Ringmasters

By Allan G. Blue (Summer, 1964)

A History of the 491st Bombardment Group (H)



PART I  •  Beginnings

852nd
853rd

854th

855th

    The day was April 25, 1944. Brig. Gen. Newton Longfellow, commanding the 16th Bombardment Training Wing headquartered at Biggs Field, Texas, was on a tour of inspection at Pueblo Army Air Base, Colorado, and, while there, was taking the opportunity to address some 100 new crews that had just arrived at Pueblo to begin phase training. His talk, given in the base theater, dealt mainly with the importance and wisdom of safe flying - a subject the General could really warm up to. He was hardly into his talk, however, when all speech was rendered impossible by three B-24s passing close by the building at great speed and windowsill altitude. Several additional 3-plane passes followed before the General could depart the theater for Base Operations in understandable ill-temper.

    Outside the show continued. There were two rows of B-24 training planes parked on the ramp, providing three open lanes of concrete for taxi purposes. Three-plane elements would form up over the city of Pueblo, advise the tower to lower periscope, and then come down the ramp and runway at an altitude that would have set a world's speed record for taxiing a B-24 had their gear been down. From the Base Ops area all one could see was whip antennas and vertical stabilizers going by. A climax of sorts was reached when 1st Lt. Herbert J. Rock made his pass. For reasons unknown, the crew in the waist had lowered the ball turret without informing the pilot, and this slight protuberance exceeded Rock's calculated margin for error. The sight of 35 tons of airplane roaring down the runway with ball turret dragging, was enough to unnerve even the most hardened of the spectators.

    General Longfellow arrived at Base Ops just as one of the pilots of the last plane in the departing flight was filing his flight plan. The General's opening remark was brief, authoritative and to the point: "Just who in hell thinks he's running this air movement?"

    The man on the receiving end of this highly rhetorical question was Capt. William M. Shy, 855th Squadron, 491st Bombardment Group (H). His feelings at that moment, although unrecorded, must have been filled with a renewed sense of anxiety for the 491st - a Group that had already had what it considered to be its share of disappointments and delays...

    In personnel, if not in official lineage, the 491st Group could trace its antecedents back to the old 112th Observation Squadron, Ohio National Guard. February of 1942 found this unit flying coastal patrols out of Dover, Delaware, with 0-47s. In the months that followed, the Squadron moved down the Atlantic seaboard and was based at Lantana, Florida, when its designation was changed to the 522nd Bombardment Squadron (H). New equipment in the form of B-24 Liberators was supposed to be forthcoming to justify the (H), but in the meantime the old 0-47s flew on. In January of 1943 the Squadron moved to Boca Chica, Florida where it acquired some B-18s and a few B-34's. Another redesignation (17th Antisubmarine Sq.), a new station (Batista Field, Cuba) and a few new aircraft (B-25s) followed until finally, on 12 August 1943, the unit was ordered to Langley Field, Virginia, for training with those elusive B-24s.

    By this time, however, the Army Air Force was largely out of the anti-sub business and the 17th was again transferred - this time to Alamogordo, New Mexico. There, on 1 October 1943, the Squadron was redesignated for the last time (to 855th Bombardment) and transferred to Davis-Monthan AAB where its personnel, plus several enlisted men from the 39th Bomb Group at Davis-Monthan, became the nucleus of a new Heavy Bombardment Group - the 491st. (The other 491st Squadrons were designated the 852nd, 853rd and 854th.) The 17th Antisub Squadron (H) brought to the 491st most of the leaders that would see the new Group through its forming days, and many who would be with the Group throughout its entire existence.

    The 491st Group was one of five (488th through 492nd) activated on 1 October 1943. The 488th served as a stateside B-17 Replacement Training Unit and was disbanded on 1 May 1944. The others, all B-24 equipped, moved to England during the spring of 1944 where one (the 490th) subsequently converted to B-17s. Of the remaining three, only the 491st finished the war in Europe as a strategic bombardment group. While this narrative is primarily an account of the 491st, in some instances it will cover activities of the 489th and 492nd as these activities influenced the history of their sister group.

    On 28 October 1943, Col. Dwight Morteith, 491st Group CO, left Davis-Monthan with a detachment of 48 officers and 74 enlisted men for a period of special training at the Army Air Forces School of Applied Tactics (AAFSAT), Orlando, Florida. Traveling by rail, the group arrived on 3 November and on the 17th moved to Pinecastle AAF, about 10 miles south of Orlando. Here the men were to operate as a group under a simulated combat situation. After sampling the living conditions for a few days, the men got the feeling that it was impossible to get any closer to that objective without actually leaving the States.

    On Thursday the 18th, the Group received its first field order at Pinecastle and during the next nine days flew eight missions, most of them in company with a cadre from the 489th which was undergoing similar training. On a mission to Corpus Christi, the 491st suffered its first loss. Aircraft 42-40365, a B-24D loaned from the 9th Bomb Group at Pinecastle and piloted by Lt. Arthur R. Emerson, was unable to gain altitude after takeoff. It hit a radio truck at the end of the runway, then struck a steel boxcar, hit the ground, burst into flames and exploded. The bombardier, badly injured, was the only survivor from the crew of seven.

    On Sunday, 28 November, the men left Pinecastle to return to their home station, which had become Biggs Field, Texas, during their absence. Upon arrival, they learned that most of their ground echelon had been transferred to Pratt, Kansas, to augment a B-29 group. Then Colonel Morteith, 491st CO, also left for the Superforts at Salina on 20 December. As the days dragged by, 491st personnel strength was further reduced by transfer to other groups until only four full crews and a few extra crew members remained, in addition to the Group Staff. The gutted 491st with no assigned aircraft, no ground crews, and at this point very little hope of ever getting any, spent a pretty miserable Christmas at El Paso. It was difficult to continue any sort of training program. Crew members were sent to a course conducted by the 330th Combat Crew Training School, but found they had more experience than their instructors, and so the two units wound up reversing roles. The pilots flew test hops and ferry missions for the local sub-depot, as well as gunnery training missions for the 330th - anything to keep their hand in.

    But on 7 January 1944, orders came through for the Group to move to Pueblo Army Air Base for combat training. An 852nd Sq. T/Sgt. summed it up: "As with a sweep of the hand the useless feeling became a thing of the past. Feverish activity became the order of the day... we felt the show was on at last."
 
Consolidated Assembly Plant
Nearing completion at Consolidated's San Diego plant are 21 B-24J-150's that will go to the 491st.    44-40114 (in front) will be christened Paddy's Wagon, escape two traps laid by the Germans and be one of the few original aircraft flown home by the group. 117 will be flamed over Germany and 129 blown in half over Paris by flak. (Photo - Convair)

    Upon arrival at Pueblo, the 491st personnel were assigned to the 471st Combat Crew Training School for additional instruction. Again, it was found that in most cases, the 491st level of training exceeded that of the 471st instructors, and so roles were again reversed. Additional crews arrived almost at once, bringing the Group total to 24. These new crews were part of a sizable detachment that had left Tucson together after completing Phase I training. However, when their train reached Alamogordo, late at night, many of the crews got off to become the air echelon of the 492nd Bomb Group, while the 491st crews continued on. The incident was to prove strangely similar to a second meeting of these two groups - a meeting that would take place only six months later, but under circumstances considerably more grim.

    Although the situation was still far from settled, (the Group had three different CO's during January) things were looking up. The 471st was redesignated a Heavy Bomb Group and moved out on 24 January, leaving the 491st in sole possession of the buildings, equipment and - most important of all - aircraft! During the next five days with 28 operative B-24s, the Group flew a total of 39 hours. The Morning Report for 31 January listed total Group strength at 142 Officers and 180 Enlisted Men.

    February, though, was the month. On the 3rd, 48 full crews arrived from Blythe, California, to bring the 491st up to full strength in that     department. February at Pueblo also saw the 491st acquire continuity of leadership - a requirement for effectiveness the Group had not previously enjoyed. On the 12th, Lt. Col. Carl T. Goldenberg assumed command with a sense of dedicated purpose that immediately gained the respect and, soon, the deep admiration of the crews. They were willing to fly their tails off for "Goldy" and he gave them every opportunity to prove it.

    The month brought tragedy, also. On the 21st, six miles north of Eads, Colorado, a B-24 carrying Crew #1 of the 852nd Squadron came out of a cloud nose high, stalled, fell off in a left spiral and the pilot never regained control. Two gunners got out, but four officers and three enlisted men did not. A second practice mission on the same day gave 16 crews a realistic taste of things to come when a gaggle of P-47s jumped the formation near Grand Island, Nebraska. For a half hour the Thunderbolts really gave the Libs a working over. Many of the crews had never seen a fighter from the air before and came away duly impressed. A week later another mission was reduced to somewhat of a shambles when the 491st B-24s were "attacked" near Amarillo, Texas, by a flight of B-26s. No claims by either side came out of the melee that followed, but a good time was had by all.

    March brought a long-awaited moment. On the 2nd, the Group's first flyaway B-24 came in and at last the 491st had an aircraft it could really call its own. Number 42-110146 was delivered from the Tucson Modification Center with 11.5 hours flying time recorded. By the end of the month, 42 more had arrived.

    March also saw some departures. Because of space and weight limitations of the B-24s that would be flown overseas, one gunner from each crew was to go by ship. On the 28th, this contingent, under the command of Capt. Leslie R. Willson, left by rail for staging at Topeka. After staging, they were to join another 491st ground detachment at the Port of Embarkation. This second group, which left on 11 April led by Capt. Verle C. Pope, consisted of a varied assortment of technicians, turret specialists, armorers, intelligence clerks, prop specialists, photographers, and others possessing equally esoteric MOS numbers. In addition to the Crew Chiefs (who traveled with the aircraft, replacing the dispossessed gunners) this heterogeneous outfit of 145 men represented the only ground echelon the 491st would take overseas. As will be described, activities were already underway elsewhere to supply the large remainder of the required ground support personnel.
 
Liberators of the 491st fly practice formation in March 1944 at Pueblo army Air Base, Colorado. (Photo-Winston)

    The general level of training of the Group at this time was well above average. As we have seen, most of the original cadre that came to Pueblo had been training and flying together for almost two years. The Blythe crews had already completed combined Phase II and III training in California, and in effect were repeating the same program at Pueblo. However, delays still plagued the 491st. A Preparation for Overseas Movement (POM) flight was judged unsatisfactory because of some straggling in the high altitude formations. And, after the first rush, the flyaways came in slowly and behind schedule. These problems, plus some debate at higher levels as to the Group's ultimate theater of destination, led to at least two postponements of departure date. In the meantime, the boys worked overtime on their formation flying until they had achieved a level of skill that soon would gain for the 491st an enviable reputation - as well as undoubtedly save many of their lives.

Then late in April, the word arrived: "The Flight Echelon, 491st Bomb GP. ...will proceed... to Herington, Kansas, for purpose of staging and processing..." The movement was to be conducted in five flights over the period April 21-25. Lt. Col. Goldenberg led the first flight of 20 aircraft on the 21st, giving the field a polite "fly by" before heading east for Herington. On succeeding days these "fly bys" became faster, lower, and a "hell of a lot more fun" until the last flight's on-the-deck antics led to the unfortunate confrontation by General Longfellow. Continuing that episode in Shy's words, the General "... subjected us to considerable bloodletting. However, in due time and after assuring him that 'the guilty ones would certainly hear from us' we hastily took off, climbed on course and departed - straight, level, and at a very safe altitude. Evidently commitment to a combat zone was adjudged to be adequate punishment, as nothing official followed us to our destination."

Upon arrival at Herington, it was found that Lt. Rock's plane (42-110185) had suffered considerable structural damage. It was left there for repairs and the crew forced to continue their overseas trip via some unglamorous ATC bucket seats. Some "face" was salvaged, however, when the necessary accident report reflected that " ...the gear was raised prematurely on takeoff and turbulent air caused subject aircraft to settle back onto the runway. Only a superb piece of flying by the pilot managed to lift the aircraft into the air and on to Herington..."

The history of the Group's main ground echelon began in England on 5 February 1944. On that day the Commanding General, Second Bomb Division, 8th Air Force, addressed an order to eight of the B-24 Groups under his command which said, in effect: "The air echelons of two B-24 Groups (the other was the 493rd) are presently training in the U. S. and are expected to arrive in England in April. From your present four squadron ground echelons, form a fifth, which will be as strong and efficient as any of your present echelons. After you have done this, send me the rosters of the five and I will pick one to leave your group and join one of the new groups. I may pick the new squadron - and I may not." (Actually he picked only two new squadrons out of the eight formed.) In this manner, the men for the 491st Group's 852nd, 853rd, 854th and 855th Squadrons came respectively from the 93rd, 389th, 446th and 448th Groups. All were formed and chosen by the First of March and on 25 April, the same day the last planes of the air echelon left Pueblo, the men began arriving in force at the new home of the 491st Bomb Group - Metfield, England.

The gunners and ground personnel from Pueblo joined them on 5 May. The two groups traded questions at about an equal ratio - the new arrivals anxious to know about night life in the surrounding neighborhood and the ETO "old hats" asking, more pointedly, "Where are your damn airplanes?"

By this time, the "damn airplanes" were spread out over several thousand miles of the South Atlantic Ferry Route. Herington had been muddy and miserable, but the Group was too excited to care much. Local artists appeared and, for five dollars and up, took on all commissions to provide the 491st planes with appropriate individual insignia. These ran pretty heavily to the usual unclad females with appropriate captions.

The crews were issued both cottons and woolens, thus giving no firm indication of final destination. Betting pools, however, were organized to cover every eventuality.

From Herington the planes went to Morrison Field (West Palm Beach, Florida) where they received their first 100 hour inspection. "It was at Morrison also where we had to put more unsung artists to work painting panties and/or bras on all the young ladies on the ships, as the ATC had some prudish rules. Spoiled some great pictures, too..." (Strauss).

The planes left Morrison singly and at night. One hour after takeoff each pilot was permitted to open the secret orders for his crew and it was only then they knew for sure they were headed for England and the Eighth. Waller Field, Trinidad, was the first stop. Then came Belem and Fortaleza (or Natal, where some stopped as an alternate to Fortaleza). Here the crews emptied the Post PX, the most popular purchase being leather sand boots. These later became a mark of distinction in the 491st, serving to identify the wearer as an "original" rather than a replacement.

The hop across the Atlantic began in early morning, with the planes still flying singly. Destination was Dakar, where everyone was just a little shook by the noise and vibration when they landed on a pierced-steel plank runway for the first time. Engines covered against sand and dust, the crews slept in tents or in their planes under generous portions of mosquito netting.

The next leg, to Marrakech, French West Morocco, provided some excitement. Toward the very end of the flight were the Atlas Mountains, some of which rise to nearly 14,000 feet. To avoid the climb, the briefed route led through a handy pass that was supposed to be at around 8000'. Arriving at the range after dark, however, one aircraft after another flew up 'passes' that turned out to be blind alleys.

One pilot who wasn't worried about the route, though, was 1st Lt. Charles Getz in 42-110186. His navigator (2nd Lt. Ken W. Plummer), though young, had graduated first in his class and Getz had purposely obtained him for his crew via a close friendship with the Assignment Officer. In fact, things had gone so well on the trip thus far that the crew had broken out some long black cigars purchased in Brazil and were really enjoying the trip. "Every so often, Ken would stick his head up in the astrodome, grin, and wave that stogie at me. Then his appearances got fewer and farther between until we realized it was his first cigar. Flying over the Sahara, the only green thing we could see was poor Ken. He was so sick that he couldn't even pick up his octant." Best-laid plans thwarted, Getz went up to 18,000 and Plummer gave up cigars. (But retained his ability. He finished the war as Sq. Navigator of the 852nd.) Fortunately, all of the other crews were able to avoid the mountains, although very few, if any, ever found that 8000' pass.

The flight from Marrakech to England - though made at night and under combat condition - was uneventful and after breakfast at Land's End, the planes flew the base leg to Station 366, Metfield. The first aircraft arrived on 15 May and the last on the 30th. Other than Rock's plane, which rejoined the Group later, no aircraft were lost or seriously damaged on the trip over.

Those last days of May 1944 were probably the busiest any of the men ever spent. There were indoctrination lectures on every conceivable subject - beginning at 0800 and often lasting far into the night. Battle stations were assigned and air raid alarms were forever interrupting the training schedule. Then there were the practice missions - learning "how they do it in the Eighth" (which turned out to be quite different from how they did it in Pueblo, Colorado).

While these problems were no different from those that faced every newly-arrived group, the 491st did have some that were fairly unique. In the ground echelon, for example, the experienced personnel that had been drawn from the other ETO groups had had many months in the theater and rather naturally expected to run the ground show; while the small detachment of like ratings that had trained with the air echelon had similar feelings. "When the ground boys from the States came over to set up shop, the clash that resulted was more or less inevitable... and much bitterness was the result." Another split personality situation existed between administrative men and the operational men. "Again, this was due to the fact that they were thrust together in the ETO entirely unknown to each other, having no previous chance to form a basis of cooperation or relative standard of personal evaluation. Even the most inexperienced eye could observe the existence of two distinct cliques and the hesitancy with which they dealt with each other."

Time was the medicine needed to heal these divisions within the 491st, but time was in extremely short supply. The Group, scheduled to go operational on 10 June, was under heavy pressure to beat that date if at all possible because of the impending invasion of Europe.

Goldenberg, seemingly able to go without any sleep at all, met the challenge head-on. As mentioned above, the last aircraft arrived at Metfield on 30 May. Just three days later, on the second of June and eight days ahead of schedule, the 491st flew its first combat mission.
 

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