea. The fighters made one more pass but left us as soon as we were out to sea. German fighters rarely followed the bombers out over the water. They didn’t have good air-sea rescue units. Then the checkup began to see how much battle damage we had received and the number of parachutes seen. Several aircraft were flying on fewer than four engines. The aircraft I was in had only some minor flak damage. I found one little flak hole entrance and traced it through to its exit point. A string between the two holes showed it had gone right under my face. I was sitting at the radio-operator seat logging in radar signals. The radio operator had been busy firing his .50-caliber machine gun out the window and showering me with links and hot shell casings. Going into combat is no fun.
The 19- to 25-year-old men were equal to the job and repeated these bombing attacks day after day. If you lived through 25 missions, you could be rotated back to the States to train another crew.
Between flying with bombers and single-ship, low-level recon missions, I got my 25 missions in. Instead of being rotating home, I was rotated to the 15th Air Force Headquarters Operations under Deputy Commander General Charles Born. My duty was to introduce and use counter-radar services in the 15th AF’s bombers to try to reduce flak losses.
As the radar-countermeasures officer for the 15th AF, I was involved in developing some procedures and equipment to confuse the German Würzburg gun-laying radar so it wouldn’t be accurate. When the tunable radar jammers became available, we installed three in each bomber and trained the radio operators on how to find the German radar frequencies and then tune the jammer to cover the signals. The Germans countered by varying their radar frequencies. Our operators took great pride in being able to follow the signal and jam it. We had been able to reconstruct a German Würzburg gun-laying radar set to train the operators at the Foggia, Italy, airfield complex (the Allied drive had advanced well into Italy by this time). We installed about 5,000 tunable jammers.
At the same time we were installing jammers, we also installed chaff dispensers. Chaff packets were packed into a dispenser and could be mechanically released when needed. The wind stream around the bomber opened the package, and the clouds of chaff drifted to earth, masking the radar signal of the bomber. This system of dispensing chaff left the leading edge of the bomber group exposed, so we needed to find a way of dispensing chaff ahead of the bombers. The Headquarters grapevine carried our problem and produced a possible solution.
The propaganda officer told me about a bomb they used to distribute leaflets. We thought it would be possible to have fighters drop chaff ahead of the lead bombers. After some satisfactory test drops from a borrowed barrage balloon, General Born drew up the necessary orders authorizing the chaff bombs to be assembled and deployed for combat. We had a flight of six P-38s at 35,000 feet ahead of the bombers flying at 30,000 feet or so. The bomber crews reported that German gunners shot into the chaff-bomb bursts, and the tactic became standard operating procedure.
Another electronic-warfare idea we put into use was monitoring radio frequencies of German aircraft. German-speaking airmen were trained to listen to German frequencies for various German code words. When the monitor would hear the German control tower sending up fighters, word was conveyed to the bombers to close up formation to concen trate firepower. The monitors also listened to the fighters forming up to attack and could often warn the bombers when and from where the interceptors would come. This information was also relayed to the escorting flights so they knew where to look for enemy fighters.
Another way we used our reconnaissance of enemy radar was directed at German fighters in the area of Rimini, Italy. These fighters constantly harassed the bombers flying up the Adriatic Sea to bomb targets in Austria and Hungary, so in one of our operational planning sessions, we proposed a plan to General Born, who accepted it. We began coordinating with the planning navigator to coordinate the different speeds and altitudes that would be flown. The bombers would follow normal procedure. The escort fighters would be deployed at wavetop height, under the German radar coverage, and about 30 minutes ahead of the bombers. The American fighter pilots caught the German Luftwaffe at Rimini taxiing to takeoff. Aircraft were shot up going down the runway, in the air, and on the ground. The American pilots returned to their bases doing barrel rolls to celebrate their victories.
The same procedure was followed on the next mission, but few enemy aircraft were found. Reconnaissance photos taken a few days later showed only broken and burned aircraft at Rimini. The field had been abandoned. Electronic warfare does pay off. The Luftwaffe would not attack our bombers going to the target — at least not from that base.