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Catching flak on bombing runs

A graduate of St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute back in the old days when it was on Main Street in Buffalo, William A. Hess remembers learning how to fly a single-engine Piper Cub above the skies of Columbia, Mo.

But his dream was to fly a fighter plane above Europe, mixing it up with German fighter pilots.

"As a kid, we all dreamed of being fighter pilots. It seemed to be the thing," he said. "I was actually eligible to solo in a plane before I learned how to drive a Jeep, which didn't come until the end of the war when someone threw a set of keys at me and said, 'Drive.' "

Hess' dream of becoming a fighter pilot ended when he was sent to armament school at Lowry Field, Colo., where he learned how to maintain bomb racks, guns and shooting stations in the different bombers carrying out World War II missions.

Because crew members often had more than one job on a bomber, he was later sent to aerial gunnery school at Buckingham Airfield, outside Fort Myers, Fla.

At this point in telling his story, Hess cheerfully insists on taking aim at a myth.

"I keep reading these stories about the ball gunner having to be the smallest member of the crew, but I was not. I was 5 foot, 10 1/2 inches tall and 175 pounds, and that was without my uniform, the heated suit and my flight suit, my boots and my 45-caliber handgun with four extra clips of ammo just in case I got shot down."

Photos in an album owned by William Hess, of Derby, from his service as a ball turret gunner in the U.S. Air Force during WWII, April 10, 2012. (Buffalo News file photo)

As the ball gunner on the belly of the B-24, Hess remembers the tight fit.

"It was tight quarters, and I could not wear my parachute," he said.

Fortunately, he never had to bail out of the plane or put his sidearm to use after arriving in November 1944 at an Italian air base. At that time, anything north of Rome was enemy territory.

One of the biggest challenges for bombers heading north, he said, was maneuvering through the Alps on the way to Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany.

To save on fuel during their flights, American bombers often made use of the Brenner Pass, which cut through the Alps between Italy and Austria.

"By using the pass, we wouldn't have to fly up as high over the mountains. We saved a few thousand feet, though we were still up at 20,000 to 25,000 feet," he said.

Economizing on fuel, he said, came at a price.

"It was hazardous because the Germans were waiting for us with 88-millimeter antiaircraft guns on the sides of the mountains by the pass."

But the Germans soon ended up paying a price.

"On one of the bombing missions, we sent in a group of bombers to draw fire, and then another group of bombers followed up and hit where we saw the flashes. A third group of bombers then went into the pass, and it was peaceful."

With clear skies through the pass, the 15th Air Force's 455th Bomb Group, 743rd Bomb Squadron, could make its way north.

As the planes headed north, Hess said, he sometimes saw Hitler's mountaintop hideaway, Berchtesgaden, which was also called the "Eagle's Nest," in the Bavarian Alps.

"We could have bombed it any time, but we were told that it was a British target. They wanted to bomb it in retaliation for the bombings in England, but the British never got there. The U.S. 9th Air Force eventually got it," said Hess, who flew 17 missions.

"Our targets were rail yards, oil refineries and tank works. Sometimes we would even bomb the German air field at Muhldorf. We wiped out their runway and any buildings that were there. We'd been told it was where they were training jet pilots."

And while the planes he flew in managed to stay aloft, Hess said the Germans were no pushovers.

"They were tremendous in operating their 88-millimeter guns. They got us all the time. We'd bomb from 27,000 to 28,000 feet, and we picked up flak on every mission.

"In fact, one piece of flak blew out my oxygen system and the pump that raised my turret back into the plane so we could land. I had to crank it back up with a cable that time. I kept the flak as a souvenir."

More than once, Hess said, he and his crewmates barely made it back to Italy with one or two of their four engines shot out.

Was he ever nervous?

"We knew we might get it, but we hoped we didn't. We saw other planes go down. Nobody wants to die. When you're a teenager or just out of your teens, you think you are going to live forever. We were bulletproof."

After the war, this "definitely-not-short" ball gunner said, he played basketball at the University of Buffalo for a season as he began pursuit of a degree in architecture.

"I got my license in 1958, and I opened my office in 1960. We designed schools, churches and businesses," he said.

Hess also served as a volunteer deputy with the Erie County Sheriff's Scientific Staff, working at crime scenes.

"I was there for 28 years and served as a captain for 18 of those years," he said.

Married 67 years, he and his wife, Rosemary, raised five children and now have six grandsons, three great-grandsons and one great-granddaughter.

One of the grandsons, Thomas Cosola, is an Army lieutenant currently serving in Afghanistan, and another grandson, Jeff Cosola, is a Marine staff sergeant who served in Iraq.

"Take my word for it, they are two tough guys," Hess said, with a measure of grandfatherly pride.


William A. Hess, 88

*Hometown: Buffalo

*Residence: Derby

*Branch: Army Air Forces

*Rank: technical sergeant

*Specialty: ball gunner, B-24 Bomber, aka, The Liberator

*War zone: World War II, European Theater

*Years of service: June 1943 – October 1945

*Most prominent honors: Air Medal, European Theater Medal with 5 battle stars, Conspicuous Service Medal