Denny Thompson: Life of a WWII Bombardier

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson September 15, 2016 21:39

denny-thompsonfn00046-sp16-edited“It was the damnedest sight you ever saw,” says Denny Thompson. “We followed a line of ships all the way across the English Channel, and when we flew over Omaha Beach, it looked like 10,000 water beetles hitting the sand down there.”

What Thompson and nine other crew members of his B-24 Liberator witnessed early that morning was the initial D-Day assault on the beaches of Normandy.

“We saw landing craft everywhere, and in behind the beach were all these gliders that had just landed …  crashed, really. A mass of them were in a huge field, most of them broken in two.

“It was pretty unbelievable for a young kid who until a year earlier hadn’t been anywhere,” Thompson recalls. “The long line of ships, many with barrage balloons tethered to them – it was beyond our imagination. We had some sense of what the soldiers down there were going through. But we kind of thought our bombing and the Navy’s had softened up the Germans more than it had.”

Thompson, only 21 at the time, sat in the bombardier’s seat as the B-24 passed over the beaches and gained altitude on its way to bomb German-held rail yards at a major crossroad near Lisieux, France.

That June 6, 1944 mission was his sixth from Lavenham, England to targets in Germany and France between May and November of that year. Before completing his 30th and final mission, he would be wounded twice and earn four Air Medals and two Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Lt. Denny Thompson at age 22

Lt. Denny Thompson at age 22

A bombardier’s job was to strap himself into the Plexiglas nose of a 65,000-pound plane, climb with it to an altitude of 25,000 feet, and then hit a precise target while moving at 250 mph, most often with constant flak bursts sending hot shrapnel around and often through the thin skin of the bomber.

What kind of a guy can do that?

In Thompson’s case, it’s the same kind of a guy who can flourish for 65 years as a commercial fisherman in the icy waters of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, and who can lead big game hunts for everything from grizzly bears to elephants in both Alaska and Africa.

The kind of American who grew up during the Depression and as a boy not only survived freezing Midwest winters but found ways to make money from them.

And the kind of guy who had a stripper at his 93rd birthday party.

The third of five children, Thompson was born in Fargo, North Dakota in 1922. His father was a cinder dick – rail cop – for the Great Northern Railroad, and after moving the family to central Minnesota did the same thing for the Northern Pacific.

At Staples High School, Thompson ran distance events for the track team, but says – peppering his comments with a favorite expletive – “I was so goddamn busy trying to make a few bucks, I didn’t do many sports. Everybody tried to work. The money helped the family.

“I cut grass, cleaned furnaces, shoveled snow … and I was a pretty famous trapper,” renowned, he says, for his high yield. “I’d go out at four or five in the morning and check my lines, then I’d go to school. I trapped mink, weasels, muskrats, skunks … any goddamn thing.”

At a skating rink his sophomore year, he met and began dating Jeany Lee, a girl from nearby Pillager. Upon graduation in 1940, Thompson took a job as a train clerk for the railroad in Staples. He would walk among thousands of cars in the 40-track rail yard marking down numbers to make up freight trains, often in weather that dipped to 40 below zero.

But he had higher ambitions.

Ever since a barnstormer landed in a nearby field and took 12-year-old Denny for a one-dollar ride – paid for by a buddy’s physician-father – he had wanted to fly. In 1942 he joined the Aviation Cadets, continued to work for the railroad and waited to be called to active service in the U.S. Army Air Forces, which sponsored the Cadet program.

The call came late that year. After basic training in Omaha, Thompson went to San Antonio to train as a pilot, bombardier and navigator.

“They told us if we wanted to get to the war fast, we should go to bombardier school, become a second lieutenant, then go through pilot school. So I did that. But then they wanted me to do 30 missions overseas before pilot training.”

Thompson (standing, aviator glasses) and crew, New Mexico

Thompson (standing, aviator glasses) and crew, New Mexico

In April 1944, Thompson and nine other crew members flew a brand-new B-24 from Florida to Scotland via Brazil, Senegal and Gibraltar. He then became a member of the 839th Squadron of the 487th Bombardment Group of the 8th Air Force, stationed at Lavenham.

“On each mission we’d put up three 13-plane squadrons,” Thompson says. “After the third mission, they put me with the lead crew, and I stayed with them through my last mission.

I was the lead bombardier for the 839th Squadron, and since we were the lead squadron, all 39 planes would drop on my lead.”

After 11 missions, the crews switched from B-24s to B-17s.

“It was freezing inside all the planes,” Thompson recalls. “We started with sheepskins, but later in the summer we got heated flight suits. Great big mittens went over silk gloves, but I had to take the mittens off to operate the bombsight. Sometimes we had P-38s as escorts, but most of the time P-51s went with us all the way to the target.”

Just as on that D-Day mission, Thompson returned in one piece from the other 29, but had some harrowing moments.

“I only had four missions, maybe five, where we didn’t have holes in the airplane from flak when we returned. We’d land and a patch crew would pull up in a van. Then we’d see all these shiny silver patches on the green plane – patches all over.

“About 90 percent of the time that a plane took flak, it was flak on the way up. Once we passed the IP (initial point) on a bomb run, the pilot would turn the plane over to me, and I would fly it for 20 or 25 miles to the target. The other crew members would take cover, many of them curled up on the floor with a nest of flak jackets under them for protection.”

Thompson’s 27th mission was to a truck factory in Cologne. Shortly after the plane had passed the IP and the pilot had turned it over to him, a piece of shrapnel from an anti-aircraft shell exploded through the aircraft’s nose, hitting Thompson in the face.

“Knocked me off my seat,” he says. “I got back up and got on the bombsight again, bleeding like a stuck hog. I turned to the engineer and navigator who were curled up on the floor with flak jackets under them. They saw all the blood and their eyes got huge.”

The inch-long piece of flak slammed through his left cheekbone and lodged in his jaw. The B-17 continued on its bomb run. “We hit the target right on the button,” Thompson says with a measure of pride. “Totally destroyed.”

Back at Lavenham, Thompson spent more than a week in the hospital, and for the mission was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart.

He returned to duty for his final three missions. On the 30th, his last, he nearly didn’t make it back.

“We were headed to Ludwigshafen to bomb the I.G. Farben chemical works,” he recalls, citing the German company that held the patent for Zyklon B, an insecticide used in Holocaust gas chambers. “Again we were on the bomb run, the plane was in my hands with flak all around us. But this time shrapnel came from above. Very unusual. Pieces came straight down through the glass, whacked my arm and bounced it in the air.

“Later they took 12 of ’em out,” he adds, holding up his arm. “Here, you can still feel the 13th in there.”

Thompson finished the bomb run, but like his arm, the plane was full of holes.

“Our radio man was out of it because the radio room had been hit so many times,” he says. “Then just about where the wing joins the fuselage, a shell went through right behind the pilot and copilot. An 88 that didn’t explode – went right out the top of the plane. The hole was so big I figured I could have crawled through it.

“Two of our four engines had been knocked out, and we couldn’t keep up with the formation, so we fell back. There were over 200 holes in the upright stabilizer, more in the fuselage. It’s a wonder the whole goddamn thing didn’t come apart.

“We were down to 1,000 feet over the Channel. To lighten the load we threw everything we could out the door – machine guns, ammo, flak suits. We saw another B-17 go in the water. Saw the guys crawl out and stand on the wings. That’s the beauty of the B-17 – it was flat as the floor and would float. The B-24 had those tail muffs that would break the fuselage, and the plane would sink like a rock. I never did learn if that crew was rescued.

“We knew that was part of the war,” Thompson adds. “We all had some fear, but I didn’t crap or pee my pants … some guys did.”

Of lost crewmen, he says, “We weren’t acquainted long enough to make lifelong friendships. And we didn’t befriend new guys coming into the unit because they might be lost.”

As Thompson’s plane approached the Lavenham runway, red flares warned other planes to go on around and give the broken bomber a straight approach.

In a B-24 cockpit, 1944

In a B-24 cockpit, 1944

“We had the two engines out, no brakes and were leaking gas,” Thompson says. “But the pilot managed to get us down. We came in and slid off the runway into the mud. The plane was eventually towed out, but I don’t think it ever flew again. Too much damage.”

Thompson was loaded into an ambulance and taken to the base hospital, where the flight surgeon handed him a jug of whiskey and said, “Thompson, you’re through.”

In all, the 487th flew 185 missions and lost 48 planes.

Denny not only completed his 30 missions, but had earned a second Purple Heart and a second Distinguished Flying Cross. “I was delighted to be finished,” he recalls.

“I was looking forward to going through pilot training and getting to fly P-51s.”

Thompson returned to the States and married Jeany. Denny took his bride to San Antonio where he would finally attend flight school and become a pilot. He did indeed train in the iconic P-51 Mustang, but the war ended before he could return to action.

As exciting as his life had been in the war, Thompson’s adventures since have nearly matched the action he saw in Europe.

After his discharge from the service, Denny and Jeany returned to Staples where he again worked at the railroad and trapped in the woods. Their first son was born there in 1946.

Looking for adventure and better wages than the $1 an hour he made at the railroad, Denny moved his young family to Seward, Alaska. He worked as a longshoreman, then on commercial fishing boats in the Gulf of Alaska. A second son was born in 1948.

Divorced by 1960, he soon married Marge, with whom he had a son and two daughters. Thompson augmented his summer fishing by starting a flying service out of Seward and began leading big game hunts all over the state.

Among his many clients over the next two decades were automobile designer and race car driver Carroll Shelby, Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Roosa, rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, and former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing. He guided billionaires Jay Mellon and Friedrich Karl Flick, the latter, like von Braun, having fought for the country Thompson bombed during World War II.

He remembers one hunt in particular, with Fritz Karl Flick.

“We had a 160-pound bear skin in the back of my two-seater Piper Super Cub and were pretty heavy,” he recalls. “Late in the day the sun had softened the top layer of ice … We couldn’t get airborne, were starting to sink into the ice, and I knew we had to get out.

“Flick owned Mercedes Benz and was worth a fortune,” Denny says, “but when he just sat there in the back of my overloaded plane, I turned and said, ‘Fritz, you’re not worth a goddamn bit more than I am right now, so get your ass out of here.’ ”

The plane and its occupants survived to hunt another day.

In the early ’80s, his marriage to Marge ended and Thompson married Jeanne, 26 years his junior. Along with partners Shelby, Roosa and a number of others, Denny opened a hunting lodge in the Central African Republic. For three years he led hunts for most of Africa’s most prized game animals: elephant, Cape buffalo, sable antelope, nyala, zebra, reedbuck, Oryx gazella and more. Then in 1984, the volatile nature of African politics closed the lodge and sent Thompson and his wife back to Alaska.

Two years later, another hunting client, Tuolumne County developer Neil Burckart, convinced Thompson to buy 40 acres in Cedar Ridge. The two men became friends and hunted together for years (Burckart, who now lives in Kansas, recently published a book on Thompson’s exploits, The Legend of Lieutenant Thompson, available from Amazon). Thompson built a house on the property and began splitting time between the Mother Lode and his fishing boat in Alaska. In 1997 he did much of the construction on the larger home he lives in today.

In 1999, he and Jeanne took custody of their 2-year-old twin grandchildren, Dawn and Brandon. In 2007 he lost Jeanne to cancer. “I miss her a lot,” he says. “She was an outdoor gal … would fish and ski. She helped the kids with 4-H and school activities.”

Denny has continued to raise their now-teenaged grandchildren on his own and admits, “I’m proud of how they turned out, I sure am.”

Since that 10-minute childhood ride in a barnstormer’s biplane, Thompson has logged more than 25,000 hours in the air, mostly as a hunting guide. The hunts have claimed more than 1,000 grizzly bears and 350 polar bears, as well as countless moose, caribou, Dall sheep and African game animals.

Since the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Thompson has returned every five years to the beaches of Normandy. In June he attended the 72nd anniversary as one of the few remaining survivors. He still fits into his military uniform and wears it proudly each May in the Mother Lode Roundup Parade through downtown Sonora.

Thompson at home amid hunting trophies

Thompson at home amid hunting trophies

Thompson is also a familiar figure at Sonora’s May-to-October farmers market, where he often sells frozen wild Alaskan salmon. Two years ago he sold his commercial fishing boat, but grandson Brandon, 19, now spends summers in Alaska doing what his grandfather did for 65 years.

Thompson plans to live to “at least 100,” which seems like a pretty good bet. In a typical week, he cuts firewood, repairs plumbing and crawls under one of his many vehicles to fix the latest problem.

He takes no prescription medications. “Well, that’s not exactly true,” he admits. “There’s Viagra. And vodka-seven and cigars. But that’s all I take.”

And that stripper at his 93rd birthday party?

“My niece hired her. We must have had 85 people at the party, all different ages. She was quite a hit. I know she made plenty in tips.”

Reflecting on a lifetime of hard work, harrowing adventure and patriotic duty, Thompson says, “You know, I always wanted to be the very best at everything, whether it was as a bombardier, a fisherman or hunting guide. In the war, we were all patriotic. We all wanted to do our best.

“Because of my experience in the war, I’ve been able to visit so many places,” he adds. “I got to see a lot of what the other side was doing. Where I went and what I saw always made me want to stay an American.”

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson September 15, 2016 21:39
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