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On April 29th, #491 was the lead plane for our group on the Berlin mission. I remember it was a tough one, we lost eight planes out of eighteen for the second highest lost ratio in its history.
We were one of the original crews from the 577th squadron and possibly, the only one to complete our tour of twenty-eight missions.
We went up on September 9, 1943 for the groups' first mission to Abbeyville, France; we flew twenty missions before that Berlin raid. We experienced one crash landing and on another occasion there was a fire on board over England; six crewmen bailed out with only a couple of twisted knees. Our original ship was called "Pregnant Peg" and she didn't quite make it through being lost over Germany on March 3, 1944. I finished my tour in May of 1944 and within four days, I was gone; they took me right out of there to train sub-patrol pilots for combat. In some ways I don't feel I'm qualified to truly describe the life of the average airman in World War II.
There weren't many crews that I knew from that day. We had arrived in Wendling in August of 1943. The turnover was so great, that it was not uncommon to be among strangers, even in your own squadron. Wendling during the winter of '43-'44 was the coldest, dampest experience you can ever imagine...long johns day and night. You had to steal coal to keep a fire going. with the aid of crankcase oil. There were eight to ten men in a Quonset hut (usually two crews), writing letters, reading, or listening to the radio in your bunk under the blankets. There was a kind of gallows humor we had in those days. Once, after we flinched some coal from someone, the guy played a "practical joke" on us in return. He dropped an oxygen bottle into our coal stove. When we stroked up the fire and it started to get cozy, the damn thing blew up on us, covering everything with smoke and soot. It was quite a while before we could get things warm and clean in our hut again.
The weather was so bad that winter, you never saw the sun. Day after day, you just took off in the soup and when the wheels came up, you were on the instruments. In fact, one morning I was jostled out of bed and told to get my crew together. It was my job to blow the fog off the runway with the prop wash. You would take off in front of everyone and circle around the field in a steep bank; then drop down in front of the other guys as close to the ground as you could get. That would blow the fog away so the others didn't have to come up through it.
Take off procedures started with timing of the start engines, taxing, and individual take offs, after the lead plane cleared the runway. Each base had its own flight path to climb through the overcast. You would ascend on a prescribed heading for a certain length of time, then make a 180-turn on a reciprocal heading and just go back and forth until you broke out on top. Assembling the group and division took some time and on occasion was rather difficult.
On that Saturday morning, April 29th, our taxi time was 7:25 a.m., take off was at 7:30 and assembly was accomplished at 9:20. That's almost two hours and a good deal of the mission is right there. It all depends on the weather and altitude. They may have said, "Assembly at 10,000 ft." Well, you go up to that height and you may still be in the Scud. You might have to go up a little higher to 12,000 ft. or more. What used to make us madder than hell was to get up there, get all assembled out over the channel and then, have them scrub the mission for some reason. It was no picnic to be up there for two or more hours with your buddies flying all over the sky. There was some resemblance to what it was suppose to be, but it was a tricky operation.
If you ever saw the take off pattern, you'd be amazed. Flares are shooting off all over the morning sky, and after I take off, all the rest of the planes in our group follow us up through the fog. We'd fly back and forth until you pick up all your people and get them into formation. Then our box would have to be at a certain " buncher " at a certain time. On the 29th, we were to fly high right on the 44th Bomb Group, so finding them was our next job. You look all around and say, "Geez, we're suppose to be over here, now." So the 392nd would wheel around and pick up the 44th.They in turn would fall behind the 398th or the 492nd Bomb Group and form the l4th Combat Wing; then we'd all follow the 2nd Air Division which was only part of the Eight Air Force bomber stream.
Believe me, there were times when everything didn't go quite as planned. On one occasion, I actually went all the way to Kiel by myself. I couldn't find anyone from my group. I thought to myself: "Boy, this is ridiculous! What the hell are we doing way out here all alone!" Luckily, no fighters picked us up and I came in on a bunch of B-17's. I came within 50 feet of them with all our guys waving and shooting flares and what not...just to tell them: "Hey, we're your buddies!" You're not supposed to break radio silence and even if we had, they wouldn't have known for sure if we were the enemy! We had heard, they had some of our airplanes and were attacking us, right in our own formations. All those B-17's could do was to judge us by our actions. It was a funny feeling to have all those guns pointing at us. I don't think they trusted us until we went in at I.P. and dropped bombs with them.
Close, tight formation was the secret of survival from fighter attacks because of the concentrated firepower. We had trouble on the 29th, right from the start because of weather conditions. The initial head on tactics of the fighters spread us out a little too. The B-24 wasn't as easy to fly as the more famous B-17, but it was, in my opinion, the better of the two aircraft. It took more muscle to maneuver in formation, but it was faster, carried a bigger bomb load, and I liked the Pratt and Whitney engines.
Circumstances also played a big part in whether you can survive. Are you in the right place at the right time? It's not anybody's fault as far as I'm concerned. Your chances of survival were a hell of a lot better, the further up in the box you could get. The fellows in the back of the formation were the most vulnerable. Somebody gets shot down from the middle of the pack and your protection begins to break down. Maybe some guy had an engine failure or got it shot up with a 2Omm and we had to slow down. If you lose your wingman, you are supposed to close in; but things are going so fast around you! It takes some concentration to figure out who is the leader of your little 3-plane vic. On the 29th, we were dispersed, as we approached the target.
For example, Bud Slipp was my wingman on the right side. Now the pitot tube is a little tube sticking out of the wing, from which you get your airspeed indication. Right after the first wave of fighters hit us I realized he was flying right by me and we were pretty close to the bomb run .He was breaking out into the head of the formation and I thought: "What the hell's the matter with this guy!" He peeled off and came back later with a couple of P-38's and they were in a hurry to get back to their coverage positions. It seems some shell from the fighters had knocked his pitot off and he thought he was losing airspeed; of course, this sent him flying on ahead of the whole group. He thought somebody else was hit and we were all slowing down.
It seemed to me we were hit on the IP end of the drop. Hell, going over the target, I didn't even know who was with us anymore! The trouble with being up front is that you don't know what's happening behind you. The navigator is your eyes and ears. The flak, you can't do anything about...you just fly through it and hope you come out on the other side. Everybody is looking for fighters coming at you. The gunners are all intent on what they're doing. I'm sitting there keeping airspeed and not looking out too much, when they shout out: "Fighters at twelve o'clock"...well, naturally you're going to look out and see what's going on, but after they go on by, you go back to what you're doing.
I've got a visual picture of a German going by, with a white scarf on around his neck. That's the closest I ever got to a German getting to me. Man, he's coming right at me and then over my left wing! I said, "Oh, brother, I don't know what's happening to the guys behind me there"...but shells were flying all over the place. A fighter attack could last for a while, because they might come around at you several times or come through the formation in waves. One thing though, they did not like to get into where the flak was and we had just reached that point at IP In this particular era of the war, they were getting orders to hit us everywhere and anywhere!
It isn't until you make a turn toward the target, that you get an assembly back. You just try to bunch together so that you will be better protected if the fighters come at you again. They will often try to hit again when you come off the bomb run. You're still not in a good tight formation and you're vulnerable. Maybe you were tight going in over the target but lost someone in there...guys will be spread out all over so that's why you form up going out.
During a fighter attack, we might travel forward more than 50 miles, depending on how many waves came through. If they had figured out where you were going, they'd be ready for you. They knew we were going to Berlin, no doubt about it! And they hit us just before we made our turn south.
We were carrying heavy bombs...quite a load, but we kept our altitude at 24,000 ft.; pretty high for us. (That was the advantage the B-17's had over us; they could gain more altitude, but we were faster with a bigger load)--after 096 and 371 got hit, it's fair to say that they would try to head back. From 11:05 to 11:19 (when we hit the I.P.) we were doing about 155 to 160 indicated airspeed and if they salvoed their bombs, they would weigh less. They would also have only half the gas load. With power on two engines, they could have come down in a steep glide. The B-24 is not noted for its gliding ability, so you might be talking of a decent rate of 5,000 ft. per minute...about 5 minutes down. You could still cover a lot of territory.
For those few of us who remained on the bomb run, it was the longest ten minutes you ever wanted to fly. We turned on to the I.P. and from there it was straight and level with no evasive action. We use to train back in the states to do all sorts of gyrations, to throw the flak gunners off track. Well, we found out that you can't do it.
For the lead aircraft, you give control over to the bombardier and he flies it through the bomb run. You're up in the cockpit and you're just sitting there. You've got no hands on-no control; all you're doing is keeping airspeed and altitude. You haven't even got a gun and that could last three to five minutes over the target.
They always use to say that when I was leading they could depend on my famous right-hand turn and you'd better look out. At a certain point when the run was complete, you'd change headings. When that time came and the guy downstairs said: "Bombs away", I'd grab a hold of that column and peel the plane right up on its side. The guys coming along had to come over with me. It's one way to get run over real quick, but that was my reaction! "Man, that's one more load we got rid of! Let's get the heck out of here!" The word went out that whenever Bob Copp is flying lead, you better be ready to move, because as soon as the bombs are gone, he's going over! It may have made the difference for our crew. It's hard to say.
I was never one to keep diaries, records, or take pictures during the war years. Recollections of events and people are difficult to conjure up after so many decades have passed; but it's evident that many of us traveled the same route in training from Davis Mountain to Topeka to Wendling. It is unbelievable to me that my crew went through this ordeal without as much as a scratch.