Airplane mechanic fought for freedom

By CHARLIE SMITH,

Daniel R. Ford didn’t fly the planes or drop the bombs, but the young staff sergeant from Marion County played an equally important role in his squadron’s success.

During World War II he served as a mechanic in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the forerunner to the Air Force, and had a B-17 bomber, which carried about 12 soldiers, that he ensured was ready to fly.

“I was responsible for those people’s lives on that airplane coming back. It was very serious to do that,” he said. “In other words, those people on that airplane depended on that airplane staying in the air before it got back.”

And Ford didn’t let them down.

He was part of the 419th Bomb Squadron in the 301st Flying Fortress Bombardment Group, which he describes as a “pioneer” group that ended up being one of the longest-serving in the European theater of operations. They rained down terror upon the Axis powers for some three years all over Europe and North Africa, completing 464 precision bombing missions, dropping 28,000 tons of explosives and destroying 417 enemy planes in the air.

Now 75 years after he finished his war service, Ford is 100 years old. He has trouble seeing and moves on a motorized scooter, but his mind is sharp, recalling details from the war instantly. And he’s friendly and open to talking about his long and eventful life.

He was born on May 16, 1919 (the year World War I ended) just down the road from where he lives now in a home he built himself off East Marion School Road. His family farmed corn, cotton and vegetables and also traveled a lot when he was young as his father, Reese Ford, helped build roads throughout the country. Ford followed in those steps, building roads as far away as California through the Civilian Conservation Corps.

“When Pearl Harbor happened, the president declared war on Europe and Japan. That’s about when I got drafted,” Ford said. “I wasn’t worried about it. I knew I was supposed to go.”

Arriving at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg after entering the service on Sept. 24, 1941, he was told he would receive a paycheck of $24 per month in the Army or $30 per month in the Air Force.

“I said, ‘I’ll take the Air Force,’” he recalls. “I enjoyed doing what I was doing.”

“They sent me to Patterson, New Jersey, to study Wright engines and then they sent me from there to Sarasota, Florida, and I got familiar with the B-17s,” he said. “Then they sent us back north, and we got on the Queen Elizabeth. It took us two weeks from when we sailed out to get to Glasgow, Scotland. And we stayed there, and we took the train over to Kettering, England.”

Ford recalls walking down the streets of London and seeing where bombs had taken off half of a house. Balloons hung up from buildings to prevent German bombers from getting down close.

In England they formed the 8th Air Force and began their bombing, but some were skeptical they’d find success.

“An Englishman says, ‘Ain’t none of those B-17s coming back.’ What they didn’t realize is we had 50-caliber machines on our airplanes, had 14 of them flying in formation at 20,000 feet. And we had a bomb site, at 20,000 feet, that bomber if he knew what he was doing he could hit a barrel on the ground,” Ford said.

They had German fighters, which had 30-caliber machine guns, outgunned.

“They couldn’t get to us. All 14 airplanes come back with one little hole in one wing,” he said.

The B-17 bombers would take off about daylight and could stay in the air for up to 14 hours.

“We were supposed to be there when it took off, be there when it come back,” Ford said of the mechanics’ roles. “The rest of the time was our free time; sometimes we worked all night getting one airplane ready to go back in the air the next day.”

From their beginning in England, the group headed to North Africa. Ford recalls a rough ride, leaving on Thanksgiving Day in 1942 and having rough seas on the Mediterranean. They were told if they got out on the deck, they might not come back, he said.

“We landed at Oran, North Africa, and we took a troop train out to the Bizerte Desert. That’s where the dive bombers found us,” he said. “First time we flew a mission, I dug me a hole to get in. Then the dive bombers come over here, and I got in the hole. Somebody said, ‘There was two people on top of you while you were in the hole.’ I said, ‘I don’t care how many people was on top of me!’ I got tired of getting out of bed and getting back in the foxhole, so I dug my hole and put my pup tent over it.”

Although Ford laughs about the experience now, the North Africa campaign was a difficult one for troops, who faced desert conditions with few amenities.

Ford recalls dust storms so strong that you couldn’t see your feet, and declassified Air Force documents about the 12th Air Force, which had been formed when they arrived in North Africa, describing the quarters, food and general living conditions as “abominable.” All personnel slept in pup tents; there were no bathing facilities or heating. Water had to be carried from a large, open well a mile away from the camp and chemically sterilized, and dysentery was an ever-present danger.

But the Allied forces eventually triumphed over the Germans and Italians in North Africa, and Ford and company moved to Italy in the spring of 1943 as the noose slowly tightened around the Axis powers. There they formed the 15th Air Force, and for Ford and the troops it meant they finally had some real tents to sleep in.

After some three years in the service, he got a week’s pass in Rome.

“We got in the airplane going to Rome. The navigator says, ‘You going to navigate from here to Rome?’ Says, ‘Anybody can get from here to Rome.’  We flew along awhile, flying between these mountains. You know how mountains are: You see a mountain up here and a mountain over there, and we were kind of weaving through them to stay out of radar. First thing we know, we hit a fog bank. Wait a couple of seconds, come out of that fog bank. Flew along, we hit another fog bank. Couple of seconds, we come out of it. And we hit another fog bank and didn’t come out. That pilot reached over and put all four throttles wide open, and he headed up. We came out at 9,000 feet. Didn’t know where we was. Finally we found a hole in the cloud and come back down through them, and still didn’t know where we was. We went up the coast there for a while, and didn’t see nothing but bomb craters, and we turned around and went the other way and found Rome.”

He toured St. Peter’s Cathedral and the catacombs, quite a sight for a farm boy from Marion County.

After Allied victory in Europe, Ford got 30 days off back in the United States and both met and married his wife, Mary Katherine “Kitty” Gardner, during that month.

“Well, I didn’t have much time,” Ford says with a laugh. “I didn’t ask her if we were going to get married, I said, ‘When are we going to get married?’ She looked up, rolled them eyes and looked at me. She give a date, next day or the day after one. That was up in Bassfield.”

They were married 53 years until her death and had one daughter, who lives with Ford in his home today.

Ford was honorably discharged on Sept. 3, 1945. He first worked for the county building roads and then worked for about 10 years as a trucker, delivering wholesale goods to country stores. He then spent 26 years with Barnes Truck Line until he retired.

“I was just glad when the war was over,” he says when asked what he’s most proud of about his wartime service.

He has an equally simple philosophy about the cause of he and his fellow World War II servicemen: “We was fighting for freedom.” 

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