From bi-planes to B-17 bomber, 100th BG veteran, ‘Wolff Pack’ pilot, shares memories of WWII

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part article on retired Capt. Robert “Bob” Wolff, veteran of the 100th Bomb Group and World War II survivor. Look out for Part 2, which includes the story of Wolff’s final mission and his time as a prisoner of war.

It was St. Patrick’s Day – March 17, 1942 – when 18-year-old Robert Wolff signed up with the U.S. Army Air Forces after watching events unfold after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

“I had stopped by the Naval Air Corps first, but they wouldn’t touch me because I didn’t have a full college education – I didn’t know you had to have a college education to be shot at!” chuckled Bob Wolff, 100th Bomb Group veteran, now age 100, during a video interview May 19, 2022.

Before the war, Wolff graduated high school and spent a year at the University of California, Los Angeles, before deciding he should learn something about business, so he took time off and started work in an oil company office for a year.

“I was born in San Francisco, and at the age of 3 months I decided I was going to Los Angeles, and brought my folks with me so my dad could get a job at an oil company,” he joked. “At the time it was one of the bigger oil companies, and we ended up living in Hollywood for a short time. In 1929 we moved to Beverly Hills – not the high tone Beverly Hills, but more the middle-class type.”

His father soon joined the U.S. Navy as an officer, and would later become commander of the Navy Supply Corps.

The day it all began

Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor, and life soon changed for Wolff when he became a buck private, then aviation cadet, in the USAAF.

“I was sent to Santa Ana Army Air Base, which was a ground base, where we learned how to wear the uniform and salute officers. We also had to march like crazy, and learn aircraft identification amongst other things,” he recalled.

His journey continued when he was sent to Thunderbird Field in Arizona for primary flight training for around six to eight weeks.

“We nearly got washed out once because I ground looped (dragged a wing tip) in a Stearman PT-17 – a fabric-covered biplane – on a windy day; but after a flight review I was allowed to go on, and still graduated,” recalled Wolff. “Then I went to Minter Field, near Bakersfield, California, and learned to fly the BT-13 Valiant, a single-engine, all-metal aircraft which had a ‘big plane’ feel to it. That’s where we began formation and night flying.”

Next was Roswell, New Mexico, where he learned to fly a twin-engine AT-17 Bobcat, which was a wood-framed aircraft with fabric on the wings.

‘B-26 please…’

“They told us not to dive too fast because the fabric came off, and if we did that we were history,” remarked the veteran pilot. “Once we graduated from there, we were asked what we wanted to fly. I told them I wanted to fly a B-26 (Marauder), but instead they put me in a B-17 Flying Fortress!”

The new pilot was then sent to Gowen Air Base, Boise, Idaho, for B-17 training where he joined another crew as a co-pilot. Before that crew shipped out, Wolff was moved out and given his own crew. They went to Caspar, Wyoming, for more advanced training which included long-distance navigation, high-altitude formation flying and low-level gunnery practice.

“From there we went to Kearney, Nebraska, and picked up our airplane before flying it down to Gulfport, Mississippi, at very low altitude, at or below 100 feet, over the treetops. There were three of us, and we got to see all the moonshiners making ‘White Lightning,’ which was illegal booze at that time,” recalled Wolff. “We flew right over one moonshiners’ camp and I saw cans and bottles of all kinds of equipment. I tasted some of that whiskey after the war… wow!”

UK bound

Upon arriving in Gulfport, he and his crew flew around for a while before returning to Nebraska. They soon received orders for Bangor, Maine, where they filled up on gas before heading to Newfoundland and topped off their tanks, then made their way over to Glasgow, Scotland.

“Once we arrived, we had to hand over our aircraft before being further assigned. We then got on the train with orders to go to a place called Diss, and were picked up there by folks from the 100th Bomb Group in a couple of GI trucks. We clambered in with all our gear – which we’d brought over in the bomb bay of our B-17, where we had to put floorboards in so the bags wouldn’t drop out if the bomb bay doors accidentally opened,” the World War II veteran remarked.

This was the same type of flooring used in the B-17s dropping food/supplies to the Dutch during the “Chowhound” missions near the end of the war.

“The first mission I had was around two or three days later, when I was assigned as a co-pilot with another crew to learn what combat was all about. I think that mission was over the north German coast, somewhere near the North Sea,” he said.

That familiarization mission was with Capt. Robert M. Knox, flying the well-known B-17 “Picklepuss” July 28, 1943, a mission to bomb an aircraft factory near Oschersleben, Germany. Ironically and tragically, Knox and six of his crew were killed just a few weeks later when they were shot down on the Regensburg mission — the same mission on which Wolff distinguished himself through his superb flying skills.

“We had a little bit of flak and a couple of fighter attacks, but no damage done. I thought, ‘Well this isn’t too bad! Later, I was on a few aircraft missions where there was damage, but nobody got hurt on our crew the whole time we were there, which was very fortunate. At the time, I was pretty naïve as to what combat involved, but I found out it was a little bit tougher than that,” he said. “I got my crew back and we flew seven missions, then on mission number eight we started getting shot at pretty bad by some ME-109s (German Messerschmitt fighter aircraft).”

Thorpe Abbotts

Wolff shared his memories of when he arrived at Thorpe Abbotts in July 1943, where he and his crew were assigned to the 418th Bomb Squadron within the 100th BG.

“It was full of B-17s, and a little bit overwhelming to someone who was only 21 years old! We were assigned our bunks in one of the Quonset huts; the officers were in one section and enlisted were elsewhere. The four officers shared a bedroom and there was a communal bathroom for everyone in our hut. The only things I brought from home were some pictures of my future bride and my folks, and I had an electric shaver – which was unique at that time,” he said. “But we got by with what we had.”

One of most notorious missions Wolff’s crew was part of was the Regensburg shuttle mission, Aug. 17, 1943, which happened to be the first anniversary of the 8th Air Force’s first mission over Europe, specifically flying the B-17. It was Aug. 17, 1942, when the 97th Bomb Group flew the first mission to bomb marshalling yards at Rouen, France.

Ready for Regensburg

“We were scheduled to fly that mission a week before, but they canceled it due to bad weather,” he recalled. “When we had the meeting before the flight, around 6 or 7 a.m., we were all piled in another big Quonset hut and there was a map up on the stage, covered with a cloth. When they removed the cover, we could see the map showed the route of the aircraft going over into Germany then heading south, then west, toward Italy and Switzerland, before ending up in North Africa. There was a big moment of silence before a lot of chit-chat started going on. Once they’d quieted everyone down, we were told the reason we were going to Regensburg was to bomb an aircraft factory, and it was probably simpler and safer to then head south and go over the Mediterranean to avoid all the air combat.”

Wolff told how their group lost nine aircraft – half the group – on that one mission, which contributed to the 100th BG’s soon-to-be legendary nickname of “The Bloody Hundredth,” referring to the great number of losses they endured.

“It was the first major loss we had, and was pretty shocking. Although we had a lot of losses after that, fortunately we weren’t involved in those. I think when we were lost, it was the only one that 8th Air Force had that day, so if that makes us famous, I’ll take it with a cup of tea,” he remarked.

Shortly after, Wolff and his crew crossed into Belgium, where their journey began to take a turn for the worse.

Nose dive

“It was a beautiful day, cloudless at the beginning, and nice weather – well, if we weren’t being shot at, it would have been a beautiful day. Right after we crossed the mainland, either flak or fighter fire must have damaged the latch on the life raft door; the door flopped open, the life raft popped out and hit the horizontal stabilizer on the port (left) side and put a pretty good dent in it. That caused the plane to go into a nose dive – we were flying on the right wing of the lead plane – but fortunately we didn’t hit anybody on our way down,” he exclaimed. “We managed to get back up into formation, and about 10 or 15 minutes later, we took what I believe to be a 20 mm shell; it hit the leading edge of the vertical stabilizer and put a big hole in it, which immediately began sucking air in and the rudder began to vibrate quite badly! I couldn’t even keep my feet steady on the pedals because it would jar me all over the place – I learned how to cope with it and we did all right, but between the two wounds that the plane had, we had to push the throttles up a little bit more to keep up with the formation.”

Wolff said thankfully it was the only damage their aircraft suffered. They weren’t hit by any aircraft bullets, and when they were about five minutes from their target at Regensburg, suddenly all the fighter jets disappeared and there was no more flak.

“We dropped our bombs successfully – and I think, fairly accurately – because it put the factory out of business for quite a while! Then we headed south, and I was cussing out then-Col. (Curtis) LeMay, who was leading the formation. He circled the whole six or seven groups so we could catch up, as we were the last group in the formation. I apologized to him much later, when he was a retired general, and told him, ‘I’m sorry I cussed you out – I didn’t understand what was going on.’”

Wolff shared how they continued over Italy and Switzerland as they headed towards the coast of North Africa.

Red lights mean danger

“About halfway across, I noticed the red lights going on the gasoline gauges, which indicated they were getting low and instead of blinking, they were solid red… We started looking for any place we could find on the coast as we approached it, and I found this one airfield, which was British-occupied with just mats on the sand.”

Sheets of steel matting, commonly called “Marston matting” were used to quickly make a suitable landing surface on bare ground.

“When we came into land, there were other aircraft that had also landed there,” said Wolff. “As we were on our final approach we told them we were very low on gas; they asked if we could go around, and I told them, ‘No, we can’t!’ Apparently there had been an accident on the ground and they wanted to clear it up before we got there. I told them we couldn’t do it and that we were so low on gas that the red lights were going. I continued coming in to land, and also told them the plane wasn’t responding properly anyway, so we made our landing.”

The bomber pilot continued that being a tail dragger aircraft, once on the ground, the B-17 tanks were filled so that any fuel in them ran away from the intake, and the engines began to die off as they taxied toward their stand where they were supposed to stop. Tail dragger refers to the landing gear arrangement on the B-17. Later aircraft designs typically used the “tricycle” landing gear arrangement with a nose landing gear, as opposed to the tail landing gear of the B-17.

Ice cream in Marrakesh

“Fortunately we had enough power to keep it going, but the engines all died before we had a chance to shut ‘em off,” he said. “But we did shut them off, left the plane there and stayed overnight. That evening, a motorcycle came by and took me for a ride to the headquarters there, and I explained our predicament to the people in charge. The next day, another plane flew in, picked us up and flew us to Marrakesh, Morocco, where we spent the next four or five days. That was nice – we got to see a little bit of the town and had some ice cream.”

Wolff said they were then assigned to fly back to England with a general, who was up at the front of the plane while Wolff and his crew were in the tail end.

“There were things that I saw on that mission that reminded us we were in a bloody war; I can recall one scene where a B-17 was going down and flames were coming out of every opening on that hull,” he recalled. “I don’t know how many – if any – survived that one, but I think some did. It was a mess.”

Explosions in Paris

“Going from being a naïve 21-year-old, new pilot, to flying missions and seeing aircraft, team mates and friends fall out of the sky, well it’s a learning experience and you soon found out it wasn’t all tea and roses, if you know what I mean. You just went there and hoped it wouldn’t happen to you; as it worked out it did happen to us, though we were lucky and didn’t get hurt too bad. But we went on other missions. I recall one where we were flying to drop some bombs in France and we were right over Paris – I looked down and could see the Eiffel Tower, which looked about an inch high! I thought to myself, ‘That’s nice’ – then I looked up and noticed the formation, before seeing a plane in front of us blow up. We didn’t get hurt on that mission, but I was aware there were problems,” Wolff recalled.

He then shared the story of the mission which was to change their lives yet again.

“We were flying at 20,000 feet when I happened to look down and saw four little flashes in a row. I immediately thought to myself, ‘Uh oh – somebody’s shooting at us…’ I glanced at the clock and marked off 20 seconds, then as it reached that there were a bunch of explosions just off our left wing, but far enough away so that the shrapnel only got one landing light and punched a few holes in the hull. Thankfully nobody got hurt,” Wolff chuckled. “That’s about as close as we got, and we didn’t get any problems after that until the last mission.”

That “last mission” resulted in Wolff and his crew being shot down and ending up as prisoners of war.

Editor’s note: Look out for Part 2 of Bob Wolff’s story on our website soon.