It was All Souls Day, Nov. 2, 1944, Francis Murphy remembers most about his 26 combat missions as tail gunner in a “Flying Fortress,” over Germany late in World War II.
Sgt. Murphy was in the 486th Bomb Group, 832nd Squadron of the 8th Air Force based in Sudbury, England. Their first mission was on Aug. 5, 1944. All of his missions, except for the second one, were flown over Germany.
“We were to bomb the ball-bearing plants and the oil refineries in Merseburg, Germany that November day. It was to be a maximum effort: 1,400 B-17 bombers with fighter support flying at 28,000 feet on a saturation bombing run,” the 83-year-old snowbird who spent March with his daughter, Kathy DeLorenze, at her Port Charlotte, Fla. home, said.
“On that flight at that altitude it was -52 below zero. We had heated fur-lined flying suits and heated gloves with wires running up the back of your hands in the gloves. If you squeezed the handles of your twin machine guns hard the wires providing the heat would cause burn welts on your fingers,” Murphy explained.
It was their third bombing run over Meresburg. The nine crewmen aboard his B-17 knew exactly what was coming. What they expected was bad news, what they got was even worse.
Their approach to the target that was the most suspenseful of the 10 to 14 hour flight. A group of 39 B-17s flew over the target in formation and dropped their bombs.
This was the point where the heavy, four-engine bombers were most vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft fire. The German 88 millimeter gun crews would determine their altitude. Then they would fire a continuous barrage of exploding shells the bombers would have to fly through to reach their target instead of firing at an individual bomber.
Murphy’s crew was lucky that day over Merseburg. Everyone aboard the plane survived the run without a scratch.
The same couldn’t be said for their Flying Fortress. Like almost all of the hundreds of bombers in the air over the German industrial complex, their plane was damaged by 88 shrapnel.
“Fifty-two, 8th Air Force B-17s were lost over Merseburg that day,” he remembered more than six decades later. Each one of those Flying Fortresses had a crew of nine, they were each flying one waist gunner shy on that mission.
“We didn’t like the idea of flying to Merseburg one more time, but we were stuck. The flak from the German anti-aircraft guns around the city was tremendous,” Murphy said. “I made a little promise to the Lord that if I survived Merseburg, I would attend Mass daily for the rest of my life.”
Francis X. Murphy has kept his word to the Lord all these eyes for allowing him to survive that flight over Nazi-occupied Germany.
“The other mission that sticks in my mind that we went on was the parachute drop in Holland, “Operation Market Garden.” It was Sept. 16 of 17, 1944 and the B-17s were used to clear out coastal artillery and the landing zones where the paratroopers were to drop.
“We were one of the last B-17s flying over. Following us were all the transports filled with paratroopers and gliders being towed by the transports filled with more paratroopers,” Murphy said. “The whole 8th Air Force passed before us and 40,000 or 50,000 paratroopers followed us in to the drop zone. It was quite a sight to see.
The purpose of the parachute drop was for Allied forces to secure the bridges spanning the rivers in Holland. By going through Holland they could circumvent the Siegfried Line that provided perimeter defense for southern Germany.
Unfortunately it didn’t have the expected effect of ending the war by Christmas of 1944. The 1st British Airborne Division stalled at Arnham, Holland — The Bridge Too Far. What was left of the unit had to be evacuated out of the area.
Murphy survived his combat tour with the 8th Air Force without injury. Everyone else in his crew, except for the copilot, William Himes, also completed their missions without injury. He was injured by flak on his 31st mission over Germany and spent six months in the hospital recovering from injuries to his leg and chest.
When Murphy returned to his hometown of Millis, Mass., his sister, Mary, and his three brothers, Michael, Daniel and John, were also returning from war. Even his first wife, Catherine, served in the Coast Guard during the Second World War.
The Murphys of Millis, Mass. were a military family.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. in March 2005 and is republished with permission.
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Francis Xavier “Sliver” Murphy, Age 85, of Millis, Mass. died August 20, 2009.
Beloved husband of the late Catherine (Kilmain) Murphy and Anna E. (Costello) Murphy; Predeceased by his brothers. Loving father of Katherine A. DeLorenze and husband John of Port Charlotte, FL, Dennis J. Murphy and wife Theresa of Plainville, and Patrick M. Murphy and wife Kathleen of Wareham.
Devoted brother of Rita Murphy, Florence Garrity, James W. Murphy, and the late Daniel, Michael, Thomas and John Murphy, Katherine O’Rourke, Patricia O’Brien, Mary Germano and Sister Martha Murphy.
Also survived by six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren as well as numerous nieces and nephews.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, 82 Exchange Street, Millis, on Saturday, August 29th at 10:00a.m. Burial with military honors will follow at Prospect Hill Cemetery. Visiting hours will be at the Roberts-Mitchell Funeral Home, 90 Curve Street, Millis, Friday 4 – 8p.m.
If desired, donations may be made in his memory to the Millis America Legion Post #208, 136 Curve St., P.O. Box 22, Millis, MA 02054. For guest book, obituary, and directions, see http://www.robertsmitchell.com. Roberts-Mitchell Funeral Service Millis