(My 14th, and I failed to write it up upon returning, and after going to Berlin the next day, didn't remember much of this tough mission)
Lt. C.L. Bell was last seen heading…
That partial sentence covers nine different experiences which could add pages in terms of experiences. As a member of Bell's crew I remember quite vividly the experience of that day. The mission started about 2300 hours of 19 June, when the C.Q. came to roust us out of our sacks with the usual info of breakfast and briefing times. After breakfast, briefing. I still recall the feeling in the pit of my stomach, because the excess trace line of our route in and out of the target area was not visible on the floor. This meant a long haul. The first two missions, or maybe five, it's still an adventurous experience. After that you start to sober. This was our twenty-fifth. After briefing it was the usual jokes and horseplay to buoy up our spirits as we made our way to the locker room to don our heated suits.
After dressing I locked my locker and discovered I had not put my sidearm away. At that time AAF Regs ordered no side arms to be taken on missions. Being a little late, I decided to check it in to Tech Supply. I told the Sarge, "I'll pick it up, if I don't come back." The Sarge remarked, "Don't worry. Bell's crew always comes back." At day's end it was certain that a seer he was not.
As we rode to the dispersal area, I felt apprehensive. This was my first mission without Joe Knight. He was grounded with a bad cold. Group superstition was when one man stayed down, the odds were the crew doesn't return, or the man doesn't on a make-up mission. Joe and I had a ritual we did before take-off. We ate our caramels from the high carbohydrates box because we didn't want the Luftwaffe to get them, and chewed gum. As we prepared for take-off, we'd stick our gum wads on the tail fin of a bomb and say, "Remember when you're up there your soul belongs to God, your heart belongs to the girl back home, and your a-- is strictly the Luftwaffe's."
Take-off and forming were normal and I prepared my duties transferring gas from the wing tip tanks to the main tanks and leveling the tanks. Then the tensions started with the call, "Enemy coast ahead." Somewhere over Denmark our first fighter escorts dropped off and there was the usual wait of five to ten minutes before the next pick-up. Sometimes these minutes seemed like an eternity. This was one of those times.
Flying on, and always on the alert for enemy fighters, I noted and alerted the crew of a group of forty to fifty fighters flying level and at five o'clock. Someone remarked that it was the second group of our escorts. I was reluctant to accept it, and kept watching them. They were too bunched up to be our escorts. As they approached three o'clock, they were a mile and a half to two miles from our formation. One fighter did a slip maneuver. I noted tail booms-P38?-hardly! How long I watched I do not know. The 492nd was leading the Wing and was starting to turn on the I.P. I thought they were spreading out too wide. It was then when the fighters hit. They definitely were not our escorts! I was fascinated, appalled and scared stiff as the fighters took their toll.
As we turned on the I.P., they turned on us. I can still remember rocket streamers and the machine gun fire. Fortunately, I think they had used their Sunday punch earlier, but what was left was still terrifying. We sustained some minor damage. After they broke the attack, I had the impression those fighter pilots must have been totally without experience or training. The couple that had pressed their attack on us were a JU88 and an ME210. They attacked us flying with the formation. The JU88 started the attack at five o'clock and about two hundred feet above us. I saw the stitch marks my fifties were making on his fuselage before he broke away. The ME210 came in at the same height from six o'clock, and I put the same stitches in his wing.
As we approached the target area someone remarked on the intercom, "Those flak-boys are really checked out." I turned my turret to twelve o'clock to check. I will affirm they certainly were "checked out." It seems they were shooting in a perfect rectangular pattern of about 400 X 600 feet. What seemed worse was, our line of flight would put us right through the center of the barrage. I observed the element leader moving ever so slightly to the left, and mentally I was telling Bell to move it over, out of center.
My next actions are burned deeply in memory. I looked at the flak and knew we would not see any enemy fighters; so I started to think of other targets with heavy flak-Berlin, Brunswick and Fredichshaven. I didn't recall flak coming either from the pilot's compartment or the bomb-bay. I did experience it coming from the sides. My turret had one-half inch armor in front and I had put flak vests at the back and under the jewels. My sides were unprotected. I rotated the turret to nine-o'clock so that my right side was toward the cockpit and my left to the bomb-bay. Next I thought of the plexiglass dome. Shrapnel can and does pierce and shatter if a burst comes close to it. So I reached down and put my helmet on. At this point my guns were elevated, so for added protection, I lowered the guns so that the receivers were on each side of my head. In this cocoon I went I went into the "Valley of Death" with a prayer to the Almighty and the usual promises to reform. I was scared! Not caring to lift my head to see anything that wasn't in my line of sight, I watched the blossoms of flak and felt several bumps indicating hits in the aircraft. Then came the relieving signal: "Bombs away, let's get the hell out of here."
After leaving the flak field, I climbed down from the turret to survey battle damage. Up front, flak had hit our radio and it was a mess. There were numerous holes in the skin, letting in daylight, and one piece of flak severed a run of wires-some of which were for the #3 and #4 engine instruments.
I started to go aft and I will attest to the fact that the combination of rubber flight boots and hydraulic oil make very slippery cat-walks. Fortunately, the bomb-bay doors were closed when the flak hit the hydraulic system. As I entered the waist section, gunners Asch and Seymour were doing a jig trying to avoid being hit by VERY pistol flares set off by a piece of flak.
Returning to flight deck, I was surprised to see we had left the formation. The #3 and #4 engines were running smoothly, but without a tachometer and manifold pressure gauges we did not know how much power to pull back or advance. It was decided to leave the settings as they were for awhile and use #1 and #2 for flight changes. By this time we had hit the deck. Time had lost its magnitude as I busied myself leveling gas tanks and watching #3 and #4 engines for the slightest malfunction.
Decision time came when Bell announced we had three options:
1. Land in Germany
2. Ditch in the North or Baltic Sea
3. Land in Sweden
Personally, I did not like the idea of being a POW, nor did I care to ditch. As for Sweden, it was an unknown, and I thought it the best of what was available. It must have been, in spite of the last few hours, my lucky day. We headed for Sweden.
We limped along nursing that "gawky angel" every mile to Malmo, Sweden. As we approached Sweden, two fighters appeared high at seven o'clock. I turned my turret to meet them and thought, "Here we go again." For some unknown reason we all held our fire. This was unusual because we were all pretty jumpy. The planes were unusual. They did not have the lines of either the FW'S or ME's. Someone identified them as Italian. As they approached closer, we were all tense waiting for them to flash their recognition lights (guns), but none flashed. They were fighters from the Swedish Air Force coming to escort us to Malmo.
What confronted me on landing was that I would have to crank the gear down and kick-out the nose wheel. Not knowing the field in which we would set down, I was more than concerned because we had only enough hydraulic pressure for one application of brakes. With the gear cranked down and locked, the nose wheel kicked-out. Our landing pattern was normal. As we turned in for our final approach, another wounded B-24 cut us out. Luck was with us as we applied power to #3 and #4 engines and they responded. We nursed our angel around again to the base leg. The B-24 that cut us off had touched down, ground looped and burst into flames.
Under the conditions we had flown, our landing was normal. As we passed the burning B-24, the ammo aboard was exploding. Then came our moment of truth. Our one application of brakes brought us within three feet of the end of the runway. Later, after conversations with Swedish friends, we learned that on that day the Swedes thought the entire 8th Air Force was going to land there. Twenty bombers had landed. I never could verify it, but my Swedish friends say the plane that blew up on landing was the 13th to land.
For Bell's crew it was a very long haul that lasted for five months. Bell and I stayed behind for a total of ten months. Through all the years and future years I always say, "Tack a mika for Sverige"-literally translated, "Thanks a million for Sweden!"