Read The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-1945 Online

Authors: Stephen Ambrose

Tags: #General, #Political, #Military, #History, #World War II, #United States, #Biography & Autobiography, #Transportation, #20th Century, #Military - World War II, #History: American, #Modern, #Commercial, #Aviation, #Military - Aviation

The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-1945 (8 page)

BOOK: The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-1945
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Just before his graduation, McGovern said he wanted to fly a B-24 but that he would be happy to be a B-17 pilot. At the ceremony, the colonel who had berated the cadets and characterized them as the worst class ever said that this was the finest class that had graduated from Pampa. The men found a manila envelope on their chairs. It contained their commission - “Second Lieutenant, Army of the United States” - and their wings. Another document rated them as pilots. Still another was a personnel order that required them to participate in regular and frequent aerial flights. Charles Watry considered that a bit redundant: “That’s what we came to do - wild horses couldn’t hold us back now!”42 Eleanor was at the airfield to pin on George’s wings. The new and exuberant fliers marched past the reviewing stand, singing the AAF song, really belting out the line “Off we go, into the wild blue yonder.” McGovern looked at his assignment - Liberal, Kansas.43 Eleanor went with him. “I became a camp follower,” she later said. “Ten weeks here, twelve weeks somewhere else.” She again rented a small room and saw her husband on Saturday nights and during the day on Sunday.44 Liberal, Kansas, meant McGovern would be learning to fly B-24s. He was pleased.  Others were not. Watry had put down the two-engine P-70 night fighter as his first choice, the P-61 Black Widow as his second, and the B-25 two-engine bomber as his third. But like 262 out of 290 of his classmates, he was assigned to Troop Carrier Command. Troop Carrier flew C-47 transports, either dropping paratroopers or towing gliders. “It was a great disappointment to all of us.” They wanted combat in modern warplanes, not hauling paratroopers in an airplane that had been around for years (it was the DC-3 in civilian use). The twenty-eight cadets in Watry’s class of 290 who got their first choice of aircraft assignments were the only ones who had asked for four-engine bombers.45 Lt. Walter Baskin had the same fate as McGovern but was not happy. “I have been assigned to a B-24,” he wrote his parents. “That’s just about as far from what I wanted as anything could be, but I can still hope.”46 On his graduation, John Smith was asked to list his choices. Knowing that his list would count for naught, he nevertheless put down the A-20 Havoc, which although a bomber had near-fighter performance and a tight turning radius. It had a crew of three, enough to keep the pilot company but not a crowd to look after, as the B-17 and B-24 pilots had to. It had a relatively limited range, so the pilot wasn’t up in the air all day. As for his other choices, Smith wrote, “If you are out of A-20s, it’s all right, I’ll just go home.” He was assigned to a B-24.47 Whatever their assignment, the newly commissioned officers and pilots had something to point to with pride. Of the 317,000 men who entered AAF pilot training in World War II, that is, after passing their mental and physical examinations, 193,440 were successful in graduating from advanced. More than 124,000, or about two out of five, washed out along the way, most of them in primary, fewest in advanced.48 The AAF in World War II recruited and trained the world’s largest air force. The training was exemplary. On average, before going into combat, the men had 360 hours of flying time. For German pilots and air crews, the average was 110 hours. For the Japanese, Italians, and Russians, it was even less. The three times or more experience in the air of the Americans showed up graphically in the results of air combat during the height of the air war, 1944 and 1945.49 * Chilton was killed in France in 1944, flying a P-47 in combat.

CHAPTER THREE - Learning to Fly the B-24

“THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT that big old, lumbering B-24 that I found reassuring,” George McGovern said more than a half century after he had last flown one. The B-17 Flying Fortress, another four-engine bomber that became far more famous, was easier to take off, easier to fly, easier to land, and had other advantages, such as it didn’t break up or sink when it crash-landed in the sea. But the B-24 was a man’s airplane. It could be sternly unforgiving. It always required, and sometimes demanded, almost superhuman strength to fly. On a long mission it could wear out even the strongest pilot. “I’ve seen pilots at the end of the mission that were so exhausted they literally had to be lifted out of the pilot’s seat by their crew,” McGovern recalled, because “they couldn’t get up.” He thanked God for Norm Campanella, who had gotten him into top shape at his Civilian Pilot Training exercises.1 The B-24 bomber was the hardest plane to fly. One pilot, Guyon Phillips, later said he “never knew a pilot who asked to fly the Lib [short for the Liberator] as a choice. There were so many other planes that were more preferable to fly.” He continued, “You could never trim the son-of-a-gun, and had to horse it around constantly.” Formation flying for several hours gave his left arm a workout. He steered with that arm, using his right arm for the throttles and switches. After the war Phillips found that he could arm-wrestle his college roommate, a big football player, left-handed, “but stood no chance with him right-handed.” Phillips also learned “to make no sudden moves in a B-24,” because response time had to be calculated.2 Until 1944 the B-24 was the biggest airplane in the American fleet, and the most expensive. More aluminum was used to build the Liberators than any other craft.  “The B-24 has guts, “ said the AAF in its instruction manual for pilots. “It can take it and dish it out. It can carry a bigger bomb load farther and faster, day in and day out, than any airplane that has passed the flaming test of combat.” It could be sluggish, though. One pilot noted, “That plane took its own good time to do whatever it was going to do.” It could take punishment as well as the B-17, a statement that no B-17 pilot or crew would agree with-but in operations, B-17 losses were 15.2 percent compared to the B-24 operational losses of 13.3 percent. Still, when the B-24 lost a single engine, “You were right now in trouble.” In particular, its new wing, designed by Consolidated engineer David R. Davis and called a “Davis wing,” had a distressing tendency to fold up and break off when hit by a shell.3 There was not just one B-24 model but rather a series of modifications. After it reached the production stage at the beginning of the war, numerous changes were made to enhance performance, changes that increased speed, altitude, range, firepower, armor, and payload. So too with almost all the AAF airplanes, which in the fighter and reconnaissance category were by 1944 equal to the enemy’s best, due in part to their heavy and rugged construction. The United States did lag far behind Germany in jet planes and guided missiles, but in heavy bomber and transport planes the American superiority was beyond any challenge. And it was way ahead in numbers.

In 1939, the Army Air Corps had 1,700 aircraft and 1,600 officers. When in 1941 President Roosevelt called for the production of 50,000 military planes per year, people thought him crazy. By March 1944, over 9,000 were built in one month, 110,000 in that year. In total, the United States produced almost as many aircraft as did Britain, the Soviet Union, Germany, and Japan combined, and greatly exceeded them in total airframe weight. By March 1945, a total of 7,177 American bombers were flying combat missions in Europe, thousands of others in the Pacific.

To keep all those planes flying, the AAF had seven men on the ground for each one who flew. Seven hundred thousand graduated from courses in maintenance alone during the war. Its clerks, telephone operators, and other support personnel, mainly civilians, numbered more than one million, half of them women, many African-Americans, others handicapped.4 The AAF was not built for defense. Its strategic goal was to carry the war to America’s enemies in their homelands. Its fighter force existed for many purposes, such as photographic reconnaissance and tactical support of ground troops by attacking enemy troops and columns, trucks, bridges, and trains on the ground, but primarily it was in combat to protect the heavy bombers from German or Japanese fighter aircraft.

The Liberator had a wingspan of 110 feet. The Davis wing’s cross section was shaped like a raindrop and mounted against the top of the fuselage. It provided outstanding lift and carried self-sealing fuel cells. The fuselage was sixty-six feet long, eighteen feet high. Without a load the Liberator weighed 32,505 pounds. Its maximum weight with a full bomb load was 60,000 pounds. After improvements, it carried ten .50-caliber machine guns - two in the nose, two in the top turret, two in the tail, two in the bottom turret, all power-operated, and one manually controlled .50 caliber on each side of the waist. It could reach slightly more than 300 miles per hour, fly as high as 32,000 feet, and had a range of 2,850 miles - all exceeding the B-17’s capabilities. It had four engines, mostly Pratt & Whitney rated at 1,200 horsepower, each with a turbo supercharger that increased the mass air charge of the internal combustion engines and was used to compensate for the lower density of air at high altitudes. The propeller blades were as large as a man.  The B-24 had a tricycle landing gear, with one wheel under the nose - replacing the B-17’s tail wheel - with the two main wheels under the wings. It had an extensively glazed greenhouse nose. It had two bomb bays, each of which could match the B-17’s single bay for capacity, and roll-up bomb bay doors, which eliminated buffeting caused by standard doors, which opened below the plane into the airstream. Its original 8,000-pound payload could be configured in four ways - four 2,000-pound bombs, eight 1,000-pound bombs, twelve 500-pound bombs, or twenty 100-pound bombs. With improvements, the pay-load rose to 12,800 pounds.5 The improvements obviously increased the plane’s lethality, but they did render it less stable.

Both the Eighth Air Force and later the Fifteenth Air Force flew both B-17s and B-24s. In the Pacific, by 1943 the B-24s had totally replaced the B-17s.  The B-24s were called “Flying Box Cars” because, according to some, they were the boxes in which the B-17s were shipped overseas. Others called them “New York Harbor Garbage Scows with Wings,” or “Spam Can in the Sky.” Additional nicknames were “Banana Boat,” “Flying Brick,””Pregnant Cow,” and “The Old Agony Wagon.” The most distinguishing feature of the B-24 was its twin tail, much scoffed at by the men who flew the B-17s - as, indeed, was almost everything about the B-24. But it could carry a larger bomb load for longer distances than the B-17, with a crew of the same size - ten men. It was an ungainly-looking ship on the ground, but it had a grace of its own in the air.6 It was almost universally agreed that the B-24 was the hardest plane to fly. The AAF knew that and its training program reflected the fact. “I don’t think there’s a person alive that could fly a formation of B-24s for ten, twelve, thirteen hours that wasn’t trained the way we were,” McGovern declared. “I don’t think he could do it.”

The first time McGovern climbed onto the flight deck and sat at his seat, he was confronted by a bewildering sight. There were twenty-seven gauges on the panel, twelve levers for the throttle, turbocharger, and fuel mixture, four on the pilot’s side on his right, four on the co-pilot’s side on his left. The wheel, or “yoke” as it was called, was as big as that on a large truck. There were over a dozen switches, plus brake pedals, rudders, and more.  Beyond familiarizing himself with the instruments on the flight deck, McGovern was going to have to learn about the remainder of the craft, from the wheels to the nose to the trailing (when in flight) aerial, to the top and ball turret, and everything inside. Before taking off, he had to do a visual check of the entire plane. Further, he needed to know the responsibilities and operations of every crew member, and be capable of doing each of their tasks, from the gunners to the radioman to the engineer to the navigator to the bombardier. Every one of these men were, like the pilots, cramped into the smallest possible position, because in the B-24 no space was wasted.

After he got his wings and commission, McGovern went to the AAF base at Liberal, Kansas, for transition training. This would be the next to the last stage of his becoming a B-24 pilot. Because of the heavy losses the bombers had suffered in Europe, particularly on the August 1, 1943, mission against the oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania, the pilots’ training time was cut back by a month. The program involved not only learning to fly a complex, high-performance aircraft, but also the acquisition of flying techniques and complete knowledge of the plane and the functions of the crew, all preliminary to operational unit training. In addition, the program involved ground instruction in equipment and practical maintenance, weather, radios, aircraft weight and balance, bombing approach procedures, and the general duties of a pilot.8 In October 1943, Lt. Walter Hughes completed his basic training. He applied for multiengine advanced flying school, partly because “my temperament was not really suited to being a hot pilot,” but also because “the grapevine reported that those who applied for single-engine school ended up in bombers anyway, but as co-pilots.” He went to the AAF field at Marfa, Texas, where he was handed a release that began, “This is not a sporting man’s war - get hard, get tough, and get mean!” Then it was off to B-24 school at Kirtland Field, near Albuquerque, New Mexico. He rushed to the flight line to see his first B-24 and was awed: “It was HUGE.” It had 4,800 horsepower and all the planes he had flown before had 450 horsepower. When the plane moved on the ground, “it waddled.” On his first flight, when the instructor pushed the throttles forward, Hughes was smashed back into his seat, which “sent tingles through every nerve.” But the real thrill “came when I did it myself.” Engine power control was complex, including throttle, fuel air mixture, propeller pitch, and turbocharger setting. Takeoff required 2,500 revolutions per minute; climb power was 2,400 rpms. There were a number of cruise settings. And much more.9 The first time he flew in a B-24, Lt. Donald R. Currier, a navigator, recalled, “I was completely amazed by its monstrous size, its four mighty engines, and all of the many instruments on its flight display.”10 McGovern would have one instructor through the program, and he was crucial. When he arrived in Liberal and got Eleanor settled in a room and himself in the barracks, a colonel told him that he would find his name in the operations room on the blackboard underneath the name of his instructor. Along with his classmates, he ran to the board. Each instructor had four students chalked in below his name. McGovern’s name was right at the top on his list. He saw that First Lieutenant Ray would be his instructor and wondered if he was related to Norman Ray, the man who had talked him into taking flying lessons back at Dakota Wesleyan.

BOOK: The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-1945
5.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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