Saturday, November 08, 2014

Hampton: a war hero

Fred Hampton at his home in Zionsville. He flew 29 bombing missions in Europe during World War II. 
(Photo by Ward Degler)

Veterans Day honors all veterans of all American wars, those who returned home triumphant, and those who remained behind.

Fred Hampton, of Zionsville, is one of the former; a quiet, unassuming man who never considered himself a hero in spite of flying 29 dangerous bombing missions over Nazi-occupied Europe during the last desperate years of World War II.

Like thousands of other young men, Hampton’s plans for college and an engineering degree were cut short when he was drafted in the fall of 1943.

“I figured I’d wind up in the infantry,” he said. “Sleeping in muddy foxholes.” But a need for fresh bomber crews to relieve the battle weary pilots, gunners and navigators of the 8th Air Force in England found Hampton transferred to the Army Air Corps.

“I first trained to be a navigator,” he said. “And I even got some pilot training.”

Ultimately, Hampton wound up in gunnery school where he was assigned as a tail gunner.

“My height probably had something to do with that,” he said.

At 5-foot-2, Hampton was just small enough to squeeze into the cramped tail compartment of a B-17.

“I had to kneel during the entire mission,” he said. “Sometimes for nine to 10 hours.”

By the time Hampton and the rest of his crew got to England, the Air Corps had switched from B-24 Liberators to the older B-17s for most of the bombing missions.

“The B-17 could handle a lot more damage than the B-24,” he said. The planes were famous for limping home after being riddled with anti-aircraft flak and bullets from enemy fighters. The crew of one plane in Hampton’s outfit counted 365 bullet holes in their plane after a single mission.

The war became a reality for Hampton with his very first mission. “Up till then it was all training,” he said.

On Feb. 3, 1945, however, it all changed.

“That day we were part of the biggest raid of the war,” he says. “We were one of 1,500 planes loaded with bombs headed for Berlin.” Hampton recalls that the flak over the German capital was “terrible.”

“We lost a lot of planes that day,” Hampton remembers, “and we were all scared. We prayed a lot.”

Hampton and his crew flew 28 more combat missions during the last months of the war, bombing German factories, bridges, railroads and airfields in places like Hamburg, Bremen, Munich and Dresden.

“We got hit by German fighters over Dresden,” he said. “We lost one engine and the wing was shot up pretty badly.”

Despite being crippled, the plane finished its bombing run and limped back to England on three engines.

None of Hampton’s crew was injured in combat. But their most memorable mission was one they didn’t fly.

“Our crew was grounded and another crew was assigned to our B-17,” Hampton said. “That day our plane was shot down over Germany. We never learned what happened to the crew.”

Hampton came home in 1945 and picked up where he left off, went to college and got his degree in engineering. He married his wife Mary Lou in 1948 and settled down to the business of raising a family. In 1985 Hampton retired from Allison Transmission in Indianapolis where he had spent much of his career working on military contracts.

After retiring, Hampton returned to Europe for a visit. He toured a rebuilt Berlin and saw almost no evidence of the devastating raid he had been part of in 1945.

In England he drove out to the airfield where he had spent so many chilly mornings being briefed for missions. “It was eerily quiet,” he said, and the only reminder of what had happened there was a bronze plaque bearing the dates of the airfield’s existence.

Still healthy at 89, Hampton plans to observe Veterans Day 2014 as he has every year since his return. “With thanksgiving and respect for everyone who served.”

During World War II, B-17s dropped 640,000 tons of bombs on German targets. Four-thousand-six-hundred planes were shot down and 47,000 crew members died.

Veterans Day, enacted by Congress in 1954, grew out of Armistice Day, a day honoring those killed during World War I.

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