Low-Altitude Bombing Was at High Risk
By Tom Morrow
We lost another veteran of “The Greatest Generation a few days ago – he was my neighbor, Rod Braswell of Oceanside, World War II pilot.
Rod lived to see most of the 20th century and a good portion of the first part of this century. He died after a long illness at the age of 98, on May 17, 2019.
Raised as an “Army Brat” in a career military family, Rod went to a number of base schools where his Dad was stationed. He attended school in the Panama Canal Zone and graduated in Fort Belvoir, Virginia outside of Washington, D.C.
Rod attended Virginia Tech for two years before entering the U.S. Army in 1942, as a pilot in training. He was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant and assigned to a “Liberator” B-24 bomber, the largest of the nation’s military aircraft during the European war.
(As a side-note, hundreds of B-24s were built at various plants across the nation, as well as here in San Diego). In 1943, Rod and his crew picked up a new plane at the Ford factory in Detroit).
The trip to the European side of the war was certainly not direct. The route took Rod and his crew south from the U.S. to the island of Trinidad near South America. From there, they flew east across the Atlantic to Morocco in Africa and on to Italy. The distance between South America and Africa is shorter than flying directly from the U.S., hence refueling wasn’t an issue.
“The trip wasn’t uneventful,” Rod said, chuckling. “While in Trinidad, one of the guys on the crew bought a monkey. While flying over the Atlantic to Morocco the monkey got loose and started running all around the cockpit. It caused quite stir.”
Rod said at one point he almost threw the animal out the window because of the commotion. But, he didn’t.
While flying bombing missions mostly out of Italy, Rod did something very few pilots accomplished – he flew 50 successful missions losing only one crewmember.
“You fly fifty missions and they let you go home,” he told me a few years ago in a television interview. “You fly forty-nine and get scared and can’t fly number fifty, they don’t let you go home.”
Rod said he and his crew got hit by shrapnel and bullets a “helluva” lot. He and his crew went through three B-24s.
The most dangerous target he and his bomber group flew over were the oil fields of Ploesti, Romania. He made three bombing runs, which he said were enough for him. Those runs were especially dangerous because of the required “low-altitude” bombing.
“At first we didn’t have a fighter escort to protect us. We went on those missions by ourselves,” Rod recalled. “The German fighters took out a lot of us. Eventually we got fighter escorts, including members of the (famed) Tuskegee Squadron.”
Still, of the 177 B-24s assigned to Rod’s bomber group, some 53 planes didn’t return. Those Ploesti raids resulted in the group’s heaviest aircraft losses.
“Number fifty turn out to be my most harrowing,” Rod told me. “My nose gunner was killed. An anti-aircraft shell went through the seat of his chair and exploded. My navigator lost an eye.”
Rod received the Distinguished Fly Cross for his outstanding war record, but Flying those high-altitude bombing runs were bitter cold.
“Let me tell you how uncomfortable it was. I had to wear a lot of clothes to keep warm, so it was hard to move. I had to wear an oxygen mask and when I exhaled, the moisture from my breath froze and I got icicles on my neck.”
He also spoke of a rather unusual piece of headgear, which those World War II films from Hollywood never showed.
“I had to wear a steel helmet that crushed my ears – there were no pilot’s helmets in those days, so they gave me a (British) doughboy’s steel helmet,” he said. “I got a flak suit that had all the metal and canvas in the front, but nothing in the back, so all the weight was on the front and was cutting my neck, he recalled. “It was freezing cold – and people were shooting at me.”
After the war, Rod returned to civilian life, finished college and began his own civil engineering and contracting business. He eventually semi-retired to a small farm of 400 avocado trees near Fallbrook, then fully retiring to Oceanside about 20 years ago.
Up until his final months, Rod kept in contact with fellow WWII veterans each Wednesday morning at the “Old Bold Pilots” breakfasts in Oceanside.
Alas, that weekly gathering of eagles gets smaller with each meeting. Thanks, Rod Braswell, for your service and devotion to country.