PROLOGUE This story portrays one bombing mission in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. It is about Cottontail Crew No FK 42-78456-49 stationed in southern Italy.
It is believed to be representative of many different missions and many gallant crew members. No one will deny that it took the combined efforts of all crew members doing their part to successfully complete any
Although half of this crew was wounded in action, they did an excellent job of helping to win the war.
MISSION OVER EUROPE The crew was not very happy as it boarded our plane, a B-24 Liberator Bomber, on November 22, 1944, for they knew from the early morning briefing in the chart room that this was
not going to be a milk run. The crew consisted of the Pilot, Co-Pilot, myself as Navigator, Bombardier, Flight Engineer, Radio Operator-Gunner, Waist Gunner, Nose Gunner, Ball Turret Gunner and Tail Gunner.
Due to a shortage of Bombardier's and Navigator's, it was a customary practice to assign only one Bombardier or one Navigator who would perform both duties. On this date, our regular
Bombardier flew with another crew and I was given the combination Navigator-Bombadier assignment with our regular crew. We had been well briefed for this mission and had imbedded in
our minds the exact course and procedures to follow fro the day.
After a normal takeoff, we climbed to the assigned altitude and proceeded toward our destination deep in enemy territory. Our Squadron of five planes was in a good protective tight
formation with us in the fifth position know to all flyers by the affectionate term Tail End Charlie".
Everything went along fine until.......
The average time required to accomplish a bombing raid from our base in southern Italy ran about nine hours from takeoff to landing. Most of the crew had flown together on missions
during the past six months. Because of the need to double up as Bombardier-Navigator, I had been on more missions than the rest of the crew. This was my 45th of the campaign. After this one was
completed, the squadron was informed that all flyers completing thirty-five missions would be returned to the United States for rest and recouperation.
But alas,this knowledge that my work was done was not known until after this trying, memorable day.
The normal work station for a Navigator, Bombardier and Nose Gunner on a B-24 is in the very front end of the airplane or nose which is under and forward of the pilot's compartment.
As a safety precaution, these crew members do not enter their compartment until after takeoff and are never in their compartment while landing. It was common practice for the Navigator and Bombardier to
ride during takeoffs and landings in the flight engineer's area directly behind the pilot's cockpit. The nose gunner would station himself in the radio compartment area just forward of the bomb bays.
After takeoff, the nose Gunner would generally take up his position in the nose turret but most of the time there was not any need for the Navigator-Bombadier to enter the nose compartment until the
crew went on oxygen over enemy territory or within range of enemy fighters.
Another standard practice was for all five ships in a squadron to do pattern bombing, that is, to release bombs simultaneously with the release of bombs from the lead ship.
The purpose was to insure coverage of a wide area on the ground so as to enhance complete destruction of the target. All but the lead ship would release bombs on a signal from the pilot by rapidly
operating a remote toggle switch back and forth. The lead ship would drop its bombs by using an accurate bomb sight.
THE BOMB RUN As we reached our initial point and began the approach to the target, I picked up the toggle switch with my left hand and placed my right thumb and forefinger around the toggle switch ready for the signal "bombs away".
I could see flak bursts (black puffs of smoke)to the left, to the right, in front and behind us. They were so close and accurate, the bursts made audible noises best described as "music notes from hell".
Apparently, the Germans had been well briefed on the altitude we were to fly for the flak bursts made a solid carpet all around us leaving no alternative but to fly into the middle of them in order to drop our bombs.
As we opened our bomb bay doors, I can remember saying a prayer before we started the final run to the target and quite frankly, my knees were shaking. But now,after the first audible bursts of flak,
I became very calm awaiting the signal to release the bombs. I could hear the ship being struck by flying pieces of metal. I heard someone yell over the Intercom
"number one engine has been hit" and then the follow-up cry "feather number one prop".
We were still in heavy flak but thankfully getting close to the target and the subsequent opportunity to fly out of this deadly denseness. There were pings and pangs as pieces of shrapnel struck
our B-24. Then a loud noise in my compartment and a sharp pain in my hand and arm that caused me to drop the toggle switch.
I took a quick look at my right hand and saw blood spouting down my glove. Then I heard the Intercom cry "Bombs Away". I don't know how I did it or
why exactly I did it automatically, but I reached with my left hand for the emergency bomb release and salvoed the bombs at the right instant. I heard the customary yell from one of the gunners
that the bombs had cleared and the usual follow-up report that the bomb bays were clear, close the doors.
CONFUSION AND CALMNESS As soon as the bombing ship clears the target, it is a customary practice to check on the condition of the crew. This is done by a report over Intercom that commences with the Tail Gunner
and works forward to the Nose Gunner. I heard the Tail Gunner's report to the Pilot "this is the tail gunner, I'm okay" then " this is the waist gunner, I'm okay", " this is the radio operator,
I'm okay", "this is the ball turret gunner, I'm okay", then the co-pilot reporting the Flight Engineer appears to be holding his own and with my turn at reporting, I said, " this is the Navigator, I've been hit".
In looking at the damaged hand, I analyzed that since I could not move my third finger that it must have been severed and that I might have some broken bones.
However, regardless of the extent of the damage, I knew I must stop the bleeding. I unplugged the heating element to my right glove so the cold air at 19,000 feet would quickly coagulate
the blood which would help stop the profuse bleeding. Next, with my left hand, I unsnapped the first aid kit, extracted the sulfanilamide which I sprinkled on the open wound. Then I took a bandage
and with the assistance of the Nose Gunner who used his pocket knife to cut the glove away from the wound, we wrapped the wound to protect it from dirt and possible infection.
All of this transpired with the Nose Gunner helping me in any way he could. I asked one of the other gunners to see if he could bring me something to use as a splint and he obligingly brought
me a broken piece of a wooden shell case which served its purpose very nicely. I used to think that I would become nauseated at the sight of blood, that is the sight of a lot of blood, but
fortunately I had learned during a previous mission when I had administered first aid to a gunner who had his shoulder hit by flak bursts, that in an emergency such as this, all I could feel was a
strong urge to assist the wounded man.
WE ARE LOST Again, the intercom squawked with the pilot's words, "we are able to maintain altitude fairly well, but with our reduced speed, we can no longer see the rest of the formation and we are lost.
Navigator, can you locate our position and give us a heading home". Knowing this was literally a do or die situation, I turned my attention to my maps and instruments. I soon calculated our
whereabouts and gave the pilot a compass heading for our home base. But all was not well for we were still over enemy territory away from all friendly aircraft which made us an easy prey for any
enemy fighters who may be lurking around waiting for just such a straggler as us.
With the Flight Engineer helping the pilot and co-pilot with the damaged ship and the Bombardier on another ship, there was no one available to man the top turret so naturally the crew was
not happy about the situation we were in.
While I was binding my wound and plotting our course for home, I had not been aware that it was taking the combined skill of our pilot and co-pilot to hold the aircraft steady.
Our instruments had been shot out and all they had to go on was the actual horizon which was part of the time obscured by clouds. I also realized that we must be losing power in one of the three
remaining engines for I could see and feel the unusual vibrations.
Being the only crew member available, I climbed into the top turret and began a vigil, along with the rest of the crew, for enemy fighters.
FIGHTERS SIGHTED Suddenly, my heart turned a flip flop for off to our left at 9:00 o'clock, just coming into viewed were two unidentified fighters. I shouted a warning to the crew, cleared my guns with my left hand,
and for the tenth time that day, I said my little prayer to myself, " Oh, dear Lord, if in this flight this ship falls toward the sea, please God, take over the controls and chart my course to Thee." I
have great faith in prayer for seemingly out of nowhere appeared four P-51's, our own fighter aircraft dubbed the Mustang, heading in the direction toward the first two fighters I had seen.
If they had been enemy aircraft, they sure lost interest in us after the P-51 Mustangs appeared.
TROUBLE COMES IN THREES I had always heard that trouble comes in threes and that the third time is the climax. Fresh on my mind was the crash, two months earlier, with a full load of bombs which had been experienced
by our crew while attempting a takeoff. We miraculously escaped from this incident for up to that time, ours had been the only ship experiencing such a crash that did not blow up. Our second
experience, only one month earlier, was a forced bale out when, after a rough time on a bombing raid, we could no longer maintain flying altitude nor get the landing gear down. And now, was this
the third experience and climax? Not on your life or mine either for we cheated death again.
From time to time to time I gave the pilot corrected headings and we finally managed to get the ship and crew safely home.
The ambulance met us at the end of the runway. The doctor's report was welcome to my ears "severed tendon--repairable". On Xmas Eve, 1944, I boarded a Navy Transport for the joyful trip
back to the United States.
EPILOGUE On September 16, 1984, forty years later all ten of Cottontail Crew No FK42-78456-49, known as Dave's crew, were united in Kansas City, Missouri.
They were older, their hair was thinner and their step was not as lively but the joyfulness of this reunion with its strong memories of the past washed out any notice of this and passing age.
Catholic, Protestant and Jew, together, had done their bit for their country and rewardingly God had been kind to all of them. The crew had such respect, love and understanding for each other
that fond memories will stay in their hearts for the remainder of their lives.
God bless America and Dave's Crew.
- written by Robert Derdeyn - Navigator
Mission - Ferrara, Italy
DAVE'S CREW Dave Weichman - Pilot
Arthur Myers - CoPilot
Virgil Wiebelhaus - Bombadier
Raymond Malley - Tail Gunner
Kenneth Bunn - Nose Gunner
Harold Barthelmes - Radio Man
Ralph Brierley - Engineer
William Milliken - Armored Gunner
Isadore (Ed) Gulin - Ball Turret Gunner
Robert M. Derdeyn - Navigator