MARCH 1944 AND BERLIN
Today 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
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 guerre.”
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, GOD.
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 of weather.
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 m 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
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 target.
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 wild.
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
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 Again
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