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Our War: 50 combat missions accomplished in hand-me-down B-24 bomber

Second Lt. Herschel Malvin with his B-24 crew.
Second Lt. Herschel Malvin with his B-24 crew.

Second Lt. Herschel Malvin had trouble with the brand new B-24 Liberator assigned to him by the U.S. Army just before he was sent overseas.

He griped until he got another one.

It was a hand-me-down from a crew that completed enough missions to earn a ticket back home to the states. Most people might balk at giving up a new plane for a heavily used one. Malvin figured if the boxcar-shaped bomber got one crew through the war safely, it was good enough for him.

"It was named the Sherry Britton," Malvin, now an 86-year-old Collinsville resident, said. "She was a burlesque dancer in New York. It was decided that we would keep the name. But we went to see her before we got sent overseas just to check things out."

Malvin's hunch seems to have been on target. By the end of 1944, his crew had flown 35 missions -- although it got credit for 50 because some were so dangerous the points were doubled -- from bases in southern Italy. And, while he lost an engine or two along the way and brought home planes peppered with holes from flak and machine gun bullets, no one in the Sherry Britton was ever lost or even seriously wounded.

"I don't think it was luck," Malvin said with a grin. "I think it was because they had a great pilot."

But the Sherry Britton must have had a little something to do with it. Malvin's closest brush with death came on his first combat mission when he was in a different plane.

Rookie pilots made their first bombing run in the co-pilot's seat with an experienced crew, Malvin said.

"There was a bubble in the window on the co-pilot's side so you could look down," Malvin said. "I was looking out the window and all of the sudden the glass disappeared and a piece of flak went right past my nose."

The concussion from a German anti-aircraft shell had blown out the window inches from Malvin's face, but left him without a scratch.

"I pulled my flak helmet down over my ears after that," Malvin said. "And it stayed there for the rest of the war."

Malvin's division, the 98th Bomb Group, 345th Bomb Squadron, attacked harbors in Libya, Tunisia, Sicily, Crete and Greece. It also bombed targets in France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria and Romania.

The most nerve-wracking missions Malvin took part in were bombing runs on German-controlled oil fields in Vienna, Austria and Ploesti, Romania.

"You didn't like to hear it when you were sent to one of those places," Malvin said. "But you didn't question it. There was a job to do, and that's where you went."

Malvin saw planes in his formation explode after being hit by anti-aircraft fire. He said all his crew and the other survivors could do was put things like that out of their minds while they tried to keep working. He tries not to think about things like that even today.

The mission Malvin dreaded the most was the Vienna assignment. There, he said, anti-aircraft artillery was set up from one end of the field to another in a line. Crews couldn't help but watch the guns flash as they fired, going from left to right and right to left.

"It was a helpless feeling, being in that flak," Malvin said. "There wasn't anything you could do to try to protect yourself. It was an especially helpless feeling when the bombardier had control."

In World War II bombers, the pilot couldn't maneuver the plane while the bombardier was lining up the target with his Norden bombsight. Crews were sitting ducks during the last few seconds before the bombardier shouted "bombs away!"

After one particularly rough mission, during which his plane was heavily damaged by flak, Malvin limped back to base and got into formation to land. He orbited the field and lined up the runway, but was mysteriously too high when he made his final approach. He couldn't get the shot-up plane to descend, no matter how much he let up on the throttle. Knowing conditions were already dicey because he only had enough brake pressure for one landing attempt, Malvin had to cut the engines and attempt a dead stick landing. It was a white-knuckle ride, but he touched down safely.

On the ground, the crew discovered that all four throttle cables to the B-24's 1,200-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial engines had been severed by flak.

Malvin earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for bringing his crew back safely on that day.

Another blood-chilling moment was on a mission to northern Italy when a shackle jammed and a live bomb was left precariously dangling in the bomb bay of the Sherry Britton.

"We had instructions not to do any indiscriminate bombing because they didn't want any civilian casualties," Malvin said. "We had to try to go out over the Adriatic Sea to get rid of it."

One crewman was holding the other by the ankles as he dangled out over the bomb bay to try to free the shackle when the bomb fell out on its own.

"It tore off the bomb bay door as it fell, but fortunately it didn't explode when it hit it," Malvin said. "By then, we were over the water, and we had a near miss on a German submarine when it fell."

Flying from Italy instead of England, bomber crews had the benefit of protection from fighter planes during their entire missions. But the Sherry Britton is believed to have taken down at least one German fighter with its own armament of .50 caliber machine guns.

The fighter exploded after being hit and showered Malvin's bomber with debris, including a piece of cable that wedged into one of the Sherry Britton's engine nacelles. Malvin kept it as a war souvenir.

Malvin was so wrapped up in the task at hand, he said he didn't realize he was close to racking up enough missions to go home until he'd reached his goal. By then, he was a lieutenant colonel.

"I was called in and they asked me if I knew how many missions I had," Malvin said. "They said I had enough to go home, and I said 'Yippee!'"

Today, Malvin still gets the living legend treatment at Scott Air Force Base, where he is a favorite at the officers club. Young jet pilots love to hear Malvin tell stories about his flying days.

When Barbara Falkenberry, former commander of the 375th Airlift Wing at the base, was promoted to general, she asked Malvin to pin her star to her uniform. When the Liberator pilot and his wife, Paulette, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary last year, their names were placed on their favorite table in the restaurant.

Recently he went to the restaurant, creeping slowly with his walker, and found a four-star general sitting in his favorite spot. He asked, "Don't you know you're sitting at my table?"

The general moved. Malvin's legend grew.

"I'm surprised when people are so nice to me," Malvin said. "The last couple of years people have been making a big deal out of me. I just had a job to do, and I did it."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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