On the 18th March 1944 the USAAF were out again for another daylight raid on Germany. Every effort was being made to knock out as much of Germany’s aircraft industry as possible in the run up to D-Day. ‘Big Week’ – when the 8th Air Force had put on maximum effort together with RAF Bomber Command – had come and gone. The USAAF 392nd Bomber Group had won a Unit Citation then. For most of the crews it made little difference, they had more missions to complete.
This time they flew out passing the snows of the Alps in bright sunshine and then swung round to begin their bomb run from a position over Lake Constance, which was a deep blue marker 20,000 feet below them.
The target was Friedrichshafen and they fully expected to be able to bomb the Manzell Air Armaments factory accurately in these conditions. Then as they approached the target the 392nd Bomb Group was hit by some very accurate flak which damaged several planes and disrupted their bombing. More trouble was to come as they turned for home.
Vernon Baumgart, now a retired colonel, remembers:
I remember that we had hardly taken stock of our situation when the waist gunner called: Fighters at 3 o’clock!” There they were, a whole “gaggle” of them; ten to twelve in close formation, paralleling our course about a half mile on our right -and climbing. I got on the radio and began calling for friendly fighters.
Just like the “book” said, they climbed up to a one o’clock high position into the sun about two miles out, made a wing-over turn in unison and dived at us with guns blazing. It was a fearful sight but was over in a few seconds as they dived through our formation. Of course, all of our nose and top turrets responded with long bursts from their twin 50-caliber guns.
It is hard to say how much damage we did to them as at the moment we were taking stock of their damage to us. One of their 20 millimeter shells exploded in the navigator’s panel and steel fragments struck our navigator in the face and left eye. The waist gunners reported three airplanes falling out of formation. You can be assured I was on the radio emphatically calling for help.
I can still see the navigator looking back at me through the astrodome and wiping blood from his face. Then Stupski (our pilotage navigator and nose gunner) yelled that the whole nose was full of blood. Next he yelled that the bombardier was trying to throw the navigator out. As it transpired, the “blood” turned out to be red hydraulic fluid from severed hydraulic lines.
The navigator, being dazed from the exploded 20mm shell and his wounds, which cost him his eye, wanted to bail out. The bombardier was struggling to restrain him, and Stupski misinterpreted the action. The navigator soon quieted down and was given a shot of morphine to ease his pain.”
Time “whizzed” by and there they were again at three o’clock and climbing. Their sleek-nosed silhouettes identified them as Messerschmitt 109s or Folke-Wulf 190s. All we could do was to sit there and wait. Then – here they came again! Thirty-two years hasn’t dimmed my view of those bright flashes of cannon fire aimed directly at me, my airplane, and my formation.
No sooner had they dived below us when a waist gunner called excitedly that gasoline was blowing in on them and they were being drenched. The top turret gunner/flight engineer then reported he could see holes in the left wing and gasoline was spewing out, which in turn was sucked into the open waist gunner’s window. I called the engineer to leave his turret and regulate the fuel valves so as to transfer as much fuel from the damaged cells as possible. This he did, and – there the Jerries were back at 3 o’clock and climbing. Believe me, it is sure scary to be at 20,000 feet in that “wild blue yonder” eyeing a persistent enemy you know is doing his best to shoot you down.
With the gaggle perched at one o’clock high, I made my last call for friendly fighters and switched back to interphone and – here they came. If I thought “this is it,” I can’t remember, because just as swift as lightning, two P-38 Lightnings dived from “nowhere” right into the gaggle. The German fighters literally scattered like frightened sparrows – and we were saved.
I had hardly heaved a sigh of relief when over the interphone came: “Pull up, pull up!” Captain Baumgart instantaneously snapped the airplane off automatic pilot and hauled back on the steering column. We pitched up and our B-24 sat “high, wide, and handsome” as the now meagre formation passed on below. Of course, the question was, “What happened?” I didn’t wait for answers. It was one of the few times – as command pilot – I ever took over the airplane. We were sitting all alone at 130 miles per hour while the formation hurried on at 150 and I didn’t want to be a “tail-end Charlie.” “Pouring on the coal” with full power and putting the airplane in a shallow dive, I quickly gained air speed. I held the dive until I caught up with the formation, but some 2,000 feet below it.
Using the full power and excessive speed, I gradually climbed back up to the formation and “tacked” on to the high element. Thank goodness! Baumgart’s instantaneous reaction probably saved us from a mid-air collision, and as he says: “A mid-air collision can spoil your whole day.” Back in formation, the answer to the question of “What happened?” revealed that an airplane to the rear and below us suddenly pulled up toward us, and it appeared that he would ram us – thus the call to pull up. Our crew witnessed fire in their cockpit and the airplane “went down” out of control.
The Alps were still in sight, and we hadn’t reached Strasbourg yet. How much fuel do we have remaining? I still had to make the decision of destination. Could we make it back to England or should we divert to and be interned in Switzerland?
The full account by Col. Myron Keilman and Col Vernon Baumgart can be found at B24.Net. Initial losses to the 392nd seemed very bad. 14 out of 28 crews briefed for the mission were lost and 9 more damaged. However 8 crews from the ‘lost’ planes had been able to put down in, or parachute into, neutral Switzerland. The crews were interned for the duration of hostilities by the Swiss authorities.