Your Mission: Kill Hitler

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The briefing officer strode back to center stage and stood stock-still until the noise level dropped to zero. He said, “You are now sworn to secrecy. No one outside this room is aware of what we discussed. When you leave, you are not to mention even the existence of this briefing or the nature of the mission until officially relieved of that obligation. This includes your best friend, brother, parents, or ground crewmen.”

The truck ride out to the flight line felt like a funeral procession. At our respective hardstands we began preflight inspections of our B-24s. Doing our chores helped keep our minds off our coming flirtation with the hereafter. My responsibilities included verifying that all twelve 500-pound general-purpose bombs had cotter pins in both fore and aft fuses. When they were in place, these pins disarmed the fuses so the bombs would not explode on a crash takeoff or if salvoed. Near the target I would remove the pins.

At four thirty-five our pilot announced, “Stations at four-forty hours.” He followed up with “Start engines at five-fifteen hours.” Those thirty-five minutes just sped by. Each time we went off on a bombing mission, we joked about playing Russian roulette. A single bullet in the six-chamber cylinder meant nearly a 17 percent chance of losing. Not bad odds if you play the game once. But fifty times? That day I mused, Now they have put five bullets in the cylinder. My thoughts went to my mother learning her youngest son was dead. She’d be devastated but proud of how I died. I hoped my big brother over in the South Pacific would survive.

The navigator, nose gunner, engineer, and I sat on the floor of the upper flight deck—our takeoff stations — awaiting the roar of twenty-four 1,250-horsepower Pratt & Whitneys.

Five minutes before Start Engines, the pilot turned and yelled, “ Yellow-yellow flare. Stand by! ” There were smiles all around. A possible reprieve. A minute later he yelled, “ Red-red flare. Stand down .”

Loud cheers of relief came from within the six bombers. Staying alive won out over playing hero. I, too, reacted with a cheer but quickly suffered pangs of shame as I realized the selfishness of my outburst.

After supper, alerted to another two-thirty wake-up, I saw an opportunity to repair my self-esteem. At the reprise briefing the next morning there were no “Why me?” looks or expressions. Now we all seemed of one mind, the stakes in our mission stacked so high we felt a sense of pride in being selected for it.

Midway through the briefing an officer announced, “We have a standdown. Bad weather over the Alps prohibits our participation.” He added, “The mission is scrubbed for good, as by now the enemy may have been alerted.” This time no cheers.

The officer reminded everyone that the mission’s secrecy classification was still in effect. We were not to discuss it with anyone.

Soon after the Germans surrendered and the Holocaust was revealed, I realized the full potential of our secret mission. Had it been flown successfully, millions of Jews might have escaped the gas chambers. The lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians would have been spared.

In 1980, while doing research for my book Target Ploesti: View From a Bombsight , I found no mention of these briefings in the microfilms of our 460th Bomb Group records. The 763d Bomb Squadron’s War Diary, however, reveals two items that escaped the censor’s eye:

“Sunday 18 June 1944. Today was another stand down while combat crews were at hartstands [ sic ].

“Monday 19 June 1944. Third day in succession for stand down. This time during the briefing.”

Perhaps Operation Hellhound offers another clue. Anthony Cave Brown in his book Bodyguard of Lies writes that after a week’s fighting the Normandy invasion came to a near-stalemate. The Allies were preparing to launch Operation Hellhound, a massive 15th Air Force strike against Berchtesgaden, from which Germany directed the battle in Normandy.

Hellhound was first mentioned in Eisenhower’s “redline” signal—his personal communication—to the Mediterranean Allied Air Force (MAAF) headquarters on June 15. American photo-reconnaissance aircraft made a series of runs over Berchtesgaden during the next four days, and by June 24 intelligence mosaics had been produced and made ready for distribution for the briefing of the bomber groups. Brown writes, “But then, mysteriously, MAAF was told to hold its hand. No explanation was given, and the operation was not mounted.”

Interestingly, the four days of Hellhound’s photo-reconnaissance flights—June 16-19—were concurrent with our June 18-19 briefings to kill Hitler.

Could there be a connection?