Book: Hell's Angels

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I WAS A FIGHTER PILOT. Like most fighter pilots I was sure that I was the best there ever was. Alone in the aircraft, I controlled my destiny. If I lived or died, there was one person to credit or to blame.

And that is why I am so fascinated by the bomber crews of World War II. Certainly the men who crewed the heavy bombers that were sent against Nazi Germany were flyers, but they enjoyed none of the soaring freedom of flight. Rather, they crawled into primitive, bomb-laden brutes and froze—sometimes to death—miles above the earth in enormous formations while being savaged by antiaircraft guns and fighters. Driven by a visceral loyalty to their comrades and their country, they hunkered down, thrashed through the enemy’s defenses, dropped their bombs and fought their way home.

If they weren’t shot down.

To some extent their skills and those of their crewmates determined whether they returned home or not. But to a greater degree their survival depended on luck. It was chance that put a bomber in the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time to be caught by a burst of flak. And providence decided whether or not a mechanical failure forced an aircraft out of formation to be set upon by enemy fighters. And it was fortune that determined if a badly damaged bomber slammed into another. In actual fact, the fates of the bomber men were largely out of their own control.

Indeed, flying heavy bombers against the Germans during World War II was akin to a complex, airborne variation of Russian roulette. And that is why I believe these flyers were the most valiant airmen ever. The decision these men made to climb aboard a bomber, mission after mission, while knowing that a safe return was never certain—regardless of their skill or experience—was a splendidly brave one.

Of more than forty Eighth Air Force bomb groups I chose the 303rd—“Hell’s Angels”—for several reasons. Firstly, it was one of the original units to start heavy bombardment operations against Germany. This allowed me to use the unit to provide an overview of the story, from beginning to end, of the Eighth Air Force’s strategic bombing effort. Next was the fact that the unit’s records are extensive, well organized and readily available. Decades after the war the 303rd formed an association, and many men—Harry Gobrecht chief among them—labored assiduously to preserve the group’s legacy. Finally, there was the fact that although the 303rd was a standout unit, its operations were typical of all the Eighth Air Force’s heavy bomb groups.

However, that being said, the 303rd’s achievements were remarkable. The B-17, Hell’s Angels, from which the group took its name, was the first Eighth Air Force bomber to fly twenty-five missions. Another of the group’s aircraft, Knockout Dropper, was the first to surpass both the fifty- and seventy-five-mission marks. The unit was the first in the Eighth Air Force to reach the two- and three-hundred-mission milestones. Further, the 303rd flew more missions from England—364—than any other bomb group. And only one other unit dropped more bomb tonnage. Lewis Lyle commanded one of the 303rd’s squadrons before becoming the group’s deputy commander; he later led his own bomb group. He flew an incredible sixty-nine missions—more than any other Eighth Air Force bomb group commander. Moreover, the bravery of the 303rd’s airmen was never questioned and was personified by Jack Mathis and Forrest Vosler. Both were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Too many histories of the air war over Europe during World War II concentrate only on the terror of air combat. Overdone, this can leave the reader numb, even bored. Consequently, I have worked to describe not only the horrors of the air battles, but also why, how and by whom those battles were fought. I have also gone to some length to describe the roles of the maintenance and support personnel; not a single bomber would have gotten airborne without them. Indeed, for every airman there were approximately ten men who toiled on the ground to support him. Within these pages, for brevity’s sake, I have included the various support groups under the 303rd’s umbrella. But I believe they merit mention by name at least once. They were the 444th Sub Depot, the 3rd Station Complement Squadron, the 1681st Ordnance Company, the 1199th Military Police Company, the 863rd Chemical Company, the 1114th Quartermaster Company and the 202nd Finance Company.

The 303rd and its support units comprised a bombing organization the size of a large town—approximately four thousand men at any one time. The experiences of those men could fill a hundred or more books. But I could write only one. Although I could not tell the story of every man who served with the group, I am confident that the stories I have aggregated into this book have succeeded in recounting the extraordinary history of the 303rd. Ultimately, my hope is that this work will be regarded as an essential reference for understanding the Eighth Air Force’s heavy bombardment operations during the greatest air war that ever was, and that ever can be.

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