by Owen D. “Cowboy” Roan
Four days after the Munster catastrophe, our crew was called to briefing for another mission. Our briefing room was not crowded, because there seemed to be almost as many on stage to tell us how to fly the mission as there were participants in the venture. Scheduled as Air Boss of the Hundredth Bomb Group was not a colonel, major, captain nor lieutenant. It befell a lowly Flight Officer called Cowboy Roane. It was great to have such trust placed on such a young, insignificant member of the group. It would be another quick thrust into Pas de Calis in all probability. It seemed strange that only a handful of crews were in the audience, and none of the old time warriors of the originals were there with their overwhelming presence. I knew we were short of aircraft and crews since the drastic reductions we had experienced earlier in October, but the showing here seemed to emphasize the negative. Eight crews stood at attention when Colonel Harding took the stage. We were advised that our effort today would do much to shorten the war. Too bad the dependable leaders were going to miss out on the honor of this day. He wished us good luck and good bombing and took his seat rather abruptly. Major Minor Shaw next took the stand with his long, but not too long, pointer to show us the way. On opening the curtain we were all surprised when our red string of designation did not lead to the French coast but stretched far beyond. It stretched past Brussels, Belgium to a point deep into Germany. When our eyes became fairly focused on the turnaround, we saw an old familiar town named Schweinfurt. Time for reminiscing would come later out at trusty Bigassbird, as we must now lend an ear to the briefing.
Beyond Aachen, Germany, the First Air Division with some hundred and sixty planes was to continue along the briefed track while the Third Air Division with like number of bombers would turn south, flying along the Belgian-German border. The First Division was to draw off most enemy fighters as it flew to a point north of Frankfort am Main, where it would take a southeasterly course to its IP just southwest of Schweinfurt. The Third Division was to continue to fly south along the Belgian-German border to Luxembourg then turn back toward the target arriving just after the First Division had dropped their bombs. The Second Division with sixty B-24s was to take a more southerly direction and arrive in Schweinfurt immediately after we of the Third Division had departed the target. The route we were to take would detour around the heavy concentrations of flak and we were to have P-47 escort to almost the point we would turn south in case enemy fighters chose our Division for devastation. We were briefed for 350 single engine with a generous sprinkling of twin engine fighters lobbing missiles at us. I was to take our group to rendezvous with the Thirteenth Combat Wing, with four of us joining the 390th Bomb Group and Lieutenant Hughes would lead the other four planes to join the 95th Bombardment Group. We were assured the other groups would be expecting us and they had reserved spaces for us to join the party. We hoped they wouldn’t put us too far away from the orchestra. Weather would be as weather was expected to be over England. We would climb through the clouds and be in the clear when time came to search out our sponsoring groups.
Briefing was soon over with time for those wishing to have another or first time meeting with their respective chaplain. Happily, there were enough Sky Pilots to administer almost individually to those needing help. Most in my crew had already made their peace with God soon after learning our destination that day. It didn’t strain our memory to recall what had happened at Schweinfurt just two months before. I pondered the thought that maybe I should have stayed in the hospital one more week.
We had an abundance of transportation to take us out to our plane with no one having to hang on the side, nor ride on the hood. I got to know our navigator during our walk around to kick the tires. He was Omar Gonzales who had been recently aced out of his position as Group Navigator to replace Daniel Schmucker who had taken this opportunity to go to Wing and start teaching how to fly and bomb with the benefit of RADAR, whatever that was. I had the benefit of his services for only that one mission, because on the fifth of November, Omar and the other non pilot members of his crew of the day were given the opportunity of walking back to Thorpe Abbotts from somewhere deep within the Rhur Valley as the aircraft was deemed unfit for further flight. However the two pilots, Gossage and Flesh found the lighter plane could struggle on, so they returned to land in England. When I left the 100th to return to the States, Omar had not yet made it back.
One other man went with us that day and for the rest of my missions. He was an assistant engineer who replaced one of my waist gunners who had trouble distinguishing Spitfires from enemy fighters. He was assured of a new career in the Air Corps when he assaulted my wingman with a fifty caliber machine gun. He was reassigned to the Military Police detachment. The new man was Richard O. Detweiler who stayed with me for the rest of my tour and he became flight engineer after Robert Stuart finished his missions. Detweiler had previously flown with another pilot of the Group who had his wings shot off on a mission, so he couldn’t’ fly anymore. I am positive that I never wore mine in combat situations.
Before loading onto the aircraft I passed some time with Campbell. He was the same cheerful and assuring member of the crew. He said “Roane, we are not going to get back from this mission.” I thanked him for his reassurance. Jim Brown tells the Schweinfurt story thus:
On the 14th, a Thursday, the decision was taken to attack the ball bearing plants at Schweinfurt. As usual the details were transmitted by teletype and were followed by a cryptic message from General Anderson, of Eighth Bomber Command: “This air operation today is the most important air operation yet conducted in the war. The target must be destroyed. It is of vital importance to the enemy…”
Although a “Maximum effort” had been called for, the Hundredth could only scrape up eight planes, so it was decided to divide the crews into two flights. Four, led by Owen Roane, would fly with the 390th. The other four, led by Robert Hughes, would fly with the 95th.
The plan called for a three pronged attack-the First and Third Bombardment Divisions would cross Holland some thirty miles apart, while sixty B-24s from the Second Division would fly south on a parallel course. Overcast over Norfolk hampered the Liberators assembly and only twenty-nine could find the formation, they ‘made a diversionary feint towards Emden instead.’
As for the Hundredth, the Thirteenth Combat Wing released its bombs through flak and the smoke at 14.54 with ‘excellent results,’ with the 390th ‘being the most successful group.’ Despite the rockets and constant fighter attacks, the planes made it back to the French coast, crossing at 16.45, to make for Beachy Head, from where despite cloud and poor visibility, the crews located Thorpe Abbotts.
For once the Century Bombers had been lucky. They were the only Group not to have suffered injury or loss, although the gunners ‘put in a claim for seven enemy fighters.’ The crews were amazed as the story slowly unfolded-sixty B-17’s were missing; five had crashed on their return. Twelve more were written off in crash landings, or were only fit for scrap, while 121 required repairs.
In all, nearly 600 men were missing, while five dead and nearly fifty wounded were taken out of the planes on their return.
As for the damage, three of the bearing plants’ were heavily hit’ and it took six months before two returned to full production. Work at largest, the Kugelfischer Plant, was only stopped for six weeks.”
While the foregoing report is interesting and correct, perhaps a birdseye view of the matter would help do justice for this very significant mission.
Our crew chief and all the other ground personnel seemed to be extra solicitous of our crew that day. Did they suspect or otherwise have a clue to the magnitude of our pending venture? At any rate our engine start and taxi out seemed to be a more solemn occasion than usual. Despite the weather, we were green lighted and made our takeoff. I collected our meager flight and headed for rendezvous with the 390th which were just where they were supposed to be though at different altitude because of the weather over East Anglia. Anglia being the place where Angles dwell, perhaps we could expect invisible additions to our formation because the Thirteenth Combat Wing now consisted of two composite groups instead of three regular. Before we departed the Island our Wing leader tucked us into the lead Wing as though we were part of it. He slowed us down on right turns and increased our speed on left turns to remain in tight formation to the Initial Point. The lower Wing had only two groups also and took similar actions so the Third Division appeared a one larger than normal combat wing. Whether or not this maneuver worked to our benefit, I recall losing only one B-17 from our Division enroute to the target. We did see one fighter group of P-47 lending penetration support, but no P38s nor Spitfires. The leaders of our effort were unknown to me at the time; however, they have become known to me much later. Leading the Third Division was Colonel Archie Olds, whom I knew in the Stratigic Air Command as General Archie Olds, and leader of our Wing was Colonel Thomas Jeffery, who later became Commander of the Hundredth Bomb Group.
Apparently the First Division bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe anger during the trip in to target, because the many attacks we endured inward seemed to be of single fighter sweeps. Also those passes were going overhead or breaking off before getting into close range of our gunners. Usually they would come at us in echelon and quite often fly through our formation with their guns blinking. No doubt our close division formation discouraged that approach.
We reached the IP despite the flak. We dropped our bombs with the 390th leader, so all praises for plastering the target was theirs. Campbell said it appeared to be in the barrel, so lets get out of here. The road back was rife with difficulties. The Luftwaffe having tired of making devastation with the First Division were now giving us their attention. I saw one plane of our adopted group going down but otherwise we were hanging in close and returning fire at all those coming into range. No need to consider aircraft identification of those little spiteful creatures because they all meant us harm. The prevailing westerly winds were also our enemy this day but I knew of nothing that any of us could do about them. The German fighters had had time to refuel at various service stations along our track and were now coming at us in mournful numbers as Curtis Campbell would quote to us. Still we of the Thirteenth Combat Wing prevailed. One other plane went down from the 95th formation which Tom Hughes troops had joined, but fate again smiled on members of the Hundredth. We all made it home. I said “Another day; another dollar.” Another remark was heard, “Boy am I hungry”?
After the Schweinfurt mission, Campbell talked to the other short timers, Healy, Jarvie, Stroble and Stipe and allowed that there wasn’t any way they could make two more missions, but Stipe said not to talk about it. Our ground personnel showed relief and happiness that we had returned to our parking area. I am sure they were not looking forward to working the bugs out of another new airplane.
Months later I received orders assigning myself and the rest of our four crews, namely Captain Robert Lohoff and crew, Captain William Lankin and crew and Captain Don Mitchell and crew to the 390 Bombardment Group for the day making us all eligible for the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation, as the 390th were so cited for action that day. As for those who never saw the order and citation I will include a copy of each in my report for a permanent record.