- Historic Sites
When I Landed The War Was Over
A veteran news correspondent recalls his days as a spotter plane pilot
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
If I ever knew what the tactical thinking was behind the second attack, I’ve forgotten. In those days, we all thought that heavy bomb raids were demoralizing and so destructive that nothing could survive in the target area, so, somewhere up the chain of command, the decision was made to bomb Cassino town and the abbey with medium and heavy bombers—B-25s, B-26s, and B-17s. I saw those types in the air: there may also have been B-24s, but they didn’t cross my vision. What did cross my vision, floating over the abbey at three thousand feet—assignment: suppress heavy flak—was an oncoming and seemingly never-ending fleet of bombers, approaching from the south. The mediums were at about six or seven thousand feet; the heavies way up there, just silhouettes. The heavy German flak, mostly 88s, went mad: the floor of the Liri Valley was sprinkled with redorange muzzle flashes as the Germans threw everything they had at this incredible number of American bombers, a number seen up to then only over the Heimat itself. It must have struck the German flak crews as a splendid chance to get even, but they needn’t have bothered. I saw not one American airplane hit by flak. I did see American bombs exploding all around the compass, twenty miles beyond the target, twenty miles short of the target, twenty miles to the left, twenty miles to the right. A fair number even landed on Cassino town and the abbey, but most landed in Allied territory. To watch a bombing run of that magnitude, involving hundreds of aircraft, was an awesome thing, to put it mildly; those heavy bombs sent up volcanoes of dirt and fire, the air shook, you could see ripples running across the surface of the earth as though an earthquake were in progress, and you felt the concussion even at three thousand feet. But my God, how inaccurate they were! The result of this second raid, which went on all morning, was that the town of Cassino was turned to rubble, making it impassable for American tanks, which were poised to attack, and the abbey also was turned to rubble, even though no Allied soldiers were near it. Fourteen hundred years were blown away that morning.
As I noted earlier, German flak crews were very cautious in shooting at the L-4s, but of course there were times when they thought the odds were in their favor and would let fly. Flak came in various calibers, from the big 88s on down to 20-mm. rapid-fire cannon, often mounted on half-tracks or flat-bed trucks. The 88s usually fired a “ladder” of six rounds, apparently hoping you’d fly into one of the three pairs, and people sometimes did. But the muzzle flash of the 88 was so large and bright that you couldn’t miss it. In the Vosges in France I was flying near Bitche when six brown bursts appeared off my right wing, not close enough to do any harm. However, I had seen the muzzle flashes from a village across the Rhine, and when I radioed the 93rd’s fire direction center and gave them the coordinates, they poured thirty-six rounds into the village; there were no more “ladders” from that quarter. On that mission, I became so intent on watching the effect of the fire that I made the supreme error of not keeping my head moving: you had to keep looking up, down, behind, and on all sides. Although the Luftwaffe was occupied primarily at that stage with the Eastern front, there were fighter squadrons in the West, too. And sure enough, when I finally looked away from the target area, a Messerschmitt 109 was boring straight in at me, about a hundred yards away. I froze, unable to move the controls, and just sat there staring at the enormous, bright red spinner on his prop, certain this was it. But he zipped past beneath me, rocking the L-4, without firing a shot. I assume he was returning from a mission and had run out of ammo.
One of the strangest experiences I had with flak occurred near Dijon. The weather was atrocious—a cloud cover at about five hundred feet and misting rain. I was cruising back and forth near a village, at about three hundred feet, when I spotted six small, rapid muzzle flashes from the main street of the village. I depressed the button on the mike to give coordinates, but before I could speak, the six 20-mm. rounds burst around the airplane. I hollered into the open microphone, “Jesus Christ! The bastards are shooting at me!” The fire direction center said, very calmly, “Coordinates please.” Very unprofessional behavior on my part. Anyway, I dropped down and hedge-hopped while I gave the coordinates, the fire direction center radioed, “One round smoke, on the way!” I pulled up to three hundred feet again, and the white phosphorus round burst alongside the flak wagon, which in this case was a flat-bed truck. I dived again, told the 93rd to fire for effect, again they radioed, “On the way!” and again I pulled up, to see six rounds of high explosives smother the truck. It’s marvelous to be young and have reflexes which make you push the mike button before the enemy’s rounds even arrive in your neighborhood: alas, those days and those reflexes are gone forever. Nowadays I can’t even tell when a network vice-president is after my ass, until it’s too late to take cover.