Mary Ruth Memories of Mobile...We Still Remember
Chapter One - Another Time, Another Place--Lady Lois, Little Jean
The bare 100-watt overhead bulb flashes on. Jagged shadows scurry across barren rafters lining the stark ceiling. A metal-on-wood grating sound accompanies the dissonant screeching of rusty springs as the folding stairs are pulled down. Wooden steps creak under the weight of heavy feet. Someone is coming up to the attic, the first time in over two years.
"Oh my God! Would you look at all this clutter, Jim. Why didn't she just throw it away instead of lugging it up here for us to haul back down again?" "You know Mom, Bets. Never could throw anything away. Thought she might need it someday. Dad always said he didn't want to outlive her and have to clean out the attic." They sound older and wearied, but I still recognize them, the twins, Betsy and Jim. The last time I heard them they were the vibrant voices of youth leaving for college and the world beyond.
They slowly scuffle through the disarray--old lamps with dented paper shades, a wire magazine holder, cracked crochet mallets falling from their wobbly wooden stand, an old red paint-chipped tricycle, an equally scarred blue 16-inch boy's bicycle, a conglomeration of sagging cardboard boxes filled with tattered toys, faded baby clothes, frayed childrenfs books, tired old dolls, and tangled Christmas decorations. A life-time accumulation of family relics. The shuffling approaches. I feel the touch of a hand, less soft than the last time. "Would you look at this, Jim. She even kept the old waffle iron. I figured it had given up the ghost and been tossed years ago. Remember the Sunday morning ritual--waffles, sausage and fried eggs?" "Yep, even remember how exciting it was that first morning we came down and Mom was fixing real waffles--just like we ordered at Mildred's Sunrise Cafe. Wonder if it still works? Take it down and see. We can't get into cleaning this out until tomorrow anyway."
So we leave the attic. Being careful not to drop me, Betsy backs down the stairs to the garage. Into the kitchen. Haven't been here for 15 years or so. Quite a few changes. A new tile floor. Different curtains on the windows. New pictures and potted plant holders on the walls, fluorescent light fixtures instead of the old white incandescent globes, a new stove and refrigerator, and she finally got a dish washer! The walls are cream instead of white, but the cabinets and counter top are still the same. Plugged in the wall socket, we wait a few minutes. "Must be burned out, Bets. Don't feel any heat." That's OK. I have felt more heat than anyone should ever have to experience. Much of the heat that I felt was in another time, in another place, when I was a part of something much more formidable, something much more momentous, something much more noble than a mere waffle iron. Decades ago, before I became a part of this family's traditional Sunday morning breakfast, the metal used to make this serene kitchen appliance had been a part of a large complex instrument of war.
The first time I felt heat was after arriving in the refinery at Hurricane Creek, Arkansas from the bauxite mine over in Saline County. The reddish brown ore was dumped into digesters heated to 200 F to remove the "Red Mud" impurities. From there it was into immense precipitator tanks to form crystallized alumina. Next were the 2,000 F rotator kilns, out of which came purified white powder alumina. Then, on to the smelting plant at nearby Jones Mill and into large 1,800 F electronic cells. Molted aluminum spewed from the cells into 50 pound ("Pigs") and 1,000 pound ("Sows") ingot molds. After cooling, the ingots were loaded onto railroad cars and rushed to a sundry of manufacturing plants in and around Seattle, Washington. Once again I felt heat as some of the ingots were melted down and poured into a myriad of molds. Others were heated and rolled out into thin sheets that were cut into a multitude of uniquely shaped pieces. The results, hundreds of parts, some small, some large.
These aluminum pieces, along with more complex electrical motors, pumps, tubing, wiring, gauges and thousands of other components, shipped in from subcontractors throughout the country, were delivered to a large open building camouflaged to look like a residential city from above. There they were placed next to short moving production lines leading to assembly fixture areas where the parts came together into larger completely integrated units. These completed units were moved by overhead cranes to a final assembly position. The various assembled units were bolted or riveted together and the hundreds of wires, tubes and cables connected together by workers swarming over me. Many of these workers were women, most of whom seemed to have the same name. At least the guys kept calling them "Rosie." First a large cylindrical shell took shape. Then came wings, a tail, four Wright-Cyclone engines, wheel assemblies, a top turret, and a Sperry ball turret from the Maytag factory in Newton, Iowa. I moved on my own wheels to the last two positions along the line where I was inspected closely and a few final parts installed. On the 8th of July 1944 everything was in place and I was rolled out onto the apron in front of the assembly building. The sun reflected off my shiny silver Alcad aluminum skin. This was the first good look I had of what I had become. What I saw was, if I do say so myself, a very "graceful lady", a B-17 Boeing Flying Fortress. Stenciled in black on a small plate just below the pilot's window on the left side of the plane:
Off to War
An extensive test flight indicated everything was in working order and I was deemed air worthy. On July 12th 1944 I was accepted by the Army Air Corps and officially placed into the inventory. I was ready to begin my military career. But in what capacity? The answer was quick in coming. That very same day I was flown to Great Falls, Montana and then on to the United Airlines modification center at Cheyenne, Wyoming, arriving the 14th of July. There, my tail gun assembly was modified to a more advance system, the "Cheyenne Tail." This work was finished on the 19th. I was flown to Kearny, Nebraska on the same day. A B-17 crew on its way to England took over on the 22nd. We flew to Grenier Air Field at Manchester, New Hampshire, where we laid over until the 1st of August. Then it was on to Dow Field at Bangor, Maine. Finally, on the 3rd we were off to England with a stop-over in Gander, Newfoundland. We arrived at Prestwick, Scotland on the 8th. There I remained until it was decided where I would be stationed.
On August 18th a crew flew me to USAF Station 121, Bassingbourn, home of the 91st Bombardment Group (Heavy) of the 1st Air Division of the 8th Air Force, under the overall command of General James B. Doolittle. Bassingbourn, along with 61 other heavy bomber and fighter bases, was located in the region of England northeast of London commonly referred to as "East Anglia." The 91st Group, commanded by Col Henry W. Terry, had been made famous back in the States earlier in the year with the release of William Wyler's documentary film, "The Memphis Belle." "Memphis Belle" had been a member of the 91st Bomb Group. And, I was assigned to her old Squadron, the 324th. The other Squadrons in the 91st Group were the 322nd, 323rd and 401st.
As soon as my assignment to the 324th was made, Cpls Tony Starcer of the 322nd Squadron and Charlie Busa of the 324th Squadron, both working out of the Dope and Fabric Shop of the 441st Sub Depot, drove out to my hardstand in their jeep fitted with scaffolding that reached up to the top of the tail fin and to the sides of the fuselage. From this they painted the large black 324th Squadron code letters, DF, along with my radio call letter, L, on both sides of the fuselage. Usually, planes were designated by the last three digits of their serial numbers. The crews also often used the Squadron and radio call letters. Accordingly, I was referred to as No. 220 or DF-L. Unofficially, many of the planes were given names by their crews. The names usually were accompanied by colorful pictures, "nose art", painted on the nose of the plane.
On my tail Tony and Charlie also painted a 40 inch vertical red band, with a large black triangle enclosing a white letter "A", the 91st Group marker. Below the "Triangle A" they painted my serial number, which had been painted there at the Boeing factory, but covered over by the red band, and my radio call letter. My wing tips and leading edge of the tail fins were painted red, additional 91st markers, and a "Triangle A" was painted on the top of the outer right wing. I was now a full member of the 324th and ready for combat.
My ground crew chief was Sgt Luther W. Heimbaugh, from Melroy, Pennsylvania. Luther had been the crew chief of 2Lt Vincent A. Fonke's No. 012 which had been shot down, along with five other planes from the 324th Squadron enroute to the Ju 88 wing factory at Halle, Germany two days earlier. It would be Luther's responsibility to see that I was ready for each of my missions. In reality Luther considered me to be "his plane." He only "loaned" me for the day to the flight crews to fly their missions. Luther was assisted ably by Sgts Alvin C. Robbins, Charles P. Blauser and William J. Moore.
I was soon to learn how the 91st Group was flying its formations at that time. Three of the four Squadrons assigned to the Group would fly on a given mission. Each Squadron usually would put up 12 planes, flying in four, three-plane V-shaped "Elements." The front plane of each Element was the "Element Lead", the plane to the right rear (on the "right wing" of the lead), "No. 2", and the one to the left rear (on the "left wing"), "No. 3." The four Elements were arranged in an echeloned to the left box formation with the First Element (Squadron Lead Element) in the front. The Second Element flew about 50 ft above and slightly behind the right side of the No. 2 plane of the Lead Element; the Third Element positioned itself 50 ft below and just behind the No. 3 plane in the Lead Element. The Fourth Element flew 50 ft below the Third Element and directly behind the Lead Element. See page 27 for a diagram of the Squadron formation flown at this time.
Such arrangement of the planes provided a high degree of overlapping fields of fire from the various gun positions on each plane, while reducing the probability of hitting other planes in the Squadron. The No. 3 position in the Fourth Element was the most exposed to enemy fighters of all the planes in the Squadron, in respect to interlacing fields of machine gun fire. This position was usually referred to as "Tail End Charlie", obviously not the choice of places to be in the formation. New crews typically were relegated to "Tail End Charlie." If they survived long enough, the crews moved up in the formation.
One Squadron would be designated the "Lead Squadron" for the Group. The Group was organized with the Lead Squadron flying in front, the "High Squadron" to the right of and 100 feet above and 100 feet behind the Lead Squadron. The "Low Squadron" flew to the left of and 100 feet below and 100 feet behind the Lead Squadron. The Group Lead (the officer in command of the Group formation) flew as copilot in the Lead plane of the Lead Element in the Lead Squadron. In addition to the Norden bombsight (which operated visually), the Lead plane was equipped with a radar-guided bombsight located in the radio compartment. The plane was referred to as a "Mickey plane" and the radar bombsight operator, the "Mickey Operator." The bombardiers of the other 11 planes in the Squadron would drop ("toggle") their bomb load when they saw the Lead plane drop its bombs, whether visually by the regular bombardier, or by the Mickey Operator. A smoke streamer was released with the bombs to tell the other toggliers/bombardiers when to toggle their bomb load. The Lead plane of the Second Element, often also a Mickey Plane, was the Squadron "Deputy Lead." It would take over lead of the Squadron should something happen to the Lead plane.
The Squadron not flying ("stood down") a given day would loan planes to the Squadrons that were short of serviceable aircraft for the mission. The stood-down Squadron also provided "Spares" that were preflighted and loaded with the appropriate bombs. Should a plane malfunction when the engines were run up or on take-off, the crew would switch to a Spare to fly the mission. At least one Squadron, usually the High Squadron, would send up an extra plane. It would fly to the rear of the Second Element, forming a "diamond" pattern. If a plane in one of the Squadrons had to abort the mission, the Spare plane would move into the vacated position. If there were no abort, the Spare would fly on to the target as originally formed up.
I was listed to fly my first combat mission on the 24th of August, to the Kolleda and Goslar Airfields, with a crew led by 2Lt Lawrence E. Gaddis. We took off as briefed at 0716 hours, in heavy clouds, with almost zero visibility. I would soon learn such conditions were the norm for East Anglia. Because of the limited visibility, we could not find the 91st Group formation. Lt Gaddis saw the 398th Bomb Group from Nuthampstead forming up so, according to standing orders, fell in with them. Then he heard the 91st Group formation radio call-in (11 minutes late) and turned back to join them, but still could not locate the 91st in the overcast. By then it was too late to catch up with the 398th Group. So, we jettisoned our bomb load over the Channel and the navigator, 2Lt Curtis I. Strong, plotted our course back to Bassingbourn. We landed at 1020 hours and taxied back to our hardstand. Sort of a let-down from the anxious anticipation of going into combat.
Bill Arthur Crew
The same day I arrived in the 324th, a crew from the 401st Squadron was transferred to the 324th. This crew included: pilot, Cpt William H. Arthur; copilot, 2Lt John M. Henderson; navigator, 1Lt Robert H. Boyd; bombardier, 1Lt William J. Swindell; top turret gunner/flight engineer, T/Sgt Jimmy E. Yanzick; radio operator, T/Sgt Milton Ehrlich; waist gunner, S/Sgt Charles E. Lee; ball turret gunner, S/Sgt Michael J. Sesta; tail gunner, S/Sgt John P. McCann. While in the 401st Bill's crew had flown 16 missions, 10 of them in No. 069, "Round Trip Topsy." Although I was designated as the primary 324th plane for Bill and his crew, they had flown in No. 515, "The Wild Hare" on the 24th.
Two days later, August 26th, I was on the flight list again. This time, with Bill's crew aboard. Our bomb load consisted of eight 500 pound General Purpose bombs. The crew arrived "on station" (at the hardstand) at 0745 hours. We started engines at 0815 hours, taxied at 0820, and lifted off at 0845 hours. We formed up in the No. 3 position in the Fourth Element, "Tail End Charlie", of the Lead Squadron as we circled around the "Buncher" radio beacon at Bassingbourn. We left the English Coast at 1040 hours, flying at 15,200 feet, arrived the Enemy Coast at 1122 hours and an altitude of 23,500 ft. The Group had to do an "S-ing" maneuver to lose two minutes so as to avoid running up on a Bomb Group flying ahead of us. We hit the IP ("Initial Point", the beginning of the bomb run) at 1224 hours and 29,000 ft and were over the target, the synthetic oil refinery at Gelsenkirchen, at 1232, still at 29,000 ft. When Lt Swindell triggered the bomb release only 4 dropped. He finally got the others to release, but by this time we were 60 seconds, and several miles, beyond the target. We rallied off the target, tightened up the formation, made a turn and headed home. We left the Enemy Coast at 1307 hours and 16,500 ft, arrived the English Coast at 1348 and 4,000 ft, and touched down at Bassingbourn at 1448 hours. My first mission was in the books. Although Bill entered in his diary that we had encountered "heavy flak" over the target, there were only three small holes in my fuselage. Another piece had hit the frame of the knock-out window directly in front of Lt Henderson's face and bounced off. Should have seen him jump! Bill apparently liked me. Another entry in his diary that night said "Flew DF-L Love our new ship and it's a honey--even have armor plate in my seat!"
After returning from Gelsenkirchen, the crew decided on my name. I was to be called "Lady Lois" after Bill's wife, Lois, who, back in Ilion, New York was expecting their first baby. Bill was happy to be able to name his own plane, after flying already-named planes. "Round Trip Topsy" had been named by 1Lt Richard T. Pressey for his wife, Travis Overbeck (nicknamed, "Topsy", after her initials). On the 27th of May, "Round Trip Topsy" was being repaired from flak damage incurred on an earlier mission. Lt Pressey's crew flew in No. 042, "Liberty Run", on a mission to Ludwigshaven. "Liberty Run" had two engines knocked out by flak before the target and could not make it back to England. Lt Pressey headed to Switzerland where he and his crew were interned. Bill's crew later inherited "Round Trip Topsy."
For my "nose art" Bill picked out a picture for Cpl Starcer, who was also the "nose artist" for the 91st, to paint on my nose. He settled on a sedately seated attractive brunette wearing a modest blue, with large white stars, two-piece bathing suit and red shoes. Guess Bill figured his wife would not appreciate being represented by a scantily clad Vargas or Petty Girl copied from Esquire Magazine, as Tony had so graphically rendered on a number of other planes, including "Round Trip Topsy." To the right of the girl Tony painted in large block blue letters "Lady Lois." Now I was not just a number.
The next mission, on the 27th, was briefed for Berlin. However, after we were in the air the scouting force radioed back that Berlin was clouded over. Were diverted to the secondary target, Heligoland Island naval base. Owing to heavy cloud cover, we could locate neither the secondary target nor a Target of Opportunity so the entire Strike Force turned back north of Heligoland and brought our bombs home. We saw no German fighters, but a lot of flak. No damage, however. I flew again on the 30th. Bill and his crew were stood down for this mission. They had flown the last three missions and as was the usual procedure, were given a break from flying. 1Lt Royal E. Manville and his crew flew me to the U-boat pens and ship yards at Kiel where we dropped all five of our 1,000 pounders on target. Finally--a complete mission. But, again, little excitement.
I was now beginning to wonder if flying combat missions over "Fortress Europe" was really as dangerous as we had been made to believe. My first attempt at a mission never got beyond the Channel. The three we did complete were routine--"milk runs", the crews called them. The flak mostly was meagre or ineffective and we had seen no German fighters. We had dropped a full bomb load on only one target. In fact, I was a little more concerned about my own people than I was as to what the Germans might do to me. On our return from Gelsenkirchen, Bill encountered some heavy prop wash when he tried to land and almost dipped a wing into the runway before powering up to go around again. On the second try we overshot the runway and had to go around for a third attempt before we got down. A lot of other planes were also overshooting the runway. When we did land, we found out that we had landed with the wind--scary. This was not according to the manual. The flight controllers were bringing us down in the wrong direction, landing us down-wind!
Then came reality check time, a mission to the Opau Synthetic Chemical Plant at Ludwigshaven on Friday, September 8th. On that day I got a taste of what air combat over Europe was really like. I saw my first B-17 shot down and got my first sight of men being killed. I realized then that I was in a rather perilous profession.
Bill's crew was back aboard. We lifted off at 0743 hours and entered the continent near Le Havre, France flying just north of Paris on our way to the German border. We were Lead of the Fourth Element in the Lead Squadron. Although several German fighters came up after us, our "Little Friends", the P-51 fighter escort, kept them at bay. But, no one could stop the box barrage and tracking flak, both 88's and 105's, that came up at us on the bomb run. There was "red flak" all around us. When you see the red in the flak burst, it is close--much too close.
A number of planes were hit hard before we reached the target. One was the Group Lead, No. 632, flown by 1Lt Ray M. Brown with our new Squadron CO, Cpt Immanuel ("Manny") Klette flying as copilot and Group Leader. A piece of flak came up through the floor hitting the Mickey Operator, 1Lt Gordon H. Lowe in the left calf and above the knee. In spite of the seriousness of his wounds, Lt. Lowe remained over the bombsight until reaching the target and the bombs were dropped. Only then did he allow the crew to tend to his wounds. The waist gunner, S/Sgt Milton D. Pitts, was also wounded in the right shoulder by the flak burst. There was very little damage to No. 632 and Lt Brown had no problem bringing her home. However, Lt Lowe spent several weeks in the hospital and two weeks in a rest home before he returned to flight status. For staying at his position until the bomb run was completed, Lt Lowe was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Thirty seconds before the target No. 348, "Roxy's Special", of the 322nd Squadron, piloted by 1Lt David McCarty, flying Lead of the Second Element of the Low Squadron, took a direct hit in the No. 3 engine, setting the right wing afire. The bombardier, 2Lt Frank S. Bolen, had the target in his bomb sight when they were hit. The gas load exploded almost immediately, causing the right wing to blow off throwing her into a downward spin. A few seconds later, "Roxy's Special" exploded in a giant ball of fire and debris, killing seven of the nine-man crew. Only the navigator, 1Lt Donald L. Brazdzons, and Lt Bolen were blown free of the nose section to parachute safely to earth and become POWs.
No. 205, "The Ruptured Duck", of the 324th was flying up ahead of us in the No. 3 position of the Second Element of our Lead Squadron. The copilot, 2Lt Gilbert B. Willis, was hit in the neck and killed instantly by a flak burst on the right side of the cockpit while on the bomb run. Lt Willis had been our copilot when Lt Gaddis attempted to take me on my first mission the 24th of August. Flak also severely injured the pilot, 2Lt Elbert W. Weeks. His right hand was shattered and a deep wound gouged in his left thigh. A number of arteries in his hand were severed, causing considerable loss of blood. Lt Weeks refused any aid until they had completed the bomb run and the top turret gunner/flight engineer, T/Sgt Henry G. Saunders, had removed Lt Willis' body from the seat. Only then did Lt Weeks allow a tourniquet be placed on his arm. The same flak burst that hit Lts Willis and Weeks also threw shards into the No. 3 engine and the landing gear. Because of the damage to the No. 3 engine, Lt Weeks felt it wise to land on the continent rather than risk the flight back England. Accordingly, he headed for Allied-occupied France. Lt Weeks, assisted by Sgt Saunders and the bombardier, 2Lt Marvin G. Nachtscheim, brought the damaged plane down safely on a crater-ridden advanced U.S. fighter air strip at Merville, France. "The Ruptured Duck" was repaired and returned to flight status with the 91st two days later.
No. 128, "Dear Becky", with 1Lt Freeman C. Beasley as first pilot, was flying on our left wing. Just before the target, the copilot, 2Lt Howard C. Donahue, heard a click and saw a small flak hole appear in the windshield directly in front of Lt Beasley. He then saw a hole in the front of Lt Beasley's helmet and blood running down over his face. As Lt Beasley pitched forward onto the control column, Lt Donahue saw a hole in the back of the helmet with blood streaming down the back of his neck. Lt Donahue thought he was dead. When Lt Beasley fell onto the control column, he also hit the rudder pedal. This caused "Dear Becky" to swerve to the right almost hitting us. Sgt McCann called Bill over the intercom from the tail to tell him that "Dear Becky" had missed us by inches. "Dear Becky" then pitched over in a downward dive. Lt Donahue got control of the aircraft after she had dropped down to about 12,000 feet and tried to pull her back up into the formation. Lt Beasley was not dead and came to about this time. Unfortunately he was completely disoriented and started struggling with Lt Donahue to take over control of the plane. The Flight Engineer, T/Sgt Evan J. Zillmer, had been thrown up against the Plexiglas of the top turret when "Dear Becky" dropped down and then down onto the floor when Lt Donahue pulled her back up. When he was able to get back on his feet, Sgt Zillmer came into the cockpit, restrained Lt Beasley and moved him down into the nose of the plane where he lost consciousness again. Sgt Zillmer and the navigator, 1Lt Charles R. Bright, removed Lt Beasely's helmet. The piece of flak had cut a groove through the top of his skull, exposing the brain. Someone had snitched the morphine from the plane's first aid kit, so Sgt Zillmer and Lt Bright sprinkled sulfa powder in the wound. Because of the damage to the plane, Lt Donahue could not get "Dear Becky" back into the formation. He asked Lt Bright to plot a course for Bassingbourn and they headed back alone.
In a short while Lt Beasley once again regained consciousness and dragged himself back into his seat. He took over the controls and flew the plane with one arm until eventually becoming too weak to continue. Sgt Zillmer moved him back to the nose compartment and got into the pilot's seat to assist Lt Donahue in flying the plane back to Bassingbourn. As they crossed the continental coast a German flak battery opened up on "Dear Becky", hitting the No. 2 engine. On approaching Bassingbourn, they discovered the left landing gear and landing flap electrical systems had been knocked out. Sgt Zillmer had to hand crank down the left wheel in order that they could land. Sgt Zillmer then got back into the pilot's seat and assisted Lt Donahue in landing. Lt Beasley survived, but did not fly again. "Dear Becky" was repaired and continued flying.
As our Squadron approached the target, 1Lt Arnold J. O'Toole, pilot of No. 135, flying on the right wing of the Group Lead had his foot mashed by a piece of flak that went through his flying boot. The flak shard also took out the rudder controls after it went through his boot. Lt O'Toole refused first aid and remained at the controls until they had dropped and were safely out of the flak zone. He then went down to the nose compartment to have his wounds dressed. Since the flak hits had also started a fire in the waist of the plane, Lt O'Toole asked the navigator, 1Lt Walter L. Strait, to plot a course for a friendly field at Paris. However, the waist gunner, Sgt Alton Lowe, and radio operator, T/Sgt Emile R. Gelinas, were able to put the fires out. They headed for Bassingbourn instead. As they approached the base, Lt O'Toole went back to the cockpit to assist in landing. With so many of the controls gone, he asked if the crew wanted to bail out. None did. He then had three of them go into the tail to weight it down, and landed with the plane on autopilot for better control.
Just before the target, a plane from the 398th Group, with its No. 4 engine on fire, came down on top of us. Sgt Yanzick in the top turret spotted it in time to sound the alarm. With a display of quick reflexes, Bill swerved out of its way.
All the while flak was tearing into us as we dropped our six General Purpose 1,000 pounders on the target. Sgt Lee was in the ball turret that day. He got so mad at the intensity of the flak coming up at him that he rotated the twin .50 caliber machine guns into the down position and fired off a long burst in the direction of the anti-aircraft guns--over four miles below. The rest of the crew, including Bill laughed at these futile antics. At least it relieved some of Sgt Lee's frustrated tension. Lt Boyd hung his hat and intercom headset on a knob near his seat when he put on his helmet. When he went to retrieve them, he found that a piece of flak had flown through the nose, tearing apart his hat and headset.
Lt Henderson was at the controls when we landed at 1517 hours. A perfect landing. We had been gone 7 hours 35 minutes. After we had taxied to our hardstand and a count made, there were more than 50 holes in the fuselage and wings. The leading edge of the right wing was torn away and several Plexiglas panels in the nose were shot out. Three right wing gas tanks had taken hits, requiring that they be replaced. Luckily, none of the crew had been hit. Plenty of wounded on the other planes, though. Several red flares arched up from the landing planes, indicating wounded aboard. There were ambulances at the end of the runway when we landed. Luther and his ground crew were busy the next few days putting me back in shape. I had survived my first real taste of aerial combat. Bill added another entry about me in his diary that night. "Lady Lois is sure a good ship--climbs beautifully."
The 324th was stood down on the 13th, but it appeared I was ready to fly and was loaned to the 322nd to be used by 1Lt John D. Longaker and his crew for a mission to the synthetic oil plant at Lutzkendorf. We lifted off at 0720 hours, but less than an hour out, the oxygen system developed a leak and we had to abort back to Bassingbourn, touching down at 0910.
On the 17th the 91st Group threw a party to end all parties. It was the second anniversary of the Group arriving in England. C hanger was decorated with parachutes hanging from the ceiling. There was a band at each end of the hanger with dancing in between. On the base streets, a keg of beer at every corner. Army trucks, referred to by the troops as "Passion Wagons", were sent out to bring in girls from the nearby villages and towns for the party. Everyone let go and forgot the war for the day and night. Sounds of music and revelry carried out through the damp night air to the quiet hardstands until early in the morning. Many of the girls did not get back home before late the next afternoon, some not until two or three days later. Strangely, in later years one could not find a woman who had ever gone to a party at an 8th Air Force base. However, all "knew of a friend who had gone."
Finally, on Tuesday, the 19th, Luther and his crew had all the kinks straightened out and I was ready to fly. Bill's crew was stood down for the day. With 1Lt Charles C. Whitesell's crew aboard, we flew on the right wing of the Group Lead, No. 135, flown by 1Lt Ray M. Brown's crew, to the marshalling yards at Hamm. A relatively quiet trip with only minor flak hits on the fuselage over the target.
On Thursday Bill and his crew were back with me again, this time to the marshalling yards at Mainz. We flew Lead of the Second Element of the High Squadron. Because of heavy fog, take-off at 1014 hours and assembly were on instruments, but the trip to and from the target was routine. The weather at Bassingbourn was even murkier by the time we got back. We had to go around three times before Bill could get us down on the runway and back to the hardstand. On one of the passes, another B-17 suddenly appeared coming straight at us out of the fog. Bill pulled up at the very last second, avoiding a head-on collision. Again, I was impressed by Bill's sharp reflexes. Because of the dense fog, we never did know which plane it was. When Bill got back to his quarters after debriefing, there was a telegram from his father-in-law waiting for him. Bill was the proud father of a daughter, Lois Anne, born on the 17th of September. Had it not been for his quick reflexes, Bill would never have known he had a daughter, and Lois Anne would never have met her dad.
The following two missions, to the industrial areas at Frankfurt on the 25th and the Ford Motor factory at Cologne on the 27th of September, were milk runs. Only minor flak damage on both missions and no enemy fighters. Seemed kind of odd to be dropping bombs on factory buildings with the familiar script "Ford" logo painted on the roofs. Sort of sacrilege, but the plants were making spare parts for vehicles left behind by the British when they evacuated Dunkirk back in 1940. None of the 421 B-17s the 1st Air Division put up on the 27th was lost. Over in the 2nd Air Division, however, 28 of the 37 B-24 Liberator bombers the 445th Bomb Group, flying out of Tibenham, sent to Kassel that day were shot down, the largest loss of any Bomb Group on any mission of the war. The 445th Group formation was decimated by massive attacks in "company front" formations of up to 48 FW 190 fighters, coming at them in wedges of 8-16 planes, each.
Next, it was to the synthetic oil refineries at Magdeburg on the 28th. Swarms of Me 109s and FW 90s swept through the formation, but we avoided their cannon and machine gun fire. One exploding anti-aircraft shell sent a chunk of flak into the No. 2 engine supercharger. An inch lower and it would have caused the bucket wheel to blow apart. That flying metal could have been more dangerous than the flak bursts. We were flying Lead of the Third Element of the High Squadron. The Mickey bomb sight on the Group Lead was working only intermittently, so the bombardier switched to visual bombing 20 seconds before the target. This resulted in some confusion, causing the target to be missed. Our Squadron Lead bombardier sensed there was a problem and did not drop with the Group Lead. We held our ten 500 pound General Purpose bombs, dropping them on the near-by Eschwege Air Drome.
The ensuing missions literally flew by--the 30th to bridges over the Dortmond-Ems Canal south of Munster, the 3rd of October to railway yards at Nurnburg and the 6th to the Junkers 88 aircraft factories at Neubrandenburg. The latter was a long, 9 hour 40 minute mission. The formation on the 6th was not good; we were scattered all over the sky, but the most precise bombing the 91st had done to date.
On Saturday, the 7th it was to Freiburg, a target of opportunity when the primary target, Brux, Czechoslovakia, was clouded over. On returning to the field, Sgt Sesta forgot to stow his ball turret guns in the rear-pointing position. The barrels were locked straight down when he left the ball for landing. The tower alerted us at the last minute and we went around again while he stowed his guns properly. A close call; could have torn apart the fuselage, ending my brief career then and there.
When the curtain was pulled back on the briefing map on the 9th of October, the red cord ran to the marshalling yards at Schweinfurt. There were not the groans or expletives from the flight crews as were emitted when the cord first ran its course to this target back on 17 August 1943. A scant 12 months ago, Schweinfurt was one of the most feared targets in Europe. The 91st had led the 17 August mission with a loss of 10 of the 24 B-17s it sent out. Most of those that returned were severely damaged. Two had to be salvaged. On the 14th of October 1943, the 91st went again to Schweinfurt. This time the Group lost only one aircraft. However, the Strike Force lost 60 bombers. What a difference a year makes. Our mission on the 9th of October 1944 was to be just another deep penetration into Germany. We flew Lead of the Third Element of the Low Squadron. We saw no German fighters and flak over the target was meagre. But, true to the old days, I took severe flak hits in the tail and in the No. 3 engine. Although Bill brought us back home safely with touch-down at 1745 hours, my entire rudder had to be replaced before I could fly again.
The repairs were completed in time for another mission to Cologne on Sunday October 15th, a memorable mission for several reasons. It was the 35th combat mission for Bill. After this one, his war would be over and he could return to Ilion to meet Lois Anne. The 91st had also gone to Cologne the day before. Although the bomb load for that day was 250 and 500 pound bombs and M-17 incendiaries, No. 851, "The Qualified Quail", with 1Lt John J. Askin's crew aboard, had dropped leaflets. These consisted of a German language edition of the Army newspaper, The Stars and Stripes, with the headline, "General Doolittle Challenges Luftwaffe to Air Duel." The duel was to take place over Cologne at noon the next day, the 15th. The article went on to avow that the current German fighter pilots were cowards and possessed neither the skills nor the courage of their now deceased predecessors.
You can image in the "oohs" and "aahs" that went up in the briefing room at 0400 hours on the 15th when the curtain was pulled back revealing the red line ending once again at Cologne. We were Lead of the Third Element of the Lead Squadron.
The expected swarms of fighters did not materialize. Instead, the Germans had brought in gobs of their mobile anti-aircraft guns. Lots of red flak--the worst flak concentrations the 91st Group had encountered in 22 months of flying combat missions.
Just as we turned on the IP, No. 040, "Shirley Jean", flying on our right wing was hit hard by flak, knocking out both the No. 2 and No. 3 engines. The pilot, Cpt Iver O. Tufty, ordered the crew to "prepare to bail out." Four crewmen (top turret gunner, T/Sgt Hugh T. Howard; radio operator, Sgt Lloyd M. Boxx; waist gunner, S/Sgt William Econonu; tail gunner, S/Sgt Casimera A. Sidlowski) misunderstood his order and bailed out to became POWs for the duration. All four had been on Lt Gaddis' crew when he tried to fly me on my first mission the 24th of August. Cpt Tufty managed to keep the plane in the air. "Shirley Jean", along with the remaining crew, made it safely back to an emergency landing at Woodbridge. She eventually was repaired and returned to Bassingbourn.
No. 880, "Little Miss Mischief", was flying "Tail End Charley" in our Lead Squadron, with 1Lt Paul R. McDowell's crew aboard. She took a hit before the target that blew a huge gaping hole through the left waist of the fuselage and tore apart the left side of the ball turret. M/Sgt Glenn L. Slaughter, the waist gunner, was wounded in the foot and ribs. In the ball turret, M/Sgt Edmund Abdo was hit in the left leg and foot by flak fragments. Because his electric suit was rendered inoperable, Sgt Abdo's hands, feet and neck were frost-bitten from the subzero wind blowing through the holes in the turret. More seriously, the turret could not be rotated to expose the exit hatch. Sgt Abdo was trapped in the turret for the rest of the flight and the landing. This was a potentially fatal situation should the landing gear collapse on touch-down. The flak had also severed the rudder and trim tab cables and shot away all the electronics except for those to the engines. Even though almost cut in two, "Little Miss Mischief" remained in the air. The flight engineer, T/Sgt James Hobbs, worked furiously to splice the trim cables so that Lt McDowell would have some degree of control of the aircraft on landing. The bombs were jettisoned to lighten the load. Struggling along at 100-110 MPH, "Little Miss Mischief" made it back to Bassingbourn where, with the landing gear hand-cranked down, she made a safe landing. Sgt Abdo was not told there was a problem in lowering the landing gear until he was taken from the turret. The crew figured he had enough on his mind as it was.
Since the front half of the aircraft was relatively undamaged, the 441st Sub Depot searched for a replacement for the rear half of the plane. Eventually they located a suitable plane (No. 405, "Wallaroo Mark II", of the 303rd Bomb Group, at nearby Molesworth). She had crash-landed at the RAF base at Heston the 7th of August and was declared salvage on the 12th of August. The undamaged rear half of "Wallaroo Mark II" was brought to Bassingbourn and the two halves married together to form a flyable plane. What made the rebuilt aircraft unique was the fact that the original "Little Miss Mischief" was silver and "Wallaroo Mark II" was painted olive drab. Made for a strange looking plane. Because of this, the crews nicknamed her "Half and Half." The unusual looking new "Little Miss Mischief" was to fly another 15 missions. There was a similar silver/olive drab B-17 over in the 457th Bomb Group, aptly named "Arf n' Arf."
Although I took a beating over Cologne, none of the 20 hits was especially serious. Still, one of the "Tokyo Tanks" (outer wing tanks that had been added to the original design of the B-17 to increase our range) was punctured, the oil line to No. 3 engine broken, three holes blown in the nose Plexiglas, and a big hunk of flak went into the radio room. A large chunk of flak also came up under the Lt Boyd's seat and demolished his "relief tube." This was no great loss in that the thing usually froze up when the guys tried to use it. Often they went in a can or in their helmet, dumping it out after it had frozen. Another piece of flak flew through the waist window, hitting Sgt Lee, but his flak suit prevented any injury. We touched down at Bassingbourn at 1218 hours and taxied to the hardstand. Bill was done; an exciting finish to a 35-mission tour of flying that had begun back on the 6th of July. The rest of the crew still had two missions to go.
In spite of the damage, Luther had me in flying condition for the next mission on the 17th. Because of the recent repairs, I was designated as a spare, but was not needed. John Henderson flew as 1st pilot with the rest of Bill's crew in No. 202, "Miss Slipstream", on loan from the 322nd. The 19th, John and the rest of the crew took me to Ludwigshaven, flying No. 2 in the Lead Element of the Low Squadron. The Mickey equipment went out on the Group Lead plane at the target and it could not drop. The Lead commander decided to go around for another run. As the formation turned, however, the Deputy Lead accidentally dropped its bombs. The rest of the Lead Squadron dropped with the Deputy Lead, as did our Low Squadron.
These bombs fell on the town of Karlsruhe, instead of the target. The Lead plane then jettisoned its bombs east of the target. The High Squadron, seeing that the Lead plane had not dropped on the target, held its bombs. They dropped on a Target of Opportunity, Bad Kreuznach, on the return.
No. 844, "Yankee Gal", with 1Lt Kenneth S. Smith's crew aboard, flying Deputy Lead of our Squadron, took a flak hit over the target setting the No. 3 engine on fire. Lt Smith could not feather the prop and with the fire rather severe, the waist gunner wanted to bail out. Lt Smith told him not over German territory. He then tried diving the plane to put out the fire and pulling up sharply in an attempt to throw off the propeller. Neither worked. With the engine still burning, they headed for an emergency airfield at Brussels. Once there, they found that the 8th Air Force base, A-59, was too crowded with other B-17s who had made emergency landings for them to put down. He then headed for the 9th Air Force base, A-58. Although it had a short runway and was sending up red-red flares warning them not to land, there was no choice but to put "Yankee Gal" down on the field. The ground personnel were most unhappy, but came out with foam and eventually got the fire out. Lt Smith and his crew returned to Bassingbourn the next day. "Yankee Gal" returned several weeks later.
Although the fighter support was very poor and unorganized, we experienced no damage. A confused mission, but John got me and the crew safely back to Bassingbourn with touchdown at 1645 hours. Their tours of duty completed, the rest of Bill's crew went home. Well done.
Hooper Maplesden Crew
On the 25th of October my next crew took over: pilot, 1Lt Hooper R. Maplesden; copilot, 2Lt Robert N. Hickinbotham; navigator, 2Lt Robert Margolis; bombardier, 2Lt Daniel Haley; top turret gunner/flight engineer, S/Sgt Thayne I. Johnson; radio operator, S/Sgt Lyle B. McCullough; waist gunner, Sgt Robert E. Kananen; ball turret gunner, Sgt Harry P. Hawks; tail gunner, Sgt Frank B. Dermody. They had been flying as a crew since the 19th of September. They flew to Hamm in No. 959, "Rhapsody in Red", in the No. 3 position of the Third Element of our Lead Squadron. Since then they had flown eight missions in five different aircraft. Now I was to be their primary plane. Hooper's crew decided to leave the name and nose art the same. I continued to be "Lady Lois."
Hooper's first mission with me, as Group Deputy Lead, was to the synthetic oil refineries at Hamburg, Wednesday the 25th. The next day we went to the marshalling yards at Munster. On the 30th it was back to the marshalling yards at Hamm. All were routine missions for us. However, the 30th was an eventful day for Lt Cecil G. McConnell's crew of No. 379, "Margie", of the 323rd Squadron. That day 1Lt Edward W. Splawinski was on the loading list as first pilot, in place of Lt McConnell, in the No. 2 position of the Fourth Element of the High Squadron. Lt McConnell was flying as copilot with Capt Sidney R. Maxwell in the Squadron Lead plane, No. 145, "Tailor Maid." He was being checked out as a Lead Pilot. 2Lt Warren T. Smith, the regular copilot on the crew was listed for his usual position. However, Lt Smith did most of the flying, in effect, serving as first pilot.
Immediately after bombs away, "Margie" took a direct hit between Nos. 3 and 4 engines, knocking out No. 4 and reducing power from No. 3. T/Sgt Frank Panek, in the top turret, was hit in the leg tearing away his knee cap and puncturing his lower leg. The oxygen system went out so Lt Smith had to drop "Margie" down to the deck. With loss of power, the crew jettisoned all the guns and excess equipment to lighten the load. As they skimmed over the German country-side, fire from the ground resulted in more damage to the plane. Lts Smith and Splawinski managed to keep "Margie" in the air across the rest of the continent and over the Channel. With insufficient power to clear the radar towers on the Dover cliffs, they had to skirt around them as they flew up the coast towards Bassingbourn. Before reaching Bassingbourn the two remaining engines began to cut out because of fuel flow problems. They obviously could not reach Bassingbourn, so the pilots headed for Wormingford, a P-51 fighter base. Even though she clipped the trees at the end of the field, they brought "Margie" in for a perfect 3-point landing on the grass. Lts Smith and Splawinski had brought "Margie" and her crew home safely. But, it had been a close call and a scary ride for all.
Thursday, 2 November 1944. A date that was to become forever burned into the memory of everyone stationed at Bassingbourn at that time and to be passed on down to later arriving crews. The target for the day, the Leuna synthetic oil plant at Merseburg, was infamous for it flak barrages. Merseburg was to us what the U-boat pens at St. Nazaire, France had been to the crews of 1943, "Flak City." Luckily, the 324th was stood down the day. We had flown the last three missions; this was our day off. Only our "Mickey Ship", No. 632 flew, as the Group Lead with Cpt James L. Griffin as first pilot. The box barrage of flak was heavy around the target. A number of planes were hit hard after turning on the IP. However, it was after the target that the real damage was done. Because of a supposedly malfunctioning compass, the Group Lead aircraft rallied off the target at 330 degrees west rather than 270 degrees west, as briefed. However, something else, which will never be known, happened in the lead plane that day, resulting in tragic consequences. The rest of the Group followed No. 632, in the process flying out of the protection of the main bomber stream. German Fighter Command had been conserving its scarce fuel for weeks so as to mount a major effort against our bomber attacks. November 2 was that day. In excess of 500 German fighters, mostly FW 190s and Me 109s, came swarming up to meet the Strike Force. They had a field day with the unprotected 91st Group planes.
The 91st sent 36 planes over the continent that day (another had aborted over England); when the last B-17 had touched down at Bassingbourn, seven and one half hours later, 13 were missing. Most of those returning were filled with holes. Down over German territory--from the 322nd: No. 083, "Man O'War II"; No. 012, "Cannon Ball Too"; No. 202, "Miss Slip Stream"; No. 212, "Gal of My Dreams"; No. 298, "White Cargo"; No. 208, "My Baby II." From the 323rd: No. 234, "Bomber Dear"; No. 563, "Winged Victory"; No. 956, "Pard"; No. 984, "Sherries Cherries"; No. 625, "Cheri." From the 401st: No. 883, "Jub-Jub-Bird"; No. 093, "USA The Hard Way." A 35% loss. Thirteen crews missing; 117 of the 333 men who sat down at 0530 hours for the premission breakfast in the combat mess hall that morning would not eat at Bassingbourn again. Forty-nine would never eat breakfast, ever again. One hundred seventeen footlockers to be "sanitized" and the contents packed and sent home to the families. In the barracks, 117 empty beds with folded mattresses. Out on the field, 13 empty hardstands. Thirteen ground crews standing around silently staring into space, absentmindedly kicking at the loose gravel on the hardstands.
Before the last plane returning from Merseburg had touched down, replacement aircraft and crews started arriving to fill the vacant hardstands on the field and the empty beds in the barracks. The ground crews went about the business of preparing their newly assigned planes for the next mission just as they had the old ones the night before. The missions, and the casualties, would continue. But, the eyes of more than a few ground crew glistened as they did their work. Professionals accustomed to losses, but not without feelings. The flight crews, the planes and the ground crews were family. A lot of the family was gone.
Morale was just as low over in the 457th Bomb Group at Glatton. Owing to a navigational error, the 457th became separated from the bomber stream while in dense clouds before the IP. When they broke into the clear, they were 35 miles north of the briefed route. Fifteen minutes after dropping their bombs in the vicinity of Bernburg, a Target of Opportunity, the Group was pounced upon by about 40 FW 190 German fighters. The fighters attacked in waves of 10 planes abreast. Nine B-17s, seven from the 751st Low Squadron, were lost. The Germans had made clear the consequences of errors that day.
Three days later we were back in the air again. The 91st put up a full complement of 36 planes on a mission to Frankfurt. 1Lt. William V. Laws and his veteran crew flew with me. There was obvious trepidation among the crews at briefing and as they climbed aboard their planes that morning. The old crews remembered their missing friends, the new crews were apprehensive as to what to expect. Since it had the most experienced crews left, the 324th flew Lead Squadron. We flew No. 3 in the Third Element, lifting off at 0719 hours. The Group dropped on the secondary target, the Offenbach marshalling yards, when we found the primary target to be clouded over. Although there was heavy flak over the target and the High Squadron took numerous hits, all planes returned safely. We touched down at 1455 hours with only a few holes. And so our war went on.
On the 6th Hooper and his crew were back aboard for another trip to the synthetic oil refineries at Hamburg. The operations order had us approach the target from upwind so as to improve the bomb pattern. Because of high head winds, the bomb run seemed to take forever, actually eleven minutes. This gave the German anti-aircraft gunners plenty of time to zero in on us. Fortunately, few planes in the 91st were hit. One that was hit hard was the Group Lead, No. 135, a 324th Mickey plane on loan to the 323rd that day. The pilot was Cpt William E. Reid, flying the second mission of his second tour as a pilot. Maj Willis J. Taylor, the new 323rd Squadron commander, was the Group Lead, flying as copilot for Cpt Reid. Lt. Warren T. Smith, of Lt Cecil McConnell's crew, was flying as tail gunner and formation coordinator. Lt Smith was responsible for keeping Maj Taylor informed of straggling planes, those with engine problems and general condition of the Group formation following them.
No. 135 was hit just before bombs away. An 88 mm burst below the plane took out the No. 3 engine. A second shell went through the right side and exploded in the radio compartment blowing away the left side of the fuselage. The radioman, T/Sgt John N. Cardiff was hit in the abdomen, chest and left arm. The waist gunner, S/Sgt Joseph Uhrick received wounds in the abdomen, right leg, left thigh, and back. Both were killed instantly. A piece of flak smashed into the left leg of the Mickey operator, 1Lt Jordan D. Cannon, causing compound fractures. He survived, but eventually lost his leg. The flight engineer, T/Sgt James R. Kilgallen, was blown from the top turret down into the nose compartment, but was not injured.
With one engine out and a gaping hole in the fuselage, it was obvious No. 135 could not lead the Group home. All radio contact with the Group was out and the Deputy Lead, No. 431, "Cheri II", with 1Lt Arvin O. Basnight's crew aboard, did not understand the hand signals to take over. Each time Cpt Reid attempted to move out of the Lead, the Group followed him. Finally, he simply rolled No. 135 up on one wing and peeled off. So much of the structure of the fuselage had been blown away that when he banked sharply, the plane twisted in the middle. The tail continued to fly level for a few seconds. Eventually, the tail twisted into alignment with the rest of the aircraft.
Cpt Reid asked Maj Taylor if he would go back and see how bad was the situation in the radio room. Maj Taylor said "I can't." He was new to combat and the events were proving unnerving to him. Cpt Reid then asked him to take over the controls while he went back. Cpt Reid saw there was nothing he could do for Sgts Cardiff and Uhrick and that Lt Cannon was being tended to. When he got back to the cockpit, he saw the plane was out of the bomber stream. When he asked where they were going, Maj Taylor answered "to Holland." Cpt Reid told him "Not over Germany, alone." He pointed out that many of the German fighter fields were between them and the nearest Allied field in Holland. Cpt Reid took over the controls and moved back to the safety of the bomber stream and the fighter escort. P-51 fighters kept flying up alongside No. 135 to get a close look at the gaping hole in her side.
Upon reaching England, Cpt Reid headed for the nearest airfield, Rackheath, which was under repair. Although No. 135 was held together by only a few longitudal stringers, she remained in one piece when Cpt Reid put her down. When the surviving crew disembarked, they discovered that Lt Smith's chute had been shredded by flak. Had the plane broken up in the air, he would not have survived. A second close call for Lt Smith.
We encountered heavy flak, but took only minor hits. A routine mission for us in spite of the long, slow bomb run.
Thursday, November 9th, we were scheduled for a tactical mission in the vicinity of Metz, France in support of General Patton's 3rd Army. When Hooper ran up the engines prior to take-off, the pressure would not come up in the No. 3 engine supercharger. The crew made a quick switch to a "Spare" from the 401st, No. 610, "Zootie Cutie." Bill Arthur had flown his first two combat missions as copilot in "Zootie Cutie", with 2Lt Carl M. Melton's crew on the 6th and 7th of July.
Hooper took off in time to catch up with the Group and slide into the formation as Lead of the Fourth Element of the Low Squadron. Cloud cover was so heavy over the target area that the 324th made three passes and still could not find the target. The planes had to hold on to their bombs. The 322nd Lead and 323rd High Squadrons were able to drop, but missed their targets badly. The extra flying time had used up so much of the fuel that the 324th planes could not make it back to Bassingbourn with the added weight of the bombs. The Squadron was therefore given permission to land at the Coulommiers Fighter Airfield, about 35 miles from Paris, to be refueled during the night. The crews of the Squadron were divided up amongst the four Fighter Squadrons based at the field for rations and quarters.
Soon after landing, Sgt Johnson ran into an old friend from his cadet school days who was stationed at the airfield. He talked Sgt Johnson into joining him and a couple of his friends in attempting to go into Paris for a night on the town. The guys grabbed some weapons, commandeered a vehicle and headed for Paris. A few miles down the road, they ran into a group of Germans soldiers and French collaborators who started firing at them. In the ensuing fire fight, some of the Germans and French were killed. An American ground unit then joined in the fight and the attackers withdrew. Sgt Johnson's group decided it was best to give up on their night in Paris. Sgt Johnson had the French francs from his survival kit with him so they stopped in a French bar on the way back. A few minutes later a group of armed Frenchmen wearing parts of American uniforms came in. Fearing they were part the group fighting with the Germans, Sgt Johnson and his buddies left the bar as soon as they could and headed back to the Fighter base.
Each Fighter Squadron had its own club with unlimited supplies of liquor. Most of the crew partook freely of the fighter group's hospitality. This was safer than the local bars and much better than the usual cup of coffee and double shot of bourbon given crews during debriefing at Bassingbourn. All were air-worthy the next morning when it was time to fly home. Hooper and "Zootie Cutie" touched down at 1301 hours. All because of a faulty supercharger, I had missed my only opportunity to spend a night in France.
Luther and his crew got the No. 3 supercharger working in time for a trip back to the Leuna synthetic oil refineries at Merseburg on the 21st. The 91st Group led the 8th Air Force on this mission, with our Squadron CO, Manny Klette, leading the Group, and thus the entire 8th Air Force. We flew Lead of the Third Element of the Lead Squadron. Upon approaching the target the Strike Force encountered very high and dense cloud cover. Other groups turned away to head for alternate targets. Manny had been in radio contact with LTC Allison Brooks, who was leading a scouting force checking on weather over the target. Manny asked Brooks to check for openings in the clouds lower down. He radioed back that there was an opening at 17,000 feet. Upon receiving this information, Manny had the 91st drop down from its briefed bombing altitude of 27,000 feet to 17,000 feet and led the Group under the front. The entire Group dropped on the target. General Doolittle later sent Manny a letter of commendation citing him for his "courage, skill and determination in continuing on under extremely adverse weather conditions." Many of the crewmen did not share in the enthusiasm of General Doolittle. Going over the flak emplacements around Merseburg at 17,000 feet was not conducive to finishing one's 35 missions.
After leaving the target, the formation swung extra wide to the east bringing us within range of the heavy concentration of flak batteries at nearby Leipzig. No. 890, "Fearless Fosdick", with 1Lt Charles C. Whitesell and his crew (who had flown with me to Hamm the 19th of September), was flying as Tail End Charlie of our Lead Squadron. They took a direct hit in the right wing. With the No. 3 engine out, "Fearless Fosdick" went into a steep dive, disintegrating in a fiery explosion almost immediately. Five of the crew, including Lt Whitesell, were able to bail out to become POWs. The flight engineer, T/Sgt Darrell Riley, ball turret gunner, S/Sgt Donald H. Hitzemann, radio operator, T/Sgt John R. Courtney, and waist gunner, S/Sgt Earl W. Kerch, Jr., went down with the plane. Hooper and his crew had flown in "Fearless Fosdick" to Magdeburg and Munster the 28th and 30th of September
The Deputy Lead of the 401st Low Squadron was No. 545, with 1Lt Harold R. DeBolt at the controls. Just after the target, No. 545 took direct flak hits that knocked out the No. 3 engine. A few seconds later No. 2 was hit, knocking off the nacelle and reducing power from the engine. A bomb had hung up on the drop, but the flak hits caused it to break loose and fall without exploding. With two engines out, the plane could not stay in formation. The crew jettisoned all lose equipment, but still the plane lost altitude. After dropping to 2,000 feet, and with the other two engines losing power, they knew the plane could not stay in the air. Lt DeBolt set the autopilot and everyone bailed out. No. 545 continued on, gradually settling towards the earth in a gentle turn, finally making a perfect belly landing in a plowed field in Allied territory. Troops from a near-by British anti-aircraft gun crew ran to the plane to help the crew out. That no one was aboard gave rise to the rumor of a "ghost ship" that circulated for some time.
No. 144, "Jezebel" of the 401st High Squadron, with 1Lt Neil K. Gehert's crew aboard, was flying in the No. 2 position of the Third Element. The plane was hit by flak with only minor damage to the aircraft. However, one small piece came in on the side of the tail, hitting the tail gunner, S/Sgt Lawrence E. Orcutt, Jr. Although, Sgt Orcutt was wearing a flak suit, the flak entered on his side missing the protected area. The flight engineer, T/Sgt Owen T. Scott, went back to help him, but Sgt Orcutt had died almost immediately. Life or death often was a matter of a fraction of an inch.
1Lt Kenneth S. Smith was flying his last mission that day, as Deputy Lead of our Lead Squadron in No. 887, "Old Battle Ax." He was anxious to get back to Bassingbourn so as to return to the States to get married. However, flak hits over the target punched holes in one of the wing tanks and they were losing fuel. This, combined with strong head winds made it obvious they could not make it back to England. So, once again Lt Smith headed for Brussels. This time the landing strip on A-59 was clear and he landed without incident. Unfortunately, it was three weeks before he could get transportation back to Bassingbourn. After having "visited" Brussels on his 29th mission, Lt Smith decided to wear his dress uniform on his last mission. This was not authorized dress, but he was not so conspicuous while taking in Brussels this time.
1Lt William V. Laws was flying on our left wing in No. 993, "Mah Ideel." "Mah Ideel" took flak hits right after the target that set engine No. 1 on fire, causing it to stop, and knocked out No. 2. Lt Laws feathered No. 2 and for some reason or other, No. 3 was also feathered. With the fire continuing to burn, Lt Laws put "Mah Ideel" into a steep dive to blow out the fire. This eventually caused the fire to go out. After leveling off, the crew threw out everything that was movable to lighten the ship. No. 3 engine was started up, but with only two good engines, they could not get back into formation. "Mah Ideel" followed us all the way home flying below the formation.
We received several flak hits from the Leipzig batteries. The oxygen system was knocked out, the No. 2 engine feeder and cowl flaps were hit, the hydraulic system punctured, and there was flak in the radio room again. But, we landed safely at 1538 hours. Luther and his crew worked hard the next four days and nights. Everything was working for our next mission, the 25th, another trip to the synthetic oil refineries at Merseburg. This time the flak was meagre and inaccurate and we took no hits. Everyone returned safely.
Sunday, November 26th was another rough day for the 91st. The crews were at breakfast at 0500 hours and were briefed at 0600. Hooper and crew arrived at station at 0730, we taxied at 0830 and lifted off at 0837 hours, forming up No. 2 in the Third Element of the Low Squadron. 2Lt Ralph E. Stoltz, a new first pilot, was copilot. He was flying his third combat introduction mission prior to taking his own crew out. The first part of the mission was relatively routine. Things became more intense as we approached the target, the railway viaduct at Altenbeken.
About 75 German fighters swarmed in on our formation, coming at us mostly from the rear--both in level flight and from below. When the fighters attacked, Sgt McCullough quickly unplugged the electric cord to his heated suit, unhooked from the oxygen supply and went back to man the other waist gun. As he maneuvered around firing at the incoming fighters, his hands became cold and he began to feel weak. He thought it was just the stress from what all was happening. Then, Sgt Kananen gave him a kick and motioned to his chest. In all the excitement Sgt McCullough had forgotten to plug in his electric cord and oxygen line. He was about to pass out from the lack of oxygen. Plugged in, his hands warmed up and his head cleared as he continued to man the waist gun.
Five minutes before the IP, No. 913, "Seattle Sleeper", piloted by 1Lt John R. Stevens, flying No. 3 in the Second Element of the 323rd High Squadron was hit by cannon fire from the fighters. This started a fire in the right wing close to the fuselage and severed the aileron controls, causing her to fall slowly out of the formation. The fire continued to burn, spreading to most of the wing. "Seattle Sleeper" dropped lower and headed for the North Sea and England. However, it soon became obvious they could not make it to the North Sea. The crew bailed out, near Haulerwijk, Holland, just before she exploded. Five of the crew reached the Dutch underground and evaded capture until liberated by Canadian ground forces in April 1945. The remaining four crewmen became POWs.
At almost the same time "Seattle Sleeper" was hit, No. 515, "The Wild Hare", piloted by 1Lt Robert J. Flint, flying Tail End Charlie in our Low Squadron, was also hit in the right wing and No. 3 engine by fighter cannon fire. The engine caught on fire causing her to lose altitude and drop behind the formation. "The Wild Hare" nosed over and exploded, breaking into two pieces. Only four of her crew managed to parachute out safely, to become POWs--Lt Flint; copilot, 2Lt David L. Bishop, a first pilot flying his third combat familiarization mission; navigator, F/O Robert J. Miller; waist gunner, Sgt Glenn P. Lynch. Bill Arthur's crew had flown their first mission with the 324th in "The Wild Hare" back on the 24th of August. Hooper had flown in "The Wild Hare" for his first combat mission, as copilot in 1Lt Philip L. Collins' crew, to Heligoland the 27th of August and then with his own crew to Mainz the 21st of September and Cologne the 27th.
Between the IP and the target, No. 128, "Dear Becky", piloted by 2Lt Adolph P. Miller, flying in the No. 2 position in the Second Element in our Low Squadron was hit in the No. 2 engine by 20 mm fighter cannon fire. Although the engine caught fire, "Dear Becky" stayed in formation for another two minutes. The crew bailed out just before she exploded, completely disintegrating. All survived to become POWs, except for the copilot, 2Lt Richard E. Prunty. Hooper had flown in "Dear Becky" as copilot on his second combat mission, to Kiel August 30th, and as first pilot with his regular crew to Schweinfurt the 9th of October. It was "Dear Becky" that almost swerved into us over Ludwigshaven the 8th of September when Lt Beasley was hit in the head by flak and knocked onto the controls.
One other plane, No. 311, "Terry's Tiger", (the nickname of the 91st Group, after the Commanding Officer, Col Terry), did not make it back to Bassingbourn that day. She was flown by 1Lt Thomas Martin, Hooper's roommate, and his crew in the No. 3 position in the Second Element of our Low Squadron. 2Lt George F. Miller, a first pilot, flying his first combat familiarization mission was copilot. "Terry's Tiger" was hit by fighter cannon fire well before the target, setting the No. 3 engine afire and knocking out the ball turret and the intercom, as well as causing the No. 1 propeller to run away. Lt Martin feathered the No. 1 engine and headed the falling "Terry's Tiger" towards Allied-controlled France. The bomb load was jettisoned into the Zuider Zee, along with the ball turret and all loose equipment. Still the aircraft lost altitude and was hit in the No. 4 engine by ground fire. With only one engine, Lt Martin made a straight run for the emergency fighter airfield A-83 at Denain/Prouvy, France.
The fire in No. 3 engine left very little power for the aircraft to make a normal approach. Ahead and to the right were houses, to the left, factories. P-38s were scattered all over the field. Lt Martin saw a space between the fighters barely wide enough for "Terry's Tiger" to thread through and headed for it, coming in a little high. The area around the air base had just been liberated from the Germans. Since it was Sunday, a number of civilians from near-by villages were wandering around looking at the new American planes. Unfortunately, just as "Terry's Tiger" touched down, a French woman with her two small children in her hands ran into the path of the plane and were killed. There are no exemptions from death in war, even on a Sunday afternoon outing. "Terry's Tiger" was declared salvage on the 11th of December.
No. 069, "Round Trip Topsy", Bill Arthur's plane while he was in the 401st Squadron, on loan to the 323rd Squadron for this mission, was flown by 1Lt Warren T. Smith, this time flying as first pilot. They flew in the No. 3 position of the Third Element of the High Squadron. About half an hour before the target, "Topsy" took a number of 20 mm cannon hits that damaged the No. 2 engine, caught the left wing on fire, shredded the tail surfaces, cut off oxygen to the rear of the plane, knocked out much of the instrument panel, jammed the ball turret and tail guns, and sprung the bomb bay doors open. In spite of all this, "Topsy" continued on to the target. However, the bomb releases were jammed and the bombs would not drop. S/Sgt James L. Matthews, the togglier, was finally able to jettison the bombs on the way back by tugging and kicking at the shackles.
For three hours the crew fought the fire, but she continued to burn, eventually taking out the No. 2 engine, causing Round Trip Topsy to start losing altitude. Still, "Topsy" was flying and the fires did not seem to be spreading. Lt Smith followed at a safe distance behind the formation so as not to take out any other planes should they blow up. Over the Channel they picked up an escort from a flight of P-47s. When they reached England, Lt Smith headed for the first landing field he could find, barely making it to the 56th Fighter Group base at Halesworth. The windshield was iced over and a landing flap was jammed, causing "Topsy" to swerve off the runway and pile into two trucks and a concrete mixer. "Topsy" immediately became a flaming inferno. The crew scrambled out safely. In a few minutes, only the tips of the wings were left. But, Lt Smith had brought his crew home safely again. This was Lt Smith's third close call. For his action that day, Lt Smith was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In spite of all the flak, our trip was relatively routine. We dropped all six of our 1,000 pounders on target and had no serious damage. There were just a few small holes when we landed at 1430 hours.
After the mission of 26 November, Lt Smith went to the 323rd Squadron Operations Officer, Maj William E. Reid, and told him he did not want to fly as first pilot any more. He said his missions as first pilot had been rough and he wanted to fly only as copilot. After some discussion, Lt Smith finally admitted that he had the premonition he was going to be killed and did not want to take any of his friends with him. Lt Smith requested that he be assigned to fly as copilot with new crews arriving at Bassingbourn. Maj Reid told him he could not break up new crews by honoring his request. This would be bad for the morale of crews who had trained together. Maj Reid gave Lt Smith a three-day pass to go to London with a friend to get his mind off himself. He was back the next day wanting to fly. Maj Reid then offered to let Lt Smith fly as his copilot or as tail gunner and formation coordinator when he was flying Group Lead. Or, he would allow him to cut short his combat tour and return home. Even though Lt Smith had a wife, Virginia, and a daughter, Sally, back in Rapid City, South Dakota and emotionally was extremely attached to his family, he refused to be relieved of flying before finishing his tour. When Lt McConnell heard of what was being discussed, he asked Lt Smith fly as his copilot. Lt McConnell said he would pass up being a Lead pilot, if Lt Smith would stay on as his copilot. Lt Smith finally agreed to this and went back to flying with his original crew.
On Monday, the 27th of November I was loaned to 1Lt Neil K. Gehret and his crew of the 401st Squadron. We flew in the No. 2 position of the Third Element of the Lead Squadron to the marshalling yards at Offenburg. Wednesday, the 29th, I was back with the 324th. Hooper and his crew flew with me to the synthetic oil refineries at Misburg. Both were easy missions.
On the 30th of November Hooper and his crew were aboard once more. A new first pilot, 2Lt Joseph A. Bartush, flew as copilot for his introduction to combat flying. Lt. Hickinbotham flew as copilot for 2Lt William Auth in No. 596, "Sweet Dish." The 324th was the High Squadron; we flew No. 3 in the Second Element. Near us on the taxiway that morning was a new silver plane, No. 936, that had come in to Bassingbourn the day before. The ground crew had worked all night to prepare her for today's mission to the synthetic oil plant at Zeitz. Cpt Iver O. Tufty was her pilot.
Flak that day was only moderate, but very accurate. As we approached the target, No. 936 was hit, wounding Cpt Tufty, the copilot, 2Lt Arthur R. Bart, and the tail gunner, S/Sgt Joseph M. Albury. Cpt Tufty had a deep wound in the back of his leg. Lt Bart was hit in the front of the right leg and his ankle was shattered. Lt Bart was taken down into the nose to stabilize his leg. Although bleeding badly, Cpt Tufty remained at the controls. Only after they were out of the major flak concentrations would Cpt Tufty allow the crew to put a tourniquet on his leg. The No. 1 and 2 engines were knocked out and the plane was losing altitude rapidly. The crew tossed out all the removable equipment, but the plane kept going down. As they approached the cloud cover at about 4,000 ft, Cpt Tufty said they would have to bail out if they went into the clouds. Unfortunately, in their haste to prepare the plane for the mission the ground crew had forgotten to include the tools needed to release the ball turret. In some manner or other, the crew was able to pry it loose using a couple of pliers and the .50 caliber machine gun barrels. After the ball turret fell away, No. 936 leveled off. But, Cpt Tufty was able to get No. 936 only as far as Belgium, where he landed at an advanced airbase south of Louvain. On landing, there were no brakes and the plane ran off the runway, the left wheel dropping into a bomb crater causing the wing to hit the ground and buckle. Cpt Tufty got his crew down safely. It was the last time Cpt Tufty would fly. No. 936 was not ready to fly again until 22 March.
No. 742, on loan from the 322nd for this mission, was flown by 2Lt Ralph E. Stoltz and his crew. Lt Stoltz had been our copilot just four days earlier. This was their first mission together as a crew. They were flying No. 3 in the Third Element of our Low Squadron. We were flying across from them as No. 3 in the Second Element. Two minutes after the target, No. 742 took a direct hit. She fell out of the formation and exploded, completely disintegrating, scattering wreckage over several miles. Only the navigator, 2Lt George A. Minich, was blown free to survive as a POW.
Despite the accurate flak, we received no hits and dropped our bomb load, twenty 250 pound general purpose bombs on the target. The trip home was uneventful, with touch-down at 1743 hours.
Saturday night, December 1st, was "party time" once again for the crews of the 91st. The "Take It Easy" USO Show was at Bassingbourn for a performance. East Anglia was socked in and the Group was stood down for the next three days because of the foul weather conditions. The pressure of flying combat was off temporarily so the
crews could kick back and enjoy the show. However, girls were not brought in this time. This was simply "take a rest and enjoy a break from flying" time.
Tuesday, the 4th of December, it was back to business, the marshalling yards at Kassel. 1Lt Norman Kimmel and crew flew with me that day while Hooper's crew was given a break from flying. A milk run. The next day the Group went to Berlin. The 324th was stood down for that mission. I was preflighted and loaded as a Spare, but was not needed, thus, missing my second chance to fly to Berlin. The 322nd, flying as High Squadron, put up 12 planes; three failed to return--No. 234, "Easy Does It"; No. 360, "Bride of Mars"; and No. 693. No. 596, "Sweet Dish", flown by F/O Robert W. Roach's crew, made it back, but was hit so badly over the target that the crew thought she was going down. Three--navigator, F/O George Alexander, togglier, Sgt Elden Larsen, and flight engineer, Sgt Robert H. Faulkner, bailed out to become POWs. On Saturday, the 9th, Hooper and his crew were aboard as we went to the marshalling yards at Stuttgart, followed by a trip to more marshalling yards at Frankfurt the next Monday and once again to the Leuna synthetic oil refineries at Merseburg on Tuesday, the 12th. All three were routine missions, including, uncharacteristically, Merseburg.
Only the 324th Squadron went up the 18th. The mission was to provide a screening by dropping aluminum foil strips, "chaff", over Luxembourg to confuse German radar directed at tactical bomber strikes by the rest of the 1st and the 3rd Air Divisions against German ground troops fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. I was designated as a Spare, but did not fly. Hooper and his crew flew in No. 174.
On the 24th the 8th Air Force gave the Germans a memorable Christmas Eve present. The largest number of heavy bombers ever put up on a single day during the war was sent out, 1,884 of which made it to their targets over the continent. While we were taxiing to the runway, the No. 3 engine magneto failed, necessitating a return to the hardstand and a quick switch to a Spare, No. 083, "Happy Valley Express", from the 323rd (who happened to have the same last three digits in her serial number as had "Man-O War II"). They took off at 1122 hours, an hour and 17 minutes behind schedule, but were in formation at 1154. As per his usual routine, Hooper had placed his oxygen mask in the rigging next to his seat as he was going through the preflight checks. In the mad scramble to move to "Happy Valley Express", you guessed it, he forgot to grab his mask. Hooper flew the entire mission sucking on the oxygen tube itself-- kind of hard on his throat, but he made it through the mission OK.
Upon arriving back in England, the 91st found that Bassingbourn was "socked in" so badly the planes had to divert to the 94th Bomb Group base at Bury St Edmonds. Because of the large number of extra personnel, there was no room for them in the limited base billeting. The crews ate C-rations for their evening meal and spent the night in their planes. A very cold and an unforgettable Christmas Eve for the crewmen. The next morning the crews were trucked back to Bassingbourn for a Christmas Day meal. Skeleton crews went back to Bury St Edmonds the day after Christmas to fly the planes home.
Our next mission was Thursday, December 28th, to the Ludendorf railroad bridge over the Rhine at Remagen. This time all engines checked out and we took off on schedule at 0934 hours. At 0955, while still circling upward to form up, Hooper noticed a little flame flickering from No. 1 engine. Normally, this would have meant an abort. Since this promised to be a short, easy mission, Hooper and the crew didn't want to miss it. Hooper circled the base as they watched the fire awhile. To be on the safe side, Hooper told the crew to be ready to bail out. Lt Haley went aft to help the rear crew with their chutes. Sgt Johnson stayed with the pilots to assist in determining what to do about the fire. The four enlisted men lined up at the side fuselage door, with Lt Haley in the rear, as he felt he should as an officer. Sgt Kananen was trying to read the instructions on how to open the door, but with little success. Finally, Lt Haley went to the front of the line to get the door ready to open.
In the mean time the fire didn't seem to be growing so Hooper opened the cowl flaps hoping to blow it out. That didn't work. He next tried shutting off the gas to the engine and diving downward letting the prop windmill to suck all the fuel out of the system. In a few minutes, at 1025 hours, the fire went out. Hooper then cautiously restarted the engine as he continued to circle the base; the fire did not reappear. The crew went back to their flight positions. At 1118, under full power, we headed for the coast, caught up with the Group, moved into our assigned space as Lead of the Second Element of the Low Squadron, and completed the mission. Kind of scary, but we lucked out. Apparently gas was dripping onto a magneto, causing the fire. Not certain why it started or why it stopped leaking. Luther checked out the gas lines as OK that night.
After we completed the bomb run, Lt Haley found that the bomb bay doors would not come up. After working at them for some time, he decided to hit the salvo switch, which frequently would break loose any ice jamming the doors. He asked Sgt McCullough to stick his head out of the radio
compartment and check the bays for any hung-up bombs. When told the racks were clear, Lt Haley hit the switch. And, out fell one of the two 1,000 pounders we had carried! It had hung up when the others dropped. Lt Haley assumed Sgt McCullough had not actually looked into the bomb bays. When the bomb fell away we were over Allied territory. The navigators on the other planes dutifully recorded the event and location. Apparently no one on the ground was hit. However, Manny Klette was most upset when we got back. He threatened to make Lt Haley "walk the perimeter" of the base, but never did.
The Group missed the bridge, hitting only the access roads. I hesitate to think how many men would have been killed later had we done our job that day. By missing the target, the bridge was still there for the ground troops to use in establishing a beachhead across the Rhine in March 1945.
On the 29th, the 324th was scheduled to fly in a Composite Group, but the mission was scrubbed. The other three squadrons flew to Wittlich. The 324th went up again on the 31st, to Bitburg. Hooper and his crew flew once again in No. 083, "Happy Valley Express." I was designated a Deputy Spare, but was not needed.
We started off the New Year of 1945 with a scheduled flight to the oil refineries at Merseburg on January 1st, but diverted to Kassel when we found Merseburg clouded over. No. 911, "Heats On", of the 401st Squadron, on her 92nd mission and flown by 1Lt Earl J. Jeffers, had an engine fail on take-off. Lt Jeffers tried to put her down on the nearby 355th Fighter Group base at Steeple Morden, the main runway of which was directly in the flight path from runway 25 at Bassingbourn. Back on the 6th of March 1944, 2Lt Walter Wildinson in No. 761, "Blue Dreams", had made a similar emergency landing at Steeple Morden. Although the crew forgot to lower the landing gear and completely wrecked the aircraft, no one in "Blue Dreams" or on the ground was injured. But, as "Heats On" touched down, for some unknown reason she careened into a P-51 dispersal area, striking parked aircraft and exploded, killing all 9 of the crew aboard. There are all sorts of ways to die in an air war. Several of the fighter base ground crew members were seriously injured, but none was killed. For us the mission was uneventful. A newly arrived first pilot, 2Lt H. John Madsen, flew with us as copilot. It was his first combat mission.
Then followed routine missions to the communications center and rail yards at Prum on the 2nd of January and the marshalling yards at Coblenz the 5th. Milk runs. Saturday, the 6th, we headed for the Deutz Road suspension bridge over the Rhine at Cologne. We flew Lead of the Second Element of the High Squadron. On the way over we saw our first V-2 rockets, two of them headed for London; the last one was in the air near Aachen. Owing to heavy cloud cover over the primary target, we diverted to the marshalling yards within the city.
1Lt Cecil G. McConnell's crew from the 323rd Squadron was Group Deputy Lead. They were flying in No. 501, "Jeanie", a 379th Bomb Group "Mickey Plane" on loan to the 91st for the day. 2Lt Warren T. Smith flew as copilot, only his fourth mission after refusing the offer to return home to his family. The Group Lead for that day was Maj William O. Reid, by now CO of the 323rd Squadron. It was Maj Reid's policy when returning from the target to follow the Group ahead in file, so as to observe and try to avoid any flak coming up at the bomber stream.
On that mission there was only very light and scattered anti-aircraft fire so he took no evasive action. Ten minutes beyond the target four isolated bursts occurred within the 91st Group formation. Unfortunately, the second one hit "Jeanie" in the right wing setting it on fire and throwing the plane into a slow flat downward spin. No. 3 engine also became engulfed in fire and the crew began bailing out. Lt Smith was hit by flak fragments and slumped down over the control column. Lt McConnell put the plane on autopilot and picked Lt Smith up under his arms and dragged him to the nose escape hatch. Lt Smith came to in time for both of them to bail out of the burning plane. The navigator, F/O Donald E. Williams, bombardier, 2Lt Alan G. Hillman, and flight engineer, T/Sgt George G. Turner, were killed in the air. The following day Lt Smith, died of his wounds in a German hospital. He would not return to Rapid City and to Virginia and Sally.
No. 880, "Little Miss Mischief", flown the 6th by 1Lt Herman W. Balaban's crew was on our left wing. She was hit hard by flak just before bombs away. The first burst hit in an inboard engine then an outboard engine was hit. The first engine disintegrated and the other one soon started overheating. Just as we left the target, "Little Miss Mischief" started falling behind the formation. She dropped lower and Lt Balaban saw they could not make it back to England. The navigator, 1Lt Otto J. Krause, told him there was an airfield at Merville, France, so they headed for the field and landed with no additional damage. "Little Miss Mischief" remained at Merville for repairs. She returned to Bassingbourn the 26th of February.
1Lt Tom Martin's crew was flying in No. 151, "Shure Shot", as Lead of the Third Element of our Low Squadron. Before reaching the target, "Shure Shot" started spewing oil from three of her engines and had to turn back with the bombs still aboard. Lt Martin headed for an emergency air strip at Denain-Prouvy, France. Because of the poor condition of the field, they had to make a wheels-up landing. As "Shure Shot" skidded to a halt, she broke almost in half. However, none of the crew was hurt--just shaken. They returned to home three days later. "Shure Shot" was eventually restored to flying condition, but did not return to Bassingbourn until March 13th.
Our next mission was to the airfield at Ostheim on the 10th of January. Visibility was very bad as we took off at 0903 hours. We circled Bassingbourn until 1050 before being able to form up the Group. Once we got into our assigned position, Lead of the Second Element of the Low Squadron, the mission was a quiet one for us. Even with the problems of forming up, we got to the target ahead of schedule, thus missing contact with our fighter support. Fortunately, the Luftwaffe was not up that day.
No. 988, "The B.T.O.", flying on our right wing was unable to drop on the target and held onto her bombs. Shortly after leaving the target, "B.T.O." experienced engine failure. Unable to maintain flying speed, the pilot, 2Lt John Martin had to put her down at Evere Airfield, B-58, at Brussels. Visibility was also extremely poor over Belgium and he overshot the runway, hit a C-47 and careened into a hanger. In the ensuing fire the bombs exploded, destroying "The B.T.O.", the hanger and several British aircraft. The ball turret and tail gunners, S/Sgts Woodrow R. Cornett and Howard C. Broaddus, were killed in the landing.
We saw two B-17s from another Group go down, one spinning out of control; no chutes. The other fell away with the left wing and No. 1 and 2 engines afire; one chute. Two B-17s from the 379th Group collided over the target; one had most of its tail cut off, but continued on a level flight for about 15 minutes before spinning down out of control. Both eventually went down; one chute.
Monday January 15th was an interesting day. Although another routine mission to the marshalling yards at Ingolstadt, it was not a routine mission for Hooper. This was his 35th, and last, mission. We flew Lead of the Third Element of the Lead Squadron. As soon as we took off, Lt Margolis saw the Indicated Air Speed gauge was not working. You have to know your air speed to navigate. A quick look out the left side cheek gun window revealed the problem. The canvas cover was still on the pitot tube, into which the air flows to give the air speed. Since this was Hooper's last mission, they did not want to abort what was to be an easy one. Sgt Johnson came down from the top turret and with a wrench broke out a piece of the Plexiglas in the rear of the cheek gun bubble. He simply reached out and flicked the cover off the pitot tube. Then he wedged the Plexiglas back in place and we were in business. The rest of the mission was uneventful. We saw another V-2 on its way to England at 1040 hours. Touch down at Bassingbourn was 1557 hours and the war was over for Hooper.
Hooper, a quiet, reserved, no nonsense, fly-it-by-the-book, highly proficient pilot had taken me into some tight situations, and brought me home safely 21 times. The rest of the crew finished out their missions flying as fill-ins in different crews.
John Madsen Crew
The next crew assigned to me was that of 2Lt H. John Madsen. John had flown his first combat mission as copilot with Hooper on our mission to Kassel on the 1st. The rest of his crew included: copilot, 2Lt David Bullen; navigator, F/O Irvin W. Cannon; bombardier, 2Lt Robert J. Starr; top turret gunner/flight engineer, Sgt Boyd A. Weems; radio operator, Sgt Fred Ward; waist gunner, Sgt Everett R. Ayres; ball turret gunner, Sgt Andrew M. Schumacher; tail gunner, S/Sgt Charles L. Coon. Sgt Coon had flown 50 missions with the 15th Air Force in Italy, returned to the States, became restless and volunteered for another tour. The Madsen crew had flown only one mission together, the 10th of January in No. 623, to Ostheim.
While discussing my special quirks with John and his crew, Luther asked if he might change my name to that of his 4-year old daughter, Jean. Jean and her mother were living with the Grandparents back in Melroy, Pennsylvania. The crew had no special name in mind so told him to go ahead. Luther had Tony Starcer leave the nose art of "Lady Lois" in place and paint the new name, "Little Jean", in medieval script. I was the second plane in the 324th Squadron to carry this name. The first "Little Jean", No. 230, had been shot down 11 January 1944 over Oschersleben, on her second mission and before her name was painted on the nose. Only four of 2Lt Allan A. Uskela's crew (copilot, 2Lt Gilbert R. Helms; navigator, 2Lt G. William Potter; bombardier, 2Lt Robert G. Morgan; flight engineer, Sgt Bernard D. Offley) survived to become POWs.
John's first mission with me, to the marshalling yards at Paderborn, on the 17th of January, was an easy one. Although No. 4 engine ran rough the entire mission, we were able to maintain our place in the formation, No. 2 of the Second Element of the High Squadron. The next mission, on Saturday the 20th, was to the Mannheim railroad bridge over the Rhine at Ludwigshaven. Routine. Sunday, the 324th stood down, but I was designated as a Spare. When 1Lt Earl W. Scofield, of the 323rd, found his assigned plane, No. 083, "Happy Valley Express", was not up to the mission, he and his crew switched over to me. Lt Scofield had been copilot on "Round Trip Topsy" when Lt Smith crash landed her at Halesworth. On the 24th of December "Happy Valley Express" had filled in for me when I could not fly. I was now able to return the favor. We took off at 0832 hours, caught up with the formation and flew to the marshalling yards at Aschaffenburg as No. 3 in the Lead Element of the Low Squadron. Another milk run.
John and his crew were back aboard the next day, the 22nd, when we went to the Holten synthetic oil plant at Sterkrade. We took off at 1031 hours and moved into the No. 2 position in the Second Element of the Lead Squadron. Flak over the target was intense, a lot of red bursts. One 88 shell entered behind the left waist window, exiting through the tail and vertical fin. It left a gaping 18 inch hole in the waist and a two foot hole in the fuselage and tail fin. The shell also broke loose the radio beacon marker box in the rear of the fuselage. The box went flying forward, hitting Sgt Ayers on the ankle causing a bad bruise, but no wound. Sgt Ayers yelled out over the intercom that he had been hit. Sgt Schumacher thought it sounded bad so he rotated the ball turret to where he could come up into the plane. When he did, Sgt Ayers was sitting on the floor laughing at what had happened. Flak tore out all the control cables on the left side and two cables on the right side as well as cutting the hydraulic lines. There were other holes, one in the ball turret only an inch from Sgt Schumacher's rear end. In spite of all the damage to the controls and hydraulic system, John put me down on the runway at 1455 hours as if a routine landing. But, it would be almost two weeks before I would fly again--a lot of repairs and a lot work for Luther and his crew.
No. 083, "Happy Valley Express" was back in the air on this mission, with 1Lt Nelson D. Van Blarcom as pilot, flying in the No. 2 position in the Second Element of the 322nd Low Squadron. She was hit over the target, knocking out the No. 3 and 4 engines and most of the electrical system and setting the right wing on fire. The flight engineer, S/Sgt Clare E. Stanbury, cut a hole through the bomb bay wall into the wing and got the fire out by emptying an extinguisher into the cavity. They tossed out all loose equipment and jettisoned the ball turret. Still Lt Van Blarcom could not make it back to Bassingbourn. They limped back as far as the isolated clandestine operations air base at Metfield where they crash-landed. "Happy Valley Express" was salvage. An old friend gone. She had flown 49 missions.
February 3rd. Berlin! My first trip to "Big B." The red line ran to Berlin when the curtain was pulled back at the 0435 hours briefing. This mission, the fifteenth to Berlin and the first the 8th Air Force had flown there in two months, was to provide support for the Russian Army, which had just crossed the Oder River and was approaching to within less than 40 miles of the German capital. The German 6th Panzer Army was deploying to the Eastern Front. We were to disrupt its trains as they passed through Berlin by knocking out the rail yards.
The mission originally had been scheduled for the 2nd, but owing to heavy cloud cover over the city, had been scrubbed. Since the foul weather promised to continue for several days, some of the crews were given passes to go off base. Manny Klette, who was to lead the Group, was given permission to go to London to see his girlfriend. Shortly after he left Bassingbourn, word came down that the clouds over the target had dissipated and the mission was back on for the 3rd. The 324th was the Lead Squadron.
LTC Marvin D. Lord, the Group Operations Officer, who had transferred to Group from the 401st Squadron the 1st of December, volunteered to lead the Group. LTC Lord earlier had transferred to the 401st Squadron from the 381st Bomb Group at Ridgewell, where he had flown his 25 missions. However, he had not yet been to Berlin and was eager to Lead. The Lead plane, No. 632 of our Squadron, was the same one in which Lt Lowe and Sgt Pitts had been wounded on 8 September and that had survived as Lead of the 2 November Merseburg mission. On the 3rd of February No. 632 was flown by 1Lt Frank L. Adams with LTC Lord in the copilot's seat. The rest of the crew consisted of Manny's experienced lead crew. The radio operator, T/Sgt J. P. Holbrook had flown 78 missions, the engineer, T/Sgt David C. McCall, 80 and the waist gunner, T/Sgt George R. Zenz, 104. The bombardier, Nando, "Tony", Cavalieri, had been promoted to captain, effective that morning.
I was flown by John's crew. The crews were at their stations at 0620 hours. We started engines at 0650, taxied at 0655, lifted off at 0716 hours and formed up as No. 3 in the Fourth Element, Tail End Charlie, a bad place to be over Berlin. At 1045 hours, about half an hour before the target, two B-17s, No. 697 and No. 387, "Maude n' Maria", from the 398th Group directly ahead of us collided. Both broke in two and fell. Only three of the eighteen crewmen on board the two aircraft survived.
As expected, flak over the target was especially intense. Lots of red bursts all around us. Immediately after bombs away, No. 632 took a direct hit amidships and broke apart in front of the radio operator's position. The front end dropped away and exploded throwing debris and crew all over the sky, the main wreckage falling onto Bellevue-Allee in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate. The rear portion sailed along as if in formation for a few seconds, slowly tipping over before spinning downward. Sgt Holbrook was slumped over his table, apparently already dead. The "Mickey" operator, Cpt Norman L. Whelan, slowly slid out into space. No parachute--25,000 ft down. Four chutes appeared from the plane. That of the tail gunner, 2Lt Donald J. Shoemaker, a pilot who was flying as the formation coordinator, became entangled in the tail section and was pulled down with it. None of the others survived in the holocaust that was below.
No. 085, "Yankee Belle", flying on the left wing of the Lead, was hit at almost the same instant as was No. 632, by flak and a piece or two of debris from No. 632. The No. 3 and 4 engines were knocked out and No. 2 was not pulling full power. All the control cables, except for those to the elevators, were severed. The first pilot, 1Lt George F. Miller, (who had been copilot with Lt Tom Martin when they crash-landed "Terry's Tiger" in France on the 26th of November) and the copilot, 2Lt Walter V. Marxmeyer, put "Yankee Belle" into a dive to attain extra speed so as to keep from spinning out. They also engaged the autopilot aileron and rudder controls, while using the regular controls for the elevators, to get more control of the plane. The pilots were able to feather No. 2 and 4 and the prop spun off No. 3. Even though the crew tossed out all loose equipment, "Yankee Belle" was loosing 500 ft per minute. By this time the plane was too low for the crew to bail out. Although they had been briefed to head for Russian lines in such a situation, Lt Miller did not think it wise to cross the German-Russian front lines at so low an altitude. He asked the navigator, F/O Asay R. Johnson, plot a course to Sweden. But, she was too badly damaged even to make it there. The pilots crash-landed "Yankee Belle" in a large muddy farm field near the small village of Demmin, about 20 km south of Altentreptow. All the crew survived to become POWs.
Four minutes after bombs away, No. 873, "The Joker II", of the following 381st Group, with 2Lt John B. Anderson's crew aboard, dropped out of the formation, went down in a spin and exploded. Lt Anderson was killed. The rest of the crew survived as POWs. All told, 27 B-17s from all Groups operational that day went down. Although we flew Tail End Charlie, there were only three flak holes when we touched down at Bassingbourn at 1510 hours.
There then followed rather routine missions to the marshalling yards at Gotha on the 6th and to Dresden on the 15th. The latter was the secondary target when we found the oil refineries at Ruhland to be clouded over. A British raid of the night of February 13-14th had created a horrendous fire storm that almost completely reduced the center of Dresden to ashes. There was not much left for us to lay waste to. For the first time there was expressed displeasure on the part of the crews regarding their target. We had dropped on the center of the city. Many were upset at bombing a purely civilian target. We were tasked for strategic strikes at industrial and military targets. The idea of bombing civilians went against their sense of morality, even in a total war.
The next day, Friday the 16th, we went to the Benzol Plant at Gelsenkirchen. Flak was very heavy over the target, but no one was lost from the 91st and I had only a few small holes. I was back in the air the 19th, this time flown by 1Lt Theodore N. Santos and his crew as Lead of the Second Element of the Low Squadron to the synthetic oil works at Dortmund. Another milk run. The next day the 324th stood down. I was loaned to the 401st and flown by 2Lt Richard I. Edward's crew in the No. 3 position in the Third Element of the Lead Squadron. Except for the flight engineer, T/Sgt George R. Simons, who was on his 35th and final mission, Lt Edwards' crew was new. The target was the marshalling yards at Nurnberg.
German fighters were not up that day, but the flak over Nurnberg was especially intense. No. 490, "Wicked Witch", flown by 1Lt Eddie R. McKnight of the 323rd as Lead of the Third Element of the Low Squadron, took a hit just below the pilots compartment as they passed over the target. The ensuing explosion caused a fire that poured from the copilot's side of the plane. As "Wicked Witch" fell away, an explosion was seen to erupt in the bomb bays. Only the copilot, 2Lt Milton C. Rohr, navigator, 2Lt Peter M. Chamberlain, and tail gunner, Sgt Elmer B. Russell, survived.
A flak hit before the target caused two of our six 500 pound general purpose bombs to hang up in the bomb bay when we dropped. Sgt Simons went down to kick them free. When the first fell free the bombardier, F/O Charles S. Perlman, assumed they both had dropped and began closing the doors. The armed second bomb barely cleared the closing doors. We took additional flak hits over the target that shot out the elevator cables making it difficult to land. Lt Edwards waited until all the other planes were down before coming in, touching down at 1639 hours. A good job of landing.
Luther had everything back in order for John and his crew Monday, the 26th, for our second trip to Berlin. As before, the 324th was the Lead Squadron. Manny Klette was in the Lead plane, No. 651, "Lorraine", flown by Cpt Weldon L. Brubaker. This time we flew No. 3 in the Second Element. Again, we hit railroad yards. Heavy flak, as expected, but no damage to us and no losses from the 91st. Next day it was marshalling yards at Leipzig where the flak was also intense. The No. 3 engine supercharger went out before the target, but we were able to maintain our position in the formation through the bomb run. We could not keep up with the formation after the target, however, and left the formation at 1415 hours to return alone. Lt Starr, who was acting as navigator on this mission, plotted a more direct route to Bassingbourn. Fortunately, there were no German fighters in the air and we touched down safely at 1730 hours, about 45 minutes before the rest of the Group arrived.
The next mission, 2nd of March, 2Lt John Martin's crew (who had crash-landed "The B.T.O." in Brussels, the 10th of January) was aboard. We started for the synthetic oil refinery at Bohlen, but the target was clouded over so we went on to the marshalling yards at Chemnitz. Routine. John Madsen and crew were back with me on the 4th to fly to marshalling yards at Reutlingen after finding the primary target, the Klickner Humbolt factory at Ulm, clouded over. Next, it was to the Agust Victoria benzyl refineries at Racklinghausen on the 8th, and marshalling yards at Kassel the 9th. Heavy flak over the latter target, but only a few small holes. Then, it was to marshalling yards and railway works at Sinsen on the 10th, the bridge over the Weser River at Vlotho the 14th, and marshalling yards at Oranienburg the 15th of March. Although not very heavy, the flak was accurate over the latter target. A nearby B-17, No. 562, "Katy", from the 398th Group was hit and went down.
The 19th we dropped our bomb load, ten 500 pounders, on the city of Plauen, when the primary target, the synthetic oil refineries at Bohlen, was found to be clouded over. Two days later it was to the Me 262 jet fighter air field at Rheine/Salzbergen. Both were easy missions. Four Me 163, "Comet", rocket fighter aircraft made a run at the formation over Rheine, but with no ill effects. On the 22nd, Dave Bullen moved over to the left seat for a mission to hit military encampments at Dorsten; 2Lt Philip J. Pulgiese flew copilot. Nothing unusual happened to us.
No. 806 of the 323rd, with 2Lt Matthew J. Templeton's crew aboard, was flying in the No. 2 position of the Second Element of the High Squadron. Just at "bombs away" a shell burst directly in front of the right wing, knocking out both the No. 3 and 4 engines. The bombardier, F/O William J. Green, Jr., had just sung out "Bombs Away." Back in the radio compartment, the radio operator, Sgt Edward. W. Cummings looked out into the bomb bay to ensure all the bombs had fallen and called out "Bombs ___." He did not finish. A small piece of flak came through the compartment, went through his first aid kit and hit him in the chest, killing him instantly. The copilot, 2Lt Dean A. Turner, was also hit hard in the right arm by the same flak burst.
With both engines on the same side out, No. 806 rolled over and fell out of the formation, dropping about 6,000 feet down to 18,000 feet. Lt Turner remained at the controls long enough to help Lt Templeton gain control of the aircraft. He then went into the nose compartment to have his wound attended to. Sgt Earl R. Roach, the spot jammer, went forward to the copilot's seat to help Lt Templeton. Sgt Roach had 50 hours of solo flying time, but had not flown a B-17. Lt Templeton had to draw full power from the No. 1 and 2 engines to remain in the air. With full power on one side of the plane, the left rudders had to be jammed forward as hard as possible to keep No. 806 flying in a straight line. This was a strenuous task. Knowing they could not make it back to Bassingbourn, Lt. Templeton headed for the nearest emergency field on the continent, B-58 near Brussels.
As they turned to make the landing approach, because of fatigue from fighting the controls, Lt Templeton came in too high. When he went to lower the landing flaps, he discovered the controls were not working. He yelled for the flight engineer, Sgt Rolland E. Abbott, to lift the wheels. No. 806 sailed on about a mile beyond the end of the runway. Lt Templeton and Sgt Roach together finally brought No. 806 down in a wheels-up landing in a vacant field. The aircraft went sliding along the field, through a small stand of trees, the wings cleanly clipping off three or four of them, and nosed through a trolley embankment, before coming to rest. No fire, but No. 806 was salvage.
Following the Dorsten mission, John and his crew took off for a two-week "rest and relaxation" (R and R) leave in Scotland.
Saturday, 24 March the 91st flew two missions in support of "Operation Varsity", a large airborne drop of British and American troops across the Rhine. In the morning the 322nd, 324th and 401st Squadrons went to the airfields at Vechta. The afternoon mission was a Composite Group, formed by one Squadron each from the 91st (the 323rd Squadron), 381st and 398th Groups, that hit the Twente-Enscheden Airdrome in Holland. 2Lt George E. McEwen was scheduled to fly me on the first mission. However, there were problems at engine run-up and he switched to No. 263, "Ragan's Raiders", a Spare from the 323rd, taking off an hour after the others, but catching up with the formation. By the afternoon mission, Luther had me in working order again and I was taken up by 1Lt Ralph M. Dean of the 323rd and his crew. We took off at 1423 hours and flew in the No. 3 position in the Second Element of the High Squadron. We encountered only meagre, inaccurate flak. No damage. Touch down was at 1945 hours.
On the 28th the 91st went back to Berlin. For my third trip to the "Big B" I was flown by 2Lt Clarence E. Brooks and his crew as No. 2 in the Fourth Element of the High Squadron. After reaching 10,000 feet and going onto oxygen, we had problems with the supply to the pilot and top turret. The navigator, 2Lt Irwin Moldafsky, made some quick adjustments and the oxygen started flowing again. We remained with the formation. As usual, a lot of intense red flak over the city, but no damage. Although the weather turned lousy on the return, we made it home OK, with touch down at 1412 hours. Next it was to the U-boat yards at Bremen on Friday the 30th of March, with 2Lt Harry V. Camp's crew aboard. The flak was furious, but only a few holes appeared in the fuselage. Our oxygen system went out as we approached the North Sea on the return so we left the formation, dropped down low and went the rest of the way to Bassingbourn on our own, touching down at 1725 hours.
Saturday, the 31st, once more was a stand-down for the 324th and I was designated a Deputy Lead Spare. 1Lt George E. Shoup of the 401st switched from his assigned plane, No. 754, to me. We flew Deputy Lead of the Lead Squadron to the secondary target, the railway station at Halle. The primary target, the Leuna synthetic oil refineries at Merseburg, was clouded over. At the target, the 323rd Low Squadron found themselves on a collision course with a Squadron from another Group that was coming in on the target from the wrong direction and had to make a 360 to get out of the way. Some wild maneuvering resulted, with planes on collision courses all over the place. Fortunately, no collisions, just a bunch of crewmen with dry mouths. Only five of the 12 aircraft of the Low Squadron were able to drop their bombs. We dropped our nineteen 300 pounders and two M-47 incendiaries with no problem.
In April, John and his crew were back from R and R. On the 4th we flew No. 3 in the Second Element of the Lead Squadron to the airfield at Fassberg. 2Lt Edgar M. Moyer's crew was flying in No. 880, "Little Miss Mischief", that day. As they climbed away from Bassingbourn to form up near the North Sea, the No. 1 engine cut out and had to be feathered. Then No. 4 stopped pulling full power. They had no choice but to circle back for a landing at Bassingbourn with their bombs still aboard and a full load of fuel. On landing there was some confusion between Lt Moyer and the copilot, 2Lt Robert C. Barnes, and the landing flaps were left in the up position. Even though Lt Moyer made a smooth touch-down, they came in a little too hard. The landing gear collapsed and "Little Miss Mischief" went skidding down the runway with sparks flying. As they slid to a stop near an anti-aircraft artillery emplacement there was some fire in escaping gas around the wings.
As soon as "Little Miss Mischief" slowed down all the crew except the navigator, 2Lt James C. Halligan, who was on his first mission, quickly crawled out and ran and jumped into the emplacement depression. When Lt Moyer saw that Lt Halligan was not there he asked the flight engineer, Sgt Gus T. Goodis, to go get him out. Sgt Goodis looked in the nose window and saw Lt Halligan trying to get out the nose escape hatch, not realizing the nose was flat on the runway. Sgt Goodis broke out a Plexiglas window through which Lt Halligan crawled. They dived back into the gun emplacement, expecting the bombs to go off any second.
Just at this time the emergency fire crews arrived. Not seeing any of the crew around the plane, the major in charge sent his men in the plane to extract the crew. It was then that the crew of "Little Miss Mischief" stuck their heads up to see what was going on. When the major saw them, he went into orbit. He was angry that his men could have been killed while looking for them. However, the crew didn't feel it very wise to stand around exposed with the chance of the bombs going off next to them. In any event, the career of this unusual aircraft was over. "Little Miss Mischief", or "Half and Half", was salvage.
For us the mission was a milk run, no fighters and no flak. A long one, though. Eight hours and ten minutes with touchdown at 1450 hours.
On the 5th we again flew No. 3 in the Second Element, this time in the High Squadron, to the ordnance depot at Grafenwohr. We bombed kind of low, at 17,000 feet, and near Ludwigshaven on the return, ran into a solid mass of middle cloud cover. The formation dropped all the way down to 1,500 feet for the trip back across the continent. Over the North Sea we lifted up a little, to 1,800 feet, continuing at that altitude to Bassingbourn. The 7th, we were No. 3 in the Lead Element of the Low Squadron that went to the air field at Fassberg. The Lead and High Squadrons hit the air field at Kohlenbissen. A relatively easy mission, no fighters and meagre flak.
The air war seemed to be winding down to routine milk runs. There were only a few German fighters coming up at us now and then, most of which were flown by inexperienced pilots. These were readily dispersed by our "little friends", the fighter escorts. Although there was still "red flak" over some of the targets, it was causing relatively little damage. The crews were becoming somewhat complacent in respect to flying their missions.
The 324th didn't fly the 8th of April. But, when the other three Squadrons returned, the stark reality that there was a war, with its danger and death, still going on over the continent came home with vengeance. Two of the "old-timers", No. 504, "Times A-Wastin'", from the 401st, on her 96th mission with 1Lt Peter A. Pastras' crew aboard and No. 333, "Wee Willie", from the 322nd on her 128th mission, flown by 1Lt Robert E. Fuller's crew, went down. Only the flight engineer and radio operator, T/Sgts Lyle D. Jones and Robert A. Smith, survived from Lt Pastras' crew. Lt Fuller was the only survivor from "Wee Willie." Bill Arthur's crew had flown their first mission as a crew in "Times A-Wastin'" on 8 July to Etaples. John's crew had flown in "Times A-Wastin'" on the 3rd of March to the Chemnitz marshalling yards. Bill's crew also had flown in "Wee Willie" to the Opau synthetic oil refineries on 9 September. It was quiet in the Officers Club and enlisted quarters that night.
On the 9th and 10th we were back in the air again, to the Me 262 jet fighter airfields at Oberpfaffenhofen and Oranienburg, flown both times by 1Lt Charles C. Wallace's crew, but with Lt Bullen flying as copilot. Me 262 fighters came up at us on the 9th, but their attacks were broken up by our fighter escorts before anyone was hit.
John's crew was back to fly to the oil storage depot at Freiham on the 11th and to Rochefort on April 15th. The latter was a tactical support mission against a pocket of by-passed German troops at the mouth of the Gironde River that were denying the Allies use of the port of Bordeaux. The entire approach to the target would be over Allied controlled France. Instead of forming up over England, we were requested to fly individually at 7,500 feet to the south of Paris where we would move into formation and climb to 14,900 feet for the run over the target. The crew of No. 936, Lead of the No. 3 Element, convinced their pilot, 1Lt Theodore "Mike" Banta, to make a flight over Paris. After some discussion, he acceded to their request. They flew up the Champs Elysees at 1,000 feet, over the Arc de Triomphe, around the Eiffel Tower and on to the formation point. A grand tour of Paris for them.
This was John's 35th and last mission. No such excitement for us--strictly to the target and home. We lifted off at 0650 hours and flew directly to the south of Paris where we formed up on the left wing of Lt Banta. There was only meagre and inaccurate flak over the target. We touched down at 1430 hours, taxied to the hardstand and John's war was over. He had taken me out and brought me back safely to Bassingbourn 22 times. We had an extra man aboard on this mission. Sgt Charles P. Blauser, one of Luther's ground crew, stowed away to get a taste of air combat. He was disappointed there was no action. The crew did not share in his disillusionment. I, too, was disappointed. It was obvious now that I would see France only from on high.
On the 16th Dave moved over into the left seat once again and flew the rest of the crew, with 2Lt Richard J. Wolfe as copilot, to marshalling yards at Regensburg. Another milk run. But, the next mission, Dave's last with me, was far from a milk run. On the 17th we returned to the marshalling yards at Dresden. We were No. 2 in the Third Element of the Low Squadron. Even though there was very little left of Dresden following the massive raids of 13-15 February, the Germans were still protective of the city. The box barrage of flak was intense and close; we could see numerous red bursts just below us. We were in them a long time.
Three minutes before the target three Me 262s came swarming down through the Second Element. No. 568, "Skunkface III", of our Squadron, was flying across from us in the No. 2 position of the Second Element with 1Lt Harry V. Camp's crew aboard. This was the same crew who had flown me to Bremen just 18 days earlier. Cannon fire from one of the Me 262s tore apart the right wing tip of "Skunkface III." With pieces of metal flying all over the place, she dropped out of the formation, but kept on the bomb run and dropped on the target. As "Skunkface III" left the target, a single P-51 moved in alongside to provide protection, but she eventually went down. We didn't see her go. Only the tail gunner, S/Sgt Herman U. Evans, survived. John and his crew had flown "Skunkface III" to Schwerte the 28th of February. "Skunkface III" was the last 91st plane to be lost in combat. The men of Lt Camp's crew were the last from the 91st Group to be killed in action.
No. 205, "The Ruptured Duck", with 1Lt Edgar M. Moyer as pilot, was flying in the No. 3 position of the Second Element of our Low Squadron. This was the same aircraft in which the copilot, 2Lt Gilbert Willis, had been killed back on the 8th of September 1944 and had been crash-landed in France by Lt Weeks. Although at first considered to be salvage, "The Ruptured Duck" had been repaired and returned to the Bassingbourn on December 11th. "The Ruptured Duck" took Me 262 fighter hits at the same time as did "Skunkface III", wounding the tail gunner, Sgt William F. Joseph, and knocking out the No. 3 and 4 engines and the rudder. Lt Moyer headed for the advanced fighter air base, Y-84, at Giessen, Germany. On the down-wind leg of the approach the No. 2 engine went out. Because of the sudden loss of power and rudder control problems they skidded off the runway when they landed. The plane ended up in a wooded area next to the base. All hands were safe, but this time "The Ruptured Duck" was salvage. John's crew had flown "The Ruptured Duck" to Chemnitz the 2nd of March.
No. 263, "Ragan's Raiders", Lead of the Third Element of the 323rd High Squadron was flown by 1Lt Theodore L. Skawienski. She was attacked by 2-3 Me 262s from 0600 O'clock low just as we came onto the target. On the first pass, a 20 mm cannon shell went through the center of the ball turret, hitting the gunner, S/Sgt Donald W. Pubentz, in the stomach. The exploding shell blew away the rear half of the ball turret and threw Sgt Pubentz partially out of the turret. His body, held by one leg, flopped in the air stream for several seconds before falling away. Only part of one leg was left in the ball turret.
The 262s made a second pass at "Ragan's Raiders", this time hitting the No. 2 engine, knocking off the cowling, and putting holes through the tail. The Tail gunner, S/Sgt Raymond Murakowski, was wounded in the chest. An exploding 20 mm cannon shell drove parts of his flak vest into his body. The force of the explosion also had driven him back against the ammunition box, breaking his right arm. With loss of power in the No. 2 engine, the plane began losing altitude. The crew threw all loose equipment overboard and the flight engineer, S/Sgt Henry L. Lilley, jettisoned what was left of the ball turret. Still the aircraft could not maintain altitude. Lt Skawienski located a bombed-out grass airfield. He was not sure the airfield was in American hands yet, but had no choice. He had to set "Ragan's Raiders" down amongst the bomb craters. Once down the crew discovered the Americans had just taken the field.
Sgt Murakowski was taken to a nearby U S Army field hospital where, along with ground troop casualties, he awaited his turn for surgery. He was finally operated on about 2230 hours. After the surgery was completed, the surgeon, an army major, went to get a drink from the lister bag and was shot and killed by a German sniper. Death plays no favorites in war. The next morning the crew repaired the No. 2 engine, put Sgt Murakowski aboard and flew "Ragan's Raiders" back to Bassingbourn. Sgt Murakowski survived.
As we approached the target, Sgt Weems in the upper turret cut loose with a long burst with his twin .50 calibers that kept going like he would never get a chance to fire them again. The empty casings were bouncing off the metal floor making a tremendous racket throughout the plane. Dave couldn't see what he was shooting at and was afraid he was shooting at one of our own fighter escorts (at high speeds, P-51s look very similar to Me 109s). The 91st had shot down a P-51 the day before. The Group Commander, Col Terry, had read the riot act to the crews at briefing that morning about being careful of whom they shot at on this mission. In fact the P-51 pilot who had been shot down (and who had survived) was there to emphasize the point, not that the bomber crews were overly concerned. Seems as if he had flown through the formation--fair game at such high speeds.
Dave yelled at Sgt Weems over the intercom, asking what he was shooting at. Sgt Weems yelled back "Whatever it was, it was shooting at me, so I shot back." About that time Dave saw a twin-engine Me 262 jet fighter flatten out 2,200 yards below the formation. It had gone by so fast Dave did not see it. Sgt Schumacher had seen the Me 262 flash by, but he had to hold off firing because a B-17 was in his line of fire.
The German fighter then came back at the formation. With it came two other Me 262s. The next attack on us came as a 262 barreled in from 0300 O'clock high. Sgt Schumacher fired on him as he went down past the ball turret, but had to keep his burst short as P-51s were too close on his break away. The next passes were from 0700 O'clock and 1100 O'clock. Both the nose and ball turret fired, but the jet fighters were too fast.
Then it became very hazy with visibility dropping to only 200 yards. There were tracer trails from the B-17 guns, from the P-51s and from the German fighters all over the place. The sky looked like the 4th of July back home. The main worry was shooting down one of our own planes since there were so many bullets going in all directions. Dave snuggled up as close as possible to the Element in front of us for protection. He got so close that the casings from the tail guns of the plane ahead and above us were bouncing off the nose. He had to back off a little. In all the wild maneuvering, No. 623, flown by 2Lt Robert H. Moore, on our left wing swerved to the right and almost forced us out of the formation. Within a few minutes the jet fighters ran out of fuel and broke away.
About an hour and a half after we left Dresden the copilot, F/O Wolfe, told Dave he had to go to the bathroom. Dave told him there wasn't any bathroom on the plane and he would have to hold it. After a while, F/O Wolfe said he had to go badly. So, Dave told him to go back and he would put a crack in the bomb bays. Remember, the bomb bays were just in front of the ball turret. In a short while Sgt Schumacher was yelling like mad over the intercom about what was happening to his tidy ball turret and who was going to scrub it off when they got back. He was very upset, to say the least, and kept raving and ranting at Dave over the intercom. At about the same time Manny Klette, the Squadron Lead, came on the radio asking Dave in a non-too-friendly tone why our bomb bay doors were down an hour and a half after we had dropped our bombs. Dave tried to tell him we had an "emergency" and the doors would be up shortly. Klette kept yelling at him, as did Sgt Schumacher. Dave finally told Sgt Schumacher to shut up and quit yelling over the intercom. He switched off the radio so he would not have to listen to Manny's tirade. The rest of the trip home was quiet.
After all was said and done, we had only a few small holes in the fuselage and wings and a messy ball turret, but there were nine rather unsettled crewmen! We touched down at 1806 hours and taxied to the hardstand. A wild final mission for Dave.
On the 21st 2Lt John E. Nichol's crew flew me in the No. 2 position of the Lead Element of the High Squadron to the marshalling yards at Munich. The crew was at station at 0510 hours, started engines at 0540, taxied at 0545, and lifted off at 0602 hours. We left the English Coast at 0625 hours at 3,600 feet, arrived the continental coast at 0647 at 8,100 feet, hit the IP at 1021 hours at 29,000 feet and dropped all twenty of our 250 pounders on the target at 1038 hours at 29,100 feet, rallied off the target, left the continental coast 1412 hours at 10,000 feet, arrived the English Coast at 1425 at 9,500 feet, and touched down at Bassingbourn at 1536 hours. Very good fighter cover, but no German planes in the air. The flak was meagre and inaccurate. Another milk run. We taxied to the hardstand and shut down the engines. My war was over. Although the 91st Group would fly one more mission, on the 25th of April to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, I was stood down. I would not fly another combat mission.
I was a survivor--74 combat missions, a lot of damage, but still flying. I had flown a total of 535 hours on bombing missions. And, only three aborts. Luther and his crew had done their job. I had taken 190 crew men, and one stow-a-way, out and brought them all home safely. Not one of my crew had been wounded. Fourteen men who had flown with me subsequently were killed when other aircraft in which they were flying were shot down. Twelve more became POWs. Eleven planes in which Bill, Hooper and John and their crews had flown went down on later missions. Forty-nine men on these planes were killed; 43 became POWs. During the eight months I was at Bassingbourn the 91st lost 41 planes to enemy fire, 160 crewmen were killed in action and another 144 became POWs. Of the 60 B-17s present at Bassingbourn when I arrived August 18th, only 22 were still flying when the war ended. I had led a charmed life, thanks in no small part to the proficiency of my ground and flight crews. Dave Bullen said "survival was 90% luck and 10% skill." It was that 10% that made the difference.
On the 13th of May, I made my last flight over the continent. This time 2Lt Philip J. Pugliese, who had flown as copilot to Dorsten on 22 March, flew me to Barth Germany, near the Baltic. We picked up 30 US Air Force POWs who had been interned at Stalag Luft I. We returned them to Laon, France. From there the ex-POWs were trucked to Rheims, where they were processed and moved to nearby Camp Lucky Strike to await movement back to the States. We flew on back to Bassingbourn. My service in Europe was complete.
"Our" war was in the history books. But, the final tally for the 91st was not yet complete. On the 15th of May, one week after V-E day, Maj James L. Griffin, the 324th Squadron Operations Officer, who had flown the Lead plane on the 2 November Merseburg raid, was checking out as a fighter pilot in a P-47. Maj Griffin was doing low level rolls over the field. For some unknown reason, he failed to pull out of one slow roll and went in at a sixty degree angle on the west side of Runway 35. The plane exploded killing Maj Griffin, the last 91st fatality at Bassingbourn.
Little time was lost in clearing out the planes and personnel from Bassingbourn. My accountability was transferred to the Zone of Interior the 26th of May, the day we began "Operation Home Run", our trip back to the States. Everything happened so fast that day, I don't even remember who flew me back. Manny Klette assigned pilots and crews to given planes, along with enough other ground men for a total of 20 men per plane. They quickly climbed aboard and we were on our way. Twenty planes left Bassingbourn on Operation Home Run the 26th of May.
First we hopped over to Valley in Wales, then on to Goose Bay, Labrador, where we had to lay over for three days waiting for a severe storm to clear out. From Goose Bay we flew to Grenier Field, New Hampshire, the field at which I had stayed for over a week on my way to England. Just nine short months, but a lifetime, ago. This time we stopped only to refuel before going on to Bradley Field, near Hartford, Connecticut, arriving there the 31st. The 9th of June, I was flown to Romulus, Michigan and on the 12th to South Plains, Texas. There I patiently waited my fate. Finally, on the 26th of October the Army Air Corps declared me excess. The war in the Pacific was over. I had served my purpose.
I made my final flight the 2nd of December. Once more my Wright-Cyclone engines came to life. Once more I roared head-long down the runway, almost floating into the air--only a few gallons of gas and no bomb load to weigh me down. As before, my wheels tucked up into the wheel wells as we lifted off. Once again I viewed the world from above. This time a peaceful landscape floated by below--no tracking flak, no enemy fighters rising up to meet me. Then, I sank downward to become forever earth-bound, my tires giving off puffs of black rubbery smoke as they touched the runway. I slowly taxied to my parking space, brakes squealing, as usual, as we jockeyed into position. The engines that had carried me so faithfully the many, many hours exhaled their final convulsive coughs, the Hamilton-Standard propellers flipping to a standstill, never to spin again. Then only silence.
I was at Kingman, Arizona. On the 16th of December I was sold to a salvage company. The final entry was made in the log and my records consigned to history. My 16 month 4-day career as 43-38220, as DF-L, as "Lady Lois", as "Little Jean", as an instrument of destruction, as a graceful lady of the air--all finished. Now I was only aluminum scrap.
Kingman, Arizona. As far as you could see, B-17's from the 1st and 3rd Air Divisions of the 8th Air Force and from the 15th Air Force. Forty-five other B-17s from the 91st were there. A few rows over was No. 909, "Nine-0-Nine", of the 323rd Squadron; 140 missions. Just beyond "Nine-O-Nine" was No. 636, "Outhouse Mouse", also of the 323rd; 139 missions, 12 of them to Berlin. Closer to me, No. 040, "Shirley Jean." She had been on our right wing on Bill's last mission, when four of Iver Tufty's crew bailed out over Cologne. There was No. 610, "Zootie Cutie." Bill had flown his first two missions in her and she had taken Hooper and his crew to a night in France back in November. And, there was No. 379, "Margie", Lt Warren T. Smith's plane. She came home.
Then there were the B-24s from the 2nd Air Division of the 8th Air Force, from the 15th Air Force and from Southeast Asia. Our B-17 crews used to make fun of the ungainly, paunchy, B-24s--"the shipping crates the B-17s came in", they used to say. Although they could fly farther, faster and carry heavier bomb loads than we could, the B-24s could not sustain the beating we B-17s could absorb. Because of this, German fighters typically would converge first on any B-24s in the bomber stream. More than one B-17 crew would say fondly of the B-24s--"best damn fighter cover we ever had." But, we had all flown for the same purpose, to get the war over as soon as possible so we could all go home. We had done our jobs the best we could and we had taken our lumps. Some of us had prevailed. All too many had not, B-17s and B-24s alike.
So, there we were, hundreds of beleaguered, battered, war weary survivors of our "Great Adventure." No longer would we be asked to carry out our deadly missions of destruction. No longer would our engines emit their sputtering coughs and harmonic roars at the pre-dawn engine run-up. No longer would we choreograph our contorted aerial dances as we orchestrated our complicated formations over foggy East Anglia. No longer would our fleecy white contrails fashion their direful decorations in the frosty skies above Europe. No longer would we hear the gravely crackle of flak ripping apart our Alcad aluminum skins. No longer would we carry young boys into harms way, returning them old beyond their years. We were silent phantoms of a time of destruction that, because of what we had endured, would never have to be lived out again. Now, we were awaiting our rites of passage. Ours would be peaceful.
An eerie silence surrounded the row upon row of deserted denizens of the air in that cemetery in the sands. Sometimes on clear moonlight nights one could almost hear the crackle of the intercoms drifting out amongst the ghostly silhouettes -- "10,000 feet and going on oxygen; everyone check in" -- "Watch him Joey Boy, he's coming in on your side" -- "Tracking flak closing in on our tail" -- "A B-17 from the High Squadron going down; come on guys bail out" -- "Bandits at 1100 O'clock low" -- "Christ a' Mighty, look at that flak up ahead" -- "Feather No. 2, Feather No. 2!!" -- "Four 109s coming in at 1000 O'clock high; Eddie, Bronx get on 'em" -- "Keep those bursts short guys, we've a long way to go" -- "Breaking at 0600 O'clock, breaking at 0600 O'clock" -- "Bail out, bail out!!" -- "Watch that fighter coming in at 0300 O'clock" -- "Setting autopilot; it's all yours bombardier" -- "Bombs away" -- "That was for Uncle Sam, now we are working for ourselves boys; let's go home." Or, was it only the wistful wind whispering through the broken windows?
Eventually the wreckers came, tore us apart, crushed us and hauled us away to the smelter. There we were melted back into ingots from whence we had come. Then it was on to the manufacturing plants, this time to become waffle irons, patio chairs, Reynolds aluminum wrap, and innumerable other consumer products. From the appliance plant to the hardware store, to a quiet home in the Midwest.
As the family went about its daily routine, busily embroiled in the personal stresses and exuberances of the day, little did they realize the adventures this utilitarian piece of shiny aluminum sitting so serenely on the kitchen counter had experienced--the dedication, the sacrifices, the drama, the stark terror to which it had been witness.
So we have come down to this. Jim and Betsy may decide to put me in a box along with some other worn out appliances and take me to the recycling center. From there I might be given yet another chance at life. But, from the amount of things they have to clean up in the short time they can be here, more likely I simply will be tossed into the garbage to be taken to the land fill. There, over the millennia, I will slowly corrode back to nothingness, never again to serve a useful purpose.
Whatever, I have no complaint. As one of our distinguished citizens said in a speech the night before he was taken from us that early April evening in Memphis, "..... it does not matter to me now. Because I have been to the top of the mountain." For, I, too, "have been to the top of the mountain." I risked mid-air collisions in the murky skies over East Anglia as I joined my formations. I braved the box barrages of flak over Merseburg and Ludwigshaven. Three times I flew through the cauldron of flak that boiled over Berlin; three times I came home unscathed. I stared into the face of the best the Luftwaffe could throw at us and did not blink. I absorbed the hot jagged shards of flak from exploding 88's tearing through my fuselage, and returned all my crewmen safely. I saw planes explode in air tossing about their crews like so many floppy rag dolls. I saw pilots struggle to maintain control of their falling aircraft while the others bailed out--they sacrificed their own lives to save those of their crews. I saw the determined faces of teenagers in burning planes struggling to stay in formation to the target, knowing full well they would not survive--remaining forever young that others might grow old. All volunteers. No one said they had to become airmen.
And, years later, as a waffle iron, I heard the excited squeals of small children around the Sunday morning breakfast table, instead of the squealing sound of brakes as No. 220 had snaked her way along the taxiways to begin her deadly missions. Yes, from my beginnings in a small bauxite mine in Saline County, Arkansas, I have had the full experience of life. I was granted the privilege of sharing in the unassuming humble heroism, "only did what I had to do", of Bill Arthur and his crew, of Hooper Maplesden and his crew, of John Madsen and his crew, of the 164 other crewmen who flew with No. 220, and of all the other crews of the 8th Air Force. I was a part of the life experiences of Jim and Betsy as they grew from childhood to adults. Because of what the men who had flown in No. 220 had given of themselves, Jim and Betsy, and the other children of their generation, had the opportunity to live a childhood without fear.
In the lyrics of the Gershwin song that drifted out across the dispersal points from C Hanger that long ago damp September night, "Who could ask for anything more?".
Copyright © 2001 - Lowell L. GetzReturn to 91st BG Home Page