"In preparation our first "trucking mission," crew training of all four squadrons was conducted on 17 September 1944, practicing low-level supply drops. The specified drop zone was near Eindhoven, southern Holland, for the resupply of artillery and small-arms ordnance to U.S. airborne troops who had landed in the area on Sept. 17. At about 10:15 a.m. on Sept. 18, 40 B-24s began their takeoffs with a U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps drop master aboard each ship.
Flak was encountered while crossing the southern Dutch coast at Walcheren and light-arms fire continued along the route, with it being especially heavy from the Initial Point to the release point. Severe damage and loss of aircraft were suffered, but all supply bundles and ammunition were dropped accurately on the briefed dropping zone from very low level, with a total of 766 500-lb. bundles being dropped.
J.A. Gerow, piloting #886, was last heard reporting that his #2 engine was feathered, #3 was leaking oil badly and that he was heading for France. Nothing was known concerning the loss of W.P. Sewell and his crew aboard #673. During the return flight to England, four heavily damaged B-24s, (H.K. Porter in #495, H.J. Leser in #528, T.F. McGrath in #040 and H.M. Propper in #164) with wounded crewmen aboard, all were forced to land at the long emergency runway at Woodbridge, Suffolk.
Earlier, R.C. Martin and his crew in #524 were forced to crash land at Brussels and were returned the next day by C-47 with several injured crew members. Ten other damaged bombers were among the remainder of the group when they returned to Wendling at about 6:10 p.m.
The mission flown on 18 September 1944 began in very unusual circumstances. I was awakened by our first sergeant, who told me to get down to the supply section and get my flying gear as I'd been assigned to fly a mission. I didn't know any of the men I flew with that day, apart from the pilot who told me I was to be in the nose turret and that it was a lowlevel mission.
Our airborne troops were trapped and needed supplies to survive. I thought we would be flying at an altitude of 4,000 or 5,000 feet, but I was in for a surprise.
I had just returned to the base from leave and as I came to the main gate I was told to get in a jeep. On the way to the hut, I was informed I was going on a "trucking" mission. I changed into my flying clothes and climbed into the plane without benefit of a briefing. As my copilot, Jim Cassity, hadn't returned from leave, Benny Hunsacker flew as my copilot, reading me the necessary information regarding the mission as we took off. It was an unexpected and a most extraordinary start to a mission.
The 392nd Bomb Group put up five squadrons for the Eindhoven low-level supply mission and I was leading the fifth squadron.
We knew the German's big guns were taken out by our fighter bombers along our route. However, we also knew there were 20mm machine guns and small arms. I got the other pilots around me and said, "Everyone is going to be flying at low level, we're going to be fifth and last squadron in line. We're going to have prop wash you won't believe.
I'm going to be right on the deck and lifting up only for windmills and hedge rows. I hope you guys follow me down there because I think that's our best chance to get through this." And that's exactly what we did.
The mission I flew on 18 September 1944, was very unusual and therefore memorable. Our mission was to fly "on the deck" to drop supplies to Allied paratroopers who had been dropped the previous day behind German lines in Holland. The actual mission was fascinating, albeit more personally hazardous than was customary.
The preparation for the mission was extensive. I don't know the number of wartime airfields in East Anglia, but I doubt if you could go 10 miles in any direction without seeing an RAF/USAAF bomber or fighter airfield. In a box running from Ipswich to Cambridge and Kings Lynn to Norwich, there were perhaps 3,000 aircraft.
Farm animals within that area were totally oblivious to the sound of aircraft engines, en masse or alone, and from the ground up to 4 or 5 miles above. We calibrated (aligned for accuracy) our compasses in our B-24s over and along the many canals in the Fens near Cambridge. There are many of them, thoughtfully aligned on a perfect east/west and north/south axis. Apparently, they were excavated during the drainage of the Fens, supervised by Dutch engineers many years previously. In 1944, we accepted them as they were and were grateful for them.
Often, there were many cattle grazing alongside the canal. No matter how close to the ground we flew, those animals kept a "stiff upper lip" and never cast a glance skyward! It was truly amazing.
During our resupply mission itself we flew "on the deck" immediately after leaving the British coast. I vividly recall seeing the Dutch coast approaching. Charlie Neundorf, our pilot, had to climb slightly to clear the raised banks of the coastal dikes. Shortly before he did so, we passed over several Dutch fishing boats a few miles offshore, all hands staring up at the stream of about 250 B-24 bombers.
After crossing the Dutch coast there were Dutch cattle grazing beside the dikes, and they must have produced butter that day! They ran frantically in all directions as we thundered by, about 50 feet above them and at 200 mph. Their exposure to our close proximity was an entirely new experience. Our usual altitude was about 20,000 feet and about 25,000 for the B-17s. At 50 feet the sound level is different!
As we continued onward at 200 mph plus, we passed small Dutch villages, always with a church and a steeple in the center. I saw German soldiers with submachine guns, crouching on the ground, kneeling in the belfries, all firing away at the bomber stream. In turn, our waist and tail gunners were returning fire with their .50-caliber heavy machine guns. Our plane would shudder occasionally, either with the recoil from our guns, or from the spattering impact of the ground fire hitting some part of our fuselage. We were very lucky not to have any injuries aboard.
After takeoff and assembly we headed across the English Channel at low level. I asked the pilot when we going to get up to our specified altitude.
He replied: "This is our altitude."
We were so low that I felt like I could drag my feet in the water, and when I test-fired my guns it was the first time I saw the tracer bullets skip and bounce across the water. The other strange thing was that instead of bombs, there were several bulky canvas packages in the bomb bay.
The crew had practiced for this mission, so they were prepared for whatever came up. What I remember most were the Dutch people all waving at us and German soldiers on bicycles mixing in with the civilians. Everything was so plain and easy to see because we were so low.
Suddenly the air was full of tracers and we realized that the Germans were riddling the low-flying bombers with small-arms fire, and as we climbed up to 1,000 feet to release the supply packages we picked up some heavier flak.
The idea was for a few hundred B-24s to fly very low to avoid radar. On sighting a prearranged flare signal on the ground, all aircraft would climb to 1,000 feet so the parachutes on the supply packages would have time to open. A simple mission. They told us not to fire at the ground to avoid killing any of our Dutch allies.
En route to the target we only had to follow the lead plane, so my job of navigation was easy. Within minutes of reaching Holland, flying at treetop level, our pilot, Henry Propper, told me to lay down on my stomach to let him know whether to go under or over high tension wires. We were flying low left and that was really low. Light flak and small-arms fire came up and we took numerous hits on the way to the drop zone.
This mission truly required clear weather, and the virtual use of a road map of Holland rather than our aeronautical chart (not a facetious statement, but one of fact). There would be no way or meaning for a navigational wind to be computed when you are flying that close to the ground. The mission depended upon the lead plane's perfect navigation, coupled with the stream of planes visually following.
As we approached the mainland we saw that the Germany Army had broken the dikes, had moved barges on the canals equipped with guns and had soldiers with guns in the windmills who were putting a lot of shells into our plane. We flew below the tops of the windmills and had to go up and over the power lines as we flew across the flat landscape of Holland. Our navigator, Rudy Boettcher, was in the nose and was absolutely sure we were going to hit the lines. He threw his papers up in the air and prepared for the worst.
Our gunners were ordered to shoot at every windmill as we approached and we watched the German soldiers leaping out of the windmills for a 15-20 foot fall to the ground. Most of the waving Dutch farmers, driving their wagons of hay, lost control of their horses, which were terrified by the engine noise from our planes. And it was refreshing and inspiring to see the school children, on their way home from school, waving their orange colored handkerchiefs up at us. However, we were there for more serious business.
First, a 20mm exploded in the bomb bay area and hit gunner A.R. "Moose" Musante, causing a flesh wound in his leg. The shell left a hole about two feet square in the bomb bay. Then our hydraulic unit was shot out and our bombardier, H.L. "Charlie" Garrett, got a small cut above his eyes.
Then two bullets, about the size of a .50-caliber, came through the cockpit window and smashed some of the flight instruments. Then some flak hit the nose turret and set off one of the ammunition cans.
Then came some real damage. A 37mm shell struck the right wing between the #3 and #4 engines. It tore out the leading edge of the wing right up to both engines and back two feet to the middle of the wing. Lt. Propper had no control of #4 engine and we still don't know how it kept running.
As we approached the drop area, the squadron in front of us had two planes go down - the lead B-24 and the deputy lead - and about that time a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter pointed its nose at us. We gave the order to our gunners to shoot and the P-47 veered away.
The air was filled with many colored parachutes with supply canisters. We saw one B-24 on our left start to climb after descending to low level following the drop, when black smoke suddenly came from an engine.
The Liberator then went into the ground and just sort of disappeared.
Every B-24 navigator will recall standing between two ammunition boxes that fed the two nose turret guns. The ammunition in one of these was blown apart, the powder ignited and the .50-caliber ammunition started exploding. I slammed the cover down and sat on it to smother the fire. Within seconds, the engineer tried to shove me aside so that he could use his fire extinguisher. When he eventually succeeded, his extinguisher turned out to be empty.
Our bombardier, Lt. Garrett, and gunner Sgt. Musante, reported eight bundles of supplies were hung up in the bomb racks. Two extra bundles were on the catwalk. They were to be pushed out when the drop was made.
The bomb bay doors wouldn't open. Charlie and Moose received their wounds as they worked on the bomb bay doors. They tried to open the doors manually, engaged the crank on the shaft and, with both of them exerting tremendous pressure, stripped the gears. The two large bundles in the waist section were dropped out of the lower gun turret cavity.
On leaving the Dutch coast, and knowing that the 88mm guns that were there couldn't be lowered below 30 degrees above the horizontal, we had to fly no higher than 700 feet, exactly between the gun emplacements, to avoid being hit.
Then, over the North Sea at 700 feet, our crippled aircraft, with #2 engine feathered after streaming smoke, and #4 uncontrollable with insufficient power and lift, wouldn't hold altitude. So #2 engine was restarted with no visible fire.
We had to climb up to 1,000 feet to drop the bundles and everybody followed me except one, and I think it was Lt. Sewell. I didn't know what had happened to him at that time, but I later learned that he'd been shot up badly enough to bail his crew out and crash-land in Belgium.
After the drop we climbed up to 10,000 feet (my recollection) and flew out over the Dutch coastline. I think the air crews all heaved a sigh of relief, leaving that kind of personal war behind. Without doubt, the farm animals welcomed the return of greater tranquility, but in spite of all this resupply effort, the unfortunate result was the surrender of the paratroopers a few days later.
Our pilot, Lt. Propper, told us over the interphone to be prepared to bail out or crash-land in the North Sea. The average time a person can survive in the North Sea is 30 minutes.
But eventually Lt. Propper had control of all the engines, apart from #4, which ran on the grace of God. We threw out everything we owned, including mess kits. We had a good crew; no one got panicky. Each of us had certain things to do and we did them. I wouldn't exchange crews for a million dollars.
It was a good thing that we landed at the emergency airfield at Woodbridge, Suffolk, which has a 3-mile long and extra-wide runway. Our normal landing speed was 110 miles per hour, but we had to come in at 150 mph, as we didn't have flaps or brakes to slow us down.
There were over 150 holes in our ship, not including the big ones in the bomb bay and the right wing.
Thank God we got back safely. We were all saying our prayers. I was 19 at the time, but I felt 10 years older after that. I didn't get hurt at all, just scared!
We had taken an extra man along with us because he specialized in dropping supplies. Deeply shocked, he was taken to hospital. The poor guy kept throwing up during the mission and he was getting in the way all the time.
We made it to Woodbridge, escorted by P-5 Is. Moose went to the hospital where his leg wound was treated. His natural toughness and the good English care combined to assure his return to Wendling after a week. We later learned that the extra man, who went to hospital suffering from shock, had died. He'd been literally scared to death.
When we got back to our base, my crew informed me that there was someone wanting to see me. I'd been making out a Form One report for our crew chief, Sgt. Earl "Frenchy" French, who worked tirelessly to keep us in the air, concerning damage to our plane. When I came out, the P-47 pilot, still in his flight suit and without identification, was obviously very upset and was chewing us out.
Later, in debriefing, the same individual was with our commanding officer and he introduced himself. It was Gen. William Kepner, commander of 8th Air Force Fighter Command, 2nd Air Division Headquarters.
He was reading a directive that he'd signed which instructed us to shoot at any plane that turned its nose towards us, and which he acknowledged. He explained that a crewman in that lead plane was a friend of his and he was trying to determine what happened to him. Gen. Kepner apologized to us and was a friend of our crew from then on.
I never got to know if the supply mission was a success because I never got to see anyone but for a few minutes. A sergeant said my personal belongings were on the truck to take me to Wendling railroad station. I was being transferred to the 322nd Bomb Group, 449th Squadron, of the 9th Air Force, flying B-26 Marauder medium bombers. This was the group and the squadron made famous because of the legendary B-26 "Flak Bait," the only medium bomber to fly 200 missions in the European Theater.
Shortly after I arrived home after the war, I was told that 22 B-24s from the 392nd Group were grounded because of battle damage during that supply drop, two were lost and that the mission scheduled for the following day had to be scrubbed.
I think that Roy Miller, my B-24 pilot, was the finest, but I've never seen him since 1944. I finished the war flying in the fantastic B26 medium bomber. My B-26 pilot was with RAF Bomber Command and had 40 combat missions flying Wellington bombers. I flew with him as he finished up his B-26 tour with 65 missions. I was then assigned another pilot to finish up with 40 missions when the war ended in May 1945. Incidentally, my brother, Pvt. Billy J. De Frates, was one of the U.S.
Airborne troops on the ground in Holland. He landed with the 401st Glider Infantry on 17 September and was a member of a five-man heavy artillery gun. But on 1 October 1944, a direct hit on the gun killed four of the crew. The only survivor reported that he saw Billy being carried away for burial in Holland and appeared to have no noticeable wounds. He was killed by the tremendous concussion from the explosion. His body was returned home after the war and buried at Camp Butler, Springfield, IL.
I still wonder to this day if it was his group that the low level resupply mission was trying to save. If it was, I was only a few hundred feet away but I couldn't help him.
The next time I saw Lt. Sewell was about December 1944. I was going from the barracks to the Group Operations building when I met a guy coming down the road with a big bandage on his head and recognized him as Lt. Sewell. I asked him what happened.
"I knew I was going to crash-land," he replied, "and I knew there were Germans around. The last thought in my mind was when I hit the ground I was going to get out of there and run as far away from the airplane as I could. After the crash-landing, as I was running, something kept hitting me on the side of my face. When I reached up it was the side of my scalp. It had been torn away and was flapping against my cheek. So I held it in place and continued to run."
The Belgian underground workers caught up with him eventually. They put him in a German hospital, where he was treated with sulfanilamide. When he was well enough the Belgians took him out of hospital, put him on a boat and sent him back to England, where I met him walking down the road. Amazing.