Our mission was launched with clockwork precision. Lt. Col. Larry Hayward was the first plane off at 1045 hours, and the other B-26 Marauders followed at exact 30-second intervals. We were next in line for takeoff, and I crouched between the pilot, Lt. Jim Domke, and copilot Lt. Ray Janer, watching the 443rd Squadron's number 79 thunder down the runway—the 36th plane in the formation. Our 2000hp Pratt & Whitney engines roared at takeoff power; with 52 inches of manifold pressure and 2700rpm, the big ship shook and strained against the brakes. At 1103, the command came from the tower: "One-one, clear to roll." Halfway through the transmission, Domke came off the brakes, the Marauder lunged forward, and I had to hang on tightly to the copilot's armrest. In seconds, we were airborne, with wheels in the wells and throttles reduced to climb power.
Marauders of the 320th Bomb Group line up for takeoff at our field in Dole, France.
It was April 18, 1945, and the four squadrons of our 320th Bomb Group were flying a 63-plane mission from a single-strip runway in Dole, 180 miles southeast of Paris, France. Our target was a landing ground and dispersal area for the deadly Me 262s, near Schussenried, Germany. The Luftwaffe had hidden their new jet fighters in wooded areas along the green-painted highways they used as runways. Wing Headquarters had planned this mission only the night before after the 320th had been attacked by Me 262s earlier that day near Ansbach. Flying in pairs at more than 500mph, six Me 262s had jumped our Group while we were on a bomb run. They closed to within 200 yards and fired their 30mm cannon. Flashing by so fast that our turret gunners weren't able to track them, the jets inflicted heavy damage on two of our Marauders. We were no match for them in the air, so it was critical that we destroy them on the ground. We carried fragmentation bombs—little 20-pounders fused to burst above ground and spray deadly shards of shrapnel over a wide area. The "frags" were wired to pipes, six to a cluster, and one cluster hung from each of our 20 bomb racks.
Lt. Walter "Bud" Barrett and his original crew in training in Dodge City, Kansas. Left to right: Lt. Barrett, pilot; Lt. Dick O'Brien, copilot; Lt. Frank Stadnicki, bombardier; Sgt. Dick Balinski, engineer; Sgt. Charlie Mellas, radioman; Cpl. George Mulaney, tail gunner. Balinski and Mellas were on the Lady Lynn's final flight.
We were the 37th aircraft in line, Group Lead of the last 27 planes in the formation and about as close to the center of the entire stream of bombers as you could get—both front to back and side to side. Our Group Commander, Col. Ash Woolridge, was the flight commander of the first group of 18 planes, Capt. McDougal led the second group of 18, and I was in charge of the last 27 aircraft. This was mission number 68 for me, and on some of my previous missions as flight commander, I also did copilot duty. But today, we had a seven-man crew, and this allowed me to work from the navigator's compartment amidships, standing on a stool and monitoring the formation from the astrodome. Lt. Walter "Bud" Barrett was on our right wing flying group backup, and Lt. Paul Ramsey was in the right seat. Their plane was Lady Lynn (battle number 21)—a tired old C-Model B-26 with more than 100 combat missions in its log. Operations had put a photographer on Bud Barrett's plane, giving him an eight-man "crew."
After takeoff, we began our timed oval pattern to allow the other 26 planes in our three squadrons to join in formation. Barrett was first—sliding in from our left and slightly behind and then settling in on our right wing. One by one, the other aircraft found their slots as I watched from the astrodome. Looking forward, I saw Domke position our Group low and trailing behind the 36 Marauders in the two lead groups as they began to climb out on course.
A direct path to Schussenried would take us into Switzerland at Basel, so our initial course veered northeast to Colmar (France) on a heading of 45 degrees. We continued north to Sélestat, where 18 P-47 Thunderbolts in flights of two joined us; then we turned east and crossed the Rhine. We were at 13,000 feet, and the checkpoint towns ticked by—Hechingen, Reutlingen and Blaubeuren—in the wooded landscape below. We had been flying for about two hours when the lead group rolled smoothly into a right turn and leveled out on our bomb-run heading of 219 degrees over Laupheim—our initial point (IP), which was 15 miles and less than five minutes northeast of the target. I concentrated on our three squadrons now, and they were beautifully arranged in a symmetrical, loose formation. Usually, with demolition-type bombs, we flew tight formation (wings overlapped) to get maximum concentration on a bridge or a marshalling yard. But with fragmentation bombs, we wanted a wide pattern, and on this mission, this would prove to be wise.
We left the IP at 13,000 feet; bomb-release altitude was briefed for 11,800 feet. We would lose altitude randomly—100 feet, 300 feet, 200 feet—to make it harder for the flak batteries to fuse their 88mm shells precisely. Our only lateral evasive action came from the slight corrections the lead bombardier fed into his Norden bombsight. The tops of the cumulus clouds were almost at our altitude, and coverage was about five-tenths. I thought getting the crosshairs on the target might be a problem for the bombardiers, but seconds later, the "frags" dropped from the bellies of the lead group of 18 B-26s, and they turned to the right in a steep diving turn. Soot-black clusters of flak mushroomed over the group, but the young Luftwaffenhelfer below had waited too long, and our planes were out of harm's way.
The second group peeled off to the right without dropping, and moments later, I heard our bombardier, Lt. Jimmy Ferrandino, on the intercom; "Break right, we gotta go around again. Clouds covering the aiming point."
I got on the intercom to our pilot: "Keep making shallow turns, Jim. Let's not make it easy for them." With the rpm at 2400, we climbed back to 13,000 feet and followed the middle group back to the IP. Back on a heading of 219 degrees, we were close in a trail of the group ahead but hadn't reopened our bomb-bay doors when the flak hit. They had our range now, and I saw the bright red center when an 88mm shell burst just in front of the aircraft on our right wing—Bud Barrett's Lady Lynn. The ship lurched to the right; its Plexiglas nose had gone, and orange flame billowed from its right engine.(Continued)