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A TYPICAL BOMBING MISSION
Alert. Normally, we were placed on alert the day or night before a mission. This modified our day and night somewhat. When on alert, we usually did not leave the base on a pass to Norwich. Perhaps we went to our respective clubs on the base, but we drank only moderately. In most cases we stayed in our quarters and wrote letters. Nevertheless, there were men who made no changes in their behavior because of an alert. They left the base or went to their respective club and frequently got drunk, making their way back to their quarters very late in the night.
Wake-up. We were awakened for a mission very early in the morning, long before sunrise, very frequently at 1:30 or 2:30 a.m.; although we flew some of our missions in the afternoon. The wake-up was done by a man in a jeep who circulated among the huts and barracks knocking on doors and yelling out names. Such wake-ups took place in almost total darkness because of our blackout conditions and, very often, early morning fog.
Briefing: General. From our quarters we walked, somewhat bleary-eyed, through the darkness and fog to the mess hall for a good breakfast, and from breakfast we gathered in the briefing room for a general briefing.
The target was announced by the drawing of a curtain from across a map of Europe. On the map there would be a length of colored yarn stretched from Tibenham across the North Sea to a series of pegs guiding the yarn along the route that we would take to the primary target marked by a red dot at the end of the yarn. A secondary target would be indicated by a dot of another color.
The Intelligence Officer briefed us on the significance of the target and on the resistance we might encounter. The Weather Officer briefed us on the predicted winds, temperatures and cloud cover over the target and along the route to the target and on return to England. At this briefing we also learned our position in the formation. The last act was to "hack" our watches so that everybody would be synchronized on the mission.
Briefings: By Crew Position. After the general briefing we went to individual briefings pertaining to our positions on the aircraft. Radio Operator McHenry checked out his code books and received information on radio silence requirements and the schedule for transmission and repetition of headquarters messages. Bombardier Becchetti was briefed on the type and weight of bombs we would be carrying along with any details about fuses. If we were riding with a navigator, he would receive a packet of charts for plotting our route. In most cases Becchetti did double duty as bombardier and navigator, so he carried charts as well as any information he needed for reading the Gee Box radar instrument. Engineer DeRouen and later Goldstein was briefed on fuel problems, although he would receive most of his information from the chief of the ground crew after arriving at the B-24 we would fly. Since we were not assigned a permanent B-24 it was important that the engineer, the pilot and co-pilot discuss with ground crew chief any peculiarities of the plane they would be flying.
Clothing, Equipment, Coffee, Religion. After the individual briefings all of us checked out our flying clothing and supplies at the flight line. This included a heated flying suit with heated gloves and boots, a leather flying helmet with sewn-in head set, a chest-type parachute and a "mae west" life preserver.
We would find a flak suit, a flak helmet, throat microphones and portable oxygen tanks at our positions in the plane. McHenry would also find the camera with which he was to film the pattern of bomb hits over the target. We also received a survival kit containing basic maps of Europe, chewing gum and two Camel brand cigarettes.
The Red Cross had its coffee and doughnut bar next to the equipment checkout room, where one or two Red Cross women volunteers, usually attractive and personable, served us.
At this point we met with our respective religious ministers - Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. The Catholics, for example, received automatic absolution for their sins without having to go to Confession, said the Act of Contrition in chorus and then received Holy Communion as they walked out to the flight line.
Pre-Flight. Except for the pilot, all of us rode a troop carrier out to the camouflaged hard stand where our B-24 was parked and being made ready by the ground crew. In most cases we did not know which B-24 we would be flying until we arrived at the hard stand parking area. The bombs were often loaded only after the bombardier had inspected them to see that the fuses were properly attached. The ground crew chief gave a short briefing, mostly for our engineer's benefit, on any peculiarities of the aircraft he was turning over to us.
Then all of us boarded the plane and went to our positions for a pre-flight check. First, we checked to be sure that we had a flak suit and a flak helmet at our position. Some of us carried our own extra flak suit to further protect our positions. All the gunners checked the operation of their turrets, something they would do again over the North Sea on the way to the target. Radio Operator McHenry checked his equipment for proper reception and transmission and made sure that his IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) was functioning properly and that the detonators for destroying the secret IFF were available and properly installed. Bombardier Becchetti checked his bomb release equipment up front and turned on his radar Gee Box and checked its settings for any independent navigation he might have to do. The co-pilot, meanwhile, did a preliminary flight check in the pilot's compartment. With all positions pre-flighted the crew sat near the plane to wait for the pilot.
Take-Off and Assembly. A few minutes before take-off time, a van or jeep arrived with our pilot. In a military gesture designed to emphasize the seriousness of the mission and our dependency on one another, Co-pilot Cliff Bolton called the crew to attention and lead a salute. After the salute the pilot gave the crew any last minute details about the mission and ordered everybody to their take-off positions.
At the assigned take-off time the pilot and co-pilot taxied the plane off the hard stand and into take-off position on instructions from the tower. They carried on their pre-flight check of instruments and equipment while taxiing, and just before getting into position for take-off they were able to do a final warming up of the engines.
We took off at about 30-second intervals and rose methodically to the altitude where our formation would be assembled, all of us at our positions and watching for other planes to avoid a collision. We assembled by squadrons, twelve bombers in close formation behind the lead plane, which fired a flare occasionally to identify the squadron.
Once the three squadrons were in formation, they moved into group formation. The lead squadron established the altitude and course heading. A second squadron flew slightly lower and to the left of the lead squadron, and the third squadron, slightly higher and to the right.
Eventually, the group would move into its assigned position in the Second Air Division's formation, which in turn would seek its position in a full Eighth Air Force assault, such as on a major target like Berlin or Munich. In such an assault there could be 36 groups flying about 1,000 yards apart all on the same course. Upon reaching the target area, at the so-called IP or Initial Point, the larger formation would break up, with each group peeling off for its specific target.
After hitting their respective targets, the groups would re-assemble for the return to England under the protection of a large formation.
The assembling of a formation was far from being a routine exercise. During a one-hour period there were up to 1,000 bombers circling over East Anglia moving into tight formation, so tight that we could wave at friends in the planes alongside our plane and see the expressions on their faces. Pilots were quite proud of their ability to "fly in tight" in a formation. A tight formation plus a fighter escort, of course, was the key to effective defense against attacking fighters.
The Flight to the Target. The route to the target was planned for deceiving the enemy and for avoiding anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters. Thus the formation never went directly to the target. The route plotted on the map was usually a jagged line across Europe.
From beginning to the end of the mission the pilot and co-pilot were under maximum stress as they kept the plane in tight formation within the squadron. The B-24, notoriously awkward in formation, had to be flown constantly under those conditions, so the pilots were handling their controls, adjusting their speed and watching their instruments every second, and bad weather made it even worse. They had to listen for any change of plans by the lead plane - changes in altitude, direction or speed, and then they had to manhandle the B-24 to adapt to the change.
Radio Operator McHenry had to maintain radio contact with the 445th throughout the flight and be aware of the plane's geographic position constantly.
Bombardier Becchetti had taken on the navigator's function early in the combat tour, so he had to keep alert to the plane's position and, in addition, be in position to use the radar Gee Box for navigation in an emergency. As navigator, he also kept track of our position relative to the countries of safe haven in case of our having to leave the formation for some reason - Switzerland on missions in the southern regions of Germany and Sweden for missions in the northern areas.
Engineer DeRouen, later Goldstein, worked closely with the pilots in monitoring the operation of the four engines and fuel levels. The aircraft's main job was to carry bombs, and the ratio of bomb weight to the weight of fuel was calculated very carefully. We carried just enough fuel to make the mission on the prescribed route. Any deviation from the designated route or any loss of fuel for other reasons would put the plane's return in jeopardy.
All of us were in a constant state of alert to all movement in the air around the plane. We watched other planes in our formation for any change in flight attitude. We rotated our gun turrets to keep them flexible and ready for action, watching constantly for "bandits," that is, enemy fighters, identifying them and giving their direction from the plane. We reported flak bursts, giving their direction from the plane: "Flak at three o'clock, low" or "Flak over Strausburg at one o'clock." We also reported the presence of our fighter escorts, usually with some expression of joy.
Nobody slept or even relaxed on these missions. A mission was a life-or-death experience for all of us. We were surrounded by danger from guns on the ground, from enemy fighters, from the other bombers in our formation and even from the machinery and equipment of our own aircraft. There was no idle chit-chat on the intercom. The stress and fear was constant.
Enemy Resistance: Anti-Aircraft Guns and Flak. Technically, the word "flak" refers to the anti-aircraft guns, which the Germans called fliegerabwehrkanone, but from our point of view, flak referred to the explosion of the shells from the German guns near our plane or within view.
Flak also referred to the shrapnel from those explosions which could easily penetrate the aluminum skin of a B-24 and do damage to equipment and, of course, to the human body. Flak could pepper the outer surface of the plane harmlessly but frighteningly so that it sounded as though we were flying through sprays of gravel. Flak could leave holes of varying sizes in the fuselage. It could take out an engine or damage the plane sufficiently to make it inoperative and unable to maintain its position in the formation so that it became isolated and an easy prey for enemy fighters. And, obviously, with a direct hit in the bomb bay or the fuel tanks, flak could blow the plane to smithereens and its crew to eternity.
German gunners had no difficulty aiming at a formation of hundreds of bombers. They could not miss. However, In order to do serious damage to our bombers the German gunners had to adjust their shells so that they exploded at the same altitude that we were flying. German fighters would radio information on altitude, speed and direction to the anti-aircraft batteries. The Germans were also known to send up captured American bombers to attach themselves to the formations and radio pertinent information to the flak gunners. With such data at hand, the expert German gunners, with their radar assisted guns, could knock out bombers almost at will and totally disrupt the formation, except for one thing: chaff.
One of the reasons that American cigarette and chewing gum manufacturers had stopped wrapping their product in metal foil was our use of chaff on our bombing raids, probably tons of it over Europe.
Chaff received its name from its similarity to the fine husks of wheat carried off by the wind as the seed was separated from the plant. In the context of a bombing raid, chaff was the narrow strips of metal that we tossed out of our bombers to jam the radar screens of the German gunners and thus prevent them from adjusting accurately for our altitude.
The shiny strips were six inches long and one-eighth inch wide. They were in small loosely bound bundles about an inch in diameter. Every bomber carried as large a supply of chaff as they could get. During any flak barrage our crew, mainly the waist gunners, would toss the bundles of chaff out the waist windows, where the propeller wash would scatter the metal strips below us, creating a drifting metallic cloud that fouled German radar, so that the gunners had to guess at our altitude. Most of the explosions were below the formation; although some of them would hit above and exactly at our level, as the gunners bracketed their radar signals. All of us swore by the effectiveness of chaff, and what little laughter we enjoyed regarding the missions was based on the image of our waist gunners Sladovnik and McGovern frantically tossing chaff out the windows.
Unfortunately, however, the very important leading bombers in our formation could not benefit from the spreading of chaff, unless other formations ahead of them had tossed out enough chaff to create a cloud of metal strips that trailed under our formation.
Nevertheless, in spite of chaff, flak was our nightmare. As we flew across Europe we could see frightening clouds of flak over cities to the left and right of our formation under attack by other American bomb groups. Then we would turn onto our target and see our own cloud of flak bursts awaiting us like a curtain of death and injury. From a distance the bursts looked like harmless puffs of smoke, as we got nearer we could see the flame of the explosions and the swift and powerful effects bursting through the smoke. Then you would hear the explosions themselves and hear the shrapnel striking the plane. A terrible, helpless experience in which all you can do is pray.
Enemy Resistance: Fighters. The Eighth Air Force learned very early that our bombers, even in formation, were no match for a concentrated attack by German fighter planes. Without interference from American fighters, the German Luftwaffe pilots in their Messerschmitt-109's and Focke Wolfe-190's could literally wipe out an entire bomb group in a few minutes.
This actually occurred relatively late in the war on September 27, 1944. Several weeks after all of our crew had left England and were back in the U.S., our 445th Bomb Group sent 35 B-24's on a major raid against Kassel, Germany. The 445th became separated from the main formation and came under attack by 90 German fighters. In less than ten minutes the German fighters brought down 25 of the 35 bombers. Only four bombers returned to their base at Tibenham. The other six made emergency landings over Europe.
It is frightening to imagine what the Luftwaffe could have done to our bombers and our fighters if they had developed and produced in numbers their jet-propelled Messerschmitt-262 fighter earlier. In September 1944, even before our crew had left England, 445th BG airmen were encountering the jet fighter. They returned to base with incredible accounts of the jet's blinding speed and maneuverability. Our eyes were not adjusted to such speeds at that time.
For the Germans, the ideal fighter attack on our bombers was from 600 to 1000 yards out, high and out of the sun, but they would attack from any angle; however, they would never attack a formation with a fighter escort. They preferred to attack smaller, unescorted formations or solitary bombers isolated from the main formation for one reason or another, and they were deadly in such attacks. Thus, the first defensive move was to tighten the formation so that the bombers flew only ten or twenty-feet apart. This prevented German fighters from flying and firing their guns through the formation.
With everybody watching for "bandits," any intercom message indicating the location and flight angle of a fighter on the attack would cause all turrets to cover the area of attack, thus concentrating the bomber's firepower on the attacking fighter. All of the men on our .50 caliber guns had received gunnery training, so they knew how to lead the speeding fighter for a hit. We did not use tracer bullets, because they had been found to be ineffective and confusing.
The principal form of defense against German fighters was, of course, the American fighters that escorted our formations to and from the target. Our fighters were the Lockheed P-38 Lightning with its distinctive twin fuselage, Republic's stubby but deadly P-47 Thunderbolt and North American's sleek P-51 Mustang. These fighters had taken control of the skies over Europe by the time our crew arrived in England, so we were never under direct attack by German fighters, although we were witness to fighter attacks on planes and groups in our formation. In spite of American domination of the skies, however, the German Luftwaffe remained a threat until the end of the war, especially as the German defensive perimeter became tighter after D-Day and the Allied surge across Europe.
The Bomb Run. After the full formation had made its way across Europe, it reached a point where it would break up into bomb groups with specific targets within the larger targeted area. In most cases we would have to turn ninety degrees onto a bomb run leading into our specific target. This would inevitably give us a view of the flak barrage that awaited us over our target - usually a most frightening sight for all of us. At this point all of us braced ourselves for another fearful and almost paralyzing confrontation with the possibility of death in the plane's explosion from a direct hit or by being struck in the body by a jagged chunk of shrapnel from a near miss.
Before this, Radio Operator McHenry had made his way out onto the catwalk of the bomb bay to pull the pins on the bomb fuses up front which had kept them safe while being loaded and during the flight. Waist Gunner Sladovnik did the same to the bombs in the rear part of the bomb bay.
With everyone at his position we turned onto the bomb run, which would include the formation's evasive action at the beginning and then become a straight, unwavering course through every obstacle that the enemy could throw at us. As we flew closer to the target the flak barrage became thicker. The gray puffs of smoke that we had seen from a distance became black explosions laced with fire. Becchetti would describe these nearby flak bursts later as "the black orchids of death." All of us became fatalistic about flak, saying that "if you saw the flak burst and didn't feel anything, that meant that you were alive and hadn't been wounded."
Obviously, Pilot Palmer and Co-pilot Bolton on the bomb run were kept occupied by the requirements of keeping just off the wing of the airplane next to us in the formation. There was an added requirement of a tight formation over the target so that the formation's bomb pattern would be concentrated, so the pilot made a special effort to fly tight.
On the bomb run, all eyes were focused on the lead plane in the formation. The lead plane and the second lead to its right were the only planes in the formation in which the bombardier was manning the Norden bombsight to trigger the release of the bombs on the target. If for some reason the lead plane was not able to carry out the bomb run, the second lead would take over.
As the formation moved into the straight course of the bomb run the lead plane opened it bomb bay doors and Bombardier Becchetti opened our bomb bay doors, announcing to the crew by intercom, "Bomb bay doors open." However, the announcement was not necessary. The rattle of the bomb bay doors and the sudden rush of cold air through the plane were enough to inform everybody that we had begun the most important part of the bomb run - the most important part of the mission.
From this moment on we held our breaths and said our prayers while Waist Gunners Sladovnik and McGovern threw out chaff as fast as they could to confound the radar of anti-aircraft guns and keep the flak bursts below the formation. Meanwhile, Bombardier Becchetti's eye was fixed on the lead plane's open bomb bay, waiting for the bomb drop.
The beginning of the lead plane's bomb drop was accompanied by two colored smoke bombs. On seeing the drop, Bombardier Becchetti released our bombs, announcing on the intercom, "Bombs away." But again there was no need for this announcement, because with the sudden release of the bombs our plane along with the other planes in the formation would rise two hundred feet so that everybody on the plane knew that the bombs were gone.
Normally at this point Radio Operator McHenry, with a camera in hand, would leave his position and lean over the front edge of the bomb bay and film the impact of the bombs on the target. Then the bomb bay doors were closed, and the formation moved out of the bomb run and set course for a rendezvous with the other bomb groups for the return to England.
At times bombs would get hung up in the front bomb bay racks, and Radio Operator McHenry, before filming the bomb impact, would walk out onto the catwalk of the open bomb bay and manually release the hung-up bombs - a terribly dangerous duty in which he had to carry a portable oxygen tank and be out of intercom communication out on the cold edge of nothingness without his parachute attached to his harness, since he could not move on the narrow catwalk with his parachute attached. Since McHenry was out of communication the Flight Engineer would watch his progress, ready to act in case of an emergency out on the catwalk. If the bomb hung up at the rear of the bomb bay, Waist Gunner Sladovnik went out on the catwalk to release it, while Waist Gunner McGovern watched from the waist compartment.
Return to England. With "Bombs away" it was not unusual for somebody on the plane to say,"Let's get the hell out of here." And we would do this, but not in the dramatic fashion popularized in the movies. We turned away from the flak protected target as soon as we could, but we were in formation with other 36,000-pound bombers, which meant an agonizingly slow retreat from danger, with everyone holding his breath with fear as flak continued to explode around the plane. In our anxiety it often seemed that our plane had quit moving as it turned, making us sitting ducks for the German anti-aircraft gunners. We did not relax until we could no longer hear the flak explosions, and even then we could not relax completely until we had joined the main formation and reached the English Channel.
In our dash for the Channel we were still vulnerable to enemy fighter attacks, so we remained alert to "bandits" throughout the return. Earlier in the war, when the German Luftwaffe dominated the skies over Europe, there were some instances of German fighters shooting down bombers in their landing pattern directly over their home base in England. This had occurred once at Tibenham.
In general, however, we were light-hearted during the return flight. Once we had reported in to the pilot from our positions, we were able to lean back with the satisfaction of having survived another mission; although anything could happen before we landed at Tibenham.
The first one to see the Channel and the White Cliffs of Dover would report it to the crew, but there was no deviation from the formation until we had crossed the Channel and were over England. At that moment the lead plane would signal to those bombers requesting priority in landing, granting them permission to drop out of the formation and fly directly to the home field or to an emergency field. Planes with wounded crew members and aircraft flying on less than four engines were given priority in landing.
Aircraft without emergency situations stayed in formation with the lead plane. On reaching Tibenham, the formation flew over the runway, giving ground crews a check on the planes returning, and then planes began peeling off to the right and 360 degrees around the base for their landings, about thirty seconds apart, depending on how long it took to clear the runway. The crew chief usually met his aircraft at the end of the runway in his Jeep and guided the plane to a hard stand parking area. After the plane was parked a truck arrived to pick up the crew and their equipment and drive them to de briefing.
Debriefing. A chaplain and the debriefing officer met the crew at the debriefing room. There was coffee, liquor and candy bars for the crew. The mood was one of exhaustion and impatience, even though all of us knew that debriefing was necessary. The pilot, co-pilot, bombardier-navigator and the radio operator had to prepare written reports on the mission, which they did in addition to answering the questions of the debriefing officers.
Their questions covered every aspect of the mission. They wanted to know about enemy countermeasures, enemy ground activity that we might have seen, weather conditions, target conditions, assessment of bomb damage, enemy fighter activity, fighter protection, disabled bombers, numbers of parachutes visible from downed or damaged aircraft. During the debriefing we also got information on crews that had problems on the mission.
And So To Bed. After the debriefing we turned in our flight equipment and went to the mess hall for a good meal. After a mission that had kept us awake for ten to eighteen hours we then made our way to our huts and went to bed, with the hope that we could shake off the tension and then sleep restfully until the next wake-up.