THE SMALL SQUARE OF STEEL

By James Maris, Pilot, 578th Squadron

© Copyright 392nd Bomb Group Memorial Association 2017 - All rights reserved

We had a tough mission to Bremen, northwest Germany, on 29 July 1944, during which most of the group's B-24s suffered varying degrees of flak damage, then faced the daunting possibility of ditching in the very cold North Sea during the 90 minute return flight to eastern England over open water. After that, we were relieved to have a more or less uneventful mission on 1 August to hit a railroad bridge west of St. Quentin, northern France. We let down over southern England after crossing the comparatively narrow English Channel, coming in under a high overcast and moving to the west of London to avoid the numerous barrage balloons and their wing-slicing cables.

3 August 1944 was briefed as a "no ball" mission that we expected to be a milk run. We were assigned an airplane called "Ford's Folly," #427466, departed Wendling at 4 p.m. and crossed the French coast at an altitude of 23,000 feet. The primary was obscured by haze and the lead bombardier took the group to bomb a target of opportunity, a bridge near Goes, Holland. As we passed over the IP, several batteries of mobile antiaircraft guns opened fire on our formation.

Our two wing men later told us that the first salvo of four shells exploded 300 feet below and behind us. The next salvo took us out of the lead of the lower element. They said our B-24 disappeared in a cloud of smoke and they could see it being blown up and over on its back above the formation.

Earlier in the mission I'd set up the Automatic Flight Control Equipment on standby, and with the aircraft now inverted and badly damaged, I activated the autopilot. It righted the B-24 and gave us the chance to assess the damage. Our #1 engine was gone, #2 had a "runaway" propeller (which we eventually managed to feather), and a third engine was stripped of its cowling, its supercharger blown away, but still running. A heavy odor of gasoline permeated the cockpit and almost every electrical system was deactivated. I later learned that our right wing had a hole big enough to drop a man through. The fuel cells in that area were ruptured and leaking fuel. Some of the draining fuel followed the wing spars into the fuselage and caused fumes in the cockpit area.

After the bombs were jettisoned, recovery was eventually accomplished at 18,000 feet on a westerly heading. On approaching the French port of Calais, where the English Channel is at its narrowest (about 20 miles across to the White Cliffs of Dover), the cockpit crew, Tom Gerbing (copilot), Milford Fitzgerald (flight engineer) and myself, elected to attempt to get back to England rather than bail out over France. We calculated that with the rate of descent we'd established we would cross the English coast at about 2,000 feet.

As our intercom system was inoperative, Sgt. Fitzgerald went back to the crewmen at their various stations in the airplane and told them to prepare for the crossing by throwing out everything that we could dump. They were then to rig parachutes at the waist windows to use as air brakes on landing.

Two Royal Air Force Spitfires suddenly appeared and came into formation with us, signaling that we should follow them. We gave them a "thumbs up" and continued throwing everything loose out of the airplane. Apparently our wing men had punched the radio emergency channel when they saw us recover and head for England. They'd requested help for us to prevent German fighters intercepting us on our way back.

We were at 1,800 feet as the Spitfires led us over the English coast. We could see a column of black smoke ahead and assumed the British had lit a tire fire, which they sometimes did to mark an airfield or to disperse fog. The smoke was rising from Manston, the crash recovery base near the coast.

The Spitfires peeled off with a waggle of their wings and we prepared to land. Sgt. Fitzgerald, helped by Henry Silverman (navigator) and Jim Taylor (bombardier) in the nose section, released the lock and kicked out the nose gear. Then they went to the bomb bay to crank down the main gear. They rigged a safety device out of parachute harnesses and, one at a time, went in the bomb bay area and cranked until nearly unconscious from raw gasoline fumes. The crewman was then pulled back and replaced by another until the gear was down. They then returned to the cockpit and took up their crash positions immediately behind the pilots' seats. Our five other crewmen, in the rear of the aircraft, had rigged the parachutes in the waist windows and sat down with their backs against the crash belt.

I glanced out of the side window while turning on the base leg and was alarmed to see that the column of black smoke was coming from a burning Liberator which had crashed about halfway down Manston's long emergency runway. Turning on final approach with only two functioning engines, I had to allow for no flaps, damaged wing surface, no hydraulics and a cockpit full of gas fumes.

"Ford's Folly" had been at high altitude for several hours in sub-zero temperatures and the outer surfaces were deeply chilled. When the airplane passed through 400 feet, the cockpit windows clouded up with condensation which immediately froze in a thin covering of ice, preventing forward visibility. I opened the small weather window on the left, reached out and got a clearing scrape across the lower corner of the windshield.

By peeking through the small but clear view in the iced windshield, and judging our height by quick glances out the side window, I brought the B-24 in on the crash recovery runway. After touching down, we had no brakes apart from the billowing parachutes out of each waist window. The punctured tires were rapidly losing air, but "Ford's Folly" tracked straight and rolled to a stop.

While Tom Berbing and I shut everything down in the cockpit, our crew quickly evacuated the airplane through the bomb bay. We followed. As I ducked down out of the exit, I ran into the crew waiting to see if everyone had got out. "RUN!! BEFORE SHE BLOWS!!" I yelled. They took off like a shot.

About 100 yards down the runway we stopped, turned and looked back at the crippled B-24 that had so valiantly brought us home. Fuel was dripping from both wings and the tires were now completely flat. In addition to the large hole through the wing, we later counted 85 holes of varying sizes, from nose to tail.

Our guardian angel must have been riding with us, because not one crew member had been hit. We had several suffering from the effects of gasoline inhalation, extreme soreness from extensive hand-cranking on the main gear, and I was in a state of nervous stress and exhaustion from the intense pressures of the last two hours.

Capt. English, the officer in charge of the crash crew, debriefed the crew and complimented them on a job well done. The medical staff asked everyone to go to the infirmary for check-ups and a night's rest.

In the dressing room, where the crew removed their flying clothes, flak vests, etc., the doctor stopped me and requested to check my badly bruised left side. During the cross-channel flight to Manston I'd repeatedly checked my left side for signs of blood because I felt I'd been hit. My flak vest was examined and one of the steel squares near the bruised area was badly bent. In the cloth near the bent protective metal square was a small, jagged piece of flak shrapnel.

When checking the B-24 next day, a hole in the left side of the cockpit was identified as the place where the shrapnel penetrated the airplane and, very fortunately, had struck my flak jacket. The doctor assured me that the shrapnel would have gone into my heart if it hadn't been stopped by that small square of steel. (I've kept the small section of flak vest and shrapnel and they're now part of my collection of memories from my B-24 days.)

The crew was worried about "Blondie," our spaniel dog mascot. I called the base at Wendling, asked them not to strip our Quonset hut, assuring them that we were OK, and asked them to feed "Blondie" as we would be back soon. There was a repaired B-24 at Manston to be taken back to Norwich and I'd said our crew would return it.

We settled down in the infirmary that night, but soon a nurse came in requesting that we dress and go to an air raid shelter behind the building. A V-1 flying bomb was approaching and to the west the searchlights illuminated the V-1 as it crossed the coast. Anti-aircraft fire tracked the missile as it approached Manston. Then a battery of four anti-aircraft guns in an emplacement near us opened fire and frightened all of us worse than that day's mission.

Suddenly a green flare was fired. All guns ceased fire and an unfamiliar whine filled the air. Flashing into a cone of light was an airplane like none of us had ever seen. It appeared to have no propellers and the strange high-pitched whine continued. Then the sleek jet fighter moved into close formation with the V-1 and, when properly positioned, the pilot raised his wing up under the wing of the V- 1, upsetting the gyros of the VI's autopilot. It immediately went into a spiral, crashing out on the airfield with a roar.

Enough was enough: We all retreated to the infirmary and were given something medicinal to help us sleep. 3 August 1944, was certainly a day which we would all remember.