World War II bomb group holds reunion in Texas
Midland Reporter-Telegram, Texas
MIDLAND, Texas — A reunion for the 456th Bomb Group, who flew B-24 “Liberators” in Italy, Austria and Romania during World War II, turned emotional Thursday afternoon after the pilots and crew members took the podium to recall their experiences.
“We lost many people who were close friends,” said Richard Shields, a B-24 ball turret gunner for the 747th Bomb Squadron. His crew flew nearly 60 missions in the war. “This is hard to do.”
With photos of the group’s missions lining the walls of the Courtyard by Marriott conference room, the 89-year-old described manning the B-24’s ball turret, a spherical shell at the bottom of the warbird that could hold one gunner and turn 360 degrees. Shields volunteered for what he called a “daily chore” because of his small frame.
“All of our missions were medium to severe,” said Shields, who traveled to Midland from Missouri with his wife, Rubelle, and about a handful of other group members and their families. “Every time you took off, you were facing the firing squad. ... One of the times, we had 187 holes, and nobody had a scratch. That’s almost unbelievable.”
Still, when the B-24s were out of the danger zone, manning the ball turret could be a pleasant experience, said Shields, who crossed the Swiss Alps at least 80 times.
“It was a beautiful view, so to speak,” he said.
The 456th Bomb Group comprised four squadrons, which raided aircraft factories, railroad bridges and airdromes across southern Europe. Shields’ squadron was one of the last replacement crews.
“We had to stay there until the last shot was fired,” he said.
The group holds a reunion across the country each year, but Shields said numbers dwindle as the pilots and crew members age and it gets harder to travel.
This year, the Commemorative Air Force and Midland Convention & Visitors Bureau hosted the reunion in honor of this weekend’s 50th annual AirSho. The group also toured the CAF Airpower Museum’s nose art collection. One of the panels belonged to 456th Bomb Group member Walter Fox.
“The term ‘greatest generation’ keeps being thrown out there, and it’s certainly accurate,” said Bobby Burns, president and CEO of the Midland Chamber of Commerce. “(But) we don’t fully grasp what it means and what that generation did for our country. I think that piece of history is very, very special.”
The Shields family — whose son once worked in the Tall City — used to travel to Harlingen for AirShos before the CAF relocated, but this will be their first show in Midland.
“It’s a shame it didn’t start earlier,” said Shields, who respects the CAF even though he’s not a member. “So many of our aircraft were destroyed before the CAF could get a hold of it and preserve it.”