You may hear more interesting and heroic tales of the Fourth Fighter Group's participation in the June 1944 Shuttle Bombing Episode to the Russian Ukraine - but none more weird than mine was to be! I was to become the only enlisted man to make the complete bombing circuit from Debden and Thorpe Abbots to Piryatin, Ukraine; to Foggia, Italy; to Beziers, France and back to Debden. My "gunnery training" consisted of test firing my .50 caliber machine gun high over the North Sea as we approached Denmark far below. My B-17 would run out of gas and make an emergency landing in a "wheat" field! We would be picked up by a Studebaker ambulance about an hour later! This particular B-17 would then be flown out of field next day and coaxed into Piryatin Fighter base where all the 4th's fighter's Mustangs had landed the day previous. Before I would ever get back to Debden, I would have swum nude in the Adriatic Sea, and even had a train ride on my journey back to jolly ole Debden!
But let's go back to about June 12-14, 1944 when about 35 or 40 enlisted men; mechanics, armorers and radio men were summoned to a pilot's ready room to be asked to "volunteer" for a mission "somewhere that was very important." Anyone that wished could walk out; no one did!
Pulling a concealing curtain aside, the intelligence officer drew groans from us greenhorns- to-be waist gunners, when the bomb group's proposed route was exposed - from England the line drawn on the map went clear across Germany and Poland to the Southeast corner of Europe! We were soon all punctured with "shots" for some very obscure diseases, and on June 18th wre trucked to the 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbots, to be issued flying clothes, plus an escape pack, just in case.
We each had brought along a barracks bag that had to include our Class A uniform and also lug our 50 pound+ mechanic's tool box. We were destined to take off early next morning - but it was all "scrubbed" and we all returned to Debden. Two days later, we again headed back to the bomber base - and this time it was for real. With but a couple hours of uneasy sleep, and a gulped down breakfast, around 4:30AM, June 21st, 1944, B-17's started taking off in a foggy drizzle. Hair raising!
By the time we reached altitude and the Forts had assembled into a tight covering formation - the weather had cleared and we were flying into the morning sun. My position was left waist gunner, on the inside of the "box". We were garbed in electrically heated suits, gloves and boots; had on a flak vest, steel helmet, throat mike, oxygen mask, flying goggles, and encompassed with a parachute harness, but the chute hung on a hook nearby! I would stand the whole trip on a hunk of 1/2" armor plate. Genital insurance, anyone?
Somewhere over Germany we were attacked by enemy fighters. I saw a couple for a few seconds on the very far side of the bomber formation - that was it- but one bomber was hit and had an engine(s) on fire. I learned later, a Fourth Group crew chief, S/Sgt. Gilbert was one of those that bailed out of that B-17.
As we approached the target - an oil refinery at Leszno, Poland, I was introduced to what flak was about. I tried to make my body about two feet tall to avoid the potential harm. On the final bomb run, the formation slowed down to about 90-95 miles per hour. Very uncomfortable, as bomb bay doors opened and the flak seemed to get even worse. Bombs away, and we veered off quickly and increased flying speed. We droned on for hours. Each B-17 had been fitted with an auxiliary fuel tank in the bomb bay for the extra range needed - for this the longest bombing mission ever attempted 'til now!
Below I could see evidence of heavy ground warfare between the Russian and German armies - trenches, many many potholes from ground explosions - no trees, no buildings - true "scorched earth"!
The Fort's intercom crackled, - Pilot to Navigator: "How much estimated flying time to touchdown at base"? Answer: "One hour!", Pilot to Flight Engineer: "How long do you estimate our gas supply?" Answer: "One half hour". The flight engineer was right and a half hour later all of us in the back end of our B-17 were huddled in the radio compartment, backs to the bulkhead, as the pilot brought the plane down in an unknown field (friends or foes) for what we thought was to be a crashlanding. Turns out, the pilot had lowered the wheels, and made a good but bouncy landing. We had been airborne 11-1/2 hours. About an hour later, that's when the Studebaker ambulance shows up to be out "taxi". No one had injuries!
The whole bomber crew of ten guys arrived at the Russian fighter field at Piryatin, after all the 4th fighters had long since landed. The field was simply one metal fabricated runway - with Russian Yaks and P-39 Airacobras (Lend Lease) on the far side of the field, our Mustangs scattered along the near side, which had a rather primitive (control?) tower.
We lined up for some hot, thick soup ladled out of a big caldron by some robust Russian lady soldiers. I didn't really recognize the ingredients, but it tasted good!
We were later shown tents, with cots; given sleeping bags, and directed to where the outdoor latrine was located. The path to the latrine had an armed Russian guard. This sure wasn't England!
In the middle of the night we were jolted awake by heavy cannonfire. The Russians were filling the sky with ack-ack from 40mm anti-aircraft guns, shooting at German night raiders. We scrambled for cover into some very soggy and smelly slit trenches nearby, as the Huns proceeded to drop small anti-personnel bombs, all over the immediate area. Next morning Russian sharpshooters "disarmed" the small winged bombs by blowing them up with rifle fire. That evening about sundown the Fourth Group pilots flew all the Mustangs to three more distant airfields for safer surroundings. All the remaining American ground personnel were trucked to old village hall that had escaped demolition in an earlier Russian "scorched earth" retreat. Here we bedded down for a "safer" night of sleep. This cat and mouse scenario was to continue for as long as we were in the Ukraine. About 25th of June the Captain pilot of "my" B-17 received orders to fly this lone Flying Fortress still parked on the fighter field at Piryatin to another field near Mirogorad to join the remaining 100th Bomb Group Forts that had not been destroyed or damaged that first ill-fated night after arriving. The Captain pilot ordered me to go with him saying, "You're part of my flight crew!" I had no commissioned officers from the Fourth Group there to defend me; that I was just a crew chief, so I went!
Thus, on June 26th, I was again airborne as a waist gunner on a B-17 bomber crew. We dropped our bombs on a target near Lwow, Poland and went on to land near Foggia, Italy - about half way down the boot of Italy's east coast. I was now to bunk in a tent with all the non-coms of my bomber crew. It was hot, hot! 90 degrees or above. On one of the succeeding days with no missions scheduled, we were trucked to the Adriatic seashore, where we all stripped naked and went swimming. A great and welcome respite! Another day I was free to walk around in war-ravaged Foggia, sweltering in a woolen Class A uniform, and conspicuous because all other G.I.s were in short-sleeved suntans. Suddenly I came face-to-face with tow Fourth Fighter pilots; Lts. Hill and Howe! "What the hell are you doing here? - I thought you were back at Debden with the rest of the ground crews!" I responded, "Where were you guys when I needed a commissioned officer!" It certainly was a dramatic reunion. Then, on July 3rd, the shuttle bombers were scheduled to make a raid to a target up to Rumania (the name escapes me). My bomber Captain ordered to go along. My non-com bomber crew "buddies" encouraged me to defy the Captain. Risking a court martial, I said I wasn't going - and didn't! Luckily, I guess, that B-17 had hydraulic trouble so they aborted the mission, anyway. Perhaps that fact saved me from court martial.
Finally on July 5, 1944, orders came to form up and proceed to bomb a railroad marshalling yard at Beziers, France (near Marseilles), then go on to land at Thorpe Abbots, England - this time I was ready to go! We were in the lead bomber squadron, of three squadrons of B-17s. Somehow we missed our aiming point; so we circled back around to do it again - right! By this time the German flak was getting closer and closer, and bouncing us around - we took a few holes, but survived to go on to land back at Thorpe Abbots - the home field in England. Now I became a lone fighter crew chief, out of place on a bomber airfield. A Jeep would transport me, still dragging a barracks bag and a cumbersome mechanic's tool kit, (I should have lost it!) to a railway station, headed for Audley End. The final episode; a train ride yet, to get back to home base after my scenic tour of Europe. Someone at Fourth Ops at least was kind enough to send a weapons carrier to Audley End station to get my tail back to Debden. The longest 15 days of my life! I'm sure I'm the only crew chief of a fighter plane to sport 3 bombs on his ratty old sheepskin jacket!