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2nd Lt. William D. Conklin
723rd Squadron

West Palm Beach, November 1943

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 co-pilot 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 buzz job.) 

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

North Africa

North Africa

Left to Right

William Flock, Bill Conklin, Richard Whitney
West Palm Beach, 1943

Rest Camp

Rest Camp

Beside the 723rd Barracks

Bill with roommate Charles Molitor

Bill receiiving Air Medal from Harry Kellman
Charles Roberts is in the background

1944 beside a B-24

1994 beside a B-24

Flying in 1944

In the pilot seat in 1994

This picture of Bill was taken three days after being confined to quarters.
He buzzed the field after completing his 50th mission

February 1944 flight log
Bill flew all three missions in "Big Week"

Information courtesy of William Conklin

Link To Crew Pictures

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