Woodruff - #33R
Standing L-R: Kassler, Joseph V. (N); Woodruff, Lawrence O. (P); Albregts, August H. (CP); Pickering, Orville W. (B)
Kneeling middle L-R: Angaroni, John H. Jr. (Asst. E); Harvey, William J. (E); Leibe, Edward A. (NG)
Sitting front L-R: Carter, James E. (TG); Steelandt, Edward F. (RO); Novak, Kenneth R. (BG)
The purpose of this letter is to add information to what is known about Mission No. 180, date 21 February l945.
On this date the 765th. Squadron was scheduled to lead the group on the mission to Vienna. The remnant of crew 33R plus replacement members, such as radar operator, bombardier, navigator, and others were selected to fly the mission. Major Robert K. Baker, 765th Squadron Commander occupied the co-pilot seat commanding the group.
It was a dark chilly morning to be wandering through the maze of tents to wake the crew for duty.
After consuming green powdered eggs and coffee we were assembled in the briefing hall where the black string indicating the target area caused many furrowed brows. Mission 180 was to bomb the South Station in Vienna, Austria. It was noted in the briefing that the Russians had taken the City of Pecs, Hungary, along with an airfield which might be useful for an emergency landing. We were cautioned to use the name “Amerikansky’ and to show the artful card incased in plastic, telling who we were in five different languages. We were also told that “stoy” is the word in Russian for stop, and “nyet” means no. All these things just mentioned turned to be very useful.
The take-off and the assembly of the group went as well as could have been hoped for. As we approached the IP, the flack protection was already in place; we then took up the heading to the target. Immediately we were in intense flack all the way to the target. Some one said our bomb run was fourteen minutes long. That was the longest fourteen minutes of my life. We were on PDI flying manually only a few seconds from bomb release when a shell hit the horizontal stabilizer just behind the right shoulder of the tail gunner. The force of the shell tearing the large gaping hole in the tail threw the plane in a severe nose down attitude. Before we could recover, a shell slammed through the #2 engine nacelle causing a diving turn to the left due to the dead engine. There was a fire ahead of the engine firewall which went out shortly after the engineer got the fuel shut off. To make bad matters even worse, the prop would not feather which resulted in a run-away. The bombs on board were salvoed, and we were in a tight left turn losing altitude at 1,000 feet per minute.
The group released their bombs while we were beneath them. The bombs being dropped were much too close for comfort, coupled with the inability to get out of the descending turn to the left. I remember having all the right aileron and right rudder that I had strength to apply, even with both feet on the right rudder pedal. The crew in the waist was at the bomb bay doors ready to bail out, but I told them to wait to see if I could get off the target.
Obviously the two choices were to bail or to hope to reach the landing strip atPecs. By turning on the auto pilot and engaging the rudder servo, we were able to get out of the turn. About the time we reached the 12,000 foot altitude, the windmilling prop stopped when the engine seized after the engine speed showed 3500 rpm. on the tach. and running without lubrication for some time. The deafening roar subsided and the drag became manageable to the point we could maintain altitude.
Our first look at the air strip at Pecs was a shocker. It looked to be about 2500 feet in length, and was neither concrete nor black-top. It turned out to be something like cinders. There was a road machine on the strip rolling the surface. To complicate matters further, at one end of the strip a house was built very close, and on the other end a high railroad fill ran as close as about 20 yards intersecting the landing path. A fire was burning at the side of the field which looked like the burning remains of an airplane. Smoke from this fire indicated a no wind condition. The decision was made to make final approach over the house in case it might be occupied and get demolished at the end of the landing roll. We fired the appropriate flare as a friendly recognition and proceeded with the gear-down landing attempt. Brakes were fully applied the moment of touch-down, and the plane came to a stop with just barely enough room to turn off the runway without the wing tip scraping the railroad fill. When the runway was cleared, we cut the engines and started to exit the plane. By the time our feet were on the ground, a Russian officer along with a small group of soldiers with rifles aimed at our belt buckles appeared. It was then we knew why we were briefed to use the term “Americanski”. When tension relaxed a little, it became apparent that there was a need for an interpreter. A man came that could speak English and German which still made it necessary have another person capable of speaking German and Russian. After the Russian officer had all our names on paper, the English speaking man took us to an infirmary where we spent the night.
During the daylight hours the following day, we were under the supervision of this same man. We were provided with food and we were taken to a Turkish bath. Under cover of darkness, we were placed in the back of a Model A, Ford truck to be transported to a destination unknown to us. This truck had side boards much like a grain hauling vehicle but no cover or top. Our flight clothes were barely enough to keep us from suffering from the cold. Some time in the middle of the night we arrived at a small town we later learned was Casavoly, Hungary. The place where we stopped was in total darkness with the only illumination being the dim head lights of the truck. The driver hammered on the courtyard door with the butt of his revolver until a man holding a kerosene lamp appeared at the door. Very few words were exchanged between our driver and the man of the house. Five of us were ushered into a room inside the house, and the Russian driver continued on with the other five airmen. Later we learned the other airmen were taken to the house where our benefactor’s mother and father lived. None of our crew could speak the language of the householder. We finally got the message across that we were American airmen and had the misfortune of being forced to land at the town of Pecs. We were given beds to lay our weary bodies down, but sleep didn’t come easily.
The householder’s name was France Reese. Other occupants of the house were his wife, her mother, and little Maria, who was about three years old. France, who very quickly became known as Fred, served our breakfast of boiled potatoes and sausage each morning. The escape kits that were issued to each of us contained forty-eight American Dollars. Fred willingly shared his substance with us in exchange for a few of those dollars. We live with Fred for two weeks, possibly even more, without any clue what was about to happen next. Almost daily some one from the Russian Army, which was housed close by, would come by to check on our well being without giving us any news as to when we may be leaving. The uncertainty was difficult to withstand, because we knew we were burdensome to Fred and his family.
One sunny morning, a thirty-two Model, Ford V-8 truck, arrived in front of Fred’s house along with quite a few on-lookers comprised of locals and Russian soldiers. This was it, but what? Our illustrious tail gunner, Sgt. James E Carter, had all this time become quite a spectacle with the Russians. You see, Carter forgot to wear his issued pistol the morning we took off on the mission to Vienna. Instead of the pistol he was to have on his person, he grabbed the flare pistol along with the canvas bag of flares as he left the plane. He made it a practice to exhibit the pistol in his inside left hand pocket of his flight jacket with the zipper pulled up beneath the big hand grip which was fully exposed for all to see. The Russians were all amazed at the size of our side arms, but they were flabbergasted at the flare pistol. Their one-word comment of it was “rocket”.
Since this was departure day, Carter was begged for a demonstration of the flare pistol. What the heck, Carter was more than willing to oblige. He opened the breech, held it up to the sun and peered through the barrel, after which, he ran his handkerchief through the barrel and proceed to load it. In front of a crowd of curious on-lookers, he braced himself against the building as if to be staggered by gigantic recoil. He pulled the trigger and all that happened was the soft bloop of the flare and the arch of the red-green balls. What a let down for his audience! The embarrassment of the whole act was the flare had set a small fire on a thatched roof which was quickly extinguished. The theatrics being ended, we were loaded on the awaiting truck to be taken to a railroad siding where a box car awaited our occupancy for travel to a destination unknown to us.
The box car that was being prepared for us was nothing like what one might expect. It was much smaller than those we were accustomed to in the States. The couplings were chains which allowed a lot of slack when accelerating, and there were only four wheels under each car which made for a bumpy ride. There was only one sliding door and no windows. When we first glimpsed the car, someone was on top of the car with an axe hacking out a neat hole for a stove pipe. Indeed we had a pot bellied stove for heat, but no wood was provided. The fuel was what could be picked up along the tracks. The inside furnishings, aside from the stove, was a pile of straw in each end of the car for our bunks. We spent a little more than one full day on this train before we reached the City of Timosera, Romania.
The railroad yard and surrounding buildings were nothing but rubble, thanks to the allied bombers. I don’t know what industrial plant had been in operation there, but it had been turned into trash. We were divided into smaller groups and taken to some of the locals in the city to be cared for. The nose gunner, Sgt. Edward Liebe, and I were taken to a luxurious apartment building where a middle aged couple whose name was, Strona lived. We saw very little of the lady of the house except for meals. She said her husband was occupied in textiles and was traveling at the time. After getting cleaned up the best we could and eating, we were taken to big hall down town where a reception was being held in honor of our presence. It was a full dressed gathering with the ladies in their finest and the city fathers were in their swallow tailed coats with sashes loaded with medals. I felt like an illegitimate step child at a family reunion having worn the same clothing for more than two weeks and badly in need of a shave. Major Baker was the toasted hero; the rest were just along for the ride. The morning paper, which I have a copy of, headline reads “AMERICAN AVIATORS IN TIMOSARA”. The article is quite lengthy, but I have never heard it translated.
The next morning after breakfast, Mrs. Strona escorted us the barber shop for the works. The two of us were turned over to a young man who spoke very good English to show us the town. As we leisurely strolled along, some of the locals were added to us to the point of becoming quite a group. We approached a building down town having about four floors where all of the floors were down in the basement. The buildings on either side of this were not damaged. Our guide paused to state “We call this the Americans little mistake for, when the plant was bombed that you saw at the railroad yard, one bomb went astray and it landed down town”. There were several conversations going on among those who were on-looking that made me wonder if we were in for a lynching. When I asked what was being said by the on-lookers, our guide replied ”They said these fellows look just like any other average men.” Later in the day, Leibe and I were taken to a gathering of Mrs. Strona’s acquaintances for a coffee. Not many questions were asked that we could understand; it just seemed like a little friendly get together. A middle aged man setting close by with his coffee in front of him leaned forward and took a drink from the cup without picking up the cup. Mrs. Strona explained that the man wasn’t guilty of bad manners it was because he was in the factory when it was bombed and he was trapped in the rubble for days before he was found. That being said, the man demonstrated how shaky his hands were.
Our trip from Timisoara, Romania to Bucharest, Romania was much more pleasant than the other train rides. This train was much more up town in that the seats were in pairs facing each other and in little compartments much like the accommodations in the movie, Orient Express. This train didn’t poke along like the others we rode in. In Bucharest, we were housed in an infirmary, but not for medical reasons that I know of. We were allowed to walk around the city during the daytime on our own. It was something like three days before we were told to make ready for departure. We were given that type of inspection that you would not expect to be given by a Lady Doctor. The next day we were alerted for departure only to be disappointed. The following day we were loaded aboard a C-47 for Bari, Italy for debriefing—critique—interrogation etc.
The first procedure was a thorough delousing followed by a bath and clean clothes. We were debriefed separately and, I might add, thoroughly. We had to give the names of every person with which we had personal contact and the nature of the conversation or connection. I had many questions to answer about the condition of the plane we had to leave with the Russians even to the signing of the charge off sheet. If my memory serves me correctly, that figure was $288,000.00.
The last leg of the journey was in a B-17 to Torretta field. Mission 180 was my 24th mission and my last in the Squadron lead plane. I flew 5 more missions after that, but in the tail-end-Charley slot.
Walter Cronkite would close with a statement something like, ”That’s the way it is.” Since my name isn’t Walter, my statement is, “That’s the way I remember it after 60 years.”
Lawrence O. Woodruff