Book: Hell's Angels

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“WE POURED THEM INTO THE BACK OF THE AIRPLANE”

“WE BOMBER PILOTS decided to throw a party for our fighter pilot friends [20th Fighter Group] who were at a base [Kingscliffe] about twenty miles away,” said Mel Schulstad. “It was a hilarious evening of mostly drinking a lot of whiskey. As the party was winding down at about two in the morning [of July 24, 1944], the fighter guys were ready to go home, but the truck drivers who brought them over had left. So we were stuck with about twelve fighter pilots who wanted to go home.”

Schulstad—who had partied through the evening—decided to fly them home in Tugboat Annie. There were few, if any, American aircraft still in service that had been in England longer. Originally named Phyllis, it was an old B-17E that entered service with the 97th Bomb Group during March 1942, months before the Eighth flew its first mission. It was subsequently passed from the 97th to the 92nd Bomb Group in August 1942 and was eventually transferred to the 303rd during May 1943. During its relatively long life it was repaired and modified a number of times and suffered major damage after a midair collision. The 303rd used it as a target tug for gunnery practice and as a formation assembly ship prior to missions.

“So I took my friends the fighter pilots out there,” said Schulstad, “and we poured them into the back of the airplane. Then we flew them back to their base and told them to get out.” Once his friends were clear of the hard-used bomber, Schulstad got airborne again in short order and turned south for Molesworth. His copilot was actually not a pilot but rather the group’s administrative officer, Harry McDaniel, who had gone along simply for the ride. They arrived over Molesworth only a few minutes after taking off. “It was a beautiful moonlit night,” Schulstad said. “It was calm and quiet and I flew the downwind leg and made a lovely turn onto base leg and put the landing gear down; I could hear it go ‘round-round-round-round’ and then chunk into place. And then I put the flaps down.

“I was sitting on final approach with everything just beautiful and my copilot sound asleep. And I thought I’d better check the gear and the flaps one more time.” For whatever reason, Schulstad activated the switches rather than simply checking that they were in the proper position. The landing gear and flaps—which were already down and ready for landing—obeyed his errant command and pulled themselves back into the aircraft.

Schulstad didn’t notice. An actual copilot—and one who was awake—would likely have caught the mistake, but Schulstad’s ad hoc crewman was no help. “I flared out for this magnificent landing,” he said, “and heard all four props hit the cement. We spread that ancient B-17 from one end of the runway to the other. At five o’clock in the morning. With no copilot.” Schulstad knew he was in trouble.

No one was hurt, and the B-17 and the pieces it shed were scraped clear of the runway. “It was an incident that had to be reported,” said Schulstad. “And it made its way up to the wing commander’s [Travis] office, and he said something about a court-martial.” Schulstad agonized for more than a week as he waited for the powers-that-be to determine what sort of action might be taken against him.

“About ten days elapsed,” said Schulstad, “and I had chewed off all my fingernails worrying about what was going to happen.” Schulstad’s roommate, Mel McCoy, was the chief engineering officer for the 444th Sub Depot, which was responsible for performing major repairs to the 303rd’s damaged aircraft. “He came in one day and told me that the airplane I crashed was built from other old airplanes. ‘We never technically received that airplane,’ he said. And I asked him if he meant that the airplane never actually existed. And he said, ‘That’s exactly right.’”

At Schulstad’s urging McCoy talked to the proper people and made certain that the information made its way up the chain of command to Brigadier General Travis. “They brought it up to the wing commander, who was a very wise gentleman, and he said, ‘Obviously, if the airplane never existed it could never have been in an accident and so then that’s the end of that.’”

Although he did not mention it, it is quite likely that Schulstad was also given a pass because he was one of the group’s original “old hands.” Aside from having led and survived some of the 303rd’s most dangerous missions, he was invaluable in planning operations and he lent expertise wherever and whenever he could. And unlike the vast majority of aircrews, he stayed at Molesworth until the end of the war.

In fact, he wrote home about his views on staying in England: “All in all, with my experiences, travels, meeting people, [and] opportunities, I wouldn’t miss this, the greatest show on earth, for love or money. Matter of fact, I find it increasingly hard to understand these fellows who want to get home. Maybe it’s because they have a wife and children, or maybe they are just too small-minded to appreciate their opportunities.” Schulstad was correct in noting that there were opportunities aplenty to learn, gain experience and advance in rank. However, among those opportunities were many different ways to be killed.

*   *   *

SCHULSTAD’S STRONG AFFINITY for his fighter pilot comrades was near universal among the bomber men. A postwar study noted that the feeling of kinship was very strong indeed: “To combat crews few sights were lovelier than the prancing of friendly fighters around bomber formations during the quiet stretches of a mission, or more breathtaking than their sudden appearance—deus ex machina–fashion—at an instant of ultimate extremity. Bomber crewmen who had ever stared straight at an onrushing FW-190 for long seconds before catching a glimpse of a P-51 on its tail would not soon forget the emotions of that moment.”

*   *   *

DURING THE MONTHS following the D-Day invasion, the Luftwaffe was increasingly dominated by the American strategic bombing effort. At that point the USAAF’s escort fighters handily outnumbered the defending Germans. Moreover, the American pilots were better trained, more aggressive and flew superior aircraft—excepting the new German Me-262 jet, which was only on the cusp of starting real operations. Still, the German flyers were not totally beaten or driven from the sky. Indeed, on a spasmodic basis, they still achieved startling successes. But for the most part those successes were realized only when the bombers were caught without their fighter escorts.

The 303rd was without fighter escorts at the wrong time on August 15, 1944. During the preceding three weeks—from July 24 to August 14—the group had flown eighteen missions without a single combat loss. It had never before enjoyed such a streak and would never again; it was an incredible achievement. However, the odds of air combat were not to be denied, and the mission to Wiesbaden on the following day was proof.

The group put up thirty-nine aircraft on August 15, 1944, and although they endured heavy and accurate flak in the target area, they were unmolested by fighters until about fifty miles west of Wiesbaden on the return leg. The mission report noted: “Up to this time friendly fighter support had been good, but the fighters had left the bombers and were not in sight.” At that point about thirty Luftwaffe fighters took advantage of the breakdown in the escort coverage and attacked the 303rd’s low formation, which was made up of thirteen aircraft from the 358th and 427th squadrons.

The intensity of the attacks and the resultant slaughter were as gruesome as anything the 303rd sustained during its entire combat career. The incident underscored what had already been proven a year earlier at Schweinfurt: Unescorted heavy bombers could not defend themselves against determined enemy fighter attacks. That fact notwithstanding, the gunners still put up a curtain of gunfire. That curtain grew increasingly threadbare as bomber after bomber was hacked out of the sky.

Tiny Angel exploded under the onslaught and fell away in pieces. Jigger Rooche also went down, with six of its crew. The low group’s lead aircraft, Fearless Fosdick, dropped out of the formation in flames. The navigator, Lawrence Wolf, was struck in the back by a 20-millimeter cannon shell and killed. The rest of the crew parachuted clear of the burning wreck and managed to evade back to England.

The right wing was blasted from My Blonde Baby and it fluttered to earth. An unnamed aircraft piloted by Alfred Smith was also shot down and three of its crewmen were killed. Another unnamed ship, this one captained by William Crawford, fell to the enemy fighters. All of its crewmen survived and were captured. A third unnamed ship, captained by John Cathey, was set afire by an Me-109; one crewman was killed, six were captured and two evaded. The Roman Charnick crew’s B-17 literally blew up around them. Still, there were seven survivors, one of whom successfully escaped back to England.

FW-190s hacked away at Hell in the Heavens, and five of its crew dribbled out of the doomed bomber over a ten-minute period and were captured; the rest of the men were killed. Bad Penny was attacked and simply blew up. Pieces of flaming wreckage fell onto a farm and set several buildings afire. Incredibly, every crewman parachuted clear of the explosion. The navigator, Lester Reuss, came down in a tree. On the spot were two unarmed German soldiers, who came to help him down. A uniformed Nazi party official arrived soon after and shot Reuss. Reuss was then beaten to death with a hammer and club by two German civilians. Fellow crewman Patsy Rocco was also murdered by his captors.

Ultimately, nine of the low group’s thirteen aircraft were shot down. The 358th lost seven while the 427th lost two. There were twenty-four men killed, while forty-eight were captured and ten escaped.

*   *   *

BEN SMITH RECOLLECTED the importance of alcohol to the lives of the men. “As a form of entertainment, nothing else was even close. We had a fine Red Cross Club with games and an excellent record collection. There were volleyball and other sports. But alcohol was the only thing that made our existence bearable, and we didn’t miss any opportunities to put some away. I became a heavy drinker during the war and never quite managed to get the hang of social drinking again.”

Smith recalled that he and his comrades celebrated with gusto when the 303rd completed its two hundredth mission—a raid to Châteaudun, France—on July 9, 1944: “So it began—non-stop drinking for days on end. The casualty lists mounted. The dispersal tents were booked solid. Bars were filled with wall-to-wall humanity, sodden and riotous.” And, of course, women were an important element of the commemoration: “There was a bit of extemporaneous nudity, expecially [sic] among the females who knew that bacchanalian rites, such as we were observing, made this kind of costume imperative.”

However, alcohol wasn’t at the heart of every diversion, and Smith noted that the men listened to the radio quite a bit. “The BBC was dry as dust; the Armed Forces Network was what we listened to.” He remembered that German propaganda broadcasts were also an appreciated entertainment. “We listened to Axis Sally a lot. She would call some guy’s name in the 92nd Bomb Group and tell him his wife was dating a lot. It probably was the truth. We thought these little gems were funny as hell; they delighted us to no end.”

Alcohol was officially administered on a voluntary basis to men who wanted it after flying missions. The alcohol was usually a shot or two of whiskey measured out by a medical officer. It was intended to relax the men and make them more predisposed to talk during debriefings. Sometimes it was overly effective: “This caused us to exaggerate greatly,” Smith recorded, “but the I.O. [intelligence officer] dutifully wrote down everything we reported. At one of the debriefings later, we reported some striped flak. It was duly noted.”

Smith also recalled that some of the men sought diversion in substances other than alcohol. At the daily sick call, terpin hydrate—informally known as “G.I. gin”—was readily dispensed. “It was cough syrup with codeine in it. A guy could get bombed with a couple of swallows. There was always a long line and a lot of phony coughing going on.” He also remembered a more grave issue: “The first aid kits in the airplanes were systematically looted for their morphine syringes. This was serious business, but it continued to be a problem.”

It is cliché to declare that the war changed men. To be sure, it is implicit that the furnace of air combat over Europe turned men into something they were not before. But sometimes it changed their lives in different, even humorous, ways. Booze often played a role. “My group commander came around to the bar on the night I was promoted to captain,” said Mel Schulstad. “He’d already been to several other promotion parties that night so when he raised his glass to toast me he had trouble saying my name. Instead of Schulstad, he toasted ‘Captain Tool Shed.’ I’ve been ‘Tool Shed’ ever since.”

*   *   *

BRIGADIER GENERAL ROBERT TRAVIS, the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing’s commander, could be a mean-spirited, irascible blowhard. William Eisenhart finished his tour in 1944 and volunteered for a second. On September 21, 1944, he flew as copilot to Travis on the mission to the marshaling yards at Mainz, Germany, at the head of the entire 41st Combat Bombardment Wing. It was Travis’s last mission. Coming off target, Travis made a mistake with the autopilot that put the aircraft into a steep turn and caused the group’s formation to go awry. Eisenhart reacted quickly and turned the autopilot off, decreased the aircraft’s bank angle and got the formation back together. Rather than congratulating Eisenhart for his timely action, Travis stewed in humiliation.

Later, clear of danger and at a lower altitude, Eisenhart’s bladder grew more full than he could stand. The group’s official policy—promulgated by memorandum—was that pilots were not to leave their position to urinate through the bomb bay as had been the previous practice. Rather, they were to crouch on their seats as necessary and relieve themselves through the side window.

Eisenhart did just this. Unfortunately, Travis’s window was slightly open, as he was smoking a cigar. The pressure differential drew a goodly portion of Eisenhart’s piss across Travis’s face. The general nearly exploded with rage. “When we landed, he chewed me out like I’ve never been chewed out before,” said Eisenhart. “He threatened me with a court-martial. And then I had to report to him the next day and he chewed me out again. He told me he was giving the Distinguished Flying Cross to other members of the crew for that mission, but he wasn’t giving it to me.”

Ultimately, Eisenhart was not subjected to a court-martial. But neither was he awarded the DFC for that particular mission.

*   *   *

THE EIGHTH SENT 1,049 BOMBERS against targets in central Germany on September 28, 1944. The 303rd was part of a force of 445 B-17s directed to hit targets at Magdeburg, and it put 28 bombers airborne by 0800; one aircraft aborted early. The remainder made their way toward the target unmolested—but without fighter escorts—until about seventy miles west of Magdeburg.

It was then that the 303rd’s low squadron, the 360th, was set upon by FW-190s. The resultant butchery—reminiscent of the massacre the group had endured the previous month during the mission to Wiesbaden—was outlined by the group’s intelligence officer: “There were twelve A/C in the squadron, of which only two returned to base. The remainder are missing. The formation was subjected to severe and intense fighter attacks about 1150 hours in the vicinity of the I.P. which was 52°11'N-10°35'E.”

The enemy made rear attacks from level and below in waves of up to six. By the time they completed their last passes, eleven 303rd Bomb Group B-17s had fallen to earth—afire and in pieces. The group’s path was marked by clouds of dissipating smoke, falling debris, doomed bombers and the white blossoms of parachutes. William Miller, the pilot of Miss Umbriago, descended in his parachute along with a fluttering, flickering cloud of propaganda leaflets that had been part of his ship’s payload.

Silver Fox, piloted by William Lay, was positioned to the rear of the 360th’s formation and was ripped by fire from the first wave of FW-190s. Ray Miller, the engineer, was in the top turret and recalled that “the aft fuselage was ‘popping’ with fire caused by the explosion of 20mm shells.” Silver Fox immediately caught fire. Crewmen aboard other bombers reported that the ship “was burning from the waist back when first seen to be in trouble. About twenty seconds later it burst into flames all over and went down.”

Confused calls came over the interphone. The bombardier was shot in the face and killed, and the radio operator reported that the ball turret gunner was killed by a direct hit. Silver Fox fell into a spin. Lay turned in his seat and signaled Miller to bail out. Miller delayed and helped copilot David Grenier out of his seat. “His arm and shoulder appeared to be completely blown off. I drug him to [the] escape hatch and pushed him overboard. His chute was attached.”

Silver Fox exploded into pieces an instant later. Miller was knocked unconscious until very close to the ground. His parachute carried him safely down and he was captured. He was the only survivor; Grenier’s body was never found.

Aside from Silver Fox, ten other 303rd B-17s suffered variations of the same fate. The unnamed aircraft commanded by Victor Howard was one of them. An FW-190 slowed, put its flaps down and stabilized behind Howard’s aircraft. The pilot fired explosive cannon rounds into the B-17, setting its left wing afire and blasting pieces away. Aflame and disintegrating, the bomber dropped out of the 303rd’s formation and spiraled earthward in a spin. Other crews reported seeing four men parachute from the fuselage hatch.

The radio operator aboard the aircraft was Sheppard Kerman; it was his first mission. A Jew, he was a big, handsome young man and the pride of his family—brave and strong but also kind and compassionate. When the enemy fighters were sighted, he moved from the radio compartment to the left waist gun. At that point in the war, the crews included only one waist gunner; the radio operator was tasked with manning the other waist gun in the event of fighter attacks.

Kerman was injured when the bomber was attacked, but he remained mobile. When the signal was given to abandon the ship, he didn’t immediately jump, but instead assisted the bombardier, Jack Timmins, who was wounded and struggling to get out of the doomed aircraft. Kerman made certain Timmins had his parachute on and shoved him from the bomber.

Once he saw Timmins safely out of the aircraft, Kerman leapt clear and pulled his parachute’s ripcord. He drifted into the town of Wolfenbüttel, where his parachute snagged on the apartment building at 28 Krumme Street. There, he hung down the side of the building with his arms raised in surrender. A crowd gathered and boys taunted him with cries of “Heil Hitler!” A group of soldiers and uniformed political officials rushed into the building and up to a window near where he was suspended.

“He was a big, beautiful man,” said a woman who had been a girl at the time. She had watched through a window from her home across the street. “He looked very sad.” Kerman was pulled through the window and into the building, where his parachute was cut away. He raised his arms in surrender once more. An ardent Nazi and German army reserve captain, Wilhelm Kanschat, sent everyone out of the room save for two other men, Gerd Beck and Otto Weinreich. Once the room was clear, he ordered Beck to shoot Kerman. Beck took a pistol from Weinreich and, from behind, shot Kerman in the back of the neck and killed him.

Kerman’s body left a trail of blood as it was dragged down the building’s stairwell and into the street. Günter Rode was a seventeen-year-old eyewitness. When the body was dragged out of the building, he heard the police chief order, “If he’s still alive, smash his head.” Townspeople stripped Kerman’s body of its boots and jacket. From there, it was loaded into a cart, hauled to a local cemetery and interred.

Beck emerged from the building, his hands covered with blood. He later bragged, “Well, we took care of this one.” Many years later Günter Rode rejected any notion that the actions of his countrymen were anything other than what they seemed: “It was murder.”

In fact, Claude McGraw, the crew’s engineer, deduced as much soon after he was captured. “I was informed by the Germans that Sgt. Sheppard Kerman had died. I saw his personal effects at Brunswick, Germany, and inquired as to his whereabouts. Knowing that he was conscious and not too badly wounded when he bailed out, I suspected that he may have been murdered. I base this on my own treatment in that area by civilians.” Likewise, Jack Timmins, the crew’s bombardier, who had been helped out of the stricken ship by Kerman also had suspicions. He was told by the Germans that Kerman had “bled to death.”

George Stewart, the waist gunner, was on the mark with his official statement made immediately after the war: “Based wholly on supposition it is possible that he died of his wounds but he had strength enough to assist another crew member out of the aircraft and then to bail out himself so he may of [sic] met with foul play. He should of [sic] come down in the same locality that I did which I believe to be a town called Wolfenbuttel, south of Brunswick.”

Sadly, Kerman was not the only 303rd airman murdered that day. The lives of Leo Waldron, Arthur Conn and Teddy Smith—all crewmen aboard William Miller’s Miss Umbriago—were taken by civilians. Similar slayings, at the urging of Hitler and other ardent Nazis, continued until the end of the war.

*   *   *

OF COURSE, KERMAN’S parents knew nothing of what happened to their son other than that he had gone MIA—missing in action. The next several months were a roller coaster of hope and despair and hope again that finally ended in anguish. The cause was a sequence of conflicting official correspondences and a well-meant but confusing and ultimately hurtful message from outside USAAF channels. The uncertainty was exacerbated not only by the nature of communications during that time—cryptic telegraphs and slow-moving mail—but also by the crushing volume of critical wartime information that had to be passed to simply keep the war going. The disposition of a single, missing crewman was not the highest priority.

The Kermans no doubt received the customary official notification of their son’s MIA status within days of his loss. The 303rd’s chaplain, Edmund Skoner, wrote a letter on the day after the mission in which he expressed genuine sympathy and a sense of shared loss. But he was careful to keep from giving any false hope: “I sincerely regret that I can give you no additional information about your son. I can assure you, however, that as soon as definite information is available, the War Department will immediately notify you. Although I can appreciate the fact that you are anxious for some word, any word, there is nothing I can say which would not be pure conjecture.”

The commanding officer of the 360th sent a letter to the Kermans on October 22, 1944. It was a sad part of his duties. He wrote: “Words cannot express the feelings of the squadron over the absence of your son, since he was a very popular member of this organization. We are proud to be able to say we were comrades-in-arms with him.” Another paragraph confirmed that the 303rd had no official word of Kerman’s disposition. “We would appreciate receiving from you any news you may receive from him. All of us sincerely hope that you will be reunited with him in the very near future.”

On October 30, 1944, probably before the Kermans received the letter described above, a telegram was delivered from the adjutant general: “Report now received from the German Government through the International Red Cross states your son Sergeant Sheppard Kerman who was previously reported Missing In Action was Killed in Action 28 September over Germany.” Certainly the Kermans were devastated at the news.

In response to a query by Kerman’s mother about the circumstances surrounding her son’s loss, the 360th’s adjutant sent a letter dated December 8, 1944. It no doubt rekindled hopes that had been dashed by the previous telegram. Among other information it included a horribly imprudent paragraph: “I sincerely regret that I cannot transmit full details regarding the last mission your son participated in. I do not wish to raise false hopes but we have reason to believe your son will be reported safe. It is the hope of all personnel of this squadron that such news reaches you very shortly.” A statement such as the one above could have done nothing but raise hopes, false or otherwise. It was reckless.

But then other information was received that seemed to support the previous letter. A local Chicago paper carried a story about the Kermans on December 31: “But their grief was banished today by the news Sgt. Kerman is alive—a German prisoner. The good news came from the pilot of the ill-fated ‘Mairzy Doats’ in a shortwave broadcast message received by the pilot’s mother in Saginaw, Mich., and relayed to Mr. and Mrs. Kerman.” Another article noted: “But today they know he is alive, although they have not heard so officially. . . . The pilot said that the crew was all saved and were prisoners in Stalingluft [sic] No. 1 in Germany.”

In fact, everyone in the crew had survived, save Sheppard Kerman. This sad reality became more and more apparent as time went on and no word was received from him or from the authorities. Kerman’s actual fate only became known to his family following the cessation of hostilities.

*   *   *

THE HORRIBLE ENDS endured by the men who were shot down and killed on the same day as Kerman were alluded to by German records included in the MACR, which described the accounting of the various wrecks and men—living and dead—scattered across the landscape: “On 23 deads [of 23 dead] no identifications [sic] could be made on account of conflagration. Further inquiries are still going on. The burials were carried out by the communities of the different villages.”

*   *   *

THAT MOBS OF VIGILANTE CIVILIANS, the German police and the SS murdered flyers is undisputed, but it was not something that was widely known or understood among many German servicemen. Lothar Seifert was one of the thousands of young schoolboys drafted to man the heavy antiaircraft guns that defended against the Allied air attacks. During his time he never saw Allied airmen molested. “In my sector, we would watch the ‘mushrooms’ [parachutes] drift towards earth after the airplanes crashed, and would race each other out to meet the men. Sometimes we took the airmen to our barracks and entertained them until our soldiers arrived by playing some of the Louis Armstrong records we had.” Seifert saw nothing that remotely approached the horrors that were visited on some Allied aircrews: “To be quite honest, the worst treatment I ever saw taken against a downed airman was not allowing him to use the latrine because the authorities were afraid to let him out of their sight.”

Eddie Deerfield and his comrades were naturally distressed by the possibility that they might safely bail out from a stricken bomber over Germany only to be killed by civilians on the ground. “I despised Hitler for starting a war that was costing so many lives, including those of his own people,” Deerfield said. “I couldn’t understand why the Germans venerated him as their leader. Whatever sympathy I may have had evaporated when I learned that German civilians were following Hitler’s orders to kill Allied airmen who had been shot down. If we had to bail out, we were better off when members of Luftwaffe or Wehrmacht units were first on the scene to make us prisoners of war.”

*   *   *

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE AMERICANS and their British hosts and allies was a warm and close one. The British welcomed their American cousins for obvious reasons and shared with them whatever they had. And certainly, for the Americans, there was a strategic imperative to be in England fighting the Germans. But there was also an emotional connection between the two nations. Notwithstanding the fact that the United States was a multicultural nation, the reality is that the foundation of that multiculturalism was English; American customs and laws were English at their roots. Although there is no denying that there were occasional frictions and disagreements at all levels of the relationship, the commitment between the two nations never wavered.

The 303rd’s relationships with the British were typical. Susan Hamilton was one of the local girls, whose father operated a pub frequented by many of the men. Her memories of the 303rd were fond ones:

My father would wait every night for his regular G.I.s to come to our pub and drink a beer with him and bring him a cigar and sit and shoot the wartime breeze with him. Sad to say, he passed away before it was all over, but his friends all attended his funeral with us. They were such a great group of boys at Molesworth. Everyone took them into their homes like their own sons. We would watch them go on their missions every day and wait on their return that evening, and if they weren’t on the liberty run that night to our pub, The Fox, one village pub would call the other to see if they were there. If not, we would wait news of them, often ending up with a card three months later from Stalag Luft #3, and some were never heard from again.

Hamilton also drove a farm tractor at Molesworth. “I remember one cold day in January, I was on the tractor and a very thoughtful guy got out of a jeep, took off his big fur coat and gave it to me. He said, ‘Susie, I know you are cold and I want you to have my coat.’ I enjoyed it so much but it wasn’t long and here came the provost marshal and took it away from me—I guess he thought I had stolen it. But a group of the boys got together and talked to him and got it back for me, and I wore it all through the war. I was so pleased to have it back!”

Nevertheless, the 303rd’s men weren’t above taking advantage of the English on occasion. Anthony Sacco of the 359th recalled that some of the men stole a hog from a local farmer, killed and butchered it, stuffed it with potatoes and carrots and dug a roasting pit. The men were enjoying their succulent but ill-gotten prize when they were approached by the military police, an English policeman and the wronged farmer. “The first thing he [the farmer] said was ‘There’s me bloody pig!’” recalled Sacco. “To pacify the farmer we all dug deep in our pockets and collected around 120 pounds. When we gave this to the farmer a big smile came over his face and he said, ‘Anytime you want to steal one of my pigs, go to it!’” The money the men gave him was several times more than he would have received at market.

Sacco recalled that the 303rd’s men were not always so thoughtless—at Christmas they held parties for the local children. “The cooks made cake and cookies and we cleaned out the PX [post exchange] of candy, gum and children’s delights to present to them on Father Christmas Day. Someone from the base dressed up as Father Christmas and the children were in awe. We didn’t forget the dads of these children as they were given cigarettes, a short commodity in those times.”

In fact, the group went to great lengths to make the experience a memorable one, as described by the unit diary: “A lone Flying Fortress circled for a landing at Molesworth, wildly shooting red and green flares, while 200 British children between the ages of five and 14 stood and gazed up with awe and anticipation on their faces. . . . were sweating out the arrival of Father Christmas, who was aboard the American bomber dispatched to ferry him from the North Pole.” The children swarmed the bomber as it coasted to a stop and Father Christmas—Wightman Roach—stepped out and showered them with gifts and Christmas spirit.

One English child, John Hilliard, remembered the large formations of American bombers:

My mother and I would stand in our back garden and count them going out in the morning, and then count a lesser number coming back. These B-17s were quite low, so we could easily see what sort of damage the returners had. Often an engine was stopped [and] sometimes smoke was still streaming out behind. Many times one could clearly see right through the main wings, and one I remember had one of its two tail planes missing. . . . I realise now that those aircraft must have been carrying many injured, dying and dead back to their bases. Very sad!

“I thought that the English were absolutely remarkable,” recalled Frank Boyle. “They had already been at war—and living on rations—for several years by the time I showed up. Yet, they carried on in a very steadfast and admirable way; I never heard them complain. And they were very welcoming to us. For those reasons I always felt a little guilty when I complained about our situation on base. We had a roof over our heads and were well fed and well clothed. And we had hot water and electricity whenever we needed it. I came home to clean sheets every night. Not everyone in England had those things.”

George Ashworth’s first impression of the English was not favorable. He was the radio operator on the Armand Burch crew, which was the 303rd’s first replacement crew. They flew to England via the southern route, which took them through Africa rather than across the North Atlantic. On the last leg of their journey they became lost over France but finally reached England, with their fuel totally exhausted. “We landed wheels up on a golf course in southern England,” Ashworth said. “I can still see the long-legged grounds keeper, come running out with coattails flying and holding onto his cap to complain about his golf course being dug up. The British antiaircraft crew nearby came running out to gather up the oranges that spewed from the nose of our new B-17. It didn’t matter if we were hurt or the plane demolished—‘Welcome to England.’”

James Geiger recalled that he was treated well by the British but also remembered petty disagreements: “We were treated really good by people in . . . England when we went to a movie off the base when they played God Save the Queen. The British would jump up and ask us to stand and we would say the hell with the queen and they would say the hell with Roosevelt.”

Dick Johnson became friends with the Lowe family in the nearby town of Bedford. The Lowes had two daughters. “Beryle was in the Royal Air Force as a WAF, while Marjorie was still in high school. Beryle had a steady boyfriend while Marjorie was pretty well protected. A good thing, since she was a very pretty girl. I was attracted to her, but didn’t have a chance to get to know her very well.

“Mr. Lowe sometimes took me fishing on the River Ouse, the beautiful little river that ran through the heart of Bedford. I caught a three-inch fish one day and was about to throw it back when Mr. Lowe reminded me that they never threw back a fish that size.” This was surprising even to Johnson, who as a young boy had subsisted on such fare as armadillos and groundhogs. “I found it difficult to imagine the rationing and hardships that the British had to endure for so many years. We had rationing in the United States at that time, but nothing approaching that of the British.”

Ultimately, the lives of virtually all the 303rd’s men were somehow changed by England and the English. Some more than others. In fact, more than three hundred men from Molesworth took English brides. Others planned to, but combat didn’t care about those plans. Joseph Zsampar, a tail gunner with the 359th Bomb Squadron, fell in love with a beautiful English girl, Pauline “Bobby” Roberts, and the two were engaged. He presented her with a photo of himself on which he inscribed: “America lend-leased this soldier to England’s fairer sex. Handle with care and return in good order.” Zsampar’s ship was downed over the North Sea and his body was never recovered. The tragedy stayed with Bobby Roberts all her life.

One of Zsampar’s fellow crewmen was Jack Snell, another gunner, who was also a close friend of Van White. Snell had worked for the Sedalia Democrat newspaper before the war and received issues while at Molesworth. “When Jack went missing in action,” White said, “the issue of the Sedalia Democrat that described the mission arrived with Jack’s mailing label at the bottom of the picture. It made my skin crawl.”

*   *   *

BOMB GROUP OPERATIONS put hundreds of heavy machine guns in the hands of young men almost daily. There were bound to be accidents. George Hiebeler recalled an incident that occurred prior to the mission to Mannheim on October 19, 1944, when he was called to fly as a substitute navigator. It was his second mission. “While waiting in the crew chief’s tent before start-up time, we heard a machine gun go off. The crew chief stepped outside the tent and then hollered, ‘My plane’s been shot and it’s on fire.’”

“We all piled out of the tent and indeed gas was pouring out of the wing between #1 and #2 engines and there was a pretty good fire going. The pilot said, ‘I think we had better get out of here.’ I figured he had a lot more experience than I did so I would stick with him.” Hiebeler and another crewman in the tent sprinted after the pilot toward a nearby wooded area. “After a ways we stopped but the pilot said, ‘I think we should get further away.’” Hiebeler and the other crewman didn’t argue and the trio put more distance between themselves and the burning—and bomb-laden—B-17.

The fire crew extinguished the blaze, and Hiebeler and the other two men subsequently returned to the smoking hulk. Hiebeler learned that the errant rounds were fired by Harvey “Shorty” Kaber, the ball turret gunner from his own crew. “He had been called to fly at the last minute to replace a ball turret gunner who became sick. In checking the guns, the other gunner had hooked up the ammo belt with a round already in the chamber. Shorty . . . was not used to doing this and he somehow hit the trigger setting off a few rounds.” Kaber was pulled from flying status and reduced in rank to private first class. He was later allowed to return to operations and completed thirty-five missions and regained his rank.

Accidents also happened while airborne. Indeed, during combat, with so many guns in action, it is certain that the bombers were sometimes hit by gunfire from other bombers. This was the case on May 11, 1944, as described by Clifford Fontaine:

Supposed to go to Saarbrucken, Germany, today but we tied onto another group and I don’t know just where the hell we did go. It was somewhere in France though. Saw a couple of Me-109s today and some joker in another Fort shot a hole in the nose of our ship! I got a little scratch on my forehead but nothing to worry about. I damned near froze to death the rest of the trip because of the wind blowing through the nose.

Another gun accident actually took a life. Typically, when safely out over the sea, machine guns were test fired—just a few rounds each—to ensure they were ready for action. The men were always admonished to point their weapons in a safe direction. Nonetheless, this didn’t always happen, as David Michael, a 360th Bomb Squadron ball turret gunner, cryptically noted in his diary entry for February 6, 1944, the day the group hit the Luftwaffe airfield at Lonvic, near Dijon: “Lt. Doering, Underwood’s copilot, shot by test fire.”

Indeed, Creighton Doering was shot through the back of the head by a .50-caliber round—one of three that struck his aircraft. He was killed instantly. There was speculation that the misdirected rounds came from B-17s of the 379th Bomb Group, which was flying nearby, but nothing was ever proven. News of such incidents, as indicated by Michael’s diary entry, spread rapidly through the unit and were obviously not good for morale. Too many of them were being killed at the hands of the enemy; killing one another was beyond senseless.

*   *   *

IT IS IMPLICIT that the 303rd’s B-17s were of little value without bombs. In reality, they were nothing more than complex and expensive bomb delivery machines operated by intensively trained crews. The men who prepared the 303rd’s bombs were organized on Molesworth as the 1681st Ordnance Company. These men were near the terminus of an enormous and complex ordnance manufacturing and transportation train that ended only when the bombs were released over the target.

It was these men who accepted and moved the bombs from the ports or railheads to the 303rd’s bomb dump. There, the bombs were inventoried and stored until needed onboard the aircraft, as prescribed by the same field orders that directed the group to go on a mission. As the field orders nearly always arrived at night, the ordnance men were used to working in the dark—and often in miserable weather. Upon receipt of the orders, they moved into the bomb dump and earmarked the correct types and numbers of bombs. The bombs were subsequently hoisted onto trailers and transported to individual aircraft hardstands. From the hardstands, squadron ordnance personnel loaded the bombs into the aircraft and fit them with fuzes and safety pins. Although many fingers and a few bones were crushed and broken, there was never a major accident at Molesworth.

That is not to say that the work was never without drama. Maynard Pitcher described an incident that underscored the dangerous nature of the job. Pitcher and his comrades were tasked with loading the FDR with two 1,000-pound bombs. “It was a bitter cold winter night and the three of us were wearing heavy winter coats and gloves.” After getting the first bomb loaded and secured, the three men winched the second, fully assembled bomb up toward the bomb bay.

Pitcher recalled: “[Arnold] Gilsdorf’s foot slipped from the step on the bomb bay door and fell that short distance to the ground, his coat catching the tail fin of the bomb and over-balancing it, causing it to fall tail fin first to the ground and standing upright on Gilsdorf’s coat tail. The fall completely crushed the tail fin and broke off the tail fuse right next to the bomb. There was only a crunching thud.” Stunned, but delighted to still be alive, Pitcher and the other loader, Smith [first name unknown], crawled out of the aircraft’s waist hatch and freed Gilsdorf by cutting his coat away from the bomb, which had him pinned to the ground.

The bomb—which was stuck securely in the ground—extended up into FDR’s bomb bay. Consequently, the aircraft was trapped; it couldn’t be moved without disturbing the now-armed bomb. Were it to explode, the aircraft and much of the 359th Bomb Squadron’s billeting area would be destroyed.

An ingenious solution was contrived. The aircraft’s propellers were removed and a large crane was moved to the site. Without the propellers to hang up on the ground, the maintenance men were able to hoist the aft fuselage high enough so that the bomb bay cleared the bomb and the aircraft could be rolled forward. “The bomb was then very carefully slung and transported to a safe area and disarmed,” Pitcher said. “We were informed later that when the bomb crushed the tail fin and broke the tail fuse off, it also broke the long tail fuse firing pin and left a large burr on the firing pin which prevented it from detonating the bomb.” Pitcher and the rest of the loading crew had only narrowly missed being blown to smithereens.

The science of matching the right combination of bombs and fuzes against specific targets—and determining how they were dropped—was one that evolved through the duration of the war. The numbers and types of bombs that were loaded on the aircraft varied with the type of target being attacked. Bigger bombs were used to destroy very large structures such as submarine pens. For instance, on its third mission the 303rd attacked the submarine pens at Lorient, France, with M34s, two-thousand-pound bombs. Each aircraft carried two. However, for attacks on airfields, many small bombs were carried so as to achieve greater effects on aircraft, hangars, runways and fuel supplies. As an example, the ships were loaded with twenty-four M30s, hundred-pound bombs, for the attack on the airfield at Gilze-Rijen on August 19, 1943. The default, general purpose load was ten or twelve M43s (later M64s), five-hundred-pound bombs. These were generally effective against most targets.

Most of the bombs the 303rd carried were conventional high-explosive types. There were many different weights and types, and updated versions became available during 1944. Incendiary bombs were used quite often against targets that were judged more vulnerable to fire rather than explosives. A weapon of another sort—a psychological weapon—was a canister that dispensed thousands of leaflets. The RAF codename for the leaflets was “nickels” and the name stuck with the American flyers. They were usually dropped in combination with high-explosive bombs but opened above the target so that the leaflets were scattered over a large area.

Occasionally, the ships carried a mixed load of bombs, which offered the advantage of combining different sorts of effects against particular target types. However, these mixed loads created aiming issues for the bombardiers, as each bomb type possessed different ballistic properties and fell to earth on a slightly different trajectory.

Fuzing the bombs properly was also critical in order to achieve the best effects. For instance, when targeting a factory, a fuze delay of a few milliseconds allowed a bomb to penetrate through the roof and into the factory itself before exploding. On the other hand, in order to keep the bomb’s effects from being smothered by the ground, it was best that it be fuzed to explode immediately when attacking targets such as aircraft parked in the open.

Another consideration was the desired spacing, or interval, between the bombs as they fell across the target. The larger bombs were generally released at greater intervals so that they landed farther apart, while smaller bombs were dropped at reduced intervals. Bombs were usually only salvoed, or released all at once, when there was an emergency and the aircraft needed to be immediately rid of them. For that reason, there was a salvo release mechanism for the pilots as well as the bombardier.

*   *   *

AS THE USAAF—TOGETHER with the RAF—ramped up its air campaign during 1944, the effects on the German people grew more and more pronounced. The Franz Kaiser family lived in Munich, and their experience was fairly typical. Hildegard Kaiser, at fifteen, was the youngest daughter and lived with her parents and sisters. Her older brother had already perished in fighting on the Eastern Front. “We found out he had been killed when the soldiers came and banged on the door. When my mother opened it, they shouted, ‘Heil Hitler, your son is dead!’ And then they turned around and left, and we never learned anything at all about his death.

“Everything was in short supply,” Kaiser said. “Clothes and shoes were difficult to get, but I had older sisters so that I had enough hand-me-downs. Food was also in short supply—especially meat. We had ration stamps that we used very carefully, but the stores didn’t always have what we needed, although there was always bread—black bread.”

Kaiser’s father was a school administrator but took extra work as a handyman and laborer on nearby farms. “He was very good at fixing things, and the farmers paid him with food—usually potatoes and turnips and such, and sometimes eggs and chicken. When the farmers slaughtered a cow or a pig, we sometimes had meat, which our father shared out very carefully at the dinner table. He was a very good provider. And even though we lived in an apartment, we also had a garden and we canned vegetables. An apple tree and a pear tree gave us some small amount of fruit. Mostly we ate potatoes that were purchased at the store. We kids also sometimes stole potatoes and turnips from nearby farms.”

Still, food was never abundant. “One evening we had only a single potato,” Kaiser said. “My mother cut it into pieces. I told her that she had miscounted because we were one piece short. She said that she wasn’t hungry. But I knew she was. We were all hungry all the time.”

Kaiser remembered the air raids in which the 303rd played a part on a number of occasions. “Even though we were on the edge of Munich—at Munich Allach—my mother made us go to the bomb shelter every time, even if we were in bed. The warning system was very good, and the sirens sounded at least thirty minutes prior to the bombs coming. We usually carried a blanket and a pillow to an enormous, purpose-built bomb shelter right next door. It had walls of concrete that were very, very thick, and I don’t think anything could have hurt us when we were inside.” Aside from the shelter, nearby defenses also included an antiaircraft battery deployed in a field adjacent to the Kaisers’ apartment.

Kaiser was sent to work at a Junkers aircraft component fabrication plant when she was fourteen. “I went to school in the morning and to work in the afternoon. It was how things were done. They had me make coffee and tea and such and then started trusting me to do office work—typing and filing and that sort of thing. I gave half of my salary to my parents and they let me keep the other half.

“Everyone was very nice to me,” Kaiser said, “but as the war continued, it became apparent that Germany was going to lose. The mood grew more and more somber. I was called into the office of the big boss one afternoon. I entered and said, ‘Heil Hitler,’ as we were required to do during that time. He just glared at me and said, ‘And kiss my ass!’ It was quite a risky thing to say as he could have been sent away to a concentration camp. But it was an example of how people felt toward the end of the war.”

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