(This is part two of a story on World War II veteran Lewis Cockerill.)
It had been more than 20 months since the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, plunging the United States headlong into World War II.
Although he was certainly part of the war effort as a coppersmith at the Naval Torpedo Station in Alexandria, Va., Lewis Cockerill ached to get into the fight. The 19 year old wasn’t satisfied working on the home front while friends and co-workers had already found their place in the military.
Knowing his parents would never approve of him voluntarily enlisting, Cockerill checked the mail every day hoping to find a draft notice.
In the late summer of 1943, the U.S. Army finally sent the long-awaited notice and the eager teen reported for duty at Ft. Lee in Virginia on Sept. 3.
Cockerill applied for pilot training but was turned down after a physical revealed a heart abnormality.
“I had a double heart beat,” said Cockerill. “I was told I should never fly.”
Then, in true military fashion, the Army sent Cockerill for training as a B-24 gunner.
“I was told never to fly (because of my heart) and they sent me to aerial gunnery school,” said Cockerill with a laugh.
But Cockerill wasn’t about to complain, especially when he arrived in Miami and saw where his training would be held.
“I did my close order drills and calisthenics on Miami Beach,” said Cockerill. “We lived in a high rise hotel (with) large comfortable beds.”
Cockerill was assigned to Tyndall Field in Panama City, Fla., for additional training before being sent to Westover Field in Springfield, Mass., where he was assigned to a 10-man replacement crew.
Now holding the rank of staff sergeant, the waist gunner was being shipped overseas to join up with the 458th Bombardment Group.
In late May 1944, Cockerill was one of 7,000 men to board the Queen Elizabeth in New York and set sail for Scotland. He was seasick during most of the five-day journey.
“We rolled back and forth all the way across the Atlantic,” said Cockerill.
The ship arrived in Glasgow on June 5, 1944 and the men disembarked the next day. Cockerill and his crewmates were sent by train to Manchester, England, and then flown to Northern Ireland where they underwent additional training.
The men finally were sent to their home air base at Horsham St. Faith near Norwich, England and they flew their first combat mission on June 28, 1944. They were part of a group that attacked rail yards at Saarbrucken on the French-German border.
Cockerill remembers with great clarity the first time he encountered enemy anti-aircraft fire.
“I remember we had a little flak that didn’t amount to much,” said Cockerill. “I could see the shells bursting in the air and I remember thinking, ‘gee, I’m not scared.’ Then I looked down at my legs and they were (shaking). My mind and my body weren’t together on this one.”
The next day, June 29, would prove to be Cockerill’s second and last mission of the war. The target was an airplane factory at Aschersleben deep inside Germany.
Cockerill’s first mission was nearly flawless and he was now familiar with basic pre-flight routine.
“What happens on the day you are assigned a mission is that you get up at about 12:30 at night and were given breakfast,” said Cockerill. “They even had real eggs that were mixed with powder eggs so it wouldn’t be so drab.”
The entire crew of each plane on the mission would attend an initial briefing. Then, the non-commissioned officers would head to their bombers while the officers would undergo a more thorough briefing.
As soon as Cockerill and the other crewmen reached their B-24 they encountered a problem.
“We got to the plane, one we had never seen before, and they had a gasoline-run generator they used to check out all the equipment on the plane and it wouldn’t start,” said Cockerill. “We were still fooling around with it when we were supposed to be getting our guns ready and everything else during that period. Here comes the officers and the plane’s not ready.
“The pilot had been an assistant operations officer so he knew all the procedures. He got on the radio and got us assigned to another plane. So we jumped in the jeep and went over to the other plane. By this time, the rest of the squadron is already taking off and we hadn’t even checked our plane.”
The plane had just come off the repair line and wasn’t prepared for the mission to Aschersleben. It was overweight with bombs and under-fueled for the flight. The crew also discovered the intercom wasn’t working properly and Cockerill was the only crewman in the back of the plane who could communicate with the cockpit.
As the crew finally prepared to take off, one last adjustment was necessary.
“The B-24 has a bumper at the (bottom of the) tail and as we were taxing on the runway we were bumper to ground the whole way,” said Cockerill. “The pilot gets on the radio and tells the four of us in the back of the plane to come up front and shift the weight from the back. So we all climbed up front.”
It was then that Cockerill stood near the bomb bay door and watched the pavement give way to grass just as the plane lifted off the ground.
Once airborne, the crew discovered their squadron was already long gone. Fortunately, another squadron had a vacant spot and the pilot eased the B-24 right into the tight formation.
The plane hadn’t even crossed the English Channel when the outer right side engine failed. Although the pilot was able to maintain his speed, the navigator felt they should turn the plane around and head back to base.
As Cockerill recalls it, both the pilot and navigator were newly assigned to the crew. The pilot who had originally trained with the crew was reassigned just prior to being shipped overseas while the original navigator was hospitalized with a severe sinus infection following the first mission.
While the men’s unfamiliarity with each other may not have hurt the crew’s chances of safely returning to base following the mission, it certainly didn’t help.
“So, we have a new pilot and a new navigator and I’m on the intercom listening to them talk,” said Cockerill. “The navigator said, ‘Shouldn’t we abort?’ The pilot said ‘No’ and they argued about it for a while. Finally, the pilot said, ‘I’m flying this plane’ and we kept going.”
As the bombers approached their target the Germans greeted them with heavy anti-aircraft fire, much heavier and more accurate than the crew encountered on their first mission just 24 hours earlier.
Just as they began making their bombing run the plane was hit with flak and the second engine on the right side was lost.
“We lost the inboard engine on the same side and I kept the pilot informed with what I saw,” said Cockerill. “We had to do something. We had two engines gone and couldn’t keep up with the rest of the formation. We dropped our bombs and I don’t know where they went. Then we turned and started back toward England. Now we were facing a 35 miles per hour headwind flying at about 22,000 feet.”
The pilot attempted to avoid all major German cities on the return trip and the gunners kept watch for any German fighters lured by the tempting sight of a badly crippled U.S. bomber.
“Our bombing time was at 8:50 a.m. but here it was 11 a.m. and we were still in Germany,” said Cockerill. “We didn’t have enough speed to keep our altitude. We finally came between two cities and we started getting anti-aircraft from both. The plane was hit and I heard the bombardier screaming but fortunately he didn’t get hurt.”
Just when it seemed the situation couldn’t get worse Cockerill heard a conversation between the pilot and navigator that made his heart sink.
“The navigator said, ‘You’re not flying the heading I gave you.’ The pilot said, ‘Yes I am and according to my compass we’re at so-and-so.’ The navigator said, ‘According to my compass we are at so-and-so.’ It was a 20-degree difference. They agreed that (the navigator) would try to chart our way back using visual signs – lakes, roads, whatever. We didn’t know where we were going.”
By now, the crew had been throwing everything they could out of the plane to try and lessen their weight. But as the plane dipped beneath 10,000 feet the pilot told the men to prepare to bail out.
“We hadn’t been in England very long and we didn’t have much experience,” said Cockerill. “But one thing we picked up from other fliers is that we should take a pair of GI shoes with us. The flying boots (we wore) keep you warm but don’t walk very well.”
As the plane continued its steady descent, the men hurriedly tied their walking shoes to their parachute harness.
They could never have guessed how incredibly telling that act turned out to be.
(The conclusion of this story will appear in next week’s edition.)