28 January, 2011

Profile 45 - "Flak Shak" as flown by many.

Flak Shak is done.  Almost.  I might mask in a Browning .50 cal in the waist-gunner's spot if I have time before I have to get it off to the printer.  But, "life" for me right now has sifted all of my available time right out from under.  Hopefully, tail gunner Robert Hickman will sign the prints some time in the next few weeks.  He's the surviving crewman of the airplane.

Throughout the research, working on the art, talking to family and learning from 485th BG historian, Jerry Whiting, my thoughts toward Flak Shak bounced between the dramatic extremes of loss and victory.  This big bomber is a small symbol of war's terror, horror, power and grit.

I'm at a loss for words to describe Flak Shak's combat life.  But I have to try.

You're looking at an airplane that, on June 28, 1944, was the last stand for ten men over Romania.  It's shown here for you to view as it was the morning of that day.  By days end, it would not be so pristine.

Over the course of it's mission - and its lead position in the formation - no fewer than eight Luftwaffe fighters would take their turn, spraying cannon and machine gun fire into the bomber, slicing skin of both man and machine.

The duel began en route to the target when bombardier John Dempsey took a hit (from flak or German fighters, no one is sure) in the leg, splitting the bone.  But, as lead plane in the formation, Flak Shak was the que for the others to toggle their payload.  Dempsey held himself together through the run to ensure that its job was successfully completed.

Having a crippled crewman totally changed the already charged atmosphere within the airplane - imagine ten people on an RV trip and one is on the floor, bleeding from such a wound, and the nearest hospital exit 90 minutes away.

Now imagine that RV being then pounced upon by raiders with cannon and machine guns, raking it from stem to stern...

For some reason known only to the Fates, eight German Bf-109s selected Flak Shak for destruction, making pass after pass, firing into the bomber - hot splinters, fist-sized holes appearing like demonic magic in the wing, tail, fuselage -  the howl of wind, the roar of engines and the muffled pain of two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine crewmen, clutching from their fresh wounds...


The crew of Flak Shak fought back.

Six of the enemy fighters were shot down.  To get your head around this, that meant that the gunners stayed in their positions and held their resolve with enough cool to not only hit but destroy their attackers.

For those who may not be so familiar, the job of a gunner on a flying, bouncing WW2 bomber was especially challenging.  It wasn't like the Alamo where the defenders shot from stationary positions.  Instead, Flak Shak's gunners were firing at fast moving targets from a moving position.  Like duck hunting from a circling boat.

The only explanation for the high victory count I can conceive is that the Germans were coming in awfully close and were especially confident that THIS pass was the one that would finally - finally - bring Flak Shak down.


Flak Shak didn't go down.  At least out of defeat.  The pilot and co-pilot brought the maimed bomber to a short strip, forward airfield in Bari, Italy where it skidded to a dusty halt.  Sweet Lord - those first few seconds of realization that "we made it home" must have been dead quiet.  A moment of unearthly silence before the clank of boots, opening bomb bay doors* and the clamor of medics rushing to do their work...

Over 500 holes were counted but the decision was moot - Flak Shak would never fly again.  Yet, every crewman survived the mission.

At the end of this post, you can read the official Silver Star Citation.  I hope you do - the austere military verbiage lends a certain air to the crew's deed that I can't.

Below, the crew of Flak Shak shortly after their Silver Star presentation circa Sept 2, 1944.  Ironically, they were posed in front another B-24 named after the magazine, LIFE.

Front Row, Left to Right:  Kenneth Leasure, navigator; Volney Wiggins, pilot, and Matthew Hall, copilot.  Back Row, Left to Right:  Ed Hartupee, ballgunner; Virgil Anderson, top gunner; Francis Brittain Jr., nosegunner, and Robert Hickman, tailgunner.  (Missing from the photo are John P. Dempsey, bombardier; Martin J. Caine, radio operator, and Wilson B. Shimer, engineer.)  The missing crew members were still in the hospital from wounds.  Matt Hall was later killed on a  9/13/44 mission to Oswiecim, Poland.

I'm still at a loss for words.

*Entry into a B-24 was commonly done through the bomb bay door.

Special thanks to Jerry Whiting, 485th BG, and the families of Virgil Anderson (top gunner)—specifically Virgil's grandson, Matthew Rabe—and Robert Hickman (tail gunner).