Patriot Files: a rainy day in June

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
The light rain began to soak through his uniform.

It was nearly 4 a.m. and Tech. Sgt. Bill Toombs stood outside his barracks, waiting for a ride to the chow hall, when he heard something strange off in the distance.

"Listen to the thunder," a friend said, as both he and Toombs heard the resounding crashes.

Toombs paused and listened again to the rolling, almost rhythmic, barrage that seemed to float into RAF Debach, England, from across the nearby water.

"That doesn't sound like thunder," Toombs said as he boarded the truck to breakfast.

Nearly 71 years later, Toombs recalled his very first mission, as a flight engineer and gunner with the 493rd Bombardment Group, during a visit to RAF Alconbury, May 18, 2015.

"Ipswich was pretty close to the [English] Channel, and we could hear the guns from the battleships across the water," the 91-year-old veteran said. "We knew there was going to be an invasion, didn't know when. No one had any idea."

Every day for nearly five weeks, Toombs and his crew had been flying around England in a B-24 Liberator, getting the lay of the land and learning to maintain aerial formations. On that particular morning, he had just finished eating when everyone was called for a mission briefing. Sitting in the cramped room, Toombs said he was prepared for an ordinary training mission. He wasn't ready for what the executive officer said when he began the briefing.

"Gentlemen," the executive officer began, pulling back a curtain to reveal a map of Normandy, France. "This morning we're going to invade the continent."

As the briefing ended, the 19-year-old from Little Rock, Arkansas, sat in complete shock as the minutes before the invasion ticked away, June 6, 1944.

"My first mission was D-Day," Toombs said. "[We] didn't have time to think about the invasion or anything."

Scrambling for his B-24, affectionately named "Baby Doll," Toombs had no idea what to expect - having never experienced actual combat. The pilot, Lt. William Bowden, guided the aircraft into the sky, where it joined 39 other bombardment groups which comprised the 8th Air Force's role in what would become one of the most significant moments of World War II.

"The first lesson is that you can't lose a war if you have command of the air," said Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, 8th AF commander during D-Day. "And you can't win a war if you haven't."

Doolittle's reflections on the necessity of airpower proved accurate, as the bomb runs made by groups like the "Fighting 493rd" obliterated the Nazi fortifications along the Atlantic Wall. Despite dense cloud coverage, Toombs and the crew of Baby Doll aided 628 bombers in destroying 74 of the 92 enemy radar stations along the Normandy coasts.

"That was the easiest mission I ever flew," Toombs said. "No encounter with the enemy whatsoever - no fighters, no anti-aircraft fire, nothing."

When the dust settled and the largest single-day amphibious assault in history was over, Toombs said his perspective on war was quite different from his battle-hardened compatriots.

"It gave you a false impression of war," he said. "I thought, 'well, man, this is nothing.' This is going to be easy - until [I flew] the next mission."

He laughed, recounting the next time Baby Doll took to the skies - hitting enemy positions and assisting ground forces fighting in Caen and Saint-Lô, France.

"We didn't have any fighters, but we had an awful lot of anti-aircraft fire," he said. "My first few missions, I don't remember exactly - probably 10 or 12, were all in support of the ground troops in France. It was mostly bridges and airfields that were pretty well defended."

With "flak" from German 88 mm anti-aircraft guns exploding all around Toombs and his crew, during their 20 missions in Baby Doll, the former Missouri Pacific Railroad machine apprentice quickly became wise to the ways of warfare.

"After we got kind of 'battle-hardened' it wasn't quite so bad," he said. "None of them were easy, but it wasn't quite so bad on you."

Toombs paused and looked away. The smile faded from his face.

"We had a mission to Meersburg [Germany] later on in our combat tour," he began. "We were hit by a heavy group of fighters, and we lost nine planes out of one squadron. They shot down eight of them on their first pass."

Watching as aircraft, carrying his friends, spiraled toward the ground, Toombs said he couldn't have known how prophetic the sight was. On his 24th mission, Sept. 13, 1944, Toombs and his crew were shot down while flying a B-17 Flying Fortress, aptly named "Baby Doll II."

"We were flying to Ludwigshafen, Germany, to the forward chemical works - it was a huge chemical compound across the river from Manheim," Toombs said. "We weren't bothered with fighters. There were fighters in the vicinity, but they didn't attack our group. But, the anti-aircraft fire was intense."

While flying over the target, Toombs said he saw one plane from their formation go down before Baby Doll II was violently shaken by an explosion.

"We got [the] number three engine shot out," he said. "An 88 aircraft round went through our number four fuel tank."

The flak passed through the fuel tank and into the sky above before exploding.

"Had it exploded below, or in the wing, I wouldn't be talking today," Toombs said.

With all the fuel from the number four tank gone, and the number three engine out of commission, Bowden decided to continue flying with the rest of the formation.

"Number one and two were fine," Toombs said. "We tried to stay up with the group, rather than straggle. Had we straggled, we would have been in trouble."

While attempting to keep pace with the formation, Baby Doll II's remaining engines began to overheat and fail. The plane started losing altitude.

"We knew we weren't going to make it back," he said. "We flew about an hour-and-a-half, losing altitude all the time. We threw out everything we had, guns, ammunition, flak suits - anything that wasn't bolted down."

After speaking with Bowden, Toombs made his way to the center of the plane in an attempt to dislodge and jettison the ball turret. He hoped lightening the load would allow Baby Doll II to stay in the air a little longer. However, before he could drop the turret, Bowden's voice broke through on the intercom.

"'We're going to take a vote, whether we're going to bail out or stay with it,'" Toombs said, recalling Bowden's words. "I think I was the first one to speak up and say I would stay with it as long as the engines kept running."

Setting a course to Brussels, Belgium, and Melsbroek Air Base, Toombs continued his attempt to jettison the turret as the plane slowly descended.

"We were about a mile from the air base," he said. "We hit the ground in a turnip field, with the wheels down. We never had a chance to retract them. It kicked up a lot of dirt and dust, but finally came to rest - and we got out and walked away from it."

Following a night in Brussels, Toombs said he and his crew were picked up and taken back to complete the four missions left on their term of service. Reflecting on that time of his life, Toombs said he marveled at the accomplishments made in aviation during that time.

"You'll never see that again," he said. "There will never be an air war like that - a thousand planes on a raid. You have airplanes now that can carry a bomb load equivalent to that on one plane."

He also expressed full confidence that the current generation of Airmen could accomplish as equally challenging a task as the veterans of World War II achieved.

"We had just come out of a Depression. We were farm kids who had never been out of their state," Toombs said. "Certainly knew nothing about aviation, but we brought all those people together and formed a great aerial armada. Some of the young people today think they can't do that - but they can. They can."

With one eye focused on the past and another looking toward the future, Toombs said he, and those who fought alongside him during World War II, have a deep appreciation and love for their country.

"It means a lot. America means a lot." he said. "There's that old expression, 'freedom is not free,' and it sure isn't. I think we have a great country and we need to preserve it."

For Toombs, preservation of this nation comes not just from knowing when to fight, but also when not to.

"I hate war," he said, solemnly. "I think if there's any way you can negotiate through diplomatic sources to prevent a war, you should go to the extent of that - as far as you can go. I don't think you ought to yield to someone - but you should negotiate as much as you can."

Toombs said war is a terrible accord, for any country and any generation.

"It's the young people who are going to fight it," he said. "It's going to be the cream of the crop - your kids who are supposed to take care of the country in the future. You're going to lose that. But if you have to do it - you have to. You can't yield to a power that is against everything you believe in."