THE "HEAVENS ABOVE" CREW
Our crew met for the first
time, at the Crew Assignment Center, Lincoln AFB, Nebraska. I was just out of B-24 Pilot Transition
School at Tarrant Field, Ft Worth, Texas and all of the members of the crew
were just out of individual training for their position on the crew. These were the crewmembers:
CREW MEMBERS: POSITION RANK
Charles Herrington Pilot 2nd Lt
Bernard H. Stevens Co-Pilot Flight
James A. Greenwood Navigator Flight Officer
Harold R. Davis Bombardier 2nd Lt.
Harvey H. Effinger Radio
Bruce J. Griffith Flight
Lester R. Miller Gunnery/Ball
Alfred J. Billo Gunnery
NCO/Asst Flt Eng S/Sgt.
Albert W. D'Angelantonio Gunner/Nose Turret Cpl.
Pete F. Garbarini Gunner/Tail
Our crew departed Lincoln and reported to Davis-Monthan AFB,
Arizona (Tucson) on June 5, 1944 for crew training. Tucson, in summer, reaches temperatures as high as 117 F in the
shade and we were living in two story wood barracks with no insulation or air
conditioning of any kind and no shade.
During flight training, it was hot.
When you were pre-flighting the aircraft it was so hot you avoided
touching any metal in the aircraft.
Coming at the mid-point in our crew training, our navigator,
Jim Greenwood, arrived during the night.
He was asleep the first time Steve and I saw him. Jim was so tall he almost touched both ends
of the metal Army cot. One of us said,
"Timber" thinking of a tall tree falling.
That name stuck and we called him that during most of our training.
We studied the B-24 systems, flew transition for the pilots,
practiced aerial gunnery on ground targets at Wilcox Dry Lake, practiced
bombing on targets in the desert south of Tucson and practiced formation
flying. Our Navigator joined us at the
halfway point in our crew training and we did practice navigation. The air over the hot desert had vertical
currents that challenged the pilots flying the planes. Most of the crew had very little prior
airtime and none in the B-24. With the
aircraft bouncing up and down on the rising heat currents and the pilots making
sharp movements in learning formation flying, someone on the crew was airsick
every flight. (No one experienced airsickness after we left Arizona). Everyone did well in the training.
Steve was just out of pilot training and must have applied
for assignment to Fighters. There were
not enough fighter positions to be filled and the over flow were the graduates
who usually were assigned as co-pilots on B-24 and B-17 bombers (I had asked to
be assigned to four engine and the B-24 was the one the least number of pilots
asked for). As soon as we were allowed
to fly without an instructor pilot, we began alternating between pilots for our
takeoff and landings. We alternated for
time flying formation so we both became very proficient (some of the pilots did
not allow the co-pilot to make takeoff and landings.) Steve was very eager to participate and I got the impression that
his motto was: "Anything you can do I can do better". I liked that, although we never discussed it. Before and during our training, the reports
of aircraft damage and losses in the 8th Army Air Corps in England
were not encouraging. I anticipated
that we would have similar experiences and would be fortunate to survive. I was pleased to have a well- qualified
co-pilot to bring the crew home if I was disabled and the aircraft was still
Our crew was made up mostly of eighteen to twenty year
olds. Sgt Miller was the oldest at
twenty-eight, I was twenty-four and the only married man on the crew. There was no curfew during training. Crewmembers were allowed to go and come as
they pleased, as long as they met the training schedule. Our crew was very active. Sgt. Miller seldom slept in the barracks and
other crewmembers frequently spent the night in Tucson. Many of our early morning flights found me
still counting my crew as the Officer came down the line calling the crew
roll. To their credit (and my relief)
none were ever late, except Harvey (Radio Operator) was missing two days. He had been mugged in downtown Tucson and
was in the Base Hospital. Other crews
eventually named us "Pappy
and His Shacking Nine"
Joe and I went horseback riding one evening. The
stable owner and another man came along with us. The stable owner told
Joe he didn't know how to ride a horse. Joe grew up on the plains of
Texas and those were fighting words to Joe. He wanted to whip the owner's
ass, but the owner's companion and I got them separated. The stable owner
never said a word to me and I could hardly hang on to the horse. So much
for being a Cowboy.
We had a crew celebration, for completing our crew training,
at the Blue Moon (a dance hall) on the Miracle Mile in Tucson.
We departed Tucson with a ten-day delay enroute (leave) and
reported in at Topeka, Kansas. We were
there almost a week, then were assigned a new B-24 to fly to Bari, Italy and
join the 15th Air Force. We
departed Topeka at an early hour (still dark).
This was our first takeoff with a fully loaded B-24 and 100 octane fuel
(training flights were done with 91 octane and reduced power settings for take
off). We made take off and encountered
our first crew challenge. The landing
gear handle could not be moved to the up position. We gave the Topeka Capitol Dome a good buzz job with gear down
while we worked on manually retracting the solenoid that blocks the gear handle
while the airplane is on the ground.
The gear problem solved, we proceeded to Grenier, New
Hampshire, doing a low over-fly of my home near Terre Haute, Indiana on the
way. I had made a parachute from a
handkerchief and suspended a 50 caliber round (powder removed). Joe dropped it from the rear camera hatch as
we passed my home. We stayed the night
at Grenier and were intending to depart the next morning, but found that the
maintenance people had checked the landing gear circuits, but had not done a
retraction test. Our airplane was loaded with additional items at Grenier
making it even heavier than the Topeka take off, we insisted that a retraction
be done. When it was done our problem
had not been repaired so we were at Grenier another day.
Next, we had an uneventful flight to Gander, Newfoundland,
where we stayed a couple of days, then
made a night launch for an over water flight to the Portuguese Island,
Azores. About an hour after take off,
Harvey received a radio message telling us to return to Gander. The weather had prevented aircraft at Azores
from proceeding to Africa and there wasn't enough room for us. We returned to Gander and weather forced us
to make an instrument approach to landing.
I'm sure the crew was a bit nervous about a night instrument landing
with pilots that had never made an actual instrument approach to landing. It was quite a relief and a confidence
builder for them when we broke out of the clouds lined up with the runway (me
We had joked about the navigator being excess baggage during
our crew training, because we were over land and had radio navigation available
to the pilots. As we boarded the
airplane for this over water flight, our navigator, Jim Greenwood, said he was
excess baggage and would just sleep on the way to Azores. I took the challenge and asked him for the
flight plan that he had made and we would get there. He never talked with the pilots during the first six hours or
more, but we could see him in the astrodome taking observation with the
sextant. Finally, he called and gave us
a course correction that brought us within a few degrees of the radio beacon bearing
when we were in range to receive the signal.
We arrived at Azores and landed on the runway that was a steel mat. The rattle of the steel sections as we
traveled over them sounded as though the bottom of the airplane was being
ripped out. Harvey lost the weight from
the trailing radio antenna, on landing, because he had forgotten to retract it.
Harvey and I went for a walk along the cliffs overlooking
the ocean. We had been there for a
while when we heard someone approaching.
It was a Portuguese soldier wanting to sell us some wine. We bought a couple of bottles and, as I
remember, it was quite good. Not
wanting to take it back to the airplane, we drank both bottles before starting
back. We were drunk on ours — and when
we arrived there the rest of the drinkers on the crew were also drunk, with
Davis and Greenwood leading the pack.
Seems they had met up with the same soldier and bought wine, then drank
it to keep from sharing with us. You
had some bad boys on your crew. (I
disagree with that statement, perhaps naughty? -CH.)
We spent two nights at Azores, then took off for Marrakech,
Morocco. An overnight there, then on to
Wheelus AFB in Libya. Things were going
well as we were flying over Algeria.
Everyone was relaxed when suddenly there was the sound of an engine at
high rpm. The gunners were all
scrambling to their positions, thinking we were being attacked. The number three engine propeller controller
had failed and the rpm went to maximum.
We feathered the engine and landed at Algiers for repairs. We asked the Engineering Officer how long it
would take to repair the prop and told him we wanted to see Algiers. He told us he would probably have the part
by the next day, but said, "call me when you want to go". We stayed three days and I was quite relieved
to be on our way. We all visited the
Casbah in Algiers and were a striking contrast to the natives. The Arabs were so poor and deprived from the
war, that a pair of army boots would be a temptation for them. I worried for the safety of my young crewmen.
We departed Algiers and flew to Libya. The flight was uneventful until we arrived
at Whellus, AFB. The runway was gravel
and a strong crosswind was blowing. It
was quite a challenge, but we made a safe landing and stayed a day. We were able to see some of the area ruins
from Biblical times.
The next flight took us to Bari, Italy and 15th
Air Force Headquarters. We arrived in
the afternoon and had unloaded most of our luggage when we saw a B-24 trailing
smoke from the number three engine while on final approach. The airplane landed and fire erupted from
the engine. The crew evacuated and
watched their new airplane and all of their possessions burn to the
Our new airplane was taken from us and we were loaded into
the back of a 6 x 6 truck for a long bumpy ride to the 720th Sq.,
450th Bomb Group at
The 450th Bomb Group moved to Italy early in the
occupation of southern Italy. The war
was intense in all of southern Europe.
The battle on the western coast of Italy was still being fought and the
Germans still held Yugoslavia and Rumania
One of the prime targets for the 450th was the Ploesti Oil
Fields in Rumania. The Germans were
eager to defend these with everything they had, fighters and anti-aircraft
guns. The 15th Air Force was
sending 1000+ bombers at a time to deny the Germans the oil from these
fields. It must have been an
overwhelming number for the available German fighters, so they concentrated on
one group and that Group was the 450th.
15th Air Force identified each Group by painting
markings on the tail of the airplanes.
The 450th Group marking was white rudders on all of the
bombers. Thus the Group was nicknamed
"The Cottontails". The German fighters
chose this as their primary target identification and would move down the line
of bombers to find the 450th before they attacked. We heard that the 450th attrition
in the first six months was equal to the original number of crews. The 450th changed the identifier
by making a diagonal from the top front of the vertical stabilizer to the
bottom rear of the rudder and painting orange and white stripes below the
diagonal. A large A was painted at the
top, above the diagonal.
We arrived at the 450th in late September
1944. At that time the Germans had been
driven to the Po valley in northern Italy and the Ploesti oil fields were essentially
destroyed and soon taken over by the Russian Army. The Germans were short of oil and fighters. It appeared that they were using their
fighters to concentrate on defense of the homeland. Our crew was never attacked by fighters and could not positively
identify any in the areas we bombed.
At Manduria we stayed in newly raised tents in an olive
grove. The airmen were assigned space
in an Italian barracks and the four officers were soon given a room in another
former Italian barracks. The officer's
room was just large enough for two army cots, end to end, on each side of the
room and a comfortable aisle between.
Our possessions were stored over and under the cot. Beyond that, all personnel had to fend for
themselves. Our barracks had eight or twelve
rooms and a community shower. The
shower had only cold water and the toilets consisted of a depression in the
concrete and two foot pads in front of a drain, there was a water tank high on
the wall with pull chain for flushing.
Being a wooden building, we were not allowed to have heaters. We (and others) did fashion a water heater
by welding one oil barrel on top of another and putting a 6" steel pipe through
both. The pipe entered at the bottom,
from the front, made a 90 degree turn and exited at the top with a stove pipe
out the roof. At the bottom, the pipe
extended approximately four inches from the front of the barrel and had the top
portion cut off for air to enter. A
piece of steel was welded across the end to prevent fuel from going on the
floor (wood). We piped gasoline from a
barrel outside to the protruding pipe and heated the water. All of that led to a couple of exciting
events. We could
not leave the fire burning unattended, so it was usually
lighted by someone wanting a bath. If
the gasoline was turned on to flow at a faster rate than it could burn in the
pipe, it would result in an overflow and fire on the wood floor. A fire extinguisher was kept nearby and both
times the fire was extinguished before any damage to the floor. A bit more excitement was added when the
fuel was re-lighted and the fumes in the pipe exploded driving more gasoline
and fire onto the floor.
As we became attuned to our situation we found that
cigarettes, candy and liquor were valuable bargaining tools with the
Italians. We were not satisfied with
our living quarters so we bought cement, lime and hand hewn limestone blocks to
build a floor, walls, clothes closet and fireplace, all with cigarettes from
our rations. We found a metal beam and
arched it from one wall to the other as support for the center pole of the tent
that we used as a roof. We used the
heavy plastic wrap off a new engine to cover the window (wood and glass were
scarce materials). We tapped into the
electrical wire that went to Squadron Headquarters and suspended a light from
the center of the overhead beam. My
sister sent 100w bulbs and we had bright light. We loved the brightness, but it was the 260 volt current in a 115
volt bulb that made it so bright and shortened the life of the bulb
drastically. Sis kept the bulbs
coming. We made chairs from bomb fin
crates by welding backs on the crate. I
severely burned my eyes watching the arc welding work. I awoke during the night and felt as though
someone had thrown sand in my eyes. I
uncomfortable I got up and tried to take a walk, but the
tears blurred my vision so much I could not safely walk in the dark. I went back to bed and finally slept. The following morning, the pain was gone and
I could see clearly.
We quickly found that there was no wood for a fireplace, so
a five gallon oil can was converted in the same manner as the water
heater. We cut a hole in the side of
the can and put a hinged door on it and welded the can to the top of a metal
crate that had been used for shipping bomb fins. Welded a 5" steel pipe to the bottom, cut holes in the pipe for
air and welded a plate over the bottom end to hold fuel. We are getting a bit safety minded by this
time, so we built a stone cradle on the outside of the wall for a barrel and
This is our abode.
Left to right is Herrington, Stevens, Greenwood and Davis. We are standing in front of our closet, the
entrance is to the left behind me and the fireplace is at the opposite
end. We are at the south end of an
olive grove and the tree beside our home is an olive tree.
ran a copper tube through the wall and into the stove (five
gallon oil can). We put a shutoff valve
at the barrel and one for fuel control just before the stove. We found a regular 5" stove pipe and confiscated
some fuel oil from the Mess Hall supply.
Now we have heat? Yes we had
heat until the soot from the heating oil clogged the stovepipe. After cleaning the stovepipe numerous times
we were rescued by the cook. He put a
lock on his oil supply forcing us to convert to aviation 100 octane fuel. No more soot. We put our barrel on the front bumper of a jeep and went to the
flight line refueling truck for our supply.
We had a couple of minor problems with operating the stove. Controlling the fuel flow at just the right
level to allow vaporization in the heated inlet pipe and full burning of the
fuel was vital. Any excess would pool
in the bottom of the burner pipe and overflow on the floor (cement). The other problem was complaints from other
tents on cold nights. When our heater
was adjusted for maximum heat, it was limited by the inflow of air to the
burning chamber (holes in the pipe in the bottom). At maximum heat production, it was gulping for more air,
resulting in miniature explosions, sounding like a steam railroad engine. All it lacked was the whistle.
There were added benefits from the stove. My sister, Eva, sent two pound loaves of
cheese and we liberated loaves of bread from the Mess Hall to make toasted
cheese snacks on a rack placed over the top of the stove.
Our airmen were equally as resourceful as the officers. They had heat in their quarters. We all ate in the same Mess Hall.
We found three walls adjoining the enlisted barracks and
requisitioned the Sq. Co's jeep after he retired each evening and gathered
corrugated tin from the theatre that was being built, along with some 2x6 for
rafters and installed a roof. We also
requisitioned materials, after hours, to make a door and closet space. We found a 55 gallon drum and copper tubing
with which we fashioned into a heater which also doubled as a cook stove. When it was time to refill the fuel tank, we
borrowed the CO's jeep and went to the flight line in search of a fuel trailer
to pull over to the hut and fill our fuel tank. Al's Mom would send him sausage and mine would send me Lipton's
soup mix and we would cook that up with the bread we got from the Mess Hall. Bruce was an early riser. When we were not scheduled to fly, he would
go to Mess Hall first and report what was on the menu. Often, he would return and tell us, in his
West Virginia accent, "There were fresh AGGGS FOR BREAKFAST". Miller would kid him and say, "Bruster Boy
the only boy in the world that would spell eggs with one A and three Gs.
There we had a windstorm one night and we awoke the next
morning and when we looked at each other we started laughing. During the night, soot from the roof had
blown in and covered our faces. We all
looked like Al Jolsen in Black Face.
We slept in the Italian barracks until we remodeled the latrine at the end of
the Italian barracks. We had it fixed up real nice, a stove and all the
comforts of home, except for the shower and that was miserable. I slept
in the corner and Joe slept next to me. We were the closest. One
time Joe and Miller were arguing real bad and Miller told Joe he would stab him
with his scissors. I told Miller I would shoot him before he could cut
Christmas eve 1944, I went to the tent where our officers lived and played
cards. When I came back to our place, everyone was asleep or passed out,
except Joe. He had a guitar and was playing to Harvey. Harvey was
passed out. We never did find our where Joe got the guitar.
Now it's time to get to the business we were there for, the
war. New crews were scheduled for
training flights to teach the formation procedures currently in use and test
their ability to fly formation. Steve
and I had developed pretty good skill at formation flying (in the bumpy Arizona
air) and were proud to show off. We
thought we could do it with the best of them and showed it by moving in
close. On our first Formation flight,
the leader asked us several times to move away a bit.
A requirement for some crews to practice for night missions
came to the squadron and, being the new kids on the block and lowest on the
totem pole, our crew was scheduled for several night training missions. I casually mentioned to the Operations
Officer that if anything came of those training flights he should remember who
had done the work (more about this later).
Crews were scheduled to fly fifty combat missions before
rotating back to the United States.
Lightly defended targets or short distance earned one mission credit and
long missions over heavily defended targets earned double mission credits. Our crew flew thirty-one sorties to earn the
fifty mission credits. A total of nineteen
of these were on heavily defended targets.
We always had debriefing after each mission; a report of
bombing success or failure and discussion of events during the mission, then we
were offered a 2oz. Shot of Old Methuselah.
I was not a connoisseur of liquor so I brought along a bottle and
collected my ration to save.
We saved our liquor ration after each mission and kept it on
a shelf in our hut. One night there was
a noise that woke us up and Effinger yelled that an animal was in there. We all grabbed our 45s and fired away. A damn cat jumped out of the window and ran
like hell. We broke every bottle we had
saved and were lucky no one was shot.
Our first two combat missions were flown with the crew split
among other combat experienced crews.
We saw some anti-aircraft fire, but it didn't look as dangerous as I had
expected. A couple of bursts were near
the formation, but we only saw the smoke from the explosion, the unseen metal
shrapnel reached much farther. There
were no enemy fighters reported in the area.
Our first mission as a crew was October 17, 1944 and the
target was an ordnance plant in the heart of Vienna, Austria. Vienna was
reported to have approximately six hundred twenty five guns that could reach us
as we crossed the city. I believe all
of them fired at least two or three rounds as we passed over. One piece of flak entered the plane at an
angle, coming in ahead of the waist gunners, making a tear in the corrugated
flooring between them and exiting behind the waist gunners. Another piece of flak penetrated the
cowling on number one engine. Now we knew what combat was about.
I remember hearing the noise of
the flak ripping across the deck and looked back to see Miller in Billo's arms,
with his arms around Billo's neck and staring down at the deck. I can just
imagine what he was saying. Probably something like, "What the s—t was that",
you had to see those two grown men, one in the arms of the other, wearing
heated suits, oxygen mask, flak vest and helmets. I laughed the entire trip home.
You had to see the expression in their eyes. I still laugh when I think of it.
I mailed a copy of this document to the 450th
Historian, Robert A. Davis. Robert
informed us that his crew was Tail end Charlie in the 721st Squadron
formation on this mission, their 30th. They were hit and the right wing was broken off. The aircraft went down and only four
enlisted crewmembers survived. They
were taken prisoner and spent the remainder of the war in prison.
This picture shows light to moderate FLAK. Vienna had at least three times as much and
we were in range for five to ten minutes each time we crossed.. We crossed eight times.
Vienna was one of our most heavily defended targets. Our Squadron didn't lose any aircraft over
Vienna, while we were there, but other Squadrons did. I'm not sure how many, but one was reported to have been hit with
a shell that exploded in the cockpit area and a crew member was observed lying
on the wing, with his parachute streaming over the front and the underside of
the wing as the airplane went down. The
plane was lost and I never heard whether or not any of the crew was able to get
For those who might not be familiar with the term Flak, The
term is used in reference to the hot metal fragments that are generated by the
explosion of 88mm or 105mm shells from the German anti-aircraft guns. The visible smoke is the location where the
explosion took place and the red hot metal fragments are propelled in all
More practice missions, primarily for other new crews. On October 30, 1944, while participating in
one of the afternoon practice missions, the formation leader was instructed to
send our crew back to home base. Of
course, my thoughts were "what did we do now".
When we landed, a truck picked us up and took us directly to the
briefing room, where a radar operator from Group Operations was assigned to our
crew and we were briefed on a night mission to bomb the rail yards at
Klagenfurt, Austria. This was our
reward for those night training missions.
One radar equipped B-24 from
each of our Group's four Sq. (each Sq. had only one) and two from another Group
were assigned to this mission. We had
dinner and made our takeoff on time.
Klagenfurt was a lightly defended target and no night bombing had ever
been done by the 15th AF, so we didn't expect much problem from their
Radar was new for bombing and there was no direct connection
between the radar and the bomb sight.
The procedure was for the radar operator to relay the aircraft to target
angle for the bombardier to set in his bomb sight, and make further corrections
as we proceeded on the bomb run. There
was a layer of clouds below us, so the bombardier could not make any
corrections of his own. Just before
bombs away, Bruce, in the top turret, reported an aircraft passing
overhead. We completed the bomb run and
dived for the clouds below. When we
were in the clouds, we made an uneventful flight back to our base.
We learned, the next day, that six aircraft took off. Four had mechanical troubles (?) and
aborted, two bombed and one hit the target.
Naturally we think we were the one that hit the target. One of the 721 Sq. pilots later wrote a book
in which he stated that none of the aircraft returned. We know for sure that he was misinformed.
This was only our fourth mission, but it must have received
good reports to Group Hq. from the radar operator. From that time forward, we were being groomed to fly Sq. lead in
Jim did not want to be responsible for the navigation for
the Sq. and asked to transfer to another crew.
It was done, but after two missions with another crew, he was glad to
come back to our crew.
There were lighter moments interspersed with the frightening
ones. There was an outdoor theatre
nearby at Group Hq. We were still
living in the wood barracks and I was alone in our room writing a letter while
the other officers went to the movie. A
mouse came warily out to the center of the room and approached a cookie crumb
that someone had dropped. I moved and
he ran away. I reached for my 45 and
loaded it with a cartridge of birdshot from my survival kit. I laid it beside me and continued
writing. Mr. (or Mrs.) mouse came out
again, but ran as I picked up the weapon.
Now I'm determined, so I took aim on the cookie crumb and waited. I was rewarded, the mouse came out to the
crumb and I pulled the trigger producing a loud explosion and eliminating one
mouse. Soon there was running in the
hall as the remaining occupants in the building rushed to see if I had
eliminated myself (quite a few were combat weary). I picked up Mr. Mouse by the tail for all to see and declared, "I
Our fifth mission was a long one to a heavily defended
target in Munich, Germany. We cut a few
doughnut holes in the seat cushions, but escaped unscathed. We flew a couple of missions to Yugoslavia,
then our eighth mission we had an oil cap that was leaking, so we dropped in at
Bari to get a new one. When we taxied
out for our second takeoff of the day, that runway looked awfully short for a
full load of bombs and there were outcroppings of rock and some small buildings
off the end. We elected to leave the
flaps up until just short of takeoff speed, then set them at the takeoff
setting. We hoped this would allow us
to gain speed quicker. It must have
helped, because we cleared the obstacles by an acceptable margin. We didn't catch up with our Sq. but joined
another group to bomb the target in Munich again.
The ninth mission was exciting. We were given an airplane that had an engine change during the
night, done while the bombs were being loaded.
The usual test hop after engine change was abandoned and a one hour
ground run was substituted. We weren't
bothered much by that and went merrily on our way for our third trip over
Vienna. On the way the new engine was
running a bit hotter than the others so we made the mixture a little richer for
cooling. We had been to Vienna before
and felt comfortable with that procedure.
After we dropped the bombs and were away from Vienna, I asked Bruce to
check the fuel level (our gauges were coffee urn type located on the bomb bay
bulkhead). He was silent for a while,
then asked me to level the aircraft for his reading. Thinking we had at least enough to get to one of the northern
bases in Italy, I protested and told him to give me the reading he had. His next statement was, "I'm afraid to tell
you". He was reading fifty gallons each
in three tanks and thirty five in the fourth.
A B-24 uses approximately 130 gallons per hour in level flight and we
are four hours from home. We were sure
we would lose the aircraft. We cut back
the engine RPM and throttle setting and started a slow descent, hoping to reach
an area controlled by the Yugoslavian Partisans and bail out there. To lighten the load for maximum range, we
fired the ammunition, threw out the guns, flak jackets and anything that was
loose and had weight. The number one
engine quit after about an hour, when the 35 gallons had been used, so we
feathered it and increased the descent rate to compensate. Didn't feed from the other tanks because we
wanted to have a controlled bailout. We
did better than expected on range and began to hope we could make it to the
British held island, Viz, off the coast of Yugoslavia. We came abeam the island at eight thousand
feet altitude, still over Yugoslavia, and decided we might be able to make a
dead stick landing on Viz if the fuel gave out We cut the throttles to idle and pointed the nose at the two
thousand feet of steel mat runway. As
we approached the runway, it was obvious we were too high and would be too fast
to land. There was no hope of making a
go around. We did a tight 360 degree
turn and rolled out to touch down within the first 200 ft on the runway. As we rolled to the end to taxi off, the
number four engine quit for lack of fuel.
Viz had minimum facilities for a fighter operation and none
for bombers. They parked us nose to
tail with another B-24 on the only taxiway they had. They used a dipstick to check the tanks and found one half inch
in each of the inboard tanks and could not reach any in the outboard
tanks. They pumped six hundred gallons
from barrels on a flatbed truck and we were ready to go. However, it was getting dark and they would
not let us take off. We stayed
overnight and returned to our base the following morning.
On Viz we (Airmen) were invited to the home of a Yugoslavian
winemaker that could speak English. We
enjoyed the evening in his wine cellar, drinking his wine and telling dirty
jokes. I was concerned about our
language since his wife was present and I asked the gentleman. He said not to worry because she did not
understand anyway, so we drank on. I do
not remember if we got back to the airplane that night or not. We might have stayed in his cellar. I for one had a lovely headache for the trip
back to Manduria.
We later learned that the aircraft had a history of
excessive fuel consumption that was not revealed to us. We doubt that assessment and believe it had
fuel tanks (rubber tanks with supports) that were collapsed. And we did not
have the fuel that the gauges indicated when we started. It became a moot problem because the Sq was
ordered to transfer one aircraft to a Group at another field. You guessed it, that was the bird we gave
Sortie number twelve was to bomb the railroad bridge at
Ferrara, Italy. Our Sq. Commander joined our crew and we flew the
lead for the Group (four Sq.) We flew
over the target without bombing because clouds prevented us from seeing the
bridge. German gunners were not
hampered by the clouds, they had radar aiming and were quite accurate. We received several pieces of flak, one of
which cut a hydraulic line (no one was injured). Bruce climbed out in the bomb bay and cranked the bomb bay doors
closed with the manual crank and, later, the landing gear. At our home field, we waited for the other
aircraft to land, because we were landing without any brakes. The landing was uneventful and we turned off
the runway before shutting the engines off and letting the ground crew tow the
airplane to its parking pad.
I was assigned to monitor and assist, if needed, in the
preflight and preparation of our Squadron for a mission. The crews had no trouble and all lined up on
the taxiway for their turn to takeoff.
I drove the jeep to the far end of the runway to observe the airplanes
taking off. A plane from another
Squadron started his takeoff roll and his number two engine propeller gearing
failed, causing it to stop. The
momentum of the rotating propeller at maximum power broke off the entire nose
section of the engine. For some reason
the pilots did not immediately abort the takeoff. They proceeded on the roll, lost directional control and
eventually stopped about one hundred yards to the left and two thousand feet
down the runway. The load for that day
was ten five hundred pound bombs. The
engine was on fire by this time and burning fiercely. To my amazement, the two fire trucks sitting close to me made no
effort to go to the aircraft. After
what seemed like an eternity, the crew in the rear compartment exited the
airplane and milled around instead of leaving the area. The normal egress for the crew in the
forward compartment is through the bomb bay.
There is also a hatch on the left side of the top for access to the top
of the wing for maintenance and refueling.
There was no movement from the front compartment until the co-pilot
exited the top hatch near the burning engine.
He fell to the ground and was dragged away from the fire by crew from
the rear compartment. Finally some
brave fellow with a small flatbed truck dashed to the airplane and picked up
those who were outside and managed to get away before the bombs exploded with
the pilot, navigator, bombardier, nose gunner and engineer still inside. The co-pilot was badly burned and died soon
New crews were still arriving and Bruce and I were assigned
to evaluate the pilots & Engineer of one crew on a local flight. We weren't that sharp at instructing/evaluating. We were well down the runway on takeoff when
we noticed we had no airspeed. All of
us had depended on each other to remove the pitot cover and no one had removed
it. I took over the controls and flew
around the pattern and landed. We
removed the cover and made a normal takeoff.
This was my first time evaluating the skill of other
pilots. I was reluctant to officially
criticize another pilot. However, the
pilot did not seem to be proficient enough and the co-pilot appeared to be the
better of the two. I reported it in
that manner and the pilot was replaced by a combat experienced pilot (probably
an upgraded co-pilot). On their second
mission, the formations climbed through clouds and returned through the same
clouds. The returning formation broke
up in dense clouds and their crew was missing.
Evidently they were not successful in transitioning from formation
flying to instrument flying and crashed in the Adriatic Sea. I had no part in choosing the replacement
pilot, but always wondered if the original pilot might have done a little bit
Sortie number seventeen target was a loop in the Brenner
Pass railroad line. We lost oil from
the number two engine as we were climbing to altitude and had to shut it
down. We jettisoned two of the three
2,000 lb. bombs into the Adriatic Sea and continued the climb and bomb run on
three engines. As I recall, our
bombing altitude was 21,000 ft. I'm not
aware of the location of the German guns, but the mountains in that area reach
to 15,000 ft. They were shooting and I
felt we were so close we could almost look down the gun barrel. The flak was all around us but we were not
Another exciting mission,
January 8, 1945. We were to bomb
the rail yards at Linz, Austria. As the
gear came up, after take off, one of the gunners reported the number one engine
on fire. We shut down #1 and turned
toward the Adriatic Sea to get rid of the bombs. When we had completed the emergency procedures, the fire was
reported to be out. Shortly thereafter
a sheepish call from the gunner confessed
(and Pete knows which one) that it had been number four engine instead
of number one. We used full rich fuel
mixture for takeoff and the fuel was still burning as it exited the exhaust
pipe. When we adjusted the power, the
flame ceased. We restarted the number
one engine and joined the formation to continue the mission. The clouds underneath kept rising as we
progressed to the target forcing us to climb to 27,000 ft. for the bomb run
(our usual altitude for bombing was 20,000 to 25,000 ft). We had flak once before the target, at the
target and three times after we were on our way home. The temperature was 57 degrees below zero at altitude, The B-24
had Stewart Warner heaters in the cockpit area, but they seldom worked. There were none in the rear. We were warmed by electrically heated
suits. The hundreds of B-24s were
leaving vapor trail that made it difficult to fly formation, but would guide
fighters to us. Fortunately the Germans
did not have any fighters to spare to protect Linz.
Got a break, we were offered an R&R to Rome (in January
in 6x6 trucks). Southern Italy has
very little topsoil over solid limestone.
January is a rainy month and there is no penetration after the first
drops. It is just a sloppy slippery
mess. Even with that mess, I was
reluctant to ride six hundred miles in the back of a 6x6 truck in winter, to
get to Rome. However, the offer was for
the crew and if one didn't go, none could go.
The driver took us across Italy to Naples, then north to
Rome. We arrived in Rome and spent five
days looking at the usual tourist attractions.
The Airmen went their way and (as I recall) Steve and I were together
most of the time.
Back to work. We
made a couple runs to Yugoslavia and a couple to our favorite target, Vienna
(just joking: Favorite-no-no) lots of flak and several holes.
The Group was encouraged, by 15th Hq. to do
training, and the Sq. would allow crews to fly local whenever they wanted. I was bored and tried to round up the crew
to fly. Bruce was the only one eager to
go. We took off with just the two of
us. Bruce was my Flight Engineer and
Co-Pilot. We turned south to the end of
the Italian Boot. As we approached the
beach we saw a B-17 flying low over the water, so we elected to join it. The B-17 is a bit slower, has better climb
rate and possibly is more maneuverable.
We came up on their right wing to fly formation with them and they were
not a bit co-operative. They turned,
climbed and descended. In formation
flying, you cannot take your eyes off the lead plane. The B-17 was making a sharp right turn and I felt it was getting
too tight for my B-24 on the inside (low) of the turn. I climbed above and settled on his left
wing. Only then did I see that we had
been dangerously close to the water and probably would have gone in. I asked Bruce why he hadn't warned me and
his answer was, "I thought you knew what you were doing". Sometimes we can be too trusting of each
other. Soon after that they left the
coastal area and climbed. We could keep
with them in distance but they climbed above us and we gave up formation flying
for that day
Another time our crew took a crew chief that had relatives
in a town southwest of the base and flew over the town. We made a low flyover for him to identify
the town, then a rooftop type to let them know we were there.
We were finally assigned an airplane we could call our own and paint our motto
on. We had picked an advertisement
depicting a lady's legs crossed and dangling below a cloud, as though she was
sitting in the cloud. A triangle of red
skirt showed behind the legs. We named
it "HEAVEN'S ABOVE". We reveled in the
fact we had something original. Then,
we had a reunion at San Antonio in 1996 and saw a museum B-17 (dirty word) with
the same motto.
"Heavens Above" Crew Chief was a young man from
Alabama. He was highly dedicated to his
work. We never had to worry, if he said
the airplane was ready to fly. Once,
when we were ready to test hop after an engine change, I ask him if he would
like to go along. I was completely
confident that the airplane was ready.
He accepted the offer and after we climbed to a safe altitude, I offered
to let him fly the airplane. He did not
want any part of that. Later I thought,
the only reason he chose to go on the flight was to prove to me that his
airplane was ready to fly and he thought I was challenging that. He was extremely loyal to his airplane, but
he showed no desire to fly in it. . .
One time we were assigned to monitor the assembling of the
Group formation and help anyone having trouble identifying our Group. We watched them assemble, reported to Group
Hq, then went on a tour of the Allied controlled part of Italy. We saw Florence, Rome, the Abbey on Mt.
Cassino, Naples and flew around the rim of Mt. Vesuvius. Our tour took us long enough that we
followed the last returning mission aircraft in to land.
February 23, 1945, we are lead aircraft for our Sq. and the
target was the rail yards at Verona, Italy.
This turned out to be our most dangerous mission. As we approached the
target there was heavy accurate flak.
One shell burst under our #3 engine and another broke the window in
front of the bombsight. A large piece
of flak passed through the nose section and cut both straps and the top of the
navigator's back pack parachute while he was leaning over the bombardier to
help locate the aiming point. Jim had a
spare chest pack and harness in his A3 bag and it was mangled also (he didn't
know about either until we were home).
Neither parachute would have functioned if Jim had bailed out. The hydraulic line to the co-pilot's brakes
was cut and the fluid under 3000 lb pressure made a mist that looked like
smoke. The aircraft was bouncing around
so much that I thought the autopilot was disconnected and told the bombardier
that I would fly it manually. That was
when he recovered enough (the shattered glass in front of the sight was less
then one foot in front of his eye) to
go back to the bombsight in time to see the indices meet and release the bombs
(three or more miles to the left of target)
Joe was in the top turret and was hit in the leg by
flak. Other crewmembers helped him down
to the flight deck and cut open his pants to check the wound. His leg was numb and had some bleeding. We decided it was best to leave it alone
until we could get him to the medics.
Pete was in the tail turret and received a small wound in the right
leg. His microphone cord to his oxygen
mask was cut just below his chin by flak and he couldn't answer when asked if
he was OK. He had a spare throat
microphone in his bag and finally was able to communicate. There was a report of a German ME 109 at six
o'clock low, so Harvey went to the tail turret and Miller tended Pete's
wound. We were not attacked by
fighters. With hydraulic pressure gone,
Bruce climbed out in the bomb bay again to crank the doors closed and did the
same for the landing gear before landing.
Back at home base, we fired the red flare for wounded aboard and shut
down as soon as we were off the runway.
The medics took Joe & Pete and we went to debriefing. By the time we were out of debriefing, both
were patched up and back with us. Joe
had been carrying his 45 pistol in his pocket and the flak cut through the
trigger guard of the 45 and glanced across his leg, taking a half dollar size
piece of skin, but not penetrating. Had
it penetrated, Joe might have lost a leg
The 45 had distributed the force of the hit, numbed his leg, and deflected
We were sent to Rome to pick up a crew that was returning
from R&R (Rest & Recuperation).
A flight surgeon went with us to get his flight time. Our flight took us over the mountains, so we
let the terrain push us up. That poor
sheepherder just threw up his hands in despair when we approached from behind
at less than 100'and his flock scattered.
We proceeded to Rome and the flight surgeon was in the Co-Pilot seat
when we entered the landing pattern. I
coached him in the pattern and made the turn on final approach much too close
to the field. I took control and put
the aircraft into a partial stall, then pushed the nose down and leveled off to
make a pretty good landing. (Don't ever
try this. How dumb and lucky can you
We flew several more missions that were frightening, but
none to compare with Verona in damage.
Al got a small piece of flak in the nose turret that made a small cut in
the instep of one foot. Thus, we had
three crewmembers receive the Purple Heart.
When returning from one mission, all aircraft had pealed off
from the formation and were in the pattern.
As we approached for landing, the aircraft ahead of us decided to go
around when he was approximately fifty feet above the ground. We continued our approach, close behind, and
encountered his full power prop wash.
The right wing went down (all fifty five ft. of it) approximately forty
five degrees before full left rudder and aileron could stop it. We recovered and made a normal landing. All of us took a couple of deep breaths as
we taxied in..
On the breaks between missions we had some recreation. We shot skeet, played baseball and rode the
truck to Manduria to get our PX rations of candy, cigarettes (building
materials) and beer. When you came out
of the PX there were always Italian youngsters asking, "Chocoletta Joe?" The
Red Cross had a station there, where we could get coffee and a couple of
Some of the crews
went on short R&R to the beach.
Greenwood & Davis went to a beach hotel on the east coast. Steve and I flew over to the beach and let
them know we were there, as low as the cliff behind the hotel would permit.
Manduria was a small town about three miles from the
airfield. The Germans had taken all of
the valuable trucks & cars when they retreated. The local mode of transportation was horse-drawn carts and
wagons. There was a shortage of almost
everything. People from the village
came to the base and harvested the ripe olives from the trees among our
tents. They trimmed the trees and
bundled the twigs and carried them off on their back for fuel.
Greenwood and Davis went to a beach on the south shore and
took along a bottle. Davis went to
sleep and was severely sunburned. It
was fortunate that we were not scheduled to fly for a few days.
There was a Military Formation for presentation of Medals
and a Parade following the presentations.
The parade was on the runway and our crew was assigned the number seven
position (last & lowest position) in the flyover formation. The lead aircraft must have been at 100 ft.,
because our plane was as close as we dared get (much less then 25ft.) to the
second element lead and we still were not more then 25 to 30 ft above the
marching troops (second element is supposed to be 50 ft. below lead and number
seven 50 ft. below second). They were
marching in the same direction we were flying and one third or more dived to
All of us received promotions of at least one grade. I was recommended for a second promotion, to
Captain. The word was out, that some
who finished their tour and rotated to the US before their promotion came
through never received the promotion. I
was not going to let that happen to me.
When our crew was scheduled for the last mission, I did not fly with the
crew, but waited until I had the promotion order in hand. I did meet the crew with a bottle of whiskey
(Old Methuselah saved from my mission ration) after they landed. They lined up in front of the airplane and
passed it down the line for everyone to take a drink. We had a party at our house/tent after the debriefing. I and some others had saved our liquor ration and there was plenty for the crew.
When the party broke up, Miller was the only one who couldn't stand. Al and Pete carried him home to their tent. It was like the blind leading the blind,
they were barely more sober than Miller and they staggered all the way.
Looking back over the missions we flew together and the
dangers we faced, this crew functioned in an outstanding manner on all
occasions and each crewmember performed his duties flawlessly, even under some
of the most challenging combat conditions.
I could not have picked a better crew if I had been allowed to choose
each member myself.
My promotion came and I finished in time to go to Naples
with the crew. I was the only member of
the crew who wanted to fly back to the US.
I hitched a ride to Casa Blanca on a C-46 and caught a C-54 to
LaGuardia. May 7, 1945, inbound to
LaGuardia, we got the word that the war in Europe had ended.
Steve missed a couple of missions when the Sq. Commander
flew with our crew to lead the Group formation. He followed the crew to Naples, but returned on a different ship
than the others.
All other members of the crew departed Naples on a ship to
return to the US. That was the last
time the crew was together until February l985. Pete informed us about the 450th Reunion in Phoenix,
Arizona and four of us attended. The
other people attending the Reunion were mostly those who had finished their
tour and returned to the US before we arrived at Manduria. There were only a couple of people we had
served with. Our crew decided to have
our own Reunions.
Our first crew Reunion was sponsored by Jim Greenwood and
was held at the Plaza Hotel in downtown Las Vegas, February 1986. We were unable to find our Bombardier,
Harold Davis, and the Ball Turret Gunner, Lester Miller. Miller lived a fast life, wine, women and
song (he couldn't sing). Davis was a
bit heavy on the liquor and smoking, so we presumed both had passed on. All of the other crewmembers attended.
We have enjoyed crew Reunions at one year to eighteen-month
intervals since that time. Our most
recent was held at Atlantic City, NJ, October 2002. We have lost two more of our crew, the navigator, James
Greenwood and gunnery NCO, Alfred J. Billo.
Of the six remaining crewmembers, only three were able to attend the
Atlantic City reunion. The others had
personal or family health problems.
The people of Manduria built a Museum as a Memorial in
gratitude to the personnel of the 450th Bomb Group and invited the
Group to the Dedication.
The 450th Bomb Group Association sponsored a tour
of Manduria, Rome, Florence, Siena, Naples and Milan in May 2001. Bruce & Betty Griffith and Marjorie
& I were the only ones of the "Heaven's Above" crew that were able to
participate. There were fifty three 450th
total, Veterans, wives and children on the tour.
We attended the Museum dedication and visited with the City
Council & Mayor. Then we toured the
city historic sites. Manduria is older
than Rome and was the site of a fierce
battle with Hannibal. There are acres of graves carved in the near surface
limestone for burial of the fallen. There was an ancient Abbey where Monks
lived and painted murals, still vivid today.
There was a natural well that has been running water since Biblical
times. To wind up the day's tour, we visited a very modern winery (No! They don't stomp grapes). The grapes were dumped from the truck into a
bin by tilting the truck. From that point,
everything was done by mechanical means and pipes. The winery served our group a sumptuous spread of hors d'oeuvres
and wine and gave us enough wine for each family to have a bottle. All of this was a Manduria none of us had
known when we served there.
We visited the site of the Manduria Airfield and found that
it was abandoned and every thing useful had been recycled. We could not find the location of our
hut. The sandstone blocks were gone and the cement floor was gone
too. The only remaining structures were
some of the higher walls of the Group Hq. buildings. The runway was almost disintegrated. Our bus took us on a takeoff run approximately halfway down the
runway. The asphalt was more a gravel
base. The remaining half was there, but not available for use.
The people of Manduria had mounted a Memorial Plaque dedicated
to the personnel of the 450th
Bomb Group at the entrance gate.