Colonel Robert F. Simpson Jr., USAF (RET) – A Son’s Recollections
You get to the point in life that you realize time is passing quickly and it becomes important to remember special people. Tom Brokaw labeled my Dad’s generation as “America’s Greatest Generation”, and he is absolutely correct. My Dad is not unlike the many other Americans that responded to “the call” when World War II came along. This is just a snapshot of a small part of the story of Bob Simpson’s life because even as his first born son I know relatively little about his early years. Sometimes he talked about his childhood years and the great depression, but I suppose that in my youth I wasn’t a very good listener. What I want to relate in this brief narrative is the contribution he made to our country as a member of our armed forces during World War II and some of the events that followed. Over the years my Dad didn’t talk very much about WWII, but I knew he flew B-24s in the 8th Air Force and later he would pilot the Convair RB-36, which was the first intercontinental strategic bomber in the fledgling US Air Force.
Dad joined the Army Air Corps shortly after the outbreak of WWII and completed Basic Flight Training at Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. During the war years a multitude of military fields sprang up all over the country to support basic and advanced flight training for our armed forces as well as our allies. Most of those military air fields are gone now and the fact that those airfields played such a major role in preparing our airmen for global conflict is just a faint memory of those who earned their wings so many years ago. Dad initially trained in the Vultee BT-13, an ungainly single engine all-metal monoplane with fixed gear. The BT-13 earned the name “Vibrator” by its pilots and students and with more than 11,000 being built it was the most widely used American made flight training aircraft employed by our armed services during WWII. However, the Vultee never gained the recognition of other famous trainers such at the AT-6 and Stearman, and like many other “work horses” of the time slipped into the annals of aviation history with very little fanfare. After surviving basic flight training and the “Vibrator”, Dad went on to multi-engine training and eventually was assigned to combat crew training in the B-24 Liberator.
The Consolildated B-24 Liberator was one of the premier heavy bombers in the US Army Air Corps and along with the Boeing B-17, helped carry the iron over occupied Europe in the Allies’ daylight bombing offensive. The B-24 was powered by four Pratt and Whitney R-1830 radial engines and could carry a bomb load of 8,000 pounds. The Liberator was a large aircraft in its day, having a wing span of 110 feet and a length of over 67 feet. It was normally manned with a crew of ten and could boast a max cruising speed of 290 mph. The B-24 was built in larger numbers than any other American combat aircraft in history, with a production of all variants totaling 19,203 aircraft. The B-24 served with a number of other allied air arms and flew in all combat theaters during WWII.
In late 1943, with transition training in the B-24 completed, Dad became part of the 34th Bomb Group (Heavy) and was assigned to the 4th Bomb Squadron. As 22-year old new 2nd Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, and sporting a new set of silver pilot wings, Dad found himself shipping off to the European Theatre as an aircraft commander with a newly assigned B-24H, Number 42-94893. Dad trained and prepared for the deployment with a crew that would fly most of the time as a team during their operations out of Mendlesham AB, England. Prior to their arrival at Mendlesham AB the crew gave their B-24 the name “Hells Belle”. In pictures of the airplane that survive today there is a painting of a girl on the left side of the fuselage….Dad still claims he doesn’t know who the picture depicts; however, I think he knows and is just “holding out” on me.
The 34th Bomb Group was part of the U.S. Eighth Air Force and composed of the 4th, 7th, 18th and 391st Bomb Squadrons, all of which were based at Mendlesham Air Base in the United Kingdom. The 34th arrived in England in April, 1944 and began their first daylight bombing raids against Nazi occupied Europe in May of that year. During this period the 34th Bomb Group would be labeled with the nickname, “Red Tail Devils” which was in part due to the red tail markings carried by Group aircraft. Dad and his crew flew their first combat sortie together in Hells Belle on May 23, 1944 with a mission to Etampes Mondesir. The 34th Bomb Group put up 36 aircraft on that morning and Dad flew in the lead squadron. The Group dropped 117 tons of bombs that morning and had ten aircraft damaged, including slight damage to Hells Belle. Dad would complete 33 combat missions while assigned to the 34th Bomb Group with some of the more notable targets being Kiel, Halberstadt, Lutzkerdorf, Diepholz, Misburg, and Hemmingstadt. Dad piloted Hells Belle on 15 of his 33 combat sorties. Unfortunately, Hells Belle was lost during a mission on July 19, 1944 when being flown by a replacement crew. The entire crew was killed in a collision with another B-24 while preparing to initiate their bombing run. Dad’s final combat mission in the B-24 occurred on August 24, 1944 when he piloted aircraft number 42-94869 on a mission to bomb targets at Kiel and Hemmingstadt. This was one of the most difficult and costly missions flown by the 34th Bomb Group during its tour in England. Virtually all of the 39 B-24’s launched by the 34th that day sustained damage and three aircraft were lost. A total of 27 aircrew members were MIA on this day and five crewmen were wounded. This was also the final mission of the 34th Bomb Group flying the B-24. The Group would transition to the B-17 and continue combat over Europe through part of 1945. The 34th Bomb Group was formally deactivated in August 1945. Dad did not transition to the B-17 and would return stateside late in 1944 to become a B-24 instructor.
Following the war Dad left the service briefly; however, he returned to the newly created U.S. Air Force in October 1947 with a “Regular Commission” and soon found himself flying B-29’s with the 72nd Strategic Recon Squadron and later transitioned to the Convair RB-36 “Peacemaker”. The B-36 was a huge aircraft and was America’s first intercontinental strategic bomber specifically designed to deliver a nuclear weapon for the Air Force’s new Strategic Air Command. As a youngster I can remember seeing the big planes at Travis AFB, California in the early 1950s and recall the unique and thunderous roar of its six piston engines and four turbo jets. On several occasions I can even remember being permitted to climb into the big plane and pulling myself on a trolley through the long tunnel that connected the bomb-bay area to the rear gunner position. After leaving Travis AFB Dad would later go on to fly a number of different aircraft that included the B-25, C-47, B-26, T-33 and others. In the 1960’s Dad was assigned to the 381st Strategic Missile Wing and was a Titan missile site commander during the Cuban Missile Crisis and later the Deputy Commander for Operations with the missile wing. The Titan was the first generation of America’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and was deployed in hardened silos designed to withstand the impact of “first strike” Soviet missiles. Dad ended his military career as Defense Attache in West Germany, retiring from the Air Force as a full Colonel in April, 1973.
During his military career Dad was awarded a number of decorations which included the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal w/three Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Force Commendation Medal w/three Oak Leaf Clusters, World War II Victory Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award w/one Oak Leaf Cluster, Army Commendation Medal, and Distinguished Unit Citation. At the culmination of his career he was presented the Legion of Merit and received the coveted Grosse Verdienstkreuz medal from the West German government for his service as Defense Attache.
Looking back on the rare times that I shared moments with Dad reflecting on his military service he related a few stories about England and also flying the B-36. I deeply regret not documenting those discussions more thoroughly. I know he was proud of his B-24 crew and remained in contact with most of them over the years. Dad passed away in March, 2014 and was the last surviving member of the Hells Belle Crew.