Operation Chowhound airmen fed the body and soul of the Dutch people during WWII
Joseph Bornstein and Bob Cooperman were interviewed by writer Erica Jacobson for this article which appeared in the Sept. 24, 2000 issue of the Burlington, VT Free Press. Here are some excerpts:
Joseph Bornstein first arrived at Knettishall airfield in 1945.
“By then, things were winding down, and there weren’t enough bombing missions to go around,” said the Burlington man, who is now a retired agricultural engineer.
“Since they had enough planes, we weren’t included,” he added.
When it appeared that Bornstein would never drop a bomb over the European continent, the fliers were called into the briefing rooms. Their assignment was Operation Chowhound.
From April 29 to May 8, 1945, such staples as tinned cheese and tea replaced bombs in aircraft cargo holds as squadrons from both the Army Air Force and British Royal Air Force dropped hundreds of tons of food in the German-occupied western half of the Netherlands.
“We were close enough to see their faces,” Bornstein said of the three low-altitude flights he made over the country. “It was quite emotional.”
Conditions were grisly in the Netherlands’ western half in spring 1945.
Daily rations in the cities fell below 500 calories – roughly two potatoes, three slices of bread, a slice of skim milk cheese and meat substitute. Some scavenged in the countryside while others resorted to digging up and eating the country’s tulip bulbs.
The slow starvation of the Dutch public began in September 1944 when German occupying forces blockaded food transports from the eastern half of the country to the west. During the next few months, the Nazis shut off the country’s electricity and gas. Weekly bread rations were cut to two pounds just three weeks before Christmas 1944.
The exiled Dutch monarchy in England worked from January 1945 to make Allied forces aware of the situation, negotiating a no-fire air truce with the Germans to let the British Royal Air Force begin Operation Manna and the Army Air Force Operation Chowhound in the closing days of April.
The famine, which became known as “Hunger Winter,” eventually killed 20,000 Netherlanders by Liberation Day on May 5, 1945 and left thousands more suffering from extreme malnutrition.
Despite the situation, few of the airmen who participated in the operation understood its severity until they began their low-level runs over the Netherlands. That certainly was the case for Bob Cooperman of Syosset, NY. Cooperman belonged to the same bombardment group as Bornstein and now heads up a loose organization of airmen who flew in Operation Chowhound.
“We had never been on the ground, you understand,” Cooperman said, “but we were about as close as a plane could get to a food drop.”
The Dutch were accustomed to Allied planes in their skies, seeing their contrails 25,000 to 30,000 feet up as the aircraft headed to bombing raids over Northern Germany.
Operations Chowhound and Manna gave the Netherlands an intimate view of the planes carrying needed nourishment.
Using U.S. flight plans developed for the possibility of having to deliver food to prisoner of war camps deserted by the Germany army, B-17 Flying Fortresses flew barely 200 feet above the ground with wheels and flaps lowered to slow the aircraft to just about a stall speed of 110 mph. The four-propeller planes roared past church steeples and just above rooftops – necessary for the parachuteless sacks of powdered eggs, canisters of meat and other supplies to survive their trip down to designated drop sites at air strips and race tracks.
“You could have been shot down with a stone,” Cooperman said, and some planes returned with holes from being shot at by rifles. Cooperman, unlike Bornstein, had flown 25 bombing missions above Germany as a radio operator and gunner. On those runs, he hoped his plane’s payload would strike at least a few “Hitler types” on the ground as it targeted factories and transportation corridors.
He briefly thought of what it must have been like to live through six- and seven-hour marathon bombings of Berlin – but only briefly. “We had never really seen people,” Cooperman said. “There were enemy aircraft, but never individuals.”
Now, coming in low and slow on their first mission over the Dutch countryside, American flyers saw people in the streets and on the tops of buildings.
Bornstein saw immense tracts of land that were flooded when the Nazis broke the dikes. People waved colored cloths at the planes and shouted even though there was no hope of the air crews hearing them over the engines.
The merciful missions left two very different impressions on Bornstein who would never make a bombing mission and Cooperman who had made his fair share of them.
“I can’t recall thinking about it,” Bornstein said of the effects of Operation Chowhound on Dutch citizens. “We tried to do what we were assigned to do. I just kind of took things from day to day.”
Yet Cooperman struggles even today to find the right words to describe how quickly and deeply he realized the importance of the five missions he eventually flew over the Netherlands.
“When we first started going over, it was a chore,” he said. “We didn’t know that these people were literally starving.
“The following days seeing these people, it just kept building and building. When we finally stopped dropping food it was like a letdown. We wanted it to continue.”
Allied planes made more than 5,300 flights and dropped 12,000 tons of food during the 10-day effort along the western edge of the Netherlands. With the German surrender on May 8, 1945, the Netherlands went to work repairing its wounded country and Cooperman readied for an air war over Japan that was ultimately grounded when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Bornstein returned to civilian life six months after he first felt a bomber rise underneath him when its load dropped. He was back in school studying soil conservation by February 1946.
Had a Dutch author not contacted Bob Cooperman about his participation in Operation Chowhound. the undertaking might have slipped into obscurity as a victim of greater tumults surrounding the last days of the war. Instead, the Dutch government invited two airmen from each bomb group back for a reunion in 1980 and have held a similar event at the end of April and beginning of May every five years since.
Cooperman and Bornstein have attended these events, at which airmen are presented to mayors and paraded through towns that benefited from the drops. People of all ages approach the men and express seemingly endless gratitude.
“They’d say, ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.'” Cooperman said. “And I’d tell them, ‘You’re too young. This is 40 years ago.”
What Cooperman ultimately realized was that the younger generations were thanking the fliers for saving the lives of their parents and grandparents.
The Allies’ food drop operations transcended military orders and governments, Cooperman said, in a way that the later, better-known, Berlin Air Lift.
“In this instance, it was not political in the sense that it was truly humanitarian,” Cooperman said. “In this instance, they knew that they were eventually going to win.
“It was just that there were starving people down there.”
From the Spring 2001 newsletter of the 388th Bombardment Group (H) Association.
Top photo taken at El Paso, Texas in November, 1944. Back row (left to right): pilot (Floyd Springer), co-pilot (Gordon/Gordy), navigator (James/Jim Ragland), bombardier (Smith/Smitty), and engineer/top-turret gunner (Ernie Tabor). Front row: tail gunner (James Fagan), radio/waist gunner (Marvin Hanson), ball-turret gunner (Smith), and armorer/waist gunners (Evans).
Tags saved by my father, from food drops over Netherlands during last days of WW2.