Conversation with George Henry Clay: 50 with the 15th Air Force | HistoryNet MENU

Conversation with George Henry Clay: 50 with the 15th Air Force

By Paraag Shukla
2/2/2017 • World War II Magazine

(Courtesy of George Clay Henry)

After graduating from high school in 1940, George Clay Henry worked in the cotton fields of northern Louisiana. But the sight of training aircraft from nearby Barksdale Field wheeling overhead drew him to the U.S. Army Air Forces. Henry enlisted, eventually flying out of Grottaglie, Italy, with the 449th Bombardment Group of the Fifteenth Air Force. Technical Sergeant Henry went on to fly 50 combat missions as a flight engineer and top turret gunner in a B-24 Liberator, Devil’s Henchmen.

Describe your first mission. 

On January 8, 1944, we bombed an enemy airfield near Mostar, Yugoslavia. During the mission, we saw a few bursts of flak but none of our B-24s suffered any real damage. “This is a piece of cake,” we naïvely thought. “Nothing to it!” Of course that didn’t last long. But we had a great crew; 10 men from 10 states—very unusual!

How was the view from the top turret? What was it like to be able to look upon the entire formation of hundreds of aircraft? 

It was exciting. We were usually near the front of the formation, so I could see airplanes all over the sky. Not only our four squadrons, but many, many others as well.

How about firing the .50-caliber machine guns, inches from your head?

It was noisy…but so was the airplane! My top turret was located right between four large engines. We had cut-offs to keep us from firing into parts of our own airplane, but I remember this one wire antennae, strung from just behind my turret to the top of one of the vertical stabilizers; I would keep shooting that thing off.

Our ball turret gunner, Donald Peterson, was a crack shot and destroyed at least five German fighters. But the confirmation process for crediting kills was so very complicated that after the first couple of times, he didn’t even bother putting in claims.

Your bomb group received the Presidential Unit Citation for raids on Ploesti. 

The Ploesti oil fields in Romania were huge, with fields and factories, and provided about 40 percent of the fuel for the Nazi war machine. The Germans were masterful at using smoke screens to obscure the terrain and the site was very well protected. We lost so many aircraft over that one target. I was over Ploesti on two occasions and can still remember the flak bursting all around us, and the thick smoke rising from the burning oil fields.

Tell me about the flak.

On February 17, we were sent to bomb German troop concentrations near Anzio to help take pressure off Allied army units struggling to push inland. On that day, the Germans moved their tanks into the hills, swung up their 88mm guns, and used them against our aerial formations. They put up the heaviest flak I ever saw in my 50 missions. It was really bad. Every airplane in our squadron was damaged to some extent, but by some miracle none were shot down. However, our left waist gunner—Donald J. Ames—was killed. Our B-24’s hydraulic reservoir was shot by a direct hit and we lost all of the fluid. So when we got back to base, we couldn’t lower our wing flaps and I had to hand-crank the landing gear down. Our pilot had one shot to land with functioning brakes, and he did a beautiful job. And our amazing ground crew had the B-24 ready to fly the very next day.

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Your flight engineer role put you in some dicey situations.

At some point headquarters put out an edict saying that if a B-24 carrying concussion bombs couldn’t get its bomb doors open over the target, the bombardier was to drop the bombs through the doors. Well, that happened. One time our bomb doors opened only partway and got stuck—so we dropped our bombs right through them. Of course that caused the bomb doors to flop around and the B-24 started buffeting. That forced us out of formation, which we hated—there was safety in numbers and German fighters pounced on stragglers.

As flight engineer I used a four-foot-long stick to measure gasoline before we took off, and each of our bomb arming wires had a loop on the end of it. I rigged up one of those wires to the end of my gas stick and cautiously walked out onto the catwalk. I had an oxygen bottle but no parachute—there wasn’t enough room. Other than the narrow metal beam, there was nothing but open sky beneath my feet. Fortunately, I was able to loop those bomb doors, pull them up, and secure them. So we were able to get back in formation. That was one of the hairiest missions.

German fighters often made head-on attacks against bombers. Did you observe that?

Yes. During one mission our bombardier accidentally knocked my intercom loose. So I didn’t get any fighter warnings. I was looking toward the tail when the Germans attacked from the front, out of the sun. They went right through and shot down the B-24s on either side of us. Boy, I really screwed up there.

How were your fighter escorts?

Initially our “little friends” could escort us only partway, mainly for fuel reasons. Fortunately, they began using drop tanks to extend their range. Eventually the Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group arrived in our area. Boy, were they good! They escorted us often, and we loved to have them on our side.

Did you and your Fifteenth Air Force comrades feel overshadowed by the Eighth Air Force?

Oh, yes. Before the B-24 really got into the war, the Eighth Air Force’s B-17 squadrons were based in England, some not far from London. They got a lot of press attention. I understand how all that got started, but I would say the B-24 was the better airplane. It had a longer range and a heavier load.

Tell me about your last mission.

My 50th bombing mission was on June 11, 1944, just days after the Allied landings at Normandy. We flew all the way to the Black Sea to bomb oil facilities in Bulgaria. Our course required us to fly right by areas known for heavy German fighter activity. A lot of praying that day! We made it to the target, accurately dropped our bombs, and were not attacked by fighters. We lost one B-24 on the mission. After I made it back, my squadron commander recommended I rotate home for a year.

What was it like to be back?

The army first sent me to Mississippi to teach airmen about aircraft instruments. I was expecting to retrain on the B-32 bomber and go to the Pacific for another combat tour. But in the spring of 1945, the army began using a point system to relieve some of us to go home; I qualified. I was at a separation center when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; it delayed my getting home. That upset me.

When I was home, my mother noticed me having trouble holding a cup of coffee with both hands. She began to cry—and that made me a nervous wreck! I was eager to get back to the routine of military life. I got an engineering degree and was in the Air Force Reserve. After a combat tour, coming back to an office job felt boring! I had wanted to go to pilot school, and after the war I became a private pilot. When I was recalled for Korea, they told me I was two years too old to become a pilot. I was 28!

When did you meet your wife, Lois?

Oh, I remember that very distinctly. In college, I was rooming with her brother. I was downtown one day, near the bank building’s clock, when Lois and my roommate came around the corner. That’s when I met her. They invited me out to their house, and things just took off from there.

And here you are.

And here we are. ✯

 

This interview was originally published in the March/April 2017 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.

 

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