October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
After two false starts, the B-17s got through. A pilot relives the 8th Air Force’s first successful daylight raid on the German capital .
IN MARCH THE NIGHTS were long and black over the airfield at Bassingbourn, which lies just north of London. Its latitude is about the same as that of Hudson Bay, and this proximity to the Arctic Circle means long summer days and long winter nights. During the cold months the B-17s of the 91st Bombardment Group took off in the dark: a blackout was strictly enforced, all the windows had heavy curtains, and even the flashlights had recessed bulbs.
Our squadron, the 401st, was put on alert during the evening of March 5,1944—a bombing mission was on for the next day. Designated crews were awakened by the assistant operations officer, stumbling through the dark barracks with torch in hand, and on this Monday morning it was a little earlier than usual—3:30 A.M. This early wake-up time always meant an especially long mission. We had been up at 3:30 on March 3 and 4 as well, and the mission had been announced as Berlin. On both days the clouds had been solid east of the Rhine, and targets of opportunity had been selected instead.
So when the operations officer declared, “Breakfast at 4:30, briefing at 5:30,” to the sleepy crew members, we knew what lay ahead. Berlin again. This would be my fourth mission in six days.
The crews scheduled to fly missions were normally put on alert the night before so that they could get their rest and psych themselves up. If no missions were scheduled for the group for the next day, the announcement was made in the early evening that the group was on “stand-down”—news greeted by a collective sigh of relief and often by a visit to the bar or to the very infrequent movie on the base, or by a game of cards with the other officers, perhaps a basketball game, or a bicycle ride around the station. In my case many nights were spent writing to my wife, Jeanne, or reading. I had found Franz Werf el’s book The Forty Days of Musa Dagh and was doggedly working my way through it. The feeling of impending doom generated by the story of the Armenian massacre was coupled with the gloomy atmosphere resulting from the heavy losses of B-17 crews and many friends during early 1944, so that it seems now that the sun didn’t even shine during that period.
Some of the flight crews were difficult to awaken. Many took sleeping pills to get to sleep and pep pills to stay awake; after a mission they would visit the bar to dissolve the tension. This was not a problem with my crew; after the first few missions they adopted an attitude of taking things as they came.
When I was awakened on March 6, 1944, my movements were automatic and detached, a pattern developed from previous missions. Some fliers were very superstitious; they would try to do exactly the same things that worked for them on previous successful missions. The only obsession that I developed was to make sure that I had a bowel movement before takeoff. At high altitudes in unpressurized aircraft, the food in the bowels will expand, causing great pain. On my second mission, over France, I neglected this important physical function and was punished by six hours in purgatory. During the fighting that followed, my pain was so intense that I was hoping that I would be shot down to end it. Never again would I neglect my pre-mission ritual of a visit to the latrine.
The temperature at twenty-eight thousand feet over Germany in the winter sometimes goes down to minus sixty degrees Centigrade, so cold that our flying boots froze to any spilled oil or hydraulic fluid on the floor of the airplane. It was necessary to dress warmly but without bulkiness that would restrict movement. Each person had his own idea of what the well-dressed aviator should wear, but all started with the indispensable long Johns. Over these I wore the dark Army shirt and trousers, very warm, and in the coldest days of winter, a flying suit along with the leather A-2 jacket. On my feet were a pair of silk socks, a pair of heavy socks, and the high-top combat shoes with the leather inside out. These were laced tightly, to prevent the common occurrence of shoes snapping off when the parachute opens. Later on, at the equipment hut, I would zip on a pair of fleece-lined winter flying boots over the shoes.
The crushed Army officer’s cap was the final adornment, but it was exchanged at the equipment but for tight-fitting leather and canvas headgear. The gloves never protected the hands adequately from the numbing cold, and I tried various combinations that would give me control over the numerous switches and levers and yet prevent my hands from freezing. After several missions I hit upon a pair of tight-fitting silk gloves underneath a pair of thin leather gloves.
Most crew members didn’t carry a firearm, as we were told that the Germans could treat us as spies if they caught us with weapons. Instead we were issued a Swiss pocket knife with a blade under six inches to conform with the Geneva Convention rules. A silk scarf, on which a map of Europe was printed, also went into my pocket. Several compasses were concealed in buttons; a very small one was sewn into the seam of my shirt pocket.
When we first arrived at the base, we had our pictures taken in civilian dress with different combinations of clothing. If, once shot down, we were fortunate enough to contact the underground, these could be used for spurious identification cards. Our best bet, we were told, was to assume the identity of one of the many Poles deported to France as forced labor. At this stage in the war, many American fliers had made their way back out of German-occupied territory and provided invaluable data for escape and evasion tactics. It was my fantasy that, if shot down, I would work my way to a German airfield, steal a German plane, and fly back to England. These escape tactics were very real for us because we were told upon arrival at the 91st Bomb Group that only one person in eleven had finished his tour.
All dressed for the flight and ready to leave, I turned out the lights, and the room became pitch black. No use opening the blackout curtains, because by the time I returned it would be dark outside again. By virtue of the law of survival of the luckiest, I had moved up to be the fourth-ranking pilot in the squadron and had inherited a nice single room equipped with call buttons for orderlies, an overseas radio left by some luckless former occupant, and some foot lockers, which I never opened. One of the former occupants moved in one morning, then went out to fly a mission and was shot down.
I waited for Bill Behrend, my copilot, who came from Trenton, New Jersey. He soon appeared, and we went outside to where our bicycles were parked. Snapped to each bicycle frame was a torch, whose aperture could be controlled to furnish just a pinprick of light. Bill and I seldom used our torches while cycling on the base; we knew our way by heart. We pedaled to the officers mess, where good breakfast smells greeted us. Lucky Army units have a good scavenger who can find the unfindable. It was our good fortune to have a mess sergeant who scoured the countryside and cornered the local market in eggs. Each of us was guaranteed one fresh egg per day at sixpence each. We picked up our eggs at the door and turned them over to the waiter at the table.
Our navigator and bombardier were seated and had already begun to eat. Both were original members of the crew, which was formed at Moses Lake, Washington, in the spring of 1943. Bob Roberts, from Greenbelt, Maryland, was a likable, good-looking guy who didn’t make many mistakes and learned quickly from the ones that he did make. He was one of the most skilled navigators in the squadron and had quickly made himself familiar with the ingenious navigation gear provided by the Royal Air Force. Joe Ashby was from Rolla, Missouri, and sometimes gave the impression that he was naive. If you were fooled into thinking that, he was good at taking advantage of the situation. He and another Missourian talked about returning there after the war and starting a stump farm. Joe was an A-1 bombardier.
When you eat breakfast at 4:30 A.M. and will not eat again until after 6:00 P.M. , you choose your menu with care. Breakfasts were leisurely, with a choice of eggs prepared the way we wanted, pancakes, Spam, toast, orange marmalade (made from turnips), powdered milk, and coffee. There was little speculation about whether the forthcoming mission would be tough: instead we talked about the bomb load, gas load, how we could sneak some extra .50-caliber ammo aboard, the flying characteristics of our assigned aircraft, and so forth.
THE THEATER WHERE the mission briefing was held was always full fifteen minutes before the announced briefing time. From the doorway we spotted the six enlisted members of our crew; Bill and Joe went to the seats that they had reserved in the row ahead of them, Bob went to get his navigation materials, and I conferred with the operations officer.
He gave me a sheet of paper, which showed each plane’s position in the group formation, the colors of the flares that would be used in given situations, the call sign, the recall sign, and the times that the 91st Bomb Group would use for takeoff, assembly, and departure from the coast. The operations officer also said that because of scheduling difficulties, three squadron leaders would be flying today, and that I, being the newest assigned, would fly a wing position. He looked like he expected me to say, “That’s fine,” so I said, “That’s fine,” and joined my crew.
The six airmen sitting in the row of theater seats greeted me as I found a seat in front of them. Two of them, Elmer Diethorn of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Ward Simonson of upstate New York, were technical sergeants; the other four were a step below at staff sergeant. They were so young; at age twenty-three I was the old man of the crew.
Elmer “Mickey” Diethorn was the flight engineer and chief honcho of the crew. His “office” during the flight was directly behind the pilot, from which point he could monitor all the engine instruments and furnish advice. During fighter attacks he manned the top machine-gun turret, which contained two .50-caliber guns and was power-driven. Although I don’t recall his shooting down any aircraft (probably because they attacked from the front and dived down under his guns), his job was extremely important: he acted somewhat like a fire-control director, advising the other gunners where the attacking Jerries were, which way they were going, and which gunner should be ready to shoot at them next.
Mickey and I were worried about our ship, which had sustained major structural damage in the February 22 raid on Oschersleben. Although it had had a depot overhaul and had been flown since, it still had a few problems. I told him that Bill and I had cycled out to the ship after dinner and talked to the ground crew, who had promised to work through the night to clean up some maintenance problems.
Like Mickey, radio operator Ward Simonson was always happy and cheerful. He had picked up his code information for the day, had been briefed on which frequencies to monitor, and said that there were no radio problems. We always kidded him about his Purple Heart: he had been hit by a truck the month before.
Bob Roberts joined us, carrying a packet of escape and evasion materials that the crew would use if shot down. The escape plan was to join up with Bob, who normally would leave the aircraft in the middle of the evacuation and should be in the center of the parachuting crew, and to make our plans from there. His kit, which then cost about twenty-three dollars, contained eight gold articles—three rings, two half-sovereign coins, one sovereign, one 20-franc coin, and one 10-franc coin. Mickey had a box of hard candies to carry, and Ward Simonson would bring the first-aid kit. After each mission Bob had to turn in the escape and evasion kit, but we usually ate up the candy, and Ward kept his medical supplies.
The noisy room suddenly became silent as the group commander and the briefing officers arrived. They mounted the stage, and a junior officer pulled the curtains to reveal a map of Europe on which our flight track was plotted from Bassingbourn to target and back to Bassingbourn. Three days earlier there had been a gasp and an explosion of noise from the aircrews when we spotted the flight track to Berlin. Today, when the opened curtains showed the same target, there was little reaction.
“Yes, by damn,” said our group commander, “we’re going back to Berlin and this time we’re going to do it right. And I’m going to be right up there in the first plane, because the 91st Bomb Group is going to show them the way. We’re going to lead the 1st Air Combat Wing of the 1st Air Division of the 8th Air Force. We’re going to hit that ball-bearing works in Erkner, which is sixteen miles southeast of Berlin, and we’re going to destroy it just like we did the ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt.” This was not a highly motivating remark, because it was nip and tuck for a while which would be wiped out first—the 91st or Schweinfurt.
The group commander was followed by a series of briefing officers. The flak officer had put colored plastic along our flight route wherever there were concentrations of antiaircraft weapons. He showed us how our flight route was planned so that we would have minimum exposure to the 88-mm and 105-mm antiaircraft guns. This was reassuring. Once our group navigator had had our formation fly upwind over the Ruhr Valley, which had the greatest concentration of flak guns in the world. Weather, munitions, and maintenance came next. There was even a taxi-control officer who told us the direction and sequence for taxiing. Long before, in secret conclave at the bar, we pilots had all decided that this was the job we would grab during our next combat tour.
After the briefing the aircrew got together to decide if there was anything special that needed to be done before we picked up our equipment and went out to the aircraft. On two previous missions we had run out of .50-caliber ammunition and had to sit, helpless, while the Jerries attacked. After that we always took an extra fifteen hundred rounds per gun over the limit allowed by our munitions officer.
The crew split up to finish certain chores. In some of the rooms behind the theater stage, chaplains of various faiths were available to provide spiritual encouragement. Figuring that I needed all the help that I could get, I invariably received Holy Communion and the Last Rites of the Catholic Church before going on a mission.
It was a short stroll from the briefing room to 401st operations, where I chatted for a few mintues with the operations officer, James McPartlin, and his two assistants, Francis Porada and Neil Daniels. Sometimes they would have bits of information that might prove useful, and sometimes I would ask for help with equipment or aircraft problems. This was my fourth long mission in five days, each with nine hours of flying time and over seven and a half hours on oxygen. Such a stiff schedule was not normally expected, or asked, of an aircrew. But given all the discussions about the spring offensive to neutralize the Luftwaffe before D-day, I would not have been surprised to be on the schedule again the following day.
Just behind operations was a medium-sized Quonset hut, which was filled with racks of personal equipment, parachutes, machine guns, and other paraphernalia of war. After each mission the machine guns were removed from the aircraft and returned to the flight line for inspection and maintenance. On the several occasions when we didn’t make it back to the airfield, the guns were faithfully removed from the battered aircraft and laboriously trucked back with us.
GORDON A. WIGGETT of Vermont, whose duty station was at the right waist gun, was the armorer on our crew. It was his job to keep our thirteen machine guns in perfect working order and to beg or steal the extra ammo that we always carried after our embarrassing early shortages. From our first days of training as a crew, many missions were devoted entirely to gunnery and to the discipline necessary to prevent burning out the gun barrels, a common problem when so many rounds were fired.
Our guns were our protectors, and we took good care of them. With the bombs it was different; there was a feeling of guilt associated with them. In the States we spent countless hours on precision bombing until we could hit a “pickle barrel” from twenty-five thousand feet. Our generation was brought up with the belief that wars were fought under certain gentlemanly terms, involving only military targets and military men. Suddenly we were in a situation where we were bombing through clouds at targets surrounded by the civilian populace. When the Pathfinder aircraft, specially equipped for radar bombing through clouds, was brought to our group in December 1943, I registered a moral objection with my squadron commander. He listened but insisted that this was the only way to win the war. After a week of arguing with myself, I finally concluded that he was right. Fortunately there was a squadron stand-down during this last month of 1943 due to weather or I might have received some sort of punishment. However, every time the bombs dropped away and the aircraft leaped forward, relieved of its burden, I had ambivalent feelings: happy to have a more maneuverable plane to fly but troubled in my conscience.
Gordon Wiggett had commandeered a two-ton truck and driver to carry us and our equipment out to our aircraft. The guns went in first, then each aircrew member loaded his own equipment. I put on my fleece-lined flying boots, slipped a Mae West over my shoulders, fastening a strap from front to back between my legs, and checked both CO2 cylinders to make sure they worked. A parachute harness went over the Mae West; it was the kind that had two snaps in front for a chest pack. The chest pack itself went into the back of the truck and during the mission was placed behind my seat.
We each had our personal leather helmet, which contained earphones and snaps for our oxygen mask, which had to be tightened constantly. Some had microphones built in, but these worked very poorly because the water condensing from the breath would freeze the instruments. Instead we used throat mikes, two hard, rubber, pill-shaped devices fitted against the larynx by a strap around the neck. There were three umbilical cords uniting the flier with the aircraft—oxygen mask, throat mike, and headset.
Back in the summer of 1943, somebody in the 91st Bomb Group had the idea that a suit of armor (later called flak jackets) for aircrew members would be useful. Wilkinson, the famous sword manufacturer, began producing a vest made up of overlapping steel plates wrapped in canvas. Right after they became available, one of the plates was torn out of mine by a 13-mm cannon shell, which then lodged in my seat without exploding. Some of the fellows who had to stand up a lot during flight found them too heavy. Bill always folded his up and sat on it. “First things first,” he said, grinning.
We had to be stationed at our aircraft one and a half hours after briefing time. One hour after that was called engine time, when engines were started. Fifteen minutes later the planes would take off.
The driver made his way across the east side of the field to the circular hardstand in the dispersal area where our plane was parked. Little taxi strips branched out from the main one; at the end of each were three circular hardstands, like a cluster of cherries at the end of a twig. It was still dark, but we could just make out three ground-crew members waiting by the plane.
We unloaded our gear by the right fuselage door near the rear of the plane. Bill, Mickey, and I went to talk to the ground crew while our other aircrew members attended to their duties.
The first matter to be discussed was Redline, our squadron mascot. This friendly mongrel had wandered by the airdrome some time before and had promptly been adopted by Spam-carrying, ear-scratching, lonely airplane mechanics. In due course he was fitted with his own oxygen mask, checked out as an official B-17 passenger, and allowed his own place in chow line. His name came from a way of denoting aircraft status on the maintenance form: a red X for unflyable, a red line for flyable but with certain restrictions, or a blank indicating no restrictions. Redline was nowhere to be seen. Apparently he would have nothing to do with flying to Berlin. I heard that later in the war he flew to Paris after it was liberated, which showed that he not only had a lot of sense but also a certain touch of class.
The men of the ground crew were devoted to their work and shared a special kinship with those who flew their plane. When we returned from a mission, they would be waiting on the flight line with other members of the group, anxious eyes scanning the aircraft for any sign of damage. They were accustomed to our questions by now: How many inches of manifold pressure did you get during maximum power at run-up? Was there excessive drop in rpm on any of the magnetos? Are all the engine instruments working? The question-and-answer session continued, with most of the discussion centered on the red-line items. There were always some items short in supply, so it was unusual to find an aircraft in perfect condition.
After finishing our discussion with the ground crew, Bill and I walked around the aircraft with the chief mechanic, examining the patches from the holes sustained during the previous three missions. In the main tanks and in the Tokyo (extra) tanks were eight tons of gasoline, based on weight for volume at current temperatures, and six tons of bombs hung in the bomb bays in the form of twelve 1,000-pounders. We agreed that we were operating above permissible limits because of the extra ammo, but from experience in flying other B-17s, I knew that this one had better flying characteristics than most. However, any B-17 drew great praise and trust from its aircrews because of its dependability and airworthiness.
WE SPENT THE FINAL part of the hour before engine-starting time sitting in a circle on our parachutes at the rear of the plane. This was not a “get one for the Gipper” or “twenty centuries of history look down upon you” atmosphere; this was a circle of friends who had worked together for some time, getting last words said. We decided to pile all the movable weight into the radio room, just aft of the bomb bays, to have a better weight distribution for takeoff. Ward Simonson, as crew medic, offered Neo-Synephrine drops to anyone who needed to unplug his sinuses. Joe Ashby would normally notify us that he had activated the bombs, which would allow them to explode upon impact. Sometimes there was some joking about somebody forgetting his dog tags so he wouldn’t be able to go or a lament about a missed pass to London because of the mission. About ten minutes before engine time, Bill and I slid into our seats and started to get everything comfortable for the trip. It was now light enough to see the other aircraft clearly. We located our squadron leader and decided to taxi right behind him when he moved out; he was leading the low squadron (the one on the group’s left flank), and I was flying on his right wing.
We checked our watches, and Bill reached for the starter switches. The aerodrome exploded with sound as Wright Cyclone engines roared into life. From the tower a white light arched upward, with two stars falling from it, a needless signal. We started all four of our engines and checked oil pressures. The plug to the auxiliary ground-power unit was pulled, and after a thumbs-up signal exchanged with the ground crew, the brakes were released and the plane rolled slowly forward.
When the leader reached the takeoff runway, he stopped, turned his tail so that his prop-wash would not blow a cloud of stones into another plane, and started his pre-takeoff check. One by one, all the B-17s followed his example. When we had turned our plane at an angle, Bill and I checked our engines, with Mickey overlooking the procedure from his perch on a jump seat suspended between the two pilot seats. Nothing about the engine performance appeared out of the ordinary. We prepared the aircraft for takeoff configuration—fuel booster pumps on, fuel/air mixture in automatic rich, propellers in full rpm, engine cowl flaps open, wing flaps up—and gave other aircraft systems a final check.
Fifteen minutes after we started the engines, the lead aircraft roared down the runway, followed by the others at thirty-second intervals. When our turn came, we taxied quickly so that our tail wheel was on the grass at the very end of the runway, locked the tail wheel, rolled forward to line up with the runway, made sure that the tail-wheel lock was engaged, and then stopped in takeoff position. When the squadron leader’s aircraft left the runway ahead of me, I stood on the brakes, my left hand on the control-column yoke and my right hand advancing the four throttles. When they were advanced as far as possible, Mickey’s “OK” confirmed my observation that we were getting full power, and I released the brakes. Immediately Bill’s right hand closed the engine cowl flaps to reduce the extra drag; I could feel his left hand behind mine on the throttles to make sure that they wouldn’t creep back. With his right he tightened a friction-control knob that helped to keep the engine controls in a set position. The knot of tension in my stomach tightened as the plane surged forward.
Gear up. Wing flaps up. Climb configuration. We are past a danger point in our mission. I had seen many aborted takeoffs, with at least two resulting in aircraft and bombs exploding at the end of the runway.
The sky was clear in all directions, with the gentle fields and green checkerboard of England spread below us. Rudyard Kipling’s mansion, just to the south of the airfield, provided a familiar sight and always evoked memories of stories read during childhood about the British Empire in its glory. The royal highway, built by the Romans, points arrow-straight to London. People on the ground looked skyward, watching the growing air armada assemble. All during my tour in England, the people treated us like heroes, inviting us into their homes and telling us what a beautiful sight it was to see our planes fly toward Germany every day.
Within minutes after takeoff our plane was in loose formation on the squadron leader’s right wing with the others gradually joining up. The low-squadron leader waited for the lead squadron to form, then found his position on the left side, slightly behind and below the group leader. The other squadron in the group, called the high squadron, would be to the right, slightly above and behind the group leader, who in this case was also the air-wing leader, division leader, and leader of the total force of some 660 four-engine bombers. The groups and the wings were stacked in the same way as the squadron building blocks, up and to the right. This is a formation that could make left turns more easily than right, so our turns today would be to the left at the initial point and also upon leaving the target. It was also a formation in which planes could be stacked very tightly to increase bombing efficiency and provide better defense against air attack. A B-17 group could put out eighteen tons of lead per minute with all machine guns firing, so a tight formation would have devastating effect against closely pressed attacks.
The group made its way to a selection of beacons (Splasher 1 through 8) in eastern England, gathering followers along the way. A series of turns built into the route allowed a delayed formation to find its place in the stream at a time and location of its choosing. The time from takeoff until we left the coast of England would be about one and a half hours.
Every fifteen minutes Bill and I changed off at the controls. Whoever takes over calls for an oxygen check; it is easy for a person in an isolated position to lose his oxygen supply and die. The disembodied voices came over the Interphone—tail/gunner OK, right waist OK, left waist OK, ball turret OK, radio OK, top turret OK, bombardier OK, navigator OK. It was good to hear the voices.
The voices changed during our time together, particularly that of Frank Topits, the ball-turret gunner from Chicago. After our first combat mission Frank was bubbling over describing his exploits. On our second trip he was credited with shooting down one of the Abbeville fighters. On our third mission we bombed a FW-190 factory sixty miles southwest of Berlin and met continuous fighter attack for two hours before getting to the target. At one point five FW-190s came directly at us. Topits got the first one, which exploded like a huge burst of flak, pieces flashing by our plane. The second and third went down smoking, and the fourth, out of control, smashed into a U.S. Fort ship on our right, hitting between the fuselage and the engine on the right wing. The ball-turret gunner of that ship was Topits’s buddy. The fighter exploded and the Fort blew into pieces, with the ball turret dropping straight down. After that mission Topits was more and more reticent. He performed an outstanding job until the end, but he never claimed any more victories.
Over the Channel there was intermittent fire from the aircraft, as the crews test-fired their guns to make sure they were operable.
The formation had been climbing so as to penetrate the flak defenses at the best altitude. The view was beautiful—clear sky, boats in the Channel, the coast of Belgium and France. I checked the penetration time on my posted card against the little clock in the center front of the cockpit; we were exactly on time. The outside air temperature showed minus forty-eight degrees Centigrade, warmer than the minus sixty degrees that we had recorded three days before over Germany. The cold front must have been over Russia then, along with the innumerable decks of clouds that had confounded us; we now had clear and slightly turbulent weather and the shifted wind direction characteristically found behind a cold front. We could see a hundred miles in any direction, which meant that Jerry could see us as well. We wouldn’t use chaff today—the strips of aluminum foil that showed up like aircraft on the enemy radar—because the antiaircraft guns would be using visual sightings.
A few puffs of flak appeared around the formation. It was like hunters shooting at high-flying geese back in my native Wisconsin. This is not to say that it didn’t bother us, but what really put a person on the qui vive was to fly into a box barrage from guns directly below. The sound of steel fragments tearing into the fuselage was a little like large hailstones hitting the tin roof of my Dad’s barn in Green Bay. The deep red-orange flash sometimes seemed to be actually in the cockpit, which would be filled with the bitter fumes of gunpowder. German gunpowder smelled different from American. Undergoing a heavy flak barrage was much worse than the worst fighter attack. Sometimes the turbulence would throw a B-17 over on its back.
No enemy planes in sight. On the Interphone the crew started singing “The Beer Barrel Polka,” a great favorite in England at the time. During our training days we had started telling jokes and singing songs when the action was dull, and we continued the practice during the first part of combat missions. Mickey Diethorn had a wonderful song, “Oh-o-oh, Aurora,” which I have never heard since. Bob Roberts could do the whole performance of a very popular English comedian then appearing in London. Joe Ashby had some hoary stand-up-comic jokes:
“Hey, Joe, I hear that you bought a goat without a nose. How does he smell?”
“He doesn’t smell, he stinks!”
Time did not pass swiftly over enemy territory. The singing and the jokes helped reduce the unpleasant sensation in the stomach. Still, the minutes on that little clock moved slowly. It was always best to think of immediate objectives, such as when the fifteen-minute stint at the controls was up, rather than when we would get to the target. Prayer helped. Brought up in a deeply religious household, it was natural for me to ask the Lord for help. I would ask for help in doing the proper thing when an emergency came—not to let my crew down and to meet death decently. I asked particularly that I not show fear in front of my crew members. My prayers were answered. While my adrenaline pumped at a furious rate during periods of danger, on only one mission did I experience the heart pounding, dry throat, and air gulping characteristic of sheer panic.
That fear was caused a few months earlier by our own B-17s. We came under attack by German fighters, and our squadron leader, who had experienced some very close calls, was extremely nervous and went into evasive action—so violent that the Fortress pilots found it impossible to maintain formation. I was pulling up with all my strength on the control yoke to keep a B-17 from crashing into us from below, while Bill was pushing with maximum pressure to keep clear of a B-17 on top of us, while a B-17 wing appeared inches from Bill’s side window and German bullets crashed through the nose. Reason gradually replaced panic, and I called on the Interphone for a report on battle damage; Bob’s calm voice replied that a small plexiglass window in the nose had been shot out and that the flying shards had stripped off his flying clothes on the left side without hurting him.
It was so clear over eastern France that I looked for the scars in the earth that are the reminders of trench warfare in the First World War. Often it was possible to spot several irregular lines where soldiers once lived under rain and gunfire; time must have passed much more slowly for them. They would have envied us, going home to comfortable quarters after a flight.
A twinkling light in the dark patches of woods directly ahead caught my eye. I looked instinctively at the clock and slid my plane into loose formation: four antiaircraft shells were on the way. I wished that the leader would turn and then I wished that he wouldn’t, because the Germans may have made a mistake on our altitude, or wind speed aloft, or ground speed. From dead reckoning I placed the guns in the Maginot Line area. The shells exploded off to our right.
WE WERE OVER Germany. Just north of Hanover, with visibility unlimited and scores of our fighter aircraft providing top cover, we were attacked by a group of Me-219s and Me-410s. My diary records that the first wave got about four Forts and that three of my aircrew members each claimed a Jerry. The sleek, single-tail, twin-engine Me-410 seldom rolled through the formation but delivered very effective firepower nonetheless. This was the first mission where we were told to expect Me-410 attacks. Willy Messerschmitt’s latest creation was a black, twin-engine, single-tail aircraft that always looked menacing and was said to have more armament—two cannons and four machine guns.
From Hanover to Berlin we were under continuous attack from FW-IQOs, Ju-SSs, and the Messerschmitts. Ordinarily the brunt of these attacks is borne by the low squadron of the low group, which we airmen dubbed “Purple Heart Corner.” Either the low group had come apart or it fell behind; I have no recollection of any planes on our left flank as we swung into our bombing run southwest of Berlin. Once the leader got to the initial point, the formation had to fly straight and level in order for the bombardier to kill the wind drift and deliver the bombs accurately.
A dozen twin-engine Messerschmitts came straight at my squadron as we started the bombing run. These were experienced pilots; they throttled back when they came into range so that their cannons and machine guns would be more effective. We saw the dirty smoke from the cannons but tried to ignore it and get a good bombing pattern. Suddenly pieces of steel came ripping through the aircraft skin, something slammed me back in my seat, and everything went dark. The sound of Mickey’s twin fifties firing inches above my head told me that I was conscious. I felt my body with my hands to find where I was bleeding.
I wasn’t. A little window beside the windshield, which could be unlatched for the pilot to see through should the windshields lose their transparency, had sprung open and slammed into my helmet, knocking it over my eyes.
Fire was pouring from the squadron leader’s plane, directly under my left wing; it was even coming out of the cockpit and from the radio-gunner hatch on top of the aircraft. A figure crawled out of this top hatch, with his parachute already half-open and on fire. He bounced off the horizontal stabilizer, where his chute briefly caught, ripped, and was torn free. The plane, losing speed rapidly, went out of sight with the copilot trying to get out of his small window on the right side of the aircraft.
On the radio I called for the deputy squadron leader to take over. No answer. Phil Lunt in the tail gunner’s position reported that the deputy had been shot down. I called on the radio, “This is Mutter C Charlie, form on me,” and waited for the rest of the squadron to regroup. No planes showed up. Later I learned that three of our planes were shot down on that fighter pass and the other two were so damaged that they fell behind.
I was angry and determined that at least one plane of the squadron would deliver its bombs on the target. A half-dozen Messerschmitts came around for another pass, and they all seemed to be aiming angry red flashes directly at us. When the smoke started to come out of the leader’s wings, I put the aircraft into violent evasive action and kept it up throughout the attack. After the bomb run was completed, the group swung to the west, and I slid our B-17 into an opening in the lead squadron.
I always believed that a B-17 could shoot down any German aircraft in a one-on-one encounter, and this was one of just two times that my theory was put to a partial test. My plan, if I was caught in an isolated situation, was to drop the wing flaps and gear, slow the aircraft to 95 mph, and go into a steep turn, bringing as many of our thirteen guns as possible to bear on the target.
Lunt was an excellent gunner, but tail gunners in B-17s had only fleeting glimpses of the Jerries as they flashed by at a relative speed of over 600 mph. Lunt had an isolated post and the most unpleasant position, as far as motion sickness was concerned. It was not too pleasant as far as danger was concerned either; on one mission he had a rocket explode in the vertical stabilizer above his head, and on another mission a shell cut through his cheekbone. The aft section of a B-17 was far less comfortable than the cockpit or nose area, although the metal skin throughout was so bitterly cold that bare flesh would freeze to it. In the front end of the aircraft most of the empty shell casings would eject outside the aircraft, raining on other planes and on the ground far below. In the rear of the aircraft the shells ejected onto the floor. On one occasion Rudy Malkin of Baltimore, the left-waist gunner, repaired his jammed machine gun in the ankle-deep shell casings, freezing his ungloved hands in the process. The Fourth of July gunpowder smell would be with us always under enemy attack.
As we made our turn away from the target, we could see part of the action behind us, falling planes, swinging parachutes, fighter planes wheeling in huge circles through the sky. Slender black columns of smoke on the ground indicated where a plane had crashed and was burning. We saw our target briefly but couldn’t make out too much damage. Two days later, when we hit the same target, the flames leaped up thousands of feet, and Lunt could still see the smoke when we were 150 miles away.
OUR FIGHTER ESCORT was effective from Berlin back to England, and we had only isolated attacks from German fighters and occasional bursts of flak. When we got down to fifteen thousand feet, we removed our oxygen masks. The cockpit glowed with Mickey’s smile and Bill’s happy face. For almost eight hours all we had seen of each other were pairs of eyes between helmet and oxygen mask; now there were three happy and relieved faces. Mickey found some rock candy in our emergency stores and spread it around the crew. The ball of tension that had been in our stomachs since early morning was replaced by a dead-tired but happy feeling—and hunger. We ate our last meal about twelve hours before; it would be a couple of hours before our next.
As always, the sight of green-quilted England brought the secure feeling of home.
The clouds had formed over Bassingbourn. With his Gee box Bob guided the plane to the runway for an instrument letdown and landing. The flight log showed the flying time for the mission as eight hours.
The loyal ground crew made us happy with their welcome. There were only two little holes for them to fix; Joe and Bob had heard the whisper of death again. The truck driver picked up the crew and the equipment and delivered us to the equipment hut, where he waited to take us to the Intelligence hut for debriefing.
There we learned that three planes were lost from our squadron and three more from the rest of the 91st Bomb Group. The Stars and Stripes announced the next day that we claimed 176 Jerries destroyed, with a loss of 68 U.S. bombers and 11 fighters. Later the Luftwaffe War Diaries called this flight one of the most bitterly contested air battles of the war. Nearly half the defending Luftwaffe force was destroyed.
Our ten aircrew members gathered around a table for the debriefing, dog-tired and withdrawn. One or two young Intelligence lieutenants asked questions, but they didn’t ask the right questions and seemed somewhat in awe of us. We didn’t help them and we didn’t volunteer any information, except that three members—Lunt, Topits, Roberts—had each shot down a German plane.
It wasn’t that way when we first went into combat. For the first five missions or so, everybody was excited and chattering after the flight, describing in detail the events of the past few hours. Then, with each mission, the crew became more reticent. Starting in mid-April an inch of whiskey in a water glass was given to each crew member at the table; it didn’t help.
“Did you see any flak?”
“Did you see any fighters?”
“Maybe two hundred.”
“Between Hanover and Berlin.”
(In January they were skeptical about our reports of Stuka Ju-87 dive bombers and four-engine Dorniers mushing along at our altitude trying to shoot at us.)
“Did you see anybody go down?”
“Mason, Tibbetts, Coleman.” (A crew was always identified by the first pilot.)
“Did you hit the target?”
The frustrated Intelligence officer finally let us go.