Book: Hell's Angels

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“IT IS MY CONVICTION that good group commanders insure [sic] good units and that poor group commanders cannot possibly have good units.” These words came from Ira Eaker who knew a thing or eleven about leadership. Consequently, if it is accepted that the 303rd was among the best of the best bomber groups, it must likewise be acknowledged that the men who led it were also exceptional.

In point of fact, it is difficult to identify a single 303rd commander as the key individual who set the tone and tempo for the group and put it on the right track. The command of the group changed sixteen different times, and the group’s four different squadrons had more than twenty different commanders. Indeed, while still stateside, the 303rd went through several commanding officers before James Wallace took over during July 1942. It was Wallace who led the 303rd overseas and into combat, and it is certain that his leadership left some imprint on the organization. On the other hand, he was ordered to a staff billet during February 1943 after having flown only four missions. He did receive the Silver Star for his service, so it is unlikely that he was removed for cause or incompetence.

Command of the group was temporarily held by both Charles Marion and George Robinson into the summer of 1943. Marion, who was part of the 303rd’s original cadre, flew only eleven missions by the time he was relieved in August 1943 by Kermit Stevens. Stevens, a stocky man with a dogged disposition, earned his commission and wings during the 1930s. Leading the group until September 1944, he was the group’s first truly outstanding commander.

He was a dynamic leader known for his pre-mission pep talks and for his exhortations to the men to “bow your necks” to the task. “You are going to have to stay in there and fight them and get the job done or you are going to have to go back tomorrow and redo it.” In fact, his rallying call so impressed the men that one crew named their ship Bow-Ur-Neck Stevens. Stevens was the first of the group’s commanders to complete a full tour. He flew twenty-nine missions, and because he led many of them, he was credited with more. It was Stevens more than any of the 303rd’s commanders—because of his spirit, his example and the time he spent at the head—who left the greatest mark on the group. And the group was better for it.

Among the 303rd’s squadron commanders, Lewis Lyle was the most notable. A native of Arkansas, he resigned his commission as an infantry lieutenant to become an aviation cadet during the spring of 1941. The pilot of Ooold Soljer, he was part of the group’s original cadre of pilots and rose to command the 360th Squadron during January 1943—only two months after the 303rd began operations.

Lyle was cool, calm and capable, and no one in the 303rd had more combat credibility. He recalled his attitude about combat: “When I got in the airplane . . . I wasn’t scared of the devil himself. I had so much adrenaline flowing and that’s the way I went through the whole thing. . . . I know it sounds stupid and a lot of people won’t believe it, but I never was afraid.” And he ran a tight and disciplined crew. “It was strictly business on my airplane and the only time they could shoot the breeze was when we hit the ground.” It is likely that his crews didn’t mind the discipline—they always made it back to Molesworth.

His reputation spread across the Eighth and was such that he was assigned to fly with the 351st Bomb Group’s commander on that group’s inaugural mission. Lyle completed twenty-five missions on July 17, 1943, and kept on flying. Not long after, he was the first Eighth Air Force pilot to reach thirty missions. He became so expert that he not only led the group on a regular basis, but often the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing and occasionally the entire 1st Bomb Division. Lyle was so intent on understanding every aspect of the Eighth’s mission that he put himself through weeks of intensive bombardier training and flew as the group’s lead bombardier on three missions, achieving excellent results. If the 303rd ever had a Most Valuable Player, it was Lewis Lyle.

Although he stated that flying combat didn’t bother him, Lewis admitted that waiting to fly combat did. “Sitting around and waiting was agonizing to a certain extent and if I started to thinking about getting shot down or something, well, I just said that’s a waste of time . . . why don’t I think about how to keep from getting shot down? And that’s what I did.” Ultimately, Lyle was made the group’s deputy commander and flew fifty-seven missions with the 303rd. In October 1944, he was made commander of the 379th Bomb Group at nearby Kimbolton. He flew on at least twelve more raids—other sources cite more—before being named commander of the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing during the last few days of the war. No bomb group commander in the Eighth Air Force flew more bombing missions.

The group’s leadership was not always on the mark. This might be understandable to a degree when it is considered that air warfare of this type and scale had never been waged before. And especially when it is understood that fewer than two of each hundred men had been in uniform for more than five years. Regardless, leadership failures sometimes created ill will that was not easily forgotten. Ben Smith remembered that the combat crews were called together at some point during mid-1944 when the group had been especially hard hit. A colonel reminded them that their role in the war was “killing and being killed” and upbraided them as “cry babies.”

The humiliating harangue infuriated Smith and many of his peers. “I can still see the hurt and anger on their faces as they listened unbelieving.” It was especially hurtful because the men were volunteers. To a man, they could have refused to continue combat operations with no repercussions other than a reduction in rank to match the assignments to which they would have been posted. “The flight crews,” Smith said, “never had any use for the colonel after this piece of gratuitous arrogance.”

Arrogance or not, no one ever accused the group’s leadership of cowardice. “I had a lot of respect for our brass,” said Dick Johnson. “They never avoided the missions that were expected to be especially dangerous. If it was going to be a tough one, they were right up front.”

There was mutual respect between the enlisted men and officers of the 303rd; military courtesies were expected to be rendered and returned. The group’s leadership insisted on it and considered it key to maintaining discipline and morale. “I was talking with our squadron [427th] commanding officer, Edgar Snyder,” said Dick Johnson, “and an enlisted man walked past without saluting. I thought about stopping him right then, but didn’t want to interrupt Snyder. It wasn’t but a few seconds later that he dressed me down for failing to discipline the enlisted man. Of course I was in full agreement with him, but I just stayed quiet and took the lesson.”

Where the aircrews were concerned, the responsibility for leadership belonged to one man—the pilot. It was his duty to make certain that each crewman at each position on his aircraft performed as required so that bombs were delivered on target on each and every mission. In most instances, the pilots were up to the task, but this was not always the case. A few pilots simply didn’t make teams of the men they led. Many of them were simply too young and inexperienced to do so, while others were lazy, ignorant or selfish. It is arguable that in training these men as pilots, the USAAF didn’t spend enough time to train them as leaders. Certainly, military protocol did not allow the officers to socialize or fraternize with their enlisted crewmen. However, such strictures were not intended to keep them from talking with their men, learning about them and coming to understand them. Indeed, this type of familiarity and empathy was a critical component of leadership. It built trust and loyalty as well as a sense of camaraderie. These were intangibles of great value during combat.

Frank Boyle, a ball turret gunner, rankled at his recollection of the officers in his crew: “In the three months we spent at the operational training unit in the States, the officers never shared a beer with us. We never went out to a bar or a restaurant to get to know each other. It was no better at Molesworth when we got to the 303rd. None of the officers on our crew knew where the enlisted men came from, what their families were like . . . or anything. We were second-class citizens, and we wondered if they even cared about us.” Boyle recollected that one of his fellow gunners had a name for the dynamic: “He called it brass hat [officer] racism.”

Still, it was rare when a pilot’s leadership was so poor that it could not be compensated for by his crew’s training, sense of duty and—perhaps especially—keenness to survive. Indeed, the forge of shared combat often brought the men together in a way that training could not. Crewmen who had previously barely tolerated one another did indeed sometimes become like brothers.

“Our crew worked pretty well as a team,” said Tom Hardin. “But we had to let our original tail gunner go about the time we finished half our missions. He would get very upset and scream into the interphone for periods of time. Naturally this upset the rest of the crew. He was young and scared—like the rest of us—but just couldn’t handle the pressure. When I finally finished my missions and left for the States, he was driving a fuel truck and was quite content.”

“I remember one instance,” said Al Dussliere, “when one of our substitute crew members faked an injury to get removed from flight status. We were shot up pretty badly on a mission and had to crash-land. We all came through it just fine. In fact, I distinctly remember this particular guy doing the jitterbug pretty energetically not long after the crash. But a short time later he said that his back was hurt during the crash and he never flew again.”

There was at least one instance when a crewman fell out of favor, was sent away to fly with other crews and then rejoined his original crew. Warren Kotz, a navigator with the 427th’s David Shelhamer crew noted that ball turret gunner Joe Keaton was removed from the crew for apparent incompetence: “Keaton off crew—made mistake on oxygen on an aborted mission. Passed out.” Nevertheless, Keaton continued to build his mission count with other crews before rejoining the Shelhamer crew to finish his combat tour.

Dick Johnson remembered the crew on which he was a copilot as a good team except for one member: “We had a waist gunner who was often insubordinate. He had a bad attitude and often mouthed off to the officers. We finally told him that it’d be a good idea for him to look for somewhere else to go. He actually finished his combat tour flying with several different crews.”

That these sorts of frictions were not more common is somewhat surprising as there was little in terms of age and experience to distinguish the officers from the enlisted men. In fact, many of the enlisted men were older than the officers under whom they served. It was sometimes difficult for them to take orders from officers who had no more combat experience than they did. Moreover, some of the enlisted men had been aviation cadets themselves and were washed out of training on little pretense when more aerial gunners were needed. Frank Boyle was caught in one of these unofficial aerial gunner drafts. “Early during our training we were all called into the auditorium and told that we had washed out. I was told that my depth perception was too poor.” It is interesting to note that—with his deficient depth perception—Boyle was sent to aerial gunnery school.

This sort of heavy-handed treatment did cause resentment. Nevertheless, most of the men controlled their emotions, learned their assigned jobs, followed military protocol and performed admirably. And they did it both on the ground and in the air. An example of the sort of necessary teamwork that was routine and workaday, yet still saved lives, occurred during the 303rd’s mission to Hamm, Germany, on September 19, 1944.

James Mickle, the pilot of the 359th’s Forget Me Not Olly, described what happened: “We discovered we were short a flak suit for my copilot [Arthur Bergeron], so I asked the radio operator [Dennis Eagon] to bring up a spare.” Eagon found another flak suit in the rear of the aircraft and came back forward. As he reached the top turret, he found William Humphrey, the flight engineer, without an oxygen mask and unconscious. The copilot, Bergeron, noticed the problem and turned around to help. His own oxygen mask became disconnected as he did so and he slumped out of his seat, hypoxic.

“I called the navigator [Benjamin O’Dell] to help the copilot,” Mickle said, “and told the radioman to help the engineer. The two men without oxygen looked purple in the face. I thought they were goners.” Mickle, alone at the controls, tried to orchestrate the rescue while flying his ship in a formation that he remembered as very poor. “The navigator used his own mask alternately to revive the copilot, who then climbed back to his position in the cockpit.”

With everything seemingly in control and everyone back on oxygen and breathing comfortably, Eagon headed back toward his radio compartment. But unbeknownst to him, his oxygen mask caught on something and was torn loose. “One of the waist gunners saw it happen,” said Mickle, “and went forward to help put [Eagon’s] mask back on him. Finally, all were okay.”

The sort of teamwork exercised by Mickle’s crew that day crossed the boundaries of rank and was essential to the success of the 303rd. William Heller, who finished his time with the group as the commanding officer of the 360th Bomb Squadron, understood this and described an encounter when one of his men referred to himself as “only” a sergeant. “I interrupted him,” Heller said, “and told him to stand at attention and then said, Sergeant! No one in this squadron is an ‘only.’ You are a sergeant, and one of the best damn sergeants in the best damn squadron in the best damn group of the best damn air corps! And don’t you forget it!” During the next few days as the story filtered among the men, Heller noted a subtle change in his unit. “I may have imagined it, but everyone seemed to walk more erect and more proudly.”

In fact, the performance of the 303rd and the anecdotal characterizations of its leaders closely mirror leadership attributes that were found to be critical by a postwar study on morale: “These included vigor, aggressiveness, fairness, firmness without arbitrary harshness, a lively interest in the welfare of all personnel, and, perhaps most important of all, the ability to inspire confidence by demonstrating both a grasp of the work at hand and a capacity for doing it.”

Finally, leadership aside, a nod must be given to the organizations, regulations and directives that kept the machine that was the USAAF functioning. If in doubt, new or confused leaders could always turn to “the book.” Happily, these resources, in combination with bright, well-equipped men, ensured that failures were infrequent.

In contrast to the teamwork and close associations the men sometimes built when they served on the same crews, the relationships between men who shared living quarters were often less chummy. Officers lived with officers and enlisted men lived with enlisted men. Although they shared the same sorts of terrors when they flew missions, the enlisted men in Al Dussliere’s Nissen hut shared little else. “It was really very impersonal for most of us,” he said. “At any one time there were about twenty men in each hut, but the turnover rate was high and continuous. For example, one group of four or five guys might finish their required missions and get sent home. Then another crew might get shot down. Replacements oftentimes came in and disappeared just as quickly. Other guys would come or go in ones and twos as they got sick or recovered or just got moved in or out for one reason or another. Sure, guys made friends, but there was no way, or even desire, for everyone in the hut to become close with one another.”

*   *   *

THE VAST MAJORITY of the men who served in the 303rd and the various support units were generally of fine character. Notwithstanding that fact, it was inevitable that among so many thousands of men—nearly nine thousand in total through the war—there were bound to be bad apples. A letter from Mel Schulstad to his parents showed that he was a victim of petty theft: “We had a very nice summer. English countryside is very beautiful in the summer in a pastoral kind of way. I suppose I will regret not taking more pictures but I’ve had my camera stolen and then too, film is hard to get.”

An account from Keith Clapp, a bombardier with the 427th Bomb Squadron, gives another example. His aircraft was shot up by an Me-109 during the Stuttgart raid on February 25, 1944. The pilot struggled and only barely recovered the plane at an RAF fighter base at Brighton, where it was subsequently determined to need major repairs.

The crew left their bomber and returned to Molesworth the following day. On arriving at his quarters, Clapp discovered he had been robbed: “When we got back to Molesworth, from my foot locker was missing: my 45 cal. [pistol], my binoculars, fifty, one-dollar bills and two pair of ebony-handled Sheffield straight razors which I had purchased a week before in Sheffield. One pair I was going to give to the pilot when he finished his missions. These items were never recovered.”

The 303rd’s command recognized that there were problems—especially when crews went down—and had the following notice published in the daily bulletin “for the information and guidance of all personnel concerned”:

Private ***** (formerly staff sergeant) was tried and convicted by a special court-martial for the larceny of a Schick injector razor and blades, all of a value of about $3.00. The property belonged to a combat crew member who was reported to be missing in action. The accused himself has completed fifteen combat missions over enemy occupied territory. The court, however, considered the offense sufficiently reprehensible to sentence the accused to confinement at hard labor for six months and forfeiture of $40.00 of his pay per month for a like period.

Ben Smith recalled related behavior: “There was always a mad rush back to the barracks to get the bicycles of some crew that was shot down. This was not intended as any disrespect to our friends who didn’t come back.” Nevertheless, it wasn’t always easy to take away the newly-ownerless bikes as men were keen to keep those that were kept at their barracks. Smith recalled: “The crews in each barracks had a corral of bicycles. For some reason, it was important to us that our corral of bicycles remain intact.”

When crews were shot down, their personal effects at Molesworth were often collected by enlisted clerks. The belongings were sorted, and a special effort was made to make certain that nothing embarrassing or hurtful to the family was sent home. “I used to kid Milton Hamill,” remembered Van White, the operations clerk. “Hamill was the radio operator aboard the Jersey Bounce. He was Jewish and a heck of a nice guy. And he always wore finely tailored uniforms—he was very particular about how he looked. He was a small guy like me, and I always told him that if he ever got shot down that I was going to take his gabardine flying suit; it was just beautiful. Well, when he finished his last mission he came and got me from my office and took me over to his barracks. Then he opened his foot locker. There was a sign inside that read: ‘To Whom It May Concern: If anything happens to me, please make certain that my uniforms are given to Technical Sergeant Van White.’ Well, that was such a generous gesture that I was really embarrassed. I felt about one inch tall.”

Everyone dealt with the loss of friends and comrades in personal ways that varied from man to man. Dick Johnson recalled his own feelings at the loss of a friend, Charles Allen, during the raid to Berlin on June 21, 1944. He felt a small measure of guilt because his initial reaction was not concern for the welfare of his friend, but rather relief because he hadn’t been lost on the mission himself. Still, he was taken aback at the astonishingly callous reaction of another friend when told that Allen had been shot down: “No shit? I wonder if his pants will fit me.” Johnson was stunned at the comment but tried to reconcile it in his own mind. “I figured that his attitude might have just been his defense strategy.”

Johnson also recalled that some men dealt with their fears and anxieties by turning to the church. “After morning briefing, about half of the combat crews would go to the chapel for prayers or last rites. Some of our crew did this but I never did as I always relied on my own silent prayer: ‘Thank you God, for taking such good care of me.’” It was a prayer he had offered since his teenage years in southern Illinois: “Never asking for anything in the future, but always thanking Him for keeping me alive and in good health.”

Still, religion and the almighty were no less confounding during the war years than any other time. Warren Kotz was a navigator with the 427th Bomb Squadron. Even though there were hearty exclamations of “Thank God” upon completing particularly perilous missions, he didn’t believe that God had deserted those who did not return. “But we all said, ‘Thank God we made it through that one,’ no matter what we believed.”

*   *   *

ALTHOUGH THEIR GERMAN ENEMIES were expert at killing or hurting them, the airmen of the 303rd still found ingenious ways to hurt themselves. Dick Johnson offered an example: “One day I went over to the maintenance hangar to look around and the sergeant in charge had some .50 caliber bullets on the workbench.” Johnson watched, intrigued, as the man separated a bullet from its casing and poured out the gunpowder. “He then took a dull punch and set the casing on an anvil, placing the punch on the firing pin in the center of the base. With a light tap of a hammer on the punch, he fired the primer which made a subdued ‘pop.’”

Johnson watched the man craft the disarmed shell into a base for a model airplane. He was quite taken with the idea and decided to do the same. With just a little practice he made a base for a replica of an RAF Hurricane as well as a couple of cigarette lighters. He enjoyed his new hobby, and it helped pass the time when he wasn’t flying or otherwise obligated.

However, Johnson became a bit too comfortable handling the dangerous ammunition: “I had worked the projectile out of a casing and poured the powder out. The sergeant was not around and I couldn’t find a dull punch to explode the primer so I picked up a prick punch.” The prick punch had a very sharply tapered point and was used to precisely start holes in metal for subsequent drilling.

And it was the wrong tool for Johnson’s purpose. “When I tapped the punch with a hammer the primer exploded, but the sharp point of the punch caused the brass surface of the primer to split and shoot back upward, thus imbedding all the brass fragments in my left thumb and middle finger.” Blood poured from the wounds, and Johnson—somewhat sheepishly—walked himself to the dispensary. Had he sustained such a wound in combat, he would have been awarded the Purple Heart. In this instance, the only thing he earned was a raised eyebrow from the doctor who stitched his hand and fingers back together.

Not every injury in the 303rd or the Eighth was caused by German fighters or antiaircraft fire, or from hobbying with live ammunition. There were myriad ways to get hurt—sometimes badly—simply by being around the big ships. Slips and falls resulted in sprained or even broken limbs. And as well designed as the B-17 was, ergonomics came second to mission effectiveness and ease of production. Consequently, sharp corners and “head-bangers” were plentiful. Moreover, simply being around the aircraft could be dangerous; on at least one occasion, a man walked into a turning propeller.

Frank Boyle was injured when his ball turret failed on a mission during the latter half of 1944: “My turret just sputtered and stopped like a car running out of gas,” he recalled. “I called over the interphone, and the engineer shouted at me to get out of there, which I did in a hurry. Then we got hit by a bunch of Me-109s, and I started carrying ammunition from the tail up to the waist gunners. I didn’t have any headphones on, so I didn’t hear when the pilot called out ‘Geronimo.’ That was his signal to us that he was going to take evasive action and that we should brace ourselves.”

The heavy maneuvers caught Boyle completely unaware as he twisted while carrying a heavy ammunition box. “I was knocked off balance but kept my footing,” he said. “I didn’t feel any pain at the time and kept helping the rest of the crew. We made it back to base okay and I didn’t think much more about it.

“But I couldn’t move when I woke up the next morning,” he continued. “I couldn’t get out of bed. Finally, after doing a lot of stretching, I stood up and limped around well enough to actually fly a mission. But afterward, as we were coming back to base, I wasn’t able to get out of the turret. The two waist gunners had to lift me out.”

Barely able to move, Boyle struggled to the flight surgeon’s office. “He said that he didn’t have the equipment he needed to properly diagnose me. Then he asked me if I wanted to quit my combat tour. I told him no and left. I had torn ligaments and cartilage and such and walked with a heavy limp for the next seven years.”

*   *   *

OF ALL THE B-17’S GUN positions, it is the ball turret—hung from the belly of the aircraft—that is the most fascinating. The Sperry ball turret, equipped with two .50-caliber machine guns, was intended to defend the aircraft against fighter attacks from below. An electrically actuated, hydraulically powered system rotated the ball through 360 degrees in azimuth and 90 degrees in elevation. In other words, the guns could point in any direction and from approximately level with the horizon to directly downward. The turret was cramped, only forty-four inches in width, and consequently was usually manned by smaller men. The gunner sat with his feet in stirrups and his knees close to either side of his head. However, he rotated with the ball, so that when the guns were pointed downward he was facedown. He sat on an armored seat that extended behind his back.

The turret was operated with two wooden handles located in front of and above the gunner’s head. Moving the handles from side-to-side controlled the turret’s rotation while the elevation of the guns was controlled by twisting the handles. The firing buttons were atop the handles.

The guns were aimed via a K-4 computing gun sight which projected two illuminated lines on a glass sight in front of the gunner’s face. The gunner preset the wingspan of the target aircraft into the gun sight and then controlled the separation of the illuminated lines with a pedal under his left foot. A firing solution was achieved when the gunner framed an attacking fighter within the two lines.

In theory the ball turret was capable of protecting the bomber from attacks originating from any direction. However, firing forward was somewhat problematic. Firstly, the closing speeds were very fast and it was difficult to achieve a firing solution in time to use the guns. Moreover, obstructions from the fuselage cluttered the gunner’s field of view, as did the propellers. Automatic stops prevented the gunner from accidentally shooting the propellers.

Frank Boyle recollected the dangerous peculiarities of the position: “As the ball turret gunner I was the only member of the crew who couldn’t wear a parachute at my position. My chute and boots were wired to a steel triangle that was positioned immediately above the turret’s exit hatch. If we had to bail out I had to position my guns so that they were pointed straight down, open the hatch, climb out, disconnect my heating wires, interphone, oxygen hoses and such, and then attach my parachute. From there I had to make my way to one of the waist positions and jump.”

But the ball turret position could be even more dangerous. “If the turret’s unprotected outer vertical cam gearing was hit and jammed,” Boyle said, “it was impossible to roll the ball so that the exit hatch could open inside the fuselage. So, the gunner would be stuck.”

Robert Butcher of the 359th recalled just such an incident in his diary: “Ship shot up. Out of gas. Jara (Felix) trapped in ball turret. Had to land that way. All of us were scared to death.”

If the ball turret was stuck and the aircraft had to be abandoned, the other crewmembers, usually the waist gunners, had to remove the bolts by which a long steel tube held the ball to the aircraft. Once that was done, the ball would fall free from the aircraft with the gunner in it. Then, while falling, the gunner had to open the exit hatch, rip the parachute from the steel triangle and fasten it to his harness. Then he had to grab his boots, unfasten all the wires and hoses, push away from the ball and pull his parachute’s ripcord. And it was about fifty degrees below zero.

Moreover, the ball turret gunner’s relative isolation from the rest of the crew was dangerous in its own right. “If I were hit by antiaircraft fire,” Boyle said, “or if my oxygen was shot away or disabled, there was a good chance that I’d be dead before anyone from the crew could get me out of the ball—if they could at all.” There is little wonder that the ball turret position was not one that was eagerly sought.

Boyle recalled the dilemma that he and his fellow ball turret gunners faced when the formations were hit by heavy antiaircraft fire. “I had two choices when we were getting hit by flak. I could put my guns straight down, which would allow me to climb through the hatch and into the fuselage if we had to bail out. But that left me facing downward with my genitals fully exposed, as there was no armor plate to protect them from that direction. Or, I could put the guns parallel with the bottom of the ship, which put protection between my family jewels and the bottom of the turret. But if the exposed vertical gearing on the turret got hit, there was no way for me to escape the turret. In the end I kept the guns pointed down so that I could more easily get out of the turret; I decided that my life was more important than my genitalia.”

Boyle’s relief at clearing enemy territory was typical of many of the 303rd’s airmen: “Everyone smoked—I smoked Pall Malls. There is no way to describe the great happiness and relief I felt when I got out of the ball turret after we had descended down to below five thousand feet and were back over the English Channel. I’d sit on the floor in the radio room, light up a cigarette and smile. Hot damn—we got lucky one more time!”

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