- 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
It was a short stroll from the briefing room to 401st operations, where I chatted for a few mintues with the operations officer, James McPartlin, and his two assistants, Francis Porada and Neil Daniels. Sometimes they would have bits of information that might prove useful, and sometimes I would ask for help with equipment or aircraft problems. This was my fourth long mission in five days, each with nine hours of flying time and over seven and a half hours on oxygen. Such a stiff schedule was not normally expected, or asked, of an aircrew. But given all the discussions about the spring offensive to neutralize the Luftwaffe before D-day, I would not have been surprised to be on the schedule again the following day.
Just behind operations was a medium-sized Quonset hut, which was filled with racks of personal equipment, parachutes, machine guns, and other paraphernalia of war. After each mission the machine guns were removed from the aircraft and returned to the flight line for inspection and maintenance. On the several occasions when we didn’t make it back to the airfield, the guns were faithfully removed from the battered aircraft and laboriously trucked back with us.
GORDON A. WIGGETT of Vermont, whose duty station was at the right waist gun, was the armorer on our crew. It was his job to keep our thirteen machine guns in perfect working order and to beg or steal the extra ammo that we always carried after our embarrassing early shortages. From our first days of training as a crew, many missions were devoted entirely to gunnery and to the discipline necessary to prevent burning out the gun barrels, a common problem when so many rounds were fired.
Our guns were our protectors, and we took good care of them. With the bombs it was different; there was a feeling of guilt associated with them. In the States we spent countless hours on precision bombing until we could hit a “pickle barrel” from twenty-five thousand feet. Our generation was brought up with the belief that wars were fought under certain gentlemanly terms, involving only military targets and military men. Suddenly we were in a situation where we were bombing through clouds at targets surrounded by the civilian populace. When the Pathfinder aircraft, specially equipped for radar bombing through clouds, was brought to our group in December 1943, I registered a moral objection with my squadron commander. He listened but insisted that this was the only way to win the war. After a week of arguing with myself, I finally concluded that he was right. Fortunately there was a squadron stand-down during this last month of 1943 due to weather or I might have received some sort of punishment. However, every time the bombs dropped away and the aircraft leaped forward, relieved of its burden, I had ambivalent feelings: happy to have a more maneuverable plane to fly but troubled in my conscience.
This was my fourth long mission in five days, each with nine hours of flying time and over seven hours on oxygen.
Gordon Wiggett had commandeered a two-ton truck and driver to carry us and our equipment out to our aircraft. The guns went in first, then each aircrew member loaded his own equipment. I put on my fleece-lined flying boots, slipped a Mae West over my shoulders, fastening a strap from front to back between my legs, and checked both CO2 cylinders to make sure they worked. A parachute harness went over the Mae West; it was the kind that had two snaps in front for a chest pack. The chest pack itself went into the back of the truck and during the mission was placed behind my seat.
We each had our personal leather helmet, which contained earphones and snaps for our oxygen mask, which had to be tightened constantly. Some had microphones built in, but these worked very poorly because the water condensing from the breath would freeze the instruments. Instead we used throat mikes, two hard, rubber, pill-shaped devices fitted against the larynx by a strap around the neck. There were three umbilical cords uniting the flier with the aircraft—oxygen mask, throat mike, and headset.
Back in the summer of 1943, somebody in the 91st Bomb Group had the idea that a suit of armor (later called flak jackets) for aircrew members would be useful. Wilkinson, the famous sword manufacturer, began producing a vest made up of overlapping steel plates wrapped in canvas. Right after they became available, one of the plates was torn out of mine by a 13-mm cannon shell, which then lodged in my seat without exploding. Some of the fellows who had to stand up a lot during flight found them too heavy. Bill always folded his up and sat on it. “First things first,” he said, grinning.
We had to be stationed at our aircraft one and a half hours after briefing time. One hour after that was called engine time, when engines were started. Fifteen minutes later the planes would take off.