Tomorrow we will have our Independence Day post up and in the busy comings goings of a three-day weekend, we encourage one and all to pause and ponder those words — mere words in some folks’ opinion; that our forefathers penned in Philadelphia that hot summer of 1776. Men had already died in the cause of Liberty – many more were to come. In the decades and centuries hence, more still in the cause of preserving that radical ( for its time) belief that a government exists for the benefit of man, not vice versa, and its sole province lay in the securing of one’s birthright to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In the skies over Occupied Europe in 1943, life for the bomber crews of the 8th Air Force was always teetering on the edge – if the sub-zero temperatures and lack of oxygen at flight altitude didn’t numb and then silently kill you, then the murderous flak or ever present fighters with their 20mm cannon would rip flesh and aluminum to shreds, blotting life out in a burst of obscene red, yellow and black. Happiness was surviving 25 missions and being rotated out of theater, like the crew of the Memphis Bell. Many were not so fortunate. The slaughter, for what else could it be called when 30, 40, 60-plus aircraft and crew per mission were being lost, almost brought the daytime campaign to a stop . Similar loss rates had plagued the British effort earlier and was the chief reason they had switched to a nght/area bombing campaign. Nevertheless, the crews pressed on and the following year the appearance of a new long-range escort fighter, the P-51, enabled deeper penetration of the German fortress – all the way to the factories and cities in the heart of the Nazi territory, contributing in no small measure to the eventual liberty of the occupied territories and even the Germans themselves, from the very kind of state-centered machine our forefathers had in mind as they penned those immortal words.
Presented here today then, is a glimpse into the life of one crew engaged in that fight. Ut lego est scio quod agnosco…
In 1943 the US found itself in that turbulent stage of transition where the war was no longer a matter of fighting defensive battles, but neither was offense reigning supreme. On several fronts, despite some success, progress was haltingly tentative and the prospects of a reversal of fortune seemed to be permanent presence at the portal. In the Pacific, following the decisive win at Midway the previous year, the Combined Fleet of the Japanese was still capable of landing seriously mortal blows as US forces discovered at Savo Island and Santa Cruz. In Africa, there was the debacle at Kasserine were poorly-led and ill-prepared US forces were ruthlessly routed and destroyed in the first major battle between US and German forces. Meanwhile, in England, the first of the daylight raids supporting the American advocated doctrine of daylight precision bombing were taking flight over occupied territory in Europe, but it was still the RAF’s bomber command that was mustering the very large formations for nighttime strikes on the Nazi homeland using area bombing.
Back in the US, production lines had already shifted to an around-the-clock, 7-days a week cycle. Primary producers of high-demand items, like Boeing’s B-17, were starting to establish auxiliary production lines with former competitors and across boundaries with similar industries. Thus Douglas, a fierce rival of Boeing’s in the transportation industry, was producing B-17’s and Ford automobile plants were being converted to produce Consolidated’s B-24 Liberator. Meanwhile – pilots and crews were needed in volume to fly the planes and across the heartland of the US, reported in growing numbers to hastily built airfields in the (very) rural parts of the Midwest. There, the signature three-runway airfields hosted primary training for new B-17 and B-24 crews. Places like McCook Army Airfield, Scribner Army Airfield and Grand Island, all in Nebraska. The drone of Wright 1820’s reverberated across the flat plains, day and night, through the spring with its sudden thunderstorms and the long, hazy days of summer. And across the Atlantic, the numbers continued to build.
On an early September day in 1943, one B-17 lifted from the field at Grand Island, bound for stopping points in Maine, Goose Bay, Labrador; Sonderstrom, Greenland; and Keflavik, Iceland. Waypoints enroute to its ultimate destination in the British Isles – RAF Great Ashfield, one of many places in the southeast corner of England that was seeing the descendants of the Mayflower return, en masse, for the coming aerial onslaught of Festung Europa. Crewing the Fortress was the pilot, Robert “Tex” Taylor with Joel Punches as the plane’s navigator and chronicler.
The log that Lt Punches generated provides insight into the lives of the (very) young men that began to take the fight back to the Germans. Its terse prose reflects the early sense of adventure and wonderment at things new:
“9-4-43: Took off from Grand Island, Nebraska for Maine. Buzzed Soucek’s (ed: bombardier) house in Chicago. Flew over Toronto, Canada, Lake Superior, Lake Michigan. Landed at 1745. Really cold. Sure pretty country. Lots of lakes, pine trees, etc. Bangor, Maine.
“9-7-43: Took off downhill and with the wind for Iceland (ed: that’s the way it is at Sonderstrom – you approach up the fjord, land upslope and takeoff downslope. – SJS). Climbed over ice caps at 16,000 ft. Bad Weather. Snow, Rain, Hail. Good sun shots and ETA okay. 5 miles left of course. Northern lights really bright. Polaris overhead.”
“ 9-8-43: Weathered in. Raining. Went to Reykjavik (40,000 pop) People all pro-Nazi, unfriendly, backward. Seems 30 years behind US in civilization. Got 13 hours sleep, beard beginning to grow.”
“9-11-43: Stayed last night in old Scottish mansion, converted to officer’s quarters. People friendly. Their bitter beer tastes lousy. Their ale is good. Left on train for London – 400 miles.”
Of course there was more training to accomplish:
“9-16-43: Had 8 hrs. of lecture today. How to escape from Germany & France, ditching procedures, etc. “
“9-17-43: 8 hrs. of class again.”
“9-19-43: Got to 385th OK and were assigned to 550th squadron. “The Red Squadron” Today a B-17 caught fire on the line & blew up with 600 lb. of bombs on and 23,000 gals of gas. Blew the engines two blocks away. Killed one fireman. Went to 8 hrs. of class today.”
And the stark reality of war made plainly evident on a training mission:
“9-26-43: Today 3 squadrons went on a practice mission out over the North Sea. We were in the 2nd squadron. The lead navigator took us too far. We ended up 20 miles from the Dutch coast – a practice mission nobody had any machine guns aboard. Three M.E. 109’s attacked the rear squadron & shot down two of our B-17’s before anyone knew they were there. The 17’s didn’t even have any guns. One blew up in the air & we saw the other one ditch. Someone ought to be court-martialed for not putting guns in the ship or taking us out there. Two 17’s gone and not one bomb dropped. Really a mess. Had P-47 escorts too. The Germans could have got all 50 17’s if they had known.”
Then the missions began:
“9-28-43: Mission #1. Went to Rheims, France, 130 miles into France – an airfield. P-47 protection all the way. Complete undercast. Couldn’t see the air field so didn’t drop bombs. Flak on the way and 10 M.E. 110 who did not attack us on the way back. Coming back over England a B-17 on our left got out of control and came up under another and its props cut its tail off completely – clean as a knife. Tail went up and the rest of the plane went up, over, and down. I watched it out our left window – 7000 ft and they didn’t have a chance. The other plane’s wing came off and it spun down also. Just like a moving picture! 10 mi east of London. Just then our #2 engine caught fire & we came in on 3 engines. Good landing, however. 24 to go!
“10-14-43: Mission #5. Schweinfurt, Germany. Ball bearing works. How we ever got back from this one I still don’t understand! Four hours over Germany and three hrs. under fighter attack. Flak over target was like a cloud and very accurate. Exactly at our altitude. We were hit three times. Tail, wing, and glass nose broken. Kick off was at 1030. Left England at 1330. P-47 escort 20 mi. inside Germany. When they left, the 109’s started attacking and continued for four hrs. We were “Tail End Charlie” today, in Purple Heart corner. Carried incendiaries. Clear over target and when we left it was a huge mass of flames. The whole town was burning, flames 500 ft. high. Two ‘17’s burst into flame in the group ahead of us on the bomb run. 5 min. after the target 3 bunches of parachutes opened. About 7-8 in each bunch. 10 min. later a ’17 crashed and burned in a forest. JU 88’s were sitting out and firing rockets at us. They had everything up today, JU88’s, M.E. 109’s, 210’s 30 min. later a ’17 dropped down and two fighters went down after him. 20 min. later he came out of a cloud with his engines smoking. They all bailed out. Our No. 1 engine ignition system was shot out & it sounded like a washing machine. I’m afraid things are going to be tough from now on, no more “milk” runs.
“10-20-43: Mission #7. Duren Germany. Someone was praying hard for us today. Left England at 1230 – 28,000 feet – 44 degrees below zero. Spit escort. 20 min. before the target our #4 engine ran away and we couldn’t feather it. Couldn’t hold our altitude or stay in formation. We dropped down and turned back. 3 min. later four M.E. 109’s picked us up. We dove down to 12,000 feet trying to get away. The fighters came in at 5, 6, & 7 o’clock on our tail making several passes. Got in to all the clouds we could…couldn’t get much speed having only three engines & a head wind. We finally hit the coast and 20 min. later hit the English coast. Our tail gunner was wounded. A 20mm hit the tail. Bullets in his leg, buttocks, and side. Not much bleeding so no First Aid necessary. Turned North up the coast for home but our #4 engine was burning so we landed at the nearest field, settling, an RAF Spitfire field, 5 miles south of the Thames river near London. . . Plane was riddled with holes. Must have been 200-300 holes in it, 20 mm cannon holes (maybe 7 or 8) in it. Can’t see how the tail and waist gunners got back alive. Holes within inches of them – dozens of them. One 20mm went through our bombay with our 12 incendiary bombs still there. Nose was not shot up as much as they all attacked from the tail. Skinny Frier turned back 10 min. after we did and evidently went down as they haven’t heard from him. . .Three gunners in our Group died on the raid from anoxia. Their oxygen tubes came loose and they didn’t know it. Moral: Stay in formation, even if you have to get out and push.”
There’s more, much more..:
Postscript: On April 7, 1945 the Eighth Air Force dispatched thirty-two B-17 and B-24 groups and fourteen Mustang groups to targets in the small area of Germany still controlled by the Nazis, hitting the remaining airfields where Luftwaffe jets were stationed. In addition, almost 300 German aircraft of all types were destroyed in strafing attacks. On April 16, this record was broken when over 700 German aircraft were destroyed on the ground. The end came on April 25, 1945 when Eighth Air Force flew its last full-scale mission of the European War. B-17s hit the Skoda armaments factory at Pilsen in Czechoslovakia, while B-24s bombed rail complexes surrounding Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgarden. In all, 10, 361 missions were flown by the Eight Air Force B-17 and B-24 crews with 4,145 aircraft lost in combat (6, 866 total counting all reasons for losses).