Jimmy Stewart taught former 2nd Lt. Nick Radosevich of Englewood, Fla. how to fly a B-17 and B-24 bombers during World War II.
The movie star must have done a good job, because the 21-year-old student-pilot flew 32 combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe with the 8th Air Force. Included in his missions were the first American daylight bombing raid on Berlin and the D-Day Invasion later in 1944.
Radosevich, who now lives in the Quail Run condominiums, first met Stewart when Radosevich arrived in Boise, Idaho, for multi-engine bomber training. He was there to learn to fly the B-17 “Flying Fortress,” America’s primary heavy bomber at the time.
“As I walked into the squad room, 1st Lt. Stewart was sitting at a table. I started grinning when I saw him. He introduced himself,” the 89-year-old ex-bomber pilot recalled.
“I flew with him as test pilot 10 or 11 times, about 100 hours. He was a super pilot and always very cautious.
“This one day Jimmy told me, ‘The 17s are going overseas.’ He asked me if I wanted to go with them or stay for the B-24 Liberators.
“‘What are you going to do?’ I asked.
“‘I’m going to stay for the B-24s.’
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’ll stay, too.’ I think he thought the B-24s were bigger, faster and better than the 17s.
“The two four-engine bombers flew very differently. The 17s would almost fly themselves. However, the 24 was a hands-on plane that had to be flown at all times,” Radosevich said.
By the time “Lucky Penny,” the nickname for his B-24, flew out of south Florida headed for North Africa on Christmas Eve 1943, they had a mascot. Radosevich was given an inky-black cocker spaniel pup they dubbed “Penny” by a stateside girlfriend. They immortalized her on the bomber’s nose, painted perched on a bomb.
The cocker flew the Atlantic in the cockpit seated next to Radosevich wearing her own parachute; she also had a collar with a small tube containing his name, address and service number.
Some weeks later they reached their base 17 miles south of Norwich, England, in the northern part of the country. The largest nearby town was Old Buckingham. This is where his unit, the 734th Bomb Squadron, 453rd Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, was based during the war.
“In the first 11 days we flew 10 missions over France and Germany. On our eighth mission, we bombed munition plants in southern Germany, along the Swiss border. We lost our number three and four engines over the target,” he said. “We couldn’t keep up with the formation.
“I asked the crew, ‘Do you want me to try and fly the plane back to England or do you want to make an emergency landing in Switzerland where we would be interred for the remainder of the war?’ ‘Take us back to England,’ they said.
“‘OK, hang on because we’re going right down on the deck. I was 200 feet off the ground, trying to avoid enemy radar, as we hedge-hopped across Germany and occupied France,” Radosevich said. “I told my crew to keep an eye out for enemy fighters. We didn’t see any.
“We made it across the English Channel and landed at the first base we came to. It was an RAF (Royal Air Force) fighter base. We landed without incident and sent for two new engines. When they were replaced we flew home to our base a couple of days later.”
On March 6, 1944, Radosevich and the crew of “Lucky Penny” were part of the first American daylight bombing raid on Berlin. He estimates, more than six decades, later that some 1,500 B-24 and B-17 bombers took part in that mission.
“I was leading the high right element in that first raid over Berlin in my B-24 when my wingman’s right wing was blown off by anti-aircraft fire. His plane flipped over and almost flipped into us and then blew up,” he said. “The crew was blown out of the airplane and escaped. But they were captured and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.”
Radosevich’s target that day was the entrance to the railroad that ran under Berlin.
“As we approached the target, a piece of flak from an enemy 88 (anti-aircraft gun) went right over the shoulder of my navigator, a Jewish kid who happened to be peering out the side of the plane at Berlin. If he hadn’t been leaning over and looking out at the city, the flak would have hit him right in the head,” he said.
When they returned to base they counted 105 flak holes in “Lucky Penny’s” aluminum skin.
A few missions later his crew received 10 days leave. They went to Edinburgh, Scotland, to see the sights. When they returned to base they learned another crew had flown “Lucky Penny” on a mission and was shot down. All aboard were killed.
“They sent me over to pick up a new silver B-24 which I named ‘Lucky Penny Two.’ We flew 19 missions in this plane, which gave us a total of 32,” he said.
When D-Day arrived on June 6, 1944, he flew his 29th and 30th missions on that day. The squadron took off at sunup headed for the invasion beaches where they dropped their bombs at 10,000 feet on the German beach fortifications.
“When we got back to base they told us to stay with our bomber. As we waited for them to gas and rearm the plane, they brought us out some lousy cold pork sandwiches. I’d rather have had peanut butter,” he said with a grimace 60 years later. “We ate the pork sandwiches and took off that afternoon for St. Lo, France — the German headquarters.”
Two days later Radosevich and the crew of “Lucky Penny Two” flew off on its next-to-last mission of the war.
“Our squadron commander told me I was going on a single-ship mission to bomb a bridge just below Paris. I would be met at the coast by two Spitfires that would fly fighter support for me,” he said. “We knocked out the bridge with four 1,000-pound bombs dropped at 1,000 feet. When the bombs went off our B-24 bounced into the air another 200 feet.
“After our final mission Jimmy Stewart was waiting for us on the runway with his Jeep,” Radosevich recalled. “‘This is it for you guys. You’re all done,’ he said as we piled in his Jeep, and he took us to our final debriefing.”
He knew he would have to do something with Penny, he couldn’t take his little, black mascot back home with him. He decided to give her to a 4-year-old girl whose family had kept the dog on a number of occasions when the bomber crew went out on the town on leave. The family lived in Attleborough, near the end of the runway where they were based.
A month or so ago Radosevich received a phone call and the English voice on the other end identified herself as Jane Lane. She was that little girl from long ago in far off England who took Penny home with her. Now 64, she told Radosevich the dog lived to be 14.
Jane’s cousin will be vacationing in Naples later this month. He plans to visit Nick and Marilyn Radosevich at their Englewood condo. Finding Penny’s original master still alive, and an ocean away after all these years and the cousin’s pending visit to the U.S. is apparently the talk of Attleborough, he said.
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Oct. 22, 2006 and is republished with permission.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.
Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.