(Second in an 11-part series that was first run in the Beacon in 2007)
B-17 Flying Fortresses were noisy, cold and reliable, men who flew and repaired them for the 452nd Bombardment Group recall.
“It was so loud, I could yell in the pilot’s ear from six inches away and he couldn’t hear me,” said Tech Sgt. Arthur Mills, 86, of Lawrence Park, Pa., an engineer/top turret gunner. “It was 60 degrees below zero at 22,000 feet.”
Throat microphones allowed them to communicate, while electrically heated suits and gloves helped the crew members deal with the cold. They wore oxygen masks because they operated at up to 28,000 feet.
The bomb group, World War II predecessor of the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, was among 26 units that flew B-17s in the East Anglia area of England. It flew 250 missions from Deopham Green airfield northeast of London from February 1944 to April 1945 and lost 158 aircraft, 110 of them in combat.
Each four-engine Flying Fortress had a crew of 10: pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, radio operator, and five machine gunners spread around the aircraft. To defend themselves from fighter attacks, the crew manned 13 .50-caliber machine guns. The crew size later dropped to nine when Army Air Forces officials decided that one waist gunner could operate machine guns on each side of the aircraft behind the wings. One gunner, usually a crew’s smallest enlisted man, sat in the ball turret, a rotating sphere on the aircraft’s belly equipped with two machine guns. It offered the aircraft’s best view of fighters approaching from below.
More than 12,600 B-17s were built, each capable of carrying 12 500-pound bombs, 42 100-pounders or up to 20 250-pounders. The 452nd dropped nearly 16,500 tons of bombs on German-occupied Europe, the weapons guided by the Norden M Series bombsight that was standard on B-17s in the latter part of the war.
It was an intricate system of gyroscopes and computers that took into account altitude, airspeed, groundspeed, bomb ballistics and drift data, which was fed in by the bombardier. Bombs were automatically released when the aircraft reached a point computed by the sight.
Work days were long for aircrew members and ground support men.
For a 6 a.m. departure, the aircrew awoke several hours before that to eat and attend preflight briefings. Once airborne, they circled high above East Anglia as they got into bombing formation. They would fly into battle, then return and be interrogated by intelligence officers.
“I don’t know how they got any sleep,” said Jerry Penry of Milford, Nebraska, an amateur historian and author of Sunrise Serenade, a self-published book about the crew of a 452nd aircraft by that name. “They must have been really wound up by the end of the day only to anticipate possibly having to do it all over again the next day.”
The average loss rate per mission for 8th Air Force bombers was 3 percent, but was sometimes well above 10 percent in 1942 and 1943 losses on unescorted raids. By early 1944, the average life of a B-17 was 21 missions as P-51 Mustang fighters started to accompany bombers.
Bombers were hit by flak from antiaircraft artillery on the ground and fighter pilots attacked from all sides.
“Some of those guys had a lot of nerve: they came right through the formation,” said Mills. “It’s dangerous all the way around. They’re firing at you. You’re firing at them.”
An aerial attack on a bomber by a jet fighter bears little resemblance to how it’s normally portrayed by Hollywood, said Mills.
“They’re going 350 mph. We’re going 180. It doesn’t take very long for them to go by you. You see them firing, then they’re past you. You just press the trigger and it’s over. Hopefully some of the bullets get him.”
Attacks on Germany started in January 1943, a year before the 452nd Bomb Group arrived in England and 18 months before D-Day, the June 6, 1944, Allied land invasion of continental Europe. American aviators from the 8th Air Force bombed German-held territory on the European mainland during daytime, while the Royal Air Force Bomber Command attacked at night.
Between July 1942 and April 1945, the 8th Air Force operated on 459 days, conducting more than 950 bomber missions. Eventually, more than 20,000 men in 3,000 bombers and fighters from up to 59 airfields could be involved in a single day’s operation.
Retired Col. Cesar Benigno, 82, of Yuma, Arizona, visited March Field in 2006 and spoke to members of the 729th Airlift Squadron about his memories as an enlisted man on a B-17 crew. Though trained as a gunner, he never flew a combat mission as one. Instead, he was retrained as an electronic warfare officer and operated radar jamming equipment.
Many missions were canceled due to inclement weather, but the men still prepared to fly them. A mission to occupied Germany took seven hours to complete, he said, but some were 11 hours long.
“It was a constant going and going and going,” he said. “The only time you really relaxed was on a 3-day pass.”
Benigno said the men respected the B-17’s ability to withstand punishment.
“As far as we were concerned, it was the best airplane ever built,” he said. “You could have a hole in the wing big enough to stand in, one engine gone, even the nose missing and it could still fly.”
In January 1944, the 452nd had 72 aircraft spread evenly among four flying units: the 728th, 729th, 730th and 731st Bomb Squadrons. A crew chief and an assistant crew chief worked as mechanics on each one, supplemented as needed by electrical, radio and sheet metal repair specialists.
Retired Senior Master Sgt. John Anderson, 86, of Granbury, Texas, ran an electrical inspection department which scoured aircraft for battle damage. Work days were long, with no regularly scheduled shifts.
“It was 24 hours. We worked whenever we had to,” he said. “There were lots of problems with planes coming back: bent struts, shot up.”
Ground crews tackled their tasks, but distanced themselves from getting too close to the aviators.
“We kind of stayed away from learning (their) names in case they got shot down, so we wouldn’t be thinking of them,” he said.
Aircrews were the same way with other fliers, said Dr. Vernon Williams of the Department of History at Abilene, Texas, Christian University, head of the East Anglia War Project, a study of 8th Air Force bomb units.
“They don’t get to know other guys very well because…they (might) come home from a mission and there’s somebody packing up their stuff. They don’t want to get too close.”
The professor compared the stamina required of an aircrew to that of professional baseball players in a 162-game regular season.
“By the time (they) get to September…everybody is fatigued and they’re having to do makeup games so there’s no days off, except in England what we’re talking about is life and death,” he said. “And so you just get sort of numb to it and I think a lot of guys reacted that way: they just slept and kept to themselves when they weren’t flying. They didn’t have a whole lot of time to do anything but try to recover.”
(Chief Master Sgt. Matt Proietti is a reservist with the Air Force Public Affairs Agency in San Antonio, public affairs manager of the Air Force Reserve Yellow Ribbon Program at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia and a former editor of The Beacon and superintendent of the 452 AMW public affairs office.)