Book: Hell's Angels

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THE FORMATION OF THE 303RD Bombardment Group was described by the unit’s first official diary entry, dated February 16, 1942, just more than two months after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s subsequent entry into the war:

In compliance with General Orders No. 5 (confidential), Headquarters Second Air Force, Fort George Wright, Washington, dated February 3, 1942, the 303rd Bombardment Group (H) [“H” for “Heavy”] was activated on February 3, 1942, at Army Air Base, Pendleton Field, Pendleton, Oregon, and was assigned to Air Force Combat Command.

The 303rd was organized into a headquarters unit, three heavy bombardment flying squadrons and a heavy reconnaissance squadron. The flying units were the 358th, 359th and 360th Bombardment (H) Squadrons, and the 31st Reconnaissance (H) Squadron. On the day of the 303rd’s formation the squadrons were little more than placeholders with no personnel, equipment or aircraft. However, men from existing units were assigned to make up a core element, and the 303rd moved its flag to Gowen Field, at Boise, Idaho, on February 13, 1942. The unit received its first aircraft, four B-17Es and three C-39s—two-engine transport aircraft intended for training—on February 16. From that day, personnel and aircraft arrived in increasing numbers as the 303rd started readying for combat. Its parent organization, the Second Air Force, intended it to be ready in time to move overseas and start combat operations beginning in June 1942.

Gowen had been finished for less than a year when the 303rd arrived. Named after an Air Corps pilot from Idaho who had been killed in a flying accident in Panama, it was located just south of Boise. Although it was cold in winter and hot during the summer, flying conditions were generally favorable, and it served as a training base for bomber units throughout the war and beyond.

And the citizens of Boise made the men of those units feel welcome. “I had a good time at Gowen,” John Ford said. “We were able to get passes into town and enjoyed ourselves quite a bit. And I had a girl there. There were dances, and places to drink—of course—as well as gambling. It seemed odd to me that the bars and slot machines were always upstairs and never on the ground floor.”

At Gowen, the 303rd was—for the most part—formed and trained by amateurs working from Army manuals under the direction of a very few experienced men. This was true of virtually every USAAF unit at that point in the war. Because the service expanded so dramatically and so quickly, there were very few veterans available to season the new units. Indeed, only a sprinkling of men had been in the service longer than a year or two.

John Ford was an example. He had been separated from the 64th Bombardment Group in Bangor, Maine, and sent with several other 64th personnel to help stand up the 303rd. “They assigned me to the 359th Bomb Squadron’s personnel shop. By that time I had been in the service for more than a year and was an old veteran compared to most of the guys. Accordingly, I spent much of the time training the administrative personnel from all of the other squadrons as well as the group headquarters. During the time we were at Gowen I was promoted up the ranks from private first class to staff sergeant.” Such an advance during peacetime would have taken more than ten years.

Chris Christoff described another example that highlighted the inefficiencies of the USAAF’s rapid wartime expansion. Trained as a Teletype maintenance man, he expected to be used as such when he arrived at Gowen. “The Teletype department was operating fairly well without my help. I do nothing for days until someone orders me to report to the motor pool.” On arrival, it became apparent to Christoff that the 303rd planned to use him as a truck driver. He wanted no part of it. “I’m thinking if I make a mess or screw up on this driving test they’ll not accept me, so I strip the gears a few times while shifting, I hit the curb while turning corners and a couple more minor infractions.” He reported back the following day, fully expecting to be sent back to the communications section. Instead, Christoff was issued a motor vehicle operator’s permit; he was the newest member of the 303rd’s motor pool.

It was inevitable that accidents became commonplace in the rapidly expanding USAAF. In fact, two of every three aircraft lost during the war were destroyed by accidents rather than to enemy action; on average, five aircraft were destroyed each day in the States. The 303rd’s first contribution to this statistic occurred on April 3, 1942, when a B-17 crashed near Bridge, Idaho. All eight crewmen were killed.

But accidents weren’t confined to flying. Work injuries were common, as were vehicle accidents. The unit diary entry for April 30, 1942, noted a totally pointless mishap that fortunately did not result in death or injury: “During the morning, officers playing with an ‘unloaded’ gun accidentally shot through a wall and window of the S-2 office.”

Accidents notwithstanding, the unit continued to grow as personnel and aircraft converged on Gowen. Whereas the 303rd had only four B-17s when it first arrived in mid-February, it carried eighteen B-17s and two A-20s on its roster by April 6. The A-20s were twin-engine, light attack bombers that the 303rd used primarily as target tugs for gunnery training. They also flew as utility hacks and to maintain pilot currency requirements. Fast and nimble—especially as compared to the B-17—the A-20 was popular with the pilots.

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AS THE 303RD continued to form, advance elements of the USAAF began to organize in England. Brigadier General Ira Eaker was put in charge of VIII Bomber Command, the heavy bombardment component of the Eighth Air Force, which was activated at Savannah, Georgia, during January 1942. Eaker, a longtime acolyte of Arnold’s, grew up dirt poor in Texas and Oklahoma but excelled as an Army aviator during the 1920s and 1930s. A technician, tactician and logistician, Eaker was also an avid writer and gifted public speaker. Moreover, he was a genuine and charming man who exercised considerable social grace. He worked hard and played hard and—with unstinting aid from the English and his RAF counterparts—was the perfect man to pave the way for America’s daytime strategic air war over Europe. He arrived in England with only six men to do just that during February 1942, the same month that the 303rd was activated.

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THE 303RD, ITS MEN LEARNING on the job, struggled toward combat readiness as best it could. Shortcomings became evident when the group was inspected by the Second Air Force staff on April 10, 1942. Deficiencies were noted in a number of areas and earlier notions that the group would be ready for combat operations in June began to be questioned.

There was no longer any question when the 303rd underwent a subsequent inspection on April 22. As part of the evaluation the group launched a mock mission that missed its designated target by thousands of feet. An investigation determined that the handpicked crew leading the mission had been wholly unprepared. During earlier training sorties it had achieved satisfactory results by repeatedly bombing the same target using visual cues. However, the target was changed for the evaluation mission, and the crew didn’t even use the bomb sight—essentially dropping the bombs on a guess. Consequently, it was determined that the group would not be ready for overseas duty as planned.

Regardless of their performance, there was little for the men of the 303rd to do other than redouble their training efforts. Aircrews continued to fly bombing, gunnery, navigation and formation sorties, while ground crews and support men worked to keep the aircraft flying. All the men attended classes and lectures at the base theater. Subjects ranged from aircraft recognition, to sexual hygiene, to current events. The unit diary entry for May 3, 1942, characterized the tempo during this period: “Sunday—and no slackening in the USA’s training program. Seven days a week with no let up, except for physical rest, and with no Panty Waist union hours to hamper the scheduled results desired. ‘Keep ’em flying’ means just what it says in this man’s Army, and no quarter [is] asked or given.”

It was during this time that the 427th Bomb Squadron was designated. At its formation the 303rd was composed of the 358th, 359th and 360th Bombardment (H) Squadrons together with the 31st Reconnaissance (H) Squadron and the headquarters element. The 31st was disbanded on March 16 and its personnel, equipment and aircraft were assigned to the 38th Reconnaissance (H) Squadron, which had been attached to the 303rd on March 13. Only a short time later, on May 1, the 38th was redesignated as the 427th Bombardment (H) Squadron. These designations, 358th, 359th, 360th and 427th, were used through the rest of the war. The curious, nonsequential numbering scheme confused friend and foe alike but was not unusual within the USAAF.

The numbering schemes were little more than a distraction to the men as they continued to train. That they needed the training was underscored by a foolish accident that occurred on May 27. While airborne, a pilot mistakenly activated the bail-out alarm. Although the ship was perfectly airworthy, three of the aircrew jumped from the ship. One of them was killed after landing, when his parachute pulled him over a cliff.

As it was determined that the 303rd would not ship overseas on time, it was imperative that other bomb groups be made ready as soon as possible. To that end, the 303rd was “cherry-picked”—compelled to give up some of its better-trained crews for other duties or to flesh out other units. Indeed, the group was gutted at the end of May by the transfer of seventeen of its aircraft and crews. Many of these were used to reconnoiter weather across the North Atlantic for the 97th Bomb Group’s movement to England, while others were assigned to the 306th Bomb Group.

At the same time, most of what was left of the 303rd was moved south to Muroc, California. This movement was connected with Japanese activity in the Pacific. At Muroc, the crews were supposed to receive special training for low-altitude attacks on shipping. As it developed, the great clash at Midway took place during the first week of June, and none of the 303rd’s crews or aircraft were sent to the Pacific. Instead, they continued their training with an emphasis on aerial gunnery and bombing. Additionally, the group sent small detachments to conduct antisubmarine patrols from the naval air station at North Island, in San Diego.

This period marked the 303rd’s gradual transition from Gowen Field to bases in the Southwest where it conducted more advanced training in preparation for deployment overseas. The first of those bases was Alamogordo Provisional Air Base in southern New Mexico, where the 303rd’s first elements arrived on June 17. It was a hot, grimy and primitive post that had been operational for less than a month. It was unpopular with the men, who had grown accustomed to the amenities of Gowen, together with the comparatively temperate spring weather of Idaho.

Moreover, the social scene was markedly different from Boise’s. The unit diarist was obviously unimpressed: “The nearest town [Alamogordo] is located ten miles from the post and consists mostly of squat, dusty adobe buildings mostly occupied by U.S. citizens of Mexican decent [sic]. Large portions of the town have been declared ‘Out of Bounds’ for the troops as several knifeings [sic] of personnel have taken place in various dark, roudy [sic] sections of the city after nightfall.” John Ford was likewise disappointed by the place: “It was terrible. And hot. It seemed that there was a sandstorm almost every day.”

But aside from occasionally fierce winds that blew sand wherever it wasn’t wanted, the flying weather was excellent. Men, equipment and aircraft continued to join the unit, and the number and quality of training flights increased steadily, as did the proficiency of the 303rd’s aircrews, ground crews and support personnel. That the group consistently achieved sortie rates in excess of thirty per day reflected well on the maintenance men, especially since there were only ten B-17s on hand.

Still, the place was harsh. The heat was oppressive, and the desert out of which the airfield had been scraped was home to tarantulas, scorpions and snakes. Recon, the 427th Bomb Squadron’s fiercely loyal bitch mascot, was bitten by a rattlesnake when she leapt to defend her master, William Nelson. Nelson and his comrades spent several anxious days as the snake’s poison worked its worst against their faithful friend. Happily, Recon’s resilience won the day as she eventually recovered and was smuggled overseas with the 427th a couple of months later.

More tragic was an incident that occurred on June 27. The 303rd sometimes trucked men to nearby Lake Lucero, where they swam and relaxed. On that day, when it came time to muster for the ride back to the airfield, Clarence Willett, a clerk from the headquarters squadron, was missing. A search was made and his body was found floating in the water. The unit diary noted the loss: “It is believed that he stepped into a deep hole and being a poor swimmer was unable to care for himself. The other men did not miss him until ready to leave the lake.”

At least part of the disorder that characterized the 303rd’s operations during this early part of its existence was due to the fact that it had four different commanders from the time of its creation at the beginning of February up to mid-July. John Sutherland was the unit’s first commander—essentially, only on paper—during the first couple of weeks. Ford Lauer was the unit’s second commander from the middle of February until he was replaced at the end of May by Warren Higgens. Lauer later went on to lead a different bomb group, the 99th, to great success as part of the Fifteenth Air Force in Italy. Higgens led the group for only a week before it was given back to Sutherland, who stayed at its head until July 13 when James Wallace took charge. Wallace was still in command when the group commenced combat operations a few months later.

The 303rd didn’t stay long at Alamogordo, and that was fine with its men. At the beginning of August, the unit was ordered to Biggs Field at El Paso, Texas, for the final phase of its training. Biggs, like Alamogordo, had only recently been made operational. It was less than a hundred miles south of Alamogordo and shared the same characteristics as the New Mexico base except that El Paso was a bigger city that offered more diversions.

Nevertheless, the men had little time to enjoy them. After arriving on August 7, the group was put through a hurried set of advanced classes and flights that culminated in a strike against an airfield target complex at San Angelo, Texas, on August 16. Although the event was marked by several failures, orders sending the group overseas were received the following day, and the men enthusiastically readied for the movement. “Packing continued day and night,” recorded the unit diary. “Men were becoming tired and grouchy, but, as a whole, they were looking forward to their trip overseas. They went to town, making strange purchases—things to be given to the young ladies upon arrival at the group’s final destination.”

The unit diary also marked the departure of a particularly disliked individual: “The 427th Bombardment Squadron (H) is gleefully celebrating the transfer to the base of one much hated Master Sergeant Roy Williams.” That an official unit diary would carry such a notation is very peculiar and gives a sense of the raw inexperience of the diarists and of the men who led them. Or perhaps, it indicated a singularly magnificent level of loathing for Master Sergeant Williams.

The group was broken into two echelons—ground and air—for the movement to its destination: England. The ground element was scheduled to depart on August 24, while the aircrews, with a small contingent of non-flying personnel, were to proceed by rail to Kellogg Field at Battle Creek, Michigan, to receive new aircraft before crossing the Atlantic. Tragically, just prior to departing El Paso, another aircraft and most of its crew were lost on August 23. The B-17, from the 427th Bomb Squadron, was blasted to bits by lightning while flying near the New Mexico border. Of the nine men aboard, only two survived.

Ehle Reber, a native of Malin, Oregon, was representative of the very finest young men the nation was readying for air combat. The president of his high school’s student body, a star football and basketball player, a state champion broad jumper and captain of the University of Oregon’s track-and-field team, he was also a pilot with the 427th. His diary entries show him to have been a brash, intelligent and fun-loving young man not yet tempered by the experiences of adulthood. He recalled the accident several days later in his diary entry of August 29, 1942: “Lt. Quentin Hargrove is back from the hospital. Covered with bandages. We call him ‘Spook.’ Sgt. [Walter] Knox and Lt. [Quentin] Hargove, only survivors, were thrown clear when plane broke in two. Lucky to have silk [parachutes] on. Quite a blow to 427th. Party evening.”

In the meantime, the bulk of the squadron’s personnel, the ground element, traveled east by rail, having gotten under way during a terrible rainstorm on August 24. The unit diary noted conditions at the train station: “07:00 A.M. The troops are at the train and are awaiting orders to load. It is raining very hard. Water is running down the road, ankle deep.”

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IRA EAKER HAD BEEN in England for six months by mid-August 1942 as the 303rd readied to leave Biggs. By that time, Carl “Tooey” Spaatz had arrived to take command of the Eighth Air Force while Eaker concentrated on building up the Eighth’s heavy bombing component, VIII Bomber Command. The two men, at the head of a fledgling but growing body of men and machines, worked tirelessly to create an air force capable of performing a mission about which nothing existed except theories. They were building the Eighth to conduct precision, daytime, strategic bombing raids deep into the heart of enemy territory.

The notion had more than its fair share of critics. Peter Masefield was the air correspondent to London’s Sunday Times. Although he was not a military man, he held a pilot’s license, had worked as an engineer for Fairey Aviation and, as a journalist, had flown a few operational sorties with the RAF. This gave him the confidence to disparage the two main American bombers, the B-17 and the B-24. He did so with a patronizing smugness that must have infuriated the USAAF’s leaders while simultaneously embarrassing top men at the RAF, the USAAF’s closest ally.

On August 16, 1942, he wrote: “American heavy bombers—the latest [B-17] Fortresses and [B-24] Liberators—are fine flying machines, but not suited for bombing in Europe. Their bombs and bomb-loads are small, their armor and armament are not up to the standard now found necessary and their speeds are low.” Masefield was especially condescending when he wrote, “It would be a tragedy for young American lives to be squandered through assigning either Liberators or Flying Fortresses to raids into the Reich night or day.” Ironically, this piece appeared in the Sunday Times the morning after the RAF lost five bombers—and many young British lives—on night operations.

In fact, both the B-17 and the B-24 had excellent performance although admittedly they didn’t carry payloads as large as some of their big British counterparts. On the other hand, the American aircraft dropped their weapons more accurately. The truth was that no aircraft types at that time were as well suited for a strategic daytime bombing campaign as were the B-17 and the B-24. In terms of technology and ease of production the two aircraft were marvels. None of the belligerents operated anything so capable. In fact, neither the Germans nor the Japanese ever fielded strategic bombers. And the RAF’s bombers, although they were excellent aircraft with good performance, were not as rugged as their American counterparts, nor did they have the armament to survive regular daylight operations.

Masefield might be forgiven some of his conceit when it is considered that the B-17 actually had been used earlier in combat over Europe and had suffered badly. RAF’s Bomber Command operated twenty B-17Cs from July 8 to September 12, 1941. It was a pitifully small number and the aircraft were dispatched on ridiculously small raids of twos and threes. These—especially the more lightly armed B-17Cs—were relatively easy pickings for German fighters. The RAF lost eight of the original twenty aircraft before ceasing such operations.

The Eighth Air Force—specifically, VIII Bomber Command—flew its first heavy bombardment mission from England on August 17, 1942, the day after Masefield’s article was published, and only a week before the first elements of the 303rd left Biggs. It was a small raid of only twelve bombers that hit railroad targets at Rouen, in France. No aircraft were lost and there were no casualties, excepting a bombardier and a navigator on a diversionary sortie who were cut by flying glass when their aircraft struck a pigeon.

The German reaction—flak and fighters—was almost indifferent. That would change dramatically in the coming months. In fact, it wasn’t until the Eighth’s fourth mission, on August 21, 1942, that the Luftwaffe’s fighters engaged the American bombers with any level of vigor. The B-17s were late to rendezvous with their RAF fighter escorts and so were left unprotected as they pressed to their target, the Wilton Shipyard at Rotterdam. After receiving and complying with a recall message, the twelve B-17s were attacked by a mixed force of approximately two dozen Me-109s and FW-190s.

The Germans dogged the retreating bombers for approximately twenty minutes but failed to knock any of them down. The pilot and copilot of one ship were wounded, and the copilot later died, but the formation held its own. This performance certainly must have heartened those who advocated the daytime precision approach to the strategic air campaign. Indeed, it wasn’t until the tenth mission, on September 6, 1942, that a USAAF B-17 was lost on combat operations over Europe.

In fact, German fighter pilots were ill-prepared for downing the big American bombers. The USAAF’s updated B-17s and B-24s were entirely different from anything they had previously encountered. An element of Jagdgeschwader 26—JG 26—made an attack against a group of B-17s on October 6, 1942, that initially met with little success. The Germans made three attacks, but unused to the massive size of the B-17s they broke away much too early, as described by Otto Stamberger: “We attacked the enemy bombers in pairs, going in with great bravado: closing in fast from behind with throttles wide open, then letting fly. But at first the attacks were all broken off much too early—as those great ‘barns’ grew larger and larger our people were afraid of colliding with them.”

Stamberger finally pressed close enough to do harm on his fourth firing pass. “The next time I went in I thought: get in much closer, keep going, keep going. Then I opened up, starting with his motors on the port wing. By the third such firing run the two port engines were burning well, and I had shot the starboard outer motor to smithereens.” Stamberger saw a handful of parachutes blossom from the bomber before it struck the earth near Vendeville, France.

Although the Eighth’s first ten or so raids were piddling in size—averaging just more than a dozen bombers each—it was less than two months after the start of operations that, on October 9, 1942, a comparatively massive mixed force of 115 B-17s and B-24s was sortied against steel and locomotive works at Lille, France. However, the abort rate was horrible as thirty-three of the crews failed to drop their bombs. Results against the Lille target were likewise unimpressive as some bombs fell miles from their targets. Indeed, only 9 of 588 bombs hit within fifteen hundred feet of their aim points. There was some damage inflicted on the intended targets, and several other worthwhile targets were unintentionally hit, but up to forty French civilians were killed.

German fighters proved to be effective. Although the Luftwaffe had been notable for its absence or timidity or inexperience during much of August and September, its pilots were more aggressive on this raid; three B-17s and a B-24 were shot down. Ultimately, it was apparent that notwithstanding the fact that high winds and aggressive fighter attacks both figured into the underwhelming results of the raid, there was much room for improvement in the Eighth’s bombing operations. The 303rd, when it entered combat the following month, would help define, shape and implement those improvements.

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