Bob Densmore, 487th BG

The following is a story written by Bob Densmore. He was pilot the of 43-37969 487th BG on Dec 24th 1944. He flew in the low squadron which took heavy losses during the Luftwaffe attack. He gave me his kind permission to put his story on-line.

The group went from December 18th to the 23rd without flying a mission. In fact, most of the 8thAAF did not fly a mission due to weather. The fog has been persistent and ever present. It’s very depressing and discouraging. The Battle of the Bulge is not going well for the Allies and we have not been able to help them. Our fighters would probably be the most direct help but they’ve been grounded too. I think a lot about these last missions I have to put in and wish I could get it over with instead of just putting in time with nothing to do. I only have six missions to go and I can hardly wait to have them all behind me. On December the 23rd the yellow flag was finally flying, perhaps I’ll get in number 30 tomorrow.

Today, December 24th, the day before Christmas, the 8th AAF was about to put into the air the largest group of bombers and fighters of the war. There will be over 2,000 bombers and over 800 fighters taking off for various targets today. There had been five days without a bomb being dropped or a fighter in the air. You can be assured that the German’s would be well aware that when the weather was right, there would be a lot of planes headed in their direction.

Due to the size and importance of today’s mission newly promoted Brig. General Frederick W. Castle elected to lead the mission. General Castle was one of the original group that came to England to help General Ira Eaker set up the 8thAAF. At that time he was a reserve Captain so he has made a lot of progress in rank. General Castle had flown several missions, prior to becoming a Brig. General. It’s unusual for a General to lead a mission that’s not their job. However, this was an exception and he was determined to lead.

A bomber group is selected to lead the entire Air Force on missions on a rotating basis. On this day it was our group, the 487th that would lead the entire Air Force with the help of General Castle. The lead plane and crew for our group would be 1st LT. Robert Harriman’s with General Castle setting in the copilot’s seat. This is the crew that Paul Tomney was a member of before he lost his place to a PFF radar dome.

Our target today was an airfield at Babenhausen. I don’t recall what our bomb load was.i For an airfield it would generally be a group of smaller bombs. We flew in #3 position in the low Squadron. Lloyd Reed’s crew led the low Squadron and I flew off his left wing. Major Lloyd Nash acted as Squadron air leader and flew with Reed in the copilot’s seat. We were to be on station at 0745, start engines at 0825, taxi at 0830 to 0850 and take off at 0845 to 0905. We assembled over splasher 7 at 6,000 feet leaving the splasher at 1012. We were to cross the coast of England at 1058 and the coast of Europe at 1130. The weather as we made our way across the Channel was clear, much different than it had been for the last five days. My copilot was Uber, Gatlin’s copilot. Our bombing altitude was to be 22,000 feet.

Our flight path took us directly over the Battle of the Bulge, which turned out to be a dangerous choice. I recall that my altitude at that time was only 18,000 feet, still below bombing altitude. When we arrived over the battle below, the German’s raised their 88’s plus everything else they could and shot the hell out of us; their flak reminded me of Merseburg. The formation broke up trying to avoid each other and the flak. The only reason I can think of for flying over the Battle of the Bulge was to boost the moral of the troops below and show them that the Air Force was in business again.

Our fighter cover had not arrived as yet. We learned later that fog had delayed their take off so we were without fighter protection. The German’s would know we were without fighter cover based on their own radar detection system. Just after we had

passed over the Battle of the Bulge and were trying to establish our formation again, we were hit by German fighters. The low Squadron and the lead were the main targets. They lined up behind us in two tiers one above the other and fired into our Squadron. I thought the fighters were FW-190’s but others who had a better look than I did said they were ME-109’s. The fighters had 20mm guns so they could stand off out of range of our guns and fire into us at will.

I was at the controls at the time and was concentrating on flying on Reed’s wing so I saw little of the German fighter’s. One fighter came up right into our formation in front of us and I called him out to Joe, “Joe, one o’clock high!” I heard his turret turn and felt the ship vibrate as he fired his guns. The results are unknown but Joe says he hit him. I was sure this plane was an FW-190, he was close enough to be easily seen and identified.

Things were happening pretty fast. I could see the 20mm shells bursting in front of the ship. They looked like flash bulbs going off. About that time Lloyd started making a very gradual turn to the right and I followed him, then I saw Jack Virgin bail out of the tail section. I could then see smoke trailing from their #3 engine, after seeing all that I could see no point in following them. I left them and looked for other planes in our Squadron to join up with but there were none to be seen.

My #1 engine lost power, everything about it seemed O.K. but something must have happened to the supercharger. I could not increase or decrease the RPM of #1 with the throttle. Something had happened to the throttle cable. I started to try and catch the lead Squadron but #4 started throwing oil so I had to give up that idea.

The German fighters were gone now and we had continued flying on until we had to feather #4. With #1 of hardly any use and #4 gone I had to abort. I asked Ken Dohse if we were over Germany and after a bit he said we were. I was concerned about our location because we had been flying over or close to the front lines. I wanted to drop our bombs to lighten our load.ii I took Ken’s word for it that we were over Germany so had Paul drop the bombs. I made a right turn and headed out over France. We had been briefed about an airfield in France that was available for emergency landing. Ken gave me a heading for that field but as I lost altitude #1 engine became more effective so I decided to head for our base. The #1 engine kept a constant 1800 RPM which was the cruise setting so it was doing fine and we were O.K. on three engines. When we got to our base and were on final approach I shut #1 engine down and came in on two engines with no problem. Once back I learned a lot about what happened on this mission that I wasn’t aware of.

I learned that Harriman’s plane, with Gen. Castle aboard, had an engine problem, gave up the lead then took the lead over again and was subsequently shot down by four fighters. The story is, that Castle took over the controls, told everyone to bail out and while Harriman was trying to find his chute so he could bail out, the right wing blew off. The plane spun and they were unable to bail out and died in the crash. They still had their bombs, which blew up when they crashed.

The official report of the crash reads in part, like this:

“At control point 3 (5035N-0500E) at 1223, the Group was almost seventeen minutes late, on account of an unexpected wind shift. The No. 1 engine was throwing oil, and it was difficult to stay in formation. At 5033N-0523E, General Castle called over VHF that he was aborting; the reason—loss of oil in No. 1 engine. The aircraft was banked down and to the left to abort, and the formation followed the lead aircraft. At this time, 1230, three (3) ME-109’s were sighted, and the General evidently decided to attempt to remain as leader. These E/A came through from 9 O’clock, but did not fire. The General could not maintain the lead, on account of mechanical difficulties, and aborted down and to the left. A single ME-109 made a pass from level and 2 O’clock, wounding the M/O, Lt.

Procopio. Immediately afterwards, three (3) ME-109’s attacked from 3 O’clock level, setting No. 1 and No. 2 engines on fire.
The pilot, Lt. Harriman, gave the command to bail out. Lt. MacArty, Sgt. Jeffers, Engineer, and Capt. Auer, Pilotage Navigator, bailed out in that order.
From a physical investigation of the wreckage, it can be pointed out with certainty that the General knowingly risked and paid with his life in not jettisoning the bombs, because of endangering friendly troops directly below, even though the aircraft was on fire and two (2) engines were out of commission plus being under intensive attack. Through all of this he held the aircraft steady so the crew could bail out--if he had taken evasive action the situation demanded, it would have jeopardized the crew while bailing out. While he was holding the aircraft steady, a 20mm shell exploded in the right wing tokyo tank which in turn exploded and blew off the right wing, throwing the aircraft into a violent right spin which caused the tail and fuselage to shear off. The resultant forces of the spin were so great that the occupants of the cockpit were pinned inside the aircraft.

There are more details of the crash site and the body parts that were found which isn’t necessary to go into here. There are some suppositions made in this report that could or could not be true. I wonder where Lt. Harriman was during this time. No one knows for sure what went on in that cockpit during those last minutes. I would like to think that Lt. Harriman as well as the General was doing all they could to be sure the crew could bail out. General Castle received the Medal of Honor for his part in this mission. What was left of the Group continued the mission, bombed the airfield and returned.

The next day I found that a 20mm shell had gone through the supercharger of #1 engine and in the process had severed the throttle cable. When the throttle cable is broken the engine automatically sets itself at 1800 RPM, which is exactly what it did. #4 engine had flak damage and eventually lost enough oil that I had to have it feathered.

Paul Tomney had a far better view of the fighter attack than I did so in a bit I’ll include some of his comments.

The information I have tells me seven planes were shot down from the low Squadron, one from the composite low, and two from the lead Squadron for a total of ten. No planes were lost from the high Squadron. Charles Kulp and I had to abort and maybe others did too, I don’t know.iii

Harriman lost some people and I’ll let Paul tell you about that. The crew of Lloyd Reed’s plane were all safe except for the Air Leader, Major Lloyd Nash, who was killed. Pilot, Ira Ball and six of his crew were killed on their last mission. Pilot, Willard Curtis, who I flew with once, was on his 31st mission and was killed.

Major Lloyd Nash had a daughter named Anita who had been born on December 1, 1943. She was just eight months younger than Bobby was. She grew up never knowing her father and he never saw or experienced the joy that a daughter can give to a father. Anita never knew much about her father until recently. She made contact with some members of our group who had known Lloyd and had trained with him. Through them she learned much about her father that she would have otherwise never known. About two years ago she made a special trip to Belgium and saw where her father’s body had been found. A difficult visit but one that was very meaningful to her. It helped fill a void in her life and provided some connection with her dad that she had been searching for and found in Belgium. A story like this makes me feel so grateful that I had the pleasures denied Lloyd Nash and lived to have a daughter of my own and another son.

The history book, “The Second World War” by Martin Gilbert7 states, out of the 2,000 plus bombers, 63 were lost, that’s 3.15%, which would be considered an acceptable loss. 15.8% of those were from our Group; one step further, 70% of our Groups loss was from my Squadron, the 836th. This was my first encounter with German fighters and we came

out on the losing end. I would fly the rest of my missions without encountering any more German fighters. It shows the effect of bombing oil refineries like Merseburg that resulted in fuel shortages for German equipment including their fighters. The German’s were just unable to put fighters in the air except on rare occasions. A far different world for us that flew our mission at this time of the war compared to those who flew the early missions and were under constant German fighter attack without our fighters flying cover. Those early bomber crews are the ones who deserve the accolades and thanks for their sacrifices.

Now here’s what Paul Tomney had to say about what he saw during this mission and learned afterward about some of his former crew buddies:

“Flew my seventeenth mission to Babenhausen, Germany as togglier – nose gunner. Altitude 22,000 feet. Target was an airfield. We were flying number three in the low Squadron. At Huy, Belgium, fifty planes mostly ME-109’s hit us, the lead and high Squadrons at the same time. They were in two waves. The battle lasted twenty minutes and went into Germany. At the very beginning I saw four ships in my Squadron on fire at the same time. A little later I saw two blow up. The low Squadron, which I was in, started out with 12 ships and ended up with only three, two of the three had to turn around and make our base, due to damage to their ships.
“Our number 4 engine was feathered and one and two were hit and acting up. I had two holes right over my head and can’t see how they missed me.
“We had no fighter escort. The fighters were late leaving because of fog. We hadn’t had time to put on our flak suits. The nose filled up with smoke once and we prepared to leave, but it cleared so we stayed on.
“Densmore told me to drop the bombs as we left the formation. The 487th bomb group
got credit for shooting down 13 planes and credit for 15 probable.
“Harriman’s crew got two of the enemy planes but were finally shot down and the ship broke into four parts. Harriman, General Castle, Rowe and Swain were all killed. Swain fell from the plane without a chute. They could only identify him from his ring. Only found four feet, which belonged to the General and Harriman. Rowe got out of the plane from the tail but was full of holes when they found him.”

Since Paul had originally been on Harriman’s crew these losses were all friends of his. It was a hard blow for him to loose so many of his original buddies. In the planes that were lost, 35 men were killed, most of the other survivors eventually returned to base and only a very few became POW’s. They were lucky when they bailed out that we were close to the lines and friendly territory.

One last comment about this mission. I had occasion to write a short article about this mission in our local paper. As a result of the article I had a phone call from a Stan Cruss, a Sergeant who was a Squad Leader in the 75th Division involved in the Battle of the Bulge, he told me the following:

“I was sitting on the rail of the railroad track eating some special rations normally given to officers when the bombers began to fly overhead. It was a clear day and I was watching them when German fighters attacked. I watched and counted 18 planes go down and I couldn’t watch any longer.”

That was the view from the ground and it was not a pretty sight. Since our Group was the first one in line in the bomber stream I would think some of the planes he saw go down were ours.

i His bombload was 38x 100 Lbs. Bombs.

ii His navigator was right. The bombs were dropped at 50 10N 07 30E which is in Germany

iii Losses for the low squadron were 42-102497, 43-37569, 43-38926, 44-8121, 44-8192, 44-8614. Loss for the Lead squadron was 44-8444. 42-98019 of the composite squadron turned back before the target and ditched in the North-sea. Some aircraft aborted the mission. They were 43-37979 of the lead squadron and in the low squadron 43-38002 due to engine failure and 43-37969.

Bob Densmore aircraft 43-37969 / 2G-N

IWM Roger Freeman Collection