A Brief History of the 44th Bomb Group
B-24 Liberators were late comers to the 8th Air Force. The B-17 Flying Fortress had been in combat since August 17, 1942 when 12 B-17E's were dispatched to Rouen, France. Having been activated January 15, 1941 at McDill Field, Tampa, Florida, the 44th Bomb Group was the first really true Liberator group. It was assigned to a training operation to teach and form other B-24 groups. One of the groups formed after training with the 44th was the 93rd Bomb Group stationed at Hardwick, later known as the "Traveling Circus." The honor of being the first B-24 group to fly combat with the 8th Air Force was the 92nd on the 14th raid by the 8th Air Force, October 9, 1942. The 93rd went to Lille, France with the loss of one plane. This was a rough mission against determined Luftwaffe opposition, whereas the first few B-17 missions were "milk runs." The 44th Bomb Group was relieved of training duty and after a period of Anti-submarine patrol (sank one German U-boat July 10, 1942), arrived in England in October 1942 to join the 93rd as the only two B-24 outfits in operations from the United Kingdom until September 7, 1943 when the 389th Bomb Group flew with the 44th to Bergen, Norway. Soon afterwards on September 9th, the 392nd Bomb Group flew its first mission to Albeville, France along with the 44th.
The reason for the slow build-up of Liberator groups was that many that were originally destined for the E.T.O. were diverted to the Pacific Theater and for antisubmarine use.
Therefore, for all practical purposes, the B-17's were the primary aircraft of the 8th Air Force for the first year. Never forgetting that the Liberators were dispatched to North Africa where in August they flew the most famous mission of World War II against Polesti.
The B-24 was the most sought after heavy bomber of the period due to the fact it could fly faster with a heavier bomb load for a greater distance than the B-17. Over 18,000 B-24's were built between 1939 and 1945. But the B-24 never had the charisma of the B-17's sleek appearance. With its two large vertical stabilizers and a squarish body, our B-17 friends referred to us in some uncomplimentary ways, i.e., "Flying Box Car," "Banana Boat," and "Pregnant Cow" for starters among other snide remarks. We B-24 flyers retorted by referring to the B-17 as "Hand Grenade Carrier," "Medium Bomber" etc. To this day, 40 years later, B-17 and B-24 veterans carry on this friendly rivalry.
Another problem was that B-17's and B-24's could not fly formation together due to the difference in performance of the two type aircraft. The B-24 had a long narrow Davis wing, perhaps the only graceful thing about the Liberator. This allowed the B-24 to fly 20 miles per hour faster than the B-17 but resulted in a more difficult plane to fly in formation as the prop wash of the lead planes tended to make the B-24 unstable. This required more effort on its pilots to keep a tight formation. Yet in all the hours I flew as navigator, I never heard any complaint from our pilot, Charles Peritti nor co-pilot, Burr Palmer. Neither did we ever seem to have trouble keeping a good formation.
The 44th Bomb Group arrived in England October 1942 for a short stay at Cheddington Air Field before going to its permanent home base at Shipdham. The 44th was known as the "Flying Eightballs." We were the only group in the Air Force with its own logo painted on the nose of every aircraft. The logo was literally an eight ball with wings and eyes and a long nose painted a different color for each squadron. Every 44th'er wore this insignia with great pride on his flight jacket. The name was well earned, from the very beginning of combat, the 44th had severe losses whereas the 93rd had the lowest loss rate of the 8th Air Force bomber command. Yet the 93rd got a lot of attention in "Yank" and "Stars and Stripes" news articles. They dubbed them as the "Famous Traveling Circus" after a trip to Africa whereas the Eightballs were flying much rougher missions. There was no love lost between the 44th and the 93rd Bomb Groups.
The Fortress men called the 44th "The Jinxed Outfit." The only time the 93rd Bomb Group suffered worse than the 44th was the August 1, 1943 bombing of Ploesti when the 93rd, due to navigational error, came over the oil fields in the wrong direction thus sustaining nine planes shot down over the target area and two others that collided while returning to base. The Ploesti raid was the most famous, most recorded and written about in the history of the Army Air Force. The 44th was lead by Colonel Leon W. Johnson, later Brigadier General in command of the 14th Bomb Wing of the 2nd Air Division to which the 44th was attached while I was in combat. General Johnson and four other men were awarded the Congressional Meal of Honor for their heroic deeds in that famous mission.
My wife Doris and I were given the privilege of actually seeing the Medal when the 44th had its reunion in Dayton, Ohio in 1984. Of all the men who flew combat with the Army Air Force in World War II, none command the respect and admiration as the survivors of the Ploesti raid.
Later that month of August 1943, the three raids in support of Allied troops in Sicily, the 44th again had a disastrous loss of 8 planes versus only one for the other two groups. It was on the bombing of Foggia August 16th that Suzy Q, the last of the original 67th Squadron's planes and the one in which Colonel Johnson won the Medal of Honor, was lost. The "Eightballs" had suffered severely in Africa yet there was a fierce pride in the 44th.
The 44th, 93rd, and 389th Bomb Groups were returned to the 8th Air Force in England in September 1943. From May through August, no B-24's were on combat missions with the 8th Bomber Command. At this time, the 392nd Bomb Group joined them to make four Liberator groups in the 2nd Bomb Wing which was renamed the 2nd Bomb Division and assigned a new plane insignia marking of a white circle on the stabilizers and wings with a large identifying letter. The 44th's letter was "A", the 93rd was "B", the 389th was "C" and the 392nd was "D" etc.
When I joined the group in April 1944, we still had mostly the olive painted planes with the circle "A." It was in April 1944 that the first natural metal B-24 H's and J's arrived and in late April 1944 the circle A was changed to a single black vertical stripe on the new all aluminum planes with squadron codes (the 68th Squadron being W O) painted on the sides in very large letters.
Of course on D-Day June 6, all our planes were painted with bizarre black bands to identify us from any Nazi intruders flying in captured planes.
Our assembly ship was an old war weary B-24 D, an original aircraft that came to England with the 44th even though she was late getting off and a survivor of the Polesti raid. She was known as "Lemon Drop." It had been stripped of all armament and repainted with alternate bands of black and bright yellow. When it was not my time to lead, we often referred to this assembly ship as the "striped Ass Zebra." I was a number of times assigned to be the assembly navigator in the Lemon Drop. The assembly ship was necessary to prevent pilots from assembling in the wrong formation. We would take off before the combat planes and reach the designated assembly area. The crew chief would fire off many flares to attract our group. When all the planes had gathered, I would lead them in the right direction and place at an exact time. The group proceeded on the mission, we returned to base.
On one occasion, I became so angry at the pilot on one of these assembly missions that I told the CO that I would never again fly with this particular pilot even if I were court-martialed. What brought me to this state of mind was an event that happened after the assembly had been accomplished. The pilot asked me where the field was, I told him it was directly below us. At this, the reckless pilot put the Lemon Drop into a steep spiral, just short of a spin. I looked at the air speed indicator, it was beyond the red line. Where the bomb sight had been removed, an aluminum plate had been installed, it was buckling. I had survived a number of missions but I thought my end would come in this foolish manner. I screamed at the pilot to pull the plane out of this dangerous dive. I was so mad, I was foaming at the mouth and only God knows what names I called the idiot.
Again in September 1943, the 44th, 93rd, and 389th were dispatched to Africa after a few missions with the 8th Air Force. Again the 44th Eightballs took a beating with 8 planes lost on one mission along with another 8 crash landing, so badly damaged they could not return to England with the group a few days later. The 44th was so disseminated, it could not take part in the first few missions after returning to Shipdham. But times would get better for the 44th as the Liberator groups would have their number doubled by years end.
The last disaster of the Eightballs was April 8, 1944 when 11 out of 27 planes went down. This is when my crew was shipped from the 445th Bomb Group as replacements. The jinx had been broken; never again would the 44th suffer so disproportionately. We became one of the most respected outfits in the 8th Air Force under the commands of colonel John H. Gibson until August 1944 and Colonel Eugene H. Snavely until V-E Day.
In the first part of 1944, the 8th Air Force was divided into three divisions. The 2nd Division consisted of 5 Combat Wings, the 2nd, 14th, 20th, 95th and 96th. All were made up of 3 groups each except the 95th with only two. The 14th Combat Wing was composed of the 44th Bomb Group, 392nd Bomb Group and the 492nd Bomb Group (June, July and August 1944 only when it was disbanded due to extra ordinary combat losses). The 492nd Bomb Group was replaced by the 491st Bomb Group when it was transferred from the 95th Combat Wing to the airfield at North Pickenham to join the 14th Combat Wing. The 95th Combat Wing ceased to exist when the 489th Bomb Group joined the 20th Combat Wing.
More on the sad fate of the 492nd Bomb Group later but needless to say, word wend around that the 14th Combat Wing was jinxed even if the brunt of excessive losses transferred from the Eightballs to the 492nd.
One could get the impression by reading the record of the 8th Air Force that only the flying officers and men were responsible for the tremendous damage done to Hitler's Europe. Nothing could be further from the truth. Without the ground support personnel, not one bomber would have ever flown. I read with great interest Will Lundy's description of the April 14, 1945 "Salute to the Ground Man Weeks" event where 600 ground men gathered at the main ramp to be lauded by General Leon Johnson and Colonel Snavely. General Johnson, standing on the spot where he himself had received the Congressional Medal of Honor, stressed that for every aircraft in the air, 90 ground men each did his thing to make it possible. I wish I had been there to add my praise and shake as many hands as possible, especially the crew chief of Lili Marlene whose last name was Hill. I will never cease to admire their devotion to keeping our aircraft in flying condition no matter how damaged and shot up that we brought it back.
I noticed there was no effort for the ground crews to get close to us. Anyone could tell there was mutual admiration between us but I suspect we flying men lived in our own dream world and that the ground crews had seen too many of their "friends" not return.
For a more complete history of the 44th Bomb Group, refer to The Mighty Eight: A History of the U.S. Eighth Air Force by Roger A. Freeman, pages 33 to 39. Also, Log of the Liberators by Steve Birdsall, chapter one and pages 67 to 76. But best of all, History of the 67th Bomb Squadron by Will Lundy, the entire book. One might even view the excellent movie prepared by Captain David Klaus, the present 44th historian.
After I completed my combat tour and was reassigned to the ZOI (Zone of the Interior), the 44th Bomb Group remained in combat until VE Day. The group was inactivated July 12, 1946. Five years later in 1951, the group became the 44th Strategic Bomb Wing flying B-29's and B-47's at Lake Charles, Louisiana. And finally in 1963, made into the 44th Strategic Missile Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, where it stands guard to protect our peace to this very day and minute. We 44th'ers are proud of our history both in time of war and peace.
There were seven Commanding Officers during the World War II period of the 44th. Of these, I served under two, Colonel John H. Gibson (3/29/44 to 8/15/44) and Colonel Eugene H. Snavely (8/15/44 to 4/13/45). My 31 combat missions were from April through October 1944 with the 68th Squadron, one of four, the others being the 66th, 67th and 506th.
The 44th Bomb Group was the first 8th Air Force group, B-17's or B-24's, to be awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) for its May 14, 1943 raid on Kiel, Germany. A second DUC came with the famous Ploesti raid of August 1, 1943. The 44th Bomb Group also served in the 8th Air Force longer than any other B-24 group and sustained the highest MIA of any B-24 group with the most enemy fighters to its credit of any B-24 group, almost 400 damaged or destroyed.
The 44th flew its last combat mission on April 25, 1945 making a grand total of 343. The average mission consisted of approximately 24 planes adding to a total of 9057 sorties of which 8009 were credited as combat flights. The total bomb tonnage dropped on the enemy equaled 18,980 tons during its two and one half years in the ETO and Africa.