By Dawn’s Early Light

By Jim Ignasher

First published in Your Smithfield Magazine, July, 2012

Sergeant Howard Thornton, (standing far right) was a member of a B-24 bomber crew during World War II.

Sergeant Howard Thornton, (standing far right) was a member of a B-24 bomber crew during World War II.

Wendling Air Base, England, World War II.

Those scheduled to fly awoke before dawn and made their way to the chow line.  After breakfast, a briefing, then off to the warbirds loaded with bombs destined for German soil.  As pink light overcame the gray dawn each man had time to ponder what Fate might have in store for him.  Would this be their last sunrise? Would they be badly wounded, or shot down and taken prisoner? It took courage to climb aboard those aircraft, for each man knew the odds of coming back were against him.      

Howard Thornton of Greenville belongs to what Tom Brokaw dubbed the “Greatest Generation”; men and women of courage and character who did their part to win World War II.  Their stories, like their generation, are rapidly fading into the yellowed pages of history.  It is for this reason that I sought to speak with him.   

Sergeant Thornton flew thirty combat missions as a waist-gunner on a B-24 Liberator; a four-engine “heavy” bomber aircraft capable of raining four tons of explosives down on enemy positions.  His story is typical of many who flew in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II, (Later called the Army Air Force) yet it is also unique in its own way.   

Howard was born in 1925 to Frank and Edith (Hopkins) Thornton. His father owned F.W. Thornton’s Ice Cream in Greenville, where Howard worked when he wasn’t in school.  When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Howard, though barely sixteen, tried to enlist in the Marines. 

“The Marines wouldn’t take me because I was too young.” Howard recalled, “They said come back when you’re eighteen.”

The recruiter who turned Howard away possibly saved his life, and set him on the path he was destined to follow.  In October of 1943 Howard began aviation cadet training at Fort Devens, Massachusetts.  He recalls standing at attention with other raw recruits in a large aviation hangar when a sergeant called out, “Who wants to fly?”  Of course they all raised their hands, and were promptly issued brooms and told to “Fly these brooms!”  For the next two hours they swept out the hangar.

The would-be future pilots were then sent to Florida where they were told that the Air Corps had too many pilot applicants, and that if they still wanted to fly they would have to do so as radio operators or air gunners.  Howard chose gunnery school and was sent to Texas for training.  Six weeks later he was transferred to California and assigned to the crew of a B-24. 

The crew’s officers included the pilot, Carl Myers of California; the co-pilot, Andy (Swede) Anderson of Iowa; Navigator William Warntz of Pennsylvania; and Bombardier Emerich Zurich of Michigan.  Besides Howard, the enlisted men included Joe Payton of New Jersey; Bernard Jaklinski of Chicago; Richard Gillette, and George Kirk, both from California.

The rookie crew flew practice missions out of March Field, California, in preparation for going overseas.  Howard recalled one night when they got lost and found themselves circling inside a three sided canyon near Palm Springs while searching for an airfield.  Due to mandatory blackouts, the control tower was prohibited from turning on the runway lights so all the crew could see was blackness below.  The pilot told Howard to turn on the plane’s searchlight, and when he did, they discovered that the aircraft was barely above the trees!  If the plane had clipped the top of one of them their war would have been over. Thankfully someone on the ground realized their predicament and organized a fleet of automobiles to park along the runway with their headlights on thereby allowing the plane to land.

Howard Thornton WW II

Howard Thornton WW II

By October of 1944 the crew was ready for overseas duty.  They traveled by train to New York, and then to England via the Queen Mary.  It was aboard ship that he saw the familiar face of Edward Taillon of Spragueville.  “Eddie was in the army,” he recalled, “To this day I’ve never seen him since.” 

The crew arrived at Wendling Air Base as part of the Eight Air Force, 392nd Heavy Bombardment Group, 577th Squadron.  They flew their first combat mission a week later.

Howard termed it a “milk run”, meaning it was an easy mission as far as combat missions go because there was no anti-aircraft flack or enemy fighters to contend with.  Unfortunately, succeeding missions got longer and tougher.   

Howard acknowledged that the old cliché about anti-aircraft flack being so thick at times that it seemed one could walk across the sky on it was true.  The red-hot shards of exploding flack could perforate the aluminum panels of an airplane like a hot knife through butter, and Howard’s plane routinely came back with twenty-five to thirty flack-holes in it.  Howard recalled one mission over Leipzig, Germany, where they encountered forty square miles of flack!  All it would take was one fragment to hit a vital area of the airplane to bring it down.

Air crews protected themselves from flack by wearing protective steel flack-vests and helmets, but with the noise of combat and with adrenalin pumping, Howard said a piece of flack could hit his vest and he wouldn’t realize it until later when he would discover a tear in the canvas covering! 

While there was no defense against flack, air gunners such as Howard kept attacking fighter planes at bay with .50 caliber machine guns.   Contrary to Hollywood movies, they never fired at passing enemy planes due to windage and airspeed variables; only at fighters that came directly towards them.  Then it became a question as to who would shoot who first.

Bomber crews of World War II often named their planes, and decorated them with “nose-art” that usually depicted a nude or scantly clad woman, and Howard’s crew was no exception.  It was unanimously voted to name their ship the “Terri Ann” after Terri Ann Myers, the pilot’s newborn daughter.  Howard explained how each man chipped in a British pound note (Worth at the time $4.05 American) to pay a man to paint the name Terri Ann, and the naked image of a shapely dark haired woman on the right nose of the plane.  As a side note, the image was later attired in a short black dress when all bomber crews were ordered to “modify” the artwork on their planes in anticipation of the Queen of England’s inspection tour of Brittan’s airfields.  Terri Ann wore that dress for the rest of the war.

The crew had great trust and confidence in their plane and their pilot.  On one occasion flack set the number two engine on fire and the fire suppression system had been damaged.  An explosion was a distinct possibility, and Lieutenant Myers offered to let the crew bail out, but they declined.  Luckily the fire burned itself out, but the pilot needed to find a place to land.  By now they were over Belgium, and saw a captured German airfield that was in the hands of the allies. 

“As soon as we hit the runway the number 3 engine went out.”  Howard explained.  “Then all of the sudden two jeeps with red lights and sirens came racing up along side as we rolled down the runway.”   The jeeps belonged to the Canadian military police who quickly warned the crew out of the plane and into a nearby ditch.  No sooner had they done what they were told, four German fighter planes began attacking the airfield!

Howard and his crewmates spent that night in Brussels while waiting for the Terri Ann to be repaired.   It was there he saw what happened to those who had collaborated with the Nazis, for nearly every pole had a “traitor’s” body hanging from it.  The following day their plane was repaired and they returned to England.

Life at Wendling Air Base was luxurious compared to that of infantry troops living in fox holes.  Aircrews slept on clean sheets, ate hearty hot meals, and had the opportunity to shower and shave daily.  But it all came with a price, for the U.S. Air Corps suffered more casualties during World War II than all of the other branches of the service.  Statistically, an airman’s chances of survival were slim.  For this reason those in command set a certain number of missions each crew was required to fly before being eligible for rotation back to the states.  In Howard’s case the magic number was thirty missions. 

Howard explained how the aircrews would fly a mission and then get one or two days off before being assigned to fly another.  He recalled how in December of 1944 the planes couldn’t get off the ground for a week due to bad weather.  It was during that week the Germans launched a full attack against the Allies in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.  Howard recalled his frustration at not being able to help the infantry. “That was tough that Battle of the Bulge – those poor guys getting all shot up…”  

It wasn’t just fighters and flack that could bring an aircraft down; equipment could malfunction.  Howard recalled a mission when a live 2,000 pound bomb got hung up in the bomb bay and someone had to crawl in and release it.  That someone turned out to be him!  The B-24 was at 30,000 feet, and the bomb bay doors had to remain open.  At that altitude the air temperature is minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit, so one can imagine the wind-chill he faced.  Worse, was the fact there wasn’t enough room for him to don a parachute! 

Howard braced himself over the bomb as best he could and discovered that the release mechanism had frozen due to ice. He was forced to utilize a two-pound hammer to get the bomb to release, knowing that each blow could detonate the bomb!  The moment the plane was freed from the bomb’s weight it abruptly soared upwards nearly causing Howard to lose his grip!     

On another occasion, the crew was forced to land with a full load of highly explosive RDX bombs; something the manual said should never be done, all because a ground mechanic had forgotten a screw driver in the rudder controls!          

Yet despite the dangers, there were also lighter moments.  One day they flew so low over a G.I. baseball game, that one of the players threw a ball at the aircraft.  The pilot said, “Watch this!”, and they circled back and “buzzed” the field sending the players scattering in all directions!    

The Terri Ann was considered a “lucky” plane, for Howard and his crew flew their thirty missions without so much as a scratch – unless one counts the time Howard struck his head when a tire blew out on landing.  The wound required twenty-five stitches and the pilot joked that he would put him in for a purple heart, which Howard adamantly declined. 

By the spring of 1945 the war in Europe was winding down, and the crew of the Terri Ann, having flown their thirty missions, was ordered home. They landed the Terri Ann at Bradley Field, Connecticut, in June of ’45.  There they said their good-byes and promised to keep in touch, but it was not to be.  After the war each man resumed his life and there never seemed time for a reunion.

Howard Thornton 2012

Howard Thornton 2012

“That was the last time we were ever together.”  Howard lamented. 

Over the years Howard kept in touch via cards and letters with the Bombardier, Emerich Zurich, but he has since passed away, along with the rest of the Terri Ann’s crew.  Howard is the last one left. 

After the war Howard returned to Smithfield, but was recalled by the Air Force in 1951 when the Korean War erupted.  He decided to make the Air Force a career, and later served in Vietnam with the 362d Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron. 

During his career, he amassed a number of medals including the Bronze Star, Air Force Commendation Medal, five Air Medals with oak leaf clusters, the Army Good Conduct Medal, Air Force Good Conduct Medal, European Theatre Medal, American Theatre Medal, World War II Service Medal, National Defense Medal, Korean Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, and the United Nations Korean Medal. He retired a Master Sergeant on February 1, 1970, after twenty-two years of active service.   

Of the 18,482 B-24 Liberators produced during WW II, less than twenty survive today.  Unfortunately the Terri Ann is not among them.  Research indicates she was scrapped in October of 1945.  Howard Thornton is the last to tell her story. 

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