MARCH 1944 AND BERLIN
is March 1. We had a no-ball
mission alert during the night, but for some reason it was scrubbed
this morning. Flannigan and I took to our trusty bicycles and
rode out to the hardstand where the Buffalo Gal is parked. The
aircraft had been cleaned up and looks good as new and is cleared
to fly. We decided to bicycle around the base and get better acquainted
with the place.
We passed by Farmer Draper’s barn and saw where Big Frank Valesh
had killed the farmer’s bull, tore up his barn and totaled his
B-17 “Hang the Expense.” Engineering had dispatched the bomber
to Valesh in order for him to slow time a new engine that had
just been installed. He gathered up another pilot and his navigator
for a crew. Unknown to base operations, he had also gathered up
two Red Cross girls and smuggled them aboard. With the girls standing
behind the pilot seats, the aircraft started moving down runway
28 and was about a third of the way along and nearing flying speed
when the tail wheel began vibrating seriously.
Valesh immediately cut the throttles and began to apply the brakes,
but the big bomber veered to the right, crossed the field and
headed towards Draper’s meadow, where the right wing struck a
large tree and sheared off the right wing along with number three
and number four engines. The aircraft kept going and the left
wing struck another tree near the number one engine shearing off
the wing and both engines. They were then driving an airplane
with no wings heading for Draper’s barn. Neither of the girls
suffered serious injuries other than shock and bad bruises.
The inquiry went down as equipment failure but court martial charges
were filed for breach of regulations.
The morning after our bicycle tour of the base, the group had
another stand down so I decided to take our plane up and shoot
a few landings. Flannigan and I had run the pre- take off check
list and we were sitting in the number two position waiting for
take off clearance. The plane in front of us was cleared for take
off. The big plane eased out on the runway and started its roll.
The tower called us and told us to take the runway as soon as
the ship ahead of us was airborne. We unlocked the brakes and
were preparing to start moving to the runway when suddenly there
was a full blown image of a B-24 bomber coming down right on top
of the B- 17 that was taking off. Everything happened so fast
- I closed my eyes to keep from seeing the two planes collide.
When I opened them, the B- 17 was airborne and there was a huge
cloud of dust obscuring the B-24. The “Grim Reaper” had been cheated
again. The control tower told us to return to the hardstand because
the field was temporarily closed for flying activity.
That was all I ever knew about the incident until 1988. I was
attending my pilot class reunion in San Antonio, Texas and was
approached by J.B. Williams, a retired colonel, who told me he
had made an emergency landing at Thorpe Abbotts on March 2, 1944
while flying a B-24. He related that there were two B-17s ready
to take off and that he almost crashed into one of them. I told
him I was pilot of the other B- 17 and after 44 years was quite
anxious to know more about the details of his emergency. He explained
that he was in the 44th BG and was on a mission to bomb Frankfort,
Germany. He said, “The target was obscured and the flak was heavy.
An 88 mm shell had penetrated the wing just outboard of the #
4 engine. The hole and the fuel that was being lost was not visible
to the people in the rear of the plane.
However, we lost both # 3 and # 4 engines shortly after the penetration,
but regained them through our fuel transfer system. During the
loss of # 3 and # 4 engines, we lost our group and encountered
clouds. We didn’t break out until we were over England. Realizing
we had an unidentifiable problem, we stayed at approximately 6,000
feet, which was just below the clouds. When all four engines died
from fuel starvation there were three airfields available - why
we picked Thorpe Abbotts I cannot recall since none of the three
were identifiable. We were aligned with a runway and had it made
until that B- 17 taxied onto the runway when we were about 800
to 1000 feet from it. We were half way aligned with another runway
when it became obvious we could not make it. We were in a skid
and went right over the top of the B- 17 with only a few feet
between wing tips when we hit the sod with locked brakes, and
even with the B-17 just as it broke ground. Everything was fine
until we hit the hedge row at the airfield boundary. The left
gear folded and the two props and wing tip dragged us to a stop.
No one was injured and we had 285 twenty pound anti- personnel
bombs aboard. I have often wondered if the pilot or anyone in
the B-17 that was taking off ever saw us. I was sure sweating
him out. The date was 2 March 1944.” [Editor’s Note: I sure was
relieved when I opened my eyes] At 07:15 in the morning of New
Year’s Eve, 1944, the Hundredth dispatched three groups of planes
to bomb submarine pens located on the outskirts of Hamburg, Germany.
Twelve planes failed to return. One of our planes piloted by Charles
Webster ‘was badly shot up’ and went down. A Fortress piloted
by Glenn Rojohn closed up into the space left by the loss of Lt.
Webster. Unfortunately, another plane piloted by William MacNab,
had risen slowly from below to fill the same position. The two
Fortresses collided and locked together, they continued flying
piggy-back out over the North Sea.
Finding the elevators and ailerons still working, Rojohn and his
copilot cut their switches and engines, and by using the engines
on the lower aircraft, three of which were still operating, they
slowly turned the two ships towards land. Four of the crew bailed
out as the craft made landfall at 10,000 feet altitude and started
letting down to land. On impact, the top ship slid off and MacNab’s
exploded killing him and his copilot. Barely hurt, Rojohn and
his copilot Bill Leek walked away from the plane.
Humorous anecdotes frequently accompany tragedy and so it was
on the Hamburg mission. The Group Command pilot reports that while
the air battle was in fill swing, he was frantically trying to
contact our fighters for assistance but could not get through
because some lone crewman on one of the bombers was hogging the
airways. The airman was explaining in great detail to his listening
airborne audience for someone in his squadron to destroy a photo
on the dresser by his bed of his local girl friend so it wouldn’t
be sent home to his wife along with his personal effects in the
event he didn’t return from the mission.
There had been much speculation and rumor since the first Berlin
mission was scrubbed back in November 1942 but today 3 March 1944
- this one is for real. The unknowns in any situation in life
are reasons for concern The word Berlin could jolly-well put more
than concern in your gut. The anticipation of bombing the German’s
capital city could unnerve the Sphinx. It was a sure bet that
they were not going to roll over and play dead on this one. Although
the R.A.F. had been bombing Berlin at night, in the daylight we
could see them and they could very well see us. Well, “C’est la
This was about as rotten a day for flying as you could find. We
immediately went on instruments during take off. It was snowing
with visibility about 300 yards. We climbed through 23,000 feet
of the mess - all the time chasing the radio compass needle like
a dog chasing a rabbit; the radio compass needle points to splasher
6, a vertical radio beam located at the south end of our N/S runway.
As you fly over the beam, the needle will point back to it. Procedure
then is to make a 1800 left turn and fly the reciprocal heading
with the needle pointing back at the beam; maintaining an air
speed of 155 mph with a vertical climb rate of 500 feet per minute
is absolutely essential. Standard procedure is to maintain this
heading for three minutes, then make a 1800 turn to the left and
follow the compass needle again back to the splasher. This back
and forth climbing process continues until the plane pops out
on top in the pre- dawn darkness. We had been flying blind for
nearly an hour on instruments. There was a plane 30 seconds ahead
of us and one 30 seconds behind us - none of whom were visible
The tail gunners were flashing an Aldis lamp continuously sending
the letter “D” - DAH - DIT DIT - in Morse code. Our Bomb Group
identification painted on each plane’s tail section was a large
white square enclosing a black letter “D.” The square signifying
that we were in the 3rd Air Division - the “D” for 100th Bomb
Group. If one gets close enough to the aircraft in front to see
more than a faint, foggy glow of the Aldis lamp during an instrument
climb out, either your climb is too fast or his is too slow. At
any rate, it is your responsibility to adjust and hope the pilot
behind you will do the same. These climb outs will bring out the
St. Christopher Medals ... a multitude of Hail Marys and prayers
of thanks to the Almighty for deliverance through an overcast
sky that can contain as many as 2000 aircraft in this giant mix-master
... loaded with millions of pounds of high explosive bombs and
millions of gallons of 100 octane gasoline. YES, IT’S ME AGAIN,
After flying for nearly an hour through this horrendous weather
system, this unruly looking mob of airplanes assembled into squadrons,
groups, wings and three air divisions of bombers and fighters
to become the Mighty 8th Air Force in a majestic 100 mile long
aluminum, overcast parade headed to Berlin.
As we neared the Schleswig-Holstein coast, I could see a wall
of clouds that built all the way from the ground to heaven. I
remarked to my copilot, Bob Flannigan, that surely we would not
be expected to fly formation into that mess ahead. I moved in
tight on my element leader and nearly had my left wing in his
copilot’s ear as we entered the massive cloud build up. Suddenly,
I found that I could no longer see out of the cockpit of my plane.
I made a 450 turn to the right, pushed the throttles hull open
and opened the superchargers to hill power. We went for it, climbing
like a home sick Angel. I was trying to get out of that mess without
getting run over or running over someone else. It took us about
10 minutes to climb the 7,000 feet that put us out on top of the
stuff. I almost had a coronary when the plane I was flying with
when we hit the mess, appeared about ten feet from us as we came
out on top. About the same time we saw fire and debris blow up
through the top of the clouds and we knew immediately that there
had been a collision.
I asked Chuck to give me a heading back to England because radio
operator Al James had received a mission recall during our climb
to the top of the clouds.
About that time, I began to feel that I was falling asleep so
I touched Flannigan’s shoulder and laid my hand on the throttles,
a signal for him to take over and then I passed out. Flannigan
alerted flight engineer Clarence Luquet who found that my oxygen
hose had vibrated loose from the regulator. Luquet hooked me back
up to the oxygen system and I revived. When I passed out, I peed
all over myself and since the temperature was 650 below zero,
the stuff froze my butt to the seat and I must say, it got awfully
stuffy and uncomfortable up there.
We flew through snow flurries and bitter cold to zigzag back down
through the clouds the same way we did going up through the stuff
earlier in the day.. We arrived on base about 13:00 hours. My
bones were aching tired and my butt was sore from being marinated
in frozen pee.
The entire flight lasted 6 hours and 25 minutes. Many of us only
had about 300 hours total flight time then and we were accomplishing
instrument flying that any pilot should have had at least twelve
to fifteen hundred hours instrument time before flying that kind
On a mission a couple of days ago, a large piece of flak penetrated
one of our squadron aircraft, coming from the bottom and on up
through the bottom of the pilots seat. The pilot is now in the
infirmary after reconstruction surgery made an effort to prevent
him from becoming a eunuch.
On today’s mission, I barely got the Buffalo Gal airborne without
clipping the trees at the end of the runway. I flew damn near
full throttle all day trying to keep up in the formation. We only
had about a teacup of fuel left in the tanks when we landed. I
was filling out the form 1 report when the crew chief came into
the flight cabin. I told him about the problem. He said, “Have
you seen all that armor plate lining the waist walls and floor?”
I went back to waist and there it was. A few thousand pounds of
eunuch protection. My waist gunners had spent a busy night foraging
armor plate from the salvage yard.
I had entered the plane from the nose hatch that morning and had
not gone back to the waist section.
Flannigan and I really couldn’t get tough about the episode because
we had each fetched a piece of the armor plate and placed it in
the bottom of our respective bucket seats for the same mode of
protection. Well, command decisions were not always easy, so I
gave a directive that there would be no more armor plate and Flannigan
and I gave up ours too. After yesterday’s recall caused by the
frontal activity over the continent, 8th Bomber Command decided
to try for Berlin again today. Herb Devore is flying lead with
Major Magee Fuller as command pilot with him.
Take off was normal with ceiling and visibility unlimited which
was a relief after the instrument climb out we had to do yesterday,
but by the time we reached the assembly point, the weather had
clanked up again and the cloud build up increased until it topped
out at 25,000 feet.
The first division commander decided it unwise to continue the
mission and issued a recall for his division. Our 3rd division
was well underway when a recall was finally sent out by “Old Iron
Pants,” General Curtiss LeMay, our 3rd division CO.
All the 3rd division groups turned back except 21 planes of the
95th BG and 10 planes of the 350th squadron of the 100th BG who
failed to respond to the recall and continued on to the Berlin
We were only a few minutes into French Air Space when my plane,
the “BUFFALO GAL” suddenly began to vibrate violently. My first
thought was that we had a run-away propeller on the # 2 engine
but the recommended procedure of exercising the prop control to
cure that problem proved useless. I tried feathering the prop
to no avail. I had retarded the throttle, cut the mixture control
to idle cut-oft shut off the fuel switch, turned the magneto switch
off and the prop was still out of control. The plane was vibrating
so badly that I was concerned that it might break up.
After a consultation with the flight engineer, it was decided
that the planetary gears that connect the propeller to the engine
had sheared causing the prop to windmill and it was just running
We were in no condition to try to complete the mission so my decision
was to turn back. I was still trying to maintain position in the
formation and working hard to prevent a collision while my attention
was diverted to the problem.
I reduced power to slow our air speed in order to leave the formation
and turn back. I noticed that as the air speed dropped, the vibration
lessened some. I continued to decrease the throttles until our
air speed reached about 120 mph and the vibration was reduced
considerably. We were just above stalling speed since we still
had 5,000 pounds of bombs aboard and nearly all our fuel and ammunition.
When we reached the English Channel, I asked my bombardier to
salvo the bombs in the Channel. At about the same time, I noticed
the prop dome on the balky engine turning red and the paint beginning
to smoke and turn brown so I decided to land as soon as possible
to maybe avert a fire and/or have the propeller fly off.
There was a short landing strip ahead of us on the English coast
so I made a call on a standard frequency that was monitored by
both the U.S. and the British. A voice with a thick British accent
came back with, “I say old chap, do you wish to pancake ’er heah
?“ I replied that I didn’t think I had much choice and an inquiry
about the length of the landing strip revealed a mere 3,000 feet
with the reassuring admonition “You cawn’t miss’er old boy!
Well he sure had that right. With a windmilling prop, an engine
that might burst into flames any minute and only three operating
engines to help put our wounded duck on that postage stamp, I
sure as hell better not “miss' er”
We burned rubber for about half a mile attempting to stop that
60,000 pounds of aluminum and steel but we did it in about half
the distance we ordinarily think is needed to do it safely.
We reported our problem and location by radio back to the base
in Thorpe Abbotts and settled down to wait for help. There was
a small shack about the size of an outdoor toilet at the strip
so we bundled up in the plane and waited until help arrived. The
ground crew chief was not at all happy about having to bring a
truck 125 miles loaded with scaffolding, A-frame, block and tackle,
tools, new engine and prop, a barrel of engine oil and then having
to do an engine and prop change in a freezing drizzle.
I was certainly in sympathy with him and yet, as aircraft commander,
my job was to protect the lives of the crew and save the aircraft
from destruction if possible and that I did.
The rest of the nine ships in our squadron and the twenty one
aircraft from the 95th BG dropped bombs through the clouds on
the German Capitol for the first daylight bombing of Berlin. Harold
Sterns, a gunner on Grannack’s crew, was credited with shooting
down an ME- 109, the first German fighter to be shot down over
Berlin. Lt. Seaton and his crew went down on this historic mission.
Next Target Berlin
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