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US Air Force

The Elder Bridge Mission

 

The Elder Bridge Mission
 

(The following is the text of an interview conducted May 26, 2000, by Paul Van Doren, VBOB’s member, with Albert R. Ridenour)

 

The 397th Bombardment Group (Bridge Busters) received the Distinguished Unit Citation for the successful December 23, 1944, raid on the Ellers railway bridge over the Moselle River.  This raid was an important part of the Allied air assault on German logistics feeding the German offensive.  The Group paid a high price for success that day.

 

Have no doubts, all of us in the 397th Bombardment Group (Bridge Busters) wanted to go to the aid of the GI’s fighting in the Ardennes ASAP.  We were anxious to give the German’s hell.  Needless to say, we had heard the rumors of the Malmedy Massacre and knew also how grave the fighting was.

 

We had already been grounded several days due to weather even before the Germans attacked.  And once we learned of the attack there were too many days of false starts sitting on the taxi way again and again.  We were discouraged and wondering if we would even have to go back to Normandy and start over.

(The above illustration of the “Allied Operation Against Bridges,” was published in To Win the Winter Sky: Air War Over the Ardennes, 1944-45, by Danny S. Parker.

I was a 24 year old 1st Lieutenant and pilot with the 596th Bomb Squadron, 397th Bombardment Group.  The Group, and I along with it, started combat operations in April 1944.  When not grounded the Group flew 1-2 missions most days, until April 1945.  December 1944 we were flying our twin engine B-26’s from Peronne, France, approximately 45 miles from Bastogne near the Luxembourg border.  Normally, the squadron had about 12 aircraft on hand from which 9 were provided on each mission.

 

December 23rd began with a briefing for the Eller Bridge mission some time after 4:30 a.m.  We received our target, the time, and the weather.  I recall takeoff starting out mid or late morning.  We took the usual 20 minutes or so to get to the altitude of 12,500 feet; formed up; and headed out over our own airfield.  The Group flew only 33 aircraft this day in the standard two boses of 18 each normally totaling 36 aircraft.  Perhaps an hour passed by as we got around to our target.

 

I was flying as co-pilot in the lead ship of the second box with the squadron operation officer, Major Dick Weltzen, the boss leader pilot.  He could see the low flight of 6 aircraft to his left and below.  I could see our right higher wingman in our center flight, flown by Charlie Estes, pilot, and Bill Collins, co-pilot.  Visible to our right and above as well, was the 6 aircraft or our top flight led by Captain Stevens.Ahead and below I could see two window dropping ships (aluminum foil packages that saturated radar pictures) alone beneath us.

 

The first Messerschmitt we saw suddenly appeared behind the window ships.  They got both of them.  I saw one of them destroyed by an ME that came up behind it, throttled back to the speed of the B-26 aircraft, and just sprayed fire from wing tip yawing back and forth.  The tail gunner never returned fire as they went down.

 

Then our top gunner reported that flak broke the tail off of Charlie and Bill’s aircraft and they had plunged downward!  We made our bomb run and turned to go home.  We were jumped by multiple ME’s that swept Captain Stevens’ high right flight out of the left turn of the whole box with a wall of fire like sheep dogs controlling their charges.

 

I looked out the window in time to see enemy fighters flash by and saw that our aircraft, not to mention our center flight was now, on the right side, naked as a jay bird.In an instant, as if we had one mind, Major Weltzen responded without question to my shout and my sweep of the fuel mixture controls to the maximum by pushing the throttles completely forward.  The other aircraft of the flight and the lower left flight of six followed suit and we closed up to the first box for the greater protection of the combined fire power.

 

Back to the airfield we found out that all six aircraft of our right flight plus our right wing man were lost.  Altogether 10 aircraft and crews had been destroyed.  There were about 6-8 men in each.The next day—Christmas Day—we carried out our sad duties packing up the belongings of our lost friends.  That day was made all the worse as we lost three more aircraft and crew that day.

 

The deep ironic sadness of these huge losses (the biggest ever) was the fact that almost all the lost crews were close to having flown 60 missions since the previous April.  As soon as they would have completed their 65th mission, they would have been released to go home!
 
Source: Battle of the Bulge February 2001

1st Lt Albert R. RIDENOUR

596th Bomb Squadron

397th Bomb Group.

9th U.S. Air Force

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium