Donald V. Chase T/Sgt.|
44th Bomb Group "Flying Eight-Balls"
This account, written forty years after my first flight in a Liberator (Sep 1942), is for my sons. May their sons and grandsons never have to go to war. And because of our friendship and his interest in the 8th USAAF, I hope "Friends of the Eighth" (FOTE) member John Page will find this offering of interest. Also, I am indebted to Will Lundy, an ex-ground man with the 44th, who, years after keeping our ships airworthy, spent countless hours compiling the "History of the 67th Bomb Squadron, 44th Bomb Group, The Flying Eight Balls."
Will Lundy's synopsis of each mission I flew on is capitalized. His accounts are a combination of Squadron records, Group notes, eyewitness reports and his own impressions. My accounts are from old notes I kept through the years, and general and statistical information from Roger Freeman's book, "The Mighty Eighty," and indelible memories that have refused to fade.
I enlisted in the USAAF (before being drafted) on March 5, 1942, and on Sept 5, l945, was discharged at "the convenience of the Government."
After a few weeks of basic training at Keesler Field, Miss., I was assigned to a 16-week radio operators' school at Scott Field, Ill., following which was a four-week air gunnery course in Harlingen, Texas.
From there I went to the moonscape airbase at Wendover, Utah. Then on to Pueblo, Colorado, and Davis Monthan AFB at Tucson, Ariz., where I was an instructor for two months. During this time I met pilot Charles Whitlock who was in need of a radio operator. I convinced my CO to allow me to join Whitlock's crew.
After Tucson, Pilot Whitlock and his crew continued advanced training at Alamagordo and Clovis, N. M.
Then we proceeded to Lincoln AFB, Neb., where we received our overseas assignment, only to have them cancelled.
The following pre-published account explains our change in overseas plans, after which begins my account of the 28 combat missions I flew with the Eight Ball 44th Bomb Group, 506th and 67th Squadrons, 8th USAAF, from North Africa and England.
Catch 17 and 24
By D. V. Chase (44th BG) - 1979
B-17 or B-24, which was the better heavy? We flew both. Assigned from one to the other - and then back again - we endured a frustrating two-month period in the spring of '43 as the AAF played yo-yo with our bomber allegiance.
Prior to our first frustration, we, ten eager airmen, lined up in a hangar near Lincoln, Nebraska, and received our Pacific gear: shark repellent, machetes, netting, quinine, 45s. We were scheduled to leave Lincoln the next morning for west - far west.
But the following morning found us again lined up in the hangar. Disheartened, we returned all the gear. Our pilot, Charles "Whit" Whitlock, had received new orders. Our B-24 summarily taken, we were sent to Salina, Kansas, for a month of transitional B-17 training. What a blow! We cursed the U.S. Army and reviled the stupid Pentagoners. Oh, how we bitched! Finally, Harold Schwab, our bombardier, had his fill of the gripers, and he said something to the effect that, "If you don't like the transfer, go home to your mommies." He stressed the word "mommies."
The transition wasn't all that bad. We adjusted okay. In fact. the 17s proved to be good ships; didn't have the speed, range, nor bomb capacity of the 24s, but they were readily maneuverable, reliable, airworthy craft. Their appendages, at least, were sturdy, a feature that some early-model 24s lacked.
Checked out - more or less - in our 17, we left Kansas for Prestwick, Scotland, with a refueling stop and weather briefing at Gander, Newfoundland, before crossing the Pond. However, reports of heavy Atlantic weather and unfavorable winds kept us grounded for about two weeks. Finally, we got the green light and headed east.
The weather prog had called for altocumulus along our route, tops eight or nine thousand, with an assisting light tail wind. Some 300 miles out, however, the sloped upward. We ascended lazily at first, as on a smooth-riding escalator, twelve, fifteen, seventeen thousand. Then swelling cumulus popped the level tops. Light turbulence persuaded us to seek smoother air. To stay above the flowering cu's we nosed up through twenty-four thousand. No problem yet, even though we were heavily weighted with various supplies. But the non-forecasted clouds continued to puff and mushroom and the 17s climbed, twenty-six, twenty-eight thousand, and the roiling cu's became cumulonimbus with accompanying moderate turbulence. It was getting rough, and higher clouds loomed ahead.
An adjacent 17 left our company, nosing downward; then another; another (we counted five of them). They disappeared into the undercast, apparently heading for the deck. We reached the point-of-no-return about the time we touched twenty-nine thousand feet above sea level. It was a time of momentous decision for Whit. Should we descend through the turbulence and embedded thunderstorms and take our chances of reaching Scotland with the other low-roaders, possibly wave-hopping while fighting unpredicted headwinds? Stay on top? Can we? Return to Gander? Whit asked the radio operator if radio silence had been broken and if any pilots had indicated they were returning to Gander. None had. "Okay, we don't either," Whit said on intercom. "We'll stay on top."
Lordy, just how high will this bird fly before her wings run out of supportive air? Oxygen: enough to get us through? Fuel enough? God, it's cold. We've got to make it. These and other prayerful thoughts filled our minds and further chilled our bodies, sedentary to conserve oxygen. And still our 17 strained upward.
"Pilot to crew," Whit called on intercom. "We're at thirty thousand one hundred and fifty, if our altimeter is correct. Oatmeal stick; high as she'll go but we'll be okay."
We prayed he was right.
Ahead and to the sides, flat-topped anvils now crowned the cumulonimbus. Some towered far above as we snaked around them. To the north and south, other 17s likewise avoided the higher thunderstorm cells. The 17s looked like a disorganized flock of ducks preparing for a water landing: heads held high, outstretched wings canted into the horizon, tails low and dragging.
Slowly the anvils dissipated. The mountainous clouds gradually relaxed and merged with the altos, allowing us to leave the tail-dragging heights for more tolerable altitudes. Our oxygen supply was depleted somewhere between twelve and ten thousand on our downward slide. Ah, but now we could breath nature's oxygen.
Little more than fumes powered the engines as we entered Scottish airspace. After landing at Prestwick we performed the half-serious, half-frivolous ritual of testing earth's solidity and affectionately patting the plane's fuselage, a natural follow-up to the end of a scary flight. Our 17 was like a giant friend incarnate; a beautiful, high-soaring, life-saving sweetheart. Confidently, we knew she'd carry us safely through our combat tour. No sir, average-weighted 24s never could have topped those clouds!
Unexpectedly, our exuberance was short-lived. The first ominous news we heard was that only one of the five low-roader 17s made it safely across the water. Apparently the other four, in their battle against turbulence and headwinds, ran out of fuel before reaching Ireland or Scotland. A second blow assaulted us when we learned of our new orders: Leave the 17 at Prestwick, proceed to a base near Shipdham and prepare to reorient ourselves with the flight characteristics of the B-24. Shafted again! Over the past two months we had gained confidence in the 17. We had rationalized her bomb carrying and flight range limitations, coped with her all-electrical system, respected her sturdiness, and were at ease with her overall performance. 24s? They were like some long-lost dream, a pleasant but fading memory.
It was bomb aimer Harold Schwab again - God rest his soul - unflappable, wry-humored Schwab, who arrested our mutinous stirrings. "Navigator," he addressed Robert Ricks, "which way is west?" Ricks pointed. Deadpan and wordless, Schwab picked up his B4 bag and started to walk away. "Hey, where you going, Schwab?" someone asked. "Home," he answered. "I'm just not interested in this war any more." Perhaps it was the humor, sardonic or genuine, that helped us through several unpleasant incidents both in training and, for awhile, in combat.
With more reluctance than enthusiasm, we reported to the 44th BG and came full circle, back to our 24s. Unbeknown to us at the time, the Ploesti low-level mission was less than two months away and the 24s, in preparation, were hedgehopping over the English countryside. So, from recently testing the ultimate height of a 17, we soon found ourselves in the company of dozens of 24s, nestled wing to wing, skimming the greenery like speedy fighter bombers. Schwab pretty well summed up our feelings one day when he said, "This war is one hell of a puzzlement."
But after several missions from North Africa, flying pre-invasion strikes at Sicily and Italy, and especially after that historic day of 1 August 1943, our bomber allegiance truly belonged to the versatile B-24. A 17 just didn't have the range to make a Libya-Ploesti round trip. Nor could the 17 match our Lib's bomb load; low-altitude speed either. And wasn't that the name of the strategic air war? Range and Payload?
And yet, for 36 years we few survivors of Whit's crew have been indebted to a gracious lady, a sleek B-17 for cradling us above thirty thousand feet over the Atlantic and to safety so that we could help in the war effort - in a B-24.
So which was the better heavy? How many other Catch-22 imponderables did WWII evoke?
MISSION 1 - 6 JULY 43
28 B-24S OF THE 44th BOMB GROUP DEPARTED BENINA MAIN USAAF BASE, LIBYA AT 1220 GMT (1520 LOCAL) TO ATTACK CERBINI AIR BASE, SICILY. 26 A/C (AIRCRAFT) REACHED TARGET AREA BY 1610 GMT. 2 A/C RETURNED EARLY DUE TO MECHANICAL TROUBLE. 305 X 500-LB. BOMBS DROPPED FROM 25,000 FEET. HITS ON WEST END OF RUNWAY AND ON PERIMETER. NO CLOUDS , BUT SEVERE HAZE. VISIBILITY 4 TO 5 MILES. A/A (ANTI-AIRCRAFT) MODERATE, MINOR DAMAGE SUSTAINED BY A/C. 4 OR 5 E/A (ENEMY AIRCRAFT) ATTACKED, BUT NO CLAIMS OR DAMAGE. ONE A/C LANDED BERSIA, REMAINDER AT BASE BY 2050 GMT.
It was a duty of the radio operator to leave his regular position behind the co-pilot's seat, go to the belly of the B-24, straddle the narrow catwalk of the bomb bay and activate a push-type lever which prevented the bomb doors from creeping, once the doors were opened preparatory to a bomb rim. Secondly, he watched the bombs fall and, to the best of his visual acuity, assessed the bombing results after the bombardier activated the bomb release switch in concert with the lead or first aircraft in the squadron .
So there I was, on our first mission, poised in the belly of our ship, "Heaven Can Wait," waiting for our load of 12 x 500 pound bombs to drop, when I noticed the bombs of our sister ships plummeting earthward. But not ours! Could it be my fault? Did the bomb doors creep in? I pushed the anti-creep lever as hard as I could. No, there was no creepage. There was nothing more I could do in the bomb bay, so I returned to the cabin area and plugged in my headset and tuned in to intercom.
"Use the backup release, Whit," Bombardier Harold Schwab said on intercom Pilot Charles Whitlock nodded to his co-pilot William Phipps. Phipps reached down to the console between the pilot and co-pilot seats and grabbed hold of a T-shaped handle and began pulling upwards.
I looked back into the bomb bay. The bombs were still cradled in the racks. Phipps, seated as he was and using his left hand, his arm at an awkward angle, apparently didn't have enough pulling leverage to activate the release handle.
Standing between the pilot and co-pilot, I tapped Phipps' arm and pointed to myself then to the handle. When he moved his hand away, I squatted, grabbed the handle with both hands and pulled straight up with all my strength.
Immediately, the plane lurched upward as 6,000 pounds of metal left "Heaven Can Wait." The bombs, of course, landed far from the target area and splintered hundreds of trees.
It took all the next day to track down and repair the bomb release malfunction. We were, more or less, on stand-down till "Heaven Can Wait" was again serviceable. We, six enlisted crew members, took advantage of the stand-down by boarding a supply-rim truck that was making a trip to the nearby city of Benghazi, Libya.
Field Marshall Rommel and his Afrika Korps had only recently been forced out of N. Africa by the Allied Forces and it was still thought necessary to be armed while away from base. Consequently, we roamed the bazaars of Benghazi with .45 caliber pistols holstered at our hips. One of our crewmen, tunnel gunner Ralph Knox of Chicago, appeared to be no more than 17. He was small of frame and sparse of beard. We called him Billy the Kid as he swaggered through the fetid-smelling bazaar section, his gun hanging low and forward on his hip, the holster slapping his thigh with each step.
A few of the vendors cried out, "Viva Roosevelt, viva Roosevelt." Prior to our arrival, I 'm sure, as battles raged back and forth across the top of Africa for four years, the cries must have changed with the flow of battle: "Viva Mussolini...Viva Churchill...Viva Hitler...Viva Hitler... Viva Churchill"... and now, "Viva Roosevelt."
We trucked back to base, almost gladly, leaving the rag-tagged, alms-seeking children and impoverished merchants to their dismal, war-scared surroundings.
MISSION 2 -- 8 JULY 43
24 B-24s DEPARTED BENINA MAIN AT 1040 GMT TO ATTACK TELEGRAPH AND TELEPHONE BUILDINGS, CATANIA, SICILY. 20 A/C REACHED TARGET AT 1317 GMT AND DROPPED 239 X 500-LB. BOMBS FROM 25,500 FEET. SECTION OF TOWN AROUND TELEPHONE AND TELEGRAPH BLDGS THOROUGHLY OBSCURED BY SMOKE AS A RESULT OF BOMB HITS. MARSHALLING YARDS ON THE COAST HIT BY BOMBS. ONE LARGE FIRE STARTED WHERE RAILROAD LINES REACHES BREAKWATER, BELIEVED TO BE OIL STORAGE TANKS. WEATHER CLEAR. A/A AIMED, SLIGHT, INACCURATE. NIL E/A. NO DAMAGE TO A/C SUSTAINED. ALL 44TH A/C RETURNED TO BASE BY 1620. 4 A/C RETURNED EARLY DUE TO MECHANICAL TROUBLES.
"Heaven Can Wait" behaved well. Our bombs salvoed on schedule and we returned to base without incident.
Upon landing and parking at our improvised hardstand, two or three groundmen - mechanics and armorers - gave us the thumbs up greeting and hastily removed canteens of water from the bomb bay section. The water, still frozen from its five-mile high ride, would soon be savored by the men in the late-afternoon desert heat.
Potable water was tanked into base and very little was allowed for personal use. Each man, however, did receive an allotment of one can of beer a day. We often carried many canteens of water and several men hoarded beer, festooned to bomb bay struts, on missions, secure in the knowledge that, back at base, men were prayerfully awaiting our safe return.
There was little variation of food at base: pancakes, Spam, powdered milk and eggs, Vienna sausages. The worst of all was a congealed, wax-like, butter substitute called desert butter. Even under a punishing African sun it retained the viscosity of axle grease. Our waist gunner Edwin Stewert, a Californian, dubbed it a medicant for loose bowels.
MISSION 3 10 JULY 43
28 B-24s OF THE 44th BG DEPARTED BENINA MAIN AT 1230 GMT TO ATTACK THE
MARSHALLING YARDS AT CATANIA, SICILY. A/C REACHED TARGET AREA AND DROPPED 285 X 500-LB AMERICAN BOMBS AT 1637 HOURS FROM 23,000 FEET. 36 x 500 BOMBS BROUGHT BACK WITH DISPOSITION OF 12 BOMBS UNKNOWN. HEAVY CONCENTRATION OF HITS ON TARGET. FIRES STILL BURNING FROM PREVIOUS RAID. FIRES ALSO SEEN AT SYRACUSE AND AUGUSTA. 3 A/C RETURNED BOMBS DUE TO MECHANICAL FAILURE. WEATHER CLEAR. A/A MODERATE. SEVERAL A/C DAMAGED BY FLAK. E/A NIL. ONE A/C LANDED MALTA AT 1900 GMT.
While enroute to a target and over the Mediterranean, all ten of our .50 caliber guns were test fired. Flight engineer Charlton Holtz, a Minnesota lad, manned the top turret. When he test fired, spent shells cascaded out of the turret onto the cabin floor next to my radio position. Occasion-ally a shell or two would bounce off his leg and land on me. The casings were hot. One landed on my neck and left a burn welt. However, I preferred ducking hot shells to flying in a ship with a malfunctioning turret.
Later model B-24s would include two added turrets, one in the belly, one in the nose, replacing four hand-held guns, giving improved firing power. Also, newer Ships would have added armor plating to protect the pilots; and, incidentally, the armor plates would benefit me, too.
MISSION 4 -- 12 July 43
27 B-24s OF THE 44th DEPARTED BENINA MAIN BY 0657 GMT TO ATTACK REGGIO DI CALABRIA, ITALY. A/C REACHED TARGET AT 1045 AND DROPPED 216 x 1000 LB BOMBS FROM 23,500 FEET. ENTIRE TARGET AREA WELL COVERED WITH EITHER PETROL OR AMMUNITION FIRE. WEATHER CLEAR. VISIBILITY UNLIMITED. A/A SLIGHT BUT ACCURATE. SEVERAL A/C SLIGHTLY DAMAGED. E/A NIL. ALL A/C RETURNED SAFELY BY 1345. 3 A/C RETURNED EARLY DUE TO MECHANICAL FAILURE. 30 BOMBS RETURNED; 10 JETTISONED.
Allied invasion troops were over running Sicily and our Group's attention was now diverted to pre-invasion strikes on mainland Italy.
When we landed and parked our Lib, one of the ground crew went into the bomb bay to retrieve his cache of beer. He came out of the plane with his prize. Looking grieved and speaking with false sternness, he pointed to several small flak holes in the bomb bay doors and said--as close as I can remember--"Dammit, fella, you gotta be more careful; they almost shot my beer." Banter and levity helped relieve the strain of missions, especially when all crewmen returned unharmed.
With each mission the crew of "Heaven Can Wait" gained confidence and improved intra-coordination. We discussed water ditching and crash-landing procedures. Each crewman had at least a few minutes flying time--enough, perhaps, to maintain her in a reasonably level flight attitude. We kept inter-phone talk to a minimum and regarded each other as competent and reliable at his duty station. We were fusing into a proud ten-man unit. Yes, we had some conflicting personalities and, on the ground, spirited arguments arose. But once aloft all differences ceased.
MISSION 5 -- 15 JUL 43
29 44th BG B-24s DEPARTED BENINA MAIN BY 0730 HOURS TO ATTACK FORRIA AIRFIELD NEAR FOGGIA, ITALY. 24 A/C REACHED TARGET AT 1238 HOURS DROPPING 260 x 500-LB BOMBS FUSED INSTANTANEOUS NOSE, 45 SECOND TAIL FROM 23,000 FEET. FIELD WELL COVERED FROM CENTER TO NORTHEAST END. FAIR COVERAGE OF SOUTHEAST END. WEATHER CLEAR. SLIGHTLY HEAVY FLAK AIMED BUT INACCURATE. 5 TO 6 E/A FIGHTERS OBSERVED. NO ATTACKS. 25 A/C LANDED SAFELY AT BASE BY 1635. ONE A/C LANDING AT MALTA FIRST AND RETURNING LATE, LANDING AT 1850. 5 A/C RETURNING EARLY DUE TO MECHANICAL FAILURE. 31 BOMBS BROUGHT BACK, 9 JETTISONED, 9 DROPPED ON RAILWAY LINE IN ITALY.
The flak, somewhat heavier on this mission, was inaccurate. Aimed flak, as it suggests, is fired at a particular target, usually a lead Group or Squadron A/C. Barrage flak, however, is not targeted on a selected plane. Rather, it is a boxed pattern of A/A fire into which, the enemy hopes, the B-24s will fly.
At our base were several British-manned A/A units, one fairly close to our tent area. Theirs was a boring task. For the two months of our stay no E/A came within range of their low to intermediate range of fire. Instead, only stripped down, extreme-altitude German photo-recon aircraft penetrated the desert airspace.
Occasionally, one or two of us would visit the two-man A/A units, exchanging small talk and cigarettes and flicking ever-present locusts off our clothes.
The base was devoid of mosquitoes in this parched area but we used netting to keep the five- and six-inch long locusts from our canvas cots. One of the crewmen, waist gunner Hugo Dunajecz of New York City, got so irritated with the invasive locusts that he fired his ..45 at one, scaring the hell out of the rest of us and puncturing a half-inch hole in our tent. "Desist or move out," we told him. From then on, Hugo shot at crashed German and Italian fighters and light bombers that lay broken on the desert, the losers of earlier shootouts.
MISSION 6 - 19 JULY 43
30 B-24s OF THE 44th DEPARTED BENINA MAIN AT 0430 HOURS TO ATTACK THE MARSHALLING YARDS AT LITTORIO, ITALY, ADJACENT TO ROME. 2 A/C RETURNED EARLY DUE TO SICKNESS AND MECHANICAL TROUBLE. 28 A/C REACHED THE TARGET AND DROPPED 225 x 500-LB BOMBS FROM 23,000 FEET TO 25,000 FEET. 17 BOMBS RETURNED AND 27 BOMBS DROPPED ON FOLLOWING TARGET DUE TO RACK TROUBLE: 17 ON RR TRACKS NEAR ORLANDO, 10 ON RR TRACKS NEAR ANZIO. HEAVY CONCENTRATION OF HITS AT LITTORIO. OTHERS FELL WEST AND EAST OF TARGET. WEATHER CLEAR. A/A HEAVY AND SLIGHT, AIMED AND INACCURATE. 10 TO 15 E/A SEEN, FEW PASSES. 1 ME 109 DESTROYED. 2150 LBS. OF LEAFLETS DROPPED. 1 A/C LANDED TUNIS AND 29 RETURNED TO BASE BY 1805 GMT.
Airmen of Catholic faith were given the choice of flying this mission or remaining at base. The Littorio Rail Yards were proximate to Vatican City. An errant bomb conceivably could inflict damage to the home of the Pope. Therefore, stringent bomb drop precautions were invoked. Fortunately, the bombing was effected as planned. We heard that not one Catholic in our Group, including our tail gunner, Bob Bonham, declined to fly the mission.
But the Catholics' decision to fly the Rome mission was not unexpected. All combat flying seemed to be voluntary. From the beginning, each man received specialized training to prepare him for combat. Even the gunners, for the most part, attended four weeks of gunnery school prior to assignment to a stateside combat training group. And whenever possible, airmen trained together as a ten-man unit for three months before entering combat. Somewhere along the progression line, in school or training, each man had the opportunity to fail a course, feign a disabling ailment, or perform so inefficiently as to render himself unsuited for combat flying. Of course, some did. Those who did fly combat, however, did so with a self-determination, an unspoken pride in contributing to the effectiveness of the ten-man unit that each B-24 carried. I'm sure men of the 44th were not unique in this respect, but it did make for a unit cohesion that was not equaled in civilian life.
Since arriving in Libya the 44th had flown ten missions, and the crew of "Heaven Can Wait" had flown on six of them. Only 3 of our Group 15 Libs had been downed by enemy action in some 280 individual sorties, resulting in a 44th operational loss of one percent, although several A/C had incurred severe A/A or E/A damage.
But our next mission, Ploesti, was destined to end our low loss rate.
A low-level strike at Hitler's main oil source in Ploesti, Rumania, had been planned months in advance and was the principal reason the 44th, along with two other 8th AAF Groups, had come to Libya. Together with the two B-24 Groups of the African based 9th AAF we hoped to parlay our successful Sicily, Italy strikes into one big surprise effort to destroy much of Germany's essential oil supply.
Gen. Lewis Brereton, CO in charge of Tidal Wave (Ploesti code name), warned that A/C losses might reach 50 percent or more. That Russian roulette 50-50 figure aroused our apprehension. Nevertheless, all ten "Heaven Can Wait" crewmen willingly readied for the assault. But orders called for a crew of only nine, not the usual ten; the tunnel gun position to be unmanned because of weight restrictions for the 2500-mile flight and because our low attack altitude and 200 mph target ground speed would cancel the effectiveness of a single, belly-fired, hand-held .50.
The four mid and rear section gunners drew straws to determine which one would remain on the desert on P-Day. Young waist gunner Ralph Knox drew the "unlucky" straw. He complained and cursed and, feeling abandoned, withdrew from the rest of the crew, not to speak until just before takeoff, when, woefully, he wished us luck. Ralph was dejected by this fracture in the brotherhood of battle.
There wasn't much reason to stash aboard beer or extra water for the Ploesti run; we wouldn't fly high enough to chill it. But one of the ground men fastened a canteen in the already crammed bomb bay. "Just for luck, okay?" He punctuated his words with the universal, jabbing thumbs-up salute.
And so it was that 177 A/C departed Libya on Aug 1, 19~3, 'Heaven Can Wait" included, to bomb the energy out of Hitler '5 war machine.
MISSION 7 1 AUG 43
37 B-24s OF THE 44th PG DEPARTED BENINA MAIN BY 0430 GMT (IN COMPANY WITH 140 b-24S OF FOUR OTHER GROUPS) TO ATTACK PLOESTI AND ADJACENT TARGETS OF CREDITO-MINIER AND COLUMBIA AQUILA. 36 A/C OF THE 44th REACHED TARGETS BETWEEN 1210 AND 1213 HOURS AT ALTITUDES FROM 120 TO 250 FEET. 48 x 500-LB GP BOMBS FUSED 45 SECONDS TAIL AND 139 X 1000 LB GP BOMBS FUSED ONE HOUR TAIL DELAY, PLUS 22 BOXES INCENDIARIES, DROPPED ON TARGETS. COLUMBIA AQUILA ALREADY IN FLAMES AND A/C BOMBED THROUGH SMOKE ON RECOGNIZED STACKS. BOTH DESTROYED. GOOD VISIBILITY EXCEPT FOR SMOKE SCREEN. INTENSE MACHINE GUN AND LOW ALTITUDE FLAK ENCOUNTERED BETWEEN INITIAL POINT AND TARGET. HEAVY FLAK AT MINIMUM ELEVATION ENCOUNTERED. NUMEROUS CATEGORY OF DAMAGE SUSTAINED BY A/C. 18 TO 20 E/A ATTACKED; 13 DESTROYED AND ONE DAMAGED. 23 A/C LANDED SAFELY AT BASE BY 1800 HOURS. 14 A/C UNREPORTED. ONE B-24, LETTER (BAR) W BELLY-LANDED NEAR INITIAL POINT. CREW BELIEVED SAFE. FLAK ENCOUNTERED AT VERONA ON WAY OUT. SMOKE SCREEN AT TARGET STARTED WELL IN ADVANCE OF A/C ARRIVAL. 10 TO 15 BARRAGE BALLOONS WEST OF TARGET FLYING AT 4000 FEET. 17 E/A REPORTED AT PRILOP AIRDROME. FLAK ENCOUNTERED AT BERATI. 8 BALLOONS IN RR YARDS.
There was only one other more saddening mission for our crew than this one. We aborted some 125 miles short of the oil complex, near Craiova, Rumania. Fuel transfer problems and, as proved later, oiling difficulties caused us to shut down number one engine and feather the propeller. We were tail-end Charlie, eating everyone's prop wash. We kept lagging farther behind. Then number four engine lost power. We fell farther back. We had no choice. Navigator Robert Ricks, from Richmond, Va., as was copilot William Phipps, gave Whitlock a course heading to the nearest friendly landing field, Cyprus, some five flying hours distant.
Flying southbound we re-crossed the Danube River at a point where people were wading and swimming. We didn't want to hurt them, so we dumped our bombs farther down river. Then we overflew Bulgaria into the Aegean Sea and skirted west of Turkey. Twenty minutes from the Cyprus coast number four engine quit entirely. We were running out of altitude.
At 500 feet and still dropping, Whitlock turned and asked if I was set up for a distress call. 'Yes, Sir." I knuckled out repeated SOS Morse signals, giving our code and holding the transmitter key down for 15 to 20 seconds 50 air-sea-rescue could home in on us. Meanwhile, the crew threw out clothing, radio tuning units, ammunition and canteens to lighten our load so we could make landfall. The coast loomed and, luckily, we were lined up to land on the East-West runway. No turning; straight in. I fired red flares to ward off pattern aircraft. It was a good landing.
Our fuel transfer and oil problems were remedied by engineer Holtz and RAF personnel in two days. But then pilot Whitlock came down with an intestinal disorder and we couldn't leave.
British infantrymen befriended us five sergeants and provided lorry transportation to their mountain rest camp. There we met scores of Gurkha soldiers. Born in the foothills of the Himalayas and fighting for the Crown, they, with their sword-like Kukri knives--preferring them to guns--had created panic among German Afrika Korpsmen, beheading rather than shooting, as they stealthily penetrated the Axis battle lines. They were barrel-chested, short, somber arid visually impressive as combatants.
Each morning the Gurkhas would serve us tea before we got out of our cots. Naturally, as they served, we thanked them for the extra service. After two or three mornings they returned our signs of respect with tight smiles and, retreating, bowed to us. We were glad they were fighting with the Allies.
Whitlock regained his strength and our week long hiatus ended as we flew over the British encampment at low altitude and rocked our wings in salute to our kind hosts who had been at war for nearly four years. Just before we left Cyprus the U. K. troops presented us with a ceremonial Kukri. Somehow I became custodian of the curved ten-inch blade set in a beautifully wooden-engraved, silver-banded handle.
We landed at Devasoir Air Base in Egypt. For two days we toured Cairo, checking back at our hotel late in the morning and again in the afternoon awaiting word from Group HQ as to our disposition. Orders received, we boarded a C-i&7 and flew back to our Libyan base, never to see "Heaven Can Wait" again. At base we learned that nine of our Group '8 37 A/C were lost to enemy action or fell into the sea. Two others, forced to land in neutral Turkey, were interned for the war. It was a 30 percent Group loss.
Overall, of 177 A/C taking part in the Battle of Ploesti, 45 crashed, 8 were interned in Turkey and only 88 returned to Libya that night of Aug. 1. It took many days before all the remaining 36 planes returned to their No. African bases.
MISSION FOGGIA - 16 AUG 43
25 B-24s OF THE 44th DEPARTED BENINA MAIN BY 01430 HOURS TO ATTACK FOGGIA AIRFIELD. 2 A/C RETURNED EARLY DUE TO MECHANICAL TROUBLE, BOMBS JETTISONED. 23 A/C REACHED TARGET BY 1033 HOURS, DROPPING l52 X 300 LB AMERICAN BOMBS, FUSED INSTANTANEOUS NOSE, 45 SECOND TAIL DELAY, AND 2160 X 20 LB FRAG BOMBS FROM 20,000 FEET. NORTH HALF OF FIELD WELL COVERED BY BURSTS. LIGHT SCATTERED CLOUDS, VISIBILITY UNLIMITED OVER TARGET. A/A MODERATE TO INTENSE, AIMED AND ACCURATE. MINOR DAMAGE SUSTAINED. 140 TO 50 ME 109s, JU 88s AND ME 110s ATTACKED FORMATION. SIX OF OUR A/C SHOT DOWN OVER TARGET. 2 UNACCOUNTED FOR (LATER CONFIRMED LOST TO ENEMY ACTION). 2 FW 190s, 1 ME 110, 22 ME 1095 DESTROYED; 3 ME 109s PROBABLE; 5 ME 109s DAMAGED. 2 B-24s LANDED MALTA. 15 A/C LANDED BENINA BY 1440 GMT.
Only six of our crew of ten flew the Foggia mission. Co-pilot Phipps, Bombardier Schwab, Engineer Holtz and I were grounded by respiratory and ear infections.
We, four, waited for our six fellow crewmen and our four replacements to return in a ship named "Timb-a-a-ah," Long after the last ships returned and the sun had set, we two enlisted men, as did the two officers, mournfully trekked back to our tent area. It was a night of anguish. Eight of our Group's A/C, including "Timb-a-a-ah," failed to return.
If I had been older, instead of 22, perhaps I might not have searched for a symbolic reason which governs fateful events. But regardless, I picked up the Gurkha Kukri, walked into the desert and threw the knife across the sand into the darkness. It had brought only bad luck. More than half my crew were gone, probably dead. I cried.
Without loss the 44th flew another two missions after losing 60 percent of the strike planes in just two raids, Ploesti and Foggia. Late in the month 44th personnel returned to our base in Shipdham, England. Only 22 A/C made the trip back, whereas 141, plus four replacements, had come to Africa two months earlier.
Costly (about $300,000 each) as the loss of our 22 bombers may have been, more importantly and personally grievous was the loss of more than 200 airmen. And several of those "airmen" were ground crew fellows who volunteered to fly as gunners when attrition slashed the number of available regular gunners.
I returned to England in mid-September after being hospitalized with sand fly fever in Marrakech, Morocco, for two weeks. I never saw Holts, Schwab or Phippe again.
For the next three months I flew an occasional weather recon flight several rail trips to various RAF and AAF airfields throughout England to help return damaged or fuel-starved B-24s to Shipdham earlier failed to make base following a mission.
New crews arrived frequently. In fact we now had more crews than planes. It was not unusual for two different crews to alternate flying using the sea's Liberator. Sometime in late October I transferred from the 506th Sqdn into the 67th Sqdn--same Group, the 44th.
In mid-November, to my surprise, Ralph Knox limped into my Nissen hut. He had spent many weeks in hospitals recovering from shrapnel wounds. He related the grim facts of the August Foggia mission. Gunners Bonham, Stewart and Dunajecs were KIA. Pilot Whitlock and Navigator Ricks were taken prisoner by Italian troops. Of the four replacement crew members flying that day, two were KIA and two POW. Knox was in an Italian hospital when advancing American troops secured the area. Shortly after visiting me, Knox returned to the States for further medical attention.
Perhaps I could have avoided further combat. Sqdn Operations certainly didn't pressure me to fly. I was in a non-assigned state of limbo. Maybe it was guilt or pride or shame: Whatever, I decided to, or try to, complete my tour of combat, 25 missions. But not, if I could help it, with an inexperienced crew.
My opportunity came toward mid-December when, on his 15th mission, the radio man of Lt. James Hill's crew fell, or was blown, from the foot-wide bomb bay catwalk during the bomb run and parachuted into France. This crew had survived the 90 percent Group loss suffered by the 44th in just 3 missions- -Ploesti, Foggia and Wiener Neustadt (another 30 percent loss mission)--and had several E/A credited to their gunners. Top turret John Pitcovick had, I think, tallied six E/A. It made me feel almost comfortable flying as radio operator with John manning the turret above me. So, fortunately, I flew the next ten missions with Lt. Hill and his battle-experienced crew.
MISSION 8 00 -- 16 DEC 43
22 B-24s OF THE 44th DEPARTED SHIPDHAM TO STRIKE BREMEN, GERMANY. FOR THE FIRST TIME, THREE COMBAT WINGS MADE UP THE 2ND AIR DIVISION, AND THE 446th GROUP FLEW ITS FIRST MISSION. AS WITH PRIOR DECEMBER MISSIONS THE WINTER WEATHER DEFINITELY WAS PRESENT. INTENSE, ACCURATE BARRAGE FLAK WAS ENCOUNTERED OVER THE TARGET, MEAGER A/A AT OTHER POINTS. TO DATE, THIS MISSION PROBABLY THE BIGGEST EFFORT MADE BY THE USAAF--AND A SUCCESSFUL ONE.
This, my first mission in more than four months, was also my first flight over Germany. The A/A proved frightening. Compared to Sicily and Italy, the flak coming up from Germany was thicker, more intimidating and fired with greater accuracy.
At post-mission interrogation I downed my two ounces of whisky, which was standard procedure following each mission. It hit my empty stomach like an exploding star...Mission number eight over; seventeen to go!
MISSION 9 - 20 DEC 43
IT WAS BACK TO BREMEN AGAIN TODAY WITH THE 44TH DISPATCHING 28 A/C, BUT SEVERAL ABORTING DUE TO EXTREMELY BAD WEATHER AND MECHANICAL PROBLEMS. THE EFFECTIVE FORCE WAS l9 A/C. THE MISSION WAS A VISUAL BOMBING RUN AND THE RESULTS WERE GOOD. AGAIN THE ENEMY THREW UP PLENTY OF FLAK AND 8 A/C OF THE GROUP SUSTAINED CATEGORY "A" DAMAGE. ESTIMATES OF FROM 50 TO 75 E/A MADE ATTACKS ON OUR FORMATION, TAKING ADVANTAGE OF BOMBER CONTRAILS FOR THEIR ATTACKS. SEVERAL CLAIMS MADE BY THE GROUP FOR DESTROYED E/A. THE 506th SQDN LOST ONE PLANE TO A/A AND E/A ATTACKS.
Not only accurate flak again today but E/A as well. In the top turret John got off several short bursts. He was not one to waste ammo on long bursts that might also burn out the rifling of his .50s.
I felt helpless as "bandits" swept through our formation. The other sergeants manned gun positions. I had only a Very pistol for firing signal flares. While under attack I stood behind the armor plate located on the back of the co-pilot's seat. (The pilot was similarly protected.) Hunkering low as possible, but still able to observe E/A anywhere from 9 through 3 o'clock, I watched the red wink-wink-wink of German 20 mm cannon fire and heard our responding .50s.
MISSION 10 - 22 DEC 43
22 A/C OF THE 44th DEPARTED SHIPDHAM TO ATTACK MUNSTER, GERMANY'S IMPORTANT RAILWAY AND WATERWAY CENTER, As WELL As AN IMPORTANT GARRISON TOWN. THE BOMBING RUN WAS ACCOMPLISHED ON PFF SO THE RESULTS WERE UNOBSERVED. A/A MODERATE BUT QUITE ACCURATE, BARRAGE TYPE, THAT CAUSED THE LOSS OF 2 66th SQDN A/C. LT. MILLER MANAGED TO KEEP HIS CRAFT ALOFT UNTIL OVER THE ZUYDER ZEE, WHERE HE DITCHED. ONLY LT. TAYLOR MANAGED TO SURVIVE. LT. OAKLEY MOTIONED FOR OTHER SHIPS TO GET GOING TOWARDS ENGLAND WHILE HIS SHIP SLOWLY LOST ALTITUDE BUT IN APPARENT GOOD CONDITION WITH BOMB BAY DOORS STILL OPEN. LATER A TAIL GUNNER REPORTED SEEING THE A/C BEGIN TO SPIRAL DOWN INTO THE CLOUDS. ONLY TWO MEN MANAGED TO BECOME POWs. NO E/A OPPOSITION MET BY THE 44th BUT OTHER GROUPS REPORTED VERY DETERMINED E/A ACTIVITY. MINOR FROST-BITES REPORTED BY SOME CREW MEMBERS.
At bombing altitude temperatures of 50-55 below were not uncommon. An aircraft's enclosed forward cabin, while not heated, did protect us from wind. But aft, especially at the waist gun positions, the 170-plus mph winds, coupled with arctic-like mercury readings, caused much suffering to crewmen. Minor to severe cases of frostbite occurred. The advent of electrically heated, snug-fitting flying suits (bunny suits) minimized the problem. Sometimes, however, the suits shorted out (mine did once) and it was essential to don fleece-lined jackets and pants hurriedly.
Incidents occurred where a wounded crewman, unattended for just a few minutes while his fellow crewmen fought off E/A, died from exposure; others, still alive and in need of morphine, suffered extreme pain because syringe needles broke when attempting to penetrate hard, deep-frozen skin. Conversely, frigid temperatures have saved some lives. Reportedly, an artery-severed, blood-spurting limb of a crewman had been freeze-cauterized, and his life saved, by baring his injury to icy blasts.
MISSION 11 - 30 DEC 43
THE OBJECTIVE OF THIS MISSION WAS THE VAST CHEMICAL WORKS OF I. G. FARBEN INDUSTRIE LOCATED AT LUDWIOSHAVEN, GERMANY. THE GROUP DISPATCHED 24 A/C THAT ASSEMBLED WITHOUT MUCH DIFFICULTY, SIX OF THEM BEING 67th's SQDN. THE FORMATION DID NOT MEET MUCH ENEMY OPPOSITION, EITHER GROUND OR AIR, AND THE BOMBS WERE DROPPED ON PFF FLARES DROPPED BY B-17 PATHFINDERS. THE USE OF "WINDOW" (FOIL IN STRIPS: CHAFF) THAT WAS DROPPED TO COUNTERACT THE RADAR IN ITS PREDICTOR-CONTROLLED A/A FIRE WAS ENTHUSIASTICALLY ENDORSED BY CREWMEN. HOWEVER, IN THE TARGET AREA, AFTER BOMBS WERE AWAY, 25 E/A MADE ATTACKS ON THE 44th, WITH THE 66th SQDN LOSING ONE A/C.
The 2nd Air Division's B-24 bomber force of the 8th AAF grew from 80 A/C in the two Group. (93rd and 44th) operating in early 1943 to almost 300 Libs in the seven Groups that comprised the Liberator fleet at the close of the year. Our B-17 compatriots, by comparison, had about 600 Fortresses. The day of the first 1,000-plane raid could not be far off.
Also, the 2nd AD fighter force was growing, and larger fuel cells, drop-tanks and other fuel modifications extended the range of P-38 and P-47 fighters. P-51s would soon add to the fighter strength. Our "Little Friends" were gaining sufficiently in number and range to accompany us - by staggering their take-offs - all the way to and from the heartland of Germany. Without fighter escort continued deep penetration daylight bombing would have proved totally disastrous.
MISSION 12 - 2 FEB 43
THE GROUP DEPARTED SHIPDHAM AT 1105 HOURS ENROUTE TO THE PAS DE CALAIS AREA, WATTEN, FRANCE. SEVEN 67th SQDN A/C IN FORMATION. BOMBING WAS DONE ON G-H, SO RESULTS WERE NOT SEEN. BOMBS WERE DROPPED AFTER TWO RUNS WERE MADE. MISSION WAS FLOWN UNDER SEVERE ICE CONDITIONS AND A 10/10th CLOUD CONDITION. OVER TARGET AREA MODERATE ACCURATE FLAK ENCOUNTERED. MANY SHIPS IN THE FORMATION SUFFERED MINOR FLAK DAMAGE. A/C ARRIVED BACK AT BASE AT 1515 HOURS.
After several scrubbed missions and a ten-day R & R leave we flew our first so-called milk run mission to the Calais area, which lay just across the English Channel. Dubbed NO-BALL because of the short time bombers spent in hostile airspace, the strikes were judged by some as an easy, even gutless, way to be credited with one more mission toward the required tour number of 25.
Men of the 44th knew better. Calais was not always a milk run. Less than two weeks earlier we lost six of our Group's aircraft to A/A and E/A on a similar NO-BALL mission. (Jan 21st).
Photo recon A/C and other sources indicated that Germany had built launching ramps that could cradle rockets (later known as V-1 Buzz Bombs) aimed at London and other targets in southern England. The ramp emplacements were scattered along the northwest coast of Trance and were well defended by numerous 88 and 110 mill A/A batteries. Our bombers flew many NO-BALL missions to the Calais sites but seldom without the enemy inflicting damage or personal injury.
MISSION 13 - 5 FEB 44
67th SQDN PARTICIPATED IN A GROUP MISSION TO CENTRAL FRANCE, TOURS AIRDROME. 3 SQDN A/C DEPARTED BASE AT 0700, REACHED OBJECTIVE, BOMBED AND 2 A/C RETURNED SHIPDHAM AT 1430 HOURS. L ONE A/C FORCED DOWN AT EAST WALLING, KENT, WITH TWO WOUNDED OFFICERS. RESULTS OF BOMBING WAS POOR TO GOOD. LITTLE OR NO A/A ENCOUNTERED, BUT 68TH SQDN HAD ONE A/C SHOT DOWN BY E/A WHICH MADE VERY CONCERTED ATTACKS ON THE 44th's FORMATION. GROUP CLAIMED 3 E/A FIGHTERS AS DESTROYED.
Middle Ages Crusaders' armor suits, updated with full-length zippers for quick removal, I thought, half seriously, that's what we needed. Instead, we were issued flak vests not unlike the shape of a baseball umpire's protector except it covered our backs as well. These vests, together with our GI helmets, saved many lives and helped to minimize some otherwise serious shrapnel wounds.
All of the 44th's well known ships were gone now: RUGGED BUGGY, LITTLE BEAVER, SUZY-Q, BUZZIN BEAR, CALABAN, MISS DIANNE, LADY LUCK, EARTHQUAKE MCGOON, HEAVEN CAN WAIT and scores of others had fallen to enemy action the past year.
We changed operational ships often, not knowing for sure from one mission to the nest which ship we would fly. When our crew stood down, another crew might fly our ship either on a mission or for a training flight. The personal touch, the allegiance toward any one individual B-24 was diminishing.
MISSION 14 - 8 FEB 44
MAJOR JANSEN, 68th SQDN, LED THE 44th GROUP, INCLUDING 7 A/C OF THE 67th, TO WATTEN, FRANCE. BOMB RUN MADE VISUALLY BUT WITH POOR RESULTS. A/A MODERATE TO HEAVY, ACCURATE, WITH SOME MEN INJURED. E/A SIGHTED BUT NOT ENGAGED DUE TO EXCELLENT FIGHTER ESCORT. A/C RETURNED TO BASE AT 1130 HOURS. PILOT OF THE 68th SQDN, LT. HAMLYN, SUSTAINED SERIOUS FACIAL FLAK WOUND, SO IT WAS NECESSARY FOR HIS CO-PILOT, LT. ALTEMUS
AND T/SGT. NORTON, ACTING AS CO-PILOT, TO BRING THE SHIP BACK.
For every mission flown to its conclusion there was, or so it seemed, a scrubbed or cancelled mission due to severe icing conditions, very high and dense cloud layers, hurricane-force winds aloft, or a change of plans at Bomber Command. Naturally, a scrub or early call-back did not count toward an airman's mission tally, but it did raise his anxiety level.
Depending on the departure time of a planned strike, the Sqdn Charge of Quarters would waken crews, sometimes as early as 2 a.m. Half an hour or 80 later the crews breakfasted. Then it was on to briefing where "Target-For-Today" names such as Bremen, Brunswick, Ludwigshaven, Frankfurt, Kiel and Emden caused one's breakfast to churn and sour. Boarding trucks, crews were driven to their respective hardstands. There the crews performed pre-flight duties. That done, they awaited the appearance of the green flare from the control tower to signal the starting of engines and the mission. The firing of a red flare, the canceling of the mission--no matter how rough it had promised to be--evoked groans of disappointment. A fair percentage of a mission was the mental acceptance of and emotional preparation for the flight. Red flares, whether fired from the ground or air, were distressing.
MISSION 15 -- 11 FEB 44
TARGET; SIRACOURT, FRANCE, WITH SIX 67th SQDN PARTICIPATING IN THE GROUP'S NO-BALL STRIKE. ALL 67th A/C RETURNED SAFELY. A VISUAL BOMB RUN WAS TO BE MADE BUT PFF TECHNIQUE WAS USED DUE TO 10/10TH UNDERCAST. BOMBING RESULTS NOT SEEN. A FEW E/A IN THE AREA BUT NO ATTACKS PRESSED HOME. A/A, HOWEVER, HEAVIER AND MORE ACCURATE THAN PREVIOUSLY EXPERIENCED AGAINST THIS TARGET. MANY OF THE GROUP'S SHIPS DAMAGED AND THE 68th HAD S/SGT R. S. MYERS KILLED BY FLAK.
Pathfinder Force (PFF) aircraft, relying on radar guidance of recent development, led bomber formations over the target area when cloud cover prevented visual contact with the ground. When PFF flares were released the trailing bomber stream used the smoke markers as an aiming point for "bombs away."
The use of "Window" or chaff confused A/A radar batteries initially, but apparently the Germans overcame the multi-target problem quickly as evidenced by their ability to cripple or fell bombers in undiminished number.
Liberty-runs to Norwich, about 20 miles from base, were a welcome relief from the trials of war and monotonous of camp life. Canvas-topped trucks full of GIs nightly careened to and from the city on pot-holed roads neglected by years of wartime priorities.
Generally, the Americans were well received by the English. However, some GIs thought the English were unfriendly and snobbish. Usually they were the same ones who complained about England's wartime shortages and stridently boasted of America's "superior" advantages and products. Had the situation been reversed, I wondered, would Americans have been as tolerant and sharing as the British?
MISSION 16 -- 12 FEB 44
AGAIN THE 44th, WITH SIX 67th SQDN AIRCRAFT, FLEW A NO-BALL MISSION TO THE CALAIS AREA TO BOMB SIRACOURT. NO A/C LOSSES. BOMBED BY PFF AND G-H THROUGH SOLID UNDERCAST WITH UNOBSERVED RESULTS. A/A FIRE INACCURATE CAUSING NO DAMAGE TO GROUP'S A/C. NIL E/A ACTIVITY',
There were no "easy" missions, but some were much less difficult than others, especially when no enemy action occurred.
Regardless of enemy activity many lives and ships were lost. Accidents plagued all operational Groups. Some crewmen were blown or fell out of aircraft. A couple of days prior to my 13th mission, a radio operator, seeking to obtain forgotten orders, left his A/C and walked into a whirling propeller, killing him instantly. Airmen died from oxygen starvation when icing conditions froze shut their mask's intake valves. Mid-air collisions claimed many lives and ships. When several hundred A/C climb through layered clouds, sometimes up to twenty thousand feet, a slight tracking error occasionally brought two ships together on a collision course. A few ships were knocked out of the sky when bombs from higher flying A/C ripped through the planes of a lower formation. Errant B-24 gunfire, too, added to our own toll. Several 24s, their IFF code (Identification Friend or Foe) inoperative, had been shot down by British A/A.
There were no easy missions.
MISSION 17 - 25 FEB 44
ANOTHER SUCCESSFUL RAID TODAY--THIS TIME TO FURTH, GERMANY. NINE 67th SQDN A/C TOOK OFF AND REACHED THE TARGET, BUT UPON RETURN ONE PLANE FORCED TO CRASH-LAND AT LYMONE, ENGLAND, AT 1630 HOURS. ALL BAILED OUT EXCEPT PILOT AND CO-PILOT. ONE ENLISTED MAN SUFFERED INJURIES FROM PARACHUTING. 8 SQDN A/C RETURNED TO BASE AT 1745. 44th LED DIVISION.
For Lt. Hill and his crew this was number 25. Their combat tour was over. Prior to landing, Hill buzzed a base perimeter strip with full power at an altitude too low to estimate. He then climbed at a steep angle, rocked the wings and put the plane through a modified chandelle, the resultant G-force of which made my body feel as if it were filled with cement instead of thin, scared blood.
Of course I felt joyous that my second crew had completed their tour successfully; previously, few had. But I still had eight missions to fly before ending my tour. I kept checking with Sqdn Operations, waiting for a chance to join an experienced crew. Ten days later I filled in at radio on Lt. Perry's ship.
MISSION 18 - 6 MARCH 44
BERLIN. "BIG B" WAS THE TARGET FOR TODAY. SPECIFICALLY, THE TARGET WAS THE ERNST HEINKEL AIRCRAFT ASSEMBLY PLANT AT GENSHAGEN, LOCATED ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF BERLIN. THE SECONDARY TARGET WAS THE FAMED TEMPLEHOF AIRDROME NEAR BERLIN. GROUND FOG AT TAKE-OFF TIME CAUSED SOME DIFFICULTY, BUT THE 67th PUT UP 8 A/C, 6 OF WHICH COMPLETED A DIFFICULT ASSEMBLY ON TIME AND THE LONG TRIP BEGAN AT 0820 HOURS. ACCURATE FLAK WAS ENCOUNTERED IN THE TARGET AREA BUT LITTLE DAMAGE RESULTED. E/A WERE SEEN BUT NO ATTACKS WERE EXPERIENCED BY THE 44TH GROUP. SOME BOMBS WERE DROPPED ON TEMPLEHOF A/D AS WELL WITH GOOD RESULTS. LOSSES AND CLAIMS WERE NIL, BUT THERE WAS THAT FEELING OF BEING OVER THE HUMP--THE CLIMAX HAD BEEN REACHED. THE ONLY NEW OR GREATER CLIMAX THAT COULD TOP THIS WOULD BE THE ALLIED INVASION. MAJOR CAMERON RESUMED COMMAND OF THE SQDN.
Until now we heard only rumors of hitting Germany's capital. It was the last great target that the 8th AAF had not bombed in strength and it had symbolic importance in measuring the success or failure of daylight bombing.
Although the 44th planes returned intact, the mission proved the costliest (numerically) raid of the war with 69 bombers lost to enemy action and operational accidents. 53 of some 450 B-17s were knocked down, and of about 200 B-24s dispatched 16 failed to return to their bases. I observed scores of parachutes in the Berlin area that day as more than 7,000 airmen invaded German airspace. The bombers were escorted by nearly 800 fighters, without whose coverage the mission would have ended in catastrophe instead of the actual 1088 rate of ten percent.
MISSION 19 - 21 MARCH 44
THE PAS DE CALAIS (WATTEN) WAS TODAY'S NO-BALL TARGET. 6 A/C OF THE 67th SQDN WERE OVER AND BACK SAFELY. BOMBING WAS BY PFF SYSTEM; AS USUAL, UNOBSERVED RESULTS. ONLY MEAGER TO MODERATE FLAK WAS MET, WITH A FEW PLANES HAVING MINOR DAMAGE. THE 44th WAS ONE OF THREE GROUPS TO HIT WATTEN.
As I stated earlier, some missions were of shorter duration and proved less difficult than others. But anytime anyone is shooting 88s and 110s at you, "meager flak" is a term that can only be applied when the final shell explodes near your ship and your name is not on it.
MISSION 20 - 22 MARCH 44
SIX OF OUR SQDN' S A/C PARTICIPATED IN A MAMMOTH RAID TO BASDORF, NEAR BERLIN. BUT WEATHER CONDITIONS FORCED THE PFF SYSTEM TO BE USED, SO BERLIN WAS HIT INSTEAD WITH UNOBSERVED RESULTS. TAKE-OFF WAS AT 0815 HOURS AND ALL SQDN A/C RETURNED AT 1645 HOURS. THE FLAK OVER THE CITY WAS INTENSE AND ACCURATE OF PREDICTOR-CONTROL FIRE AND BARRAGE FIRE TYPE. MANY OF THE GROUP'S A/C RECEIVED FLAK DAMAGE. FIGHTER SUPPORT WAS EXCELLENT AND NO E/A WERE SIGHTED.
It was a long day. Up hours before dawn; breakfast; briefing; pre-flight; 8½ hours in flight dodging your own A/C on climb-out through the clouds (and on return, too); sucking in your breath as shards of 88s and 110s pierce your ship's thin, olive-drab skin; checking the configuration of fighters to determine if they are bandits or Little Friends; hoping that the oil pressure of number 4 engine doesn't drop any lower and possibly force your ship to be a straggler for E/A to prey on--all that keeps the adrenaline surging.
And it was on this mission that, as I straddled the catwalk during the bomb run and pressed the bomb bay anti-creep lever, a chunk of shrapnel ripped through my bunny suit, nearly making an instant soprano of me as it shorted out my suit. It was a cold flight home.
The two-ounce shot of 86-proof was especially welcomed at the end of that difficult day.
MISSION 21 - 24 MARCH 44
TODAY'S OBJECTIVE WAS ST. DIZIER, FRANCE. NINE 67th A/C TOOK OFF WITH THE REST OF THE 44th GROUP AT 0630 HOURS, REACHED TARGET AND RETURNED TO BASE AT 1315. THE TARGET WAS BOMBED VISUALLY WITH GOOD RESULTS, HITTING THE RAILWAY YARDS AND ADJACENT BUILDINGS AND SOME PORTIONS OF THE TOWN. THERE WAS SOME INACCURATE FLAK ENCOUNTERED; FIGHTER SUPPORT WAS GOOD.
Sqdn Operations passed along the news that each crewman must now fly thirty missions, not 25, before his tour of combat was over. Instead of four I now had nine missions to go. It was disturbing news. I didn't think I had enough luck to take me through nine. Operations called me in and said I'd only be required to fly a total of 28, based on the number of missions I'd already flown. Okay, fine, but that still meant three extra missions.
MISSION 22 - 26 MARCH 44
A MISSION TO OSCHERLEBEN, GERMANY, WAS SCHEDULED EARLY TODAY, BUT WAS SCRUBBED, AND A SHORTER MISSION TO PETIT-BOIS-TILLENCOURT WAS SUBSTITUTED. WE SENT TEN 67th A/C THAT BOMBED AND RETURNED SAFELY. THE TARGET AREA WAS CLEAR AND THE 44th BOMBED THE TARGET VISUALLY WITH GOOD RESULTS. THE A/A FIRE IN THE TARGET AREA WAS MODERATE TO HEAVY AND VERY ACCURATE WITH MANY SHIPS OF THE 44th RECEIVING MINOR DAMAGE.
More flak damage on this misnomered NO-BALL mission. Damn, the Jerries were getting more accurate each day. Majority of A/A shells burst just below us. I took off my flak jacket, sat on it and promised I'd go to chapel next Sunday, if He'd let me.
MISSION 23 - APRIL 44
A FIGHTER PLANT IN GERMANY WAS THE TARGET AT LECHFELD (CAPT. MCCORMICK). THE TWIN-ENGINE FIGHTER PLANTS AND GAF AIRFIELD ADJOINING WERE HIT VISUALLY WITH GOOD RESULTS. EIGHT A/C OF THE 67th SQDN TOOK OFF AT 1030 HOURS. ONE SHIP RETURNED EARLY, WITH THE REMAINING SEVEN REACHING THE TARGET, BOMBING, AND SIX RETURNING TO BASE AT 1830 HOURS. ONE A/C, #330 WAS MISSING IN ACTION. LT. R. C. GRIFFITH OF THE ONE-WHEEL LANDING FAME, WAS FORCED TO LAND IN NEUTRAL SWITZERLAND. GENERALLY WEAK E/A OPPOSITION WAS MET, WHILE MODERATE AND ACCURATE FLAK WAS AS EXPERIENCED BY THE GROUP.
Another 8-hour mission (H-031). A few flak holes. Those Little Friends looked so good, shuttling back and forth, like protective Border Collies shepherding their flock.
So many new faces, new crews. It was difficult to find an experienced crew in need of a radio operator.
Considered leaving a conditional "goodbye" letter in my foot locker, thanking my parents for 23 good years, but couldn't summon the courage to tempt fate.
MISSION 24 - 26 APRIL 44
THE 67th WAS SET UP FOR GROUP LEAD TODAY WITH TEN SQDN PLANES. CAPT. ALDREDGE WAS THE LEAD PILOT WITH LT. COL. HODGE AS COMMAND PILOT. THE TARGET WAS GUTERSLOH, GERMANY, BUT 10/10th CLOUDS PREVENTED RELEASE OF BOMBS. ONE A/C RETURNED EARLY AND THE OTHER NINE WERE CREDITED SORTIES. ALL PLANES RETURNED SAFELY. FLAK WAS VERY INACCURATE, BARRAGE TYPE. VERY FEW E/A WERE SEEN. FIGHTER SUPPORT WAS AS EXCELLENT.
Flew missions 23 and 24 in Lt. McCormick's ship, after which I had to locate another crew. Felt like a wandering Bedouin searching for an oasis.
MISSION 25 - 12 MAY 44
ZEITZ, GERMANY, (METTS-475 M THE SITE OF SYNTHETIC OIL PLANTS, WAS THE TARGET FOR FIVE OF OUR SQDN A/C TODAY. ALL REACHED THE TARGET AND BOMBED. UNFORTUNATELY, ON THE WAY OUT OUR SHIP #047, FLOWN BY LT. VANCE WAS HIT BY E/A AND WAS SEEN TO GO DOWN. THREE OFFICERS, ONE FLIGHT OFFICER AND SEVEN ENLISTED MEN ARE MIA. THE 68th SQDN REPORTS THAT THE 67th PLANE WAS HIT BY FLAK AS WAS ALL OF THEIR PLANES, BUT THEY LOST NONE. THE E/A DID NOT HIT THE 44th's FORMATION, BUT EVIDENTLY ATTACKED LT. VANCE AS A STRAGGLER. THE TARGET WAS HIT WITH FAIR TO GOOD RESULTS. OUR A/C RETURNED TO THE BASE AT 1715 HOURS.
F/O (Flight Officer) Metz and crew were minus a radio operator. I finished my missions with Metz, a pleasant fellow who, I think, flew with the RAF before transferring to the AAF.
Off in the distance, about 2 o'clock level, I spotted a 24 that had had its top turret plastic bubble shot completely away. I kept thinking, "Headless Horseman...Headless Horseman." The crippled ship continued flying but slowly fell behind the Group's formation. As a straggler he was a prime E/A target. Hope he makes it, Hope we makes it.
When a crew goes down, foot lockers are pried open and personal belongings are collected, minus any objectionable material or firearms, and shipped to their next of kin. Their beds are stripped and the thin mattresses folded. Soon newly assigned young men will arrive and the beds will be made again.
MISSIONS 26 - 13 MAY 44
TODAY (METTS-475M) MARKS THE GROUP'S SEVENTH MISSION IN A ROW. THE SQDN PUT UP SIX A/C WHICH DEPARTED FROM THE BASE AT 1015 HOURS. THE TARGET WAS THE AIRFIELD AND AIR PARK AT TUTOW, GERMANY. OVER 50 E/A, SINGLE ENGINE TYPE, WERE SIGHTED AND ENGAGED BY THE ESCORTING FIGHTERS. HOWEVER, IT DID COST JERRY AT LEAST TWO FIGHTERS FOR THOSE ATTACKS ON OUR FORMATION. FLAK WAS ENCOUNTERED AT ONE AREA WHERE IT WAS PARTICULARLY ACCURATE--ROMO ISLAND. WE HAD NO TURN-BACKS AND ALL A/C RETURNED TO BASE AT 1415 HOURS.
The top turret gunner got off several bursts, the empty casings clinking against one another as they fell onto the cabin deck. I crouched behind the armor plate that protected the co-pilot's back, only my helmet and eyes above the armor as I watched the action. Oh, how I wished I could shoot back...please, don't let them strip my bed... Finally, I couldn't resist anymore; I just had to do something positive. As an E/A came barreling through our formation I pulled the trigger of my Very pistol and fired a signal flare at him. Useless? foolish? Certainly. But I did get to fire one futile "shot" at the enemy.
MISSION 27 - 15 MAY 44
SIRACOURT, FRANCE (METTS 475M), WAS ATTACKED BUT WITH UNOBSERVED RESULTS. FIVE OF OUR 67th A/C PARTICIPATED IN THE MISSION, BOMBED AND RETURNED TO BASE AT 1120 HOURS. NO E/A OR A/A WAS ENCOUNTERED. THE FIGHTER SUPPORT WAS EXCELLENT. THIS WAS A TYPICAL "MILK RUN."
At last, a NO-BALL milk run aptly named. Maybe, just maybe, my final mission will be another one like today's.
Weather-bound, the Group stood down for the next four days. It was a trying time. I wanted to fly that final mission quickly. Yet I didn't want to fly it at all. I know of at least one man (and heard of others) who was killed on what was supposed to be his tour finale.
MISSION 28 - 19 MAY 44
(METTS - 475 M). AFTER THREE DAYS OF REST, OPERATIONS WERE RESUMED IN A BIG WAY. MAJOR FELBER, FLYING AS COMMAND PILOT, LED THE GROUP TO BRUNSWICK, GERMANY; ALWAYS A TOUGH ONE, AND AGAIN THE MARSHALLING YARDS WERE THE CENTER OF ATTENTION. THE 67th SQDN PUT NINE A/C OVER THE TARGET WHICH WAS HIT WITH FAIR RESULTS ON A VISUAL RUN. A FIELD DAY AT THE ENEMY 'S EXPENSE WAS HAD BY THE GUNNERS OF THE GROUP AND OTHER GROUPS. NO LESS THAN THIRTEEN E/A WERE SHOT DOWN BY THE GUNNERS OF OUR GROUP--FOUR BY THE 68th AND THREE BY THE 67th (AND APPARENTLY SIX BY THE OTHER TWO SQDNS, THE 66th AND 506th). TWO E/A WERE LISTED AS PROBABLES AS WELL. ALMOST 150 E/A MADE ATTACKS ON THE FORMATIONS, BUT NO LOSSES WERE EXPERIENCED BY THE 44th GROUP. THE FLAK WAS HEAVY, INTENSE, RANGING FROM INACCURATE TO ACCURATE. ALL 44th A/C RETURNED AT 1600 HOURS.
We were lucky; others were not. The brunt of the E/A attacks was borne by a newly arrived Group (492nd BG). Attracted perhaps by the non-painted, silvery finish of the brand new planes that glinted in the sun, Me 109s and FW 190s evaded the cordon of American fighters and pounced on the fledgling Group, which was flying in tight formation off to our left and below us. I watched as E/A, lined up six or eight abreast made a frontal attack that felled four, maybe five, bombers. I saw no return fire from the B-24 gunners who, possibly, held their fire thinking the oncoming fighters were "Friendlies." Few chutes were sighted as the 24s spun earthward in increasingly tight circles which caused an upward G-force that few men could overcome. Later, other B-24s fell but I looked away, feeling nauseous, as each began its fatal spiral.
So, after 28 missions of varying intensity and the loss of many friends, I was through with combat.
And I wished that nobody, anywhere, ever had to go to war again.