TARGET July 4, 1943
LE MANS - NANTES - LA PALLICE
Chelveston airfield (England)
On July 4, 1943
Briefing was set for 07:00 hours which the veterans regarded as a good omen, for such a late start generally indicated a short trek to France rather than the longer haul to Germany.
Close to one hundred officers gathered in one room for the main briefing. The range of smells emanating from that assemblage could stagger any newcomer. Foremost was the acrid smell of cigarettes and cigars. Toss in the smell of boundless sweat, leather A-2 and A-10 jackets, cordite and grease stained coveralls, other foul unchanged "lucky" clothing, with just a slight of Life Buoy or Aqua Velva. Some old hands were oblivious, with their legs and arms crossed, hat tipped downward, and eyes resting shut, waiting for the show to begin.
When Group Commander Lt. Col. Delmar Wilson entered the room with his entourage, everyone popped to attention. The day's plan for "flogging the Jerries" seemed pretty thorough and well planned. Three separate forces would act as suporting diversions for each other and split the German defensive forces.
>>> Eighty-three planes of the Fourth Air Division would be the first to take off, skirt around the Brest Peninsula, and ultimately turn down towards their target, the lock gates of the La Pallice submarine pens.
Then the First Air Division would be split into two forces.
>>> Two wings, or six groups of 121 planes, would bomb an aircraft industrial plant at Le Mans as the primay effort.
>>> The second force, one wing, of four groups of 71 planes, would bomb the Heinkel aircraft factory three miles south of Nantes as the secondary effort.
The depot at Le Mans required the larger attacking force because it was more spread out than the Nantes' factory. All targets were chosen because the poor weather over Germany precluded attacking targets of a higher priority.
The two forces of the First Air Division would fly south from Selsey Bill at the same time on parallel courses as far Laval, by wich time the Germans would have picked up the La Pallice attacking force on the radar screen. At Laval the primary force would swing east towars Le Mans and the secondary force would fly southwest towards Nantes. Since The Le Mans target would draw the larger number of German fighters from JG 1 and JG 26 territory, ninety-three P 47's of the 4th and 78th Fighter Groups were assigned to pick up the Le Mans withdrawal. No fighter support was afforded the Nantes force, for they were purposefully given the long over-the-water return.
The 305th, part of the Nantes force, normally flew with two other groups in the same wing, the 306th and the 92nd. Because this was a maximum effort, extra planes were squeezed from 305 and 306 to form a fourth Composite Group, making the wing total 71 planes. Some pilots thought that a wing of such size would be too unwieldy, bur others welcomed the extra guns and were simply glad were not going to nearby Lorient or St-Nazaire.
Take off and assembly went well without incident, but unfortunately thirteen percent of the planes scheduled for our wing had to abort. Seventy-one planes were scheduled for our four group wing formation, but nine aborts occurred : 92th - one; 305th - three; and 306th - five. All three of the 305 aborts came from the 422nd squadron, which clearly indicated that they had maintenance problems and that their planes were being overtaxed by having to fly day missions as well as the night flying practice sessions.
Weather conditions were essentially as forecast with heavy contrails over England and crossing into France.
The pilot of the 366 Squadron of the 305 BG, Lt. Bill Wetzel in #42-5053 received the unenviable assignment of flying with the 92 BG's high squadron at 25,000 feet. No one liked to have to fly outside his own squadron or group with pilots and tactics with which he might be unfamiliar.
Lt. Ralph McKee hadn't planned to fly on the morning of 4 July. He had been released from a hospital just a few days earlier after suffering shrapnel wounds in a bombing run over the St-Nazaire submarine pens."I don't know how we ever made it back that day in mid-May". he said in a deep-voiced, slow Oklahoma drawl. "The pilot, Lyle Adams was very skillful, but he must have had an angel on each shoulder. I had flown 13 missions as his navigator. We took some heavy hits that day. Four of us were wounded and needed medical treatment.
"While I was in hospital, four of my buddies came to see me and asked if they could bring me anything. I told them some scotch whiskey would be great. They hid it in a musette bag tied to my bed frame. Problem was, after I drank some, I got a terrible urinary blockage. The doc said just to drink a whole lot of water. Then the nurse came in, looked around a bit, and took my bottle away. I found out that sulfa drugs mixed with alcohol caused the problem, and the medics knew instantly that I had some booze stashed"
Upon leaving the hospital, McKee was placed in an R&R facility near Southampton. "It was a pleasant experience. The Army had taken over an old mansion. I had my own bedroom, and the original domestic staff was still there, so a butler would knock on the door and bring hot tea, toast, and marmalade, I thought, "Man part of the world still lives right" For an old Oklahoma farm boy who grew up poor, that was livin' high on the hog".
Back at base, thinking he wasn't going to fly for a while, McKee went into the town to drink a few pints of ale, toss some darts, and relax with pals. Describing the place, he said, "if you have ever seen the movie "12 O'Clock High' with Gregory Peck and Dean Jagger, you know what Chelveston looks like. When Jagger rode a bike out to the old air base, that's where it was filmed."
Retiring to his bunk in a Nissen hut that night, cold as usual, McKee slept a short time before being shaken by an unwelcome hand. A voice said, "McKee, wake up. Lt. Wetzel's navigator is sick, so you are his replacement. C'mon. "Target for the day was Nantes, France.