In February of 2003 I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jones Quincy Adams, a World War II veteran who served as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator. Mr. Adams flew 50 missions, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery. Here is an abbreviated version of that interview.
In February of 2003 I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jones Quincy Adams, a businessman living in Dallas, TX. Mr. Adams served with the Army Air Force, the precursor to today’s Air Force, as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator from November 1944 through May 1945. As a 19 year-old lieutenant with the 15th Air Force, 484th Bomber Group, Adams was stationed at an airfield in central Italy, along with many other American soldiers. He flew 50 combat missions, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery. What follows is an abbreviated version of the interview.
I was first introduced to Mr. Adams by Mr. Dan Davis, a friend of my father’s who also shares a deep love of history, especially the stories of the pilots who served in World War II. Adams and Davis met each other while attending Southern Methodist University in the late 1940′s, and the two have remained close friends ever since. I went with Mr. Davis to Mr. Adams’ home. Mr. Adams greeted me warmly, and invited us in. He was recovering from a recent knee surgery, and moved slowly from the front door to his living room with the help of a cane. Settling into his couch, he listened attentively while I explained that I was doing the interview as a volunteer with the Veteran’s History Project, an initiative sponsored by the Library of Congress designed to enlist the public’s support in recording first-hand accounts of 20th century American war veterans. Before our interview began, Mr. Davis walked across the living room, removed a small, glass-enclosed frame from the wall, inspected it, and then showed it to me. It was Mr. Adams’ Distinguished Flying Cross medal, centered on a simple background of fabric, with an inscription detailing the presentment date and circumstances surrounding how he earned it. “I didn’t even know Quince (Mr. Adams’ nickname) had earned this,” Mr. Davis said. I looked at Mr. Adams.
“Really?” I asked.
“Well, I just never wanted to make a big deal out of it, I suppose,” he responded. And so our interview began.
Jones Quincy Adams is from Royce City, Texas. After attending one year of college at Texas A&M he volunteered, along with a bunch of his fellow classmates, in the Army Air Force. After winning his commission as a second lieutenant, he began the training required of all recruits that intended to fly. He did well. Adams and his fellow airmen began intensive training at different spots around the country including southern California, Tucson, and Nebraska. While in Tucson, they spent two month’s worth of flight training with sand-filled bombs that would have smoke-filled tips to indicate where they would hit on the ground. As part of his bombardier training, Adams would spend weeks in a gymnasium on top of large, rolling wooden platforms. These platforms would be rolled across the gym floor, and Adams and his fellow bombardiers would practice their bombing skills. They made practice runs all over the country. After passing final flight tests, it was off to Italy.
Adams and his fellow crewmates were part of the 484th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force, stationed at Torretta Field, which was about 12 kilometers south of the town of Cerignola, in Foggia province, just off the Adriatic Sea. Their plane? The Flying Prostitute (“no visible means of support” according to Adams and his crew). The living conditions were tough; the food was horrid (spam was a staple), the ground in their tents alternated between frozen solid, or knee-deep muddy. For heat in the winter, the men would rig up an improvised stove from a discarded 55 gallon fuel barrel and one-half of a 155mm shell they would fill with fuel and ignite. “We had to improvise everything.” Just outside of Adams’ tent, he would occasionally hear “two old Italian women” laboring behind a wooden plowshare with oxen. “You know, I have often thought about those women… here they are, having to plow land that has been worked over for thousands of years… I mean that land was not fit for growing anything! Yet here they were- doing what they had to do to survive.”
Adams’ father would send cheese and other “luxuries” in the mail, and Adams would occasionally trade with the women, exchanging various items for a few fresh eggs. “One of my uncles raised pecans, and he would send me huge bags of them, and we would hang them up in our tent, and everyone would come by and eat Texas pecans. My tentmate’s wife had a baby while we were in Italy, and she sent over cigars. My parents sent me cheese… wool socks were a real luxury… it was a lot better than a foxhole, but it was still very primitive. We were always dirty and never really felt clean. We would occasionally take turns getting into trucks and driving 50 miles to go take showers in a village down the road, but in general the water was awful. We would have water sent in, and we would have these big canvas water bags positioned all over the camp. The whole ‘don’t drink the water’ thing. Not having good water was terrible on the teeth, too. I came out of Italy with 11 cavities. When I first volunteered, I weighed 135 pounds, and could run all day long. When I got out, I weighed 103 pounds…we were all like that… having to deal with the food, the stress, being on oxygen so much. But you know, while we were there, there was never any griping.”
Conditions weren’t much better in the air either. “You see these old movies where pilots are wearing these nice leather jackets… well, at 18,000 feet, you can freeze to death. We wore electrically-heated suits that plugged into batteries in the plane, and then piled on other clothes… and unfortunately they (the electrical suits) didn’t always work.”
More B-24 “Liberators” and its derivatives were built than any other aircraft in history, before or since, with approximately 19,000 built during the war. Production facilities for the B-24 were scattered all over the country in San Diego, Fort Worth, Tulsa, and Dallas. The largest Liberator factory was in Michigan, which turned out almost 7,000 completed aircraft and another 1,900 airframes for final assembly elsewhere. At one point in the war, there was a B-24 being produced somewhere every 55 minutes. The B-24 had a wing span of 110 feet; the wing was called the “Davis Wing” and was superior to other wings of the day, although according to Mr. Adams, you would never know it by looking at it. “It was a very thin wing, and from an aerodynamic standpoint, you would look at it and say- this thing will never fly.”
The aircraft housed ten .50 caliber weapons, and could carry up to 8,000 pounds of bombs. But according to Adams, one of the deadliest features of the plane was a newly improved bombsight, the Norden bombsight. “It was a vast improvement in technology in terms of precision and accuracy.” Before the Norden bombsight came along, in order to place enough bombs on a target to be effective, bombers had to fly very low. A man named Carl Norden developed a new, gyro-stabilized bombsight in 1923 and put it through tests for the Navy. In 1943 the Norden M-series was delivered. By 1944, bombardiers like Adams were able to place a large percentage of their ordinance within hundreds of yards of their targets. This may not seem like a big deal today with the use of laser-guided “smart-bombs”, but before this advancement bombardiers had to rely almost exclusively on their training and experience with reckoning, while flying at low altitudes. The Norden bombsight enabled bombers to fly at much higher altitudes, while dropping their payloads with increasing levels of accuracy.
The 15th Air Force’s main goal was to engage in bombing runs on targets in northern Italy, Austria, Checkoslavakia, and Germany itself. Their principal targets: German fighter aircraft plants, ball bearing and rubber plants, oil refineries, marshalling yards, and munitions factories. Each morning when there was a mission scheduled, the crews would rise very early, and be briefed by staff officers on their targets, the weather conditions, and what kind of opposition they could expect. The briefing officer was typically in his mid-20′s. Most of the pilots and crewmembers were 19 or 20, with only a handful in their mid-20′s or older. The bombers assigned to each mission would take off from their airstrip at Torretta Field, which was nothing more than rolled gravel, and assemble into tight, plane-to-plane “diamond” formations. Missions lasted an average of 8 hours.
The tail-end position in the diamond formation was nicknamed “Tail-end Charlie”… “I remember one mission where we started off in the #6 position of the formation. We had some engine trouble, and what you did on those occasions was you would drop out of formation to see if you could rectify the problem or not. In the meantime, the remaining planes in formation would tighten it up a bit, mving forward. Well, we fixed the engine trouble, and upon rejoining the formation, we took the Tail-end Charlie spot. On this particular mission we were flying relatively low, and the plane that had moved into our old #6 spot took a direct round. It just disintegrated before our eyes… we didn’t see any parachutes.”
The missions varied from so-called “milkruns”, where no serious flak or enemy fighters were expected, to missions bordering on suicide. “Some of them were easy, some of them were real hard, and some of them were kind of in-between.” When I asked him about the toughest mission he completed, he immediately said, “It was a mission over Blechammer, Germany. We were supposed to go after a ball bearing factory if I remember correctly… . We were in the back-end of the formation… I mean those German fighters they came after us; they were like a swarm of bees, and they just shot us to pieces… we got back OK, and fortunately most of our squadron did, too. Well, we were scheduled to fly the next day. And so, not knowing where we were going, we went in for the briefing. The briefing officer said, ‘OK guys, this is where we’re going today’… and he pulled back that curtain (to display the maps of targets), and we were going to that exact same place… and the groans, they went up, you know. We all said to ourselves, ‘they shot us to pieces yesterday, and we’re going back to the same place?’ That mission proved to be equally the same.”
“In general, you would be OK while the fighter escort was with you, but eventually they would have to turn back because they would get low on fuel. Well, the Germans knew their range, and they would come up to meet us soon after that. Then, when you got close to your target, the German fighters would peel off so the flak guns could take a crack at you. And that was just getting to the target. On the way back you had it all in reverse: the flak some more, and then the fighters, until you could hook up with your fighter escort again.” According to Adams, the U.S. airmen did not hate their enemy. “We never had any personal animosity towards the Luftwaffe (the German Air Force). We respected them, and they respected us. We knew they weren’t nazis… they were kids, like us. And they were defending their country.”
Late in the war, the strategy of the 15th Air Force shifted from a sole focus on factories, oil refineries, and railroad yards, and began to also take on ground troop support. “In April of ’45, we flew a low-level mission, and we put up every B-24 and -17 that would fly in the 15th Air Force, and we all had aiming points from the Adriatic all the way over to the west side of Italy. And we dropped fragmentation bombs, the theory being that we would drop our loads far enough in advance of our lines, and across the entire width of Italy for a depth of several hundred yards. If we all hit where we were aiming for, the theory was that no living person could live through all that. And because we were flying at such a low altitude, we were pretty easy targets. But it was successful; immediately following that, our forces just took right off, like they were just cocked and ready to go.”
“I’ve often thought that I would someday like to talk with some of those men who were in the infantry and tank battalions, who had to go through that. Can you imagine that- those fragmentation bombs just falling everywhere, and then you being told just to take off?”
Targets of Opportunity
The weather played a huge role in whether a mission had a chance of success or not. When the weather was too bad over the primary target, the crews would usually have a secondary target to go after. If they couldn’t reach that, then they went after what were called “targets of opportunity.”
In one mission, Adams and his crew were not able to drop their payload due to weather. Flying back over Austria towards Cerignola, the pilot spotted a train snaking its way through the Austrian Alps. “He yelled out ‘Hey Quince! 10 o’clock.. take a look at that!’ We all saw this train, making its way through the foothills, and it was going down into this valley, and I said ‘get us over there and lined up, and let’s see if we can take him out.’ Well, he was moving, but we were able to get down, and I dropped our entire load of bombs, and just blew it to smithereens, the engine, everything just… went. And I’ve wondered a million times, you know, what was on the train, how many people, and so forth. And how they were probably thinking, ‘how in the world did this bomber find us up here?’ But those kinds of things happened all the time.”
I asked Mr. Adams at what point did he begin to reflect on everything, and understand the importance of what he did. “You know, we weren’t politically astute. We were 18-19 years old. But we were there to fly, and do a job, without any thought about whether the Germans were superior to us. Remember, they had taken over nearly all of Europe, so they had some real scalps under their belt.. We just knew that we were going to go after them, do what we were told to do and not gripe about it. But we were just kids. The oldest guy in our whole squadron was a 23 year-old who we called ‘the old man’. We just knew we had a job to do, and we had a lot of faith in everyone around us.”
“But to answer your question, I guess at two different times.. when I was at SMU, there were a lot of veterans there, and we would sometimes talk about it.. the campuses were filled with veterans. You never really talked about your specific experiences, but you would share some things, and begin to reflect on everyone’s experiences they had to go through. Then when we were weighing my first-born. I thought to myself, ‘I hope we never have to go through this again.’ I think it never really hits you until time goes by.”
“I don’t think that many young people think too much about the philosophy behind life… but it’s important. I’ve seen the movie Saving Private Ryan more than once, and that film touched me in a very personal way… the sacrifices that were made by the American soldier in World War II… After seeing the film one time, I drove back to Royce City, and drove around my ‘roots’, the cemetery, etc., reflecting on everything, about the sacrifices we all made. It’s important. You know, it was hard to see the Vietnam vets go through what they did when they got back home.. they were drafted, most of them didn’t volunteer. That was a real low point for us, and I think as time goes on we’ll see that that was so politicized. These veterans were called upon to serve their nation, to do whatever they were told to do, serving in combat. I saw Sam Johnson (U.S. Representative from Dallas, Johnson flew 25 missions in Vietnam before he was captured and held as a Prisoner of War for nearly seven years, more than half of that time in solitary confinement) speak one time, and he spoke of the indomitable spirit of the American soldier. Whatever your politics, we should all support them, no matter what.”
“Mindful of the secret trust about to be placed in me by my Commander in Chief, the President of the United States, by whose direction I have been chosen for bombardier training… and mindful of the fact that I am to become guardian of one of my country’s most priceless military assets, the American bombsight… I do here, in the presence of Almight God, swear by the Bombardier’s Code of Honor to keep inviolate the secrecy of any and all confidential information revealed to me, and further to uphold the honor and integrity of the Army Air Forces, if need be, with my life itself.” The Bombardier Oath
Add comment March 13th, 2003