I was going into combat on my first mission. All the training was over and it was now either put up or shut up. Will I be here tonight? There exists such a thin line between survival and the point of no return from that country from whom no traveler returns. Would I be climbing back into my bed tonight, or would someone come in and roll up the mattress? I had seen it done too many times in the past two weeks.
I rolled out of the sack and shaved in cold water. We were advised that whiskers and oxygen masks don't mix. Suddenly jumped in and out of the cold shower. That really woke me up. I then proceeded to dress in T-shirt, GI underwear and wool pants and shirt. We dressed in layers to retain the body heat. The B-17 was open to the elements with no heat, and the temperature was always -35 to -75 degrees f. without any wind-chill factor.
There was no conversation as everyone was buried in their own thoughts. I wondered, what had happened to all that banter last night on the discussions as to what the boudoir commandos and sexual athletes were going to do when they got home or to London? My thoughts were not on the mission, or how rough it might be, or where we might be going. I was thinking, "will I be able to perform OK, can I do everything right?"
Slowly I made my way in almost total darkness to the combat mess. Here in contrast everyone was talking, but it was all small talk and trivial matters that was a way of relieving the heavy hand of tension which lay on all of us. I was immediately hit with the thick smell of frying eggs and bacon which clung to the air. A combat breakfast was always fried eggs, bacon and hotcakes. On other days it was powdered eggs and spam or "SOS", creamed chipped beef on toast usually called s--t on a shingle. I had a huge knot in my stomach. At four o'clock in the morning who is ready to eat? I can still see those eggs staring up at me!
As a crew we all sat down together, Resnik wolfed his down his breakfast and then looked at Bob's untouched plate.
"Take it," Bob said, pushing it towards him in agitation. Nothing ever seemed to bother Resnik and everything worried Bob. I only managed to pick at a few bites.
The next thing I knew we were outside in the dark, and it was only 4:15. What do we do for the next 30 minutes?
As we strolled over to the briefing hut, I was thinking, it seemed only yesterday at Washington State University that we all raised our hands and said "I do" as Aviation Cadets. We were told to go home and wait for orders. This was only the beginning of military adage we were to hear only too often, "Hurry Up and Wait."
Then there was a long hot trip from Seattle to San Antonio. As we were driven through the main gate of Kelly Field we were greeted with the shout "Y-O-U' L-L B-E S-O-R-R-Y."
We soon found ourselves in the military regime of turning 90 degree corners, sitting at attention by using only four inches of the chair, and eating square meals by making only very specific 90 degree movements from your plate to your mouth.
When we became upperclassmen we soon inflicted the same treatment to the new class. On the completion of training and transition it was then to Plant Park in Tampa, Florida, for crew selection. Then to Drew Field in Tampa to Overseas Training Unit, then finally Hunter Field, Atlanta, Georgia. for overseas equipment including a brand new B-17.
The next day we were off to Europe by way of Dow Field at Bangor, Maine, to Gander, Newfoundland, and across the Atlantic to Prestwick, Scotland, where they took that brand new plane from us. We were then sent to Stone, a small village in Central England, and finally here to the 351st Bomb Group at Polebrook on the East Coast.
Immediately all the training we received in OTU started all over again, only this time it was different, this was for real! We flew the pattern for Polebrook. This is a rectangular course around the field taken prior to landing. We landed and were taxiing away from the runway when we noticed that all the planes had a different symbol on the tail. That was when the penny dropped. We had landed at the wrong field! That was how good we were!
Finally all the training was suddenly over and here we were now waiting for a combat briefing. We were about to be baptized into combat with that first big ONE!
The Briefing Room door finally swings open. It seemed as if we had been holding our breaths for an hour. We are immediately stopped at the door by the MPs to show our ID and then we are checked off from the crew lists for the mission. This was very tight security. Inside everyone seems to be all talking at the same time. They also are talking at the top of their voices, making all kinds of wisecracks. Later I decide this was the means of relieving the tension and anxiety.
You can feel the fear in the room, although it is also evident that everyone here has confidence in their training and in each other. In the front of the room is a stage with a huge map that is covered by a curtain. We soon hear in a very loud voice boom, "Ten-Shun."
Everyone jumps to their feet and there is instant silence in the room as the Group CO and his entourage march down the center aisle. The Colonel tells us to fly our formations as if we are on parade. He also says what good crews we are, and how well prepared the group is for this mission. He then proceeds to wave the flag by telling us this is but another step toward the defeat of Germany and victory. The Colonel then orders the curtain drawn.
This is followed by a chorus of OH's and AH'S. We watched in fascination as the red yarn on the map winds its way in all directions from the base, finally ending up at Cologne. We learned later to look for the amount of red yarn left outside the map. That would tell us how long the mission was going to be. We listened intently as we were told there would be four squadrons of twelve planes and four spares.
The Group Intelligence Officer tells us the flak should be light enroute. However, there could be considerable flak from the 88mm antiaircraft over the target. He steps down and another officer advises us that if we are shot down which escape routes are available if you should reach the ground in one piece. He also outlines the procedure to follow if captured, and the location of the air-sea rescue boats if you have to ditch in the channel.
The older crews listen with impatience. They have heard all this before. We are an eager green new crew so we listen intently with the hope that some of this may save our lives.
The people on the stage change and next up is the Group Navigator who gives us the critical numbers for altitude and the headings, times for departure, forming at altitude, and for leaving the coast for Germany. The schedules for the IP (the point which you turn to make the bomb run), the length of the bomb run, and the turn off the target and reforming after the Bomb run.
The flight formation for combat and the bombing are different depending on the target. We would form the formation on the buncher at Kings Cliff, and look for a green-green flare. He completely covers the details of the take off, the forming of individual planes for the elements, tne forming of the elements into squadrons, the forming of the squadrons into the Groups. And, finally, how the Groups will form into wings, the wings into divisions, and the makeup of the total attacking force.
The Group Bombardier gives us the information on bomb loadings, fuse settings, the bomb run, and the aiming point. We would be carrying 14,000 pounds of 500 pound bombs, and 2,800 gallons of 100 octane fuel. The IP would be 6 minutes from the drop point.
The Intelligence Officer returns and tells us, "That's it. This mission looks as if it should be a 'Milk Run', and when you land come immediately to the de-briefing room."
For every mission like this the Intelligence Officer could very well end up sitting at an empty table with no crews to debrief and the report sheets never completed. He would think about those missing crews who do not show up at debriefing. They may have had a wing blown off, or exploded in flames--the screams of men, and parachutes which fail to open.
We then made our way to the individual briefings for information on the radio frequencies to use and emergency procedures. This includes the alternate fields to use for emergency landings and other detailed information as it applied to each crew.
We then picked up our flimsies which contain the written orders detailing information for individual participation in the mission. We proceed to pick up our survival kits. These contain maps, currency, malted milk tablets, and Benzedrine--among other things. Then we shove our way into the overheated ready room to put on our bulky flight gear. These consisted of a green nylon electric suit worn over our uniform, heavy flight pants and jacket, fleece lined flying boots, and oxygen mask. On top of all this there is a 'Mae West," an individual life preserver to keep us afloat should we end up in the channel, and then a parachute harness. The bulky fleece-lined boots are no good for walking so we also attach a pair of GI shoes to our parachute harness in case we should we be shot down.
This is a lot of equipment, but if you are to survive at 30,000 feet in rarefied air in an open plane you must ward of temperatures of as low as -70 degrees below zero and you must have oxygen to breathe. Planes have returned to the base totally unscarred by enemy bullets, but the men inside had hands or feet had been so badly frozen in the sub-zero temperature they had to be amputated. It did not make it any easier to bear that it was not a bullet or flak that made a man legless for the rest of his life.
We also left all of our personal belongings such as pictures, billfold, etc., in our flight locker. In the parachute loft where we picked up our parachutes we noticed for the first time the sign, "If it doesn't work bring it back."
We filed outside and waited for a truck to take us out to the revetment where our plane was parked. When we arrived at the hardstand we were met by the crew chief. He was a maniac for perfection. He was like a mother hen to the plane. We find later this was true of all the Crew Chiefs to both the planes and the crews who flew them. These same ground crews would be out on the hardstands on every mission sweating out the safe return of the crews and the planes. All of us who flew never lost sight of the dedication and work of these unsung heroes for keeping our planes in the air. After getting our gear and guns on board the crew chief reviewed all the latest work his crew had done on the plane, saying, "Don't you dare scratch her up or lose her. I want my "Morning Delight" back in good shape!"
We did a close pre-flight check. The props were run through to make sure there were no oil locks in the engine cylinders. We went through the pre-flight list not once but twice. Then the fuel trucks came by and topped off our tanks. I will never forget that sickly sweet smell of aromatic 100 octane gas.
Everyone then sat around waiting for the flare to start engines. Later we would use this time to get a few extra minutes sleep. All too soon there was the flare to start engines. Everyone scrambled to their positions.
Four engines started on the first try and all the gauges checked out. Soon there was another flare to start taxing. What a sight were 40 planes moving nose to tail all in line along the perimeter track. Once we reached the end of the runway we stopped at a 45 degree angle to the runway and checked the mags, engine, etc. We were then signaled on to the active runway.
The planes took off at 20 second intervals. The engines were run up to 35 inches manifold pressure and the brakes were kicked loose. We were on our way. As we trundled down the runway, I was wondering if I had I done everything. All of a sudden I realized-- here we were half way down the runway and we were only going about 50 mph! It takes at least 115 for this bird to get off the ground. As I watched the end of the runway coming up I heard 110 mph, then 115 and the plane was struggling to be airborne. Trees at the end of the runway passed well below us as the flaps and wheels came up, and we started our turn. The plane now felt like a feather and was eager to go. We set for maximum climb and turned on a heading for Kings Cliff Buncher.
WE were soon at 10,000 feet so everyone puts on their oxygen masks. The Bombardier now will be checking every ten minutes with all the crew for an oxygen check (the B-17 was not pressurized) to make sure they were all right and no one was suffering from anoxia. At 20,000 feet over the King's Cliff Buncher there were planes milling around everywhere, and no one could see any "green-green" flares. The tail gunner finally tells us he has located the green-green flare at 6:00 o'clock. (Direction is indicated by the "clock system" with the nose being 12 o'clock.) So we make a 180 degree turn and soon are safely tucked in our allocated position as tail end Charley. As we leave the coast of England we are again climbing to 28,000 feet (the free air temperature was -50 degrees). Below us are the Zeider Zee, and all too soon, Germany.
Everyone is burning their eyes out looking for fighters, and so far only some flak bursts in the distance. We now make a right turn on to the Initial Point for Cologne that we must maintain for six minutes until bomb drop. I can see ahead of us solid black smoke from the flak barrage and the sky is suddenly alive with energy beyond belief. You could walk on it! There are sudden flashes of red, orange, and yellow--angry flashes of brilliant light that seems to leap at you without warning. The flak all seems to be intent on getting a winged machine with its loaded bomb bays and the ten vulnerable men it carries.
We make our way through the ever increasing black mass of exploding flame and smoke of the 88mm flak guns. Those beloved B-17s forge steadily ahead through a tornado of steel splinters and flame that spreads hot chunks of metal through both men and planes. The exploded steel is everywhere as it crashes into wings, engines, bulkheads, airplane bodies, and the men who are flying them. If you can see it burst, then it has not hit you.
I look at my watch. It is 10 after and, after what seemed like a half hour later, I look again and only 30 seconds have gone by.
There is a huge flash and a bright angry flame with a huge release of energy to the right and in front of us. Suddenly there is the stunning slap of concussion as the flame seems to go directly into the core of the flying fortress, and then into the bomb bay to the fuses of the 500 pound bombs. This is all just a few thousandths of a second. The entire B-17 and its 10 men have vanished into a searing ball of fire as the 100 octane fuel is consumed. There is nothing left except a monstrous smudge as a B-17 and 10 men have forfeited their lives. Now they are nothing but bits of flaming debris.
Waist gunner reports a B-17 sliding off on one wing out of the formation and soon it iss observed spinning out of control at four o'clock. There is one parachute which seems to hit the tail and then is flung aside. We see it fall away, a lifeless rag doll falling five miles to the earth below. We all are silently shouting "get out, get out," soon there are three more chutes that come fluttering out, then no more.
No one says a word but we are all thinking, "But for the Grace of God, that could have been us,"
The plane is turned over to the Bombardier, and we can see the Rhine River winding through Cologne and the Cologne Cathedral. Even after years of continual bombing this cathedral still stood at the end of the war. In the nose the Bombardier is searching for his aiming point that is the rail marshaling yards just across the Rhine River.
The bomb run is good. However, it seems we will never reach the bomb release line. We are thinking the bombs must be hung up on the shackles in the bomb bay. Suddenly there is a series of little jerks as out comes the bombs with their death and destruction on the way to Germany. We then hear the welcome sound over the intercom, "Bombs Away."
Someone yells, "Let's get the hell out of here! I do not think these people like us!"
The trip home came easy. Soon we were soon over the channel and down to 10,000 feet. Finally, after about 8 hours, off come the oxygen masks. What a relief. We passed over the field at Polebrook then peeled off and made our landing in proper order. We then taxied up to the hardstand and shut that venerable B-17 down. We all thought, " Holy Cow! We made it! No nicks, no bruises, and we didn't fire a shot."
The plane, however, looked as if someone had tried to make a sieve out of it. The crew chief told me later we picked up 176 holes from the flak. According to statistics, our life expectancy was four missions, so I guess we will be OK for three more.
We were still getting our gear out of the plane when the truck came to pick us up. It delivered us at the ready room where we changed clothes and turned in our gear. Next it was "debriefing" where we were quizzed as to the appearance of the flak and where we encountered it. What was the time and where were we when we saw the B-17 explode in front of us? What about the B-17 we observed spinning out of control and going down?
We were really naive as we had only watched in fascination at these two incidents and had made no check as to the time or location.
We left the "debriefing." The medics were offering two ounces of "Old Crow" whiskey if you wanted it. The Red Cross was also there selling coke for the mix as well as serving donuts and coffee. We were totally drained from all that time at high altitude. And we were mentally exhausted.
So on arrival at the combat mess we didn't feel much like eating. We just wanted go to bed as what was left of that momentous day wound down and the adrenaline wore off.
So ended one of the most memorable days of my life. One that I would remember for the rest of my days.
(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