But the men who flew the big four-engine bombers, which were so instrumental in turning the tide of war against Germany in World War II, were usually 25,000 to 32,000 feet high when they dropped their bombs on enemy installations. They killed at a distance without having to see the carnage left in their wake.
It was not always that way, though, said Ray Simpkins, one of the youngest men ever to pilot a B-24 bomber. He recalled bombing missions he and his crew of eight to 11 men, along with other B-24 crews, made in support of ground forces on Anzio Beach, just 33 miles south of Rome.
The Allies had made a landing at Anzio in January 1944 with hopes of outflanking German lines of defense across Italy. But the Germans held the high ground overlooking the coast. They had driven the invaders back and had them pinned down on the small beachhead.
“We couldn’t come in from the sea. We had to go overland and bomb toward the sea, otherwise we took a chance on hitting American and Allied forces,” said Simpkins, who was 20 at the time. “We had to drop our bombs while flying just 200 to 400 feet above ground level. We could see the German soldiers. They were firing rifles up at us. They could have done damage to us with a .22 rifle at that distance.”
When the B-24s landed back at their air base in southern Italy, ground crews were greeted by a grisly sight.
“Some of our planes had arms and legs and other body parts sticking in the engine casings,” Simpkins said.
Simpkins flew about 30 missions before his plane went down in flames and he would spend just over a year in the hellholes of German prison camps.
The American bombers blasted Axis military and industrial targets – factories, oil refineries, railroads. They bombed German aircraft plants and other factories at Bernberg and Brunswick, and would eventually hammer the rich oil fields at Ploesti, Romania. They destroyed dams in the Ruhr Valley, depriving German industries of their power sources. They hit ball-bearing plants, which slowed down the production of tanks and aircraft.
American pilots flew about 75,000 bomber missions and 1 million sorties.
“There was a lot of carnage on some of those missions, and not just to the enemy,” Simpkins said. “We came back with holes in our plane caused by flak from anti-aircraft guns and bullet holes from German fighter planes.”
At war’s end, American and British losses totaled about 40,000 aircraft.
THE LAST MISSION
On a bombing mission carried out on April 29, 1944, Simpkins’ B-24 had one engine knocked out.
“We could not keep up with the formation. We grouped together with two other crippled bombers and started limping for home base. We were sitting ducks. Every little town or base we flew over sent up flak or scrambled fighter planes,” he said.
The gunners on the B-24s fired back.
“We shot some of them down,” he said.
Finally, though, over the mountains of Yugoslavia, Simpkins passed the word to his crew to bail out.
“We all made it out, but I never learned the fate of most of them – nor from those in the other two planes, which also went down,” he said. “I watched from my parachute as our plane went into a nose-dive and crashed.
“There was a strong wind in the mountain passes. I hit the ground out of control, and the wind dragged my chute and me over a cliff 10 to 15 feet high. It knocked me out.”
When he came to, he was staring into the muzzle of a machine gun wielded by a Chetnik.
After the Yugoslav army surrendered to Germany in early 1941, the Germans set up small puppet states in the country.
The underground resistance group was split into two groups, the Partisans, who were backed by America and the Allies, and the Chetniks, accused by the Partisans of working with Germans or Italians.
At any rate, the Chetniks took Simpkins prisoner. The one who held the gun on him spoke English.
“He later told me that before the war he was a chicken farmer around Chicago,” Simpkins said.
They kept him overnight, marching along a mountain trail that was about 4 feet wide.
“You looked down over the side and you were looking straight down about 3,000 feet at nothing but jagged rocks,” Simpkins said.
Simpkins had suffered a broken bone in his lower leg, near the ankle, and had a back injury. He got no medical treatment, but they did let him ride a pony.
The next morning a German patrol took Simpkins.
“I don’t think the Chetniks wanted to turn me over to the Germans, but they seemed to have no choice in the matter,” Simpkins said.
He spent about two months in hospitals in Germany and other countries controlled by Germany.
“I got about the same treatment as wounded German soldiers got, but that wasn’t so great,” Simpkins said. “For instance, they had no antiseptic. They had to crack my leg bone and reset it. I tried not to scream.”
The treatment he received for the next 10 months as a POW was miserable. During the winter of 1944-45, they – about 15,000 POWs, Americans and Allies – were marched from one camp to another through snow and bitter cold without adequate clothing.
Another time they were loaded for transport in box cars, called “Forty and Eight,” which could hold about 40 men or eight horses.
“We were jammed in there. We could not sit down, lay down, even fall down. We spent three days and nights, I think, in that car. At one point, the train was strafed by American planes.”
The POW food was atrocious and tasteless and barely kept him and the others alive.
“Mostly it was a loaf made of potatoes and barley. It was rolled in sawdust and stored out in the weather in a dump truck. It was baked, and was as hard as a rock. It was like a loaf of bread only it would weigh as much as 10 loaves of bread,” he said.
He was just over 6 feet tall and weighed about 210 pounds when he was taken prisoner on that April 29th day in 1944. When he was liberated from a POW camp 20 miles from Munich, as the Germans surrendered in May 1945, he weighed 110.
“Our stomachs were so shrunken that they wouldn’t allow us anything to eat but eggnog, then later half a sandwich,” he said.
Today, at 86, his weight holds steady at about 160 pounds.
Simpkins, who lives with his wife, Betty, in a nice brick home off Ohio 32 three or four miles east of Pike County’s Vern Riffe Vocational School, entered in military service with the Army Air Force just after graduating from high school in Milton, W. Va.
He was a member of the 773rd Bomb Group, 776th Squadron.
He retired as a general foreman in the engineering department at the Portsmouth A-Plant, where he worked for 42 years for the three companies that have operated the plant.
When he came home from the service, he married Peggy, whom he had dated in high school. She died at age 57. He and Betty have been married 25 years.
He believes Germany might have won the war had it not been for the work of the B-24s and the others flying bombing missions.
“The Germans were dedicated, industrious and smart, although they made a mistake in the way they treated people they conquered,” he said. “They had the first practical jet fighter plane. We saw them fly over our camp. They were close to having the atomic bomb. Had they had the industrial production facilities we had, they might have conquered the world.”
He said he believes the other airmen who bailed out of the B-24 with him survived the war, but that now he may be the only one still living.
“I got a letter one day just out of the blue that said they had been having reunions and that they had been looking for me for 20 years,” he said. “The tailgunner and the radio operator were the last ones I heard from, but I haven’t been able to contact them for two years now.”
Simpkins has a Purple Heart and other medals.
“I don’t have many momentous of the war,” he said. “That’s because I like living in the future, not the past.”
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.