Courtesy Photo

Bombardier Phil Coudert

La Historia del Rio Abajo

On May 13, 1938, after eight years of legislative attempts, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill that declared Nov. 11 a federal holiday, called Armistice Day, to honor the brave men and women who had served in World War I.

The date was chosen because on Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 o’clock — “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” — the fighting between Germany and the allies on the Western Front supposedly ceased. (Actually, reports suggest that the fighting continued throughout that day and into the evening!)

This date continues to be celebrated across the globe and is known in many parts of the world as Remembrance Day.

On Oct. 6, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed HR7786 renaming the holiday Veterans Day to not only honor those who served in World War I, but also those who served in Korea and in all our nation’s subsequent wars.

This week, we, here in Valencia County, honor all our veterans, both those who are still with us and those who have passed on.

I would like to offer up one particular Valencia County veteran whose service and heroism truly represents the best of all those who have served — United States Air Force Maj. Philippe “Phil” Coudert Jr.  Maj. Coudert, who passed away on June 19, 2019, is particularly noteworthy because of his service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, a record of service that can be claimed by fewer than 1 percent of all American veterans.

 

Early years

Philippe Coudert Sr.

Phil Coudert was born in New York City on April 17, 1919. His mother, Odette Le Flaguais, was an operatic soprano, who sang with the John Phillip Sousa band and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as well as touring and singing on various radio programs.

His father, Philippe Gustave Coudert, was an operatic baritone and music teacher in New York City. Philippe and Odette had three children — Odette-Corinne, Yolande and Philippe — before they divorced in 1932.

After his parents separated, Phil was sent to St. Patrick’s, a private, French-speaking high school in Quebec, where he excelled in athletics, especially ice hockey, and was the editor of the school yearbook. After graduating in 1938, he played semi-professional hockey for the Manhattan Arrows and often played in Madison Square Garden

In 1941, after the death of one of his best friends and mentors, Phil was motivated to join the military. He was assigned to an artillery unit in the Army National Guard but was quickly chosen to go through the Officer Candidate Program. His unit was mobilized in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

 

From training to the war zone

In January 1942, Phil was selected for pilot training and was sent to Santa Ana Army Air Base in Santa Ana, Calif. He did not complete the pilot training because, as he later said, “I didn’t have any feel for the air.”

However, his grades in pre-flight training were so good that he was selected for bombardier training and was transferred to Deming Army Air Field in southwestern New Mexico in December 1942. The Deming facility was one of several Army Air Corps facilities in New Mexico used for training pilots, navigators, and bombardiers.

A Consolidated B-24 Liberator from Maxwell Field, Alabama, four engine pilot school, glistens in the sun as it makes a turn at high altitude in the clouds. Heavy Bombers

New Mexico was considered an ideal location for these activities because it was far from any coastline, and therefore, almost immune from enemy attack; it had excellent weather almost year-round; and there was an enormous amount of vacant land owned by the United States government and suitable for bombing and strafing practice.

Completing bombardier training in 1943, Coudert was assigned to the 454th Bombardment Group, a subunit of the 737th Squadron of the 15th Air Force. The men in this organization were trained to fly and fight B-24 “Liberator” bombers.  B-24s were heavy bombers built by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation in San Diego, Calif.

These planes were successors to the B-17 “Flying Fortresses,” and were capable of flying at just under 300 miles per hour for 1,700 to 2,100 miles at an altitude of 28,000 feet with bomb loads of up to 5,000 pounds. They were manned by a crew of 11 — a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bombardier and six gunners, each of whom manned one of the 50-caliber machine guns intended to fend off enemy fighters.

As bombardier, Coudert took over the controls and piloted the plane during its bombing runs from his station in the cockpit directly over the bombsight. Phil’s B-24 was equipped with the Sperry bombsight rather than the better-known Norden bombsight. Phil later said that he preferred the Sperry because the Norden was “overrated and had been chosen as the preferred component ‘for political reasons.’”

Phil’s crew, led by pilot Capt. Edgar “Ed” Haynie, mustered at Morrison Army Airfield in Palm Beach, Fla., prior to their “hop” across the Atlantic. They flew the southern route, which took them south to Puerto Rico for a short repair stop then on to Brazil for refueling, then a 10-hour flight across the ocean to Dakar, Senegal, where they refueled again.

From Senegal, they crossed the Sahara Desert to Casablanca before the short flight to Tunis, where they enjoyed their first baths in over a week in the former headquarters of German Africa Korps General Erwin Rommel. Leaving Tunis, they took the short hop across the Mediterranean Sea, arriving at their assigned airfield, Cerignola, Italy, on Jan. 26, 1944.

Many aircraft in World War II were given nicknames by their crew. Famous names included “Miss Snafu,” “Ten Knights in a Bar Room,” “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” and, of course, “Enola Gay,” the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Haynie’s crew eventually named their bomber “Ragged but Right,” probably to reflect the damage that she frequently endured.

The crew of the “Ragged but Right.”

From Cerignola, the “Ragged but Right” flew key strategic missions to Italian and German targets in northern Italy, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. All-in-all, the crew of the “Ragged but Right” were credited with 51 missions and 251 combat hours.

This is, in itself, remarkable since the average number of bomber missions in Europe before a plane was either shot down or disabled was between eight and 12. In fact, 51 percent of bomber aircrews were killed in combat. In addition, 12 percent were killed in accidents, and 13 percent became prisoners of war or evaders.

The only casualty to the crew of the “Ragged but Right” was a flak injury to pilot Ed Haynie on their mission to Ploetsi. The aircraft was not as fortunate as its primary crew. On a mission in June 1944, while being flown by another crew, “Ragged but Right” was shot down over Vienna, Austria. The entire crew was lost.

Haynie, Coudert and their comrades did not accomplish their incredible longevity by avoiding combat. In fact, their planes were damaged by flak and rockets on several missions and frequently had to limp home on just three engines. In the attack on Bad Voslau, described below, the bomb bay was so filled with high-octane fuel and hydraulic oil that the crew was concerned it would catch fire from the hot shell casings that were falling into it from the top gun turret.

 

 

Odette with Phil and Yolande

Odette Le Flaguis

Bomber raid on Bad Voslau ME-109 Plant

Phil Coudert and his navigator in Italy.

Ploetsi raid by the 454th

The plane had lost hydraulics, meaning that they had no brakes. In a letter to one of his crewmates, Coudert recalled their return to Cerignola:

Our landing was something else. With no hydraulics, we had to hand crank the wheels down, no easy job, and because no brakes and partial flaps, he [Flight Engineer Sergeant Robert MacDavid “Mac” Fields] had us tie parachutes to the gun mounts in the waist to be deployed at touchdown.  This slowed the aircraft enough that we only ran a short distance off of the end of the runway.  With over 100 holes, everyone was glad to get home.

The dangers were not just in the sky or from accidents. After investigating a series of suspicious bomber explosions right after take-off, it was discovered that an American airman, secretly on the German payroll, had been placing bombs in the aircraft wheel wells. The saboteur was tried and executed.

Phil particularly recalled two of the missions — one against a Messerschmidt 109 aircraft factory in Bad Voslau, Austria, and one against the Ploetsi oil fields in Romania. Both of these are described in detail by the “Ragged but Right’s” waist gunner, Everitte Barbee, who kept a detailed diary of all of the unit’s missions.  Barbee described the factory attack as follows:

Ploetsi raid during Operation Tidal Wave

… Planes were swarming everywhere.  FW-190s, and ME 109s, 210s, and 110s and sometimes JU-88s. Our gunner, Howard Carpenter, counted 17 twin-engine planes making a head-on attack. I never took time to count. After a few passes, we caught some heavy anti-aircraft fire. JU-88s were outside the flak area firing rockets into [the bomber] formation. I honestly believe there were 100 planes right around us. Airplanes all over the sky. Flak shells, rockets and cannon exploding everywhere. The air was black with smoke. We had just dropped our bombs when something exploded right at us — the whole plane shook like having run into a wall. Our plane was out of control for a little while, and we went right smack through our right squadron sideways. The concussion threw parachutes and ammunition on the ball turret, and Roland Buechs was jammed until I could pull them out. When I came back to my gun after helping Buechs out, right in front of me was an ME-109 not more than 20 yards away. I could see the big cross on its side and the German pilot just sitting there. I am sure he was dead. I started firing as he was cruising on by the same way we were going. I could see my tracers going through his plane. He was gone before I could see too much damage …

On Aug. 1, 1943, a massive attack, code-named “Operation Tidal Wave,” was launched against the Ploetsi oil fields and refineries north of Bucharest, Romania. These facilities were a major source of petroleum for Hitler’s blitzkrieg war machine. This low-altitude B-24 raid originated in Tripoli and was called by some one of the greatest war-time disasters of World War II. In a quote from the Warfare History Network:

Reconnaissance photos taken a few days later revealed that only Red and Blue Targets were totally destroyed; White Two, Four, and Five had taken moderate to severe damage. White One and Three were virtually untouched … The cost in lives and planes had scarcely been worth it … The death toll was staggering. Nearly a third of the 1,752 men who took off that morning were dead, while another 300 had been wounded. More than a hundred were in captivity from Romania to Bulgaria. Fifty-three Liberators were lost, nearly a third of the force. Less than 50 were fit to fly. Many men were so exhausted that they needed to be carried off the planes.

About a year later, Phil and the crew of the “Ragged but Right” were sent to Ploetsi. This time, however, they were bombing from 28,000 feet. Everitte Barbee describes the bombing run:

We kept going, crossed the Danube River, and were soon looking down on Romania oil fields. Derrick after derrick could be seen scattered across the country. We were about ready to start the bomb run, and up ahead I could see a very heavy flak barrage.  Although our group was in heavy flak for a long, long time, none came so very close to us. I looked down and I saw a gun battery firing away. I could see the flak of guns each time it fired and further up another battery. Men were jumping out of their planes long before bombs away. One B-24 came under us with smoke boiling out as it dove down sideways, did a half circle and climbed at least 2,000 feet up toward us again and was just about 1,000 or 600 yards below us when it stalled like a big wounded bird, burst into flames, broke into pieces, and fell to ground with fire covering it all the way down … I kept watching the flashes of gunfire as they shot at us. Flak all around and we kept going. Seemed as though they couldn’t move in on our position, although we flew through cloud after cloud of black smoke where one had burst moments before. As we came off the target, smoke climbed to 19,000 feet. Oil smoke from oil refineries, tank cars and storage tanks. Never have I seen so much smoke.  Boy that target was hit today. Enemy fighters began their attacks as we came off the target. As we were coming off the target, I looked back and I could see parachutes drifting down in the smoke. I expect the men were dead from suffocation before reaching the ground.

Phil and his crew flew their last combat mission on Aug. 3, 1944, against a jet plane and rocket factory in Fredrickishausen, Germany. After landing safely from that mission, Barbee recalls that Lt. Haynie called the crew together for a few minutes of silent prayer “showing thankfulness that we were allowed to complete our missions, 51 missions, and should go home soon, I hope.”

 

(Part II of “Phil Coudert: A Veteran’s Veteran” will be published in the Nov. 18 edition of the News-Bulletin)

(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history, written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society. The author of this month’s column is John Taylor, a retired engineer from Sandia National Laboratories and board member of the Valencia County Historical Society. He is the author or co-author of 19 books on New Mexico history, including “Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem in the Rio Abajo,” “A River Runs through Us,” “Tragic Trails and Enchanted Journeys,” “Mountains, Mesas, and Memories,” and “Years Gone by in the Rio Abajo,” all co-edited with Dr. Richard Melzer.  Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s only and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)

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John Taylor, guest columnist