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, March 4, 2015

Death In A Fortress

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. And the temperatures were brutal at 40 or 50 below zero at 25-30,000'.  If the oxygen failed or an airman's mask came off they could die from anoxia. 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. And some of them did not survive captivity.

But most died or became POW's in combat with the enemy, both fighters and flak.  There was no good way to die, but perhaps the most difficult and terrifying was to be trapped inside an out of control bomber and falling from five miles above the earth

It is impossible to fully understand the experience of being trapped in spinning or diving bomber knowing you are about to meet your death. War-time combat footage shows several crippled B-17s and B-24s falling, diving, or spinning out of control. Gun cameras from German fighters also show the great destructive power of 20 mm cannon fire used against American bombers, especially when attacking from behind.

As mentioned in an earlier post, my father's B-17 without its tail went into a flatspin which created a centrifugal force from which there was almost no chance of escape or survival. Perhaps mercifully, such tremendous G-forces would cause most airmen to blackout. There were only a few who survived such spinning, diving crashes, and their experiences testify to the difficulties of escaping these wounded aircraft. 

Writing about the January 23, 1945 crash that killed the 398th’s commander Colonel Frank Hunter, pilot and sole survivor Lt. Federico Gonzalez recalled, “We received a direct flak hit on our left wing tip and it broke away flush with the outboard engine. We struggled trying to control the spin to give the men time to bail out. Nobody made it, probably because of the tremendous centrifugal force. The plane did not explode but went into a flat inverted spin. I couldn’t do anything to get it out of the spin. . . As I unbuckled and reached for my chute I was immediately thrown against the windscreen, unable to move. . . .I remember only about five turns and then nothing until I came to on the ground. Col. Hunter was dead.” [letter to Col. Berryhill] Reports from the ground indicate that the Gonzalez aircraft also came down in a flatspin with wings revolving around the fuselage, like a falling leaf, landed flat and broke apart.

Gunner Bill Fleming gives another perspective from someone who managed to survive inside a spinning Fortress. “We went into a diving spin and the pilot rang the bail-out alarm but nobody could jump out because the centrifugal force was holding us in. The experience is impossible to describe. Once I couldn’t move, I knew there was no way we were going to come out of that dive and I was going to die. The fear I felt was unbelievable. As we came down, somehow, even the pilot couldn’t later say how he did it, he pulled that plane out of the dive. We started at 28,000 feet and leveled off only at 6,000.” [Astor 157]

Reactions among airmen witnessing others planes go down varied. On his very first mission navigator Carroll “Ted” Binder from 303rd Bomb Group felt distantly removed as he watched other planes and crews shot down. “The group ahead of us really seemed to be getting it now. One Fort dropped out of formation with a wing on fire. Seven chutes came out of it before a blinding explosion finished off the plane and crew. Another “Seventeen” which must have had a hit in the gas tank exploded while still in formation. We were fairly safe (especially when they were concentrating on someone else). It was strange how detached from the whole battle I felt. I experienced no more emotion when I saw a Fort with 10 men in it blow up than I used to experience when such a scene was enacted in the movies. I just couldn’t feel I was part of the drama going on in the arena around me.”

Copilot Jim Fletcher had a different and more visceral reaction. “When we were under attack the tension was high and you acted automatically with no time to be scared. Far worse was seeing someone else get hit. One of the most unnerving things I ever witnesses was a group of B-24’s being annihilated by German fighters. They were way out ahead of us and we could see bombers being picked off and every so often one would get hit and explode. Seeing it like that had far more impact; you had time to think what soon might be happening to you.” [Roger Freeman, B-17 Fortress at War, p.109]

Wally Hoffman, in a post called “The Death of a Flying Fortress,” on April 4, 2005, writes, and “We would watch helplessly as another Fortress in the same formation started to slip and slide out of the combat formation. . . You can almost hear the groan as she falls back into a vertical spin to her death. The Fortress dies hard, as do the 10 men of the crew inside her. This was their Fortress they made come alive, trying to hold on to that last thin thread keeping her in the air. With tears in our eyes we watch and count the parachutes all the while loudly shouting, ‘Get out. Get out.’ We knew all too well there was little chance of tomorrow for any of us. Some survived and came home. But the question always remains: Why us? Why not them?”

Attitudes among surviving airmen who lost friends or watched others die also varied. Some credited their prayers or faith in God for saving them. Others found it impossible to trust or believe in a God that sent many good men to their deaths. Most felt that God or divine intervention had nothing to do with it; they were in a crap shoot and it was simply the luck of the draw as to who survived.

 When  Bert Stiles lost his good friend Albert McCardle, he wrote,“The most you could say is that we came back every time. The Luftwaffe never got us, and neither did the flak operators. If we weren’t a great crew we were a lucky crew. Mac might have had a great crew, and look what happened to him.

"He could fly his airplane too. He could sock in close in formation and hold it there all day long. He never got sore and started kicking the airplane around. And he knew plenty about engines and flaps and landing gear and hydraulic systems and electrical systems. He could set up an auto-pilot the way Honeywell Company intended. -- All he lacked was luck” [Bert Stiles, Serenade To The Big Bird, pp. 56, 84]

In his memoir, 398th navigator Leonard Streitfeld writes, “It was a matter of luck as to who was going to get shot down. If it was your turn there was nothing you could do about it, but you just pray that you survived.” Twenty-one-year-old B-17 pilot, Al Meiklejohn from the 100th Bomb group says, “I got through all of it without a scratch. Other guys, some better, more skilled, died. Dumb luck. I still don’t understand it.” [Denver Post, Sat. May 27, 2006.]

Bert Stiles continues: “It’s sort of queer when a guy goes down. Everything goes on. You keep waiting for him to come back from a leave. In a quiet moment he just checks out. It isn’t like seeing him get shot in half while you lie in the grass somewhere. It doesn’t mean anything at all at first. You just say, Mac’s gone. Mac went down. Mac’s had it, and you really don’t believe it yet. And then you wake up some night, after you’ve been arguing with him in a dream. And you walk in the mess hall, and save a seat for him before you remember. It hits you slow, like cancer. It builds up inside you into something pretty grim and petty ugly. Why did it have to be him?” [Stiles, p. 55]

In one of his fine articles, Flak News editor Allen Ostrom wrote of the impermanence of the memory of a lost crew: “When a World War II air crew failed to return home, and the eye witnesses provided convincing evidence that they had been shot down, little time was wasted in clearing out their personal belongings from their Nissen hut or tent.

“Early that morning they were there. Full of life, cocky and confident. Then gone. The hut now is strangely quiet and different. Someone has already slipped in and picked up their things. The photos are gone. The clothes on the rack are gone. The boots under the bunk are gone. The .45 that “Shorty” was so proud of is gone. It has all been cleaned out.

"Silently, as if questions are forbidden, the ones in the hut who did make it home go about the tasks of rearranging their quarters. One will move to a bunk away from the drafty door. Another will lay claim to the choice bunk in the corner where one of the “missing” guys had built a neat writing desk. And the drama will continue. Another mission tomorrow and soon the names of the ‘missing’ guys will hardly be remembered. Once a crew was listed as missing there was precious little information forthcoming as to their status. Just missing.

“Sadly, some crew members simply never did find out what happened to the men who one day turned up missing. If they were lucky enough to come home from the war healthy and unscathed there were more important tasks at hand. School, job, marriage, family. News about the killed in action, wounded, prisoners, missing, became a distant dream. And then all but forgotten.” []

One of the unfortunate behaviors of some US servicemen in WWII was the swift looting of a missing airman’s possessions, even before it was certain he was dead. Pilot Ralph Golubuck surprised some looters going through his recently dead friend’s locker. “When I arrived I was stunned. There were six or seven guys in the room, all going through Bob’s possessions. ‘What the hell’s going on,’ I yelled. ‘Get the hell out of here.’ ‘Take it easy,’ was the reply. ‘He won’t be needing any of this.’ I went berserk. I grabbed my gun, which I always kept hanging over my bunk, and pointed it at them. ‘Get the hell out of here, you bastards, or I will blow your fucking heads off.’…I have never been more ashamed of a group of men. And they were all officers in the U.S. Army. All bastards.” 

Waist gunner Jim Wilson adds, “I was assigned to assemble Lieutenant Peterson’s gear and get it ready to ship home to his family. I wouldn’t let the supply men steal any of his stuff. They seemed to think that if you were dead, they could have anything they wanted.” [Astor 264, 385] 

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