Former bombardier takes flight in World War II-era aircraft
By Lou Fancher
Promise to squeeze a 92-year-old man into the plexiglass nose of a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress and amazingly, a whole world opens up.
At least, that's what happened when 1st Lt. Donald Carlson found out that his softball buddy, Richard Radigonda, had finagled a rare ride for the former bombardier and WWII veteran during the Napa-to-Concord leg of the 2016 "Wings of Freedom" tour.
"We've played ball together for years," said Radigonda, about the Walnut Creek "Creakers" senior softball team that Carlson joined 24 years ago at age 68. "He hardly mentioned his Air Force service. Now, he's telling stories and today, when we took off, he was grins, ear-to-ear, and thumbs up."
The annual Freedom tour sponsored by the Collings Foundation offers public tours and flights on World War II aircraft. During its Bay Area tour, it stopped at Buchanan Field in Concord.
The last time Carlson had sat in the bombardier seat was 1945. Although he agreed the flight he'd finished just moments before was "scintillating," it was his rookie experience on Dec. 26, 1944, that was most memorable.
"About an hour from the target, engine number one developed an oil leak," Carlson recalled. "The pilot feathered the prop, but he struggled to maintain position. He told me to salvo half the bombs."
AdvertisementDue to a malfunction, the bombs dropped unequally from the same, instead of opposite, sides. When the second engine also failed, all the bombs were dropped and the plane, over enemy territory by that time, was surrounded by anti-aircraft flak bursts and losing power. The pilot managed an emergency landing on the island of Vis, in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Yugoslavia.
"I slept in a farmhouse and was listed MIA for 24 hours before being rescued," Carlson said. "The rest of my 23 missions weren't as harrowing."
Carlson served as lead squadron bombardier, a position that required he take over the plane's flying controls from the pilot while dropping the B-17's 500-pound bombs. "I'd put the plane on autopilot and line up the cross hairs. It wasn't tricky, except for the shells (from enemy aircraft) bursting all around us."
He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, among other medals, for a mission in which he led 36 planes through three attempts to destroy a bridge at Rattenberg, Austria, in Brenner Pass. "It was cloudy, but the third time, we succeeded," he said.
Carlson was honorably discharged in 1945. He attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on the GI bill and worked as a project procurement manager with Kaiser Engineers International.
He said hat men who flew in the early part of World War II, when the average life span was 14 missions and 25 outings were required, were more heroic than he was.
"Courage is the side of the coin when the odds are stacked against you. Statistically, they couldn't survive the war. When I flew, the odds were better."
But his friends would have no part in downplaying Carlson's contributions.
"I wouldn't go 10 feet in that thing," said fellow Creaker Bill Reiley. "He's part of that Greatest Generation. We all look up to him."
Even a stranger and former Marine, Mark Clifford, voiced his respect for Carlson and other World War II veterans.
"Take this B-24, the guys in the turrets? They were the infantry of the air. I admire them: it was quintessential teamwork."
Of course, the Freedom tour attracts Carlson's few remaining contemporaries -- and when he encountered Bob Bru, 96, from Walnut Creek.
"Were you ever injured?" Carlson asked.
Bru, a bombardier and navigator who flew 15 missions in the "Yankee Dandy," said, "Not really. Had my teeth knocked out and flak in my leg."
Bru was a POW for two years after being shot down over Holland.
"Patton's third army liberated me," he said.
Carlson, nimble beyond expectation for a person in his 90s, said there was one major difference between his ride in 1945 and the one in 2016.
"I'd forgotten what a tight squeeze it is," he said. "I got myself in there, but I had to ride sidesaddle."