Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

October 3, 2013

It’s important to hear and record the stories of the Greatest Generation


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — Journalists tend to develop specialties after years of reporting. There are stories we become especially good at writing and topics we know especially well. One particular specialty I enjoy, and even feel honored to do, is the accounts of veterans. I still remember the day a Coast Guard veteran dropped by the Daily Telegraph the day before the 50th anniversary of the Invasion of Iwo Jima.

I’ve spoken to veterans who participated in D-Day, the brutal warfare in Korea during the Korean War, and veterans who served their country during the Vietnam War.

Last week, a rare opportunity came up. Four World War II veterans of a PB4Y, the Navy version of the B-24 bomber, were having a reunion at Pipestem State Park. I have interviewed other bomber crew veterans, but this was my first opportunity to speak with four men who had served together on the same aircraft. They were the last survivors of a crew of 10.

The four airmen included John Dumont, 89, of Peterstown; David Smith, 90, of Proctorville, Ohio; Walt Pugsley, 89, of Randolph, NJ; and pilot Bill Bizzell, 95, of Cleveland, Miss. Due to their advanced years, there was a good chance this was going to be their last reunion.

Most people familiar with bombers that flew over Europe have heard about the big raids over Germany and the huge amounts of bombs dropped on factories, railroads, refineries and other facilities to cripple the Nazi war machine. The job of a PB4Y was different. Those bombers carried depth charges instead of bombs, and their job was to patrol parts of the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean.

Their primary target were the German submarines, better known as the U-boats, prowling the oceans and attacking Allied shipping. U-boats threatened to sever Allied lifelines to England earlier in the war, but the Allies soon caught up with better technology and tactics. This crew’s PB4Y carried radar, one of those new innovations.

U-boats were under a lot of pressure by 1944, and it was important to keep up that pressure so their forces could not rebound. Air power was one of the most effective ways to counter the U-boats. The way Bizzell explained their missions to me, their job was to keep from attacking. Unlike today’s nuclear submarines, U-boats had to surface in order to recharge their batteries; their primary engines were diesels that needed air.

The bomber patrols kept the U-boats on the defensive. Unlike today’s nuclear submarines, the German subs had to spend a lot of time on the surface so they could recharge their batteries. They were also a lot slower underwater. Sometimes the crew went out into the Atlantic to fly around convoys heading to and from England.

The Germans tried to extend the life of their subs by installing snorkels or pipes that let their subs use diesel engines while still underwater. The men I spoke with said their radar could detect these snorkels; that was one more thing U-boat crews had to worry about.

PB4Y patrols could last eight to 10 hours. They flew long hours at night while manning a plane carrying explosive depth charges and fuel, so it wasn’t an easy task at all. The long hours and danger were necessary to keep the U-boat threat suppressed. It was difficult work that required intensive training.

The generation of people who served their country during World War II are leaving this world fast, so it’s important to hear their stories and record them.

This particular crew played a role in a project called Operation Aphrodite. After receiving top secret orders, they flew a specially-modified B-24 from the United States to England. Once there, the bomber was loaded with explosives and fitted with remote control devices.

It was an early attempt at making a guided missile or an armed drone as we know them today. From what I understand, the plan was to fly the bomber within range of a German missile site; once there, the pilots would parachute out. A controller in a trailing plane would take over the bomber and crash it into the target.

Unfortunately, this particular bomber exploded before the pilots could bail out. One of them was Lt. Joseph Patrick “Joe” Kennedy Jr., brother of future President John F. Kennedy. I wonder how history would have been different if that mission had been successful.

The men who gathered at Pipestem gave up years of their lives in order to serve their country. I’m grateful they took the time to speak with me and others about their experiences, and we should all be grateful for their service.

Greg Jordan is the Daily Telegraph’s senior reporter. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com