As the current President of
the 450th Bomb Group Association, I've been asked to submit some
autobiographical material. Before I do that, you may want to know how I got the
Presidency in the first place.
I didn't seek or campaign
for the job. It all goes back to a group of us sitting around bemoaning the
fact that so many good guys have left us. Further, many of those remaining have
nagging physical problems. Then some of
the group began discussing their own problems, bad backs, bad knees, etc…That's when I made a
mistake. I said
that I didn't have any aches or pains. Bam! I was immediately nominated and
later elected President. Regardless of how I got here, I promise to do the best
job I can for the 450th Bomb Group Assn.Now, as Paul Harvey used to
say, here's the rest of the story.
In October,1941, I was inducted as a
$21 a month buck private in the U.S. Army. I finally ended up before retirement
as a full Colonel and Wing Commander in the Air Force.I had some very interesting
assignments in rotations. e.g., Assistant Air Attache in Athens, Greece, test
pilot at Eglin Air Force Base, Air Command and Staff School, a two year masters
degree program at the Harvard Business School, and a tour at the Pentagon, where my experience and
education paid off. I went from major
to full colonel in three years.Rather than go into details about all that, I'd like
to confine this to my experiences in the 450th Bomb Group. In fact,
I'll concentrate principally on the events of only two days which were
monumental for me.
I arrived in the late summer
of 1943 at Alamagordo where the 450th was organizing. I was assigned
to the 723rd Squadron, and I took over my first crew. One day - I'll never know why - I missed a scheduled
training flight. As a result, the
Squadron Commander, Capt. (later Major) Bill Miller, demoted me, and I became
the co-pilot on
Lt. Whitney's crew. Before we left Alamogordo, they knew I could fly formation, and I took
over my third crew as pilot.There were some unhappy consequences.
My first crew blew up on takeoff in Manduria. Later, my second crew was
shot down over Steyr, Austria, on February 23, 1944, while I was flying on
their wing. I
brought my third crew home after 50 missions.
My toughest mission was
February 23, 1944, over Steyr. That was during "Big Week" when the 8th
Air Force and the 15th Air Force coordinated massive air strikes
against the Nazis. The 450th had gone to Regensburg on February 22 and lost
planes. The next day we were sent to Steyr. A large number of ME-109's attacked us coming in
at 12 o'clock.I
had started out as number 7 in formation, tail end Charley. I liked that
position because I could see everything up front. (Many other pilots hated it, thinking they could be picked off.) Lou Samsa in Round Trip Rosie was flying
number 3 on squadron leader Whitney's left wing when the ME-109's hit us. Suddenly Samsa's No. 2 engine was
ablaze. Lou kept his plane in formation
awhile but then drifted off to the left where his plane exploded.
The formation became
disrupted. I quickly moved up to take Samsa's place in the lead element. I remember looking into Whitney's cockpit
and seeing Major Miller in the pilot's seat and Whitney flying Beulah from the
position. With the loud noises of all of our guns firing, the ME-109's coming in head on, and
the general pandemonium, Miller was calmly going over his maps. I was looking at a brave man, I thought.Suddenly Whitney's
plane seemed to stop in mid-air as though it had hit a brick wall. Somehow, I
felt that the nose of the airplane had been sliced off horizontally. At any rate, Beulah had been fatally
wounded. There were no survivors. I had now lost two crews
Lt. Courtright, who had been
flying number 2 on Whitney's right wing, took over the lead. I flew very close
on his left wing, banging it in fact. I
wasn't going to let the ME-109's fly through our squadron again.
That didn't last long, however, because my two left engines had been hit
and were losing power. I saw the face
of the German pilot who had hit us as he streaked by. We had to shut down engine No. 2 and were able to get only partial power from
No. 1. I gave the order to prepare to bail out.The airplane was difficult to control at
20,000 feet. We couldn't maintain altitude.
We couldn't maintain formation. At one point we floated under a B-24 in
another Group's formation. The bomb bay
doors were open. We could only hope the
bombs wouldn't drop on us.
We were in terrible shape.
We were all alone and losing altitude. I thought we were likely to be picked off
by German fighters. Then, almost miraculously, we saw the P-38's. They had come
up farther than ever before from their Italian base. The Germans decided they
had done their job and turned for home.We limped back to Manduria, shot up and with only
two and a half engines operating. That day, February 23, 1944, Group losses
were the worst in the war. We didn't
have enough airplanes to mount a Group mission on February 24.However,onFebruary 25 we went back to Regensburg
and earned a Presidential Citation for that mission.
My crew on Ol' Yeller 28 was
the only crew in the 723rd Squadron, and possibly the Group, to
successfully complete all three missions:
Regensburg February 22, Steyr February 23 and Regensburg Feb 25. By the
way, 50 years after his airplane exploded over Steyr, Lou Samsa showed up at a
450th reunion. I was shocked. It turns out that Lou had been blown
out of the airplane. He had regained consciousness in time to pull his ripcord
and was taken prisoner. There was one
other survivor who had jumped when the engine fire started.I never thought I'd complete
my missions. After surveying the losses of both the original and replacement
crews, I figured the odds were too high against that. I'm glad I was wrong.
When I flew my last flight
in late May, 1944, I was a happy warrior.
After all I'd been through, I was ready to celebrate. So I buzzed the air field at Manduria flying
that 4 engine B-24 just a few feet above the runway and pulling up at the end
fighter style. Ground crews working on
airplanes scattered. One person jumped out of the tower and hurt his knee, I'm
sorry to say. (I've received a lot of comments at various reunions about that
As I was walking to
debriefing, Colonel Gideon, the Group Commander, came up to me and said
sternly, "You're confined to quarters." I thought
what a way to finish up. I wondered
what the further punishment would be.Three days later Col. Gideon promoted me to captain
-- -- and I was on my way home.
By Bill Conklin