Biography of Thomas R. Cushman
Captain, 613th Squadron, 401st Bomb Group, 8th AF, USAAF
Born of American parents in Buenos Aires, Argentina, September 13, 1921. Attended public schools and graduated from Michigan State University. Entered the Aviation Cadet Program and was sent to Kelley Field, Texas in 1942, Preflight: San Antonio, Texas, Primary: Chickasha, Oklahoma, Basic: Enid, Oklahoma, and Advanced Training: Pampa, Texas. Joined the 401st at Great Falls, Montana and was sent to Curbank, Montana, then to Deenthorpe, England in 1943. Served two tours of duty. Trained in Fighter Planes (P-63 P-47 P-51) with the Air Transport Command. My most memorable experience was the Mission to Oscherslaben, Germany on January 11, 1944. Received the Air Medal with 5 Oak Leaf Clusters, ETO Ribbon with 5 Battle Stars, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Unit Badge. Discharged at Patterson Field, Ohio, December 9, 1945. Married with three children. Retired from an Engineering Reproduction Firm, and now do part-time broadcasting for Channel 19 in Brooklyn, Michigan.
I came to Great Falls, Montana from the 43E class of pilots. I was assigned as a co-pilot to a Lt. Stann. He was on leave at that time. Major Ted Brown took me up in a B-17 for a check ride. It was a beautiful night, you could almost touch the stars. After the usual procedures, Major Brown proceeded to show me how to do a "Chandel" in a B-17. What a thrill! It wasn't long before he introduced me to a pilot who was floating around Great Falls without a co-pilot. His name was Bill Riegler. We were assigned to the 613th Squadron of the 401st Bomb Group just being formed. We were sent to Cutbank, Montana on the edge of an Indian reservation. Our navigator was a big "Swede" by the name of William Einer Anderson. He was built like a brick you-know-what and I would have hated to skate against him in a hockey game. Andy, Bill, and I were joined by a hot-shot bombardier who outranked us. He had seen action in the Pacific and was rumored to have sunk a Japanese ship without a bombsight! We were awed by this big, burly Texan who acted like a typical Army Master Sergeant. His name was Durward W. Fesmire. We just called him Fes. That's how we got together at Great Falls.
Now I've got to tell you about our Flight Surgeon, Herman Landers. Doc Landers was a pediatrician from Chicago. He must have been drafted into the service because Herm hated to fly. He would get his Flight time by looking over the flight schedule and picking out a crew whose flight time would give him just enough time to get his flight pay. We were going down to Great Falls on some business so Herm asked to ride along as this would complete his flight time. We landed and parked our B-17 on the flight line where we discovered there had been a shooting. They needed Doc Landers. When we approached the plane to leave for Cutbank, a young man casually walked away from it. One of the enlisted men remembered he had left some money in his flight jacket on board the plane. They took off after this guy with the officers bringing up the rear. If this wasn't a Keystone Comedy Cop chase, I guess I've never seen one. Well we chased that character all over the barracks area and finally found the money in a stove in one of the barracks. He didn't even have time to shut the stove door. Winded but victorious, we returned to the plane. Doc was afraid the guy might have tampered with something and sabotaged the plane. The only thing out of place, beside the jacket, was the fuse-box cover. The fuses all seemed OK, but Doc Landers was having a fit. He didn't want to fly back with us, but he still needed some more flight time. Riegler finally convinced him that everything was alright so we took off for Cutbank. Herm got into his parachute and would not take it off. While on the way back, Bill decided we needed a little more practice on emergency procedures. So we feathered one of the engines and rang the alarm bell. Of course that was all it took to set Herm off. He was halfway out the escape hatch before Andy and Fes could pull him back in. Needless to say, that was the last time Herm would ride with us. He swore we did that on purpose. How could he think such a thing. Captain Herman Landers was one of the last of the original Cadre to leave England. What a lonesome guy! As we were going home, Herm asked me to stop in Chicago and give his wife a call, tell her he loved her, and hoped he would be home soon. You know, I don’t remember if I did that, but I sure hope I did!
The 401st started moving from Cutbank, Montana to the ETO. The enlisted crew threw their duffel bags in the bomb=bay and took the train. The officers were to fly the planes overseas. The night before the planes took off, there was a party given by some of the officers. Several officers took it upon themselves to give haircuts to some of the others. They went through the barracks hauling guys out of bed and hacking off their hair. Ringler and I were in bed when they came and by some stroke of luck they passed us by. The next morning at breakfast Major Brown, our CO, remarked that I needed a haircut. I said, "Yes Sir, I’ll get one right away" and left for the barbershop. When we arrived at the Gander Air Base, we had to assemble for the usual lectures. The Medical Officer was so "shook up" he cut short his VD lecture and proceeded to lecture us about the value of keeping your hair on your head. He said that in the summer-time it keeps you from getting sun-burned, and in the winter it keeps your head warm! Nobody cracked a smile, I'm sure glad I had survived that hair-cutting party!
We departed Cutbank, Montana and headed for Bangor, Maine with our B-17, "Pistol Packin' Mama". Our route passed fairly close to Canton, Ohio, Bill Riegler's home town. Anderson agreed that no one would notice if we drifted a little off course and passed directly over Canton. I tell you, the people in Canton knew their favorite son was on his way overseas! We roared down the main street of Canton below the tops of the buildings while I ran the propeller pitches up and down. We would pull up, swing around, and make another pass! Every time we pulled up, there was an awful groan from the navigator's compartment. Fesmire had attended a party at the Officers Club the night before we left Cutbank and had a small hangover, if you could call one small. Then Bill proceeded to buzz his home in the same manner causing all kinds of commotion on the ground and in the Navigator's compartment. Finally, with light heads and excitement in our hearts, we headed on towards Bangor, Maine with no further course deviations.
Leaving "Goofy Newfy", we were thrilled to be flying over the Atlantic Ocean like Lindberg. We were disappointed, though, because we never saw the water. A cloud cover kept us from seeing it. We landed safely in Scotland.
We settled into our base at Deenthorpe. After quite a few briefing sessions, the Group went aloft to see how the assembling of the Group was to be done. Each squadron had a marker beacon to circle. After takeoff, each squadron would assemble on their marker beacon. When assembled, the lead Squadron would fly a certain route and pick up the high and low Squadrons. Then we would proceed on a route that would pickup other assembled Groups to form the line of battle. It was a beautiful thing to see as each Group fell into position and headed across the Channel. However, on the first trial run, we headed for London as our target. Over London we found ourselves in a balloon barrage. Someone failed to notify someone else and we spent a few hectic moments turning around and getting out of there! If they hadn't pulled the balloons down, I'm afraid there would have been a few casualties. As it was, our nerves were pretty well shot before we got back to our base.
Colonel Bowman, our Group Commander, was a West Point Officer. He thought it would be nice to have the officers wear their Class A Uniforms to supper, same as at West Point. We all showed up spic and span and were seated according to rank. We were served by GI's in white coats. To me it was real exciting at first, but after a while, I was so tired from battle missions, that when I got back I decided to skip supper. I would go over to the barracks, where they had individual bath tubs of hot water, and soak. Boy what a luxury! I guess I wasn't the only one because a lot of guys were skipping supper. They just didn't feel like getting all dressed up after a mission. In a short time the West Point supper was cancelled and a regular mess, cafeteria style, was set up for the officers. Then you could get something to eat after a mission without getting all dressed up in a Class A Uniform. To me it lost a lot of it's glamour. I enjoyed being waited on because it made me feel like a big shot. The higher echelon officers may have carried on that tradition, but not the Flight Officers.
Bill Riegler's crew was a lead crew in the 613th Squadron. When Bill flew as the lead plane the co-pilot, that's me, had to fly in the tail as a tail gunner observer. Needless to say, I was quite put out about it! I was told they needed a "trained observer" in the tail of the plane because he was the only person who could see all the other planes in the Squadron and in the whole Group. When the mission was over, I was to report to the Group Commander (who was riding in my seat) and tell him what happened to each plane in the Group. I sat there with a pad and pencil and recorded the events that happened. I hated it! Someone was in my seat and I was taking the tail-gunner's seat. I bitched about it, but it did no good.
The gunners had been removing the gun barrels after we crossed the channel. The Germans found out about that and attacked several Squadrons. They shot down planes while they were trying to land. After that we were told to leave the guns alone until we were on the ground. To save time after landing, the gunners removed the barrels while we were taxiing to our holding area. They got real good at that, but always had to do the tail guns last. One day I thought I would give them a hand and started to remove the guns. I accidentally fired a short burst. Heads popped out of the plane behind us looking for the culprit. I nearly fainted. I was afraid I might have killed someone! To make matters worse, Major Brown, our Squadron CO, was riding in my co-pilots seat! I reported to him after the debriefing with my heart in my throat.
"Sir," I said, "I had a little accident while we were taxiing."
"Yes, I heard it," he replied.
Letting my frustration get the best of me, I blurted out, "Well I was trained to be a pilot, not a gunner. I shouldn't have to ride in the tail. I'm a pilot! I don't know anything about those damn guns!"
"Cushman, in the Army you do what you're told to do and not what you want to do. Now, you go down to the armament shop and learn how to take those guns apart and put them back together again. I want you to spend one hour a day for one week. Got it?"
Very meekly and somewhat relieved I said, "Yes Sir!"
So you see, my learning about those guns came in handy on the mission to Oscherslaben. My guns jammed once, but I was able to get them cleared. I put in a claim for three planes shot down, but got credit for only damaging one. I may have been one of the few bomber pilots ever to claim shooting down a German fighter. Anyhow, the gunners took to calling me "Dead eye", which made me feel a hell of a lot better!
The inevitable happened! Someone invented a radar unit that enabled you to see your target through an overcast sky. Now we could bomb either visually or by the use of the new radar unit. We were assigned a PFF operator by the name of Stanley Fine. Stan was a nice quiet Jewish boy who worked very well with Fesmire, our bombardier. However, to hone down this skill we had to practice a lot. Out in the Irish Sea there is a rock called Scars Rock. I can see where it got it's name because when we weren't on a mission we were bombing the hell out of that damned rock. After so many runs on that target, Fesmire would get fed up and salvo the rest of the practice bombs. Then we could go home.
At first there were not enough PFF planes to go to all the Squadrons. Each Group sent a lead crew to Bassingbourn where the PFF plane were kept under tight security. We lived there in a barracks. When our Group was leading the mission, one of the crews was called upon to deliver the Radar plane to their home base. Our navigator was the only one, at that time, who knew where the mission was going, and he wouldn't tell us. So we would try to guess by the amount of gas that was in the plane as to how far it would go.
We were issued 45's with a shoulder holster. At the dinner table, we looked like a bunch of gangsters. Some of the Western boys rigged their holsters to enable them to wear them on their hip, "Cowboy style." Every day the code word was changed, and you had to know what it was. We had to know where to place a white handkerchief on your arm. We would leave the barracks in the wee hours of the morning, fly to our base, and grab a few winks of sleep before the mission briefing.
One night we loaded the truck and started to the flight line. Some guy jumped out into the path of our truck with a rifle in his hand and hollered, "Halt!" Our driver was a little slow in stopping and as we passed the guy he screamed, "Stop that damned truck or I'll blow your head off!" Believe me, we came to a screeching halt. After checking our papers and giving the correct pass-word, we were allowed to continue on to our B-17.
One night we were called upon to go to another base because their crew was unable to go for some reason. Not being familiar with the runway of that base, Riegler landed too far down the runway. We tramped on the brakes, but nothing happened. The end of the runway loomed up at us out of the darkness. Riegler shouted, "Unlock the tailwheel, I'll try to ground loop." I unlocked the tailwheel as we charged off the runway into a mud hole. The stop was so sudden that the nose of the plane was smashed into the ground and the tail was lifted way up. The tail came down with a crash and the plane broke in half. Every thing was completely black. Riegler shouted, "Go through the back and check on the crew. I'll see what happened to Fes and Andy." He dropped out a gaping hole in the front, while I scampered back through the waist. Oxygen bottles were hissing, and I found myself screaming for the crew members. When the plane broke in half, the enlisted men, though slightly injured, quickly bailed out and ran to the front to help out the officers. We had a wild few minutes before everyone was rounded up and accounted for. By this time the crash truck and ambulances were there. A few of the enlisted men had injured backs and sore muscles. Fes and Andy had seen the end of the runway coming up and had started toward the pilots compartment. When the tail came down they fell through the hole to the ground. We all spent the night in the hospital except for Bill Reigler. Another PFF plane and crew had to be sent for. Bill spent the night pacing up and down in the control tower. He was sure he would have to pay for that plane for the rest of his life! I had the best night's sleep I ever had --- in the hospital.
One of the things we missed most was a radio. We wanted one so badly that we pooled our money and decided to go to London to get one. We figured they would be expensive, but it's only money we said. What we didn't figure on was the availability. Bill, Andy, Fes, and I went all over London trying to buy a radio. They just weren't to be had! Some guy have us a top where we might find one. We ended up in some dive in a tough part of town. We asked the proprietor if he had any radios. He said he did and how much were we prepared to pay for one. Well we pulled out the cash and showed it to him. Without a word, he turned and left and was back shortly with a small radio. It wasn't much to look at but it worked. A big burly man walked up to us and said. "Did you chaps buy this radio?' We allowed as how it wasn't any of his business, but it was ours. He then asked, "How much?" When we didn't answer, he pulled out his credentials and stated he was from Scotland Yard. It seems our radio was part of a hijacked shipment that Scotland Yard had been following. With great reluctance, we had to give him the radio as evidence. We explained how badly we wanted one, and he said that the would see to it that we got one. He gave us his name, Detective Sergeant Sinclare, and then invited us to visit Scotland Yard the next day. The next day we had a marvelous trip through Scotland Yard and visited the Black Museum. I signed my name to the register under an American Colonel's name. Later on, I found out it is quite a privilege to see the Black Museum. They had all the weapons used by famous and infamous killers from trials way back in history. I was quite thrilled with the whole trip. What a nice guy this Detective Sergeant Sinclare was. However, we still had no radio. In a week or ten days one arrived especially for us. I wondered if it might have been one of the hijacked ones. Anyway, we sure enjoyed it.
On leave in London, Fesmire and I had a room together in one of the big hotels. We had been to Westminster Abbey and all around Piccadilly Circus. We even tried out a Turkish Bath. It wasn't too difficult to get a tax cab because the drivers were on the "lookout" for Americans. We weren't too popular with the British because the cab-drivers would pass up a British fare for an American hoping to get a big tip. Most usually they did! Anyway, we were tired and hit the sack. Suddenly, there was the most terrible racket just outside our room. It seems an air raid was in progress, and a battery of four anti-aircraft guns was located outside our hotel in the park. With all that racket, no one could sleep, but Fes managed to do so. I could hear people walking down the hall, going to the air raid shelter. I tried to wake Fes, but I couldn't. Should I go to the air raid shelter or stay in my room? I pulled open the black-out curtains and watched as the searchlights would pass the bomber to the next searchlight. It was quite a show, but I was scared to death! All I could get out of Fesmire was, "Go to sleep!" Finally, the "all-clear" sounded but then, of course, I couldn't get to sleep.
Colonel Bowman, our Group Commander, was given a promotion and was to go to Staff Headquarters in Paris. He was to be flown over there in one of our B-17s. Everyone wanted to get on the crew that would take him there. Somehow I was chosen as co-pilot. I don't remember who else. I was thrilled to pieces. We were to have a couple of days in Paris. We were given a car and driver that belonged to General Spatz. There was a little flag with four stars on it flying from the front fender. When we were riding in the car, all Military personnel saluted the flag and not particularly who was riding in it. I had a ball saluting all the ranking officers. The first night we went to some dive that had those tough French dancers that threw each other all around. The last thing I remember was, "I thought there was supposed to be a kick to this champagne, but I don't even feel it." I woke up in our hotel room and boy was I sick! The next day, all I could do was to keep the guys in sight in front of me. Little Joe acted as interpreter. Every time they went into a perfume store, I would get sick to my stomach. I would pull Little Joe's arm, and he would say to the shopkeeper in French, "Where is the bathroom for the American?" Then I would head for the bathroom door and heave my guts out. Then on to the next store. We ended up at the train station and I remember going from car to car saying, "Maybe I can make it to the next car." It wasn't until we arrived at Versailles that i began to feel better. I slept all the next day and was in pretty good shape for the flight back to England. I guess I'll never forget those last days in Paris. I swore off drinking and have been off ever since then.
I never did go to the parties at the Officers Club because someone was always trying to get me to take a drink. I did like to hear Frankie play the piano. I was listening to him one night when someone cut off my tie. Then a frustrated bombardier lined up a shot with a glass of booze and bullseyed my big toe! To make matters worse, Lt. Horace Wood, who we called "Woody", was twisting my arm to have a drink with him. He was quite put out to think I wouldn't drink with him, so he gave me a hard time. Just then, Chaplain Fellows passed by and overheard our conversation. Taking me by the arm he said, "Woody, don't make this boy drink if he doesn't want to." Woody gave me the darndest look and never spoke to me after that. So I quit going to the Officer Club parties.
On our last mission of our first tour of duty to Munich, Germany, our pilot, Bill Riegler, broke his ankle. He went to the hospital while the rest of the crew went home for R&R. When we came back to England, he was headed home. I was moved up to first pilot. One day at the mess-hall, I was with a group of Officers when we were joined by my bombardier, D. W. Fesmire. He was a big guy. He grabbed me by the collar yanked me to my feet in front of everyone in the mess-hall. He then proceeded to "rack- me-back!"
"Fes," I said, "What are you doing? You're embarrassing me."
"You are out of uniform!"
"No, I'm not!"
"Yes, you are, hold still!"
Then he removed the 1st Lt. bar from my collar, and pinned on the Captain's (Railroad Tracks) bar. That was how I found out I had been promoted to Captain.
I flew for fifteen missions as a 1st pilot with a lead crew. They were mostly in support of our troops. We also hit oil refineries and marshalling yards. We had good fighter support.
Back in the States, I was transferred to the Air Transport Command based in Long Beach, California. I was sent to Greenwood, Mississippi and trained in three different fighter planes -- P63's, P47's, P51's. I would fly around those big, cumulus clouds, going up through tunnels, and over hills of clouds reaching for the clear blue sky above them. I felt very close to God:
I picked up a P47 in New York and was going to fly on the wing of another pilot to Indiana. However, I lost him in the fog over the city. I almost panicked! I knew if I flew east I would be over the Atlantic Ocean, so I headed west. Out of the fog I remembered the heading and altitude the other pilot had given me. Then I began to pickup check points along the way. I received a call on the radio to land at a certain field. I landed just a few minutes behind my friend. We were there two days while they checked the engine mountings. Someone hadn't tightened the fittings down! With the P47's OK again, we took off. This time I did my own navigating. I learned a good lesson on this trip.
I was scheduled to fly P63's to Alaska to turn over to the Russians. However, the end of the war stopped this adventure. I was put on the flight line flying new P51's to a field in Texas where the engines were "pickled". They were finishing up a contract and didn't need the planes. I wish I could have afforded to have one.
Whenever I had to take a P51 to Texas, there were always Navy airmen flying around San Diego looking for a scrap. They would get on my tail and the only way I could shake them was to run away from them. Oh well, I had fun flying them. It was like driving a fancy sports car after driving a truck. What a thrill!
The 401st Bomb Group has a reunion every two years in different parts of the country. I attended the first few, but have missed a lot of them. I'm getting old it seems. Many of us are facing our final mission. Here is a poem written by Chaplain Ward J. Fellows of the 401st Bombardment Group for the Deenthorpe Diary.
In Memoriam, Members of the 401st Bombardment Group.
May, 1944, Deenthorpe, England.
You took off, into the lightening English sky,
Where often you had ridden
The wide reaches of the air and felt its amplitude.
'Though we waited for the call sign long,
Watching while others circled and set down,
This time you did not return.
You flew a further mission,
Beyond even the fringes of the blue,
Into the ultimate arms of God.
The Fifth Miracle
An Me. 109 with guns blazing came boring in at 6 o'clock level. I couldn't miss. The twin 50's chattered in my hands, as I fired in short bursts; the shell casings falling away in a yellow stream behind the plane. It loomed above me so close I could almost touch the big, black swastika on the silver wings. Then it was gone. I was trembling and bathed in cold sweat. My mouth felt like it was full of cotton. I tried to relax in my cramped position in the tail of the Flying Fortress.
Only a few hours ago, I had been roused from my sleep. "Sir--Sir," a Sergeant spoke quietly while gently shaking the bed. "It's time to get up. You're to be at Combat Operations at 0500 hours for briefing."
"OK, Sarge," I mumbled, "I'll be there on time." Shaking off the clouds of sleep, I quickly dressed.
Seated with my crew, and other crews of the 401st Heavy Bomb. Group, 1st Division, we heard our Briefing Officer say, "Gentlemen, your target today will be an aircraft factory at Oschersleben, Germany." Carefully, he pointed out our route on a huge map.
"A bad weather front is approaching England from the North Sea," droned the Weather Officer in a monotonous voice. "However, fighter support can be expected."
Our Commanding Officer stepped up to the platform. "Gentlemen, as we are leading the 8th Air Force line of battle today, our Group will be the first to take-off. Pay attention to the taxi pattern. We will rendezvous at 16000 feet over the Deenthorpe Splasher. Watch for the red-yellow flares. Good luck."
As we made our way out of the briefing room, I glanced at a mirror on the wall under which was written: "Don't Talk or this man may die." The date on the calendar beside it was January 11, 1944.
We took-off in the inky darkness with only hooded lights to mark the runway. As we circled our rendezvous marker, we fired colored flares so we could gather our Group. After assembly, we moved along the battle route with other bomber Groups falling in behind us. By the time we reached the English coast, the sun was up. "Boy, that’s some sight," I shouted to Sgt. Lipa, our radio operator, as our 1st Division lined up behind us. I crawled back, past the tail wheel, and squeezed into the tail compartment, which was to be my battle station for the day. Over the channel, we test-fired our guns. We paid little heed to the ominous cloud bank hovering over the North Sea; the weather ahead was clear.
"Radio to pilot."
"Go ahead, Lipa."
"Message from Operation Control. Mission recalled. All planes not yet airborne are grounded. Planes over England are ordered back to their bases. An extremely bad weather front is moving in from the North Sea. 1st Div. Commanders are to decide whether to continue on to their targets or abort the mission." As we were well on our way, we chose to continue. The whole 1st Division moved toward their respective targets, well aware that there would be no fighter support.
About twenty minutes from the target, we were attacked by a large number of fighters.
"Fighters at 3 o'clock level," came the cry over the intercom.
"They are gauging our speed and direction. Don't fire until they turn into our formation," replied Major Brooks.
"Here they come at 6 o'clock level," shouted the top-turret gunner. "Let 'em have it!"
I thought, "If I ever live through this, I'll be lucky." Firing short bursts, I saw the first fighter explode -- a ball of orange flame, then just a few pieces of debris. The second fighter came right through the smoke of the first, straight at me. Suddenly he staggered and fell to one side. The pilot bailed-out. The third fighter went into a dive, trailing smoke. There was no time to watch him. The next three passed right over my head. I could almost touch them; they were that close. The right wing-man in our second element feathered an engine and slowly fell back out of position.
"Reddog Charlie to Reddog Leader," came the frantic call.
"Go ahead, Charlie."
"Number four engine hit. Can't keep up."
"Fall back and take cover under the following Groups."
"Wilco. Reddog Charlie out."
"OK, Charlie. Good luck. Reddog Leader out."
As soon as he was alone, the fighters swarmed on him like a pack of angry bees. He bravely fought them off, but I saw him falter, waiver. The big bomber went down with guns blazing. I could see no chutes. Tears rolled down my cheeks and froze on my oxygen mask. My vision blurred.
For the first time in my life, I was scared, afraid I would never make it back home. As I tried to crawl into that high altitude foxhole, I prayed to a God I knew very little about.
"Oh God, let me live for just one more day. Let me feel the firm ground under my feet once again. Let me see another sunrise and another sunset Let me see all the things You have given to me that I have taken for granted. Let me use all my senses once more, and I'll promise I will savor every moment of it. I will love every second of that precious time. Then, when death knocks on my door the next time, I'll be ready to go. Just let me live today!" I suddenly remembered a verse of the 23rd Psalm someone had sent to me. I kept repeating it over and over, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me."
In the silence of that lonely place, five miles above the ground, and so many miles from home, God heard my prayer and spoke to me. Here was miracle number one. There was no loud clap of thunder, no voice like the wind, not even a small quiet voice from within. Yet, I knew God had answered my prayer. I had been reprieved. Not only would I survive this mission, but I would live to go home. I just knew it!
Through a haze of relief, I faintly heard the ball turret gunner scream, "Shoot, Cushman, shoot!" There they were again, coming in at us, six in a row. This time I rose up confidently and shouted, "Let them come in, we'll shoot them all down."
"You shoot and keep them out there," came the voice of my pilot, Bill Riegler.
The attack broke off as we entered the target area. Flack broke around us like deadly, black flowers with red centers. They came four bursts at a time. I counted them as they marched toward our plane. One, two, three, and then I felt the fourth crunch against the plane. I hugged the small piece of armor plate in front of me as if my life depended upon it. The sky was filled with deadly puffs of black smoke. Straight and level we flew to the target. Our plane jumped twenty feet in the air, as we salvoed our bomb load. I watched as strings of bombs dropped from the bellies of our planes. We wheeled off the target, gathering our chicks, and headed for home, and into the wrath of the fighters again. I could see, far below us, flashes of orange flame and columns of smoke rising from the city.
"Fighters at 6 o'clock level," shouted one of the crew. Time seemed to stand still as we battled with the angry fighters. Would they never leave us alone?
"Fighter coming in at 2 o'clock high."
"My God, don't shoot. That's a P-51," screamed Lt. Fesmire, our bombardier.
"Where did he come from," shouted Sgt. Glick, the top-turret gunner.
"I don't know and I don't care," came the reply, "Just don't point your guns at him, and maybe he'll hang around."
The second miracle came in the form of a silver Mustang. He hovered over our group like a guardian angel. Whenever the enemy lined up to attack, he dove into them, sending one of them down, trailing smoke. Then he was back again drifting across our formation. Again, he would dive scattering them like flies. Soon the wing guns stopped blinking, but still he dove into them, scattering them again and again. Then, with gas about gone, he waved good-bye, and slowly drifted out of sight. With lumps in our throats, we watched him go. "I hope to God he makes it," somebody said.
"It was the bravest thing I ever saw," said Maj. Brooks, our Group Commander. "I wonder who he was?"
Now we raced the fighters toward the huge cloud bank that lay ahead of us. Safety lay there for us, if we could only reach it. As we entered the cloud bank, we spread out so we wouldn't hit each other in the fog. After a few minutes of flying blind, we came into a strange, white, silent world of nothing -- no sky, no ground. Only six planes remained of our gallant squadron. Strangely subdued and quiet, we approached the coast of England.
"Radio to Pilot."
"Got a message from Weather Control. All fields socked in. Instrument landing fields crowded. Orders are to fly over England for two minutes. If no fields are sighted, head planes for Channel and bail-out."
A quiet uneasiness hung over us as we timed our flight from the coast. After all we had been through, would we have to leave this big bird to die in the cold waters of the English Channel? Reluctantly, we prepared to bail out.
Suddenly miracles number three appeared before us.
"Hey, there's a hole in the clouds."
"Yeah, I can see the ground."
"Looks like a grass landing strip, probably a fighter base."
"Let's get down as fast as we can."
"All right, you guys, follow me."
We dove into the hole like pigeons heading for home. We were afraid it would close before we could land. Six tired bombers looked like fighter planes as they 'peeled-off" and circled the field. Five bombers skidded to a halt on the short grass runway. The sixth crashed into a raised bomb shelter at the end of the run-way. Some of the crew were injured, but none seriously.
We tumbled out of our plane, and fell to the ground; each thankful in his own way. Some danced for joy, some knelt and prayed, some just stared unbelievingly into space, and one was sick to his stomach. None of us were injured thank God, but our plane, Pistol Packin' Mam, was in pretty bad shape. How a plane can fly with so many holes in her, I'll never know.
"Hey, Cush, look at that hole in the tail right by your side," said Sgt. John Jack, our ball turret gunner. "Don't see how that one missed ya."
I placed my fist through a hole in the side of the plane, right where I was stationed. I had been protected by a flack suit in front and back, but my sides were un-protected. I was stunned! I reached inside and found on the floor, small pieces of shrapnel. Surely, here was miracle four. Only God could have placed His hand there and stopped that flak from entering my side.
The field was now alive with trucks and ambulances.
"You chaps all right?" a British Major asked, as a land rover pulled up to a stop.
"We're all OK, but our buddies need help. I'm Major Brooks, Group Commander."
"Your injured men are being taken care of, Sir," replied the British Major, "If you will come with me, I'll take you directly to Squadron Headquarters. A truck will be along for your men in a few minutes."
Soon we were treated to the hospitality of the British base. "Watch it, Sir, it's hot," said an orderly, handing me a cup of coffee and a sandwich. I sat back, relaxed, and listened to the radio blaring out the news of another major air victory for the Allies.
"I wonder if they know how many men and planes we lost," I muttered under my breath.
"Too bad about your planes," said a young British fighter pilot.
"What about them?" asked Lt. Riegler.
"You’ll have to dismantle them and truck them back to your base. You'll never be able to fly them out of here. This is just a fighter base."
Somehow, we just had to get our big birds home again.
After three days of fog, the weather cleared. Our crew had been sent to our base by truck, along with guns and everything that could be taken out of a B-17. With a stripped-down plane and a skeleton crew of pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer, we were ready to make the attempt to bring our planes home. We set the brakes, as we revved up the engines. When we could no longer hold it -- we gave it full throttle and released the brakes! The plane jumped forward as if it had been lashed with a whip, and charged down the grass runway. I held my breath, as we neared the end of the field.
"Head her for that opening between the trees." I shouted, as Riegler fought the wheel. Reluctantly,. she left the ground and climbed slowly, her four engines protesting loudly. Between the two trees, and up and over the next row of trees, we went. Finally freed from the ground, we limped back to our home base, the other planes close behind us. After landing we learned that our "Guardian Angel" was Maj. James H. Howard, Squadron Leader of one of our fighter groups.
Time passed; the war ended. I was glad to be back home again to the farm. One bright, sunny, Sunday morning in May, our little, country church at Iron Creek dedicated a stone monument to the memory of two young men from our community, killed in action. One was a classmate of mine. As I folded the flag, the last notes of "taps" sounded sadly over the quiet countryside. I presented the flag to the father of my friend. As he took the flag, he looked my clearly in the eyes with a questioning look that asked. "How come you came back and my son didn't?". Perhaps it was just my conscience speaking, but I gave it a great deal of thought. There must have been a reason, after all those wonderful miracles. And didn't God keep his promise to me? I wonder why? Maybe, I ought to find out why.
A few Sundays later, I gave my heart to the Lord, and asked Him to change my life. Where does the fifth miracle come in? Well, the first four miracles saved my life temporarily, but the fifth miracle changed my life and saved it for an eternity.
Sometimes, when I sit in church with my family in quiet meditation before the service begins, if I listen closely, I can faintly hear the droning of the big, four-engine bombers that once filled the sky. For a moment, a silver fighter flashes by with guns blazing. Puffs of black smoke surround me, and I feel the fingers of fear creeping up my back. Then I open my eyes and look into the eyes of Jesus in a painting above the altar, and I hear God's promise again. I know it will never fail. "Whoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved."
----- Thomas R. Cushman
Captain Thomas R. Cushman, United States Army Air Force, 0680414
The crew of the B-17 Pistol Packin' Mama. Standing Left to right
Standing Left to Right, Lt. Thomas Cushman, Lt. Peter Macklin, Captain William Anderson, Captain D. W. Fesmire
Kneeling Left to Right, Sergeant Mollar, Sergeant Seeley, Sergeant Hope, Sergeant Quist
Unit History, 401st Bomb Group, 8th AF, USAAF
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