392nd Bomb Group


by Col. Myron Keilman

After his 17th mission. Harry had to be relieved of further combat duty. He lost six of his ten original crew members. He bailed out of one and crash-landed another B-24 bomber.

Harry was assigned to the 392 Bombardment Group on or about I May 1944. As squadron commander, I remember him quite well from a unique request and from his tough luck.

I personally flew with him and his crew on their formation and assembly procedure indoctrination flight. He was personable and his crew responded to him, as the airplane commander, in a well coordinated manner.

It was after that flight that he made an unusual request. He asked if he and his crew could make a practice parachute jump. In my realm of two and a half years' flying experience, it was conceded that all air crew personnel were so trained and indoctrinated with the use of a parachute and bail-out procedures that an airman would automatically do the right "thing" in times of emergency. No provisions were made for practice. As I recall, I took the time to rationalize with him, but conceded that when he and his crew completed their thirty combat missions, and if they still wanted to make a parachute jump, 1 would endeavor to arrange it.

Then came their eighth mission, 4 June 1944. It was a late afternoon Second Bombardment Division attack on a German airfield at St. Avord, France. Take-off was at 1530 hours. Harry and crew were flying B-24H number 261. I was leading the 392nd as command pilot with Jim McGregor's lead crew. Everything went fine that day - no late engine starts, no late taxiing, no slipping off the air strip, but on the bomb-run, the anti-aircraft artillery (Ack-Ack) barrage was so intense it enveloped the formation. Harry's airplane suffered a near direct hit in the aft fuselage and emphanage (tail).

The flight controls of both pilots went limp, and the airplane was without control. The Sperry automatic pilot, with separate flight controls was all ready to be clutched in on a "flak of the switch"; thus before the airplane went out of control, Harry flicked the switch and the autopilot took them over the target. They dropped their bombs with the rest of the 392nd airplanes with excellent results. The hydraulic lines, too, had been severed; so the bomb-bay doors were inoperative and the bombs "busted" through them. This caused quite a draft in the airplane as well as drag, but Harry managed to follow the formation back to Wendling. Miraculously no one on the crew received an injury.

Returning to the vicinity of the air base at 2300 hours, Harry was confronted with stratocumulous clouds and a low ceiling. The base of these clouds was too low to safely bail his crew out - and he wasn't about to try a landing on auto-pilot. He thus circled the area of the base at 3,000 feet altitude and prepared the crew for bailing out.

He and his crew had practiced the bail-out procedures many times during the combat crew phases of training, and he was not perturbed that all would not go as practiced. There would be the long ring of the alarm bell - on the right edge of the throttle quadrant, remember? - and, if time permitted, an order by the pilot to prepare for bail-out. At this signal, the nose, tail, and top turret gunners would vacate their turrets and hook on their chest pack parachutes. The bombardier and navigator would open the nose wheel doors: the waist gunners the rear escape hatch: and the radio operator the bomb-bay doors. In this case there were none. At the sound of a series of short rings everyone should bail out in quick, designated order. The last to go would be the pilot.

At about 2315 hours - just at twilight - Harry headed 0l' 261 toward the North Sea and rang the bail-out signal and awaited his turn. The co-pilot was in the process of leaving his seat when over the interphone came a frantic voice: "Dunbar won't go!" Hard luck had struck another blow. What could you do for a fellow that wouldn't bail out of a crippled airplane that was unsafe to land?

With night coming on, Harry found himself in a real quandary as he adjusted the auto-pilot controls to circle back toward Wendling. Dunbar was to be the first of the three rear gunners to go and he balked. After due deliberation and some "yakking" with the waist gunner, the sequence of bail-out was changed and the reluctant one followed someone else to safety. With this delay, it was dark when Harry "hit the silk" somewhere over northern Norfolk County near the North Sea.

Harry landed hard and jarred in a horse pasture. The horses came prancing and snorting to see what the great, white parachute was meant to be. Not being a farm boy, Harry didn't know but what they would attack him. They didn't: so Harry gathered up his parachute and started walking. It was well after midnight when he reached a farm home and knocked on the door. No one answered. He rapped longer and harder. With that, the door opened about two inches, and as Harry says, "I was staring at the muzzle of the biggest double barrel gun in the world." Words - especially the right ones - didn't come easy, and his legs were too weary to run. The elderly farmer was skeptical of Harry's predicament, allowing that he might be a German paratrooper. After much explaining of who, when, and how, the old gent lowered those big double barrels and beckoned Harry in. While relating more details of his ordeal, the good wife served him some milk and bread which Harry recalls was extremely welcomed. He had not eaten nor drunk since before the combat mission briefing. over twelve long, tough hours ago. This was more like English hospitality, and he couldn't blame the man for being alert for clandestine Nazi efforts.

So enthused was the farmer to help Harry in his plight, he insisted on driving him back to the base rather than arrange by telephone for someone from the base to come. Using preciously rationed petrol, they made their way along the dark, narrow road in the tiny little car with its dim blackout lights. When they came to the parish center, the old man pulled in by the pub, woke up the keeper, and Harry was toasted with rounds of stout, half and half, and nut brown ale. It was morning before Harry arrived at his Nissen hut and was reunited with his crew - each of which had similarly interesting experiences but no disabling injuries.

Of course, the question of why Dunbar wouldn't "go" was quite paramount in Harry's mind. It turned out that the young man had a fixation. Because the airplane was seemingly flying so good, he honestly and firmly believed the crew was playing a practical joke on him. He had it fixed in his mind that as soon as he bailed out. Harry would go ahead and land the airplane without him. How about that?

After debriefing and medical checks, the crew was granted a seven-day rest and recuperation (R and R). Then tough luck struck again.

With pleasant thoughts and dreams of the sights and thrills, including Buzz Bomb explosions, in London casting out the moments of stark terror, Harry and his crew were suddenly awakened. "Wake up! Wake up! Briefing in one hour!" Harry was really shaken. It was midnight. There must be a mistake. We are on R and R. "No!", says Sergeant Vivian. "Everybody flies. It's D-Day!" 6 June 1944, remember?

The 8th Air Force maximum effort missions following D-Day required the availability of every combat crew; thus Harry and his crew flew five more missions before they were allowed any rest and recuperation.

Then there was the mission when Harry and his crew were lackadaisical about promptness in taking stations to meet their start-engines and taxi times. As Harry recalls it, he and his crew were standing by their airplane having their last smoke when the "Old Man" - their twenty-age squadron commander - came by in his jeep, and in a loud, clear voice told them to get their ass-in-gear: it was start engines time. Harry erupted into action so fast he forgot to set the brakes. When the engines were started he nearly ran over the crew chief. Having missed his taxi time, he was hurrying to catch up. While rounding a turn, he ran a wheel off the paved taxi-way and the airplane, 74,000 pounds of it, bogged down in the soft sod. Promptly - there was the "friendly" squadron commander again. Without wasting choice words or valuable time, Harry and crew were hustled onto the CO's jeep and rushed to the spare airplane, while the group effort proceeded with the scheduled take-off and assembly of airplanes.

By the time Harry and his crew went roaring down the runway, the rest of the group was "long gone". He climbed to the group assembly area, but no one was there. He headed out on the wing and division departure course and spotted groups of B-24s over the English Channel. With "max cruise" power he hurried to catch up to the 392nd. Passing one group after another, he couldn't find tail markings to match his - but he wasn't about to turn back. Realizing that he wouldn't last mission if he continued to use so much fuel with the high power setting, he "tacked" on to the rear of another group formation and settled down to fly out the mission.

Harry wasn't very long with his new group when the waist gunners reported they were low on oxygen. Well, at 20,000 feet a person can't function long without oxygen - but Harry was determined, and he didn't want to face the "music" (third-degree type interrogation) that went with the conclusion of an aborted mission.

Carrying on, the best fix Harry could contrive for his new bit of hard luck was to let down to 15,000 feet and follow the group through the target, drop his bombs, and hope he wouldn't be picked-off by German fighter airplanes - so on he flew. Eventually his navigator "screwed-up" enough courage to put Harry "wise" as to how deep into enemy territory they were penetrating all by themselves. This "rang a bell", and Harry realized that if they didn't turn back they would really be vulnerable and probably would never get back: thus his fear of German Folke-Wolfe lO9s and Messerschmitt 190s overcame the fear of facing the Old Man, and he turned back.

Returning to Wendling without incident. there was just one more thing Harry didn't do right that day, and it cost him some more precious luck. It never occurred to him to get rid of his bomb load, either in enemy territory or in the English Channel. With the extra weight aboard, he brought the airplane in for the landing with additional speed and landed a little longer than he should have. There wasn't enough runway, and Harry ran off the end and bogged down. What a way to end a rough day. What did the Old Man do? I'll swear that I gave Harry an "E" for effort, and the crew did receive credit for a combat mission.

Then came the mission to bomb the railroad bridge at LeFrilliere on 15 June. Harry was flying in the "coffin corner" of the second squadron; that is, the number three position of the low element of the twelve-airplane formation. For some reason, that element was hard to hold in position, and it was often lagging behind,making it vulnerable to attack. The German fighter pilots always took advantage of stragglers and promptly dispatched them. That is why it was called the "coffin corner".

Shortly before the initial point for the bombing run, the German fighters struck from the rear. They singled out Harry, and their twenty millimeter exploding shells ripped into the emphanage and fuselage. They killed the tail turret gunner outright and cut the rudder cables. The explosion of these shells in the Oxygen tanks blew out the whole upper side of the fuselage aft the waist gunner's window, and one burst in the top turret severely wounded the flight engineer/gunner. To complicate the situation, the inter-communication wires to the rear of the airplane were severed, and Harry had no idea how much damage occurred. With such damage, no communications, and no oxygen to breathe, the two waist-gunners declared themselves in such peril that they bailed out.

Harry knew he was hit hard, but the airplane responded to control except for the rudder, and the engines were running faithfully: so he carried on into the bombing run. When the signal was given to open the bomb-bay doors, nothing happened. This indicated that the main hydraulic system had been cut, and there was no pressure to actuate the doors: thus when the bombs-away signal was given, the bombs (eight 1,000 pounders) were dropped through the closed doors. With the doors torn away, Harry had to carry high power settings to keep up with the formation - and worse yet, he couldn't send anyone back to the rear to see what had happened. There was great danger of slipping off or being blown off of the cat-walk and being lost through the open bomb-bay.

Returning to England, Harry's fuel was running low and he knew that his men in the rear must be wounded and needing medical attention as soon as possible: so he elected to land at one of the first airbases he came to. As he came in for the landing, he compensated for a cross-wind by holding his wing low - but at touch-down there was no way to "kick-out the crab" without rudder control. The hydraulic lines having been shot out, there were no brakes to straighten the airplane: thus it "weathered veined" into the wind and went out of control. skidding along sideways until one of the main landing gear struts collapsed. The wing then dug into the runway, and a great crunching ground loop ensued. The once mighty B-24 came to rest with a twisted fuselage, smashed nose compartment, bent back propellers, crunched engine nacelles, and the open bomb-bay tilted sideways - through which the crew made their hasty exit.

What a shock it was to Harry to find his tail gunner dead in his turret, his waist gunners missing, and his engineer wounded. His co-pilot, too, injured an ankle in leaving the airplane to such an extent he had to be relieved of further combat duty.

The long truck ride back to his home base made the situation even more horrendous. You can be assured that Harry and the remainder of his crew (the bombardier, navigator and radio operator) were taken off of the available combat roster and sent on a ten-day "flak-leave" to Scotland.

Then came a mission to Saurbruken on 13 July '44. exactly two months after Harry's first mission. This would be his eighteenth. The weather over England was "lousy", with a low ceiling, drizzle, and freezing moisture laden clouds at 10,000 to 12,000 feet. Harry made his take-off on time with a make-up crew. There in the clouds over The Wash (the shallow bay northwest of Wendling), he ran into icing conditions, Ice built up on the leading edges of his wings to such a degree that the airplane stalled. Harry dropped the nose to pick up speed but was concerned that the heavy airplane might go out of control so he rang the alarm bell to alert the crew to get prepared to bail out. Diving the airplane to a lower altitude, the icing condition was alleviated, and Harry leveled off - only to find that both the navigator and the bombardier had gone ahead and bailed out. Harry returned to Wendling, and a search effort was immediately established for the two aviators. About 1100 hours a search airplane located them floating in their yellow Mae West life preservers in the shallow waters of The Wash. Both had perished from exposure.

With only a fragment of his crew left and being quite shaken-up mentally, Harry was declared "war weary" by the flight surgeon. He was relieved of further combat duty and returned to the ZI (Zone of Interior) - the USA.

Despite these harrowing experiences, Harry more than flew again. For eight and one half years he flew as an RB-47 aircraft commander in the Strategic Air Command, and finally in combat again as a commander of a C-119 gun-ship in Vietnam.

In retrospect, Harry's luck was bad - and it was good. He didn't get shot down, and he survived - to play golf and reminisce with his ol' squadron commander thirty-three years later.