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B-24: 9th Air Force workhorse of WWII

The Lady Be Good, while on its first mission, went missing in 1943 and was not found for more than 15 years. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Lady Be Good, while on its first mission, went missing in 1943 and was not found for more than 15 years. (U.S. Air Force photo)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- No single aircraft was more vital to 9th Air Force's operations in 1942 and 1943 than the B-24 heavy bomber. Possessing long range, a substantial bomb load and impressive defensive armament, the B-24 was the workhorse that enabled 9th Air Force to conduct crippling strikes against the Axis supply lines.

Although the Royal Air Force had used B-24s since 1941 it was not until the June 1942 attack on the oil fields of Ploesti, Romania, that they made their combat debut with the U.S. Army Air Forces.

Operating from bases in Egypt and Palestine, 9th Air Force B-24s flew countless missions in the summer of 1942 over the central and eastern Mediterranean in defense of Egypt.

As the British advanced across Libya in the fall of 1942, the B-24s of 9th Air Force were able to use forward bases to strike deeper into Axis territory.

In December 1942, 9th Air Force B-24s attacked Naples, Italy, becoming the first Allied bombers to strike the Italian mainland. Throughout the winter and spring of 1943 they made regular raids on Sicily and southern Italy, paving the way for Allied invasion forces.

In the summer of 1943, 9th Air Force received orders to leave the Mediterranean for England in preparation for the invasion of Normandy. Since the 9th's new role was to be tactical bombing, their B-24 squadrons stayed behind and became part of 12th Air Force where they continued to provide service for the remainder of the war.

The B-24 began life in 1938 when the U.S. Army Air Force approached Consolidated Aircraft Corporation about building B-17 bombers. Consolidated responded with an offer to design and build a bomber that was superior to the B-17.

In March 1939, they submitted their design to the U.S. Army Air Forces. The design was accepted, contingent upon Consolidated having a flying prototype completed by year's end. Consolidated flew the first prototype in December 1939, and produced seven more for testing in early 1940.

England and France, who had been at war with Germany since 1939, placed orders for B-24s in 1940. France fell to the Nazis before their B-24s could be delivered.

England received the first delivery in 1941 and became the first nation to use the aircraft. Known as the Liberator by the Royal Air Force, the B-24 was used by England as a bomber and a long range transport. One of the first transport versions delivered became Winston Churchill's personal aircraft and served in that capacity throughout the war. Liberators employed by the Royal Air Force to ferry personnel between England and Canada became the first aircraft to make regular trans-Atlantic flights.

The B-24's ability to carry a large bomb load over long distances was due largely to its innovative wing design. Named the Davis Wing, after the designer David R. Davis, it reduced drag on the aircraft by 15 to 20 percent and increased fuel efficiency. The wing's unique design caused it to flex visibly at high altitudes which proved disconcerting to new aircrews.

In addition to the new wing design, the B-24 was equipped with bomb bay doors which rolled up into the fuselage when opened further reducing drag.

The B-24 normally carried a crew of 10 men and was armed with 10 50-caliber machine guns for defense. It was able to carry up to 8,000 pounds of bombs, depending on distance to target, and had a maximum combat radius of 2,100 miles.

By the end of World War II, over 18,000 B-24s had been produced and constant improvements in the design led to 15 major variants, including transport and maritime patrol versions.

In addition to the U.S. Army Air Forces and Navy, the B-24 was also used by the air forces of Great Britain, Canada, Australia and South Africa.

The B-24 saw action in every theater of World War II.

Whether serving as a bomber in Europe or the Pacific, delivering supplies over the Himalayas to China, or hunting German submarines in the North Atlantic, the B-24 was vital to paving the way for Allied victory in World War II.