When Bill Bingham bailed out of “Lemon Squirts,” his doomed B-24 “Liberator” bomber over northern Italy on Mar. 4, 1945, he never considered the possibility the silk parachute that saved his life would become a family heirloom.
About a year later, the parachute he used to escape the disabled bomber provided the material for his high school sweetheart, Kate’s, wedding dress. It would also be the gown their two daughters, Kathleen and Mary Eileen, and their daughter-in-law, Sandy, were married in decades later.
Bingham was the radioman and part-time waist gunner in the 10-man crew aboard “Lemon Squirts.” It was part of the 15th Air Force, 464th Bomb Group, 777th Bomb Squadron, stained in Foggia, Italy. The crew was on its 29th mission when their plane was severely damaged by anti-aircraft flak.
Moments before they dropped their bombs on a high-profile target, an Austrian plant involved in building components for a German atomic bomb, two engines were hit by anti-aircraft fire.
“We started getting more flak when we reached the ‘IP’ (Initial Point) where we began our bomb run to the target,” the 78-year-old North Port, Fla. man, who was a radio operator a lifetime ago, explained. “We were flying at 20,000 feet about 25 miles from our target.
He was standing in the plane’s waist in 40-degree-below-zero cold with his .50-caliber machine-gun stuck through a gaping opening in the side of the bomber, watching for enemy fighters. They never showed, but the puffs of black smoke from flak, going off like hinge hand grenades were getting heavier and heavier the closer they got to the target.
“We were flying in the middle of a formation of 300 or 400 B-24 bombers. I’d never seen so many on a single raid,” he said. “It was a saturation bombing mission to knock out a bomb factory somewhere in Austria. I don’t recall the name of the town.”
As “Lemon Squirts” was almost over the target, its outboard engine on the starboard side was knocked out by flak. A few seconds later the inboard engine on the port side took a hit and stopped running.
“About the same time, Bill Agler, the tail gunner came walking up from the back at the plane holding his oxygen hose. At first we thought he was fooling around,” Brigham said. “He wasn’t.”
His hose had been cut by a piece of shrapnel. They were flying at 20,0000 feet, so he could possibly have become unconscious from lack of oxygen if something wasn’t done.
“Paul Burnside, the engineer, and I let him breath oxygen from our masks. In the meantime, we radioed Lemon our pilot, to let him know something had to be done to reduce our altitude because of Bill’s situation.
“We were already dropping behind and we were starting to lose altitude, so he said he was going to drop down to 10,000 feet so Bill could breathe OK,” Bingham said. “The rest of our formation went off and left us. We were alone and had to fly for more than six hours to make it back to base.”
It was about 2 p.m. when the crew realized it had another big problem. Flak had punctured a gas tank. They were low on fuel. They didn’t have enough to make it back, to Foggio, their home base.
They would have to try to find another base closer to where they were to make an emergency landing.
“Our navigator came up with a bright idea. If we could make it to the base near the foot of the Alps in northern Italy were the Tuskegee Airmen flew out of we would probably be all right. It was half way up the boot along the west coast,” Bingham explained.
Then came the final bad news from the pilot: They didn’t have sufficient fuel to make it as far as the fighter base, either. The crew would have to bail out. They weren’t even sure if they were behind their own lines or not.
“I was the last enlisted man to jump out of the plane” Bingham said. “The copilot was the last person to escape. We all jumped through the bomb bay.
“It came out at the inquiry afterwards that the plane’s automatic pilot had been shot out. When Lemon tried to escape, the plane veered off at a rakish angle and crashed. It was only about 12 feet from the pilot’s seat to the bomb bay, but he didn’t make it,” he said with downcast eyes.
Bingham hit the ground in his chute alongside a shallow river in northern Italy. His ankle was injured from the impact, but he limped along. He was miles away from the rest of the crew. He never saw any of them while trying to stay out of the clutches of the Germans.
He scooped up his parachute and stuck it in his flight suit so they enemy wouldn’t find it and start searching for him. All he was certain of was he needed to keep heading south.
“I took all the side roads. My big problem was dogs. They’d hear me and start barking. I had a couple of K-rations with me. I fed them to the dogs to keep them quiet,” Bingham said. “It worked.
“The tip-off came next day when a truck with a white star on its side passed by me.” he said. “I talked to an Italian and asked him where the Americans were. He took me in the back of his truck to our lines.”
After that mission, the crew of “Lemon Squirts” never reunited. Bingham flew three more missions as a fill-in radio operator on other bombers before the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945.
Kate, his bride-to-be, said in talking with Bingham that they would get married when he got home. But there was one problem: Lack of material for her wedding dress.
For some reason Bingham mentioned he still had the silk parachute he bailed out with. Silk was the magic word as far as she was concerned. Her aunt was a seamstress. The aunt could turn the parachute into a wedding dress.
This was a picture of Bill Bingham taken in 2003 when I interviewed him for this story. He’s holding several of his wedding pictures of he and his wife, Kate, taken 50 years earlier. Sun photo by Don Moore
“It kinda cut me up that I was going to lose my souvenir of World War II. The Air Force had already taken away a German Luger pistol I tried to bring home in my duffle bag as a souvenir,” he grimaced after more than 50 years. “I had no war souvenirs.”
The black-and-white wedding picture taken more than half a century ago of a beautiful, young brunette in the overflowing white wedding dress that covered the floor in front of her, and the dashing young man standing close behind her in formal attire, must have been worth the cost of donating his parachute to a romantic cause.
A list of everyone in the bomber crew picture
This information was written on the back of the “Lemon Squirt” crew picture:
Standing, from the left: Stanley Dyer, co-pilot, Maraifield, Org.; James Lemon, pilot, San Diego, Calif.; Allen Sanderson, navigator, Williamsburg, Pa.; David Pirgrey, bombardier, Gilbert, Minn.
Kneeling, from the left: William S. Moore, armorer, Whitefield, Okla.; Don Dickson, nose gunner, Devilside, Utah; William J. Bingham, radio operator, Chicago, Ill. Paul Burnside, engineer, Cincinnati, Ohio; Karl Walker,top turret gunner, Mineral Wells, Texas; William H. Agler, tail gunner, Waterville, Ohio.
*Lemon, the pilot, died at the controls when the B-24 he was flying crashed.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, March 17, 2003 and is republished with permission.
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