A Rookie Bomber Crew's Baptism by Fire (Part II)
“Pilot to left waist. Hallstead, are you working the chaff chute?” Second Lieutenant Charles Pillon asked of his radioman over the interphone as Linz, Austria, drew closer. It was just past noon on 25 April 1945.
My God, I’ve forgotten the only specific duty I have up here, Corporal William Hallstead thought to himself. He moved across the waist to the little chute in the floor behind the right waist window and began slipping the paper-wrapped bundles through the hole. Hallstead’s job was to dispense three packets every twenty seconds.
“One Mississippi, two Mississippi,” the radioman began whispering to himself. Oh, to hell with that, he thought, and began guessing at the twenty-second intervals.
“Pilot to crew. Initial point,” Pillon announced as the formation turned onto the bomb run. Hallstead, still tossing bundles out of the chaff chute, reflected on how the Fifteenth Air Force had a reputation for making long, accurate bomb runs. Then the nose gunner broke him out of his reverie.
“Flak, twelve o’clock level!” George Petty called, his voice rising with every syllable. “Flak, two o’clock high! Flak, ten o’clock . . . Flak! FLAK!”
Hallstead stretched up from his position at the flak chute to look out the right waist window. Dirty puffs of smoke smeared the sky all around the Liberator, sliding by in the air like floating black cotton balls. The radioman also stole a glance of the Danube before a hand on his flak helmet pushed his head down. It was Ed Herpak, the flight engineer of Hallstead’s regular crew who today was flying as right waist gunner. The radioman stole one last look. His nose level with the waist windowsill, Hallstead saw tendrils of missile exhaust soar through the formation, the projectiles exploding overhead. They’re shooting rocket flak at us, too? the radioman thought incredulously before dropping to his knees to resume working the chaff chute.
Hallstead was terrified and soon found himself silently repeating, The flak you can see won’t get you. The flak you can see won’t get you. The idea behind the popular saying among bomber crews was that, for flak to damage a bomber seriously, it would have to explode so close and so fast that the crew wouldn’t get a chance to see it.
“The hit sounded like a Pullman door slamming on a noisy train,” Hallstead remembered. The radioman looked over and saw that Herpak was down. Thinking the waist gunner was hit, Hallstead crawled over to assist. Herpak suddenly got back on his feet, apparently uninjured, but not two feet away was a jagged, grapefruit-sized hole in the floor, and a second one in the roof. Either a shell had passed through the Liberator without exploding, or a very large piece of shrapnel had done the deed. Whatever the case, the projectile had punctured a portable oxygen bottle on its transit through the ship, sending it “spinning in mid-air like a berserk toy,” as Hallstead recalled.
The radioman tried to report the hit to the crew, but the interphone was dead. Then Hallstead realized he had pulled the jack out of its socket when he rushed to assist Herpak. Not only that, he had also unplugged his heated suit and his oxygen hose. Hallstead, clearly frazzled by the situation, tried to shove the oxygen plug into the suit plug socket and the interphone plug into the oxygen hose connector. Slow down, Corporal, Hallstead thought to himself. He took a deep breath and reattached all the connections correctly, then reported in again.
“Left waist to pilot, we’ve just had a flak hit back here,” he called.
Then a succession of near hits rocked the plane. At that, Hallstead looked over to see the ball turret access door spring open, and out scrambled the veteran ball gunner who had mocked the rookies hours before. The sergeant detached his oxygen mask, and out flew a cascade of vomit. The veteran had been on many missions, and if what he had seen outside was so bad this day that he vomited in his mask out of fright, it must have been horrific indeed.
At the moment of maximum terror, the plane suddenly bucked upward. “Bombs away!” called navigator-togglier Harry Miller from the nose. Pillon took the Liberator into aggressive evasive action, and soon they were out of the flak field. Hallstead peered out the waist window and could see that three of his squadron’s seven Liberators were lagging behind the formation, most likely damaged and unable to keep up.
“Pilot to crew. Everybody okay?” Pillon called over the interphone. Each crewman checked in, one by one. Then Pillon followed up, “Were we really hit back there, or were you kidding me, Hallstead?”
In the squadron’s lead ship, three of William Hallstead’s other crewmates, Corporals Sam Dalton, Billy Kessler, and Nick Silvestro, also experienced their first taste of combat. Dalton had grown up on a farm in Hillsville, a town of fewer than seven hundred souls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. On 14 April 1912, a gunfight broke out in the county courthouse, leaving five dead and putting Hillsville in the national headlines until the sinking, the following day, of the Titanic. Eighteen years later, a fire devastated the heart of the quiet Appalachian town, burning much of the downtown business district.
Although Hillsville and its residents bounced back quickly from these tragedies, the Depression hit the area hard, and the Dalton family moved to Baltimore in search of work. By the time Sam was old enough to enlist and pursue his dream of being a pilot, the AAF had all but stopped taking pilot candidates, and he opted for aerial gunnery training. After extensive Stateside instruction and the Pillon crew’s long layover in Greenland as they awaited a new engine for their B-24, Dalton likely had doubts that he would ever see combat.
When the day finally came, Linz did not disappoint. Although flak tore a hole in his Liberator’s left wing, Dalton, positioned in the tail turret, recorded in his logbook that he “didn’t think (the mission) rough.” He continued, with almost childlike exuberance, “The Danube wasn’t blue! I think we plastered them good with our ten bombs of five hundred pounds each. I sure got a kick out of this first mission.”
The mission to Linz was the only venture into combat for William Hallstead, and the end of the war two weeks later brought “oddly mixed emotions:”
"We were glad we had survived Europe’s air war, but we also felt we hadn’t accomplished much of what we had been trained for. This had been like watching two combatants flog each other until one was near collapse, then walking into the ring and giving him the final pop."
Hallstead dealt with this sentiment by pouring his heart and soul into his passion—the written word. He had developed a knack for writing at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, prior to enlisting in the service, and in 1959 he sold his first work of fiction to Boys’ Life magazine. In the story, a fictional German pilot named Ernst Kretschmer makes at pass at Hallstead’s B-24 in the skies over Linz, Austria, on 25 April 1945. But as Kretschmer closes in for the kill in an Me 262 jet, neither he nor the men on the Liberator fire a shot. Hallstead wrote: "Of course, I will never be certain of what kept the German pilot’s thumb off the firing button that April afternoon, or what held the fire of our own gunners. But in the space of one quick breath, it changed the sky over Austria from an arena of hate to a crystal blue sky of hope."
Hallstead went on to pen the thirty-first book in the Hardy Boys series and 27 other works. “I want to be remembered as a writer who kept trying,” he recollected in 2013.
- William Hallstead’s unpublished memoir, used with his permission.
- William Hallstead interview with Mike Croissant, 23 September 2013. - Samuel W. Dalton, Jr. email to Mike Croissant, 23 April 2018. - Samuel Dalton logbook entry, 25 April 1945.
- William F. Hallstead, “We Saw the First Jet,” Boys’ Life, December 1959.