The 36th Mission

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Close to Dresden, deep in the heart of Germany, lay Leipzig, a very large town. I’d long since given up counting flak holes, but this time I did and made out over two hundred before I gave it up. I started to sweat after that; I began to count the days, hours, and minutes until I would complete my thirty-five missions.

Some crew members wanted to fly more than thirty-five; I thought they were insane. I was glad that most of us weren’t like that. We certainly didn’t look up to them. Asking for more missions was like asking for suicide; they couldn’t have given a damn about themselves or anything else.

April 9, 1945

I cannot remember much about my second-to-last mission except thinking that I had only one more to go.

April 11, 1945 —Freiham

Finally my thirty-fifth mission. Strangely enough, it was also the pilot’s. This was simply a coincidence, but I considered it fortunate; I felt the pilot would be extra careful and bring us all back safely.

Little did we know what a terrible mission it would prove to be. Freiham was deep in enemy territory, but at the briefing the target didn’t look too bad. There weren’t many antiaircraft guns and hardly any German fighters reported in the area.

En route we lost an engine because of low oil pressure, and we had to feather it. Now we couldn’t keep up with the rest of the squadron, and we were losing altitude. The pilot asked us if we wanted to abort the mission. If we did abort, we wouldn’t get credit for it and would have to fly another one. I was glad when everyone decided to continue and take our chances.

We watched the squadron above and ahead of us. We had a good view of the target, but the others couldn’t see it because they were above the clouds. We saw that their bombs missed. By the time we got there, the clouds had dispersed, and we had a visual run.

We had to fly in low and slow, and because we were alone, all the anti-aircraft fire was directed at us. They hit one of our engines. Now things were really looking grim. I dropped the bombs, and the tail gunner saw them fall. He hooted and hollered that we had made a direct hit on the marshaling yard that everyone else in the squadron had missed. We all were happy about it, but we began to lose more speed and altitude. The squadron was just barely visible and would soon be out of sight. All we could do was continue on and hope that no fighters came.

The navigator and the pilot decided that Switzerland was the closest landing place, but if we went there, we would be interned for the rest of the war.

Our second-best landing field was just a few miles over the German lines, outside Brussels, Belgium, so we headed there, the plane vibrating like a car with two flat tires but holding together. Finally a P-51 came to give us fighter support; he flew around us like a mother hen. Now we felt we stood a chance. But as we approached the landing strip, our third engine conked out. None of us had ever heard of a B-17 with three engines gone, and we doubted we could stay airborne long enough to land.

As we approached the runway, we saw holes all over the landing strip. But we had run out of choices.

We hit the ground. The pilot tried to miss the holes, but he couldn’t. We caught our landing gear on one, and it spun the plane around violently. Then the landing gear buckled, the wing dipped down and parted from the fuselage, and we just kept on going.

When we finally came to a stop, the plane was a complete piece of junk. But we all walked away from it, and any landing you can walk away from is a good one.

After this final mission we assumed we’d be getting passes soon. But no such luck. We were packed off to a rest camp for two weeks. I spent those two weeks half out of my mind. I wasn’t used to relaxing.

When my rest period was over, I was sent to a port of debarkation and waited there for a convoy to take me back to the States. We set out on May 6, the day before the war ended. I lay on deck in the sun and played my harmonica. Nobody bothered me. I didn’t make many friends that way, but I didn’t care. My head was still spinning from combat and from wondering how I’d managed to survive.

After thirteen days we docked in New York Harbor. I got a thirty-day furlough and arrived home in Wisconsin on May 23. My family was glad to see me and treated me as best they knew how, but I was restless and bored and began to chase after women.

When my furlough was over, I was sent to Portland, Oregon, to fight forest fires caused by the incendiary bombs the Japanese had been sending across the Pacific hung from balloons. There were two hundred of us, most just back from overseas duty. We traveled all over Oregon and Washington in a truck, putting out fires. We had a chow truck and an ambulance, and we slept in tents. Living outdoors all the time made us healthy but wild.