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


The driver made his way across the east side of the field to the circular hardstand in the dispersal area where our plane was parked. Little taxi strips branched out from the main one; at the end of each were three circular hardstands, like a cluster of cherries at the end of a twig. It was still dark, but we could just make out three ground-crew members waiting by the plane.

We unloaded our gear by the right fuselage door near the rear of the plane. Bill, Mickey, and I went to talk to the ground crew while our other aircrew members attended to their duties.

The first matter to be discussed was Redline, our squadron mascot. This friendly mongrel had wandered by the airdrome some time before and had promptly been adopted by Spam-carrying, ear-scratching, lonely airplane mechanics. In due course he was fitted with his own oxygen mask, checked out as an official B-17 passenger, and allowed his own place in chow line. His name came from a way of denoting aircraft status on the maintenance form: a red X for unflyable, a red line for flyable but with certain restrictions, or a blank indicating no restrictions. Redline was nowhere to be seen. Apparently he would have nothing to do with flying to Berlin. I heard that later in the war he flew to Paris after it was liberated, which showed that he not only had a lot of sense but also a certain touch of class.

The men of the ground crew were devoted to their work and shared a special kinship with those who flew their plane. When we returned from a mission, they would be waiting on the flight line with other members of the group, anxious eyes scanning the aircraft for any sign of damage. They were accustomed to our questions by now: How many inches of manifold pressure did you get during maximum power at run-up? Was there excessive drop in rpm on any of the magnetos? Are all the engine instruments working? The question-and-answer session continued, with most of the discussion centered on the red-line items. There were always some items short in supply, so it was unusual to find an aircraft in perfect condition.

After finishing our discussion with the ground crew, Bill and I walked around the aircraft with the chief mechanic, examining the patches from the holes sustained during the previous three missions. In the main tanks and in the Tokyo (extra) tanks were eight tons of gasoline, based on weight for volume at current temperatures, and six tons of bombs hung in the bomb bays in the form of twelve 1,000-pounders. We agreed that we were operating above permissible limits because of the extra ammo, but from experience in flying other B-17s, I knew that this one had better flying characteristics than most. However, any B-17 drew great praise and trust from its aircrews because of its dependability and airworthiness.

WE SPENT THE FINAL part of the hour before engine-starting time sitting in a circle on our parachutes at the rear of the plane. This was not a “get one for the Gipper” or “twenty centuries of history look down upon you” atmosphere; this was a circle of friends who had worked together for some time, getting last words said. We decided to pile all the movable weight into the radio room, just aft of the bomb bays, to have a better weight distribution for takeoff. Ward Simonson, as crew medic, offered Neo-Synephrine drops to anyone who needed to unplug his sinuses. Joe Ashby would normally notify us that he had activated the bombs, which would allow them to explode upon impact. Sometimes there was some joking about somebody forgetting his dog tags so he wouldn’t be able to go or a lament about a missed pass to London because of the mission. About ten minutes before engine time, Bill and I slid into our seats and started to get everything comfortable for the trip. It was now light enough to see the other aircraft clearly. We located our squadron leader and decided to taxi right behind him when he moved out; he was leading the low squadron (the one on the group’s left flank), and I was flying on his right wing.

Bill reached for the starter switches, and the aerodrome exploded with sound as the Wright Cyclone engines roared into life.

We checked our watches, and Bill reached for the starter switches. The aerodrome exploded with sound as Wright Cyclone engines roared into life. From the tower a white light arched upward, with two stars falling from it, a needless signal. We started all four of our engines and checked oil pressures. The plug to the auxiliary ground-power unit was pulled, and after a thumbs-up signal exchanged with the ground crew, the brakes were released and the plane rolled slowly forward.

When the leader reached the takeoff runway, he stopped, turned his tail so that his prop-wash would not blow a cloud of stones into another plane, and started his pre-takeoff check. One by one, all the B-17s followed his example. When we had turned our plane at an angle, Bill and I checked our engines, with Mickey overlooking the procedure from his perch on a jump seat suspended between the two pilot seats. Nothing about the engine performance appeared out of the ordinary. We prepared the aircraft for takeoff configuration—fuel booster pumps on, fuel/air mixture in automatic rich, propellers in full rpm, engine cowl flaps open, wing flaps up—and gave other aircraft systems a final check.