Book: Hell's Angels

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THE BRITISH STARTED BOMBING with ground-mapping radar—using the H2S system—during January 1943. The new technology gave them the capability for dramatically improved accuracy when they hit targets such as Berlin that were beyond the range of radio-beam bombing systems. And certainly it was more accurate than bombing blindly. The Americans needed the same sort of accuracy when clouds over their targets made visual bombing impossible. This was much of the time. The USAAF’s leadership—especially Arnold—was much vexed by the notion that many hundreds of ready bombers and crews stood prepared to visit destruction on Nazi Germany but were grounded by an inability to put bombs on cloud-shrouded targets. Consequently, with British assistance, the Americans fielded their own radar bombing capability. Their first mission was against Emden on September 27, 1943, using the British H2S system.

The system the USAAF eventually developed was the AN/APS-15 H2X ground-mapping radar. Early versions were mounted below the nose, but later variants were installed in the belly of the aircraft in place of the ball turret. The H2X was a derivative of the British H2S but had a shorter wavelength, which produced sharper images and better accuracy. The radar transmitted pulses of energy that were reflected by features on the surface, to include rivers, cities and other significant anomalies. Using this information, specially trained crews could set up bombing runs that—theoretically—could achieve accuracies nearly as good as visual bombing. In practice the systems were not nearly so accurate. The USAAF later observed: “It cannot be said that this equipment was in any sense a precision bombing instrument.”

Nevertheless, radar bombing equipment did allow the USAAF to launch more—albeit less precise—raids. Aside from the value of the damage that these poor-weather missions caused, they also forced the Germans to defend at the cost of additional resources, which were increasingly difficult to replace. Indeed, the extra burden placed on the Luftwaffe to defend more frequently—and in bad weather—was very real. In fact, the green pilots that Germany was rushing into combat were poorly trained for bad weather operations and crashes were not uncommon. The impact was immediate and, together with actual combat, boosted the attrition rate of the Luftwaffe.

The aircraft that used the radar bombing systems were called Pathfinder Force, or PFF, aircraft; it was a term borrowed from the RAF. Another term commonly used was “Mickey,” which was a code word. Radar operators were called Mickey operators, or simply Mickeys. Their combat careers were somewhat lonely or detached; rather than being assigned to a specific crew, they usually were scheduled individually to whatever crew was flying an H2X-equipped aircraft.

The 303rd’s Standard Operating Procedures for its bombardiers described in plain words the duties of the PFF, or Mickey, operator.

PFF is Navigation and Bombing by means of Radar. The radar Navigator, or Mickey Operator, operates the radar set over the continent, or beyond Gee range, in order to obtain fixes, by which to aid the D.R. [Dead Reckoning] Navigator. PFF is most useful when weather conditions are 10/10 [complete undercast—ten-tenths cloud cover], and the D.R. Navigator can get no visual pin-points, but it can also be useful in visual bomb runs, since the Mickey Operator can set up the bombardier on the right course miles away from his target and before the Bombardier can get the target in his sight. The Mickey Operator can pick up any city of 25,000 [population] and over, and can thus avoid almost all heavy flak defended areas. His fixes should be accurate within two miles.

The pilots who flew the aircraft equipped with this specialized gear arrived at Molesworth long after most of the 303rd’s original cadre of airmen had been shot down or sent back to the States. One flyer from this later generation was Don Stoulil, who grew up in Olivia, Minnesota. “I had always wanted to fly,” he said. “Growing up, I hoped and dreamed and prayed that I would be a pilot. And I wanted to fly in the Navy—I loved that summer white uniform with those gold wings. At that time the Navy required its pilots to have at least a couple of years of college and I had none at all—and my parents couldn’t afford to send me. So I joined the National Guard and was assigned to the 215th Coast Artillery, Antiaircraft. We got a buck for each day we drilled.”

At that point—early 1941—the United States was racing to get on a war footing, and Stoulil’s unit was activated. “They shipped us to Camp Haan, near Riverside, California,” he said. “I realized at that point that the odds of me getting out of the Army and going into the Navy to become a pilot were pretty slim.”

After training at Camp Haan, the 215th was sent to Kodiak, Alaska, during the late summer of 1941. By that point Stoulil was hard at work studying for his aviation cadet examinations. “I sent a letter to the superintendent at my high school and he sent me a box of books. And I got permission from my first sergeant to stay up past Taps in order to study; I spent a couple of hours each night reading under a blue lightbulb so that I wouldn’t disturb the other guys.”

Stoulil was sent from Kodiak to Fort Richardson, near Anchorage, Alaska, for his aviation cadet examinations. It was then that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. “I was standing in line at the mess hall on December 7, 1941, when someone said that we were at war.”

It was several months later when Stoulil—who wanted nothing more than to be a pilot—learned the results of his examinations. “I was really nervous. The officer called me up in front of his desk and said, ‘Stoulil, you passed the medical portion of the exams.’” Stoulil nearly panicked when the officer lowered his voice. “And then he said, ‘And you also passed the academics. Congratulations.’”

“I was so happy I could have kissed him,” Stoulil said. He left Kodiak for training as an aviation cadet during June 1942 and arrived at Molesworth at the end of 1943. His first mission was to Bremen on December 20. Several days later, on Christmas, he was sent to scour the North Sea to look for RAF crewmen downed the previous night. “We didn’t find any of them,” he said. From that point he continued to build his mission count as well as his reputation.

Once he completed fifteen missions, Stoulil was designated as a PFF pilot during March 1944; he was among the first USAAF pilots so qualified. The assignment was actually an acknowledgment of his competence. PFF aircraft were put at the heads of formations, where fools didn’t belong. Still, he didn’t like it. “I’d flown fifteen missions with the 303rd when I was selected to fly as a PFF pilot. So, my heart was always with the 303rd. But they reassigned us to the 305th at Chelveston, where they kept all the PFF aircraft for the 1st Bomb Division—it was easier to secure and maintain the radar sets in one location.

“But I didn’t really feel like part of the 305th either,” Stoulil said. “They maintained our aircraft and personnel records and such, but we flew long-range penetration missions with a variety of different groups—sometimes with the 303rd. The bottom line was that no one really took ownership of us after we were made a PFF crew. I felt like the man without a country.”

It was also a wearying assignment. “When we got notice the night before a mission,” said Stoulil, “I rounded up my crew and made sure the aircraft was ready. Then we flew to the base of whatever group we were assigned to lead. But they usually didn’t have any billeting arrangements for us so we typically slept wherever we could find a place that was warm and dry. And then we got up early to get chow and go to the briefing. When the other crews saw us show up at a briefing, they often catcalled and booed us. It was done mostly in fun, but they understood that if we were there the mission was usually going to be a long and tough one. Anyway, we were pretty much worn out before we ever took off.

“Because there had been accidents taking off from Chelveston at night with fully fueled and loaded bombers, our aircraft were fueled, serviced and loaded with bombs by whichever unit hosted us,” Stoulil said. “So we always had strangers working on our airplanes, and that was a little bit unnerving. And to add to the pressure, the group commander—or even the wing commander—usually sat next to me in the copilot’s seat.”

Aside from all those considerations was the fact that leading a formation of bombers required a good deal of skill. Getting the formation joined and to the right point, at the proper altitude and at the mandated time—on the correct heading—required the lead pilot to plan his actions well ahead. It was critical for him to consider how the other aircraft in the formation were affected by what he did. For instance, if he turned too tightly, the aircraft on the inside of the turn might have to slow down so much that they were in danger of stalling and falling out of control. On the other hand, the bombers on the outside of the turn might not be able to fly fast enough to stay in position. Or if they could, they would burn too much fuel in the process.

Power control was also critical. All the aircraft performed slightly differently depending on the condition of their engines, their drag and their trim—that is, how “bent” they were. Moreover, the bombers were not always of the same model or configuration. For instance, except for very late models, the B-17F was not equipped with chin turrets as was the later B-17G. And PFF aircraft had a radar installed rather than a ball turret. Too, aircraft weights varied widely as some crews carried extra ammunition or armor, or even additional crewmembers in the form of observers, photographers or radar operators.

Accordingly, the lead pilot could never use anything close to full power lest he leave the poorer performing aircraft in his formation behind. And when he adjusted his power, it was imperative that he do so only when necessary, and even then he had to be very smooth, slow and deliberate. Otherwise, the rest of the pilots were forced to jockey their throttles radically to stay in position. Doing so burned extra fuel and caused undue wear and tear on the engines, not to mention the fact that the pilots were quickly exhausted as they tried to keep position in a formation that compressed and expanded like an airborne accordion.

Indeed, keeping formation—so critical to maximizing the effects of the bombs and concentrating defensive firepower—was a special skill. It was impossible to simply fly an aircraft into position, set the power and leave it. Firstly, lead pilots were rarely able to fly perfectly straight flight paths at constant airspeeds. Instead large and small heading changes were nearly constant, as were deviations in airspeed. Consequently, to stay in position, wingmen were compelled to continuously manipulate their flight controls and power settings. And each adjustment required a counter-adjustment such that pilots flying as wingmen could never rest.

It should be additionally appreciated that the difficulties of staying in position were magnified for pilots at the edge of the formation. They made their adjustments on aircraft that were already making their own adjustments on the lead aircraft. Essentially, keeping formation demanded continuous, precise and grueling flying. Over many hours it was absolutely exhausting.

There was a final downside to flying PFF missions. German fighters commonly made head-on attacks against the American heavy bomber formations. The bombers at the front—among them, the PFF aircraft—were obviously in greater danger than those further back. Accordingly, crews who flew in the lead position were given extra mission credits so that their combat tours were abbreviated to a small degree. For instance a pilot who led three missions had his required mission count reduced by one.

As only a few aircraft carried PFF equipment in each group formation, it was imperative that the rest of the crews drop their bombs using the PFF aircraft as a reference. Accordingly, sky marker devices were created by filling one-hundred-pound bomb casings with a mildly acidic dye. The PFF aircraft usually carried one or two of these specialized markers along with their normal bomb loads. When released—together with the other bombs—they vented a brightly colored smoke that created long vertical streaks in the sky.

Dick Johnson had a bad experience with a sky marker when he was forced out of his position by another bomber: “This put us directly behind the lead plane so that when he dropped his bombs, his “Sky Marker” bomb enveloped our plane with a white acid fog which ruined all the Plexiglas in our plane. Flying home was difficult due to the milky looking windshield.”

*   *   *

THE FORMATIONS THE 303RD flew evolved during the group’s combat career, but the common theme was that they were large, unwieldy and demanding to fly. As the war progressed, they grew even more so. On the other hand, training and procedures also improved, which, together with more experience, somewhat mitigated the difficulties.

The basic element was a three-aircraft flight with two wingmen—one on each side and slightly back of the leader—such that the formation resembled a flat triangle. A squadron was made up of four of these three-aircraft flights arranged, again, in a flattened triangle with one side having an extra flight of three. Each flight of three flew slightly stepped up or down from the squadron leader in order to clear fields of fire for the gunners and to ease the workload for the pilots. Separation from the various flights was approximately seventy-five feet, while the wingmen within flights flew as close as was reasonably safe and sustainable over long periods.

Generally, except for maximum efforts, only three of the group’s four squadrons flew on a given mission. This rotation allowed the crews to get a certain amount of rest. Accordingly, the group generally flew a three-squadron formation: First, was the lead squadron; next was the low squadron, which flew offset to the left and slightly behind and below the lead squadron; finally, the high squadron flew offset to the right, slightly behind, and stepped up from the lead squadron.

The 303rd’s Standard Operating Procedures, or SOP, directed its pilots: “To be effective, both offensively and defensively, this formation must be flown as close as safety will permit. When properly flown, the best possible bomb pattern can be obtained. One flight leader, or one wingman out of position, can disrupt the effectiveness of the entire pattern. The size of the pattern is also proportionate to the depth of the formation, so it will pay dividends on target hits to keep [the] formation as shallow as possible. In case an aircraft becomes disabled on the bomb run, the pilot should not disrupt his own formation or formations in trail.”

The 303rd was one of three bomb groups that made up the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing. The wing formation of three groups was simply a larger version of the three-squadron group formation; a lead, high and low group comprised the wing formation. Finally, the 41st, as one of four wings of the 1st Bombardment Division, took its place within the stream of this larger organization. It should be noted that, in order to tighten the dispersion of the bombs and ensure maximum effects on the target, the various formations fell into a compact line as much as possible en route from the IP to the target.

Changes to formations—both planned and ad hoc—were constant. For instance, the 303rd grew as the war progressed, and was able to launch many more aircraft than was possible when it first started operations. Indeed, whereas the group struggled to get eighteen B-17s airborne during its early operations, missions of forty or more aircraft were not unusual during 1944. In fact, the group put fifty-eight aircraft up for the mission to Osnabrück on November 26, 1944. Accordingly the group sometimes went out as two, separate, multi-squadron formations typically designated Group A and Group B.

Formations also changed when aircraft went missing during botched assemblies, or when extra aircraft joined during those same botched assemblies. And under the fire of combat when aircraft were damaged and lagged—or were blasted out of the sky—the remaining pilots adjusted their positions to keep the overall formation as tight as possible. Ultimately, although formations were prescribed for virtually every situation, it wasn’t always possible to achieve and maintain them. The pilots did the best they could.

*   *   *

BOMBER CREWS SOMETIMES took mortally stricken ships into neutral Sweden or Switzerland, where they were typically interned. It was markedly more preferable to be interned in Switzerland or Sweden than to be a POW in Germany and the men knew it. They also knew when their routes took them close to one of the neutral nations—it was something they noted during their briefings. That they considered recovering into Sweden or Switzerland if in extremis was only natural.

The route for the mission against the airfield at Oberpfaffenhofen on April 24, 1944, was one that took the bombers within about fifty miles of Switzerland. It was also one that saw the 303rd hit hard by enemy fighters. The area around Munich—Oberpfaffenhofen was about twenty miles west—was typically defended fiercely. This day was no different; nearly two hundred Luftwaffe aircraft rose to challenge the raid.

The bomber captained by Paul C. Stewart was badly damaged by antiaircraft fire over the target and he dropped the ship out of the 303rd’s formation and turned south for Switzerland. The wounded B-17 was set upon by fighters almost immediately. A frontal attack killed Stewart as well as the copilot, the bombardier, the navigator, the flight engineer and the radio operator. The gunners in the rear of the aircraft were unable to make contact with anyone in the forward section. It was apparent that no one was flying the big bomber.

The ball turret gunner, Joseph Jasinski, climbed up into the fuselage but inadvertently deployed his parachute; yards of white nylon billowed about his legs. He dropped the tangled, fluttering mess and grabbed a spare parachute. The two waist gunners, James Cast and Raymond Cadlolo, hesitated as they watched him struggle to snap it onto his harness. He looked up and told them to “Hurry up and jump.” They did. The tail gunner, Roy Sable, escaped from the rear hatch.

Almost immediately the bomber fell off to the left and started into a sharp, downward spiral. Jasinski was likely pinned against the inside of the fuselage by the resultant centrifugal force. Still alive, he spun to earth with his dead crewmates and perished in the crash.

Two other bombers were badly damaged and made for Switzerland. But unlike Stewart’s crew, they made it. The aircraft piloted by Thomas McClure was hit by fighters en route to the target. One engine was essentially destroyed, and McClure feathered its propeller. He ordered the bombs jettisoned and made a right turn to the south. Once again attacked by fighters, the right inboard engine was set afire and the chin turret stopped working. Cannon fire ripped the fuselage and seriously wounded one of the waist gunners and further crippled the big ship. Notwithstanding the ferocity of the German attacks, McClure wrestled the aircraft into Switzerland and landed in Geneva.

Like McClure’s aircraft, Raymond Hofmann’s bomber, Shoo-Shoo Baby, lost an engine to fighter attacks before reaching the target. More damage over Oberpfaffenhofen knocked out another. Hofmann’s aircraft streamed fuel from its damaged tanks as the rest of the formation left it behind. With no good options, he turned the bomber toward Switzerland. Perhaps because they were occupied elsewhere, the defending German fighters failed to intercept Shoo-Shoo Baby, and Hofmann put it safely down in Zürich.

Don Stoulil—a veteran of fifteen sorties with the 303rd—was flying a PFF ship at the head of the 384th Bomb Group. “The German fighter pilots were really aggressive that day,” he said. “Coming into the target we were hit and they blew a hole in the fuel tank in our left wing—it was really streaming out. At the same time our tail gunner, Calvin Turkington, was hit by cannon fire from one of the fighters; it hit the protective armor plate in front of his chest and splattered his arms with shrapnel. I had the crew drag him out of there and up to radio room, where they could give him first aid.”

After the formation dropped its bombs, Stoulil faced a difficult decision. England was nearly six hundred miles away. Switzerland was only a tenth as far. “I didn’t know if we could make it back,” he said. “We were predicted to have a headwind of a hundred miles an hour on the return trip and we had lost a lot of fuel. And Turkington was wounded. So, I turned toward Switzerland. Immediately after I made that turn, the first thing that crossed my mind was that my parents were going to get a telegram saying that I was missing in action.”

But aside from telegrams, Stoulil had other concerns. He was still understandably worried about the German fighters. “I asked our navigator, Harold Susskind, if there were any German fighter fields in between us and Switzerland. He said ‘Oh yeah, there are.’” Stoulil weighed the odds again. “I turned back and caught up with the formation—I didn’t want to give those fighters another chance at us. In the end, we made it back to England, but only barely.

“Calvin Turkington went into the hospital for a while but then later went back to flying combat missions with other crews long after we were finished. He was hit by cannon fire from an FW-190 on September 28, 1944, on a mission to Magdeburg. He crawled out of the tail position and died. He had been the only one of our crew who was married and had a kid.”

Of the 754 bombers the USAAF sent into Germany on April 24, 1944, the day of the 303rd’s mission to Oberpfaffenhofen, twelve went into Switzerland. During the next few months the number of USAAF bombers that recovered into Switzerland and Sweden rose at a rate that caused anxiety at the highest levels of leadership. During May, June and July 1944, there were eighteen, thirty-eight and forty-one diversions respectively. Rumors that many of the ships were barely damaged—or not damaged at all—greatly alarmed Arnold, the USAAF’s chief. He wrote to Spaatz that reports indicated the attitudes of the bomber crewmen were lacking in many instances and characterized by “lack of respect (amounting to near hatred) for certain very senior leaders; disgust with the influence of political expedients on tactical and strategical [sic] employment; lack of desire to kill Germans; lack of understanding as to the political necessity for fighting the war; general personal lassitude with consequent lack of patriotic enthusiasm for their jobs.”

Of particular concern was the need to maintain the tempo of the strategic bombing effort without utterly breaking the crews. Arnold urged Spaatz to get green crews into action as soon as possible to relieve some of the pressure on hard-used veterans. There also followed various investigations and reports by Arnold’s handpicked officers. It was concluded that although the numbers of aircraft landing in the neutral countries had increased, so had the number of aircraft that had been sent on operations. Moreover, it was determined that the accusations of cowardice had been greatly exaggerated and that the vast majority of landings in the neutral countries were justified. Ultimately, the issue was resolved to a great degree after D-Day as the Allies penetrated into France and advanced landing grounds became available on the continent. In the end, three crews from the 303rd diverted into Switzerland during the war while none recovered into Sweden, although a handful of damaged ships fell short while making the attempt.

*   *   *

AS A PFF PILOT, Don Stoulil often flew with squadron and group commanders. Indeed, he flew several times with Travis, the commander of the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing. “He sat in the copilot seat and took constant notes during the missions,” Stoulil said. “He was all business. But he was a pretty good pilot too.

“I was flying as his pilot when he was hit,” Stoulil said. “It was the mission to Berlin on April 29, 1944. We were on our way back and we ran into a little bit of flak near Magdeburg. There came a burst, and a little piece of shrapnel came through the windscreen and nicked him above the left eye. And he immediately slumped over. It wasn’t a big wound, but it was bleeding.”

Stoulil watched blood seep down Travis’s left cheek and considered what happened to young officers who got their wing commander killed. “And then he started to regain consciousness,” Stoulil said. “He finally sat up. I called the waist gunner [George Greene] up to the cockpit—he was pretty good with bandages—and had him fix the general up. He wound a big, white bandage around Travis’s head so that it almost looked like he was wearing a turban. Anyway, he was fine and was so proud of that bandage that he showed up that night at the officers club with it still on! He got the Purple Heart for that cut above his eye.”

*   *   *

MEANWHILE, GEORGE BUSKE, the tail gunner aboard the Jersey Bounce Jr. who had been so horrifically wounded during the mission to Bremen on December 20, 1943, struggled to stay alive. He still fought infections and his abdominal cavity was afflicted with abscesses that refused to heal. Moreover, wounds on his legs that had initially seemed minor when compared to the massive trauma to his chest and abdomen became infected.

Buske’s weight fell to eighty-eight pounds. His doctors, in an experiment to increase his weight and ward off malnutrition, administered reconstituted dried human plasma. Despite the intensive medical care, his condition deteriorated further. He fell into periodic comas and his breathing grew irregular. It was apparent that he was going to die.

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