This is the hour when the execution of Mission 115, target Schweinfurt, passes into the hands of the combat crews. All over England the planners have done their job. Except for General Anderson, at the highest level, one man who will decide at the last moment whether or not the murky skies will permit the risk of massed flight, the planners clear up their papers, and walk to breakfast where, most of all, the hot steaming coffee will be welcome.
The crews spread throughout the nineteen bomber bases have work to do. Navigators and bombardiers gather to work out final details of their mission. All crew members pick up survival kits, and they shove their way into the equipment huts, or first hurry back to the barracks to attend to a last-moment chore. By now they are wearing, or carrying, their flight gear.
The clothing the airmen wear is bulky and weighs heavily on them. Each man wears closest to his skin either a pair of woolen long johns or an electrically heated suit. On top of that is heavy OD clothing. Next, a flying suit to be zipped up, and a leather jacket over that. There’s room on top of the jacket for the Mae West, the individual life preserver which will keep him afloat in the Channel just in case that’s where he ends up during this mission. And of course there’s room on top of the Mae West for the parachute harness and the bulky chute itself.
The airman wears his bulky sheepskin-lined flying boots; he carries a pair of GI shoes just in case he is shot down and has to walk out of enemy-occupied territory. In combat he wears a flak suit, a modern front-and-back attire of armor to keep pieces of shrapnel from flak or bursting rockets away from the center of his body and from his groin. He will don a lined leather flying helmet, and he will also wear an oxygen mask with dangling bladder and hose line. And if you could crawl into the cockpit of a B-17 in battle, you would see the men there wearing their “tin hats”—heavy metal GI helmets. And after everything else, the airman dons a heavy, thick pair of flying gloves which extend well back over his forearm.
It’s a lot of equipment, but the high vaults are filled with savage cold, and many a plane has come home, unscarred by enemy bullets, but with a man inside whose fingers or feet have been so badly frozen at sixty-five degrees below zero that they must be amputated. And it doesn’t feel one bit easier because it wasn’t a bullet or a cannon shell that made a man legless for the rest of his life.
On the ground, however, wearing even part of this equipment is uncomfortable. Despite the cold and the dampness, the men perspire freely. They crowd into the equipment huts, they jam together and jostle one another and in just a few minutes the sweat beads on their foreheads, greases their hair, and runs in itch-maddening rivulets from beneath their arms and down the backs of their necks, and it stinks; it stinks of the smell of freely-perspiring men. They don’t give a damn about the smell, but all that sweat is going to freeze up there if they don’t dry it first....
The crews collect in jeeps and trucks, some walk, but they all move out to their bombers. The husky Fortresses squat on their dispersal “hardstands,” small asphalted areas that are scattered at irregular intervals in the woodlands and thickets. Colonel Peaslee’s car moves slowly toward his bomber, its broad wings looming through the mist.
This airplane is distinctive for today: it will be the first off the ground in all three air divisions, the first over the Continent, the first over the target, and the first of the attackers to return home. Whether it will be the first to land is a moot point, and not one of the ten men who will man its positions hopes they are first. The planes with the wounded always have the green light to hurry back to earth.
Peaslee sees more than twenty men in or about the bomber, and they all are busy. The combat crew is already attending to its own responsibilities, and the ground crew nears the finish of its grueling all-night task. They have worked the night through in the cold and the rain and the miserable dampness that cut through to their skin without benefit of a hangar overhead or a dry place to work, and only the occasional visit of a truck with tepid coffee to break the long hours.
There was battle damage to repair from the last mission, when this ship was thoroughly chewed up by Focke-Wulfs. The crewmen removed the propeller from the number-three engine, and replaced it with a new one. They jacked up the airplane and changed a main gear tire. The directional gyro-gyroscopic compass—hadn’t been working well, so they replaced that. They patched up holes and cuts and tears in the skin, spliced wires, and they made every known ground check of every piece of operating equipment.
They didn’t do it completely without interruption, for the crew chief, who is a “maniac for perfection,” accepted nothing that didn’t satisfy his standards. He wasn’t to fly this four-engine monster into Germany, but ten men were, and in his opinion anything less than an attempt for perfection would be criminal. Now, after the crew has made a dozen adjustments, he still isn’t satisfied, and he climbs up the rig to an engine himself and then, after descending and signaling a mechanic in the cockpit to wind her up, he steps well back. So do the rest of the ground crew, because the mechanic’s life isn’t all dull and too many rimes in the past a tired man, bleary eyed, has slipped on a patch of oil or grease and—well, he slipped his life away as he fell into the reach of the whirling blades.
It takes only a split second for it to happen, and when the whirling buzz saw of the propeller is given a chance, it sprays blood and flesh and bone around. Not only does it make the other men sick, but it kills—instantly—the hapless soul who is flayed into pulp, or is decapitated, or sliced in two with that whirling knife. They don’t give out Purple Hearts for this kind of accident, and no one’s name gets in the papers, and there aren’t any communiqués, but the man is just as dead and his wife is just as much a widow as the grieving wife of the pilot whose plane blew up beneath him over Germany,
But finally even the chief is satisfied, and the bomber is as ready for flight and combat as any dozen men can make her. Peaslee climbs out of his car to be greeted by Captain James K. McLaughlin. “We’re in good shape, sir,” McLaughlin reports quietly. “Want to take a look?”
The colonel nods assent, and the two men walk around the 30-ton bomber, poking and prying as they discuss the various phases of the mission. McLaughlin will be flying in the bomber’s left seat as first pilot; the co-pilot, whom Peaslee has displaced, in turn displaces the tail gunner (who will sit this one out), and from this vantage point will report to Peaslee during the flight many details the air commander will need to know on attacks, target, formations, and other matters. During their discussion Peaslee says nothing about how this lead bomber will be flown. McLaughlin is a veteran of a good many missions, he is sharp and experienced and the operations officer for the group.
As they walk by the bomb bay, they stop to watch the ground crew winding the last thousand-pound missile into its place. On its side a mechanic has chalked the cheerful words; “Greetings, you bastards!”
Peaslee and McLaughlin, with their tour completed, have five minutes left until it is time to “man stations.” In twenty minutes they will start their engines. In thirty-five minutes they will begin to taxi the airplane to its take-off position. In one hour, if the mission is not scrubbed, they will start their roll down the runway.
The rest of the combat crew moves up; with their arrival a gas truck starts up and pulls away, disappearing into the gloom. The crew chief reports to McLaughlin, announces that the fuel tanks have been topped to take the last possible drop, and that the B-17 is ready for flight.
The pilot calls his crew. “Relieve yourselves and get dressed.” It is amazing that no one who has written of the saga of the bombers remembered to include this “pre-take-off ritual.” Before every take-off the same words are repeated, and before every take-off the crewmen walk beyond the hardstand to the thickets or the open grass, and urinate. One might say that this is a formal process before embarking on a mission, and while the crews joked about how the bombers were filled to the last drop and they did just the opposite, it was not at all humorous at 26,000 feet and sixty degrees below zero, when a man began to ache with the pain of not relieving himself. The cold affects the bladder, and what might be cause for a good laugh in an-other situation is murder at high altitude.
Getting “dressed” is a simple procedure. The crewmen zip up the dangling ends of their heavy leather jackets and their flying suits. They slip on their parachute harnesses, and check their oxygen masks for leaks. Now they walk around like great shuffling bears, their movements sorely restricted. But you don’t have much room to walk around in a B-17.
At more than three hundred hardstands in the dispersal areas the scenes are much the same. The maintenance crews complete final checks and adjustments of equipment. Inside the Fortresses the gunners have assembled their weapons, doted upon them with a final cleaning, reassembled parts with precision and with loving care. For to the gunner aboard the Flying Fortress the heavy machine gun is the same as the rifle to the infantryman lost in No-Man’s Land. It is his passport to life, the most important thing on the whole planet. To be sure, there are as many as thirteen heavy guns aboard the B-17, and the men have positions of crossfire, and there are other bombers in the big formation boxes. But when a Focke-Wulf comes screaming in, barrel rolling with superb precision, the cowling and the wings flaming with the firing guns and cannon, that airplane is coming straight in at the individual gunner and no one else.
Ask a gunner, any gunner who has come home from one of these missions. Every German pilot had it in for him....
You think of the superb aerodynamic machine that is the Flying Fortress, and you think at the same rime of flight and beauty and the cleanliness of the crisp space so far above our heads. But to the pilot and co-pilot cleanliness is something else again. The base is muddy and so is the field, and it’s almost impossible to keep the windshields clean, or the side windows. And like many other things that are commonplace in peacetime they are life and death in war. The bulletproof screen in front of the pilots may be dirty. “Dirty” is just a few specks. But there may be fighters coming in for a head-on attack, and when you’re peering through thick glass into the sun in a ship that bounces and shakes and vibrates, and you’re tired and sweating in all your gear, can you tell those specks from the specks of fighters far out but closing swiftly?
More than one pilot peers through the windshield this morning of October 14, and because he likes to live, he either cleans the glass himself or gives the crew chief absolute hell for the specks of dirt.
And so 3,000 men prepare themselves. Co-pilots are in the cockpits, checking instruments, engines, controls, and gauges. Pilots and squadron leaders huddle in groups, checking the infinite details that enable a swarm of four-engine giants to fly as one tremendous machine of destruction wheeling beautifully through the skies.
For some time the bases echo with the sputtering and roaring of engines. Through the countryside the British people listen to the noises, the subdued hums, the abrupt pounding of engines, the strange and invisible piston-created symphony that tell them the Yanks are preparing to have another “go at it.” Then the sounds begin to fall off, like a waterfall that is dammed slowly at its source. There will be a period of relative quiet, and when the sounds rumble through the wet morning air again, they will continue until louder roars, the songs of B-17’s under full power and rushing down the runway, rumble across the countryside.
Pilots at nineteen airdromes check their watches; again and again the involuntary reflex of tension mounting as the final moments rush along with the sweep of a second hand. “All right, let’s go.” Those may be the words, or perhaps a pilot will call, “Let’s get aboard,” and the men will move purposefully to their airplanes.
The ground crews are still on the scene; indeed, they will not leave for some time. They call after the departing crews, “Good luck!” and “Bring her back in one piece, you jokers!” or perhaps, with a bit of wistfulness because they know the odds are that it won’t be so, “Hope you guys have a milk run.” No one really looks closely at their faces, and this is a shame, for mirrored in their tired eyes, on their oil-spattered skins, are the looks of anxious and caring men, and not a few are emotional at this point.
They are tired, dog-tired. They will not leave for bed, the blessed oblivion of the slumber of exhausted bodies, until every airplane is off the ground. At least one hour before the bombers are scheduled to return to the airdrome, they will be clustered together at the hardstand, waiting. Waiting, and looking into the eastern sky many, many minutes before a bomber can possibly come within sight. Waiting and wondering. Thinking of the crew—their crew, their airplane, that is their sweat and toil and the utmost skill they have to give.
Some of them, in this fall of 1943, have already done this more than a hundred times. And there are hundreds and hundreds of missions yet to be flown.
Seventeen years later Budd Peaslee remembers clearly the ground crews at his base. “They got few pats on the back when things were right and many kicks in the butt when things went wrong,” he recalls, “Their bomber and its flying crew made up their home-town ball team, their entry at the county fair. They groomed their entry and, in a way, pampered its crew. The night their team came home from its twenty-fifth mission called for a wild and glorious binge. It meant graduation for the team—completion of its tour of duty—and the beginning of a new class for the plane itself and the ground crew. The league was tough and only a few graduated. When a ground crew and its bomber turned out two classes, they became standouts—extremely rare cases. There have been as many as four graduation classes from a single bomber, and its ground crew then became celebrities.
“Too often, however, the ground men watched the eastern sky in vain, and there was little conversation between them. Finally they walked slowly back to their bunks, looking down. Maybe their toes scuffed the ground a little. They were sick, deep inside, and they never saw the hilarity at a neighboring hardstand as another crew greeted its team and someone painted another bomb or a swastika or two on the nose of the B-17. The next morning, or even that same night, perhaps, there would be another bomber on their hardstand, and they would start an-other battle for a standing in the league, with their new team. They used to wonder if they would like the new team. They always did.”
The pilots have called the men, and the crews climb into their bombers. Each Fortress accepts its men as it has always done. Now something is different. The airplane is alive. An air-plane is made for men, and it is never complete, it is never what it was built to do in the air, until the men are inside.
The men move to their stations. The B-17 sits on her two main wheels and tail gear, nearly seventy-five feet long, and while she is on the ground, wings not yet grasping at the air, the body of the airplane follows a gentle incline. The pilot at the left and the co-pilot to his right, despite the size of the heavy bomber, seem almost to be cramped within a cage of steel, glass, controls, and instruments. A wedge of compartmented glass in front of them is their forward windshield, with side windows for both. Directly in the center of the windshield and at its lower edge is a metal container with three instrument dials; in the center is an accelerometer, flanked by carburetor air-temperature gauges. If the men behind the controls lean forward in their seats, they can just make out a small plexiglas dome through which the navigator peers from time to time.
In front of the two pilots are three main clusters of instruments: one before the pilot, one before the co-pilot, and a third panel in the center, the latter composed mainly of flight instruments. Directly behind this panel, and bordered by the control columns with their wheels, are the stands with power controls and accessories; there is also the AFCE—the Automatic Flight Control Equipment, or autopilot for short.
There are controls and switches, dials and gauges and handles and buttons and toggles in front, to the sides, between, above, below, and behind the pilots. More than one hundred and fifty of these in all, running the gamut from navigational equipment and controls to the directional gyro, airspeed indicator, artificial horizon, turn indicator, turn and bank, rate of climb and descent, altimeter, and others. There are controls and switches for the bomb doors, for hydraulic pressure and electrical power, for lights and oxygen, for the engines, fuel supply, and pressure and feed, for the flaps and landing gear, gauges to read vacuum pressure, oil and cylinder head temperatures, propeller pitch, turbo-supercharger regulators, mixture—it is a long list, and one thoroughly bewildering except to the experienced and the trained.
Forward of the leading edge of the wings, the B-17 is arranged in split fashion. Below the pilots is the nose compartment, where the bombardier and navigator have their stations for their particular duties—as well as manning the nose armament of the Fortress. The very tip of the Fortress is conical in shape, a formed wedge of plexiglas; the older B-17E models have metal stripping that laces the nose for added strength; the B-17F’s have eliminated the stripping and the plexiglas is clear except for gun ports. Below the horizontal center line of the plexiglas wedge is a flattened plexiglas panel through which the bombardier peers. There is added visibility in the small half bubble above the navigator, and also through several windows on each side of the nose. The bombardier has his Norden bomb sight and controls to work the bomb-bay doors, switches to set the bombs to drop in sticks, in a salvo, or individually at specific time intervals of so many seconds for each bomb.
Behind the bombardier sits the navigator, surrounded with radio and electronic navigation equipment, and all the other complex gear required to maintain accuracy in the high journeying across England and the less friendly Continent.
Originally the Flying Fortress had only a single .30-caliber machine gun in its nose for forward armament; by the time the B-17’s were arriving in England, the healthy respect for German fighters had increased this to two and three .50-caliber guns, and often the crews said to hell with the book, modified the nose, and installed four guns, and even as many as five, al-though the latter arrangement cramped sorely an already restricted space. The gun ports in the nose are actually set in the glass in a nipple-like mount, not only in the forward plexiglas, but in the side mounts as well. During a running fight, the bombardier and navigator often switch from gun to gun as fighter positions snap out over the intercom.
Swinging one of these 65-pound guns by hand in the teeth of the powerful wind created by the Fortress’s flight is no easy task, especially when a man is encumbered in his heavy and bulky flight gear, when the airplane may be rocking or pitching violently, and there is little enough space to begin with. But all things considered, the “big fifty” is just about the most versatile and flexible weapon of the air war, firing bullets that leave the muzzle at 2,900 feet per second and that can penetrate most parts of an enemy airplane, including the engine. The official book says that the bullets will penetrate “any and all parts of an airplane,” but the man who wrote the book hasn’t seen .50-caliber rounds bouncing harmlessly off the thick belly armor of the FW-190’s.
Immediately aft of the pilots’ compartment—so close that when the twin guns fire the sound is like that of exploding can-non shells—is the upper or dorsal power turret of the B-17. It is an electrically operated mechanism, and within the steel and glass turret the gunner manages to squeeze his head, shoulders, and arms. Actually the turret is a completely independent unit. Hand controls turn it in azimuth and elevation and fire the guns; there is equipment for oxygen and interphone communication, gun sights, ammunition belts, and containers. The turret is armor protected, and it has a plexiglas dome, or curved plexiglas panels fitted into the steel mountings. The B-17 engineer works this position, and his is the best position in the crew for sight-seeing, if that is his inclination. He commands a full for-ward view, and to both sides, and can look back along the glistening curved metal of the Fortress; he will see one or two guns sticking upward from the radio compartment, and then the towering tail. He can also look straight up, and that is a good thing, for sometimes the fighters like to come hurtling down in vertical power dives, raking the bombers from nose to tail in sustained fire.
To move farther back into the Fortress, a man must traverse a narrow catwalk spanning the bomb bay, and then into the radio compartment. The radioman fires in a limited upward arc, defending the bomber against diving attacks. Originally the B-17 had only this station for dorsal protection; the crews who think of the early B-17C and D models in the Pacific without an upper power turret shudder when they imagine themselves flying those early models against the Luftwaffe.
Unquestionably the loneliest position in the Flying Fortress —or the Liberator—is that of the ball-turret gunner; the turret is like some grotesque, swollen eyeball of steel and glass and guns that seems to hang precariously from the belly of the B-17. It is a hellish, stinking position in battle; the gunner must hunch up his body, draw up his knees, and work into a half ball to meet the curving lines of the turret. The guns are to each side of his head, and they stab from the turret eyeball like two even splinters. Jailed in his little spherical powerhouse, the turret gunner literally aims his own body at enemy fighters, working both hands and feet in deft coordination, spinning and tilting, and then depressing switches atop the gun grip handles to fire the two weapons. It is the most unenviable position in a bomber, any bomber, and the man most unlikely to escape from a blazing B-17 is that lonely soul in the ball.
The two waist gunners of the B-17 live in a tubular world, with the walls, floor, and ceiling made of thin metal skin and its supporting heavy ribs that completely encircle them. Wide hatches on each upper side of the fuselage yawn out into space, and it is through these hatches that the single guns point, swinging on their mounts. By the time a B-17 returns from a running fight, the floor is almost impossible to walk upon, flooded as it is with the dense rain of empty shell casings.
It is here, too, that the paradox of Fortress structural strength can easily be understood. This is the bomber that absorbs punishment like no other, that can be cut and slashed and torn and holed, and that will continue to fly. You might, then, think of the Fortress as a nearly impregnable machine with powerful ribs and frames and thick metal skin. It is not that at all, for with an easy push a man can jab a screw driver right through that metal. It is the brilliant interlocking of its main structural members that provides the Fortress’s great strength; the skin is only a surface membrane.
In the very stem of the heavy bomber, a cramped wedge that forms the blunt tip of the Fortress, is the tail gunner’s compartment. The gunner—who fires his twin machine guns in a kneeling position, with his knees on soft pads—actually flies beneath the trailing edge of the high rudder. His view of the world is not always the best; although he and the ball-turret gunner—if the time is available—can observe with satisfaction the results of bomb strikes, the tail gunner also has to face German fighters boring in, wings and noses alive with firing guns and cannon. And when the bombers stream the thick, white contrails far behind them, the tail gunner is liable to get bad eyestrain, for the German pilots have the clever trick of flying hidden from sight in the midst of the thick vapor trails, and breaking out at the last moment at point-blank range to open fire.
The B-17 is interlaced with control cables, heating lines, communications lines, and the oxygen system. In the air, the various parts of the big bomber become as a single entity, the connecting links acting as blood vessels and nerves, sinew and bone, eyes and ears, until the bomber is no longer a collection of many parts and her crew, but a single, living, breathing, flying, fighting creature. If it is not, if it is subjected to balky communications and rendered unable to function in this manner, survival in the most bitter arena of aerial battle is seriously compromised and perhaps lost beyond redemption.
As the rest of the crew move to their stations, the bombardier moves to attend to his own critical task on the ground. He climbs out on the narrow catwalk that spans the bomb bay. In one hand is a container that he handles with extraordinary, al-most painful care. In that container are the fuzes, the tiny little items that make bombs come alive. Without the fuzes the bombs are inert chunks of metal and chemicals. They can be kicked, pounded with hammers, or even dropped onto hard concrete—as they often are—with no further result than the crushing of a man’s foot if the bomb loader is unlucky.
Now the thousand-pounders are being transformed by the magic of those little fuzes. The bomb-bay doors are open, and the thick missiles hang by shackles in their racks. Beneath each airplane stands an armament sergeant. The bombardier hands down the box of fuzes, and the sergeant in turn hands up a wrench. Then they go to work, patiently, carefully. A fuze is inserted in the nose of a bomb, and tightened. Then another fuze is inserted in the tail, and that one, too, is tightened, until finally all the bombs are armed. Now they are horribly sensitive, and their steel casings have become the thinnest and weakest of eggshells.
No one ever bothers these two men. They are priests beyond the touch of mere mortals. Shortly before this mission, during the preparations for another raid, a Fortress on its hardstand suddenly disappeared. Instead of the bomber a searing flash of light existed, and then a shattering roar. Twenty-three men disappeared with the airplane, and the shock waves tore two more bombers on neighboring stands into pieces.
Outside the control tower rooms, on the railed balconies, the operational staffs congregate to stare out across the field. The overcast no longer seems quite so thick as it has been all night. The flying control officer at each field studies his watch. It is not time; not yet.
In the bombers the crews complete all preparations. Now they wait. This is the buffer period, the time for waiting in the airplanes when there is nothing left to do but wait. The second hands move around across the dials, and the men fidget and squirm in their uncomfortable clothing.
And then it is time. The flying control officer watches his second hand reach the exact moment, and he nods to a man standing nearby.
A two-pronged green flare arcs into the sky, sputtering and gleaming. It is the signal to start engines. At each dispersal stand the bombers come to life. Engines wheeze and grind and the propellers spin faster and faster; there comes the deep, coughing roar before the final clearing blast of smoke. Soon the bombers vibrate gently with the energy of four motors idling. It begins as a ragged, loose sound, and then ascends into a rich cry of power. For several moments the engines are pushed to full throttle. The pilot and co-pilot, and the engineer behind them, in each plane, run quickly through the final check list.
Across the turf at each airdrome bounces an ambulance. It takes its position meaningfully at the far end of the runway. Soon another joins it, and another. More vehicles move out along the runway where the bombers will rush into the sky. Wreckers, radio-equipped jeeps, fire trucks—every man hoping his time will be wasted.
In the lead bomber of Mission 115, until the moment that the Fortresses have assembled in group formation, Colonel Peaslee assumes the duties and status of co-pilot. He is three grades higher in rank than the man seated on his left. But as co-pilot in this particular B-17 Peaslee from now on does exactly as he is told by the captain. He can override McLaughlin only in the event that he thinks the airplane cannot take off.
The heavy bomber rolls forward; at the edge of the hard-stand McLaughlin tests the brakes. Exactly at H minus thirty minutes the B-17 rolls onto the taxi strip and turns. Ahead of the bomber, in the drizzle, a jeep cuts across the perimeter track.
The jeep drives exactly in the center of the strip, which is 75 feet wide. McLaughlin pays strict attention as he skillfully maneuvers the airplane down the strip.
The B-17 is a hulking shape in the light mist still falling from the low clouds. Behind the Fortress is another bomber, a large ghost; another is right behind it, and another, and another. Nose to tail, brakes squealing in protest, engines advancing and throttling back in power, they proceed in an ungainly and elephantine fashion. There comes a final squeal of brakes that punctuates the roar of engines and propellers, and the lines of bombers, each approaching the runway from a different direction, drag to a halt. Now the planes wait, engines idling.
Well behind the lead airplane with Peaslee and McLaughlin at the controls is a bomber that will never make Mission 115. The pilot has failed the test of taxiing his giant machine in the gray ness along the narrow taxiway, and the 30-ton bomber rests ignominiously in the mud, its gear hopelessly mired. For these ten men, the mission is already over in an unhappy and swift anti-climax. Soon the ground crews will swarm over and around the stricken Fortress. They will defuse the bombs, unload the finned cylinders and truck them back to the depot. The airplane will be jacked up and hauled away, to be returned to its hardstand where it will wait for the next mission.
Strangely, to those who have not flown these penetrations deep into the enemy’s country, the crew is far from elated at what potentially is their good fortune of assurance that Schweinfurt will not mark their final resting place. Rather, the ten men walk back to their bunks unhappy, ashamed at having let down their friends.
“They left a gap of a dozen defensive guns in the formation, and several tons of explosives would be missing from the tar-get,” explains Peaslee, recalling the incident. “There is a terrific sense of guilt associated with the failure to make a mission, whether failure is avoidable or not.”
For the rest of the crews in the bombers poised for take-off in England there is now another period of waiting as H-hour approaches. Everything is now resolved to the second hand of Time, The many airdromes are seemingly immobile, yet they are charged with a tension that is almost electric. Each airfield waits, impatiently, prepared and overanxious to disgorge a swarm of winged creatures of destruction.
The fate of 3,000 men is committed to one man.
In Pinetree, VIII Bomber Command Headquarters, General F. L. Anderson is surrounded by a glare that boils off bright lights overhead. He does not feel the cold and mist in which the Fortresses crouch; not with his eyes, perhaps, but clearly with his mind. In his mind he can see the thousands of men in the rain at the end of nineteen runways.
It is irrevocable. He must pronounce sentence at any moment. He must send the thousands out, knowing hundreds will not return. But there is still time, a little time in which to be sure.
The operational staffs pause almost to a man at their break-fast, glancing at the wall clocks, at each other. The ground crews wait fretfully; they will sweat out every plane, every take-off. All across the many airfields the cooks and the bakers, the motor-pool drivers and the mechanics. Doctors and technicians, clerks, the crews who are not flying this day. The British who work at the fields and nearby. The fighter pilots, the crews of rescue boats. All of them do one thing concurrently: they wait.
There are several colonels with the general. They walk up to him quietly, and speak briefly. They tell him of the weather conditions at the many bomber bases, and the weather is still lousy. It is border line; touch and go. That alone is a bitch; how many planes will be lost and how many men will die because of 30-ton bombers that skid, or drop a wing too close to the ground, or plunge into the trees? Once before, and not so long ago, 100 men disappeared in a blind flash....
The general waits for one final report. Hundreds of miles from where he sits, hundreds of miles from the bomber bases, high over the Continent, a fighter pilot in a weather reconnaissance ship takes a last look around. He presses a button on his radio microphone, and speaks a few words. The words.
Over a secret channel, into the room where the general waits, comes the message:
“The Continent is in the clear.”
This is what the general has needed to know. He raises a clenched fist, and his hand turns, and his thumb slowly turns to point upward.
In the shadowy cockpit of the lead B-17 of the 92d Group, with the visibility barely more than two thousand feet, Colonel Peaslee stares across the field. The radio jeep comes alive, and a bright green flare hisses into the air. At the same instant, from the control tower, another green flare, dimmed by distance, sputters through the mist.
Mission Number 115 is ON.
The throttles in the lead bomber move forward. The propellers spin faster and faster as fuel flow increases, and the roar becomes a bass scream that claws through the air.
Peaslee glances at his pilot, and the two men nod.
The lead bomber begins to roll.