“It Felt as Though We Were Actually Hanging in the Sky"
First Lieutenant Reed Sprinkel occupied the copilot’s seat of a B-24 named Moe’s Meteor for the 25 April 1945 mission to Linz, Austria. Sprinkel normally flew as first pilot, but today he yielded that position to his superior officer, Major Harold Pedrazzini, who commanded a combined force of 172 B-24s of the 47th and 49th Bomb Wings attack from the lead Liberator of the 484th Bomb Group.
Sprinkel’s crew was one of the best, and he and his navigator, First Lieutenant Tracy Denninger, Jr, each had a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) to prove it. Denninger had been a lead instructor in navigation at Mountain Home Army Airfield before joining the crew, so he came with a lot more experience than most navigators. Moreover, Denninger and the crew’s bombardier, First Lieutenant Morris Hatfield, had proven a particularly effective team in identifying the IP and the target. Their tight partnership, together with Sprinkel’s skill at the controls, had gotten them through many scrapes.
On 18 December 1944, the crew ran into trouble over Blechhammer, Germany, when flak struck their Liberator on the bomb run, costing them an engine. Sprinkel laid out the options over the interphone. They could either ditch in the Adriatic, try to land at the emergency airfield on the Isle of Vis, or attempt to crash land somewhere in Italy. They decided to try to make it back to Italy. “It felt as though we were actually hanging in the sky, as we throttled back our three engines,” Sprinkel recalled of the journey over the Adriatic. “We all prayed. As a result, we all became more confident that we would make it across.” The crewmen chatted with each other over the interphone, keeping spirits up.
Sprinkel contacted Big Fence, a radio direction-finding station west of Cerignola that could, with the help of three outstations elsewhere in Italy, triangulate the location of aircraft and render navigational assistance. Big Fence gave Sprinkel a heading to the nearest AAF base, a B-17 field near Manfredonia, on the spur of the Italian boot. Denninger and Hatfield got to work on finding the field on their charts while the engineer, Tech Sergeant Ken Querry, transferred fuel among the different fuel tanks to keep the remaining engines running.
On final approach, one engine ran out of the fuel and then, just before touchdown, another. The Liberator landed gently before the final fuel-starved engine sputtered out. Training, skill, and faith had brought the crew home. “We celebrated our return by going to the chapel and praying, giving thanks for the Lord having watched over us one more time,” Sprinkel later wrote. Sprinkel and his men put their faith in God again on 25 April, but they were in for another rough ride.
Haze and smoke from the previous bombing partially obscured Linz's South Main Marshaling Yard, but Hatfield picked up the target and directed Moe’s Meteor toward their destination through his bombsight. Then the flak started, cave-black and writhing against the blue sky. Thirty seconds before the bomb release point, an explosion rocked the Meteor, knocking out the Number 1 engine and peppering the fuselage with holes. Sprinkel and Pedrazzini feathered the engine, but the ship fell back into the rest of the formation as it lost speed, forcing the other Liberators to take evasive action to dodge it.
Hatfield struggled to reestablish his bomb run, but flak again struck the Meteor just as the Norden released the B-24’s explosive payload. The ordnance tumbled from the B-24’s gyrating bomb bays, and the squadron’s other Liberators dropped on his lead. The bombs fell in a long, scattered pattern with few hits on the target. The dynamic duo of Hatfield and Denninger had fallen short this day, through no fault of their own. Back at base, Denninger recorded in his diary for 25 April: “Got the shit shot out of us today by flak.”
The Liberator flying in the deputy lead position to the right of Moe’s Meteor moved to take over the formation as it left the target area. Hunkering under his flak helmet and suit in the nose was First Lieutenant James D. Cummins, assistant wing navigator for the 49th Bomb Wing. On a mission to Vienna two months earlier, Cummins’ B-24 had taken severe damage. “We were badly shot up and there were several wounded aboard,” Cummins recalled. All electrical equipment, including the intercom, was out, and the pilot passed the word to lighten the plane in hopes of keeping it airborne long enough to make it to Russian-controlled territory. In their haste, the crew threw out Cummins’ maps, along with everything else that wasn’t bolted down, and some things that were.
Cummins did the only thing he could—he gave the pilot a heading toward Russian lines in Yugoslavia from memory. The B-24 got them close enough, and Cummins helped the wounded get out of the plane before he bailed out himself. Ten days later, with the help of Partisans and the Russians, Cummins was back at his base in Italy, where he was awarded the DFC for valor. On 25 April, Cummins was ready to give his pilot a heading out of the kill zone again, from memory or otherwise, but the Germans had a say in the matter.
The battering continued for the rest of the 484th Bomb Group’s B-24s. In Baker Box, the lead Liberator, piloted by Major William H. Dowd, was hit just before bomb release, disrupting bombardier Second Lieutenant Alfred J. Solomon’s careful calculations. The other aircraft in the box dropped on Solomon’s lead, resulting in another poor pattern of strikes on the South Main Marshaling Yard. Worse, Dowd’s Liberator fell back into the rest of the formation, just as Moe’s Meteor had done seconds earlier. The B-24s of Dog and Easy Boxes found themselves on a collision course with the two wounded bombers.
First Lieutenant Francis J. Sugrue, piloting the lead aircraft in Dog Box, took control of the aircraft from the bombardier and swerved to avoid Dowd and Sprinkel’s Liberators. Though the move saved his men from a mid-air collision, it disrupted Second Lieutenant Robert W. Blum’s work at the bombsight. With just thirty seconds to go before bombs away, Blum knew he wouldn’t be able to get back on course to hit the south yard, so he switched his aiming point to the Main Station Sidings.
The last-minute improvisation worked. Blum’s stick of bombs “walked” right through the rail sidings.
Corporal Jack D. Messersmith, flying as tail gunner in Dog Box’s trailing plane, wrote in his diary, “Roughest trip yet. Flak was right down our alley.”
Standing, left to right: Morris Hatfield, Reed Sprinkel, Tracy Denninger, Robert Skelton
Kneeling, left to right: Unknown, Kenneth Querry, Robert Stearns, James Moran, William Bloom, William Eckerle
Sources: - Four Hundred Eighty-Fourth Bomb Group, Operations Order No. 67 and Bombing Analysis, 25 April 1945, National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 18, Box 2941. - Four Hundred Eighty-Fourth Bomb Group Association, “The Last Mission,” Torretta Flyer, No. 29, Winter-Spring 1996. - Reed Sprinkel, “Mail Call,” Torretta Flyer, No. 19, Summer-Fall 1990. - Reed Sprinkel email to Mike Croissant, 29 March 2013. - Jack D. Messersmith, “Letter to the Editor,” Torretta Flyer, No. 29, Winter-Spring 1996.