A BAD DAY FOR QR
Quentin Richard Petersen
Prior to this day I had flown five combat missions as a navigator-bombardier with other crews.
We were awakened in our tent at 4:00 am on this day. I actually looked forward to flying my first-ever-combat mission with my own crew. After breakfast we went to briefing. The curtain was pulled from the briefing map to groans when it was seen that we were going to Ploesti, Romania, again! Col. Gunn discussed this long mission to attack the Astra oil refinery there, offering warnings and suggestions for success. We took off our side arms (which always struck me as an odd gesture) as the Chaplain gave his usual hypocritical prayer. Then, we got into jeeps to be taken to our assigned B-24.
Contrary to the images created by films, most aircrews did not have their own storied bomber with their girl-friends' names emblazoned on the fuselage, nor dedicated ground-crew members, closer than brothers. Rather, the Operations Officer matched functional bombers with available crews and assigned them on the morning of each mission. Indeed, of the 32,267 combat aircraft in Europe, 18,418, over 57%, were lost in action!
It is a testament to the effectiveness of the Army Air Corps' recruiting-propaganda and brain-washing of youth, that I never once envied the guy who woke us up, the guy who cooked our breakfast, the jeep drivers, or the Chaplains as I prepared to throw the dice again on each mission.
I really believed that they envied us! Hello?
Important to understanding other aspects of this bad day is that my parachute had been hit by flak on my previous mission, supporting the invasion of Southern France, and was in for repair. This parachute was a generic, interchangeable chest-pack which clipped to a personal, tailored harness (seen on each airman in the crew photo.) I expected to pick up a spare in the "chute-box" next to the flight line, which would readily clip on to my harness. However, there were no chest-packs in the box, so I took what was there, a "back-pack," and went on to the aircraft. I still felt no envy of the guys who kept the chute-box filled or repaired parachutes! Hello again?
After takeoff, and over the Adriatic Sea, the mission's aircraft gradually "formed" into a hierarchy of Groups, Squadrons and "boxes" of six planes as we headed for Ploesti. During this assembly we "lost" our box and latched on to one with only five planes, knowing that boxes were frequently "light" because planes had been shot down or were under repair. By radio, we were asked what we were doing back there, and we explained. Col. Gunn told us that this was the lead-box and was supposed to have only five aircraft, but that we could stay if, like children in the back seat, we kept quiet!
As the Group climbed higher, and we went on oxygen, I thought I had better see to getting my substitute parachute attached to my body before the bomb run! It proved to be quite a task as the heavy canvas straps that went around the groin had been set very short and their adjustable buckles would need to be changed so that the bayonet fittings could be connected. On the ground this would offer little challenge save a broken fingernail, but at five miles in the sky the temperature is pushing minus 50° F and we wore heavy gloves to protect us from "high-altitude frostbite," a very dangerous complication of such missions. With the help of Cliff Benson the fittings got connected before we reached the target, though I felt as though I were walking about a foot off the deck!
When we approached the target area and I put on my flak-helmet and flak jacket I realized, almost with disbelief, that I was looking down at the Black Sea! To anyone of my background this was an exotic site met only in "Arabian Nights," or high-school geography!
As we turned at the Initial Point (about a minute or two from the target), I found it ominous that the box-barrage I had come to expect on these raids was absent. I'm sure that Col. Gunn must also have recognized that the fighters assigned to precede us to the target and drop the chaff (a sort of Xmas-tree tinsel) used to screw up radar-aiming of antiaircraft guns, had missed the rendezvous. The AA gunners below were just tweaking their sights. But, what could he do? What could anyone do?
From the ball-turret, Clayton Merrill pointed out that when I dropped the salvo, I was formally the lead-bombardier and the squadrons behind had all dropped theirs also! Merrill also observed that the Group had really blasted hell out of a wooded area. I spent some time thinking of what to say at the debriefing upon our return.
As young and inexperienced as we were, we certainly appreciated the cost of such a mission. Literally, tens of thousands of people had been involved in elaborate planning, manufacturing, shipping and loading tons of bombs and thousands of rounds of fifty-caliber machine- gun ammunition, cooking breakfast, preparing the aircraft for flight, and establishing details of the weather and route for such a mission. This number, of course, does not include the many hundreds placed directly in harm's way while serving as aircrews, charged with delivering the bombs to the target.
The debriefing concern became moot as alone, and above a complete undercast, we had no idea of our position or heading. We did recognize, however, that with only two engines we were not going to get back to Italy. We hoped that we might make it to the partisan-held island of Vis where, we had been briefed, there was a landing strip, which could accommodate a B-24. As alternatives, we could parachute while still over mainland Yugoslavia or "ditch" in the Adriatic Sea, where Air-Sea Rescue had a good chance of picking us up if the plane did not sink immediately upon hitting the water (as it had a reputation for doing.) I recall that, over the intercom, we each expressed our choice!
We did not know if our compass setting would take us to Vis or not but, in what seemed at the time like a stroke of luck, we received bursts of flak of a caliber indicating that we were over a large city (a pilotage-point.) We concluded that this had to be Belgrade, suggesting that we were far north of a course to Vis, and made appropriate corrections in our compass setting. Much later, after the plane had crashed, we realized that the large city must have been Sofia, Bulgaria and, as the map at the top of the page, our course correction was such that, had we stayed aloft, we would never have intersected Italy, let alone Vis!
Again, the issue was moot as, with only two engines, we were rapidly losing altitude and we knew that we were going to have to leave the plane. From this point forward, all actions were being shaped about survival, subsequent evasion and escape, for which we had been well trained.
But, combat crews were not given parachute training. None of us had ever jumped! Everyone had heard stories of crews that had been ordered to bail out but, because of a "frozen" crewmember, no one jumped and all stayed in the aircraft and were killed when it crashed. John McAullife, Aircraft Commander, and I had discussed this issue in many a bar and agreed that, inasmuch as the bombardier had little to do for most of the mission, under these circumstances my job would be to get everyone's attention, and jump so that there would be no "balking" at his order. I hand-cranked the bomb bay doors open (remember, no hydraulic power left), placed my shoes in my A-2 jacket and zipped it closed to prevent them from being jerked off when the chute opened. I got everyone's attention and stepped off the bomb-bay catwalk into space.
|In the B-24 pictured above one can see the ball turret from which Merrill reported, the open bomb bay doors and the catwalk. Standing on it I could easily be seen by crew in the waist and on the flight deck.|
After the war my sainted mother asked me about that moment, "Did you pray, Quentin?" I thought about it and finally answered, "Why, yes, I think I did. I said, 'Jesus Christ, I hope to hell this son-of-a-bitch opens!"
One gets accustomed to the tremendous roar and vibration of four Pratt and Whitney 1200 HP 14- cylinder radial engines; it is a presence that must be accommodated. Indeed, the noise was so loud that crewmembers standing next to one another could communicate only by radio!
The slight lack of synchronization of the four engines gave rise to a variation in rhythm; a throb that I turned into the sound of a grand symphony orchestra which played for me through entire missions! I discovered that I was not alone in this hallucination, many of us conducting the music during the seven to eight hours, which many of our bombing missions lasted.
The plane was at an altitude of about 1000 feet when I stepped out. The overpowering roar was replaced by dead silence. I recall no feeling of motion. I could hear a distant clattering of machine-gun fire. My reaction was, "I'm not going to give those bastards a target, so I'll wait to open the chute." How long was one supposed to wait? I recalled a suggestion that when you can see separate trees, it's time! --- It was time and I pulled the ripcord. Nothing happened! I grabbed the cord and pulled it completely out of its housing. The last thing I remember was holding the disconnected ripcord in my two hands, reviewing how one might tear open a backpack. It would not have been difficult to convince me that I had hit the ground at this moment, but others reported that they had seen that my parachute was partially open as I came down.
With the very tight straps about my groin it was not surprising that I was knocked out like a light when the chute opened. I landed in a tree and was found, still unconscious, by my navigator, Clifford Bennett who determined that my right hip was dislocated and pulled the leg to relocate it. When I regained consciousness it took some time for me to recall how I got onto this wooded hill. I kept asking, in comic-book fashion, "Where am I, where am I?" Until Cliff said, "You're on the ground, god-dammit," I could not recall what had happened. My hip hurt badly so Cliff gave me the shot of morphine that was in my escape kit. Following the rules, we buried our chutes and covered ourselves with dead vegetation as machine-gun fire clipped leaves from the trees above us. The idea was to stay hidden until they give up and go look somewhere else.
|For three months I had studied every nuance of the use of the Norden bombsight, reputed to have been the most sophisticated mechanical computer built up to that time. At other training bases Cadets were taught exclusively on the Sperry bombsight.|
Upon arrival at the 454th in Cerignola I learned that all of its Liberators were equipped with Sperry bombsights. Thus, I never aimed a bomb in combat!
This was not unusual. By this time in the war, bombing strategy depended upon an expert lead-bombardier, equipped with "mickey," a radar-capable bombsight, to aim and drop the bombs. The following "bombardiers" would "salvo" (drop without aiming) when they saw his drop! A chimpanzee could have done it. So much for my lengthy and costly training.
This was certainly the machine-gun fire I had heard after I jumped. In the woods we heard voices shouting. Thinking we were in Yugoslavia, we remembered the morning's briefing that warned us that the area over which we expected to return contained Ustachi (pro-Nazi) partisans (today's Croats) and we should trust civilians only when we were certain they were from the Tito or Mihajlovic groups. I did not reveal my presence, even when a white-shirted man was within ten feet of my prone, leaf-covered, body. Although I now know that he would have saved us from capture, as his group, the communist ELAS, did for six of the ten members of my crew, I'm glad he did not see me as I had my gun trained on him and, in fear, probably would have shot had he recognized my presence!
By about 6:00 pm our thirst was such that we simply had to get water and left the woods to descend a treeless area into a valley where we hoped there would be a creek or stream. There was a dirty creek and by it, two or three dirt-floored buildings. With my standard-issue .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol in my hand I kicked their doors open, as "Terry and the Pirates" Sunday comic had taught me that real men do, and found them unoccupied.
When emptied of its contents (maps, money, a few medical supplies, compass, etc.) an escape kit could be used as a canteen. We filled mine with water (Bennett did not have one with him!), added halozone water purification tablets and decided to wait the obligatory half-hour, drink the water, and refill before we headed west. We were seated by the creek when a single-file of eight men armed with rifles came around a bend in the path by the creek, one-at-a-time. By the time the third man was apparent I gave up any idea of using my weapon and, to avoid surprise, very slowly stood up.
The file stopped and the leader came toward me with his hand outstretched. I went forward, relieved that friends had found us, and shook hands with him. While shaking, I saw a very obvious swastika on his cap! I backed off and pointed to my left armpit where the cocked .45 was in a shoulder holster. He understood, pointed his rifle at me and motioned to take it out and give it to him, which I did. I was concerned because it was cocked, but he seemed more familiar with the gun than I and deftly removed the clip, threw back the bolt to eject the round in the chamber, and caught it in mid-air!
We were taken to an elevated machine-gun emplacement where three men were just randomly firing into the wood where we had been hiding. Using sign-language and a few German cognates we learned from them that we were in Greece and that only the leader of the patrol was German, the others being captive USSR soldiers given a rather nasty opportunity to stay alive by serving the enemy.
As dusk approached, we were taken through a marked minefield to a house where we were superficially interrogated, in English, by a German officer. At one juncture we were locked in an under-the-stairway closet. While in there Bennett revealed that he had secret orders on his person! We found the mimeograph ink and thick paper too much to swallow, as we had been instructed, so we chewed them up and stuffed the little wads of pulp into the cracks and joints of this closet.
My hip hurt badly and I believe that the interrogating officer in this headquarters building let me sleep on his cot for that reason.
Thus ended the bad day.