Book: Hell's Angels

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PAUL SERSLAND WAS BORN on July 7, 1924, on his family’s farm near Decorah, Iowa. Tragedy struck him young in life. “It was quite a shock when Mother died,” he said. “I was four years old and my mother died of complications of childbirth. Consequently, the decision was made to send me away to live with my mother’s parents. My two brothers and older sister were already in school, but I was too young to go with them, and my father couldn’t watch me and run the farm too. I was so young and didn’t really understand what was happening; I didn’t lose just my mother—I lost my entire family and the only home I knew.”

Sersland was returned home a few years later, and his childhood regained a level of normalcy. “Our farm was a hundred acres and my life on it was pretty typical. We practiced what was called ‘diversified farming.’ We raised corn and livestock—to include a lot of pigs. These were mostly Red Durocs and Poland Chinas. We also kept about ten head of milking shorthorns. We used horses a lot and had chickens for eating and eggs. And of course we raised a big garden.

“We came from a long line of Norwegians on both sides of the family—I had a strong Lutheran upbringing and I was always a good student,” Sersland said. “I was athletic too. I played both offensive and defensive tackle on the high school football team at Decorah. My brothers and I learned to shoot on the farm. We had a .22-caliber rifle and we shot rabbits and squirrels, which we ate at the dinner table. I learned how to shoot pigeons as they flew out of the barn, and we also hunted pheasants in the fields; that was very useful when I went to aerial gunnery school later.”

Sersland didn’t give aviation much thought until he was a young teenager. “One of my uncles had a glider. Decorah sat in a sort of bowl, and evidently the area was good for gliding. My brother and I used to hold the wingtips of the glider and run alongside while my other uncle towed the glider airborne with his Graham-Paige automobile. That got me interested somewhat in flying.”

Sersland enlisted in the USAAF immediately after graduating high school in May 1943. At that point, the 303rd had been flying combat for more than six months. “I decided to enlist rather than wait to be drafted, because I got to choose the branch of service. I actually would have started training earlier than I did, but the farmer I was working with pulled some strings without me knowing to ensure I was around long enough to get the harvest in that fall.”

Although he took the exams and qualified for training as an aviation cadet, the USAAF needed aerial gunners at that point more than it needed pilots. Sersland was sent to Kingman, Arizona, for gunnery school, where he scored the highest marks achieved to that point. “They arranged for me to stay as an instructor, but I didn’t want to do that. I told them that I hadn’t enlisted to be an instructor—I wanted to fly in combat. They didn’t care and were set on keeping me there. I went up the chain of command until I reached a major who was sympathetic and let me go.”

Sersland was sent to Kearney Army Air Field, where he was assigned to the Thomas Hardin crew as a B-17 waist gunner. “We were from all over the country. We were three Lutherans, three Methodists, a Catholic and a Presbyterian. Our pilot, Tom Hardin, was an atheist.” Following more training at Rapid City in South Dakota, Sersland and the Hardin crew returned to Kearney, where they picked up a new B-17G and additional flight gear. They also underwent a final physical examination—including dental work and inoculations—preparatory to proceeding overseas.

The crew was ordered to England as a replacement crew for the Eighth Air Force and took the oft-traveled route across the North Atlantic. The weather was just as horrid as it had been earlier in the war. “It was nighttime when we took off,” Sersland said. “We got caught up in clouds and heavy icing, which we had never encountered before. Tom tried to climb us above the clouds but wasn’t able to get high enough. And then he descended as close as possible to the water, where the air was warmer. There we waited for the ice to melt.

“We were all very frightened,” said Sersland. “There was a good possibility that the ice would force us to burn all our fuel just to stay airborne. We knew that we’d die very quickly if we were forced to ditch in that icy water. And we’d be dead without ever having reached combat. I kept my Aldis lamp trained on the right horizontal stabilizer and watched through the dark for any sign that the ice was clearing. Tom Hardin called over the interphone every few seconds: ‘Pilot to Waist—is it melting yet?’

“I could tell that Tom—the atheist—was getting very anxious,” Sersland said. “Then, he called over the interphone: ‘Shouldn’t you religious types be doing some of that praying?’ We assured him that we had already been offering prayers for some time. Finally, I saw a chunk of ice break away. And then another, and soon the airstream got under the ice and lifted it all clear.”

Once across the North Atlantic, Hardin’s aircraft was put into a replacement pool. He and the rest of his crew were likewise put into a replacement pool. After a few days they were assigned to the 303rd’s 360th Bomb Squadron and arrived at Molesworth on October 4, 1944.

A postwar study described the importance of replacement aircrews such as Hardin’s to the morale of a unit:

Prompt replacement of killed, missing, wounded and worn-out airmen was essential to the preservation or restoration of good combat morale. In the case of units whose attrition rates were moderate, a steady supply of new pilots or crews acted more as a preventative of trouble than anything else. But for squadrons and groups that had been numbed by disaster, an immediate influx of reinforcements had the life-giving quality of a blood transfusion. It counteracted tendencies toward disintegration, helped to bring the organization out of a condition of shock, and started the healing process.

Of course Sersland—along with the rest of Hardin’s crew—was a replacement and, thus, part of that healing process. He recalled his impressions upon being shown his new living quarters: “I was a bit uneasy. There were a lot of empty bunks in the building. I asked the guy who was helping me get settled in if the other crews had finished their missions. He hesitated a bit and said that it depended on how my question was interpreted. In truth, yes, the missing crews had flown their last missions. In fact, the 303rd had lost eleven of the twenty-eight bombers it sent on the raid to Magdeburg a week earlier, on September 28. My new squadron, the 360th, lost seven of the eleven. The news was quite a shock to me, and I was uneasy for some time after that, until I had a few missions under my belt. But from that moment I had a keener understanding of what was meant by the term ‘replacement crew.’

“A few days later I was impressed again when Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Lyle, the group deputy commander, had a meeting with us new arrivals. He didn’t pull any punches as he laid down the realities of the air war. He was clear about what was expected of us and didn’t try to make it seem that people weren’t dying. It was clear that the same could happen to us.” Sersland’s experience was typical and was one he shared not only with his peers but with virtually every young man who ever went to war. He had always understood at an intellectual level that he stood a real chance of being hurt or killed, but the reality became more visceral as he neared actual combat.

*   *   *

NOVEMBER 11, 1944—ARMISTICE DAY—was like any other day for the 303rd. There was no armistice in Europe, and the target was the Buer Synthetic Oil Plant at Gelsenkirchen, Germany. The weather was low, gray and wet, and the men speculated that the mission might be scrubbed.

Robert Sorenson, the waist gunner for Paul Stephan’s crew, remembered the details passed to the airmen that morning. “In the briefing room we were told that this was to be a quickie; a short run to the Ruhr Valley. This was good news. If we did get off, we’d be back by noon. It was the eleventh mission for our crew; another reason for optimism. It seemed that if a crew got past ten missions they were riding a lucky star and had a good chance of finishing their tour.”

Almost immediately after Stephan lifted Duffy’s Tavern from the ground, the ship was cloaked by the rain-sodden clouds. Flying entirely on instruments, Stephan reminded the crew to put on their oxygen masks as the ship climbed through fourteen thousand feet. Sorenson, already on oxygen, moved forward and pulled the safety pins from the bombs. “About ten minutes later, we must have been at about 17,000 feet, I noticed a bright red glow out the left waist window. Thinking we were breaking through the clouds and the glow was the sun, I stood up to look out. That was no sun! There was a ten-foot tail of flame coming from the number one engine!”

Sorenson called a warning over the interphone. “But I don’t think the pilot ever heard me because almost at the same instant the plane flipped over, went into a spin, and exploded.” Sorenson was making his way toward his parachute near the rear exit door when Duffy’s Tavern blew itself apart. He never got there.

“As the plane flipped I was thrown against the floor with such force that I couldn’t move a muscle. It probably was only a split second, but it seemed like a long time. Then came the terrible explosion which blew me out through the fuselage head first.” Stuck between a pair of the aircraft’s structural ribs, Sorenson struggled mightily to push himself clear of the falling wreckage that had been Duffy’s Tavern.

“Once in the air, everything seemed to be floating and there was a terrific ball of fire. All at once, out of the debris, came a parachute pack. It fell right into my arms. I was conscious at the time and snapped the chest pack onto my harness.”

Sorenson blacked out for a few seconds before regaining consciousness and finding that he was clear of the debris. “I counted fast and pulled the ring [to the parachute]. Nothing happened. I looked at my hand. I was holding the ring but there was no cord attached to it. I shook my hand and thought I threw the ring away then started clawing at the [parachute] pack. There was no sensation of falling but I knew I had to get that chute open.”

Sorenson passed out again. “My complete life went through my mind; every good thing and every bad thing. I even saw my grandparents. It was almost like meeting them in a new world. They had been dead for 15 years but they seemed as real as they were when I was a kid on their farm.”

Sorenson fell in and out of consciousness as the ground rose up at him. Each time he tore at the parachute pack. “Finally it opened partially but I was tangled in the cords. “As I struggled I noticed that part of the chute was burned and hung above me like a tattered rag. . . . The last thing I remembered was a large tree coming up at me fast.”

For reasons never determined Stephan had flown Duffy’s Tavern dramatically off course. It crashed near Much Wenlock in Shropshire, more than a hundred miles west of Molesworth. Pieces of the bomber were spread over several miles. Bombs exploded and larger pieces burned on and along the main route into town.

Edward Townsend was a local homesguardsman. He and another homesguardsman, Harry Murdoch, raced toward the wreckage. “It was misty and we couldn’t see too far, but in the second field from the road we thought we heard a faint ‘help.’” Townsend and Murdoch headed in the direction of the pleading voice and found “an airman leaning over some wooden rails in the hedgerow.”

The airman was Sorenson. “He looked in a very bad state and was only half conscious. He apparently had walked or crawled 60 or 70 yards from a large oak tree where we later found the burnt and torn remains of a parachute. He was still holding the metal grip of the parachute ripcord.”

Sorenson remembered nothing of hitting the ground, and it is impossible to determine exactly what happened. It is likely that the heavily damaged parachute caught some air and slowed him somewhat before he fell into the branches of the hoary old oak. Those branches slowed him further, although not without injuring him gravely. After finding Sorenson, Townsend and Murdoch lifted him down to an old iron gate and used it as a litter to carry him to a waiting ambulance.

Sorenson woke up in Much Wenlock’s hospital two days later. “They told me I had a concussion, was missing a few teeth, my spine was crushed, my neck broken in two places and I had a blood clot in my left eye. I was pleased to find that Sergeant [Dwight] Philips, our engineer, was in the next bed. They had found him eleven miles from where I landed. His back was broken in several places. He told me that we were the only survivors.”

The rest of the group flew an uneventful mission to Gelsenkirchen that day and bombed through the clouds. No enemy fighters were encountered and the flak was light. Duffy’s Tavern was the only ship lost.

*   *   *

EVERY CREWMAN OF THE 303RD struggled with fears of varying intensities. Ball turret gunner Frank Boyle spoke about his: “Starting with my 28th mission I got ‘flak phobia.’ I was frightened to roll the ball [turret] after the door was closed. I had an unreasonable fear that the turret was going to simply fall away from the aircraft with me in it. And of course, there was no room in the ball for a parachute. I went to the flight surgeon and told him that I was afraid and was putting the entire crew in danger. He told me not to worry—that I was normal.”

Boyle was sent to a rest home to recover. “It was the Royal Hotel at Southport,” he recalled. “It was on the coast of the Irish Sea and the British royals stayed there prior to the war. I had never been anywhere so nice. The toilet covers were padded purple velvet and the faucets were gold.” The Royal Hotel was one of an eventual seventeen rest homes that were contracted by the USAAF beginning in 1942. They were typically good hotels, or converted estates or manor houses, intended to provide a brief period of respite—typically a week—to battle-weary men, or to those who had survived a particularly traumatic episode.

Although they were often jokingly referred to as “flak shacks” or “flak houses,” they were overwhelmingly enjoyed by the men who recuperated there. One objective was to “demilitarize” the homes to the maximum extent possible; references to rank were discouraged and civilian clothes were worn. Crews were often separated; the enlisted personnel were typically sent to different homes than the officers, although care was taken to ensure that there was no distinction in the quality of the different arrangements. The homes were staffed by proper Red Cross hostesses whose chief duties were to make the men comfortable without becoming romantically involved or overly familiar.

Activities at the homes ran the gamut from archery, horseback riding and canoeing to less strenuous diversions such as playing cards, board games, watching movies and reading. Nearby towns or cities offered drinks, ladies, shows and other entertainments. Or, if the men preferred, they were allowed to do absolutely nothing.

Frank Boyle’s preferences were toward quiet. “No card games, no dances, no girls and no excitement. Actually, it was just what the flight surgeon told me I needed—all quiet and no stress. I had never had such a mental problem, and it just didn’t go away after a good night’s sleep.

“The greatest thing about the Royal Hotel was my two rooms,” Boyle said. “In the bathroom there was a brass reading tray on a flexible three-piece rod mounted to the wall. You could swing the adjustable tray with the London Times on it while you were sitting on the throne. And the tray had a flexible brass lamp screwed onto the arm right above the tray.”

“There was no shower,” said Boyle. “There was just a jumbo bathtub with gold faucets and a hose with a shower-type head. And there were terrific towels and wall-to-wall carpeting. There was also a bidet. Coming from Vermont and the New Hampshire mountains, I had no idea how to use it, and I was too embarrassed to ask. My bedroom had a very soft leather easy chair and an ottoman. There was a flexible brass floor lamp that gave superb light. Of course it was nothing like in our huts at Molesworth.

“I met other bomber crewmen in the bar and billiard room,” Boyle remembered. “We talked and drank good British pints. We were all there for the same reason. ‘They’ called it ‘flak happy.’ It wasn’t easy to talk with your peers about being scared in combat. It wasn’t the manly thing to do when you were nineteen.”

Boyle made a distinction: “Nobody was scared at being shot at by fighters—you could shoot back at those SOBs. But the flak from the IP [initial point] until you turned for the barn after bombs away was the worst. Especially for us ball turret gunners. We had the automatic seat cameras that followed the bombs down to the target through the GD [God damned] flak bursts.

“And we talked,” Boyle said, “about the Brass Hat stupidity of daylight bombing without adequate fighter cover. I think that kind of talk is just what we all needed. We just needed to get it out—cry over so many lost buddies and yell about our Brass. Nobody got drunk . . . just mad.

“After eight days I went back to finish my tour,” said Boyle. “The fears were gone—I was just mad. Everyone on my regular crew had finished their tour while I was gone, and I consequently lived the ball turret gunner’s worst nightmare, which was to fly as a substitute with new crews who had little combat experience. They often didn’t understand how important it was to check on the ball turret every few minutes. If the oxygen went out, a gunner wouldn’t live more than about five minutes, and they needed to know how to manually crank up the ball and drag me out.”

Boyle flew with five new crews during his last seven missions and successfully completed his tour on Christmas Eve, 1944. “When I considered that I had originally enlisted with the intention of becoming a P-40 pilot,” said Boyle, “it had been a strange string of events. God works in mysterious ways.”

*   *   *

BOYLE WAS FAR from the only man who grew to fear the ball turret. David Michael recorded a hauntingly cryptic passage in his diary: “I’m afraid of that ball turret. How I’d like to forget. Darkness scares me.”

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Next: “We Shut Down Everything Then”