In the black hours of the morning a flashlight in my face and my name gruffly called would wake me from a fitful sleep. We'd all have hit the sack knowing we would be up the next day. After dressing, ablutions, and a solemn breakfast, we'd walk through the darkness to the briefing. The crews flying took seats in one of the larger Nissen buildings. The front of the room had a raised platform not unlike a theater stage. We expected theatrics. The map covering the end wall was shrouded by a curtain. Gasps, sighs, and muted wisecracks accompanied the revelations when the curtain was pulled back. We saw where we were to go. The prescribed route was marked by a length of red tape. We were then told the nature of the target and the place of the 493rd in the Eighth Air Force attack. A meteorologist spoke on the weather over England and Germany. His winter forecasts were studded with probabilities.
After the weatherman had played his role, the assembled crews broke up for special briefings. Woody and Bill learned about the place of our plane in the formation and the timing and mechanics of the assembly. Mike went off to get data on the bomb load and to study the map and photos of the target.
I and other navigators reviewed the details of Group and Wing assembly. We were furnished with the charts for the day, given another weather scan with emphasis on the winds aloft, and told the stations to be used on our Gee boxes.
(Gee was the only sophisticated electronics furnished all navigators in late 1944. The R.A.F. had developed the instrument to help their flyers home in the dark. By moving markers on a fluorescent screen to line up on pulsed beams from designated stations, you could, using special charts, pinpoint the plane's position. Alas, I never trusted this bit of modern technology. On my first use of this apparatus, outward bound over the North Sea, readings from yellow-green tube showed that we were in Sweden, then Spain. A post-mission apology was for the blunder of giving us the wrong charts. However, unlike the night flyers of the R.A.F., we in the daylight had little need for Gee over England. Over the Continent we found our screens snowed out by German jamming.)
After our several briefings we drew our equipment for the flight. We especially appreciated the electric suits. They protected us from frostbite or worse. Four to six miles up in the blue it was always cold, commonly 45 degrees below in the summer and 60 degrees below in the winter. In the air I was constantly taking off the cumbersome gloves in order to write in the log, but I hurried to get my hands back in the warmth. The big decision in the Equipment Room was whether to indulge in the comfort of heated boots. But how far could a parachuted airman walk in felt shoes? Early on, I favored the electric comfort and carried aboard my leather boots for emergency exits. After September 12th, I chose to suffer the cold and wear boots for walking.
Over our flight suit we pulled on a yellow life vest, a "Mae West", to be inflated if we fell in the sea. Then we strapped on a parachute harness. The clip-on parachute we stowed carefully near our seat. We heaved aboard our heavy flak vest and helmet for the time of testing. In our pockets an escape kit that held a small nylon map of western Europe and a few French bills reminded us of perils ahead.
A truck carried the crew to the hardstand where our plane was parked. Each of us was busy checking our equipment and going over the flight plan and our briefing notes. Then, as the darkness thinned, we waited for signals. Three or four hours had passed since the flashlight in my face. An arcing flare from the control tower and the ground crew pulled the chocks from the wheels. We trundled into our position in the takeoff parade of 36 planes. Another flare and the 17s in 30-second intervals began moving down the runway and climbing into the air. Assembly would take another one or two hours before we headed for Germany.
Once on our way, at common operating altitudes of 15,000 to 30,000 feet, I and others of the crew were firmly tied to our plane. Wires from head phones and throat mike linked me to the intercom. A tube from my oxygen mask pulled from the plane's life-giving supply. A cord from the electric suit was plugged into the wall. Moving around in the plane was awkward, and if encumbered with flak vest and helmet, difficult.
Over Germany we did as best we could what we were ordered to do. But our mission duties did not end with our plane rolling again on the home runway. After coming to a stop on the hardstand, we cleared our compartment of equipment and records. We heaved our baggage on a waiting truck and climbed in for the trip back to the Equipment Room where we turned in our flight gear. Then we made our way back to where the mission began, the briefing room. There we were debriefed. That is, an intelligence officer quizzed us about the flak, fighters, and details of the flight. After we had answered his queries, he gave us a chit for a draught of Government whiskey. This perk I usually passed up, giving my piece of paper to someone who would appreciate the beverage. Frankly, I was often too tired to enjoy anything but the release of sleep. Combat days were long. From the time we left our hut to our return was commonly 12 to 16 hours. For one trip, to maintain alertness, I accepted the doctor's offer of a stimulant pill. A mistake—the drug wound me up so tight I couldn't unwind for another 24 hours.
Our gear is scattered on the ground after a mission.
Rawson leans on the wheel waiting for the truck to quarters. Someone strolls to the edge of the field to water England after a long flight. (The plane was equipped with "relief tubes" but they were uncomfortable to use in the freezing cold. Besides, the Army had shown us some alarming pictures of what frostbite could do to a man.)
"Nothing Can Stop the Army Air Corps Except...."
Our missions often didn't go off as planned because of weather. In the closing months of 1944 capricious winds off the North Atlantic brought sudden, unexpected changes in the English skies. All usually went well until after the briefing, getting our equipment, and checking everything in the plane. Then we waited with increasing impatience and boredom for signals from the control tower. The morning light became a darker gray. Fog became mists. Mists became rain. Skies might clear and still no signal would come. With bright blue overhead we could not understand why we were not up there and on our way. Most likely the fields of too many other groups were still socked in or perhaps conditions had worsened over the target. If we hadn't taken off by late morning, the mission would be cancelled. "Scrubbed" missions left us with mixed feelings. As we retreated to our hut with the morning's efforts wasted, we knew the flak we avoided this day must be faced on another. And only flights into Germany would lead to the flight home.
More irritating and wasteful than missions scrubbed on the ground were missions scrubbed in the air. On December 13th, the 493rd, our plane included, assembled over Suffolk and set out for the Continent. We were over the Netherlands when a recall order came. A cloud-bearing cold front was moving surprisingly swiftly down across England. We couldn't land at our airbase or any other field in East Anglia. We headed southwest, and more than 300 miles southwest of Debach, found clear skies over Cornwall. The 493rd planes landed at the R.A.F. Predannak field, near Lizard Head, the southernmost tip of Britain. Our Royal Air Force hosts treated their unexpected guests royally. For this misadventure we received "combat time" credit for the six hours of fuel-wasting flying. The next day we needed two and a half hours in the air to get back to our base.
Yet the weather could offer protection as well as hazards. On nine of our last sixteen missions we attacked targets covered by clouds. Gunners below were denied visual aiming and had to rely on radar tracking. From the waist windows Spinney and Sutton eagerly tossed out "chaff", metallic strips to fog the tracking screens. Nevertheless, the flak was fierce enough. On these missions our plane flew alongside a Pathfinder plane. The Pathfinder crews used an array of radar instruments to pick out the target hidden beneath the winter clouds. Mike toggled our bombs when the Pathfinder dropped his. We wouldn't learn the results of our work until a bold pilot in a stripped-down P-38 dashed under the muck to photograph the target.
On the 30th of October, a clear day at Debach, we set out for the Continent without a PFF (pathfinder force) leader. Our B-17s were going to Merseburg, not far from Leipzig in central Germany. Merseburg, "Mercilessburg", was the most fearsome target in Europe. The oil refinery and chemical complex, vital to the Nazi war effort, was surrounded by more guns and more heavy guns than Berlin. The guns were grouped in large batteries, were aimed by radar, and fired in unison to batter the sky with clouds of shrapnel. The Eighth had lost many planes over this target. The 493rd had already been cut up there. We were well into Germany and had dodged some flak when a radio message turned us around. Because we'd been under fire, we were credited with a combat mission, even though we had not flown through the maelstrom of steel waiting for us at Merseburg. Five weeks later, no recall message came. We were on the wing of a Pathfinder, flying through the storm of steel over Merseburg.
The cold, gray dampness that was the English winter at times cast a cold, gray dampness on our spirits. Perhaps this began as early as the murky days of September, and not just because of our losses over Magdeburg. The ground war was not going according to plan—certainly not our plan. In July and August our troops swept across France and Belgium, over the border of Holland and into the Aachen corner of Germany. Hitler barely survived a bomb planted in his bunker. Yet the war went on.
Early in September our skies were filled with twin-engined Douglas "Dakotas" carrying paratroops or towing gliders. They were part of an airborne and armored thrust into the Netherlands. The drive aimed to flank German defenses and bring the war to an end. If it had succeeded, we'd have been home for Christmas. Anne Frank and many an anonymous civilian and soldier would have survived the year. Rain, clouds, and a refurbished German army snuffed the attack at Arnhem. The war became a wasting grind.
The 493rd never again suffered a downing of planes like that on September 12th, but commonly one or two planes failed to return from a mission. Freeman in his The Mighty Eighth gives the group's aircraft losses as 41 missing in action and an amazing 31 as "other operational losses", meaning returned planes junked because of flak damage and miscellaneous crashes. Most of these losses came during our tour.
As the months wore on, I noticed we didn't make any effort to guide or even greet replacement crews. As veterans, our accumulated wisdom wasn't more than they could get from manuals and briefings. Besides, we had enough emotional ties just with our old crews from McCook.
One dismally wet afternoon in late November I was splashing along toward the mess hall behind two airmen unknown to me. I couldn't help but overhear part of their loud talk.
"We had to abort and come back over Germany alone. We thought about the rockets falling on London and decided to teach the Germans a lesson. So on every little village we passed over, we flipped a bomb smack in the middle of it!"
Something to think about: War is brutal and brutalizing. If it went on long enough, we'd all be brutes.
Ploys Against Boredom
But our time in England wasn't all a grim grayness. True, much of it was boring. The army besides being a fighting machine is a hurry-up-and-wait bureaucracy. Beyond the hours spun away waiting for the takeoff signal, we often sat around waiting for a piece of paper to pass from one desk to another. But how do you describe the act of doing nothing? Suffice to say, we invented pastimes and livened up our routine when we could.
At times we broke or at least bent the routines of training for our own amusement. On a fine day late in the summer Mike Wright was to hone his skills as bombardier. The bay of our plane was loaded with blue 100-pound bombs. These small bombs were weighted with sand, but were charged with enough powder to make a visible flash on impact. Frank Littleton, squadron navigator, came along on the flight that day. Frank, who had experience flying near the ground in twin-engined B-25s, said "Let me show you how to hit a target at low altitude." That morning, for a time, Frank became our bombardier. Instead of spiralling up to near ten thousand feet for Mike to manipulate his Norden bombsight, we levelled off low and headed for the practice area in tide-washed mudflats edging eastern England. Our bomber skimmed across the Anglian countryside ruffling the trees, bushes, and grasses below. Soon we were roaring low over the marshes fringing the briny waters. The bomb bay yawned wide. Not far offshore was the target, a bull's-eye raft. Frank, sighting the target over the boot of his toe, called out, "I've got it! I've got it! " Just then a lone cyclist came trundling along a path bordering the marshes, looked up to see a blue bomb being loosed from an onrushing monster, and dived kersplat! into the mud as we thundered by. Up we then climbed back to the assigned altitude, and as soon as Mike and I could control our chortling, Mike resumed the prescribed practice bombing. We didn't improve Anglo-American relations that day.
Flight Officer Marvin ("Mike") Wright at his bombardier post
My favorite "mission" (in reality, a training flight) was "the Great Raid on Inverness". In mid-December we lifted off the field at dawn and headed north. Hutmates Dave Conger and Elwood Samson were aboard. We flew low over the fenlands marked by the spike of Ely Cathedral, then across The Wash, the large shallow bay that indents the northeastern coast, then over Yorkshire and the border country, glimpsing York Minster and Durham Cathedral on our way. Soon we were over the lowlands of Scotland, then crossed the Firth of Forth and rose above Highlands, snowfields glistening in the morning sunlight. Finally we glided down along the Moray Firth and landed at a field outside Inverness, the northernmost small city in Scotland.
Near this "Capital of the Highlands" Macbeth had the castle in which he murdered Duncan. Later, the troublesome royal Stewarts commanded their own castle. Mary, Queen of Scots, had a rebel named Gordon hanged from the battlements. A small stone castle in the heart of the town I mistook as the scene of these dark doings. Turns out that present-day Inverness Castle was put up in the 19th century.
About noon several of us entered a small restaurant for lunch. The waitress apologized, "The only meat we have today is venison." We enjoyed a Highland delicacy never served in a mess hall. After our repast, most of us rambled along the winding streets of the town. We met few men in uniform and no other Americans. We did a little shopping. A variety of woolen plaids were on display. And we socialized a bit in a pub over a glass of ale before heading back to the plane.
Meanwhile, Dave, Sammy, and Woody took aim at the mission target—a distillery. There, the be-medalled Yanks, as representatives of the 493rd Officers Club (true enough in a way), conned the distillers into selling rationed Scotch whiskey to the "Club".
As we left Scotland in the early afternoon for the return flight, shadows filled the glen. The sun was already below the surrounding highlands. (Inverness, at the latitude of northern Labrador, has its days clipped short in winter.) After a satisfying exercise of flying, navigating, shopping, touring, and hornswoggling, we deplaned on our home field as darkness closed on England.
On Christmas 1944 we lifted off at dawn. Hitler's last attack, the Battle of the Bulge was on. A week of foul weather had protected the advancing Germans. Skies had finally cleared the day before, and an immense armada of more than 2,000 aircraft had harried the Nazis.
This holiday it was our crew's turn. The heavens were still moist. At fighting altitude our planes left long, thick, and lasting contrails. We created the clouds we had to fly back through. On the flanks of the bomber stream we could see many dogfights. The Luftwaffe fighters tried to come in at us, but our P-51s kept them away. The 493rd was to zero in on a railroad tunnel near Ahrweiler, south of Bonn in southwestern Germany. This was a strange target to be assigned to a heavy bomb group. Such small targets were usually taken out by low-flying, twin-engined medium bombers or by swift, bomb-carrying fighters. The purpose of the attack was to cut off rail transport feeding the German troops guarding lines south of the Battle of the Bulge. We accomplished little; our bombs did not fall at the mouth of the tunnel.
Though, as usual, I was busy charting our path and not unmindful of my personal safety with fighters off to the side and flak ahead, my thoughts kept drifting back to Debach. The past few weeks we and our hutmates had been stockpiling food and fuel, purloined, appropriated, and liberated from mess hall supplies. Added to the locker were special treats from home. Eggs were bought on the black market at a thruppence or ten cigarettes each. The raid on the Inverness distillery gave us a beverage to drink and booty to trade. All this economic activity was aimed at producing a party of holiday cheer beneath the curved, corrugated iron of our Nissen hut. My dark musings were that if we got shot down or forced to land elsewhere than Debach, "Doc" Conger, his crew, and a few lucky guests would get to lap up all the goodies we'd long been scrounging for Christmas day. As it turned out, we got back safely and on time. I for one enjoyed the hut party, especially the fancy eggnog concocted by Frank Littleton.
INGREDIENTS: 22 Eggs, 1 gallon Milk, 1 1/2 pints Table Cream, 1 1/2 fifths Brandy (or Bourbon), 1 pint Rum, 1/2 pint Apricot Liqueur, 1 3/4 lbs. (3 1/2 cups) Sugar, and 1 tbsp Nutmeg.
PROCEDURE: Separate eggs; save whites. Cream yolks and sugar together in large mixing bowl or kettle. Sugar must be thoroughly dissolved in eggs before adding brandy or whisky. Dribble in slowly the brandy/bourbon, rum, and liqueur, stirring all the while. Add milk. Whip egg whites and cream separately; then mix together. Fold most of this mixture into the nog; float some on top. Put half nutmeg into the nog; sprinkle the rest on drinks as served.
I couldn't have partaken of the joy of that evening, if I'd known that at the same time my brother Bob was lying on the straw of a Belgian farmhouse with his head cut open by Nazi shrapnel.
A new year came, but we didn't celebrate 1945. We had three missions to go for a ticket home. On the second day of the year we turned in from liberated France to bomb the railyard at Bad Kreuznach, near Mainz. The supercharger on an inboard engine failed. We flew into southwestern Germany with only three engines. If this had been one of our earliest missions, perhaps we'd have turned back. By now, the crew was with Woody in his determination to go on and get it over with. Eight days later we attacked the heavily gunned rail yards at Cologne. The 13th, an unlucky number, gave us our lucky number 30. We completed our tour by coming back safely from wrecking the rail yard at Bischofsheim, northeast of Frankfurt. That day after briefing, I tossed down my shot of whiskey. Conger's crew tallied their 30th the next day. In our shared hut that evening, the 14th, we truly celebrated 1945.
Coming Home; over the North Sea
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