Veteran flew bombing missions over EuropeLUVERNE — After flying 35 missions bombing Axis strongholds across Europe, shooting at German fighter planes and surviving a saboteur’s attempt to destroy his B-24 Liberator, Ray Anderson still hates heights.
LUVERNE — After flying 35 missions bombing Axis strongholds across Europe, shooting at German fighter planes and surviving a saboteur’s attempt to destroy his B-24 Liberator, Ray Anderson still hates heights.
“We got down to mechanics school, and they interviewed us all. I said ‘Well, I want to be on a ground crew. I don’t think I can fly because I hate heights,’” Anderson recalled. “’We’ll see about that,’ he says.”
They sent him to gunnery school, where he practiced firing a 50-caliber machine gun, and Anderson realized he would have to fly. On his first flight, his doubtful “I don’t know about this” on the way to the plane turned into “This is fun, I’m not washing out of this!” as the plane lifted off.
To this day, Anderson dislikes heights, but flying has never bothered him.
An education in war
Anderson was drafted in 1943, just after he turned 18 and while he was still a senior at Tech High in Oakland, Calif. Later he finished his high school equivalency in Sioux Falls, S.D, but on Jan. 13, 1943, he was drafted, joining the army Feb. 1.
Unlike some boys his age, Anderson expected to be drafted. When Pearl Harbor was bombed Dec. 7, 1941, Anderson turned to his aunt and told her he’d be in the army before long.
He went before the draft board, took the required physical and got his clothing allotment before being put on a troop train to Mississippi, where he went through basic training. When he got his orders to ship out, though, Anderson found he wasn’t actually shipping anywhere — instead, the Army sent him across the base to mechanics school.
After finishing the mechanics course, he went to gunnery school in Texas and spent time “tearing a 50-caliber machine gun apart and putting it together blindfolded.” Anderson and the other recruits spent time trap shooting and skeet shooting, and after gunnery training was done, he moved to Wyoming, where he met the crew with whom he would spend so much time in the air.
At Kansas City, Anderson and the rest of the 10-person crew picked up a brand-new plane straight from the assembly line, which was at that time turning out a new B-24 every 59 minutes. The planes could fly at altitudes of 35,000 feet at 300 miles per hour, cruise more than 3,000 miles at a time, and carry 10 500-pound bombs or five 1,000-pound bombs.
The crew’s destination was Spinazzola, a small town in southern Italy, from which they could fly to France, Romania and Germany in order to bomb Axis targets there.
The Liberator had a crew of 10, including the pilot, who flew the plane and the copilot, who could land the plane if necessary and kept an eye on the instruments in flight. The bombardier dropped the bombs, and the navigator monitored the precise position of the plane, while the radio man kept in contact with the other planes in the formation.
The nose gunner operated two guns in a turret in front of the bombardier, and the top turret gunner fired two guns just behind the pilot’s area. The tail gunner was located in the back of the plane and the ball gunner’s guns were underneath the plane.
Throughout all 35 of Anderson’s bombing runs in Europe, his tail gunner was the only casualty. He was struck on the head with a piece of flak, which went through two pieces of metal before it hit him and struck the ceiling. If the bullet hadn’t ricocheted twice, Anderson said, the tail gunner would have been killed.
“That saved his life. He was bleeding, but he was okay — he went back to work a couple days later,” Anderson said. “I had to go back and get him out of the tail gun turret and bandage him up without oxygen.”
Liberators were not pressurized, and all crewmen had to wear electrically-heated suits and use oxygen to breathe. Anderson had to share oxygen with the wounded man and crawl into the claustrophobic turret to get him out.
Anderson was an aerial engineer, and spent takeoffs standing behind the plane watching instruments. While taxiing on the runway, he stuck his head out the trapdoor above the pilot’s head to make sure they weren’t about to hit any of the other planes lining up and preparing for takeoff.
Both the aerial engineer and the radio man doubled as waist gunners, because the plane was under radio silence whenever it was in enemy territory.
Milk runs and double missions
After each bomber took off, it circled, waiting for the rest of the planes in order to create a formation before heading for a target. Anderson’s group was known for its particularly close formation flying, which made them difficult to attack successfully.
Anderson’s closest target was only about 5 and a half hours away, and the target farthest away took 9 hours of flying to reach. But he and his crew never had trouble staying awake throughout the 18-plus hours in the air.
“If we didn’t see any flak or fighter planes, we were pretty lucky,” Anderson said. “They called that a ‘milk run.’ If there was flak or fighters, we were given a double mission.”
That’s why Anderson is credited with 50 missions, though he actually flew 35.
Only once did he ever fire on an enemy plane.
“We flew to France that day, and we were just leaving to go back to Italy,” Anderson recalled. “A German fighter was firing at us in front of our plane. I spotted that fighter, and he was low, coming right at us.”
Anderson sent two bursts of the machine gun after him and hit the fighter, who bailed out of the plane using his parachute and landed in the water below.
“His orange dye spread out over the water so they could find him… I hope they found him,” Anderson said. “I always wonder if he came out alive.”
The guns were meant to defend the plane while it was delivering bombs, either the 500 to 1,000-pound versions or the clusters of fragmenting bombs that resembled bundles of sticks. Those phosphorus-based bombs worried Anderson and the other flyers, because when they struck the ground they burned through everything.
“If they got hit in our plane, that would be the end of us,” Anderson said.
He and his crew bombed Vienna, Austria, and Turin, Italy, but their worst target was Ploesti, Romania, which was where Nazi Germany kept its fuel. They went to Ploesti four times.
“When we were on our way up there, we could see the planes that just left the bomb run… there would be a flash of fire, the plane would go down and chances were, none of the men would get out,” Anderson remembered of the worst Ploesti run. “The smoke was at 30,000 feet and we started passing it by. We turned our heated suits off, because we were sweating so.”
In a clearing above the smoke, the flak was almost as thick as the smoke, and Anderson’s plane flew right through it. Miraculously, no one in the plane was hit, despite the fact that sometimes the flak went all the way through the plane, making holes on each side.
Another time, while flying over water, all four of the plane’s engines started malfunctioning and they had to drop their bombs in the ocean and land in Corsica.
“Saboteurs had somehow put iron filings in the engines,” Anderson said. “We had to put in four new engines.”
The ground crew investigated the sabotage, but Anderson never found out whether they caught the culprit.
Machines and mechanics
Some threats didn’t come from people, but from simple mechanics. When Anderson’s crew was sent to Cairo, Egypt, for a rest, their borrowed plane — another Liberator — blew a tire, just as the pilot touched his brake.
“If that would have blown on landing, I wouldn’t be here,” Anderson said.
Though neither he nor the others had ever been shown how to do it, they managed to change the plane’s tire.
In Egypt, Anderson’s crew saw the Sphinx and the pyramids and even rode camels, before returning to Italy to find their own beloved, newer B-24 missing.
It had been shot down with a full crew in it.
“I think the good Lord was with us all the time,” Anderson said. “We had some pretty rough times, but only one guy got hurt.”
Despite how bad it sometimes got, the crew was always grateful to be in the air rather than on the ground, where the Army’s foot soldiers were.
Anderson was sent home after his tour ended in August 1944, when he and the others were sent to a convalescent hospital for shell shock for a time.
Eventually, Anderson went to Sioux Falls, S.D., and joined the military police, eventually becoming the sergeant of the guard and running the base’s jail.
He was discharged in 1945.
After the war, Anderson tried farming, but found it was too much of a gamble. He got a job at a lumber yard and did that for a while, before spending 38 years as a plumber in Luverne and then Sioux Falls.
Anderson and his wife of 58 years, Jennie, have two sons, one daughter, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Anderson looks forward to his Honor Flight trip to Washington D.C.
“We hope it’s going to be a couple of great days,” he said.