Monday, April 20, 2015

Witchcraft


So, there I was…..*  Holy Saturday, in my workshop when I hear the sound of an airplane rapidly approaching.  
My personal sawdust factory, lawn mowing and hay hauling vehicle and tennis ball chasing canine

I rush outside in time to see a P-51C pass overhead.  By the time I get my phone, all I get is a dot in the sky.  My Son and Daughter-in-Law arrive shortly thereafter and we head to the airport to see what’s what.  But, you know all that, because you read last week’s post about the B-17 “Nine O Nine”.  

The B-17 is owned and operated by the Collings Foundation along with several other historic aircraft, including the aforementioned Mustang (which actually is a TP-51C) and the subject of today’s post the B-24J.  All three are parked on the ramp when we arrive at the airport.

We tour the B-17 first, primarily because it was located closest to the entrance.  I had two main impressions about the aircraft.  First, that it felt rugged, that it could sustain damage and return home.  It could and did.  Second, the aircraft was cramped, much smaller inside than it looked like from the outside.  While I am a bit plus sized now, even in my fighting days, the B-17 had spaces I’d have had a hard time getting in.

We spent a considerable period poking around and finally exited out the rear hatch. 

We decided the next aircraft to visit would be the B-24. 

This particular B-24 had been built in Fort Worth and transferred to the Royal Air Force participating in combat from India.  Abandoned by the British after the war, the Indian Air Force restored it to operational capability and used it until 1968.  It was eventually decommissioned then recovered, restored and now represents a B-24 named Witchcraft. 
The original Witchcraft
Source: Flickr
 
I’ll leave it to the Collings Foundation literature to detail that bomber’s history.

"The history of “Witchcraft” is a story that legends are made from. The original “Witchcraft” was produced as a B-24H, built by Ford at the famous Willow Run, MI plant in 1944. It was delivered to the 467th in Wendover, Utah and initially assigned to Second Lieutenant George W. Reed and his crew who flew the aircraft to England. “Witchcraft” safely arrived with her crew at Station 145 in Rackheath, England on March 19th, 1944, after a 20-day flight over the Atlantic. The aircraft and crew began their combat service on April 10th, 1944, flying the first combat mission of the 467th Bomb Group. Over the next year “Witchcraft” flew an incredible 130 combat missions with various crews. “Witchcraft” was never once turned back while on a mission, and never had any crewmen injured or killed. Her last mission was flown on April 25th, 1945 which also was the last mission flown by the 467th Bomb Group. “…Witchcraft” was there at the beginning and at the end.” After the war, she was returned to the United States and like many other B-24’s, was scrapped on October 3rd, 1945 at the surplus depot in Altus, Oklahoma."
So, an impressive history both in actuality (having flown operationally for almost 25 years) as well as the bomber it represents.  Well worthy of further exploration although I think "a 20 day flight" would have set some endurance records.  Ever the grammar nazi!

Compared to the interior spaces of the B-17, and with one exception, the Liberator felt spacious. My impression, however, was that it wasn't as "solid" as the B-17.  Nothing I can put a finger on, just an impression.  Perhaps it was the bomb bay doors.  They rolled up like old time garage doors and looked like you could drop your bombs even if they didn't open.  I don't know.  Just my impression.  Certainly, the original Witchcraft was tough enough to get the job done.


There's that bald guy again.  What's he so fascinated about?
The Bombardier's station had a windshield wiper

Well, in the European theater, I'm sure it helps the accuracy of the bombing if the Bombardier can actually see the target.

Boarding started at the back of the plane
After experiencing the B-17, the Bald Guy is inspecting this one for clearance issues.

Climbing in and the first things I see are the waist guns.  Channelling my inner Murphy (of boarding steps and most recently Great Lake Freighter fame), I immediately man the position and begin searching for Fokkers in Messerschmidts (old joke).


No Fokkers, but there is a hostile looking Ford out there.
After enduring several strange looks from other folks working their way through the plane (ok, maybe the sound effects and radio commentary were a little overboard), we move forward to the ball turret.



Again, my size 10 for relative size.  I don't think it was much bigger, if any, than the one in the B-17.  Not going to pull a Murph here and open it up.  I'd probably still be in there. On to the Bomb Bay.





At least double the size of the B-17, in that there were two separate bays.  Here was also the only place on the Liberator that was smaller than the B-17.  I wold have had to transit 3 of those support beams and  that just wasn't going to happen.  I jumped off the catwalk and walked the length of the bomb bay to move further forward.

Which left us in the front of the airplane.

Since they were getting ready to fly one of their orientation rides ($432 each), the cockpit was closed.  It did look less cramped than the B-17s and had the radioman and flight engineer on their side of the bomb bay which seemed to make more sense to me.

Later in the day, I'm back out in the workshop and I hear the sound of a multi-engine aircraft in the vicinity.  Step out and am treated by this.  

Learned quite a bit while studying up for this post.   There were 18,468 B-24s (including variants) produced for a total cost in today's dollars of $88 Billion.  They operated in all theaters in the war.  While I knew that, it didn't really sink in as there is one mission that pretty much focuses everyone on the Liberator's role in WWII.


Source:www.afhso.af.mil
That, of course, would be the raid on Ploesti.  While in ROTC, we learned about the raid and the attempt to deny the German's Romanian Oil.  Later in SOS, we learned about the execution of the raid, that casualties were high, as well as the fact that there were 5 Medals of Honor awarded, 3 Posthumously. However, I never learned until now, was just how much that mission cost.

178 bombers took off from Benghazi. 16 aborted or crashed. 162 reached targets around Ploesti. 51 were shot down or interned in Turkey. 22 landed at various Allied bases in the Mediterranean. Of the 89 that returned to Benghazi that day, 58 were damaged beyond repair.  Leaving 31 aircraft operationally ready the following day.  17% of their capability. 440 aircrewmen were killed along with another 220 captured or missing. A 37% casualty rate.

The painting above is of a B-24 named "Hell's Wench", piloted by Lt Col Addison Baker.
The lead navigator's plane had crashed, and the backup plane became lost.  Col Baker recognized that and turned a large portion of the formation toward the target area.  In the target area, his aircraft took a AAA hit and started on fire.  He remained in the formation until his bombs were dropped and then maneuvered away from the formation to minimize risk to them.  His B-24 exploded and he and his crews remains were never recovered.  There is a monument to him at the American Military Cemetary in Florence.

His Medal of Honor citation reads:
"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy on August 1, 1943. On this date he led his command, the 93d Heavy Bombardment Group, on a daring low-level attack against enemy oil refineries and installations at Ploesti, Rumania. Approaching the target, his aircraft was hit by a large caliber antiaircraft shell, seriously damaged and set on fire. Ignoring the fact he was flying over terrain suitable for safe landing, he refused to jeopardize the mission by breaking up the lead formation and continued unswervingly to lead his group to the target upon which he dropped his bombs with devastating effect. Only then did he leave formation, but his valiant attempts to gain sufficient altitude for the crew to escape by parachute were unavailing and his aircraft crashed in flames after his successful efforts to avoid other planes in formation. By extraordinary flying skill, gallant leadership and intrepidity, Lt. Col. Baker rendered outstanding, distinguished, and valorous service to our Nation."

Yesterday, Sarge posted a great one about community.  People like Col Baker and his crew are the type that populate my community.  Fighter Pilots all,  Shoe Clerks need not apply.**


*SJC

**"There are two types of People in the Air Force, Fighter Pilots and Shoe Clerks.  Both are attitudes not AFSCs."

12 comments:

  1. I did not know that you had a sawdust factory. Very nice.

    That bald guy gets around doesn't he?

    We also have a new standard of measurement in photographs, the Juvat foot.

    Ya know we've often mentioned the stones needed to be a belly gunner on a B-17 or B-24 but that shot of the nose turret got to me.

    I can't imagine sitting in that thing, watching a flight of 109s or 190s rolling in hot on your bird. Coming straight at you. Dang!

    Great post Juvat.

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  2. I'm quite good at making sawdust, actually. Other aspects of woodworking, though....well, let's just say work in progress.

    Yeah, I was a little disappointed we couldn't get in there. I'll bet the peacetime view from their would be fantastic, if a bit disconcerting. Wartime though, I think I'd like a bit more between me and the incoming than a piece of perspex.

    Thanks.

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  3. There will be wars in the future where Ploesti-raid-level casulaties will occur... and there will be targets justifying the casulaties.

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    1. Well, I pray you're wrong, but I'm afraid I am.

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  4. Another smashing post, Juvat. Thanks again!

    After reading your post I dug out my "Airwar" by Edward Jablonski and reread the Ploesti section. I can't find the right words. I don't think they've been invented. The first abort landed back at Benghazi in zero viz with a motor on fire, hit a concrete utility pole and blew up. The lead plane, Wingo-Wango, went out of control, recovered and began to climb back into formation, then nosed over and dived directly into the sea. No one has ever figured that out. All that remained was a haunting smoke column rising from the calm August Mediterranean. With the lead nav out, the strikers misidentified the IP and turned to soon, heading for Bucharest vice Ploesti. So much for surprise. When the raid made Ploesti the German and Romanian gunners were aiming in direct fire mode with instantaneous fusing.

    Those Liberator crews were Americans.

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    1. Thanks, Yes, they were. They were from the "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave".

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  5. I went on that same plane when it was in town. That catwalk got me. Felt like you were on a circus high-wire and as you say the bomb bay doors looked like flimsy garage doors.

    Sarge - if you went along the Pacific Highway in San Diego - saw that huge complex of buildings I believe at one time they were the old Consolidated plant, where they cranked out B-24s.

    Wasn't this plane also known as the Widowmaker?

    If you haven't read the book Unbroken I recommend it. It is about the life of Louis Zamperini, but the author Laura Hillenbrand went into great detail about what it was like to be a crewman.

    A passage I will always remember concerned the mission distances in the Pacific - so many hours - would like to say up to 10 but can't remember - navigating with the crudest of instruments all to find a fly speck of some island.

    And if you had to ditch in the water the high wing made survival iffy.

    Those planes would take off so loaded with bombs I have to wonder how many died at the end of the runway. I remember another passage (I guess told by Zamperini to the author) where they took off from some coral atoll and once off the runway they could see a palm tree scrap along the belly of the Liberator, seen through the gaps in that flimsy bomb bay door.

    BTW a little known fact - George McGovern was a captain in one and saved his crew when he nursed his shot-up plane back to an abandoned airfield in the Mediterranean.

    I think the 15th AAF flew predominantly B-24s; the 8th AAF B-17s.

    A salute to all those who flew them....

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    1. I believe the "official" Widowmaker was the B26, although I think there were several airplanes that probably could have qualified.

      Your point is well made about the weapons/fuel loads being so much that there wasn't much (any) margin for error on takeoff. Any loss of thrust whatsoever usually resulted in a crash.

      Unbroken is queued up in my Kindle. I'm looking forward to it.

      Ferried an F-4 from Moody to Taegu ROK in the early 80s. 2 ten + hour legs strapped into an ejection seat. First couple of hours wasn't bad, Next 3 hours were painful, then your butt went numb. Last hour was the worst. Just get me there! The 135s knew when we had enough gas to make it. All 16 went to mil power and left them in the dust.

      The Liberator entry in wikipedia has a list of notables who've flown the plane. Some were surprising. They postulated that flying it was the reason for McGovern's anti-war stance later in life.

      Took a lot of courage to fly bombers in WWII, a salute is the least we owe them.

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  6. IIRC after the raid because of its unprecedented nature, the Wing Co, "Killer" Kane "Battle-field promoted" EVERY SINGLE PERSON on the raid one rank and awarded a single-msn air medal to every single crew member as well!

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    1. I do believe that you're right Virgil.

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  7. PS: Should have added: "On The Spot!"

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    1. PPS: And IMHO if ever there was an action that justified such mass awards Ploesti was it.. (Although Schweinfurt and Regensberg come close)

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