Book: Hell's Angels

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RICHARD “DICK” JOHNSON was born on March 10, 1922, in Piqua, Ohio. “At this time Dad was working at a pool hall restaurant owned by Dick Shepard. He told Dad that if I was a boy and they named me after him, he would buy me my first pair of long pants. So my first name became Richard. Unfortunately for Dick Shepard, he never got to buy me those long pants, as his girlfriend did him in with a handgun when I was about four years old.”

Johnson and his older brother went to an integrated grade school with a family of boys who later became famous as the Mills Brothers; they were the first black singing group to have a regular radio show. Don Gentile, who grew up to become one of the nation’s greatest fighter aces, was a year older than Johnson and also attended the school. Johnson was surrounded by family at Piqua and—despite losing a younger brother to rheumatic fever—had many happy memories there. Sometimes the children picked up fallen apples from a nearby orchard. “Grandma Burt fussed about us gathering applies without being invited, but she made apple pies out of them anyhow. We were one big happy family in those days, but it didn’t last.”

The Johnsons hit the road as the Great Depression choked the nation. The family moved to Detroit for a short time and then headed to Houston, where they squatted in an abandoned house. There followed several more moves. The family sharecropped a derelict farm in the Piney Woods where much of what they ate—including armadillos—was scavenged. There followed another move to another abandoned homestead, in Arkansas. “One night Dad and the neighbor caught a groundhog that was so big that I thought it was a small bear. It was so tough that we couldn’t eat it, and Dad later joked it was so tough that you couldn’t even cut the gravy.”

Following a stint on a strawberry farm, the Johnsons moved to Naylor, Missouri, where Johnson’s paternal grandfather lived. Their lives stabilized somewhat, and Johnson attended Pig Ankle Grammar School while the family sharecropped cotton and sorghum. When the cotton crop matured, Johnson, his parents and his brother picked about six hundred pounds each day. “This made us about six dollars a day, which was better money than we had ever made as a family. But we still envied the black family that lived near us. They were so good at their job that they could pick four hundred pounds each. They told us that we too could pick that much if we didn’t stop to straighten the kinks from our backs so often.”

The family eventually moved to Illinois, and Johnson’s life became more normal. He graduated high school in 1940 and at the end of the year moved to Norfolk, Virginia, to find work. He eventually landed a job with the Prest-O-Lite company, which produced acetylene welding gas. He was there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After more time at Prest-O-Lite he entered the aviation cadet program, earned his wings, was made a B-17 copilot and arrived at Molesworth during early May 1944.

As a B-17 copilot Johnson was a great deal of time and a greater deal of geography removed from his past as the cotton picking child of a struggling sharecropper. Although he was fully qualified on the B-17, he was still awed at the sight of the great flying war machine that was the 303rd: “There were so many B-17s that they couldn’t be easily counted.

“After we got settled, and after hearing, ‘You’ll be sorry,’ a few times, we did the latest schooling. We learned that we had a forty percent chance of finishing our tour of duty without being shot down or wounded, and if shot down there was a fifty percent chance of survival from that, giving us an eighty percent chance of surviving the war.” Indeed, those numbers were very much on the mark. The Eighth Air Force put just more than a hundred thousand men into combat during the period from 1942 to 1945. Of that number, approximately forty-one thousand men were shot down. Of those who went down, nearly twenty thousand were killed. When it is considered that these numbers included fighter pilots—who enjoyed better survivability rates—it is apparent that the information given to Johnson was quite accurate.

*   *   *

THE UNITED STATES recognized the increasingly sophisticated nature of Germany’s antiaircraft defenses even before becoming a combatant and took steps to mitigate their effectiveness. The concept for one of these efforts was a glide bomb, the GB-1, which was a winged, gyroscopically stabilized bomb intended to be dropped from distances well outside the ranges of defending antiaircraft guns. The GB-1’s glide performance was such that it flew one mile for each thousand feet it descended. For instance, released from twenty thousand feet, it had a range of twenty miles. It was considered that a weapon of this sort with a large enough warhead—and accurately guided—might be capable of breaking up strongly fortified submarine pens or other hardened targets.

Rather than a purpose-built, winged bomb, the GB-1 was a primitive, twin-boom glider made of wood and steel and fitted to a standard two-thousand-pound M34 bomb. It had a twelve-foot wingspan and was designed to be suspended from the B-17—two per bomber—via shackles fixed to each wing between the inboard engines and the fuselage. It was a bulky arrangement that flew for the first time during November 1941.

Despite its crude appearance and rudimentary technology, the GB-1 and everything about it was highly classified, under the name of “Grapefruit.” The secrecy surrounding the weapon had nothing to do with its effectiveness, as USAAF staffers were unimpressed with its poor accuracy long before it was sent overseas: When released from twenty thousand feet, the GB-1 could only be reasonably expected to hit targets the size of Dayton, Ohio.

Valuable work was in fact being done to develop an accurate radio guidance system during 1942, but Henry Arnold—ever impatient—ordered the GB-1 into production without it. Instead, the bomb was equipped with a crude autopilot that was readily available but could do nothing more than hold a heading as the bomb descended. The bomb could not be guided while in flight. Arnold’s decision made little sense and guaranteed the GB-1’s failure.

Ground crewmen were trained to assemble, check and load the GB-1s during late 1942 at Eglin Air Field in Florida before being sent overseas to one of the three bomb groups that made up the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing—the 303rd at Molesworth, the 379th at Kimbolton, and the 384th at Grafton-Underwood. The 303rd received nineteen of these specially trained men. That the program was poorly organized and executed is indicated by the fact that aircrews didn’t train with the GB-1 until nearly a year later, during October 1943, at Brooksville, Florida. Following the specialized training the aircrews were sent to England.

GB-1 components started to arrive at Molesworth during mid-October 1943 despite the fact that the Eighth Air Force had earlier declared that it was not interested in the weapon. The specially trained ground crews—who had spent most of the year performing routine maintenance tasks on the 303rd’s aircraft—went to work putting the secret weapons together. Robert Brassil was one of those men. “Our immediate job was an expedited effort to unload, assemble and prepare the glide bombs. Each assembled glide bomb had to be hoisted and delicately balanced prior to a final tightening of the two steel bands that attached the glider wing section to the 2,000 pound explosive. About 50 glide bombs were assembled, placed on steel cradles, and stored in an outdoor area of the bomb dump.”

A practice sortie was flown over the North Sea on November 11, 1943, during which a number of malfunctions were experienced. Not surprisingly a consensus was reached that additional training and more practice missions were needed. And then nothing happened.

One reason that the weapons weren’t used immediately was that fine weather with almost unlimited visibility was required. The target had to be visible from well outside the ideal launch range of approximately twenty miles and the weather during late 1943 and into early 1944 was typically foul.

Moreover, at that time German fighters were a greater threat than antiaircraft guns, and the B-17s were especially slow, unwieldy and vulnerable when burdened with two of the cumbersome glide bombs. Without any sort of guidance system other than the autopilot that held a specific heading, they were aimed visually from long range. As directed by the bombardier, at about twenty-five miles from the target, the pilot nosed the aircraft into a shallow dive and descended at approximately fifteen hundred feet per minute, while accelerating to an indicated airspeed of between 190 and 200 miles per hour. After leveling off at roughly twenty thousand feet, he held the aircraft steady for twenty seconds in order to give the bombs’ gyroscopes time to stabilize. At that point, at about eighteen miles from the target, both GB-1s were released. The rudimentary autopilot, if it worked, kept the bombs on course.

The GB-1s, because they were area weapons, were distinctly unsuited for the sort of precision bombing that the Eighth Air Force endeavored to practice. Because of that fact, and because the weapons were difficult to use—and additionally in light of the reality that they weren’t available in large numbers—they were little more than the strategic bombing equivalent of a party trick. No one seriously believed that they were capable of making a meaningful contribution to the war effort.

An attempt was finally made to use the GB-1s on April 26, 1944. However, the weather deteriorated and the mission was recalled before the Continent was reached. The horse that followed that cart was a practice mission the next day. Dick Johnson arrived at Molesworth during that time and recalled the odd-looking weapons: “When our crew arrived at the 303rd Bomb Group in early May, a strange sight greeted us. The barracks for the 427th squadron to which we were assigned were on the airdrome and all along the armament roads were stacked row upon row of some strange flying machines.”

Little did Johnson know that he would be taking a pair of those “strange flying machines” into combat a short time later. Johnson, like most of the men making up the crews for the upcoming mission, was a relative neophyte in the context of the GB-1. Most of the men who had been so carefully trained on the secret weapon back in the States had already finished their tours or been shot down. Specially trained or not, a group of pilots was selected to take the GB-1 into combat on May 28, 1944. The target was the Eifeltor marshaling yard at Cologne. The 41st Combat Bombardment Wing’s three groups were tasked with putting up twenty GB-1-loaded bombers each, along with another twenty aircraft to participate in conventional bombing operations that same day. The GB-1-armed aircraft made up only a small fraction of the 1,341 heavy bombers that the Eighth sent against targets in Germany on that date.

The 303rd’s ground crews worked through the night of May 27 and into the morning of May 28 to get two of the crude weapons loaded onto each of the twenty bombers. Although one of the 303rd’s aircraft aborted, the briefing and takeoff went well and the formations from the 303rd, the 379th and the 384th joined and started for the North Sea as they struggled to haul their GB-1s to altitude. Brigadier General Robert Travis, the commander of the 41st, led the mission from aboard the 303rd’s Tiny Angel. Gordon Bale was the ball turret gunner aboard Thunderbird with the 303rd’s 359th Bomb Squadron: “At the North Sea our fighter escort met us. It would have been difficult for any bandits to have challenged us this day. Fighter escort was below us and above us.”

In fact, the fifty-eight aircraft making up the unique formation were unmolested by the Luftwaffe’s fighters as they made their way across France and into Germany. The weather over Cologne, as forecast, was spectacularly clear, and the formation took up a northeasterly heading preparatory to releasing the GB-1s. “About 20 miles from the city was a road running north and south,” said Gordon Bale. “This was to be our dropping point. Spotting the road at a distance, we started a shallow dive. Airspeed built up quickly. The old lady began vibrating. Noise increased as George [Sirany] eased her up to the speed required for releasing the ‘grapefruit.’ My ball turret was whistling. Hank [Prussman], our bombardier, called bombs away. Away they went.”

Dick Johnson was the copilot aboard Betty Jane, and his recollections were similar to Bale’s: “We were to bomb by groups and our squadron, the 427th, went in first. Starting at 140 miles per hour [indicated airspeed] we started a shallow dive until we reached 208 mph. At this point, we leveled off for a few seconds and released the bombs nearly 18 miles from the target while flying at 195 mph. Unfortunately, our bombs, as well as those of the other two groups following, mostly spun in and exploded in fields 15 miles from the target.”

Bale remarked on the errant GB-1s: “They dropped about 300 to 400 feet straight down, straightened up and began gliding in a zig-zag course. Some of the bombs must have gotten their gyros dumped. Some went into tight, nose down spins. Some went into flat spins and some did acrobatics. It was quite a show. . . . We made a turn to the right and headed back to England.” Black flak bursts appeared in the distance over Cologne, but the antiaircraft gunners were firing into empty skies. None of the GB-1 bombers came close to the city.

And for the most part, neither did most of the GB-1s. It is estimated that less than a third of the 109 weapons that were released—38 from the 303rd—actually made it to Cologne. “From the ball turret,” Gordon Bale said, “I kept my eyes on the city of Cologne. We had been headed homeward for almost five minutes when I saw the first explosion. A giant burst of flame and smoke leaped skyward from one section of the city. A geyser of water leaped from the river running through the city. It must have been a half mile high to have been seen from such a distance at such clarity. We probably killed a few fish with that one. . . . I counted eighteen explosions before the city passed from view.”

The effects of the raid on the Eifeltor marshaling yard were essentially nil. The mission, for all the effort and money that was spent on the GB-1—not to mention the secrecy and special training—was a failure. The Eighth’s staff was unimpressed and the GB-1s were never used again.

When it is considered that the very real shortcomings of the GB-1 were understood beforehand, it is difficult to believe that there was a compelling operational reason for the May 28 mission against Cologne. Certainly it was encouraging that no aircraft were lost, but neither did the GB-1s inflict any meaningful hurt on the Germans. The GB-1 bombers would have done just as well had they never left their bases. It is likely that pressure from Arnold or his staff is what induced the Eighth to at least try the weapons on which so many resources had been spent.

It was speculated that the failure of most of the GB-1s to hold a steady course after being released was because the batteries that drove the gyroscopes were exhausted. Johnson recalled: “The stacks of bombs sat on the ground for so long that many of the batteries failed to hold charge, and so the [41st Combat Bombardment Wing] ordered a hundred new ones from the States. The Exide Battery Company said that they no longer made this type of battery, and that they would have to set up a complete assembly line, and therefore could produce no less than several thousand batteries. After all the hassle back and forth the batteries arrived at Molesworth after the mission was over. After it was decided to not fly any more glide bomb missions, the mechanics of the 427th Squadron used these batteries in an innovative lighting system for the barracks.”

Aside from the batteries, the crates in which the GB-1 components were shipped to Molesworth were another windfall. They were constructed of furniture-grade black walnut. With the nation fully mobilized for a war in which expediency often took precedence over thrift, such waste was not uncommon. Happily though, the wood was salvaged, cut and finished into an exceptional bar at one of Molesworth’s enlisted clubs. It was arguably the best thing to come out of the GB-1 project.

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