‘The plane fell thousands of feet’

Bob Reichard in Italy

Bob Reichard with the 15th Air Force in Italy

Bob Reichard of East Penn Township flew 24 missions as a bombardier and one as a navigator on a B-24 in World War II with the rank of first lieutenant. He served in the 15th Air Force, assigned to the 745th Squadron of the 456th Bomb Group and based near Cerignola, Italy. He was the squadron assistant intelligence officer and trained as a B-24 radar (Mickey) operator.

He was the subject of one of my “War Stories: In Their Own Words” installments on Veterans Day 1999.

We’ve stayed in touch and I visited him at his old Carbon County farmhouse in December. Below, I’m posting a story he recently sent me. For photos and more of his personal accounts, culled from a three-decade career with service in the Korean War and the Cold War as well as World War II, go to http://bobreichard.com/.

Here is Bob’s story about a B-24 mission he flew over Europe on Dec. 11, 1944:

By BOB REICHARD

A bomb run over the 500-plus heavy anti-aircraft guns of Vienna in November and December 1944 resulted in a lifetime of excitement for the crew members, and for some it was an eternity.

On 11 December 1944, crew #6459 with a substitute navigator on board ran that gauntlet of fire, smoke, and steel in a B-24 Liberator.

I talked myself into crawling forward, after “bombs away,” to see where the bombs were hitting. That wasn’t necessary, because we had cameras for that. When I was on my belly looking down, a piece of flak entered my forward glass, and that would have gotten me in the head or chest if I hadn’t been lying down. The nose wheel hub, which was pulled into the plane just behind my place, had a hole through the hub.

The upper turret gunner was knocked from his turret when a fragment broke through the horizontal gear ring. That slowed the piece down so it embedded in the rubber earphone ring of his helmet and knocked him from the turret. The piece was still stuck in his helmet and it didn’t draw any blood.

The plane surrendered to the 34 hits it had taken on the bomb run. It fell thousands of feet before the pilots could put out an engine fire and gain control. They couldn’t maintain altitude, so the crew lightened the load by tossing everything possible overboard, including guns and ammunition.

The radio operator was on one of the waist guns and the engineer was on his knees throwing chaff. He asked the radio operator to help him and when he bent down, a blast of flak tore through the place where he had been standing.

When we threw the first long belt of ammo from a tail gun turret, we fed it out foot by foot. A big mistake, because when the last 10 or so feet were being pulled out by gravity and the slip stream, the last 10 feet or so whipped toward the front of the plane and if anyone had been standing there, they would have their body torn open or their head cut off. It was good that one of the cartridges didn’t fire when they hit the deck before going out. The next long belt, from the other tail gun, we rolled into a big bundle and threw it out that way.

With that done we were able to clear the mountains to the south. The navigator set a course for a partisan-held island called Vis, off the coast of Yugoslavia. His course was true and we landed on a crash strip there an hour or so later.

The hydraulic system had been knocked out, so the plane had no brakes. Landing on the 3,500-foot crash strip on Vis Island required brakes. So, we took two parachutes and hooked them to the waist gun mounts. When the plane was down on the strip, the pilot rang the bailout bell and we pulled the rip cords on the parachutes, and they slowed the plane down so we didn’t go off the end of the air strip.

The navigator had done a great job, because he had crapped in his flying suit and couldn’t get rid of that until we were on the ground.

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