Book: Hell's Angels

Previous: “What the Hell Is Going On Up There?”
Next: “I Was Blown Out”

“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON UP THERE?”

ALBERT “AL” DUSSLIERE, or “Deuce” as he was later known, was born in Moline, Illinois, on July 21, 1924. “I was named after King Albert of Belgium. My father was Flemish and emigrated from Belgium to the United States in 1903 when he was nine, and my mother’s heritage was also Flemish—she was from a family of fourteen.”

Dussliere’s childhood was almost a caricature of early twentieth-century America. “My father was a grocer and I grew up in the business. All of us boys—I had three brothers—worked in the store and we knew everyone in the neighborhood. It was a very important part of our lives. We had a classic Catholic upbringing; the parish was only a block from our house. Likewise our school was only one block away but in a different direction. John Deere was the major employer in the city. Actually, it was the heart of the community, and the company maintained a wonderful complex of athletic fields. As kids, we were free to use them and played a great deal of softball, which was very popular when I was growing up.

“We used to hang out at Bert Busconi’s gym when I was eight or nine years old. Bert hosted boxing tournaments that toured the area. It was his idea to teach me and my brother trick wrestling moves and feature us in between boxing matches to help entertain the crowd. We were really kind of a novelty, and the spectators threw money into the ring at us quite often. One night we came home with twenty dollars; it was more than my father cleared at the grocery that day.

“We did other things to raise money too,” Dussliere said. “We set up Flavor Aid stands outside the store and sold drinks to my father’s customers—they were a captive audience. And I was a pretty good promoter too. We used to stage small carnivals, boxing matches, amateur stage productions and things of that sort on my grandfather’s property. We had a lot of fun.”

As idyllic as Dussliere’s early life might have seemed, it was still marked by tragedy. “My mother died when I was twelve. Obviously, it was very hard on all of us, but my father did what needed to be done to raise me and my brothers. And he had lots of help. Not only did his family live in town, but all my mother’s siblings were still there. We had cousins by the dozens and enjoyed all the advantages of a large, loving extended family.

“I was never one of those kids who were fascinated by airplanes,” Dussliere recalled. “I wanted to go to college and be a lawyer. But in January 1943, with the war on, I went up to Chicago to see the Navy recruiter. We thought that flying with the Navy would be a good way to do our part. But at that time the Navy had all the pilot candidates it needed. The recruiter did put two of our group into flight training and enlisted three others. He told me that if I really wanted to fly I ought to try the Army. That’s what I did. I passed the exams with no problem and started training as a cadet in June 1943.” At that time, the 303rd was part of the initial effort to execute POINTBLANK. In fact, Ehle Reber, one of the 303rd’s original pilots and one of its first casualties, had already been dead for five months.

Dussliere didn’t complete cadet training. Rather he was sent to gunnery school and assigned to B-17s as a waist gunner. His training was much improved over that of his predecessors, as it had been informed by nearly three years of combat operations. He arrived in Molesworth during the late fall of 1944 and flew his first mission on December 18.

*   *   *

JANUARY 10, 1945, marked the 303rd’s three hundredth combat mission. “I’m not sure that most people even knew it was the three hundredth mission,” recalled Ed Gardner, the navigator on the Grafton Smith crew. “If anything, our crew was a little unnerved because it was our thirteenth mission. And it was the hundredth mission for our airplane, Buzz Blonde. She was a great airplane. The nose art was a painting of a beautiful blonde—completely naked. Her arms were outstretched like she was flying and her breasts were taut and thrust upward. She had little propellers for nipples. But no one made a big deal during the briefing about it being the group’s three hundredth mission. In fact, they emphasized the fact that it was expected to be a milk run.”

Lack of fanfare aside, the three-hundred-mission milestone was one that no other bomb group had achieved, and it underscored the unit’s reputation as one of the USAAF’s premier combat units. It was highly regarded as an efficient and professional organization, and the argument could be made that no other bomb group had hit Germany so hard.

Notwithstanding the 303rd’s reputation and experience, the mission developed to be a poorly executed mess. A number of factors—some over which the men had control and some over which they did not—came together to work against the group. First, it had snowed the previous night, which not only made the work of the maintenance men and bomb loaders difficult and miserable, but also required extra details of men to clear the taxiways and runways. The change in weather also brought a change in wind direction. This forced the group to take off from the north-oriented runway, which was counter to how operations were normally conducted. The deputy group commander, Edgar Snyder, described the effects of the change in a memorandum to the group a week later: “Under favorable weather conditions, taking off on the N-S runway is complicated and requires prompt compliance with and execution of instructions; under adverse weather conditions anything less than clockwork precision produces falling hair and a condition best described as FUBAR [Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition].”

The runway change alone caused plenty of confusion, but the disorder was exacerbated when crews mistakenly taxied out of order and at the wrong times. Efforts to return some organization to the muddle were aggravated when a wheel on one of the bombers locked and trapped other aircraft behind it. The brakes failed on another bomber and it ran off the perimeter track. Ultimately, thirty-two aircraft got airborne more or less on time, but another seven aircraft were delayed an hour and never rendezvoused with the main body. Rather, they tacked themselves to another bomb group.

The 303rd’s main formation, further reduced in size when two aircraft aborted, made it to the initial point on a northerly heading toward the target in reasonably good order. However, as Snyder noted in his memo, things unraveled quickly: “The main portion of our effort stayed together until the I.P. was reached. From the I.P. to the target we again ran the gauntlet of all the things that shouldn’t happen to our worst enemy. Even the good Lord is confused as to just what went on.”

The lead aircraft of the low squadron lost an engine and fell out of formation. The GEE-H set in the aircraft of the group leader, Major George Mackin, failed to work properly. This radio navigation device was used to bomb targets in poor weather. There appeared a providential break in the clouds near the target—the Bonn/Hangelar airfield—and the group set up for a visual bombing run, but a blanket of snow made it almost impossible to distinguish landmarks and the lead bombardier set up on the wrong target. Moreover, the bomb bay doors on the lead aircraft failed to open.

The high and low squadrons lost sight of the lead squadron as it maneuvered to attack the correct target. In a turn, for whatever reason, half the bombs from the deputy lead’s aircraft fell away, and many of the toggliers aboard the other bombers in the lead squadron mistakenly released their bombs at the same time. Mackin, at the head of the formation, erroneously believed his was the only aircraft with bombs remaining, and he consequently directed his bombardier to set up on whatever worthwhile target presented itself. This made more sense to him than taking the lead squadron back through the flak just so that he could drop his own bombs. As his bombs fell earthward, he was astonished to see the other half of the formation also drop its bombs on the ad hoc target.

The high and low squadrons executed their own attacks. “We came around for a second run on the target,” remembered Gardner, “but had to abort it when a group of B-24s appeared below us. They were on time whereas we weren’t. We finally released our bombs on the third try.”

Blundering formations, blind dumping of bombs and other miscues aside, the 303rd’s three hundredth mission was marked by tragedy as well. Al Dussliere, the waist gunner aboard Buzz Blonde, remembered what happened as the group finished its abbreviated run on the target: “Very shortly after the bombs were released, the squadron started a hard left turn, which put us into a blinding, low-angle sun. At full power and almost in the contrails of our element lead, we moved to our left and up to our left wing position on the high element lead.

“Our bombardier, Bill Dohm, leaned over to look out the nose so that he could see the bombs hit. But what he saw was not what he expected. There was the cockpit of another B-17 directly below him. He felt like he could reach down and shake hands with the flight engineer in the upper turret.” Dohm immediately called over the interphone for the pilot, Grafton Smith, to pull up. At the same time he rushed to get out of the nose and shouted for Ed Gardner, the navigator, to follow him.

Ed Gardner remembered: “Bill Dohm disconnected his interphone, his oxygen and his electric flying suit and rushed by while shouting at me to get out of the nose. I also disconnected my equipment and started back, but right before I ducked down into the catwalk that ran under the flight deck I saw a giant black shadow rise up in front of our aircraft. It was the vertical stabilizer of another B-17.

“When we hit,” Gardner remembered, “it sounded like a million tin cans being crushed all at once. The tail of the other bomber cut all the way through our nose and came right up to my feet. Then we separated for a few seconds before colliding again into the number two engine of the other aircraft.”

Dussliere, the waist gunner, recalled the instant of impact: “In the back of the airplane we felt a tremendous jolt accompanied by a loud crashing sound. At the waist position, everything that wasn’t fastened down was knocked around. I was slammed forward but managed to stay on my feet and get back to my gun on the right side. Looking out, I couldn’t see the rest of the formation, and it seemed that we were pulling away to the left. Back at the tail position, Mel Howell seemed alert and was at his guns. Toward the front I saw George Parker in the radio compartment and he was okay too.

“The right wing was bent in two places and drooping like it was on a wounded bird,” Dussliere continued. “And the number three engine was shaking like hell. In the back, we all thought we had been hit by flak.”

Buzz Blonde’s nose was torn away, but both Bill Dohm and Ed Gardner were still alive. Nevertheless, both of them were knocked unconscious. When Dohm regained his wits, he was on his back facing the rear of the aircraft with ammunition belts strung across his legs. Ed Gardner was down around his feet. A great, icy blast pinned the two of them where they were. Moreover, both had lost their helmets, gloves and oxygen masks.

The two men, trapped and without oxygen, were in danger of passing out and freezing to death. “I got up,” Gardner said, “and stepped onto the catwalk that ran under the flight deck. I reached up and beat on the engineer’s legs. Both Bill and I needed oxygen bottles.” There was no response from the engineer, David Massingill. “I turned around and looked at Bill and he motioned at me to bail out from the escape hatch. It was then that I remembered my parachute. Thankfully, it was still in front of the bulkhead, but I was only able to get one of the snaps attached to my harness.”

Suffering from shock, cold and anoxia, Dohm and Gardner struggled in the windblast. Gardner tried to get the engineer’s attention again, and once more received no response. It was at that point that Gardner released the escape hatch on the lower left side of the nose below the pilots. They both hesitated to leave the bomber. Gardner and Dohm were operating on the very edge of consciousness and neither recalled how they finally cleared the aircraft.

Al Dussliere recalled what happened: “Ray Miller, the ball turret gunner, called out over the interphone and said, ‘Someone just bailed out! And someone else bailed out! What the hell is going on up there?’ Miller was told to get out of the ball and he did—in record time.”

Smith and his copilot, Mel Alderman, wrestled with Buzz Blonde. Not only was the right wing broken and the nose smashed, but the right horizontal stabilizer was also mangled. Moreover, the ailerons were jammed and the two pilots were only able to turn the bomber—and just barely—with the rudder.

“Dave Massingill, the flight engineer, was flying with us as a replacement,” Dussliere remembered. “He found some GI blankets and gave them to Smith and Alderman to wrap around their legs. They started descending the airplane and sent him back with us so he could get out of the wind.”

*   *   *

“IT WAS A POPPING NOISE in my ears that brought me back to consciousness,” recalled Ed Gardner. “It took a moment for me to realize that the cold, wet gray through which I was falling was the cloud layer that had been below us. I guessed that Bill Dohm had pushed me out through the escape hatch.”

The cold was ferocious. “I touched my nose and ears,” Gardner said, “and found that they were frozen nearly solid. I pushed harder on my right ear and was startled when the cartilage snapped. So I left my ears alone. Instead, I tried again to hook the second snap of the parachute to my harness, but my hands were frozen just like a chunk of meat in the grocery store. I just couldn’t make them work. Then, I put my hands under my armpits to try to warm them. After a bit I tried the parachute snap again but still couldn’t get it attached. At this point I shouted, ‘God help me!’”

When Gardner finally tried to pull his parachute’s ripcord, his hands were so wooden that he was lucky—after several attempts—to hook his little finger through the ring. When he pulled it, the canopy blossomed nicely, although—because it was attached at only one point—he was suspended lopsided beneath it. “I looked at the countryside,” he said, “and it looked empty. I thought I might have a decent chance to evade. It was about then that I heard rifle fire and bullets ripping past me. I started swinging in my parachute to throw off their aim.”

Gardner fell into a deep snowbank on the side of a hill. “When I finally dug myself out of the snow, I was surrounded by a group of farmers with rifles. A big, fat SS major in uniform was shouting at them to shoot me. He called me a terror flieger, and luftgangster and Amerikanischer! I was frightened that they were going to kill me right there. But they seemed unsure and not at all inclined to shoot me. It might have been because I was very youthful looking. I was twenty-one, although I could have easily passed for sixteen.”

It was at that point that a pair of Luftwaffe soldiers arrived. “They drove up in what looked like a German version of a jeep [probably a kübelwagen] and just walked right up without saying a word. They helped me out of the snow and into the vehicle with my parachute. And then they drove me away.”

Like Gardner, Dohm was disoriented when he regained consciousness. He was falling face up, and it took time for him to roll his body around and judge his height above the ground. When he estimated that he was below ten thousand feet, he reached to pull his ripcord. Again, like Gardner’s, his hands were frozen, and it took time for him to release his parachute. Notwithstanding the fact that the parachute worked perfectly, he descended toward a farm and slammed into the roof of a barn before his parachute dragged him to the ground. He was captured immediately.

*   *   *

SMITH AND ALDERMAN still fought to maintain control of Buzz Blonde. “Without a navigator or any charts,” remembered Dussliere, “they decided to head south toward France. The plan was to stay on top of the clouds as long as possible and then, if enemy fighters showed up, descend into the clouds. The tail gunner, Mel Howell, helped keep us on course by calling out the position of the sun.”

The Luftwaffe never showed and the clouds soon dissipated, although the visibility was marginal. “As we passed through about six thousand feet, Smith gave everyone the option to bail out,” Dussliere recalled. “He and Alderman planned to try to land the plane. The rest of us decided to stick with them.”

It wasn’t long before a C-47 was spotted lifting from an airfield. Without charts, Smith and Alderman didn’t know exactly where they were but Buzz Blonde was obviously over friendly territory. They eased the power to the engines and let the big bomber drop toward the airfield. In the back of the aircraft the men readied for a crash landing.

“When Smith and Alderman turned downwind and lowered the landing gear,” Dussliere said, “a voice came over the radio and told us to land alongside the runway. The airfield was a fighter base, and they didn’t want us to crash and clobber the metal mat runway.” Smith and Alderman raised Buzz Blonde’s landing gear and—steering by rudder alone—struggled to get the ship lined up for landing. It was no good. The two pilots added power to the three good engines and hauled the battered bird around for another approach.

Dussliere said prayers from the radio compartment, where he and the other four enlisted men assumed their crash positions. “There was a strong sense of relief,” he said, “when we heard the power come off the engines and felt the plane settle on the ground. The pilots let it toboggan on the snow. As the plane slid down the side of the runway, snow poured down the open escape hatch and created a blizzard where we were sitting in the radio compartment. The airplane rotated slowly around to the left until we were pointed opposite the direction we were traveling. But it really was a very smooth landing. Unfortunately, we demolished a number of light aircraft as we slid.

“As soon as the plane stopped, we scrambled out through the escape hatch at the top of the radio compartment,” Dussliere said. “We were fearful that there might be a fire. When we saw that the aircraft wasn’t burning, we jumped back up on the wings to help Smith and Alderman through their respective windows. When the crash crew got there, we found out that we were at A-97 in Sandweiler, Luxembourg.”

*   *   *

Iza Vailable III, piloted by Roy Statton and David Schroll, was the aircraft with which Buzz Blonde collided. Buzz Blonde’s number three engine hacked away the other aircraft’s tail section. The tail gunner, Marion Mooney, fell away with it and was killed. Like Smith and Alderman at the controls of Buzz Blonde, Statton and Schroll got their mangled aircraft safely on the ground with an emergency landing in miserable weather, at B-53 in Merville, France.

One more loss marked the 303rd’s three hundredth mission. The B-17 commanded by Cecil Gates was clobbered by flak as it approached the target. Three engines were knocked out, and maintaining control of the aircraft was almost beyond the physical capacity of the pilots. Gates stomped the left rudder to its limit while clutching the control yoke all the way back into his chest. With the help of his copilot, Benjamin O’Dell, he coaxed the steadily falling bomber through a turn to the west toward Allied lines.

Other than his backup compass, Gates had no flight instruments with which to safely penetrate the clouds below. An attempt to descend through them for a crash landing would surely have failed, and there was no good option but to abandon the stricken B-17. Gates sent O’Dell back to direct the enlisted men to jump. The Y-operator, Paul Hassler, was reluctant to do so. He spoke German and believed, with some justification, that he would be killed as a spy if he were captured. After O’Dell explained that Hassler had no choice—unless he wanted to stay aboard a pilotless aircraft—Hassler parachuted clear with the rest of the enlisted men. Gates, O’Dell and the crew’s other two officers followed soon after. As it developed, Hassler evaded the German forces retreating through the Ardennes area and made it to the Allied lines, as did Gates, O’Dell and the other officers. Of the enlisted men, aside from Hassler, two were captured and killed, while three were made prisoners.

*   *   *

ALTHOUGH THE GROUP’S EXECUTION of its three hundredth mission was not something of which its leadership was proud, the fact that it reached the mark—and was the first heavy bomber group to do so—was. Nevertheless, it was little more than a number. The war was not over, and finishing it would demand more sacrifice. The group’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Raper, said as much in a congratulatory memorandum he delivered to his men on January 17, 1945, the week following the mission:

You have every reason to be very proud of our fine record and of our war effort to date. You have all worked very hard, putting in long hours under trying and adverse conditions. Your teamwork has been magnificent, and without it our accomplishments would never have been possible. However, this war is not over, and we must all continue to do everything in our power to keep this excellent record intact, and to improve it when and where we can. Our goal is a common one—total defeat of the enemy, so that we may again return to our families, our homes, and our normal way of living.

Accordingly, the men of the 303rd were compelled to continue the deadly grind.

Raper’s memorandum mentioned teamwork. Certainly the 303rd was a team—a winning team—that proved itself every day. And the crews on each bomber made up smaller teams that worked toward the common goals of delivering bombs against the Germans and coming home in one piece. The public image of the USAAF bomber crews was of men who were “closer than kin.” Within those crews, each man supposedly loved the others like brothers.

Such was the case many times. They crawled into their aircraft not for love of country, although virtually all of the men considered themselves patriots. Nor did they do it because their commanders issued orders that compelled them to go; they were volunteers and could have refused air combat at any time. And they didn’t take to the skies to satisfy a sense of adventure and an urge to fight. Not after the first couple of missions, anyway.

What actually motivated them to fly mission after mission at terrible risk to life and limb was the difficult-to-describe bond of comradely love that manifests itself when men face danger together. Mel Schulstad articulated it with a pain that still throbbed decades after the war. He choked with tears and paused, then said, “You keep on going . . . because the other guys are going.” He stopped again to blink back tears and then said, “And if they’re going, you’re going. It was a fantastic thing the way we came together as a group of people. We didn’t know each other from Adam’s off ox when we came together, but by the fourth or fifth mission we were blood brothers. You would do anything to keep your crew alive and well and happy. And you’d stay with them through hell and high water. And you did.”

But it was unrealistic to believe that eight, or nine or ten, men from different regions and backgrounds would come together in every instance and form strong fraternal bonds. The chemistry of personality simply worked against such a notion. There were too many screwups and sad sacks and bullies and other incompatible types. Some men just didn’t like the way others looked or talked or walked or laughed.

Carroll Binder recalled how his crew became angry with their ball turret gunner when they learned that his guns—presumably due to his neglect—failed to fire during a particularly heated attack by enemy fighters. “We knew that, barring cold conditions not even approaching that day, guns would operate if properly cared for, and we were furious to find that Shorty had never succeeded in firing a single round from either gun, even more furious to see that, far from apologizing, he was now strutting like a peacock, telling the ground crew what it was like to be fighting the war. Under normal conditions, at least one of us would have taken a crack at Shorty’s too-active jaw, but we were so tired that we let it go at a warning that a similar incident had better not take place again. Shorty said something about our always picking on him and sulked off to remove his guns.”

Paul Sersland recounted a mission to Sterkade during which a crewmember decided he was done being a volunteer. The aircraft, captained by Tom Hardin, had taken a beating. The left outboard engine was hit and set up a massive vibration through the entire aircraft. The fuel tanks on the right wing were also hit and streaming. The nose was badly damaged, and the bombardier and navigator had to be pulled clear. Just keeping the ship airborne required every bit of Hardin’s considerable skill.

Meanwhile, a drama unfolded in the rear of the aircraft. Sersland, the waist gunner, looked back to see the tail gunner crawl out of his position and into the fuselage. “I asked him what he was doing—there was a good chance that we might be attacked by enemy aircraft. We were all needed at our guns because as a straggler we were easy pickings. He said he knew we weren’t going to make it back to England and that he was bailing out.

“It wasn’t unreasonable that he thought we might crash, but we were still flying at that point, and Tom Hardin hadn’t yet given the order to bail out. He said he was going to jump anyway—the odds of making it back to England were poor. I stopped him. I asked him if he was sure his parachute was going to work. This caused him to pause as there certainly was no guarantee. Then I reminded him that even if his parachute did work, he could be shot by German fighters as he descended. This caught his attention even more.

“Then,” Sersland continued, “I reminded him that intelligence reports indicated that it was not uncommon for German civilians to murder Allied flyers after they bailed out. It had happened many times. Finally, I told him to sit down by me. I let him know that I was pretty sure we were going to make it back, but if it got worse we would bail out together.

“He finally agreed to stay on the airplane,” said Sersland. “But he said that if we did make it back he was never going to fly again. I told him that was fine. We were all volunteers and none of us had to fly if we didn’t want to.” As it developed, Hardin wrestled the ship back to England. The gunner was sent to a rest home but never flew again.

Previous: “What the Hell Is Going On Up There?”
Next: “I Was Blown Out”