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"Engineer to pilot, engineer to pilot: Our number one engine has been blown off the wing. Number three is stripped of its cowl and supercharger There's a three-foot wide hole in the left wing between engines one and two. The bomb bay doors are crushed in. And we've got a bomb hung up on the shackles in the bomb bay."
This was the frantic report from my flight engineer, Milford "Fitz" Fitzgerald, who had been asked to assess the damage to our B-24, "The Bad Penny." She had been badly damaged as we passed through heavy flak over Hamburg, Germany on our 23rd mission. It was August 6, 1944.
"Lieutenant, I don't think she can get us home Lover the North Sea back to England]," says Fitz. "We'd better abort to Sweden." But I still had faith in the "Bad Penny." I checked the handling characteristics of our faithful war bird. Her controls were still responding, so I started a slow turn toward Sweden and asked the flight engineer to take a poll. I wanted the crew to decide if we should go to Sweden or fly back across the North Sea to our home base at Wendling.
Fitz left and returned promptly with the vote. The crew wanted me to fly her home.
I started the slow turn toward England and asked Fitz to organize the crew in an effort to dislodge the 500-pound bomb that was hung up in the bomb bay. They would also need to kick out the bad dent in the bomb bay doors so we could attempt to close them.
Acting quickly, Fitz attached several parachute harness end to end to form the lifeline that would be fastened to each airman before he crawled along the narrow catwalk and out into the open bomb bay. Each airman kicked until he was tired in an attempt to free the tenuously trapped bomb. After several attempts, the faulty shackle let go and the bomb fell free.
The next task was dealing with the badly dented doors. It took the tiresome efforts of several more crewmen to right this situation. As each man grew weary, he would crawl back up the catwalk and another would take his place. They eventually succeeded in closing the doors.
Meanwhile the navigator, Herbie Silverman, and I were feverishly comparing notes on position, rate of sink, distance across the water to England, and the general condition of our "Bad Penny." She was not looking good. We also recalled the bad weather we had dealt with when we took off from the base. Would it be there when we returned?
When this mission started, the squadron clerk had opened the door of our Quonset hut at 0415 hours to call us to briefing. As we pedaled our bicycles to breakfast, the damp fog of this early British dawn cut through our uniforms.
During the briefing, we were warned of the flak barrage that we would encounter over our target, Hamburg. The reports stated that the flak was intense and highly accurate. We should expect a large number of casualties.
Our takeoff was at dawn in alight rain. We entered the heavy cloud overcast at 600 feet and immediately turned to a heading of 350 degrees. As soon as the gear retracted, we were careful to hold an accurate heading and constant rate of climb. We had to hold our spacing through the overcast because the sky around us was full of heavies all climbing to the assembly area. At half assembly altitude, plus 1,000 feet, we made a 180 degree instrument turn to head back to the assembly area over our base and followed the needle on the directional indicator to an accurate return heading of 170 degrees. At 5,500 feet, we broke through the clouds and marveled at the beauty of the early morning sun lighting the tops of the turbulent clouds.
After assembly, we headed our B-24s to the coastal departure point, making scheduled turns where other squadrons joined the long line of departing bombers. The B-24s tracked out over the North Sea passing Heligoland. Near Kiel we turned to the southeast assuming a heading toward Berlin. This turn was to throw the fighters off course and make them think the target for the day was Berlin. As we were making this turn, the wings changed formation and split into squadrons in trail -sixteen B-24s per squadron. Soon after this maneuver, we made a turn to the northwest that put our airplanes on course to bomb the oil refineries at Hamburg.
The antiaircraft guns at Hamburg were not firing at individual aircraft, but instead were set up to fire in predetermined grid blocks over the target we were to bomb. They would wait until a complete squadron was overhead and fire into their assigned grid. This type of firing made a large block of smoke and fire over the target. For a moment, an entire squadron would vanish in the thick, black blanket of smoke.
But the moment didn't last long. Planes would disrupt the layer of smoke as they spun out of formation or blew up before us. With each squadron, we anxiously counted the B-24s that would fly free of the smoke on the other side of the target. Ten, eleven, maybe twelve planes from each squadron survived the flak barrage. The sky was filled with parachutes descending airmen into uncertainty. As many as 40 to 60 men per squadron made the jump.
We now approached with a vivid picture of our near-certain destiny. I was so overcome by this skyline display of death and destruction that I vomited into my oxygen mask in the cockpit My copilot had to take over for a few moments as I cleaned up the mess, repositioned my mask and steadied my nerves for the task ahead.
We entered the flak storm over our target and were immediately tossed by the severe turbulence created by the exploding 88-mm flak. The "Bad Penny" was bathed in brilliant flashes of light and peppered with exploding shells. She rocked and shuttered with the jarring impact of every burst.
The biggest jolt came when the number one engine was blown off. We rolled hard to the right and it was all that my copilot and I could do to right our B-24. Not long after, a second blast stripped the cowling and supercharger off engine number three on our right wing. An engine oil fire created an expanding plume of white smoke that trailed our aircraft.
But even at half-mast, our "Bad Penny" was determined to get us home. As the airmen had been dislodging the bomb and closing our bomb bay doors, Herbie and I had been carefully watching our descent. We had dropped from 22,000 feet to 18,000 in our recovery process. After calculating our ground speed and rate of sink, we estimated that we would probably cross the English coast at about 1,900 feet. This would allow us to go the remaining distance inland to Wendling - home.
There were a lot of "ifs" involved, though. Because of this, we decided to lighten the load and improve our chances. Anything loose was thrown out of the aircraft Flak vests. Flak helmets. Machine guns. Ammunition. Cameras. Aircraft manuals. The bombardier had a few choice words to say about his binoculars going overboard.
The "Bad Penny" strained to hold altitude while her engines - the two that had survived the attack - were running extremely hot. I continued to be amazed that our number three was hanging in there. She was running, but without cowling and supercharger. Then, out of the blue, she kicked in with enough additional power for us to cross the English coast at 1,400 feet. I had never dreamed of flying a B-24 on two and a half engines and with a full crew across the North Sea.
When we identified our landfall, Herbie gave us a heading for Wendling. We broke out the red flares and were standing by to shoot them off as we neared the base.
Our problems were not over yet, though. Our electrical system and hydraulics were inoperative. This meant we had to manually lower the landing gear. If we lowered it too early, the gear would create too much drag and cause us to fall short of the landing field. So we worked out the timing as best we could and started to crank when the base came into view. Herbie and our bombardier unlatched the nose gear and with the help of Fitz, pushed the nose gear out. It fell in the locked position.
In the bomb bay, the flight engineer organized the gunners into a team to crank down the mains (landing gear). I put the gear handle in the down position and gunners took turns on the crank. Since the bomb bay doors weren't fully closed, they again used the parachute harness lifeline when lowering an airman into the bomb bay to turn the crank. When an airman would slip or be thrown off balance by the force of the wind blowing in through the doors, the others would pull him to safety with the makeshift line. After many more turns than the 71 defined in the manual, the gear locked into place. We were at 500 feet on the downwind side of the runway. The airmen fired our red flares to announce our arrival.
Just when we thought we were home free, Mother Nature dished up one more challenge. Since the "Bad Penny" had been at high altitude for hours, her surfaces were extremely cold. This caused our forward glass on the nose and windshield to ice over during our descent through the moist air near the ground. I had to peer out the open side windows to judge height and direction. With some divine assistance, I was able to hold our aircraft steady as she settled onto the runway. With no hydraulics and consequently, no brakes, we rolled the entire length of the runway before the "Bad Penny" came to a stop.
I had ordered the crew into crash positions before landing. Everyone was somewhat dazed with the realization that we were safely on the ground. I had to shout to them to get them to quickly exit the aircraft and run to a safe distance. The "Bad Penny" was primed to blow at any minute. According to procedure and to prevent imminent fire, the copilot and I shut down the cockpit and then scrambled down, through the front of the bomb bay and out onto the open tarmac under the right wing. There we found our entire crew, ignoring instructions to flee, waiting for us to make sure we could get out. Once again, I had to motivate them to hurry away from the aircraft!
They were off like a shot. The copilot and I were close behind. At a safe distance, we turned and looked at our "Bad Penny." Her tires were flat. Gasoline was dripping from her battered fuselage and wings. Her pain fell to the tarmac with each drop of ice melting from her aluminum skin. Tubes, pipes, broken metal farings hung down in tangled disarray. Her once overheated engines now crackled and popped as parts began to cool and shrink. This valiant bomber safely brought us home. But she would fly no more.
My crew was checked over at the infirmary and all were unharmed. I, on the other hand, had been wondering what I would find under my flight vest. I had tried to ignore the pain that was wildly spreading across my side during our return trip, but suddenly it seemed to grow more quickly now that we were on the ground.
After removing my flight suit and flight jacket, we found a piece of flak embedded in a steel plate in my flak jacket. It had bent the plate and severely bruised my side, but beyond that, I was uninjured. Today, touching that steel plate with its embedded flak is an instant reminder of all the events that attempted to end Mission 23 that day in August.
The following day, we returned to the "Bad Penny" to tell her goodbye. We counted 85 holes in her fuselage from nose to tail. Her number one engine was somewhere in Germany along with pieces of the number three. The hole in her left wing was large enough to lower a man through.
My crew and I always felt that the "Bad Penny" shed her own blood to save ours. We are certain that she was running with a power far greater than the lift in her wings to carry us safely home.