Book: Hell's Angels

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“HE WAS MAD AS FIRE”

THE MAGIC MISSION count for heavy bomber crews in the Eighth Air Force until early 1944 was twenty-five. When a crew completed twenty-five missions, they were eligible—and usually allowed—to stop flying combat. However, Arnold was concerned that the combatant forces would be shedding experienced combat crews too early. He directed his numbered air force commanders to change their policies, and this was an order that Doolittle obeyed. He promulgated a policy that made the heavy bomber crews “eligible for relief from further combat duty” following the completion of thirty missions. This meant that they might be kept on duty to complete more than thirty missions. That number was raised to thirty-five missions in July 1944 and stayed at that point until the end of the war. The men were assured that they would not be compelled to involuntarily fly more than thirty-five missions without being individually evaluated as to their capacity to do so. As it developed, no heavy bomber crews in the Eighth Air Force were required to fly more than thirty-five missions.

Don Stoulil, like many men who were assigned to the Eighth during the same time frame, was caught up in a cruel chase to complete the required number of missions. “When I got to the 303rd in November 1943 a combat tour was twenty-five missions—and a lot of guys weren’t making it. And then as I got close to twenty-five the number was changed to thirty. And then a short time later it was raised again to thirty-five. I wondered if I’d ever get out of there. It sure felt like the odds were against me.”

It seems that there was confusion during the spring of 1944 as to what the required mission count actually was. This is indicated by the diary entry of Clifford Fontaine. On June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day, he wrote: “Today was number 30 for me but because of the invasion, I must keep on flying. SOME SHIT!” If Fontaine was surprised by the requirement to continue flying, it was indeed “some shit”; in his line of work it took only an instant to be killed.

Officialdom recognized the value of the rotation policy. After extensive combat operations many men really did reach the ends of their tethers. “At Redistribution Stations routine examination of returnees sent back on rotation policy after completion of prescribed tours of operational missions indicates that such a policy is absolutely essential for maintenance of flying personnel in the theaters. This examination shows that sometimes as high as 30 per cent of returnees are suffering from operational fatigue, moderate or severe. The remaining 70 per cent are usually badly played out even if they are not demonstrating actual symptoms.”

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MEN SOMETIMES FAILED to take care of themselves hygienically. It wasn’t just that the showers were sometimes cold, or that the men were too exhausted to clean themselves. The fact was that, in some instances, they simply didn’t care. “There was one guy in our hut who just would not take a shower,” said John Ford. “He smelled like high heaven and his long handles [long underwear] were just black with filth. The stink of him just became absolutely unbearable.

“There were a bunch of us who came back to the hut one night after having had a few drinks. We decided right then and there that we’d clean him up. So, four of us dragged him to the shower and held him down while a couple of guys scrubbed him down. He was mad as fire and fought us the whole time. We got him cleaned up, but the next day he complained and was transferred out of our hut. Of course we were happy about that.”

That happiness was short-lived. “We caught crabs from that guy when we showered him up,” Ford said. “We were just covered. We tried to pick them off and get rid of them—we’d throw them on the stove and they’d pop like a firecracker. But it didn’t work because there was just too many of them.

“Normally,” remembered Ford, “the medical folks prescribed a blue ointment that was rubbed all over the body for several days. We didn’t want to go through that. There was a guy who had been in the Army for about ten years, and he said that they used to get rid of crabs in the old days by rubbing themselves with gasoline.”

Ford and his friend opted for the gasoline cure. “We went over to where the Knockout Dropper was parked nearby. There was a can with gasoline that the ground crew used to clean parts and tools and their hands and such. We rubbed ourselves down with gasoline from that can and it worked great. It sure killed the crabs.”

But it didn’t occur to Ford and his friend that the gasoline in the can was 100-octane aviation gasoline rather than standard motor gas of the type used by automobiles. “It burned our skin red and it felt like we were on fire. It was almost worse than the crabs. It hurt so bad that it was dreadfully painful just to have clothes on.” Ford and his companion eventually recovered.

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PROTECTING AIRCREWS WITH BODY ARMOR became an imperative even before the Eighth Air Force and the 303rd began combat operations in earnest. Aside from protecting the men for their own sakes—a goodly and Godly endeavor by any measure—such equipment offered tangible advantages to the men who planned for and managed the resources necessary to wage the war. For instance, men hospitalized or killed were obviously not available to fly missions. And where it was possible to cannibalize useful parts from aircraft too damaged to ever fly again, such actions were obviously not an option with trained crewmen. Consequently, anything that kept men in combat also eased recruiting and training stresses. This was especially critical as the USAAF struggled to meet its demand for replacement aircrews through much of the war.

It was recognized that many of the sorts of projectiles that injured the men—shell shrapnel and pieces of aircraft blown loose by fighter and antiaircraft fire—could be stopped by protective equipment that was reasonably wearable in the line of duty. Moreover, nearly 80 percent of all injuries were caused by these sorts of missiles. Although traditional steel helmets modified with earphone holes and metal earflaps were available early on, more specialized head protection and other equipment started to reach units at the end of 1942. Within a year the gear was readily available.

Flak suits were the primary protective article. These were essentially plates of overlapping manganese steel sewn into padded vest (M-1) and apron (M-3) combinations that were worn as a top layer. At nearly twenty-six pounds in total, they were heavy and consequently were not personal issue equipment, but remained with the aircraft at the individual crew stations. They were rigged so that, in extremis, the wearer had only to pull a single red strap for both pieces to separate and fall away.

Flak suits aside, aircraft were also fitted with special screens and pads that were effective in blocking or absorbing the same sorts of projectiles. Seats were also armored and were resistant to rifle-caliber machine gun rounds and similarly sized shell fragments, but were of little use against cannon fire.

The suits were bulky and heavy, and although the 303rd’s airmen intellectually understood the imperative of wearing them, the discomfort of doing so often overrode the logic. So did the sense of invulnerability and the notion that “it’ll happen to someone else” that was common among some of the men. Indeed, it took a particular incident to motivate Dick Johnson, a pilot with the 427th Bomb Squadron, to wear his: “Part of our protective gear was a skull cap of flak resistant plates that we wore under our fifty mission caps. It was a heavy and uncomfortable thing, and since I had never seen a hole in the top of a B-17 there were times that I would take it off and place it under the pilot’s seat with my parachute.”

During one particular mission, the antiaircraft fire was heavy, but Johnson did not feel the need to wear the armored skullcap. And then a burst of flak punched a hole down into the left inboard engine, causing a drop in manifold pressure. Johnson scrabbled around under his seat, extracted his “flak beanie” and slapped it onto his head. “I wore the beanie on all my remaining missions.”

William Malone, a navigator with the 427th Bomb Squadron, recalled when another crew also felt the imperative to don protection during the heat of battle rather than beforehand: “On [the] bomb run, some fool almost collided with us. Both the pilot and copilot were putting on their flak suits and missed us by only an inch or so.” Vern Moncur observed: “Those flak suits are a healthy thing to be wearing when the Jerries put up a barrage. They are heavy as heck, but they feel like feathers when the flak starts bursting around you.”

The protective gear saved many men from injury or death. But sometimes the protection was only just barely enough, as described by Edgar Miller, a pilot with the 360th Bomb Squadron during a mission to Leipzig. Miller wrestled mightily to bring his badly damaged ship, Flak Hack, home from Germany. “When we arrived back at Molesworth, I was shocked to find that my flying suit was bloody when I got out of the aircraft. I had evidently been hit with a piece of oxygen bottle when it exploded, as it went through the bottom of my flak suit and hit me in my scrotum.

“When I got to the hospital,” Miller recorded, “it was determined that I had just a superficial wound—just enough to make it bleed but hardly disabling. They wanted me to report the wound so that I could get the Purple Heart Medal but no way was I going to do so. What if someone asked me where I was wounded during the war?”

Aside from the obvious physical protection provided by the gear, a postwar study noted that it contributed significantly to morale: “The protection that newly-developed body armor, for example, gave to bomber crews of the Eighth Air Force in December 1942 yielded benefits that were mental as well as material and led to wholesale adoption of the new life-saving equipment. There was no hiding place in a B-17 and any gadget or garb that lessened a crewman’s feeling of naked vulnerability to all missiles was bound to have a comforting effect.”

After enemy action and frostbite, lack of oxygen—or anoxia—caused the most casualties. At the rarefied altitudes the 303rd flew, an extra supply of oxygen was required to stay alive: “Anoxia overtakes one without warning,” declared the group’s Standard Operating Procedures, “and will result in anything from slight inefficiency to death. It is nearly always caused by carelessness on the part of the individual concerned. Remember, that an individual at 30,000 feet has useful consciousness for approximately 48 seconds if additional oxygen is not supplied.” Confusion and stupefaction were common symptoms prior to losing consciousness. If an unconscious crewman did not get oxygen soon enough, the result could be permanent brain damage or death. Consequently, crew checks over the interphone were made every five minutes to ensure everyone was conscious and coherent.

A confused, stupefied or unconscious crewman was obviously of no use in air combat. Clifford Fontaine recorded his experience when he had trouble with his oxygen system: “We had a lot of trouble, the other waist gunner had an attack of appendicitis and my mask froze up and I passed out. The ball turret man came up and passed out. I passed out 8 times in the waist and once in the radio room. . . . Passed out so much that I didn’t know where we were till we were on our way back. From just before the target til after we left it us three were passing out!!!”

Operations at such high altitude were new, and equipment was still not fully developed and reliable. The A-8B oxygen mask with which the 303rd’s airmen started operations forced oxygen into the crewman’s face and was prone to ice blockages when the water vapor in the user’s breath froze. It was replaced beginning in late 1943 by the improved and less balky A-14, which supplied oxygen only as the crewman breathed. With weep holes, the A-14 was less prone to ice blockages. The men could attach their masks to walk-around bottles in the event that the main oxygen system failed or if they needed to leave their positions. To the USAAF’s credit, new equipment and better training reduced the cases of anoxia significantly during the last year of the war.

Aside from their physical well-being, the Eighth Air Force was also interested in the morale and spirit of its men. USO shows, furloughs, gyms, decent food, recreational facilities, rest homes and more were all part of the effort to keep them pleasantly distracted, rested and fit. However, there was little that was more important than mail from home: A postwar report on morale in the Army Air Forces noted the effects of letters from home on airmen, maintainers and administrative personnel alike:

During leisure hours, when there was time to take off the blinders of routine and look away from a world circumscribed by pistons, flak, and third carbons [typewriter copies], the thoughts of thousands of airmen turned first and foremost toward home. Therein lay the importance of mail to morale. Letters (with the usual snapshots enclosed), personal parcels, and periodicals not only linked men overseas with the people and places they had left behind, but served also as tangible symbols of that idealized promised land of America for which airmen longed with an aching desire that at times bordered on the obsessive. Mail from home was not, however, an unmixed blessing. Letters bearing news of feminine faithlessness and other calamities like family illness and death hit the men who received them hard.

Along with his flying duties, Dick Johnson was periodically assigned to censor mail. “The letters had to be written on one side of the paper so that offensive or obscene words or confidential matters discussed in the letter might be cut out with a razor blade. There were a few high spots in the duty, as some of the letters were very entertaining.” One young enlisted man loved the ladies—apparently all of them. “The best was from a Lothario who wrote a very passionate love letter to a girl in the States,” Johnson said. “I had nothing to censor, so I picked up his next letter which was almost identical to the first but addressed to another girl. And then a third which was identical to the other two but addressed to a third girl.” Johnson briefly considered swapping the letters into different envelopes.

He also remembered another letter in which a disenchanted enlisted man complained about virtually everything. “In one letter the writer was complaining about everything that he could think of, including all the saluting that was required. He said, ‘This place is just a bunch of bull shit.’” As required, Johnson dutifully wielded his razor and excised the world “shit.”

Some of the men felt compelled to make more of their service and duties than was actually the case. “Another enlisted man wrote that he was in a foreign combat area that was Top Secret and he couldn’t reveal his location. I knew that this wasn’t the case, so I took my censor’s pencil and wrote the word, ‘England’ across the top of the first page.”

The smallest details from home were dear to the men. James Geiger recalled being confused by one note: “Got a letter from Bill Crumpacker about Doc Powell quitting drinking. I had no idea what he was talking about until I got a copy of the Valerian [Valier, Montana] that said Doc Powell had died.”

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