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Renny Greenstone Goes to War

Seems like a long long time ago. But sometime in early 1943, I got a letter written in military governmentaleze where it said something beginning with "following-named personnel WP on March 10, 1943 to the Bronx campus of NYU." A footnote explained that WP meant "will proceed." There was other stuff that I succeeded in decoding.

As a result of this official notification I put a few things in a satchel and walked up the hill south from our apartment house at 2290 Andrews Avenue the two or three blocks to my new assignment! Other guys were showing up from all over the country. I don't think I had a rival for proximity.

The significance of checking in at NYU was that I was now formally on active duty on what was then denoted the U.S. Army Air Corps. (The U.S. Air Force (USAF) didn't exist until after WWII with the creation of the Department of Defense in 1947.) Somehow I found Army Headquarters on the campus and was issued my khakis-underwear on up--and some very heavy military shoes. Then I found my new quarters on the south side of the campus. The new home was an apartment house where the residents had apparently been evicted in favor of us valiant troops. My apartment had a set of three-level iron bunks, and I think I elected the topmost?? And so I met my new army fellow enrollees who were going to learn meteorology with a future of being commissioned weather forecaster officers when and if we graduated. At the moment we were simply what used to be called buck privates. Everybody was supposed to have completed one year of college when we showed up, but actually I had completed two years in the engineering program at City College at that time, and had an advantage in preparation for the courses we had to pass.

Background on my enrollment at NYU: Sometime earlier the Army had announced a program in which I could enroll in the "enlisted reserve corps." The idea was that those of us who signed up could continue in our college programs until the Army's needs for us required us to wear the uniform. I felt at the time that my mother would never have stood for my enlistment in the Army, but this program seemed reassuring to her. At the time other friends-at least one named Julian Stern-had signed up with another "stay in college until we need you" program. Sadly, that group was yanked out off college--called to active duty to serve in the Battle of the Bulge. Maybe this wasn't directly how it went. I've never heard of Julian since our days in college. We had gone through all the grades from first through high school together.

Unfortunately for the apartment house owner, one of my new bunkmates, named Sidney Cohen, had come to this program directly from service in the Army and knew what we had to do to get the apartment ready for the standard inspection that was bound to come. With his info on how things were to be done, we set to work with buckets of hot soapy water and "GI'd" the parquet floor to its absolute ruin.

Well here goes another little bit of the long story of my military career.

To begin with, the NYU program was set for a total of 15 months-the first six months were called Part B, pre-meteorology, and the second part was meteorology-A for nine months.

We were in one sense just a bunch of college students wearing the Army uniform and in the other sense we were really in the Army and just incidentally doing some college courses.

In the military sense we were commanded by a Major Hanson, a nice old gentleman left over from WW I and, more importantly by Sergeant Phillips, who dealt with us every day and kept us well aware that we were really in the Army.

In some miraculous manner Sgt. Phillips got us out on the campus green (spring time then) field and lined us up in platoons and squads and companies and the usual Army stuff. Platoon leaders were typically guys who had already been in the Army and knew the Army ways. The line-up included things like "Dress right, Dress"!, "Column march, March"! "Column left turn, Turn,"etc. All of this done with increasing military precision. The repetitions of the ultimate do-something words were Army standard. Dress right meant sticking your arm out to the right to get the proper spacing from the guy on your right.

Along with lining up and marching we learned how and whom to salute and how to do an about face-(military style). Toe of right foot behind heel of left foot and spin around to facing exactly the way you started. All very useful (for guys who might be weather forecasters some day???) Ya never know.

We were an odd bunch of maybe 250 guys with various educational backgrounds-some music majors for instance-others I don't know what, and some of us, like me, physics, math, or engineering majors. The courses we had to take were a snap for some of us and disasters for others. A group of guys who probably shouldn't been there, and were ultimately eliminated, couldn't make any sense of calculus or worst of all vector mechanics. They even invented a marching song about the impossibility of adding 3 and 4 and coming out in the vector world with 5!

Calculus was taught by a fine old gentleman named Professor Hammond, must have been on the regular NYU faculty. He had a wonderful saying he impressed upon us: "the beauty of the calculus is that all you have to do is learn a few simple principles and you would be as good as Newton or Leibniz himself." Since I'd already studied calc at CCNY I easily passed although whether I found out what the few simple principles were I still don't know.

Some of the other courses were taught by guys who were now commissioned officers and had gotten through the Meteorology-A program a year or two before we came along. Classes were in NYU classrooms or else the library building's auditorium where we could all be lectured at once.

On the military side we were required to take a lecture by Sgt. Phillips on how to "strip down" a 45 pistol. So he stood on the stage at the front of the auditorium with his pistol and did his thing as we watched and, of course, never tried it ourselves. But we were now "qualified" as far as the Army was concerned. Later they took us to the near-by Kingsbridge Armory for target practice. After I checked my target I wasn't surprised to see that I never hit anything. I imagine my shots went off and hit the target for the guy next to me??? But I was now qualified completely on the "45." Army again!

Great story that really impressed the neighbors: One summer day we were issued back packs and gas masks hanging on our backs as well and marched down near-by University Avenue to head across the George Washington Bridge to the Palisades on the opposite side of the Hudson River. As they looked out their windows the neighbors waved their good-bys to the boys going off to war. We spent the night in pup tents fighting mosquitoes and then got organized, re-crossed the bridge, and must have shocked the neighbors who saw our triumphant rerun from battling the NJ mosquitoes.

Somehow the first six months of our stay at NYU saw the end of our pr-meteorology academic training and also the wipeout of about half of our class who, sadly, but not surprisingly, were sent off to the real Army. We. the lucky ones, were now haunted by the rumor that our follow-up program was not to be. More or less at the last minute, we found that we were saved and could go on to become "Aviation Cadets" in the Meteorology-A nine-month program. Among the nice touches was that we were now to able to dress in the fancier world of the Army officers, although without the bars and stuff that would signify rank. When girls would ask us who or what we were, we would tell them that we were highly qualified "space cadets." That made everyone happy.

We left off where the fifteen months at NYU were close to the end. Our elderly commanding officer, WWI retread, Major Hanson, took it upon himself to give each of us a final "orals." Perhaps a hundred of us were still in the running, and so he questioned each in turn: "Bound your state." I had to tell him the names of all the states that had boundaries with New York. To this day I don't know if I ever got this right, but like all the others, I must have passed. And so on a lovely June day we graduated as second lieutenants and became "qualified" us army weather forecasters. this apparently posed a problem for the higher ups who could really see little useful about the "surge" of 5 groups from the met-a programs around the country. some actually did become weather forecasters, but a "select" group was picked out for a new specialization. we were to become radar meteorologists. a third group went i know not where to do what?

That's how we radar weather men got to spend some time in cambridge, mass, at first as harvard students of basic electronics, and then at mit as radar specialists. Underlying this was the fact that meteorologists were now using radars on the ground, just as they do today, to study precipitation and add to their forecasting skill. We, as radar specialists, would be expected to use the radar and also be able to repair anything that went wrong. Not likely!

The radar part of the program took place at some mit facility near boston harbor, and we were cautioned that this was all highly secret. We went by subway or whatever they call it in boston and kept quiet about the new tech miracle we would be studying even though anybody who wanted to could read all about it in the current readers digest. Our cambridge set-up was really wonderful in its way. We were lodged in old-fashioned rooms with fireplaces that were part of the traditional harvard campus. In spare time i went "sculling" on the charles river. Not a bad deal! I learned to "pahk my cah in the havvid yahd like any other citizen of cambridge. (of course we didn't have any cahs to pahk,)

As usual when this was all finished there came the question of what use we would be to the army: what to do with so many radar weather men???? The final answer, at least for some us, was truly inspired genius. It turns out that the b29s were now flying across the pacific to japan and back from the marianas islands on bombing missions, and wouldn't it be wonderful to have some of us sitting at the radar consoles on special b29 weather reconnaissance observation flights to study any weather patterns we might observe while our partners in crime sat up in the nose and reported on clouds and stuff from their vantage point. We "radar pros" were now replacing the enlisted man who would have helped on bomb targeting and the guy up front would replace the bombardier. I'm sure that members of the crew were not thrilled to have us junior officers replacing the enlisted guy who had trained with them back in the states and probably knew more about the apq-13 bombing radar than we would ever know. Nobody ever said anything about that.

Part 2

We pick up at the end of the Harvard/MIT story where once again the powers that were must have been scratching their heads: what to do with the new trainees who were now available to dispatch to ground-based radar weather stations that were full-up? The head scratching ended up with sending some of us by freight rail to San Francisco. I'm not sure if we actually knew what was intended for us. Any way our train rolled across the country stopping many times on sidings on the way, and we got to chat with the locals as we rolled slowly along or parked on a siding allowing for more important travel!

We finally ended up at an Army base across the Golden Gate Bridge and spent evenings thumbing rides to the big city. Somehow, we found out that we were to fly across the Pacific, and I'd guess we knew that we were to be fly boys on B29s. A shock! Never thought I'd be a flying weather man. (I thought of having a cushy job staying out of harm's way.) They flew us out to Hawaii for a pleasant stay, and then we boarded an old Army aircraft called the C 54. We sat on facing rows of bucket seats as we were transported with a coupla stops across the Pacific Ocean ending up on Guam.

My thoughts of Guam as a tropical bug-infested island where we'd be using mosquito nets and the like were completely off. Apparently, the Army guys who got there before us got rid of the bugs, and I never saw a mosquito net. We didn't have a clue about the fierce combat that preceded our arrival by only a year or so before! Guam was hot and sticky as expected, but a tropical paradise for us. For a month we were able to spend our time swimming and lounging on the beautiful beach called Tumon Bay. We spent some time trying (not often successfully) to break into the coconuts that tumbled from the trees behind us. I wonder what kind of tourist attraction that must have become-probably being visited now by our Japanese mortal enemies of that era. After this, some us were divided up and sent off to Tinian to perform our actual war-time duties such as they were.

In the mean time we were able to visit around the island. I found that if I had an order signed by an officer I could visit a Chamorro (indigenous folks) village. So I sat down at a typewriter and wrote and signed a letter (LT. Greenstone) authorizing me to make such a visit and so I did! Whom I visited, or what transpired there, I can't say. Luckily, the brown snakes that infest the island today had not taken over then.

Evenings, we sat at out-door showings (rain or shine, often rain) of the latest Hollywood movies. We would find out soon that some of the Japanese who didn't know or believe that they had already lost the war had sneaked in to enjoy the show. I wonder if any are still hiding out today-not likely.

After this one-month's vacation we actually got our orders, and I was among the group that was sent to Tinian, 90 miles or so to the north, where I became a member of the 504th bomb group 21st Air Force (I think) commanded by General "iron pants" Le May. The 505th was also on the island with us. We found lodgings in a Quonset hut with the infamous Army canvas cots on wooden frames that were available in camping-out stores in the States after the war.

Then a tragic thing happened. One of the groups that would be converted to the relative safety of weather reconnaissance invited me to fly with them on their final bombing run. Being chicken hearted as ever I turned down the kind invitation, and they never returned! Then a second group that was also about to fly on its last bombing run made me the same offer, and I again turned down the invitation, and they didn't return either! Destiny?

At this point I met up with a newly arrived crew from the States, and we started in on the weather recon mission from scratch. The plane we had was designed as the basic B29 bomber with tail-gate and "waist" gunners who continued to fly with us, but without the original intended bombardier up front and with me at the bomb-guidance radar in the rear. Another weather guy sat up forward, where the bombardier would have sat, looking out the window and reporting on clouds and surface weather over the ocean. Our mission was to fly 17 hours from Tinian to Japan and return to Guam to report on the weather (debriefing in Army talk) we had observed. I never got a clue as to any help our info might have provided for the bombers with the risky mission of flying low over Japan.

Every night, before our early morning flight, the ground crew would fill up the tanks with fuel for the extra-long flight. As the vapors from the fuel condensed, there was room for more fuel, and so the ground guys would add more fuel (called load and stuff). We took that for granted and, boy, were we wrong on this one occasion? Coming back we had our biggest scare. The flight engineer reported that we would soon be out of fuel while just a few minutes or so before reaching the airfield on Guam. We were ordered to strap on our parachutes and stand in the exit door way in case we were to abandon the plane or else "ditch" it. Of the two I'd have preferred to land on the water. Summing up, our pilot resorted to "feathering" one or two of the four engines and with a quart or so of fuel remaining we landed "on a wing and a prayer" safely. Phew!

Never meeting any opposition from the Japanese as we flew at 30,000 feet over their homeland, this potential landing disaster was the worst of all the things that happened to us. The Japanese knew that the real enemy was the bombers coming in at 10,000 feet and so engaged them and left us alone. (Although the planes were designed for the high altitude of 30,000 feet, General LeMay had ordered the bombers to come in at 10,000 feet with far greater risk to them but less effectiveness on their missions.)

Flying westward at 30,000 feet, the earlier missions had occasionally found themselves brought down to a ground speed near zero as they unexpectedly found themselves flying into the jet stream that people had not discovered previously, although I don't know why. Surely there were balloon ascents for weather measurements aloft, and somebody should have discovered the strange phenomenon long before???? This was one unintended payoff for meteorology.

In my role as weather observer sitting at the radar, I managed to log a total of fifteen flights and received some kind of air medal with a bronze cluster for this "brave" feat. I'd say my accomplishment was surviving. On the flight everybody was buddy buddy -first names, nobody called anybody "sir" or such. The official okay to everything you heard on the interphones was "roger." " Roger this and roger that" got so tedious that I added my touch by saying "Renfrew" as in Renfrew of the Mounties on the radio of that era.

As I've said above there was little danger from the Japanese. What was really worrisome was take-offs and landings. Our airfield was just long enough for the aircraft to get to flying speed before falling off the cliff at the far end of the field. On landing we had to come in low just clearing the edge of the cliff at that end. The landing field was built up from the limited terrain available. Engine trouble at either end could and did mean doom.

Back on the ground things were different. We officers lived in an area called "officer country." Enlisted men had to go through some kind of interrogation to get into our sacred confines! Anyway they did come in and made deals, something like the CBs (CB stands for construction battalion) in "South Pacific." For one thing they managed to find rubber air mattresses for us, and in turn we provided them with something??? Some true-to-form CB types even scrounged refrigerators from the ships they arrived in for our genteel use!!!! As officers we could buy hard liquor at the PX, and the enlisted guys (otherwise denied) would come in and buy the booze from the officers. Noble me didn't participate in this really criminal behavior. Ironically, we were treated as "officers and gentlemen."

Life on a small island didn't offer much variety. We were on a schedule of one flight every five days with lots of time to kill in other ways. At night we could take jeeps out of the motor pool and run around the island. I often became the driver for these expeditions. There were cultural things. Some musical expert had brought along some 78's, and we listened to Liszt's Les Preludes as he pointed out the themes and the structure of this form of classical music. I decided to teach a class in solid geometry, which I had never studied on my own. I ended up with one enlisted man as my sole pupil. Some efficiency expert apparently decided that we were both wasting time, and so this particular math adventure came to an end.

Looking back, I am still amazed and embarrassed by my naiveté. Near where we were settled in our Quonset huts and spraying the bugs each night with our bug bombs, size of hand grenades, -probably loading the air with DDT, we had yet to hear of Silent Spring and Rachel Carson-there was a fence and settled there were some oriental people-we never got a clue as to who they were and how they got there, and I don't think we ever asked. Their presence was most obvious from a stench that came from their side of the fence where they apparently used human excrement to fertilize their fields! Still don't know.

We in the 504th had a big E as our tail marker, and the other guys had a similarly large X. One day we noticed that another group of B29s was arriving along with some transport aircraft. We found out that this group was the 509th. Not only did they surprise us by having transport aircraft but also, after a while, we noticed that they were using our tail markings. When we asked they told us that they were a "composite" group. Of course they were, but why the transport aircraft? Why our tail markers? We puzzled about this a bit, and then somebody passed the word or well-planted rumor that they had a radar-guided bomb on board, and we were pretty much satisfied with that bit of insight. It wasn't till the day that along with the rest of the world we heard about the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that we also found out who these guys were and what they were doing on our little island! This was one unhappy secret (no "leaks" on this one) that was well hidden from the neighbors (us) as well as everyone else.

Even after Japan surrendered we continued to fly our recon missions, and I finally decided I'd had enough of B29 flights, opposed by the enemy or not. I shocked some superior officer, probably a grocery clerk in real life, by announcing that I wanted out of flying activities, and got myself grounded. After that for the remainder of my days on Tinian I worked at the weather station, giving flight information to pilots leaving us for the 90 miles to Guam. My way of forecasting was to ask the latest arrivals from Guam as to the weather they encountered and then telling the guys going the other way what I had just learned from the arrivals. What could be better than that?

After the tour of duty at the weather station a bunch of us got orders to fly to Bikini atoll and stay on the island of Kwajalein where they were testing more atomic bombs. Once again the A-bomb and I enjoyed the pleasure of proximity. On the morning of the test we were all sent in the wee hours to a beach where we could sun bathe and wait for the blast. The plane's takeoff runway was too close for comfort but otherwise things were uneventful as far as we were concerned. Thus came to an end my "military" adventures as such, as we then received orders to go to Hawaii and wait for a passenger ship to take us to San Francisco. In due course that's what happened, and again we rolled across the countryside ending up for discharge at Fort Dix, New Jersey. From there I headed for home back in the Bronx, but still connected to Army things by joining the reserve with rank-impressive to me-of captain. How I got from Fort Dix to home I just don't know. And so off with the uniform and on to civilian life.

If you would like to correspond with Renny
and share your own reflections on going to War,
please e-mail him at rennygrz1@verizon.net

Read Barney Hillman's: 50 Yard Line Seats for a Show I Would Rather Have Missed

Read other veteran's memories of serving in World War II

Historical Society Note:  While Renny Greenstone is not a native of Emmitsburg, his son, Jon Greenstone is the Minister of Elias Lutheran Church, so we're going to make him an honorary Emmitsburg resident so we can include his memoirs in our archives ... in doing so, we hope that other World War II veterans follow Renny's lead and send us their stories.