April 29, 1944
|Today was to be my third combat mission.
It was Saturday, April 29, 1944. The first two were not too rough and
we were a little too complacent. At this time, I was not a lead navigator
therefore not privileged to advance reports as to what the days mission
was for the Eighth Air Force's heavy bombers.
After stumbling through the blackout to the breakfast that morning, the usual question was on everyone's lips, "Where are we going today?" Was it going to be a "milk run" over the coast of France or a deep penetration to the heart of Germany? As we filed into the large Nissen hut used for briefing, the men gathered together, as crews,sitting facing a stage with a huge map of western Europe above it. However this map was securely covered with dark draw curtains. Suddenly the command, "Attention", was sounded. In unison, all snapped to their feet and in walked the Commanding officer. Col. John H. Gibson, and his staff. The briefing officer stepped forward with a long pointer and the map curtains were quickly drawn open. At this movement, we all knew what was our target for the day, the ribbons pinned to the map led straight to the heart of Hitler's Germany, the "Big B", Berlin. The howl and commotion could have been heard a block away.
Finally, everyone settled down and the briefing officers proceeded to detail our objectives. The predicted weather, the expected fighter opposition and flak concentrations were outlined. The various pilots were assigned positions in each section of each squadron of the group. Some were to lead, others were to be wing men, some were assigned high and others low positions in the formation. And of course, someone had to fly coffin corner, low left rear with the least protection from the guns of the fellow planes in the formation.
The pilots, bombardiers, navigator, flight engineers, radio men and gunners all went to their own briefing for further details and instructions pertaining to their specific duties. The pilot was in command of the ship but the success of every mission depended upon close teamwork. No one man, crew, flight squadron, group or Division did it all. In toto, we were a powerful Air Force out to do battle with a determined enemy. Our objective was to do maximum damage to today's target. Theirs was to prevent us from reaching the target or to inflict such painful punishment that we would cease trying. The stage was set, the battle would soon begin. Hundreds of men would be either killed, wounded, or missing this day but nothing could stop the mission once it had been set in motion.
Briefing over, we gathered as crews to be taken by truck out to our planes. At this time, our crew flew whatever plane was assigned. (Later after we became a lead crew and I a lead navigator, we were assigned a special plane with special navigation equipment, 260 P "Lili Marlene"). Now began an extremely tense period before each mission. We would busy ourselves preparing for flight, each man checking what pertained to him. At the same time, we kept an eye on the tower. The reason being that if the mission for the day were aborted, a certain colored flare would be sent aloft but if it were "Go", a different flare color was used, I think it was red but it may have been white as my memory fails me after 40 years. Today, the mission was go, the engines were started and we mounted the plane. The moment of truth was at hand, there was no option but to go and only God knew who would return.
On both take off and landing, I vacated my forward navigation compartment to stand behind the pilot. I would hold on to a steel protection plate at his back. This gave me an excellent view of take off and landing. If a crash situation were to develop, I was to sit on the floor with my back to the steel plate, my knees pulled up and my hands behind my head which I would brace also against the steel bulkhead. (Fortunately I only had need for this once when coming back from Berlin on my 21st mission, our hydraulic system to the nose wheel was shot out and we skidded nose first down the runway badly damaging the bomb sight and navigation compartment).
The 44th sent 21 planes up this day with no aborts. Now came one of the most frightening parts of every sortie. As I stood behind the pilot, Lt. Peritti, he would work our way down a long cue of bombers until it was our turn to take off. He would go through his check list and he and co-pilot Lt. Palmer would shove all four throttles full forward. Ever so slowly, we would accelerate but at the same time eating up runway. The plane would be loaded with 2700 gallons of hi-octane gasoline and 6 to 8000 pounds of high explosives and incendiaries. At lift off speed, Peritti would pull back on the stick and we would be airborne but just barely. Still just off the ground and gaining altitude slowly, I could see the trees at the end of the runway getting closer and closer. At no time did I ever learn not to be apprehensive and actually, frightened. Somehow we always made it by inches over the trees, I believe by defying all laws of physics and gravity.
Assembly was an exacting and demanding task both in piloting and navigation. First by twos and threes and finally by squadrons, all the planes came together to form a group of approximately 21 to 36 planes. The lead navigators job was to have us over a designated spot at a specific zero time headed in the right direction. In this manner we formed squadrons into groups, groups into wings, wings into Air Divisions and Air Divisions into the Mighty Eighth Air Force. From beginning to end, we would extend over 100 miles in a straight line through the sky. With the contrails forming at the wing tip of hundreds of planes, the beauty of the sight would have to be seen to be comprehended.
It was 0730 hours and we were off to Berlin. According to "Stars and Stripes," our ETO newspaper, this was the heaviest daylight assault in history on any one target. The Force was made up of 600 four motor bombers carrying almost 1500 tons of explosives and incendiaries. We were escorted by another 814 fighters, P-51 Mustangs, P-47 Thunderbolts and P-38 Lightnings. But the Germans were ready with some of the heaviest opposition encountered to date on daylight operations. One wing alone reported being attacked by at least 200 Nazi fighters. The Germans used ME 109's and FW 190's as their principle fighters, sometimes ME 210's.
The resistance met by the various elements of the massive bomber fleet varied widely. Fortunately the 44th Bomb Group was well known by the Luftwaffe pilots as being a seasoned combat outfit and best let alone as long as there were less experienced groups that would be an easier target. A number of German interceptors did test us however, approximately 30 on the way to Berlin and 40 to 50 on the way out. My most vivid memory of the war was burned on my mind when we were approximately halfway to Berlin. I can still close my eyes and after forty years see it again and will until death takes the last light from my sight.
What I am about to record sounds so incredible that I blame no one who wishes to disbelieve. As God is my witness, I tell the truth. Over my ear phones came the voice of Paul Corlew, our engineer and top turret gunner, "Fighters high at One O'clock". I looked out of my astro-dome and saw three German fighters circling. One could almost hear the lead Nazi pilot say, "Watch me boys, I'll show you how it is done". He peeled off into a wide arc so he was at an altitude headed straight for our formation. At this I switched positions so I could look out of my right bubble window which afforded an excellent view forward, down and to the whole right of our line of flight. As the interceptor flew towards us, he began to slow roll. I became very fearful as I was looking down his two 20 mm wing cannons and with each burst, I saw the orange-red flash of the guns. He appeared to be aimed directly at me and I could not help but wonder where the shells were going. I fully expected the next one to explode in my navigation compartment. I was extremely fearful and yet spellbound at the same time.
But what followed the next second or so really put fear into me. As the scoundrel slow rolled towards us, closing at rapid speed, I really became upset. It appeared to me that he was going to crash into our plane with a head on collision. I was petrified with fear. Then suddenly the pilot lifted his wings in a vertical position so he could slice between our right wing tip and the left side of the plane on which we were flying wing. I jerked my head as he flashed by at which time I could easily see the German pilot at our wing tip, he just missed it by inches.
An awesome sight caught my attention. At the base of the wing of the adjacent plane, right at the inboard motor and fuselage, a large ball of orange flame exploded before my eyes. The whole left wing peeled off and to me, it seemed like an eternity that the plane stood there as if it were flying. I knew it could have only been a few micro-seconds but the vision is burned in my memory like a still photograph. Then in a flash the plane flipped over on its back as the right wing was still flying. It was a violent motion that skewered the whole axis of flight. At this point, I hesitate to record what I saw next as it is too bizarre to be believable. Try to accept my version as the truth. Believe what you will but I'll tell it exactly as I remember what I saw.
As the plane flipped, the force of the action catapulted the waist gunner on the right side out of the gun opening and towards our plane. The arc of his flight through the air put him towards our right wing and he fell between where I was standing at my bubble window and our right inboard motor. He had no parachute. He wore only a harness with two nipples. (I also had on the same type chest pac parachute harness. My parachute was on the floor by my feet. We had been instructed that if for some reason you did not have time to snap the chest pac on the nipples of the harness, then just grab your chute, jump out with it in your hand and snap it on as you fell through the air).
Needless to say, this unfortunate waist gunner had no such opportunity to grab his parachute before he was thrown through the window. As he passed me, at most only a few feet away, he was kicking both feet and grabbing the air with his hands in desperation. Maybe he thought he could grasp our plane in some way to hold on. I watched him plummet towards the ground until my attention went to the wreck of the one winged B-24 Liberator falling through the sky. It was cart wheeling nose over tail over the one wing in a huge windmill spinning motion. All of the other nine men were trapped due to centrifugal force in the plane with no hope what so ever of getting out I thought. Will Lundy reports the plane was A/C #42-29471X piloted by 2nd Lt. G. H. Sweigart and that three men did survive to become POW's. My eyes were glued to this action as I watched the wreck tumble end over end for at least 10,000 feet.
I had lost all track of time or anything else that was going on around me when I heard on my helmet earphones, "Second fighter coming in". I looked up and saw a second enemy craft repeating what his leader had done.
At this point, my mind goes blank, I cannot remember anything about the second or third fighters as they attacked the formation. I suspect I was too absorbed in my own thoughts and fears.
At some point in time, I again came back to reality as I remember our approach to the City of Berlin. The flak was intense. The Nazi defenders had 520 anti-aircraft guns trained in a 20 mile arc on us. The sky was one huge black cloud of exploding metal. The guns fired in batteries of four or so it seemed to me. When it was bursting at some altitude other than our own, we had little to fear but as soon as they zeroed in, trouble was at hand. I never did get over the fright of seeing a flak burst right in front of us, then a second a little closer and a third even closer yet. With each burst, the plane would almost instantly fly through the black cloud. One could easily sense the cordite smell. At this point, you knew the next burst would be inside your plane but with Gods help, the burst would be directly behind the tail.
You note, I said, "With Gods Help." This mission was the first time I can remember praying out loud for God to let me live through the battle. I asked him to let me survive the day. I promised I'd do anything he asked of me if only he would spare me. Here I am forty years later and I must admit I have a bit of a guilty conscience when I think back on my promises. Like all men, the flesh is weak when the danger is past. Yet, somehow, I feel I have been a better person for having experienced these strong emotions.
Many planes went down, I can especially remember one of our planes sliding off to the side in a rather steep dive. I heard later it was because they had lost their oxygen supply and had flown low level back to base. We did survive the flak barrage somehow and headed back to England but our troubles were not over by a long shot. We turned into a 100 knot headwind. Our indicated air speed was about 165 mph. and at 25,000 feet and as cold as it was (60° F below zero) our true air speed was over 200 mph. However with a headwind, our ground speed was something just over 100 mph. Talk about eternity, this was it, we had 600 miles to go and it would take hours at the ground speed we were flying. Our fighter escort had turned back due to fuel consumption.
Many planes were damaged and just would have made it home under the best of conditions but with the delay caused by this strong head wind some just could not make it. I don't know how many planes I saw go down that day on the way to target, over the city and on the way home! I know it was a great many. I saw some explode, others trailing smoke, others with wings on fire and many many parachutes open as the crews bailed out. But one sight stands out above all others on the way home. As we crossed the North Sea, I began to see planes ditching in the water, It was like watching a motion picture. I was so detached from the action! Some of the planes would glide to the most gentle stop and the men would climb onto the wings but others would hit a swell in the water and seem to dive nose first in a crumpled heap. It was obvious that almost no one could survive the shock. British PT boats were on hand to pick up survivors.
This was one of the worst days ever for the Eighth Air Force as we had lost 63 four engine bombers and 13 fighters on this mission to "Big B" as we often called Berlin. When we reached base and landed at 1730 hours (5.30 p.m.) I actually bent over and kissed the ground I was so pleased to be back. I had been in the air 8 hours and 15 minutes. This was my third mission, now I knew why we were told that if we flew 25 missions at an average of 4 loss per mission, that we had a 100 chance of being shot down. (They raised it to 30 missions before I completed my tour just to be sure none of us made it and then I volunteered for a 31st against all current wisdom to never volunteer for anything). I did survive the 31 missions and "GOD WAS WITH ME!"
After my experience of seeing the man come out of the plane without a parachute, I had immediately reached down and snapped on my chest pac even though it was considerably in my way to work at my desk. When I turned in my parachute after the mission I asked to be issued a back-pac chute. The orderly behind the desk asked what position flew. When I responded that I was a navigator, he said that navigators wore chest pacs. I had news for him and I cannot remember what or how I said it, but he issued me a back-pac without an argument. Never again did I ever take off without my parachute on my back. I even would flip up the corners to be sure the nylon was in place as rumors had it that some men had bailed out only to find an army blanket stuffed in the nylon's place. The story had it that some guys found it would influence their girl friends if they gave them the nylon. I don't know how much truth was in the rumor but you can be sure I was not going to take the chance.
According to the "Mighty Eight War Diary" by Roger A. Freeman, a day to day operational record of the 8th A.F., 679 B-17's and B-24's were dispatched of which 618 were effective. We dropped 1498 tons of bombs. 63bombers were MIA, three from the 44th Bomb Group, 2 interned, 432 damaged, 18 men were KIA, 38 WIA and 606 MIA. (Of 814 fighters dispatched, 13 were MIA). This amounts to over 10 of the bomber-fleet, and over 77 of all the effective bombers, lost or damaged on this one mission. I for one shall never forget that day and like every mission I ever had in combat, I flew it twice. Once in reality and again that night in my dreams. I relived in vivid detail every event and emotion that I had experienced. One of our enlisted men actually "bailed out" of his top bunk several times while dreaming.
Addendum to Mission 3, January 1986
New information has come to light concerning Mission #3 to Berlin April 29, 1944. Will Lundy (without whose support this book would never have been written) wrote in a letter to me dated 1/21/86, Quote:"I spent a couple of evenings lately going back through your missions to see if I could 'borrow' some of your observations and experiences when we lost other planes. With this casualty memorial that I am putting together I could use the words of observers to help put things into perspective along with the stories of the men who went down with their plane - but survived.
I was especially interested in your book about your mission when you saw the string of bombs exploding below one of our planes as well as the one where you saw the German e/a hit a plane next to you in your formation - 29 April 44. But when I went to my file for my casualty memorial and tried to identify which plane it was, I ran into considerable problems as none of the stories told to me "jibbed" with your view. No, I don't doubt for a minute that your story is true, but there is plenty of work to be done to identify that aircraft, as it appears not to have been a 44th plane! But I cannot identify which B-24 it was, but it was not a 44th BG plane. We lost two ships on the 29th - and crews, Glenn Sweigart & Keith Schuyler's - and Hruby ditched off the English coast. Sweigart tells me that his ship had an engine (#3) lose oil pressure, then the prop ran away. They lost altitude down to 9500 feet and were barely making it against the strong wind and skidding because of the windmilling prop. Later, they were jumped by fighters and eventually were shot down. So he couldn't have been in formation with you. I think that this ship is the one that you thought was rammed by that FW. The other plane lost was Keith Schuyler's. The navigator tells me that his ship was badly hit by flak and was unable to keep formation either. They were jumped by fighters and they dove for cover in clouds at about 5,000 feet. So this could not have been that plane either.
However, Keith Schuyler in his "Elusive Horizons" states, "A B-24 that had been lagging at seven o'clock drew in close at five o'clock just as a German (e/a) came through. The fighter smashed head-on into the big one right at the nose turret (could have been the left wing?) and both planes exploded in a ball of flame. Then it was all over. Just like that. But back through the formations behind us the Germans barreled with reckless abandon. Airplanes were going down in every direction, the cripples staggering out of formation, clinging to life - then blowing up or fluttering down out of sight."
So possibly this plane that moved into the formation was not a 44th BG plane at all. In fact, it couldn't have been or we'd have lost three planes instead of two. I tried to buy one of Keith's books but he is all sold out." End of quote. I replied in a letter dated 1/26/86. Quote: "Dear Will, Thank you for your very informative letter of 1/21/86. No one can deny your first hand reports by Glenn Sweigart and Keith Schuyler as they were on board the only two planes of the 44th who were shot down over Germany. Roger A. Freeman's book "The Mighty Eight War Diary" also states on page 232 that the 44th only lost two planes that day in addition to one ditched.
The first hand evidence you have of men who were aboard these two planes, gives me every reason to believe that you were correct in saying the plane I saw go down was not a 44th. What I saw was exactly as I wrote in my diary of that day. It was only our 3rd mission and we were far back in the formation, where I do not know. It had never dawned on me to suspect that the plane was not part of our formation. It was not rammed by the German fighter as I saw the wing explode before or at the instant the fighter passed me. I looked the German pilot in the face as he just missed our wing tip. He did not touch the Liberator with his plane. The B-24 wing came off from an explosion in the wing tanks.