You might as well go to sleep, I told myself, because no matter how scared you get, you sure as hell are going on that B-17 mission over Germany tomorrow. I turned and tossed on my rock-hard British cot and tried to purge my mind of what seemed my almost certain demise. I had heard too many gory tales about the Eighth. Visions of a fiery death in a screaming dive tormented me.
Again and again I tried to reason with myself: You deliberately chose the profession of arms. And now this is the payoff. You’re not going to back down now! No! This is what it’s all about. And you’re a professional. A regular. If you’re shot down tomorrow, so be it. You’ve taken the Queen’s shilling.
But sleep never came. Over and over I argued with myself. I wasn’t prepared to die. I was thirty-two years old with a wife and two fine kids. But what a fatuous argument! How many thousands of others had loving wives and kids at home? Nine years of military flying hadn’t yet made me a fatalist. I regretted that I had been so gung-ho as to get myself into this fix when I could have remained in the States and trained others to go to war. And yet I didn’t regret it at all. This was what I really wanted to do.
I wanted to fight with the Eighth in Europe, the “Big League” of combat aviation. I wanted to share in the direct attack on Hitler’s Festung Europa. I had worked all kinds of angles to get assigned as a group commander, and here I was. Ready for my first mission and probably my last.
The loss rate in the Eighth Air Force was high in the fall of 1943—something like four or five percent per mission. The odds seemed unfairly tipped in favor of extinction. And during that terrifying night, I knew for sure that my luck had run out. It was a premonition, I told myself. Nevertheless, I was committed, and I would fly.
My flying days had not been without moments of terror. I had survived three crackups and lucked out on several hairy mishaps. But I had always held a lingering doubt. Did I possess the same cool courage that some of my contemporaries had demonstrated in moments of crisis? What was their secret? Had they been born without fear
One group commander in the Eighth Air Force had advised his crews to consider themselves to be dead already. Perhaps if one could do this, there would be no fear, but I couldn’t bring myself to accept such a final solution.
Where the Action Was
My friend Bob Williams had been my group commander at Langley Field two years earlier. There, we had been assigned the very first B-17s, and I knew the airplane like the back of my hand. When the war started, I had been ordered to hunt submarines, and although this duty had its perils, there hadn’t been much shooting. The Eighth’s great battles over Europe—St. Nazaire, Schweinfurt, Regensburg, Villacoublay—were where the real action was. That air campaign seemed the most dangerous, if not the most important, of the whole American effort at that time. At least, I reasoned, those who survived in this theater would be beholden to no other combat flyers. So when it appeared that the Navy would assume control of air antisubmarine operations in the Atlantic, I managed a flight to England and sought out Bob Williams, who then commanded the 1st Air Division.
Bob had lost an eye during the Battle of Britain, and when he looked at you, his glass eye was focused elsewhere. But his voice was low and firm. “If you get yourself sprung from the Antisubmarine Command, I’ll give you a group,” Bob had promised. At that time, one of his groups consisted of about thirty-six Flying Fortresses and crews with supporting personnel of up to 3,000 on one air base. Command of an air group was the prized goal of most flying colonels.
A week before that sleepless night, I had reported to Bob, reminding him of his promise. He and his staff briefed me at length on the manifold problems I would encounter. Attrition of group commanders was high, and Bob had some vacancies.
He offered me the unlucky and badly shot-up 384th Group. Morale and discipline in that outfit, he told me, were so low he had considered disbanding the group altogether and sending the crews to more successful outfits. With naïve overconfidence, I was convinced I could whip the 384th into shape. I had done it before with the 20th Bomb Squadron. A group composed of four squadrons would be just a little tougher job.
A Few Days With the 351st
“First,” Bob said, “I want you to spend a few days with Willie Hatcher’s group, the 351st. That’s one of my best, and you can learn a lot from Willie.” Bob didn’t tell me to go on missions with the 351st, but I knew he expected me to. There was some talk around division headquarters about replacement group commanders (I was one) needing to be “blooded.” I didn’t appreciate the term, but realized what it meant. A group commander had to understand just what the cutting edge of a group was meant to do over enemy country, and he couldn’t lead from a desk chair.
Finding my way to Polebrook in East Anglia, I reported to the debonair Willie Hatcher, a superb leader and a friendly teacher. I followed him like a shadow, determined to learn all I could. Willie was always dressed for parade, and he carried doeskin gloves. VIPs were frequently sent to Willie’s group to see how the air war was being fought. Clark Gable flew a few missions from that base as a gunner. And Lana Turner had visited to raise morale. Willie showed me the hallowed sleeping bag Lana had slept in and allowed me to smell the heady perfume that still lingered there.
Willie’s officers had a wild party one night, and my older brother, Thor, came up from London. He was on Ike’s planning staff. After the party, Thor and I sat on a bunk in a cold hut and talked and shivered almost all night. We both knew that it might be our last visit.
All of this was exciting and dramatic, but I knew the real action was in the air over Germany, and I asked Willie to schedule me for a mission. It turned out to be an attack on the port of Wilhelmshaven. The date was November 3, 1943.
Years later, Bob Williams told me that my sojourn with Willie was a test to see if I would volunteer for missions and that, had I not done so, he would have relegated me to a staff job. Some group commanders were doing too little combat flying, he said, and he was looking for aggressive leaders.
I would have no responsibilities on the mission to Wilhelmshaven. Just sandbag in the lead aircraft piloted by a veteran survivor of ten missions, Clint Ball. I could sit on a jump seat between the pilot and copilot or move around the aircraft to various positions, provided I didn’t interfere with the duties of the crewmen. I chose to ride in the Plexiglas nose, called the greenhouse, for there I could man one of the two flexible .50-caliber machine guns sticking out of the cheeks on either side of the nose. (The chin turret had not yet been incorporated into B-17 armament.) Neither the bombardier nor the navigator would have much time to shoot as they computed the track and bomb run.
It was good to leave that torturous bed where I had thrashed all night. I didn’t feel a bit groggy from lack of sleep. If the gut fear hadn’t kept me alert, the frigid air and icy floor of the Nissen hut did. I vaguely recall the delicious breakfast in Willie’s excellent mess that did little to melt the hard rocks that seemed to have grown in my stomach.
The briefing that followed indicated the numerous enemy gun emplacements and Luftwaffe fighters we would likely encounter. It did little to alleviate my churning anxiety. I looked around at the sea of sober faces. How could I hope to command one of these magnificent groups when I was so deficient in courage? It wouldn’t be fair to the brave men who were fighting the war so nobly and taking their chances without a whimper.
Perhaps I should go to Bob Williams and tell him honestly that I just didn’t have the guts to lead a combat group. Yes, that’s what I’d do. But not until after this mission to Wilhelmshaven—if by chance I survived.
The air was crystal clear and bitterly cold as we crossed the North Sea. During penetration of the German coast, I flinched inwardly at each flak burst that dirtied the air around us with ugly “whumpfs.” Trying my best not to reveal my fear to the bombardier and navigator, I busied myself charging the guns and firing warming bursts.
Soon our eighteen-plane groups took interval at the Initial Point for the bomb run, and here we became more vulnerable. Mutual supporting fire was diminished, and we had to fly straight and level, taking no evasive action, in order to drop our bombs accurately. Of course the enemy knew this.
The Fear Evaporates
Flak peppered us unmercifully, bumping our craft with close explosions and rattling metal fragments against the fuselage. I imagined jagged steel slicing into my body. Then the flak stopped as enemy fighters charged in. I saw two Forts from other groups go down. One cripple from our group broke formation and surged erratically out in front of our lead ship. I could only imagine what had happened in the cockpit. Three crewmen dropped from the open bomb bay, and their chutes blossomed. Then enemy fighters began following the big cripple to give it the coup de grace. Hanging on their props, they pumped streams of hot fire into it.
My fear evaporated. Seething with anger, I fired my .50 at the little jackals, but they were out of range. Suddenly the crippled Fort majestically rolled belly-up like a dead fish, dove, and burst into a ball of orange flame. As the fire cleared, the debris fell in a cloud of smoke with pieces so small it seemed that none was large enough to be a man. The great bomber simply disintegrated into dust as we passed over.
The harbor and the shipping and U-boat docks at Wilhelmshaven, our target, stood out clearly under the glare of the bright sun. “Bombs away,” called the bombardier as the ship lurched up. The job was done, and Clint Ball banked sharply, diving some to throw off the flak gunners. A sense of relief spread through me. We were on our way home. But my relief was short-lived. The macabre fun was only beginning.
Great formations of enemy fighters appeared off our right wing. They queued up in single file, flying our way but out of range of our guns. Me-109s mostly, but a few FW-190s as well. The butterflies again fluttered in my stomach as I felt awed by this threatening foe.
The line of enemy fighters passed us, and when each was about a mile or two ahead, he would reverse his course and fly directly at our noses, firing his guns all the way. Just when it seemed we would collide, he would flip over on his back and dive in a half loop, then work his way back to the queue for another pass.
We had no friendly fighter escort that I could see, but with something like 300 heavy .50-caliber guns tracking him, it was no free ride for the enemy. This kind of frontal at tack with a half roll was a popular Luftwaffe tactic in those days, but it proved costly to the Jerries. They faced a massive concentration of gunfire focused on each attack as all the Forts in the assembled combat box of fifty-four aimed at each individual fighter making its head-on attack.
I could actually see the cone of fire with the enemy at its apex, and I marveled at the courage of those German pilots who could drive home their attacks against such a hail of death. The fire came not only from the flexible nose guns (one of which I was wildly shooting) but also from the twin .50s in the upper turrets and other pairs of .50s in the ball turrets.
Strangely, I was no longer frightened during these encounters. The bucking .50 in my hands was comforting. It kept me busy. I didn’t fire short bursts as we had been taught to do. I held the trigger down with my thumbs and sprayed the fast-closing fighters with all I had.
One fighter I was tracking in began to smoke. No doubt dozens of guns were firing at it. But he passed under us before I could tell if he were mortally hit. Besides, I was busy firing at the next little bastard who came charging in, spitting his lethal metal.
Familiarity With Danger
And so I was “blooded.” And because I survived that first mission, I learned that premonitions were simply a reflection of fear and that perhaps I just might beat the odds and live through the war.
I flew another mission with Willie’s group to Knaben, Norway, where we bombed a heavy-water plant to slow Germany’s atomic-bomb development. There was little opposition—a piece of cake. So I decided against informing Bob Williams of my faintheartedness. Perhaps I could learn to control my emotions after all. Moreover, I never again allowed myself the luxury of idly lying awake at night. When I hit the sack, I was almost too tired to stand. By working every waking moment, there was no time to be frightened.
One’s mind simply can’t attend to more than one subject at the same time. So if I didn’t think about the danger, the fear diminished. Moreover, familiarity with the danger after surviving a number of missions tended to give me the fatalism I needed—that sense of living a charmed life. If! took all necessary precautions and drilled my group in flying a tight defensive formation while emphasizing gunnery training, then whatever happened was in the lap of the gods.
That first mission had taught me one major lesson, however, that would help to carry me through the next year of bloody warfare: To blanket fear, keep busy.
Dale O. Smith is a regular contributor to this magazine. His last offering for us was “Harry Allen’s Arctic Survival School” in the June ’87 issue. A 1934 graduate of West Point, General Smith commanded a bomb group in England during World War U. After the war, he commanded several air divisions and served in high-level assignments at the Pentagon before his 1964 retirement. He now lives in Reno, Nev., and enjoys his second career as a writer.