We Get Our Feet Wet

Wally Hoffman

Photo courtesy of U. S. Air Force.

Photo courtesy of U. S. Air Force.
(c) Copyright 1999 by Wally Hoffman
 1999 First Prize Open Nonfiction

"What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start." T.S. Eliot

I dream the intercom comes alive as the Bombardier requests an oxygen check. I could visualize the Bombardier and Navigator in their greenhouse in the nose of the plane, the Bombardier with his Norden bomb sight and the controls to work the bomb bay doors. There are switches to set the bombs to drop in sticks, salvo, or individually at specific time intervals for each bomb. Behind and on the side sits the Navigator with the electronic and radio equipment and other complex gear to maintain accuracy in our flight to the target and back.

The Copilot and Pilot reply OK. They are tightly packed together in a cage of steel, glass, controls, and instruments. In front of them are three main clusters of instruments, mainly flight instruments. There are controls, switches, dials, gauges, handles, buttons, and toggles in front, between, above, below, and behind the pilots. There are more than a hundred and fifty for the operation and control of the plane, which includes the ability to salvo a bomb load.

From his station in the top turret the Flight Engineer says OK. The Flight Engineer is the operations center for the airplane. He notes all the gauges and keeps track of the conditions of the engines and the transfer of fuel, as only the main tank supplies it to the engines. He keeps the plane flying for the pilots. The turret is a completely independent electrically operating unit; it is also the most visual point in the entire plane. There are two caliber-50 machine guns, with hand controls for the azimuth and elevation to fire through the roof.

The Radio Operator says OK. He maintains communication with our group of planes, headquarters, and the combat wing. There is one caliber-50 gun he can fire through the roof.

"Ball Turret OK." This is the most isolated position in the plane. The turret hangs from a single link from the bottom of the plane. It is a hellish position, as the gunner must hunch up his body, drawing up his knees into a half-ball. Two caliber-50 machine guns are located on each side of his head. In this round contraption sticking out of the bottom of the plane, the gunner aims his body at oncoming fighters. By working both hands and feet in coordination he is able to spin and tilt his two caliber-50 machine guns at the enemy fighters. Because of the round shape, this probably is the safest position during flak and fighter attacks, but is is also the position of the man most likely to get trapped in a blazing B-17.

Flak Over The Target.

"Right Waist and Left Waist OK." They live in a hollow shell that is supported by heavy metal ribs and encircled by a thin metal skin. There are wide hatches on each side where the gunners must swing their 60-pound guns into a slipstream of about 175 miles per hour. Many times after a running fight, the floor of the Waist is covered with caliber-50 casings, making it almost impossible to walk.

It is here that the ability of the B-17 to absorb such terrific battle damage and still fly is apparent. The plane can be cut and slashed almost to pieces by enemy fire and bring its crew home. It is the brilliant interlocking of its main structural members that keeps the B-17 flying, as the skin is only a surface membrane.

"Tail OK." The Tailgunner reaches his position by climbing over the tail wheel and sits underneath the huge, distinctive, tall rudder. This is a cramped wedge at the end of the plane. He fires his two caliber-50 machine guns from a kneeling position, facing German fighters boring in, wings and noses alive with the winking of the firing 20-millimeter cannons.

B-17 Drops Bombs.

We have arrived at the Initial Point, with the bomb path to the target alive with energy. It is vicious as to be almost beyond belief as we make our way in stately procession through the black puffs of flak. Time stands still. The six minute bomb run becomes a lifetime. Abruptly the plane lurches upwards and we hear the familiar announcement from the Bombardier, "Bombs away."

Abruptly I woke up! There was our tour director delivering an invitation for breakfast at four to be followed by a briefing at five. Don't these people believe in normal hours? Collecting my thoughts, I remembered that we had already passed through the normal life expectancy figure of four missions. We were now existing on borrowed time.

Rolling out of the sack, we followed the usual routine of shaving and dressing in layers, refusing to look at the empty beds, which had become a vision of doom. We wondered what the fiendish minds at 8th Air Force headquarters had dreamed up as a target this time to bring us to the gates of death.

Outside was the usual black and foggy early morning. As we walked into the Combat Mess, there was the ever-present huge stomach knot - and those eggs and bacon staring at us. The Waist Gunner looked up with his usual full plate and a blank stare on his face. Soon we were outside waiting for the doors to the briefing room to beckon us to the day's hell somewhere in Germany.

It was like waiting for the curtain to go up on a melodrama about purgatory in the skies over Germany. Who would die today in the fierce battles in the midst of the rarefied air over Germany? We thought of the many friends already lost in the conflict for the control of air space over Europe. We were amateurs who had learned quickly a warrior's lessons in a hard and bitter school. An instructor once said: "A man who has to be convinced to respond before he acts is not a man of action." To survive we must act as we breathe.

Grimly the doors to the briefing room swung open. We were checked in by the Military Police. In the briefing room we were surrounded with the heavy smoke haze, plus the roaring sounds of loud conversation. Body heat generated by fear elevated the temperature inside the room. People were sitting at every angle and posture. Some were sitting up sound asleep; some were engaged in animated conversations. The rest were blankly staring straight ahead.

We found our seats, having seen this scenario several times, and waited for Act I of Today's Play of Life. Only a small amount of red yarn remained outside the covered map, which told us we were scheduled for a long mission. All too soon there was the command "A-TEN-SHUN" as we all scrambled to our feet for the parading entourage of the base executive staff, in their class A uniforms, strutting onto the scene. I thought What an entrance, then I noticed a smirk on the ground-pounder faces. Tonight they would be counting the planes, waiting for those of us who make it back.

Suddenly the curtain came up on the day's episode. There was the usual chorus of Ohs and Ahs. Our eyes followed the red yarn from Polebrook as it traced a circuitous course across the North Sea, over Holland, missing Bremen, Hanover, and Magdeburg. It ended at Berlin. This was the third time we had been briefed for Berlin. Twice we had waited in the flight line for three hours, then had the mission scrubbed.

Nobody liked going to Berlin, as it was probably the best-defended target in Germany. We were advised that our little friends the P-51's would be escorting us all the way with a roving patrol.

Everyone was sitting up attentively listening to the intelligence officer describe the mission. There was no lack of attention, as his instructions were life and death to us. There was an instantaneous feeling of immense doom, with fear spreading through the briefing room. We tried not to look at one another. Who will be among the missing tonight? How many crews will get it today?

The intelligence officer advised us: "The flak should be light enroute, although you will pick up some in the vicinity of Hanover. The target will be defended by about 500 88mm antiaircraft guns. The gun crews are very good. You will be under controlled antiaircraft fire from the flak for seven minutes on the IP [Initial Point}. This will be an invasion their capitol, so the enemy fighters will be persistent and aggressive. Fighters will try to break up the formation with large head-on attacks. Don't panic and try to dodge. It would leave you wide open if you straggle. Always stay in the tight defensive diamond formation. Should someone ahead of you get knocked out of the formation, immediately move right up into his place."

Next the weather officer took the stage telling us: "The weather is lousy. The visibility is now down to a fourth of a mile, but it will be up to one mile by take-off." It is a lot better when we can see when we're rolling down a 6,000-foot runway in a plane pregnant with a hell of bombs and three thousand gallons of 100-octane flaming inferno. Everyone got up, but some waited around. They soon assembled in little groups, slipping to their knees before their chaplains - Protestant, Catholic, and Jew.

We picked up our flimsies for specific instructions, then proceeded to the ready room. There we donned the necessary gear to keep us warm in minus-60 degree temperatures. We got oxygen masks to keep us alive at 30,000 feet, as well as parachutes for an emergency trip to mother earth if the Germans were to clip our wings. On that day we caught a truck with enough room for our gear. (Trying to get everything on a Jeep to take ten men out to a plane is a little crowded.) I wondered if it was a good omen.

B-17 On Hardstand.

The crew chief quickly briefed us on the condition of the plane, then we ran the props through. While the gunners were installing their caliber-50 machine guns, gas trucks topped off our tanks with 100-octane gasoline. It was now time for the final P-Call (Make our bladders gladder). Each man reviewed his check-off sheets and loaded extra ammunition. Briefing had told us we would have fighter cover from our little friends, but you never knew. All too soon there was the green flare to start our engines, and we knew the mission was on.

The ground crews were still on the hardstand calling out, "Good luck! Hope it's a milk run!" They were the heart and soul that kept us flying. They had been up for hours getting the plane ready, but in their tired eyes and oil-spattered clothes there was the look of anxious men. We were their crew, and they had given their utmost sweat and toil to their airplane. These same men would be at the hardstand at least an hour before the mission was to return, counting the planes. There was always excitement and relief as their plane came home. However, many ground crews watched the sky in vain. They would be seen finally walking slowly back to their bunks, scuffing their feet on the ground because they were sick deep inside.

As we moved to our stations the plane abruptly became alive. She sat majestically on her wheels and tail gear, even though the wings were not yet grasping the air. The plane was interlaced with control cables, electrical lines, communication lines, and oxygen system. In the air all these parts come together as a single individual, like the parts of a human body. It becomes a single, living, breathing, flying creature.

We gunned the engines and the heavy bomber moved forward off the hardstand onto the perimeter track. We were a hulking shape in the light mist as we fell in behind a bomber, with another one behind us. We were nose to tail with the brakes squealing in protest, advancing and throttling back on power, progressing to the end of the runway in ungainly fashion. There was a final squeal of brakes as we turned on a 45-degree angle to run up our engines prior to swinging onto the runway for take-off (we took off in 20-second intervals). We lined up on to the runway and all four throttles were slowly advanced to the firewall. The roar became a sonorous scream as we released the brakes and begin to roll.

The B-17 gathered speed like a big rock moving down a hillside and the border lights on the runway stretched off into the mist. The airspeed indicator crept up to 50 mph. Without warning we saw the runway lights starting to turn red as we approach the end of the runway.

B-17's In Formation.

Suddenly the rough feeling of the runway vanished and we were in the air. The wheels came up, clearing the trees at the end of the runway. There was a thin blue smoke from the engines indicating full power. Soon we were climbing at 500 feet a minute, heading for the buncher to form up. [The buncher forms a radio signal cone to a specific location on the ground.] A feeling of exhilaration swept over the crew as we completed another hazardous and successful take-off. Instantly the intercom burst with chatter from the crew, wisecracking and telling old jokes. At 6,500 feet we broke into the dazzling bright sunlight. (We used to say the only time we saw the sun was when we flew over the clouds.) We were in a spotless arena, with white clouds like cotton stretching everywhere. We had been flung from the misty world of the earth into a space strange and awesome. All that existsed below was a distant thing. This was our domain in which to drift. There was no sense of movement or feeling of rushing through the air as we climbed to 20,000 feet, over the Kings Cliff Buncher, to form up. At this point our biggest fear was how to evade "prop wash," the air turbulence from other planes that can throw you out of the air.

We soon found the lead ship for our group and settled in to our allotted position. All too soon the formation turned east, heading for Europe. Below was the English Channel and ahead we could see the outline of the Zeider Zee. As we entered Germany from Holland, we were alerted that there were fighters in the area.

German fighter.

Soon there was the familiar "Bandits - nine o'clock high" from the top turret. What once were specks in the distant horizon moved in on us, as everybody held his breath in anticipation of an attack. Shortly there was a sigh of relief as we recognize our little friends in beautiful P-51's. It wasn't long before the Waist reported that our little friends were peeling off. The Radio Operator reported another group was under attack by German fighters. We soon saw the P-51's again, weaving in and out around our formation. We could tell they hadn't mixed it up with any fighters because they still had their drop tanks. (We later learned 8th Air Force command had changed the tactics of the fighters. Their primary mission was no longer flying cover for the bombers, but instead we were used as decoys. In this way the fighters could destroy the Luftwaffe reducing that menace from the skies for the overall military action in Europe) Without warning we saw them drop their tanks and disappear as we approached the IP for our bomb run.

As we started on the bomb run over Berlin, the bomb path to the target was a continuous black forbidden path of bursting antiaircraft fire. All we could do was sit there and take it. There were no foxholes where we could hide. Time stopped. The six minutes alloted for the bomb run seemed to last forever. It became a lifetime.

Vigorously we felt the plane lurch upward and heard the announcement from the Bombardier: "Bombs away." Our five tons of destruction were on their way to the target in Berlin.

We immediately switched the controls back from the bombsight. [The plane during the bomb run is controlled by the adjustments of the bombsight.] I told the Copilot, "It's all yours," raising my hands palm up to indicate he had control of the plane, as it would be easier for him to make the turn from his right-hand seat. He started the slow turn to the right, away from the target. Suddenly out of nowhere there lept a bright flame and an astonishing release of energy. This was immediately followed by a tremendous staggering slap of concussion. It pulsated with a flashing of fantastic lights. Without warning a wide tear became visible in the right wing around the number three engine. I was terrified, my whole being totally intimidated. I felt as if my soul had escaped from my body. I could see and feel the darkness closing in around me. Everything seemed to be standing on the edge of a huge black void as the universe faded in the distance.

Time seemed to stand still. It was as if everything were happening in slow motion. The plane began shaking and trembling from the nose to the tail. She immediately began a graceful slide on the right wing, approaching dangerously near the adjoining plane. Frantically the other pilot pushed down hard on his rudder, skidding out of the way with only a second to spare. Immediately I grabed the controls, desperately trying to bring the plane out of the slide while bypassing other planes in the formation. With all my strength I was barely able to move the controls. Reaching for the feathering button for number three engine, I unexpectedly saw the spray of brains, bones, tissue, and blood splattered over the right side of the cockpit. What was left of the Copilot lay pitched over the control column. With bile rising in my throat, I was soon choking in my oxygen mask. I swallowed hard on the gushing bile. There was no way I could allow myself to give in. The plane must be kept the flying.

Soon the Navigator was on the flight deck, trying to move the Copilot slumped over the control column. With all that dead weight on the control column, it would be impossible to hold the plane for very long. Soon we were behind and below the formation - losing altitude at about 500 feet a minute and in level flight. The power to the engines was increased, but number three was windmilling. It would not feather. Number four was smoking and trying hard to run. The first thing was to keep that bird flying, then try to see what damage we had and who was hurt. The Navigator pulled what was left of the Copilot from the control column. Then the trim tabs were set, but the horrendous vibrations from number three windmilling continued. Switching the autopilot back on, we could see our group above and ahead of us in the distance. We were alone and totally exposed, like a man running slowly down the highway with no clothes on. There was a cloud cover at about 20,000 feet. I let down to the friendly clouds.

B-17 In Trouble.

As we were descending everyone was checking in. "Radio OK." "Ball Turret OK." "Left Waist OK." "Tail OK." Left Waist said the other Waist was hit and was checking him out. There was no response from the Bombardier or the Engineer. The Navigator said the Bombardier was dead. He had taken a hit on his upper torso, which was totally shattered. The Radio Operator checked out the top turret. The Ball stayed where he was to assess the damage as far as he could see. Radio soon told us the top turret had been demolished and the Engineer was dead. Waist came back and advised us that the Right Waist had taken a hit on the front of his flack suit. This had totally opened up the front of him; death had been instaneous. The Radio Operator announced that our oxygen system had also been damaged and we were losing oxygen.

The Ball Turret advised the area all around number three engine was shattered, with the skin peeled back revealing the struts all along the wing root. Oil was coming out of number three engine, however there was no sign of any fire. Number four engine was smoking, but he couldn't tell where the smoke was coming from. The right wheel was dangling, with a red liquid pouring out out of it that appeared to be hydraulic fluid.

Since we were loosing our oxygen, there was no choice but to descend to a lower altitude. We passed through 14,000 to 12,000 feet and breathed a sigh of relief as we removed our oxygen masks. We broke out of the clouds right after passing through 10,000 feet. Unexpectedly, the vibration from number three engine stopped as the engine froze and the prop twisted off.

When we leveled out at 8,000 feet, the number four engine gave up the ghost and quit. This time the feathering worked. We were unable to transfer any fuel from the right wing tanks, so we leaned the mixture control on one and two engines almost to detonation. Without warning, the Tailgunner called out, "Fighters at five o'clock high," and we thought Here we go. We were well aware the Luftwaffe always looked for cripples trying to get home, as they were easy game; but in a short time the Tailgunner advised us that they were not Germans, but two P-51's, our little friends. Even with increased power the two engines were not maintaining altitude. We kept slipping lower. It was time to jettison everything loose in the plane, as it was a long way home from Berlin. All the guns, ammunition, flak vests - anything loose - were dumped out. We did keep our Mae Wests on. The Radio Operator notified the combat wing and the coastal stations that we were limping home on two engines. Our little friends stayed with us, then after a while were replaced by a Spitfire. If we can keep the plane flying maybe we can get to England.

We continued losing altitude, and it became obvious we would not have enough fuel to get to England. It was time to make some basic decisions. Should we bail out now at a safe altitude, or try to go as far as possible, maybe ditching in the channel? If we bailed out, we could become prisoners of the Germans.

As a crew we were always outspoken and everyone had his say. The crew was unanimous in the decision to continue on, the reasoning being all of us would rather take a chance on the channel than on the Germans. We had heard many horror stories of the treatment and murder of prisoners by German civilians. I also believe that to a man we were thinking of our dead buddies. If there was anyway possible, we wanted to get them home. Our altitude was now 2,500 feet, and it appeared we would be on fumes when we reached the coast. We still had our little friends keeping tabs on us and so far no enemy fighters had shown up. Everyone checked again to see what else was loose that we could throw out. Radio advised us that our group had acknowledged we were limping home on two engines and short on fuel. They had alerted Air Sea Rescue. In the event we ditched, we were to give the "Mayday" call and tie down the radio key for a fix.

Finally the coast was in sight and we were down to 600 feet with the fuel gauges on the peg for empty. We had discussed the crash positions we would assume when ready to ditch. The Navigator and the Ball Turret Gunner would remain on the flight deck, acting as copilot and engineer. Radio, Waist, and Tail would assume a crash position, sitting in the radio room with their backs to the door.

We all agreed we would get as far as we could and then try to land in a trough. The seas appeared quite calm, although there was a swell running, like in the ocean at home. All too soon the red warning lights came on, then the fuel pressure dropped. The crew was warned and Radio began his Mayday call, followed by tying down the radio key. We turned toward the trough, dropping our air speed to about 90 mph. I began the flair to get the tail down so we would not submarine when the engines quit.

B-17 Ditched in the Channel

Without warning we hit the water with a giant belly flop. We pulled the release for the window. The Ball Turret Gunner pulled the release for the life raft as the three of us scrambled out onto the wing. The life raft inflated from the CO2 cylinders, but soon started to crumple from the holes in it. The other three scrambled out of the hatch from the radio room and joined us. We all pulled the CO2 releases on our Mae Wests. Perceptibly the nose and wing were sinking, so there was nothing left to do but to get into the water. The bitter, frigid temperature of that water I can still remember. I had thought the Puget Sound was cold. We assembled together in the water as we watched the plane disappear beneath the waves.

Radio assured us Air Sea Rescue had a positive fix on us. The choppy water we had noticed from the air now was three- to four-foot-high white caps. It wasn't too long before a huge rough wave broke over us, splitting us apart. Soon the numbing cold began to take effect. I kept beating the water to keep the circulation going, but I could feel a total numbing sensation. The wind was bitter and I could feel the ice forming on my face. I felt frozen to the backbone and halfway to the marrow. From the top of the waves, I could get an occasional glimpse of the other yellow patches in the sea. After about thirty minutes there appeared an Air Sea Rescue boat. They threw me a line. As they pulled me aboard, I was given a warm, heavy woolen coat, which reached down to my knees. I was then ushered to a small, very warm cabin. There was the Navigator, Ball Turret Gunner, and the Radio Operator. The Waist Gunner and Tailgunner were never found.

There has never been enough said of those people in Air Sea Rescue for their efforts of compassion and bravery in rescuing soldiers during the air war over Europe.

Wally and B-17.

After three days of getting us warmed up, we were returned to our base. They were very surprised to see us. The reports they had indicated we had been lost in the Channel, and they had rolled up our beds.

My Mother had received a "Missing in Action" telegram from the War Department.

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