EDITOR’S NOTE: The “We Were Soldiers Once” profiles are researched and written by Perry Giles, one of the founding members of the Ellis County Veterans Day Appreciation Committee. Giles’ columns are written in first person based on information compiled from newspaper articles, letters from home and interviews with family members. The features will be published each week through Veterans Day.
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember ...
My name is Will Armon Yates. I was raised in Waxahachie on the south side. My mom called me Willie.
I was named after my dad, Armon. But he died when I was only 4 years old, so my mother had to raise me on her teacher’s pay. Mom’s family, the Farrars, helped us along. She taught school at Bullard Heights, and I spent a lot of time south of Waxahachie Creek on “The Hill.” Sometimes I worked as a hand on some of the nearby farms.
After graduating Waxahachie High School, I went on to attend John Tarleton College in Stephenville and then I transferred to the University of Texas where I received my B.A. degree. I have to give credit to my mom, Mary, for seeing me through with my education, even though she was on her own.
For a time I lived at 507 Ross Street, and I was a member of the Main Street Christian Church. The girl that I was really sweet on lived on Buena Vista Road, and I used to visit their home place and play guitar for her.
I joined the Army on April 9, 1941, and in October was transferred to the Air Corps. I attended navigation school at Kelly Field, which was located on the southwestern edge of San Antonio.
When the war came, I was ready for duty as a 2nd lieutenant navigator of any multi-engine plane of the Air Corps. They put me with the crew of a B-24 Liberator bomber. We were trained as submarine hunters. The German U-boats had been having their way in the Atlantic and our job was going to be to seek them out and engage them in combat.
When the order came down, we took off for North Africa. When we finally arrived they stationed us in Port Lyautey, French Morocco. We were assigned to the Army Air Force’s Antisubmarine Command. What a forsaken place this was! Morocco was hot, dry, dirty and sandy. What a set up, it seems as if there is a constant hot wind blowing filled with cutting particles of sand. This place makes Ellis County look like a green paradise on earth.
My buddies in the squadron called me “Bill.” We were with the 2nd Anti-Submarine Squadron of the 480th Group. We got set up and operational in the spring of ’43. We were sort of a pioneer organization in the Air Corps. What we had been assigned to do, had never been done before and a lot of what we did was trial-and-error. Our mission was to patrol the open ocean for a thousand miles to the west and north of Gibraltar and engage enemy subs.
The German U-boats were massing in that area because of all the Allied ships that had to go through the Straits of Gibraltar. It was the only way in and out of the Mediterranean. We had been losing the war of the Atlantic in ’42 and our squadron was there to see what we could do to turn things around.
Most often we met the Germans in an area known as “Coffin Corner,” several hundred miles off the west coast of Spain and Portugal, where the U-boats surfaced to charge their batteries. We tried to hit them before they could gang up into a wolf pack. Our job was to seek them out and kill them, or at least force them to remain underwater so much as to reduce their time in the target area. Our plane was stripped of all armor plating as we carried extra fuel tanks for our long flights. We were also fitted with the latest radar to help us locate any surface contacts on the sea. The monotony of those long missions over an endless sea was something else.
When we could surprise a submarine on the surface, we would dive on it in a strafing run and drop our four 350 pound depth charges on it. It took the U-boat a few minutes to submerge, and it took us a few minutes to dive down on them. So it often times was a real race of life and death.
There were many tedious hours of flying and boredom mixed in with some moments of sheer terror and adrenaline rush. We flew many missions in restricted visibility, bad weather and low ceilings, and hundreds of miles out to sea. So it was up to me, the navigator, to get us to the right spot and then back home again. There were many times when I felt accountable for the lives of the other nine crewmembers.
Sometimes we had run-ins with German warplanes, mostly Junkers JU-88s and some Focke Wulf Condors. Our plane was not made for aerial dog-fighting, but we had some running gun battles nonetheless. Our squadron took some losses.
For several months the German Command had decided that their U-boats would stay on the surface and fight single aircraft with their anti-aircraft weapons. The Nazi subs had some good success against our Navy PBY Catalinas. But against a B-24, it was a little more even match-up. That turned into a real test of nerves, with the tracer bullets flying in both directions; it was like an old west shootout, to see who would flinch first.
On July 8, 1943, we were patrolling about 200 miles northwest of Lisbon, Portugal, when we spotted a submarine on the surface in the distance. We turned and began a high-speed strafing run on it. This was it! This was what we had trained so many months for.
The plane was vibrating and bouncing from our four 1,200 horsepower engines at maximum rpms and all the forward guns firing away. Nerves tensed up. The noise was tremendous, and my heart and my mind were racing, but instinct and training kicked in. The bombardier was riding up front in the glass nose of the plane with his finger calmly above the release switch, and a hailstorm of anti-aircraft fire flying all around him. You could hear some of the bullets hitting our wings.
Just before it seemed as though we were going to crash into the U-boat’s conning tower, we pulled up and let go our depth charges. There were explosions. I looked back to see the U-232 blown apart and the water spraying down all around it. We circled back around to watch it sink.
For a few moments there was a wild celebration among our crew, and then there was silence. I think some of us were doing some praying. I marked our position and took some pictures, even though my hands were still a little shaky. I’m not sure how any of us ever survived all that gunfire flying straight up at us. I just don’t see how.
The next month, August, the German U-boat activity dropped off, or at the very least, the wolf packs had moved away from Gibraltar. During a 10-day stretch in July, our 480th Anti-Sub Group had attacked fifteen U-boats, damaging four and sinking three others. In my opinion, we had reached a turning point in the battle for the Atlantic. We were really making a difference!
We were expecting to be re-deployed in September, farther to the east in Tunis. From there we were going to be flying air cover for Allied convoys in the Mediterranean. The invasion of Italy was about to get started. We were hoping for more pleasant surroundings than Morocco, but I wasn’t really counting on it.
As it turned out, Sept. 4 was my last mission. Our plane went down while returning to base.
It was a Saturday and I was 27 years old.
Remember us. We were airmen once and young.