WWII Fighter Pilot: The Forty Year Nightmare by Lee Rorex

Captain Lee Rorex and my dad flew in the 389th Fighter Squadron, 366th Fighter Group, of the 9th United States Army Air Force in Europe during World War II. Dad flew 75 combat missions, earned at least three Air Medals, and a Presidential Unit Citation for destroying 40 German locomotives during a 36-hour period. Capt. Lee flew with him on many of those missions. This is where I got my middle name – Lee – after Lee Rorex. In the 1980s he wrote a number of essays about his experiences during the war. He may have published them, so I suppose my putting them on my website without permission is piracy, but I thought the stories were too good to lie forgotten. Shortly after my dad passed away in 2000, Capt. Lee sent me these stories. My dad rarely talked about his war experiences, which is a common reaction among people who have seen real combat. So this was a welcome insight into my own father’s experiences. I dedicate this work to Maj. Dean Todd (ret.) and Capt. Lee Rorex, who flew these missions together. — Gary Lee Todd

Civilian’s Memory Log: 4/20/84. Nightmare Mission. Bombed Factory Tonight! Again! 146 Heads, 284 Hands, 198 Legs, 264 Feet.

“AH-H-H! NO! NO! MY GOD! ISN’T FORTY YEARS ENOUGH!” I sat straight up in bed, screaming! My face was wringing wet; every muscle as tight as a spring. Around me floated heads and arms, legs, hands and feet! And, one of those heads was mine, grinning!

“Lee,” my wife called. She shook me. “Wake up! Are you all right?”

Noise, like explosions, all around. I’m floating up high; there’s smoke and swishing sounds. And, half awake, I cry; the sobs are wrenched away from deep down in my psyche, the storehouse of so much guilt and grief for forty years now! And the words stagger out, unbidden: “Dear God, isn’t forty years enough?”

Feb. 1945. Location Y-29, Belgium.

The German Air Force doesn’t give us as much trouble these days. It is short of planes, pilots, oil, everything.

And during these days, we get in close to the soldiers on the ground. We come in from above, and with machine guns blazing we rout out the Tiger Tanks; make them defend themselves; with 500 pound bombs blow them all to smithereens; destroy them so our ground forces can keep going. KILL THOSE GERMANS!

We also do interdiction missions. We cross over the Germans’ lines, go way back behind him, find a vital target in his supply link; like a bridge, railroad, highway or factory. Whatever, we blow it up! Powder it! This interrupts the Germans’ supply line; slows down his war; makes him afraid; makes him lose!

My days are spent now, blowing up trains; killing Germans. Or, strafing long columns of motor truck transport; killing Germans. Sometimes a bridge comes up for destruction, maybe holding a train, or trucks, and I blow it up; killing Germans. One tries not to think of the death and destruction; but when it’s right there in front of one’s eyes, well?

As with most Americans, I was taught from scratch to be respectful: of my elders, of others’ feelings and possessions. Later, when I could understand, came DO UNTO OTHERS, and THOU SHALL NOT KILL. I took them to heart. They became law. But, today, I violate the Godly rules! I kill, kill, kill! With abandon, I KILL! Punishment is sure to come.

Pilot’s Log Entry: 2/24/45 Dulken. Bombed Factory. Good Hits.

Today we have what we call a simple mission. Go out to the front lines, contact a ground forces radio, get directed to whatever target they want splattered, and go splatter it. Almost a ho hum, right?

I’m leading Slipshod Yellow Flight today. And, we’re out for blood and vengeance, as usual.

I take off, set an easy turn which allows my three wingmen to catch up and fall into formation. This done, we now scoot up behind Red Flight, and bingo, we’re off on another jaunt. We’re now a squadron mission, headed out on an official U.S. Army Air Corps assignment; conceived, approved and ordered by XXIXth TAC Headquarters; on our way, once again, to kill Germans.

The navigation is easy. I’ve flown this territory many times. Most of us know all the major checkpoints and rarely need emergency aid navigation. Just the same, all of us are alert. All too well, we know how quickly things can change in combat situations.

We spot our ground lines locations by the cerise panels the dogfaces lay out on the ground. We can see heavy gun emplacements, tanks, and soldiers. As long as we don’t hit them, they’re always glad to see us arrive.

We switch over on our radios and listen as Red Leader makes ground contact: “Hello, Sitting Duck, Slipshod Red Leader here, do you read? Over.”

“Yeah, Slipshod, this is Sitting Duck. Over.”

“Roger, Sitting Duck. What can we do for you today? Over.”

“Well, Slipshod, I’m sorry we can’t accommodate ya today. We had a bunch o’ Tigers in them woods east uv us this mornin’. But our big guns took ‘em out just a few minutes ago. We’re movin’ out, right now. Over.”

“Roger, Sitting Duck. Do I read you correctly, you don’t need us? Over.”

“That’s right, Slipshod. But please don’t go back to Tennessee, yet, there’s always tomorrow. Over.”

“Roger, Sitting Duck, we’ll be around. Catch you later. Slipshod out.”

Ho hum, not much of a war anymore. So, follow procedure. Call Big Crow. He’s up at some general’s HQ. He may have a target for us. We listen as Red Leader makes the second contact.

“Hello, Big Crow, Slipshod Red Leader here. Do you read? Over.”

“Roger, Slipshod. I was listening to you talk to Sitting Duck and would have called you. Over.”

“Real good, Big Crow. What can we do for you today? Over.”

“How are you armed today, Slipshod? Over.”

“Big Crow, we have 500 pound general demo and rockets. Over.”

“Good! Slipshod, Good! We have a target for you. Here are the coordinates: G-1, X-29. Crossroads, single building, looks like two big barns side-by-side. Positive ident will be a large white cross on top. We just learned it’s not a hospital. The Krauts are making rocket propellant in there. Go get it. And good luck. Over.”

“Roger, Big Crow. Confirm G-1, X-29. Over.”

“That’s affirmative, Slipshod. Over.”

“Roger, Big Crow. Slipshod out.”

A used-to-be hospital? Or not? Now a factory for making rocket propellant? Seems farfetched; but all’s fair in love and war. Besides, orders are orders. So, we go splatter it.

A few simple adjustments in our navigation and Old Slipshod is bound for G-1, X-29. Since all of us listened in as Red Leader made his contacts, all of us know the score. We need no briefing.

A few minutes now to think. Yesterday I blew up a supply column. Killed 50, or 75 Germans? My enemies. The day before I was free. No dead Germans that day. Day before that I helped blow up three or four Tiger Tanks. Maybe 12 or 15 Germans. My enemies, they tell me. And now, a factory. How many workers in a factory? A dozen? 100? 200? Or, what if it is a hospital? How many people in a hospital? 300? 400? Oh, but what the hell! They’re my enemies, too! Aren’t they? Besides, Big Crow said splatter it.

“Slipshod Yellow Leader, Red Leader here. Over.”

My heart skips a beat. I know all too well what his message is!

“Roger, Red, yellow here. Over.”

“Yellow, I see our building up ahead there. Red Flight will go up and give top cover. Take Yellow and blow that place off the map. Over.”

What could I say? But, “Roger, Red. Yellow out.”

And there it was; big as life. And to think those crummy Germans were using a white hospital cross to hide the manufacture of rocket propellant! Dirty Bastards! They’ll deserve everything they get!

I give a look at the rest of Yellow Flight, dip my left wing. The two planes on my right move under and over to the left and fall in on a left echelon. I look at the building which we’ve been circling. Sitting there like a little kid’s playhouse; waiting; vulnerable. Another couple of minutes before we’re in the right position.

I wonder if the Germans protect a hospital, or a rocket juice factory, the way they do an oil dump? With 5,000 guns! Or do they depend on us honorable Americans to honor their dishonest white cross?

In position now. I peel off and start down. A few bursts from the guns to encourage the Germans to keep their heads down. But no return fire. How many people in a factory? Or a hospital? Line up the crosshairs on that big roof. How many men? How many women? Thumb on the bomb release. How many children? Factory, or hospital? Now! Push the button! Bombs away! Pull up! Cram that throttle forward; give her all the power she’s got. Let’s go!

At that moment, I feel a concussion that seems to rock the earth, sky and especially tiny little P-47 Fighter-Bombers. I look back and down and, thank God, there are my three buddies coming up off the target. But, they fly like I’ve never seen any airplane fly; up, sideways, backward! The blast hurls us about.

Black smoke boils up and obscures much of the ground. I can actually see large objects floating in the air! How many people in a factory?

“Slipshod Yellow, Red here. I’ve seen a lot of explosions; but this one takes the cake! We saw every piece of that building come up! And now we see them falling! Over.”

“Roger, Red,” was all I could say. Pieces of the building? How about people? Them, too?

“Yellow, there had to have been a propellant factory there, to get an explosion like that! You didn’t hit any hospital today. Over.”

“Roger, Red. Let’s go home. Yellow out.”

“Roger. Red out.”

Yeah, go home. Good boys. We didn’t hit a hospital today; with doctors, nurses and patients. No, just a factory with workers, and supervisors, and bosses. People with all their heads, and hands, and feet, and arms and legs in the right places! My enemies, they tell me. What do you suppose my tally is, so far? 1,000 Germans? 3,000 Germans? Yeah, my enemies.

And one of them, in there somewhere, with my face.

**********          **********          **********

“Lee, are you all right?” my wife calls again.

Through the tears, and the hurt and the grief, comes my faltering reply, “I don’t know. I just — just don’t see — why I have to keep on paying, AND PAYING, ALL THE REST OF MY LIFE! DEAR GOD! ISN’T FORTY YEARS ENOUGH?!”

**********          **********          **********

HEAVEN/EARTH Log Entry: 8/21/45 Separation Mission. You go that way. You two go this way. You go that —

Am I the lucky one? As I killed Germans, so they tried to kill me, and my comrades. Fate sealed the bargain, spared me, but not others. So, who was lucky?

There were Angove and Morris: both shot down, rescued by U.S. Troops. Were they the lucky ones?

And, Stinson: laughing, singing, happy man. He landed with a 500 pound fragmentation bomb hung up on his wing. It fell off, exploded and demolished his plane from the pilot’s seat on back. Stinson ended up that landing hanging on to a 2,000 Horse Power Engine dragging his butt down a steel mat runway. His shakes were so bad he couldn’t speak for days. They sent him away from us. Was he the lucky one?

And Purdy: tough, but nice guy. He quoted asinine poetry; funny. On a mission, a hit opened a leak in his gas tank. In one minute his cockpit was three inches deep in 100 octane, high explosive fuel! He bailed out! And walked back. Was he the lucky one?

And Conserva: gentle, a smile as big as all outdoors, adventuresome. Returning from a mission he cracked up on the landing end of the runway; cracked up his head and face, too. Permanently! Was he the lucky one?

And Gaithey, Meyer, Tanzell: victims of the clouds while flying the soup; crashed and found dead by our ground troops. Were they the lucky ones?

And Struth, McCauley, Pease, Peterson: shot down in dogfights and killed; Struth and McCauley on their first missions. Were they the lucky ones?

And Taylor, Gross, Barkley, Early, Pitts: shot down by ground fire and killed. Were they the lucky ones?

And Boehm, a trumpet player: crashed and killed in a bad weather landing. And Grounds, who had completed his tour of duty but refused rotation home. Hit by ground fire on a straight in bomb run. I was right behind him, and watched him die! Were they the lucky ones?

And Steinfelt: one of my roommates. Short, slight of build, just my size. He owned a military short coat. I kidded him, “When you move up as Group Commander, will you leave me that coat?” And we’d laugh. One day Steinfelt failed to return; shot down by ground fire. Sad, I went back to our bunk room. There on Steinfelt’s bed lay his military short coat, normally always on its peg, nice and neat. Did he lay it out for me? Was he the lucky one?

Some stayed at home and fought the economic battles with pliers and wrenches instead of guns. Were they the lucky ones?

Some paid the supreme price immediately, quick and with finality. Some suffered their obvious disabilities in front of all of you for the rest of their lives. Some see their own grinning heads amongst the nightmarish dreams of human slaughter. Some stayed at home and suffered the onslaught of these losses, mostly in silence. All made up a team; shared spirit and soul; received from each other; gave to each other, lived and died for each other.

So, who were the lucky ones? You tell me.

**********          **********         **********

Just ordinary guys doing a job. But then, all jobs this big are done by ordinary guys. And each one, like the pilot, expending that Universal Spiritual Soul in which all of us share. Martin Buber called it THEOPHANY – the meeting between man and God.


[FYI: KIAs mentioned are Joseph C. Meyer, Richard Tansell, Henry J. Struth, William McCauley, Stephen Pease, Elmer R. Peterson, James I. Taylor, Edward H. Gross, Rufus Barkley, Joe C. Early, Robert F. Boen, William Grounds, Bernard J. Steinfield, and POW Garfield Angove. I was not able to locate Gaithey (sp?) and Pitts on the casualty roster of the 366th Fighter Group, which maintains an excellent website.]


One thought on “WWII Fighter Pilot: The Forty Year Nightmare by Lee Rorex

  1. Edward H. Gross was my uncle . My ather, Albert B. Gross. was stationed in Gatten, England. He was flying a B17 for the 45t7th when Eddie was shot down. Do you know if there was an accident report? Was he downed beore? Any inormation would be helpul.

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