Mission #21 - August 17, 1943
(North African Shuttle)
The 4BW won the shuttle to North Africa because it had been equipped with long-range Tokyo tanks. So far, the Americans' farthest target had been Kassel, 200 miles from the East Anglican bases. Regensburg was 525 miles.
If this plan for the 96th to bomb Regensburg seems rather straight forward, it wasn't. The original concept was for the entire 8th to bomb Schweinfurt. To this end Group Bombardiers had studied the target plans for that city. Lt. Ray MacKinnon, bombardier for Lt. Hartman's crew tells it best:
"For weeks bombardiers and navigators were shown a photo of a town on a river and three essential targets were pointed out. We were even asked to draw a diagram of the town and show the relationship of (three) buildings to natural landmarks so we could pick them out easily on the bomb run. But we were not told the name of the town, or which country it was in, or what those factories produced. Whatever it was, it seemed big, and though I was dreading that target coming up in the near future, when it did come, we'd be ready."
When the early morning briefing was called and the cover was yanked off the wall-map, crews were amazed to find that they were NOT being sent to the target they had studied so minutely! This flash of confusion was immediately replaced by the excitement of the long flight to North Africa and the possibility of fooling the Luftwaffe.
But most of all, it was replaced by a sense of pride. The 96th had been chosen to lead the entire 4BW. And the stern 4BW Commander, Colonel Curtis LeMay, would lead the way in Captain Tom Kenny's Fertile Myrtle III! In 26 missions the 96th had flown lead now and then; but never on such an important mission. The group was about to distinguish itself in the annals of the 8th. Archie Old's insistence on tight formation and instrument flying had paid off. And, being the spirited commander that he was, he determined to go along.
The teleprinter plan was for the Regensburg force of 146 planes to have its leading element, the 96th, cross the coast of Holland at 0830. The 230 plane Schweinfurt force would follow 15 minutes later. The Regensburg force would attract fighter opposition, but would soon fool them by continuing to Africa. Original timing called for almost simultaneous bombing. The 1BW was expected to have a tough time coming home. As the briefing officers anticipated things, the Regensburg people would have to fight their way in and the Schweinfurt people would have to fight their way out.
Planned Shuttle Route
For those who care to examine this famous two-target mission in detail, we have listed the most authoritative books in our bibliography. For now, however, we must keep faith with the 96th's role in the Regensburg raid. Simply know that when the 0530 take-off time arrived, British weather was at its worst. The take-offs were delayed. More so for the Schweinfurt force. It was to prove tragic for them, indeed.
Meanwhile, back at Snetterton, bombs had been loaded and Tokyo tanks had been topped off. The ceiling was only some 1000 feet. A half hour passed. Take off could not be delayed any more for the 4BW . . . not if it was to get to North Africa while there was still daylight. At 0600 they began taking off.
The 1BW was still held back. Because Colonel LeMay as wing commander had insisted that his 4BW pilots practice until they became proficient at bad weather (instrument) take-offs, the 4BW had been released to orbit in the swirling mists. A little earlier Colonel Old had been about to board Fertile Myrtle III, when a staff car arrived from Elvedon Hall. There was LeMay in full gear ready to fly in the lead plane. Old, realizing that he would have to defer to rank, resorted to his colorful pattern of speech and fumed off to commandeer the pilot's seat in Captain Vern Iverson's deputy lead plane, Mischief Maker.
Colonel Old's troubles were not over. Captain Vern Iverson recalls how Mischief Maker's mischief got him on the colonel's black list for a while:
"It seems that a tech-order revision had come out that had something to do with the hydraulic controls on the props. So our engineering officer, Lt. Swanson, was going to do me a favor and fix my plane first. (I didn't find out about this until after the mission.) Anyway, just at the Dutch coast one of my props ran away. I simply could not get it to operate correctly, but I did get it to feather. I then called my wing-man and peeled out of formation for home. Naturally," Iverson recalls with a twinkle, "Archie had a full-fledged case of apoplexy because I didn't consult him. The next morning he called me into his office and gave me a royal chewing. Before he was done, I had become madder than a hornet and when he finally stopped for air, I said 'Sir, if I had it to do all over again, I would do exactly the same thing.' Then I saluted and walked out. That was the last I ever heard about the situation from him."
Vern Iverson led his men on a complete tour of duty. As luck would have it, this turned out to be his only aborted mission. Yet, if they had tried to press on to Regensburg there is little doubt that the 8th would have lost one of its outstanding commanders.
The mix-up in timing had a bad effect on the fighter escort too. They ran out of fuel early because they had been circling around waiting for the bombers. From the Dutch coast on, enemy fighters began their attacks. They had seen our escorts turn back over Eupen. The bombers were on their own. This became more evident beyond Eupen when the Luftwaffe really began to show their nerve. Although the 96th was doing well along with the 388th in the leading combat wing, gunners from both these groups were calling out a steady stream of casualties and drop-outs within the formations behind. (For example, debriefing records show that Captain Jack Ford, who led the low squadron, witnessed the downing of six B-17s and three fighters. Bill Hartman testified to two B-17 downings and Dick Jerger recorded four more. It is most possible that some of these were duplicate sightings.) Although E/A concentrated elsewhere in the bomber stream, some of them did damage to the 96th. Doc Hartman, 337th Flight Surgeon, was making his second of five missions today as an observer aboard Lt. Syder's Fortress.
"As an observer," Sam Hartman writes, "my main problem was to stay out of the way of navigator Larry Godley and bombardier John O'Brien . . . I'll never forget the sensation when we came under fighter attack. The whole ship would shake and shudder. When you get ten .50 calibers going at once -- well, you can't imagine the noise confusion and terror . . . I remember slipping and sliding all over the place on shell casings . . . Believe me, I learned plenty about STRESS! Our top turret gunner, Bob Padbury, vaporized an ME-109 while it was attacking from 11 o'clock high."
By relative measure, the 96th planes were not damaged. One exception, of course, just had to be Captain Joe Bender's latest chalked-up Tarfu. Although a 100 mph tail wind at their 20,000 foot altitude made it difficult for E/A to attack the 96th, some managed to hone in on Tarfu's magnetism for rip-roaring combat. "We had our elevator control cables for the right side of the ship shot away" co-pilot Lew Feldstein writes. "Also, all our rudder control cables and the oxygen system from the pilots' compartment to the tail."
Regensburg: The Target
Pilot Jim Sanders' engineer aboard Rum Boogie, T/S Ellis Savoie, takes up the tale. "Finally at 12:10 we sight the target. That's funny; very little flak. Maybe they don't expect us this far in. Bomb-bay doors coming open. There they go! -- Oh, baby, we parted their hair that time! There she goes, the whole damn works! A beautiful hit. A smackeroo! . . . On our way out now. At the Alps we make a 360 so the back formations can catch up . . ."
Captain John Latham was the lead bombardier and he placed the first bombs smack on the leading edge of the target area and the main assemby buildings much to the delight of Colonel LeMay.
The potential danger from German and Italian fighters haunted the African-bound task force. Unknown to them, the Luftwaffe had been and still was chewing up the 1BW Schweinfurt attackers. Leaving Regensburg in ruins, LeMay's division begin to sweat out other factors on this long flight. Aboard Lt. Snyder's plane, Doc Hartman (like everybody else) relaxes just a tad to enjoy the least leg of the journey.
"After the target," Hartman writes . . . "I was able to enjoy the scenery. Lake Como in Italy was a deep indigo and being hot and sweaty, I felt like diving in. . . . The Alps were spectacular even though we slid through, rather than over them. I loosened my equipment a bit and sunbathed and drowsed in the nose as we passed serenely over the Mediterranean." (Much later, the British artist, Frank Beresford, would immortalize the 96th's passage through the Alps.)
Lt. Howard McClatchey's plane over the Alps. This photo inspired Frank Beresford's famous painting/print.
But up in the lead plane, while LeMay and Tom Kenny expressed satisfaction with the strike, lead radio operator T/S Otis Haslop was having problems.
"The radio operators had been supplied with identification and communication codes," Haslop writes. "But it turned out that these were applicable to the home territory -- meaning England. Consequently, all the direction-finding stations which we were now trying to contact, refused to acknowledge us."
Eventually, LeMay gave the order to abridge security regulations. Haslop explained the task force predicament to the D/F stations without code and the planes were serviced immediately. Errors like this always highlighted the need for detailed planning. If such an oversight impaired one mission, at least the participants of some future mission would benefit. That's what common sense would say. But when the 4BW headed back for England in a few days, radio ops would be given "overseas" codes and the whole embarrassing procedure would have to be repeated.
It took another five hours to fly from the target to their destination. They continued over Lake Como, on down to Italy and then over the Med to the west of Sardinia and Corsica before landing at Telergma near Constantine. Some didn't make it. But no 96ers ditched in the Med or were lost -- except a few that had to land elsewhere in Africa for gas. Jim Sanders' Rum Boogie had to do that. It then caught up with other 96ers at Telergma's Bone Air Base.
The conditions here were far from ideal. Another snafu had plagued the planning. Even though LeMay had scouted the airfield some time ago when the shuttle was first conceived, he soon realized a lot of water had gone under the bridge in the meantime. Here he was coming into a strange air base with a riddled and crippled Task Force, only to find, like Mother Hubbard, that the cupboard was bare. Since his long-ago visit, war conditions in North Africa had improved for the Allies to the point that repair depot facilities here had been removed! No one had thought to alert him. Now where was he to get spare parts? Or fuel? Or bombs, for that matter? That was some of the bad news. The good news, apparent right after landing, was that the 96th had taken no casualties. Doc Hartman's diary records the fact that on the 19th, pilots Flagg, McGibney, Bender and Garry Shelton had to fly to Marrakesh in Morocco for repairs. Otherwise, everyone was OK. But the week at Bone really called for roughing it up. Crews slept beneath the wings of their planes out in the desert. Ray McKinnon remembers: "One day I finally got a helmet full of water. First I mixed some with my K-Ration. Then I managed soup and instant coffee. Then I shaved and the rest was my bathwater. All of this was done in the sand by the plane."
While the frustrated Colonel LeMay was scrounging up facilities, 96ers made the best of their situation. "There was a camp for Italian prisoners nearby," Ray McKinnon recalls. "Their perimeter fence was only chicken-wire but they had no desire to escape. Consequently, some were very willing to be pressed into service. They helped us man the hand-pumps for refueling. There were no bowsers and all the fuel had to be pumped by hand from barrels."
Help from Italian POWs was not so much appreciated by S/S LeRoy Bradrick. This gunner's presence amid a bomber task force in North Africa was nothing short of amazing. From the day after Pearl Harbor, when he first tried to enlist in the service, "Brad" had been rejected for bad eyesight by the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. He was eventually drafted after he convinced a doctor to let him join on a limited service basis. The doctor prescribed glasses which would catch up with the new recruit at his first station. They never did. Meanwhile Bradrick graduated with the second class of armorers from Buckley Field, Colorado, and was whisked through Salt Lake to the 96th at Rapid City. He made Corporal at Peyote and rode as a guard on sixteen boxcars of equipment from that dusty Texas base to Camp Kilmer. In all that time he had never been given another physical; and he certainly didn't volunteer information about his restricted capacity. When Norm Tanner's BTG, Joe Tony, got wounded, Bradrick, who had been servicing Tanner's plane, volunteered to take Joe's place. The group was hard up for replacements and Brad was accepted. When Tony came back from the hospital, Brad was a blooded veteran and became Ralph Ward's BTG aboard Shack Rabbit III. Now, here in Africa, the former armorer watched Italian POWs load his plane.
"I looked them over," Bradrick remembers, "and discovered that the second bomb in the right bay had a shackle-release missing." With the help of Captain Ward and the bombardier, the trio righted the situation. "We very well might have rolled a bomb right through the side of the ship."
Sergeant LeRoy Bradrick, rejected by every branch of the service and without aerial gunnery training would complete his tour of duty and be credited with four enemy planes including an ME-262 jet!
The North African shuttle was a pleasant experience for most 96th men. Some, like Doc Hartman didn't have to sleep under the wings every night. Doc visited the 57th Station Hospital and was delighted to find out that he had served with one of the doctors at Charity Hospital in New Orleans and had graduated from the same high school as the chief physician. Other crewmen visited the city of Constantine. At every step they were besieged by begging Arabs. By local cultural standards, a mattress cover made a fine article of clothing.
Landing Snetterton -- Returning from North Africa Shuttle Raid, bombing Bordeaux, France on return. Lady Moe, Louis Klimchak, Coots Matthews.
The Miracle Tribe would return to England symbolizing all that was wonderful, wild and adventurous about the mission. They had decided to bring back a mascot. Gunner Louis Klimchak said a dog was too ordinary. "Coots" Matthews considered a baby camel, but not for long. Andy Miracle himself considered an Arab maiden, but was afraid of a kidnapping charge. Then, an Arabian boy said his family might have a donkey for sale. That certainly qualified for an unusual mascot, so Klimchak and co-pilot Jim Harris went off to make the deal. The little donkey, half starved, was a sorry sight. She was hardly two feet tall but she captured the hearts of the Tribesmen. An $80 deal was struck. The Miracle Tribesmen had no idea that they were bringing home a legend. This skinny, sloe-eyed donkey which had been starving in a filthy section of an Algerian slum was about to make a flight to England where she would become Queen of the Heath.