Book: Hell's Angels

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MANY CREWS GREW a special affinity for a particular aircraft. Somehow, a bomber could just “seem right.” It might be a nuanced feel at the controls, a certain treble in the interphone system, the contoured familiarity of a seat or even a unique smell. In some instances the attraction was almost immediate, but in others the aircraft earned its way into the hearts of the crew only after bringing it through multiple missions—some of them harrowing. The Robert Cogswell crew was especially attached to Iza Vailable. A reclining, bare-breasted beauty dressed its nose. “It became part of our family. We respected it just as we would a father, a mother, a sister or a brother,” said Eddie Deerfield, the crew’s radio operator.

But just as harm could befall a family member, the same could happen to an airplane. The attack against the German V-1 infrastructure at Watten, France, on August 27, 1943, was the first of the Eighth’s missions specifically directed against these types of targets. It was a short run across the English Channel—only eighteen miles inland from Calais on the French coast. Nevertheless, it was not the milk run that some of the crews thought it might be. Heavy antiaircraft fire and fighters hit the 303rd hard.

The Cogswell crew was part of the formation. The men had flown four combat missions since being knocked into the North Sea by fighters the previous month. The German defenders around Watten threatened to do them similar hurt. “We were in our favorite bomber, Iza Vailable,” said Deerfield. “The flak was thick and deadly accurate.” Enemy fighters also swept the formation, although escorting Spitfires provided some protection.

Shangri-La Lil was flying nearby and was hit by flak,” Deerfield said. “The plane simply exploded in midair. But we counted four parachutes.” The men aboard Iza Vailable didn’t have time to dwell on the downed bomber. “We were also getting hit by flak bursts.” The rattle and ring and ping of shrapnel hitting and sometimes piercing Iza Vailable put the crew on edge.

Cogswell and his copilot, Hershel DeWall, were busy in the cockpit. Although they weren’t long over the target, Iza Vailable was badly hit. The controls to the left outboard engine were knocked out, the left inboard engine was set afire, and the oil lines on the right inboard engine were severed. “We all thought back to the previous month when we had to ditch in the North Sea,” said Deerfield. “It wasn’t something we wanted to go through again.”

As soon as he thought it safe to do so, Cogswell dropped the struggling aircraft out of formation. “Our pilot did a fantastic job maneuvering that shot-up B-17,” Deerfield said. “Bob made an emergency landing at the Royal Air Force base at Manston. When we got out and walked around the plane, we counted more than two hundred holes from flak and German fighter fire. Yet none of us suffered so much as a scratch.

“That night,” Deerfield said, “the RAF noncommissioned officers on the base hosted us at their club. They treated us like absolute royalty and had a splendid little string quartet that entertained us through the evening.”

Although it had safely brought its crew back to England, Iza Vailable was decidedly not. “They eventually got her patched up and back to Molesworth,” said Deerfield. The ship underwent repairs for more than a month and wasn’t returned to service until after more bad things had happened to the Cogswell crew. “We sure were sorry to lose her,” Deerfield said.

The maintenance men also developed kinships with particular machines. They came to know every inch of their aircraft; they understood its quirks and its history. They knew what it needed and what it didn’t, and they grew protective of it against crews that might treat it roughly. Essentially, their lives in the 303rd revolved about their assigned bomber. It represented their contribution to the war.

In fact, especially during the 303rd’s early combat career, when spare parts were scarce, crew chiefs were reluctant to allow their ships to be taken to the main hangar for repairs. There the aircraft might be—with or without official sanction—stripped of parts in order to keep other bombers airworthy. In the event that there was no choice but to move an aircraft under cover, crew chiefs often posted men to guard the ship against unauthorized cannibalization by other maintenance men.

Fabian Folmer, the crew chief of the famed B-17, Hell’s Angels, described how the aircraft—after they were repaired and serviced—were prepared for the following day’s mission:

The engineering officer checks each crew chief—“Is your ship okay?” And then we give it a last minute check. Oxygen. Get ready for the armament man to put the bombs in. We wait until all the civilian workers finish their day and leave the field. Security. And then the bombs are loaded on. We don’t have anything to do with the loading. Sgt. Tooey is our armament man. Each ship has two of them usually. . . . They have a tough job, especially in the winter. There is a specialist for the gun turrets. Another for oxygen equipment. We check the troubles, report, then see that the specialists do the work on our ship. And then, bed. Up about three to four hours before takeoff. Ready the ship. Crew chief preflights the engines, warms them up after the ground crew “pulls the props through.” The crew chief walks his bomber out of the hardstand, waves so long. Then the real work starts—the sweat of waiting for their ship to come home.

Eddie Deerfield’s recollections underscored this attachment of the ground crews to their aircraft: “We got to know them pretty well. To an extent, our lives depended on the work they put into the airplanes. As we came in to land after each mission, and as we taxied back, I looked out through my window in the radio compartment and saw their white, upturned faces as they scrutinized each bomber, looking for their own. When we returned, they were always quite happy to see us—they treated us like long lost brothers.”

But just as some crews seemed jinxed or cursed with bad luck, so did some aircraft—no matter how much time or energy the men spent to make them right. Jim O’Leary of the 427th Bomb Squadron remembered one such aircraft:

As I recall there was a donkey painted red with both heels in the air on the nose of the aircraft and the tail of the fuselage was painted red also. The Red Ass’s ground crew hated that airplane with an unswerving passion . . . they hated to see her come home. Those poor guys were always working on that flying machine. You’d see the lights on full blaze near their hardstand every night . . . they were the most embittered ground crew that I ever remembered having anything to do with. We were leery about flying her even to slow-time an engine (which was frequent) because we feared that the mechanics were tempted to sabotage it.

Ultimately, Red Ass was shot down by flak during the raid to Bremen on November 29, 1943; five of its crewmen were killed. It was the ship’s thirty-sixth mission.

At the other end of the spectrum was a recollection by Willis Meyer, the crew chief of the 360th’s Quinine—Bitter Dose. “I was lying on my bunk thinking about my brother Bill who I heard had been shot down on a mission. I was wondering if he was dead or a prisoner of war, when the door opened and an officer came in. My first thought was that he had come to tell me Bill had been Killed in Action.”

The officer was a pilot, George Stallings. “He told me that he had gone to see Major Walter Shayler, the squadron CO, to tell him how pleased he had been with the mechanical condition of Quinine—Bitter Dose, the B-17 he had been flying. Shayler said ‘Tell it to the crew chief.’

“Stallings hugged me,” said Meyer, “and gave me a kiss on the cheek. He was emotional. I was real proud. When he finished his combat tour, he gave a party for all the men in the ground crews of the B-17s he had flown on missions. One swell guy!”

It is understandable that it is the men and aircraft that interest most students of the air war over Europe; there is a visceral connection to the visual and human aspects of the great air battles. But the men could operate those machines only if they were supported by a very robust and complex logistics organization. The 303rd’s B-17s, for all their magnificence, might be grounded—rendered impotent—for lack of any number of obscure components, some no larger than a coin. Supplying the maintenance men with the thousands of different parts necessary to keep the aircraft operating was a largely thankless job performed by thousands of men organized in largely forgotten units. Nevertheless, without them the war would not have been won.

And then there were the men who made contributions that were difficult to characterize or describe, but which were exceedingly important. Indeed, behind the achievements of many great organizations there are often unheralded individuals without whom the organization’s successes might not have been so pronounced. The 303rd’s Russell Seaton was one of these men. “The 303rd was always noted for having really high morale,” said John Ford. “And one of the reasons for this was the behind-the-scenes work that Russell Seaton did. He was a master sergeant before the war, but was so good at getting things done that he was made an officer so that he’d have more clout and could get more and better things done. He climbed through the ranks to become a major very quickly.

“He took the time to do things for the men that commanders didn’t think to do, or didn’t have time to do,” Ford said. “For instance, early on we had to carry our own individual mess kits to the mess hall. After we ate, we scraped out the scraps into trash bins then dipped them in a series of barrels with hot water and soap to clean them up and rinse them. It wasn’t very convenient, nor was it particularly sanitary. Russell Seaton fixed this. He went inside and outside of channels to get dishes and trays and commercial dishwashing equipment so that mealtime became much less of a hassle and, at the same time, more enjoyable.” Ford didn’t note it, but Seaton’s work likewise kept more men healthy.

“He also revamped the different duties. No one was eager to do KP—or especially latrine duty—for obvious reasons. But he arranged for volunteers to be promoted to corporal and fixed their schedules so that they were on duty for a period of days and off duty for a period of days. It was a pretty good deal. And because the payroll always came with a certain amount of change, he also took that change and split it among the volunteers. Consequently, the people he had on duty were motivated to do it, and they also got really good at it because it was their full-time job.

“He did a similar thing for the men who stood charge of quarters, or CQ,” said Ford. “These were the men who, among other things, were in charge of waking the crews for missions. Traditionally, they were temporarily pulled from their regular jobs—as mechanics, for example—and assigned to CQ for a short period. It was disruptive, and every time someone new was assigned they had to learn the job from scratch. Seaton got volunteers by promoting them to sergeant and keeping them on CQ full-time. He also had special little cottages built for them, which was an additional incentive.

“He found good people and kept them working for him,” said Ford. “There was a mechanic who had been a master carpenter as a civilian. Seaton had him promoted and kept him busy building things all over the base. This was the guy who built the bar in the enlisted men’s club from the crates in which the GB-1s [guided bombs] were shipped. Ray Dusman was a supply sergeant and was one of Seaton’s best men—he could get hold of things that others never could. Seaton often got his crew together and sent them out into the surrounding countryside to trade cans of gasoline for eggs and whatever else could be used in the mess kitchen; the farmers were happy for the gasoline, which was strictly rationed.

“Seaton was actually assigned to the 359th Bomb Squadron,” said Ford. “But a lot of the things he did benefitted the entire group and were copied by the rest of the squadrons. He got the PX—the post exchange—built and was instrumental in getting the two base theaters into place. His work was so important to the command that he was made the squadron’s executive officer. This was done despite the fact that the official table of organization had no billet for an executive officer.”

Seaton was with the 303rd from its beginning in the States and through the group’s entire tenure at Molesworth. Many of the aircrews—the pointy end of the spear—arrived and were gone in six months or even less. Most of them never knew Seaton or understood enough of what he did to appreciate it. But that wasn’t the case with Seaton’s fellow support personnel. “I’ll never forget what he did,” said Ford. “His efforts played a tremendous role in the welfare of our lives and to some degree in what the men flying the bombers were able to accomplish.”

*   *   *

JUST AS THE 303RD’S CREWS sometimes recovered to RAF bases when in extremis, RAF bombers likewise occasionally landed at Molesworth. Curtis Olsen recalled one such occurrence that took place during the summer of 1943. On that evening the group’s officers hosted a party to which every available female in the region was invited. “As always,” Olsen said, “the officers outnumbered the invited girls and I was in the forefront of those trying to claim the sole attentions of any one of the guests.” In the meantime an RAF Short Stirling heavy bomber—with one engine out—made its way through the dark toward Molesworth.

Olsen didn’t know and didn’t care. He was elated when a young Irish nurse agreed to return to his Nissen hut with him.

Through the most urgent, passionate and imaginative pleading/cajoling/coaxing—ad nauseum, I’m sure—I managed to get the partially undressed nurse into my bunk and was attempting to get better acquainted. She was adamant that she had gone as far as she was about to venture, repeating, “God will find out.” I was understanding of her concern, but desperately trying to find a way around it. No matter what I said, the answer was, “God will know.” Finally I resorted to that old argument, “It is all part of His scheme of affairs for men and women.”

The Almighty was apparently unimpressed by Olsen’s case. The massive British bomber continued its approach to Molesworth. At that moment Lawrence Whippo and Kenneth Kallstrom were biking back to their quarters after working late into the evening on a set of balky bomb racks. They heard the Stirling before they saw it and pulled off the perimeter track to watch it land. A few seconds later it became apparent that the British bomber was off course and that they were in danger of being flattened. The two men abandoned their bicycles and sprinted for the protection of a nearby mess hall. “We hadn’t got too far before we heard the brakes start screeching, then just a rumbling sound, then all hell broke loose.”

Meanwhile, the spirited and sexually charged debate in Olsen’s hut was interrupted by a massive, scraping bang on the roof. The young nurse pulled away from him and shouted, “I told you he’d know!”

“At her words,” Olsen said, “a hunk of plasterboard fell from the ceiling atop the bed. We both leapt to the floor, me groping for a flashlight, she groping for her uniform.” The Stirling rumbled to a halt atop a pile of broken concrete adjacent to where the 427th Bomb Squadron’s officers—including Olsen—were billeted. One of the aircraft’s wingtips had smashed into Olsen’s hut. His hopes for a sex romp were ruined. “The worst part of the episode was that I had to load the young lady on my bike and pedal her back to the officer’s club where the party was still in full swing, but sans liquor.”

The Stirling’s crew escaped the accident unhurt. And after being dragged from its awkward perch, the British bomber was patched up and sent on its way only a couple of days later.

*   *   *

THE 303RD WAS SENT to the port area of Nantes, France, on the afternoon of September 26, 1943. The mission got off on time but was recalled after nearly two hours because of cloud cover over the target. Robert Cogswell’s crew was flying aboard Lady Luck. It occurred to the crew that the ship was not particularly lucky at all when the propeller of the right outboard engine ran away. Efforts to feather it failed and the engine caught fire. “The aircraft was vibrating so badly that rivets were popping out,” said Eddie Deerfield. “It looked like the right wing was cracked and about to break off. As we crossed back over the English coast near Southampton, Bob Cogswell ordered us to bail out.”

The two waist gunners, the tail gunner, the ball turret gunner and Deerfield, the radio operator, readied their parachutes and clustered around the waist door on the right rear side of the fuselage. “No one wanted to jump,” Deerfield said. “We all wanted to take our chances with Bob Cogswell and trusted him to make a safe landing.” That trust was especially notable considering the fact that the aircraft was still loaded with bombs.

Deerfield was the only one in the rear of the aircraft still in contact with the pilot by interphone. “I called Bob Cogswell and told him we knew he could get us back to base, and asked if we could stay onboard. He said that we might want to reconsider as he planned to bail out. I turned to the four men around me and gave them a thumbs-down sign.”

Deerfield checked his parachute. “The two waist gunners and tail gunner jumped,” he said, “and we saw their parachutes open. P. J. Davis, the ball turret gunner, was next to bail out. When his parachute opened, it looked to me like his head was ripped off.” Stunned, Deerfield followed Davis out the door and pulled the ripcord of his own parachute.

The burning aircraft, still carrying a load of ten five-hundred-pound bombs, fell toward the town of Alresford in the south of England. Cogswell, now the only one aboard the ill-fated bomber, wrestled it onto a different course and stayed with the plane until he was certain the town was safe. Finally, with the ground only a few thousand feet below, he bailed out of Lady Luck. The big ship crashed clear of the town, just east of Old Alresford Pond, where it struck and killed several cows.

The crew landed in the area around Winchester, south of Alresford. “We came down into trees, on rooftops and into open fields,” said Deerfield. “I came down backward and was stunned when I slammed into the ground. When my head cleared, there was a farmer standing over me with a pitchfork pressed against my chest. He had seen all the parachutes in the air and thought we were German paratroopers invading England.”

When the crew had been collected and brought back together, Deerfield was relieved to learn that the ball turret gunner’s head had, in fact, not come off when his parachute opened. “What I thought was P. J.’s head was actually his helmet! The worst thing about the bailout was that pilot Cogswell was badly hurt. When he jumped, the aircraft was in a dive near the ground. The shock of his parachute opening and the hard landing injured his back. He was hospitalized and it wasn’t certain when he might be released.”

Cogswell’s description of the ill-fated flight in a letter home was magnificent in its simplicity: “I’m afraid that we’ve had another shaky deal. Once again I was able to save everyone on my crew, but the Lady Luck will be hauled away in a bushel basket.” He also asked a rhetorical question that was entirely reasonable. “Well, now I’ve ditched, crash-landed and parachuted. What more is there to do?” The obvious answer, unarticulated, was to be shot down and killed.

As it developed, Cogswell was released for flight duty less than two weeks later, in time for the October 4 mission to Frankfurt. His crew rejoined him, but fuel problems forced an abort. Notwithstanding the fuel problems, it was apparent that Cogswell was not fit for duty as his back had not fully healed. He was pulled from flight status for an indeterminate period.

It was at that point that the close-knit crew began to unravel. “We were hit so badly during our early missions,” Deerfield said, “that our crew simply started to fall apart. We had ditched in the North Sea, crash-landed at a Royal Air Force base, bailed out from a burning aircraft and suffered flak and fighter damage on almost every mission.

“After the aborted mission to Nantes on September 26, which would have been our fourteenth as a crew,” said Deerfield, “and after the aborted mission to Frankfurt a few days later, some of the guys on the crew asked to be removed from flight status permanently. I guess they had talked to the flight surgeon. P. J. Davis, our ball turret gunner, asked for temporary release from flight status until Bob Cogswell’s return to duty as a pilot. I did the same. We wanted to be with Cogswell—the only pilot we had flown with in combat—when he left the hospital and formed a new crew. Our requests were granted. Our navigator, Edward Cobb, flew as a replacement with another crew and was shot down and made a POW.”

Cogswell’s reflections in a letter home provide insight into the mind of a young man whose job was among the most terrifying in the world. “When I come to the moment when I must balance the ledger, I will look back on the career of R. W. Cogswell very much alone. I, alone, can judge whether the good deeds outweigh the bad, whether I have made the most of the life that God bestowed upon me. It is sometimes simple to fool others, but to fool oneself is sheer folly.”

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