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Eight Air Force Historical Society - Minnesota Chapter - Bob Clemens Stories

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Bob Clemens
B-17 Navigator, 463rd BG, 773rd Squadron
Foggia, Italy

I enlisted in the Army Air Forces in November 1942 at the age of 18, received my wings and commission in February 1944, and completed 50 missions on 12 September 1944 without a scratch. My first mission was to Wiener Neustadt, Austria, 16 June 1944. During July 1944 the Fifteenth Air Force lost 318 heavy bombers, and another 330 bombers were lost in August. When I returned to the USA in October 1944, only 150 of the 400 crew members who arrived in Italy in June 1944 could be accounted for.

27 June 1944
Our target was the marshaling yards in Budapest, Hungary. The purpose was to disrupt railroad traffic, especially trains carrying arms to the Russian front and oil from the Ploesti, Romania, fields. The assigned bombing altitude was 21,000 feet, but our actual altitude was 13,000 feet. Either is too low. The temperature at altitude was -19 F. Twenty-seven bombers flew the mission.

We took off at 6:50 AM. We made our bomb run at 21,000 feet in heavy flak. The target was clouded over, so we didn't drop our bombs. Instead we circled over Budapest while another group made their run. We finally made our run and were on the bomb run 10 minutes before we dropped our bombs from 13,000 feet. We were in flak for 22 minutes and were literally shot all to hell. JU 88s were dropping bombs on us from above. As we came off the target, we were down to 8,000 feet and were all by ourselves. The crew checked in: Cliff had a light flak wound.

About that time Willie spotted a speck in the sky at 7 o'clock high. He hollered, "Shoot." It was an FW 190. The leading edge of the fighter's wing lit up as he fired his 20-mm cannon. Willie, Klug, Louie, and Fritz all shot at him. They thought they had gotten him, and this was later confirmed by some P-38 escorts. But he had also gotten us.

One of the 20-mm shells blew a patch of hide off Fritz's calf and exploded in his radio equipment, moments after he had put out a call for fighter escort help. We spotted what we thought were a dozen P-51s at 9 o'clock. P-51s and ME 109s look a lot alike. These were 109s. Fortunately, a bunch of P-38s appeared at about 4 o'clock high and came on in.

A 20-mm cannon shell had put a hole in one blade of the #2 engine, throwing it out of balance, so it had to be feathered. Another prop had a big nick out of it. Because of the flak and cannon damage, we had only two engines running. We were alone and more than 500 miles from our base. So we started to strip the plane of anything heavy. We threw out machine guns, ammunition, flak suits, armor plate, and even the bombsight. The latter was my addition and an action for which I was later reprimanded. The Norden bombsight was considered "secret," but the Germans must have had thousands of them from wrecked bombers. We were ready to drop the ball turret if necessary to make it back over the Balkan Mountains, but we didn't have to.

We made it back, but we never heard of another bomber making it from that far away with two engines out and as badly crippled and shot up as we were. Our total time in the air was 6 hours 40 minutes. The ground crew counted 350 flak holes and 37 cannon holes and gave up counting. German pilots are reported to have said that in their experience, 14 or 15 hits from a 20-mm cannon would usually bring down a bomber. Only seven of our B-17s returned with all engines turning. Our plane required three new engines, three new props, and all new radio equipment.

After we landed, we were congratulated on a job well done, and we congratulated each other. Silently, as we reflected on what we had just experienced, we wondered how many of us would finish 50 missions. For me, there were 42 more to go.

31 July 1944
The target was the Xenia oil field in Ploesti, Romania, one of my five missions over Ploesti. We bombed from 23,400 feet, where the temperature was -20 F. Twenty-five planes flew the mission. We were briefed to expect 15 ME 109s from Nis, Yugoslavia, and maybe 40 more from the Russian front. There were 201 heavy guns within range of us at the target.

At 11:14 AM we feathered the #3 engine and dropped behind the group. Black smoke was rising everywhere--from previous bombing and from our bombs. Two planes blew up over the target. When #5 in Able Squadron blew up, it showered us with debris. One chunk of flak flew through the astrodome and put a dent the size of a fist in my flak helmet. Flak also shattered the windshield in front of the pilot, and broken glass hit the copilot. No wounds. We limped home alone on three engines. We lost two bombers and their crews on that mission. Time in the air: 7 hours 45 minutes.

Lighter moments
In early September 1944, I flew 5th Wing lead with Col. Frank Kurtz, who had met Axis Sally at the 1935 Olympics, where Kurtz was a diver. We listened to her broadcasts because she played all the latest popular music of that era. That day she broadcast that the Germans knew where we were going to bomb (Budapest) and they would shoot down Frank Kurtz and "that young, pink-faced navigator from Minnesota."

Another light moment occurred in October 1998, just before I had my left knee replaced at the Mayo Clinic. The anesthesiologist asked me to buy some lottery tickets for him because he thought that I must be lucky, having flown all those bombing missions without getting a scratch!

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