Clinton "Clint" Gruber '47 flew numerous missions over Europe and North Africa with his mates in a B-24D heavy bomber nicknamed "Iron Ass" - until Dec. 1, 1943.By Sig Unander '87
The crew flew to England, where they were assigned to the 93rd Bomb Group, based at Hardwick, about 56 miles north of London, where they were assigned a new B-24D. Painted on its fuselage was a caricature of a kicking mule and its nickname: Iron Ass, a wartime expression denoting a hard-nosed commanding officer. They flew nine missions, some from Africa and some from England, including a harrowing sortie over Austria in which several bombers in their group were shot down, one exploding a hundred yards ahead of them in a huge ball of flame and debris.
Then, early in the morning of Dec. 1, 1943, the 93rd’s combat crews rose in the drizzly predawn darkness for a mission briefing. The target: Solingen, a transportation hub in the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial heartland, heavily defended by flak guns and fighters. The group had gone there the day before but had to abort due to cloud cover over the target. Now it was on again.
After breakfast a visit to the chaplain and briefings by intelligence and weather officers, the crews manned their bombers and began the dangerous takeoff procedure. One by one the big ships rumbled down the runway in the lightening gloom, slowly lifted off and vanished into the clouds.
On emerging above the cloud deck in brilliant sunshine, the group’s 17 B-24s assembled in combat formation behind their leader. Then they joined the other groups in the strike force of 293 heavy bombers and set a course for Germany, climbing slowly to their assigned altitude.
As the long bomber stream passed over Holland, escorting American fighter planes weaved white condensation trails in the deep blue thousands of feet above the formation, a reassuring sight. But soon they reached the limit of their range and turned back. The bombers were immediately attacked by German fighter planes. The bombers’ defensive guns opened fire and a running battle ensued. Iron Ass remained unscathed but as the formation neared the target at Solingen, the propeller on the number three engine suddenly became uncontrollable and was quickly shut down. The heavily loaded plane, unable to maintain formation, began to fall behind.
Now alone deep in Germany at 23,000 feet, the crew was in mortal danger. As they fell away from the formation, another crippled B-24 pulled in close for mutual protection. Gruber could see a lovely pinup girl painted on its fuselage and read her name: Nana. “I vividly remember the plane’s name…” he wrote later, “…how could I forget?” Enemy fighters pounced on Nana, sending her down in flames as the crew of Iron Ass watched. Ten men…incinerated.
Now it was their turn.
The fighters made head-on passes and rear attacks. The shipshook from the impact of 20 mm. explosive shells and vibration from her own guns as the crew fought for their lives. Tail gunner Sgt. Harry Byerman kept firing his twin 50 caliber machine guns until he was killed in an attack that damaged the tail; the waist gunner was wounded in one leg.
In the cockpit, Gruber and Ketch struggled to control the ship. A shell exploded in the left wing, peeling the aluminum skin off the top. Another knocked out the left inboard engine. Ketch’s window imploded, scattering metal and plexiglas fragments in the cockpit. Now down to 18,000 feet, it was time to get out. With a swiftness born of instinct, Gruber grabbed his chest pack chute, ripped his oxygen and intercom connections from their sockets and squeezed down into the bomb bay, the only exit. The doors were closed. He was trapped.