The sky was black with flak over the Brenner Pass in the Italian Alps, the shells bursting like lethal popcorn all around the bobbing B-24 “Liberator” bomber piloted by William C. Wildman.
That December day in 1944, bursting anti-aircraft shells exploded into “jagged steel thick as your fist and wide as a basketball at times,” said Wildman, of Chapin.
Suddenly, the Liberator’s windshield exploded. Shards of steel nicked Wildman’s flight jacket and removed much of the skull of flight engineer Joe Kelly, of New York, who was standing behind Wildman, holding on to the back of his seat.
“Half his head was gone. An eye was gone,” said Wildman, who flew 32 missions over Italy, Austria, Romania and Germany from fall 1944 to April 1945. “Frankly, I was pretty shook up. That could have been me.”
Wildman, 85, is one of about 100 veterans who will be on the inaugural Honor Flight to the nation’s capital Nov. 15 to visit the National World War II Memorial.
The first flight is full. But local organizers hope to raise $300,000 to charter six flights to take 600 veterans to Washington for free over the next year or so.
Wildman, an Indianapolis native, was in his fraternity house at Butler University there on Dec. 7, 1941, when he heard the news of Pearl Harbor.
He and his fraternity brothers “were just amazed,” Wildman said. “We just said, ‘Oh, ... here we go.’”
On Aug. 15, 1942 — his 19th birthday — Wildman joined the new Army Air Corps and was sent to the cadet flying program at Purdue University in Indiana.
He joined “because I didn’t want to be drafted and I didn’t want to be in the infantry.”
Wildman spent the next two years in basic training and learning to fly. His first solos were in a Stearman biplane.
He joined the 376th Heavy Bomb Group as a replacement pilot in the fall of 1944.
The unit had earned fame in 1942 for flying 65 hours from its base in Florida, hopping from the Gold Coast of Africa to the Sudan before landing in Egypt.
There, the 376th “Stone Crushers” pulverized enemy oil refineries in Romania and helped turn back German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps in North Africa.
Wildman joined the 512th Squadron of the 376th in Italy two years after those heroics. Germany had been pushed out of North Africa and Sicily. Italy had been invaded at great cost, but German troops still held in the northern mountains.
Flying from bases in the heel of the Italian boot, often the 512th’s missions were to bomb the bridges, roads and railroad lines that wound through the Alps and supplied German troops in northern Italy from Austria and Germany beyond.
The 10-man Liberator crews would fly 10- to 12-hour missions, often at 20,000 feet, with the temperatures plummeting to 50 or 60 below zero.
“No heat,” Wildman said. “No pressurization, and most of the time over enemy territory.”
The men were kept warm and alive only by heated flight suits that plugged into the plane’s electrical system.
“Imagine having wires in your long johns,” Wildman said.
The crews most often flew without fighter-plane cover, through steep mountain valleys ringed with ack-ack anti-aircraft artillery.
“I never would tell anyone, but I was always nervous” before a mission, Wildman said. “We had ack-ack on every mission. Heavy. And you just had to fly through it.”
In December 1944, two weeks after losing his flight engineer, Wildman once again was flying through the Brenner Pass.
As the Liberator approached the valley on a bombing run toward a double railroad bridge, it started drawing flak. The crew could hear the hot metal peppering the aircraft’s skin for up to five minutes.
Soon, the ack-ack knocked out the first engine of the four-engine bomber. Then, it knocked out a second — both on the left wing.
Wildman and his co-pilot struggled to keep the crippled aircraft aloft. They flew 4½ hours over the Adriatic, trying to limp back to base in southern Italy, constantly losing altitude.
At the base, Wildman landed the aircraft, but the right landing gear had been shot away. He kept the skidding plane on the runway until it came to rest in a mud bog at the end of the strip.
“The crew got out and started counting holes in the plane” caused by the anti-aircraft fire, Wildman said. “They stopped counting at 125.
“We couldn’t believe it,” he said. “They just hauled it off to the junkyard. I don’t know how we got through it with none (of the crew) getting hit.”
That mission earned Wildman the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Wildman returned to the United States in April 1945 to train in long-range B-29 bombers preparing to bomb the Japanese in the Pacific Theater. But the war ended before he was deployed.
Wildman’s wife, Joyce, said her husband rarely talked about his experiences in the war. And he has just borne any psychological fallout from his experiences.
“All of our peers were in the war in one way or the other,” she said. “You just dealt with it.”
Wildman returned to Indianapolis after the war, met and married Joyce in 1946. They had two sons, Dick, who is deceased, and Dan, an attorney in Spartanburg.
Wildman’s brother Dan founded the Burger Chef fast-food chain, and in 1960 Wildman opened four franchises in Spartanburg. “I always wanted to get out of the Indiana winters.”
Wildman would stay in the Air Force Reserve for 31 years.
“I started out flying biplanes and ended flying F-80 Shooting Star jets,” he said.
Wildman retired in the 1980s at age 59 and moved to a house on Lake Murray.
He said he was looking forward to seeing the memorial in Washington.
“I’ve always wanted to go up there, but we’re beyond the age of driving there, parking and everything,” he said. “This Honor Flight seemed like the way to go.”
Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.