I Took a Ride in a B-24 by (1 Story)

Prompted By Father's Day

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I took a ride in a B-24.

My father enlisted in the Army Air Corps on December 7, 1942, four months and thirteen days before his nineteenth birthday. He was a radio operator assigned to the 455th Bomb Group of the Fifteenth Air Force. His plane was a B-24.

They called it the Liberator, a long-range heavy bomber that did duty in every theater of World War II, delivering bombs to military targets and cargo to bases and depots. It transported troops and served as private conveyances to VIPs like Winston Churchill. Between 1939 and the end of the war over 18,000 B-24s were manufactured, more than any other military aircraft in American history. Now there are only two B-24s still flying.

My father enlisted in the Army Air Corps on December 7, 1942, four months and thirteen days before his nineteenth birthday. He was a radio operator assigned to the 455th Bomb Group of the Fifteenth Air Force. His plane was a B-24.

As a kid, I pored over my dad’s photo albums looking at the pictures of his plane – “Double Trouble” – and the men in his crew: Hynson, Jones, Keller, Banks, Daniel, Linebarger, Harpster, and Strange. I built a plastic model B-24, which hung from my bedroom ceiling along with other facsimiles of WW II airplanes.

My dad’s unit left the United States on December 12, 1943. Between February 11 and June 16, 1944, he flew 32 combat missions. He rarely talked about the war, and I learned this from reading a little 3 x 5 inch notebook covered in brown faux leather. It was in the drawer of a desk in his bedroom, and I found it after he died in 1999. In it he recorded the names of his crew mates, details about his plane, some poetry, and a description of each mission he flew.

The mission log drew my interest first. I compared the information in the notebook to the official history of the 455th Bomb Group, matching up his missions with the descriptions catalogued there. My dad’s descriptions started off fairly detailed. He noted the date, the target, the time of takeoff, the conditions (whether they encountered enemy fighters or heavy flak). Sometimes he indicated their position in the formation, and sometimes he noted the loss of other planes and men. As the number of missions mounted, however, the log contained less and less information. Mission number 19 was the last one he described in any detail.

Mission No. 19
May 10, 1944
Take off 07:50
Dropped 500 lb. bombs on Wiener Neustadt ME-109 parts factory
Flak – Heavy – Accurate

From mission 20 through mission 32, all he noted was the mission number, date and target. There was one exception – number 32 – on which he wrote “FINITO” at the top of the page.

The B-24 I rode in is called “Witchcraft.” It travels on the Wings of Freedom Tour with other restored World War II aircraft: a B-17, a B-25, a P-51 Mustang, among others. You can buy a half-hour ride in one of them for $400.

As we lined up to board, the first thing I noticed about the plane was how hard it is to get into – at least for a guy pushing sixty-nine who’s had two hip replacements. I went to the back part of the plane, behind the bomb bay, although my dad’s station would have been just behind the cockpit. I sat on a metal bench facing the rear of the plane. There were four flimsy cushions arranged side by side with a thick webbed seat belt for each one.

Once airborne, the next thing that struck me was the cold. It was a brisk March day, a little drizzly, with the ground temperature in the mid forties. The plane had no cabin pressurization, and no insulation. The wind blew in from any number of openings around the ball turret and the waist gun ports and elsewhere. It felt like I was outside riding in the bed of a pickup truck bouncing over an open field. We never got above 10,000 feet, but the cruising altitude for the B-24s’ bombing missions often approached 28,000 feet, where there is practically no oxygen and the temperature was far below zero. Frostbite was not uncommon. I just shivered a bit in my unlined leather “bomber” jacket, knowing I’d be home and warm in less than an hour.

The ride was rough. You had to hold onto something to keep from getting bounced around. You couldn’t move throughout the plane without grabbing some piece of protruding equipment or somehow bracing yourself against the constant buffeting. I started to cross the bomb bay to the forward part of the plane but gave up, somewhat daunted by the narrow swaying catwalk suspended from the interior ceiling. I did make my way to the tail gunner’s station and lay in the spot where the gunner would have surveyed the sky behind for any trailing enemy fighters, trying to imagine what it would have been like.

I tried to imagine the constant worry, augmented by sudden terror – the flak, the fighters; all the things that could go wrong: equipment or instrument malfunctions, mistakes by the pilot or the navigator, being blown out of the sky, or (perhaps worse) being wounded and facing hours of return flight, bleeding in the cold without even the ministrations of a combat medic to get you through. Will the engines get us off the ground? Will the bomb bay doors open? Will we be hit? Will we have to bail out? Will I be captured? Will we have enough fuel to get back? Will the landing gear engage?

How many more times will I have to do this?

Buried in my dad’s notebook, wedged between a song called “The Army Chair Corps,” a parody of the song “Coming In On A Wing And A Prayer” and a poem called “Lightnings In The Sky,” he had written these words:

Find him to be suffering from combat stress and acute anxiety neurosis mod. severe which has reduced his operational efficiency

My father was twenty years and 57 days old when he flew his thirty-second mission. He is second from the right in the back row.

 

Profile photo of gmcfall gmcfall


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman says:

    I love how your attempt to understand your father’s combat experience—by building models, reading his notebook, and riding in a B-24—becomes a powerful tribute to your father and all who served with him. Thanks for sharing this story on Retrospect.

  2. Profile photo of Susan Susan says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this sobering story of your father’s experiences in the war. Your brief outing years later on the B-24 really filled in the personal experience of what he detailed in his notebook. Well told.

  3. Profile photo of golfncindy5 golfncindy5 says:

    Great story about your Dad’s experience in the war. With your creative mind I’m sure your B-24 ride was all it could be. Glad you got to and wanted to take this trip back in history.

  4. Profile photo of smithlouise smithlouise says:

    What a stretch it is for us to imagine the lives of the very young men who had immense responsibilities in WWII. The dramatic and insightful retelling of gmcfall’s father’s experience, aided by a notebook discovered only after the Army Air Corp soldier’s death, gave me goose bumps. My father was in the same war, but left nothing behind of his experiences. This riveting essay will be an important part of what gmcfall will contribute to his heirs understanding, not just of the young member of the air corp, but of his own attempt to appreciate and understand his father.

  5. Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau says:

    My father was also in the Army Air Corps, but was a navigator and instructed others in that task at Camp Edwards in Sacramento. He enlisted the January before Pearl Harbor. He couldn’t wait to go. I have all his instruction books and logs from that era, but he was never in combat, so didn’t know the terror. Your story is particularly poignant and urgent for me, as I have just returned from a trip to Normandy. I was there on the days around and on D-Day with knowledgeable guides and a historian who has authored many books about the people behind the accomplishments of the Allies and the liberation of France. We stood on Omaha beach at 6:32am, observed a moment of silence, then traced the steps our valiant boys took as most of them were mowed down by the Germans. We visited the American cemetery and laid a wreath at the statue dedicated to peace. We visited the Caen Memorial and saw the roots of the rise of Fascism and pray that it won’t happen again. On other days, we visited other landing beaches, German batteries and bunkers, some still bearing the scars of our bombs, the fields where Dick Winters and the 101st Airborne took out four huge guns that were pounding Omaha Beach. We saw Pegasus Bridge and the markers where the British Gliders made perfect landings, fought off the Germans and held that strategic point from midnight on D-Day until the Rangers could break free on the beaches and march the seven miles to provide re-enforcements. But this was just the beginning and it took almost a year to free Europe. Your father’s bravery was part of that huge effort that allows us to be the nation we are today and we thank him, and you, for sharing this story.

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