Richard Bailey: Cool and calm while soaring and surviving in combat


Age: 93

Residence: Kennesaw

Service: U.S. Army/Air Forces, B-26 bomber pilot, 9th Air Force, 322nd Bomb Group, 450th Bomb Squadron

Hoping to follow in the footsteps of his aviation hero Jimmy Doolittle, Richard Bailey took his first solo flight at age 17 at a Binghamton, N.Y., airport. It was thousands of miles away from where he eventually flew 65 combat missions in Europe during World War II.

He arrived in England in early 1944 as a second lieutenant after months of training in the United States and ended up flying three missions on D-Day.

Bailey said many of his missions were uneventful and forgettable, despite the obvious, constant threats. That was even the case with his first and last missions. He doesn’t remember the locations or the targets.

But the 64th mission, which he flew on Dec. 23, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, was anything but ordinary. His crew was ordered to bomb a bridge in Germany and encountered a great deal of resistance. Bailey said he could see tracer bullets just over the top of the cockpit.

At one point during the formation, Bailey said a German ME 109 pulled right between his plane and the U.S. lead plane.

“He couldn’t have been more than 25 or 30 feet away. You could see his face, square goggles. In hindsight, I wish my co-pilot had opened the window and shot at him with his .45. … I don’t know how long the guy was there, probably 15 to 20 seconds, it wasn’t very long. But it seemed like forever. Then swish, and he was gone.”

Fortunately for Bailey and his crews, they were never shot down. But if they had been, he remembered being given some unique instructions.

“They told us, ‘If you take a hit and you have to bail out over France, give your parachute and your .45 to the nearest Frenchman. If he’s not a member of the Underground, he knows somebody that is. And then they will try to hide you, take care of you and try to get you back to your base in England. If you have to bail out over Germany, unless you’re close to the border, don’t try to escape, because if the SS finds you they’ll kill you on sight. Avoid the civilians because they’re not happy about being bombed and they’ll probably kill you with pitchforks. The (German) Army may or may not take you prisoner because they’re unpredictable … it’s best to see if you can find your way to a Luftwaffe base and give yourself up. We have never had any reports about mistreatment of our air crews by the Luftwaffe bases.’”

They also received some unorthodox tips about how to behave while being interrogated.

“They told us, ‘The best technique we have found is, don’t look around the room, avoid eye contact with the interrogator and, no matter where he goes, stare at his fly. It works.’ It makes the interrogator self-conscious and uneasy. It will usually shorten the interrogation.”

Bailey suffered few injuries during the war even though his plane, called Pappy’s Pram, sustained small holes at times due to debris and had its hydraulic system damaged on a mission. On one occasion, when his windshield was shot out, Bailey received small puncture wounds, and his face and hands were “a bloody mess.”

“So (the flight surgeon) says, ‘Dick, you want a Purple Heart?’ And I said, ‘No, Doc,’ because I was thinking there are guys who have lost their arm or a leg, or worse. They’re the ones, in my opinion, who should get the Purple Heart. … He said, ‘So you don’t want a Purple Heart? Good, it will save me the paperwork.’”

Bailey and his crew flew visual missions, with the objective being to “isolate the battlefield” in France in preparation for the Allied invasion. Their targets were tactical, as they focused on bridges, air fields, ammunition dumps and highway intersections. On D-Day, Bailey flew three missions over Omaha Beach in Normandy.

Bailey, who refers to himself as “not a particularly emotional type of guy,” said he never really suffered anxiety or tension before or after missions. He described his approach to making friends during his service succinctly.

“I think the average guy flying combat maintained his distance from everybody else. Not that we weren’t friendly or cooperative … but at the same time, you’re on guard not to get too close because he might not be there after the next mission.”

Bailey was given the opportunity to bypass his 65th and final mission in lieu of a trip to the front lines as a liaison to the ground troops. He declined, wary of “some German sniper blowing my head off.” So he made his final World War II flight in January 1945, then packed his bags for a long-awaited trip home to the U.S. aboard the Queen Mary.

Since Adolf Hitler had placed a bounty on the famous ship for any German U-boat that could sink it, the voyage across the North Atlantic Ocean was not without tension. A destroyer escorted the ship for a day and a half, then patrol bombers circled the ship for the final portion of the trip to keep it safe. Bailey and his shipmates finally arrived in New York City four days later.

After a two-week leave, the New York native was sent to Atlantic City for reassignment. When the war in Europe ended in April 1945, Bailey said he was unemotional upon hearing the news.

“We knew it was coming, so I don’t have any special memories of it.”

But he was relieved, “particularly for the ground troops. In my opinion, they were really taking the brunt of things. … I was just glad I was in the air service. I was relieved and thankful for them.”

After the war: After rising to the rank of first lieutenant, Bailey opted to leave the military a few months after the war ended and eventually earned his engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. He then worked for different companies in multiple states as an engineer before retiring in 1996 at age 73. He moved from California to Georgia four years ago to live with his son, Don, and his family.