VIENNA - It was on his 50th and last combat mission on Dec. 18, 1944, when Staff Sgt. Richard Kent Eichenberg came closest to death.
The U.S. Army Air Corps veteran was the togglier gunner on a B-17 bomber mission headed from Obertal, Germany, when a British Spitfire was seen coming out of the clouds toward his plane.
Clouds surrounding the seven U.S. bombers were thick and soupy. The bombers were supposed to be among a squadron of 28 B-17s, but the remaining planes were scattered even before the mission began as a result of poor weather conditions.
Tribune Chronicle / Raymond L. Smith
U.S. Army veteran Richard K. Eichenberg has kept a complete history of his 50 combat missions in the European theater during World War II.
Although three-fourths of the planes were gone on another mission, one of the highest-ranking officers on the lead plane decided to continue their mission instead of aborting and returning to the base. In addition to being separated with the majority of the bombing squadron, they also had no fighter planes to escort them to and from the target site.
It was about a half hour after Eichenberg dropped his bombs on an oil refinery that the British Spitfire plane was seen coming out of the clouds.
"We knew something was wrong because the fighter plane would not have gotten that far without refueling somewhere," Eichenberg said. "We immediately figured it was a captured plane being flown by the Germans as a decoy."
Editor's note: This is part of a weekly series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans.
Richard K. Eichenberg
Branch: U.S. Army, April 9, 1943, to May 2, 1946
Rank: Staff sergeant
Assignment: 840th Bomb Squadron, 483 Bomb Group.
Battle Campaign: Rome Arno, Southern France.
Medals: Purple Heart, American Theater Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Air Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, European Africa Middle Eastern Service Medal
Family: Wife, Esther Eichenberg (deceased); children, Richard J. Eichenberg and Deborah Ferguson.
As he was firing on the plane, a FW-190 came into view and fired a 20 mm rocket into the nose of Eichenberg's bomber, exploding to the right of him.
"Blood flew over the nose of the ship," he said. "The navigator also was hit with the rocket. My guns were dangling out of the turret, quite useless, and so was I."
Eichenberg's right hand was throbbing with pain. He was hit on the top of his head, down his side, chest and knee. He was blown back toward the rear of the ship underneath the pilot and co-pilot. He was dragged back to the radio room.
The German attack lasted for four hours, until the Nazi pilots were running out of fuel.
Eichenberg's plane eventually crash landed. All of the 10 people on the plane survived the crash. Yugoslav partisans, dressed in Russian uniforms, pulled them out of the plane.
"They carried me on an ox cart and took me, in the cold rain, to a small hospital," Eichenberg said. "Meanwhile, the rest of the crew burned the bomber before it fell into the hands of the Germans."
He spent the next 17 months in hospitals across Europe and in the United States.
Now a retiree from National Castings Company Eichenberg, 92, lives in a modest, single-family home near the Wollom horse farm.
An affable man, Eichenberg was drafted into the military shortly after graduating from West Tech High School in Cleveland. His father, Kent, and brother, Douglas, each had already entered the U.S. Navy. Another brother, James, joined the U.S. Army in September 1946.
"I wanted to join the Marines and to be a pilot, but I failed the test to determine if I was color blind," he said. "They did not want anyone who was color blind."
He was drafted in April 1943. He was initially volunteered to go to paratrooper school but could not after he hurt his ankle.
He eventually ended up in Tampa, Fla., where Maj. Robert J. Kavanagh hand-selected a group of soldiers to be on his flight crew.
It was on a flight going to New York that Eichenberg accomplished his dream of flying a plane.
In 1944, when in Gioia, Italy, Eichenberg's unit was one of several at the christening of a B-17 plane that was christened "Haley's Comet," after the legendary actor Jack Haley, who in 1939 played the Tin Man in the ''Wizard of Oz'' movie.
The plane was assigned to the 301st Bombardment group.
Eichenberg was assigned to the 840 Squadron, 483 Bombardment Group, 5th Wing, 15th Air Corps.
It was not until Aug. 20, 1944, that Eichenberg's unit had its first bombing mission. They flew over a Oswiecim, Poland and successfully bombed a a synthetic oil refinery.
"We ran into a swarm of ME-109s (enemy fighter pilots)," he said. "They only made one pass when our P-51 escort went after them. We successfully destroyed the refinery."
While flying over the site, Eichenberg saw a small group of unidentified building off to one side of the property. It was only later that they learned the German name for Oswiecim was Auschwitz. That was the site of the infamous concentration camp.
It was during his 11th and 12th missions on Sept. 10, 1944, in which the bombers were flying over Vienna, Austria. The Germans were waiting for them. They had 383 88-mm anti-aircraft guns shooting at them as they approached the target.
They lost a lot of craft. Eichenberg's ship was heavily damaged, with 14 holes ripped into the aircraft. One of his lieutenants was hit under his left eye by a piece of flak.
On Oct. 4, on his 25th and 26th missions, Eichenberg's squadron was flying over the Marshalling Yards in Munich, Germany. They met significant resistance.
In his notes of the mission, Eichenberg wrote:
"Just as I tripped the toggle switch releasing the bombs, a large piece of flak (anti-aircraft shell) came through the left side of the nose and hit our navigator in his left side and came out of his chest."
The navigator fell on top of Eichenberg. They had to push his body off Eichenberg.
"I was hit slightly in the left leg," Eichenberg said.
They flew back to their headquarters in Foggia, Italy, and took the navigator's body to the morgue.