Somewhere in England
Nov. 8, 1944
It happened on the bomb run. After flying hundreds of miles over a thick undercast, the target area appeared below and ahead, completely unobscured by clouds. It looked as though someone had taken a pair of scissors and snipped a round hole out of the fleecy blanket and, by chance, over the target. Ahead lay clearly the town, the chemical plant, the river and marshalling yards. Although experts at camouflage, the Germans could not disguise nature’s tell-tale landmarks which pointed to the objective.
The heavy bombers fanned out and started the bombing run. After flying several minutes over the seemingly peaceful countryside and city below, the flak barrage was unleashed. Usually the first squadron over a target encounters little flak because the gun crews below are busily computing the altitude and course of the bombers. This was an exception - the kind you run up against so often in this war. The first burst of flak came up and was exceedingly accurate. This meant that the range and course were already correctly computed, and without moving his guns, Jerry could plaster the rest of the division as easily, but not quite as effectively, as they could hammer him.
Ship 437 was leading the high flight of the lead squadron. The pilot held the ship level and all aboard were anxiously awaiting the cry of “Bombs away.” A direct hit in the bomb bays would blow any plane to bits, and with the doors open, flak bursting about and no chance for evasive action, nine men breathed a sign of relief when over the interphone the bombardier said sharply, “Bombs away!”
In that brief moment the unexpected happened: flak fragments began riddling the skin of the ship; a piece tore through the cockpit severing the pilots oxygen line and hitting him in the leg, and finally stopped against his inner heated suit. The bomb bay doors refused to close, an amplifier went out in Number one engine and Number three received several good hits in the cowling.
While the pilot and co-pilot feathered the propellor of the now dead number one engine, the bombardier crawled back to the bomb bays to crank the doors up by hand since the electrical system was out of operation. As the engineer crawled out of his upper turret to assist the bombardier and fix the pilots oxygen system, a flak fragment came through the front of the turret where his face would ordinarily have been. The piece of flying steel was so hot that it lit in his ammunition cans amidst a shower of glass, and melted the ends of five rounds of 50 caliber machine gun bullets to shapeless gobs of molten lead and steel.
Unable to keep up with the formation, the pilot dropped altitude and air speed and tried to catch another group. A straggler falls easy prey to enemy fighters. While the bombardier was still standing on the catwalk, 25,000 feet over Germany, with the temperature nearly 40 degrees F below zero, and an oxygen bottle, one end on his mask and the other flopping around in the slip stream, and only hanging on to a small rope used as a railing, with no parachute, the pilot dropped the nose of the plane to avoid hitting another bomber coming in from 9 o’clock. At such a dizzy altitude it appeared for a brief moment he would go hurtling out of the wallowing ship.
Meanwhile, up in the cockpit the instruments were denoting radical changes. Flak had put Number one out and Number three engine was leaking gas and oil badly, and smoke was billowing out from under the cowl flaps. Too, one of the aileron controls had been knocked out. On the pilot rested the problem. Is the engine seriously on fire? Is it behind the firewall? If so, it would explode at any moment. Should he tell the crew to bail out or take a chance and fly her back? Could he make the base in England, or must he set her down in France or Belgium? Taking a chance, he chose to fly home.
The flak bursts had increased in their number during the bomb run, and for a period shortly after “bombs away” the flak had been so close the red bursts were as noticeable as the black puffs. Several times the plane was lifted by near misses exploding under her vulnerable fuselage. A barrage of 6-10 bursts would appear suddenly ahead and just short of the nose; the next moment the plane was flying through the remnants of the smoke. About were exploding the rockets and vapor trails left by friendly patrolling fighters waiting outside the flak area to escort the bombers home.
Several hours later 437 sighted the English Coast and prepared to head towards its field, when an order came through to land at an alternate base. The home field was closed due to a terrific cross wind and rain showers.
Wearily, the old lady lowered her nose and the pilot began the difficult struggle to set her down on a strange field with a treacherous tail wind, one engine out and another likely to quit at any moment and part of the controls shot away.
He set her down, and as she came to rest, engine number three burst in flames, but they were quickly extinguished. Despite great battle damage, 44 flak holes, so seriously injured as to warrant not flying for several days, and battered sister ships —437 came through and her crew escaped serious injury in their 15th mission over the Reich.
I received my information first hand. I was the bombardier.