As a kid, there were times I spent the summer with my family and Grandparents. I have fond memories of those times with my Grandparents. Of course, I’m partial to my beloved late Granddad (Grandmother too), but almost everyone who knew him loved him. He had a quiet inner-strength that was mesmerizing; and he always looked people in the eye and made them feel like they were the only person in the room. He cared. He loved. He worked. He sacrificed. He knew all about sacrifice.
See, Grandad was a flight engineer on a B-17 bomber during World War II. He participated in the North African campaign and eventually flew missions out of Italy with the 15th Air Forces, 483rd Bomb Group (B-17), 817th Bomb Squadron. Unlike their comrades flying missions out of England, U.S. airmen flying out of Italy were required to fly 50 combat missions before being rotated out, as opposed to 25 missions.
At one point during the air campaign over Nazi Europe, losses for the U.S. Army Air Corps and the R.A.F. were approaching sixty percent. Fortunately, drop tanks were developed for Allied fighter planes so they could escort bombers all the way to the target area and losses began to decrease dramatically. But it was always dangerous and lethal over the skies of Nazi Europe.
The 39th Mission
Not too long ago, my mother obtained a copy of the actual battle report of my Grandad’s last mission over Nazi Germany. I read it and was chilled to the bone by what I read.
On July 18, 1944, my Granddad was on his 39th mission with the 15th Air Forces, 483rd Bomb Group, 817th Bomb Squadron. The entire bombardment group (B.G.) was assigned the target area of Memmingen, Germany, without fighter escort or other group support.
The flight engineer on a B-17 bomber sat directly behind the pilot. He would also double as a top-turret gunner when the situation required. The top turret contained two .50 caliber machine guns with a limited amount of ammunition. Granddad’s duty, as a flight engineer, was to oversee the mechanical systems of the big four-engine bomber–mainly, the engines.
The “Statement of Witness” filed by a Deputy Group Commander, who survived the mission, described it this way:
“When the 483rd executed the turn into the bombing run, the four boxes went into a box-in-trail formation. While the turn was being made, the aforementioned enemy fighters attacked, support by an additional force of equal fighter strength. The estimated total of enemy fighter strength was approximately 175-200 when the tail attack was made.”
It was immediately apparent, after reading the actual battle report, that whatever the target was in Memmingen, Germany, the Germans were going to throw everything they had into the air to defend it. By this point in the war, it was becoming increasingly difficult and rare for the Luftwaffe (Nazi Air Force) to muster up enough aircraft to foil large-scale attacks by Allied bombardment groups. Unfortunately, for my Granndad and his B.G. this was not to be the case on that fateful day.
As the “Statement of Witness” states, the B.G. was jumped by a group of German fighters estimated to be some 175-200 in strength. The report goes on to state that the group was jumped, not once, but twice, by an estimated 200 German fighter planes. During the initial engagement (the first wave of fighters), my Granddad’s ship was not hit, but they had no fighter escort. They flew into some clouds. The enemy lost sight of them, but only briefly. Additionally, they were now out of range and had lost sight of other members in the group and the formation broke up. Now the other bombers could not provide supporting fire. The entire crew knew that once they broke cover of the clouds they were done!
Can you imagine the palpable fear knowing that you’re going to be shot down?
As soon as the B-17 broke cloud cover, the Germans attacked. It was a typical tactic of the German Luftwaffe to attack head-on then sweep around to the rear (six-o-clock position) to finish off the lumbering bombers. B-17 bombers were quite prickly when attacked from the sides, since they could bring more of their powerful .50 caliber machine guns to bear, as opposed to being attacked head-on or from the rear. This is exactly what happened to Grandad and his crew.
The Germans attacked head-on, which they survived, but then swept around to the rear and began their merciless attack. The 19-year-old tail-gunner on Granddad’s B-17 was killed during the fight. The B-17 bomber was severely damaged and was no longer air-worthy, and began to go out-of-control. Their training kicked in; there was no time to waste. The crew had to bail out. Fortunately, the rest of the crew was able to.
My Grandad bailed out of the riddled bomber and told me he waited to the last possible moment to open his parachute, because he said German fighter pilots would pursue and kill downed airmen. He cracked his ankle upon landing and folded up his parachute and hid in a German farmer’s barn for three days. The German farmer who owned the land came to the farmhouse with a shotgun in tow and was going to kill my Granndad, but it was the German farmer’s son who dissuaded and begged his father not to kill my Granddad. Needless to say, I am very grateful to this unknown person.
Granddad spent about a year in a German Stalag (POW camp). It was eventually liberated by British troops in 1945. Granddad’s letters to my Grandmother at this time were gut-wrenching and sobering. He wrote of Americans being bayoneted and killed by German troops when they were being marched to the prison camps. He wrote of a night where he was so cold that he just wanted to go to sleep, but he knew if did he would never wake up. He did not go to sleep.
I miss you so much, Granddad. You are, and were, a true American hero and you are beloved by your family. But I know you are now with Grandmother, who dearly loves you, and loved you, as did you, as did all of us. I was truly blessed to be your Grandson.
R.I.P Granddad … and all of those who have sacrificed and sacrifice now for our freedom and liberty. It is not free.