As we look out there are no fighters roaring in against us with their guns winking at us. It seems so quiet and good to only hear the noise of the engines and the air rushing by as our faithful girl hurtles us towards our base in England. We are soon over France and a few fighters appear in the distance but do not press any attack against us. We wonder are they as low on ammunition and as tired as we are?. We also now look for our little friends and assume they must be busy somewhere else. The cloud cover comes up to 20,000 feet and we are told to let down over the channel. Each group will proceed to their base individually. We soon see the angry water of the channel, then are flying up the "Wash" (a large estuary on the east coast of England). When the smoke stacks of Peterborough are in sight we turn southwest and there is Polebrook below us. What a wonderful sight, and how many times in the past twelve hours have we all wondered if we'd ever see the base again?
As we cross the field preparing to break into the landing pattern we can see the men on the handstands, the meat wagons with the large red cross on the top, and the fire trucks parked all along the runway., They are all watching us and counting the bombers and trying to read the symbols as we fly over. All at once, there are many red flares indicating wounded on board, and they will proceed into the pattern and land first. Soon we are lined up with the runway on our final approach, crossing the boundary of the field, begin the flare and soon the wheels are finally touching the runway. We are again down on mother earth. As the tail settles to the runway, there is a terrific bang as if the plane had been ripped apart, followed with a loud screeching of metal! Not only had the tail wheel blown but the whole tail assembly seems to be dragging behind the plane. The tower tells us we look like a giant sparkler and as soon as we have completed our roll to pull off the runway and get out of the plane. We find later that during the fighter attacks the total frame just forward of the horizontal stabilizer had been totally torn apart by the 20mm shells. Only the skin and the control cables held it together. We complete our roll and moving off the runway into the grass and mud. The faithful engines' roar dies out and the silence is followed by a mad dash of everyone from the plane. As we are leaving the plane a fire truck and ambulance are johnny on the spot.
Our plane, "Morning Delight" just seemed to set there panting. That gallant lady gave us all she had and more for that total effort during the past 10 hours. She never flew again as she was so heavily damaged and became another "Queen Bee's"--(used for parts). You don't live and fly a fortress for months without coming to know the plane in the most intimate way. You know the sturdy construction she represents and how forgiving she is to fly. She is there in our hearts, for all of us for the days to come if by chance we survive this war.
We retrieve our gear from the plane and are picked up by a truck. We pass the handstands (parking and maintenance area for the plane) with their waiting crews. They all wave and give us the victory sign. However, many of these ground crews will soon silently and sadly return to their headquarters as their plane and crewmen which were a part of them did not return. They will wait for a new bomber with a new combat crew. We have the truck stop at our hardstand so we can tell the crew chief and his people that we made it. If it weren't for the maintenance on that plane we would probably be down somewhere in Germany and now a statistic. It is a little wonder we have come to the realization it is impossible to complete a full tour. Everyone comes to the conclusion you will either get it, or be shot down eventually.
As we all proceed to de-briefing you look around and the faces this morning which had the look of expectation are now gray and blank. We are all thinking of too many friends who have gone down in flames before our eyes. What about tomorrow and the tomorrow after that? There are too many concrete handstands stained with oil and grease where the bombers had once stood so majestically are now standing empty, only a terrible aching void remains. A ground crewman is seen aimlessly walking off looking as if he had lost his brother.
In the de-briefing room we all sit around the table and this time the questions are quietly asked with a great deal of consideration. How many fighters, types, and methods of attack? Were there any special weapons or markings? How about the flak, how much, did it appear accurate? >THE FOLLOWING IS A QUOTE FROM A POST MISSION BRIEFING OF A B-17 PILOT, >OCTOBER 12, 1943:"I had accepted the fact that I was not going to live >through this mission. It was as simple as that. I was calm; it was a >strange sort of resignation. I knew for certain that it was only a matter >of seconds or minutes. It was impossible for us to survive...." (This >sums it up for all of us).
The de-briefing are usually not so solemn, however, this time all of us are totally engulfed by the shock of the mission. Most of us still didn't believe we are here, safe on the ground. We are bone tired (I still remember how tired I was all the time I flew combat) and feel sick with the reflection of all that death. We somehow survived but our friends and brothers were struck down, never to return from that undiscovered country from whom no traveler returns. We all stare at the floor with eyes glazed, smoke cigarettes, and drink tasteless coffee. As we are leaving the briefing room we notice that Bob is stumbling along. We see as we look closer that he is crying-- for all of us thinking of those who didn't get back.
Despite all these attacks against our formations the 8th Air Force was never turned back by enemy opposition and always bombed the target.
Thus ended the fateful day when I was introduced to reality.
We will remember the battle which took place five miles up in the air where we fought to the death. There is no way anyone could ever re-visit the battleground as it took place in the sky which today is now washed clean. There are no scars and no one can walk the battleground and say here by that hill is where it all took place. There were no bystanders nor any noncombatants with a first hand look. All those who saw the battle were on the ground five miles or more away, and they saw only the flaming planes, the parachutes, contrails, explosions, smoke, and the charred bodies. Nor did they see the flak and bullet riddled planes as they struggled home to an asphalt runway across the English Channel. There no longer exists the roar of all those planes, the flashing propellers, the open hatches with the smoking 50 caliber machine guns. The punishment of the long hours at sub zero temperature, breathing oxygen in the frozen uncomfortable oxygen mask because of the thin rarefied air.
That page of blazing history is now closed, although the scars of those of us who came home will always remain. It is always easy to write of the battles won with the enemy conquered. We fought and struggled to reach the target and on the way were mauled and shot to pieces by the fighters and flak guns of the enemy. The German pilots knew only too well the effectiveness against our bombers. They also witnessed the burning planes, bombers with the wings torn off, crews tumbling through the air, and the burning bodies. How could those bomber crews take such punishment and hand it back while continuing to fly towards the target? There never was a question of not reaching the target, no matter how many formations were split apart, how many bombers were in flame, and how cruel the test. We still continued on with white knuckles and a tightened pucker string.