Book: Hell's Angels

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“THEY ARE WORKING ME TO DEATH”

HILDA KAISER STILL LIVED in Munich with her parents as the war drew to a close. “Believe me; we were ready for the war to end. Nothing was moving in Germany. There was no food or fuel or anything. We were close to starving.” Kaiser’s observations validated the sacrifices that the men of the 303rd—as part of the strategic air war—had made.

Munich was fortunate as it was surrendered rather than contested in a destructive and bloody battle. The city was doubly fortunate as it was given over to American forces rather than the Soviets; the Soviets murdered, raped and robbed wherever they went in Germany. Kaiser recalled the first Americans she encountered: “There were two soldiers and they walked down the street toward us. Something seemed wrong and I wasn’t sure what the matter was. Then, it became clear that they had been drinking. They were so drunk that they could barely stand! But they were not brutal or vindictive. The Americans treated us very fairly.”

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ALTHOUGH THE AMERICANS dominated the daytime skies over Europe toward the end of the war, doing so was still dangerous and far from easy. The targets were distant and consequently the days were long—much longer than at the beginning of the group’s combat career. A mission to Berlin or beyond could take twice as long as the short, pioneering “channel hops” the group made to Northern France during late 1942.

Arthur Shanafelt was a copilot with the 360th Bomb Squadron. His letters to his fiancée captured the sheer exhaustion of the men who were finishing the air war. Having only flown his first mission on February 24, he had completed twelve less than a month later. On March 23, he wrote: “Every day is rough but still it’s that much more done and that much closer to getting home. I’ll be so darn old and worn out when I get home you may not want me.”

Shanafelt flew twenty missions by April 1, and his fatigue is the main theme in his letter of that date. “Sorry I haven’t written lately but if you’ve been reading the papers you know where I’ve been and how tired I am when I sit down at night. They are working me to death but as long as I get back, I love it and shall continue. Just getting back in one piece and breathing air is the main thing. Haven’t the time to say more. I must hit the sack because it’s rest I really need and must get. May get home soon if I keep going like I have. Hope I do get home quick as I’m tired of this life.”

That thread of tiredness—with a touch of poor hygiene—continued on April 16. Shanafelt had flown three more missions since his letter of April 11:

Is it the 16th or 15th [it was Easter Sunday]? I didn’t know it was Sunday until I got down this evening. Isn’t that awful? All I do is fly, eat and sleep it seems, but I can rest when I finish. . . . I’m thankful as long as I always come back. I’m wearing a raunchy hat three fellows have worn through combat now so it is definitely lucky. I have to take a new crew up tomorrow and I’m sweating it out to be truthful. I’m sure we’ll get along O.K. At least I certainly hope so. Water is scarce over here but you can manage a shower every three or four days if you are lucky. In spite of all I can do it will take me at least four months to get clean again. To top it all off I have contracted athlete’s foot somewhere here and that isn’t good. I’m really a nervous wreck. 

On April 18 he wrote: “I’ve been so dead tired, scared or whatever you want to call it, at nights I would write you and not remember what I wrote.” Shanafelt flew his last mission—his twenty-fourth—two days later, on April 20. He had flown them all within a fifty-six-day period. Worn out and dirty, but safe and whole, Shanafelt was finished with combat.

And one nine-hour mission later, on April 25, 1945, so was the 303rd. The target was the Skoda Armament Works at Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, against which the group sortied forty-two B-17s. An indication of the USAAF’s dominance over Europe was the fact that radio broadcasts warned workers to stay clear of the Skoda complex. Consequently, the Germans knew when and where the American bombers were coming.

That fact notwithstanding, it didn’t appear that they took advantage of the information. The Luftwaffe was nowhere to be seen, and antiaircraft fire was sporadic and inaccurate. However, that changed when the target was obscured by low clouds and the 303rd aborted its initial run. As the formation spun around for another attack, the flak increased greatly in intensity and accuracy. Indeed, twenty-four of the 303rd’s bombers sustained major damage. One of them landed at a captured airfield at Würzburg, Germany, while another dropped into a base in Belgium. So many of the bombers landed back at Molesworth in various states of extremis—gear up, no flaps, no brakes, etc.—that the end of the runway resembled an aircraft junkyard.

The group lost one aircraft. Immediately after releasing its bombs, the B-17 piloted by Warren Mauger took at least two direct hits, one in the right inboard engine and the other in the lower fuselage. It didn’t matter at that instant to the men aboard the ship that Germany was essentially defeated and that the mission was the 303rd’s last. They were in a life-and-death struggle no different than if they had been caught at the height of the great air battles of 1943 or 1944.

Mauger was blown out of his seat by the impact, and the ball turret gunner, Francis Kelley, was killed instantly. This was supposed to be Kelley’s last mission—number thirty-five. It was also to be his last because, although it was unknown at the time, it was the 303rd’s last. Sadly, it was his last mission because it was the last day of his life.

Flames engulfed the number three engine, and the aircraft fell sharply to the right before dropping nose-down in a spin. Mauger regained his seat and righted the ship to some degree before a fire erupted around him and he ordered the crew to bail out. His hands and face burned, Mauger climbed down toward the forward escape hatch, which had already been jettisoned. The aircraft exploded as he knelt to leap clear. Knocked unconscious, he recovered his wits only just barely in time to pull his parachute’s rip cord. Although he spotted only one other parachute, he and four other men managed to escape the pieces that had been their bomber, while three of their crewmates perished. Those three men represented the 303rd’s last sacrifice in the fight against the Nazi state.

Mauger was the only one of the five survivors who managed to evade capture during the closing two weeks of the war. Wearing his burned uniform trousers and an old overcoat given to him by a Czech farmer immediately upon his coming to the ground, he steadily worked his way west. The combination worked well to disguise him, as evidenced by an encounter just a few hours later: “Ahead of me sat a German soldier with his girlfriend. I strolled by them practically unnoticed.”

His encounters at this late stage in the war were interesting, and he found the Czech people to be generally very friendly and accommodating, although German forces were practically ubiquitous. In fact, while digging a sleeping spot into an inviting haystack he found that an exhausted and dead-to-the-world German soldier had already claimed the space. One example of Czech kindness occurred a few days after he had been shot down:

At about noon I came to a mountain stream, and just beyond the bridge, I could see a small town. After crossing the bridge, I rapped on the door of one of the houses. A young lad, about 12 years of age, answered the door and let me in the house. It appeared he was the only one home. He offered me some sour milk soup. He told me he was a member of the Hitler Youth and showed me his uniform. He said that it was all but mandatory to belong. Somehow I believed him and left feeling that he would not notify anyone of my being there.

Indeed, Mauger remained unmolested following his visit with the boy. Still he had several brushes with German troops during the next few days. While passing through one town, he was chased but managed to escape through several yards and onto a terrace. “I had no sooner stretched out on the ground when another German soldier came strolling up a small path toward my hiding place. It was too late to run. I had to do something fast. I put on the act of a man completely stoned. I got up, staggered around and fell down a couple times. He smiled while watching this and then turned and strolled up and over the hill.”

Ultimately, Mauger was taken in for the last several days of his sojourn by a small Russian family that had been relocated to a village to perform farm labor. He was struck by their kindness and steadfast devotion to his safety through several more misadventures as the Americans advanced eastward and the Germans repositioned in the face of that advance. “The next morning, it must have been Sunday, for Andre had with him his wife and son. She had brought a nice lunch and a wash cloth, soap and a towel. We walked to a small brook where I cleaned up. After this we settled back to a fine picnic lunch. Andre’s wife and son never took their eyes off me. I must have presented a curious sight to them.”

His hosts kept Mauger in a haystack during his stay. Buried in its dry warmth he experienced a perspective of the fighting that his comrades back in Molesworth could only imagine.

The artillery bursts were now getting so close that the ground shook. I could hear the distant sound of the cannon, the whine through the air and the explosion when the missile landed. I also heard something else now, machine gun fire. Sometime after midnight, the machine gun fire on both sides became intense. You could distinguish the American fire by its low pitch and slower rate than that of the Germans. The artillery on both sides were [sic] now firing. Toward morning I could hear many voices of German soldiers. I heard another sound, one I could not reconcile with the once mighty German army. Teams of horses were moving the biggest share of German equipment for this retreat. Evidently, the bombing of oil refineries had taken its toll.

Mauger remained undiscovered as the German Army fled the advancing Americans. It was another day before his Russian host seized him from his hiding place and—with great excitement—led him toward the nearby village. There were three tanks and two jeeps. The tanks fired their machine guns into the distance. “I approached the last jeep and was about to identify myself when I took a second look at the helmets these soldiers were wearing. They had netting over them and their shape was hard to distinguish. Then, a G.I. spotted me and tossed me two packages of Camel cigarettes.”

Mauger was safe. Aside from exchanging gestures and words of gratitude with his Russian friends, he left them with his wristwatch, which had earlier been much admired. “What a small price to pay for his great service!”

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THE END OF THE WAR in Europe, VE Day, came on May 8, 1945. Ball turret gunner Frank Boyle remembered hearing the news: “At the time I was a phase check instructor on B-29 guns at Buckingham Army Air Field, in Fort Myers, Florida. We got the news just before dinner. Our first reaction was that it was a ruse to sucker punch us again with another Battle of the Bulge type of attack. Those of us who had fought them were convinced that the Germans would not surrender without a last-ditch massive air attack on our bases in England and France.” But despite Boyle’s suspicions, Germany was well and truly beaten. And he had played a role in administering that beating.

The 303rd hadn’t flown a mission for nearly two weeks on the day that Germany surrendered. The killing and dying were over. There was a parade at Molesworth, a ceremony and celebrations. But it would take time, a lifetime for some, before the men reconciled themselves to the war and what it had meant and done to them. Because, regardless of what job or task they performed—combat or support—the war surely had imprinted them. They would never, could never, be the same.

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