- Mike Croissant
“I Wasn’t Just Scared, I Was Petrified”
Few bomber crews were closer than that with which Sergeant Raymond M. Hook flew on the 25 April 1945 mission to strike rail targets in Linz, Austria. A radioman in the 721st Bomb Squadron, 450th Bomb Group, Hook was a veteran of twenty-one combat missions. Although he didn’t know it yet, Hook’s son, Ray Junior, had been born two days earlier.
Ray Junior almost grew up without a father several times over. On 31 January 1945, Hook was aboard a Liberator nicknamed Hubba Hubba under the command of Joseph T. Kent during a mission to strike the Moosbierbaum oil refinery in Vienna. Hook’s B-24 lost the Number 3 engine—housed in the inboard nacelle on the right wing—to mechanical failure on the way to the target, and Kent had three bombs jettisoned to lighten the plane and help it keep up with the rest of formation. Just before the bomb run began, the Number 2 engine also failed, forcing the aircraft to fall behind. Kent was determined to bomb the target, however, and he followed his squadron in at a distance.
At least one German gun battery decided to focus on the lone, struggling aircraft. “We were banking to the right, and when I looked out the left waist window, I saw the flak tracking us,” the radioman told his diary. The Germans had the B-24’s altitude nailed, but the shells were bursting about a hundred feet behind it.
The enemy’s inaccuracy was the result of a technological innovation known as chaff, or, in British parlance, window. Even though radar was still in its infancy in World War II, the Allies developed an airborne countermeasure intended to return false radar signals to stations on the ground. Chaff consisted of precisely cut strips of metal foil that would be dropped from a bomber formation, bouncing back German radar beams and clouding targeting displays with electronic “snow,” thus making it difficult for flak emplacements to draw a bead on the bombers.
Hook, as his crew’s designated chaff dispenser, had been dropping three packets of the foil strips out of the chaff chute in the waist of the Liberator every twenty seconds during the bomb run. Though his efforts seemed to pay off at first, he could see the flak bursts tracking closer and closer to his aircraft. He began shoving the stuff out as fast as he could unwrap each packet.
It was no use. The gunners had found the struggling Liberator’s range and let fly with a fearsome barrage. “That damned flak,” as Hook called it, tore into the aircraft, striking its radar jamming equipment and nicking Hook in the inner part of his upper right arm. The wound hurt badly and bled profusely, but it was not life threatening. Hook stuffed a handkerchief into the wound and continued with his duties.
Explosions rocked Hubba Hubba’s tail, smashed the already dead Number 2 engine, and blew a large hole in the fuselage under the left wing above the bomb bay. The blast under the tail pitched Hook into the box of chaff, and so thick was he, between his parachute, flak vest, and heavy flying clothing, that he got stuck. He struggled free after several seconds and listened with pride over the interphone as each man calmly reported in. Every man did his job with utmost professionalism.
None more so than the pilot. Miraculously, Kent kept the Liberator in the air long enough to drop his bombs on the target. The left bomb bay doors refused to open, so Kent’s bombardier dropped the payload right through the doors. Kent brought the B-24 out of flak range, but she was losing altitude fast. As the pilot turned toward Russian lines in Yugoslavia, the crew threw out equipment to lighten the ship.
Kent took the damaged aircraft into a thick undercast, giving it cover from German fighters that liked to prey on stragglers, but he couldn’t find an opening in the clouds. As Hubba Hubba gave up more and more altitude and the navigator lost their position inside the clouds, the possibility that the B-24 would accidentally crash into a mountain grew. Kent ordered the crew to don their parachutes and prepare to bail out, then he took the ship down to eight thousand feet, only to find zero visibility. At six thousand feet, he found the same. Kent told the crew that he would take them to three thousand feet, and if the ground was still not visible, they
would bail out. At the pledged altitude, the solid cloud bank would not relent.
Just as Kent was about to give the order to abandon ship, Hubba Hubba broke out of the clouds right above a snow-covered airfield large enough to handle a B-24’s landing. There were also American-made C-47 transport aircraft donning the red star of the Soviet air force parked near the airstrip. “I was so happy, I almost cried,” Hook recalled.
As the Liberator circled the field, someone on the ground lit off a flare, so Hook, taking it as a sign, fired off all the red flares he could find to let the people on the ground know they were in trouble. The men got in ditching positions as Kent brought Hubba Hubba in. “I’ve seen Kent land that ship as soft as silk before, but that landing was the best, and on a strange ‘field’ and two engines no less,” the radioman told his diary. Safely on the ground in Srspka Crnja, Yugoslavia, Hook slapped his pilot on the back and said, “Joe, you saved our lives.”
Yugoslav Partisans serving under Communist leader Marshall Josip Broz, commonly known as Tito, greeted the crew warmly and provided a doctor to care for Hook’s wounded arm. The crew spent the next 28 days in the hands of the Partisans and the Russians on an odyssey that would take them through Yugoslavia and onward into Soviet-occupied Romania before boarding a British C-47 for the return flight to Italy. The local people treated the crew at every turn with incredible hospitality, offering them food when the locals themselves were clearly undernourished. The men would never forget the reception they received.
Through the long journey home, the crew grew incredibly close. “There were no secrets among us,” Hook remembered. “It was like a family.” Unfortunately, the family wouldn’t make it to the end of the war together. Kent developed a severe lung infection in Romania and would not return to flight status.
First Lieutenant Doid K. Raab, formerly the crew’s copilot, took over for Kent and quickly proved himself up to the task. On a return trip to bomb Vienna on 22 March, extremely accurate, intense flak shellacked the formation, scattering it to the four winds. On a typical bomb run, Hook might hear a handful of flak bursts over the cacophony of wind noise, engine hum, and chatter over the interphone. Today he lost count. After the bomb run ended, the crew’s new copilot went back to help the men survey the damage.
The Number 4 engine had a large hole in it, but it continued to function normally. Scores of other holes dotted the plane, including a five-inch-long gash in the rear hatch about a foot and a half from where Hook had been hunkering under his flak suit and helmet. As the men joked out of nervous tension, the ship suddenly went into a steep dive to the left.
Hook and the men in the waist were thrown off their feet and quickly pinned to the roof by G force as Raab tried to pull the B-24 out of the dive. The engineer, knowing the copilot was away from the controls, struggled into the cockpit to help Raab work the control column. As forward air speed passed 340 miles per hour, the Liberator seemed on the verge of flying itself apart. The nose gunner managed to steal a glance at one of the wings and later told the crew, no doubt with some exaggeration, that it was flapping like that of a bird.
Through Herculean effort, Raab and the engineer managed to pull the plummeting B-24 out of its suicide plunge. As a measure of normalcy returned to the ship, Raab came over the interphone and briefed the crew. The squadron leader, Raab said, had led the flight into harsh weather, and Raab had decided to gain altitude and get above the clouds rather than take the risk of trying to remain in tight formation in virtually zero visibility. In the blink of an eye, another Liberator had appeared, passing from left to right directly in front of their B-24. Raab had banked the ship hard to the left to avoid a collision, inadvertently sending it into the dive that almost killed the crew.
Safely on the ground in Italy, Raab told the Liberator’s crew chief what had happened, and the ground crewman was incredulous, as he thought it impossible for a Liberator to do what Raab described without coming apart. The next day, the crew chief approached Raab with the news that the main wing spar was bent and some of the control cables were frayed. It was a miracle the crew survived, and Hook, a devout Catholic, attributed his continued existence on Earth to divine intervention through the Miraculous Medal he carried inside his glove on every mission.
Hook had no illusions that his war would continue, but, he told his diary, “I hope in the future I never go on a mission like that again.” Thirty-four days later, in the skies over Linz, his hopes would be dashed.
Second Lieutenant Lamar R. Landry, flying as lead bombardier for the 450th Bomb Group, picked up the North Main Marshaling Yard early in the bomb run and scored a tight concentration of hits on the tracks and rolling stock. Flak wounded First Lieutenant John W. Foster, the lead bombardier of the next squadron in line, however, and he was unable to make final inputs on his Norden bombsight. The squadron’s bombs fell half a mile west of the target among some small buildings and anti-aircraft gun positions.
“They started throwing up flak about two minutes before bombs away, and one minute from bombs away they put it up there thick and fast,” Hook told his diary. “Boy, you could almost walk on it.” The flak was so close that the radioman could smell the explosive charge. “I could hear them burst, see the flame in them, and smell them through the oxygen regulator,” he wrote. “When they do all this, they’re close.”
Close, indeed. After the mission, Hook found a hole near the waist gun window exactly where his head would have been had he been standing upright. Instead, “Captain Hook,” as he was known to the crew, had passed through the bomb run crouched on the floor to make himself as small a target as possible. Hook hunkered over an extra flak suit for added protection for his sensitive areas, and he tucked his head down as far between his legs as the bulky flak helmet would allow. “(The shrapnel) would’ve hit me right in the face,” he recalled.
Try as they might, the Germans would not stop Hook and his crew on 25 April. After bomb release, the pilot took extreme evasive action. “We broke to the left and then went into a steep dive,” Hook recalled, jarring the Liberator so severely that, “for a moment, I thought we were hit.” The worst was over, however. Aside from the flak hole near his waist window, the Liberator was pock marked with punctures from shrapnel, but the damage wasn’t severe. Meanwhile, the B-24 immediately to the right in the formation had its radio destroyed and a large hole blasted through one of its engines. The ship to the left had its hydraulic system shot out.
“I wasn’t just scared, I was petrified,” Hook remembered of his 180 seconds in the shooting gallery over Linz. “I almost crapped my pants. There was flak everywhere.”
Yet, through it all, Hook had no feeling that he was going to get killed. “I just felt like I was gonna make it, I wasn’t gonna get hit,” he reflected. “It made me feel older.” And older he would become. Until his death in 2014 at age 92, the radioman went over the entire Morse Code in his head, “for fun.”
Hook and other men of the Doid Raab crew reunited in 1984 to mark the fortieth anniversary of their time in combat together. The following year, Hook, Raab, and two other men journeyed with their spouses to Yugoslavia. Hoping to meet with some of the locals who had helped them evade capture by the Germans, the crew instead found themselves greeted like conquering heroes.
Television crews, radio reporters, photographers, a documentary film maker, and a reception line of dignitaries greeted the men at the Belgrade airport. After a press conference, the aging veterans were whisked off to the tomb of Marshal Tito, followed by a visit to the Monument of Bones, a memorial for Yugoslav civilians murdered by the Nazis for assisting downed American air crews. Then the men headed for Srspka Crnja, stopping in other towns and villages along the way. There were crowds and official welcoming parties at every stop.
“All the locals wanted to do was touch us,” Hook recalled. “The people were just wild. Word spread very fast that we were there. Before you knew it there were thousands of people there.”
On arrival in Srspka Crnja, the men and their wives were put onto horse carriages and paraded through town to their hotel. Over the following days, the veterans attended numerous functions and met with several civilians and former Partisans who had assisted them. The crew also visited the former airfield where Raab had landed Hubba Hubba four decades earlier. It was planted with sunflowers.
- Four Hundred Fiftieth Bomb Group, MIA Interrogation Report No. 2, 2 March 1945, Air Force Historical Research Agency, microfilm reel B0594
- Ray Hook mission diary, http://www.450thbg.com/real/biographies/hook/hook.shtml
- Mike Croissant interviews with Ray Hook, 30 October 2013, 9 November 2013, and 24 December 2013
- Chuck Fisher, “Doid Raab, Fellow World War II Flyers Return to Scene of Memorable Rescue,” Lancaster Eagle Gazette, 10 January 1986, on http://www.450thbg.com/real/biographies/raab/raab.shtml