Ringmasters

By Allan G. Blue (Summer, 1964)

A History of the 491st Bombardment Group (H)



PART II  •  June, 1944 - First Missions


 At this point it might be well to note that the 491st started its combat tour just as the European Strategic Air Offensive (as well as the ground war) was entering a new phase. The campaign against the German aircraft industry, previously of top priority, was being replaced, temporarily by tactical support of the invasion and then by the campaigns against such targets as oil, nitrogen and transportation, that carried the promise of decisive results against the German economy. Although there would still be days of maximum enemy fighter reaction (as the 491st would learn to its sorrow), the Luftwaffe had lost air superiority over the continent, and beginning in June 1944 and every month thereafter, flak rather than fighters, was the number one enemy of the heavies. The basic mission, however, was far from completed. Less than 25% of the bomb tonnage that would be eventually dropped on Europe by the Eighth Air Force had so far been delivered.

In the early morning of 2 June 1944 the regular procedure for a practice mission was initiated. The teletype came down with complete data covering a simulated attack on an English town, crews were thoroughly briefed and then told to stand by for takeoff shortly after noon. However, at approximately 1100 the Tanoy announced that the mission briefed earlier was scrubbed and crews standing by were to report at 1300 for another briefing. Nobody really believed it but the rumor spread anyway _ first combat! It was confirmed at the briefing, an extremely hurried affair in contrast to the leisurely pre-practice mission sessions. Target: Bretigny Air Field, on the southern edge of Paris.
 
The briefing for the group's first mission. At left in second row is Major Parmele while Lt. Col. Goldenberg is at right in front row. (Photo-USAF) Following the 491st's first mission, crew members await their turn to be de-briefed by the Group's intelligence officer.  (Photo-USAF)

Meanwhile the ground men sweated over a complete change of bomb load without the benefit of electrical bomb hoists. Each squadron was supposed to have four but none had been given to the Group as yet. Quartermaster was informed that 450 flak helmets were required and were to be obtained "by whatever means at your disposal." (They came up with them.) Confusion, to coin a phrase, reigned _ but 36 aircraft eventually got off and, after a "fair to poor" Group assembly, tacked onto the high right of 41 B-24s of the 489th and headed for occupied Europe via Selsey Bill. Lt. Col. Jack Merrell, Deputy CO, led the 491st.

In the analytical language of the 8th AF Daily Summary the mission was reported as follows:

"In the afternoon, 242 B17s and 77 B-24s were dispatched against six railway targets in the Paris area and Bretigny Air Field... Of the 77 B-24s dispatched against Bretigny, 13 bombed the primary, the remainder being hindered on their bomb run by cloud and ground haze. Thirty-nine tons of 2000 lb. GP were dropped on Bretigny A/F from 17,000 feet with fair results. The remaining B-24s attacked two airfields; 47 A/C dropped 140 tons of GP on Creil with fair results and 14 A/C dropped 44 tons GP on Villenauve (sic) A/F with unobserved results. Five B-24s were lost to moderate-to-intense, accurate flak over targets and two more crash landed in England. In addition, 58 B-24s suffered minor damage and one major damage. There was no enemy A/C opposition and 52 P-51s and 48 P-38s provided escort. They reported an uneventful mission without claims or losses."

To the green crews of the 491st it was a little less impersonal.

1st Lt. Bill Evans’ crew was just a little uneasy about flying the "first one" in one of the Group’s recently acquired B-24Hs (42-95310) while their own J, the LUCKY BUCK, was out for repairs. Lt. Russell E. Tickner, a bombardier, was awed at the sight of the massed invasion shipping that crowded the Southern English coast. First Lts. Getz and Hogentogler shared the apprehension that accompanies any adventure into the unknown _ sharpened a bit, perhaps, by the fact that each of these 852nd Sq. first pilots was 19 years old.

Sgt. Edward J. Freil, a nose gunner, couldn’t get over how green and utterly peaceful the shores of France looked as the mission approached them. However, the peace was soon broken by some light and inaccurate flak. At the same time some escorting Lightnings made a pass over the B-24s of the 855th Squadron. "I heard a hell of a bang and told the top turret gunner to hold his fire _ those were P-38s. I was a little embarrassed when he said he hadn’t fired anything _ what I was hearing was the sound of the flak popping around us." (Shy)


The mission had hit the French coast three minutes early but made the first CP right on the button. However, at that point things came a little unglued. The leading 489th Group elected to ignore the briefed dogleg route to the target, located on the southern edge of Paris, and bored straight in through the flak the original route had been chosen to avoid. This change in plan succeeded in losing the 854th Squadron of the 49lst, of which more later.

Leaving the IP the 49lst "tightened it right up," rolled up the bomb bay doors, and headed straight and level for the primary at 19,000 feet. The flak was very heavy.

"We were #2 position in the low squadron — Lt. Evans was #6 off our right wing. We had fallen into position for the bomb run and at that particular moment I looked over at Evans and gave him a wave of the hand. Exactly then, I saw a burst of flak completely blow the #1 engine from its nacelle. The #2 engine also seemed to be hit but kept running..." (Stahl)

"We were flying #5 position on Evans’ right wing. I saw the ship peel off and down, coming very close to the low element behind us and missing them only because they went into a very steep dive. The #1 engine had been shot away and there was just a ball of intense fire in its place..." (Jennings)

"We were lead ship in the low element. All of a sudden my copilot jammed the wheel all the way forward and as I went ‘up against the belt’ I saw Evans’ plane slide over the top of the windows above my head. He was burning and couldn’t have missed us by more than a few feet. We pulled up and continued our bomb run..." (Getz)

The low squadron of the 489th dropped on the primary, Bretigny, but the ground haze was so thick the remaining force elected to try the secondary, Creil A/F, located north of Paris. Again deviating from the briefed route, which involved going around the city to avoid the flak, the 489th headed directly for Creil by way of the Arch de Triumphe.

Meanwhile, the 854th Sq., led by 1st Lt. William M. Long, came down the run from the IP all alone. The lead bombardier got a good visual on Bretigny through the haze and the rest toggled on his drop.

Bombing at Creil for the main force was fair and the 489th headed for home _ again by the most direct route. Unfortunately this took the formation over Beauvais, Rouen and Dieppe, and through a great deal of additional flak. One by one, four B-24s of the 489th were picked off and nearly every other plane in the formation was damaged to some degree. Nor was it quite over when the Group arrived at Metfield _ landings had to be accomplished in darkness and halfway through the operation a runway change became necessary. After some anxious moments when it seemed as if every airborne B-24 was heading for the same piece of sky, everybody got down safely.

The usual telegrams came in. General Doolittle (8th AF) considered it "...noteworthy that your initial mission was flown eight days prior to your scheduled operational date." General Hodges (2nd BD) congratulated the ordnance and armament section on the "...very great number and weight of bombs moved in a relatively short time."

However, Col. Dent, 95th Bomb Wing CO, probably summed it up best: "Congratulations on the completion of mission #l. In spite of short notice, inadequate briefing time, change of bomb load and a night return, your organization accomplished its mission in a commendable manner. The ingenuity and determination exhibited today, when coupled with outstanding formation flying and well aimed bomb patterns, will make your unit well qualified to take part in future attacks on the enemy."

All things considered, it wasn’t a bad start for the 491st. However, there were a few afterthoughts. It was discovered that the 854th hadn’t dropped on Bretigny at all _ the airfield they had spotted through the undercast was Villeneuve, north of the assigned primary and within the confines of Paris. Lt. Long and the 49lst brass were called up to Wing Headquarters at Halesworth to explain why the 854th had ignored orders not to drop on any target adjacent to the built-up areas. (This problem sort of evaporated when a strike photo arrived showing that the Squadron had clobbered the target without a single bomb falling outside the confines of the field.)

Then there was the fact that one crew was MIA _ and the sobering thought that there would be many more in the months to come. Lt. Evans’ plane had last been seen far below the formation trailing smoke and obviously in serious trouble _ but its eventual fate was unknown.

Actually, the flak burst that had blown the #1 engine off Evans’ Liberator also shattered the cockpit glass and stunned the pilot. The plane dropped about 3,000 feet before he regained control, and there the flak really zeroed in. A second hit knocked out the #2 engine, a third blasted away part of one rudder and two more holed the plane knocking out the intercom and severing the rudder and elevator controls. A few minutes later #3 ran away and wouldn’t feather. The shattered B-24 struggled over Paris at 130 mph on one good engine, three tons of bombs still poised over the open bomb bay doors. (All crews were briefed not to salvo bombs over France.) Losing altitude fast, it became evident that there wasn’t a chance the plane could make it and Evans rang the bailout bell about 15 miles north of the city. All got out including Evans, who discovered at the last moment that his chute had come open inside the plane. "I saw shroud lines blowing all over the place and figured somebody was hung up. Then I saw they were coming out of my own chute pack. I grabbed as many as I could and just fell out the bomb bay _ luckily they all pulled clear."

All were subjected to German fire from the ground but only one, the ball gunner, was hit. Pvt. Raymond G. LeMay was dead before he touched the ground _ his body nearly cut in two by machine guns. He was the first man to be killed in action with the 49lst. The navigator, 2nd Lt. Malcolm L. Blue, was killed in landing after his chute had been partly burned by incendiaries. Of the remaining eight, four were captured and four were able to escape via the underground. By a coincidence the plane crashed and blew up on the German airfield at Beaumont-sur-Oise _ a target that had just been attacked by 12 B-17s on the same mission.

The Group’s second mission was on 4 June. Considerable difficulty was again experienced in getting the Group assembled and in the process 1st Lt. Clifford R. Galley in SACK RAT (44-40206) went into a high speed stall and crashed near Sizewell, killing all on board. Galley had just joined the 49lst as a lead pilot and had 26 combat missions. Efforts to assemble in briefed formation were finally abandoned and the pilots improvised a new one on their own. Bombing orders stipulated that bombs were to be dropped only on the leading Pathfinder A/C (supplied from outside the Group) and all hands were pretty disgusted when the PFF crew missed badly and the 49lst had to salvo into their error. The Germans fired a few rockets from the ground at the formation with no effect.

Mission number three showed little progress on the assembly problem, as the following quotations bring out:

"LEADER’S REPORT: (PARMELE) LED 95TH WING, THIRD WING IN DIVISION...ASSEMBLY POOR. LEAD GROUP, 49lST, SLOW IN FORMING AND LEFT BUNCHER EIGHT 18 MINUTES LATE..."

"LEADER’S REPORT: (SHY) ASSEMBLY POOR. ROUTE POOR TO IP, GOOD TO TARGET. MANEUVER AT IP GOOD. NO RALLY, ROUTE OUT AS BRIEFED. PLENTY OF ASSEMBLY WORK NEEDED."

One aircraft, TENDERFOOT (44-40243, 1st Lt. Alfred Moussette), was lost to flak over the target.
 
 
Metfield lineup
Like a parade of elephants, B-24s of the 491st line up on the perimiter track at Metfield before a mission. (Photo-Winston)

D-Day dawned early for the 49lst — CQ’s woke the crews at 0030 for briefing. The frustrations of the ensuing hours are perhaps best described by quoting the diary of a participating EM:

"At the war room everything was in a state of confusion. For the first time MP’s were stationed at the doors checking everybody. Inside, the briefing officers had covered the target map with a sheet and a guard was there to dissuade peekers. After a while Col. Goldenberg came in and walked briskly up to the platform. The room grew really quiet, and he stood there for a minute looking at us. His eyes were tired, he was unshaven, and his clothes appeared to have been slept in. The men loved him, and when he spoke, the affection he had for ‘his boys’ was uncontrolled. ‘Gentlemen, a day you will be able to tell your children and grandchildren about: D-Day. Time is short so all I have to say is good luck and give ‘em hell.’ He walked from the room and out the door of the pilots’ briefing room, a tired man with the lines of responsibility plainly etched upon his face.

"The room was silent for a moment... we had a warm feeling of being ‘in on the big one’... But as luck would have it the target was obscure and the Group had to return without dropping rather than chance hitting our own troops. The men were bitter upon return, freely cussing the fates that had deprived them of their opportunity. A second mission to the same target in the afternoon didn’t fare much better..."

The mission the next day provided a new wrinkle - the releasing gear in the bomb racks didn’t get along with the bomb loading of 250 lb. clusters. Twenty-eight hung up over the target and some of these fell through bomb bay doors on the trip home. As a result, four of the bombs were accidentally dropped northwest of London and four more in Portland Harbor.

The mission of 8 June is described in another diary quote, this time from a First Sgt. in the 853rd:

"Bad start today. I woke 14 crews at 2 a.m. Five were stood down. A sergeant on Christian’s crew shot himself while on guard about 2 a.m. Christian was stood down. While leaving his ship idling a gunner from Snow’s crew walked into one of the props and was instantly killed. I feel uneasy about today’s mission but I hope I’m wrong. As I write, it is 6 a.m. and I’m off to breakfast.

"8:15 - Lt. Sharp’s LUCKY PENNY (42-110169) lost an engine on takeoff and after Sharp tried desperately to keep airborne he dragged one wing and crashed on the field. He blew up like a firecracker. Two of his four 1000-pound bombs exploded and played hell with several B-24s parked nearby. Sharp, Rowan, Foster, Schopa, Buchanan, Rudolph, Jones, Frack, and Datthyn all got the black ring and they can’t even find their parts. One hell of a mess."

Forming trouble was again experienced on this mission when assembly was attempted above 24,000 feet with contrails. "The formation was all screwed up and then, when we reached the target, we made three distinct runs without dropping. The PFF ship messed up the mission unforgivably..."

To add to the confusion, the Germans were having a field day on the radio. They jammed Buncher Eight and transmitted from the continent on the same frequency, causing quite a few planes to become completely disoriented. One crew (1st Lt. James "Paddy" Ormsby), thinking they were over England, let down through the undercast at 5,000 feet and found instead a very hot reception from enemy guns on the French coast. Luckily, neither PADDY’S WAGON nor its occupants suffered any serious damage.

Weather kept the entire Eighth on the ground on 9 June, but the following day the 491st went to Conches Air Field in France after another futile attempt to effect an orderly assembly at 25,000 feet with contrails. The next day the Group flew its second "double" with a morning mission to Creil A/F and an afternoon go at Porcares Bridge. The existing string of five missions without losses was broken when 42-95301, flown by Lt. Warren C. Moore, lost two engines to flak over Creil and Moore had to ditch it in the Channel. He received a DFC for his excellent handling of the aircraft. The comments of the Lead Navigator on the mission, however, made it clear that the 491st still had not licked its primary problem:

"GROUP DID NOT ASSEMBLE AS SCHEDULED. LEAD SHIP NOT IN EVIDENCE. NEITHER WAS ANY PROPER FORMATION IN EVIDENCE. PILOT ERROR OR IMPROPER PROCEDURE COULD BE THE ONLY ANSWER..."

Probably it was a little of both. The pilots were being asked to form at higher altitudes than they had ever done in practice and with more heavily loaded planes. To make matters worse every B-24, including the elusive lead plane, seemed to look alike when three dozen or more aircraft were all milling around at altitude looking for a point of beginning.

The nature of the problem had already suggested its own solution, however, and on the mission of 12 June the LIL’ GRAMPER made her debut. She was an old B-24D painted in orange with blue polka dots, extremely war weary but highly visible. Taking over as Assembly Aircraft, the aging GRAMPER led her younger charges through a lecture-perfect assembly on her first time out. The same mission also saw the bomb bays full of frag clusters behave and fall on the target instead of England. Rockets fired at the formation again were ineffective and there were no losses. Most important, however, the chronic assembly problem stayed licked for good. It had taken nine days, nine missions and the LIL’ GRAMPER to do it. One is tempted to compare this statistic with the fact that the Group went operational eight days ahead of schedule. With less than all of the problems (let alone their solutions) identified.

LIL' GRAMPER Formation plane
 The Little Gramper
THE LITTLE GRAMPER, the orange with blue polka dot Liberator which solved the Group's forming problems. (Winston) THE LITTLE GRAMPER was later scrapped, replaced by RAGE IN HEAVEN. (Photo-Godshall)

The 491st clicked off 18 missions in the next 18 days, eight of them NO-BALLS against the V-1 launching site complex. No mission was without incident, but several deserve mention.

On the 15th, UNINVITED (44-40124, 1st Lt. William L. Stokley) was holed badly by flak over St. Cyr and gunner Leondis O'Bryant caught a fragment directly in the face. Making his way toward the flight deck, he found the engineer and radioman both unconscious, their oxygen masks blown off. Despite his own injuries, which included the loss of one eye, O'Bryant put his own mask on one of the men, located walk-around bottles for the other man and himself, and stayed with them until they revived. In spite of the sieve-like condition of UNINVITED (the men later counted over 300 holes in the plane) Stokley brought it home and down without further injury to any of the crew

Uninvited
 Metfield tower
 "Lt. Stokley did a masterful job in bringing UNINVITED in with no flaps and no brakes on June 15th. The crew tried 'chutes for brakes without too much success..." Sgt's diary on parachute- assisted landing. (Winston) Sweating out a return, Parmele, Merrell, Goldenberg, Goff, and Shy watch landing operations from the upper deck of the Metfield tower. (Photo-USAF)

Both 1st Lt. James C. McKeown and his B-24 were seriously mauled by flak on the same mission. McKeown, badly hit in the ankles and groin and bleeding profusely, was laid out on the flight deck and given what aid the crew could accomplish, including several injections of morphine, while the co-pilot, Lt. Bob McIntyre, took over and brought the Liberator home on three engines. Arriving over the base, McIntyre found he would have to land the crippled aircraft in a strong cross wind -- something he had never done before. The first pass was unsuccessful -- at which point McKeown got up off the floor and, in spite of a serious loss of blood and the intense pain in his ankles brought about by the strong rudder pedal pressures required, landed the plane safely. McIntyre claimed later that his pilot couldn't wait to get down to collect his Purple Heart while McKeown (who was actually awarded the Silver Star) claimed he was afraid if they stayed airborne any longer the crew would give him more morphine -- and, according to Mac, a needle in the hands of a nervous gunner was as bad as the flak.

There were two missions on the 20th, and the flak was "the heaviest most of the guys have seen yet." HEAVENLY BODY (42-110155, 1st Lt. Dudley E. Friday) was hit by a shell that came up through the flight deck and went out the top of the fuselage, taking the radio operator’s seat with it and leaving a hole nearly two feet in diameter. Fortunately the shell didn't burst and no one was injured. First Lt. Charles Stevens' crew in 42-95171 was not so lucky. One burst of flak shot away the entire nose section, instantly killing the navigator, Lt. Harold R. Meng, and the Bombardier, Lt. William F. Weck. The plane left the target area with two engines gone, a third was lost over the Channel and the remaining engine was losing power as Stevens brought the wreck in.

With the nose completely blown off by a burst of flak on 20 June1944, this Liberator made it back to England, where Lt. Stevens, pilot, brought it in for a one engine crash landing on the beach near Dover.
 nonose.jpg
 closeup

"Stevens made a magnificent one-engine crash landing on the beach near Dover, but Fulbright (S/Sgt. Thomas E. Fulbright) and Peak (S/Sgt. Bernard E. Peak) jumped before the landing and delayed their chutes too long. Both were instantly killed. Meng's body blew right out of the ship when the flak hit. Stevens came back yesterday, is taking it hard. Larry Silk (S/Sgt. Lawrence J. Silk) on Strain's crew got hit on the same mission and Jarrett (Sgt. Robert N. Jarrett), tail gunner with Lt. Boyd in JAIL BAIT, was killed by a hunk of flak that cut his spine in two. It's one hell of a war." (First Sgt's diary)

With everyone properly in formation, thirteen 491st Liberators head out across the channel for the morning mission of 24 June 1944. (Photo - Winston)
 channel

On 25 June the Group returned to Paris and again lost one to the vicious flak over that city. The B-24 (44-40129) flown by 1st Lt. Marvin W. Butler of the 855th took a direct burst in the bomb bay and broke in two just aft of the wing. "The tail section floated down slow and easy like a big box kite," but nobody saw any chutes.

With the missions coming hot and heavy the crews were grabbing sleep and chow whenever they could. Under the circumstances dress had also come to be on the informal side. One afternoon a group of men were in the mess hall grabbing a quick bite when the Passive Defense Officer came in and called their attention to the fact that nobody was wearing his gas mask as required by regulations. During the "discussion" that followed, the PDO was ejected from the building -- only to return a few minutes later and fire a tear gas grenade into the mess hall. Even after 20 years the mention of the incident to those present evokes more hostility than humor. It was a senseless act.

One of several H models acquired just after the group arrived in England, 42-95218 was inadvertantly lettered with composite squadron code, 3X. It should have carried 6X for the 854th Squadron. Lost 21 July 1944.. (Winston)
 854th Squadron 3X

The staff displayed better form in the following incident, quoted from the official Group Narrative: "Another outstanding performance reported by the Quartermaster Corps. One thousand baby-thwarting devices were issued to one amazing individual by the name of Lt. (John S.) Pabst, who made immediate use of the entire 1,000. No, he isn't the world's greatest lover. He is merely a communications man who got the bright idea that these articles would make excellent protective covers for microphones to keep out the English dampness."

Without doubt the June loss that was felt most keenly by the crews occurred, not in the air, but in the chain of command; on the 26th Lt. Col. Goldenberg left the 491st for the 339th Fighter Group, It was a great blow to the air echelon who had learned their trade under "Goldy", and these men openly speculated among themselves as to the wisdom, sanity and other qualifications of those responsible for the decision. But the pace of the war was too fast to allow much time for reflection. Without a break in the mission schedule, the new CO, Col. Frederic H. Miller, took over the 491st.

By the end of June the Group could look back on an eventful month with no small amount of satisfaction. The assembly problem had been cured and in the air the Group looked good. The overtime spent on formation flying back at Pueblo was paying off and already the 491st was being credited with flying "the best B-24 formations in the ETO." They had completed 29 missions in 29 days for a total of 895 sorties, more than any other B-24 outfit in the Eighth and exceeded only by three veteran B-17 groups -- the 303rd, 379th and 384th. During the last two weeks of the month the 491st led the Second Bomb Division (all 8th AF B-24 groups) in tonnage of bombs dropped, hours of combat flown, number of sorties per assigned crews, number of sorties per assigned aircraft, lowest loss of aircraft and lowest loss of personnel.

These records had been set in spite of the fact that every other group seemed to have word of the missions hours ahead of the 491st, with the result that the ground men were constantly pushed to the limit to make deadlines. Commenting on the events of the 20th, for example, the Group Narrative states: "Some colonels from Division were down to give the briefing for the morning mission the once over. If anything, they saw a good example of the difficulties our briefing officers have to work under. An afternoon mission was worked up and dished out in rapid fire fashion. Within ten minutes the routes and other briefing matter had to be set up for four different NO-BALL targets."

Bomb loading was still accomplished without the help of the missing electric bomb hoists. Up until the end of June, none were on the field and the laborious process of hoisting bombs mechanically was the necessary substitute. Maintenance and engineering personnel were also doing without much sleep; the TO's for these units had been set up to service 48 B-24s while the 491st had shown up with 72.

However, solutions to these problems were on the way, and toward the end of the month replacement crews began arriving. Some of the "originals" were more than halfway through their tours as June drew to a close.
 
 

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