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1st Lt. Louis W. Lessard
720th Squadron


Picture courtesy of William C. Dudley, 720th Squadron







Lessard and John C. Ebert



Lessard and Julius Nathanson

      Louis' story, taken from video and live interviews throughout the years.

      Louis, age 22 in 1943, served in the Army Air Corps—720th Squadron, 450th Bomb Group (H), 47th Wing, 15th Air Force, U.S. Army. He flew many hazardous missions from early April to late May, 1944, before he was grounded.  He then spent the rest of the war (June 1944 - August 1945) in the 450th Signal Corps.  He was promoted to 2nd Lt. and was in charge of 100 men.

      The following is an account of Louis' war adventures and the amazing tale of how he did not let a chronic health condition keep him from serving his country.

      All men between certain ages (probably 18 and 45) were required to sign up for the draft.  Depending on circumstances, the men were given classifications such as 1A, 2A, and so forth, including 4F, which was for people who would not be taken into the military.

      Like most of the young men at the time, I wanted to go into one of the branches of the service. But I knew that if I had my service physical when I was suffering from hay fever and asthma, or if I told them I had these problems, I would be classified 4F.  I would have been ashamed to spend the war out of the service.

Childhood Health Problems

      When I was six years old, I had pneumonia in mid-August.  The following year about the same time I started wheezing, with itching eyes, runny nose and breathing difficulties.

      My mother thought I had pneumonia again because of my breathing problems, but the doctor explained that I had hay fever and asthma.  It was so bad that I generally couldn't start school until late October or November. 

Army Air Corps (The Air Force)

      I accidentally ended up in the Army Air Corps.  I had signed up for the draft but had not received notice to report.

      Back then there was no separate command called the Air Force.  There was an Army Air Force that was a command under the Army.  There was also a Navy Air Force and I believe a Marine Air Force, both under the Navy command, which still exists today.  But at some point after WWII, they separated the Air Force out of the Army and made it a separate service.

      I was in the Army Air Corps but if someone would have seen me in uniform and had come up and asked what branch of the service I was in, I would have replied, "I'm in the Air Force."

      Ed Hoover, a friend, had one semester to finish college at Notre Dame.  He was home for the summer and one Saturday morning, July 29, 1942, he called me to see if I wanted to ride along with him to Detroit to the Federal Building.  I said I would. 

      He told me that he was going to take a test to become an aviation cadet.  After you were accepted, there was a six-month wait, so he would be able to finish college then go into the service. 

      Aviation cadet was the rank for those in training to be flying officers—pilots, bombardiers or navigators.

      We got there and walked up to the window so Ed could sign up to take the test.  The fella asked Ed, "Are you an American citizen?"  Ed said, "No, I'm Canadian, but I have my first papers out here." 

      The fella told Ed that he could not get in the Army Air Force Cadet Program since he wasn't an American citizen. 

      Ed told me, "I'm going to go over to Windsor to see about getting in the same program in Canada." 

      I said, "Well, maybe I can take the test as long as I'm here."  I did take it, and passed.

      I was told to come back on Tuesday morning with three letters of recommendation.  I got one from the Mayor of Pontiac, Mr. Potts, who was our insurance man; Ed Hoover's dad, who was the vice president and general manager of Oldberg Manufacturing Company; and one from my foreman at work, Homer Ward.  I also had to take my birth certificate.

      I returned on Tuesday morning and was sworn in, and was told I could go home until they called me, or I could go into the Air Force as a private and they would call me up from there into the cadets.  This was in early August, 1942.

San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center

      Six months later, in February 1943, I was ordered to report to SAACC—San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center, where I went through more testing for classification—to see if I qualified for the cadet training program, and I did.

      Then I had to fill out some forms and on one form you were to check what you really wanted to try out for—pilot, navigator, or bombardier.  Since I had already checked and found out that bombardier was the shortest course of the three, and I wanted to get through before hay fever season, I selected bombardier.  That way, if I graduated and got symptoms, at least I would be an officer in the Air Force.

      I was called in by an officer and told that I qualified equally for pilot and bombardier.  So, if I wanted to, I could train to be a pilot.  I said, "No, bombardier is fine."

      The officer replied, "That's great, we need people like you who really are dedicated to being a bombardier."

Bombardier Training

      I attended preflight school at Ellington Field near Houston, Texas then went to gunnery school at Laredo, Texas, on the Mexican border.  Finally, I attended bombardier school at Big Springs, Texas, where those of us who survived the training and were able to meet the requirements of operating the bombsight properly, graduated as Air Force officers and received our "Wings."

Preflight School

      As we lined up in formation for the first time at preflight school, we were told by the officer in charge, "Look at the person on your right and the one on your left.  By the time you complete your training, they will not be in the group."

      As it turned out he was right, about two thirds of the fellows "washed out" for one reason or another as we went through the process.

      In "Primary," we learned to drill, but mainly went to several classes Monday through Friday.  Four or five of the classes, such as mathematics, theory of flying, and so forth, were designated "major" requirements.   

      On Fridays we were given an exam in each of the major classes.  If you failed any one of the exams, you could go back on Saturday for a brief refresher and then take a similar exam.  If you failed that, on Sunday you packed up and were shipped out as a private in the Air Force at some location.

      During this time, I began to get a better appreciation for the benefits of going to college.  Many evenings several of the other fellows and I got together and went over the material we had covered in class that day, while the college fellows were playing basketball, or engaged in some other form of recreation. 

      As we studied together, we also got to know each other better and formed some friendships that carried on throughout the balance of our training. 

      Since they assigned our bunks on an alphabetical basis, I had a bunk near Lou Leon, a former Marine.  Other bunkmates at subsequent schools were named Leonard, Levine, Levin, LaVoot, and so forth.

      It was sad to see some of the guys packing up and leaving each week.  Probably as a result of our evening study sessions, and from studying on our own of course, I did rather well on all of the Friday exams and after several weeks, completed preflight training and moved on to gunnery school at Laredo, Texas.

Gunnery School

      It was summer but I did not have to worry about allergies because the field where we were stationed was situated on land that resembled a desert.  Hardly anything could grow. 

      It was awfully hot as we spent days on the firing range, learning to lead the target as we shot, by shooting trap, skeet, and so forth.  Once again we had to achieve a set score to stay in the program.  Then we practiced shooting machine guns on the range and learned how to field strip and replace the parts of a machine gun blindfolded. 

      Later on, we fired machine guns standing in the back cockpit of a plane. One of our guys shot up the tail of the plane he was firing from—I don't think I ever saw him again!

      "We also fired from turrets, but at least these had stops, so you wouldn't hit your own plane. 

      We had to achieve a certain number of hits on sleeves pulled by other planes.  The pilots enjoyed zooming toward the ground after we were done shooting the sleeves and about threw us out of the back seat of the plane—we only had a small strap to hold us in.

      In preflight school on weekends we generally went to Houston or Galvaston for recreation.  In gunnery school there wasn't much available.  Laredo didn't have much to offer—however each gunnery class was allowed one weekend to go to Nuevo Laredo in Mexico. 

      Before we went, we were given a lecture by the chaplain on what we shouldn't do, followed by a lecture from a doctor on what problems those who didn't take the chaplain's advice may run into, and we were told to be careful.

      I went with a buddy, LeRoy Kolin, from Plymouth, Michigan.  We knew better, and didn't eat anything, after seeing the meat displayed—hanging with flies on it, only drank one bottle of American beer, and being generally disgusted with the whole scene, came back early.

Bombardier School

      The fun really began in Bombardier School at Big Springs, Texas.  This was late summer and early fall 1943, a time when if I'd been at home in Michigan I would have been having allergy problems; but, since this area of Texas also was like a desert, I didn't experience any problems.

      We went to some classes first then learned how to operate (the supposedly secret) "Norden Bombsight."  We practiced on a mock setup in a large building where a huge cart-like arrangement moved across the floor at your direction and a pencil dropped on a piece of paper that actually registered your ability and accuracy.

      For each bomb run, we would have to fill out a bomb calculation sheet—so we learned how to fill out these sheets and how to put certain info into the bombsight before we'd start our bomb run.     

      You had to do calculations correctly and input exact data into the bombsight and then in a very short time make about two corrections into each of the vertical and horizontal crosshairs in the sight.  The sight automatically dropped the marker at a certain point and there was really little time to correct if your line movements were not rather precise the first time.

      I seemed to have a knack for it.  Of course my instructor who was responsible for teaching me and Leonard (one of my bunkmates in the barracks) was very happy with my progress. 

      After a few weeks of classes, and practice on the "rig," we started actually dropping bombs from airplanes.  I believe these bombs were actually filled with sand.

      Our targets were a 500-foot circle, inside of which was a 100-foot circle that had a 40-foot square inside.  The 40-foot square was called a "shack."  If at any time you "lost a bomb"—one got away from you by a 1000 or 1200 feet or so, you would very likely (or maybe always—I'm not sure), be washed out of the program.

      On each flight of course there was a pilot, the instructor, and two cadets.  The cadet not dropping at the time took pictures of the other cadet's hits, to be sure there was an honest report of the accuracy or lack thereof.

      I carried the success I'd had on the "rig" with me when we went into actual bombing.  Before long I could out-bomb the instructor.  I started getting so many shacks that the guys nicknamed me "shack happy" and every time I came back from a run they used to ask if I got a shack.  I guess there were some that never got one.

      One day as Leonard was dropping, I saw one of his going and going so that it was obviously going to land way out of the target area well beyond the 1000 mark.  I didn't take a picture. 

      The instructor hurried back and asked how I made out on taking the picture.  I apologized for missing it.  He went forward and had a discussion with the pilot.  He then came back again and said "are you sure you didn't get the picture."  I assured him I didn't see it so I didn't take a picture. 

      Nothing further was ever discussed about it, by me, Leonard, or the instructor, as far as I know.  Leonard did graduate.  I've often wondered since if Leonard got hurt in the war.  I would hate to think he did and might not have if I had taken the picture, and he would have been washed out of the program.

Duties of a Bombardier

      My job as the bombardier is pretty self-explanatory.  I dropped the bombs when we were over the target.  When a bunch of planes were flying in formation, you just watched for when the lead plane dropped its bombs, and you then dropped yours.  If that lead plane was shot down, the next planes had to be prepared to spot the target and drop their bombs on time, and the rest of the planes followed.

      If necessary, the pilot could switch the plane to "Pilot Directional Indicator"—meaning that the bombardier was then able to take over flying the plane from where he sat, and would control the plane until after he dropped the bombs.  The bombardier usually didn't operate the plane on P.D.I., since we would be flying in formation and dropped our bombs when the others did.

      Before each mission we'd have a briefing and that's where I'd get the info necessary to fill out the bomb data sheet.  We were informed of the secondary and third choice for our mission, but not the primary target—the pilot would be told just before takeoff.

      At gunnery school I learned how to operate all of the different guns on the plane, in case one of the other guys got wounded, I could crawl back out of my bombardier position and operate one of the guns.  But I always hoped that I never had to replace the guy in the ball turret—which was a gunnery position that was lowered from the belly of the plane by a hydraulic system.

      Hydraulics were necessary to raise and lower the airplane's wheels, to raise and lower the ball turret, as well as other things. 

      I remember well a famous radio recording during the war by the broadcaster, Edward R. Murrow.  It was done live from a base in England.  Planes were coming back from a mission.  Any planes that had wounded on them let off flares and they were allowed to land first.

      Well, one plane came back really shot up and its hydraulics were out of commission.  Therefore, the wheels couldn't be lowered, and the ball turret couldn't be raised.  The kid who was the turret gunner had to be sacrificed in order to land the plane.  It was horrible.  They were on the radio talking with him.  He knew what was to happen to him.  They landed the plane and of course he was killed.  It was awful.

      Edward R. Murrow was describing this as it happened and it was being broadcast all over the world.  He was crying as he talked.

      I was really glad to never have had to fill in for that position.  Our ball turret gunner was a guy from Owosso, Michigan.

Bombing Olympics

      Near the end of our training, my instructor notified me that my bombing accuracy throughout our training placed me in the top five of the couple of hundred or more that graduated in our class. 

      He of course was proud of it, because it looked good on his record as an instructor to have one of his students be an "Olympic Bombardier."

      At the conclusion of each class, the top five bombardiers from several schools in Texas, New Mexico, etc., met at one of the schools and competed in a number of bombing situations.  I got to select which of the pilots I had flown with during my training to be my pilot for the contest.  The instructor, the pilot, and I did some additional runs for practice. 

      We flew to Midland Texas to compete in October 1943 but the weather got too bad so it was canceled.

      On October 7, 1943, I was promoted from an aviation cadet to a 2nd Lieutenant.

Reporting for Duty

      I was an October 1943 (43-14 class) graduate from Big Springs, Texas.  My instructor arranged for me to be offered a job as an instructor at Big Springs, but I had already bought my train tickets to go home for two weeks, so I declined the offer.  I would have had to start right away and wouldn't have been able to go home.  I wanted to go home and show off my uniform!

       I'm sure my family was proud of me—that I was an officer in the Air Force, but my mother was probably unhappy about me going overseas—with all of her boys gone off to war. 

      After my visit in Michigan, I reported for duty at Salt Lake.  There we were formed into crews—a pilot, a copilot, navigator, bombardier, and six enlisted men.  They had different assignments as well as gunnery positions on the plane.  I had been at Salt Lake City for several weeks before the crew was assembled, so it was like a nice vacation.

      When we got together as a crew, we took a train to Pocatello, Idaho for B-24 training.  I believe this was in December 1943 and it was so cold we were transferred to Muroc Dry Lake—now called Edwards Air Force Base—in California.

      The crew was Lt. John C. Ebert, pilot; Lt. Victor K. Todd, copilot; Lt. Julius Nathanson, navigator, and I was the bombardier.  Sgt. Horace J. Holland was the ball turret gunner; Sgt. Eugene E. Avery, radio operator and left waist gunner; Sgt. William Crawford Dudley, tail gunner; Sgt. Charles B. Black, engineer and top turret gunner; Sgt. Neil F. Coulter, nose gunner; and Sgt. John A. DeCamillo, right waist gunner.

      Some of us stayed in touch after the war.  Neil Coulter, who lived in Lake Orion, would call all of us every New Years.

Muroc

      We were at Muroc for over two months, my best guess.  We were being transitioned from the small planes we had been training in at school to the bigger B-24.  We were in the 536 Squadron, 382 Group at Muroc Army Air Field, Muroc, California.

Pressure Chamber Again

      As our time was winding down at Muroc I guess they were going through our records.  I was called into the office and told that I couldn't go overseas to fly until I'd successfully completed the tests in the pressure chamber.  "You have flunked the previous four tests."

      At 5,000 feet in the pressure chamber when the pressure was dropped rapidly, I had trouble with my ears, apparently due to my having allergy problems.  But each time I failed the test, I just told them I had a cold.

      So, they flew me down to Pasadena where I flunked the test again, but they lost track of me and I went overseas anyway. 

      While overseas, I did end up having trouble with the pressure in my ears—which I couldn't very well clear with an oxygen mask on—especially while coming off target and losing altitude rather rapidly in order to pick up speed and get out of the target-area flak as soon as possible.

Consolidated B-24 Liberator 

      We were finally notified that we were assigned a new B-24 Liberator.  This particular plane had been built at Willow Run, Michigan, by the Ford Motor Company.  We would be flying the plane to our overseas destination, which was unknown to us until we left the United States.

      This plane, unlike most of the B-24 Liberators, was silver instead of olive green.  We were standing around, looking at her, and had to quickly come up with a name for her, as the guy who painted the shapely girls on the plane was right there, ready to get to work.

        We decided she would be "Destiny Deb."  The artist painted a shapely gal standing on a bomb, flying down through the air. 

      Everyone was rather excited.  The pilot, Ebert, got permission to take the plane up for a ride around the area.  All ten members got on board and in the excitement we almost met our demise. 

      As the plane was roaring down the runway, the pilot, thinking the wheels were off the ground, said, "Wheels up" and at the same time he hit the brakes.  We could all feel the rear end of the plane start to rise up in the air.  We would have all been killed if it hadn't been that the copilot immediately flipped the switch to raise the wheels off the runway.

      In a couple of days we packed our personal items on the plane and as directed, took off for Phoenix, Arizona, where we stayed overnight.  Then we flew to Midland, Texas, and then north to Memphis, Tennessee. 

      When we left Memphis, our next overnight stop was to be West Palm Beach, Florida.  En- route we encountered bad weather and had to land at Atlanta.  Since the weather forecast indicated we might not be able to leave for a few days, we of course spent considerable time in Atlanta. 

      That, of course, cost money.  I had a savings account in Pontiac on which I had my mother as co-signer.  I wired home and said, "I can't tell you where I am, but please get $100 out of my bank account and wire it to the American Express Office in Atlanta, Georgia."  I received the money which was fortunate, because we were weathered in for several more days.  We enjoyed our stay there.

      When it cleared, we flew to West Palm Beach and put on our summer uniforms.  The next day we left for Trinidad.  Once we were in the air, leaving the United States, the pilot, Ebert, opened sealed orders he had been given, that could then be opened to determine what theater of operations we were assigned to, and our final destination.

Assignment: European

Theater of Operations

      The orders stated we were assigned to the E.T.O.—European Theater of Operations, 15th Army Air Force, 47th Wing, 450th Bomb Group, Manduria, Italy.

      Our next stopover, after West Palm Beach, was Trinidad.  Then we flew on to Belem, Brazil and the next day to Fortaleza, Brazil.  Since we would be flying across the Atlantic Ocean from Fortaleza to Dakar, French Africa (now called Senegal), we spent a couple of days there while mail and other items were loaded on the plane for us to deliver at our final destination.

      When we took off from Fortaleza and headed across the Atlantic Ocean, it was a beautiful day.  Little did we know what we were in for!  After a few hours we ran into a violent storm--it was really bad.  The plane would suddenly drop 50 feet or so and rock back and forth from side to side.

      Both Ebert, the pilot, and Todd, the co-pilot, were on the controls simultaneously, struggling to keep the plane upright.  If it turned over we would end up in the ocean.

      A fellow I knew from St. Fredericks School in Pontiac that I talked to in Salt Lake City, left on a plane from South America but the plane never got across the ocean. I believe it was a classmate from St. Fredericks, Robert J. Thiefels.

      When we finally got through the storm, Nathanson, the navigator, made his calculations and determined we were blown off course to the north.  To be sure we would end up north of the airfield in Dakar, he did a landfall another 100 miles north. 

      "When we arrived over land, we flew south down the coast and found the field, which was good since we were getting low on fuel.

      The next day we flew to Marrakesh, Morocco, and the following day to Tunis, Tunisia.  We spent an extra day at Tunis getting ammunition for the machine guns as well as other items on board, because we would be flying into an area where we would possibly encounter enemy fighters.

Manduria, Italy

      The next day we flew into our base in Manduria, Italy.  When we arrived at the field in the brand-new B-24, we were told that our crew would fly that plane on our missions, but of course, the plane had to be used by other crews from time to time.

      Upon arrival in Italy, the tail of our plane, Destiny Deb, was painted white.  We were to be part of the 450th bomb group, known as the "Cottontails"—as all of the tails of the planes in this bomb group were painted white.

      The planes of each bomb group had something different painted on the planes, no doubt to easily identify which bomb group they belonged to.

      Unfortunately, the Germans took a disliking to these planes with the white tails and they targeted them for destruction.

      We flew our first missions in our new B-24, Destiny Deb—I believe our first six missions were flown in the Deb.  But it was only several weeks later, on April 24, 1924--a day we were not flying, another crew took off on a mission in the Deb and were shot down over Ploesti, Romania. So, from then on we used other planes—whatever ones we were assigned.

      Going back to the day after we arrived, I recall walking down the road with Todd, our co-pilot, as we were trying to hitch-hike a ride into Manduria.  We stopped to watch the planes taking off because Jack Ebert, our pilot, was on one of them going up as a co-pilot for an indoctrination flight.

      The first plane took off, then for some reason, the second plane, while speeding down the runway, tried to stop—tried to brake—and a wing caught the ground and the plane caught on fire and blew up. 

      One man was blown out of the waist gunner window and landed on his feet, running, and he was on fire.  Someone on the ground ran after him and tackled him to get the fire out, but he ended up dying, as did the other nine men on the plane.

      The rest of the planes took off over the burning inferno—just went right on over. Occasionally there were big explosions—I suppose the bombs going off—but fortunately, they didn't go off when any of the other planes were over it.

      The mission got off.  Jack Ebert came back okay, but he was really shaken up because flak ripped his flight suit and dented his helmet.

      They were jumped by about 100 German fighters and the flak was really devastating.  Upon his return, Jack Ebert said, "It doesn't look so good."

      This was probably a great understatement.  He had been on the first mission out of Italy to Ploesti, Rumania, on April 5, 1944.  It took about eight or nine hours to get there and back.  Quite a few planes were lost that day.

      The reason Ploesti was so heavily guarded by a large number of '88s'—guns firing flak—and fighter cover, was that Ploesti was the main source of oil for the Germans.  We were trying to destroy the oil refineries that they badly needed.

ROME – ARNO CAMPAIGN

 JANUARY 22 – SEPTEMBER 9, 1944

First Mission

      Our job was to fly in support of our ground troops before and after the invasion of Normandy.  We were to disrupt the German's routine by bombing railroad yards, submarine pens, and so forth. 

      Our crew went on its first mission on April 12, 1944.  We bombed an airplane factory at Weiner Neustadt, Germany.  We went through pretty heavy flak, with no serious problems and were glad to get back to the base safely.

      I was surprised to hear that pictures of bombs exploding on the target area that were dropped by our group were available to be seen the next day.  I was pleased to see that almost all of the bombs were right on target.

Subsequent Missions

      Every evening the names of the crew members flying the next day were listed on a board at squadron headquarters.  We were assigned to the 720th bomb squadron.  If we were not listed, it meant we had the next day off. 

      Sometimes due to weather we would have several days off in a row.  We would generally bum a ride to one of the small towns in the area, just for something to do.  You couldn't go too far away because you might be scheduled to fly the next day.

      A few times I was scheduled to fly with some other crew that needed a bombardier for that flight.  One of our gunners was assigned to fly with another crew and never came back.

      On subsequent flights, we hit targets in Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, Ploesti, and Innsbruck, to name a few.  I kept a log of the missions I was on with some comments about each one, but I lost it when I got off the ship on the way home—I was so sick I left some of my stuff on the ship.     Louis flew with his crew on the missions listed below, plus he flew with others crews when a bombardier was needed.  Louis lost his list of missions, so this list is from another crew member, William Crawford Dudley.

April 12, 1944, Weiner-Neustadt, Austria, aircraft assembly factory, pilot: Ebert, 2 credits

April 13, Budapest, Hungary, Vesces Airdrome, Ebert, 2

April 15, Bucharest, Romania, marshalling yards, Ebert, 2

April 16, Brasov, Romania, marshalling yards, Ebert, 2

April 17, Sofia, Bulgaria, PFF Bombing, Capt. Robinson, 1

April 23, Schwechat/Vienna, Austria, aircraft factory, Ebert, 2

April 25, Ferrera, Italy, marshalling yards, Lt. Olney, 1

April 28, Orbetello, Italy, harbor and railroad installations, Col. Mills, 1

April 29, Toulon, France, harbor installations, Lt. Olney, 1

May 4 or 5, Ploesti, Romania, marshalling yards, probably Ebert, 2

May 12, San Steffano, Italy, harbor installations, Ebert, 1

May13, Piacenza, Italy, marshalling yards, Olney, 1

May 19, Spezia, Italy, railroad yards, Ebert, 1

May 22, Latisano, Italy, railroad bridge, Ebert, 1, flew on plane no. 237

May 25, Marghera, Italy, oil storage installation, Ebert, 1

Frozen Bomb Bay Doors

      We were on a mission to Toulon, France on April 29, 1944, to bomb some harbor installations.  About 11 a.m. we were jumped by German fighters.  I had seen planes above us and told the crew, "Here's our cover," meaning that Allied fighters had joined us.  Another crew member said that the planes were German ME-109s.

      They worked us over pretty good.  They shot up one plane so badly that it left formation and took off directly for Switzerland. The pilot of this plane was a friend of Ebert's—who was on his first mission (See "Ebert's Friend").  Eventually some Allied fighter planes, P-38s, showed up and convinced the Germans to head for home.

      On each mission, as we climbed to altitude (generally about 24,000 feet) part of my job was to occasionally crack open the bomb bay doors and then close them again so they wouldn't freeze shut.

      I guess my only excuse for not opening them enough was the excitement of being jumped by the German fighters—it threw me off. 

      Anyway, as we were approaching the bomb run, I threw the switch to open the bomb bay doors.  They didn't open.  I tried again without success.  I tried again and called to the gunners in the back.  They replied that they weren't open and to try again.

      The pilot, Ebert (or Lt. Olney), over the intercom, said, "What do we do now, Lessard?"  We were carrying 1,000 or 2,000-pound bombs which is what was required for bombing concrete submarine pens.

      I replied, "We will just drop them through the doors."  I seemed to remember from my training that these bombs were heavy enough to go right through the doors.  The pilot agreed that we should do this.

      At the time we were encountering very heavy flak and a plane in our formation got half of its tail end shot off.  On the way down, as it leveled off for a short period at about 6,000 feet, six of the ten men bailed out into the Adriatic Sea.  The plane then dove into the water with four men still on board.  It was all very nerve racking.

      As we got over the target and when I released the bombs, fortunately for me and everyone else on board, the bombs tore the doors loose from their tracks and dropped from the plane.  If they hadn't and instead had exploded when they hit the doors, we would have blown up.

      As we pulled off the target, because of the drag of the doors that were still attached but flapping below the plane, we couldn't keep up with the rest of the planes.

      We fell out of formation and headed back through enemy territory on our own, which is risky as a lone bomber is an easy target for enemy fighters to attack and demolish.  As we got south of Rome, the navigator called to the pilot and said with all the drag on our plane, that we were burning additional fuel and would not make it to our field.

      Ebert located an air transport command center just south of the enemy lines.  Our radio man couldn't contact the tower so the pilot buzzed the field looking for a light to let him know which way to land.

      Planes are supposed to land into the wind, but this airfield didn't have a windsock, so, we weren't sure which direction to come in from.

      The routine was that as a plane flew over, the control tower would turn on a green light to let the plane know that approaching and landing from that direction was okay, and the plane would then come back around and land.  If it was not okay, the tower would flash a red light.

      Well, we approached but the tower didn't flash a light at all.  We didn't know what to do, but then a transport plane approached and landed and we just followed it in.

      "The guys in the control tower later explained that they didn't know what we were doing.  We were flying in with no radio contact and our bomb bay doors were open.  They were concerned that we were actually Germans in a confiscated B-24 and that we were going to bomb the airfield. 

      There were rumors that the Germans had a few B-24s and they would use them to spy on our missions.  They would go up in their B-24s and fly parallel to our planes.  They would then radio to their people on the ground and supply information.  The Germans on the ground would use the data to then try to shoot down the Allies' planes from the ground with their "ack-ack guns"—we also called them '88s' or 'double 44s.'

      After fueling up and having a snack, we flew to our home base, but our trouble wasn't over yet.  We flew over the harbor and shots were fired at us from some U.S. Navy ships.  Our crew shot back and the pilot told the gunners to cut it out.

      We were surprised to hear that we were so late returning that we had been declared  missing in action.  In fact, the gunners who lived in a barracks found a lot of their items had already been divided up, but when they walked in, their belongings were returned.

Ebert's Buddy

      Here's a little side story.  When we were doing our overseas training in California, our pilot, Jack Ebert, often talked of a buddy of his from flight school.  Well, in Italy, we had been there a while and had flown several missions and one day a pilot came into our tent to see Ebert—it was his buddy.  He was to go on his first mission the next day, April 29, 1944, and he ended up flying in the same formation as us.

      We were going to southern France to hit the submarine pens (concrete pens that subs were kept in).  We were over northern Italy when 35 ME109s jumped our formation and we saw a B-24 leaving our formation with one engine lost.  A few German fighters followed the American plane, which was heading toward Switzerland.  Ebert asked us the identification number of the plane we'd lost, and sure enough, it was his buddy's plane.

      Sometime later—probably in 1945--I went into the officer's bar in Bari, Italy, and there sat Ebert's buddy!  I talked to him and he said he had made it to Switzerland.  The German fighters had followed him right into neutral territory.  The crew bailed out, while Ebert's buddy, who was the pilot, jumped last and helped the injured navigator out of the plane.  They were strafed by fighters as they descended in their parachutes, but no one was injured until they hit the ground. The navigator was killed by enemy airplane gunfire when he landed.

      Ebert's buddy was picked up by the Swiss and they put him in a camp.  They gave him his freedom to come and go to town as he pleased, but they'd had him sign a paper saying he would not try to escape.  The Swiss told him that if he tried to escape and they caught him, they would execute him.

      Well, he and a buddy escaped anyway, and somehow they made it back to the American lines in Italy.  When I met him he was in Bari, filling out reports and so forth at the 15th Air Force Headquarters which was located in Bari.  He was then being sent back to the States.

Superstitions

      I don't know if you would call it superstitions or traditions that were quickly developed once we arrived in Italy and began flying missions.

      When we arrived we were told that we would have to stay in tents, but that in a few days there would be room in the officer's barracks—meaning that some of the men in the barracks wouldn't be coming back from missions.

      We got settled in a tent, and when quarters became available in the barracks, we decided to stay in the tent.

      There were four officers in a crew that were quartered together:  the pilot, co-pilot, the navigator, and the bombardier.  There were six noncoms (staff sergeants or sergeants) who had various duties, such as radio operator, crew chief, and who manned the six gunnery locations on the plane.  The enlisted men in our crew were assigned to a barracks when we arrived.

      The officers of my crew and I agreed to stay in a tent even when room became available in the barracks.  We were afraid we would be the next ones killed—and our quarters would then become available for new arrivals.

      I don't know if it qualifies as a superstition, but we always felt more comfortable flying with our own crews.  I was assigned to fly with other crews a few times and I came back okay.  But, my friend, Lou Leon, had to fly with another crew and the plane was shot down and Lou was captured and held as a prisoner-of-war.

      I developed a habit of laying out the clothes that I would wear the next day each night before a mission, and then putting the rest of my personal possessions in my foot locker in case I didn't come back.  That way everything would be ready for sending my things home.

      I developed certain traditions very quickly—as a way of trying to assure myself good luck.  I would wear the same clothing, etc. on each mission.  I wore what I had worn on our first mission—we survived the mission, so I felt to wear pretty much the same clothing would bring me good luck.

      A girl gave me a silk scarf before I headed off to war.  I always wore it on a mission.

Deadly Flak versus B-24s

      It's hard to say which was the better plane, the B-17 or the B-24 (see the information at the end of this article).  The B-17 had a bigger wing and so it could probably take a little bit more of a pounding.  But I was on a B-24 that had over 100 holes from flak torn into it, maybe closer to 120 holes, and we made it back.  It suffices to say that if hit right, any plane would be a goner.

      But, the B-24, with the Davis high speed wing, was capable of flying higher and faster and farther.  

      Flak brought down many of our planes—maybe more than enemy fighters did. I remember on a mission to Toulon, France, seeing a B-24 with half of its tail blown off.  I saw six of the ten crew members bail out at about 6,000 feet as the pilot managed to level the plane off for a moment, then the plane nose-dived into the water with the other four crew members aboard. 

      The enemy used radar equipment on the ground to watch out for allied planes.  They had guns that would shoot the flak up to certain altitudes—whatever the radar estimated the allied planes to be flying at, and the flak would explode, shooting sharp pieces of metal everywhere, just like an explosion of bullets.

      The enemy would be tracking from the ground and try to estimate the altitude and speed of the allied planes.  They would then set their guns to try to shoot the flak to the right altitude, and shoot it in front of the allied planes, so they would fly into it as it exploded.

      The allied planes used a product called "window" to try up set the accuracy of the enemy radar.  This product looked like tinsel for decorating a Christmas tree.  The idea was if all the planes threw a bunch of "window" out their plane windows, it would adversely affect the accuracy of the enemy radar.

      No one was ever hurt on my plane on any of the missions I was on.  But on one mission I did see a plane directly ahead of ours take a direct flak hit and explode.  It blew all apart and I'm sure the ten men on the plane never knew what happened.

Our Worst Flak Beating

      We always ran into some flak on our missions and frequently took some hits.

      Probably the worst beating we took on any mission was one to northern Italy, to Varese.  The target had clouded over and we didn't have a radar plane with us.  Since we didn't do random bombing, we headed back toward southern Italy. 

      We were out over water when the head pilot picked out a 'target of opportunity' north of the American-German lines.  The Germans were occupying Rome and some areas south of the city at the time.

      I said to the crew, "I think we are finally having a milk run," --in other words, an easy mission.  I no sooner said that when they opened up down below.

      Our leader took us into a strong head wind into the target to bomb a bridge, which slowed us down significantly, and the Germans had plenty of time to work us over.  Ack-ack began exploding all over the place.  Our plane was jumping and vibrating when flak would explode and hit it.

      The gunners were counting—it took ten seconds for the flak to get up in the air and explode.  They counted and sure enough, bang—we'd get hit again.  I'd thought we were having a milk run but the Germans were actually taking their time to zero in on us.

      A lot of flak exploded beneath our plane and it tore into the plane more than once—you could feel the concussion from the explosion—the metal pieces would tear in through the body of the plane so fast that you wouldn't see it—like bullets.

      The enemy would shoot it up and then it would explode and disintegrate, tearing into the bottom of our plane.  We were unbelievably lucky that nothing vital was hit—no gas lines, etc., and that none of the crew was injured. 

      The waist gunner, DeCamillo, later told us that at one point he had bent over to pick up some window out of a box to throw out of the plane window.  As he did, flak tore into the plane—it came in through the windows on each side of him—into the waist of the plane, behind the bomb bay.  The flak came in over his head and exploded, exiting and tearing holes into both sides of the plane.     

      This really scared the gunner—he had already been scared, as we all were.  The rest of us didn't find out about this incident until we got back to base.                

      The next day one of the ground crew who had to repair the plane said we had over a hundred holes in the plane and that it was amazing that no one was hurt.  He said that some planes get hit and don't come back and others get hit and do.  "You guys were lucky and came back."

      We had been really lucky because even though there had been less flak than what we had encountered on other missions, this flak was more accurate—since the Germans had plenty of time to zero in on us.

      B-24s could take a lot of damage and still make it back to base, but damage to hydraulics, gas lines, etc., wasn't good.

How Scary Was It?

      One of the scariest incidents of my war experience was the flight across the ocean in the storm.  It certainly crossed our minds that we wouldn't make it across the Atlantic—we wouldn't make it to Europe to fight in the war.

      But we did, and each time we went on a mission, it was scary.  Every time we got shot at from the ground, every time we were jumped by enemy fighters, and every time we got near a target, we'd get a little tense.  The chances of being killed were a pretty high percentage.

      We weren't attacked by enemy fighters on every mission but we dealt with flak each time.  There was a much better chance of going down from flak.

      I can still recall the feeling as we would approach a target, and I can still remember the "plomb, plomb" of flak exploding and the big explosions as flak hit other planes and they blew up.

      I can still see, on one mission as we neared the target, "Bamb!"—a dead hit of flak exploded inside the head plane and it disintegrated. Ten men and one plane were gone instantly.  The second in command took the lead and we kept on going.

      Needless to say, there really was no such thing as a safe mission.

Ploesti—The Target

We Dreaded the Most

      Whenever we were to go on a mission we went to a briefing room, just like you see them do in the movies, and got instructions.  After the briefing we didn't go back to our quarters or whatever. We went out and got into a vehicle and went directly to the plane.

      I still vividly remember the first time when they drew back the drapery covering the map and the target was Ploesti.  It got my attention because I had heard wild stories of previous missions.  It was a heavily guarded target and sometimes half of the Allied planes would be destroyed.  I breathed a sigh of relief when before we left the briefing room, the mission was called off because of bad weather over the target.

      The next day we were all in the briefing room and I told myself, "They won't select the target for us two days in a row because by now the Germans probably know we were going there yesterday."

      But, it was the same target again.  We went out and got in the plane but before we took off, they canceled the mission again, due to bad weather.

      On the third day, May 5, 1944, once again I figured our target wouldn't be Ploesti—not three days in a row!  But it was, so I said to myself, "Let's get this damn thing over with!"

      We went there, dropped our bombs, got a lot of flak, and came home.  Some of the planes were lost, but I don't know how many.  Several weeks later we had to go to Ploesti again.  There was a lot of flak but we made it okay.

      When the Germans made repairs and got the refineries working again, we went back and hit that target again, and again.

The Number of Planes

On a Mission

      You would read in the newspaper sometimes about 1,000 plane raids. Well, they didn't all go to the target at the same time or they would have run into each other. 

      When I went on a mission, there was about 27 or 28 planes that went with us — from our group.  A squadron was part of a group, and a group was part of a wing.

      Planes were going to the same target from other fields and they would hit the target at different times.  So, sometimes there may have been a 1,000-plane raid on one target on the same day, but they came into the target at different times and from different directions.  So, a target would get hit again and again, by one group after another.

      Sometimes as we approached a target we would see other planes leaving the area or as we were leaving we might see others approaching.

      I'm sure that when the target was Ploesti, a few hundred planes might have hit it in one day, all coming from other directions and bang, bang, bang, all day.

      I assume headquarters would figure this all out and then they would inform the Wing, who would then inform the Group, and so forth.

Preparing for a Mission

      The night before you would find out if you were scheduled to fly—you would go to squadron headquarters and posted on a board outside was a list of the crews that were scheduled for the next day.

      You didn't know what time you were going to go.  Sometimes they would come in and wake you up and say, "You're going early today."  I remember being awakened by someone hollering into our tent, "Ebert, Lessard, breakfast early, early takeoff"—which may have been scheduled for as early as 7 or 8 a.m.  We would get up, get washed up and dressed, eat, go to the briefing, then go get our equipment and head for the plane to take off.

      At the briefing, they would provide all of the information, such as the target, what time the first plane was to take off, and so forth.  I would especially listen to and write down the wind direction at the target zone, what altitude we were to drop the bombs at, and the wind direction and velocity at that altitude.

      U.S. fighters would zoom over all of the target areas every day and measure the wind velocity at certain altitudes.  They measured the weather conditions and then this information would be provided to the bombardiers, navigators, and pilots at briefings.  We also were told what direction we were to approach the target from.

      The U.S. fighters would collect this information over many targets everyday, so that the enemy would have to guess which target the Allies would hit that day.

Flying in Formation

      We flew in a diamond formation.  There was one leader with a plane on either side of it, then three across, then two across, and the one in the back, called "Tail End Charlie."  The planes that flew next to each other flew at different altitudes so they wouldn't hit each other. 

      Enemy fighters would come in and try to knock out the last plane and force it to drop out of formation by doing some damage to Tail End Charlie.  If that last plane did receive damage and had to leave the formation, then it was a sitting duck for the enemy fighters to really work it over.

      Newer guys on their first missions would fly at the tail end position.  We did for our first two or three missions, then, we worked our way up.

      If someone was shot down, the rest of the planes would just regroup and keep on going. We ran into fighters a few times but usually some U.S. fighter escorts would show up to fight them off.

      We would take off one plane at a time, and form up at a certain location and at a certain altitude.  We would be told ahead of time, at the briefing, just what we were supposed to do. 

      The first planes had to go slower in order for the other planes to catch up.  When all of the planes got into position, then we would all take off together toward the target.  We had to be precise, because we were going to fly into enemy territory for several hundred miles and we would have to watch our gas.

Flying Alone

      There were a few times that our plane had to leave formation and go back to base alone.  One time we lost the supercharger in one engine just a few miles short of the target and flew back on three engines, but we fortunately never lost our hydraulic systems—this would have caused lots of problems.

      Another time when I was flying with another crew, we lost an engine deep in enemy territory and flew back alone.  This made for a long, lonely flight. 

      The day we hit the target of opportunity—the submarine pens in northern Italy—we had to pull out of formation because of the drag caused by the bomb bay doors hanging open.  We couldn't keep up. We were lucky to not have encountered enemy fighters.

      One thing we'd been warned about is that if we got shot down and survived, it was best to surrender to the enemy.  It was possible that local citizens would kill you if you'd bombed their area and damaged their homes, farms, and killed innocent citizens.

The Number of Missions

      As we went along, I kept a log of the number of missions I was accumulating.  It was explained to us on arrival that the 15th Air Force had a different method of counting missions than the 8th Air Force in England.  In England, each flight over their target area was credited as one mission and when you got to 25 you were rotated back to the States.

      But since the 15th felt that some missions in Italy were to targets not as heavily defended as most of the targets of the 8th, that any lightly defended targets would count as one mission.  It seemed odd because it only took one direct hit and you were a goner.  The heavily defended targets such as Vienna, Ploesti, Regensburg, Innsbruck, and practically every target we went to, would count as two missions and after 50 missions you would be rotated back to the States.

      By my count after several weeks I had flown over 18 sorties, most of which were doubles, i.e. 2 missions credit for each and the rest were singles--possibly a total of about 30 mission credits.  I didn't include a couple of missions that we had flown several hundred miles into enemy territory and just 50 miles or so short of the target had to drop out of formation and return home because of a supercharger problem once and an engine failure another time.  I knew that when we were getting close to 50 mission credits we would soon be notified that we would be heading home.

      In addition, I flew some missions with other crews that needed a bombardier.

      It was quite a while before any crew at our base had enough missions to go home. Finally one crew had enough doubles to count for fifty missions.  They were delighted and flew a B-24 to Naples to fill out the paperwork so they could head home.  But they crash landed and all ten men were killed.

      Todd, our copilot, like many of the men on my original crew, completed his 50 missions and was rotated home.  He then trained to be a fighter pilot but crash landed in training and was killed.

Medals

      I was decorated for participating in the Rome-Arno Campaign.  (On the 450th Bomb Groups web site is a history of daily activities.  It shows that in May 1944, Louis was awarded the air medal, and in June he was awarded clusters for the air medal.) 

      When five missions were completed, you'd receive an air medal and for each additional ten missions you'd get on oak leaf cluster—which was actually another air medal.

      I received the larger of the wings decoration after graduation from bombardier school.  The presidential citation was a plain blue ribbon signifying a distinguished unit citation.  I also received a wings medal that was one specifically given to bombardiers.  I had smaller gold pins that went on my shirt collar.

      I had two dog tags.  No. 16085547 when I was a cadet, and when I became an officer, I received a second dog tag, No. 0694792.

Grounded

      As it turned out, I never had to find out if I'd make it to fifty missions.  As the weather warmed up and the weeds, bushes and flowers began to bloom, I was having more problems clearing my ears after returning from a mission.  The base, which was in an area of small family farms, probably didn't help either.

      The day I woke up with itchy, runny eyes, I figured I was in trouble.  I was wheezing and having trouble breathing, as well.  I went to the dispensary and tried the "cold" routine again, but the flight surgeon said it was more than a cold.

      He sent me to a field hospital where they checked me over again and notified me I was being taken off of flying status.

      I don't know what they put on their record, but since I was already overseas, I guess they just reassigned me.  I suppose in the States they would have discharged me.

Signal Corps

      After a stay in the hospital, I was assigned to the 15th Air Force Headquarters in Bari, Italy, for a couple of months.   I was then assigned to a communication outfit—the 15th Air Force Signal Corps--I imagine they looked at my records to see what I had done in civilian life.   

      I was promoted to 1st Lieutenant, transferred to another town, Torre Santa Susanna, and given a jeep to run around in. I was responsible for maintaining Air Force communications in southern Italy. 

      I was put in command of a platoon of one-hundred men and set up a classroom in a local school and taught them how to fix communications—how to splice wires, close cables, how not to get electrocuted, etc.

      Before the Germans left the area, they had either destroyed and/or booby-trapped with explosives much of the communications equipment.  So, this was a hazardous job. 

      I worked with the men on site and supervised what they were doing.  I taught them how to climb telephone poles, identify explosive devises, and so forth.  I did this until heading home in August, 1945.


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