A MISSION TO REMEMBER
DATE: August 25,1944.
On paper, it looked like any other mission. But not long after take-off I had the first indication that this one was going to be a little different for me. I was filling in as a navigator with a crew I had never flown with before.
Allow me to back-track a little. Our original crew, formed in October,1943, began flying together at Davis-Monthan Field , in Tucson. We were part of the newly-formed 486th Bomb Group, 833rd Squadron, and flying B-24's. I was the bombardier on Fred Towne's crew. He was one of the more experienced pilots in the Squadron, having flown many hours of anti-sub duty off the east Coast in B-25's. But not with the 9th Antisubmarine Squadron (the nucleus of the newly-formed 486th.) As a 1st. Lt. --- he also out-ranked us. Bernie, our co-pilot -- Joe, our navigator -- and I, were brand new 2nd Lt.'s. We all agreed how lucky we were to have Fred as our pilot.
Now--- "fast forward" to July , 1944. Our crew, designated as a "lead crew", flew B-24's for our first ten combat missions. When the switch to B-17's took place in July, it was decided to combine two lead crews into one after the pilot of the other lead crew (Rex) was transferred to Squadron Headquarters. The end result was that Bernie Fishel, our co-pilot, and I, would be replaced by their co-pilot and bombardier. I flew most of my remaining missions as a navigator and was not assigned to a regular crew until Bernie made "first pilot", and was given a crew of his own --- which was made up of other men not already assigned to a regular crew. This was not unusual and we referred to them as "bastard crews". Bernie and I flew six more missions together --- until he completed his tour and returned to the States. Thinking about it, years later, it must be how an orphan feels --- having no family of his own. I have always been a little envious of those men who were able to fly their complete tour of combat with the same crew members. A strong bond between them is formed. Even though Bernie and I no longer flew with Fred -- we all still lived together. We just didn't fly together anymore. I always missed Fred's flying ability and used to say, "He could fly a barn door". He and I grew very close and always "sweated each other out" after we stopped flying together. We also shared our 3-day passes to London.
I got into the habit of keeping a journal of my experiences, including details of all my combat missions. But somehow I neglected to record the names of many of the pilots I flew with. Now --- back to August 25th (my fourteenth mission). ......... [webmaster's note: John flew with the Wegener crew on this day]
Shortly after take off I discovered that my intercom wasn't working and notified the pilot, by way of the bombardier (Lt. Leonard). The pilot decided to continue with the mission --- concluding that the loss of my intercom would not cause too much of a problem. All we had to do was to, "follow the group to the target -- drop our bombs --- and follow them back home again". I would just be flying as a passenger on this mission. I felt both useless and helpless, but did my best to follow the navigator's briefing notes and route for the mission. As I sat there all I could hear was the constant roar of the engines. It felt a little weird not knowing what was going on around me as I could only "sit and watch". After we eased into our position in the formation , we followed the briefed route for our assembly with the rest of the Group and we headed out over the North Sea. When it came time to test-fire our guns we discovered that the nose guns were jammed. One more problem to deal with. An occasional note passed to me by the bombardier was the only communication I had as to what was going on around me. All I could do was to try and settle down for the long flight ahead. As we made our turn near Stettin, on our way to the IP, the flak became worse . Before I knew it -- - we settled into formation for our bomb run.
As briefed, Reichlin was a well defended target. The flak and rockets they shot up at us was both intense and accurate. Just after "bombs away" our plane took a hit from the flak and that's when the mission suddenly "came to life" for me. Leonard hurriedly scribbled a note and handed it to me ---at the same time, he began to unplug his intercom and reached for a near-by "walk around" oxygen bottle. The note informed me that we had two wounded men on board and that he was going back to check it out and give them first aid. I hurriedly gathered my maps and notes, disconnected my oxygen mask and quickly moved to the bombardier's stool --- where I hooked up my oxygen mask and plugged into the intercom system. For the first time since take-off hours ago --- I felt like I was part of the crew again. One minute I was sitting there in complete silence, unaware of the events taking place--- and the next thing I knew I was in the middle of a mess. The pilot called me on intercom and asked me to check our position in case we had to leave the formation. I was also notified that we still had four bombs onboard. As we turned off the target and headed for the Rally Point we were still able to maintain our position in the formation. Our return to England would follow the same route we flew earlier on our way to the target. I soon learned what took place while on the bomb run. Right after, "bombs away", a burst of flak ripped off York's oxygen mask (our radio man), just missing his jugular vein. The same burst hit Hoff, our ball gunner, in the rump. Both were bleeding and in shock. Someone's decision to have us carry a spare oxygen mask on board saved York's life. His damaged oxygen mask was ripped off and quickly replaced by the spare. At the same time, Hoff was raised from the ball turret and also given first aid. The restricted space in the waist area became crowded as the two wounded men were spread out on the floor. As all this was going on --- I was completely in the dark as to what had happened. One minute I was sitting there , "fat, dumb, and happy" --- and the next minute I was told to, "act like a navigator".
We remained with the formation until we were about 200 miles out over the North Sea. Our pilot, wanting to get our wounded men back home as soon as possible, decided to leave the formation and streak for home alone. As we dropped down to about 2000 ft. --- he made contact with our close-by fighter escort. Three P-47's, "little friends", dove down and stayed with us till we were safely out of enemy territory. What a beautiful sight and sense of protection it was to look out and see them close by. When it was time to leave us they wiggled their wings, "good bye", and headed back to the group formation. We waved our "thanks" to them and were now all alone. Our pilot, whoever he was, did a great job of flying that day.
In the meantime, I fooled around with the salvo switch and was able to get rid of the four bombs still on board. That was a relief. Soon, we were able to pick up the signal from "Buncher 22" and we followed it back home. As we flew over the base, we shot two red-red flares to alert them of our wounded men on board and landed. An ambulance was waiting for us. York and Hoff were quickly taken off the plane and rushed to the base hospital. As for me -- it took a few minutes to collect my thoughts and regain my composure as I just sat there in the nose sorting out all we went through in the past few hours. It was my first experience of having wounded men onboard --- and hopefully, my last. I finally gathered all my gear and climbed out of the plane. A truck soon arrived to take us to interrogation, and to be honest with you, I do not recall any of the details other than answering their questions. It was great to be back home, safe and sound.
My story has a happy ending. Both York and Hoff lived through their ordeal --- thanks to the timely first aid treatment they received. We shared a few memories of the mission with each other when I visited them in the base hospital. Their combat- flying days were over and they returned to the States --- with a couple of "Purple Hearts". It was definitely a mission to remember. (And hopefully, not repeated.)
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