- Historic Sites
“yes, By Damn, We’re Going Back To Berlin”
After two false starts, the B-17s got through. A pilot relives the 8th Air Force’s first successful daylight raid on the German capital .
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
When we first arrived at the base, we had our pictures taken in civilian dress with different combinations of clothing. If, once shot down, we were fortunate enough to contact the underground, these could be used for spurious identification cards. Our best bet, we were told, was to assume the identity of one of the many Poles deported to France as forced labor. At this stage in the war, many American fliers had made their way back out of German-occupied territory and provided invaluable data for escape and evasion tactics. It was my fantasy that, if shot down, I would work my way to a German airfield, steal a German plane, and fly back to England. These escape tactics were very real for us because we were told upon arrival at the 91st Bomb Group that only one person in eleven had finished his tour.
All dressed for the flight and ready to leave, I turned out the lights, and the room became pitch black. No use opening the blackout curtains, because by the time I returned it would be dark outside again. By virtue of the law of survival of the luckiest, I had moved up to be the fourth-ranking pilot in the squadron and had inherited a nice single room equipped with call buttons for orderlies, an overseas radio left by some luckless former occupant, and some foot lockers, which I never opened. One of the former occupants moved in one morning, then went out to fly a mission and was shot down.
I waited for Bill Behrend, my copilot, who came from Trenton, New Jersey. He soon appeared, and we went outside to where our bicycles were parked. Snapped to each bicycle frame was a torch, whose aperture could be controlled to furnish just a pinprick of light. Bill and I seldom used our torches while cycling on the base; we knew our way by heart. We pedaled to the officers mess, where good breakfast smells greeted us. Lucky Army units have a good scavenger who can find the unfindable. It was our good fortune to have a mess sergeant who scoured the countryside and cornered the local market in eggs. Each of us was guaranteed one fresh egg per day at sixpence each. We picked up our eggs at the door and turned them over to the waiter at the table.
Our navigator and bombardier were seated and had already begun to eat. Both were original members of the crew, which was formed at Moses Lake, Washington, in the spring of 1943. Bob Roberts, from Greenbelt, Maryland, was a likable, good-looking guy who didn’t make many mistakes and learned quickly from the ones that he did make. He was one of the most skilled navigators in the squadron and had quickly made himself familiar with the ingenious navigation gear provided by the Royal Air Force. Joe Ashby was from Rolla, Missouri, and sometimes gave the impression that he was naive. If you were fooled into thinking that, he was good at taking advantage of the situation. He and another Missourian talked about returning there after the war and starting a stump farm. Joe was an A-1 bombardier.
It was my fantasy that, if shot down, I would work my way to a German airfield, steal a plane, and fly back to England.
When you eat breakfast at 4:30 A.M. and will not eat again until after 6:00 P.M. , you choose your menu with care. Breakfasts were leisurely, with a choice of eggs prepared the way we wanted, pancakes, Spam, toast, orange marmalade (made from turnips), powdered milk, and coffee. There was little speculation about whether the forthcoming mission would be tough: instead we talked about the bomb load, gas load, how we could sneak some extra .50-caliber ammo aboard, the flying characteristics of our assigned aircraft, and so forth.
THE THEATER WHERE the mission briefing was held was always full fifteen minutes before the announced briefing time. From the doorway we spotted the six enlisted members of our crew; Bill and Joe went to the seats that they had reserved in the row ahead of them, Bob went to get his navigation materials, and I conferred with the operations officer.
He gave me a sheet of paper, which showed each plane’s position in the group formation, the colors of the flares that would be used in given situations, the call sign, the recall sign, and the times that the 91st Bomb Group would use for takeoff, assembly, and departure from the coast. The operations officer also said that because of scheduling difficulties, three squadron leaders would be flying today, and that I, being the newest assigned, would fly a wing position. He looked like he expected me to say, “That’s fine,” so I said, “That’s fine,” and joined my crew.
The six airmen sitting in the row of theater seats greeted me as I found a seat in front of them. Two of them, Elmer Diethorn of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Ward Simonson of upstate New York, were technical sergeants; the other four were a step below at staff sergeant. They were so young; at age twenty-three I was the old man of the crew.