A Job To Do
WWII vet’s bond remains strong with fellow airmen
by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/magazine editor
"Don't tell me that grown men don't cry."
RAYMOND O. ECK has no shame admitting that he shed tears when he laid a wreath at Madingley American Cemetery near Cambridge, England, on Memorial Day, 2011.
The U.S. cemetery is not far from the former Hardwick Aerodrome, where Eck and other airmen of the 93rd Bombardment Group were stationed during World War II. It holds the remains of 3,812 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who lost their lives in the war. A wall, termed the Tablets of the Missing, records the names of another 5,127.
“I never experienced such a solemn honor and duty as I did that day when I laid the wreath for the 93rd Bomb Group. There were 112 wreaths laid that day,” Eck said. “I cannot describe my emotions as I thought about my friends, my fellow airmen and taps.”
Together, those friends faced the real chance that each mission could be their last. The experience continues to bind them to one another.
Eck, who will turn 94 in June, has traveled with his wife, the former June Evans, to annual reunions of the 93rd Bomb Group Association since 2010. The group meets annually in the U.S. and has made four trips to England, including in 2011, when Eck laid the 93rd Bomb Group’s wreath.
The 93rd was known as Ted’s Travelling Circus for its commanding officer, Col. Ted Timberlake. The unit was the most-traveled bomb group in the Army’s Eighth Air Force. As one of the first to arrive in Europe, it flew the most missions, yet it had the fewest casualties.
Eck joined the “circus” when his B-24 crew arrived in Hardwick, England, in August 1944.
Eck had graduated in 1941 from a 500-hour drafting course at Williamsport Technical Institute, a Pennsylvania College of Technology forerunner. The course was taught by Kenneth E. Carl, who would go on to become director of WTI and later the first president of Williamsport Area Community College, which was formed from WTI after Carl’s instrumental work drafting Pennsylvania’s Community College Act.
When Eck enrolled nearly 76 years ago, he was fresh from his 18th birthday and graduation from Williamsport High School. The class met in the evening in the shop Carl had set up in 1937 in the basement of the high school, which is today’s Klump Academic Center.
Before Eck finished, the facility was filled, so his class was moved to the day shift and to shops on Susquehanna Street. Those shops, now reconfigured, are still in use. They house classrooms and labs for automated manufacturing and machining, electrical, automotive engine repair, and physician assistant.
The Madingley American Cemetery, not far from the airfield where Eck was stationed, is the burial site for more than 3,800 American servicemen who died during World War II. Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force
After completing the drafting course, Eck and classmate Howard Cowles traveled to Philadelphia to take the Civil Service Exam. While in town, they decided to stop by General Electric to see whether the company needed draftsmen.
Both were hired, and Eck began work in GE’s methods department on Dec. 1, 1941. Six days later, the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Eck attempted to enlist in the Navy, hoping to be a flier. When he let it slip that he had allergies, the recruiter turned him down. “You can’t be flying at 25,000 feet and take off your mask to blow your nose,” Eck was told.
Deciding that, if he couldn’t fly in the planes, he’d like to work on them, he headed for the Marine Corps recruiting office . But he had to make it from the Navy’s office at Philadelphia’s 15th and Market streets to Second and Chestnut. When he arrived, he learned that the last batch of recruits for the day had been processed. He decided to wait to be drafted.
Eck continued his work as a draftsman in GE’s methods department, where four engineers developed the machinery to make circuit breakers, until he was drafted in April 1943.
After basic training, he was sent to radio operator school, gunnery school, then to training with his bomber crew. He would fly, after all, in the position of radio operator-gunner in a B-24.
After flight training, the crew of 10 shipped to England, where the 93rd and other Eighth Air Force bomb groups made daylight strikes, and England’s Royal Air Force flew nighttime missions.
“When we got there, … the first thing they told us was, ‘All that stuff you learned in the U.S. about aircraft identification, forget it. If an SOB turns and points its nose at you, it’s fair game.”
Because Allied planes were sometimes captured and flown by the enemy, Eck said that friendly fighter pilots were likewise told: “Never point your aircraft at any U.S. or U.K. bomber, as they have orders to shoot if you do so.”
Eck and his crew flew 27 missions over France and Germany, delivering bombs that would help to decimate Nazi resources. The B-24s targeted engine-repair works, harbors, power plants and transportation systems.
Typical missions extended six to 10 hours. Crews awoke at 1:30 a.m., ate scrambled eggs “on ice-cold trays,” received the mission briefing, sat in their planes for about an hour, then took off, climbing through dense fog – to 2,000 feet or higher – until they saw sunlight.
“That’s a harrowing experience,” Eck said. “Think of a 1,000-plane raid – all taking off from fields within a few miles of each other and not having mid-air collisions before they see sunlight.”
After several missions, Eck’s crew became the lead plane in its group. Like others, the men wanted eye-catching nose art for their B-24.
“We wanted our crew chief to paint a fancy lady on there. He said, ‘No, way.’ Every plane that he had nose art on, he lost,” Eck explained. “He didn’t want to paint it, so we said, ‘Fine.’”
He’s still fine with that, having lived to tell the tales of many close calls. On one occasion, Eck, because he was behind his crew by one mission due to illness, was assigned to fly with another crew.
Headstones at Madingley American Cemetery, in Cambridge, England, mark the graves of U.S. Army, Army Air Corps, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard members, but mostly airmen. Eck laid a wreath at the cemetery during a Memorial Day ceremony in 2011. Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force
“On this mission, we lost an engine over target due to flak (antiaircraft fire),” Eck said.
Lagging behind their formation, they were attacked by two enemy fighters and lost a second engine. Finally, the pilot crash landed in friendly territory near Le Havre, France. Eck told the Williamsport Sun-Gazette in a 2010 interview that the crew counted 150 holes in the parts of the plane that had not been wrecked in the landing.
On another mission, he saw the whites of the eyes of a German pilot flying toward his B-24.
“The Luftwaffe had ordered a Ram Day,” Eck said he learned many years later. “They were getting desperate at the end of the war. I was standing between the pilot and copilot. I see this plane coming in: an FW 190. He’s coming in and was going to come right at us. He bailed out and his plane kept going.”
“Was I scared? Yes. But I had a job to do, and my crew members depended on me as well as each other.”
Attacks could come from enemy planes or antiaircraft flak towers. Even the weather, at times, was a serious threat. Near the end of the war in Europe, instead of forming over the English Channel, the group flew into France and formed over a transponder.
“It was a bad day – bad weather,” Eck said. “We were trying to get above the clouds. We climbed to 28,000 feet – as high as we could go with a full bomb load and fuel.
“As we came out of a thick cloud bank, a flight of B-17s came at us head-on. Pilots had no time to react, as we were that close to one another. The two formations mixed, and all escaped a mid-air collision. God was with all of us during that moment.”
By April 30, 1945, the Eighth Air Force had run out of targets. On May 8, German troops surrendered. Not long after, Eck and his crew returned to the States.
“When we flew back, there is a spot in Maine where I kissed the ground, and I wasn’t the only one,” he said.
He was discharged in October 1945 as a technical sergeant, decorated with a Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with three oak-leaf clusters, Eastern Theater Offensive ribbon and others.
“When I came back in ’45, I ended up going back to Philadelphia,” Eck said. “GE was supposed to rehire us. The problem was they offered us 87 and a half cents an hour. The 4Fs who worked through the war were now making a dollar and a quarter.”
A B-24 flies over Friedrichshaven, Germany. The B-24 was employed in operations in every combat theater during World War II.
He took a job instead with Westinghouse Electric in Lester. In 1947, he married the late June L. (Bloom) Eck, with whom he would have four daughters, and, with thanks to the GI Bill, began study toward a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics at Parks Air College, part of Saint Louis University.
“When I graduated (in June 1950), I had a diploma, a wife and two children,” he said.
“Before graduation, I was interviewed by Eastern and American airlines, but the best offer I could get was $200 a month in New York City. The Air Force offered me a commission and $350 a month.”
With a family to support, he returned to active duty in September 1950 as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. He was assigned first to Texas, then California and Illinois before he spent three years in Brazil.
From Brazil he was sent back to California, then Korea, where he was a maintenance officer for both aircraft and automotive. His tour was to last 18 months. “They cut me short,” he said. “They only ‘let me’ stay a year, and I was very happy.”
From Korea, Eck was assigned to the Reserve Officers Training Corps at Johnstown College (now University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown), where, for five years, he taught aerospace science.
He spent the remainder of his 28-year Air Force career in Montana and Nebraska as part of Strategic Air Command. At Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, Eck took on his favorite job: commander of the 564th Strategic Missile Squadron.
Eck’s squadron had five underground missile-control capsules. The Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missiles they controlled were a product of the Cold War.
“Here I am, sitting on 50 intercontinental missiles, all with nuclear warheads,” Eck said. “Each had 10 targets: 10 atomic bombs on each.”
During a test by inspectors, each of his 130 officers and 25 enlisted men passed. “It was the first time any missile squadron came out with 100 percent,” he said.
In June 1972, Eck retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel.
Two years later, he graduated from Penn State with a master’s degree in counselor education. He spent several years at South Hills Business School in State College, then went to Castle Heights Military Academy, a K-12 school in Lebanon, Tennessee, where he was the assistant superintendent and taught math to students from all over the world.
In 1985, Eck retired, and he moved back to Williamsport shortly after.
He continues to meet with Korean War veterans locally, who gather for breakfast once a month, and is part of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Eighth Air Force, based in State College. The 93rd Bomb Group Association meets annually in a U.S. city and has made return trips to Hardwick, England, in 2005, 2007, 2011 and 2015. At the gatherings, stories are told – and retold – with veterans, their children and grandchildren.
Eck is among 93rd veterans who shared their memories for a documentary being developed by Michael Sellers, the grandson of a 93rd Bomb Group vet, and narrated by “Band of Brothers” actor Michael Cudlitz.
“Second- and third-generation members are keeping our history and reunions alive as our veterans return to dust,” said Eck, who is one of two still-living members of his plane’s crew. He still talks by phone with fellow crewmember Ernie Perez and was able to visit with him at a train stop when an Amtrak voyage took him through San Jose, California, where Perez resides.
It’s important to Eck to connect with others and share memories.
“Being in a war is HELL on earth,” Eck said. “Many of my fellow GIs felt, as I did, if a bullet or shell had your name on it, then that was your fate. Was I scared? Yes. But I had a job to do, and my crew members depended on me as well as each other. This mentality formed an unusual bond among men.
“For those of us that were lucky enough to survive that hell on earth, that special bond was kept alive by keeping in touch with one another. That is why reunions are still going strong after so many years.”