October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
The bright light in my eyes came from the flashlight of the wake-up man, Sgt. “Rosy” Roseborough, for the twenty-sixth time that spring of 1944. Rosy said, “It’s two-thirty, Lieutenant. Time to rise and shine.” This was his nice way of saying, “It’s time to go to war again.”
Our body clocks were set for three-thirty, the normal wake-up time. I usually went to sleep idly wondering if tomorrow might be my last day on earth. Midway through the fifty missions we needed to fly before we could go home, we had lost eight of the seventeen original crews the 763d Bomb Squadron had brought over from Savannah.
Fifteen minutes after wake-up the half-dozen crews eating breakfast looked lost in the spacious mess hall. Only six “up” today, all from our squadron. Why?
After breakfast, dressed in heavy flying gear, we walked to the briefing room. As at all briefings a giant map of Europe covered the back wall of the stage. In front of the map a curtain hid the day’s target from sight. When it opened, we would see our flight plan: a length of blue yarn stretching from our Italian air base to the initial point, or start of the bomb run, and then turning sharply toward the target. Another section of yarn would indicate our return route. Our heart rates would react to the target’s reputation. Vienna, the second most heavily defended target in the world, rated a fast heartbeat. Pulses tapered down to a mere flutter of relief for targets in southern France. All other targets fell in between.
Each time we entered the room we saw the top foot or so of the map exposed above the curtain. From its lofty perch Berlin looked down at us as if to say, “Come and get me,” knowing it sat well beyond our operational range. Berlin, the most heavily defended target in the world, was the 8th Air Force’s problem, not ours.
Today, however, Berlin looked different—because an obscene blue yarn poked up beyond the curtain and ended below the city. Obscene not because it went to the world’s toughest target but because no blue yarn came back.
The normal prebriefing murmur escalated to a rumble and then tapered off when a light colonel walked toward center stage.
The curtain opened on a brand-new war. The single blue yarn did indeed run from Spinazzola, Italy, to near Berlin. Before the colonel opened his mouth, the audience of sixty seasoned combat fliers had already caught on: We were going to Berlin.
When the colonel did open his mouth, seven words we never expected came out: “Today your mission is to kill Hitler.”
The dumbstruck audience stared at the speaker, then faced one another with that “Why me?” look.
“Hitler has shifted his headquarters several times since the Normandy landings,” the colonel continued. “Yesterday Army intelligence learned his current operational base is now in a villa some sixty miles south of Berlin. This calls for fast action. We are directed to destroy his headquarters.
“Here is the plan. Eighth Air Force bombers with fighter escort will mount a full-scale attack on major targets in north and west Germany. This will attract the full might of the GAF’s [German Air Force’s] northern fighter force. Simultaneously Fifteenth Air Force bombers will strike major Balkan targets to keep their southern fighter forces occupied.
“Our flight of six planes will fly tailend Charlie as the Fifteenth crosses the Adriatic, but on the deck, to escape radar. Midway we will veer north up the Adriatic and clear the Alps at the lowest point, then back to ground zero over a precise route to avoid large cities. We will have no fighter escort. This is similar to a naked reverse in football.
“No matter what problems you may encounter, you are to make every effort to remain airborne to the target. If necessary, salvo some bombs to do so.
“The target is beyond your fuel range, so you will not make it back to friendly territory. After bombing the target, you will turn south and fly until out of gas, then bail out. Do not land your plane in enemy territory.
“A word of caution: You are not to redline engines en route to the target.” (Redlining an engine reduces the fuel-to-air ratio to make the engine burn hotter. This produces increased power and conserves fuel. While it sounds like a free lunch, you pay the price in potential engine failure.) “What you do after leaving the target,” the colonel went on, “is up to you. The underground is alerted to be on the lookout for you. Air-sea rescue will have additional PT boats in the North Adriatic and many more P-51s on the lookout for those clearing the Alps.
“If it is successful, we feel this effort may end the war.”
Our crew did not fly as a team. Holt Thornton, our ball gunner, was flying with another crew. I joined yet another as their bombardier. Most of our crew stood down; they weren’t scheduled to fly that day. All of us who were flying viewed our situation with mixed emotions. The virtually one-way mission had overtones of a suicide attack, but it offered the opportunity of a lifetime. We held in our hands the power to end the war with a single stroke. Our inner feelings teetered between “Hero!” and “Why me?”
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?