Book: Hell's Angels

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“AND THEN HE FELL DOWN DEAD”

BY APRIL 1945 the strategic air campaign was essentially superfluous. There remained very few militarily relevant targets that merited the massive concentration of men, machines and material that made up a typical bombing mission. In fact, on April 5—the day prior to Alderman’s death—USSTAF declared that all remaining targets were to be considered tactical in nature. Indeed, the war was going to be won regardless of whether or not the Allies ever put another aircraft into the sky.

That fact notwithstanding, many more missions were flown. The United States flew heavy bomber missions on all but six of the first twenty-five days of April; nearly fifty thousand tons of bombs were dropped on a Nazi state that was already all but defeated. The 303rd participated in nearly all of the final missions and the effort against the Friedrichstadt marshaling yard at Dresden, Germany, on April 17, 1945, was its third-to-last.

The 303rd launched forty-two bombers that day, with a mix of general purpose and incendiary bombs as well as leaflets. The weather was not good; there was an overcast layer at twenty-one thousand feet, and haze restricted visibility below that. More than two hundred P-51s patrolled the 303rd’s route, and the Luftwaffe failed to make much of a showing. Still, three Me-262s were sighted, and one of them made a pass through the 303rd’s low squadron from the rear without scoring any hits.

While the German Air Force failed to impress the 303rd that day, the antiaircraft gunners did not. Major combat damage was sustained by twelve aircraft—nearly a third of the bombers the group put airborne; eight other aircraft were also hit and sustained less damage. Although the war was nearly over, it was still only nearly over. In fact, two aircraft were shot down.

The antiaircraft fire was especially heavy over Brux, Czechoslovakia, about fifty miles south of Dresden. It was just north of there that Sack Time, piloted by Blaine E. Thomas, was hit. The ship, by Eighth Air Force standards, was a virtual Methuselah. It had flown 110 missions without a single abort.

Nevertheless, an 88-millimeter shell punched through the charmed ship’s left wing. Fortunately, it failed to detonate. Still, the fuel tank was holed so badly that it failed to seal, and aviation gasoline streamed not only into the atmosphere, but into the fuselage as well. The crew opened the bomb bay doors to draw the highly inflammable fuel out of the aircraft.

Max Bartholomew was Thomas’s copilot: “The target was obscured by clouds so the lead plane took us back to the IP, and again we had intense flak which hit our number two exhaust system, knocking out the turbo. We feathered the number two engine and tried to stay under the squadron. I checked the number one engine visually and thought I saw flames in the hole the 88-millimeter shell made so I had the engineer, Staff Sergeant Harry Haynes, in the top turret, look at it.”

At the same time, Bartholomew ordered the radio operator, Walter Smith, to get the ball turret gunner, Louis Contreras, out of his “fish bowl.” Bartholomew and Thomas conferred and agreed that they would probably have to abandon the hard-worn bomber. Still, they stayed with the formation as it made another run against the target. “This time,” Bartholomew recalled, “at the target there was a squadron of B-24s below us.” Not wanting to drop bombs through the B-24 formation, the 303rd’s formation leader, William Eisenhart, hauled the group back toward the initial point to set up for a third run at the target.

Sack Time was afire at that point. Both CO2 bottles on the number two engine were discharged with no effect. Despite that, Thomas and the crew stuck with the rest of the formation until bombs were released on the third attempt at the target. “At this time,” Bartholomew recalled, “the Tail Gunner, Sergeant Melvin Carlson, got on the intercom and said the flames were going by the tail. Blaine [Thomas] and I decided it was time to get out and gave the order to bail out and turned on the bell and hit the buttons to destroy the IFF.”

Bartholomew’s exit was not a smooth one. “Our autopilot evidently had received damage, as we had trouble getting the plane to fly level so we could bail out, which caused us to spend some extra time rolling in rudder trim. I checked the nose to see if everyone got out and then set down to go out the nose door and saw my shoes so I fastened them under my right leg harness. I evidently passed out from lack of oxygen and fell out. When I came to, I was looking at a couple of plowed fields and a fence line and pulled the rip cord on the parachute.”

Bartholomew hit the ground hard and passed out. When he regained consciousness, he found himself surrounded by German troops. He had landed just a short distance from where they were encamped. He recovered his wits slowly, to discover that his parachute had disappeared, as had his shoes and his .45-caliber pistol. Worse, both his legs were broken. He spent the remaining three weeks of the war as a POW.

He was one of the lucky ones. Edward Eschinger was the crew’s togglier and managed to safely escape the burning Sack Time. He came down at Halsbrücke, about ten miles southwest of Dresden. Horst Bayer, a young man living with his parents, recalled seeing three parachutes exit the stricken B-17: “One of the men came down over Halsbrücke and landed at Hohe Esse [a restaurant]. I ran to where the pilot was lying with his parachute. He was wearing a brown flight suit and nothing on his head. Hugo Schreiber and the peasant Rötzsch reached the site before me, the teacher Haufe, who lived in the Sand section of town, came after me. He tried to mistreat the pilot [Eschinger was actually a togglier] but Hugo Schreiber stopped him.”

But Hugo Schreiber could not stop everyone in town from abusing Eschinger. Bayer’s account continued: “Gradually other residents assembled, one woman addressed the flyer in English, to which he replied that he spoke German. The air defense guards Otto and Hachenbuchner from Halsbrücke seem to have been among the last to come. The latter struck the defenseless man in the back of the neck, which immediately swelled up greatly.” The two guards forced Eschinger to look for his .45-caliber pistol while they followed him. It was a fool’s errand as he had thrown it away as he descended in his parachute. It was likely miles away.

Bayer described what happened next. “Otto stood behind him with his own pistol at the ready. At the moment when the flyer grabbed his swollen neck, he was fired on with one shot at close range by Otto. He looked at the sky, blood came from his mouth, and then he fell down dead. The two policemen of Halsbrücke, who now arrived, were unable to prevent the killing of the pilot. He was laid in a bower [wooded garden], the carpenter Kohl made him a casket and took him to the cemetery in Tuttendorf, where he was buried near the cemetery wall.”

Eschinger was not the only crewman from Sack Time who was murdered by the Germans. The tail gunner, Melvin Carlson, was also killed. Louie Contreras, the ball turret gunner, was beaten and sustained a number of broken ribs and other contusions. He survived the war as a POW, as did the remainder of the crew.

Crewmen of the other 303rd bomber shot down that day, Earthquake McGoon, suffered a similarly tragic fate. The ship, piloted by Thomas Kahler, was hit by an 88-millimeter shell, and its right wing caught fire immediately; flames streamed over the top of the big bomber. The aircraft staggered momentarily in a puff of smoke before it exploded and fell away. Although no parachutes were observed, the entire crew managed to escape safely.

Six of the eight crewmen were captured and finished the war as POWs. However, two of the men, Thomas Kahler, the pilot, and Theodore Smith, the tail gunner, were not so fortunate. They were hanged from a tree—murdered—after being caught by Schutzstaffel, or SS, troops and a band of civilians.

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