|Mission to Mayen 23 Dec 44
by Paul “Robin” Priday
Presentated at the Columbus World War II Round Table, 19 April 1990.
This particular mission was not my most memorable, but has been selected for the following reasons: (1) Flown during the Battle of the Bulge, a milestone in the war in Europe. (2) It was a prime example of the Tactical Air Force Doctrine of Battlefield Interdiction. (3) First of two missions flown by the 387th Bomb Group (M) on 23 Dec 44, for which the Group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation.
The Battle began on 16 Dec 44 and most of the allied air strength was grounded by the adverse weather conditions—low clouds, fog, rain, snow—until the 23rd. Missions were briefed each morning and the aircrews stood by their aircraft throughout the day until late afternoon, when the mission was officially scrubbed. It was a very frustrating experience for us to be so close to the battle and unable to provide support to the beleaguered ground forces. Our base, near St. Quentin, France, was relatively close to the Belgium border.
Finally, on December 23rd, the weather over the Bulge area cleared and fighters and bombers from both the 8th and 9th Air Forces literally swarmed over the battlefield. The Luftwaffe was also out in a surprising show of strength.
The initial target of the 387th was the railroad bridge at Mayen, Germany, approximately 25 miles west of Koblentz, which carried a critical rail line to the battlefield. Our losses for the mission were seven of the thirty six aircraft which were launched. The target for the afternoon mission was Prum, a communications center approximately 35 miles east of Bastogne.
Prior to getting into the first hand account of the mission, it might be well to digress briefly and set the stage by telling a little bit about the type of aircraft involved, the Martin B 26, "Marauder", the evolution of medium bomber operations in the ETO and the aircrew training which was required.
First the a/c surely one of WWII's most controversial. The first model off the production line was test flown on Nov. 25, 1940. No prototype was produced. In his book, "The Martin B 26 Marauder", J. K. Havener lists the following "firsts" which were incorporated into the B 26. Many of these features became common place in other a/c during the war:
Four bladed propellers.
Power operated gun turret—electric.
First medium bomber in which the tail gunner could sit in an upright position.
First WWII a/c upon which gun pods were attached—four 50 calibers.
First all plexiglass nose for bombardier.
Butted seams for skin covering as opposed to lap seams, which enhanced streamlining.
All electrical bomb release mechanism.
Rubber, self-sealing fuel cells as standard equipment.
9. Flexible tracks for transferring belted ammunition from storage areas to tail turret. The tracks were manufactured by the Lionel Electric Train Company.
First army bomber to drop torpedoes.
First aerodynamically perfect fuselage.
First twin engine bomber capable of carrying more bombs than the B 17 at that time.
First a/c to test the bicycle type landing gear, that would later be used on the B 47 and B 52 Jet Bombers post war).
The a/c was powered by Pratt & Whitney R 2800 engines originally 1850 H.P. and later 2000 H.P. Modifications to the Marauder added weight and reduced speed and range. Models "A" through "G" were produced.
The high wing loading (ratio of a/c weight to wing surface) demanded high take off and landing speeds—135 to 140 miles per hour. These speeds for take off and landing were not commonplace in the Air Force a/c until the advent of the century series fighters. (From an article in the Air Classics Magazine, 1966 Annual, entitled "Widow Maker" written by Frank Ryan). 5000 foot runways were considered long at that time and props did not go into reverse pitch to shorten landing roll.
Because of the comparatively short wings, the Marauder was dubbed the "Flying Prostitute" (no visible means of support) or the "Baltimore Whore" (The Martin plant was located in that city).
In addition to the high take off and landing speeds, the early models of the B 26 were plagued with other problems. Failure of the electrical prop governing mechanism on take off resulted in incidents of runaway props. Critical single engine control speed was high—a minimum of 145 miles per hour. There were also incidents of nose gear failures. The accident rate was considered excessive and resulted in two Army Boards of Inquiry and an investigation by the Truman Committee. Attempts to cancel the B 26 Program were thwarted only by vigorous intercession by Jimmy Doolittle and other high ranking Army Air Corps officers.
When war came to the Pacific, the 22nd Bomb Group, one of the few operational medium bomb groups available, was soon on its way to Australia. From their base in northern Australia, long range missions were launched against Rabaul, staging through a field at Port Moreby in New Guinea. As more long range a/c, such as B 17's and B 24's, became available the Marauder's joined in the battle for the north coast of New Guinea.
These early operations:, although not spectacularly effective, demonstrated that the Marauder was able to deliver bombs on a target, absorb battle damage and dive away from attacking zeroes. As more and more of the less sophisticated B 25, Mitchells, became available, the decision was made to retain the B 25's in the Pacific and deploy new B 26 Groups into the ETO. B 25's were easier to maintain and could operate from shorter and less improved runways, characteristic of air bases in the Pacific.
While en route to Australia in mid 1942, four Marauders were sent from Hawaii to Midway. They made torpedo runs on the Japanese fleet on the first day of the battle, prior to the attacks by the carrier based a/c/ The results were negative and only two badly damaged Marauders returned to Midway. Other B 26 units were deployed in the Aleutians about this time. They were handicapped by poor flying weather and were later withdrawn.
The three B 26 Groups slated for operations against European targets arrived in England soon after the Allied invasion of North Africa and were sent on to Tunisia. There they soon learned that low-level attacks were ineffective and costly. A switch to medium altitude was made, with formations of four to six a/c dropping on the lead a/c, equipped with a Norden bombsight. Losses were reduced, bombing accuracy improved and the groups effectively supported the fighting in Sicily and Italy from bases in Corsica and Sardinia.
In the meantime more groups were arriving in England and were assigned to the Eighth Air Force, understandably pre occupied with heavy bomber operations against strategic targets in Germany. The B 26 Wing's staff officers apparently ignored the lessons in the Pacific and Africa and chose the British Doctrine of small formations attacking vital targets at low level, where precise bombing was necessary to minimize civilian casualties in the occupied countries of France, Belgium and Holland.
The first such mission was assigned on 14 May 43. The target was a power generating station at Ijmuiden, Holland—source of power for northern Holland. Twelve Marauders flew the mission; all were damaged, one man was killed and photo reconnaissance revealed no bombs hit the target.
Three days later, over, the strenuous objections of the Group Commander, a second attack was ordered on the same target. Eleven a/c were launched and flew across the channel at 50' altitude to avoid German radar. Thirty-three miles from the Dutch coast, one a/c aborted with an electrical problem. The pilot increased altitude as he turned back and possibly alerted German radar. This incident was combined with a navigational error, which brought the formation over a heavy defended area before they even approached the target.
Bombing results were negative, ten a/c were shot down and the only Marauder, which returned to England was the one, which aborted over the channel.
This mission resulted in a reevaluation of' the low-level tactics in which the crews were being trained. Retraining was initiated, both in England, and the Operational Training Units in the United States. Bombing was to be done from 10,000 to 15,000 feet with lead crews utilizing the Norden bomb sight and wing a/c dropping, when the lead a/c dropped. This required precise formations six a/c in a flight, three flights in a box and two boxes in a group. (three boxes for a maximum effort.) The group formation was usually preceded by a "Window Flight" of three a/c which led the group over the targets throwing out strips of aluminum foil to confuse radar directed anti aircraft guns. The formations were usually well escorted and frequent course changes were flown over enemy territory to avoid the German 88 mm & 110 mm flak batteries. The targets were initially German airfields which gradually were pushed eastward, railroad marshalling yards, VI launching sites and as D Day approached the Seine & Loire River Bridges. The bombing accuracy of the B 26's surpassed those of other medium bombers. Hub Zemke, famed Commander of the 56th Fighter Group (P 47) states, that their dive bombing efforts were not, very effective. He favored medium altitude, formation type attacks and pioneered the use of glass nosed P 38's with bombardiers & Norden Bomb sights to lead his P 47's on bombing missions.
In October of 1943 the Medium Bombers in the ETO were assigned to the Ninth Air Force which was organized as a Tactical Air Force, one specifically charged with providing support for the ground forces. Eventually, a total of eight B 26 groups were assigned to the Ninth Bomber Command.
As D-Day approached, greater emphasis was placed on the Doctrine of Interdiction. Attempts were made to isolate the battlefield by destroying the bridges and railroad marshaling yards which supported the reinforcement and re-supply of the enemy ground forces.
The B 26 Replacement Training Unit, to which I reported in March, 1944, soon after my graduation from the Army Aviation Cadet Program, was located at Lake Charles, Louisiana. I had requested B 26's and early overseas deployment. Becoming a co pilot was not exactly what I had in mind when I received those silver wings, but I wanted to fly a Marauder and certainly it was the quickest route to combat.
Our Pilot had completed a nine or ten week transition course in the B 26, our Bombardier/Navigator was fresh out of cadets and our Engineer/Gunner, Radio/Gunner and Armament/Gunner were recent graduates of their respective technical schools and aerial gunnery training.
The training program at Lake Charles was well organized and directed. The curriculum included Medium Altitude Day & Nite Bombing, Skip Bombing, Strafing, Air to Air Gunnery, Cross Country and Overwater Navigation, Formation Flying and long hours of ground school & physical training. Late in June, 1944, we completed the program and traveled by railroad to Hunter Army Air Field, Savannah, Georgia. Hunter Field was a Port of Aerial Embarkation that was geared to the final processing of aircrews departing for Europe.
We received new flight equipment, Army Model Colt 45's and a brand new B 26G. We were also issued arctic survival equipment for our flight to Scotland by way of Labrador, Greenland and Iceland, were given thorough physical exams, innoculations, filled out countless forms and were otherwise prepared for overseas deployment.
After one or two short instrument calibration flights in our new flying machine, we took off, overloaded with spare parts, arctic survival equipment, bomb bay fuel tanks as well as our personal baggage.
At each intermediate stop, we were well briefed on the next leg of the route and not released until excellent weather conditions prevailed. As a result of weather delays, we spent a couple days at Goose Bay, Labrador and almost a week at BW 1, Greenland.
Every airman who has flown into BW 1 was impressed with the approach up the fiord, with the sunken ship checkpoint and the runway itself. This was constructed on an upgrade from near the water's edge to the base of a rugged mountain. Landing was accomplished up hill and take off, down hill, regardless of win direction.
Our first realization that we were entering the war zone came in Iceland. We were awakened on the morning after our arrival by the sound of nearby anti aircraft guns conducting a practice drill, complete with live ammunition and a sleeve target. That same afternoon, we delivered our new B 26 to a base depot in Scotland and departed soon thereafter for the large Army Air Force Replacement Center near Stone, England. After a few days of relative inactivity, we were flown to a former R.A.F. base near Toome, North Ireland for a short, intensive combat crew training course.
The base at Toome was well dispersed in the manner of many British bases. The billeting areas, mess halls, class rooms, administrative office and flight operations section were widely separated and located in and about the several villages and farms. It was necessary to own a bicycle to pedal from one facility to another along the winding country roads. Most of us had never ridden English style bikes, which featured front and rear hand brakes and lacked the American style coaster brake with which we were familiar. Excessive speeds were no problem, however, and it was not an uncommon sight to see the brash, young Americans careening wildly off the road, desperately pedaling backwards and eventually crashing into the ever present stone walls or hedgerows.
Although we had arrived believing that we were reasonably well prepared for combat operations, our training at Toome convinced us otherwise. Our classes included escape and evasion tactics, French language lessons, ditching procedures, more aircraft recognition, British air traffic and communications procedures and the operation of a radio navigation system, mysteriously known as "G". In the air, we practiced the specific formations procedures which had been established within the Ninth Air Force Bomb Groups.
Our training at Toome was climaxed by an overnight pass to Belfast. This was our first experience in a large foreign city and we thoroughly enjoyed it—good hotel accommodations, good food and for some of us, an introduction to spirits, particularly the Irish variety!
The next afternoon, we climbed on board a B 17 which had been converted into a transport by the construction of unpainted wooden benches in the bomb bay. We were flown to the field in southern England near Stoney Cross where the 387th Bomb Group was based at that time. Our crew was assigned to the 558th Bomb Squadron, one of four such tactical squadrons attached to the 387th.
We were soon informed that our days at Stoney Cross were numbered. An advanced party was in France at that time, preparing a field near Cherbourg for our arrival. Prior to the move, our pilot and the other crew members flew one or two combat missions over France with a veteran pilot. No such orientation flight was provided for co-pilots. My first view of the continent came later in the week when the flying elements of the Group took off from Stony Cross, formed up, flew across the channel and landed at our new base.
The field at Cherbourg had been a Luftwaffe fighter base and American Army engineers had made it suitable for heavier aircraft by laying a steel mat runway over the grass. As we were moving in, a P-61 "Black Widow" night fighter unit was in the process of moving out. We were billeted in prefabricated, wooden barracks which had been erected by the Germans and subsequently well ventilated by allied air attacks prior to the invasion. Even so, our quarters were reasonably comfortable. The area in and around the base had obviously been the scene of recent ground fighting. Trenches, barbed wire, tank barriers and pillboxes were much in evidence as well as crates of German hand grenades and mortar shells. The edges of the roads were marked with many "Achtung Minen" signs. A burned out American Sherman tank sat close to our barracks and the charred remains of two of the occupants were clearly visible through the forward hatches. It was definitely hedgerow country and one had to be impressed with the difficulties our ground forces had experienced in that region.
Our first missions from Cherbourg were flown in support of the American assault on the port city of Brest. By this time, it was early September of 1944.
Takeoffs from the steel mat runway were exciting. Due to frequent rains, the sod under the mat was soft and the B 26's often didn't accelerate as rapidly as they normally would. Aircraft taking off toward the coast would sometimes dip down over Cherbourg Harbor to pick up additional airspeed prior to joining up in formation. To the ground observer, a flight of B 26's would simply drop out of sight for a minute or two before reappearing several miles from the field.
After a few weeks, the fast moving ground forces had pushed beyond our effective range and a move to a field near Chateaudun was necessary. It had been a well established base with two intersecting concrete runways, taxiways and large reinforced concrete hangers which had been badly damaged by Allied bombing. The runways and taxiways had been repaired but the buildings had not. Tents and stoves were issued and the 556th established camp on a low hill, overlooking the Base. We erected our tents in the scattered, random pattern which was supposed to minimize the effects of any one strafing pass by enemy aircraft. The mess tent and headquarters tents were located within the edge of a picturesque grove of pine trees.
Flying weather was not consistently good during our time at Chateaudun and several missions were turned back by towering cloud formations between the Base and the target. Some of the more industrious air crew members utilized their free time to build furniture for their tents, collect firewood etc. An adjacent German bomb dump offered a supply of excellent building material. Each bomb was encased in a well-made wooden crate. It was an impressive sight to see these high explosives being lifted out of their crates and carelessly tossed on a pile of other bombs. We naturally assumed that all bombs were like our own and would not explode unless armed with a fuse.
Soon, the enemy had again been pushed to the limit of our effective range and on or about the 1st of November 1944, we moved to a base in northern France, near the city of St. Quentin. Each crew loaded their tents, stoves and personal baggage into the bomb bay of a B 26 and flew in a group formation to our new home. We landed in a light drizzle that persisted as we set up our tents. The campsite was in an alfalfa field close by the aircraft parking area. By the time that we had put up our tents, we and our belongings were thoroughly soaked. The weather was cool and we were several days drying out.
In the meantime, we were flying missions and when we finally had time to improve our living quarters, much of the available materials suitable for tent flooring had beer) already nailed down. Fortunately, another German bomb dump was located in a nearby woods. The bomb crates were fastened together with screws and dovetailed joints so we had to sift through charred ruins of a German hanger to recover some nails.
We didn't realize it at the time, but the remainder of the missions which the 387th would launch for the duration of the war would be from this base. For the aircrews, such a mission would usually begin with an early breakfast followed by a truck ride to the operations briefing tent near Group headquarters. The tent was furnished with wooden benches and a large map of Western Europe, complete with a grease pencil Bomb Line which depicted the most advanced positions of Allied ground forces. The course to the target was designated by a colored string, stretched between pins on the map.
Targets including railway marshalling yards, German troop concentrations or fortifications, bridges, fuel storage areas and of course, enemy airfields. An officer from Group Operations would describe the importance of the target and any deviations from standard procedures. He would also announce start engine times, taxi times etc. A mimeographed formation diagram, complete with aircraft tail numbers and pilots' names, was distributed to each crew and provided other essential information.
A group intelligence officer would point out known flak positions en route and near the target and emphasize how skillfully the courses had been plotted to keep the formation beyond the range of guns. The weather officer was next and usually provided more accurate information. Following a "time hack", wherein all watches would be synchronized,, the briefing would be concluded. The chaplains were always available for those who desired spiritual reassurance for the upcoming flight.
Thirty six B 26's were normally scheduled for a mission. The formation was divided into two combat boxes, each made up of three six-ship flights. The flights within each box flew in a "V'' formation the second flight or "high flight" to the right and stepped up in altitude from the lead flight; the third or "low flight" to the left and stepped down in altitude. Whenever the box leader turned to a new heading, it was necessary for the high and low flights to maneuver in such a way as to preserve their relative relationship with the leader. The variations in altitude between flights made it possible for them to slide behind the leader when necessary without being buffeted by prop wash or turbulence.
The second box trailed the lead box at a slightly higher altitude. When a "maximum effort" mission was launched an additional eighteen aircraft formed a third box, which trailed the second. The high and low boxes would maintain spacing with the lead box on turning maneuvers in a manner very similar to that employed by the flight leaders within each box.
As the formation approached the target, the flight leaders would maneuver into an in trail position. Again, the differences in altitudes between flights theoretically provided undisturbed air for the bomb sighting operation. After the drop and the turn away from the target, the original formation would be reformed.
Each flight of six aircraft within the box consisted of two three ship elements flying a "v's" intrail formation with the second element close behind the lead and slightly stepped down to avoid turbulence. This six-ship flight was the basic bombing formation and each lead aircraft carried a bombardier and was equipped with a Norden bombsight. When the bombsight mechanism automatically released the bombs from the lead ship, the bombs in the other five aircraft within the flight would be released manually. The quality of the resulting pattern of bombs in the target area was dependent upon the position of the aircraft in the formation at the instant of bomb release. Overlapping wing tip formation, with the second element tucked tightly behind the first, was desired on the bomb run.
The assembly of a formation of thirty six or fifty four B 26's was a spectacular operation—something like an air show, a dress parade and the start of the "Indianapolis 500" all rolled into one ear shattering event. For the ground crews and other support personnel, it was the culmination of long hours of tedious labor and they would stand near their tents or work areas to watch the "Marauders" roll by on the taxi ways. As one a/c member so aptly phrased it, "A guy would have to be a coward and a slacker to turn back before such an admiring audience."
The entire operation was commenced in absolute radio silence. Start engine and taxi times were strictly adhered to. The leader with as many of the lead box as possible would crowd onto the runway. Other aircraft filled the adjacent taxiway. A green flare would signal "takeoff" and the B 26's would hurtle down the runway at exact twenty-second intervals. Flight leaders would fly precise headings, airspeed rate of climb, altitude and rate of turn. The wing ships would cut off the leaders on the assembly turn and take their positions within each flight. Twelve minutes after commencing take off roll, the lead flight would sweep back across the field with most of the formation in good position and the number six a/c of the last flight just breaking ground.
The timing on most missions was extremely important. More than one group was often assigned to the same target and proper sequencing was essential. Reaching the fighter rendezvous point on time was also critical. Because of fuel limitations, neither the fighters nor bombers could wait long for the other. One four minute, 360-degree turn was standard. If the fighters had not arrived by then, we reluctantly departed on course, feeling very vulnerable and insecure. At one time or another, we were escorted by formations of each of the leading Allied fighters—P51's, P47's, P38's and occasionally, British Spitfires.
Once over the Bomb Line, the formation leader set up a pattern of turns known as evasive action to reduce the effectiveness of en route flak batteries. As the formation approached the target area, the flight leaders maneuvered into their "in trail" formation and the bombardiers anxiously scanned the target area for, their designated aiming points. Some one minute out from the target, the flight leaders were supposed to level out from their evasive action and fly on the headings prescribed by the bombardier.
After the bombardier had located his aiming point and clutched in the sight mechanism, the heading corrections were automatically transmitted to the pilot through the PDI, or Pilots Direction indicator, mounted on the instrument panel. This was the phase of the mission in which each a/c was most vulnerable to anti aircraft fire. For at least one minute, each flight flew straight and level at a relatively constant heading. The German anti aircraft gun directions must have looked forward to this period with great anticipation. If the flak batteries were good, the shell bursts would come progressively closer until the concussions would bounce the a/c and the explosions could be plainly heard above the roar of the engines. The B 26 could absorb an amazing number of shell fragments without serious damage. Strategically located armor plate, flak vests and steel helmets offered some measure of protection to the crew. Most pilots routinely placed at least one flak vest beneath their seat cushions.
After the welcome "bombs away" announcement by the bombardier, each flight leader would make a prescribed turn, lose altitude to increase airspeed and resume normal spacing within the combat box. Evasive action turns were still in order until the group was safely back across the Bomb Line, at which time, the leader would usually initiate a gradual descent to the home field.
As the group approached the base, a/c with wounded on board were directed to land first. The Group leader then led the formation across the field and initiated the landing procedure. Each flight, in turn, would echelon to the right on the downwind leg of the landing pattern and a/c would peel off at three second intervals to establish a 20 second spacing for landing. Battling the turbulence of preceding a/c on the approach to landing was a final test of skill and courage for the pilots.
The Squadron Intelligence Officer would carefully debrief the crewmen after each mission for observations of bombing results and indications of enemy activity. Supposedly, these often fragmentary reports, when pieced together, could provide important information.
The foregoing has been a description of a mission flown under favorable weather conditions. During periods of low ceilings or visibility, the a/c still maintained their 20 second take off intervals but established a constant heading, airspeed and rate of climb up through the clouds on instruments. Above the overcast, the flights were joined and the formation assembled as before. When an overcast condition was encountered during the en route climb, the leader would fire a flare to signal that a weather ascent would be executed. Each flight, and then each aircraft in turn, would follow a procedure which would establish a lateral separation between a/c as they climbed through the clouds, individually, on instruments. Once on top, the flights and boxes would reform on the leader and the mission could continue.
If the cloud deck persisted, a similar weather descent procedure was executed on the return to base. In some instances, this resulted in the formation being reformed at a relatively low altitude. On one particular afternoon mission, flown late in November of 1944, by the time we had descended below the clouds, we were at less than 500 feet above the ground. It was dark and raining and a/c from the 387th became intermingled with another Group from a field at nearby Laon. Since most of us were trying to find and follow a leader, much confusion resulted and few flights had reformed by the time the Laon Field runway lights appeared below us. Many 387th aircrews did not realize this was not our home base and we joined a wide circling pattern while waiting our turn to land. To add to the excitement, at least two a/c collided with nearby hilltops and exploded. Most of us never realized that we were on a strange base until we attempted to taxi to the hard stands.
Cloud cover provided no protection for German targets. If conditions were such that a formation could be launched and recovered, a pathfinder mission would be scheduled. A specially trained crew in a B 26 with highly sensitive radio navigation equipment would assume the Group lead at a predetermined number of minutes from the target and the entire Group would tighten formation and follow them on the bomb run. When their bombs released, all thirty six aircraft would simultaneously drop their bombs through the cloud deck.
On other occasions, we would bomb through the clouds with the Group leader utilizing the "G" equipment installed in the lead a/c. This usually occurred when unexpected cloud cover obscured certain targets, precluding visual sighting. This system was obviously not used on targets located close to the Bomb Line.
Fighter opposition was sporadic during the period that we were in France. During 63 missions, I personally observed German fighters on just two occasions. This does not mean that the Group or flights within the Group may not have been attacked at other times when I was not on the schedule. My first view of the Luftwaffe was in December on a day when the Germans had everything in the air that could fly. A flight of ME 109's, going in the opposite direction, passed us as we were returning from a target. They ignored us and we tried to remain as inconspicuous as a formation of thirty six B 26's could.
The second instance occurred in the spring of 1945 when we were attacking a target near Nuremburg. A ME 262, a twin engine jet fighter, scored hits on a B 26 in the flight ahead of us, zoomed upward and seconds later, attacked our flight head on. Cannon shells were seen to explode in the cockpit of the aircraft on our right wing before it plunged out of formation. I was very pleasantly surprised to encounter one of the pilots, while on my way home in June. They had parachuted to safety, been treated in a German hospital and released when the war ended.
The quality and quantity of anti aircraft fire depended to some extent upon the target. In some cases, it was intense and accurate right up until the end of the war. When the German ground forces were forced back across the Rhine, they set up a belt of flak batteries that fired at us routinely on the way in and out. At other times, we were only fired on at or near a target. A few targets were undefended.
Bomb sizes and fuse settings were dependent upon the targets being attacked. The standard load was 4000 pounds; two 2000-pounders, four 1000-pounders, eight 500's, sixteen 250's or thirty two 100-pounders. On occasion, we also dropped bundles of incendiary bombs. Late in the war, our 100-pound anti personnel bombs were sometimes fitted with newly developed radar proximity fuses set to explode the bombs above German foxholes. We viewed this advanced technology with some degree of skepticism; particularly so, when we were directed not to land with them on board once they had been armed. If, for some reason, they were not released on target, they were to be salvoed into the Channel.
Bombs could be released inadvertently in a variety of ways and frequently were. When this happened in a lead ship close to the target, the other five aircraft in the flight would dutifully compound the error.
An accidental release in a wing ship would occasionally occur when the bombardier with the manual release switch in one hand and his intercom switch in the other would press the wrong button when communicating with the pilot.
At other times, bombsight malfunctions or human error would result in the bombs of a lead ship failing to release. This meant a second run over the target for that particular flight with the lead bombardier anxiously checking his switches and the German flak batteries giving the lone flight their undivided attention.
The position of the aircraft in the formation determined the number of crewmembers. The crews of lead aircraft were augmented with a navigator and a "G box" operator. Since bombardiers would often be assigned as navigators on these augmented crews, aircraft in the wing positions of the formation would frequently carry an airman in the nose position. We had been trained to arm the bombs, set the intervalometer and manually release the bombs when the lead aircraft dropped.
The lead crews developed a high degree of coordination and teamwork in their combined efforts to improve their C.E., or circular error. New and less experienced crews were generally assigned to the wing positions in the formations.
Early in 1945, 1 had absorbed sufficient "on the job training" to be considered a qualified First Pilot. By this time our crew had been designated as a lead crew and was only scheduled to fly every third or fourth mission. This meant that I could fly additional missions on the "off" days with so called "make up crews", while continuing to fly as a co pilot on the original crew.
On the 23rd of Dec., 1944, the first day that we could launch a mission in the Battle of the Bulge, I flew as a substitute co pilot on both the Mayen and Prum missions. During the former, our a/c was in one of the wing positions in the first box and except for the excitement of finally being able to join in this critical battle, it was a fairly routine mission from my standpoint.
When we reached our fighter rendezvous the escorting fighters failed to appear and, as briefed, the leader turned on course over Bastogne. We didn't realize it at the time, but for some reason our second box missed the turn and became separated from us by five or six miles. In addition, their low flight was lagging behind the box leader. This violation of formation discipline resulted in a flight of ME 109's effectively attacking the low flight and shooting down four of the six a/c. In the first box, although we were aware of enemy fighter activity by the radio chatter, no enemy aircraft were in view from the cockpit. Flights in the first box approached the target in a routine manner, went into their in trail formation and scored excellent results on the bridge. The flak was accurate and heavy, but no a/c were lost over the target.
In the meantime, the second box was engaged in a running gun battle with the ME 109's until one minute prior to opening their bomb bay doors. The two surviving Marauders from the low flight had tacked on to the lead flight. The Box Leader, realizing he was approaching the target on a heading different that that which had been briefed, made a 360° turn and lined up properly for the bomb run. The high flight followed him and the two flights made long steady runs and dropped with excellent results.
Both boxes sustained further flak damage on the way out, losing another aircraft and two aircraft crash landed at the base. Photos showed one span of the bridge destroyed and another span partially destroyed.
Within a few minutes after climbing out of the a/c, I was in a truck going to the briefing tent in preparation for a mission over Prum, Germany, a communications center for the German ground forces attacking in Belgium. As a substitute co pilot for one of our Flight Commanders, I had more battle-time to observe the intense aerial activity over the area of the battle.
Our group was at 10,000 to 15,000 feet—the B-17's and B-24's were above us, probably at 20,000 to 25,000 feet and flights of P-47's could be observed peeling off below us in dive bombing and strafing attacks.
Prum was about thirty five miles northeast of Bastogne and I recall the flak was especially accurate as we flew toward the target. Regardless of our evasive action, the bursts seemed to be all over us. As our flights maneuvered into their intrail formation to commence the bomb run, the flight of six ships ahead of us from another group, literally blew apart. I presume the lead ship received a direct hit and the other five aircraft banked away to his right and left.
The 387th had been able to launch only 26 aircraft for this mission instead of the customary 36, and 21 of the 26 received battle damage. The bombing results were excellent.
During the next four days, the 387th attacked the Niddigen R.R. Bridge on the 24th, Irrel Road Junction on the morning of the 25th, St. Vith in the afternoon and two more R.R. bridges on the 26th and 27th.
As the Germans began to pull out of the Bulge, efforts were made to impede them as much as possible. On January 23rd, the highway bridge at Dasburg, about 16 miles south of St. Vith was destroyed leaving 1600 tanks, armored vehicles and trucks of the 6th Panzer Army stranded on the west side of the Our River. Subsequent artillery and fighter bomber attacks destroyed more than half of these vehicles.
As Allied ground forces surged in the spring of 1945, it again became necessary to move closer to the Bomb Line. German forces were still fighting hard in Holland so a decision was made to more the 387th to another steel mat strip near Maastricht. Soon after our arrival, we were cranking up the B 26's for one more attack when the "mission cancelled" signal was transmitted. The German units in Holland had surrendered.
We had set up out tents in an orchard, in the random, scattered pattern prescribed in Army regulations for tents in combat zone. The morning following the surrender and a night of appropriate celebration, we were awakened by our first Sergeant, and two of his assistants. They were measuring, driving stakes and stretching strings to provide us with guidance in arranging our tents in neat, orderly peacetime military-like rows.
The above is an accurate transcription of the first-person account I presented to the Columbus World War II Round Table on 19 Apr 90. I authorize the deposition of one copy of this account with the U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.
s/Paul R. Priday
PAUL "ROBIN" PRIDAY EATON ST.
LONDON, OH. 43140