B-26 Marauder 320th Bomb Group

 

Remembrances of the B-Dash-Crash & My Experiences with the 320th
by John (Jack) S. Harpster, 442nd Bomb Squadron

 

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I Had Been Assigned to the 320th Bombardment Group

 

Upon arrival in Sardinia we were assigned to a Squadron of the 320th Bomb group, under 42nd Division and a part of the 12th Air Force. The 320th Bombardment Group was the third B-26 unit to arrive in this combat theater. Originally stationed in North Africa, they had moved to this base in Sardinia just prior to my arrival. 12th Air Force was the Tactical branch while the heavy Strategic bombers like the B-24’s and the B-17’s were a part of the 15th Air Force. Most of these heavies were over on the Italian mainland. The B-24 and B-17 crews flew longer missions, deeper into enemy territory, and thus were only required to complete 25 missions while the B-26’s had to go for 40. The magic number grew to 45 with a physical check up and then later on was expanded to an indefinite number of missions.

  Introduction to Combat

 

Newly arrived B-26 crews were first individually flown into combat with a seasoned experienced crew and then released to fly with their own stateside assigned crew. In the case of the pilots, they usually flew 6 or more missions as copilot to learn the ropes depending of course on crew availability or shortages. My introduction to combat gave rise for some serious soul searching and concern about ever completing even the magical 40 missions. My first three missions for example are spelled out by reprint (with express approval of the writer) of my personal diary I kept throughout combat days. Please forgive the childish oratory that hasn’t improved much over the past half century. Here was my December 10, 1943 introduction to combat:

    #1. Well I finally got my first mission in and it nearly was my last. The target was a railroad bridge in a marshaling yard south west of Niece, France. No flak or fighters and was really a milk run. But the take off was the closest to death I ever want to come. We got caught in the prop wash of the planes ahead of us. Nearly slow rolled 10 feet off of the ground. Awfully silent and scarred me to death. We had absolutely no control and had only 140 m.p.h. Missed the ground by inches several times, but finally got straightened out. Flew very cautiously after that believe me. Rather tired after my first, of forty. I pray.

    #2. What a day!! The target - a bridge east of Cannes, France. Our position, a spare ship to fill in anywhere if one dropped out. The  lead ship of #3 element dropped out and we filled in. The coast of France came up and we began the run on the target. It was a beautiful bridge, easy to see. Then the flak started!!! They had us pegged perfectly and the sky was black with it. There were three hits in the bombardiers area alone and each time I thought he was a goner. "Bombs Away" and the break was to the right. Waist-top turret man badly hit, engineer wounded - plane punctured many times, many places, engines, compartments and wings. We were leaking oil and hydraulic fluids. Emergency landing in Corsica - 800 yard runway. A DC-3 crashed on the same field: 10 minutes later. The top turret man was dead with ack ack wounds in his head. Engineers arm was broken and pierced by flak. Our ship was too badly damaged to take off - so stayed in Corsica for the night. We returned to Sardinia the next afternoon by courier - a DC-3. Got to see the town there, much nicer than Sardi - rather modern and interesting. Hope to return under different circumstances.

On this 18 December mission the flak was unusually heavy and 12 of the 38 planes in our formation were hit.

The engineer, S/Sgt Wesley Dolan spent a month in the hospital after which he fully recovered. He was awarded the DFC for his bravery in trying to help the deceased top turret gunner and then manning the top turret position himself in spite of a dangling arm. After my return to our home base and a check up by the Flight Surgeon, the Squadron Commander asked me if I wanted to go to rest camp located on the Island of Capri. I told him;

“Thanks a lot, but no thanks. I just got here, I only have two missions so far, thirty eight more to go and I want to get going.”

Some kids just “Don’t got no Sense”.

 
 

The aircraft named "Shif'less" we crash landed in Corsica is shown here in this time worn photograph.

The aircraft named “Shif’ less” that we crash landed in Corsica is shown here in this time worn photo. This battle damaged B-26 was later fully repaired and flown back to us in Sardinia. I don’t see how maintenance did the wonderful work they performed in combat under such primitive working conditions. “Shif’ less” was flown on many future missions and in fact was often used as a lead ship, so they must have done a great job in restoration. Not because of this mission in particular, but at this time we finally got flak vests for protection and most of the crews welcomed this assist to longevity. Additionally, and for a very understandable purpose, a lot of co-pilots now sat on a piece of armor plate under their seat. Prior to the welcome addition of flak vests, a co-pilot quote was:

“The principal duty of the co-pilot is to protect the pilot from getting hit by any anti-aircraft fire.”

This alleged statement stemmed from the fact that a coffin like armor plate semi protected the pilot wrapped around him. However, there was nothing on the right side except the copilot. Nobody said, “War was fun”!

Not wanting to worry the folks back home who were already well endowed with “Worries”, I didn’t mention many details of the above raid.  Thanks to a newspaper article published in the hometown “Elizabeth Daily Journal”, however, the secret was out:

 

 

 

Westfield Man in Crippled Ship That Came Home
____
Lt. John S. Harpster Was Co-
Pilot of Bomber Shot
Full of Holes
____

     United State Army, Fifteenth Air Force :- 2nd Lieut. John S. Harpster of 815 Highland Avenue was co-pilot of "Shif'less" an A.A.F. B-26 Marauder of the Boomerang Bombers in the Fifteenth Air Fore which has added its name to the long list of the group's Marauders which have come home despite their damaged condition
    "Shif'less" collected more than 80 flak holes during a recent mission against the Another Railroad viaduct in southern France. Leading the second squadron of the Marauder formation into the target, the navigator had started his flight on the bomb run when heavy flak from German 88-mm guns started bursting.
    The pilots heard steel hit the fuselage directly below them. Another piece broke the plexiglass nose. One shell bursting under the left wing riddled the underside and the left engine nacelle. The oil lines were cut and the magneto leads sheared away.
    A burst above the top turret instantly killed the turret gunner. Fragments hit the waist gunner and penetrated his left arm. Despite the intense pain, and the fact that he could not use his left arm, the waist gunner rushed to the aid of the turret gunner, and when he found there was nothing he could do, climbed into the turret and manned the guns.
    Steel fragments cut through the fuselage like a razor, leaving sharp jagged holes. One piece clipped the hydraulic line leading into the nose wheel.
    "Shif'less" managed to stay in the formation for fifteen minutes while the Marauder got safely out to sea and on the way home. The broken magneto wires caused the left engine to lose power and finally the pilot was forced to drop below and behind the formation.
    Two other B-26s followed him to protect the single bomber. To provide medical care for his wounded gunner, the pilot headed for Corsica. By trading altitude for distance, he successfully reached an emergency field. The injured gunner will be all right after a month in the hospital.

Lt. Harpster is Pilot

     Lt. Harpster, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Walter C. Harpster, has been overseas since the first week in November and has piloted a B-26 on his own on a number of exciting missions, his mother said. The family moved here from Elizabeth.


  Back in the Air Again

 

Back in the air again, this time on the 23rd of December:

    #3. Darn if it wasn't another rough & tough mission. Am getting a bit tired of these hairline flirtations with death. We almost could not get off the runway as it was very sloppy and muddy. Target - Ventimiglia, a bridge in Southern France. No flak or fighters, but on the bomb run the left prop ran away. No control at all. Dropped our bombs and left formation. When finally over Sardinia, just about on one engine, it was closed over with clouds. High towering clouds. So our navigator finally said, "Down there is a valley". We peeled off and flew blind in the clouds, all the time in this rocky jagged mountain area. He was right, it was a valley, but once we broke out through a clearing, just on our left was a cliff of a mountain about 1000 feet higher than we were. Someone was taking care of us! Made a lucky landing after a close and harrowing mission. That was it. More tomorrow.

On Christmas Day my present was a long over due milk run. Milk runs were so called because they had minimum or no problems during the raid. I guess Jerry thought we all would be under the Christmas Tree exchanging gifts??? Or perhaps he was???


The Airfield at Decimo

 

 
 

B-26s Lining up for take off in Sardinia

All of the hazards in this operation were not just from anti-aircraft fire or enemy fighters. A major challenge existed in just getting up off of the runway. Our field was approximately 1,000 feet wide and made up of a lot of your common variety garden rocks, dirt and sticky mud after a shower. We had chuckholes that even California would be proud to own. Some of the chuckholes could well have been made by bombs of our own 320th Group flying out of North Africa when the field was, before my time, occupied with enemy aircraft. Today’s pilots are spoiled with nice concrete runaways and they don’t know the thrill of the airplane next to you sending sprays of mud and grime over your windshield through which you now have to peer for the rest of the entire mission. Any kind of cross wind also gave you an adrenaline check as you fought for control while ridding through the prop wash of the ship ahead of you as you struggled off of the runway, your aircraft heavily laden with bombs. At first we made single ship take offs at minimum intervals and alternating left and right. Later on a switch was made to three ship take offs and then six abreast which helped the dust and debris problem. Of note, is the fact that we also landed six abreast, very interesting if some one in the middle messed up his approach. As you can see by the picture here, line up and take off tracks were aided by the solution of spilling oil in parallel lines along the ground (no pun intended).


Diversions from Combat Duty

 

  Bomber Training Command (BTC)

 

A diversion to combat was that of a special assignment to a unit back in North Africa called Bomber Training Command (BTC). Some of our pilots were periodically sent to BTC located at Telergma to instruct and check out the French and South African pilots in our B-26s.  Most of the International pilots did pretty well in learning this new assignment. There was one exception. Unfortunately, he was my student. This pilot from South Africa was a very nice gentleman, but one who it seemed was cursed with a death wish. As mentioned, at least for new students, the B-26 was a bit of a challenge to land. My protégé could no more successfully land the B-26 than become President of the United States. On some of his attempted landings he would dive for, and nearly make, an illegal entry to China. Then on the next approach he would level off where he thought the runway should be and we were nearly high enough to require Oxygen.

These ‘White Knuckle” escapes continued on and on. One day it seemed he was finally getting the idea and I foolishly relaxed somewhat. However, on a latter try for a safe and sane landing he leveled off up with the angels. Thinking that he had gotten a real “Smoothy”, sometimes called a “Grease Job”, my spastic troop completely let go of the wheel. As I was frantically grabbing for both the wheel and throttles, he turned to me and said, “A lot better that time wasn’t it”?

 
 

The South African "Gear Check"

The immediate and disastrous answer was a thunderous crashing splat as we left part of the tail turret glass back on the long suffering runway.  Martin builds wonderful  landing gear as attested by this South African “Gear Check" and others, much like the adjacent picture.

It has always been a long-standing dictum among Instructor Pilots that you should never ever let the student get into a posture from which you can not safely recover. He and I both learned from that strange and violent encounter with mother earth. In the interest of aircraft preservation, my continued level of sanity and the safety of future personnel, I recommended that my less than talented student be relegated to try another type aircraft. I do have to say, however, that in defense of the other French and South African pilots we were teaching to fly the B-26, they did a very excellent job in mastering the Martin Marauder.


  Logistic Support Missions

 

Another diversion of combat duty was the occasional assignment to fly logistic support missions. These were missions to carry or pick up personnel and or goods to some distant or home destination. Long support flights resulted in some valuable much desired flying time and experiences to be added to our totals. I recall very well one such diversionary flight. We were sent to Naples, Italy to pick up a VIP, which means a Very Important Person. After landing at Rome’s Capodichino Airfield just south of Vesuvious, we helped him on board and took off for our Home Sweet Home on the island of Sardinia. Unfortunately, the weather had soured since our departure and in those days of less than totally accurate weather forecasts, we were unaware of the pending problem we faced in our return to destination. The request for landing instructions at Decimo, our Sardinian home, was met with,

“Negative - you can’t land here, weather has gone below minimums. Go and land elsewhere”.

Unfortunately, the so-called elsewhere was back in Italy and I was pretty sure we did not have enough fuel to make it. I spotted a break in the clouds, sometimes called a sucker hole, and started circling down on my own. The hole got smaller and smaller, wound up tighter and tighter and I suffered a small case of what is called vertigo. Desperately relying on the instruments and what they were trying so hard to tell me, I leveled off and continued on down through the clouds. At a few hundred feet we broke out of the overcast in a harbor just south of our destination and followed the roads into Decimo and landed, non-the worse.  All this time the VIP in the back, reading his newspaper, was totally unaware of the difficulty with which the idiots in the front cockpit were confronted. When we landed, the VIP said “Thank you for the ride” and departed without the slightest notion of how close he and we came to becoming a statistic. (Continued)


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