Remembering Those Poor Bastards

Sixty-eight years ago this week, my father, Ralph “Pat” Malone, bored with being confined to barracks with the rest of the 401st bomb group, sneaked off his base at Deenthorpe, England, and rode a bicycle into the nearby village to a pub to meet a local girl he was sweet on. Hours later, as he rode back, he noticed that all of the lights on the base were on and, hidden behind a rise in the landscape, the 36 B-17s were already revving up.

He managed to get back on base, hop a ride to the flight line and jump into the Badland Bat on what would be his 28th mission. His crewmates had covered for him, as the Badland Bat was the lead plane of the 615th squadron and, as bombadier, he was supposed to be at the briefing with the plane’s navigator. He missed the commanding officer, Colonel Bowmen tell the men, “Gentlemen, remember the date, June 6, 1944. Remember it because your grandchildren will probably have to memorize it. This is D-Day.”

The planes took off and formed up over southern England with the rest of the 8th Air Force, then headed across the Channel. Looking down at the Armada, my father said there were so many ships that he thought he could cross the Channel on their decks and never get his feet wet. Despite being born in Bremerton, Washington and raised in Long Beach, he recalled that there were more ships in the Invasion that day than he had ever seen in one place before.

As they reached the Normandy coast, flying over Omaha and Utah beaches, he looked down from his unique position in the plexiglass nose. The landing areas flickered with flames and explosions from the siege of the capital ships just offshore. He could see the hundreds of landing craft heading in. He said into the intercom, “Those poor bastards.” There was a murmur of agreement from the rest of the crew.

They flew in only a few more miles. It was astonishing for these veterans of Schweinfurt, Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin to encounter no flak and no fighter planes. Five months before, they had been part of the raid on Oscherslaben, the greatest air battle in history, and had only been saved from fiery death by the Medal of Honor heroics of Major James Howard, who had single-handedly fought off 30 German fighters with his P-51. But today, D-Day, the Luftwaffe was all but grounded; the dreaded black dots coming out of the sun never appeared.

As the bomber approached Ver-sur-Mer, just in from the beach, my father set the Norden bombsight’s cross-hairs on the target, took control of the Badland Bat away from the pilot, North Dakota farmer Paul Campbell, opened the bomb-bay doors . . .and when the moment came, hit the switch to drop the bombs. Only my father, looking into the bombsight, and the tail gunner saw them bloom across the landscape below. It was a textbook run.

My father switched off the bombsight and Campbell, again in command — as he would be for a total of 80 missions — banked the Badland Bat for home. By 10:30 they had landed back at Deenthorpe and settled in for an early lunch. They congratulated each other on their easiest mission to date . . .and tried not to think of their fellow Americans fighting and dying on Normandy’s beaches.

Two weeks later, having completed his 30 missions, my father came home.