Military history


The sky over Germany is alive with energy so violent as to be almost beyond belief. The heavens are a world alien to men, a sorcerer’s nightmare blazing in angry flames. They leap into existence without warning. Sudden flashes of light, frightening and angry, blinding, revealing in their intensity a spectrum of red, orange, yellow and white. Cannon shells and bombs, aerial mines and rockets exploding, each intent on skewering a winged machine with its pregnant bomb bays and the ten vulnerable men inside.

No longer do the Flying Fortresses progress in a stately march through the upper heavens. The majesty has vanished, the crisp efficiency of tight formation is desperately sought but impossible to achieve in that raging hurricane of air. The bombers slog their way through the thickening mass of exploding flame and smoke. They are forced onward not merely by strength of motors and whirling propellers, but equally with the determination of grim men in the cockpits. The bombers drive ahead through a whirlwind of steel splinters and flame and jagged chunks of red-hot metal. The steel is everywhere: it crashes into wings and engines, slams into bulkheads and airplane bodies. And into the bodies of men, spewing out blood, tissue, intestines, and brains.

Through the carnage there leap spears of bright flame, each portending a shocking release of energy, a mind-stunning slap of concussion. Sometimes the spear strikes the heart, and death and destruction come with explosive suddenness. The flame lances directly into the core of a 30-ton airplane, it reaches cunningly into the bays in the stomach of the Fortress, and the blast strikes eagerly at the fuzes. Six 1,000 pounders are in there, and they can take so much punishment and no more, for they are intended to react to this type of attention.

They do, and here the ten men who are to die forfeit their lives in merciful fashion. It is an instant thing, a thing of only a millisecond. Nothing drags out, there is no time for the pain to turn a human being who is an intelligent creature, the father of children, a citadel of pride and ethics and morals, into a shrieking animal. The rocket releases its energy into the bombs, and three tons of high explosives react just as the miracle of science, the pride of civilization, designed them to react.

Just a few thousandths of a second, no more...the blast from the exploding rocket strikes the detonators of the bombs, nose and tail. All receive the punishment at the same instant. They, in turn, react. A shock wave, a shudder of energy flashes through the mass of explosives in the bombs. Their molecules are unstable, and the shock wave seizes upon this instability. The molecules become excited and they chum furiously as they seek a path of stability. There is nitro and hydrogen and oxygen and carbon. They suffer their rearrangement, and the solid mass within the bombs is no longer what it was just an instant before.

The mass crumbles within itself. It shreds and cracks, suffers an internal turmoil. Unseen by any man, it pulsates with a flashing of weird light, the warning of gases under fantastic combustion. They boil and seethe into a terrible heat, and in these microseconds, beyond all human ken, the six bombs are no longer solid masses, but gas that is appallingly hot. The pressure is explosive, it hammers at the steel casings, and not even the steel can resist. The powerful metal crumbles like tissue paper, collapsing before the irresistible surge of the gases within.

In a fraction of a second after the flame spears into the B-17, the entire airplane and its 10 men vanish. In its place there is a searing ball of fire, a terrible glare of the explosives releasing their energy. Even as the concussion smashes into the neighboring bombers, hurling them from their formations, the volatile fuel within the tanks is consumed, and this liquid also erupts into flame. As the formation continues on its terrible flight, there is behind them a monstrous smear, churning angrily within itself.

The fighters are through the heavens, swift and merciless and terribly efficient. They assemble far ahead of the battered formations, climbing slightly. The pilots are excellent, their co-ordination is superb. They heed carefully the guttural commands of the leader, and suddenly a haphazard group of Focke-Wulfs slides into an even formation, wing tip to wing tip, woven into a single engine of destruction. Eight fighters; there are eight large rockets to be released first, and then the massed firepower of 32 heavy cannon and 16 machine guns will erupt to exact its toll.

They come in fast, and they scare the hell out of all those people in the bombers. They close with a speed up to six hundred miles per hour, and they do not flinch or waver or tremble as the gunners hose streams of tracers at them, The B-17’s are alive with lights. Two guns on top of the fuselage, two guns in a turret below, and as many as four guns in the nose, all spitting defiance and fire and an avalanche of bullets. But the German pilots hold their formations, and the eight fighters sweep forward like a great flaming scythe.

It is, each man who survives the attacks swears, the most helpless feeling in the world. The German planes reach within the range of their weapons. The rockets streak out first, and they distract the gunners, and sometimes a pilot just cannot sit there grimly plodding along, and he jerks on the control yoke. The bomber twitches, it moves spasmodically from its slot in the formation, and that is exactly what the fighters hope for. A man with his eyes glued to a sight notices this weakness; he nudges a rudder pedal with little more than a trace of pressure, and his Focke-Wulf responds.

The gunners look out and the pilots stare helplessly as the wings and noses of the line-abreast formation, the scythe, all flame into life with orange and yellow flashes. They are surprisingly brilliant, and they mean cannon shells and bullets spraying the sky with a rain of death.

Within a bomber the noise is deafening. The gunners shout the positions of the incoming fighters, there is the pounding roar of the four powerful engines, the background bass hiss of the air rushing by. The machine guns hammer and bark and cough deeply, their vibrations ripple through the Fortress, and there can be heard the terrible ‘whump’ of a rocket exploding nearby. There is the heart-stopping sound of metal clashing against metal, of cannon shells exploding against wings and fuselage and engines, the staccato impact of bullets and steel fragments ripping through aluminum and steel.

The sounds of air battle are numberless, and they join into a crashing cacophony, a singular sonic shriek. The world itself plunges into insanity in these moments. It reels and shakes wildly, it careens with sickening sensation. Earth and sky blend into a vibrating spasm of movement and recoil and impact. If the sky is cloudless, then air battle spews forth its own rain. Shell cases erupt from the shadowed bellies of the bombers above as well as the fighters, and they splash downward in a metallic hail, banging against metal skin, chipping windshields, sending lightning-fork cracks through the plexiglas. The waist gunners especially hear their keening sound, the singsong, high-pitched chime of the cases as they whirl through the propeller blades.

And there is the sound, the one that grates deepest against the nerves, that is hellish and hated, that knifes into the brain and makes a man wince through and through. A scream, metallic, thin, and high, a slender file blade cutting through the nerves. Above all else there is this cry of the fighter racing in close, sounding a scream that can be none other.

Out of the whole armada, out of that frenzied maelstrom, take just one bomber, described anonymously in the records of Mission 115.

To her crew she has always been a graceful and beautiful creature. They have often talked about this 30-ton craft, of the manner in which she slides through the air in the clean sunshine high above earth. Under her glistening belly the ball turret turns slowly as she moves into German territory. In her transparent nose the bombardier prepares his equipment, checking for the run over the target of thirty to sixty seconds, the meaningful justification for this airplane and all the others to be plunging into Germany. He kneels before his bomb sight like an acolyte before an altar, just as intense, equally as concerned for proper obeisance to the delicate equipment. The livid yellow of his inflatable life jacket, the dark green of his oxygen mask, stand out sharply against all his bulky attire.

The Flying Fortress does not seem to be occupied by men. They are beings from some other world, alien creatures with strange breathing systems dangling from beneath their faces. The rubber diaphragms of the oxygen masks expand and contract regularly like living lungs, delicate membranes exposed outside the body, fragile to puncture.

Outside the airplane the sun is intensely bright, but the temperature is forty-three degrees below zero. It is an enemy, that cold. It never for a single moment relaxes its vigil, always preys upon the hapless man who exposes his sensitive flesh to the jagged teeth of frostbite. Golden sunlight and vicious cold, an acceptable and normal paradox of the high arena. Frost forms on the transparent nose through which heavy machine guns bristle, and the bombardier opens a panel to let the icy air shrill through, clearing the glass.

Germany is below the transparent nose, and there is a wisp of clouds maybe a thousand feet beneath the bomber. The bombardier glances down and smiles beneath his mask at the sight of the pilot’s halo he sees—a tiny circular rainbow on the cloud with the shadows of his bomber and two others as they rush into the enemy land. A good omen, maybe.

The first black specks appear in the distance, and there is the barest feeling of a gentle skid as the pilot closes in, tightening up his Fortress’s position in the formation. The long minutes pass, the gunners sing out, for the moment they have nothing to fire at, and wait, as spectators at the opening act of the drama, as the rockets and cannon rip into the planes of the initial formations.

And then the waiting is over, the black spots are closer and closer. A man cries out in astonishment: “The whole goddamned Luftwaffe is out today! Look at those bastards come in...He is right: the sky is a vast circular bowl, and from the edges of the bowl the fighters swarm down in incredible numbers.

Everything happens so quickly that it is blurred and chaotic. Movement and action are more instinctive than deliberate. Around this particular ship the bombers accept their punishment. Some die in violent agony; others absorb the death blow with seeming stoicism, drifting out of formation, easing toward the earth far below, and never coming out of the long, gentle glide, dead airplanes before they smash into the earth.

The fighters come back again and again, and the fourth or fifth time around, or maybe it is the seventh or the tenth—no one is sure—they find the range they want, and then this is it! The blazing coals hurled from the fighters crash and bang through the ship, and the Fortress convulses with the force of the impacts. The machine writhes and protests in metallic cries of despair.

When a cannon shell smashes into a Fortress, the way it sounds depends upon where you are. If you’re not too close, it’s a kind of metallic whoof! like a small bark from a big dog—and you feel a jar that shakes the whole ship. It is a tremor, it reaches and leaves you quickly. But if the shell explodes nearby, then there is nothing gentle or distant about what happens, and it sure as hell isn’t a momentary tremor.

It sounds like some giant smashing his cupped hand down on the surface of still water. A double sound, really—the first from the impact and the second when the shell explodes. CRAA-AASH! Like that. Like firing a shotgun into a bucket, so that the sound and the blast all come exploding back up into your face, shaking you up and stunning your mind. For the moment you’re not scared, because your senses are knocked silly, and you don’t know how to be scared or anything else. Your bowels seem weak and watery and your stomach shrivels up until you know how much damage has been done.

And this happens all the time through the fight; all the time, if they pick your airplane and they find the range. Many a man has come home off these raids without a mark on the outside, but cut up pretty thoroughly beneath the skin.

Now there’s good reason for the weak bowels and the shriveled stomach, because the Fortress is hit. Its inner walls are covered with a green insulation that is thick and heavy. The shell has hit right in the middle of the stuff, and the fire moves quickly along the shredded edges. Fire! The most dreaded thing in an airplane loaded with fuel and ammunition and bombs. Fire that can easily rush away from all possible control, that licks and sears and burns at men and metal alike. In a moment the green insulation is blazing fiercely, and the smoke gets thicker and thicker. It chokes and stings the eyes, it’s hard to see a god-damned thing, and hell yawns wide just outside the hatches and doors of the airplane.

The fear is so bad now that, surprisingly, it freezes inside the men. It’s worse than before, but the need for action, the long training, the coordination of the team that makes up the crew, the concern for the others, all these take precedence.

All the time the fire spreads the Germans are still hammering away. The fighter pilots also see the smoke, and this is what they eagerly seek. It is the sign of a crippled airplane, one they have hurt, and they close in with the blood lust at its peak to finish off the cripple. The Fortress reels and shakes and pounds; another fighter comes in from the front, a Focke-Wulf, barrel rolling with extraordinary grace and precision, wings and nose ablaze with the terrible orange light. A bullet from its nose guns races into the airplane. It creases an ammunition can in the radio room and it also scatters incendiary material from one of the tracers in the belt. The insulation is burning even worse than before, and there is new fire, and by now, in most planes, half the crew would have been over the side.

Already the sky looks as though the Fortresses were in the midst of a mass parachute invasion. At one time the crews estimate there are up to one hundred and fifty parachutes m the air. White ones and brown ones, each of the latter signifying a German pilot whose fire was met with concerted gunnery from the bombers and who flung himself away from a blazing coffin.

The Fortress is now in serious trouble, and the navigator and bombardier abandon their guns to fight the enemy which is closer, far more deadly, than even the Focke-Wulfs and the Messerschmitts.

The navigator crawls through the widespread legs of the top turret gunner. The man in the turret knows there is fire, but he pays no attention to it. He forces himself to remain oblivious to the flames just as hungry for him as all the rest, and he will stay this way, beating out a thundering symphony with his twin guns, until he hears the fire is out, or sees the airplane breaking into pieces in the sky. He feels the man crawling between his legs, and he ignores the movement.

The navigator squirms through and reaches the catwalk that leads across the bomb bay. He is 23,000 feet above the earth, where the air is thin and cruel, but he has no mask. He has taken it off. He tries to worm his way into the narrow passage between girders, but his parachute jams and holds him fast. If the parachute had not jammed, he would have been several feet away from where he is at the exact moment that a cannon shell comes in through the airplane just behind him, and explodes. The flash is blinding, the roar brings blood to his ears, and he cannot feel the fire extinguisher in his hand. He tastes blood—it trickles from his mouth as well as from his ears. He ignores it; the fire, the fire, must get to the fire.

He grasps for the extinguisher again. It is a useless motion, and it is not until this moment that he discovers that the exploding shell has broken his arm. He cannot do a thing. Despair floods his face, and the bombardier, struggling through to join him, sees this and something the hapless navigator does not even yet realize. Parts of his chin and nose also are missing.

The bombardier brings the navigator out and moves in first. By some miracle that no one will ever understand they struggle into the radio room—the one that is wounded and with a piece of chin chopped out and a piece of nose shot away and the broken arm and all—and they put out the fire! They tear the burning insulation loose and throw it out of the ship through the hatch; to the crews of nearby airplanes it looks as though the Fort is coming apart at the seams.

Not yet. A B-17 resists death with a grim hold on its mechanical life, and this is one reason why her crews, with religious and loving fervor, call her the Queen. This Fortress is not yet dead, but her ordeal is not over, not so long as the Germans see the flame and the smoke that mark her as a cripple.

An engine goes wild, and the vibration shakes hell out of the airplane. The gunners curse a blue streak; they curse the fire and the fighters, the terrible vibrations that throw off their aim. They are wild with anger, besides being equally scared, and everything they hate is out there in the form of airplanes with black crosses on them.

The fire is out, but the engine is sheer murder, and out on that wing strips of torn metal flap and clash like a rain of bolts crashing to the top of a tin roof. And just when they sigh in relief because the engine has quieted down a 20-mm. shell goes directly into the top turret and makes a bloody hash out of the gunner. Someone said that God smiles on those who die instantly; if that is true, this man has been so favored.

The Fortress struggles valiantly to hold her place in formation; she still has her bombs, and she fights as fiercely as any of the rest. But the airplane is sluggish, the two men at the controls are working like madmen to get her to respond, and they don’t know what’s happened until a waist gunner calls in: “Lieutenant, there’s a bunch of god-damned cables slapping me in the face!”

His voice is more irritated than frightened; intent on working his heavy machine gun, he has not yet realized that the cables run to the controls and that if just one more cable comes loose to maul his face, this airplane is going to become absolutely uncontrollable and everybody is going to have to get the hell out. No one thinks about that. Not because bailing out means almost certain capture, to say nothing of possible death on the way down, but how is the navigator going to haul on the parachute D-Ring when his arm is broken?

The cable, by some miracle, doesn’t break. The engine manages to pick up at last, and they do not fall out of formation to be picked clean by the vultures waiting to pounce on the cripples. They stay in formation, they make the bomb run, the six heavy missiles smash into the target.

They bring her home, a wreck. She is a flying sieve, battered and pummeled and, according to a few of the more important laws of aerodynamics, absolutely unflyable. But they haven’t told this to the pilot and co-pilot, so they bring her home, with one dead, one wounded.

And this is only one of the many Fortresses struggling through the skies over Germany, grimly bent on bringing Mission 115 to its conclusion of target runs and the more personal run for home.

The clean air synonymous with high altitude might never have been. The sky is diseased with the signs of aerial combat, the splotches of rockets exploding in their deep, angry flame, erupting in the upper air in dirty, shredded patches, oozing down an invisible surface in greasy smoke tatters.

There is misery, agonizing pain on the part of German and American alike, their flesh ripped open by bullet and broken steel, the sightless groping of cannon shell. Amid all this the screaming of men who burn alive or hover near death is mostly silenced by the tumult of the enormous amphitheater filled with its roaring sounds of engines and the thunder of unremitting explosions.

The air is thick with the flotsam of the savage air war. Not merely the erupting rocket explosions and the smoke of burning airplanes, the shower of shell casings, but also with the minor debris of so vicious a conflict. There are shining silver objects, main exit and hatch doors of Fortresses and of twin-engine fighters. Men hurtle through this congested, moving block of contested airspace. They sail through the formations, barely missing the knifelike propellers. And sometimes they do not miss. The blood and flesh and bone and gristle spray outward like a minor rain. It happens many times, for there simply is not enough room for men dropping in the air and the swirling mass of aircraft.

One man—seen by many crews—escaped immediate death by a miracle. Knees clasped to his chest, spinning like a high diver gone berserk, he is flung through the formations. He whirls through two separate bomber boxes, through a line of fighters racing in, Indian file, and he emerges through all this without having swerved an iota in his incredible flight through space. He does not open his parachute quickly, and no one knows for certain whether or not the silk really did blossom above his head.

Many men do not fall far before death strikes in its own sardonic fashion. Bombers are crippled; they burn, or suffer a collapsed wing, or a red smear lines the inside of the cockpit windows and the living still in the crew hastily abandon their stricken machines. Too often, much too often, the crewmen crawl from their bombers, hang on desperately so they may drop at the right moment to clear obstacles, and then release their grip, only to smash into the tail surfaces of their own bombers. They are flung aside, broken and crumpled, not even twitching as they begin the fall that will last for five miles before the earth accepts the lifeless forms.

The flak, the rockets, the shells, and the bullets do strange things; they make war in the air absolutely unexpected in its sudden personal impact. A bombardier catches the full brunt of one FW-190 attack. Thirty-caliber slugs stitch a dozen holes in a neat line across his chest, and pieces of exploding shells from each side shred his ears and the side of his face. He dies without making a sound; looking at him from straight ahead, with his flying helmet still on, the boy seems almost unmarked.

Sometimes it is possible to follow the trail of a single rocket, and to note its effect in detail. As in this case.... The crew reports a twin-engine Ju-88 far behind, setting up a rocket barrage. One large flak rocket rushes ahead of its brilliant flame on a three-quarter converging course, and in its weaving path is flung through an entire formation without bothering a single bomber. It passes through and moves inexorably toward an-other Fortress, as the crew watches helplessly. Some fifteen feet above the B-17 and slightly to one side, the detonator rams home and the rocket’s charge explodes.

In the same instant as the blossom of dark red flame appears within its black shroud, a chunk of steel finds its way to the skin of the Fortress. It tears through thin metal, rips through a control cable, and very neatly clips off the whole front of the top turret gunner’s knee. Helpless, the gunner is hung up in his turret, unable to work his guns, and cursing terribly in a grim, low voice.

“Someone come get me the god-damned hell out of this sonofabitchin’ thing,” he grates, as the blood pours in a bright scarlet stream down his leg, and he remains upright only by bracing himself with his arms and his other leg. They ease him down carefully, slipping on the blood, and quickly fashion a tourniquet around his leg. He disdains the morphine, and lies there in the belly of the bomber, through the bomb run and all the way home, cursing without a moment’s let-up.

The men get hit and some of them die, but more, by the dozens, are wounded. Their fellow crew members rip off oxy-gen masks in the biting thin air and rush to their aid. Some-times it is useless; more often it means that a man goes to the hospital that night instead of to the morgue. Attending a wounded and helpless man is often incredibly difficult in the midst of such a battle. There is the cold that sometimes aids the unfortunate by helping to freeze the blood, a strange sort of coagulation. The bombers shake and rock and slide and slip and bounce, and first aid is almost impossible. Sometimes several men are wounded at once, and the inside of the airplane is spattered with blood and gore, and only the fact that a man will die if he does not get help at once keeps his friends from being sick.

One man who went through the entire Mission 115 without a scratch was not fit for duty for weeks. He was not injured, but his best friend, a buddy of many years, suffered a tremendous blast in the face. He fell to the belly of the bomber, writhing, hands clasping a bloody, mangled mess that a moment before had been a normal face. The other gunner, hurrying to his aid, slipped, and fell heavily. He glanced down, and in horror noted the crushed eyeball that had been gouged by the explosion from his friend....

This was the clean air war many an infantryman coveted.

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