Biography of Wally Hoffman
351st Bomb Group, Polebrook, England, 8th A.F., U.S.A.A.F.
I flew 35 missions during WW II in the 8th Air Force over Germany. Below are some of my memoirs I have written of some of the incidents.
THE FIRST ONE
All of a sudden a flashlight was shining in my face, and a voice from out in the darkness was announcing, Breakfast at four and Briefing at five. I lay there thinking "what a hell of a way to wake up as I heard those around me also starting to stir. The thought hit me - this was it! I was going into combat on my first mission.
All the training was over and it was now either put up or shut up. Will I be back here tonight? There exists such a thin line between survival and the point of no return from that country from which no traveler returns. Would I be climbing back into my bed tonight, or would someone come in and roll up my mattress, as I had seen done too many times in the past two weeks?
I rolled out of the sack and shaved in cold water. We had been advised that whiskers and oxygen masks dont mix very well. Quickly I jumped in and just as quickly out of the cold shower, which positively woke me up. I then dressed in T-shirt, GI underwear, plus wool pants and shirt for we dressed in layers to retain the body heat. The B-17 was open to the elements with no heat, and the temperature was always -50 to -75 degrees without the wind-chill factor.
There was no talk as everyone was buried in his or her own thoughts. I wondered, what had happened to all that banter last night on the discussions as what the boudoir commandos and sexual athletes were going to do when they got home or to London?
My thoughts were not on the fear of the mission - or how rough it might be, or where we might be going. I was thinking would I be able to execute OK, and do everything right under the pressure of someone shooting at me?
I slowly made my way it seemed in total darkness to the combat mess. Here in comparison everyone was talking, but it was all small talk and trivial matters. This was a guise to relieve the heavy hand of stress, which lay on all of us.
I immediately was hit with the thick smell of frying eggs and bacon, which clung to the air. A combat breakfast consisted usually of fried eggs, bacon and hotcakes, on other days it was powdered eggs and spam or SOS-which is creamed chipped beef on toast usually called sh** on a shingle. With a huge knot in my stomach and at four oclock in the morning, who is ready to eat? I can still see those eggs staring up at me!
As a crew we all sat down together, Resnik wolfed his down his breakfast and looked over at Bobs untouched plate who said take it, pushing it towards him in agitation. Nothing ever seemed to bother Resnik and everything distressed Bob.
I only managed a few bites and the next thing I knew we were outside in the dark, and it was only 4:15 -- what do we do for the next 30 minutes? As we proceeded to the briefing hut, I thought, it seemed only yesterday at Washington State University we all raised our hands and said, I do as Aviation Cadets. We were told to go home and wait for orders. This was only the beginning of a military adage we were to hear only too often, Hurry Up and Wait.
It had been a long hot trip from Seattle to San Antonio and as we entered the main gate of Kelly Field we were greeted with the shout Y-O-U L-L B-E S-O-R-R-Y. We soon found ourselves in the military regime of turning 90 degree corners, sitting at attention by using only four inches of the chair, plus eating square meals by making only very specific 90 degree movements from your plate to your mouth. When we became upperclassmen we inflicted the same treatment to the new class.
After the completion of training and transition it was then to Plant Park Tampa, FL., for crew selection, Drew Field, Tampa FL. to the Overseas Training Unit, and finally Hunter Field, Atlanta, GA., for overseas equipment including a brand new B-17.
The next day we were off to Europe by way of Dow Field, Bangor, MA. Gander, Newfoundland, and across the Atlantic to Prestwick, Scotland where they took that brand new plane from us. We were then sent to Stone a small village in Central England for processing and duty. Our assignment was to the 351st Bomb Group at Polebrook, which is located on the East Coast of England at the head of the Wash.
Immediately all the gunnery, bomb runs, flying formation training we received in OTU started all over again, only this time it was different-this was for real!
We flew the pattern for Polebrook, which is a rectangular course around the field taken prior to landing. As we were taxing away from the runway we noticed all the planes had a different symbol on the tail. That was when the penny dropped--we had landed at the wrong field-that accentuated was how good we were! Finally here we were now waiting for combat briefing, and about to be baptized into combat with that first big ONE!
The Briefing Room door finally opens and. we are immediately stopped at the door by the MPs to show our IDs then checked off from the crew lists for the mission, as there is very tight security. Inside there are rows of chairs lined up before a huge covered map, which I assumed, was Germany. Everybody seems to be talking at the same time and at the top of their voices making all kinds of wisecracks. I find later this was the means of relieving the tension and anxiety. You can feel the fear in the room; however my fear was of the unknown although it is very evident everyone here has confidence in their training and in each other.
We soon hear in a very loud voice Ten-Shun. Everyone jumps to his feet and there is instant silence in the room as the Group CO and his entourage marches down the center aisle. The Colonel tells us to fly our formations as if we are on parade. Plus how the good crews in this room are. He then proceeds to tell us England is quickly filling with military personnel for the big day we all are preparing for the invasion of France. We are the only ones among them who are regularly exchanging fire with the enemy flying missions that well could end with imprisonment or death. This is another step in the total annihilation of Germany and victory.
The Colonel then orders the curtain drawn which is followed by the chorus of OHs and AHS. We watched in fascination as the red yarn on the map winds its way in all directions from the base finally ending up at Cologne. We learned later to look for the amount of red yarn left outside the map this would tell how long the mission was going to be.
We listened intently as we were advised the flak should be light enroute, however there could be considerable flak from the 88 mm antiaircraft over the target. He steps down and another officer advises if we are shot down which escape routes are available should you reach the ground in one piece. The procedure to follow if captured, and the location of the air-sea rescue boats if you have to ditch in the channel. The older crews listen with impatience as they have heard all this before. We are an eager green new crew so we listen intently with the hopes some of this may save our lives.
The people on the stage changes and next up is the Group Navigator who gives us the critical numbers for altitude and the headings, times for departure, forming at altitude and for leaving the coast for Germany. The location for the IP (the point which you turn to make the bomb run), the length of the bomb run, and the turn for leaving the target and reforming after the bomb run. The flight formation for combat and the bombing are different depending on the target.
We would form the formation on the buncher at Kings Cliff, and look for a green-green flare. He thoroughly covers the details of the take off. How the formation would be activated: (A) the forming of individual planes for the elements. (B) The elements into squadrons, and (C) the squadrons into the Groups. How the Groups will form into wings the wings into divisions, and the makeup of the total attacking force. The Group Bombardier gives us the information on bomb loadings; fuse settings, the bomb run and the aiming point. We would be carrying 10,000 pounds of 500-pound bombs, and 2,800 gallons' of 100-octane fuel. The IP would be 6 minutes from the drop point.
The Intelligence Officer returns and tells us Thats it. This mission looks, as it should be a "Milk Run", and when you land proceed immediately to the de-briefing room.
For every mission the Intelligence Officer for debriefing could very well end up sitting at an empty table with no crews to debrief and the report sheets never completed. He would think about those missing crews who do not show up at debriefing. They may have had a wing blown off, or blown up in flames, the screams of men, and parachutes, which failed to open.
We made our way to the individual briefings for information on the radio frequencies to use, and emergency procedures. This includes the alternate fields to use for emergency landings, and other detailed information as it applied to each member of the crew. We then picked up our flimsies, which contain the written orders detailing information for individual participation in the mission.
Then proceeded to the ready room picked up our survival kits, which contain maps, currency, malted milk tablets, Benzedrine among other things. We proceed next to the overheated room to put on our bulky flight gear. These consisted of a green nylon electric suit worn over our uniform, heavy flight pants and jacket, along with the fleece lined flying boots and oxygen mask. On top of all this there is a Mae West, which is an individual life preserver to keep us afloat should we end up in the channel, plus a parachute harness. The bulky sheep lined boots are no good for walking so we also attach a pair of GI shoes to our parachute harness should we be shot down. This is a lot of equipment, but if you are to survive at 30,000 feet in rarefied air in an open plane you must ward of temperatures of -35 to -70 degrees below zero plus having oxygen to breathe in the rarified air. Planes have returned to the base totally unscathed by enemy bullets, but the men inside had hands or feet so badly frozen in the sub-zero temperature they had to be amputated. It did not make it any easier it was not a bullet or flak that made a man legless for the rest of his life.
We then left all of our personal belongings such as pictures, billfold, etc., in our flight locker. In the parachute loft where we picked up our parachutes we noticed for the first time the sign If it doesnt work bring it back.
We filed outside and waited for transportation to take us out to the revetment where our plane was parked. When we arrived at the hardstand (a concrete apron where the planes are parked and maintained) we were met by the crew chief that was a maniac for perfection, and a mother hen to the plane. We find later this was true of all the Crew Chiefs to both the planes and the crews who flew them. These same ground crews would stay on the hardstands on every mission sweating out the safe return of the crews and the planes. All of us who flew never lost sight of the dedication and work of these unsung heroes for keeping our planes in the air.
After getting our gear and guns on board, the crew chief then reviewed all the latest work his crew had done on the plane, saying Dont you dare scratch it up or lose her, I want that girl, Morning Delight, back in good shape! We did a close pre-flight check with the crew chief; meanwhile the props were run through to make sure there was no oil locks in the engine cylinders. We went through the pre-flight list not once but twice, then the fuel trucks came by and topped off our tanks. I will never forget that sickly sweet smell of aromatic 100-octane gas. Everyone then sat around for the flare to start engines (later we would use this time to get a few extra minutes sleep). All too soon there was the flare to start engines, and everyone scrambled to their positions.
All four engines started on the first try, and all the gauges checked out. Soon there was another flare to start taxing. What a sight 40 planes moving nose to tail all in line along the perimeter track. Once we reached the end of the runway, we stopped at a 45^ angle to the runway, and checked the mags, engine, etc. We were then signaled on to the active runway (each plane took off at 20-second intervals). The engines were run up to 35 inches manifold pressure, and the brakes were kicked loose. We were on our way. As we trundled down the runway, I was thinking had I done everything?
All of a sudden we realized here we were half way down the runway and we were only going about 50 mph, and it takes at least 115 for this bird to get off the ground. As we watched the end of the runway coming up I heard 110 mph, then 115 and the plane was struggling to be airborne. Trees at the end of the runway passed well below us as the flaps and wheels came up, and we started our turn. The plane now felt like a feather and was eager to go. We set for maximum climb and turned on a heading for Kings Cliff Buncher.
We were soon at 10,000 feet so everyone puts on his oxygen masks. The Bombardier now will be checking every ten minutes with all the crew for an oxygen check (the B-17 was not pressurized) to make sure they were all right and no one was suffering from anoxia. At 20,000 feet over the Kings Cliff Buncher there were planes milling around everywhere and no one could see any green-green flares. The tail gunner finally tells us he has located the green-green flare at 6:00 oclock (direction is indicated using the clock system with the nose being 12 oclock), so we make a 180-degree turn and soon are safely tucked in our allocated position as tail end Charley.
As we leave the coast of England we are again climbing to 28,000 feet (the free air temperature was --50 degrees). Below us are the Zeider Zee and all too soon, Germany. Everyone is burning their eyes out looking for fighters, and so far only some flak bursts in the distance. We now make a right turn on to the Initial Point for Cologne that we must maintain for six minutes until bomb drop.
All I can see ahead of us is solid black smoke from the flak barrage, and the sky is suddenly alive with energy beyond belief. You could walk on it! There are sudden flashes of red, orange, and yellow angry flashes of brilliant light that seems to leap at you without warning Out of the blue I vividly remember some of the lines from the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson The Charge of the Light Brigade: Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred, Theirs is not to reason why, Theirs but to do and Die, Into the Jaws of Death Into the Mouth of Hell, Rode the Six Hundred The flak all seems to be intent on getting a winged machine with its loaded bomb bays, and the ten vulnerable men it carries. We make our way through the ever-increasing black mass of exploding flame and smoke of the 88 flak guns. Those beloved B-17s forge steadily ahead through a tornado of steel splinters and flame that spreads hot chunks of metal through both men and planes. The exploded steel is everywhere as it crashes into wings, engines, bulkheads, airplane bodies, and the men who are flying. If you can see it burst, then it has not hit you. I look at my watch, it is 10 after and, what seemed like a half-hour later, I look again and only 30 seconds have gone by.
Suddenly there is a huge flash and a bright angry flame with a huge release of energy to the right and in front of us. Instantly there is the stunning slap of concussion, as the flame seems to go directly into the core of the flying fortress, and then into the bomb bay to the fuses of the 500-pound bombs. This is all unfolds before us as a picture but it is only just a few thousandths of a second. The entire B-17 and its 10 men have vanished into a searing ball of fire as the 100-octane fuel is consumed. There is nothing left except a monstrous smudge as a B-17 and 10 men have forfeited their lives into nothing but bits of flaming debris. That was the moment actuality of where we were set in.
The waist gunner reports a B-17 sliding off on one wing out of the formation and soon is observed spinning out of control at four oclock. There is one parachute, which seems to hit the tail and then is flung aside. We see the B 17 fall away, a lifeless rag doll falling five miles to the earth below. We all are silently shouting get out, get out," soon there are three more chutes that come fluttering out, then no more. No one says a word, but we are all thinking But by the Grace of God, that could have been us!
The plane is turned over to the Bombardier, and we can see the Rhine River winding through Cologne plus the Cologne Cathedral (after continual bombing this cathedral still stood at the end of the war). In the nose the Bombardier is searching for his aiming point the rail marshaling yards just across the Rhine River. The bomb run is good, however it seems we will never reach the bomb release line. We are thinking the bombs must be hung up on the shackles in the bomb bay when suddenly there is a series of little jerks as out comes the bombs with their death and destruction on the way to Germany. We then hear the welcome sound over the intercom Bombs away." Someone yells lets get the hell out of here, I do not think these people like us."
The trip home came easy. Soon we were soon over the channel and down to 10,000 feet, and finally after about 8 hours, off come the oxygen masks. What a relief. We passed over the field at Polebrook then peeled off and made our landing in proper order, promptly taxied up to the hardstand and shut that venerable B-17 down. We all thought Holy Cow! We made it, no nicks, no bruises, and didnt fire a shot. The plane however looked as if someone had tried to make a sieve out of it (the crew chief told us later we picked up 176 holes from the flak). According to statistics our life expectancy was 4 missions, so I guess we will be OK for three more.
We were still getting our gear out of the plane when the truck came to pick us up and soon delivered us at the ready room where we changed clothes and turned in our gear. Next it was debriefing where we were quizzed as to the appearance of the flak, and where we encountered it. What was the time, and where we were when we saw the B17 that exploded in front of us? What about the B17 we observed spinning out of control and going down? We were really naive as we had only watched in fascination at these two incidents, and had made no check as to the time or where.
As we left the debriefing the medics were available offering two ounces of Old Crow whiskey if you wanted it. The Red Cross was also there selling coke for the mix and with donuts and coffee. We were totally drained from all that time at high altitude plus mentally exhausted, and so on arrival at the combat messes whom wants to eat? We just wanted go to bed and what was left of that momentous day wound down and the adrenaline wore off.
Thus ended one of the most memorable days of my life-one that I would remember for the rest of my days.
BY Wally Hoffman
"I did not die, and did not remain alive; now think for thyself, if thou hast any grain of ingenuity, what I became, deprived of both life and death"
"Once one has reached the Point of No Return--Reality then Begins".
One more time I realize there is that pesky flashlight in my face, and I hear the invitation for -- "Breakfast at Five and Briefing at Six." I lay there dragging my eyes open and getting my thoughts together, little did I know how the reality of this fateful day would end.
This will be mission number four. I wonder what hellish target is on that map in the Briefing Room? We've been to Cologne, Bremen, Kassel and flew as a Spare yesterday. If nothing else we are surely learning the geography of Germany. This time around I shaved in warm water, as I had remembered to fill my helmet and put it on the stove before going to bed. There had been hot water last night, so had the luxury of a hot shower. I'm learning as we seem to be getting into a routine as I dressed from the clothes laid out the night before.
As I walked out the door I looked at those empty beds and thought those guys were here yesterday doing the same things I am doing today. Little did I know that by tonight there would be a great many more empty beds as over 60 of our planes would be shot down leaving 600 more empty beds.
Outside it was not only black, it was foggy. I was thinking, "would they have us take off with this fog"? Walking into the Combat Mess there was that same knot in my stomach, and those eggs were still staring at me. Sitting down at the table there again was Bob (Sgt Robert Smith) with a full plate with a blank look on his face. Resnik (S/Sgt John Resnik) was no longer interested in eating too much after that first mission when at altitude he ended up with terrific cramps. "Soon we were outside and again that hurry up and wait."
I began thinking of some of the things you learn with each mission: (1) using a condom to put over the mike in your oxygen mask to keep it dry, (2) squeezing your oxygen mask so the ice doesn't clog it up, (3) then shaking the ice out. I then began getting smart enough to carry two masks. Using a condom to urinate, tying a knot in it, and then throwing it out as a gift to Germany (When my children ask what I had done during the war I told them, "the pleasure of pissing all over Germany").
On the first mission I had noticed soon after we left the target many of the planes would again open their bomb bay doors and you would see one or two cardboard chaff boxes come tumbling out (chaff were thin strips of tinfoil used to confuse the German radar). When I ask about it I received a big laugh and was advised this is "Our Secret Weapon", you will soon find out! On the trip to Bremen one of the crew had to answer nature's call. He used one of the chaff boxes and we were also able to bomb Germany twice on that trip..
Suddenly the doors to the Briefing Room swung open. Soon we are all enveloped in a heavy smoke haze, with temperature increasing noticeably from the body heat and everyone sweating out the mission. As I look around I notice everyone is sitting at all angles and postures. Some are sitting up straight as a ramrod, and some are even sound asleep. Others are engaged in animated conversations with their neighbors while the rest are staring straight ahead at nothing. You can feel the fear, the dread, and the underlining thought of death in the room, but we are all confident in our training and each other.
Suddenly a nattily dressed Major (a ground pounder) steps on the stage and begins roll call, calling the names of each crew commander. Each answers for his crew. The Major then moved to the back of the stage and drew the black curtain of doom. This revealed the map which dictated our lives for the next fourteen hours. There is a hushed silence as everyone leans forward looking at the fateful end of the red yarn. "Its Schweinfurt" the Major says with a smile, and gives us time to think. Abruptly a buzz of voices breaks out, and one voice says "Sonofabitch This is my Last Mission", and it was! He was one of those who never made it back.
The Security Officer steps forward and instructs us, "Do not talk about the mission once you have left the room, and this also applies to a Scrubbed Target. Anyone flying this mission who has not had POW (prisoner of war) instruction report to the S-2 officer after this briefing. Be sure to wear your dog tags, GI shoes, and don't wear any insignia. Carry your rank, name and serial number, and no billfolds, pictures, nor letters. No one will leave this briefing until dismissed." We were told this at every briefing.
Everyone is sitting up attentively listening to the intelligence officer. There is no longer any screwing around for his instructions are life and death to us. There is an immediate feeling of immense doom which goes through the briefing room, and no one tries to look at one another. We are all thinking the same thing, "Who will be missing from here tonight? How many crews will get it today?"
We are advised the flak should be light enroute although we will pick up some south of the Ruhr. The target will be defended by about 500 88mm guns and the gun crews are very good. We would be under aimed fire from the flak for seven minutes. The enemy fighters will be persistent and aggressive. The fighters will try to break up the formation with head-on attacks. Don't panic and try to dodge. This would leave you wide open if you straggle. Always stay in the defensive diamond formations and if someone ahead of you gets out of the formation, move right up into his place, for he has either been hit and will go down anyway, or he is straggling. We never dally around, because it's our necks.
The weather officer takes the stage and is the least assuring of all. The weather is lousy. The visibility is down to 1/4 of a mile but we were assured it would be up to one mile by take off. That is a lot better when you are rolling down a runway which is only a mile long and the belly of our plane is pregnant with stifled hell. The wings on the B-17s contain three thousand gallons of 100 octane flaming inferno. Everyone starts to leave as there it is, but some wait. They soon assemble in little groups as men slip to their knees before their chaplains-Protestant, Catholic, and Jew.
As we walked into the ready room I was suddenly hit with this deep depression and a feeling of dread as I thought, "This is not the glamorized Wild Blue Yonder we had all heard so many times. We will be fighting 5 miles above the earth. There are no foxholes to hide in up there. Most of the time there isn't even the opportunity of fighting back., you just sit there and take it. We live by the laws of chance as we drive through the flak which seems thick enough to walk on. There is always that chance to be where the projectile shot at us by random from the ground would intersect the plane and ourselves? We are continually facing the life and death struggle of the plane with all of us inside. Maybe some dead, perhaps some wounded, and some not even scratched. At that moment all of our lives would reach a crisis in the heaving and smoking plane from the freezing hostile sky. It wasn't the anxiety of maybe being killed before the day ended, but a deeper far-off feeling as if I weren't operating within my own body. As I dressed, in preparation for the long mission, I looked at the rest of the crew with a detached and lonely sadness wondering will we still be together tonight?. No way did I want to expose my feelings to the crew for fear they would feel I was not equal to doing my part, all of our lives depended on each other.
In kind of a dream I proceeded to our plane, and went through the motions of the checklist for pre-flight. I was there physically doing all things which were necessary, but seemed detached and totally out of my body I had the feeling I was in another dimension watching what I was doing. I was there, but wasn't there. Knowing we were in for a rough mission and catch hell from the fighters we loaded many additional boxes of caliber 50 ammunition. Rechecked out our flak suits and helmets then all of us made one last trip to the bushes to relieve ourselves.
All too soon we were starting the engines, taxiing into position, moving down the runway and again skimming those damn trees. We formed up at 28,000 feet then heading for Europe for what we didn't know and into Germany. I was there, but as if I was doing everything necessary only by the numbers.
Suddenly I heard on the intercom from the top turret "Bandits 9:00 O'clock High" instantaneously followed by the tail and the nose of fighters coming in from all directions. Immediately you could feel those 20 millimeters going through the plane. The sound of a cannon shell hitting a fortress depends on where you are. If you aren't too close it is like a metallic woof and you feel a jar that shakes the whole plane which reaches you and leaves you instantly. If the shell explodes close to you there is nothing gentle and it certainly isn't a momentary tremor. It is like a giant slapping his hand on the water There are two sounds one from the impact and the second of it exploding. It's like firing a shotgun into a bucket which all comes back exploding in your face. For a moment you aren't scared because your senses are dulled. Your bowels seem weak, (you tighten your pucker string), your stomach shrivels up until you can figure out how much you are hurt. It was as if a huge electrical shock had hit me and from then on to this day I have never felt fear. It was as if my mind had gone into a corner to hide and had then come charging out to do battle.. In talking to others later, I found we all have gone through some factors of this type of withdrawal. Some retreated from themselves and would no longer be able perform.
I immediately found myself in a world alien to everything I had ever experienced. There were ME-109s and FW-190s leaping into existence from everywhere without warning. When they opened fire you saw sudden flashes of light winking at you from the distance. All at once there existed a canopy of cannon shells and bombs, aerial mines and rockets exploding everywhere.. Each one was intent on hitting us and our pregnant bomb load. We are no longer in a stately march in tight formation through the upper heavens. We try desperately to return to the crisp efficiency of our tight formation, but it is impossible to achieve in this raging space of time. We find ourselves slogging our way through a thickening mass of exploding flame and smoke, with the equal determination of every member of the crew. We are driving ahead through a solid whirlwind of steel splinters, flame, and jagged chunks of red hot metal. The steel is everywhere, it crashes into wings, engines, bulkhead and airplane bodies; and into the bodies of men--spewing blood, tissues, intestines, and brains.
The plane seemingly is alive with lights as all the guns are firing and the noise is deafening. There is the continued on the intercom shout of "incoming bandits" from all around the clock (fighters). The fourteen caliber 50 machine guns of our plane can be heard and felt above all the roar of the plane. Our world seems to plunge into insanity as the sounds of air battle are all around us seemingly merging into an inhuman shriek. Our ship doesn't seem to be occupied by men, we are transformed into beings from another world, with the strange breathing systems dangling beneath our faces.
As quickly as it started the fighters are gone and we are alone with only the extremely bright sun. Our enemy now is the temperature which is minus fifty degrees and never seems to relax its vigil against us for any exposure to sensitive flesh and frostbite.
Central Germany is now below us and in the distance we can the see first black specks of flak over the target. We now begin to assess what battle damage we had taken. Was everyone OK? Soon everyone was checking in: tail OK except almost out of ammo and was reloading the belts; waist OK lost my flak helmet somewhere; Ball, one of the side windows was hit, can't see anything except straight ahead; Radio, OK; Top Turret "think I was hit in the leg and my ammunition boxes are gone". It turns out that a 20 mm came through the turret knocking out the ammo boxes on each side and tearing off his flight suit at the thigh. He had a slight red mark on one leg. Ammo boxes were moved in and connected to both guns with the hope they wouldn't jam.
In the cockpit the gauges were still working but the glass on the dials looks as if someone had taken a hammer to them. The radio compass is shattered and the other radios are hanging by their connecting cords. All seem to be working, at least the intercom is OK. The right portion of the windshield in front of the co-pilot has two vicious looking cracks in it. The co-pilot's flak helmet was knocked off and has a huge hole in it. He doesn't have a mark although I think he is turning gray. In the nose one of the cheek guns is out, the navigator's table is shattered as well as his instruments. For all the holes our plane is still flying. It's a miracle nobody has been seriously wounded.
When we have turned on IP the bombardier is already looking for his aiming point as the plane controls are hooked to the bomb sight. Again the fighters are coming in all directions, but this time it is the squadron ahead of us. Soon the sky around us filled with flak burst, paving a solid black steel asphalt roadway to Schweinfurt. The explosions sounds as if someone is throwing rocks at you when they burst close. Those flak gunners on the ground are good. Normally the fighters will usually leave when you get into the flak from the target, this time they are flying through their own flak. Apparently, they have been ordered to defend the target at all costs. These fighters may be the enemy but I have never seen braver men. All the German efforts to keep us from the target have so far failed, but we have paid a tremendous price in men and planes. The stakes were high but the "Devil" was the winner. The target below is now fast deteriorating into smoke and debris as our strings of bombs walk through the city. The dead will outnumber our losses by a great number. Finally we feel the plane lighten in little jerks as the bombs pass out the bomb bay on their way to Germany. We are now at the halfway point of the mission as we begin a wide turn to the right. There is little need to get into formation as everyone is staying close. As we make our turn one can see the other formations behind us. They look ragged and are still under attack from the fighters. The fighters are leaving the "Cripples" alone, going for those planes still carrying bombs. As we turn you can see the target below and the sticks of bombs on their five mile flight to the earth. The target is covered with smoke and gray dust is rising from the impact of the bombs.
As we look out there are no fighters roaring in against us with their guns winking at us. It seems so quiet and good to only hear the noise of the engines and the air rushing by as our faithful girl hurtles us towards our base in England. We are soon over France and a few fighters appear in the distance but do not press any attack against us. We wonder are they as low on ammunition and as tired as we are?. We also now look for our little friends and assume they must be busy somewhere else. The cloud cover comes up to 20,000 feet and we are told to let down over the channel. Each group will proceed to their base individually. We soon see the angry water of the channel, then are flying up the "Wash" (a large estuary on the east coast of England). When the smoke stacks of Peterborough are in sight we turn southwest and there is Polebrook below us. What a wonderful sight, and how many times in the past twelve hours have we all wondered if we'd ever see the base again?
As we cross the field preparing to break into the landing pattern we can see the men on the handstands, the meat wagons with the large red cross on the top, and the fire trucks parked all along the runway., They are all watching us and counting the bombers and trying to read the symbols as we fly over. All at once, there are many red flares indicating wounded on board, and they will proceed into the pattern and land first. Soon we are lined up with the runway on our final approach, crossing the boundary of the field, begin the flare and soon the wheels are finally touching the runway. We are again down on mother earth. As the tail settles to the runway, there is a terrific bang as if the plane had been ripped apart, followed with a loud screeching of metal! Not only had the tail wheel blown but the whole tail assembly seems to be dragging behind the plane. The tower tells us we look like a giant sparkler and as soon as we have completed our roll to pull off the runway and get out of the plane. We find later that during the fighter attacks the total frame just forward of the horizontal stabilizer had been totally torn apart by the 20mm shells. Only the skin and the control cables held it together. We complete our roll and moving off the runway into the grass and mud. The faithful engines' roar dies out and the silence is followed by a mad dash of everyone from the plane. As we are leaving the plane a fire truck and ambulance are johnny on the spot.
Our plane, "Morning Delight" just seemed to set there panting. That gallant lady gave us all she had and more for that total effort during the past 10 hours. She never flew again as she was so heavily damaged and became another "Queen Bee's"--(used for parts). You don't live and fly a fortress for months without coming to know the plane in the most intimate way. You know the sturdy construction she represents and how forgiving she is to fly. She is there in our hearts, for all of us for the days to come if by chance we survive this war.
We retrieve our gear from the plane and are picked up by a truck. We pass the handstands (parking and maintenance area for the plane) with their waiting crews. They all wave and give us the victory sign. However, many of these ground crews will soon silently and sadly return to their headquarters as their plane and crewmen which were a part of them did not return. They will wait for a new bomber with a new combat crew. We have the truck stop at our hardstand so we can tell the crew chief and his people that we made it. If it weren't for the maintenance on that plane we would probably be down somewhere in Germany and now a statistic. It is a little wonder we have come to the realization it is impossible to complete a full tour. Everyone comes to the conclusion you will either get it, or be shot down eventually.
As we all proceed to de-briefing you look around and the faces this morning which had the look of expectation are now gray and blank. We are all thinking of too many friends who have gone down in flames before our eyes. What about tomorrow and the tomorrow after that? There are too many concrete handstands stained with oil and grease where the bombers had once stood so majestically are now standing empty, only a terrible aching void remains. A ground crewman is seen aimlessly walking off looking as if he had lost his brother.
In the de-briefing room we all sit around the table and this time the questions are quietly asked with a great deal of consideration. How many fighters, types, and methods of attack? Were there any special weapons or markings? How about the flak, how much, did it appear accurate?
>THE FOLLOWING IS A QUOTE FROM A POST MISSION BRIEFING OF A B-17 PILOT, OCTOBER 12, 1943:"I had accepted the fact that I was not going to live through this mission. It was as simple as that. I was calm; it was a strange sort of resignation. I knew for certain that it was only a matter of seconds or minutes. It was impossible for us to survive...." (This sums it up for all of us).
The de-briefing are usually not so solemn, however, this time all of us are totally engulfed by the shock of the mission. Most of us still didn't believe we are here, safe on the ground. We are bone tired (I still remember how tired I was all the time I flew combat) and feel sick with the reflection of all that death. We somehow survived but our friends and brothers were struck down, never to return from that undiscovered country from whom no traveler returns. We all stare at the floor with eyes glazed, smoke cigarettes, and drink tasteless coffee. As we are leaving the briefing room we notice that Bob is stumbling along. We see as we look closer that he is crying-- for all of us thinking of those who didn't get back.
Despite all these attacks against our formations the 8th Air Force was never turned back by enemy opposition and always bombed the target.
Thus ended the fateful day when I was introduced to reality.
THE DEATH OF A FLYING FORTRESS
There were two reasons we managed to survive those bombing trips over Germany in an aluminum coffin.
The first was the plane; the B 17 Flying Fortress. She became alive once the engines were started and with the crew settled into their positions the plane became a veritable part of us. We knew full well the Fortress, if it had only a final gasp of breath and although being totally battered and bent with hardly anything left, would somehow get us home.
You dont fly a Fortress for months for years without becoming intimate with that gallant lady in the most respectful sense. You know her sturdy construction, the manner in which she flies and every detail about her, as she sustains not only my life but also each life in my crew. You know that this lady would never give up without a valiant struggle. With her engines shot out or burning, or with a wing cut to pieces and the vertical fin and rudder in shattered pieces, or with the oxygen system blazing she is somehow still going to fly. With their aircraft in such a state, the pilots, all too often smeared in blood with enemy steel in their bodies and with the control cables shot to ribbons struggled hand in hand with the gallant lady to survive. Many times these bombers could well have been abandoned but still flew home with badly wounded crewmen who were not able to depart the plane. Which brings up the other reason we survived.
The second reason we managed to survive was the crew. Ten men flew along with you who not only gave everything they had, but also dug deeper when the circumstances turned crucial. Once in the air there existed a total devotion to each other. Often, we could have abandoned a plane due to severe damage, but would still attempt to fly home if a badly injured crewman could not eject. We pitied knowing a dysfunctional crew for often they would be able to survive only three or at the best four combat missions.
Whether due to flak or fighter fire when crewmembers were wounded some might well die, as there was no medical assistance until the plane landed back at base hours later. If the plane werent under current attack, crew members would immediately rip off their oxygen masks, and in the sub zero bitter cold rush to the aid of the injured crewman with the hope they could somehow keep him alive until we landed and thence to a hospital. Helping a wounded crewmember in the cold and thin air in a tossing plane was not easy neither physically or mentally. To be able to give them morphine you had to put the morphine ampoule under your armpit in order to thaw it out, and then once inserted to keep your finger over the point of insertion for it would squirt back out because of the high altitude. How do you keep from being sick looking at all the blood and gore from someone who is very close to you. But you do the best you can.
There are also friends too far away in the formation to help using oxygen masks or morphine. These are the events, which I guess, tried our souls the most.
We would watch helplessly as another Fortress in the same formation started to slip and slide out of the combat formation. Flames pour from an engine on fire with the fuel streaming and burning as it engulfs the plane. Soon she is falling off on her side as the Fortress picking up more speed, begins her death throes. Then she begins to shudder as her nose pointed skyward. The plane hangs on the edge of a stall and buffets in warning of final disaster. The plane hangs almost on her nose, when the lift is almost gone and then as the last of the aerodynamics is gone. The nose drops and slews to the side wallowing in a helpless skid. The nose comes back up again, but the wings are almost vertical and she seems to groan and then quits. You can almost hear the groan as she falls back into a vertical spin to her death. The Fortress dies hard, as do the 10 men of the crew inside her. This was their Fortress they made come alive, trying to hold on to that last thin thread keeping her in the air.
With tears in our eyes we watch and count the parachutes all the while loudly shouting, "Get Out-Get Out". Those men were our friends, our buddies we drank and played poker with, sitting around in a BS session talking about the world of tomorrow. We all knew all too well there was very little chance of tomorrow for any of us. Some survived, and came home. But the question always remains: Why Us? Why not them?
We will remember the battle which took place five miles up in the air where we fought to the death. There is no way anyone could ever re-visit the battleground as it took place in the sky which today is now washed clean. There are no scars and no one can walk the battleground and say here by that hill is where it all took place. There were no bystanders nor any noncombatants with a first hand look. All those who saw the battle were on the ground five miles or more away, and they saw only the flaming planes, the parachutes, contrails, explosions, smoke, and the charred bodies. Nor did they see the flak and bullet riddled planes as they struggled home to an asphalt runway across the English Channel. There no longer exists the roar of all those planes, the flashing propellers, the open hatches with the smoking 50 caliber machine guns. The punishment of the long hours at sub zero temperature, breathing oxygen in the frozen uncomfortable oxygen mask because of the thin rarefied air.
That page of blazing history is now closed, although the scars of those of us who came home will always remain. It is always easy to write of the battles won with the enemy conquered. We fought and struggled to reach the target and on the way were mauled and shot to pieces by the fighters and flak guns of the enemy. The German pilots knew only too well the effectiveness against our bombers. They also witnessed the burning planes, bombers with the wings torn off, crews tumbling through the air, and the burning bodies. How could those bomber crews take such punishment and hand it back while continuing to fly towards the target? There never was a question of not reaching the target, no matter how many formations were split apart, how many bombers were in flame, and how cruel the test. We still continued on with white knuckles and a tightened pucker string.
WE GET OUR FEET WET
What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning the end is where we start.
--- T.S. Eliot
I dream the intercom comes alive as the Bombardier requested an oxygen check. You could visualize the Bombardier and Navigator in their greenhouse in the nose of the plane. The bombardier with his Norden Bomb sight and the controls to work the bomb bay doors. There are switches to set the bombs to drop in sticks, salvo, or individually at specific timed intervals for each bomb. Behind and on the side sits the Navigator with the electronic and radio equipment and other complex gear to maintain accuracy in our flight to the target and return.
The Co-Pilot and Pilot reply OK. They are tightly packed together within a cage of steel, glass, controls and instruments. In front of them are three main clusters of instruments mainly flight instruments. There are controls, switches, dials, gauges, handles, buttons, and toggles in front, to the sides between. These are above, below, and behind the pilots. There are more than 150 for the operation and control of the plane including the ability to salvo the bomb load.
From his station in the top turret the Flight Engineer says OK. The flight Engineer is the operations center for the airplane. He notes all the gauges and the conditions of the engine; the transfer of fuel as only the main tank supplies the engines. He keeps the plane flying for the pilots. The turret is a completely independent electrically operating unit, which is the most visual point in the entire plane. There are two caliber 50 machine guns, with hand controls for the azimuth and elevation to fire through the roof.
The Radio Operator says OK, and as Radio Operator maintains an unlimited communication link to the Group, Headquarters, and the combat wing. There is one caliber 50 gun he can fire through the roof.
Ball Turret OK. This is the most isolated position in the plane. The turret hangs from a single link from the bottom of the plane. It is a hellish position, as the gunner must hunch up his body by drawing up his knees into a half ball. Two caliber 50 machine guns are located on each side of his head. In this round contraption sticking out of the bottom of the plane the gunner aims his body at oncoming fighters. By working both hands and feet in coordination he is able to spin and tilt his two caliber 50 machine guns at the enemy fighters. Because of the round shape this probably is the safest position during flak and fighter attacks, but also he is the man most unlikely to escape from a blazing B-17 from this lonely position.
Right Waist and Left Waist OK. They live in a hollow shell encircled by a thin metal skin and supportive heavy metal ribs. There are wide hatches on each side where the gunners must swing their 60-pound guns into a slipstream of about 175 miles per hour. Many times after a running fight the floor of the waist is covered with caliber 50 casings making it almost impossible to walk.
It is here that the ability of the B-17 to absorb such terrific battle damage and still fly is apparent. The plane can be cut and slashed almost to pieces by enemy fire and bring its crew home. It is the brilliant interlocking of its main structural members that keeps the B-17 flying as the skin is only a surface membrane.
Tail OK. The tailgunner reaches his position by climbing over the tail wheel and sits underneath the huge distinctive tall rudder. This is a cramped wedge at the end of the plane. He fires his two caliber 50 machine guns from a kneeling position facing German fighters boring in with the wings and noses alive with the winking of the firing 20 millimeter cannons.
We had arrived at the Initial Point with the bomb path to the target alive with energy. It was so vicious as to be almost beyond belief as we make our way in stately procession through the black puffs of flak. Time was standing still. The six minutes for the bomb run was like a lifetime. Abruptly the plane lurches upwards and the familiar announcement from the Bombardier bombs Away. .
Abruptly I am awake! There was our tour director delivering an invitation for breakfast at four to be followed by a briefing at five. Don't these people believe in normal hours? Collecting my thoughts remembering we have passed through the normal life expectancy figure of four missions. We were now existing on the negative end of borrowed time.
Rolling out of the sack followed by the usual routine of shaving and dressing in layers. Refusing to look at the empty beds, which had become the "vision of doom". Wonder what has the fiendish minds at 8th Air Force Headquarters dreamed up as a target bringing us again to the gates of death? The biggest fear was how to evade getting away from the "prop wash" (air turbulence from other planes that can throw you out of the air). There was always the persistent flak concentrated on the bomb run when the German anti-aircraft gunners were zeroing in on the formation. All we could manage was to sit there and take it. There were no foxholes, where we could hide.
Outside was the same usual black and foggy early morning. As we walked into the Combat Mess there was the ever-present huge stomach knot with those eggs and bacon just staring at us. The Waist Gunner looks up with the usual full plate and a blank look on his face. Soon we were outside waiting for the doors to the briefing room to beckon us to today's Hell somewhere in Germany.
This was like waiting for the curtain to go up on today's melodrama of purgatory in the skies over Germany. Who would die today in the fierce battles in the midst of the rarefied air over Germany? There is the thought of the many friends already lost in the conflict for the control of the air space over Europe. We were amateurs who had learned quickly a warrior's lessons in a hard and bitter school. An Instructor once said: "A man who has to be convinced to respond before he acts is not a man of action". To survive we must act as we breathe.
Grimly the doors to the Briefing Room swing open. We are checked in by the Military Police. In the Briefing Room we are surrounded with the heavy smoke haze, plus the roaring sounds of loud conversation. The body heat from fear elevates the temperature inside the room. All the people are sitting at every angle and posture. Some are sitting up sound asleep. Others are engaged in animated conversations. Like waiting for the curtain to go up on today's melodrama of purgatory in the skies over Germany. Who would die today in the fierce battles in the midst of the rarefied air over Germany? There is the thought of the many friends lost in the conflict for the control of the air space over Europe.
We find our seats having seen this scenario several times like waiting for Act I of today's Play of Life? Only a small amount of red yarn remains outside the covered map. Telling us we were scheduled for a long mission. All too soon there is a command "A-TEN-SHUN" as everyone scrambles to their feet for the parading entourage of the base executive staff, in their class A uniforms, strutting on the scene. I think what an entrance as I notice a smirk on the ground pounder faces. Tonight they will be counting the planes as they wait for those of us who make it back.
Suddenly the curtain rises on the day's episode with the usual chorus of Ohs and Ahs. We all follow the red yarn from Polebrook marking the circuitous course across the North Sea, over Holland, missing Bremen, Hanover, and Magdeburg, ending at Berlin. This was the third time we had been briefed for Berlin. Twice we waited on the flight line for three hours then had the mission scrubbed.
Nobody liked going to Berlin as this was probably the best defended target in Germany. We were advised our little friends (P-51s) would be escorting all the way with a roving patrol.
Everyone was sitting up attentively listening to the intelligence officer describe the mission. There was no lack of attention, as his instructions were life and death to us. There was an instantaneous feeling of immense doom with fear spreading through the briefing room; we try not to look at one another. Who will be among the missing tonight? How many crews will get it today?
The Intelligence Officer advises us: "The flak should be light enroute although we will pick up some in the vicinity of Hanover. The target will be defended by about 500 88mm anti-aircraft guns. The gun crews are very good. We will be under controlled anti-aircraft fire from the flak for seven minutes on the IP. This will bean an invasion of their capitol so the enemy fighters will be persistent and aggressive. Fighters will try to break up the formation with large head-on attacks. Don't panic and try to dodge. This would leave you wide open if you straggle. Always stay in the tight defensive diamond formations. Should someone ahead of you get knocked out of the formation, immediately move right up into his place. The plane has either been hit and going down as it begins to straggle".
The weather officer takes the stage telling us: "The weather was lousy. The visibility is now down to 1/4 of a mile but assured us it would be up to one mile by take off. It is a lot better when we can see while rolling down the 6,000-foot runway. The plane was pregnant with the hell of bombs and three thousand gallons of 100 octane flaming inferno. The majority leaves but some wait. They soon assemble in little groups as men slip to their knees before their chaplains-Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. There were almost no "non believers"
We picked up our flimsies for specific instructions. Proceeded to the ready room where we donned the necessary gear to keep us warm in -60 degree temperatures and oxygen masks to keep us alive at 30,000 feet. The parachutes for an emergency trip to mother earth if the Germans were to clip our wings. Today we caught a truck with enough room for our gear. Trying to get everything on a Jeep to take us out to the plane is a little crowded for 10 men, is this good omen?
The Crew Chief quickly briefed us on the condition of the plane then we ran the props through. While the gunners were installing their caliber 50 machine guns, gas trucks topped off our tanks with 100-octane gasoline. It was now time for the final P-Call (Make our bladders gladder). Everyone reviewed their check off sheets and loaded extra ammunition. Briefing had told us we would have fighter cover from our little friends, but you never knew. All too soon there was the green flare to start engines and we knew the mission was on.
The ground crews are still on the hardstand calling out: "Good Luck, hope it is a Milk Run". They were the heart and soul that kept us flying. They had been up for hours getting the plane ready, but in their tired eyes and oil spattered clothes there was the look of anxious men. We were their crew, and they had given their utmost sweat and toil to their airplane. These same men would be at the hardstand at least an hour before the mission was to return counting the planes. There was always the excitement and relief as their plane came home. However the ground crew would also watch the sky in vain. They would be seen finally walking slowly back to their bunks scuffing their feet on the ground because they were sick deep inside.
As crew moves to their stations the plane abruptly becomes alive. She sits majestically on her wheels and tail gear even though the wings are not yet grasping the air as it slides over them. The plane is interlaced with control cables, electrical, communication lines, and oxygen system. In the air all these parts come together as a single individual like the parts of a human body. It becomes a single, living, breathing, and flying creature.
We gun the engines and the heavy bomber moves forward off the hardstand onto the perimeter track. We are a hulking shape in the light mist as we fall in behind a bomber with another one falling in behind us. We are nose to tail with the brakes squealing in protest, advancing and throttling back on power progressing to the end of the runway in ungainly fashion. There was a final squeal of brakes as we turn on a 45-degree angle to run up our engines prior to swinging on the runway for take-off (we take off in 20-second intervals). We line up on the runway and all four throttles are slowly advanced to the firewall. The roar becomes a sonorous scream as we release the brakes and begin to roll.
The B-17 gathers speed like moving a big rock down a hillside as the border lights on the runway stretch off into the mist. The airspeed indicator creeps up to 50 mph and without warning you see the runway lights starting to turn red as we approach the end of the runway.
Suddenly the rough feeling of the runway vanishes and we are in the air as the wheels come up clearing those trees at the end of the runway. There was a thin blue smoke from the engines indicating full power. We are shortly climbing at 500 feet a minute heading for the buncher (this forms a vertical radio direction signal cone to a specific location on the ground) to form up. There was a feeling of exhilaration sweeping over the crew having completed another hazardous and successful take off. Instantly the intercom bursts with chatter from the crew wisecracking and telling old jokes. At 6,500 feet we break into the dazzling bright sunlight (we used to say the only time we saw the sun was when we flew over the clouds). We are in a spotless arena with the white clouds like cotton stretching everywhere. We have been flung from the misty world of the earth into space that is strange and awesome. All that exists below was a distant thing, as this is our domain in which to drift. There exists no sense of movement or feeling of rushing through the air as we climb to 20,000 feet over the Kings Cliff Buncher to form up.
We soon find the lead ship for our group and settle in to our allotted position. All too soon the formation turns east and heads for Europe. Below is the English Channel and ahead there is the outline of the Zeider Zee. As we enter Germany from Holland we are alerted there are fighters in the area.
Soon there is the familiar "Bandits-Nine O'clock High" from the top turret. Once what were specks in the distant horizon move in on us, as everybody holds their breath in anticipation of an attack. Shortly there is a sudden sigh of relief as there are our little friends in beautiful P-51s. It wasn't long until the waist reported our little friends were peeling off. The radio operator reported another group was under attack by German fighters. We soon see them again weaving in and out around our formation. We could tell they hadn't mixed it up with any fighters because they still had their drop tanks. (We later learned 8th Air Force command had changed the tactics of the fighters. Their primary mission was no longer flying cover for the bombers, but instead we were used as decoys. In this way the fighters could destroy the Luftwaffe reducing that menace from the skies for the overall military action in Europe). Without warning we saw them drop their tanks and disappear as we approached the IP for our bomb run.
As we turn on the bomb run over Berlin the bomb path to the target is a continuos black forbidden path of bursting antiaircraft fire. Time never moves as the six minutes of the elapsed time for the bomb run seems to go forever matching a lifetime. Vigorously we feel the plane lurch upward and the accustomed announcement from the Bombardier "Bombs Away". Our five tons of destruction are on their way to the target in Berlin.
We immediately switch the controls back from the bombsight (the plane during the bomb run is controlled by the adjustments of the bombsight). Tell the Co-Pilot it's all yours by raising your hands palm up to indicate he has the control of the plane. It is easier for him to make such a turn from his right hand seat. He starts the slow turn to the right away from the target. Suddenly out of nowhere there leaps a bright flame and an astonishing release of energy. Immediately followed by the tremendous staggering slap of concussion. It pulsates with a flashing of fantastic lights. Without warning a wide tear became visible in the right wing around the number three engine. You are terrified; your whole being is totally intimidated. You feel as if your soul has escaped from your body. You can see and feel the darkness closing in around you. Everything seems to be standing on the edge of a huge black void as the universe fades in the distance.
Time is standing still as everything is in slow motion. The plane begins shaking and trembling from the nose to the tail. She immediately begins a graceful slide on the right wing approaching dangerously near the adjoining fortress. Frantically the other pilot pushes down hard on his rudder skidding out of the way with only a second to spare. Immediately grabbing the controls you desperately trying to bring the plane out of the slide while bypassing other planes in the formation and trying to keep the plane flying. With all your strength you are barely able to move the controls. Reaching for the feathering button for number three engine you unexpectedly see the spray of brains, bones, tissue and blood splattered over the right side of the cockpit. What was left of the copilot lay pitched over the control column. With the bile raising in your throat you soon are choking in your oxygen mask. Swallowing hard on the gushing bile there is no way you allow yourself to give in. The plane must be kept flying. Soon the Navigator is on the flight deck trying to move the copilot slumped over the control column. With all that dead weight on the control column it is impossible to hold the plane for very long. Soon we are behind and below the formation-losing altitude at about 500 feet a minute and in level flight. The power to the engines is increased, but number three is windmilling, as it would not feather. Number four is smoking and trying hard to run. First thing is to keep this bird flying, then try to see what damage we have and who is hurt. The Navigator pulls what is left of the copilot from the control column. Then the trim tabs are set, but the horrendous vibrations from number three windmilling continues. Switching the autopilot back on could see the Group above and ahead of us in the distance. We are alone and totally exposed, like slowly running down the interstate with no clothes on. There is a cloud cover at about 20,000 feet so we let down into the friendly clouds.
As we are descending everyone is checking in--Radio OK, Ball Turret OK, Left Waist OK, Tail OK. Left Waist said the other Waist is hit and is checking him out. There is no response from the Bombardier or the Top Turret. The Navigator says the Bombardier was dead as he had taken a direct hit on his upper torso, which is totally shattered. The Radio Operator checks out the Top Turret. The Ball stays where he is to assess the damage as far as he can see. Radio soon tells us the Top Turret is demolished with the Engineer dead. Waist comes back and advises the Right Waist had taken a hit on the front of his flack suit. This has totally opened up the front of him, death was instaneous. The Radio Operator announces our oxygen system has also been damaged and we were losing oxygen.
The Ball Turret advises the area all around number three engines is shattered with the skin peeled back revealing the struts all along the wing root. Oil is coming out of number three engine, however there is no sign of any fire. Number four engine was smoking, but he can't tell where the smoke is coming from. The right wheel is dangling, with a red liquid pouring out which appears to be hydraulic fluid.
Loosing our oxygen left us no choice but to descend to a lower altitude. We passed through 14,000 to 12,000 feet with a sigh of relief as we remove our oxygen masks. We break out of the clouds right after passing through 10,000 feet. Breaking. Unexpectedly the vibration from number three engine stops as the engine freezes and the prop twists off with no additional damage.
When we level out at 8,000 feet the number four engine gives up the ghost and quits. This time the feathering works. We are unable to transfer any fuel from the right wing tanks so we lean the mixture control on one and two engines almost to detonation.
The tail Gunner without warning calls out "Fighters at five o'clock high" and we think here we go. We are well aware the Luftwaffe always looks for cripples trying to get home, as they are easy game. In a short time the Tail Gunner advises are two p-51s our little friends.
Even with increased power the two engines are not maintaining altitude as we keep slipping lower. It is time to jettison everything loose in the plane as it is a long way home from Berlin. All the guns, ammunition, flak vests, including anything loose are dumped out. We keep our Mae Wests on. The Radio Operator notifies wing and the coastal stations we were limping home on two engines. Our little friends stay with us, then after while are replaced by a Spitfire. If we can keep the plane flying maybe we can get to England.
We are continuing to lose altitude and it is obvious we will not have enough fuel to get to England. Time to make some very basic decisions. Should we bail out now at a safe altitude, or try to go as far as we can maybe ditching in the channel? There is a chance on bailing out with probably ending up a prisoner of the Germans.
As a crew we always were outspoken and everyone has their say. The crew is unanimous in the decision to continue on. The reason being all of us would rather take a chance on the channel than on the Germans. We had heard many horror stories of the treatment and murder of prisoners by German civilians. I believe, also to a man we are thinking of our dead buddies and if there is anyway possible let's get them home. Our altitude was now 2,500 feet, and it appears we will be on fumes when we reach the coast. We still have our little friends keeping tabs on us and so far no enemy fighters have shown up. Everyone checks again to see what else is loose we could throw out. Radio advises us Group acknowledges we're limping home on two engines and short on fuel. They have alerted Air Sea Rescue, and in the event we ditch to give the "Mayday" call plus tying down the radio key for a fix.
Finally the coast is in sight and we are down to 600 feet with the fuel gauges on the peg for empty. We have all discussed the crash positions we will assume when ready to ditch. The Navigator staying as Co-Pilot, and the Ball Turret Gunner acting as the Engineer remaining on the flight deck. Radio, Waist, and Tail will assume a crash position sitting in the radio room with their backs to the door.
We have all agreed we will get as far as we can then try to land in a trough. The seas appear quite calm although there is a swell running like the ocean at home. All too soon the red warning lights comes on, then the fuel pressure drops. The crew is warned and Radio begins his "Mayday" call, followed by tying down the radio key. We turn into the trough and drop our air speed to about 90. We begin the flair to kill the lift plus getting the tail down so we don't submarine when the engines quit.
Without warning we hit the water with a giant belly flop. We pull the release for the window. The Ball Turret Gunner pulls the release for the life raft as the three of us scrambles out on the wing. The life raft inflates from the CO2 cylinders, but soon started to crumple from the holes in it. The other three scrambling out of the hatch from the radio room join us. We all pulled the CO2 releases on our May Wests this time in earnest.
Perceptibly the nose and wing are sinking, so there is nothing left but to get into the water I still remember the bitter frigid temperature of that water. I thought the Puget Sound was cold. We assemble together in the water as we watch the plane disappear beneath the waves as a watery grave for the remains of our friends and comrades.
Radio assures us Air Sea Rescue has a positive fix on our location. The choppy water we had noticed now is three to four foot white caps. It isn't too long until a huge rough wave broke over us splitting us apart. It doesn't take too long for the numbing cold to begin to take its effect. You keep beating the water to keep the circulation going, but nevertheless can feel a total numbing sensation going through your body. The wind is bitter and you can feel the ice actually forming on your face, but no way was this going to beat me. You end up totally frozen to the backbone and halfway to the marrow. There are occasional glances at the top of the waves of the other yellow patches in the sea. Were they just blobs of yellow holding a frozen body or were they alive? As I put faces to the members of the crew it was difficult to imagine they would no longer be wisecracking and telling old jokes. How many times had all of us said: "Crash and burn on takeoff", or as we landed "Cheated Death Again". I remember vividly how we all came together as crew such a long time ago in Tampa, FL. Now, there would be no more.
After about 30 minutes there appeared an Air Sea Rescue boat which threw us a line. As they pull you aboard you were given a warm heavy woolen coat, which reaches, down to your knees. Then they ushered to a small very warm cabin. With huge smiles there was the Navigator, Ball Turret Gunner, and the Radio Operator. Air Sea Rescue spends another thirty minutes looking for the other two crewmen and talking to two spitfires circling the area for any sightings. The wind has picked up and the waves were now about six feet making further search impossible. The Waist Gunner and Tail Gunner were now lost to us forever.
There has never been enough said of these people in Air Sea Rescue for their efforts. Their compassion and bravery in rescuing others and us during the air war over Europe.
After three days of getting us warmed up we were returned to our base. They were very surprised to see us. The reports they had indicated we had been lost in the Channel and had rolled our beds up. My Mother had received a "Missing in Action" telegram from the War Department.
----- Wally Hoffman
Email: flyingfortress AT olywa.net
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Copyright ©1997 Wally Hoffman All Rights Reserved
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