Book: Hell's Angels

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LATE IN THE WAR, although the slaughter continued unabated, thousands of American veterans were completing their combat obligations and returning home. The nation was still on a war footing but the fighting was far away and the end of the conflict—in Europe at least—was in sight. Most of the airmen who had served with the 303rd took training assignments where the demands on their bodies and minds were trifling compared to the terrors they had endured over Europe. Still, although it did not include action against a desperate enemy, life back home was as common and mean and everyday as it had ever been.

Following his combat tour, Dick Johnson took orders to MacDill Field in Tampa, Florida. There, the USAAF was still training B-17 crews, and Johnson was assigned as the assistant provisional group commander. The dichotomy between operations with the 303rd and stateside duty was marked. He was part of a booze run—officially characterized as a “goodwill” visit—to Cuba that included three B-17s crewed by officers, enlisted men and nurses. The liquor stocks at MacDill’s various clubs were slim and there was liquor aplenty in Havana.

The delegation enjoyed three days of partying, exploring and sightseeing before returning to MacDill. “After landing late that evening,” said Johnson, “I was about to walk to the Bachelor Officers Quarters when Colonel [James] Carroll said that I could ride with him and his driver. I was flattered that the base commander would show an interest in me, a mere first lieutenant.”

Rather than taking Johnson to his quarters, Carroll took him to his own house, explaining that he was interested in the younger man’s combat experiences. The two of them sat on the back porch, where Carroll dismissed his aide and poured drink after drink while showing a keen interest in Johnson. “Shortly I found his hand on my knee. Then he placed my hand on his leg. I removed my hand and he started trying to unbutton my trousers. As he was getting more aggressive, I sort of sobered up enough to say that I had to go to the bathroom and that the bushes would be fine.” Johnson raced for the bushes and kept going until he reached his room.

“I was so angry about his attempted rape that I made no bones about the whole episode when I talked to fellow officers. Evidently the word had gotten around about my seditious talk, because Colonel Carroll suddenly retired right in the middle of a war. I had decided to face a general court martial if need be.”

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APRIL 1945 MARKED the last of thirty months of war for the 303rd. But regardless, operations during that month were still deadly. “I, along with the rest of Grafton N. Smith’s crew, finished my thirty-fifth and final mission a couple of weeks earlier, on March 24,” remembered Al Dussliere. “All of us were done except for our copilot, Melvin Alderman. He was from Casselton, North Dakota, and was a really wonderful person, but he was three missions behind the rest of us. That was because when we started flying actual combat missions on December 18, 1944, it was normal practice for an experienced pilot to fly with a new crew to make sure the men knew what they were doing; it helped transition them into combat. That meant that Melvin didn’t get to go on the first few missions.

“The crew was given a three-day pass,” Dussliere continued, “and we wanted Melvin to come along, but he insisted on staying on base so that he could finish his missions and go back to the States with the rest of us. The mission on April 6 was his last one—his thirty-fifth.”

The Eighth Air Force put 659 bombers airborne that day. The target was the railroad marshaling complex at Leipzig. Pinched from both the west and east, the German Army was desperately repositioning units to make its final stand of the war. Neutralizing the railroad nodes—even for a few days—would help stymie that effort.

The 303rd launched thirty-nine bombers, of which two aborted. The rest of the formation joined the main effort and winged westward at high altitude. For the most part, the ingress was uneventful, as most of it was flown over Allied-held territory. At one point, a lone Me-262 made an ineffectual pass at the column of bombers and was chased by escorting P-51s toward the 303rd. A single gunner from one of the ships opened fire on the enemy jet, observed hits and was later given credit for a probable. Flak was described as meager and inaccurate. In terms of enemy action, the mission was wholly unremarkable.

Thick, puffy contrails—condensation trails—carpeted the path the bombers plowed as they continued toward Leipzig. The contrails were a normal part of high-altitude bombing missions, and aside from the fact that they made it easy for enemy fighter pilots and antiaircraft gunners to locate the bombers, they were—for the most part—little more than a nuisance. They were created when warm, moist engine exhaust mixed with the cold air typical at high altitudes. Depending on a number of factors, to include humidity, temperature and winds, the contrails could grow quite thick and persistent. And in some cases they grew dense enough to make it difficult for the pilots to see one another and maintain formation.

South of Leipzig, in the cloying cloak of the contrails, two of the 303rd’s B-17s collided. Melvin Alderman, as the pilot rather than the copilot, was flying one of them—the Green Hill Belle. The other aircraft, piloted by Howard Lacker, was unnamed. Alderman’s ship exploded in midair. Pieces of the bomber burned as they fell, and no parachutes were observed. Likewise, the other B-17 was critically damaged. Its tail section broke away, and the remainder of the aircraft fell into a flat spin. The engines, either disabled by the collision or shut down by the crew, spun their propellers slowly. As was the case with Alderman’s ship, no parachutes streamed from Lacker’s aircraft. The rest of the group continued toward Leipzig.

Both aircraft hit the ground in the vicinity of Loessnitz, approximately fifty miles south of Leipzig. The MACRs for both crews included a translated German police report:

The factory building on the Loessnitz and Dittersdorf property was totally destroyed. Also the administrative and residential buildings were severely damaged and both cannot be used anymore. The restoration will take a long time. The factory buildings are beyond repair. The company employed 110 workers in an emergency program. The adjacent farmhouse of farmer Reimann was also heavily destroyed and cannot be restored. The farmhouse along Zwoenitzer Strasse and owned by farmer Guenther received also medium damage. The factory roof of Anton Jaehn in Dreihansen was heavily damaged, production continues though. Railroad and roads remain without damage.

The damage described was caused by the B-17 that Alderman piloted, Green Hill Belle. The police report mentioned that debris and bodies were scattered across a five-hundred-meter area. The bodies, except for that of the tailgunner, J. M. Moore, which was still trapped in the tail section, were taken to the local “cemetery hall.”

Frau Johanna Tittmann was watching her daughter inside her home at Loessnitz when the air raid warnings sounded: “We did not take these air warnings serious[ly] anymore and we were all convinced that in such a lonely place we lived in, no harm would come. In such cases we would not even seek shelter anymore.” Tittman was right in that Loessnitz was not a target. Still, two bomb-laden 303rd B-17s fell toward the town that morning. “I looked through the window in the direction of Oberer Bahnhof [the railroad station] and saw something fall from the sky.” What she saw were pieces of Alderman’s bomber.

Tittmann bent protectively over her daughter. “Then we ran into the cellar. It happened all so fast and I cannot remember how I ended up there. I must have been still at the stairs when a loud bang, dust and rubble were flying all around us.”

The doors and windows of Tittmann’s house were blown out, as were various walls. She felt the heat from flames that threatened to consume the neighborhood. “Our wood pile, the building across and the farmhouse of farmer Reimann were on fire. Our roof was torn down, one kitchen wall gone. No windows and doors were left in the entire house. Thousands of tiny glass fragments were embedded into the furniture like crystals and months later still in the down beds when sheets were changed.”

Lacker’s aircraft crashed to the ground approximately five hundred meters to the northeast. The town’s constabulary showed remarkable insight when it supposed—correctly—that the two B-17s had collided: “Since there was ANOTHER crash site 500 meters away, it is assumed that both bombers collided in midair. Additional bomb craters or delayed action fuses were not found.” Aside from the eight crewmen aboard Alderman’s aircraft and the nine crewmen on Lacker’s ship—all KIA—a Czech laborer and a French laborer were killed on the ground at Loessnitz. An additional eight civilians sustained injuries severe enough to require medical attention.

*   *   *

GUIDO MARCHIONDA WAS the tail gunner aboard My Darling on the mission to Leipzig. It was his last. The collision between the Alderman and Lacker ships unfolded directly in front of him: “The ship flying behind us collided with another aeroplane and they both blew up. I knew the boys for they slept in the same barrack[s] I did. I really felt bad for I knew them very well and associated with them. The planes were burning like paper and broke in a hundred pieces. I didn’t see any chutes come out. I got a terrible feeling after that. I really sweated this mission out. Thank God I finished.”

*   *   *

THE 303RD’S REMAINING BOMBERS dropped a mix of general purpose and incendiary bombs—as well as leaflets—through the clouds at Leipzig. They returned to Molesworth just more than nine hours after taking off. Not a single aircraft sustained damage of any sort. It should have been the perfect last mission for Alderman.

“I was in a pub in Northampton with Ray Miller, our ball turret gunner, and George Parker, our radio operator, when we found out that Mel was killed,” said Dussliere. “Early in the evening some other flyers from our squadron came into the pub. We immediately noted the somber looks on their faces; it was readily apparent that there was bad news. Naturally we wondered what and who. They approached us and one of them said, ‘Alderman got it today.’”

Dussliere and his companions were staggered. They had given little consideration to the notion that Alderman might not live through his last mission. “Mel had always been very friendly and made it a point to spend time with us enlisted men. Moreover, he was a great copilot. He and our pilot, G. N. ‘Smitty’ Smith, brought us home from some very rough missions. And then he was gone. We left the pub and caught a ride home without saying much.”

*   *   *

IT WAS DAYS before the family members of Second Lieutenant Howard George Weinberg—the bombardier aboard Lacker’s Green Hill Belle—learned anything at all about the mission. They were at their home in Mount Vernon, New York, more than three thousand miles west of where Dussliere, Miller and Parker rode silently back to the base at Molesworth.

At that moment Weinberg’s parents were likely going through their Friday afternoon routine. However, it was probable that they—like millions of parents across the globe—had sometime during the day said at least one prayer for their son’s safe return. Lois Brown was Weinberg’s younger sister. “I was 11 at the time of his death, the baby of the family. My next brother was 7 years older than I, my sister 10 years older, and Howie 12. Of all of them, it was Howie I adored. Howie was sweet, funny, gorgeous, sentimental, slender, 6’5-1/2’’ tall, athletic, popular, a charmer with the girls, the perfect son, the perfect brother. When he was home, our house was barely big enough to hold him. There was always noise, the radio turned up loud, music playing, his big friends dropping by. When I had to be dragged off to bed at night, the house would still be ringing with jollity, my lullaby.

“We were blessed with parents who not only loved each other and were each other’s best friends, but who loved us and were our best friends as well. They were happy, we were happy. It was truly a magical household. When I went to the movies, I thought those happy families up there on the screen were like my family, and not the other way around.

“Before we were prepared for it, war came to our house. Howie left Columbia University to join up. He wrote, ‘Dad, I enlisted today. I want to finish the job you started in 1917.’ Imagine. My sister accelerated at college, spending even her summers there, to finish in three years; my other brother was sent to a naval prep school (Dad arranged that, hoping he would go from there to Annapolis, which would draw out the time before he might have to serve overseas). I was alone. No more lullabies.

“For the next couple of years, we lived in a sort of limbo, waiting for the war to come to its climax. As young as I was, I knew as well as anybody what might happen to Howie. And then the telegram arrived bringing the terrible news. Our lives had changed forever. Our family never recovered from losing Howie. I can’t imagine how my parents dealt with it; they never talked about Howie’s death in my presence. My sister escaped her grief by getting married and moving as far away as she could from home. My remaining brother completely dissociated himself from the family; I don’t even know where he lives today. Mother remarked to me once that he was as much a victim of the war as Howie. I imagine now she meant he was struggling with a penetrating guilt that Howie was the one taken, not he.”

The tragedy that ripped the soul of the Weinberg family was repeated sixteen more times across the country because of the midair collision that day; the mishap killed a total of seventeen young fliers. And those deaths represented only an infinitesimal fraction of the twenty-six thousand men that were lost by the Eighth Air Force alone. “World War” was a label too innocuous and devoid of feeling to describe how the fighting hacked humanity apart.

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