America’s tradition of service: Richard A. ‘Dick’ Dodds
Early one rainy morning in 1945, on a runway 90 miles north of London near Peterborough, England, 20-year-old Tech Sgt. Dick Dodds discovered that courage is doing your job while your life is on the line.
He was the radio operator in the second aircraft in a 457th Bomb Group flight of 36 B-17s, waiting for tower clearance to roll and take off on another high-risk mission over Nazi Germany when the bomb-laden lead aircraft just ahead suddenly detonated into a huge ball of fire, shrapnel, wreckage and scattered remains of young men who had played volleyball with Dick the day before.
Now, as soon as a path through the carnage was cleared, his aircraft took off in the lead, and like countless others in combat he had to force down into his gut the fear that was trying to strangle him as he watched the engines belch fire on takeoff and wondered if they would face the same fate as their friends.
It helped that one of his fellow crew members encouraged him by yelling over the noise that, “We’ll be OK!” It also helped that Dick prayed a lot and read the Bible in his spare time.
When they returned from a mission 10 or so hours after takeoff if all went well, they would be quickly debriefed on what they had seen of target hits or misses, enemy flak and enemy Messerschmidt or Focke-Wulf fighters trying to shoot them down, the number of enemy planes they shot down and our own planes knocked out of the sky, parachutes they might have seen as evidence our crews managed to bail out.
After the debrief, they were given a paper cup of cognac to calm their nerves, but as an innocent young Presbyterian who didn’t drink alcohol, Dick gave his cognac to others eager to receive it.
Maybe he was preparing for his vocation, for Dick Dodds is known as a retired Presbyterian minister to his friends and neighbors where he lives in Peachtree City on the edge of the Braelinn golf course with his wife, Betty.
To those who remember Dick from the Flat Creek Golden Golfers, he was the man with a 5 handicap at age 77, the man who achieved the golfer’s dream of scoring his age – for the first time – at 69. His golf buddies probably didn’t know that he survived a harrowing experience late in WWII.
Now 88 years old, golf for Dick is a pleasant memory. He says his memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be, but his memory of flying bombing missions is still clear. Like many other vets, harkening back to those days when he did something difficult for his country seems increasingly important as the years pass.
He remembers the 4 to 6 a.m. wake-up on mission days, breakfast, briefing on rally points where flights from other units would join up and where friendly fighter escorts of P-38s, P-47s or P-51s would join them for as long as their short-range fuel would last, primary and secondary targets, expected enemy flak and fighter plane resistance, points where they would turn toward the target.
They dressed in one-piece flight suits with lots of pockets and trousers lined with wool, bulky leather jackets, fur-lined gloves, leather flight helmets with chamois-lined flaps and sound-insulated earphones, a throat-mike with a neck strap, oxygen mask, a parachute harness and flak jacket with overlapping steel plates. They had steel helmets to wear while under fire, an inflatable bright yellow Mae West jacket for flotation, though the North Sea was very cold, a Colt .45 in a shoulder holster and a small survival kit.
Dick remembers often after takeoff they would join up over the English Channel with other 8th Air Force bomber groups to make a mission of hundreds of aircraft, gradually climbing, putting on oxygen masks at 10,000 feet, eventually reaching their bombing altitude of around 25,000 feet where the temperature was 40 to 50 below zero.
The B-17 was neither pressurized nor heated and the gunners were directly exposed to the slipstream that whistled through the noisy aircraft at their gun ports, where even a brief exposure of an ungloved hand might result in frostbite. When they crossed into German territory the gunners test-fired all 10 of the .50-caliber guns to make sure they were ready for enemy fighters.
This was late in the war when the Nazis were being crippled by Allied pressure in the air and on the ground. Our 8th Air Force had successfully bombed German oil fields and, fortunately for Allied air crews, the Germans’ shortage of fuel, airplanes and pilots reduced the number of enemy fighters that launched to try to shoot them down. Nevertheless, Dick remembers the exploding antiaircraft shells — known as flak — seemed thick enough to walk on and the danger was severe.
The wisdom of wearing the flak jacket was driven home to Dick when flak shrapnel hit his transmitter one day in the very space where his head had been just a second before. Lt. George Crawford, the navigator, didn’t like wearing a flak jacket until a heavy barrage of flak one day; Lt. Crawford reluctantly lifted his flak jacket over his head, and just as he lowered it over his chest a heavy piece of shrapnel zipped through the aircraft, hit him in the chest and knocked him across the compartment. He was unhurt and instantly converted to a firm believer in flak jackets.
On Dick’s very first mission, flak knocked out one of the engines after the bomb drop and they fell behind the rest of their flight, unable to maintain airspeed. Gunner eyes darted all over the sky, needing no reminders that a lone bomber deep in Germany was an easy target for enemy fighters, and they would not have had a chance just a few months earlier when the Luftwaffe was stronger. With a choice of turning toward France or limping across the North Sea, the pilot decided to try for home and they made it.
On three other occasions they didn’t make it back, landing flak-damaged aircraft in France or Belgium on airfields that had been controlled by the German Luftwaffe just a few months before. The broken airplanes remained where they landed while the crew was ferried back to the 457th Bomb Group by the British Royal Air Force to stand by for another mission.
Coming home from missions was far different than the takeoff and assembly over the English Channel. Some went down in Germany, the fate of their crew unknown. Many aircraft limped home with battle damage and some went down in the English Channel.
With heavy traffic converging on the 457th airfield, no radar aboard and in clouds or heavy fog, crew watched intensely for other aircraft as the pilot tried to keep safe separation. Planes with wounded aboard fired flares to get priority in the landing lineup.
The ground crew was very busy as some aircraft would crash on failed landing gear and occasionally a B-17 would collide with another aircraft or the ground in a searing flash of fireball, scattering airplane parts over the English countryside.
The first casualty in Dick’s crew was the co-pilot, Lt. Andy Anderson, who was hit in the leg by flak, prompting him to tell the crew on intercom, “Just call me the Purple Heart kid,” just before he passed out. A tourniquet stopped the bleeding but he was gone from the crew after that mission.
Ball turret gunner Sgt. Bob Kincaid would have died if Dick had not checked up on him and found him unconscious with his oxygen line accidentally disconnected. The bombardier, Lt. William Bell, died with another crew, shot down over Germany.
In the three years the 8th Air Force flew out of England, roughly 26,000 were killed in action with 21,000 missing, injured or POWs.
On March 8, 1945, VE Day (victory in Europe) was announced. Dick had survived 16 bombing missions at that point, had done a lot of growing up in the process, and like everyone else he was ecstatic it was over. But there was one more mission to fly, thankfully not involving hostilities.
They stripped out the machine guns and other heavy items from the aircraft and flew to Lintz, Austria, to pick up a load of Americans from a Nazi POW camp. The 25 Americans they would carry had bailed out of their aircraft over Germany. They were poorly dressed and starved to skin and bones but eager to talk, elated to be free.
One of them asked Dick, “How many missions did you have?” Dick told him 16. The man shook his head in wonder and said, “In 1943 and 44 when we saw a man with five missions, we believed he must lead a charmed life.”
On the flight back to England the pilot flew low over Germany to give them a look at the ravages of war, and flew low over Paris to give them a close look at the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triumphe.
While the war with Japan continued, the crew pilot, Lt. Col. William Smith, flew part of the crew home to the U.S.
Two months later in late July 1945, Lt. Col. Smith, who had survived more than 50 bombing missions over Germany, was at the controls of a B-25 lost in blinding fog and flew into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building in New York City, killing the three crew and 10 people in the building. The war with Japan would end a few weeks later.
Dick Dodds went on with life after WWII, serving many years as a Presbyterian minister. He started his military service as a boy of 18 and came home a man at 20 with his faith stronger than ever.
Like my father and millions of others, he played his own small part in saving the world from an Axis of evil. We owe every one of them a debt of gratitude.
[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City and writes columns occasionally for The Citizen. He has authored a book, “Strength & Honor: America’s Best in Vietnam.” His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]