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Hard Luck Outfit: The Story of the 492nd Bombardment Group – Part 2

By early June, 1944, the 492nd Bombardment Group had flown twenty-four missions. Most had been easy ones, either supporting the Normandy invasion or going after V-1 launching sites in France. But whenever they’d attack targets in Germany, things usually got nasty. On their fifth mission, against the Brunswick marshalling yards, they lost eight aircraft. Bombing the refineries in Politz, 10 days later, they lost three more.

Today, a handful of 492nd veterans remain alive. They call themselves the “Happy Warriors,” and hope to receive some unit commendation or at least official recognition before they’re all gone. But the chances of receiving any are slim.

On June 18, they were sent to bomb the airfield at Luneburg in northern Germany. But the cloud cover was too heavy, so they diverted to Bremerhaven and went after warships in the harbor. During their approach, another B-24, painted in olive drab, but without any markings,  appeared and tried to insinuate itself into their formation. But since the 492nd aircraft were all bare-metal, they knew it wasn’t one of theirs. They wondered if it might be a captured aircraft flown by a Nazi crew. It stayed 2,000 yards off, but once the bomb run was completed, it left. A few minutes later they started getting hit by very accurate flak and rocket fire. Three bombers were hit. One made it to Sweden, another back to North Pickenham, while the third ditched 12 miles off the British coast, where two members were rescued. Liberators were notoriously bad aircraft to ditch, with the sea smashing through the roll-up bomb bay doors, injuring or killing crew members, breaking the back of the aircraft and causing it to sink quickly.

492nd Bombardment Group

The B-24 “Mojalajab” of the 492nd Bombardment Group burns after crashing in Normandy on June 15, 1944. The crew was able to bail out over the Normandy beachhead and return to combat with the 492nd Bombardment Group, only for the entire crew to be killed on a July 7, 1944 mission. National Archives photo

Two days later, they were sent back to Politz. Thirty-five aircraft would fly, first across the North Sea, then over the Danish peninsula, then across the Baltic before wheeling to attack Politz from the east. They would be protected by two successive groups of long-range fighters. Everything went well enough at first. But then, shortly after crossing over the Danish peninsula, one of the bombers from the 856thBomb Squadron lost an engine and had to drop out and head home alone. Of that squadron’s 12 aircraft, it was the only one to get back.

Soon after, the first wave of escorts reached their maximum range, turned and went home. But the relief wave was several minutes late because of problems releasing their drop tanks, giving the Luftwaffe fighters a tiny window of opportunity that turned out to be all they needed. Within four minutes, 14 bombers were taken out. Two made it to Sweden. The rest went down.

For the rest of June, the group made milk runs. Then in early July, they attacked the shipyards in Kiel. The cloud cover was heavy, the visibility bad, and the flak accurate. Two aircraft were hit. One made it safely to Sweden, the other ditched in the North Sea, where all but two members of the crew were rescued.

492nd Bombardment Group

A B-24 Liberator of the 788th Bomb Squadron, 467th Bomber Group, 8th Air Force, on a mission to bomb Schwabisch-Hall, Germany, Feb. 25, 1945. While with the 788th Bomb Squadron, the B-24 was known as “Monster,” but with the 492nd Bomber Group it had been named “Irishman’s Shanty,” and narrowly avoided a brush with death during a mission to Halle, Germany. National Archives photo

On July 7, 23 of the 492nd’s Liberators attacked Bernburg as part of a 1,000 odd bomber force sent against German industrial cities. They were short on escorts, since most were needed to support the ground fighting in France. The 8th Air Force had hoped they could make do by diverting the Luftwaffe away with B-17s pretending to attack Berlin. The Luftwaffe didn’t fall for it.

The 492nd’s bombers flew on the outer edge of a larger formation from the 44th and 392nd Bombardment Groups. As they started their approach, they spotted a large number of B-24s coming right at them. They’d just bombed Halle and were heading home. Seeing them coming, the 44th swung wide right to avoid them, taking the few escort fighters they had with them. Meanwhile the aircraft from the 492nd and 392nd waited for the approaching bombers to get out of their way. But it didn’t happen, and in that moment of confusion, the Luftwaffe attacked with several hundred single- and twin-engine German fighters.

One of the first aircraft hit was the deputy lead ship of the approaching group. It must have killed both the pilot and copilot, because the aircraft immediately started drifting and then veered directly into the path of the 492nd. One bomber, “Irishman’s Shanty,” managed a sharp dive and got out of its path. The bomber behind them was not so lucky. It collided into them, tore off a wing and both aircraft went down. By then it was a melee, and within a few minutes 12 of the 492nd’s 21 aircraft had been shot down. Sixty-seven men were dead, and 52 were in POW camps.

492nd Bombardment Group

The sacrifices of the 492nd Bombardment Group are commemorated at Memorial Park at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Dayton, Ohio. U.S. Air Force photo

The 492nd continued flying missions for another month, losing eight more aircraft in the process. By now, only 18 of the group’s 50 bombers were operational. But by early August, Bomber Command had had enough. They ordered the 492nd disbanded. But rather than have to admit what had happened to them, the 492nd unit designation was given as cover to the 801st Provisional Group, an OSS special operations unit better known as the Carpetbaggers. In this way the 492nd’s loss got papered over. The official histories never mentioned what happened. Decades would pass before historians started figuring it out. Today, a handful of 492nd veterans remain alive. They call themselves the “Happy Warriors,” and hope to receive some unit commendation or at least official recognition before they’re all gone. But the chances of receiving any are slim.

The 492nd had lasted 89 days. They flew 67 missions and dropped 3,653 tons of bombs. Fifty-five bombers had been lost, 234 men killed in action, 26 wounded, 131 became POWs and 129 were interned in either Sweden or Switzerland.

The 492nd had lasted 89 days. They flew 67 missions and dropped 3,653 tons of bombs. Fifty-five bombers had been lost, 234 men killed in action, 26 wounded, 131 became POWs and 129 were interned in either Sweden or Switzerland. They’d fought hard and well, but ultimately, it didn’t matter.

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Brendan McNally is a journalist and writer specializing in defense and aerospace. Brendan began his career...