Recalling History – Wiser man pilots bomber on 35 World War II flights
Gerald Kane of Wiser piloted a B-17 bomber on 35 missions over Germany during World War II. The memory of one mission remains vivid in his mind after 50 years. Date: Dec. 31, 1944. Target Hamburg, Germany.
A total of 36 B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 100th Bomb Group left England to bomb an oil refinery. Just 24 planes returned. “That was the worst mission I took part in, “ said Kane, now 74. “Almost 120 boys from out Group did not make it home that night.”
December 31, 1944 started at 4:00 a.m. for Kane and the members of the 100th Bomb Group who were stationed at Thorpe Abbotts in England, 90 miles north of London. A total of 36 bombers took off in the dark at 7:15 a.m. and assembled in formation in the clouds at 12,000 feet. Captain was flying a plane called “HurriKane.
“We flew in tight formation, “ Kane said, “because that was the best way to protect each other from German fighter attacks. “We flew that day at an altitude of 27,000 feet and thought we’d be out of range of the German flak guns.” “When we started our bomb run the flak from German anti-aircraft guns around Hamburg was terrible and it’s unbelievable how accurate it was.”
Immediately we had planes on fire and falling out of formation. I remember seeing one of our planes receive a hit and it started going down. It collided with another plane and both exploded in mid-air.” Kane said fighter attacks from German Focke Wolf’s and Messerschmitts created havoc in the skies for five minutes or more as the tight formation of B-17’s became scattered.
“It looked pretty hopeless for a while,” he said. “After seeing all the planes on fire and the mid- air collision I didn’t think I would be coming home.” Kane said he felt a tremendous sense of relief when the bombs were released over the Hamburg oil refinery.
“Bombs Away was always a relief. “ he said because when you are flying with tons of bombs on board, a shell underneath the place could cause the entire plane to explode.” With bombs away the remaining B-17’s turned north toward the North Sea into a tremendous head wind which slowed the planes down to a ground speed of 90 miles per hour. “It felt like we were standing still in the air,” Kane said. “It felt like we were standing still in the air.”
“We were immediately pounced on by German fighters and they made 10 passes at our formation. They were coming in four abreast on our tail. Four of them would pounce on us. They would open fire at 500 yards, then at about 300 yards each fighter would break off in a different direction. Then the fighters would attack from the front. They would dive down at 400 miles per hour and try to knock out the pilot. All our guns were firing and I remember how badly out plane was vibrating.”
As the Americans planes flew north of Hamburg, another mid-air collision occurred as one B-17 became piggy-back on top of another. “The planes stuck together in mid-air.” Kane said. “The pilots in the bottom plane were killed but the pilots in the upper plane were still at the controls. Believe it or not, they landed the two planes in piggy-back fashion on the beach in Germany and the two pilots walked away from the crash.”
When Kane’s plane reached the safety of the North Sea, he received word that his radio man had been killed and two of his gunners were injured. “One of the injured boys was having trouble breathing, “ Kane said, “so I left the rest of the planes in the formation and give it full throttle. We arrived back in England before anybody. We were flying red flares which meant we had injured on board so the ground crew had ambulances and fire trucks waiting for us. I didn’t know it, “ Kane said, “but I had one tire shot out. I landed the plane by the grace of God and managed to keep it from ground looping.”
Kane was met at the plane by the engineering officer, an old veteran of World War 1. “He said something to me that I’ll never forget. It’s one of the few things I remember about the war. He said, “Son, you did a fine job of bringing that plane in.” The ground crew found 117 holes in “Hurri-Kane” after towing it to base. “I never saw that plane again,” Kane said. He flew the last of his 35 missions over Munich on April 9, 1945.
Kane returned to Wisner in 1946 and managed Albers Dehydrating Company from 1947 to 1985.