Close Encounter


In December 1943, Capt. Charles L. Brown flew his first mission over Germany as aircraft commander of a battle-weary B-17. What happened that day is an extraordinary untold story of World War II. Recently I sat with Lieutenant Colonel Brown (USAF Ret.) in the leafy yard of his Florida home. His keen memory supported by a diary, he told me the tale.

The target was Bremen, Germany; the specific objective, a Focke-Wulf plant in one of the city’s outlying districts. During the preflight briefing at the base in Kimbolton, England, the intelligence officer pointed out flak areas to avoid—Bremen was protected by more than 250 guns manned by the best artillerists the Germans had- and told the pilots they’d be subject to attack by more than five hundred German fighter planes. American and Royal Air Force fighters were scheduled to be on hand all the way to the target and back.

The group combat formation was to consist of the lead, high, and low squadrons, each made up of a threeship element followed by a second four-ship or diamond element, for a total of twenty-one aircraft. Brown’s ship was to fly on the far left of the second element, or low squadron—the slot that is known to airmen as Purple Heart Corner.

After the briefing, Brown and his crew made the short, cold truck ride to Ye Olde Pub , B-17-F, Number 423167. “As I stood there,” says Brown, “I suddenly experienced a quiet, almost tranquil feeling. My thoughts wandered. I had just celebrated my twenty-fifth birthday two months before. Well, really it was my twenty-first, but to impress my crew and give them some confidence in my ability, I’d told them I was twenty-five. The tranquillity left as quickly as it had come.”

The first of a series of signal flares arched through the ground haze, indicating that it was time to start engines. “Takeoff in any aircraft is an exciting moment for the pilot, but taking off for the first few times with a full bombload and full fuel load on a combat mission is nothing short of awe-inspiring,” Brown says. “This was no training mission; the guns, bullets, and bombs were real.”

They completed takeoff by 8:42 A.M. and by 9:40 had formed the group at 8,000 feet. Two other groups completed the wing formation of sixtythree aircraft. The cloud cover over the Continent was scattered to broken, with most clouds topping at under 10,000 feet, and the friendly fighter escorts—mostly P-47s—were doing their job perfectly until Ye Olde Pub reached the jumping-off point for the bomb run at 11:32. It was at 27,300 feet. During the ten-minute run it would cover more than 30 miles in a straight line. This gave the lead bombardiers time to set up the bombsights and correct for wind drift and for smoke and cloud obstructions; it also gave the German defense units time to determine their flight path and altitude.

It was only a matter of time before the German pilot came in for the kill. He looked confident, and with only one of our eleven guns operating, he had every reason to be.

All Brown could see in front of him was an oily black carpet of flak bursts. He remembered a veteran combat pilot telling him that you were in serious trouble when you were close enough to see the flames in the heart of the bursts. “About two minutes before bombs away, immediately in front of us, I saw what appeared to be fantastically beautiful black orchids with vivid crimson centers.”

“We’re hit!” two voices yelled over the intercom simultaneously. The nose section had been partially destroyed, and oil pressure dropped on the number-two engine. Shutdown procedure began immediately, while Brown attempted to coax more power out of the remaining three engines.

The aircraft lurched skyward as the bombardier called out the welcome “Bombs away!” With the sudden shedding of three tons, Brown thought perhaps he could remain in formation; but now the number-four engine was also in trouble, and it just wasn’t possible.

A sister ship at the left wingtip burst into flames and spun earthward, and suddenly Ye Olde Pub was alone, a cripple with a feathered engine and another that was working only sporadically. Either condition normally attracted German fighters as blood draws sharks.

“Enemy fighters at six o’clock,” yelled the tail gunner, and the intercom came alive with frantic messages: “Bandits at twelve o’clock”; “Six 190s at three o’clock high.”

Every crew member could hear Frenchy Coulombe open fire with the twin .50-caliber guns in the top turret, and then Doc joined in with the nose gun. Both were trying to shoot down two FW-190s that were approaching in a coordinated attack from the ten and twelve o’clock positions.

“I saw the wings of the first fighter light up with machine-gun and cannon fire,” said Brown, “and for a fraction of a second I was mesmerized. It looked like all the movies I had seen back home. Then it hit me: This is no movie; we’re up to our ass in trouble.’