May 24, 1944 Target: BERLIN
by Lt. Henry Jespersen
Pilot, 349th BS, 100th Bomb Group
Dawn was still a good three hours away. Outside the quiet of the English Countryside was being shattered by the angry throbbing roar of engines being warmed up as ground crews checked over their Flying forts with parental care. Inside Nissen hut #14 I tossed wearily, trying to get a few more minutes of sleep-sloop that wouldn’t come because I knew that one of those airplanes out there was being warmed up for me. I could never sloop very well on those nights when I knew I was scheduled for a mission the next day and for the past five nights in a row my crew had been alerted to go. The first four had been scrubbed” at the last minute because of weather, but the loss of sleep on those nights as well as the nervous strain had a cumulative effect until I was bone-tired this morning. The day before we had gone to Lyons, France but had been unable to find the target because of cloud cover. That one had been a milk run, but there had been moments of anxiety because we had run out of gas as we neared our home base and had been forced to land at a fighter field to refuel.
By the time the sound of a Jeep crunching to a stop on the gravel outside announced the arrival of the operations clerk I was fully awake. He snapped on the light and came straight to my bed. I sat up blinking in the glare as the stated briefly; “You have ship #591. Your gas load is 2,200 gallons. Your bomb load is twenty 300 lb M-4 incendiaries. Breakfast at 2:45. Briefing at 3:30” Taking on last look to make sure I was awake, he turned and went back out into the night and on about his task of awakening the crews who were to fly this morning. My Crew was the only one in the hut on combat status. The other two were newly arrived from the States-a grim reminder of the high casualty rate we sustained over the past few weeks. I dressed quietly and walked to the mess hall with my Navigator. We knew without speaking that this mission held promise of being a rough one—a long haul with a load of bombs that had a bad reputation of being hair-trigger.
After breakfast of fresh eggs and bacon, we checked in at the briefing hut. The MP’s at the door scrutinized us carefully and checked our names off a prepared list before we were permitted to enter. As we found our places and sat down, one of the operations officers was writing the names of the airplane commanders on the black board giving the position each was to fly this morning. We noted with misgivings that our slot was to be second element lead, low squadron—”coffin corner” to the flight crews.
The hour set for briefing arrived and one of the groups Intelligence officers stepped up on the low platform at the front of the building. There was a breathless period of silence then low whistles and muttered curses as the panels covering the large briefing map ere swung back to reveal a red line leading up over the North Sea, then stabbing down into the very heart of Germany. BERLIN—most tenaciously defended of all enemy targets. The Luftwaffe might conserve its strength and not challenge us elsewhere but they never failed to rise to meet us at BERLIN.
After the target had been revealed briefing settled down into the old anti-climatic routine. There was the usual accounting of the size and number of “flak” batteries to be encountered and the bland assurance by one of the intelligence officers that not more than 500 guns could be brought to bear on us at one time over the target. A screen was wheeled into place, the lights were turned out, and pictures of the target area were flashed on the screen. The lights came on, and operations briefed us on our fighter support. Communications had their turn and the group session ended with the usual ” get in there and fight” talk from the Group Commander. Immediately special briefings for navigators and bombardiers and pilots began. I listened for my name as the operations officer gave each pilot his engine starting time, taxi time and take-off position. There was further discussion of the formation, procedure to be used to climb through the overcast and the rendezvous point on tip. Briefing was at last over and we moved out of the hut in the cold gray dawn, and wit little show of enthusiasm boarded a waiting truck, which would deposit us at the ready room. Minutes later we emerged, grotesque and awkward in heavy boots, and jacket, steel helmet, Mae west, parachute, oxygen mask, plus other odds and ends of equipment suited to each individual need or whim.
With engine pre-flight complete, the night seemed strangely quiet as we moved out into the aircraft dispersal area. Here and there a long engine would shatter the stillness straining in a brief crescendo and abruptly dying out, only to be answered by another engine somewhere across the field as mechanics struggled with last minute malfunctions.
We were flying a new ship this morning. She had been assigned to my crew just the day before and he log books could boast only seventy-five hours from the production line. We had climbed her quickly up to 20,000 feet for an acceptance check and found her to be a lady in every respect. She handled beautifully and with a new type of control boost on her horizontal fin, I could pull her nose up or push it down like a fighter- a factor which would weight heavily in the events of this day.
As engine-starting time drew near, silent little groups of waiting men disappeared into the loaded planes. All the frantic activity of the last two hours was culminated in this moment. Hundreds of eyes focused in the direction of the control tower, watching for the flare that would signal departure or would restore them to the ground. The red glare of cancellation would have been twice welcome by my crew, because today’s mission being maximum effort had forced the recall of a scheduled forty-eight hour pass for us. But this morning the weather over the continent was to offer us no last minute reprieve. As we watched, two green fireballs soared upward in a swift and silent battle crew, to be answered almost at once by the sputtering roar of engines being started. Berlin had become an accepted fact—for some an Armageddon from which there would be no return—for others, just another mission toward the coveted thirty, which would bring release from this assignment, but no man knew nor dared to think of that his lot might be this day.
With engines turning slowly at idle speed, we waited until it was time for us to taxi, then with flurry of engines and squealing brakes we moved out to take our position in the line of ships awaiting take-off. After hours of preparation and planning we were beginning to go into action and this activity seemed to have a tranquilizing effect upon the fear that each man carried with him into battle. With departures set at thirty-second intervals, we quickly moved up until it was our turn. We lined up with the runway and watched the diminishing silhouette of the ship ahead. I opened the throttles up full and as soon as hi s wheels left the runway, released the brakes. The Ship lurched forward with a surge of power that never failed to give me a feeling of exhilaration as we slowly gathered momentum. I held her on the runway until we reached the very end to gain a maximum of airspeed and afford a margin of safety in case we ran into trouble, then up, up into the gray swirling void with nothing but the tenuous beep-beep of a radio beacon to guide us. As we groped our way upward through the thousands of feet of cloud that separated us from the open sky, we knew that a thousand airplanes from bases all over England were at that moment climbing through the overcast with us. Although every detail of the plan for the mass take-off had been carefully arranged, the human element made it a deadly game of “blind Man’s bluff”. It was a constant battle of will power to hold my eyes on the instruments and not keep peering, straining into the gray wall ahead for the sight of another airplane lunging into our path. Violently I pushed the thought aside as I concentrated on my instruments. A constant set rate of climb and a constant set airspeed had to be maintained to near perfection. We had to stay on the radio beam as though our lives depended on it, for they did. Five minutes out, then five minutes back, and repeat , and repeat until we reached the top. Once in a while we hit the prop-wash of another airplane and it sent a cold shudder up the spine even though we knew the other ship was going away from us. Then just at the altimeter hit 15,000 feet and started around for another thousand, we broke out on tip. By now a hazy sun was showing and as we continued our climb to our designated altitude, we watched the familiar but always fascinating sight of B-17’s and B-24’s popping out of the gray billowy carpet beneath us. To have the hazardous climb behind us gave a lift to our spirits which would last until we neared the enemy coast, and there was light-hearted talk back and forth over inter-phone about the awe inspiring sight below. Up above in almost any direction, we could se partially formed groups orbiting in their designated assembly areas. We found our Group and swung into position. The Group joined other to form a Wing. Wings became a Division and a great armada, now hundreds strong, wheeled slowly to take up the first compass heading, which would lead ultimately to BERLIN.
As we left England behind somewhere down under all the clouds and headed out over the North Sea, the words of a popular Dinah Shore records kept running through my mind-“I couldn’t sleep a wink last night” and the aptness seemed a wry joke. Still I felt good. I had an excellent crew and a good airplane. This would be our seventeenth mission and so far no one on the crew had been so much as scratched even though we had been through some pretty rough engagements. I thought about the bond selling tour my navigator was always talking about “after we finish”. After today we would have only thirteen more missions, and at the rate we were going, we would be through in another month. Then suddenly I realized our Group was slowly, almost imperceptibly, dropping behind and below the Wing formation and I began to feel uneasy. As the gap widened, it became apparent that something was wrong with the Group lead and fear came back to stay. Finally, as it seeing the mistake for the first time, the Group lead “poured on the coal” to try to catch up, but instead of getting better, the situation grew steadily worse. The Group straggled hopelessly out and behind in the struggle to keep up. As we neared the German coast in ragged Group formation and about 1,000 feet below the rest of the Wing, we had to fly through some scattered clouds we would have cleared had we been in position. In maneuvering around them, my Squadron became separated from the rest of the Group. When we left the clouds behind, there was a long 500 yards between us and the rest of the Group.
By then, I knew I had good reason to work, for in spite of orders that Groups were not to cross the enemy coast unless they wee in formation, our Group was apparently going on in. We were supposed to pick up our first fighter escort as we crossed the coast, but it was impossible to tell whether they were in the area or not because the weather was so bad we couldn’t see very far in any direction. I made a fervent wish that the weather was bad all the way down to the ground so the enemy would be unable to operate his aircraft. Almost before the thought was born, I noticed some airplanes up ahead and to the right about three miles away. They were too far away to identify, but I watched them closely to see if they were coming towards us. They came nearer and a cold fear surged through me because our fighter support was to be twin–engine P-38’s, and these were single-engine airplanes. They turned parallel to our course, going in the opposite direction. My copilot was flying so I picked up the binoculars and took a long look at them. My instinctive alarm was fully justified. I passed the word to the crew, “Bandits! Two o’clock level”, and grimly make preparation for the job ahead. We watched as they disappeared on our right and then swung around behind us in a wide 180-degree turn to come up on our left side, as if sizing up our formation. Keeping well our of range of our guns, they flew past in single file, and I counted them-twenty-five FW 190’s. I fervently said a prayer under my breath as I watched them move up ahead intent on their spoils. The inter-phone was deathly quiet as each mad made the most of the few remaining moments of preparation against the onslaught.
I watched in grim fascination as they started to cross our path about 300 yards ahead and slightly above us. Abruptly the leader dropped his wing to start his pass and the rest followed. They came on in a line abreast with the leading edges of their wings blazing with the bright orange fire of their 20-millimeter canon. I reacted swiftly, almost unknowingly, reaching out to push the control wheel against the instrument panel. The bottom dropped from under everything and the safety belt cut hard into my legs. I pulled the nose up momentarily, and then sent it plunging sickeningly down again. As we leveled our, a B-17 flashed by going straight down in a vertical dive. It seemed to miss our wing tip by inches and as if plunged downward, the escape hatch on the bottom of the airplane flew off.. I looked for the rest of the Squadron and saw only one airplane about 300 feet above. I called the navigator and asked him to plot the heading for Sweden while I checked battle damage, and ordered the crew to report in station by station. Even as I spoke, I quickly scanned the engine instruments and found them all operating in their normal ranges, The left wing did not show any visible damage, but the copilot called my attention to a gaping hole in the #3 engine nacelle. I made another quick check of the corresponding engine instruments and they still indicated normally. The bombardier reported the chin turret knocked our-the tail gun and ball-turret report out and we were left comparatively defenseless. Then engineer reported that one B-17 exploded and another went down smoking but apparently under control. Three down and two to go!
I tried to get a report on the fighters but in the confusion, everyone had lost track of them. There was a possibility that they would not turn back. But go on to attack other formations to our rear. Our hopes were dashed immediately when the top turret gunner reported several “bandits” moving in from the rear. Almost simultaneously, the tail guns on the ship above opened fire. Our top turret joined the defense, and I pulled my elbows in close inside the protective armor plate behind me and waited for the return fire. The whole ship shuddered as shells ripped into it somewhere, then all hell seemed to break loose in a crashing, exploding pandemonium of sound. The thundering staccato bark of the twin 50-calibur machine guns over head in the top turret, the shattering of glass and metal as shell fragments crashed into the instrument panel, the screaming agonized roar of an engine running away, our to control, and then the most dreaded sight of all sights to a pilot-fire! From a great jagged hole behind #2 engine nacelle, a vivid streamer of fire reached hungrily toward the trail. It was time to get out for the ship could blow up any second. As I ordered the crew to bail out, my dazed mind seemed unable to accept the fact that this was real and not just a terribly vivid nightmare. My copilot was gone almost before I gave the order followed closely by the engineer, and I was alone in the cockpit. A voice came over inter-phone crying, “I can’t bail out, I can’t!” I answered quickly, trying to keep the terror out of my own voice, “You have to, We’re on fire. Jump!”
I turned on the autopilot, but there was no reassuring jerk of the control wheel in my hand to indicate that it was engaged, and then the awful realization struck me that the controls had been shot our for they were heavy and unresponsive—the airplane was dead and heedless to my bidding. I made one last call over inter-phone to see if everyone was out, but I couldn’t be sure if was working. I must get our! Already I had stayed too long! Working quickly, desperately, I flipped open the catch on my safety belt, tore off my helmet and oxygen mask and ripped off my flak suit. Even then I could see the nose and left wing dropping relentlessly as the ship slowly picked up momentum for her hearth ward plunge. Instinctively I reached for the control wheel, and then realizing the futility of the effort, I climbed out of the pilot s seat. I picked up my parachute and snapped one side on my harness, and dropped down thru a door into the tunnel leading to the forward escape hatch. The bombardier was sitting on the edge of the escape hatch with the navigator behind him. Before any of us could move, the ship began to spin and the centrifugal force pinned us down with unbelievable power. I couldn’t even raies my arms to fasten the other side of my parachute. And then I realized I would niver reach the excape hatch, and I knew how it was to die. The roar of the engines had grown to a wild piercing seream ans though they too were terrified by the wild and violent descent. Suddenly, everything turned a dull red and I found myself tumbling through the air with dark objects all around me. I was stunned momentarily but quickly recovered in the cold air. My parachute was still fastened on only one side, so I tried again to secure the other. I tried desperately, but as I tumbled over and over my parachute fluttered so violently about that my efforts to bring it into postion were futile. I hadn’t any idea how far I had fallen because I was still in the overcast, and even though I wasn’t sure the parachute would support me with one side fastened, I was afraid to wait any longer, so I pulled the rip-chord. There was a blow to my face, a bone–cracking jolt, and then the sensation of floating. Looking up at the nylon canopy overhead, I offered up a silent prayer to thanks as a great over-whelming sense of relief swept over me. I broke through the overcast almost immediately and found myself drifting down through the now silent air over an open countryside. There was only one other parachute about a quarter of a mile away and a little above me. Small pieces of my airplane were fluttering down all around. Below, I could see what appeared to be the fuselage burning furiously and sending up clouds of smoke. As I neared the ground I tried to maneuver my parachute to avoid a clump of tall trees. The try was unsuccessful, but their branches dropped me gently to the ground.
My first sensation was that of almost wild jubilation at being still alive and back on the ground again, but his was overshadowed by the sobering realization of my circumstances. I was alone in an enemy country. Even as I landed, I knew that soldiers would be running toward the point where my parachute had disappeared into the trees. And what of the others? I had seen only one other parachute. How many of my crew had reached the ground safely? These and many other questions raced through my mind as I disentangled myself from my parachute. It would be a year before I would know for certain that only five of my crew had survived—a year of anxiously reading lists of men sent to other camps—of eagerly searching through groups of new arrivals for a familiar face. Other questions too could be answered in time, for time holds the answer to all questions.