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

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Fifteen minutes after we started the engines, the lead aircraft roared down the runway, followed by the others at thirty-second intervals. When our turn came, we taxied quickly so that our tail wheel was on the grass at the very end of the runway, locked the tail wheel, rolled forward to line up with the runway, made sure that the tail-wheel lock was engaged, and then stopped in takeoff position. When the squadron leader’s aircraft left the runway ahead of me, I stood on the brakes, my left hand on the control-column yoke and my right hand advancing the four throttles. When they were advanced as far as possible, Mickey’s “OK” confirmed my observation that we were getting full power, and I released the brakes. Immediately Bill’s right hand closed the engine cowl flaps to reduce the extra drag; I could feel his left hand behind mine on the throttles to make sure that they wouldn’t creep back. With his right he tightened a friction-control knob that helped to keep the engine controls in a set position. The knot of tension in my stomach tightened as the plane surged forward.

Gear up. Wing flaps up. Climb configuration. We are past a danger point in our mission. I had seen many aborted takeoffs, with at least two resulting in aircraft and bombs exploding at the end of the runway.

The sky was clear in all directions, with the gentle fields and green checkerboard of England spread below us. Rudyard Kipling’s mansion, just to the south of the airfield, provided a familiar sight and always evoked memories of stories read during childhood about the British Empire in its glory. The royal highway, built by the Romans, points arrow-straight to London. People on the ground looked skyward, watching the growing air armada assemble. All during my tour in England, the people treated us like heroes, inviting us into their homes and telling us what a beautiful sight it was to see our planes fly toward Germany every day.

Within minutes after takeoff our plane was in loose formation on the squadron leader’s right wing with the others gradually joining up. The low-squadron leader waited for the lead squadron to form, then found his position on the left side, slightly behind and below the group leader. The other squadron in the group, called the high squadron, would be to the right, slightly above and behind the group leader, who in this case was also the air-wing leader, division leader, and leader of the total force of some 660 four-engine bombers. The groups and the wings were stacked in the same way as the squadron building blocks, up and to the right. This is a formation that could make left turns more easily than right, so our turns today would be to the left at the initial point and also upon leaving the target. It was also a formation in which planes could be stacked very tightly to increase bombing efficiency and provide better defense against air attack. A B-17 group could put out eighteen tons of lead per minute with all machine guns firing, so a tight formation would have devastating effect against closely pressed attacks.

From Hanover to Berlin we were under continuous attack from FW-190s, Ju-88s, and the Messerschmitts.
 

The group made its way to a selection of beacons (Splasher 1 through 8) in eastern England, gathering followers along the way. A series of turns built into the route allowed a delayed formation to find its place in the stream at a time and location of its choosing. The time from takeoff until we left the coast of England would be about one and a half hours.

Every fifteen minutes Bill and I changed off at the controls. Whoever takes over calls for an oxygen check; it is easy for a person in an isolated position to lose his oxygen supply and die. The disembodied voices came over the Interphone—tail/gunner OK, right waist OK, left waist OK, ball turret OK, radio OK, top turret OK, bombardier OK, navigator OK. It was good to hear the voices.

The voices changed during our time together, particularly that of Frank Topits, the ball-turret gunner from Chicago. After our first combat mission Frank was bubbling over describing his exploits. On our second trip he was credited with shooting down one of the Abbeville fighters. On our third mission we bombed a FW-190 factory sixty miles southwest of Berlin and met continuous fighter attack for two hours before getting to the target. At one point five FW-190s came directly at us. Topits got the first one, which exploded like a huge burst of flak, pieces flashing by our plane. The second and third went down smoking, and the fourth, out of control, smashed into a U.S. Fort ship on our right, hitting between the fuselage and the engine on the right wing. The ball-turret gunner of that ship was Topits’s buddy. The fighter exploded and the Fort blew into pieces, with the ball turret dropping straight down. After that mission Topits was more and more reticent. He performed an outstanding job until the end, but he never claimed any more victories.

Over the Channel there was intermittent fire from the aircraft, as the crews test-fired their guns to make sure they were operable.