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World War II bombardier turned 100 a day before 76th anniversary of D-Day

World War II bomber crews faced the constant threat of enemy fighters and "flak" during their missions over occupied Europe, much like the crew of this B-24 Liberator on a bombing mission over Germany in 1945. Airmen faced capture by the German military when they were forced to parachute from damaged aircraft. (U.S. Air Force/Released)

Albert Driggers, a lieutenant with the Army Air Corps, was in a B-17 high over Berlin in May 1944 with his targets identified when he realized the 500-pound bombs got hung up.

Driggers, who was sitting in the plane’s nose, knew he had to go back and release them. So, he climbed out on a narrow 18-inch catwalk without a parachute and pried the bomb loose from the shackle with a screwdriver. All the while, he, his crew and the airplane were under heavy 88 mm anti-aircraft flak fire from the Germans.

“You’re sitting there with nothing surrounding you but plexiglass,” Driggers recalled, remembering what the German capital looked like under fire of the Americans. “You could see all our bombs going off. We looked for railroad crossings and manufacturing facilities that produced anything that contributed to the German war machine.”

Driggers was hit in the leg by flak, which earned him the Purple Heart, one of several commendations he would receive for his military service during World War II. He also received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The Santa Ana man served with the Army Air Corps’ 95th Bomb Group, which was based in Horham in Suffolk, England, from 1943 until the end of World War II. The group was the first to bomb the German capital in the daylight. The group was awarded the Presidential Citation three times, the most of any bombing group during World War II.

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For him, his service stands out as one of his greatest life achievements.

“It taught me important life lessons and the value of being an American,” he said. “Many pay the ultimate price. I’m thankful I didn’t, but I was willing to make that sacrifice.”

Instead, Driggers celebrated his 100th birthday on June 5, a day before the 76th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, the day when allied troops stormed Normandy’s beaches and turned the course of World War II. Historians call the invasion one of the most remarkable feats in military history.

Driggers expected to mark his milestone feat rather simply. His only birthday wish was to have a pot roast and he spend time with family and his three great-granddaughters.

Growing up in Southern California

Driggers was born on June 5, 1920, in Los Angeles.

“Things were bad during the Depression,” he said. “My father was a pipeline contractor, and we’d hop around with him.”

Part of the time, his family lived on a farm in the area of South Gate near Imperial Highway and Rio Grande.

The family grew all kinds of crops including sweet potatoes, corn and chili peppers. They had two cows for milk and three horses; two were plow horses and the other was a young colt. A 10,000-gallon water tank provided all the water for farming and domestic use.

“I loved that farm, I really did,” he said.

He attended the Old River Street School and remembered that it was always the job of the strongest boy to pull the bell, telling students to come back inside. That job fell to one of his friends.

“His father had a dairy farm, and he was a stripper,” he said of his buddy, who rang the bell. “He’d have to squeeze every drop of milk out of the cow’s teat.”

Each day, Driggers would walk to school for more than two miles. Along the way, he’s meet up with Blossom, his first girlfriend.

“I loved that gal, she knew English and Chinese,” he said. “Her father always told me to stay away, but I didn’t.”

Later, the family moved again, and Driggers graduated from South Gate High School, Class of 1939.

After graduating high school, Driggers needed money and worked small jobs around South Gate. Later, he landed a job with Consolidated Aircraft in San Diego when the East Coast company moved West. Consolidated built the B-52 Liberator bomber.

Driggers worked for the company in contract shortages. Planes were shipped just as they came off the assembly line, he recalled.

“My job was to find the missing part and get them shipped where they had to go,” he said. “It may have been something as little as a hubcap.”

Becoming a bombardier

Driggers, just like all other men aged 18 to 45 after Sept. 16, 1940, signed up for the draft. He didn’t know where and when he would serve, but had hoped it would be as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

In 1942, Driggers got the notice in the mail and went to pilot school in Tulare.

“You moved around to where you were best suited,” Driggers said, adding they noticed his great attention to detail.

Once given the job of bombardier, Driggers practiced hitting targets.

“They took us out on flights and built these old rickety houses that you had to find at night,” he said. “They graded you on how you hit them. I never missed.”

Driggers was assigned the 412th unit and integrated into the 95th Bomb Group of the Army Air Corps, which was the aerial warfare service component of the United States Army between 1926 and 1941. His group was the first to get to England.

“I went there and my accuracy went with me,” he said.

“Whatever you do to a bombsite, you change the direction of the plane,” Driggers said, detailing what it was like to be up during a raid. “You (the bombardier) take over and everything you do, the plane does. The other planes in your squadron follow you and bomb the same target. As you turn, all the others in your squadron turn.”

Driggers still recalls what it was like to be under fire. First, there were black puffs of smoke, then the smell of powder, then the red bursts followed by the impacts of small shrapnel.

“The Germans would load up and all hell would break loose with all the .88s and 105s shooting in the box,” he said.

The “box” was the exact point where the Germans would calculate that the American planes would line up over their proposed targets. Many like Driggers never doubted the anti-aircraft fire from the Germans would not be accurate there.

Driggers still recalls his mission aboard the “Blue in the Reich.” The plane, he said, was named after a popular song of the time called “Blue in the Night.”

“They would send all their canons to fire in the box,” Driggers said. “If you’re in there, you’re going to get some damage. You could look out and see all the puffs of black smoke. We were hit many times.”

By war’s end, Driggers had flown 34 missions officially, though he said he counted 37.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, for example, he recalls flying two missions, but they were recorded as only one.

On his second mission that day, he remembers seeing two Messerschmitt planes and was in awe at how gracefully they turned in unison.

“I thought for sure they’d come after us, but they headed off to a different target,” he said.

Looking back, Driggers said he learned a lot from being in the service.

For those joining up now, he offered this advice: “Pay attention, learn to carry out an assignment.”

While turning 100 isn’t a big deal to Driggers, the Bible and the Constitution are, he said.

“The greatest thing ever conceived is the Bible and the Constitution of the United States, that’s God’s gift to the world,” he said. “People come here and think they’ve come to the streets of gold, but these are streets of opportunity.”

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© 2020 The Orange County Register