Range! Fire!
By Hayne Coleman
0855, March 11, 1944 20 B-17s (both "F" and "G" models) of the 20th, 96th, and 429th Squadrons of the 2nd Bomb Group, took off on mission #157 from their bases in Macedonia, Italy to attack the marshaling yards in Padua, Italy. T/Sgt. Thomas Forbes, top turret gunner and S/Sgt. Tony Gruchawaka R/waist gunner were flying on #41-24361, Wabash Cannon Ball (one of the outdated "F" models) as an element of the 96th. The weather was typically Italian, clear but hazy. The Bombers arrived over target through some inaccurate flack that died out over the IP. This is where the "SNAFU" took place. A group of lower flying B-24s on a different axis of attack caused the planes of the 96th to abort the run and make a 360 to the left for a second bomb run at the target. The rest of the group rallied right.
"This gave the enemy about 10 to 15 minutes to set up on us. I figured there were about 20 Me109s and FW 190s that attacked us." Thomas Forbes said.
Tony Gruchawaka remembers, "I could see them lining up for their attacks. It reminded me of the Indians in a wild west movie."
"All of the attacks came from the rear. The first knocked down the plane behind us (42-31429) and the one to our left (42-5145). I don't know which one it was but I could see the crew through their radio window battling the fire with blankets. It looked like they'd about got it out when it flared again and the plane went down." Forbes recalled.
S/Sgt. Virgil Lazar reported his view from Wabash's ball turret of 145's demise to an interrogator upon his return to base. "I heard the pilot call out over the intercom to keep an eye out on #145. It was several minutes before I could see the plane. It passed beneath us going from 9 o'clock to 5 o'clock losing speed and altitude. I could see a hole about 2 feet in diameter between the #1 and #2 engines and fire pouring out behind the hole. I followed it until it was about a 1000 yds. behind us and P-47s started to circle it, then the flames flared up three times its normal size. I could see five parachutes which opened in rapid succession. Then the left wing seemed to crumble and the plane went into a left hand dive. I counted three more chutes which blossomed about the plane as it was diving down. That was the last I saw." A B-17 carries a crew of ten.
The planes in front of Wabash were all "G" models. A veteran of over 100 missions at this time, The Cannon Ball was considered to be "war weary." When the first rockets took out the "tail end Charlies" the leading "Gs" opened up the throttles, leaving Wabash Cannon Ball and her crew to make it home on their own and without fighter escort.
Gruchawaka recalls, "As we left the target I saw a large flight of fighter planes coming up on us. I got on the intercom and asked if our fighter cover was still around. A voice said "NO!"
"All of a sudden we were by ourselves. I reported no fighter cover when I heard someone ask," said Forbes. "Our pilot was 2nd Lt. Clarence W. Southern. He'd trained on P-40s but was reassigned to B-17's, much to his dislike.
Southern called me over the interphone. "Commonsense can you tell me what's happening?"
"Yes sir. They've worked their way up the ladder and we're next."
"Can you tell me when they come into range?"
"Yessir. They fill my radical at a 1000 yds."
"OK! You see'um fill up that sight call range and when they fire. They aint gonna shoot us down. Pilot to crew. We're no longer in a B-17 we're in a P-40."
Tony Gruchawaka viewed this action from his right waist window. "I heard the instructions to call range when he estimated the fighter would launch the rockets. The co-operation between Southern and Forbes was outstanding. I hear on the intercom 'range! fire!' The right wing drops and where the wing and engine were I glimpse a rocket fly past and then explode in front of the plane. The explosion is so large I experience a total blackout as we fly through it. -'Range! Fire!' Wing drops, rocket passes, explosion, blackout. -'Range! Fire' Wing drops, rocket passes, explosion, blackout. -'Range! Fire' Wing drops, rocket passes, explosion, blackout. -I stop counting… The action stops. The fighters take off. I put my head out the window to look around and surprise! Directly below me is a Me109 with pilot looking us over. We make eye contact. I point the barrel down and open fire. Every fifth round is a tracer. I see one go through the wing the next is half the distance closer to the pilot. He noses down and disappears."
"I looked out over my top turret in time to see a 109 with a yellow spiral on the spinner pull up parallel with us. I couldn't fire because of the cut-out cams that kept the turret guns from firing into the wings and vertical stabilizer. The ball turret had the same problem. I think the German knew this."
"Forbes! You gonna let that SOB do that to you?"
"Sir you gotta drop your wing to let me shoot!"
The German didn't 'camp out'. He was gone before Southern could adjust. You know why he pulled up to us? He wanted to see why that plane was still flying. You know what he saw? NOT ONE HOLE IN THAT PLANE! When we landed the flight crew and ground crew checked for battle damage. THERE WAS NONE!"
If the gunners could have "tagged" the curious German, it would have brought their confirmed score for the day up to three.
The two Me109s that were confirmed were credited to the ball turret gunner, Virgil Lazar, who shared one with the tail gunner S/Sgt. Cleo "Chuck" Corley. Corley had entered the service just after his seventeenth birthday. The Army Air Force didn't find out his age until he became an ace, somewhere around his 48th mission. 
CO Brad Evans went to bat for him and they decided to let him complete his tour. This mission was his 50th. He returned home only to return to fly 48 more missions.
Forbes recounts, "Nine days after Padua, on a mission to Klagenfurt, Austria, Lazar was KIA. On the same mission (my 33rd) the lead plane, in which Southern and I were flying, was hit by an  accurate 88mm. Southern regained control out of a 360 clean circle and started down at about a 15 degree decline gaining speed and blowing the fire out from the remaining fuel. Only after the entire crew had exited the stricken aircraft did Southern bail out. It was then the wing spar, weakened from the intense fire, gave way. As we were coming down he was a distance from me. When his chute opened I could see an Me109 making passes, with 7.9 ammo firing. The partisans retrieved Southern's body and reported to me that his life jacket was full of bullet holes. Southern was buried in a small cemetery near Klagenfurt, Austria. Forbes evaded capture. Over a period of 8 weeks he walked through Yugoslavia with the help of the partisans. Gruchawaka was also shot down on a later mission.
December 8, 1999 2nd Lt. Clarence W. Southern's actions for mission #157 were honored with the DFC, posthumously. This
art work is dedicated to his memory.
Lt. Southern's plane Wabash Cannon
in a Prismacolor pencil drawing by
Hayne Coleman named
"Range! Fire!"

Back to 96th Squadron