Although the United States declared war against Germany in December 1941, a successful assault on Nazi-occupied Europe could not happen until Germany’s industrial and military might were crippled. The first target was the Luftwaffe—the most powerful and battle-hardened air force in the world. The United States Army Air Forces joined with Great Britain’s already-engaged Royal Air Force to launch a strategic air campaign that ultimately brought the Luftwaffe to its knees. One of the standout units of this campaign was the legendary 303rd Bomb Group—Hell’s Angels.
This is the 303rd’s story, as told by the men who made it what it was. Taking their name from their B-17 of the same name, they became one of the most distinguished and important air combat units in history. The dramatic and terrible air battles they fought against Germany ultimately changed the course of the war.
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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 19441
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 bomberhauled 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.
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.
“AND THEN YOU SLEPT IN THE BARN”
“I WAS BORN on the kitchen table of our ninety-acre dairy farm just outside of Smithton, Missouri,” said Van White. “It was April 30, 1919, and my birth certificate specified that I was ‘Born Alive.’ I grew up with an older brother and a younger brother and a sister in that same house with no electricity or running water.”1
Dairy farming was difficult in good times, but it was almost not worth doing during the Great Depression, when prices plummeted to nearly nothing. “Aside from taking care of the cows and the actual milking, which had to be done twice each day,” White said, “the glass bottles had to be meticulously cleaned and sterilized before they were filled and capped. Then we delivered the milk on a small route we had in town—Smithton’s population was only about two hundred. We sold the milk for five cents a quart and also sold eggs for six cents a dozen. It was little more than a subsistence living; we were almost destitute, but as kids we didn’t realize it because so many of our friends were also very poor.
“Still,” White said, “we were envious of our friends who lived in town. They didn’t have chores like we did. They didn’t have cows to milk and bottles to be sterilized and filled. We did it before school, walked to school and then walked home afterward to do it again. And of course, we had to help with the big vegetable garden we kept. A lot of our meals came from that garden. So, there wasn’t much opportunity for us to play sports or participate in other activities.”
White’s father tried to supplement the family’s income as best he could. “At one point my father entered into a contract with a business in Kansas City. They agreed to buy all the rabbits we could raise—rabbit was commonly eaten at the dinner table back then. As it turned out, the company went bankrupt and we were left with two hundred and fifty domestic rabbits. We gave a lot of rabbits away, sold some and ate the rest for a long time after that.”
White matriculated through all twelve grades before graduating from Smithton High School in 1937. “I wasn’t a particularly good student,” he said, “although I did learn to type pretty well, which paid dividends later. I went down to Kansas City to work for Braniff Airways with my older brother. He was making ten dollars a week. I worked as a ‘cargo buster.’ I handled luggage, gassed and oiled aircraft, and did whatever else I was told. My brother and I shared a room at the airport for free.
“I got it bad for one of the Braniff stewardesses,” White said. “Her name was Elisia Romera, and she was from Dallas. She was cute as a speckled puppy under a red wagon, but I didn’t get anywhere with her.” Still, White did have a brush with greatness. “Jimmy Doolittle was famous as a great air racer during that time. One day he flew a Waco into the airport and taxied off the hard surface onto some wet ground. I helped him park his airplane, and when he climbed out he said, ‘Young man, if you wouldn’t mind getting a bucket of water and a brush to wipe off the underside of my airplane I’d be most appreciative.’ I got the mud cleaned off real nice and he gave me a five-dollar tip! That was close to half a week’s pay!”
White joined the Army in 1940. “I was visiting home and was in the barbershop at Smithton when my good friend George Monsees walked in and said that the Army was recruiting for the Air Corps. He wanted us to leave right then to sign up in Kansas City, and I had to convince him to wait until my haircut was finished!” After enlisting that same day, White reported to boot camp at Jefferson Barracks a week later. “It was cold and icy and George got pneumonia and was set back. I finished and was sent to Langley, in Virginia. My Class A uniform was left over from World War I and had been pulled from mothballs. It was the old choker-style jacket and had lace-up puttees to go over my boots. My boots were so old there was mold growing on them. When I got off the train at Langley, a very gruff second lieutenant grabbed me and told me to report to him the next day for a new uniform. It was January 1941.”
During the next year, White entertained notions of becoming a flyer, but because he demonstrated a talent for typing he was shunted into clerical work. Specifically, he was made an operations clerk. “So I ended up as a chairborne trooper in the paragraph corps,” he said.
* * *
“THE ARMY AIR CORPS changed my name for me,” said Louis “Mel” Schulstad.2 It was 1939 and Schulstad had been in the service for only a short time when he stood in line to collect his pay, which, for a private, was $21 per month. According to procedure, when it was his turn, he stepped in front of the lieutenant’s desk—which was stacked with cash—and saluted. The attending sergeant told him to sign the payroll. “So, I leaned over and looked and saw that they had spelled my name wrong.” Instead of “Lewis,” the Army had spelled it “Louis.”
Schulstad pointed out the error. “And the sergeant asked, ‘Do you want your money or don’t you?’” Schulstad declared that he did indeed want his money. “So, the sergeant said, ‘Sign it.’” From that point, Schulstad spent the rest of his life with the wrong first name.
He grew up in the small town of Reynolds, North Dakota, and, like many young men of his generation, was inspired by Charles Lindbergh. “I was bitten by the flying bug,” he said. “But it was hard to find the money in 1935 and 1936. I worked as a seventeen-year-old on the farms around my town for a dollar a day. That meant that you were out in the field at six in the morning and you had some lunch and sometimes they brought you dinner—coffee and sandwiches—and then supper at the house at six in the evening. And then you slept in the barn, or if they had extra bedrooms you’d sleep in the house. And you were there for six days a week.”
Payday came on Saturday. “Every Saturday night,” Schulstad said, “you’d stand there with maybe a couple of other farmhands and the farmer paid you in cash. He’d count out the bills: ‘One-two-three-four-five-six.’ Six dollars for six days’ work.” Consequently $6 was a very dear sum to Schulstad.
“I became acquainted with Lester Jolly,” said Schulstad. “He had a Piper Cub and gave lessons for eight dollars an hour. I reached an arrangement with him and he agreed to give me lessons—about fifteen or twenty minutes—for two dollars. I’d meet him at the wheat field where he kept his airplane and pay him the two dollars. He’d hand it to his wife, who drove to town, bought five gallons of gas and then poured it into the airplane. And that was our arrangement.”
Schulstad’s desire for more flying, together with other exigencies, compelled him to enlist in the Army Air Corps. He was determined to become a pilot. Although the odds were greatly stacked against him at the time, there was—assuming he performed well—an official path for him to do so. After completing basic training and other assignments typical for a non-flying enlisted man, he was sent to March Field, in Riverside, California, during 1940. It was there that he saw his first B-17. “Wings you could walk under. And four engines of twelve hundred horsepower each. My God!” Schulstad was excited to learn that, as an armorer, he would fly aboard the massive aircraft.
Schulstad’s commanding officer took a liking to him and appreciated the young man’s desire to become a pilot. But he knew that Schulstad would have to pass a rigorous battery of academic tests for which he was not prepared. “I think you’ve got the potential,” he told Schulstad. “I’m going to make you my orderly. That means your job is to come in here at six o’clock each morning and get my office ready for the day. And then, you’re going to the junior college in Riverside.”
“Well, I didn’t have a car,” said Schulstad. “But he knew that if I was really serious about passing those tests and becoming a pilot, that I’d find a way to do it. So, I hitchhiked to school every day.” In the end, after failing at his first attempt, Schulstad passed the exams.
Schulstad’s unit was soon after broken into three parts, which were to form the nuclei for new units. He was sent to Tucson with one of those three parts. The new unit had only a handful of B-17s that it parked at the municipal field. Short on aircraft, it accepted a dozen PT-17 biplane trainers so that its pilots could maintain their currency and earn their monthly flight pay. Schulstad was made a crew chief and subsequently—under the tutelage of an experienced master sergeant—learned a great deal about the little aircraft. “He drank a little bit too much,” said Schulstad, “but I admired the old guy.”
The “old guy” taught Schulstad quite a bit, including how to adjust the various bracing wires that ran between the wings. “The tension would change a bit depending on the temperature and such, and the old sergeant would get out there with his pliers and hit one of the wires and listen to it as if it were a guitar string or a harp string. And then he’d tell me ‘tighten this one,’ or ‘loosen that one.’”
At the time, the Army Air Corps was expanding rapidly, and Schulstad was promoted from private first class to staff sergeant within just a few months. The extra money was certainly welcome, but Schulstad’s job as a crew chief offered other benefits. “I got to know the pilots and they got to know me. They’d take me flying and we flew all over Arizona. We’d do aerobatics or shoot landings. Sometimes if they had a hangover we’d land in a pasture and sleep in the shade under the wing. Often, when they got bored, they’d let me fly. And I learned to do turns and how to land and even do aerobatics. It was a lot of fun.” Consequently, when Schulstad was called to pilot training a few months later, he had no problems whatsoever. He was awarded his wings on March 16, 1942, and sent to fly B-17s.
* * *
“MY FATHER WAS A BAKER and he delivered pastries in his Willys Whippet to different resorts along the Osage River in Missouri,” said John Ford, who spent much of his young life in the west central Missouri town of Warsaw.3 “But the flour from his bakery got to him. He finally caught pneumonia and went bankrupt at about the same time.”
Ford’s father recovered and immediately started another career. “He went to barber school,” said Ford, “and when he finished he set up a barbershop in Versailles, about thirty miles northeast of Warsaw. I finished growing up there. I was an average student in high school, where I learned to type and also played the saxophone and the clarinet. I played baseball too.
“I joined the CCC when I graduated from high school in 1940,” Ford said. The CCC, or Civilian Conservation Corps, was a Depression-era relief program that taught young men discipline and basic skills while maintaining and improving remote public lands. They planted trees, fought fires and constructed outbuildings—among other duties. They were paid $30 each month and were required to send home $25.
“It was essentially a military lifestyle—barracks living and formations and such,” said Ford. “We learned quite a bit and it was a good experience. Lots of guys I later served with had spent time in the CCC.” Nevertheless, Ford didn’t stay in the CCC long before enlisting in the Army. Following basic training at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, he was sent to Langley Field in Virginia during the spring of 1941. “I wanted to be a pilot in the worst way,” he said. “I talked one of the young pilots into taking me flying four or five times in the Waco PT-14. Taking off was no problem at all, but landings gave me problems.”
Ford’s officers discovered he had typing talent and assigned him to the administrative shop of the 43rd Bombardment Group’s 64th Bomb Squadron. The new unit—based in Bangor, Maine—was equipped with B-18s, two-engine bombers that were already obsolete in 1941. Nevertheless, the B-18 was a useful aircraft for antisubmarine patrol work, and following the attack on Pearl Harbor the unit flew missions over the maritime approaches from the North Atlantic.
Bangor was cold and miserable that winter. “Aside from my regular job, I was assigned other duties, just like everyone else. It snowed quite a bit that year, and when I stood guard duty—two hours on and two off—I tramped a trench in the snow about three or four feet deep. During that time I still wanted to fly and applied to do so, but during the interview with my commanding officer he told me that I was too valuable doing what I was doing and he didn’t forward my request.”
Ford’s dilemma was not uncommon—especially among men who could type. Many commanding officers did their best to keep good enlisted personnel in their units. It served them no good purpose to let talented men leave for flight training or for other reasons. Good typists were in especially short supply as the USAAF was in the process of enlarging itself many times over. It was an administratively intensive effort, and administration required good typists.
Ford was stuck.
* * *
WHITE, SCHULSTAD AND FORD—and many thousands of young men like them—enlisted in an air force headed by General Henry “Hap” Arnold. They were part of Arnold’s plan to grow the service into the largest military air arm in history. It was a plan he had stewarded for several years, and one that had already caused him serious health issues. He was the assistant chief of the Army Air Corps when his boss, Oscar Westover, was killed at the controls of his own aircraft while on a whirlwind circuit to start the buildup that Arnold ultimately completed. Arnold recalled: “Westover worked harder than anybody. Too hard. He flew all over the country, always flying his own plane, landing here and talking to some group or other about airpower while his sergeant got the ship ready for the next hop, then flying on to give another enthusiastic talk to people in another town.”
On September 21, 1938, Arnold received a call from the Air Corps representative at Lockheed’s factory in Burbank, California. Westover and his sergeant had been killed in a landing crash there. “He said,” Arnold recalled, “that as he was talking to me the plane was still burning on the runway. I joined my wife and we went down to wait in the lobby of the Kennedy Warren, hoping to reach Mrs. Westover before she heard about it over the radio.”4 Arnold was made chief of the Air Corps eight days later, on September 29.
At that time the Army Air Corps numbered fewer than twenty-five thousand personnel and twenty-five hundred aircraft.5 Notwithstanding the fact that the United States was the richest and most industrialized nation on earth, the task before Arnold was gargantuan. Firstly, the government had to make funding available, and Arnold was consequently at loggerheads not only with secretary of the treasury Henry Morgenthau, but also with President Roosevelt himself. The two senior statesmen—unschooled in air warfare—believed that a powerful air force was measured in numbers of aircraft. That notion permeated much of the government, and Arnold tried to educate the President: “The strength of an air force cannot be measured in terms of airplanes only. Other things are essential—productive capacity of airplanes, of pilots, of mechanics, and bases from which to operate. A sound training program is essential to provide replacements.”6
Arnold didn’t argue the point that considerable quantities of aircraft were essential. But he knew that they had to be high-quality machines of the types needed to fight the coming war. Moreover, highly trained men were necessary to crew and maintain them. And those men needed bases from which to operate. Too, specialists such as mechanics, meteorologists, doctors, logisticians, administrators and other uniquely qualified personnel were necessary to support them. Furthermore, an expansive and efficient supply train had to be grown, provisioned and sustained—and it had to reach every man in the giant organization that Arnold and his staff envisioned. Finally, the nation’s industries had to be modified and grown to produce everything from electrical harnesses for gun turrets to cathode ray tubes for radar displays. None of this existed in the form and size that was required.
And all of it cost money. Lots of it. Consequently, Arnold’s routine included continuous lobbying. His work and the work of his staff and other airpower advocates—together with the exigencies of the coming war—combined to open the coffers not a minute too soon. This was at a time when it took five or more years to design and field a competent aircraft type. And it took approximately a year to train a mechanic or technical specialist, and roughly the same amount of time, or more, to prepare a pilot for combat. Moreover, creating experienced leaders from these cadres of newly trained men took years.
It was demanding work, and it was additionally a politically difficult time for Arnold. He and Morgenthau clashed constantly as Roosevelt had vested the secretary with the power to decide who received what aircraft and equipment. This proved to be nettlesome as various soon-to-be-allies scrambled to purchase whatever American equipment they could while Arnold competed with them for the same equipment to build the Army Air Corps. Arnold’s job was made additionally nettlesome by the nation’s isolationists who believed that a nation that was equipped for war was more likely to make it.
Arnold and the Army Air Corps, together with industry and the government, worked tirelessly to grow the service to meet the impending global threat. At that point the existing personnel and infrastructure were archaically organized as a defensive arm intended to deter an invasion. It was a preposterous notion for what was essentially little more than a hobbyhorse organization.
Nevertheless, that ill-prepared organization served a purpose. It was the tiny grain of sand about which was created the pearl that eventually grew to be the most massive and modern air arm in history. During 1939, Congress authorized the growth of the Army Air Corps to an unprecedented 24 air groups. Following the start of the war in Europe, the expansion was raised to 41 groups in 1940. The service was charged with training seven thousand pilots each year.7 This was more pilots than had been in the service two years earlier, but it was nothing compared with what was to come. By 1941, authorization had been granted to equip and man 224 air groups.8 Pilots were needed to fly the aircraft in those groups, and the annual training rate was assessed at seventy thousand new pilots per year, together with a commensurate number of other aircrew—navigators, aerial gunners, bombardiers, etc.—not to mention the necessary mechanics, administrators and support specialists.9
Such massive growth was mind-boggling even to careerists such as Arnold. In practical terms it meant that virtually everyone assimilated into the growing giant was an amateur. Much learning was done on the job by men who only months earlier had bagged groceries, sold millinery or studied for Boy Scout merit badges. Men who had been in uniform as little as two years were “old hands” who molded newcomers for service even as they learned their own duties.
Arnold’s value was unquestioned by the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Although there were still precious few aircraft available and the training machine was only then getting to speed, there was a guarded optimism that the objectives Arnold and his staff had set could be reached. In fact, even at that point the United States was already producing more aircraft than Germany and Japan combined.
Still, there were setbacks, and painstakingly developed plans were changed and then changed again and again. But Arnold had set the Army Air Corps—newly renamed and reorganized during 1941 as the United States Army Air Forces, or USAAF—on the right path. Ultimately, he oversaw the expansion of the nation’s air arm to 2.4 million personnel, and 318 groups. During 1944 alone, the nation’s manufacturers produced nearly one hundred thousand aircraft.10
But victory was years away when the Arcadia Conference was convened on December 21, 1941. There, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and their staffs met to mature their plan to defeat the Axis powers. A precept of that plan was the concentration of resources and effort against Germany first. To that end Roosevelt and Churchill stressed the importance of heavy bombardment operations against the Third Reich and queried Arnold as to when the United States might join the Royal Air Force—the RAF—in such efforts. “I said,” Arnold recalled, “we could not send less than one Group because the Group was our smallest self-sustained unit; that I could probably get the first Group of our bombers over to England by the following March .”11
* * *
TO PORTRAY THIS MASSIVE GROWTH as anything better than not quite chaotic would be a mischaracterization. For example, William Eisenhart reported for military service to Fort Benjamin Harrison at Indianapolis while wearing a suit and tie. “They took me to a railroad siding on the fort, handed me a shovel and set me to unloading a coal car. In my new suit. It was ruined and I was furious. I still am.”12
“NO PANTY WAIST UNION HOURS”
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.1
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.”2 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.”3
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.4 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.”5
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.”6 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.”7
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.”8
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.”9 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.10 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.”11
* * *
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 Liberatorsor Flying Fortressesto 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.”12
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.13
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.14 The 303rd, when it entered combat the following month, would help define, shape and implement those improvements.
“SHE IS A HELL OF A BIG SHIP”
THE MOVEMENT OF THE 303RD’S ground element was uneventful. Many men were treated to new landscapes and skylines, while others, such as Eugene O’Brien, passed through familiar territory: “We finally came to Chicago and our train stopped to pick up more soldiers. The car I was riding in stopped at 66th Street and Indiana Avenue. I lived at 6936 Indiana, and if it wasn’t for the tall trees, I would be able to see my home.”1 By August 27, the train had reached Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “05:00 P.M. Are at Pittsburg [sic], Pennsylvania. Stopped to water up the train,” recorded the unit diary. “All men are ordered off the train and given exercise. Men enjoyed themselves waving at young ladies.”2 The next day the unit reached Fort Dix, New Jersey, where the men underwent final preparations before embarking for England.
While the ground echelon made its way east, the 303rd’s aircrews and a few select ground personnel kept busy. Among other activities the men transferred the group’s aircraft to units still in training, typed orders and other administrative directives, packed what they were allowed to take and attended more classes. They also amused themselves as described by Ehle Reber on September 2: “Ground school in morning. Softball in afternoon with E.M. [enlisted men]—11–0 our favor in 4 innings. Beer Bust afterwards up the canyon. Stock [Donald Stockton] and I killed rattler. I think [Glenn] Hagenbuch is getting married soon. Kidded hell out of him. Hagenbuch, [Lloyd] Cole and [Billy] Southworth become captains tomorrow. Party in order. No flying, no ships.”
Reber noted that the expectations of a promotion party were indeed realized the following day after the 427th Bomb Squadron beat the 360th at softball, 6–1. “Captains gave party in evening at Paso Del Norte Spanish Room. Bed late. Bryant and Soha out of this world [drunk]. Some more too. Leave tomorrow. Hagenbuch marriage off. Sad.”
The ground element left Fort Dix the next day, September 4, for the port at New York, where the men were loaded aboard a ferry. The unit diary recorded the particulars: “Disembarked from ferry boat onto pier at 08:00 P.M. Boarded the second largest boat in the world—R.M.S. Queen Mary. The men were divided into two sections, one section to sleep below deck in cabins and the other section to sleep on deck. Sleeping positions will be alternated every twenty-four hours throughout the trip.”
The Queen Mary slipped her moorings for the Atlantic crossing the following day and the 303rd’s men continued their explorations of her attributes: “Confined investigation of the ship disclosed that she is a hell of a big ship. The halls and passage ways are finished in bird’s eye maple. Mahogany, black walnut and crome [sic] plated steel are used throughout the dining hall and stairways. The cabins are beautifully finished and each cabin has a private bathroom with tub.”3
Despite its fine furnishings, the ship—which normally sailed with a total of three thousand passengers and crew—was overcrowded to an astonishing degree and was much less comfortable than it would have been in regular service. “There are approximately 18,500 people aboard ship. These figures include American troops, R.A.F. troops, nurses and crew.” Feeding so many men was an all-day exercise. Men finished one meal only to get in line for the next: “Meals are served twice daily in six settings. Each man wears a button which identifies his setting number.”4
The voyage was a smooth one for the first few days as described by the unit diary entry for September 7: “Ship still going full speed. Weather holding up fine although it is very windy. Life boat and fire drill[s] were held today. . . . Ship changes course quite frequently. No other ships were sighted during the day. Life belts are required to be worn constantly and quite a number of the men were repremanded [sic] for not complying with the order. Antiaircraft guns were fired today for practice.”5
But the weather turned poor by September 9. “Sea is getting rough. There was a light rainfall this morning.”6 John Ford, who had been assigned to the captain of the ship as a liaison officer, recalled this point in the journey. “There were two of us and we were berthed on sofas in his cabin. It was a great break as almost all the other men were stacked three-high or more in hammocks on the lower decks. The captain told me to just tell his steward what I wanted to eat and when. I ate my way across the Atlantic on fried egg sandwiches.
“And then we ran into rough seas,” Ford said. “And I got seasick. It got so bad that I had to go below decks with everyone else where the motion wasn’t so bad. At the same time we were issued 1903 Springfield rifles. They were old World War I weapons covered with Cosmoline—a greasy, waxy, rust preventative—and we had to clean them. I was miserable in my hammock as I scraped and rubbed and polished that rifle.”
“Land Ho!” The unit diarist waxed colorful on September 11, 1942. “The men awoke this morning to find several Spitfires and other planes acting as escort. For several hours the ship slowly moved up a channel between green rolling hills and arrived at Glasgow Harbor, Scotland, at about 10:00 A.M.”7 The 303rd’s men were ferried from the ship to a wharf at Greenock. John Ford recalled the disembarkation: “When we got to Scotland they made us put on our Class A uniforms. Then they gave us two bandoliers of ammunition for our rifles, formed us up and marched us to the train station. I think they wanted to boost the morale of the locals. At the station, they took away our rifles and ammunition.”
From Greenock the men were entrained and sent south. “During the daylight hours,” the unit diary recorded, “the men eagerly looked at the countryside. Children lined the tracks every time the train passed a city or town and the boys tossed them candy bars and pennys [sic]. Tinned rations were opened at 2:00 P.M. and again about 9:00 P.M. The men declared them very good.”8 The unit arrived at the small town of Thrapston, in Northamptonshire, early the next morning, September 12. From there, they were taken a short distance by truck to the airfield at Molesworth, officially, Station 107. As ground crews and support personnel, it would be their home for the duration of the war.
The 303rd’s men found Molesworth to be a fairly well-prepared base. Built during 1940 and 1941, it was briefly used at different times by the RAF, the RAAF and even a USAAF unit. In fact, the first American raid against occupied Europe—little more than a publicity stunt—was launched from England on July 4, 1942, using borrowed British aircraft. Nevertheless, the base was unoccupied when the 303rd arrived: “The quarters are quite comfortable, far better than any of the men dreamed of getting. There are steel cot beds and mattresses (which are in three sections), stoves and all the other conveniences of home handy. The men are well satisfied.”9
Regardless of their satisfaction, the men were without most of their gear and equipment. There followed several days during which many of them were at loose ends as they waited for the material they needed to do their jobs. By September 19, they had started to get a toehold: “S-1 is operating, although unfamiliar with base duties; S-2 is operating, although unfamiliar with R.A.F. S-2; S-3 is operating although unfamiliar with R.A.F. S-3; S-4 is operating, although they have nothing to operate with.”10
Molesworth was a big base, and the men obviously needed to get around to perform their jobs. “We were each given a bicycle when we arrived at Molesworth,” said John Ford. “It was part of the Lend-Lease agreement. But the brakes were set up opposite of how they were arranged in the States. The front brakes were on the wrong side and so there were a lot of wrecks and a lot of guys with scrapes and bruises and stitches during those first few weeks.”
* * *
PERVERSELY, THE PROGRESS of the 303rd’s air element was much slower than that of the ground personnel. The aircrews left Biggs by train on September 4 and arrived at Kellogg Field in Battle Creek, Michigan, on September 7. There, they waited for new aircraft, which trickled in slowly; only three B-17s of an eventual thirty-five were delivered to the 303rd during the first week. The 427th Bomb Squadron received its first, a B-17F, on September 14, and it was assigned to Harry Robey. Ehle Reber mentioned it in his diary on September 16: “Lt. Robey’s plane may be rejected as it is incomplete. First plane put out by Douglas.”
Because Boeing didn’t have the capacity to manufacture the B-17 in the numbers required by the USAAF, both Douglas in Long Beach, California, and Lockheed Vega at Burbank, were contracted to produce the big bomber. The first models produced by those two manufacturers, beginning in 1942, were B-17Fs.
The learning curve for both Douglas and Lockheed Vega was a steep one. Although it didn’t take long for both companies to begin producing quality aircraft using Boeing’s design, Ehle Reber’s diary entries indicate that there were problems early on. On September 17, he wrote: “Lt. Robey’s Douglas B-17F was rejected so he received a Boeing this evening.” But his entry for September 22 indicated that the unit’s rejection of the Douglas-built aircraft was itself rejected by higher headquarters. “Have to keep Douglas B-17F. Hope I don’t get it.” The feeling seemed to be that a Boeing-built aircraft was the genuine article whereas anything else was an ersatz copy.
But it wasn’t long before the quality of the aircraft from all the manufacturers proved to be outstanding. In fact, most crews had no idea which of the three companies produced the individual aircraft they flew on any given mission. Ultimately, of the 12,700 B-17s built, Douglas and Lockheed Vega combined to produce 5,750—just less than half.
The new B-17Fs that were delivered to Reber and the rest of the 303rd’s aircrews were the latest iteration of an aircraft that in due course became the icon of the daytime strategic bombing campaign against Germany. Boeing financed, designed and built the B-17 in less than a year in response to a 1934 Army Air Corps tender for a multi-engine bomber capable of reaching targets at what were then considered extraordinarily long ranges. The Army wanted a bomber with a range of two thousand miles and a top speed of 250 miles per hour. Boeing’s four-engine entry, the Model 299, flew for the first time on July 28, 1935. The following month the aircraft was flown to Wright Field at Dayton, Ohio, where it dramatically outperformed the two-engine entries offered by Martin and Douglas.
But human error nearly killed the project. On October 30, 1935, shortly after taking off with an Army pilot and a Boeing copilot at the controls, the aircraft crashed. Both pilots were killed and several passengers were badly injured. The gust locks, which kept the flight controls from being battered by wind while the aircraft was parked on the ground, were still engaged. Consequently, the wreck that had been the Boeing entrant obviously couldn’t finish the competition and was disqualified. Still, despite the fact that the cost of the big bomber was nearly twice that of the other two entrants, the Army remained very interested in Boeing’s design.
Notwithstanding the fact that Douglas was declared the winner of the competition and awarded a contract for 133 B-18s, the Army exercised some legal high jinks and contracted with Boeing for thirteen improved examples of the Model 299, designated YB-17. The program evolved into a regular procurement as Boeing worked with the Army to deliver steadily improved models ranging from the B-17A to the B-17E. The production of these models together totaled fewer than 650 examples, with the B-17C being the first to see combat. The RAF operated twenty B-17Cs with little success during the summer of 1941 before withdrawing them from service.
The B-17F was the first model to see combat in large numbers over Europe. It was also produced in very large numbers, and 3,405 were delivered to the USAAF. With a wingspan of more than 103 feet and a length of nearly 75 feet, it incorporated improvements that made it dramatically more capable than earlier models. It was powered by four Wright Cyclone R-1820 radial engines that gave it a top speed of 325 miles per hour, although such speeds were rarely if ever achieved in combat. It typically cruised at 160 miles per hour and had a theoretical service ceiling of 37,500 feet, a range that ultimately was extended to more than 3,500 miles, and a payload of up to eight thousand pounds. It most commonly carried eleven .50-caliber machine guns: one in each cheek, two in the dorsal turret, one in the radio operator’s compartment, two in the ball turret, one at each waist station and two in the tail.
Ehle Reber was assigned a newly arrived B-17F at Battle Creek on September 23. During the next few days he and his crew uncovered a number of discrepancies that required them to fly it to Patterson Field at Dayton, Ohio, on September 27. There were technicians at Patterson qualified to make the needed repairs and modifications.
Reber was the sort of young man who saw opportunities for fun and diversion at every turn. One such opportunity during the flight from Battle Creek to Dayton was the family of Milton Conver, his bombardier: “Finally took off at 17:45 for Dayton and Patterson, via Cincinnati where we buzzed Milt’s home. Landed at Dayton. Arranged to have plane fixed. Went with Milt to town where we met his folks at the Biltmore Hotel. Went out to The Farm [Conver’s house]. Had a steak dinner and drank Martinis and beer. To bed about 0230.”
Reber enjoyed the next night as well. “Went in and checked the airplane until about 1700 then out to The Farm. That nite we went into Cincinnati. . . . Had a wonderful time at the Beverley Hills Country Club over the border in Kentucky. Listened to Guy Lombardo’s orchestra. Home late.” And a night or two later: “Stayed at the Netherland’s Plaza at Cincinnati last nite. Best in town and really nice. Up at 1130 and then Milt and I met Mr. Conver and went to couple clubs.”
Reber and his crew finally returned to Battle Creek on September 30, after having entertained Conver’s sister through the previous night. “No sleep. Caught bus at 0500 for Dayton where we met rest of fellas. Took off about 1000. Jerry Jinx painted on plane. Landed at about 1130 at Battle Creek. Major Sheridan unhappy.” As it developed, Reber’s commanders didn’t appreciate his extracurricular activities, and he was consequently assigned duty as the 427th’s officer of the day for eight days running.
The 303rd’s aircrews continued to wait at Battle Creek during the first few days of October while their aircraft were prepared for the trip to England. These were the bombers the men would take into combat, and they began naming and personalizing them right away. Traditionally, the name was the pilot’s prerogative, however many of them let their crews decide. Mel Schulstad lined up his crew and asked what ideas they had. “I started with the navigator. He said ‘I dunno.’ And then I asked the bombardier and he said ‘I dunno.’ Copilot? ‘I dunno.’” The answer was the same as Schulstad queried his engineer, ball turret gunner and waist gunners. Finally, he stood in front of the tail gunner. “He shrugged his shoulders and said ‘beats me.’ And that became the name of our airplane—Beats Me!?”
Finally, on October 4, a total of seven aircraft from the 358th and the 427th flew through foul weather to Bangor, Maine. Bangor was the final stateside staging point for bombers headed across the North Atlantic. The time spent waiting at Battle Creek was excellent practice for what was required of the men at Bangor—more waiting. They dealt with it in their usual way: “Being confined to the post here is rather rugged,” recorded Reber. “We get kind of tired in the evening [as] about all there is to do is drink or go to bed. Officers club is pretty nice. Had party in evening.”
Reber also noted how the 303rd, composed as it was of four different squadrons, was perpetually in a state of flux as personnel joined and others departed for a variety of reasons—even on the cusp of moving to a combat theater. This also illustrated the point that America’s airmen were not always highly motivated or of perfect caliber: “Should get a new assistant radio operator as mine doesn’t show much initiative or what it takes. S/Sgt Gray, my radio operator, still in hospital at Kellogg Field with strep infection. May get replacement. Lt. Goodale was transferred out of squadron and Lt. Illgen took his place on Hayes’s crew.”
It was nineteen days before Reber and his crew escaped Bangor for Gander in Newfoundland. “Gander sure is the last outpost. It is quite desolate here. A few WAACs here, but other than them, women are [at] a premium. Oh! Yes, [movie star] Joan Blondell is here with USO troupe. She stays in our barracks. Shades of civilization. War atmosphere is getting more prevalent the closer we get to England. Not so very cold here yet. The ‘Newfies’ (Newfoundlanders) all seem to have false teeth. Lack of fresh milk, fruit and vegetables, they say.”
Reber was a young man who especially liked the ladies. After nearly a week at Gander—stuck and waiting for weather good enough to cross the Atlantic—he made an observation about the Newfoundland women. His words are insensitive but utterly typical of a self-assured but not yet socially adept or mature young man: “Maybe tomorrow we leave. Women, who were first Haints, are now looking better. Fellas will probably be dating the Newfies soon. A Haint, incidentally, is a girl who could jump over two parked cars and run up a thorn tree and never get a scratch. In other words a bag!”
The 303rd’s crews started to leave Newfoundland during late October 1942. A great deal of effort and material had been expended to prepare the route. It featured divert airfields in Greenland and Iceland, and a sophisticated weather forecasting and reconnaissance system. Still, the crossing was treacherous and characterized by unpredictable weather. That weather, especially ice and snow, often clawed aircraft out of the sky and into the icy North Atlantic, where no one could survive. During some of the worst months, losses along this northern route nearly equaled those being sustained in combat. It was a flight that all of the men dreaded.
Mel Schulstad remembered that his crew was especially well prepared before leaving Newfoundland. “They had heard that there was a shortage of booze over there [England] and that getting hold of a good bottle of Scotch or whiskey could be a problem.” His crew resolved to do their part to alleviate the island nation’s supposed dearth of spirits and bought two cases of various hard liquors. But there was little room for it in the aircraft, which was carrying an extra passenger and other assorted baggage and cargo. “They wrapped the bottles up end-to-end in wool GI blankets,” said Schulstad. “And then the flight engineer opened a port on the bottom of the wing. They reached up and fed about ten feet of blanket-wrapped bottles through that port and along the inside of the wing.”
Despite the hazards, the 303rd was the first bomb group to make the North Atlantic crossing without incident. But there were close calls. Bill Neff was the 359th’s engineering officer and hitched a ride with the Harold Stouse crew. After the takeoff from Gander, Neff grew bored and searched for a place to stretch out and relax. He ducked into the tunnel that ran below the pilot’s compartment and into the nose of the aircraft. There he started arranging a canvas engine cover so that he could lie down. In the process he lost his balance.
I reached back to catch it [his balance] and put my hand on the forward access door for stability. The door was not latched and my hand and my ass were, all at once, hanging out in the slipstream, with my neck on one side of the door frame and my legs on the opposite side. I was able to get back inside and tried to close and latch the door by banging it shut in rapid attempts with the aircraft [?] sprung in the flight position. The catch wouldn’t catch. The cockpit heard my banging attempts and thought someone was shooting at us in the air. Immediately they took evasive action which startled the whole crew.11
Upon crossing the Atlantic, most of the crews landed at Prestwick, Scotland. Van White made the trip with the Carl Morales crew. “We got out of the airplane and it was cold! One of the first things I saw was a little gal at the wheel of an aircraft tug. Her hands were bare and her fingers were purple from the freezing weather. I asked her where in the world her gloves were and she answered in that very heavy brogue, ‘I ’aven’t got none.’”
“Anyway,” White said, “they took us to the RAF mess hall and it reeked of Brussels sprouts and mutton. And that’s what I smelled at mealtime for the next several years—Brussels sprouts and mutton.” White never got over the stink of what was a ubiquitous meal through the rest of the war.
The group’s leadership tried to keep the ground echelon personnel at Molesworth busy with classes and various housekeeping projects, but after nearly six weeks it grew tiresome. Consequently, the arrival of the first aircraft was marked with a certain amount of excitement. “The first section of the Air Echelon, consisting of six B-17F airplanes, arrived over this station at 3:45 P.M. The first plane, Serial No. 41-24608 [named Yahoodi], touched wheels at exactly 1551 hours, October 21, 1942. These planes are assigned to the 359th Bombardment Squadron.”12
Mel Schulstad was part of the 360th Bombardment Squadron and arrived at Molesworth several days later. However, the realities of war hit him before he ever reached the base. Not long after getting airborne out of Prestwick his formation was directed to divert to an RAF bomber base; the weather at Molesworth was too poor to land. The RAF personnel greeted the Americans warmly, fed them and put them up for the night in an old estate house. “A batman led four of us officers upstairs to a room in the corner of the house that had four beds, four tables and four chairs,” said Schulstad. “It was obviously occupied by somebody; there were pictures of Mama and the kids, ashes in the ashtrays and the usual sorts of things. And this batman started going around and clearing off all these things and dumping them into sacks that he put out in the hall.
“And I said, wait a minute. You don’t have to do that—we’re just going to stay overnight. He looked at me and said, ‘But they didn’t come back last night.’” Schulstad was struck by a sudden realization. “That was the first time it entered my mind that people went out but didn’t come back. It was four officers and God knows how many others. That made quite an impression.
“The next morning [October 24, 1942] we had breakfast and went out to the airplane.” Schulstad eyeballed some of the RAF’s Wellington bombers just returned from the previous night’s mission. “They were full of flak holes—shot and torn up.” He inspected one particular aircraft carefully. “I looked at the wings and engines and came around to the tail gun position, which was a sort of round, glass cage. And there was a job that hadn’t been finished. There were the remains of a human being. They hadn’t quite got around to clearing it out yet. And I walked away from there and thought to my country-boy self: My God, people really do get killed, don’t they?”
“ONE MUST BE ABLE TO DEPEND UPON HIS CREW”
ALL THROUGH THE FIRST HALF of 1942 the Americans and British toyed with various notions for invading Europe. The Americans were anxious to get forces on the continent as early as that year, but British leaders rightly counseled that such a move was premature as there was no way that they or the Americans would have the necessary material, shipping or trained personnel. And certainly the Luftwaffe could not be neutralized in time for an invasion during 1942.
The focus subsequently shifted to a joint invasion of Northwest Africa by American and British forces. It was intended to achieve several objectives. Most obvious, it would put strong Allied forces to Rommel’s rear. Further, it would force the Germans to pour more resources into a secondary theater when they were desperately needed for the fight against the Soviets. Additionally, it would provide an opportunity for the British and Americans to practice and refine joint operations that might be subsequently adopted for the eventual invasion of Europe. Finally, it would be a test; American troops would be blooded for the first time in a major operation against the Germans. There was keen interest at home and abroad in how they would perform.
Of course, the operation—eventually codenamed TORCH—required significant air cover. All eyes turned to the only organization that could provide it: the Eighth Air Force. Consequently, during the late summer and the fall of 1942, just as they were readying to launch their strategic air campaign, Spaatz and Eaker were ordered by Dwight Eisenhower, the commanding general of the European Theater of Operations, to give up many of their combat units as well as the material and manpower necessary to support them. Carefully trained bomber and fighter groups as well as vigilantly husbanded stores were earmarked to support the invasion of Northwest Africa. There was a real fear that the entire Eighth would be dismantled to support the newly burgeoning Twelfth Air Force. That fear was intensified when Eisenhower ordered Spaatz to take charge of the air component of TORCH. Eaker was given command of the Eighth Air Force but was uncertain that there would be anything or anyone left to command.
* * *
AS THE 303RD’S AIRCREWS TRICKLED into Molesworth, the greenness of its men sometimes showed itself. Ehle Reber, who didn’t arrive until more than a week after Schulstad, recorded the movement of his flight from the RAF field at Sealand to Molesworth on November 2. “Haze again made landing rather difficult, but I was second in. Lt[s]. Stockton, Robey and Broussard fell behind and tagged on to another squadron of B-17Fs, thinking it was us and landed at Grafton Field about 10 miles from here. They should be here tomorrow.”
The unit diary entry for October 28 confirmed that the inexperience of the 303rd’s aircrews was shared by the support personnel: “The first battle scar was received by one of the planes of the group today. A guard shot a hole through plane 41-24581 accidentally while guarding the ship. Slight damage to the ship.”1
As green as they were, the 303rd’s men readied for combat as quickly and as best they could. Their training included formation flying, familiarization flights, time in the Link instrument trainer and classroom instruction. Their counterparts in the Royal Air Force had already built and handed over Molesworth but were additionally helpful in sharing their expertise during classroom and other training. Ehle Reber had great respect for his British comrades. “One day a ME109 was seen coming over the field like a bat-out-of-hell several hundred feet off the ground. About a mile behind were two Spits. They finally caught the 109 about three miles away from the field and that was the end of Jerry. The R.A.F. are marvelous fighters after 3 years of experience and hell.”
The 303rd’s men also learned to adapt to life in wartime England. Reber went to Kettering with friends on the night of November 10. “The streets are absolutely void of light except for an occasional flashlite held by individuals. The lites were very dim and of course my flashlite let out a beam which was comparable to the beam of an average searchlight on the east coast of England. Consequently, the first time I flashed it, an old, bent, cane-aided Englishman gave me hell and so my lite wasn’t much help the rest of the night.
Excerpted from "Hell's Angels"
Copyright © 2016 Jay A. Stout.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
"And Then You Slept in the Barn" 11
"No Panty Waist Union Hours" 22
"She Is a Hell of a Big Ship" 35
"One Must be Able to Depend Upon His Crew" 47
"I Was Tired of Getting Hit" 56
"A Charmed Life, Maybe" 64
"The Kraut Fired a Burst into the Skipper's Chute" 72
"I Like to Think She Was Pretty" 81
"How About Hell's Angels?" 95
"We Checked Our Parachutes" 101
"Could We Keep It Up?" 114
"God Will Find Out" 122
"You Could Have Heard a Pin Drop" 133
"I Vowed That I Would Never Turn Back" 150
"He Was Lying on His Back Holding His Gun" 157
"This Is the Time When I Get Scared" 167
"He Was Mad As Fire" 192
"Our Forces Are Fighting a Hopeless Battle" 200
"Our Fighter Support Was Splendid" 208
"Hurry Up and Jump" 216
"I Was Finally Finished" 229
"You'll Be Sorry" 236
"I Sure Do Get Homesick at Times" 244
"I Was Told Something Big Was Going On" 254
"I Became a Sort of Orphan Within the Bomb Group" 263
"We Poured Them into the Back of the Airplane" 276
"You Are Going to Have to Stay in There and Fight Them" 301
"The Back of the Engineer's Head Had Been Blown Off" 316
"We Were All Very Frightened" 328
"Nothing Spectacular Except the Explosion" 338
"We Shut Down Everything Then" 346
"What the Hell Is Going On Up There?" 351
"Down in Flames Dove Another of Goering's Fanatics" 365
"1 Was Blown Out" 378
"All of Us Were Done" 383
"And Then He Fell Down Dead" 391
"They Are Working Me to Death" 396
The 303rd Hell's Angels: Notable Facts and Achievements 409
What People are Saying About This
“[An] epic tale of the World War II aerial campaign over Europe… Hell's Angels is a gripping and awe-inspiring book. ”—Nathaniel Fick, author of One Bullet Away
“It's all there—the boredom, the devotion, the horror and even the humor in an industrial war fought on a global scale that we'll never see again. Unit histories just do not get any better.”—Barrett Tillman, author of Whirlwind and Forgotten Fifteenth.
“Jay Stout is a triple-threat aviation historianan experienced combat aviator, a meticulous researcher and a compelling story teller. His uncanny eye for authentic detail allows Hell’s Angels to be the incredible story of the 303rd Bomb Group and the bombing campaign that crippled Nazi Germany. Stout makes a hard-ridden topic seem fresh and new again. Highly recommended.”—Walter J. Boyne, Author/Historian
“Jay Stout’s reputation as a hard-hitting, authoritative, yet easy-to-read aviation author is upheld with this book. Readers looking for new insights and material will not be disappointed. Highly recommended.” –Donald Caldwell, author of JG 26: Top Guns of the Luftwaffe
“A well-researched, beautifully written, and deeply evocative paean to the 303rd Heavy Bombardment Group—and all the young American heavy-bomber crewmen who, from 1942 to 1945, went out, facing a high probability of death or imprisonment, to grind the German industrial base to dust.” –Eric Hammel, Author of The Road to Big Week
“Jay Stout has done a masterful job. The life and death struggles are told using the mission records, personal writings and experiences of one of the Eighth Air Force's most successful bombardment groups. All who wish a complete understanding of the role played by the Eighth Air Force and the strategic bombing of Germany should read this book.”—Keith Ferris, Artist and Military Aviation Historian