My Uncle Tom Scott grew up at the “Old Home Place”, a farm just west of the Missouri/Kansas line near Eve, Missouri. It was close to the Thornhill Coal Mine west of Deerfield, which his father, my Grandpa Scott, operated.
During WWII Tom was in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and was navigator for the B-24 “Short Fat and 4-F”, flying out of Pantanella Air Base, Italy. There were two long parallel runways stretching from East to West, covered with PSP (perforated steel planking) and his 779 Squadron of the 464th Bomb Group resided in the northeast quadrant of the base. They first lived in tents and then later in small buildings made of blocks of carved local stone with a canvas roof.
Let’s imagine a typical bombing mission. Uncle Tom would rise around 5 am and have a quick breakfast before heading to the ready room to gaze at a huge map and find out what was to be the target of the day. He and the other 9 members of his heavy bomber crew would ride in Jeeps out to their plane, which had been fueled, armed with bombs and .50 cal ammo by the ground crew, which had often worked all night.
Being the navigator, Tom would have climbed up through the bomb bay doors and squeezed sideways on the one-foot wide beam that led forward between the racks of bombs to the narrow tunnel below the pilot and co-pilot to his table just behind the nose-gunner. From his seat he could keep a close watch on the two 1,200 H.P. engines on either side.
It was 1944, and after takeoff the B-24 had to form up with the other planes for their mission. Tom had calculated the direction for them to fly across the Adriatic Sea to the IP, the Initial Point, from which he would then guide the flight to the target. It was risky business, as they often ran into flak, exploding fiery bombs of metal fragments sent up from the ground, which would tear through planes and crew. Then there were the enemy fighters that would try their best to shoot them out of the sky. They may have been bombing an oil refinery, or an aircraft factory, or a ball-bearing factory, or a number of other types of targets that were important for keeping the Nazi war effort going.
It was very noisy on board the plane, and in many places it was windy, as the machine guns required openings for firing out. The crew members’ fleece-lined leather flight suits were electrically heated to help deal with the minus 30 degree temperature at altitudes above 20,000 feet. They would all be breathing pure oxygen.
Uncle Tom and his crew members survived 29 such missions. On one occasion while on a run to Vienna, one of the bomber’s 4 engines caught on fire and the pilot ordered everyone to bail out. Tom finally located his parachute under some maps and jumped. When his chute opened, both of his boots flew off! He landed in Mussolini’s private game reserve and broke an ankle.
That was bad enough, but a man approached him with a pistol pointed at him, and Tom thought it was all over. The fellow turned out to be a partisan, however, and led Tom on a donkey to a local village. Tom said he had his parachute draped over his shoulder and reckoned that he looked like Jesus entering Jerusalem! He later got back to base, healed, and flew again.
On another flight the plane’s hydraulic system was damaged, and they needed to land as soon as possible. Tom led them to the emergency runway on the Isle of Vis, off the coast of Yugoslavia. The runway was short and was used by all planes in the area for emergency landings. Planes landed from both directions, and sometimes there were collisions in the middle. Tom said they came in too high and fast, and had make a go around, landing successfully the second time. (I read of another plane that had to make the same re-try, but it ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea before it could make it around.)
After the war ended, Uncle Tom went to pilot school in California and learned to fly the huge B-29 Superfortress. He then piloted the weather version, the B-50, out of Japan into typhoons and also up along the coast of Russia to monitor air samples for radiation, which would indicate atomic bomb testing.
My love of flying had its origin in the exploits of my Uncle Tom, whom I consider a true hero. I was honored to speak a eulogy at his funeral, and I informed the audience about what a typical mission might have been like.