- 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
The formation had been climbing so as to penetrate the flak defenses at the best altitude. The view was beautiful—clear sky, boats in the Channel, the coast of Belgium and France. I checked the penetration time on my posted card against the little clock in the center front of the cockpit; we were exactly on time. The outside air temperature showed minus forty-eight degrees Centigrade, warmer than the minus sixty degrees that we had recorded three days before over Germany. The cold front must have been over Russia then, along with the innumerable decks of clouds that had confounded us; we now had clear and slightly turbulent weather and the shifted wind direction characteristically found behind a cold front. We could see a hundred miles in any direction, which meant that Jerry could see us as well. We wouldn’t use chaff today—the strips of aluminum foil that showed up like aircraft on the enemy radar—because the antiaircraft guns would be using visual sightings.
A few puffs of flak appeared around the formation. It was like hunters shooting at high-flying geese back in my native Wisconsin. This is not to say that it didn’t bother us, but what really put a person on the qui vive was to fly into a box barrage from guns directly below. The sound of steel fragments tearing into the fuselage was a little like large hailstones hitting the tin roof of my Dad’s barn in Green Bay. The deep red-orange flash sometimes seemed to be actually in the cockpit, which would be filled with the bitter fumes of gunpowder. German gunpowder smelled different from American. Undergoing a heavy flak barrage was much worse than the worst fighter attack. Sometimes the turbulence would throw a B-17 over on its back.
No enemy planes in sight. On the Interphone the crew started singing “The Beer Barrel Polka,” a great favorite in England at the time. During our training days we had started telling jokes and singing songs when the action was dull, and we continued the practice during the first part of combat missions. Mickey Diethorn had a wonderful song, “Oh-o-oh, Aurora,” which I have never heard since. Bob Roberts could do the whole performance of a very popular English comedian then appearing in London. Joe Ashby had some hoary stand-up-comic jokes:
“Hey, Joe, I hear that you bought a goat without a nose. How does he smell?”
“He doesn’t smell, he stinks!”
Time did not pass swiftly over enemy territory. The singing and the jokes helped reduce the unpleasant sensation in the stomach. Still, the minutes on that little clock moved slowly. It was always best to think of immediate objectives, such as when the fifteen-minute stint at the controls was up, rather than when we would get to the target. Prayer helped. Brought up in a deeply religious household, it was natural for me to ask the Lord for help. I would ask for help in doing the proper thing when an emergency came—not to let my crew down and to meet death decently. I asked particularly that I not show fear in front of my crew members. My prayers were answered. While my adrenaline pumped at a furious rate during periods of danger, on only one mission did I experience the heart pounding, dry throat, and air gulping characteristic of sheer panic.
That fear was caused a few months earlier by our own B-17s. We came under attack by German fighters, and our squadron leader, who had experienced some very close calls, was extremely nervous and went into evasive action—so violent that the Fortress pilots found it impossible to maintain formation. I was pulling up with all my strength on the control yoke to keep a B-17 from crashing into us from below, while Bill was pushing with maximum pressure to keep clear of a B-17 on top of us, while a B-17 wing appeared inches from Bill’s side window and German bullets crashed through the nose. Reason gradually replaced panic, and I called on the Interphone for a report on battle damage; Bob’s calm voice replied that a small plexiglass window in the nose had been shot out and that the flying shards had stripped off his flying clothes on the left side without hurting him.
It was so clear over eastern France that I looked for the scars in the earth that are the reminders of trench warfare in the First World War. Often it was possible to spot several irregular lines where soldiers once lived under rain and gunfire; time must have passed much more slowly for them. They would have envied us, going home to comfortable quarters after a flight.
A twinkling light in the dark patches of woods directly ahead caught my eye. I looked instinctively at the clock and slid my plane into loose formation: four antiaircraft shells were on the way. I wished that the leader would turn and then I wished that he wouldn’t, because the Germans may have made a mistake on our altitude, or wind speed aloft, or ground speed. From dead reckoning I placed the guns in the Maginot Line area. The shells exploded off to our right.