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Strawberry Bitch

By Daniel P. Rice- Pilot- 512th Squadron, 376th Bomb Group

The airplane which became named the Strawberry Bitch and later was placed on exhibit at the United States Air Force Museum was assigned to our crew at Herington Air Force Base, Kansas, in late August, 1943. I signed an issue ticket for it there. At that point it was merely one of many B-24Ds off the assembly line at San Diego, distinguished from all the rest of its model only by its serial number — at least until it had received its coat of camouflage pink paint. At that point it became one of a much smaller 'group.

We took the airplane up to check it out and found everything to our satisfaction except for one thing. As we put it through its various trial maneuvers, I noticed that the air speed indicator registered consistently about seven or eight miles per hour slower than it should. (Climbing speed, cruising speed, stalling speed, landing speed, etc.) I recall commenting to the crew after landing that "It looks like we have a real dog".

But I was not willing to let it rest that way. I sought out the maintenance officer on the flight line, explained my observations to him and asked him to check the airspeed meter for accuracy. Clearly, he didn't want to do it. I'm sure he felt that it would be an exercise in futility. But I persisted, and with all good grace, in spite of his reluctance, he agreed to make the test. When I checked back with him later, he told me with some wonderment that his men had replaced the instrument. Their test procedure had shown that it registered seven miles per hour too slow.

As the various necessary procedures preliminary to our departure were being completed,
Someone on the crew was thinking that the airplane should have a name. I had not given that any thought, so when our engineer, Sergeant Haberman, came to me asking if they could name it, I agreed. When he told me the name they had in mind, I was a little taken aback. It would not be completely accurate to say that I "approved" their suggested name but I did accept it, and overnight through the talent of someone, there on the flight line, one pink B-24D number 42-72843 became the Strawberry Bitch. That is, the name was painted on there.

The picture of the red haired Vargas girl was not added until after we had been in the 512th Squadron for a while. I don't remember for sure just where that was done. It could have been at Enfidaville, Tunisia, but I believe it more likely that the picture was added after we moved up to San Pancrazio, Italy. We left Herington on the morning of August 28, 1943, bound for Dow Field at Bangor, Maine. On that flight, after much close observation, I concluded that our artificial horizon was just slightly out of level, and wrote it up on the proper form. Again, the flight line maintenance people promptly installed a replacement instrument.

The next morning we were off again, bound for Gander, Newfoundland. We carried a large brown sealed envelope with instructions to not open it until after we were airborne. After we had gotten lined out on course, I opened it and found Operations Orders Number 398 directing crew number 34-4, whose pilot I was, to proceed by air in B-24D number 42-72843 to Cairo, Egypt, and report to the Ninth Air Force for further assignment and duty. Two other crews from the Bridges Provisional Group were included in the same order, those of Lieutenant John M. Repp and Lieutenant William Metzger, Jr. I paid close attention to the new artificial horizon on that flight and found it satisfactory.


At about 08:45 PM local time on August 30, we left Gander for the flight across the North Atlantic to Prestwick, Scotland.

Most of that ten hours and twenty minutes was about as dull and boring as it can get. For the most part we were between cloud layers, so we could not have seen the ocean even if there had been something down there to look at or any light to see it.

Our navigator couldn't see the stars to check our position by celestial observations, so we just sat there and kept the compass on his dead reckoning headings. It was almost like spending ten hours straight in a Link Trainer. I did have one small diversion though. After a little while I had the feeling that we were flying in a shallow bank to the left. Our instruments said we were OK, but I couldn't help remembering that just two days ago I had an artificial horizon, which was not quite accurate. Could I trust this one? Should I?

That question was answered in favor of training over "feeling" and it turned out that instruments were indeed a more reliable indicator of attitude than the "seat of the pants". We made landfall just where we were supposed to, or at least within reasonable distance, and all was well.

I suppose that we would have been moved on out on the next leg of our trip the next day except for the weather. As the day began, a solid overcast hung low over the field, and nothing was moving. I think it would be accurate to say that the field was closed except for emergencies. We kept an ear tuned and an eye peeled for another pink B-24D, serial number 42-72844, with Bill Metzger and his crew who were traveling with us but who had been held over at Gander. We watched in vain as his expected ETA came and went. The only airplane that came in was a C-54, which rolled to a dead stop on the runway and stayed there. It was rumored that he didn't have enough fuel left to taxi in, and also that two very high-ranking Air Force generals were aboard. I can neither confirm nor deny the rumor.

It turned out later that Metzger and his crew had been up there somewhere in that soup but were not allowed to land. He was diverted to a small grass field somewhere in the general area, where the airplane was lightened so he could get it back in the air to come on to Prestwick when the weather would permit landing there. Of course the things removed from the airplane had to be brought on to Prestwick by some other means so it could all be reassembled for the continuation of their journey.

The next morning, September 2, we were off to St Mawgen, in Cornwall, which would be the jumping off place for the second long over-water leg on our way to Africa. Here there was another hitch. It was discovered that gasoline been dribbling down over the exhaust pipe of our number one engine, so it was determined that we should be sent to a B-24 repair depot at Watton, northeast of London to get it fixed. There they found a fuel leak in the auxiliary wing tip tank system, and corrected it. Then on September 6, we went back to St Mawgen. Another bug had to be worked out.

That same day we took off for Africa a little while before midnight, and landed at Marrakech about ten hours later. For some reason we were allowed only a very short rest and then were told to move on, even though we had been in the air about 12.5 hours out of the last 24. We chose a fairly short hop (4:40) to Algiers, and rested there a couple of days.

We made one more stop, at Tripoli, before arriving at Cairo on September 11. There we received new orders, to report to Devesoir, which was located on the west bank of the Great Bitter Lake, for the airplane to be made ready for combat and then on (or back) to Berka Two at Benghazi, Libya. There we would join the 376th Bomb Group. We checked in there on September 16, and were further assigned to the 512th Squadron. The Strawberry Bitch was now poised to begin to fulfill its purpose, that of combat operations against the enemy.

My crew did not have the Bitch on any of the airplane’s first three missions. It was assigned to different squadron "old- timers" who had the privilege of breaking in new airplanes, and I was sent out as co-pilot with others who had the dubious honor of breaking in new pilots. Others of the crew were also given temporary "one-mission assignments during this break-in period. We finally were put back together for my fourth mission but with a different airplane.

It was the Bitch's fourth mission — my fifth — before we were all back together again in "our" airplane. We took off from Benina Plain at Benghazi to bomb Tatoi Airdrome near Athens which was being used by the Germans in their fight with the British over some islands in the eastern Mediterranean. We landed back at Berka Two.

I think we caught them by surprise, for there was no fighter opposition at all and no effective antiaircraft fire. I don't remember any at all. The next day we were back in the Athens area again for the same purpose, this time at Eleusis Airdrome. The German fighters were ready for us. The "tail end Charlie" element at the extreme right rear corner of the formation took quite a beating as the fighters came at us from the rear. We were in the left wing position of that element and saw both the right wing and the lead ships catch fire and go down. We took a lot of hits ourselves, including 20mm cannon shell bursts in our main wing fuel tanks, but did not catch fire. Our top gunner (engineer) was injured about the left side of his face and head by fragments from the shell burst and holed Plexiglas, but fortunately the wounds were not deep nor life threatening. After a short healing period he was back in the harness and pulling his share of the load again. I don't suppose I ever did know the full extent of the damage absorbed by the airplane that day. Most of those details have long since dissolved in the mists of time anyway. But I do remember the three or four — possibly more — holes in the top of our wing and fuel tanks through which I could look in and see the gasoline gently sloshing back and forth as the airplane was slightly rocked by our movement on it. If I had a coffee cup, I could have reached in through the holes and dipped out the fuel. In retrospect, it seems to me that as I was watching both of my element mates go down in flames, that was the quintessential time and place for the expression: "There but for the grace of God go I." I certainly am at a loss for any other explanation of why they went down and we did not.

I remember too the good sized jagged hole in the left vertical stabilizer at or just above its attachment point to the horizontal tail surface where other explosive shells had found us. And at least one non-explosive one found us too. Curiously, it had entered the trailing edge of our left wing exactly in the center of the seam created by the riveting of two sheets of aluminum skin together. It had traveled forward through the wing and out through the de-icing boot on the leading edge. Then, there was a pronounced dimple in the center of one of our propeller blades, which it had hit after exiting the wing.

As we had approached the base, we could not establish contact with the tower, and once on the ground it was easy to understand why. All of our antennas had been shot away. That in itself was no big deal, but I think it serves to indicate the amount of bullets and shell fragments which had been, flying about the airplane.

So the Strawberry Bitch's fifth mission was sort of a rough one for it. That was more damage than our squadron ground crews were prepared to handle, so the airplane was transferred to a maintenance squadron for repair. It did not return to duty until November when my crew had it on the 10th and 11th for its 6th and 7th missions. We had it again for its 11th mission on November 29th, and Its 14th on December 15th.

The December 15th mission was my last flight in the Strawberry Bitch. Our target was the Avisio viaduct just south of Bolzano in northern Italy, but the airplane couldn't quite make it. Just about the time we crossed the northern coast of the Adriatic Sea, our number four engine started trailing a streamer of dense black smoke, so we feathered the propeller, dropped out of formation, and brought our bomb load back home. My recollection is that we had blown a cylinder.

Thus did my own personal association with the Strawberry Bitch come to an end after about 150 hours as its pilot. About 40 of these were combat hours, about 40 were in non-combat flights in the Mediterranean area, about 63 were in transit from Herrington to Benghazi, and about seven were in check-out flights at Herington.

The association ended, that is, until I found it again at the Air Force Museum in the spring of 1975. With the gracious permission of museum personnel I have enjoyed the privilege of revisiting its cockpit on four different occasions with different members of my family. I am deeply appreciative.

I am afraid that this brief "overview" has long since lost the quality of brevity. Perhaps I can ration-alize this by claiming to have added some bit of information about the airplane that is not contained in the Museum's files on it.

Dan Rice was a pilot in the 512th Squadron of the 376th Bomb Group in the 15th Air Force. He completed 24 missions over southern and southeastern Europe and then spent more than 16 months as a POW in Germany. After discharge from the Air Force, he earned a B.S. Degree in Electrical Engineering and went to work in the electric utility industry. He retired in 1986.
Reprinted from the Friends Journal Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer 2004


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