By Rich Brown
Time has not healed all wounds for Lewis Getchell.
Even though it has been 69 years since the Joplin man went on World War II bombing raids over Germany, mental and emotional scars remain.
At 92 years of age, Getchell continues to be haunted by dreams of his 28 missions as a waist gunner on a B-24 bomber.
“It’s just always there in the back of my mind,” said Getchell, who has also found it hard to shake the memory of last year’s deadly tornado, which destroyed his home. “There were too many close calls in the war and if it had not been for the good Lord, I would not be here today.”
Although Getchell, a native of Colorado, knew he would likely be putting his life on the line for his country when he was drafted by the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, he couldn’t have imagined what would transpire as he began his preparations for war.
After being sent to a number of schools, one of which was three months of training in an airplane, Getchell was shipped to England, along with nine other men, to make up a 10-man crew for B-24 missions over Germany.
“When we pulled into that first airfield in England, a guy came to greet us and said he had something to show us,” said Getchell, who moved to Wentworth in 1980 at the invitation of his son before finally settling in Joplin. “That is when we saw the famous Memphis Belle, which was everything and even worse than you could have imagined. It was all shot up and terrible looking.
“It made us realize what we were getting into. Even though they had told us, it didn’t sink in until we saw that plane.”
Assigned to one of the newer B-24s, Getchell and his crew named their plane “Happy Go Lucky.”
Winter was coming on when Getchell and his crew began their raids, but no matter how cold it was on the ground, the temperatures at which the “Happy Go Lucky” flew were much more severe.
“Probably the worst thing we had to deal with on our missions was the weather,” Getchell said. “On an average, it was around 35 degrees below zero all the time.”
He said it was even degrees below zero on one of their missions. And, needless to say, they were warned to never take off their gloves, even though Getchell said that became almost impossible when it came to firing his machine gun.
“Our pants were lined with sheepskin and were very bulky, and you had to have gloves like that, too,” he said.
Another problem in dealing with the frigid temperatures was oxygen masks, which had to be worn at all times. The masks had long tubes attached to them that fastened into the oxygen system on the plane. Crew members had to guard against moisture collecting in the tubes because if it did, it would freeze, cutting off life-giving oxygen.
As if it weren’t enough for the airmen to have to deal with the extreme cold onboard, they had even more harrowing experiences coming at them outside their bomber. It had to do with flak — bullets shot from the ground that were timed to scatter everywhere upon explosion.
Each time the crew went out it was common for them to return the plane to base with an average of 75 to 150 bullet holes, with the worst being up to 800, Getchell said.
On one occasion over Berlin, flak caught up with the crew, putting an engine out of commission and causing it to catch on fire.
“The next few seconds after that we dropped from 25,000 feet to 10,000 feet after the pilot called over the intercom that we were going down,” Getchell said. “All of us onboard were aware that whenever planes such as ours got hit and were going down, it was rare that anyone ever got out alive.
“Looking at that dive, I could see that our plane could never pull out of it without tearing the wings off. But it did. Somehow the fire went out and the good Lord pulled us out of it.”
In all the excitement and horror, Getchell forgot an important rule regarding emergency dives, and he paid the consequences.
“I did not get my ears equalized, and that was a bad mistake,” he said. “If I had just put my fingers into my ears and built up pressure, I would have been all right.”
Both eardrums were ruptured. That would have been reason enough for Getchell to be grounded, but since he did not tell anyone, he was back flying again the following day.
B-24 crews such as Getchell’s faced not only danger from flak but German fighter planes.
“Those fighter planes would come down usually from about 35,000 feet about 500 miles an hour, and they would zip by,” Getchell said. “They would usually be right on us when we got close to our target area.”
Getchell, who was in charge of all 10 of the B-24’s guns, said he remembers two German fighters being shot down by his crewmen. Getchell was one of two waist gunners who took up positions at the windows. Most of the crewmen, such as mechanics or radio men, were double-trained so they could man the remaining guns.
Although the “Happy Go Lucky” flew 28 missions, its crew was given credit for 30 because of the extremely dangerous circumstances under which it flew.
On their final mission, Getchell said, he and his crew were sent out across the English Channel with an urgency like no other.
“I don’t know if it was psychological or what, but it seemed like so many went down on that last mission,” he said. “We dropped our bombs, took a few bursts of flak and quickly returned, ready to go home.”
Although none of the “Happy Go Lucky” crew members were killed during those 28 missions, their navigator died when another plane he was transferred to went down.
As for the successors to Getchell and the other nine members in his crew, their fight for freedom came to a tragic end. The bullet-riddled “Happy Go Lucky” made its final descent into the churning waters of the North Sea.