Service and Sacrifice: Jim Heap

Jim Heap flew 25 missions over Germany as a tail gunner on a B-24 bomber.
Jim Heap flew 25 missions over Germany as a tail gunner on a B-24 bomber.
Heap's crew from the bomber "Black Nan.''
Heap's crew from the bomber "Black Nan.''
Heap as a 20-year old.
Heap as a 20-year old.

A card board chart hanging in his tent marked the time until Jim Heap made it home. A pair of socks ensured that he would.

In Europe in 1945, hope and superstition were intermingled. And both were allies of American soldiers fighting a war that saved the world.

"You never thought when you went up that you wouldn't come back down,'' sais Heap. "You never gave thought to the danger, just the job at hand.''

For Heap, danger was inherent in his job as the tailgunner on a B-24 bomber stationed in Northern Italy and charged with flying deep into enemy territory. The ten-man crew on his plane, Black Nan, flew 25 missions, all successful because they were all round trips.

"One mission, we went off every 10 or 15 seconds, the plane in front of us blew up on takeoff and plane parts were everywhere and we had to go anyway,'' says Heap. "We flew right through the smoke and fire and everything else.''

The scene was as unusual as it was surreal for someone who usually saw the war in reverse from his location in the back of Black Nan.

"In my position, I was the last to see anything that was happening,'' says Heap. "Planes go down, then you waited to see parachutes or anything. Sometimes you would, sometimes you wouldn't. And it got you thinking, we're pretty lucky. And we were lucky, going 25 missions. A lot of crews didn't make it.''

Heap's did largely because of the skill of Black Nan's pilot. But to this day, he believes a little part of the crew's special preparation.

"Everybody on the crew had their own good luck,'' says Heap. "Mine was lucky socks and I wore them on every mission. And I kept them every since.''

Heap's luck with the military continued long after the war through 20 years of service and another 20 in civil service.

But even with all that time in and around the military, it would be 45 years before he reunited with the crew of Black Nan. After that, he kept in touch with several of them.

And today he is one of only three surviving members of a crew that lived, fought and avoided dying together.

"It's an experience I'll never forget,'' says Heap. "And if anybody asked me if I would do it again, yeah. Because we had a job to do and we did it. I'm just sorry we lost so many people, so many guys, good guys.''