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MEMOIR OF A 100th BG RADIO OPERATOR

MEMOIR OF A 100th BG RADIO OPERATOR

By Albert P. Lochra, 351st Squadron, Radio Operator Gunner

Edited by Matt Mabe and Nancy Putnam

Editors’ Note: In recent years, 100th BG veteran Al Lochra put pen to paper and wrote his wartime memoir, intended for family posterity. A small segment of an early draft was printed here in 2016. Now complete, we prevailed upon Al to share expanded excerpts. Gracious as always, he agreed. Chosen are several passages which illustrate key mission experiences from the perspective of the Radio Operator Gunner, including pre-mission briefing and preparations, as well as a frightening near mid-air collision while assembling in the crowded skies over East Anglia, and a return from Berlin on three, two and then one engine. Each aircrew member has his assigned tasks and location in the B-17. The following excerpts take you along as Al details what he experienced on the ground and in the air fromthe radio compartment, starting with his first pre-mission briefing.

 

Pre-Mission Briefing Munich, February 25, 1945

After breakfast, we walked toward the flight clothing storeroom to pick up our flight apparel; i.e. electric suit, heavy jacket, pants, boots, socks, gloves, head gear, and parachute, then on to the briefing room for the mission briefing. Enlisted crew and officers were in separate facilities. Briefing for the enlisted dealt more in generalities – but important ones; i.e., take off time, bombing altitude, initial point (IP), winds, possible enemy fighters, likely flak areas, weather, and most important to all, the route to and from the target shown on a large map of Europe attached to the front wall we faced. A long red string stretched from our base to the target, this one Munich. Impressive, and it was our first mission. We all set our watches as directed, 5-4-3-2-1-tack.

Officers received the same briefing, but with more detail in accordance with their specific duties since instructions varied from mission to mission. Enlisted men normally did not fly the aircraft, navigate or use the bombsite, but every crew member’s duties remained fairly uniform and unique to them throughout each mission. However, the engineer and radio operator’s duties were more technical than other enlisted crew. The engineer provided technical back-up to the pilots and had to be familiar with weight distribution, fluids, instrument readings, etc., along with operating the top turret. Radio operators had to monitor and record radio signals from Eighth Army Air Force Headquarters at intervals during each hour of flight. The radio frequency was set by Headquarters. Its identifying symbols were 1 T L. We responded if or as required with our own identification that the message had been received and recorded in our logs. We checked our radio equipment on the ground before each flight.

All plane to plane communication was by voice, usually originated by the group leader or higher authority via the command radio or the VHF radio pilots used and which other crew members did not hear. What crews needed to know from those communications was passed on independently through each plane’s intercom system by the first pilot. We also used the intercom to talk to each other – but only when needed. Needless conversation was not looked upon kindly.

At the Hardstand

We each had our duties to perform at the hardstand. The armorers had already attached the bombs in the bomb bay before the crew arrived and the ground crew had prepared the plane. The pilots and the engineer, along with the ground crew, checked it out. The bombardier set up his bombsite and the navigator assembled and reviewed his maps. The radio operator checked his equipment and the gunners, including the engineer and radio operator, gathered the guns and installed (mounted) them. The ammunition belt, if memory serves me, was already placed at each gun mount by the ground crew and awaited the gunners attaching the belt to the gun. Each gun was the same, a Browning .50 caliber, but the gun mounts differed. The tail, ball, top, and chin turrets were twin mounts, while the right and left waists were single mounts as were the ones on each side of the plane’s nose. The radio room’s original gun mount, with the gun barrel protruding through the top of the plane, was discarded sometime in mid-war as inefficient and dangerous. The crew was reduced from ten to nine members, and the radio operator became a waist gunner, in my case the right waist gunner. Sometimes I would install the right and left nose guns, but always my gun. We would not connect the ammunition to the guns until we were over the English Channel or North Sea, as it was safer that way. We would then test fire our guns with two or three short bursts. A quick pull on the trigger would use at least half to a dozen rounds.

Soon enough it was time to “pull the props”. I am not totally certain why this was done, but part of it had to do with releasing built-up compression and getting lubrication to the pistons prior to starting the engines. In pulling the props (we actually pushed them), three or four of us would line up to the right side of an engine and, one at a time, each push clockwise on a blade of the three bladed propeller until each blade had been fully rotated, thus the whole engine, three or four times. The same was done for each of the four engines, starting with engine #1 and continuing with #2, then #3, then #4. Pulling props was not easy, but we were strong. Not long thereafter we put on our flight clothes, if we had not already done so, assumed our take-off positions in the plane and awaited the firing of the engines. The ball turret and the tail gunners generally stayed in the waist section along with the waist gunner. Sometimes one or more came to the radio room. Othercrew took their regular positions, two in the nose, two in the cockpit, the engineer to the back of them, and I was in the radio room.

Assembly

After taking off, we had to assemble as a squadron with as many as 9 to 12 airplanes, then as a group (three or four squadrons), then as a wing (three groups), then as a division (several wings), then finally as the Eighth Air Force (three divisions). This was more complicated than it might sound. Ideally every plane had its own place in the squadron, each squadron in its group, each group within its wing, each wing in its division, and each division within the armada. However, grouping patterns and sequences changed with each flight. A maximum effort might see as many as 1,500 B-17s and B-24s in the air strung out for maybe 50 miles or more. It was an awesome sight, but proper assembly and rendezvous were keys.

Taking off in position sequence, each plane tried to keep its squadron in sight and locate its proper flight position. The group was formed by flying in a prescribed circle within tight limits of a radio signal which in the 100ths’ case was “Splasher 6”. Once accomplished, the group would locate the group it was to follow, etc. This was far easier to do in broad daylight and good weather. England, however, did not always offer those conditions so sometimes we had to keep climbing for more accommodating conditions. Moreover, above the 10,000 ftaltitude level, oxygen masks were required, and assemblies were often made before daylight during which designated colored flares shot from lead planes were used for identification.

A Close Call During Assembly

The early morning of this particular day was, in the considered judgment of the 8th Air Force Command, okay enough to permit flying. What were the conditions? First, it was still more dark than light. Second, it was very damp and foggy, but apparently clear enough to allow for take-off. Third, we had to fly no matter what our personal inclinations were. Fully fueled, loaded with bombs, guns in place with ammunition linked to each one, flak suits aboard and nine of us wishing we were home in the good ole USA, we took off. No problem with that. We began our ascent.

It was soon evident that the crews would be visually impaired because of the fog and thick clouds. So how high would we have to go to get above this soup? We kept climbing and wandering about somewhere above Splasher 6 trying to find our group and our squadron. We had limited success. Both pilots and the engineer plus our navigator and bombardier were taxing the capabilities of their eyes to see far enough into the grey, heavy mist so as to avoid a mid-air collision and find our group. The rest of us could only be of marginal help in that our view was principally only to each side. Harold Johnson (tail gunner) and Frank Kopus (waist gunner) were in the waist, Anthony Cheffo (ball turret gunner) and I were in the radio room. None of us liked the idea of flying through this kind of mess at any time; to actually be doing so while literally hundreds of planes were in close proximity put an extra edge to the occasion. We could not seem to get above the fog/clouds, but we flew on in the attempt to complete our rendezvous.

Suddenly and without a hint of what was happening, the plane took a steep dive. I cannot speak authoritatively on how this affected those in the front part of the plane, but in my case, I was sitting on my chair in front of the radio receiver with my parachute on the floor very close to my right foot, and the dive caused me to rise slightly from the chair. The pencil and pad on the desk rose maybe a foot or more, and anything else not bolted or tied down also rose into mid-air. My parachute rose to waist level and hovered there. I grabbed it, turned around, began attaching it to my harness and lurched toward the opening in the waist section with hopes of reaching the waist door. I was near the ball turret when the plane suddenly leveled off. Now just the opposite happened: everything loose crashed to the floor. My knees buckled but I remained upright. The odd thing about all of this is that I was the only one in the middle/back of the plane who was mobile. All others were held like steel to magnets at their places in the radio room or in the waist. Cheffo was on the right side of the radio room and became immobile against the fuselage. Kopus and Johnson were similarly immobilized in the waist.

After it was over, I was asked by those crew members, especially Cheffo who witnessed my action, how I managed to move about. Cheffo said he could not budge and was amazed at my mobility. I had no answer to that statement except it being a quirk in the laws of physics. However, another unknown was cleared up: would I hesitate to jump from a plane? No! Not when the situation appears desperate and a parachute is handy. Thinking about this action is not a part of any philosophical thought process. Survival reaction is the factor. Why the sudden plunge of the plane? We were informed later after all had settled down and we were above the gunk. Very simply put, we were headed toward a head-on collision with at least one plane in another formation coming toward us. Fortunately, Butch’s [Pilot Orville Broyles] keen eyes saw a faint picture of disaster speeding toward us and immediately put the plane into a steep dive. Luckily, the other plane apparently did not dive, or if it did the timing or angle of its plunge was fortuitous for both crews. The four of us in the back part of the plane saw none of this. I am thankful for that. I expect the five in the front section witnessed this near collision, and perhaps saw it again in their memory many times over. We were finally able to fly above and out of this fog, assemble with our squadron and start toward Germany. I do not recall the mission number, but I certainly remember this close call.

Return from Berlin with a Broken Oil Line

It was February 26, 1945, one day after the Munich raid. The preparation routine was the same as the day before but the destination was not. When the curtain was pulled back at briefing to reveal the day’s target, the red string crossed over Northern Germany to Berlin, everybody’s favorite target to avoid. By that time in the war the Luftwaffe was, on the whole, mostly ineffective – too many of us, and too few of them, but what was left of them did their best. It was a matter of which group it might strike;after all, a full effort by the Eighth Air Force could string out for 50 or more miles in which a single bomber would only be a tiny speck. Generally, some group or groups somewhere were under attack and we kept our eyes especially peeled when enemy aircraft were reported to be in the area. It was during those times that I left the radio room and went to the right waist gun. The one thing we could always count on was anti-aircraft fire, flak. This was true over much of Germany but especially in critical areas such as Berlin. We knew to expect many, many exploding shells which we would fly into and, with hope and luck, fly out of eventually. Then there is the matter of prayer to which many if not all of us availed ourselves.

As I recall, preparations, take off, assembly, etc. were routine. Since this was only our second mission and with Berlin the target, we certainly were not blasé about it. The Third Division led the 8th Air Force that day with the 100thsomewhere towards the front in that stream, followed by the Second Division, and finally the First Division brought up the rear. Each division probably had 12 or so groups flying, each group sending 36 planes, so altogether there were as many as 1,200 – 1,300 heavy bombers on that mission as well as many fighters.

Things went smoothly insofar as appearances indicated with the sun streaming in on us. The altitude was some 21,000-25,000 feet. But an hour or so before reaching the IP (Initial Point), our plane suddenly began to shudder. It bumped like a street car running on the railroad ties instead of the rails. It was really that rough, and it did not let up. What went wrong? Apparently, it was a sudden and major break of an oil line in engine #3, with no prior warning. What I could see from the right waist gun position was oily, blackish liquid streaming from the engine onto both the top and bottom of the wing, along the fuselage, on the plexiglass of my waist gun position and back to the tail section. The engine was shut down as soon as possible, so there was no apparent fear of fire. However, the props of that engine could not be feathered (turned perpendicular into the rushing air) due to the loss of that engine’s oil. Thus, our air speed caused the props to keep turning the engine, causing the entire plane to shake and shudder.

We were now flying with three engines. Normally this is not a severe problem when the props of a damaged engine are feathered, but it becomes a major concern when they cannot be feathered. We were still in our assigned position in the squadron and maintaining air speed, but at what cost? Flying with three engines, even with a feathered prop, uses more gasoline than four engines flying efficiently would use, particularly at high altitude and keeping up with the other planes. In our case the problem was compounded. Not only did the dead weight of a non-functioning engine have to be compensated for, but also the turning of a dead engine put considerable additional strain on the other engines as well as the plane itself and increased gasoline consumption to a marked degree. The added weight of a full bomb load didn’t help either.

What to do? I am sure our pilots were in communication with the squadron or group leaders and received instructions. We continued to maintain our position and pressed on, but the severe shaking continued. We turned with the others at the IP and flew straight and level toward the target. The flak commenced and, as expected, was heavy, but there were no enemy aircraft bothering the 100th. The Germans normally did not fly into their own flak, generally attacking when our fighter escorts were absent. Meanwhile, I went back to the radio room and began my job of spreading aluminum strips (chaff) all over that particular part of Germany hoping to mar the accuracy of German anti-aircraft guns by disturbing their radar. I don’t know how effective it was, but it gave me something to do other than watch ugly black splotches in all directions; actually, when the shells exploded, there was an instant red flash followed by black smoke. Every explosion spread metal in all directions, some several inches in diameter, others as small as pellets.

I do not remember how many minutes it took on this mission to reach the target from the IP; it varied on nearly every mission depending on the target and air speed (we liked it better when there was a good tail wind). The time could range from perhaps as little as eight minutes to maybe fifteen if we were flying into a strong headwind. At some point during this time our bomb bay doors were opened by the bombardier, and it was my duty to report that they were opened. Much cold air rushed in while they were open. No surprise there. After forever, it always seemed like forever, the target was reached and the bombs dropped. At times bombs were released at the same time thus causing a lot of havoc in a relatively small area as they hit, while at other times bombs were released at close intervals which spread the ground explosions over a longer part of the target. Spacing could also be a function of bomb size with 100 pounders and incendiaries being dropped close together and larger sizes, e.g. 200-500-1,000 pounders, spaced out. When bombs are released the plane jumps up a bit due to weight reduction. This never caused a problem for us; it was merely a sensation. It was then my duty to report all bombs were away (or not if that be the case) after which the bombardier or togglier would flip the switch closing the bomb bay doors. After “bombs away”, each plane, while remaining in formation with the group, would make its turn away from the target and head back on course to the home base. Meanwhile, we did all this while still bumping up and down as severely or worse than ever. Shortly thereafter we were given permission to leave the formation and fly parallel to the stream of planes returning to England. We reduced our airspeed to save fuel, but maintained altitude until we were out of German-held territory.

Not long after the bomb drop, perhaps even before we left the group, the severe bumping of our plane ceased abruptly; suddenly our flight was smooth. What a wonderful sensation. Why did the shaking stop? After more than an hour, the propeller shaft finally broke. This meant the propeller no longer was connected to the engine, and therefore the engine stopped turning and vibrating. It was a relief to all; the flight was now much smoother even though the prop spun faster since it had no load to turn. Fuel consumption, however, was still above normal; as indicated before, a B-17 uses more gasoline with three engines, even with one feathered, than with four well-functioning ones. We pressed on feeling somewhat better.

When we sidled away from our group and reduced our air speed, it was not long before one group, and then another, passed us by. I estimate we flew some 75-150 yards to the left side of the stream. I do not know how many groups were flying this day, but the entire Third, Second and First Divisions passed by – many hundreds of B-17s and B-24s each with group markings shimmering in bright sunlight.They were not only beautiful but also majestic. By this time, it must have been two or three hours since “bombs away”; and the entire 8th Air Force had passed us. We were beginning to feel lonely. However, some P-51s were still around. I spotted one at approximately the 3 o’clock position, slightly higher but parallel with us about 200-300 yards out. Ever so slowly he came closer. I readied my gun, but pointed it up and to the right – away from the P-51. The fighter continued inching closer and closer. He saw that my gun was pointed away from him as much as possible yet could be quickly aimed if necessary. Finally he flew almost to our right wing tip and slightly in back of it. He was investigating our problem. First he flew a few feet higher than our wing to check possible damage there. Then he descended maybe 20 feet to check the underside. He repeated this one or two more times. In the meantime he and I acknowledged each other by head nodding and hand waving. Finally he nodded his head, waved one last time (which I returned) and pulled away. Now that I am 63 years older I wish I had written down his group and squadron designations and his plane number. The pilot could have then been identified and thanked. So I am thanking him now.

Our solo flying continued with few if any other planes to be seen. We were on our own. Just up ahead was probably the most dangerous part of the return flight: the 100-130 miles over the North Sea to reach the English Coast. The possibility of jettisoning our guns and flak vests was being considered so as to reduce weight and thus add flying distance. Not much, it was agreed, but every mile became important. However, we did not do that. Instead, we reached the Dutch Coastline at 10,000 feet having already reduced altitude since Berlin by some 10,000-15,000 feet. By this time, having long since passed us, all other groups had landed or were landing back at their home base.

Shortly before or after reaching the Dutch coast, we were forced to shut down engine number #2 (on first pilot’s side), feather the prop and transfer its fuel to engines #1 and #4. We descended further and set a straight course for the handiest place in England to land. Late in the afternoon, dusk was not too far off. Not long after heading over water, I was directed to send a signal to an emergency contact in England. To do this I had to select the transmission panel (one of three) having the frequency of the contact and insert it into the transmitter. I then had to reel out the trailing wire antenna after which I attempted to “fine tune” (by meter and sound) the transmission to the correct frequency and, after having done so, send the signal – essentially giving the contact an uninterrupted long key signal so a fix could be made on our position. Having done this, I reeled in the antenna, replaced the frequency panel to its original location and hoped everything worked. I never received a reply nor do I know to this day if I should have. Perhaps the pilots did. If so they did not tell me. On the other hand, they had far more important things to do in trying to get us all safely to England.

It was only a guess at this time since I do not know where we hit the Dutch coastline, but England could have been as much as 45 minutes to a little more than an hour away at our speed. We were gradually descending which tended to raise airspeed and save on fuel, now getting worrisomely low. We were still prepared to throw things out if absolutely essential. After what seemingly was forever, the coast of England finally loomed invitingly ahead. We were now at 2,000 feet with our two engines pulling us through the diminishing daylight. It was good to see England, but we were not yet in the clear. Being so low on fuel at this point we did not have time to get to our base at Thorpe Abbotts. Instead, we opted to land at the first base we saw, and fortunately one was spotted shortly after reaching England.

The pilots descended to several hundred feet, lowered the main and rear landing gears and lined us up with a runway. As it turned out the first landing attempt had to be good. Finally, wheels met runway, followed several seconds later by the rear landing gear. Brakes were applied, but sometime while landing and before we had come to a stop, the third engine shut down. It had run out of fuel. That is cutting things way too fine for comfort. With the one engine we got to a hardstand area, stopped, cut off the remaining engine and climbed out of the plane. At last! It was a long journey.

Our safety net was a B-24 base, maybe a half-hour truck ride from our base at Thorpe Abbotts.  I will never know for certain which B-24 base was our hero, but the entire crew is thankful to whatever base it was.

What would have happened should our third engine conked out before landing? If over water and close to land we may have made it to land, where our options would have been: 1.) land at an airfield if one was immediately available, 2.) bail out if we were at sufficient altitude – somewhere around 1,000 feet minimum. Maybe experienced parachutists could jump safely at this or lower altitude, but none of us had ever jumped. Or option 3.)crash land ASAP, quite unappealing. If we were over water and not close to land, our options were: 1.) jump if we were at sufficient altitude and inflate our life belts and get free of our parachutes as soon as we hit water, or 2.)attempt a ditching (water landing), which is always difficult and often unsuccessful – B-17s were not designed to do that. We could hope to be rescued before drowning or hypothermia killed us. It was, after all, February and the waters of the North Sea are cold even in summer.

Fortunately, none of those options had to be acted upon. Instead, we had the opportunity to see close up and even touch a B-24, most, if not all of us, for the first time. We did not enter the plane, but observed as much of the interior as we could from an opened bomb bay. We did little else at that base except wait for a ride to get us back to Thorpe Abbotts. Dusk was now on us and darkness would soon arrive. We rode back to our base in the dark, very thankful we could do so.

As mentioned, it was probably a half hour or so ride which means the base on which we landed was perhaps some 10-15 miles from Thorpe Abbots. After a briefing and something to eat, both of which I have but only the vaguest recollection, we retired to our quarters. It was the end of a perfect day because we made it back to base. Aday or two later we learned that we had only enough fuel remaining to clean the oil from the engine, wing, fuselage, and horizontal stabilizer of the plane. In other words, we just barely made it – with nothing to spare! We were also informed that the oil line break was likely caused by a shrapnel hit on the previous day’s mission (Munich) that went undetected by maintenance.

Al Lochra completed 19 combat missions, one food-drop Manna/Chowhound mission, a mission to Linz, Austria to pick up French slave laborers and fly them home to France, and one post-war ferry mission to Casablanca.Upon returning to the states, he met Helen. Two years later, they were married and raised their three children in Greensboro, NC. While his beloved Helen has passed away, Al, Kathryn, Julia and Chris remain faithful attendees at many 100th BGF events.