At 21,000 feet in the nose of a B-24 bomber
George McKown spent most of his combat time in World War II about four miles from the action.
He was four miles from Berlin several times. He mixed it up four miles from the Battle of the Bulge.
McKown, 88, of Warren, was a gunner on a B-24 Liberator. Most of his 26 missions from October 1944 to the end of the war in May 1945, were flown at 21,000 feet. He flew half of those missions in the nose of the bomber operating twin .50 caliber machine guns, then the rest at a waist gun – a single .50 caliber behind the wing.
From “building model airplanes and flying them out the bedroom window” McKown joined the largest U.S. combat air forces in the war.
He was 18, fresh out of Tidioute, confident and “full of a lot of propaganda,” he said. “I was gung-ho.”
The 8th Air Force, including McKown’s 453rd Bombardment Group, was stationed at bases in England and carried out strategic bombing missions throughout northern Europe, especially in France and Germany.
The 33 B-24s of the 453rd were based at Old Buckenham Airfield outside of Attleborough, England.
“We were cocky,” McKown said. “The 8th Air Force was really getting the praise. The 8th was destroying the German war machine. We got treated first class.”
Most of the time, McKown had to take that word at face value – he couldn’t see the results of the missions. His memories are based on what he could see – things happening much closer than the explosions four miles below.
“The air war was really something,” he said. “You can just picture 33 airplanes in a group, flying in close formation, four-engine bombers.”
“I was up in the nose,” McKown said. “That was quite a scene.”
The groups met with others to make up flights including hundreds of bombers and hundreds of fighters, sometimes more than 1,000 planes heading to one target.
Oil refineries, weapons plants, railroad stations and marshalling yards, industrial facilities, communications, and airfields – anything that aided the German war effort – were common strategic targets.
Each bomber could carry up to four tons of bombs to target – places like Koblenz, Hamburg, and Berlin – dropping visually when the sky was clear or by radar through cloud cover.
Before becoming part of a major cog in the allied war machine, McKown almost didn’t make it to Europe.
From training in Savannah, McKown’s crew flew to Langley Field, Virginia, to pick up a brand new airplane, then to New Hampshire before their final stop on this side of the Atlantic.
In October, 1944, McKown’s plane took off from Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada, bound for England.
“They put gas tanks in our bomb bays so we could hop across without stopping,” he said.
The crew engineer had gone through a four-hour training on how to transfer fuel from those tanks to the wings. The co-pilot was in charge of checking the gauges to make sure the transfer worked.
“The co-pilot, he fell asleep,” McKown said. “It ended up the engines were pumping air. All four engines went out mid-Atlantic.”
The crew got the engines started again and finished the crossing, landing in Valley, Wales.
But, the co-pilot took some abuse. “The pilot chewed that guy out,” McKown said.
Soldiers had plenty of support on both sides of the ocean.
On the home front, public perception was much more positive around World War II than it has been for contemporary conflicts. The war effort was black and white.
Even that war has detractors now and some will point to the death toll.
“They really praised us while we were doing it,” McKown said. “Now they talk about… we killed a lot of people.”
And, of course, there were casualties among the Americans.
“My mother was always worried about me,” McKown said.
He wrote home frequently. It was when the news came home from other sources that family grew nervous.
“One night Gabriel Heatter was on the radio,” McKown said. “He was telling about a mission to Schweinfurt or somewhere and they lost 60 bombers.”
Heatter said, “Some of these boys will never come home.”
“Dad said my mother collapsed right into the sink,” McKown said.
Throughout McKown’s tour, his pilot was Maj. Americo Marini.
“Marini was a real gung-ho guy,” McKown said.
McKown sometimes helped Marini compensate for an odd pattern he followed.
“My pilot had a habit of overrunning the guys ahead,” McKown said. “If he overran them. He’d have to go off to the right and try to dog-leg. I’d use a pair of binoculars and tell him what time to turn back to line up right.”
During a mission to Bitburg, Marini’s habit put McKown in the line of fire and gave him a close-up view of the bombing process.
“We were going to a place that was a transportation hub where they were supplying the German line,” he said. “It was a beautiful day. I could see out ahead.”
As he often did, Marini closed in on the plane ahead. “He started to overrun that lead ship,” McKown said.
“I’m sitting there in that glass dome and it comes right under the tail gunner and I’m looking up at the bomb bay,” he said. “I didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t know what to do.”
“Pretty soon, we’re up to where I’m looking right into the bomb bay, and out there’s the target,” he said. “It ended up, the damned bombs came out.”
“The rear bomb bays had oil smoke bombs,” he said. “Them smoke bombs hit my turret and covered it with an oily, greasy stuff.”
Still, McKown was uninjured and just a gunner. “I never said a word.”
“The smoke when back through the plane and the guys in the rear thought we were hit,” he said. “The navigator opened my door and jerked me out.”
After McKown’s 13th mission, Marini was named lead pilot of the 453rd. That was quite an honor for the crew and resulted in a new job for McKown. The lead pilot carried an officer as navigator and McKown was moved from his post in the nose to the waist gun.
Being on the lead plane was a benefit to all members of the crew.
Once a pilot or crewman had flown their 35th mission, they were sent home, their commitment served. For leads, the number was lower.
“When our pilot got lead-pilot, I got spotted five,” McKown said. He suddenly needed only 17 more missions to go home.
The benefit was based on the additional danger inherent to the position from the most common danger facing bombers.
“They spotted him five missions because the lead ship they followed with the anti-aircraft,” McKown said.
The freebies didn’t get McKown home any earlier. The war ended before he made it to 30 missions.
Earlier in the war, few crewmen made it through the required number of missions. Leather and sheepskin did little to prevent frostbite at high altitude. McKown wore a heated suit, including hat, gloves, and boots, that plugged into the plane. He also wore an oxygen mask.
Fighter escorts were also more common at the end of the war and fewer bombers were shot down during those later missions.
McKown had a great deal of respect for Marini, who passed away in September 2013 at the age of 91.
Not all of the 453rd’s missions were carried out at 21,000 feet.
Flying at 1,500 feet allowed McKown to see more from his station at the waist, but also meant enemy anti-aircraft installations were much closer.
“We were going along at 1,500,” he said. “I’m looking out under the left wing. Up ahead in the woods the Germans had these seven-gun batteries.”
At that range, the guns couldn’t miss.
“They were firing these guns,” McKown said. “I thought, ‘There ain’t no way we’re gonna make it.'”
An American fighter came to the rescue.
“Pretty soon I looked out and there was a P-51 right under our wing,” McKown said. “He went right up there and shot the hell out of the woods.”
The only enemy he saw after that was much less threatening.
“We moved up closer to the air base, I laid down on the deck and looked out the camera hatch,” McKown said. “There was a guy on a damn bicycle.”
Instead of going the opposite direction, the rider was making his best speed toward town.
McKown remembers thinking, “What in hell are you heading into town for?”
The man met an abrupt end.
“The bombs start going off and that guy’s pedaling like hell,” he said. “Pretty soon all there is is dirt.”
“Being a lead, I got into a lot of exciting things,” McKown said.
By exciting, he meant dangerous. “I’m looking out ahead and here’s these big red bursts,” McKown said. “They had black, too. We’d fly right through the puffs.”
The red bursts were 105-mm anti-aircraft shells. The black were from the more common 88-mm shells. As a shell exploded, shards of shrapnel flew away, ripping holes in whatever was nearby. The guns could fire on targets almost 50,000 feet up.
The common term ‘flak’ comes from German for ‘flier defense cannon’.
“They used them all the time,” he said. “When they were lucky, the shrapnel missed the target.”
There was one time when McKown’s plane was not that lucky, but lucky enough.
“We were going along and a shell took a part of our tail off,” he said. “I looked down on the floor – just a piece of shrapnel from one of those shells. It’d come through the side of the plane.”
He still has that piece of shrapnel. The inch-long shard is clearly engraved with the year of production – 1943. “I kept that all these years,” he said.
“I called the pilot and said, ‘Are you having any trouble controlling this thing?'” McKown said. “He said, ‘Why?'”
“I said, ‘Your rudder’s flapping.'”
McKown learned something about the plane from that event.
“I didn’t know the B-24 had fabric on its rudder,” he said. “It’s an all-metal plane.”
He wasn’t the only one who noticed the flak.
“Our bombadier started screaming at the pilot, ‘Pull up! Pull up!'” he said. “All of a sudden up ahead was another formation and one of those planes took a direct hit.”
“It’s just like you poured flaming gasoline right there and that whole plane, right there in the sky…”
The command pilot, Major Walsh, was in the plane and ordered evasive maneuvers.
“He brought that whole formation, he made a quick left turn to avoid those shells,” McKown said.
McKown’s plane had another near miss over Munster.
“We were right on schedule,” he said. “I looked out the right waist window and my god there was a whole damn group coming at us.”
The group was slightly above the 453rd.
Flak took out one plane. “They took a direct hit right beside us,” McKown said. “I watched these guys spill right out of that airplane.”
“I kept looking down for some chutes,” he said. “Finally I saw some chutes, but that plane was coming down burning.”
“That’s what you run into,” he said.
Usually, anti-aircraft surrounded high value targets and the bursts receded as the planes flew home. That was not always, the case.
“We were going to Berlin at about 21,000,” he said.
Command had assured the crews that anti-aircraft would not be a problem. “They told us in the briefing that there was just old men and boys shooting the guns,” McKown said.
Old men and boys or not, the guns were on target for a long time.
“We got there and they cut loose at us and they were accurate and we couldn’t get away from them,” McKown said. “We found out later they had railroad cars and on these flat cars they had these 88s and they followed us right out of Berlin.”
At the end of the war, the Germans developed jet fighters.
Until then, the sides’ fighter planes were fairly evenly matched.
“The first fighters I saw were 109s” – Messerschmitt Bf 109, McKown said. They looked much like the English Royal Air Force’s Spitfires.
The jets were new and fast and dangerous.
“North of Berlin we were bombing an airfield,” McKown said. “We got hit with German jets.”
“I looked out the right waist and I saw three B-24s coming down just like maple leaves,” he said.
The development of jets was too late to save the Germans and the strategic bombing by the 8th Air Force was in part responsible for limiting the enemy’s ability to build them in great numbers.
“We’d have never made it if the Germans had been able to build up that jet business,” McKown said. “We couldn’t stop them.”
The bombers were in danger from enemies, but also from themselves.
“I saw one of our own planes shoot himself down,” McKown said. “We were flying over the Zuiderzee” in the Netherlands.
“The waist gunner had shot into the wing tanks and set it on fire,” he said. “We had incendiaries. There is this B-24 on fire.”
“I’m looking right out the window,” he said. “I watched the whole thing.”
“I see the guys start bailing out… he went down, just like a movie,” he said.
Before McKown’s plane was bombed on that mission to Bitburg, he was concerned about a gunner in another plane.
“We were flying what they call a squat in the slot,” McKown said. “Our plane was right up into the ass end of the lead.”
“I noticed that gunner ahead of me had his guns right on me,” he said. “I called the pilot and said, ‘Would you tell that guy to raise his gun.’ Just put them up away from me because if he accidentally hit the trigger he’d get me.”
In December of 1944, the Germans organized a massive surprise attack that later became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
One part of that attack was a concerted effort against allied aircraft.
“When the Battle of the Bulge came on (Hitler) sent fighters over into England to attack the bomber bases,” McKown said.
The base didn’t have extensive air defenses. In the event of an attack, command wanted some kind of resistance.
“They called me up and said report up to the plane,” McKown said. “I remember that plane sitting there with 2,700 gallons of gas. They had this engineer go in there and turn on the electric so we could run the turret.”
“He said, ‘I’ll start the putt-putt, you can get up there in the turret in case they attack,'” McKown said.
“It didn’t look good to me,” he said. “I was a dead duck.”
He was pleased not to have to take up that duty. The fighters never made it to Old Buckenham.
With American forces on the ground on the western front bearing the brunt of the attack, the men of the 453rd were eager to get involved.
But the weather in England in December and January did more to stop air support than German raids on airfields.
“We were waiting for the weather to break so we could bomb and help the guys in the Battle of the Bulge,” McKown said. “We couldn’t get off the ground… snowed in.”
“Finally it broke,” he said. “This was the first opportunity that we had to help those guys.”
“We were taxiing to take-off,” he said. “It was raining and freezing.”
“I remember this Lt. Brown was taxiing ahead of us,” he said. “This Brown started down the runway and by god he iced up and he crashed at the end of the runway and he got killed.”
Only four members of that crew survived, all suffering burns.
That did not prevent the other planes from continuing on and providing air support.
“Never stopped,” he said. “Battle of the Bulge…”