In the story that follows, I am going to be using terms, which I think it would be well at this time to identify and explain. One of the first things you’re going to run into is what I call the “I P”. Which means initial point. On a bombing mission, the navigation is from base to what has been identified here as the initial point. The initial point is a location that from the air, the navigators and bombardiers can identify. From this point, (the initial point), a course is set for the target that is a straight line. The bombing formations never vary from this line for any reason (Even if the Devil himself was up there, I don’t think they would move). When the formation hits the initial point the lead squadron with twelve ships continues forward; the high squadron moves slightly to the right and then back behind the lead squadron so that there is an interval between them and also a difference in altitude. The low squadron moves left, then moves back on the same line as the lead and high squadron, giving again an interval between the high squadron and the low and also a difference in altitude. This difference in altitude is particularly important because it is hoped that the anti-aircraft batteries cannot quickly adjust and shoot at these different altitudes. This gives an element of protection for the bombers.
A squadron of B-17 Bombers consists of twelve ships each. The twelve ships are in four groups of three planes each. There is the “lead” which is the first ship in the formation and on each of his wings is his wing- men. The man on his right is his deputy lead, who will take over and lead in case the “lead” ship gets shot down or disabled in any way. Over on the right of the “lead” three-ship group (and higher) is the high element which is three ships- a ship with one on each wing. Down below the “lead” ship element and to its left is the low element, which is three ships-one ship with two wing- men. Then, tucked in under the “lead” ship element and a little back of it (so that they are not directly under any of the ships) are the last three ships - the point man and his two-wing men. We call this position, ”Being in the diamond”. The formation when looked, from above or below, looks like a big V. All three squadrons use this formation, both “lead”, high and low.
In the “lead” ship and his deputy, there are two bombs that are released first, when the bombs are ejected from the bomb bay. These are usually smoke bombs or marker bombs. When the “bombs away” occurs, the first two bombs out of the lead ship - or the deputy in the event that he takes over - are these two smokes bombs. They are highly visible and continue emitting smoke trails for thousands of feet. You can see them a long time. When the rest of the formation (of that particular squadron) sees these bombs, they release all of their bombs at the same time. Because of the lack of bombardiers and the lack of necessity for one in every plane, we had men who would sit in the bombardier’s chair. They had a switch and, when they saw the smoke bombs come out of the lead ship they would hit their switch and drop their bombs with the lead ship. One thing that is going to be interesting about these smoke bombs is that, because of the many hundreds of the airplanes that dropped them, they sometimes created a vision problem over the target. It gets worse when you add the next element-vapor trails.
The engines being hot at high altitude cause vapor trails. This will condense moisture that immediately freezes into ice crystals. These crystals leave white streaks behind the engines that remain a long time before they dissipate. If you have a four-engine plane you have four trails coming from one plane. You can imagine, if there were hundreds of airplanes all going over one area at one time all leaving vapor trails, that it would create a cloud cover of some density. Vapor trails could not be avoided over a target, but we did not like to create vapor trails while we were going in or coming out from a target, because this would enable the German fighters to find us very, very easily. Most people have seen a vapor trail on a clear day when an airplane is leaving white streaks across the sky. Sometimes they get larger and become clouds in their own right. There is one other element (present over most of the targets) that creates a visibility problem and that is anti-aircraft fire.
Anti-aircraft fire consists of bursts of shells that are fired from the ground at planes. It was hard to believe that they could get up to twenty- five thousand feet as accurately as they did, but they did a pretty good job of that. The explosions, usually, produced black smoke and most of them were from 88-millimeter shells. Every once in a while in the Ruhr Valley, around Berlin and Dortmund, we would run into anti-craft fire that was huge and produced red smoke. I don’t know what size it was, but it was big. Smoke from these bursts would last for some time under usual conditions. Over a heavily defended target, they would create a visibility problem all their own. With all these elements, you can imagine what a sky looked like over a target being bombed by a thousand airplanes.
People have asked me,” Which do you think is worse, fighter attack or flak? Flak, being “anti- aircraft fire.” The answer is fighter attacks are much more deadly. Flak (or anti-craft fire) is much more nerve- racking, for this reason: If it’s a fighter, you can at least shoot back. With flak, all you can do is sit there and take it. You never know where it’s going to hit and you think that every time it’s going to get you.
The Germans had several kinds of flak. They had what we call “tracking flak,” which means that they would lead the planes like a hunter leading a bird. Around Hamburg, they had what we called “box flak.” “Box flak” was having the guns aimed skyward and firing, without moving the guns. If you got into the box you were in trouble, but sometimes, you could move around and get out of the box and almost get a free ride. This is unusual, however. There was another type of flak that I saw. Certain cities would just shoot a tremendous bombardment on the top of low clouds. There weren’t any airplanes there, but they were shooting something. I supposed they were shooting in the hope that nobody would come and bomb them. We flew high and this flak was not dangerous to us.
At this point, I should explain why a plane might be hit by flak and have the shell go through a wing or fuselage and not explode. The Germans used a time fuse on their anti-aircraft shells, not a percussion or contact fuse. The “time fuse shell” had a precise lifetime, from point of firing to point of explosion in the air. When a shell, having a contact fuse was fired upward, and it did not hit anything, it fell to earth and exploded when it hit the ground This, created a danger to persons and things on the ground.
It is of note that the navigators had to go to school before they could fly in combat. The rest of the crews began flying their bombing missions several days, even weeks, before a new navigator was permitted to go on a combat mission. One reason for this was that navigation in England was quite difficult. Everything looked alike, just like a great big patchwork quilt. The English had the rule that, if a tree was cut down, they planted another tree in its place. In this manner, most of the woods and little forests in England had a particular shape that was on maps and could be identified, if you knew which forest you were looking for. But it was such a jumble, and the weather was usually so bad, that this could not be depended upon with any accuracy. The English had developed a form of navigation instrument called the “G-Box”. This system worked on two stations that were many miles apart; each broadcasting a different signal. On our maps the signals were in green or red lines; radiating in a circle around these stations. They had certain numerical values for each line. This unit was ingenious. It could measure, in microseconds or a millionth of a second, the time it took the signal to go from the station to where you were receiving it. By reading out two lines, it would give you two numerical figures. Going to your map and locating where these lines intersected, you could determine your location. In England, it was very accurate. We used it almost constantly because of the bad weather. The bad feature about this unit was that over Germany, it was jammed and was absolutely useless. Over England you could use it for what we call “G-crawl”. Doing “G-crawl” means that every few minutes you take a reading and you get a series of fixes or position on the ground. In that way you knew, exactly, where you were and where you were going. I’m sure that without it a lot more aircraft losses in England would have occurred.
We also had map orientation and orientation of the surrounding area of the Midlands of England. In this section of England, there were many, many airfields located just a short distance from us. The crowding could become dangerous and severe. In addition, we had to take other courses, for what reason I don’t know. One course we had to take was Morse code, which I’m sure is great, but I never did use it. Our navigation instructor was an American who had been with the Royal Air Force. When the United States joined into the conflict, he got out of the RAF and became an officer in the Army Air Corp. He was about as foul mouthed a human as I’ve ever heard. Every other phrase he’d say, “you’ve had it.” I don’t know what that was supposed to mean but “you’ve had it” was his constant comment, not to mention all his vulgarities. He tried to teach us a new type of navigation that the RAF used, called “air-plot”. It never did work out with me. I had been using another system and my system, always worked better for me.
One day we were in ground school taking that useless course of Morse code. My crew had flown, this day, on one of their first missions. It was late afternoon and we could hear the flight coming back. Those planes remaining that didn’t get lost or shot down, would come back in formation, come over the runway, and one by one, peel off, make a circle, come in and land. It was a beautiful maneuver to see and quite thrilling. Our instructor knew that our crews had been flying and that we weren’t interested in taking Morse code so he dismissed the class, “Ok go on down there, I know that’s where you want to go.”
This group of navigators ran down to the flight line. Most of the planes had landed by the time we got there, but we noticed over the trees- here came a lonesome airplane. It was coming quite slow and very low. As it turned, onto the final approach for landing there were two red flares shot out of the top of the airplane. This was the signal that the plane was damaged or that there was dead or wounded on board. When the plane landed, it taxied to within about fifty-yards of where we were standing and stopped. The ambulance and fire trucks came roaring out to it. I ran over to the plane and as I went under the right wing and looked under the engine next to the copilot’s side (which would be number #3 engine) there was a hole all the way through it. Then I ran around to the front and the propeller had holes in it. As a matter of fact, I think they landed with only two engines running. After looking at this engine, I walked around in front; right under the nose where the bomb sight looked through the “bomb window”. There, in the bomb window was a hole about the size of a brick. I soon found out what had happened, because I looked around and they were handing the bombardier out head first, or what was left of his head, to the ambulance crew that was going to take him away. Apparently, the crew had received a direct burst right under the plane, and a great piece of steel had gone through the bomb window and hit the bombardier in the face when he was over the bomb sight. The result you can imagine and don’t need explaining here. This cured my curiosity for all time. I never, I repeat, never again went to look at any battle damage of any kind. I was cured.
And now it’s my turn.