On the morning of October 6, 1944, orders were received at 483rd Bomb Group (H) Headquarters, 5th Bomb Wing, to alert six skeleton crews and planes for a top secret mission. By careful screening, six skeleton crews were selected on the basis of two crews from each of three squadrons. Their orders were to report at 15th Air Force Headquarters, Bari, Italy, by not later than 1700 of the same date, October 6. Special emphasis was placed on insuring that the six B-17s selected would be in perfect mechanical condition. At 1600 hours, the six B-17s departed individually from their home base for Bari.
At Bari, the crews were met by Lt. Col. Pritchard who had been selected to lead the mission, with Lt. Col. F. J. Ascani designated as deputy leader. All crews were instructed to stand by their aircraft, immediately after landing, to assist in the loading of assorted equipment and supplies. All supplies were brought onto the Bari Airfield by Navy personnel from a Navy depot. Each type of equipment, wherever possible, was divided into six parts so that all aircraft might have as similar a load as possible. Among other things, items of equipment, loaded into the aircraft, included: Bazooka guns, Marlin guns, Bren guns, automatic pistols, large amounts of ammunition for all weapons, portable radios, collapsible bicycles, 30 parachutes, five-gallon tins of gasoline and oil, and food. In addition, a two man team from O.S.S. was carried on each airplane. The load placed in each aircraft was so bulky that, in order to carry it all, it was necessary to fill the entire bomb bay, including the catwalk, and most of the available space remaining throughout the airplane.
With the loading of all six aircraft completed, the crews were transported to 15th Air Force Headquarters for briefing. As yet, no members of the crews possessed any knowledge of the nature of the mission. At Headquarters, the crews were directed to the briefing room and welcomed by Col. Rogers who conducted the briefing.
Col. Roger’s opening remarks conveyed the impression that the slightest hitch in the plans for successful completion of this mission could create an extremely hazardous situation. The nature of the mission, as contained in the Filed Order, was to “evacuate aircrew personnel from Czechoslovakia, ferry in supplies and O.S.S. personnel, and make contacts, through agents, concerning disposition of politically important Czechs.” The airstrip selected as our landing point was Triduby Airfield, situated at Banektia-Bystrica, Czechoslovakia. This sod airfield was approximately 4000 feet long and 1000 feet wide and was of semi-permanent nature. One moderately damaged hangar was located on the field, with a very small hard surface apron in front of it.
As additional data, information on the enemy situation was furnished the crews. Triduby Airfield had been captured approximately October 3, 1944, from the Germans, by Czech Partisans. The Germans had been driven into the surrounding hills and were awaiting reinforcement before attempting to recapture the airstrip. The airfield, itself, served neither strategic nor tactical purpose but was ideally suitable for the use of our mission.
No guarantee could be given by the Czechs that they could hold the strip later than October 7, 1944, and, therefore, the success of our mission hinged largely on completing it with the first attempt. With Bazooka teams, the Czechs had secured all road intersections leading to the airstrip and would not withdraw until our entire unit was again airborne. Upon arrival over the target, a white green ground flare was to indicate that the airfield was secured.
Best available information on the condition of the airstrip indicated that the sod would be slightly soft because of recent rains. All pilots were cautioned not to slow down or stop their aircraft during any part of the landing roll, with the heavy load being carried. At takeoff, each B-17 had a gross weight of approximately 76,000 pounds. Explicit instructions were also issued to the effect that, should it become necessary to abandon any aircraft on the field, the airplane would be destroyed by burning and the crew would be given first priority on withdrawal from the scene of operations.
Weather data furnished at the briefing, by the Air Force Weather Officer, Lt. Colonel R. W. Nelson, indicated that conditions enroute would be excellent. It was predicted that early morning conditions would result in possible low stratus formations at Bari and Strato-cumulus formations over the target.
Fighter escort and withdrawal cover was to be furnished by the 15th Fighter Command, which would employ approximately 30 P-51s. It was requested, by the fighter leader, that no attempts be made to fly through clouds conditions for any appreciable length of time. Further, it was requested that not more than twenty minutes be utilized in unloading the supplies at the airfield, since the fuel carried by the fighters were not sufficient to furnish further coverage.
During the early morning of October 7, 1944, last minute supplies were loaded on the aircraft as the crews prepared themselves for the mission. Take off of all six aircraft was completed without mishap, although the initial rate of climb of each B-17 was somewhat low. Low hanging clouds presented no serious difficulties and all six aircraft quickly feel into their places in the formation.
At the rendezvous point, the fighter escort was sighted and our climb to 15,000 feet, on course, was begun. Approximately twenty miles to the north could be seen the long strings of various Wings on their way to bomb Vienna. The course of one B-24 Wing took them directly above us for part of the route, so that excellent screening of our small unit was afforded as anticipated.
From Bari to a point approximately 30 miles south of our destination, navigation was excellent and the flight was routine. At a point 30 miles south of Banektia-Bystrica, the terrain changed from relatively flat ground to a series of rolling hills and high peaks. The hills occupied an area of approximately 100 square miles, and, situated in the exact center, in a valley, was the airfield where we were to land.
Our first glance at this particular area disclosed that the whole region was covered by morning ground fog and low hanging cloud formations. Occasionally, a hold afforded us a view of the hilly terrain underneath; but, for all practical purposes, the clouds gave the same effect as an overcast.
This was perhaps the most critical point to occur during the whole mission. Unfavorable weather conditions not only prevented pin point navigation, but the clouds could also create an extremely hazardous condition, should an attempt be made to take a formation into the airstrip, under an overcast. However, the leader was also faced with the knowledge that the Czechs could not hold the airfield for an attempt another day. In addition, an abortive mission would remove the element of surprise, should a subsequent attempt be considered.
The decision to carry on with the mission was made almost instantly by Lt. Colonel Pritchard, and, as he circled near the edge of the cloud formation, we descended to an altitude of 4000 feet. This altitude placed the formation slightly below the level of the clouds and we noticed, to the north, the tops of the hills sticking up into the overcast. Colonel Pritchard then pointed the formation north through the most convenient valley. As deputy leader, I dropped back some 200 feet with the second element to obtain greater flexibility. The fighter escort, seemingly unhappy, spread itself out in order to remain under the clouds and to secure more room for action.
As we proceeded up a small valley, small arms and minor anti-aircraft weapons threw up desultory fire. No aircraft received any major damage. We had proceeded approximately 10 miles when we approached a dead end, in the valley, and it was necessary to retrace our flight slightly. Colonel Pritchard spotted another pass and we bored through it, with hills jutting up on both sides, and the clouds directly above us.
Duration of this type of flying lasted roughly 15 minutes, at the end of which the lead navigator spotted our airstrip. As the formation went into a landing circle, the proper identification was received from the ground. A tight pattern was flown by all aircraft, wince it was known that the Germans were still entrenched in the hills on the perimeter of the field. Power approach glides were executed by all pilots, so that the aircraft could be stalled on the immediate end of the runway.
As deputy leader, I was number four to land and not until my wheels had touched did I observe that the number 3 airplane had become mired at the end of the sod strip. All pilots refrained from coming to a stop as much as possible, but this particular pilot had the misfortune of encountering a treacherous spot. More than likely this saved the following aircraft since they gave that particular area a wide berth.
Five of the B-17s rolled up to the safety of the harder ground near the destroyed hangar, and a crew of 100 Czechs immediately began unloading each aircraft. Meanwhile, a crew of 150 Czechs proceeded to the mired aircraft and unloaded it with dispatch. Concurrently with the unloading, the extra Czechs began the process of digging out around the wheels of the aircraft.
All engines were left running and all crew men remained at their stations with the exception of Colonel Pritchard and myself. While Colonel Pritchard supervised the unloading and conferred with the dignitaries present, I proceeded to assist the operation of freeing the mired airplane.
When I arrived on the scene, the pilot, Major J. Gorman, was directly assisting the Czech Partisans. After ten minutes of fruitless efforts, I ordered Major Gorman and his crew to proceed to my aircraft, after setting fire to their own. To the accompaniment of our P-51s, buzzing the field, Major Gorman refused to destroy what he considered an urgently needed piece of equipment. No amount of persuasion could convince him or his crew that they should return in my airplane and burn their own.
At this point, it was observed that the twenty minutes for our P-51 coverage had expired and after one last exhortation, I returned to my own airplane.
The unloading was complete and the Czech newsreel cameras were grinding out their last few feet of film, when Colonel Pritchard gave the signal for takeoff. On each B-17 were loaded 30 American air crew evacuees and politically important Czechs, who were being sought by the Nazis. The process of taxiing out was accomplished to the tune of mortar fire in the hills, where the Germans and the Partisans were having it out, hot and heavy.
Using normal rated power, each of the five B-17s made a normal takeoff, passing almost directly over the marooned B-17 and its crew. None of the crew members were optimistic about seeing either the airplane or its crew again, since, to return safely, it had to navigate 400 miles of enemy territory unescorted and without the mutual fire support of its sister B-17s.
Fortunately, our return trip was not as hazardous as our flight in; since we flew up through one of the several holes the sun had created in the overcast. Our penetration P-51 cover had already departed, but a few minutes later, we were joined by our withdrawal escort.
The return flight was entirely uneventful, with the exception of further harassment by the weather at Bari. Heavy rains and low clouds had set in over the lower portion of the Italian Peninsula. At a signal from the leader, all five B-17s proceeded individually to the traffic pattern and affected a safe landing.
Subsequent to landing, each crew answered the questions posed by the Intelligence Interrogator and then the mission was considered completed.
Several pilots expressed concern for Major Gorman and his crew, so it was decided that we “seat it out” for a while. Approximately three hours after the main formation had landed, a lone B-17 nosed its way into the traffic pattern at Bari and made a successful landing, in practically pitch black darkness.
Major Gorman’s interrogation bore out the fact that, with an encountered number of Czech Partisans, he managed to pry loose his airplane from its mired position. A normal takeoff was followed by an unmolested flight back to Bari. It is the opinion of the undersigned that Major Gorman not only displayed loyalty in refusing to burn his airplane, but also courage in returning over enemy occupied territory, alone, where he presented as juicy a target as could ever be found.
The following morning all crews returned to their home station to resume their routine duties of bombing the Reich into submission.
FRED J. ASCANI Lt. Colonel, Air Corps Chief, Bomber Operations Section Flight Test Division