Former Staff Sgt. Charlie Collins of Brookside Bluff mobile home park north of Arcadia was a member of “The Cottontails.” He flew as nose gunner in a B-24 “Liberator” four-engine bomber during World War II. His bomb group had cotton bulbs painted on their tails, thus the “Cottontails” moniker.
Collins was a member of the 324th Squadron, 450 Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force that flew from Ora, a base in southern Italy. He made 51 combat missions, crash landed twice and was credited with shooting down two Messerschmitt-109 fighters.
The 85-year-old survived the war without a scratch.
“Heaven Above” was his first B-24. The nose art on this bomber were Betty Grable’s legs with clouds around them above the knees.
“I believe it was our 11th combat mission when we lost that plane. We were coming back from bombing Metz, France. Our number-one engine was out and our number-three engine was windmilling and causing drag,” the former B-24 gunner recalled.
“We were losing altitude. We made it back to what had been a German fighter base in northern Italy. The strip wasn’t long enough to land on,” Collins said. “Just before we landed the pilot gave the signal for all of us to bail out.
“‘Skipper, are you gonna bailout?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘I’m going down with it.’
“‘I am, too,’ I said. Everyone of us aboard that B-24 decided to stay with him. All of us went back in the bomb bay and got back-to-back in preparation for the crash.
“The ‘Liberator’ came in on its belly scraping along the runway. I never heard a noise like that in my life,” he said. “Just before it came to a stop the bomber ground looped and its right wing crumpled.
“All 10 of us survived the crash. No one was seriously injured. The plane was a total disaster,” Collins said.
The second plane his crew got ended up in the drink. This time they crashed in the Ionian Sea off the toe of Italy returning from another combat mission over Nazi-occupied Europe.
“Again two of our engines were out. We were close to our base, but had to ditch in the sea when we ran out of altitude, he said. “I got out of the plane and the water was up to my chin. We all walked out of the water and onto the beach without injuries.”
Collins’ bomber was returning from a third bombing mission over Austria. Their target that day: railroad marshaling yards. At least 1,000 American bombers took part in that raid.
It wasn’t just flak, enemy artillery fire, they had to cope with. On a number of occasions Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf enemy fighters confronted them.
“Me being in the nose I saw most of the German fighter coming our way. They’d try and get up in the sun and fly toward us,” he said. “Once in a while you’d see a fighter come up from under our belly toward us. We had to learn to lead them while shooting with our twin .50-caliber machine-guns.
“When I shot down my first ME-109 he was very close. When he exploded, pieces of the plane almost flew into us,” Collins recalled. I got credit for shooting down two Messerschmitts and partial credit for getting an FW-190.”
The former staff sergeant had a strange encounter while flying on a second mission to Metz.
“On that mission the flak over Metz was so heavy you could almost walk on it. When we return from that flight our B-24 had 600 flak holes in it,” he said. “While on the bomb run I felt something hit me in the back. Hot blood on my neck ran down my back.
“The pilot and co-pilot said I slumped over. I don’t remember that, but I do remember the pilot asking me, ‘Charlie, are you alright?’ I could hear his voice, but I couldn’t answer him.
“When we reached a lower altitude they came forward and pulled me out of the nose turret. They took me back to the waist and examined me. There was a flak hole in the back of my flying suit, but I didn’t have a scratch on me. The only thing I had was a red mark on my neck,” Collins said 65 years later.
“Two or three weeks after this incident I got a letter from my mom. The exact date this happened she woke up in the middle of the night and got on her knees because she knew her boy was in great danger,” he said.
“Unless you’re a true born again Christian you wouldn’t understand this. God’s got a way of doing things,” Collins said with a smile.
He wrapped up the Second World War on the final bombing raid over Berlin a day or two before the Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945.
“It was uneventful compared to some of the other bombing runs we made. We didn’t have near the flak or the fighter problems we had in earlier missions,” he said. “We started celebrating the war’s end the next day. My crew flew their B-25 back to Charleston, S.C.
After the war Collins did a number of things. He owned a grocery store, a taxi business, a six lane bowling alley with a pool hall on the side in addition he was the proprietor of three restaurants over the years. He also drove an 18 wheeler for years.
He and his wife, Thelma, moved to Brookside Bluff 19 years ago. They were married 50 years until her death in 2009. They have six children: Charlie, Larry Steve, Donna, Dixie and Nicki.
Name: Charles H. Collins
D.O.B: 20 Dec. 1925
Hometown: Princeton, West Virginia
Current: Brookside Bluff, north of Arcadia, Fla.
Entered Service: 12 Jan. 1944
Discharged: 6 Nov. 1945
Rank: Staff Sergeant
Unit: 324th Squadron, 450 Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force
Commendations: American Theatre Ribbon, European-African-Middle Eastern Ribbon w/4 Bronze Stars, Good Conduct Medal, Air Medal, WWII Victory Medal
Battles/Campaigns: North Apennines, Po Valley – Rhineland, Central Europe, Balkans
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Jan. 31, 2011 and is republished with permission.
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