Book: Hell's Angels

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THE 303RD’S MEN went into London on passes of varying durations starting in late 1942. Ehle Reber went on December 2 and checked into the Park Lane Hotel. To that point he had been at Molesworth for one month and flown a grand total of two missions. His recreation in London was typical. Aside from drinking, he and his comrades took in the classic tourist sights: “We saw Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, House of Commons and Lords, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus; etc.”

They were also witnesses to wartime destruction of a sort that had never before been visited on London. “The bombed areas were interesting,” said Reber. “Whole blocks were leveled. The ruins were appalling. They [Germans] used the tall church steeples as land marks [sic] and the areas around them are scenes of utter desolation. The cabby said that if the R.A.F. had not made their desperate effort, and a successful one, to stop the Jerry raids, England would have folded in about two months. They were on their last legs and no foolin’!”

London’s legendary taxi drivers also impressed Reber as “really marvelous. They are mostly driven by old, gray-haired men, and the way they handle the car and the way they get around in traffic is amazing. The cabs are real old and extremely different from anything in the States. They are kept bright and shiny however, and very comfortable. They are also very cheap. Our tour cost us 8 shillings—$1.60.”

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THE MISSION ON December 6, 1942, was only the 303rd’s fifth. That inexperience was apparent immediately after the group got airborne. “A squadron from one of the other fields tacked on our first two squadrons, so Col. Wallace thought he had the group together and really stepped on it,” recorded Ehle Reber. “When he saw the other squadron pull out of the formation and he saw us trailing he realized his error and slowed up enabling us to catch him after giving our turbos [engine turbochargers] hell.”

Reber described the escort provided by a mix of RAF and USAAF Spitfires. “The Spits were like a bunch of little chicks flitting about the mother hens, the Fortresses. It was indeed a beautiful sight. We were attacked by several FW190’s and several ME109’s. One FW190 made a suicidal dive through our squadron. It’s [sic] guns were blazing, but no hits were made.

“It came very close to my plane. I could almost see the expression on the pilot’s face. Lt. [Robert] Swindle gave him several long bursts with the nose guns. One of the planes in our squadron got him as Swindle saw him burst into flames and explode as he struck the earth.”

Reber noted—without commentary—that the inexperienced B-17 gunners shot down one of their fighter escorts. “One Spitfire was shot down by gunners on the Fortress who mistook it for a ME109.” Sadly, losses to friendly gunfire continued through the war for the same reason—mistaken identity.

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THE INVASION OF NORTHWEST AFRICA cost Eaker many of his units, but Mother Nature also upset his plans. The weather over England and Northern Europe during the fall and winter of 1942 was atrocious; in fact, the Eighth managed to launch only four missions during all of December 1942. It frustrated Eaker, it frustrated Arnold, it frustrated the President, and it frustrated the American public. Most of all, it frustrated the airmen, and Ehle Reber’s complaint was typical: “I don’t see why in the hell they don’t send us to Africa where we would have some flying weather and be able to bomb hell out of the Jerries there.”

Evidently, Reber came close to getting his wish. Because of the operational flux in both England and Northwest Africa, the 303rd was alerted to be ready to deploy, as Reber observed in his diary entry for December 8: “Bomb bay [fuel] tanks and baggage racks were taken out to the dispersal area. Maybe we go to Africa pretty soon. An alert was called and then we were released. Everybody is raring to go to the Africa affair. Tanks and racks were not installed, but were to be ready for installation at a moment’s notice.”

Ultimately, the 303rd did not leave Molesworth. Rather the group stayed put and the men trained as best they could. Reber was in the Link trainer—an instrument flight simulator—constantly. Other men also worked hard to maintain their particular expertise. On December 15 Reber recalled how the top turret gunners practiced their craft while still on the ground: “Upper turret gunners are getting a little practice with the plane on the ground. A couple of cubs [small liaison aircraft] dive down on the planes and the turret gunners track them.”

Nevertheless, Reber also noted that the training the men received in another arena—sexual hygiene—did not prove as effective as desired. “Party in the evening. I brought Doris from Cambridge. We had good time. All 48 hour passes have been cancelled as there are quite a few venereal disease cases from the 427th in the hospital.”

However, the men were soon allowed to leave the base and Reber was back in London for a forty-eight-hour pass beginning December 29. He and his comrades checked into the Savoy and readied themselves for a good time.

In the evening we went downstairs to the American Bar and drank beer and scotch. Had a marvelous time. Met Martha Raye and had a shot with her. She was going to Africa in the next 32 hours and apparently headed for a good bender. I proved right later on as we met her again at the Merry Go Round Club. We were with two American nurses we had met at the American Bar. Martha was out of this world [drunk]. She was coaxed (very little) to get up and sing. She did and it really stunk. She sang “Honeysuckle Rose” and one other. She really had a whiskey tenor. We tried to get in the Embassy Club, but without a membership card, it was impossible. The doorkeeper did pour us a spot of tea. Of all things.

Martha Raye was part of the initial wave of American celebrities that invaded and continued to overrun England through the war. Everyone who was anyone in the entertainment world went to England—usually in the company of the USO but sometimes in uniform. The most famous among them included Bob Hope, James Cagney, Marlene Dietrich, Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby and Glenn Miller.

Not only did their presence contribute to the morale of their countrymen—as it was intended to—but for most of the stars it also satisfied a sense of daring and adventure. Crossing the Atlantic, by sea or air, was still dangerous. And the Germans still made nighttime raids against London. Too, virtually all of the celebrities felt a very real patriotic obligation to do their part for the war effort as best they could.

A very small number of stars went so far as to serve in combat. Perhaps the most legitimate and well known was Jimmy Stewart. A B-24 pilot, he served as a squadron commander with the 445th and 453rd Bomb Groups and led both groups multiple times—and to tough targets. He was considered not only an outstanding pilot, but a genuine, courageous and well-liked leader. He completed twenty officially credited missions with the 445th and 453rd before being transferred to work as a staff officer at the 20th Combat Bombardment Wing. While there, he flew several more missions with other bomb groups for which he did not take credit.

Van White enjoyed a bit of celebrity while on pass to London. “I had a little portable RCA radio that ran on dry cell batteries. I carried it on a strap under my raincoat. It measured about three inches by four inches by nine inches and had really nice reception. I had music or news wherever I went. Fred Astaire’s sister Adele—the big vaudeville and Broadway star—was quite a popular figure in London during that time and she was just fascinated with that radio. She made me promise to leave it with her when the time came for me to go back to the States. But it wasn’t popular when I went into any of the pubs. A license was required to play music in a pub, and the owners always made me turn the radio off as soon as I came through the door. In the end, it was stolen. That was a sad day.”

White also remembered a night when a particularly American treat made him popular. “I was sitting in a hotel lobby with a can of Jolly Time popcorn—my mother used to send cans of it to me. While I sat there, two English girls walked up and told me that I was invited to a party that evening. I went out that night to a great house party and I took that popcorn along with me. Later I received a letter from one of the girls thanking me for the wonderful ‘pop cakes.’”

Still, White’s radio and popcorn didn’t always do the trick. “I was spending the evening with a lady friend who shared an apartment with her parents. When the air raid sirens went off, they all left for their assigned bomb shelter under the Mount Royal Hotel. I was left alone in the apartment. I spent the air raid huddled in their bathtub holding an ironing board over the top of my head.”

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THE 303RD’S FIRST MISSION of 1943 was a disaster, notwithstanding the fact that it included one of the most bizarre incidents to be recorded in combat aviation. January 3 marked the group’s ninth mission overall and its fourth to St. Nazaire. During its short combat career to that point, nearly half of its missions had been sent against the enemy submarine base—such was the importance the Allies put on stymieing the German submarine war. That day’s specific target was a torpedo storage area, and the group launched seventeen aircraft, three of which aborted.

The weather was cold and clear and offered excellent bombing conditions. Unfortunately, the same superb weather also served the enemy. The fourteen aircraft making up the group’s formation encountered intense and accurate flak as well as approximately thirty enemy fighters. Kali, captained by William Goetz, simply exploded over the target area. There were no survivors. Yahoodi, the first 303rd aircraft to reach Molesworth from the States, was knocked down by St. Nazaire’s flak guns. The ship’s pilot, Frank Saunders, put it down in the water, where seven of his crew perished. He and two others were rescued and made POWs. Leapin’ Liz was hit by fighters and likewise went into the water. All the crew was killed.

Alan Magee was the ball turret gunner aboard Arthur Adams’s Snap, Crackle, Pop! It was his third trip to St. Nazaire. “Near the target and on the bomb run, there was so much flak and the B-17F seemed to be going so slow that I felt like getting out of the plane and running ahead, telling it to catch up to me. It seemed like we were standing still.”

Magee’s apprehension was justified. “All of a sudden I was hit in the face, and the turret sight was knocked out. With the front glass broken out it was impossible to stay in the turret to operate it.” Magee’s eyes were peppered with slivers of glass and he had difficulty seeing. He advised Adams of his situation and was told to climb out of his position. “When I was out of the turret and went for my chest pack [parachute],” Magee said, “I saw it had a large hole in the middle of it and one end seemed to have been damaged. I didn’t bother putting it on.”

He moved forward past the open bomb bay and saw the radio operator readying to jump from the aircraft. “The B-17F was now on fire and in bad shape. We seemed to be getting hit at will. We never got the alarm to bail out.”

There was a clattering racket and Magee felt shrapnel punch into his body. Almost immediately afterward the aircraft fell off to the right and went into a spin. Magee was pinned against the roof of the radio compartment near the top hatch.

“The next thing I remember,” he said “was trying to reach the open hatch. I don’t know why I wanted out without a chute on but the plane was on fire and going down. I blacked out at this point, not having an oxygen mask on since leaving the turret.” Something hit Magee again and he briefly regained consciousness. He did not know what hit him, but he grew weary of the repeated blows: “I was tired of getting hit.”

Magee passed out once more as his body accelerated in its fall toward St. Nazaire. From twenty thousand feet gravity pulled him earthward. He fell past Snap, Crackle, Pop!, which drifted away in a spin toward the coast.

The glass and bracings that made up the roof of St. Nazaire’s train station gave way to Magee’s body. Physics demanded it. But physics also somehow played a role in an incomprehensibility. When workers climbed up into the roof’s support structure to pull free what they were sure was a corpse, they were stupefied to discover Magee still alive. Although he wore a parachute harness, there was no parachute to be found.

The workers brought him to the ground, but it wasn’t until midnight that he reached a hospital. His body bore twenty-eight puncture wounds, his left arm was nearly torn away, he had a broken leg, a smashed ankle and a shattered knee. His face was smashed, and his teeth rattled loose—barely in their sockets.

A German physician attended him. “The doctor who did the operation on my face, nose, arm and back couldn’t speak English,” Magee said. “He told the nurse who did speak English he would try to save my arm, and if he couldn’t, it wasn’t because I was an enemy.” The operations went well. “I was in the hospital a month and a half,” said Magee. “The German doctor did a great job on my face, putting my arm back in good shape and leg, knee and ankle.” Magee additionally marveled that the doctor even saved his teeth. “I was treated well by the Germans in the hospital,” he declared.

Magee made an excellent recovery. In fact, he was not repatriated back to the United States through the Red Cross as badly injured POWs often were. Rather, he was put into a POW camp where he remained until the war ended.

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