Excerpt from the manuscript Coffin Corner, by Christopher and William Freund:
It began very much like all the others. Late in the afternoon of September 5, 1943, we knew there was going to be another mission the next day, and that it was going to be a big one. It was quiet at the officer’s club and most of the guys went to bed at a very early hour. I started to write a letter to Bev but couldn’t concentrate, so I put it aside and slept.
The wake-up call came shortly after midnight. I felt cheated because they cut short a very deep and peaceful sleep. Not fully awake, I uttered a short prayer and then, at Sam’s urging, quickly dressed. We headed to the officer’s mess through another cold, damp, moonless English night for the usual breakfast of powdered eggs, spam and coffee. Because of the very early call and the anticipation of a big mission, a subtle feeling of excitement existed as the men drank coffee and ate breakfast.
As we ate, it was hard for the men in that room not to think that some us would not return for another meal; but our confidence, or arrogance, never allowed us to believe it would be us. We knew this was going to be a deep penetration; the red line on the mission map would stab deeply into the heart of Nazi Germany. After eating, we quietly headed to the briefing room to find out where.
We had gathered in the same hall for each of our previous fifteen missions and the scene never changed. Everything was the same until the large blue curtain was drawn back to expose the route we would take to the day’s target.
Our suspicions were proven correct –- we were headed deeper into Germany than ever before. Today the attack would be against ball bearing factories near Stuttgart, Germany.
Stuttgart, Regensburg and Schweinfurt formed an almost perfect equilateral triangle in southeast Germany, with Schweinfurt on the top, Regensburg in the East and Stuttgart in the West. Our group of fortresses would strike at Stuttgart, and another force would hit Regensburg.
Memories of the horrific August attack on Schweinfurt and Regensburg flooded the minds of the men who had flown that earlier mission – memories that brought fear that this mission might be a repeat of the ghastly air battle that filled the sky with burning planes and blood. We knew that men sitting at this briefing, someone next to us, or in front or behind, flying to the same target, our buddies and friends, would die today. Or if they were lucky enough to survive, might become prisoners of war.
The briefing covered everything the brass thought we needed to know about the mission. We were told about the weather, flak and the quantity of German fighter resistance we might encounter. Flak and fighters were very familiar to those of us who had been in combat, and we had learned from experience that intelligence estimates of both never proved very accurate. Frankly, everything about these missions seemed to us to be a mammoth guessing game.
Still photos of the target flashed on the screen as the intelligence officer pointed out features around the target area that would help pinpoint our targets. The 100th never dropped bombs through heavy under cast, which obscured our vision, because our leaders did not want to drop bombs in residential areas. When unable to drop our bomb loads in these circumstances we would go to a secondary target or bring our payload back to England. Only on our first mission did we bomb through clouds, but then we were very, very eager.
At the end of the briefing our chaplain led us in a prayer, then we were called to attention as Col. Harding and his staff marched from the room. (I believe Col. Harding led the 100thon the mission.) Sam [pilot], Morry [navigator] and the other pilots and navigators went to their briefing, and then trucks whisked us to our planes. Take off was scheduled for 5:00 a.m. but was delayed until 5:30 a.m. for reasons never made clear to us. It turned out to be a delay that made it possible for Raunchy to go on the mission.
When we arrived at our hardpan we were surprised to find the ground crew still working on Raunchy’s No. 3 engine, the inboard engine on the right wing. Our crew chief told us they had spent most of the night replacing a bad fuel pump discovered during routine maintenance the day before. They had recommended scratching Raunchy from the mission, but Bomber Command needed our plane and told them to finish the repair. They had worked all night installing the new pump and they needed the extra half hour to finish the job. Their work wasn’t tested until we’ve got the green flare to start our engines. We cranked up numbers 1 and 2, and held our breath as No. 3 turned over. She hesitated for a second but then caught and sounded great. We then started No. 4 – and waited. The powerful roar of those four 1200 h.p. Pratt and Whitney engines resounding through Raunchy was always somehow reassuring.
At approximately 5:20 a.m. we received the signal to pull out onto the perimeter taxi strip and almost simultaneously, twenty-three Flying Fortresses, appearing dark and ugly with their war paint and in the dim light of dawn, were on the taxi strip in a long line leading to the end of the runway. Radio silence was in effect to prevent the Germans from picking up any information about our mission. At 5:30 a.m. twin green flares pierced the sky above Thorpe Abbots’ control tower and the lead ship roared down the runway. Then, at precisely fifteen-second intervals, the remaining ships followed, one by one.
Raunchy was the 15th plane to take off. We were scheduled to fly No. 6 in the low squadron. Coffin Corner once again. But as we joined our squadron formation we noticed that there was no plane in the No. 3 spot. Seconds clicked by and still no sign of No. 3. So Sam, using standard procedure, pulled into the slot. Minutes later, the tardy pilot broke radio silence and demanded that we fall back to No. 6. But Sam would not relinquish the spot, nor would he break radio silence. The other pilot finally, albeit reluctantly, settled into Coffin Corner. At that time no one knew how lucky our switch of position would prove to be – for the other plane.
The weather was perfect, the sun high and the piercing blue sky cloudless. Our wing settled into formation in record time. The rendezvous with the other wings was accomplished without a hitch. It was the largest battle force we had ever flown with, over 300 B-17s. Those fortresses formed a magnificent site as we crossed the English coastline and started across the English Channel.
Five minutes out I gave the order for the men to test their guns. This meant each man would fire a short burst to make certain our guns were working properly. I also told them to keep a sharp eye out for enemy fighters. (On the August raid, the fight had started at mid-channel and continued all the way to the Mediterranean. That battle was brutal — and we were anticipating the same kind of resistance.)
We were cruising at 24,000 feet but the sky was so clear the French landscape far below was vivid with color and dotted with small towns and villages. We were halfway to the target and still had no contact with enemy fighters. We could see a few ME-109s high above our formation but they seemed reluctant to fight. Sam’s said, “What’s going on Bill? What kind of surprise are they planning for us?” By this point of the August mission many B-17s and German fighters had been destroyed and nearly every German fighter was in the battle.
That mission was plain horror — but today, as we crossed the French countryside, still no combat. It was beginning to make us a bit nervous. What was their plan? When would they attack? Had they perfected a new defensive weapon? We kept getting closer and closer to Stuttgart and everything was going much too smoothly. We were left to wonder and wait. We had been in the air for over two hours.
Finally, Boswell [bombardier] announced that we were approaching Stuttgart, but a thick cover of clouds hid the city from our view. It was decided that we would hit whatever target we could find, and had begun looking for something to hit. The tension of the mission, the lack of fighters, and concern about what the German’s were up to began to build to almost unbearable levels. But almost as soon as the words were out of Boswell’s mouth the sky turned black with the smoke of flak. It began to explode all around us. The flak was so heavy I couldn’t understand how we had not been hit. A couple of fortresses from other groups were hit and went down around us. We were just leaving the Stuttgart area and apparently heading for a second target when Smithy shouted into the intercom, “Fighters, 12 o’clock high!” Then, being more descriptive, he added, “a lot of em!”
I looked up to a scene I had seen many times before. Screaming from above I saw about ten Me-109s flying wing tip to wing tip in a medium dive, the leading edge of their wings were deep red with the fire flashes from their guns. With their speed and ours, the rate of closure had to be 500 mph. It was only couple of seconds from the moment I first saw them when everything around me exploded.
It’s almost impossible to describe my feelings at that moment. For a few seconds everything was chaos. The cockpit was a complete mess and filled with thick, acrid smoke. Hydraulic fluid was everywhere. I looked at my chest pack resting on the floor under my seat — it was saturated and floating in the fluid. Tremendous wind was blowing from the nose, through the navigator and bombardier compartment, out the hatch behind Sam’s seat and out through the bomb bay. Our bomb bay doors were open because we had begun our bomb run when we were hit, but our hydraulic system had failed and the landing gears had gone down. Maps, papers, bailout oxygen bottles and everything else that wasn’t tied down was caught in a terrific air blast and blown out of the airplane.
Sam had pressed the bailout button but fortunately it didn’t work. He was in shock and mumbling, “Billy I’m hit,” over and over. There was a large and growing circle of fresh blood staining his Air Corps uniform shirt on his chest, directly over his heart. The control column in front of his seat was shattered. I was flying Raunchy but couldn’t see through the windshield because hydraulic fluid had been forced between the double panes of glass. I couldn’t see where we were flying or what was in front of us. I could see the squadron but only through the side window. We were rapidly falling behind. I could see down into the navigator’s compartment through what was left of the shattered instrument panel.
Everything was frantic, and a hundred thoughts were running through my head. But I had to deal with one crisis at a time. First, we had to be able to defend ourselves against the onslaught of German fighters. Because a lowered landing gear was a sign of surrender, I ordered the crew not to fire at German fighters until the wheels were up. I wasn’t aware at that point that the intercom system was not functioning.
While I was trying to survey the damage and keep Raunchy in the air, Smithy [top turret gunner and engineer] was hanging in the open bomb bay, 24,000 feet above the earth, manually cranking the bomb bay doors closed. I told him to crank the gears up, too. Amidst all the chaos, with Raunchy pitching to and fro, and with the wind blowing powerfully through the plane from the shattered nose, Smithy stood above the open bomb bay doors and cranked them up, and then made sure the landing gear was retracted. At that moment, Smitty saved our lives and saved Raunchy. It was one of the bravest and heroic acts I had ever witnessed. Thornton [waist gunner] came up from the waist to help crank up the gear.
Weinberg had jettisoned our bomb load before Smitty had closed the doors, then came up to the cockpit and was standing just behind me. He said of the bombs, “They aught to leave quite a scar on the black forest.” His left eye was badly damaged and seemed to be hanging down on his cheek. Blood covered his face and clothes.
“Lieutenant,” he said, “Buzz is hurt real bad. He’s lost an eye and his arm is badly mangled.”
We hurriedly discussed several options. We refused to even consider finding a spot in Germany to land, admitting surrender, so we had to figure out what to do next. We knew we couldn’t survive long…a crippled B-17 surrounded by a horde of bloodthirsty German fighter pilots. Sam was in serious pain, so we considered giving him some morphine, but concluded that we needed him as alert as possible. He was just going to have to tough it out.
We thought about hitting the deck, heading for England and just going down fighting, but decided that, while noble, wasn’t very smart. We knew we had to help Buzz, and discussed the possibility of dropping him out and letting him parachute to German soil but Morry said he would never make it alive.
He said, “Bill, fly 220 and maybe we can reach Switzerland.” We hoped if we could get that far we could get to Swiss soil and then get Buzz to a hospital. Morry left to check on the rest of the crew, but was back in a couple of minutes with tragic news that rocked me to the core.
“Bill, Joe [ball turret gunner] is dead,” he announced. “I opened the ball turret and it looks as though he took two exploding 20 mm shells.” Then Morry went back to help Buzz.
Joe’s death stunned me, but there wasn’t time to grieve. Our intercom was completely gone so I couldn’t communicate with the crew to get their assessment of battle damage suffered in the original onslaught by German fighters. At that moment I noticed that both Sam’s and my oxygen tubes and radio headsets and microphones, which ran up the front of our uniforms, were completely severed about 12 inches below our chins. How that happened, unless a piece of shrapnel flew through the cockpit just inches in front of us, I have no idea. We should have been cut in two.
All this action took place in a very few minutes. I was fighting desperately to keep Raunchy close to our group, but that too was a losing battle. With Raunchy in such bad condition and because we had no oxygen, I slid away from the rest of the group and started a quick descent toward breathable air, the stuff we needed to stay alive.
It was obvious that I would have to make a major decision. Try to make it back to England, and hope Buzz could hang on, or head for Switzerland, a supposedly neutral country about 100 kilometers south of Stuttgart, as Morry had suggested. I just couldn’t gamble with Buzz’s life and, reluctantly, took Morry’s advice and headed down and south – Switzerland it would be.
We were suddenly alone and in very dangerous German skies. Looking out the side window I realized that the German fighter pilots knew we were badly hurt, and they were already planning to add another kill to their credit. An Me-109 was coming at us from 2 o’clock level, all his guns showing the telltale red flame. Instinctively, I started to pull Raunchy away from the fighter, but in that moment God performed a small miracle for us. My mind flashed back to a poster I had seen hanging on many of the walls in the training camps and all the B-17 bases we had been at those previous few months. The poster showed an American fighter plane with an enemy fighter attacking at 2 o’clock. The words on the poster: “Turn into him!” Only a second had passed, so I immediately turned Raunchy into the fighter and the Me-109 instantly passed over the top of us. For a moment Raunchy was no longer the target of that particular German pilot. If we had flown away from him, our underside would have been exposed for a prolonged period of time…long enough for him to blow us out of the sky.
That miracle saved our lives for the moment, but there was fighter action all around us. I guess they call it “evasive action,” but I did things with Raunchy that bombers were not supposed to do. Constantly losing altitude, every time I saw fighter, I’d turn toward him. When they approached from two different directions, I had God direct me. I knew we were a sitting duck and I also knew that no single fortress could survive an attack from multiple fighters for very long.
I estimated that there were at least three Me-110s and several Me-109s using us for target practice. I could hear our guns firing, but I had a weird sensation that I was all alone and the battle was between all those German fighters and me. Yet not once did I have any doubt about Raunchy’s ability to perform. Even as bullets tore through her skin and pieces were ripped off her, she handled magnificently. Everything around me seemed to be in the background. I was consumed by only one thing at this point –- survival.
The Me-110s had one huge advantage. They could stay out of range of our 50 caliber guns and fire exploding 20 mm shells at us. These were ripping Raunchy apart an inch at a time. An ME-110 sat off our tail just out of range of Weir’s [tail gunner] 50 calibers. All he could do was sit and watch as pieces of Raunchy’s rudder and elevators were blown off. Fuel was leaking from our wings; one spark and we would have been a fireball. Thinking there was no way we would survive, Weir placed his 45 caliber side arm on a ledge next to him, vowing to kill himself if the damage continued to the point where Raunchy was no longer controllable.
I had no way of determining our altitude, but I guess that at about 11,000 feet we caught a break that possibly changed the tide of our private little battle with the German fighter group.
We suddenly dropped into cloud cover that was about 500 feet thick. It was very light, and the fighter pilots could see us, but just barely. I played hide and seek with them for about 10 minutes, and then we ran out of our hiding place. But then, strangely, the fighters pulled away and, while flying along with us, stayed about a mile away. I should have known why. Suddenly, the sky around us turned black with smoke from flak. Morry, who was standing behind me said, “Flak school.” According to his maps, there was a German flak school located near Frederickshaven, and we were flying right over it. The barrage only lasted a couple of minutes, but I wondered how many more wounds Raunchy could tolerate.
The fighters, only three were still with us, came back at us but then I spotted a large body of water directly ahead of us.
“Evasive action be damned,” I said to myself, and pushed the nose down and headed straight for the lake, picking up speed in the dive. In seconds we were over the blue-gray waters of the Boden Cie (Lake Constance, on the German-Swiss border). At that moment, in a gesture worthy of pilots in any army, the three German fighters pulled ahead of us in formation, and dipped their wings in an apparent salute. We could do no less, and I responded in-kind, though Raunchy did the maneuver quite reluctantly. She was too badly hurt to make any unnecessary moves.
I saw a fairly large city at the west end of the lake and decided we could land somewhere close, hopefully near people who could help us. We looked for a place to land but we were only a couple of hundred feet off the water and could see only hills and distant mountains. Sam, who had determined that his wound was not serious, took command of his ship again. He told me to turn around and head for the east end of the lake. Then we changed seats so he could finish the mission. He made the decision that our safest bet was to ditch Raunchy in the middle of the lake. Past the east shore of the lake he made a 180-degree turn and began his landing approach. The crew was ordered to the radio room and to take the necessary precautions for a water landing. Maloney’s body would remain in his turret and go down with Raunchy.
We passed over the eastern shore of the Boden Cie at an altitude I would guess to be at about 200 feet. Sam pulled all four throttles back to stop and locked them in place. We were only going to have one chance to make this landing and it had to be perfect. Our air speed must have been very high because Raunchy seemed reluctant to get closer to the water, but Sam was in control and knew exactly what he had to do. One error here and we would all come to an end in a watery grave. Once again, God was with us, because the lake had just enough chop to help Sam’s depth perception. Almost half way down the center of the lake, Raunchy finally begin to settle toward what would be her final resting place. I felt remarkably calm and unafraid, even though I knew that I might die sometime during the next 60 seconds.
With part of the Plexiglas nose of our plane blown away, Raunchy was somewhat like a drinking straw. If Sam plunged that open end into the water, we would go straight to the bottom. If the tail hit too hard it would push the nose down, and the result would be the same. This had to be the best landing Sam ever made, and, though I was very happy for his many hours of flying time in fortresses, I knew he had never done anything like this before.
Finally, Raunchy settled into the water, and waves cascaded over the top of the plane. I sat calmly in the seat behind the broken control column, thinking only that we had made a bad landing and were headed for the bottom. But it was not yet our time. Raunchysuddenly came to the surface, shedding water like a submarine breaking on top. I looked over to congratulate Sam, but all I saw were the bottom of his shoes as he went out the side cockpit window and into the water that had almost claimed our lives.
I figured I had better get moving too, so I started to climb out the window on the left side, but my parachute harness was caught on the pilot’s seat. I slid back into the cockpit and took off my harness. I decided that I had better try to climb up on top of Raunchy since I was a very poor swimmer. I turned around and started out the window with my back toward the bottom. All I needed was a handhold above the window so I could pull myself out. Thanks to one of the German fighter pilots, or perhaps flak, there was a hole the size of a softball just where it was needed. In seconds I was on top of the plane walking toward the wings.
Someone had pulled the lever to release our life rafts, but when I reached them the panels were stuck in half open position. Luckily they released easily, and I soon had both rafts inflated and in the water. The radio room hatch was open, and Morry and Smithy were pushing the guys out. We soon had almost everyone in the rafts. Seven of our men had battle injuries, with Buzz the most serious. And Joe was still inside the ball turret.
We were congratulating ourselves that we were still alive when we heard a plaintiff cry from Sam. He was from Florida and a good swimmer, but he was tiring. One of our rafts was paddled over to him and he was hauled aboard.
We saw a relatively small wooded fishing boat not too far away and started to paddled toward them, but a strange sound stopped us and we turned just in time to watch as Raunchy shivered almost imperceptible and suddenly silently, slowly slipped beneath the waves. She had carried us through battle, and waited just long enough for all of us to get out and in the rafts before gently sinking beneath the surface. Her passing left a void in our hearts and there were tears in all our eyes. She had been our fortress, our protector, for all our sixteen missions. She was one of us, and all of the sudden, she was gone. I already missed her.
When we turned back to the fishing boat, the two terrified fishermen were frantically trying to distance themselves from us. No matter, a second later a motor launch, flying the Swiss flag, pulled alongside us and took us aboard. They even salvaged the two rafts.
Before we could get underway another launch, flying the German Swastika, came to within 50 feet of us, circled around and headed north back to Germany. If they had arrived before the Swiss, we would have been prisoners of war in Germany!
But it wasn’t to be. The Swiss boat took up a heading south toward a town on the Swiss shore. As we approached the dock, we saw hundreds of people lined up on shore to watch this strange event. We were about to dock at Romanshorn. It was 10:00 a.m., September 6, 1943.