The secret WWII mission that had US bombers flying at treetop height deep inside Nazi-occupied Europe

A modified black B-24 Liberator taking off from Operation Carpetbagger’s secret base in Harrington, England. Harrington Aviation Museum via the National Archives

Summary List Placement

The B-24 Liberator was the most produced US aircraft of World War II and vital to the Allied victory. Designed for high-altitude precision bombing, the B-24s of the US Army’s Eighth Air Force swarmed the skies over Fortress Europe to do just that.

Yet not all B-24 outfits of the Mighty Eighth Air Force conducted daylight precision bombing.

On a mission codenamed Operation Carpetbagger, the 801st/492nd Bomb Group predominantly flew solo, moonlit sorties to support Resistance fighters before and throughout Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Operation Carpetbagger
More than 500 pounds of paint was needed to camouflage a B-24 in a coat of black. Harrington Aviation Museum

The Carpetbaggers were the de facto air arm of the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, the forerunner of the CIA. Their missions were so secret that the airmen themselves rarely knew where they were flying, what they were carrying, or to whom they were delivering agents and supplies.

Navigating by the stars and outlines of blacked-out Europe, eight-man Carpetbagger crews flew specially configured B-24s. Most Carpetbagger missions were flown in bombers retrofitted to drop spies and supplies instead of bombs. They were painted black to blend into the night sky.

Starting in spring 1944, the Carpetbaggers flew from Harrington Airfield, a secret USAAF base in the English countryside previously used by the RAF.

They generally flew unescorted and at dangerously low altitudes to avoid anti-aircraft detection and reach their targets. As they approached their rendezvous points, they dipped down to as low as a few hundred feet to make their drops.

Operation Carpetbagger
‘Joes’ and ‘Josephines’ waiting to be dropped. Harrington Aviation Museum

The Carpetbaggers carried agents of the OSS and the British Special Operations Executive, or SOE, who were known to the airmen only as “Joes” and “Josephines.”

The agents parachuted into enemy-occupied Europe through the “Joe Hole,” a cargo hatch in the bottom of the B-24 created by removing its ball turret.

Other supplies were loaded into the B-24’s bomb bay racks and the fuselage surrounding the “Joe Hole.” Each of the specially designed 300-pound containers and packages brimmed with material Allied resistance fighters needed to sabotage and survive, including bazookas, rifles, grenades, radios, cash, bicycles, messenger pigeons, and medical supplies.

Operation Carpetbagger
The ‘Joe Hole’ cargo hatch in the fuselage of a B-24 bomber. Harrington Aviation Museum

On the ground in Europe, Resistance fighters awaited supply drops at secret locations. The OSS sent instructions to the Resistance through coded BBC broadcasts. Drop zones were illuminated for Carpetbaggers with high-powered flashlights and bonfires.

On a typical mission, the plane would fly over the drop zone as supply containers were released from the bomb bay with the press of a button. Packages were also shoved through the “Joe Hole.”

Operation Carpetbagger
Supply containers dropped by a B-24 dangle from parachutes. The colour of the canopy indicated the contents of the container. Harrington Aviation Museum

As the parcels fell, static lines attached to the bomber opened the parachutes on each parcel to slow its descent and prevent damage on impact.

Even under the cover of night, Carpetbagger crews faced stiff enemy resistance. Flying without escort, they lacked protection from enemy fighters.

German anti-aircraft fire, known as flak, could be trained on a bomber’s position in flight.

Operation Carpetbagger
Exploding anti-aircraft shells called flak fill the sky with black plumes of smoke. Harrington Aviation Museum

The threat of flak, fighters, and inclement weather increased the probability of a Carpetbagger crew going down. If captured, the secrecy surrounding Operation Carpetbagger became all the more important. The less a Carpetbagger knew about the mission, the better.

Operation Carpetbagger remained classified for decades after the war, its details a mystery even to aircrew and other personnel supporting the flights, who, over 3,000 missions, dropped some 536 agents and 4,511 metric tons of supplies to the European Underground.

Starting in the 1980s, as the government declassified select OSS files, the Carpetbaggers began convening for annual reunions across the US and Europe.

Operation Carpetbagger
Carpetbagger Operations Officer Col. Robert Fish and his wife at Harrington Airfield, where Carpetbagger veterans attended the 1987 dedication of a memorial in their honour. Harrington Aviation Museum

Over the past four decades, many Carpetbaggers and their descendants have formed a tight-knit community. But the OSS collectively went unrecognised by the US government for decades after it was disbanded by President Harry Truman in September 1945.

That changed in 2018, when then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi presented the last surviving OSS personnel, including the Carpetbaggers, with Congress’s highest civilian honour, the Congressional Gold Medal.

A lifetime after the war, several of the last living Carpetbaggers – including two who were in the same crew as teenagers – recall their missions.

Hewitt Gomez, navigator, The Davis Crew:

Operation Carpetbagger
Hewitt Gomez. Bill Becker and Katie Sanders

On the flying conditions:

“Your ears would pop in the planes, so you’d chew gum. There was no heater, and it was a non-pressurised cabin. Air was coming in through every opening. Natural air conditioning. We flew in the rain and inclement weather. We wore lambskin-lined jackets and pants and heated electric blanket suits.”

“I couldn’t have blankets because I was working. It got cold. Sometimes we flew with a sandwich and an orange. The orange froze through and through like a baseball. The sandwich was crunchy. When we landed, we got cognac to make us talk.”

Operation Carpetbagger
Hewitt Gomez. Bill Becker and Katie Sanders

On close calls:

“Our crew made four missions to Norway. On one mission our plane hit a tree. We were flying at a low altitude and the tree was growing from the wall of a fjord. On return to our base, we found branches stuck in the wing flaps of our plane. Just happy that we didn’t hit the trunk of the tree.”

Bill Becker, gunner, The Davis Crew:

Operation Carpetbagger
Bill Becker. Bill Becker and the 801st/492nd Bomb Group/Carpetbagger Association

On secrecy:

“They tried to keep it [Operation Carpetbagger] as secret as possible, and they didn’t want any of this stuff to leak out. In fact, when we first joined this organisation, they told us what we were going to do – we were going to fly at night during the moonlight, we were going to 400 feet above the ground. If we didn’t want to do that, we could walk out immediately and they would transfer us to daylight bombing.”

“If we wanted to – fine. But if we went to town and mentioned anything about it, they would bring us back and we would get shot. That’s how secret it was. That’s the truth. The whole crew got together at that particular briefing and said, ‘should we do it?’ And we all said, ‘yeah, let’s do it.’ We knew what our job was. We were carrying agents and spies to the resistance- that was our job, that’s what we were doing, and we knew that. But we didn’t know where or when.”

Operation Carpetbagger
Bill Becker and fellow Carpetbagger crew members. Bill Becker and the 801st/492nd Bomb Group/Carpetbagger Association

On the role of a gunner:

“My job was top turret [gunner]. I would keep spinning around and watching to see if there was anything [enemy fighters] coming in from any angle – that was my job. That was basically the main thing. It was boring at times. If you didn’t fight, it was boring. Spinning around, spinning around, keep looking. Every time you saw a speck in the air you thought maybe that was a plane was coming in at you.”

“The gunner did other things on the plane when we were coming in to the drop zone. I was right behind the pilot. I called off the air speeds as we were coming in so he didn’t have to watch the instruments. […] Gunners didn’t do any briefings. Gunners slept until it was time to get up and go out to the plane. The pilot and the navigator went to briefing. They knew exactly where we were going. At a certain time we would get into the plane, then we would take off. We didn’t know what direction we were going – if we were going to France, Norway, Denmark. We didn’t know until we got into the air.”

Robert Holmstrom, gunner, The Bingham Crew:

Operation Carpetbagger
Robert Holstrom. Robert Holstrom and Robert Swansen

On making drops:

“Leaflets in containers 6 feet long and 30 inches in circumference and had a barometric that would explode over 10,000 feet that would spread the leaflets over miles. It was to help the European civilians know what was going on in the war because radio reception was shoddy.”

“We dropped containers for the resistance and did some other things I didn’t understand. Packages thrown out of the aeroplane and had the barometric fuse explode them at 500 feet. Some, I learned later, had diamonds and some had old jewellery so the patriots could barter.”

Operation Carpetbagger
Robert Holstrom. Robert Holstrom and Robert Swansen

“I flew two missions with pigeons. The pigeons were in a Quaker [Oats-like] tubular container and had three days of food and the capsules and a pencil so patriots could put in their grocery order or whatever they needed. The containers had parachutes with a barometric fuse that exploded at 100 feet from the ground.”

“The carrier pigeon would fly back to London with the message – a week or 10 days later and then we’d deliver what they ordered. Socks, medicine, radios, hand grenades, throwaway pistols, bicycles, anything to help them get along.”

Eugene Polinsky, Navigator, The Ellis Crew

Operation Carpetbagger
Eugene Polinsky. Katie Sanders and Eugene Polinsky

On the night missions:

“We would have to meet with intelligence before a mission and intelligence after a mission. And there were the latest charts with the latest gun positions. We’d get the coordinates of where our mission was. The pilot and I would get the coordinates. None of the crew knew what the heck was going on. And we would fly to the English coast, drop down to 500 feet across the channel then slowly climb. By doing that theoretically you were defeating the radar. And then we would climb to about 7,000 feet so then we were able to get a perspective of towns and forest outlines, shine from water and shine from rails. And those the pilot and I would also be doing charts in the meantime.”

“I was sitting on a gun case for every mission. My desk was a piece of wood that came down. That was it, and behind that piece of wood – there was the pilot’s feet and the copilot’s feet. And we talked to each other by throat mics if necessary but not any other type of transmission. … I felt that I was in a separate niche in the military. That’s what it felt like. A separate niche in the Air Force. I didn’t know the particulars of what the OSS was doing all over the world. I never knew those stories until much later.”

Operation Carpetbagger
Eugene Polinsky. Katie Sanders and Eugene Polinsky

On memory:

“I thought I had forgotten all about the Carpetbaggers. When I started going to reunions about 20 years ago, I was meeting Carpetbaggers I had not known, and over these years we’ve become very close, and we keep telling each other stories. And we keep enduring each other’s stories no matter how many times we have heard them.”