Charles E. “Chuck” Harris History
The WWII story of a B-17 Crew with the “Bloody Hundredth”
8th Air Force
by Charles E. (Chuck) Harris
Mission # 13, La Glacerie, France, May 8, 1944
Records do not reveal any information on this mission other than the target was a No-Ball site. Mission duration was 4 hour and 50 minutes – there were not 100th losses.
Mission # 14, Magdeburg, May 28, 1944
It had been nearly three weeks since we had flown our last combat mission. In the meantime we had flown practice missions practically every day and received further instruction and guidance on lead crew responsibilities. Our crew had become much better known by the various leaders and administrative officers. We felt like we were now and integral part of the 100th. It was a good feeling and during this period we received at least two three-day passes.
This mission to the large synthetic oil refinery at Magdeburg turned out to be difficult one. We led the B Group with Major Magee Fuller as command pilot. Takeoff was delayed for an hour due to ground fog, but once in the air we found excellent condition on the way to the target.
As we approached the Initial Point (IP) a strong force of German fighters attacked. It was a nightmare. They came in from the front and flew through our formation. Our gunners were in full action. During the hectic few minutes, I heard John Dimel yell over the interphone: ” I got one!” About the same time our ball turret operator, Ken Nowland, was successful in shooting down an enemy fighter. This was as fitting climax for Ken’s tour as our ball turret gunner. Our crew was officially credited with two enemy planes shot down.
The 390th in the composite group ahead lost five planes, the 100th lost one. It was a rough mission. In the meantime weather below had worsened as we approached the target, it was no longer visible. Dimel called and recommended we take the secondary target, the marshalling yards at Gera and Major Fuller agreed. Lloyd gave me our new heading and in few minutes later we were on the bomb run. The results of our drop were classified excellent. A great tribute to both John and Lloyd.
It is difficult to describe one’s feeling when planes went down. Some planes would suddenly shoot upward and explode. Others would be spurting flames and you could see men bailing out and their parachutes opening. Some go into a dive go into a dive and no chutes are seen as the plane disappears. When we saw German fighters explode and burst into flames we were elated. We were not concerned with the fate of the German pilots. Another point worth mentioning is that as the pilot I had continuous duty and little time to watch the tragedies of war.
On the following day Ken Nowland, the “old Man” our enlisted crew member asked for a transfer. At his age and size he found that he could no longer cope the demanding and difficult ball turret position. I fully understood and he was transferred from the 100th. The shooting down of that German fighter at Magdeburg was a fitting climax to Ken’s flying career with the 100th.
Mission # 15, Boulogne, France, June 2, 1944
S/Sgt Robert Schellin flew his first mission with our as the ball turret gunner, replacing Nowland. He was with us for all our remaining missions. Smaller and younger than Ken, he was a natural for the ball. S/Sgt John Ryback again flew as the left waist gunner. John was different for our crew, from the industrial area of Pennsylvania he was “rough and ready” but always dependable.
The following day Jack Gaard, our radio operator, requested reassignment. He had performed well under very adverse conditions. The officers of the crew agreed that we should approve his request. Jack was reassigned to an Air Force communications group and later moved across France with American ground troops. Quoting from a letter I received form Jack after the war, “While detached to the continent we were shuffled around to many locations in Western Europe, and as you can imagine much destruction in both material and human was observed. You may say ‘that’s war my friend’, but it had a real affect on the way we felt and acted thereafter.”
It was only after the end of our tour that we leaned that engineer Norm Howden may have contributed to Jack’s request for reassignment by sometimes opening the door to the radio compartment from the bomb bay and slowly twisting the activation propeller on a bomb. Norm knew how many revs could be safely made before the fuse would activate. Likely Jack was not sure. Had we known all this, Norm would have been subject to severe disciplinary action. The crew was truly sorry to see Jack go.
During this same week my promotion to Captain came through and John Dimel and Lloyd Coartney became 1st Lieutenants.
Mission # 16, Ouistreham, France, June 6, 1944 (D-Day)
This was the day we had all been waiting for. The Air Force missions of the previous four or five day had concentrated on transportation facilities in Western France. On June 4 we were all confined to base. The military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, was full of D-Day hype and conjecture. We all knew the invasion was near at hand. What none of us knew was where and when.
Early on the evening of June 5 we were alerted for a maximum effort, meaning every flyable plane would be in the air. John and Lloyd were called to bombardiers and navigator pre-briefings during the early evening. Without a doubt tomorrow would be the big say. We all went to be early. I cannot speak for the others but I could not sleep. All agreed the Germans would throw everything available at us. We were eager but concerned.
Somewhere around 1000 hours we got the word, briefing would be a 1215 hours. This was it! The briefing revealed that the 100th would put up three groups, A, B, and C. We were leading the C Group with Capt Andy Gorski as command pilot. Colonel Jeffrey with Capt Stanley Clark would lead the A group. B Group was led by Major Sumner Reeder and Capt Kincannon; our C Group would be the last group of 8th Air Force bombers.
Our target would be the German concrete fortifications at Quistreham in the Canadian sector. Intelligence informed us that the Allies had complete control of the air and we could expect to fighter opposition and little or no flak. The long line of bombers would be a on was street. Any plane going against the stream would be considered an enemy aircraft and would be shot down. Thus a bomber getting into trouble on the way to the target must proceed and not turn back to England and risk being shot down. This illustrated the effectiveness of the 8th and 9th Air Forces bombing of airfields and transportation facilities during the previous weeks and months leading up to the invasion. The great success of American and British fighters had eliminated the Luftwaffe as a viable combat force.
T/Sgt Harry Greenfield joined us for his first mission as our radio operator. He would fly with us for all our remaining missions. He was a fine, easy going young man and we all took to him immediately.
Takeoff time was 0353. It was still dark. Our group formed at 12,300 feet. As we climbed moving lights and flares were everywhere. The lead plane of each group had it assigned flare colors for identification. Forming hundreds of planes in the dark over a limited area was a demanding and dangerous procedure requiring remarkable planning. It was essential that the assembly controls be strictly adhered to. We arrived at Buncher 3 one minute early and at Gillingham on time. This was a great tribute to Lloyd’s navigation skills and was the major reason why we were a lead crew. Morning was beginning to dawn as we completed our assembly. How welcome! We proceeded south toward Beachy Head, England in proper sequence. Ahead of us was the long line of bombers. We were literally “tail end Charlie” as there were to bombers behind us. After assembly and as we moved south we saw two large explosions on the ground – without a doubt from bombers colliding in the darkness.
As we proceeded south the clouds became denser underneath us. When we arrived at Beachy Head, on time, it was apparent that we would be unable to bomb visually. As we did not have a PFF ship with us we joined up with a PFF group in order to utilize their capability to bomb electronically. We assumed they had the same target we had been assigned. By this time it was daylight. Underneath us was the greatest armada ever assembled, and we could not see it except for occasional breaks in the clouds. As forecast, we saw no German fighters and received not flak. Flying as close to the PFF group as we could, we dropped our bombs when we saw theirs released. The release time was 0721, just four minutes before the troops landed. There was no was to know the results of our bombing. At least there was one reassuring thought – our bombs were dropped before the troops went ashore and our target was German gun emplacements a few miles inland. Although our bombs were dropped electronically by PFF, to our knowledge there were no D-Day reports of casualties to our troops from the massive aerial bombardment.
After bombs away we moved away from the PFF formation, turned south for a few minutes, then north to England by the prescribed route. As we flew back to England the clouds below were breaking up and gave us our first look at parts of the invasion fleet. In spite of the fact that we could not see the massing near the landing sites, we did see literally hundreds of ships. A sight never to be forgotten. Upon arrival Thorpe Abbotts we were alerted for a possible second mission. As it turned out other crews were selected for the afternoon mission. The rest of the day was spent talking about the mission and listening to the Armed Forces Network. Since we were flying we did not hear General Eisenhower’s address to the troupes.
Mission # 17, Nantes, France, June 7, 1944
Today’s mission was a key railway bridge near Nantes, France, about 160 miles south of the Normandy beaches. This was the main supply route for the Germans and every effort was being made to cut them. As these were the day immediately following the invasion we were hyped up to do our part.
The 100th put up three 12 ship groups, A, B, and C. We were leading the B Group. It was an early afternoon takeoff. Our route took us quite near the Normandy Beaches, but cloud cover prevented us from seeing them. Overall this was a routine mission. We had no difficulty finding our target and bombed visually. Reports show that we missed the target. Group A and C “creamed the bridge” with one bomb between the rails. The target miss was very disturbing, and John Dimel was really upset. However, our next 12 issions produced and excellent bombing record.
The trip home was uneventful with late evening interrogation. Crews were still in the briefing rooms when two German planes strafed the airfield. Lots of excitement but little damage to either the buildings or runways. Such raids were quiet rare.
On June 13, we were all in London on another pass staying at the St. James Hotel on the Park. Sometime in the early evening the air raid warning sirens started to scream. When the ack-ack batteries in the park started flying we ran to the windows to watch. Coming toward us, we thought, was a German plane with it’s lights on. The anti-aircraft gunners were missing the intruder and shrapnel started to fall back on the park and hotel. As the plane passed we detected a very peculiar sound, not that of a piston engine. The sirens continued sounding for the rest of evening. This baffled us.
We decided to go to a nearby movie theater. We heard occasional anti-aircraft fire during the show but no bombs dropped in our area. Toward the end of the movie the all clear was sounded.
The next morning the newspapers headlined “motor less planes attack London.” This was the first V-1 buzz-bomb attack. The lights we saw on the plane was the exhaust form the rocket engine. For the next few months the V-1’s continued their attacks, causing considerable damage. Our London trip was sadly historic.
Mission #18, Brunsbuttlekoog Canal Locks, June 18, 1944
Capt Gorski again rode with us as command pilot and Capt Wally McGill was with us as an observer. The mission was to the northern part of German to bomb the oil refinery at Ostermoor with the canal locks on the Kiel Canal as a secondary target. As the primary target was clouded covered we attacked the canal locks. Records show we hit the target. Not enemy action was encountered and the Group returned without casualties.
Mission #19, Fallersleben MTF, June 20, 1944
This target, a motor transport factory for the German Army, had often been on the 100th target list but had never been bombed. Bombing results were classified as excellent. Again, we suffered no casualties. That evening orders were issued restricting everyone to the base. We wondered why?
Mission #20, Berlin (Basdorf), June 21, 1944
Today the 8th Air Force was undertaking the first shuttle mission to Russia. Unknown to us this mission had been under preparation for some time. We were awakened shortly after midnight with the usual, “you’re flying again this morning.”
As it developed a specially selected group of 16 crews would constitute the 100th A Group, which would lead the 13th Combat Wing on a shuttle mission to Russia. Colonel Jeffrey with Capt Stanley Clark’s crew, was in command. Their target would be the synthetic oil plant in Ruhland, which would take them south of Berlin, hence on to Russia. Group Navigator Harry Crosby wrote, “Ruhland was no milk run, but a lot safer than Berlin. We pitied the poor devil who drew it as their target this day.” Harry was referring to our B Group.
We would lead the 13 plane B Group preceding the shuttle and in effect run interference for them. Captain Andy Gorski would again be our command pilot. Our B Group would be the low group in the 13th Combat Wing, led by the commander of the 95th Group, Colonel Truesdell. Our target was an aircraft factory near Basdorf, a Berlin suburb.
Takeoff was at 0445 hours. We joined the 13th Wing as briefed. In wing formation we flew toward Berlin. American fighter support was excellent and the mission was routine until we reached Berlin. The wing leader changed course to approach the initial point (IP), Lloyd called on the interphone, “There are going the wrong way.” I asked, “Are you sure Lloyd.” He replied that he was sure. Andy Gorski and I talked briefly. I said, “Tell the wing leader he’s lost and to follow us, we know where we are.” Andy called the leader. There was a long pause then Colonel Truesdell apparently realized he was in trouble, authorized us to take the lead. We made a 180 degree turn and Lloyd gave me the new heading for the IP. At this time we were leading the wing.
The Operational Narrative for the mission states that after the lead was established course was altered so as to miss the city of Berlin before proceeding to the target.
At the IP a group of 6 FW fighters and one DO 217 headed in for the attack but were driven off by our fighters. Flak became intense and accurate as we proceeded down the bomb run. John pretty well had the bomb sight hairs on the target when a burst of flak exploded near the nose. At that John was over the bomb sight and Lloyd was kneeling at his side. The blast threw shrapnel into the plane; John and Lloyd were thrown back to the bulkhead. Their flak jackets saved them. Lloyd’s oxygen hose was cut off about 8 inches from his face. Putting the severed end of the hose in his mouth, he and John crawled back to the Norden bomb sight in to time to put our bombs on the target. Strike photographs verified we had hit the target.
Some of the flak entered the pilot’s compartment wounding Capt Gorski in one leg. It was a nasty looking wound. Since it occurred before the bombs were away I waited until we had dropped our bombs and taken evasive action before calling Manly from his tail gunner position.
B Group was extremely lucky on this mission. Despite all the flak and damage to planes, none were lost. Several fliers were wounded.
Manly came up from the tail and took over as co-pilot. With help from Lloyd and John we eased Andy into the passage to the nose compartment. With Manly at the controls Lloyd and John gave Andy first-aid. I reached down and gave him a shot of morphine to ease the pain.
We were unable to join up with the other elements of B Group and our element returned to Thorpe Abbotts alone. Near Hamburg we observed fires still burning from prior raids. A moderate barrage of anti-aircraft fire was out of range to the right.
Arrived at Thorpe Abbots about 1400 hours, a nine hour forty-five minute mission. This was to be the longest of our 29 missions. The control tower directed us to use the short runway, which was unusual. I wanted to make a smooth landing in deference to Andy’s condition. It was not to be, I really dropped it in! At least we were home. The ambulance met us as we stopped and Andy was taken to the base hospital.
After our debriefing, John Dimel reported to the dispensary for treatment of a wound in his buttocks. Doc Kinder, the 418th Flight Surgeon, used a pair of tweezers to remove the tiny piece of flak. A dab of iodine and a band-aid completed this major surgery. With a pat on John’s other cheek, Doc said, “Lt Dimel, I think you will live.” We never let John forget it.
John earned a Purple Heart for being wounded by enemy action. We never knew if he saved that little piece of flak.
1st Lts Dimel and Coartney were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their outstanding achievement under very difficult conditions. We were very proud of them.
Later that week during evening hours our was crew was designated to practice dropping sandbags by parachute. We flew at about a 1000 feet. For bombardier John, it was a new challenge. Dropping bombs from this altitude was much different than from high altitude. John quickly figured it out. Little did we imagine that in a few weeks we would be doing this for real.
On June 25th the 100th dropped supplies and weapons to French Maquis in Southern France. We were not involved. This was a real “hush-hush” mission which we did not learn of until much later. Lt Colonel Bennett was the command pilot on the classified mission.
Following our Berlin mission of June 21st we again received three day passes. London was our destination. The first morning in our hotel the air raid sirens sounded. Soon nearby anti-aircraft guns began firing. In true American fashion we all rushed to a window. We could hear the familiar sound of an approaching buzz bomb. As the sound increased we knew it was headed in our direction, so we dove under our beds. The buzz bomb motor was still running when it went over our hotel so we ran to the window again. Seconds later the engine quit and the plane dove to the ground perhaps a mile away. Tremendous smoke and debris arose.
We were disturbed at the destruction and reluctantly decided to leave London. We boarded a train for Campbridge shortly after lunch. Cambridge turned out to be a beautiful and interesting city. We enjoyed the rest of our pass an then headed back to the base.
Mission #21, Gien, France, July 4, 1944
For the past three days the 100th was grounded due to weather. On the 4th, with modest festivities planned, we were given the nod for a mission – a railroad bridge near Gien, 75 miles south of Paris. The weather had improved but was still not good. We took off , assembled, and turned toward France. It was a continual battle with the weather which worsened as we flew south. Soon after we entered France it became obvious the mission would have to be aborted. We returned to Thorpe Abbotts without losses. It had been a short but difficult mission. Since we had crossed into enemy territory we received mission credit. The real enemy this time was the weather.
Mission #22, Bohlen/Merseburg, July 7, 1944
This was an early morning takeoff. We didn’t see any German fighters on the way in to the target but flak was very heavy. Subsequent mission proved that Meseburg had the heaviest anti-aircraft defenses in Germany. Weather was bad over the target and our bombs were dropped on Gottingen aid depot. Our bombing was inaccurate. The 100th had not losses on this mission.
It was 8th Air Force procedure that a plane from each Group would be the “Weather ship” to recon the assembly route prior to the takeoff of the main mission. On occasions we would catch this duty.
One morning when we were the weather ship, the area was “socked-in” in with zero visibility- much like a London fog. Our flight was postponed for an hour. The officers of our crew returned to the club for a cup of coffee. Lt. Colonel John Kidd, the air exec, joined us. The phone rang for Colonel Kidd. It was General LeMay ordering us to takeoff immediately. We looked at each other and got up and left.
We had made the trip to our plane so often we could nearly do it blindfold. The weather was our blindfold but we found the hardstand – our gunners were waiting.
Once inside the plane we could not see our outboard engines the fog was so thick. Orders are orders and we began taxing. I was watching the left and Manly the right. When either of us saw the edge of the taxiway we would get back toward the center. After a slow taxi we came to what we thought was the end of the runway. While taxing, I called the tower and asked permission to takeoff with a skeleton crew. (This meant only four officers and the engineer and radio operator aboard. The request was denied. When we advised the tower we thought we were at the end of the runway, they replied cleared for takeoff when you get the green light from the control truck. When we advised the tower we could not see the control truck they repeated that we were cleared for takeoff.
Manly and I taxied the plane to what we though was the middle of the runway. Using the compass we pointed the plane down the runway heading. I set the gyrocompass. The magnetic compass is only accurate to within a few degrees which meant we could be headed toward either side of the runway. I told Manly to we would turn a few degrees to the right so if we ran off it would be on his side. “Put you head out the window and if you see the edge of the runway, kick rudder, I’ll be on instrument.,” I told him.
I gave the plane full throttle and away we went – blind. We were doing 50 to 60 miles per hour when I felt Manly kick the rudder hard. We had moved to the right edge of the runway. A few seconds later I felt the plane ease off the runway. We were airborne! We climbed quickly and soon were in the daylight. The top of the trees around us were appearing our of the fog. In the distance we could see the top of the large zeppelin hanger a few miles away. We called control and told them of the fog thickness and continued to survey the assembly area.
I might add that while I was going through flight training one of the exercises was an “instrument takeoff.” Most considered this unnecessary; who in the world would takeoff when there was zero visibility?
The main mission was delayed an hour or so. They took off when the fog lifted. We continued to fly the assembly route for a couple of hours until the ground fog lifted sufficiently for us to land.
That afternoon I ran into Colonel Bennett. His compliment that we had done a good job this morning was one to store in the memory books.
Mission #23, Clamecy/Joigny Railroad Bridge, July 8,1944
Capt Howard flew with us as command pilot. The weather over the target was so bad we attacked the secondary target, a rail bridge at Bourth with excellent results. There were no casualties.
After this mission, Group Operations as if we would be willing to become a Pathfinder lead crew. This would mean we would move to the 95th Bomb Group, near Horham. This sounded fine to us as it meant we would be flying wing, division, or even Air Force leads. Such a new challenge was welcome.
By this time the number of missions required for a complete tour had been increased from 25 to 30, we were told that if we agree that if we would agree to return to the 8th Air Force after a 30 day leave in the States our total of missions would be reduced to 28. We talked it over as a crew and all decided to accept the proposition. Getting to 28 was now our goal.
Upon moving to the 95th we were assigned quarter and introduced to our radar officer, Lt Michael Kretow. The PFF B-17’s were reconfigured to provide space on the right side of the radio compartment for the radar officer and equipment. The Radio Operator retained his station on the left side of the compartment. A large bubble containing the scanning equipment was located below the airplane and replaced the ball turret. This gave the plane a distinct appearance and meant that S/Sgt Roy Schellin, with us since the 15th mission would be reassigned. By mid 1944 all major missions were led by PFF aircraft. This allowed bombing through cloud cover and enhanced navigational capability.
The assigned Pathfinder crews would normally fly to Thorpe Abbotts on the evening before the mission. If the mission was scheduled for later in the day PFF planes would be flown over in morning hours. Prior to our first PFF mission we were indoctrinated in the functions and operations of PFF aircraft. We flew several practice missions with Lt Kretow to familiarize ourselves with the new capability.
Mission #24, “Cadillac,” South France, July 14, 1944 (Bastille Day)
This was our first Pathfinder mission, with Major Fuller as command pilot, Capt “Big Pete” Peterson as command navigator, and Lt Mike Kretow as Pathfinder navigator. We flew to Thorpe Abbotts the evening before the mission and reported for briefing early the next morning.
Before discussing the pending mission it is appropriate to dedicate a few words to “Big Pete.” All groups had their characters, and Big Pete was one of the 100th’s. We knew him especially well as he lived in our Nissan Hut at Thorpe Abbotts. Big Pete had many stories and often entertained us in our quarters. In addition to being a loveable character he was an excellent navigator, hence his assignment to PFF crews.
At the briefing we learned why our crew ha practiced parachute drops a few weeks prior. This Bastille Day mission we would be dropping arms and supplies to the French Maquis in the southeaster part of France sixty miles south of Limoges. The 100th put up Groups A, B, and C each consisting of 12 planes. Group A, our group, was the wing leader. Instead of a load of bombs our bomb-bay was filled with 12 cylindrical containers with attached red, white, or blue parachutes. The colors indicated the contents of the cylinders.
Takeoff was as 0445. After assembly at 13,000 feet we proceeded south to France. En-route Lt Kretow determined the PFF was not functioning. This meant that Lloyd and Pete must navigate to the target by dead reckoning as we were over solid overcast. Shortly after crossing into France our fighter support joined us. I have often wondered how they navigated.
The two navigators selected a large lake in southern France as an interim checkpoint prior to the drop. After an hour or so they told me to descent through the clouds. When we broke out, we were over the lake. Lloyd and Pete heaved a sigh of relief. Decent was continued to the drop altitude of 1200 feet. This was farm country and locating the field where the Maquis were waiting was to easy task but Lloyd and Pete guided us there. It had been a difficult navigation assignment and confirmed the policy of having two navigators assigned to lead planes. Thirty-six B-17’s and the Maquis were depending on them.
To appreciate the navigational difficulties of our Bastille Day mission, imagine taking off from the St. Louis Airport with a pasture west of Atlanta, Georgia as your destination. You climb through the clouds to around 12,000 feet and turn southeast toward Atlanta. After three hours without seeing the ground and without electronic guidance, descend through the clouds and there is the lake you had designated as a checkpoint! You fly another half hour southeast and directly ahead is that cow pasture with smoke pots and hundreds of Frenchmen waiting.
Over the ensuing years I have often wondered about the reaction of those brave Frenchmen. It is doubtful that many of them had either seen or heard a B-17. Here there were 36 of them in formation thundering toward them at a thousand feet. The noise of the engines in itself must have been ear shattering. Then to see 432 colored parachutes dropping toward them must have been frightening, dangerous, and exciting.
Exactly 50 years later on Bastille Day, Lloyd Coartney and a group of ten other veterans and their families met with hundreds of French Patriots on the field where our parachutes landed. Lloyd reported that it was a emotional and heart warming experience. The French citizens rolled out the red carpet for these American veterans. Anyone interested in a fully detailed account of the commemorative affair should consult Louis Quijada’s excellent book, Red, White and Blue Parachutes.
Missions #25, Schweinfurt, July 19, 1944
The name Schweinfurt imparted major concern to flying crews as it was a early 1943 target that ended in the first major disaster for the 8th Air Force. When the target was announced at briefing a faint groan could be heard.
Lt Colonel John Bennett was our command pilot for this mission – we would lead the 13th Combat Wing. Colonel Bennett was one of the famed members of the Bloody Hundredth. Until Colonel Jeffrey arrived he had been acting commander of the group. In civilian life he was a Texas Banker. In addition to being checked out in B-17’s he also flew fighters. His book of many years ago,Letters form England is fascinating and revealed his many activities in civilian life as well as the Air Corps.
Col Bennett was continually active during the mission – on the radio with other groups, continually checking progress, coordinating with our crew – always one step ahead. A group leader called in with a problem asking for instructions. Bennett replied after mulling it over for a few moments, “I don’t know, I am petrified with indecision.” Over the years I have used his expression many times when confronted with a difficult problem, always thinking of Colonel John, as we called him.
Approaching Schweinfurt cloud cover made visual bombing of the ball bearing plant impossible. PFF bombing was really for area targets, not individual factories. Col John looked at his map and decided a large rail marshalling yard some distance away would be a better target. He checked this our with the navigators to insure they could find the new target before issuing the following message to the other planes, This is Fireball Able, we will change to a target connected with Chattanooga. I repeat…” In 1944 everyone was familiar with the song “Chattanooga Choo Choo. Col John’s code obviously meant a rail target. We knew the Nazis were monitoring our radio frequencies and deception was vital. Lloyd gave me the new heading to the new Initial Point. The flak was heavy but ineffective. There were no 100th losses and PFF had proved vital in finding the new target. The return was without incident or casualties.
One prior missions the command pilots would usually take the controls from time to time, probably to break the monotony or to allow me to relax a few minutes – maybe use the relief tube. On this eight hour mission Colonel John did not once ask to take the controls and I refuse to ask him to. It was a long eight hours, and sometimes I was not sure I could make it.
Mission #26, Merseburg Oil Refinery, July 20, 1944
Two day in a row. Major Robert (Rosie) Rosenthal was our command pilot. Rosie was the most famous pilot in the 100th and became perhaps the most decorated bomber pilot in the 8th Air Force. All books on the 100th have special sections about Rosie. On a tragic mission to Munster in 1943, “Rosie’s Riveters” was the only 100th plane of 15 to return to Thorpe Abbotts. It was in this period the 100th received the Bloody Hundredth designation . We were proud to have Rosie in command, he had already completed one tour and was now on his second. His experience was invaluable as he guided us on this important mission.
The destruction of oil facilities at Merseburg was the highest priority since their output was keeping the German forces operating. Our intelligence revealed that the Nazi forces were suffering fuel shortages. Merseburg therefore had been provided with tremendous anti- aircraft and fighter protection in order to defend this vital resource.
Despite Merseburg’s reputation this was not a difficult mission for us. Although we received flak on the bomb run no planes were lost. However, one of the other 100th Groups did encounter damaging fire. Capt Kincannon’s plane with Major Magee Fuller aboard as command pilot was heavily damaged by enemy ant-aircraft fire over the target. The managed to get back to Belgium where they crash-landed. Both Fuller and Kincannon were captured and became POW’s. This again demonstrated the peculiarities of the air war over Germany. It often depended on your position. For us and Rosie this was a fine mission.
During the days prior to this mission we had been advised that the crew rotation policy of “home and back to the 8th” was not working and had been discontinued. Under the circumstances our tour would still be 28 missions.
Mission #27, Leuna Oil Plant at Merseburg. July 29, 1944
Nine days later we returned to Merseburg, leading 100th B Group. It was as if “they didn’t get you on the first trip; let them try again.”
This time Major Joe Zeller, the new 418th Squadron Commander was our command pilot. He was a fine officer and a “cook cookie.” Everything was calm as we flew toward Merseburg. As we approached the IP flak became intense and German fighters started hitting us. They were flying in their own flak! The flak was so dense we could hear the bursts and feel the explosions. It was the worst flak we had experienced.
Being the lead plane, there were no other planes to look at; the A Group was far ahead. I think this was the only mission where I thought we would never make it through and I said a quick prayer. Major Zeller was on the radio and his apparent coolness helped me settle back into the routine of piloting. Despite the flak and fighters, John Dimel led our Group to a very successful drop which was later rated as excellent. Lloyd Coartney said, “The target was smoked out. I was leaning over Dimel trying to pint our where to hit, when I looked through the nose and saw all of those fighters headed at us with tracers making it look like the 4th of July.”
Our B Group lost two planes and 20 airmen during those few minutes. What we did not know was the A Group ahead of us had been decimated, losing six planes. One this 29th of July, the 100thlost eight planes and 72 men. This was among the 100th’s worst missions.
After bombs away I made a fast descending turn to get our of the flak. Getting away was primary and I flew visually to avoid collisions. Due to this evasive action the formation loosened up. As soon as we leveled out the formation immediately tightened up for better defense against enemy fighters. Our group staggered home, and fortunately were not attacked. This was in sharp contract to the early days when a group in our condition would have had to fight their way home.
Quoting from Century Bomber, “Just after bombs away B-17 667, piloted by Capt Robert Schomp with Henry Preher as co-pilot leading the low squadron, was ‘struck in the right Tokyo tank.. with flames streaming from the wings to tail, the crew bailed out .. The ship blew up seconds after the pilot bailed out.”
Our friend Bill Greiner, who had been with us at Ardmore was flying in the high squadron. His plane suffered severe damage and left the formation. On the way home they were attacked by a German jet and ditched in the North Sea. After four harrowing days at sea eight of the crew landed on Ameland, one of the Frisian Island. The other two crewmen had perished with the ship. The eight survivors were taken prisoner by the German garrison on the island. As far as we knew this was the first attack by German jet. They soon became quite prevalent in the Luftwaffe.
It may be of interest to compare what lead crew sees as compared with crews flying to the rear of the formation. The forward crew members in the lead plane essentially see only what is directly ahead or to the side. Our gunners in rear of the plane observed most of the tragedies. In our early missions we were generally flying back in the formation and those of us in the front of the plane observed the horrific sights of planes exploding, losing a wing or tail, crewmen bailing out, etc. Many planes went down out of control. Once we became a lead crew the sight of air tragedies diminished. They were there we just did not see them.
Mission #28, Munich, July 31, 1944
Two days later were scheduled for another long one, this time with Colonel Jack Kidd as command pilot. We would lead the A Group to Munich. Col Kidd was on the original Hundredth and at the time was the 100th’s air exec. A very young looking Lt. Colonel, he was admired and respected by all the 100th personnel. After the war he remained in the Air Force and retired a Major General.
Our target was an aero engine plant. The trip was routine with no appreciable flak or aircraft opposition. No planes were lost or damaged. Colonel Kidd was an excellent command pilot. One event that is particularly memorable on the mission occurred on our way home. We were flying at 28,000 feet and far in the distance was a huge cumulonimbus cloud, the top of which was above us. We agreed we would need to detour around it as such clouds are dangerous. I estimated it to be 50 miles ahead; Colonel Kidd mentioned 75 miles, which was correct as it turned out. When the crew avoids boredom by estimating cloud distances, it is an uneventful mission.
On a occasion during this mission, Colonel Kidd took the controls to give me a breather. It was apparent he enjoyed flying. As we approached the North Sea with the Colonel flying, Lloyd gave us the heading to England. Three or four minutes later he called again saying were way off course and giving us a new heading. The third call was Dimel on the phone, “Dammit Chuck, if can’t fly this plane I’ll come up and fly it for you.” I chuckled to myself, Colonel Kidd looked at me and smiled. The remainder of the trip was uneventful.
Upon arrival at Thorpe Abbotts we pulled into our designated hardstand. The Colonel congratulated us, “Chuck you fellows did a good job, thanks.” His staff car was waiting as he exited the plane. When the crew left the plane I said to Dimel, “John when you were cussing me out, I wasn’t at the controls.” He grinned; I think he may have known all along.
Arriving back at the base our crew was jubilant. We were through! That night we downed a couple of extra drinks to celebrate, then we “hit the hay,: exhausted and perhaps a little inebriated. Except for Lloyd, of course.
During the following days we waited for our orders home to be written. We had no duties. Then the jubilation came to an end. On August 4 Colonel Kidd called us and informed us there was an emergency and we would be required to fly an extra mission, our 29th. We protested to no avail.
Mission #29, Magdeburg, August 5, 1944
The target was the Daimler Benz factory. The 100th put up two groups that day, which constituted the entire 13th Combat Wing for this mission. We would lead Group A with Rosie again as command pilot. We were elated when we found out Rosie would be with us and decided to have a little joke on the 100th’s beloved Rosie as this was our last mission, a fact we thought Rosie did not know. The mission itself was anti-climatic for our crew.
Soon after takeoff, Lloyd called on the interphone, with, “Chuck, I forgot the maps!” Well a navigator without maps is not very useful on an eight-hour flight. Rosie went through the roof, just as we expected. After giving time for Rosie’s reaction, Lloyd called back, “Chuck I found them.” I think Rosie smelled a rat
For us this was routine mission – decent weather and no enemy opposition. A couple of more a member of the crew would call up with another “disaster.” Rosie quickly realized we were pulling his leg and was completely relaxed with our “emergencies.”
For the second time in a week the 100th had losses. The Group drew enemy fighters and lost two planes, our A Group was untouched. As a fitting finale to our tour in the 8th Air Force, John Dimel was once again “on target,” which was the objective of every bombing mission.
Upon landing we all got out of the plane and kissed the pavement. Rosie just stood there and smiled –he would continue flying for record 52 missions. His very fitting remark was, “I’ll never fly with you guys again!” We were taken aback at first thinking it was because of the treatment we had given him. When Rosie started laughing we knew we had been had, he had known all along we were finishing our tour.
It is appropriate to compare flying with the 100th in the summer of 1944 vs, in 1943 when the 100th was activated. In 1944 our procedures, formations, communications, etc. had been honed over the many months. Most of our lead planes were Pathfinders; our leaders had experience and drew on the mistakes and hard lessons of their predecessors. The Luftwaffe was seriously weakened, subject now to occasional flurries of activity. And yes, “Little Friends” accompanied us all the way to Berlin
German ground defenses (flak) remained a significant problem, but the continual bombing over the past year had certainly diminished their capability. When the 100th few its first mission in 1943 our airmen were flying into the unknown and the forces arrayed against them were formidable. It is difficult to envision those early missions. The statistics tell the story. In the last seven months of 1943, the 100th flew 64 missions and lost 52 planes. In 1944 we flew 177 missions and lost 105 planes, an appreciably reduced loss record.
Manly Hall had missed a mission due to sickness and was required to fly one more to complete his tour. A few days after we finished our missions Manly was assigned as a filler co-pilot and all of us “sweated him out.” His crew returned safely. Of those of us who had flown our first mission on March 19.1944, Coartney, Dimel, Hall, Howden and I had now officially completed our combat tour. Because he had missed a mission while wounded in March, Joe Blume was one mission short. Our PFF operator, Mike Kretow had flown six missions with us. He remained at the 95th and flew with the Trapnell, Dunlap, and Fory crews as their PFF operator. Mike completed his tour with 30 missions.
The next few days after we finished were spent resting. We had not official duties. On a couple of morning we were in Group Operation – just visiting. One office we spent time with was Lt Colonel Fred Price the Group Operations Officer. Colonel Price was a Texan and very proud of it. We enjoyed kidding him and returned the favor. He was most interesting person and a fine officer.
On August 9, 1944 our entire crew was put on orders for five days to the ARC “Flak Shak” near Southport. Actually the estate overlooked the Irish Sea at Blackpool, a few miles north. This was our second visit to one of these great estates and it was a wonderful change of scenery. With our missions completed, Blackpool provided a great opportunity r complete relaxation. Strolling on the beach was good therapy. Of course we spent a good share of our time rehashing the past six months.
Soon after our return from the Flak Shak, well-deserved promotions to Captain came through for Lts Dimel and Coartney.
John Dimel was asked to stay on at the 100th as Group Bombardier, and I stayed on as Assistant Operations Officer. The others returned to the States, some on troop ships, and were assigned in States. I returned home in November1944.
Now some 55 years later (Written in 1999), Lloyd Coartney, Manly Hall, Joe Blume, and Chuck Harris still get together every two years at the 100th Bomb Group Reunions. We are still in contact with radio operators Jack Gaard and Harry Greenfield. John Dimel died in June of this year (1999) and Mike Kretow died in 1996. Pete Zyskowski and Joe Oyler passed on several years ago. We lost contact with Norm Howden and Ken Nowland after we left England
Thoughts of Paul West
Charles E. (Chuck) Harris remained in the USAF, retiring as a full Colonel. After this service he continued to serve his beloved 100th Bomb Group Association in various positions. Not the least of serving as President of the Association. He has been instrumental in getting recognition for the 100th at the USAF Academy as well as the 8th Air Force Museum at Savannah, Georgia, which was opened during his term as President.
Will Rogers would have, along with everyone else who ever met Chuck Harris, liked him. He is an outstanding individual among a Group of outstanding individuals. If I may say so, Chuck is one of the greatest of “Our Greatest Generation”.