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September 21, 2008

Our War: O'Fallon radio operator, gunner flew 25 missions

The Royal Air Force pilot was the best, until he shot up the mess hall. "He went into his briefing and found out our next mission was to Berlin and they wanted us at 12,000 feet, which was really low," said Vassil Georgeff, 90, of O'Fallon. "He went in the mess hall and shot it up. I never heard from him again."

The Royal Air Force pilot was the best, until he shot up the mess hall.

"He went into his briefing and found out our next mission was to Berlin and they wanted us at 12,000 feet, which was really low," said Vassil Georgeff, 90, of O'Fallon. "He went in the mess hall and shot it up. I never heard from him again."

Georgeff was a radio operator and gunner flying 25 missions on B-17s between July 1943 and January 1944 during World War II. He was a member of the 8th Air Force, 91st Bomb Group, 324th Bomb Squadron out of Bassingbourn, England.

He went through a few pilots, planes and ordeals during his stint on bombers.

His first pilot fell off a Jeep and cracked his skull.

Then came the RAF pilot's crack-up after 10 missions.

Sometimes bombs wouldn't fall and he'd have to kick them loose.

One time flak hit his machine gun and bent the barrel.

Another time a piece of flak went into his boot. He didn't realize it until he got back to base and took off the boot.

He finished the war unscathed.

"We were lucky. Our plane got shot up pretty bad in one raid and couldn't make the mission to Schweinfurt," Georgeff said.

The mission on Oct. 14, 1943, was to hit ball bearing factories in Schweinfurt, Germany. There were 291 B-17s sent on the mission.

"They lost 60 planes on that raid. I would have been a goner for sure."

He flew most of his missions aboard the Lucky Lady, Quitchurbitchin and The Sad Sack. He lost his tailgunner on The Sad Sack.

"Flak hit the oxygen line and word went out to switch to the other line. The tail gunner didn't know or didn't hear. He was so busy shooting he passed out," Georgeff said. "At 40,000 or 50,000 feet you don't live long without oxygen. He suffocated."

Another long mission took Georgeff to Southern France. They were running out of gas over the English Channel.

"We had to belly land over the southern part of England, at Lands End. We coasted in. We had to throw all our equipment out of the plane to make it lighter and save gas," he said. "I was lucky again."

Before the war, Georgeff lived in the Lincoln Place area of Granite City, an immigrant neighborhood they called "Hungry Hollow." He worked in a grocery store for $40 a month and joined the U.S. Army Air Force to get a raise -- $50 a month.

He was first classified as 4F for a heart murmur, but got a second opinion and got in. He thought radio school would keep him near home at Scott Air Force Base, but he was shipped to Sioux Falls, Iowa.

During training in Walla Walla, Wash., he met a buddy's sister who was visiting from Pennsylvania. Frances and Vassil Georgeff were married a month before he shipped out and have been together for 65 years.

He said there was little to do between missions except ride a bike around base and maybe play a little dice. His one trip to London was a bust.

"Everything was blacked out. There was nothing to see, so we went back to base."

He spent very little and sent most of his pay home to Frances. She saved it all and they were able to open a grocery store, Georgeff's Market, in Granite City that sustained them for nearly 20 years after the war.

Georgeff's two brothers were also in the service during the war. Nicholas was in the Army Medical Corps and was sent to Burma during construction of the Ledo Road, the supply line from India to China. Theodore also was in the Medical Corps and spent the war in Texas.

Georgeff said his squadron had some brushes with Hollywood -- their squadron included the Memphis Belle, Jimmy Stewart trained them, Burgess Meredith was an interrogation officer and Clark Gable flew with them a few times.

"They kept Gable on the real high plane in the formation, where it was safe."

Georgeff finished his missions with a ball gunner he was unable to find after the war. The ball gunner was small enough to fit in the cramped, rotating gun turret beneath the plane. The ball had to be entered through a hatch while on the ground, leaving the gunner 15 inches off the runway during takeoff.

"He went goofy. He was nervous anyway, but you couldn't bail out if you were in the ball, and that used to worry him to death."

Two of his waist gunners were shot down when they were flying with another crew and became prisoners of war. One was a good friend, Rollin E. Gater, whom he found and visited in Indiana after the war.

And after 45 years, he found his navigator, Lt. Richard Cawley, and they met in 1989 in Florida.

Georgeff said some missions were easy, some rough, but he never really worried about dying.

"Most went down on their first or second raids because they had an inexperienced pilot," Georgeff said. "They always said if you finished eight raids, you had a good chance of getting out OK. I felt good after the eighth."

"I was lucky."

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