A Heroic Engineer

Bombing at Laon/Athies, France

23 June 1944

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S/Sgt Munden - The Heroic Engineer

On 23 June 1944, the 392nd BG bombed the German airfield and supply/maintenance depot at Laon/Athies, France. The next day, this press release was prepared: A gasoline-drenched Liberator returned to its base in England last night, its crew members certain that they owe their lives to the heroic action of their engineer, S/Sgt Franklin R. Munden of Ratton, New Mexico. They told of meeting heavy flak on the bomb run which punctured one of the Lib’s gas tanks and cut the hose on another. They also described how a rudder cable severed by a piece of flak whipped out and caught a live frag bomb while it was being dropped during Bombs Away.

“The bomb was fused to go off on contact,” explained pilot 2/Lt Robert R. Caldwell. “The frag was hanging in the slip stream with the bomb bay doors open. I was afraid that it would go off any minute by just hitting against the side of the aircraft. The bomb bay was filled with raw gas from the leaking tanks and the fumes were so strong that you couldn’t see. I decided that we’d better get rid of that frag bomb if we ever expected to get back to England. So I sent the engineer, S/Sgt Munden, into the bomb bay to see what he could do.”

“We were flying at 21,000 feet,” 2/Lt Caldwell continues, “and it was 20 below zero. Without thinking of his own safely, S/Sgt Munden removed his electrically heated gloves, his parachute, and his Mae West life preserver. He entered the slippery cat walk with the bomb bay doors open beneath him. Blinded by the gas fumes, he returned to the flight deck and I gave him a pair of goggles. He went back to his job and finally succeeded in getting the frag loose and dropped it. He then used a .50 caliber shell to stop up the severed hose from which the gas was pouring. S/Sgt Munden was drenched with gasoline when he came back to the flight deck. His hands and arms were so badly frozen that he couldn’t move them. I gave him a muff and he thawed them out as best he could.”

The plane arrived over its home base with the hydraulic lines cut to pieces. When copilot 2/Lt Richard J. Harer couldn’t get the nose wheel down, S/Sgt Munden went into action again. Though still suffering from red and blistered frostbitten arms, S/Sgt Munden cranked the wheel down manually, in spite of his painful injuries.

2/Lt Caldwell brought his crippled bomber in for a perfect landing, its crew members more convinced than ever in the invincibility of Liberators and heroic engineers named Munden.

Editor’s note: Copilot Dick Harer confirms that S/Sgt Munden had to manually lower the nose wheel. He does not recall any problems with hung up bombs or any engine problems; his attention was on other matters.

Dick says, “Our ship was hit by flak and we lost both lateral and directional flight control, plus hydraulics. The manual pitch control provided by the elevator was still operational, so turning the autopilot on provided complete aircraft control (not to fly close formation, but adequate to return home).

“When we got back to our base, Caldwell flew the aircraft and I controlled the engines. On the final approach to landing, he would fly to the proper touchdown point. As he did so, I was either advancing or retarding the engine throttles to maintain the desired approach speed and constantly calling out our actual airspeed.

“We had a good landing. The B-24 had a one-time emergency pneumatic braking system for use when the hydraulic brakes were inoperative. It worked fine and we came to a stop at the end of the runway. But we had to clear the runway, and we did, even though we knew we would have NO brakes when we released them to clear the runway. When we turned onto the taxiway, we slowly drifted down off the taxiway and then shut down all four engines after we were clear. No further damage was done.”