We were a squadron of 10 B-24s, wheeling into the “green-light” area from the south of France. Ten bomb bays, with 2,000 lbs. of bombs in each- looking for any target of opportunity. Flying at a low 10,000 feet instead of our usual 25,000, because the targets would be much smaller than those of the big German cities. Hopefully there would be less flak.
When the German advance into the Ardennes was stopped in late December, 1944, a system of beacons was set up at the three points marking the triangle of the enemy territory. Installed in each of our planes was a small box, with just two lights on top- one red, the other green. When the green light was on, we were in enemy territory, free to hit anything that would seem to have military value- especially railroad marshalling yards.
Of the ten planes, only the lead and the second had navigators. We were in the nose turrets, with a full view of the world. The other planes had nose gunners. In each of the non-lead planes, at the elbow of the nose gunner, there was a “bombs away” toggle switch, which he was to hit when he saw the lead plane drop its bombs.
I sat with my maps in the nose turret of the lead plane, looking for something good to hit. Everyone stayed off the air, with the pilot and the bombardier waiting for my voice. At this low altitude, my view was nowhere near what I was used to. When we were at 25,000 feet, I could see 50 or more miles all around and had ample time to pick up landmarks, checking with my maps. Now. at the lower altitude and an airspeed of about 140 knots, the country below was rolling much faster under us. Also this was an entirely new area, all covered with snow. Until now, we had been hitting Germany itself, with everything on my maps clearly in sight.
Everyone else was scanning the skies for German fighters. By combat standards, we were easy pickings- flying low and slow, with no fighter protection. I remembered well a mock raid we had made on Los Angeles, coming in from Tonapah, Nevada. We were intercepted by Navy F4U Corsairs. A number of our 50 caliber machine guns had been replaced by movie cameras and when we viewed the movies of the mission, all we saw were B-24s, no F4Us. Had we been using bullets, we would have shot ourselves to pieces.
I picked up a railroad and followed it on my map up to an intersection with two other rail lines. Looked good. Pushed my mike button. “At about two o’clock, maybe 30 miles, there’s a town with a small marshalling yard, where three lines meet.”
“Roger. Any place we know?”
Looking back at my map, “No. It’s Bas-tog-nee. I’ve never heard of it.”
“OK, Bomb bay doors opening.”
I could see the doors opening on the planes to my right and left.
“Doors open.” Voice of a side gunner.
“Bombardier, it’s all yours.”
The usual taut silence. Just the roar of the four engines and the wind whistle.
The town came over the horizon and the plane banked slightly to the left as the bombardier lined it up. I could see that it was bigger than the map would indicate. A lot of markings in the snow. More importantly, there was flak coming up. Trouble. We were easy targets at this altitude.
Looking past the town, I could see another railroad intersection about ten miles further and to the right. With no flak.
“I’ve got a better one–at two o’clock and 20 miles.”
“Roger” I could feel the left wing go up as our airplane and the nine other planes turned.
And so we bombed some little town other than Bastogne. Not that we would automatically have hit the target, the opposite was standard experience. However, I imagine that it would have been somewhat demoralizing to the 101st Airborne had we dropped there. They surely would have learned that the Army Air Force did not know that they were there, and would have been concerned about other possible attacks. After all, this would not have been the first time that we had bombed our own troops. These things happen.
It was some days later that we actually learned about the Battle of Bastogne. I never mentioned our own experience, and since I had mispronounced the name, no one in our crew ever connected the two.