I was only 19 when I was dispatched in the spring of 1944 to Air Station 137 in Lavenham, England. I was part of a ground crew that specialized in adjusting the bombsights and automatic pilots used in planes dropping bombs on German targets. At that age I had no idea that so-called non-combat duty could be hazardous or—worse—deadly. A tragic accident taught me unforgettable lessons about the dangers of war and the dedication of military personnel far from the front lines.
The bombsights in B-24s and B-17s could be removed for servicing in the base shop. This was a small, air-conditioned, bombproof structure with concrete workbenches that also served as protective cover when Germans buzz bombs exploded nearby. The automatic pilots could not be removed from the planes; we had to adjust them during in-flight practice bombing runs. As ground crew technicians we were not flight crewmembers and had no special flight gear. We were issued chest clip-on parachutes, when available, for each service flight. Getting into a B-24 was easy, but entering feet-first and gear-laden through the swing-down hatch of a B-17 was not. Further, once in the planes movement was difficult. So we became accustomed to placing our tools and chutes in convenient spots where we thought they would be safe.
One day my co-worker Bill asked to take my place as automatic pilot service technician on a B-24 practice bombing run, since he was friendly with the flight crew. Bill and I shared a number of interests and often exchanged family stories. We both enjoyed building rubber band powered balsa wood model airplanes. We made the same mistakes in trying to add crude autopilot systems to our models. None of them worked because, as kids just out of high school, we did not grasp the physics involved. Bill’s descriptions of the Pennsylvania countryside fascinated me, a Brooklyn-born city boy with little travel experience. Bill longed to return home and marry his sweetheart.
On the same day another co-worker, Pete, was assigned to adjust equipment on a B-17 during its practice bombing run. Pete was a handsome Texan who took pride in his appearance and claimed to be a hit with the ladies. He was the first in our shop to get a three-day pass to London, where—the story goes—after considerable drinking, he rested on the steps of an Underground station. Seeing lights below, he went down to investigate and mistook the place for a nightclub. He returned late to base, his dog tags and wallet mysteriously missing. Thereafter we joked about the joys of London leave.
Tragically, the aircraft Bill and Pete flew in that day collided in mid-air, as the planes entered the practice bomb run with open bomb bay doors. Pete, in the nose of the B-17, exited through the hatch just as the engine exploded. He parachuted to the ground but suffered severeburns over most of his body, except for the areas protected by his boots. In the hospital he was swathed in bandages and became totally dispirited by the burns on his face. He died ten days after the accident.
Bill apparently tried to cross the narrow bomb bay walkway to retrieve his chute from the spot where he had stored it. He fell from the open bomb bay to his death. Those of us who worked with Bill and Pete were both sad and shaken up—how could this happen to our buddies in a so-called non-combat situation? I learned that horrible accidents do happen in war, even far from the front lines. For their dedication to duty and the ultimate sacrifice they made, Bill and Pete became my heroes.
Units served with
The 487th Bomb Group began operations as preparations for D-Day were reaching their crescendo and played their part by bombing airfields in northern France. Like the 486th Bomb Group, the 487th switched to B-17 Flying Fortress for missions from 1...
Military site : airfield
Lavenham was built as a standard USAAF bomber airfield, with fifty hardstandings, T2 hangars and 2,000 and 1,400 feet runways. John Laing and Son Ltd. carried out the work in 1943, and the airfield opened in April 1944. The 487th Bomb Group occupied...