Book: Hell's Angels

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THE AMERICAN BOMBER formations sent over Germany during early 1945 were massive. Raids of more than a thousand bombers became almost commonplace. In part because of the enormous numbers of men required to man the aircraft, the composition of the bomber crews was changed during this period. “Instead of two waist gunners,” Al Dussliere said, “we started flying with just one. By that time, there simply weren’t very many German fighters left. And even if there had been a lot of fighters, the waist positions could usually be covered by a single gunner because the attacks generally came from only one direction at a time.

“And, quite frankly,” he said, “the waist gun positions weren’t that effective. They were manually aimed and for the most part had only simple steel sights. Also, instead of having two guns as in the chin turret, the ball turret, the top turret and the tail position, each waist gun position had only a single gun. Finally, one less gunner meant that the aircraft had to lift that much less weight.”

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FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES, the Luftwaffe was finished. Some of the 303rd’s success—and much of Germany’s failure—was due to chronically abysmal leadership at the highest levels of the Luftwaffe. Its head, Reichmarschall Hermann Göring, was a decorated World War I fighter pilot and a charismatic, bright and sensitive personality. He was also a grotesquely selfish, corrupt and cruel narcissist and liar who failed to understand modern air combat and was too lazy, drug-addled and paranoid to put in place the people, policies and resources necessary for the Luftwaffe to succeed.

Another person who bore much responsibility was Ernst Udet, who was charged with development of new equipment and aircraft for the Luftwaffe. Like Göring, he was a successful World War I ace. Also like Göring, he was an ebullient personality who abused alcohol and drugs to the point that his work and judgment were impaired. The Luftwaffe’s failures during the Battle of Britain and the invasion of the Soviet Union were major reasons for his suicide in late 1941. Another luminary was Hans Jeschonnek, the chief of the general staff of the Luftwaffe. He was a hardworking, dour martinet who—continuously stymied by Göring—was unable to right the wrongs that were being done to the Luftwaffe. In August 1943, like Udet, he committed suicide.

Erhard Milch, the air inspector general, and Albert Speer, the minister of armaments and war production, were capable administrators who were more successful than Udet and Jeschonnek in working around and behind the backs of Göring and Hitler. Indeed, Speer’s dramatic and abrupt overhaul of German industry enabled the Reich to increase aircraft and armaments production during 1944 in the face of Allied attempts to bomb it into rubble. However, in the face of simultaneous attacks on fuel production, and in light of earlier German failures, there was little that Germany could do—barring a miracle—to save the Luftwaffe.

That miracle a year or so earlier might have been the Me-262 jet fighter. It was the one bright spot in the Luftwaffe’s fighter force during the last few months of the war. Designed and built by Messerschmitt, it was a revolutionary, twin-engine design that was heavily armed and up to a hundred miles an hour faster than most Allied fighters. Speculating as to what might have happened had the Me-262 been introduced during 1943 rather than late 1944 is a never-ending exercise that excites experts on all sides. It is common to blame Hitler for the delay in its fielding due to his insistence on it being deployed as a fast bomber. The truth is, regardless of what Hitler did or didn’t do, technical and material issues caused considerable delays, as did wrongheaded decisions up and down the Luftwaffe chain of command. Hermann Göring, Hitler’s chief sycophant, could have done much to eliminate a lot of the friction had he been interested in leading rather than stealing great European art treasures.

In service, the aircraft was unreliable. Jet engine technology was still very immature, and the necessary metals were not available in Germany in the amounts required. Consequently, the engines were quite prone to failure and had to be changed after only about fifteen to twenty hours of flight time. Nor was the aircraft a good dogfighter. In a classic, hard-turning engagement it was easily outmaneuvered by the Allied front-line propeller-driven fighters. Its chief advantage was its speed, which approached 550 miles per hour. So long as its pilots flew high-speed slashing attacks, the jet was virtually untouchable. And armed with four 30-millimeter cannons or R4M rockets it was a superb bomber killer.

The jet’s speed also made it less vulnerable to aerial gunners. Frank Boyle remembered that the fast new jets largely negated the effectiveness of his ball turret. “The Me-262s were so fast that we couldn’t traverse the ball fast enough to pull the right amount of lead—we couldn’t get our guns in front of them. And it really didn’t matter anyway because the computing gun sight couldn’t handle such high speeds. If they attacked us from the rear, we could pull enough lead but the firing time was so short that they were extremely difficult to hit.”

Al Dussliere’s diary entry for the 303rd’s mission to Hamburg on March 20, 1945, captured not only the excitement of a young man in air combat, but also his wonderment at the new German Me-262 jet fighter. Also notable is his contemporaneous use of descriptors for his German enemies that were no doubt influenced by Allied propaganda.

First attack took everyone by complete surprise. The first jet attacked the high element with all guns blazing. The Jerry maniac came directly at #3 element. It seemed impossible that he could miss. . . . Wall of fire darted from top and ball turrets. The jet flew right through the squadron close enough for many (including myself) to see the black cross and swastika on the plane. I also saw the Nazi madman piloting the ship. The fighter attacks continued for a half hour. The greatest thrill of my life occured [sic] when I saw one jet knocked out of the sky. . . . When the jet got within 200 yards a thin trail of black smoke streamed out from its tail. Suddenly the vertical stabilizer flew off and a split second later in a mass of flames the tail crumbled. The plane fell off and went into a dive. Down in flames dove another of Goering’s fanatics.

Guido Marchionda was a tail gunner with the nearby 360th and probably didn’t know Dussliere, who was with the 427th Bomb Squadron. Yet Marchionda’s description of the event dovetails perfectly with Dussliere’s:

One of the fighters came so close by our ship that I saw the red marking it had on it’s [sic] tail. I opened fire at him and as he was about 200 yds from us his tail broke off and caught on fire. The plane went in a spin and I didn’t see the pilot get out. I believe I shot him down, but there were also other fellows shooting at him. One sure thing, he went down burning. . . . I was scared and I was praying while firing.

Unlike Marchionda and Dussliere, Charles Johnson didn’t make it back to Molesworth to record his experience. A navigator with the 358th, he wasn’t even supposed to fly that day. He was at the post exchange with his pilot and copilot—Francis Taub and John Cooper—when the call went out for all crews to report immediately to their squadrons. There followed a quick briefing before Johnson and the rest of the Taub crew were driven to a hardstand on which sat a spectacularly new and unblemished B-17G.

“The aircraft had flown less than five missions,” Johnson said, “and appeared to be just off the assembly line, complete with carpet throughout and the latest technology including state-of-the-art heaters.” Johnson and the rest of the crew were quite impressed as many of the bombers they had flown were patched-up relics—some having completed well more than fifty missions. “As we prepared for takeoff, the crew chief said, ‘Bring her back in the same condition as you got her.’”

Aside from heavy flak over Hamburg, the first part of the mission was unremarkable. The 303rd left the target, turned north and then winged west for England. Positioned on the outside of the formation—at the end of the “whip”—Taub and Cooper had a hard time keeping up as the group made the turn. “While in the process of the turn, which left our aircraft exposed on the outside of the formation, all hell broke loose,” said Johnson.

The aircraft was rocked by a tremendous jolt. “As I looked to the right from my navigator position in the nose,” Johnson said, “I glimpsed a German fighter going past our plane at a tremendous rate of speed. In an instant I realized that I had just seen my first German jet fighter.” The tail gunner called over the interphone that the tail section was badly hit. Immediately after, Taub reported that he and Cooper were having difficulty controlling the ship and directed the men to prepare to bail out. Johnson, the navigator, advised that it might be a good idea to put as much distance as possible between their struggling aircraft and the city they had just bombed. “I suggested that we continue to fly in a northerly direction to reach a less hostile area, possibly Denmark or Sweden. Taub agreed.”

Nevertheless, the German fighter pilots had other ideas, and the crew was attacked again a short time later. The Germans sieved both wings with cannon fire and destroyed two engines in quick succession. “This time there was no debating the decision to bail out. I buckled on my chute,” said Johnson, “and moved to the escape hatch where I saw the engineer, Warren Chrisman, trying to jettison the hatch door.” The door would open only partially and Chrisman became stuck as he tried to wedge his way out. Johnson helped push him clear and followed him out only after a mighty struggle that nearly exhausted him. The silver ship exploded an instant later.

Johnson pulled his parachute’s ripcord, then realizing he was still too high, he immediately snatched the pilot chute before it could deploy the main chute. He fell, wind whistling past his body, until he judged he was low enough to release his parachute. “I then released the pilot chute and the main chute opened with a jerk. I misjudged the distance to the ground and was not ready for the impact. I landed on my right leg and arm, both of which sustained injury.”

Upon Johnson’s coming to earth, a gust of wind inflated his parachute and dragged him across the freshly plowed field into which he had landed. Stunned, injured and disoriented, Johnson struggled mightily as his face and body were dragged across the wet earth. His clothes scooped up soil as he was slammed from row to row. “Finally, the wind subsided momentarily and I somehow managed to unbuckle my harness. The wind again came up and the chute and harness became airborne and blew away.”

Johnson hobble-trotted to a stand of young trees and hid there until nightfall. That night, cold and sore, he put his navigational skills to good use and used Polaris—the North Star—to make his way through more farmland until nearly dawn, when he hunkered down in a low spot and fell asleep. It was the noise of a fuss that woke him hours later. “When I awoke in the early afternoon,” Johnson said, “I could hear voices and sensed commotion around me. I opened my eyes and saw eight to ten mostly elderly men with shotguns or pitchforks looking down at me. I knew instantly that, for me, ‘the war was over.’”

The German farmers did not harm Johnson. Instead, they took his gun, knife, escape kit and money before bringing him to a nearby hamlet and turning him over to “some bureaucrat in a uniform. I was then directed to sit in the back of an old pickup truck with two armed guards pointing guns at me while the driver bounced across dirt farm roads.” Johnson’s trip ended at a town where he was put in jail.

Johnson left jail the following morning in the custody of two aged German army soldiers. “The younger of the two, about 55, had lived in New York as a ticket manager for the Hamburg-American Shipping Lines and spoke fluent English. The three of us walked to the Bad Degeburg railway baggage station and waited in a small room.” There then arose a disturbance outside.

“The younger guard left,” said Johnson, “and returned with a dozen Wehrmacht soldiers who were armed and promptly fixed bayonets to their rifles. Approximately thirty Hitler Youths were being led by a fat old man obviously trying to stir them up. The Wehrmacht soldiers went outside and formed a cordon around the building, menacing the boys with their bayonets until they backed off and dispersed.”

Johnson’s travails continued in the same vein when he climbed with his guards onto a train to the Neumünster southeast station. There they had to disembark and walk because the tracks to the northwest station had been destroyed in a bombing raid the previous day. “When civilians, mostly older women and young children, realized that I was a captured American airman, they started to converge on us,” Johnson said. “The younger of my two guards shouted for us to make a run for it. I took off with him in spite of my bad leg. The older guard had fallen behind and was being pelted by sticks and stones.”

The trio finally made it to the southwest station, where Johnson was temporarily put in the custody of four teenage soldiers. Their behavior was a marked contrast to what he had endured twice already that day. “They seemed delighted to see me and we discussed, in broken English, people and places in the United States. They were interested in Babe Ruth, Joe Louis and Benny Goodman, and in the cities of Chicago and New York.”

After a short time, Johnson was back aboard a train with his two guards cum protectors. It was a short trip to a circular structure that was the station at Pinneberg, on the outskirts of Hamburg. It wasn’t far from where Johnson’s troubles had begun a couple of days earlier. “When we arrived, my two guards and the station commander cleared out everyone, including station personnel, locked the doors and went outside to speak to Wehrmacht soldiers milling around the building.”

Johnson was torn with fearful anxiety. “I circled the inside of the station, stepping up on benches to peek out the windows.” His two guards rallied the Wehrmacht soldiers to hold off a hostile mob that numbered in the hundreds and surged angrily against the station. Ultimately, the cordon of enemy soldiers held and the angry civilians were cleared.”

It was time for Johnson’s guards to leave. He had been with them only a day, but it had seemed much, much longer. “The one who had lived in New York asked if he could have the flight wings off of my shirt collar as a memento,” Johnson said. “I readily and thankfully gave him the insignia. To me he was both a hero and a savior who could have abandoned me to the mob at any time.”

From Pinneberg, Johnson was sent to an interrogation center, where he spent the following seven days alone in a small cell. “On the eighth day I was taken to interrogation. Although I feared the worse, it never transpired. On the contrary, the officer interrogator spent most of the time talking about the fact that he believed the war would be over in four weeks and what might then happen.”

Johnson was subsequently joined with a couple dozen other American prisoners who were being readied for transport to a POW camp. They were addressed by a German officer before they left: “He said he could only assign six guards to defend us against civilians on the march to the train. He advised us not to create a confrontational situation, regardless of what happened. We did have to endure insults, taunts, spitting and threats, but refrained from any retorts and arrived safely at the train.”

The men got under way, but the train pulled into a siding soon after. Johnson was able to see out of his car as another train was loaded with soldiers, presumably headed east to fight against the advancing Soviets. “Except for some officers, they were all boys of twelve to fifteen years of age. The flower of Germany’s next generation being sent to slaughter for a cause long since lost. Of all the experiences during my service, this was and is my single, most poignant and saddest recollection.”

*   *   *

JOHNSON WAS PROCESSED into the German POW system—as were 763 other men from the 303rd during the course of the war. The men were sent to stalags, a word derived from stamlager, which was a type of camp. A stalag luft was a POW camp specifically for captured airmen. The men called themselves kriegies, a bastardization of Kriegsgefangener, a German word for captured soldiers. Although there were exceptions, officers were generally sent to camps separate from the enlisted men. Some camps were for specific nationalities, or commonly, camps were segregated by nationality.

The Allies, with the exception of the Soviet Union—to the tragic misfortune of its men—were signatories to the Geneva Convention, as was Germany. Accordingly, the Germans treated their prisoners, except for the Soviets, in accordance with the rules set down by the convention. Men were not forced to work, and the wounded and ill received medical treatment; in many instances severely wounded men were repatriated back to the Allies.

The 303rd’s men were held in at least seventeen different camps, but the conditions at each were generally similar. Although food varied in quality and quantity, it was enough for the men to survive, although never enough to keep them in the pink of health. Every man lost weight, with some shedding fifty or more pounds. Understandably, the power of hunger drove them to the brink of obsession, and food was always a favorite topic of conversation. Hal Gunn’s wife sent him a photograph of herself in a bathing suit at the beach while holding a bottle of Coca-Cola. When Gunn showed it to his comrades they reacted as their instincts directed: “Ah, Coke!”

Red Cross parcels, weighing more than ten pounds and containing powdered milk, canned meat or fish, fruit, cigarettes, sugar, jam and other sundries and foodstuffs, augmented the German rations and contributed much to the well-being of the POWs. The men used cigarettes as an unofficial currency, and sometimes traded with their guards for additional food or for contraband.

Except for morning and evening roll calls, the men were generally left alone by their captors and entertained themselves as best they could, to include cards, board games, sports, walking and other diversions. Some of the POWs were experts in certain disciplines and gave classes or other sorts of instruction; many men learned a second language while in captivity. Philip Peed, a bombardier from the 358th Bomb Squadron, recalled his experience: “We had a fellow who wanted to start a class in accounting and I joined that, and it was a lifesaver. There was no pressure in the class and we got a good education in accounting in about 4 months.”

Keeping warm in the winter was a constant challenge as the barracks were drafty and heating fuel was scarce. Personal hygiene was likewise a challenge as water and fuel to heat it were usually in short supply. As a result, the men were typically infested with lice and other vermin, as was their clothing and bedding.

One of the greatest hardships the men endured was a paucity of news from home—letters were too few and sporadically delivered and men grew heartsick. Others did well enough and actually took the time and effort to write back to their comrades in the 303rd, as did Merle Cornish:

Dear Bob [Landry], Would you let Les know that I’m absolutely unhurt and that I’m sorry I had to stand her up? If the hose, sugar, or any of the cosmetics are around, let her have them. We are being well treated, with good quarters and enough nourishing food. Pay Les for the photos of mine and give her my love. The radio’s yours, Bob.

Although there were abuses, the Germans generally treated the POWs fairly, if severely. Gratuitous violence or harshness, although it happened, was not the norm. Philip Peed offered an example: “From the time of the invasion [D-Day] until about Christmas it was pretty tense. . . . They [German guards] were very anxious and anytime an air raid was called they made us stay in barracks with shutters closed. No one could look out. One of the enlisted men in the cook shack where they cooked the soup opened the door one day to air out the place and one of the guards saw him and shot and killed him. [It was] the only real tragedy in our compound.”

Leadership was provided by the senior Allied man in the camp, and it was he who served as the liaison to the German leadership. Most of the guards—the POWs called them “goons”—were older men, or soldiers who had been wounded and were unfit for fighting. Their work was not overly challenging, as actual escape attempts were infrequent. In truth, for both the POWs and their guards, life in the stalags was, in the main, a cold, boring and dreary waiting game.

That waiting game came to a close as the end of the war neared. It was during this time that many of the POWs endured unnecessary and callous treatment when the Germans evacuated camps in front of the advancing Soviet armies. Many of these evacuations were begun at the height of winter during late 1944 and early 1945, and they continued to the end of the war. Movements were sometimes made in stinking, grossly overcrowded train cars, as described by Philip Peed: “We traveled about a day and a half before they finally stopped in a station and they let us out for a few minutes. We were animals, imagine 10 boxcars at once in a station, with 500 POWs and also civilians walking and waiting for their trains. The POWs from the train were the animals, they urinated and went to the bathroom right on the platform. The guards were not happy and finally got us back on the train.”

But the majority of prisoners were made to march—sometimes hundreds of miles. Sick, cold and starving, the men frequently had no option but to bivouac in the open. Food was scarce, and the men were forced to scavenge from the countryside, bartering or stealing from farms and villages along their routes. George Emerson, a tail gunner with the 303rd’s 427th Bomb Squadron, recalled a humorous encounter: “On one of the nights spent at a farm, Harry met the farmer. The farmer wanted to learn English, so what did Harry teach him to say? ‘Buy American war bonds.’ And after the farmer mastered this one, Harry motioned for our nearby buddies to form a circle around us. On command, the farmer used his new English phrase. Total laughter ensued.”

Although there were occasional amusing interludes, as described by Emerson, the marches were exceedingly miserable experiences that forced the POWs to struggle mightily to survive. Indeed, it is estimated that more than a thousand American servicemen perished on the road. Among many diseases, dysentery was rampant, and many of the men, unable to control their bowels, spent weeks in ragged, shitty clothes. Men who became too ill to move were either loaded on wagons—sometimes drawn by other POWs—or were left to die or shot. Sadly, the columns of prisoners were occasionally mistaken as German soldiers and strafed by Allied fighters: “The second day out,” recounted George Emerson, “our column came under attack from our own P-47s. Three prisoners were killed and several more were injured. This happened near my particular position on the march.”

There were opportunities to escape, but there was little point. The end of the war was obviously near, and the Germans had what food there was. Moreover, although they were enemies, the Germans were still organized and were charged by the Geneva Convention with protecting the POWs. They took those obligations more seriously as the Allied armies neared and it became clear that they would be held accountable. And men who fled the march risked being shot. If they made a good escape, they would be out of touch with events, in danger of being recaptured or shot, and without food or camaraderie.

The final destination for many of the marchers was Stalag VII-A at Moosburg, near Munich. It was a collection point of sorts for Allied POWs, and there were more than one hundred thousand men at the camp by the end of April 1945. George Emerson was there when the 14th Armored Division liberated the camp on April 29. “I can honestly say this is the happiest day I ever remember of [sic]. The artillery sounded close all night of April 28. The real fireworks for Moosburg, started about 9:00 A.M. this Sunday morning and lasted about three hours. A tank and two jeeps just came thru camp. Everyone is wild, P-51’s, and little Elmer [an artillery spotting aircraft] have been buzzing this camp all day. What a beautiful sight.”

Not all of the stalags were evacuated, and Charles Johnson’s experience was typical of those POWs who weren’t marched away from the front. He and the kriegies of Stalag Luft I discovered that their guards had completely abandoned the camp during the evening of April 30, 1945. That next morning he was one of many men who wandered through the surrounding area to see what they might:

We proceeded to the road not knowing what to expect, but what we saw was incredible. There was a Russian horde of stupefied drunk, unkempt and unruly scavengers and pillagers. The rag-tag army, including many women, rode in expropriated old cars, which they could barely drive, or horse drawn carts piled high with loot taken from the Germans.

Not wanting to get caught up in the rapacious riot, Johnson and his companions retreated to their POW camp. The next day, they sunned themselves at a nearby beach, and within a week, they were evacuated by the Americans.

Ultimately, of approximately ninety thousand American POWs held by the Germans, the vast majority survived the war to be repatriated back to the United States. Most of them passed through one of the “cigarette camps” near Le Havre, most notably Camp Lucky Strike. There they were deloused, cleaned, fed, clothed and otherwise nursed back to health before being sent home with pockets full of back pay. Their treatment, once back in friendly hands, was almost universally outstanding.

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