When we arrived in Europe, the required number of missions was 25 but gradually increased to 30, 32, and then 35. I eventually flew 36 missions. Americans flew daylight, precision missions in contrast to the RAF which flew mostly night missions. Sometimes the enemy was being bombed 24 hours a day. The Americans flew in formation in contrast to the RAF which flew in procession one behind the other.
So what was a typical mission like?
It all started with a mission notice, listing who would be flying the next day, being posted late afternoon or early evening in the Officer’s Club. Separate notices were posted for the enlisted men. We were awakened by the CQ (Charge of Quarters) the next morning between 1:00 AM and 3:00 AM, dressed in our heavy clothes, headed for the dining hall for breakfast, and then to briefing.
In the briefing room, all eyes were geared toward the map and the cord indicating our route to and from the target. The route usually was zigzagged in order to mislead the Germans and avoid heavily concentrated flak areas. We were also briefed on weather, fighters, flak, escort, escape, route, and the target area.
We headed to the locker room for our remaining combat gear. Flying clothes consisted of a full-length, heated, thin suit, complete with silk gloves, which worked like a heated blanket. These gloves were worn to prevent our hands and fingers from instantly freezing to the bitterly cold metal when we had to remove an outer gloves in order to fix a jammed gun. On top of the heated suit, we wore thick, cloth, padded overalls (or pants and jacket), thick, leather sheepskin lined flying boots, a thin leather helmet and gloves.
We were also issued a yellow Mae West Life Preserver (like we see on today’s airplanes), flak vest, goggles, greenish-rubber oxygen mask, bowl shaped Army steel helmet, headphones, throat mike and the all important parachute. The pilots and co-pilots received and wore a backpack style parachute at all times. The remainder of the crew received the chest-pack parachute but because of limited space in their positions, kept it nearby and wore them only for emergencies.
We also received an “escape kit”. It was a waterproof, black plastic box that fitted exactly into a special pocket on the shin of the thick outer flying pants. Each box contained a tiny compass, a map of Europe showing German POW camps and the major cities, 2 or 3 small gold coins, a morphine Syrette for pain, No-Doz tablets, aspirin and Atabrine tablets for purifying water, a couple of hard candies, and a cheat sheet of foreign phrases.
We boarded the planes, stowed and checked our respective equipment, put on our flak suits, started the engines, and taxied out into line for takeoff. A flare was fired for the lead plane of the 458th to take off and we followed at 30 second intervals and 120 mph.
We assembled over the English coast and North sea and rendezvous with our fighter escort. We flew in a large, spiraling, climb as everyone tacked onto their group’s lead aircraft. We grouped first with our squadron. The usual formation was a diamond with a 3 plane lead , 3 plane high right wing (flying high), 3 plane low left wing (flying low), and the 3 plane rear in the slot (flying lower than all others). The squadron joined up with their bomb group in a similar diamond formation. This continued with the combat bomb wing and then the 8th Air Force. The bomber stream then departed for our target in Nazi Germany or France. At maximum effort, especially towards the end of the war, the bomber stream consisted of 1400 heavy bombers, was 300 miles long and took two hours to pass a point on the ground. A stream this large might be escorted by 1000 fighters.
We continued to climb to the mission altitude going onto oxygen at 10,000 to 12,000 feet. We constantly kneaded the oxygen tubing to prevent ice buildup. It was terribly cold especially with the bomb bays open. Later I learned that the winter of 1944 was the coldest on record. I remember on one mission seeing the air temperature thermometer reach -50 degrees.
We flew regular missions at about 25,000 ft (5 miles up). AZON missions were flown lower at 10,000 – 15,000 ft and only in good weather and unlimited visibility.
We tested our guns over the Channel and gained altitude as we headed east. We then zigzagged over enemy territory for 2 to 6 hours as we tried to evade the Germans and avoid the flak areas. My children asked “Dad, tell us some harrowing experiences!”. I told them that ACK-ACK (flak) was the most ominous part of every mission I flew and the greatest chance of being killed. I had to do this 36 times. This was especially so over the heavy industrial areas of the Ruhr Valley, Hamburg, and Berlin where there were particularly heavy concentrations of antiaircraft guns. I sat at the controls and had to fly straight into a black cloud of flak. I couldn’t maneuver around as we were in tight formation and I had to keep the plane level during the bomb run.
Fortunately I was not on a flight to Berlin with Fearless O’Neill, the commander of our squadron. During that flight he made the squadron do a 360 to turn back over Berlin and pass through the black cloud of flak a second time. Nothing stopped O’Neill.
The whole bomb group depended upon the lead planes for the given mission. They were usually more experienced crews with good records. The lead planes were equipped with the NORDEN bomb site. There were always back-up lead planes properly equipped in the event a lead ship ran into trouble and had to abort. When they dropped their bombs, everyone else would drop their bomb load. “Bombs away!”
Heading home we never relaxed our guard not even in the landing pattern where German fighters sometimes shot down bombers over the landing field. On landing and taxiing to our hard stand parking areas, we were met by trucks and carried back to the debriefing rooms. We were given a shot of whiskey by an American Red Cross gal and were debriefed. We individually reported on the mission results according to our visual assessment, on planes seen going down, number of chutes seen and their location. This would verify a gunner’s or crew’s claim of a shootdown. We also reported on anything else that might aid intelligence such as enemy activity on the ground, fighter aircraft and flak encountered.
After a credited mission (successful or not) we had a bomb painted under the pilot’s window.
I rarely drank the whiskey. Instead I saved it for a party when and if we completed our missions. Sure enough, it paid off and I shared it with the crew after 36 missions. I have never been as drunk since that celebration.