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…

– SJS

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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, Grand Islandin 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 ebb5e82d-b7ae-4dac-860c-94f886d6f4ffDouglas, 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.

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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.”

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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.  torn-in2Flak on the way and 10 M.E. 110 who did not attack us on the way back.  b17hitComing 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 sidehole’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.tail1

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.  tail2Bullets 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..:

WWII B-17 Log

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).

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14 Comments

  1. Bill K.

    Dad’s cousin was a navigator on a B17 that didn’t make it back. No chute. Years ago I built a B17 model with my son – wonder if another generation will remember such things apart from books.
    One of the more bizarre occurrences in my childhood was to get the optics of a Norden bombsight as a present from a German of all people – he became the chief instrument maker at Yerkes Observatory in Lake Geneva Wisconsin after the war. Dad & I used parts from that bombsight for my first look at the moon during the Apollo missions. The world seemed to have expelled the darkness and become a more hopeful place then. Now, not so much.

  2. I know we will read such stories of the men and women who have been to the Middle East on the behalf of freedom. They have shown in the blogs, but I’m sure ther are mosre stories to be read in the future.

    Once stood in the line at the grocery store and had the gentleman behind me comment about waiting in line. I asked “Which service?” He said “Air Force, but we called it eh Air Corps when I was in.”

    B-17 Bombardier. In the parking lot, as his wife patiently waited, he told me he didn’t have it bad only about 30 minutes of each flight was a problem. His friend in Merrill’s Marauders was the one to feel sorry for.

    Stunning. 30 missions over the continent and he thought some one else had it worse. Fine appreciation of life, I’d say.

  3. Dutch

    I published the B-17 log on my broadcast and have one of the author’s bobm Group mates asking the question at the end of this post. Do you have contact info I could pass to him? Many thanks

    From: Burt

    Subject: Re: Life of a B-17 Navigator in WWII …

    Thanks Paul, Do you know the writer?. If so he was from our bomb group, not my Sq. If you have contact with him we are having a Bomb Group reunion on Aug at Cinncinatti OH the middle of Aug and I will send the info.
    Burt

  4. Dutch:

    Alas, no. I received this as an email that had been making the rounds for a while…
    – SJS

  5. virgil xenophon

    One of my best friends and college fraternity brothers had a father who was a B-17 Aircraft Commander who didn’t make it back–a Maj. L.C. Hendricks. I found an entry on B-17 ops on the Web a few yrs ago which mentioned/detailed the ops of his Wing and him by name, but I’ve lost the bookmark in computer crash and can’t find it again.It read very much like this one in tone. Those were rough days indeed….don’t know if I could have faced the hours under fire as little more than sitting ducks…better them than me…better men than me by far….and I’ve got my 100 MSN North patch from SEA.

  6. virgil xenophon

    PS: The base I was stationed at during my USAFE tour, RAF Woodbridge-part of the Bentwaters-Woodbridge twin base complex in East Anglia near Ipswich, was uses as a recovery base for damaged B-17s. As a result our runway was 3x as wide as the normal 11,000′ AF runway, looked like you were landing in the middle of the world’s biggest parking lot on approach. LOL. Was nice tho, in that hard to skid off rnwy under severe icing conditions–which we had a lot while I was there.

    Driving around that part of England was like being in a time capsule. There were still abandoned WWII British and American runways in open fields all over the place–along with still standing concrete flak towers which littered the countryside as well. Hell, the entire Squadron complex, the post office, and the O Club at our base, were ALL housed in WWII Quonset huts cobbled together to bake larger structures–as was Bachelor “permanent” (Not BOQ, which was new) housing on the Bentwaters side. I stayed almost a year at the Bentwaters side in one of those with two pot bellied kerosene stoves for heat–one in the living room and one in the bed room–with an unheated bathroom and an unheated john separate in an attached shed off the kitchen at the opposite end.
    And the 1st two winters I was there It got down below freezing several times–makes it a might nippy at 0400 getting ready to head on over to the base for a 0600 take-off–burrrr……

    LOL.!!! In a lot of ways back there 68-71 I WAS in a time machine living in the past under WWII conditions!

  7. Excellent job dressing out the flight log which in itself is an amazing window to our past. Ironically I just received the log via email last week – not sure how long it’s been making the rounds but it was a first for me.

  8. We definitely need to join-up and talk about Kef sometime — our sqdn (VAW-121) was up there early 80’s w/57th FIS (great group of guys) – WX and facilities, not so…
    – SJS

  9. JAY HODSHON

    LOOKING FOR INFORMATION, DITCHING IN BAY OF BISCAY B-17 THE FIGHTIN COCK, WAIST GUNNERS LEO E. DEGRAW, JOHN O’KEEFE, THEY AND 8 OTHERS WERE CREW OF MARY PAT PILOT RUEL WEIKERT, HE WAS ON THE MARY PAT 5DEC43 WHEN HIS CREW WENT DOWN IN THIS OTHER B-17. I HAVE ALOT OF INFORMATION FROM TAIL GUNNER STEWART H. DAY JR. LEO WAS MY BROTHER IN-LAW

  10. Susan Jones

    Thank you for this … it is one of the most interesting reads I have seen in a long time. My father was Joe F. Jones, Jr, a tailgunner that survived a fall on March 1st, 1945.

    • Thomas

      I had the great honor hear his talk in 1989 in lakeland. Great man( Joe Jones )

  11. Steve Dickerson

    This is a fantastic read. I have to say that these young men and boys were all true heros. My farther was a command pilot in the Army Air Corp during WW2 in Alaska and to follow traddition I was a HU-16 aircraft commander in the USCG during the late 60s and early 70s. I have a hard time imagining what it must have been like for those crews to fly the missions with the aircraft and equipment of that era. Certainly not like what I had and that would be considered primitive by todays standards.

  12. Brian

    America owes a great debt to this generation. There is no way to ever fully repay it, and sadly now, we’re losing over 1000 of these men and women per day. God bless them all, and God bless America. 73 de KB9BVN

  13. William R Merritt Jr.

    Looking for information on my dad William Robert Merritt commandor of a B-17 that flew out of England in 43 and 44.

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