Book: Hell's Angels

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I surely wish this was all over and we could be thinking about coming home but there is a long hard job ahead yet and there will probably be no going home for many. I just hope that the people back there realize what everyone is going through for them.

—Letter home, John McGarry, February 1944

ROBERT HALLIGAN STEPPED OUT of the familiar sweat-and-oil-and-cigarette stink of the dispersal tent and into the fresh, gray wet of the English morning. Only a handful of the 303rd’s B-17s were visible through the fog. The gray blanket likewise muffled the aircraft-readying noises made by hundreds of maintenance men and their equipment as they prepared more than three dozen bombers for the day’s mission.

There had been a mix-up in aircraft assignments, but it was finally settled that the John McGarry crew would fly Spirit of Flak Wolf to Marienburg, Germany; Halligan was the crew’s navigator. The big ship hulked on its hardstand directly in front of him. Halting rivulets of water traced paths down its sides and gave it a muscular sleekness. Halligan watched the bomber’s crew chief walk one of the four propellers through several revolutions to redistribute the oil that had drained into the lower cylinder heads overnight.

Swaddled in layers of flying gear, Halligan clumped to the forward access hatch under the nose of the B-17. He tossed his musette bag through the dark hole, grasped the edge of the opening and swung himself up and into the aircraft. His entry was fluid and easy. Experience had done that. The first time he tried to pull himself through the door—during training back in the States—he flailed and scrabbled and collapsed back to the ground in an embarrassed, out-of-breath heap.

Inside, Halligan collected the bag and ducked onto the narrow catwalk that ran beneath the pilot’s compartment. Behind him he heard footfalls and the clanking of metal on metal as the other crewmen readied the equipment at their positions. As big as it was, Spirit of Flak Wolf still juddered gently as the men moved about and positioned their gear. Their voices were indistinct mutters that betrayed no emotion despite the fact that the mission was to be the 303rd’s longest yet.

It would be Halligan’s twenty-fifth mission. Had it been just a few months earlier it would have been his last. But just lately the required mission count had been raised to thirty. Halligan wasn’t angry. Rather, he was resigned. In fact, he had been resigned for a long time. But it wasn’t a giving-up sort of resignation; rather, it was an acceptance of fate. Whether he died or lived depended not only on his skill and that of his crewmates but also to an enormous degree on considerations over which none of them had control. On luck. Regardless, he was resolved to do his best—he owed it to himself and to his comrades.

Still, the odds seemed to be closing on the McGarry crew. Of the previous twenty-four missions, the men returned to Molesworth with all four engines running on only four. Flak, fighters and mechanical gremlins dogged the crew on virtually every sortie.

Halligan settled himself at the little desk mounted to the left bulkhead of the aircraft’s nose. There, he arranged his charts and checked them against the notes he had taken during the early morning briefings. Spirit of Flak Wolf was slated to fly near the rear of the formation and consequently, barring a catastrophe, the responsibility for getting to the target would not fall to him. However, it was imperative that he be continuously aware of the aircraft’s position. He had to be ready to give McGarry an accurate heading home in the event the ship was separated from the rest of the 303rd.

Kenneth Foe, the bombardier, stepped up from the catwalk and into the nose with Halligan. The two men were joined by the sort of bond created only by shared terror. Together, in the glass-and-aluminum cage that was the nose of the aircraft, they had fought enemy fighters, endured flak and sweated out mechanical failures that could have forced them down over enemy territory, or worse, into the icy North Sea. Too many times they had turned to each other when their very survival was at stake. And although their faces were clamped under oxygen masks and goggles, their eyes had unerringly communicated the fear they both felt.

Halligan and Foe checked the four .50-caliber machine guns for which they were responsible. They heard McGarry and the copilot, Willie Cotham, in the pilot’s compartment above and behind them. The flare signaling the time for starting engines was due momentarily. Halligan looked out through the water-spotted glass of the nose and noted that the visibility had not appreciably improved.

There was the flare—a streak of yellow that disappeared immediately into the clouds. McGarry shouted and signaled through the window on the left side of the cockpit, and Halligan saw the crew chief nod and raise a thumb from where he stood outside in the wet. Two other ground crewmen stood ready with fire extinguishers. There was a murmured command in the cockpit, and then the left outboard engine—number one—whined and ticked as it slowly wound the propeller through two or three faltering revolutions. Then, the engine coughed blue smoke, caught and settled into a smooth, syrupy rumble that spun the propeller into a translucent disc. A low, vibrating growl thrummed across the airfield as the rest of the group’s B-17s came to life.

The crewmen aboard the bomber were all business as McGarry and Cotham started the right outboard engine—number four. The pilots would taxi the aircraft on only the two outboard engines in order to save precious fuel. The two remaining engines would be started just before takeoff. The interphone crackled as each man double-checked his equipment and reported his status. Halligan, alone in the nose with Foe, felt somehow comforted as Spirit of Flak Wolf, with engines running, no longer felt like a cold, inanimate machine. Rather, as did every aircraft, it vibrated with a subtle timbre that was its own—almost as if it were a living thing.

Only a few minutes passed before both the bomber and its men were ready to go. A green flare arced up from the control tower, and the aircraft assigned to the front elements of the 303rd’s formation rolled from their hardstands and onto the taxiways that ringed the field. Halligan knew that McGarry was ticking off the different bombers against a list as they taxied. It was imperative that he put Spirit of Flak Wolf where it belonged in the long line of big machines.

Finally, McGarry signaled the crew chief and immediately a ground crewman trotted around the left wingtip—clear of the spinning propeller—and pulled the wheel chocks away. There was another exchange of signals, and Halligan felt the aircraft shudder as McGarry advanced the B-17’s two outboard engines. He looked left and returned the salute that the crew chief aimed at McGarry. He was never sure if the ground man saw him, but he always returned the salute on principle.

The aircraft ahead of Spirit of Flak Wolf blasted up mud and water and small stones. A clump of propeller-blown something made a muddy streak down the left side of the glazed nose. Halligan considered whether or not the climb through the clouds would wash it clean and guessed that it probably would not. Both he and Foe looked up when the aircraft was rocked, as if by a heavy wind. The pilot of another B-17 powered up its engines to pull a wheel clear of the sodden patch where he had let it wander, just off its hardstand. A rock ticked hard against the glass in front of Foe, and he reached up with his forefinger and touched where it hit.

There was another green flare and the mission leader started his takeoff roll. Halligan watched the heavily loaded bomber use most of the runway before pulling itself clear of the ground. A few seconds later it disappeared into the gray murk. The rest of the 303rd’s aircraft followed at thirty-second intervals. A short time later McGarry and Cotham started the two inboard engines—number two and number three—finished their takeoff checks, and swung Spirit of Flak Wolf onto the runway. They pushed the throttles forward and let the engines settle into a smooth, ready roar before releasing the brakes.

Halligan noted that the aircraft was slow to move; the crew had never flown aboard such a heavily loaded ship. Nevertheless, the bomber did accelerate slowly down the runway. Stuck onto the front end of the aircraft as they were, Halligan and Foe had a view of the takeoff like no one else’s. The B-17’s initial jouncing damped into a smooth roll as the wings created lift and began to pull the aircraft from the uneven pavement. And then, at a distant point of the runway where none of the crew had ever been, Spirit of Flak Wolf was airborne. Halligan watched the ground disappear as the bomber hauled itself into the low-hanging clouds.

There was a sudden, mechanical roar and the aircraft lurched. Halligan felt it yaw even as McGarry and Cotham pushed the engines to full power. An engine had failed. Halligan—even through the din of the hard-pressed motors—heard the two pilots above and behind him strain as they wrestled with the bomber’s controls. And then McGarry’s voice came over the interphone. He sounded frustrated, but not frightened. He ordered the men to don their parachutes.

Halligan and Foe exchanged their fearful glances one more time. So soon after takeoff there were no oxygen masks to hide their faces. It occurred to Halligan that Foe looked old. And tired. Behind Foe, through the glass nose, Halligan saw the ground again. And trees. The load that Spirit of Flak Wolf carried was too heavy for it to climb on only three engines. There was a jolt and the B-17 tipped toward the ground and then bucked nose-high for a long moment before nosing over again. There was another crash, and Halligan blinked reflexively as Foe’s body hurtled into his amid a spray of shattered glass and metal.

*   *   *

DESPITE THE FOG, the thunderclap that Spirit of Flak Wolf made when it smashed into the ground near Winwick, on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1944, traveled for miles. The bombs it carried did not explode, but the big ship was ripped into smaller bits that were immolated when the fuel it carried ignited. Halligan, Foe, McGarry and Cotham were all killed, as was the engineer, Henry Grace, and the radio operator, Stephen Stuphar. Miraculously, the four gunners were thrown from the ship and survived, although they were badly burned and injured.

None ever returned to combat operations.

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