- 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
Elmer “Mickey” Diethorn was the flight engineer and chief honcho of the crew. His “office” during the flight was directly behind the pilot, from which point he could monitor all the engine instruments and furnish advice. During fighter attacks he manned the top machine-gun turret, which contained two .50-caliber guns and was power-driven. Although I don’t recall his shooting down any aircraft (probably because they attacked from the front and dived down under his guns), his job was extremely important: he acted somewhat like a fire-control director, advising the other gunners where the attacking Jerries were, which way they were going, and which gunner should be ready to shoot at them next.
Mickey and I were worried about our ship, which had sustained major structural damage in the February 22 raid on Oschersleben. Although it had had a depot overhaul and had been flown since, it still had a few problems. I told him that Bill and I had cycled out to the ship after dinner and talked to the ground crew, who had promised to work through the night to clean up some maintenance problems.
Like Mickey, radio operator Ward Simonson was always happy and cheerful. He had picked up his code information for the day, had been briefed on which frequencies to monitor, and said that there were no radio problems. We always kidded him about his Purple Heart: he had been hit by a truck the month before.
Bob Roberts joined us, carrying a packet of escape and evasion materials that the crew would use if shot down. The escape plan was to join up with Bob, who normally would leave the aircraft in the middle of the evacuation and should be in the center of the parachuting crew, and to make our plans from there. His kit, which then cost about twenty-three dollars, contained eight gold articles—three rings, two half-sovereign coins, one sovereign, one 20-franc coin, and one 10-franc coin. Mickey had a box of hard candies to carry, and Ward Simonson would bring the first-aid kit. After each mission Bob had to turn in the escape and evasion kit, but we usually ate up the candy, and Ward kept his medical supplies.
The noisy room suddenly became silent as the group commander and the briefing officers arrived. They mounted the stage, and a junior officer pulled the curtains to reveal a map of Europe on which our flight track was plotted from Bassingbourn to target and back to Bassingbourn. Three days earlier there had been a gasp and an explosion of noise from the aircrews when we spotted the flight track to Berlin. Today, when the opened curtains showed the same target, there was little reaction.
“Yes, by damn,” said our group commander, “we’re going back to Berlin and this time we’re going to do it right. And I’m going to be right up there in the first plane, because the 91st Bomb Group is going to show them the way. We’re going to lead the 1st Air Combat Wing of the 1st Air Division of the 8th Air Force. We’re going to hit that ball-bearing works in Erkner, which is sixteen miles southeast of Berlin, and we’re going to destroy it just like we did the ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt.” This was not a highly motivating remark, because it was nip and tuck for a while which would be wiped out first—the 91st or Schweinfurt.
The group commander was followed by a series of briefing officers. The flak officer had put colored plastic along our flight route wherever there were concentrations of antiaircraft weapons. He showed us how our flight route was planned so that we would have minimum exposure to the 88-mm and 105-mm antiaircraft guns. This was reassuring. Once our group navigator had had our formation fly upwind over the Ruhr Valley, which had the greatest concentration of flak guns in the world. Weather, munitions, and maintenance came next. There was even a taxi-control officer who told us the direction and sequence for taxiing. Long before, in secret conclave at the bar, we pilots had all decided that this was the job we would grab during our next combat tour.
After the briefing the aircrew got together to decide if there was anything special that needed to be done before we picked up our equipment and went out to the aircraft. On two previous missions we had run out of .50-caliber ammunition and had to sit, helpless, while the Jerries attacked. After that we always took an extra fifteen hundred rounds per gun over the limit allowed by our munitions officer.
The crew split up to finish certain chores. In some of the rooms behind the theater stage, chaplains of various faiths were available to provide spiritual encouragement. Figuring that I needed all the help that I could get, I invariably received Holy Communion and the Last Rites of the Catholic Church before going on a mission.