456th Bombing Squadron Flys Off Into Wild Blue Yonder
August 20th, 2015
The 456th Bombardment Group was created in June 1943 for combat operations over Europe during World War II. 72 years later, only a handful of its former servicemen remain. Recently, the group celebrated its 47th, and final reunion in Omaha.
It was October of 1943. Ed Moore was in the second month of his college freshman year. That Tuesday morning he thought he might be in the scariest position of his life.
“I was having a chemistry test and I hadn’t studied for it. I thought the best way to get out of that was to enlist. And at 18, my mom was just distraught because she had to sign for me,” Moore recalled.
For other 18-year-olds like John Green, serving didn’t initially come voluntarily, but instead through the draft.
“My mother was just devastated and I was sad. And the first night out, I’ll tell you this: It wasn’t easy. I cried. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me or where I was going,” Green said.
Either way, as Don Womack put it, for everyone, it was an “it is what it is” mentality.
“I was just like every other kid; I knew I had to go. I wasn’t happy about it, but it was something that everybody did back then,” Womack said.
It’s been a long time since the World War II, but for men like Moore, Green, and Womack; the memories remain fresh. Now, 70 years later, the trio and a small handful of fellow World War II veterans were on a bus touring downtown Omaha. The group all served with the 456th Bombing Squadron – a heavy bombardment group that operated the B-24 Liberator aircraft in major combat operations across the European theater. And according to author Gail Elliot Downs, it’s a squadron that doesn’t get nearly enough credit for its role in the war.
“We went to all kinds of museums here in town. Every museum, every airfield we saw had a B-17, and not one B-24,” Downs said.
Downs is the author of The Black Suitcase Mystery – a novel revolving around the experiences of members of 456th and their families. For several years she’s accompanied the remaining members of the groups on reunion tours like this one around the world. With this being the 47th, and final reunion, Downs worries their story is one that could soon be forgotten.
“Back in the 1991 or 1995, when it was the 50th anniversary, there was newspaper coverage and TV coverage. It was everywhere in the press. For years and years, in between though, nothing much was done… Now, next week will be the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. By the time the 75th comes along and there will big celebrations again, there won’t be very many of the actual participants around,” Downs explained.
Each one of these veterans has a story. George Palmer’s begins in the cockpit of a B-24 Liberator. It was his seventh mission – a bombing run over a munitions factory in Hungary. But his airplane was shot down.
“We were hit by flak. It must have severed one or two of the cables that are utilized in steering the aircraft. The aircraft wasn’t fully controllable. So we all had to get out,” Palmer said.
Palmer would end up spending the next nine months in a German Prisoner of War camp. It would eventually be liberated by George Patton and the Third Army. A moment Palmer remembers vividly:
“They rode a bunch of great big tanks into our camp. And General Patton came through my barracks. He had his pearl-handled pistols on his hip,” Palmer recalled. “We were all wearing our best clothing, standing at attention as he walked through the barracks. My best clothing was a pair of grey cotton sweatpants and a GI shirt. He tripped on a floor board right in front of me and the soldiers on either side of him grabbed before he could fall. That was memorable for me.”
While he said many members were sad to call this their last reunion, it was almost inevitable.
“The reality is people are dying off pretty fast. There are nine of us World War II veterans and we’re all between the ages of 90 and 95,” Palmer said.
And Downs agreed:
“Seeing the men… I think it’s time to stop,” Downs said. “With every effort being made, it’s difficult for them. The important thing is for the current generations to realize what we have.”
The day’s tour ended the same way it had for the past 47 years: reminiscing with friends and family. There were 53 members when this group first started meeting for these reunions; on this night, there were nine. As the evening drew to a close, the daughter of a late service member ended the night on one final note: a rendition of the U.S. Air Force song “Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder”.
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