A tail gunner in a B-24 bomber dubbed “Wild Princess,” Staff Sgt. Herb May was on the first daylight mission flown by the U.S. Air Force over Berlin in February 1944. He had plenty of company — there were 800 heavy bombers in the armada that day attacking the German capital.
“They told us in the morning briefing the Germans were mad. Hermann Goring, commander of the Luftwaffe, assured his fighter pilots Allied bombers would never reach Berlin. So we were expecting the worst,” the 87-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla. resident said.
May flew out of Attenborough, near Norwich, England, as a member of the 466th Bomb Group, 786th Squadron of the 8th Air Force. He grew up in La Grange, a tough suburb on Chicago’s west side, joined the Army Air Corps after graduating from high school and become a tail gunner in a four-engine “Liberator.”
“When we took off that first morning about 6 a.m., we could hardly see the tips of our wings because the fog was so thick. The lead bomber followed a Jeep with flashing lights down the runway to get off,” May said. “Bomber after bomber flew into the fog at minute intervals after that. We circled the field until we reached 8,000 to 10,000 feet before climbing out of the fog.
“Eventually we got into formation as we headed out over the English Channel. Bombers from surrounding airfields formed up with us. By the time we reached France, we were on oxygen flying at 12,000 feet,” he said. “Our target on that first run to Berlin was an aircraft manufacturing plant on the north side of the city. We started getting flak from German 88s (antiaircraft guns) when we got to France. German fighters were waiting for us long before we reached Berlin.
“We were told about the Hermann Goering squadron. They were a bunch of experienced German pilots who flew ME-109 fighters with yellow noses. We ran into them, but I’m not sure it was on our first mission,” May said.
“The German fighters would come in fast. You’d see them at the last minute. You wouldn’t have a lot of time to get a clear shot at them and they’d be gone,” he said. “There was so much action going on, you flew in a state of confusion much of the time. The enemy fighters would go away whenever we started getting flak.
“We just got over Berlin and a bomber called ‘Terry and the Pirates,’ flying a little to our left, was hit by flak and blew up. Parts of the exploding B-24 hit another bomber next to it in formation and the second plane started tearing up, too,” May said. “We yelled to our pilot to watch the flying junk as engines and wings passed by us. We survived.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got 29 more of these flights to go? If they’re all like this one, I’m not going to make it,” he recalled more than six decades later.
“Wild Princess” dropped her bombs on the enemy airplane factory and made the turn for home.
“There were German fighters waiting for us and more flak on the return trip, but neither were nearly as heavy as on the morning run to Berlin,” he said. “We had a bunch of small flak holes in our plane that the ground crew patched. They put swastikas on each patch. Eventually our bomber was covered with German swastikas.
It was May ‘s first and last bombing missions that were the toughest. He finished up in August 1944 on a bombing run to Hamburg, Germany. In between, the crew of “Wild Princess” flew a bunch of missions, but two on D-Day were more memorable than most of the others and a third one they flew to Berlin was also one for the books.
“Our first run on D-Day was at 3 a.m. We bombed the German coastal fortifications along the beaches of Normandy ahead of the Allied invasion. We flew back later in the day and dropped more bombs on the German side of a colored smoke signal on the ground,” May recalled. “That was about the same time bombs accidentally fell on Allied troops. An American general was killed in the bombing.
“On a later mission to Berlin, we got our oxygen tanks knocked out. We flew all the way home on the deck over German airbases with dozens of fighter planes. They couldn’t come up after us because they were out of gasoline,” he said.
May didn’t know until after a mission one day how close he came to death.
“As I was getting out of my turret, I noticed there was a 20-millimeter hole in the bottom of the plane next to my butt that exited through the top of my turret. It didn’t explode when it hit the plane and I don’t know why. That’s the closest I came to dying,” he said.
That last mission to Hamburg was particularly tough, even though it was only half as long as a flight to Berlin.
“We flew in over Hamburg in formation, but the flak from antiaircraft guns was so heavy the bombers were bouncing around. The ships in the harbor were shooting at us, too,” May said. “It wasn’t as bad as some of the missions we made to Berlin. However, enemy fighter planes were waiting for us after the bomb run, and so were the German 88s.”
After 31 missions, the crew of “Wild Princess” was on its way home and they were in a partying mood.
“We couldn’t party much harder than we did after our regular mission, but we tried. We partied like hell after each mission because none of us thought we were going to make it home,” he said. “I sailed into New York Harbor aboard the Queen Mary. It was August 1944. I saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time.”
May came home to La Grange, married a neighbor girl, and joined the police department where he served for 26 years. He was chief the last eight. May and his wife, Mildred, moved to Port Charlotte 20 years ago after he retired from the force. They were married for 60 years; she died seven years ago.
Only two members of “Wild Princess’” crew are still alive — May and the pilot, Milton Hinman, who lives in Phoenix, Ariz.
“I’ve lived a wonderful life,” May said. “I loved the police department because you could help people.”
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Feb. 8, 2010 and is republished with permission.
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