- Historic Sites
The 36th Mission
He spent his tour of duty bombing German cities and made it home only to discover he could never leave the war behind him. Then, a lifetime later, he found a way to make peace.
May/June 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 3
“Don’t get the notion that your job is going to be glorious or glamorous,” some colonel had told us. “You’re going to be baby killers.”
We thought we had seen everything, but this mission nearly ended it for a lot of us. We were over the target and about ready to drop our bombs. Then we saw something we couldn’t believe. Someone had gotten the directions wrong, and two squadrons were approaching the same target at different angles at the same time. The confusion was unbelievable.
How could something like this happen? Was someone in the lead plane drunk? Or had someone miscalculated? We never found out. In the confusion there soon was no formation; it was every plane for itself. I dropped my bombs as soon as I saw the first B-17 heading toward us, and I didn’t give a damn where they landed.
The flight back to England was one of the quietest times I’ve ever experienced; everyone was too petrified to speak. After our debriefing we went to the barracks and just lay in bed, some of us for hours. We didn’t even talk to one another. The whole story never came out.
On our way to Nuremberg we no longer cared about anything. We lost planes that day from flak, fighters, plain bad luck with engines; anything that could go wrong went wrong. We felt empty and numb and just wanted to get the bombing over with.
“Don’t get the notion that your job is going to be glorious or glamorous,” some colonel had told us. “You’ve got dirty work to do and might as well face the facts: You’re going to be baby killers.”
Before we got within a hundred miles of the target, fighters came up, and we saw them hit other squadrons before they got to us. We knew what was coming. When we got close, I couldn’t believe the target was a target at all. It appeared to be a great big woods surrounding an open field, but all kinds of roads led in and out. We had a good visual run, and we dropped our bombs. We were surprised when flames came up to greet us; we had hit an ammo or fuel dump.
We had just dropped our bombs when the pilot reported that an engine must have been hit; he would have to feather it. When a prop had to be feathered, it was turned sideways to cut down on drag and air resistance. The propeller was supposed to stop in this position, but sometimes it didn’t. Then it would windmill, putting us at the mercy of the flow of air. If the plane turned while the prop was windmilling, the propeller could rotate so fast it would fly off from the engine and cause terrible damage.
We were lucky. The prop stayed on, but we were losing speed and altitude, and we dropped behind the squadron, a sitting duck to any fighters.
We threw everything out of the aircraft, and when we finished, the pilot revved up the engines. The extra load on one of the other engines proved too great, and an oil line burst. Now we had two engines out.
The pilot and navigator determined that the closest place to land would be Switzerland, but after calculating the amount of gas versus distance, they decided we could make it back to France.
The pilot told us to consider bailing out, described what he thought our chances were, and then asked us what we wanted to do. We appreciated his asking, and we trusted him, so we all decided to stay with the plane. It was the right choice. Our pilot had proved worthy of our trust. We were equals on the plane; the officers knew that their chances of survival depended on us and ours on them. It was an unspoken understanding.
What I didn’t like, and didn’t really talk about to anyone, was the fact that we were bombing industrial towns that were largely populated with working people—much like the towns a lot of us came from.
Kassel was a large town, outside the Ruhr Valley but still important to the German war effort. I don’t remember exactly what the target was, but there were many antiaircraft guns. This usually told us the target was important.
I toggled the bombs, and the radio operator reported, “Bombs away!” But he was wrong. As we started back for the base, I discovered that two bombs had gotten hung up in the bomb bay when they should have dropped. The bomb on the top had loosened and was leaning on the bomb beneath it. The partially loose bomb had become armed.