The Odyssey of the "Liberator"
Translated from the French Newspaper "Grasse" (Nice, France)
27 May 1991
Saturday, 27 May 1944, exactly 47 years from today, an American B-24 "Liberator" crashed on the peak of l'Aiglo above the Hamlet of Thorenc. Miraculously, the ten members of the crew left uninjured from the accident. They parachuted, but four among them were quickly seized by the Germans. The six others were hidden until August 1944, by the families of the region.
A page of history which was not talked about too much in the sector, but which completely fascinated one from Cannes, Philippe Castellano. This young man was smitten and unbelievably obstinate in the research of the events, pursuing with an iron will, not only interested in the ruined "Liberator" in Thorenc. He has amassed, with patient research, a great deal of impressive information on eight U.S. Bombers which fell in the Maritime-Alps in 1944. Three among them, which also belonged to the 461st Bomb Group, had sustained the same fate just about two days before the one at Thorenc, one at the Croix de Gardes at Cannes the two others at l'Esterel at Cap d'Antibes.
The drama reconstructed by a young man from Cannes, Philippe Castellano, with the mass of documents minutely collected, has already made a rough sketch of a book on the planes which fell in Provence which he expects to publish in the near future.
Report - 27 May 1944, a bomber from the U.S. was cut down at Thorenc. To reconstitute, almost minute by minute, the mission and the grief of the giants of the air of the Second World War, Philippe Castellano did not hesitate, not only to make contact with Washington and the services of the U.S. Air Force, but also to investigate on the spot in the sector of the "crash" - gathering the testimony, refining documents, digging meticulously for the facts.
Forty-seven years after report - The aircraft at Thorenc had the number 42-52399. It belongs to the 767th Squadron of the 461st Bombardment Group of the Fifteenth Air Force. Based at Torretta, 40 kilometers to the South of Foggia (Southern Italy), it took off Saturday, 27 May 1944, at six o'clock in the morning, with 37 other "Liberators", to bomb the airfield of Salon de Provence where several German twin-engined Junkers Ju-88s were based. The bomber formation was to fly over la Corse (Corsica) and then divide into two parts at Cap d'Antibes in order to continue due west towards the objective. The planes were at about 7,000 meters and were finalizing their left turn when the shells of the German DCA of the Cap (88mm flak) burst in the heart of the formation. Several aircraft were hit. One of them was 42-52399 which took heavy blow of shells under its right wing.
Fire and descent - Here is what was reported by the Pilot, Gerald Maroney, when he returned to the U.S. after the war. "A shell hit us under the right wing. I immediately left the formation and released our Bombs, as a fire had broken out in the right engines.
The Bombardier, Second Lieutenant Warren Mudge, availed himself of the small amount of hydraulic pressure left to release the doors of the bomb bay. I attempted then to go toward Switzerland but abandoned this route because we were losing so much altitude. Moreover, the fire had spread and the tail gunner informed us that the flames had reached the tail of the aircraft. The propellers of the two motors were malfunctioning, we were losing about 230 meters per minute at the speed 260 kilometers per hour. It was at that time that I gave the orders to evacuate. The Navigator, Second Lieutenant Paul A. Golden and the Bombardier jumped through the nose wheel well. Sergeant Leon Zinner, Gunner at the waist window, Sergeant Donald E. Ellis, Radio Sergeant Alvin Raines, Tail Gunner and Sergeant Owen B. Streepe, the Ball Turret Gunner, evacuated by the left waist window. They were followed by Lieutenant Winston J. Lawrence (Co-pilot) and Sergeant Harold C. Steele who had crossed over the closed bomb bay. Sergeant Benjamin H. Norrid evacuated through the front escape door. After they had all jumped, I left my seat and parachuted out the nose trap."
The bombs were dropped in the sea near the Iles de Lerens and Cap Roux. This done, the Pilot went North over the Plains of Seagne and over the first mountains above Grasse.
Spirit of solidarity - The aviators had abandoned their aircraft at about 4,000 meters of altitude. The ten white chutes were unfurled and flowing scattered in the sky of the mountainous countryside of Grasse. The four engined bomber, in distress, in a tailspin, headed for the ground and crashed, almost at the summit of Pic de I'Aiglo (1,644 meters) North East of Thorenc. It was then just a little after 10 o'clock in the morning. Already, some German soldiers were heading on foot, in side-car or other vehicles from many directions to seize the aviators.
But that will be difficult, the Americans having fallen, for the most part, in the heart of the forest. Four men only were captured; Mudge, the Bombardier, near Plan du Peyron, at 1400 hours, Raines at 2100 hours by the French Police near Cipieres. The Flight Engineer, Zinner, who had a broken leg was captured on June 1. The fourth man, Sergeant Norrid, was caught July 30 near Puget-Theniers.
The Pilot Maroney, Co-pilot Lawrence, the Navigator Golden, Mechanic Steele, Radio Operator Ellis and Gunner Streeper had better luck. Thanks to the help of Mr. and Mrs. Parmelin (from Sausses), Mr. and Mrs. Pommier (from Mas), Mr. Gastaud and his son (from Thorenc), the Priest from Gregolieres, Captain Courtant and Mrs. Clemence. The wonderful spirit of solidarity was proved by more than one hundred people in the sectors of Thorenc, Saint-Auban and Gregolieres. The American aviators were able to end the war in security and come out of hiding in September 1944, at a time when to find food or clothing for six men was not an easy task.
The four prisoners, after having been taken to Germany, were freed in April 1945 by troops of General Patton.
The flag of acknowledgment - Almost half a century has passed. Today, only four of the ten men of the crew of the plane who fell in the high country of Grasse are still living. They have been found thanks to the wonderful help of two persons: Mrs. Betty H. Karle, historian of the veterans of 461st Bombardment section who directed Philippe Castellano towards Frank O'Bannon, President of 461st Bomb Group Association, to which 2nd Lt. Mahoney's "B-24" belonged. Forty-seven years later, the four surviving aviators were surprised to learn the wreckage of their plane still existed on the peak of I'Aiglo. The first aviator who was contacted was the Radio Operator Donald E. Ellis followed by tail gunner Alvin L. Raines, Nose Gunner Benjamin H. Norrid Ball Gunner Owen B. Streeper. The other members of the crew are no longer living. The Co-pilot William J. Lawrence died in 1946, the Flight Engineer Leon Zinner in 1968, the Bombardier Warren R. Mudge in 1978, the Mechanic Harold C. Steele in 1981, the Pilot Gerald J. Maroney in 1983 and the Navigator Paul A. Golden in 1981.
Radio Operator Ellis wrote to Philippe Castellano - "We have never forgotten the risks that were taken by the French families in order to save us and hide us during a time when life was very difficult for them. Almost a half century later, we are forever grateful".
In the month of August 1945, an American delegation led by Col. Pugh, stopped at Thorenc to honor the French who had given aid to the aviators. Maecel Pommier and Antoine Gastaud received from the American officer a large American flag, symbol of the act of bravery and heroism which at that time could have cost them their lives.
Editor's note: Don Ellis died during 1992. As far as I know Alvin Raines, Ben Norrid and Owen Streeper are still living, Philippe Castellano is still investigating the loss of other aircraft on 27 May.