It started on April 8, 1944, at a dinner to which 41st Bomb Wing Commander Bob Travis had invited his three group commanders serving in Great Britain at the time.
I nodded, and as usual my stomach contracted as I realized I would soon be flying over Germany.
“It’s my turn,” I responded, my heart heavy in my chest. Although I’d participated in twelve missions, each one presented a dreadful terminal prospect, and I hadn’t become fatalistic enough to take it impersonally.
Departing without further discussion, I drove the fifteen or so miles to Grafton Underwood. There, I went directly to my office at the 384th Group operations blockhouse, an austere reinforced concrete structure half underground.
I crawled into the sack at 1:15 a.m., only to be awaked at 4:30 by the jangle of a telephone from ops. hastily dressing in the frigid hut, I emptied my pockets and deposited the contents along with my West Point ring in the old dresser. Then I drove the beat-up Plymouth staff car with dim blackout lights to the officers’ mess.
Pre-dawn BriefingNext stop was the large briefing room. The crews were waiting as I strode up the aisle with as much confidence and insouciance as I could muster. All stood to attention, sort of. Leaping onto the low stage (taking care not to trip), I turned and said:
“At ease, gentlemen. Be seated.
“There’s a bonus. The Eighth Air Force hit this same plane last October, and it’s taken until now to get it back on line. To celebrate the occasion, Intelligence tells us, Hermann Goring will be there. we’ll strike just about the time he’s make to his speech.
“Now here it is!”
Reacting to the distant target, four hundred or so men lounging in leather flight jackets and fifty-mission caps filled the room with whistles, cat calls, and groans. I stepped down and took my seat by the aisle. There I found a small chart indicating the routes I was to follow, along with diagrams of our formations with aircraft numbers, call signs, and the names of pilots, leaders, and deputies.
Ops briefed on formations, assembly, routes, and rendezvous. Intelligence on flak and enemy fighters. Armament on bomb load and ammo. Communications covered frequencies, call signs, and gave us a time hack. Weather gave us the latest guess, and it still looked very bad over England. Layers of broken clouds to 12,000 feet. Target briefing had been held earlier for lead navigators and bombardiers.
Next stop was the personal equipment room where we suited up with electrically heated underwear and boots. Over the wired long johns we wore summer flying suits and the usual leather jackets. I wrapped a large piece of black-dyed parachute silk around my neck and donned a warm leather helmet with build-in earphones. Next came a Mae West life vest and chest chute harness. I packed an A-3 bag with my detachable barrel chute, flak vest, electrically heated gloves, and a rebreather oxygen mask. An intelligence officer handed me an escape kit, which fit in the knee pocket of my flying suit and included a silk waterproof map of Europe, German marks, a compass, and other useful items.
On Screaming Eagle’s pad I met Capt. Earl T. Allison and his crew, who would man the lead ship of the formation. Allison had proved himself an outstanding pilot and leader, having been one of the few 384th pilots who refused to abort in bad weather on the March 6 mission to Berlin. He’d fly and I’d ride in the copilot’s seat while his own copilot would take the tail gunner’s position and report to me on formation dispositions and other matters. Thus, I would have eyes in the back of my head. Allison’s navigator would assist Chapin in the nose, but his bombardier would stand down while Crown took his place.
Start engines was signaled with a yellow-red flare from the control tower. We kept scrupulous radio silence. No sense in advertising our mission any sooner than necessary. Seconds before the flares popped, we wound up our whining inertial starters so that when the flares blossomed the first forty big Pratt & Whitney engines coughed into life. We liked that precision.
Ahead was a low broken overcast with ominous scud on the horizon at the end of the runway. I exchanged worried glances with Earl Allison as we studied the sky. It was going to be touchy enough getting the overloaded Fort into the air. And now we’d be on instruments even before our wheels were up.
Screaming Eagle accelerated sluggishly with its great load, and the end of the runway was almost upon us when she broke ground. I quickly raised the gear and began monitoring the flight instruments as the low clouds enfolded us.
The route out had us zigzagging from one point to another as we climbed, with certain tracks designated for forming with the other two air groups of eighteen in order to complete the wing combat box of fifty-four. Spares tagged along to take the place of any ships that had to abort. But all this complicated flying also required good weather. I knew we’d never get formed by following the plan and that I’d have to find a clear area between cloud decks and circle there. this would require breaking radio silence. It was either that or abort the whole mission.
At Ten AngelsAt point B a few stray birds tacked on to our formation, but the clouds were still too thick for any reasonable assembly. On studying the sky I realized I’d have to climb to 10,000 feet to get in the clear. That would be 4,000 feet above our departure altitude, and it would waste precious gas. I told the Cowboys that I’d circle over Splasher 4 (a radio beacon) at ten angels firing red-red flares. Up we went, and I could almost feel the fuel pouring into our laboring engines. On arrival over the splasher beacon we found the air filled with a vast whirlpool of circling bombers. Other wings had, of course, run into the same problem.
Our engineer fired red-red flares as fast as he could from the top turret. After two great circles, losing more fuel (a circle took about ten minutes for a combat wing), the tail gunner counted a box of fifty Forts tacked onto us, including strays from three other groups. That was enough to go to war, and we headed out over the sparkling North Sea.
Mission strategy was to cross the Danish peninsula at its base near Kiel. There we were to rendezvous with P-47s from VIII Fighter Command who would give us cover over the crossing as proceeded east.
I passed this to Bob Chapin who, with his assistant, began to work out new withdrawal tracks and refigure fuel consumption. Even doing it this way would be a tight squeeze. I instructed our radio operator to inform Eighth Air Force in code of my intentions, hoping they would dispatch all the fighters available to help us recross the Jutland peninsula.
Being about forty minutes late at the rendezvous with Vinegrove (our Little Friends), we missed them. But, wonder of wonders, we didn’t’ see a single enemy fighter as we sailed across the peninsula. I learned later that those wings behind us didn’t fare as well and got into lively scraps. Weaving our way through some sporadic flak we continued out over the Baltic.
Sweden loomed in the distant mist to our left as we droned steadily deeper into enemy country. We made landfall near Danzig after climbing to 15,000 feet. There was no flak. This was going to be a piece of cake. Hermann the German would be surprised to find us hunting him so far east of Berlin.
There was some scattered and very inaccurate flak on the wing assembly after bombs away. Bursts dirtied the sky as much as a half mile behind us. the Home Guard must have been manning those guns. I laughed with relief. At this point we hadn’t lost a single Fort.
Chapin came on the interphone to say that we had enough fuel to make it to England, but just. He doubted that following aircraft could all make it to base, however, and suggested we make landfall at Great Yarmouth, the nearest English turf. An RAF base was nearby. That sounded good. If my fuel was low, the others were bound to be in worse shape because more fuel is consumed by flying formation than by leading. It’s the frequent jockeying of the throttles that draws down the gas while the leader can fly at a constant throttle setting.
But no! Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, commanding the Eighth, had not been asleep. Suddenly the tables were turned. The General had dispatched almost every fighter in England to rendezvous with us near Kiel. The skies erupted with Little Friends diving out of the low western sun like the US Cavalry coming to the rescue. It was a donnybrook the likes of which I had never seen. There were no more Luftwaffe attacks on us. German airmen were fighting for their lives, and losing. The sky was lit by one exploding fighter after another.
Within twenty minutes we had passed beyond the battle and found the North Sea beneath us. Now came the frantic and forlorn calls from one pilot after another. “We’re low on gas.” “Don’t think we can make it.” “What’ll we do?”
Then I prayed.
Eighth Air Force “Report of Operations, 9 April 1944” shows two combat wings of the 1st Bomb Division, 41A and 41B, attacking the Marienburg targets. Only three losses are indicated, which means the following wing lost one. However, because of the mixture of Forts from several groups in each air wing and because many landed away from home base, it is doubted that the official report is very accurate.
Wings bombing other targets suffered worse than 41A and 41B. a total of thirty-two bombers was lost, thirteen from “unknown causes.” Some of these must have ended in the cold North Sea. Oddly, no mention of this in the official report. Nor is there any note of the sweat we had with fuel consumption. I suppose the staff officers who wrote the report didn’t consider this too significant.
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