Disaster on Vicenza ‘milk run’ for a B-24 Liberator

A Consolidated B-24 Liberator from Maxwell Field, Alabama, four engine pilot school, glistens in the sun as it makes a turn at high altitude in the clouds.

A Consolidated B-24 Liberator from Maxwell Field, Alabama, four engine pilot school, glistens in the sun as it makes a turn at high altitude in the clouds.

The 376th Bombardment Group was based at Enfidaville, Tunisia. Their bombing targets were now mostly in Italy and some targets were known to be much less heavily defended than others. So it was for the Vicenza rail yards. It was a ‘milk run’ with relatively little risk compared to other targets, yet contributed to the overall score of combat missions that they needed to complete.

This is the dramatic account of Cliff Wendell who was piloting #65 ‘RED WING’. Their group of 17 bombers was late getting to the rendezvous point and so they didn’t join up with the main force to make the attack. As there was strength in numbers, and mutual support from other aircraft, standing orders were that they should abort the mission and return to base in these circumstances. But they decided to press on, it was a decision that led to a terrifying experience for all and a fatal mistake for some:

The decision was up to Capt. Thompson and Col. Graff in the lead ship, and they decided to attempt to complete the mission unescorted. It is easy enough now to second guess their judgment in this case, but I believe they were influenced by the fact that this was Capt. Thompson’s last mission, and he was naturally anxious to finish up so he could so home, if we had turned back then, we would not have been credited with a mission so he would have had to fly another one some other day, ยท Also the fact that Vicenza had been an easy target before probably affected the decision. At any rate, we turned north and started flying up the Adriatic.

At this point, a number of the pilots in the formation chose to break the rule of radio silence and started a conversation with the lead ship questioning the wisdom of continuing and suggesting that: we ought to turn back. Of course, this was pure folly, because if the Germans were listening, the fact was being advertised that we were unescorted. The mission continued uneventfully, and we crossed the coast line south of Venice at about 11:30. We were then at about 21,000 feet and slowly climbing to our bombing altitude of 22,500.

We flew inland for about 40 miles and then turned North toward our target, the railroad roundhouse and engine repair shops at Vicenza less than 50 miles away. It was then that fighters were first reported, and we saw a whole swarm of them, like little dots in the sky, climbing up to meet us. It was later reported that there were over one hundred of them against our little handful of 17 bombers. They were all FW 190’s and Mg 109’s, single-engined German air craft armed with 20 mm cannon.

The attack started almost immediately and our ship became the primary target because of our vulnerable position. The group was flying in very close formation for maximum protection, and it was comforting to see all the 50 cal. machineguns on the neighboring ships which would help drive off the attack. I was especially thankful for the nose turret on our squadron’s lead ship, the first time we had had such protection as all our other ships were B-24 D’s which didn’t have nose turrets. Four fighters attacked from the rear and the tail gunner “Red” Sansone was just triumphantly announcing the destruction of the first one when six others turned toward us from the front and attacked at one o’clock in a string formation.

As they went flashing by a hail of bullets passed diagonally across in front of me, and I was afraid for the welfare of the boys in the nose. Charlie Borger, our bombardier, was firing the machine gun in the nose, but it wouldn’t work properly and only discharged one bullet at a time and would not fire continuously.

As the fighters went by they raked us from stem to stern and the noise of the bullets striking the ship was the most fearful sound I had heard in combat. Everything was happening very quickly now. The radioman, Arex Mikaitis, in the upper turret and Jack O’Hara at the right waist gun teamed up to shoot down two of the attackers and “Red” Sansone got another one at the tail for a score of four shot down. But the damage had already been done.

I was intent on flying as close to the lead ship as possible and hoping we had weathered the attack with no casualties, when Don Jefferies, the engineer, clapped me on the shoulder. My first thought was that he had been hit, but as I turned to look I saw him pointing toward the bomb bay. His microphone had become disconnected in the excitement so he could not talk to me but the look in his eye told me what had happened. Through the small window in the bomb bay door I saw a blazing inferno. All our gasoline and oxygen was burning around 8000 lbs. of bombs we had there.

As Jefferies pulled the red handle to salvo the bombs, I banked the plane to the right and left the formation, at the same time giving the order on interphone to the crew to bail out, and ringing the alarm bell. There was another fire under the co-pilot and one in the nose wheel cornpartnent and the cock pit was fast filling with smoke. The number three engine was smashed and there was another fire in the rear of the ship forward of the ball turret.

During the attack Jack O’Hara had been hit and knocked down by shell fragments in the arm, but he had gotten back to his gun in time to help shoot down the fourth plane and then had been sprayed by burning hot oil when #3 engine was hit. Barely able to see, he was assisted to the escape hatch by Angleton and Young, the other two gunners who also had been burned about the face and neck. “Red” Sansone stuck by his guns in the tail turret until he had shot down his second ship, and then looking around he saw the others had bailed out so he grabbed his parachute and quickly left the ship.

Bill Lovaas, the navigator, and Charlie Borger, the bombardier up in the nose had survived the attack unscathed. Upon hearing the order to bail out, Bill pulled the two handles to open the nose wheel doors, but nothing happened. Something had gone wrong with the mechanism, probably having been hit by a shell. Bill went back to get his oxygen mask on again and Charlie came out to the nose wheel compartment. When Bill returned he found that Charlie had succeeded in opening one of the doors and had apparently slipped into the opening and was stuck there, effectively locking the other door shut.

He was hanging with his head, arms, and feet out in the slip stream and struggling to free himself. Bill tried to pull him back in, and tried to push him on through, but was unable to budge him. Charlie soon ceased his struggling as he became unconscious through lack of oxygen and Bill followed suit shortly after when the oxygen in his walk around bottle gave out. Later they were both thrown free as the ship broke up. Bill woke up hanging in his parachute, which had miraculously opened, and found himself about 2000 feet above the ground. Charlie never regained consciousness and fell to the ground.

… Cliff Wendell found himself trying to keep the aircraft under control to let the other men escape, then when he went to leave the aircraft himself, was pinned to the windshield as the aircraft went into a spin…

All of a sudden the ship must have broken apart because I was thrown away from the window and was standing between the pilot’s and co-pilot’s seats, I was completely disoriented and didn’t know whether I was standing on the ceiling or the floor. There was so much smoke I couldn’t get located and was unable to find the escape hatch which evidently slammed shut when the plane went into the spin.

However, I spotted a small patch of daylight which seemed to revolve in front of me, As soon as it seemed below me I took a dive for it. This hole must have been back of the bomb bay somewhere and seemed about 20 feet away. The force of my dive carried me through all the broken and twisted wires until my arms and head were through the hole when the wires caught on my flying suit and held my legs inside the ship. Once again I thought I must be too close to the ground to escape now and I thought the force of the spin would tear me apart in the middle but after about one revolution my clothes ripped and I was thrown clear.

Read Cliff’s whole account at 376th Heavy Bomber Group

An air-to-air left side view of four B-24 Liberator aircraft in formation.

An air-to-air left side view of four B-24 Liberator aircraft in formation.

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