Ringmasters

By Allan G. Blue (Summer, 1964)

A History of the 491st Bombardment Group (H)



PART III  •  July - October, 1944

With the coming of July, the 491st found itself often going to Germany. Here, the Liberators of the group fly through the flak over Kiel on 6 July. (Winston)
 6 July 1944 - Kiel

July saw a general change in targets from tactical to strategic, and over Germany on the 7th the Group encountered enemy fighters for the first time. The Luftwaffe came off second best, losing two confirmed Me-109s to tail gunner S/Sgt. Robert V. Ruffin in Capt. Long's BACK TO THE SACK (44-40249). In the main, however, the 109s and 190s left the tight 491st formation alone and went after other groups. The 492nd was particularly hard hit, losing one entire squadron, plus others, for a total of 12 B-24s.

On the 11th, Maj. Stephey (853rd CO) led 36 aircraft over Munich and the next day Maj. Strauss (852nd CO) took 45 to the same target. He brought 44 back. The loss, July's first, was 1st Lt. Gordon W. MacDonald. His B-24 (42-51113) was last sighted near Stuttgart with nothing visibly wrong but losing altitude and unable to keep up with the formation. The crew salvoed their bombs but were still dropping at a rate that made the 550 mile return trip to Metfield out of the question. Finally, MacDonald did a 180 and headed for Switzerland. He and his entire crew made it safely and were back with the 491st five months later. On the 13th, one of the June replacement crews, flying the still-injured McKeown's 44-40200, crashed on the return to Metfield. Five were killed, including the pilot, 2nd Lt. Max R. Shea.

Although there was no mission flown on 15 July, that was the date the 491st literally blasted itself into 8th AF prominence. On a sunny Saturday afternoon 1,200 tons of HE and incendiaries blew up in a series of terrific explosions that wrecked the Group bomb dump and rocked the Metfield countryside for miles around.


"Thar she blows!" At left, the Metfield bomb dump explodes on 15 July 1944. At right, General Dolittle stands amidst what was the 491st's bomb dump during his inspection trip on the 17th of July.
(Photo - Allan G. Blue)
Metfield bomb dump explosion Metfield bomb dump explosion

Five lives were lost, although none was from the 491st. The military reverberations were not long in coming -- with Lt. Gen. Doolittle, Maj. Gen. Hodges and Maj. Gen. Kepner heading the inspection committee that showed up on the 17th. Five B-24s, mostly from the 854th, were written off and six others badly mangled. The 491st went non-operational for three days while they put things back together again.

The Group contributed 36 of the 1,068 heavy bombers dispatched against southern Germany on 21 July. The results were not very satisfactory. The Primary was covered by 10/10 clouds and the squadrons were hard pressed to locate TO's through the undercast. In addition, the Group lost four aircraft. 2nd Lt. Stanley V. Scott took 42-95218 into Swiss territory with a fire in #2 and an escort of nine P-38s. He crash landed near Dubendorf without injury to any of the crew.

2nd Lt. Walt Kales in LUCKY BUCK (42-110158) also found himself with a burning engine deep in Germany. After eluding some fighters by taking advantage of cloud cover at 12,000 feet, he and copilot 2nd Lt. Larry Walker nursed the plane westward for 45 minutes. The burning #1 would not feather and eventually the available supplies of gas and altitude became alarmingly low. By then the engine and part of the left wing were glowing red and the LUCKY BUCK seemed to be rapidly vibrating to pieces. "You only needed to take one look at the pilot -- or co-pilot for that matter -- to know this was it. They looked like they weren't going to be able to hang on to it for another minute. I thought when they let go of those controls the ship was going to do a slow roll." (Cook)

"I think we set a new record for getting out. Walker spilled his 'chute inside the plane (An experience shared by Lt. Evans, as previously described. By coincidence, Walker’s escape was from Evans’ original aircraft.) and he and Kales didn't finally get clear until around 1500 feet. Nine men were never so glad to get out of one B-24." (Grant)

Loss number three was 41-28987, here described by the pilot, 2nd Lt. Earl W. Newton. "We flew into contrails and overcast near Stuttgart. Upon breaking into the clear, I found our group leader and several other ships reforming. We ended up in lower three position and continued on to the target with about enough ships to make a squadron. Then the flak hit us and our #2 failed. The formation was holding 180 mph indicated and even by dropping our bombs and advancing power we were unable to keep up. I turned and headed for home, dropping down a few hundred feet into the clouds. We threw out everything we could but then lost #3. At that point we headed for Switzerland. In about two minutes #l failed. I ordered the crew to bail out and just as I did so #4 ran away. Believe me, I had one hell of a heavy glider on my hands at that point." All of the crew except engineer S/Sgt. John R. Miller survived the bailout to become POWs.

In the final loss of the day, ten men abandoned 42-51218 over the coast of England. Pilot 1st. Lt. Sig Liebfeld had brought a badly battered B-24 and his crew a long way in an attempt to get home. He alone did not survive; he drowned in the channel, 200 yards from safety, and was awarded a Silver Star posthumously.

On the 24th and the 25th the 491st took part in the well known close support missions that were to pave the way for the breakout at St. Lo. On the first day, because of poor visibility, the Group did not drop and thus avoided the unfortunate "short bombing" results experienced by some of the other groups. When the mission was successfully flown the following day, the crews to a man felt they had really accomplished something. The sense of satisfaction in seeing the bombs hit from only 12,000 feet and the knowledge that they were saving American lives seemed to make this mission the most worthwhile they had yet flown.

Two Liberators of the 852nd Squadron over St. Lo on 25 July 1944 during the attack which preceded the breakout that sent Allied forces racing across France and the Germans back into Germany. (Photo - Winston)
 25 July 1944 - St. Lo

Toward the end of July, in an effort to improve Liberator performance, all ball turrets were ordered removed from 8th AF B-24s. The turrets were considered of little value against German fighter tactics at the time, and the weight reduction did make the planes fly better. The next mission, however, caused some soul searching at Group and Wing Headquarters.

"Our formation was steaming along on top of an overcast when suddenly something came up through the clouds like a rocket, passed directly between two of our squadrons, and went out of sight going straight up. It scared the daylights out of us and it must have been a pretty wild ride for the German aboard, too. No one fired a shot -- we had no idea what it was at the time." (Shy) It was, of course, an Me 163. The exact date of this encounter is uncertain, but has been narrowed to the period 24-29 July and may represent the first sighting of this German rocket powered aircraft by 8th AF B-24s.

The first two weeks of August 1944 kept the pressure on with 13 missions in 14 days. On the 5th the 491st led the Second Air Division (formerly Second Bomb Division) for the first time; target Brunswick, results very good. Losses during the month continued at a low rate. On the 3rd, 2nd Lt. Marshall W. Field and his crew, July replacements, were shot down by flak over France in 44-40241. The 11th saw 42-10492 (1st Lt. Charles H. Christian) take a direct hit between the #3 and #4 engines just at bombs away over Saarbrucken. "The prop of number four was blown off. Number three started smoking and was seen to feather later. Ship was under control when last seen but losing altitude and air speed." (Hershey) An interesting example of wishful hoping is contained in the following statement taken from another pilot at interrogation: "At 1508 hours nine objects were seen to drop out of Lt. Christian's aircraft but we did not actually see any open chutes." In fact, all of the crew rode the plane down and Christian brought them in without injury near Nantua, France.

The Group lost an old friend on the 13th -- Lt. Rock and his crew left 42-50572 with two engines aflame over Le Havre. All survived but, of course, it wasn't known at the time. It was the crew's 30th mission.

Col. Miller led the Group on the 14th, which turned out to be the last mission the 491st was to fly from Metfield. His Air Commander's Report is an interesting example of how doctrine was still under active development:

LEAD GROUP IN WING - SECOND WING IN DIVISION - GOOD ASSEMBLY - ROUTE IN AS BRIEFED - EXCELLENT RESULTS - EXCELLENT RALLY - ROUTE OUT AS BRIEFED - LIGHT ACCURATE AA FIRE AT CHALON - COMMENTS: SUGGEST CONSIDERATION BE GIVEN TO ROUTING OVER PARTS OF CONTINENT NOW HELD BY ALLIED FORCES - WOULD HAVE SAVED ABOUT 350 TO 400 MILES OF EXPOSURE TO FLAK TODAY - FLIGHT FORM CALLED FOR 12000' AT END OF DAL AND 21000' ON ENTERING ENEMY COAST - IMPOSSIBLE TO ACCOMPLISH IN 29 MIN ALLOWED IN FLIGHT PLAN IF 2 BD DOCTRINE IS ADHERED TO 100% - CHAFF REQUIRED ON PART OF ROUTE COMING OUT BUT NOT ON SAME SECTION OF ROUTE GOING IN - THIS DOES NOT APPEAR TO BE SENSIBLE - PRACTICE OF HAVING GROUP MAKE A 180 DEGREE RIGHT TURN TO UNCOVER AND BOMB IS POOR FOR UNCOVERING AND SPACING - REASON IS, LOW LEFT, WHO IS SECOND TO UNCOVER IS ALWAYS BEHIND AS A RESULT OF BEING ON OUTSIDE OF THE TURN - THIS DELAYS LOW AND CAUSES EXCESSIVE LAG INTERVAL BETWEEN LEAD AND LOW AND EXCESSIVELY SHORT INTERVAL BETWEEN LOW AND HIGH - ONLY THING HIGH CAN DO IS LAY BACK IN TURN, OR ESS - MANEUVER SHOULD BE A TURN TO LEFT WHICH WILL AUTOMATICALLY TEND TO SPACE UNITS.

Meanwhile things had not gone well for the 492nd Group, which had gone operational on 11 May. Flying out of North Pickenham as a member of the 14th Bomb Wing, the 492nd, for reasons not germane to this account, became a favorite target for the Germans who knocked down eight 492nd B-24s on 19 May, fourteen on the 20 June mission to Politz and, as mentioned earlier, twelve on 7 July. In less than three months, in fact, 492nd losses had reached a startling total of nearly 60 aircraft -- a rate that could not be continued.

The ill-fated 492nd was taken off operations and, in reality, broken up. The designation 492nd was assumed by a provisional group, the 801st, which continued to operate as a special unit engaged in night operations over Europe -- the so-called CARPETBAGGER missions.

To replace the 492nd, the nod fell to the 491st. On 15 August the latter packed up bag and baggage and by nightfall the move from Metfield was practically complete. The next two days were spent getting things straightened out and on the 18th the Group flew its first mission from North Pickenham. (The 489th, while it remained at Halesworth, was transferred to the 20th Bomb Wing, thus putting the 95th BW out of the bombing business. The 489th returned to the States in November 1944 for conversion to B-29s.)

The business of tail markings suddenly assumed greater-than-normal significance to the 491st at this point. The 14th Wing featured bare metal (and silver fabric) fins with black stripes, vertical for the 44th and horizontal for the 392nd. It was assumed the 491st would adopt the diagonal black stripe formerly assigned to the 492nd. To the 491st crews, however, who were well aware of the reputation that particular insignia enjoyed with the Luftwaffe, this seemed an unnecessary bow to conformity. Without official action or protest, the green tails the 491st had donned at Metfield remained until the Germans got the word on the reorganization.

The other groups of the 14th Bomb Wing were ETO veterans, the 44th having gone operational in November of 1942 and the 392nd in September 1943. The Wing was commanded by Brig. Gen. Leon Johnson of Ploesti fame. The men of the 491st felt they had hit the big time at last and were eager to demonstrate their prowess alongside the 44th and 392nd.

Three missions later they got their chance -- on 25 August the 491st was picked to lead the entire 8th Air Force into Germany. It was a perfect mission all the way. The navigation was on the nose and the bombing nearly perfect with the lead squadron putting 75% within 2000' of the MPI, the high squadron doing even better, and the low squadron placing an amazing 100% within 500 feet. Some Me 109s nosed around shortly before the target but again ignored the 491st and went after some of the groups further back. The mission was led by Lt. Col. Merrell.

The Group posted only one crew MIA during August operations at North Pick, and the loss, on the 24th, did not appear to be without hope for the ultimate safety of 2nd Lt. Norman J. Rogers and his crew. WHAM BAM (42-110107) dropped out of formation 15 miles north of Hanover with one engine smoking and feathered but under good control, and it seemed to be a good bet that its occupants would sweat out the rest of the war as POWs. On the ground, however, things took an ugly turn. Rogers and five others were beaten to death by a civilian mob and their bodies dumped in a cemetery at Russelheim. Two other crewmen were left for dead with them but survived and were later made prisoners.


WHAM BAM over Hanover on 24 August wth a fire in number one. Crew later bailed out; six were murdered by a civilian mob and two left for dead.
(Photos - Winston)
WHAM BAM nose art WHAM BAM WHAM BAM over Hanover on 24 August

Bad weather restricted 8th AF operations during the first seven days of September although the 491st visited Karlsruhe on the 5th. It returned to the same target on the 8th, again without loss. Then it was Saturday, the 9th, and these entries were made in the Control Tower Log:

0400 Briefing.

0800 36 A/C on ops. 264 -K aborted.

0805 Crash 2 miles south of field. All notified.

0830 Notified by Bodney Flight Control that there were 3 survivors from crashed A/C.

0840 Notified by Capt. Barns at Station Hospital that A/C was ours. Survivors were Lt. Warczak (pilot), S/Sgt. Chaves and S/Sgt. Boling. A/C was #489 F. Notified by Watch officer that 489 crashlanded after #1 and #4 caught fire at 900 ft. Survivors escaped through slit in fuselage. Load of incendiaries exploded.

It was the start of a bad week for the 491st. On the 11th the Group had another brush with the Luftwaffe. One aircraft (44-40226, Lt. Cloughley) was listed as MIA but several days later it was learned that MAH AIKIN BACK had managed to make it to an emergency field at Romilly, France with three gunners wounded and extensive battle damage.

The next day it was flak over Misburg. PAPPY'S PERSUADER (44-40144, Lt. Eckard) and LAMSY DIVEY (44-40170, Lt. Sparrow) were hit within 60 seconds of each other, each losing #2 and #3 engines. Both dropped down and back. Three minutes later LAMSY DIVEY went down spinning, carrying all but one of the crew to their deaths. Eckard's plane remained under control and all ten of the crew abandoned her in good order to become POWs.

The Group also lost two the following day, the 13th, when AIN'T BLUFFIN' (44-40246, Lt. Kenney) took a direct flak hit in the #2 engine and fell off to the left and down. As it did so, its left wing pierced the fuselage of TIME'S A-WASTIN' (44-40234). Kenney had absolutely no chance of regaining control of his aircraft but six of the crew, including the pilot and tail gunner, Martin Leibenhaut, a veteran of 76 missions, managed to get clear of the falling plane. All were taken prisoner. The score was worse in TIME'S A-WASTIN'. After stabbing into #234 at about the right waist window, the wing of the other plane ripped back through the fuselage, tearing off most of the tail section. The plane headed straight down. On the flight deck the pilot, 1st Lt. R. C. Wilson, and co-pilot, 1st Lt. Paul W. McCormack, were trapped in their seats -- unable to move against the forces of their falling B-24. Then a moment later TIMES A-WASTIN' blew up and both of them found themselves blown clear by the explosion. One other man, navigator Conrad L. Kantzler, also got free -- he doesn't remember how. All the rest went in with their Liberator.

Four days later, at 1700 hours on 17 September, 40 B-24s came storming over the brow of the hill at North Pick, so low that it looked as if they would take the tops of the trees off. It was a practice mission. The next day the Group flew the actual mission to Eindhoven, Holland.

The 8th AF mission plan called for 28 squadrons of Liberators (252 aircraft) to drop supplies to the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions which had been airlifted behind the German lines the previous day. The drop zones were designated "A", "N", and "W". The 491st would split, with part of the Group leading the 14th Wing to Area "W", and the remaining 491st Libs providing a separate force for the Area "A" drop. The 20th Wing, consisting of the 93rd, 446th, 448th and 489th Groups, provided the Area "N" force. The 20th and 479th Fighter Groups were to provide close support all the way, the 78th and 56th Fighter Groups would operate on anti-flak patrols, while four P-51 Groups would provide area coverage over the drop zones.

The 491st had stood down for four days to practice for the mission. The crews made the most of the legalized buzzing, blowing down haystacks and stampeding cattle from East Suffolk to The Wash. Competition to go was keen among the crews. "A" Flight lead was decided by the flip of a coin, with Capt, Anthony Mitchell outguessing Capt. Shy for the slot. Lt. Charles Griffin, who probably held the record for blowing over more sailboats on The Wash than any other 491st pilot, was turned down because he had completed his tour in early August -- the first member of the Group to do so. He went out and blew over some more in disgust.


Low over N. Pickenham Enroute to Eindhoven
Low over North Pickenham, B-24s of the 491st practice for low level supply mission to Eindhoven. (Winston)
En route to Holland on 18 September 1944, green tailed Liberators fly at a moderate altitude. (Winston)

Briefing was at 0930. Just prior to takeoff a change was received in the withdrawal route altitude -- aircraft were to climb to the base of low clouds instead of coming out on the deck, The wisdom of this change was not apparent to many of the element leaders, who took the suggestion under advisement.

With the Group's DB-7, LADY JOSEPHINE V, up as monitor aircraft, 40 B-24s were airborne by 1327. At 1433, #117 J, which had aborted on the ground, took off to join the formation. Forty-one were now up and ready, and at 1453 the lead aircraft departed the English coast at 1500 feet for the 34 minute flight to Holland.

The formations entered Europe at 1100 feet, which was very close to the optimum range of the German ground fire. Although rated "meager to moderate" in the overall mission report, this small arms fire accounted for six aircraft (none from the 491st) between the coast and the target. The squadrons, flying in trail at 30 second intervals, dropped to 600 feet at the IP and 250 feet or less over the target. Each aircraft carried a dropmaster from one of the Airborne units, and these men supervised the actual dumping of the supplies from the bomb bays and ball turret wells. The accuracy was exceptional, with very few bundles falling outside the assigned areas.

Low over the drop zone filled with gliders, the 491st drops its cargo. FIREBIRD is in foreground. (USAF 55257AC)
 18 September 1944 - Eindhoven

Coming off the targets the 491st planes were still all intact, although small arms fire had killed one crewman and injured several others. The gunners found few targets, for the enemy was using very little tracer ammunition and the crews had been briefed to fire only on enemy troops or gun positions definitely engaging them. The majority of the pilots, having decided to ignore the order to climb, came out on the deck all the way. This proved a wise move, for the 491st suffered less battle damage than the other groups that took the higher road home. Still it was bad enough. Shortly after leaving the drop area, the lead plane of the "A" force (44-40210, Capt. James K. Hunter) caught a burst of flak in the right wing section. With only seconds to work, Hunter (who was considered to be one of the best pilots in the Group) picked his spot and started to bring the Liberator in on its belly. At less than 50 feet, however, the #3 engine burst into flames, the right wing dropped, and was still too low when the plane hit. Hunter actually pulled the plane into the air again after the accompanying photograph was taken, but by then there was no more room. Hunter and eight others were killed as their aircraft demolished itself against the trees and farm buildings shown in the photo. One of the casualties was Capt. Mitchell, who had won the trip -- and lost his life -- on the flip of a coin.


Hunter - Flak
Hunter 210 F- crash crash close-up
Twenty-three Liberators of the 491st ride out some flak during a mission over Germany. Nearest is Hunter in 210 before fatal crash at Eindhoven. (Photo - Winston)
Capt. Jim Hunter's 210 F-, with "A" Flight Leader Mitchell aboard, at the moment of impact after leaving the drop area on the mission to Eindhoven, 18 September 1944. At right, close-up of moment of impact. (Photos - Winston)

Miraculously, one man did survive, S/Sgt. Frank DiPalma. "I was discovered leaving the plane by some Franciscan Brothers, and treated by several doctors in the vicinity. My mind was blank from the time we hit until the 28th of September." Sgt. DiPalma was hidden by his benefactors in a Catholic Church until the British Army liberated the town of Udenhout.

Second Lt. Edward L. Schmitt's aircraft (44-40414) lost an engine but the pilot was able to nurse it into Belgium and onto a friendly airfield. The plane was washed out in the landing but nobody was hurt. Things were a little grim back at North Pick when only 33 returned out of the 41 that had left on the mission. However the reports began coming in about an hour later. Stahl had crashlanded at Watton with very little port stabilizer. Bridges was down at Woodbridge with heavy battle damage; so were Ostrander and Meglish. Schamahorn and his crew were there too, although nobody knew why any of them was alive. The left gear of their Liberator collapsed on landing, and the aircraft wound up on its back and burning. The final score was an improbable and heartening one aircraft MIA. But nobody wanted to do it again right away.


42-95139 - Lt. Stahl low return
42-95139 was scrapped after Lt. Stahl crashlanded on return from Eindhoven mission. (Winston)
This 491st Lib isn't too low on return flight, but what about the aircraft from which picture was taken? (Winston)

On the 26th the 491st led the Second Division, this time to Hamm. The mission was flown at 23,000 feet but the flak was up there, too. First Lt. Francis E. Fuhr, who returned from Eindhoven unscathed, had a burst about twenty feet in front of his plane (44-10500). About three minutes later gas began streaming out of the left wing and soon burst into flames. "We debated putting the ship into a dive to try to put out the fire but before we could do anything the wing snapped right between the two engines" (Pearce). The plane went into a flat spiral. "Just as I was ready to go out the camera hatch, the ship went into a spin. I caught hold of the edges of the open hatch and pulled myself out" (Alleman). An instant later the plane exploded. Three more of the crew were blown to safety, but Fuhr and the rest never got clear. It was the crew's 31st mission.

One more loss -- on the way to Kassel on the 27th -- raised the September total to eight and thus made it the worst month the Group had experienced so far. Second Lt. Harold S. Lew in 42-110186 (which carried the improbable, and grammatically incorrect name of "LE SIMULACRE RENEGAT - L'ESPRIT DES CEUX QUE NOUS ANIMOUS") dropped out near Ostend. The light flak had scored a lucky hit and Lew and crew bid adieu to Ballot Baker. After eluding capture for varying periods, all were rounded up by the Germans

Ballot Baker (nickname from squadron name and aircraft letter) was original plane of Lt. Getz, lost on September 27th with Lt. Lew. (Photo - Winston)
Ballot Baker - Getz  

On October's first mission, 2nd Lt. Dan W. Means and his crew were listed as MIA after their plane (42-95104) went down near Hamm with #1 and #2 smoking. Again, despite the chutes "seen" during interrogation, there was no bailout and all of the crew elected to ride the plane down. The unfortunate results: two POW, seven KIA.

Then came the holiday. For the next 26 missions the 491st seemed to lead a charmed life and not a single crew went into the records as missing in action. Several just made it back to emergency fields on the continent -- including 1st Lt. Raymond C. Toll, who managed to put his badly shot up B-24 down on a Spitfire strip without further damage -- and others were banged around a bit coming into North Pick with less than the minimum amount of engines, hydraulic pressure or gasoline. But the loss-free missions continued and the men felt they were on a winning streak -- really beating the odds. As always, however, the odds never stay beaten forever and in the case of the 491st, the house would collect -- with interest -- in due time.

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