General briefing for 28 air crews was conducted between 4 and 5:30 a.m. The 579th Squadron was selected to lead the group to the primary target of Friedrichshafen, southern Germany, with Lt. White as lead bombardier. The secondary target was Russleheim, near Frankfurt.'-'
Two days previously we had flown a mission to Friedrichshafen which was ineffective. Anytime you didn't do a job on a target you could expect that the next time you came, they would be waiting for you.
The 8th Air Force "Big Week" of February 20-26 was just the beginning of the great air offensive in preparation for "D-Day." Each of the three air divisions were flying maximum efforts nearly every day against the industrial targets of the German Third Reich. Bomber strikes of 800 strong were a regular occurrence. Royal Air Force Bomber Command's similarly-sized fleet of Lancaster, Halifax and Mosquito bombers flew night after night with their devastating loads of 10,000 lb. "blockbusters" and incendiaries.
As one of the 392nd's four squadron commanders, it was my turn to lead the group as command pilot. And 18 March 1944 promised to be a great day. The target was the Dormer airplane assembly plant at Friedrichshafen, a city on the north shore of Lake Constance, on the German-Swiss border. It was here that the great dirigibles, Hindenhurg and Graf Zeppelin, were built in the late 1920s and 1930s.
The weather was clear all across France, Bavaria and the target area -ideal for visual bombing with our Sperry bombsights. Although there would be a great concentration of friendly fighters, P-38s, P-47s and P51 s to defend us all along our route, we expected the usual heavy antiaircraft defense of the target area and German fighter attacks both inbound and outbound of enemy territory.
At approximately 9:30 a.m., takeoffs began. Assembly of our two 12-ship squadrons and the other 2nd Air Division Groups was effected on schedule. The great bomber stream of some 350 B-24s in the 12-ship formations, with white contrails streaming from their engines, roared across the English Channel at 20,000 feet altitude. Paralleling our course on our left was the long bomber stream of the B- 17 formations.
We started off (on my 18th mission) with 26 B-24s. Four of these (smart, lucky or whatever you might call them), aborted the mission so we ended up with 22 airplanes. Things were fine until we'd crossed the English Channel and were over France, when two of our airplanes in our group collided. Both went down. So we lost two more airplanes before we'd hardly got started.
Both air crews were from the 577th Squadron. In aircraft #174 "R" for Roger, Lt. Dalton's crew got caught in the propeller wash, colliding with aircraft #824, Lt. Anderson's ship, slicing off the tail and tail turret of #824. Both ships collided again going down and exploded in sheets of flame before crashing.
Shortly after crossing the French coast at 12,000 feet, two of our ships collided. I watched it all through my binoculars as they were down. Although I didn't see any parachutes I learned later that one crewman, on his very first mission, had somehow survived.
As we crossed the French-German border just south of Strasbourg, I can still see that tremendous azure-blue sky, filled with formations of Liberators and Fortresses rushing eastward with escorting Thunderbolts, Lightnings and Mustangs circling above, searching for attacking German fighters. It was a sight that no camera or painting can possibly capture in perspective or magnitude. It must have been an awesome sight and sound to the eye-witnesses below.
Separate from the regular formations of B- 17s, I recall seeing a sixship formation. They were out there all alone - what I considered to be just asking for it. It wasn't until later that I learned that was exactly what they were doing - asking for the German Luftwaffe to attack them. They were specially armored, heavily armed and equipped Fortresses that were deployed so as to draw the enemy fights away from their more vulnerable "brothers." They didn't even carry bombs.
The snow-covered Alps were shining bright to our right as we skirted the Swiss border. My formation of two squadrons were tucked in close; I was really proud of them.
The bomb run was so designed that we would fly eastward past our primary target, then circle to the right towards the initial point of our bomb run on the east end of Lake Constance - about 20 miles from "bombs away." After bomb-release, we'd make a right turn to assemble the group, then head outbound for home.
As we made a gradual turn over the IP, our bomb-bay doors were opened and all bombing equipment readied and functioning properly. I recall how blue Lake Constance looked as we flew along its shoreline at 20,000 feet. The target area was clear of clouds, and I was in high hopes of a really successful bombing attack. This lead crew was one of the 392nd's best. This was their 25th and final mission of their tour.
Our trip towards the target area was fine until we came around and approached the target. We were following the 44th Bomb Group, and for some unknown reason the 44th started a 360-degree turn. We didn't follow them, but proceeded over the target and, of course, that left us quite a way behind the leading groups on this mission.
The flak was quite heavy over the target. Our formation got somewhat interrupted by the 44th's maneuver and one of the sections left to bomb another target, a nearby railway yard at Stockach. But we went over the primary target.
Up ahead of us I could see the black shell-bursts of anti-aircraft fire, but it wasn't in a big barrage like I'd seen and flown through over Bremen, Kiel or the Ruhr Valley. It didn't look bad-and then all hell broke loose!
Flak started bursting right in the formation. Not ahead, above or below - they had us zeroed in. The concussion made our airplane buck as chunks of jagged steel clanged into it. The other planes in the formation went sailing by. I was stunned at the havoc. Vern Baumgart, with his eyes on the flight instruments flying the bomb run, quickly recognized that we had lost power on #4 engine and promptly feathered it, along with applying full power to the remaining three.
But the formation had overrun us and was scattered - the bomb run was in disarray. Lt. White, lead bombardier, did his best to adjust for the sudden change in air speed and loss of programmed altitude, but it was too late.
Needless to say, we didn't get our bombs on target. Five of our B-24s were shot down from our two formations by that intense and accurate flak. My left wing man, Lt. Books, flying deputy lead, had disappeared and my right wing man, Lt. Everhart, was also limping on only three engines.
We were leading the low squadron of the 392nd's lead formation. Then, as we were lining up for the bomb run, the formation suddenly swerved sharply to the left. I learned a few years ago that we were on a collision course with another formation. Our pilot, Lt. Rex Johnson, couldn't slow down enough to stay in formation without dropping below flying speed, so we shot out ahead of the formation and went over the target alone, dropping our bomb load by estimation.
By now we were behind schedule and no fighter escort in sight. As we circled, waiting for the rest of the formation to catch up, I noticed many of our B-24s had one or more dead engines with propellers feathered, (the blades turned edgeways into the slip stream). The flak over the target had been very accurate. We fell in at the back of the low squadron, which we'd been leading -the dreaded "Tail-End Charlie" position.
Earlier, in a B-24 named "Li'l Gipsy," Lt. W.A. Kala and his crew were last seen shortly before reaching the target, straggling off to the formation's left, salvoing its bombs. The Liberator, with its #1 engine feathered, then passed under the 392nd's formation to the right, headed for Switzerland and landed at Dubendorf Airfield safely."
After the flak had torn us up over the target, Lt. Spartage, who was flying a slot behind us, said later that they were after me, because he was flying through smoke all the way across the target.
Our #4 engine wasn't actually damaged, it was a throttle control. The flak had knocked out the throttle control and the engine went into full idle. Twelve inches of manifold pressure doesn't do much good for you at 20,000 feet.
Our ship lost an engine and had sustained numerous flak hits, but was still flying and our bombs hit the target area. Then a blast of flak killed our bombardier, Lt. Edmund Brown; our new navigator, borrowed from another crew for the mission, bailed out. After passing the target, Lt. Clifford Peterson, our pilot, asked me to find out why it was so cold. I crawled to the nose compartment and found the dead bombardier, the navigator gone, and the freezing cold air whipping through the open nose-wheel door.
Leaving the target area, our airplanes closed back in formation. Flying on three engines, we were about 10 mph slower. The groups ahead pulled away from us in a very short time. Earlier, because our 14th Combat Wing leader, the 44th Bomb Group, had been forced out of its lead position by another group cutting in at the IP, the 44th then had to do a 360-degree turn and come in for a second bombing run. This maneuver had created a long gap in the bomber stream, both ahead and behind us, thereby leaving us isolated and vulnerable. It invited the ensuing fighter attacks.
We had hardly realized the implications of the situation when one of our waist gunners called a warning; "Fighters - three o'clock level!" There they were, a whole "gaggle" of them in close formation, paralleling our course about a half-mile to our right - and climbing. I immediately switched over to the command radio and began calling for friendly fighter cover.
I remember to this day those fighters coming on the right side. When they came in, they came in five abreast. I don't remember ever seeing that before. They were literally wing tip to wing tip, five of them at a time straight on in. And every time they came in, somebody got it. Robert Berger, Copilot B-24 #411 "Jungle Princess":
We were leading the second formation of 10 airplanes (having lost the two B-24s over France in a mid-air collision), flying low and behind the lead formation.
Our bombardier, Paul McDonald, was an old hand at this game and he took control of the ship through the automatic flight control equipment as we passed the IP and started on a really great bomb run, during which the flak really started coming up. It sounded like old wash tubs were being banged right under us. We had experienced plenty of this before, but this time they really had us zeroed in. We lost one engine and this slowed us down, but throwing on more power to the remaining three engines enabled us to hold our position on the bomb run.
The flak got more intense, and about the time we had the power under control, an 88mm shell came up in front of our windshield, between the navigator's astrodome and the cockpit. Luckily, it didn't explode. If just left two neat five-inch circular holes as it passed through the floor and the top of the nose section.
When we began the bomb run we had 10 planes flying a nice tight formation. Although the flak was scattering us a little, we were holding in fairly well. Just before bomb release, our top turret gunner sounded an alarm. Another B-24 formation had pulled right above us with bomb doors open, ready to drop. They had evidently turned on their bomb run early and this had brought them right over our squadron.
Our pilot, Don Clover, immediately declutched the AFCE, took over control and led our formation to the left, thus enabling most of our planes to get over far enough so that the bombs from the group above only came through the right edge of our formation. We didn't lose anyone to falling bombs, but we lost four B-24s to flak, either shot down or scattered during the bomb run.
Because Lt. McDonald was forced to delay releasing our bombs due to our being forced out to the left, he sighted a target of opportunity on the outskirts of Friedrichshafen, which we think was a railroad marshaling yard. Still in the flak area, we released the bombs and started pulling towards the 392nd's lead formation, now heading back to England but a long way behind the other 2nd Air Division Groups ahead of us. We also could see tiny specks to our right and in the sun; reflections rather than shapes were about all that was visible.
Our formation of only six ships from the 12 we'd started out with had pulled together well, an element of three behind and a plane off each wing. Although we were on only three engines we were making good progress, homeward bound.
The "specks" suddenly transformed themselves into Me. 109s and FW 190s. They came curving round, then swept in from about one o'clock high, flying in elements of four or five, wing-tip to wing-tip, as they sliced through our formation, oblivious to our defensive .50-caliber machine gun fire.
Shortly after we left the target, approximately 10 or 15 minutes at the most, we saw, very clearly, coming out of the northeast at about one o'clock, a group of enemy airplanes coming in as many as six abreast. It's been estimated between as many as 75 and 80 enemy fighters, both Me. 109s and FW 190s, mostly 109s, came through our formation a total of three times.
Their first pass took some airplanes down, which cut down our size and, therefore, the ability of our formation to do as much damage to the incoming enemy airplanes; the loss of every one of our planes meant the loss of 10 more .50-caliber machine guns. The enemy fighters went around, came in again, went through a second time, and we lost some more.
We released our bombs over Friedrichshafen through a flak barrage that was thick enough to walk on and which knocked out our #3 engine and caused additional damage. Shortly after bomb release and at about 3:00 p.m. we came under intense fighter attacks.
The decision to head for Switzerland was made by our pilot, Walter Hebron, who requested the heading from our navigator, Leo McDonald.
It was undoubtedly the correct decision, as we would never have made it all the way to England from southern Germany.
About 20 minutes after leaving the 392nd's low formation and dumping our Norden bombsight in Lake Constance, Lt. Hebron lowered our landing gear. An Me. 109, with Swiss Air Force markings, intercepted us, came alongside and escorted us into Dubendorf Airfield, Switzerland, where we made an emergency landing on a comparatively short runway. Swiss Army troops then took us in a truck to the nearby town.
Our copilot, Russ Vreiling, suddenly yelled, "Fighters!... 12 o'clock level." This time, there were about 30 of them stacked up.
It is difficult to describe events. Bombers and fighters appeared to go down like flies during the running battle, which was even more intense than the Gotha raid. Our ship was hit hard again, with one engine already feathered, holes through both wings; the entire instrument panel, half the windshield, the generator panel and fuel transfer valves were gone; the Plexiglas of my top turret was gone, but my guns were still functioning. However, after one of the waist guns was torn loose, I didn't hear any of our rear guns firing again.
We had named our ship "Old Glory" on the morning of that fateful raid. Up to that time we had flown eight deep penetration raids to Germany in different ships now our crew, commanded by Dallas Books, was flying deputy lead of our group formation.
We dropped out bombs on completion of the bombing run, although flak was intense over the target and our ship had taken numerous hits. Our ball turret gunner and left waist gunner were both killed and our tail gunner, Daniel Jones, was trapped in his turret, which was on fire. He couldn't get out and was calling for assistance, "Help me, 'Pappy' . . Help me!" (because I was the oldest crew member, they all called me "Pappy"), but I couldn't get to him because the fire was too intense.
We'd made a gradual left-hand turn over Lake Constance while under fighter attack which left our #4 engine burning, parts of our plane were breaking off, on fire, and coming past the waist door. A crewman on board the nearest B-24 to our right was waving frantically to me from his waist window.
I called Lt. Books, our pilot, and asked him to bank to the left and head for Switzerland. He said, "Yes .... Hold on a minute.... We'll be all right."
As we neared the primary target I could see the Swiss Alps in the distance, but my attention was soon drawn to the largest flak concentration I was ever to see. To jam the gun-laying radar I threw bundles of "chaff' out of my waist window, but the German gunner already had us bracketed and we were hit in several places.
Our bombardier was hit in the face. Blinded, he screamed incoherently over the interphone. Looking out, I saw five B-24s going down in various stages of distress directly over Friedrichshafen, just like fingers on your hand .... As the wounded bombardier was being removed from the nose turret, I saw a gaggle of about 30 or 40 enemy fighters, Me. 109s and FW 190s, flying on our right at about three o'clock level. Seconds later a series of white puff balls appeared in the air all around our ship. I wondered if they were a new type of flak, but our pilot, Lt. William Meighan, suddenly yelled through the intercom, "HERE THEY COME!" Sure enough, outside my waist window an FW 190 flashed by from a frontal attack, doing a roll between us and the nearest B-24.
By now I felt it was only a matter of time before we went down, as we were already crippled. While I tried to swing my .50-caliber machine gun at other fighters as they streaked past, our top turret was doing most of the shooting and the ball turret gunner was trying to get into the damaged nose turret.
The enemy fighters presented a fearful sight as they dived at us from one o'clock high, at closing speeds approaching 500 mph, with guns blazing. All our formation's nose and top turrets responded with short bursts from their twin .50-caliber heavy machine guns. It's difficult to tell the damage we did to them, as we were too busy assessing the damage they did to us.
One of their 20mm cannon shells exploded against our navigator's side instrument panel. Steel fragments and splinters struck our navigator in the face and left eye. Then our waist-gunners reported three B-24s falling out of formation in varying degrees of distress. I switched to the command radio, calling repeatedly for help from our fighter escorts.
After coming under concentrated and damaging attacks from fighters over Waldshut, near the Swiss-German border, George Haffermehl, piloting B-24 #826, gave the order to bail out and left with several other crewmen. Tragically, waist-gunner F.J. Wagner was killed when he bailed out near Berau at the dangerously low altitude of 500 feet. However, copilot Donald McMullen decided to stay with the crippled bomber and, together with navigator Kenneth Parks, bombardier Sam Pippel, who had been wounded in both legs by shrapnel, and ball turret gunner Jewell Mitchell, made a crash-landing in the damaged Liberator near the village of Diessenhofen, just south of the River Rhine, in Switzerland. All four crewmen were interned by the Swiss authorities.
A fighter began firing 20mm shells at us from behind, and though our tail gunner returned fire, the recently-installed link chutes in this tail turret caused his two guns to jam intermittently.
The next thing I saw was a B-24 flying upside down, and then an equally amazing sight was of an Me. 109, about 300 feet below us, on my side, flying in our direction and not much faster. He was probably firing at another B-24 ahead of us and possibly assumed our plane abandoned.
Anyway, he acted and flew as if we didn't exist.
I took aim, sighted point-blank and fired between 30 and 40 rounds into his wings, engine and cockpit. His engine sprayed glycol and I'm sure I must have killed the pilot because his fighter slowly rolled over and fell out of control, trailing smoke, to the ground 20,000 feet below.
Walter Raschke and his crew in #518 "Hard To Get" peeled away from the formation shortly after bombing the target and were last seen over Schramberg, southern Germany, when their bomber was seen to complete an almost impossible aerodynamic maneuver, an outside loop, then explode in midair after intense fighter attacks by German fighters. The remains of the Liberator crashed 700 yards south of Schronbronn, 15 miles west of Rottweil. There was only one survivor, Jack Rankin, a waist gunner. He was captured and became a prisoner of war.
Rex Johnson and his crew flying in #465 were shot down by fighters near Marizaell, between Schramberg and Rottweil. Only two crewmen survived, D.C. Johnson, navigator and E. W. Milliken, a waist gunner.
Immediately after rejoining 578th low squadron, I noticed a formation of Luftwaffe FW 190s off to our right and climbing swiftly out ahead of us. I watched them through the astrodome (used for sextant observation of stars in celestial navigation) and called them off for our gunners. This was my usual practice when under fighter attack, to assist in ensuring that our gunners were aware of the position and direction of attacking planes.
As soon as they were sufficiently ahead and slightly above us, five or six of the enemy fighters turned and without pause attacked line a breast from head on. I crouched down behind and slightly to the left of the nose turret so that its metal frame and armored Plexiglas might offer a little protection from their line of fire. Crouched down on the floor of the navigator's compartment I looked up through the astrodome above and saw one of the fighters flash by. I thought we'd evaded that attack, but an instant later a missile of some kind, leaving a fairly large trail of sparks and fire, sliced through the nose turret, the space where I'd been a few seconds earlier, and exploded in the pilot's compartment behind me.
Our plane immediately began to spiral down (not quite a spin) and I pulled the emergency handles to open the nose wheel doors, which was the escape hatch from the Liberator's nose section. Then I quickly pulled off my armored flak vest, disconnected the earphones, throat microphone and electrical cord for my heated flying suit, removed my oxygen mask and steel helmet. Since I always wore a seat-pack parachute rather than the detachable chest-pack type, I didn't have to think about whether I had a chute. I was ready to exit our B-24 when the four engines speeded up, so I waited to see if the plane would straighten out and level off. The engines then slowed back to cruising speed but the nose-down spiral continues. It was time to bail out.
I'd been pinned to the compartment floor by centrifugal force and the moment my feet dangled out of the escape hatch I popped out like a cork from a champagne bottle when we were at about 19,000 feet. Our airspeed was about 190 mph. Looking around, I saw the plane coming round towards me. Its right wing was apparently going to hit me just beyond the #4 engine.
Without time to consciously think about it, I grasped the rip cord to jerk it an instant before the wing hit, hoping if I wasn't killed outright, my parachute would open without becoming entangled and would take me safely to the ground. An instant later I was spinning end over end, then the chute opened, giving me a tremendous jerking around. After things settled down I was swinging quietly in the thin cold air. The only pain was in my left ankle, so I presumed that was where the plane's wing had hit.
I could see other planes in our formation disappearing in the distance and heard the faint sounds of machine gun fire. Then I saw another parachute drifting down below me and our plane continuing its downward spiral. A flight of four Me. 109s was heading towards the formation and would pass close by. I was concerned that the leader might fire at me. I tried pumping my chute to drop faster then worried it might collapse completely, if they swept right on by. No doubt our remaining planes were better game.
I can still see our navigator looking back at me with a dazed expression through the astrodome, wiping the blood from his face. Then Lt. Stupski, our pilotage navigator and nose turret gunner, yelled that the whole nose section was covered in blood and that our bombardier, Lt. White, was trying to throw our navigator out of the plane. But it quickly transpired that the "blood" was red hydraulic fluid leaking from severed hydraulic lines. The wounded navigator, being dazed and in shock from the exploded cannon shell and his head injuries, quite understandably wanted to bail out, but without a parachute. The bombardier was merely trying to restrain him and Lt. Stupski had misinterpreted his intentions. After being given a shot of morphine to ease the pain of his injuries, our navigator calmed down. He later lost an eye, but the surgeons managed to save his other eye.
Ellsworth Anderson and his crew, flying B-24 #824, were shot down by fighters. Their Liberator exploded in midair after intense attacks. Only three crew members, George Mosteka, radio-operator, Emil Farren, engineer and Lt. Anderson managed to parachute to safety before the bomber crashed at Stetten, Rottweil, 60 miles northwest of Friedrichshafen.
Our pilot, Lt. Dallas Books, apparently unaware of the fire in the rear of our bomber, obviously thought that he could control our plane. Then our navigator, Lt. Slowick, came on the interphone, cursing the Germans and saying he didn't want to go down. But another fire was gradually spreading along our right wing as we headed back over southern Germany.
Then the German fighters came through our formation again, or what was left of it. My oxygen mask was shot away and cannon shells seemed to hit us everywhere, resulting in one of our oxygen tanks exploding near my head. The blast blew me out of the waist door and into space. I was temporarily stunned. When I came round, I was falling through space and attempting to buckle the other clip of my parachute pack onto my chute harness. I recall trying to frantically pull the rip cord D-ring, but was very weak because of lack of oxygen. I must have fallen at least three miles before my parachute mercifully blossomed open.
One ship exploded in midair at about 3:15 p.m. and I saw pieces from it, burning as they fell, but I didn't see any other parachutes. The remains of "Old Glory" crashed to earth about 80 miles northwest of Friedrichshafen. I was the only survivor from our crew. God must have been with me through every second of that hell in the air.
I landed in an open field near the village of Hardt, in the Schramberg area of southern Germany. An elderly man, armed with an ancient rifle and accompanied by a small, red-haired boy who, surprisingly, spoke good English: "American airman? Do you have any chewing gum?" I replied that I did and reached in my pocket to get some. The old man, mistakenly thinking I was reaching for a pistol, immediately raised his rifle and shot me in the chest from about ten yards away.
Strangely, it didn't hurt much as I'd collected several other painful wounds during the air battle.
I spent the next five months in a German hospital receiving treatment for my wounds before being taken, by railroad and under armed guard, to a POW camp at Stalag 17B, Krems, Austria. George Laufer, then a German schoolboy, vividly recalls the crash of B-24 "Old Glory": Saturday, 18 March 1944, was a day I will never forget. My brother and I were playing in the back garden of our home in the village of Hardt when the bomber came down. It exploded and broke in half high above the tops of a group of trees.
The main part (front) of the plane landed a short distance away at the back of our house and the tail section, on fire, crashed to earth further down the hill. One wing landed across the hill from our house and burning fuel from the wing's fuel tanks ran down the hill into the stream, giving the appearance that the stream itself was on fire as the burning gasoline floated on the water.
Several men from our village and I ran across to the crumpled front part of the plane. There were six airmen inside the wreckage, all appeared to be dead, apart from one airman who was very badly injured. He looked at us, but said nothing. I noticed he had red hair and freckles on his face, but he died shortly after arrival and before we could do anything to help him . An American officer, apparently from another bomber, parachuted down following the crash and landed in a tree near our house. But he, too, was found to be dead when he was lowered to the ground.
We then went to the burning tail section of the plane, but as we stood around the smoking wreckage, the ammunition started exploding, forcing us back. During this time, I picked up a large piece of metal from the numerous pieces of wreckage and equipment lying around the crash site and took it home.
We were later told that the bodies of three more airmen were found in the burned-out wreckage of the tail section, and were taken with the six other airmen to the Fire Station at Hardt, next to the village hall. The bodies of an additional 22 American airmen were taken to the fire station in Hardt from other crash sites in the surrounding area for identification purposes, prior to burial on 22 March 1944 in the cemetery in Schramberg, a larger community.
It took five days for German Army soldiers to clear all the wreckage from the crash site. They had armed guards there all the time until the site was completely cleared.
Bruce Sooy's crew flying in a B-24 named "Pink Lady, " was shot down by fighters near Haslach, 12 kilometers northeast of Offenberg/ Baden. All 10 crewmen survived to become prisoners of war.
I was doing a bit of zigging and zagging to avoid getting hit so the enemy fighters missed us with their first two attacks, but on their third time through, at which time I think I had only one other airplane flying with me, we were hit in the right-hand side of the cockpit. Actually, the entire side by the copilot, Russ Vreiling, was blown out. We could look out and see the #3 engine turning. The copilot was hit considerably more than I was by the flying glass from the windshield and the shrapnel from the 20mm shells.
It was about this time, as the cockpit blew up, I looked out and in the split-second could see a German fighter so close that I could see the German pilot's face as he came through. I couldn't tell if he was alive or dead or what his purpose of being that close was. Whether he was the one who hit us, shot at us, I don't know, but almost instantly our airplane went into a spin and we had no control of it at all.
The copilot got out of his seat and hollered; "LET'S GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!" We rang the alarm (bail-out) bell and I got up from my seat, and I can remember looking around for my spare pair of GI shoes, but couldn't see them.
Our pilot, Clifford Peterson, was a big man, a red-headed Irishman and as strong as a horse. The trim tabs wouldn't trim the ship and he was fighting the controls with brute strength as we watched the fighters circle and form up ahead of us. Then they launched another frontal attack. I shot pieces of fuselage as big as card tables off one of them. He skimmed over my head and collided with our two vertical stabilizers.
We were not shot down - we were rammed and lost our vertical stabilizers. Our B-24 immediately went into a spiraling near-vertical power dive. There was no fear of jumping. The need was to bail out .... right now!
That 19,000-foot parachute descent was long and slow. The complete, utter silence suspended there high in the sky was the most striking thing about it. There was absolutely no sensation of falling, but objects on the ground gradually grew larger. I didn't have the heart to watch our plane all the way down, but I heard the distinct and sickening "crump" as it hit the snow-covered ground far below.
There was a patch of evergreen forest below with a small village nearby. Eventually the houses, etc., began to look near-normal size and it was apparent I'd land about midway between the forest and the village. Then the snowy ground appeared to rush up at me and I took the full force of the landing on my uninjured right leg, letting myself collapse backwards into the snow.
A small group of villagers had come out and they assembled around me. The two I specifically remember were an older man wearing a fullsized leather apron (probably a cobbler), and a young man about 16 years old in black military uniform carrying a rifle (probably a member of the Hitler Youth). The cobbler searched me, asking in German what sounded like "Pistoleh?" I shook my head "no," as I never carried one on a mission, although we were issued a .45-caliber automatic. As the search pro-ceeded, he found my good-quality pocket knife and started to take it, but I hung on. The young man immediately stepped back, lowered and cocked his rifle and put the muzzle three inches from my stomach. That, of course, immediately settled the matter.
The search completed, I was taken to a sort of town hall with a villager on each side helping me to hobble along. Inside the hall was Ellsworth Milliken, our ball turret gunner and the only other survivor from our 10-man crew. Because his turret malfunctioned, he'd climbed out and retracted it just moments before we were hit. Our two waist gunners, Robert Kimball and Hugh Reynolds, were lying dead on the waist floor as Sgt. Milliken bailed out of his waist window.
A local nurse bandaged my injured ankle in the town hall while we waited until a military truck arrived for us. I'm not sure, but I believe it was a Luftwaffe truck rather than a Wehrmacht (Army) truck. Germany was short of petroleum, so this non-combat vehicle ran on a gas produced by burning sawdust. The converter was similar to a very large hot water heater and was located on the right-hand running board at the rear of the cab.
After collecting us, the driver stopped by the wreckage of our plane, which was lying on some vacant ground near the village. He and a few uniformed Germans in the back with us got out to look at the plane. Neither Sgt. Milliken nor I had the heart to do so, but it looked as if it had been dropped flat on the ground. The high-mounted wings had collapsed downwards but the fuselage appeared fairly intact, although the bottom of the fuselage must have been crushed. My report to the USAAF, after return to the United States, said there were still some small flames, but I don't recall that.
Five surviving crewmen, four of whom were injured, managed to bail out at a dangerously low altitude. Eugene Roscoe, our radio operator, had his parachute mercifully "thwack" open mere seconds before he hit the ground. He only broke a leg, instead of being killed outright had his chute failed. He, our copilot, Lt. Vreiling, and our navigator, Lt. Morehead, were captured almost immediately. Our B-24 crashed near the small French-German border village of Ettenheim-Munster, southwestern Germany, about 20 miles east of Strasbourg, France.
The airplane hit the ground probably about 10 seconds before I did and about 200 yards from where I landed. It was over a little hill, which bid the airplane, but I heard ammunition exploding and saw the smoke rising. We actually landed in the Black Forest.
I estimate that we were less than 1,000 feet above the ground when we got out. That was borne out by the post-mission reports that only one ' chute was seen by the few surviving planes, because we were so low they wouldn't have seen us in our `chutes during the few seconds we were in the air.
The first thing I noticed was my sleeve was torn off from my flying suit and the wires of my electrically heated suit were hanging out. I began taking off my leather gloves, which had white silk liners. My white silk gloves had turned red. I didn't know until later that I'd been hit by a sliver of steel in the middle of my eye, shrapnel in my face and shrapnel through both arms and my right leg.
I was down three or four minutes when I heard hollering. I looked towards the sound and it was my engineer, Sgt. Hinshaw, coming towards me.
At about 3:30 p.m., William Sharpe's crew, flying in #117, was shot down by fighters just northeast of Ettenheim/Munster. Only three para-chutists, Clarence Coveney, ball turret gunner, and the two waist gunners, Carl Anderson and Michael Curini, emerged before the bomber crashed and exploded.
Lt. Muldoon's airplane, "Double Trouble," was right alongside, and a big hole was in the bullet-proof window on the copilot's side, near the copilot's head, and I figured he must be headless. By that time, the bomb bay doors were opened and a parachute was flapping in the bomb bay. The plane looked in bad shape.
Actually, a 20mm (I found out later) had gone in at an angle through the glass, right behind the copilot's head, and exploded in the radio compartment, setting the radio operator's parachute on fire. They tried to throw the burning parachute out but it got caught up in the bomb bay, shorted out the alarm bell, and the bombardier and the navigator both bailed out over the French/German border. The fire was subsequently extinguished; the rest of the crew realized all four engines were still running, decided to stay with it and limped back to England.
Lynn Peterson and his crew in a Liberator named "Old Daddy" #497, were last seen at 3:30 p.m. under attack by German fighters. One outboard engine was on fire, with the ship spiraling down to the left and crashing near Kestenholz, 22 kilometers north of Colmar/Vosges, north-eastern France. Four parachutes were seen opening as the B-24 first began to experience difficulties, then three more chutes were sighted as crew members delayed their bail-outs.
After their first two head-on attacks had taken out our two wing men and one of the three ships in the following element, the fighters came in for a third pass, during which we received several solid hits. Fire erupted and spread rapidly into the wing roots and then into the bomb bay area. The fire retardant was quickly exhausted and as the fire continued to spread; it became obvious there was no alternative but to leave the ship.
Everyone in our 11-man crew knew where he was to go and what to do to exit the ship. Thorough training paid off, and although three crewmen had been injured during the battle, there wasn't a hitch in the bail-out procedure. It wasn't a moment too soon, because almost immediately after Don Clover jumped clear of our B-24, it exploded.
After we'd left the plane, we became 2 separate stories. We were widely scattered between Strasbourg and Colmar, northeastern France, eventually arriving at different prisoner of war camps in Germany.
Don Clover gave the order, "Alright, you guys, get out of here.... Let's get out!" and he sounded the horn. We were down to 10,000 feet when I bailed out through the camera hatch. I pulled my rip cord and it came all the way out. I thought, "I broke the damn thing," not realizing that it was supposed to come out. When my chute snapped open, one of my GI shoes, tied to my parachute harness, got under the strap and hit against my chest with such force that it broke a rib. It hurt so much it almost made me sick.
I looked around and there was a railroad track and a high-tension line forming a "V" about where I'm going to land. I started pulling shroud lines because there was a train on the track but I didn't know anything about wind drift. All I wanted was to get away from this area. I managed to miss the railroad track and the high-tension wires, but I broke my leg in two places when I landed awkwardly in a field.
There was a Free Frenchman on the ground waiting for me. I'd landed in German-occupied France. The Frenchman approached me, unbuckled my chute and hid it in the brush at the edge of the field. When he motioned me to get up and follow him, I managed to stand but couldn't walk. My leg and my rib were really hurting and both injuries were on the same side of my body.
The Frenchman then kissed me on both cheeks and showed me his badge which told me he was a Free Frenchman and an ally. Had I been able to walk he would have helped me escape, but I needed medical attention, and with all the French doctors under orders to report such things, it was impossible. I could have gotten by with my broken rib, but because of my leg injuries, he couldn't save me and had to turn me over to the Germans.
I gave him my escape kit, French francs and the candy bars I had in my electrically-heated suit. When I got through with him, he was a rich man. As he stood with me, he waved to a couple of German soldiers walking across the field. They came over and helped him to carry me over to the road.
In one day I had gone from visiting my mother at home in Scotland to being shot down over enemy territory and taken prisoner.
All we could do was sit there and wait. Then the fighters attacked again. The passage of time will never erase the sight of those bright flashes of cannon fire aimed directly at me, my airplane, my formation.
No sooner had they dived below us when one of our waist gunners called excitedly. Gasoline was blowing in on them and they were being drenched. The top turret gunner/flight engineer then reported he could see holes in the left wing; 100-octane gasoline was spewing out and most of it was being sucked into the open waist gunner's window. I called the engineer to leave his turret and regulate the fuel transfer valves so as to transfer as much fuel as possible from the leaking fuel cells. He accomplished the fuel transfer successfully and returned to his position in the top turret.
I made one last call for friendly fighter cover and switched back to interphone. The enemy fighters lined up ahead of us for another head-on attack. Suddenly, two of our twin-engine P-38 Lightning escort fighters plunged straight down from out of nowhere, scattering the gaggle of German fighters in all directions - and we were saved.
After discussing and computing our fuel reserve with the flight engineer, I concluded that we could reach the White Cliffs of Dover, then we would worry about a place to land - or bail out. The alternative was to head for neutral Switzerland - and internment for the rest of the war.
Vern Baumgart told me later that while we were discussing the fuel situation, his crew were all breathlessly pulling for the decision to try for England. It was their 25th and last mission and getting back to England was the same for them as returning home to the United States.
Our P-38 Lightning escort fighters finally came to the rescue of what was left of our formation. We had two engines out and although we were gradually losing altitude, we were optimistic as we continued the long return flight.
Crossing France at our reduced airspeed of about 150 mph, several P-47s picked us up and escorted us across the remaining enemy-occupied territory. What a great relief it was to start our letdown over the English Channel, but the whole land mass was cloud covered. The concern of fuel remaining and a destination was again paramount. Another reading of the fuel gauges indicated that we could make it hack to Wendling, and for fuel conservation we throttled back and let the formation proceed without us.
"Lt. Tiefendals,.flying the damaged B-24 "Son of Satan, " made an emergency crash-landing at Gravesend, Kent, a Royal Air Force fighter base. On board the B-24 were the bodies of two crewmen who had been killed during the air battle, William Hull and John Sopchak.
After we had dumped all excess equipment in the English Channel to maintain altitude, Lt. Meighen brought our ship on only two engines to an RAF fighter field, Biggin Hill, Kent, a famous Battle of Britain base, just south of London.
Our B-24 also had one wing flap shot away and no brakes on one of the two main landing wheels as its hydraulic system was cut. We rolled rapidly off the end of the runway after landing, but Lt. Meighen brought the bomber to a stop without further injury or damage.
Lt. Muldoon, piloting the heavily damaged Liberator "Double Trouble, "limped home to Wendling and made a successful crash-landing at approximately 6:45 p.m.
Approaching our base at Wendling, it was reassuring to be given a loud and clear response when we called 2nd AD on emergency frequency for a vector to Wendling. Shortly after that, we could see the big yellow flares spreading through the undercast at the end of the runway.
Due to our hydraulic system being drained of fluid during the battle, our landing gear had to be cranked down manually. Vern Baumgart made a smooth landing, and with only the application of brakes available, he eased "El Lobo" off the runway onto the adjacent grassed area to slow it down, coming to rest without incident. Nine hours after take off, our safe landing was an event that was as welcome as any in my life.
Fourteen of our bombers had failed to return to England. One or two made it to safety in Switzerland. Some of the 140 missing crewmen managed to bail out of their disabled or burning airplanes. Some became prisoners of war or were interned in Switzerland. Most of them, I am sure, are numbered with the 6,032 airmen enshrined in the 2nd Air Division's Roll of Honor. The consoling after-thoughts of the 392nd's most disastrous mission are that several of the 2nd Air Division's B-24 Bombardment Groups made devastating hits on the primary objective. Consequently, Friedrichshafen was never rescheduled as a target.
Our saddest day was undoubtedly the Friedrichshafen raid. Very few aircraft returned and total disbelief permeated the entire base. There was a profound silence throughout all quarters. As a result of this tragedy the workload of almost all the ground support sections reduced dramatically. We had virtually no aircraft to service and several weeks passed before we were back to full strength. Replacement aircraft were no longer camouflaged. All our new B-24s were bare metal, a bright silver color.
As the air war intensified, we would no longer remember what the new replacement air crews looked like - our paths rarely crossed. We were working all night and loading every conceivable type of bomb. When we rested, often beside the runways, the air crews arrived by truck at their planes after their briefings, and then they took off. So it went on.