- Mike Croissant
“We Were Almost Like Brothers”
Staff Sergeant Bill Gorrall had already been on two raids on the city of Linz, Austria, and he knew well how tough a target it was. His mindset was, “One raid at a time, one target at a time. That’s how you win wars.”
In the pre-dawn hours of 25 April 1945, the briefers had insinuated that it might be the 456th Bomb Group’s last mission, but, to Gorrall, the prospect of going to Japan after the European war ended loomed large. “Japan was in the back of our minds. Nobody told us, but we knew it,” he remembered. “Everybody listened attentively and went about their business.”
Gorrall had caught the aviation bug at an early age, reading about the exploits of World War I aviators and seeing the 1927 silent film Wings. At age ten, Gorrall accepted a free ride in an open-cockpit plane from a flier at the local airport, and he was hooked. When the next world war came around, Gorrall volunteered for the AAF and left his native Flint, Michigan, behind.
Nearly two years later over Linz, Gorrall was perched in the top turret of a B-24J named The Baby, under the command of First Lieutenant Bruce H. Clifton. The position was unique in that, though freezing air passed liberally through the turret, the gunner’s head was exposed to the sun, sometimes causing it to feel warm while the rest of his body was freezing.
The anti-aircraft barrage over Linz was unlike anything Gorrall had experienced before in more than two dozen missions. “The plane was bouncing around like mad,” Gorrall recalled. The shelling grew so intense over the city that he ducked his head down below the Plexiglass dome, “expecting to get hit at any time.” Though the Martin upper turret featured a sheet of armor plate that rotated with Gorrall and protected his front, the airman was painfully aware of his vulnerability to blasts above and behind him.
Gorrall had faced death before. On 19 March 1945, his twentieth birthday, the gunner nearly encountered the Grim Reaper before even reaching the target. It was a clear, beautiful day, and the AAF was out in force. “Behind me and ahead of me I could see an endless stream of bombers,” Gorrall later stated. “It was a sight to be seen.” Scanning the sky for enemy fighters in his turret, he noticed a glint of sunlight off a metal object in the distance off the left wing—a telltale sign that there was an aircraft out there. Soon the object resolved itself into a plane, and then many planes.
It was a formation of B-17s from the Eighth Air Force enroute to a target in Germany, and they were on a collision course with the Liberators of Gorrall’s squadron. A B-17 crossed right over the top of Gorrall’s ship, and he locked eyes with the interloper’s ball gunner. “I swear he was no more than three feet away,” Gorrall recalled. The B-17 pilot probably was hot dogging it, seeing if he could put a scare in the Fifteenth Air Force boys, and, at least as far as Gorrall was concerned, he succeeded.
More scares were in store for the birthday boy that day. His B-24 took heavy damage over the target, losing two engines to flak. Then a German Me 262 jet made a pass at the wounded bird, and it flew by at such speed that Gorrall’s electrically driven turret couldn’t turn fast enough to keep up. It was only the arrival of P-51 Mustangs piloted by Tuskegee Airmen that saved Gorrall and his crew from the new Nazi weapon. The flak damage to the Liberator was bad enough alone, though, to warrant serious concern.
Over the Adriatic, the pilot called for the crew to be prepared to bail out once they reached land, and Gorrall huddled with half of the crew in the waist as they awaited the signal to jump. “Pilot to crew,” the aircraft commander finally called after many tense minutes. “We’re over land now, and you guys can jump any time.” All the men nearby looked at Gorrall. It was clear that none of them wanted to bail out over Yugoslavia, parts of which were still occupied by the Germans.
Gorrall got on the intercom and asked, “Top turret to pilot. Sir, what are your intentions with the aircraft?”
There was a long pause before the pilot answered, “I’m gonna try to land this bird.” The men continued to stare at Gorrall, and he knew what he had to do.
“Sir, do you mind if we ride this thing down with you?” he asked.
It was exactly the vote of confidence the young pilot needed to hear.
Another pause, then a response. “Thank you, I appreciate it.” The pilot crash landed the Liberator on the airfield near Prkos, and all the crew walked away without serious injury. Three days later, they were back at base.
Gorrall’s performance in battle earned him a reputation among the squadron’s pilots as a steady hand, and other pilots would often request his services. “I didn’t mind,” he recalled seven decades later. "If I was going to die, I would just as soon die with strangers as with friends. That’s the attitude you have to have. You could 'get it' at any time. When you go into combat, you don’t give yourself a hell of a lot of chance of surviving. You’re grateful if you do, but you don’t bank on it. You don’t take it for granted that you’ll survive. You just do what you have to do." In more than twenty-five missions, Gorrall never knew of a single crewman who asked to be taken off flight status. “I knew many who were sick to their stomachs to go on a mission, but they did it,” he remembered. Gorrall did it, too, and he did it well.
Down in the nose of The Baby, Sergeant Anthony “Andy” Andriani, manning the nose turret, had an epic view of the horrors above Hitler’s hometown. “There was very heavy flak,” he remembered. “It was amazing because it was getting close to the end of the war.”
Andriani was one of the youngest men on the crew, having volunteered for the AAF at age seventeen. On an early mission, before the nose gunner was yet familiar with the hazards of high-altitude flight in subzero temperatures, Andriani had brought Coca-Cola aboard the aircraft in his canteen. At altitude, the Coke froze and expanded until it blew up and scared the hell out of the men in the nose.
On another jaunt into enemy territory, it was Andriani who nearly froze after his electric suit failed. John Cudone, the navigator, held Andriani closely almost all the way home, sharing whatever heat he had with the shivering gunner until the aircraft had descended enough that the temperature in the nose became survivable. “We were almost like brothers,” Andriani recalled. “Everybody looked out for everybody else.”
After bomb release, as Gorrall ducked his head under the dome of his top turret for cover from the flak outside, he glanced down between his feet to try to see the ground through the open bomb bay doors, but heavy smoke thwarted his attempt to catch a glimpse of Linz. The B-24 bounced along like a dingy on a choppy sea. Then The Baby got hit.
One or more anti-aircraft blasts took out the Liberator’s Number 2 engine, damaged both engines on the other wing, and blew several large holes in the ship. Clifton and copilot Gerald Smith managed to keep the Liberator under control, but they dropped her out of formation as the rest of the squadron took evasive action coming off the target.
For the pilots of damaged aircraft who decided to make a go of returning to base in Italy, there were formidable obstacles to overcome. It was a close-run thing, but the 456th Bomb Group Liberator The Baby made it past one of them—the Alps. Once over the magnificent yet menacing mountain range, First Lieutenant Bruce Clifton intersected the coast of Italy just south of Venice, by which time the B-24 had dropped to a few hundred feet off the ground. He followed a road parallel to the coast and traced the Italian boot south toward home base.
The Baby soon came upon a long convoy of German infantry and horse-drawn vehicles retreating on the road north toward what remained of the Third Reich. Staff Sergeant Bill Gorrall, who had come down out of his top turret to man a waist gun in case he needed to return fire from the ground, looked down on the sight with wonder. “Normally, combat men would dive for cover at the sound of incoming planes, but they hardly looked up,” he recalled. The Baby was so low that Gorrall could see individual faces, and he knew he was looking upon an utterly defeated army. “We stared at them, some of them stared back,” he remembered, but most kept their heads down. Under other circumstances, the pilots might have ordered the gunners to engage such a target of opportunity, but they gave no such order this day. “It would’ve been like shooting a man in the back,” Gorrall observed.
The Baby continued on its way back to base and landed safely, and there General Fay Upthegrove, commander of the 304th Bomb Wing, and Colonel Thomas Steed, the commander of the 456th, greeted the crew and questioned them about the mission. Ground crewmen dug pieces of flak out of the plane and handed out the jagged hunks of metal to the returned fliers. “Our plane was so badly shot up that day that there was scarcely a foot of surface that had not been hit,” Clifton later told his hometown newspaper. “We picked oat bushels of flak pieces for souvenirs.”
Sources: - William Gorrall's interview with Mike Croissant, 4 September 2013. - Anthony Andriani interview with Mike Croissant, 8 September 2013. - Gerald G. Smith Mission Diary. - “Escape from Under Noses of Nazi Oppressors in Yugoslavia,” The Sioux City Journal, 29 July 1945.
Photo: Colonel Thomas Steed (left) and General Fay Upthegrove (right).