Jose Wirebaugh, 89, Served In Army Air Corps During World War II
Teacher Jason Filizetti wanted his students at Escondido Community Day School to have a Memorial Day lesson they wouldn’t forget, so he called in his grandfather.
“This is such a powerful way for them to see the people who protected the world,” Filizetti said Thursday about his guest speaker, Jose Wirebaugh. “If it weren’t for them, who knows where we’d be today?”
Filizetti had heard many of his grandfather’s World War II stories while growing up, but had never heard the presentation Wirebaugh has given to classes for the past 30 years. He got his chance when his grandfather was in town on a visit from Arizona.
At the end of his talk, students asked about unfamiliar words and phrases from another era: What was D-Day? What’s a Yank? What’s the BBC? What’s a POW?
But mostly, they just listened to Wirebaugh’s 90-minute recollection about flying 58 bombing missions, an almost unimaginable number at a time when the death rate on bombers was said to be 5 percent a mission.
“Out of 760 guys who went over with my bomb group, I’m the sole survivor who walked ashore in New York City,” Wirebaugh, 90, told students.
Drafted into the Army Air Corps at 20 years old in 1942, Wirebaugh was trained as a flight engineer and assigned to fly on B-24s with the 392nd Bomb Group in Tring, England. A bomb group had about 600 men.
“This was my original crew that I went overseas with in a B-24,” he said, standing in front of a projected black-and-white photo of smiling young men in uniform. “On my 17th mission, all of these guys were dead.”
Wirebaugh said 60 B-24s took off for a bombing mission that day. Six returned.
“I had breakfast with 660 guys,” he said. “I had dinner with 49.”
The horrific air casualties from the mission devastated the 392nd and left a lingering toll on Wirebaugh, whose nerves were shattered for two weeks.
“I couldn’t hold anything in my hand,” he said. “I couldn’t feed myself. I couldn’t shave.”
Wirebaugh was transferred to Molesworth, England, to fly in B-17s with the 303rd Bomb Group. He made 44 flights with the group’s division leader, Brig. Gen. Alvin Arbor, who at 37 was known as “the Old Man” to his young troops.
“I would have given my life for him,” Wirebaugh said. “He gave his life for me.”
It was the fearless Arbor who volunteered 12 of his B-17s to fly tins of gasoline to refuel Gen. George Patton’s stranded tanks. After delivering the fuel, the crew had to take off downwind because they could not turn around, a feat never attempted in a B-17.
Arbor pulled it off by pushing the engine beyond its maximum load, and all other planes followed with his instructions, which included “pray to God your flight engineer has got a rosary in his pocket.” All engines had to be replaced after their safe return.
Wirebaugh had more trouble sharing the story of his 35th mission, also with the Old Man. Three engines were gone, the final one was overheating and six of the 10-man crew were dead when Arbor told him to find a way to lighten the load or risk spending the rest of the war as a POW.
After chopping up and discarding everything they could, Wirebaugh suggested putting parachutes on the dead crew members and dropping them over Germany. Arbor agreed, but asked to save at least one of the fallen, who was chosen at random by drawing a dog tag from a helmet.
“From that night, until last night, I prayed for those five guys, because when they were found, the Germans didn’t know who they were,” Wirebaugh said, breaking down in tears at remembering the event almost 70 years later. “They couldn’t tell the Red Cross (the names of the Americans) because we pulled the dog tags. I’m still very sentimental over that.”
On his final mission with Arbor, Wirebaugh said he was flying with an inexperienced navigator when they found themselves over London, a fatal mistake because any plane over the city would be fired upon.
With anti-aircraft flak darkening the sky, their B-17 was blown apart and two crew members were killed. Arbor knew his plane was doomed, then ordered Wirebaugh and the others to parachute out. Wirebaugh was only persuaded to jump after Arbor put a pistol under his chin.
Wirebaugh jumped, but said he didn’t realize that Arbor would not follow him. Instead, Arbor remained at the wheel to crash into the River Thames rather than risk killing a Londoner if the plane hit the ground.
“Flying in a bomb group, it was everybody’s feeling that the next day would be our last,” Wirebaugh told students about the many lives he saw lost in three years. “That’s how you lived. You couldn’t depend on the next day.”
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