Military history


“Fear came to some at the height of missions, while to others it was a cold shuddering aftermath experienced in the quietude of the darkened barracks…”—From an official history of the VIII Bomber Command.

Mission 115 had a hell of a lot of combat behind it. Once the previous missions went into the records, however, they became so many dry statistics of groups assigned, planes dispatched, planes aborted, bombers to target, bombers lost or damaged, and the statistics on the men. But it wasn’t so easy for the men to forget. There was a strangeness about this violent air war so high over the earth that set it apart, away by itself, from all other aspects of the war. The suddenness of flaming death, of freezing in temperatures down to seventy degrees below zero, of choking because of a lack of thick air to breathe. There was no ground to hug, no feeling of solidity beneath a man’s feet when his bomber lurched and heeled crazily through the sky.

The sky—perhaps that was the strangest of all, to fight a war five miles into the heavens, an arena separated by vertical distance from the rest of the human race. Except, of course, for the flak, which pursued the men in their planes hungrily, which filled the sky with dirty black splotches and flaming red cauldrons, and spat invisible shards of jagged metal in all directions.

The earth—miles below. A man can achieve peace of mind so far above his world, when his airplane functions properly and he has power and the machine imparts its solidity of lift from the wings. But to think—at the moment when bullets and cannon shells raked the guts of a bomber and its 10 men—of that horrible plunge to earth; this is what unnerved even the bravest. The parachute did not always promise succor. There were the ships that were torn in half, or had a wing blown loose to flip-flop crazily through space, while the bomber whirled in a tight spin, and centrifugal force pinned the men inside helplessly, like flies smashed against a wall. How long does it take to fall 25,000 feet inside the blasted wreck of a Flying Fortress? Whom is there to ask?

In their barracks, these men were not always quiet. Take at random from official histories the notes written by unsigned authors, one of whom wrote: “The men lived the battles in their sleep, with considerable mental disturbances. The other night the men went into the barracks and found Captain Fenton flying an apparently tough mission. Apparently his ship was hit and he exclaimed: ‘Co-pilot—feather number four!’ The lieutenant, sound asleep, answered him. Both of them, sound asleep, piloted the severely damaged Fort back home....”

The living conditions in 1943 for the bomber crews were anything but conducive to high morale or to efficiency, but their effect on the men, all observers of the crews report, was but negligible. Above all else, though, they hated the mud, “the incessant, cloying, clammy, sticky mud.” The blackout was a “constant pain; no matter how you sliced it—and sometimes you could almost slice it—it was a nuisance and a bore.”

The bomber stations were by sheer physical necessity widely spread out, and the distances to be covered on foot meant often being plastered with the freezing mud of passing vehicles. The coal stoves in the Nissen huts—the grimy, hated Nissen huts— defied all attempts to keep them burning overnight. Much of the time there wasn’t any hot water to be had, the sunlight seemed to have abandoned England for the duration of the war, and even keeping the latrines clean was a major task. This may appear as a startling note—but some stations went for five and six weeks at a time without being able to obtain mops, brooms, cleaning materials, or any implements.

And of course there was always the shortage of coal, and the “midnight requisitioning” by officers and enlisted men. At one station the commanding officer finally decided it was time to steal coal by the truckload; he had found a major and a lieutenant colonel digging through a slag heap, chuckling with pleasure when they came to large, unburned pieces of coal.

The men who lived on the more primitive stations took to jeering loudly at their luckier fellows who enjoyed the wonderful luxury of moving into Royal Air Force installations with permanent facilities. These men with brick barracks, hot water, sufficient heat, and other amenities were assailed—and envied bitterly—as the “country-club set.”

On the official side of things the men were plagued with a serious shortage of supplies and maintenance facilities essential to keep the war running. “Many times,” one report stated, “combat aircraft stood on the ground because there simply weren’t enough maintenance men to get all planes ready in time for missions.”

An official history recalls: “At one time the lack of equipment for cleaning machine guns became so acute that the gunners, having cleaned parts of their weapons with soap and water, took them tenderly into bed the night before a mission to prevent them from rusting.”

It was not long after the battles in the air assumed major pro-portions that the Germans evolved the trick of hammering away fiercely at a single group. This concentrated casualties among bombers that had taken off from the same base. The Germans were calculating in their move. When they were successful in these attacks, from 30 to more than a hundred men might be missing from the same station that night.

Morale inevitably took a beating. The reason was not so much that these men had been shot down on the mission, but the failure to replace them properly. It was a lesson we didn’t heed soon enough.

These men knew that this was war, that people would be shot down and that they would be killed. But the facing of empty beds in barracks, of empty seats in the mess, of empty benches at the briefings—this was a constant, grating reminder that cut deeply into the souls of men.

At one station a gunner missed a mission when the surgeon ordered him to stay on the ground for the day. Every man in his barracks on that same mission went down over Germany. For several days the bewildered and hapless man would run suddenly to the other barracks in the hope that he might recognize one of his friends. He didn’t, of course. Finally he could not stand the silence, the mocking, empty beds any longer. He was a seasoned and a brave man, but he broke. He fled the station and went A.W.O.L.

Even in World War I the lesson was learned that any unit could endure severe losses if the vacant seats in the mess were occupied by the following morning. This was the “full-breakfast-table” policy, and it was one that the Royal Air Force pursued with religious intensity. But the American stations did not fill up so quickly. The VIII Bomber Command in those days simply didn’t have the men to bring in.

Often there were wonderful people to fill the aching gaps. And the chaplain was not the least of these people. “No one who watched the combat crews kneel to receive a final benediction before entering their planes,” wrote a historian, “ever doubted the value of these sincere, quiet men whose job included everything from running errands for pipe tobacco to sitting beside a dying airman in a hospital plane.”

Then there were the station doctors—the air surgeons. They did a tremendous job for the men. They were always present when the planes went out on the missions; they were always waiting when the crews returned. They were always ready, day or night, to meet the needs of any man, for any reason. Sometimes they went out on missions; they did not always come home.

“But when you boiled it all down,” stated another officer whose name is lost to the records, “everyone agreed—in the midst of the misery where platitudes were nothing less than profane to these men—it was the men themselves who never allowed the morale to become a serious problem.”

The men who stayed on the ground were, in the fullest sense of that badly overused term, the unsung heroes. No one ever focused the spotlights of publicity on the duty of guarding a Fortress in a freezing rain, or the men who packed parachutes long into the nights in rooms clammy with cold and dampness— and who dared not make a mistake in their precision folding of the silk and shroud lines.

No one ever paid attention, it seems, to the ground crewmen who had to struggle for footing in slippery, freezing mud, who had to take the bombs, which seemed sullen and brooding, from the mud, load them on carriers, and drive them to the stands where the hulking bombers waited. No one seemed to know, outside of the bases, that these men washed the bombs, cleaned the pregnant blobs of all mud, washed down the finned steel and the casings for the high explosives. The bombs could not have blemishes; even a single patch of hardened mud will keep a bomb from falling straight and true, from pursuing its desired ballistic trajectory. And maybe because of a patch of mud, a plane would go down and ten men would die in vain.

No medals were handed out to the men who suffered when a 1,000-pound bomb slipped, for no apparent reason, and crushed to a bloody pulp the hapless bomb loader’s foot.

“Nobody wrote glamorous newspaper stories about the cooks,” one gunner explained to me, “but those guys—at least on my base—never turned us down, day or night, when we wanted something to eat, or some hot coffee. And nobody seems to have counted all the cooks and the bakers and truck drivers and the guards and the clerks who said to hell with it, and who became gunners, and never came back to us.”

And what did the crews think of the Germans? You can sum it all up with the statement of one man; “You gotta hand it to Jerry; he’s a beautiful flier, and boy, has he got guts!...”

During the height of the period of disastrous missions over the Reich, an American aircraft firm, following the policy that Americans are better than anybody else, sponsored probably the most ill-received advertisement of the war. The advertisement was full page, and it showed a grinning gunner peering through the sights of a .50-caliber machine gun as he poured tracers into a swarm of Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters. Beneath the heroic painting was the caption: “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wulf?”

One pilot who saw the page immediately tore it from the magazine and pinned it to his group’s bulletin board. Beneath the page went a long scroll of paper with a red-ink headline that shouted: “WE ARE!

Every combat officer in the group signed the scroll, and the group commander’s name was at the top of the list. They mailed it to the manufacturer with their blessings.

What were these men like, who were to go out on Mission 115?

How do you describe Americans from all walks of life? In the VIII there were gunners wounded three and four times who refused to leave their weapons. There were bombardiers who toggled their bombs and died, coughing blood, as they slumped over the bomb sights. There was a pilot in the air who had been wounded, and flew with a foot in a cast, because he refused to stay on the ground. And he was not the only one. There were Nisei and Filipinos and Polacks and Irishmen and Jews and Italians and Germans and English and Danes and pure-blooded American Indians, and at least one Chinese who never stopped grinning and who was a real authority with a 50-caliber gun.

And what about the Queen—the Flying Fortress? She was legendary, but the legends told about her were true. Take just one ship on the raid of July 14, three months before Mission 115.

This B-17 met a head-on attack by three Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters. The gunners exploded two of them, and the top turret poured a stream of shells into the cockpit of the third. With a dead man at the controls, the fighter screamed in, and at a closing speed of 550 miles per hour smashed head on into the number-three engine.

The tremendous impact of the crash tore off the propeller. It knocked the heavy bomber completely out of formation as though a giant and invisible hand had swatted a fly. The fighter cartwheeled crazily over the B-17. It cut halfway through the wing, and then sliced a third of the way through the horizontal stabilizer. The top and ball turrets immediately jammed, the radio equipment was smashed to wreckage, and all the instruments “went crazy.” Pieces of metal from the exploding, disintegrating Focke-Wulf tore through the fuselage, and a German gun barrel buried itself in the wall between the radio room and the bomb bay.

Crews of nearby bombers watched the collision. They saw a tremendous explosion, and the bomber hurtling helplessly out of control, tumbling as she fell. They reported when they returned to base that the Flying Fortress had blown up, and that the crew must be considered dead.

The old Queen hadn’t blown up, and the crew was far from dead. The pilots struggled wildly in the cockpit, and somehow between them managed to bring their careening bomber back under control. The gunners shot down a fourth fighter that had closed in to watch the proceedings.

And they brought her all the way back to England, and scraped her down for a belly landing on the runway.

Postscript; not a man was injured.

The flak was rough, and the fighters were murder, and the Forts went down. But crews loved those airplanes.

Sometimes you can get an excellent glimpse of these airmen through the diaries of their medical officers. From a thick stack of files in the Air Force archives I extracted the diary of a medical officer of the 381st Group, one of the outfits that flew the mission of October 14.

This diary opens the door slightly to the lives of these men. The vignettes are pointed at times.

“Sometimes you don’t need combat,” wrote the air surgeon. “On the ninth raid of the group, on 14 July, 1943, a B-17 simply exploded en route to the target. The ship was over England when it tore to pieces in a blinding flash. Six men were killed instantly; the other four were blown into space, and were able to pull their ripcords.”

On August 17, in the first Schweinfurt raid, the 381st Group sent out 26 of their big bombers. One aborted—and 11 out of the remaining 25 bombers failed to return.

“Morale was pretty low this evening on the return of the crews,” the surgeon recorded, “particularly as soon as stories were compared, and total losses realized.”

Two days later, on a raid to Holland—a “milk run”—one B-17 went down. “The loss of this latest ship seemed to have a depressing effect on the combat crewmen, presumably because it was supposed to be an easy one. The line of reasoning, I presume, is to the effect that if losses can be sustained on the simple ones, what chance does anyone have?”

On October 8, on the mission to Bremen (six days before Schweinfurt), seven out of 21 bombers went down. Of the 14 that returned, several were shot to pieces. Then this addition to the diary:

“B-17 Tinkertoy ground-looped just off the runway. Tinker-toy had her nose shot out and the pilot had his head blown off by a 20-mm. cannon shell. There was hardly a square inch of the entire cockpit that was not covered with blood and brain tissue. One half of his face and a portion of his cervical vertebra were found just in front of the bomb bay. The decapitation was complete.”

(On December 20, 1943, Tinkertoy was over the target area when two enemy fighters rammed head on into the airplane. “The ship,” wrote the unknown surgeon, “has been with the group since its third phase of training. It has a long and interesting history and has been on many raids over enemy territory. A number of people have been killed in this ship and the group looked on it with mixed horror and affection....”)

The report continues on October 8: “After this mission, in visiting the many crews right after they hit the ground, the tense excitement of many was apparent and in many cases was border-line hysteria. This was the roughest mission experienced in some time and most of the personnel seemed to feel the losses keenly.”

The diary tells of a strange incident during one mission, of which the 381st’s air crews talked a long time. As the diary records it; “Just as the formation was reaching the Danish coast, a 20-mm. shell exploded in the cockpit of Lieutenant Winters’ ship, and Lieutenant Winters was temporarily stunned or blinded by the flash. When he came to, the bombardier and navigator had already left the ship, the co-pilot was jumping, and one of the crew members gave him a farewell salute—and jumped. The ship was in a steep gliding turn and there was a fire in the rear of the cockpit. Lieutenant Winters righted the ship, put on the autopilot, went back and put out the fire, and brought the ship safely back to England...

The good lieutenant was not quite so dead as his crew believed him to be!

10 October 1943. “The mental attitude and morale of the crews is the lowest that has yet been observed.”

Three days later: “Captain—, a squadron leader and a brave man, informed the commanding officer that he had no desire to continue flying.”

The next day was October 14, and Mission 115. “Crews were briefed at 0700 hours and the target was the ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt, Germany. The mention of the word ‘Schweinfart’ shocked the crews completely...[as] on 17 August this group lost so heavily on this same target. Also conspicuous by its omission was the estimated number of enemy fighters based along the route. Upon checking with the S-2 later, it was found that this omission was intentional and that the entire German fighter force of 1,100 fighter aircraft was based within eighty-five miles of the course. The implications are obvious.

“As I went around to the crews to check out equipment, sandwiches, coffee, etc., the crews were scared, and it was obvious that many doubted that they would return.”

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