The previous sections have discussed in detail many of the typical events surrounding the performance of a mission. It was always two weeks, and possibly four weeks after arrival at a combat base before a green crew would fly its first combat mission, right? During this time the navigators, as well as all other crewmen, would attend classes in their areas of specialization, and then make several practice air missions, right? They would get practice operating the Gee box, have a chance to learn how to use the charts, maps, and log sheets, and study the British secondary communication light aids, such as the "pundits, occults, and darkies", right? Navigators would all be issued their own navigation equipment and tools and heavy cold-weather clothing several days before their first combat missions, right?
Not necessarily correct on any count, particularly whenever there happened to be a shortage of a navigator on a crew of any of the four squadrons on a day when there was going to be a raid. To explain, I will tell you what happened to me on my first mission, on my third day in the 96th group! It was a case of my being what was probably the most confused and bewildered navigator on any mission in the history of the Eighth Air Force, because nothing happened in the "typical" way.
On September 16, 1943, three days after arriving at Snetterton Heath, Nevin Beam, the bombardier, and I were awakened at 9:15 in the morning by an orderly, who told us we were needed at Operations to fly with a different crew, of the 413th squadron, on a raid that day. We had been sleeping very late that morning after having attended a late party the night before. We scarcely had time to dress when a truck arrived at our barracks to take us to Operations, where we arrived about 10:00. The 413th operations officer was in a panic. The briefing had just ended, and it was his responsibility to provide complete crews for the raid. We were his replacements for a navigator and a bombardier who had been injured on a mission a few days before. When I told him I had not yet been issued any cold-weather clothing or other equipment, he and another person gave me some of theirs, and the rest of the clothing and equipment were located somewhere. Because we had not had time for breakfast, he scrounged up some K-rations for us. He also handed me a stack of maps and charts, and told me only one thing about the mission: The target was Bordeaux, in southern France, for a late afternoon bombing, with the primary target being an air field and the secondary target being an aircraft assembly plant. So here I was, a green navigator in the European Theater of Operations, on his first raid, and knowing almost nothing about the mission except what was in the battle order.
When I told the crew's pilot, Lt. Tanner, at planeside of my total inexperience as a combat navigator, he told me not to worry, because we would be flying in formation all the way there and back. I thought to myself, "Yes, but what if we are damaged and have to leave the formation?" It was his crew's 21st mission, so they had a lot of combat experience. His regular bombardier, whom Beam was replacing, had been shot down off Heligoland (an island in the North Sea northwest of Germany) while flying as a substitute on another crew, and after floating for a considerable time was picked up by the British Air Sea Rescue team, and returned to England.
We took off around 12:00 in the second element of the low squadron (at "suicide corner"). Assembly was over the field, and the formation flew at very low level to Land's End at the southwest tip of England, to keep German radar from detecting the formation. Beyond that point, the course took us far enough out to sea to miss the Brest peninsula of France by a wide margin. Much of the flight, straight southward until even with Bordeaux, was spent by me in arranging maps and charts to make it easy to navigate by dead reckoning in order to cross-check the flight plan positions over water. This was difficult, because ammunition boxes piled on the navigator's table made it necessary for me to do my navigation on my lap.
At a point off Bordeaux, we made our turn toward the target and started a climb to a bombing altitude of 20,000 feet. I got my first view of enemy aircraft as we approached the French coast. Four ME-110s (Messerschmitt fighters) appeared at one o'clock just out of range. I also saw my first flak; it was fascinating to me because it looked like black pop-corn, and it sounded like pop-corn when it exploded close to us. At first the German fighters attacked only other groups in the 45th Combat Wing. We could see a B-17, in flames, go into a spin and dive toward the ground. Six parachutes came out of the airplane, and while they looked like white blossoms floating down, it was a real shocker to realize that those were living men going down into enemy-occupied territory. A layer of clouds formed underneath us before we reached Bordeaux, so a decision was made not to bomb either the primary or the first-alternate target. The policy established by the Eighth Air Force was that German-occupied friendly territory would not be bombed through an overcast, because a miss could result in tragedy among friendly civilians near the targets.
So the wing lead altered course toward a different alternate target, the submarine pens at La Pallice, where there was no overcast. On the way there, about ten more enemy fighters joined the two that were already there, and they came from every direction. Two more Forts were damaged and could not stay with the formation, and the Messerschmitts directed most attention to them. They both finally exploded, with no parachutes leaving either plane.
Between Bordeaux and La Pallice, I got my first taste of real aerial gunnery. The .50-caliber machine guns had been installed by the ground crew while I was preparing for takeoff. I had a problem keeping my oxygen hose connected, so I had to hold the hose with one hand and fire the gun with the other. Nevin Beam helped me look for enemy planes. One of them made a run on our group, hit a plane in our high squadron, and more parachutes appeared.
One thing happened that was extremely embarrassing to me. As I jumped up once to man the gun, the hand release of my parachute caught on something, and all of the silk of the chute spilled out onto the floor of the nose compartment. I gathered it into as tight a ball as I could, and placed it on the floor behind me, in case it became necessary to bail out. I'm not sure what would have happened if I had had to jump out into the 150 mile-an-hour wind with an armload of silk.
I saw a B-17 spinning at ten o'clock, pulling out of the spin into a dive, with a Jerry fighter on his tail. I got the fighter in my gun-sight, with the proper lead, as a veteran gunner would, and fired many rounds at the "bandit". The pilot congratulated me over the interphone, but added that the fighter was probably out of range when I fired at it. Ultimately, the Fort was knocked down by the fighter, with no parachutes in sight.
Finally, the target was reached, bomb-bay doors were opened, the lead bombardier released his bombs, and the other planes toggled their bombs on that signal. The formation headed out to sea, reducing altitude again, so as to fly back to England out of view of German radar on the French coast. The fighters deserted the formation, and headed back to their home bases. I navigated primarily by flight plan, calculating occasional dead-reckoning fixes for practice, and was pleased to find that these fixes agreed closely with the flight plan.
About 20 miles from the English coast, darkness was setting in, and we hit a bank of "soup". The formation had to split up, and each plane was on its own to return to its home base. We took a heading that would be certain to hit the coast of England, and not the Brest Peninsula. At one time in the past, the Eighth Air Force had lost a returning squadron by flak and fighters over the Brest Peninsula. I was now at the point I dreaded, being unfamiliar with navigating over England, particularly at night. In addition, it would have been helpful if I had had practice using the Gee box on board. However, at one point searchlights over a vast area on the ground lit up, and waved back and forth in the direction of the airbases of each group. With the help of the pilot, I found a pundit that was located on our home base, we landed, and that was the end of my first combat flight. On the raid, I had managed to record a considerable amount of data concerning the mission that may have done Intelligence some good.
I was quite shaken up by something I found out after returning from this first raid. It happened that planes on this mission had carried steel plating on the floor as a test by the Air Force for partial armor plating. (The idea was ultimately dropped because its weight reduced the bomb payload that could be carried.) I found out back home that a chunk of flak from a shell burst below us had bounced off the armor plate and lodged in the fuselage directly under me. Its direction was such that it would have hit the box of ammunition I had used as a seat. By the time I had decided to to recover the piece of flak as a souvenir, an anonymous ground crewman had already adopted it as his souvenir.
I'm afraid that my performance as a navigator on that mission was anything but exemplary. However, I didn't feel bad about it because, in my view, the 96th Group had sent me out to navigate long before they had trained me to navigate under combat conditions. The pilot told me that this was only a medium-rough mission compared with the many others he had already flown.
But I later found out that this raid, at ten hours and 30 minutes, was the
longest in the 8th Air Force up to that point in time. After this raid, the rest of our own crew hounded me and Beam, asking questions about "how combat was." They looked at us just as we had previously looked at other crews who had flown combat missions. But we managed to assume an air of nonchalance, as if there was nothing to it. One clear advantage of having been surprised by an unexpectedly early first mission was that there were not several weeks to look forward to it, nervous with expectancy.
It didn't take long for the rest of the crew to receive their "baptism by fire". Exactly one week later, on September 23, we were briefed for Kerlin-Bastard airport, a Luftwaffe base near Lorient, France. It would be our first raid with our own crew together. When the name of the target was announced at the beginning of the briefing, a snicker arose from the crewmen. The briefer quickly explained that this name was not a mistake, and was not a reference to Adolph Hitler. The anglicized pronunciation of the name is something like "Kerlan-Bastar". During the intervening week, I had received some additional training in Gee navigation, the British ground navigation aids, the maps and charts, and use of the log sheets. I also flew some practice missions over England and the North Sea to sharpen these skills.
Several of the American bombers aborted the mission after take-off and turned for home, for whatever reason. There were guidelines establishing conditions when aircraft aborts were permissible at the beginning of a mission. One such condition was the disablement of the pilot, and another was if fewer than three engines were working properly. As a result of the aborts, there was confusion as to the organization of the formation. Pilot Beriont attached our plane to another group to our left. In spite of the confusion, the raid on the target, an air base for German long-range bombers, was apparently successful.
The planned course took the formation across the French coast east of Brest. Being now veterans of combat on this, our second mission, Beam and I took delight in pointing out to the rest of the crew their first view of a cluster of flak and two German fighters that remained out of range. On this mission, I noticed for the first time a tendency when flak was around us, particularly under us, to cross my legs tightly. And what was the reaction of the rest of the crew to their first raid? It can be summarized by a declaration by Tom Dempsey: "I was scared as hell. Those clouds of flak looked to me like black ghosts."
As days became shorter, most of the takeoffs were made before daylight on early-morning missions. On days when there were no missions, we usually had ground school in classes such as intelligence, oxygen equipment, escape from enemy territory in case of a forced landing, Gee training, first aid, care and use of winter flying clothing and protective equipment. If weather permitted, there were practice missions at high altitude for formation and navigation practice. It was a happy day when we ran a mission at low altitude, since this meant that we would have less gear to deal with, such as the oxygen equipment.
Usually on these practice missions, we carried guns and ammunition because of the possibility of "intruder" attacks. On two noteworthy occasions, we did not carry armament. The first was when we were practice bombing on a target in an estuary north of the Thames. The group was to fly northward, loop out to the North Sea, and make a bomb run on a straight-south course in plain sight of the French coast north of Calais. Most of the crews were more interested in watching the French coast than the practice target. If there had been an attack by enemy fighters, the formation would have been sitting ducks and would have had to "hit the deck" for protection, and hope for the best.
The second time we flew without armament on a practice mission proved to be the end of two Forts. It was supposed to be a practice mission through an undercast on a target out in the Wash (an inlet of the North Sea in eastern England), with a British Mickey operator in the lead navigator position. We were supposed to leave the English coast north of the Wash, bomb the target, and then take a 200-degree heading (approximately south by southwest) back toward the English coast. I was helping McKelvey, the radio operator, get some radio position fixes, and not following the location of the formation too closely. A few minutes after we were to cross the coast of England, the tail gunner called out: "There is flak at seven o'clock," and we could see that he was right. It turned out that instead of taking a westerly heading, the Mickey operator had somehow gone eastward and passed over the Friesian Islands (islands in the North Sea off the coasts of Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands), and we were over the continent! I took a quick Gee fix, and verified that indeed that is where we were. The formation made as quick a U-turn as possible and headed back toward England.
The sad part was that two B-17s from one of the other groups were seen to go down in smoke. Because it had suffered casualties, that group was
credited with a mission, while the rest of us were not. It is still not clear why we were not also given credit for a mission, since we had been inside the French coast, and had definitely been at risk. What did we all learn from these two experiences? On a practice mission, even if it is not primarily for navigation, pay attention to your location at all times. What had happened was that the Mickey navigator had left the English coast below Great Yarmouth instead of above the Wash. We had bombed the Friesian Islands instead of the planned target.
Whenever a crew failed to return from a mission, an Effects Officer would go immediately to the barracks of each of the crewmen and collect his property, and store it in case he eventually showed up. If a man was known to have been killed, his effects would be shipped to his home. This officer was sometimes irreverently called the "scavenger". In the small town where I was born and raised, and where most families still used outdoor toilets, the scavenger was the man who came around twice a month to clean out the outhouses. When the Effects Officer came around, it was difficult for a person to keep his mind from dwelling on the fact that sometime this officer could be visiting the barracks to collect the effects of one of us. While I was at the 96th Group, we had only one visit from the Effects Officer, when the airplane of one of the crews in our
barracks was shot down. There was a second visit after I left the group, when the crew that replaced the first one was also shot down. This crew,
however, crash-landed in Germany, and the members were taken prisoner. The strange part of the whole thing was that each of those two crews had a member named Lt. Taylor, and each had expressed certainty that he would not successfully complete 25 missions.
One of the favorite forms of recreation, on days when there was no mission, was poker, although there was a lot of solitaire also. First Sergeant Lee, the top enlisted man in the group, frequently came into our barracks to play poker with the officers. He also ran crap tables and poker games among the enlisted men. One night, he won $4,900 from a wealthy private, and later threw a party with it for the whole squadron. There was a phonograph and a stack of records in the hut. When we were on our way overseas, the Savoie group was instructed to deliver the phonograph to the Recreation officer at whatever base we were assigned to, but, for some reason, it ended up in our hut instead of with that officer. That phonograph and the records were really played to death! Once a musical instrument craze hit the barracks. Bedell got a piano accordion, Dempsey a horn, Taylor a guitar, Andreoli and Dymond some sort of off-brand instruments, and Beriont a harmonica. I even tried the accordion, but quickly gave it up. When all played at once, it really was a cacophony! I tried for awhile to buy a radio, but came close to getting one only once while in London. I tried at a radio store without success, but a woman there gave me an address near Leicester Square where I could probably get one. That place turned out to be a real joint, and quite obviously a black market place. The woman who opened the door called a man who led me to a back room. He showed me a radio which was hidden behind whiskey bottles, and said he wanted thirty dollars for it, an outrageous price in those days. Obviously, I didn't buy it.
Parties at the officers' club sometimes turned out to be brawls. The
Catholic chaplain usually brought some of the nicest girls he could find from Norwich, but after one visit, many of them would not come back. So the quality of the ladies who came gradually went downhill. Sandwiches and coffee were served before the dancing and drinking began, and it took little time for sobriety to downgrade. The dancing was not pretty. Cases were known where officers took women to their barracks, and even kept them for several days. It is my understanding that the parties of the enlisted men were not much different from those of the officers.
On September 26, there was an unspectacular raid to another Luftwaffe airfield, this time at Rheims, France, with little flak and no fighter opposition. The 96th Group had wing lead, and apparently the raid was a success. My fourth raid was to the submarine base at Emden, Germany.
There was no flak or fighter action during the first pass at the target on this mission also, and there was no damage to any of our airplanes even though two elements (actually two complete groups) from our base participated for the first time. The lead navigator and bombardier were unable to see the target because of a smoke screen, so the formation returned to the initial point and made a second run. This time there was some fighter opposition that was stirred up by the first run. This was the first raid on what came to be known as the "ten-day air battle", which ended with the "black Thursday" mission to Schweinfurt. During that period of time there were five raids on different targets by the 8th Air Force, and every crew that participated was awarded a citation from Winston Churchill, General Arnold, and others at that level. The smoke pots at Emden and other cities were fairly effective in hiding the targets, and the Germans changed the pattern of the pots each time to confuse our raiders as to
where the precise location of a target was. Frank Berry's crew had been on a raid to Emden the previous week, and his tail gunner was almost
killed. Also, he returned to base with a twelve-pound chunk of flak in his wing. The Rheims raid was six hours in duration, and the raid to Emden was six hours and 15 minutes long.
I have mentioned before that navigators on raids to targets that were closer to Sweden or Switzerland than to England would plot a course to one or the other country from several points along the way to and from the target, in case the airplane became damaged mechanically. On all raids, crews were briefed on the best escape routes in case they were shot down. There was a story making the rounds about one of our planes that was shot down, and other men in the group reported that the plane had been seen heading for Switzerland with nothing obviously wrong with it. We all visualized one of the crew, whom we all knew, sitting out the war there, doing a lot of skiing. However, about two months later, he showed up back at the base. His ship had crash-landed just inside France, near Luxembourg. The crew burned the airplane and took care of two injured men. Our man contacted the French underground, who managed to get him back to England in 51 days. He talked about visiting Paris, and about riding safely for five hours in the same compartment on a train with several German officers. He was in a highly nervous condition, and his fingers were yellow with nicotine from heavy smoking. He gave a flowery account of his experiences, but a later report, after his pilot also returned, was not quite so flowery. According to this report, he had become panicky and was almost the cause of several other men in his situation being caught by the Germans.
An officer named Lt. McConnell, who had gone through navigation school with me, did reach Switzerland when his B-24 Liberator was crippled. He spent eight months there, and then managed to get himself and crew on a plane returning to England before the re-occupation of France had proceeded far.
Two days after the Emden raid, on October 4, the 96th group was briefed for a raid to the marshalling yards at Frankfurt. It was my fifth mission, with almost 300 bombers from the 8th Air Force participating. Most important to my crew was the fact that it was the only one of our missions from which we truly wondered whether or not we would make it back to base. This target could have been called our "point of (almost) no return." This was not because of enemy action, but because of mechanical trouble with superchargers of the airplane. A number of navigators in the group, including me, were confused by the fact that the lead crew led us to Saarbrucken-Saarguemines, Germany, instead of Frankfurt, the city we were briefed for. We finally arrived back in England with only one engine operating properly and less than 5,000 feet of altitude remaining from the 25,000 feet at which we had bombed.
There was almost a complete undercast over the continent, making it impossible to do any pilotage, or map-reading. And being one of the outer wing airplanes in the formation, it was necessary for the pilot to "jockey" the airplane to a considerable extent, which caused extreme variations in air speed, compass, altitude, and drift-meter measurements. The result was that dead reckoning navigation was also essentially impossible, meaning that it was extremely difficult to determine and follow the actual track of the formation. But the fact that the lead navigator followed an easterly course longer after crossing the Belgian coast than the plan called for, and the fact that he made a right turn when, according the flight plan, he should have made a left turn, made it clear that we were heading toward a target different from the one we had been briefed for.
But then the mechanical problems began. About a half hour before the target, the #4 engine cut out. This was not a major problem, because a B-17 could stay up with the formation with only three engines. But nearing the target, we lost the #2 engine. There was a preliminary order from the pilot to prepare to bail out, in case it became necessary. There was still no radio message about having gone to an alternate target, because of the requirement to preserve radio silence. Engine #4 caught on again, very slightly and very weakly. According to the co-pilot's report, there was only ten inches of mercury supercharger pressure on the engine. The pilot's decision was to stay in our formation position as long as possible, and when necessary to drop farther and farther in the formation if we had to. Fortunately, the 96th group was near the front of the whole formation, so there were a number of groups behind us, some at lower altitudes. We were, therefore, able to join several successive groups as we lost altitude.
The #4 engine would work properly for awhile and then repeatedly fade out. The ball turret gunner was called out of the ball turret and into the fuselage several times, because of the possibility of us having to bail out. Finally, we had dropped down as far as we could and still remain with part of the formation. So at 17,000 feet, down from 25,000 feet, we had to leave the formation, and we were on our own. Fortunately, there had been no fighter opposition that day, or that would have been the end of us!
As we continued to lose altitude, we could still see the formation we had just left, and follow a course parallel to theirs. Because we had bombed a target that we were not briefed for, we were not certain how far we were from the North Sea, and in fact what part of the coastline we were nearest to. So, as the formation finally went out of sight, I gave the a pilot a heading of 270 degrees (straight west), which should be the shortest way to England. The pilot took a vote of the crew: Would we prefer to bail out, knowing that we were over German-occupied territory and would most probably survive, but likely be taken prisoner. Or would we rather keep going, hoping to reach England but running the risk of having to ditch in the frigid North Sea, where survival could be limited to a very few minutes. The unanimous decision was: "Go for it!" We got so far as wishing each other good luck, and calling out, "See you in Paris." The radio operator, Ross McKelvey, locked down the PDQ switch, to send out a radio signal that could be used by someone, somewhere, to take a position fix on us. To save weight, all heavy equipment that could be spared was pushed overboard. Since there had been no fighter opposition, all guns and 4,000 rounds of ammunition were sent overboard, along with all radio receiving equipment. Even the heavy clothing that was needed at high altitude was thrown out, as well as flak vests, helmets, and other unneeded equipment.
Ball turret gunner Comfort, who was back in his position, reported that even though there was a broken undercast, he could see water under us, which was undoubtedly the North Sea, and I gave the pilot a time estimate for reaching the British coast. Just at that time, supercharger problems continued, as the #3 and #4 engines both quit, and we lost altitude even faster. We were left with #1 as our only remaining engine, and our altitude was less than 5,000 feet when we saw land underneath, and an air base with many parked B-17s and flying Old Glory. Without checking the wind direction, the pilot wheeled around and landed on the most convenient runway. As we reached the far end of the landing strip, another Fort landed on a runway perpendicular to the one we had landed on.
As it turned out, the base where we landed was that of the 388th Group, which was located only about 15 miles from our base. A happy crew kissed the ground of the United Kingdom. A truck carried us to our own base for interrogation and debriefing. I found out there that other navigators also had never heard of Saarbrucken-Saarguemines as an alternative target, and were just as uncertain as I was of our location during most of the mission.
Leaves of any considerable length of time away from the base were unknown except for rest leaves. Generally, we were given two- or three-day passes every three or four weeks except when there was to be an all-out raid. Most of these passes were spent in London with part of the crew. Frequently, however, I was able to spend a weekend with my brother, Don, who was a first sergeant in the Eighth Air Force with the 381st Group at Great Yeldham. When we both had passes at the same time, we managed to meet, sometimes in London, but most usually at Cambridge, which was approximately equidistant from his base and mine.
The first attempt to meet him in England was in London after the Saarbrucken raid. The attempt was unsuccessful because I was three hours too late to meet him at the Red Cross Rainbow Corner. The second time there was more successful, although I was late again. But he left a note at Rainbow Corner giving the name of a hotel in Russell Square, where he was staying, so I went there and found him. He had talked the receptionist there into letting him have the room free, but I had paid for it before I knew that. We talked a long time before turning in, especially about home. He and his wife, Claudia, were expecting their first baby within a month, so he asked me to visit them in Atlanta if I returned to the States before he did. He was more homesick than I was.
The first time I met him at Cambridge was at the Hull Hotel, which was a Red Cross club. He knew the city fairly well, so we walked around some of the university buildings and looked in some curio shops. The following evening he had to catch a GI bus back to his base, so I stayed at a rooming house on the university campus where students ("dons") usually stayed. The room was available because the dons were on holiday at that time, and the rates were reasonable. I talked late into the night with the house mother and house father. I gave them each a couple of packages of cigarettes, since I didn't smoke, and it made me their friend for life. When it came time for bed, she asked me if I wanted a "hot water bottle", which embarrassed me until she explained that it was a bottle filled with hot water that was placed under the bed covers to warm up the foot of the bed. When I went to bed, I found a pewter bottle there filled with warm water, and it served its purpose quite well.
I was able to meet Don several more times, either at London or Cambridge. Once when he happened to be on the same train as Beriont, Dempsey, Beam and I, I introduced him to them, and was happy to be able to make this link between him and a portion of my crew.
While the primary purpose of the 96th Group was to destroy enemy targets, there were times when our base was on the receiving end of things. On the base we frequently had air raid alarms. There were three levels of alarms when there was a possibility of our base being bombed by the Germans. The alarms, usually over the loud speaker, were as follows: "Red alert," when enemy planes were within 15 to 20 minutes of the base; "stand-by alert," when the planes appeared to be headed our direction; and "crash alarm," if it was fairly certain that our base was the target. In the latter case we would all rush to the air-raid shelter. On one occasion, while many of the GIs were at the movie, a captain rushed in just as the crash alarm sounded, and yelled that incendiary bombs were falling on the base. As we rushed for the shelter, we could hear airplanes overhead, and could see that it was not incendiaries, but flares, which were apparently dropped for the purpose of photographing the base.
We often got quite a show when the Jerries bombed Thetford, Norwich, or Ipswich at night. Intelligence officers told us that the Germans used Norwich to break in new pilots, and it seemed that way from the frequency of raids. I was in Norwich only one time, and even then it looked like there was little left to bomb. Once we saw a fire raid over Thetford, and the incendiary bombs looked like live coals falling through the air. The ground glare soon died down, indicating the effectiveness of the British firemen in fighting the fires.
During a raid on Ipswich, we could hear the engines of the German planes as they approached the English coast. At that instant, many searchlights came on at the coast, and simultaneously, anti-aircraft fire opened up. The British ack-ack was extremely accurate; we saw them knock down three of the invaders in just over five minutes. A bright glare sprang up on the horizon when a burning, spinning airplane hit the ground. Quite often we saw searchlights around Great Yarmouth and flak guns would open up, looking almost like a Fourth-of-July display.
Takeoff was near noon. It was the first mission on which our crew had dropped "chaff" out of the windows onto the enemy. Chaff consisted of aluminum strips, which appeared to German radar to be millions of small objects falling through the air, and totally obliterated their view of the airplanes. Apparently, it was very effective. Approximately 65 German fighters hit the formation, one of them being an ME-109 which came from directly out of the sun and did severe damage to our forts. The 96th Group lost two or three airplanes. Pathfinder equipment in the lead ship had some problems, and there were bomb-rack malfunctions which caused the bombs to drop early and miss the target. On this mission, Frank Berry's plane received another blow, a direct hit which knocked out the control system. But by heroic action of the crew, the plane was brought back
safely to home base. Our airplane received many flak holes, but there was no serious damage to the airplane, and no injuries to the crew.
My seventh mission was to a railway junction at Munster, where we
encountered what was reported to be the greatest concentration of German
fighters that had occurred up to that time. We had what appeared to us to be about fifty fighters attack our group alone, with other groups also reporting large numbers. They came in from every clock position, high, level, and low, sometimes five or six at a time. There were FW-190s, ME-109s, and JU-88s, and we were lucky to lose only two airplanes. A situation that could have become very serious to me came up on this mission. Our airplane carried one of the old constant-flow type of oxygen masks that did not put out enough oxygen at very high altitudes. Because of the extreme exertion of handling the guns for a long period of time (I fired more than 350 rounds of ammunition, without doing any appreciable amount of damage to any German aircraft), and still trying to navigate, I came close to passing out from shortage of oxygen. I gasped for air, and sat on the floor with my back against the rear bulkhead of the nose compartment. Finally, Beam offered to handle the guns while I tried to do some navigation. On this mission, we were number two ship in the low squadron, and only two airplanes out of that squadron returned to base in formation. Three airplanes were shot down from around us, and two others landed at airfields other than ours.
It was not unusual for airplanes of our group to land at bases other than their own after having been crippled or because of inclement weather. It happened only twice to us -- once when we almost didn't make it back after our October 4 raid, and once when we took off for a mission that was soon scrubbed. We couldn't get back into our own field because it was "souped in", so we were ordered to go to a British base near Leicester. After landing, Beriont somehow let the plane get off the taxi strip into a deep mud puddle, and the ship sank to the hub. The RAF didn't have any suitable equipment available to get it out of the mud, except for a portable derrick, and that could not budge the airplane. Finally, they got a pneumatic "balloon" jack and inflated it under the wings. Then they piled rocks under the wheels, and they were able to pull the plane out of the mud.
The RAF officers were extremely hospitable. We slept that night in their airmen's barracks, which contained no lights. Dempsey and I became lost in the dark while looking for the restroom, and had to enlist the aid of an MP to find our way. Although we were wearing our flight clothing and had no toilet articles, the British officers insisted that we make ourselves at home in their officers' club. We had no money with us, so they provided our dinner. If any of them suspected any one of us was lonely, he would come over and engage us in conversation. Late the next day, the weather at Snetterton Heath lifted, and we were able to land there. We took off for home base, in time to land just at dark.
On some of the occasions when our crew didn't go on a mission, we had an opportunity to watch other airplanes return from their missions. We usually managed to find out somehow at what time the return would be, even though details related to the target were actually secret until all planes had returned. Before a mission it was verboten to tell even ground crews where the target was, for security reasons. About a half hour before the planes were to return, a crowd consisting of ground crews, other aircrews who didn't fly the mission, and ambulances and crash trucks would begin to assemble. When the roar of engines was heard, all of us craned our necks to see the planes as soon as possible. As they flew over, if there was a plane missing, we tried to figure out whose plane it was. Usually, crippled ships or those with injured men on board would fire flares and peel off from the formation to land first. The planes with injured would land first and stop at the end of the landing strip, where ambulances would be waiting to take the wounded off. Crippled planes would taxi to their revetments if they were able to do so. In those cases where a plane was damaged so badly that it crash-landed, the crash trucks would do whatever they could to save the crewmen on board. Bystanders would express great happiness if they found that planes carrying their close friends were safe, or distress if a damaged plane or a plane carrying injured persons was one they were familiar with.
The non-casualty ships in the formation would continue to fly down-wind in formation, and as soon as the planes with emergencies had all landed, individual planes in the formation would peel off, one at a time, and enter the pattern for landing. It usually took about an hour for all of the planes to land after first flying across the base. Ground crews among the bystanders would go to the parking revetments to begin whatever repairs were required, while bystanding crewmen would go to the debriefing rooms to observe activities there or to discuss the raid with participants.
Once in awhile, our crew was briefed for a mission, but couldn't make it because of mechanical failures on the plane. On two occasions, we were extremely fortunate that we had aborted. In the first case, we were briefed for a mission to Gdynia, Poland, which was to be a long and tiresome mission, but we couldn't take off. The spare crew that took our place had so much damage to their airplane that they had to fly to Sweden for sanctuary. Of course, we would not necessarily have had the same experience, but we were glad we had had to abort, while still feeling guilty that someone else had suffered in our place. Another time, we were the lead ship in the lower squadron. As we left the English coast, trouble developed all of a sudden in the superchargers of two engines, pulling us suddenly downward and scattering the airplanes under us. Naturally, we aborted and returned to base. The #2 ship that replaced us was shot down and destroyed. While we again felt fortunate, at the same time we felt very sad at the loss of the crew.
One other time, the opposite situation developed. We aborted from a mission to Duren, in the Ruhr Valley that was to be flown at 30,000 feet. We had trouble reaching that altitude, and were a spare crew anyway, so we went back home. At first we were pleased we didn't have to fly the mission, but when the crews came back and reported that we had missed a very easy mission, we were very sorry we had missed it. On another occasion, we were leading the low squadron when two engines began to smoke during assembly, so the pilot lowered the landing gear and dipped the wings, indicating that he was going to abort, and we headed for home. We landed with full bomb and gas loads, even though that was not usually done. Usually, if bombs were not dropped on a target, they were salvoed in the English
Channel. If the mission was totally scrubbed soon after takeoff, we would have to fly around for about three hours in order to use enough fuel to
permit a safe landing. It turned out that this would have been the 50th consecutive mission without an abort for this particular ground crew, and the crew chief would have received an award if we hadn't aborted. But we didn't want to risk our necks to get him an award.
Most of the bombers were identified popularly by clever and ingenious names, along with pictures illustrative of their names, rather than by the cold airplane numbers they carried. Our crew never had the same airplane long enough to name it. We were first given Green Fury II (I have no idea where the name came from, or the significance of the name), an old, war-weary ship. Later, we graduated to a B-17G, with a chin turret, but the airplane was assigned temporarily to another crew for one raid, and it was shot down on that raid, before we had a chance to name it. Various names had been suggested for it, but they were all vetoed by Beriont as "too lewd". Many crews within the group were identified by the unique name of their airplane, and the related artwork on the nose. Two examples were
"Urgent Virgin" and "Fertile Myrtle". Sometimes even Jeeps were given
names, such as "Itza Crockisch Itt."
My eighth mission was the second mission the 96th group made to Schweinfurt, and the most difficult of the two. It was on October 14, 1943, a date that became renowned as "Black Thursday." It was a real shock when the cover was removed from the briefing map to reveal the identity of the target. There was deep suspense even before that, because of an unusually large group of high brass attending the briefing. The target was a factory consisting of four or five sections, which was the prime producer of ball-bearings in Germany. The first raid there had taken place on August 17, 1943, the same day as the famous Regensburg raid, which shuttled to North Africa. Our losses were great on that first raid to Schweinfurt, but damage to the ball bearing plant was crippling to the German war effort. The second mission, on "Black Thursday", was urgent because Intelligence indicated that the Germans were making good progress in rebuilding the plant. For that reason, this mission was reputed to be the most important air operation up to this point in the war.
More than 300 B-17s (and a large number of B-24s) participated in the raid. The 96th again provided two groups of 21 planes each, and led the Third Division, behind the First Division. Because the 96th was providing so many crews, it was necessary to borrow two airplanes from the 385th Group, and we were assigned to one of the two. It was older and in a more decrepit condition than Green Fury II; co-pilot Dempsey described it as a "real dog."
The First Division had some difficulties in the assembly process, and apparently this provided the Germans with some warning, and aroused a certain amount of fighter opposition, which began to show up at the enemy coastline. With anti-aircraft guns forming a complete ring around the city, flak bursts of all configurations (tracking, predicted concentration, and barrage) formed a dense, thick fog over the entire city, and produced a high casualty rate. Because of the short range of the P-47s, the formation was left without fighter support for most of the mission, causing losses from enemy fighters, as well as from flak, to be high. Most of the fighter opposition focused on the First Division, leading the formation, and on the lead ship of the Third Division, Fertile Myrtle, with Col. Old, the commander, as co-pilot. Yet, the only casualty, resulting when a direct hit smashed the plexiglass nose of the lead ship, was the lead navigator, Maj. Bob Hodson, who was killed. Capt. William Jones, Hodson's assistant lead navigator, though wounded, took over in his place to get the ship back home. From our plane, we could see the lead Fort peel off to the right in the vicinity of Rheims, and leave the formation. In spite of fighter opposition, it managed to get back to England on one engine. Hodson was a popular officer, and his briefings to navigators before missions were very effective. On the morning of this raid, he was seen checking his equipment thoroughly. Yet, apparently, he would have been only slightly wounded if he had been wearing his flak suit.
Another casualty that day was the son of John Winant, a U.S. ambassador. The next day, an article in "The Stars and Stripes" described his plane as peeling off to the right and going into a spin. From our plane, we could see an airplane behaving exactly as the article described, and assume it was Winant's. Reports from others in our group told of a co-pilot climbing out his window, then, as he held on, reaching back into the plane to retrieve his parachute and clip it on, and then drop safely away. It is not easy to understand how he could have managed to do so in the 150-mile-an-hour wind, but that was the report that was made. The most sickening thing we saw was a plane in a neighboring group hit directly by flak. Two persons, the navigator and bombardier, came out of the nose of the plane. The chute of the second one to bail out had just opened up when a wing tank exploded, shearing off his chute, and his body could be seen plummeting toward the ground.
Press reports that day said that 60 American bombers were lost in the raid. Many crewmen in the Eighth Air Force were convinced that there had to be
many more losses than that, because casualties appeared to be so dense in all parts of the formation. In only the areas visible to us, there were
many bombers that were either damaged, burning, and/or spinning downward. On this raid, for the first time, we saw rockets that were fired from the ground. Luckily, they were set to explode at an altitude higher than ours, but we could still feel the shock waves from the blasts as they exploded. The formation was over enemy territory for more than seven hours, and the flak was intense. A significant number of damaged planes were able to reach England, in spite of many German fighters and insufficient fighter support. The enemy lost 138 fighters, and about 60% of German ball-bearing production was put out of order. Again, no one from our crew was injured, and the worst damage we experienced was many flak holes in the airplane.