I first met “Pop” over breakfast one hot Texas summer morning in 2000. The wife's sister “Twink” fed and doted over us and my education of the greatest generation and getting to know a real war hero unfolded. Pop had a most unique “Jimmy Stewart” habit of adding a southern “yep” and “uh huh” as his stories unfold. Noticeable at first but soon they become a genuine thread through his stories. And it not just the story I am going to tell here that depicts a real hero but the stories Pop always told, ones that are new and detail the depth of his war and aviation experiences.
Maybe the story of him and his crew sinking the first enemy submarine of the war or with a wide grin and laughter the story of him and his crew falling asleep for two hours on the way back from Cuba after a night on the town. The B-24 was at cruise altitude and on autopilot with everyone sound asleep for two hours before Pop woke up.
Or his story of stalling a DC-3 over Love Field on a night check ride. The instructor was not satisfied with Pop's first two successful attempts to stall and recover the DC-3 and insisted Pop STALL the plane. Pop pulled the airplane into a full stall resulting in one wing stalling and the DC-3 flipping upside down. “I recovered at 3000' off the ground that night.” And after the war, his young daughter sitting on his lap in a Cessna 195 telling her daddy “not to tip us over.”
What follows is a compilation of recent storytelling on a family trip to the WWII Memorial in Washington DC and excerpts from “On The Wing” by Longshot Films..A story of courage, survival and B-24s.
We are sitting at a breakfast table in the hotel restaurant in Washington DC. Pop and me alone with our first cup of coffee. Family members are arriving and heading to the breakfast buffet. I start the recorder and ask Pop to again tell the story of the bomb run on Parma.
“.........May 2nd, 44 going to Parma..where they make Parmesan Cheese..yea uhhuh...we had had that big meeting the night before what to do if the lead ship bails out.....down and out to the right...the lead ship would go down and out to the right...because 6 airplanes 6 airplanes 6 airplanes (Pop's hands showing boxed B-24 formation groupings)..we wouldn't hit anybody ya know.....and so my second mission..I didn't lead the group...a classmate of mine did..the Col. was with him...and they saw the flak going into Parma got so scared and the Col. jerked the airplane off of autopilot..and almost ran into me...and I had to make a decision...is he dropping down out of the lead ya know..so I just mushed up...slowed down and moved over him to take lead...then his other wing-man came behind and under me and hit me...”
The B-24 that hit the nose of Pop's airplane broke off the tail section of the bomber, impaling a 12' x 9' panel of their tail section on the nose turret of Pop's airplane. Pop's B-24 was turned upside down due to the impact.
“....well the rudder was kind of like a fork in a hot dog..it was hanging on my nose turret...the guns were sticking through it...it that bomber tumbled and the tail came off...and the tail gunner in that airplane..where it broke loose....and he tumbled alone in the turret on the way down all by himself....he didn't go down with the airplane..he just hit by himself..that must must have been terrible...yea...unhuhhh..I rang the alarm bell upside down falling.....so I had four guys bail out..two POWs and two walked out with the Italian Underground...”
Pop skillfully righted his plane, navigated off the coast of Italy and with the tail section of the other bomber still affixed to his nose turret flew some 200 miles to find friendly ground on the island of Corsica.
I learn through the telling of this story that this was Pop's 2nd of his 50 B-24 Bomber missions during the war. On his first mission he lost oxygen to the airplane and had to turn around or he would have lost his gunner. On, this his 2nd mission, he experiences a mid-air collision, puts 4 of his crew under chutes and then through extraordinary piloting skills, rights his bomber several thousand feet off of the ground.
“....probably missed my props by a couple feet maybe....yea...I am upside down so..I didn't wear my chute...my chute I kept right on the floor behind my seat in case I needed it.. but when we went upside down..we had the bomb bay doors open and it went out...so I am trying to fly the airplane and I told my co-pilot, the Deputy Group Commander, to go and my bombardier and navigator went and the engineer went and so I am messing with the airplane....that is best I can say...and I came out of the bottom flying straight and level...and I can't see any crew or airmen or any airplanes anywhere...so I headed back west to the coast to get to the sea and we were in northern Italy....I went over Laspasica and over the mountains and get out to sea and got down low...I didn't want the radar to pick me up...the next mistake I made that day was that I had a red handle here to drop the bombs...yea...I still had ten 500s....I got to thinking about it..when I got upside down, what happened to those 500 pound bombs tumbling around in the bomb bay? I still had em and...out to sea pretty low and eh....I dropped the bombs and (Pop makes exploding noises pauses and laughs)...it's a wonder I didn't kill myself....the gunners in back were left on board.....one of them was crying saying Captain what we gonna do?....Well I explained that I am going to try to find some place to land this thing ya know...that's about all I told him and to calm down...I am looking for the island of Corsica....There is no weather and I am flying into the sun with a lot of haze....even though we had a navigator,I always knew where I was...so I headed towards Corsica and I did not remember whether it was friendly or if the Germans still had it...but I get up to the island and I noticed this air base and saw P-47's and knew that it was us...so at that time I put the main gear down and the nose wheel wouldn't come down. And so here I am now with the main gear down and no nose wheel...so the gunners were down trying to push it out...and during that time why uh...I forgot to transfer fuel and in that early model you had to go back to the back section and transfer fuel with a “U” hose...so I am flying around with the main gear down, no nose wheel and #1 and #2 engines quit...(Pop is laughing now and so are we). I am on two engines and no nose wheel...I am yelling at the guys to transfer fuel...transfer fuel and they finally heard me went back in the back got me some fuel and I cranked the engines back up.....they had kicked the nose wheel down and I landed...and that was all there was to it!!”
On that particular day at that particular air field an Army combat camera crew had set up their cameras and captured Pop landing his B-24, nose covered with the tail section from the morning mid-air collision. The approach and landing is perfect and upon parking, a ground crew gently removes the impaled B-24 tail section from Pop's bomber.
“....one of the gunners said I landed it like silk with one of those big barn doors on the nose.”
So you bombed Polesti?
“......we bombed the refineries yes..I went there seven times yea, uhuh...but the toughest target was when the Russians over ran Polesti they didn't leave all of those 80mm there, they took em with em..the target I had the most damage ever was Vienna..a suburb called Wernernoistime...they were building 109 fighters there...they protected that pretty good..we bombed Munich....Reganburg refineries..we bombed Hitlers German Tank works....we bombed Budapest...one time Athens..I don't know why, but we did.....matter of fact on D-Day all we did was get as close to the beach as we could..I put 20 hours in the air that day trying to draw fighters away from the beach...our primary mission was to try to attract German fighters away from the beach..no we did not lose any planes that day..we didn't see any fighters at all that day....no never lost a man..some got shot..but no never had anybody killed...I got hit on the shoulder one day..we were on a bomb run and boom..felt like someone hit me with a baseball bat...I was trying to feel my shoulder...it hit me pretty good and hurt...I could feel the hole in my flight jacket....but my plane came back twice with two engines out on one side..no hydraulic pressure, no brakes, no flaps..engines shot out yea twice on one side...it takes two pilots to hold that wing up and then on landing you only got one shot at the runway...so I did that twice.”
I asked Pop how he felt as he neared his 50th mission that would end his tour of bomber duty. He did not request a milk-run but instead opted for his last mission scheduled over Munich, a heavily fortified enemy target.
“....well I thought about that..they'd let you fly your last two missions on milk-runs.....but I looked at this way..I took the missions as they came and my last mission I finished on Munich..a tough target..I'd thought about not going but I had taken em as they come..so just go ahead and take it....”
He was 90 years old when I recorded and wrote this story, Pop still had a sharp mind and sense of humor, was still able to get around mixed with a little hard hearing and cranky. I mean this in a most loving way. I honestly believed this man has earned any attitude, complaint or life perspective and the right to express all of it openly. With a laugh that morning he finished this story telling.
“..like I said, if you don't get hurt or killed, it's not all that bad...it's true..it's not all that bad.”
The wife told me how, sitting in the dark in the US Archives in Washington in the early 80's, knowing only the date, she watches hours of old newsreels trying to find the footage of Pop landing his disabled bomber. All of sudden, she's watching a news clip of what looked like a smudge on the horizon of a landing strip in Italy, slowly setting down and taxiing up to a stop. On the now distinct nose of a B-24 is the wreckage of another place...she said “All of sudden, my heart stopped as I watched my 27 year-old father walk into view and look up at the damage like it was a walk in the park.”
You can see video of Pop landing his B-24 that day and then walking around the plane to inspect it in the video below.
By the grace of God, Pop got to come home after the war when so many have not. So, the wife and I pay tribute this Memorial Day Weekend to all the men and women who have gone and go in harm's way for this great country.