Alex Brast of Blue Heron Pines mobile home park, south of Punta Gorda, flew a B-26, twin-engine bomber in North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia and Italy during World War II.
These bombers were called “The Widowmaker.” Because the planes were hard to land, particularly with one engine out, a lot of airmen died when the hot attack-bomber lost air speed and fell out of the sky. It also had a tendency to develop engine trouble on takeoff and crash.
The problem was so serious Col. Jimmy Doolittle, commander of the first raid on Japan flown from the deck of the carrier USS Hornet six months after America’s Pacific Fleet was sunk at Pearl Harbor, was called in to help.
“He was sent to Mac Dill Air Force Base in Tampa, where a B-26 squadron was stationed, to demonstrate the bomber could be flown by ordinary pilots. ‘”One a day in Tampa Bay,’ was the chant of some pilots learning to fly B-26s at Mac Dill,’” Brast recalled.
“Doolittle flew around the field at Mac Dill with one of his props feathered. He only had power on one engine, but he could still control the plane,” the 90-year-old former B-26 pilot said.
In early 1943, Brast flew a bomber named “The St. Louis Special,” to North Africa and became part of the 442nd Squadron, 320th Bomb Group, 42nd Wind of the 12th Air Force in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operation.
“During our first combat missions over Sicily we supported Gen. George Patton’s army in the invasion of Sicily. We bombed bridges, railroad marshaling yards and enemy troops,” he said.
“Then the 320th Bomb Group moved its base to Decimo Airfield in Sardinia. This brought targets in Italy within striking range. I participated in two major invasions –Salerno and Anzio,” Brast said. “I was in the first big raid when we attacked the airport outside Rome. We were able to listen to the BBC announce our attack on the airport as hundreds of planes were flying to the target. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me while I was flying.”
In a Sept. 13, 1943 letter home he describes an attack on a railroad marshaling yard when his bomber squadron was attacked by German Messerschmidt ME-109 fighters.
“Dear Mother and Dad,
“Our target lies 400 miles away. We must hit an island exactly two hours and 10 minutes later. The critical moment is now at hand. We are only five minutes from the drop zone.
“The target slowly comes up to the bomb sight’s cross hairs. The bombardier flicks his toggle switch and our bombs drop. A few bursts of enemy flak came uncomfortably close as we turn, lose altitude and take evasive action. We feel the concussion from our 500 and 1,000 pound bombs.
“’Enemy pursuit coming in at 3 O’clock high!’ the bomber’s interphone crackles. A split second later a silver shape flashes by missing our nose a few hundred feet. Some of the enemy plane’s bullets hit the bomber in front of us, but not in a vital spot.
“Our P-38 ‘Lightning’ escort fighters engage the 50 to 70 German planes. Many are seen spinning down trailing smoke.
“I spot an ME-109 which filtered through the out-numbered fighters covering us. He came in at 9 O’clock high. Our upper turret gunner opens up on him. Streaming red tracer bullets go right into the fighter. The German pilot doesn’t want to sacrifice his life. He turns sharply and our tracers follow him. Meanwhile, four more ME-109s attack our squadron. They dive, turn and climb in fast devilish circles. More planes go down smoking,” Brast writes. “A bomber in front of us is in trouble. Its right engine is smoking and then suddenly it catches fire. The plane ditches in the sea and all the crew escapes. We circle low and drop them three life rafts. Air-Sea Rescue is called.
An hour later we are safely back at our airfield. We go immediately up to Group for interrogation. After that two Red Cross girls give us coffee and doughnuts. Our gunners put in claims for shooting three German planes down. We hit the sack.”
Half way through his 40 combat missions, Brast was sent for a little R and R to Constantine in Northern Algeria. Instead of taking it easy, he was given the task of training a group of Free French pilots to fly a B-26. It was here Brast crash lands his first “Widowmaker.”
Since he didn’t speak French and they didn’t speak English an interpreter flew with them on these training missions.
“A French pilot was landing our B-26 when its landing gear collapsed. One of the plane’s propellers cut through the fuselage and killed the interpreter. No one else aboard was badly injured,” he said.
Before Brast completed his tour of duty in Europe, he flew missions in support of the American invasion at Anzio, Salerno and flattened the cathedral at Monte Casino with his bombs.
“At Anzio the German gun positions were only several hundred yards from where our troops were pinned down on the beach by the enemy,” he said. “We were pinpoint bombing the enemy positions above 6,000 feet to stay out of the range of the German 88 anti-aircraft guns.”
Brast headed Stateside just before the Invasion of Southern France in August 1944. He became a B-26 flight instructor at Barksdale Field in Shreveport, La.
His second B-26 crash almost cost him his life when a vapor lock occurred in one of the bomber’s engines during takeoff and it crashed nose first into a ditch at the end of the runway.
Brast suffered a broken back and spent months recovering from his injuries. He was discharged from the Air Force on Oct. 25, 1945, about two months after the Japanese officially surrendered, ending World War II.
He took the G.I. Bill and attended night school for nine years, eventually graduating with a Master’s in accounting. For decades he worked for various firms around the country as a CPA. He and his wife, Donna, moved to Punta Gorda in 2002 when he retired.
Name: Alexander Brast
DOB: 31 May 1920
Hometown: Szocathely, Hungary
Currently: Punta Gorda, Florida
Entered Service: 10 December 1942
Discharged: 25 October 1945
Unit: 442nd Squadron, 320th Bomb Group, 42nd Wing of the 12th Air Force, Mediterranean Theater of Operations
Commendations: European, African, Middle Eastern Theater Campaign Ribbon; Air Medal with 7 Oak Leaf Clusters, Presidential Unit Citation
This first appeared in print in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, July 29, 2010 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view Brast’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
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