I Flew the Big One

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B-17, Queen of the Skies
To Vienna –
To Blechammer – To Munich [Excerpt]

Chuck Childs (USAAF-USAF ret)

November 1, 1944, I was awakened early for briefing for my first combat mission; the target was Vienna, Austria. I had trained for this for years and was looking forward to it, as I had heard all of the battle stories of the German fighters and their merciless flak. The target was Vienna, Austria. It was a group policy that new crews were to fly with a veteran pilot on their first mission. I do not remember the name or rank of the pilot. All of my crew were on this flight except Pewitt, who flew with another crew. We flew in the number two slot of the formation on the right wing of the squadron leader. I got the chance to show my expertise in formation flying and our plane held its position very well. Every fifteen minutes the pilot and I would take turns doing the flying. High altitudes on oxygen wore the pilots out. Long missions were difficult; by the time you returned from a mission you were ready to hit the sack.
     I was intent on watching everything that was going on and what was said while climbing up to our bombing altitude. We reached the IP (Indicated Point) and turned on the bomb run heading. Things became very quiet; flak helmets and flak jackets were put on. In the distance we could see bursts of flak coming up. Soon it was all around us. It was an amazing sight and I was too excited to be scared This was com bat. We were about to drop our bombs on the South Ordnance Depot in Vienna. Flak was heavy and accurate. It was "Bombs away!" then the formation made a steep climbing turn to the right to get out of the flak being thrown up. A call from the left waist gunner advised us that the right waist gunner had been bit. The pilot asked me to go back and check. This was the position that Pewitt would have been flying. 
     The boy was pale and bleeding. Keller was working on him and giving him morphine shots. He seemed to be in a shock so we covered him up to keep him warm. I went back to the copilot seat while the formation headed home. As we arrived at the base, the engineer Simon shot flares to tell the base that we had wounded. When we landed, the ambulance was there to take the boy away. He survived the mission and was sent home. The crew then went to be debriefed on the mission and go to our tent area to relax. Mission accomplished. The crew was all talk but we were also depressed because Pewit's ship was hit and had disappeared. We later found out that five of the crew members bailed out and five did not. The ones who did not bailout ended up landing at Barrie, Italy. On this mission two ships went down, one boy died in his plane and we had the wounded boy. 
     This was considered a "milk run" because of the low number of losses.
     We went to ground school, tactical flying classes, etc. for the next three days. I was now considered indoctrinated into combat flying. On November 4, 1944, my crew and I flew our first mission together. I was positioned on the left wing of the squadron leader; Mike did a great job flying formations from the right seat. Every fifteen minuets we would change so the other one would fly.
     The target was the Winterfafen Oil Storage at Regensburg, Germany, which was a long and tiring mission. Flak was heavy this day and several planes were hit but there was no loss of planes.
     The next three days the crew was sent back to Vienna, then sent to Moosbierbaum. Austria, then to Maribor. Yugoslavia. 
      The mission to Vienna was in bad weather with forty-two degrees below zero outside. My oxygen hose became disconnected and I passed out. Mike took over the controls. I remember being shaken by Don, the Engineer who was asking if I was OK. As soon as my oxygen hose was hooked up again I was fine. Then the fifteen minute oxygen check got no response from Short in the ball turret. They had to lift him out of the turret and apply oxygen. He was lucky.  Sessions, the tail gunner, froze his fingers on this mission. The flack was heavy and we were hit by our first fighters which were Me-410s. My gunners shot down two planes on this mission.
     The mission the next day to Moosbierbaum was with heavy flak and thirteen aircraft were damaged by flak, three severely. After returning from the mission, I was called into the Squadron Commanders office and advised that my flying records were good; he wanted me to lead the squadron the next day to Maribor.
     We were briefed to go in at nineteen thousand feet and that they only had a few flak guns. Not so!! This is when I begin to realize just what combat was about. I was leading the squadron into a hellhole! Instead of seeing smoke from flak, I was seeing flames in the flak bursts. We had to make a second run because the bombardier was knocked off his seat. I could hear the flak ripping through the plane. Keller, the waist gunner, was supposed to take pictures of the bomb drop but flak blew up the camera. I had some other radio operator who got hit. The radio, oxygen, rudder and trim tab controls and the number three engine were shot out and before we could feather the prop it started to windmill. The plane begin to vibrate so I had the men in the nose come up to the cockpit; when the prop broke off the hub, I pulled the plane in a climbing position, pulled back the throttles and dropped some flaps, and the prop went spinning off some where down into Yugoslavia. 
     The instrument panel was also shot out and when we arrived back to our base, we counted over two hundred holes in the plane. When the ground crew checked the instrument panel they found a large piece of flak wedged behind a panel bar that was headed straight for my head! My first lead mission was a tough one.
    Photo reconnaissance showed nine hundred cars in the railroad yard. The Germans were using the facilities extensively for the retreat from the Balkans. The bombing effort paid off as many of the cars were blown up and many fires started. The intense and accurate barrage of flak wounded five crewmen and claimed the life of a copilot from the 96th Squadron. No planes were lost, but many were heavily damaged. We were now assigned our own plane, which was a radar plane. Good old number. This was mine to fly and she became one of my best friends.
    My flying begin to fall into a routine: up early for briefing, the long flight to the mission, the IP (Indicated Point) to start down flak alley, watching for fighters, praying not to get hit, heading home, at ten thousand feet eating my breakfast ration, turning on the radio and hearing Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton band playing "flying home", landing, briefing, dinner and then playing with the jazz band at one of the enlisted men's clubs which was really a big tent.
    A month after I arrived at Amendola, I went to the Officers’ Club, where I heard a group playing jazz. They were made up of both officers and enlisted men. They had someone trying to play drums; I asked to sit in. I was given the job from then on. There was a black Sergeant who showed up with his trumpet one night and asked if he could sit in. Now, at that time, black and white soldiers did not associate with each other. The Sergeant played excellent; he was invited to come any time he could get away from his base. He would always come alone in a jeep and was given the red carpet. 
     The Squadron Commander promoted me to Captain; that promotion came through November 28, 1944. I had flown nine very tough missions from November 1st through November 22nd SO the Squadron Commander sent me to a rest camp for a few days on the Isle of Capri. 
    The beautiful Isle of Capri is twenty miles off the coast of Italy and was accessible only by boat from Naples. It has been a resort since the time of the Roman Republic. The Roman Emperor, Tiberius, built his Villa Jovis there. The well preserve ruins of this villa rests high on a mountain top. Tiberius lived and ruled the Empire from the villa from 27 AD until his death in 37 AD.