THE PREVIOUS TWO JANUARIES had been cruel to the 303rd. Very early in its combat career, the January 3, 1943, raid to St. Nazaire cost the group nearly a third of its fourteen bombers. It did lose a full third of its aircraft—seven of twenty-one—only three weeks later, on January 23. The following year the Germans shot down eleven of the group’s B-17s on the January 11, 1944, mission to Oschersleben. But with the war entering its final months, January 1945 developed to be not nearly so gruesome. During that month the 303rd launched 208 more combat sorties than it had during the previous two Januaries combined. But it lost only seven aircraft.
Still, the dying was not any less grisly. James O’Leary underscored that point in his description of the January 13 mission against the Schlageter Bridge across the Rhine at Mannheim. He flew as the 427th Bomb Squadron’s command pilot in the squadron’s lead ship.
The 303rd attacked the target through heavy flak. O’Leary’s navigator, Edwin Katz, was hit in the head. “Ed’s body was wedged in an upright position. The green quilting was missing on my side and I could look between the rudder pedals for a full view of him. As his body would sway with the movement of the plane, I could see that the only part left of his face was a long strip of skin about two inches wide with an eyebrow and eyehole.” The bombardier, Lloyd Long, peered sorrowfully through the gap at O’Leary and informed him over the interphone that there was nothing to be done for Katz. O’Leary directed him to concentrate on the bomb run.
The flak burst also blew the ship’s instrument panel to bits, severed a number of hydraulic lines—including those for the brakes—and knocked out the radio transmitter. “Meanwhile the spouts of hot blood spurting into minus 50 degree temperature created dense steam that rolled up the catwalk, into the pilot’s compartment.” Clair Reed, the lead pilot in the left seat, mistook the frozen blood-mist for smoke, declared that the aircraft was on fire, and started to unbuckle from his seat. “I yelled back,” O’Leary said, “everything is okay, we are not on fire, keep flying.”
The damage the antiaircraft fire caused to the 303rd’s formation included mortal blows to three ships of the 427th Bomb Squadron. The Red, piloted by Jack Rose, was one of those. It was hit in the right wing, which caught fire. “Jack called me two or three times to say that he was on fire and going down,” said O’Leary, who couldn’t respond because his radio transmitter had been shot out. The entire crew, after evading for a week, was captured and survived the war as POWs.
“My right wingman, Oliver ‘Tommy’ Eisenhart, had taken a direct hit in his tail wheel well,” said O’Leary, “and his empennage was in the act of separating from the fuselage as he went under the lead plane.” The radio room camera on O’Leary’s ship caught one of the iconic images of the air campaign. In it, the empennage of Eisenhart’s ship can be seen tearing away from the rest of the aircraft. When it broke free, the aircraft flipped end-over-end until crashing. None of the crew survived.
Old 99, piloted by Martin “Marty” McGinnis, was hit in the nose and tail sections as well as the right wing. It caught fire. “McGinnis’s copilot, Second Lieutenant F. C. Doscher, called me to say that Marty had lost both legs at the knee and had bled or was bleeding to death,” said O’Leary. Doscher called again to let O’Leary know that he had given the order to abandon ship. “Lieutenant Doscher impressed me with his calm report. But I could not acknowledge his message.” All the officers of Old 99 were killed, while the enlisted men were captured and made POWs.
O’Leary and his crew survived the return flight to England, and he landed their damaged bomber at RAF Manston, which had a runway that stretched nearly two miles; with no wheel brakes, he needed it. As soon as the aircraft’s tail wheel settled on the runway, O’Leary cut the power to the two inboard engines and used the two outboard engines and the rudder to steer. The airfield and the surrounding area were abuzz with other bombers in extremis. “I saw a B-17 on fire over the field with a long string of chutes trailing it,” O’Leary said. “Two aircraft were landing to our right [and] a third B-17 was landing behind them at a slant.
“Down at the far end of the runway,” he said, “a long line of aircraft were taxiing nose to tail. I opened my window, and leaning out as far as I could, waved frantically at the planes crossing in front of us realizing that we were going to run off the end of the runway. The leading ship’s nose dipped as the pilot applied his brakes. God bless him. We shut down everything then, and went bouncing and sliding through tall grass and small trees. We came to rest in an RAF latrine ditch.”
O’Leary and his crew sat silent and breathed in the stink of piss and shit and hydraulic fluid. And blood. An ambulance raced up to the bomber and an English medic checked Katz’s corpse and reported to O’Leary what he already knew: “Sir we can’t do anything for your man up front.”
O’Leary spent a restless night at Manston along with a hundred or more other displaced crewmen. He groaned out loud in his sleep and woke up, self-conscious, only to see that no one in the room was disturbed. He was flown back to Molesworth early the next morning, and he stopped by his quarters before dropping his flight gear at the squadron’s quartermaster hut.
Opening the door to what I thought was an empty room and easing my duffel bag to the floor, I glanced up in surprise to see my original navigator, Lieutenant Michael Kacere, sitting in the top bunk. He was staring at my duffel bag, and I then noticed that it was covered with dried blood, bone, hair and something that looked like gray chewed paper. I looked at Mike again and he was sitting there with tears running down his cheeks. After a long quiet minute, I picked up the bag and headed for the Quartermaster hut.
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ELECTRONIC WARFARE—WHICH CENTERED to a great extent around radar, radar enhancements and radar countermeasures—evolved rapidly during World War II. The RAF started using thin aluminum strips, codenamed “Window,” on July 24, 1943, to scatter German radar signals during the highly destructive firebombing of Hamburg. The metallic strips reflected the signals and caused great meaningless blobs on the Germans’ radar scopes. Because the RAF’s aircraft operated at night and were impossible to spot unless illuminated by searchlights, the German antiaircraft defenses were greatly hampered.
Later, the Americans used similar metallic filaments or metal-coated paper strips called “chaff.” This proved effective when operating above the clouds, when the Germans could not use visual targeting aids. The chaff was pushed by the radio operator through a chute in his compartment. Upon receiving a signal from the group’s lead navigator—a radio call and two red flares—the 303rd’s radio operators were directed to dispense bundles that consisted of two thousand strips each, at a rate of “4 units every ten seconds unless briefed otherwise.” Notwithstanding the initial effectiveness of these types of radar countermeasures, the Germans developed counter-countermeasures that somewhat negated their effectiveness.
Beginning in October 1943 the USAAF started using radar spot jammers codenamed “Carpet.” Earphone-equipped spot jammer operators shared the radio compartment with the radio operator. The spot jammer operators detected and identified the frequencies of the German radars with a single receiver. Once that was done, they manually tuned one of three transmitters aboard the ship to jam a specific radar set. So a single jammer-equipped aircraft could neutralize three different radars at one time; the group’s formations usually included from one to three spot jamming aircraft. Jamming was most effective when the formations were obscured from the ground by a layer of clouds. Otherwise, the German antiaircraft gunners could use visual sighting systems.
Another crew position that appeared late in the war, and about which very little information is available, was the Y-operator. The Y-operator shared the radio compartment with the radio operator on especially equipped ships and sat at a purpose-designed radio set. German-speaking, his job was counterintelligence. Likewise, the voice interpreter position emerged late in the war, and this crewman also operated special equipment in the radio room. He listened to German communications and took notes, sometimes passing that information—particularly as it related to fighter operations—to the pilot. Many of the men were cross-trained to serve as voice interpreters, Y-operators and spot jammers.