“yes, By Damn, We’re Going Back To Berlin”

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IN MARCH THE NIGHTS were long and black over the airfield at Bassingbourn, which lies just north of London. Its latitude is about the same as that of Hudson Bay, and this proximity to the Arctic Circle means long summer days and long winter nights. During the cold months the B-17s of the 91st Bombardment Group took off in the dark: a blackout was strictly enforced, all the windows had heavy curtains, and even the flashlights had recessed bulbs.

Our squadron, the 401st, was put on alert during the evening of March 5,1944—a bombing mission was on for the next day. Designated crews were awakened by the assistant operations officer, stumbling through the dark barracks with torch in hand, and on this Monday morning it was a little earlier than usual—3:30 A.M. This early wake-up time always meant an especially long mission. We had been up at 3:30 on March 3 and 4 as well, and the mission had been announced as Berlin. On both days the clouds had been solid east of the Rhine, and targets of opportunity had been selected instead.

So when the operations officer declared, “Breakfast at 4:30, briefing at 5:30,” to the sleepy crew members, we knew what lay ahead. Berlin again. This would be my fourth mission in six days.

The crews scheduled to fly missions were normally put on alert the night before so that they could get their rest and psych themselves up. If no missions were scheduled for the group for the next day, the announcement was made in the early evening that the group was on “stand-down”—news greeted by a collective sigh of relief and often by a visit to the bar or to the very infrequent movie on the base, or by a game of cards with the other officers, perhaps a basketball game, or a bicycle ride around the station. In my case many nights were spent writing to my wife, Jeanne, or reading. I had found Franz Werf el’s book The Forty Days of Musa Dagh and was doggedly working my way through it. The feeling of impending doom generated by the story of the Armenian massacre was coupled with the gloomy atmosphere resulting from the heavy losses of B-17 crews and many friends during early 1944, so that it seems now that the sun didn’t even shine during that period.

Some of the flight crews were difficult to awaken. Many took sleeping pills to get to sleep and pep pills to stay awake; after a mission they would visit the bar to dissolve the tension. This was not a problem with my crew; after the first few missions they adopted an attitude of taking things as they came.

When I was awakened on March 6, 1944, my movements were automatic and detached, a pattern developed from previous missions. Some fliers were very superstitious; they would try to do exactly the same things that worked for them on previous successful missions. The only obsession that I developed was to make sure that I had a bowel movement before takeoff. At high altitudes in unpressurized aircraft, the food in the bowels will expand, causing great pain. On my second mission, over France, I neglected this important physical function and was punished by six hours in purgatory. During the fighting that followed, my pain was so intense that I was hoping that I would be shot down to end it. Never again would I neglect my pre-mission ritual of a visit to the latrine.

The temperature at twenty-eight thousand feet over Germany in the winter sometimes goes down to minus sixty degrees Centigrade, so cold that our flying boots froze to any spilled oil or hydraulic fluid on the floor of the airplane. It was necessary to dress warmly but without bulkiness that would restrict movement. Each person had his own idea of what the well-dressed aviator should wear, but all started with the indispensable long Johns. Over these I wore the dark Army shirt and trousers, very warm, and in the coldest days of winter, a flying suit along with the leather A-2 jacket. On my feet were a pair of silk socks, a pair of heavy socks, and the high-top combat shoes with the leather inside out. These were laced tightly, to prevent the common occurrence of shoes snapping off when the parachute opens. Later on, at the equipment hut, I would zip on a pair of fleece-lined winter flying boots over the shoes.

The crushed Army officer’s cap was the final adornment, but it was exchanged at the equipment but for tight-fitting leather and canvas headgear. The gloves never protected the hands adequately from the numbing cold, and I tried various combinations that would give me control over the numerous switches and levers and yet prevent my hands from freezing. After several missions I hit upon a pair of tight-fitting silk gloves underneath a pair of thin leather gloves.

 

Most crew members didn’t carry a firearm, as we were told that the Germans could treat us as spies if they caught us with weapons. Instead we were issued a Swiss pocket knife with a blade under six inches to conform with the Geneva Convention rules. A silk scarf, on which a map of Europe was printed, also went into my pocket. Several compasses were concealed in buttons; a very small one was sewn into the seam of my shirt pocket.