The B-24--Wings of War
The story of the Eighth Air Force is the story of its men and of its machines. Its heavy bombers of its Bomber Command were the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator. 1 The British Spitfire, P-47 Thunderbolt "Jug", P-38 Lightning, and P-51 Mustang were the fighter planes of VIII Fighter Command. The Boeing Aircraft Company had delivered the first B-17s to the Army Air Corps in 1937--five years before the Eighth Air Force was activated. The 1st and 3rd Air Divisions of the Eighth flew this machine. The B-24 was developed by Consolidated Aircraft Corporation at its San Diego, California plant and the first prototype was flown in December 1939. The 2nd Air Division flew this aircraft. It was the plane in which Bradley, Jones, Croft, Stein, Finocchio and the others of their crew fought their war. Therefore, what is written here is of the B-24 aircraft.
How does it happen that America had such an aircraft at such a crucial time in its history? The world's first powered flight had been made in 1903, only a little more than three decades earlier. America had only an embryonic Army Air Service in World War I (1914-1918). For many years after that war the military planners differed on the role the airplane was to play in modern warfare. It took men like General "Billy" Mitchell to demonstrate its usefulness as a bomber. Gradually the Army Air Service gained greater recognition and status in military affairs. It became the Army Air Corps (AAC) with representation on the General Staff of the U.S. Army. On June 20, 1941 it became the Army Air Force (AAF). General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold headed the AAC and remained to head the AAF during the entire war. The nation's military budgets were severely limited during the Great Depression years of the 1930s. This, and the isolationist sentiment among the people and politicians made it difficult to develop both the methodology and the equipment for aerial bombardment.
The development of the B-24 is credited to General Arnold's challenge to the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, San Diego, to design a 4--engine bomber capable of a top speed above 300 miles per hour, a range of 3,000 miles, a ceiling of 35,000 feet, and a bomb capacity of 8,000 pounds or more. Consolidated accepted the challenge. On December 29, 1939 the first prototype model, the XB-24, made its first test flight. The AAC was pleased with its performance.
A very basic design consideration was the wing configuration. David R. Davis, a self-made aeronautical engineer, had researched the question of what made a wing lift a load--the matter of air resistance. His answer was the fluid foil which became the basis of the wing he designed--the Davis wing. Its full-cantilever high-wing configuration provided remarkable performance and was the key to the success of the B-24. Consolidated selected this wing, with Fowler flaps added, for several reasons: (a) with certain modifications it could accommodate four engines; (b) the great strength of its box-like construction was such that if one of its structural members should fail, the other could take up the load. In case two members failed, the two remaining could bring the plane safely home; (c) it was designed for high speed performance, yet, combined with the Fowler flaps which slid back and down the trailing edge of the wing, it had wing area for acceptable low speed performance; (d) its lift efficiency was a plus, as was its shoulder mounting. With this mounting, a fuel system of 12 self-sealing
tanks with a capacity of 2,343 U.S. gallons of gasoline (plus 450 U.S. gallons in the auxiliary wing tank system) could be placed in the wing, centered above the fuselage; and (e) the shoulder mount allowed maximum space within the aircraft fuselage for auxiliary equipment, bomb storage, and ease of loading. The long wing was very flexible and the tips would move up and down through a distance of several feet.
Some critics later termed some of these design features as inherent weaknesses that lessened the bomber crews' chances of survival. But, after all, this was airplane technology of the 1930s and 1940s, and there was a terrible war in progress. The war planners knew a great many bombers and a great many men who flew them would be lost The bottom line had to be: could we produce enough bombers for our armed forces in all parts of the world and for our allies? Could we do it soon enough? Could losses be held to "acceptable" levels? The role of the strategic air force was to destroy the enemy's capacity to wage war. All decisions regarding equipment and all command decisions regarding placing men in harm's way was governed by that fact.
The Davis wing was a graceful thing but, odd as it seems, the other elements of the design selected for the B-24--the slab-sided fuselage, the tall twin-tail assembly, and the later nose, tail and ball--turret gun designs, gave birth to an ungainly-looking aircraft. Some said it must have been designed by a committee. To Birdsall it was "an ugly pugnacious box, porcupine-gunned bomber with a most beautiful and graceful wing."
For its time, the B-24 Liberator aircraft was a big machine: a wing--span of 110 feet; a fuselage 67 feet, 2 inches in length; a height of 18 feet; and at its widest point, 10 feet. Its size is difficult to visualize without some familiar reference object. This writer has a 1993 Cadillac Sedan De Ville--a four-door car. It is considered to be a large automobile. It is 17 feet long, 6 feet wide, 4½ feet high. Its weight is 3,510 pounds. Now, using this car for reference, one could place 16 of these cars lengthwise alongside the fuselage (4 cars long, 4 cars high) to equal its length and height; could then place 19 of these cars side by side, facing to the front of the airplane, along the wing-span--a total of 35 cars! And this ignores the added height provided by the landing gear and ignores the width of the fuselage and tail assembly. As for a comparison of the weight (empty) of the B-24 and of the car, consider this: the weight of only ten of the Cadillac cars would equal the weight (36,500 pounds) of the airplane, and much of the airplane's weight was in its four engines. The Wright brothers would have been both proud of and amazed at such a descendant of their flying machine.
The B-24 was a four-engine bomber. Pratt and Whitney R-1830-65 Twin Wasp turbo-charged 14-cylinder 2-row radial air-cooled piston engines were combined with 12-foot propellers to produce 1,200 h.p. each. The superchargers provided better aircraft engine performance at high altitude by forcing compressed air into the carburetors. With that device, a top speed of 290 mph was achieved at operational levels, later increased to 303 mph in the B-24D.
Empty, this giant weighed 36,500 pounds. Its gross weight was 41,000 pounds in the XB-24; was increased to 65,000 pounds (32½ tons) in the B-24J. The bomb cargo load was 8,800 pounds (normal load, 5,000 pounds; maximum, 12,800 pounds) and the bay was equipped to handle a variety of sizes and types of bombs: incendiary, incendiary cluster, general purpose-high explosive and fragmentation. Bradley said, "Ground crews worked all night, every night, repairing damage to the plane and loading and arming the bombs. Depending on the mission, different types and sizes of bombs were placed aboard. The usual was 500 pounders. . . . sometimes a combination of 500s and incendiaries. I recall one mission we carried 2,000 pound,
high explosive (HE) bombs." The bombs were not armed (i.e., ready to detonate) until the plane was airborne. One of the bombardier's duties was to check each bomb in the racks to see that it was properly stowed and unarmed. Of this duty Bradley said: "Each bomb was unarmed by first, a wire hook to the bomb shackle and safe-tied to the bomb. Next, a pin was in each bomb. I removed these pins when we became airborne. When the bomb dropped from the plane, a small propeller on the nose began to revolve. The propeller had to make about 200 revolutions before the bomb was armed and would then detonate upon tatting the ground." He added, "The bombs were salvoed (released) by the bombardier from his position in the nose turret. On one of my early missions the bombs didn't release. I had to get them out of there. I hooked up a portable oxygen bottle to my flying suit and went back to the bomb bay with a scre-driver and released them one by one . . . had to get out on the narrow catwalk over the open bomb bay. That catwalk was slick with leaking hydraulic fluid and it was difficult to reach the slots that would release the bombs. There was a lot of empty space between me and the French countryside below. It was a clear day and I watched the bombs fall, one by one. One of them hit a building. Stein always kidded me about that--said it was the only thing I ever hit!"
The designers came up with a unique bomb bay door arrangement, comprising two roller-type segments retracting hydraulically up the sides of the fuselage from the central keel beam. This arrangement reduced drag when the doors were open. Of these bomb bay doors, Bradley said, "We had a minimum of problems but I recall we were taking off on our first mission to Berlin and the doors wouldn't close properly. We aborted the mission, to the glee of all on board. On a bombing run--if the doors wouldn't open, I was told that many crews just dropped the bombs through the doors. The important thing was to get rid of the bombs."
The fuselage construction employed the aluminum alloy beam bulkhead and the stressed skin combination. One thing could be said for this slab-sided monster: there was plenty of space for the air crews to give play to all kinds of artistic expression--nose art and all sorts of ingenious decorative embellishments. This usually included a name for the airplane, accompanied by an appropriate (?) painted figure. Gorgeous female figures and names predominated. Bradley said of their contribution to this airplane art, "We flew about five missions before we decided upon a name or any painting. But then while on a short leave to London, we were impressed by the London taxi-cabs, called 'hacks.' So we came up with the name, FLAK HACK. It was our versatile gunner/engineer/painter, Ernie J. Finocchio, who designed and painted the emblem on the fuselage of our airplane. (See the illustration herein.) He did a great job! Finocchio also painted the FLAK HACK emblem on the back of our leather flight jackets. He was always a happy-go-lucky guy and a lot of fun and he became our 'artist-in-residence' when we needed him. He always tried to boost our morale. We liked the guy!"
Bradley said, "The basic color of B-24s was dark olive drab--O.D. Before we finished our tour, the planes were corning over unpainted--beautiful shiny aluminum. This change was made for a number of reasons: it saved production time back in the States, it reduced the weight of the plane by about 500 pounds, and increased our air speed about 3 mph--very desirable. Obviously, camouflage was no longer, if ever, useful. These unpainted planes were beautiful but one of the first groups to fly them was hit hard by German fighters. Perhaps the Germans wanted to give them a welcome they wouldn't forget!"
The aircraft had the tricycle landing gear with single nose wheel. The main landing gear was somewhat unique and innovative in that it retracted outward into the
The service ceiling for this bomber was reported to be 28,000 feet but it did not fly at this altitude on missions, 20,000 to 24,000 feet altitude being common.
This bomber and its crew were to join formations of many hundred others, flying bombing missions far into enemy territory. Bad weather, heavy accurate flak fired by hundreds of 88 mm anti-aircraft gun batteries, and the determined resistance of superb German fighter aircraft squadrons, combined to produce very heavy losses of planes and of men. Early models of the B-24 had minimal provision for defensive armament. This may have been a result of the belief held by the Air Force high command that these bombers could be flown unescorted on daylight raids without incurring unacceptable losses. British experience alone should have been sufficient to rebut this thought; certainly the heavy losses of early missions quickly demonstrated the fallacy of such thinking. Attention was then given to the numbers, types and locations of guns to be provided and to the turrets from which they were to be fired. The armament of early models was a few hand-held 0.30 caliber machine guns, soon replaced with 0.50 caliber weapons. The number and placement of these guns varied as modifications were made in each model of the airplane. Ten 0.50 caliber guns became standard. Each fired a half-inch diameter bullet with great rapidity, great velocity and range. Twin 0.50s were installed in four turrets: nose, top, tail and ball, and a single hand-held weapon in the right and left waist positions. See Fig. 11. Of the ten-man crew four were gunners: tail, right and left waist, and ball gunners. The navigator, flight engineer and bombardier and radio operator were also required to man guns. For Bradley, it was the nose gun and frequently the right waist gun.
Despite this formidable armament and the skill and determination of the gunners, very many bombers were lost to German fighters. To counter these fighters it became necessary to provide escort fighters, but in the early months of the war the American fighter aircraft had limited range and could not accompany the bomber formations on deep penetration missions. See Fig. 9. This handicap prevailed until early in 1944 when the North American P-51 Mustang fighter became operational.
Gun turrets were another important feature. The evolution of the various turrets is difficult to follow as some changes appeared first in operational groups or in the Air Force modification centers. Some of these turrets and changes in them were then adopted in production models of the plane. The B-24C had the Martin dorsal (top) turret and the Consolidated tail turret, each housing twin 0.50 caliber guns which became standard armament on AAF bombers.
The top turret was a plexiglass bubble atop the bomber. The top gunner was also the flight engineer. He was the senior enlisted man of the crew. On Jones's crew this was S/Sgt. Murray Fried when the crew was organized at Biggs Field. He continued in that position until his accident on the May 8, 1944 mission. (See details in later account of that mission.) Thereafter, Sgt. Ernest J. Finocchio was the engineer and top gunner. Bradley said, "Finocchio was good, both as an engineer and as a gunner. From the top turret, all parts of the sky could be seen. The gunner had to keep alert as fighters could appear from any direction. The turret could be turned in any direction when necessary to fire the twin 0.50 caliber guns. Automatic firing stops were built into the top turret to prevent the gunner from shooting off the tail of the bomber. Darned good thing, because Finocchio got really excited when the action began. In the chaos of combat he might otherwise have taken FLAK HACK'S tail off . . . and that would have been 'all she wrote.' We really needed him in the aircraft assisting the pilot and co-pilot in monitoring the performance of the engines and to keep track of fuel
burn. During missions, fuel had to be transferred from one tank to another, particularly if battle damage had occurred. It was always important to conserve fuel. Sight gauges were part of the monitoring system--not high tech!"
About the Consolidated tail turret, Bradley observed, "Protecting the tail was a hydraulic-powered turret. It was a pretty cramped space back there. A fully--clothed gunner was a tight fit. Our tail gunner, S/Sgt. Mace, weighed probably 150 to 160 pounds and was pretty short--maybe 5 feet, 6 inches. He sure had a spectacular view of the airplanes following us. He could see when the following formations were under attack and could see the results of our bombing."
Now about the nose turret. Early B-24s had a hand-held nose gun which the navigator manned. It didn't take the experienced German fighter pilots long to discover that the B-24 nose was inadequately protected. Defense was not improved much when two flexible guns were used--they could not fire dead ahead. Then the entire nose was redesigned. The first Liberator to be fitted with a nose turret on the production line was the B-24H. Emerson electrically-powered turrets were provided on those built by Consolidated. Far more were built by Ford and Douglas using the Motor Products hydraulic turrets designed by Consolidated. The B-24H was received by the Eighth Air Force in late summer 1943. Twin 0.50s were mounted in the turret. Hoseason made the point that while the strengthened nose armament was welcomed, there were some dissatisfactions with it. The added weight made the H model harder to fly, less speedy, and less responsive, and nose gunners were unhappy that the padding around the turret was ineffective and allowed icy drafts to add to the crew's discomfort. The Jones crew flew the B-24H on a number of its missions.
Of the several turrets, the ball turret presented some unique features. Hydraulically operated, the Sperry ball turret was retracted into the belly of the fuselage when not in use. It was located a couple of feet behind the bomb bay in the middle of the plane. Airmen selected as ball gunners were, of necessity, short and light weight. Even so, when fully clothed for a mission, the gunner fit the turret like an embryo in a womb! The gunner deployed the turret and entered it when the formation leader gave the order. He let it down, locked it in place, cranked the twin 0.50 caliber guns downward and took his seat. He then pulled the turret door closed over his head and locked it with two latches. At that point his body was in a fetal position--sometimes in a fatal position! With a gun six inches or so from each cheek and a ten-inch by ten-inch gunsight in his face, he was prepared to take on the attackers, moving the turret in any direction needed. Two cans held the ammunition belts which supplied 1145 rounds. Shell casings were expelled to the outside through chutes. The gunner wore headphones, as did each of the crewmen. To re-arm or to leave the turret, the gunner reversed the entry procedure.
The right and left waist gunners had no turret--just an open window. The window fastened overhead when open. On the forward edge of each waist window, a deflector lessened the effect of the 150 mph windstream. It was difficult to hold, aim, and fire the gun. The gunner, as did all gunners, had to be careful not to shoot off parts of the plane and not to hit another plane in the formation. The gunners' standing positions were opposite each other. At times they bumped each other when in action. See Fig. 11. Spent shell casings littered the floor during action and at times, caused a gunner to slip and fall.
To place tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the target was, in the final analysis, what it was all about. It was for this purpose that the bombardiers like Bradley were "always up front" The Norden bombsight was used when targets could
be seen; but, in northwest Europe, nearly constant heavy cloud cover and undercast often plagued the bombardiers. So a new technology of radar-sighting (H2X--called "Mickey") was developed. Planes so equipped were called Pathfinders--PFF. Thereafter, PFF planes flew with each group formation, made sightings upon the target and released bombs. Bombardiers in the nose turret of the other bombers simultaneously released their bombs. Controls for opening bomb--bay doors and for releasing bombs were accessible in the turret.
To fly high, the crews needed oxygen. Oxygen was piped to every crew position. Portable oxygen canisters were also located within the aircraft for use when a crewman had to leave his station. Jones said, "We went on oxygen at 10,000 feet."
No heat was provided in the plane. It was always cold at operating altitudes--minus 40° or lower. On early missions, frostbite had been a serious problem. One of the measures taken to solve this problem was to require crewmen to wear protective clothing. Bradley said, "First we put on our regular long-john underwear, then electrically-heated blue long underwear and heated shoes. Over the electric underwear went the flying suit. This was a dark green "Ike" jacket and matching pants. We plugged into a socket located at our crew positions. Next we put on heavy fur-lined boots, and, of course, we had fur-lined gloves. As if this wasn't enough to immobilize us, we also wore or carried a "Mae West" (to inflate in the event we ditched at sea), a parachute harness, an escape kit, and other items. Some wore steel flak helmets but I wore a fur-lined cap or helmet. Believe it or not, we got along pretty well with this apparel. But, frankly, it was a hell of a nuisance if one had to urinate, and even worse, God forbid, if one got the "GIs" while on a mission!" Jones said, "That happened once and I made the guy clean up the mess. I also excused him from the debriefing upon our return to base, for obvious reasons!"
Strange as it seems, no separate entryway into the aircraft was provided. Crew entered and exited through the bomb bay. There was so little clearance under the parked aircraft that crew had to squat, bend and slide under the airplane, stand up in the open bomb bay, get up onto the narrow catwalk and crawl into position. Considering the clothing and gear each wore or carried, that wasn't easy to do. Upon return from a long hard mission, it was even more difficult to exit that way.
It should be noted, too, that it was difficult, sometimes impossible, to exit the plane when ordered to bail out. In some nose turret models, the bombardier could not exit the turret until and unless one of two turret closures were opened by other crew. It was clearly miraculous that so many crewmen did parachute from stricken planes, given the weight of their gear, the inconvenient or inaccessible exits, and the centrifugal forces holding the flyer pinned to the wall as the aircraft spun, rolled, or tumbled out of control.
Much has been written here of the miracle of development of this great bird. It seems important for the reader, then, to know that there was also a miracle of production--the application of America's special genius of mass production! And this miracle was a gender thing, too--whereas men had built automobiles before the war, now it was up to "Rosie, the Riveter," as she was affectionately and respectfully known. Men and women built the machines of war, including the B-24, and they set production records. At the end of 1943, the labor force in the aircraft industry reached a peak of 2,100,000 men and women.
The first prototype model of the B-24, the XB-24, made its first flight on December 29, 1939. Ethell reports in Air Command--Fighters and Bombers of World
War II of the phenomenal numbers of B-24s built--18,188--more than any other single aircraft in history, including fighters. The first B-24 and many later, were built by Consolidated at its San Diego plant. It was also built by Consolidated at Fort Worth, by the Ford Motor Company at its Willow Run plant in Michigan, by Douglas Aircraft at Tulsa, and by North American Aviation at a new plant in Dallas.2
The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 woke the American industrial giant to action. By July 1942, hardly six months after Pearl Harbor, Consolidated was turning out 100 B-24s a month; 150 per month by December 1942. In the year 1943, the AAF received 5,324 of these bombers. In the year 1944, almost 10,999 planes were produced. The record of the Ford Motor Company demonstrated its ability to apply the assembly-line mass-production techniques it used in automobile manufacture to the production of the B-24. In 1944-45 alone, Ford produced 5,476 of the B-24 planes.
It was a miracle of development and production, but was the B-24 Liberator a great bomber? What was said of its operational performance and of its acceptance by the bomber crews? From Birdsall the following observations are relevant:
"The ungainly-looking airplane with the twin tail is one of the mental images the men of World War II have of the Air Force. Those who flew in it recall its cold metal and how it reverberated with solid sounds; how its brakes hissed like a huge truck and how it bobbed along as it taxied from its hardstand to the runway. Some who flew it called it an old agony wagon. It took brute force to make minor adjustments in flight. Pilots developed strong arm muscles on their flying arm--the left arm--this in contrast with the right arm used for throttles.
"Landing it was something else. Pilots developed a way to do it-like cranking the nose up with trim just before 'flare-out.' Try to land it with wheels up--it would squash into the landing strip. Ditching it in the sea, as numerous returning pilots did, was bad news-like having the top turret tear loose and hurl down between the pilot seats, or having it sink very quickly. Some termed it the worst airplane ever built. It was called by many descriptive names, of which few were endearing or complimentary: a flying purgatory, a bucket of bolts, a poor bird, an ugly duck, a flying elephant, a flying boxcar, pregnant cow, flying bathtub with wings. Even the names given the planes give insight to the pilot's opinion of it: WORRY BIRD, GRUMPY, LUMBERING LIB. One plane named 'EIGHT BALLS' became 'NO BALLS AT ALL' at the end of one particularly bad day when it made a particularly destructive crash-landing. It was said, 'They sure made pots and pans out of them in a hurry after the war.'"
Lt. Don Jones related a number of stories of his experiences as pilot of the B-24. In their overseas movement from the U.S. to the U.K., Jones flew the B-24 aircraft on the long southern route. He said (1998), "The southern route was fairly uneventful, but one thing I recall--our 8½ hour flight across the South Atlantic Ocean from Brazil to West Africa was on instruments. The auto-pilot was out so I had to hand-fly that 'turkey.' The B-24 was notoriously hard to fly-it took lots of muscle to move it about." Jones, speaking of the reasons B-24 bombers were lost, told of one unexplained case. He said, "Every once in awhile, but rarely, we would just be flying along at high altitude, going on or returning from a mission, with no flak and no fighter opposition, and one of our B-24s would just blow up! There never seemed to be an explanation for such a disaster. I worried a lot about it. Our fuel tanks were located in the wings. I thought maybe gasoline or fumes were escaping from that Davis wing. That happened in our airplane. You would smell fuel in the bomb bay. Now the main hydraulic pump
for the entire airplane was located on the right-hand side of the bomb bay and it was pressure-activated--that is, if the pressure in the hydraulic system went down a tittle bit, it would switch the pump on automatically. At the altitude we were flying I thought it could arc. With arcing and a heavy concentration of fuel fumes, you would have a big firecracker on your hands. As a safety measure, I would roll the bomb bay doors open every half hour or so and flush out the fuel vapors. I felt this was a worthwhile safety measure. Well, anyway, we never blew up! This may have helped."
Lest the reader should note only the many derogatory remarks made of the B-24 Liberator bomber, it must be remembered that, collectively, she and the men who flew her turned in a remarkable record. That the task was hard on men and machines, is reflected in the fact that "by June 1944 the average life of a heavy bomber in the Eighth Air Force was 145 days with a combat group, inclusive of time spent on the ground." Aircraft were used up fast Until late in the war, the life expectancy of a heavy bomber in the Eighth Air Force was about 47 missions. Despite this attrition rate and the air crews' belief that statistically they could not expect to complete their tours, it must be noted that many of the B-24s set impressive records. Birdsall wrote, "WITCHCRAFT of the 467th Group flew 130 missions and dropped half a million pounds of bombs; another aircraft made 161 missions. Another B-24 flew 225,000 combat miles, took one crew through 40 missions, another through 30 missions. She came home badly damaged many times." Much credit goes to the ground crews. They repaired flak damage in addition to regular aircraft maintenance.
At the end of a mission day, ground officers and men gathered at the Station Control Tower, anxiously awaiting the return of the bomber aircraft and their crews. The remarkable thing is that so many did return, although often with serious physical damage and with dead or dying crew aboard. Many a faithful bird simply refused to die, seeming to know that men's lives hung in the balance. The 2nd Air Division lost 1,458 of these great bombers in the 1,000 days of its operation. It flew a total of 95,948 sorties on 493 operational missions, dropping almost 200,000 tons of bombs on enemy targets throughout Europe and the Mediterranean theater.3
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