Mighty Eighth and Fifteenth!

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Cover
Guest Book
The Song
Foreword
Preface
Strategy & Build Up
Sign ofThings
Government Property
My Bombardier
The Crew
More About The Crew
Texas Invasion
Dalhart, Texas
Aircraft Commander
2nd & 3rd phase training
England Bound
Combat Crew Replacement
Bloody 100th
In The Mood
First Mission
March '44 & Berlin
Target Berlin Again
48 Hour Pass In London
Sing These Songs...Mightly
Target Brunswick Again
Target Augsburg
Letters Of Commendation
Munich Is The Target
Aphrodite
Our Little Friends
Other Side...
Heavy Water
15th In Italy
Russian bases
Target Oil
Bob Rosenthal
Colonel John Bennett
William R. Lawley
B-17 Control Panel
The Base Of Operations
Russians Load Bombs
Suzy-Q
Epilogue
Goering's Lament
Code Of Conduct
C.B. (Red) Harper
Credits & Links
USA

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 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 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 to us.

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 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 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 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 Again

Continued...

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