ATTACHMENT OF PERSONAL MEMORIES AND EXPERIENCES |
RISKY BUSINESS OR AM I ACCIDENT PRONE?
I grew up with the usual risks of life on a small farm where I and my four brothers went through the 1920s and 30s with many cuts and bruises, measles, mumps, and diphtheria all of which hardened us to take a lot of lumps in later life.We lived about two miles from the town of Monongahela, PA which meant lots of exercise walking to and from school along a yellow brick road. It was a 2.5 mile walk to the railroad station during my four years as a commuting student attending a State Teacher's College 25 miles away. After college graduation on June 2,1941, I went direct to primary flight school at the Mississippi Institute of Aeronauties (notice the logo MIA which turned out to be prophetic of things to come). Actually, it was pretty good deal because I signed an agreement with the Army Air Corps that if I completed pilot training I would be commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Air Corps Reserve and receive a bonus of $500 for every year of active duty that I served.This was six months before Pearl Harbor Day, and they honored that ageenient four years and eight months later when I was separated as a Lt Colonel, USAAF.
On graduation night from the MIA primary flight school my first encounter with the "Fickle Finger of Fate" was an auto accident when I and three other cadets were retuming to our MIA school outside of Jackson, MS. The four of us piled into a three-passenger Plymouth coupe, and we collided head-on with another car. As the third and fourth passengers Albert Novak of New Castle, PA and I flipped a coin to see who would ride in the lap of the other. I won the seat position by the widow and Al sat on my lap. He was instantly killed in that crash. He was my protection, like a modem air bag, and I just lost some teeth, received a broken nose and leg injuries. Of the four cadets I was the only one to continue flight training after medical repairs. Six weeks later I joined the class of (42B) at Basic Flight School at Augusta, GA flying the B- 1 3 Vultee vibrators.
I received my wings and commission at Barksdale Advanced Flying School and became one of about 10 pilots to be the first to fly the B-24C bombers fresh from the Consolidated plant in San Diego. One way to receive good training and log flying time was the anti-submarine patrols off the Gulf Coast. The German subs were creating havoc near the ports of New Orleans, Houston, Galveston and Corpus Christi. The main hazard on those flights was our return to Barksdale Field usually through a solid wall of thunderstorms that built up during the day over Louisiana and Mississippi. After 9-10 hours of flying we were usually tired and anxious to get back to the home base. Our only course was to fly head-on through those storms until we found some familiar land mark. There was no radar, Loran. GPS nor other fancy instruments to navigate like there are fifty years later. On one trip I returned with all paint removed from the leading edge of the wing by the ice and hall of one of those storms. We had bounced around like a tennis ball losing and gaining 1000-2000 feet before we broke out in the clear.The ground crews couldn't fathom how we lost all of that paint from the wings. I told them they were lucky to have the plane back. The crew in the back of the plane was roughed up pretty bad from that experience.
Fast forward to the 44th Bomb Group's first casualties on a bombing mission over Europe. It was December 6,1942 at Abbeville, France the home of the famous yellow-nose FW 190s. The 66th and 67th Squadrons received a recall and returned. We in the 68th did not receive the recall message in morse code and being in the lead we continued to fly on to the target.We lost Jim Dubard and crew in AC #23786, and AC #23813 piloted by Tom Holmes was badly shot-up including Tom Holmes himself when a 20mm shell came into the cockpit. With courage and unusual piloting skill Tom made it back home with severe head wounds and other wounded crew members. We had met the enemy,and he was playing for keeps.
Everyone asks why six B-24s went into Abbeville all alone. I guess we didn't know any better in those early days. I was leading the Group and did not see the others turn back. Capt Tom Cramer the other flight leader and I did not receive the recall message so we did what we were briefed to do.
December 20,1942 our 44th Group went to Romilly-sur-Siene Airdrome about 75 miles southeast of Paris . Nine of the B-24g aborted the trip before we reached the French coast. Major Al Key of the 66th Squadron was leading and the 66th suffered several crew casualties. Six B-17s were lost but the 44th Gp sneaked through without losses. My flight of three from the 68th joined up with the 306th Bomb Group (B-17s) when it seemed like everyone was aborting the mission. We made it safely home after lots of sweat and nervous bowels.
Then came the first American raid on Germany-Wilhelmshaven submarine pens. Our 44th Group lost sight of the lead B-17 groups because of clouds over the channel. When we broke through the clouds at 18,000 ft at the Dutch Coast we were jumped by the best of the Luftwaffe-about 35 FW 190s. The Group leader was lost and had no hopes of reaching the target so we salvoed our load at Lemmer, Holland. On the first head-on fighter attack my flight lost Lt Nolan Cargile and crew in AC #23690 when a dead FW 190 pilot crashed into them. Lt Maxwell Sullivan and his crew also went down in AC #23776. The bombardier Albert Glass, was blown out of the AC and survived with a broken leg when he was picked up by a German shore patol. When I saw him later at Stalag Luft III he was still in a state of shock although he had received good medical care. He was repatriated on a POW exchange in June 1944 because of his injuries.
My AC #23819 was also in real trouble after a head-on attack that killed our Bombardier Lt Reggie Grant and waist gunner S/Sgt Mansford Deal. The Navigator, Lt Leroy Perlowin was badly wounded and S/Sgt George Guilford, an enlisted bombardier, flying as a waist gunner, was wounded by a 30 cal shell. We had one propellor feathered and smoke from our left wing. Flight EngineerT/Sgt Bob Biliman calmly used his technical skills to transfer the fuel out of three fuel cells in the left wing to fuel cells in the right wing and we made it home to Shipdham where fire crews found three left wing fuel cells had turned to gray powder without expolding on that 200 mile trip over the North Sea. Boy, were we lucky except for Grant and Deal who gave their lives for their country. 19 other buddies from our flight had also perished.
Another occasion for the "Fickle Finger of Fate" to intercede was the raid on Rouen railroad yards March 8,1943. Our crew was leading the 44th assembly with Major Jim Posey in the right seat as Group Command Pilot. From the back of the plane it was reported that waist gunner John Husselton, had passed out from unknown causes. All that Major Posey and I could do was give up the Group lead and return Hussetton to Shipdham. The lead was taken over by 67th pilot Lt. Clyde Price, and the new Deputy Lead was Lt. Robert Blaine of the 67th Squadron. Posey and I unloaded Husselton into a waiting ambulance at Shipdham, and we took off again to rejoin the Group at the French coast. About 35-40 German fighters attacked head-on when we entered the bomb run. The two lead bombers, Price and Blaine went down with only one of the 20 crewmen escaping by parachute to become a POW. It was our fortune not to be in our original position leading the Group. We saw it all from the rear of the formation which was finally saved when British Spitfires showed up to chase away the Germans and escort us back to England.
Another case of luck for O'Brien was the March 22nd mission to Wilhemshaven, Germany.The debriefing report in the 68th Squadron History states "Capt. O'Brien had a habit of ducking his head and shoulders and this habit saved his life as two bullets went from the windshield into the wood partitions where his head had been and ordinarily would have been". We had over thirty (30) bullet holes in AC #23819 which was back in service after a two month repair job from the first raid to Germany on January 27th. The formation endured many attacks from single and twin engine German fighters over the target but fortunately no 44th planes were lost and our gunners claimed two German fighters shot down, one by Navigator Lt John Bledsoe and one by T/Sgt Adolph Brzozowy. Brzozowy was KIA on a mission to Lecce, ltaly, 7/2/43 when AC #094 ditched in the Mediterranean.
Finally we come to the Kiel mission of May 14,'43. I will spare all of the details which are well documented in the 44th Group History. The 44th received the Presidential Unit Citation. Our "Rugged Buggy", AC #23819, finally succumbed to withering German anti-aircraft and fighters, going down in flames with only the two right engines operating after bombing the target. All crew members bailed out. The tail ganner Richard Castillo was dumped out the rear exit by other crewmen when he was severely wounded in the foot and leg. S/Sgt Harold VanOyen always said he would drown if he bailed out over water. He got tangled up in his parachute shroud lines in the Kiel Bay east of the target and drowned. Lt. Malcolm Howell flying that day as the pilot in the left seat was killed when his parachute was torn during bailout. I and six other crewmen became POWs for two years.
In the noise and confusion of the air battle it is hard to piece together the sequence of events. Over many years I sorted out some facts. Costello was knocked unconscious out of his rear turret and the interphone communications were out so the boys in the rear thought we in the front of the plane were dead. They logically decided to bail out and we up front didn't know it. T his was an invitation for the Germans to close in and clean us off.Two German ME109s were flying very close formation with us, one off the left wing and one off the right wing staying below the view of our top turret gunner SSgt Kenneth McCabe who was shouting through his oxygen mask for us to lower the wing. At the same time another ME109 was sitting off our tail drilling us with shells which were coming through the fuselage and hitting the flight deck and armour plate on our pilot seats. One of those red tracer shells ignited the leaking gasoline and the bomb bay became a fiery fumace. Apparantly some of those 30cal shells went into our parachute packs stored behind our pilot seats because we could not wear those chest packs while flying. We snapped them onto the chute harness as we bailed out. Unknowinly I arabbed a good chute and Howell must have got one damaged by shelifire. When I was interrogated on the ground by an English speaking German medic he asked me if I knew a little fellow in a yellow suit. I knew it was "Mac" Howell but I played the game of ignorance, only giving my name, rank and serial number. In our flights together "Mac" always wore that British yellow suit so that he could be detected easier if he went down in water.
The bomb bay doors, our only exit, were jammed shut because they had been closed after the bomb release and the hydraulics were gone. The Radio Operator T/Sgt Ralph Ernst kicked open one door with his foot while fighting the fire with a little fire extinguisher. We on the flight deck went out through a 24 inch opening he had made. We owed that escape to him.
Six of us bailed out north of the target over farm country. I was much relieved when I felt the jerk of an open chute, but I when I looked up I saw someone in a torn chute not knowing who it was. Obviously, he was in for a hard landing even though the chute was not streaming. I found out later that McCabe and Ernst had survived from the flight deck. Some might say it was Divine Intervention that we survived that sitimfion, but I say "NO "it was the Fickle Finger of Fate". Why would God save us and let a fine devoted person like "Mac" Howell be killed?' That's the way with war. Some make it through and others unfortunately don't.
Two years of POW life were eventful. All we needed was another thousand bombing raids by other airmen , the Normandy Invasion of June 6, the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and the loss of thousands of Allied lives to get us home again from what turned out to be our longest mission. Oh yes, I and thousands of other POWs became foot soldiers on long matches from POW camps in Eastern Germany because our captors didn't want us to fall into the hands of the Russians who were closing in fast in January 1945. Some of us were herded into railroad box cars and traveled through some well known Allied bombing targets like Chemnitz, Plauen, Regensberg and Dresden. Our train slowly crept through Dresden one week before it was bombed off the map Februaxy 13-14, 1945. We finally reached Stalag 7A at Moosberg near Munich where over 100,000 allied POWs had been collected from all over Germany. We were liberated by none other than General George Patton on April 30,1945.
I continued to fly with the Air Force Reserve and for pleasure in civilian life until age 78 (1998) with some other exciting experiences. My civilian job as a professional social worker could be the subject of another chapter or book. I have lived a very lucky life to reach the ripe old age of 82 in 2001. Did I deserve it? I don't know. I guess I survived so I could have a wife and twin daughters and four grandchildren all of whom provided me with supreme enjoyment and many cherished memories even though we suffered the tragic loss of our daughter Joyce, a young mother at age 34.
Some facts on my crewmen Killed In Action:
"Bless them all, bless them all, The long and the short and the tall"
1st Lt. Malcolm C. Howell (Co-Pilot) - - - 1500 Campbell Ave., Topeka, KS
KIA at Kiel,Germany May 14,1943
lnterred at Ardennes Cemetery, Beigium
Widow-Betty Gene remarried in 1946 to Fred L.Conger
Commissioned as Pilot, 2nd Lt. at Greenvill, MS July 1942
Assigned to the 44th Group 8/3/42.
Completed about 12 missions as my Co-Pilot but was frequently bumped when higher rank Group leaders flew with me, was former bank teller in Topeka, KS Very well educated and informed on English culture and European history. Taught me to appreciate operas, plays, classical music and achitecture on our three-day passes to London, Cambridge and Ely.
1st Lt. Reginald D. Grant (Bombardier) - - 506 Nottingham St, Thomaston,GA
KIA on eighth mission Jan 27,1943, to Wilhemshaven, Germany
Interred at Thomaston GA.
Local airport named in his honor.
Very conscientious about his assignment and taught me how to use the bomb sight simulater. A close friend of Bombardier Albert Glass who was sole survivor on January 27th mission. Friend of Sgt Hugh Salter from Thomaston, GA who was crew chief of AC #23819.
S/Sgt Mmsford S. Deal (Waist Gunner) - - - Williamsburg, MI
KIA on Jan 27,1943 on mission to Wilhelmshaven, Germany
Interred at American Military Cemetery.
Credit for one Enemy Air Craft shot down.
S/Sgt Harold D. VanOyen (Waist Gumer) - - - Madison, NE
KIA May 14,1943 on mission to Kiel,Germany
Interred in his home town
Went on those long missions over the North Sea although he could not swim.
I had a premonition that he would eventually drown like he did.
S/Sgt Adolph Brzozowy,(Waist Gunner)
KIA on a mission to Lecce, Italy with another crew when AC #094 ditched.
One Enemy Air Craft on 3/22/43 mission.
Crewmen wounded in action:
"You'll get no promotion this side ofthe ocean, So cheer up my lads, bless them all. "
Lt Leroy Perlowin (Navigator) - - - 6720 Sydenham St Philadelphia, PA
Took us overseas from Grenier Field, NH
Severe leg injuries from 20mm shell on his eighth mission which killed Bombardier Reggie Grant on mission of Jan 27 '43
After medical treatment in U.S. received medical discharge. Visited me in 1954. No other contacts
S/Sgt Richard Castillo last address 537 Amher Lane Springfield, OH,
Tail Gunner deceased 1989
Wounded by German fighter shell which exploded his ammunition box, knocked unconpciuos. Lifted out of the plane by two waist gunners who pulled his chute for him.Treated well in German hospitals, repatriated in prisoner exchange in July 1944. After the war he became a printer technician on roto sections of newspapers. Stayed in Springfield all his life. Had a large family.Visited him several times.
T/Sgt George W. Gaford of 3748 N.B.8th Place,Apt 195D,Acola, FL
An enlisted bombardier who trained officer bombardiers at Buksdale Field. Always available as a gunner or bombardier for rnissions. Wounded by 30cal shell on mission of Jan 27,1943. Later shot down with Whitaker crew, 10/l/43 to Weiner Neustadt. POW until April 30 '45.A good friend of Norius Crisan, my NCO bombardier after Grant was KIA.
Lt John Bledsoe of 801 W. Caniino Desierto,Tucson, A7
Navigator after Leroy Perlowin was wounded Jan 27 '43. Received some injuries from bailout of May 14,'43. Stayed in the Air Force and retired as Lt.Col. Credit for two Enemy Air Craft on different missions. Still living 2001. We visit each other yearly and keep in touch with Norius Crisan,Bombardier who lives at 7908 Waterfalls Ave,Las Vegas, NV
All I received from that bailout was a singed face. I was still wearing my oxygen mask which protected me from the bomb bay fire through which we had to exit the burning "Rugged Buggy .
World War II Memories
(Taken from a letter to Will Lundy dated February 4, 1993)
I have enclosed a copy of my note to Bob Krueger for the 68th newsletter, which summarizes my feelings about the trip to Belgium.
Everything went according to schedule, and we three 8th AF vets were somewhat overwhelmed by the hospitable reception. In a way, I was fortunate to be with Joe and Doug because they were escorted around the area to see places where they were held captive as POWs. The stop at the Catholic Orphanage "Home of the Little Ones," was most interesting. Joe and 23 other captives were held there overnight and those nuns (70 years plus) were overjoyed to see us pulling out their old World War II photos and reminiscing. About six of them were there 50 years ago. The orphanage is now a day-care center for hundreds of children.
Another interesting place was the factory where Joe landed in his parachute. The big chief in charge issued us passes and hard hats for a tour of the place, now manufacturing mobile offices for the European Economic Community.
Joe and I attended 9 a.m. Mass at the Antwerp Cathedral where there are three Ruben's paintings displayed, plus numerous other works of art and sculpture.
Joe's comment on the Mass, "It should have been in Latin. We would have understood what was going on." It was in Flemish and, of course, Joe, an Italian, was out of the loop. So was I.
We could not comprehend how outgoing and hospitable everyone was. We gradually got used to the European cuisine with two varieties of wine, plus beer and coffee with every meal. The one old gentleman who was in the factory when our bombs hit and who suffered injury to himself and his family was most receptive to us, offering his sea coast condo to us - an offer we couldn't accept.
Achille Rely sends his regards to you. He appreciated your help with his writing. He and his wife, Maria, were very gracious to us. Joe had corresponded with another author, Jon Ditten, who met us at the Antwerp Airport and also hosted us at his home. He was born in 1943 and picked up the interest in war stories from his parents. He is an electrical engineer with the city of Antwerp, working at the shipyards. Achille Rely is now retired from his job as flight engineer with Sabina Airlines.
When I saw the actual 1943 photos (U.S. Air Force) of the target, the Erla Works, I wondered how the navigators and bombardiers ever picked it out from all of the other confusing buildings surrounding it. There were good-piloted points from the I.P. at Lokeran into Mortsel, but the Erla Works was well hidden among all the other buildings. I made this comment on the T.V. interview, plus the fact that the German fighters were good at interrupting the initial bomb run which threw the first load off the target. The T.V. interviewer, Erik Pertz, kept quizzing me on the accuracy of the Norden Bombsight. I defended the bombsight but pointed out the need for a level, stable platform and good calculations for wind and drift, etc. I think the interviews went very well (about three hours). It will all be cut to one hour and presented on T.V. about April 2nd. They will send us copies of the tape. Joe and Doug were shot down before they got to the target. So I had to explain the error.
I called Jon van der Veer. He was very nice on the phone and we talked a long time ($40.00 worth). I decided not to travel up to Friesland because of my schedule. Rely took Joe and me on a short trip into Holland.
There is much more I could say to you about the trip and some of the subtle feelings expressed by Achille Rely and by some people I met at the Rotary Club meetings - little feelings of resentment about the planning of the mission, particularly on a Friday when all the children were in school and people working, etc. Also, the feeling that the Allies avoided such targets in Holland for fear of hitting civilians.
I'll tell you more about this when I see you in July at the 44th Reunion in Dayton.
I received the lithograph of the 44th BG Tower.
Wish you continued success in the fund raising. My neighbor is forwarding my 44th newsletter from Pittsburgh.
Letter dated February
My annual contribution is enclosed to keep the machinery oiled.
I enjoyed reading the series on the "View from the Ground," by Bill Wickham and Chuck Wagner. I liked that bit on removing nose gear tires by altering the center of gravity with bodies in the tail section. Also, the use of the bomb bay booster pump to spray 100 octane gas as a cleaning agent. Today's EPA rules wouldn't allow much of that.
I have a postscript for my story in the February 1991 issue of the newsletter about the accidental bombing of Mortsel, Belgium on April 5, 1943. That was the mission when 64 B17s and 18 B24s (44th and 93rd) dropped about ten tons on the target (a ME109 repair depot) and 220 tons on the small suburb of Antwerp, Belgium. Four B17s were shot down. The Belgium ambassador in England protested to President Roosevelt when 980 civilians were killed and over 2,000 wounded. A book was written about the disaster and I cooperated with the Belgium author since our crew flew on his mission.
Between January 16 and 21st, 1993, Belgium public television played host to three veterans of that mission for the purpose of taking a documentary film which is to be used April 2, 1993 to commemorate the event. In addition to myself, Joe Consolmagno and Douglas Boles of the 306th BG were invited for the trip to Belgium, an offer we couldn't refuse. I suggested other members of my crew who are still alive, but they (Belgium T.V.) were on a "limited budget."
To say the least, this trip was most unusual. First, we each had survived the mission and the 50 years that followed. Second, our hosts included several people who had survived the disaster and now they were wining and dining us like "all is forgiven." Thirdly, the five days of which two were at our own expense, provided us with the unusual opportunity to visit people in their homes in a very hospitable atmosphere and the chance to see many historic and beautiful cities in Belgium. One gentleman, now retired, was in the factory when it was hit and he graciously offered us his seaside resort condo for a week, but our airline schedule forced us to turn down the offer.
Joe and Doug were among those shot down on this mission, and we visited places where they were first held captive. One such place was a Catholic orphanage where about six of the nuns were still working having also survived the past 50 years. They and the other nuns greeted us and eagerly sat down to talk and show us their old photos of the period of occupation by the Germans and the subsequent liberation period when freed by Americans, British, and Canadians. One 90-year-old nun claimed she was a Yankee, but the other nuns quietly said she was a little senile.
I even visited a Rotary Club in Antwerp (I am a Rotarian) and several of the members remembered April 5, 1943 with no animosity. One very dignified gentleman, about 75, said that the bombing swayed lots of people to become German sympathizers, although most civilians were part of the resistance movement.
Will Lundy, the 44th Group Historian, was very helpful to me in providing background material, mission reports, etc. He also put me in contact with another author from Holland who had written "Meeting the Flying Eight Balls for the First Time." That book emphasized the 44th mission of January 27, 1943 when the 68th lost the Sullivan crew and the Cargile crew. Two of my "rugged buggy" crew were killed that day and two were wounded.
Well, I expect to see you all at the Dayton Reunion July 29th. Keep up your airspeed and good luck.
JAMES E. O'BRIEN
Addendum to World War II
Memories and Biography
(Taken from a letter to Will Lundy)
April 25, 1988
Elsie and I attended the 2AD mini-reunion at El Toro Marine Air Station on March 19th and then we returned to Pittsburgh, so we won't be able to take in the 44th Reunion at Riverside in May.
We spend our winters in Arizona with the family and then back east for the summer.
I read the April issue of the 44th Logbook with special interest when I saw the article from the Chicago Daily News of February 1943 regarding Johnny Diehl's ship, the Blackjack, and how he chose to leave formations to rescue endangered stragglers. This same news story appeared in the Pittsburgh Press and my parents showed it to me when I arrived home in June 1945. The news correspondent, Nat Barrows, took a few liberties with the facts to pass censorship and build morale back home, but essentially the story was true. I'm sure Bomber Command questioned such tactics, but the surviving crewmembers of 23819 "Rugged Buggy" knew that the presence of "Blackjack" did make a difference that day (January 27, 1943).
We had just dropped our load and our 20 B24s were taking on the whole Luftwaffe, which was a good diversion for the B-17s. After losing two aircraft from our flight due to head-on attack and an FW190 collision with No. 690 piloted by Nolan Cargile, we, in No. 819 were pretty much alone with two dead crewmen (Reggie Grant - bombardier and Mansford Deal, waist gunner) and two seriously injured (Leroy Perlowin - navigator, and George Guilford - waist gunner). We had one engine gone and a nice smoldering fire in our left wing.
The real hero on our crew was Bob Billman, the engineer, who methodically transferred all of the fuel form the left inboard fuel cells. The rubber cells were just a heap of ashes when we landed at Shipdham having smoldered for 250 miles across the North Sea.
The only crewman surviving from the two ships that went down was Albert Glass who was the bombardier on Maxwell Sullivan's ship No. 776. He was blown out of the ship and couldn't remember pulling his ripcord. He came to, floating in he North Sea with a broken leg. After 45 minutes, a German destroyer picked him up. He went to a German hospital and came to Stalag Luft III in the summer of 1944 after which he was repatriated back home. His is a rare story because very few survived after parachuting into the North Sea. Johnny Diehl passed away in 1981. I have never made any postwar contact with Albert Gloss.
Regards, Jim O'Brien (68th Squadron)
World War II
Memories and Biography
(Taken from a letter to Will Lundy)
December 12, 1992
I am writing to you about a trip I will be taking about January 15, 1993. I will be going to Brussels and Antwerp, Belgium, courtesy of the Belgian TV to participate in a TV documentary on the 50th anniversary of the disastrous Mortsel mission of April 5,1943.
That day, 64 B17s and our 18 B24s dumped 233 tons of bombs on the village when we overshot the target killing almost 1,000 townspeople including three school houses full of children. A book was written about it ten years ago (1980?) not blaming us airmen, but the poor planning that used high altitude bombing instead of mosquito dive-bombers.
There are five former airmen making the trip (myself and four B17 crewmen who were shot down that day). The four lead B17s went down and that contributed most to the bad bombing run. I always thought it was a successful mission from the reports of our bombardiers and the fact that the Germans hit the B17s instead of the B24s.
The Belgians don't hold any grudges, fully realizing the hazards of all-out war, which was needed to defeat Hitler. The Belgian underground assisted in "Operation Comet" to pass several airmen shot down that day through the system.
One pilot who I knew, John Ryan, made it back to England. Four others got inside the Spanish border and Franco's troops turned them over to the Gestapo. They were sent to Buchenwald for several months until Red Cross authorities arranged to put them in Stalag Luft III.
I tend to ramble a little. The reason I am writing is to ask what you know about the memorial at Lemmer, Holland [27 January 1943]. I faintly remember you writing to me once about it. I left most of my war stories and correspondence back in Pittsburgh.
I may have time to visit Lemmer and pay tribute to our 19 crewmen from the 68th who went down on that screwed-up mission of January 27, 1943, supposedly headed for Wilhelmshaven.
A FW190 collided with Sullivan, my right wing man, and only one man survived the explosion - Albert Glass, the bombardier didn't know how he survived. A German Navy ship picked him out of the water. He had numerous wounds and a broken leg and was later repatriated.
Cargile, flying in the diamond position behind me also went down with no survivors. About 40-50 FWs hit us that day. They killed my bombardier, Reggie Grant, and seriously wounded the navigator, Leroy Perlowin. The waist gunner, Mansford Deal was also killed and the other waist gunner, George Guilford, was sounded. The "Rugged Buggy" made it back thanks to the skillful work of Bob Billman, the engineer who transferred fuel from a burning wing tank and other band-aid treatment.
I remember something about a young boy writing a story of the event of January 27, 1943 when the B24s came falling out of the sky over Lemmer.
I hope you and your family are well and able to enjoy the holidays. I sure hope to get to the 44th reunion at Dayton. I believe the 68th squadron scheduled their reunion for the same time in July 1993.
8 March 1943 [legacy, Jim O'Brien]
John Muirhead in "Those Who Fall." [I need to find this book.]
Jim O'Brien (letter to Will Lundy about Rouen Mission)
(Taken from a letter to Will Lundy)
2921 S. Estrella Circle
Mesa, AZ 85202-7842
December 28, 1997
On the Rouen mission when Clyde Price and Bob Blaine went down in a hail of fire from those 35-40 FW 190s attacking head on, I think the fickle finger of fate interceded to take me out of that lead position. Jim Posey and I, in the "Rugged Buggy" were leading the Group and had just completed the assembly over Shipdham when S/Sgt John Husselton, the waist gunner, fainted in the back of the ship. Posey and I decided to relinquish the lead and take Husselton back to the base. We deposited Husselton to a waiting ambulance and took off again with the nine-crew members to catch the 44th just as they were crossing the Channel. From the rear end of the formation, we saw the carnage up front. We would have all gone down if it had not been for the Polish Squadron of Spitfires that chased away the Germans.
I had many odd experiences with the fickle finger of fate, but I always felt I owed Husselton something for taking us out of that lead position on the Rouen Raid although there was no joy in the loss of the two 67th crews. It was kind of a Russian roulette we played as stated by John Muirhead in "Those Who Fall."
14 May 1943 [legacy, Jim O'Brien]
Lt. Jim O'Brien (Howell's Crew)
Leading up to Kiel - 14 May 1943
In addition to regular bombing sorties in March and April 1943, there were missions for several aircraft of the 44th helping the British Coastal Command with raids on German shipping and Naval forces. My crew consisted of Malcolm "Mac" Howell, copilot, Norris Crisan, bombardier, John Bledsoe, Navigator, Marvin Cox, engineer, K. C. McCabe, assistant engineer, Bob Wright, radio operator, S/Sgt. H. D. Van Oywn, assistant radio operator, Richard M. Castillo, tail turret, J. Husselton, side gunner and J. A. MacCammond, side gunner.
They all became mechanics when we had to return to Aberdeen, Scotland from 300 miles over the North Sea with a feathered engine. We had been diligently following through on a mission with the British Navy and Coastal Command shadowing the German battleship, the Tirpitz, hidden in the fjords of Norway. Our number one engine went out due to oil scavenger pump failure and we found no one around Aberdeen to change the engine except ourselves. It turned out to be a pleasant trip in beautiful Scotland, the land of Brigadoon.
On return from this flight, I found out that I had been appointed the 68th squadron commander. Major Francis McDuff was assigned back to the States and somehow date of rank had come through with new responsibilities for me. My only squadron experience other than flying had been some additional duty as engineering officer back at Barksdale Field until Lt. Tom Landrum came along. Now, I had to learn fast what the Armaments section did as well as Communications, the Adjutant's Orderly Room and a few other odd sections.
I no sooner had found out what a squadron commander was supposed to do and the word came down one calm night of 13 May that the group was to recall all crews for a maximum effort to Bordeaux, France (a long over-water flight, a short, quick climb to drop bombs on sub-pens and out). Other than the hurry to install bomb bay tanks, this didn't seem to be too much of an order. However, at 2 a.m. the field order changed to remove bomb bay tanks and load up with 4,000 lbs. of new type incendiary clusters for Kiel, Germany. The obvious question was, "What good will incendiaries do at Kiel?" The explanation given at briefing the following morning at 0700 was that the B-17s were going to bomb the hell out of sub pens, aircraft factories and seaport facilities and the B-24s were to kindle the fires. It was all very logical but it was a long trip without fighter escort.
I had tried to reach Bud Phillips and Tom Cramer who were on leave in London, but that was fruitless on so short a notice. It would have been ridiculous to call the poor guys back from leave for this kind of mission, so O'Brien was scheduled to fly his first trip as a squadron commander flying the copilot's slot for Mac Howell who was doing his first trip as first pilot. This seemed quite simple except that poor little "Mac" never did want to be a first pilot with a crew. He just wanted to go home to his dear, loving wife. Mac and I had spent a lot of hours together in the cockpit of a B-24 and likewise on the ground. Most of our time off was spent together viewing most of the cultural, historical and religious landmarks in London, Cambridge, Ipswich, Salisbury, Belfast and Aberdeen. I was single and not as concerned for my future welfare as he was. He constantly went into great detail about his married life and his hometown of Topeka, his work at the local bank and his disgust for the business of war. He had been cheated out of many missions in his struggle to reach the magic number of 25 because O'Brien often had a lead flight with Generals or Colonel Leon Johnson, or Lt. Colonel Ralph Snavely or Lt. Colonel Jim Posey ranking "Mac" out of the copilot seat.
The morning of 14 May arrived at 0600 like many others with the night orderly banging on the door "Mission briefing at 0700." I had just gotten to sleep at 0400 so this was doomed to be a tired day in my life. A quick breakfast of powdered eggs and bacon and coffee and I showed up at briefing not so much as the squadron commander, but as "Mac" Howell's copilot in a tail-end Charlie slot. What a glorious way to go. The best advice of the day came from "Pappy" Howard Monroe, Commander of the 67th squadron: "Jim, my boy. I wouldn't go on this trip if I were you." He gave me this bit of prudent wisdom as I was turning in my personal belongings for a claim check which was to be sued when I returned. In my possession for the mission, I had this claim check, a small escape kit compass and a six-penny-bit good luck piece which I had carried on all previous 20 missions, most of which had forced some involuntary kidney and bowel movements.
The light of day came at 0800 with 84 props churning on 21 B-24s and a proportionate number of props on 75 G17s scattered all over England. As 123819 or A (Bar A) taxied out behind Tom Holes' ship 123813 C, "Mac" was saying, "O'Brien, if I get back from this trip, I'm going to get stinkin' drunk," (a new experience for him). I also remember Castillo, the rear gunner, commenting as I was explaining the mission to the crew what a simple mission this was. He said, "Come on, let's quit kiddin', this will be just as tough as any we ever flew.
The best way to describe the flight of 14 May 1943 is to compare it to the music of Maurice Ravel's "Bolero." This is not to say it was like the "Charge of the Light Brigade," a movie I had seen in 1939 with the Bolero theme as background music, although there were striking similarities if one wished to add drama to drama. Another reason for the comparison is that we played this record over and over back in our Nisson hut barracks at Shipdham. Tom Cramer, (MIA July 1943), Jim Dubard, (MIA December 1942), Bud Phillips (now somewhere in Oklahoma and married to Tom Ramer's ex-girl friend, "Dusty,"), Tom Landrum (engineering officer), and myself, had a stack of records ranging from Brahms concertos and Beethoven's Fifth, to "Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well." When we flew our B-24s over from Grenier Field, Manchester, NH, we had to divide up the load. I had the phonograph records (the wax breakable variety) on AF 123819 and Cramer had the phonograph on his aircraft AF 123820. This division of the load was for two reasons. First, it was non-regulation material to carry along and secondly, each aircraft was already seriously overloaded at takeoff both at Grenier and at the refueling point, Gander, Newfoundland. When we got to England, we found the 210 voltage in the barracks only gave us about 10 rpm for 17 rpm records so we played the records with an assist from a finger in the middle of the turntable to get a wavering variable quality between 10-17 rpm.
Back to the "Bolero" trip, we took off in the early morning fog and haze, made our rendezvous over the home base, and 21 lonely B-24s were off to Kiel, Germany, as the low group at 21,000 feet behind 70 B-17s stacked up to 32,000 feet. We had tried to get more B-24s from the 93rd bomb group based at Alconbury, but they couldn't even put up one flight due to damage from previous flights and general maintenance problems. This is not to say that the 44th had not suffered previous battle damage, but we had a darn good maintenance with guys like Capt. Tom Landrum and M/Sgt. Y. O. Campbell to put the ships back in A-1 condition as long as the crews brought them back for repair. We had a beautiful formation flight out over the North Sea at 500 feet.
This was the quiet beginning (side 1) where the drums beat a soft rhythm and the flutes and piccolos spin their simple subtle melody. About 200 miles out we started our climb to 21,000 feet, knowing that the Germans would have us tracked with radar from this point on. This was side 2 and 3 of the orchestrated rhythm - less subtle and more colorful and realistic. As we passed through 19,000 feet above the Freisen Islands which we were to have avoided, we see scattered puffs of flak smoke and respond with the usual appreciation of poor marksmanship from ground batteries. My attention was diverted momentarily to Tom Holems' ship which took a burst of flak and appeared to have flames coming out of the bomb bay. I was overly concerned about Tom's welfare, and all of a sudden our ship was rocked with two explosions. Side 3 of Bolero increased in volume out of nowhere. One real indication of trouble was the manifold pressure on two left engines dropped to 15 psi and there was a sudden drag to the left which Howell and I struggled to correct. I had thoughts of feathering two left engines, but that would have been a sure give-away to German fighters waiting to come in for a kill. We had lost communication with the five boys in the rear of the ship. The formation had leveled off onto the bomb run and we were still keeping up with them.
The bomb bay doors opened and the 44th let go their clusters of matstick incendiaries which added more confusion. The clusters did not hold together for 200 feet before breaking up. As soon as they hit the slipstream they were all over the sky in a negative trajectory flying back through the formation bouncing off of wings and propellers. Nothing worked better for the Germans at this point as the formation scattered to avoid these missiles. Meanwhile, we had dropped our own clusters of bombs and had plenty of trouble. The cockpit smelled of gasoline and our unspoken thoughts as Howell and I looked at each other were fire and explosion. We had now separated from the group after leaving the target and I noticed at least two other stragglers off to the right. One was Capt. Jack Oliphant from the 67th Squadron and the other was Capt. "Swede" Swanson of the 506th Squadron which had just joined our group back in Shipdham. There was plenty of company now joining us. FW 190s in formation on the left and Me 109s off the right wing. "Mac" McCabe in the top turret kept yelling through his oxygen mask to dip the wing so he could hit them with a few 50s. Howell and I were just trying to keep the ship flying, not knowing what else to do. We had been through this before and somehow fate brought us through. In the past we had outlasted German fighters until they turned back over the North Sea, but now were practically standing still in a 70 mph head wind on a 285 degree heading with lots of German soil still underneath.
We had already turned to side four of Bolero and the noise and increasing crescendo had mounted to a deafening violent roar. There must have been two Jerrys sitting off our tail end pumping a steady flow of cannon and 30 caliber bullets into us. I heard several 30s zing into the cockpit and bounce off the armor plate seats. Mixed among these 30s were some incendiary bullets which made a good mixture with the intense gasoline fumes and pretty soon we had a roaring furnace in the bomb bay (still side four).
My first knowledge of fire was the intense heat all over the cockpit and I leaped out of the seat breaking my oxygen hose. I pulled open the top hatch to get out, saw the whirling propellers and antenna wires. I recall my steel GI helmet, which we wore before the invention of flak helmets, blowing right off into the wind as I stuck my head out of the hatch. If there was any time to take a second guess, it was here I decided on some other exist. Ralph Ernst, the radio operator, desperately kicked the bomb bay door open to make an opening large enough to exist, providing you could make it through the smoke and flame. In the rush, I was looking for my snap-on British type chest pack and mistakenly snapped on a life raft dingy. I threw the dingy pack to the floor and found my chest pack in time to get into the nice, quiet of the atmosphere. This final emotional crescendo ended the bolero with the crash of symbols, horns, tubas, gongs, and trombones. Now all was peaceful and quiet as I looked up to see the secure strings of a parachute canopy lowering me to Mother Earth. One momentary musical note at the end was the pulling of the ripcord and the patient wait for a jerk. There was no jerk and I was sure the thing had failed, especially with the handle in my hands which had a little 12-inch wire dangling from it. I was sure something had broken. This experience for every novice parachutist can take a few years from his life expectancy.
The parachute training for Eighth Air Force crews was nothing more than usual instruction on bail-out procedure, intercom verbal signals, one steady ring of the emergency bell or "use your own judgment." I'm sure that 99% of the 30,000 Air Kriegies (POWs) never had time for bells or verbal signals. It was generally a decision reached on the spur of the moment after everything else had gone kaput.
On my way down, I decided that I should have my back to the wind so I experimented with the shroud lines trying to turn the canopy so I was facing down wind of my drift. All this did was make a violent swing that almost spilled the canopy so that experiment ended quickly.
Shortly after, I realized I had an open chute, I looked up to see another chute coming down beside me with one nylon panel torn open from bottom to top. I couldn't determine who it was, but on the ground, I found Crisan, Bledsoe, McCabe, Ernst, Husselton, McCammond and Castillo (in a stretcher with his food injured). With very limited communications allowed, I was able to determine that Crisan, Bledsoe, Ernst, and McCabe did not have a bad chute (they were alive and uninjured). Howell didn't show up and the first indication of his fate was the first question thrown at me by an English-speaking German medic. "Do you know a little man in a yellow suit? He is toten (dead)." I stuck to the name, rank, and serial number throughout all interrogations that followed so there was no opportunity to find out what happened to Howell. I kept hoping that the story about him being dead was a bluff to get us to talk. For months I waited for some word that he was alive, perhaps in a hospital, but the German medic was telling the truth. By June 15th, Mac's wife, Betty Jean, had received the War Department telegram that he was KIA.
One other casualty was Sgt. Harold Van Oyen, our assistant radio operator and waist gunner. He always had a fear of drowning, even with a Mae West life preserver. When we got our first burst of flak, it not only stopped the two left engines, but it blew a hole in the tail end knocking Sgt. Castillo out of his turret with an injured foot. This, I found out after piecing stories together on the ground because inside interphones were knocked out with that blast. The other three boys in the rear-end sized up the situation as hopeless, pushed Castillo out pulling his ripcord for him and bailed out themselves. Van Oyen landed in the Kiel Bay or what we might call the Baltic Sea. A German ship picked him up and he had already drowned in his life jacket. For him and for the rest of us, to a lesser degree, "die Var ist ovfer," (the war was over).
From a little police station in Steinfield near the border of Denmark, the Germans methodically collected survivors from six B-24s and one B-17 shot down that day. I had landed in a farmyard and had a sharp pain in my side for awhile. I thought it was shrapnel, but turned out to be no more than a stomach muscle strained by the parachute drop. I also have not mentioned that there was all kinds of debris falling around me after bail out. A piece of engine cowling narrowly missed me. After extensive questioning by the English speaking medic and some waiting around the town jail surrounded by gaudily dressed policeman, Bledsoe, Crisan and I were placed in a canvassed covered diesel Renault truck and proceeded to another town along dusty roads. At the next stop, we picked up Ernst, McCammond, McCabe, Husselton, and Castillo. After a few miles, the truck stopped again and Sgt. Crisan was ordered to get out. He came back after viewing the wreckage of the ship and whispered that the radio set was intact after the crash and they simply wanted him to identify it. He didn't help them too much because hew as the bombardier and loyal to the name, rank and serial number bit.
Note: Sgt. Castillo was taken to a German hospital and the rest of us were put on a train to Frankfurt where the Germans interrogated all POWs - Dulag Luft I. After another three or four days, Bledsoe and I were sent to Stalag Luft III at Sagan and the NCOs were sent to Stalag 17 near Krems, Austria. For the next 23 months we were POWs."