Ringmasters - A History of the 491st Bombardment Group (H)
by Allan G. Blue
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 prepractice mission sessions. Target: Bretigny Air Field,
on the southern edge of Paris.
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 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...”
“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 Villenauve, 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 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.