One of the few to come home
(Editor’s note: As a heartfelt tribute to all United States veterans, living and deceased, we are publishing a World War II veteran’s account of memorable missions and historic moments.)
by Howard Croner
8th Army Air Force
European Theater, World War II
I was on a B-17 Flying fortress as the first engineer top turret gunner. There were 10 of us on each B-17: pilot, co-pilot, navigator and bombardier, all officers. The next six were sergeants. The engineer and radioman were tech sergeants and the rest were staff sergeants. There was a ball turret gunner, two gunners in the waist compartment and a tail gunner.
We had 13, 50-caliber machine guns. My turret had two as did the bombardier, ball turret and tail gunner. The radio room and waist gunner each had one. The navigator had one on each side in the nose.
We formed our crew at Salt Lake City. Each person came from different schools and we formed a 10-man crew. From Salt Lake we went by train to Sioux City Air Base. This was on Christmas Day and we had a big dinner on the train. Arriving at Sioux City Air Base, we were treated to another Christmas dinner. That was on Dec. 25, 1943.
Our next phase of duty was to learn how to fly as a crew. Each man had his job to do. We had a good crew. We learned how to fly close formation, going on 1,000-mile tours to places like Terra Haute, Ind., Salina, Kan., and Ainsworth, Neb., to bombing ranges and dropped bombs filled with sand. We completed this training January through March. Now we were ready for combat. We had no idea where we would go, to Europe or to the Pacific. Orders came and we went by train to Kearney, Neb., and picked up a new B-17 and ferried it to England.
On to Europe
We traveled from Grenier Field, N.H., to Goose Bay, Labrador, Reykjavik, Iceland then to Nuts Corner, Ireland. Nuts Corner was so fogged in we went to Glasgow, Scotland. We left our plane there then went by train to Attleborough, England. That was the first week of April 1944.
We joined the Deaphan Green Air Base 452 Bomb Group with the 728th through 731st Bomb Squadrons. I was in the 728th Bomb Squadron which was known as the Purple Heart Squadron since we lost more men as killed in action and/or shot down. Our total was more than the other three squadrons put together.
The 452nd was a new group, formed and made ready in February 1944. Our bomb group flew a total of 250 missions from February 1944 to April 1945. Base personnel including the fly group totaled 2,370. We lost 750 on missions of which 615 became prisoners of war. We had 65 evaders and 70 interned in Sweden or Switzerland. We had 445 killed in action.
My tour of duty was 25 combat missions and my first mission was to Brunswick, Germany. Our aim was to destroy all military targets including aircraft factories, marshalling yards (railroads), ship building factories, oil refineries, airfields, submarine pens and many other targets. The 8th Air Force was all-out combat with no letup. The enemy never turned us back. Some of us always got to the primary or secondary target.
Cloud cover sometimes made it impossible to hit our primary target. We lost lots of planes to enemy fighters and flak which was so heavy sometimes you thought you could land on it. On many missions we did not have a fighter escort so we were at the mercy of enemy fighters. Flak sometimes was accurate and we wold lose a few B-17s. Sometimes we would lose an engine or two. If you could not keep up with the formation, then you were a straggler. The enemy plane would pounce on you, if they were around. You would be a goner. Sometimes, if there were other crippled B-17s, they would form up close formations, then you might have a chance to live.
We would go deep into Germany to targets and have escort partway. Out escort would be P-38s, P-47s, P-51s and sometimes RAF Spitfires. But they could not carry enough fuel to go all the way to the target and get back to England. Later in the summer of ’44, they could carry fuel and go all the way and back. Our long missions would be about 12 hours long. Some targets were in France and Belgium and some of them were rough too.
Our first missions were in any B-17 repaired to go into combat. About on the fifth or sixth mission, we finally got assigned to our own plane, a bright, shiny new plane, but on May 20, 1944, we went to Brussels, Belgium. We got shot up bad, losing two engines and the tail was shot up bad. There were no injuries. We made it back to the base for repairs. I can’t remember when we got it back after repairs but when we did, it was the ugliest plane on the base. The two outside engines, one and four, and the whole tail section was olive drab – from shiny to ugly.
Our plane was named “Sack time Sioux” after Sioux City Air Base. We all liked Sioux City. Some of our jackets (A-2) were painted with a pretty Indian girl in a skimpy bathing suit lying on a cloud. They were sharp. I didn’t get mine painted that way because I painted the name “Sack time Sioux” and started painting bombs on my jacket when one of the other crew members could paint real good. Oh well. I’m glad I got back.
Mission after mission was grinding on us. Then came the report that we all would do 30 missions. We thought when we got 19 that we only had six more to go but now, now it was five more over the 25. That’s bad for morale. We continued to fly and then they added on another five. Then it was 35 missions. Well I completed 34 for a completed tour of duty.
Some of the memorable missions included Brussels, Belgium, and four missions to Berlin. Our real rough one was to Brux, Czechoslovakia to an aircraft factory. We were briefed that we had the upper hand now in the air war. The enemy planes were obsolete and what they had were flying on wooden ball bearings. Also, I didn’t see any of our escorts that day, May 12, 1944. We got hit on our way to the target at Frankfurt, Germany by about 200 German planes. They came head-on four abreast for about two hours. Our bomb squadron (728th) put up 14 B-17s. The Germans shot down B-17s. We lost a lot of them. But we shot down 39 enemy planes. We did make it on to our target and had good results. Out of 14 planes, 10 were shot down, two ditched in the English Channel and two of us got back to base.
Most of our missions were flown 21,000 to 28,000 feet and 20 to maybe 40 degrees below zero. I remember another hairy mission was deep into Germany and flak was heavy before we got to the target. We lost our oxygen and had to hit the deck. I mean that’s tree top level so big guns couldn’t aim at us but we got peppered with rifles and machine guns. No one was hurt again. We still had our bomb load. We would skirt around the big cities that had a lot of military. We came upon a small town with lots of military equipment around so we opened the bomb bay doors, went down main street and blew the town apart. It made Hitler furious. How did the Americans know Hitler had a highly sophisticated communications system in the small town.
We flew D-Day June 6. We were the first wave of bombers to the French coast of Normandy. This was a milk run for us – over and back with no fighters, no flak. We could see the channel jam packed with ships. It was unbelievable. I felt so sorry for the Army infantry and Marines that went ashore. They caught hell. So did the landing ships and Navy in the heavy seas.
Another memorable mission was June 21, 1944. Our target was Ruhland, Germany, which put out 6 percent of Germany’s synthetic oil. We clobbered it good. We could see black smoke rising to about 15,000 feet as we were flying on east. We crossed the Danube River then got hit by the Abbeyville Kids, ME-109s with yellow nose cones on the props. This was Hermann Goring’s prize fighter unit. We lost one or two B-17s and had one crippled. We flew on to Poltava, Ukraine in Russia. We could only get three airfields from Joseph Stalin. The main group of B-17s landed at Pyratin and the P-51s landed at Misagorad and us at Poltava. Again we had no escorts. We landed about 5:20 p.m. on June 21. There were approximately 50-70 B-17s on the field. We were so tired because this mission started the night before. We got up at 9:30 p.m. June 20 for breakfast. However, we did see a German recon plan flying overhead at 10,000 to 15,000 feet and then leave.
The Russians at the base did not fire a shot from their four big guns nor send up any fighters. I don’t think the Russians liked us. Anyway, just after midnight, 12:20 a.m. June 22, the Germans came. Their leader was Col. Wilhelm Antrup, commander of the Luftwaffe base at Minsk, Belarus (which was White Russia then) which was about 400-600 miles north. They dropped flares and lit the base up like daylight. They bombed and strafed and bombed and strafed. You could feel the strafing hit the ground and it seemed to quit about six inches from you. Anyway, it seemed that way. There were bombs bursting everywhere, B-17s burning all over the field. The bomb dump and fuel depot were lost also. The Russians did not fire a shot nor send up any fighters. It lasted about two hours. The Germans had the greatest air raid of World War II. And Col. Antrup received his glories from Herman Goring.
Now we were stranded. Our officers tried to get the Russians to take us out of there but they wouldn’t. We lived on rations and water from listen bags. We were told not to eat any Russian food. We did get some bing cherries and sunflower seeds from peasants.
We finally got the U.S. Air Transport Command to come and get us from North Africa. I didn’t get back to our air base in England until about July 6-7. Our journey went from Poltava then to Tehran, Iran where the Iranian Red Cross gave us some white hard bread with jelly on it and cold water. From there we went to Cairo, Egypt to refuel and buy some souvenirs and walk to some Bedouins on camels to get some pictures but they got angry so we got no pictures. From Cairo we went to Tripoli, Libya. There I went to a foreign bank of exchange because my pockets were bulging with Russian money. You see, I took a few bars of soap and a few packs of cigarettes with me. Anyway, a big disappointment at the bank of exchange was that Russian money was not honored outside of Russia. So we rolled up the money and lit our cigarettes with it.
Our next stop for fuel was Casablanca, French Morocco. Here we thought we could have some fun. Casablanca was a nice-looking city with modern buildings and bright lights. One nightclub had stacks of Schlitz and Budweiser beer cases in the rear but they were all empty. So what did we settle for? Cognac and vermouth – not good. Anyway, some of us went AWOL so we could see the sights. We caught a plane later and got back to our base July 7. I don’t think we were missed at all.
We started flying missions four days later. One mission was to fly to south France July 14 and drop supplies to the French Marquies (Free French) at low altitude. What a treat, warm sunlight coming in the Plexiglas turret. We were fired on by German troops. We all came back with nobody hurt.
Every mission had a story of some kind. One time we took off for a mission in the fog which was so heavy we could hardly see the wing tips of our Flying Fortress. We would circle to the left and spiral our way up. We came up on top of the clouds at 26,000 feet. The sky was full of B-17s all over. So our lead plane lowered its wheels, then we could form up and go on to our target.
Another time in the Rostok on Kiel, Germany mission, we encountered green flak, red and other colors. Also some phosphorus flak, which I think would eat into the aluminum of the plane if it hit us. We did have escort that day, P-47 Thunderbolts. One took after a German FW 190 and the FW 190 pilot bailed out at about 25,000 feet. He wouldn’t dogfight with the P-47. Somewhere in this area we could see Sweden. The crew was wishing we could have airplane problems so we could go to Sweden and be interred. Our loyalty won out.
On one mission, we got hit pretty hard by enemy fighters. Our radio man went berserk. He was in his radio room with only a small ceiling window and one 50-caliber machine gun. Planes seemed to come from all directions and he couldn’t see them. He was the oldest man on the crew. After I got him quieted down and we landed, the pilot released him from our crew.
I can’t remember which mission we were on, but we got heavy flak at the target. Our waist gunner flew as the bombardier that day. The bombs could be dropped on command from the plane that had the Norden bombsight. Anyway, pieces of flak came through and cut off his fingers on his right hand, just as he said “bombs away.” This was one of those missions at about 28,000 feet and the temperature was probably 40 degrees below zero. I went to him with the first aid kit and wrapped him up. He was in pain and the morphine was frozen. I kept the morphine in my mouth until it thawed so I could inject it in his arm. While landing, I shot up the flares for rescue trucks to take him to the hospital. That was the last time we saw him. He no doubt was assigned to some other duty.
Our navigator got killed by a piece of flak that went through his temple and out the other side of his head. That was on another mission. It was such a tragedy because he and the bombardier were betting on who would have a boy as both their wives were pregnant.
From April 26, 1944, to Aug. 13, 1944, I got in 34 missions. During that time we did get to London on two different passes, each time a couple of days or so, and saw the sights. We also found cover in air raid shelters on occasions when the buzz bombs or V-2 rockets would come by. There was lots of damage. When not flying on bombing missions a skeleton crew (pilot, co-pilot, engineer and radioman) would fly about four or five hours to see if it would be fit for combat. We weren’t always serious about test flights. On some, we would buzz some RAF airfields or fly a B-17 between the hangars. It seems like we left only a foot or so on each wingtip. Once we found a lake with several sailboats on it and we would buzz those sailboats and tip them over with the prop wash. Our pilot got reprimanded. It never happened again.
One time at the base, several of us were called out in our olive drabs for a ceremony. The officers presented us with a Presidential Citation. We didn’t know why. I don’t know for sure unless it was for the number of missions we flew or the number of enemy planes we shot down or the rough targets we went on. We were also awarded the Air Medal with a few oak leaf clusters attached thereon. We were also presented with the DFC with pictures by our plane.
I came home from England with none of my crew. I was sent to Edinburgh, Scotland, which was the point of embarcation. I got dusted in fast – everybody did. I didn’t need it but got it anyway. There I went AWOL again for one day. I took a train back to Edinburgh. It was easy to change the date on my pass. I flew back on a C-54 (A four-engine Douglas I think it was). There were about four or five enlisted men and I was in charge of them on flight. There were also about 20 or 25 officers. All of us had completed our tour of duty at some bomb group or fighter base. We landed at Stevenville, Newfoundland, then on to New York City, stayed overnight at No. 1 Park Avenue Hotel, then to Fort Sheridan, Ill., and home to Estherville for about 30 days. That was great. I reported to a redistribution and convalescent hospital in Miami Beach. Fla. There I stayed from September through January. On Feb. 21, 1945, I was discharged from the Air Force and the war wasn’t over yet.
In the last few years, I have been presented with other decorations. I received a French Gold Medal from the Counsel General of the French Embassy. It was presented at the courthouse at Mason City. Emogene and I along with my granddaughters Jessica and Lindsey attended. The Estherville school was glad to let the kids go with us for the occasion. That was in 1997.
We have an Iowa Chapter of the 8th Air Force Historical Society divided into our northwest wing by the two interstate highways that divide Iowa. It was at Lake View that I received a medal from Russia. It was approved by Boris Yeltsin. It floated around for two years among our occasional summer meetings. Our chairman knew I would be getting the medal and searching for the paperwork further, it had my name on it. So 1995 to 1997, I got it. Next came a medallion with a long ribbon around the neck from the French military. This too came about 1998 along with a colorful certificate. The French must have appreciated us for helping end the war. Next was more glory coming. I understand the U.S. Veterans Administration has a form for me to fill out for something else from the French government.