Harper Zoller and the crew of the "Lady Luck"

By Bob Zoller
Longmont, Colorado

Harper Filer Zoller Jr. (my uncle, nicknamed "Buster") grew up in Detroit and graduated from MacKenzie High School in 1936. In late 1942, with the outbreak of WWII, my uncle Buster joined the Army Air Corp. to serve his country like so many others.

His first training assignment was the Harlingen Army Gunnery School, in Harlingen, Texas in Dec 1942. At this school he was trained in shooting 50 cal. aircraft guns and was subjected to pressure chamber tests equaling an attitude of 38,000 feet to simulate high altitude flying. He graduated with a good record on Dec 19 and was promoted to Sergeant. He was then shipped off to Lowry Field in Denver, Colo. to attend the Army's course on gun, bomb, bombrack and turret maintenance. In March he attended his crew and flight training at Davis-Monthan Field in Tucson, Arizona and was assigned with the 60th Bombardment Sqd., 39th Bombardment Grp. In this assignment his unit did a lot of flying, once in the early morning and once in the afternoon, 4 hour hops each. In one of his letters home he described losing an engine, and nearly being hit by another plane on the runway - all in one day!

S/Sgt. Harper F. Zoller

Harper F. Zoller
N. Africa - Aug. 1943

Buster's last training assignment was flight/crew phase training at Biggs Field in El Paso, Texas in April 1943 with the Crowder Prov. Grp., 459th Bomb Sqd. It was here in early May that he was assigned his B-24 crew under Lt. Curelli. His crew flew many cross country hops. One hop was to Gulfport, Miss., then on to Kelly Field and then returning to Biggs Field. In May during some exercises, two planes collided at night during a severe storm killing 17 men. He described that in his own plane, the pilot that night had them all looking out their windows for other planes during this severe storm.

After completing this phase of training near the end of June, the Army Air Corp. sent the crew off to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up a new B-24D at the plant there. It was here that they filled out power of attorney papers and wills before going overseas. Harper and his crew left Lincoln Ne. along with the Crowder Provisional Group of 40 planes and flew over to England via Bangor, Me. and Newfoundland, leaving Bangor, Me. on about July 6. It was raining and there was a good wind when they arrived in England. They had a very good navigator which lead them right to their correct base in England which was not easy since bases were 1 and 2 miles apart in that area. They may have had 2 more weeks of gunnery training and then were sent to North Africa via Morocco and with a stayover possibly in Tunis before arriving in Benghazi, Libya.

During his last two months my uncle Buster probably didn't receive any letters from home since the mail couldn't keep up with his unit. In his last letters home he wasn't able to say at all what was going on or even make a hint of where they were since all their mail was censored. Therefore he found it difficult to write since he couldn't say anything. But all of this didn't stop him from writing home to his family. Without getting anything in return, he still continued to write. This is a good indication of the wonderful and thoughtful person that he was.

A few days before Aug. 1, 1943, his crew moved onto Benina Main in Bengazi, Libya in North Africa, with the 44th Bomb Group, 506th Bomb Squadron. He described weather as very hot and the water bad. They were at Benina Main on August 1, 1943 at the time of the great Ploesti, Romania Oil Field Mission but were apparently without a plane and therefore did not take part. After the Ploesti mission they helped to search for missing crews from the mission. On August 4th they were reassigned to the 66th Sqd. due to the losses suffered by the 66th during the Ploesti mission, the 506th didn’t loose any aircraft.

During the morning of August 1, 1943, day of the Ploesti mission, there was another crew, Pilot Tom Scriven's crew, who was preparing to take their ship, "Lady Luck" #41-23778 F in the air. They encountered mechanical problems or overfueling on "Lady Luck", so they had to switch over to another plane, "Scrappy II". Unfortunately, "Scrappy II" was lost and all were killed at the target over Ploesti. This left "Lady Luck" without a crew and this is how Lt. Curelli and his crew (Buster's crew) were assigned to the "Lady Luck" . This plane, #41-23778 F, once named "Jenny" was first piloted by another crew and had quite a history. Walter Patrick and Harold Samuelian were one time crew members of this B-24 and told me its story. They had already completed over 25 missions before the Ploesti mission and therefore did not take part in that mission. The aircraft #41-23778 F was one of the 1st B-24's sent over to England by the 44th Bomb Group in Sept. 1942. The plane's first mission was to Abbeyville, France on Dec. 12, 1942. It was also in the very first bombing mission into Germany in WWII over Wilhelmshaven, the German U Boat base, on Jan 27, 1943. On this mission, the plane barely made it home after being badly shot up (approx. 200 holes in it !) and having hydraulic problems. As pilot Jim Kahl was transferred and Tom Scriven became pilot the crew renamed the aircraft to "Lady Luck", a name which came from a London (Barksdale Field) restaurant napkin given to Walter Hazelton, (a crew member) by his girlfriend.

Uncle Buster’s crew’s 1st mission in this aircraft was a very long one from N. Africa to an aircraft factory in Wiener Neustadt, Austria on Aug. 13. Buster was the rear hatch gunner on this mission. Their second mission was to bomb the Airdrome at Foggia, Italy on August 16, 1943 during this mission Buster was in the position of tail gunner. Most of the bombers were attacked from the rear. This was the very day the German forces were retreating from Sicily to over to the toe of Italy. Previous flights were "milk runs" but on this day, the Germans had been moving forces around and they met the American bombers with everything they could put up in the air. A total of 25 bombers left Benina Main at 0430, reached the target at 1033 and were attacked by large numbers of Me 109's, Ju88's and Fock Wolf 190's. 7 to 8 (or about a third of the planes) were shot down including some of the most famous planes from the Ploesti Oil Field mission only two weeks before. Buster's (Harper's) plane was lost near Routi, Italy.

 

Crew of the "Lady Luck" in training
Biggs Field, TX May/June 1943
Lady Luck (#41-23778-F),
44th Bomb Group about April 1943

The following account was made by Wesley Zimmerman , the only survivor:

"Contrary to the MACR report, I do not recall our ship being hit by flak. After passing over the target and dropping our bombs, one of the engines went out due to an extreme oil leak. When this #3 engine failed and we fell out of formation, that is when we were hit by enemy fighters. After several direct hits from the fighters, we tried to get out of the plane, but could not. The main hydraulic system would not operate, and we couldn't get the bomb bay doors open in order to jump. At this point, Sgt. Grinde, engineer, went out the sliding door to the bomb bay without a parachute on, to try to open the bomb bay doors manually. This was the time that the ship went into a dive or spin and the sliding door came down and we could not get out. Since I was on the flight deck I don't know if any of the crew in the rear got out before the plane exploded. But when it did explode - which I think it was caused by the fire in that burning engine reaching the gas tanks - I was somehow blown clear, and opened my chute and came down safely. I had several small cuts on my head and arms, and was black and blue over most of my body for two or three weeks. I was taken prisoner by the Italians and was in several camps before escaping and returning to Africa - and later back to England, and then the States. Also contrary to the reports, I saw only one other chute and that landed several hundred yards from where I did. I went to it and it was Lt. Curelli but he was dead."

Two men in the town of Routi, Italy, stated that the plane seemed to partly explode in mid-air and several crew members were seen to parachute from the plane. When these two men arrived at the scene of the crash and landing parachutists, they saw several civilians taking many articles, such as watches, rings and even identification papers from the bodies. Only five of the nine bodies could be identified due to these thefts. They were Lts. Curelli and Papadopulos, Sgts. Hughes, Grinde and Shafer.

The crew were first buried in Routi, Italy then were later moved in 1944 to a military cemetery in Bari, Italy. Finally my Grandpa and Grandma had my Uncle Buster moved to his final resting place at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, Michigan.

At first my father, Jim Zoller knew very little of what happened his brother. In the past few years we were very fortunate to receive letters from Walter Patrick and Harold Samuelian who were previous crew members. They were kind enough to give me the previous and interesting history of #41-23778 F known as "Jenny" then "Lady Luck". Also we were able to contact Mrs. Wesley Zimmerman (wife of the only survivor). Then in 1998 I received a letter from Bob Blakeney from who I was able to learn a great deal. He was flying as waist gunner in "Black Sheep" flying alongside and even facing "Lady Luck" on August 16, 1943 as she went down near the target. His B-24 was heavily damaged and crash landed on a beach at Reggio de Calabria. Five were killed in the landing and Bob was taken prisoner by the Italians. Bob was in prison in the Sulmona, Italy camp PG-78 and then was able to escape with another crew member, John Hess. They spent about 6 weeks crossing the Italian frontier before coming onto the safety of the Canadian lines.

2nd Crew of the "Lady Luck" #41-23778 F

Crew of the "Black Sheep" #42 - 41021 T

Rocco A. Curelli, PilotBiddeford, MaineKIACarl S. Hager, PilotPOW
John G. Papadopulos, Copilot Salt Lake City, UtahKIARobert E. Pimentel, CopilotKIA
Walter Rossi, NavigatorBronx, N.Y.KIAWallace P. Baker, NavigatorKIA
Victor T. Torrou, BombardierFalls Church, Va.KIAJohn D. Mills, BombardierKIA
John H. Grinde, EngineerMorrisonville, Wisc.KIAFrancis X. Curry, EngineerKIA
Wesley L. Zimmerman, Radio OprWinston Salem, N.C.POW Howard C. Woods, Radio OperatorKIA
Deforest L. Ela, Radio Op/GunnerQuincy, MassKIAIsabelino Dones, GunnerPOW
Raymond C. Shafer, Engr/GunnerAnderson, IndKIARobert W. Blakeney, Waist GunnerPOW
John R. Hughes, Waist GunnerBogeta, N.J.KIAJohn M. Hess, Waist GunnerPOW
Harper F. Zoller, Tail GunnerDetroit, Mich.KIAHenry R. Farley, Tail GunnerPOW

 

44th Bomb Group

"The Flying Eightballs"

Written and dedicated to those who gave their lives in honor and protection of our country

Bob Zoller (nephew)

4060 Hawthorne Cir.

Longmont, Colo. 80503