August 13, 1944
After our tactical bombing at St. Lo three weeks before, our 1st and 3rd Armies had put General Von Kluge's Wehmacht into disorganized retreat. The broken German Army was caught in a pincher trap near the small town of Falaise some 20 miles south of Caen. Their army was fleeing eastward towards this narrowing gap. All the time our 8th and 9th Air Force, especially the fighter-bombers were pounding anything that moved unmercifully. These savage attacks were creating pandemonium in the German Army.
The job of the heavy bombers was to block any route of supply or escape surrounding the battle zone. Our Groups were dispatched as squadrons of 6 to 12 planes, each with some road junction, river bridge, rail transport, communications center as its target. Today the 8th Air Force targets were to be transportation choke points between Le Havre and Paris. Specifically the target for the 44th was a road junction near the city of Rouen. This city lies astraddle the Seine River some 70 miles down stream from Paris and 45 miles east of Le Havre on the channel.
The 44th put forth 25 aircraft divided among three squadrons, the 67th, the 68th and the 506th. We were the lead for the 8 planes of the 68th. For the life of me, I never did understand what our target was except a "road junction". If Lt. Warga, our bombardier knew, he kept it a secret and judging, by the strike photo taken from our plane, I'm not sure he knew. We flew for 5 hours just to bomb some miserable country road near the Seine River, I'm ashamed to show anybody the strike photo.
But this was no "milk run". Our squadrons were lined up one in front of the other as we approached the Seine. The 506th Squadron was perhaps a half mile ahead of us or less. As they approached the river, very heavy and accurate flak burst in their formation. I was looking directly at it when one of their planes started to burn. The plane fell out of formation and the crew bailed out just in time. As I looked directly at it, the plane exploded in front of us. There was a monstrous explosion, the plane literally disintegrated before my eyes. This was a bright cloudless day with unlimited visibility, the sun was shinning bright.
There is no way I can really put in words what I saw but I'll try. The plane blew to bits. The motors were torn from the wings and went tumbling through the sky with their props windmilling as they fell in a large nonlinear arc. The wings and the fuselage and the tail were torn to shreds. As the pieces of aluminum drifted and twisted while they fell, with each turn, the sun would be reflected off their surface back into my eyes as if they were mirrors. It was like watching a thousand suns turn on and off in a rapid random fashion. But the most spectacular sight was the gas tanks which had been torn from the wings. They did not explode their gasoline but rather it burned in huge orange flames streaming out behind the tanks as they fell in a wavy fashion towards the earth below.
I was fascinated with the sight that I was witnessing until all of a sudden I realized that our squadron would be over the exact same spot in a minute or two. I know it sounds cowardly but I became obsessed with an uncontrollable fear. I got it in my mind that we would be the next plane to be literally blown out of the sky. As the flak began to reach us, I was paralyzed until we passed beyond their range. I don't know how to express my feeling but I had never experienced such an intense emotion before or since.
Addendum, September 1986
On Friday the 29th while Doris and I were waiting for the buses to take us on a tour of Cripple Creek, I was approached by Kenneth (Buck) Beckwith and Martin Richard. They had just come into the lobby from the Aspen room on the third floor. Doris and I have known Buck and Louise Beckwith, as well as his pilot John Millikin, since the 1984 reunion in Dayton, Ohio. We knew their plane had been shot down and that the crew was captured by the Germans but John Millikin escaped. It was obvious that Buck did not like to talk too much about his experiences as a prisoner of war. The few things he did say were mostly about the miserable living conditions and the food.
I could tell that Buck and Martin were a bit excited and I soon found out why. Martin confirmed that I had written the account of the mission to Rouen of August 13, 1944 as described in my narrative. I replied in the affirmative at which time I was told it was their plane that I had seen explode before my eyes. They were flying with the 506th Squadron of the 44th BG and to make an unfortunate story more so, it was their 30th and last mission of their tour of combat.
For more than 40 years, I had believed all the men aboard that plane had died in that blinding explosion. I did not learn differently until I read Will Lundy's account of the mission for that date. That is why I had such an uncontrollable fear grip me as we approached the same location over the ground. Somehow, I felt that Lili Marlene would be the next aircraft to be blown to bits. I did not see the crew bail out. Apparently the fire coming from the left wing, as the plane fell off to the right of the formation, was what attracted my attention but by that time the crew had abandoned ship. Buck told me that he was so far from the plane by the time it exploded that he did not hear the sound.
Needless to say, they were very pleased to read an eye witness account of the last few minutes of their ill fated aircraft. I too have given it much thought since then as I try to reconstruct the events of that day many many years ago. With each 44th H.M.G. reunion (this is my fourth if I include going back to Shipdham, England last year) I learn more and more details that fill in the many missing parts of the river of memories flowing through my mind. Seldom a day goes by that some thought concerning my military experiences does not flash through my subconscious. I am now in my 64th year and even though my military career takes up only one half of ten percent of my lifetime, at least twenty five percent of my total memory is compressed into this time frame with a large percent of that being in a nine months period between February and October, 1944.