The 36th Mission

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I really enjoyed London, but the time on our passes was soon up, and we had to return to the base. We had witnessed the terrible bombing the Germans had inflicted on London and were glad we were returning it. We were grateful that at least the United States was out of their reach.

After looking forward to getting some mail for so long, I now wished I hadn’t gotten any. My sister wrote and told me that the girl I had been going out with back home had been seen dating a man twice her age and six feet tall. He had a glass eye from a motorcycle accident.

I had been writing my girl constantly and sending her presents, but she couldn’t wait for me. I wrote her one last time and got a letter in response. She admitted that she had gotten married, but still wanted to be friends.

We didn’t fly the rest of November and all of December, and I didn’t care about anything any more. I was drunk every night because of the weather, my ex-girl friend, and having to spend my first Christmas away from home. I also had the feeling I would never make it back.

January 15, 1945 —Ingolstadt

From my diary: “We went to Ingolstadt today, a new target. It had never been bombed before. It was a long flight—eight hours and twenty minutes. But it was a pretty good run. No flak. No fighters. We could see the Swiss Alps off in the distance. It was quite a bit like a sight-seeing tour.”

For the first time I flew as bombardier with a new squadron, the 525th. My main job was as nose gunner and toggler, to open the bomb-bay doors and drop the bombs off the plane. If the bomb-bay doors failed to close after the bombs were dropped, I had to squeeze out onto the catwalk—less than ten inches wide—and hand-crank them shut. I had other duties as well: armament officer, oxygen officer, and first-aid dispenser. And because there was a shortage of navigators, bombardiers sometimes had to take over that job too. This would be my position for the rest of my missions. I had twenty-four more to go.

January 17, 1945—Paderborn

From my diary: “We went to another new place today. I flew as nose gunner and toggled the bombs. The name of the target was Paderborn.”

The name of the town was not important to me at the time, but it would return to haunt me. The mission was what we called a milk run: no flak, no fighters. The target was a railroad repair shop. It was completely clouded over. We couldn’t tell whether we had hit the target or not. I was conscientious and didn’t want to drop the bombs indiscriminately, but I did anyway.

My plane was one of 397 that took part in the bombing of Paderborn that day. Paderborn would be the target of seven attack waves, the last on March 28, 1945. In all, 1,154 tons of bombs were dropped on Paderborn, leaving it in ruins.

January 20, 1945—Stuttgart

From my diary: “Today was Number 13, and I sure sweated this one out. We went to a place called Mannheim, but we didn’t drop our bombs. Plenty of flak but inaccurate. Then we went to a secondary target called Stuttgart. It was plenty rough there. I guess we did a pretty good job on the target.

January 23, 1945—Neuss (marshaling yard)

It was at this point that I stopped writing in my diary. Thoughts of doom were present every day. I felt terrible—gloomy day after gloomy day—flying like a machine and not really caring if I returned or not. All the days blended into one another.

During Mission 14 we sighted more enemy fighters than ever, and the continuous reports on the intercom were very disturbing to me. I was flying with a different crew, a green crew, and the pilot was constantly chattering nervously over the intercom. Over the target, as I was getting ready to drop the bombs, I finally told him to shut up before we all got as rattled as he was and ended up jumping out over enemy territory.

After I had dropped the bombs, we were hit by fighters, but they must have been green too, from the way they attacked our formation. One German pilot came so close I could make out his face in the cockpit. I watched as my tracer shells went into his plane. He might just as well have committed suicide.

When we got back to the base, the pilot was in such a bad state that it took him three passes at the runway before he finally set the plane down. At the debriefing I told them what had happened and said I would rather shoot myself on the ground than fly with this pilot again. I never had to. I was put on another crew. That was one thing I didn’t like: I was put on a different crew whenever they needed a toggler, and it was scary.