1998 First Prize Nonfiction

Reality

Wally Hoffman B-17 on runway.
© Copyright 1998 by Wally Hoffman
"I did not die, and did not remain alive; now think for thyself, if thou hast any grain of ingenuity, what I became, deprived of both life and death." -- The Divine Comedy by Dante

"Once one has reached the Point of No Return--Reality then Begins".

One more time I realize there is that pesky flashlight in my face, and I hear the invitation for "Breakfast at Five and Briefing at Six."

I lay there dragging my eyes open and getting my thoughts together, little knowing how this fateful day would end.

This would be mission number four. I wonder what hellish target is on that map in the Briefing Room. We'd been to Cologne, Bremen, and Kassel and we'd flown as a spare yesterday. If nothing else we are surely learning the geography of Germany. This time around I shave in warm water, as I had remembered to fill my helmet and put it on the stove before going to bed. There had been hot water last night, so I had had the luxury of a hot shower. I'm learning the routine, I thought as I put on the clothes laid out the night before.

As I walked out the door, I looked at the empty beds and thought, Those guys were here yesterday doing the same things I am doing today. Little did I know that by night there would be a 600 more empty beds. Over 60 of our planes would be shot down.

Outside it was not only black, it was foggy. I was thinking, Will they have us take off with this fog? Walking into the Combat Mess there was that same knot in my stomach, and those eggs were still staring at me. Sitting down at the table as usual was Bob, with a full plate and a blank look on his face. Resnik was no longer interested in eating too much after that first mission, when at altitude he ended up with terrific cramps. Soon we were outside and again had to "hurry up and wait."

I began thinking of some of the things you learn with each mission: (1) using a condom to put over the mike in your oxygen mask to keep it dry, (2) squeezing your oxygen mask so the ice doesn't clog it up, (3) then shaking the ice out. I then began getting smart enough to carry two masks. Using a condom to urinate in, tying a knot in it, and then throwing it out as a gift to Germany (later, when my children would ask what I did during the war, I told them, "I had the pleasure of pissing all over Germany.")

On the first mission, I had noticed that soon after we left the target many of the planes opened their bomb bay doors again and I could see one or two cardboard chaff boxes come tumbling out (chaff were thin strips of tinfoil used to confuse the German radar). When I asked about it, I received a big laugh and was advised, "It's our Secret Weapon." You will soon find out!" Later, on the trip to Bremen, one of the crew had to answer nature's call. He used one of the chaff boxes, and so we were also able to bomb Germany twice on that trip.

Then the doors to the Briefing Room swung open. Soon we are all enveloped in a heavy smoke haze, with the temperature increasing noticeably from the body heat and everyone sweated out the mission. As I look around I notice everyone is sitting at all angles and postures. Some are sitting up straight as a ramrod, and some are even sound asleep. Others are engaged in animated conversations with their neighbors while the rest are staring straight ahead at nothing. You can feel the fear, the dread, and the underlining thought of death in the room, but we are all are confident in our training and in each other.

Suddenly a nattily dressed Major (a ground pounder) steps on the stage and begins roll call, calling the names of each crew commander. Each answers for his crew. The Major then moves to the back of the stage and draws the black curtain of doom. This revealed the map that dictated our lives for the next fourteen hours. There is a hushed silence as everyone leans forward, looking at the fateful end of the red yarn. "It's Schweinfurt," the Major says with a smile. He gives us time to think. Abruptly a buzz of voices breaks out, and one voice says "Sonofabitch! And this is my last mission." It was. He was one of those who never made it back.

The Security Officer steps forward and instructs us, "Do not talk about the mission once you have left the room, and this also applies to a scrubbed target. Anyone flying this mission who has not had POW instruction report to the S-2 officer after this briefing. Be sure to wear your dog tags, GI shoes, and don't wear any insignia. Carry your rank, name, and serial number, and no billfolds, pictures, or letters. No one will leave this briefing until dismissed."

Everyone is sitting up attentively, listening to the intelligence officer. There is no longer any screwing around for his instructions are life and death to us. There is an immediate feeling of immense doom that goes through the briefing room. No one tries to look at anyone else. We are all thinking the same thing, Who will be missing from here tonight? How many crews will get it today?

We are advised the flak should be light enroute, although we will pick up some south of the Ruhr. The Major spoke again. "The target will be defended by about 500 88mm guns, and the gun crews are very good. You will be under aimed fire from the flak for seven minutes. The enemy fighters will be persistent and aggressive. The fighters will try to break up the formation with head-on attacks. Don't panic and try to dodge. This would leave you wide open if you straggle. Always stay in the defensive diamond formations and if someone ahead of you gets out of the formation, move right up into his place, for he has either been hit and will go down anyway, or he is straggling." We never dally around, because it was our necks.

The weather officer takes the stage and is the least assuring of all. The weather is lousy. The visibility is down to a quarter mile, but we were assured it will be up to one mile by take off. That is a lot better when you are rolling down a runway which is only a mile long and the belly of your plane is pregnant with stifled hell. The wings on the B-17's contain 3000 gallons of 100-octane flaming inferno. Well, there it is. Everyone stands up to leave, but some wait. They soon assemble in little groups as men slip to their knees before their chaplains-Protestant, Catholic, and Jew.

When we walked into the ready room, I had been suddenly hit with a deep depression and a feeling of dread. I thought, This is not the glamorized Wild Blue Yonder we had all heard so many times. We will be fighting five miles above the earth. There are no foxholes to hide in up there. Most of the time there isn't even the opportunity of fighting back. We just sit there and take it. We live by the laws of chance as we drive through the flak that seems thick enough to walk on. There is always the chance we will be where the projectile shot at us blindly from the ground will intersect the plane and ourselves. We are continually facing the life and death struggle of the plane with all of us inside. Maybe some dead, perhaps some wounded, and some not even scratched. At that moment all of our lives would reach a crisis in the heaving and smoking plane from the freezing hostile sky.

It wasn't the anxiety of maybe being killed before the day ended, but a deeper, far-off feeling, as if I weren't operating within my own body.

As I dressed in preparation for the long mission, I looked at the rest of the crew with a detached and lonely sadness wondering, Will we still be together tonight? I would never have exposed my feelings to the crew for fear they would feel I was not equal to doing my part-- all of our lives depended on each other.

In kind of a dream I walk to our plane, and I go through the motions of the checklist for pre-flight. I was there physically doing all the things that were necessary, but I felt detached and totally out of my body. I had the feeling that I was in another dimension watching what I was doing. I was there, but wasn't there. Knowing we were in for a rough mission and that we would catch hell from the fighters, we loaded many additional boxes of caliber fifty ammunition. We rechecked our flak suits and helmets. Then all of us made one last trip to the bushes to relieve ourselves.

All too soon we were starting the engines, taxiing into position, moving down the runway, and again skimming those damn trees. We formed up at 28,000 feet then headed for Europe for what we didn't know. I was there, but it was as if I was doing everything only by the numbers.

Suddenly I heard from the top turret over the intercom, "Bandits 9:00 o'clock high." This was instantaneously followed by the tails and the noses of fighters coming in from all directions. Immediately you could feel those twenty millimeters going through the plane. Fighter.

The sound of a cannon shell hitting a fortress depends on where you are. If you aren't too close it is like a metallic WOOF and you feel a jar that shakes the whole plane, which reaches you and leaves you instantly. If the shell explodes close to you there is nothing gentle and it certainly isn't a momentary tremor. It is like a giant slapping his hand on the water. There are two sounds: one from the impact and the second of it exploding. It's like firing a shotgun into a bucket which and having it all come back, exploding in your face. For a moment you aren't scared because your senses are dulled.

Your bowels seem weak. (You tighten your pucker string.) Your stomach shrivels up until you can figure out how badly you are hurt. It was as if a huge electrical shock had hit me and from then on to this day I have never felt fear. It was as if my mind had gone into a corner to hide and then had come charging out to do battle. In talking to others later, I found we all have gone through some aspect of this type of withdrawal. Some came back stronger, and some retreated into themselves and would no longer be able to perform.

I immediately found myself in a world alien to everything I had ever experienced. There were ME-109s and FW-190s leaping into existence from everywhere without warning. When they opened fire you saw sudden flashes of light winking at you from the distance. All at once there existed a canopy of cannon shells and bombs, aerial mines, and rockets exploding everywhere. Each one was intent on hitting us and our pregnant bomb load. We were no longer in a stately march in tight

Over Sweinfurt.
formation through the upper heavens. We try desperately to return to the crisp efficiency of our tight formation, but it is impossible to achieve in this raging space of time. We find ourselves slogging our way through a thickening mass of exploding flame and smoke, with the equal determination of every member of the crew. We are driving through a solid whirlwind of steel splinters, flame, and jagged chunks of red-hot metal. The steel is everywhere. It crashes into wings, engines, bulkheads, and airplane bodies; and into the bodies of men--spewing blood, tissues, intestines, and brains.

The plane seems alive with lights as all the guns are firing and the noise is deafening. There is the continuous intercom shout of "INCOMING BANDITS!" They came from all around the clock. The fourteen caliber 50 machine guns of our plane can be heard and felt above all the roar of the engines. Our world seems to plunge into insanity as the sounds of air battle all around us y merge into an inhuman shriek. Our ship doesn't seem to be occupied by men. We are transformed into beings from another world, with strange breathing systems dangling beneath our faces.

As quickly as it started, the fighters are gone and we are alone with only the extremely bright sun. Our enemy now is the temperature, which is minus fifty degrees and never seems to relax its vigil against us for any exposure to sensitive flesh and frostbite.

Central Germany is now below us, and in the distance we can see the first black specks of flak over the target. We now begin to assess what battle damage we have taken. Is everyone OK? Soon everyone is checking in: "Tail OK except almost out of ammo and was reloading the belts." "Waist OK. Lost my flak helmet somewhere." "Ball, one of the side windows was hit, can't see anything except straight ahead." "Radio, OK." "Top Turret, think I was hit in the leg and my ammunition boxes are gone." It turns out that a twenty mm came through the turret, knocking out the ammo boxes on each side and tearing off his flight suit at the thigh. He had a slight red mark on one leg. Ammo boxes were moved in and connected to both guns with the hope they wouldn't jam.

B-17s in formation.

In the cockpit the gauges were still working, but the glass on the dials looks as if someone had taken a hammer to them. The radio compass is shattered and the other radios are hanging by their connecting cords. All seem to be working, at least the intercom is OK. The right portion of the windshield in front of the co-pilot has two vicious looking cracks in it. The co-pilot's flak helmet was knocked off and has a huge hole in it. He doesn't have a mark, although I think he is turning gray.

In the nose one of the cheek guns is out. The navigator's table is shattered as well as his instruments.

For all the holes our plane is still flying. It's a miracle nobody has been seriously wounded.

When we turned on IP, the bombardier is already looking for his aiming point, as the plane controls are hooked to the bomb sight. Again the fighters are coming in all directions, but this time it is the squadron ahead of us that is getting hit.

Soon the sky around us filled with flak burst, paving a solid black steel asphalt roadway to Schweinfurt. The explosions sound as if someone is throwing rocks at you when they burst close. Those flak gunners on the ground are good.

Normally the fighters will leave when you get into the flak from the target, this time they are flying through their own flak. Apparently, they have been ordered to defend the target at all costs. These fighters may be the enemy but I have never seen braver men.

All the German efforts to keep us from the target have failed, but we have paid a tremendous price in men and planes. The stakes were high, but the Devil was the winner. The target below is now fast deteriorating into smoke and debris as our strings of bombs walk through the city. The dead will outnumber our losses by a great number. Finally we feel the plane lighten in little jerks as the bombs pass out the bomb bay on their way to Germany.

B-17 heading home.

We are now at the halfway point of the mission as we begin a wide turn to the right. There is little need to get into formation as everyone is staying close. As we make our turn one can see the other formations behind us. They look ragged and are still under attack from the fighters. The fighters are leaving the "cripples" alone, going for those planes still carrying bombs. As we turn you can see the target below and the sticks of bombs on their five mile flight to the earth. The target is covered with smoke and gray dust is rising from the impact of the bombs.

As we look out there are no fighters roaring in against us with their guns winking at us. It seems so quiet and good to hear only the noise of the engines and the air rushing by as our faithful girl hurtles us towards our base in England.

We are soon over France. A few fighters appear in the distance but do not press any attack against us. We wonder, Are they as low on ammunition and as tired as we are? We also now look for our little friends and assume they must be busy somewhere else. The cloud cover comes up to 20,000 feet and we are told to let down over the channel. Each group will proceed to their base individually.

B-17s heading home.

We soon see the angry water of the channel. Then we are flying up a large estuary on the East Coast of England that we call the "Wash." When the smoke stacks of Peterborough are in sight we turn southwest and there is Polebrook below us. What a wonderful sight, and how many times in the past twelve hours have we all wondered if we'd ever see the base again?

As we cross the field preparing to break into the landing pattern, we can see the men on the hardstands, the meat wagons with the large red cross on the top, and the fire trucks parked all along the runway. They are all watching us and counting the bombers and trying to read the symbols as we fly over. All at once, there are many red flares indicating wounded on board, and they will proceed into the pattern and land first. Soon we are lined up with the runway on our final approach, crossing the boundary of the field, begin the flare, and soon the wheels are finally touching the runway. We are again down on mother earth.

As the tail settles to the runway, there is a terrific bang as if the plane had been ripped apart, followed with a loud screeching of metal! Not only had the tail wheel blown but the whole tail assembly seems to be dragging behind the plane. The tower tells us we look like a giant sparkler and as soon as we have completed our roll to pull off the runway and get out of the plane.

We find later that during the fighter attacks the total frame just forward of the horizontal stabilizer had been totally torn apart by the 20mm shells. Only the skin and the control cables held it together.

We complete our roll and moving off the runway into the grass and mud. The faithful engines' roar dies out and the silence is followed by a mad dash of everyone from the plane. As we are leaving the plane, a fire truck and ambulance are johnny on the spot.

Our plane, "Morning Delight" just seemed to sit there panting. That gallant lady gave us all she had and more for that total effort during the past ten hours. She never flew again, she was so heavily damaged, and became another "Queen Bee"--used for parts. You don't live and fly a fortress for months without coming to know the plane in the most intimate way. You know the sturdy construction she represents and how forgiving she is to fly. The Morning Delight would be there in our hearts, for all of us, in the days to come if by chance we were to survive this war.

We retrieve our gear from the plane and are picked up by a truck.

We pass the parking and maintenance area for the plane (we call them hardstands) with their waiting crews. They all wave and give us the victory sign. However, many of these ground crews will soon silently and sadly return to their headquarters. The plane and crewmen which were a part of them will not return. They will wait for a new bomber with a new combat crew.

B-17 on hardstand.

We have the truck stop at our hardstand so we can tell the crew chief and his people that we made it. If it had not been for the maintenance on that plane we would probably be down somewhere in Germany now, a statistic. It is little wonder we have come to the realization it is impossible to complete a full tour. Everyone comes to the conclusion you will either get it, or be shot down eventually.

As we all proceed to de-briefing we look around and the faces this morning which had the look of expectation are now gray and blank. We are all thinking of too many friends who have gone down in flames before our eyes. What about tomorrow and the tomorrow after that? There are too many concrete hardstands stained with oil and grease where the bombers had once stood so majestically that are now standing empty. Only a terrible aching void remains. A ground crewman is seen aimlessly walking off, looking as if he had lost his brother.

In the debriefing room we all sit around the table and this time the questions are quietly asked with a great deal of consideration. How many fighters, types, and methods of attack? Were there any special weapons or markings? How about the flak, how much, did it appear accurate?

Later I read a report of what one B-17 pilot said at a debriefing on October 13, 1943: "I had accepted the fact that I was not going to live through this mission. It was as simple as that. I was calm; it was a strange sort of resignation. I knew for certain that it was only a matter of seconds or minutes. It was impossible for us to survive...." That sums it up for all of us.

The debriefing are usually not so solemn, but this time all of us are totally engulfed by the shock of the mission. Most of us still didn't believe we were back, safe on the ground. We are bone tired. I still remember clearly how tired I was all the time I flew combat. We also felt sick with the reflection of all that death. We had somehow survived. But our friends and brothers were struck down, gone to that undiscovered country from whence no traveler returns. We all stare at the floor with glazed eyes. We smoke cigarettes and drink tasteless coffee.

As we are leaving the briefing room we notice that Bob is stumbling along. We see he is crying. All of us are crying inside, thinking of those who didn't get back.

But we are proud, for despite all the attacks against our formations the Eight Air Force was never turned back. We always bombed the target.

Thus ended the fateful day when I was introduced to reality.

Contact Wally

(Messages are forwarded by The Preservation Foundation.
So, when you write to an author, please type the title of the
story in the subject area of the message.)

Visit the US Air Force museum.

Wally's Story List and Biography

Book Case

Home Page