United States Navy
United States Marine Corps Reserve
NAVAL AIRCREWMAN’S CREED
I am a United States Naval Aircrewman, member of a combat team. My pilot and shipmates place their trust in me and my guns. I will care for my plane and guns as I care for my life. In them I hold a power of life and death – life for my countrymen, death for the enemy. I will uphold my trust by protecting my pilot and plane to the absolute limit of my ability. So help me God.
It’s early dawn in the spring of 1944, at Dunkeswell near Exeter in Southern England, approximately 200 miles southwest of London. Sixty thousand pounds of airplane, fuel, depth charges, .50 caliber machine guns plus ammunition and ten crewmen are hurtling down the runway. The four huge Pratt and Whitney supercharged radial engines are straining and 110 feet of thin aluminum wingspan is clawing at the air. Ten pairs of eyes are watching for the commit point, beyond which there is no stopping the airplane or safely aborting the takeoff run. It either flies or ends up in a flaming, tangled heap at the end of the runway. Slowly, gradually, the Liberator lifts off the runway and gains altitude. The crew begins to breathe a bit easier and settles in for another long patrol hunting German submarines.
In the belly of that Liberator was precisely where Aviation Radioman 3/C Arthur James Tatum of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania wanted to be on that English morning. He was commencing another of many anti-submarine patrol missions over the Bay of Biscay, and later, after D-Day, over the English Channel.
The Bay of Biscay, located to the north of Spain, west of France and south of England, was known as the “Valley of Death” among German submariners (U-boat men) from 1943 onwards. The “U” stood for undersea boat, hence the name U-boat. By that time, the allies had gained almost total air supremacy all over the bay and were sinking U-boats only a few hours from their occupied French ports. Approximately 65 German U-boats were sunk in the area, a significant portion of Germany’s overall losses. Losses got so bad that the Germans experimented with specially modified submarines equipped with additional deadly anti-aircraft guns in an attempt to fight off the allied aircraft. They were not successful. Arthur and his fellow air crewmen were relentless.
The Consolidated B-24/PB4Y-1 Liberator was a tool of war designed to drop bombs on enemy targets. While the Boeing Company B-17 Flying Fortress was the more glamorous American bomber of WWII, the B-24 was viewed with a certain disdain by some who flew her who would rather have flown the B-17. The B-17 was considered a pilot’s airplane and was relatively easy to fly. The Liberator was a bit quirky. Landing gear malfunctions were common. Arthur says “Sometimes we had to give the nose wheel a kick to make it go down.” The controls were “heavy” and the wings had a tendency to twist, altering the flight characteristics of the aircraft. Equipped with a radar dome in place of the bottom gun turret, the Liberator was ideal for convoy escort and anti-submarine warfare.
Arthur’s patrols typically lasted anywhere from eight to twelve hours. The Liberator had a top speed of approximately 279 miles per hour and a range of 2,960 miles. The airplanes long range and ability to spend time on station made them great sub hunters. How Arthur Tatum ended up in the belly of that airplane is a story in itself.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 21, 1923, the son of a Pennsylvania Railroad brakeman, Arthur was a recent 18 year old high school graduate when WWII started. His plan, prior to the war starting, was to follow in his older brothers footsteps and join the Navy. Arthur enlisted in October 1942. The draft age had recently been lowered to age 18 but he went down to the Philadelphia Customs House and enlisted the day before the change was announced. Enlisting required his mother’s consent which he obtained that same day, but only after he had enlisted. However, her support of his decision was never in doubt.
Following Navy Basic Training in Newport, Rhode Island, Radio/Telegraph School in Boston, Massachusetts, Aviation Radio School in Millington, Tennessee, Operational Training and Gunnery School in Jacksonville, Florida, he was shipped to England in the fall of 1943. He reported to VB-105 and began flying anti-submarine patrols.
While bomber crews flying high altitude bombing missions over Germany had to contend with intense German anti-aircraft fire and fighter aircraft, crews flying convoy and anti-submarine patrols had to deal with monotony. Arthur operated the airplanes radar but often swapped positions with other crewman and took his turn on the guns. Flying at altitudes of between 800 and 1,000 feet while conducting both radar and visual scanning of the sea searching for submarines had its own special hazards. Flying well within range of anti-aircraft guns and at low altitude meant that there was little or no time to bail out if the aircraft was hit by enemy fire. The water in the bay was very cold and there was little chance for survival if an aircraft crashed into the sea. Generally all that remained was an oil slick and bits of wreckage. It was no different for the German U-boat men whose submarines were sunk by the Liberators.
Being shot at by Germans was bad, but the weather was probably worse. England’s weather was unpredictable and aircraft returning from patrol were routinely diverted to other bases due to bad weather at their home field.
Arthur served under a number of aircraft commanders including approximately ten missions with Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., whom he describes as a “gutsy guy”. Joseph P. Kennedy was the older brother of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. Both liked and respected by his crewmen for his piloting and command skills, Kennedy volunteered for a mission from which he did not return. He simply disappeared. It was later determined that his airplane exploded over the English Channel with only Kennedy and a co-pilot aboard.
Like many veterans who have served in combat, Arthur does not like to talk about the aircrews who were lost to either accidents or enemy fire, and, like most survivors, he considers himself “lucky” to have survived. Arthur described aviation warfare as “clean” and somewhat “impersonal”. Although he heard and felt the concussion from bombs dropped from his aircraft onto German ships, he was not face to face with the enemy and has a great deal of respect for those who were. The only gun that Arthur fired prior to entering the Navy was a BB gun. He tells of shooting and wounding a bird with that gun. He felt so bad that he nursed the bird back to health and watched it fly away. With the exception of German submarines, he has never hunted anything since.
He clearly remembers June 5, 1944, the day before D-Day and the allied invasion of Normandy. That evening the sky was filled with transport aircraft taking off from nearby fields towing gliders filled with troops. Only later did he learn that it was the initial wave of airborne troops headed for the coast of Normandy. He knew virtually nothing of the overall military strategy and timetable and jokingly admits that General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, didn’t “take him into his confidence.” However, he flew patrols over the English Channel immediately after D-Day and witnessed some of the action on the beaches of Normandy from the air.
Thirty missions was the rumored point after which crew members were rotated back to the United States. Arthur flew 43 missions “flirting with Herman the German” as he puts it.
He returned to the United States in September 1943 and commenced a 30 day leave. He reported to Norfolk, Virginia one month later, and learned that he had been accepted for pilot training for which he had applied prior to leaving England. After a brief academic refresher course at St. Olaf’s College, he reported to Athens, Georgia for pilot training. While he was there, the war ended. He regrets being stuck in Georgia while everyone else was having a good time “kissing the girls” in New York and other cities.
Arthur withdrew from the pilot training program correctly assessing that the demand for pilots would taper off. He was discharged from the Navy in November 1945 and returned to Philadelphia. Reflecting on his WWII service Arthur stated he “did a good job, overall. All the guys did….I was just glad to be there and help out.” Like many returning veterans he didn’t fully understand the full scope of the conflict until after the war ended.
Arthur’s family has a strong tradition of WWII Naval service. His mother was immensely proud of her sons and displayed a Blue Star Flag in her window. Each blue star on the flag represented a service member on active duty. A gold star was displayed if a service member was killed in action or died in service. If several stars were displayed in one family the gold star was placed at the top. His mother’s flag had three blue stars. Most Blue Star Flags were hand made by the mothers of service men and women. Roseann Bridgman, Co-Chairman of the Veterans Memorial project, remembers “As a kid, I remember walking on the street in my home town and seeing so many windows with the little flags with the blue and gold stars. We all knew what they stood for, particularly the gold star. We passed the “gold star” houses in a hushed reverence.”
Arthur’s brothers Edward D. Tatum and Ellis B. “Buck” Tatum served in the Navy as did his father D. Ellis Tatum. Arthur is the only survivor. His brother Buck passed away shortly after the Veterans Memorial dedication. Arthur, his two brothers, and his father are all honored and remembered with bricks at the Veterans Memorial.
Arthur corresponded frequently with his mother and girlfriend while overseas. His letters to his girl were labeled SWAK “Sealed With A Kiss” on the back of the envelope. They were married shortly after his discharge and Arthur considered himself extremely fortunate because, as he puts it, “The competition was pretty tough.”
The end of WWII did not spell the end of Arthur’s military service. He joined the Marine Corps Reserve shortly after completing his active Navy service and he was activated shortly after the outbreak of the Korean conflict. He was assigned to a Marine aviation group at Quantico, VA. He was near the end of his active duty commitment and was never assigned to duty in Korea. Arthur was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1952.
Arthur holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, the ETO Campaign Medal, the American Defense and WWII Victory Medals.
~ GEORGE REISWIG
Some material in this article was drawn from U.S. Navy PB4Y-1 (B-24) Liberator Squadrons in Great Britain during World War II by Alan C. Carey – A Schiffer Military History Book