This is a WWII photo of a German 88mm Antiaircraft gun crew in action.
After the horror (for the people of Dresden, but not for us flying at 25,000 feet above them) of the four days of bombing of Dresden they had to be followed by some bad missions for us. Indeed, on the fifth day after Dresden we flew on a mission to Langandreer, a suburb of Bochum located in the industrial and heavily-defended Ruhr Valley region of the Rhine. Langandreer was important to the Germans for its coal production and steel manufacture.
Everywhere in the Ruhr valley the German military had placed batteries of their famous 88mm antiaircraft cannons. These guns were so deadly the Germans decided to also mount them on their Panzer tanks. My crew had seen the black puffs of 88mm shells exploding in the distance but never close up, until today. As we approached our target, an oil refinery, we began to experience accurately placed flak, all of it 88mm. It is hard to describe the explosion of an 88mm shell nearby. To me, wearing a flying helmet with earphones that muffled the explosion somewhat, it sounded as I would imagine a great dane dog barking in your face would sound.
Of course, it was not just the sound of the explosions that was unnerving, it was also the concussion. 88mm shells exploding within 100 feet of the aircraft literally shook the aircraft and threw one about. I was flying as tail gunner on this mission and several of the nearby exploding 88mm shells threw me against the wall of the fuselage. One particularly close explosion sent a jagged 8 ounce piece of the steel casing of the 88mm shell crashing through the skin of the B-17 where it hit the heavy beam supporting the tail of the aircraft and dropped into my lap. If it had come into the plane a few inches lower it would have taken my head off.
Because I was facing the rear away from the rest of our B-17 I could not see the damage being done to our plane. One shell took out our No. 1 engine and another set the No. 3 engine on fire. I could sense that we were losing altitude rapidly. Then Lt. William Beasley, our pilot, announced over the intercom that he was trying to save the airplane but was not sure that he could do so and therefore we should prepare to bail out but stand by for the order. I moved back from my seat in the tail, located my chest parachute, jettisoned the door in the tail and knelt there, praying, waiting for the order to bail out.
I must tell you that I suffer from acrophobia, the fear of heights. For some unknown reason I only experience acute fear of falling from heights when I am standing on a cliff, or a place on the edge of a exposed floor high on a skyscraper. I had never felt the fear of falling from a height in an airplane, until I knelt by that open door looking at the ground some 15,000 feet below me, preparing to bail out when the order came.
I did not have to bail out, thanks be to God! After what seemed an eternity Lt. Beasley announced that he had managed to put out the fire in the No. 3 engine and even though it was inoperative and we had lost the No. 1 engine he could control the airplane and we were going to descend to tree top level and make our way across Belgium to the coast, and hopefully across the English channel to Molesworth. Lt. Beasley’s previous experience as a tank commander would serve him well in the next few hours.
We safely descended to tree-top level and proceeded, unhindered by the Germans, to fly to the coast. Along the way we scared the life out of a number of bicycle riders when we roared up on top of them on the road. Then I experienced something I had only experienced once before when I was in training in gunnery school in Kingman, Arizona; after we practiced firing at a towed target the pilot flew our B-17 down to the surface of Lake Mead and flew to Boulder Dam leaving a wake in the water from the prop blast of our four engines. It was not something I enjoyed. However it was only slightly less unenjoyable as flew across the English Channel leaving prop wake on the surface of the Channel because I realized that we had survived a really bad raid. Still, the thought of drowning in the English Channel did not appeal to me. Thanks again to the ability of William Beasley, we managed to make it safely back to our base at Molesworth.
After I had flown a dozen or so combat missions I inquired as to whether or not my engineering education at Rice might not qualify me to have my MOS (military occupation specialty) changed from tail gunner to flight engineer on the B-17. I was told I would have to take a test. I took the test and passed it with flying colors on my first try and got promoted to Flight Engineer.
Being a Flight Engineer on a B-17 was nothing like it became on a B-29 and other later and larger bombers. B-17’s did not have all the sophisticated electronic gear that later aircraft had. My job as the Flight Engineer was to be in charge of the enlisted crew under the authority of the pilot. In addition I had to check with the crew chief of the ground crew to determine the flight worthiness of the aircraft. I had to have a working knowledge of all the electrical and mechanical systems on board the aircraft and once airborne the Flight Engineer’s job was to trouble shoot and repair any malfunctioning part of the aircraft.
The flight engineer’s position in flight was on a jump seat between the pilot and the co-pilot. I had to constantly monitor all of the flight instruments looking out for any sign of a malfunction. To my great joy I now had the power to start the engines and taxi the aircraft on the ground if it needed to be moved. During combat my position changed to the top turret with its two 50 caliber machine guns and I had the duty of calling for a mike check from all the enlisted members of the crew every ten minutes.
The downside of my promotion was that I could no longer fly with the crew I had trained with in the U.S. and with whom I had flown all my combat missions up to then. Worse than that, on every new crew’s first combat mission I would replace their Flight Engineer as an additional element of safety for the crew. That is how I had one of the scariest missions of my 32 combat missions.
I became the substitute Flight Engineer for this particular crew that was going to fly its first combat mission. The target was near Munich, railroad marshaling yards. We took off and everything was normal until we began to approach the target. On a routine mike crew check the radio operator failed to respond. I tried several times to get him to respond without success so I informed the pilot of the situation. Since we were flying at 25,000 feet and on supplemental oxygen there was a danger that the radio operator had accidentally disconnected his oxygen mask and had passed out. So the pilot instructed me to go back to the radio room and see what was wrong with the radio operator.
Now you have to visualize the interior of a B-17 bomber. The interior is divided into three compartments. The first, beginning at the nose, contains the navigator-bombadier, the pilot, the co-pilot and the flight engineer. The second compartment is the bomb bay. It occupies the entire interior of the aircraft from top to bottom. There is a door between the pilot’s compartment and the bomb bay and there is another door between the bomb bay and the radio operator. The rest of the aircraft is one big compartment all the was back to the tail.
For me to check on the radio operator I would have to go through the door into the bomb bay and then walk about 15 feet on a 10 inch wide beam to reach the door to the radio operator’s compartment. When I opened the door to the bomb bay I saw that the navigator-bombadier had opened the bottom of the bomb bay and I was looking down 25,000 feet past the bombs to the ground. My first thought was to put on my chest parachute before beginning to tread my way along that narrow beam, however the beam was supported midway by two struts that tied the beam to the ceiling system and there would not be room enough for me to past between the struts wearing a parachute so I had no choice but to step into the bomb bay without a parachute. As I did so, the navigator-bombadier released the bombs and I stood there paralyzed as I watch the bombs fall away from the plan leaving me standing on the beam looking at the ground 25,000 feet below. For a moment I had the feeling that I was falling with the bombs. As I have described before, I suffer from acute acrophobia, the fear of falling from heights. How I found the courage and strength to walk the remaining ten feet or so to the door of the radio compartment, God only knows!
When I opened the door to the radio compartment I was greeted by a blizzard of chaff. Chaff is the name given to the bundles of aluminum foil strips identical to what one puts on Christmas trees. Chaff is deployed out of the bomber as it approaches its target. When deployed, the bundle of chaff bursts apart and tens of thousands of the aluminum strips float down in a cloud confusing the enemy’s radar thus making his flak more inaccurate. It is the radio operator’s job to open the cardboard box of chaff under his radio table and to feed bundles of chaff one by one out of a slot in the fuselage to his left at the level of his radio table. The radio operator evidently did not know that that was what that slot in the fuselage was for. Knowing that there was a well in the floor of his compartment in which a camera is sometimes placed by Intelligence to film the bomb strike he opened the trap door to the well and seeing that there was no camera in the well he got down into the well and tried to stuff the chaff out of the hole in the bottom of the fuselage. Big problem: the blast of air coming up through the camera hole once he removed the trap door meant that every bundle of chaff would explode in his hand and fill the compartment with millions of particles of aluminum foil.
In the course of trying to push the chaff out the camera hole the radio operator had accidentally disconnected his mike; thank God he did not disconnect his oxygen. I pulled him out of the well, closed the trap door in the floor, sat him down on his chair and reconnected his mike. I had no way of talking to him since my mike was not connected but I am sure that he read the look of disgust on my face and that said enough to him until we could get back to Molesworth.
My trip back to the forward compartment was not as bad as my trip to the radio compartment because by the time the little drama had occurred in the radio compartment the bomb bay doors had been closed and I was no longer looking down at the earth as I passed through.
That mission did not compare in danger to the mission to Langandreer, but in it own way it was the most memorable of all of my 32 combat missions over Germany.
I missed not flying with my original crew.