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THE CREW'S EQUIPMENT AND PROTECTIVE PARAPHERNALIA
We flew most of our missions at an altitude of more than 21,000 feet, some of then lasting eight to ten hours, as in the case of our missions to Berlin and Munich. In an open unpressurized B-24 at this altitude there was not enough oxygen for you to function efficiently and it was also very cold, with temperatures in the range of 50 to 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, exposing any uncovered skin to numbing frostbite.
Oxygen. Above 10,000 feet you had to breathe oxygen through a mask connected by a tube to a large oxygen tank near your battle position. If you had to leave your position for any reason, you had to strap a portable oxygen tank around your neck. This tank held enough oxygen for about seven minutes.
Warmth. On the crew's first mission Becchetti became trapped in the nose turret when the airstream loosened and jammed the turret door during a spin. This exposed Becchetti to a strong flow of air into the turret. He returned to base with his left cheek frostbitten by the few minutes of cold air.
At 50 or 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, it didn't take long for exposed skin to freeze. To combat this, each crew member was clothed in a fur-lined flying suit and boots and a heated flying suit, with heated gloves and heavy heated boots plugged into the suit, which in turn was plugged to the B-24's electrical system. This equipment was somewhat delicately wired, so it was not unusual for a part of it to malfunction and turn out no heat. When it failed, you simply endured the cold with whatever clothing you had and cursed the equipment.
Communication. The crew was held together by an intercom system, in which every crew member could hear every message. To speak to a specific person, you used such a phrase as this, "Pilot to bombardier, begin your bomb run." All other members of the crew would hear this message. You wore a leather helmet with a built-in headset and a snap-on throat microphone, both with a separate cord plugged in at your position. If you had to leave your position, as in the case of McHenry's going out into the bomb bay to release a hung bomb, you would be out of communication, so you made sure that somebody was watching you whenever something pulled you away from your intercom connection.
Flak & Body Protection. Flak or the shrapnel from anti-aircraft shells exploding near your plane was the principal danger, especially over the target. A direct hit could bring down an airplane, of course, but the explosions also projected jagged pieces of metal of varying sizes that could penetrate the thin aluminum skin of the B-24. Depending on the nearness of the explosion, these pieces of metal could enter the plane and merely fall to the floor without doing any damage except for the hole in the fuselage or they could come through the fuselage at bullet-like speed and cause serious damage to the plane's equipment or serious and sometimes fatal injury to a crew member. Occasionally, a piece of metal would enter the plane and ricochet noisily and frighteningly off the inner walls and structure two or three times before falling to the floor. On one of our missions a piece of flak ricocheted in this manner until it struck our waist gunner, lodging itself in his temple just below the skin. Fortunately, the flak had spent itself, or it would have killed the gunner.
A flak vest and a metal helmet were our protection against flak. The vest had two panels held together by snaps at the shoulders, so that the chest and back were protected. Each panel was constructed of cloth-covered squares of metal attached so that the suit would be flexible.
The myth among bomber crews was that flak bursts usually occurred below the airplane, sending flying metal upward into the plane, thus endangering their masculine virility. Because of this and because of the weight of the flak suit, many airmen chose to sit on at least one of the protective panels, if not both of them. Needless to say, flak suits were always in demand, because airmen hoarded them and hid them. The ideal was to wear one flak suit over your chest and back and to line your seat with another flak suit for double protection.
It was easy to put on a metal helmet, so you wore one in flak barrages over the target, if the helmet was available and if you remembered to put it on. Often, these helmets were never returned to base. They were often used for toilet emergencies and thrown out of the plane before landing, which may explain why helmets were not always available.
Emergency Over Water. Crossing the North Sea at the beginning of a mission and the possibility of having to ditch on the return was reason enough for you to wear a "Mae West" life preserver on missions out of England. However, the waters of the North Sea were so cold that life expectancy was about five minutes in a ditching situation, but all of us wore the "Mae West."
Emergency In The Air. As we discovered on our 32nd mission, parachuting or bailing out of an airplane is sometimes necessary. For this reason, with the exception of the pilot and the co-pilot, who had back parachutes which formed part of their seats, all of us wore a parachute harness over our flying clothes and kept a chest parachute near at all times to hook onto the harness for a bail-out.
The chest parachutes were "right handed," that is, the ripcord was on the right when the chute was correctly hooked on the harness. To bail out, you first checked that all parts of the harness were hooked together properly and that the harness was snug on your body, especially around your legs, where a loose harness could injure you seriously in the groin area when the parachute opened and stopped your free fall.
In a controlled bail-out, you left the plane by the camera hatch, at the rear between the waist section and the tail gun. In an emergency, you left the plane through any opening available, trusting that you would fall clear of the tail section.
In our bail-out on July 31, 1944, we used the camera hatch. Six of us bailed out first, so we were able to check one another's harness before hooking our chest pack on the harness. With arms crossed over the parachute, each of us in turn faced the front of the plane, squatted on the front edge of the camera hatch, and then fell backwards down through the hatch and out of the plane. McHenry bailed out alone a few minutes later without the advantage of having others check his equipment.
The Completely Equipped Bomber Crewman. Thus when fully equipped and protected, you were thoroughly bundled against the sub-zero cold. You had a fur-lined flying suit over a heated suit with electrical connection to your gloves and to your heavy fur lined boots. You had your yellow "Mae West" life preserver draped around your neck and strapped at your sides. Over this you wore the flak suit, covering your chest and back. In case of a bail-out or a ditching at sea you could quickly unsnap the two panels of the flak suit and let them drop to the floor. Finally, you clipped on your parachute harness, making sure that it was properly hooked together and snug on your body and legs. On your head you wore a light leather helmet with intercom earphones sewn into the helmet, and around your neck you snapped on a throat microphone. Over the leather helmet, you wore a steel helmet through flak barrages. You wore goggles to prevent frostbite around the eyes and, of course, an oxygen mask covering the mouth and nose connected by a tube to an oxygen tank.. At high altitudes it was necessary every few minutes to swing aside the oxygen mask to shake off the frost and to dry off your face. And you always had your chest parachute within easy reach in case you had to hook it on the harness in a hurry to bail out.
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