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The Liberator

June 2024
19min read

By STEPHEN E. AMBROSE TELLS
WHAT WE DID WITH THEM.

EVEN IN OUR ERA OF CEASELESS TECHNOLOGICAL REtfinements, the American strategic bombing campaign of World War II remains an effort of almost unimaginable complexity and scope. In his new book, The Wild Blue , Stephen E. Ambrose tells the story of this immense operation through the experiences of scores of those who figure in the subhead of the book: The Men and Boys Who Flew the 6-245 Over Germany . But the author focuses on the z 2-year-old Lt. George McGovern, a young man with a future, who piloted a 6-24 christened Dakota Queen after his wife, Eleanor. The Dakota Queen was part of the 74ist Squadron, 455th Bomb Group, i5th Air Force. McGovern flew out of Cerignola, on the east coast of Italy, and what he experienced during his early missions is emblematic of everything suffered by everyone who served in the B-24S.

The B-24 was built like a 1930s Mack truck, except that it had an aluminum skin that could be cut with a knife. It could carry a heavy load far and fast, but it had no refinements. Steering the four-engine airplane was difficult and exhausting, as there was no power except the pilot’s muscle. It had no windshield wipers, so the pilot had to stick his head out the side window to see during a rain. Breathing was possible only by wearing an oxygen mask—cold and clammy, smelling of rubber and sweat—above 10,000 feet. There was no heat, despite temperatures that at 2.0,000 feet and higher got as low as 40 or even 50 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. The wind blew through the airplane like fury, especially from the waist gunners’ windows and whenever the bomb-bay doors were open. The oxygen mask often froze to the wearer’s face. If the men at the waist touched their machine guns with bare hands, the skin froze to the metal.

There were no bathrooms. To urinate, there were two small relief tubes, one forward and one aft, which were almost impossible to use without spilling because of the heavy layers of clothing the men wore. Plus which, the tubes were often clogged with frozen urine. Defecating could be done only in a receptacle lined with a wax-paper bag. A man had to be desperate to use it, because of the difficulty of removing enough clothing and exposing bare skin to the arctic cold. There were no kitchen facilities, no way to warm up food or coffee. But there was no food anyway, unless a crew member had packed in a C ration or a sandwich.

There was no aisle to walk down, only the eight-inch-wide catwalk running beside the bombs and over the bomb-bay doors to move forward to aft. It had to be done with care because the aluminum doors, which rolled up into the fuselage instead of opening outward on a hinge, had only a ioo-pound capacity, so if a man slipped, he would break through. The seats were not padded, could not be reclined, were cramped into so small a space that a man had almost no chance to stretch and none whatsoever to relax. Absolutely nothing was done to make it comfortable for the pilot, the copilot, or the other eight men in the crew, even though most flights lasted for 8 hours, sometimes 10 or more. The plane existed and was flown for one purpose only: to carry 500- or 1,000- pound bombs and drop them accurately over enemy targets.

It was called a Liberator. The Consolidated Aircraft Corporation first made it, with the initial flight in 1939. Consolidated, along with the Ford Motor Company, the Douglas Aircraft Company, and North American Aviation-together called the Liberator Production Pool went on to make over 18,300 of them, about s.ooo more than the total number of B-iys. The Liberator was not operational before World War II and was not ooerational after the war (nearly every 6-24 was cut up into scran in 194 s and 1946 or left to rot on Pacific islands). The people involved in producing it, in servicing it, and in flying the 8-2.4 outnumbered those involved with any other airplane, in any country, in any time. There were more 6-245 than any other American airplane ever built.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the 8-24 won the war for the Allies. But don’t ask how they could have won the war without it.

ON DECEMBER 6, 1944, LT. GEORGE McGovern prepared to fly his first mission as a pilot with his own crew. The target was the marshaling yards at Graz, Austria. He was “desperately eager to do everything right on the first time out alone.” He confessed that he “was probably more nervous on that takeoff than any other missions that fhe] flew during the war.” It was by far the heaviest 6-2.4 he had flown, what with the bombload, a full crew, all that gasoline, the machinegun belts, the oxygen tanks, and more. This was not a stateside aircraft; it weighed 60,000 pounds —30 tons. McGovern later said, “I don’t think any pilot in World War II ever made a takeoff in a B-24 that didn’t scare him.”

McGovern found taxiing the B-24 a challenge. Taxi strips were just packed clay and dirt. He could not steer the 6-24 with the nose wheel, over which he had no control. He had to steer with the propellers; if he wanted to turn right, he would cut back on the props on that side and speed them up on the left. The taxi strip was narrow and had a ditch on each side. The engineer, Sgt. Mike Valko, would stand behind the flight deck, open the overhead hatch, and put part of his body out of the plane to see if McGovern was getting too close on one side (the pilot could not see the ditches from the cockpit). Valko would call out, “Too close on the right.” Or he could say, “A little bit left.”

Once on the runway, with three or four aircraft ahead of him waiting to take off, McGovern set the brakes and revved up the engines. His copilot, Ralph (“Bill”) Rounds went through the checklist with him. When that was complete and the plane ahead had started down the runway, McGovern released the brakes. Beside him, he could hear Rounds praying. “Every takeoff I made in World War n was an adventure,” McGovern later admitted.

The runway was too short, but just at the end of it, McGovern, now up to 160 mph, pulled his plane up into the air. He was just skimming the ground. “It seemed forever before I could climb.” For more than a mile he was at treetop height. “Wing flaps up,” he told Rounds, and when that was done, the plane had more speed and less drag. Finally, mercifully, he started to climb.

The rallying point was over the Adriatic. Once over the water, McGovern had the gunners test their machine guns. He spotted the lead plane, slid into formation, wingtip to wingtip, almost touching, close enough so that a fighter plane couldn’t dive between them. That took almost an hour. Then the formation headed on to Graz (in southeastern Austria), over the Alps. On the way up to zo,ooo feet, the Dakota Queen passed through the clouds. For McGovern, the weather gave him more worry than the possibility of heavy flak. If there had been a contest between weather and flak “in the amount of sheer sweat and fear that it produced, the weather won.”

Rounds checked the instruments. He was all business. No jokes, no naps, no pranks. He was coordinated and an athlete and wanted to be flying his own fighter aircraft, but he was, in McGovern’s view, almost a perfect copilot. Not that he had a lot to do. McGovern said he was there as a “standby. It was like being Vice President of the United States. He was there in case of trouble only.”

By the time the formation got to Graz, the weather had closed in. Nothing but clouds. The lead plane turned away. The lead pilot did not get on the radio to say he was taking the others back; they simply turned when he did. Over the Adriatic on the way home, he jettisoned his bombload, as did the other planes. It was a milk run—no fighters, no flak. Because they had crossed into enemy territory, however, everyone got a mission to his credit. Back at Cerignola, the weather was clear. McGovern told Rounds to put the wheels down. He checked to make sure his ballturret gunner was inside the airplane and his turret pulled up. He put the wing flaps down to 40 degrees. Rounds called out the air speed: “We’re at 170…160… 150 …140.” McGovern eased back on the throttles. The plane was almost gliding. It was a good landing. When he pulled the plane onto its hard stand, the crew got out singing and whistling. McGovern walked around the plane, something he would do before and after every mission. Everything was fine.

For this mission, McGovern was paid $9.70. He was earning $290 per month, including his overseas pay and combat pay. He sent $100 of that home to his wife each month.

After debriefing, on his way to the officers’ club, he stopped by the enlisted men’s tent to see how they were doing. They were already celebrating. McGovern and Rounds had a beer or two in the club in honor of their first mission. No holes in the plane, no wounded crew, no danger, but credit for a full mission. Wonderful.

THEN, ON DECEMBER 4, McGOV -ern’s father died of a heart attack while pheasant hunting. Cables took what seemed forever in World War II, and it was not until December 14 that the one reporting his death arrived at the base. The intelligence officer took it to McGovern. The chaplain prayed with him, then said he could be exempted from flying the next day. McGovern said no.

On December 15, the target was the railroad yards in Linz, Austria. At the briefing, the pilots and crews were told that the Germans were going through Linz as they ran equipment to both the Eastern and Western Fronts, and thus the target was critical. So off they went.

It was at Linz on this, their second mission, that McGovern said “we got introduced to combat.” The flak was heavy. Up to that point, McGovern had thought exploding flak “looked like firecrackers and rockets going off.” He learned better when a big slug of flak “came through the windshield, high and to my right. It hit just above my right shoulder and to the right of my head, and then fell down onto the floor between Rounds and me.” They looked at it. Rounds looked over to McGovern and just shook his head. McGovern did the same. The shrapnel was “the angriest-looking piece of metal, just jagged on every edge and big enough to tear your head off if it had hit a few inches to the left or maybe a few more inches on Bill Rounds’s side.”

McGovern got back to the base and made his landing “smooth as glass.” The men were happy and reassured. He had landed his plane twice without incident. That night they talked about their lieutenant and how good he was. Other crews said their pilots “just bang us in.” From then on, McGovern said, “They treated me around that airplane almost with reverence.” They had already developed total confidence in their pilot.

December 16 was a cloudy, cold day all across Europe, but the 74151 and the rest of the i5th Air Force flew anyway. It was the day the Germans took advantage of the weather to counterattack in the Ardennes, launching the Battle of the Bulge. The target for McGovern and the others was the oil refineries in Briix, Czechoslovakia.

McGovern got the Dakota Queen into formation in a broken cloud cover, but “all of a sudden everything just goes blank.” The formation had flown into a complete cloud cover. McGovern held his position, number three, but when they got above the cloud, he discovered that they all were flying at the same altitude but that the number two plane had crossed by him and was on his left side. “I was just petrified …at the sight.” The lead pilot saw the situation and called on his radio, “What’s going on here?” McGovern motioned to the other pilot that he should go up while the Dakota Queen went down, and they crossed again and got into their proper positions. “That’s as close as I ever came to being killed and getting my crew killed and losing our bomber,” McGovern said. He was shaking.

“I DON’T THINK ANY PILOT… EVER MADE A TAKEOFF IN A B-24 THAT DIDNT SCARE HIM.”

Over Brüx, the flak was intense. It seemed to McGovern that the German gunners were getting better after each raid. “They’d lay that stuff up there, and it was almost as if an artist had drawn it. ” There was a bizarre array of color, ranging from blue sky overhead to white clouds below to solid black from the flak directly in front, then huge, angry flashes of red when another shell exploded. “Hell can’t be any worse than that,” McGovern said later. Mike Valko, the flight engineer, stood between and slightly behind McGovern and Rounds, watching their instruments. McGovern glanced at Valko. His face was white.

The lead bomber for the raid was using a Mickey radar, so although Br½x was covered by clouds, he made his drop, and the others followed.

Two or three other squadrons had completed their runs, and it was the 74151’$ turn. Ahead, it was black except for flashes from exploding shells. McGovern was flying number three, just behind the lead bomber. He thought, Nobody’s going to get through this flak. But just then, the leader began to make a gentle turn. He bypassed the target, “and we threw our bombs into the field.” McGovern guessed that the squadron leader’s thinking was, There’s no way we’re going to get through this, and the damage they’re going to do to us is greater than we’re going to do to them. We may not even hit this target, can’t see it, for sure. I’m not going to take these guys into a place where I know none of them are coming out.

Whatever the leader thought, not one of the men following his plane ever said anything about it. Every pilot and copilot, every nose gunner and bombardier and navigator, knew exactly what had happened. None of them uttered a word of criticism. McGovern said his own thinking was: “I’m not sure to this day that he wasn’t right in avoiding that almost suicidal bomb run.”

LIEUTENANT McGOVERN WAS ON the assignment sheet for the following morning, December 17. At the predawn briefing, he learned the target was an oil refinery at Odertal, Germany. McGovern taxied out to the runway, called the tower, got his clearance, opened the throttles, and began speeding down the runway. Suddenly, just like that, bang . The right-hand wheel had blown.

“I had to make an almost instantaneous decision whether to cut the throtties and try to get stopped before the end of the runway or whether to hold them wide open and pull that plane off the ground. I made one quick look and decided I couldn’t stop.”

He kept the throttles wide open and just did get up. “We had a full bombload,” McGovern recalled. “We skimmed not just the treetops but the fence-post tops.”

The question became: Abort or continue the mission? Whichever alternative was chosen, the plane would be landing on one wheel or crash-landing with no wheels. McGovern called the tower to explain his predicament. The tower said, “Lieutenant, it’s up to you. You’re the pilot. We’re not going to tell you what to do…. There have been 6-245 that landed on one wheel, and it’s not going to be easy, but if you want to do it, we’ll have the emergency vehicles out there.” A third alternative was for McGovern to have the crew bail out and bring the plane in by himself. McGovern flew a couple of circles around the airfield to give himself time to decide.

He thought, We can fly this mission just as well on one wheel as we can on two, and we’ll get rid of the gasoline that way, and we’ll get rid of the bombs over the target, which is what we’re supposed to do. He turned on the intercom and told the crew what he had decided and then added that anyone who wanted to bail out could do so right now. None did.

McGovern got his plane into formation. The mission took 7 hours and 30 minutes, not counting the hour to form up. Flak was heavy, but the Germans shot down only one 8-24.

McGovern’s plane went unhurt. Coming home was the time of worry. He was going to try to land a 6-24 on one main wheel plus the nosewheel. Because he had plenty of gas after the relatively short mission, the tower decided to have him circle the field and then land last. Now, McGovern thought, I have to land this plane with the other pilots watching. They were all hovering around the runway. So, McGovern said, “We came down, and I made the best landing I’d ever made in my life. I never made a landing like that before or since.”

He brought the airplane in “just barely floating.” He could hardly tell when the left wheel touched down. He advanced the throttles on the right side, cut them on the left, “and that bomber went right straight down the runway. It never wavered.” When the right wing settled down, the plane was slowed enough that he just turned it off the runway.

At the officers’ club that night, the other pilots cheered. “That particular incident elevated my status for good in that group,” McGovern recalled. (In his diary, Rounds recorded that McGovern was recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross on that mission.)

ENCOUNTERS IN THE CLUB WERE not always pleasant. Once McGovern fell into a conversation with two fighter pilots who got to talking about strafing two Italians fishing on a bridge. The men went down as the pilots machine-gunned them, and they fell into the water. “Did you see those I-ties drop!” one pilot enthused. “Yeah!” the other answered, grinning. “They won’t fish again.”

“My blood just ran cold,” said McGovern. “How could they do that to two innocent guys who were just fishing? … I was embarrassed… they seemed to me like a disgrace to the country, disgrace to their humanity.” He thought that was what Hitler and his gang did.

Yet he was a bomber pilot. Almost certainly he was responsible for more civilian deaths than the two fighter pilots. But he was bombing Austrians, Germans, and Germany’s allies from high up and couldn’t see the effects of the explosions, not at all like the pilots who had shot the Italian fishermen. He felt that since the casualties were Hitler’s followers, he did not need to exercise his conscience about bombing them. In a sense, he thought they needed it, because of what they had done throughout Europe. He wanted to show them, “You can’t get away with this kind of conduct.”

At the base, he had a lot of time to think. Sometimes when the weather closed in, he would go for days without flying. There was little, or even nothing, to do—no planned recreation, no physical training exercise, occasionally a softball game, depending on the rain—yet he and his crew had to be there every day, available to fly.

AFTER THE ODERTAL MISSION , McGovern saw on the assignment sheet that he was flying again the next day, December 18. It turned out to be almost a milk run. The target was in Germany, but weather forced the lead pilot to turn away and set off for the alternative target, the marshaling yards at Sopron, Hungary. There was no flak, and every plane returned to base safely.

THEY HAD FIVE MINUTES TO PUT OUT THE FIRE THE FLAME BROKE THROUGH AND BLEW THE GAS TANKS

Three missions surely required at least a day of rest, but that night on the assignment sheet there was McGovern’s name again, along with many others. At the briefing in the morning, he noted that most of the pilots looked “like old men, with deep circles under the eyes.” He thought they were ready for a rest camp or being sent home, not for another mission. The officer on the platform pulled the drawstring. The target was Munich, one of the two or three most heavily defended German cities.

One of the men in the audience gave out a sort of scream, “ Ahhhhhh! ” For some that broke the tension, and they managed to laugh. But McGovern looked at the pilot beside him. “I thought when he saw Munich on there, he was going to collapse.” It had been raining all night. It still was. Off they went anyway, to get into their planes.

McGovern was in the number three position for the 74151. The taxi strip was slippery because of the mud and rain. McGovern listened for directions from Valko, standing in the top hatch, but heard nothing. McGovern felt a slight tug on the right. Before he could correct the plane, its right wheel had slipped into the ditch beside the taxi strip. McGovern increased the power to the right engines, eased off the left side, and tried to get the wheel to climb back onto the strip. Instead, it just dug deeper into the ditch.

Behind the Dakota Queen there were four other 6-245, waiting for their chance to get to the runway. McGovern blocked them. He talked to the tower, explained the problem, and then heard an order to him and the other pilots: scratch the mission. The others shut down their engines and got out of their planes. So did McGovern (whose bomber was pulled out by a tractor).

McGovern was chagrined. Those four pilots were close to their thirty-fifth mission, the going home mission. He thought, he later said, that they were “just going to shoot my ass.” But instead they came over “and practically kissed me.” They couldn’t thank him enough. No Munich!

At the officers’ club that evening, they talked. They didn’t blame McGovern; they said it was the engineer’s fault. But they did tell him that he was taking an unnecessary risk in gunning his engines, that he should never try to power his way out when stuck in mud. Besides wear on the engines, they told him that his actions had caused a dangerous situation because of the possibility of fuel spilling on the ground and catching fire.

McGovern learned. But though the people who knew best told him it wasn’t his fault, he never forgot the incident. “I was embarrassed; my crew and I had screwed up in front of the whole squadron. I found it enormously embarrassing. It still pains me after all these years [more than a half-century] to think about it.”

THAT NIGHT, McGOVERN’S NAME was on the assignment sheet. In the morning, December 20, he learned that the target was the Skoda works in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. It, too, was heavily defended, because it was a principal manufacturer of arms for the Germans.

An hour away from the Skoda works, Dakota Queen ’s number two engine (inboard on the left wing) quit. McGovern feathered the prop—that is, used a flight-deck button to turn the propeller parallel to the plane’s airstream, to keep it from windmilling and thus acting as a drag or brake on the plane. With only three engines functioning, McGovern had to struggle to keep up with the formation.

“Any time you lost an engine up there,” Rounds said, “there was no trouble back at base if you dropped out and returned. A lot of guys did it.” McGovern could have done it, but instead he told Rounds, “So we’re minus an engine. Let’s keep going.” They did. But after turning at the initial point and heading over Pilsen, when they were only 30 seconds or so away from the drop point, flak hit the plane.

In his diary, Rounds described what happened. “All at once No. 3 [engine] began throwing oil and smoking badly.” The engine lost oil pressure so rapidly that McGovern was unable to feather the propeller. It became a windmill, creating enormous drag and reducing the effective power of the plane to about one and a half engines. McGovern ordered the bombs dropped and turned away. But, Rounds wrote, “One minute later, she began vibrating fiercely. We tried to feather it again but it wouldn’t and just kept windmilling. We lost altitude rapidly and No. 3 burst into flame.” Radio operator Ken Higgins recalled that “oil streamed out of the runaway engine, and flame was belching out of the thing. It looked real bad.”

McGovern had read in the 6-24 manual for pilots that in five minutes flame would break through the wall and explode the gas tanks. He began descending rapidly, and the increased speed put out the fire. But the prop continued to windmill. “Prepare to bail out,” McGovern called over the intercom. Waist gunner Tex Ashlock was ready to leave.“I sat with my legs dangling out of the escape hatch,” he said, “waiting for the word to parachute out.”

Neither Ashlock nor any other man in the plane had ever used a parachute— or been trained on how to do it. McGovern had said to a veteran pilot at Mountain Home, Idaho, “Colonel, we’re about through with our training, and none of us have had a parachute jump. Shouldn’t we be trained in that?”

The colonel replied, “Son, let me tell you something: When you get into combat, you don’t need any training on how to get out of that plane. What you need is good judgment on how long you can stay in. You’re going to want to get out if it’s on fire, if half the wing is broken off, if it’s in a spin. What you need is the discipline to stay with it as long as it’s safe. We don’t have to teach you when to jump. You’ll find a hole that a cat couldn’t jump through if you have to get out of that plane.”

On the flight deck, McGovern tried again to bring the prop under control. He pushed the button, and this time it worked. “Resume your stations,” he ordered over the intercom. “We’re going to try to bring her home.”

However, when he looked at the map, he realized they could not get home. The airplane “just couldn’t go that far, it wouldn’t stay in the air that long.” The gas supply was low, and the fuel was leaking. McGovern got on the intercom to his navigator, Sam Adams, to ask if Adams knew of any landing strips between where they were and Cerignola. “The best bet is a little fighter strip on the isle of Vis out on the Adriatic,” Adams told him, “but it’s only got a 2,2OO-foot runway, and we need 5,000 feet to land. Do you think you can bring it in on a z,zoo-foot runway?”

Well, McGovern thought, that’s better than our being up here with two engines out. “How far is it?” he asked Adams. Adams replied, “We can make it in less than an hour.”

The Dakota Queen was losing altitude. The alternative to Vis was to crash-land in the sea. That had no appeal. The 6-24s were not built for crash-landing in the sea. Only about 25 percent of those who tried made it. The others broke up on impact, killing everyone.

McGovern ordered everything loose thrown out of the plane to lighten it up. Almost everything went: not the radio, but the machine guns, the oxygen tanks, all the ammunition, plus flak jackets, and the chart table. That helped some. McGovern said on the intercom that anyone who wanted to bail out could do so. None did.

Vis is a 58-square-mile mountainous island some 40 miles off the Dalmatian coast. Marshal Tito’s partisans had taken it from the Italian army in September 1943, and the British RAF had built a runway there for their Spitfires. It was also Tito’s headquarters. A number of 6-245 and B-175 had used it as an emergency strip. For the morale of the B-24 crews, knowing that Vis was there was important. “It was an unsinkable island in the Adriatic with a landing strip and medical attention,” said Ed Brendza, a technical representative for the 15th Air Force, sent to the island to work on the smaller planes that landed there. “For them it was another chance at Mother Earth.”

THE ISLAND CAME INTO VIEW. THE approach required coming in over a mountain and dropping suddenly down to sea level. Number three engine caught fire, again. McGovern cut back on the gasoline to make the final approach.

“Both of us were on the controls,” Rounds recalled. “I was helping Mac hold it. The two good engines throbbed a little, but they were being over-taxed. But when we saw that strip, we weren’t worried.” Rounds raised the Vis tower by radio—its call sign was Sand Sail—and said that a B-24 with one engine afire and another dead was coming in for an emergency landing.

McGovern was worried. At the far end of the runway a mountain rose, and he could see the “carcasses of half a dozen bombers beyond the field.” He figured he had only one shot at the thing. If he came in too high and tried to pull up, he doubted he could do it on two engines. If he failed to bring the Dakota Queen in on the first pass, “we would have all had it.”

He brought the plane in as slowly as he could without stalling. He couldn’t land short of the runway because of the mud. He had to hit it exactly. He told Rounds, “When you hear those wheels touch that runway, get on those brakes just as hard as you can and I’ll do the same.”

“They were on the brakes all the way down the strip,” waist gunner Ashlock recalled. The tires screeched and smoked. “We just kind of wheeled off at the very end of the runway, going pretty fast. We bogged down in the wet clay and stopped.” From where he sat, McGovern could see the mountain just ahead of him. A British foam truck was already spraying the smoldering engine.

The men piled out of the plane. Half threw themselves on the ground and kissed it. That was the only time McGovern ever saw them do that. McGovern and Rounds hugged each other.

A truck picked them up. As they were driving to headquarters, another stricken B-24 came to land: Ashlock watched it. It “went right into the mountain, and everyone was killed.”

McGovern did not know that Tito was on the island and never got to meet him, but more than three decades later, President Jimmy Carter had a reception for Tito in the White House. McGovern, who was then a U.S. senator, was there. In his remarks, Tito expressed his appreciation for the American people and then added, “At least one of you, Senator McGovern, came to see me in World War II, and now Fm returning the favor.”

At the time, McGovern had hoped the British could repair his plane and he could fly it out the next day, but the ground crew said no, this runway was not long enough. They added that every four-engine bomber that had come to Vis was still there and would be forever. The next day, Cerignola sent a DC-3 to pick up McGovern and his crew.

Some months later, the Army Air Force
awarded McGovern the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions that day at Vis. The citation praised him for his “high degree of courage and piloting skill.”

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