"We approached each mission with solemnity, trepidation, fear, and thoughts of dying today, perhaps”
“Bombing Linz gave me great pleasure,” First Lieutenant Bob M. Barnhart wrote in his journal, because it was so near and dear to the heart of “that notorious little house painter of yore,” Hitler. Barnhart went to Linz, Austria, on his very first mission, on 15 December 1944, and his bombardier dropped their deadly payload through solid clouds with the assistance of radar. The Germans apparently had no such luck with radar targeting that day. Flak was heavy, but it came nowhere near the 461st Bomb Group’s Liberators. “I had the impression that dropping bombs on the Nazis wasn’t as fearful as I had heard,” he recalled. It was a dangerous first impression to have.
Barnhart’s next sortie was on Christmas Day, and this time he was flying as pilot with the crew he had trained with back in the States. The weather was bad, and the base was socked in with a heavy fog, but the B-24s managed to get airborne and form up for the transit to Brux, Austria, and the synthetic oil refinery they were to bomb there. Barnhart lost the planes of his box in the clouds, and when he broke through the overcast, they were nowhere in sight. “I noticed a squadron of six B-24s in the distance,” he recollected. “Although they didn’t have our group’s tail markings, I pulled up and joined them as the seventh plane in the formation.” Barnhart did not have radio contact with his adopted squadron mates.
In transit to the target, Barnhart’s bombardier, Mike Milby, opened and closed the bomb bay doors to ensure they were not frozen shut. Because of the lack of radio contact, Barnhart didn’t realize that the formation had abandoned Brux due to bad weather and had turned toward the designated alternate target, Wels. When the six other B-24s opened their bay doors, the rookie crew assumed they, too, were testing their doors, so Milby did not follow suit. All of a sudden, bombs began falling from the Liberators ahead and, in his haste, Milby dropped the ordnance right through the aircraft’s closed doors. The B-24’s bomb bay doors were designed to break away in such a case, but for unknown reasons, Barnhart’s did not. Instead, they were ripped off their tracks and were flapping in the wind at 25,000 feet.
Knowing that landing in such a state risked doing even more serious damage to the
Liberator, Barnhart ordered Milby to try to pull the doors in and wire them shut. Hanging from the narrow bomb bay catwalk, the crew somehow pulled it off, and Barnhart took them home. Due to persistent poor weather at base, they were diverted to another bomber field to the south and set down safely, exiting the Liberator from the nose wheel well and rear hatch so they wouldn’t have to open the jury-rigged bomb bay doors. That night, they dined on K rations for Christmas dinner.
The next morning dawned bright and blue, and, “spirits lifted, we were driven out to our plane,” Barnhart wrote. “What a surprise to see the bomb bay doors loose and hanging to the ground.” The flight engineer boarded the Liberator and divined that someone had opened the doors with the manual crank, breaking the wires. The ship’s two 24-volt batteries were also missing. They weren’t going anywhere.
“Don’t worry, Barney! I’ll handle this!” upper turret gunner Steve Lubianetsky, who, at age 35, was the father figure of the crew, said to Barnhart. Lubianetsky disappeared and returned in a jeep a half hour later with batteries. The crew installed the batteries, rewired the bomb bay doors closed, and took off for their home base.
“How did you manage to get those batteries?” Barnhart asked after the adventure was over.
“You don’t want to know,” Lubianetsky replied.
Barnhart’s crew went to Linz again on 20 January 1945, and this time the skies were clear. They were flying in the number six position off the right wing of Second Lieutenant Joe O’Neal’s Liberator in the number four position. “Keeping my eyes glued to the number four wingtip developed into a serious problem,” the pilot remembered. The defroster in Barnhart’s aircraft couldn’t keep up with the severe cold, and heavy frost began to build up on the inside of his windshield. In order to keep an eye on O’Neal’s ship, Barnhart had to rub a four-inch peephole in his left-hand window repeatedly with his glove, forcing copilot Andy Danko to take over the throttles each time. With practice, the system worked well, and Barnhart was able to maintain a tight formation with O’Neal. Then, in the blink of an eye, O’Neal’s Liberator was gone.
It seemed to Barnhart as if every single German flak gun at Linz opened up on his squadron simultaneously. “My whole body tensed up,” he recalled. Even though the Liberator was flying at 160 miles per hour, the pilot felt like the ship was moving with all the speed of a tortoise. O’Neal’s aircraft took a direct hit to the aft bomb bay, turned over to the right, and exploded. All but two of the crew lost their lives.
“The first three missions had filled us with such complacency that we were not prepared for January 20, 1945,” Barnhart wrote in his journal. “No one in our tent slept a wink that night. From that time on, we approached each mission with solemnity, trepidation, fear, and thoughts of dying today, perhaps.”
Barnhart and crew were seasoned veterans when they returned to Linz on 25 April. “I was extremely tense and fearful that tragic results might be in store for us,” he recorded in his journal. This time his worries were unfounded. Though the flak was incredibly intense, it didn’t compare, in Barnhart’s mind, to the 20 January mission, three months and a whole lifetime ago. Barnhart and crew passed through the flak storm unscathed and returned to base without incident.
Sources: - Robert M. Barnhart, “Bombs Away,” unpublished account, 2-3, accessed September 12, 2016, http://pahrumplifemagazine.com/Bombs Away.pdf. - Missing Air Crew Report 11805.