It was still dark when they woke the crews. The fog lay thick and cold over the countryside that morning, and inside the barracks it was pitch-black and silent, except for the deep, steady breathing of the sleeping Fortress gunners. I had been awake for some time, and I heard the sound of footsteps outside, soon after the door of a neighboring hut slammed shut. Someone struck a match and announced it was six o'clock, and then the door of my barracks opened and the lights went on, cold and glaring when viewed from a warm bed. The squadron operations officer, bundled up warmly against the morning cold in a sheepskin jacket and flying boots, walked toward the center of the room and started to read a list of names from a slip of paper, quietly so as not to awaken those who were not flying that day.
"Baxter, Blansit, Cavanaugh, Hill, Sweeney... ." The men whose names he called sat up sleepily, slid their feet a little wearily to the cold floor and sat there, most of them, for a few seconds before getting dressed, shivering with the damp and cold.
"Briefing at 7:30," the officer said, and then went on to another hut. The men got dressed quietly, trying not to disturb those who could sleep till later, and secretly envying them. Next to me, Bill Sweeney, a former tire salesman and now a gunner, lit a cigarette and came over to my bunk and said he thought this would be a fine day to christen the ship. Sweeney was talking about his Fort, which had made a dozen missions but was yet unnamed. A few days before they had decided to call the ship Yank, and this was to be its first mission with that name.
I drew the blackout curtain and stared out at the gray, foggy morning. "It looks pretty foggy to me," I said. "You never can tell about the English weather," Sweeney said. "You are very god-damned right, you can't," said the sergeant-gunner sitting on the next bunk. "You never can tell."
We headed toward the combat mess. There, in the glaring light, in a room noisy with conversation and the clatter of dishes, we had a big breakfast, polishing it off with a cigarette, and walked on to the briefing. It was beginning to get light now, but the fog still lay thick and gray in the trees off in the distance, and the ground was wet with it.
The briefing room was bright, also, and noisy until the mild-mannered intelligence captain rose to speak. He had a long ruler in his hand and kept toying with it while he spoke, as a man toying with a swagger stick. None of his listeners knew where we were going and there was a dead silence as he raised the ruler toward the map. He pointed first to our base in Britain, then slowly moved it out over the North Sea and into Belgium, as though he himself were having a tremendous effort getting us over the target. The ruler moved on through Belgium, then slowly and deeply into Germany, until I thought for a moment that we were being briefed for Austria. Way down in the southern reaches of Germany, the ruler stopped.
"This, gentlemen," the captain said, "is your target for today -- Schweinfurt." The men listened intently, leaning forward on the long rows of chairs. The air was clouded now with cigarette smoke. "Schweinfurt," the captain continued, "is the most important target of all in Germany today. We cannot go ahead with other targets until it is seriously crippled." A gunner ahead of us strained forward to get a better view of the map. "Half of Germany's ball-bearings," the captain went on, "are produced at Schweinfurt, and ball-bearings are important to Hitler. If we destroy these factories, we will have crippled the enemy's production of tanks and planes and submarines to a very great degree."
The captain went on to give some technical information concerning the target, wind and weather, and the briefing was over. Outside, it was quite light now, a peaceful English morning. The sun was beginning to dissipate the fog, although chunks of it still lay between the trees and in spots it still hung over the airfield itself. Outside the briefing room we were given chewing gum and candy, one of the solemn rituals of a raid. "I think this Schweinfurt is named after a very special kind of pig," one of the radio operators said, as we headed toward the trucks.
We rode up the taxi strips to our hard stand, and the crews stood around the ship. Station time was thirty minutes ahead, and the guns, ammunition, radio and bomb bays had been checked. The skipper of our ship was a 21-year-old giant from Monterey, California, Captain Ivan Klohe. While waiting for the take-off, he pitted his hulk against two of the waist gunners, Sgts. Charlie Hill and Edward Cavanaugh. Standing only just a little over five feet, Cavanaugh succeeded in pinning the captain's shoulders to the ground; Hill had a deadly lock on his legs. The remainder of the crew stood and cheered for the gunners. Station time was announced. The men became suddenly serious as they took their positions in the ship. I climbed into the nose with Lt. Howard J. Zorn, the navigator, and Lt. Richard J. Roth, the bombardier. "The right gun is yours, Pete," Roth said.
The Yank queued up by the runway. Lt. Herbert Heuser, the co-pilot, announced through the inter-phone, "There goes the Picadilly Queen." We watched he as she sped down the black runway -- 50, 60, 90 miles an hour. It was a beautiful take-off. So was ours.
At about 11,000 feet the pilot told us to check our oxygen masks. We did so and then put them on. Heuser was still on the inter-phone -- making an imitation fireside chat, my friends -- and the crew ate it up. Then he began to sing, and Cavanaugh and Zorn chimed in occasionally with a razzberry, a vocal trick hard to achieve on an inter-phone. There were more songs, from Hill, Roy (Tex) Blansit, who was our top-turret gunner, and from Sweeney. The war was beautiful.
The formation across the North Sea was perfect. We led the "purple heart" element and before us the sky was clouded by B-17s. We counted them up to 100. Then we quit counting.
Zorn directed our attention to a long file of P-47s to our right. They sped so fast it seemed we were standing still, and left a beautiful silver vapor trail behind them. The view from the nose was great.
At 13.02 the captain warned us that we were approaching enemy territory. We were above 20,000 feet and suddenly, over the inter-phone, somebody announced the presence of unidentified vessels in the sea below us. A couple of seconds later somebody said they were shooting at us. "Why, the silly bastards," someone replied.
At 13.30 the captain announced we were over enemy territory and as he did, Heuser announced the presence of unidentified fighters. It turned out to be all right though. They were ours.
When we were over Luxembourg, the sun was still with us. The nose was so hot that there was no need to use the electric suit; a pair of white silk gloves was enough to keep your hands warm. Enemy fighters got hot just about that time, too. Heuser did most of the calling, singing out their positions in a voice that was cool and undisturbed. He sat where he could see them all, and he didn't miss a one. "Fighter at 5 o'clock high." "Fighter 10 o'clock." "Fighter 8 o'clock low." "Fighter 3 o'clock." "Fighter 12 o'clock."
There were fighters everywhere, but mostly on our tail. "The whole goddam Luftwaffey is out today," somebody said over the inter-phone. There were the single-engined Me.109s and twin-engined Me.110s; there were Ju.88s and FW190s; there also were Me.210s, even Dornier bombers, and God only knows what else the Germans had thrown into the fight. The only things they did not throw at the division were the plane factories themselves, or such factories as they have left to throw.
"This is nothing," Zorn reassured me. "We've seen worse in other raids. About 25 minutes more to the target."
The captain took a little evasive action. The plane banked to the left, then to the right. To the right we sighted a huge column of smoke, which looked at first like a big black cloud. It was the target. Libs and Forts had already passed the ball-bearing works and hit the plants solidly. We'd soon be there, but we wondered just how soon. The passage of time is a little different up there. The Navigator told me to look out of the left side. There were a couple of planes burning there, a Fort and an enemy fighter. Three white parachutes and one brown one floated in the sky. The whites belonged to our boys. Under the brown one was a German.
When in hell are we getting to that target? Time has passed so slowly these past 15 minutes. Ten minutes more and we'll surely be there. Heuser was still calling them off. The fighters were coming in from all sides now, but not too close. Maybe about 500 yards away, often as much as 1,000. I looked back toward the fuselage. There was Tex, his left foot planted on a box of caliber 50s, his right foot lazily dangling in space. From the inter-phone we knew Tex was a very, very busy top turret gunner. His gun was tracking fighters all around the clock. Occasionally he concentrated his gun to the tail, where his friend Sweeney was busy firing at the enemy as they queued up from the rear.
A Ju.88 and a 190 attacked Sweeney's position from 4 and 8 o'clock, and high. Tex's guns worked fast. Both planes peeled off. The 190 shied off but the 88 came back from about 500 yards to the rear, flying smack into the ex-tire salesman. Sweeney calmly pressed his triggers. Meanwhile, Tex directed his fire. "You're shooting at him just a little high. Get him lower. A little lower." Sweeney did; the 88 came closer, and lobbed out two of the rockets which the Germans are now using. They were deadly looking affairs as they shot out like flames.
Tex still guided his pal over the inter-phone. "A little lower, Bill," he said. A little lower Bill went. The 88 wavered, flipped over and as it did we could see that it was afire, trailing smoke. Then there was one less Ju.88; also one less Ju.88 crew of two. They didn't get out.
Klohe headed the Fort northeast, hitting a straight course for the tall column of smoke 6,000 feet high, which marked the target. At our level, and higher, flak blackened the sky. Roth was ready. It was only a matter of 20 seconds before he released the bombs. Then came the flak, great black balls of it were all around us. It seemed almost impossible to escape the barrage.
We weren't having fighter trouble now; our enemy was flak, and there was nothing we could do about it -- except evasive action. Klohe did just that, beautifully. It seemed a miracle that we escaped. Suddenly we heard a loud jangling noise, even above the roar of our four engines. We looked toward the navigator. The plate glass on his side was broken. A fragment of flak had found its mark there. Zorn lifted his head quickly, took off his gloves and his fur cap and felt around that part of his face not covered by the oxygen mask. He winked. He was okay. I took a deep breath -- of oxygen.
The flak ceased now, but the enemy fighters and fighter-bombers returned. Heuser was back on the job, his cool voice calling them off again. He reminded me of the stick man at a dice game in a gambling house, but his tone had the confidence that the croupier's doesn't. "Fighter 11 o'clock," Heuser announced. The navigator tracked the plane down with 50s until he was out of sight. "Fighter 12 o'clock." Roth followed again. "Fighter 5 o'clock," and Sweeney was back at his guns. "Fighter 2 o'clock." I grabbed my gun, and tracked the German until Heuser bawled me out for using too much ammunition. I stopped fast.
Heuser's voice again: "Fighter 3 o'clock high." Tex saw him, recognized it as a 190, waited until it came closer and then let loose with a barrage. Sweeney congratulated him. From where Sweeney was he could see the 190 spiral down; he saw the pilot bale out, brown chute and all. That was the end of Jerry number two for the boys of the Yank. The third was claimed by Sgt. Cavanaugh, the left waist gunner. Cavanaugh bagged an 88. The plane spun earthwards in flame, while the crew of two baled out.
All the time Hill and Sgt. Ralph Baxter, our ball turret gunner, were engaging two 88s which were attacking a lone B-17 that had been forced out of formation with a feathered engine. Baxter saw the Germans dive after the 17 and appealed to Hill to give him a hand from the right waist. Between them they saved the Fort from destruction.
It was now 16.15 by the watch -- but the watch, we discovered, was no longer running. We cursed. More fighters came at us. We cursed some more. Half an hour later there was more flak. It wasn't as heavy as the stuff at Schweinfurt. Zorn said he thought we were near Amiens, France. Just then we heard another loud jangle of broken glass as flak hit the left front plate. Roth ducked. Zorn went calmly about his business of navigating. I put my helmet on, then took it off a few seconds later. A helmet is not very conducive to good sight. I wanted to see.
Roth picked up a piece of flak and handed it to me. "Maybe you'll want this for a souvenir," he said. We tried guessing the time. I figured it was about 17.30. We were well across the English Channel, and in a few minutes we could see the English coast. Klohe began dropping altitude. At 17,000 feet Roth and Zorn took off their masks. I followed suit. Zorn smiled.
Tired, but happy voices began coming over the inter-phone. They were kidding again. Heuser sang. Zorn told us how sharpshooter Sweeney couldn't hit one skeet out of 15 a year ago. Somebody else threw digs at Tex because he once was turned down by the Army because of flat feet. Cavanaugh kidded the captain over the inter-com, and Klohe dished it back to him. Personally, I just sat back and relaxed, pulled out a cigarette and lit it. The mission was over.