409th Bomb Squadron
93rd Bomb Group
Hardwick Army Air Base
Somewhere in England
April 1, 1944
Lieutenant Ed Robbins sat with his head cocked to one side listening intently to the thunder of the two big Pratt & Whitney radial engines out on the wing to his left. The blue/white flame spouting from the exhaust pipes painted the tarmac below the wing in iridescent light. The bellowing of dozens of similar engines on different airplanes bounced between the tarmac and the low wet clouds hanging over the airfield, returned to earth and mushroomed out over the East Anglian countryside telling anyone who was there to hear that another mission was about to be launched.
A few years ago, the only sounds that would have been heard in this pastoral pre-dawn darkness would have been the lowing of dairy cattle as they waited for their morning ration of grain. But that was in another world and in another time: A time when Lt. Robbins had spent his days as a crop-dusting pilot and his nights sharing dreams and passions with his newlywed wife. That time now seemed as far away to Robbins as old age had seemed when he was a schoolboy in Wichita, Kansas. He had spent more hours hearing and becoming familiar with the nuances of the thunder of those four engines than he had to the sounds of his young wife’s voice.
But such a comparison was the farthest thing from his mind at this moment. His total focus now was on getting his aircraft and the men on his crew through this mission and back home safely. He could not control where, when, and how accurately the German anti-aircraft guns would be, nor how many, how aggressive and how skilled her fighter pilots might be. That was in the hands of a Higher Power but as Aircraft Commander Robbins exercised autocratic control in determining the condition of their airplane and in deciding whether a malfunction that should have been caught before taking off could bring them down. Like any successful commander he relied heavily on trusted subordinates, who, in this case, were Lt. James L. “Buzz” Wagner, his Co-Pilot, and Technical Sergeant Ray “Rudy” Carriker, his Flight Engineer.
As perilous as aerial combat was in the skies over Occupied Europe, and it was the most hazardous combat that occurred at any time and in any place during World War II, it was barely more dangerous than the battle the pilots and their planes fought against gravity in getting their grossly overloaded bombers off the runway and into the sky. All air crews had seen what happens when an overloaded B-24 filled with high explosives and avgas loses power or has a control malfunction on takeoff. The result was almost always a circle of scorched earth and seldom any survivors. The simple, unalterable fact was that the laws of gravity and physics cannot be repealed and they are unforgiving. Anything less than full power coming from all four of the engines until the plane was 500 feet above the runway would incur an automatic penalty up to and including death to all aboard.
The Robbins crew had completed 22 missions without anyone being seriously wounded or killed. One member of the original crew had developed what infantry men called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue,” and had been assigned to the ground maintenance crew; but aside from that this was the same crew that had left Pueblo Army Air Base in the fall of 1943. They were a close-knit team who knew they could depend upon one another. Lt. Robbins had earned not just their trust, but their awesome admiration as their pilot when during their training days he made an emergency landing in a Colorado cow pasture. He had pulled it off with such skill that even “The Brass” was impressed. Writing home about this incident Ray said,” (sic)
“We was flying yesterday, we was about fifteen miles away from here and a couple of engines went haywire. We would’ve made it in but orders are to land and not try to bring it in on two. So our pilot brought her in in a cow pasture. It was fun and smooth and we had a lot of spectators. Farmers came up to view the situation and about ten Majors, a dozen Captains, and a First Lieutenant and two Colonels came out. They told us it was the best landing they’d ever seen outside of the runway. It wasn’t nothing serious, but you know the Army.
From then on Lt. Robbins, in the eyes of his crew, was simply the best bomber pilot in the Air Corps.
When they swung up into the belly of their “Liberator” on April 1, 1944 every man in the crew was looking forward with cautious hope to returning from this mission. After this one they would have to fly just two more before being sent home. “Twenty-five” was the golden number for bomber crews based in England. Because of the extreme danger and stress they faced in their daylight bombing raids over Occupied Europe, Eighth Army Air Corps policy stated that upon completing their twenty-fifth mission air crews would be taken out of combat and sent home for a rest. Very few reached that goal. Casualties, in percentage terms of men involved, were higher in the 8th Air Corps Bomber Command than in any other combat unit during WWII. The life expectancy of a bomber crewman in the 8th Air Corps was 5 missions.
To Robbins’ right, on the other side of the console/ pedestal that housed throttle levers, fuel mixture and other controls Lt. Wagner was listening with the same intensity to the engines on his side of the aircraft. Wagner, a young man fresh from New York City’s “Bronx,” was a few years younger and very much in the shadow of the more highly experienced Robbins. He had never flown anything before World War II but he had shown himself to be cool and competent under fire. The crew liked and had confidence in him.
Standing between and just behind the two pilots, Technical Sergeant (T/Sgt) Ray Carriker was also listening; but his more important responsibility now was to scan the instruments that reported on the “health” of the engines, plus the electrical, hydraulic, and oxygen systems. Like an anesthesiologist in the operating room Ray had no control over the operation but his presence and skill was just as indispensable. The B-24 “Liberator” was a complex aircraft built long before computers or “idiot lights” were even dreamed of. Its instruments could tell human eyes when something was wrong only by movement and position of needles on the faces of those instruments.
The B-24 Liberator Cockpit
The Flight Engineer’s primary job at this stage of the flight was to monitor those instruments and let the pilots know if he saw anything troublesome. It was an awesome responsibility but Ray had learned very early in life to take on heavy responsibility. He assumed the responsibilities of being a Flight Engineer with pride and dedication. When German fighter’s attacked, he had to juggle the Flight Engineer responsibilities with that of being manning the twin .50 caliber machine guns in the top turret of the Liberator.
Like many American boys of the 1930’s, Ray Carriker was a natural for that job. As a young man he had spent hours tinkering with and keeping his “Model A” Ford running with little more than spit, elbow grease and baling wire to work with, and poking and prodding through the wrecked and worn out cars in local “junk yards.” The Army Air Corps had discovered that native ability and refined it by sending him to an Army Air Corps base near Rantoul Illinois called “Chanute Field.” There he went through an intensive course of instruction in the electrical, hydraulic, mechanical, and other systems that made up a complex aircraft. Although his grades in public school were barely average, he took to the curriculum of this new field and loved it. For some reason hydraulics especially fascinated him. In a letter to his brother he commented that he was “aceing” the Hydraulics course with flying colors without having to do much studying outside the classroom. He wrote that the electrical systems were more of a challenge to him, but with hard work he did well in that course also. He had joined the coalescing Robbins crew as the Assistant Flight Engineer and Left Waist Gunner when it was being assembled at Davis-Monthan Army Air Base in Tucson AZ. When Francis Loring, a young man from Toledo OH, succumbed to battle fatigue and was re-assigned to the ground maintenance crew, Robbins promoted Carriker from Staff Sergeant to Technical Sergeant and appointed him Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner. Ray was quite proud of both the rank and the trust that Robbins had placed in him.
About the time the three men were feeling satisfied that all was well with the engines and systems of their “bird,” a green rocket shot upward from the control tower. It arced upward, pierced the wet, low-hanging clouds and re-appeared moments later, on a downward arc towards the ground. The Mission was underway.
“Button up back there,” Robbins said tersely over the Intercom, “we’re rolling.” They had done this so many times that his words were unnecessary but long training had made it a habit. As soon as he said that he and Lt. Wagner released the brakes. Their “Bar Fly” lurched forward for a moment as the potential energy stored by the brakes was released, but the load was far too heavy for the bomber to do more than waddle slowly out from the hardstand and onto the taxi-way.
The ‘Bar Fly” on the hardstand at Hardwick Army Air Base
This is the plane the Robbins Crew flew on their last mission
The plane they had trained in and flown across the Atlantic to Hardwick Army Air Base was down for repairs.
The "Bar Fly" was the plane the crew brought across the North Atlantic from the United States.
They had flown that plane from the Pueblo Colorado Air Base to Presque Isle, Maine, staying there long enough to outfit their plane for combat and for Ray to meet and get the address of yet another young lady. He had devilish charm that was almost irresistible to girls. From Maine, they flew across the Northern Atlantic to Goose Bay Labrador, stopped there for fuel before continuing to the Hardwick Army Air Base in East Anglia, England. Once there they became part of the 409th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group of the United States Army Air Corps.
Hardwick Army Air Corps Base 1944
Robbins fell in line behind “Mama’s Darlings,” a Liberator that unlike the spare plane they were flying today had a name and picture painted on its nose. As “Mama’s Darlings” turned onto the active runway and began its takeoff roll, Robbins was turning onto the active right behind them. Exactly ten seconds after “Mama’s Darlings” had started its takeoff roll Robbins called for Full Military Power on the engines. Wagner immediately thrust the four throttle levers forward, clicked past a slight détente and pushed them as far forward as they would go. Immediately the engines “wound up” and began to scream in protest. This was a maximum power setting which taxed the engines beyond their limits with resulting high engine head temperatures and extreme manifold pressure. Full Military Power was meant to be used for only short periods of time because using it for more than a few minutes wreaked havoc with the engines. The “abuse” was necessary, however, because it took every bit of torque the four thirteen cylinder Pratt & Whitney engines could produce to get these planes into the sky.
The B-24 “Liberator” bomber was an ugly duckling airplane and its ugliness was never more pronounced than when it was wallowing along a runway with an overload of bombs in its belly trying to build enough speed to take off. In the sky, it was the most formidable bomber the U.S. Army Air Corps owned; but it was still ungainly in its looks. Yet it did have a certain beauty of the kind that many men see in a huge Peterbilt or Mack truck; a beauty that speaks of brute power and all business. The Germans who fought against it derisively called it “Der Fliegende Güterwagen (“The Flying Boxcar”) but they had great respect for its ability to do them harm.
Although the Boeing Aircraft Company had captured the public’s eye and admiration with the sleek lines of their B-17 “Flying Fortress,” the “Liberator” was the more fearsome weapon in the Air Corps arsenal. It could fly faster; carry a bigger bomb load at a higher altitude, and travel farther to deliver its bombs than the “glamorous” Flying Fortress. But it remained a “Cinderella” in the media.
The mission today would be a joint effort involving both Liberators and Flying Fortresses. That meant the “Libs” would have to run slower than their maximum cruising speed to keep from outrunning the “beauty queens” that would join them. That, in turn, meant they would be exposed to German fighters and murderously accurate German “flak” longer than necessary.
Robbins continued his takeoff roll a scant ten seconds behind “Mama’s Darlings,” which was barely off the runway when the Robbins plane was already a third of the way down the runway. When a full squadron participated in a mission as they were today the departure was a tightly choreographed event in which every plane had to do precisely what she was expected to do at exactly the right time. This was especially true when the clouds were so low and gelatinous that the pilots could barely see past their wing tips once they entered “the soup.” Any mistake or deviation from the choreography could lead to a mid-air collision. For the first fifty yards or so the ungainly plane moved ponderously down the runway waddling heavily on its wheels. It was an overweight, clumsy “boxcar” until the wind caught under its wings. As the oncoming air slipped faster over the bomber’s long slender wings they took some of the weight off the wheels causing the ship to roll faster and more gracefully.
As soon as Lt. Wagner called out “Sixty,” Robbins pulled back slightly on the yoke which caused the bomber’s nose to come slightly off the runway. As the nose wheel broke contact with the ground the plane picked up speed even more rapidly. By now the Liberator that had been rolling ahead of the Robbins plane had disappeared into the clouds.
Robbins now applied slightly more back pressure onto the yoke and within a couple of seconds the main wheels came up. Then, as if it knew what awaited it, the plane sunk slightly. Its main wheels rolled a few more feet along the asphalt and then said their last goodbye to the runway. All three men on the flight deck let their breaths out quietly. They didn’t have time to wonder what awaited them. Their job was to carry bombs to Ludwigshafen drop them accurately on a factory that was making ball bearings and make it back “home” so they could repeat the process two more times.
The moment the wheels left the ground with finality, Robbins called out “Wheels up!” Lieutenant Wagner’s hand had been poised waiting for that command. He instantly pulled upward on a lever and the landing gear began folding slowly up into the airplane’s wing. It was now in its domain. It would never return to the ground as an airplane.
For the next couple of minutes Lt. Robbins held the fate of his crew in his hands as surely as a judge holds the fate of a convicted felon in his. He was walking the tightrope that any pilot who has ever set out to get an overloaded aircraft off the ground has walked. It was a matter of delicately balancing airspeed and gravity. If he allowed the plane to gain too much speed by not forcing it to climb the takeoff would come to a sudden end as it crashed headlong into whatever obstacle stood beyond the end of the runway. If he tried to make it climb too swiftly the plane would shudder, stall and plunge nose first to the ground. When the plane was carrying more weight than it was designed to carry the takeoff could be breathtaking, spellbinding, and dangerous.
Back in the fuselage, the remaining seven crew members could do nothing but sit still and wait. Squatting just under the left waist gun Staff Sergeant Frank Zywiczynski looked across to Sergeant Dan Butler who was squatting beneath the right waist gun. The tail gunner, Sgt. Stan Wojciechowki, squatted on the floor between them. He would not crawl back into his lonely tail turret until they reached their cruising altitude. Sergeant Butler was the newest member of the crew. He had come on as a replacement for T/Sgt. Loring. When that happened, Staff Sergeant Carriker was promoted to T/Sgt and took Loring’s place as Flight Engineer/Top Turret gunner; Frank “Z.” filled Carriker’s spot as Assistant Flight Engineer/Left Waist Gunner, while Butler came into the crew as Right Waist Gunner. A bittersweet and haunting contemplation is the fact that the only survivor from Robbin’s crew was the Left Waist Gunner – the position Rudy had vacated when he was promoted to Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner.
Further forward, almost under the top gun turret Sgt. Jack McAllen, the Radio Operator sat on his perch and waited. On the flight deck, sitting across from Carriker, Lt. Robert Bins, the Navigator, sat tensely at his small navigation table. Finally, up front in the Plexiglas “fishbowl” nose, Lt. Joe McCauley, the Bombardier and the Nose Gunner, Staff Sergeant Charles Speier sat waiting.
The Robbins crew, like most American combat units in WWII was made up of young men who were barely past being called boys that came together from many different backgrounds. Locating their home towns on a map could have been a geography lesson for a 4th Grade student. There was:
Lt. Edward L. Robbins, Pilot, from Craig MO
Lt. James L. Wagner, Co-Pilot, from Newcastle PA
Lt. Robert F. Bins, Navigator, from Racine WI
Lt. Joseph F. McCauley, Bombardier, of Bronx, NY
T/Sgt. Raymond R. Carriker, Flight Engineer T/T Gunner of Drumright OK
T/Sgt. Jack R. McAllen, Radio Operator, from Pitcairn PA
S/Sgt. Frank A., Zywiczynski L.Waist Gunner, of Toledo OH
S/Sgt. David A. Butler, R. Waist Gunner from Canyon TX
S/Sgt. Charles E. Speier, Nose Gunner, of Minneapolis MN
S/Sgt. Stanley L.Wojciechowski, Tail Gunner, of Cleveland OH
One came from a comfortably wealthy background. Two were raised in Polish-American neighborhoods in Ohio cities. The pilot was born in a small Missouri town but raised in Wichita KS. The Co-Pilot grew up in the coal field country of Pennsylvania while the Bombardier was an “All American” guy from New York’s Bronx. Pennsylvania was also home to the Radio Operator. One of the waist gunners was from the flat ranchlands of West Texas and the other hailed from Toledo OH. The gunners in the nose and tail, respectively, were from Minneapolis and Cleveland. If drawn together in one book their life stories would be a kaleidoscope of American life during and following The Great Depression of 1929.
The Army brought them together in the early months of 1943, trained them for a few months and then sent them off to become part of The U.S. Eighth Army Air Corps. From their base in Hardwick, East Anglia in the United Kingdom they fought as avenging eagles on one of the bloodiest battlefields of WWII – the skies over Occupied Europe.
One of those “Eagles was my brother and this is his story.
Lt James Wagner was also my uncle. MY father Donald Wagner was also in England at this time. He won. 3 day pass in a shoot out with his Sgt. He was going to meet with his brother Lt James Wagner in London, but then his pass was revoked due to the fact that they were getting ready for the D-Day invasion. MY Uncle Jim never made it back from his mission. My Dad went into the D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach. How he ever survived was by the grace of God. Thank you for writing this story about the Bar Fly and its crew.
OK Don.I thought you were nearing the conclusion of your stories but this might be one of your best. It's a phenomenal piece of history that you've documented beautifully and it's a fantastic story to boot! Thanks!