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Local WWII veteran pens book about his air combat experiences

Feb 20, 2020 11:23AM

By Alan Hodge

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One of the most exciting, and hazardous, duties a military person could do during WWII was to fly combat missions in a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. Not only did local veteran and author Charles Richardson, 96, do such a thing, he lived to tell about it in his new book “35 Missions to Hell and Back: A Mighty 8th Air Force 390th Bomb Group (H) History”.

The book did not get written overnight as Richardson explains.

“For fifty years my family wanted me to talk about what I did in the war, but I resisted,” Richardson said. “They said, dad, we want it in your own words, how you grew up and what you experienced.”

Finally, Richardson relented and started writing.

“My wife had some medical issues and every night after I put her to bed I would sit up and write,” he  said. “It took me 35 years to complete the book.”

Richardson begins his story explaining how he grew up in Mecklenburg County and how he came to join the U.S. Army Air Corps in early 1943. He goes on to describe his training experiences in places as far flung as South Carolina, Texas, and Nebraska before  finally being based at Framlingham, England where his outfit- the 390th Bomb Group- would fly its missions from.

And what missions they were. Reading Richardson’s recollections of  the 35 missions he took part in over Europe as a radio operator on a B-17 named “Good Ol’ Yank” makes you feel as if you are actually part of the crew being shot at by German anti-aircraft guns and fighter planes. An especially hairy experience that Richardson relates was the time when a bomb got “hung up” in the plane and he had to walk a narrow aluminum plank across the bomb bay and try to kick it loose- with nothing but about 20,000 feet of air between himself and the ground.

“I faced death many times,” Richardson said. “I can still remember seeing a dozen German fighter planes coming at us with their guns blazing.”

When he wasn’t fighting, Richardson and his crewmen had some fun too. Times he writes about fondly includes getting to know the English people “they were very kind to us”, as well as a jaunt to the Italian  Riviera. Less glamorous, was the flight he and his guys made to Russia where food consisted of bread the texture and color of cordwood with sour goat milk to wash it down with.

“That was awful,” he says.

Eventually, Richardson’s combat flying tour was over and he boarded a ship to come home. The book traces his experience of going from traveling for the most part in a B-17 to being crammed on a ship with thousands of other men. 

“When we got on the ship they made us take anything we had like German pistols or flags and throw them overboard,” Richardson said. “It looked like a waterfall of things.”

In his bag, Richardson had the seeds of his book.

“As radio operator I had to write a report after every mission,” he said. “I made copies for myself and hid them in a jacket I had in the bag. When they inspected my bag they ran a pointed rod through it, but it didn’t  hit metal and they said I was OK. I got away with it.”

This book will appeal to a wide range of readers. Obviously, those with an interest in WWII, especially the aviation aspect, will want to read it for its incredibly detailed descriptions of air combat action. But 35 Missions to Hell and Back is more than a memoir of fighting and flying, it’s also about Richardson’s love of his wife Elita and the challenges they faced- and overcame- during wartime. It’s about a member of the Greatest Generation and how he stepped up and did his duty. It’s about a guy from North Carolina having the most memorable time of his young life.

“I want people to learn we fought for something we believed in,” he said. “We were scared, but glad we did what we did.”

When Richardson’s daughter, Carol Dudley of Belmont, talks about her father,  the pride in her voice is obvious. 

“He told me his faith and love of country kept him going,” Dudley says. “He helped  me understand what a wonderful country we have.”

35 Missions to Hell and Back is currently available for sale on the Amazon, Walmart, and Barnes and Noble websites. It will be in bookstores in April.

Meanwhile, Richardson is working on a a couple more books, one about P-51 Mustangs over Japan. Stay tuned.