April 1, 1944
14,900 feet over the English Channel and climbing
Sunlight suddenly brightened the interior of the bomber. After what seemed like hours of climbing through the wet murky clouds of springtime England they had broken out into scattered sunshine. There were still wisps, patches, and sometimes full-blown clouds to fly through but the pilots could at least see the other planes in the formation most of the time.
B-24's in Formation above the Clouds
“Okay, guys, we’re out of the soup. Get to your stations; we’re within range of Kraut fighters. They probably won’t come this far but keep a sharp eye out.” Robbins was speaking over the Intercom. “Check in when you’re where you belong and are sure you’re getting oxygen and heat.” Again the orders were all routine words that Robbins had said hundreds of times but their pilot was a stickler for detail and procedure. Within a few minutes each member of the crew responded with something along the lines of “Butler here. Everything A-OK.”
Sgt. Carriker left his post behind the pilots’ seats and worked his 6’ 3” frame up into the close confines of the Martin Top Turret. There was a reason why he had originally been assigned as a Waist Gunner. He was a big-boned, tall man who barely fit into the Top Turret. Once he was tucked in behind the twin .50 caliber machine guns he had a panoramic view of cloud cluttered .sky, the formation, the top of the plane’s fuselage and wings, and its big twin vertical stabilizer. About halfway back to the stabilizers he could see the barrels of each of the waist gunners’ fifty caliber machine guns jutting out from the wide rectangular openings in the slab-sided fuselage.
Waist Gun Opening
Remembering the freezing wind that blasted into those openings and stiffened his face he was glad to be behind the Plexiglas of the top turret.
The Top Turret on a B-24
The next few minutes would be the least dangerous part of the entire mission. The formation had come together nicely and would be climbing slowly but steadily until they reached the French coast. Lt. Robbins had tucked his wingtip in so close to the B-24 alongside and slightly above him that Ray could clearly see the faces of its gunners and Co-Pilot. They were within range of German fighter planes now but having flown almost 25 missions the crew knew it was unlikely they would fly out to intercept them. Their enemy had had the luxury of waiting for their targets to come to them. No need to waste fuel flying out to meet them.
Ray yawned, at least as much as it was possible to yawn with a close fitting rubber oxygen mask strapped onto his face. Today’s wakeup call had been at 0400 hours. After climbing out of his bed he slipped a sterling silver ring he had recently bought off his finger and put it into his footlocker. It was a unique ring. On its face, where a stone sets in some rings, there was a carving of a winged propeller. Ray bought the ring as a keepsake hoping to pass it down someday to a son. He was deprived of that. The ring was given to me. Years later I gave it to my youngest son, who is a pilot for American Airlines. He wore it several years and then passed it down to his son.
This Silver RIng was among the personal effects that were returned to his parents after he was declared "Killed in Action."
He definitely did not want it to end up on some Kraut’s finger and he knew that is exactly what would happen to it if he were forced to bail out and end up in a German POW camp. Next he took all personal information out of his wallet and put all of it in a box in his foot locker. Standing orders were that no crewman was to wear or have on his person any identifying information other than his military ID and dog tags. In the back of his mind he knew that if he did not return from today’s mission someone would go through his footlocker, remove anything that might embarrass “the folks back home” and then box up what was left and send it to his folks.
After shaving and brushing his teeth he went to the Mess Hall. The cooks always prepared sumptuous breakfasts for the crews that were going on a mission that day. Some of the crewmen suffered from nervous apprehension and just picked at their food. Not Ray. He ate a farmer’s breakfast before walking over to the briefing hut. The briefing was the usual collection of half truths and guesswork especially the information as to where to expect the heaviest flak and greatest number of German fighters. Today's briefing also was exceptionally inaccurate as to what speed and in which direction the winds aloft would be blowing. This was a monumental error.
A Pre-Mission Briefing
truths and guesswork, especially the information as to where they could expect the heaviest flak and most German fighters.
Their target for today was Ludwigshafen. The Major who was doing the briefing, in his best self-important voice, said that it would be heavily defended with clear skies overhead. Their secondary target should Ludwigshafen be under cloud cover was Strasbourg. The Major droned on in the same tone of voice telling them that it would also be a heavily defended city blooming with factories that were important to the Third Reich. Ray turned his head to one side exhaled sharply and with his left hand rubbing his nose muttered “No milk run today” to Frank Zywiczynski (“Zev-a-chin-ski) who was seated on the bench beside him. He and Frank had spent a lot of time dodging and bumping into one another’s butts while firing their waist guns. When Ray was promoted to Flight Engineer Frank became his Assistant. They liked each other and worked well together.
Enjoying his vantage point in the Top Turret Ray looked around the sky and saw dozens of bombers. The briefer had said this would be another maximum effort mission that would include both B-24’s and B-17’s.
”Ted’s Travelling Circus” Outbound
Note: This is NOT as tight a formation as was adopted in combat
The B-24 crewmen had groaned when they heard this. Since their “Libs” could fly higher, faster and further than the much-publicized “Flying Fortresses” they would have to fly slower and at a lower altitude so the “Fortresses” could keep up, and that meant a longer mission with more exposure to fighters and flak. There had been a lot of “maximum effort” missions lately and many crews had been lost – either killed or taken prisoner. The men did not know it at the time but after the war when such things were counted it became clear that the Eighth Air Force suffered more casualties than any other branch of the service including the marines and soldiers who were storming the beaches and conquering islands in the Pacific. These maximum effort air raids by the 8th Air Corps were leaving American bombs, blood, and bodies all over Western Europe.
The crews also did not know for sure that “D-Day” was only a few weeks away. Everyone knew that Hitler’s “Fortress Europa” was going to be invaded from England and common sense told them that with this much effort going into bombing D-Day was not far away.
Although Ray did not see them he knew there were American fighter planes flying a few thousand feet above them. They would escort them as far into Hitler’s realm as they could and still have enough fuel to return to their base. When the fighters turned back the bombers had only their guns, luck, and ability to stay in formation to protect them during the most dangerous part of the mission.
Suddenly Lt. Robbins voice broke Ray’s relatively peaceful thinking. “Okay, guys, coast coming up. Test your guns but make sure you don’t shoot down one of ours,” he said the last part with a chuckle in his voice in an attempt to loosen them up.
“We’ll have fighter cover for only another half hour,” Robbins went on, “so come alive back there. If any guns are malfunctioning, sound off.” For the next couple of minutes the bomber shivered as if from the sub-zero cold in which it was flying as the gunners fired short bursts of .50 caliber bullets from their guns. All were working perfectly.
Once the bombers left the English airspace they were to maintain radio discipline; talking on the radio only when essential for safety. It came as a shock to Lt. Robbins when his radio suddenly came alive with an order recalling all the B-17’s to their bases. The Commanding Officer of the B-17 group had decided that the weather over the targets was too hazardous to justify the mission. Looking out the windshield Robbins could see that the weather ahead did look nasty and wondered if they would be recalled within the next few minutes. Then another B-24 Squadron under a different commander recalled his planes. The 409th Bomb Squadron, Ray’s squadron, continued on towards Germany. It was no longer a maximum effort mission.
Lt. Robbins turned toward his Co-pilot Lt. Wagner and with a wry look shrugged his shoulders. As usual they did not know whether to feel pleased or displeased that they were continuing on while the others headed back to England. Being recalled always brought mixed feelings. On one hand it was a relief to know that you would probably live through another day but on the other hand you knew you had to fly 25 missions before you could go home. It was disappointing to get through the danger of taking off in an overloaded plane and climbing blind through clouds only to be told it was all for nothing. With so many bombers turning back the “maximum effort” now consisted of only a couple of B-24 squadrons. As they crossed into German-occupied territory the weather and the mission deteriorated further.
In 1944 maintaining accurate navigation at 20,000 to 30,000 feet altitude through or above cloud covered terrain to and from targets in Germany was always risky and often futile. Without electronic equipment to “see through the clouds” or calculate their position it was not unusual for the entire formations to be blown off course. When that happened they sometimes drifted into areas heavily defended by flak or they might get to where the target “should be” and find it was not there. Because of that they sometimes bombed the wrong target, but it was all Nazi occupied Europe. In fact, as a last resort they often just salvo’d their bombs and hoped they hit some military useful target.
A PFF (Pathfinder) airplane with one of the primitive radar navigation sets that were available in the early 1940’s aboard led the group. A Command Pilot and well-experienced dead-reckoning navigator augmented the PFF crew members as they led the way to their primary target of Ludwigshafen, Germany. Shortly after crossing the French coast the flight encountered clouds with tops at 21,000 feet. They would have to rely on the radar equipment and dead reckoning to know where they were. The accuracy of "dead reckoning" is totally dependent upon knowing from what direction and at what speed the wind is blowing. In today's mission the weather briefing had been "dead wrong." As it often did the radar equipment malfunctioned early in the mission. Without any visual reference or radar to help him the lead navigator would have to rely solely upon pre-briefed estimates of winds aloft to carry out his dead-reckoning navigation. Any pilot or navigator knows that winds aloft can and do change often and dramatically. Like a tall-masted sailing ship airplanes are at the mercy of winds and can easily be blown off course or move faster or slower across the ground than expected and that is exactly what happened. The entire formation was blown over a hundred miles to the right (south) of their course and fifty miles farther along in their journey than they thought they were. But no one knew this, least of all Lt. Robbins and his crew.
When critiques of the mission were held sometime later at 8th Air Corps Headquarters, the consensus was that when the formation encountered high cloud tops and almost simultaneously lost their radar navigation capability the Command Pilot should have been aborted the mission. He was not reprimanded for his failure to make that decision. The lead navigator however was rebuked and never again allowed to serve as a lead navigator.