White Fighter Pilots Saved by Black Squadron

Thanks for bringing Uncle Don Home

Ron Weber | 2/26/2014, 11:20 a.m.
At the Tuskegee Alabama Army Airfield in the early 1940s a group of young black men would come to not ...
Portland resident Don Bachman (back row, second from left) was saved from certain death during a World War II battle with German fighter planes, because of the intervention of the historical 332nd Figthter Group, the all-black Air Force unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Sitting with Uncle Don in the warm glow of his north Portland living room recently, I wondered how he did it. Listening to him tell the story, I could feel the cold hair on the back of my neck standing up. Terror seemed ever-present as Don recounted his terrifying experience one day in 1944. While he had flown many missions, one in particular remains fresh in his mind nearly 70 years later.

It happened as he flew with a group of seven American B24 bombers with the 459th Bombardment Group. Because of their size, B24s were also called a “Flying Fortress.” They had just flown out of Italy to drop bombs on oil factories in Vienna. But heavy winds forced the cancellation of the bombing that day and they were re-routed to Pola, a city at the tip of Yugoslavia where their target was a submarine base.

After a successful drop they ran into a hornet’s nest of enemy planes. At 22,000 feet, they were under intense fire. The seven American bombers suffered approximately 60 hits from the German fighter planes that were attacking. Things did not look good.

At 19 years old, Don had already been through Basic Training and Gunnery School. Still a teenager, he had the size to pack himself into the extremely small gun turret at the bottom of one of the B-24s. The noise was overwhelming with the sound of his plane, the 50mm machine guns he was firing, and the German planes shooting at him.

Swinging around in his turret, Don had plenty of targets to shoot at as they were heavily outnumbered by enemy planes. The ball turret was considered the worst crew position on the Flying Fortress. It was described by military veterans as requiring an agile occupant who was immune to claustrophobia and brave enough to be without a parachute close by.

As the Germans pounded the American bombers, the pilots and crew had to put fear behind them and fight against insurmountable odds. Their very lives depended upon it. In their heart of hearts, however, they had to be wondering if they would make it out of this mess.

Suddenly, another swarm of fighter planes came out of nowhere. The tails of the planes were painted red. Red was the color of the German flag. Did they now have a second squadron of enemy planes coming to insure their demise?

No, this second wave was actually the group of “Red Tailed Angels.” One by one, the enemy planes were shot out of the sky by this all-black 332nd Fighter Group. These highly skilled Tuskegee Airmen in their American P51s escorted the B24 squadron safely back to their base.

I tried to imagine what it would be like in that turret, but the truth is I can’t. Facing what Don did is more than I can imagine. Sitting there in the turret you were a sitting duck. The Germans knew that if they could take out the ball turret gunner they could blow the mammoth American bombers out of the sky.