THE 303RD HELL’S ANGELS are sometimes mistakenly associated with the motorcycle gang of the same name. There is no connection. The 303rd antedated the gang by a number of years, and there is no record of former 303rd servicemen being members. Moreover, the Howard Hughes film of the same name reached theaters in 1930 and is what really brought the name into public awareness. Too, the 303rd was hardly the first military unit to use the moniker. Indeed, one of the squadrons making up the famous Flying Tigers was named Hell’s Angels during 1941.
The actual numeric designations of USAAF units in England were classified. For that reason—and for purposes of morale and informal recognition—many units adopted nicknames. The 303rd considered the matter seriously beginning in late 1943 and settled the matter on January 7, 1944, with a vote by the squadron commanding officers and select group staff. The name they chose was Hell’s Angels. Aside from its dramatic and warlike connotations, the moniker also honored the group’s B-17F of the same name that had been the first Eighth Air Force bomber to complete twenty-five missions. Its reputation as a steady and stalwart performer was one the 303rd’s men sought to emulate.
Regardless of what was or was not emulated, the newly renamed Hell’s Angels of the 303rd continued to bend their necks to the harness that was the air war. Killing, or at least neutralizing, the Luftwaffe was a prerequisite for the invasion of Europe. Doing so required the Eighth to hit all manner of targets, not least of which were Germany’s aircraft production plants. Accordingly, plans were drawn up to hit manufacturing facilities at Oschersleben, Halberstadt and Brunswick on the morning of January 11, 1944. It was to be a deep penetration; Oschersleben, the farthest of the three targets, was only a hundred miles southwest of Berlin. That fact notwithstanding, the bombers were scheduled to have fighter escorts, to include the new P-51 Mustang, along the entire route.
Brigadier General Robert Travis, the commander of the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing, was at Molesworth the night before the mission. Along with many of the men he watched a movie and recalled the cold and the stink of the place: “The theater consisted of a Nissen hut with a concrete floor, and was unheated and poorly ventilated; the only heat coming from the bodies of the military personnel present, which also exuded a distinct masculine odor.” The night’s showing was interrupted many times by shouted announcements for the men of various units to report to their posts. It was obvious that there was a mission scheduled for the following day. Travis didn’t wait for the movie to end but instead gathered his staff and returned with dimmed headlights on blacked out roads to Brampton Grange, where the 41st was located. Aside from the 303rd, the other bomb groups making up the 41st included the 379th and the 384th.
The initial battle orders made it clear that the mission was a deep penetration. Travis suspected that it might be Berlin and called the 1st Bomb Division, his higher headquarters, to politick. He wanted to fly the lead aircraft at the head of the division for what promised to be a historic mission. He was given reassurances but no promises; he had to wait until the detailed field orders were transmitted. Travis hung up the phone, stepped outside and looked at the cold but clearing sky. “Far off to the east could be seen occasional flashes, where the British were practicing night bombing or a Jerry was putting on a nuisance raid. Search lights came on for short periods, fingered the sky, and disappeared into oblivion.”
The field orders came chattering across the Teletype a short time later. Travis hurried inside and reviewed them: “It was to be the Fock-Wulfe [sic] plant at Oschersleben, just south of Berlin, which so far had been untouched by our bombers. To reach this objective meant breaking through the concentric rings of fighter interceptors which the Hun had placed about Berlin and her important industries.” Oschersleben wasn’t Berlin, but Travis knew it would be a rough mission nonetheless. And he was assigned to lead it. He left his staff to finish their work and walked to his quarters filled with a mixed sense of anxiety and excitement.
At Molesworth, men scrambled to get the machine that was their bomb group ready for the coming mission. Van White, the operations clerk with the 358th Bomb Squadron, recalled his duties: “We matched crews to aircraft and assigned substitutes as required. We called the bomb loaders to let them know how many bombs of which type were required, and we also let the mess hall know what time breakfast had to be ready.” Required fuel loads were also passed. Veteran crews knew how long—and dangerous—the next day’s mission might be by how long the fuel trucks took to service each aircraft.
“We also assigned men to wake-up duty and we put together the flimsies for the crews,” said White. These “flimsies” took their name from the thin, onionskin paper on which they were printed. On them were printed the mission particulars such as aircraft assignments, engine start, taxi and takeoff times, formation positions and radio particulars. Additional details included the assigned routes and altitudes, the group’s position within the overall formation, various rendezvous points and basic target information. A flimsy was essentially a mission briefing on a slip of paper.
While support personnel hurried through the cold and dark at Eighth Air Force bases across southeastern England, Travis laid out his flying gear; he wanted to ready himself quickly when his wake-up call came. On his table were an escape kit, cigarettes, identification tags, a silk scarf, emergency rations and other sundry items. On the floor he put his heavy flying clothes, to include a flak helmet, a protective vest and a heated flying suit, among other articles. “Alongside of this flying equipment was a special target folder in which my Intelligence Officer had placed a route to and from the target with check points and fighter rendezvous points marked thereon. Also was included aerial maps of the area and large scale identification photographs of the actual target.”
Finally, Travis reminded his aide to wake him at 0330 and put himself to bed.
This is the time when I get scared, not on the mission. Lying there in my bed and attempting to relax, my imagination runs wild. Being aware of the opposition and the problems of such a mission, I start thinking of all the things which can go wrong. I remembered that I volunteered for the damn mission and that it was not necessary for me to go at all as I had already done more than my share. I remembered my duty to my wife and children and how little money they will get in case I am killed. I wonder whether my sense of duty has caused me to go, and not just the desire for excitement and adventure. The net result is that I never sleep soundly but toss from one side to another in the bed until I hear the approaching feet of the Charge of Quarters to tell me it is time to arise.
After too little sleep, Travis climbed out of his bed. At the same time, a short distance away at Molesworth, Van White and his comrades made their rounds. They went into clammy, dark Nissen huts and shoddy barracks where the men made murmuring sleeping noises, or rocked the early morning with great, rumbling snores. The air stank of flatulence and sweat, and of bed linens and clothing long overdue for laundering. The waker-uppers swept their flashlights across footlockers and compared the names against those on their rosters. Then, with gentle hands, they woke the crews. Some rose with a start; others required more persistent attention. Few were cheerful.
More than four hundred crewmen were roused. It was common for the clerks to feel a sense of fretfulness about the duty. “There was a chance that the men I touched in the morning were going to be dead by the end of the day,” said White. “They might never come back to that bed again.”
On the day of the Oschersleben mission White experienced an “it’s a small world” episode of the sort that happens only once or twice in a lifetime. “I woke an officer for the mission. His name was J. B. Lewis Halliburton and he was a navigator for Aubrey Emerson’s Sky Wolf. As he got up, I noticed a portrait of a woman on his locker; it was Mary Catherine O’Rourke. I knew her when we were based at Gowen Field in Boise. She was very much interested in Adagio dancing, and we had exchanged a few letters since that time.
“I told Halliburton that I thought I knew that girl. He said, ‘Oh no, you wouldn’t know her. She’s from Boise.’ I told him that yes, of course she was from Boise, and that her address was 1107 Pueblo Street. He looked at me kind of confused and I showed him the photo of her I had in my wallet. It was a smaller version of the same portrait he had on his locker. He said, ‘Well, that’s my wife!’”
White and Halliburton exchanged notes before White departed to finish the rest of his wake-up roster. “Halliburton was shot down that same day,” White said, “and he was made a POW. After the war it all worked out for Mary Catherine and him.”
Travis saw to his morning ablutions. Freshly scrubbed, his spirits lifted and his excitement grew during the short drive to Molesworth. At thirty-nine, Travis was ancient compared to many of the young men who were also readying for the mission. A West Point graduate, he had been commissioned into the infantry in 1928 but went almost immediately to flight school. His prewar service included more than a dozen different assignments of increasing responsibility. He had arrived in England the previous August to take command of the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing.
The son of an Army general, Travis was a tough, competitive man. Although he could relax in social settings, he demanded strict military professionalism on the job. One account noted how he crept about the flight line with a measuring tape to discipline anyone who broke regulations by smoking within fifty feet of an aircraft. He was a perfectionist with a strong personality that affected people differently; he was variously loved, loathed, respected and feared.
Travis ate in the 303rd’s mess hall, where real eggs were served; it was traditional to do so on the day of a mission. He normally ate carefully as he believed he tended toward obesity, but on this morning he ate with gusto. In the event he was shot down and survived, it might be his last good meal for a while. Some of the men shared his attitude, while others—anxious and fearful—had no appetite and barely looked at their meals.
From the mess hall the men made their way to the 303rd’s briefing building. It was still dark but the Eighth’s meteorologists predicted clear skies over Germany—perfect for the precise visual bombing required for the day’s effort. Inside the briefing hall, behind the speaking platform at the front of the room, a map was covered by a curtain. Clots of men were scattered around the big room. They talked nervously. Many of them smoked. “One young pilot saw me enter the room,” Travis wrote, “and realizing that I only went on visual missions of great importance that involved deep penetration said, ‘We have had it. The Old Man is going.’ Everyone took their seats with a sense of expectancy. The room was bitterly cold and damp. In the far corner one Sibly stove struggled valiantly against the winter climate of England. Many of the crews were suffering from colds as was apparent from their almost constant coughing.”
The briefing started. It was a scene that was being repeated at virtually all of the Eighth’s heavy bomber bases. Thousands of anxious, cold and sleepy men watched as maps were uncovered and targets were revealed. Of the three targets—Oschersleben, Brunswick and Halberstadt—the 303rd was being sent against Oschersleben. Specifically, the 303rd and the rest of the 1st Bomb Division was assigned to attack the AGO Flugzeugwerke at Oschersleben. The factory had been producing aircraft since before World War I and by early 1944 manufactured a significant number of the Luftwaffe’s FW-190 fighters. The 303rd’s crews would be facing those same fighters later that day.
Following the main briefing, most of the men were released while the various squadron leaders and other key personnel received additional instructions. From that point, the crews had about an hour to take care of last-minute personal preparations, catch a ride to their assigned aircraft, organize the equipment at their positions and be ready when the signal to start engines was given. Travis rode in his staff car to where his assigned aircraft, The 8-Ball Mk II, was waiting. He sat in the warmth of the idling vehicle as the ship’s crew readied it for the mission.
Darrell Gust was The 8-Ball Mk II’s navigator that morning; he hadn’t flown in combat since the October 8, 1943, mission to Bremen, when he had completed his requisite twenty-five missions. As the group navigator—responsible for planning missions rather than flying them—he had been asked to fly the Oschersleben mission because of its importance. “Station time was 07:00 and as I arrived at the aircraft, my nervous stomach started doing flip-flops because of the importance of the mission and the fact that it had been months since my last combat mission. I went behind The Eight Ball [sic] and tossed my cookies.”
Then, it was time. Travis stepped out of his car and introduced himself to the rest of the crew. Although he was leading the entire 1st Bomb Division, he would be riding in the copilot position with William “Cal” Calhoun, the commanding officer of the 303rd’s 359th Bomb Squadron. High-ranking leaders such as Travis left the nuts-and-bolts flying of the aircraft to more current and experienced unit pilots, while they were charged with the overall execution of the mission.
Travis climbed aboard the bomber. “As usual I found considerable difficulty in working my large body with all of its winter flying equipment and paraphernalia up through the emergency exit and into the copilot’s seat. Calhoun, who is to be my pilot, followed me and seated himself on the left. We both spent several minutes arranging such things as binoculars, maps, parachutes, and so forth, at conveniently located spots about us in the cockpit. On my left front a white rocket shoots skyward and bursts in a shower of small stars, which is the signal to start engines. Immediately the entire airdrome throbs to life with the powerful deep-throated roar of 160 engines. Normal checks are made, wheel blocks removed, and the [ground] crews stand back in readiness for us to taxi.”
The ground crews peered through the dark and gave their aircraft a final, cursory inspection. The pilots aboard each B-17 watched the movement of other aircraft against the briefed taxi plan then throttled up their own engines when it came time to join the line of slow-moving ships. The first two aircraft took their places next to each other—one on each side of the runway—and waited for the signal to take off. “At the green flare,” Travis wrote, “Cal fed full power to our B-17 and we slowly gained momentum as we rushed into the dark. It always seems as though these ships will never leave the ground and the last few moments are anxious ones as we approach the end of the runway and see ahead of us a line of trees, which we never clear by more than a few feet. Slowly we climb in circles while each succeeding airplane cut short their turns and fill into proper positions until we have a group of eighteen ships flying a normal combat formation several thousand feet in the air.” Below and behind the 303rd’s first group of bombers, a second group of eighteen 303rd B-17s—plus spares—formed.
Jack Fawcett, The 8-Ball Mk II’s bombardier, sat at his station in the nose of the aircraft, in front of, and below, Travis and Calhoun. His recollection underscored the notion that the skies over southeast England came alive when the Eighth mounted a mission: “As we assembled over the field I wanted to steal a few winks, but in the dawn’s grey brown I had to keep alert for wandering aircraft from other squadrons and other neighboring airfields. I could see the winking Aldis lamps and the pyrotechnic flares, their colors denoting the different groups. It was an early, busy sky.”
It took hours for the aircraft making up the mission to take off and assemble prior to pushing east across the North Sea and over Europe. Individual aircraft took off from their airfields and joined in squadron formations that came together in bomb group formations. Bomb groups assembled into combat wings and combat wings merged into bomb divisions. The time was 1001 when Travis led the 1st Bomb Division—with the 303rd at its head—across the English coast north of Felixstowe on course for a landfall over the Netherlands. Along the way, four of the 303rd’s aircraft aborted for various reasons; their places were taken by spare bombers.
“Well out over the North Sea,” Travis recalled, “I give the order to check our guns. Even though I expected the firing, I always jump when the twin 50-caliber machine guns of the top turret fire just above my head. The whole cockpit vibrates violently while they discharge. Dust floats down through the rays of the sun and the shadow of the twin barrels swings across the nose of the aircraft as the gunner tries out his turret.”
German intelligence was likely aware of the raid as soon as most of the American crews. Radar and radio listening stations monitored the progress of the massive formation as it formed and flew toward Germany: “Beginning at 0828, German radio reconnaissance detected the assembling of a force of approximately 500 American bombers in the area south of Ipswich. The first bombers, accompanied by a large fighter escort, were reported at 1010: their position was given as 150 kilometers west of the Dutch coast, with course towards the east.”
Fighter and flak units were alerted. On that day, three German fighter divisions had a total of 239 fighters available to oppose the Americans. They were ideally situated at Deelen in Holland, Stade on the Elbe, and Döberitz just west of Berlin. Thusly located, they could keep up a steady stream of attacks on the bombers as they motored to and from their targets.
And they did. Jack Fawcett described the initial action: “We were hardly across the Zuider Zee, when I looked up to discover what seemed like hundreds of planes milling around. Friendly or enemy? A formation of enemy fighters pulled up at nine o’clock level, ten o’clock; then at eleven o’clock they peeled off and came at us in threes and fours—in rapid succession. This wave barely engulfed us before another was positioning itself for attack. Some squadrons had twelve planes, others had thirty.”
Travis, at the very front of the formation, felt especially vulnerable as the German fighters made their attacks. “From this time on action became so violent and combat so exciting that it is difficult to tell a cohesive story. The enemy aircraft continued to climb and pull ahead of us until there were two columns of pursuit ships of approximately twenty-five each, strung out just outside of machine gun range. Drawing ahead of us four or five miles the ends of the columns turned in 90 degrees across our course, peeled off in elements of five, which flew in abreast wing tip to wing tip head on to our formation; successive waves of fighters being so close that when our gunners fired at the first wave, the next two waves would get through unmolested. Every gun in the formation was firing continuously.”
Jack Fawcett emphasized the ferocity of the fighting: “I don’t know how long these attacks continued. The General [Travis] was calling them fast and furious until one gunner, not knowing who was calling fighters, said in exasperation, ‘Yes, yes, but don’t call them so fast; I can’t shoot at ’em all anyway.’”
Bad Check was a 303rd B-17 that had been financed by San Quentin Prison inmates through war bond purchases. It was so named because a check written against insufficient funds—a bad check—“always comes back.” John Kaliher was the ship’s navigator. His official statements provide a spare but gruesome picture of what happened aboard the ship which was flying at the rear of the low group’s formation. “Our plane was attack[ed] first by 3 waves of 4 single-engine German fighter planes. This first attack put out both our top and ball turrets; started a fire in #1 engine and dumped much of our ammunition out of holder[s] due to violent evasive action. We lost about 1,500 feet altitude and were immediately attack[ed] again both from the front and rear. A large shell or rocket from one of these rear attacks destroyed most of our oxygen containers; tore open the right side of the plane from the bomb bays to the nose escape hatch; also tore away most of the right wing root and part of #3 engine so that the propeller windmilled. We ended up flying in a banked circle with no flying speed and constantly losing altitude.”
George Callihan, Bad Check’s radio operator, was killed by the first wave of German fighters. Barnell Heaton, the left waist gunner, recounted in his official statement: “I personally saw Callihan hit by 20mm burst[s] in [the] shoulder, mid-section and legs. There were three or more of these bursts.”
The flight engineer, David Tempesta, manned the top turret and was injured during the initial attacks by shrapnel that knocked him down. Despite his wounds he climbed back into the turret and resumed firing at the enemy fighters. Kaliher reported, “A 20mm shell burst inside Tempesta’s chest.” He was killed instantly.
Bad Check was mortally hit, and Kaliher climbed back from his position in the nose of the aircraft, up onto the flight deck. George McClellan, the pilot, stood behind his seat and asked Kaliher to find his parachute. Kaliher quickly located it and helped him put it on. The crew’s copilot, William Fisher, was on his first combat mission. He was still in his seat, and Kaliher retrieved his parachute and put it in his lap. At that point McClellan ordered Kaliher to bail out, which he did with Merlin Cornish, the bombardier. Ultimately, McClellan and Fisher, for reasons unknown, failed to jump from Bad Check. The Germans found their bodies—with Callihan’s and Tempesta’s—in the ship’s wreckage later that morning.
Other 303rd crews suffered similar fates. Vern Moncur was the pilot of the Wallaroo. He recounted the savagery of the fight as Travis led the bombers to the target: “The first pass made at our group included thirty to thirty-five ME-109s and FW-190s. The low group, to our left, had three Forts go down from this first pass. We also saw three German fighters shot down by this group during this time. The No. 4 ship, lead ship of our element and on whose wing we were flying formation, had its No. 1 engine hit. It immediately burst into flames and dropped out of formation. A few minutes later, this plane exploded. Soon afterward, the No. 3 ship ahead of us also caught on fire in the No. 1 engine and peeled out of formation. This ship exploded, also.”
Fred Reichel was a radio operator with the 303rd when it was initially formed. He was detached from the unit during April 1942 for pilot training and by a quirk of fate was reassigned to the 303rd during November 1943. On January 11, 1944, he was the copilot aboard S-for-Sugar, which was hit hard by the attacking FW-190s. He bailed out with the rest of the crew and came down in a snow-covered clearing. Shortly thereafter he was captured by a German ski patrol made up of young boys and old men. The youngsters were equipped with machine guns, while the old men carried heavy sticks.
“The old men wanted to beat me,” he said, “but the kids pushed them away. I was taken to a farmhouse where there were a grandmother, mother and three girls. One, about eight years old, asked me in perfect English, if I’d like some coffee. We had been briefed that Hitler had told the German people that U.S. airmen were gangsters recruited from American cities to bomb innocent women and children.”
Reichel was wary of being poisoned. “I asked her to drink first. She jabbered in German to her mother then she drank, telling me it was alright. So I thanked her and drank it. I then reached in my flight jacket and offered her some gum. Without batting an eye, she said, ‘you chew first.’ I took out a piece, it was Beechnut, and chewed it and then handed her the pack. She again conversed with her mother; handed it back saying, ‘No thank you. Have you got any Wrigley’s?’ . . . Deep in the heart of Germany and she knew Wrigley’s.”
As aircraft were shot out of the sky, the 303rd’s formation shrank and the remaining ships closed in tighter on Calhoun and Travis in The 8-Ball Mk II. Moncur moved up in Wallaroo until he was flying on the lead ship’s left wing. The low group was so badly shot up and had so few aircraft remaining that it climbed and joined the high group.
While the Eighth’s three bomb divisions pressed toward their targets, the weather over England deteriorated. This presented James Doolittle, the Eighth’s new commander, with a nightmare dilemma: There was the very real possibility that a large mission such as the one airborne that day might hit its targets, return to its bases and be unable to land through heavy clouds, fog and rain or snow. Low on fuel, the crews would be faced with either bailing out or making desperate, last-ditch attempts to land. England and the surrounding seas would be littered with wrecked aircraft. Losses in such a scenario might exceed 50 percent; recovering from that sort of disaster could take months.
Wracked by indecision, and having been at his post for less than two weeks, Doolittle finally recalled the mission. Parts of the 2nd Bomb Division, and all of the 3rd, reversed course and motored back to England. The 1st Division, with the 303rd at its head, continued toward Oschersleben. Travis was within ten minutes of the initial point—the final turn toward the target—when his radio operator, Kenneth Fitzsimmons, informed him of the recall. It was unclear at the time whether or not the 1st Bomb Division had been specifically directed to abort the mission. Travis recalled his decision: “Though we had received no instructions, I was left with the decision as to whether to proceed on to the target or return to our bases with the main force. I fully realized that should I proceed I would become the sole target of all that remained of the Luftwaffe and their undivided attention would almost certainly wipe out what was left of my force. Visibility was excellent and it appeared that the target would be visual. I felt that our losses had been so great that success of the main mission must be accomplished. I informed the Combat Wing and my crew that we would continue and attack as briefed.”
The crew aboard The 8-Ball Mk II missed the initial point to the south but corrected back on course. The pilots of the remaining aircraft moved closer together; a tighter formation would ensure a more focused and effective bomb pattern on the target. The Germans continued to press their attacks as Calhoun passed control of the aircraft to the bombardier, Jack Fawcett. The entire weight of the mission was now on Fawcett. Whether or not he appreciated the import of it just then cannot be known. But the reason that men were dying that very moment—the reason behind all the dead sons of so many mothers—was because the Eighth’s leadership wanted bombs put into the AGO factory works. Were it not destroyed, everything would have been for naught. Fawcett remembered:
Then we were off to the target. Surprising view . . . thirty miles away was the forest near which my factory target was located. The woods showed up clearly, but the little town was lost in a grey haze. So I put the sight on it and just waited. In fact I had time to set up my camera so I could possibly get some target pictures. As we approached, I had time to check my pre-set drift, etc. It was all good. Soon, I could discern the runway, the town, and then the target. I had plenty of time and good visibility, so my synchronization was good. Because of the time we had, everything was quite deliberate; I would have no excuse for missing. I had one eye on the indices, and one on the bomb rack indicator. The indices met; the lights disappeared. No, two lights remained, so I jumped my salvo lever to make sure all the bombs dropped. With the plane again in Cal’s [Calhoun’s] hands, I grabbed my camera and crawled under the bombsight, camera poised for my bomb-fall. Oh, boy, there they were, right in the middle of the assembly hangar I had aimed for. The nose glass was smeared. . . . But I watched the bomb pattern blossom, covering the target completely. . . . That FW [Focke-Wulf] shop would be closed—for a long time.
The 303rd and the rest of the 1st Bomb Division turned for England. Travis was excited about the results of the bombing: “I sent a WT [wireless transmission] Message to the Division reporting the target bombed visually with excellent results. A quick survey was made to determine the number of aircraft still with me, their condition, and the ability of the stragglers to keep up. Four ships could be seen with feathered props. Many were having difficulties in conserving what gasoline was left to get home. Despite my reluctance to remain over Germany any longer than necessary, I reduced power, slowed down the formation to keep it compact.”
One of the reasons that friendly fighter cover was so thin during the retrograde was that several of the P-47 fighter groups had turned for home when the recall was sounded. It was likely that the pilots were not aware that the bombers needed help. A P-38 group simply never climbed out of the clouds, and its pilots also returned to base. The one fighter group that had the range to cover the bombers over the target was the P-51-equipped 354th—a Ninth Air Force unit on loan to the Eighth. It did not obey the recall, but its forty-nine aircraft were hardly enough for the job at hand. Nevertheless, Major James Howard, separated from the rest of the 354th, single-handedly provided protection to the 401st Bomb Group, and was credited with four aerial victories. After the mission he declared: “I seen my duty and I done it.”
Virtually all the bomb groups airborne over Europe during the return were under attack of some sort, either by German fighters or antiaircraft fire. Gerd Wiegand was flying an FW-190 with JG 26 as the bombers retrograded. “West of Nordhorn, nineteen B-17s sighted without escort!” Contrails marked the path of the heavy aircraft.
The German fighter pilots took their time and maneuvered to set up simultaneous flanking attacks on the American bombers. Finally set, Wiegand and the other Luftwaffe pilots arced toward the B-17s. Wiegand held his fire until his target grew large in his gun sight, while the gunners aboard the bombers ripped the sky around him with thousands of rounds of .50-caliber machine gun fire. Still, he concentrated on his target: “Fire at 20 degrees deflection, 10 degrees elevation, 11/2 sight radii—the B-17’s left wing falls off and strikes the next B-17—I split S—Attack another B-17 from the rear—Shoot off the third B-17’s elevator, am almost struck by it.”
Although Wiegand missed being hit by the piece of the disintegrating bomber, his aircraft was nevertheless struck in the oil cooler by something—probably gunfire. He dived for the underlying clouds to assess his situation. Continuing down, he made out familiar landmarks through the murk; he opened his canopy and readied to bail out if necessary.
Finally, at less than a thousand feet, Wiegand’s engine stopped. With the runway at Deelen in sight, he elected to stay with the powerless aircraft, dumped the landing gear and expertly hauled it through a low-altitude turn and set it down. When the aircraft finally coasted to a stop, he heard a beautifully melancholic tune playing over the airfield’s loudspeaker system. It was, “Sing, Nightingale, Sing.”
German fighters continued to harry the bombers all the way to the North Sea, where they were met by flights of P-47s that had not complied with the recall or were unaware of it. Vern Moncur recorded the action: “As we approached the German border, two more Forts in our group were lost—only two or three men got out of each ship. I also saw another Fort (ahead and to our left) do a very steep wingover, nearly going over on its back, and then go down in flames. About this time I saw a German fighter get hit by a flak burst and explode. This made us all chuckle! High above and ahead of us, a P-47 hit a German fighter, and the Jerry’s plane exploded. And to our left, a P-47 knocked down a JU-88 at about the same time.”
The leader of Germany’s fighter forces, Adolf Galland, recounted the successes of his units: “In the sectors of Rheine-Osnabruck, Hildesheim and over the target areas there were heavy dogfights, in which we were very successful. On their way back the bombers were again attacked by our fighters on their second sortie. They attacked from south of Bremen up to the Dutch border, where the bombers met their fighter escort.”
Finally, with the appearance of the American escort fighters, the Germans left the bombers to face a new enemy. As Doolittle feared, the weather had worsened over England. Crews that had literally fought for their lives during the previous several hours had no choice but to grope their way down through thousands of feet of clouds and fog to find a place to land. And they had to do it before they ran out of fuel. And without colliding with one another or the ground.
Jack Fawcett, aboard The 8-Ball Mk II, described the scene at Molesworth: “Cal was flying at close to stall speed and only 300’ off the ground. He spotted a runway, flew up one side, and turned sharply around for position to land. As we came in, we found a ship just ahead, and planes were appearing from every which way. But we settled on the runway behind three other ships. Good piloting and safe at last! As we rolled down the runway, we could see that landed ships were sitting everywhere on the field. Some wheel-deep in mud.”
It had been the 303rd’s grimmest mission to date. The group lost eleven of the forty bombers that crossed into Europe. It was a 27 percent loss rate. Moreover, there were many wounded and two dead on the ships that managed to get back to England. The 359th Bomb Squadron’s commander, William Calhoun, pilot of The 8-Ball Mk II, said that although the mission had been the roughest he had ever experienced, the bombing results made the sacrifice worthwhile. Not all of his men agreed.
For a number of reasons the Eighth’s headquarters was slow to release the details of the raid. Consequently, with no official statements on which to base their work, American news writers repeated German propaganda claims that declared that 123 Eighth Air Force bombers had been knocked down. The Eighth remained silent on the following day, January 12. Conversely, the Nazis shrilly recounted their successes and upped their claims to 135 American bombers shot down.
Speculation ran rampant and rumors flew that the Eighth’s leadership was trying to cover up an unprecedented air disaster. It wasn’t until January 13 that details were released about the losses sustained on January 11: Of the 663 bombers that got airborne, 238 pressed into Germany to release their bombs despite the weather recall. Of those 238, 60 were shot down. Of the nearly 500 fighter escorts that took off in support of the mission, 5 failed to return. It was the most vicious beating the Americans had sustained since the second mission to Schweinfurt on October 14, 1943.
German aircraft losses were far smaller. The Distinguished Unit Citation awarded to the 1st Bomb Division credited it with 210 German aircraft destroyed that day. This number was grossly overblown, as German sources indicated that only 207 aircraft actually made contact with the Americans. Of that number only 39 were shot down.
The calculus of determining whether the mission was worth the cost was complex. There was no question that the Focke-Wulf plant at Oschersleben was smashed; Jack Fawcett, the 303rd bombardier aboard The 8-Ball Mk II, had done good work. The 1st Bomb Division—with the 303rd in the lead—put 51 percent of their bombs within one thousand feet of the prescribed aim point. Although it is impossible to determine the mission’s exact impact on German fighter production, it certainly was significant.
Moreover, the elements of the 2nd Bomb Division that continued to their targets at Brunswick that day were equally successful. However, making the case that it was worth sixty bombers and their crews was a hard sell; it was essentially equivalent to sixty American hometowns losing their high school baseball teams. And likewise, each bomber cost as much as a small town. It was a loss rate that simply could not be sustained.
Ruby Side Thompson was a fifty-nine-year-old Englishwoman who lived in London during the war. An intelligent and thoughtful woman, she had kept a diary for decades. On January 14, 1944, she made an entry that referenced the Eighth’s January 11 attack on Oschersleben:
This infernal war goes on and on. On Tuesday we were told that the American’s [sic] had made a big daylight raid over Germany, but no facts were given, which was ominous, and portended a failure of some sort. This morning “corrected” figures were given out. We lost sixty bombers out of a company of 700 sent out, and five fighters. . . . General Arnold, Chief of the U.S.A.A.F. has stated that the huge air battle over Germany inflicted one of the hardest blows yet struck against the German Air Force, at a cost of approximately five percent of the American aircraft making the attack. I can’t see how sixty out of seven-hundred is only five percent, but there you are, reporting. Probably all the escorting fighters are counted in, and we are not told how many of these were sent out. War, damnable war. It is intolerable, and yet the fool world of men goes on with it.
Likewise, the attack received significant coverage in the States. The Associated Press filed a story carried by newspapers on January 14—the same day as Thompson’s diary entry. The article in the Joplin Globe was headed with the declaration: 3 ENEMY AIRCRAFT CENTERS WRECKED. The piece definitely did not underplay the action: “American airmen shot down at least 152 German fighters at a record cost of 60 bombers and five fighters in history’s greatest sky battle Tuesday, and blasted two other targets besides shattering the three aircraft centers southeast [southwest] of Berlin, it was disclosed officially tonight.”
It is interesting that, only three months since the October 14, 1943, raid on Schweinfurt, the Associated Press declared the January 11 action to be “history’s greatest sky battle.” The AP’s reporters in London were seasoned and understood the air war as well as most, but Schweinfurt emerged as the more memorable mission.
The article also described the damage caused by the raid: “The Flugzeugwerke AMG plant at Oschersleben, 90 miles southwest of Berlin, believed to be the most important producer of Focke Wulf 190s, was well covered by a heavy concentration of high explosives and incendiaries loosed by the Americans who tore through swarms of rocket-firing German fighters.”
Ultimately, however, it wasn’t enough. The Eighth’s bombers would attack Oschersleben seven more times.
* * *
ROBERT LIVINGSTON WAS a waist gunner aboard S-for-Sugar on the mission to Oschersleben. He was made a POW after the ship was downed, but caught pneumonia and died two months later. His family had served in every conflict since the American Revolution; he was the first who did not return home. He—or rather, his family—was awarded the Citation of Honor, as were all USAAF men who died in the line of duty. The citations carried the same message, which read in part: “He lived to bear his country’s arms. He died to save its honor. He was a soldier . . . and he knew a soldier’s duty.”
His parents would have rather had their son.
* * *
EVERY FLYER IN THE 303RD was a volunteer. In fact, every flyer in every branch of every American armed service was a volunteer. None of them had to go into combat. Nevertheless, virtually all of the men fulfilled their obligations. This was particularly remarkable during the early part of the bombing campaign against Germany, when the odds against completing twenty-five missions were so poor. Indeed, it is arguable that the greatest acts of bravery were performed by the flyers not while they were fighting miles-high battles against the Germans. That sort of bravery was almost instinctual—it was about self-preservation. But it took tremendous courage to consciously put oneself in such a situation to begin with. In effect, simply climbing aboard a bomber before a mission—knowing the grim odds against survival—was where the real bravery was exercised.
This was especially so because the men sometimes saw firsthand the horrible aftermath of air combat. Clifford Fontaine, a waist gunner with the 427th, described such an instance: “358th ship lost a tail gunner by a direct hit from flak. It blew the whole tail gunner’s position right off the ship. After we landed the ship was in the hangar and you could see the T.G.’s [tail gunner James O. Williams] meat and blood and bone bits stuck to the sides of the Fort.” Indeed, the violence of the explosion blew one of the gunner’s kneecaps forward into the radio compartment.
Hal Gunn, copilot to Ray Jess of the 358th, recalled a particularly gruesome incident from only his third mission. The crew’s bombardier, Charles Box, was hit by fire from enemy fighters.
He was lying in a pool of blood. He was in a bad way. He had been hit in the left ear and it had exited out his right cheek. The wound on his cheek ballooned out and sprayed blood when he coughed. He was choking on his own blood. He was thrashing around, which made it impossible to apply any pressure to the wound. We had to quiet him down so that we could attend to him. I had heard that morphine was not good for head wounds, so I gave him a partial shot of morphine from the first-aid kit in the nose of the plane, just enough to quiet him down. It quieted him down, but he was still choking. We decided to get him up and hold him in a sitting position, leaning forward, on the navigator’s table.
Miraculously, Box lived. But there can be little doubt that Gunn recollected the bloody terror on every subsequent mission he flew until his ship was shot down the following month.
Van White’s observations while serving as an operations clerk underscored the terrible anxiety that some of the men felt: “Before missions there were always a few guys who went behind their aircraft and upchucked; it didn’t matter if they were officers or enlisted men. Or whether or not they were veterans. The risks of being killed on every mission were so terrible that throwing up was a natural reaction.”
George Morrison, a tail gunner with the William DaShiell crew, told his story in a letter to the mother of a lost comrade. The crew flew their first combat sortie on Thanksgiving Day, 1943. They were shot up on that mission and on several subsequent missions. Morrison, who had been sick with an unspecified illness that caused him to miss several raids, wrote that he was knocked out of his position, but not badly injured, during the mission to Ludwigshafen on January 7, 1944.
However, he was still not medically cleared to fly on January 11, as his crewmates readied to fly the mission to Oschersleben. “It was a chilly, foggy morning, the ground covered with frost,” he wrote. “I arose with the rest of the boys, had breakfast with them, went to the briefing, and before the takeoff I helped them dress. They were all lighthearted and in a good mood, doing the usual kidding and fooling around. I walked out to the ship with them, saw them go aboard and wished them Godspeed and a safe return.
“After they left, then began my worst part of the trip, sweating out their return. I went back to the barracks, made up the beds, hung up their clothes, and tried to stay busy so that the time would pass more quickly. Came the time of the afternoon when they should return, so I hurried down to the end of the field so that I could spot them the instant they hove into view.
“Finally, I spotted one from my squadron [358th] and as soon as it had rolled to a stop I ran over to see what had happened. I asked the pilot of this ship where my ship was and he pointed in the direction from whence he came and said, ‘Out there. They got every plane in our squadron but ours.’”
Morrison’s guts wrenched. “That was the end of my world,” he wrote. “The war to me was over. From then on I lost interest in planes and bombing. Our barracks housed twelve men, the noncommissioned members of two crews. Neither of those crews returned that day and I alone was left in the barracks that night—a night that was the longest and the loneliest of any I hope I ever must have. The next day I packed their belongings and saw to it that they were properly taken care of. Later that day I was moved to the hospital.”
Morrison was evacuated to the States three months later. There, he spent time recovering in various hospitals and rest homes before returning to duty as an instructor at a gunnery school. As it developed, no one from the DaShiell crew was made a POW; they were all killed on the raid to Oschersleben.
* * *
SUPPORT PERSONNEL OBVIOUSLY did not face the same risks as the bomber crews. Consequently, many of them felt a certain amount of anxiety, if not guilt. Logically, they knew the jobs they were doing were crucial to the war effort even if they did not involve direct combat with the enemy. Still, many had an irrational sense that they were not contributing as much as they should. Conflicting with that sensibility was another. It was relief at not risking their lives mission after mission. Nearly all of them had friends among the combat crews who never returned. All of this created a certain self-conscious unease.
There were times when the fretfulness came to the surface. Van White remembered the Oschersleben mission: “One in four of the men who left that morning didn’t come back, and I knew a lot of them. It was heartbreaking. I was upset and angry and sad and felt like I had to do something. I told my officer in charge, Glenn Shumake, that I was going to volunteer for flight duty. He was a pilot and we had worked together in operations since Gowen Field in 1942. He knew me pretty well and understood what I was feeling, but he also knew what it took to run a bomb squadron. He told me, ‘You stay here, Rip [White’s nickname]. We need you here and you’re more valuable doing what you’re doing than you would be as a gunner or something else.’ I understood what he meant, and although part of me felt like I should have been flying missions anyway, I continued to work in operations.”
White’s reactions weren’t unique. Other men on the base who did not go into combat felt the loss of their comrades very keenly. Lucius Arnold worked at the post exchange, or PX: “I was transferred to the 427th Squadron for [living] quarters. Four of us were put in one end of a combat barracks. We were told to stay away from the combat personnel because they and the ground personnel did not mix. That was false and we did become friendly. I was happy to do small favors for them in my work at the PX. I came back to the barracks one night from my job to find the entire combat personnel had gone down. It was a devastating experience and I did not get over it for some time.”
* * *
WEATHER SUCH AS THE 303RD encountered on its return from Oschersleben was a regular feature of the European air war. But aside from clouds and fog and rain—and sometimes sleet and snow—wind was also troublesome. Most dangerous were unexpectedly high winds against which the bombers flogged after hitting the target. Many fuel-starved aircraft of all types fell into the sea short of England.
The wind could be vexatious in other ways. During late January 1944 the Ken Edwards crew was newly assigned to the 303rd and sent for an area familiarization flight. Accompanying the new crew were Tommy Quinn and Joe Vieira. Quinn was an experienced pilot, while Vieira was one of the group’s veteran radio operators. Coleman Sanders was the new crew’s navigator. “We flew around the area so that they could show us the prominent landmarks,” Sanders recorded. “When it was time to return to base the group was returning from a mission and flying control needed us out of the way while the planes landed. We flew around, climbing through the overcast to about 5,000 feet.”
With the aircraft in close proximity to Molesworth, Sanders relaxed. He assumed that his duties as navigator were complete and didn’t know that a very strong wind was blowing from the northwest. “When it was time for us to let down through the clouds, Quinn asked me for a heading back to Molesworth, I looked down as soon as we broke out and saw London below. Joe Vieira, our radio operator, heard my report to the pilot and came on the intercom with, ‘London doesn’t have an Eiffel Tower!’
“At first I thought he was joking, but sure enough it was Paris, not London,” Sanders said. The unarmed bomber attracted a pair of German fighters that raked it with machine gun fire before Quinn climbed the ship back into a cloud layer and escaped. The shaken crew returned to Molesworth without sustaining further damage but ultimately had to admit their folly; there was no good way to explain away the bullet holes in the aircraft.