GU Top Turret
George Underwood
s/sgt, b-25 top turret gunner
12th AAF 310th BG 381st Sq

I was a Staff Sergeant who flew 68 combat missions over Italy from January to July 1944 assigned to the 310th Bombardment Group, 381st Bombardment Squadron. I was not wounded, save for a scratch on my nose from flying Plexiglas and a hit on the shin by a piece of flak, nor was any member of the crew given the Purple Heart.  I received four Air Medals for missions I scarcely recall except for one or two.  Our aircraft was hit many times by flak   and we had a couple of crash landings.  Aside from that, nothing extraordinary happened.  Out of the original six- crewmembers there are only two of us left.  I was always “the kid” of the crew, and the “older guys” took pretty good care of me. 

Aerial gunnery school in Laredo, Texas proved to be an exciting follow up after Armament School at Buckley Field just north of Denver, Colorado. I was closing in on my way to combat at last.  The North American “Texan” AT-6s used for gunnery training created their share of noise while taking off and landing on the airfield near our barracks.  At times I could even hear the distant yammer of machine guns being fired.

We fired all kinds of weapons.  .45 cal. Thompson Machine guns, .30 cal. Carbines, M l Garand rifles, .30 cal. Springfield’s, various models and gauges of shotguns, and .45 cal. automatics.  Several “ranges” were available for our use throughout the day.  We shuttled from skeet to trap ranges, then to BB gun (high-pressure air) machine guns shooting at clay/metal aircraft sailing around the range. Plenty of .22 cal. shooting at fast moving targets.

    We learned to “snap” shoot.  Quick.  Aim and fire.  Quick-quick!  Shoot-shoot!  The old ROTC/Army range training of squeezing a round off was soon in the past.

Finally onto the moving ranges.  Aircraft turrets mounted on trucks speeding up, down and around a track with clay pigeons being hurled out across the road where we fired shotguns mounted in the turret at them..  Some fun.

   Then, on to firing single air-cooled .50’s from heavy steel pipe tripod mounts.  Targets were mounted on jeeps, running on tracks, behind berms of earth so that just the targets showed.  The jeeps' engines started with the throttle set, at a pre-determined speed; sped driverless around the track so we could fire at them with color-coded bullets.  Those .50’s just bounced the heavy pipe tripods all over the concrete deck.  One day I scored high, and since  I was smaller than others in the group I was asked to shoot for score from a Sperry ball turret mounted on a 6x6 truck.  The term 6 by 6 is actually a misnomer because it really had ten wheels.  The Sperry ball turret, which had been mounted on this truck, had not been bore sighted which meant that the guns and the sight didn’t match one another and I had to use the tracers to aim those two .50’s at the fast moving target.  I was small enough to fit in the small ball turret and though it was comfortable enough, I didn’t score as well as I had hoped.

AT-6 In Flight
This picture is from Laredo Air Force Base Information booklet circa 1944

At last the day arrived.  We were in the back seat of the AT-6s in flight wearing a cloth helmet, leather gloves, leather jacket and goggles.  I was issued and wore a bulky seat pack parachute so that in case there was a problem we could bail out.  A safety line attached to the airplane and through my parachute harness. Holding the handles of my machine gun supplied security for me.  It was difficult to move around with that thing on in the cockpit of that small ship.  The weapon was a single hand held .30 cal. air-cooled machine gun mounted on a swivel in the back seat.

            The bullets were color coded with different color paint for each trainee so that our scores could be determined upon our return to the field.  Another AT-6 was the tow-target plane that towed a sleeve about 600 yards behind it and allowed us to shoot at the sleeve from different angles and speeds.  Gunners fired from the side of the aircraft.  

Upon command from the pilot, we unlatched the weapon, swiveled it to the right or left, inserted the cartridge belt, pulled the charging handle a couple of times to chamber a live round and again on the pilot’s command were cleared to shoot.  The pilot, of course, admonished us to shoot the tow target only NOT THE AIRPLANE and keep our eyes on our wing and tail!  Shooting squirts, using that thumb trigger between the spade handles and watching the tracers arc toward that tow-target was truly exciting.  We flew many training “missions” between the rainstorms in Southern Texas.

            Gunnery schools were usually situated well outside the town and were always lacking in creature comforts.  The training days were hot, wet, cold, dry and dusty, but not without excitement.  It was a happening for one being prepared for aerial combat.

Myrtle Beach 1943
Myrtle Beach Barracks - 1943

Myrtle Beach was a small town and laid back. The air base there was a neat, entirely camouflaged, tar papered, single story barracks, tucked into a pine forest.  The hangars and utility buildings were also covered with camo nets. This was an advanced gunnery school and we were really busy there learning more about this gunnery business.  We flew in B-25s following an elliptical course loading and firing turret guns while flying at an angle all the time.  Talk about negative “Gs.” We had them.  The ammunition cans we loaded weighed 110 pounds (that 50 caliber ammo is heavy) and we loaded the turret while flying low at 100-150 feet and at a speed of about 200.  It was hot and muggy in that South Carolina sun and it was hard work.  Then too, I weighed about 120 pounds so I really worked.

Each night, after shooting our machine guns most of the day, we loaded ammunition into belts, then loaded the belts into cans that fit the turrets which we shot the next day.  Each box of 350 rounds weighs 110 pounds and those 50’s had voracious appetites firing 750 rounds per minute.  We physically were getting stronger and realized that the black and blue bruises and sore muscles bore this out.  Our targets were lined up on the beach so that we could shoot at them from offshore so the spent bullets headed out to sea where they could do no damage.  Finally the training was over and we were ready for war.

               

310th
319th
321st 340th

       Finally all four groups of the 12th Air Force B-25 medium bombers were on Corsica.  The 310th, 321st and 340th were now in the 57th Bomb Wing. The 15th Air Force, while in the same area, was comprised of “heavies” the B-17’s and B-24’s.  They were stationed in Italy and had longer ranges, carried bigger loads, were larger and were targeted for different areas.    The ground war in Italy had slowed along the line from Monte Cassino to Anzio, where the army had a beachhead.  While the 321st and the 340th groups were involved in close support, our group the, 310th, continued operations hitting German shipping and harbors.  That meant targets like Piombino, Leghorn, San Stefano, Telemone and many RR bridges were bombarded often by our group.

Our entire 57th Bomb Wing mounted a mission on the Herman Goering Division.  This was a mobile division, heavily guarded by 88mm, 40mm and 20mm cannon as well as all other types of anti aircraft guns that could be brought into action.  We clobbered them, but got shot up pretty good in the process.  This one elite division was located on the north edge of Elbino Lake.  Our aircraft, along with the others in our B-25 group, were loaded with “frags.”  We had, in our bomb bay, 32 clusters of fragmentation bombs, which meant 132 bombs total.  Our formation(s) dropped these babies on an area covering a mile-and-a-half by three miles.  Their flak was heavy and deadly and our ship took some hits.  What was interesting to us was the large number of aircraft participating in the raid.  Besides our three B-25 groups, there were 3 groups each of B-26s, A-20s and seemingly hundreds of fighters (of all varieties) dive bombing and strafing. The poor Germans on the ground were confused since they weren’t sure whom to fire on.  There were so many of us.

As I recall, there were a couple of missions that were really “rough”, as we used to say.  One was my 16th mission and we unloaded our bombs from 9,500 feet on a clear, beautiful, blue-sky day and it was very cold at that altitude.  Our target was Piombino Harbor, Italy.  The group was comprised of 36 aircraft, each of which carried a bomb load of six 500-pound bombs. We had the famous English made Spitfires flown by free French pilots as fighter escort. The date was March 14, 1944. 

We were flying a B-25G model, which had a solid nose with a 75mm cannon, used for minimum altitude sea sweeps against German shipping along the Italian coastline.  We carried no bombardier with us in this carefully patched and prepared olive drab aircraft.  Crew Chief Tillman McQuirk had given us a “thumbs up” as we left the hardstand. As usual the enemy flak was intense and very accurate.

My 1st Crew
My original overseas crew at Ghisonaccia-Gare, Corsica

       Every mission was the same.  Checking out our flight gear, climbing on the truck, riding to the flight line, checking the aircraft with the other crewmembers and awaiting our pilots to finish their mission briefing.  It was all part of the daily scenario that we undertook before each mission takeoff.  Pulling the props, starting the engines, warming them up, and then taxiing off the hardstand, getting in line and waiting for the green light from the tower, taking off and circling to form up.  For a change we were upped to the lead element rather than being “tail end Charlie” where we were usually positioned.  As the formation gained altitude for this medium altitude bombing mission, we kept circling and holding because Corsica and the mainland of Italy are not too far apart, close enough to reach our seacoast target in minutes. Lt. Les Lewis was the Squadron’s lead Bombardier/Navigator and we followed his lead. When he opened his bomb bay doors, Lt. Heller opened ours.  When he dropped his bombs, we dropped ours. Tail gunner Herb Campbell calls on the intercom to the pilot…”um…sorry but I forgot to bring my parachute” and the replies from the pilots are still unprintable but suggested that he would be ‘one lonely guy’ if we had to bail out.  We did not go back for the chest pack chute and he never forgot again.

When we reached the target, our squadron immediately lost 3 ships. Our plane barely made it back to Corsica, and no wonder, it was riddled with over 200 flak holes.  On this day our mission approach to Piombino Harbor was from the south and as we made our IP (initial point) and turned for the bomb run, the flak started.  It was very accurate, flash-bang, no ranging, no brackets; the dirty, red centered black flak smoke with its lethal shrapnel just followed us.  Hit after hit blasted our ship and down we went in a mad dive with that German 88mm flak following us as we flew past the B-25 redline to 300 MPH diving almost straight down from 9,500 to the sea.

Fortunately, no one aboard our ship was wounded from that constant storm of anti aircraft fire. Other 381st crewmembers in our formation were not so lucky. The toll of dead and wounded was high.  Our squadron lost 3 aircraft that day; while two of the three made it safely back to Corsica, we lost another when it crashed into the sea killing Art Vlahon, a member of our original flight crew and the entire crew aboard. He was our Bombardier/Navigator and was transferred to this new crew upon our joining the 310th Bomb Group in North Africa in 1943.

The aircraft from our Squadron formation lost over the target that day included Lt. Branum who was flying #2, on the right wing of the flight leader Lt. McLaughlin. They turned right and down they went. Lt. Schwindle was #4, behind and below the leader, and his aircraft just nosed over and down.  We were #3, on the left wing of the leader, banked sharply left and dove down.

A hit just underneath our aircraft caused a piece of flak to hit the seat parachute of Lt. Heller that saved him from a bad wound.  It was the day I got bumped by a piece of flak, which just nicked my shin and didn’t even break the skin nor tear my flight suit. It did rip a good size hole in the skin of the aircraft however.  The other two planes, from our box of six, were badly battered by the flak but made it back to the field.  Our aircraft ‘collected’ one very large piece of flak that was so big Intelligence retrieved it for examination by their experts.  We never did figure out exactly why Piombino was so heavily defended.

Looking back, I recall our ailerons had been shot out over the target by the heavy flak as well as some of the electrical systems. There were three gunners’ positions behind the bomb bay of this model B-25, the tail gunner, Herb Campbell, Jim Heaney, waist/radio gunner and me, the top turret gunner. When I crawled over the bomb bay to see what was going on up front, I really startled the pilots. You cannot see from front to back of this aircraft unless you climb over the bomb bay.  Lt. Vosburgh, co-pilot, had punched the bail out bell, a very loud bell indicating to the crew that it was time to exit the aircraft but it had been shot out.  Both the pilot and co-pilot had thought that the crew had bailed out over the target.  Now it was too late and we were too low to bail out, so Lt. Heller put us to work.

SpitfireI relayed his message to the guys in the back that because the aircraft was tail heavy from flak damage; we should throw out as much equipment as possible to lighten the load. Out went radios, ammunition, ammunition boxes, guns; anything that wasn’t bolted down and we could get loose was tossed into the sea from the open waist windows. We did retain a short belt of .50 caliber ammunition ‘just in case”, but with a Spitfire on our right wing flying cover for us, we didn’t have to worry about German aircraft surprising us. German Luftwaffe pilots were always on the prowl to get those easy targets, “wounded bombers.”

As we approached the downwind end of our field, we lowered the landing gear and found that the right tire was in shreds from flak and was flopping in the breeze. The Free French Spitfire waggled his wings and turned north heading for his field in Bastia.  Now, our ship was coming in on a “wing and a prayer” and we lined up on that pierced steel landing field landing “hot” as Lt. Heller described it at 125 IAS (indicated air speed) with some flaps.  He flew it right to the ground and ‘greased it in’ on the left wheel managing to keep the right wing and wheel high until we slowed down.  Any landing you walk away from is “a good one” and I won’t argue with that. We were all alive and ready for the next mission.  Our aircraft was not, and we got a new silver “J” model to replace it.

Only one other mission was as important to me.  Another crash landing after being shot up over the target.  This time it was Leghorn.  Another harbor!  It was 22 June 1944 and it was my 58th mission. We got hit hard by flak over the target and limped back over the sea to Ghisonnacia on one dead engine with feathered prop while the remaining “good” engine spewed oil and smoke into that blue Corsican sky.  We made it to the airfield and hand pumped the wheels down, using the red emergency handle.  The hydraulic system had been shot out and we landed normally not knowing that flak had damaged the nose wheel.

The main gear ‘chirped’ on the pierced metal runway and as we slowed down enough to settle on the nose wheel, it collapsed with a loud, hard thumping smash. We were stopped, nose buried in the runway and the tail high in the sky.  We counted over 200 flak holes as well as one 88mm hole through our left wing (which meant that one 88-mm shell had passed through the aircraft without exploding!), but NO ONE was hurt.  I got a scratch on my nose from a chip of Plexiglas from flying flak, which hit my turret and a flak bump on my shin (I still have that piece of flak).  Campbell, our tail gunner, wrenched his back when he “stepped out” of the rear hatch and landed 20 feet below on the runway.  I guess we should have warned him about that first big step but in the excitement just forgot to.

I had often wondered what had happened on this mission to cause so much damage to our lead flight box of six aircraft.  This was explained many years later by a pilot who had been flying in our formation.  His theory was that as our bombs were released from the bomb bays and armed themselves, a flack burst caused them to explode very close to the formation, doing all this awesomely severe damage. We’ll probably never know for sure, but the theory certainly is a good one.


My 58th mission, Leghorn Harbor
            We flew many missions into the interior of Italy with targets of railroad marshaling yards, bridges and flak trains.

One of these missions might be of interest here.  It seems that our original “hot pilot,” Storey Larkin, was leading the entire formation away from a target Florence in the north of Italy.  He had become a flight leader. He was that good, and he provided us a good look at the leaning tower of Pisa.  We flew past it only a few hundred feet high after weaving our way out of the mountain valleys leading to the Ligurian Sea, with Germans shooting down at us from the mountaintops above.  The whole formation of thirty-six B-25s roared safely out to sea and home.  I had many more missions with lots of flak over our targets, resulting in many holes in our plane for the ground crew to patch so that we were airworthy for the next day’s mission.

During the last part of July, we were issued flak jackets, although I had almost finished my ETO combat tour, but I did feel better wearing it.  Some of the guys, gunners, pilots, anyone flying combat on air crews had scrounged pieces of armor plate and had placed them in their positions aboard their planes.  It worked in many cases, saving us from nasty flak wounds.  Most “sat” on the steel plates but in the turret of a B-25 there just was no room. I sat on a bicycle seat.

I continued flying missions until my 69th.  I flew that mission three times without getting mission credit.  The rule was that unless you dropped bombs, the mission did not count.  We got heavy flak all three times and I figured “that was it”.  I then went to the flight surgeon and was grounded.  I was “flak happy”.  The 69th just seemed to be the one I would not get through.  It turned out to be a milk run, but I was happy not flying anymore.  I  had had enough for now!

I flew only ten ”G” missions and they were the ones we had trained so long and hard for in Myrtle Beach and Greenville.  These were the 75mm cannon totin’ B-25s and, at the time, the most heavily armed aircraft in the world. The first of our missions were sea sweeps along the coast of Italy in the Tyrrhenian Sea and they were very exciting.  On these missions the entire crew could participate shooting at vessels, aircraft, and machine gun emplacements and all at minimum-level flying.  Our propellers kicked up a mist of spray as we buzzed the ocean top on shipping raids.  It seemed that the highest elevation we attained while on these sea sweeps was when we returned to the field and got all the way up to maybe 500 feet to circle and land.

Our formation of four, in line off Spiza, shot down a DO-24 German three-engine flying boat, which was flying in the opposite direction and very low trying to hide from us in the misty haze.  It was big, slow, boxy and ugly and it made a gigantic splash when it hit the water and broke up.  It didn’t have a chance with eager gunners in four aircraft shooting at it.  I don’t think any of us claimed this “victory” since so many were shooting and the thought of painting one-eighth of a German cross on my turret did not seem appealing. We got some flak on the mission but no fighters.

         E-boats were different. About the size of our PT boats they were moving flak platforms mounting 88’s, 40mm, 20mm cannons and light machine guns.  They were dangerous with speed and all that firepower and their crews were ‘experts.’  We tangled with them on several occasions and came out about even.  We hit many, but sunk none.  They hit us, but downed none.


     B-25 G with 75mm cannon in nose 
B-25GSea sweeps often meant dawn patrol to us.  We were up early, grabbed our gear and climbed onto 6x6s to be driven to the line and to our hardstand, where our assigned aircraft waited.  Once there, we pulled the props around four or five times to get the oil that had settled in the lower cylinders equalized, got it preflighted, warmed up and ready to go.  Bomb loads were checked and I made sure, as Armorer/Gunner, that the ammo belts and cans were full and that we had a full  load or 75mm cannon  shells for our 3” nose canon.

       These 75mm cannon shells were 26 inches long and weighed 20 pounds each.  Just above the cannon breech was a rack that would hold 20 rounds.  We carried mostly high explosive shells with a few armor piercing thrown in for good measure and just in case we met the dreaded German destroyers prevalent in the area.  The cannon breech and ammunition rack was just behind but much lower than the pilots seat.  This cannon could fire as fast as it could be loaded and would toss shells some miles but usually in sea sweeps 2,000 yards was the maximum range. We had a wooden “paddle” to use in shell loading, which got tossed quickly since it just got in the way.  Hand loading was easier and faster but dangerous if you missed and got your hand caught in the up-sliding breech, not the way to earn a Purple Heart!

The cannon was a standard M4 with a specially constructed spring to absorb some of the recoil shock.  The barrel extended forward under the cockpit through the tunnel formerly used by the bombardier in reaching his nose position.  The muzzle emerged from a concave port on the left side of the nose.

We were flying B-25Gs and Hs. Our squadron had two of the H models, but our crew did not fly in either of them.  One was later shot down with Brigadier General Graves aboard while attacking San Stefano Harbor.  Both models were “cannon toting” which, in addition to the 3” cannon (75mm), carried 3,000 pounds (6x500) of bombs for skip bombing, and up to eighteen .50 caliber machine guns for strafing or defense.

I was top turret gunner.  This turret, a Bendix, was located on the top of the aircraft, rotating 360 degrees and the guns could be elevated 90 degrees.  Twin .50 caliber machine guns were mounted on each side of my shoulders and the ammunition containers mounted on the turret each containing 440 rounds of .50 caliber bullets, enough for just a few seconds of continuous firing.  I sat on a folding bicycle seat and operated this electrically operated turret with my hands on hand grips upon which were controls for regular speed, fast speed, intercom and the trigger which fired the twin fifties.  The gunsight was optical and lighted.  While I was up in the turret, it and my head were constantly rotating, looking for the enemy.

In the B-25Gs, the turret was mounted in the rear.  We trained on the newer H models that had the turret “up front” just behind the pilot.  It was much more comfortable there than in the back.  The turret had some built in cams and electrical stops to keep me from shooting our tail fins off while following a target across the back of the airplane.  Propellers were protected the same way too.  If you (in the upper turret) wanted to fire your guns at objects below the aircraft you had to ask the pilot to “drop the wing” (right or left) as needed.

The pilot and co-pilot got briefed for the mission and the squadron “Dawn Patrol” was in the air before 5.  Breakfast was usually a can of orange juice tossed to us as we boarded the trucks and headed for the line.  Our parachute harnesses and chest -pack parachutes were already on board the aircraft and since we usually flew the same aircraft each mission we were set.  The pilots, of course, had the heavy seat packs and were larger (the parachutes, not the pilots) and more sensitive to weather (the “greenhouse” leaked a lot). They brought them with them from the briefing.  The enlisted men did not often get to attend these briefings and got the news about that day’s target at the line. 

Upon landing after a mission, and our ship was stopped on the hardstand, we were loaded into trucks for a short trip to Operations for a debriefing session.  We all reported, individually, to an officer(s), the mission results we had noted: i.e. fighter opposition, flak, lost aircraft and all the myriad of details while still fresh in our minds.  Then, as in the case of sea sweeps, we headed for the mess hall, under a very large, sagging canvas tarp, for breakfast.  This mostly consisted of apple butter on pancakes with mushy reconstituted eggs, a slice of Spam and coffee in our GI canteen cups.

Heller photo 381st Mess Hall

       Then when finished dumping the left overs (if any) into a GI garbage can and on to the washing cans.  One was filled with soapy water and one for rinsing and both heated over stoves.  Small wire handled brushes hung from the sides so that you could ‘swab’ out the mess kits.  Then you shook off as much water as you could, folded up your mess kit and you were finished.

For me the first of these “G” missions was a sweep off the West Coast of Italy.  From our base in Ghisonaccia, Corsica it was a short 15-20 minutes to the target area.  B flight took off and headed out.  We had, as escorts, four P-39s, piloted by Americans from a nearby base.  It was good weather and as we cruised the coast of Italy, we spotted a German E boat.  E boats are fast, heavily armed flak ships loaded with ack ack and our formation engaged it.  Our ship fired twice with the 75 and got one hit.  No enemy fighters were encountered that day, the 30th of January 1944.

In single file formation, we flew down between rows of houses in Leghorn harbor, after spotting some ships tied up at docks, with German gunners shooting at us from windows.  We shot at those buildings and into windows as we flew by.  We were flying at about 200-225 miles per hour, so shooting was quick, but it seemed like slow motion to me in the upper turret.  I could see details that I later didn’t believe.  On these missions we usually flew, in diamond formation, a box of four aircraft.  When we attacked targets, shipping, airfields, E-boats, destroyers, harbor installations or whatever the mission called for, the number four plane would slide under the number three as number two moved behind and below the lead ship.  Thus, we arrived over the target in one awesome, roaring, line, spitting cannon and machine gun fire strafing the target resulting in some enemy ships sunk. Later, our group blocked the seaward entrance to Leghorn harbor by sinking a couple of ships at the entrance, which effectively stopped German access to the sea.

The Germans used small coastal ships, boats and barges to transport their war supplies.  The reason, of course, was that all the bridges both road and rail had been bombed out.  So shipping was our main target.  We also carried bombs for skip bombing but I don’t remember doing any skip bombing even though we had trained for it at Myrtle Beach and Greenville on those long, hot, humid summer days never to be forgotten!

San Stefano, actually Porto S. Stefano, was a favorite and necessary target.  It was situated inside a curved causeway connecting the mainland with an island.  There was a German seaplane base, a German garrison, and a radar station all within the hook of land.  We would just circle around over the city, head towards the sea and the island, shell and strafe the seaplane base, the radar station on the island and the garrison barracks and shipping on the mainland.  Around and around we went until our supply of ordinance was depleted.  Each time the pilot fired his forward firing .50’s and the 75mm it felt like the airplane had hit a soft, but solid wall in the air.  The ship would fill up with cordite smoke, which quickly blew on out, while Smitty (our Cannoneer) slammed another shell into the cannon breech for the pilot to shoot.  As he loaded the shell the up sliding breech would push his hand out of the way.  He then would step to the side to miss the recoil of the cannon.  Then slam another shell into the breech.  Four or five shells were used on each run with the .50’s, up front, hammering away too.  Then we could go to work.  Waist gunner, my turret and the tail gunner could shoot as targets came to bear and the range closed.  I could shoot at those ground targets only when Lt. Heller, my pilot, dropped a wing to give me an opening.  As we pulled off the target, Smitty would pick up the spent shell casings from the floor and put them back into the shell holder above the guns so he wouldn’t slip on them on the next run.  We shot up a lot of coastal shipping on the sea sweeps.  Mixed in with these minimum altitude missions were some medium altitude bombing missions, with the rest of the group, busting bridges and smashing railroad-marshaling yards.

Our squadron was on a sea sweep from San Stefano to Leghorn Harbor.  This time is was an afternoon sweep and my 2nd mission.  We had an escort of American piloted Spitfires protecting our flight of four aircraft all consisting of G models.  Visibility was a couple of miles and the ceiling was about 1,500 feet.  We were “way” under that and just skimming the waves.  Off the coast, but close to it, we found a coastal steamer and sank it with our 75mm cannon fire.  Then continuing on we flew into Pianosa Harbor and shot up some warehouses on the docks which we left burning after a couple of tremendous explosions caused by our forward firing machine guns and the 75.  All during our attack German 20mm and 40mm cannon, machine gun and rifle fire was being sent our way and we picked up a few holes for our visit.  German tracers just seemed to float up at us.  The Spits got in the act too by chasing a couple of ME-109’s away from us.   

Then we did some medium altitude bombing and didn’t like it at all.  Got lots of flak bombing at 10,000 feet, in ten-degree temperature.  We bombed off the lead ship, a C model, which had a bombardier.  We were in our G with no bombardier.  When the lead ship opened his bomb bay doors, we did too.  When he dropped his 8x500 pound bombs, we did too.  And that is the way it was with medium altitude bombing.  At least until we got into newer models later in the year.  This mission was my first shot at Piambino.

            The most pleasant words spoken and heard in our earphones during a medium altitude (9,000 to 12,000 feet) combat mission was “bombs away!  At that point, the airplane gently lifted up after releasing the bomb load and we could resume our evasive action, which was most often a sharp diving turn away from the target and all that flak.  Bomb runs were very stressful.  That is when the flak was the heaviest and the fighters would attack.  We had to fly straight and level for bomb runs.

Bomb loads varied with the mission and its objective.  We carried six 500-pound bombs for our sea sweeps and the possibility of skip bombing targets. Other missions called for eight 250 pound bombs, three 1,000 pound bombs, eight 500 pound bombs, clusters of fragmentation bombs and on a couple of missions “chaff” which was aluminum foil strips which were dropped near the target to confuse enemy radar controlled anti-aircraft guns firing on us.  One other item regarding bomb drops.  We never ever heard our bombs explode as they impacted.  Unlike the movies and documentaries where you are able to hear the bombs whistle and explode as the formations leave the target…it just doesn’t happen.  We heard flak explode…but only when it was very, very close…and only then!

After taking off for a medium altitude mission we would gather in our boxes of six aircraft, then into squadrons and finally into the group formation, while all the time gaining altitude for the mission requirements.  The formations would gently move up and down in the air currents until the Initial Point (IP) was reached where we made the final turn toward the target.  All gunners were very cautious when large, towering cloud formations were nearby knowing that enemy fighters liked to “hide” in these clouds and pop out to attack bomber formations.  At the Initial Point the most violent evasive action would take place.  Aircraft, in formation, wing to waist window, would move up and down and from side to side trying to make the German gunners, below, miss.

When we reached the target area and started our bomb run we would have to fly “straight and level” to make a smooth bombing platform for the bombardiers to accurately drop our loads.  This meant that no evasive action could be taken at all during that important bomb run.  In our case, the pilot was acting bombardier.  He opened the bomb bay doors and released the bombs when the lead ship, which had an actual bombardier, released its bombs.  The shudder and wind noise started and continued until we dropped our bombs and the bomb bay doors closed again.

Our escort fighters would often be with us in the flak that was an amazing show of courage on their part since they didn’t have to be there at all.  A group of these fighters, on one of our missions, had been flying escort for the heavies.  These B-17’s and B-24’s had very long bomb runs of several hours and we didn’t.  As a result, we left those fighters in the target area catching flak while we made our diving turn away and headed for home.  They caught up with us shortly.

It was about this time that I made Staff Sergeant and the time that I got one landing completed.  At the suggestion of our pilot, Storey Larkin, I had flown some in the states and had collected a few hours of “stick time”.  He always felt that in case something happened to the pilots, someone else in the aircraft should be able to fly the thing and return it to base.  Since I was up front and was interested, I got the job.  It was grand.  I loved it.  I just “greased it in” with the help of the pilot, of course, and the guys in the back said, that, “had we known that you were gonna land this plane we would have bailed out!”  However, I did it and without them having to hit the silk!

   Pilot Storey Larkin
                

Our crew “volunteered” for a nickling mission or two.  This was a leaflet-dropping mission of propaganda pamphlets urging the Germans to surrender.  We dropped many thousands of them over enemy territory flying alone and no formations to worry us.

Our squadron got a group, a squad I guess, of GI’s from the Anzio beachhead to fly with us on some missions.  We sent a few guys there to see how the other half-lives.  Interestingly,    neither group would trade with the other.  The Sergeant who flew with our crew, on a milk run, would not trade.  He said that down there he could dig a hole and climb into it...while up in an airplane there was no place to hide…not even in a cloud.

     In April 1944, our Bomb Group participated in “war games” with the French Army stationed on Corsica.  Our crew of enlisted men (the officers were not involved in this affair to my knowledge) had to guard one of the entrances to the airfield.  We did a splendid job because we captured two armored cars and a motorcycle courier.  After the capture (the captured and the capturers) sat around and tried to talk to one another in some bad French, mostly hand signs or pantomime with a few words thrown in.

A beautiful, brand new, shiny, silver B-25-J with tail number 327507 was delivered to us in May of 1944.  On her first mission, we saw fighters but they did not bother with us since our covering Spits bothered them.  No holes in our new baby, but lots of accurate flak was directed at our formation and some aircraft in the group got hit…but luckily, none of our ships were lost.  At least none on this run.  I slept pretty well this night.





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