One of the things which has always amazed me the most about our veterans, regardless of which era you are talking, is the age at which they were asked to do heroic tasks. Wisconsin native Kenneth Holcomb’s story is a great example of just that.
Kenneth grew up on a dairy farm in Monroe, Wisconsin, just south of Madison. When the attack on Pearl Harbor made the news, like so many in this country, Kenneth knew he had to do something. “It was about two weeks after Pearl Harbor that I saw a poster for the U.S. Army Air Corps. It said to come and be a pilot. That seemed like a good deal to me,” Kenneth recalled. His next stop was the recruiting station in Madison. After that he was sent to a hotel in Chicago to await his induction ceremony. “I had never been to a city as big as Chicago. I kept thinking to myself, how the heck am I going to find this place?” After a day of seeing the sights he was able to find his hotel and prepare for his swearing in to the armed forces.
Kenneth wanted to be a pilot, but fate stepped in and he soon became a radio operator. He was sent to Scott Field in Illinois where their motto was “the best damned radio operators in the world!” There, Kenneth learned all that he could about being in charge of the aircraft’s communications. “We learned our radios inside and out. We also were taught Morse code.”
After the radio training was completed, the newly minted radio operators were off to Salt Lake City, Utah, to meet their crew and train in aerial gunnery at Wendover Army Air Field. “Meeting your crew was interesting as you were meeting 10 new people who you would have to get through this with. Our top turret gunner would become my best friend.”
After training at Wendover, Kenneth and his crew went to Gowen Airfield, Idaho, to go through flight training for the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. “I remember thinking that it was kind of a strange looking plane. Our pilots liked it and said that it flew great. I remember that they were happy to say that it was a bit faster that the B-17.”
After Kenneth and his crew were trained up on the Liberator, they reported to Topeka, Kansas, where they took delivery of a brand new B-24. “We were finally on our way to England. We took the Northern Route. It felt like a great adventure as it was just us all by ourselves.” As the legend goes, once his crew arrived in England, they had their brand-new aircraft taken from them at a replacement depot and they were sent on to RAF Horsham St. Faith where Kenneth and his crew would join the 458th Bombardment Group, 752nd Squadron. “It was a nicer base with real brick buildings.”
After some training with the group, it soon became time for Kenneth’s first real combat mission. “It was strange, I wasn’t scared or anything, I guess I was kind of numb.” In the darkness of 4 a.m., the crews were awakened from their sleep. Then down to breakfast at the mess hall at 5 a.m. “You always hear about the bad food, but our food was pretty good because we had a great base. We had about an hour to eat and have some coffee and then we were to report to briefing by 6 a.m. After that we would take Jeeps out to the planes. Once at the plane we would talk with the pilot and prepare for take-off no later than 8 a.m. This also was dependent on where your target was that day.” Kenneth’s first mission was to bomb a railroad junction. “We bombed a lot of railroads.”
Kenneth’s job on the aircraft was to perform long-distance communications all by Morse code. The crews were told not to talk unless they had to. Meanwhile as the bombing mission was coming together, Kenneth could look from a small window at his station. What was on the other side of that window is now a piece of history. “I could look out and see bombers forming all around us over the fields of England.” These mass formations would routinely include hundreds of bombers on their way to strike their targets in enemy territory. They would climb so high that the temperature would sometimes reach -60 degrees.
As the bomber force would near the target, enemy anti-aircraft fire or “flak” would start to be fired up at the formation. “There was so much flak. You could actually hear it hitting the skin of the airplane. It sounded like hail. It got even worse near the German coast. A lot of times, we could actually pick out the target area because the sky above it would be blacked out from all of the black puffs of fire exploding. I didn’t worry about fighters too often, but that flak was terrible.”
The closer they got to the target, the worse the defenses were. “Then we would get a signal from the lead plane to drop our bombs. Bombs away! Then we would usually turn 180 degrees and get out of there as fast as we could.”
Kenneth and his crew did this same routine 18 times with no real problems. Each time they would strike roller bearing plants or other factories. Mission 19 would be altogether different. The mission of July 10, 1944, started as the previous missions for the crew. They were on the B-24 You Can’t Take It With You and were closing in on the target. “We were doing fine one minute, and then boom! We got hit in the right wing. Flak got us. Our No. 3 and 4 engines were hit. The pilot couldn’t feather No. 3. This was a big issue for us as it was creating a lot of drag out there like a big barn door. Our pilot, Lt. James Monahan, could no longer keep the plane in formation and we had to drop out. The aircraft was going downhill as we could not maintain altitude. We had wondered over a cumulus cloud deck and because we had no navigator onboard for this mission, we didn’t know if we had made it to the coast yet or not. Once we descended down to around 23,000 feet we decided to salvo the bombs and at around 9,000 feet, Lt. Monahan ordered us to bail out. I went out through the bomb bay. This was my first jump. As I left the airplane I started tumbling before ending up on my back. It was such an odd sensation as I was looking up at the airplane. Our nose gunner, S/SSgt Kenneth S. Kenyon’s parachute failed to blossom and he was killed.”
Kenneth’s parachute deployed and he recalls that it was a low cloud layer. “The clouds were so low that I didn’t see the ground until the last minute. As I landed, kids ran over and grabbed my parachute and hid it in the bushes. They hid me as there were German fighters flying around looking for us.” It was then that Kenneth realized that he had lost one of his boots in the bail out. “Believe it or not, later that night I found my boot out in a field.” The entire first day, Kenneth was hidden away from the German army which was looking for the downed crew. “Finally around 10 p.m. they brought me civilian clothes to change in to. They briefed me on how to act around the Germans. Not to make eye contact and not to stand with my military posture as they would pick up on that.”
Kenneth spent the next month with families in the area until a time came where he and other downed airmen were going to be smuggled to Switzerland. He was reunited with his friend and top turret gunner Cecil Spencer. “The family took us in to town and told us to wait for them to get a different car. While we were waiting, we were turned in to the Germans. Turns out this last family had been double agents. We were led to a jail cell with two businessman and a German soldier who was drunk and AWOL or absent without leave. We spent about a month in there sleeping on straw mattresses and getting bed bugs.”
After about a month of captivity, the Eighth Army was heading toward their location and liberating the area. The German Army decided to move these prisoners and loaded them onto a prison train. “We were on there until about 9 p.m. because the tracks were knocked out. There was so much confusion, we just slipped right off the train and were not noticed. We hid in the train yard that first night. Then in the tall grass. We could hear the church bells ringing that the liberation was underway.”
The next morning was bright and clear. As they were crossing a street, a police officer directing traffic noticed them and called them over. “We were led to the police station where we were kept comfortable and fed until notice came that all Allied airmen were to report to the large hotel in town.” At the hotel, the crews were treated to all of the comforts one would expect. “We had all of the food and beer we could handle. We were there for a week and then sent to Paris. This was the first time I was able to get word out to my wife that I was alive. She had received a telegram that I was shot down and listed as MIA. Imagine her surprise when she would get a telegram from me from Paris that said I was OK!”
For Kenneth, combat was over. He ended the war flying in C-54s. After the war he attended the University of Wisconsin to get a degree in electrical engineering. He earned his private pilot certificate in 1946 and spent the rest of his flying career enjoying the peaceful sky from the comfort of his Piper — peaceful skies that he and his crew helped fight to secure in 1944.