Prelude to Overlord
In November 1943 Adolph Hitler appointed Field Marshall Erwin Rommel to be the Inspector of Coastal Defenses in France, and then later appointed him Commander of Army Group B which occupied these coastal defenses along the northern coastline. The legendary German hero of North Africa arrived in France in December and immediately began improving these defenses. He endeavored to create an impassable zone, initially 100 meters deep, along the whole channel coast with hopes to eventually extend its depth to a kilometer by the laying of 200 million mines. He dramatically accelerated the rate at which beach obstacles were constructed and by May 11th, more than half-a-million had been raised along the channel foreshore and on likely glider and parachute landing zones behind the beaches. Additionally, some areas immediately behind the beaches were inundated with water to further inhibit any movement off the beaches and to contain the attacker’s beachheads.
Hitler's plan to thwart the impending Allied invasion that he knew would come early in the next year was outlined in the same November 3 directive giving Field Marshall Rommel this new role. Fuehrer Directive 51 noted:
"The threat from the East remains, but an even greater danger looms in the West: the Anglo-American landing!...If the enemy here succeeds in penetrating our defenses on a wide front, consequences of staggering proportions will follow within a short time. All signs point to an offensive against the Western Front of Europe no later than spring, and perhaps earlier...I have therefore decided to strengthen the defenses in the West, particularly at places from which we shall launch our long-range war against England. For those are the very points at which the enemy must and will attack; there-unless all indications are misleading-will be fought the decisive invasion battle."
The sustained Allied bombing campaign of early 1944 seriously curtailed German production of war materials, and the effective aerial prowess of newly arrived P-51s had taken a serious toll on the Luftwaffe's resources to resist the coming invasion from the air. Nonetheless, occupied France remained a stronghold of Nazi military might and by May 1944 Hitler had 59 Divisions spread across the region. The Fuehrer and his top commanders, however, could only guess at the WHEN and the WHERE of the impending invasion.
American air missions leading up to the invasion therefore, had to be multifaceted. Foremost, they were practical missions--bombing raids to further weaken the enemy supply of war material and infrastructure: vehicles, railroads, bridges, and petroleum. Secondarily but equally important, they were tactical missions, assigned to strike a balance between targets in the vicinity of the planned landing and diversionary targets to avoid exposing the secret of that landing site.
The precarious balance of these assigned missions is quickly evident in Eighth Air Force Field Order 709 for the June 2 air missions. It stated:
"All objectives were located in the Pas de Calais (Fortitude) area, the attacks having as their purpose deception of the enemy as to the actual assault area. (Cover Plan.) It was provided that in these operations immediately preceding D-Day only one-half of the available heavy bombers were to be employed in order to conserve the force for an all-out assault in direct support of the troop landings."
The practice and goals established in that June 2 Operations Order reflect the manner in which all air operations were planned and conducted in the final week before D-Day. The term "Fortitude" mentioned in that order referenced a top-secret effort to deceive the German intelligence effort to correctly predict the site of the Allied invasion. That effort was code named "Fortitude South."
Beginning in 1943, a skilled team worked to create the illusion of a large invasion force being massed at Kent in England. Dummy tanks and aircraft were built of inflatable rubber and placed in realistic looking "camps". Harbors were filled with fleets of mock landing craft. To German reconnaissance aircraft, it all looked real, even down to attempts at camouflage. Knowing that German intelligence would be trying to find out more, double agents planted stories and documents with known German spies. General George Patton was supposedly commander of the non-existent force and realistic radio transmissions were broadcast as if a large army were being organized.
The overall effect was to convince German intelligence that the invasion would be launched against Pas-de-Calais, the French port situated at the point where the English Channel is at its narrowest point. Ultimately, the ruse was successful far beyond what Allied commanders could have hoped. The bulk of the German defensive forces were concentrated near Calais. So convinced was the Nazi high command that Calais would be the site of the D-Day invasion, when the actual landings DID occur but far to the southwest at Normandy, the Nazis continued to prepare to defend Calais in the belief that the Normandy landings were a diversion. As a result, in the first critical 24 hours of D-Day, tens of thousands of German troops were kept in their fortifications at Calais, rather than rushed to the site of the actual invasion.
Air missions, such as the June 2 raid against targets in the vicinity of Pais de Calais, helped to further reinforce the aims of Fortitude South in convincing the enemy that the attacks were bombardments preparatory to amphibious assault on the region. These diversionary missions were code named Operation Cover, and would continue until D-Day. The fact that they were diversionary in nature certainly did not, however, decrease their danger. So effective had the Allied deception become that the Calais area was the most fortified and heavily armed Nazi stronghold outside of Berlin. On June 2 the 489th Bombardment Group flew the third of its total 106 missions of the war. In a total of 2,998 sorties over enemy territory from May 30 until the end of the war, the group lost 26 bombers. On June 2 they suffered their heaviest single-day casualty rate of the war: 4 bombers destroyed, 3 badly damaged, 21 airmen killed, 5 wounded, and 6 captured by the Germans. One entire crew bailed out over England. Lieutenant Colonel Vance was not on the schedule for the operation and missed the action.
On June 3, (then) D-Day minus 2, two separate Operation Cover missions were flown. The 489th Bombardment Group got a day of rest, while more than 500 heavy bombers from other groups attacked coastal defenses near Calais in two separate missions. Despite heavy and accurate anti-aircraft fire over the heavily-defended region, no bombers were lost.
Sunday, June 4, was supposed to be the day prior to the invasion, "D-Day minus 1." Eighth Air Force assets were divided between two missions: Operation Cover to continue bombardment in the Calais area, and Operation Neptune, the actual channel-crossing phase of Overlord. Poor weather continued across the channel however, and with low ceiling, heavy rain, and high seas, the D-Day landing was postponed for 24 hours. The Neptune air missions were cancelled, but more than 900 bombers in three separate operations, attacked northern France. The first two waves hit targets in the Calais area. Later in the day the third, with more than 400 heavy bombers, attacked railways and bridges throughout northern France. Again, despite heavy anti-aircraft fire, no heavy bombers were lost. Twenty-six Liberators of the 489th Bombardment Group joined in these assaults, but also again, Lieutenant Colonel Vance was not on the roster. Instead, he was scheduled to lead the following morning's raid.
By sunset on the evening of June 4 the troops, trucks, tanks, and other supplies had been loaded for transport across the English Channel. Nervous young men crammed the decks, some sleeping inside covered trucks to try and remain dry, others forced to survive the continuing rain fall. Under the most favorable of conditions however, sleep would have been nearly impossible. All involved knew that within 24 hours they would most likely be embarking on the most dangerous venture into the unknown that they would ever experience.
At 0415 Monday morning General Eisenhower and the top Allied commanders of SHEAF gathered for an update on weather conditions. The forecast was promising, though not as good as the commanders had hoped. In fact, so marginal was the weather at that moment that ultimately it convinced the Germans that the Allied invasion could not be accomplished in the coming days, prompting Field Marshall Rommel to travel to Berlin, where he was meeting with the Fuehrer at the moment the first Allied soldiers waded ashore at the five Normandy invasion beaches.
After hearing the reports and discussing the options with his commanders, General Eisenhower announced his decision with a smile: "All right boys, we'll go."
Meanwhile at airfields all across England, in the predawn chill, scores of B-24 Liberators and B-17 Flying Fortresses began warming their engines for one last mission before D-Day. In all some 629 heavy bombers were assigned to attack coastal defensive installations at Cherbourg to the west of the invasion beaches, similar targets in and around Calais northeast of the invasion site, as well as 3 V-weapons sites and a railroad bridge further inland. Mission 4 for the newly-arrived 489th Bombardment Group was shaping up to be a "milk run." Thirty-six of the Group's Liberators were scheduled to lead the attack on enemy coastal defenses at Wimereaux a few miles south of Pais de Calai. From their airfield at Halesworth is was barely 100 miles to target, most of the trip over the water of the channel and with very little time over occupied France where some remaining Luftwaffe fighters were poised for a final, desperate attack.
Lieutenant Colonel Leon Vance had been assigned air group commander for this mission, his second combat mission since arriving in England. In this role he would ride, not pilot, the lead bomber--and his aircraft was NOT the Sharon D. The lead bomber had been christened "Missouri Sue" but bore no markings to identify it other than the tail numbers 42-294830 and the white letter "A" in a circle, indicating that it was from the 44th Bombardment Squadron.
Flying Eight Balls
The 44th Bombardment Group, the first B-24 group in the U.S. Army Air Force, was based out of Shipdham some 40 miles west of Halesworth. It was a veteran group that had distinguished itself in combat since its arrival in October 1942. Adding the two "fours" from their Group number the airmen achieved a sum of "8" and therefore called themselves the "Flying Eight Balls." Early on the their rivals in the 93d Bombardment Group, a Liberator group that was organized after the 44th but that had preceded them in combat by one month, took to calling them the "Flying Odd Balls." In the years and missions that followed the 93d and 44th would maintain a constant rivalry. To many of the Flying Odd Balls it seemed like the 93d, known as the Traveling Circus, got all the media attention, while the 44th got all the dangerous missions and suffered the highest casualties.
The Group earned its first Distinguished Unit Citation eight months after it entered combat while flying in the wake of the main formation during a daring May 14, 1943, raid against enemy shipping installations at Kiel. In June the group was one of three Eighth Air Forcer Liberator Groups, including the 98th BG, detached for service with the 9th Air Force in North Africa. On the daring August 1 low-level raid over Ploesti, Rumania, the Group suffered heavy casualties including ten aircraft lost, and earned a second Distinguished Unit Citation. Their commander, Colonel Leon Johnson was one of five airmen in that one massive air mission who earned the Medal of Honor.
Following the Ploesti raid, the group remained in North Africa in support of the Salerno operations for two months. Following the heavy losses over Ploesti, new bombers and crews began arriving quickly, including Captain Louis Mazure. Mazure flew missions in September before the 44th Bombardment Group returned to the Mighty Eighth in England in October, one year after they had arrived initially to begin combat operations.
Captain Mazure and other airmen of the 44th BG flew during Big Week, as well as throughout the early Spring 1944 campaign to pave the way for Operation Overlord. The Flying Eight Balls had been seasoned by both triumph and tragedy. On a March 14 mission eight heavy bombers were lost, and the following month on April 8 the Group suffered its heaviest single-day losses of the war, when eleven out of twenty-seven bombers dispatched on a mission over Germany were lost. Ultimately the group would end the war with the highest Missing in Action loss (153 heavy bombers) of all the 8th Air Force's B-24 Groups. Conversely, the Group operated out of England longer than any other Liberator Group and was credited with shooting down 330 enemy fighters, the Mighty Eighth's record for any B-24 group.
The winter weather in Europe seemed to ally itself to the Axis. Constant cloud cover often grounded Allied bombers, which normally made their runs into target using the visual capabilities of the Norden Bomb Sight, for four out of every five days during the months of November through April. The problem led to development of radar for identifying ground targets through the overcast. To facilitate "Blind Bombing," sometimes called "BTO" (Bombing Through Overcast), the Eighth Air Force established a Pathfinder Force (PFF). The technique called for a highly skilled air crew in a modified aircraft to lead the way, identify the target, and unleash its load. The trailing aircraft in the bomber stream then "bombed on the leader," trusting the skill of the PFFs to insure that they had not flown all this way and risked their lives in vain--only to unload on barren land or empty water.
The B-24s of the 44th Bombardment Group's 66th Squadron were modified with the equipment necessary for radar identification of targets. Special, highly trained navigators were assigned to these bombers, and the most experienced air crews assigned to pilot and defend what was to become the 44th Bomb Group's Pathfinder Force. In May Captain Mazure was assigned to pilot one of these PFFs, and given a crew that had flown 14 missions with the 93d Bombardment Group before being sent to the 66th squadron. They were joined by Lieutenants Bernard Bail and Nathaniel Glickman, both of whom were highly trained in radar and navigation.
On the early morning of July 5 Captain Mazure's crew was preparing for their third PFF mission after more than a month of specialized training in May. Their first two PFF missions had been on June 2 and 3, followed by a single day of rest. With the arrival of several new and inexperienced Bombardment Groups in England, crews of the 66th Bombardment Squadron were regularly assigned as PFFs for the new arrivals. Such was to be their role in the mission the 489th BG had been tasked with leading into Wimereaux.
Captain Mazure's co-pilot Lieutenant Earl Carper, known to his friends as Rocket, wasn't too excited about taking aboard the Air Group commander, a Lieutenant Colonel from the 489th Bomb Group that none of them knew. This reluctance however, was not because the man was unknown. Rocket knew that the air group commander usually flew in the right-hand seat of the lead PFF, forcing the co-pilot to "stand by" at the waist. It made for an unusually cold and almost always uncomfortable sortie. Rocket tried to comfort himself with the knowledge that today's target lay only 100 miles distant. In all, the round trip would take less than two hours, a welcome break from the eight-to-ten hour missions he had flown all too often.
Dawn was beginning to break as Captain Mazure's crew gathered at their bomber and looked off into the distance. The briefing had been at 0400 with the announced target as Wimereaux, and the bomb load identified as ten 500-pound bombs. Four-and-a-half hours after the briefing began the crew had assembled. In the early haze they noted the arrival of a tall, lean lieutenant colonel who walked with confidence and had the immaculate appearance of a classic West Pointer. Lieutenant Colonel Vance introduced himself to Captain Mazure, then shook hands with the other officers and enlisted crew of the lead bomber for the day's mission. Then Vance gave Rocket a totally unexpected surprise when he announced, "You'll fly in your normal position as co-pilot. I'll stand behind to observe."
The crew then boarded to prepare for their 0900 takeoff, Lieutenant Bernard Bail (Lead Radar Navigator) and Lieutenant John Kilgore (Navigator) taking their positions on the flight deck behind the pilot and copilot. Lieutenant Milton Segal (Bombardier) assumed his position in the clear Plexiglas nose alongside Pilotage Navigator Lieutenant Nathaniel Glickman. As the PFF lead upon whose bomb drop the following Liberators would unload their own ordnance, these specialized officers numbered two more than a typical bomber crew.
The radio man was Technical Sergeant Quentin Skufca, and Technical Sergeant Earl Hoppie was the flight engineer, stationed in the top turret. Waist guns were manned by Staff Sergeants Davis Evans and Harry Secrist, while Staff Sergeant Wiley Sallis slipped his slim frame into the small compartment behind the tail turret. With Lieutenant Colonel Vance positioning himself behind the pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit, it meant that the lead bomber would carry a crew of twelve, two men more than the typical Liberator compliment.
Captain Mazure warmed his engines while awaiting the signal to take off. Then, into the early morning skies he led the way up above the low clouds, climbing to 10,000 feet. A short time later Lieutenant Colonel Vance released the flare to assemble the formation while Captain Mazure headed south for the brief trip over the English Channel, climbing to the 22,500-foot bombing altitude the mission had specified. "We're on our way," Lieutenant Kilgore announced over the interphone, and then in what seemed only a few minutes, they were over enemy-held territory.
The bomber stream continued inland as if their target lay beyond the coast, Lieutenant Bail plotting their course and then ordering a turn to approach Wimereaux from the south. Flak was light and nearing the IP, control of the aircraft was turned over to Lieutenant Segal who ordered the bomb bay doors opened. Minutes later he announced "Bombs away," and from that point on it was a straight shot back to England, the following Liberators preparing to unload their own bombs as they headed for home.
Then over the interphone came the voice of Sergeant Hopie announcing, "Bombs away, hell. They didn't release." The malfunction not only spared the enemy emplacements on the ground below from Missouri Sue's 5,000-pound bomb load, but the from the loads carried by every bomber that followed. It was the PFF's bombs that were the signal to those behind, and lacking that signal, the entire formation was winging out over the English Channel to jettison their cargo into the water as previously ordered during the morning briefing.
"Take her back around for another pass," Lieutenant Colonel Vance advised Captain Mazure. Slowly the lead bomber began a 360-degree turn, the rest of the formation following as the stream prepared for another pass.
This time the enemy defenses were on high alert. Positioned in the nose turret, Lieutenant Glickman could see that they were flying into a maelstrom of deadly accurate anti-aircraft fire. In the radio room Sergeant Skufca, following procedure during the bomb run, turned off his radios and sat down on the step just outside his mid-fuselage compartment. Suddenly hot metal streaked upward through the floor, destroying the radio equipment and knocking away Skufca's oxygen mask by its brute force. Pain stabbed at his legs, now torn by multiple fragments of metal. Fighting a rush of dizziness he staggered towards the waist to get oxygen from the auxiliary supply, nearly falling in the process.
Sergeant Siegrist reached out to steady his friend while gasoline began to spray from ruptured fuel lines as if the waist position were a shower room. "Skuf was lying on the waist floor in gas," he recalled. "I put the spare parachute under his head and immediately after I stood up, a large burst of flak came through the side of the waist and passed between Skuf and I. It made a hole in the wall about ten inches wide, then it made several holes in the left side of the waist." On the flight deck Sergeant Hoppie was standing on his flak vest when more shrapnel ripped through the floor, knocking him off his feet. Only the cushion of the vest spared his life.
"At this same instant my nose turret took a series of bursts that shattered the Plexiglas and cut open my forehead, as well as hitting the base of my spine," recalled Lieutenant Glickman. "Our plane continued to be hit as we stayed on the bomb run. My primary concern was the possibility of our bomb bays being hit before the bombs were released." Another burst turned the turret to the side. "I can't see," Glickman shouted into the microphone as blood flowed from his forehead and into his eyes, while anxious arms tried to crank the turret back around.
By now Missouri Sue was over the target and Lieutenant Segal hit the salvo release to jettison the load. Nine 500-pound bombs began their rapid freefall as more flak shook the bomber. Over the interphone came the voice of Sergeant Siegrist announcing, "Skufca's been hit. His legs are in a bad way."
But the worst damage had occurred in the cockpit. Hot shrapnel from a blast beyond the left wing tore into the cockpit, slicing into Captain Mazure's head just below the helmet. It happened in the same moment that Segal, following the downward path of the bombs announced, "We hit it right on the nose!"
"Good boy," Mazure managed to shout into his microphone. They were his last words as he slumped forward, instantly dead.
Lieutenant Carper immediately took control, fighting to steady the flying wreckage that moments earlier had been a stout B-24. Colonel Vance shouted into the microphone, "Pilot to engineer: Number One engine is smoking. Shut off the fuel." Then came more explosions, one of them ripping into the floor and sending a ripple of pain through the air group commander's right leg as he stood behind the two seats in the cockpit. Through the window he could see that the Number One engine had ceased turning, one propeller blade sheered away and the remaining three dangling helplessly. Two more engines were out and the fourth engine appeared about to fail. Lieutenant Carper had his hands full just trying to keep the bomber level, so Vance leaned forward to try and feather the engines before the bomber could go into a stall.
Leaning forward with all his strength, something seemed to be holding him back, denying him the necessary few inches required to shut down the engines. Looking quickly backward he found the reason for the pain he had felt moments earlier. His ankle had been nearly severed when the flack ripped through the floor. The useless foot, attached now to his leg by only the Achilles tendon, was wedged between the ship's armor plate and the turret wreckage. In a supreme effort of will Vance lunged forward again, this time reaching the controls and shutting down the engines.
The bomber had cleared the target area and was now headed out over the English Channel. Though it had dropped 5,000 feet in the scant seconds during which the bombs had been released, three engines had been shot out, the pilot killed, and at least three crewmen wounded, the sturdy Liberator was responding to Rocket's skillful mastery of the controls in an effort to glide closer to England. Because of the short distance, despite the fact that a B-24 was far too heavy to be an effective glider, Carper hoped to reach the distant shores for an emergency crash landing. Then the news became even worse. Fuel continued to spray through the fuselage and the bomb bay doors were still open with one 500-pound bomb that had failed to release hanging precariously.
Lieutenant Kilgore recalled, "Hoppie, our engineer, literally 'slithered' out of the top turret, grabbing what I thought was a flight jacket and trying to stem the flow of gasoline with one hand, turning off the fuel transfer valves with the other....I got up from my seat and looked into the cockpit area, found Mazure slumped in his harness and his instrument panel was covered in blood. Carper was in the co-pilot position, doing what all good co-pilots do, trying to keep the plane flying. I then jumped down into the 'well' of the flight deck alongside Hoppie--not that I could assist him in any way, but to be first in line. Hoppie didn't need any help as he was a true professional and knew his job well."
Sergeant Hoppie was indeed occupied at this point in a critical effort to keep his airplane from erupting into flames. Gathering rags from whatever he could find, he began stuffing them over ruptured fuel lines to stem the continuing shower of gasoline. Aviation fuel sprayed into his eyes with a stinging fury that threatened to blind him. Suddenly the bomb bay doors began to close. Fearing the action would ignite a spark or worse, detonate the armed bomb that still hung in place, Hoppie grabbed the manual crank to reopen the doors while Kilgore shouted into the intercom to warn of the precarious situation.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Bail managed to reach Vance and begin administering first aid. The bomber was nearing land and Carper rang the bail-out bell. One by one the members of the crew began to jump from their damaged airplane. Sergeant Sallis had crawled forward from the tail and helped the injured Skufka to the bomb bay where both stepped into the void to fall earthward. Sergeant Davis went out the right waist window and Sergeant Secrist jumped from the left. One by one the officers made their exits as well, save for the dead pilot, the badly injured Command Pilot, Lieutenant Bail who was still treating Vance's wounds, and Lieutenant Glickman who was still trapped in the nose turret. Technical Sergeant Hoppe was preparing to jump from the open bomb bay doors when he noticed that his parachute pack was soaked in gasoline. It was too late to try and find a spare so, taking his chances, he tucked his body into a ball and rolled downward to begin his freefall.
Even in their exit the crew continued to be plagued by misfortune. After opening his chute Sechrist narrowly missed colliding with a barrage balloon before at last landing--in a minefield. Perhaps his only good fortune was that in landing he broke his leg. The fracture kept him from trying to walk out, an act that would surely have killed him. Skufca recalled regaining consciousness as he plummeted earthward. "It was like awakening from a snooze on a hot summer afternoon and finding yourself falling out of the hammock," he recalled. "I clutched for something solid. There was nothing solid to hold on to. The funny part of it is that I actually laughed--laughed like all hell when I pulled that ripcord and saw the thing open." Lieutenant Kilgore also broke a leg, in two places, upon landing.
Technical Sergeant Hoppe went into a free-fall for quite a distance before reaching for the rip cord. Aware that his clothes and parachute were soaked in gasoline, he prayed that the free-fall would accelerate the evaporation of the flammable mixture while also hoping that static electricity in the air would not ignite it. When at last he pulled the rip cord NOTHING HAPPENED! The wet silk remained tightly bundled inside its sodden pack.
Fighting to think clearly and remain calm, Hoppe began to claw at his pack, removing the silk in handfuls as it began to steam out above him. Then he felt a sudden relief when the canopy snapped open with a loud pop. "I can't remember what I yelled. It was the way you yell when you're on a roller coaster. It helped me realize that I was still alive," he later told a journalist.
Looking around as he floated earthward, Hoppe counted the other parachutes around him. There were seven open canopies counting his own. Above, the doomed Missouri Sue had turned towards the sea with five men still aboard.
In the cockpit Lieutenant Bail had used a belt as a tourniquet to stem the flow of blood from Lieutenant Colonel Vance's nearly severed foot and sprinkled sulfa powder over the exposed flesh. With time running out, Lieutenant Carper, believing that the rest of the crew had safely jumped, ordered Bail and Vance to prepare to exit themselves. The co-pilot went first, landing in the water where he became entangled in the shrouds of his chute and would have drowned had not a Spitfire pilot who was circling the area remained where he could guide a rescue boat to the barely-afloat co-pilot.
Lieutenant Bail recalled, "When only Colonel Vance and I remained, I told Col. Vance that we must now jump as there was no way to land that damaged plane, especially with those bombs hung up in the bay, armed and ready to explode on impact. Not being a doctor then, I was not fully aware that the Colonel was in shock. When the Colonel shook his head and said he wouldn't jump, I knew that there was no way I could drag him to the bomb bay, and assist him out. I knew, too, that the plane was losing altitude fast, and we didn't have much time. I checked his tourniquet, shook his hand and made my plunge through the open bay."
In fact, one other crewman remained aboard. Lieutenant Glickman stated, "I was the last man to bail out inasmuch as I was trapped in the nose turret after it had been shattered by flak and the power to turn it in position for me to fall backward had been cut off. I was forced to break my way out although I was wounded and hit in several places...I crawled to the nose wheel area, snapped on my chest chute, and because my legs were useless, crawled through the tunnel under the flight deck to the bomb bay catwalk. The only men I saw on board at that time on the flight deck were Col. Vance and the dead pilot, Captain Mazure."
The chronology of events and the accounts of the individual members of the crew that flew Missouri Sue to Wimereaux on the day before D-Day sometimes appear confusing and contradictory. Such is to be expected when twelve men endure such extreme trauma in so short a time. Sergeant Hoppie recalled looking at his watch as he touched down from his parachute drop. The time was 10:02 a.m. From takeoff through the determined effort to successfully bomb the target, followed by the desperate challenges to get home safely, only 62 minutes had passed.
The facts of the mission are these:
When Missouri Sue's bombs failed to release on the first run over target, Lieutenant Colonel Vance ordered a 360 degree turn for a second pass.
Somewhere in the process of the second bomb run Missouri Sue was repeatedly hit by flak, killing the pilot, wounding several members of the crew, and nearly severing Vance's right foot.
Three of the bomber's engines were destroyed and the fourth had to be shut down to prevent a stall. Damage throughout caused a shower of gasoline, and throughout the trip home the bomb bay doors remained open with an armed 500-pound bomb dangling precariously there from.
Through a valiant team effort under the leadership of Vance and with the deft skills of co-pilot Rocket Carper, the B-24 reached the coast of England, enabling ten men to successfully parachute to safety.
By 10:05 a.m. the powerless Missouri Sue was still gliding ever downward along the English coast line at about 10,000 feet. Only the dead pilot and seriously wounded command pilot remained inside her.
Lieutenant Bail's reference to Vance suffering from shock aside, the Command Pilot later gave two additional reasons for his decision not to parachute from the falling bomber. In a subsequent BBC Radio interview Vance recalled the earlier interphone message that Sergeant Skufca had been wounded in the legs and said, "I found out that Sgt. Skufca was in the waist area and badly injured, and couldn't bail out. So, naturally, I couldn't leave him." At that time Vance had no way of knowing that the tail gunner had dragged the unconscious radioman to the bomb bay and helped him out, or that Skufca had revived during his fall.
"All of the rest did bail out and I flew the ship down to crash-land in the Channel," Vance continued in the radio broadcast. "The windshield was cloudy with vapor and foggy, so that you could hardly see through it. I was lying on my stomach between the pilot and co-pilot seats with my hands on the wheel. I tried to get up but my foot was lodged around the flight deck. I could not take my hands off the controls to get my leg loose, as the plane would have stalled. It was hard to hold the ship level because the right elevator was shot away."
Beyond the fact that Vance was still trapped in the cockpit with his nearly-severed foot wedged so tightly he could not maneuver, and beyond his concern for what he thought was a wounded airman unable to parachute to safety, there may have been a third reason for his valiant efforts. Vance himself never spoke of it, but it was widely reported in subsequent news and other reports.
Missouri Sue remained a serious threat as long as it was over England. Had the bomber fallen into a populated area the combination of the bomb still hanging from the open bomb bay doors and the fuel-soaked fuselage, and an awful explosion might have killed hundreds of people on the ground. In fact, following the sight of ten parachutes falling from the bomber, indicating what would normally have been the FULL crew of a returning B-24, there was every reason to believe Missouri Sue was a pilot-less missile of dangerous proportions.
Years later Lieutenant Glickman attended a reunion of members of the Second Air Division at the U.S. Air Force Academy where he met the pilot of one of the returning, undamaged aircraft. "He had witnessed the damage to our plane and had counted the number of our crew that had bailed out," Glickman related. "Our plane was still airborne and headed inland, but as you know, was losing altitude. Someone had contacted the authorities, which, in turn, were concerned that the plane might crash into a built up area and allegedly, gave orders to them to shoot it down. Just as they turned to follow those instructions, our plane began its very slow turn to the left back towards the Channel where both Segal and I bailed out. The order, of course, was canceled, when it was noted that the plane was still under control and attempting to turn."
Just HOW Lieutenant Colonel Vance continued to control Missouri Sue at that point defies belief. His trapped foot had been stretched out nearly twelve inches from the leg, still hanging on to the tough sinews of the Achilles tendon. Somehow Vance had to glide the bomber away from land, yet put her down in water shallow enough for him to free himself and reach and rescue the wounded man he believed was still in the waist.
"I had been scared on my first mission and I was scared on this one," Vance recalled for an article in TRUE magazine. "Some people say they get scared before the take-off and forget about it when they get in the air. Some say they don't get scared until it's all over. Well, I was scared all the time.
"I began to get furious at the ice on the windows. Once or twice I lifted my right hand and tried to hit them. Then it struck me that I was acting like a little boy--like a youngster who hits the table because he has bumped his head.
"For some reason or other, this struck me as highly amusing and I began to laugh. It was hysterical laughter, I suppose, but I think it helped clear my head. There was no definite pattern to my thoughts, but they were reasonably clear.
"Things came flooding into my brain. All sorts of things. My daughter Sharon--she's about two--laughing as she had laughed one day back home. My wife. Small things we had done together. Things that didn't mean much at the time came back to me--clear and vivid.
"And then I would try to calculate my landing speed. Three hundred, I'd say, 'Hell, no, one hundred and sixty. Don't forget this is a Liberator, not a fighter.' And then I'd get mad as the devil at myself again for being so stupid. That's the way my thoughts were--mixed up, but clear and sharp.
"Deep down, I really believe I knew I was gone. I think if I had been alone--if I hadn't thought there was another man somewhere in the ship--I might have given up and just let things go. I'm not sure of that, of course, but I do think that fighting for two instead of one might have helped a little."
Stretched out nearly prostrate between the pilot and co-pilot seats, Vance strained against the tendons that still trapped him to control Missouri Sue as it dropped towards the water. Ignoring horrible pain and fighting back nearly uncontrollable fear, he operated the controls while fighting for any angle that would allow him to peer out the one small, open window to judge the moment of impact. As the waves grew closer he pulled his parachute pack over his head "so that I would not break my neck with the shock of impact." Moments later the bomber hit hard, the nose slamming into the crest of a wave.
"When the ship hit the water, the top turret came off, pinning me down," Vance recalled. "I was lying on my back and I was under about six feet of water. I figured that was the end of the line for me.
"That (being pinned down) was the worst part of the whole thing. I was certain that I was gone. But I was honestly past the point of being frightened. I just felt sad--horribly sad--sad as hell.
"Then I did something rather odd. I knew pilot Mazure was dead, but I reached over with my left and released his safety belt and pulled him up over my head toward the escape hatch. My lungs were hot and bursting and I know I must have been near the very end when it happened. I still don't know what it was. It couldn't have been the five-hundred pounder still in the bomb bay, because that would have blown me to bits. It might have been one of the small oxygen bottles.
"At any rate, something exploded and I found myself again in the outside world with the sun shining down in my face. I remember the disbelief in the whole few seconds. I absolutely couldn't believe that I was still alive. I thought that this must be a part of death. There was nothing in sight. The water was very calm and there was a slight ground haze over everything.
"After I got out I tried to climb back over the top of the ship to get Sgt. Skufca, the injured radio operator, but I just didn't have the strength. But it was just as well because, unbeknown to me, the two waist gunners had bailed him out.
"The only thing that connected me with the living world was the sun, shining hot through that haze. I knew there was something I should do, but I couldn't think what it was. I began swimming. Nothing happened when I kicked my right foot and I realized then for the first time that there was something wrong with it.
"I saw an oxygen bottle floating near me and tried to climb up on it. Did you ever try to get on one of those rubber horses in the water? That was the way this was. I kept slipping and falling off, getting weaker and weaker. I think I had some kind of an idea of tying myself to it, because I was afraid now that I would lose consciousness and roll over on my face.
To maintain consciousness Vance stared into the sun and, every time he felt his mind starting to blur, kicked himself with his one good leg or punched himself to inflict enough pain to keep him cognizant. An official Army press release issued four days later noted, "In a test of physical stamina that defies explanation the one-legged man swam for three miles in the icy water for forty-five minutes before he was picked up by arerescue (sic) ship." Quickly but carefully the British crew of the launch pulled the barely-conscious American officer from the water, his right foot still dangling on its tendons. Vance managed a quick smile and joked, "Don't forget to bring my foot in."
Then he mercifully passed out.