Editor’s Note: The late, Bill Coleman was interviewed in 2008 about his military service as a B-24 bomber pilot.
Bill Coleman of Johnson City is a soft spoken gentleman who flew through the valley of death. His guardian angels brought him safely home.
As one of the youngest B-24 Liberator bomber pilots of WW II at age 20, Bill Coleman found himself piloting the heavy bomber over France and Normandy hitting German airfields, submarine bases and other valuable targets. At the young age of 20 he also carried the heavy burden of being responsible for the lives of his nine-man crew.Coleman answered his country’s call after learning to fly through the Civilian Pilot Training program at the Tri-Cities McKellar Field. He volunteered for bomber flight school. After earning his pilot’s wings he soon found himself assigned to the 445th Bomb Group, 702nd Bomb Squadron in Tibenham, England about 100 miles from London. Coleman arrived on base December 1943 and was flying combat missions a few weeks later in the B-24 Liberator. One of his commanders happened to be Jimmy Stewart, one of Hollywood’s most famous and beloved actors.
According to Bill, “Everyone was impressed with Jimmy Stewart. He was a regular guy but all business. There was no Hollywood about him. He was friendly and a good leader. He volunteered for too many tough missions and sometimes had to be held back. He was the leader on some of the missions I flew. After Stewart flew the allotted 20 combat missions he was later transferred.”
Now 86 years old, Coleman remembers the war vividly. On his den wall he displays old photos with his crew, a photo of Jimmy Stewart along with his Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters.
“We flew 30 missions over enemy territory,” Bill said. “None of my crew was ever injured or wounded which at that time was very rare. On every mission we encountered German Luftwaffe ME-109 fighters and flak. We had a lot of holes shot through our plane but our crew was lucky not to be hit.“We flew tight formations. On one mission we were flying a little below our leader and behind. I turned to look out my window for enemy fighters and looked a little too long. In no time our plane had wandered a little off line and out of formation. The next thing I saw were two flak explosions exactly where I had been in formation where we were supposed to be. My guardian angel was looking out for us again,” he continued. “I lost a lot of friends and saw many planes shot down along with several of my wingmen. We were very lucky. The 445th Bomb Group lost 568 airmen and 138 aircraft.”
“The B-24 was a strong plane which I’ll share a story with you. It was built in a Ford Motor Company plant on an assembly line one mile long. They constructed one every 58 minutes,” he added.
The B-24 had a longer range and bigger bomb load than the B-17 and was slightly faster. The planes usually flew around 26,000 feet on bombing runs. The B-24 Liberator was armed with twin .50-cal. Brownings in the nose, upper, lower ball, waist, and tail turrets, a total of 5,200 rounds of ammunition were carried. The top speed of 290 mph was provided by four Pratt & Whitney supercharged engines with 1,200 hp each.
Coleman shared his story about the strength of the B-24 Liberator and his near death experience. Here is then 2nd Lt. William Coleman’s account:
“Our mission was April 17, 1944 and it’s still vivid in my mind. The day started as usual with an early morning briefing and daybreak take off. Our B-24 named “Steady Hedy” put us on target for Mimoydeques, France, just inside the coast, but we didn’t make it.
Our problem occurred over the English Channel on the final approach to our target about five minutes away. Our bomb bay doors were opened, but thankfully the safety pins on the bombs had not been pulled. We were flying the slot position, behind and below the element leader, when we experienced some minor prop wash. It soon became violent and I removed all power from the engines.
The condition increased until we were completely out of control. The aircraft was snapping 60 degrees to one side then violently back to the other side with such force and speed that the co-pilot and I couldn’t keep our hands and feet on the controls.
The wheel was spinning to one side and back to the other. The rudder pedals were going in and out so fast there was no way the two of us could overpower these forces. The action was so strong that with no power on, it caused the props to run away and rev up the engines on one side and then on the other side.All the time We were frozen to our seats by the centrifugal force and no one could bail out. We dropped from 26,000 down to 12,000 or about 3 miles in a very short time. The bombs were banging against the side of the aircraft and the catwalks, bending out the sides and bending in the catwalks. If the bomb safety pins had been pulled they would have exploded. The top turret gunner reported the tail was surely going to break off any second since it was severely twisting back and forth. I would have answered him, but couldn’t hold my hand on the microphone button on the spinning wheel.
We tried everything to get the plane under control while we were falling from the sky. After flipping switches and turning knobs, we gradually started to regain control and leveled off. I then salvoed the bombs in the English Channel and limped back to base. Our squadron did not know what had happened to us and reported us as “down.”
It took every ounce of strength for me and my co-pilot to hold on to the controls for a safe landing. When we taxied to a stop, the Squadron engineering officer yelled, “What in the hell did you do to my airplane?” I could see what he meant when I stood back and looked at the condition of the plane. The aluminum skin on the fuselage took the worst of it as it was twisted back and forth like someone had wrung out a dishrag. We were then assigned another bombing mission flying that afternoon.
The plane was damaged so bad it was hauled off and used for scrap and spare parts never to fly again. A few months later I found out what caused our near fatal flight. It was the autopilot malfunction. The autopilot was in the tail of the plane running in the normal #2 position, warmed up and ready to be engaged on demand. When we hit the turbulent prop wash the rudder gyro disengaged from its mount and started swinging free causing the auto pilot to engage without our knowledge. Turning at 25,000 rpm’s it took over control causing the violent reaction and wrecking our plane.
If someone had thought to inspect the autopilot gyro they would have found the problem and could have informed other units to inspect their planes. I’ve always wondered how many other pilots had the same problem but didn’t make it back. Probably one loose nut caused the chain reaction. It was eventually modified to correct the problem.
My crew and I had heartfelt thanks for the makers of the B-24. She was a very strong and tough plane and saved us. But, most of all, I thank God for His Grace in giving us the strength and knowledge to bring it home. If the Lord had not been with us that day, we would have all been at the bottom of the English Channel.
Coleman finished his 30th combat mission May 30th, 1944 having carried his crew unharmed through each battle.