Harry J. Franz Jr.
not that he could ever forget,
Heather, Garrett, Ian, and their children to come,
in order that they don’t.
Courtesy of Nellie Maushart
This photograph was taken at Charleston Army Air Force Base, South Carolina, after the crew was initially formed.
Officers Back Row Left to Right:
2nd Lt. Walter P. Joens, 0810154 - Pilot
2nd Lt. Joseph Shellick, 0822972 - Co-pilot
2nd Lt. Calvin K. Hubbard,0707272 - Navigator
Lt. Daughtery - Bombardier *
Enlisted Men Front Row Left to Right:
Sgt. George C. Adriano, 395768825 - Asst. Engineer
Sgt. Wallace C. Berringer, 9336827 - Asst. Radio
S/Sgt. Harry J. Franz, Jr.,33719488 - Radio
S/Sgt. Robert R. Ambrose,37501779 - Engineer
Sgt. Robert L. Douglas,12089372 - Armorer
Sgt. Charles J. Blaser,Jr.,13060373 - Asst. Armorer
* (Lt. Daughtery was replaced by 2nd Lt. Ambrose Y. Maushart, 0768825 as Bombardier.
The crew was designated Flight Crew ‘AY47’, and was assigned to B-24J number 42-51159, Peekin Thru, by May 19, 1944
BACHELORS BEDLAM CREW
Circa: May, 1944
Courtesy of Nellie Maushart
This picture was likely taken within days of May 19, 1944.
On that date, the Air Force issued orders for this crew to fly to Italy as a replacement crew for the 450th Bomb Group.
They arrived in Italy on June 1,1944, and for the most part, flew missions as a crew until February, 1945.
The plane appears to be new.
Note the mechanic's marks on the fuselage near the nose turret,
the shiny aluminum skin and the lack of markings other than the nose art.
The name was decided on because all of the crew were bachelors.
Officers Back Row Left to Right:
2nd Lt. Ambrose Y. Maushart, 0768825 - Bombardier
2nd Lt. Joseph Shellick, 0822972 - Co-pilot
2nd Lt. Walter P. Joens, 0810154 - Pilot
2nd Lt. Calvin K. Hubbard,0707272 - Navigator
Enlisted Men Front Row Left to Right:
Sgt. Wallace C. Berringer, 9336827 - Asst. Radio/nose turret
Sgt. George C. Adriano, 395768825 - Asst. Engineer/ball turret
S/Sgt. Harry J. Franz, Jr.,33719488 - Radio/waist gunner
Sgt. Robert L. Douglas,12089372 - Armorer/waist gunner
Sgt. Charles J. Blaser,Jr.,13060373 - Asst. Armorer/tail turret
S/Sgt. Robert R. Ambrose,37501779 - Engineer
May 19, 1944. On that date, the Air Force issued orders for this crew to fly to Italy as a replacement crew for the 450th Bomb Group.
They arrived in Italy on June 1,1944, and for the most part, flew missions as a crew until February, 1945.
The name was decided on because all of the crew were bachelors.
Forward and Acknowledgments
Harry J. Franz, Jr. was born in October of 1924, and died in March of 1988. At sixty three years old, his short life was rich in experience and accomplishment. He would say his life began with his marriage to Vera Lee Garrett, was defined by raising his two sons, Rick and Craig, and ended in the loving care of all three. For me, he was and remains, larger than life. Ten years after his death, and at the age of 48, I continue to wish I knew more about the man and I continue to seek his counsel, his approval, his love.
While it is the natural order of things that most of us are born, live and die in relative obscurity, the impact of one man’s life on those that follow him is undeniable and, in some small but significant way, defining. We are all impacted by the people and events of the past and while we remember through history the events, we sometimes have trouble remembering the people. The following narrative is an attempt on my part to not just remember, but understand one of the events that Harry lived through. The brief period of time that Harry spent in combat as a radioman/gunner in his nineteenth and twentieth years must have had an impact on him that effected the rest of his life. I believe firmly that all humans experience several events of such significance that they become defining moments for the balance of that person’s existence. We all tend to think of ourselves by how we behave in these moments of truth. We can never escape the reality of how we act when faced with the immediacy of crisis. For an entire generation, WWII provided a million defining moments; the following describes a few that Harry faced. My hope is that those of us who lived with him and all those who live because of him, can in some modest way, come to know the man by seeing what he lived through - and learn a bit about who we are in the bargain.
In mankind’s history, a billion children have heard a billion war stories at the knees of a billion veterans. It was the same for me. My interest in Harry’s brief military career began as a young child being fascinated with the war stories he told of flying B-24s over eastern Europe As a child of the 50’s, I new I was special. I recognized that my peers and I shared a sense of belonging to history. Although the baby boom in the fifties brought some ninety million of us to life, we all knew by the time we were ten that there was a horror of a war fought in the ten years before us, and our parents were in the thick of it. We lived in awe of World War II, and those who fought in it. We had our own war, but Viet Nam had a distinctly different place in our lives. We intellectualized that war, saw it as a minor effort in a corner of the world, rarely, if ever, accepting it as a truly noble effort.
We all built models of the great ships and airplanes of the war, reveled in every war movie produced, and knew where and how our parents had served. As we got older, we found our parents trying to put the war behind them. They were busy raising us and building a new world for us to live in. The stories were told less often and television and current events replaced the events of our parent’s youth in importance to us. So it was for me until two unrelated Christmas gifts in 1997 caused me to be drawn to reexamining Harry’s passage through that War.
A friend and business associate gave me a book on the heroic bombing raids over Ploesti, Romania flown by the allied B-24s in operation "Tidal Wave" in August, 1943. Two days later, I made a gift to my brother of a walnut file box Harry had made years earlier. The subsequent discussion with Craig of Harry’s war stories made me promise myself that I would do a little research to see what I could learn about Harry’s war experiences. After an hour or two of preliminary research, I found that others had similar interests and were even setting up web sites where we could share information. It was then I decided three things. First, I would look into this as far as it would take me; second, I would attempt to write this narrative as some small tribute to Harry, and finally, I would make a gift of this effort to my brother and my children for Christmas in 1998.
A year seemed like enough time to do a thorough job. It wasn’t. It was enough time, however, to get a fair understanding of what the experience might have been like. How the events impacted Harry on a personal level are lost to us, but just knowing the magnitude of the events leaves us with plenty of clues. In my search for information, I first approached the U. S. Government. They failed me. A fire in 1972 destroyed about one third of the personnel records maintained by the government on WWII veterans, and Harry’s records were among those lost. The Air Force suggested that I give them Harry’s Group and Squadron numbers, and then I could work backwards to find his operational history. First, I had to find out Harry’s operational unit. I had only a few photographs, some medals, a dogtag, and a few memories. A military historian, Wallace Forman, has documented ensignia from Air Force planes in WWII, and was my first big break. He helped me identify the planes in the pictures Harry left as belonging to the 450th Bombardment Group, and the 723rd Squadron, based in Manduria, Italy. This key piece of information, matching my recollections, made me confident I was on the right trail.
I then sought the records of the Bomb Group. I learned that the original records of the 450th Bomb Group were placed in 35 footlockers, loaded on a C-47 transport in Manduria in 1945 bound for a military warehouse in Minnesota, and were never seen again. The Air Force maintained some separate operational records of the 450BG, and one of two rolls of microfiche containing these records, ordered five months ago, has still not reached me. That left little documentation to go on.
Feeling the need for a different tack, I decided to search for the men that may have flown with Harry. Figuring that Harry would not have kept pictures of planes from a unit other than his own, I found the "450th Bomb Group Association" on the internet, and through this veterans group, my search gathered steam. After numerous postings on the electronic "bulletin board" for this group, I found several members of the 723sq, and questioned them about Harry and the photos. All of these efforts proved fruitless.
They should have. The numbers were just against it. The 450thBG had four squadrons of B-24s, and was only one of fourteen, B-24 Bomb Groups stationed in Italy as part of the 15th Air Force. There were roughly 16 airplanes and 300 men in a squadron at any one time with a total of about 900 men rotating through the squadron during the two years the group was stationed in Italy. Roughly 600 of these men were killed or missing in action. The average age of the remaining 300 veterans would have to be 74 or 75 now, and a good half have probably died (probably 75% to 80% according to an actuary!). Fortunately, one of the folks I met on the internet suggested I get a book written by Robert Davis on the history of the 450th BG. I purchased his book and it proved to be a wonderful resource of the period during which Harry served. I read it cover to cover, and there were only two obscure references of note in the book that linked to Harry: a photo of the nose art on "Bachelor’s Bed-Lam", the plane I knew Harry flew on, and a photo of an unidentified B-24 in flight above a European city. The first picture verified the childhood memory of the name of his plane, but it was this second unidentified photo that stirred my enthusiasm. It was the exact same photograph as one that Harry had left, and, it gave the photo credit to the author, Robert Davis. This was the second photograph that had defined the direction my search would take - and provided all the information I had so far.
I set about immediately to find Mr. Davis. As historian for the 450th Association, I hoped he could provide some further information, or perhaps point me toward the right resource. I wrote him and sent a copy of the photo dad had left - the same photo that was in his book and a second photo of dad and his crew in front of an unidentifiable B-24 along with a request for any information he had. The reverse side of the crew photo had a list of the crew’s names, and I was hopeful he might know of some of these men or have some records detailing their missions. I frankly expected very little. I viewed this as my last hope before abandoning the project. This was the third and crucial photograph.
A month later, Mr. Davis sent me a letter explaining he did not remember the source of the picture in the book, but he did have some other, much more valuable, information. From the list of crew names on the reverse of dad’s crew photo, Mr. Davis found current addresses for five of the ten men in the photograph! This was beyond belief. Of the 1881 men assigned to the aircrews of the 450th during their 15 months of operational duty in Manduria, 376 returned home alive. Eighty percent were killed or missing in action. It was inconceivable to me that half of Harry’s crew would still be alive fifty years after the war when less than two in ten survived to get home! They were about twenty years old when they were flying together in 1944, which made them about 74 years old today! The odds for this happening must be enormous.
I immediately sent these five men a letter of inquiry along with a copy of the crew photo. Three of the five turned out to be crewmates of Harry’s and remembered him well. The other two had the right surnames, but served in other squadrons. Of the three, Cal Hubbard, of Ontario, Canada who was the navigator on Bachelor’s Bed-lam was the first to respond. Mr. Hubbard was a delight to talk to, but admitted his memory and his health were failing. We spoke for almost an hour several weeks later, and he provided me with a wealth of information concerning events that summer. Ten minutes later I got a call from Joe Shellick in Tampa, Florida.
Joe was a co-pilot and flew 45 missions before missing one on a different plane. That plane was shot down. Joe told me some wonderful stories and remembered Harry fondly. He was married (again) three months ago, and loves his life in Florida. I interviewed Joe by phone and he gave me a fascinating perspective of the time, rich in detail. Most importantly, he gave me the name of Ambrose Maushart, who was the bombardier initially assigned to their crew. "Mouse" had died recently, but his wife, Nellie, was active in the 450th Association and had a variety of material that her husband had saved. A letter from her along with some fascinating documents came several days later. She remembered meeting Harry and Vera Lee sometime after the war at a reunion in Washington, DC. Her dedication to keeping Mouse’s momentos from the war supplied me with a remarkable variety of documents and supporting evidence. I am particularly in her debt.
An hour later I got a call from Bob Douglas from Lake San Marcos, California. He was a waist gunner on Bachelor’s Bed-lam, and remembers working the gun opposite Harry. Active and vibrant, he offered a world of insight into their experiences in Europe. Bob subsequently sent me some photos of Harry I had never seen before along with a diary of his missions, the majority of which, very likely, included Harry.
In the end, I had the voices of three men who flew with Harry, some accumulated papers, photographs, diaries, letters and a book or two. I still await formal documents and microfilm from the Air Force. With only half the documentation I had hoped to get, a picture was coming together of the lives these men led over one brief summer and fall in the second half of 1944. I wish I could have more accurately detailed and documented the specific facts of Harry’s involvement, but the first hand evidence of witnesses to those events left me with a more realistic feel for it than all the documents, purloined or destroyed, that I wished I had. The following narrative is, therefore, a matter of fact as established by witnesses to the events. The facts are none the less remembered if not completely documented. Some details were inferred, but I assiduously avoided elaboration, and sought collaboration where ever possible. Harry most certainly did not fly on all of the missions discussed, but, with equal certainty, I can say he, very likely, flew on the vast majority of them. Flight diaries from Bob Douglas and "Mouse", verified against the 450th mission list, recollections of those who were there, the "S-2 Narratives", and the Group’s War Diary, prove it.
Each person I interviewed had memories of similar events, but the same event, recalled by two people who had different perspectives, fifty years later, will almost always sound different. The crew members’ stories of the same event included conflicting details, and I learned that all of their stories contained elements of fact. It certainly seems reasonable that 75 year old men would have differing memories of an event that occurred 54 years ago. For instance; we know their original plane was shot down with another crew on board sometime after they arrived in Italy, but accounts differ widely on when that happened.
I also cannot accurately verify some of the more memorable stories I heard at Harry’s knee. Stories of ditching in the Adriatic, being shot down, and escapes to friendly territory cannot be proven. I hope in time to document these incidents more clearly, but for now they remain an enigma. These events could have easily occurred on another plane. It was a fairly common occurrence that crew members were switched to other planes; filling holes in other plane’s rosters. As a result, the diaries of Bob Douglas and Ambrose Maushart , when combined with the official mission list and mission narratives of the 450th BG, offer a collaborating set of records. They flew many missions together, (presumably with Harry), but flew a good number of missions on different dates with different crews. Over the period of Harry’s involvement, the 450th BG, with a roster of 64 B-24s, lost approximately 125 planes, so there was clearly a need to shift flight personnel. Each of the vets that I interviewed remembered flying with several different pilots and a number of different crewmen. Squadron Leaders and Flight Leaders would shift both Officers and enlisted men within their units for strategic purposes. Cal Hubbard told me, "We (the Officers) would show up at the plane and not know who our radioman was until we got there." It seems clear then, that Harry easily could have been involved in more harrowing experiences than I describe; but I can find no proof. I know he flew for different pilots on different missions, but I cannot document which ones. I clearly can document some scary times, but there exists a strong chance that even scarier moments were to be had on another plane in the same mission.
I have included "S-2 Narratives" from missions I know Douglas, Maushart, and in some cases, Joens and Shellick were assigned to, and it seems fair to infer Harry was there too. The remaining narratives, for those missions flown during this period, but without evidence of Harry’s involvement, as well as the narratives of the periods before and after Harry are a fascinating read, and support a better understanding of the scale of the War in time and the importance of the 450th in it.
In the end, very few acts of individual valor are remembered or documented. The recounted memories and records tell us basically, "we went here, did this, came back, and boy were we lucky to get through it!" The perspective is always focused on the scale of the incident and how events just swept along, rarely can one even remember who else was present. They were a team in the experience; they were too busy applying their talents to their craft to notice who was next to them. Just surviving 50 missions over heavily defended targets, hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, was a heroic act, required heroic behavior, and should be appreciated as such. Certainly those alive today don’t particularly think of themselves as heroes, even if I do. The specific events of specific missions can only be suggested, but seem easily inferred and easily accepted as factual enough. When several people remember a given mission, it is usually because of the intensity of the risk, and it becomes distinguishable from other missions simply because it was survived, not because of a particular action by a particular person.
My narrative covers a period from October of 1943 to February,1945. More specifically, I deal with the six month period from June 1, 1944, when Harry arrived in Italy, until December, 1944, when it appears Harry would have completed his 50th mission.
The Bomb Group was disbanded and sent home in May of 1945. I have been unable to document or even infer what happened to Harry after early 1945. He certainly could have completed his combat mission duty (roughly the time his crewmates were finishing their mission requirements), but there is some (questionable) evidence to suggest he was discharged on December 8, 1945, a full year after most his crewmates had returned. Where he was assigned, or what duty he had after the Bomb Group was decommissioned, is a mystery. I have recollections of stories of him flying supplies "over the hump", (the Himalayas) to the Chinese at the end of the war. This was not particularly hazardous duty, and would have occurred as the war in Europe was ending; so it seems a possible explanation of his whereabouts in 1945. He would have been assigned to another Bomb or Transport group, but I can find no records to prove it. Maybe the December 8, 1945 discharge date is wrong - perhaps it should have read "December 8, 1944". I find numerous "typos" in the records I was able to review. Maybe he spent time in the states after fifty missions until his hitch was up. I remain confused. In the end, Harry’s combat career, in harms way, lasted only six or eight months - of that I am fairly certain. His life during that period is what I had hoped to examine from the beginning of the project, and, as luck would have it, that is all I could document.
My enduring thanks to those who gave so freely of themselves to help me. Bob Davis, Robert Jones, Wallace Forman, Floyd Perkins, Bob Douglas, Joe Shellick, Cal Hubbard, Nellie Maushart, and a dozen others, are the true historians of their time. They remembered, they documented, they told their stories, they encouraged, they shared, they corrected, they guided. People like these keep the history of their time and preserve it through the oral tradition. I can never thank them enough and I wish them a peaceful life.
A final proviso. I am no author, although I freely admit I would love to be. This is the result of a desire to truly research and understand a set of memories about my father’s place in history. I believe I have done justice to the project, but know I could have done better, if only I could write. In the end, this is for the Franz family and I am confident they will overlook my flaws at the keyboard.
The fall of 1943 turned cold early in Baltimore. The Baltimore Sun reported two snows in October. Harry would have enjoyed his first summer since graduation from high school, and his romance with Vera Lee Garrett was growing. He had a job as an apprentice tool maker at the shipyards in Baltimore, but had to be having mixed feelings as his friends went off and enlisted to fight Hitler and the German army. World War II had been raging for two years, and he certainly saw friends go and come home with stories of victory and courage. Any young man would find the romantic idea of fighting for their country to be irresistible. The war effort was popular; every youngster wanted to join - many lied about their ages, anxious to get there before it was over. Family lure has it that Harry tried this approach as well. The time line of his service suggests he had failed. Harry likely had a hard sell at home. His father, with only a generation between himself and his family’s roots in Germany, had seen the horrors of WWI, and had a brother return from that one, "enfeebled" from shell shock. He had a younger brother, Bob, watching his actions, and an older sister, Delores, who was in love with a serviceman. Certainly Vera Lee didn’t relish the idea of her boyfriend going to war. Her father, Richard Garrett, had died when she was a child, and life as one of two girls born to a widow in the Depression years of the1930s could not have been an easy one. Her mother took in laundry to keep her two girls fed. Vera Lee saw a future for her and Harry, but the war was in the way.
Against this backdrop Harry probably saw the war as a way out. He could do his duty, and learn a trade. Maybe the GI Bill could get him a college degree. He saw his father work with his hands for a living the war would provide great opportunity when it was over to do more with his life. By all accounts Harry was a bright kid with a positive attitude. He wasn’t born to wealth, but he believed in himself with a conviction that his oldest friends still admire, and he decided to take a hold of his future. Sometime near the beginning of 1944, heeding counsel only he heard, he enlisted in the Army Air Force.
The documentation is vague, but Harry appears to have boarded a train and left Baltimore for boot camp sometime after Christmas, 1943. Surely he would have had an intensive testing program that showed some aptitude for work as a radio operator, and went to radio communications school at Clovis Army Air Force Base in New Mexico. While this training could have meant Harry would be assigned to a position on the ground, by April he was at the Aerial Gunnery School in Kingman, Arizona - and only bomber crewmen had to be able to shoot. For a nineteen year old, he had already traveled further from home than most anyone he knew, and began to look forward to flying over Europe or the south pacific in a bomber. He knew he would be an air crewman, but not where.
From here he was transferred to Charleston, South Carolina were he was assigned to crew "W-91", and to a B-24 "Liberator" numbered 42-51159. For Harry, Charleston was a lot closer to Europe than it was to Japan, and the B-24 was the latest, most advanced bomber the Air Force had.
Consolidated B-24 Liberator
Called the "Flying Boxcar" by it’s crews, there were more B-24s built than the more commonly remembered B-17. It was a more recent design by 5 years than the B-17 as well. The B-24"J" was the most common variant of the 24,000 B-24s built during WWII, and the 6,678 "J"s were built by the Consolidated - North American Aircraft Company in Dallas. Sixty- seven feet long, with a wingspan of 110 feet, they were powered by four Pratt and Whitney, supercharged "Wasp" radial engines that produced 1200 horsepower each. It cruised at 215 miles per hour with a top speed of 290, and a service ceiling of 28,000 feet. Carrying a crew of ten, they were designed as a high altitude, short field, long range heavy bombers but proved very useful at a variety of missions. They flew low level raids over the deserts of Africa against Rommel as well as hauling supplies over the Himalayas to the Chinese. It carried up to a dozen, 500 lb. bombs and averaged 56,000 pounds gross weight at takeoff. Equipped with twin Browning .50 caliber machine guns in nose, upper, lower ball, and tail turrets, and single .50s at each of two waist positions, it also carried 5,200 rounds of ammunition and was quite effective at defending itself from enemy fighters. Known widely by it’s twin tails and slab sides, it carried 3,600 gallons of fuel and could cruise for 7 hours, giving it a range of 1,500 miles.
Casualties were high in the early years of the war until formation flying was perfected and use of fighter escorts became more common. In August of 1943, 59 planes were lost in a raid on a German ball bearing factory. During operation "Tidal Wave" that same month, 53 of 178 B-24s were lost at Ploesti, Rumania. A raid three months later on that same ball bearing factory resulted in 60 B-24s lost. During this time the B-24 became a legend, not because of the planes lost, but because of the condition many of the returning planes were in. The Air Force was so impressed with the B-24’s ability to keep flying with severe damage that they commissioned a study of them to determine what crucial design features allowed these planes to outlast it’s cousin, the B-17. As of this date, there is only one remaining B-24 in the world that is flying.
Despite it’s size, the B-24 is remarkably cramped inside. The middle one third of the fuselage, from roof to belly, is devoted to bomb racks. Up to 12,500 pound bombs could be hung here, lifted into position by a hoist mounted near the roof. They could be dropped individually, in groups or all together. The huge bomb bay doors were always open about six inches where they met below the bombs. The doors were a breakaway design that allowed a man’s weight to open them if that hapless airman fell (or needed to jump) off the 10" wide gangway that ran down the middle of the bomb bay. Joe Shellick tells of the bombardier just dropping the bombs through the doors when they were jammed shut. He said they would eventually get blown off and drop to the ground. From this gangway, a crewman would have to climb upwards through hatches leading to the flight deck forward, or the gun deck to aft.
Behind the bomb bay, 30" above the bomb bay gangway, the waist gun deck had the ball turret mounted into a four foot deep, vertical tunnel. This was literally a ball, about forty inches in diameter, into which a crewman would wiggle through a hatch. With the hatch closed, the ball was then lowered down the tunnel into its firing position below the belly of the plane by a hoist. The ball could rotate and aim it’s weapons anywhere within the hemisphere of the ball that was exposed, with the gunner firing roughly down and between his feet. It could not land or take off with the ball turret in position. Behind the ball turret were the waist gunners positions. The roomiest area on the plane, this space in the rear 1/3 of the fuselage, had two waist "windows", roughly four feet wide and three feet high on either side of the plane. Doors covered the windows and were easily removed in flight. Mounted to the side of each window was a .50 caliber machine gun. From these windows, chaff, or aluminum foil packets could be dropped to confuse radar, or flares could be launched for communications or marking targets. One can easily stick their head out of the window and look forward to the trailing edge of the wing, and aft towards the twin rudders on the tail. The view is fantastic. The roar of the wind deafening. Behind the waist gun deck, at the end of the tunnel-like aft fuselage, filled with ammo boxes, the camera bay and flare chute, was the Consolidated tail turret with its twin .50 caliber Browning machine guns aimed aft.
The forward 1/3 of the fuselage had three different levels. Beyond the bomb bay and up two feet or so, beyond a wall or bulkhead, was the flight deck. The "radio shack" was configured in the area behind the pilot. There were several radios on board for various purposes. They are banked against the wall of the fuselage. The radioman had access to the sight gage for the fuel tanks in the wings, the tool kit for the plane, the auxiliary power controls, the roof escape hatch, and had the entrance to the top turret above his radios. From this position, the radioman is in the middle of the action on a B-24. He was probably called on to support the positions around him. He can see clearly out the pilots window which is slightly below him, hear the top turret firing, see the navigator moving around his nose bubble, and see down the middle of the bomb bay towards the gun deck. There was a small workbench as part of each sloping sidewall with a small window above. Harry sat at these radios and worked at these benches, periodically peeking out of the Plexiglas. We have some pictures taken from them. Through the middle of this area ran an aisle forward to the pilot and co-pilot. Below this floor was access to the nose of the aircraft which housed the navigator, the bombardier and the nose gunner. The navigator moves about in the upper half of the nose bubble looking forward and upward. He can rotate his seat to face his worktable and chart rack aft. The lower portion of the nose bubble had the bombardier’s bomb sight and controls, and a .50 caliber nose gun. The navigator would share a seat with the bombardier when the target was reached. From the "Initial Point" designated on the bomb run, the Bombardier would control the plane right to the bomb release.
The walls of the airplane were aluminum skinned framing. They were lined with hydraulic tubing, fuel lines, electrical cables, oxygen tanks, ammo boxes and control cables. Once the crew was dressed in flight gear and onboard the plane, moving from one place on the plane to another was difficult at best, and each man would generally stay at their position until there was trouble, then they would head for their gun positions - running. Above 12,000 feet, oxygen was required and the masks, combined with flak jackets, made moving about impossible.
April and May, 1944
The Charleston Army Air Base was basically a marshaling area. Crews were assembled and assigned to planes. The men arriving here had been trained in different locations throughout the US. Monroe Field, Louisiana sent Navigators. Bombardiers were trained at Alamogordo, and Kirkland AFB in Albuquerque. Shellick came from Mitchell Field in New York.
Similarly, the men gathered there to become crews were from all over the country. Walt Joens, the pilot was from the Napa Valley. Tail Gunner Chuck Blaser, nose gunner Wally Berringer and co-pilot Joe Shellick were from Pennsylvania. Ambrose "Mouse" Maushart was from Long Island, Bob Ambrose from Kansas City, Cal Hubbard from Waterbury and Adriano from San Louis Obispo. Most everyone expected the crew to "firm up" here for deployment, and when Lt. Daughtery got sick, he was replaced on the crew by Lt. Ambrose Maushart as Bombardier. Lt. Maushart appears to be the only one of the crew who made a career of the Air Force. The crew all had diverse backgrounds, education and training. They found themselves in the unique situation of having to trust each other to do their jobs under the stress of combat. They were strangers working together to stay alive and get back. It must have been difficult to turn themselves into a team that could function well in battle. This group was like most warriors in this war. They were young and energetic, full of confidence and convinced that they would prevail against an obvious evil threat. There was a clear sense of defending America, but more so they all were thereto save a way of life. They believed America was the answer to mankind’s hope for a perfect world, and they shared the common commitment to save it for all of history. Their generation had not had an easy life. They were born in the aftermath of WWI, and spent their childhood years during the uncertain times of the depression. The values of family and hard work, belief in God and faith in freedom and democracy were the defining characteristics of the generation. There was a sense of destiny and a conviction that their life would be better and their world more secure than that of their parents - once the war was over.
It was here in Charleston where their plane was assigned to them. There was a formal understanding that the plane was the property of the U.S. Government. "Joensy", the pilot had to sign for the plane when it was delivered to the crew. The voucher estimated the value of the plane at $300,000. No matter what the government thought, the plane ceased to belong to the Air Force, and became the property of the crew. It would be "home" as well as "office" for the crew.
Aircraft are female. Crews named them after wives and girlfriends, actresses and icons. "She" was now theirs, not the Air Force’s (although the ground crews would say that they just let the air crew "think" it was their plane.) They would take care of her, nurture her, keep her healthy, and perhaps she would return the favor. In order for them to return, she had to return. Cal Hubbard remembers the group walking toward their plane and meeting a couple of GIs who were willing to paint some nose art on their "Baby", for a few bucks, of course. Right there on the tarmac, they decided to all pitch in to pay $40.00 for the art work, and designed their logo with the likeness of a bare chested cupie doll next to the name. They were all bachelors, so that part was easy. The private joke was that the spelling of "Bedlam" would be "Bed-Lam", implying a final "b" on "Lam"! One could infer the crew thought of wrecking havoc, or sexy lovers - but nothing else! Its a pretty accurate description of ten, young, single, bomber crewmen. The nose art on B-24s during WWII is a subject of continued fascination. Hundreds of the bombers were decorated in this fashion, and although it was frowned upon by some Commanding Officers at some units, it became unusual to see one without nose art by the end of the war, particularly in the European and Mediterranean Theaters of Operation.
They were probably stationed here for only a few days, and it was here when some of the crew first flew in a B-24. Training to be aircrew, particularly for the enlisted men, did not mean spending a lot of time in the plane. Radiomen could learn the radio anywhere. The engineer spent most of his time in a garage or under a wing. They had a week or two at most. The time was spent going over every system on the plane and getting used to each other. She was a brand new plane, and the crew began to familiarize themselves with each aspect of her personality. The flight officers needed to "feel" her in the air. As engineer, Bob Ambrose certainly wanted to get to know his four new engines, and see how they ran and sounded and felt. "Mouse" must have spent a good deal of time calibrating and adjusting his new bomb sight. Harry undoubtedly spent time on the radios, adjusting antennas, learning new coding and practicing his own Morse keying. There were six separate radios of different designs for different purposes, and they all were needed. Each gun was cleaned, fired and cleaned again and again. Shakedown hops over the South Carolina countryside were scheduled, and gave the crew the chance to check each system. From here, they would be assigned to Bomb Groups as replacement crews at various Theaters of Operation and sent overseas, but they didn’t know when, and they wanted to be ready. Waiting for those orders must have been an exciting time. After all the training, each man was anxious to get a chance to do their job. They couldn’t wait to drop bombs on Germans. They new they had superior equipment and training; they new they had superior numbers and tactics and weapons. Now they were ready to put it all to work.
On May 19th, orders were cut by the Commanding Officer of the Caribbean Wing Air Transport Corps at Morrison Field in West Palm Beach, Florida that would give them their chance. The orders required eleven B-24s and 110 airmen to depart from Morrison Field, fly the south Atlantic route, and report to the Headquarters of the 15th Air Force in El Aouina, Tunisia, as replacement crews. B-24 number 42-51159, now better known as "Bachelors Bed-Lam", with crew AY47, was on that list. But the crew didn’t know that - the orders were secret. They would be told only what they needed to know. They were sent to West Palm Beach and Morrison Field.
The Flight to Africa
Within days, the crew flew Bachelors Bed-Lam from West Palm Beach to Trinidad. When they took off from Trinidad, an engine caught fire. Shut down, and with its prop feathered, the fire went out in the engine. Joens told the crew they had to go back and land. Landing the fully fueled and loaded B-24 on three engines is a difficult and dangerous job. Joens told the crew they could bail out if they wanted to. One of the crew remembered that the waters were heavily populated with sharks, and they all decided to land with "Joensy". They turned around and spent an extra three days in Trinidad while the engine was fixed. Then on to Natal, Brazil.
Once the planes were together as a group, final deployment orders were issued. They were fully fueled, probably carrying "Tokyo Tanks" in the bomb bay. Their orders were to leave Natal, fly north east, head out over the Atlantic on a given heading, and once one hour had passed since land fall, they were to open their final orders. Joensy insisted on waiting the full hour. The crew was dying to know where they were headed. An hour into their flight, Joensy opened the orders and informed the crew: Dakar, Africa. The flight crew had heard the stories of B-24s in west Africa. It was going to be hot. The engines would have to be babied. Sand gets into everything. Missions of hundreds of miles over nothing but sand. Lots of low level raids. The men settled in for a six hour flight over the Atlantic. Most all of them had ever left the United States before. Now they had crossed the equator, landed in South America, and were headed to Africa. They were alone with their thoughts. They wondered how duty would be in Africa. They had hours to consider what lay ahead.
The eleven planes arrived in Dakar late in the day on May 28th. The following morning they were given further orders. They were to fly to Marrakech, and from there, they would be deployed to the 450th Bomb Group as replacements in Manduria, Italy. I am sure none of them knew where Manduria was at first, but it was in Italy, not Africa. They were going to be bombing Germans - maybe in Germany!
The 450th BG (H) "Cottontails"
The 450th Bombardment Group (Heavy), activated in May,1943 set up base in Manduria, Italy in December of that year. One of fourteen Bomb Groups attached to the 15th Air Force in Italy, they arrived back in the United States 18 months later after having flown 265 missions. They bombed targets in Italy, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Albania, Rumania, Hungary, France, Germany and Austria. The Group dropped 150,000 tons of bombs and shot down 229 enemy fighter aircraft. They received a "Distinguished Unit Citation" for action on February 25, 1944 against a heavily defended Messerschimitt factory at Regensburg, and another for action over the oil refineries of Ploesti on the 5th of April when 8 of 28 B-24s were shot down and more than 125 enemy fighters were encountered. Nineteen of the twenty returning B-24s had flak damage; five had fighter damage. The Group lost 1505 men on these missions alone. German fighter units identified the 450th by their white rudder ensignia early in their European operations, and "Axis Sally" broadcast taunts to the "white tailed bombers from the south." The Group adopted the moniker "The Cottontails", proud of the notice they had received from the enemy, and all their rudders were painted white.
Already an accomplished, battle tested unit, the 450th had flown 75 missions when eleven replacement B-24s, with eleven replacement crews arrived in Manduria on June 1st.
Manduria is a small farming village in the "heel" of Italy not far from the coast of the Gulf of Taranto, in the arch of Italy’s sole. The air base was located a mile from town on the site of a large farm. In the six months of operations before Harry arrived, the base had been built up into a small city. Separate officer quarters, mess facilities, flight operations center, hospital, movie theater, briefing rooms, supply bunkers, repair hangers and fuel depots had been built.
The base was pretty much under construction right up to when they pulled out in the middle of 1944. Each Squadron would have their own day rooms, bar, enlisted and officer clubs within their compound. Heat and other amenities were provided by ingenuity and scrounged supplies. Chuck Blaser, the tail gunner, was their chief scrounger. According to Shellick, Blaser could steal anything. What ever they needed, Blaser would find He would siphon gas from fuel tanks for the stoves in their tents. He even came up with a piece of pipe 15 feet long to use for a chimney. Fifty five gallon drums could be used for showers, hot water, stoves, even latrines. Wood shipping crates were disassembled and made into closets and desks, and in some cases, entire buildings. Brick and concrete walls around the tent bases gave more headroom and blocked the wind. The men made use of the down time between flights to improve their lot, and for many it became a contest between squadrons to see who out do the others. They built softball and football fields, and had regular games. Rest and relaxation passes were used for trips to the coast and the beaches of Capri. Much of their time was spent together within the Squadron’s compound, when they weren’t busy at the "office".
Each squadron had it’s own barracks area tucked away in an olive grove at the edge of the base. The pyramid shaped tents were built on two foot high block and stone walls with concrete floors and cots for four men. Segregated from the enlisted men, the officers had their own tent among the other flight crews. The accommodations were not as luxurious as in the U.S., but a far cry better than the average ground soldier could ever hope to see. In a separate area, the enlisted air and ground crews were together. The new crews were mixed into the empty tents of those crews who had rotated out, or failed to return from a mission, and Harry found himself living with men who had completed quite a few missions. Although it was nine days until his first mission, it was likely his first night in Manduria, hearing the stories of his tentmates, when he first realized the danger he was in. It was a Thursday, and since Monday , the Group had lost four B-24s and forty one men. Further, they had fifteen men injured, seven seriously, and fifty one planes damaged. I imagine the new crews were hearing plenty of stories about what combat was really like.
The day before they arrived, the BG had sent 32 planes to Ploesti, Romania as part of a coordinated attack by five different Bomb Groups of the 15th Air Force . They lost two planes and had twenty damaged by flak. Five had trouble returning to base. Two crash landed. The Group had along history at Ploesti. A target since the 450th got to Italy in January of 1944, they had lost 56 planes to the fighters and flak over this one target. The center of refining for the Reich, Ploesti had six different oil refineries built along a six mile circle surrounding the city. The refineries produced most of the lubricants used by their war machine, and the German army and Luftwaffe guarded it heavily. Special trains were built with heavy flak and lighter ack-ack guns mounted on flatbed cars. These trains could often run parallel to the course of the attacking bombers and provide defending fire for ten or fifteen minutes as the planes neared their target. The crews called Ploesti one of their "Thousand Gun" targets. The defenses were so great that the group averaged two planes lost for each mission over Ploesti. The defenders caused such severe damage during the low level raids the previous summer, that all raids were made from 20,000 feet by the time Harry arrived. Even at those altitudes, the Group continued to suffer losses there. By June of 1944 the Germans were using different types of flak shells, in caliber’s up to 108mm, and had learned to put up barrages that effectively laid a curtain in front of the attackers. The 450th had made Ploesti a specialty of their own, and Command at the 15th Air Force routinely called on them to participate in raids there. Harry would have a week and a half before his first mission; plenty of time to learn all about Ploesti from guys who had been there.
The next several days he saw flights leave in the predawn light and return late in the day. A daily 450th War Diary reports that on the 7th of June no flights were launched but the entire base gathered outside of the War Room to hear announcements of the progress the Allies were making as the invasion at Normandy unfolded. Harry surely stood with his crewmates and listened as the names of towns and cities taken by the allies were listed over the loudspeaker. The diary reports that spirits were high, and optimism soared that the war was close to over. A Maj. McKamy, the current air group commander, was reported to loudly speculate that the war would last only two or three weeks more. Harry probably wondered if he would even have a war to fight, or missions to fly. Forty four aircraft returned over the next three days with flak damage, but only two crewmen were injured and no planes lost. By now the news from the invasion was that initial slowness had been replaced with strong Allied advances. Spirits on the base were high, and a movie, punctuated with an air raid, was shown that night. There was a sense that the war might be winding down. The group had seen light action in the last few days. Maybe Harry had gotten there to late; maybe it was almost over.
The next day, the ninth of June, a flight of twenty six B-24s left Manduria for a sortie over a German airfield. With the primary target covered with clouds, the formation flew to the secondary target, Munich. Four planes were shot down that day, and four returned with severe flak damage. Forty men were killed or missing in action. Eight planes had been shot down and eighty two men had been killed in the 450th since Harry had arrived in Italy. The following day would be Harry’s first mission.
June 10, 1944
wonder what that night was like for Harry. He was nineteen, 10,000 miles from home, and about to experience his first combat mission along with nine other buddies. He wondered if he would perform well. He wondered if he would be scared. He probably looked around the room and wondered who would not return. He probably wrote to Vera Lee. He probably thought a lot about his family.
He awoke, or at least was roused, by four a.m. After a breakfast of powered eggs, gravy and bread, the crew prepared for their mission. As the pilots were briefed, the navigators, bombardiers and radiomen were given operational briefings. They would all meet up at the plane. They would spend time dressing in several layers of clothing; it got down to -30 deg. at 24,000 feet, and B-24s were drafty. Long Johns, wool flight pants, shearling leather flight jackets with scarves to seal the neck would be augmented with shearling flight pants, oxygen masks, intercom headsets, gloves and flak jackets once in the air. It is difficult to move around in all the clothing and gear. The ground crews had worked all night fueling, arming and loading the bombays with 10,500 pound bombs. Engines were serviced, oxygen cylinders recharged, ammo boxes loaded, fuel tanks filled. By 6:15, the ten bachelors of Bachelors Bed-Lam were going through final checklists as the engines warmed up. By 6:45 they were flying in a formation of 5 planes at 4000 feet circling with the 7 other five plane groups, waiting for the B-24s of the 449th BG. Each man was busy at their position, readying their equipment, their weapons, their courage, for battle.
You actually feel a B-24’s engines rev up before you hear them. You sense the take off before you see the plane rising. Almost 5,000 horsepower, applied to four, short, three bladed props produces a surge of acceleration that is only slightly less remarkable than the rolling, harmonic thunder produced simultaneously. These planes were skin on frame construction. There was no thought of insulation. The skin of the plane was like a tin can, the noise level like being inside that can in a spin dryer - with a 230 mile per hour, 20 degree below zero wind - for six hours. Without intercoms, you have to yell at the top of your lungs to be heard one foot away. Hand signals were common. Radio silence was common. For three or four hours, Harry was alone with his thoughts while they climbed to cruising altitude of 20,000 feet and flew northeast along the Italian coast of the Adriatic. There were 75 B-24s from two BGs in small formations of five planes, spread out over five miles. Harry could see planes all around his. He could see his friends clearly in their own planes. It must have felt secure, seeing your buddies, at their guns, searching the skies for the enemy. He had trained at Clovis and Alamagordo with these guys - they would do their jobs, and they could count on him to do the same. They had to fly the length of Italy; their target was the oil refinery at Trieste in the Northeast corner of Italy.
As time wore on, Harry would have received weather and target information over the radio in Morse. Occasionally, there would be voice communication between the pilot and his flight commander. Intercom voice communication allowed a sense of teamwork. Each crewman adding to the security of the others by the simple act of talking. Douglas knew "Mouse" was looking through his sight without seeing him in the nose. Harry knew Blaser was in his turret when he heard him ask for ammo. They could all hear Joens giving them updates on time to target. There was the sense that all the bases were covered, that the team was doing their jobs, that they were coming back.
The cold and the wind and the noise were the enemy for most of the trip. Boredom was to be an enemy of the future, but this was their first flight in harms way; they were too excited to be bored. They looked down on the coast of Italy and the blue of the Adriatic for the first time in their lives. Joensy flew as co-pilot this trip. It was likely he was being looked over by his Squadron leaders to see how he handled the pressure of combat. Coolness was valued, and because of tight formation flying, a steady hand at the wheel was important to the safety of all the planes.
In some respects, the flight mimicked all the rest of the flights they would take. After takeoff, the plane would form up on their group leader in small flights of 5 or 6 planes. The planes of the 450th would almost always rendezvous with planes from other units at some predetermined location within the first hour of flight. Visual contact with other units is important to keep the formation tight. From there a predetermined route would be followed. All the pilots had been briefed on the route, but the lead ships would determine where turns were made. Not just by rank and command, but by necessity. A B-24, fully loaded, would take several miles to make a 90 degree turn. If the flight commander took a new heading, the others would almost have to follow, or risk moving into other planes. In overcast conditions, without sophisticated equipment available today, these pilots had to show incredible self control to keep the plane on a steady course. When there was a plane on every side of his and he couldn’t see the nose of the plane or the outboard engines on the wings. The practiced discipline of tight formation flying assured more control of the bomb patterns at the target, and provided safety in numbers on the trip in and back out. It became even more difficult when the pilot had a view of the exploding flak in front of him. The temptation to break ranks to avoid the explosions must have been incredible. The coolness of Bomber pilots became legend. For good reason. Remember that the B-24 was like a truck. It looked like a truck, carried big loads like a truck and it flew like a truck:
"…it’s high lift airfoils lost efficiency above 24,000 feet, or when flown at low speeds that were often needed to maintain formation. The result was an unstable, mushing progress - one flyer likened it to .."a fat lady doing a ballet." - that made the B-24 notoriously hard to handle."
The altitude rarely was below 10,000 feet and usually they flew the majority of the mission at 20,000 to 24,000 feet. At 12,000 feet, most humans used to living at sea level begin to feel the effects of the thinning air. At 16,000 feet, all but he most athletic are having trouble breathing and even modest effort dramatically worsens the effects. Above 20,000 feet there is measurable loss of brain function that affects reaction time, sight, judgment, and reason. At altitudes above this, there is risk of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema,HAPE, and worse still, High Altitude Cerebral Edema, or HACE, without the use of oxygen for prolonged periods. These are life threatening conditions that require quick descent to treat, but were largely undocumented, and undiagnosed before the war. It was crucial to have oxygen flowing at higher densities for each crewman for the majority of the mission to prevent these problems and the crew knew it.
Unfortunately, higher altitude had its benefits; benefits which easily outweighed the risks. First, at altitude, there is time regain control of a damaged plane. At altitude, there was room to trade height for airspeed, on a glide, if power was lost or reduced. At altitude, they were a very small target for flak guns on the ground. At altitude, the engines run better. At altitude, the bombardier had more time to calculate his release.
Compounding the effects of the thinner air, the temperature at these altitudes is almost always well below zero, and the effects of hypothermia were a constant risk. Characterized by involuntary reduction in blood flow to extremities, the effects are easily reversed with exercise, but the cramped conditions on a bomber didn’t allow for much movement. The heavy flightsuits provided fairly good insulation, but frostbite, especially on extremities was common. Compounding the cold was the wind chill. These planes were full of openings that allowed the 230 mile per hour breeze to blow in. Gaps around the turrets, the waist windows and the bomb bay doors made the fuselage a wind tunnel. In the direct flow of a forty mile per hour wind, minus 20 degree ambient temperatures felt like minus 100 on the skin. Harry told stories of the crew urinating in cardboard boxes mid flight because the stream would freeze before it hit the box. The single saving factor in these flights was the duration. Since refueling was not an option behind enemy lines and in flight refueling had yet to be perfected, flights were limited to about seven hours. Returning to lower altitudes and warmer temperatures quickly reversed the damage to the crew, and a decent night’s sleep at sea level allowed them to do it all over again the next day.
They flew north northwest, up the eastern coast of Italy. Most of northern Italy was occupied by the German army, as was Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia to the north and east across the Adriatic. Two B-24s pulled away from the group and turned for home. Something had gone wrong, and their skipper’s had decided to return. Most missions would have a plane or two less reach the target than took off. Within an hour they were behind enemy lines. Two and a half hours into the flight the navigator identified the IP, or Initial Point there they executed a right turn to 103 degrees. With Maushart controlling the plane, they turned to the right at 103 degrees, and began to look for the target. First he would line up the town in the crosshairs of his bomb sight, then the refinery would be discernible. Finally, he would fix on the storage tanks of the complex, and guide the plane over them. He was frustrated with the cloud cover obscuring much of the target, and had to make his drop based on landmarks. This required referencing what he saw in the bomb sight to aerial photographs of the target. On command, the four doors of the bomb bay would roll upward along the side of the plane, separating along the center of the fuselage, exposing her belly. Somewhere between 9:30am and 9:45 am "Mouse" toggled his switch and 10, 500 lb. GP (General Purpose), bombs were released from the bomb bay and fell toward the refinery 20,000 below them. The crew had entered the war at a little town at the far northeast end of the Adriatic on the border Italy and Albania, now known as Slovenia.
While the crews had names of affection for their planes, the Army identified them more conventionally. It was practice for the BG to use the last three digits of the planes serial number as its identity within the Bomb Group.
While this had its limitations, several vets tell me it was common at the 450th. Bachelors Bed-lam would have been plane number 159. The "S-2 Narrative Report" for this mission gave unusually detailed descriptions of what happened next:
"In the target area the formation was attacked by 15-20 ME-109’s and FW-190’s which made several low level passes at 6 and 7 o’clock. They came in mostly in waves of three with the two outside fighters peeling off to the left and right and the third making the attack……
"A.Aircraft 159-Time 0946, altitude 21,000, over target, 6 ME-109’s attacked from 6 and 7 o’clock."
The narrative continues to describe the engagement of other planes in the group, and that after several minutes, the planes broke off when engaged by allied fighters. It seems likely that Harry was in the waist, at one of the guns, and for about fifteen minutes his formation of 38 planes were harassed by these German fighters. Whether he engaged the enemy on this mission is not known, but the attack was serious, and it appears his plane was shot at. He clearly would have seen the fighters coming in, clearly would have felt Blazer’s guns firing in the tail, and heard him alert the crew: if he was in the waist, it is likely he got off a few shots as the fighters passed under and behind the bomber. It would have been his first chance to fight - he was probably pure adrenaline as he sighted down the barrel of the machine gun. Joe Shellick recalls feeling a bit bad before the mission. He knew he would be dropping bombs and killing people, and the idea of those deaths was disturbing. He says he felt bad right up to the moment the first fighter started shooting at them. Once the gunfire started, Shellick never felt bad again.
They had flak from the IP to the target. It was heavy but seemed inaccurate. These exploding anti-aircraft shells would vex them the remainder of their tours. Usually fired from batteries of guns, they would explode at determined altitudes, spreading sharp metal fragments called shrapnel in all directions. A plane could be holed by shrapnel from an exploding shell fifty meters away. If a shell exploded within close proximity to the plane, it could destroy an engine, or blow off a wing. The concussion of the explosions were often severe enough to damage the planes, and the shock waves knocked them around the sky viciously. It only took a small fragment that would come through the skin of the plane and it could kill a man, or cause a fire in the wing tanks, or explode a bomb, or cut a control cable causing the plane to lose control. It was the biggest cause of lost planes, and the enemy had gotten better with a year of practice behind them and had developed better shells. Their guns were radar guided, and the use of chaff to confuse the radar signal was extensive. Bob Douglas tells a story of how he and Harry, on the first few missions, would deploy the chaff packets three bundles at a time, and count to 10 and deploy three more. By their fifth mission or so, Bob said he and Harry were throwing handfuls out as fast as they could. After about ten missions, he said they each were emptying a whole box at a time! There was no defense against flak but prayer. It was indiscriminate and violent; one minute there was a plane on your left, the next minute it was gone, and you would begin to look for parachutes. It was not uncommon to have a number of planes holed by flak on any given mission, and while it had to be a scary experience for the crew on this first flight, it was light compared to what they would have to face in the future.
As the planes rallied to right after the bomb run, they could see the target behind them. They could see a large column of smoke from the oil storage tanks. They were on fire. Several large explosions were seen. Several direct hits on the oiling pier next to the refinery were reported as well as a direct hit on a liner next to the pier.
As they continued south toward Manduria, they would take note of the ships in the harbors, their type, their number, their direction. They would pass along these observations at a de-briefing meeting when they returned. The rush of adrenaline would be subsiding as the crew neared the base. They were likely giddy with the intensity of combat for a while, but would settle back for the two and half hours it took to get home. Harry probably manned the radio and listened to reports from flight leaders, then found himself again alone with his thoughts. They landed in Manduria just before noon. Their first day of combat and their first mission was over. Only 49 more to go.
It was common for the returning flyers to gather for coffee and donuts when they got back. They would relive the events of the mission, swap stories, compare notes. They watched for planes not back yet, they learned who had been injured, they strategized the next mission. Mouse remembers the courage they all showed:
"Spirits were always high with constant joking to ally the fear of what could happen - but at no time did any of the crew feign sickness or fear of flying to be removed from any flight."
Often, returning pilots would mix with departing crews who were headed to the same target and give impromtu briefings. Each mission was a learning experience, and they learned all they could. The cumulative knowledge from many missions over the same target gave them increasingly better results. As their results got better, Command called on them more often.
June 11, 1944
Their second mission was the next day. Thirty eight planes from the 450th, many from the 723rd SQ, left between 5:48 and 6:20 am for Constanta, Rumania. The target was an oil storage facility. Across the Adriatic and attack from 103 degrees from the IP, Medgidia. They would land a few minutes after 1:00pm, and no planes were lost despite six planes holed from the very accurate flak over the target. It was a routine mission; a "milk run".
June 13, 1944
With two missions behind them, they had a day off. God knows, Harry always loved a nap, and I bet he spent a piece of that day horizontal. There were no missions scheduled for the 12th and much of the base was recovering from a celebration that was widely attended the previous evening. The base diary reports a lot of late sleepers that day. A similar party was hosted that night by the 722nd Sq. At 5:55 am the next morning, the first of forty-one B-24s took off for Munich, Germany and the Allach Motor works. Eight aircraft returned early and thirty three continued on to meet up with planes from the 47th Wing. From 3,000 feet, the 450th was the lead group when met up with the other units at San Pancrazio. They again flew the length of the Adriatic but turned more north towards Germany.
The returning aircraft did not have an easy trip. An hour from the field at Manduria, aircraft #331 and #622 were engaged by 10 ME-109s. They were positioned to pick up the stragglers from the bomb groups in Southern Italy. 450th pilots report other early returning aircraft from other Groups being attacked. The fighters made five or six passes before turning away towards other B-24s. Early returns were never fun. You have an obvious malfunction in some critical system to start with. Then, there is that several tons of high explosives that need to be landed or salvoed before landing. Next, you loose the safety in numbers advantage of staying with the group. And finally, you didn’t get credit for the mission!
As they climbed to bombing altitude, the course to the IP at Illmunster was blocked by an approaching formation, setting up their own bomb run. The lead navigator ordered a turn short of the IP and replotted a new course to the target. There must have been too little room to turn 63 B-24s toward the motor foundry at Allach, so they headed for Munich, a more gentle turn to the east of Allach. At 10:26 am, the first attack unit flew along the western edge of the city through intense flak. Some bursts of the anti-aircraft shells were a new white color the crews had not seen before, and the intensity of the shelling was like a barrage. For the last fifteen minutes of their approach and bomb run, the flak was intense and accurate. Some crews noticed more railcars with anti-aircraft guns, and the color of the flak and smoke over the target made it appear that barrages were being employed. In fifteen minutes, 22 airplanes were holed by flak, and two were shot down over the target. No parachutes were seen. The bombardier picked visual targets of opportunity, and salvoed his bombs. The lightened plane leapt to a new heading southwest of the city approaching two large lakes as reference. The second attack unit continued straight beyond the first unit for 2 minutes, then turned onto their attack heading, which brought them over the primary target. There probably wasn’t time to adequately time the release due to the shortened course and their bombs fell Northeast of the target.
By 10:37 am, they were headed home on a course of 180 degrees. They had rallied just southeast of the city and began the trip south at top speed. Over the next hour, they witnessed a B-24 ditching in the Adriatic 18,000 feet below them, saw four parachutes emerge from a second B-24 with the #3 engine on fire, and saw a third spiral down out of control towards the water. This mission was likely the first exposure to heavy flak for Harry and Bachelors Bed-Lam. Eighty percent of the planes were damaged, and it seems probable that they would have experienced some damage. It must have been frightening to be at your position, searching the sky for fighters, with black and orange explosions knocking you physically around the plane as it bounced from one shock wave to the next. From the waist gun deck, Bob Douglas and Harry would have been watching as other planes were wobbling in their flight path from the mixed effects of a slow bombing speed and flak explosions. The problem was they had to lie passive in the midst of the fury, holding their course, watching for the enemy, praying that a flak shell didn’t explode right outside the plane, or worse, inside the plane, while the bombardier readied his release.
Flak is the perfect allegory for the madness of war: it occurred without warning, at random places, in random patterns, with deadly consequence. It was the "Jesus" factor: "Only Jesus knew who would be killed by flak." I imagine the enlisted crew, with flak vests and oxygen masks, hunched over their weapons, watching the bursts around them, wincing as they felt the blasts, wondering if the next one would kill you. In the end, the Group lost three planes, one had to crash land at a field in friendly territory further north, and one was abandoned over the water. Fourty one aircrew killed or lost, four injured, two seriously, and twenty two aircraft damaged.
The crew had three mission emblems painted on the fuselage at the end of their fourth day of operation. Over the next 10 days, they flew two missions. The group supported several other missions over this period, but then 723rd seemed not be providing much help. Periods of inactivity like this will punctuate the next six months for the crews. A combination of factors probably led to this. Operational orders for missions were almost always a decision based on intelligence reports as well as progress reports from all corners of the Theater of Operation. Missions were coordinated with specific objectives, but timed to troop movements, weather, other offensive moves and strategic choices about which assets to employ. Finally, it can sometimes be inferred that a given Squadron had a difficult time getting many planes operational due to repair problems from particularly tough missions. It was not long before the crews are being split up more, with certain crew being requested as replacements by flight officers and filling the needs of the squadron in assembling complete crews. The Group had almost 100 missions since activation, and a steady stream of men were rotating out once their record showed fifty missions. The similar stream of replacements that Harry and Bachelors Bed-Lam were a part of had to be mixed into the existing crews to make up attack groups and the readiness of Squadrons seems to fluctuate with the many unpredictable variables that war imposed. As the mission diaries of several of Harry’s crewmates begin to diverge late in June as those variables began to take their toll. It is increasingly difficult to feel confident that Harry was on any given mission after the middle of July, but again, if his crew was flying, even on different planes in the same mission, it seems likely Harry would have been on a plane that day too. Both Maushart and Hubbard assumed "Squadron Bombardier" and "Squadron Navigator" positions before they were discharged, and flew for other pilots. Harry may have been on those missions, in other planes; we will never know for sure.
Similarly, the fate of B-24 number 159 in uncertain. Joe Shellick recalls another crew being shot down in her sometime after their sixth or seventh mission. Cal Hubbard’s memory is different. He remembered a number of missions on Bachelors Bedlam until she got shot up late in the summer. He recalls the crew staying mostly together, but flying other planes. The "Paoli Local", named for the train in Philadelphia was one Joe Shellick remembers.
June 24, 1944
Thirty six of the thirty nine B-24s that left Manduria by 6:00am that morning would make the target area and drop their bombs. Twenty nine would make it back, seven would not. It was officially Mission #90. The target was the Romana/Americana Oil Refinery at Ploesti, Rumania. Plane number 159 was assigned to the second attack unit.
At 7:00am and 12,000 feet, the 450th met up with the 376th. They rendezvoused with four other groups along a line from San Pancrazio to San Vito D’ Normanni, and over two hundred planes made their way east across the Adriatic, over the Yugoslav Mountains, down to the Danube valley, then east and north toward Bucharest, Sofia and finally, Ploesti. The 450th had been to Ploesti 16 times, and had won a Distinguished Unit Citation for action there four months earlier. They had lost eighty eight planes and nine hundred men there in less than six months. Every crewman knew Ploesti was as bad as it got. Munich and Vienna were always bad, but Ploesti was the worst. Hitler knew that without oil fuel and lubricants, his war machine was powerless, and defenses at Ploesti were the best in the entire Baltic area. Several hundred fixed and mobile antiaircraft guns, could make the sky dark with flak. The German effort at screening the targets with smoke had become effective too. Thousands of oil and tire filled drums would be set afire downwind of the refineries and the resultant cloud of thick smoke made referencing the targets difficult, if not impossible. The Bombardiers would practice runs at the base using aerial photographs held beneath bombsights to familiarize themselves with the "look" of the target. Extensive use was made of referencing by landmarks. The intent was localized carpet bombing, destroying entire areas of refining equipment. The raids were even timed round the clock to assure they couldn’t launch clean up efforts. Making the mission even more harrowing were the fighter defenses. The Luftwaffe had newly rejuvenated themselves and were taking a more aggressive posture in the region since the Allies had made Ploesti a priority several months earlier.
The enemy had long ago figured out where the Allied attacks were coming from and had tuned their defenses for the probably paths to the target. With enough advance warning, the fighters would time their approach to the intruding B-24s and meet them before the target area; even before the IP in many cases, and harass them as they flew the slow steady pace of a bomb run. This left the flight crew to rely on the enlisted gunners to defend the plane as they steadied the course and calculated the bomb run.
The 449th Bomb Group, near the front of the gaggle of bombers, for some reason, made a 360 degree turn which had the effect of putting the two attack groups four or five minutes apart. Next, a turn, near a checkpoint, was executed but put the formation several degree off course for the bomb run. The result was a bomb pattern to the right of the target, ½ mile off. The price for these missed attacks was substantial. Forty miles from the target, the fighters moved in:
"About ten minutes before the target, the formation was attacked by about fifty enemy fighters who continued the assault for twenty minutes. The force consisted of 30-35 ME-109s, 10-15 FW-190s, 2 JU-88s and 3 ME-110s. The ME-109s had yellow noses and appeared to be operated by skilled and resourceful pilots. The attacks were coordinated and for the most part made by units of threes and fours from the 12 o’clock level. After flying through the formation, they would reform and launch another attack on the same pattern. Sporadic passes were also made from other angles with 5-7 aircraft remaining above the formation, presumably to pounce on B-24s split off from the formation, or straggling. The fire consisted of 20mm cannon fire and rockets."
Every aircraft in the mission reported attacks from fighters. One account suggested there were 150 fighters, or more. Bob Douglas’ diary notes, "…was really rough, did a lot of praying." A crewman on another plane remarked that the enemy pilots were quite brave, coming straight in through the defensive .50 caliber gunfire of the formation and their own flak, sometimes only breaking off seventy five feet from their targeted plane. Some planes ran out of ammunition. The formation claimed 9 victories against the fighters with another 4 "likely" shot down. In the "S-2 Narratives" there was this one report among twenty six others:
"Plane #159ME-109s and FW-190s made nose attacks from all angles."
Bachelors Bed-Lam was in the thick of it. Wally Berringer, in his nose turret, had the first line of defense. He would have seen the attacking fighters first, calling out the attack heading to the crew. As the fighters approached, George Adriano in the ball turret below the belly of the plane, and then Bob and Harry in the waist, would all get passing shots as the fighters passed around the bomber. The Germans used the frontal attack effectively. With closing speeds of almost 500 miles per hour, the Germans were a difficult target coming head-on. The passing shots from the waist were a somewhat more effective angle of shooting, and had a larger target as the fighter banked it’s wings for the regrouping rally turn. If Bob Douglas’ recollection is correct, Harry stood just two feet away from him firing at the dozens of attacking aircraft as they buzzed around the plane. As a child I remember asking Harry if he had shot down any enemy planes. His answer was, "I think so - I got a couple of them pretty good." - then he would change the subject. For twenty minutes, and during all of the bomb run, they were attacked. Four B-24’s were blown apart in the sky by the fighters; no parachutes were seen. Two more bombers were missing. Sixty crewmen killed or missing. Five crew were seriously wounded by fighter gunfire. Twelve aircraft were damaged by fighters, fifteen more by flak. By one in the afternoon, twenty nine B-24s had landed in Manduria. Twenty six had damage to repair before they could fly again.
The mission had been the worst in weeks. It counted as two missions for the returning crews on their "Fifty Mission Lists", by order of the Base Commander. Maushart and Douglas had seven missions, in two weeks. Harry probably did too. Two days later, they all had another double mission: The Heninkel Aircraft factories at Vienna, Austria.
June 26, 1944
The 450th led this mission with four other wings in support. Weather was clear and no real enemy fighter resistance was in evidence. Maushart’s diary seems to indicate that the leader had to turn back early, and his plane had to assume leadership. He recalled the success of the mission, "…saw bombs penetrate hanger roof of ME109 assembly plant." The mission narrative reports:
"The first bursts were observed on the aiming point. Subsequent bursts were in very heavy concentration over the entire target area. Photo interpretation reveals many bomb strikes across entire assembly plant, direct hits on hangers south of main assembly plant. Bomb concentration very heavy, obscuring count of individual hits. Target area was completely destroyed."
The relatively new practice of "Box" bombing, pioneered by the 450th was increasing the accuracy of their bombing.
Harry could have been on this lead ship. Although the Flight Leaders are a matter of record, if one leader returned, his replacement is not recorded as a practice. If Maushart was flying the lead ship, Douglas was likely with him. If Douglas was there, Harry was too. Both got credit for the mission. Double credit in fact. It was likely due to the remarkable accuracy of their bombing. There was virtually no fighter resistance, but the flak was the worst reported in some time. A "…solid wall (of flak) was reported at 22,000 to 23,000 feet." Douglas notes, "…the sky looked like a black curtain was in front of us." The flak barrage lasted on five minutes over the immediate target area, but resulted in two B-24s shot down from the group, and three others from other wings were reported shot down as well.
The next month saw a series of missions over a variety of targets throughout Southeastern Europe, with out terribly serious casualties. The Group was losing an average of one plane each mission, but over a ten mission stretch, the group lost no planes. A number of the mission comments in the various diaries label several of these missions, "Milk Runs". On July 8, the Group flew its one hundredth mission. By the fifteenth, a Saturday, the base had prepared for a party. The next two days were non-operational days with out scheduled missions. "Multo Buono", the base newspaper, reported that the 722nd and 720th Squadrons were both hosting large parties to celebrate the 100th mission, as well as the appointment of Lt. Col. Robert R. Gideon, as the new Base Commander. While the base prepared to party, 28 B-24s returned from Ploesti where the lead B-24 was seen to take a direct hit. The wing folded, and the plane spiraled down in flames. No chutes were seen. Half of the returning planes had flak damage. Photos showed they missed the target.
The twentieth of July saw a mission to Fredickshaven, Germany. Airplane factories were the target. This was deep inside Germany and the defenses could be expected to be good. Maushart and Douglas recorded their 20th and 21st missions on this trip, and plane number 159 had a tough day. Twenty four B-24s of the 450th dropped 60 tons of bombs on the target with total accuracy. The target was destroyed, but the flak was again, heavy, intense and quite accurate. Only one plane was lost to flak, but a second crashed short of the base. A third, Plane 159, were listed as Missing In Action, because it didn’t return on time. Bob Douglas recalls in his diary:
"They shot the hell out of our plane, over 50 flak holes, don’t know how we made it back, bomb bay, waist, nose turret, tail shot up bad. We lost #3 engine, hydraulic system, had to hand crank down landing gear, no brakes, had to toss parachutes as brakes, gee our pilot made a great landing."
That landing was at a deserted, emergency strip near the front lines in northern Italy. The only thing there was a few drums of gasoline. It was not until they landed that they knew the reason for the engine going out: it had an unexploded 88mm anti-aircraft shell lodged inside of it. Had it gone off when it hit, or anytime on the flight home, it would have blown the wing off. Both Hubbard and Shellick remember more like 119 holes in the plane. There were sections of wing, and tail missing, but the controls worked.
They knew they were hit by the sound and feel of the plane as it shudders under the impact. The flight crew is immediately busy with the obvious problem: and engine out. They would have to feather the prop and kill the ignition. Then add power to the engine remaining on that side and trimming power from the opposite side - all while trying to maintain formation and stable flight. The crew was assessing the damage to the fuel system, hydraulics and the turrets. A larger piece of shrapnel may have taken out the hydraulics where much of it converges behind the flight deck, near Harry’s radios. It sounds like a shell exploded near the plane with many pieces penetrating the skin in various places. We know Harry had a slight wound near is knee. It may have happened on this flight. Without doubt, the intercom was burning up as each man assessed the situation. Any injuries were minor, but the plane was hurt. Control inputs were probably exaggerated by the loss of power and the decreased efficiency that holes in the wings caused, and the increased drag caused by ragged, exposed sheet metal. Fuel was leaking in several places. Hand cranking the landing gear down was an a difficult job. Timing the process was important since the increased drag with the wheels down made the plane even more difficult to control, so you couldn’t start too soon. Each wheel comes down independently, so it is a three man job. As the plane looses stability while the wheels are midway down, it can’t climb and can’t yet land, so speed becomes important. Getting rid of bombs sometimes meant the Armorer, (Bob Douglas) had to go into the bomb bay with a five minute oxygen bottle and a screwdriver to release the bombs manually - while balancing on a 10" gangway with 18,000 feet of air beneath him through the open doors of the bomb bay.
Joens made a perfect landing. They looked over the damage and had a tough decision to make. Should they walk back, or try to fuel the plane up and fly back. Shellick remembers they decided to try to fly - even though they could get court marshaled for taking off with three engines - it was a dangerous stunt to try. Making it more dangerous was the fact they had used several parachutes to slow the plane on the landing. It had to work. They took on all the fuel they could, emptied the plane of as much extra weight as possible and Joensy took off without a hitch and flew the damaged plane home. Joe remembers that when they landed, no one questioned where they had been - so they all went to bed. Nobody ever questioned them about it.
The mission wasn’t that bad, Bachelors Bed-lam was just unlucky. The wrong place at the wrong time. The truth was they were hit bad and were lucky to make it back. It was almost two weeks before they flew again. I feel quite sure that by this time, the remaining crew were flying a different plane, and that plane 159 was probably crumpled in some Yugoslav field, stripped of anything of value. The life expectancy of a B-24 for the 450th seems to be about three months.
Late July and early August saw a the Group flying a odd mix of missions without significant resistance. A railroad bridge at Ora, Italy; a airfield at Budapest; several "no credit" missions where they returned due to bad weather; one mission when the oxygen system went down and they had to return. A great deal of time was spent practicing formation flying at night. A tricky thing to pull off, they would form up in seven plane formations and maintain them in the dead of night. The reason was not made known for a while. Then, in the middle of August, their target list took a radical change.
The new targets were in Southern France. The 450th assisted with pinpoint bombing of gun installations and submarine pens at Toulon in Southern France. The accuracy of their bombing was getting noticeably better. They heavily damaged the pens at Toulon and scored a 97% with virtually all of their hits within the target. In fact, the 450th led the entire 15th Air Force in bombing accuracy for the month, landing 59.4% of bombs dropped within a 1000 yard circle of their target. This was the best record in Air Force. On August 13th they scored 94 percent when attacking gun emplacements in France. They had pioneered a new technique of dropping bombs in "boxes" rather than large groups and improved their overall accuracy dramatically. The practice became standard for the 15th Air Force, and the innovative 450th pilots who devised the strategy were decorated. The targets were largely gun emplacements on the beaches of Southern France, and the devastation to the targets was total. Mouse and Douglas had several missions over these targets, and Harry was there, too. Mouse recalls in his diary:
"…enroute we crossed directly over St. Peters in Rome. We were impressed with the architectural beauty of the Vatican. The lay out from 15,000 feet looked like a giant keyhole."
Harry was raised a catholic, and the sight Douglas described must have moved him, too. We have a picture that Bob Douglas sent us showing Harry at Trevi Fountain in Rome taken while
on a R&R trip, and pencil sketches he did of some buildings. What these men did not know was that the success of their mission very likely saved a lot of Allied lives.
Two days later they figured out why they had been in France.
"…pre-invasion bombing of beaches, no flak, ME-109s and FW-190s all over sky. It was really some sight: B-24, B-25, B-26, B-17 and all our fighters, P-38, P-51, Navy F-4U, F-4F, British Spitfires. Below we could see our Navy, Battleships, Destroyers, Troopships and landing craft moving on to the beaches."
Joe Shellick recalls that they had to leave Manduria at 3:00am in order to hit the beaches before 7:30 am, when the landing was scheduled to occur. They dropped their bombs at 7:28am. He remembers it was a load of small 100 lb. Bombs designed to clear the beach of defensive obstacles. As tough as that day was for the ground troops, it would have been a lot worse if the gun emplacements at Toulon were still in operation, or the submarine pens destroyed a week earlier, or those beaches not cleared.
On August 22nd , the Group was involved in mission #125 at the underground oil storage facility at Lobau, Austria. Flak was heavy at the target and twenty of twenty-two planes received damage. There was an encounter with 15 to 20 Me-109s and the new ME-210. The co-pilot of one plane was killed by flak and the pilot was injured. Bob Douglas recalls that the Germans, "…scared the hell out of me." It was another double mission.
September - October, 1944
A variety of missions were flown through September at targets in southern Europe. They remained focused on the oil and supply facilities that remained productive. Several bridges and marshaling yards were targeted as well. The missions were generally milk runs and little in the way of casualties were reported. Early in October, that changed.
On October 7th, The Winterhafen Oil Depot in Vienna was the target. It was likely Harry was not on this mission, but there remains doubt. "Mouse" clearly was there; he is listed in the "S-2 Narrative" as Bombardier for one of the flight leaders. Bob Douglas’ diary mentions the mission as one he didn’t fly;
"October 7, we were to fly today but C.O. took our pilot with his crew and were shot down over Vienna, Austria. I said a lot of prayers that night."
It clearly wasn’t Maushart’s plane that was shot down. His notes indicated they were damaged by flak, and when the flight engineer couldn’t transfer fuel because the pump was shot up, he had the pilot fly with one wing low to allow gravity to transfer the fuel from the wing to the center tanks. The flak was intense and accurate. It was thick for seventy miles to the target. Twenty seven of the forty-three bombers over the target were damaged. Two planes were lost, two crash landed at friendly fields, two ditched in the Adriatic near the island of Vis, and thirteen additional air crew were injured by flak. Joens was not the pilot Douglas refers to, and if Douglas didn’t make this mission, then Harry probably didn’t either. At least he wasn’t on the plane that Douglas mentions. He could, however, have been with Maushart, or with one of the ditched planes; Craig and I both remember clearly his story.
They were shot up and lost a lot of altitude with two engines out. They lightened the plane buy throwing everything out the windows, and gradually brought her down to the water. They landed tail first, and skidded to a stop, and got out in the liferaft that was stored under a hatch in the roof of the plane while it floated on it’s wings. They had a long paddle to shore and spent a number of nights working their way down the Adriatic’s shoreline to reach friendly territory. Clearly this could have been the mission Harry described, but it could have been another as well. Joens wasn’t the pilot Douglas remembers either; his name appears in other narrative entries and I know he died a number of years latter in California.
The crew was clearly split up now, and although Maushart and Douglas each have thirty seven missions, their mission diaries begin to diverge. It was about this time Maushart appears to have been assigned Squadron Bombardier.
They will fly further missions together, but on different planes in some cases. It becomes increasingly difficult to feel confident about Harry’s whereabouts. Douglas remembers flying a lot of missions with Harry, but we just can’t document it. If those foot lockers with the 450th’s operational records ever shows up, maybe we will find out. None the less, the war went on, and missions kept coming. Bob Douglas’ diary:
"Oct. 17 ST. Valentine Tank Works, Styar, Austria. Heavy flak, lost number 2 engine over target, low on gas, just made Ancona on the west coast of Italy, ran out of gas on runway. It was a good thing we threw everything we could out the windows. When we got out of the plane, I kissed the ground."
The "S-2" for this mission:
"Over the target, intense, heavy, accurate heavy flak was experienced. Several ships were holed prior to bombs away, and the bursts continued to be fairly accurate until the units cleared the outer defenses 3 minutes after a left rally. Nine ships were holed with major damage to two. Three crewmen were injured, one serious. One plane MIA is believed to have been lost to flak over target. A ship was seen to go down with left wing buckled and an engine burning. Intense, accurate, heavy flak was also experienced over Bratislava due to failure to swing wide of area because of the undercast….At 1225 hours over the target at 24,000 feet, two men were seen to bail out of a B-24 aircraft. At 1235 hours over the target, three planes were seen to go down. One exploded in mid-air and broke in half. Two others were observed to go down flaming….Twelve men missing in action. Two were navigator and nose gunner on an aircraft damaged over target. They bailed out when danger of fire in gas filled nose threatened."
The missions were beginning to pile up for the crew. By November 12th Douglas had 42, Maushart just under 40. I must assume Harry was accumulating a good number as well. They had to be thinking of getting home soon. The missions remained a mixed bag of oil installations, bridges, railways and marshaling yards. The accounts of the missions show decreased resistance as time wore on. Flak was still present, and there was a lot of minor damage, but the resources of the Germans were beginning to wane, and the attacks from fighters came less often. More likely, they would see a few planes high and behind the formation, waiting to attack any stragglers from the formation. There were still periodic moments of terror. Bob Douglas’ diary:
"Nov. 12th, Ora, The Brenner Pass. Heavy, intense, and very accurate flak, they really scared the life out of me. It was the coldest day of the year, 45 deg. below. My oxygen mask froze up and I nearly passed out. Our escort P-38s really looked beautiful, their vapor trails mixing with ours."
Several weeks later, Bob Douglas flew his last mission; number 46. He was home before Christmas that year, because he was shot down.
His diary lists the date of the mission as November 29th, but the mission narratives do not show a mission that day. His memory was quite clear on the details though:
"Nov. 29, Vienna, Austria. Lost #1 engine on bomb run and couldn’t feather it. Pilot gave orders to bail out but held up as we were holding altitude and we would try to make it over the Alps mountains. He finally got number 1 feathered but now we were losing altitude and throwing everything out of the plane we could. Pilot gave orders if anybody wanted to jump, they could, but he wanted to see if he could find a valley for a belly landing. We all stayed with him. He did a great job and made a crash landing in Yugoslavia were a partisan band picked us up and got us to the coast (about 30 young boys and girls, 17 and 18 years old with one officer). It was something to see with hand grenade belts over their shoulders and machine guns. I gave a girl my .45 pistol, she gave me her red "Tito" band. They put us on a fishing boat and got us to the island of Vis and radioed the British who sent a plane to pick us up and return us to Italy. Thank God we all made it back to our base. That was my last mission."
Both Douglas and Shellick were home for Christmas. "Mouse" flew several more missions early in1945, then was followed home by Hubbard and Joens. Harry and the remainder of the crew remain a mystery. Most certainly they were wrapping up their fiftieth missions and certainly straggled home as their duties became complete. The 450th continued to be major contributors to the final victories in Europe. Early 1945 saw attacks on communication and command targets in Southeastern Europe. Then an increasing number of marshaling yards and airfields, bridges and munitions stores. In April, they supported the invasion of the Po Valley in support of the Eighth Army near Bologna, bombing enemy strongpoints and gun positions. They destroyed the Legnago railroad bridge in Northern Italy two days latter with 100% bombing accuracy. April 26th was their last mission. They packed up the base and were home by June.
It appears that the entire crew got home alive, but not all of the crew can be accounted for. They would have blended back in to their lives, built their futures, families and fortunes. They scattered back to where they came from and slowly forgot those parts of the story that haunted them; remembered the parts that enriched them. In the end it was only about six months. The action they saw in the second half of 1944 over Europe was compressed into a brief piece of time that flew by in half a year half a century ago. They made history - weren’t just witnesses to it, and who they came to be and what they came to hold true was formed in part by the time they spent together. It was the experience of a lifetime.
Flying missions against diverse targets across a wide swath of the war gave these airmen a unique view of it. They experienced missions within a thousand mile arc of Southern Italy, and attacked targets from the oilfields of Ploesti, to the depots of Vienna, from the beaches of Southern France to the airplane factories in the heart of Germany. They experienced a broad spectrum of the war in Europe during the time of our final victory. They slowed the flow of gasoline and oil. They limited the production of enemy aircraft. They destroyed weapons trained on their attacking brothers in arms. They slowed the enemy by destroying bridges and train facilities. They had an immediate and significant impact on the course of the war that could only be measured with the perspective of history. Their contribution was real and measurable; something most soldiers never enjoy. I get the sense the survivors don’t appreciate, to this day, the scope and the size of the contribution they made to the war.
The belief that "right" would overcome "might" these vets experienced, nurtured with the tests of battle, led them to a sense of what was moral, what was right, that sustained them throughout their lives. Right and wrong was clear to this generation. The value of being right was virture and honor. They understood this clearly and the ethic of hard work, taking risks, beleif in God and America was etched in their souls by the war. Their optomistic view of the future, their belief in building a better life for their children, and themselves, was the only logical response to the horror of despotism. They were destined to embrace these values as the intesity of war up close focused their young eyes and hearts on what was really important. They had secured the future, now they made the future happen. Mature and confident beyond their years, they were the perfect models of virtuous warriors, returned victorious, to become husbands and fathers to a new generation.