William L. McConnaughay|
WW II Diary
A Day to Remember
Being a gunner on a crew flying B-24 bombers out of England in World War II was a lark for a 23-year-old young man who was positive nothing could happen to him. Actually, it was the "Life of Riley," for a country boy from Kansas.
Passes were required to leave the base, but who in the hell was going to argue with a guy who was risking his life once or twice a week to save the world from the Nazi's?
There was no love lost between the British soldier and the damn Yankees who had invaded their islands, but the female population, which included young ladies from France, Belgium, Netherlands, and most of the British Empire, seemed to be there to make the life of the American soldier a memorial experience. Things were so bad it was impossible to go to town with your buddies just to shoot the bull and do a little serious drinking. It takes very little imagination to know what this did to one's ego, and very little credibility was given to the British soldiers' sly remarks about the Yankee dollar, cigarettes, and chocolate bars.
Then one morning's dreams of the good life was shattered by the barracks lights being turned on and the now familiar raspy voice of the first sergeant yelling, "All right you jokers, up and at it. Breakfast at 0200 and briefing at 0300."
The crew had talked about the next mission being our 30th, but things were going well, and we would be over half done with our tour of duty, which was 25 missions.
After an unusually good breakfast, we entered the briefing room to a "standing room only" crowd. The members of the crew I was with looked at each other. The feeling was different today. We had routed out of our sack earlier than usual, had a better than normal breakfast, and now had found the briefing room packed.
An air of apprehension and tension seemed to fill the room as the curtain was pulled back revealing our target and flight plan, and then the room seemed to come to life as it dawned on each of us that our target for this day was the marshalling yards in the heart of Berlin. They explained this would be the maximum effort mission with all available bombers and crews scheduled to participate, and the mission would be coordinated with the 15th Air Force flying out of Italy.
Our crew, being veterans of missions over the Rohr Valley and synthetic rubber plants in Poland, paid very little attention to information estimating the number of anti-aircraft guns in the vicinity of Berlin and the magnitude of fighter plane opposition we would probably encounter when the Germans realized our target was Berlin. The briefing room was extremely quiet at this early morning hour, as representatives of each faith said a short prayer for the crews involved in this mission.
Our entire crew was in excellent spirits and we all joked about how this would be a hell of a good time to abort, a term used when a crew returned to the base before being completely committed to a mission due to real, or sometimes imagined, malfunction of the plane or equipment.
Our trip to Berlin was uneventful due mostly to a good cloud cover, and the isolated pockets of anti-aircraft fire were far off the mark.
About 40 or 50 miles out of Berlin our cloud cover completely dissipated, and we could see a haze hanging over Berlin. Our flight plan routed us southeast to a point approximately 20 miles south of Berlin and then due north across the city.
As we turned north and quickly approached our target, the whole damn sky, almost as far as the eye could see, was a blazing inferno created by the hundreds of anti-aircraft guns installed there to protect the capital city of Germany. Off to each side, German spotter planes were flying at our exact altitude and relaying this information to the gun batteries below to increase their efficiency for their devastating barrage on our bombers. Although we desperately tried to ignore it, we could see bombers ahead of us falling out of formation, some blowing up and an ever-increasing number of parachutes floating over the city as crews abandoned their crippled planes.
Even at this time, I believe the entire crew thought we lived a charmed life and were going to make it, but seconds before we were to drop our bombs, an anti-aircraft shell exploded in the vicinity of our left outboard engine. We dropped out of formation like a ton of bricks and continued to lose altitude until we could jettison our bomb load. With the bombs gone, we were able to stabilize our position and were soon over the outskirts of Berlin. A quick check of the plane by the pilot revealed our condition was not critical, and our navigator estimated we could be in Sweden in approximately 35 minutes.
This information was greeted with cheers form members of the crew and each of us started dreaming about sweating out the rest of the war in a neutral country surrounded by those beautiful blond, buxom Swedish girls.
My job as a gunner on the crew was to operate a turret that was actually a plastic bubble housing two 50-caliber machine guns located on top of the aircraft directly over the flight deck. This turret could be rotated 360 degrees horizontally and the guns raised approximately 85 degrees vertically. Rotating the turret slowly, my pleasant thoughts were quickly forgotten when I saw four ME109s, small German fighter planes, closing rapidly from the rear. This fighter had a 20-mm cannon in the nose and if my memory serves me right three 30-caliber machine guns in each wing.
As the first two fighter planes made their pass at our bomber, their cannons made gaping holes in our left-rear stabilizer and the left wing. As the third plane made his pass, I was hypnotized when 30-caliber bullets started penetrating the fuselage of our plane on top and at the rear of the bomber. Like a painter drawing a line, the holes came directly toward my turret. In what seemed like an eternity, 30-caliber bullets came crashing through my plastic bubble. Although slightly dazed from this experience, I remember something had hit me in the neck, and I was convinced it was a 30-caliber bullet. I immediately had the sensation of blood running down my neck and a very sticky feeling in my flight suit. By instinct, I followed the fourth fighter through his pass and about burned out my gun barrels trying to get revenge. He came right in on top of us and just before he turned it over to go down and away from us, he raised his hand and waved. Although he was long gone, I remember waiving back at him. I guess in a way, we were "comrades in arms."
Surveying the damage from my vantagepoint, I could see that the entire left rear stabilizer was gone and approximately one-third of the left wing. It seemed like there were thousands of holes made by the machine gun bullets.
Our plane, at this time, was completely out of control and I'm sure the pilot was far too busy to inform the crew exactly what we could expect. In the confusion, I forgot I had a 30-caliber machine gun bullet through my neck and probably was bleeding to death. Remembering this, I was positive I was going to die and became hysterical. I can remember hollering incoherently over the plane's intercom system, but just as quickly, I became calm and at peace with the world. I thought about my mom and prayed she could "hang in there," when notified by the War Department that I was missing in action. I've thought about this short interlude in my life many times, and I'm positive most people, left to their own means can and will die with self-respect and dignity.
I was brought back to reality when the pilot announced over the intercom he could not handle the plane and we should parachute out as soon as possible. I immediately crawled out of my turret and desperately started looking for my parachute that I had so nonchalantly tossed on the flight deck earlier that morning. Crawling around on my knees, I finally found it under some other paraphernalia. As I stood up and started to unbutton my heated jacket to snap on my chute, I noticed several fragments of plastic about the size of a dime fall out on the floor. As I continued to unbutton my jacket, I realized my flight suit was soaking wet with sweat. It slowly dawned on me I had found my 30-caliber bullet and the blood.
During this period I was trying to remember the several classes I was required to attend on the art of parachute jumping. The things that come to mind were, if you want to try to walk out, delay opening your chute as long as possible, land facing downwind, bury your chute, and stay out of small, wooded areas.
Thinking I might be considered somewhat of a hero if I walked out of the center of Germany, I quickly made plans for a quick descent to the enemy territory below. Knowing my reflex action might cause me to open my chute as soon as I cleared the plane, I decided to hold my right hand, which would pull the ripcord with my left hand, mentioning to it not to let go until I was ready.
Crawling over to the bomb bay, I jumped out, putting my plan into action. The free fall was a fascinating experience, but suddenly I was in a small, low-flying cloud and could not see the ground. I immediately decided to open my chute, but nothing happened. With my heart skipping beats, I looked down and there was my left hand desperately trying to keep my right hand from pulling the ripcord. After a short, stern conversation with my left hand, it let go with ample time for my chute to open for the short ride to earth. There was a brisk wind blowing and, like the man said not to do, I landed on the ground going backwards. The back of my head hit the ground and the next thing I remember was my chute dragging me across a tidy, well-kept German potato field. I quickly knocked the chute down, rolled it up, dug a hole, and buried it.
With all of this activity, I had completely forgotten about the rest of the crew. Looking up, I quickly counted eight chutes, which accounted for all the crewmen. They were all in the same general area and still about a mile up. For the first time, I realized my desire to be a hero had left me very much alone in the middle of, to say the least, a very hostile country.
Breaking another rule, I headed on a dead run for a relatively small, wooded area. My flight carried me approximately 50 feet inside these woods where I stopped, sat down beside a large tree and become violently sick at my stomach. I had not been there long when I heard the roar of airplane motors, followed by limbs being crushed off trees and then a shower of airplane parts and tree limbs. Looking up, directly over my head, not over 30 feet high, a four-engine bomber was crashing through the trees and finally coming to rest, less than a quarter of a mile in front of me. It was impossible to believe this was the plane I had so willingly left what seemed like only moments ago.
Unable to move, I sat there as a plane burst into flames and 50-caliber machine gun bullets began to explode. The first, large explosion, probably a gas tank, jarred me back to actuality. I jumped up and ran out of the woods into the potato field. I noticed a small, green spot, probably between a quarter and a half-mile away. Realizing anything would be better than open filed, I headed full speed for this spot. This green spot turned out to be far better than I dreamed of because it was a hole perhaps 30 feet in diameter, about eight feet deep, a small pond of water in the middle and small trees and shrubs around the entire inside bank. I ran down the bank, emptied my pockets, and cased my body into the water up to my armpits. My head and shoulders were well covered by a small tree and shrubs. Here, I felt relatively safe and was able to take a much-needed rest.
Possibly 30 minutes later, I started to hear people talking, the sound of horse-drawn carts, and an occasional motor vehicle. As this activity continued to accelerate, my curiosity overcame my better judgment and I crawled up the bank of my haven to peek over and witnessed an almost constant stream of people walking, riding bikes, horse-drawn carts, and scattered motor trucks making their way to the wrecked plane. Soon they were on their way back, carrying parts of the wrecked plane which I was sure would be used in the German war effort. I soon became tired of watching this processing and eased myself back down to my safe hiding place.
About dusk, the noise of moving people and equipment had almost completely stopped. I decided to have one more look before dark. I worked my way up the bank and peered over it into the eyes of an elderly man with a rifle, apparently standing guard, about 25 feet from my sanctuary. I assumed he had seen my head move as I raised it over the bank. After what seemed like an eon, he slowly turned away and I quickly returned to my refuge. It was soon dark and I quickly fell asleep, exhausted from "A Day to Remember!"