461st plaque

461st Bombardment Group (H)

Oliver Maggard, Jr.

I grew up in a suburb of New York City, Larchmont, N.Y., about 18 miles out of the city in Westchester County.  No, I did not graduate from Shortridge.  Instead I graduated from Mamaronech High School which is where most of the Larchmont boys and girls went. 

When I graduated from high school in 1941, there was a lot of war in Europe and Hitler was giving everyone fits.  My father thought it would be a great idea for me to go to VMI, Virginia Military Inst. and maybe become an officer should we be drawn into the big conflict.

All of my pals in the Freshman or "Rat" class as the first-year boys are called, were getting more and more restless about enlisting in one of the branches of the service.  The pressure really built up to a boiling point when Pearl Harbor was attacked.  I remember the day as if it were yesterday.  It was a Sunday and a friend and I were walking back from town to the barracks.  We heard a radio blaring the news the Pearl Harbor had been bombed.  Like so many others, my friend and I looked at each other and said, "where is Pearl Harbor?"

When I went back to New York for the summer after the first year at VMI, I was trying to figure out what was going to happen to the world that was now in flames and what I was going to do.

An incident occurred that summer that decided what I was going to do.  My father was an air raid warden in our neighborhood.  One night about 2 AM I was awakened by the wailing of a loud air raid siren.  I got up and went downstairs to investigate the sound of bombs exploding in our living room.  My mother was tacking sheets over all the windows.  I peeked through the curtains in the kitchen that faced NYC and could see the searchlights crisscrossing the sky over the city.  The radio said an unidentified plane was over the NY area setting off the alert.  It turned out to be a false alarm, but that was when I decided I did not want to be on the ground in this war -- the air corps looked good to me.

When I went back to Lexington in the Fall for my second year at VMI, many of us had the same idea -- apply for the ARMY AIR CORPS reserve.  I was a skinny kid and was told that I had to weigh at least 145 pounds to be admitted.  Before the physical exam, I drank a quart of milk and ate 2 bananas and just made it!

Paul McNutt was the Secretary of the Air Force at the time we joined the Air Corps Reserves in November 1942.  My parents were delighted when they heard McNutt's statement that we probably would not be called up for several years so that we could finish our education.

That was not to be.  You know politicians promises.  In mid-February, 3 months later, our barracks was deluged with a batch of telegrams, letting us know we were being called up.

We were to report to Richmond, VA on Feb. 25, 1943.  You never saw a happier bunch of guys when we got the news.  Now we would be a part of the big battle.

When we arrived in Richmond, we found our group consisted of all the other colleges in the state of Virginia.  (William & Mary, Washington & Lee, etc.)

After a 56-hour train ride, being shunted onto a siding anytime an important train came along, we arrived bedraggled in Miami Beach.  We were taken to the Roney Plaza Hotel on Collins Avenue.  Immediately after being issued uniforms, we were taken to a golf course to begin the drills and ins and outs of marching.  It was funny because by the end of each day the civilian college boys were a wreck and went to bed right after dinner.  Those of us from VMI were actually having a nice easy vacation since we were used to that way of life.  We would go to the dog races and gin mills enjoying the night life when we were off duty.

After two months in Miami Beach, our group was sent by rail to Nashville, TN for classification.  They would run you through a batch of tests and you would be assigned to pilot, navigator, or bombardier training.  I was glad that I qualified for pilot training.  I was sent to Lakeland, FL for primary flying school. I will never forget my flying instructor, Bob Flynn.  He was an ex-ball player from Holy Cross and a lot of fun.  He was living with a girl who worked on the flight line and he really took all seven of us student pilots "under his wing."

After a few weeks of flying school I went up with Bob in a PT 17 which he flew to an auxiliary field.  We landed and taxied the plane over to the side of the field.  When we stopped, I was shocked to see him step out of the front seat onto the wing.  "OK Ollie, I want you to solo this plane. You're ready.  I want you to take off and fly around the field.  Land the plane right where I am."  I was scared to death, but tried to keep a brave countenance and gave him a weak "OK."  As I taxied out for take-off the front seat looked awfully empty, particularly when I took off and became airborne.  Everything was going great until I came in for the landing.  I was coming in too hot and aiming for Bob Flynn.  The next thing I saw was Bob running for cover.  I gave it the gun and made another go around and this time everything worked OK.  I made a good landing.  Bob rushed up to me and said, "Congratulations, Ollie! You have soloed successfully and I want you to know that you are the final one of the class of seven cadets to solo today.  It's sure to make the newspapers.  It did make the front page of the Lakeland Ledger.

After basic training in Bainbridge, GA, some of the guys were lucky to go to single engine school in Mariana, FL.  I was told that anyone over 5'11" had to go to twin engine school.  The height requirement kept me from flying single engines.  I went to Turner Field at Albany, GA.  for advanced flying school.  Just before graduation, rumors began that the Air Corps was not going to commission every new pilot the usual Second Lieutenant, some would be Warrant Officers. That did not happen to our class and we all became Second Lieutenants.  No one got the "Purple Pickle."

After getting my wings, I got an ear infection, that grounded me for 6 weeks.  They did not know what to do with me, so I was sent to Laredo, TX to help fly gunners at the gunnery training school.  This was followed by a new assignment at Pueblo, CO.  I was assigned to a B-24 crew as a co-pilot.  The pilot was a good flyer and the crew members were very compatible.  After a few weeks of overall training our crew was told to report to Newport News, VA to embark to parts unknown.

As we boarded a liberty ship in Newport News, all sorts of rumors circulated as to where we were going.  Finally, we found out that we were heading for Bari, Italy.  We were in a convoy of ships escorted all the way by Navy destroyers.  It was a slow trip that took 26 days.  A lot of time for reading and sleeping.  The weather was terrible when we left, but became better the longer we were gone.  Several nights, I was able to sleep on deck.  One of my crew mates also took advantage of the good sleeping on deck and showed me the many different star constellations.

When we arrived in Bari, we were taken by truck, 60 miles north to a little town about 35 miles south of Foggia.  We were based outside Cerignola, Italy, a small town in Southern Italy. You could quickly see that it was a commandeered farm.  This was typical of many of the airbases in Southern Italy as this section of the country has large areas of flat land suitable for aircraft operations.

Upon walking out to the B-24 flight line, we noticed many planes had gaping holes (Swiss cheese) and some were in wrecked condition at the end of the runway.  Some of the "old hands" informed us that these were remnants of the Ploesti oil field raid the past week. We were glad that we missed those raids.  Allied planes of the Fifteenth Air Force suffered some of the biggest one day losses over Ploesti because of the multitude of barrage balloons put over the oil fields.  The iron cables that were held up by the balloons claimed a lot of planes.

After some orientation, our crew started out on the bombing missions.  Since we were flying out of southern Italy, we bombed targets in Southern Europe and Northern Italy.  On our first few sorties we bombed Milan, Bolzano, and Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. 

Except for some occasional flak over the targets, the missions were fairly uneventful.  Each morning we were to participate in a raid, we would go to the big yellow stone barn that was the ready room.  We would all take our seats and wait for the cover to come off the huge chart on the wall.  Always a lot of guessing as to where we were going that day.  Would it be Vienna or Linz, Austria. One day when the map was uncovered we saw the long black strips led to Blechhammer, Czechoslovakia.  These oil fields were like Ploesti and needed to be taken out.  This would be a maximum effort raid.

During our flight to Blechhammer we encountered a lot of flak over the target.  It was rather scary looking ahead into those puffs of black smoke and knowing that in minutes you would be flying through it.  And through it we went!  The pieces of shrapnel hitting the plane felt like a hail storm.  We did not lose any planes and except for some small holes and dents in the wings and fuselage, we were none the worse for the wear. A week later we flew back to Blechhammer and this time it was pretty much the same story - an easy trip- a "milk run" as we called it.

It was the practice in our 461st Bomb Group, 767th Squadron, to send an experienced pilot up with a new crew for their first mission. This was a good idea because for some reason new crews were quick to bail out if there was any trouble with flak or a runaway prop.  If a crew could survive the first ten missions, they had a good chance to finish the 35. 

On December 17, 1944, my 10th mission, I was informed I was to fly as co-pilot with a new B-24 crew fresh from the States.  We were told that the mission today was to be Blechhammer again.  That did not sound too bad in view of the easy time we had on the previous two missions.

The new crew gathered around me before we boarded the plane and asked apprehensively, "Lt., what kind of a raid is this going to be?"  "Boys, I said, I've been up to this target twice in the last 10 days. Take it from me, this is going to be a "milk run."  Little did we all know that this would be the first and last mission for most of us!

We took off and joined the formation of our squadron.  We were in number four position (one plane ahead, one on either side, a diamond formation) and we were on our way.  As we approached the Adriatic Sea heading north, we were joined by our fighter escort.  That group of P-38's was very comforting to the new crew and myself.

As we approached Blechhammer it became very overcast and soupy.  This made it necessary to stretch out our formation somewhat.  For what seemed like an eternity we were in a cloud bank that looked like it was never going to end.  But it did and we broke out into beautiful blue sky.  That's when the trouble began.  The first thing I saw was German fighters all over the place!  The plane to our right and ahead of us was in flames.  The bright orange 100 octane flames and black smoke against the deep blue sky was something I will never forget.  It was very frightening.  Suddenly the plane on fire dropped out of formation and started to lose altitude.  The plane ahead of us had one of its rudder's shot off.  That was my regular crew and that really was upsetting to me.  They dropped out of formation and that left our plane.  Where was the fighter escort?  They were dog fighting with other Luftwaffe planes.  Just then I heard an explosion behind my seat.  I looked around to see a gaping hole about a foot in diameter from a 20 mm canon.  The gunners on our plane were firing on the attacking German fighters coming at us from all directions.    The plane shook with the chattering of all the 50 calibers in action.  One German ME-109 dove through our formation.  You could see the Iron Cross very clearly as well as the pilot.  He was able to put a big hole in our right wing and gas was shooting out like a big fire hose.  I knew that it was just a matter of time before we were going to have to bail out of the plane.  The gas supply was dwindling rapidly.  We dropped our bombs and they went right through the bomb bay doors which did not open.  The engineer came forward and said that the bomb bay doors were now just flapping back and forth.  We picked up a heading 150 degrees.  My idea was to get as far south and east as possible.  As we let down slowly, we were suddenly flanked by two ME-109s.  I think they thought we were trying to look for a landing site.  The new crew members were firing from both sides at the fighter pilots, but weren't hitting them.  Since the fighters were not making any passes at us, I told the gunners to hold their fire.  Suddenly the two fighters disappeared and we never saw them again.  After about a half hour our engines suddenly started sputtering and I told the crew that I would push the alarm bell and then they were to bail out.

A note about bailing out and parachutes.  There were 3 types of chutes, seat pack, back pack and chest pack.  I always liked the chest pack because you simply wore the harness and should you need the chute, you simply snapped it on to the clips on the harness. 

Now it was my turn to jump and it was a scary situation walking on the cat walk over the flapping bomb bay doors.  We were about 10,000 feet and it looked like a long way down to earth.  I waited for the doors to part and I jumped through.  After a few seconds, I pulled the cord.  That's when I found out that I had made a bad error.  I had forgotten to tighten up the straps on my harness before the jump so that when the chute opened it made the straps come up with a snap and caught "my family jewels."  Needless to say, the pain was excruciating, but by pressing my legs together as tightly as possible it eased the pain slightly.  Finally, after what seemed an eternity, I saw the ground.  Actually, it was water, coming up fast.  I splashed down into about 3 feet of water at the edge of a lake.  I rolled up my chute and walked out of the lake on to a muddy bank.  Just then I heard machine gun fire in the sky and looked up to see 2 YAK Stormovik Russian fighters on the tail of a B-24 at about 3000 feet in the act of shooting down the 24.  After a few more bursts, the B-24 was going down and I saw the chutes as the crew bailed out.  The Russians had a reputation for being trigger happy and we were always warned of that fact.

I started to walk in an easterly direction and then I noticed two guys on horses galloping in my direction.  One had a pistol and the other a rifle.  Surprisingly, probably due to the wild experiences I had just had, I was not a bit afraid.  Guess I was just happy to be on solid earth.  At any rate, they both trained their weapons on me while one dismounted and went straight for the pocket where my escape kit was located and took it.  They obviously had had a lot of experience with this sort of thing.  One guy took my watch and laughed as he gave me a cheap "Mickey Mouse" pocket watch.  I thought they were Hungarian partisans and they thought I could be a German in disguise.  I later learned that the Germans had flown captured B-24s over that area.

They gestured for me to follow them as they rode along on horseback. I had an idea; I started yelling Roosevelt and Churchill and Stalin.  I held up my clasped hands shaking them back and forth.  Then I started singing the Volga Boatman even though I didn't really know the words.  That apparently did the trick because the guy that stole my watch decided I was indeed American.  He got off his horse and gestured for me to get on.  We were on our way through farm yards and across fields.  As we would pass thatch roof houses, little kids would run out and yell "Pilota, Pilota" and my new friends said "Americanski."

We finally arrived at a farm which was our final destination.  I walked into the one room building which had a bed, some rude furniture and a small primitive kitchen in the corner.  They offered me a girl and I nodded no.  I noticed she was reading a book and went over to see what it was.  I think it was written in Russian even though she was Hungarian.  The author was A. J. Cronin.  I was offered a chicken concoction like stew, but I was too tired to eat.  All I wanted to do was sleep.  I slept with 2 other peasants in a big king size bed without incident.

The next morning my watch robber motioned me to come outside and there was a horse and buggy.  He told me to get in and we headed toward what I assumed was town.  Once we arrived at the center of town, we parked in front of a thatch roof building and went in.  I was surprised to see a Russian Captain standing in front of a well-lit wall covered with a map of the area.  The Captain turned around and said something to my companion and tried to say something to me.  Since we could not understand one another he held up his hand as if to say, "Wait, I'll get someone who can speak English."  A few minutes later a Russian PFC walked into the room and held out his hand.  "Hello" he said, " I'm Kresdako.  Where are you from in the States?"  "Larchmont, NY" I said.  "Oh yes. I used to work at the Kerryton Area plant in New Haven.  The train between NY and New Haven went through Larchmont, so I know the town well.  I figured him for an intelligence man.  Then he said my friends from the other crew went down yesterday as well as others brought down here by partisans.  They are out at the hospital where you will be for the next few days until we can get a train to take you to Bucharest, Romania.

When I arrived at the hospital there were about 100 or so USAF guys there.  I found I knew the pilot of the plane I saw get shot down yesterday.  He told me that everyone got out of the plane and parachuted safely with the exception of the co-pilot whose chute never opened.  We viewed him the next day in an open coffin.  He was not a pretty sight.

After a few days, the Russians who had taken over the hospital, let us know that we were going to the train that was to take us to Bucharest.  It was very cold and the train had no heat.  Even though I had my fully lined flying pants and jacket on, I was still cold.  All we could do was huddle together in the crowded cars.  There were Russian enlisted men riding with us in each car and they were wearing very thin cloth flying suits with no lining.  The cold never bothered them a bit the entire 5 days it took to get to Bucharest.  They slept most of the way.  All we had to eat was fat back and black bread.

Finally, we arrived at Bucharest and were met by American trucks from the American Embassy.  We were taken directly to the Embassy and ushered into a large banquet hall.  The Colonel in charge said, "We are here in this hall to give you your first American meal since you left civilization.  But, I want to warn you - eat sparingly because if you gorge yourself, you will get sick."  Guess what happened.  We were!

We were housed in an abandoned private school in downtown Bucharest.  I came down with a high fever and they put me in the small infirmary wing.  It was determined that I had phenomena from which I recovered rapidly.

The weather in the Bucharest area was terrible; so bad that the ATC could not fly over to pick us up for 30 days.  Finally, the day came and we were trucked out to the airport where there was a C-47 waiting for us.  We flew back to Bari, Italy without incident.

After our arrival at Headquarters in Bari, I was interviewed and told that my regular crew was captured.  I asked if I could be switched over to P-38s but was refused.  They said they needed all the bomber pilots they could muster for the big push.  After little further delay, I hitched a ride back to my old base at Cerignola.  That was about 60 miles North of Bari.  I thanked the truck driver and went to the corner to catch the bus that went back and forth between the town and our base.  Back at the base I got off the bus and walked to squadron headquarters.  I opened the big double doors and it was just like the movies!  The hustle and bustle in the squadron headquarters stopped and everyone looked at me.  "My God, it can't be you!  The report said your plane broke in half and there were no survivors."  After much back slapping and a lot of questions as to what happened it was decided that this called for a big party that night at the officer’s club known as the "Bar None Club."  It was a great one and I didn't realize how many good friends I had.

Doc Sullivan our flight surgeon looked me over, inspected the "family jewels" and decided that my bruises wouldn't be fatal, but that I would be recommended for the Purple Heart which I received.

I had no crew and they felt I should rest for a month or so.  I went to Rome and Capri for R & R and had a great time.

Back at the air base the squadron commander came up to me in the mess hall and said, "Look, I know you had bad luck checking out a new crew once before, but we've got another new crew.  You don't need to be the instructor pilot, just ride as observer in the radio compartment behind the pilots."  "No not again!" I thought, but found myself saying "OK."

The next morning, we went in for briefing and found out that the ribbon on the big wall map ended at Linz Main Marshalling Yards in Austria.  This time when the crew asked me what kind of a raid it was going to be I said, "Hopefully, routine boys!"  We took off taking our place in the formation directly behind the lead plane and proceeded to the target.  Everything seemed OK until we got over the target.  There was a lot of flak and the lead plane took a hit which sent a storm of metal pieces flying into our windshield.  Suddenly I felt a tremendous lurch and we were dropping out of formation, losing altitude.  I could tell we had a runaway prop and that made a hell of a lot of noise.  I quickly left my seat and the first thing I saw was both pilots with their hands off the controls stuffing provisions into their jackets.  Like a lot of new crews, they figured this was bail out time. The co-pilot was crying because he thought this was the end.  The pilot looked real shaky. However, I did not want to bail out again, even though I had the harness on tightly this time.  I assessed the situation quickly and found that we couldn't feather the runaway prop, so we jettisoned about everything we could to make the plane as light as possible.  I convinced the pilots that we were not dead meat yet. There was a solid under cast and we didn't know where we were.  I told them we could call up "Big Fence" radio.  They could get a fix on us and tell us what heading to pick up.  When you called them, they would say "Give us a long 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and then down again to 1. They told us to pick up a heading of 185 degrees.  They estimated, based on our airspeed, that we were about an hour from a friendly air field on the Adriatic coast.  We flew toward our friendly base still with a solid under cast.  When the hour was up (I had been standing next to the pilots the entire time) there was a sudden break in the clouds and all I saw was the Adriatic Sea.  I knew we couldn't go much farther without ditching the plane and now I was scared.  I happened to look out under the right wing and there it was.  Our island!  We wasted no time getting down to the field and made a good landing.  We were met by a Lieutenant who directed us to the Quartermaster for blankets and pillows for the temporary overnight barracks.  As I walked into pick up my supplies, I heard a voice say, "I might have known you'd be goofing off over here Ollie."  It was a buddy of mine from high school, Jerry McPherson.  We had quite a laugh over that.

The next day the mechanics repaired the prop governor and we flew back to our base without incident.  We were met by the Squadron Commander.  He came right over to me and said, "I was on yesterday's raid.  I saw what I think happened to your plane.  What about it?"  I told him to ask the pilots.  Which he did.  The result was, I received the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving the plane.  Later, I finished another 10 missions and the war was over.  I ferried a B-24 back to the States landing at Savannah, GA.  The flight was not without complications.  On our way between Dakar, North Africa and Natal, Brazil, which was beyond the point of no return, the two starboard oil pressure indicators dropped to zero.  It looked as if we would have to ditch.  However, I found the problem was the toggle switches and we were OK after all.  I kissed the ground when we reached Natal.

It had been a wild experience between time I arrived in Italy in Sept of 1944 and my return to the States in June of 1945 - just like going to college for two terms, but with slightly different circumstances!

********* Epilogue********

After I returned to the States I was given a long furlough as an evade.  During that time, I was sent to Atlantic City for R & R.  While there I ran into the bombardier on my original crew.  He told me that he and the rest of my crew bailed out and were captured by the Germans.  When they were interrogated, they were asked, "Where is Lt. Maggard?"  Apparently, they somehow had a list of names of all the crews in our squadron.

One other event occurred a year later when I transferred to Yale University.  I was walking along York Street and I happened to notice a guy ahead of me with the typical Air Corps trench coat.  Suddenly, I realized he was the pilot of the B-24 that I saw ablaze off my wing on the Blechhammer mission.  We walked into a near-by bar.  We were both back in time and nervous and excited again.  He told me that he bailed out when they started to burn and he landed at the edge of a huge German Aerodrome.  He told me two English speaking Luftwaffe pilots walked over to him and said, "We might as well stay right here until these burning planes quit falling out of the air."  Debris was everywhere.  Finally, it seemed to be over and the two pilots said, "Well, I guess we better get you up to headquarters."

********* Epilogue II **********

Early in the seventies I thought it would be a great idea to revisit my old airbase in Cerignola, Italy. My wife and I flew to Rome and down to Bari in Southern Italy.  We rented a car and drove up to Cerignola, a distance of about 60 miles.  When we arrived in town we went to the Post Office trying to locate my crew's war-time valet, Palmeri Mateo.    He was a little boy during the war who would take care of our laundry, bring us eggs, etc.  If we could find him, he could direct us to the base.  The Post Office did not know him, but suggested we go to the City Hall. It was the same story there.  We were pretty discouraged.  As we were walking out of the building a voice behind us said, " I hear you are looking for your old air field." The voice was also speaking in perfect English!  It turned out this man had also been a valet during the war, but for a crew in another squadron.  He knew the general location of the airfields out in the country.  He insisted that it would be an honor for him to help us locate my base.  We spent the entire afternoon searching, but to no avail.  We saw a lot of Quonset huts with the faded U S Star and squadron numbers, but not my base.

We thanked our new friend and returned to Bari.  The next day I decided to give it another try, but it turned out to be the same story.  The country had changed too much since the war to pick out the familiar landmarks I used to know.

When we returned to the States I was having lunch with Skip Failey and told him the story.  He suggested I write to Birch Bayh and ask him to get in touch with the Air Force Department.  Perhaps they could find the location of the base.  Skip said, "You know he's running for re-election and will be anxious to do anything for a vote!"  I was skeptical, but thought it was worth a try.  To my surprise, three weeks later, a letter arrived from Birch Bayh and a 3-page copy of a letter he, in turn, received from the Air Force Department.  The directions were clear if you knew the area and Italian - proceed from Cerignola on such and such a road 5 kilometers until you reach a fork in the road - take the right fork etc. By the way, if it would be at all possible we would appreciate Mr. Maggard giving our best wishes to Count Ciaro, the owner of the farm used for the base.

I was very excited about this.  I called my friend Pete in Cerignola and read him the directions.  A week later I received a letter from Pete saying that last weekend he and his family had found the base.  When are you coming back?  We went back the following Spring.

When we arrived at the old airbase, now back to a rather primitive farm, the buildings were just the same faded yellow stucco that they used to be.  The airstrip was no longer there, but pieces of the corrugated runway material were still in use around the farm as fencing for animal pens.  Sheep were everywhere, but progress had stepped in where the auto strata crossed one end of the old runway.  The building where we were briefed for the raids now housed a big combine and tractor.  I could not find the Count or anyone around the farm while we were there.

*********Conclusion *********

That's pretty much the story.  I'm very proud to be an American and happy to be part of a generation that put their lives on the line to save our country for a very just cause.

We packed more into our lives in 3 to 5 years than our parents did in a lifetime.  It was an experience I would not trade.

I am also very proud to be a member of the Service Club because I know that many of you shared the same type of experiences that I did.

Oliver Maggard, Jr.

August 31, 1998