ALEX J. TOTH|
World War II Memories
At Shipdham, the enlisted men were assigned to barracks that held about forty men in double bunks. Our crew was lucky; we were located by the coal compound. There was a small coal-burning stove in the center of each barrack. This stove served as the source for heating and cooking. Somehow our limit of one box of charcoal per week never ran out. This became very important when the weather got bad. I fried a lot of potatoes and onions on that stove and toasted bread that we bought from the little English truck that came into the base to sell to us.
The night of September 26th, our crew was alerted that our first mission would be the next day. I didn't get much sleep that night. After I did finally fall asleep, it seemed like no time passed at all when the CQ was shaking me. We had to get up for breakfast and report for briefing. Being young, energetic and patriotic, I was ready and rearing to go. This is what all of us had trained for. It was do our job to protect our country. We caught a truck to the mess hall. Our pilot had flown his first mission the day before as a copilot, a one-day on-the-job training to become familiar with his job and know what to expect on a mission.
From the mess hall, we went to a briefing. Things were buzzing as we were excited. "Attention!" was called as the briefing officer arrived. The room became very still as the officer addressed our group. The black curtain in front of us was drawn open. It revealed a map of Great Britain, France, Germany, and the Allied battle line. The target was a tank factory in Kassel, Germany.
The officer reviewed the mission, take off time, group formation, and where we would meet our "Little Friends," the fighter pilots. We would be joining the 14th combat wing. Expected flak sites were pointed out to us He reviewed the length of time of the bomb run and the types of bombs we would be carrying. At the conclusion of the briefing, the officer called on our Chaplain. A hush came over the group. After his message and prayers, it was to the drying room to pick up our flying gear. This included our flying suits, heated suits, and oxygen masks. We also picked up our personal weapons (a 45-caliber automatic), walk out shoes, and escape kits, which we clipped to our parachute (hoping we would never need them).
A truck ride took us to our aircraft. Arrival at our aircraft was usually in predawn darkness. Next, we installed our machine guns and loaded our gear by flashlight. It quickly became apparent why, during gunnery training, we had to successfully pass a test to assemble our weapons blindfolded. Trucks would come by and deliver the weighty flack suits. These suits resembled catcher's chest protectors with a back. However, these suits had a more serious purpose than baseball and many lives were saved because of them. Plenty of time was given to check out the bomb load, the tires, the supercharger blades on the engine exhaust, safety wired gas caps, and the auxiliary power unit. Everyone had his preflight job to do.
The pilot received orders to move the aircraft into position for takeoff. The operation officer fired a flare into the air. Final preparations for takeoff would then occur. All crew would assume their designated take off positions. B24s would leave the ground at one-minute intervals. Anywhere from 36 to 40 B24s would be taking off for a normal mission. It was an exhilarating feeling to successfully become airborne. When climbing to forming altitude, we would be on the lookout for our forming aircraft. "Lemon Drop" was the name of our orange and black vertically stripped forming B24. She would fire the designated colors of flares so that we could form our bomb group in her area.
Over the English Channel, our pilot would clear us to test fire our weapons. As we flew closer to our target and climbed to our bombing altitude, everyone performed the necessary tasks to ensure all systems were working. We stayed on constant alertness for enemy aircraft. We had plenty of flak that first mission but we were in luck. There was solid cloud coverage providing us protection. These conditions prevented the Germans from having true aim. A screening force flew in ahead of the bomber stream. Their mission was to drop chaff (tin foil) to give false readings on the enemy's anti-aircraft screens. Each plane would also drop chaff.
We approached the target area and turned in on our bomb run. The bomb bay doors were opened. The nose gunner and togglier closely watched the lead aircraft to see when he dropped his bombs. This signaled for the togglier to flip the bomb release switch. Bombs rained down on our target. After dropping our bombs, I checked to verify that the bomb bay was clear. While returning to my position, the call came "bandits!" Enemy aircraft were sighted. As we made our turn right off the target, I looked out the waist window to see bombers and fighters engaged in heavy combat. I can still visualize the air war being fought by that group of bombers in the distance. Later at interrogation, we learned it was the 445th B.G. that was severely hit with heavy loses. Thirty-two aircraft went to the target and twenty-eight were shot down that day from the 445 B.G. Only four from that B.G. returned from their target. I quickly learned what personal risks were at stake.
December 16th to the 24th was a bad time for our Armed Forces. The Germans broke through our ground forces. This event lead to the "Battle of the Bulge" The Air Corp was summoned to fly several times during that period. We would take off and be recalled due to bad weather unable to leave England air space. During one of these recalls our tail gunner; Al Allegretti, called out "B-24, 6 o'clock level! Get her down skipper!" Our plane dropped to avoid being rammed by one of our own, not knowing as we did, if we were clear below. Another recall had us landing at an unfamiliar B 24 base. Visibility was 400 ft. We had a full load of bombs and fuel on board. Our pilot used instruments to land. We all experienced "instant religion" and were grateful for a safe landing by our excellent pilot.
It was the morning of December 24, 1944, the day before Christruas, and the weather finally broke. The weather cleared enough to fly and we were going to deliver our "presents" to the Germans. It was our 16th mission. A maximum effort was called for. Anything that could fly was put into the air. Even Lemon Drop, our forming aircraft, was outfitted with bombs for this mission. A total of 61 aircraft from the 44th B.G. went up that day. The winter of '44-'45 was the worst in fifty years. There was a lot of snow and freezing temperatures. Our soldiers needed our help. We were to bomb transportation routes. Our targets were railroads, bridges, and tunnels that were located north of Trier, Germany. On the way over, the German 88s were hammering at us. The ground was snow covered and I could see the muzzle flashes of the ak ak guns. The flashes stood out against the white snowy background. In a matter of seconds after seeing the orange flashes, black puffs with the red centers would appear near our aircraft. Luckily, they didn't score and we successfully dropped our bombs.
It wasn't until years later that I found out my former fellow soldiers of the 78th Infantry Division were engaged in the ground war that day. Years later, my friends of that Division described how the heavy bombers arrived on the scene from their perspective. First, tiny specks appeared with faint noise in the background. The noise of the engines grew until it blocked out all other sound. As the heavy bombers came closer, the ground shook. So great was the air power that day. Twenty five hundred aircraft took part in the mission that day. The foot soldiers were so happy to see the arrival of aircraft, they left their foxholes to cheer and wave us on. This maximum effort helped stop the Germans from advancing. Supplies to the Germans were successfully cut off and our soldiers were able to turn the battle around.
Between missions we tried to keep ourselves entertained. We wanted to keep our minds off the war and feel sane. We played checkers and cards, rode around the base on bikes, shot skeet, and went to Norwich via truck. Occasionally, there were dances on base. I read a lot of books and wrote a lot of letters to my friends, family, and my sweetheart, Olga Mae. We biked to some of the closer towns like Shipdham quite often. We stopped at the pubs, drank their warm beer and spirits, and ate a lot of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. Periodically, we would get a three-day pass and head for London to experience the sites.
On January 14th, 1945, I received a three-day pass. On the last day, I missed the six o'clock return train. This meant I had to take a later train and I arrived back in Norwich at 12:05 a.m. On this particular night, there was an E.T.O. restriction. You had to have a special pass to be out past midnight. I was not aware of the restriction. Upon returning to the base, the M.P. checked my normal pass. I was written up and "busted" from S.Sgt to private. I flew the next 12 missions as a private.
January 16th, 1945, was our mission to Dresden, Germany, Marshaling Yard. This was our longest mission. Bomb bay fuel tanks were installed in the aircraft due to the distance of our target. The farther that you flew to deliver the bombs, the more fuel you needed. Therefore, you carried less bombs and vice versa. The engineer had to transfer the fuel from the auxiliary tanks to the main fuel cells in the wings. As we flew the mission, the gauges had to be checked. The engine that was consuming the most fuel was serviced first in his book entitled SlaughterHouse Five. American author Kurt Vounnegot wrote about this battle. He was a Prisoner of War in Dresden, Germany, during this time.
On February 26th, our mission took us to the "Big B" -- Berlin. The target was Pankow, Marshaling Yard. There was a saying that a B24 could leave its' wheels down and taxi its' way across Berlin on the flak that was put up. It was another lucky day for us. We came back safely. We road the jet stream to Berlin 100 mph faster. The tail wind was with us. On our return flight to base, our indicated airspeed was 65 mph as we fought the head winds. It was also during this mission that a 1000-pound bomb failed to release and drop normally on "bombs away." It was my job to release it manually. This meant I had to stand on a main 8 inch I beam over the open boom bay door wearing a five-minute supply oxygen bottle while I performed this task. It was 60o below zero when the bomb left the plane over Germany. This needed to be accomplished before leaving the enemy territory. This was the fifth time I had to say farewell to one of our bombs in this manner.
On our mission of March 8, 1945, I received my Sergeant stripes back. It was our 30th mission. It was also on this mission that our pilot, Ted Hoffiz, brought a Chaplain to me. Ted informed me the Chaplain was going to fly with us on this mission and that I was to take care of him. The Chaplain had decided that he wanted to witness first hand what the aircrews experienced during their missions. Often, the Chaplain served as our spiritual and sometimes our psychological support when our losses were great and our spirits were low. The mission seemed routine until we received a radio message to recall us due to poor weather. This call came late in the mission and although we were already over Germany, we had to return to the base. We were frustrated and disappointed. The Chaplain was on the radio (V.H.F.) listening to the radio conversation. I'm sure he heard an ear full. On March 12th the Chaplain did complete a bombing mission with the pilot Newton E. Condray to Wetzlar, Germany. It was not until February 2000, that I learned the Chaplain's name... William R. Cain.
March l5th, 1945, was the mission I was looking for: It was the one we were all looking for. It was the one that counted... number thirty-five... our last mission! The closer we came to that mission, the further away and the more elusive it seemed. Our risks became more of a reality with every mission. We were very aware of all the things that could or might happen. We had been fortunate enough to make it this far but would we be lucky enough to make it home? Would we see your loved ones again? These were the things we all thought and felt in our hearts, but they remained unspoken.
The mission was to Zossen, 20 miles south of Berlin. The target was the General Staff Headquarters for the German armies. We dropped delayed action bombs on the target. These bombs never, ever returned to the air base. The acid activated detonation fuse was too dangerous. The jar of landing the plane was enough to activate the bomb. We flew deputy lead that day in a new aircraft named Loco Moto. Our bomb run was successful that day. We completed our 35 missions. We were blessed. It was time for celebration. Our crew was asked to consider flying lead aircraft in the formation for five more missions. We respectfully declined.
Military records indicate that our crew flew 39 missions but we were only credited for 35. On several of our missions, we had a K20 camera on board. I took pictures of our formations, the bomb strikes, and whatever action occurred during the missions from the back hatch. There were other "close calls" for our crew that included an on- board fire, engines shot out, engines lost due to loss of oil pressure, and returning to base with dangerously low fuel.
Of all the things that I encountered in the Army Air Corps, I am most grateful and thankful that I transferred from the Infantry. When I returned from a mission, I had hot food and a bed there for me. Our fellow foot soldiers did not and I remained ever thoughtful of the 78th Infantry Division in which I started. Years later, I learned of the very heavy causalities this Division sacrificed for our freedom.
Date Departed ETO: April 1945 How: USS General Richardson Destination: Port of New York, N.Y.
Trip Details: I came home on the USS General Richardson. I boarded ship at South Hampton, England. I would rather have flown back but didn't have that option. The trip home aboard ship was another experience.
We boarded ship in the late afternoon in time for dinner. As I stepped on board, I noticed we were moving up and down with the tide. I asked a sailor when this movement was going to stop. He told me it wouldn't and that it would only get worse. After boarding, we met with the ship's officer. He explained to us there were a large number of liberated American Prisoners of War on board and that they were in very poor health. The officer asked if we would be willing to volunteer extra duty to maintain the smooth operations of the ship. On this twelve-day trip home, the Airmen did all the extra duties on board including KP, garbage detail, swabbing decks, etc. After seeing the conditions of some of the POWs, we were only too happy to do this work. We were thankful to be in condition to do this work and that we had been in the Air Corp rather than the Infantry.
During the trip, I became acquainted with one POW who told me he was in the Army 6 months to the day and 51/2 of those months were spent as a POW. Several of these men died on the voyage home. To make things more interesting, our convoy was followed for two days by the German U-Boats. Our guys were dropping depth charges. I arrived home on May 1, 1945, and was able to celebrate VE day stateside May 8, 1945, with my family and Olga, the woman who would become my wife.
Military Honors & Decorations:
AirMedal: X with 4 oak leaf clusters
Good Conduct Medal: X
Victory WWII X
European Theater Ribbon X with 4 battle stars
American Defense X
ALEX J. TOTH
World War II
Memories and Biography
(Taken from a letter to Will Lundy)
226 Main St.
March 17, 1986
Enclosed you will find the name of my friend Robert D. Vance. He and Louis J. DeBlasio were the survivors of their aircraft when it was shot down March 24, 1945 on a low-level drop for our troops when they crossed the Rhine River, our infantry division, the 78th who we were with, was the first to cross. Rather ironic that Bob was supporting them.
Bob and Lou were captured by the Germans and were prisoners. I've never met Lou, sure that by contacting them, they will help you with our memorial.
Robert D. Vance, 693 W. Bonnie Brae Ct.
Ontario, California 91762
Louis J. DeBlasio, 143-81 229th At., Rossdale, NY 11413
Alex J. Toth