The B-24 bomber flew low over a rail line in Rome to destroy a supply route that was critical to the Germans during World War II.
Vern Bingham, now in his 90s, was the plane’s navigator and an Army Air Force lieutenant.
The American bombers hit their targets, blowing up the train tracks. But their plane took heavy enemy fire in return.
“They did a good job on us,” Bingham said. “We lost two engines and could only turn to the right.”
The pilot ordered the crew to bail out of the plane. But Bingham called back to the pilot through the plane’s communication line.
“We don’t need to bail out. I can get you into Naples,” Bingham said.
The pilot trusted Bingham, who knew southern Italy well from his many previous flights over the area. Through a series of circles, Bingham guided his crew and several other planes, to safety.
Because of his ingenuity and heroism, Bingham received the Distinguished Flying Cross, given to those who demonstrated heroism or extraordinary achievement while in aerial flight. The award went mostly to pilots, not navigators. Bingham received it in 1944.
A lifetime later, Bingham slipped and fell at his senior living facility in Fort Collins. That’s when UCHealth Emergency Medical Services’ Alex Smith met Bingham. Fortunately, the World War II hero didn’t suffer any broken bones in the fall, but Smith transported Bingham to UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital for a head scan.
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As the two men talked, they began to build a rapport that has lasted months.
During transport, Smith performed a medical assessment and provided patient monitoring. He asked the familiar questions: name, age and date of birth.
“Because of his age, I asked him if he’d served in the war, something I usually do because there are not a lot of WWII veterans left,” Smith said.
“I’ve always been fascinated with their stories. My grandfather served in WWII, and he could talk with Civil War veterans. My father could talk with WWI veterans. I get the privilege of talking to WWII veterans, and it’s so important to listen to those stories.”
Smith’s grandfather became a prisoner of war after bailing from his B-17 bomber over Gutersloh, Germany, and it wasn’t until around 2002 that he shared his stories with Smith, who then archived a video interview of his grandfather with the Library of Congress.
“These were people of a generation where you didn’t talk about things that bothered you,” Smith said. “And I understand. When I get home, I don’t always want to talk about what happened at work.”
But Bingham and Smith bonded and Smith has since visited him several more times.
Over those visits, he heard great stories about Bingham’s service and his B-24 plane, which used to be known as the “Big Operator.”
As a young many Bingham had an air of self-confidence and sharp math skills, qualities needed to be a United States Army Air Force navigator.
The second youngest in a family of six children, Bingham grew up near Salt Lake City. He helped his family make ends meet as they came out of the Great Depression and graduated from high school in 1937. While in his second year of college at the University of Utah, Bingham and his parents traveled to the military-bustling coast of California where he got his first look at a bomber. The young man knew then that he’d rather join the war than being drafted.
“I thought of a navigator at the time because I wore glasses and was pretty sure they wouldn’t let me be a pilot … but the recruiter said if I passed the eye exam without my glasses, he’d get me into pilot school,” Bingham recalled.
Bingham had astigmatism but was able to keep it undetected through primary flight training — even after turning a plane over on its belly when he misjudged his landing depth. A failed eye exam during basic training, however, led the military to change his orders to navigator instead of pilot. Bingham’s loss was the Army Air Force’s gain. He turned out to be a reliable navigator who led his crew out of many near-fatal situations.
It was an “intriguing” role to have in the war, Bingham admitted.
He flew 52 missions during WWII, including two for Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Col. John Riley “Killer” Kane, and he was involved in three raids at Ploiesti.
Ploiesti, Romania was home to nine oil refineries that supplied about a third of the fuel for the enemy. Bombing those refineries became a strategic part of the “oil campaign” and air attacks by bombers like Bingham’s were essential, he said.
The area was well protected by antiaircraft, he recalled. “We’d try to fake them out, like try to turn fast as a group, and we could do that when we had a small group,” Bingham said, going on to explain that the Germans had actually set up three “Ploiestis” — the real one and two fake ones.
“Our navigation was good enough that we always got the right one, and you always knew you had the right one because we’d fly over it at about 18,000 feet …. When you hit it, it would look like you wouldn’t be able to escape the flames because they’d come up so fast,” he said.
When asked to name the most difficult of the 52 missions, he replied: “They were all hard.”
There were, however, a few lighthearted stories.
During WWII, Switzerland was surrounded by the Axis powers (Germany, Japan and Italy) but maintained its century-long war neutrality. Often, returning from raids over Germany, Allied missions (such as Bingham’s) would choose to fly over neutral Swiss airspace rather than taking the risk of becoming a prisoner of war.
“They would cut through the Swiss airspace as a fuel-saving measure after their bombing missions,” Smith recalled of Bingham’s story. “The Swiss would contact the formation on the radio and report: ‘Allied aircraft, you are in Swiss airspace. Please leave immediately or we will shoot you down.’ Vern’s crew got on the radio and responded, ‘Yeah, yeah, we know…’ After continuing in Swiss airspace without flight adjustments for five minutes, the Swiss would contact them again and report: ‘Allied aircraft leave Swiss airspace immediately or we will shoot you down.’ Again, Vern’s crew would respond, ‘Yeah, yeah, we know…’ After five more minutes of flying without directional adjustments, the Swiss would begin to shoot using their antiaircraft guns. The guns were obviously missing the formation, and Vern’s crew would radio to the ground, ‘You are shooting 20-degrees to our west.’ And the Swiss would respond, ‘Yeah, yeah, we know…’
“I’d have to say that one’s my favorite,” Smith said of Bingham’s stories.
For most of his life, Bingham did little talking about his experiences in the war.
“Right after the war there was no need to talk about the war,’’ he said. “Practically everybody I knew had been to the war, we were tired of it and didn’t want to talk about it. And after that, talking to anybody about the war, none of them understood it anyway.
“And you kind of wanted to forget it.”
Smith said that making patients feel comfortable is his first priority, but getting to listen to them is definitely a perk of the job.
“I’ve had the privilege of meeting several interesting individuals while on the job. Vern is definitely one of them,” Smith said.