William Clay ToombsMilitary
Bill Toombs enlisted in the Army Air Corps, aged 18, in 1942. ‘In a way it was an adventure, because it was a chance to go somewhere and see something different,’ Bill recalled. ‘I would never have gone overseas to England, probably never would have had the chance, if it hadn’t been for the war.’
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1924 'Bill' Toombs was the son of a railwayman who moved to wherever the work was and Bill went to ten different schools before graduating High School. Then aged 18 and having attended a psuedo military summer boot camp while at school he had no desire to join the infantry so, in October 1942, enlisted into the Air Corps before being drafted.
He was first sent to Texas 'marking time while they were trying to find a place to put us' - not an unusual scenario - and eventually landed up in Mississippi at an airplane mechanics' school which included a stint on B-24s at - says Bill - the biggest factory in the world, the Ford factory at Willow Run, Michigan. There he got his first stripe and following Gunnery School in Texas he got another, making him a 'buck' Sergeant. His next move was to Salt Lake City and it was there that the B-24 crews were allocated from a pool of potential aircrew.
So in December 1943 Toombs a reluctant flier (his elder brother had been killed in a mid-air collision) - he was assigned Flight Engineer/Gunner somewhat against his wishes -began training on the B-24 Liberator and later,in Alaska, the 493rd Bomb Group was formed. Toombs maintains that although the composition of his crew was entirely random, he couldn't have picked a better. For example the nose gunner was an older Pennsylvanier Dutch man who never got rattled no matter how many enemy fighters were coming at him, and the pilot an experienced ex-Army man.
The 493rd BG was probably the last group to be assembled and they flew to England via Goose Bay and Iceland; their arrival announced by Lord Haw-Haw in his daily broadcast....They were to be based at Debach near Ipswich, an airfield still under construction, twelve men in bunks to a Nissen hut whereas the officers got beds - standard practice. The Group 'The Fighting 493rd' was operational from April 1944 to August 1945 but Toombs was only to be there a few months; his first mission on D-Day itself. Not a productive one as it turned out, they failed to find the target near Caen and returned with a full load of bombs.
The Flight Engineer's role was wide-ranging; he first had to inspect the plane with the ground crew chief, then with the pilot. On take-off he would stand behind the pilots monitoring and adjusting instruments until formation height was reached, at which point he would take top turret gunner's position. Flying was intense in the period following D-Day - Toombs flew four days in a row with almost no rest - but the men were given breaks with evening passes, probably spent in Ipswich or Woolwich, and three day passes when they invariably high-tailed it to London to see the sights. In London the squadron managed to rent a flat - which they used turn-and-turn-about - from a very motherly landlady who kept them in order.
Toombs was to fly twenty missions with the B-24 before being transferred to B-17s 'flew like a dream' with very little familiarisation. On his fourth B-17 mission, over Germany, number three engine was shot out by a fighter, thereby starving a fourth engine of fuel. He and the pilot discussed the options and decided not to bail out, instead setting course for Brussels - now liberated - and ditching all the guns and heavy gear as they lost height. the pilot was able to make a wheels-up landing in a turnip field where they were collected by Canadian troops and taken to the nearest air base. From there they went into a town where everybody was still wildly celebrating liberation from four years of German occupation. Even the horses had American flags on their bridles and when Toombs went for a haircut and shave the barber refused to take any money.
After being flown back to England the crew were first told they would be sent to a rest centre but instead with a maximum effort on they were sent on a further four missions over Germany, at the end of which they were summoned to Squadron HQ and told they were being sent home; thus avoiding the trauma of a 'final' mission. Thus in October 1944 he set sail on the 'Nieuw Amsterdam' a luxurious Dutch liner, for the USA and five weeks home leave, having visited his grandparents en route. Then on to a first class hotel in Santa Anna, California for R. and R. and physical and psychological assessments.The next phase was a holding centre in Boloxi where he was assigned to go to China - a supposedly voluntary posting - which he refused, as did five other men. Instead he went to Langley Field on aircraft maintenance which involved yet more flying and where he eventually requested - and got - ground status.
Recalling his time at Debach Toombs says he went to about 100 dances; never danced with the same girl twice and never made a date. Most flying men would carry a good luck charm, his was a silver dollar. The Group had the services of Catholic and Protestant priests and a rabbi - everybody prayed before a flight, the Catholics taking confession after briefing. The crew did keep in touch, their first reunion being in 1982.
Postwar Bill Toombs went to college for two years hoping to be a dentist but demand exceeded supply at the time and he went back to work for the railroad for a total of 43 years. He has given talks at schools but thinks that very few of the students truly understand the history of the Second World War.
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Units served with
|Little Rock, AR, USA||8 May 1924|
|31 October 1942|
|Scott Field Heritage Air Park, Scott Air Force Base, 763 Seibert Road, Scott AFB, IL 62225, USA||6 October 1945||Scott Field, Illinois|
Airplane and engine school
|Gulfport, MS, USA||8 July 1943||16 weeks - general and complete breakdown of airplane and engine|
Airplane and engine mechanic school
|Willow Run, Ypsilanti Township, MI 48198, USA||3 September 1943||4 weeks - specialised course in B-24 airplane and its engines|
Aerial gunnery school
|Laredo, TX, USA||6 weeks - theory of operation of 50 calibre guns; breakdown and assembly of guns|
Worked at Missouri Pacific Railroad
|North Little Rock, AR, USA||Machinist apprentice|
Added " / " in the "Role/job" field to aid readability.
removed reference to "Helton's Hellcats" the name was never used by the 493rd BG. Replaced with "The Fighting 493rd" the nickname of the Group
493rd BG Archives
Biography completed by historian Helen Millgate. Information sourced from correspondence files and articles held in an IWM research collection related to the acquisition of various items and ephemera belonging to Bill Toombs.
American Air Museum text from displays.
Information taken from his separation papers
Updated some biographical details following a meeting with Bill.