Eventually, I flew twenty-eight bombing missions and two or three nighttime, single-ship, unescorted, unarmed, weather reconnaissance missions over Germany. However, my combat career started rather slowly. For some four or five times, I sat in an airplane and waited for the signal to take- off on a bombing mission, only to have the mission cancelled or “scrubbed”, as we called it. After four or five of these situations, my nerves were getting a little thin. The anxiety and anticipation of actually taking off and going into battle was getting nerve racking. Finally, we got the word.
Let me try to give you a report of a typical bombing mission.
The night before the mission, a battle announcement was posted on the squadron bulletin board. This gave notice that there was a mission for the next day and designated who was going to be in it, what airplane they were going to fly and approximate take-off time. The next morning about 3:30 or 4:00 o’clock, an orderly would come around and awaken you. You would get up in the dark, dress and go down to the officer’s mess for breakfast. Breakfast usually consisted of powdered milk, powdered eggs, cereal, bacon, toast, coffee and general, breakfast foods. But, on mission days, we got real eggs. They weren’t very good, but they were real eggs. We always used to joke and say that when we got real eggs, we knew we were going to have a real bad trip that day.
After breakfast, the trucks would pick us up and take us down to the briefing hut. This hut was a “Quonset” hut and was rather long. At one end of the room, it had a map that covered the entire wall. The map was covered with a curtain. The briefing consisted of the briefing officer arriving and announcing where we were going. He would pull back the curtain covering the map and pointing to the target, he would give us the information as to fighters, possible attack, gun fire, guns in range, bombing conditions over the target, weather conditions to and from the target. The navigators were given the wind direction and velocity aloft as well as other information that might be needed. It was the custom on our base that the navigators and bombardiers were briefed together and separately from the pilots. The pilots were given different information than what the navigators were going to need.
After the briefing, we were taken to the planes where we would check all of our equipment, making sure that we had all of our supplies, particularly our oxygen masks, the Mae West, the flak jackets, helmets, and things of that type. If the plane I was flying had a machine gun for my use, I had to put a barrel in the gun and be sure that it was installed properly. I would also pull up the ammunition boxes and feed the shells into a loading belt. A loading belt carried the shells up to the gun. We never loaded the guns while we were on the ground. After checking these matters, we would just sit and wait. We never knew whether we were going to take-off and go, or not. If the mission were canceled, the control tower would fire two red flares in the sky. I would get on the radio. The tower would confirm that the mission had been canceled. One day, however, the word was go and go we did.
Once the tower confirmed that the mission was on, the individual planes and squadrons moved out of their parking places to the active runway. This runway was wide enough for two planes to be on the runway side by side at one time. The planes would line up. One on the left would be in the front; the second would be back of him to the right. Then there would be a third one back of the lead ship and a fourth ship, staggered to the right. In this manner four or five planes were lined for take-off. On the left-hand side of the runway, back at the starting point, there was trailer that was painted in black and white checkerboard. It had a big plastic bubble on the top and a man was inside with a powerful, green light. When the tower would approve the take-off, it radioed this man. He would give the green light to the planes. The first plane would start down the runway; then at an interval, he would give the light to the second one, and so on for each plane. Once we got the green light, the pilot stepped on the brakes, ran the engines up to full, maximum, emergency power. When he let off the brakes, the plane jumped, forward, and down the runway we went. If you’re taking off in the dark, the runway was lighted with blue lights on both sides of the runway down to a certain point. Then there were amber lights that went across the runway. Past these amber lights, the blue lights continued, until across the runway there was a row of red light. Red lights meant you were about to run out of runway! At the end of the runway and, about a hundred yards off the end, there was a barbed wire fence. About two hundred yards past the fence was a building in which there was some radio equipment. This building was directly in line with the runway. If it is a pre-dawn take-off, the plane has its landing lights on to light the runway.
On several mornings, we have crossed the red lights near the end of the runway and just barely cleared the fence. I would look up ahead and I could see the men in that radio shack coming out and running. They thought we were going to crash and run right through them. We were that low. At that time, our plane couldn’t have been more than twenty to thirty feet off the ground.
After the plane cleared the end of the runway and was climbing, we had a set procedure for rendezvous. These planes were all taking off, separately, and had to assemble, together, somewhere, in some way. After the plane takes off and climbs, we had a fixed rendezvous procedure. We would climb to a certain altitude for a certain period of time on a straight line from take-off. Once our time had run out and we were at a certain altitude, we turned and took another course, which would lead us to the “rendezvous- point”. This point was over a small radio station, located thirty to fifty miles from the field. We called this radio station a “bunker.” The planes, as they were assembling, would go to this “bunker” and circle in a radius of several miles. Your squadron was easy to find. Each squadron would fire a certain colored flare. The flares could be red, green, green-green, or any combination of colors. We could see these flares from many, many miles away. Identify the, distinctive, flare (flares)-then join your squadron. It was a very nice procedure. Needless to say, it was a crime to miss rendezvous. It was unheard of. Once we assembled, we kept circling with the squadron, until the other ships in our squadron, arrived. The group, generally, left at the same time.
After we left our “bunker”, the group had a certain time that it had to arrive at a “point” on the coast of England. There were so many airplanes, hundreds, maybe even as many as a thousand, going to this same target. It was necessary for each group to be on time at the “point”, to get their proper, position in the bomber stream. This procedure worked.
Once you left England, on course; we were over the Channel or the North Sea, as the case may be. Our path would sometimes, take us over Holland. Leaving England, we might be at an altitude of around five to six thousand feet. We would continue to climb and about the coast of Holland, we’d be up around fifteen to eighteen thousand feet. There was a lone German gunner (we called him “Dan’l Boone”) with an 88 millimeter gun just inside the coast of Holland. He was a good shot! On several mornings, he injured bombers, causing them to return to England. Once we crossed into Holland, we knew where the heavily defended areas were, and we stayed away from them. The trip to the initial point was generally, flak-free. On this particular day, we reached the initial point precisely on time. We turned off the initial point and headed, straight, into our target, which was Dortmund.
Dortmund is an industrial city in the Ruhr Valley of Northern Germany. From my experience, this area had the, greatest, accumulation and concentration of anti- aircraft fire of almost any place in Germany- with the exception of Berlin or the oil- producing area around Leipzig. As we turned from the initial point to the target, the planes did their maneuvers. The squadrons moved out and then back, to give the intervals and the difference of altitude among the three squadrons. The bomb bay doors were opened. You put on your flak vest, your helmet, your flash protector, goggles and sit and look. This was new to me and was terribly impressive-for what I saw ahead! As I’ve explained before, airplanes leave vapor trails; smoke bombs leave smoke, anti-aircraft fire leaves black smoke. Combined, they form huge clouds. We were back in the bomber stream and there must have been hundreds of bombers that went into the target before us. As I looked forward, it looked as if we were going into a thunderstorm. The smoke, contrail and all; were so thick that it actually looked like a thundercloud over the target. Another thing I noted with some fascination was that smoke bombs had left trails thousands of feet long as they dropped from the planes to the ground and it gave the illusion of tremendous height. At this particular time, I could not see any gunfire but I knew it was there. I saw a terrible mixture of smoke that wasn’t caused by just contrails and smoke bombs alone. There was heavy anti-aircraft fire and we were going straight into it.
On this particular flight, we were not carrying a bombardier. We had a sergeant who was going to work the toggle switch to drop our bombs on the signal from the lead ship. Therefore, I was not required to lay down next to the bombardier on his right hand side and help him locate the target. All I had to do was look at my compass and my watch. I had to catch the time and direction that we were flying at the time the bombs went away. In this instance, I had nothing to do from the time we left the initial point, until the bombs actually went away- but suffer!
This initial viewing of the target area was done some thirty miles away from the target. It didn’t take long for us to get to the action. My first reaction was to look and see what was going on. However, my curiosity was cured after this raid. Never again did I willingly go into a target face forward. If I were not helping the bombardier, I would always ride in backwards. Sitting on the floor on my steel plate, steel helmet on, flak jacket on, going face forward into this maelstrom -I went! Soon, I could look out the window and see these big, black puffs breaking all around me. In one instance, I looked out the window and there was an explosion; it looked as big as a five-room house. The smoke was red not black like the rest of them. It couldn’t have been the normal, 88-millimeter, anti-aircraft shell. Maybe a 105 or 150 millimeter shell? I don’t know. Now let me tell you something about flak.
“Flak” is anti-aircraft fire. We might see the blast or the explosion, but it was unusual that we ever heard it. There were three different kinds of “hits” that flight crews took from flak. The first one: We didn’t hear the explosion, but we heard all of this steel and shrapnel hitting the side of the airplane. It sounded like somebody with a great big bat was out there banging on the side of the plane. It did damage and butchered crews, The second kind: If we heard the explosion and shrapnel hitting the plane, we knew it was getting pretty close. The third, the worst one: We could smell it, as well as hear it. When the shell explodes and blows smoke into the airplane, you know you’ve been hit bad. You don’t get too many of those “smellers”, because if you do, you don’t get to make reports when you’re seventy years old. It was, astonishing to me that I could see these explosions that were not far from the plane, yet I wouldn’t hear a thing. But, be grateful, be grateful.
The Germans used two methods for aiming their anti-aircraft guns. First: there was the visual or optical method. If the ground gunners could see the planes and use their optical range finders, their aiming was excellent! Second: if clouds hid the planes, the ground gunners had to use the radar method. This method was not very good. The bomber crews dropped “chaff” or “window” to jam the radar.(See Chapter Two-duties of radio operator)
When we finally entered the intensive gunfire, we were getting hit. We weren’t getting hit bad, but we were getting hit bad enough to where, eventually, we had to land in France. Several of our engines were badly hit and I think a gas tank was punctured.
After we turned off the target at Dortmund, we went almost straight back across France. We had to drop out of formation. It was impossible to keep up with the squadron. We found an auxiliary field in France and landed. The thought occurred to me, if France had been occupied, I would have never made it past my first mission, and I would have ended up a prisoner of war. Nice thought, huh?
In case this first mission wasn’t bad enough, three of my next five missions were as follows: Nuremberg(Heavy flak), Hamburg(Fighters, Heavy flak), Munich(Hell! Heavy flak). All of these missions were as bad as Dortmund. My memory is: that in my first seven missions I came back to England with my squadron one time! Several times, I landed in France and the rest of the times, I came back to England by myself, limping in for some reason.