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Jim Williams, Marauder Man
397th Bomb Group

WWII veteran recalls bombing

Editor's Note: This is another in a series of profiles of World War II veterans from the Lompoc Valley.

By Judy Stevens/Special To The Record

It was a young boy's dream to take a ride in one of the colorful biplanes that barnstormed rural towns in the 1930s. Thirteen-year-old “Jim Bob” Williams of Stuttgart, Ark., got his chance one Saturday afternoon.

It was the beginning of his fascination with planes and an experience that would influence the course of his life - to the D-Day invasion and beyond.

Williams grew up during the Depression, the middle of seven children who worked to help support their family. When he wasn't selling newspapers for a nickel or attending school, the teenager hung around the small airfield in Stuttgart, making friends with local pilots and mechanics and learning about the small aircraft.

Often he would be invited to fly to Pine Bluff or Little Rock, some 50 miles away. He said he was in “heaven” as they scouted the countryside. “There's nothing like flying in a biplane in an open-air cockpit.”

After a Sunday matinee on Dec. 7, 1941, Williams learned about the attack on a far away place called Pearl Harbor. At 19, he received a draft notice while working days as an electrician's helper in a defense job at the U.S. Army Arsenal under construction in Pine Bluff. In September 1942, he quit his job and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in Little Rock.

With his love of aircraft and flying, it was an easy decision.

After basic training, he was sent to Sheppard AAFB, in Wichita Falls, Texas, for aircraft mechanics school, then to the Glen L. Martin aircraft factory school near Baltimore, Md., where the B-26 Maurader medium bombers were built. The intensive training there would enable him to survive several harrowing experiences during some of his 59 bombing missions in Europe.

Williams' next stop was Fort Myers, Fla.

“The training as an aerial gunner was an exciting time - and I suppose a little dangerous,” he wrote in his memoirs. “When you are young you don't have time to think about the dangers. You think about sharpening your skills, the excitement of shooting the 30 and 50 caliber machine guns from the windows of a plane, or from the open cockpit of an AT-6 with a machine gun mount.”

By Thanksgiving 1943, Williams had graduated from training with the rank of sergeant and assigned to crew training on the B-26 in Lake Charles AAFB, Louisiana. It was here that he joined the six-member flying team as engineer/gunner.

His combat flight position was on the 50-caliber guns in the top turret, which gave a clear view of all the other planes in their formation, as well as of incoming planes in pursuit or attack posture. For 12 weeks the crew trained intensely over the Gulf of Mexico.

The Germans had advanced throughout Europe and bombing crews were badly needed. The crew was given a brand new B-26 to fly to England. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the crew and their new squadron were in the second wave of bombers over Normandy, covering for the Allied troops who stormed the beaches.

Many of the planes Williams flew on while in Europe were hit by German 88mm anti-aircraft guns, losing engines and landing full of holes. After one bombing raid over France, they counted 150 flak and bullet holes in their plane.

There the 397th bomber group was known as the “Bridge Busters” because of their ability to knock out highway and railroad bridges that were important to the German Wehrmacht.

“We could ‘lay eggs' in a tight pattern anywhere they wanted them. We mauled rail yards, large and small bridges, and bombed Rheims, Rouen, and other French cities, saving the historic cathedrals,” said Williams, 83.

The 397th Group supported Gen. Patton's Third Army. On a mission calling for very close support, their bombs fell 300 yards from his command post.

“We heard about it as soon as we returned from the mission,” Williams said.

June 16, 1944, was their baptism of fire. It was just 10 days after their bombing runs began and the crew was flying a B-26 Marauder bomber named “Slightly Dangerous.” The target was a bridge near Chartres, France, and the Germans were filling the sky with heavy anti-aircraft flak.

The plane took a number of hits; one severed the main hydraulic fluid line, started a fire in a flare box behind the cockpit, and ripped a large hole in one of the 2,000-pound bombs still on board.

After dropping the remaining bombs, 22-year-old Williams removed his parachute and tiptoed through the slippery hydraulic fluid on the catwalk to secure the bomb bay doors and manually winch the doors closed - all while the plane was still being shot at and taking evasive action.

They flew nearly 200 miles back across the English Channel to base at Rivenhall, England, where they crash landed about midnight. All six survived; all but Williams were hospitalized. He escaped with a scratch on his hand!

Many bombing missions followed, including their participation in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Their mission was to knock out the bridge at Eiler, Belgium, to stop the German retreat, pin them and cut their supply lines. It was a fierce battle against German aircraft and anti-aircraft fire.

Ten of their planes were lost that day; 60 crew members, including three of Williams' roommates ,were killed.

Sixty years later, painful memories still linger about the losses during his 13 months in Europe. “We really were a band of brothers. It was both exhilarating and painful,” he said.

Williams received an Air Medal with two Silver Oak Leaf Clusters, a Distinguished Unit Citation, and EAME Service Medal with six Bronze Service Stars for his 59 bombing missions in Europe.

Williams was in London on May 8, 1945, when Victory in Europe (VE) Day was declared.

“Winston Churchill made the announcement over loudspeakers on the streets of London. It was a madhouse; people were everywhere on the streets, blowing whistles, yelling, hugging and kissing. I had never seen the streets of London with lights on before that night. It was a beautiful sight,” he said.

Soon he and about 14,000 other troops boarded a French liner, the lIe de France, for the five-day sail to New York. The ship took a zigzag course, because German U-boats were still in the Atlantic, unaware that the war was over.

Their entry into New York Harbor was an unexpected welcome. The harbor was filled with all types of water craft, horns blasting, fire boats shooting arcs of water into the air, and people waving flags to the returning heroes. Thousands of people filled the docks to welcome the troops home.

“I'll never forget the sight of all those people at the harbor, docks, and along the railroad tracks, as we traveled to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, waving flags and arms to welcome us home as we passed by.”

After the war, Williams turned down several good job offers to take advantage of the GI bill. Growing up poor in Arkansas, he didn't dream he would ever go to college. Grateful for the opportunity, he enrolled in Arkansas Polytechnic College, where he earned an associates degree. He met and married his wife, Kerrol, in 1946 while they were both in college. In September 1947, he began courses at the University of Arkansas, where he earned another degree, graduating in 1950.

While still in college, he joined the Air Force Reserves as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1949, and was later called up to active duty during the Korean War for a three-year tour of duty in Germany, followed by several other assignments in the United States. His last assignment was to Vandenberg AFB, where he retired as a major in 1968.

After many years of moving around the country with the Air Force, Jim, Kerrol, and their two children, Jimmy and Bari, chose Lompoc as their home. Williams became a school teacher and taught fourth grade at Crestview Elementary School on Vandenberg AFB for 15 years.

After he retired in 1984, Williams began writing his memoirs. This legacy for his children recounts the events of his life from the 1920s to the 1980s. This January, he and his wife celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

“I feel I have lived an interesting life for a poor boy from Arkansas.”

If you are a World War II veteran living in Lompoc and would like to participate in the Voices of World War II Veterans History Project, please call Kathy Simas, Santa Barbara Foundation, 735-9022.

April 17, 2006
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