BY MIKE FUHRMAN
Andy Pendleton vividly remembers May 5, 1944. It was the most exciting day of his life – and one that he nearly did not survive.
As a member of the 451st Bomb Group stationed in Castellucia, Italy, during World War II, Pendleton served his country as a bombardier instructor and bombsight technician on B-24 bombers.
On that memorable day, a group of bombers from the 451st dropped thousands of pounds of bombs on oil fields in Ploesti, Romania, before turning back for their home base.
That’s when Pendleton’s bomber was hit by an enemy anti-aircraft shell, which destroyed the plane’s main engine. The young bombardier heard a loud crack and lost his balance as the B-24 lurched sideways and began losing altitude.
The bomber was more than 500 miles from Castellucia.
‘I’m no hero’
A native of Elizabeth City, Pendleton was a 20-year-old college student in January of 1942 when he and a few buddies went to the Army Recruitment Station in Raleigh and signed up to join the fight a month after the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Pendleton, who was not called up for duty initially, hoped to be selected for pilot training, but he was disqualified from consideration for that assignment because of his vision.
Pendleton was drafted into the Army in December of 1942. After being inducted at Fort Bragg, he underwent training in Biloxi, Miss., and Denver, Colo., where the commanding officer of the bomb group selected Pendleton for duty as a bombardier.
After completing additional training, Pendleton boarded the Liberty Ship “John S. Pillsbury” in December of 1943 and spent 43 days at sea, including his 21st birthday.
The 451st Bomb Group arrived in Castellucia in April of 1944.
After completing additional training in Italy, Pendleton flew 27 successful combat missions, but to this day he downplays his role in the Allied victory.
Fourteen members of Pendleton’s high school graduating class did not return home from the war, and his bomber group lost many good men, including several of his friends who died when their B-24 (dubbed “Extra Joker”) was shot down in Austria in August of 1944. Those fallen warriors should be honored for their service and sacrifice, Pendleton said.
“I did what I was asked to do. I’m no hero,” he insisted. “They said, ‘Go.’ I went.”
Pendleton considers the infantrymen who survived on meager rations while fighting the German Army on the frontlines to be the true heroes of World War II.
“Their life must have been hell,” he said. “They deserved much more credit than I did.”
Nearly 80 years after the end of World War II, Pendleton has many sharp memories of his time in the service.
He remembers the grief he got from a redheaded chaplain for trading his smokes for whisky. “He got on my case,” Pendleton said. “He saw me collecting all that booze. He told me I was going to hell. I got to where I avoided him.”
After the 451st Bomb Group completed its 200th combat mission, the members planned a party to celebrate the milestone. That planning included a flight to Cairo, Egypt, to pick up 800 gallons of beer, which was transported in the rubber liners of fuel tanks. Half of the beer spilled on the return trip to Italy, Pendleton recalled.
“The rest tasted like gasoline, but we drank it anyway,” he added.
Pendleton also remembers getting served real eggs on the day before combat missions, and then throwing them up before boarding the B-24. Because temperatures in the drafty planes reached 60 degrees below zero at high altitudes, crew members wore multiple layers and plugged their flight suits into outlets that heated the suits up.
“It was cold as whiz,” Pendleton said. “That was the worst part of the whole thing.”
Before each mission, crew members were given a survival kit – containing a map, compass, fishhook, gold coin and other essentials — in case they were shot down.
May 5, 1944: ‘I was reasonably concerned’
Pendleton didn’t sleep well the night before the May 5, 1944, raid on Ploesti, Romania. It was a strategic target because it contained a major fuel repository for Hitler’s troops.
“I was not nervous, but I was reasonably concerned and alert,” he said.
Ten hours later, as Pendleton’s B-24 lumbered toward Castellucia, Italy, after the bombing run, he had plenty to be nervous about. Crippled after being struck by the anti-aircraft shell, the bomber was virtually defenseless. Other members of the 451st flew ahead because the B-24’s reduced airspeed made the entire group vulnerable to enemy fighter planes.
To increase fuel efficiency, the B-24 crew dumped anything that was not essential overboard, including machine guns, ammunition and first aid kits. Unsure if they had enough fuel to make it back, the crew had a choice to make: Try to make an emergency landing and risk being captured or try to make it back to the base and risk running out of fuel and crashing into the ocean.
The vote was unanimous in favor of trying for Castellucia – and they barely made it, landing more than two hours after the rest of the group. The wounded B-24 ran out of fuel while taxiing on the runway and had to be towed back to the base.
Three other planes that participated in that mission weren’t so lucky.
After the War
After the war ended, Pendleton returned to Elizabeth City in September of 1945. He remembers walking home from the bus station and being greeted by his older sister, Hazel. “She started hollering and making all kinds of commotion,” he said.
Pendleton “loafed around for a few days” and then returned to college in January of 1946. After finishing his degree in architectural engineering and graduating in 1948, Pendleton and his friend, Bill Leonard, decided Statesville would be an ideal location for their firm. They started Design Associates in 1951.
During his 30-year career, Pendleton designed many well-known buildings, including First ARP Church and Wesley Memorial UMC in Statesville, the Huskins Library on the campus of Mitchell Community College, the Home Building & Loan (now Truist Bank), and North Iredell and South Iredell high schools.
He and his wife Dot, who owned and operated a successful travel agency, Travel Associates, traveled the country and the world, with Pendleton often flying a small plane. They had three children, Tony, Pat and George, and eventually seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Pendleton’s life has not been without loss. In 1999, Dot died from injuries she sustained in a car accident while he was driving. His daughter Pat died from Covid-19 in 2021, and most of his close friends are now gone.
In his later years especially, Pendleton has become a student of military history, often attending reunions with other World War II veterans and their families. At age 99, he piloted an airplane for the last time.
“I never imagined someone would feel that comfortable in an airplane,” said his oldest grandchild, Christina Clodfelter, who accompanied Pendleton on the flight. “It was literally like he had not missed a beat. He knew exactly what to do.”
About 60 family members and friends gathered at Statesville Country Club last December to celebrate Pendleton’s 100th birthday. Today, he’s one of only 292 living World War War II veterans in the 10th Congressional District, according to David McCrary, constituent services director for Rep. Patrick McHenry. There are an estimated 5,000 veterans from that war remaining in North Carolina.
Timothy Moore, Iredell County’s veteran service manager, estimated there are fewer than 20 living World War II veterans in the county.
James Mallory, a retired Army major general and former Iredell County Board of Commissioners chairman, has known Pendleton as a Rotarian for the last 38 years.
“Along with many of his generation of business leaders, Andy lived the Rotarian motto of ‘Service Above Self’ as a young man in the Army Air Corps during World War II, long before joining the Statesville Rotary Club,” Mallory said.
Pendleton may have downplayed his own role in the Allied triumph, but Mallory said the 451st Bomb Group played a key role in the war effort.
“These were incredibly dangerous missions with high losses of both bombers and escort fighters against a determined flak and fighter defense,” Mallory explained. “That Andy completed 27 missions is a testament to his courage and commitment to our country. After returning home, Andy set about demonstrating that same level of commitment to Statesville as both an architect and Rotarian.”
Pendleton was not one to talk about his service after returning home, but he wrote a five-page summary detailing “the most exciting day of my life” for his family. He has also shared a few war stories with Clodfelter.
“He is a hero in my eyes,” she said. “He is my hero because of what he has done for our family. He is my hero for what he has done professionally and obviously because of his experience in war.”
Pendleton, who lives in an assisted living facility in Statesville, recently participated in a Boston University study aimed at determining why some people live longer than others. (Pendleton’s father lived to be 92.)
“I told him it was because I had a shot of Scotch whisky every night before supper,” Pendleton said.
Clodfelter said her grandfather and his good friend and neighbor Chet Middlesworth enjoy making sure the staff at the assisted living facility do things by the book. Pendleton also does his own banking online and enjoys watching history documentaries on Youtube.
Looking back on the past 100 years, Pendleton said he has been blessed with “a wonderful wife, a fine, fine family, and good health.”
“I’ve just had an exceptional life,” he said. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the March 2023 issue of “IFN Monthly.”