Book: Hell's Angels

Previous: “We Checked Our Parachutes”
Next: “God Will Find Out”

“WE CHECKED OUR PARACHUTES”

EDDIE DEERFIELD WAS BORN in Omaha, Nebraska, on August 24, 1923. “My father emigrated from the Ukraine to the States and was naturalized in 1920. My mother was from Poland, and they were married in 1921.” His name was Eddie rather than Edward or Edgar or Edmund. “Eddie Cantor was a popular singer, dancer and comedian of the time and was a favorite of my parents. He had big brown eyes, as I apparently had when I was born. My folks made the connection and I was named Eddie. But even though my birth certificate clearly showed my name as Eddie, it was commonly assumed to be a nickname.” Indeed he was often misidentified as Edward Deerfield on various lists and rosters. “This continued all through my military service and beyond.”

Deerfield’s father moved the family from Omaha to Chicago in 1927. There he worked at the grain mill in the Union Stock Yards. “My parents moved to Chicago from Omaha in hopes of making a better life, but I don’t remember that anything really changed. We were poor and lived in an apartment in northwest Chicago,” Deerfield said. “But everyone around us was poor as well. Most of my friends were first-generation Americans whose parents came from all over Europe; there were Irish, Germans, Russians, Poles and many others.”

Then, as poor as they were, things got worse. “My father lost his job at the grain mill during the Depression,” Deerfield said. “So, to make a living he rented a horse and wagon from which he sold fruit and vegetables—summer and winter—on the streets of Chicago. I helped him on many weekends while I was a teenager. I weighed and bagged the produce while he collected money for the purchases. I enjoyed the times we stopped and shared a lunch together; that was special to me.

“My mother and father kept things going, although I must admit that poverty was always an embarrassment for me when growing up. Still, my brother and sister and I were loved and I know things could have been a lot worse.

“I was a very good student in grammar school,” Deerfield said. “I wrote poems and was invited to recite them at school assemblies and also appeared in school plays. When I was twelve I wrote and published a four-page neighborhood newspaper that I sold for two cents a copy.

“The problems started when I was a senior at Tuley High School on Chicago’s northwest side. I was invited to join a local theater group that presented one-act plays to raise funds for various charities. I never knew very far in advance when they would call me to perform, so I had to cut a lot of classes. I enjoyed acting and felt good about what we were doing.”

Deerfield loved reading, writing and acting but was not only bookish. “I liked to box. I represented the Deborah Boy’s Club on the northwest side and fought for the welterweight championship against the boy from the American Boys Club on the west side. I had a great left jab and he wasn’t able to handle it. I hit him so much that he reeled around the ring and the referee shouted to stop the fight early: ‘Ring the bell! Ring the bell!’

“Ultimately,” Deerfield said, “I earned just enough high school credits to graduate. Still, the five hundred students in my class elected me as one of the two orators to speak at graduation. It was an unexpected honor. Following high school—during the summer of 1941—I worked as a copy boy at the Chicago Daily Times. I had always looked forward to a career as a journalist, and this was a great beginning. But, by the end of the year,” he recalled, “there was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and I was anxious to enlist.”

Eddie Deerfield went into the USAAF during the summer of 1942 at the same time that the 303rd was struggling to get ready for combat. “I rode a Greyhound bus from Chicago to Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri, for basic training. From there, in the fall, I was sent to Las Vegas, Nevada, to train as an aerial gunner. At that time, it was just a small desert town—the bright lights and gambling casinos came much later. But, the gunnery training was excellent. We started with BB guns and advanced to firing shotguns from the bed of a moving pickup truck at clay pigeons hurled into the air along the route.”

While he was at gunnery school Deerfield and his classmates endured one of the brutish fools that seemed to be a feature in every military organization. “We all arrived as buck privates. They put a little corporal in charge of our class and he lived in the same barracks. He wasn’t a gunner or a flyer; he was just an administrative type. The guy was a tyrant and really enjoyed giving us a hard time. He drilled us and called formations and made us do stupid little tasks in the barracks. He was a little Napoleon.”

Nevertheless, Deerfield and his comrades quickly progressed through the training. “During the final period of our instruction,” Deerfield said, “we shot a .30-caliber machine gun from the back of an AT-6 advanced trainer at a target sleeve towed by another AT-6.” This was a doubly exciting event for Deerfield. “Not only was I shooting for score, but it was the first time I had ever been in an airplane or wore a parachute. It was that way for a lot of guys.

“We fired bullets that had been freshly painted. One guy’s bullets were one color while another guy’s bullets were a different color and so on. When the bullet hit the target sleeve it left some paint behind so that when the sleeve was brought back the umpires could tally our hits.” Deerfield performed well: “I scored eighteen hits the first day and twenty-three the second.

“Immediately after we finished our training,” Deerfield said, “we were promoted from private to buck sergeant. So we finally outranked our tyrant. But it didn’t matter a bit to this guy—he just continued to order us around. Finally, the guys put me up to go to the captain. I went in and gave him a really snappy salute and explained that we really thought that the corporal ought to respect our rank. And actually, things changed quite a bit after that during the short time we had left at Las Vegas.”

Following aerial gunnery training, Deerfield was sent to Salt Lake City for schooling as a radio operator. “The instruction at Salt Lake City was also very good,” he recalled. “I had no problem there at all. In fact, the biggest eye-opener for me was the fact that they billeted us in the horse paddocks at the state fairgrounds. Believe it or not, it was the first time I had ever used an outdoor privy. This was during January and February of 1943—and it was cold!”

Deerfield subsequently received orders to Blythe Army Air Base in California, where he joined a new B-17 crew. Because the crew already had a radio operator, he was assigned as the ball turret gunner. “I was a little disappointed because I had been trained as a radio operator and knew I could handle the responsibilities of the position. Aside from that, I was a little too big for the ball turret—it just wasn’t a good fit in terms of my training, my desires and my size.” Nevertheless, following additional training at Blythe, and Pyote, Texas, Deerfield and the rest of the crew took a new B-17 across the Atlantic during May 1943.

It was unusual when a crew remained intact through an entire combat tour. The composition of most crews changed due to injuries, sickness, reassignments and requests for removal from combat status—among other reasons. Eddie Deerfield transferred to another crew almost immediately upon arriving at Molesworth. “I learned that another new crew needed a radio operator. I volunteered for that position and no one objected—there were no hard feelings. The crew I joined was just fantastic, and they were led by a pilot that I believe was among the best there ever was, Robert Cogswell.” The admiration between Deerfield and Cogswell was mutual. Cogswell wrote home: “I have a new radio operator from Chicago. He is, at present, as good a man as I have on my crew. He has a good head on his shoulders, and knows how to use it, plus plenty of initiative.”

First missions were especially anxious events, to which the men reacted in various ways. Eddie Deerfield recalled his feelings: “I had been training for more than a year. I had been through basic training, gunnery school, radio operator training and phase training on the B-17. All of this training was undertaken to prepare me for combat. As the time for my first mission approached, I looked forward to it not with fear but with a sort of curiosity. What was it all about? What was I getting into?” He learned soon enough.

As the radio operator on Robert Cogswell’s crew, Deerfield flew his first combat mission on July 10, 1943. Following that first mission the Cogswell crew flew on four of the 303rd’s next six missions and was airborne again on July 30. The target was the Fieseler Aircraft Works at Kassel, Germany. Fieseler produced not only its own design—the Fi 156 utility and observation aircraft—but more importantly, it manufactured Me-109s and FW-190s under license. As the Allies were anxious to not only destroy the Luftwaffe’s fighters, but also neutralize Germany’s capacity for aircraft production, the Fieseler complex was a prime target.

The 303rd’s takeoff, rendezvous and flight across the North Sea was fairly unremarkable, although four of the group’s aircraft aborted for mechanical reasons. Deerfield remembered that Cogswell’s crew, flying aboard Upstairs Maid, very nearly aborted as well. “At the Belgian coast the outboard engine on the right wing, number four, developed a malfunction and began consuming gas at an alarming rate. We heard the copilot, Paul Tippet, question Cogswell about whether or not we should continue as there was a real danger that we wouldn’t have enough fuel to complete the mission.” Every man on the crew strained to hear Cogswell’s response. “Cogswell’s answer was unequivocal,” Deerfield recalled. “He said that the target was too important to miss and that we’d have to take our chances. None of us said a thing. I remember shrugging my shoulders and uttering a ridiculously long sigh of resignation. We checked our parachutes and settled in for a rough go.”

The opposition got stiff as the bombers penetrated into Germany; they were without fighter escort. The crews counted more than a hundred single-engine fighters making seventeen different attacks against the 303rd. Upstairs Maid was the object of several firing passes. “We were hit by FW-190s and Me-109s over the target and on the way out,” Deerfield said. In fact, the fighters attacked from every direction and holed the bomber badly. Shrapnel from heavy antiaircraft fire added to the maelstrom. It was a near-miracle that no one aboard the staggering aircraft was hit.

“The attacks forced Cogswell and Tippet to use violent evasive action, which caused the engines to use even more fuel than they normally would have,” Deerfield said. “Cogswell asked the flight engineer, Gilbert Bengston, to transfer gas from the number four engine to the others—he planned to shut down the number four engine and return on the remaining three. Bengston told him there wasn’t enough gas left on the entire aircraft to transfer anywhere.

“We finally fell out of the formation as we neared the Dutch coast with only two engines running,” said Deerfield. “We were in such bad shape that the German fighters left us alone—it was obvious to them that we weren’t going to make it.” Nevertheless, Cogswell’s crew didn’t give up. “By that time we were over the North Sea, and we dumped anything that wasn’t attached to the aircraft—to include guns and ammunition.” Despite their efforts, it soon became apparent that Upstairs Maid was not going to make it back to England. It had lost too much fuel, and the remaining two engines, operating at high power, were consuming what little remained at a rapacious rate. Cogswell ordered the crew to prepare for a water landing. “I set my transmitter to the emergency frequency, and began tapping out the letters ‘S-O-S’ on my Morse code hand key while the rest of the crew got ready for ditching,” Deerfield said.

*   *   *

DITCHING A LARGE AIRCRAFT like the B-17 was no easy task. In the water, most aircraft were little more than leaky, winged, metal tubes encumbered by heavy and useless equipment. Indeed, aircraft in the water tended to obey the laws of physics and sink quickly. Because the USAAF knew that ten ill-prepared men rattling around inside a ditched bomber stood little chance of surviving, it gave its crews training to maximize their chances against a water landing.

Each crewman had specific duties during a ditching that were unique to his position. Among the pilot’s duties, aside from actually flying the aircraft and landing it on the water, was to sound the signal bell—six short rings—and ensure via the interphone that the crew was prepared. Just prior to touching down he was to order the crew to “brace for ditching” and give one long ring on the signal bell. Once the aircraft stopped moving, he was supposed to exit through his side window, proceed to the inflatable dinghy on the left side of the aircraft and take command. The copilot was tasked with assisting the pilot. Upon landing he was to take charge of the raft on the right-hand side of the aircraft.

The flight engineer was responsible for assisting the rest of the crew as they jettisoned guns, ammunition and loose equipment well prior to touching down on the water. He was also tasked with pulling down the escape hatch cover at the top of the radio compartment and putting it in the rear of the aircraft, where it was out of the way. Except for the pilot and copilot, the entire crew was supposed to gather in the radio compartment during the ditching; the hatch was the main escape point. If the cover was left in place, there was a good chance that it would jam and become immovable as the aircraft bent and twisted on impact with the water. Following the ditching, as the last one out, it was the flight engineer’s duty to help boost everyone through the radio compartment hatch.

The bombardier was tasked with jettisoning the bombs if they hadn’t already been dropped, and with making certain the bomb bay doors were closed. He was additionally responsible for destroying the bombsight and taking the first aid kits into the radio compartment. Once the ditching was complete, he was to climb out the top hatch, receive equipment and rations and assist the other crewmembers as they exited.

The navigator was charged with calculating an accurate position prior to the ditching and passing it to the radio operator for transmission to Air/Sea Rescue. He was also to destroy any secret papers, gather up his maps and celestial equipment and give the wind speed and direction to the pilot. Following the ditching he was responsible for passing rations, survival radios and other gear out of the radio compartment to the bombardier.

The radio operator was the crew’s connection to the pilot and copilot, as well as to the organizations whose job it was to rescue them. He stayed on interphone with the pilots before they put the aircraft into the water and relayed their orders to the rest of the crew while also transmitting SOS messages via Morse code. On the pilot’s orders, just before the ditching, he clamped the transmitter key down, which ensured that a constant tone was broadcast until either the radio was disabled or the aircraft sank. Shore-based radio direction finders used the tone to get a final fix on the aircraft. Aside from these radio operator duties, Deerfield was also the crew’s medic.

The two waist gunners, the ball turret gunner and the tail gunner were largely responsible for securing their positions so that nothing loose could hurt anyone during the ditching. Well prior to the water landing, the waist gunners jettisoned their guns and ammunition and, in later model aircraft, closed their windows to help reduce the volume of water entering the aircraft once it was ditched. The tail gunner manually cranked the tail wheel down while the ball turret gunner turned his guns rearward and sealed off the turret.

By the time the men gathered in the radio compartment they were to have shed their oxygen masks and ties—if they were wearing them—so that they didn’t get caught on anything. Likewise, they were supposed to loosen their collars so that they had greater freedom of movement. Too, winter flying boots were to be removed so that they didn’t become waterlogged and drag their wearers down.

The radio compartment was not a large space. Everyone except the pilot and copilot, and the radioman—who remained strapped to his seat—sat on the radio room floor. A few of the men braced their backs against the forward bulkhead and clutched other crewmates who sat between their legs, facing away. To lessen the chance of injury they were instructed to tuck parachute pads and other soft articles around themselves.

*   *   *

“WE WERE AT about three thousand feet when the engines quit,” recalled Deerfield. “The B-17 was a noisy aircraft, but when those engines stopped the silence was eerie.” With its engines dead, Upstairs Maid was little more than a spectacularly shot-up, four-engine glider. The sound of nothing but the slipstream was strange to the men—it was something they had never experienced. Regardless, Cogswell and Tippet wrestled with the powerless ship as it descended toward the water.

The navigator, Edward Cobb, and the bombardier, John Kennedy, came back from the front of the aircraft and entered Deerfield’s radio compartment along with the flight engineer, Gilbert Bengston. The ball turret gunner, Paul Davis, the two waist gunners, Alvin Etheredge and Elmer Peterson, and the tail gunner, Harold Timm, entered through the rear door. They quickly reviewed their assignments and took positions on the floor. “On Cogswell’s signal,” Deerfield said, “I locked the transmitter key so that a continuous signal would mark our position. At the same time I strapped myself into my radio operator’s chair and made a mental note of the location of the ration kits, a battery-operated Gibson transmitter and a first aid box—we would take them with us after we ditched.

“At that point there was nothing more that any of us in the radio room could do,” said Deerfield. “It was up to Cogswell and Tippet. Shortly thereafter Cogswell called me on the interphone—I was the only one still in contact with him. He told me to relay our altitude to the rest of the crew as he called it out in hundred-foot increments. And then, just before touching down on the water, he’d signal us with the bell.”

Deerfield called out as they descended through a thousand feet. “I remember that P. J. Davis, our ball turret gunner, raised himself up as if he was going to brace himself better. Then he changed his mind and settled back. I continued the countdown, and a few seconds after we passed through a hundred feet the warning bell sounded.” Procedures directed the pilots to land parallel to the waves rather than run the risk of smashing directly into the face or reverse side of a crest. The pilots were also instructed to ditch while still powered by the engines.

That option wasn’t available to Cogswell and Tippet. Nevertheless, they put the aircraft down perfectly. The aircraft shuddered as the tail section hit the waves. At the same time a tearing shriek ripped through the Upstairs Maid as its wings and fuselage struck the water. The sudden deceleration slammed the men forward as the aircraft went from flying speed to a full stop almost immediately.

Water rushed down into the radio compartment through the top hatch. “Instinctively,” Deerfield remembered, “I unsnapped my safety belt and tried to stand, but the water rushing through the open hatch pushed me back down. I struggled against it and then fell back exhausted. I thought that the aircraft was already sinking and that it was a hell of a way to die.”

The rush of water stopped almost as suddenly as it began. The men in the radio compartment leapt up and sloshed around in water up to their knees. “The plane was motionless,” Deerfield said, “and we realized that the water that came through the hatch was part of a huge wave formed by the wings as they churned their way over the surface of the sea.” Although it was filling with water, the big bomber was still afloat.

The men moved quickly to get out of the aircraft. There were two life rafts aboard the bomber, located in compartments above the wings. When Paul Davis pulled the release handles, they sprang out and away, and inflated automatically. The men helped one another out of the radio compartment through the top hatch and were met by Cogswell and Tippet. Of the ten men, Edward Cobb, the navigator, was the only one hurt; he had a broken leg, a smashed nose, a cracked tooth and various contusions. “He was only semiconscious, and blood ran from a gash on his forehead and down his face,” Deerfield said. “I helped lift him up through the hatch, and they carried him to the raft that was floating just off the left wing. After he was clear, the rest of us grabbed the first aid kit and the emergency transmitter and hauled ourselves out.”

Some of the men clambered into the rafts while Deerfield and others jumped into the water and pulled the rafts away from the bomber. “Cogswell shouted out, ‘There she goes,’” said Deerfield. “I got turned around in time to see the vertical stabilizer rise up high in the air as the aircraft went down nose first. And then it slid beneath the water almost without making a ripple.”

It was high summer, and the water, while not warm, was not as brutally cold as it was during the spring and winter months. Deerfield’s crewmates pulled him aboard the raft in which Cobb was settled. “As the crew’s medic,” he said, “I gave Cobb a shot of morphine to help get him comfortable and then pinned the syringe to his shirt. It wasn’t long after that when Paul Davis sprang up, almost upsetting the raft, and pointed toward the horizon. There was a tiny black speck barely recognizable as an airplane.” The men held their breath and hoped that the approaching aircraft wasn’t German.

The speck grew larger and proved to be an American P-47 that was soon joined by a wingman. “One of them climbed,” said Deerfield, “while the other circled us in our rafts and waved encouragement.” That encouragement was well founded. Less than an hour after Cogswell and Tippet put Upstairs Maid into the water, an RAF High Speed Launch—specifically, HSL 2562, commanded by John Shanahan—motored into view. The craft was an Air/Sea Rescue vessel based out of Felixstowe in Suffolk, England.

“They were very professional,” remembered Deerfield, “and helped us get Cobb aboard first. They recognized right away from the empty syringe on his shirt that he’d already been administered one dose of morphine, and made sure that he was made secure and comfortable.” The RAF crew gave warm blankets and glasses of brandy to the rest of the wet Americans. Both warmed their bodies and spirits considerably.

Although Upstairs Maid was irretrievably gone, the big bomber had stayed airborne long enough to get Cogswell’s crew to a point twenty-two miles from the English coast, well more than half the distance from Nazi-occupied Belgium. That every one of his men survived was due in large part to Cogswell’s skillful piloting and the leadership he had imparted to the crew, along with, perhaps, a small dose of good luck. Cogswell wrote home about the mission: “I guess it won’t be violating military censorship to let you know that I went down in the drink last week. Yes, the water was fine; practically tepid. I brought my entire crew out of it, though, so everything is fine and dandy. It was a real adventure—hell while I was going through it, but quite interesting in a way.

“For some strange reason,” Cogswell continued, “I had faith that everything would turn out all right. It is this faith for which I am thankful. . . . Supplementing this faith is the realization that I am fighting for the right side, the right things, the right ideals, and as long as I retain this [realization], there will never be fear.”

Surviving a ditching and the subsequent time adrift on the water was not a foregone conclusion. Through the course of the war, twenty-four B-17s from the 303rd went into the water. The casualty rate was more than 50 percent: 138 men were killed or drowned or died of exposure, whereas only 99 men were rescued by Allied or German forces. Crews shot down over Germany had better survival rates.

Cogswell’s crew owed its rescue almost entirely to the British. The Air/Sea Rescue organization and equipment were products of the British experience during the early part of the war. Although the RAF and the Royal Navy had dedicated organizations, aircraft and boats in place at the opening of hostilities, they proved to be wholly inadequate for the scale of the fighting. In fact, the RAF’s losses over the water during 1941 averaged two hundred men each month.

Such a waste was a moral and practical tragedy to which the British responded with purpose. Many more aircraft and boats were procured and delivered to a revamped and enlarged Air/Sea Rescue organization. New equipment was developed, including improved rubber dinghies, dye markers, portable radios, air droppable survival kits, moored rescue pods and signaling equipment. Homing pigeons were tried aboard some aircraft. Aircrew training was likewise dramatically improved.

Key to rescuing downed airmen was accurately determining their locations. The British created a system of “fixing” stations that received radio signals from crews in distress. Control stations collected and triangulated those signals, plotted positions and forwarded the information to control staffs that coordinated the launching of aircraft and rescue boats. It was a system that was operational and proven by the time the USAAF began operations during the second half of 1942.

Air/Sea Rescue was initially not high on the USAAF’s list of priorities; the service’s focus was on destroying targets. However, it didn’t take long for the American leadership to realize that it was an enormous waste to abandon men to the sea—or if they were lucky, to the Germans—who might reasonably be rescued. Consequently, within a few months the Americans were keen partners with their British allies in Air/Sea Rescue and contributed greatly in terms of men and equipment, ultimately setting up their own separate service.

The results were tremendously encouraging. Whereas only about 6 percent of USAAF flyers who went into the water were rescued during the first half of 1943, 40 percent were pulled out of the water during the latter half of the same year. During the summer of 1944, when the water was warmer and the various organizations were more mature, rescue rates exceeded 50 percent. Aside from the value gained by returning highly trained personnel to service, morale was also improved by the knowledge that rescue from a water landing was not only possible but realistic.

Previous: “We Checked Our Parachutes”
Next: “God Will Find Out”