1st Lt. Rex Wilkinson flew a shiny, silver B-24 “Liberator” bomber he named “Alberta K,” for his wife, from a base at Stornara, Italy on 51 combat missions in 1944 as part of the 745th Squadron, 456 Bomb Group, 15th Air Force.
His first mission as pilot was a seven hour flight to Bucharest, Romania on April 15, 1944. His last mission was flown on Aug. 3,1944 to Fredrickshafen, Germany.
“About 4 a.m. someone would shake you on the shoulder and tell you you’re flying today. You’d go down and eat breakfast. Briefing was about 5 a.m. After briefing you’d go to your airplane and preflight it then you’d get into formation. Takeoff would be around 6 a.m. They’d get 40 B-24s off the ground in less than 15 minutes,” the 92-year-old “Village on the Isles” resident in Venice, Fla. recalled.
“We’d circle the field and form into squadrons. The squadrons would form into groups. There would be four groups of 40 planes each flying toward the target. As many as two or three groups would hit a single target. So 100 to 120 bombers would hit the same target,” Wilkinson said.
“During a mission I never took my eyes off the airplanes I was flying with. Once you got in a formation your protection from enemy fighters was formation. We’d see the fighters off in the distance flying down the bomber stream that might be 150 miles long. They rarely attacked us if we were flying a tight formation,” he said.
The flight that made the biggest impression on him of the 51 he flew as pilot of a B-24 “Liberator” was his seventh mission over the Ploiesti oil refineries in Romania.
“They told us before this mission that the 15th Air Force had hit Plaits five times and the refineries were still operating at 90 percent capacity. We were to make a maximum effort on this mission.
“We dropped our bombs, closed the bomb bay doors and made a diving turn out of the target area. As we were leaving the target when I felt a jolt in the airplane,” Wilkinson recalled 70 years later. “We got hit in the wing. It knocked a hole in the leading edge of the wing. The wind got in there and the wing looked like a football, all puffed up.
“Under these conditions we couldn’t stay in formation. We began to fall back and in less than 15 minutes the bomb group formation was out of sight. We were all alone flying by ourselves,” he said. “The German fighters didn’t pick us up. We had to fly 1,200 miles all alone to get back to base. We never saw a German fighter the whole time.
“On the way back I had a runaway propeller. I discovered I could control the propeller by pushing the feathering button in and pulling it out to keep it within a certain range. That’s the way we flew home. The feathering button is above the pilot’s head. My copilot or I had our hand tied up there with a scarf on the entire five hour trip pushing an pulling the feathering button.
“The worse part of the mission was flying through the German fighter belts. The ME-109s and Focke-Wulf 190s were waiting for us. We went through these fighter belts at least four times going and coming. Then you had to fly through the flak from the German guns on the ground. Some times the cannoneers shot above you, sometimes they shot below you and sometimes they shot at your elevation.”
Ironically Wilkinson and his crew never suffered a single injury during the entire 51 combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. He also lucked out with the weather.
“I got over there the middle of April and flew through the summer. We had nothing but good weather. I can think of only one time they called us back because of poor weather and that was a flight we were to make over Berlin. It never happened.
“On one of my flights I lost an engine to flak. When they took the engine apart and removed the piece of flak it had three serial numbers on the metal piece that were the same as the last three numbers of my Army serial number–923. The Army publicity people wrote a story about how the numbers matched.
“During the first two or three combat missions I took my pistol with me and would shoot out the little port window at the German fighters that were attacking us,” Wilkinson said. “I got tired of having to clean my gun so I stopped that kinda stuff. In fact, we quit carrying guns.
“Our bomb group lost two B-24s for every B-24 that was flying. On one mission I saw two B-24s right in front of me run together. They were making a turn and flew into each other and wiped out both planes,” he said.
After his 51st combat mission Wilkinson was give the opportunity to fly a “War Weary” plane back to the States for repair. He decided that was not a chance he wanted to take and took a troop ship, the Gen. Meggs, home to Norfolk, Va. along with 10,000 other servicemen.
After a 30-day leave he returned to Westover Field, Mass. as an instructor pilot who taught recruits how to fly an A-26 “Invader” attack bomber for the final year of the war.
“President Truman was our hero when he dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. “We had been scheduled to fly A-26s over Japan before the bomb was dropped.
After the war Wilkinson went back in the tree trimming business. In 1957 he started his own tree trimming company and trimmed trees for the power company in Indiana until he sold his firm and retired in 1982.
He has three children: Sandra, Marion and Roger.
Name: Marion R. Wilkinson
D.O.B: 10 June 1920
Hometown: New Castle, Ind.
Currently: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: 29 July 1943
Discharged: 13 Nov. 1945
Rank: 1st. Lt.
Unit: 745th Squadron, 456 Bomb Group, 15th Air Force
Commendations: Distinguished Flying Cross, European-Asian Eastern Ribbon, Air Medal with 2 Oakleaf Clusters
Battles/Campaigns: 51 Combat missions in the Italian Campaign, World War II
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, April 8, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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