(EDITOR’S NOTE: Fred Taylor died Sept. 21 at the age of 96 at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Syracuse. N.Y.)
“This is the one that’s going to get Hitler,” was the hopeful refrain of World War II bomber pilots like Fred Taylor, as they dropped their bombs during the D-Day invasion 12,000 feet above Normandy, France.
These days, the 96-year-old Taylor can’t get around as well as he used to because of his health. He mostly listens to tapes, radio and TV and sits in his wife’s garden in their Cazenovia, N.Y., home. But he also loves to talk about yesterday.
Yesterday for Taylor means stories about how he went from wanting to travel and see the country to being a bomber pilot during the biggest seaborne invasion in military history. Taylor flew two of his 31 combat missions on the June 6, 1944 invasion in the B-17 Flying Fortress called “Patches,” a nickname inspired by the square patches that covered more than 400 bullet holes the plane’s exterior sustained from anti-aircraft fire.
“There were 434 or 414 bullet holes, depending on who was counting that day,” Taylor said.
Taylor may not see or hear well anymore, but his memory remains as clear as it was during his younger days.
“When he retired (in 1989), he loved to build our houses,” Taylor’s wife Wendy said. “He rebuilt our house here, and he rebuilt our camp in the Adirondacks. If you’re asking what he can do now, it’s taking it easy. But he does love to remember the past and talk about the war.”
Before Taylor joined the military, he left the University of Pennsylvania to hitchhike and ride freight trains in his quest to make it across the country. When he got to the West Coast, he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps in Seattle for two months before his mother wrote a letter to get him out, so he could return their home in Watertown, N.Y.
A few months later, Taylor joined the National Guard and was assigned to the 7th Regiment and sent to Camp Stewart, Ga., for training. He transferred to the Air National Guard in 1942 and completed all three phases of pilot training before he joined the 379th Bombardment Group at Royal Air Force Station Kimbolton near Bedford, England.
Taylor’s B-17 and other aircraft were distinguished by a triangle K on the tail. All B-17s in the 1st Bombardment Division had large triangles on the top of the aircraft’s vertical stabilizer, and each group’s assigned code letter was painted inside the triangle. The 379th’s letter was the letter K.
The group attacked strategic targets such as industries, oil refineries, airfields and communications centers in Germany, Belgium, France, Norway, Poland and the Netherlands. By D-Day, Taylor had already flown a dozen missions.
A colonel called in the aircrews at 1 a.m. for briefings and informed them that the invasion day had finally arrived after a couple of weather-related postponements. They would invade the Cherbourg Peninsula that morning. Taylor’s first mission was at 7 a.m. Before takeoff, a ground crew of four men told him they wanted to go up with him.
“Get a parachute, and get in the airplane,” he told them.
“I thought, ‘Let them have an opportunity to see what goes on,’” Taylor said. “I wasn’t supposed to do it, of course, but I got away with it.”
So many Allied planes filled the skies above the peninsula on D-Day that Taylor remembers his two missions as among his easiest. Any German pilots who were able to get off the ground were destined for a bad day.
“You look down at the English Channel, and it looked like Times Square,” Taylor said. “It was unbelievable how many ships there were in that English Channel. There were thousands of ships – destroyers, battleships, aircraft carriers, transports and supply ships, and there were so many airplanes in the air that I felt sorry for the Germans. They got some fighter planes up, but it took one helluva brave pilot to go up against the American and British air forces because we had so many fighter planes in the air. He was bound to get shot down.”
Taylor flew his second mission at 4 that afternoon, but faced little opposition by then, as Allied soldiers had already secured the beaches.
“The American and British armies had already secured the Cherbourg Peninsula, and Germany was on her way out,” Taylor said.
When his tour ended, Taylor returned stateside to train for missions over Japan, but the war ended first. After the war, Patches, with her 400-plus bullet holes, was scrapped for her parts, and Taylor returned to New York to farm turkeys. He had up to 5,000 turkeys at one time on his 172 acres, with a feed bill that reached between $70,000 to $75,000 a year. He also kept the local post office busy with his mail-order gift business.
“I made a first-class post office out of the Cazenovia post office with the amount of postage I used,” he said.
He farmed turkeys for 13 years before working as a grocer brokerage salesman, selling forklift trucks and as a co-partner in a manufacturing sales company before he retired in 1989.
During his 31 missions in Europe, Taylor caught flak a couple of times, including once when his co-pilot got hit in the top of the two helmets he wore. Another time, Patches got knocked out of formation, and Taylor was flying as a co-pilot so he could break in a new pilot.
“‘We’re going to hit the deck!’” Taylor said the pilot yelled. “I said, ‘You damn fool! You want some kid with a .22 to shoot you down? We stay right here at 17,000 feet and follow those thousands of airplanes,” which were also on the same mission.
Today, Taylor still keeps the piece of flak that came through Patches’ dashboard and penetrated his flak vest on one of his missions. His eyes and ears may have betrayed him in his later years, but his mind remains sharp. He loves those occasions when he can tell visitors about Patches and his role in one of the most historic days in American and world history.