THERE WERE INCIDENTS during which men were lost or killed for reasons that were never determined. An example occurred during the mission of June 10, 1944, which hit the airfield at Bouguenais, just southwest of Nantes. While the group formed after takeoff, the ship flown by Sam Oliver and his crew fell off to the left and into a dive.
Oliver recovered the ship, Bam Bam, and climbed back to rejoin the 303rd’s formation. Nevertheless, the aircraft once more dropped into a dive and subsequently started to spin. A short time later an explosion blew the aircraft in half. Oliver, his copilot and four others were killed, while four crewmen parachuted to safety.
No cause was found for the mishap, although it was speculated that flight control problems were the culprit—that the controls might have been jammed somehow. Such a notion is plausible, but it seems unlikely that a pilot would choose to continue the mission after recovering from the first unplanned dive unless he believed that the problem was resolved. It is possible that the aircraft’s automatic flight control equipment was somehow engaged and that it caused the aberrant maneuvers, but again, the pilot would likely have elected to return to base. And neither explanation accounted for the midair explosion.
The ship was a veteran of forty-four missions and had given good service to that point, although crewmen had earlier complained of strong gasoline fumes. It might be conjectured that fuel vapors doped the pilots stupid or unconscious. However the B-17 was not a pressurized aircraft and it was drafty. Consequently, it is questionable that the fumes could have become concentrated enough to cause such disorientation, or to ignite and blow the aircraft apart. Ultimately, regardless of the cause, six men were dead—and not due to enemy action. Nothing could bring them back.
That same mission provided an example that underscored another point. That is, when men were wounded badly enough to need extensive hospitalization, their association with the 303rd was abruptly terminated, usually for good. They went from their aircraft, to the ambulance, to a hospital and back to the States. Seldom were there opportunities for farewells. Men they had trained and lived and fought with were suddenly out of their lives forever.
Such was the case with Milo Schultz, the navigator aboard Idaliza on the June 10 mission to Bouguenais. He was fairly relaxed; the D-Day invasion was proving successful and losses had been light. Enemy fighters failed to show on the way to the target and there was little flak. But heavy antiaircraft fire rose to meet them as they approached Bouguenais. “Over the target, as [the] bombs went away, a blast below the nose kicked my left leg,” Schultz said. “I looked down and saw blood oozing out of my flying boot and running down the floor to the bulkhead. I called Don [Don Johnston—the pilot] on the interphone to tell him I’d been hit.
“There never was any pain, only numbness,” said Schultz. “Don sent [Abraham] Barnum the engineer down to aid me. He gave me a shot of morphine and put a tourniquet on to stem the blood flow which was freezing on the floor at 26,000 feet and 20 below zero. I don’t recall the togglier doing anything. Maybe he was in shock at seeing all the blood.
“We had to ease up on the tourniquet about every twenty minutes so that I’d have some blood in my veins,” said Schultz. “With the morphine kicking in I was a pretty happy flier back to base. As we approached the field, Don fired off a red flare signaling wounded on board. This procedure gave the pilot priority for landing. I don’t recall if they took me out the front hatch door or whatever. The last I remember I was in the operating room with the doctors taking my boots and shoes, and cutting my pants.”
On the operating table, the doctors laid Schultz’s leg open and scraped out all the bits of clothing, boots and shrapnel that threatened to infect the wound. Because his fibula was shattered, there was no clean way to close the jagged gash. A wheeled razor sliced and peeled a neat two-inch-wide strip of skin from another section of his leg. This unblemished skin was transplanted over Schultz’s wound, medicated and bandaged.
“I awoke sometime during the night at the station hospital to see a beautiful blonde nurse next to my bed. I think I drifted back to sleep and awoke the next morning to finally realize I had a cast on my left leg up to my thigh.” Schulz spent several weeks recovering while the war went on and his comrades at the 303rd continued to fly, fight and sometimes die. During the whirl of combat operations there was little opportunity to visit recovering comrades. “Don [Johnston] was the only member of our crew to visit me,” Schulz said. Except for Johnston, the last time Schulz saw his crewmates was the day they pulled his bloody body from Idaliza. He was sent back to the States during October 1944 and was medically discharged almost a year later following the surrender of Japan.
There were other variations on the same theme. Because squadron rosters changed almost daily as veteran crews departed, new crews arrived, and crews were shot down, there was no way for every man to know every other man in his own squadron. Consequently, men pulled from their own crews and assigned as substitutes to other crews for a particular mission often found themselves flying with strangers. Indeed, it was not unusual for a substitute crewman to climb aboard his assigned bomber and prepare his position without meeting everyone on the crew.
William Fisher, a navigator with the 359th, offered an extreme example: “On my third mission, I was pulled from my original crew to fly in Lieutenant J.W. Bailey’s plane as deputy lead. After briefing I entered the plane via the nose hatch. After our bomb run we had two engines shot out and we fell behind the formation. We were attacked by German fighters. The pilot ordered the crew to bail out, which I and the enlisted crew did. But as I heard later, the pilot and copilot remained in the plane for awhile and eventually bailed out into free France. The rest of us were captured and became POWs. To this day, I have never seen the pilot or copilot.”
Some of the men did stay in touch. Chris Balzano was a waist gunner and radio operator with the 358th Bomb Squadron. He finished his tour on May 12, 1944, and subsequently returned to the States. Upon arriving home, he wrote a letter on June 12, 1944, to a friend, Joe Worthley. Worthley was a pilot with whom Balzano had flown missions.
It was good to hear from you. I guess your [sic] darn near finished up, I hope, I hope. Say, how about me missing the big show [D-Day]? Wish I were there, wish I were there (heh, heh). I’m just a flag waver since I’ve been home. Boy what a place. Sunshine once again, steaks and stuff, no more blackouts. It’s like a dream. You can’t beat these good old United States and I’m not kidding.
Mail and personal news traveled slowly. Sadly, Balzano didn’t know when he penned the note that his friend had already been dead for nearly three weeks. Joe Worthley and his crew perished during the mission to Berlin on May 24, probably before Balzano even stepped foot back in the States.
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MANY BOMB GROUPS, including the 303rd, put a copilot in the tail gunner’s position of the lead aircraft of each squadron, to include the group leader’s aircraft. As an aerial observer he relayed details about the formation to the pilot, who could not see to the rear. The observer told him when the group was fully rendezvoused after takeoff, which crews were straggling or flying poor formation and which aircraft aborted or were shot down—among other information. Thusly informed, the lead pilot could make adjustments as required. Moreover, after the mission he could counsel crews who performed poorly.
Indeed, the 303rd’s SOP required the aerial observers to act as snitches to a certain degree: “The lead squadron aerial observer will rate the lead aircraft of the high and low squadrons on the quality of their squadron leadership in relation to group formation on the basis of ‘excellent,’ ‘good,’ ‘fair’ or ‘poor.’” The grading of individual pilots was required to be even more detailed: “The aerial observer in each squadron will rate all the pilots in that squadron on a numerical basis with the pilot flying the best formation as #1 and so on through #12. The pilots are to be rated on their overall formation flying throughout the mission with the greater emphasis placed on the correctness of formation flying during the bomb run.”
Earl Douglass of the 358th Bomb Squadron flew more than his fair share of these missions. After arriving at Molesworth during the spring of 1944, his original crew was shot down while he was flying with an experienced crew to get familiar with actual combat operations. “So, I became a sort of orphan within the bomb group,” he said.
“My squadron operations officer ‘requested’ that I volunteer to serve in the tail gunner position because the Top Brass wanted a qualified pilot to be the eyes behind the mission commander’s head to make sure that all the planes in the group maintained proper formation. It was important for us to stay in a tight, carefully-designed flying formation to maximize our defensive firepower, and to keep all the bombs on target.” Accordingly, Douglass flew most of his combat missions in the tail turret position.
However, Douglass’s experience was the exception, as observer duty was generally a rotating assignment rather than a permanent one. Dick Johnson took his turn on the mission to the Pas-de-Calais on June 19, 1944:
When I got into the tail gun position with electrically heated suit and gloves, I was out of my element. I made out OK during formation and departure. But when I was about settled down, after advising the pilot that everything seemed good about the formation, I noticed that the [autopilot] that we called “George” was causing a good bit of movement at my new position. The swaying and yawing soon made me airsick. Not only that, I couldn’t figure out how to fire the tail guns. I tried several times, finally giving up, as I figured that no enemy plane would attack from the rear, since all I could see behind me was hundreds of B-17s filling the sky for as far as I could see.
Johnson’s airsickness grew worse and he took off his flak helmet, intending to vomit into it. He managed to hold his breakfast down, but his nausea continued. “It got to the point that I wouldn’t have cared if I were shot down.” As it happened, the short mission was entirely uneventful. There were no enemy fighters, nor was there any flak. The group dropped its bombs, missed its target and returned to Molesworth. Johnson couldn’t have asked for an easier mission.
Some time later Johnson went off the base to relax at the Key Club near Molesworth. He enjoyed himself well into the early morning. As the crew’s regularly assigned aircraft was undergoing heavy maintenance, he was certain he would not be flying if there was a mission scheduled. “I didn’t get back to the barracks until about three AM and discovered with panic that the place was deserted. I quickly checked the manifest and saw that I was again assigned to fly tail gun position in the lead plane for an unexpected mission that morning.”
Frantic—and sure he would find himself the object of court-martial proceedings—Johnson raced to the briefing room and breathlessly declared himself ready to go. He was stunned but relieved when he discovered there was no fuss at his absence; a replacement had been found. “I hadn’t told them about my near fatal airsickness and I can imagine what would have happened to me if I had taken the flight. After having a ‘few’ drinks and no breakfast, I would have been in prime shape for a major barf.”
During the June 19, 1944, mission to the Pas-de-Calais area a milestone was achieved that was significantly more remarkable than Johnson’s mission as an observer. The 303rd’s John Tulloss had arrived at Molesworth on April 11 and flown his first mission as a pilot with the 359th Bomb Squadron on April 24. The June 19 mission—fifty-seven days after his first combat sortie—marked the completion of his combat tour. In that short time he was credited with thirty-one missions. It was an Eighth Air Force record.
Tulloss’s example underscores an interesting point. Although the maintenance men and other support personnel generally served in the 303rd for the duration of the war, such was not the case for the combat crews. Rather they flew out of Molesworth until they completed their required missions and then—for the most part—rotated back to the States. There were exceptions. For instance, Mel Schulstad flew his share of missions and more—forty-four—and was with the unit from the beginning of its combat operations until the end. Joe Vieira was another of those who flew many more missions than required. “I flew 58 missions which is more than two full tours. I came home in between and spent a few days with my old lady. When she heard I was going back, she didn’t say twenty words to me.”
But for the most part the crews who flew the early missions and survived to go home would have recognized virtually no one flying from the base a year later. And many of the flyers who followed them to Molesworth during 1943 were gone before D-Day. Likewise, those who flew during the frenzied period before and after the invasion were rotated back to the States a few months later. And the crews who arrived during the last few months of the war considered as hoary ancients anyone who had been around even a year earlier.
Nevertheless, although the early crews were back in the States, dead, or being held as POWs, they were still, in a very real sense, part of the 303rd until the end of the war. The experience they gained at such a high cost in blood, exertion and spirit was incorporated into the group’s operations, not only to increase its effectiveness but also to better the odds of survival for later crews. These lessons were shared across the Eighth, much as the 303rd embraced improved practices from other bomb groups.
For instance, formations were modified to better defend against enemy fighter attacks. Similarly, bombing procedures for the bombardiers and fire discipline for the gunners were improved. Less remarkable but still important were changes to the administrative aspects of mission operations, such as taxi, takeoff and assembly procedures.
In fact, a few of the 303rd’s men dreaded the takeoff and assembly as much as they feared enemy flak and fighters. In order to lessen the risk, the group evolved stringent Standard Operating Procedures, or SOP, for takeoff and assembly in various sorts of weather. The normal procedures during daytime when the weather was clear were fairly straightforward: “Takeoff will be made at 30-second intervals for all aircraft in the group. The copilot will check [the] time and notify the pilot when the aircraft ahead has been moving 30 seconds. . . . The flight leader will climb at 150 I.A.S. [indicated airspeed] and at 400 FPM [feet per minute] straight ahead for 90 seconds from the time the aircraft started from takeoff position, then make a needle-width turn to the left, fly back to the field circling the East-West runway to the left at 2,000 feet altitude. Wingmen will turn inside flight leaders to accomplish ‘join-up.’ Right wingmen will fly under leader for ‘join-up.’”
The procedures for takeoff and assembly during poor weather were more demanding and required the group to use the Harrington Buncher Beacon, twenty miles to the west. The beacon was a radio navigation aid that emitted a homing signal. “Takeoff will be as normal except that each A/C [aircraft] will continue for 90 seconds at 150 I.A.S. climbing 400 FPM straight ahead on runway heading, then make a needle-width turn to the Harrington Buncher Beacon, homing on the Buncher with an air speed of 150 I.A.S. and 400 FPM climb. In the event cloud tops are such that 303rd aircraft are still in the clouds on reaching Harrington Buncher, climb will be continued until aircraft are in the clear before turning to home on Buncher. At no time will any aircraft make a turn while in an overcast.”
These procedures demanded strict adherence. For instance, the risk of a midair collision increased if just one of the thirty, or forty, or more crews flew ten or twenty miles per hour too fast or slow, or turned too early or late, or climbed at a different rate than prescribed. If more than one crew deviated from the procedures, the danger increased significantly. Another consideration that increased the chances of a mishap was the fact that two other bomb groups also used the Harrington Buncher Beacon, although each group was assigned its own particular altitude block.
Early morning takeoffs in the dark compounded the perils even further. “I hated taking off in the dark,” said Don Stoulil. “The tail gunners in each aircraft used their Aldis lamps to flash the identity of their particular bomb groups in Morse code. For instance, our tail letter was ‘C,’ which was a flash, a shorter flash, a flash and then a short flash again. It helped everyone to figure out who was who. But still, when a mission was on, there were blinking lights everywhere, and it was often difficult to tell if they were coming or going, or turning or not. It could be very disorienting.”
Squadron leaders fired flares to lessen the confusion. The B-17 had a socket, or port, overhead the pilots into which an M2 or AN-M8 pyrotechnic pistol could be inserted. The 303rd’s SOP prescribed the procedures: “Announcement over V.H.F. as to when flares are being fired will be made by squadron leaders. Example: ‘Hello all Cowboy Able [radio call sign for the 303rd’s lead aircraft of the lead squadron] aircraft, this is Cowboy Able leader . . . standby for flares. Hello all Cowboy Able aircraft, flares away.’”
The 303rd also used war-weary assembly ships to help get its aircraft together. In some instances, as with the Wabash Cannonball, the aircraft were simply squadron hacks used to scout the weather before the main formation took off. They subsequently helped shepherd the group’s aircraft together as they got airborne. However, the 303rd also specially modified one of its ships—the Vicious Virgin—as an assembly ship, as described by Dick Johnson:
The ground crews had installed 21 high intensity lights on the airplane which flashed the letter “C” in Morse code while it was acting as formation [assembly] ship. It was painted with red and white [and blue] stripes that were ten feet wide in a diagonal pattern. As a combat bomber it had been named Vicious Virgin. This was changed to Scarlet Harlot after the paint job, and I sometimes referred to her as The Virgin Harlot. Mostly though, we referred to the plane as The Barber Pole.
This practice became common within the Eighth Air Force as different bomb groups operated outlandishly painted aircraft on which their own aircraft would form after takeoff. Once the formation was established, the specially painted aircraft detached and recovered back to base.
The 303rd had one more tool in its box. Late in 1944, on a visit to an RAF base, the group’s commanding officer, William Raper, discovered a P-47 that had diverted into the base with mechanical problems and been essentially forgotten. Raper made arrangements for maintenance men from the 303rd to make the aircraft flyable and subsequently took it home to Molesworth.
Raper ordered the P-47 painted with the 303rd’s markings and had the aircraft’s eight .50-caliber machine guns removed. He also had it waxed, named it Peck O’ Trouble and subsequently used it to ride herd on the group’s assemblies. He flitted here and there among the big bombers, directing, haranguing and cajoling until the group was satisfactorily assembled.
Despite all the special procedures, equipment and uniquely modified aircraft, post-takeoff assemblies did not always go perfectly. While the 303rd was getting together for the raid to Merseburg on July 28, 1944, Dick Johnson was forced to turn away from the formation to avoid a midair collision with another bomber that was obviously out of place. “By the time I returned to the assembly area, the 303rd Group was too far ahead for me to catch up, so I latched onto the 379th out of Kimbolton, which I knew was going to the same target. Many pilots aborted when they couldn’t find their group and I didn’t want this stigma attached to me.”
While joining with another group might seem an obvious choice, such a decision was not clear-cut. This was because bombers were not typically topped off with fuel before a mission, but rather carried only enough—with reserves—to make it to the target and back. As groups were often assigned to different targets, a crew that chose to join another group without knowing its destination might find itself out of gas before making it back to base. In fact, the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing’s SOP gave very clear direction:
The pilot will make every effort to join his assigned squadron. Failing to do this, he will attempt to join his own group. Failing in this, he will attempt to assemble on some other group of his combat wing. As a last resort he will assemble with some other group of any [emphasis in original] combat wing, providing his fuel loading is sufficient for the mission assigned that combat wing. Abortives resulting from failure to rendezvous will not be condoned. Aircraft will not complete a mission individually unless so ordered.
The crews were able to distinguish aircraft from different groups by their tail markings. Each bomb group was assigned a unique letter, which was to be painted prominently on its vertical stabilizer—or tail. The 303rd was assigned the letter “C,” and when it started operations during late 1942, each aircraft’s vertical stabilizer was painted with a big yellow “C.” However, as more groups arrived in England, the markings were modified during the summer of 1943 by painting the letters within a white, geometric shape. For instance, the shape assigned to groups of the 1st Bomb Division was a triangle, whereas the groups of the 2nd Bomb Division were assigned a circle, and the groups of the 3rd Bomb Division a square.
The 303rd thus became readily recognizable as the “Triangle C” group. At the same time the triangle was adopted, the markings were also added to the upper surface of the right wing and the lower surface of the left wing. The ultimate version of the marking, and the one by which the group is most remembered, was carried by the aircraft beginning during August 1944. A large, red triangle—twelve feet per side—was painted around the white triangle with its letter “C.” This new scheme made the white triangle marking more visible on the bare metal finish that was typical of the aircraft assigned to the group beginning in February 1944.
The 303rd’s squadrons could be distinguished from one another by code letters painted on the fuselage forward of the Stars-and-Bars national insignia. For instance the code letters for the 358th, 359th, 360th and 427th were VK, BN, PU and GN respectively. Individual aircraft call letters were painted on the fuselage aft of the national insignia.
As much as the 303rd worked to prevent midair collisions they remained a hazard throughout the war. Typical was the mishap on November 9, 1944, when two aircraft from the 427th Bomb Squadron came together. Both ships went down and only one crewman managed to bail out; the rest were killed. The group’s commanding officer received a letter a few days later that included a one-pound note and a message: “Would you please place a small floral tribute on the graves of the boys, so far from home, who lost their lives near here?” It was signed, “A Wenlock Mother.”
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ASIDE FROM THE BUNCHER BEACONS, there were also “Splasher” beacons that were used to navigate out of and back into England. They proved invaluable in helping crews recover during foul weather. That they were ubiquitous is indicated by a warning in the 303rd’s SOP: “Care should be taken in tuning radio beacons and Bunchers because of the great number of stations in England.” Too, the crews had to be wary of signals that were corrupted or co-opted by the Germans. More than one crew was tricked into flying out to sea, where they ran out of fuel.
Some aircraft, usually flown by lead crews, were equipped with GEE-H equipment. A British development, GEE-H used radio beams to derive a fairly precise navigational fix for bombing through the clouds. It was useful only to a range just beyond about three hundred miles from England and was susceptible to jamming. However, it was exceptionally useful as a navigational aid throughout the war.