Phil Fielder was a handsome seventeen-year old Iowan whose remaining boyhood years were set aside by World War II. Four older brothers enlisted soon after Pearl Harbor. He followed their lead by signing up on July 10, 1942. After boot camp, he attended airplane mechanic’s school and specialist’s training for P-38 fighter planes.
But like many other young men, Phil hated sitting on the sidelines, thousands of miles away from action so he volunteered for gunnery school. The heavy casualties in the air war over Germany caused his transfer orders to quickly pass through proper channels for his relocation to Pueblo, Colorado. The Army assigned him to a B-24 bomber crew as a flight engineer and a machine gunner after graduation.
In the midst of the Army’s hurry-up-and-wait schedule, Phil married Helen Kimler on October 24, 1943. Their honeymoon was brief, but fortunately, she was able to travel with him to Colorado. The months quickly passed until Phil was assigned to a bomber crew. Helen left for Iowa, pregnant with their soon arriving child, while Phil flew off to war.
During World War II, more than 18,300 B-24 bombers were manufactured in America. It was a clumsy looking four-engine airplane with twin tails and a nose wheel. The cruising speed was 200 miles per hour with a maximum rating of 300 miles per hour. Aptly named the Liberator, it was armed with ten .50 caliber machine guns and could carry a payload of 8,800 pounds of bombs.
Though fondly remembered by their ten-man crews, the B-24’s were anything but passenger friendly. Noisy, bumpy, cumbersome, awkward, cramped, and uncomfortable with no heat, no restrooms, no pressurized cabins, no padding on the iron seats, and no kitchen facilities. Temperatures were as low as fifty degrees below zero at times with winds gusting through the cabins from the open bomb bay doors and machine gun turrets. Each man used an oxygen mask at altitudes above 10,000 feet and wore two parachutes: front and back.
Phil’s ten-man crew was a part of the 15th Army Air Force and the 485th Bomber Group. Their ages ranged from nineteen to twenty-three years old. Captain Tom McDowell was a respected veteran at the ripe old age of twenty. Uncle Phil was the second youngest and the only married man on the crew.
Landing in Venosa, Italy, the B-24 crew flew their first mission on September 6, 1944. Thus, began their countdown towards a minimum of thirty-five bombing runs over enemy territory before being reassigned to less hazardous duties.
Thirty-five missions over Germany, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Austria. Thirty-five flights bombing oil refineries, railroad yards, ammunition plants, ball bearing factories, and whatever else. Thirty-five trips through anti-aircraft fire filled with deadly flak so heavy it appeared to be black clouds. Thirty-five times taking off knowing one in three planes might not return that day. Thirty-five tests of courage far beyond what normal men could ever hope to bear. It was no wonder these crews became life-long friends after enduring such perils together.
On one particular mission, Phil’s B-24 came under heavy anti-aircraft fire just after dropping their bombs. A piece of flak tore a hole in the hydraulic reservoir tank, spraying oil all over the cabin. If left unrepaired, the bomb bay doors would remain open and the plane’s wheels could not be lowered into landing position when they returned to the base. Valuable seconds ticked off. Something had to be done or the plane would have to be ditched, forcing them to use their parachutes. A dangerous last resort for B-24 crews.
“See if you can do something! And be quick about it!” shouted Captain Tom to Uncle Phil.
Phil saw a small broom under the pilot’s seat. He grabbed it, broke the handle off, and made his way toward the hydraulic tank.
The trek to the rear was dangerous under normal conditions because there was no aisle. Just an eight-inch wide catwalk spanned the thin aluminum doors, but on that day, the bomb bay doors were wide open with high winds ripping through them. The plane flew at an altitude of twenty-eight thousand feet, with temperatures at forty degrees below zero. Slippery hydraulic oil covered everything, including the narrow catwalk.
Phil unhooked his front parachute pack and edged sideways over the long oily catwalk, much like a high wire walker in a circus. He crossed the open bomb bay doors to the leaking tank. Arriving there, he cut off a finger on his leather glove, shoved the broom handle into the lopped off piece, and rammed the jury-rigged wad into the tank’s gaping hole. It worked. The leak stopped.
Was there a band playing for our hero when he arrived back at the base? No. Did any reporters rush to write about his heroic act of courage? No. Were any medals of honor pinned on his chest? No. Did he really expect to receive any of this? No. Phil instead received the grateful thanks from the ones he considered the most important people in the war zone: his crewmembers.
Phil and his crew completed their quota of thirty-five bombing missions in April 1945 and then were reassigned back to the states. There he reunited with Helen and finally met his seven-month old son, Philip, Jr.
Uncle Phil summed up his actions on that day with the hydraulic reservoir by saying, “Somebody had to do it. It just turned out to be me.”
(Excerpt from The Hunt for Larry Who by Larry Nevenhoven, © 2014, Amazon eBook)