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Chester County Press

100-year-old photographer Bob Adams and the rest of his story

08/02/2021 08:49PM ● By Steven Hoffman

By Betsy Brewer Brantner

Contributing Writer

One of the memories that has stayed with Bob Adams for decades is sailing past the Statue of Liberty at dawn as he and a large group of U.S. soldiers traveled toward the war.

At two in the morning that day, Adams and a large group of U.S. soldiers started marching on to a ship called the Aquatania, a sister ship to the Lousitania. The ship held 2,000 people for that voyage.

“I remember sailing past the Statue of Liberty at dawn. I watched it until it was out of sight,” Adams explained. “We took turns using our bunks. We went to the mess hall to eat and it was a mess. There were worms crawling in our oatmeal. The captain of the ship was alleged to have sold our food on the black market. We were fed what was left over from hauling prisoners of war to Australia.”

On the fourth day of the journey toward the war front, they ran into a hurricane.

“That was the scariest part I can remember on that old ship,” Adams recalled. “We ran through 40-foot waves. I honestly didn’t know if we would make it. We were next to the Azores, and then we docked in Scotland. The group then went to the Midlands and got off at the railroad station. They hauled us by truck to the base in May of 1942.”

Adams continued, “Kimbolton in England was our  base. The village of Kimbolton was right up against a farm. I remember the farmer allowed us to have potatoes. We cooked French fries in our helmets on a pot belly stove. The 379th Bomb Group arrived in Kimbolton, England by way of Scotland. Planes continued flying in from many different states. Numerous planes were shuttled across the ocean by women pilots who landed in Greenland to refuel. It took another two weeks till we had the full complement of planes. Our first bombing mission didn’t happen until the end of June. Most of our missions for the first two months were targets in France where the Nazis had taken over their factories.”

The U.S. soldiers helped the allied forces push further and further into France, Adams recalled.

“Anything that was a factory or transportation center [had been taken over] by Nazis,” he explained. “We never bombed churches or houses. We would hear buzz bombs and rockets going off everywhere. A buzz bomb is a cheap replica of a plane with a bomb set to go off automatically in the air. They would time it so it would run out of fuel over London or some would go astray. If you heard something that sounded like a washing machine motor and it stopped, you immediately lay flat on the ground.”

He continued, “The British Isles had a lot of days in fog. Pilots would be ready to go out on a mission and then the fog was out.  If you weren’t sure fog was going to lift, you scrubbed the mission.”

Adams explained that he had many close calls where he almost met his maker. “I learned God was in control, and he had plans for me,” he said. “One time, the aircraft was fully loaded. It would take the whole runway before our plane could lift off. It was foggy that day and we were still in fog till they could get enough altitude. The pilot had to keep turning to gain altitude. The next base was five miles from ours. Something happened to one of our planes from the bomb group next to us. Two of them ran together. They were each carrying twelve, 500-pound bombs on board. One plane exploded about two miles from our base, and when it went down the other one also went down about three miles from base. I got assigned to photograph the area where our plane went down. The place looked like a war field. There was a huge hole in the earth where the plane went down.  Debris was everywhere, covering an area of two to three acres. About 200 yards from that hole, two firemen were trying to extinguish a fire in a haystack. I walked up to the edge of the hole, which was 30 feet deep. Just as I held the camera up to take a photo, a bomb exploded. The earth shook and the blast threw me backwards. I was completely covered in dirt. I couldn’t believe I was still there. Debris went in the opposite direction and upwards of 300 feet in the air. I ran back to the weapons carrier and crawled underneath. I found out the next day that one of the firemen almost lost his arm. I never did get a picture of that hole. That was my first near-death experience. After that, I was more afraid and more cautious. My hearing didn’t return to normal until the next day.”

In another incident, the photographers were off to the side of the runway waiting for the planes to come back. If someone sustained a serious injury, a flare was released. The photographers would sit in a weapons carrier with a canvas top and wait for the cameras to be brought to them.

Adams recalled, “Our weapons carrier was sitting at a slight angle facing the runway. We were going up to follow the plane when, all of a sudden, there were people running from our direction. I poked my head up looking back and saw the bomber coming right at us. All I could do was duck. Our canvas top went off. We got hit from the rear by the tail of the plane. Later I discovered that the left front wheel had blown and struts from the wheel were digging into the earth like a plow. The plane was swinging around when the tail end of it hit the tail end of our vehicle. Me and the guy I was with both got out and ran. If I had stayed up in my seat, I’m not sure I would have survived.”

During his next close call, Adams was by himself taking a camera to put into the plane. 

“I got it in the plane and the crew was ready to go on their mission,” he said. “I loaded the camera into the camera well and had just walked back to the door. I was standing there getting ready to  jump down. Suddenly there was a burst of machine gun fire. The guy from another plane had caught his sleeve in the trigger of the machine gun and it was firing. I could feel macadam chips striking me, cutting into my skin. If I had jumped one second sooner, it would have shot my legs off. It set off 50 or 60 shells before it was shut off. I know that guy felt horrible.”

The dressing down of a captain by a non-commissioned officer happened after Adams’ fourth close call.

Adams explained, “I was crossing the field going to the runway.  It was night and my partner and I had four cameras to load on the plane before daylight. The same runway was used for take-off and return. There were strips on each side of the runway to separate the two. There was a crossover strip two-thirds down the runway, and a traffic light with a red or green light. Control is supposed to control the lights so you either enter or not. We started to cross the runway when, out of nowhere, a plane took off right over our heads, the wheels barely missing the canvas top of our vehicle. It tipped up and then down. We turned around and went to the control tower and asked who was in charge. It was the captain. I went up one side of him and down the other. It was probably the first time in the history of the Air Force a non-commissioned got away with dressing down an officer. Then we went to headquarters and reported what had happened. I heard later he was demoted.”

When the war came to an end in Europe, the ground crew in England were given an option to take a sight-seeing tour over the war-torn areas in France and Germany. It was actually seeing what was gone that made it real. Adams wanted to take photos from the air and was allowed to shoot right out of the nose of the plane.

“We had our plane ready to go for our sightseeing tour,” he explained. “We were two-thirds down the runway when our left front tire blew out. The pilot had to make a split-second decision whether to stop or keep on going. If he kept going, he would have to land with the wheel like that. He was trying to stop. We were back and forth across the runway and went in there full tilt going 40 miles per hour. I was scared. Finally, he was able to taxi around and stop and get the wheel changed and we went off on our tour.”

Adams got his photos from the nose of the plane and lived to tell about it.

The war was over, but going home was still out of reach.

Part 3 of this story will appear in next week’s Chester County Press.