B-24 Crew Remembers The Fear And The Closeness

I'm posting this on my blog. I have retrieved it from a strange online archive of old newspaper articles. This is important for me to save because Charles Kolar, identified below, was my great uncle.

There's very little I can find out about my extended family on that side of the tree, long since grafted into others, so I am particularly fond of various bits and pieces I find.

August 03, 1990 The Morning Call| by CAROL CLEAVELAND,
They felt their knees shake, their stomachs turn to knots. They said their prayers and tried not to feel the piercing cold that drives through a man's skin at 22,000 feet.

And through it all was the incessant noise of flak cracking against the walls of their B-24 bomber, a sound Ted Rogal would later compare to driving rain on a car roof.

Leo Ul said, "We were more like a family than a crew.... It was better that way because if we spent a lot of time with another crew, if they went down we'd feel real bad."

"And a lot of them went down," Rogal said.

This is the talk of survivors -- Rogal, Ul, Al Hernandez, Phil Haubert, Charles Kolar, David Rossi -- six men who flew together behind Axis lines during World War II to bomb German factories and oil refineries.

Yesterday, the crew members got together at Rogal's Wescosville home for a reunion they hold every five years. They joked and swapped memories, like the one about how they used to carry beer up in the plane for the ground crew; at 22,000 feet, the beer got cold.

"They always put the beer in (a plane) with someone who they thought was going to be lucky," Ul said. If the plane was shot down, the beer was lost along with the crew.

Rogal organized this reunion, which includes crew members from Texas, Georgia, New York and California, so he and his friends could see the L-B40/B-24 Liberator that's on display in a Confederate Air Force show through Sunday at Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton Airport. Four crew members from those days are gone, killed not by enemy fire but by time and disease.

Yesterday, Haubert, who was the pilot, was kidding about taking the old bomber up for a spin. A friend gave him and the others a cake decorated with a B-24 and bearing the inscription, "The best crew in World War II."

"When we get together we reminisce about what we went through. We think about, bring things up about it. With other people, you try to tell them about it," said Hernandez, who lives in Houston.

Maybe it's hard for some people to understand what it was like for Rossi to walk the 8-inch catwalk around the open belly of a plane to fix a hydraulic line ruptured by flak, or how Kolar felt when the enemy shot out a plate glass window inches from his head. A few of the men took on the dangerous task of jiggling loose the bombs that sometimes got stuck in the plane's belly; trying to land with a bomb on board would have been disastrous.

"We've seen German pilots going down in parachutes. And we never fired on them. Some crews might have, but we never did," Ul said.

In 1944, each man flew 50 missions. Their targets were valuable instruments of the Axis war machine, including the oil refinery at Ploesti, Romania, reputedly the most heavily defended enemy target. Because flying through hostile territory was so perilous and demanding, they had the option of requesting a transfer to a less risky assignment.

"But if you did that you were kind of considered to be on the yellow side," said Ul, who lives in Erie. "You kind of made up your mind that you're going to get through it."

After they completed 50 missions, the military let them stop flying. Rossi said his last mission was the toughest just because he wanted to be done with combat. "It was a rough day. I kept counting the minutes until it was over," he said.

When he was finished, he kissed the ground and swore that he'd never set foot in another plane. But when the war was over, he bought a plane and earned his pilot's license.

Rossi and the rest haven't forgotten what it was like to fly hostile skies. During one mission, German flak poked a hole in one wing and took out the ailerons, which allow a pilot to steer his craft.

Rogal, who was co-pilot, remembers that the ground control crew at their makeshift base in Italy radioed and asked if they wanted to bail out.

"But they stuck it out," Rogal said.

Rossi calls the decision one of having faith.

And Haubert said, "An airplane is an amazing machine, really. You read about what a crew can do even when it's disabled. Either God or luck played a part that time. It was an amazing landing."