World War II was the largest and deadliest conflict in human history. Ranging over six continents and all the world’s oceans, the war caused an estimated 60 million deaths, many of them civilian. Global in scale and in its repercussions, World War II changed the world forever.
Although the war began with Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland in Sept. 1939, the United States did not enter the war until after the Japanese bombed the American fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.
In the years that followed over 16 million Americans answered their country’s call to serve.
In 1943, just as spring was greening the rolling hills of southern Ohio, a young man from West Union received his draft notice and orders to report for service. Grover Swearingen was 19 years old when he said goodbye to his family on March 15, 1943 and boarded a bus that would carry him to the beginning of the greatest adventure of his young life.
Assigned the job of Radio Operator in the US Army Air Corps he would spend the following year going where ever his training required – from Clear Water, Fla. to Sioux Falls, N.D., to Laredo, Texas.
After a short visit home for the Christmas holidays, he was sent to Drew Field in Tampa, Fla. where he was assigned to the crew of a B-17 Bomber. The bomber’s crew consisted of ten men: Pilot Bruno Latici, Co-pilot Walt Werby, Navigator Mario Valente, Bombardier Philip Zieff, Engineer George Hinds, Waist Gunners Robert Brown and Lloyd Stout, Ball Turret Donald Simpson, Tail Gunner Homer King, and Radio Operator Swearingen.
They were ordinary kids from every walk of life, in their teens and early 20’s, brought together in the belly of a war bird where within weeks, their life expectancy would drop to approximately one month.
From Jan. through April of 1944 Swearingen and his crew trained on the B-17, a plane that was dubbed the “Flying Fortress” because of the twelve 50-caliber machine guns protruding from the front, back, top, bottom and sides of the four-engine plane.
“The planes were unheated and open to the outside air,” said Swearingen. ” The crew wore electrically heated suits and heavy gloves that provided some protection against temperatures that could dip to 60 degrees below zero. Once above 10,000 feet they wore oxygen masks as the planes continued to climb to their operational level that could be as high as 29,000 feet. Nearing the target, each crew member would put on a 30-pound flak suit and a steel helmet designed to protect against antiaircraft fire. Parachutes were too bulky to be worn all the time, but crewmen did wear a harness that allowed them to quickly clip on their parachute when needed.”
On May 19 they were sent to Hunter Field, Ga., where they picked up a new B-17G bomber christened “Cocaine Bill.” They were ordered to fly to Bangor Maine, and from there to Goose Bay, Labrador, and onto Iceland and Scotland before landing in Framlingham, England where they were assigned to the 390th Bomb Group as the 570th Squadron.
America and Britain’s air campaign was focused on destroying Nazi Germany’s industrial infrastructure. Launching the B-17 Flying Fortresses from bases in England’s eastern countryside, the Americans bombed targets during the day while the British attacked at night.
As part of a 10-man B-17 Bomber crew, Swearingen would fly nearly 30 missions across Europe, facing danger from German fighter planes and anti aircraft guns producing flak that would rain down on planes like hail on a tin roof.
On June 11, 1944 they flew their first mission across the English Channel to bomb the air fields at Dinard-Leurvit in France. “We were a little frightened,” Swearingen said, but, at last we were doing what we had been trained to do.”
The B-17’s flew in a three dimensional formation with planes stacked one above the other to optimize their combined defensive firepower. Early in the war it was believed that the planes’ defenses were sufficient to repel enemy fighters – they were not. Losses were high until long-range fighters were brought in to escort the bombers to and from their targets.
Throughout the month of June 1944 the “Cocaine Bill” crew flew seven bombing missions to take out strategic targets in France, Belgian, and Germany. In July they completed ten bombing raids including several missions that penetrated deep into enemy territory. These missions lasting eight to ten hours were not only tiring and bone-jarring, but filled with anxiety and a heightened awareness of imminent danger and death.
It was common knowledge that bomber crews had the highest mortality rate of all the allied forces. Every time a mission was successfully and safely completed, the odds of not returning from the next mission increased almost exponentially. On a July 18 mission to bomb the port of Kiel, Germany on the Baltic Sea, flak from anti-aircraft guns was intense.
“A piece sliced through the B-17’s hull over my left shoulder and took out my radio,” Swearingen recalled. It would be his first, but not his last close brush with death. Several planes were heavily damaged, but none were lost.
On their July 6 mission they lost two planes. On July 14 while dropping supplies to the famed French Resistance Fighters, they encountered a German piloting a B-17 that had crashed in France. When the pilot wouldn’t make radio contact, the escort fighters followed and destroyed it.
On a July 25 mission to St. Lo they joined an armada of 1,500 planes dropping fragmentation bombs to clear a path for Patton’s army to enter Germany.
On July 29 the crew found themselves in the thick of a battle above Mersburg, Germany where they joined 1,228 planes in a mission to destroy an arms factory.
“This was the first time I fired my gun at an enemy plane,” Swearingen recalled, “The Luftwaffe (German Air Force) put up it’s stiffest challenge since the D Day invasion – our group destroyed 17 planes, with two probables, but we lost two planes.”
Two days later on July 31 they flew to Munich, the capital of the Nazi movement, and bombed the third most significant target in Germany, the Bayerische (BMW) Plant that was producing aero engines for the Luftwaffe.
The following day, Aug. 1, they took to the sky on a mission to Tours, France targeting a Luftwaffe air field and clearing a path for the Allied ground forces.
On Aug. 6 they left England behind and flew across the North Sea and the Danish Peninsula to bomb an aircraft assembly plant in the city of Rahmel, Poland. It was in this city that the Nazis had terrorized the ethnic Polish and Jewish population. Most of which were either executed at a nearby mass execution site or sent to a concentration camp. They continued onto the sea port city of Gdynia, Poland and bombed an aircraft repair center. They confronted 15 single engine fighter planes, but only one allied plane was damaged by flak. They landed in the late afternoon in Mirgorod, Russia in the midst of a vicious rainstorm.
“There was no concrete runway,” Swearingen remembered, and the planes had to land on steel mats laid out on the muddy ground. Several planes settled into the mud and it took the ground crews and Russians all night to free them from the mud.”
The next day the squadron flew to Trzebina, Poland and bombed an oil refinery sending mounds of black smoke roiling high into the sky.
“We were coming off the target,” Swearingen said. “The lead plane was supposed to turn right, but it turned left instead and brought us back over the target where we were hit by heavy flak.” Another plane on the mission radioed Swearingen’s pilot, Bruno Latici, informing him that the Cocaine Bill had been hit.
“Bruno called for a crew check,” Swearingen explained, “Tail – OK, Waist R
11; OK, Ball Turret, “I waited for the ball turret, but there was no answer, I called out, Radio – OK, Engineer – OK, Navigator – OK, Bombardier – OK.”
“Bruno told me to check on Donald in the ball turret. I went back to the waist and the ball turret was turning slowly. I turned off the power, reached in and pulled Donald from the ball and carried him to the radio room. He was alive and I gave him a shot of morphine and tried to make him comfortable.”
Latici peeled out of the formation escorted by two P-51 fighters, “He burned up the engines trying to get Donald to the fighters’ base,” Swearingen recalled, but he died there in my arms before we landed.”
“Donald was a strange guy,” Swearingen wrote in his memoirs. “He’d lay on his bunk and read the Bible until he heard of a poker or crap game. He’d borrow 10 or 20 dollars from me and go play. He wouldn’t gamble with his own money, but he always paid me twice what he borrowed.” Many years later Swearingen would have an opportunity to meet and form a close friendship with the pilot of one of the P-51 fighters that escorted them to the airfield that day.
On Aug. 8 the crew was sent to Zileseia, Rumania to bomb an airfield for the Russians. From there they flew to Foggia, Italy, for repairs and a day of R&R. Swearingen, then 20 years old, went for a swim in the cold waters of the Adriatic Sea.
By Aug. 12 they were back in the air bombing an air field in Toulous, France to prepare for the Allied invasion of southern France. The 390th was credited with destroying 12 large hangers and damaging another five. Three-quarters of the bombs dropped hit their target.
Returning to England the crew was given a few days of rest in Bournemouth, a resort on the coast. “I took a swim in the English Channel,” Swearingen said, but it was a very short swim as the water was very cold.”
On Sept. 9 they were sent on their 26th mission.
“When we first arrived in England,” Swearingen told the Defender, you had to complete 25 missions, and then you could go home, but they changed it to 30 missions while we were there.”
The US Army Air Force had decided that serving 25 missions in a heavy bomber would constitute a “completed tour of duty” because of the “physical and mental strain on the crew.” It was a number crews could believe in, providing some hope of a light at the end of the tunnel, which was particularly necessary considering the grim statistics bomber crews faced. The addition of long-range fighters on bomb missions resulted in the number being upped to thirty.
According to Swearingen, “ September 9 was the costliest target the 390th ever attacked in terms of expenditures of men and planes. One minute before bombs away the anti-aircraft guns drew a bead on the squadron, concentrating on the bomb release line, the flak was both continuous and pointed, a barrage that completely engulfed the squadron.”
Of the 12 bombers assigned to the Sept. 9 mission, only five would return to the base in England, and three of the five were so damaged they would never fly again.
On board Swearingen’s plane, the co-pilot Walt Werby reported the number three engine was on fire, and engineer George Hinds informed the pilot, Bruno Latici that the wing looked like a sieve. “Bruno gave the order to bail out,” Swearingen said. “I’d had an uneasy feeling about this mission from the start because it was in the middle of what was called ‘Happy Valley’ because of all the heavy flak guns that could knock a plane out at 30,000 feet.”
About one-third of all the anti-aircraft guns in Germany were concentrated in this area. British crews had sarcastically named it “Happy Valley” or the “Valley of No Return” because of the heavy casualties bombers incurred during the Battle of the Ruhr in 1943.
Recalling the prayer he’d recited before each mission, “Lord, if you can’t bring me back today, bring me back later,” he looked out the door and fire was crawling from the engine over the wing, the ground 26,000 feet below looked so far away, so he jumped. Opening his parachute, he began a slow descent back to the earth, following his nine crew mates into the Valley of No Return.
“You can’t believe how silent it is when you jump,” he said. “There’s no sound but the air rushing past you. I removed my oxygen mask, and dropping it, watched as it fell away from me.”
After about 15 minutes he could see the ground rising rapidly toward him.
“I was headed for a power line, but the wind carried me over it and over a small woods. My chute was snagged and I was swung under the tree, my toes barely touching the ground. I unfastened my chute and looked up to see a farmer with a pitch fork watching me. He yelled at the German soldiers and about thirty of them came out of the woods and marched me to a town called Luedenscheid.”
(Read Part Two of Grover Swearingen’s WWII experience in the Sunday, Nov. 15 edition of The People’s Defender.)