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Original ‘Vulture’ shares story with 21st century warfighters

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing
“Primitive” is the word he uses to describe flying in a B-24 Liberator during World War II.

The bomber wasn’t pressurized and its open gunner-turret windows to the fore, aft and on both wings made the aircraft frigid for its crew members. They had to bundle up as best they could to stay warm, but according to the “Rosalie May” tail gunner, retired Master Sgt. Thomas Boyd, he would still freeze his “buns off.”

Ninety-one-year-old Boyd now lives in Sunnyvale, California, a much different environment than the cold, primitive B-24 he flew in as a young man. He suffered from vocal cord cancer two years ago, but he doesn’t let that keep him from telling his story. Speaking through his daughter, retired Air National Guard Lt. Col. Cynthia Kepple, he spoke over the phone to 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Peter Speen.

“Taking off was always the white-knuckle part of the flight because they were always overloaded and so they never knew if they would get off the ground,” Kepple said, speaking for her father.

There were no seatbelts to be found, only oxygen masks and tanks at all the different crew positions.

Boyd was part of the 455th Bomb Group – the 455th AEW’s WWII predecessor – and was one of the original “Vulgar Vultures.”

Though the 455th AEW now flies F-16 Fighting Falcons, HH-60 Pave Hawks, C-130 Hercules, EC-130 Compass Calls, MQ-9 Reapers and E-11As rather than the B-24, Boyd’s enduring lessons of resilience through adversity resonate across generations.

Boyd first arrived in Italy in 1944 and flew 26 missions. On his 19th birthday and only his second mission, Boyd’s aircraft was shot down.

His plane had just dropped bombs over Austria when they were hit in the bomb bay and one of the engines. Their pilot was able to get them into Yugoslavian airspace before they had to bail out.

The pilot rang the bell, telling the crew they had to jump.

“My dad opened the hatch to bail out and saw the nose gunner fly by,” said Kepple. “He thought, ‘well if he can do it, I can do it!’ So he jumped.”

When he went to pull the ripcord and deploy his parachute, the handle came off in his hand. He says he fell about 9,000 feet before he was able to reach back and find the cord to release the chute.

Boyd found his way back to his crew with the help of the farmer whose field he landed in. They were put in contact with the Yugoslavian resistance movement.

“[They] ran the show, when they said walk, they walked. When they said no talking, it was radio silence.

“At those points when it was too difficult, he would say ‘God, you pick my feet up and I’ll put them down. Get me through this.’”

They were tired, hungry and injured. They walked at night to evade capture but sometimes came close enough to German soldiers that they could hear their conversations.

“One of the Germans that was firing at them, his weapon was firing at a very slow rate,” Kepple said. “One of [my dad’s] crew mates, said “Hey Boyd, go over there and adjust his buffer plate for him!”

They returned to friendly control after four days of walking and were returned to their unit shortly after. After Boyd and his crew were de-briefed and de-loused, they went on to fly 24 more missions before the end of the war.

He credits his survival to humor, positivity and faith.

To the current members of the “Vulgar Vultures,” Boyd says: “Stay safe and keep your guns clean.”