The 44th Bombardment Group, first in USAAF to be equipped with the B-24, carved out a distinguished combat record in the European theater from its baptism by fire in November 1942, to V-E Day. Among its many memorable missions was its major role in the Aug. 1, 1943, low-level attack on oil refineries at Ploesti, for which the 44th’s commander, Col. Leon W. Johnson, was awarded the Medal of Honor.
In late 1944, the 44th was heavily committed to strategic bombardment’s first priority–the German oil industry. Second priority was a campaign against the factories and ordnance depots that equipped Germany’s mechanized ground forces. (Hitler had assigned precedence to tank production.) That relatively unsuccessful Allied air campaign of August to October succeeded in completely destroying only one target: the Henschel plant at Kassel, sole producer of the new Tiger tank. The coup de grâce for Kassel was delivered by a mission of Oct. 7, for which the 44th put up 37 B-24s. Two bombers of the group’s 506th Squadron were shot down by flak in the target area. One, aircraft #42-50894, made a successful emergency landing in Belgium with a seriously wounded pilot and copilot and an injured flight engineer.
The crew of #894 was flying its seventh mission. At the start of its bomb run, the B-24 took flak hits that punctured the right wing tanks, damaged both left engines so that they were producing little power, and knocked out the radio and compass. These were not problems to be taken lightly, even if there had been healthy pilots on the flight deck–and there were not. Pilot 2d Lt. John W. Jones’s legs were mangled by flak fragments. Copilot 2d Lt. Clement R. Holcombe was hit in the left shoulder, rendering his left arm useless. Flight engineer SSgt. Robert E. Kirkland, who also had been hit, was saved from serious injury by his flak suit.
Holcombe, seeing that Jones was in shock, immediately ordered bombardier 2d Lt. Edward A. Baier to salvo the bombs as the B-24 fell out of formation in a skidding, power-on dive. With his left arm paralyzed, Lieutenant Holcombe could not retard the throttles. He had engineer Kirkland move Jones, climb into the pilot’s seat, control the throttles at his command, and help with the rudder pedals. With the plane still in a dive, the No. 4 engine caught fire, but as they lost several thousand feet while regaining control, the fire blew out.
As the B-24, structurally damaged and with only partial power, continued to lose altitude, Holcombe and Kirkland regained stable flight and headed for friendly territory. As aircraft commander because of Lieutenant Jones’s condition, Lieutenant Holcombe pondered his alternatives. The aircraft was losing fuel rapidly through leaks in the tanks. Holcombe estimated there would not be enough to make it to England. Jones probably could not survive ditching in the cold waters of the Channel. The B-24 was not a good aircraft to ditch, anyway. Next, he could bail out the crew when they reached friendly territory, but again that might be fatal to Jones. He could order the crew to bail out and crash land with Jones aboard–not an attractive alternative, either.
Then navigator 2d Lt. James T. Westenhiser remembered that Strip B-58 near Brussels had been taken from the Germans a few days earlier and might be in good enough condition for an emergency landing. With a malfunctioning compass, the navigator could only estimate what turned out to be a correct course to B-58.
As the strip came in sight, the runway was seen to be pockmarked with hastily filled bomb craters. To make a tense situation even more unnerving, a battle-damaged B-17 ahead of them on final approach crashed and burned short of the runway, but with Sergeant Kirkland handling the throttles, Lieutenant Holcombe got the B-24 down in a safe, if not picture-perfect, landing.
Jones, Holcombe, and Kirkland were taken to the 8th British Army Hospital, where Jones’s left leg was amputated. After further hospitalization in England, Lieutenant Holcombe returned to the 506th Squadron and flew 23 more missions before returning to the States.
In a postwar account of that October mission, Clement Holcombe neglected to mention that he was awarded the Silver Star for his skill, professional judgment, and heroism in mastering a critical emergency, saving the life of his pilot and probably of other crew members. Although partially but painfully incapacitated, he had turned potential disaster into victory over most challenging circumstances. That is one definition of valor.
Thanks to Will Lundy, compiler of the “44th Bomb Group Roll of Honor” and a wartime member of the group. Mr. Lundy reported that Clement Holcombe died in February 1992.
Published November 1992. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.