Life History of Ralph Julius Lauper

Chapter 6e

My Final Two Missions

My next to last mission should have been my last and my last one should never have been flown. The groups Record Department goofed up and neglected to credit me with one which I had flown early on, and they didn't discover the snafu until I had been finished for a week. As with lots of mistakes made in war that one nearly cost me my life.

Mission #49 (should be #50)

This was a "baddie." We went to Vienna. We lost our windshield and an engine, with the other three performing poorly while on our way home, and a blown tire.

The mission was significant to me in that I saw my first German jets. They were the first to put a jet fighter into combat. We soon followed them with jets of our own, but on that day they were "Kings of the Road." They made their passes out of the sun. We'd see them as dots out there and in a few seconds they would be allover us, firing as they came. We had never seen such speed and they were gone before our gunners could get any kind of decent shot, our fighters couldn't begin to keep up with them.

They had fun with us for a few days. Then the ingenious Yank Fighter Pilots came up with a way to more or less, balance things out. Those first German Jets were primitive by today's standards. They were forced to drastically cut their speed on their turns or the pilot would black out. Our guys would see them coming, and would turn and go at top speed in the same direction. The jets would get one free pass at the bombers but when they slowed to make a turn there would be an American on the inside of the turn right behind them. Good-bye jet!

My Co-pilot for the day was Jim Federoff, a Russian Jew whose parents had left Leningrad before he was born. Jim was from Jersey City and was flying his first mission. It was a stern baptism of fire for a guy on his maiden voyage. He was visibly shaken.

After we had parked the plane and were walking away from it, Jim turned to me and earnestly asked, "Say, Lauper how does a guy make 50 missions around here?"

"Well Jim" I told him, "I'll tell you more about it tomorrow night after I've finished mine. If you like the way I did it today and want to try it again with me, I'll sign you on as my co-pilot."

"Oh, would you please?" He begged. I assured him that all missions were not as difficult as Vienna had been and at any rate I had no intention of allowing myself to be shot down on my last one.

"If you want to see how far a guy will go to stay in the air, then just come with me tomorrow and you may find out." I don't believe Federoff slept much that night. I know he didn't sleep at all the next night, he told me as much on the day following.

The Helmet Incident

Before we leave Vienna for good, I just must relate an incident which serves, once again, to point out the differences in the way normal problems are met and ordinary functions are cared for in war, as compared to the way they would be handled in ones' home town. The story as related to me by a pilot in the 772nd Squadron is given below.

On the Vienna Raid just detailed, his Navigator, he said, had a real bad bowel problem and had to do something about it. It was probably mission induced nervousness but the problem was real and couldn't be ignored or put out of mind. So the poor guy doffed all of his equipment and heavy clothing. Once stripped down to his shorts, he grabbed the nearest helmet and converted it into a much needed latrine.

Just about the time he had gained the blessed relief so frantically sought the air was suddenly filled with flak. The Co-pilot was shouting for everyone to put on their helmets. The poor guy didn't have any clothes on, helmets were the farthest thing in the world from his mind. Especially the one which had served him so well and was now sitting between him and the Bombardier, who was in the business of getting the bombsight set up for the drop when the helmet call went out. Not wanting to take his eyes off the face of the sight for even an instant that hapless bombardier fellow reached behind him, seized the first helmet he touched and crammed it on his head. Ray Pratt, the Pilot, said he had no idea where his bombs landed that day, but he did know the Bombardier wouldn't speak to the Navigator for over a week. I think of Vienna as a place where I spent three of my harder missions. Those guys I'll wager remember it for something altogether different from that.

Mission #51 Finito

(should have been #50 or not at all!)

My last mission had all the elements of a Hollywood suspense movie. I knew all along that it was my last mission. I just didn't know whether it would be my last because I made it, or last because I didn't.

Our target was Ploesti, Romania, Ninety miles from Russia and one of the richest oil producing areas in the world. It was also home to three vast refineries, built by three U.S. Companies: Shell, Texaco and Standard Oil. When we went there it was always to hit one or all three. At times we included the rail yards and storage tanks.

We always hurt them but they are brilliant people and hard-working (I refer to the Germans of course) and would be operating in a limited way within 24 hours. My group, the 463rd , already wore the Presidential Unit Citation for accuracy in bombing and the General had sent up a case of Scotch for the job we had done on a previous mission out there (I'd have much rather it had been a case of milk shakes). The 463rd could flat-out bomb, and I had been there four times already. So I was favored to survive again, but on the other hand my senses kept telling me, "You can't keep on beating the odds." Not one of the other trips out there had been fun. Ploesti's 8,200 heavy guns made it the most heavily defended single target in the world, even more than Berlin. The Nazi's were so zealous in their efforts to preserve their dwindling oil supply that they had, we learned at briefing, beefed up their fighter's groups in the region.

Another difficulty presented itself while I was inspecting the plane with the ground crew chief. You will recall my mentioning engine overheating coming off Vienna the day previous. I had analyzed the culprit as being fouled spark plugs and had told Burk of my feelings upon our landing. Fouled plugs can cause detonation (back-firing). Carbon builds up on the plug at high temperatures and ignites before it is supposed to. This results in the plane working against itself. Loss of power is the result.

Burk agreed that I had been right, it had turned out to be the plugs all right. Unfortunately new plugs were out of stock and he had been forced to use reconditioned ones. He didn't like it one bit and fretted that I should scrub the mission. Perhaps I should have acted on his suggestion, but I didn't and it haunted me some before the day was over.

As Federoff and I were buckling ourselves in I had some misgivings about Ploesti and my plane. I even wondered about the readiness of my co-pilot to fly two such missions in succession. Why does all this stuff have to happen on my last mission?

We led our squadron out and everything was "peachy-keen" until we had been climbing 20 minutes or so. Slowly the engines temperatures began to rise. Those plugs weren't any better than the ones they had replaced. And the mission was just starting!

I did the only thing I could do. Back goes the throttle on the hottest engine, up goes the throttle on the other three. Fifteen or twenty minutes of jockeying around in that fashion proved that it wasn't working. The fully loaded plane was unable to maintain a steady climb at the speed and was shaking badly. I began waving to the other planes in my squadron. I wanted them to leave me and hook on with other units. Those guys wouldn't leave me! When I saw how much my friends wanted me to get that last one and were willing to lay it on the line for me it gave my morale and self-confidence a real boost. Any self doubt as to my ability to make it was dispelled by their confidence in their leader. I slowed both speed and rate of climb, the main force pulled steadily up and away and it became a Lauper Squadron Bombing Mission, flying solo toward Ploesti!

We flew about 100 miles north of the target before we got to 28,000 feet, then we turned downwind toward it. Two pieces of good luck were finally bestowed upon us: First- we hadn't encountered a single enemy fighter to that point. The Air Force had already bombed and drew all the German fighters with them as they left for home. The Nazi's never did find the Lauper Squadron at any time during the entire mission. Second - the ground forces were caught somewhat unaware by my foolhardy venture and were licking their wounds, more or less, when here we came, all 7of us. The enemy regrouped very quickly and even with the element of surprise working for us they concentrated all of their firepower against our 7 planes and succeeded in hitting every single one of us. Although an engine was shot out here and there all planes came off the target in smooth condition, including my own.

Our empty planes on a slow but steady descent required much less power and engine overheating ceased to be a problem. The main body of the bombers was away out of sight and down the road. I called for my squadron to maintain strict radio silence in an effort to escape detection.

The entire operation was going well. Our bombs had hit the target, all planes were flying good formation, no enemy fighters had found us and now we were on our way home, out of Romania, across the Danube and over Yugoslavia. Our altitude was 13,000 feet and we were descending to a planned altitude of 10,000 feet by the time we would hit the Adriatic Sea.

We, in our ship, were congratulating each other over our good fortune when alas it ran out! "The Sgt. of Zagreb struck again!" He, by some quirk of fate, moved his mobile units directly below the point over which we passed. He was probably smiling over his own good luck as his 8 guns opened up on us at that ridiculously low altitude. There was a big puff of black smoke as a flak shell exploded right at my altitude and 100 feet off to my left. One plane lost an engine! Others were more slightly hit. With only one squadron to worry about I could and did institute a bank to my right as steeply as formation flying would allow. A few seconds later I banked hard to my left. I must have zigged when I should have zagged, blam! The next one hit right outside. One prop flew off. The windshield and side window were shattered! The corner post buckled! I nearly experienced my great fear of being blinded as I actually felt the rush of air past my face created by shrapnel and shards of glass. The engine without its prop was running so fast it threatened to blow up or shake lose from the plane.

I immediately turned off its ignition switch. I felt a sharp pain in my upper right arm and the sensation of warm blood running down. I checked on the other ships. All had been mauled but all were flying pretty good. A fire broke out on the damaged engine, the wind blew it out a few seconds later. It seemed to recur every few minutes throughout our flight home. I checked on the crew and reminded them of my standing orders in the event of a full-scale engine fire, "A fire can burn through the fire wall and into the gas tank in about 12-15 seconds. I'll ring the bell once. I'll ring it again a few seconds later in case someone didn't hear it. You had better jump quick and not wait for a third bell because I'll be gone!" I knew I just couldn't jump until they were all out but I wanted them on their toes!

I turned to Federoff. He was staring, green-faced, at the blood running over the top of my hand as it gripped the throttle controls. "How are you feeling?" I asked.

"OK" he answered, "but you've been shot." I had no sooner asked him to take over the controls than Haymaker appeared with a first aid kit. I pointed out that I still had full use of my arm, hand, and fingers and couldn't be too bad. Jack still went ahead and cut off the sleeves of my wool jacket, coveralls and shirt. He took out a piece of flak which Jane still has in her possession. Cordite and gunpowder smelled up the cabin as he doused the wound with sulpha powder and some kind of liquid disinfectant. He offered me a shot of morphine which I of course declined.

I flew the plane the rest of the way in and landed on three engines with no windshield or side window, my plane full of holes, my arm shot up and a long steel rod where one of the landing gears and tires should be. But what the heck! I had made it!

What was left of the landing gear dug a furrow two and a half feet deep in a wide circular arc off the runway. I didn't even scrape a wing on the ground. The screaming fire engines dashed up and began spraying foam on the engine, which had started to burn briskly again. The wind wouldn't put it out this time but they managed to. We dropped out through the nose hatch and I walked over to the edge of the parking pad, picked up a handful of dirt and washed my face with it.

It took several days for me to fully appreciate the importance of that moment. Combat was over for me! I had accomplished something which so many would never be allowed to do. I had lived through and survived the whole nightmare. I did realize that for me life would never again be quite the same.

As we were getting into the jeep which someone had sent out to pick us up Jim Federoff, who had been sickly quiet except when responding to a direct question or order during the last 100 or so miles of our flight, had made up his mind about something. He now gave voice to that something. "Lauper," he said sadly. "Yesterday I asked you how a guy could make 50 missions over here. You told me and you showed me. Now I know there's not a way in the world for me to make it. Do you realize that if I had been flying that plane, either yesterday or today, I would be real dead by now?"

The next day I went to Capri on R & R and stayed almost a week. When I returned to pick up my papers to leave for home I saw him. He had his own plane and crew and seemed to feel a lot better about things. He thanked me again, and said how much I taught him in two days of watching me. He said also that it wasn't nearly so much what I said as to how I said it, and the way I acted, especially in emergency situations. For my last mission I was awarded the Purple Heart and an Oakleaf Cluster for the Distinguished Flying Cross I had received already, after the May 10th mission. His evaluation was very generous, but sincere, and appreciated.

I had previously flown over Mt. Vesuvius several times from my plane at very low altitudes and had peered down into its red hot lava core, which burns continuously. The highlight of my R & R visit of Capri was a night in Naples, interrupted by a small bombing raid on the harbor below the villa where we spent the night (no appreciable damage), and a trip about 20 miles by jeep out to see the infamous Pompeii and all its unearthed and restored excesses, even to the feast rooms and brothels. It lies at the foot of Vesuvius and is living testimony to how man ought not to live.

On my way home I flew by bomber to the Port of Gran in North Africa. During my two days there the harbor endured a small raid by the Jerrys. They dropped some bombs near to our base next to the harbor. They were driven off by American and British guns. I was in the midst of the only attack of blocked sinus I have ever had and while everyone else dashed for the bomb shelters, I lay unmoving upon my tent bunk. Death would have been welcomed!

I departed the war zone on July 26, 1944 aboard a converted freighter occupying a cabin with seven other officers. We passed by Gibraltar about 3 pm in the company of our two destroyer escorts. Once outside the straits the destroyers turned back and sub-patrol duty was left to a big PB2Y4 patrol bomber. By nightfall we were beyond the sub-infested waters.

The ship, with 3,000 officers and men aboard, was now alone running on a zigzag course toward Boston. Our top speed of 33 knots would be enough to outrun a submarine. We carried a three inch deck gun up front just in case one met us from that direction. The sea was uncommonly smooth and the food was excellent. Except for a brief few hours of the mal-de mar, I spent most of the voyage eating, sunbathing on a deck lounge chair and playing chess with all-comers. I managed to remain undefeated. Of all the officers aboard I managed to draw Officer of the Guard Detail, and ran the Guard Detail for 12 hours. I had to be in full dress uniform, with side arm and cap, neither of which is removed even in the mess hall.

The ship arrived at Boston Harbor in the late evening on August 1st and lay at anchor inside the breakwater all night. The next morning as we inched up to the pier we were treated to a pleasant surprise! Every worker along the docks had turned out for a gala welcome. Confetti was flying, office girls were waving banners and pom-poms, and the army band from Camp Miles Standish up north of Boston had been dispatched to gussie up the scene, and was standing on the pier playing swing and jazz for us. When they swung Louisiana Hayride, this old veteran thought it was the sweetest music he had heard in his entire life.

The unloading took over half of the day. The stretcher cases were the first off, some accompanied by nurses, and all had a buddy along (a soldier of like rank assigned to go with them). Next came the walking wounded, each with his buddy. These were followed by the enlisted men. The Officers came last. I received a poignant reminder of the horror of war as I stood happily at the ship's rail overlooking the festivities on the pier where doughnuts were being dispensed. I commented aloud how good they looked. A soldier standing next to me asked, "What are they doing?"

I turned to him and realized that although he, like I, may have lived in fear of losing his eyesight, the outcome for him was so much different from my own. There he stood with his buddy. He was blind!

A train backed onto the pier and took us up to Miles Standish. About 50 free telephones were provided. I called Jane in St. George, Utah to check in. My next call was to Chicago where mother was staying with Joe and Vi and their baby Linda. Three days later a train took me to Fort Phil Sheridan, north of Chicago. I was given a 28 day leave from there. A couple or three days later Joe dropped me off at O'Hare Airport. The military was in control there and civilian planes were few in numbers.

I stood around the Operations Office for awhile, looking for an Air Force Plane heading west. A woman Lt. Colonel heard my inquiries and seeing the ribbons on my blouse asked if I would like to fly co-pilot for her. She was hauling a load of football stars out to Colorado Springs for some kind of service football game there at 2nd Air Force Headquarters. A couple of them come to mind. The great Otto Graham was aboard, along with Glen Dobbs of Oklahoma, Angie Bertelli of Notre Dame and about 30 other All-Stars in a twin engine ship of a type I had never before been in and can't recall the kind it was. It ran well and I enjoyed the flight.

As it turned out, I flew co-pilot for Jacqueline Cochrane, the greatest Woman Speed Flyer in the World. She had won all the speed and endurance records there were to be won and had joined the Air Force, serving the Air Transport Command. She was a friendly, considerate and extremely modest woman. Could that girl fly! I enjoyed the day immensely.

After my arrival in St. George Jane and I enjoyed a great reunion and were sealed in a solo session at the St. George temple by the Temple President, Harold S. Snow. The temple itself was closed at the time.

Much of what transpired after that until I was deactivated is detailed more fully in my life story but I want to mention again that I started to live again and to enjoy life, when Jane and our baby joined me in March of 1945, at Sioux City, Iowa. We stayed there until I left the service in June.

Come Again!

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