Croner recalls Poltava attack
This mission was supposed to be the first leg of a triangle from England to Russia with hitting a target in between. Then from Russia to Italy and from Italy to England, both with hitting a target in between. The reason for this procedure for bombing was because Germany was moving their factories and airfields farther inland so we could not bomb them and get back to our bases in England without running out of fuel. But now we can.
Plans were to get seven or eight bases in Russia, but Stalin said, “No!”: So we settled for three bases in the Ukraine, Pyratin, Miragrad and Poltava. This day, June 21, 1944 would be the first, one large formation of B-17s, which included several bomb groups. Also, there would be very large formations of P-51 Mustang fighters to fly escort for the bombers and also land in Russia. The third large formation of B-17s would be us. Our formation consisted of three bomb groups, the 96th, the 388th and the 452nd Bomb Group. The bombers had squared letters on each tail … H, L and C. These later were also the initials of myself and my radio operator, Harold L. Carlton. The 452nd Bomb Group bomb has the letter “L”. Even though the P-51 Mustang fighters were to escort us, we did not see them on our route to Russia. They were escorting other big formations. I do not know the other formations’ targets, but ours was Ruhland, Germany, about 50 miles south of Berlin. Ruhland, Germany put out about 6 percent of Germany’s synthetic oil. We clobbered it good! After hitting that target, we continued on east. We could see black smoke rising 15,000 to 20,000 feet behind us.
We then crossed the Danube River at Poland and continued on east. Somewhere along there we did get attacked by ME-109s. The ME-109s had yellow nose cones. The pea-pickin’ things were known as the Abbyville Kids, which was Herman Goering’s prize fighting group. They did knock down two of our B-17s and crippled one. We did not know if they made it to some Russian airfield, crash landed or even if any of them lived. If they were captured, they would no doubt be prisoners of war. If they evaded capture and connected with the underground, they might eventually have gotten back to America alive. From this encounter with the German ME-109s, we continued on to Poltava, Ukraine. The balance of this trip was uneventful.
We flew 21,000 to 26,000 feet and now we are getting low on fuel. This mission was about 12 hours and we had not had any food since 9:30 p.m. the night before. We landed in Poltava at 5:20 p.m. June 21, 1944. We were greeted by Russian military and workers. They were happy to see us. They would pet the B-17 like a dog and some would hug the propellers. We were briefed not to buy any Russian food. Officers on both sides seemed pretty rigid, but the ranks were friendly.
We were assigned to our tent areas. Each tent had a small ditch around the perimeter so rain water would not get into the tents. We were so tired given that we had no sleep since 9:30 the night before, and no food. We went to bed as soon as possible, but were awakened with loud explosions at 12:20 a.m. June 22.
The German Luftwaffe airplanes came, which consisted of about 80 planes. They dropped parachute flares and lit the base up like daylight. They bombed and strafed and bombed and strafed. We ran to ditches where tents were at one time. The ditches were about 12 inches wide and 12 inches deep. You could not get deep enough and the strafing was very close. The bullets would hit the ground, which seemed like six inches from us. Dirt would still splash on you. The German planes left after two hours of bombing and strafing.
This Russian base had four big guns and they never fired a shot or sent up any fighter planes that they had.
I think the planes they had were on America Lend Lease and were P-39 Bell Air Cobras. I don’t think the Russians liked us either. Now, back to our tents. Some tents had collapsed from shrapnel. We were tired, but had to see all the B-17s burning and exploding. Also, our bomb, ammo and fuel depot of 100 octane gas was blown away. We could not go onto the airfield because bombs were still going off. The Germans dropped delayed-action bombs, demolition incendiary bombs plus butterfly bombs. Those would hit the ground and wings would open up. If you stepped on one you would be blown to bits. They were hard to see.
Anyway, we did catch up on our sleep. Two or three days later, we could see the damage. Some planes were still smoldering. There was all kinds of debris on the ground and large holes. Most of the B-17s burned, melted and collapsed in the middle. We found many fragments of bombs. I picked up two incendiary bombs. One had burned partway and then went out. The other didn’t go off at all. I picked up parts and put them in my B-4 bag for souvenirs.
You have no idea how big this disaster was. I think we had 50 to 70 B-17s at the base. Someone said that there were only five left standing. Maybe they could have been repaired to fly, but I don’t think they would have been fit for combat. Now we were stranded. What could we do? Our officers tried to have the Russians take us out by truck. They said, “No.” But we got a hold of the U.S. Transport Command from Africa. They came and got us. Some of the cargo planes were converted to B-24s. While waiting, it gave us time to look the town over. There wasn’t much to see. There were chimneys standing and buildings in rubble. We did get to an open bazaar, but they didn’t have much to offer. One man could speak English because he had worked in Detroit, Mich., for several years before World War II and then went home to Russia. He is the one that I traded cigarettes and bar soap with. I got rubles and kopek coins from him. There wasn’t anything to buy really. We bought fresh-picked bing cherries and sunflower seeds … very good! I also visited with a Russian soldier. He couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Russian. He wanted my cigarette lighter, so we traded. The Russian lighter was crude, but it worked OK. The next day he stopped me to give me a picture of him and his two brothers and wrote something on the back of the picture. Leaving Russia, the navigator on the ATC (Air Transport Command) translated the words and it said, “On long time remember, brother in class from sailor.” Costa Litvinova 29, June 1944.
Three of the non-commissioned officers (staff sergeants) decided that since we were not getting out of Poltava, Russia right away that they would get their hair cut off. They were young. About 19 or 20 years old. The vote was three to one, and they decided that the rest of us should have our hair cut off, too, so the vote was four to one. So we lost our hair. No one really cared because we weren’t going anywhere. In the end six of us got our hair cut off. Before we left Russia, we were walking around and came upon a gravel pit with several girls swimming. We didn’t stay, we were ordered to move on. Walking by a house, someone motioned for us to stop. We did and they were trying to understand English, and we Russian. We were catching on to a few things. On leaving, the man of the house gave me a deck of German cards, that I still have to this day. The local people seemed very nice to us. While in Poltava we received rations and water from a lister bag. The treated water tasted like bleach or quinine water. There were two Russian girls that worked in the food line, and they had muscle! Time to leave Poltava.
Every stop we made to refuel, something stood out. First stop was Tehran, Iran. We were given a secret pass for Tehran to the United Kingdom, plus a treat. The Iranian Red Cross gave us hard, white bread with red jelly and ice-cold water. This really hit the spot! The next refueling spot was Cairo, Egypt where we could buy some souvenirs. I bought camel skin picture frames and camel skin billfolds. I did buy a sharp, curved war knife like the Gurka India troop used. It had a sharp hilt near the handle which was not meant to be drawn out of the sheath unless you draw blood from the enemy. If you pulled the knife out without drawing blood from the enemy, you must knick yourself by the hilt and draw blood from yourself. My favorite souvenir is a fez at the Cairo airport. I also saw my first B-29. This must have been about July 1 or 2. One other memory was a camel caravan of Bedouins. We got our cameras and walked up to them. They were about one-quarter mile from our plane. They had rifles and they pointed them at us so we headed back to the plane.
The next refueling stop was Tripoli, Libya (Quadaffi country). At this stop, the Russian I mentioned earlier, who worked in Detroit, suggested I go to the Foreign Bank of Exchange and exchange my rubles and kopek coins for American money. He said that I could get eight to one American dollars instead of six to one. The bank said that the Russian money was not honored outside of Russia. We left Tripoli and headed for Casablanca, French Morocco. On the plane, we rolled up our Russian money and lit our cigarettes.
We landed in Casa Blanca … what a nice place! Nice buildings, bright lights, trees and green grass. We walked about the city to see the sights. By the way, we were warned to stay in groups. We did, but got approached by several young boys, about 16 or 17 years old. They wanted us to come down the alley and meet their sister. No go! One of the boys had the tail gunner, Munson, by the wrist and his wristwatch fell to the ground. We scared them off with some of our words. We took it upon ourselves to see more of the sights for the next couple of days. In our wandering around, Smitty saw stacks of Schlitz and Budweiser beer cases behind a night club. We thought, “Good American beer!” But there was none to be had. They were out! So, we settled for vermouth. Not good!”
We caught a plane and got back to England about July 6 or 7. Then we started flying missions again. I completed 34 and my tour was done. A tour consisted of 25 missions and then you went back to the States. But they added on five more missions and then another five. I came home on a DC-4 Douglas cargo plane. The plane was loaded with soldiers; about six or seven sergeants and I was in charge of them, including about 25 to 30 officers. All of these men had completed their tours. Some of the pilots and officers were from different bomber bases and some were in bandages and casts.
So our journey ends with lots of memories of our trip to Poltava, Russia … and not old enough to buy beer yet!
This was our original crew. We flew to England the first week of April 1944. Plane No. 46011.
Pilot Richard J. Forman, 2nd Lt., Omaha, Neb.
Co-pilot Lloyd J. Entwistle, 2nd Lt., Manhatten, N.Y.
Bombardier James H. Chance, 2nd Lt., Shamrock, Texas.
Navigator Royal P. Reed, 2nd Lt., Fot. Worth, Texas (KIA).
Engineer Howard L. Croner, Staff Sgt., Estherville, Iowa.
Radio Dominic L. Frederici, Staff Sgt., Springfield, Mass. (WIA).
Armorer Belfield,T. Chamblin, Sgt., Memphis, Tenn. (WIA).
Left waist Samuel W. Smith, Sgt., Pittsburgh, Pa.
Ball turret Robert H. Stretlow, Sgt., Milwaukee, Wis.
Tail gunner Howard R. Nunson, Sgt., Dallas, Texas.