MY FIRST MISSION
April 22, 1944
Our very first mission was an extraordinary event. "This was number one and the fun had just begun." The 44th Bomb Group went to Hamm, Germany to disrupt train traffic through this important marshaling yard. We did not suspect that this flight would end up different from any the 8th Air Force had ever flown before. A hard lesson was to be learned.
The Air Force dispatched approximately 800 B-24's and B-17's carrying almost 2000 tons of bombs. The 44th Bomb Group sent 27 of their planes of which all but two bombed the target. Our bombs landed accurately on the rail yards.
The grand plan of the 8th Air Force in Europe was precision daylight bombing. The British RAF strategy was night pattern bombing. Four motor B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 1st and 3rd Divisions and B-24 Liberators of the 2nd Division made up the Heavy Bomb Groups of the 8th Air Force.
B-24 Liberators had twin .50 caliber machine guns in the tail turret, the ball turret hung under the belly, the top turret and the nose turret. Also there was a gun at each side window giving a total of 10 heavy .50 caliber guns to protect us from enemy fighters.
As navigator, it was not my duty to man a gun but I certainly did like the nose turret as it gave my navigation compartment much protection from frontal attack.
We wore electric flying suits to protect us from the extreme cold. Often it was 40 to 60 degrees F below zero at 25,000 feet over the continent of Europe. We wore lighter flying suits over this but carried much heavier wool clothing in our parachute bags as well as goggles and boots to protect us in the event there was a loss of power to our electric suits or a large hole was shot into the plane allowing the extreme cold air to hit us directly. Above 10,000 feet we were required to wear our oxygen mask. There was of course a cloth and leather helmet with ear phones built in. We had a throat mike strapped around our neck so we could talk without using our hands. On top of all this, after crossing the enemy coast, we strapped on a heavy flak suit and put a steel flak helmet on our heads. The flak helmet was a modified GI steel helmet. All in all, we were a bulky sight like something from another world. I refused to wear my .45 pistol as I knew I could not fight my way out of Nazi Germany or the occupied lands. We were told that if we happened to be shot down in Germany to surrender to the first uniformed person we met, even if a postman. The Germans were very disciplined and respected anyone of authority but the civilian population did not take kindly to air men bombing the Fatherland, killing thousands of their relatives and friends. Many a downed air man was murdered before he could surrender.
We carried "Escape Photos" that the underground in occupied countries could use to make fake identification passports if we were fortunate enough to land among friendly people. We also carried paper money used in the various countries and a map of the general area. As navigator, I kept the crew abreast of where we were from time to time when over enemy territory.
This particular mission was planned the way it was I believe because there was a delay due to weather. The object was to go out late in the day, take off was 16:15 hours (4:15 p.m.), and to come back to England after dark, 22:00 hours (10:00 p.m.). We were not equipped nor trained for night combat flying. The navigation was going to be especially difficult. For one thing locating your home base in daylight was no easy task. Pilots disassembling hundreds of four motor bombers in East Anglia with its many air fields was hazardous under the best of lighting conditions and down right foolhardy at night.
At briefing I was told to look for "light lines" the British had set up on the ground to lead us home. Each light had it's own code. Before take off, I had spread my navigation equipment out on the ground. While going over the maps, perhaps talking to the bombardier, I became cognizant of someone trying to get my attention. Just as I looked up, I caught a full slash of water in my face. It was the Group Chaplain asking God to look after us as we began our combat tour. Later I was to know why there are no atheists in combat. On many missions, I had good reason myself to pray for God to spare us just this one more time. I will never understand why God answered this prayer for some and so many others were required to give their all.
I remember little about the trip to the target nor the actual bomb run except this was my first experience at being shot at. Flak was moderate and fighters were few but the 68th Squadron did claim one. The thing that stands out in my mind was the return trip. As our formation approached the channel, a single B-25 twin engine plane was flying about 10,000 feet below us and on the same course, we were at 20,000 feet. Smoke and flame was coming out of its port wing. I watched the crew bail out but the plane continued to fly on auto pilot for several minutes. I was thinking the men should have stayed on board as I did not know then what I later learned from watching many other planes with their wings on fire. This B-25 was the first of many planes I was to see on my tour of combat explode before my eyes. As I watched, a huge ball of orange flame and black smoke filled my sight. Poof, the plane was gone.
We crossed the channel as dark settled in, I soon began to pick up the "light lines" and I had no problem whatsoever in navigating. We reached our field and Lt. Peritti landed using his wing lights. My Form 5 records indicates we had flown 6 hours, none of us thought this unusual until we saw what was happening. As we got out of the plane, we could see planes landing at nearby fields also using their wing lights but a number were exploding on the approach at their home bases east of us. At the time we could not imagine what was happening. The next day we were told that 15 ME 410 fighter planes had infiltrated our bomber stream as we crossed the channel. They simply lined up their gun sights between the wing lights of a bomber on its approach to land and had a field day, like shooting fish in a barrel.
Nine B-24's were shot down, two strafed and bombed and nine others damaged. In the confusion, another Liberator was shot down by AA gunners at Norwich.
It became clear why this was the last time the 8th Air Force ever planned to return from a combat mission in darkness. With no known losses to the enemy, we lost 15 bombers that day of which 14 were either shot down as they landed or crash landed. Total casualties for the day were 46 men killed in action, 38 being lost over their home fields. In addition another 35 were wounded and 153 missing. By the Grace of God, no 44th Bomb Group plane nor man was lost on this mission.
On June 7, 1944, the 34th Bomb Group of the 3rd Division came home at dusk and intruders once more shot down two B-24's.