Joe was supposed to be the co-pilot, but he wasn’t going to be a co-pilot for a while—I knew that for a fact. So I got in the co-pilot’s seat with Joe in back on a stretcher, and we took off. As we were flying in formation across the English Channel, the pilot Al looked over at me and said, “Elmer, have you ever flown formation?”
“No, Al, I never have.”
“Well, you’re gonna have to—I’m too damn sleepy. I can’t make it.”
While Al was napping in the left seat, I controlled the throttles and the whole works and stayed in our three-plane formation. After a while, we all dropped below the fog to get our bearings and immediately drew some antiaircraft fire. Al woke up and took us up above the clouds so the Germans couldn’t see us.
About that time, Joe came staggering up from the back and asked, “Where are we?”
Al, fully awake now, answered, “I don’t know.” He handed Joe a map. “Find out where we are.”
Joe studied the map for quite some time, finally figured out that we were lost over Germany and sobered up pretty darn fast. He began studying the features on the map more closely while looking at the land below us. Finally, he found a river and told Al to follow it north. We landed safely in Brussels, Belgium.
Another C-47 had been hit, and one of its engines caught fire. The co-pilot of that ship immediately bailed out, and the fire stopped shortly after he jumped. (I think he landed safely but was taken prisoner.) The pilot landed back in England along with one other C-47 in our group of seven from the 91st Troop Carrier Squadron that had taken off that morning. The rest of us were reported as being shot down. Five out of seven airplanes missing on one mission actually wasn’t a very good record.
We left Brussels on Thursday and, on our way back to England, we got lost in the fog again. Fog is pretty normal around England; we sure didn’t see very much good weather while we were there. All five ships that had been reported as being shot down did get back, though.
On Saturday the 24th, we picked up a load of blankets and were supposed to deliver them to the Étain-Rouvres Air Base, an airfield known as A-82, near Verdun. Because of the weather conditions, we had to fly in formation at about 600 feet in altitude. The lead ship, #43-15050, had the only navigator. Our ship was flying right wing; Lieutenant Berry was flying left wing. The navigator in our lead ship missed the field at A-82 and took our three-plane formation over German lines.
All at once all hell broke loose and tracers were all over the sky. I was never so scared in my life. We didn’t even have flak suits on. I threw flak suits to everyone in our plane. I found out later that Lieutenant Berry, flying left wing, banked sharply to get away from the tracers, and our lead ship was hit.
The right engine of# 43-15050 was on fire and I found out later that, tied down on the floor of #43-15050, were dozens of highly explosive oxygen bottles. When the plane got hit, Berry hollered to the crew chief, “Get rid of those bottles!”
The crew chief cut the rope holding the bottles in place, and the bottles rolled to the back of the plane. Their weight put the airplane completely out of balance, put the nose high, and there was no way to keep the airplane flying on one engine with the nose that high. The only thing the pilot could do was try to maintain altitude until he could find a place to land.
Al radioed back that we would follow our lead plane until it landed, which we did. The pilot made a belly landing somewhere in France, and everyone on board was fine. I later heard that the airplane landed near an emergency field for the wounded—a Red Cross station—and they were in very dire need of oxygen bottles.
We took off again, somehow found A-82, and landed. We had blankets piled to the ceiling and had quite a job unloading them. We had just finished unloading when we saw a truck roaring toward us down the runway with its lights flashing. Inside the truck was the crew of #43-15050 that had just crash landed! We all piled into our plane and thought, ‘Oh boy, we have a navigator! We can get back to England now!’
We took off for England and were soon lost again. Really lost. We were calling “darky” [a request for directions] and we only had a half-hour of fuel left. Al told everyone to put on our ’chutes. He said we were going to make one more pass over England and, if we didn’t get directions, we were going to all bail out as Al pointed the plane toward the English Channel.
Just then, an English voice came over the radio and said, “Charlie-47, if you’ll take up a heading of….”
Well, by hit and by miss, we did finally get back to our airbase. It had been quite a day. No one will ever know how we came out alive.
On October 1, we moved to a base in France, three miles from Alençon and 20 miles north of Le Mans. We were living in tents again, but we had rain. Lots of rain. Our airstrip near Alençon was dirt that had been packed down by heavy equipment. It was covered with tarpaper and worked sufficiently unless it was raining.
During this time, we generally flew resupply missions. Our day usually began with a flight to Cherbourg, the port city we liberated in Operation Overlord. After loading our planes, we flew to various parts of France—wherever those supplies were needed near the front lines. We often had to unload the supplies, and we occasionally evacuated wounded soldiers.
On October 26, we moved again—Alençon to Châteaudun, about 70 miles southwest of Paris. It had been built as a French air base but was taken over by the Germans after the 1940 invasion. The Germans later based their Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighters there.
Châteaudun was pretty well bombed out. There were many, many hangars, but no hangar was intact. There had been huge craters in the runway where our bombers had dropped 500-pound bombs, but they had been patched and repaired. Still, it was a well-equipped field.
We were living in tents out in the flat land east of the airfield, and we had a water supply. We had no electricity, but we did have mess halls, and the food was good. We could use the materials we found from the abandoned buildings and planes, and we tried to make our living quarters as comfortable as possible.
During this time, we continued flying supplies to the Allied front and evacuating the wounded to hospitals in England. As Christmas approached, I thought about being in Fort Benning, Georgia, for Christmas just one year ago. So much had happened during the past year.
THE RELIEF OF BASTOGNE
Soon it became time for another big operation—the relief of Bastogne. In December 1944, American forces were in Bastogne, but the Germans launched their Ardennes counteroffensive and trapped the 101st Airborne Division in and around the town. We got orders to deliver supplies to them.
Shortly before we took off on December 27, headquarters had received word that the Germans had moved a flak gun into the area. Headquarters, though, did not fully communicate the extreme urgency of the situation to our mission commander before we left. The Germans had positioned their flak gun on a railroad crossing and had it zeroed in on the corridor they knew we would be flying. They also had 20mm, 30.30, and 30.06 guns, so they were ready for us.
We were flying a 50-ship mission towing gliders. The orders had been, “Get there as soon as possible.” Our primary mission was to deliver 76 tons of heavy ammunition, along with four surgeons. We had some fighters protecting us, but I saw two hit before we reached our LZ.
As we came in, the Germans opened fire. The black smoke made visibility almost impossible, but we had to stay in formation until we released our gliders. After releasing the gliders, we made a left turn. That was when all hell broke loose.
Flak was everywhere. The sky was just nothing but a big cloud of black smoke with our airplanes flying right smack dab into it. We were ducking, diving, and climbing all over the sky in that black cloud with flak exploding above us and ground fire below us. Flak was exploding so close that it bounced the airplane around, and we could hear the flak hitting it. One burst in half right in front of the windshield, scratching it as each half flew by but, luckily, the windshield didn’t break.