World War II

DOWN BUT NOT OUT

By January 14, 1945, I had been in England with the U.S. Eighth Air Force for more than seven months, piloting a B-24 heavy bomber. I had completed 35 bombing missions over France and Germany—at that time, a tour of duty—and was set to return to the States for a 30-day furlough. I wrote to my fiancée, Betty Sue Nunn, that for me the war was over and I was coming home to Pittsburgh for the wedding we had planned.

In the meantime, I learned that if I took a second tour without returning to the States, the tour requirement would be cut in half and I could then expect a permanent stateside assignment. The decision became easier when I was offered the chance to join a P-51 fighter squadron. The Mustang—the best single-engine propeller aircraft of all time—was every pilot’s dream. I carefully prepared a follow-up letter to Betts and my parents explaining that I had elected to stay in Europe, and arrived at my new station at Steeple Morden Airfield near Cambridge. First Lieutenant R. A. Gray reporting for duty.

During the next several weeks, I flew nearly every day, practicing landing, formation, and getting some gunnery practice. Several bomber escort missions over Germany followed. Then came April 4, 1945.

LIKE THE OTHERS, this mission was in escort of heavy bombers. We climbed out over the Channel and proceeded toward Germany. My f light dropped down to observe one of the bombers’ targets: an airfield about 100 miles north of Berlin. We circled at low altitude. As we completed the first pass, 20mm guns mounted in flak towers surrounding the field began firing on us. Since my plane was on the inside of the circle, I became the principal target.

My immediate reaction was to make a diving pass across the field to spray some .50-caliber bullets toward one of the towers. As I made my pass, about 20 feet above the runway, I saw several Heinkel 111 bombers off to the side and, in my anxiety to score victories, forgot the tower. That was

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