THE EIGHTH’S FIRST ATTACK against Schweinfurt’s ball-bearing plants on August 17, 1943, had been only marginally effective. Production climbed toward normal levels during the following weeks as the factories and machinery were speedily repaired. So then, Germany’s ball-bearing production capacity still needed killing. The industry remained critical, and both sides knew that if it were ruined, Germany’s ability to manufacture the machinery required to make war—to include aircraft, tanks and submarines—would be crippled. Consequently, the Americans prepared to hit Schweinfurt again while the Germans stood ready to defend it.
The mission was scheduled for October 14, 1943. It was to be Bill Eisenhart’s seventh. The copilot from the 359th Bomb Squadron recalled the briefing: “When they pulled the curtain back so that we could see the target, there was some murmuring, and then it got kind of quiet.” Pilot Bill Heller of the 360th Bomb Squadron had a similar recollection: “You could have heard a pin drop.” Major General Frederick Anderson, the commander of VIII Bomber Command, ordered a message read at all briefings that morning: “This air operation today is the most important air operation yet conducted in this war. The target must be destroyed. It is of vital importance to the enemy. Your friends and comrades, that have been lost and that will be lost today, are depending on you.”
The weather matched the mood. It was gray and misty, with low-hanging clouds. “We thought the mission would be scrubbed,” recalled Eisenhart. “And some guys were hoping that it would be.” It wasn’t, and after a delay of more than an hour the group taxied in heavy rain and visibility so poor that the crews couldn’t see the end of the runway. Nevertheless, the 303rd got airborne without incident and broke out above the clouds at approximately seven thousand feet.
The 303rd—as part of the 1st Bomb Division—took its position toward the rear of the lead column of B-17s. The 1st Bomb Division and the trailing 3rd Bomb Division—a total of 291 B-17s—winged their way from England toward Germany. An additional sixty B-24s from the 2nd Bomb Division were unable to form in the poor weather; the twenty-nine aircraft that did manage to join together flew a diversionary mission north toward Emden rather than proceeding to Schweinfurt.
RAF Spitfires escorted the bombers across the North Sea and VIII Fighter Command P-47s picked them up as they crossed the coast into Europe. Various fighter elements of the Luftwaffe were already airborne, and rather than waiting to attack the bombers until the escorting P-47s reached the limits of their fuel, several units hit both the bombers and their escorts. The American fighters claimed thirteen German fighters, while losing one of their own.
Nevertheless, the P-47s didn’t carry enough fuel to escort the bombers all the way to Schweinfurt. Upon reaching Aachen, on the German border with Belgium and the Netherlands, they turned back for their bases in England. It was then that the German fighters hit the bombers in earnest. Near the front of the column, ahead of the 303rd, the sixteen aircraft of the 305th Bomb Group were savaged by frontal attacks. It was pure carnage; thirteen of the 305th’s B-17s were knocked down.
The ferocity of the attacks was described by Eaker in a cable to Henry Arnold, the head of the USAAF.
Yesterday he [the enemy] ran off the full scale dress rehearsal perfectly timed and executed as follows: a screen of single-engine fighters flew in from the front very close firing normal 20mm cannon and machine guns. These closely followed by large formations twin-engine fighters in waves, each firing large numbers of rockets suspended under wings. Firing began at long range and twin-engine planes broke away further back than single engine planes. Rockets were lobbed in barrage quantities into formation. . . . Single-engine fighters than [sic] refueled and attacked from all directions to engage our gunners. These followed closely by reformed formations of twin-engine rocket carriers attacking principally from the front and rear.
Mathias Kremer of the 303rd’s 358th Bomb Squadron was the ball turret gunner aboard Joan of Arc. Kremer recalled what happened when the escort fighters turned for home. “They [German fighters] lined up out of reach of our guns. Then, ten or fifteen at a time, they would come in to attack us. I was in the ball turret. My intercom was shot out in about the second attack, so I was on my own down there.” In the thick of the battle, inside the little motorized steel-and-aluminum-and-glass bowl that was his ball turret, Kremer was isolated from the rest of the crew. “It was really lonesome without the chatter from the rest of the crew.”
Bill Eisenhart was Thomas Quinn’s copilot aboard Wallaroo. “There were Me-109s, FW-190s, Me-110s and Ju-88s and they kept after us the entire time,” he said. In fact, the Luftwaffe launched 547 sorties over a period of nearly three-and-a-half hours. Many of the German pilots exhausted their ammunition and fuel, landed, refueled and rearmed, and then took off again. Wallaroo—like all the bombers—shuddered repeatedly as her gunners fired on the attacking fighters. “There were aircraft, both ours and theirs, falling out of the sky almost continuously,” remembered Eisenhart. “And it was noisy as hell.”
William Heller, the pilot of Thumper Again, recalled the chaos: “It was amazing to me that aircraft weren’t running into each other. The Germans flew through our formation very close to us and to each other. And they seemed to fishtail as they came through. It looked as if they were kicking their rudders so that they could see behind them as they dived. Likewise, we all maneuvered whenever we came under attack.” Indeed, notwithstanding the danger of midair collisions, the sections of the bomber column that came under fighter attack appeared to shiver and tremble as individual aircraft maneuvered—as much as their pilots dared—to evade the enemy fire. Adding to the terrifying panoply were short streaks of white and gray that hung motionless in the air. They were smoke trails that marked the points where German fighters had fired their guns and rockets.
Heller recalled, “I saw a Fort up ahead start to smoke—the next instant a sheet of flame, then nothing! I saw a Fortress fly upside down in a very slow roll then dive to earth.” He counted ten parachutes—the entire crew—blossoming from the doomed aircraft. The crews of the 3rd Bomb Division, in trail of the 1st, noted that they needn’t have brought their navigators. The route to Schweinfurt was marked by the smoking wrecks of the 1st Bomb Division’s B-17s.
Heller and his copilot worked hard to keep their ship from becoming one of those wrecks. Two of their bomber’s engines started to lose power, which forced Heller to demand more from the other two engines. Those engines—forced to carry an extra load—were consequently in greater danger of failing. Worse, Thumper Again was still under attack. “Jack Coppom was my copilot and he or my other crewmen called for me to maneuver one direction or another as the fighters made their passes. It’s how we stayed alive.”
But they couldn’t stay alive if they didn’t stay with the rest of the formation. Even with the two good engines pulling hard, Heller’s aircraft lagged. “As much as we wanted to hit the target, we were going to get shot down if we fell back from the protection of the formation. So, we jettisoned our bombs.” Free of its load, Thumper Again regained its position. The only good Heller’s crew could do at that point was add its defensive fire to that of the other bombers.
Still, the formation’s .50-caliber machine guns were useless against the antiaircraft fire that dogged the American bombers along much of their route. It intensified around the target and continued to harry the formation as the aircraft released their bombs and turned toward England. Aboard Wallaroo, Bill Eisenhart recalled: “Our number three engine was hit and caught fire internally. We couldn’t control it and we couldn’t feather the propeller—we were sure the engine was going to throw the propeller right into fuselage.”
The fighter attacks continued. “A shell came up through the flight deck and shot out the radio as well as part of the oxygen system,” Eisenhart said. “The pilot, the navigator, the engineer in the top turret, the right waist gunner and the tail gunner were all without oxygen. My pilot, Tom Quinn, passed out. During this time the cord on my earphones came loose and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I was shouting over the interphone and the crew was responding, but I couldn’t hear them. I just thought that they weren’t answering me—it was very confusing.
“Joe Vieira, the radio man, and Oscar Howlett, the navigator, were heroes,” Eisenhart said. “They grabbed oxygen walk-around bottles, left their positions and got them to the crewmen who were without. In the meantime, Jim Reynolds, the left waist gunner, and Joe Vieira were wounded.
“The number three engine slowed us down. That propeller still wouldn’t feather and hadn’t torn loose and was creating a great deal of drag. We weren’t able to stay with the group and fell back and tucked into the group behind us until they also pulled away.” Wallaroo slipped back through the column of bombers from group to group and miraculously remained unmolested as it slid through the gaps alone.
The crew of Joan of Arc wasn’t so fortunate. Mathias Kremer, the ball turret gunner, saw a twin-engine fighter attack the B-17 and knock out its rudder and elevator. “Now the pilot couldn’t keep up with the formation and we fell behind.” Joan of Arc was set upon from all quarters. “I was firing at a plane coming in at me,” remembered Kremer, “and it started to go down in smoke. I followed it with my turret to make sure I had gotten it. That is when a twenty-millimeter shell came in behind me and went through my elbow and into my leg. Everything in the turret was bloody!”
Kremer rotated his turret down, opened the door and crawled up into the fuselage. “As soon as I got my eyes level with the floor of the plane I realized that everyone was parachuting out.” Kremer had disconnected his oxygen when he cleared the turret and had to hurry before he blacked out. “I had to put on my parachute with just one hand; since my left hand was useless. I almost had it on when I was hit in the back with shrapnel from a shell. It knocked me down and I had to start over with getting the chute on my back. By now, all four engines were on fire and I knew they could blow up anytime. I finally got my chute on and headed for the door.”
Kremer jumped clear of Joan of Arc just as the big bomber nosed over into a dive. As he plummeted through the thin, icy air, he noted a German fighter circling him. “When I opened my parachute, he saluted and left.”
Heller and his crew, aboard Thumper Again, made it across the coast and over the North Sea. The weather was foul, and Heller’s windscreen and instrument panel were shot out. Moreover, the left horizontal stabilizer was badly shot up and the fabric covering the top portion of the vertical stabilizer was torn away. Nevertheless, with his bomber’s fuel nearly exhausted, Heller pushed it down through a hole in the clouds. “We found a small RAF field [Kenley] just outside of London. The RAF immediately gave us a clear runway. A doctor and a chaplain met us at the flight line. We needed neither, thank God, but these actions boosted our admiration of the RAF.”
Aboard Wallaroo, Eisenhart and his pilot, Tom Quinn, nursed their bomber to the North Sea still under the protection of the last group of bombers. “We made it back to Molesworth,” remembered Eisenhart. “And that damned propeller stayed attached to the number three engine through the entire mission. When we finally got the engines shut down, that propeller hung loose just like a big, limp . . . noodle.”
The 303rd survived one of the most spectacular air combats in history—and as in the earlier mission to Schweinfurt it returned home relatively unscathed. Despite the fact that it was part of the heavily engaged 1st Bomb Division, the group’s only loss over the continent was Joan of Arc, although the crew of Cat-O-Nine Tails bailed out near the base at Molesworth when its pilots couldn’t bring the battered bomber down through the weather to land. A third bomber was so badly damaged it was written off upon landing. These losses were considerably less than the 40 percent loss rate of the 1st Bomb Division as a whole.
Notwithstanding the group’s relatively low loss rate, the surviving crews were glad to see the end of the mission. “We all quickly decided that we didn’t want to do that one again,” said Bill Eisenhart. James Teno, a ball turret gunner with the 427th Bomb Squadron, was injured by 20-millimeter cannon fire. It was his second mission. He commented, tongue-in-cheek, “Oh well, the first twenty-five missions are always the hardest.”
* * *
AFTER PARACHUTING FROM Joan of Arc, badly wounded Mathias Kremer crawled to a nearby road. There, a farmer with an ox-drawn wagon picked him up and headed toward the nearby town of Sindringen. Kremer was shortly joined by a pair of German soldiers. “They took me from the wagon and helped me to the aid station. Nearby, were about twenty German civilians in the street with guns and pitchforks.” Kremer, who grew up in a German-speaking household, listened closely to what they said. “I heard one of them say in German, ‘We should shoot the S. O. B. in the back.’ The two German soldiers turned around, pulled their side arms, and cleared the street.”
Kremer was briefly reunited with his pilot before being taken to a hospital. He was put in casts but otherwise left untended for a week before being moved—this time by a horse-drawn cart—to a hospital in Ludwigsburg, north of Stuttgart. There he was put under the care of a Polish doctor named Zenowksi, who was also a prisoner. Zenowski held out little hope for Kremer and had an orderly put him out of the way for the night.
The next morning, when Zenowski found Kremer still alive, he removed his casts, cleaned his wounds, extracted some shrapnel, broke and reset his arm, put him in new casts and hoped for the best. But there were complications. “About two weeks after I got to the hospital, my leg started to hurt real bad. Doctor Zenowski announced that he had to take off my leg because it was gangrenous. He promptly took me to surgery at 0800 and at 0814 I woke up in my bed. The doctor explained that he had to work real fast because he couldn’t give me much ether, since he was afraid the ether would kill me.”
After he was healthy enough Kremer was moved to a POW camp. During the summer of 1944 he was taken to Sweden as part of an exchange of badly wounded prisoners. He arrived in New York that fall, about a year after he had been shot down, and was discharged from the USAAF in February 1945.
* * *
THE SECOND ATTACK on the Schweinfurt ball-bearing plants was effective; the bombers hit the target with remarkable precision. Germany’s minister of armaments, Albert Speer, estimated that 67 percent of the complex’s production capacity was ruined. He was fearful of what follow-on raids would do to the Reich’s ball-bearing manufacturing capacity even as work got under way to repair the damage and disperse the production nodes. One or two more raids might totally destroy the Schweinfurt plants.
He needn’t have been so anxious. The Eighth Air Force was so badly mauled that it didn’t return to Schweinfurt until the following February. Of the attacking force of 291 B-17s, sixty were shot down. An additional seven were so badly damaged that they were scrapped after recovering to England. Of the remaining bombers, more than half were damaged and needed repair. In contrast, the Luftwaffe lost approximately forty fighters.
The truth was that the Eighth did not have the capacity to mount a sizeable raid until nearly a week after Schweinfurt when 282 bombers were sent to Düren on October 20. In practical terms, the one-in-five loss rate at Schweinfurt was terrifying not just to the crews, but also to the USAAF’s leadership. The mission finally and irrevocably drove home the fact that the heavy bombers could not defend themselves against the Luftwaffe. Even the most ardent bomber advocates gave up the notion of the self-defending bomber.
Eaker cabled Arnold the following day: “This does not represent disaster; it does indicate that the air battle has reached its climax.” He then outlined a list of what he needed to successfully prosecute the air campaign against Germany. Aside from replacement aircraft and crews he wrote: “Send every possible fighter here as soon as possible. Especially emphasize earliest arrival of additional P-38s and Mustangs.” Both types had better range than the P-47s the Eighth was then operating.
Indeed, following the second attack on Schweinfurt, except for a few unique exceptions, the Eighth never again sent the bombers without fighter escorts. Therein was the rub. At that point in the war the most important targets were beyond the ranges of the fighter aircraft that were available. Essentially, for the next few months, the Eighth Air Force was a strategic air force that was incapable—without sustaining prohibitive losses—of hitting strategic targets. In short, it could not do what it was intended to do.
It was a problem that the USAAF’s leadership had seen coming for some time. In fact, on June 22, 1943, Henry Arnold had told his deputy, Barney Giles, “You have got to get a fighter to protect our bombers. Whether you use an existing type or have to start from scratch is your problem.” Accordingly, a number of options were reviewed to extend the ranges of the service’s three leading fighters, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the North American P-51 Mustang.
The P-47 was the Eighth’s primary fighter during 1943 and well into 1944. The largest single-engine fighter fielded by any combatant during the war, it was built like a cinder block—big, strong and ugly. Notwithstanding its size and appearance, the P-47 was an excellent performer. No other fighter was as maneuverable at the high altitudes where it escorted the Eighth’s bombers. It was also fast, and nothing could escape it in a dive. At lower altitudes it was marginally outperformed in some respects by the Luftwaffe’s Me-109 and FW-190, but not so much that it was not competitive. Moreover, its eight .50-caliber machine guns packed a terrific punch and it could absorb seemingly impossible levels of damage. But it suffered from short legs. When P-47 groups began operations during the spring of 1943, they were able to escort the bombers only a short distance over the continent.
The twin-engine P-38 had already proven effective in the Pacific, North Africa and the Mediterranean. It had good range, heavy armament and was fast. Although early models suffered from compressibility in high-speed dives, when flown well it could hold its own against its German counterparts. On the other hand, for a variety of reasons, it proved to be mechanically unreliable when operated in the cold and wet conditions typical of Northern Europe. Too, it wasn’t nearly as numerous as the P-47 and didn’t become operational with the Eighth until the day following the second mission to Schweinfurt.
The P-51 started life as a bastard child of a foreign parent. When the British were shopping for someone to license-produce P-40s for them during 1940, North American offered the P-51 design instead. Designed and built in record time, it was first fielded by the RAF in 1942 and, after some reluctance, by the USAAF a short time later. It proved itself as a superb low-level fighter with exceptional range, but its performance dropped off at high altitude. This problem was solved when its Allison engine was replaced with the excellent Rolls-Royce Merlin. It subsequently began long-range bomber escort missions in December 1943 and eventually became the dominant fighter in the European Theater of Operations.
Giles and his staff responded to Arnold’s orders with remarkable energy and speed. Close cooperation with the different aircraft manufacturers compelled them to increase the internal fuel capacities of all three fighters. Likewise, work at home—and collaboration with the British in England—yielded externally carried, droppable fuel tanks in a variety of sizes that further increased the ranges of the fighters. Finally, tactics and procedures were developed and refined that likewise gave the fighters longer legs. Chief among these was the relay system. This concept allowed relays of fighter groups to fly profiles that conserved fuel while penetrating deeper into Germany than ever before. Additionally, separate, detached fighter sweeps not in direct support of any particular bomb group allowed the fighters to reach even farther.
The eventual result of all these efforts was a fighter escort force capable of taking the bombers anywhere they needed to go. Certainly there were lapses in protection for any number of reasons. But those failures were never again because the fighters were incapable of going where the bombers went.
The improvements became apparent to the 303rd’s men beginning at the start of 1944 as the Eighth started to fly into Germany again. Indeed, the mission to Kiel on January 5 offered a fine example as noted by Edward Carter, the engineer aboard the 359th’s Baltimore Bounce: “Two JU-88s dove down on us and then two P-51s dove on them. In a few seconds, all that was left in the air were the two P-51s and just scattered bits of the two JU-88s.” John Manning, the pilot of the group’s lead ship, observed that enemy fighters were not a factor: “We hit flak all over the area, but fortunately didn’t see many fighters. I really expected to see a lot of them because it was a beautiful, clear day and we were the last ones over the target. However, I only saw about a dozen and they didn’t bother us much.”
On another mission Mel Schulstad was gratified to see the 303rd provide some protection to one of its fighter friends. “I got a kick out of a P-38 [pilot] who had an engine knocked out at the target. He immediately flew up under a cluster of Forts and stayed there all the way back. Those boys have been giving us good protection. I felt pretty good about being able to reciprocate the favor.”
Later, during early 1944, the Eighth’s fighter pilots were allowed to range farther away from the bombers and—as they returned to England—to pursue the Luftwaffe wherever they found it. This included great aerial chases as well as impromptu attacks on German airfields. Indeed, the fighter pilots were encouraged to shoot up whatever military targets they found, or anything that might be useful to Germany’s war effort. Accordingly, locomotives became a favorite target. It all added up.
* * *
THE B-17, WITH its four engines, its defensive armament, its highly trained crew and the maintenance and logistics train that supported it, was still nothing more than a bomb delivery machine. It existed for no other reason other than to put bombs on the enemy and the things with which he made war. But without an accurate means of putting the bombs where they needed to be, the big ships were still incapable of executing the USAAF’s vision of precision daytime bombing.
The Norden bombsight was that means. It was the product of an evolutionary development, largely driven by the Navy, which traced its roots back to at least the 1920s. Not just a simple sighting device, it was a fifty-pound analog computer made up of more than two thousand components, including gears, motors, gyroscopes, levers and optics; it was among the most complex and sophisticated machines of the day. The Norden compensated for a number of variables, all of which could cause bombs to drop significantly far from the target. These variables included the aircraft’s altitude, airspeed and aberrant motion, as well as the type of bomb being dropped and wind speed and direction. In testing, the Norden demonstrated the ability to put half of its bombs—from relatively high altitude—into a circle with a diameter of one hundred feet.
And beginning in March 1943 the Norden was demonstrating excellent results in combat when it was connected with the aircraft’s flight controls through the AFCE, or automatic flight control equipment. This coupling allowed the bombardier to “fly” the aircraft from his position in the nose. Once coupled, and upon reaching an exactly determined point, the system dropped the bombs automatically.
Nevertheless, it was a complex system that demanded not only precise care and maintenance, but a bombardier who had the intelligence and training to operate it effectively. Bombardiers were carefully screened, and their training ran up to four months. The B-17 pilot training manual made the bombardier’s importance very clear to the pilot:
Accurate and effective bombing is the ultimate purpose of your entire airplane and crew. Every other function is preparatory to hitting and destroying the target. That’s your bombardier’s job. The success or failure of the mission depends upon what he accomplishes in that short interval of the bombing run. When the bombardier takes over the airplane for the run on the target, he is in absolute command. He will tell you what he wants done, and until he tells you “Bombs away,” his word is law. A great deal, therefore, depends on the understanding between bombardier and pilot.
Aside from successfully operating the Norden, the bombardier was required to fuse and arm the bombs, set the bomb release intervals and make certain that the bomb bay and the bomb racks were ready for operations. Additionally, he was responsible for readying the cameras that many ships carried to assess damage to the target. Before a mission, he typically received a special bombardier briefing that followed the standard briefing, and then requisitioned a Norden from the unit’s “vault.” At the aircraft, he installed the device and prepared it for the mission. Once airborne he worked with the pilot to ensure that the bombsight was “leveled” and that it was synchronized with the aircraft and the autopilot.
Achieving good results against the target demanded that the aircraft remain as steady and stable as possible during the bomb run. If it did not, the Norden could not generate a good solution and the bombs would miss the mark. This was emphasized by the pilot training manual: “Wavering and indecision at this moment are disastrous to the success of any mission, and during the crucial portion of the run, flak and fighter opposition must be ignored if bombs are to hit the target.”
Just prior to starting the bomb run, the bombardier made final inputs to the Norden, and then, during the run itself, he made heading corrections via the autopilot to “kill the drift” caused by winds at altitude. Finally, he identified the specific target. Even though he would have studied target photographs beforehand, finding the target was often not an easy task, even when the weather was clear. And it was very difficult when the target was partially obscured by clouds, haze, smoke screens or by dust and smoke from the bombs of preceding formations.
Such was the case during the mission to Düren on October 20, 1943, less than a week after the Black Thursday mission to Schweinfurt. The 303rd was attacked by Me-109s and lost two aircraft en route to the target. As described by the group leader, Walter Shayler, they failed to avenge their loss as they closed on alternate targets in the Netherlands.
Without warning, the [Combat Wing] lead ship fired a red flare and announced over VHF, “Turning on IP.” I took interval and instructed my bombardier to look for the target. We could not determine whether the target was going to be Weensdrecht or Gilze-Rijen. My bombardier picked up the airdrome at Gilze-Rijen and we started to make a bomb run on it. The lead Group fired a red flare and dropped a phosphorus bomb before the bomb release line, but I was unable to see any other bombs drop from the lead Group. My bombardier asked if he should drop his bombs and I instructed him not to, unless he was sure it was the target. We did not drop our bombs.
The men carped about the failure during the debriefing. “Several crews complained about the lack of Combat Wing leadership and wanted to know why the bombs weren’t dropped.”Aside from this very legitimate objection, they also griped about the “no good” orange chocolate bars they received as onboard rations and the “greasy” French toast and bacon they were served at breakfast.
Petty protests about food aside, the failure to drop bombs over the target was demoralizing—the 303rd existed for no reason other than to bomb the enemy. It was the motivation behind the turn of every wrench, the clack of every typewriter key and the expenditure of every drop of fuel and each round of ammunition. Men endured fighter attacks and antiaircraft fire, sometimes giving their limbs and their lives so that the bombardier could work his trade. He shouldered a mighty burden.
In actual combat, the accuracies achieved with the Norden bombsight were not remotely close to the results obtained during stateside testing under controlled conditions. Rather than a circular error probable, or CEP, of one hundred feet, typical results were closer to one thousand feet or more. This was attributable to a number of factors, including human error, poorly calibrated equipment, problems with identifying the proper target and maneuvering during the bomb run. Too, bombing altitudes during combat were typically greater than those flown during testing, and errors were consequently magnified.
Days when targets could be visually hit with the Norden were made rare by the regularly dismal weather over Northern Europe. Further, the Germans, not content to rely on the vagaries of the weather, added to the bomb aiming problem with man-made smoke. Indeed, they manufactured specialized smoke generators made up of two containers, one of which contained a mixture of chlorosulfonic acid and sulfur trioxide. The other held pressurized air. These were typically arranged at intervals of about seventy-five yards around the most valuable targets. Upon receiving notice of an inbound air raid, the Germans opened the container valves and the compressed air quickly transformed the chemical mixture into a dense, non-caustic smoke that, under no-wind conditions, remained suspended for up to four hours.
The 303rd’s men made frequent references to the smoke screens and to their effectiveness. James McCormick was the bombardier aboard the lead ship during the mission to Emden on December 11, 1943. “We got a good break on weather and were able to make a nice bomb run. I followed my bombs down and they went right into the dock area. There was a good smoke screen over the target, but it didn’t bother us.” In fact, something bothered someone, because the 303rd’s bombs landed in open fields. Whether or not this was due to the smoke screen can’t be known, but it is certain that the smoke screens were effective on many occasions.
As the pace of operations gained momentum, it became apparent that there was no need for every aircraft to carry a Norden bombsight. The groups released their bombs while flying tight formations, and it was not only unnecessary, but also dangerous, for each aircraft’s bombardier to execute his own bomb run; theoretically, they would all arrive at the exact same point in the sky when it came time to release their bombs. In practice, the bombardier in the lead aircraft of each squadron controlled the bomb run, and the rest of the bombardiers in the formation released their bombs when they saw his fall away.
It did not take long to recognize that the dearly bought skills of the bombardiers—who were officers—were not being used to their fullest. Consequently, a gradual transition was started during the spring of 1944 that ensured, at a minimum, that the lead and deputy lead aircraft of every squadron was manned with a trained bombardier equipped with a Norden bombsight. However, it became more and more common to crew aircraft farther back in the formation with “toggliers,” rather than bombardiers. Toggliers were enlisted crewmen, usually gunners, who were taught to perform the same duties as the bombardiers, with the exception of bomb aiming. These men checked and armed the bombs and otherwise prepared them for release. Then, over the target, they “toggled” the bomb release switch as soon as they saw the lead aircraft’s bombs fall away. Ultimately, it was an arrangement that worked fairly well and reduced the requirement to train bombardiers.
* * *
THE STATESIDE TRAINING of all the 303rd’s crewmen was dangerous, exhausting and—at times—emotionally numbing. Bombardier Philip Peed recalled that a fellow student was killed one night in miserable weather when his pilot crashed into a hill in desolate West Texas:
The pilot’s brother found the wreckage the next morning. They were twins and it was a real rough time for everyone. Our flight C.O. [commanding officer] asked if I would go to the mortuary and identify the bodies. I did and it wasn’t a very good place to go for me. I accompanied the body [of his friend] back to his home and I had to go back in the baggage car . . . every stop of the train to West Warwick, Rhode Island. It was a closed casket funeral and I really had a time with “Joe’s” mother to keep her from opening the casket.
Peed recalled that after the rigor of the trip and the emotional delivery of his comrade’s body, he was, “whipped out and down.”