2nd Lt. Roland C. Parnell
12th Mission: February 7th, 1945 – Target Moosbierbaum Oil Facility, Vienna, Austria.
The crew for the B-24s were all summoned before daylight to the briefing room. The officer doing the briefing that day stood in the front of the room waiting for the crews to settle down. Once everyone was in their place the screen was pulled down exposing the target for the day, Vienna. Groans were heard throughout the room. By this mission, the 12th, the crew knew that Vienna was a bad place to go. It had more 88mm anti-aircraft guns defending it than probably any other target including Berlin. Their accuracy was better, and their kill rate higher, than any other target the crew had been to. The crew used to say that the gunnery instructors were probably manning the AA batteries around Vienna.
Apparently Moosbierbaum was an important target because three groups were being sent to attack the target. The three groups included 108 planes, all B-24s. When more than one Group attacks a target they attack in waves. The first group drops their bombs and then at intervals of 20 minutes the other groups would start their drops. This was necessary because the dust and smoke needed to clear over the target area in between the drops. In those days there were no precision guided bombs and it was a good day if 20% of the bombs hit in the vicinity of the target.
The men split into meetings according to their specialties. During the Navigator’s meeting Menendez learned several emergency landing areas that could be used if the planes got in trouble. He made specific notes on his map as to where the Russian front was thought to be. Should they get into trouble close to the target they were meant to head for the Russian lines.
Following the meeting they drew their emergency gear. A knife to be used in case they went down over water and needed to cut their parachute shrouds, a silk map of Europe that was double sided and could be folded very thin, $48 dollars to be used in case they were shot down, first aid kits including morphine, and their parachutes. (Menendez said that they used to say the $48 was because there were 48 states at the time)
Parnell’s crew first met at the Overseas Training Unit out at Davis-Monthan Field, Tucson, Arizona. They stood in a large room of airmen and the officer in charge called out the names of the crewmembers. Up until now the airmen had been training with others that would hold their same jobs. This was the first time the aircrew would meet each other.
Roland Parnell, 2nd Lt. – Pilot
George Holman – Co-Pilot
Pail Ament – Bombardier
Ed Menendez – Navigator
James Birtles – Radio Operator/Top Turret Gunner
Ed Sinski – Flight Engineer
Al Kaesser – Waist Gunner
Harold Wesley – Waist Gunner
Clifton Athon – Tail Gunner
There was a 10th member of the crew that was taken by the commandant of the camp once they arrived because he spoke fluent Italian.
The next two months at Davis-Monthan were spent getting acquainted with each other and their plane, the B-24. They flew as a crew through a number of training missions, simulated fighter attacks, long distance navigation, practice bomb runs, and night missions.
In June 1944, the crew went to Hampton Roads, Virginia and loaded onto a Liberty ship, which was part of a huge destroyer defended convoy. They were not told of their destination, but Menendez the navigator, charted his way across the Atlantic using his sextant.
21 days after leaving Hampton Roads, they entered the Mediterranean Sea, through the Straits of Gibraltar and docked in Oran, Algeria. By then they had guessed that they were headed for the Fifteenth Air Force in Italy.
Arriving in Naples, Italy and they were sent to a replacement camp north of Naples for a few days and then on to Casserta where they were loaded into railroad cars with plenty of K rations. Arriving the next morning in Manduria, Italy (near Taranto) this was the headquarters of the 47th wing. There the crew was assigned to the 721st Squadron, 450th Bomb Group, known as the Cottontails.
There the enlisted men spent time in the enlisted section of the camp and the officers bunked together in the officers’ portion of the camp. There was not a lot to do before the missions started.
Parnell’s crew was in the second wave. Looking ahead they saw the sky was full of flak well before they entered the flak zone. When they entered the target area they immediately encountered flak. It was intense and accurate. They dropped their bombs and saw that they achieved good results. There were orange flashes as the bombs hit the target area. As they departed the target area they were at 22,000 feet and everything was going as planned. Suddenly the plane went into a dive. Menendez was thrown against the wall due to the G forces and tried to clamber to the bomb bay to bail out but the G forces pinned him against the fuselage and he could not move. Finally Holman and Parnell brought the plane under control and they leveled out at about 16,000 feet. Parnell called for “Damage Assessment” starting with Athon in the back. One by one all the crewmembers reported that they were fine. There were many holes in the plane but no one was injured. Severe damage had occurred to #3 engine and #4 was running poorly. Parnell feathered (shut down and rotated the prop angle into the wind) #4 engine. #3 engine could not be feathered and began to windmill (it had probably broken free of its transmission) wildly. It’s RPM gauge was above the red line and began to hit the limit of 4000 RPM. This was a serious problem because a windmilling engine creates no power and because of its high RPM it created a pull or torque that caused the plane to right. With only 2 engines running as normal the plane was losing altitude every minute.
There was a hurried conference between Menendez, the navigator, and Parnell, the pilot. Menendez informed that they could not head back to base because they were losing altitude and would not be able to cross the Alps which were on their way home. The best bet seemed to be to head for the front lines which were about 200 miles to the East, in Hungary. Parnell concurred and Menendez plotted a course.
About 10 minutes after they were hit the plane’s altitude had decreased an additional 1000 feet. Menendez informed the pilot that they needed to slow their rate of descent or they would hit the ground before they reached the Russian front lines. Parnell directed the crew to lighten the plane by throwing anything that they could over board. The removable waist machine guns, ammunition, bomb sight, etc. were thrown overboard. The maneuver worked. The rate of descent was improved and they were only losing about 50 feet a minute or 3000 feet per hour. Their altitude of 14000 feet gave them another 4 hours of running before they would hit the ground.
They were still over Austria, and their altitude was about 12000 feet when he heard over the intercom, “bandits, 3 o’clock level”. Looking out the windows of the plane the crew saw 3 ME-109s about 2000 feet away. They flew with us for about 5 minutes and then pulled up, flew behind, and went about 3000 feet higher than the plane and peeled off to attack from the rear. They came in out of the sun. Those in the front of the plane could not see the planes coming in for the attack. The crew in the back had thrown all of their ammunition overboard other than what was in the tracks to the guns. The crew were all screaming at Athon to shoot. Athon in the tailgunner turret was the coolest of the crew members. He responded to all the shouting in his slow Georgia drawl “their too far away.” As the ME-109s came closer and the 20mm rockets starting whizzing by the volume of the pleas of the crewmembers for Athon to shoot grew louder. He responded in the same way “their too far away”. Suddenly the crew in the front heard yells of glee from the back of the plane. Athon had finally opened up with his guns and his first burst had hit the lead ME-109. It exploded in midair. Apparently Sgt. Athon had hit the fuel tank on ME-109 with a tracer bullet. The remaining two ME-109s were behind the plane that exploded. They immediately disengaged from the attack and pulled up to miss the debris from the exploding plane. All ammunition was now gone. Fortunately the two remaining ME-109s did not know they were out of ammunition. The fighters followed for about 10 minutes and then departed. The crew couldn't believe their luck. Certainly if the planes decided to press the attack the B-24 would have gone down in flames.
Shortly after this Parnell gave permission for any crewmember who desired to bail out. Menendez and Ament went to the bomb bay door and took one look at the snowy landscape below and called over the intercom that they were sticking with the plane. None of the crewmembers had ever received training about bailing out of an airplane. Menendez continued to feed Parnell course headings from his station.
They were now about one hour from Hungary and were still losing altitude. They were still at 9000 feet. The weather was clear and the time about 11 AM. Checking his bearings Menendez could see Lake Balaton about 50 miles away. The lake 80 miles long and 10 miles wide and was the perfect landmark. Reminded of his morning briefing of the location of Soviet troops Menendez realized that once they were on the other side of the Lake Balaton they should easily be out of German occupied territory
As they approached the lake they were at about 6000 feet. Menendez started scanning the ground with his high powered binoculars for a suitable landing site. He could see it was mostly farm country and was reasonable flat. There were very few trees to interfere with and emergency landing. Crawling up to the cockpit he informed Parnell of his conclusions. Parnell turned the controls over to Holman and stood up to scan the landscape with the binoculars. He agreed and informed the crew to prepare for a wheels up crash landing. The fact that there was snow on the ground was very good. 1000 gallons of gasoline in the wing tanks could easily still turn the plane into a bomb.
Menendez and the other crew members in the front of the plane headed through the bomb bay into the waist at the rear of the plane. Here they unfolded a thick canvas belt that they stretched from one side of the plane to the other. Sitting behind the belt they prepared themselves for a crash. Prayers were said.
Meanwhile in the front of the plane George and Roland were carefully adjusting the speed and the trim of the plane to follow the proper glide path to where they could land the plane. They had to do so very carefully because they could not climb to correct if they dropped below their chosen glide path. The plane touched the snow once and bounced 50 feet into the air and then settle gently into the snow carving a path straight across the field. The crew waited for the plane to stop and then they made their way to the waist and jumped out the window to ground below. The first crewmember to the ground shouted back to the others to be careful because it was farther than it looked. George and Roland quickly jumped from the windows in the cockpit onto the wings and then down to the snow.
The crew then started sprinting across the snow away from the plane in fear that it would catch fire. Someone in the group shouted “Where are we going?”. Someone else replied, “We’re following Menendez. He knows where we are going.” They were headed to some trees to hide when they noticed some villagers approaching.
The first man that approached spoke English and introduced himself as Mike Kramer. He confirmed that they were indeed outside of German occupied Hungary and the Russians had advanced past the point they were at.
Asked why he spoke English he explained that he and his wife had immigrated to the United States in the early 1908. After working many years in Cleveland, Ohio, in the steel mills he and his wife had decided to return to the old country. They now lived on a farm nearby. Excited that these airmen were Americans he proudly explained that he and his wife had left three sons behind in America and they were now serving in the United States Army. Happy to help America in any way he could he explained that he would help them by finding the Russians and getting them to town. First however he wondered if he could offer them some food. Having not eaten in about 8 hours the crew all agreed that food was the first order of business. Mike took them home and his wife prepared a hearty meal of eggs and hash browns.
Following this wonderful meal the airmen made their way into the town of Antocs. There they were given a basement room that was filled with straw to rest in. They spent two days resting and eating cheese and brown bread. Occasionally they would go out and wander the town.
The second night some villagers escorted them to the town jail where some Russian soldiers had arrived in a truck. They escorted the flyers into the jail while they confirmed that they were indeed Americans. Apparently the presence of their .45 sidearms proved to be the convincing proof that was needed. Shortly after their identity was confirmed the crew was loaded into a truck and driven through the countryside. They drove until late that night when they came to a sudden stop by the side of a small house. The Russians hopped out of the truck and banged on the door. A very frightened woman came to the door whereupon the Russians demanded refuge for the night. The woman fearing for her safety let the Russians and American flyers into the house. She spent the night very frightened. By morning she had calmed down enough to realize that nothing was going to happen and cooked up a nice breakfast for the group.
The truck drove on the next morning until it came to Belgrade. There the flyers were put on a train that traveled to Bucharest. It took quite awhile because the train had many stops. Once in Bucharest the flyers were taken to the Ambassador hotel where they were unpleasantly deloused. Many other flyers from a number of missions had congregated in Bucharest. Eventually a C-47 transport was detailed to pick up the flyers.
Upon return to Italy they were given rest and recuperation leave and sent to the Isle of Capris.
Following their return to Italy from R&R the crew was split up and sent with other crews on several missions to make sure individually they were ok. Following those trial missions they were place backed together and completed several more missions.
Ed learned that the war was over during a trip to Naples. He picked up a Stars and Stripes paper and saw that the war in Europe was over. He hightailed it back to base were there was quite a party going on.
Fairly soon after this the crew was sent by boat back to the US. They landed in Boston with a parade as a greeting.
Following a 30 day furlough they were all directed to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to retrain on B-29s for the war in the Pacific. There was a lot of waiting around and not much training. Once the atomic bombs were dropped the crew was given the option of getting out of the army air corps. Most of the crew chose this option.
Ed and Harold went to college. Roland stayed in the Army Air Corps and transferred to New Mexico to fly with Test Group Atomic.
Information courtesy of Steve Surbaugh, grandson of Roland Parnell.
Link To Crew Information