392nd Bomb Group

Ferry Crew

by Robert Tays, Pilot, 578th Squadron

After our return from our 32nd mission, the Aschaffenburg raid on 25 February 1945, a message requested I report to our squadron commander, Maj. Player. He informed me that there was a need for a ferry crew with an engineering and mechanical background. My record confirmed this, plus the fact that I was conversant in the German language. He explained this project only required a crew of five and stressed the urgency, risks and the dangers involved and left it open for me to decide. Our task was flying crippled aircraft from the Continent, unarmed and unescorted, to the major repair depots in England. The duty was for 60 days and would give us credit for three missions and completion of our tour.

Decisions that affect the lives of people close to you cause much agonizing. Those identified as part of the ferry crew were eager to go to the Continent, do the job and finish their tour. The remaining crewmen were unhappy because they would be assigned as "fill-ins" for other crews and eventually complete their 35 mission tours. John Holzinger, my navigator, had married an English girl and wanted stay on the base and be close to his wife. This request was granted and another navigator, who could speak French, was assigned to my crew. Ferrying then became our business.

We reported to a base at Merville, France, from which we operated. The procedure was when a bomber reported landing on a friendly air strip, an evaluation team was sent out to determine battle damage and, if repairable, field maintenance crews were sent out to make the bomber at least semi-airworthy. When this was done, we, as the ferrying crew, were sent out. We checked the aircraft and engines very thoroughly before I made the decision to fly it back to the air depot in England.

We understood the mechanical risks, but never knew the uncertainty of weather or enemy activities. Flying a cripple alone and unarmed through unknown weather at low altitude across the English Channel and the unforgiving North Sea keeps the adrenalin pumping. We brought a damaged bomber back to the depots about every third day. It was then completely repaired and returned to combat status. We earned our pay.

Damaged bombers were located on every kind of base, some on active forward fighter strips, medium bomber bases, civilian air strips, some on bombed out and deserted airfields. This meant that not only had the damaged bombers to be checked out, but also the taxiway and runway. Some were very rough, bombed out, too short, just mud and dirt or metal matting. Everything needed to be evaluated before I gave it the needle and took off. If things weren't right, we simply waited until things were made right. Patience and good judgment paid off.

We collected a "Black Mariah" from a grassy French field one day. That was a new flying experience because the B-24 had been stripped of all turrets, guns and other weight to make it as light as possible. It also had needle-type propeller blades for speed and was painted totally black for night operations. The Liberator had been used to support the Free French Resistance Movement during the four-year German occupation of France. They would fly in to a cow pasture using automobile headlights and flares for guidance, land, unload cargo and personnel, reload and take off as quickly as possible. It took speed, luck and lot of guts to make those flights. Light and fast, that bird was a pleasure to fly back to the depot. Landing gave me some trouble because when rounding out it didn't settle on the runway like a heavy combat bomber. We ballooned halfway down the runway before it stalled and settled on the concrete.

Flying a damaged bomber off an active fighter base is difficult. At a base near Rheims, France, it took an hour and a half to get clearance for take-off. Fighter planes were constantly taking off and returning from missions before there was a break to let us have the runway and be gone.

We picked up a cripple near the Belgian port of Antwerp. The bomber wouldn't check out, so while waiting for repairs to be completed, we went into town. Antwerp was a mass of rubble from the earlier German V-1 flying bomb attacks, but the bars were still open. We found one four floors below ground level, untouched by war and going full blast. Soft lights, palm trees, good music and a terrific floor show. They also served raw oysters for about $12 a dozen. Diamonds were offered to us at good prices. We should have bought some.

Crossing international boundaries several times a day put us right in the middle of the black market. Invasion money was used by the military, French francs by Frenchmen, guilders by Belgians, etc. To keep all these different currencies straight in our minds, it was necessary to compare them to the American dollar or the English pound. We had some of each of these in our money belts all the time.

People on the Continent wanted a stable currency and they willingly exchanged $100 worth of French francs for an American $20 bill. The same was true for the English pound sterling, being worth about $4, but brought $2 in France. Four-shilling (80 cent) bicycle tires from England brought $20 in France. French perfume per ounce cost $3 to $5 and brought $40 back at the bases in England. Very tempting, but don't get caught. We hauled wine in 5-gallon cans from Trier to Merville and placed it on the mess-hall counter so everyone could just help themselves. Wine out of heavy coffee mugs loses some of its bouquet.

Ferrying from country to country meant our extra languages came in useful. Monies were a problem, but the German and French languages were just the tool needed to straighten out difficult situations. I'd almost lost my fluency in German until I used it again. "Use it or lose it" is still true.

Our last flight as a ferry crew was routine, flying the corridor east of London through the barrage balloons and then north to the depot. Just as we approached the depot, thick fog rolled in, giving us zero visibility. They turned on their FIDO system, which consisted of huge gasoline flares being lit down each side of the runway, which made the air rise and take most of the fog with it. The glow of these flares pin-pointed the exact location of the runway and we landed without incident. Mission and ferry piloting tour complete.