Bill Beaton with his crew, the 392 Bomb Group nicknamed "Hard Luck", and their B24 Liberator.Bill Beaton
This B-24 Liberator was crashed on its third flight.Bill Beaton
Bill Beaton in 2009.Bill Beaton
"Just hit the runway and we’re rolling down the runway when an explosion occurred and it totally destroyed the integrity of the left wing. Another 15 seconds earlier, it would have been a different story."
At the beginning of the service, I was like most young fellows they would have and with 102 other aviation units, I marched off down to Santa Ana, California in 1942. I joined the army in January 9th, 1942.
I enlisted, I went into the army as a buck private, for $17.50 a month in those days and then I was put on leave immediately and then I got called in May to go into aviation school. Went to Santa Ana, California for ground school work. And then I went to primary flying school where you learned to fly for the first time. And it was basically a 60 hour course that took us about two months to do. Following that, I went to basic flying school in, that was a school which, in Lancaster, California which we shared with the British, that airport, because they had a British group there training at the same time. That was basic flying where you went into a larger airplane.
I completed that and then I went up to a place called the Hudda in Colorado for twin engine training. And I was there for actually four months. I had a problem which caused me to be held up until the next class, so I graduated in a class that was called 43D. Following that, I was assigned to B-24 group, which is heavy bomber group in Tucson, Arizona. And that’s where I had my first experience flying in a heavy bomber. And then I got assigned to a operational group where we trained totally together for the next few months, actually until August, where the group trains totally together, rather than being a replacement group. So you go through all your training to go overseas together.
We were in a place called Alamogordo, New Mexico, which is probably famous because that’s where they tested the atomic bomb a little later. I had some interesting flying experiences there and while I was with that group, I think the first experience I, I really could talk about is a midair collision that I was in. The formation, where the two B24s right adjacent to me ran into each other and I watched that right out the window about 50 feet away where 19 fellows lost their lives in that accident.
Then, well, there were other minor things that went on that were pretty exciting for a young fellow in those days and after all, you’re indestructible at that point in your life. Then we went to a staging area to go overseas. First squadron left, this is at the height of the air war in 1943, first squadron left. Four days later, the second squadron left. Four days later, the third squadron left. And four days later, I was to leave. I was copilot on my crew. We got a brand new airplane and on August 23rd, 1943, went to test it. We had a full load of gas and some bombs and ammunition to go out and see how everything worked in the plane before we headed off to Britain.
On takeoff, the gas tank broke open and we had to make an emergency landing, I had waist gunners screaming at me to shut the engine down, the number one engine, that’s on the left hand side of the plane, shut it down and then we did a never, never, never thing, we turned into that dead engine because that was the quickest way to get back to the ground. Just hit the runway and we’re rolling down the runway when an explosion occurred and it totally destroyed the integrity of the left wing. Another 15 seconds earlier, it would have been a different story.
That was on Thursday. Friday, they flew another new airplane in and we went to test hop it and we took off and at about 1,500 feet, lost two engines on the same side. And it didn’t fly with a full load of gas and bombs and such . We were going to land it in the river, that’s the first thing we saw but fortunately, for our situation, the river turned and we had two dead engines on that way, we couldn’t turn that way and there was a cornfield straight ahead and crashed in the cornfield.
I was strapped in with the shoulder harness and seatbelt and all I can remember is just mountains of green going by as the plane broke up and I climbed out a very small window and it looked to me like it was a barn door at the time but I know that today, I couldn’t get out that same window but I was a lot slimmer then. The pilot and the engineer came out after me, I helped them out but the plane did not explode. We pumped ??? all over the engines to cool them down and, but we did lose three of our crew members in it.
I think my army career was a very exciting thing for somebody my age at that time and although as I said, I, I never flew in combat, it ended up just being an exciting four years of my life, visiting and going around the world. There were some, obviously some very interesting areas that I could have lost my life in but I did survive them all. Somebody was upstairs there looking out for me.