EDITOR’S NOTE: The following feature series profiles Ellis County veterans killed in the line of service to their country during the 20th century.
The features, researched and written by Perry Giles, are read in first-person voice by area students during the annual Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Ceremony as a special way to remember and pay tribute to our friends, classmates and neighbors who gave their lives for our freedom.
“We Were Soldiers Once and Young” will appear every Sunday in the Daily Light through Veterans Day.
• Last of two-part series
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember…
Our 91st Bomb Group was dubbed “The Ragged Irregulars” because we were often shot up so badly, many times we could not put a full group into combat.
Often times, we had to fill in with other units to make up a full bombing formation. Our ground crews were constantly patching holes, replacing propellers, replacing engines, tail sections and wings, many times working tirelessly around the clock. We would have never made it into the air without those guys.
Many days were spent flying practice missions and going to ground school training classes. The gunners spent a lot of time out at the gunnery range shooting skeet. And it wasn’t at all unusual to get totally prepared for a mission and have it cancelled on us just before takeoff. That was something that really hurt the morale of the men.
When we had a liberty, Cambridge was one of our favorite places to go. Many of the officers and men made friends with the families there, and looked forward from week to week for their day off when they were able to ride over to Cambridge and escape this war to enjoy a little civilian leisure.
Feb. 16 was a typical mission for us. Our target was the U-boat base at St. Nazaire, France. Our combat wing put 51 bombers over the target that day and we all carried five 1,000-pound bombs. Our altitude at target was 24,000 feet. There was intense flak over the target, but our bomb pattern was good and concentrated, with many bombs hitting on target.
After the bomb run, at least 50 enemy fighters attacked us, like hungry dogs on prey. Our gunners worked furiously to keep them off of us, firing burst after burst. There was so much firing and brass shell casings flying around inside the plane that you couldn’t hear.
They attacked us at all angles and pressed home their attacks, flying through our formation again and again.
I looked one German pilot right in the face as he passed just by our cockpit, and I tell you he had blue eyes.
Our combat wing shot down six enemy fighters that day, but also lost six of our fortresses. That was 60 of our boys lost on this one mission. My group made it back unscathed, we were the lucky ones today. … That was mission No. 16 for me.
All the guys tried their best to put on a brave front. Nobody wanted to be the one to let down the crew. Everyone wants to do their part, but every time we took off on a mission, we knew the score.
On just about every mission some of our planes didn’t make it back. Truthfully, our chances of surviving 25 missions seemed hopeless, but we just did the best we could. Sometimes I wondered if the folks back home knew what we were going through.
It was just sickening to watch your buddies shot down, one after another. At night in the barracks, it was hard enough to sleep with all the worries and stress. I would lay awake and listen to the nightmares of the other airmen. Some would scream out, and brave men sometimes cried in their sleep. … Just nine more missions and I’m done with this.
On Thursday the 25th, we got up early and made all preparations for a mission to attack the marshalling yards at Abbeville, but the plan was changed at the last minute.
Now, we were to bomb a commerce raider that had been spotted at Dunkirk. This delayed our take-off time by hours, as our ordinance had to be unloading and changed out for different size bombs. Plus all of our briefings and mission plans had to be undone and started over again from scratch.
Finally after all this exertion, we proceeded to our aircraft, started the engines and warmed them up, ready to taxi to the end of the runway, and then the order came down that the entire mission was cancelled.
This would have been a milk run for us, and after all this, we were cancelled. No mission today after being all keyed up and focused for one.
Our disappointment was very keen, and needless to say, the ground school classes received very little attention for the rest of the day. Such was the way our days went. … We were totally frustrated and upset.
Late that afternoon we all gathered together in the gymnasium for a special memorial service. A Catholic chaplain led it, and there was a huge overflow crowd on hand, over 700 present I figured. The service, which began at 1730 hours, was in memory of all our personnel of the group that had been killed or who were missing in action. … We needed that. It helped me a lot. I think it helped us all.
The next morning, they woke us at 0230 for another mission. After a very quick breakfast there was a briefing at 0315 hours.
Today’s target was the naval construction yards at Bremen, with the port of Wilhelmshaven as the alternate target. Our bomb load was 10 500-pounders and we were to bomb today at 25,000 feet. We were at our stations by 0730 ready to go. It was cold and breezy.
We taxied to the end of the runway and waited for the flair signal, and then we were rolling and airborne by 0800 hours. The weather was clear, the crew was in good spirits, and from all indications it would be a routine mission. … It was Feb. 26. This would be my 17th.
Flying east toward Germany over the North Sea, the lead navigator had miscalculated the wind speed, and the strong winds blew us off course.
Our group passed right over the German anti-aircraft positions on the Frisian Islands. Several aircraft took flak damage from thismistake, one fortress had to turn back, but we continued on. As we approached Bremen, it was decided to abort the primary target due to the weather, and we turned north toward the naval yards at Wilhelmshaven.
As we approached the target, nerves tensed up, you could see the flak exploding in black puffs just ahead, but we flew right straight into it. The plane jolted and bounced about, but we flew on, following our leader as best we could. … Just eight more and I’m done with this.
Our bomb run was fairly good with a heavy pattern on the Reich docks and U-boat lairs.
After “Bombs Away” there was a sense of relief, but our work was not over, now we were flying for ourselves. The flak was rather intense but nothing we hadn’t lived through before. But once clear of the flak, we were hounded by six twin-engine JU88’s and about 24 FW190 fighters. They followed us out over the North Sea and the chase was on.
We gave it full throttle and turned for England. Our gunners were firing away, short burst after short burst, lots of frantic chatter on the intercom, and then I heard it. … Gunfire tearing through our wing!
I shouted to Johnny, “Our No. 4 engine is on fire! The flaps are all shot up! We are losing fuel and losing it fast!”
It was very clear to us that we weren’t going to make it back to England. So we turned the plane back and tried to make a run for some dry land, any land. I turned around and took one last look at our group as they flew away from us over the sea.
It was a Friday, and I was 23 years old.
They never found us. My name is on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Cemetery in Cambridge, England.
We were Airmen once, and young … Remember us, all 10 of us.
* On several missions flown by the crew of the “Kickapoo,” including their last mission, they were accompanied in wing formation by the 324th Bomb Squadron and the crew of Captain Robert K. Morgan flying in the “Memphis Belle.” Just a couple of months after Lt. Harry Green and crew were lost; the “Memphis Belle” completed its 25th mission on May 17, 1943 and returned to the states to a triumphant welcome.
Perry Giles serves as co-chair of the Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Committee. The 2011 countywide tribute to veterans is scheduled for 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 12, at the Waxahachie Civic Center followed by a wreath presentation at the Ellis County Veterans Memorial located in front of the center.