USAAF Heavy Bomber Policy—Operation Thunderclap

In early 1945 Addison’s father mailed Addison a news article about his acquisition of the Pearsall Butter Company in Elgin, Illinois, along with a short note saying, “Just getting ready for after the war so you boys will have more to do.” The article read:

Mr. Bartush, who becomes president of the new company under the new ownership, is a figure of national prominence in the food industry. The story of his success is typically American—the story of a small town boy, raised in modest circumstances, who has risen to the top of his chosen field. Mr. Bartush is noted in the industry for two attributes: his rigid practice of maintaining highest quality in the foods his company produced, and the firm’s exceptionally considerate policy in regards to the employee family. Coming up through the food industry from a modest beginning in a corner grocery store, Bartush knows every job because he worked at it. The Detroit industrialist has been the guiding genius back of Shedd-Bartush for three decades.

Addison was justifiably proud of what his father had accomplished. “It was a large acquisition at the time,” he observed, “but there were even larger ones to follow. Pearsall Butter Company originated the butter package, that is, four wrapped sticks in a box. It is still used today.” Addison continued: “The company was mismanaged,” he explained. “They could not get enough vegetable oil to make oleo-margarine during the war and lost out to competitors.” Addison father’s prediction proved true—following the war Addison did run this company for a period.

Addison’s loneliness about being the only one he knew on a crew was cured by early to mid-January 1945. For one thing, flying with pilots that he had never trained with and who might be more or less unknown to him proved to be not that big of a deal. “We were all taught the same way,” he observed. “We all knew our respective jobs.” For another thing, Addison began to see personal benefit to himself in his role as a supply co-pilot: “It certainly gave me a lot of experience,” he observed, extolling the virtues of variety. “That is, in dealing with different people.” Finally, Addison found that there were some pilots and crews that he simply enjoyed flying with. “I did fly a number of missions with two other crews. I cannot recollect the pilot’s names after all these years, but I believe one was from Baltimore and the other from somewhere in California.”

In mid-January Addison flew a mission with a pilot he both liked and remembered, and aboard a bomber with a name that he could never forget: “Skunkface III.” The January 15 mission was to a marshalling yard at Ingolstadt.

“I remember Balaban,” Addison said about his pilot. “Chicago.” Addison related how Balaban was a famous name in that city. “They owned theaters,” he explained. “The previous week,” Addison recalled, “Balaban made an emergency landing in France. His plane had been all shot up. Balaban’s mission with me had to have been near his last. I enjoyed flying with him. I considered him lucky. As for this mission,” Addison continued, “I recollect it was a milk run.”

Addison’s recollection about it being an easy mission was correct. The Ingolstadt 324th post-mission squadron report stated “no flak,” “excellent fighter support” and “bombing results unobserved.”1 Skunkface III and 110 other B-17s made the attack using H2X radar. While the 324th passed over the target area without encountering flak, five other B-17s were damaged but with no casualties.2 The mission had a new aspect to it, however: a V-2 rocket was spotted on its way to England.3

“I saw one once but on a different mission I believe,” Addison said. “It was probably 15 or 20 miles away and we clearly saw it come up and arch towards England.” Addison told of flame and smoke. “It was their big rocket, no doubt.”

The Nazi terror-rocket campaign against England lasted approximately nine months and ended March 27, 1945, when the last rocket, a V-2, killed a 34-year-old housewife in her home. The V-1 rocket, the smaller “buzz bomb,” is attributed to have killed 6,184 persons and injured three times that number. The much larger V-2, that Addison witnessed in flight, was launched an estimated 3,000 times. With a ballistic trajectory of 50 miles high and an operational range of200 miles, the V-2 delivered a large (2,200 lb.) warhead. The V-2 reportedly killed 7,250 and wounded many more.4 A macabre fact about this weapon is that more human beings died producing it than were killed from its use. An estimated 20,000 slave laborers from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp assigned to the project perished from exhaustion, execution, disease and starvation.5

Allied airpower was unable to destroy a single “Meillerwagen” — the mobile launching pad that deployed the rocket to forested launch sites over country roads.6

While the V-1 and V-2s had little chance to change the outcome of the war, these “vengeance weapons” had a hand in causing a significant policy shift in USAAF bombing. The horror associated with these indiscriminate rocket weapons (the V-2 was supersonic and could not be heard on its approach) coupled with the horrible casualties and Nazi criminal behavior at the Battle of the Bulge, where the SS murdered approximately 100 American POWs, caused Roosevelt, after consultation with Churchill, to re-think the U.S. doctrine of precision bombing only military targets. Although Addison could not have known it at the time, he was to become an eyewitness participant, in 1945, to what later would be referred to as “the most destructive year in human history.”7 Much of this destruction was wrought from the air upon German civilian population centers by the USAAF.

Addison told of German rocket attacks at Bassingbourn. “Occasionally I would hear them,” he said, referring to the V-1 buzz bomb. “They made a chug, chug, chug sound. On one occasion, I heard one blow up in the distance. I also saw one once, that is, the flame coming out as it traveled past. We had a couple air raid shelters, but I never used them.” Addison explained that to the best of his knowledge Bassingbourn had been hit only once, and that was by a V-1 that exploded on the drill field prior to his arrival.

On at least one occasion Addison dined at the Cumberland Hotel in London. A note in his World War II document file indicates that a few weeks after this dinner, a rocket dropped in the park in front of the hotel on a Sunday morning and that three people were killed.8 Records show that this rocket had been a V-2, the date was March 18 and the time was 9:31 a.m. The rocket landed near Speaker’s Corner and blew out windows in the hotel. A large march by the National Fire Service had been scheduled to go through that area that afternoon. If the rocket had been fired a few hours later, thousands could have died.9 Londoners deemed the death of only three as “fortunate.”

Addison flew four combat missions in January—two against marshalling yards, one attacking an airfield and one assaulting a rail center, all clearly defined military targets. His mission on January 29, the attack on the rail center at Niederlahnstein-Koblenz had been again aboard Skunkface III and without casualties for the 91st. Things were looking up for Addison—January had been far easier than December.

As an aside, “Skunkface” proved to be an unlucky name. The original Skunkface was lost in February 1944 with two KIA. Skunkface II was transferred to a different bomb group in early 194410 and Skunkface III, the one that Addison flew on twice, was lost April 17, 1945 over Dresden with eight of its nine crewmen killed.

The 91st Bomb Group had a myriad of fanciful and sometimes ribald names for its airplanes, as did all of the bomb groups of that era. The name perhaps most clever was, “The Fuhrer the Better,” which belonged to the 322nd Squadron. The planes assigned to the 324th Squadron tended to be named on the tame side. “Extra Special,” “Shure Shot,” “Ah’s Available,” “Terry’s Tiger,” “Lorraine,” “Klette’s Wild Hares” and (uniquely) “Chippewa The Milwaukee Road” are but a few examples. Paul Lynch noted that the less-than-raunchy appellations attributed to his squadron did not result from Klette being a preacher’s son. “The 324th was just a group of decent fellows,” he remarked proudly.

Nose art turned into a competition of sorts between aircrews. Addison brought back with him a photograph of a B-17 named “Rhapsody in Red,” that had on it a well-done painting of a pretty lady dressed just enough to be respectable. This was not the situation with all aircraft nose art, however.

It turned out that “Rhapsody in Red” would be the bomber on which former Bishop crewmember Earl Sheen would perform a life-saving act. Also this aircraft would finish out the war in a very memorable fashion, only to be retired and ingloriously junked in Kingman, Arizona, following almost two years of continuous combat.11

As January 1945 came to a close, Addison received two letters from Dave Bishop’s sister, Pearl, posted in the middle of the month, days apart. The first letter conveyed bad news and the second good news. These letters typify what ordinary folk went through on a very imposing scale in World War II.

January 17, 1945

Dear Lt. Bartush,

We received word today that the engineer, Sgt Cumings, was killed. We were so sorry to hear it, and it makes us that much more anxious to hear something from David. We got another letter from the War Department today. They just said that they haven’t found him yet. They said his name was not on the prisoners list. We were so glad you were not on that mission. We have an uncle, who lives in Detroit, so I asked him to find your Dad and he did. He gave us the information about you . . .

David really did think lots of you. He often spoke of you in his letters. In fact he was well pleased with the whole crew . . . I know you can’t write us some things due to Army regulations but do write us anyway. Then you can tell us anything that you’re allowed. We would like to hear from you so much.

January 20, 1945

Dear Lt. Bartush,

We just received a telegram from the War Department saying that David is a German prisoner . . . We are just thrilled.

Addison related what it was like to fly a B-17, indicating that the controls were light and not sluggish. “Pretty good,” he said, describing how the Boeing-built aircraft handled. “The plane responded.” Addison pointed out that the bomber was considerably easier to fly after the bomb load had been dropped, however. “Much of the fuel was consumed at that point,” Addison added, “which also made it easier. The long climb to altitude burned a lot of fuel.” Regarding the bomb drop itself, he noted: “Up we went, like an elevator.”

Long mission flights in or back while not near enemy airspace, or training flights provided the opportunity to listen to the Armed Forces Radio Service or the BBC. “Our radio system was unusual,” Addison observed. “We could put it on in our airplane, and when we had the direction finder going it would switch back and forth and we never knew where the signal was coming from, that is, where it was being transmitted from. This kept the Germans from homing in.” He added that when it wasn’t news it was entertainment. Comedy was popular during this era, with American stars like Jack Benny, Groucho Marx and the duo of Burns and Allen being in demand by the USAAF.

On a number of occasions co-pilot Addison was called upon to take over from the pilot. “Not usually during the combat [bomb drop] but often on the way in or out.”

The relief tube near to the flight deck could be problematic: “We had a hose with a funnel on it but I didn’t use it because it froze at altitude.” Addison then smiled mischievously: “And if one did use it and forgot to tell the ball turret gunner to turn around he might get it in the face!” He laughed and added: “It was used only at low altitude and generally speaking we were able to hold it.” Addison then posed an out-of-the-ordinary question: had the practice of retention for long mission periods been unhealthy for him in later life?

As an aside, the Army Separation Qualification Record issued to Addison following the war stated, “Flew 31 combat missions and 238 combat hours.” Doing the math, that averaged to a mission length of 7.7 hours. The actual average time per mission may have been somewhat less however, because some of his combat hours were for missions that were aborted. This document supports the contention that Addison did experience many time-consuming flights. Whether this may have impacted his health in later life is unknown.

Addison did not question another malady known to afflict bomber crewmen years later, probably because it never afflicted him: deafness.

Addison had been fortunate in that he never experienced a really close call during a combat mission landing. “One time we had to go around again because we weren’t sure all the wheels were properly locked,” he related. He allowed, however, how this had not been a crisis situation. He never had to return aboard a plane made hazardous to fly by battle damage.

Landing in extremely cold winter conditions could be a challenge for any airplane in that era. Slush picked up on takeoff could freeze into a solid block of ice, locking wheels in an upright position for the return. This was particularly a problem with the B-24 Liberators produced by Consolidated Aircraft, and later Ford Motor Company; that model of aircraft also struggled with a hydraulic system that became sluggish and unresponsive in extremely cold weather. B-17s used electroserver motors instead of hydraulics and were better suited for winter high-altitude flying. Addison believed his B-17 to be the superior bomber, its slower speed and slightly lower payload capacity notwithstanding.

The winter of 1944–45 in Europe was more severe than usual. “One of the earlier missions I was on, just across the river from Cologne, there was a 60-mile-an-hour winter headwind,” Addison said. “Our actual speed over the ground was only 90 miles per hour.” With the temperature hovering at near minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit at 24,000 feet, the crew managed to finish the job. “Fortunately, it wasn’t a long mission,” he explained. “We were able to hit the target and get back.” He confirmed that the waist gunners probably had it worst because of winter winds. Exposure to the elements at the large open gun ports was unavoidable.

Addison told of an occasion when a flak shell passed through a wing and failed to explode, leaving a large hole that looked like an Easter lily made of aluminum petals. Addison did not feel the impact. “We were passing through a flak field,” Addison explained, “and I looked out to the right and saw the damage after it had been done. I shouted [into the intercom] ‘My God! There’s a hole in our wing!’ “ He added: “I smelled gasoline.”

“No smoking on the way home,” he chuckled, shaking his head at the incredible memory. “It was a self-sealing tank,” he explained. “Rubberized.” The German 88 shell had a diameter of 3.5 inches. This would tear a large hole in a wing, indeed.

“I saw small holes caused by flak fragments and also cracks in the Plexiglas. I saw that, yes,” Addison said, but he also had the good fortune never to see a crewmember wounded by one of these flying shards or get hit himself. “I remember one of the guys who I bunked with, kind of a character, who wanted a Purple Heart because a piece of Plexiglas nicked him on the chin and he bled a little.” Addison chortled at the remembrance. “He was from Maine.” Asked if this man received the decoration, Addison replied: “I don’t think so. You need a little more than that.”

A glimmer crossed Addison’s face as he remembered a close call. “There was one time,” he recounted, “when I grabbed the controls without asking and put us in an emergency dive.” After a pause, he explained: “We were approaching the target, and there was this airplane, my God, I could have almost touched it! I shoved the wheel down. I don’t know if the pilot knew what I had done or what was going to happen.”

Addison’s decisive action in taking control of the airplane in an emergency situation is what the author Tom Wolfe described in his book The Right Stuff. “Oh, yes!” Addison blurted for emphasis. “We’d have not been here.” The intensive psychological testing that the Army Air Forces had put Addison through in Nashville, Tennessee, to see how he might react in an unexpected crisis situation had in this instance paid off. That and the training, training and more training that he received. By his spontaneous action Addison had avoided disaster.

Addison reported that his gunners engaged often, “particularly in some of my early missions,” and most particularly in his first mission to Merseburg. The vibration from firing guns would reach the cockpit, but not always from the far away tail gun. Regarding the tail gun position, Addison noted that there was a tail gunner door, an escape portal, on the G model, but that the earlier F version had none. “For structural reasons there could not be one,” he explained about the earlier model. The tail section bore considerable stress even in normal, non-combat, flying, he pointed out, and a door there was not at first possible. And getting into and out of the tail gun position was itself a challenge. First, a large rear wheel strut stood in the middle of the airplane partly blocking the passageway to the tail section, and second and even more cumbersome to traverse, the tapered fuselage became progressively narrow towards the end of the bomber. One had to crawl through a contracting tunnel to enter a very confined space and wiggle out the same way. When Addison talked about this the expression he wore was serious. Undoubtedly he was thinking about his lost friend, Owen Monkman, and the model that he flew on. Addison identified what he thought was the second most dangerous position on the ship: “The ball turret was tiny and the gunner had to get up and out quickly,” he said.

A manual reported a 267 mph maximum airspeed for a B-17 but upon hearing this Addison disagreed: “I don’t buy it,” he asserted. “More like 150 mph or maybe a little faster.” Technology was primitive in World War II compared to today. The slow-moving aerial leviathans from World War II had no ability to quickly extricate themselves from harm’s way. And B-17s and B-24s did not operate together in formation. The B-17 could fly higher, and the B-24, faster; to combine the two operationally would weaken the overall capability of both.

Addison never saw the 88mm ground flak batteries that shot at him. “I recall seeing flak towers,” he said, “but at quite a distance.” The Germans erected numerous enormous reinforced concrete towers in population centers to serve the dual purpose of supporting heavy (128mm) anti-aircraft guns on top and providing civilians with bomb shelters within. Bombs that exploded on the ground near these towers might not take out or damage the artillery on top of them because of the angle, and the thick walls at the tower bases were built to sustain powerful nearby explosions. All of the towers survived the war, and afterward proved so hard to demolish, even with tons of carefully placed explosives, that several still exist to this day.

Addison mentioned once jettisoning a bomb load into the English Channel. “I flew as the pilot one time and we got recalled,” he added, smiling proudly. “And I got credit for a combat mission.”

Addison also told how after hostilities ceased he went into the bomb group map room and helped himself to one of everything that he could find. “I boxed them up and mailed them home,” Addison recalled, obviously pleased that he had done this. “I knew they would never be used again.” The maps were all standardized at 25 by 30 inches in size to fit the navigator’s table, and were brightly colored—dark blue for lakes and rivers, bright red for highways, and light green for forested or rural areas. The maps were works of art.

One of these maps was used for Berlin, where Addison would fly to on Saturday, February 3, 1945. On that day he and many thousands of other U.S. airmen struck the heart of the Third Reich as part of a new mission-strategy codenamed Operation Thunderclap—the largest raid ever to hit Berlin. It happened that the 91st Bomb Group was designated group leader for this attack and would be the first over the target. This raid ushered in a change in heavy bomber policy in Europe for the U.S. Army Air Forces; it foreshadowed the U.S. participation in the raid on Dresden and other central city-bombings.

Addison would not have known it at the time but a far-reaching decision had been made in Washington, D.C. The Germans, who had fought aggressively and ferociously in two world wars, were about to be punished in a special manner that would, or so it was thought, make them forever renounce war as a means for advancing their national interest. At least that was the hope of the U.S. President and the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Due to planned periods of rest, on average Addison flew a combat mission every five days. The Luftwaffe, by contrast did not have the luxury of advance planning. The only rest available for German pilots was caused by weather or lack of fuel.—Advantage: USAAF.

On January 27, 1945, just a week before the Berlin raid in which Addison participated, the Red Army overran the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, and reports soon began circulating about the Nazi genocide. On that day the BBC reported “. . . gas chambers capable of killing 6,000 people a day.” There is no record linking the Auschwitz news reports to the change in U.S. strategic bombing policy, and in fact the planning for Operation Thunderclap was done well before Auschwitz was liberated. But the information coming out of Auschwitz surely would have steeled the heart of any commander-in-chief. It would take many years for historical researchers to piece together exactly what happened at Auschwitz, but with the liberation of the camp it became apparent that the Nazis under cover of war had exterminated most of a human race in Eastern Europe, and they had done so by using insect poison. Auschwitz made it psychologically easier for the leadership of the United States to pull the “moral trigger” on the people of Nazi Germany through Operation Thunderclap.

What was about to be done would not be publicly revealed for years to come, and only then at the prodding of reporters and research done by objective historians. The argument can be made though, that even if what was about to happen had been publicly revealed at the time, by 1945 the American public was so desensitized to the horrors of war that it would have made little protest. All that was desired at home and in the theatre of war was a swift conclusion to the bloody struggle; if that meant inflicting new and greater horrors on the enemy, then so be it.

There existed another reason for the United States to change its longstanding heavy bomber policy away from hitting only military specific targets. As the European war entered its final stage, the world political and military situation had evolved, and an atmosphere of distrust had settled in. As the leaders of the Allied powers prepared for their February 1945 Yalta Conference, the Soviets knew that they had borne the largest suffering and sacrifice, and believed their Western allies were angling for spoils not earned. On the other side, the Americans and British feared they were dealing with a dictator little different from Adolf Hitler. The Soviets had the largest modern army ever assembled; the Americans and the British had a huge strategic heavy bomber force that continued to grow through breakneck industrial production and the training of new airmen. The Americans and British were concerned that the Red Army might attempt to conquer Europe. As one scholarly commentator drolly understated: “Some Allied officers thought the raids in eastern Germany might serve the additional purpose of impressing the Soviet Union.”12 The real issue was: how would these raids be conducted to impress? Or perhaps more accurately phrased: to deter?

The family concern over Addison’s state of mind eased somewhat during this time. There is no demonstrative letter to show this, but the tone of the letters Addison received during this period are generally relaxed. Emotions seemed to be settling down somewhat on the home front, and reading these letters one can only surmise that this was caused by Addison writing home more frequently and positively.

On January 21 Addison’s teenage sister wrote to him: “Who do you think rang the doorbell? It was Jack Shea” [a college buddy of Addison’s]. She reported that Jack wanted to go overseas and added, quaintly: “I thought it might be someone to see me but it was just him.” On February 1 Addison’s mother mailed him a short unsigned note: “Dear Son: ‘Chicken Paprikash’ is a good Hungarian dish. The Hungarian Village is noted for it.” Her hastily scribbled note was done on the reverse side of an invitation to the Detroit Athletic Club “Bowlers Ladies Party” at a cost of $15 per couple. The invitation read: “A novel and unique favor for the ladies.”

For Addison’s part, by the end of January 1945, he had 12 missions under his belt and was a third of the way through his tour. And had he perhaps added a little “swagger” to his step at this point? After all, “green” replacement crews had to have been then arriving at Bassingbourn at regular, planned, intervals. Surely such “rookie” crews would look upon a veteran of 12 combat missions as someone to be respected! That was generally the way it worked in the USAAF in World War II. An airman wearing the Air Medal ribbon denoting five combat missions completed was someone to be looked up to. And for Addison, he now had more than the ribbon; he wore an oak leaf cluster on it, representing five additional missions (every succeeding five missions completed authorized the wearing of another cluster).

Not only was Father Ragan’s support of immense help during his rocky start, but Addison’s faith also helped to sustain him during his tenure at Bassingbourn, and he made time for the observance of it in his regular schedule. “They had a small chapel on base,” Addison volunteered. “I visited it after every mission and made a prayer of thanks.”

The war was again going well for the Americans, which had to have additionally boosted Addison’s spirits. The Battle of the Bulge had been won, and U.S. ground forces were again on the move. On January 31, 1945, the XVIII Airborne Corps penetrated the Buchholz forest—progress was again being made against the enemy.13 One of the headlines of a Stars and Stripes newspaper that Addison brought home from this period reported in bolded headline: “German Armor Pulling Back.”14

The American air war was about to take an ominous new course, however, one that paralleled what the British had been doing all along.15 RAF Bomber Command under the direction of Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris had been area-bombing German cities as early as May 1942, when Cologne was attacked in “Operation Millennium,” the first 1,000-plane heavy bomber raid of the war. Other similar nighttime British attacks on urban areas followed; the most publicized being the Battle of Hamburg in August 1943, codenamed, chillingly, “Operation Gomorrah.” An estimated 42,600 German civilians died as a result of this British bombing assault; another 37,000 were wounded.16 Until February 3, 1945, the United States refrained from the direct bombing of German population centers.

Heretofore Addison and his bomb group had been ordered to press attacks on military targets only, e.g., synthetic oil plants, marshalling yards, rail targets, manufacturing plants, airfields and the like. To this list they were about to be told to add a new target classification or category: “administrative headquarters.” The problem was that “administrative headquarters” were most often located in the center of a city. When used as “aiming points,” as they were, the collateral damage could be, and was, significant.

Even with the Pathfinder system and new radar navigation techniques, in 1945 the bombs themselves were still “dumb.” Lacking a navigational guidance system, they just fell downwards when released from an airplane, and when dropped from 24,000 feet, even in perfect weather conditions, their impact often resulted in unintended consequences. The first bombers to arrive on scene, however, had an aiming advantage. If the weather was clear they could spot and hit their assigned target. For the bombers that followed in the middle-to-rear sections of a long bomber stream, the sighting conditions were much more difficult. These bombers encountered heavy smoke and dust and debris billowing up from the ground that were pushed in every direction by winds of conflagration. Suffice to say, target identification could be challenging.

An academic commentator, Professor Ronald Schaffer, 40 years after the war wrote about the USAAF rationale for Operation Thunderclap. Designed to be a series of missions over cities in eastern Germany (cities about to be occupied by Soviet forces),Operation Thunderclap was not the name of any single combat mission but rather a closing series of strikes intended as “. . . a climatic psychological warfare campaign in which massive bombings would panic civilians, who would clog roads and railroads and make it impossible for German troops facing the Soviet army to bring up supplies and reinforcements or retreat in an orderly way.”17

With regard to the February 3, 1945 raid over Berlin that commenced Operation Thunderclap, this professor wrote:

As General Spaatz’s headquarters made final preparations, General Doolittle, the commander of the Eighth Air Force which would have to fly the mission to Berlin, explained to Spaatz why he did not like this operation at all. American planes would have to pass in range of hundreds of heavy anti-aircraft guns to reach an area where there would be no really important military targets. The raid would not succeed even as a terror attack because German civilians would have ample warning to take shelter. Besides, terror was induced by fear of the unknown, not by intensifying what the people of Berlin had experienced for years. And Thunderclap, which would be one of the last and therefore presumably best remembered operations of the war, would “violate the basic American principle of precision bombing of targets of strictly military significance for which our tactics were developed and our crews trained and indoctrinated. “18

Addison remembered seeing Tempelhof Airport on the way in to Berlin on February 3, but that was not his squadron’s target. A commentator wrote: “The bomber stream was so long it stretched from Holland all the way to Berlin.”19 The following day, Addison’s father, assuming correctly that Addison was in this raid, mailed Addison an article from the Detroit Free Press that had this headline: Sky Train Stretches 300 Miles—Fighter Diversion Stuns Defenses.

Traveling at approximately 150 mph, by Addison’s estimate, the bombing of Berlin took two hours to complete, start to finish, give or take. The mission had been planned that way; that is, to employ an extremely long, slow-moving column.

A diversion was used to fool the Luftwaffe and it worked. The Detroit Free Press article explained that 900 U.S. fighters had escorted 400 B-24 Liberator bombers on a raid over Madgeburg, a city some 65 miles southwest of Berlin. The Liberators returned home while the fighters proceeded on to Berlin in a swift protective shuttle, cutting down fighter opposition to the incoming B-17s. The German air defenders took the bait, and assumed incorrectly that Madgeburg was the primary target. 3,000 tons of bombs rained down on center city Berlin from approximately 1,000 Flying Fortresses. An estimated 25,000 Berliners died in this raid due primarily to inaccurate bombing.20

The Detroit Free Press article continued:

It was the 204th raid of the war on Berlin, and brought the total of bombs dropped there to nearly 50,000 tons—seven times the amount the Germans dumped on London during the aerial battle of Britain.

“It was a clear day. I remember going after certain important buildings,” Addison said. “One was a communications center, I do believe. My squadron was the first one in.” Reports show that other squadrons had been assigned to hit the Nazi party headquarters building, rail yards and the Tempelhof marshalling yard.

With the passage of time this Berlin raid became controversial. In 1981 the editors of Time-Life Books published this about the attack:

The raid was directed at rail yards and other transportation targets, but many of the bombs fell on government buildings at the center of the city. Later, Spaatz admitted that his Fortresses had bombed indiscriminately, “making no effort to confine ourselves to military targets. “21

Asked if he agreed with the Time-Life Books assessment, Addison bristled. “We were going after specific buildings,” he affirmed. “And I remember seeing pictures of the buildings at the briefing.” He also added: “We were not going after libraries or hospitals.”

Being part of the lead squadron over Berlin, Addison had not witnessed the smoke and dust on the ground. He saw something else happen right in front of him, however, something that would stay with him for the rest of his life. A historian for the 91st recorded:

The lead aircraft flown by Lt. Frank L. Adams and with Lt. Col. Marvin D. Lord, group leader for the mission, in the co-pilot’s seat was hit about ten seconds after bombs away. A direct hit took place in the waist which resulted in the disintegration of the aircraft. The tail section of the plane floated back through the formation and the nose section dived. There were no survivors. 22

The loss of this lead aircraft was a particular tragedy for Manny Klette. Due to a forecast of foul weather made the day before, the mission had been cancelled and Klette had been given permission to go to London to see his fiance. After he left for London the weather forecast changed for the better and the mission was rapidly rescheduled. Lt. Col. Lord volunteered to take Klette’s place in leading the mission to downtown Berlin. Manny Klette lived; the rest of his crew perished.23

In addition to the loss of the lead aircraft, another B-17 from the 324th Squadron was shot down that day. The second plane’s crew parachuted safely and all survived to become prisoners of war.

Operation Thunderclap commenced over Berlin without U.S. aircrews being aware that it represented a change in USAAF strategic bombing policy, and Professor Schaffer had this to say about the effect of the change: “Thunderclap did not push Germany over the brink.” Schaffer pointed out that this raid and subsequent attacks on populated areas did not cause the German army to stop fighting. Later in life, Paul Lynch, having been in Nazi Germany when Operation Thunderclap continued, would agree: “I think it pulled the German people closer together,” he said. Did the February 3 USAAF raid on Berlin “impress” the Soviet Union? That question is difficult to answer.

The 324th Squadron report (“claims, casualties and battle damage remarks”) prepared immediately after this mission is a testament to the fog of war. In seeming conflict with each other, pilots reported both “unobserved bombing results” and “good hits on target.” Four chutes were noted coming out of the lead B-17 whereas in reality there were none. And as for “the second ship lost”? The report misidentified the name of its pilot.24 Undoubtedly the pilots who provided input for this report had to have been under incredible stress at the time of their debriefings.

On Rhapsody in Red that day, one of the young men Addison had trained with in Gulfport and who had flown with Addison across the Atlantic, the “tall thin guy,” the toggelier and waist gunner Earl Sheen, had done something special. Sheen died in 1997, never having told his family about it. They learned about it five years after his death when the following email surfaced among survivors of the 91st Bomb Group:

A question was posted on the Ring last week regarding information about Earl Sheen. Nobody seemed to recall too much about him other than he was from the 324th and he came from Idaho. I feel guilty that I can’t contribute anything more, for I believe he saved my life. I suppose we’re all tired of war stories now, but I hope I may be forgiven if I tell this one, if only as a tribute to Earl Sheen, wherever he may be. I met him just once, and that was inside the nose of a 17 on the morning of February 3, 1945, on our way to Berlin, my 35th mission. He was the toggelier, and I the navigator We were in the #2 ship alongside the squadron lead ship which was leading the entire wing that day. Over target at bombs away, a burst of flak demolished the lead ship, breaking it in half at the waist [and] shortly thereafter we lost the #3 ship. We were the only ship left in the lead element. I didn’t know that the hose between my mask and the oxygen regulator had been severed by flak. When I failed to respond to a call from the pilot, Sheen turned around and saw me slumped on the floor. He had the presence of mind to realize that I had passed out from lack of oxygen. I’ll never know how long I was out, but he revived me by connecting me to one of those walk around oxygen bottles. We didn’t talk much about it afterward. It had been a rough mission. After we landed, Sheen disappeared to take care of cleaning his guns, and I didn’t feel too much like celebrating the completion of my tour, as the base was quiet as a tomb. We all had been close to the guys who had gone down that day. The next afternoon, I left Bassingbourn. From time to time over the next 50 years, I thought of the guy, but regrettably did nothing about trying to locate him. Last week his name popped up in the Ring, and it rang a bell in my mind. Ding, dong. I checked the loading list for my last mission, Berlin, Feb 3, and there was his name. So a long belated thanks from the bottom of my heart, BOMB TG Sgt. Sheen, Earl J. 39919847, old buddy, wherever you may be. Contact me for free beer tomorrow. Sam Halpert.

Survivors of the 91st delivered Halpert’s tribute to Sheen’s son, Jay. Paul Lynch said that RJ Miller informed him of Sheen’s act after the war.

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