The Race to War's End: A Tale of Three War-Weary B-24 Liberators
When the 485th Bomb Group arrived at Venosa airfield, Italy, in February 1944 to begin combat operations, it had 72 B-24 Liberator bombers. Just one year later, only eight of the original B-24s remained. As the war went down to the wire in late April 1945, individual ground crews at Venosa hoped against hope that “their” Liberator would make it to the finish line.
An olive drab B-24 named Buzz Job, of the 830th Bomb Squadron, was the first Liberator of the 485th Bomb Group to drop its bombs on the enemy, and she had had a storied war. Her first pilot, Captain William Boling, had “Buzz” for a legal middle name as well as an affinity for buzzing the airfield. Buzz Job was thus a fitting name, and the ground crew emblazoned it across the nose in large white capital letters. One of the crew, a six-foot, six-inch sergeant whom everyone called “Slim,” somehow managed to squeeze into the nose turret, and, one day, Slim had had enough of Boling’s antics. After the hotshot pilot brought Buzz Job in so low that the props shredded haystacks on an Italian farm, Slim refused to fly with Boling again until he reformed his ways.
Few doubted Boling’s skill as a pilot, though, and he received the Distinguished Flying Cross for bringing Buzz Job home from a mission to Vienna with two engines and the electrical and hydraulic systems shot out. There were so many flak holes in the plane that daylight shined through the fuselage. Buzz Job survived that and more: twelve other missions to Vienna and six trips to Ploesti, Romania, were among those logged in its distinguished combat history.
The day before the final battle over Linz, Austria, on 25 April, Buzz Job completed its one hundred fifth mission. During the strike on a bridge in northern Italy, German flak gunners shot out the bomber’s Number 3 engine, forcing her to put down at the emergency landing field at Prkos, Yugoslavia. The crew returned to base, but Buzz Job did not. The old girl had no more fight left in her. Buzz Job was left at the field and salvaged in May 1945, and her Venosa-based ground crew never saw her again.
First Lieutenant Donald E. Murphy piloted a B-24 named Life, one of the last remaining original Liberators in the 485th, over Linz. Murphy had recently taken over Life from First Lieutenant Simon Baytala, who himself had captained the ship after original pilot Captain Glenn Jones finished his missions and went home. Though pilots came and went, Life had had one ground crew. Her crew chief, Master Sergeant Chet Davis, and his assistant, Corporal William Rose, had a deep bond with Life. Rose hung a tiny baby shoe belonging to his young daughter in the tail turret, and Staff Sergeant Clarence “Deacon” Miller, the first occupant of the nose turret, hung a picture of Jesus at his position, with instructions to leave it there until Life finished the war.
The ground crew attributed Life’s good luck to the baby shoe and the Lord. “I’m crossing my fingers as I say this,” Davis told the 485th’s weekly newspaper, Bombs Away, in March 1945, “but so far, no one on the ship has ever been scratched.” The closest anyone ever came was on a mission in which flak pierced the window of the copilot, ripping the oxygen mask off his face but leaving him unscathed.
On 25 April, the flak gunners at Linz broke Life’s streak. A burst of shrapnel peppered the venerable bomber, wounding the tail gunner in the head. Murphy knew Life and her tail gunner were in trouble, so he got a course for Prkos from the navigator and flew the crew to safety. The wounded crewman survived, but Life never flew again. She completed her one hundred tenth combat mission but did not return to base.
If there was ever an appropriate name for a bomber, it was the moniker Tail Heavy given to the 831st Bomb Squadron B-24H with serial number 41-28834. The ship’s original pilot, Second Lieutenant Kenneth Craighead, noticed on the flight over the Atlantic that the Liberator had trouble maintaining level flight. The ground crew at Natal, Brazil, suggested that the plane was heavy in the tail and recommended a redistribution of weight among all the equipment, baggage, and men aboard. The crew gave it a try, but the Liberator still seemed heavy in the aft section. Once the finicky B-24 arrived in Italy, the ground crew took to placing a 55-gallon oil drum under the tail of the parked bomber in order to keep it from tilting back on its tail. Radioman Wesley Wagner took inspiration from the pages of Esquire Magazine and painted the name Tail Heavy above a woman with a bare bottom.
Despite her quirks, Tail Heavy earned a distinguished reputation for reliability and toughness. The Liberator flew every one of the 485th’s first thirteen combat missions and once racked up a streak of twenty consecutive missions without a mishap or abort. On her nineteenth foray into enemy territory, Tail Heavy’s right aileron was shot away by flak, and tail gunner Staff Sergeant Bruno Plocica shot down two German fighters as they dove on the formation. When First Lieutenant Robert R. Baker, the ship’s last pilot, took over Tail Heavy, there were more than four hundred patched holes in her.
Baker’s crew developed a new practice. They would place a bomb fin container under the parked Liberator’s tail, and if the tail was touching the crates before a mission, some crewmen would climb into the nose of the ship, causing her to rock back up onto her nose gear. With the tail safely back in its proper position, the crew would start up the engines. On 25 April, it was up to Baker and his crew, as well as the Liberator’s faithful ground crew chief, Sergeant James Houlihan, and his assistant, Sergeant George Abele, to see that Tail Heavy made it back to base from its one hundredth mission.
“The planes that were hardest hit were in the first box of our formation,” Staff Sergeant Wayne B. Whiting, tail gunner on Baker’s crew, later wrote. As Whiting looked on, one Liberator fell out of formation with the Number 3 and 4 engines smoking. Tail Heavy had its own set of problems. The bomb bay doors wouldn’t close at first, and there were worries that the aircraft might run out of fuel and oxygen before landing. Whether or not the Liberator would achieve the distinction of being the first and only 100-mission B-24 in the 485th Bomb Group to finish the war at home base was very much in question.
Baker and copilot First Lieutenant James A. Scheib brought the Liberator home and set her down safely on the Venosa airstrip. A group of photographers greeted the storied bomber and her crew.
Sources: - “First B-24s to Near 100 Combat Missions,” Lightweight Tower Calling, No. 26, February 1992. - Sam Schneider, This is How It Was: 485th Bomb Group (Heavy) Unit History (Southern Heritage Press, 1995). - Carl Gigowski, “First B-24s to Complete 100 Missions,” Lightweight Tower Calling, No. 27, January 1993. - Jerry W. Whiting and Wayne B. Whiting, I’m Off to War, Mother, But I’ll Be Back: Reflections of a WWII Tail Gunner (Walnut Creek, CA: Tarnaby Books, second edition, 2007).
Photo credits: Jerry Whiting.