Shortly after our arrival in England, "Lord Haw Haw," broadcasting from Berlin, welcomed the 392nd Bomb Group to Wendling, Norfolk, and promised us a warm welcome when we dared to fly over Germany.
On 4 October 1943, we flew out towards the Friesian Islands, off the northern coast of Holland, with the 579th Squadron leading 36 planes on another diversion mission. We headed out over the North Sea towards the Emden/Wilhemshaven area to draw German fighters away from the B- 17 formations which were targeting factories in the Frankfurt area deep inside Germany. At least we had clear weather for a change.
We were loaded with bombs in case we found enemy shipping, a "target of opportunity," in the North Sea. There was no fighter escort and it was the fifth diversion mission for our crew. We had yet to see the enemy. The group's B-24 air crews were fed up with playing second fiddle to the B- 17s. We wanted to get into the action and do some real damage to Germany. Some of the crews had become complacent and bored with this seemingly useless diversion-type of mission which had turned into nothing but close formation training missions.
After a couple of hours of droning along, I called our pilot, Lt. Nicholson, on the interphone: "Sir, have you noticed that some of our formation's gun turrets aren't moving and that several of the ball turret guns are pointing straight down? It seems there's no one in them. Those guys must be playing poker!"
"Roger, ball. Everyone stay alert."
We scanned the skies in our normal search pattern and continued steadily on our briefed course.
"FIGHTERS!! 12 O'CLOCK LEVEL!!" yelled the nose gunner.
I swung my turret forward and it seemed as if everything happened at once. Enemy fighters were coming at us head-on at a tremendous closing speed. Flashes of light appeared as their wing guns opened fire, our nose, upper and ball turrets replied in short bursts, each .50-caliber heavy machine gun capable of firing at a rate of 1,200 rounds per minute. When the first fighters flashed through our formation I found my turret wouldn't swing fast enough to track them. Then I heard the waist guns open up. The someone yelled, "THREE B-24S GOING DOWN ... ONE O'CLOCK LOW.... " I swung my turret around to the front and could see our planes tumbling down towards the frigid North Sea 4 miles below. One had been rammed by an Me. 109 and both were going down, still locked together. Then more fighters were coming in.
I went into a battle rage, firing burst after burst into the oncoming fighters, and remember the anger, sorrow and hate that welled up in me. I swore and yelled into my oxygen mask, swinging my turret from target to target, blasting away with the twin .50s. There were German fighters everywhere, and the battle seemed to go on forever. I fired until my guns would jam, would then struggle to clear them and then fire some more. Wave after wave of fighters charged in on the nose, ran through our formation, swung around and came in at us again. The air was filled with tracers making fiery paths toward the enemy fighters.
One Me. 109 passed so close to my turret that I could see the pilot's face as he looked up at our plane. He just missed hitting us head on. The battle finally subsided, and it was a good thing, because we were running low on ammo.
That was a terrible day, and we didn't know how bad until we landed. All three of the lost planes were from our squadron. These were the first combat casualties suffered by the 392nd. We'd lost a lot of buddies who had lived and trained with us in the United States, including our squadron commander, Maj. Appert.
We learned at the debriefing that one of our B-24s, hit during the fighters' first pass, had rolled into his wing man. Among the men killed in action was my friend, Ed Gott. I acted as best man at his wedding before we'd left Topeka, KS, and my thoughts went back to that day. His bride was beautiful and they'd been so happy.
Our flight officers on that mission were: Lt. Nicholson, pilot; Capt. Keilman, copilot; Lt. Paddock, navigator; Lt. Swangren, assistant navigator; and Lt. Whittaker, bombardier.
It was estimated that we'd been attacked by between 30 and 50 single and twin-engine fighters. 392nd crews claimed seven FW 190s, three Me. 210s and two Me. 109s, plus four probables.
We were debriefed over a couple of shots of "Old Methuselah" 190 proof mission whiskey.
After a depressing debriefing, we returned in silence to our Nissen hut. The door of the next hut to ours was open, and we glanced inside as we passed. It was completely empty apart from the bunks. Both crews and all their gear were gone. We passed quietly to our hut, entered and found the second crew's personal items were also gone, having been removed for shipment home by the casualty people. It was as though the three crews had never existed.
The harsh reality of war set hard in my mind and in my heart. I vowed never again to make close friends like those again.
That evening the crew and I went out drinking. We toasted our fallen comrades, boasted about the battle, sang dirty songs and tried to hide our true feelings. Later, after we'd reeled back to our hut, I collapsed and glanced toward the empty bunks. Moisture came to my eyes while my bunk mercifully spun me faster and faster into oblivion.
Aircraft score-keeping is fine for statisticians, but there's no mention of the total lives lost by both sides in the air battles, or of the grief, anguish and depression felt by us surviving airmen for lost friends and comrades.
The second week in October 1943 saw a major effort by Allied air forces against vital German targets, and on 8 October 1943 we took off on a bombing mission to the Bremen/Vegesack area, Northwestern Germany.
An unbelievable flak barrage came up at us. I claimed a kill on a FW 190, but only got credit for damage. I'm sure it was destroyed, an engine cowling came off and the plane headed straight down, trailing smoke.
A Me. 210 slid under our formation and was sitting directly under our plane. The German gunner was shooting straight up at us, most of his rounds were hitting our tail section, close to Sgt. Bosworth in the tail turret, making a weird pinging sound as the fuselage was punctured.
Bosworth was getting a little nervous and shouted for me to "GET THAT SON-OF-A-BITCH!"
"I'm trying," I yelled back.
I was firing straight down at the German plane. I could see my tracers bouncing and ricocheting off the armor plating all around the cockpit. He finally stopped shooting, but I don't know if he was hit or out of ammunition.
We were using anew ammunition sequence for our. 50s but it wasn't working. We'd been using four armor-piercing and one tracer bullet in sequence. The armament shop had replaced this sequence with two incendiaries, two armor piercing and one tracer. They told us that the incendiaries would set the enemy planes on fire. It sounded good.
I don't know where these incendiaries were tested, but they were coming out of guns in all kinds of strange ways. Some would veer off in one direction and some in another. Meanwhile, Jerry sat out there pouring lead at us. Our tracers were only good for aiming out to a few hundred yards as they changed weight as they burned, but these strange incendiaries were burning out much closer. Consequently, we were only getting two armor piercing shells out to the target while the incendiaries just fizzled out.
On the way out of Germany something hit my turret and pinched my oxygen hose shut. The oxygen mask sucked up against my face and I had to leave my turret. I spent the rest of that mission pushing the turret around to various positions with my feet to make it appear it was still operating.
We counted 64 holes in our plane after that mission, then went over and had some cross words with the armament shop about their incendiaries.
After that they said we could use whatever combination of ammunition we preferred. I went back to four armor-piercing and one tracer. One of the two 392nd Group B-24s shot down during that mission had our buddy, Richard "Shorty" Adams, aboard. Later, while we were both POWs at Stalag 17B, he told me the following story:
"It was the 392nd's first raid on Bremen. When we dropped out of formation and you lost sight of us, we really hit trouble. Me. 21Os and 110s made concentrated attacks all around the clock, setting the two left engines and the waist on fire. When the "bail out" order came, I got out of the ball and tried to get to the bomb bay. Sgt. Hoover was sitting on the catwalk holding his guts, then he fell out, without a chute. I went back to the waist and helped the tail gunner out, then climbed up in the right waist window. The left wing came off, and to this day I don't know how I got out because she went into a spin. I "came to" falling through the air and had to rip my `chute open. I landed OK and here we are."