Vet flew 44 combat missions

BAZETTA – Thomas Palmer Jr., 87, and his buddies said if they ever got shot down or had to bail their B-24s, they’d never leave the airplane but ride down with it.

He said those were things the crew often considered if under attack because they heard the enemy was so brutal and had an unfair advantage.

The World War II veteran said he remembers the day that happened to one of his friends. He kept his word and stayed with the plane.

And though there were times Palmer came close to having to make the decision to bail or stay, it always seemed like a Catch-22, he said.

Palmer was lucky enough to escape the war without harm, in spite of the many combat missions, but he wasn’t fortunate enough to say he never had to think on his feet back to that conversation with his friends.

Palmer enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on Oct. 13, 1943, at the age of 17. Though they wouldn’t accept him until he was 18, he entered into active service on Jan. 16, 1944.

“I felt it was my duty to get in the service. I never regretted it,” he said.

Following basic training in Miami Beach, Fla., and attending gunnery school in Harlingen, Texas, he was assigned to the 420th Army Air Force Base Unit in March Field, Calif., as a ball turret gunner. There the crew – a group of 10 men forevermore to be known as B-28 – trained in a B-24 for overseas operations.

“We trained to assimilate bomb runs as we might fly them in combat. We flew every day and sometimes twice a day. We would fly over deserts of California, Arizona and Nevada. Everyone got to practice their position so they would know what to do if in actual combat,” he said.

Gunners were the only ones with live ammunition and each had a different color projectile. Palmer said a smaller plan would fly in the distance holding a big white target as the gunners fired at it, leaving a hole with their designated color.

When practice was over, the plane would return to base and there the colored holes were counted.

“The rounds of ammo were counted before we left, so it was easy to determine the percentage of hits each gunner made. It added more interest to the long hours of training,” he said. “I did really good. My gun position changed from ball turret to the tail turret.”

As a tail gunner, Palmer went on to complete 44 combat missions in Borneo, China, Celebes, Halmahera and the Philippines.

Palmer’s crew of four officers and six enlisted men landed in New Guinea in September 1944. He was assigned the 13th Air Force, 5th Bombardment Group and 72nd Bomb Squadron. The crew had to hack through the middle of a jungle with machetes to tent out, sometimes moving from island to island setting up just to tear down hours later for a bomb mission.

The bombardment group’s first mission was Oct. 18, 1944, at a Japanese air base in New Guinea. Palmer said the first mission acted as a stepping stone for the other missions to come.

“It gave us a chance to do our thing and get off to a good start on bombing missions. The war was over in New Guinea, but there was still a lot of Japanese around in confined areas,” Palmer said.

It was the crew’s third mission on Nov. 2, 1944, that left Palmer and his fellow men wondering whether or not they should bail their planes or go down with them.

The mission lasted 10 hours on Ormoc Bay off the western coast of Leyte in the Philippines. Targeting the Japanese Navy, the group of seven aircraft’s mission was to fly over and attack the fleet resting in the bay.

“We had to pass the whole Navy. They had so many battleships, cruisers and destroyers with all kinds of gunnery. And of course they had a number of aircraft carriers,” Palmer said.

After the lead bombardier – a crew member in the group’s first plane – called “bombs away,” all planes dumped blockbusters on the task force below. But the B-24 carrying Palmer failed to release.

“All the other planes were able to drop their bombs and headed back to base. We had to keep flying on. When we got beyond the target we thought ‘What are we going to do? We still have the bombs.'”

Forbidden to pull out of formation on bomb runs, Palmer’s crew decided to violate air force rules and try again on their own. Once out of formation and back over the target, they were alone.

“We were like a duck with a thousand hunters. We released eight 1,000-pound blockbusters: small, narrow bombs that exploded if they pierced metal. Our bombadier put three along each side and two up the deck of a Japanese heavy cruiser, one of their newest and finest in their fleet. The ship listed to the left and then the right, rolled over and sunk. And everyone on it went with it,” the veteran said.

But the mission wasn’t over yet. The Japanese fighters instantly followed Palmer’s aircraft while all the remaining battleships and cruisers fired intense and accurate anti-aircraft warfare.

“The Japanese zeros swarmed in on us following us until we reached the formation again. The Japanese fighters turned back because by now they would be facing the fire power of our formation,” he said.

By the time Palmer’s plane caught up with the rest of the bombardment group, the crew realized how badly their plane was damaged. Almost an hour past the target, the pilot sounded the first alarm to prepare to bail out.

“The first bell means to prepare to bail out. The second bell means jump,” Palmer said. “From the first to the second bell, you’re sitting over the escape patch with your feet way out and ready to go.”

Fortunately, the second alarm never sounded and Palmer’s crew didn’t have to abandon their aircraft, but there was still several hours left before arriving to the base, and their beaten plane was running out of fuel and was unable to function.

“The pilot contacted the tower and said he knew we were violating rules but we’re coming in. … He asked for emergency landing permission and to prepare the landing strip.

”We crash-landed. No one was seriously hurt, but our aircraft was totally damaged. There were over 50 holes in the upper turret. It was half shot away,” Palmer said.

Though Palmer’s crew escaped without serious injury, six B-24s from their squadron never returned, and now they had to face the wrath of their commanding officer. The crew was told their pilot was going to be court-martialed for disobeying orders.

“Representing the crew, I spoke up and said ‘Sir, if the pilot is court martialed, the rest of the crew would quit flying. Flying was voluntary and we could quit at any time and without an excuse.

”The officer in charge said a hearing would be heard in a few days. Three days later, they made a decision not to court martial him because they lost too many aircraft and they didn’t need to have the men quit flying, too.”

Other missions included spending more than 12 hours in a B-24 to bomb Japanese oil fields, or recon missions that required spying on the enemy’s troops to calculate their anti-aircraft before demolishing the base.

In most cases, the crew’s tasks was to fly at a low enough height to bomb accurately, but high enough to escape without being hit by flames or the Japanese fighters and ground forces.

In the course of two years, Palmer encountered intense and often life-threatening situations that would leave some scarred and regretful. Though his memory is sharp and he recalls all 44 combat missions up until his discharge in October 1945, he said there are many things he’d like to forget, like the loss of friends or being seconds away from landing in the hands of the enemy.

“Too many things happened that doesn’t allow you to forget. …The war had a great effect on my life. I went from a very naive 18-year-old boy directly into adulthood,” Palmer said.

“Patriotism was an unquestioned thing. The potential dangers and hazards were such that every day my life was put at risk, but we knew that what we were doing was well worth the danger to life. … I would not take a million dollars for my wartime experiences, but I likewise would not give a nickel to do it over again.”