B-26 reunion relives ups and downs of fabled bomber

April 21, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson

They're nearly 50 years older. They've gained a few pounds lost a few steps and a lot of hair. But the crews' memories are still green: bombing runs under heavy anti-aircraft fire, beating back Nazi fighter attacks, bringing planes back with an engine on fire and even being shot down.

After a shaky start, the B-26 Martin Marauder became World War II's first "hot" bomber. And even though "Carolyn," the only Marauder still flying, didn't make it to the reunion, hundreds of the men who built, maintained and flew the planes were in Baltimore yesterday to pledge loyalty to its memory.

Twin-engine Marauders started rolling off the Glenn L. Martin as

sembly line in Middle River in 1941.

"It was on the cutting edge of technology at the time; it had a lot of firsts," said retired Maj. George W. Parker, 68, of Columbia, Mo., president of the 2,400-member B-26 Marauder Historical Society. He was a 62-mission pilot over Europe.

The three-day reunion,which brought about 1,500 people to Baltimore last week, was a B-26 first, Mr. Parker said yesterday. Individual B-26 bomb groups and squadrons hold frequent reunions, "but this is the first time we've gotten all the B-26 people together."

Most Marauder crews were used to pound European targets, although some distinguished themselves in North Africa and the Far East.

The French Air Force and the Royal Air Force also flew B-26s, and both countries were represented during the reunion at Baltimore's Marriott Inner Harbor Hotel and at Martin State Airport.

Pilot George B. Fallon, 66, of Towson, and turret gunner Clarence Syford, 72, of Owings Mills, who count themselves strong "Marauder Men," were in the Baltimore contingent.

Mr. Fallon, who went on to a career as an aeronautical engineer at the Martin Company and International Business Machines Corp., flew the first of his 65 combat missions in the 387th Bomb Group on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

"That first mission was very easy, but in two or three days the bad weather closed in, and it got tougher. We were flying at 2,000 to 3,000 feet instead of 10,000. We were worried about getting hit by our own fire," Mr. Fallon said.

In 1945, he was shot down over Germany and spent the three months until V-E Day in a prison camp.

What is his worst memory of the World War II? Not his captors: "They treated us well. We got Red Cross packages, and they fed us rutabagas and potatoes. I still like them,but I can't eat Spam. I hate it every way you can fix it," Mr. Fallon said.

Mr. Syford flew 72 missions as a top turret gunner. On D-Day, however, he found himself in a taxi heading to a railroad station. The highly decorated flier was returning to England after a 30-day leave following his first 55 combat missions. "My mother asked why I was so upset, and I said because we had done all this softening up, and now I wasn't there for the big day," he said.

On his 66th mission, Mr. Syford recalled, "we were leading a bombing run when the right engine was hit and started burning. We couldn't do anything because we were the leader, and the other planes were marking on us."

When the second engine weakened, the pilot made an emergency landing near St. Lo, France, Mr. Syford said. "If it had been another type of bomber I would not be here. No other airplane could take this kind of punishment to fly again and again," he said.

The ex-airmen were disappointed that "Carolyn," owned by the Confederate Air Force in Harlingen, Texas, was forced down in Bluefield, W.Va., with engine trouble and never made it to Martin State Airport for yesterday's planned ceremonial fly-past and ground inspection.

However,the huge tent set up at the airport was warm on a dank day with the friendliness of shared experience. The visitors did see an A-10 Warthog attack bomber, which performed well in the Persian Gulf war, an old T-6 trainer and a 1943 L-2B observation plane.

One man who spent a lot of time in Baltimore with B-26s is Capt. Harry F. Clark, 70, of Santa Maria, Calif., a retired TWA pilot who worked at Martin's as a civilian test pilot during the war.

"The B-26 was a beautiful aircraft, but you had to fly it. It was very light on the stick but very sturdy," said Captain Clark. He had twonear-misses during testing that led to changes in the Marauders.

After an engine quit and he crash-landed on a runway -- "The only time I ever scratched an aircraft," he said -- it was found that a gauge showed a fuel valve open when it was actually closing under engine run-up pressure.

In another accident, "rough paint" on one wing of a test model caused it to flip over in a stall.

The B-26 had a terrible early reputation because so many crashed in training. Only experienced air crews could handle it successfully, and at the time the U.S. was training rookie pilots. A U.S. Senate committee led by then-Sen. Harry S. Truman recommended that production halt.

The wings were too short for the heavy, high-powered engines. The design was changed and production continued, with ultimate success.

Once the design was perfected, the Marauder went on to compile a sparkling record as a medium bomber that could swoop in over bridges, rail yards and enemy troop concentrations with devastating effect.

"That's what it was designed for, ground support," Major Parker said, "and it did it."

Marauder society

More information about the society is available from Richard JAtkinson, 8154 Frisco Way, Indianapolis, Ind., 46240.

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