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Brown’s Clowns – The History of a B17 Bomber Crew Page 2

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by Bud Vieth

This mission convinced Brown’s Clowns that B-17s were not intended for tactical support missions. We flew at a low altitude to bomb enemy troop concentrations. Our altitude was much too low, and our heavy bombers became sitting duck targets for flak gunners on the ground. The ship flown by Brown’s crew — “Our Gal Sal” — received 38 flak holes and our navigator, Ralph Bayer, was wounded in the leg. The mission is described in Century Bombers as follows (p.139):

“The bomb run was thirty-four miles long, just behind enemy lines, and at 14,000 feet. The formation got terrific flak along entire run, and hardly a ship escaped damage. Flak was mostly 88, anti-tank guns pointed upward.”

“…Flak ‘was reported as the worst the Group had ever encountered.”

Nilsson, The Story of the Century, notes concerning this mission (pp. 72-73) “It was smooth flying, ’til the 100th turned to make the bomb run at 12,000 feet, when German 88’s began rampantly to throw up the flak, through which the 100th flew for 17 minutes, possibly the most harrowing flak ever encountered anywhere by any air force.” The Commanding Officer of the 100th Bomb Group, Colonel Thomas S. Jeffrey, flew with the lead crew on this mission. Upon his return to the base, the Colonel was drinking a mug of coffee when another pilot entered the room. Col. Jeffrey said to the other pilot:

“…, did you ever see such BIG, BLACK, LOUD, flak in all your life? ‘– his hands

trembling slightly as he set down his mug. When the other pilot noticed that, he didn’t feel so bad, because he was shaking himself.” The Story of the Century, p. 73

After this mission our plane, “Our Gal Sal” was repaired, the 38 flak holes sealed, and the plane managed to finish the war with the 100th Group and was returned to the U.S. after the war.

Lead Crew

After this second mission, Jerry Brown was approached by the powers that be to determine if we would like to be a lead crew. We discussed it with the entire crew. It meant that we’d have to undergo some additional training. But a real incentive was that our required tour of duty would be reduced from 35 to 30 missions. We unanimously agreed to become a lead crew.

The Mighty Eighth describes the early development of lead crews as follows (p. 76):

“Two crews formed in each squadron underwent intensive training for the task of acting as group or squadron lead crews on combat missions — and they were only to participate in combat in this capacity. Further, two aircraft in each squadron were equipped with every approved device to aid location and accurate bombing of a target, and would be flown only as lead bombers. The rear gunner’s position in ‘lead ship’ was invariably occupied by an officer pilot who could advise the pilot on the state of the formation.”

Accordingly, our becoming a lead crew required a number of changes. The co-pilot seat on a lead crew is occupied by a command pilot — usually a different commander on each mission. Our regular co-pilot, Art Jacobson, moved to the tail gunner’s compartment. From there Jake had a view of the formation we were leading and for which he was responsible. Our regular tail gunner, Clarence Kellog (“Okie”) moved to the waist, so once again we had two waist gunners, Okie and Wayne Page.

Probably the most significant change was the requirement that as a lead crew, the Brown crew flew Pathfinder equipped B-17s. Pathfinder was a radar device (code cover name Mickey Mouse — later shortened to Mickey) which enabled the Eighth Air Force to look through cloud cover. A Pathfinder – equipped B-17 flew lead position in a combat formation with other bombers in the formation dropping on the lead crew’s bomb release. Smoke bombs were used to mark the release point for following formations.

The Mickey was located in a dome underneath the B-17, replacing the ball turret. The mickey operator was located in the radio compartment along with the radio operator, and the radioman’s gun was removed. As a result, our ball gunner, Roland Douglas, was reassigned to another crew, and we picked up a new crew member. Lt. Ervin (Tony) Lentz, the mickey operator.

Roland Douglas experienced some hair-raising adventures in his new assignment. See the story following the discussion of our Mission 21.

Mission 3, August 11, 1944 – Airfields outside Paris

We flew Element lead. This was a relatively a milk run after our last mission over Normandy. Bombed airfields in support of the rapid American drive through France led by General Patton. Our B-17 was named “Skipper II.” This plane also survived the war.

Mission 4, August 13, 1944 – Central France

Bombed retreating German columns. B-17 #295. Element lead again. According to Century Bombers, p. 140:

“On the 13th, the Group was assigned a ‘ground support job’ and attacked the ‘roads and railroads at Nantes-Gassicourt, south of the Seine with good results, ‘ a six hour flight.”

Lay-Off for Training

As a lead crew, the Brown crew spent many days in training. This resulted in a long lay-off between Missions 4 and 5. During this period, on September 1, 1944, the Glenn Miller Air Force band gave a concert at Thorpe Abbotts, enjoyed by all the crew.

Mission 5, September 5, 1944 – Stuttgart, Germany

Bombed an aero-engine factory. B-17 #124. This was the first mission in which the Brown crew led a squadron. We were in the air for 9 hours, 20 minutes — a long time. “On the 5th, ‘the Hundredth put up three groups’ attacked an aero-engine works at Stuttgart with ‘excellent results’ and ‘everyone came back, although the flak was heavy and the battle damage considerable.'” Century Bombers p. 147.

Pathfinder Training

In mid-September 1944 the Brown crew was assigned to the 95th Bomb Group at Horham for further training with the Pathfinder equipment. Jerry Brown noted about this training period; “We also were assigned 15, September, 44 to the 95th group for couple of weeks for lead crew training. That’s because the 100th did not yet have the maintenance facilities for the Radar equipment. Later, they got it and we went home. While at the 95th we would fly over in the early evening to the 100th when we were scheduled for a mission. They just topped off the tanks and we were ready to go. Landing with a full bomb load and fuel ad at the 100th was tricky.”

Also during this period, on September 30, 1944. the 100th Group celebrated its 200th Mission at a 200 Mission Fiesta Party. General Jimmy Doolittle and Eddie Rickenbacher visited the base during this party. The party lasted for more than a day — but ultimately — “The war called a halt to the festivities, and the planes took off at 0740 hours on the morning of October 2 to attack an engine factory at Kassel.” Contrails, p. 89.

Mission 6, October 2, 1944 – Kassel, Germany.

Our first as a lead crew with Pathfinder. B-17 #183. Bombed an engine factory and marshalling yards at Kassel.

Mission 7. October 15, 1944 – Cologne Germany.

Into the heavily defended Ruhr Valley for the first time. Bombed marshalling yards. B-17 #696.

Mission 8. October 18, 1944 – Kassel Germany.

Bombed aero-engine and parts factory; B-17 #009. The oxygen supply in the cockpit and the nose ran out over the target. For two hours Page, Lentz, Kellogg, and Vieth filled portable oxygen tanks and carried them through the bomb bay to the pilots in the cockpit and the navigator and bombardier in the nose. Finally had to let down over enemy territory because of lack of oxygen.

Mission 9. October 22, 1944 – Munster Germany.

The 100th Group was assigned to the 13th Combat Wing of the Third Division of the Eighth Air Force. This mission was the first time our crew led the 13th Combat Wing. B-17 #226. Bombed marshalling yards. “… the Third Division was dispatched to the marshalling yards at Munster, where twenty-four of the Hundredth’s planes released their bombs by radar with ‘good results,’ having met ‘no fighters and very little flak.”‘ Century Bombers pp. 160-161.|

Mission 10, October 27, 1944 – Misburg, Germany .

Mission intended for oil refinery at Misburg. Weather abominable — front extended up to 31,000 feet. Mission recalled.

The Brown crew was a member of the 351st Squadron of the 100th Group. Our squadron received a commendation from the Third Division Headquarters, as follows:

“..The 351st Bombardment Squadron (H), is commended for outstanding performance or duty in action against the enemy during the period 31 July to 2 November 1944. During this period the squadron participated in fifty-two (52) consecutive missions without the loss of a single crew or aircraft. On these operations, more that 400 aircraft were dispatched and only eleven (11) aborted. Eight hundred and forty-three (843) tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs were dropped on enemy targets which include Venlo, Hamburg, Berlin, Ludwigshafen, Bremen, Magdeburg, Munster, Merseburg; as well as Szolnok, Hungary and the supply mission to Warsaw, Poland.’

” ‘Although many of the aircraft returned from these missions with extensive battle damage, highly efficient maintenance crews expeditiously repaired the crippled bombers and enabled the courageous airmen to resume operations in the shortest possible time. The skill in operations planning and the courage displayed by the combat crews in all attacks have not only insured the high degree of efficiency necessary to establish this record, but have also resulted in a material contribution to the successful persecution of the war against the enemy.’

” ‘This splendid teamwork, courage and devotion to duty displayed by the Officers and Men of the 351st Bombardment Squadron reflect the highest credit upon themselves and the United States Army Air Force.’

” ‘Signed: N.B. Harold. Brigadier General, U.S.A. Chief of Staff.’ ” Century Bombers p 174. Unfortunately the Brown crew managed to lose an aircraft (temporarily) on our next mission.

Mission 11. November 5 1944 – Ludwigshafen. Germany.

Our flight engineer, Walter Peters, said in his diary, “Never want another one like this!” In B-17 #209 we attacked marshalling yards in Ludwigshafen. Ran into extremely heavy and extremely accurate flak. Over the target our No. 3 engine was knocked out by flak. Also our hydraulic system. A short time later fire broke out in the cockpit. Pete, our flight engineer, worked hard to extinguish the fire and was Finally successful. We had to leave the formation and began losing altitude — 100 feet per minute. Then engine No. 4 also quit. We were then operating on twoengines, both on the same side, Nos. 1 and 2. Brown knew we could not make it back to England, so we headed for Brussels, Belgium, which had been liberated from German hands several days before, and an Airfield outside Brussels. Capt. Brown made an excellent emergency landing. We had no brakes because the hydraulic system had been destroyed. Our ship ran off the runway immediately upon touching down, but Brown managed to maneuver to a stop without hitting any of the aircraft which were parked all over the field.