I Had Been Assigned to the 320th Bombardment Group
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
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:
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.
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.
this 18 December mission the flak was unusually heavy
and 12 of the 38 planes in our formation were hit.
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;
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.”
kids just “Don’t got no Sense”.
aircraft named "Shif'less"
we crash landed in Corsica
is shown here in this time
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:
principal duty of the co-pilot is to protect the pilot
from getting hit by any anti-aircraft fire.”
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”!
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”,
the secret was out:
Man in Crippled Ship That Came
John S. Harpster Was Co-
of Bomber Shot
Full of Holes
State Army, Fifteenth Air Force
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
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
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.
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.
fragments cut through the fuselage
like a razor, leaving sharp
jagged holes. One piece clipped
the hydraulic line leading into
the nose wheel.
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.
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.
Harpster is Pilot
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
Back in the Air Again
in the air again, this time on the 23rd of December:
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.
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
Lining up for take off in
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)
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.
‘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”?
South African "Gear
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
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
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,
- you can’t land here, weather has gone below minimums.
Go and land elsewhere”.
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.
Copyright(c) 2003 320th History Preservation. All rights reserved.