Aviators were generally envied by ground troops fighting World War II. At the end of the day, the "fly boys" came back to a shower, a hot meal, and a warm bed. If they came back, that is. It was probably safer in a foxhole than flying a combat mission. Robert Cassity, 89, who lives on Zuffle Hollow Road, off Ohio 73 just west of Elks Country Club golf course, has an opinion on that. He was a gunner on a B-24 that was shot down after a bombing mission on German oil fields. The plane was on fire when he bailed out over Yugoslavia. Guerrilla fighters shepherded him into the mountains and saved him from death or capture by occupying German forces, even though the U.S. military gave him up for dead. In the Army Air Force in Europe, nearly 10,000 bombers - each carrying a crew of 10 - were shot down during the war. U.S. factories turned out 12,000 B-17s and 18,000 B-24s during the war. The B-17 carried 6,000 pounds of bombs and the B-24 8,000 pounds. They could fly 300 miles per hour, but that wasn't fast enough to escape the German fighter planes or the flak from the antiaircraft guns. George McGovern, later to become a U.S. senator, piloted a B-24 "Liberator" on many bombing missions over Germany. He came home from one mission with more than 100 holes ripped in the fuselage from flak. ENTER BOB CASSITY There weren't many jobs to be found around New Boston when Robert Cassity graduated from Glenwood High School in 1939. Cassity enlisted in the Army Air Force on Nov. 17, 1941. "I knew the Army would get me anyway," he said, "and, yes, I thought it would be safer in the air corps than on the ground." He wound up as a radio operator and a tailgunner on a B-24. In the early part of 1944, Cassity and his crew were in on many an air raid as the concentrated might of U.S. Eighth, Ninth, 12th and 15th Army Air Forces focused on Germany's oil refineries and industrial centers. In the weeks leading up to D-Day - June 6, 1944 - they were bombing German gun emplacements and railroads to help pave the way for the invasion. They returned from one mission on a wing and a prayer, but parachuted safely over home base while sending the plane on to crash into the ocean. On D-Day itself, they were with a squadron sent on a bombing raid to Ploesti, in Romania, which produced more than half of the Third Reich's fuel supply. It was Cassity's 27th - and last - bombing mission. "Ploesti was a great oil field until we dropped our bombs," Cassity said in an interview with Portsmouth Daily Times reporter L.W. Burns in May of 1945, after Germany had surrendered and the war in Europe had ended. "We could see the smoke and flame reflection for 75 miles. We turned it into an inferno of flaming oil and wrecked derricks." With their bomb load gone, they turned and headed home. German fighters roared up and followed the formation. "There were 25 to 30 of them coming in from all sides," Cassity said. One came so close to him, he could make out the features on the pilot's face. He told Burns that day he was manning the machine gun in the nose of his B-24. "A Focke-Wulf came directly in front of my bomber. He literally blew up in my face when the tailgunner in the bomber ahead of me let him have both barrels from the tailgun." Cassity said every gun on his bomber was blazing. "We received official credit for downing four German fighters," he said. But he said his ship had taken a lot of lead, too, in a battle that lasted 45 minutes. "First, our No. 4 engine was shot out. Then, a 40-mm shell hit the middle of our ship and bounced us around considerably." Next, they lost the Nos. 2 and 3 engines. The pilot managed to keep the plane up until the crew was assembled at the bail-out spot. That was Yugoslavia down below, German-held Yugoslavia. Cassity said the plane was in flames when he bailed out. They all 10 got out, with the pilot the last one to leave the ship. He said the pilot came down among German patrols and was machine-gunned to death as he hang helplessly in his chute. "Ground troops fired on the rest of us, but no one else was hit as we landed," Cassity, who suffers now from Alzheimer's disease, told Burns in the 1945 interview. "A man, woman and boy from a nearby village rushed out and led some of us into the woods, where we escaped the German soldiers." Of the 10 who parachuted out of the burning plane, one was killed, one taken prisoner and four were missing in action. Cassity and three others escaped, thanks to the Chetniks, members of a guerrilla force in the Balkans, a loose alliance formed in 1934 by Yugoslavia, Romania, Greece and Turkey. Cassity said his group's first thought was to make their way to Turkey, but after studying their pocket maps, they decided it would be impossible to make it over the high mountains. They headed in the direction of Belgrade, capital of Yugoslavia. Cassity said they were trudging through a mountain pass when they met the Chetniks. "Two bearded beauties, concealed in the bushes, jumped out and seized us. They resembled a walking arsenal - machine guns, pistols, knives and hand grenades," Cassity said. They couldn't understand their captors and their captors couldn't understand them. They were examined by a captain, a native Frenchman, who spoke a little English, "He recognized 'Ohio' on my dogtag and after that the Chetniks, realizing we were Americans fighting the Germans, were friendly." Cassity and the other Americans spent about two months in the mountains with the Chetniks, changing camp every day and traveling only at night. Once he and his buddies helped the Chetniks take over a German radio station. Cassity sent out several messages of their predicament. After two months in enemy territory, they returned safely to Allied control. The Army had them listed as missing in action. As a 25-year-old Tech. Sgt., Cassity won the Silver Star, one of the Army's highest awards for heroism, for his part in the bombing mission on vital Rumanian oil fields and the parachute ride into Yugoslavia. He also was awarded the Purple Heart, the Aerial Combat Medal and the Air Medal. Cassity said he had trouble for a while convincing military communicators that he had come out of enemy territory alive. He said he was home on leave with his sister, Maud Calvert, at 724 Lakeview Ave., New Boston, when the War Department sent a message that he had been killed in Action. He returned to Lockbourne Army Air Base near Columbus and got the record straightened out, and was later given his honorable discharge. He and his wife, the former Harriet Zuffle, have a son, Dr. Timothy R. Cassity, who is in microbiology at Southern Ohio Medical Center, and a daughter, Candace Cassity Chatfield, a nurse in Columbus. They have six grandchildren - Heather, Amy and Meghan, all of Columbus; and Robert, Katie and Kari, all of Portsmouth.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.