Thursday, August 29, 2013

Bill Craton's Last Mission in World War II

Debbi posted a shorter version of this story earlier but I think people may be interested in more details.

Our father never talked much about World War II when we were growing up but the story of how he survived his last mission on a B-17 bomber has been part of the family history for as long as I can remember. He was standing in a burning, crashing B-17 and had his parachute only half-way on when the bomb load exploded.

Later in life (50+ years after the war) he began to open up. On one occasion, he told this story which was recorded on an audio tape. His granddaughter, Cathy Murphy, edited and transcribed the oral version onto paper. He called it "The One Who Got Away."

He enlisted immediately after Pearl Harbor at age 18. After about a year of training, his unit was sent to North Africa. The invasion of North Africa, beginning in Nov. 1942, was the first time Americans fought against Germans in the war. Bomber crews stationed in England (the 8th Air Force) received much more publicity and are better know today. In Dad's part of the war, targets were military rather than industrial or urban. After the Germans were defeated in Africa, attention turned to Sicily. His last mission was part of the preparation for the invasion of that island by Allied ground forces.

For those not familiar with the history, American bombers in WWII were heavily armored. B-17s had ten machine guns each, and they flew close together in close formation to concentrate their defensive firepower. Dad was the engineer on his crew (actually the 2nd most important position for flying the plane after the pilot) who also manned the upper turret during combat. (See the photographs after the story)

Enough from me -- here's his story:

Bill Craton

The time was early morning, July 5 1943, as the sun was making its presence know over the eastern horizon. The place was an airfield located 60 km west of Constantine, Algeria. Four-man tents dotted the countryside. Larger tents for operations, administration, and mess halls were also close by. More impressive were the forty sleek-looking B-17 bombers all lined up in their parking spaces.

This morning the world was just right. Everything was in order as Bill, Jay, Harold, Frank, Louis, and I rolled out of our tents, did our personal chores (shave, wash, dress, etc.), and prepared to head for breakfast. Everything was beautiful. We had flown five missions in a row and today we were Number 10, meaning we would show up at the aircraft until the 99th Group with its 24 bombers and four airborne ‘spares’ were in the air on the way to the target. We then would be on our way to the nearest town to eat a meal prepared by a local family. What good food! I can taste it now.

The four officers on the crew had to attend the mission briefing after breakfast and we enlisted men went straight to the airplane to ‘preflight’ the aircraft. No sweat – we weren’t going anywhere but to town to eat. The crews loaded on board the aircraft, and the six B-17s assigned to the mission – and one spare – of the 348th Squadron (part of the 99th Bomb Group) began to start their engines. The engines on Number Five Aircraft turned, turned, and then stopped. My heart sank, but no problem – Number Eight could go in its place.

As the 348th Squadron’s airplanes began to slowly taxi to the runway along with the planes of the three other squadrons in the group, one of them never left its parking space. The crew shut down its engines and got out. Number Nine pulled out to replace it. We were the ‘ground’ spare now and brought our engines to life. Still no problem.

Thinking of the food we were to soon eat, I wasn’t looking, but I did hear the pilot say: “Oh, no, not another one.” I looked as another aircraft pulled off with an engine fire. My heart sank further as I felt our plane take off and move into the airborne spare position.

Still no need to worry, so we kept up the chatter on the intercom as we climbed up and formed the squadron and group. We were still the spare; we would turn around at the designated spot. But then a deathly silence came over the crew as we noticed fuel streaming out of the left wing of one of the planes. It wasn’t long before they noticed it and turned back to base. It was real to us now that there would not be any food today. We were on the way to the target as the 348th Number Six crew. Never in our history had we had so many aborts. Boy, this must be some tough mission.

As we continued to climb and form up our formation, our pilot started to brief us over the intercom. “Our target is a German airfield in southeastern Sicily and we are to destroy as many aircraft as possible. This will be a rough one so make sure all the guns are in good shape and be very diligent in your watch. We are supposed to have a P-38 [a type of American fighter aircraft] escort, so watch for them.”

“No wonder there were so many aborts,” I heard someone – it sounded like Jay – say.

“Hold that kind of talk,” the pilot commanded.

Things got very quiet as each of us realized the danger we were in. We were in the low squadron, the outside aircraft of the last element, always the first to be lost.

Twenty-four beautiful, sleek B-17s in formation were an awesome sight as they started climbing to their bombing altitude as we approached the island of Sicily. Before the coast was visible, turrets stated moving and guns blazed in short bursts as each gunner tested his weapon. Reports came in over the intercom: tail gun checks okay, left waist gun okay, right waist, ball turret, radio gun, upper turret, and finally nose gun.

“Where are the P-38s? Don’t see them yet,” someone remarked. We kept our eyes peeled, straining to see our fighters materialize in their usual place as we closed in on the coast. From my upper turret, I could see upper and lower turrets moving, waist gun doors open, even the heads of the tail gunners in other aircraft turning as everyone searched the skies for our escort. I could see everything from my vantage point as we crossed the shoreline. Everything but P-38s.

“There they are at 7 o’clock,” was the first word from Harold in the tail.

“No, those aren’t P-38s – they’re Me-109s [German fighters]. Here they come!”

Seconds seemed like hours, then all hell broke loose. Bogies were coming from every direction. Every gun was shooting in short bursts.

The tail gunner was the first to report. “Got him. Frank, check him going down.”

I heard Frank’s reply from the ball turret. “Roger, Harold. He’s going down – there is a chute.”

“Good job,” came the pilot’s acknowledgement.

I reported two fighters coming in from the left but our wing was in my line of fire. Then the wing dipped and I opened up with both guns. I could see the tracers hitting all around the lead bogie. His engine started smoking and then blazed. He rolled over and a chute appeared.

As I swung my turret away, I noticed No. 1 propeller was feathered. [Meaning the outer engine on the left wing was destroyed.] Looking towards the nose, I saw we were dropping behind the other B-17s. “Slow down and help us please,” I thought to myself. [Damaged bombers which could not keep up lost the protection of the mass firepower of the formation.]

Our one aircraft dropping back alone was like disturbing a yellow jacket nest. Fighters attached from every direction. I got my third kill coming in from about the 5 o’clock position. “That’s eight,” I heard the co-pilot count off the planes shot down by our crew.

Still more enemy fighters were coming in to attack, but as I pressed my trigger there was no sound. Looking in the ammo box, I saw I was out of ammo. I couldn’t believe I had shot 1200 rounds in such a short time. I had 500 extra rounds stored on the floor. I quickly got it and started trying to reload my ammo boxes. It seemed to take hours. Finally it was loaded, but when I got back in the turret and tried to fire the gun, nothing happened.

Frantically I grabbed a screwdriver that I carried for emergencies, removed the electrical firing solenoid from the left gun and actuated the firing solenoid manually. Thank God it fired. I couldn’t do the best job aiming but a least I could spray bullets.

There weren’t as many reports of fighters on the intercom as there had been although both waist guns were firing and there were fighters everywhere. Why weren’t Harold and Frank talking?*

Two fighters were coming in at 4 o’clock. I aimed at the lead aircraft and started firing. It was then that I heard a frantic “12 o’clock! 12 o’clock!” Before I could respond, another bogie came over our right wing straight into my line of fire. It couldn’t have been 20 feet away. I saw the tracers hitting him and then it blew. I can’t imagine what would cause it to explode like that but it rained metal all over our aircraft. I don’t know what happened to the incoming bogies I had been shooting at. I remember our co-pilot calling out, “That’s ten.”

Number 4 engine gave up the ghost, belched, and stopped. A quick glance told me only No. 2 was running. Maybe we could make Malta. If not, we could ditch at sea.

Things seemed to be moving at a slow pace. Suddenly there weren’t as many fighters. Maybe we could make it. It was then that I saw two bogies out of range at about 7 o’clock. It looked like they were starting their run in. They were still out of range but I decided to try to scare them away. I elevated my guns and let go a short burst in their direction. I couldn’t believe it, but one plane started smoking, dropped down, and then I saw a chute.

The other one didn’t stop. I shot and shot, never letting go of the firing pin. I could see tracers streaming all around him. I could see his 30 caliber machine guns open up and then the flash of his 20 mm canon. Time moved in slow motion. What must have happened in seconds seemed like an eternity. I saw a 20 mm shell hit in the radio compartment and I thought, “Poor Louis.”** Another hit in the aft part of the bomb bay and I thought, “The next one is mine.” I heard a loud bang, felt the turret shake, felt the pain, and found myself on the floor.

I picked myself up slowly. Blood was coming from the back of my head. I found a piece of metal there and removed it. It was only a superficial wound. Plexiglass had cut my left hand, but not badly. I tried to get back in the turret but the Plexiglass top was gone. The left gun barrel was twisted up in an awful position. The 20 mm shell had hit just under the barrel. What a mess!

It was then I heard the awful sound of the last engine. The pilot was yelling, “Bail out! Bail out!”

I started putting on my parachute, handed the pilot and co-pilot theirs, and got my right leg strap hooked. There was a jam-up down at the escape hatch so I opened the bomb bay door. The bombs were still there and a fire was raging. I closed the door and yelled to the pilot that we had to leave by the hatch.

I heard a rumble as the bombs exploded. I hit the top of the fuselage and passed out.

When I came to, I was slowly drifting down with my chute open, only one leg strap holding me in. I heard the rat-a-tat of a machine gun and felt a sharp burning sensation in my right leg. Quickly I slumped and tried to convince the shooter I was dead. It worked.

I came to rest in the middle of the target. Fires were everywhere. So were German soldiers. I was taken to their headquarters where they were eating lunch at a table. They offered me food but I was in too much pain to eat it. Just then the air raid sirens sounded over the headquarters. They grabbed me and we ran to the slit-trenches just outside. The only word of theirs I could understand was “Lightning” (P-38s) but evidently they were getting clobbered.

The slit-trenches zigzagged about every 15 feet. I remember thinking that if I could get around the corner while they were watching the air battle, I could get away. I started running. As I turned the corner, I saw a German and a rifle butt, and all went dark.

*The men referred to were Harold Yorton, tail gunner, and Frank Curly, ball turret gunner. Both were injured but bailed out and survived. Curley was paralyzed by his wounds.
** Louis Snitkin, the gunner in the radio compartment, was killed.

The rest of the crew:
Pilot: 1/Lt Martin Devane (killed)
Co-pilot: 2/Lt Howard Freeburg (killed)
Navigator: 1/Lt Edward Dreuding (bailed out)
Bombardier: Name Unknown –a replacement for their regular bombardier who was sick (killed)
Radio Operator/Left Waist Gunner: T/Sgt Harold Pennoyer (wounded in legs but bailed out). Pennoyer and possibly other crew members saved Frank Curly, who was too injured to evacuate the airplane, by throwing him out the door with his parachute.
Right Waist Gunner: S/Sgt James ‘Jay” Harold (killed)
Except for Curley who was rescued by the Allied army in Sicily, presumably after the retreating Germans left him behind, the survivors spent the next 22 months as P.O.W.s.


This photo of the crew shows their names and was taken in Jan. 1943 just before they left the U.S. All except Lt Doyle were on the fateful mission.

I downloaded this photo from the internet to show where the crew members were located in the plane.