by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life
These are some of the individuals who saved America. They were a part of what Tom Brokaw calls America’s finest generation. For Pete Howell, as the world approached war, he was approaching high school graduation at Radnor High School. He’d been two years old when his family moved from the city.
“My mother, Caroline Frye Howell wanted to move out of the city, although she wasa Philadelphian. She wanted to move to either Chestnut Hill or the Main Line, “he says. “When she saw how peaceful Wayne was, they decided this was the place.” George Ruston Howell and his wife moved to Wayne in 1923 with their three boys, George (Bud), III, age 7; Roger (Hap) Petit, 4; and Horace (Pete) Petit, 2.
Their family’s proud tradition of military service was spurred by the their father’s time spent in the Spanish American War. He also was assigned to East Anglia in England during WWI, and was at the New Cumberland Depot as a part of the Aviation Branch of the Signal Corps. The Corps eventually became the Army Air Corps, and then the Army Air Force. All three of George’s sons served in the Army Air Force (and eventually the U.S. Air Force) during WWII. George left service as a major and returned to Philadelphia.
The boys attended and graduated from the Radnor school system. Bud graduated in 1936, Hap in 1937 and Pete in 1940. Pete then took a technical aviation course and got a job with Glenn Martin Aircraft in California. “I started at 65 cents an hour and when I left in March 1942 to go in the military I was making a whopping 75 cents an hour.” Hap was drafted in early 1941 and assigned to the Army’s 1st Armored Division. He trained as a radio operator, but when he heard Bud was on his way to pilot training, he applied for the aviation cadet program and was accepted. Bud had graduated from Wharton at the same time Pete graduated from Radnor and went to work at DuPont. After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the aviation cadets and was stationed in Montgomery, Alabama for initial pilot training. With Hap accepted to aviation training, Pete knew it was for him as well. Pete was accepted and ended up in Montgomery as well. Pete discovered that he and Hap were together at Gunter Field on one side of town, going to basic flying training, while oldest brother Bud was across town at Maxwell Field in advanced training, having gotten his wings in 1942.
“All three of us did get together. Once Bud got a hotel room and we all got together and called Mom and Dad and took turns talking to them,” Pete says. “We were all together one more time, in Florida. That was in West Palm Beach, just before Bud left for Africa.” Pete had gone through B-17 training and he was stationed in Brazil, then sent across the South Atlantic to Africa, and finally up to North Africa where he began flying with the 2&supnd; Bomb Group.
When Hap graduated and got his wings in June of 1943, he went to multi-engine training and eventually flew the Martin B-26 Marauder. In September 1943 he was transferred to Ireland where the Army Air Force was doing operational training for the B-26 before they were finally declared combat-ready and sent across the Irish Sea to join the battle in the air over Europe. “During the attack on Schweinfurt ball bearing works, there were so many B-17 crews lost that 8&supth; Air Force asked for qualified aircrew to volunteer for B-17 duty,” Pete says. “Hap did and was sent to the 390th Bomb Group in Framingham near the coast in Suffolk, England. There he was assigned as the assistant group operations officer. He would fly 15 missions in addition to his administrative duties. He also flew as group control officer. The bomber groups would put a pilot in the tailgunner’s position of the lead aircraft. He would then be able to see the entire group and help them maintain position, especially during turns. The bombers would drop their bombs all at the same time, and you really wanted to be in the right place when that happened.”
Back in the States, Pete had been selected to become an instructor pilot and was stationed in Macon, Georgia. “I spent 13 months with students trying to kill me. It had to be more stressful than combat,” he jokes. He repeatedly tried to get transferred to a combat aircraft.
Then came horrible news: on October 29, 1943 Bud was killed while bombing the docks at Genoa, Italy. “He had been hit by flack and three of his crew got out of the airplane, but they were captured and became prisoners of war,” Pete recalls. The other six crew members weren’t so lucky: they were killed when the bomber broke up. After Genoa had been liberated, Bud’s body was identified by dental records. “We had his body returned after the war and reburied in Valley Forge Memorial Chapel Cemetery. There are five members of our family buried on a family plot there,”
Pete says he “lost it” when his brother was killed, but it enabled him to get what he’d sought – a transfer. “I got selected for P.47 Thunderbolt training ,which I went through at Perry AFB, east of Tallahassee, Florida. ” In May of 1944 he was dispatched to England as a replacement pilot for the coming invasion. “There were 220 of us that were part of this program and as soon as we got to England, they asked for volunteers to fly P-51 Mustangs. Nobody volunteered, because we were used to having the Thunderbolt’s huge engine in front of us – that offers a lot of protection. In the Mustang the engine was inline, and the airplane was thin and offered no protection.”
This being the Army, officials were undaunted by the lack of volunteers, and Pete was assigned to fly Mustangs for the 357&supth; Fighter Group at Leiston Air Base – eight miles from his brother Hap’s field. “We would get together pretty often, whenever we could arrange transportation,” Pete reminisces. “The first time we got together Hap borrowed a bicycle, thinking it would be an easy ride. When he got here he could hardly walk and we had to get him a ride back to Framlingham!”
After three orientation flights in the Mustang, for a total of 3 hours, Pete flew his first combat mission. It lasted 3 ¾ hours, longer than his entire orientation program. “That wasn’t so unusual in those days – many pilots were sent to another aircraft and only had a short orientation before going into combat,” he said. Add to that the fact that fighters weren’t nearly so different then as now and were certainly a lot simpler. He would fly 65 missions totaling 270 hours in the P-51. “During the week we would fly escort for the bombers going over the continent in daylight. But on Sundays, when the bombers were usually grounded for maintenance wewould replace our external fuel tanks with bombs and fly attack sorties – looking for trains and other ground targets to bomb. Trains were a lot of fun.” Pete also shot down two Messerschmidt ME-109s, both in air-to-air combat.
His most memorable mission was actually a series of missions: “The first leg we escorted B-17s bombing at Fouke Wulf FW-190 factory in Godynia in Poland and then flew on, landing at Piryatin Airfield in Russian, actually in the Ukraine,” he says. That flight was seven hours and 10 minutes, a tremendously long flight in a single-seat airplane. “We could hardly get out of our airplanes when we landed.” That was on August 6, 1944. The next day, they escorted the bombers hitting a fuel storage site in Poland. “The bombers were located at another Russian base further east from us, and the Russians weren’t happy about us being there. The bomb group was attacked by the Luftwaffe (German air force) at the base and the Russians wouldn’t let us take off and defend them. We were really unhappy because we lost several bombers and two guys were killed.”
After a day’s recovery, the B-17s and P-51s flew on to Italy from the Ukraine, bombing airfields on the 8th. His best mission, though, was on the 10th. “We were asked to escort C-47 transports into enemy-held Yugoslavia where Tito’s resistance forces had gathered 200 downed airmen. The C-47s went in two waves, landing at an airfield the resistence controlled. They brought all the aircrew out. That was a great mission.” On Aug. 12th he and the other P-51s headed out of Italy towards southern France where they were to rendezvous with a group of bombers and escort them on a bombing mission supporting the ground troops who had invaded southern France. “We never saw them, so we went on home. That flight was six hours and 55 minutes, and that’s tough because you can’t get up and walk around,” he remembers.
In fact it wasn’t easy to do anything, in part because of the clothes he and the other pilots wore. The Mustang wasn’t a comfortable plane — in fact warplanes seldom are. In addition to being cramped, they are freezing cold when flying. “I wore two pairs of long john underwear, a wool shirt, a heavy sweater, wool pants, a flying suit, a leather flying jacket, a “Mae West” life preserver, parachute and had an inflatable dingy strapped to me. You could hardly walk.”
Mustangs flew in flights of four, so all during this trip the pilots had to maintain their positions close to each other. “Getting to the relief tube was the funniest thing to do. You had to use two hands to fly the airplane – one on the stick and the other on the throttle. So you needed extra hands,” Pete recalls. “Even if nature called it was so difficult to get through all the clothes and still fly formation without running into another airplane that it was hardly worthwhile.” That was August, and the very lengthy flights helped out with Pete’s combat tour. Unlike bombers, whose crew must fly a specific number of missions to complete a tour, fighter tours were determined by the number of combat hours. On Nov. 23, 1944 he competed 270 hours and was eligible to return to the States.
He returned to instructing at Randolf AFB in Texas and Stewart AFB in New York. “The best thing about being stationed at Stewart is that Betz (his wife Mary Beth) and I could get married, which we did on May 5, 1945,” according to Pete. Told he would need to accept a regular commission, which meant making the newly-formed Air Force a career, or be discharged, Pete chose to become a civilian. He was released from active service in 1947. Pete returned here for a while, but then did a little traveling, working for Piasecki Helicopter Ð which became Vertol, then Vertol Division of Boeing. “One day I had 800 co-workers and the next 80,000 when Boeing tookover,” he says.
While working in Texas he transitioned into jet aircraft with Air Force Reserve forces, just missing being sent to Korea in F-84s. “They took our unit, but not the squadron I was in.” He stayed with Boeing, and was able to return to Wayne in 1951 to work at the Philadelphia plant. He retired in 1989, but it’s hard to tell that he isn’t working. In addition to being the head of the alumni association for Radnor, he’s very active in veterans groups, most notably the Military Order of World Wars, from whom he’s received awards for his involvement.
He and Betz are looking forward to a trip this summer to England. “We’re going back for the first time, and there is a group of British who have undertaken to keep the memory of Leiston alive,” he says. The base is no longer there, but you can’t get rid of where the runways and taxiways were laid out. “They’re going to meet us when we get to Ipswich (the closest large town) and take care of us, taking us up towhere the base was. I hope I can get to Framingham and see Hap’s base as well.”
That’s got to be more fun than the last time somebody helped him get to Leiston.