We are advised the flak should be light enroute although we will pick up some south of the Ruhr. The target will be defended by about 500 88mm guns and the gun crews are very good. We would be under aimed fire from the flak for seven minutes. The enemy fighters will be persistent and aggressive. The fighters will try to break up the formation with head-on attacks. Don't panic and try to dodge. This would leave you wide open if you straggle. Always stay in the defensive diamond formations and if someone ahead of you gets out of the formation, move right up into his place, for he has either been hit and will go down anyway, or he is straggling. We never dally around, because it's our necks.
The weather officer takes the stage and is the least assuring of all. The weather is lousy. The visibility is down to 1/4 of a mile but we were assured it would be up to one mile by take off. That is a lot better when you are rolling down a runway which is only a mile long and the belly of our plane is pregnant with stifled hell. The wings on the B-17s contain three thousand gallons of 100 octane flaming inferno. Everyone starts to leave as there it is, but some wait. They soon assemble in little groups as men slip to their knees before their chaplains-Protestant, Catholic, and Jew.
As we walked into the ready room I was suddenly hit with this deep depression and a feeling of dread as I thought, "This is not the glamorized Wild Blue Yonder we had all heard so many times. We will be fighting 5 miles above the earth. There are no foxholes to hide in up there. Most of the time there isn't even the opportunity of fighting back., you just sit there and take it. We live by the laws of chance as we drive through the flak which seems thick enough to walk on. There is always that chance to be where the projectile shot at us by random from the ground would intersect the plane and ourselves? We are continually facing the life and death struggle of the plane with all of us inside. Maybe some dead, perhaps some wounded, and some not even scratched. At that moment all of our lives would reach a crisis in the heaving and smoking plane from the freezing hostile sky. It wasn't the anxiety of maybe being killed before the day ended, but a deeper far-off feeling as if I weren't operating within my own body. As I dressed, in preparation for the long mission, I looked at the rest of the crew with a detached and lonely sadness wondering will we still be together tonight?. No way did I want to expose my feelings to the crew for fear they would feel I was not equal to doing my part, all of our lives depended on each other.
In kind of a dream I proceeded to our plane, and went through the motions of the checklist for pre-flight. I was there physically doing all things which were necessary, but seemed detached and totally out of my body I had the feeling I was in another dimension watching what I was doing. I was there, but wasn't there. Knowing we were in for a rough mission and catch hell from the fighters we loaded many additional boxes of caliber 50 ammunition. Rechecked out our flak suits and helmets then all of us made one last trip to the bushes to relieve ourselves.
All too soon we were starting the engines, taxiing into position, moving down the runway and again skimming those damn trees. We formed up at 28,000 feet then heading for Europe for what we didn't know and into Germany. I was there, but as if I was doing everything necessary only by the numbers.
Suddenly I heard on the intercom from the top turret "Bandits 9:00 O'clock High" instantaneously followed by the tail and the nose of fighters coming in from all directions. Immediately you could feel those 20 millimeters going through the plane. The sound of a cannon shell hitting a fortress depends on where you are. If you aren't too close it is like a metallic woof and you feel a jar that shakes the whole plane which reaches you and leaves you instantly. If the shell explodes close to you there is nothing gentle and it certainly isn't a momentary tremor. It is like a giant slapping his hand on the water There are two sounds one from the impact and the second of it exploding. It's like firing a shotgun into a bucket which all comes back exploding in your face. For a moment you aren't scared because your senses are dulled. Your bowels seem weak, (you tighten your pucker string), your stomach shrivels up until you can figure out how much you are hurt. It was as if a huge electrical shock had hit me and from then on to this day I have never felt fear. It was as if my mind had gone into a corner to hide and had then come charging out to do battle.. In talking to others later, I found we all have gone through some factors of this type of withdrawal. Some retreated from themselves and would no longer be able perform.
I immediately found myself in a world alien to everything I had ever experienced. There were ME-109s and FW-190s leaping into existence from everywhere without warning. When they opened fire you saw sudden flashes of light winking at you from the distance. All at once there existed a canopy of cannon shells and bombs, aerial mines and rockets exploding everywhere.. Each one was intent on hitting us and our pregnant bomb load. We are no longer in a stately march in tight formation through the upper heavens. We try desperately to return to the crisp efficiency of our tight formation, but it is impossible to achieve in this raging space of time. We find ourselves slogging our way through a thickening mass of exploding flame and smoke, with the equal determination of every member of the crew. We are driving ahead through a solid whirlwind of steel splinters, flame, and jagged chunks of red hot metal. The steel is everywhere, it crashes into wings, engines, bulkhead and airplane bodies; and into the bodies of men--spewing blood, tissues, intestines, and brains.
The plane seemingly is alive with lights as all the guns are firing and the noise is deafening. There is the continued on the intercom shout of "incoming bandits" from all around the clock (fighters). The fourteen caliber 50 machine guns of our plane can be heard and felt above all the roar of the plane. Our world seems to plunge into insanity as the sounds of air battle are all around us seemingly merging into an inhuman shriek. Our ship doesn't seem to be occupied by men, we are transformed into beings from another world, with the strange breathing systems dangling beneath our faces.
As quickly as it started the fighters are gone and we are alone with only the extremely bright sun. Our enemy now is the temperature which is minus fifty degrees and never seems to relax its vigil against us for any exposure to sensitive flesh and frostbite.
Central Germany is now below us and in the distance we can the see first black specks of flak over the target. We now begin to assess what battle damage we had taken. Was everyone OK? Soon everyone was checking in: tail OK except almost out of ammo and was reloading the belts; waist OK lost my flak helmet somewhere; Ball, one of the side windows was hit, can't see anything except straight ahead; Radio, OK; Top Turret "think I was hit in the leg and my ammunition boxes are gone". It turns out that a 20 mm came through the turret knocking out the ammo boxes on each side and tearing off his flight suit at the thigh. He had a slight red mark on one leg. Ammo boxes were moved in and connected to both guns with the hope they wouldn't jam.
In the cockpit the gauges were still working but the glass on the dials looks as if someone had taken a hammer to them. The radio compass is shattered and the other radios are hanging by their connecting cords. All seem to be working, at least the intercom is OK. The right portion of the windshield in front of the co-pilot has two vicious looking cracks in it. The co-pilot's flak helmet was knocked off and has a huge hole in it. He doesn't have a mark although I think he is turning gray. In the nose one of the cheek guns is out, the navigator's table is shattered as well as his instruments. For all the holes our plane is still flying. It's a miracle nobody has been seriously wounded.
When we have turned on IP the bombardier is already looking for his aiming
point as the plane controls are hooked to the bomb sight. Again the
fighters are coming in all directions, but this time it is the squadron
ahead of us. Soon the sky around us filled with flak burst, paving a solid
black steel asphalt roadway to Schweinfurt. The explosions sounds as if
someone is throwing rocks at you when they burst close. Those flak gunners
on the ground are good. Normally the fighters will usually leave when you
get into the flak from the target, this time they are flying through their
own flak. Apparently, they have been ordered to defend the target at
all costs. These fighters may be the enemy but I have never seen braver
men. All the German efforts to keep us from the target have so far failed,
but we have paid a tremendous price in men and planes. The stakes were
high but the "Devil" was the winner. The target below is now fast
deteriorating into smoke and debris as our strings of bombs walk through
the city. The dead will outnumber our losses by a great number. Finally
we feel the plane lighten in little jerks as the bombs pass out the bomb
bay on their way to Germany. We are now at the halfway point of the
mission as we begin a wide turn to the right. There is little need to get
into formation as everyone is staying close. As we make our turn one can
see the other formations behind us. They look ragged and are still under
attack from the fighters. The fighters are leaving the "Cripples" alone,
going for those planes still carrying bombs. As we turn you can see the
target below and the sticks of bombs on their five mile flight to the
earth. The target is covered with smoke and gray dust is rising from the
impact of the bombs.