Friday, August 17, 2012

TOPSTORY >> Veteran recalls bombing raids

Leader staff writer

Army Air Forces First Lt. Therl Harber flew 30 bombing mission over France and Germany during World War II and doesn’t hesitate to talk about his favorite mission.

“It was my 30th,” he said Tuesday. “I landed back in England, got out of the plane, kissed the ground and knew I was going home.”

The 93-year-old veteran, who flew war missions through most of 1944 and the early part of 1945, spoke to one of the largest crowds the Jacksonville Museum of Military History has ever had for its speaker series.

Even though that 30th mission gave Harber enough points to go home, the military was slow in getting him stateside. “When they wanted me there, it took just two days, but sending home took 11,” he mused.

As a member of the 487th Bomber Group, the Russellville native was stationed about 60 miles outside London and flew the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber with 2,900 gallons of fuel in the belly, a crew of nine and 12 .50-caliber machine guns. His missions were as short as four hours and as long as “11 hours and 15 minutes. I was tired after that one.”

“We’d roll out at 4 a.m. on mission days, get a briefing on the weather, anti-aircraft fire and where the fighters would be,” he explained.

“We flew most of our missions at 32,000 feet. At that altitude, I’d get the bends in my right knee, so I didn’t want to go higher—it’d hurt my knee more and of course I didn’t dare go down and run into fighters,” Harber continued.

He told the crowd he was lucky that his plane was never shot down. “Oh, I got a few bullet holes and came in a few times on three engines. Those things can fly pretty good on three engines,” he said.

But Harber came close to a major hit at least once. The bomber right in front of him on one mission took a hit in the wing and went down. “I saw a lot go down. On a Christmas Eve mission in 1944, we lost 19 planes. Whenever one got hit, we would strain our eyes to find and count the parachutes,” he said.

Although he was never shot down, his plane was. “I pretty much had the same plane for most of my time over there, until a fellow lost his and the commander gave him mine and he turned around and lost that one. After that it was pretty much whatever was available,” said Harber, who just gave up flying a few years ago.

A recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, Harber’s largest missions involved 600 bombers. “The last ones were just leaving England as the first ones were hitting targets across the English Channel,” he said.

Harber said some of his missions were to bomb a set of oil refineries. “It was hard. The Germans put up a smokescreen the size of Pulaski County to protect the facilities,” the retired pilot said. “We bombed a lot of railroad yards. I’d say we gave them a lot of trouble.”

The World War II veteran said there was nothing better than dropping the nose slightly to see the White Cliffs of Dover after a run. “It was always a great sight,” he said.

Harber told the crowd that he’s visited Germany once since the war. “I looked for evidence of bombs we dropped, but didn’t find any,” he quipped.

The pilot did say he met a lady who was a young girl during World War II living in one of the towns that he bombed. “I don’t think I told her,” he said.

Harber said, aside from the war, he enjoyed his stay in England. “I was single back then and went out with those English girls. They had some pretty women there,” he said, smiling.

The veteran took time to commend his crew members and equipment. “We had a red hot crew and a good airplane. It’s one of the reasons I’m here today.”