A NIGHT WITH GOD AND A LIBERATOR
By John R Gray
12:30 a.m. of December 23, 1944. We were called out to take off for destination
unknown. We were Crew #8336, a crew of a B-24 bomber. We had met at Casper,
Wyoming to take O.T.U. training. There we had been assigned our crew number.
our pilot, Augie; co-pilot, Dick; navigator, Bob; engineer, Greco; nose gunner,
O'Keefe; tail gunner, Squeak; waist gunner, Shelton; ball turret gunner, Kane;
I was the radio man, Johnny.
We had left
Casper to go to Topeka, Kansas, for overseas assignment. There we were given,
as Kipling would say, the Tommy Adkins treatment. Our wives (two of us were
married) were there and Dick's fiancée. We were wined and dined as "the bands
began to play." Our crew was one of ten to be assigned a brand new B-24
Liberator to fly overseas. The twenty other crews of the thirty at Casper would
go by train and ship.
taken off from Topeka, opening our secret orders after circling for twenty
minutes. The orders sent us to Manchester, New Hampshire. Our final destination
merely, "G.I.O." We had been called out
at Manchester and followed the same circling procedure and found our orders
from there taking us to Gander, Newfoundland. We were briefed here for several
days on procedures in flying to Iceland, Brazil, the Azore Islands and to
We had gone
to bed the night of December 22, as usual, in our steam heated Canadian
barracks never dreaming of what the night would bring.
awakened at 11:30 p.m. by a Captain who told us to get ready for take off. We
got up grumpily, packed, and proceeded to the plane under a cold, star-filled
sky, the snow crunching under our feet as we walked. The ten planes were
ordered to take off at ten minute intervals and circle the usual twenty minutes
and then to open the secret orders. These instructed us to proceed to the Azore
Islands. We had been briefed on radio frequencies, flight altitudes and
weather. The only report of clouds was a weak cold front over the Atlantic
about half way of the journey. Nothing to cause concern. The distance is
approximately thirteen hundred miles. I had looked at my Air Corps watch on the
way to the plane – it read 12:30 a.m.
We were now
settled comfortably in our places flying at ten thousand feet. Squeak had
bedded down in his sleeping bag in the tail "stinger" of the plane. Bob was in
the nose navigator area. I was at the radio desk on the flight deck, behind and
to the right of the pilot and co-pilot. Greco was sitting on the step directly
behind the pilot compartment. Kane was in the waist behind the bomb bay.
O'Keefe and Shelton were playing cards on the flight deck to my left. The
steady roar of the four big engines was a comforting blur. On the ground, dog
may be man's best friend – in the air it's those engines.
legs hit the bottom of the radio table. I looked up to see the altimeter
whirling in descent. On interphone I heard Augie ask Dick for full power. The
altimeter needle now read eight thousand feet. We had lost two thousand feet in
a matter of seconds.
Augie ask, "What happened, Dick?" Dick said, "Damned if I know." We climbed
back to ten thousand feet and Dick cut the power to cruising range. My heart
rate followed the revolutions of the engines. The card game which had stopped
about a minute all hell broke loose. My legs again caught the bottom of the
desk. I looked over Augie's shoulder at the altimeter. The needle now was in a
rapid whirl. Augie cried, "Full power." I saw Dick hit the throttles. The
needle still whirled. Augie's shoulders heaved as he shoved the wheel clear
forward. The altimeter needle now spun. I saw six thousand, five thousand, four
thousand. The needle on the airspeed was climbing in relation. The red line on
the B-24 was at 269 miles per hour. I noticed the needle pass this in a rapid
sweep. It hit three hundred, three hundred fifty, four hundred, four hundred
twenty-five. Augie nudged Dick who glanced over and by some instinct knew what
was wanted. He grabbed his wheel and I saw both pilot and co-pilot strain to
pull those wheels back. The noise was terrific. I heard a tremendous crash
beside me and thought, "Oh, my God, the right wing is gone." The plexiglass in
the top turret, to my left and overhead, let go. The deck of cards, to the last
one, made a funnel-like tornado and disappeared out of the turret. I thought,
"How funny that is." O'Keefe and Shelton were actually floating in the air
beside me. Then, "Crunch!" My head
suddenly took a notion to push down into my chest. I couldn't keep it up. I
could not lift my arms. I thought, "No one will ever know what happened to us.
God, take care of my wife."
I rolled my
eyes to the altimeter again. It read five hundred feet. Now the plane began to
respond and level out. The needle began to climb – one thousand, two thousand,
three thousand. Then the coolest voice from one of the nerviest guys I've ever
met came over the interphone. "Augie, will you quit playing around up there. I
can hardly write." It was Bob. I looked around. We had all been petrified, but
with that voice we sprang into action. Everyone grabbed Mae West's and their
parachutes and quickly put them on. We found this as useless as locking the
barn door after the horse has been stolen.
the bomb bay doors open. He tapped me on the back. "The hydraulic won't close
the bomb bay doors. Give me a hand." He got out the manual crank and we tried
our best but they would not close. He stepped out on the cat walk, reached to
the outside and said, "My God! We lost the bomb bay doors." He afterward
laughingly said he threw a fish off of the cat walk.
explain that the altimeter, relying on air pressure for activation, would not
keep up with a rapid change. With this leg, it is probable we were from fifty
to one hundred feet above the water when the dive ended).
began to take stock of what had happened. It was still pitch black and about 4
a.m. We had fourteen radio antenna systems on the B-24. The pilot told me to
contact the other planes if I could. I could hear them clearly as they were
probably no more than a mile to ten miles away. I tried to call them on several
sets to no avail. Finally, I decided to let down the trailing wire antenna for
the liaison set. This should have been capable of reaching seven hundred fifty
miles under the most adverse conditions. As I started to call, Squeak called
from the waist, "There's sparks flying back here all over the side of the
plane." The trailing wire weight had broken off from the strain and with no
weight the wire was slapping the plane side. When I transmitted the radio
frequency, it was causing regular lighting flashes. I found the only antenna
intact was the stub mast of the British VHF set. This was capable of reaching
only fifty to seventy-five miles. I asked Bob how far we were from the Azores.
He told me about seven hundred miles from Gander, six hundred miles from
Azores. We were isolated.
We had been
navigating mostly by radio, with the radio compass and other radio means, Bob
now had to take over the celestial navigation. Thank God for his ability.
brief period of our fall many strange, impossible things had happened. Although
to me it seemed like at least five minutes from the time we had started to fall
until we began to pull out it couldn't have been over thirty seconds.
section of this B-24 had a "stinger" rather than a turret, as the older planes
had. There were two 50-caliber machine guns in a plexiglass bubble. There was a
heavy canvas partition closing these off from the waist which was closed with a
heavy zipper. Squeak had been sacked out in here with the zipper closed. When
we straightened out he was in the waist in his sleeping bag, leaning against
one of the waist guns. This was impossible as the partition was not torn and
the zipper was fastened!
We had been
furnished box lunches at Gander. Squeak and O'Keefe had put theirs in the waist
on the floor. When they gained their composure and appetites, they started a
search for their boxes. Finally they found them. They were on the radio deck
twenty feet from where they had placed them, but side by side in exactly the
same position they had been in on the floor.
As the sun
began to rise, we could see the holes in the plane. The right wing has a hole
beside the fuselage through which a large sized man could stick his head and
shoulders. The deicer boots had exploded from the leading edge of the wings.
The nose turret had disintegrated and the plexiglass from this and the top
turret had literally riddled the aluminum skin with holes.
6:30 a. m. things were half way normal. The worry now became the gas supply.
None of the other nine planes were in sight. The Atlantic Ocean is an
unfriendly, desolate, gray-green expanse. It looks cold. Augie asked Bob how
far we had to got. The navigator estimated two hundred miles, adding that he
hoped he was right. The added drag from the open turrets and holes was using
the gas fast. Finally we contacted Blue Jay tower on the Azores with the VHF
set. This was remarkable from about one hundred fifty miles. We asked for
emergency landing privileges, if we made it. We explained we were riddled with
holes. Permission was granted to go straight in without regard to pattern.
what's that?" We all had been straining
our eyes for a glimpse of something that looked like land. Ahead and to our
right were some tiny dots. They were the Azores! "Are we on the right heading?"
Augie asked Bob. In a few minutes Bob corrected our heading by only three
degrees. He had guided us by the stars for nearly seven hundred miles and had
hit those tiny pinpoints within such a slight deviance. "We've got only ten
minutes gas left," Augie said. "Get on those Mae Wests, get on your parachutes
and be ready to ditch or jump."
the dots grew larger in the bright morning sun. One engine started to spit.
"We're coming in," Augie said, and in what seemed an eternity our wheels were
rolling on the steel clad runway. The big bird rolled to a stop. No time was
lost in "hitting the dirt" and I must confess we laid down and kissed the dirt
through the holes in ramp.
pulled up with a Colonel, the Commanding Officer of the base there. He shook
hands with each of us and then immediately started to interrogate. We found the
reason for such excitement and why the C.O. himself was there to greet us. When
they heard of all the holes in our plane they had concluded that the Germans
had developed a new long range fighter that could attack in the middle of the
Atlantic. This had, with cause, created a deep concern.
said, "You boys don't have to worry about missions. You've had the roughest
you'll ever have to fly." He told us to get plague shots and pick up passes for
the run of the island – something as far as I know – no other combat crew ever
crews took off the next day. We spent Christmas Eve on the Azores, the most
lonesome but the most thankful Christmas I've ever spent.
plane was patched up, we flew it twelve hundred miles mostly over water to Marrakech,
Africa. The engineering officer here inspected the plane and found the tail
spar bent thirty degrees. It was built to stand fourteen G's so the pressure in
our pull out had been terrific.
together what happened, there is only one explanation. We hit the top of a
cumulo nimbus cloud, losing two thousand feet the first time in a down draft.
We then must have flown into a second cloud with terrific down drafts. Augie,
realizing we did not have power, even with full power, to keep altitude put the
plane in a dive to gain flying speed. When he tried to pull out, he couldn't.
Worried that with the wheel clear ahead we might turn over on our back, he had
called on Dick to help pull it out. The Davis wing pulled us out!
been arguments galore about the qualities of the B-24 Liberator as against the
B-17 Flying Fortress. I will not argue this. I am sure that all of us of Crew
#8336 have given thanks to God and to the Liberator many times, however, for
bringing us back alive.
- published in the Winter 1971 Liberator Club Briefing