10/05 06:10 Athens. Eleusis A/D. All together in number 24 again. In left wing position of right rear element of the formation. German fighters zeroed in on our element. Fired 20 mm explosive shells. Made a bright white flash. The right wing ship caught fire and slid across under us. The lead ship slowed to the point that I could not maintain formation: with him. He also went down. We received much damage, including explosive shell holes in the fuel tanks of right and left wings; plus the tail structure, fuselage, propellers, and other damage. Haberman was knocked out of the top turret when he caught shell fragments on one side of his head. Ship in repair squadron for about five weeks.
On the October 5, 1943 mission from Benghazi to Eleusis Airdrome near Athens, my crew was assigned to the 512th Squadron's #24 - the Strawberry Bitch. For the airplane, it would be its fifth mission since we had brought it to the 376th Group on September 16. For me personally it would be the sixth.
We were in the left wing position of the rightmost and rearmost element in the Group. Our element lead was #64, with Lieutenants Buehl and John. The right wing ship was #72 with Lieutenants Petty and Hughling.
Shortly after "bombs away" about 20 or 25 German fighters caught up with us and the battle began. One or more of their flights zeroed in on our element and raked us severely with aerial cannon fire. The air was full of the bright white flashes of their exploding shells.
The first to go was #72 from the right wing position. I saw it start sliding to its left toward us, enveloped in flames. I picked up just a little and he slid on under us and continued on down. Our ball turret gunner, Harold Hickok, would later comment that it singed the seat of his pants as it went by.
Almost simultaneously, our engineer, Ralph Haberman, came tumbling out of the top turret onto the flight deck floor. I certainly didn't want any guns silent at a time like that, so I sent our radioman, John Kusiak, up into the turret to carryon.
Also almost immediately, our lead ship, #64, was in trouble. It suddenly slowed, almost as though some giant hand had reached out and pushed against its nose. I was about to overrun it, so I quickly throttled back, trying to stay in formation. I couldn't. As I approached a stalling condition I could see that he wasn't going to make it, so I restored power and went on, lifting us up just a little to make sure our right wing
would clear his left. I headed for the right wing position in the element ahead of us, which had been vacant since#70 had aborted on the way to the target.
At that same time, an element left of us was under similar attack. Its lead ship, #45, with Captain Fallon and Lieutenant Crocker, went down. The wing ships, #54 with Lieutenants Hobbs and Ruecroft on the right and #43 with Lieutenants G. S. Brown and Benoit on the left survived and returned safely.
When the German fighters left us, we took stock of our damage. Haberman had been hit on the left side of his head and face by shell fragments which had penetrated the plexiglass turret dome, and by plexiglass splinters resulting from the breakage. However, he was in no immediate danger. We could see that we had taken numerous hits, but we still had full power and full control. The worst sheet metal damage we could see was a rather large hole at its joint with the horizontal stabilizer. The thing that worried us most was vapor pouring from the top of our wings near the fuselage. That told us that we were losing fuel.
With about 300 miles of Mediterranean Sea between us and Benghazi, I felt that fuel conservation was in order, so as soon as we felt safe from renewed fighter attack, I throttled back and let the formation pull on away from us. It gave us a lonesome feeling to see it disappear in the distance.
Fortunately our fuel supply held out and we landed safely back at Benghazi. While I made out the flight reports, our assistant engineer, Walter Tomasoski, climbed out on top of the airplane to see what sort of damage we had taken up there. He called down to me to come up and have a look. Two things I saw there have stuck in my memory. The first is just one of those curious things that happen which in themselves have little significance. All of our radio antennas were gone - which of course had no bearing on the affair, but is perhaps indicative of the amount of shell fragments which had been flying about the airplane during the battle.
The other thing I remember is the sight of several holes in the top surface of our wings. Through them we could look down into the fuel cells and see our remaining gasoline sloshing around gently in the tank. The holes were large enough that I do believe I could have taken a coffee cup, reached in, and dipped the gasoline out.
Of course we have no way of comparing the amount of damage we received with
that suffered by #64 and #72; but we have no doubt that similar shots to the fuel tanks are what set them afire and sent them down. And realizing that only one such explosion would be needed to start a gasoline fire, there seems little else to be said, except to ask, "Why us?"