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John Keema's Baptism of Fire

Three Days in October

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[Annotator’s Note: The interview begins with John Keema telling the interviewer about how not flying the Regensburg mission probably saved his life because the guy who took his place got shot down.] John Keema was born and raised in the Sacramento, California area. He was born on 22 January 1922 and lived most of his life in Sacramento until he joined the Air Force. In March of 1942, Keema enlisted in the Air Force as a private on inactive status. On 6 June, he was called to active duty and sent to Santa Ana as an aviation cadet for preflight training. Flying was a popular thing. There were a lot of 2nd Lieutenants running around his area. Flying was very popular nationally too, not just in his part of California. On 8 December [Annotator’s Note: 1941] war had been declared. Keema and his friends tried to join one of the flying services. They tried the Marine Corps, the Navy, and the Air Corps. At the time the military required two years of college to get into aviation cadet training and Keema only had a year and a half. Keema and his friends even tried going to Oakland to join the RCAF [Annotator’s Note: Royal Canadian Air Force], but were turned down due to citizenship issues. When the educational requirements were dropped to only needing a high school education, Keema applied. He took the exams and was accepted into the Air Corps and sent to Santa Ana. Keema and some friends had been skiing on Mount Rose in Nevada after a friend’s wedding and were walking back to their car when they were told about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At first they did not believe what they had heard. When they got into the car they learned that it was true. Keema and his friends first joked about them all having to go into the service, but it did not take long for them to realize the gravity of the situation. The following day they all tried to join the military. It was a little bit of a surprise that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor even though there had been a lot of political tension. Keema enlisted on 16 March 1942 and was called up 6 June 1942 to go to preflight. When he told his mother that he had tried to get into the Marines and RCAF she cried, but he reassured her that he was going to be alright. After he finally enlisted, she felt a little better about it. She knew it was inevitable; either he enlisted or he would be drafted.

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John Keema’s preflight training was essentially basic training and consisted of a lot of classroom work, marching, PT [Annotator’s Note: physical training], aircraft recognition, and learning how the service operates. They also trained with a rifle and .45 PT [Annotator’s Note: 45-caliber pistol]. They did not train on the machine guns until later. They also learned some basic aeronautics. They were then tested to determine if they would be going to pilot school, navigation school, or bombardier school from there. Keema initially went to pilot training, but washed out after just a few days. He could not land an airplane. He was sent back to Santa Ana and put into bombardier training. On 1 January 1943, Keema arrived in Albuquerque for bombardier training. There they took ground school training. They also trained on a platform that had a bombsight mounted on it and they had to synchronize the sight with a little bug on the floor. That was their initial bombardier training. Then they moved on to flying in an AT-11. The AT-11 was a twin engine plane that could carry ten bombs as well as a pilot and two aviation cadets. In the AT-11 they usually bombed from 10,000 or 8,000 feet since they did not have oxygen in the plane. Once they completed their bombardier training satisfactorily they were graduated. A couple days after they got to Albuquerque they were introduced to the Norden bombsight. They had maintenance classes in which they used brushes to clean the bombsight out. They got to handle the bombsight all the time either in the air or in the classroom but always under very tight security. In the United States, every time they picked up the bombsight they had to be armed. They had to sign the bombsight out then sign it back in when they returned it. When they got overseas the bombsights stayed in the planes and the planes and were only guarded as much as the planes were. The Norden bombsight was very accurate. Keema got a regular commission and stayed in the Air Force after the war. At a bombing range in the United States, Keema dropped a bomb from a B-29 and hit within 100 feet of his aim point. But bombing on a range and bombing in combat are completely different for a number of reasons. Bombing ranges are very defined and the targets are easy to see. In combat they had about 20 minutes to study their target data. When got over the target area they may have cloud cover. The topography of Europe is completely different than the United States. There were also people on the ground and in the air that were shooting at them. They also had a very short amount of time to acquire their target, synchronize the bombsight to it, and drop their bombs. Target identification was the most difficult thing. If they could see it, they could destroy it, like they did in Marienburg.

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After completing bombardier training and being commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant, John Keema and his classmates were sent to Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho where they would be assigned a crew. After being there for about ten days, Keema was in the barracks one night when a guy entered and asked him if he wanted to join a crew. Keema said, “Yes” and went with the man. The guy had a checklist and he and Keema went down it. The list showed all of the positions on the aircraft. After going through the list the man told Keema to be at base ops at eight the next morning. He did so and was introduced to Captain Dougherty. They went up and dropped four or five bombs but were unable to get above 8,000 feet because of the weather. The next morning Keema went to base ops and met the rest of the crew. They got in the plane and flew to Geiger [Annotator’s Note: Geiger Field in Spokane, Washington now Spokane International Airport] where they joined the 390th [Annotator’s Note: 390th Bombardment Group]. Keema was supposed to have about 30 days of first phase training. Instead he got four or five hours. At the time they met the squadron commander Captain Good, they were all very inexperienced. Even so, they were the first crew in the 390th. They were assigned to the 568th Bombardment Squadron. Following crews filled out that squadron then the 570th, 571st, and 569th. After the group was formed they began their second phase training. That included individual bombing missions, squadron missions flying in formation, and a few group formation missions. They flew navigation training and bombing missions as well as air to ground gunnery training missions. Neither Keema nor the navigator got any formal gunnery training although some bombardiers and navigators did. The gunners on the plane trained them on the guns. Towards the end of June 1943, they flew their planes to Kansas where they got leave orders. When their leave was up, they returned to Salina and picked up all new flying equipment and airplanes and took off for Bangor, Maine. From Bangor they flew to Gander [Annotator’s Note: Gander, Newfoundland] then over to England. After arriving in Great Britain they flew to Prestwick [Annotator’s Note: Prestwick, Scotland], where a guide plane led them down to their station at Framlingham.

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John Keema and his group arrived in Framlingham in mid-July around the time of the Hamburg raids. Keema got to go into Prestwick which was exciting but he did not get to go into London like another member of the squadron. Soon after they arrived at their new base, two airplanes crash-landed on their airfield. One of them crashed into a B-17 parked on a hardstand right across from Keema’s plane. That took a little of the enthusiasm out of things. They had about a two week training period before they started flying missions. At the time Keema and his group arrived in England, the casualty rate was very high but it did not bother them at first. After they flew their first few missions they realized that they were being shot at and they might get hit. Keema did not get to fly the first couple missions because his plane was broken. The first mission he was supposed to go on was the Regensburg and Schweinfurt mission. When they started to taxi out, the hardstand gave way beneath them. They could not get out of the hole, so the squadron spare took their place. A lot of planes were lost on that mission [Annotator’s Note: including the squadron spare that took Keema’s place]. Keema’s first mission was to Holland. It was exciting to drop bombs on an airfield and exciting to get shot at by flak. That was exciting in a frightening way. Keema saw German fighters attacking another group and felt frustrated because there was nothing he could do for them. Three or four days after Holland, Keema flew his second mission which was to Évreux-Fauville, France, France. On the bomb run they were hit by anti-aircraft fire. The shells knocked out two engines and killed the navigator. The pilot and Keema and the copilot were all wounded. The tail gunner was a guy named Higginbotham. He injured himself later on somehow. They released the bombs and fell out of formation. Keema gave the pilot a heading and they turned for Framlingham. They threw everything they could out of the plane because they were losing altitude. When they got out over the French coast they were attacked by a flight of Messerschmitts. A flight of Polish Spitfires came to their rescue and escorted them in. Keema’s pilot ditched the plane in the Channel and the Polish Spitfires stayed with them until they were picked up. Then another flight came out and escorted the Air Sea Rescue boat that had picked them up back into Portsmouth. There were flak rounds bursting on both sides of the aircraft. The number four and number two engines were knocked out. Keema turned to bail out, but the airplane stabilized. He looked over at Frank Delarmie [Annotator’s Note: unsure of spelling] and saw him slumped over the table. There three little holes right opposite his heart. The flak had killed him. Keema had been hit in the forehead and across his nose. He also had some shrapnel wounds in his side. None of the three crewmen who were wounded were hit badly. The crew was very close. They got even closer once they got into combat. The navigator’s wife was named Rose Marie and he kept a picture of her in the airplane by his desk. At the time the Mills Brothers had a hit song called “Paper Doll” which Keema would sing on the way home from missions as well as two or three others. They thought enough about Frank that they named their new airplane “Rose Marie.” They had only known each other for three months. While they were in the water the Polish Spitfire pilots kept buzzing them so low that they were almost swamped.

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There was a set procedure for ditching an airplane which they had practiced before. Everyone except the pilot and copilot goes to the radio room and sits in a circle. Just before impact the pilot called them and told them to prepare for impact. The plane hit the water and bounced then came to a stop. There were seven of them in the radio room and they all managed to get out. They stepped out onto either wing and got into the dinghies. They cut the dinghies loose and floated away. They tried to get Frank’s body out of the plane, but were unable to do so. They managed to get him through the cockpit and to the bomb bay, but the walkway was too narrow. Keema is not sure if they would have been able to get him out even if they had gotten him to the radio room. Keema’s group was only in the water for about ten minutes when he saw the Air Sea Rescue boat heading toward them. The boat picked them up about 30 minutes after they ditched the plane. Things happened so fast that they did not have time to think about what had happened. They were taken to the naval station in Portsmouth where they were fed and met with the port commander. The next day they were taken to an RAF station where they were debriefed by the RAF. Later that afternoon they were flown back to their base where they were greeted warmly. Everyone had questions for them about what happened then after they answered the subject was not brought up again. When they got back to their base the squadron commander gave the surviving crewmen a pass until the following Sunday. They could not get to London, but did get to go to Ipswich where they drank and had bad dreams. They flew their next mission five or six days after they had ditched. None of them were really enthused about going back up but they went. They did not discuss the fact that they had ditched and lost their navigator. On 6 September [Annotator’s Note: 6 September 1943] they went to Stuttgart. This mission has been called a fiasco, but Keema thought it was a good one. It was a deep strike. The weather over the target was bad and they could not see the target. Many of the air groups had to fly a 360 and pass over the target again. Keema does not recall there being any fighter opposition during the Stuttgart mission. Stuttgart was the fifth mission Keema and his crew flew.

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After John Keema’s navigator Frank Delarmie [Annotator’s Note: unsure of spelling] was killed they were assigned a new navigator. The new navigator was Bob Henry and he flew with them from their third mission on. Some airmen were forced to float around from crew to crew, but Keema’s crew was lucky and flew all of the missions together. Crews would have to fly several missions together in order to get acclimated to each other. Through September after the Stuttgart mission, things eased off until early October. Keema flew missions to Wilhelmshaven a few times. They also went to Bordeaux and Paris. They were being shot at, but did not experience much fighter opposition. The whole time they continued to lose crews. They started out with nine crews and by about 8 October they were down to about five of the originals. On 8 October they went to Bremen, which was just a hellacious mission. They lost a few airplanes. The flak was intense. Planes were blowing up around them and falling out of the sky. There were people bailing out. It was frightening. On 9 October they flew to Marienburg. That was a very long mission. The weather was perfect over the target and they went in at 12,000 feet. There was almost no fighter opposition. Keema recalls only one enemy fighter. The Marienburg mission was very successful. They completely destroyed the target. The next day, 10 October, they were briefed for Münster. This is where things changed. Up to this mission, they had always bombed a specific target like an airplane factory or an airfield but never the town itself. The British RAF bombed the towns themselves. For the Münster mission the target was the center of the town. This did not sit well with many of the airmen, but they did it anyway. Münster turned out to be one of the toughest missions they flew. When they turned onto the target they were hit by everything the Luftwaffe [Annotator’s Note: the German Air Force] had to throw at them. There was flak and fighters. The battle lasted about 45 minutes before the Germans broke off. Keema was in the low squadron. It lost four airplanes. The high squadron also lost four bringing their group total to eight airplanes lost. The 100th [Annotator’s Note: 100th Bombardment Group] lost all but one of its planes and the 95th [Annotator’s Note: 95th Bombardment Group] lost five or six. The Germans would single out a group in the formation and attack it. After those few days in which they flew one very long and draining mission and two terrible missions, they were done in. On 14 October the target was Schweinfurt. 60 airplanes were lost on that mission. Keema did not fly the Schweinfurt mission because the oxygen system in his plane was not working. His bomb group lost one plane on that mission. After Schweinfurt, it was realized that they could not sustain losses like this and that they needed fighter escort. The arrival of radar also helped reduce the casualties. They could fly in bad weather when the German fighters could not. In mid-December they came in with the P-51 which could escort them all the way to the target and back.

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Keema had flown back to back to back missions on eight, nine, and ten [Annotator’s Note: 8, 9, and 10 October 1943]. They were worn out after those missions. The Marienburg mission had been especially long. They spent 12 hours in the bird in addition to three hours between the time they were awakened, then 12 hours in the plane, then 90 minutes of debriefing. Keema had no idea that he would be flying the day after the Marienburg mission, but did know that they were on alert. When they were not on alert, they would go to the club and get boozed up then go to bed and play cards all day the next day, but when they were on alert they would just get something to eat and went right back to their quarters to go to bed. Münster was Keema’s fifteenth mission. By that time, he could hear the guy coming to wake them up for a mission. They shared their hut with two other crews, so when the guy came in and started calling names, he would keep his fingers crossed that they would not call him or someone from his crew. When he did get his name called, he just got up and got ready to go. After being woken up they would go to chow then to briefing. There was a general briefing held for the officers in which there a large map on the wall. The intelligence officer would move the cover exposing strings on the map showing the target. Everybody would yell and scream for a moment then calm down and the briefing would start. They would be briefed on the target and its importance. They would get a weather briefing and a pep talk from their commander. From there they each went to their specialized briefings. For the Münster mission the aiming point for the bombardiers was the center of the town. [Annotator’s Note: The interviewer says that for the 100th or the 95th, the aiming point was the steps of the cathedral.] Keema does not know what the aiming point for the other groups were because each group had a different aiming point. When Keema looked back at the target, he wondered what they were doing. Why would they drop anti-personnel bombs on an airfield? He did not understand some of the targeting. For Münster they were carrying 500-pound bombs. They were intentionally bombing civilians. It was shocking to Keema. When they would attack other targets they only saw the target itself and assumed that all of the people were in shelters and nobody would get hurt or killed but in the back of their mind they knew different. In Europe they were not doing what the RAF was doing which was bombing towns indiscriminately. But that is what was done in Japan with the B-29 raids. Keema went to Wilhelmshaven a couple of times and bombed the docks and floated around the Ruhr a few times using radar.

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John Keema and a lot of the guys he flew with had qualms about the Münster raid. Unfortunately he did not have anyone to talk to when they got back because all of his roommates got shot down. The Münster raid was upsetting to them because it was so different from what they had been trained to do and from what was being read by the people [Annotator’s Note: by the people back in the United States]. It was a complete change. Keema had no qualms about flying through the flak during the bomb run on Münster. He was very disciplined and did what he was there to do. When it was time to hit the switch he hit the switch. On the Münster raid Keema’s aircraft was leading the low squadron. There were four airplanes in Keema’s element and they lost two of them. The rear element in the high squadron lost three out of four of their planes. Keema’s group lost eight airplanes that day. No matter what target the German fighters were defending, they were balls to the wall. They were brave and made head on attacks, but they were hesitant to follow the bombers out over the water. When a bomber is being attacked by an enemy fighter there is only one thing on the minds of the crew and that is that there is an airplane coming at them and they had to shoot at it. It is not like with the flak where it is just blowing up around the plane and there is nothing the crewmen can do about it. The gunners in the bombers were just as intense as the fighters attacking them. Keema was credited with three airplanes and the top turret gunner was credited with three the day of the Münster raid. They ended up being credited with a total of 11. For 45 minutes Keema was doing nothing but shooting. He had no fear at all. The enemy fighters finally broke off and left. Keema lent the navigator the watch he had been given for a graduation present. When he looked out of the plane and saw a whole flock of fighters heading toward them he yelled for the navigator to give him the watch back. Fortunately, the fighters were friendly. They were there to escort the bombers. Keema knew that one more attack and they would have been goners. There is no fear during the attack because there is no time to think about it. Keema watched the movie “Memphis Belle.” He does not recall any of the guys he flew with acting that way. They had a real good idea what to expect, but did not dwell on it. There were multiple guns in the nose of the B-17s. Keema manned whichever gun with which he could get a clear shot at the enemy fighters coming at him. Not counting the mission during which his first navigator was killed, Bremen was the worst mission he flew. Bremen was the most horrifying mission Keema flew. Airplanes were blowing up and being shot down. When they were on the bomb run Keema was always looking out for enemy fighters. Over Bremen the flak was intense, but Keema does not recall any fighter attacks. The flak was terrifying. They had to sit through the flak for ten or 15 minutes then when they got out of it they had to worry about if they were going to be attacked by fighters on the way back.

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John Keema’s crew was forced to abort and did not fly the Schweinfurt mission. Münster was Keema’s fifteenth mission and had ten more missions to go. With every mission he flew the light at the end of the tunnel kept getting brighter and brighter. On the evening of 24 December [Annotator’s Note: 24 December 1943] Keema and his fellow crew members were called up to wing headquarters for a super secret mission. There they were briefed on the V-1 rockets. Their mission was to France to attack the launch sites. They thought they had it made. The target was about ten miles inland. They would fly in and drop their bombs then turn around and go home. The following day they took off. They were flying in six ship elements on each target. There were all of the B-17s, all the B-26s, all of the Mosquitoes. Keema thinks almost every airplane in England plus their escorts were on that mission. They took off and halfway across the Channel they lost an engine. They continued on with the mission hit their target and returned to base. That was mission number 25. When they got back the navigator still had to fly a few missions to complete his tour. One1 of the enlisted crew had a one or two to go as well. The party after they completed their 25 mission was something. Keema was presented with a pin-up photograph of Lana Turner which he later gave to the 390th Museum. They got smashed at the party. The day after Christmas, Keema was given his orders to go home. After getting his orders to go home Keema went the long way back to the United States. When he got out of the airplane in Washington, DC, Eleanor Roosevelt approached and asked him if Colonel Roosevelt was on the plane. Keema told her that he was not. She then asked if he was just coming back from Europe. When Keema told her that he was indeed just returning home from combat, she shook his hand and welcomed him home. He had been welcomed home by the First Lady.

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When John Keema came home, he was by himself. When he left England it was the last time he saw of any of his fellow crewmen except for Captain Dougherty [Annotator’s Note: Kenneth E. Dougherty], the pilot. Dougherty was the only one he kept up with. Keema saw Dougherty at Alamogordo when Dougherty was undergoing B-29 training there. Sergeant Banta [Annotator’s Note: Sergeant Robert F. Banta was the crew’s radio operator] wrote a couple articles for the 390th anthology which were published. Keema kept in contact with the pilot until he got back from Saipan. After that Keema lost contact with him. Keema got a regular commission in 1947 and stayed in the US Air Force until 1963 when he retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. Looking back, Keema would do it all over again. He has no regrets of his service. It was in a sense a wonderful experience because of the comradeship. The bond that forms between a crew is very tight. After the war Keema flew on RB-47s and RB-45s that had three man crews. They had reunions all the way up until the year before this interview was recorded. At some of the reunions he would see guys that he had not seen in 50 years and it seemed like he had just seen them yesterday. That is how tight the bond was. If Keema could leave a message to future generation it would be that they just did their job. They did what they had to do. Keema’s worst memory of the war was the day after the Münster raid. The barracks was empty because everyone had been shot down and there was an intense feeling of loneliness. The best memory Keema has is of the good times they had and the comradeship. Keema saw “Memphis Belle” and the movie depicts the crew men being worried constantly about being shot down. He does not recall ever seeing anyone acting like that. Every day they got in the bird and away they went. Some guys even flew more than 25 missions. Keema believes that they continued to climb aboard the plane every time they were scheduled for a mission because of pride and none of them ever wanted to let the friends down or let their country down. [Annotator’s Note: For the last bit of the interview Keema and the interviewer discuss the 390th reunion group and memorial group and their meeting for reunions.]
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