When the war started, I was in the infantry at Camp Walters. I knew I was going overseas and I knew right away that I had to get out. At that time, the only way out of the army was up, and that meant the air corps. I had an officer friend who owed me a favor and he assisted me in getting transferred to pilot training. I went through Randolf Field, the Gulf Coast Command and then I got my wings. I flew both twin engines and four engine aircraft.
My love story was really with A-20, even though I ended up a B-24 pilot. We trained in B-17's, B-24's, and the A-20. Now, that was an airplane. You flew it, you didn't just drive it. Frankly, I was unhappy with both the 17's and the 24's. I remember well, the first time I ever saw a B-24 liberator; it was so ugly you'd wonder how in the hell it ever flew. We used to say it was the box that the B-17 came in...they were "flying coffins" or the "flying boxcar". The Davis Wing had a bad rep and some called it the "flying prostitute"...no visible means of support.
The advantage that Liberators had, were speed and bomb load. When we got into combat, the Air Force in its wisdom, combined us in their attacks with the B-17's; that wouldn't allow us to get to our maximum cruising speed. We'd fly about 10 miles per hour slower than the ship was designed for; with the load factor we had, we were on the edge of stalling out, maybe 60% of the time. That's why some guys never learned to really fly the B-24.
The fact is I had a co-pilot who flew with us through training until we got to Wendling and he never made a take off or landing. I didn't have the time to teach him and he was happy to just be in the right seat. The co-pilot would normally be second in command and take care of the crew. Gene Miller, our bombardier, handled the job well and he took that job over. He was the buffer between the enlisted men and myself. I had the final say, but he was the guy they would go to with their gripes and bitches...then he would come to me.
We first put our crew together in Colorado and I think we went into Topeka, Kansas on the 25th of January. We were probably about four weeks behind Ofenstein's crew and didn't cross his path until training in Ireland.
We picked up our B-24 in Kansas and we had a full compliment of people. With the exception of the co-pilot, we had the same crew from training through combat. What started out as a well balanced but young team of strangers grew into a disciplined flying unit. Even so, there wasn't a lot of time for us to get real close; the events of April 29th bonded those of us who survived.
There was this major at Topeka and at one of our briefings; he gets up and says: "Boys, I wish I were going in your place!" I said: "You can have my place!" That went over like a ton of bricks, but I hated that guy! It was the beginning of my long career as a second lieutenant.
We got our orders and flew the southern route to England: Morrison Field, Florida; Trinidad; Belem, Brazil; Fortaleza; then over the ocean to Dakar and Marrakesch. When we got into Marrakesch, it was late and they weren't going to feed us. I should have known there was trouble in store because there were actually buzzards sitting on top of the mess hall. Well, I raised hell! The guy comes out and says: "Don't you know, there's a war on!"...I said: "Where in the hell do you think I am going, moron!"... He says: "Lieutenant, you can't talk to me like that!"...I said: "I just did!"...He says: "I'm going to get my commanding officer!" Sure enough, the C.0. comes out and what do you think he says?: "Feed these men!"...and I quietly said: "Thank you".
Now, when we landed in England and gave up our plane, somebody handed me a slip. They were actually going to charge us for the meal. I blew my stack again and said: "Whoa- -now", but I do not remember if we actually had to pay! I was using these lieutenant bars for all they were worth.
We were sent up to Ireland, theoretically for training. Trouble was, when we got there, they didn't have any ships flying. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, I went over to the sergeant in charge of operations and told him: "Sergeant, I will check in every morning and you let me know if there's any ships available. If there are, we'll come back. We're going down to Belfast (it was just up the road from us) and I'll have the crew check in with me every morning."
I called in about three days later and the sergeant said: "Get your butt down here! The inspector general is here!" When we got back to the base, they said: "I want to see you and your crew in the office, in full class A uniforms! On the double!"...I said: "Yes, sir!"... we got in there and this captain chews us out: "I'm going to court marshal you and send you back to the States!" I thought to myself... "Hell, yeah!--right now! Send me back." Then he says:"I've got a better idea--instead of doing that, I am sending you and your crew into combat immediately! We're not going to train you!"
Well, he was full of crap and we knew it! Hell, there weren't any planes for us to train in. We were there a week and didn't take-off or shoot a weapon. And how was he going to send us back to the States in disgrace, when they're killing guys right and left over in Germany! They needed our bodies to sit in an airplane and they had ten of them right there. Sure enough, they shipped us out in a couple of days and off we went into combat.
Wendling, England was cold and wet. I was never warm a minute of the time I was there. The only time, was when I came down after a flight and drew a hot tub of water in a cement tub. I'd just sit in it up to my neck. You'd steal anything that would burn just to keep those huts warm.. .I was always shivering. Those quanset huts were sometimes cut up into little rooms and others were just open. We had two or three crews in ours, in one open bay. Base personnel, who were there all the time, had divided their's off into little rooms. We never had the time to fix up our quarters. We were a lot of "ships passing in the night" and I really only knew two other pilots while I was there...Lieut. Rogers and Lieut. Offenstein. Our three crews all came into Wendling about the same time and we were in the same squadron.
We always had a good ground crew, back at the 392nd. They would have the planes ready, out on the line, and worked hard to keep us flying. I told that guy who took care of us: "The only thing I want of you is, that if I want you to go up for a ride.. .you put on a chute and go." He said: "That's good enough for me!" and so that was it.
We called the cockpit, "The Front Office". When I got to Wendling, I had the great good fortune to get a new man on the crew, George Graham. He'd flown hundreds of hours on sub-patrol and had been in the squadron since Dec. of 1943. Our first mission with him as a co-pilot was his thirteenth, but of course he never told us that.
Now, there are not many flight instruments in the cockpit... only the airspeed indicator, needle and ball, altimeter, and climb indicator. The rest are engine instruments. Before take off the co-pilot, engineer, and pilot coordinate everything. The pilot sets all the throttles and fuel mixtures the same, the co-pilot would check the magnetos and then energize the start-up motor. This was a heavy duty thing that would rev up to high speed and then engage the engine. It would turn the props over like a starter on your car and it made that special high pitched whining sound as the engine engaged. It was the sound of World War Two for many of us.
You'd go down the line from one engine to another and then throttle back until every thing was in tune. Next we'd run up the engine, pull off to the side, and run the props through to see if they were working. You'd taxi out for take off and you were ready to go to work.
You have these moments when you remember how intensely scared you were; how frightened you were when you saw the first aircraft go down...and the first time you get shot at. It's something you can never tell anybody about until you've been there yourself. Somebody's trying to kill you and mother isn't there!
There was a mission where we went up over the North sea and we turned right and headed into Germany itself. We got hit by fighters and I never actually saw them, it happened so fast. I saw sparkles and I said: "Oh... What?? That's pretty." I didn't realize at the time, it was 2O mm! I looked out my window and there were two B-24's going down. I swear , I do not know how this could happen, but they were tumbling wing over wing! I'm up on the rudder pedals and my feet were pumping away like it was a bicycle. My hands were on the control column rocking it left and right, and George was in the co-pilot's seat looking at me. I didn't have any more control over that aircraft than if I was a five year old. I was scared to death.
I wasn't the only one on the plane who was impressed by combat. Gene Miller, the bombardier, was down in the nose of the aircraft, all cramped up. His bladder released and he learned first hand about some of the unique problems presented by those electrically heated flying suits we had. The wires were always breaking or they'd burn you in one spot and freeze you in another. His shorted out that day and he called up to me: "Kamy, it's cold up here" (we were at altitude). I said: "I know it's cold, but what do you want me to do? I can't leave the formation." When we got back over the English coast, I made a dive, but that was the last time Miller had a problem. From then on he made sure to take a can along with him.
We were emotionally drained after our fights. We came down, went through debriefings and that was it. Our crew flew its first mission on the ninth of April (Tutow) and we flew 10 damn missions before the 29th of April when we got shot down. You figure it out...we were pretty busy! Man, you don't know how many crews were getting shot down, we were just numbers. They shot 69 crews the day we went down! Until recently, our wives and families were in the dark about a lot of this stuff because we had a shell around us. I've had my son tell me: "Well, you never told me any of those things" ...I just buried it all!
One time, we had our own private little war. There were three planes from the Luftwaffe that were shooting at us. We had three planes and they had three planes. We got about two miles from each other and shot guns; they would shoot and we would shoot. Then they'd break away and come back around at us, but nobody got hurt or anything. None of us could hit the broadside of a barn that day and we all came home alive. Another mission I remember fondly was the day we took off and were flying blind from the time our wheels started to roll. George was watching the right side of the runway an was watching the left side. When we hit take off speed, I was on instruments. Operations had said: "Clean sailing above 4,000 feet" Well, we broke out about 16,000 feet and we're headed towards France. There was still nothing but clouds around us. Everybody was aborting and ships were falling off all the time. We started out in the third vic, way back in the pack, and were flying the right wing of the lead before we ended up.
Just as we broke out over the target, an airfield, they nailed #4 engine with flak. I said: "That's enough of this garbage." So we went home. When they called us over to Intelligence, they asked me: "What did it look like over there?" I said, "It looked like hell."
We had #3 and #4 engines out, four different times. On the 24th of April the target was Leipheim and, we actually ran out of gas; we ended up landing at the 44th across a hot runway. We were on our way home from the mission and I told the engineer, Heater, to go back and check the fuel level. Back in the mid-wing section, behind the bulkhead they had these glass test tubes that they called fuel gages. It was fifteen cents worth of glass in a $25,000 bomber. Heater said: "We've about 200 gallons, skipper", which was plenty for the sixty to ninety minutes we had left. We were "letting down" and were about 12,000 feet then. It seemed to me we were burning up a lot of fuel and I made the decision to land at Shipdam. The 44th bomb group was our sister group. They flew the same missions, had the same targets, and came back at the same time.
We were turning in on our final approach....that's when you line up with the runway and make your landing. We were in the turn and George says: "# engine just quit!"... I said: "Feather it"...and we went through our ritual for feathering a prop. We hadn't even got through our routine when #3 engine went out. I said: "Hell, we're going in!" I don't know if I told the guys in the waist to come forward into their crash positions, but we were so busy by that time, I couldn't check. It must have been obvious we were in trouble! I knew I had to get around and get flat, if I wanted to make the landing. I got flat, and just in front of us was a hill. So, we go down and pop over the hill, and there was a taxi-way strip. That is not made for landings...No way, Jose...we hit the front of the taxi-strip and I yelled: "Get on the brakes" George and I stood on them! We finally got that rascal stopped and it was just inches from the end of the grass. We had landed across what should have been a very "hot" runway, but when we finally looked up, we realized there wasn't any aircraft coming in behind us. I went into the operations office and they said: "We can't help you right now, we're looking for a ship that went down." I said: "Hey, that's us!"
He got up and looked out the window and said: "Where are you? I told him: "out on the end of the taxi-strip"..."How many people hurt?"..."Nobody hurt ,all we need is some gas!"
I looked around...everything was too quiet to be the end of a mission, "What's going on here?" He explained, "Well, last night we had chocolate pudding and everybody got food poisoning. We weren't able to put a single aircraft in the air!" A whole group out of action!
It was late in the afternoon when we came in there and later yet when we got back to Wendling. Don't you know, all our stuff was locked up and they were ready to ship it out. Some of our guys had a hell of a time retrieving all their personal items. They had to go to several other quanset huts before they rounded up all their clothes and effects.
Now, this wasn't the end of it for us. I was mad as hell that they had risked ten lives by not taking care of our fuel situation! I went down the next day to engineering and looked for the C.0. I wanted to know how we could run out of gas. We flew good, tight formation in our group, we had good navigation and the fuel settings were proper.
He invited me into his office and shuffled through some papers. Finally, he said: "We changed plugs in your aircraft and we put a new type of plug in both your #3 and #4 engines. I guess they're burning more gas than they're suppose to use."
I was steamed up. "Hell, you send us out in an airplane that you haven't tested yet! We're on a bomb run while you sit on your big... " It was plain to see I'd never get any more silver bars on my uniform. Truthfully, I was drafted and I never quite got used to the army way of doing things. For example, I tried to get more ammunition for my gunners.
It seemed to me impossible that anybody could trace an incoming aircraft... especially from the waist. I maintained the position that we were closing in at 500 mph (250 and 250 indicated the airspeed at altitude) and the best thing a gunner could do would be to just tie down the trigger and put out a hail of bullets. I asked if we could get more ammo and the response was: "Oh, we can't do that." I asked: "Why not?"... "Well, we can't do that. It isn't done that way. Fire a burst of ten and let up."
My guess is that most gunners just held down the trigger anyway. In fact, unknown to me, my guys brought extra ammo on board and even another gun barrel. Come to think of it, with that load of iron in the back, maybe that's why we ran out of gas!
The bomb loads we carried varied according to the targets, but I really use to sweat those cluster fragmentation bombs and the incendiaries. It was volatile stuff and a very unforgiving load. The forward squadrons carried the heavy demolition bombs and they'd put us idiots in the back end. We would go down with time delay butterfly bombs and incendiaries. Those butterfly or frag bombs were put in there ,so they would kill the people who came out to put out the fires. First we'd bomb them, then burn them and then kill them when they'd try to put out the fires. It sounds gruesome, but we weren't over there on a Cook's tour.
The raid on Hamm (on the twenty-second of April) was something we all remembered. We were approaching the target and Ollie Guillot, in the waist, called out:"Skipper, there's another group at the same level and they're heading for us!" The 392nd was comming into the target fast and I told George to check right, so we could get the hell out if we had to: "Keep an eye on them and the second we drop our bombs, we'll vacate." So, we keep checking, checking, checking... we were still clear, so we dropped our bombs and formed up with this guy from the other squadron, Lt. Hammond. He had flown 25 missions...one of the few.
They said: "We'll send you back home for 60 days and give you a promotion if you fly 5 more missions." They were short on experienced pilots. So, the guy said: "It's a piece of cake. I'll fly the five missions!" Well, this was his 26th mission. We joined up with him after the target and were flying in the slot behind him. The Germans were lining up, high on our left. We had some P-47's over in back of us and some P-38's on our right. These crazy Germans are up there bee hiving... so they start down through the formation. Boy, there's nothing like this happened before; .tracers are all over the place. Then our fighters peeled off and they came down right through our formation. This guy, Hammond got #2 engine hit, so he's puffing smoke out of there. About eight minutes later, chutes start coming out. We counted five or six of them. Well, he is still up there with that thing smoking and burning...just plugging along...toot, toot, toot, toot.
I told George: "We better drop back, because this guy is going to blow!" We loosened up the formation and stayed with him until Belgium or Holland. Hammond was behind us by then. The ship finally blew. Guess who was the first person we saw, when we walked through the gates of Stalag Luft 3? It was Lt. Hammond!
It was not often you could control your own destiny, but we gave it a good try. Once we were flying the inside of a vic and the idiot leading us just kept getting further and further behind the rest of the group. I told the co-pilot: "Watch this" I picked up my microphone and said: "Hey, you dumb-ass back there in the far corner. Are you trying to get yourself killed? Get those 3 ships back up here in formation!" Then I hung up the mike. Boy, you could see the black smoke pour out of those engines. Man, they moved right into the formation...pronto. They did not know who was talking to them, but they were not taking any chances!
The 29th of April started early, like any other mission and I probably wasn't any happier to get up and get going than on any other mission. We put up 18 ships that day and lost 8 of them; it was one of the heaviest losses for the group.
Just after the fighters attacked, my waist gunner informed me that part of our wing was missing. George and I were up front and weren't able to see behind us; we didn't know what was happening back there. We jettisoned our bombs immediately and started to go back to England. I think that's when I informed the crew that I would try to get back into the cloud cover.
The window started to ice up, so Heater came down out of the top turret. He started scratching the windshield with his fingernails. I'm looking out of the left-side window see a field down below. We were dropping fast and there’s no time to make a choice.
I never have figured out, why we were not shot down by those ME-109's circling us. We had dropped our wheels as a sign of surrender. Of course, I was yelling back to my gunners: "Cease fire!" and hoping we did not shoot one of them down! I think we were doing at least 150 miles per hour, but the faces of our instruments were all iced over, so we couldn't tell. George was in his right seat destroying the orders of the day; that was standard operating procedure. Heater was still standing between our two seats, trying to give me some forward visibility. The field was in such a position that we actually had to skim over some treetops, just before we hit the field.
We set the plane down and must have rolled a few hundred yards before we hit a culvert. The dust was flying over the top of the aircraft in great clouds and then, the top turret failed. It came crashing down on our backs; the seats came in on us and it was absolutely black in the cockpit. I figured: "Well, this is it" All of sudden,.we stopped. The ship settled down at a steep angle. The nose opened up in front of us and Heater went flying right out. He took off and got about five feet from us, then I yelled some sweet words at him He had a foot in the air and I remember distinctly, he did a 180 turn in mid-air. He grabbed George and myself and helped us down out of the aircraft. I hit the ground and passed out.
It took four weeks for my folks to find out I was a P.O.W!. The army told them I was MIA about the second week in May; two weeks later, they got a personal message that I was alive. The Germans would broadcast a list of captured airmen, every night. People on the east coast would listen and then mail cards to families all over the country. My mom and dad got about a dozen of them saying: "your son, William T. Kamenitsa, is being held by the Germans. He's alive and a POW". It took a while for the federal government to catch up with the hams.
George, my co-pilot, and I was sent to Stalag Luft 3. The three other crewmen( Heater, Krejci and Guillot) all went over to Stalag 17B. There was only 150 miles between us, but it was if we were all on different islands; it was 45 years before we’d see each other again!