Even at age 88, Charlie Hebert remembers Black Thursday like it was yesterday. • "We walked in the briefing room and the board with our mission was covered with a cloth," said Hebert, a World War II veteran who lives at On Top of the World retirement community. "When they removed it, a collective groan rose from the room. We knew about the previous mission bombing Schweinfurt and the disastrous results." • He was speaking of Schweinfurt, Germany, where American and British fliers had suffered heavy casualties while trying to take out a ball bearing factory Aug. 17, 1943. At the time, German aircraft, vehicles and heavy weapons all needed ball bearings to operate. • So now came Black Thursday, Oct. 14, 1943, and the Allies were trying to finish the job.
Hebert was the navigator on a bomber flying his fifth mission in Germany in what would become known as one of the greatest air battles in World War II history.
"Almost half of their (ball-bearing) production was there," Hebert said. "We were sent to shut it down."
Heavy fog hung over Kimbolton, England, in the predawn hours of Oct. 14. The weather was so bad, said Hebert, that fighter escorts couldn't get off the ground.
"We went up without escorts," Hebert said. "We were a newer crew, so we flew tail-end Charlie, near the back. When we reached altitude and flew out of the clouds and up over the French coast, we immediately took anti-aircraft fire and flak."
Hebert's plane maneuvered through constant enemy fire, and black smoke, and flak hit the plane. "On route, three B-17s were shot down," Hebert said. "None of us were hurt, but when we turned to fly back to England, our plane was in the lead."
The Second Schweinfurt Memorial Association of which Hebert is a member, lists an estimated 1,100 German enemy fighters that attacked the men from 16 bomber squads that day. On Black Thursday, 600 airmen were lost over enemy territory, 60 B-17s were shot down and five crashed flying home.
"Out of the 18 planes that flew the mission from Kimbolton (England)," Hebert said, "only seven returned."
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Kathryn Sutton was the love of Hebert's life and eventually became his wife. He lived in Boston then and was on his way to a school dance with another girl. The girl said they needed to stop by a house in Arlington, Mass., to pick up a friend.
"This vision came down the steps, and that was it," Hebert said. "I went to the dance with the girl I'd started out with, but the next morning I was knocking on Kathryn's door."
Hebert and Kathryn were married for 48 years and had a son and a daughter.
Kathryn died 15 years ago, and Hebert moved from Quincy, Mass., to Clearwater to be close to his daughter. He eventually moved in with her.
"When my daughter and her husband divorced, I was looking for a place to live," Hebert said. "I loved it here. I wasn't going back to shoveling snow. So I moved into Top of the World."
For the past 12 years, he has spent his free time playing golf with friends at the Dunedin-Clearwater Elks 1525. He also reads, and does crossword puzzles.
He's content after retiring from his position as a manufacturing rep selling floor tile for more than 20 years.
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Even after Hebert completed his required 25 combat flights and became a staff navigator, he signed up for another tour. He planned to return to England, but became part of the 15th Air Force at Foggia, Italy, a member of the 301st Bomber Group, 419th Squadron in February 1945.
"We flew to Lincoln, Neb., to get the plane we'd fly to England, but the ball-turret gunner got in an altercation in town and was thrown in the jug. We couldn't go without a full crew. By the time we got one, we'd been assigned to Italy."
The crew left Nebraska, landed in Bermuda and because of engine problems, had a five-day layover. Then an Azores layover waiting for plane parts. Finally, after stops in Marrakesh, Morocco, and Oran, Africa, Hebert arrived in Foggia, Italy. "We were lucky to make it over the water," Hebert said. "When we got there, we were an experienced crew compared to the others and were given lead responsibilities."
Hebert navigated another 13 missions into Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
"Vienna was a tough one," Hebert said. "A ME-262 fighter jet showed up. We were so thankful for the Tuskegee Alabama pilots flying P-51s. They escorted us. We still had flak, but less fighter interruption. And that assignment landed us a week of R&R in Cannes."
The World War II navigator doesn't consider himself a hero, although he has earned an air medal with four oak clusters for meritorious achievement in flight and a Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded only to those who flew and accomplished acts of heroism.
"I was a lucky person. Now I go as often as I can to the SSMA (Second Schweinfurt Memorial Association) meetings," Hebert said. "We meet once a year and now have members from Germany. Two of the guys, former flak helpers, were 14 and 15 during the war."
While proud of his service and place in history, Hebert is also proud of the monument erected on the site of the Schweinfurt ball bearing factory that reads:
"Dedicated by some who witnessed the tragedy of war, now united in friendship and the hope for lasting peace among all people."