I had to make tough editorial choices for Bombing Hitler's Hometown, given how much research material I collected. Here's a story I found in microfilm and the pages of unit histories.
First Lieutenant Edward C. “Doc” Demmond and his men had something of a reputation as a hard luck crew. They had transferred to the 461st Bomb Group just days before the Linz mission of April 25, 1945, when their outfit, the 376th Bomb Group, was recalled to the United States for training and reassignment to the Pacific, and their long combat record included a crash landing and numerous shot-out engines and hung-up bombs.
On April 25, the crew flew a Liberator appropriately named What’s Next!, and on the long flight to Linz, the men had joked about the name and what it might portend for them.
Demmond’s B-24 had been hit by flak over Linz, and engineer Sergeant Frank J. Procopio had checked first to see if they were leaking fuel. They were not, and it appeared that there was no serious damage to What’s Next! “The fates, I was convinced, had finally caught up with the crew,” bombardier John C. Haberman recalled. “It seemed impossible that anyone could escape that maelstrom.” But escape they had.
On final approach to Torretta airfield, the tail gunner hung his head out the left waist window to check on the status of the landing gear. Haberman, who was in the waist for landing, saw the man’s face turn white and his jaw drop. Over the roaring engines, Haberman could read the gunner’s lips as he yelled into the intercom, “Don’t land! Don’t land!” Haberman rushed over and looked out the window. The left wheel, apparently damaged in battle, had fallen off when Demmond lowered the landing gear.
The control tower advised Doc to set the ship on autopilot, point the Liberator toward the Adriatic, and have the crew bail out, but Demmond told the crew that he believed he could belly land What’s Next! if anyone didn’t want to jump. “Now, none of us would deny Doc’s remarkable skill . . . or his extreme coolness under fire,” Haberman recalled, “but we were too close to getting out of this lousy war alive.” A group gathered in the waist and looked to Haberman.
“What are you gonna do?” someone asked.
“‘Jump!’, I croaked through parched lips, startling myself,” the bombardier remembered.
Haberman and six others bailed out over the airfield. Two sprained their ankles on landing, and a third, navigator Lawrence H. Norton, broke a bone at the base of his spine.
Procopio, who remained on board with Demmond and copilot Jim Franks, pitched the idea of retracting the one remaining main gear while leaving the nose gear down to absorb some of the shock of landing. As What’s Next! circled the field, burning off excess fuel to make the plane lighter and reduce the risk of fire in the event of a crash, Haberman and a crowd of officers and enlisted men assembled near the runway to watch the endgame unfold. “Heads were shaking as if no one gave the intrepid but foolhardy trio much of a chance,” the bombardier later wrote. “I turned away. This I couldn’t look at.”
Doc and Franks brought What’s Next! in for a belly landing with consummate skill, the aircraft swinging right and then left, shooting off the runway and partly onto the grass. The three men walked away unharmed. As Procopio and his pilots were driven away in a jeep, the engineer took a look back at the Liberator that had gotten them home. It was the last time he saw What’s Next! The hard luck crew had finished the war, and Doc received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his feat of skill.
The commotion was not quite over for those who followed at Torretta airfield, where two runways served the 461st and 484th Bomb Groups. Richard F. Reiland’s Liberator had been hit over Linz and had a feathered engine, and by the time the ship limped back to
base, Reiland and copilot Nash L. Brown found both runways blocked, one by the emergency crews at the scene of What’s Next!’s crash landing and another on the second runway. The two men circled the field and then headed for Cerignola, where they successfully landed on the 454th Bomb Group’s airstrip.
John C. Haberman, “Letter to the Editor,” The 461st Liberaider (Vol. 8, No. 2, December 1991), 16.
Frank J. Procopio, “What’s Next!,” The 461st Liberaider (Vol. 19, No. 1, June 2002), 19.
“Excerpts from the Squadron History for the Month of April,” accessed April 13, 2014, http://www.461st.org/History/765th History/PDFs/765 April 1945.pdf.
General Order 3239, Air Force Historical Research Agency, microfilm reel A6427.