Charles Shinault does not consider himself a hero, but a previously secret, now unclassified, document in his possession speaks to the contrary. The letter from Eighth Air Force Commanding General, Carl Spaatz to Lt. Gen. Ira C. Eaker in Washington D.C. refers to the termination of a secret project in the ETO and its possible effective use against Japan. What the letter does not mention is that this experimental project was wrought with danger. Charles Shinault had volunteered for the same hazardous duty that took the life of a young Navy Lieutenant named Joe Kennedy. And Lt. Kennedy was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor!
Charles L. Shinault was born in Booneville Mississippi on 24 September 1921. Charlie and his twin brother grew up in rural Mississippi and graduated from Booneville High School in 1941. Both went on to start college and Charles left school in November 1943 to join the Army Air Forces. (Both became pilots and his brother served in the PTO) Aviation Cadet Shinault took primary flight instruction in Avon Park Florida, and advanced multi-engine training in Blytheville Arkansas. As a “butter-bar” lieutenant, Charlie transitioned to B-17 training and was assigned co-pilot of a new crew. Stateside training took them to numerous bases across the “Zone of the Interior”. Finally, their replacement unit was ready for overseas deployment.
Shinault and his crew flew their plane overseas via the “Northern Route” departing on 10 April 1944 and arriving in England fifteen days later. Poor weather conditions over Iceland caused the delay. They were assigned to the 337th Bomb Squadron, 96th Bomb Group, 3rd Air Division. Their Base was at Snetterton Heath, in East Anglia. Shinault, as co-pilot of a B-17 named “Cabin in the Sky”, continued fine-tuning his formation flying skills and helping train the crew for their combat debut. That day came on 20 May 1944 with a mission to Brussels Belgium. Charlie continued missions as the co-pilot, but wanted to be a first pilot, that is, an aircraft commander. He saw his chance to move to the left seat when he read an announcement on the bulletin board at the 96th Group Headquarters. The Third Air Division was recruiting volunteers from among the Division’s Bomb Groups for a “secret and dangerous mission”. No one knew what the mission would entail, but Charlie signed up for transfer to Project Aphrodite.
Second Lieutenant Charles Shinault reported to Honington Air Depot where modifications were being made to ten war-weary B-17’s. The plan was to convert a total of sixty-five aircraft. The armor, turrets, oxygen system, and all unnecessary equipment were being stripped from the aircraft. The Fortresses were being lightened and remote control units were being installed and connected to the autopilots. The different procedures were performed at several bases during the course of the retrofit. The equipment was code named Azon, which had previously been used with some success in remotely guided bombs. Several Forts were fitted with another new technology called television. The bomb bay of each aircraft was also reinforced to accommodate a 20,000-pound load of Torpex high explosive. The upper surfaces of the planes were painted white to improve visual tracking. After all work was completed, the aircraft were flown to Fersfield, where most of the missions originated.
These modified, heavily loaded bombers were to be flown into targets by remote control. Since the technology for remote-controlled takeoff did not exist at the time, pilots were required to take the planes up, trim them out and establish the remote link-up with the “mother ship” following behind the explosive laden “baby”. The handling characteristics of these birds were very different, given the enormous load. So besides having to learn to handle the off balanced bomber, pilots had to learn how to check the complicated electrical circuitry and arm the fuses of the TNT payload. After flying a predetermined course around the English countryside, and verifying proper control was established, the pilot and technician were to bail out.
Training for Shinault and the other volunteers began on 1 July 1944 under great secrecy and strictest security. Political pressure to launch the first mission as soon as possible was exerted due to the frequency of V-1 guided missile attacks on England. The launch sites of the V-weapons were to be priority targets. After twenty-five hours of flight training and technical instruction, target planning and crew assignments were made. Charles Shinault was assigned to Mission Number Eleven. Target: The oil refinery complex at Hemmingstedt. During this time the Navy had also recruited volunteers for Special Air Unit No.1, a similar project. One of their volunteers was Lt. Joe Kennedy, oldest son of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy.
The first mission went off on 4 August 1944, with tragic results. One of the aircraft failed to handle properly and the plane stalled and crashed before the pilot could bail out. Undeterred, the project continued as scheduled. The seventh mission was flown by the Navy team on 12 August, with similar results. It was suspected that the engineering of the fuse arming circuitry was unreliable, but the mission went forward as planned. The flight progressed normally, until suddenly, the aircraft exploded, killing both onboard. The most likely cause was the electrical system, which was switched on prior to the crew parachuting out. Further operations were delayed for a month. Then the ninth mission, 11 September, was also marred by a fatality. All went well until the pilot jumped and the static line, designed to open the parachute automatically, wrapped around his neck. He was killed instantly. Several others had been slightly injured upon landing, so nothing was routine. It was, indeed, dangerous work!
Shinault and the others were well aware of the tremendous uncertainty and danger of continuing the project. But it was duty he had volunteered for and Charlie knew he “had to see it through”. He had little time to worry, because his flight took place three days later. In the ensuing time, the Azon equipment was replaced with newer, more reliable radio-controls, code named Castor. On the morning of 14 September 1944, Shinault and the other pilot, Lt. W. G. Haller, took off in their drone loaded with twelve tons of volatile high explosives. Charlie remembers “we did everything by the book” and the remote controls worked perfectly. The arming circuits were checked and rechecked, nothing was left to chance. With the autopilot set and the fuses armed, their work was done. All the months of training and preparation came down to this last action. All that was left was to safely exit the aircraft. Sitting with his feet dangling in the slipstream, he snapped his static line to the ring and dropped out. Then the unexpected happened. Charlie’s head struck the hatch coaming, cutting a gash above his left eye. Momentarily disoriented, he wasn’t sure what had happened. He said, “It was a good thing that the chute opened automatically, because I may not have been able to pull a ripcord myself”. Dazed but alive, Charlie rode his chute to a soft landing in a farm field. Unfortunately, the farmer did not know whether the parachutist was friend or foe, and it took Charles a while to convince the armed farmer he was an American. The two Aphrodite volunteers were picked up and taken back to Base where they learned the fate of their drone. Unfortunately, visual contact with the “baby” had been lost due to poor weather conditions and it missed the target.
Overall, none of the Aphrodite Missions met with much success, owing to less advanced technology, poor visibility, bad weather, accurate anti-aircraft fire, and just bad luck. But Shinault had participated in a Top Secret Program and was sworn to secrecy. After returning to his old unit, he said nothing about his temporary duty. He was promoted and made a first pilot. He flew the remainder of his 35 Mission tour in the left seat of a B-17G named “Sittin’ Pretty”. These missions were, however, far from uneventful.
On several occasions his aircraft was damaged by flak. And on another mission, the bomb racks jammed and the entire ordinance load piled up in the bomb bay. The incendiary clusters hung on the upper mounts had released but the lower bombs did not. “The little propellers on the arming vanes were spinning away”, he said, making for a very unpleasant prospect. The bombardier suggested he drop out of formation and descend to a lower altitude so they could work without the cumbersome walk-around oxygen bottles. Shinault took the aircraft down below 10,000 feet and the bombardier was able to discard the oxygen bottle. He carefully removed the arming fuses and wrestled some of the loose bombs out through the open bomb bay doors. Unable to free the jammed shackles, the 500 pounders and some of the other hung ordinance had to remain in place. Worried that the bombs could still come loose, Shinault ordered the crew to disconnect the electric cords from their heated suits and use them to tie the shackles in place. By then, they had done all they could and Charlie could see the “White Cliff of Dover” looming in the distance. As they approached Snetterton, the crew voted to stay with the aircraft, and Shinault radioed their situation to the Tower. They were cleared for a straight-in approach. “That was the smoothest landing I ever made!”, Charlie admits. He was ordered to taxi the plane to the end of the runway and park behind the earthen revetment. The ordinance men then unloaded the remaining bombs and “lost about forty gallons of sweat in the process!” That day, fraught with danger, was not caused by a life and death struggle with the Luftwaffe, but by the use of the wrong type of bomb shackle. But it was life and death just the same.
With his Combat Tour completed, Charles shipped home on 24 February 1945, only to return on 20 March 1946. After a year of Occupation Duty he again returned to the “Z-I” in March of 1947 with 1 year, 10 months, and 23 days of overseas service. Captain Charles L. Shinault was released from the United States Army Air Forces at the Separation Center, Fort Dix New Jersey on 12 May 1947. And like millions of other former servicemen, he returned to civilian life to get married and raise a family, content with the knowledge that he had done his duty. And the World was a better place for having done it.
Reminiscences as told to Chip Dobson.