WASHINGTON – Nazi fighters pounced from the clouds on the U.S. B-24 bomber, Problem Child as it struggled to return home after a bombing run deep inside enemy territory June 24, 1944.
The luck that had carried William Hathaway and his fellow crew members this far disappeared in a barrage of bullets and anti-aircraft fire.
The torrent knocked out an engine, and several pieces of shrapnel struck Hathaway in the back.
“It just felt like someone hit me hard in the back,” the 78-year-old said Friday, as he recalled the event for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross just last month.
“It was just a bunch of small pieces not much bigger than buckshot. I don’t think there was that much bleeding,” he said as if trying to revive a hazy part of his memory.
But the then-20-year-old navigator continued to shout out directions as he sat cradled in the damaged B-24.
Hathaway, who would later serve Maine as a U.S. congressman (1965-1973) and U.S. senator (1973-1979), said he was just doing his job that day in 1944. That job was to bomb the German’s heavily defended oil refinery in Ploesti, Romania, which helped fuel the Nazi war machine.
“Under any other circumstances, the normal person would have been frightened, but we just went about doing what we were supposed to do,” said Hathaway, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Force at the time. “I guess everyone just thinks their names aren’t on the bullets.”
But it’s the kind of experience you never forget – even if the military did for nearly six decades.
Only this year did the Air Force finally recognize Hathaway and his fellow crew members of the 514th Bomb Squadron for their bravery and courage with the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the nation’s highest military honors.
Remembering the mission, Hathaway said the Germans were ready for the Americans that day 58 years ago.
Anti-aircraft fire blackened the sky as 50 to 60 Messerschmidt fighters poured deadly fire into the group of about 40 B-24s miles before they arrived at their target.
Escorted by P-51 and P-36 fighters, however, the Americans persisted. Problem Child continued to its destination about 10 minutes away, but the bombardier couldn’t locate his target because the Germans had set up smoke screens to hide the facilities.
Rather than return home, the squadron commander turned back for a second flyover.
This time the bombs found their mark.
But the enemy fighters continued to pursue Problem Child and the remaining bombers as they fled the area.
Hathaway’s plane caught the worst of it.
“When you’re up in the air, you don’t hear it. There’s no noise,” Hathaway remembered. “Even when the anti-aircraft is exploding, you just see the black puffs of smoke. It’s sort of like a silent film. On one mission, I didn’t even hear the bursts that injured three of us, although I could feel a bullet whiz behind my neck.”
As Problem Child struggled to make the Turkish border, it was hit again and lost a second engine. The 11-member crew finally bailed out of the B-24 just 800 feet above enemy territory near Bucharest, Romania.
Two crew members died when their parachutes failed to open. Most of the others were rounded up in the Romanian countryside and taken prisoner.
Hathaway injured his leg when he landed just as a local farmer was running up to greet him.
“We bailed out so close to the ground, I could see his moustache when I was opening my parachute,” Hathaway recalled.
The farmer helped Hathaway climb onto an ox cart and assured him he would be returned safely to Italy – in exchange for the American’s watch.
Soon after, a Nazi officer took custody.
“I saw the farmer high-tailing it off up the street,” Hathaway said. “Not only did he get my watch, the Germans gave him an acre of land for every prisoner he turned in.”
The Germans took Hathaway to a prison in Bucharest where he stayed for several months until the Soviet Army drove the Germans away and released him.
The rest is history. After the war, Hathaway took advantage of the GI Bill and attended Harvard University. He then went to Harvard Law School and opened a law practice in Lewiston before being elected to Congress in 1965.
In 1972, the Democrat ran against Republican U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith and won. After a six-year term, Hathaway lost his re-election bid to Republican Sen. William Cohen, and left office in 1979.
Hathaway still takes pride in having crafted more than 200 pieces of legislation that were passed into law during his years in Congress. He also helped launch the career of another Maine politician – Gov. Angus King, an independent, who served as his legislative assistant.
King calls Hathaway “one of my life’s political mentors and heroes,” and recently placed a portrait of the former lawmaker in the State House Cabinet room alongside three other prominent Mainers – Margaret Chase Smith, Joshua Chamberlain and Percival Baxter.
King recalls once advising Hathaway on a vote that would be politically damaging because it favored safer conditions for workers over the interests of Maine canning companies.
“He’s one of the most genuine guys there is. He told me that he spends 12 hours a day figuring out between right and wrong and if he had to worry about politics, he would never get any sleep,” King recalled. “I’ve tried to emulate [that philosophy] of deciding what is right ever since.”
After his years in Congress, Hathaway became a lobbyist with the prestigious Washington law firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow, and later served as chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, which oversees commercial shipping.
Now retired and living with his wife, Mary, in McLean, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington, Hathaway still keeps up with his colleagues in Congress and maintains close friendships with liberals and conservatives alike – including Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and former Vice President Dan Quayle, a favorite golf partner.
It was in 1998 that he read about a crew member of another bomber, Ted Elman of Silver Spring, Md., who had recently received a Distinguished Flying Cross for the same mission over Romania.
“I want it; I’m entitled to it; and doggone it, I’m going to get it,” Elman told the Washington Post of his quest after finding out that other members of the squadron were honored with the medal.
Hathaway suddenly felt the same need – not only for himself, but also for the other Problem Child crewmembers who were overlooked.
It took years for Hathaway to finally convince the Air Force that he and his buddies deserved a medal, which has also been awarded to such heroic aviators as the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Erhardt.
Dick McDowell, the bombardier on the Problem Child during the Ploesti raid who now lives in Roanoke, Va., credits Hathaway for doggedly working to get crew members their deserved medals.
“My wife tells everyone she meets about it,” McDowell said in a telephone interview. “It’s a nice honor to get. It’s never too late.”
Apparently Hathaway agrees. “You know bureaucracy,” Hathaway said with a hint of weariness. “It may have been because we were shot down and taken prisoner – maybe something that fell through the cracks.”
On June 24, Air Force Secretary James Rouche honored Hathaway, McDowell and gunner Herman Hucke of Problem Child at Bowling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. Two other surviving members of the crew were unable to attend for health reasons, but they, along with family members of the deceased, also received medals.
“The crews knew, based on statistics, that some of their brethren would not be coming home that day,” Roche said during the ceremony. “They will tell you they did nothing heroic. What they did, though, was truly extraordinary.”