Immediately after takeoff, the bomber formation began the long slow climb to 25,000 feet to make it over the Alps. The crew went on oxygen at 10,000 feet. The temperature ranged from 40 degrees to 60 degrees below zero inside the plane. The flight was perfect to the target, no German fighters, and no problems in the formation. The bombers were to pattern bomb the target that day. The lead plane would sight the target, drop its bombs, and the other planes would follow the pattern. They expected heavy flak and fighters over the target and they got both.
A terrible mistake was made. The lead plane could not get situated over the target and aborted the bomb run, signaling the entire formation to circle and come back over the target. Bruce did not see a single plane go down during the first run. The formation was under attack during the entire turn back over the target. As his plane reached the target, the second time, flak hit the inside starboard engine. It was a heavy jolt, and Bruce knew they had been hit hard. The pilot calmly called for the engineer to come to the cockpit. He radioed the group leader that their plane had been hit and asked for fighter cover.
The pilot quickly feathered the propeller of the damaged engine, and the plane began to fall out of formation. The plane had been over the target 20 extra minutes. No one had been scratched. Within minutes it was fairly certain the plane could fly with one engine out and a damaged wing. The problem was fuel. Fuel tanks on the Liberator are located in the wings outside the engines.
The pilot began to try a fuel transfer, but so much gas leaked from damaged lines, he had to stop the transfer or risk an explosion. The crew knew then the plane could not make it back to their base in Italy.
Bruce remembered that the sky seemed to be filled with planes in the same shape as his or worse. The crew soon lost sight of the rest of the formation. Close to the plane flew two P-51 Mustangs watching for German fighters who might try to finish off the crippled bomber. The pilot first thought the crew would bail out, but no one wanted to do that. The plane was then near the border of Hungary and Yugoslavia, and Bruce recalled, "The thought of jumping out of the back of that airplane just scared me to death."
The pilot then decided the plane was flying well enough for them to go as far as they could, then look for a decent field and go down together. One of the main things they wanted was for the crew, if at all possible, to stay together.
The crew began to throw everything possible out of the plane in order to lighten the plane and also to get ready for the crash landing. They only kept the waist guns on board.
The crew had been trained for such a crash. When the pilot decided on the landing area, everyone except the pilot and co-pilot came to the waist of the aircraft. Each had a pre-determined position, and as they came in for the landing, each one assumed the crash position, feet braced and head down on their chests.
The pilot had picked a frozen cornfield. He brought the plane in with as little power as possible, lowered the landing gear, and eased the plane to the ground. The plane held together until it hit a road which cut through the cornfield. The wheels were torn off, and the plane flew to pieces. What was left came to a stop 200 yards from where it touched down.
The two guarding P-5ls watched the crash. There was no fire, and the crew received only cuts and bruises. In minutes, the two waist guns had been charged and were ready. No one had side arms. They didn't know what to do.