Chapter 6: Shot up and Short of Gas
OUR 24th MISSION WAS ON D-DAY, June 6, 1944. It was the first of four missions that the 453d Bomb Group would fly on that day. The target was the coastal defense guns in St-Laurent-sur-Mer, France. Takeoff was 3:30 a.m., and aircraft had to form in complete darkness. This was done with the tail gunner using a special flashlight that was much brighter than the common torch as the English would say.
As the sun started to come up, we passed over the English Channel and we could see miles and miles of ships. The Channel was just covered with them. They carried our troops that were going to hit the beaches at Normandy. Our missions that day and the D-Day invasion were successful and they turned the tide of the war against Germany. But those were not my last missions and they were not my most harrowing.
I can recall once when I was on leave in town, I was having a beer at one of the local pubs. An English infantryman (which we sometimes called a ground pounder) was enjoying a beer also. He could see that I was an American flyer. We chatted for some time and he made a remark to the effect that he was glad he had two feet on the ground in this war. He went on to say that if a bomber like the one I was on was hit badly, I would have no hole to jump in. He would. I couldn't argue with that analysis.
On that early morning over the Channel I recalled those words and thought: Those poor infantrymen, thank God I am up here and not down there. For me, the D-Day invasion was an easy mission, what we would call a milk run, so easy I was hoping I could fly a couple more that day. That would put me closer to thirty, which would be the end of my tour, and I could go stateside.
I flew three more missions after that. On June 14 the target was the airfield at Chateaudun, France. On June 18 we hit an oil storage installation in Hamburg, Germany. Then on June 20 we bombed a synthetic oil refinery in Politz, Germany. That time we were not so lucky.
This is what happened. On June 20, 1944, the squadron orderly entered our hut and ordered our crew to roll out for the day’s mission. As usual it was very early when we went to chow and then on to the briefing for the mission. As we were being briefed, I remember that I didn’t like the looks of this one. That old nervous-gut feeling came over me again.
The target was a synthetic oil refinery in Politz, Germany, northeast of Berlin. The approach to the target was mostly over the North Sea, back inland over the target, and then a return route over water again. The string on the map seemed to stretch forever.
The target had been hit before on a couple occasions, so by this time it was well fortified by anti-aircraft guns and fighters. In the air the flak was very intense with what seemed like walls of flak bursting just below and ahead of our formation. The German gunners had zeroed in on us pretty good. I could see the red glow from the flak bursts. By this time I was sure that this was going to be the one, the one mission that we would not survive.
It was always a concern of mine that if we would blow up, would I have time to bail out and clear the aircraft and flak? Could I possibly find my way back to friendly territory, or would I be taken a prisoner of war, the worst possibility of them all?
Well into our mission, the aircraft started to jump all over the place from the effect of the flak. As the group made the bomb run and the bombs were dropped, all hell seemed to break loose. A flak-burst fragment came up into the bomb bay and tore a large hole in the number-three gas tank. A large amount of fuel began to escape and run alongside the aircraft into the tail turret. The gunner manning that turret vacated his gun position as he became drenched with gasoline. I was manning the left waist-gun position and was expecting at any time that we would get the bailout order, as the danger of blowing up was imminent.
Angelo Fermo was manning the top turret and was able to assess the damage and try and stop the flow of gas. He found a .50-caliber shell casing, wrapped a scarf around it, and stuffed it in the hole. His effort had no effect in stopping the gas from escaping from the tank. For his effort he too was drenched in gasoline. By this time it was quite evident that the amount of gas lost would not leave us with enough fuel to make it back to our base in England. Being taken prisoner was not an option to the crew. Yet I knew we were in big trouble.
Lt. Kolb, our pilot, informed the crew that we were going to try and make it to Sweden, which was a neutral country. He asked the navigator to plot a course for Sweden. He did and Kolb put the plane in a very steep descent over the North Sea coastline. Our course put us just west of a German fighter base and I witnessed ME-109 fighters taking off. I could only pray that they were not after us.
The pilot instructed the crew to pull all .50 caliber guns from their mounts and dump them overboard along with any sidearms. He also ordered us to assist the navigator in removing the bomb-site map and disposing of it in the same way.
Fortunately, over the North Sea just a few miles from the coast of Sweden, we were picked up by two Swedish fighters. They flew just off our wing tips and lowered their wheels, indicating we were to follow. Kolb also lowered our wheels and I was happy that he was still able to do so, considering all flak damage. One of the Swedish fighters broke away, leaving us with one fighter to escort us.
After passing over the shoreline of Sweden, the escort directed us to Bulltofta air base just at the edge of Malmo, Sweden, which was at the very southern tip of the country. As I was looking for some sort of runway, the escort made a descent over what appeared to be just a big, open grass field. At the far end of that field was a drainage ditch.
There was a B-17 on fire in that ditch. I think there were three aircraft on fire on the airfield when we came in. The Swedish escort made the approach with us and was on the ground when he saw that we were not going to make it. He quickly got airborne again and stayed with us for our next try.
Kolb made his next attempt low over the city of Malmo. As we approached the edge of the field, he cut the engines, and dropped the plane in. The aircraft made one bounce and stayed down, and with the brakes locked, it skidded across the field, coming very close to the drainage ditch. I was at a location close to the bomb-bay catwalk and was able to open the doors as the plane was still in a skid and roll out.
As the plane skidded to a halt, most of us exited by the bomb bay but some went through the escape hatch over the flight deck. We all escaped uninjured, but that wasn’t true for members of all the crews that took emergency detours to Malmo that day. Many died that day.
For almost three weeks our crew was officially listed as missing in action, leaving my family afraid that I had been either captured by the enemy or killed.