Winona’s flying liberators — the B-24 in WWII


(1/2/2014)

by KENT O. STEVER

Recently pondering a 2007 issue of Big River Magazine, I ran across a story that brought “WWII to Lake Pepin,” or so the title suggested. Bob Parrott of Lake City wrote of the crash of a B-24 Liberator bomber being ferried from St. Paul to Kansas City with a three-man skeleton crew in 1944.

“It was a cold, snowy Friday afternoon, and a brief, squally snowstorm had kicked up over the lake. Less than half an hour into its flight, the plane circled low over Pepin, Wisconsin and turned westward, possibly in an attempt to reach an emergency landing field at Frontenac, Minnesota.

"At about 2 p.m. the plane went down, struck the ice and exploded in a mass of flames. It plowed a quarter-mile-long hole in the two-inch-thick ice, extending upstream from the point of impact. The plane was demolished by a second explosion as its wing tanks blew up.”

A 1976 Winona Daily News story offered that the bomber, having left the St. Paul modification center after being turned over to a ferrying crew from the 33rd Ferrying Command at Kansas City, “hit the thin ice about three-quarters of a mile from the Pepin shore, burst into flames and sank in about 25 feet of water.”

The plane was the B-24 Liberator. Introduced to the world in 1939, it ended WWII as the highest production heavy bomber of history — with over 18,400 units, half of which were produced by the Ford Motor Company — at the rate of one every 55 minutes. The B-24 holds the distinction as the most-produced American military aircraft.

With a wingspan of 110 feet, length of 67 feet, height 18 feet and top speed of 290 mph, the B-24 carried a lot of Winona-area crew members throughout WWII. It moved into the Korean War of 1950; soon to be replaced by the B-29. The crew initially consisted of eleven — pilot, copilot, navigator, radio operator, bombardier, nose turret, top turret, ball turret, waist gunners (two) and a tail gunner. Of the lost Lake Pepin plane, members were three: pilot, flight officer, and flight engineer.

The dedication and expertise of Winona’s young men in the B-24 (and others like them on ships and in battlefields) led us to final victory. We are proud of their contributions, the heritage they engendered and the legacy we find hard to duplicate.

World War II indeed came to Lake Pepin and to Winona.

Our “hometown heroes” protected our freedom — and must be remembered for their unparalleled dedication and personal sacrifice.

Ted’s traveling circus —

the B-24 in battle

In 2013, First Lieutenant Bill Brown, at 93 years of age, spoke gently of leading his “lucky crew.” The W. M. Brown Crew, serving in the Eighth Air Force, stayed together for the duration of their assignment, from July 1944 through March 1945. They were in the Second Wing, 93rd Bomb Group, 328th Squadron of B-24s. They were “lucky” in that none of the eight members of the crew received a Purple Heart in their 35 combat missions over Germany.

The 93rd Bombardment Group (heavy) originated in 1942 at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. Sent to the newly-constructed Hardwick Air Base (RAF Hardwick) five miles west of Bungay, Norfolk, England, their first mission of October 9, 1942, was a strike against a locomotive manufacturing facility in Lille, France — led by Colonel Ted Timberlake. From that point forward, the 93rd went on to 396 missions, ceasing operation on April 30, 1945, with the total Eighth Air Force stand-down and the end of the war. Victory in Europe (V-E Day) was declared on May 8, 1945. The 93rd returned to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, AAF to be converted into a B-29 Group.

The “original loss rate (of planes and crews) was 45-50 percent.” Twenty-five combat missions was the required standard for pilot and crew. In 1944, Gen. James Doolittle, leader of the Eighth Air Force, increased the requirement to thirty missions. Doolittle earned the Medal of Honor for his valor and leadership as commander of the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo in April 1942 while a lieutenant colonel. He is also noted for initiating instrument-guided flying. According to Lt. Brown, “the mission requirement was soon raised to 35. Some chose to fly more.”

Bill flew his “brand new ship” (cost $250,000) to England to be stationed in “the Bulge” or eastern part of England at Norwich - Hardwick Air Field. Lt. Brown had to sign for his plane upon leaving Topeka. He “traveled the North Route to Manchester, New Hampshire, Goose Bay, Labrador, Iceland, and Greenland and on to Valley, Wales — where they “took my new plane away.” He needed to turn in the plane upon arrival. Bill “demanded a receipt – and received one.”

His group (one of 15 in the 2nd Wing) was composed of four squadrons (tail code “Circle B”); with 36 planes per squadron sent off to battle. Col. Ted Timberlake was in charge throughout. “Most decorated, most traveled, most productive,” the 93rd was shipped down to Africa and then to England — and back again. When in England, their home base was at Hardwick. The plane 44-10511, which Bill flew from Topeka to Valley, Wales, in July, lasted only until September 27 when it was shot down — with the pilot and three gunners Killed in Action and the remaining five crew members listed as Prisoner(s) of War.

The original B-24 crew had 11 members. Bill offered they had ten — cut back to eight (pilot, co-pilot, engineer, navigator, radio, nose gunner, tail gunner, upper turret gunner.) The bombardier and belly gunner were eliminated before they arrived in England, with the switch to “pattern bombing.” Lead planes of a strike force had smoke bombs attached to their wings — and a bombardier on staff. When the lead planes dropped their smoke bombs, all dropped their payloads.

Lt. Brown (SN 0700902) completed 35 missions as Pilot on 23 February 1945. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with five clusters.

Bill’s flights took him to approximately 25 distinct German cities, with seven doubles and one triple to Magdeburg. Bill remembers them all, but especially the “pea soup fog” takeoff to Hanau with a runway marked only by the headlights of radio Jeeps. The trip to Hamburg gained him a tree limb in the landing gear, a smoking engine, and “20-some holes elsewhere in the plane.”

His trip to Cologne caused him to return at diminishing altitude over the North Sea “on two and a half engines” after taking heavy flak from the target area. “Three engines were replaced before this plane flew again.” Another incident caused him to land on three engines at a distant airfield. The next day, he was asked to take off to his home base on those three.

He agreed, only if his crew members were sent ahead in another plane and if the flight leader requesting the flight would volunteer as co-pilot. After starting takeoff with locked controls and a smoking engine causing his new co-pilot to scramble, he offered; “You can bet after that I never allowed anything except an item-by-item use of the takeoff check list.”

When the war ended and Bill was attending four-engine instructor school, all personnel were assembled and “told to raise our hand if we wanted to stay in the service.” About one-third chose to stay. Bill stayed a while, going on to earn certificates as Pilot Instructor in Instrument Training and Four-Engine Training. “After the allies took back Paris, they took my group out of combat temporarily. Wood racks of flooring were built into the bomb bays of planes of the 93rd to fly loads of flour to Orly Air Base (Paris).” Bill said he was “a flour deliveryman.”

Even though flights to Orly were at 500 feet and snipers were around upon landing, they didn’t need to carry their former 8,800 pounds of bombs (assorted 200, 500, 1,000-pound) or their ten .50 caliber guns. On all missions, they cruised at 215 mph, with a load of 2,450 gallons of gasoline. The 450-gallon auxiliary tanks were filled for longer flights. The B-24 could fly up to 14 hours with a 28,000 foot ceiling, 2,100-mile range and top speed of 290 mph; using 200 gallons of fuel per hour.

The USAF facilities at Orly were turned over to the French government in 1967 as a result of France's withdrawal from NATO's integrated military command, and all non-French NATO forces were asked to leave France.

Bill fondly remembers his crew and their shared purpose of mission. The responsibility shown by his group of young men over the course of 35 harrowing missions was exceptional. Three members, including Bill, were senior at age 24, with the balance of the crew even younger.

During our interview, Bill was asked whether he had considered being a commercial airline pilot. His response; “People get killed in those things, you know.” He returned to Omaha and to a secure position on the ground as auditor for the Union Pacific Railroad.

He was favorite uncle to the five boys of his brother Walter and wife Lee. Walt was also a veteran of WWII, having served in the Army Quartermaster Corps. His experiences and loss of an eye in war caused him greater difficulty.

With Walt’s passing, Bill continues today as moral support to Lee and family. He’s an able driver at 93 — taking Lee to HyVee and nearby places. In addition, Bill and Lee travel to 93rd Bomb Group reunions across the nation — most recently in Hartford, Conn. Out of 60 people in attendance, only ten were remaining veterans.

Although seldom mentioned, war experiences were paramount in Lt. Brown’s life experiences. Reunions with fellow members of the 93rd Bomb Group across the nation have been highlights in his abundant life. He enjoyed his frequent trips from Omaha to Winona, enjoying the beautiful entry toward Winona past the Arches and over Stockton Hill. Dinners at the Hot Fish Shop and backyard family gatherings welcomed him to Winona.

He is honored to have served his nation.

Bill enjoyed being told of the linkage of the Earl of Hardwick to Winona. James Hardwick was an original founder of dairies in Winona — a lifetime vocation of Bill’s Winona family members — including the Feiten Dairy and Springdale Dairy.

Born in 1853 in England, James immigrated with his parents in 1857 to a Winona valley “with seven log houses, five frame houses and a tavern called 'Queen of the Valley.’” His grandmother had been “a lady-in-waiting” to Queen Victoria, his grandfather a dairyman. He was reported in Winona papers as a great-grandson of the Earl of Hardwick. Before leaving England in 1856, he remembered having a glimpse of Queen Victoria in Bristol, as she passed by in a carriage drawn by six white horses.”

After buying eighty acres (at $12.50 per acre) next to his father in Gilmore Valley in 1878, James continued entries at the fair and extended his plantings and herd. He established his dairy at 68 East Fourth Street in 1886 where “Hardwick’s Dairy Products are perfectly pasteurized.” He was the “first to pasteurize milk in Winona and sell it.”

Sources: 93rd bg.com home page, Wikipedia, YouTube WWII videos, Winona Newspaper Project (WSU), personal interview, personal records of Lt. Brown, W.M. Brown pictures, Lakeville Sun-Current and author remembrances.

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