Book: Hell's Angels

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“I VOWED THAT I WOULD NEVER TURN BACK”

MISSION ABORTS, OR “ABORTIONS,” occurred on virtually every 303rd mission. And of course, the group was not unique in that regard. Aside from weather that occasionally forced the entire group to return to base, most aborts were motivated by mechanical issues. The B-17 was a big and complex machine made up of many components that had to work properly together. It was rare when an aircraft didn’t have at least a few minor “gripes” or issues. These usually weren’t of great importance and didn’t keep the aircraft from flying. But if there were significant problems, the aircraft stayed on the ground until it was repaired.

More problematic were malfunctions that manifested themselves once an aircraft was airborne. The pilot was responsible for making the decision as to whether or not to continue the mission. That judgment could be easy and obvious or it might be very complex and nuanced. For example, the decision to abort after an engine fire was an easy one that typically raised no questions.

But other situations weren’t so black-and-white. For instance, an engine with oil pressure that was just below limits but running fine would cause some angst. There was a good chance that the aircraft would complete the mission without incident. There was also a chance that the engine would fail. And if it failed, it was quite possible that one or more of the other engines—operating under increased strain to make up for the lost engine—might also fail. Added anxiety came with the fact that the pilot was responsible for not only his own well-being, but also that of his crew.

No doubt, the phase of the war also influenced the decision making. A failure of the top gun turret during early 1943 when German fighters were so prevalent would probably have compelled a pilot to turn around prior to crossing over enemy territory. However, that same failure during the latter part of the war when enemy fighters were less frequently encountered would not have been so compelling. Another consideration later in the war was that large areas of Europe were under Allied control and a pilot might be motivated to take greater risks, especially when he could land at a base in France or Belgium or in Soviet-controlled territory, rather than crossing the treacherous North Sea back to England with an ailing ship.

The point at which a malfunction was noted also influenced a pilot’s decision to abort. It was much safer to turn back to base when a problem became apparent before crossing over hostile territory. Indeed, this was when most aborts occurred. However, once the enemy’s defenses were breached, it was generally safer for a pilot to trust to fate and the protection of the formation. If it was impossible to stay with the rest of the group, the best option was generally to head for England within the protection of a cloud deck. David Michael noted that his pilot made an extremely risky decision during the mission to Augsburg on March 16, 1944: “We aborted 125 miles into France and returned by ourselves. Escorted by 4 P-47s. LUCKY!!” Michael also made an additional annotation lower on the page: “P-47s are the most beautiful thing in the world!”

The particular target also played into the equation. It is certain that a small number of pilots discovered reasons to abort when the group was headed to a target with a particularly tough reputation. On the other hand it is quite likely that pilots pressed on to those same fearsome targets when they should have aborted, simply because they didn’t want to be derided by their peers as shirkers or cowards.

However, the reputation of a target didn’t always hold true. There were times when missions to the “big name” targets were cakewalks, and there were also instances when the most innocuous objectives were vicious. “Early on, we used to worry about what the target would be—we’d really sweat out the pre-mission briefings,” recalled Eddie Deerfield. “But, after a while I took a more detached view. It didn’t matter where the target was because there was nothing we could do about it; we had to go. And, it often didn’t turn out as anticipated anyway. For instance, on my first mission to Berlin, our B-17 suffered very little damage. On the other hand, we were almost shot down on what should have been a ‘milk run,’ a short trip across the English Channel to attack German V-1 bomb sites at Watten, France.”

There were other factors too. Sack Time went an incredible 110 missions without an abort before it was finally shot down. As that mission count reached very high numbers, it is quite likely that there were occasions when the pilot should have aborted but didn’t; no one wanted to be known as “the guy who broke Sack Time’s streak.” Too, pride and reputation played a role. There is no doubt that pilots who had experienced several legitimate mechanical aborts subsequently stuck with missions in bad aircraft because they didn’t want to be characterized as weak or gutless. John St. Julian, a pilot with the 360th, described his experience:

We aborted on a raid to Mersburg because of a runaway propeller. Upon landing with our bomb load, the squadron brass were waiting for me. They took the plane up for a test flight as I returned to the barracks, fell into my bunk and went to sleep. That afternoon I was awakened by one of our officers who informed me that I should have reported to Group Headquarters on landing. He told me to blame the squadron for not having me read the SOP [Standard Operating Procedures]. I did that, and the C.O. [commanding officer] nearly had a heart attack. I was grounded and instructed to read the Standard Operating Procedure to get my crew back. I vowed that I would never turn back from a mission again unless an engine fell off.

One pilot who did not have to weigh a sackful of borderline considerations was George Oxrider of the 358th Bomb Squadron. As the 303rd crossed over the English Channel on the mission to Wilhelmshaven on January 27, 1943—the first mission to Germany by the Eighth Air Force—the gunners tested their weapons. The top turret guns aboard Oxrider’s ship, Spook, vibrated the life raft loose on the aircraft’s left side. The raft crashed into the waist gunner, Wilmer Raesley, and knocked his gun out of his hands. The gun subsequently fired a number of rounds into the side and rear of the ship. Two of them holed the right buttock of the tail gunner, James Sadler. Oxrider’s decision to abort the mission and return to Molesworth was an easy one.

The 303rd’s abort rate on the July 17, 1943, mission to Hanover bordered on absurd. Before takeoff, one aircraft’s engines would not start. Another aborted immediately after getting airborne, when an engine ran out of control. Soon after, a ship turned back due to a broken oil line. The next aircraft to turn back did so when the tail gunner showed signs of anoxia. Nearly across the North Sea, another pilot left the formation when a gunner’s heated suit failed. It wasn’t long before a runaway engine forced another ship back. An additional five bombers returned to base when they failed to find the main formation. Gunners suffering from the aftereffects of vaccinations caused two more aircraft to turn around, and another runaway engine forced a final ship back. Ultimately, poor weather caused the entire mission to be recalled even though it had already penetrated well into enemy-controlled territory.

The issue of aborted missions was one that the commanders had to handle carefully. Aborts reflected badly on them. Their leadership, in part, was measured by tons of bombs dropped and other inflexible metrics. Certainly, weak-spirited pilots had to be made right or sent away, but caution also had to be exercised so that conscientious pilots with bad luck weren’t maligned. Most commanders reviewed the circumstances associated with each abort quite carefully. Indeed, aborting pilots were required to make formal statements and to complete official forms that reviewed the conditions that had caused the abort.

The issue also affected the ground crews. Aborts for imagined or pretended faults caused the maintenance men to work needless and frustrating hours. It was costly in terms of effort expended as well as aircraft parts and material—not to mention trust and respect. But in most cases the ground crews were genuinely concerned, and sometimes embarrassed, by real mechanical breakdowns. This was especially true when a fault could be traced to their work rather than to material failure.

Bert Hallum, a pilot with the 360th, described one of the rare episodes when a ground crew failed to do right: “We were taking off in breaking daylight, and I had just got airborne when one of my crewmen called, ‘Lt. Hallum, we’re leaking gas pretty bad from the left wing!’ Fire was coming from the exhaust of the engines. I looked out and saw fuel all over the place. I cut the throttles and settled back to the runway. We went over to the end of the overrun. It didn’t hurt the airplane, but we were in the boondocks. What had happened when they gassed that airplane was that they had not put the cap back on the tank.”

In truth, virtually no pilot wanted to abort a mission. Motivated by personal integrity, duty and comradeship, most were ready and willing to fly; it was why they were in the 303rd. And all that aside, logic told them that there was no way to finish their tours if they didn’t fly their missions. Aborting was a double-edged sword that got them no closer to that goal.

The 303rd’s mission reports note that aircraft sometimes aborted when heated flying suits malfunctioned. Indeed, frostbite was deadly and caused casualties that were only exceeded in number by those caused by flak and fighters. Crewmen whose heated suits malfunctioned were hard-pressed to keep their fingers and toes, much less perform their duties. The B-17 was unpressurized and, for the most part, unheated. As Mel Schulstad noted, “If it was thirty-five degrees below zero outside the airplane, it was thirty-five degrees below zero inside the airplane.” Indeed, temperatures of sixty degrees below zero were encountered on some raids.

The men’s bodies, exposed to super-cooled air, reacted by restricting blood flow to the extremities in order to preserve their core temperatures. Robbed of warm blood, tissue in the fingers and toes, face, and even the hands and feet, froze. Recovery was a long and painful process, and the damage to nerves was often permanent. If the freezing went too deep, the flesh was destroyed, gangrene set in and amputation was often the only option.

The special clothing the men were issued was intended to guard against frostbite and to keep them warm and comfortable to the maximum extent possible. Firstly, they had woolen long underwear that they wore next to their bodies. Over this they layered electrically heated jackets and trousers. Over the electrically heated garments they wore standard trousers and jackets or one-piece flying suits. Parachute harnesses and life preservers went over it all. On their feet they wore heavy flying boots over heated felt boots that were laced over one or more pairs of socks. Their hands were protected by silk or rayon gloves, and heavier, electrically heated gloves, and mittens. For added warmth, each aircraft carried several hand muffs. Soft, fur-lined flying helmets helped to keep their heads warm.

The various electrical garments were connected together, and a master cord was plugged into a receptacle at the crewman’s position aboard the aircraft. A rheostat at the position was rotated to control the temperature. The electrical clothing was generally satisfactory but was far from perfect. It did warm the men, often to the point that they were soaked with sweat. But when the electrical current to the suits was interrupted, as it sometimes was either through failure or battle damage, the sweat froze and made the men miserably cold and especially vulnerable to frostbite. Too, the suits often heated unevenly and hot spots were created, especially when men sat down and the heating elements pressed against their bodies. And sometimes the suits simply caught fire.

Although there were standard configurations of cold weather clothing, updated articles were continually introduced, and the men often held on to older pieces. Further, the men frequently wore personal articles, and scarves and hoods were issued upon request. Because the boots were designed for warmth rather than walking, many men carried their regular shoes or boots with them in the event they were shot down. Additionally, they often wore less or more clothing than prescribed, depending on their individual preferences. The result—as often evidenced in photographs—was that virtually no two men dressed identically for combat.

Sadly, there were occasions when the suits were of little value against the brutal cold. One such instance took place during the mission to Bremen on November 26, 1943. German fighters blasted the nose out of the 358th’s Stardust, killing the navigator. The bombardier, Charles Spencer, was also hit, and his oxygen mask and helmet were torn away. Unconscious, he sprawled faceup fully exposed to the icy blast that shrieked through the shattered nose.

The engineer, Grover Mullins, found Spencer a short time later, but the cold had already worked its damage. “His face was so swollen I could hardly see his nose,” said Mullins. Mullins dragged Spencer underneath the pilot’s compartment and tried to administer oxygen to him, but Spencer’s face was so misshapen that it was difficult. He left Spencer and climbed up to the pilot’s compartment to attend the copilot, who was also unconscious. When Mullins returned to check on Spencer, he found that the bombardier had crawled back into the nose, released the ship’s bombs and collapsed at his guns. It was a staggering feat of will and endurance.

Upon the Stardust’s return to England, the doctors found Spencer’s face and hands destroyed by frostbite. “My facial features, nose and ears—new ones were made—were frozen,” he later recalled. “My hands were so frozen that the fingers had to be amputated. The tips of my toes were frozen. One eye had to be enucleated, the other was impaired.” Spencer was sent home to his new wife and a hellish string of surgeries that numbered in the dozens. Later his palms were sliced in half so that he could use them as pincers.

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