Meet Legend Robert “Bob” Dickson
B-17 Pilot, POW
8th Air Force, 91st Bomb Group, 322nd Squadron, Bassingbourn, England
This is an excerpt from the book “Mary Ruth” Memories of Mobile … We Still Remember on the mission in which Robert Dickson was shot down on December 1, 1943.
The mission of 1 December to a secondary target, Solingen, Germany (the primary target, Leverkusen, was clouded over) was not an abort. For this mission, most of Lt. Wennerberg’s crew were with him. 2Lt. Robert A. Dickson was flying as copilot, filling in for 2Lt William F. Myers, and S/Sgt. Nick J. Nicoletti was radio operator in place of S/Sgt. Charles W. Grubb, Jr. Sgt. Nicoletti was on his second combat mission.
Wheel N Deal was designated as a spare for the mission and was supposed to be the first in sequence to fill in for a plane having to abort from the group formation. As the group started coming together over the base, No. 767 aborted. 2Lt. Leonard F. Anderson for some reason or other moved No. 794, also a spare, into the vacated slot before Lt. Wennerberg could slide over. Twelve minutes later, No. 187, Buckeye Boomerang, with 1Lt. John D. Davis’s crew aboard, aborted from the No. 3 position of the Second Element of the High Squadron. Lt. Wennerberg pulled Wheel N Deal into that position and flew on with the group.
The American fighter escort had to turn back before the target, leaving a 20-minute window of no coverage before the next escort group arrived. After the American fighters left, German fighters started harassing the formation. Wheel N Deal took a 20 mm shell in the No. 3 engine on the first pass by the enemy aircraft. A second attack shot up the batteries, putting the two turrets out of commission. The gunners could not rotate to track the fighters charging by. They could only fire when the fighters intersected the field of fire of their stationary guns. Only the waist and tail gunners could follow the enemy aircraft maneuvering around the bomber. The fighter escort finally arrived, and two P-47s pulled up alongside Wheel N Deal to protect her from further enemy attacks.
No. 794, which had moved into the slot Wheel N Deal should have filled, was hit by fighters halfway between Koblenz and Cologne on the way to the target. Part of a wing came off, and she went down. All 10 crewmen were killed. The copilot was Robert Dickson’s best friend, Harry Hollinger, and the navigator was the uncle of Arizona Wing spare Rick Senffner, Steve Domladovac.
Just as the formation turned on the IP and began the bomb run, Wheel N Deal was hit by flak, knocking out more of the electrical system and setting the fuel tank for the No. 2 engine afire. The top turret gunner, Sgt. Squire Baker, was reloading his .50 caliber machine guns when the flak hit. He had just lifted the cover plate with his right hand when a shard of flak slammed into the gun, causing it to move back and crushing his left hand and arm. An 88 mm shell went up through the bomber just behind the left pilot’s seat and on out the left side of the top turret. It did not explode.
The tail gunner, Sgt. William E. Roller, apparently was hit by one of the early fighter passes and was struggling in his attempt to bail out. When a German fighter came in from the rear and went under the bomber, Sgt. Baker had called to Sgt. Roller to watch for him to come back up at them. There was no answer from the tail position.
Because of the flak damage, Wheel N Deal dropped out of formation and down to about 13,000 feet. The bombardier, 2Lt. John W. Temple, tried to jettison the bomb load to lighten the plane. With the outage of the electrical system, the bomb bay doors only partly opened. The first bomb crashed into the doors, jamming them in place. Lt. Temple went back to the bomb bay, and Sgt. Baker, smashed hand and all, came down from his turret to help. Sgt. Baker disconnected his oxygen hose, climbed down in the bays, and kicked open the doors. The two crewmen then pulled the auxiliary bomb release behind the pilot’s position and released the bombs. More German fighters came in on the bomber. This time, the No. 2 engine was knocked out and the No. 4 engine set on fire. There was a hole in the right wing so large you could drop a horse through it. Wheel N Deal was doomed.
Lt. Wennerberg kept telling the crew over the intercom, “You better get out!” Lt. Temple and the navigator, 2Lt. Eugene C. Cohalan, went out through the nose hatch. The ball turret gunner, Sgt. Morris Schendleman, came up out of the turret when he heard the bailout bell. He helped the radio operator, Sgt. Nicoletti, out of his flak suit. Sgt. Schendleman went back to the waist to get his chute and signaled the waist gunners to leave. He then went back past the radio room and dropped out the bomb bay. Sgts. Baker and Nicoletti dropped through the bomb bays, as did Lts. Wennerberg and Dickson.
Sgt. Baker’s chute would not open, so he had to pull it out by hand until the wind caught the pilot chute and pulled out the main canopy. Except for Sgt. Roller, the rear crew bailed out through the side door. The two waist gunners saw Sgt. Roller start crawling toward the tail escape hatch and try to drop out. As Sgt. Cole went out the door, he saw Sgt. Roller’s head and feet hanging out of the tail hatch with the rest of his body wedged in the plane. Either he was caught in the hatch or was dead. His body was found in the wreckage. The rest of the crew landed safely to begin their ordeals as POWs.
Wheel N Deal went down in the Rhine River between Dusseldorf and Duisburg, Germany.