Bob Malcolm shares memories of WWII
Modest local veteran served in Pacific during war
By HERMAN BROWN
Okmulgee Times editor
Robert ‘Bob’ Malcolm is a modest man when it comes to his military service.
The retired OSU-IT employee plays down his experiences in World War II. He deflects credit to others who put on our nation’s uniform.
But, make no mistake, Bob Malcolm is no less a hero than his fellow members of the Greatest Generation. He served in the military, followed his orders and carried out his assigned duties.
On this Memorial Day weekend, the Okmulgee Times salutes Bob Malcolm for his service to America.
Malcolm was living in Andover, Kansas, when he was drafted in 1942. Prior to that, he led a normal life in America’s Heartland.
He graduated high school and went to work at the Boeing plant in Wichita. He and his sweetheart, Helen, were united in marriage in May of 1941. They were barely 7 months into their marriage when the nation was thrown into war with Japan. The attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, pulled American into World War II against Japan and Germany.
For Malcolm, it was just a matter of time before be would join the war effort.
His draft notice came a year into his married life. This would change everything for the young man from Andover. He was soon on his way to Kansas City to be inducted into the U.S. Army Air Corps - now known as the U.S. Air Force. He would be trained to manufacture parts and repair airplanes. This vital role would be his mission for the duration of the war.
The new member of the military took his early training in California and Oklahoma City (Tinker Air Force). He also had stops in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then on to San Antonio, Texas. He later moved on to Virginia before boarding a ship for the Pacific theater.
“I was with the 60th Air Depot Group,” he said. “We had formed in Oklahoma City at Tinker Field. I stayed with the same unit the whole time.”
The 60th Air Depot Group was sent to New Guinea in the Southwest Pacific Ocean. The group later transferred to Biak after the island was taken by the United States after fierce fighting in late May and June 1944. Mokmer Airfield was the main USAAF facility in a complex of airfields built by the Japanese on Biak Island. The other two airfields were Borokoe and Sorido.
“I spent 2 years and 2 months (in Pacific Ocean duty),” he said.
His most vivid war memories came in 1945.
“It was about the end of the war ,” he said. “A couple of those Jap planes flew in and bombed us on Biak. They were (stationed) on the north end of New Guinea. They (Japanese) bombed us and went back. After that, every night we had an alert.”
In 1945, the Allied forces planned an invasion of mainland Japan. This step was deemed necessary to end the war - but would result in the loss of untold American lives. The invasion was averted, however, because of the atomic bombs designed in the ultra-secret Manhattan Project. The A bombs were dropped on and destroyed the major cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan quickly agreed to surrender and end the war.
News of the surrender brought a joyous response from around the world. Nobody was happier than the service member from tiny Andover, Kansas.
“I was in Biak when they surrendered,” Malcolm recalls. “Oh, we were pretty happy about it!”
It was over 4 months before Sergeant Malcolm would return to the United States to be processed out of the military.
“We didn’t go back real quick,” he recalls. He was sent to a military post in Denver to be processed out of the military.
When he was finished in Denver, he did not have to hop a train to Kansas.
“My dad, my little sister Pat and my wife Helen came out and got me,” he said.
His father, Lee Malcolm, drove to Denver in his 1941 Chevrolet. However, it took help from friends back in Andover to make the trip possible.
“People gave him gas cards to come out and get me,” he said. “I got home to Kansas on Christmas eve at midnight.”
When he got out of the military, Malcolm took a job in his father’s automobile repair shop on the east side of Wichita.
He would soon be introduced to Oklahoma in a very impressive way.
“I came to Billings, Oklahoma, to build Henry Bellmon’s house,” he said.
For the younger folks, Henry Bellmon was elected Oklahoma’s 18th governor. He went on to serve 2 terms in the United States Senate. Bellmon then came back to Oklahoma and was elected as our state’s 23rd governor.
“My wife was his cousin,” Malcolm said.
From the construction work on the Bellmon house, Malcolm came on down to Okmulgee. He was hired at Oklahoma State Tech to teach automotive and building construction.
“I taught automotive for half a day and building construction another half a day,” he said.
Malcolm retired from the college in 1985. He has remained in Okmulgee and lives at the family residence on 9th street. They are members of the First Nazarene Church.
He and Helen are the proud parents of 4 daughters, with one living in Okmulgee, one in Henryetta, one in Arkansas and one in California. They are also blessed with quite a few grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
On May 17, 2014, Bob and Helen Malcolm celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary.
As for his own military service, Malcolm does not want to make a big deal of it. However, he is quick to brag on his friend and fellow First Nazarene Church member Clarence Boudinot.
“Clarence Boudinot has quite a story to tell,” he said. “You should do an article on him.”
The Okmulgee Times is taking Malcolm’s advice. We’ll be writing a feature on his World War II experiences to share with our readers.
Kent Wilson Harrell was on flight crew monitoring Allied attack on French coastline
By HERMAN BROWN
Okmulgee Times editor
World War II began with a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The bloodshed ended in 1945 with the United States winning massive wars over Japan and Germany.
For most of us, World War II is something we know only from grainy movie reels and shocking newspaper headlines. However, there are still Americans alive today who put on a military uniform and fought to save the world.
Kent Wilson Harrell is one of the heroes. Today, we wish to honor the 97-year-old veteran - and all the others who fought for our freedom.
With Veterans Day at hand, we offer this salute to our military veterans.
In 1940, Kent Wilson Harrell had two loves. He loved a young lady named Edweena Louise Moore and he loved music.
Harrell was determined to make both loves a permanent part of his life. He accomplished the first when he married the daughter of Leon Clyde and Artie Lee Bullock Moore.
As for his career, he was prepared to follow his second love. Harrell exited East Central State Teachers College and accepted a job at Liberty Morris High School. It was a homecoming for the young man.
Harrell was born in Belfont, Arkansas in 1916. However, he was only 2 months old when his family made plans to move to Arizona. They loaded him in their covered wagon and headed for a new life out West. They decided to make a quick stop in Okmulgee County to visit relatives. The visit turned out to be something more than a quick stop. The Harrells canceled plans to go on out to Arizona and ended up staying in Okmulgee County.
“That’s as far as they got,” he said. “I grew up here and went to school at Liberty Morris.”
Harrell landed his first teaching job at the same little school where he had graduated.
To the rookie teacher, this opportunity at Liberty Morris perfectly fit his plans.
“I had loved music all my life,” he said. “I planned on directing bands and glee clubs in high school.”
The wonderful life became even more magical when Kent and Edweena learned they would soon be blessed with their first child – a daughter they would name Kay.
While life was nearly perfect in Liberty Morris, the same was not true in other places.
Japan brought out American rage when had carried out the attack on the U.S. military bases in Pearl Harbor. There were 2,403 American service members slaughtered and 1,178 others injured.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded with his “Day of Infamy” speech and declared war on Japan. Germany sided with the Japanese and declared war on the United States.
In those horrific minutes on a bloody Sunday in Hawaii, our nation was forever changed. The same could be said of Kent Wilson Harrell. He could see the war machine lurching into full stride as wars were conducted against the Japanese and Germans.
Harrell decided to volunteer for military duty. He was expecting to be drafted into the army and wanted to have some control over his military options.
“I came here to Okmulgee and volunteered for service,” he said. “But they told me they would probably never need me. We had a child on the way at the time.”
Soon after he became a father, Harrell was pressed into military duty. By then, Harrell had already left his teaching profession to accept a higher pay job in Muskogee. He went to work with the Corps of Engineers on the construction of Camp Gruber. He was a surveyor at the military site.
“I was working on Camp Gruber when I went into the service,” he said. “When she (Kay) was born, I was ready to go.”
He left for duty in December 1942. He was assigned to boot camp at Kelly Field in Texas. His unit was forced to wait their turn to begin training. By a clerical error, when the group just ahead of Harrell’s group graduated, the Army mistakenly put both units on orders for training in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
“We didn’t have boot training,” he said. “We skipped it! They made a mistake and sent us to Las Vegas, New Mexico with the group that just finished boot camp training. We were supposed to be there for 25 days of rough boot training.”
The next step for the Okmulgee County soldier was to begin advanced individual training. As a college graduate and a very smart guy, he tested high enough to qualify for radio operator and mechanic school at Scott Field, Illinois. He went there and finished the training for radio operators and gunners.
Following graduation in Illinois, Harrell was sent to Laredo, Texas, to aerial gunnery school. The airmen then moved around to several different bases before being sent to a final stop in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“We were put in crews there and were given a new B-24 airplane to fly over to England - and then we would do our tour. I was a radio operator, mechanic and gunner. I was on the flight deck of the aircraft.”
Harrell flew 33 missions out of his air base in England. He describes what it looked like to see those missions from the ground.
“You’ve probably seen groups of flying blackbirds. When you saw the fleet of aircraft on their bombing runs, it was pretty much like seeing swarms of blackbirds because it would be miles of aircraft. We’d go to various locations over France and Germany and unload bombs.”
When he first arrived, the B-17 bombers were still doing a lot of the bombing runs. At the time, the flight crews were expected to carry out 25 bombing runs before the airmen were pulled from the mission and returned to America. The new B-24 ended up with a longer assignment.
“Things were going real good,” he said. “The Allies were destroying Germany so they raised our tour to 30 missions.”
Harrell’s crew completed the 29th mission and was prepared to make the 30th and final run. However, their pilot was a well-known first lieutenant who was close to earning the rank of captain. They feared if they finished that 30th run, their tour would be over and the pilot might not get his promotion. They decided to ground the crew for a couple of weeks while awaiting paperwork on that promotion.
Harrell was flying with the 389th Bomb Group near Hethel, England. The unit was a part of the 8th Army Air Force serving in Europe.
Once he began the bombing raids, the bombing raids were completed in a fairly short span.
“It took us exactly four months to fly those missions,” he said. “By then we were ready to come home.”
Each mission was very dangerous. All crew members understood that each bombing raid could be their final flight. That fact was made very clear on his very first outing.
Harrell recalls that on each bombing mission, the standard procedure was to test-fire the airplane guns when flying over the English Channel. The goal was to make sure they worked properly before arriving at the designated target area.
“We had problems on our very first mission,” he said. “Several of the gunners were not able to fire their guns in the edge of France, in enemy territory. We were in a position in the (flying) formation that was one of the most vulnerable positions you could be. German fighter aircraft would always come up and try to shoot down some of the bombers.”
The pilot saw their plight and chose to turn back.
“He said we were sitting out here where we’d just be a sitting duck,” Harrell remembers. “He said ‘We can’t fire back if we are attacked by German fighters, so let’s abandon the mission.’ That’s what we did.”
On their way back to base, the pilot warned that the lone plane could expect to be attacked by a German fighter pilot. In just minutes that’s what happened.
“I looked out one of the windows and saw a German fighter up there just waiting for us,” Harrell said. “He came immediately and made three passes from the tail-end of our aircraft (firing his machine gun on each trip). I don’t know why he made just three unless he ran out of ammunition. We got several holes but none of them to cause any problems. But the tail gunner turret had a big plate glass about an inch and a half or two inches thick in front of him for protection and a 20 millimeter hit right in the middle of that plate-glass on one trip he came in the back end. He was just at-will firing at us. But we made it back home on that mission.”
On a much later mission, one of the B-24’s four engines quit running before the plane arrived to the bomb target.
“We couldn’t fly as fast with a bomb load and three engines,” he recalls. “We fell out of the formation because we couldn’t keep up. One of the things we were always briefed to do was - we were given a primary target and a secondary target, and if you couldn’t hit the targets, we were ordered to pick out a German town and drop the bombs on it, because so many Germans lived there.”
The pilot informed the crew there was no use to carry the bombs “because we were not going to get to the bombing targets, so let’s pick out a place down below and drop our bombs.”
Danger loomed quickly when a malfunction occurred in the bomb doors in the belly of the airplane.
“The doors didn’t open fully,” he said. “When the bombs went out the bottom they knocked off three of the four doors. One of them (didn’t fall off) was just dangling there, but we couldn’t see it and didn’t realize it. The pilot asked the engineer to come up front and see if he could get that engine started. I went back to the back to man his gun position. While I was back there I was looking out the window and saw a spray of something that I thought was gasoline spraying by the window. I told them what I thought – but the engineer said we often have con (condensation) trails on the edge of the aircraft and believed that’s what it was.”
The engineer later returned to his station and quickly realized the spray was fuel and not condensation. He warned them the plane would likely run out of fuel before getting back home.
“So we planned what we’d do,” Harrell said. “We got as close to the French coast and English Channel as we could and would bail out there if we had to … and maybe we’d wouldn’t get picked up as prisoners (by the German troops).”
As it turns out, there was enough fuel and to make it back to base. However, the danger was far from over for the flight crew.
“We didn’t realize that fuel was dumping out into all the wings cells,” he said. “It had accumulated there but the air pressure held it. When we hit the ground the pressure let up when the speed went down. The fuel then began to dump out from all those places. It was spraying all through the aircraft and we were getting showered with fuel. We were on the ground coasting - but that dangling door was bumping on concrete pavement and kicking up sparks. So one of the gunners jumped down and sat on the catwalk. He was able to put his feet out and hold that door off the ground (to keep it from creating sparks that could ignite the plane into deadly flames.)”
The pilot slowed the plane and got it off the runway and onto the grass.
“Get out quick,” the pilot said.
“That’s what we did,” Harrell said.
It was another dangerous mission that the crew was able to escape unharmed.
The Americans remained in England in support of the Allied forces. However, everyone was awaiting the massive invasion was looming – somewhere. Adolph Hitler was arming his troops and attempting to guess where the Allied troops would attack.
As for Harrell, he was killing time while his flight crew was grounded. They did not want to cause their First Lieutenant to lose his promotion to captain, so they sat around and waited. During this delay, Kent Wilson Harrell was called secretly to be a part of a historic mission.
“I didn’t understand why I was chosen,” he said. “One afternoon, late, something began to happen that we had no idea about. Everyone knew the invasion was going to take place but that was all classified. This day they got everybody ready to fly … but they did not fly that day. But late that afternoon a person came into my barracks and said ‘you are going to fly a weather mission.’ I was told where to go. I went down the flight line and met a group of fellows whom I didn’t know.”
“Load up,” he was instructed. “We’re going!’ “
The crew he was flying with was not his ‘regulars.’
“We didn’t have a full crew,” he said. “It was just a skeleton crew.
After the plane was airborne and had flown for a while, the intercom crackled with the voice of an unknown pilot.
“We’re in a situation where you can’t divulge any kind of information,” the pilot said. “I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. The (D Day) invasion is taking place in the morning. We’re up here (and) we’ll be flying all night long from the area where the bombers were to the area where the invasion forces were crossing the channel. We will report conditions of weather to the 8th Air Force each hour.”
Harrell and the other crew members carried out there night-long mission as ordered.
The massive invasion was planned for June 5, 1944. However, the strong winds and choppy water in the channel forced military leaders to delay the attack until June 6, 1944.
“When we got in the next morning we found the second load of bombers had already gone out,” he said. “They went to bomb just ahead of the invasion forces to try to clear the way for the invasion forces.”
Harrell ate breakfast and went to bed. However, he was soon approached again in the barracks.
“You are going to fly another weather mission,” he was told. He went back out to the flight line and was soon in the air.
“We flew all that next day which was D Day on June 6, 1944,” he said. “The thing that bothered me all through years is that I didn’t know who these people were. Instead of flying a weather mission, we flew down to the crossing of the channel where the forces went. We flew above the forces where we could see everything. We went into France, turned around and came back into England.”
What this Okmulgee County man witnessed first-hand was Operation Overlord – the largest military invasion in the history of the world. He had a bird’s eye view of the ships and the shoreline – and the German machine-gunners firing at the approaching Allied troops. Ironically, he describes his flight as ‘leisurely’ over the English Channel and the French coastline.
“I just wonder how many (other) people were there that were able to fly leisurely you might say and see the greatest show on earth taking place – us up there flying and monitoring with the hundreds and thousands of troops being killed on the ground. As far as I know, we were the only ones (flying above the D-Day invasion and watching it take place). I don’t know who this pilot was, but he had to be somebody important to be able to take a bomber and leisurely fly down and monitor those forces. I don’t know who he was but I’d like to know.”
So, what was his view of the military assault?
“You could see everything,” he said. “It was like a big super highway … like we travel here, we go on the right side and the British use the left side.”
In Operation Overlord, the Americans came in and attacked the Normandy coast on the right side on areas designed as Omaha and Utah beaches– while the British and Canadians attack on the left side in areas designated as Sword, Juno and Gold beaches.
“The things were going in from England across the channel,” he said. “All those were going back to re-load ships and things. All the activity was in full swing in the water and on the ground. I saw it all.”
Once the secret mission was flown over the invasion forces and into France, the plane turned around and flew back over the channel and to the base in England.
To this day, Harrell doesn’t know the other members of that secret flight – or why he was singled out to be a crew member for those two missions.
“That’s what bothers me the most,” he said.
On June 7, Harrell’s unit was returned to regular flying status. He rejoined his regular crew and prepared additional missions, beginning with No. 30.
“On the next day after D Day we flew our 30th mission,” he said. “We thought we had completed our mission number. But then they declared the tour number indefinite. We were not finished after 30. The next four days we were scheduled to fly. On the 32nd mission our co-pilot and one of the gunners refused to get up when they came to get us. They said their nerves were shot and they couldn’t stand it. But we were given replacement personnel. They did the same thing for the next three days. But on that 34th scheduled mission the pilot wouldn’t get out of bed. Because the pilot didn’t go we didn’t go either. During the day he went to operations and asked what they were going to do with him (as punishment for not flying the mission). They just laughed at him and said “you fellows have had enough.”
For Kent Wilson Harrell, his bombing raid missions ended officially at 33. His final missions were in the week after the invasion. The B-24 flew just ahead of the Allied troops and bomb German sites.
“It took us four months to the day,” he said of the time it took to complete his combat missions. “They were rushing to terminate the war and get it over with as quickly as possible.”
He happily returned home to his wife and daughter Kay. The family later grew to include another daughter named Rosalyn and a son named Kent, Jr. Other more recent additions include eight grandchildren, ten great grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews.
The WWII veteran and his wife enjoyed 71 years of marriage before he lost her in April 2012. Harrell recently moved from Okmulgee to Tulsa to live near two of his (adult) children and other relatives.