My Life-Long Quest for my World War II Airman Father

The title "Carrying Fire" is taken from Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, in which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell talks about his own father. “I had two dreams about him after he died. I don’t remember the first one all that well. But the second one it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothing. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen that he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Bomber Mission Mornings

This is rather a long post but it's something I've been working on and wanted to get it written down and see how it looks in print.

Because I know so little about my father's personal experience in the WWII -- no diary or photos have survived -- I have had to rely on my research and the writings and experiences of others to help tell this tale of what a typical bomber mission morning was like.

Anticipation of any bombing mission was nerve-wracking.  One airman remembers, “On a night before a mission you reviewed the facts. You tried to get some sleep. The army is very good at keeping you awake forever before you have a long mission. Sleep wouldn’t come to you. You get to thinking by this time tomorrow you may have burned to death.” [Studs Terkel, The Good War, p.200] 

Besides nervousness and anxiety, the incessant all-night noise on an East Anglian airfield made it difficult to sleep. Navigator Jon Schueler noted, “All night long the bombs were being loaded and the ground crew was working on the planes. We could hear the engines being revved up.” [Gerald Astor, The Mighty Eighth, p.93]

By 1945 most bombing missions went deep into Germany; flights of eight to ten hours, so crews were usually awakened at 2:00 or 3:00 am and given one hour to shower, shave, and eat before the briefing for that day’s mission. Flyers cursed and stumbled their way to the common latrine hut for morning ablutions. Shaving was particularly important so the oxygen mask could seal on their faces. Then they returned to their huts to dress and walk across the field with flashlights to either the officer’s or enlisted men’s mess hall.

Out on the hardstands the ground crews had been working most of the night making sure that the planes were ready; testing engines, brakes, tires, flaps, and oxygen, hydraulic and electrical systems. Ordinance men were been busy hauling bombs to the planes, inserting fuses and attaching cotter pins to prevent detonation until the plane was in the air and the bombardier was ready to arm the bombs. Armorers were loading boxes of .50 caliber shells and placing them at each gunner’s position. The ground crew had to manually rotate propeller blades to be sure oil was circulated to each engine before starting.

Ground Crew Chiefs

After breakfast Don's crew and the other airmen headed for morning briefing where they gathered nervously as the Commander or the Group Briefing Officer uncovered a large map of Europe marked with lines showing the target and the route in and back out. Milk runs were greeted with whistles and shouts, tough missions with groans. They were told their target, time of takeoff, their place in formation, time and place of rendezvous with other groups, and the Initial Point (IP) for the start of the bomb run. 

Bombing Mission Map

They also learned of the expected fighter resistance, and anticipated location and number of flak guns, particularly from the IP to the target since that was when they were most vulnerable. The weather officer described the clouds and wind they were likely to encounter. The operations officer explained the nature and importance of the target, then everyone “hacked,” or synchronized their watches and separated into additional briefings for pilots and copilots, navigators, bombardiers, and radio operators. 

Morning Briefing

Pilots like Don received their individual plane assignment by number and location within the squadron, the group, and the wing. Navigators received their maps, charts, possibly some additional information on radio codes, etc. Many of these instructions were printed on rice paper so that crewmen could swallow them if they had to bail out and were in danger of capture. Gunners headed for the planes about an hour before takeoff to mount and secure their guns and to wipe down the heavy oil in which they were stored.

When Don and the other flying officers and the radio operator arrived from their briefings,  Copilot William Love handed out emergency and escape kits to the crew and Don did a final visual inspection of the plane with the ground crew chief. The escape kit included silk maps of Europe, local European money, and a personal picture of each airman in civilian clothing in case they had to bail out and try to elude the enemy

At the plane, both flying and ground crews were busy with last minute tasks. Bomb loading might still be going on, guns being loaded with ammunition belts, and engines checked one more time. Microphones, instruments, and oxygen equipment were verified. Navigator and radio operator confirmed radio code and details of the route to Group assembly with the pilot. Flak helmets and jackets were distributed to everyone and all parachutes accounted for. 
Every man on a B-17 was cramped and loaded down with flight gear.

Then came what Philip Ardery calls, “the usual sickening hour before takeoff. The hour of getting into heavy, smelly clothes; fitting oxygen masks; checking the ships; checking the bomb loading, fusing, gas loading, oxygen, guns, ammunition; and the million other things.” [Ardery, Bomber Pilot, p. 169]

As other ground preparations continued, Navigator Jon Schueler remembers, “As long as the momentum of activity was going, everything would be OK. We would start the engines revving and I would lay out my charts and have everything ready, oxygen mask, parachute…We could feel the plane being readied, we could feel the vibrations of the readiness of men moving back and forth at their dials, controls and guns. Everything was OK. We were a team and we knew each other and loved each other. The men were truly noble. The planes themselves were noble.” [Astor, p. 93-94] Once in position they could not move around much, yet had to remain on full alert for up to ten hours and at temperatures that could be 40 or 50 below zero.

When all tasks were completed and each person was at his flying station--except for the gunners who usually waited in the radio room during take-off-- Don called out his window “All clear on the left” and started the engines beginning with number one on the outside left. When all engines were warmed up a ground crewman signaled him forward.

Then it was time to taxi into takeoff position in what some have dubbed the “elephant parade.” Pilot Earl Pate describes those moments. “It was always eerie quiet just before engine start with everyone in position and waiting. Then one or two engines started; then the whole roar of all 144 engines of thirty-six aircraft soon to depart. You watched the tower for the flare (green) signal to taxi. Red flare shut down and wait—white—mission scrubbed.”

Elephant Parade

Jon Schueler adds, “The B-17s would slowly move, brakes screeching…One after another, lumbering out on to the track, then all of them, single file on each side of the field, two files moving, lumbering slowly toward the takeoff point at the end of the runway. All of them, engines growling and propellers twirling. The nose of the B-17 in the air, the body sloping down to the rear tail wheel, already in an attitude of urgency, of wanting to rise into the gray morning sky.” [Astor, p. 398]

On a radio signal and green signal flare from the tower Don and the other pilots taxied into their position and lifted off, one right behind the other at thirty second or one minute intervals. As they gained speed down the runway, Flight Engineer Robert Dudley stood behind and between Don and Copilot William Love calling off ground speed until they reached ninety miles an hour or more so that Don would know when to make his final lift-off. At that point they frequently hit a blast of prop wash turbulence from the previous plane and had to deal with a little wing wiggling and dipping.

Once airborne they headed for their “bunching up” points and rendezvous assignments with other groups. “Bunching up” involved gaining altitude while circling a radio beacon known as a buncher, until the whole bomb group was formed up and prepared to join into larger formations with other groups. Each Group had to reach their rendezvous point within plus or minus one minute to take their designated position in the long stream of bomber groups.

398th gunner Geronimo Terres Jr. remembers, “Every step was timed. Start engines at 6:05AM; taxi at 6:15AM; start takeoffs at 6:30AM. Get all the planes in the air; get the twelve planes of the squadron in formation; form the group (one squadron in the lead, one low and the other high); finally, insert the group in its proper place in the order of attack. How they did it I do not know. Imagine, anywhere from 500 to 1000 bombers flying around the skies of southern England, going through and around clouds looking for each other, and in the end finding the right squadron, the right group and finally the right place in line.” []

After  joining the other groups near the English coast, the formations headed east across the English Channel or North Sea. Once past the coast, the Don, like all pilots, checked in with everyone over the intercom, the tail and ball turret gunners got into their positions, all guns were test fired, oxygen systems tested, and the bombardier armed the bombs.

Early in the war, when Germany had airfields in France, American bombers were usually contested soon after crossing the continental coast. But by 1945, Mustangs, Thunderbolts, and Spitfires had gained superiority over the Luftwaffe in the skies, and enemy defenses had been pushed back into Germany, so bomber crews endured long hours of boredom in cramped positions in the freezing cold before reaching the target, and at the same time staying alert and scanning the skies for enemy fighters and hoping they didn't encounter flak.

Flak was every airman’s nightmare; something you couldn't fight back against. German 88mm cannons sent up large charges that exploded into pieces of ugly, jagged shrapnel in front of or among bomber formations, and in most cases flak was heaviest over the target area where the planes were in tight formations and could not take evasive measures. Once reaching the IP, about twenty miles from the target, the formation had to fly straight and level with bomb bay doors open, taking no evasive action. This was cold sweat time, with high pucker factor. 

Flak  Bursts

Navigator Arthur Prager describes those moments. “From the I.P. to target, about thirty miles at 126-130 miles per hour, was the worst part of the mission, because there was no possibility of a change of route or evasive action. For important targets, the Germans had figured out long before the bomb run where we were going and brought in extra flak on trucks and railway flatcars. They laid a huge carpet of exploding shells at our altitude, over the target, hoping for random kills rather than aiming at the planes…The worst was when we didn’t complete the drop because of some bombsight or bomb-release malfunction. We then had to make a 360-degree turn and do the whole bomb run a second time…That gave the German gunners ample time to correct the sighting or altitude errors made during the first run." 
[Astor, p. 384] It also gave German fighter pilots additional time to scramble and intercept the slow moving bombers. 

Many fighter pilots tipped their hats to the bravery of the bomber crews. Punchy Powell was one of them. “I have great admiration for the bombers and their crews. It’s hard to imagine the balls those guys had sitting in those B-17s and B-24s, tooling along at 150 mph on a straight-in bomb run—no variations allowed—as the flak pounded the hell out of them, and if they survived that, taking the beating they did from German fighters on the way in and out, particularly those that were battle damaged.” 

Tommy Hayes mused, “I wonder how I would have stood up in 1944. From the I.P. to the bomb release, straight and level without wavering and flak going off all around, seeing your buddies hit.” Joe Bennett adds, “Fighter pilots got a lot of attention. But my hat is off to the bomber crews. It takes grit and guts to crawl in a bomber day after day after you saw the hits they took.” [Astor 494-501]

B-17s were famous for absorbing tremendous punishment and still flying. Thousands of them returned to bases in England or on the continent with two or three engines out, hydraulic, mechanical, or oxygen systems shot, with wounded and dead crewmen aboard. On Don's third mission he had landed his flak damaged plane safely in Belgium with only one functioning engine.

But for all of their resilience and the bravery of their crews, B-17s and B-24s went down in large numbers, each taking nine or ten airmen with them. Besides encounters with the enemy, there were any numbers of other ways to die in a bomber. There were crashes on takeoff and landing, midair collisions, friendly fire accidents, bombs dropped from a squadron above on one below, and mechanical or electrical failure. During the war the Eighth Air Force lost 6,357 B-17s and B-24s, and 3,337 fighters. But the more important losses were the 26,000 men killed and 21,000 captured who became prisoners of war.

By far, the most dangerous job among American servicemen in World War II was that of airman in the Eighth Air Force. From a total of 350,000 who served, 26,000, or 7.42% were killed. More Eighth airmen lost their lives than the entire Marine Corps, who had an additional 250,000 men, and whose loss amounted to 3.29 percent. By further comparison, U.S. Army losses were 2.25%, and the U.S. Navy lost 0.41%.

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