On Armed Forces Day 1989, hundreds lined up in the scorching
north Texas heat at Carswell AFB. They were awaiting a turn to look inside the
Confederate Air Force's Diamond Lil,
one of only three flyable B-24 Liberators or variants still in existence.
For some, it was an emotional moment. One visitor, a former
inmate of a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, was especially
moved. "He hadn't seen a Liberator since the war," explained CAF
member David Liebenson. "When it was his turn to climb aboard, he couldn't
help but cry."
Such scenes were common at the festivities, held in May,
celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the B-24 bomber, one of the most famous
airplanes of all time. More than 5,000 people flocked to Fort Worth for the
first phase of Liberator-related reunions. Part two of the bomber bash will
take place September 20-24 in San Diego, Calif.
Bob Vickers, national chairman of the celebration, described
the event as a tribute not only to the aircraft but also to the more than
1,000,000 men and women who built, supported, or flew B-24s in the war years.
The prototype XB-24, developed by Consolidated Aircraft
Corp., made its first flight from Lindbergh Field, San Diego, Calif. on December
29, 1939. Soon thousands of workers were building the bomber at plants across
the nation—at Consolidated in California and Texas, North American Aviation in
Texas, Ford Motor Co. in Michigan, and Douglas Aircraft Co. in Oklahoma.
Between 1942 and 1945, some 3,000 standard B-24s and
variants rolled off the mile-long assembly line at Consolidated's Fort Worth
plant, which is now the Fort Worth Division of General Dynamics. Peak
production saw deliveries of 175 aircraft per month.
Today, however, only a handful remain. CAF pilot David
Hughes, working with copilot Harold Smith and flight engineer Sam Manganson,
flew Diamond Lil to Fort Worth from its home in Harlingen, Tex. An LB-30B,
Diamond Lil was among a number of B-24As that were to be diverted from the Army
Air Corps to the Royal Air Force. The plane never made it to England.
Diamond Lil was converted to transport use and served as an
executive plane during the war.
Those Special Engines
Among participants at the anniversary event was Fort Worth
AFA Chapter official Bob Copley. Although he has flown many different bombers,
the B-24 is still his favorite. What made it so special? "Engines!"
says Mr. Copley. "Every man you ask will say the same thing."
The Liberator came equipped with four Pratt & Whitney
R-1830 radial engines, each generating 1,200 horsepower. The aircraft boasted a
top speed of 300 miles per hour and a cruising speed of about 200 mph.
Retired USAF Maj. Gen. Ramsay D. Potts, former Eighth Air
Force bomb group commander and one of five panelists at a special B-24 symposium,
maintained that the B-17 was a better high-altitude bomber. Even so, he noted,
"it took better pilots to fly the B-24."
Everything about the bomber was big—especially its
production run. More than 18,000 B-24s----a greater number than any other
warplane in US history—were produced for the war effort.
According to General Dynamics, B-24s flew 312,734 sorties,
dropped 634,831 tons of bombs, and downed more than 4,000 enemy aircraft during
World War II.
It was the B-24's range—up to 3,200 miles—that helped the US
and its allies extend their reach around the globe and perform a multitude of
critical missions. It had a maximum takeoff weight of 65.000 pounds and could
carry more than 8,000 pounds of bombs.
Lt. Gen. Carl R. Smith, Assistant Vice Chief of Staff of the
Air Force, pointed out that B-24 operations "stretched from the US to
Europe and North Africa, across the China-Burma-India 'hump' to the Pacific
theater and Alaska.
"Liberators attacked ground targets of every kind.
They sank surface ships, hunted and destroyed submarines, flew airlift
missions, and rotated ferry crews between Europe and the States." B-24s
carried out missions ranging from fuel-hauling to weather flights and naval
Raids on Ploesti
Among the most famous B-24 missions being recalled in Fort
Worth were two raids on enemy oil refineries located at Ploesti, Romania.
The first attack, carried out in June 1942 by thirteen US
Liberators, paralleled Gen. Jimmy Doolittle's B-25 bomber raid on Tokyo two
months earlier. "Just as his B-25s were the first American bombers to
strike Japan," noted General Smith, "so were the Liberators the
first American heavy bombers to attack a European target."
In the second raid on Ploesti, 177 B-24s from two Ninth Air
Force B-24 groups and three groups on loan from Eighth Air Force flew out of
the Libyan desert on August 1, 1943. It was the first large-scale, low-level
strike by heavy bombers against a well-defended target. Despite a disrupted
plan of attack, the raid was essential to this country, recalls Medal of Honor
recipient Gen. Leon W. Johnson. USAF (Ret.), who commanded the 44th Bomb Group
in that raid.
Nearly fifty B-24 reunion groups took part in the
anniversary activities in Texas. The participants included two Navy
contingents. (The Navy flew B-24s for antisubmarine patrol and other maritime
duties. The Navy called its B-24s PB4Ys.) Among the highlights was a memorial
tribute, including a special flyby of Diamond Lil and Delectable Doris (a
privately owned B-24J).
One popular exhibit was a fully operating B-24 nose turret,
presented by E. R. "Pony" Maples of Nashville, Tenn. Mr. Maples
said that the most interesting person who visited his exhibit was an elderly
woman who, with no guidance whatsoever, got into the turret, fired it up, and
ran it perfectly. When she was eighteen years old, she explained, her husband,
a bomb group commander, sneaked her on several flights at night and taught her
how to operate the equipment.
Another exhibitor at Fort Worth, Bob Collings, has been
restoring a B-24J with the help of General Dynamics, a major corporate
sponsor, and other history buffs. The newly restored bomber, dubbed the All
American, rolled out in July and began to prepare for a first flight. It
becomes the third still-flying Liberator in the world.
Capt. Dave Martin, a B-52 pilot with the 9th Bomb Squadron
at Carswell, examined the interior of Delectable Doris while it was on display
at the base. After he had ducked along the narrow catwalk in the bomb bay and
examined the cockpit controls, Captain Martin said that he was simply "in
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