Bill Martin lives today in Grantsville, where the skies are friendlier than those in which he flew what would be a lifetime ago for most people, but for him and others of his breed might seem like yesterday.
On June 6, 1944, he and the other crew of his B-24 Liberator bomber were 10,000 feet above Normandy’s beaches, looking down at them.
Martin said they had it much easier than most of the Americans who were part of the D-Day invasion, but that was an exception to what they had faced earlier in World War II and would confront again later.
By D-Day, American and British fighter-bombers had basically cleared the skies of interceptors the Germans would have thrown against the Allies at Normandy, but others remained elsewhere in Europe, and there was still anti-aircraft fire to fly through.
For much of the war, Martin’s bomber was escorted by American fighter planes, but on one occasion it actually flew escort for a German fighter.
Martin was a radio operator-gunner, working on the flight deck with the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer as part of the U.S. Army’s 8th Air Force, 466th Bomb Group, 784th Bomb Squadron.
The crew of “Our Baby” flew three missions on D-Day, dropping strings of antipersonnel bombs on German positions.
“We took off at 3 a.m. and it took only 45 minutes to get to the area we were supposed to bomb and finished at about 6 p.m.
“It was one of the easiest days we had. Never saw an enemy airplane and flew at about 10,000 feet, so we didn’t even need oxygen masks. (Most World War II bombing raids were conducted at altitudes of 20,000 to 25,000 feet.)
“I was only 18 then, and I’m 93 now. Looking back, we were a bunch of damn fools who wouldn’t do anything like that today,” he said.
After each run that day, the American bombers returned to their base at Attlebridge in Norfolk, England, where the flight crews were waiting for them on the runway.
A mess (kitchen and eating area) was set up with sandwiches, fried chicken, ice cream and other things to eat. They kept their flight suits on while they ate and rested for a few moments while their airplanes were refueled and rearmed, and then they took off again.
Bombers were equipped — if you can call it that — with chemical toilets, which basically consisted of a bucket with a seat and a cover. The crews were glad to see the portable toilets that had been set up nearby on the ground.
When Martin and other bomber crews started their tour of duty, they were supposed to fly 25 missions before they could go home.
Until American and British fighters and fighter-bombers established air superiority, the average bomber crew member had a one in four chance of surviving only 12 to 14 missions.
Martin said that after D-Day, the brass hats said the missions were getting easier, so they raised the number to 30.
“Whoever said they were getting easier, they weren’t flying the missions,” Martin said. “Then they said we had to fly two more missions because replacements were harder to get.”
For the most part, they flew one mission a day.
“There were 10 men on a crew and each crew got a fifth of scotch (whiskey) after each mission,” Martin said. “That’s where I learned to like scotch. Only about half of the crew drank. We were young and foolish.”
Their worst mission sent them to Berlin.
“The German Army and air force (Luftwaffe) were waiting for us,” Martin said. “We got shot up and most of the holes in our plane were from flak (exploding anti-aircraft shells that spray sharp metal fragments).
When their flight of Liberators bypassed Berlin and headed for Russia, “We wondered what in the hell was going on,” Martin said.
It turned out to be a shuttle run, with a stopover on their way to Italy. Martin said the Russians were fine hosts and glad to see them (B-29 crews that made emergency landings in Russia after bombing Japan were interned).
After a couple of days, the planes were refueled and rearmed and sent to bomb Monte Cassino. That was an ancient hilltop monastery in Italy that was being held by the Germans, who could use their position on the high ground to prevent the advance of Allied troops.
The monastery was demolished, but has been rebuilt, and there is a debate as to whether its bombing actually was necessary.
After Monte Cassino, Martin and his crew were told they had to fly two more Monte Cassino missions before they could return to the United States.
Martin said that for some reason the Monte Cassino missions weren’t counted, so they were credited with 32 missions when they actually flew 35.
He and his crew finished the war with the same plane they started with, even though they saw plenty of combat.
They bombed factories in the Ruhr Valley, and “We were told it would be a ‘milk run’ with no fighters and no flak, but the guy who figured that out wasn’t on that mission.
“We got shot up pretty badly and were only about 10 minutes flight from Switzerland (which was neutral). If we went there, we would be interned for the rest of the war,” he said.
Martin said all but two or three of the crew were married, so it was decided to let the married men decide if they would go to Switzerland or try to make it back to their base in England.
“We came home,” he said.
“One ME-109 came straight in and we thought he was going to ram us, but he got under one of our wings and stayed there for almost an hour,” Martin said. “We could see part of his wing flapping. When we got to the place near where he wanted to go, he gave us a tally-ho and went home.”
The plane had been battle damaged, and its pilot was using the Liberator for cover to prevent American fighters from shooting it down.
Martin was discharged after the war but re-enlisted in 1946 and retired in 1965 as a technical sergeant in the U.S. Air Force after 22 years service.
He worked for a number of years at New Germany State Park, where his father had been the first superintendent, often taking walking tours. Then he became the manager of the Grantsville Town Park and has written about the Civilian Conservation Corps camps that were located in Garrett County during the Depression.
When the Collings Foundation brought the B-17 and B-24 bombers to Cumberland a number of years ago, he took his son and grandson to see them.
“I had my retired Air Force cap on, and the guy who was flying asked me to get up on the flight deck and work with him,” Martin said.
“He knew how to fly, but didn’t know his way around, so I spent three or four hours up there with him and really enjoyed it. But I didn’t get to fly because it cost $200 or $300 an hour,” he said.
Martin and his wife live in Grantsville, and he asked her how long they had been married.
Gloria said it has been 49 years.
“She says she’s been in the military for 49 years,” Martin said. “That’s how I keep her straight. Do you hear her back there, snickering?
“If it wouldn’t be for my good wife, I’d be up the creek,” he said. “She takes care of me.”
© 2019 the Cumberland Times News (Cumberland, Md.)
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