Archive for Sunday, July 8, 2012

Bomb squadron vet ‘rode the wind’ of war

July 8, 2012


BONNER SPRINGS — There is a monument at Wright Patterson Field near Dayton, Ohio, that carries words Gene Ward knows well — words that describe the 449th Bombardment Group.

Gene Ward rifles through the numerous books and written histories he has of the 449th Bombardment Group in World War II, wearing a hat emblazoned with the group's symbol. He has attended three of the group's reunions.

Gene Ward rifles through the numerous books and written histories he has of the 449th Bombardment Group in World War II, wearing a hat emblazoned with the group's symbol. He has attended three of the group's reunions.

“A group of men, who rode the wind together in the crimson skies of a world ravaged by war with purpose and precision to perform heroic acts of cool valor and unqualified trust in each other,” it reads.

Ward flew 50 missions with the bomb group in World War II, and the 90-year-old Bonner Springs resident proudly reflects on his service on days like Memorial Day and Independence Day. He rattles off details of the B-24 and other planes of the war, and tells funny stories about his fellow corpsmen driving Jeeps through the mud and “being crazy.”

But he also remembers the 103 planes from his bomb group lost in combat, the 388 men killed in action, the 363 shot down and captured. He remembers the respect soldiers got when they returned home.

“In World War II, when you came home, you did not get out of uniform,” he said. “You were to stay in uniform anywhere you went — that way, people could recognize what you’d done.”

Ward was born in Linwood on his grandfather’s farm. His family moved closer to Bonner in 1934, but he continued on at Linwood High School, where he graduated in 1938.

His brother, two years his senior, went into the Navy by choice, going on active duty Dec. 15, 1941 — a week after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Ward worked locally at the Bonner Springs lumberyard and then at the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant near De Soto until he was drafted Aug. 28, 1942.

He was assigned to the Army Air Corps and went to aviation mechanics school, advancing to technical sergeant by the time the 449th was leaving Bruning, Neb., for its assignment in the 47th Wing of the Fifteenth Air Force in Grottaglie, Italy, on the Adriatic Sea.

There were four squadrons in the 449th, each with 15 planes; Ward was in the 718th squadron on the plane dubbed “Everybody’s Baby.”

The old dirigible balloon base where they were stationed had been heavily bombed and didn’t have much in the way of housing. The men slept in tents and had to take a truck 20 miles to shower. One of Ward’s favorite stories is about some of his fellow corpsmen getting creative with supplies on hand to create a heater — and nearly blowing up their tent.

Their mission was to interrupt the German fuel supply, so they often bombed cities such as Vienna, Austria, and Bucharest and Ploesti, Romania.

There were lots of close calls for “Everybody’s Baby” — once, the plane was so battered by flak, it returned with 150 holes in it.

It was lucky to make it through the German anti-aircraft fire. Ward remembers seeing flak blow up an engine of another plane and watching as only about half of the crew was able to bail out.

“You couldn’t shoot back at it, so it made you all the more scared,” he said. “In that top turret, I’d sit there, and it would blow up like black smoke… You’d see it coming up through the planes, and you’d think ‘Oh, by God, they’ve got us.’”

And then there was the closest call. On April 4, 1944, Ward’s crew was among 28 planes to fly on a mission over Bucharest with no escort, when they were attacked by more than 60 enemy fighters.

“We were right off the lead plane of the colonel, and you could see them coming at us up in the sun, and then suddenly, you couldn’t see them,” he said.

Ward received his only injury on that mission, as he looked out of the plane’s top turret. Something blew up near the top of the plane and hit his face, breaking his oxygen mask. It was fortuitous that he moved below immediately; he later realized his vest was full of shrapnel.

The blow to his head sent him to the hospital for several days, but it could have been worse: Seven of the planes on the mission didn’t return to base.

He left Italy in June 1944 and continued in the Army Air Corps training new flight crews until he was discharged on Sept. 18, 1945.

As aging World War II veterans die, there aren’t as many to remember — of the 11 men who served on his plane’s crew, Ward is one of three still alive.

But he says he passes his stories on to his children and grandchildren, and he keeps his memory fresh with the many books and histories written about his bomb group.


blindrabbit 5 years, 7 months ago

Congratulations, great story, was he in B-17' s or/but probaly B-24's.

irvan moore 5 years, 7 months ago

thank you for your service, it was truly heroic

midwestmom 5 years, 7 months ago

Mr. Ward -

Thank you for your service and many sacrifices. Thank you for living such an honorable and courageous life. You are a wonderful example of a life well-lived!!

Randy Leonard 5 years, 7 months ago

Thank you Mr. Ward and all from the greatest generation. Being born just a few years after the WWII I grew up on stories of the war and as a kid thought war was a great glorious adventure. As I got older and really listened to the stories I began to understand and appreciate the courage and sacrifices of these men. I went on to serve in the Army myself but with my eyes wide open realizing war was something to be avoided if at all possible.

A comment to Ms. Boyer, a corpsman generally refers to a hospital corpsman or medic. Mr Ward and his fellow crewmen were not corpsmen they were airmen. Maybe a little more background research would be a good idea when you write about a subject you aren't familiar with.

Rich Noever 5 years, 7 months ago

Well we didn't lose the war so your point is not taken. I believe the precedent was set by the Japanese and the Germans as they bombed civilian centers and we answered them!

FlintlockRifle 5 years, 7 months ago

Hey G.I, many thanks to you and your crew for helping keep or country the good ole U.S.A. I can't imagine how cramped it must have been sitting in that top turret freezing your buns off.Flying 50 missions and still here on this earth to tell your stories is a another remarkable feat. Did you have the same crew or were there some replacement along the line. I salute you for your service, take it easy ole G.I , you have earned it.

blindrabbit 5 years, 7 months ago

The father of Allied carpet bombing of civilian areas both in Europe and Japan was the cigar chomping Gen. Curtis Lemay. His actions and ideas certaintly sped up the end of the wars, but thank god he was ordered to put his ego away was not able to A-blast the rest of Japan and later Korea like he wanted to.

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