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Follies of a Navy Chaplain

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Reality

Wally Hoffman

©1997, 2009, Wally Hoffman

    Wally Hoffman of Olympia, Wash., was a crew member on a B-17 during World War II. He took part in a remarkable 35 missions, and has begun writing his memoirs with the help of a course at the Virtual University. In his second guest Story of the Week, Wally describes his participation in the bombing of Schweinfurt.

    Again I realize there is that pesky flashlight in my face, and I hear an invitation Ė "Breakfast at Five and Briefing at Six." I lay there dragging my eyes open and my thoughts together. This is Mission No. 4. I wonder what is on that map in the Briefing Room. Weíve been to Cologne, Bremen, and Kassel and flew as a spare yesterday. If nothing else we are sure learning the geography of Germany. This time I shaved in warm water as I had remembered to fill my helmet and put it on the stove before going to bed. There was hot water last night, so I had the luxury of a hot shower. We seem to be getting into a routine, for now I dressed from the clothes I had laid out the night before.

    As I walked out the door I looked at the empty beds and thought, "Those guys only yesterday were doing the same things Iím doing." Little did I know that by tonight there would be 600 more empty beds as over 60 of our planes would be shot down.

    Outside it was not only black, it was foggy. They arenít going to have us take off in this fog, are they? As I walked into the Combat Mess there was that same knot in my stomach, and the eggs were still staring at me. When we sat down at the table there was Bob with a full plate and a blank look on his face. Resnik wasnít interested in eating too much after that first mission when at altitude he ended up with terrific cramps. Soon we were outside and again it was "hurry up and wait."

    I was thinking of some of the things you learn with each mission: using a condom to put over the mike in your oxygen mask to keep it dry, squeezing your oxygen mask so the ice doesnít clog it up, and shaking the ice out Ė then getting smart enough to carry two masks. Using a condom to urinate, tying a knot in it and then throwing it out (I told my children later in life when they ask me what I had done during the war that I had the pleasure of pissing all over Germany).

    On the first mission I had noticed after we left the target that many of the planes would again open their bomb bay doors and you would see one or two chaff boxes come tumbling out (chaff were thin strips of tinfoil used to confuse the German radar). When I ask about it I received a big laugh and was advised this is our secret weapon, you will soon find out! On the trip to Bremen one of the crew had to answer natureís call. He used one of the chaff boxes and we too bombed Germany twice on that trip.

    All too soon the doors to the Briefing Room swing open. There is a heavy smoke haze, and the temperature has risen noticeably from the body heat being given off. Everyone is sitting at all angles and postures. Some are sitting up and sound asleep. Others are engaged in animated conversation with their neighbors while the rest are staring straight ahead.You can feel the fear, the dread, and the thought of death in the room, but we are all are confident in our training and in one another.

    A nattily dressed major steps onto the stage and begins the roll call, calling the names of the crew commanders. Each answers for his crew. The major then moves to the back of the stage and draws back the black curtain of doom, revealing the map which will dictate our lives for the next fourteen hours. This time there is no noise as everyone leans forward, looking at the end of the red yarn.

    "Itís Schweinfurt," the major says, and then he gives us time to think. A buzz of voices breaks out, and one voice says, "Sonofabitch!" and "This is my last mission." And it was, as he was one of those who never came back.

    The Security Officer steps forward and instructs us: "Do not talk about the mission once you have left the room, and this also applies to a scrubbed target. Anyone flying this mission who has not had POW (prisoner of war) instruction report to the S-2 officer after this briefing. Be sure to wear your dog tags, GI shoes, and donít wear any insignia. Carry your rank, name and serial number, and no billfolds, pictures, or letters. No one will leave this briefing until dismissed." We were told this at every briefing.

    Everyone listens attentively to the intelligence officer; there is no longer any screwing around, for his instructions could mean the difference between life and death. An immediate feeling of immense doom goes through the briefing room, and no one tries to look at one another. We are all thinking the same thing, "Who will be missing from here tonight? How many crews will get it today?"

    We are advised the flak should be light en route, although we will pick up some south of the Ruhr. The target is defended by about 500 88-millimeter guns and the gun crews are very good. We would be under aimed fire from the flak for seven minutes. The enemy fighters will be persistent and aggressive. The fighters will try to break up the formation with head-on attacks. Donít panic and try to dodge. This would leave you wide open if you straggle. Always stay in defensive formations and if someone ahead of you gets out of formation, move right up into his place, for he has either been hit and will go down anyway, or he is straggling. We donít dally, because itís our necks that are stake.

    The weather officer takes the stage and is the least assuring of all. The weather is lousy. The visibility is down to a quarter of a mile, but we were assured it will be up to one mile by takeoff. That is a lot better when you are rolling down a runway which is only a mile long and the belly of your plane is pregnant with stifled hell. The wings contain three thousand gallons of 100 octane flaming inferno. Everyone starts to leave, but some wait and assemble in little groups as men slip to their knees before their chaplains ó Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish.

    As we walked into the ready room I was suddenly hit with this deep depression and a feeling of dread as I thought, "This is not the glamorized Wild Blue Yonder we had all heard about so many times. We will be fighting five miles above the earth. There are no foxholes to hide in up there. Most of the time there isnít even the opportunity of fighting back; you just sit there and take it. We live by the laws of chance as we drive through the flak which seems thick enough to walk on. Would we be by chance in that one spot where the projectile shot at us by random from the ground would intersect the plane and ourselves? The life and death struggle of the plane with all of us inside. Maybe some dead, perhaps some wounded, and some not even scratched. At that moment all of our lives would reach a crisis in the heaving and smoking plane in that freezing hostile sky. It wasnít the anxiety of maybe being killed before the day ended, but a deeper, far-off feeling as if I werenít operating within my own body. As I dressed, in preparation for the long mission, I looked at the rest of the crew with a detached and lonely sadness, wondering will we be together tonight? I didnít want to expose my feelings to them for fear they would feel I was not equal to doing my part; as all of our lives depended on one another. In kind of a dream I proceeded to our plane, and went through the motions of the pre-flight checklist. I was there and seemed to be doing all that was necessary, but I also seemed to be detached and out of my body; I had the feeling I was watching in another dimension what I was doing. Knowing we were in for a rough mission, we loaded (illegally because of weight) many additional boxes of .50-caliber ammunition. Rechecked out flak suits and helmets. All of us made one last trip to the bushes to relieve ourselves.

    Next thing we were starting the engines, taxiing into position, moving down the runway and again missing those damn trees. We formed up at 30,000 feet and soon crossed the channel into Germany. All this time it seemed as if I were doing everything necessary, but by the numbers. Soon I heard, "Bandits 9 oíclock high," and I could feel those 20-millimeter shells going through the plane. When a cannon shell hits a fortress, the way it sounds depends on where you are. If you arenít too close it is like a metallic woof and you feel a jar that shakes the whole plane which reaches you and leaves you instantly. If the shell explodes close to you there is nothing gentle and it certainly isnít a momentary tremor. It is like a giant slapping his hand on the water. There are two sounds Ė one from the impact and the second of the shell exploding. Itís like firing a shotgun into a bucket which all comes back exploding in your face. For a moment you arenít scared because your senses are dulled. Your bowels seem weak (you tighten your pucker string), your stomach shrivels up until you can figure out how much you are hurt. It was as if a huge electrical shock had hit me, and from then on to this day I have never felt fear. It was as if my mind had gone into a corner to hide and had then come charging out. In talking to others later I found we all went through some factors of this withdrawal, or we totally retreated from ourselves and could no longer perform.

    I suddenly found myself in a world alien to everything I had ever known. The ME-109s and FW-190s leapt into existence without warning with sudden flashes of light winking at you from the distance. There are cannon shells and bombs, aerial mines and rockets exploding. Each one intent on getting us and our pregnant bomb load. We are no longer in a stately march through the upper heavens. We desperately try for the crisp efficiency of our tight formation, but it is impossible to achieve in this raging space of time. We slog our way through the thickening mass of exploding flame and smoke with the equal determination of every member of the crew. We drive ahead through a whirlwind of steel splinters and flame and jagged chunks of red-hot metal (flak). The steel is everywhere, it crashes into wings, engines, bulkheads and airplane bodies; and into the bodies of men Ė spewing blood, tissue, intestines, and brains.

    The plane is alive with lights as all the guns are firing, and the noise is deafening. There is the shout of "incoming bandits" from all around the clock and the .50-caliber machine guns can be heard and felt above the roar of the plane. My world seems to plunge into insanity as the sounds of air battle are all over and numberless and all becomes an inhuman shriek. Our ship doesnít seem to be occupied by men, we are more like beings from another world, with strange breathing systems dangling beneath our faces.

    As quickly as it started we are alone Ė and outside the sun is extremely bright. Our enemy now is the temperature which is minus fifty degrees and never seems to relax its vigil against us for any exposure to sensitive flesh and frostbite.

    Germany is below us and in the distance we can the see the first black specks of flak over the target. We now begin to assess what battle damage we have taken. Was everyone OK? Soon everyone was checking in: tail OK except almost out of ammo and was reloading the belts; waist OK lost my flak helmet somewhere; ball, one of the side windows was hit, canít see anything except straight ahead; radio, OK; top turret "think I was hit in the leg and my ammunition boxes are gone." It turns out that a 20-mm came through the turret knocking out the ammo boxes on each side and tearing off his flight suit at the thigh. He had a slight red mark on one leg. Ammo boxes were moved in and connected to both guns with the hope they wouldnít jam. In the cockpit the gauges are still working, but the glass on the dials looks as if someone has taken a hammer to them. The radio compass is shattered, and the other radios are hanging by their cords. They seem to be working; at least the intercom is OK. The left windshield in front of the co-pilot has two vicious looking cracks in it. The co-pilotís flak helmet was knocked off and has a huge hole in it. He doesnít have a mark, although I think he is turning gray. In the nose one of the cheek guns is out, and the navigatorís table is shattered as well as his instruments. For all the holes our plane is still flying. Itís a miracle nobody has been seriously wounded.

    The bombardier is already looking for his aiming point as the controls are hooked to the bomb sight. The fighters are coming in all directions at the squadron ahead of us; it will be a relief as we go down flak alley on the IP. Soon the sky around us filled with flak bursts, paving the way to the target. The explosions sound as if someone is throwing rocks at you when they burst close. Those flak gunners on the ground are good. The fighters usually leave when you get into the flak from the target; however, this time they are flying through their own flak. Apparently they have been told to defend the target at all costs. These fighters may be the enemy, but I have never seen braver men. All the German efforts to keep us from the target have failed, but we have paid a terrible price. The stakes were high, but the "Devil" was the winner. The target below is fast deteriorating into smoke and debris as our strings of bombs walk through the city. Its dead will outnumber our losses by a great number. Finally we feel the plane lighten in little jerks as the bombs pass out of the bomb bay on their way to Germany. We are now at the halfway point of the mission as we begin a wide turn to the right. There is little need to get into formation as everyone is staying close. As we make our turn you can see the other formations behind us. They look ragged and are still under attack from the fighters. The fighters are leaving the "cripples" alone and going for those planes still carrying bombs. As we turn you can see the target below and the sticks of bombs on their five-mile flight to earth. The target is covered with smoke and gray dust is rising from the impact of the bombs.

    As we look out there are no fighters roaring in against us with their guns winking at us. It seems so quiet and good to only hear the noise of the engines and the air rushing by as our faithful girl hurtles us toward home. We are soon over France and a few fighters appear in the distance, but do not press any attack against us. We now look for our little friends and assume they must be busy somewhere else. The cloud cover comes up to 20,000 feet and we are told to let down over the channel. Each group will proceed to their base individually. We soon see the angry water of the channel, then are flying up the "Wash" (a large estuary on the east coast of England); with the stacks of Peterborough in sight we turn southwest and there is Polebrook below us. What a wonderful sight as how many times in the past twelve hours have we all wondered if weíd ever see the base again?

    As we cross the field preparing to break into the landing pattern we can see the men on the hardstands, the meat wagons with the red cross on top, and the fire trucks parked along the runway. They are all watching us and counting the bombers and trying to read the symbols as we fly over. All of a sudden there are many red flares indicating planes with wounded on board that will proceed into the pattern and land first. We line up with the runway on our final approach, cross the boundary of the field, start the flare and soon the wheels touch the runway, and we are down. As soon as the tail settles to the runway there is a terrific bang followed by a loud screeching of metal! Not only had the tail wheel blown, but the whole tail assembly seems to be dragging behind the plane. The tower tells us we look like a giant sparkler. We complete our roll and are off the runway into the grass and mud. The engineís roar dies out and the silence is followed by a mad dash of everyone from the plane. As we are leaving the plane a fire truck and ambulance are johnny on the spot. We find out later that during the fighter attacks the total frame just forward of the horizontal stabilizer had been torn apart by the 20 mm shells. Only the skin and the control cables held it together.

    Our plane, "Morning Delight," just seems to sit there panting. The gallant lady gave us all she had during the past 10 hours. She never flew again as she was so heavily damaged, and became another of the "Queen Beeís" planes Ė used for parts.

    You donít live and fly a fortress for months without coming to know the plane in the most intimate way. You know the sturdy construction she represents, and how forgiving she is to fly. She is there in our hearts for all of us for the days to come if by chance we survive this war.

    We retrieve our gear from the plane and are picked up by a truck. We pass the hardstands (parking and maintenance area for the plane) with their waiting crews. They all wave and give us the victory sign. However, many will soon silently and sadly return to their headquarters and receive the condolences of the more fortunate crews. They will wait for a new bomber and a new combat crew. We have the truck stop at our hardstand so we can tell the crew chief and his people that except for the maintenance on that plane we would probably be down somewhere in Germany and now a statistic. It is little wonder we have come to the realization it is impossible to complete a full tour. Everyone comes to the conclusion he will be shot down eventually.

    As we all proceed to debriefing we look around and the faces this morning which had the look of expectation are now gray and blank. We are all thinking of too many friends who have gone down in flames before our eyes. What about tomorrow and the tomorrow after that? There are too many concrete hardstands stained with oil and grease where the bombers once stood that are empty, replaced by a terrible aching void. A ground crewman is seen aimlessly walking off looking as if he had lost his brother.

    In the debriefing room we all sit around the table and this time the questions are quietly asked with a great deal of consideration. How many fighters, what types, and what were their methods of attack? Were there any special weapons or markings? How about the flak, how much, did it appear accurate?

    The following is a quote from a post-mission briefing of a B-17 pilot, Oct. 12, 1943: "I had accepted the fact that I was not going to live through this mission. It was as simple as that. I was calm; it was a strange sort of resignation. I knew for certain that it was only a matter of seconds or minutes. It was impossible for us to surviveÖ"

    The debriefings are usually not so solemn; however, this time all of us are engulfed by the shock of the mission. Most of us still donít believe we are here, safe on the ground. We are bone tired (I still remember how tired I was all the time I flew combat), and feel sick with the reflection of death. We somehow survived but our friends and brothers were struck down. You stare at the floor with eyes glazed, smoke cigarettes, and drink tasteless coffee. As we are leaving the briefing room we notice that Bob is stumbling along. We see as we look closer he is crying Ė for all of us thinking of those who didnít get back.

    We will remember the battle which took place five miles up in the air where we fought to the death. There is no way anyone could ever revisit the battleground as it took place in the sky which today is now washed clean. There are no scars and no one can walk the battleground and say here by that hill is where it all took place. There were no bystanders nor any noncombatants with a firsthand look. All those who saw the battle were on the ground five miles or more away, and they saw only the flaming planes, the parachutes, contrails, explosions, smoke, and the charred bodies. Nor did they see the flak- and bullet-riddled planes as they struggled home to an asphalt runway across the English Channel. There no longer exists the roar of all those planes, the flashing propellers, the open hatches with the smoking .50-caliber machine guns. The punishment of the long hours at sub-zero temperature, breathing oxygen in the frozen uncomfortable oxygen mask because of the thin rarefied air.

    That page of blazing history is now closed, although the scars of those of us who came home will always remain. It is always easy to write of the battles won with the enemy conquered. We fought and struggled to reach the target and on the way were mauled and shot to pieces by the fighters and flak guns of the enemy. The German pilots knew only too well the effectiveness against our bombers. They also witnessed the burning planes, bombers with the wings torn off, crews tumbling through the air, and the burning bodies. How could those bomber crews take such punishment and hand it back while continuing to fly toward the target? There never was a question of not reaching the target, no matter how many formations were split apart, how many bombers were in flames, and how cruel the test. We still continued on with white knuckles and a tightened pucker string.

    Despite all these attacks against our formations the 8th Air Force was never turned back by enemy opposition and always bombed the target.

    Thus ended the fateful day when I was introduced to reality.

-----

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