By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
They talked about their long hours together flying over the ocean to hold submarines at bay, recalled the time they ferried a bomber over the Atlantic Ocean for a top secret mission, and remembered going to London for rest and relaxation while the city was still being pounded by German bombs and missiles. Getting together after so many years was a special time, and maybe the last time they could have a reunion.
Ten young men served together during World War II on a PB4Y, the Navy’s version of a B-25 Liberator four-engine bomber. This week, the last four members of that crew met at Pipestem State Park for a reunion.
The former airmen included nose gunner John Dumont, 89, of Peterstown; top gunner and plane captain David Smith, 90, of Proctorsville, Ohio; waist gunner Walt Pugsley, 89, of Randolph, NJ; and pilot Bill Bizzell, 95, of Cleveland, Miss.
Bizzell recalled how being 26 when the crew formed in at Norfolk, Va., in January 1944 made him the oldest man on the crew.
“I was what the Navy called a patrol plane commander. but very quickly, the southern members of the crew started to call me ‘Boss,’” Bizzell recalled.
Flying from an airfield in Dunkeswell, a community in southwest England, the crew took their PB4Y on patrols.
“We served as a team,” Dumont said.
“We were anti-submarine patrol. We carried depth charges instead of bombs,” Bizzell said. “The objective was to stop the submarines on the coast of France.” He drew circles around the table.” And we circled continuously, a group of planes, to stop the submarines from doing damage.”
German submarines, better known then as U-boats, operated from bases along the coast of occupied France. They once ranged widely across the Atlantic Ocean and beyond to attack lone ships and convoys moving between the United States and England. Air power did a lot to suppress the U-boat threat.
“This is right after D-Day,” Pugsley said. “They (commanders) expected a lot of the them to come out of the sub pens. We didn’t see too many. They were pretty sneaky. The boss could tell you that.”
When the crew was assembled, the young men were not immediately assigned the European Theater of Operations. First came a period of intensive training, Bizzell said.
“In May and June 1944, our crew spent a month training in anti-submarine warfare at Boca Chica, Fla., near Key West,” he said.
The crew had to learn how to use their radar. The men gathered around the table at Pipestem recalled how the radar system was lowered from the plane’s belly while in flight, and then retracted for landing. The system was extremely sensitive; sometimes it detected schools of fish, and it was powerful enough to find submarine periscopes and the “snorkel,” a system of tubes that allowed the subs to operate their diesel engines while underwater.
They never got to actually attack a U-boat, but their patrols accomplished the main mission: Keep the enemy submarines from operating. Smith, Dumont, Pugsley, Bizzell and their crewmates often flew missions lasting eight to 10 hours at a time. Besides patrolling the coast of France, they also patrolled part of the English Channel and the Irish Sea, and went into the Atlantic to help protect convoys going to and from England.
One particular mission stood out. The crew was assigned to a top-secret flight. They were to ferry a specially-modified B-24 from the United States to England for a project called Operation Aphrodite. Bizzell spoke with Lt. Willford John Willy, who explained the aircraft was for a particular type of mission.
The PB4Y crew later learned that the B-24 they flew to England had been modified so it could be remote controlled. Then it was to be packed with explosives. Specially trained pilots were to fly it within range of its target. The pilots would then parachute to safety; an remote control operator in a trailing plane would guide the bomber to its target.
Unfortunately, this particular plane’s crew perished when the explosives detonated prematurely. One of the men was Lt. Joseph Patrick “Joe” Kennedy Jr., brother of future President John Kennedy.
Bizzell remembered one special fact about his crew. They were the best.
“We meshed together,” Pugsley said.