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In the Firing Line
"The coldest, loneliest, most dangerous job of all."
--Richard Holmes, military historian
Sitting in the copilot's seat of a B-17 Flying Fortress nicknamed La-Dee-Doo, twenty-year-old Jim O'Connor from Chicago had plenty of time to contemplate his fate. It was not so very long since he had been at a desk in high school sweating for his English Lit exams. He still carried in his pack a relic of those days--a book called A Treasury of Great Poems--and he would seek solace in the inspirational words he found there before setting out on every mission. It seemed a lifetime ago now, but just a couple of months earlier, back in the United States, he had flung off his uniform, with its newly acquired pilot's wings and second lieutenant's bars, and reveled in a day of exceptional loveliness in a lush Oklahoma valley. A warm sun shone in a cloudless sky. "It was a rare moment of peace and beauty in our uprooted, uncertain and somewhat chaotic young lives," he later recalled. He swam in a lake and then soaked his head under a spectacular waterfall. Now he was on his way to a baptism of fire over Germany.
As a member of the 388th Bomb Group based at Knettishall in eastern England, he was waiting to take up the "Tail-End Charlie" position, so often assigned to rookie crews like his, in a huge bomber formation. He knew that bringing up the rear of 700, 800, maybe 1,000 aircraft would leave him exposed to enemy fighters in search of an easy kill or to antiaircraft gunners on the ground who had finally got their range. The experience that day would be imprinted on O'Connor's mind for the rest of his life. It had begun, as it always did, with a midnight awakening.
The duty sergeant, a big pleasant former gunner from North Carolina, quietly entered the barracks and shone a flashlight on a roster in his hand. He spoke softly as he aimed the flashlight beam into the face of each crew member scheduled to fly that day. "Lootenant, wake up. You all are flying today." He slowly worked his way the length of the hut, skipping a relieved crew here and there who were getting the day off. He finally arrived at our corner, and we were up, into our long underwear, woolen uniforms, flight suits, and A-2 leather jackets in a couple of minutes. After breakfast we loaded into GI trucks which raced through the darkness and disgorged us in front of the briefing room. Thirty-six crews--360 airmen plus a few intelligence, weather, and auxiliary officers--looked up at a stage containing a covered wall-size map of England and northern Europe. Our target that day was a deep-penetration one--a heavily defended factory at Schweinfurt producing most of the ball bearings for the entire German military. A groan went up when it was announced.
The briefing would end with the synchronizing of watches at around 3:00 a.m. Each crew member then had a particular duty to perform. As the copilot, mine was to pick up the crew's parachutes and escape kits from stores. Meanwhile, the Catholics in our ranks went off to a makeshift chapel on the flight line where the chaplain administered the sacraments and gave a farewell blessing. The Protestant and Jewish fliers had similar arrangements. After the tasks were all completed and the ship checked over, there was usually a wait of a half hour or more before takeoff time. The crew gathered around the stove in the ground-crew tent and either dozed off on the cots or had a last smoke. Everyone was alone with his own thoughts.1
At 4:00 a.m., as the first streaks of dawn began to appear in the eastern sky, a green flare shot up from the control tower giving the signal to start engines. A tremendous roar shattered the peace of the night as 134 powerful 1,200 horsepower engines sprang into life. Then a second flare shot skyward and the aircraft began the taxi out toward the runway. In La-Dee-Doo, O'Connor and his crew followed the other heavily laden ships waddling up to takeoff position. After the magnetos were checked and tail wheel locked, the skipper offered a final comforting glance to his crew as the engineer rammed the throttles full forward. The skipper gave the final nod and the brakes were released.
We roared down the runway. The excitement of that moment of takeoff never diminished. It took some two hours for the entire force to form over England. We would fly in a big lazy climbing circle until the last ship, squadron, group, and wing were in position in the bomber stream. That day we were in the last wing (100-plus ships), the last group (36), the last squadron (12) and the last element (3), flying in so-called Purple Heart Corner, the most vulnerable position in the formation. Out of the hundreds of bombers hitting Schweinfurt, we would be the very last one over the target. We headed out over the North Sea toward the continent and climbed to altitude. The gunners practiced firing their guns. At 10,000 feet we went on oxygen and put on steel flak helmets. Every ten minutes or so we had an oxygen check, with each crew member reporting in to the copilot.
Over the target, the sky was black with flak, the worst we had ever seen. And being at the tail end of the bomber stream, the German gunners by then had the exact range. Bursts of flak were exploding right below and around our ship, bouncing it up and down and sending jagged pieces of shrapnel through the fuselage. Our usually unexcitable tail gunner got on the intercom and yelled out, "Lieutenant, de flak is right on us. Let's get de hell out of heah!" The flak was so devastating that immediately after bombs away, the group leader made an abrupt forty-five-degree right diving turn off the target to get out of the range of gunfire. Being the last ship on the outside of the formation, the speed and angle of turn was greatly exaggerated for us.
The plane was practically standing on its wing at a ninety-degree angle to the ground as the air speed rapidly increased. The skipper could not see anything from his seat, so I had to take over control and fly the plane myself on my own. By now there was both a gray undercast and a gray overcast, absolutely nothing visible by which I could gauge our flight attitude. Vertigo gripped me. I lost all balance and perspective. All I had to hang on to was the aircraft alongside--which meant that if she was heading for the ground then so were we. Eventually the group stabilized, and we rejoined the mainstream for the long haul home. The crew started breathing again and assessed the battle damage. The flak had taken out rudder and trim cables, and put more than twenty large holes in the side. The tail gunner and radio operator had near misses and the navigator was grazed by a piece of flak that tore his flight jacket and pierced his equipment bag.
Just before 1:00 p.m. we landed back at base. As the wheels touched down, we were about to let out a collective sigh of relief, when the ship began to vibrate and bounce. A tire had been shot out. The skipper yelled at me to unlock the tail wheel. He then gunned the engines, pulling the ship off the runway into the muddy infield, thus keeping the landing strip clear for the other incoming aircraft, many with battle damage or wounded on board. That day only thirty-two out of the thirty-six aircraft that had taken off for battle from our base returned. As the skipper cut the engines, we sat there for some moments completely whacked out until a truck came out to pick us up. At debriefing, we felt we had earned the shot of bourbon which was waiting for us.
O'Connor and his crew had survived their first experience as Tail-End Charlies and their first encounters on Purple Heart Corner, but four bombers from his group, along with forty of his comrades, had not. It had been every bit as bad as they feared, and they hoped to be spared a second experience. But a few weeks later they were rostered in the same position for a thousand-bomber raid on "the Big B," Berlin. "When the target was announced, a spontaneous groan erupted from the assembled bomber crews. I looked round the room and knew several crews would probably not make it back." He felt sure his would be one of them. Not only were they Tail-End Charlies again, they had also been assigned an older, patched-up B-17 for the trip, one that creaked and groaned as they rose into the morning sun. O'Connor felt like a medieval knight heading into battle, "knowing that the ultimate gamble was at hand, the throw of the dice that would determine life or death." That day death came very close. From his cockpit, O'Connor watched the Fortress next to his in the formation explode, its oxygen tanks hit by the same flak that had put a handful of harmless holes in his own aircraft. He and his men made it home. The other crew went on the list of 250 men missing that day. "How sweet it was to be alive!" O'Connor later wrote in his diary.
Life for others in the Tail-End Charlie position was not so sweet and many could not escape disaster. On a deep-penetration haul to the Leuna oil refinery, a B-17 named Knockout was in the last group of the thousand-plane formation, with navigator Dean Whitaker, lying in the nose cone, straining his eyes to catch sight of the full might of the Eighth Air Force ahead as it went in for the kill. What he saw was a huge black cloud--the flak from hundreds of 88mm guns, so many he thought the Germans must have moved every gun they had to protect their valuable oil supplies. He could see B-17s spiraling out of that cloud, some on fire, others missing a wing or tail. "Knowing it would soon be our turn to run the gauntlet made my blood pressure rise." If that was happening to the vanguard, what chance did those in the rear have?
They slowed to one hundred and fifty miles an hour for the bomb run, and to Whitaker it felt as if they had come almost to a stop. "Flak was to the right, left, overhead, ahead, sometimes so close you could hear the dull thud of it exploding. I smelt burning metal and knew we had been hit. A shell exploding directly in front of us sent bits of steel through the nose." Bombs gone, and they wheeled away, out of the black cloud and into clear blue sky. The relief was momentary. "Bandits" came a cry over the intercom, and they were being chased by enemy fighters. "All hell broke loose. Our tail must have been shot off because the plane was going every way but straight." The rear gunner was dead. The aircraft began to nosedive, the stick and wheel useless in the pilot's hands. All that was left to do was lower the landing gear, a sign of surrender to the Germans, and jump.
More than half the crew of Knockout parachuted straight into enemy hands. Surrounded by German troops the moment they landed, evasion was never an option. A dozen other planes had been hit, too, on that mission and altogether fifty bedraggled American airmen held up their hands in surrender that day and went into captivity. They at least were safe. Four others from the crew of Knockout were not, the pilot Herb Newman among them. Winds had swept them in a different direction and they drifted down near a small village, whose police chief enlisted the help of other Nazi thugs to slaughter them on the spot.2
Copyright © 2006 by John Nichol and Tony Rennell