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One Man Crew
Tom Thomson was 19 years old when his B-24 was hit by German anti aircraft guns. Soon he would be alone, flying the bomber to the safety of England, leaving eight comrades behind in a hostile Nazi Germany.
The target was Saarbrucken, Germany. Tom and his crew flew in a brand new B-24 bomber over Germany. The air was filled with black puffs from the 88mm flak guns. They reached their target and shortly after the bombs were dropped, a black puff appeared directly in front of the plane. Then another off the left wing. They were hit.
“It sounded like somebody throwing a large shovelful of gravel into the bomb bays.” The pilot pushed himself away from the control column. He was hit in the leg and left the cockpit to have the radioman look at it.
He returned shortly and told Tom there was a fire in the bomb bay. This meant there could be an explosion in seconds! The pilot retreated into the cabin as Tom broke formation in preparation to turn autopilot on and ditch.
Then a hand touched him on the shoulder. It was the radioman holding a fire extinguisher. He told him the fire was out but most of the crew had already bailed out.
A red light started flashing on the instrument panel. The number two engine had died. Tom looked back to see only the radioman and the nose gunner. He signaled to tell them the engine had died. He returned to the instruments to shut off the gas flow and looked back again. They were gone.
As he started to re-trim the plane, a friendly fighter plane flew by. The pilot waved, so Tom switched the radio to channel C. The pilot looked him over for damage as he escorted the B-24 to safety.
Then the fighter’s wingman came on the radio and told him to change course immediately. He was heading right over Brussels, a German city. Piercing bangs started to surround his B-24. “Tracking flak, the big stuff. I knew they were shooting at me.” As an evasive action, he dropped his nose and began losing altitude.
At 12.000 feet, the flak stopped. Tom continued his course towards England. Another flashing red light caught his eye. The temperature gage was dropping on engine number four. He was down to two engines.
He dropped altitude over the English Channel as they approached the emergency runway. He hit the switch to drop the landing gear, but nothing happened. The plane’s hydraulics were out. Tom radioed the fighter plane and turned the plane so it was running parallel to the coast. He had to ditch the plane over the channel, where no one could get hurt. Then another engine quit.
Tom turned autopilot on and parachuted out the back. He floated, clinging to his dingy attached to the parachute. After an hour in the water, a mine sweeper picked him up. “They strip me – give me a shot of scotch – then a needle in the arm.”
The boat dropped him off in Manston, where he hops on a plane back to base. On the plane, he talked with his crew’s old bombardier, who grew up with the man piloting the B-24. “He took it pretty hard – wished he’s been along – maybe could have helped some way.”
The following weeks were filled with sleepless nights, wondering what had become of his crew. He was offered a promotion to pilot. Tom refused. Having a crew of his own scared him. “If I screw up, who’s going to help me?”
Months later, he was visited by the radioman of the B-24. He said he had evaded capture on the ground and joined with the Free French as a radio operator until the US found him.
Tom later found out that the pilot and two waist gunners had been pitch-forked to death by civilians. Only four of the original crew survived the war.
This event changed Tom, just as the war changed other young soldiers. It gave him confidence in himself that allowed him to have a successful career as an executive of a logging company. It also left him with a heavy feeling of guilt that continues to haunt him. After 64 years, he never attempted to contact any of the survivors.