service in the 91st Bombardment Group, though less than five months in
length, was one of the most memorable and significant chapters in my life.
Several factors made it so: I was in the service of my country in the
great World War II, the most massive and far-reaching conflict in the
history of the world. I was 20 years old, an age of transition between
boyhood and manhood when experiences are etched deeply into memory. I
was wounded in action—shed blood for my country—which is a
dramatic event, even though my wound was slight and put me out of action
for only about three weeks. Finally, my airplane was shot down—another
dramatic event—and I became a prisoner of war for the duration of
the European war.
I flew 17 missions, a few of which stand out in my mind in sharp relief.
These involve the following missions: The first was a long trip to Munich,
when our airplane hit violent prop wash and almost flipped over in the
air. The second mission, an attack on a German air field near Chartres,
France, is memorable because our airplane took a major hit from anti-aircraft
fire (over 70 holes in our plane), and I was hit by a piece of flak.
My fifth mission was to Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr Valley, so infamous
for heavy anti-aircraft fire that we called it Happy Valley. The most
accurate flak I remember was thrown up at us that day. My plane, flown
by Lt. Louis Starks, took several hits, include a big hole in the leading
edge of the left wing. I counted 13 feathered engines in our group that
day, and there may well have been more. A feathered engine means an engine
whose propeller had been adjusted so as to present a sharp edge to the
wind to reduce drag. An engine was feathered when it was damaged or otherwise
unable to function.
The sixth, a raid on a synthetic oil complex in Ludwigshaven, I remember
because the flak was so thick and terrifying. My plane, flown by Lt. Hubert
Donahue, was not damaged, as I remember, but at least one ship of our
group was lost that day.
I have forgotten which mission it was, with my regular pilot Val Maghee
at the controls, when our entire wing (three groups, nine squadrons) was
lost temporarily in bad weather and headed for a heavily defended area
in the Frisian Islands. If I was not the first navigator in the wing to
figure out where we were, I was at least the first to tell my pilot, who
immediately called our group lead on the radio to give them the heading
I said we should take. It was sobering to see the whole wing wheel around
to the left to take up my heading. What, I wondered, if I had been wrong?
The 14th mission was flown with Lt. Hanford Rustand. It was his crew's
first combat flight, and I as a veteran navigator was assigned to fly
with them to lend stability. It was common practice for an experienced
officer to fly with a new crew for that reason. When we returned from
the bombing mission, the sky over England was all but obscured. Imagine
hundreds of B-17s from many different groups flying around in murk where
visibility may have been as little as two miles. Using a piece of electronic
equipment called the Gee, which had been developed by the British, I was
able to navigate through that frightful soup so accurately that finally
I was able to say, Rusty, you should be able to see the runway just ahead.
And there it was! That performance earned a cheer from Rusty's crew and
made me one proud navigator!
My 17th and final mission was to the Luna Synthetic Oil Refinery near
Merseburg. Enemy fighters hit us hard, setting our plane on fire and forcing
us to abandon ship. The climax came when I pulled the rip cord and my
parachute failed to open. I was able to insert a couple of fingers into
the opening from which the rip cord came and pull enough of the chute
through—probably a little pilot chute—so as to catch the wind
and open the main umbrella. Succeeding events are described in my first
book, P.O.W. —A Kriegie's Story. My second, B-17 Navigator, tells
of my induction into the service and my training which led eventually
to my graduation from Aviation Cadets as a 2nd Lieutenant and aerial navigator.
A third book will fill the gap between those two and tell of my combat
experiences flying out of England.
A beautiful website offers photographs and a wealth of information about
the 91st Bombardment Group. Constructed and maintained by Jim and Suzi
Shepherd, the site can be accessed at www.91stbombgroup.com.