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Home >> The 464th in WWII >> Our War Stories >> Brown's Crew and the Redtails

Our War Stories

Brown's Crew and the Redtails

by George Gilliard Barnett (777)

Page 1

      This B-24 Liberator crew arrived at the 464th Bomb Group which was located by an Italian country village called Pantanella. Pantanella was located in the middle of the Italian "boot" between Naples and the Adriatic Seaport of Bari.

      There was plenty of mud, even in that early winter month of November. We were assigned a tent on the hillside above the twin steel matted runways in the valley. It must have been the leakiest tent on the base. Anymore leaks in this tent and it would have been uninhabitable. All flying crews lived in tents. A few had improved their tents with a framework of 2 x 4 timbers.

      Many of the non-flying personnel had provided themselves with other shelter. Walls were made of "Tufa". Tufa is soft sandstone quarried locally and sawed into concrete block size pieces. Some of these tufa shelters had corrugated steel roofs, some had a tent roof. They all had a door and glass windows. The entire living area (including the mess hall and other "group" buildings) was a "slummy" looking village. The only thing that gave it a semblance of order was that the tents and tufa huts were in aligned rows.

      Mud was everywhere. Winter is the rainy season in Southern Italy. We hated getting our shoes wet and muddy. In a few days, when our flying gear was issued, we wore our rubber and leather high top, fleece lined, flying boots over our shoes and the problem of wet shoes disappeared. We were told we would be issued galoshes as soon as all the infantrymen in Italy were supplied with them. We got them about 6 months later - in summer.

      This crew flew its first mission on 12 December, 1944. The mission went without incident, no flack, it was a "milk run". We thought, heck, there's nothing to this combat flying, we'll do 35 of these and be home soon.

      Our second mission was on 19 December, over Blechhammer, Germany, to destroy an oil refinery. Hell broke loose over the target. It was a shock, after our first mission.

      The Co-pilot tried his best to shrink up into a little ball. Seven of the 28 B-24's in our group were shot down - some violently. Our plane had over 100 small jagged holes in it, which we counted when we returned to base. Now, we knew that combat flying was going to be serious.

      Our third mission on 26 December and our fourth mission on 28 December were also serious combat flying. We saw more B-24's shot down.

      The "Intelligence Officers" briefing us before flights "foo-pooied" German anti-aircraft capabilities. They said their AA guns were manned by boys and old men unfit for combat duty. That's when we learned first-hand not to depend too heavily on intelligence reports. The German guns and their gunners were good. If they could see us, they could hit us, at any altitude.

      In the entire month of December, we flew only four missions. That's because Italy has lots of bad weather in winter. We did not fly in extremely bad weather. If a target is covered by clouds, there's not much use flying.

      We rarely hit a target even when we could see it and aim on it. Dropping bombs through clouds by radar was a waste of bombs. But, the Army had plenty of them. It probably served a purpose in harassing the German population and keeping them on edge. We might hit something as big as a city by radar, but never a specific target.

      We encountered only three fighter escort groups during our twenty-five missions over Germany and German held territories - Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. We did not know what these fighter groups numbers were. We identified them, each of the three, in our own way.
The Lightnings
There was a group of P-38 Lightnings. We called them "The Lightnings". We did not like their escort. They always stayed so far out, away from us, that we had trouble telling if they were friend or foe.
The Checkertails
There was a group of P-51 Mustangs with their tails painted black and white checkerboard. We called them "The Checkertails". We didn't like their escort either, but we liked them better than the Lightnings. The Checkertails were just the opposite of the Lightnings. They hovered over us — much too close. We sometimes thought they were trying to join our formation. We didn't like that.
The Redtails
There was a group of P-51 Mustangs that provided escort for us that we liked. We felt more comfortable and secure when we had this group with us. We knew we had a lucky day when Vic DeWolf, our alert tail gunner, would announce on the intercom "Fighters coming in fast at 6 o'clock level". Then a few seconds later he would announce, "It's alright - they're the Redtails!". The Redtails were identifiable long before the U.S. Star could be detected. This group had the spinner and tail of each airplane painted bright red. Maybe we should have called them the "Red Barons", but we called them "The Redtails". As they rapidly overtook our group, they throttled back to our 160 MPH and took up positions on both sides and above our formation of 28 slow, lumbering bombers. They were always in position where we thought fighter escorts should be - not too far out, not too close - right out there where we liked to see them; where we thought was a good intercept position. Boy, we felt good when the Redtails were with us. We wondered why those other escort groups didn't take some lessons from the Redtails.

      On 20 January, 1945, our fifth mission was to bomb the railroad yards at Linz, Austria. Linz is an industrial city about 50 miles upstream (west) of Vienna on the Danube River.

      This would be a good time to destroy some myth...the Norden Bomb Sight was "bally-hooed" by the Army Air Corps as the device that would give us pin-point bombing accuracy. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Of course, it was far superior to whatever was used before the Norden.

      In practice bombing, a bold white target, with bullseye, 100 feet across, was painted on the ground. We practiced at 10,000 feet altitude - didn't even need cold weather clothing nor oxygen. Larry Fleischer, our Bombardier, was good. He could always drop our non-exploding practice bombs well within the target circle, and many times right on the bullseye.

      The Norden Sight will do a perfect job under "practice conditions". So, under "combat conditions" it should also do a perfect job — not so. Most bombing is done at the highest possible altitude, to get far away from those anti-aircraft guns, usually at 25,000 to 26,000 feet. Would have gone higher, except that a loaded B-24 had an absolute ceiling of 27,000 feet.

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      Published with the permission of George Gilliard Barnett (464th, 777).
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