Thursday, March 24, 2016

Log Books and Flight Summaries, Part 1

The following are excerpts from the Pilot's Log book of 1st Lt Joseph Elden Leonard and flight summaries from “417th NFS Illustrated History," edited by Dan Whitney.

Joseph Leonard's Log Book

1st Lt. Leonard and his radar observer Flight Officer Raymond Christensen were night fighters for the 417th NFS, U. S. Army Air Force.  Both were killed in action when their plane was engaging a Nazi night fighter over the Tyrrhenian sea.  Their plane disappeared from radar and presumably crashed into the sea after being shot down.  F/O Christensen was my great-uncle.

Much of the work of the 417th NFS was to protect ship convoys as they transported allied supplies and soldiers.  As you can imagine, these convoys were valuable targets of the Nazis.  Also, crews of the 417th were sent on missions to check out "bogies" that showed upon their radar, and if found to be an enemy plane, engage in combat.

These excerpts begin in Tafaraoui, Algeria, North Africa.  F/O Christensen was radar observer for all of these flights, so I have not mentioned him specifically; any other passengers are noted.   The quotes are from the flight summaries of 1st. Lt. Leonard.   Notes between brackets are mine.  All crews from the 417th are named "Bishop 50, Bishop 51," etc.


Sept. 26, 1943
Flight 1: Beaufighter #819, Duty: ground gunnery, 4:00 pm - 4:30 pm.  "Gunnery Mission, Shadow [name of ground control unit] but playmate failed to take off so I stooged around and did some ground gunnery but the gunsight went out and since the radio transmitter was bad I returned to base and pancaked [landed]."
Flight 2: Beaufighter # 819, with S/Sgt Gonzales, practiced interception from 8:15 pm - 8:50 pm.  "Took off on P.I. [practice interceptions] with playmate to follow.  Bradshaw (Tafaraoui RAF Aerodrome ground control) vectored me out and then my radio transmitter went out and I returned to base and pancaked."
Flight 3: Beaufighter # 911, practice interceptions,  9:30 pm - 11:10 pm.  " PI [practice interception] mission after Bishop 53 pancaked with bad engine.  My radio transmitter seemed weak on take-off but I flew the mission and my radio transmission was weak.  I flew [as the] target on four missions in which Bishop 71 failed to get contacts although my observer got back-blips on each one and attempted interceptions.  My radio transmitter went out during an interception I made on Bishop 71 after he failed to make contact.  I then traded headsets with my observer and Stalecrust [ground control unit] made a very good interception with Bishop 71 as target.  On landing I bounced the first one and pulled an overshot.  Got visual at 1000 ft."

1st Lt. Joseph E. Leonard

Sept. 29, 1943.  Beaufighter #760.  Convoy patrol,  6:50 pm - 8:50pm.  "Convoy Patrol on "Manicure."  Bradshaw [Tafaraoui RAF Aerodrome control] vectored me out and I sighted the convoy at 1903.  The patrol was uneventful.  The weather was perfect.  We came in on "Mother" for about 60 miles.  The plane was in damned good shape."

Oct. 1, 1943.  Beaufighter #743.  Practice interceptions, 1:30 am - 3:45 am.  "Ran PI with Bishop 70 and Fishbone [ground control].  Lt. Palmer pulled a couple good interceptions and then another controller took over and got about two interceptions.  I wrote up the prop pitch control, throttles and damned bolt the keeps sticking in your chest on the Sutton harness."

F/O Raymond Christensen

Oct. 2, 1943.  

Flight 1:  Beaufighter #806.  Formation Flying, G. Gunnery, Night Fighter Training.  1:50 pm - 3:40 pm.   "Formation went ok at 500 yds.  But was spread out too far so we closed in to 150 which was too close.  The slip-stream was too close when turning so we tried 250-300 yds, which was much better.  At the close of the exercise we tried some formation over the salt lake at 500 ft. and then made a run over the field at that altitude.  Bishop 70 and I ran an NFT {night fighter training]and his weapon was bent so I ran two interceptions and then went over to Fishbone [ground control group] for a cockrel and canary check.  I ended up by buzzing them a couple of times.  I came into the circuit cut somebody out and landed.  A 3-point!!!!!"
Flight 2:  Beaufighter #806.  Practice Interceptions.  7:20 pm - 10:50 pm.  "Took off on Vector 280 for a mission with Stalecrust [ground control].  Playmate with Bishop 70.  I climbed to 11,000 ft. and Joe Long took over.  Lt. Long made 14 interceptions in 3 hours and all were good.  The radio transmitter on the stbd set was rather weak.  The landing was lovely but someone dropped the runway about five feet."

Oct. 5, 1943.  Beaufighter #819.   Formation and Night Fighter Training.  2:20 pm - 3:40 pm.  "Got into A/C [air craft] 806 and started the engines but they couldn't close the back hatch so I cut the engines and put my chute in 819 and took off on formation with 53, 59, 70.  The formation was "piss-poor" and when 53 returned to the field we climbed up but didn't run an NFT [night fighter training] because of too many bumpy clouds.  The V. H. F. [very high frequency communications] was very noisy and my transmission was weak.  A/C was in good shape."

Bristol Beaufighters in flight

Oct. 7, 1943.  Beaufighter #834.  Practice Interceptions.  12:15 am - 3:00 am.
"Three interceptions with Stalecrust [ground control], Bishop 65 as playmate.  First visual at 1200 and others at 600 - 900.  AI [airborne intercept radar] was poor and plane and VHF were ok.  Interceptions were good."

To be continued...

Saturday, March 19, 2016

If you've been pursuing your family history very long, you know at some point the "Happy Dance" moments don't come as frequently as they use to.  You've gathered all of the low-hanging fruit, and it takes a little more perseverance to learn something new.   But, oh, when you do...!!

Today a package came in the mail, addressed to me.  When I saw the return address, I knew what it was, and it was all I could do to get into the house with the armload of things I already had without dropping something.  As soon as I was able, I ripped into it, almost in a frenzy by then.   It was a copy of a flight log book from World War II, kept by 1st Lieutenant Joseph Leonard, the pilot that my great-uncle, radar observer Raymond Christensen, had teamed with.  At best, I was hoping for some mention of Raymond, but I really had no idea what sort of information was recorded by the pilot.  My expectations were far exceeded.

I learned that 1st Lt Leonard and my great-uncle spent quite a bit of time training together in England, which I had not realized.  The book logged nearly every flight Raymond made while in the 417th Night Fighter Squadron, with dates and times, at least those made with Leonard, which were likely most of them.  In addition, other personnel in the plane were noted, the type and number of the aircraft flown, and the reason for the flight (i.e. convoy patrol) and destination, if applicable, and how long they were in the air.  This information, particularly the reason for the flight, when correlated with Raymond's descriptive letters home, will give a particularly well-detailed look at Raymond's time with the 417th.

Unfortunately, the entries in the log book stopped abruptly in February, 1944, 3 months before their ill-fated flight of May 13, when the plane and crew went missing.   As a rule, they would have flown between 2-4 times per week , so there are a significant number of flight logs missing.  My guess is that this book was replaced by a new one which has been lost to history (so far), as I believe the pilots were required to keep these records.  Perhaps finding this log this will be our next big breakthrough - and cause the next "Happy Dance."