Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part feature. The first part ran last Sunday, Oct. 1. The series tells the story of 1939 Ennis High School graduate, Edwin F. Vrla, who was born April 5, 1921, and grew up on Highway 34 near Creechville Road.
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
On this one mission, one of the Liberators burst into flames just as it took off. It crashed in a giant ball of flame at the end of the runway and killed all ten crewmembers aboard. Well, that put a giant damper on everyone’s spirit, and there wasn’t much chatter on the intercom that morning.
Over the following weeks, there were missions that took us to Austria, France, Bulgaria, Hungary, Rumania, and back to Northern Italy and Yugoslavia. Some days we had fighter cover from P-51’s or P-38’s and other days not. I for one, felt much better when our little buddies came along with us.
As one of the waist gunners, there were times of boredom and also of sheer terror. When those bogeys closed in on us, you were breathing hard and thinking fast.
The call would come from our top turret gunner, “Fighters at five o’clock high! Ten of them, 190’s.” There was an instant twitch in the pit of the stomach, as we waited for the top turret guns to announce that the battle was joined. From then on things happen so fast that there is little time for fear.
Overall we did a pretty fair job of fighting off the Luftwaffe, but I’ll tell you what was really bad — the cold! Man oh man, it got cold up there, sometimes 40 to 50 below.
Wednesday nights there was a movie shown for us in town, and that caused a mad dash to catch the six o’clock show truck into Oria, Italy, a few miles to the north. The road is so dusty that we all have a good case of grey hair after the bumpy ride into town.
Our 19th mission was a rough one. The plane was shot up to the point that our landing gear would not come down as we approached home base. Then the pilot ordered us to jump as he circled our airfield. So I did have to use that parachute after all!
Lt. Maddox and our co-pilot decided to belly land the plane in order to save her. They made it down OK, but after that day the “Little Lulu” would never fight again.
On the 3rd of March the U.S.O. put on a show for us at the Oria Theater, and when that singer walked out on stage in her white evening gown, there were howls, barks, and other assorted wolf calls. All had a good time or at least pleasant dreams.
Our crew was assigned to a new plane and we flew more missions on the Nazi airdromes. It looks to me like the Krauts will have to speed up production of their aircraft to keep up with the amount that we destroy.
After a successful mission when we put our bombs on target, it is a great thing to see the smiling faces of all the guys. After landing, we all hurry over to stand in line for doughnuts and coffee, served by the American Red Cross… a welcome piece of home.
Everyone works quite hard the days that missions are scheduled and therefore relaxation is in abundance on those no mission days. Some can be seen walking around in a daze, probably thinking of the times they would stroll through the park with their best gal on their arm. Others loaf in the sun.
It is April now, and spring fever seems to get the best of many. Playing catch is a favorite pastime. Also, modesty seems to have been forgotten here, since some of the fellows are having a heated game of volleyball in their birthday suits. This is war.
Another movie is on for tonight and a full house attendance is expected. It seems as if no one wants to be absent from any entertainment, but sometimes it isn’t worth it. What a mad scramble there is to get on the trucks leaving for town.
More missions to hit railroad marshaling yards in Austria, Hungary, and Romania, it seems that a good bit of our efforts are intended to cut off the Nazi supply lines to the Russian front. As this war goes on, I see more and more crews from our squadron lost. It is not a pleasant thing to witness… I try not to dwell on it much.
The days and missions are flying past so quickly that it is getting impossible to keep track. When one thinks that each day that passes is another day nearer to the end of the war, one doesn’t mind it so much.
April 9th, Easter Sunday, the mission was canceled, so all were able to attend church services. Chaplain Stevens held an outdoor service with a B-24 providing the backdrop. Fin protectors from the bombs were used as seats for all, and the choir of enlisted men and officers actually sounded good. The Chaplain was heard by use of a loudspeaker and did an excellent job by everyone’s account.
The baseball season is underway and practically every night a game is played. Tonight will be Ordnance vs. Armament. We might as well enjoy it because tomorrow there’s another mission. Loading bombs must be good training because Ordnance walked away with the game.
Monday morning, April 24 - Today’s target – the railroad yard and oil refinery at Ploesti, Romania. Escort provided by P-38’s and target cover by P-51’s… Not a good feeling about this one.
Near the target area we spotted 24 enemy fighters, but they stayed away from our formation, basically they were just looking for stragglers. Flak was heavy as we turned on the bomb run. The sound of German steel clanging against our plane had us all tensed up. I pulled myself up into a ball, trying to make as small a target as possible. Many of our planes were holed, with one going down.
When we got back to base and on the ground, I was feeling numb to all this. Nearly every mission we lose one or two ships, each with ten guys on board.
Ice cold cokes were served today in the mess hall! How wonderful they tasted, I savored every last drop… Much better than they ever tasted before.
April 29, 1944, early briefing at 0615 - Today’s target - the U-Boat pens at Toulon, France. Important mission they say. Major Orris, the Squadron Commander will lead the formation. This will be No. 38 for me, so after today, just twelve more to go and I’m done.
We took off at 0745 and climbed to form up with the squadron. At 0826 we rendezvoused with the 449th Bomb Group over Manduria. Our course took us over San Vito D’Normanni where other groups joined us. Then it was onto Ponza Island, the key point, and westward across the Mediterranean to the turning point and finally the initial point, where we were joined by twenty-five P-38 fighter planes. Everything smooth so far.
As we approached the target area there was one ME-109 shadowing us at a distance. He didn’t move in but was probably spotting for the ground flak. A thick smoke screen could be seen over the target area.
Everything was going A-OK as we made the bomb run at 19,000 feet. Then the flak started. It was especially thick today and started bursting in a rapid sequence of four. The air was alive with black puffs of German steel. Bombs away at 1225 hours, and right on target!
As we turned for the rally point, there was a loud explosion, a jolt. We were hit! From my gun window, I saw smoke coming from the left wing and a fire. We could hear nothing on the intercom, so we called forward for instructions. There was no answer! The intercom was dead!
We waited for a moment, trying to decide what to do, waiting for orders. The fire was getting worse! Then we saw the crewmembers from the forward part of the ship bailing out. That’s it! We have to go!
At that moment the wing folded and broke off. She went into a hard spin. I was pinned to the wall and couldn’t make it out.
It was a Saturday, 1228 hours and I was 23 years old.
Remember us. We were airmen once and young.