Virginian-Pilot Veterans Day special section: William Stanley
Lt. William Stanley Army Air Corps
GROTTAGLIE, ITALY 1944
The Worrybird, a brand new B-24 carrying a rookie crew just out of training, was loaded with bombs and heading for a target in Bucharest, Hungary. In the bombardier’s seat? Second Lieutenant Bill Stanley, a farm boy from Kansas. It was them first of 50 missions he’d fly over Italy, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary ad Yugoslavia.
“It was completely overcast, and I don’t think we hit anything,” says Stanley. “Over the target I just burrowed down in my flak suit and prayed. Flak is really funny stuff; it just blossoms out like a flower.
“We were carrying 500-pound bombs, 16 of them and three failed to release, they got hung up on the bomb racks. So I had to go out over that open bomb bay on a narrow 10-inch beam, stand on one foot, hold on with my left hand, and with a screwdriver in my right hand, pry off those bombs and kick them out. No lifeline, no parachute. I thought to myself, Stanley, what are you doing here?”
He was a freshman in college when he heard the news about Pearl Harbor. “We were playing basketball that Sunday when someone came running into the gym and said we’d been bombed,” Stanley says. “All my buddies, right way we wanted to go volunteer – that was typical of y generation.”
Stanley wanted to fly, so he signed up for the Army Air Corps Reserve; he received orders to report for duty in February, 1943. A battery of tests qualified him to train as a pilot, navigator and bombardier. “They must have needed bombardiers that week, because that’s where they assigned me,” he laughs. “So I went through bombardier training, I’m 19 years old, full of vinegar, feeling un- touchable. I’ll survive, I said. I later heard the Army Air Corps had the highest rate of casualties of any service.”
In bombardier school, Stanley learned to use the new Norden Bombsight. “That was one of the closely guarded secrets of the war at that time,” he says. “If you went on a training mission and the plane was disabled for some reason, you were responsible for that bombsight, you had to personally dismount it, take it with you, sleep with it if that’s what you had to do to protect it.”
After completing his training, Stanley and his crewmates were sent to Hamilton Field in San Francisco to pick up their fresh-from-the-factory B-24. “Of course we had to name her,” says Stanley. “We came up with the Worrybird, after the bird that flies backward because it doesn’t care where it’s going, it only cares where it’s been.”
A Walt Disney artist painted the nose art on the plane for $50, and they were off for Italy. The oldest member of the crew was the 24-year-old pilot they dubbed Pop. Their welcome to Italy was a sobering one.
“The day after we arrived, our squadron, the 719th, sent up seven airplanes in a formation of 32,” recalls Stanley. “Of the seven planes, only two came back and they were full of holes. This was our introduction to combat. It was an eye-opener. We had just slept in the same tent with two of the guys who were lost. Just like that they were gone.”
The base he was assigned to, near Naples, was built on the bombed out remains of an Italian airfield. “The allies hadn’t taken all of Italy yet, we hadn’t even reached Rome at that point,” says Stanley. The countryside was beautiful – “Our tents were right by an orchard of olive trees and they were in full bloom,” he says. “I’ll always remember them.”
Stanley quickly settled into a routine; mail call was always a highlight. From his diary entry of April 26th: “Imagine it, I got 14 letters today! Boy it was good to hear from home…I read the letters over and over again enjoying them more each time I read them.”
But always at the back of his mind was the knowledge that any day could be his last. “You send up a group of planes, each time you lose some of them,” Stanley says. “I knew statistically I shouldn’t survive.”
His diary entry from May 5th offers a hair-raising account of his 13th mission: “They woke us up at 0730 to attend a briefing at 0840. Well, I knew it was going to be rough as soon as I saw it was Ploesti, although I didn’t think it would be as rough as it really was. We hit a lot of flak over the target and then we were in for it…There we were with no fighter escort and about 60 enemy fighters coming in with guns blazing.
“We got in several hits and beat them off. Four of our B-24s went down, although we saw a lot of parachutes. Well I sorta relaxed after that. We were on our way home and down to about 9,000 feet and I noticed a large factory off our left wing. At the same time I saw guns flashing on the ground. Then it hit us. I’ll tell you there were clouds of it. You could hear it exploding…
“The Worrybird was hit in about 70 places. I don’t see how we got through. One B-24 went down and several had engines out. Really rough…I think we hit the target pretty well. We started a lot of res. Yes sir, lucky 13.”
Stanley says his safest missions were the ones he flew accompanied by the deservedly famous airmen from Tuskegee, Alabama. “They were our favorite guys to escort us, those red- tailed devils. That’s what they were called – the tails of their fighters were painted red.
“It’s not well-publicized how much they contributed to the war, but it was a heck of a contribution,” Stanley says. “They would stay right with the bombers they were protecting and that was in contrast with some other pilots who would leave us to y off for dog fights with the enemy.”
The night before a mission, Stanley would receive word he was flying the next day and he’d go to bed early. “They’d wake you about 3:30 in the morning and you’d go get some breakfast, powdered eggs and some spam, then the officers would go to the assembly hall where they would orient us, just like in war movies. There would be a squadron commander at the front and they’d pull back a curtain and we’d learn where we were going.
“They would give us the weather, tell the bombardiers how high to set our bombsights, and we’d synchronize our watches – again, just like in the movies. We’d count down, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, hack! Because time was important. If our target time was 12:01 and we got there at 12:04, some other bomber group would be at the site starting their bombing run and we’d have to circle around, a place we didn’t want to be, and try to slip in.
“After we were briefed, they’d turn us over to the chaplains and most of the guys would kneel and say a prayer. Then we’d go to our planes, check things out, they’d load the bombs and we’d take off.”
Halfway there, Stanley would crawl down into the bomb bay and arm the bombs.
“Every now and then you’d hear the gunners testing their guns and maybe you’d get some enemy fighters come in. You’d hear them call, ‘Here comes something at 3 o’clock,’ or ‘There’s something at 9 o’clock.’ And the floor of the plane would be covered with spent shells.”
Once over the target, Stanley would focus on his bombsight. His diary entry from June 16th describes a successful run: “We hit a synthetic oil refinery in Czechoslovakia. I mean it was a refinery, it isn’t anymore…The plant itself wasn’t very large, but through my bombsight I could see the first bombs hit. I’ve never seen such violent explosions. The whole earth just belched forth a volcano of red flame and black smoke. An hour (150 miles) after target time the plant could still be identified by the pillar of smoke above it.”
Finishing a bombing run and turning for home didn’t mean the planes were out of danger. From a July 15th diary entry: “On the way back, I heard what could really be classed as drama. [Plane] #55 had 2 engines [fail] and they were getting ready to jump. I tell you, the pilot, Blanton, was so calm it was breathtaking. He made wisecracks to the other fellas…Finally he gave the orders to jump and we saw 10 chutes floating down. It did something to you. It made you proud to belong to the same bunch of fellows they belonged to. It made you want to fight all the harder. Those guys knew what they were up against and yet they could joke in the face of it all. I hope they get back.”
Stanley later learned they were captured and spent the remainder of the war as POWs.
On August 6th, Stanley flew his 50th and last combat mission, a bombing run to Toulon during the invasion of Southern France. From his diary: “Our target was pretty clear, although not from a distance. There certainly are a lot of ships down there. We sank two destroyers and hit the sub pens okay. Had to feather engine #3 just after target. I was really sweating, that’s a long haul for 3 engines. The worse part was the weather we had to come through. Went right through a big thunderhead and did it shake us up. That’s dangerous with 4 engines!
“How does it feel to be done? Really, I can’t tell just yet. I still expect to have to y, face the flak. It is definitely a relief. I really didn’t expect to finish. There were just too many fellas going down. I’ve always wondered why certain fellas are lost and others not. I’ll never understand it…All I can say is I’m thankful.”
Stanley boarded a ship home and after 30 days leave, he was accepted for pilot training. “I still had a hankering to be a pilot and that year of flying was the most enjoyable time of my service,” he says. He was almost through school when the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945.
“We had been training for Japan,” says Stanley. “No question about it, that’s where I would have ended up. A lot of guys were saved by Truman’s decision to drop that bomb.”
Stanley chose to head back to college on the GI Bill rather than remain in the service; he eventually earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and enjoyed a long career as a research chemist. “Millions of us trained under the GI Bill, engineers, scientists, doctors, teachers, you name it. It was a wonderful piece of legislature.”
He still recalls the camaraderie of those wartime years. “It really was a band of brothers kind of thing,” he explains. “We went all over Europe, we depended on each other. Then I met my wife and had a good career. But I grew up in that war.”
Article written by the Virginian-Pilot for their 2016 Virginian-Pilot Veterans Day special section insert.