7 July 1944 began like many others at Wendling. At 3 a.m. the 43 designated air crews for the impending mission were awakened. The earlymorning briefing told us our target was to be another deep penetration raid into Germany, the aircraft assembly plant at Bernberg, about 100 miles southwest of Berlin. This was a prime target that the still-formidable Luftwaffe would do its utmost to defend. B-17 Fortresses of the 1st and 3rd Air Divisions were scheduled to attack other well-defended targets in central Germany.
Our crew, commanded by Leo Ruvolis, had flown 19 previous missions, some tough, some easy, without any real mishaps, and all flown in the same great ship. Although we all realized that our lives were very much in danger each time we crossed the enemy-occupied coastline, we were quietly confident in ourselves and in our aircraft.
At that time, the 392nd Bomb Group was well-equipped with planes and crews. We were part of the 14th Combat Bomb Wing, along with the 44th at Shipdham and the 492nd Group at North Pickenham, all based in northwest Norfolk with the B-24 equipped 2nd Air Division. However, due to suffering recent severe losses, the 492nd had been badly depleted and could only manage to get 24 aircraft airborne for the Bernberg mission. In order to establish a well-balanced wing formation, the flight plan called for one squadron from the 392nd to fly as high/right squadron with the 492nd Group. The 392nd would lead the 14th Wing, followed by the reinforced 492nd, with the 44th Group, "The Flying Eightballs," bringing up the rear.
On this mission the 3rd Division was scheduled to enter German airspace first and was therefore assigned a large proportion of the fighter escort cover, P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs. But the 3rd Division was late. Consequently, the 2nd Division was first to cross the German border, and as we headed for our assigned primary targets we inevitably attracted the majority of the German fighter forces. It was estimated that the 14th Wing was intercepted by as many as 175 single-engine and 125 twin-engine enemy fighter aircraft.
Deep into Germany, the 44th Group was forced to veer off course due to a possible mid-air collision with a wayward stream of B-24s.
Unfortunately, the limited American fighter cover followed the 44th.
Savage enemy fighter attacks then came from every direction on the remainder of the 14th Wing. Very soon, B-24s of the 492nd and the attached 392nd Squadron began to go down. Repeated radio calls and distress flares failed to attract help from our fighter escorts. Our primary target was bombed quite accurately, but in the running aerial battle during and after our bomb run, five 392nd B-24s went down, all flying with the 492nd, which itself lost a staggering 12 planes, 50 percent of its strength. Leading the high/right element of the 392nd Squadron attached to the 492nd was "Rap `Em Pappy." There was one B-24 flying off each wing, each manned by crews on their first mission. The first to go was the one on the right, exploding into a great ball of fire and smoke after slowly peeling away and down from our formation. The same fate befell our left wing man minutes later. Only three parachutes were seen to emerge from both B-24s.
Now alone, "Rap `Em Pappy" fought for survival against constant attacks from the rear by Me. 109s and FW 190s, Our tail gunner, Ted Sheridan, got two of them before a 20mm cannon shell exploded on the toughened bullet-proof perspex of his gun turret. He was blown out of his turret and into the waist, badly stunned but otherwise unharmed.
Our ball gun turret had been removed a month earlier after being flak damaged. This left no defensive fire to counter attacks from the six o'clock low area. Our engineer, J. Cowley, manning the left waist gun position, suggested to our pilot that a turn to the left would enable him to fire at the fighters attacking from the rear. As the plane began its turn, the fighters poured in their fire. Cowley was badly wounded, as was our other waist gunner, Jerry Beltz. The 20mm cannon fire ripped into the left wing, knocking out both engines and leaving the wing burning. Machine gun fire smashed the pilot's instrument panel and knocked out the intercom system.
With the situation now hopeless, our pilot, Leo Ruvolis, had no alternative but to hit the "bail-out" bell. The bomb bay doors wouldn't reopen, so the top turret gunner, Jake Schenkenberger, and radio operator, Jim Garvey, went to the rear of the plane to bail out. Lt. Ruvolis, copilot Carl Wunderlin, bombardier Ed Young and myself all went out via the nose wheel door. The severely-injured waist gunners, Sgt. Cowley and Sgt.
Beltz, were assisted in the bail-outs from the rear section of the plane. Sgt. Sheridan also managed to clear the burning "Rap `Em Pappy" before it crashed 7 kilometers northeast of Osterwieck, but Jim Garvey and Jake Schenkenberg, possibly hit by the fire from German fighters, failed to make it and went down with the ship, which was totally destroyed.
Sgt. Cowley died in a German hospital the following day and Sgt. Beltz was later repatriated after a leg amputation. The Germans merely reported that our copilot, Carl Wunderlin, was "recovered dead." Other bailed-out airmen were known to have been killed by German civilians that day.
Leo Ruvolis, Ed Young, Ted Sheridan and I spent the remainder of the war in prison camps. We considered ourselves very fortunate to have survived our final flight in a B-24 called "Rap `Em Pappy."
The day the "Rap `Em Pappy " went down on the Bernberg raid, a Luftwaffe flak-helper was part of the German defenses. Anthologist Ian Hawkins has obtained his report and it is included in the following to give a glimpse of what we were fighting against.
Friedrich Kowalke, Luftwaffe Flak-helper, Magdeburg:
On 7 July 1944, the Leipzig area of eastern Germany again received a visit from the 8th USAAF. The silence was suddenly interrupted when our special broadcasting system began reporting an air battle somewhere between Oschersleben and the Harz Mountains. We searched that direction, seven o'clock, with our optical instruments, and saw several B-24s already in flames, other bombers were surrounded again and again by flashing projectiles (air to air rockets), then simply disappeared.
What had happened? The 14th Combat Bomb Wing had just departed from their target area, Bernberg, when "Sturmgruppe IV/JG 3" (storm group - heavily armored FW 190s) of Capt. Wilhelm Moritz began a company front (mass) attack on the low squadron of the 492nd Bomb Group. All 12 B-24s in that low squadron were shot down. In addition, five Liberators from the 392nd and three from the 44th BG also were shot down.
This success was mentioned by the "Wehrmachtsbericht" the next day, in particular the first sortie of a "Sturmgrupe" was named which had shot down the four-engine bombers. Such events, although comparatively seldom because the P-51 Mustangs had gained air superiority, were always used by the Nazi-propaganda people in Berlin to maintain the morale of the German people on the home front.