HISTORY OF THE 319th. BOMB GROUP
THE BIG TAIL BIRDS
by Esther Oyster
The 319th. Bombardment Group, flying
Martin Marauders, reached its stride in the spring of 1944 when it was
awarded two Distinguished Unit Citations for its precision bombing of rail yards
at Rome and Florence.
At this time the unit was based
at Decimomannu on the island of Sardinia, and it was here that the six-ship
takeoffs and landings were instituted for which the unit achieved wide
fame. Known officially as the "Big Tail Birds," it also acquired the lesser
nickname of "Col. Randy's Flying Circus" from those who witnessed the six
plane elements come roaring down the wide runway and liftoff in unison
or come flashing down in line abreast for a landing. The procedure cut
join up time significantly, thereby extending the range, and was used without
mishap for over 100 missions.
Joseph Randall Holzapple, an original
pilot with the unit, became its Commander in August 1943 and remained in
that position until the wars end.
Formed at Barksdale Field in June
1942 around a cadre supplied by the 17th. Bombardment Group, The unit trained
there and at Harding Field. After three months they were on their way overseas
via the Northern Atlantic route.
England to be only a staging area
on the way to North Africa. The ground echelon went into Algeria with the
invasion forces on 8 November and the flight echelon was brought in soon
afterward. The 319th. went into combat on 28 November.
Trained for low level work, the
unit flew over 25 missions against rail yards, bridges,, airdromes, and
harbor installations. It also used the skip bombing technique against enemy
shipping in the Mediterranean.
Losses were high, and following
an evaluation of the aircraft, the unit was temporarily taken out of combat
in mid February and retrained for medium altitude work. This height proved
to be compatible with the B-26's capabilities, and the aircraft went on
to achieve the lowest loss record of planes in the war.
Operating from bases across North
Africa, Sardinia, and Corsica, the 319th. played a key roll in campaigns
such as OPERATION STRANGLE whose objective was to cut all enemy supply
lines to southern Italy by knocking out vital bridges and rail centers.
It also flew in support of the U.S. Fifth Army in Italy and the Sixth Army's
invasion of southern France.
The group's B-26's were identified
by a wide white band around the rear of the fuselage, and the Squadrons
were identified both by a large white two-digit number on the vertical
stabilizer and by a color ring around the engine nacelles. These were:
437th. Squadron, 01-24, blue; 438th., 25-49, red; 439th. 50-74, yellow;
and 440th. 75-99, white.
On 1 May 1944 a 439th. Squadron
plane flew its 100th. mission and was the first Marauder in any theater
to reach that number. It was a/c #64, S.N. 118322 named "Hell's Belle II."
Ashley E. Woolridge, an original
pilot in the 437th. Squadron who became Group Operations Officer and later
Commander of the 320th. Bomb Group, set another record. He flew 106 combat
missions in the Marauder in one continuous tour of duty.
By fall of 1944 when the Marauder
was no longer being manufactured and parts were becoming scarce, the unit
began training in the B-25 while continuing to fly missions in the B-26.
The conversion was made on 1 November without losing a day of combat.
Two months later the 319th. was
once again taken out of combat and became the first AAF unit to be redeployed
in toto to the Pacific theater, after a period of retraining in the Douglas
A-26 Invader at Columbia AAB. The Group reached Okinawa early in July and
flew 22 missions over China and Japan. On 9 August the crews on the mission
to Kanoya airfield saw the atomic cloud over Nagasaki which finally brought
the war to an end.. In all, the 319th. had flown 515 missions and had been
awarded twelve battle streamers..
The 319th. had in its ranks several
men who have achieved national prominence. Supreme Court Justice Lewis
F. Powell Jr. was the Intelligence Officer of the 439th. Squadron before
going up to the 42nd. Wing. William B. Monroe, Jr., who was the Group's
PR Officer and Historian became the Producer-Host of NBC's "Meet the Press."
Astronaut Donald K. "Deke" Slayton who had already flown a tour of duty
with the B-25 units in Italy, went to the Pacific as a pilot in the 438th.
The full story of the unit is told
in a book put out by the 319th. BG Reunion Association, "The 319th. in
Action." is available for $15.00 per copy including shg/hndlg. Orders should
be sent to 319th. Sec/Treas Joe Madrano at 5842 Winterhaven Dr., Windcrest,
TX 78239. The book includes Administrative History, Daily Account Records,
Human Interest Stories and Press Releases, Commendations and Citations
and Diary of the lost crew. It is a durable soft covered 300 page Book.