1st Lt. Matt Williams of Englewood, Fla. flew his first combat mission piloting a B-24 “Liberator,” four-engine bomber over Nazi-occupied France during the D-Day Invasion, June 6, 1944, along the beaches of Normandy in World War II.
“My first mission was probably the most interesting because you could climb out of the bomber and walk from England to France by skipping over the ships in the English Channel. You never saw so many ships in your life,” the 90-year-old former pilot said.
“We flew in at 400 feet and dropped incendiary and antipersonnel bombs behind German lines on targets of opportunity. I remember all 10 of our .50 caliber machine-guns were going full blast. On that first run I remember we strafed an enemy airfield.
“Normally, on most of our other combat missions we flew at 23,000 to 24,000 feet above our target we were bombing.”
Although Williams and the crew of the “Never Mrs.” flew 35 missions over enemy territory with the 8th Air Force out of Attenborough, England it’s been 70 years and his memory is a bit fuzzy. However, there are a couple of flights he well remembers.
“On one of our missions the weather turned bad before we reached our target, a ball bearing plant. Somehow we missed the recall and my squadron flew on to Germany and bombed the target. We broke out of the clouds right over the target, dropped our bombs, then flew back into the clouds and headed home.”
Berlin was the mission nobody wanted to fly. Williams made three flights to the German capital.
“I remember going to briefing before taking off. We had no idea where we were going until they pulled the cover off the map showing the target for the day’s mission. When we saw it was Berlin we weren’t very happy,” he recalled.
“After breakfast and briefing we went out to our bombers and make our preflight checks before flying off. Our group took off one plane at a time before daylight. Within 15 minutes the four squadrons that comprised the group were circling the field at 10,000 feet forming up on our group leader who was headed for the coast. By the time we reached the France we were flying at 20,000 feet.”
On the missions to Berlin, Williams and his flight crew had to cope with 1,000 or more antiaircraft guns pointed their way as hundreds of Allied bombers flew over the German capital in air raids that lasted for hours.
“Those German gunners were good. We’d fly through puffs of black smoke all around us from the enemy 88s. The black puffs from their guns that you saw you didn’t have to worry about. It was the puffs you didn’t see that were the ones that could get you,” he explained.
“By the time we reached Berlin, German fighter planes were pretty much gone. We only saw enemy fighters on a couple of missions,” Williams recalled. “It was the flak that was likely to get you. It was deadly.”
Another raid that made an impression on Williams was the bombing of Cologne, Germany.
“The idea was to destroy the city,” he said. “We were told to hit everything but the cathedral. Despite the damage we did to the city the cathedral escaped with very little damage.”
Tragedy struck Williams’ squadron on a mission over the Zuider Zee in Holland.
“We were flying in formation and I tried to get a couple of our B-24s to fly a better pattern. All of a sudden they rammed together and blew up in a ball of flames. In an instant 20 guys were killed in those two ships,” Williams said remembering the calamity a lifetime ago as he shook his head.
What impressed him as much as the combat missions he flew was that Jimmy Stewart, the movie star, was their operations officer. He was the guy that briefed them on their flight each morning and debriefed them when they returned from a mission.
“The first time I met him was after my fourth or fifth mission. It had been a particularly tough flight. When I walked into he officer’s club he and our colonel were sitting at a table. Stewart called me over,” Williams said.
“‘You had a rough day?’ he said. “‘Yes, sir we did,’ I replied. ‘Let me buy you a drink and sit down and tell us about it,’ the second-in-command replied. I looked at Jimmy and said, ‘Sir, I’ve never had a drink.’
“I was 21 and it was unusual a guy my age had never drunk. My two commanders looked at each other rather peculiarly. Then they bought me a Southern Comfort.
“Jimmy was a tremendous guy. He was a ‘ground pounder’ who didn’t have to fly combat missions. Yet he would climb aboard a plane as it flew off to Germany. What a tremendous boost he gave a crew when he got aboard a B-24.”
Williams had some close calls during his months in the air.
He lost an engine on a return trip while off the coast of Sweden.
“If we landed in Sweden during the war we would be quarantined there for the duration. I took a vote of our crew and to a man they all wanted to try and make it back to base,” Williams remembered.
Another time he had to made an emergency landing at a base in the south of England that had extra long runways.
“We lost all our hydraulics and had no brakes, flaps or wheels. We had to hand crank our wheels down before we landed. We landed without incident.
“No one in our flight crew was injured during any of our missions. We were lucky”.
When the Germans surrendered in May 1945, Williams had already returned to the USA. He was teaching young aviators how to fly a B-24 from a base out west.
“We were flying over the Rocky Mountains when we hit a violent thunder storm. It was the worst storm I was ever in. When I finally got down on the ground I told myself, ‘I’m never going to get in the airplane again.’
“I found out the Germans had surrendered while I was at the officer’s club. Someone asked how many points I had for getting out of the service. I told them around 170. They replied, ‘All you need is 150 to get out.'”
The next day he signed the necessary paper work and was released immediately from the Army Air Corps.
“I returned to the University of Kentucky and graduated with a master’s degree in flower-culture. For almost the next half century Williams had a wholesale rose business that supplied cut roses to stores in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
He and his wife, Helen, retired and moved to Sarasota County in 1972. They have been married 65 years and have four children: Chip, Craig, Barry and Bonnie. In addition, they have seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Name: Matthew Robert Williams, Jr.
D.O.B: 28 Feb. 1923
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
Currently: Englewood, Fla.
Entered Service: 24 Nov. 1942
Discharged: 15 June 1945
Rank: First Lieutnant
Unit: 453 Bomb Group, 8th Air Force
Commendations: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters, European-African-Middle Eastern with 3 Bronze Stars
Battles/Campaigns: European Campaign
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, April 10, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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