As members of the original compliment t of the 720th
ground and flight crews knew each other well. Later as replacement crews
arrived, those of us who remained really didn't have the opportunity to know
them. Thus when we arrived at Air Force Base #28, a base numbered I suppose to
prevent the Germans from knowing our location, or Lake Manduria as we were to
fondly call it, we were to find that Nick and his crew had crashed into the
Atlas Mountains in North Africa as they approached Marrakech.
In late December, 1943, 62 planes of the 450th
left Alamogordo and headed we knew not where. But after leaving the USA we were
permitted to open our secret destination instructions – it was Sunny Italy.
Of the 62 planes two were lost – Nick's and another in which
a fighter landed on top of it on its approach to the field in Marrakech but
miraculously none were killed or even injured but the plane was lost. Thus of
the expensive B-24's only 60 made it to enter into combat.
I had known Nick well and his particular concern was the
threat of malaria, not the enemy or crashing into a mountain. He was of
Bulgarian descent, and proud of it, and was eager to drive the Germans from the
land of his ancestors. His death was a shock to all of us. 1
The reason for his crash is not part of the official
records. But I suspect I can offer the proper explanation from our experience
as our crew, as did Nick, flew over the Altas Mountains to Marrakech.
Marrakech lies in a plain about 15 miles north of the highest
peaks of the Atlas Mountains. To the southwest is a pass allowing one to
approach at an altitude not requiring the need to climb over the mountains at
their highest point and then immediately descending. Despite the ability of our
navigator, we missed the pass and found ourselves in a cul-de-sac formed by
high peaks. Fortunately the weather was clear and we were able to circle in
tight turns and with full power, climb, with mountains on all sides of us,
often very close, to an altitude of 20,000 feet or so and clear the peaks. It
was the next day with cloudy conditions that Nick's plane crashed. I feel
certain he was attempting to do what we had accomplished successfully, although
with considerable concern on my part, in clear weather. Interestingly, but unrelated
to the tragedy of Nick's death, was more excitement in store for us. As we were
about to make our landing at Marrakech, a fighter plane made a sharp turn in
the air in front of us and touched down on the runway a few hundred yards in
front of us. We should have gone around again but Captain Wicks was furious at
this lack of flying discipline, although perhaps the offending fighter had not
seen us, and continued our approach. By then, if not before, the fighter pilot
did see us, a giant on his tail, and spun his plane off the runway, apparently
The control at the field must have been lacking. The next
day Lieutenant Donald L. Wagner of our Squadron had the surprise of a Frenchman
landing his fighter on top of his B-24 as Wagner made his landing. Both planes
were severely damaged, but miraculously there were no injuries.
Soloman E. Lubin, tail gunner, survived the crash suffering only a broken jaw;
he was hospitalized in Tunis. As I recall the story, and this could refer to
another crash, Lubin was in his tail turret which somehow broke loose, and in
it he was spared. It would be interesting if Lubin, after these many years,
could give an accurate version of the crash.