Sunday, 11 June 2017

The rise of the foo fighter...

I'm currently working on a project with both my brothers to transcribe the correspondence of my grandfather's brother. Sadly he was not someone I ever had the chance to meet, as his plane was shot down during a mission over Germany in September 1944. It is, however, both interesting and emotional to be working on this project, particularly as it provides some perspective on a world that is quickly disappearing, and on the impact of numerous combat missions on one man's mental well being.

I've only just embarked on this project, but he has already provided us with a colourful letter covering his trip from the UK to Canada, where he was trained as an air navigator at Port Albert, a tiny little place on the shore of Lake Huron. I have been particularly amused at the reaction of a carriage full of British flyers to the sight of two American girls sunbathing on the side of a lake as the train passed through Maine!

"We saw none of the American 'surfer' girls at any of the stations, but running along a large inland lake we saw two girls sun bathing. One wore a red and white check play suit and had everything in the right places. Judging by the crush to our side of the train, curves are definitely in fashion."

Olaf, front row, second from left, at Lake Huron, 1942

Olaf's hand writing, like his brother's, was not the best, although of the two, he had the neater. Hence, we are engaged in an effort to decipher some of it. Later in the war, once he was on active service and already suffering from depression (I am reading between the lines here, but by the summer of 1944 he was not the same person who went to Canada in 1942), he regularly took trips down to London when he could, just to get away from it all.

He was, however, becoming quite distressed about the V1 flying bombs, which began landing on England in June 1944, not long after the Normandy landings. He describes how some of the men in his squadron had already lost family members. I did some homework of my own, and was shocked to see how many V1s were landing in the Sussex area in 1944, near to where I now live. They were not particularly accurate, but in one night alone, I read of "hundreds" landing in the countryside between Brighton and Lewes and indeed hitting Lewes itself. This is terrifying stuff.

Many British referred to the V1s as 'doodlebugs' yet in his letter Olaf refers to them as 'doodle foos' which initially struck us as odd. We wondered whether this was simply his rather illegible handwriting at work. But it certainly looked like 'foos' on the page. I did some further research, and came up with the phrase 'foo fighter' - not the rock band, but a term coined by Allied flyers in World War Two to describe unidentified flying objects or UFOs. Wikipedia claims the term was first used by a pilot of the US 415th fighter wing in November 1944. By December, it was being used fairly indiscriminately by the likes of the New York Times. The pilots in most cases seemed to be describing balls of fire which followed their planes at night, and could not be shaken off. Some scientists think this may have been the result of atmospheric effects or electrostatic phenomena, like St Elmo's Fire.

The V1 flying bomb, ancestor of the cruise missile

Yet here we have Olaf, in July 1944, using the term 'doodle foo'. I'm guessing here that there was a term already being bandied around by Allied air crew early in 1944 that turned into 'foo fighter' later in the year. But he does specifically refer to doodle foos, and expects his brother to understand what this is without further explanation. Thus, somehow the term 'foo' was already in the aviation lexicon to describe German experimental weapons. At this stage of the war, the Luftwaffe was tinkering with all sorts of advanced technology which had been on the drawing board, and was urgently being expedited as Hitler sought ways of staving off defeat. Aviators must have been told to keep an eye out for anything unusual in the skies over Europe. I wonder whether the term 'foo' was in fact an abreviation for something else...?

I will leave you with another interesting excerpt from Olaf, reflecting on his arrival in Boston after a week at sea:

"We finally docked at 1500, and disembarked at 2300. My main recollections of our landfall are the incredible greenness of the grass after five days of changing blues of the ocean, and the great number of high powered cars tearing along the concrete arterial roads. Later on, after dark, I looked in wonder at the blaze of lights from buildings, and the searchlights of the car headlamps..."

1 comment:

  1. It looks like a fascinating project. So much of this stuff is lost -- I know next to nothing about my grandfather's wartime exploits, for various reasons -- so it's good to see you collecting and restoring it.