Book: Hell's Angels

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THE 303RD WAS IN ACTION—as was every Allied aviation unit in the European Theater—to support the defeat of Nazi Germany. However, notwithstanding the proselytizing of the most ardent airpower advocates, a second front in the West was imperative to victory. Eisenhower was determined that the Allied armies have every advantage possible when the time came to seize a foothold on the Continent, and he made that clear to the leaders of the Allied air forces. Accordingly, the focus of the Eighth Air Force was on tactical rather than strategic missions during the period immediately prior.

The Eighth, including the 303rd, was sent out to break anything and everything the Germans could use to resist the D-Day invasion. On June 2, 1944, the 303rd attacked gun emplacements at Dannes, France; a second raid on the same day hit railroad marshaling yards at Juvisy. During the next three days the group continued to hit gun emplacements all over northwest France even though B-17s—as strategic bombers—were not particularly well suited to hit targets of this sort.

Those tactically oriented missions aside, the effectiveness of the strategic bombing effort to which the Allied leadership had committed so many men and resources was validated. That leadership was overjoyed, even stunned, when the German Air Force offered no meaningful resistance whatsoever to the D-Day landings. Spaatz was particularly pleased and noted, “The concentrated attacks on the Luftwaffe, production and product, has paid the dividends that we have always envisioned, the dividend being beyond expectation.”

The 303rd’s missions on the actual day of the invasion, June 6, 1944, were, like those of the Eighth’s other heavy bomb groups, intended to break up lines of communication and to confuse and terrorize German ground troops. Accordingly, the thick clouds that blanketed the landing beaches and the areas beyond did not stop all the bombers from dropping their loads. Aim points were moved away from friendly positions as required, or the aircraft went to alternate targets. Don Stoulil, the PFF pilot, flew to Molesworth from Chelveston the night before D-Day. “I was told something big was going on and that we were flying with the 303rd. I gathered my crew and got over there okay, but couldn’t find anywhere to sleep, so I spent the night in an easy chair in the pilot lounge.”

Stoulil flew the lead aircraft on the 303rd’s two effective D-Day missions. “General Travis flew with me on the second. It went well, but when I landed I bounced the plane a couple of times and he gave me a look. That bothered me a little bit because I had been up since the previous night and had already flown the lead aircraft on one mission that day—I was exhausted.”

Still, Stoulil wasn’t too exhausted to appreciate the history he not only witnessed through breaks in the clouds but also helped to create. “The stream of ships running across to France was incredible. There were so many and they were so well organized that it’s impossible to explain the sight of it. During the first mission the battleships and cruisers and destroyers were still shooting beyond the beach and that was something to see.”

By and large, the D-Day missions—of which the 303rd flew three—were anticlimactic. Thousands of Allied fighter sorties kept the Luftwaffe away, and there was little antiaircraft fire. Perhaps the biggest danger of the day for the 303rd’s crews was the takeoff, as many of the aircraft were carrying not only full internal bomb loads but also a thousand-pound bomb under each wing. Indeed, after takeoff the 303rd’s Bonnie B clawed through the air just a few feet above the ground and actually flew through a haystack before gaining altitude.

UPI reporter Walter Cronkite was aboard the 303rd’s Shoo-Shoo Baby, piloted by Robert Sheets. Like most of the 303rd’s crewmen, Cronkite was dismayed that clouds obscured the formation’s target: “Our bomb bay doors were open, our bombs were armed to go off on contact. But we couldn’t see the target. And we couldn’t see our own planes flying in close formation on either side. Any collision would probably set off a chain explosion, wiping out the squadron.” Cronkite was not a crewman, and he overdramatized the potential effects of a collision. Still, his hyperbole—considering the historic event, his avocation and his ignorance—is understandable. “Normally bombs would be jettisoned over enemy country, but our orders forbade that. No one knew in that first hour where our airborne [troops] had landed or even how far ashore the landing troops might have gotten.” Ultimately, Shoo-Shoo Baby returned to Molesworth with its bombs, as did about a third of the 303rd’s aircraft that day.

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THE POST-INVASION PERIOD vexed Spaatz and Doolittle and their prosecution of the strategic bombing campaign. Firstly, the Eighth’s priority, until released by Eisenhower, was to support Allied ground forces in France. This didn’t mean that the entirety of the Eighth’s operations were completely suborned to the ground commanders’ needs, but the Eighth was obligated to provide bombing support on the battlefield if the requirement was considered great enough. Indeed, the requirement was constantly considered great enough, as the 303rd flew twenty-one more missions during the rest of June, of which only five were to Germany.

Additionally, the Germans began launching V-1 flying bombs against England on June 12. The Allies had known of the V-1 and the more advanced V-2 ballistic missiles for some time. In fact, CROSSBOW operations had targeted the sites related to these two programs since late 1943. But when more than three hundred V-1s hit England on June 15, the general outcry was such that Churchill approached Eisenhower, and Eisenhower subsequently told Spaatz that CROSSBOW targets took precedence over all others. The problem was that V-1 targets, especially the launch sites, were widely dispersed, and heavy bombers were essentially incapable of hitting them. Consequently, masses of bombers bombed areas in which V-1 launch sites were believed to be hidden. The results were worse than dismal.

The problem with these other priorities was that they detracted from the Eighth’s ability to pressure German industry. Bomber sorties that were wasted trying to hit unhittable V-1 sites were not available to strike oil or transportation targets. This was especially frustrating because summer was the “bombing season,” during which longer daylight hours made very long-range bombing missions deep into Germany easier. Too, the weather was best during this time. It galled Spaatz to order Doolittle and the Eighth to chase after V-1 sites in the French countryside when those bombers might be better used against industrial targets in the heart of Germany.

Another use of the Eighth’s heavy bombers during the summer of 1944 was their employment in support of Operation COBRA, the First Army’s breakout from the bocage countryside of Normandy. The concept was for American troops to advance immediately after a massive air and artillery bombardment that included more than a thousand heavy bombers. It was a mission for which the B-24 and B-17 were not well suited. During two days characterized by sketchy weather, beginning on July 24, 1944, the big bombers mistakenly killed 136 American troops. A soldier on the ground remembered: “The first waves of bombers were on target but, the heavy cloud of smoke started drifting back over the infantry and, then the bombers started dropping their bombs on our own troops. Many of our infantry were killed, wounded, and stunned by this terrible error but, the attack went on as planned.” Of course, so too, were many of the German defenders.

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WHILE THE REST of his 303rd friends quickly padded their mission counts with short missions that were mostly unopposed by German fighters during the period immediately after D-Day, Don Stoulil was idled. “That was another downside to being a PFF pilot. Everyone I knew was racking up easy missions really quickly. But most of those targets weren’t appropriate for PFF operations—we were meant for long-range penetration missions against factories and such. So, after D-Day I sat around doing mostly nothing for a couple of weeks.”

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IT WAS A NEAR-MIRACLE. George Buske, the grievously injured tail gunner aboard the Jersey Bounce Jr. during the December 20, 1943, mission to Bremen, stopped dying during the spring of 1944. The abscesses on his legs and inside his abdomen began to heal and he gradually grew able to eat. He regained weight in part due to fresh eggnog made possible by a sympathetic Anglican vicar who provided the eggs. Additional operations closed Buske’s wounds with skin grafts. Although his caregivers were awed at his recovery, they still worried that he might relapse as abdominal infections could be quick and deadly. Consequently, it was with real reservations that they evacuated him to the States during late June 1944.

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TO MOST OF THE 303RD’S men, the Eighth Air Force’s strategic air war against Germany seemed, understandably, to be a long grind of deadly sameness. But that wasn’t so. Being so close to it, or perhaps being exposed to it for only months rather than years, they didn’t see that it was a war made up of several phases, and of specific campaigns occasionally punctuated by exceptionally brutal battles such as Schweinfurt and Oschersleben. For instance, many of the 303rd’s early missions were small, relatively short-range efforts that took off and landed during daylight. They were frequently sent against U-boat-related targets typically defended by aggressive fighter pilots as well as antiaircraft guns.

However, the U-boat war was being won at sea rather than ashore by late 1943. Consequently, the raids were biased toward more distant industrial targets. Moreover, per POINTBLANK, the Luftwaffe was increasingly targeted. It had to be neutralized prior to D-Day. This part of the air war reached a crescendo—with fighter escorts planned all the way to the targets—during ARGUMENT, although it continued through the invasion and beyond.

And then there was the crush of tactical missions that were flown in support of the ground war during the summer of 1944. These were short missions flown in quick succession, during which there often was little opposition whatsoever. These didn’t resemble the missions of 1942 and 1943 at all. Although long-range strategic efforts were still flown, they were not so numerous, and crews consequently tallied large numbers of missions during a relatively short period.

The character of the air campaign changed again during the latter part of the summer of 1944 and into 1945 as the weight of the Eighth Air Force—and the Fifteenth Air Force in Italy—was thrown against oil, industrial and transportation targets located deep inside Germany and even beyond. The strategic forces were at full strength, and massive raids were mounted on an almost daily basis. Although German fighters were less numerous and regularly harried by the USAAF’s fighter escorts, the Luftwaffe was still capable of deadly strikes; too, antiaircraft defenses were more concentrated and deadly. These were long, cold, bone-numbing missions that required the men to rise only hours after midnight. They often finished their debriefings and other duties just barely in time to get a few hours of sleep before rising and doing it all over again.

Indeed, it is reasonably argued that if the air war was made up of a series of phases and campaigns, it can also, from a historical perspective, be divided into two parts. The first was that period from the time of the first missions up until D-Day, and the second was from D-Day until the close of the war. Although this is not a crisp delineation, the series of tactical missions performed after June 6, 1944—in support of the invasion forces—represent the transitional period.

Certainly, the 303rd men who flew during this latter part were, by and large, not the men who flew during the group’s initial combat operations. In fact, many of them were still in high school when the 303rd’s original crews flew their first missions. They were, in effect, another generation who knew little or nothing of the men who preceded them.

Frank Boyle was one of them: “I was born in Montpelier, Vermont, in 1925,” he said. “My father worked in the lumber business and abandoned us when I was nine and my brother was five. All that my mother wanted was to be a good wife, a good mother and a good housekeeper. Instead, alone, she moved us to Nashua, New Hampshire, where she had grown up working in shoe mills and textile factories. There she raised us boys by cleaning other people’s houses and doing their laundry seven days a week. She never received any child support—not a dime. I know it was hard for her when we asked why we couldn’t have bikes and the other sorts of things that our neighborhood friends had.

“But my mother had eight sisters and a brother in Nashua,” Boyle said. “And I had forty cousins. We were a typical French-Canadian family and tight as ticks. We yelled and argued and fought with each other all the time, but we always closed ranks around family. Woe to the outsider who tried to do harm to any one of us. Keeping the family together and safe was very important, and we always had help when we needed it.

“My priority wasn’t schoolwork. And I know that I wasn’t always the best son; there was no father to take a belt to me when I needed it. But I worked various jobs and helped however I could. I set pins at a bowling alley where a horse and dog booking business was run in the back room. And I worked in various department and shoe stores.

“Although I didn’t study as hard as I could have, I did pretty well in school,” Boyle said. “I had the lead in the senior play and I won the senior essay writing contest. I skipped fourth grade and was only sixteen when I graduated in the upper quarter from Nashua High School. But I was too young to join anything but the Boy Scouts, while all my friends had either been drafted into the service or enlisted. So, I took a job working the night shift at Nashua Textile Company. I folded Army blankets on an assembly line and was paid based on the number of blankets I folded.”

All through 1942 and into 1943—a time during which the 303rd’s first generation of crews were pioneering daytime precision bombing operations—Boyle considered how he might do his part in the war. “I didn’t want to get eaten by sharks or get stabbed with a Jap or German bayonet. I got a call one morning from the mother of one of my closest high school friends. She asked if I wanted to go with their family to see her oldest son—Lieutenant Dick Messier—fly into Boire Field. He was flying fighters in the Navy.

“Well, I sure wasn’t going to miss that. He came in with his cockpit open and a white scarf blowing in the wind. I’ll never forget that picture and how he looked with his leather helmet and goggles. After we visited with him, he took off and waved to us. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

But Boyle was still too young. “I went to city hall to enlist in the Navy the very next day. They laughed at me when I gave them my high school records and birth certificate. The sailor I talked with said I had to wait until I was eighteen. He told me that I might want to go next door to see the Army. He said the Army cheated on that sort of thing.”

The Army recruiter was happy to see Boyle and enlisted him immediately. “I was going to be a fighter pilot!” But his dream was short-lived. Early during processing and classification, on little more than pretense, Boyle was caught up in an unofficial draft for gunners. He was sent to aerial gunnery school and subsequently joined a B-17 crew. He arrived at Molesworth just after D-Day.

The war became very real very quickly to Boyle. “After supper we enlisted men went to our Nissen hut. They typically put two crews in one hut. As the new crew, we were assigned to the upper bunks, while the crew that had been there longer used the lower bunks. For a welcome we were each given a bottle of English beer—it was much stronger than what we were used to.

“There were boards ripped from the bottoms of bomb crates nailed to the ceiling above our bunks. The boards listed the mission numbers, dates and targets of the men who had slept in our bunks before us. None of the five boards above mine had more than fourteen missions. The guys who had been there awhile just shrugged and said that maybe I would be the first one to pass the fourteen-mission mark.”

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BEDS TO WHICH THEIR OWNERS would not return—and everything they signified—was a recurring and sobering theme in the 303rd. Indeed it was a reality shared by every Eighth Air Force flying unit. Eddie Deerfield recalled that “the empty bunks were as solemn as grave markers at a cemetery.”

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Next: “We Poured Them into the Back of the Airplane”