St. Lo, France
July 25, 1944
On this Tuesday of July 25, 1944, it had been one week since our ineffectual carpet bombing in front of the British and Canadian troops at Caen. Only 24 hours had passed since our "dry run" over the same target we were assigned to bomb today. This was to be a massive tactical carpet bombing in support of our armies fighting in the St. Lo area. Since the invasion six weeks before on D-Day, June 6th, our ground forces had not been strong enough to break out of the small beachhead area roughly extending from Caen on the east to St. Lo on the west and only 15 to 20 miles inland from the English Channel. General Eisenhower decided the time had come to make a major "breakout" effort. He ordered the 8th Air Force to bomb just in front of his 1st and 3rd Armies.
The weather had cleared considerably since the abortive attempt on Monday. An even greater force of heavy bombers than before were scheduled for this mission. There would be 850 B-17 Flying Fortresses and 650 B-24 Liberators (1503 in all) carrying 3400 tons of bombs, destroying the enemy's ability to fight before this day was over.
As lead navigator for the 68th squadron of this mission, I went to early briefing to prepare for this critical flight. After breakfast, all flying personnel assembled for the main briefing. We were instructed in great detail as our target area was a small rectangular section behind a road leading north and west from the city of St. Lo. The order to the pilots and bombardiers was to fly as low as necessary to keep below the clouds. This had to be a visual bombing as the target area was only a few hundred yards in advance of our troops who had pulled back behind this road. We were told to look for red smoke artillery shells to be fired by our forces into the drop zone.
Our plane, "Lili Marlene", was the lead plane for the 68th Squadron. We had a Command Pilot on board (but now I can not recall who he was) as well as our own pilot and crew. All went well in the assembly and the flight to the English coast near Brighton south of London. There is approximately 100 miles of open water over the English Channel at this point to the French coast north of St. Lo and another 20 miles over land to St. Lo.
The 2nd Air Division was leading the 8th Air Force, the 14th Combat Wing was leading the 2nd Division, the 44th Bomb Group was leading the Combat Wing and the 67th Squadron was leading the group. Our 68th Squadron of 12 ships was behind and to the right of the 67th. After we had broken the English coast and flown some distance over the channel, I became concerned as I knew we were off course to reach out target and so advised the Command Pilot and Capt. Peritti. It was an unforgivable sin to break formation as this was part of our protection from enemy fighters, but time and distance were running out the further we went. Everything depended upon the proper approach on the bomb run. Being a typical hypertensive navigator type person, I began to stress over and over that we had to alter course if we were to reach the IP. I really do not know what I said or how I said it but my concern must have been convincing. I can only imagine the anguish the Command Pilot and my pilot must have gone through in wanting to keep formation on the one hand and my urging them to correct course on the other. It seemed like an eternity to me but finally I was asked for a new heading. I directed a change of about 20 degrees to the right.
After the change in flight direction, we began to pull away from the lead formation, they continued straight while we moved off to their right. After a few minutes, it was obvious to anyone in either squadron that we would soon be far apart. What was going through the mind of the Lead Command Pilot (I presume he was a high ranking officer as we were leading the Air Force) and the lead navigator, I do not know. There must have been some soul searching. As for me, I was almost sick from concern that I had possibly made a mistake and had talked my pilot into committing an unforgivable disobedience of standing orders.
The 68th Squadron kept to my course. The closer we got to the French coast, the more I realized my navigation was accurate. In the meantime, the lead squadron had pulled far off to our left but suddenly they realized the error in their course and made a large correction to parallel ours. Now the 68th Squadron was in the lead with the former lead behind us and to our left. We were now the lead for the entire 8th Air Force and naturally this would put us over the drop zone first.
Now we had a new problem, the clouds were getting lower. Due to our orders to bomb visually, bombardier Lt. Warga requested we follow the clouds down which we did. This put us at 14,000 feet by the time we reached the drop zone. All hell broke loose, every anti-aircraft gun the Germans could muster that could reach our low altitude was concentrated on us. (It had been learned that the first planes to go over any target had a higher percentage of loss from flak than those following due to the fact that the shaff thrown out to jam the AA aiming radar had not had time to be effective). Peritti had turned control of the plane over to Warga's bomb sight. We had to fly straight and level. I pointed out to Warga the road from St. Lo and the red smoke shells which were clearly visible. Like all men selected to be bombardiers, he had nerves of iron, never became excited and had an excellent rating on most bombings. Today was no exception, I watched the bombs land squarely on target.
Our job was done, now Capt. Peritti put the squadron into violent evasive action. Even over Berlin, the flak was not as concentrated nor as intense as we were going through holes were being ripped through us at every explosion. I gave the order to correct course to the right and just as we made the turn and straightened out, a flak shell exploded directly under us. The concussion suddenly lifted "Lili Marlene" at least 20 feet and just as quickly, we began to fall. I was thrown to the floor of my navigation compartment. Under my desk was a lever that opened the nose wheel doors which was my escape hatch. I was not waiting around to assess the damage. I thought we had lost a wing and a combat flyer only has to see this happen to a nearby plane once to know there is no escape due to centrifugal force once the plane begins to spin and tumble. (Read by account of Mission Number Three where I saw this happen. It made a believer out of me). This type of fear that airmen had accounted for the occurrence of frequent premature bale-outs. I had my hand on the lever ready to jump, I did not take the time to disconnect my electric flying suit, the oxygen supply nor ear phone plug. Just as I was ready to go, I heard Capt. Peritti say, "Stay on board, the plane is still flying." I stood up, we were still on the westerly course and beginning to leave the flak area. Our plane had been severely damaged. The flak shell had exploded directly under us spewing out steel in a cone shape. We had caught the concussion in the center of the cone and received over 400 flak holes from this shell and the AA barrage. We knew our two wing men were hurt badly also but only after we landed did we know that the plane on the left of us had 600 holes and our deputy on the right had almost 1,000. Believe it or not, not a man in any of the three aircraft received a scratch.
Resuming my navigation duties, at the appropriate place, I ordered a turn to the right which would put us on a northerly course up the Cherbourg Peninsula. At this point, something happened that I did not understand. Instead of turning as directed, Peritti asked the following question, "Mac, are you sure you want me to turn to the right?" Never had he ever questioned my navigation before. I was mystified and told him, "Yes, turn as directed." Peritti came back, "But I see the English Channel ahead, we will fly back into the combat zone again." I looked out, sure enough there was water ahead but to my amusement, it was the Atlantic Ocean, not the channel. After assuring my pilot that it would take several minutes of flying up the peninsula before we could see the channel, he made the turn to the right.
Now we were flying north and could look to our right, easily seeing back into the battle area. There was a tremendous billow of dust up to several thousand feet being blown back over the American front lines by a south wind. I did not get the significance of this terrible turn of events until after we had landed. Our planes were loaded with 100 pound fragmentation bombs set to explode on contact. The purpose being to kill enemy personnel, not to dig big holes that our tanks could not get past. This was the reason for this huge volume of dust being churned up.
About this time I looked at the planes in the bomber stream when suddenly, one of the aircraft exploded falling into a nearby plane and into one or two more. To me it appeared that four planes came burning and exploding all at once in a jumble of wreckage falling through the sky. (The 2nd Bomb Division only lost four planes that day so I could not have seen more than two or three, perhaps I saw the two that the 389th Bomb Group lost). What ever the case, it looked terrible to me.
Finally we left the area and the English Channel did come into view. Needless to say, we were badly shaken up. We knew our plane had been severely damaged. There were holes all through my navigation compartment. I could see daylight through the fuselage as if it were a sieve. But thanks to the Grace of God, all our planes were flying and no one killed in our squadron. The 68th Squadron had paid the price for having taken the lead, 10 out of our 12 ships were damaged.
Again, as so often happened, the excitement of the battle caused me to perspire so greatly that the sweat run from under my helmet and froze into ice cakes on my forehead.
We had about two hours of flying to return back to base. Our course took us around the city of London and we had time to think about the mission. At this time a great concern gripped me. What was going to happen when we landed and were made to account for leaving the formation over the channel. In the light of the passage of time, this thought seems silly but at this point, it was real.
We reached our base and landed after 5 hours and 30 minutes in the air. Capt. Peritti was instructed to pull up in front of Group Headquarters rather than go to our usual hardstand. When I lowered myself out of the plane and looked up, the first thing I saw was Col. John Gibson, Commanding Officer of the 44th Bomb Group. My heart sank, I could see a very serious look on his face. He stepped out of his Jeep and looked straight at us. With a wide rapid motion of his right hand starting at knee level swinging up over the top of his head, he demanded in a loud voice, "YOU FOLLOW ME". He also ordered that the camera be taken out of our plane and the pictures be developed at once.
Needless to say, we did follow Col. Gibson into the debriefing room. He spread a map in front of him and pointing to me said, "WHERE WERE YOU?" In a stammering voice filled with trepidation, I began by explaining what had happened over the channel and why we had changed course away from the lead squadron. Suddenly I was greatly relieved because Col. Gibson said to forget about what happened on the way over the channel. He wanted to know where we had dropped our bombs. All this time I thought we were in big trouble for having left the formation and now he did not give a hoot about that.
I knew exactly where Warga had dropped our squadron bombs and pointed out the spot on the map as did Warga. How it was accomplished so quickly I do not know but Intelligence came up with the pictures taken from our plane. They even had penciled lines over our designated strike area and almost every bomb was inside the lines. At this point Col. Gibson's whole personality changed back to the usual good natured and likeable person he was. A smile broke over his face from ear to ear. The 44th was not at fault for a grievous error, word had filtered back that bombs had fallen short of the drop zone, crossing the road coming out of St. Lo, and into the American lines, killing many of our men. Later I was told it was 260 men including General McNair. Ours were the first bombs to drop so the target area was very visible. But the Groups following us could see nothing through the dense dust and dropped their bombs into the cloud until corrected by P-51's flying to indicate the correct drop area. History records that the Allied forces did break out of the beachhead as a result of this bombing. It was the greatest tactical bombing of the war, yet it is consistently given little notice in any history book I ever read, even those devoted to the 8th Air Force. I'll never understand why this fantastic event that broke the German front only rates at most one line in the history of WW II.
I have talked to several men who were on the ground that day. Mr. Physter, a patient of mine, told me that when the bombs began to fall short, he dove into his fox hole but that the concussion rolled him around like a toy doll. Another friend, Chester Rotter was a Captain with the infantry. He said that where as his company was not able to advance one hedgerow the day before that after this tremendous carpet bombing, he led his men 5000 meters before they found a German who could stand up and fight. All the others were either dead or near dead with blood coming out of their nose, mouth and ears. Dr. Rotter said the one thing he most remembers is that all the cattle were laying on their backs with all four legs up in the air.
For those of us who fought this battle both
in the air and on the ground, we can be proud of this bit of history
even if it is reported only in the most off hand manner.
No July 25th of any year ever goes by that I do not relive this day in 1944. Nor does any April 29th when we flew to Berlin on our Third Mission.