The first puffs of flak appeared at 20:00 hours, thirty minutes to target. The explosions were far away and sporadic. There were no enemy fighters, just the drone of four-engine bombers and their P-51 and P-38 escorts in the long summer evening. It was six miles southwest of Paris. Across the English Channel, thousands of ships and men sat ready for the largest seaborne invasion in history. They would land four days later, on June 6th. In the sky above France, a B-24 Liberator, named the “Phantom Renegade” was making its way toward the war.
When he was twelve Charles W. “Bill” Getz rode his bicycle out to Smith Field in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. From nine he had an interest in aviation. Being older he wanted to make it a bigger part of his life. Bill washed aircraft, sold tickets and did anything that gave him a reason to be there. The local pilots paid him by taking him into the air. When they felt he earned it they would allow him the control stick and let him guide the plane as it soared above Indiana.
The boy was more than just a blind eyed enthusiast. His mind was logical, decisive and calculating, soaking up new information. Skills that would later serve him working with the first computers, in the fledging ballistic missile project, and earn him a PhD.
There was also an attraction to disclipine in him. When other boys wanted to be sports stars or cowboys, Bill wanted to be a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Everything from that point in his life would direct him to that end. He talked his parents into sending him to a military boarding high school in Chicago. To pay for tuition, he waited tables, did kitchen work, and cleaned and delivered laundry at the school. He worked the manual telephone switchboard on weekends and traveled in summer with the school commandant, finding new recruits. When the war started he got signed permission from his parents to enlist. He soloed at seventeen, and was a commissioned officer at eighteen.
By nineteen, he was commanding a crew of ten men—four officers including him and six enlisted men. The officers first met in a cow barn turned barracks in Salt Lake City, Utah, and they met the enlisted men on the train ride to crew training. They were a group of teenagers and guys in their early twenties. A few months ago they were civilians, kids in high school or college. Lieutenant Getz would turn them into a team of warriors. They were assigned to the 852nd Bomb Squadron of the 491st Bomb Group. In Pueblo, Colorado they got their airplane, a brand new B-24J Liberator serial # 42-110186.
The Getz crew decided they didn’t need the frivoulous names and naked ladies other men painted on their planes. His crew wanted a coat of arms and a motto. Proper crests had latin, but no one knew any. Instead they pieced together French from a dictionary. They named the ship “Le Simulacre Renégat” which was supposed to mean “The Phantom Renegade”, the motto: “L’esprit Des Ceux Que Nous Animous” was meant to be “In the spirit of those we love”. Their crest bore a cross, and a bottle of moonshine, since spirits could be either holy or drunk, a 50. caliber machine gun, and a bomb to symbolize the weapons of war. The coat of arms decided, Bill had patches printed on white leather for the crew.
A month after he turned twenty years old, Bill was flying lead position in the low element of the 852nd Bomb Squadron, 491st Bomb Group. The Phantom Renegade was one of thirty seven 491st B-24’s sent out. It was their time first over enemy territory. The mission was easy, as simple as running to the store for a bottle of milk: an airfield in Bretigny out of range of the flak guns guarding Paris. The 489th Bomb Group was in front. They had flown their first mission three days previously. Now they were leading the seventy-seven B-24’s of the 95th Combat Wing into battle.
At 20:30 hours, the sky was black with exploding shells. The 489th had missed the turn at the Initial Point planned to take everyone around the flak batteries protecting Paris. Instead they were taking the direct approach, leading everyone into one of the biggest anti-aircraft concentrations in Western Europe. The 489th opened their bomb bays as they began their bomb run. Bombers were getting hit, pieces flying off; B-24’s exploding in mid-air, their debris falling 19,000 feet to the ground below.
If Bill Getz was the worrying type he would worry about what a flaming piece of metal would do if it hit the 500 pound bombs and gasoline the Renegade carried. He might worry that enemy fighters would swarm their formation. He might worry his crippled plane might spiral into the clouds without a trace and all his parents would get would be a “missing in action” telegram.
But Bill Getz wasn’t planning on War Department telegrams or getting shot down. He had faith in himself and his crew. They had discipline, discipline he spent a quarter of his life learning. Second Lieutenant Getz was a commisioned officer before he could vote or buy a beer. He knew his men would follow his instructions without question. His instinct and training told him a crew with disclipine was a crew that would make it home. The only thing that ran through Bill Getz’s mind on a mission was flying his plane in formation and mentally reviewing what to do if an emergency arose. He knew with focus, discipline, and preparation he’d be o.k. He figured that whatever happened,if the Renegade got hit, he would be able to assess it and decide the best, logical course of action.
But going through a field of flak is not logical, it’s random. You don’t know when or where the flak will hit you, or how badly. Whether the shell will expode far away or right in the cockpit. The only certainty is you will get hit and the rest is up to chance. In Bill Getz’s rational mind, chance was the deal breaker. It threw all the logic out the window and replaced it with sheer terror. He knew the reality of reaching an escape hatch, burdened down with heavy flying clothing, in a spiraling or burning B-24 was very small. But Bill Getz didn’t dwell on it. He was an optimist.
The 489th could not find the target. Clouds were seeping in, obscuring the airfield. Only three quarters of the planes could drop their bombs. The 489th headed to a secondary target, farther north.
The 491st began their bomb run. The distant rumble of exploding flak drew closer. Four miles below, the Germans were shooting at them. The muffled rumble of anti-aircraft guns shook the whole bomb group as the planes flew straight and level, unable to deviate from their course. Cordite filled the cold air, flak edging closer to the formation with each explosion. The Renegade went into a dive. The engines whining as the plane dove, gaining speed. Everything not screwed down went to the ceiling. Bill Getz looked to Co-Pilot Johnny Crow who had jammed the stick forward. Crow pointed his left thumb skyward. A B-24 fell on them, its cockpit shattered, a flaming hole of metal and pipes in the wing where an engine had once been. The drone of the dying bomber grew louder and louder. In the top turret, Marion Turnipseed let out a scream as he saw the approaching wreck. Then it was silent. The burning bomber missed them, clearing the Renegade by a few feet before it trailed down into the clouds. Bill Getz rejoined formation and continued the bomb run.
It was getting darker. Cloud cover prevented most of the 491st from dropping their bombs as well. They followed the 489th to the secondary target at Creil. The 489th again chose the most direct route, this time over Paris. The blacked out Champs-Élysées and Eiffel Tower stood as dark beacons in what was once The City of Light. Through the shadows of the veiled city lights flickered as flak batteries brought their sights upon the bombers, ripping into their formation. Orange flashes of exploding shells illuminated the twilight sky. The flak followed them over Paris, all the way to Criel and bombs away. The 489th again deviated from the flight plan and led the formation home over the heavily defended areas over Beauvais, Rouen and Dieppe.
By the time the 491st returned home, the green and brown patchwork fields of England were fading into the darkness. Flying over Selsly-Bill, they could see the supply depots and thousands of ships that lay in the harbors waiting for the invasion of Europe. As the Renegade taxied to the hardstand, her engines sputtered and died. Of the B-24s of the 95th Combat wing sent out, two crash landed, and fifty nine suffered damage, one severe. Sixty one out of seventy-seven planes were damaged. Five were shot down, with fifty men, a loss of seven percent. It didn’t take much analysis to realize that seven percent losses on each mission gave an individual crew no statistical chance to complete the thirty missions required for a tour of duty in 1944.
Some men decided they were on borrowed time and decided to enjoy what they had left. Bill Getz was not one of those men. He held onto his optimism. He was focused on the job he had to do and the discipline he needed to accomplish it. He flew again on June fourth, and completed two more missions on the sixth, D-Day. The pace of the war was quickening, attacking the enemy relentlessely as they retreated deeper into the Reich. There was talk it would be over by Christmas. The 491st flew combat at an exhausting pace after D-Day. Bill Getz finished his tour of duty on August 10th,1944, flying thirty-one missions in sixty two days. The second fastest record in the entire 8th Air Force. He could go home, a combat veteran of the toughest theater of the air war.
There were two problems for Bill Getz when he completed his tour, both related to each other. First, he didn’t want to go home. His brother was an Army medical doctor with Patton’s 3rd Army, serving in a field station somewhere in France. Bill didn’t want to be out of the fight while his brother was still in it. This led to a second problem: he didn’t want to fly another bomber tour. He already beat the house and won his life, why bet again? He needed something to do to stay in the European Theater of Operations. He heard about a new group being formed. A scouting force of P-51 Mustangs flying ahead of the bombers. He decided to apply for it.
It was mid-1944, Europe was still at war and First Lieutenant Charles W. Getz, had just got there.