Masters of the Air : America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany
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- Edition: Reprint
- Format: Paperback
- Copyright: 09/25/2007
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster
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Author BiographyRead more
Table of ContentsRead more
|Prologue: The Bloody Hundredth||p. 1|
|The Bomber Mafia||p. 25|
|Eaker's Amateurs||p. 47|
|The Dangerous Sky||p. 64|
|Airman Down!||p. 97|
|The Anatomy of Courage||p. 111|
|Teach Them to Kill||p. 152|
|The Bells of Hell||p. 175|
|Men at War||p. 206|
|The Turning||p. 233|
|Liberated Skies||p. 258|
|The Fatal Trap||p. 295|
|Prisoners of the Swiss||p. 331|
|My Bellyful of War||p. 348|
|The Wire||p. 380|
|Terror Without End||p. 410|
|The Chimneys Hardly Ever Fall Down||p. 447|
|A Pageant of Misery||p. 487|
|Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.|
The Bloody Hundredth
The Eighth Air Force was one of the great fighting forces in the history of warfare. It had the best equipment and the best men, all but a handful of whom were civilian Americans, educated and willing to fight for their country and a cause they understood was in danger -- freedom. It's what made World War II special.
London, October 9, 1943
Maj. John Egan's private war began at breakfast in a London hotel. Egan was on a two-day leave from Thorpe Abbotts, an American bomber base some ninety miles north of London and a short stroll from the Norfolk hamlet that gave it its name. Station #139, as it was officially designated, with its 3,500 fliers and support personnel, was built on a nobleman's estate lands, and the crews flew to war over furrowed fields worked by Sir Rupert Mann's tenant farmers, who lived nearby in crumbling stone cottages heated by open hearths.
Thorpe Abbotts is in East Anglia, a history-haunted region of ancient farms, curving rivers, and low flat marshland. It stretches northward from the spires of Cambridge, to the high-sitting cathedral town of Norwich, and eastward to Great Yarmouth, an industrial port on the black waters of the North Sea. With its drainage ditches, wooden windmills, and sweeping fens, this low-lying slice of England brings to mind nearby Holland, just across the water.
It is a haunch of land that sticks out into the sea, pointed, in the war years, like a raised hatchet at the enemy. And its drained fields made good airbases from which to strike deep into the German Reich. A century or so behind London in its pace and personality, it had been transformed by the war into one of the great battlefronts of the world, a war front unlike any other in history.
This was an air front. From recently built bases in East Anglia, a new kind of warfare was being waged -- high-altitude strategic bombing. It was a singular event in the history of warfare, unprecedented and never to be repeated. The technology needed to fight a prolonged, full-scale bomber war was not available until the early 1940s and, by the closing days of that first-ever bomber war, was already being rendered obsolete by jet engine aircraft, rocket-powered missiles, and atomic bombs. In the thin, freezing air over northwestern Europe, airmen bled and died in an environment that no warriors had ever experienced. It was air war fought not at 12,000 feet, as in World War I, but at altitudes two and three times that, up near the stratosphere where the elements were even more dangerous than the enemy. In this brilliantly blue battlefield, the cold killed, the air was unbreathable, and the sun exposed bombers to swift violence from German fighter planes and ground guns. This endless, unfamiliar killing space added a new dimension to the ordeal of combat, causing many emotional and physical problems that fighting men experienced for the first time ever.
For most airmen, flying was as strange as fighting. Before enlisting, thousands of American fliers had never set foot in an airplane or fired a shot at anything more threatening than a squirrel. A new type of warfare, it gave birth to a new type of medicine -- air medicine. Its pioneering psychiatrists and surgeons worked in hospitals and clinics not far from the bomber bases, places where men were sent when frostbite mauled their faces and fingers or when trauma and terror brought them down.
Bomber warfare was intermittent warfare. Bouts of inactivity and boredom were followed by short bursts of fury and fear; and men returned from sky fights to clean sheets, hot food, and adoring English girls. In this incredible war, a boy of nineteen or twenty could be fighting for his life over Berlin at eleven o'clock in the morning and be at a London hotel with the date of his dreams at nine that evening. Some infantrymen envied the airmen's comforts, but as a character in an American navigator's novel asks, "How many infantry guys do you think would be heading for the front lines if you gave them a plane with full gas tanks?" Sold to the American public as a quicker, more decisive way of winning than slogging it out on the ground, the air war became a slow, brutal battle of attrition.
John Egan was commander of a squadron of B-17 Flying Fortresses, one of the most fearsome killing machines in the world at that time. He was a bomber boy; destruction was his occupation. And like most other bomber crewmen, he went about his work without a quiver of conscience, convinced he was fighting for a noble cause. He also killed in order not to be killed.
Egan had been flying combat missions for five months in the most dangerous air theater of the war, the "Big Leagues," the men called it; and this was his first extended leave from the fight -- although it hardly felt like a reprieve. That night, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, plastered the city, setting off fires all around his hotel. It was his first time under the bombs and he found it impossible to sleep, with the screaming sirens and the thundering concussions.
Egan was attached to the Eighth Air Force, a bomber command formed at Savannah Army Air Base in Georgia in the month after Pearl Harbor to deliver America's first blow against the Nazi homeland. From its unpromising beginnings, it was fast becoming one of the greatest striking forces in history. Egan had arrived in England in the spring of 1943, a year after the first men and machines of the Eighth had begun occupying bases handed over to them by the RAF -- the Royal Air Force -- whose bombers had been hammering German cities since 1940. Each numbered Bombardment Group (BG) -- his was the 100th -- was made up of four squadrons of eight to twelve four-engine bombers, called "heavies," and occupied its own air station, either in East Anglia or the Midlands, directly north of London, around the town of Bedford.
For a time in 1943, the Eighth was assigned four Bomb Groups equipped with twin-engine B-26 Marauders, which were used primarily for low- and medium-level bombing, with mixed results. But in October of that year, these small Marauder units were transferred to another British-based American air command -- the Ninth Air Force, which was being built up to provide close air support for the cross-Channel invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. From this point until the end of the war, all Eighth Air Force bombers were either Fortresses or B-24 Liberators, the only American bombers designed for long-range, high-altitude strikes. But the Eighth did retain its own Fighter Command to provide escort aircraft for its bombers on shallow-penetration missions into Northern Europe. Its pilots flew single-engine P-47 Thunderbolts and twin-engine P-38 Lightnings, and operated from bases located in the vicinity of the bomber stations.
When the 100th Bomb Group flew into combat, it was usually accompanied by two other bomb groups from nearby bases, the 390th and the 95th, the three groups forming the 13th Combat Wing. A combat wing was one small part of a formation of many hundreds of bombers and fighter escorts that shook the earth under the English villagers who spilled out of their cottages at dawn to watch the Americans head out "to hit the Hun."
"No one . . . could fail to thrill at the sight of the great phalanxes streaming away from their East Anglian airfields," wrote the historian John Keegan, a boy growing up in England during the war. "Squadron after squadron, they rose to circle into groups and wings and then set off southeastward for the sea passage to their targets, a shimmering and winking constellation of aerial grace and military power, trailing a cirrus of pure white condensation from 600 wing tips against the deep blue of English summer skies. Three thousand of America's best and brightest airmen were cast aloft by each mission, ten to a 'ship,' every ship with a characteristic nickname, often based on a song title, likeMy Prayer; or a line from a film, like 'I am Tondelayo.' "
On the flight to the coast, "we turned on the BBC to listen to all the sentimental songs of the day," recalled co-pilot Bernard R. Jacobs of Napa, California. Passing over the eternally green English countryside, it seemed strange to Jacobs that such a tranquil-looking land was the staging area for a campaign of unimaginable slaughter, destruction such as the world had never seen.
Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt had recently ended all voluntary enlistments, the Eighth Air Force was still an elite outfit, made up almost entirely of volunteers, men who had signed up before the president's order or highly qualified men who were snapped up by Air Force recruiters after they were drafted by the Army but before they were given a specific assignment. Eighth Air Force bomber crews were made up of men from every part of America and nearly every station in life. There were Harvard history majors and West Virginia coal miners, Wall Street lawyers and Oklahoma cow punchers, Hollywood idols and football heroes. The actor Jimmy Stewart was a bomber boy and so was the "King of Hollywood," Clark Gable. Both served beside men and boys who had washed office windows in Manhattan or loaded coal cars in Pennsylvania -- Poles and Italians, Swedes and Germans, Greeks and Lithuanians, Native Americans and Spanish-Americans, but not African-Americans, for official Air Force policy prevented blacks from flying in combat units of the Eighth Air Force. In the claustrophobic compartments of the heavy bombers, in the crucible of combat, Catholics and Jews, Englishmen and Irishmen, became brothers in spirit, melded together by a desire not to die. In bomber warfare, the ability to survive, and to fight off fear, depended as much on the character of the crew as on the personality of the individual. "Perhaps at no time in the history of warfare," wrote Starr Smith, former Eighth Air Force intelligence officer, "has there been such a relationship among fighting men as existed with the combat crews of heavy bombardment aircraft."
The Eighth Air Force had arrived in England at the lowest moment of the war for the nations aligned against the Axis Powers: Germany, Italy, Japan, and their allies. The Far Eastern and Pacific empires of the English, the Dutch, and the French had recently fallen to the Japanese, as had the American-occupied Philippines. By May 1942, when Maj. Gen. Carl A. "Tooey" Spaatz arrived in London to take command of American air operations in Europe, Japan controlled a far-reaching territorial empire. The Royal Air Force's fighter boys had won the Battle of Britain the previous summer, and England had stood up to the Blitz, the first long-term bombing campaign of the war, but since the evacuation of the British army at Dunkirk in May 1940, and the fall of France soon thereafter, Germany had been the absolute master of Western Europe. In the spring of 1942, Great Britain stood alone and vulnerable, the last surviving European democracy at war with the Nazis. And the question became, How to hit back at the enemy?
"We have no Continental Army which can defeat the German military power," Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared. "But there is one thing that will bring him . . . down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland." Beginning in 1940, the RAF's Bomber Command went after industrial targets in the Rhineland and the Ruhr, centers of Nazi material might. The first RAF raids of the war had been flown in daylight, but after taking murderous losses, the RAF was forced to bomb at night and to alter its targeting. Since industrial plants could not be sighted, let alone hit, on moonless nights, the RAF began bombing entire cities -- city busting, the crews correctly called it. The purpose was to set annihilating fires that killed thousands and that would break German civilian morale. The bombing was wildly inaccurate and crew losses were appalling. But killing Germans was wonderful for British morale -- payback for the bombing of Coventry and London, and England had no other way to directly hurt Germany. Until Allied armies entered Germany in the final months of the war, strategic bombing would be the only battle fought inside the Nazi homeland.
The Eighth Air Force had been sent to England to join this ever accelerating bombing campaign, which would be the longest battle of World War II. It had begun combat operations in August 1942, in support of the British effort but with a different plan and purpose. The key to it was the top secret Norden bombsight, developed by Navy scientists in the early 1930s. Pilots like Johnny Egan had tested it in the high, sparkling skies of the American West and put their bombs on sand targets with spectacular accuracy, some bombardiers claiming they could place a single bomb in a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet. The Norden bombsight would make high-altitude bombing both more effective and more humane, Air Force leaders insisted. Cities could now be hit with surgical precision, their munitions mills destroyed with minimal damage to civilian lives and property.
The Eighth Air Force was the proving instrument of "pickle-barrel" bombing. With death-dealing machines like the Flying Fortress and the equally formidable Consolidated B-24 Liberator, the war could be won, the theorists of bomber warfare argued, without a World War I-style massacre on the ground or great loss of life in the air. This untested idea appealed to an American public that was wary of long wars, but less aware that combat always confounds theory.
Daylight strategic bombing could be done by bombers alone, without fighter planes to shield them. This was the unshakable conviction of Brig. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, the former fighter pilot that Carl Spaatz had picked to head the Eighth Air Force's bomber operations. Flying in tight formations -- forming self-defending "combat boxes" -- the bombers, Eaker believed, would have the massed firepower to muscle their way to the target.
Johnny Egan believed in strategic bombing, but he didn't believe this. He had entered the air war when Ira Eaker began sending his bomber fleets deep into Germany, without fighter escorts, for at that time no single-engine plane had the range to accompany the heavies all the way to these distant targets and back. In the summer of 1943, Johnny Egan lost a lot of friends to the Luftwaffe.
There were ten men in the crew of an Eighth Air Force heavy bomber. The pilot and his co-pilot sat in the cockpit, side by side; the navigator and bombardier were just below, in the plane's transparent Plexiglas nose; and directly behind the pilot was the flight engineer, who doubled as the top turret gunner. Further back in the plane, in a separate compartment, was the radio operator, who manned a top-side machine gun; and at mid-ship there were two waist gunners and a ball turret gunner, who sat in a revolving Plexiglas bubble that hung -- fearfully vulnerable -- from the underside of the fuselage. In an isolated compartment in the back of the plane was the tail gunner, perched on an oversized bicycle seat. Every position in the plane was vulnerable; there were no foxholes in the sky. Along with German and American submarine crews and the Luftwaffe pilots they met in combat, American and British bomber boys had the most dangerous job in the war. In October 1943, fewer than one out of four Eighth Air Force crew members could expect to complete his tour of duty: twenty-five combat missions. The statistics were discomforting. Two-thirds of the men could expect to die in combat or be captured by the enemy. And 17 percent would either be wounded seriously, suffer a disabling mental breakdown, or die in a violent air accident over English soil. Only 14 percent of fliers assigned to Major Egan's Bomb Group when it arrived in England in May 1943 made it to their twenty-fifth mission. By the end of the war, the Eighth Air Force would have more fatal casualties -- 26,000 -- than the entire United States Marine Corps. Seventy-seven percent of the Americans who flew against the Reich before D-Day would wind up as casualties.
As commander of the Hundredth's 418th Squadron, Johnny Egan flew with his men on all the tough missions. When his boys went into danger, he wanted to face it with them. "Anyone who flies operationally is crazy," Egan confided to Sgt. Saul Levitt, a radioman in his squadron who was later injured in a base accident and transferred to the staff ofYankmagazine, an army publication. "And then," says Levitt, "he proceeded to be crazy and fly operationally. And no milk runs. . . .
When his "boy-men," as Egan called them, went down in flaming planes, he wrote home to their wives and mothers. "These were not file letters," Levitt remembered. "It was the Major's idea they should be written in long-hand to indicate a personal touch, and there are no copies of these letters. He never said anything much about that. The letters were between him and the families involved."
Major Egan was short and skinny as a stick, barely 140 pounds, with thick black hair, combed into a pompadour, black eyes, and a pencil-thin mustache. His trademarks were a white fleece-lined flying jacket and an idiomatic manner of speaking, a street-wise style borrowed from writer Damon Runyon. At twenty-seven, he was one of the "ancients" of the outfit, but "I can out-drink any of you children," he would tease the fresh-faced members of his squadron. On nights that he wasn't scheduled to fly the next day, he would jump into a jeep and head for his "local," where he'd gather at the bar with a gang of Irish laborers and sing ballads until the taps ran dry or the tired publican tossed them out.
When Egan was carousing, his best friend was usually in the sack. Major Gale W. Cleven's pleasures were simple. He liked ice cream, cantaloupe, and English war movies; and he was loyal to a girl back home named Marge. He lived to fly and, with Egan, was one of the "House of Lords of flying men." His boyhood friends had called him "Cleve," but Egan, his inseparable pal since their days together in flight training in the States, renamed him "Buck" because he looked like a kid named Buck that Egan knew back in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The name stuck. "I never liked it, but I've been Buck ever since," Cleven said sixty years later, after he earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and a Ph.D. in interplanetary physics.
Lean, stoop-shouldered Gale Cleven grew up in the hardscrabble oil country north of Casper, Wyoming, and worked his way through the University of Wyoming as a roughneck on a drilling crew. With his officer's cap cocked on the side of his head and a toothpick dangling from his mouth, he looked like a tough guy, but "he had a heart as big as Texas and was all for his men," one of his fliers described him. He was extravagantly alive and was easily the best storyteller on the base.
A squadron commander at age twenty-four, he became a home-front hero when he was featured in aSaturday Evening Poststory of the Regensburg Raid by Lt. Col. Beirne Lay, Jr., later the co-author, with Sy Bartlett, ofTwelve O'Clock High!, the finest novel and movie to come out of the European air war. The Regensburg-Schweinfurt mission of August 17, 1943, was the biggest, most disastrous American air operation up to that time. Sixty bombers and nearly 600 men were lost. It was a "double strike" against the aircraft factories of Regensburg and the ball bearing plants of Schweinfurt, both industrial powerhouses protected by one of the most formidable aerial defense systems in the world. Beirne Lay was flying with the Hundredth that day as an observer in a Fortress calledPiccadilly Lilly, and in the fire and chaos of battle he saw Cleven, in the vulnerable low squadron -- the so-called Coffin Corner, the last and lowest group in the bomber stream -- "living through his finest hour." With his plane being shredded by enemy fighters, Cleven's co-pilot panicked and prepared to bail out. "Confronted with structure damage, partial loss of control, fire in the air and serious injuries to personnel, and faced with fresh waves of fighters still rising to the attack, [Cleven] was justified in abandoning ship," Lay wrote. But he ordered his co-pilot to stay put. "His words were heard over the interphone and had a magical effect on the crew. They stuck to their guns. The B-17 kept on."
Beirne Lay recommended Cleven for the Medal of Honor. "I didn't get it and I didn't deserve it," Cleven said. He did receive the Distinguished Service Cross but never went to London to pick it up. "Medal, hell, I needed an aspirin," he commented long afterward. "So I remain undecorated."
The story of Cleven on the Regensburg raid "electrified the base," recalled Harry H. Crosby, a navigator in Egan's 418th Squadron. Johnny Egan had also fought well that day. Asked how he survived, he quipped, "I carried two rosaries, two good luck medals, and a $2 bill off of which I had chewed a corner for each of my missions. I also wore my sweater backwards and my good luck jacket." Others were not so fortunate. The Hundredth lost ninety men.
Casualties piled up at an alarming rate that summer, too fast for the men to keep track of them. One replacement crewman arrived at Thorpe Abbotts in time for a late meal, went to bed in his new bunk, and was lost the next morning over Germany. No one got his name. He was thereafter known as "the man who came to dinner."
With so many of their friends dying, the men of the Hundredth badly needed heroes. At the officers club, young fliers gathered around Cleven and Egan and "watched the two fly missions with their hands," Crosby wrote in his memoir of the air war. "Enlisted men adored them," and pilots wanted to fly the way they did. With their dashing white scarves and crushed "fifty-mission caps," they were characters right out ofI Wanted Wings, another Beirne Lay book, and the Hollywood film based on it, which inspired thousands of young men to join the Army Air Corps. They even talked like Hollywood. The first time Crosby set eyes on Cleven was at the officers club. "For some reason he wanted to talk to me, and he said, 'Taxi over here Lootenant.' "
Cleven liked the young replacements but worried about their untested bravado. "Their fear wasn't as great as ours, and therefore was more dangerous. They feared the unknown. We feared the known."
On the morning of October 8, 1943, an hour of so before Johnny Egan stepped on the train that brought him to London on his first leave from Thorpe Abbotts, Buck Cleven took off for Bremen and didn't return. Three Luftwaffe fighters flew out of the sun and tore into his Fortress, knocking out three engines, blowing holes in the tail and nose, sheering off a good part of the left wing, and setting the cockpit on fire. The situation hopeless, Cleven ordered the crew to jump. He was the last man out of the plane. When he jumped, the bomber was only about 2,000 feet from the ground.
This was at 3:15P.M., about the time Johnny Egan would have been checking into his London hotel. Hanging from his parachute, Cleven saw he was going to land near a small farmhouse "and faster than I wanted to." Swinging in his chute to avoid the house, he spun out of control and went flying through the open back door and into the kitchen, knocking over furniture and a small iron stove. The farmer's wife and daughter began screaming hysterically, and in a flash, the farmer had a pitchfork pressed against Cleven's chest. "In my pitiful high school German, I tried to convince him I was a good guy. He wasn't buying it."
That night, some of the men in Cleven's squadron who had survived the Bremen mission walked to a village pub and got extravagantly drunk. "None of them could believe he was gone," said Sgt. Jack Sheridan, another member of Cleven's squadron. If Cleven "the invincible" couldn't make it, who could? But as Sheridan noted, "missing men don't stop a war."
The next morning, over a hotel breakfast of fried eggs and a double Scotch, Johnny Egan read the headlines in the LondonTimes, "Eighth Air Force Loses 30 Fortresses Over Bremen." He sprang out of his chair and rushed to a phone to call the base. With wartime security tight, the conversation was in code. "How did the game go," he asked. Cleven had gone down swinging, he was told. Silence. Pulling himself together, Egan asked, "Does the team have a game scheduled for tomorrow?"
"Yes," came the reply.
"I want to pitch."
He was back at Thorpe Abbotts that afternoon in time to "sweat out" a long mission the group flew to Marienburg, a combat strike led by the Hundredth's Commander, Col. Neil B. "Chick" Harding, a former West Point football hero. As soon as the squadrons returned, Egan got Harding's permission to lead the Hundredth's formation on the next day's mission. At dawn, he went to one of the crew huts and woke up pilot John D. Brady, a former saxophone player in one of the country's big bands. Harry Crosby, whose bed was directly across from Captain Brady's, overheard the conversation. "John, I am flying with you. . . . We are going to get the bastards that got Buck." Then the two men left for the pre-flight briefing.
"The target for today is Munster," the intelligence officer, Maj. Miner Shaw, informed the sleepy crews as he pulled back the curtain that covered a wall-size map of Northern Europe. A red string of yarn stretched from Thorpe Abbotts across the Netherlands to a small railroad juncture just over the Dutch border. It would be a short raid, and P-47 Thunderbolts -- the best Allied fighter planes available -- would escort the bombers to the limit of their range, nearly all the way to the target. It looked routine -- except for one thing. The Aiming Point was the heart of the old walled city, a marshaling yard, and an adjacent neighborhood of workers' homes. Nearby, was a magnificent cathedral whose bishop was known to be a strident opponent of the Nazis. "Practically all of the railroad workers in the [Ruhr] valley [are] billeted in Munster," Shaw droned on in a low monotone. If the bombardiers hit their target accurately, the entire German rail system in this heavily trafficked area would, he said, be seriously disrupted.
This was a radical change in American bombing practice. Later, the Eighth Air Force would officially deny it, but the Münster raid was a city-busting operation. Declassified mission reports and flight records clearly list the "center of town" as the Aiming Point; one report, that of the 94th Bomb Group, describes the Aiming Point as, "Built up section of North East tip of Marshalling yards."
When Shaw announced that "we were going to sock a residential district. . . . I find [sic] myself on my feet, cheering," Egan said later. "Others, who had lost close friends in [previous] . . . raids joined in the cheering 'cause here is a chance to kill Germans, the spawners of race hatred and minority oppression. It was a dream mission to avenge the death of a buddy."
Some of the fliers who were in the briefing room that morning do not recall any cheering. One of them, Capt. Frank Murphy, was at the time a twenty-two-year-old jazz musician from Atlanta, Georgia, who had left Emory University to become an Air Force navigator. Murphy has no recollection of Egan jumping up and swearing revenge, but he does say that no one in the room openly protested the targeting of civilians, not even those like himself who had relatives born in Germany. Perhaps some of the men remembered the warning that their first commander, Col. Darr H. "Pappy" Alkire, had given them back in the States, right after they completed flight training and received their wings. "Don't get the notion that your job is going to be glorious or glamorous. You've got dirty work to do, and you might as well face the facts. You're going to be baby-killers and women-killers."
Not everybody in the Hundredth saw himself in the murder business, but most of the men trusted their leaders. "I felt I was there to help win the war, if possible," said Lt. Howard "Hambone" Hamilton, Captain Brady's bombardier. "The basic problem in trying to bomb a railway system is that, if sufficient labor is available, railroad tracks can be repaired in a short time. We were told that the idea of bombing these railroad worker's homes was to deprive the Germans of the people to do the repair work."
But at briefings that same morning at neighboring bomber bases, there was some grumbling about the target selection. "It was a Sunday, and many crewmen...had deep reservations about bombing anywhere near churches," recalled Lt. Robert Sabel, a pilot with the 390th Bomb Group. Capt. Ellis Scripture, a navigator who would be flying in the 95th Bomb Group's lead Fortress,The Zootsuiters, later described his reaction. "I'd been raised in a strict Protestant home. My parents were God-oriented people. . . . I was shocked to learn that we were to bomb civilians as our primary target for the first time in the war." Ellis Scripture went to his group commander after the briefing and told him he didn't want to fly that day. Col. John Gerhart exploded: "Look Captain, this [is] war, spelled W-A-R. We're in an all-out fight; the Germans have been killing innocent people all over Europe for years. We're here to beat the hell out of them . . . and we're going to do it. . . . Now -- I'm leading this mission and you're my navigator. . . . If you don't fly, I'll have to court-martial you. Any questions?"
Scripture said "no sir" and headed for the flight line. "I made up my mind there and then that war isn't a gentleman's duel," he said later. "I never again had any doubts about the strategy of our leaders. They had tough decisions to make -- and they made them."
Another flier from Scripture's bomb group, Lt. Theodore Bozarth, described most accurately how most of the men in the 13th Combat Wing felt about this mission. It would be the wing's third mission in three days: Bremen, Marienburg, and now Münster. "We were just too tired to care much one way or the other."
Harry Crosby was not slated to fly to Münster. He and his pilot, Capt. Everett Blakely, were recovering from a spectacular crash landing on the English coast on their return from Bremen. The morning of the Münster mission they decided to commandeer a war-damaged plane and fly down to the resort town of Bournemouth for a brief seaside break from the war. Before taking off, Crosby called the base weatherman, Capt. Cliff Frye, and arranged a code for Crosby to receive a telephone report of the Münster strike.
At four that afternoon he called Frye. "Did all my friends get back from pass?"
"Did some of them have a permanent change of station?"
"Yes, all but one."
Then, losing his composure, Frye broke the code. "Egan's gone. Your old crew is gone. The whole group is gone. The only one who came back was that new crew in the 418th [Squadron]. They call [their pilot] Rosie."
Lt. Robert "Rosie" Rosenthal had not trained with the Hundredth's original crews. He and his crew had been assigned to the group that August from a replacement pool in England, to fill in for men lost on the Regensburg raid. "When I arrived, the group was not well organized," Rosenthal recalled. "They were a rowdy outfit, filled with characters. Chick Harding was a wonderful guy, but he didn't enforce tight discipline on the ground or in the air." Rosenthal didn't fly a mission for thirty days. "No one came around to check me out and approve me for combat duty. Finally, my squadron commander, John Egan, had me fly a practice formation. I flew to the right of his plane. I had done a lot of formation flying in training and I was frustrated; I desperately wanted to get into the war. I put the wing of my plane right up against Egan's, and wherever he went, I went. When we landed, Egan told me he wanted me to be his wing man."
Rosenthal had gone to Brooklyn College, not far from his Flatbush home. An outstanding athlete, he had been captain of the football and baseball teams, and later was inducted into the college's athletic hall of fame. After graduating summa cum laude from Brooklyn Law School, he went to work for a leading Manhattan law firm. He was just getting started in his new job when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The next morning he joined the Army Air Corps.
He was twenty-six years old, with broad shoulders, sharply cut features, and dark curly hair. A big-city boy who loved hot jazz, he walked, incongruously, with the shambling gait of a farmer, his toes turned inward -- and there wasn't an ounce of New York cynicism in him. He was shy and easily embarrassed, but he burned with determination. "I had readMein Kampfin college and had seen the newsreels of the big Nazi rallies in Nuremberg, with Hitler riding in an open car and the crowds cheering wildly. It was the faces in the crowd that struck me, the looks of adoration. It wasn't just Hitler. The entire nation had gone mad; it had to be stopped.
"I'm a Jew, but it wasn't just that. Hitler was a menace to decent people everywhere. I was also tremendously proud of the English. They stood alone against the Nazis during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. I read the papers avidly for war news and listened to Edward R. Murrow's live radio broadcasts of the bombing of London. I couldn't wait to get over there.
"When I finally arrived, I thought I was at the center of the world, the place where the democracies were gathering to defeat the Nazis. I was right where I wanted to be."
Rosie Rosenthal didn't share these thoughts with his crewmates, simple guys who distrusted what they called deep thinking. They never learned what was inside him, what made him fly and fight with blazing resolve. Later in the war, when he became one of the most decorated and famous fliers in the Eighth, word spread around Thorpe Abbotts that his family was in a German concentration camp. But when someone asked him directly, he said "that was a lot of hooey." His family -- mother, sister, brother-in-law, and niece (his father had recently died) -- were all back in Brooklyn. "I have no personal reasons. Everything I've done or hope to do is strictly because I hate persecution. . . . A human being has to look out for other human beings or else there's no civilization."
At the briefing for Münster, Rosie remembered the target being the city's marshaling yard, not workers' housing. "It was near the center of the town; innocent people would die, as they did in all wars."
On that hazy October morning, Rosie's plane was third on the runway, lined up with the rest of the thirty-ton destruction machines, engines thundering, ready to take off at half-minute intervals. He and his crew were flying in a new plane,Royal Flush. Their regular plane,Rosie's Riveters, had suffered heavy battle damage on the missions to Bremen and Marienburg. The men were superstitious, apprehensive about flying in a strange bomber. Gathering them together in a huddle under one of the wings, Rosie calmed them down.
"The doors to the bomb bays close behind you, and you know that you are a prisoner of this ship,"Yankcorrespondent Denton Scott described the fear many airmen felt on the flight line that morning. "That imprisonment can be broken only by three factors, and they are, in order: Disaster by explosion and parachuting to another prison, death, or a safe return."
At 11:11A.M., the wheels of Brady's lead plane,M'lle Zig Zig, with Major Egan in the co-pilot's seat and Lt. John Hoerr, Brady's co-pilot, in the jump seat, touched off the ground, and with its belly full of bombs, barely cleared the high trees at the end of the runway. It was Brady's first time in the lead position, and he felt unprepared. Egan was uneasy as well. He had left his lucky white flying jacket behind. Buck Cleven, the friend he was revenging, never liked it because it wasn't clean.
The fifty-three bombers of the 13th Combat Wing assembled over Great Yarmouth, the Hundredth forming behind the leading 95th, and flew southwest to join the other Combat Wings, 275 B-17s making up the bomber formation. Over the North Sea, four bombers turned back, claiming mechanical difficulties. The depleted formation would have thirty-six fewer .50 caliber machine guns. This could mean a lot in an air fight, but it didn't seem to concern anyone. "We felt pretty easy about the trip," recalled Lt. Douglas Gordon-Forbes, bombardier of the 390th Bomb Group'sCabin in the Sky. "It was the first time we had fighter escort any distance into Germany, and our confidence overflowed."
The Germans had a chain of radar stations that stretched from Norway to northern France, and they knew the Americans were coming from the time the planes began stacking up over East Anglia. As the bombers crossed the Dutch border and passed over the neatly defined towns of Westphalia, they began to run into intense antiaircraft fire, "flak," as it was called, a contraction ofFliegerabwehrkanonen, antiaircraft artillery. Looking over at Brady, Egan saw him make the sign of the cross. Seconds later, one of their waist gunners was killed by a piece of shrapnel from a Nazi antiaircraft gun.
As the Hundredth's formation approached the Initial Point (IP) -- the place where the heavies lined up for the bomb run -- Egan called out to the group that the Thunderbolts were "heading back to the barn," having reached the limit of their range. After turning to his right to watch them dip their wings to signal good luck, Egan looked straight ahead and shouted, "Jesus Christ! Pursuits at twelve o'clock high! Looks like they're on us!" Some 200 German fighters attacked head-on not breaking off contact until they were within a split second of colliding with the bombers.
Brady's lead plane was hit first. Flying in the glass-enclosed nose ofAw-R-Go, directly behindM'lle Zig Zig, Frank Murphy saw "a horrendous fiery explosion" directly underneath Brady's plane, and watched in silent horror as the wounded Fortress went into a sickening dive, trailing black smoke and fuel. "[Our bombardier] came up from the nose looking quite messy to tell us that we have to leave the formation because 'Hambone' Hamilton had numerous holes in him and wanted to go home," Egan later described the scene in the stricken plane. "I assured him that we'd left the formation."
While Brady struggled to keep his ship level so the crew would have a "platform" from which to jump, Egan supervised the "abandon ship" maneuver. As he began speaking on the interphone, the plane burst into flames. At that moment he sent John Hoerr down to help nineteen-year-old "Hambone" Hamilton make it to the forward escape hatch, in the floor of the plane. Then Egan and Brady put the bomber on automatic pilot and scrambled back to the open bomb bay. Standing on the precariously narrow catwalk that separated the two main compartments of the bomb bay, Egan looked down at the ground and shouted, "Go ahead, Brady . . . I'm the senior man on board." But Brady wanted to be last; it was his ship and crew. "We prattled some more," said Egan, "when the nicest spaced holes you ever did see, a row about six inches below our feet, appeared along the entire length of the bomb bay door. They were thirty caliber punctuation marks, and I say, 'I'll see you Brady,' step out, count one, and pull the ripcord about the time I go by the ball turret. The chute opened without a jar and the family jewels were safe."
Seconds later, Egan saw three German fighters break away from the bombers and zero in on him. Cannons blazing, they nicked him and filled his chute with holes; they disappeared, he said, only when they thought "I [was] very dead, not knowing that I'm Irish." When he hit the ground, Egan spotted some enemy soldiers heading toward him. Shedding his chute and his cumbersome winter flying equipment, he disappeared into a patch of woods.
"Hambone" Hamilton landed less than a mile away, although the two men never made contact. Hamilton was lying alone on the ground, still bleeding badly. But this, he believed, was not his day to die; minutes earlier he had made a near miraculous escape from the jaws of death.
When Lieutenant Hoerr had gone to the nose of the plane to help Hamilton, he found the wounded bombardier hanging on the escape door, outside the plane, with nothing but 20,000 feet of air between his dangling feet and a ghastly end. With his punctured lung, Hamilton did not have the strength to push open the escape hatch with his hands. So he stood on it and twisted the release handle. When the door dropped open, he fell through, but the right shoulder strap of his parachute caught on the handle, and he hung outside the bomber with the inboard propeller only inches from his head.
After a tense struggle, Hoerr was able to free Hamilton from the exit door, and both men dropped to earth in their parachutes, where they were captured by German soldiers. An ambulance was called for, and Hamilton was driven into Münster. The driver's grandson, a boy about fifteen, pointed a long hunting rifle at Hamilton's head during the entire thirty-minute trip.
At about that time, the crew of Rosenthal'sRoyal Flushwas in the final minutes of what one air commander called "the single most vicious air battle of that war, or of all time." It lasted only forty-five minutes, but almost nothing in the European war matched it in focused fury. That afternoon the Eighth Air Force confronted what Lt. Gordon-Forbes called "the greatest concentration of Nazi fighters ever hurled at an American bomber formation."
The Luftwaffe employed new tactics and weapons. It attacked only a few bomb groups in order to maximize the number of kills and fired air-to-air missiles into the tightly massed combat boxes. The Hundredth, flying in the dangerous low position in its combat wing, took the brunt of the attack. Seconds after Brady's plane was hit, the Hundredth's entire formation was broken up and scattered by swarms of single-engine planes, and by rockets launched by twin-engine planes that flew parallel to the bombers, out of range of their powerful machine guns. "Red balls of fire, trailing long white plumes of smoke, came lobbing toward us, then passed swiftly in great swishes," Douglas Gordon-Forbes described these terrifying rocket attacks. "Several narrowly missed our ship, one passing four feet under the Plexiglas nose in which I was sitting."
Flying alone, the bombers of the Hundredth were easy prey for determined enemy pilots, some of them flying above the Westphalia homes of their families. "The German fighters came after the 100th in wave after wave," recalled Frank Murphy. "Several times I turned my head sideways and squinted, expecting a head-on collision." This was Murphy's twenty-first mission, but he had never seen so many fighters at one time, not even over Regensburg. The Luftwaffe had never repulsed an Eighth Air Force strike. "I think this attack was aimed at turning us back for the first time," Rosie Rosenthal said later.
In seven minutes the Hundredth ceased to exist as an organized fighting unit. But a few of its planes, including Murphy's and Rosenthal's, fought their way to the target and dropped their ordnance. The 500-pound bombs began falling in the center of the city just as the bells of the cathedral began tolling the call for afternoon vespers. "We go four miles high," a young pilot would write, "and let them go, and haven't the faintest idea what happens when they connect."
The fighters broke off their attack when the bombers went into the heavy flak field directly over the target, but when the remaining planes of the Hundredth made a wide sweeping turn to their rallying point with the 95th and 390th Bomb Groups, the Luftwaffe reappeared in force. "Almost as soon as we turned there was an explosion behind me and I was knocked to the floor," Murphy remembered. "It felt as though someone had hit me with a baseball bat and thrown a bucket of hot water on me. It was an absolutely terrifying moment. I didn't know how badly I was hit and I wondered if I was going to die." Lying on top of a three-inch-high bed of hot shell casings from his Browning machine gun, slipping and sliding uncontrollably, Murphy looked up and spotted co-pilot Glenn Graham, with his oxygen mask pulled off, motioning with his hand to follow him. Graham pulled the emergency release of the forward crew door in the nose of the plane, kicked it open, and jumped out. Murphy paused, looked down at the earth, which seemed "a hundred miles away," and slowly lowered himself by his arms through the opening. "Suddenly, it [was] deathly quiet. There was no more battle noise, no guns firing, no smell of cordite, no engines straining and groaning, no intercom chatter." Then, as the planes of the 390th Bomb Group flew into sight, directly above Murphy, the sky erupted with fire and exploding metal. The flak batteries that ringed the city opened up on the 390th and fighter planes swooped in for the kill. "I was at my gun now, and didn't have to look for fighters," recalled bombardier Gordon-Forbes. "They were everywhere."
The entire sky was "a fantastic panorama of black flak bursts, burning and exploding B-17s, spinning and tumbling crazily," said Lt. William Overstreet, co-pilot of the inaptly namedSituation Normal. "It was like flying through an aerial junkyard," observed a Fortress gunner. There were so many parachutes it looked to Gordon-Forbes like an airborne invasion. And men who had been blown out of their planes before they had time to put on their chutes were falling to the ground, tumbling and twisting in the whipping wind. "What happens to your body when you fall 25,000 feet?" a flier asked himself as he watched men he knew drop through the clouds. "Do you die on the way down, or are you conscious . . . screaming all the way down?"
Prewar strategists foresaw the bomber war as a battle of machines against machines, with little human contact. But with every Eighth Air Force mission an invasion of the Reich, downed airmen like "Hambone" Hamilton met the enemy face-to-face on his own soil before a single American infantryman crossed into Germany; and air fights often approached the grim intimacy of close-quarter fighting on the ground. At one point in the furious battle over Münster, a German fighter plane streaked past the nose section ofCabin in the Sky. "In that split second he was so close I remember sitting there staring him in the face while he stared back," recalled Douglas Gordon-Forbes. "He looked scared too."
That afternoon, fifteen-year-old Otto Schuett was attending a horse show on the outskirts of Münster. An apprentice printer, he was born in Brooklyn, New York, perhaps not far from Rosenthal's old neighborhood. His parents had returned to Germany in 1931, moving from Lübeck to Münster in 1939, where his father became a leading figure in the Nazi Party. Shortly after the war broke out, Otto joined the Hitler Youth, proudly rising to the position of group leader.
From Münster's Show Ground, three miles from the city center, Otto Schuett heard the bombers coming, but they were hard to spot because they blended so beautifully into the high autumn sky. "From our position, we saw smoke, in dense clouds, erupting . . . [from] the town center. . . . As the bombs dropped closer and closer . . . we suddenly realized that our lives were at stake. We all started to scatter and race for cover as the bomb explosions and anti-aircraft fire reached a crescendo. I simply sprawled face-down on the ground."
During a lull in the bombing, Schuett ran for better cover; as he did, he saw the falling wing of a B-17, its propellers still spinning, heading straight for him. The wing crashed to the earth just ahead of him, "burning fiercely and sending up clouds of black, oily smoke. . . . I lay there in the dirt, expecting death at any minute."
Inside the walled city, Hildegard Kosters, a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, clung to life in an air raid shelter built under the railroad station. "The earth shook, vibrated, shuddered and heaved from the impact of the concussions. The solid concrete bunker trembled and shook to its very foundations. The railway junction and marshalling yards must have been the target.
"Suddenly all the lights went out. The people -- mostly women and children -- huddled together like sheep in the slaughterhouse, praying, crying and shrieking in terror. Some were mute with fear."
"It was an inferno," recalled a German soldier who happened to be changing trains at Münster. "All around me I could hear injured people screaming who were trapped under demolished and burning houses. Almost all of the city center had been flattened to the ground and the main railway station had been heavily damaged."
Looking up, the soldier watched the bombers passing through the enormous smoke clouds they had created, heading back to England. Some of them, he could tell, were badly damaged.
"We had a big rocket hole through the starboard wing, two engines were out, my two waist gunners were seriously injured, and my tail gunner had also been hit," Rosenthal later described the situation inRoyal Flush. "After we left the target, we were attacked again by fighters. Our gunners could not shoot an enemy plane down unless they had a stable platform, but if I had kept the plane level and stable we would have been shot down. So I went into a series of maneuvers, every kind of evasive action. The plane was all over the sky. I guess the German pilots eventually got frustrated and decided to go for an easier target."
The crew began barking over the interphone that the oxygen system had been shot out and that they were having trouble drawing air. Rosenthal told them to cut the chatter, that they were sinking so fast they would not need the plane's oxygen in a few seconds. At that moment, co-pilot Winfrey "Pappy" Lewis turned around and asked the flight engineer for a report on their gas supply. He got no answer; the man's eyeballs were floating in their sockets, a symptom of oxygen deprivation. He didn't come around until they dropped to below 12,000 feet.
"In a situation like that you don't think about dying," said Rosenthal. "You focus on what you have to do to save the plane and crew. You drive everything else out of your mind. You're frightened, but there's a difference between fear and panic. Panic paralyzes; fear energizes. You sweat -- even at 50 degrees below zero -- your heart pumps, you act. Truthfully, the only fear I ever experienced in the war was the fear that I would let my crew down.
"People talk about courage, but that's a bunch of baloney. I wasn't courageous on the Münster mission. I had a job to do, to deliver those bombs, and I did it. After that, my only concern was the nine other men in my plane. How would I get them home?"
As suddenly as the battle began, it ended. "Directly ahead, lone white vapor trails signaled our reprieve from death," Gordon-Forbes recalled. "Thunderbolts! The Nazis banked away, hightailing it."
Col. Hubert "Hub" Zemke's 56th Fighter Group -- Zemke's Wolf Pack -- had taken off from their Suffolk air station in miserable weather to rendezvous with the withdrawing bombers. They and other Thunderbolt outfits fought off the German fighters, most of them low on fuel and ammunition, and then escorted their "big friends" across the North Sea. Rosenthal's badly crippled plane was unable to keep up with the rest of the formation. It had to go it alone.
WithRoyal Flushflying dangerously low over the North Sea, navigator Ronald Bailey had trouble sighting the English coast through the fast-gathering evening mist, and an even more difficult time finding Thorpe Abbotts, which looked exactly like the other American bomber bases that had been built nearby. AsRoyal Flushapproached the field through low-hanging black clouds, its crew fired red flares to signal "wounded aboard," and nearly everyone on the base raced to the runway to watch the distressed bomber come in. Anxious eyes searched the skies for more Fortresses -- hopefully all thirteen -- but there was only one. After Rosie nosed his chewed-up ship into its hardstand, the concrete circular pad on which the bomber was parked, he climbed down through the bomb bay, turned to the intelligence officer, and asked: "Are they all this tough?" Then he jumped into an ambulance with his two wounded gunners and accompanied them to the base hospital. "I didn't feel relieved," he said years later. "I felt guilty. Why had I lived when all those other good men died?"
Air gunner Loren Darling recovered quickly, but his friend John Shaffer had to be sent home to have shrapnel removed from near his heart. Later, Rosenthal learned from the ground crews that there had been an unexploded cannon shell rolling around in one ofRoyal Flush's wing tanks. A member of his crew speculated that a slave laborer, working in a Nazi munitions factory, had sabotaged the shell.
There were two sets of victims in the European bomber war: those who were bombed and the men who bombed them. Nearly 700 civilians were killed in Münster on October 10, 1943, most of them residents of medieval town houses in the vicinity of the marshaling yard. Münster Cathedral was only slightly damaged and two schools that took direct hits were mercifully unoccupied. When Otto Schuett returned to his neighborhood, a few hundred yards from the cathedral, only the front wall of his house was standing, and bomb-shocked survivors, including his family, were climbing out of basement shelters, carrying the dead with them. For people on the ground, it had been forty-five minutes of unrelieved terror. In those same forty-five minutes the 13th Combat Wing alone lost twenty-five of the thirty Fortresses destroyed that day, 300 boys who didn't make it back to their bunks.
Cold figures fail to convey the unimaginable trauma inside the bombers that went down, or inside battle-damaged planes likeRoyal Flushthat flew out of Germany with crewmen holding the hands of butchered friends who feared they would not make it back in time for doctors to save them. There were no medics at 25,000 feet, no men wearing Red Cross brassards to rush to the aid of shot-up comrades. Fliers who knew almost nothing about first aid had to take care of each other, and themselves. Lt. Paul Vance, pilot ofMiss Carry, had a leg almost severed by flak on the Münster mission. He bandaged the wound himself, using his interphone cord for a tourniquet, and then coached his co-pilot though the bomb run and the trip back to England. Lt. Robert Sabel, the 390th BG pilot who had reservations about bombing a city on Sunday, brought homeRusty Lodewith over 750 flak and shell holes in her, and only two minutes of gas left in her tanks. Three of his despairing crewmen had parachuted out over Germany when the situation seemed hopeless, yet Sabel gotRusty Lodeback on two engines, making a blind landing at Thorpe Abbotts, miles from his home base, with four of his crewmen lying dead in a spreading pool of blood in the radio room.
The evening of the Münster raid, the personal belongings of bomber boys who failed to return were hastily stuffed into bags and their bunks stripped. Within an hour, there was no sign that they had existed. Unable to sleep, Robert Rosenthal walked to the officers club. He didn't drink, but he badly needed companionship. The place was almost empty, and the men who were there were sitting in silence, not knowing how to react. Neither did Rosie.
Later that night, Harry Crosby looked over at John Brady's empty bunk and did some counting. Of the 140 officers who had begun operations at Thorpe Abbotts just four months before, there were only three left on flying status. In the last week alone, the Hundredth had lost over 200 men, including two squadron leaders -- Cleven and Egan. That was almost half of its airmen. The group had earned its nom de guerre, "The Bloody Hundredth." How, Crosby wondered, had he survived?
That night, Frank Murphy was asking himself the same question. His right arm was filled with small pieces of shrapnel, his ankle was throbbing from his hard fall to the ground in his parachute, but he was alive, sitting in the small holding area of a Luftwaffe fighter base with thirty or so other American airmen captured that day. The Americans were talking quietly with some of the German pilots who had shot them down. "They were fairly complimentary of us and I think we were rightfully complimentary of them." The Germans seemed particularly interested in talking with one prisoner, Lt. John Winant, a pilot in the 390th Bomb Group and the son of the United States ambassador to Great Britain, John G. Winant, Sr.
When the Luftwaffe pilots left, the American prisoners began debating how long they were likely to be "guests" of the Germans. No one doubted that the Allies would win the war, but every flier in the room knew that the Eighth Air Force was losing the air war. They could be prisoners for up to ten years, one airman said. "My God, ten years!" Murphy cried out. "I'll be an old man before I get home."
The next morning, John Winant was taken to a facility for special prisoners. Murphy and the other downed airmen were driven to Münster and marched through the streets, past angry crowds that lined the sidewalks all the way to the train station the prisoners had bombed. Their destination was Dulag Luft, the Luftwaffe's interrogation center, just outside Frankfurt. On arrival, the officers were put in solitary confinement and kept isolated from one another throughout their interrogation. So Frank Murphy had no idea that John Egan and Gale Cleven were at Dulag Luft at that time; and neither Egan nor Cleven knew the other was there.
Egan, who had evaded the Germans for a few days before being captured, was in a cramped, unheated cell not far from Cleven's, his only companions "about a million fleas." After nine days in solitary confinement and incessant rounds of interrogation, Cleven was released and sent with a "purge" of other prisoners to Stalag Luft III, a prison camp for American and British air force officers in German-occupied Silesia, a former region of Poland. The men traveled in vile boxcars that had been used to haul livestock, and the smell of fresh manure was overwhelming. Since the transport of prisoners was given low priority, the cars were attached to one freight train after another and were often shunted off to railroad sidings. The 300-mile trip took three days.
Stalag Luft III was in a thick pine forest just outside the small town of Sagan, about ninety miles southeast of Berlin. When Cleven arrived there on Sunday morning, October 23, there was a reunion of the Hundredth, which by the end of the war would have nearly a thousand of its fliers in German prison camps. Half of Cleven's original squadron were prisoners at Sagan; Frank Murphy and John Brady were also there. Howard "Hambone" Hamilton, Brady's bombardier, was in a German hospital. When he was released after a long recuperation, he was sent to another officers camp, Stalag Luft I, at Barth, on the Baltic Sea.
Three days after Cleven arrived, the camp guards announced that another group of American fliers was at the front gate. Cleven watched them file into a neighboring stockade. Spotting Johnny Egan, he called out to him, "What the hell took you so long?"
"Well, that's what you get for being sentimental," Egan shouted back.
At first, they were kept in separate compounds, cordoned off by barbed wire and guard towers, but four months later they were united in West Compound, where the senior American officer was their old blunt-speaking leader, Col. Darr "Pappy" Alkire. He had been stripped of the command of the Hundredth before it left for England and had recently been shot down while commanding a Liberator outfit in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. Cleven and Egan were roommates again, as they had been in training, but were fighting a different war, a war against boredom and despair -- and toward its end, in the punishing winter of 1945, a desperate fight for survival, as the entire Nazi edifice came crashing down around them.
"It was good to see Egan and some of the boys from my squadron," Cleven remembered his first days at Sagan. "We had been through some tough times together. I also met some of the guys from the first American bomb groups to arrive in England. As bad as the war was going against us, these guys had suffered more. We were in training in the States when they were flying suicide missions. No one knew a thing. There had been no time; the war came on the country so quickly. There were navigators who couldn't navigate, bombardiers who couldn't hit their targets, gunners who couldn't shoot straight. And their commanders had no idea how to beat the German air force or stop losing so many men.
"There weren't many of these guys at Sagan, but then again there weren't many of them in England in the summer before we showed up."
One of the Eighth Air Force pioneers was Lt. Walt Kelley, a bartender's son from Norristown, Pennsylvania. He was a pilot in the 97th Bomb Group, the first Eighth Air Force heavy bombardment group to reach England. "When we got to England, the RAF told us we would get our butts blown off if we . . . [did] daylight bombing," he recalled. But "we were ready for action and wanted to prove ourselves in combat. . . . We were impatient for the big day to come. We didn't have to wait long. August 17, 1942, turned out to be a beautiful sunlit day."
Copyright © 2006 by Donald L. Miller
Excerpted from Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany by Donald L. Miller
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.