A Time to Kill
Edited by Denny Roy,
Grant P. Skabelund, and Ray C. Hillam
Combat in the Air
[p.69]Lawrence H. Johnson, Army Air Forces bomber pilot, World War II
It’s interesting to see what happens to a group of people when they get into a combat situation. I guess in a way you could compare it to football, because if you don’t stick together, you are going to lose the game. The crew members all depend on each other. If the engineer doesn’t do his things right, the airplane won’t fly. If the tail-gunner wasn’t there, you’d be a sitting duck for any Zero1 that came in on your tail, and if the navigator goofed up, he could cost you everything. I’d say there’s a oneness you have together as a crew, and you know, when we started getting further along, some of our guys were developed way beyond their time because of the experiences we had. The squadron leaders would pull them off our crew and let them fill in for another airplane that needed a better bombardier or a better navigator, and you got so that was a major worry, because you were afraid you wouldn’t get them back. The [p.70]whole crew worried about it. Even if the gunner got sick, they were concerned because some other person was flying with them. It was interesting to see the sort of team spirit that developed. And nobody ever considered not doing their share or goofing off, because they just knew they were part of the group and everybody depended on each other. So even the ones that were scared to death every time they flew were there and prompt and ready and did their thing to the best of their ability.
Ted L. Weaver, Army Air Forces bomber pilot, World War II
Before we went to bed we didn’t know who was flying the next day and who was not, or what aircraft we were going to be flying. In the morning they’d wake us and tell us that we were flying that day. Usually at two o’clock in the morning, we’d get dressed and shave and go to breakfast, which in our case was usually powdered milk, eggs, and toast. After breakfast we’d go to briefing, where they’d brief us on the weather for the day, what the target was, the approach, and what the intelligence had to report on anti-aircraft fire and the possibility of meeting fighters. They’d also try to predict what kind of weather we’d have over England on our return. Then we’d go check out our parachutes. Our parachutes were ordinarily our own and kept in our own lockers. Each man always used the same parachute. It was fitted to him and kept in good order. They were periodically opened and repacked so that we’d feel like we could rely on them. We didn’t wear the same clothing all the time. Some days we’d wear electrically heated flying-unit liners, with electrically heated gloves and liners in our boots. These plugged into a twenty-four-volt power supply in the plane. Other times we’d fly with just sheep skin trousers and a sheepskin coat. There was no heat in the planes. It would be ridiculous to even try to keep them tight enough to keep heat in them, because one shell would destroy your heating capabilities. The airplanes also weren’t pressurized, so we all wore oxygen masks once we got [p. 71]above eight thousand feet. We’d also check out flak suits (bullet-proof vests) that would stop a piece of flak if it wasn’t a direct hit.
During the first two or three missions that I flew with my own crew, my navigator and my bombardier, who had to stand on the flight deck most of the time, didn’t check out a flak suit. They thought it was too bulky and hard to handle until the first time flak hit us and a piece of shrapnel came through the ship and tore some holes in it. After that, they were very happy to check out flak suits.
Ray T. Matheny,2 Army Air Forces flight engineer and gunner, World War II
The flak just about unnerved me. Sam Henry, our bombardier, sang to us over the intercom, which helped relieve the tension. The lead ship in our formation went to full power to get us out of the line of fire, but the flak continued for such a long time. I heard a CRUMP, CRUMP sound and knew the flak was very close. Then to my astonishment I saw a hole appear in the right wing that pushed up a bright piece of metal contrasting with the dull-colored war painted metal on the surface. This wasn’t only accompanied by a CRUMP, but the plane was lifted up several feet. More flak sound and holes appeared. Then I saw a red flash in the center of a flak burst. It was very close and there were those sounds again, not only of the shell exploding but of metal striking and tearing holes in my ship. For some reason I looked down at my feet, and there between my [p. 72]boots was a piece of spent flak! The fear I felt can’t be expressed. I was so tense that for a few moments of this barrage of anti-aircraft shells I forgot the cold. I expected to feel, or maybe not to be able to feel, a searing, ragged piece of metal rip through my flesh to leave me bleeding helplessly and dying in the bitter cold.
J. Keith Melville, Army Air Forces bomber pilot, World War II
Bleckhammer was a tough target. The anti-aircraft fire was intense, it was a very long distance to fly, and if anything went wrong it would be difficult to get back to the base in Italy. Some of the targets deep in enemy territory were flown as shuttle missions from England, with the aircraft flying on to Russia after hitting the target, returning to their home base later. I didn’t fly any shuttle missions. On our way to Bleckhammer we were heavily attacked with anti-aircraft fire (commonly called “ack-ack” or flak). Holes suddenly appeared in the plane as unseen flak tore through the aluminum sheeting or Plexiglas. If you can see the smoke from the shell burst, you don’t need to worry about it. It’s when you can feel the burst lift the airplane that damage is being done. Our plane was being tossed around by burst after burst.
My bombardier, Jim Williams, was hit in the shoulder. Fortunately, the flak didn’t sever any of his bone structure or enter his chest cavity, but it severely tore the muscles. It was good that we had an experienced navigator with us, because he knew just what to do to take care of our injured bombardier. Both of our waist gunners were hit with spent flak, Bill Lazar in the shoulder and Berlin Runyon on the forehead. Neither one was seriously hurt. Runyon wasn’t wearing his helmet on this flight—but he did on every subsequent mission!
The group successfully dropped its bombs on the ball bearing plant and rallied off the target. I was flying in the seventh position of my squadron, which was flying in the fourth position of the group. This was the worst posi-[p.73]tion in the whole group, but the youngest pilot usually doesn’t get the better slots. The plane had one engine damaged, which was smoking badly, but I didn’t turn it off and feather the prop3 because it was better on fuel consumption to run on four engines than on three. It was a long way home. The co-pilot continually asked me on the way home if we should feather the prop, but I said: “No, let’s keep it running as long as we can.”
We knew there may be problems on landing. We’d been sent to the Foggia main airfield to facilitate getting Jim to the hospital. The control tower, on learning that in addition to the smoking engine our hydraulic system wasn’t operating, directed us to land on a dirt strip parallel with the runway. I asked Jack McCoy, my copilot, to pump the hydraulic system manually, and the gauge registered that we had pressure for the brakes. Jack told the crew to brace themselves. When I applied the brakes, I found we had brakes only on one side. This turned us in the direction of a row of British bombers being prepared for their night missions. I straightened up the plane with the two engines on the right wing, one of which was the smoking engine. We were almost to the end of the dirt strip, and not knowing what the field beyond was like, I asked Jack to unlock the tail wheel. I applied the good brakes and ground looped the plane. My crew chief, Carlos Verduzco, said he watched the left wing tip cut part of a circle in the dirt as we went around. We were all thankful to be on the ground alive!
[p. 74]Ray T. Matheny, Army Air Forces flight engineer and gunner, World War II
I was awakened with a start. “The jeep, the damn jeep is coming” went through my mind and I hoped it was a dream, but the tire-crunching sounds in the heavy frost continued. I heard the orderly walk over to the barracks next to ours and after about five minutes his footsteps came to our porch. I dug my fingernails into my palms and silently cursed. I heard sounds from others indicating that they were awake also. Yes, another mission call at 02:00 hours. It was to be the same mission we’d aborted the day before: Bremen, one of the best-defended targets in Europe. I wondered what was so important about Bremen that we had to go back so often. It seemed like a mistake to send us out again on the twenty-ninth when the mission had failed the previous day. From what I read in the British intelligence reports, the Germans would know all about the aborted mission and would be waiting for us. The briefing officer gave us the same target areas along the docks at Bremen. He warned, however, that today would be cold, colder than ever recorded before, down to fifty-five degrees below zero centigrade. We’d have to keep circulating the oil in the propellers, and he emphasized that we couldn’t touch any metal with bare hands nor let our faces come in contact with anything. We were issued our permanent parachutes and custom-fitted harnesses. I received a chest pack, as it was impossible to wear a regular parachute in the upper turret. The ball turret operator, Tex, also got a chest pack. Dunning, the pilot, gave me the bad news. We’d been assigned to the oldest B-17F in the 379th. It had been a general’s plane that had extra armor plating installed and “bullet-proof” one-and-a-half-inch glass in the cockpit windscreen and side windows. But the plane was old and worn in every way; even the engines had more hours on them than usual, and I noticed severe oil leaks on numbers [p. 75]one and two. Missing were the wide-blade propellers that our “G” model had to provide greater thrust at takeoff. This “F” model had “speed props” that gave them an advantage in cruise configuration, but there had been complaints about takeoff performance with these propellers.
It was true. The airplane gained speed so slowly for takeoff with combat loading that if it weren’t for the dip at the end of the runway it wouldn’t have made it. We were required to carry sixteen bombs that weighed five hundred pounds each, a full load of fuel, ammunition for twelve guns, and emergency gear. Despite the fact that the “F” model didn’t have a chin turret and carried one less gun, it weighed more than the “G.” Apparently electronic gear had been installed for the general that required extra wiring, mounts, and power supply, all of which were still in place. Nelsen, the right waist-gunner, discovered extra armor plate in the waist gunner positions, and this airplane’s gross weight was over what the manual said it should be.
The weather was cold and clear, and it seemed that we could see across the continent. Everyone but me test fired their guns over the sea at low altitude. I was thinking about the forecast of intense cold, and I worried about my guns malfunctioning. I’d repaired my electrically heated undersuit by rigging up a light bulb with wires, a set of flashlight batteries, and a needle probe. I’d find the broken wires by checking for continuity, and where a break was found I spliced the wires. I also made up a small set of “safety” wires and attached one to one of the two electrical plugs for each glove and sock. The gloves were particularly bothersome and seemed to fail more frequently than other parts. If a glove or a sock failed, the entire suit would shut down due to a series circuit. My safety wires could be used to short a defective glove or sock and still make the rest of the suit provide heat. Of course, the glove would be cold, but you could at least stick your hand into a warm place from time to time. I’d repaired all of the suits for our crew and provided them with short-out wires.
[p. 76]After three and one-half hours or so we were at twenty-five thousand feet near the coast of Germany and we finally saw a few of our P-47 fighter escorts contrailing above us, but they only circled once and headed home. Their range with an auxiliary seventy-five-gallon external fuel tank was only 340 miles. We entered the coast south of the Weser River this time and climbed to our assigned altitude of twenty-eight thousand feet. By now the cold had reached the lowest reading on the free-air temperature gauge: minus sixty degrees centigrade. It was necessary to cycle the propellers every fifteen minutes to keep the oil inside the propeller domes from turning to sludge that could quickly cause a runaway engine condition. The inside of my turret had accumulated a layer of ice from the exhaust of the oxygen mask that rose as a misty cloud and turned to ice as it contacted the metal and Plexiglas dome of the gun turret. The ice began at the top and had now worked downward to where there were only about two inches of ice-free visibility at the bottom of the Plexiglas.
There was a fighter attack, but the German fighters made only a single pass and then disappeared. I heard guns fire only a few rounds, then silence. Gunners reported that their guns failed to operate. More fighters were reported, and I managed to sight one through the icy coating of the Plexiglas and to fire a burst. Obviously my guns were working well. I knew what had happened to the other guns. They were plugged with congealed oil, which I’d carefully wiped off of my own guns, and the test firing at lower altitudes caused condensation to form ice outside the guns. The German Me-109 fighters had the same problem, which is why they could only make one pass, fire their guns only a couple of rounds, and then head back to the airfields down below.
The cockpit was also beginning to ice up and Dunning called for the ice scraper. I handed it to him, but the ice was so hard he couldn’t remove it. Visibility in the cockpit was becoming seriously impaired, and Dunning and [p.77]co-pilot Harper were flying by watching the ghostly images of the planes near us. To make matters worse, we were flying in the lowest position in the entire group of thirty-four airplanes, a spot affectionately called “Purple Heart Corner.” The planes were stacked in three squadrons of twelve, although we were short at least two planes that day. Each squadron flew in a position higher and forward of the one below so that when we were under fighter attack we could tighten up for maximum concentration of defensive firepower. During the bombing run, we loosened up the formations so the bombs dropped from the planes above wouldn’t strike the planes below. The problem now was that the interior of the bombardier’s and navigator’s compartment had iced over and they could no longer see the actions of the lead ship.
Soon the flak became an intense barrage that laid down what we called a “blanket” of black puffs of smoke and destruction. The pilots complained that they couldn’t maintain a very close formation, and they depended on me to tell them when we got too close to another plane. The bottom of the Plexiglas in my turret remained clear, but only in a narrow horizontal band approximately one to one and one-half inches wide. From this restricted view I guided the bomber. I saw that other ships were beginning to have similar problems, but because of the thick glass in our ship, we experienced it long before others.
I saw the bomb doors of the other ships open. I called to Henry, the bombardier, and gave him the signal. He asked me to give him the cue when the bombs were away. The flak was heard again and I thought I heard the metal strike. It was a nervous few moments as I tried to guide Dunning, the pilot, in a formation with only a small view provided by the ice-free band at the bottom of the Plexiglas. I saw the bomb doors close on the other ships. “Damn, damn,” I said over the intercom, “we missed the bomb run and we are going to make another pass.”
The pressure to keep us from colliding and the [p. 78]knowledge that we’d be exposed to the “flak run” again were plying heavily upon me. As soon as our huge formation swung around north the flak tapered off. In a few minutes Nelsen called in two schwarmen of Me-I09s bearing on our tail. Since all of the guns on our ship were out except mine, I swung the turret in the direction of the attack. We knew that the fighters would only be able to make one pass, but that one pass could be fatal for a crew member, an entire crew, or a ship. I soon picked up two Me-109s and tracked them as best I could, but the turret moved in a funny, buffeting way. I got in two short bursts with the .50-caliber machine guns and the targets moved out of my field of vision.
I could see in the slit of vision in my turret another group of bombers coming from the coast that was timed to follow us to the target. Now these two groups would be closer, and maybe the effect of bombing more severe on the group below. I worried about our group turning fast enough to cycle in with the stream of incoming bombers especially now, as apparently nearly everyone was having some visibility problems. We made the turn and I could see the magnificence of the other group, so close but slightly lower with the sun glistening on the Plexiglas of the nose sections and with the streaming clouds of water condensation trails that the ships generated. The formation looked like a giant swarm of insects in slow motion. But I was soon jarred out of my reflections by a glimpse of the shadow of a wing over my turret. I frantically told Dunning, “Let her down, back off!” I saw through the little slit of the frosted turret a wing tip of the ship in front and to the right. Nelsen said it was close: there was no more than a foot between the wing and our propellers!
The flak began again, but it seemed less intense than before. I thought that perhaps the other group close behind us was drawing some angular fire. “Those damn 236 flak towers down there and the immunity of their shells to the cold,” I murmured to myself. The bomb doors came open [p.79]again, and finally the bombs were away. “Head for home,” I thought. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
After what seemed a long time we passed the flak zone on our run for home. Dunning said that he was full out on power and I could see that we couldn’t keep up with the formation. Also, a white coating of ice had now formed over the entire cockpit, giving it an eerie appearance. No instruments could be read because of ice on the gauges, and Dunning required a reference to the horizon. He said that it was getting more difficult to fly. I suggested the autopilot, but apparently the hydraulic fluid in it or some of the lubricants wouldn’t allow it to work properly. I got out of my turret and tried to open the side window, which Dunning and Harper had tried before, but to no avail. I suggested the fire axe and Dunning agreed. Try as I might, the axe wouldn’t break the window because of its great thickness and temper. I took a heavy swing with the sharp pick end opposite the blade and it imbedded into the glass. Seeing a new possibility, I swung again, only harder, and got a good puncture. Now that the pick end penetrated sufficiently, I pulled hard toward me and pushed against Dunning’s seat with my feet. Slowly the window slid back a fraction of an inch. I repeated the process two more times and finally got the window slid back enough to get my gloved fingers on the glass and draw the window back. Dunning could finally see out this small window.
The left waist-gunner called out fighters and they took a shot or two. This time the fighters didn’t dive back home but slowly drew up on us from behind, getting closer and closer. We’d now fallen back from the formation by a quarter of a mile and two Me-109s flew off our left wing a few hundred yards away. The left waist-gunner managed to get a single shot, then hand-charged his gun and got another. Then his gun quit. I watched as the two 109s moved closer until they were a scant forty to fifty feet off our left wing, flying in formation with us! I tried to bring my turret around, but the hydraulic valve just kept popping off and [p. 80]producing a pounding sound. The turret moved very slowly, chattering with the frozen grease in the track, but it never came around for me to line up and blast those Me-109s out of the sky. My guns were the only ones working and I couldn’t shoot!
The graceful lines of the Me-109s became apparent with their landing gear and flaps up, lazily cruising with us. The pilot of the closest one waved in a friendly way to us, and I responded by raising my middle finger to him. He was no friend. Perhaps he’d killed some of my friends or would live to kill me. I could see so clearly the little swastika on the tail and the iron cross, which was partially obscured by what looked like “25.” They soon departed and we were left to catch up with the group, now about a mile ahead of us.
I suddenly noticed on top of the cowling of number two engine what appeared to be a dirty rag. I stared for a moment before realizing that a rag couldn’t be lying on top of the cowling while we were going nearly two hundred miles per hour. I thought that something was wrong with my mind as I watched the rag grow in size. Then it dawned on me that this was engine oil spewing out of the breather that vented at the top of the cowling. The engine had failed and was pumping hot oil into the atmosphere, but it was so cold that the oil congealed instantly in a blob on the cowling, looking at first glance much like a rumpled rag. I told Dunning of the situation and said that we must feather the propeller or soon run out of oil, at which point we’d be unable to feather it. Harper objected to shutting down the engine and argued that fighters would get us, but with the situation of the day I countered this. With the propeller feathered the old “F” slowed down and Dunning decided that soon we’d have to try to get back alone. I noticed the throttles were white with ice, not from the exhaust of the oxygen but from the perspiration of Dunning’s right hand. He wore only a leather glove to operate the throttles and I’d shorted the glove plug of his electric suit so the rest of [p. 81]the suit would heat. The group leader finally slowed down as we passed through twenty-six thousand feet.
It was then that I noticed a German Heinkel-177 bomber off the right wing flying even with us but just out of the range of our guns. I could see a gun firing slowly out of its left fuselage gun station. Occasionally I could see a faint white arching trail of smoke as shells from a cannon were lobbed into our formation. These were thirty or forty millimeter cannon shells, which could severely damage a B-17. The really disturbing factor was that we couldn’t do anything about the Heinkel-177 because it was flying out of range of our guns.
We fell steadily back from the group and finally Dunning decided to drop down to an altitude where the old plane could operate better on its three remaining engines. Dunning leveled off at about eighteen or twenty thousand feet to cruise homeward. The navigator complained that he still couldn’t read the instruments. Harper realized that none could be read in the cockpit either. We didn’t know our directions well and had now dropped between cloud layers. I tried to clean off the ice from the magnetic compass, but nothing could be done with it. Dunning stuck his head out the window to see if a hole in the clouds could be found. The slip-stream promptly blew off his goggles, so I gave him my blue-tinted ones. He could see nothing but clouds. I suggested that we drop down lower and melt the ice on our instruments. Dunning let the ship down below the cloud layer, risking flak and fighters, but it was imperative to find our way. The descent through the clouds was perilous enough, but without instruments of any kind, it was doubly so. Dunning was nervous, and I just stared out the small opening I’d made by sliding the cockpit window back. Harper stared down at the control column but didn’t touch it. It was a great moment of relief when Dunning spotted the ground at about twelve thousand feet. It was warmer and the ice inside the cockpit began to soften, but it still covered the instruments.
[p. 82]It was hazy and dark, and Dunning couldn’t recognize any landmarks. I managed to scrape the ice off the magnetic compass and saw that we were flying on a 120 degree track, which would’ve led us a long way off course. Dunning swung the ship around to 270 degrees and thought that we at least ought to see some landmarks, especially near the coast.
At this point I was concerned about fuel consumption, as we had full power on four engines for a long time and then full power on three engines after number two had failed. This meant that fuel must be low, even if we still couldn’t read the instruments.
I adjusted the engine power to eighteen hundred RPM (revolutions per minute), fuel mixture control to auto lean, twenty-nine inches manifold pressure, cowl flaps closed. Our airspeed dropped to 135 miles per hour, but it should’ve been ten miles per hour faster. We needed to maintain as much altitude as possible for two reasons: first, we were flying over enemy land all the way to the French coast, subject to murderous ground fire, and almost any German airplane could attack us at our slow speed; and second, the airplane was overweight and performing poorly on three engines, and if another engine quit the old ship would go down. We continued to fly in clouds to avoid being seen from the ground. Soon we were flying between cloud layers, and that made us feel more secure.
The frost slowly melted on the instrument panel and one by one, the glass faces on the gauges were cleaned by our gloved fingers so we could see what the instruments had to say. The three engines showed normal readings on all the instruments. The only disturbing reading was the fuel. The fuel in the three tanks was low. Number two engine’s fuel-over two hundred gallons-was trapped by a frozen fuel transfer valve, which I had unsuccessfully tried to open.
We slowly lost altitude at the rate of about one hundred to two hundred feet per minute. The fuel gauges [p. 83]were reading very low. We were flying between cloud layers and had no idea where we were. Dunning was simply flying due west on the magnetic compass-blindly guided, as it were, without a view of the ground or sea that might lie below.
Suddenly the warning light on number three engine’s fuel tanks flashed on, giving us about ten minutes of power before that engine would quit. Henry then excitedly cried, “There’s a hole in the clouds ahead!” Then he said, “There’s the coast of England!”
We all saw the small hole in the clouds that gave us a brief glimpse of the sea pounding on the rocks from our perch five thousand feet above. Dunning called for full flaps and landing gear down and began spiraling tightly through the aperture until we broke out of the overcast at about eight hundred feet. I called Dunning’s attention to the fuel warning light that had just flashed on for number one engine’s fuel tanks.
Dunning said, “Matheny, get the crew ready for a crash landing.”
I dashed back to the radio compartment and got the crew members to sit against the bulkheads, draw their knees up and place their heads down and forward.
I got back in time to see Harper pointing at a patch of ground off the right wing. “It’s an airfield,” he shouted in the noisy cockpit, where both side windows were open. Dunning banked the ship for a better look when the warning light for number four engine flashed on. I thought the number three engine was due to quit in about a minute or two, and I kept my eye on the fuel pressure gauge on the right instrument panel. Dunning lined up on the airfield, but I couldn’t see it. What I saw was a small dirt strip, about five hundred feet long, and an area at the end of it cleared of trees, but with hundreds of stumps sticking menacingly out of the ground. There was no time to check further. Dunning was trying to land, but there was a tail wind. Dunning badly overshot the small strip of ground and opened the three throttles full, but nothing happened. The propellers [p. 84]had been set at eighteen hundred RPM and full open throttles brought no additional power at sea level. I instantly brought the propellers up to full RPM and the turbo supercharger controls to forty-six inches. We weren’t fifty feet over the trees when the ship responded. Dunning brought her around at about 105 miles per hour. Dunning and Harper seemed to be struggling with the ship to keep it from stalling. The power held as the pilots made a base leg turn, while the fuel pressure went to zero on number three engine. Dunning and Harper got the ship lined up and the wheels touched down on the end of the small dirt strip. The big ship rolled on the main gear wheels at full brake, then skidded off the cleared land and on through the tree stumps, across a ditch, then another, finally coming to rest after slicing through a heavy wire fence. At that point the tail wheel hit the ground with a final crash.
Ted L. Weaver, Army Air Forces bomber pilot, World War II
Once we went on a bombing mission over Berlin. We’d spent nine-and-a-half hours in the air. We’d gone clear up to the North Sea and had come back over the northern part into Germany and flew right over Berlin. That was a sight I’ll never forget. We were flying at twenty-five thousand feet and the entire city of Berlin was invisible because of puffs of black smoke from anti-aircraft guns. There was a curtain thousands of feet deep over that whole area of Berlin. They were throwing up a blanket made from the shells exploding.
We made it through the mission and went back to England. Our bomb load that day was fifty-two one hundred pound bombs. We didn’t have that many bomb stations. To hang that many bombs, we’d have three bombs on a bomb station, with two of them hung over the top of the other one with cables. They’d release three at a time from a station. Sometimes they’d jam up and pile up in the bay if they didn’t go out just right. This trip we figured we’d gotten them all out. No one had gone back into the bomb bay to [p.85]really check to make sure, because it felt like we’d unloaded. Usually when you unload, your ship would take a definite rise.
When we got back to England, the squadron leader chose to go over to the west coast and drop down under the overcast and fly back to the base across England at five hundred feet. There were twelve bombers flying in formation, three directly below the lead ship, three down below them, and three above the lead. That spread us far enough to where the top three were flying in the clouds and the bottom three were jumping tree tops. That was how we were working it out. As we got a couple of minutes away from the base, my engineer tapped me on the shoulder again and said, “Skipper, you better ask permission to break away and land first if you can. We are low on fuel.”
I said, “How much fuel have we got?” He said, “Oh, about three tablespoons in each tank.” (He was kidding.)
I asked the navigator what our ETA (estimated time of arrival) back to the field was, and he said, “A minute and a half.” So I called the lead ship and received permission to break away and land ahead of the rest of the ships because of low fuel.
As we went over the field for the initial pass, I gave the break-away signal to notify my two wing men that I was breaking out of formation. That signal was three sharp dips of the nose. I made the first dip and as I came down on the second dip there was a thud on the plane. I went on and broke out of formation and swung around into a right hand pattern. My engineer came and tapped me on the shoulder again and said, “Skipper, you better make that a close base. Don’t spread it out or you are going to run out of gas before you can get her down.” So I cut the pattern short, made a real close pattern and steep approach, and put it down on the runway. As I rolled to the end of the runway, my two out board engines cut out for lack of fuel. My parking area was just off to the right of the end of the runway and about [p. 86]one hundred yards back and into a parking circle. I coasted as best I could, doing as little braking as I could get away with, and got around into my parking stall. As I spun it around to park, the other two engines quit. I was completely out of fuel. I’d hardly gotten the brakes set when the engine switches all shut off.
I’d just started climbing out of my pilot seat when I saw the commanding officer’s jeep come tearing into my parking area. We climbed down out of the bomb bay, and by then he’d pulled up to a halt and jumped out of his jeep and was running toward me. I called the crew to attention as they came out of the plane. I saluted the commanding officer. He didn’t wait for me to ask. He said, “What in the blazes are you doing taxiing down the runway with one of your crew members sitting on the bomb bay track cat walk?”
I turned to the crew and asked them, “What’s he talking about?”
My engineer stepped forward and said, “Well, Skipper, I didn’t want to worry you when you were coming in to land. Remember when you made that dip over the front of the field?”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “We had a bomb go out and it took the door off.” (The bomb bay doors were closed for landing.) He said, “So I got out on the cat walk and held the door up while you were taxiing so it wouldn’t drag.” The commanding officer and I didn’t have much to say. I said, “Well, I guess all we can do is wait until we hear where that bomb landed. We’ll hear, I’m sure.”
Fortunately, it was still unarmed. Even though it had broken off of the rack, it hadn’t fallen enough distance to spin the arming vein off-this takes a couple thousand feet. So it was still safe. Three days later the base got an irate call from one of the local English ladies who had gone out to hang her clothes and had found this bomb between the house and the clothesline.
[p. 87]Dallis A. Christensen, Army Airborne glider pilot, World War II
We loaded into gliders and C-47s to make an airborne drop across the Rhine River. I went across that morning in a CG4A glider. CG4A gliders had only a doped canvas skin that was strong and stretched over metal frames. In my glider I had a jeep, first aid supplies, a machine gun, machine gun ammunition, and one machine gun crew, plus a pilot and a copilot. There would be two gliders at the end of three hundred feet of nylon cable attached to the C-47tug ship. When we got to where we thought our drop zone was, the pilot would just reach up and hit a little release and we’d be on our own. We were apprehensive about whether or not we were going to reach the ground safely and about whether it was going to be a good landing or a bad landing when we made it to the ground.
When we got to where we were ready to drop, the Germans had moved in some batteries of anti-aircraft guns. They knew we were coming. The anti-aircraft shells would explode in the air, and it sounded like we were on the inside of a popcorn popper, the flak coming through the canvas.
After we reached the ground in our glider, or parachute, or whatever, we never knew if we were going to be where we could fight our way out or if we were going to be surrounded by the enemy. Fortunately, when our particular glider landed, we were able to get out. We were a little ways away from the enemy, so we were able to get our machine guns, ammunition, jeep, and supplies out of the glider. Then we moved up a large canal that went through the drop zone where we landed. We got up to the bank of the canal and saw men dropping in parachutes and gliders, some coming down in flames. We saw one glider land within fifty yards from us that was on fire before it ever hit the ground. When it hit the ground it just disintegrated. Of course, it was full of men.
[p. 88]David I. Folkman, Jr.,4 Air Force fighter pilot, Vietnam
After I’d been flying for six months, I had a mission to fly up to the Cambodian border where the Viet Cong had a camp. There was a truck they were using, a yellow truck. Our mission was to bomb that truck. My wingman and I flew in there with napalm to drop on this truck. Evidently it was out of gas or something, because they left it on the road. My wingman made four passes and I made three. We missed the truck all seven times because the trees were about two hundred feet high and the truck was on a narrow road. I was determined to get the truck, so I went below the tree level and dropped my bomb. I got the truck, but when I tried to get out, I saw the road had turned a little bit. I was so far below the trees that I didn’t have room to get out. I crashed into the top of a tree.
The airplane shook and I closed my eyes. I thought I was dead. A second later it was quiet and the airplane was still flying. I opened my eyes and saw I was about twenty feet above the trees, so I pushed the power up higher. I looked out the right side. Half of my wing was gone, cut right in half. My gas was flowing out and I knew there was no way I was going to make it home. I climbed for altitude and got up to about ten thousand feet. I contacted my wingman and he called for emergency rescue. I had to get out, [p. 89]so I selected an area that was clear of trees. I then said a prayer. I reached down and pulled up on the handles. I was out of the airplane and starting to float down. It took me about fifteen minutes to descend because I’d been up there so high. I tried very hard to stay in the center of that meadow, but the closer I got, the more the wind blew me towards the trees. I landed on a fallen tree on the edge of the meadow. I hit it just below my hip and it wrapped me around and slammed me against the ground. It knocked all of my breath out; I couldn’t breathe. After I regained my breath, I got on my knees and started to take off my parachute. I heard a helicopter, and as I was unbuckling my parachute, two guys on both sides of me grabbed me and ripped off my parachute. They then grabbed me and half carried me to the helicopter. They threw me in the back, and as we were going up I saw in the woods that the Viet Cong were coming. The helicopter flew me back to Bien Hoa Air Base. It was just a supply ship that had heard my wingman’s emergency call. The helicopter pilot watched me bail out and flew down to get me. Otherwise, I would’ve been captured by the Viet Cong.
John A. Duff,5 Army helicopter pilot, Vietnam
Everybody was trained and the aircraft were in top notch shape for the Tet Offensive of 1968, when the North Vietnamese decided to try an all-out assault against the Americans and everybody else in an attempt to turn the [p. 90]war around. Well, as it so happened, we were loaded, cocked, and ready for them.
They made the mistake of attacking in the north the day before they started in the south, so we had a full day’s notification that they were coming. We caught them, and we caught them dead. We caught entire battalions and regiment-sized units out in the open. We were firing not just mini-guns, which were the six-barrelled machine guns; we were also firing twenty-millimeter cannons and rockets. We were using the new rockets that had the fifteen pound warhead, which was equal in power to a 105-millimeter howitzer, and we were also firing what we called “nails,” which were fleshets.6As the round came out, it had a proximity fuse and a preset distance above the ground, like about fifteen feet or so, at which the warhead would explode, and it would rain little sharp nails with arrow-type pins into the target area. Unprotected troops were just murdered with those things-literally nailed to the ground. We caught troops out in the open with that kind of ordnance, and it would just slaughter them. So after one day, we took the body count of the troops we’d killed with just three Cobra helicopters. We had a body count of 780 North Vietnamese soldiers in one field. And that was just one day.
It started that day and it ran for about a week, fighting day and night. As fast as we could re-arm, refuel, and get some food and sleep, we were back in the air and shooting people. Finally, at the end of the week they gave out. They ran out of people and ammunition. They ran out of everything, and we chased them for another month-and-a-half back across the border into Cambodia. We decimated them. The Mekong Delta, after that, was practically pacified. There wasn’t over a half a dozen incidents per week in the entire delta. So it was a victory for us; yet in the news-[p.91]papers it was called a victory for the North Vietnamese, which I could never understand.
David I. Folkman, Jr., Air force fighter pilot, Vietnam
It was very challenging to get the enemy without getting the friendly troops. During one mission in South Vietnam, two F-100s attacked a rocky hill with caves in it. The Viet Cong were in these caves, and the friendly troops were down below trying to get these Viet Cong out of there. The Viet Cong could see the F-100s coming in and they were firing rockets at them. On the first pass, one of the F-100 pilots dropped his bomb. Afterward you could hear screaming—he’d hit the friendlies. He’d been so afraid to get near the enemy that he’d dropped his bombs short and hit our own people.
J. Keith Melville, Army Air Forces bomber pilot, World War II
The Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) is supposedly a medal given for merit. There’s a certain phoniness to these military awards. Let me explain how I received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
As pilots approached the end of their tour of duty, the public relations officer would say: “Write up what you consider to be your most meritorious mission, the one that displayed the greatest amount of bravery, getting the plane home with engines shot out, resisting enemy fighters, or some other noteworthy combat achievement. We’ll then take this and write it up as justification for receiving the DFC.” The descriptions of most DFCs had this connotation: “flying home on a wing and a prayer” stuff.
I told my squadron public relations officer that the only mission I’d accept a DFC for was the mission over Vienna when the group commanding officer wanted to court-martial me. The CO with other top brass of the 463d Bomb Group were flying in the lead plane, and our group was leading the entire Fifteenth Air Force over the target. I was the lead pilot of the 774th Bomb Squadron, which was [p. 92]flying off the right side of the lead squadron in typical formation off our squadrons in a diamond-shaped group. Apparently there was confusion in the lead plane as we approached the “initial point” where we were to start the bomb run. They’d let their air speed drop down as they turned to the right to start the bomb run, which meant my group had to cut our air speed even lower to stay in formation. The pilots in my squadron broke radio silence and complained they were about to stall out. I had to make a decision. I could pull out of formation and make a 360-degree turn, but that would put my squadron so far behind my group we’d never catch up before our group went over the target. We also might get in the way of the group behind us. I quickly asked my navigator if he had located the “initial point,” or IP, on the ground where the planes started the bomb run, and he said yes. I then asked the bombardier if he could set the target into his bomb sight. When he answered yes, I simply turned onto the bomb run ahead of the CO’s squadron and led our group and the whole Fifteenth Air Force over the target.
When the group had its debriefing after the mission, the CO was furious. He threatened disciplinary action for me, but my squadron commander stood up for me and the issue was dropped. I’d made the top brass of the group look bad and possibly denied their chance for glory—and justification for medals. But I was just doing what I had to do to complete a successful mission.
Lawrence H. Johnson, Army Air Forces bomber pilot, World War II
After one of our lone-wolf night strikes against Clark Air Field in the Philippines, we headed our B-24 bomber back to our base in New Guinea. It was only a few miles away from a Japanese air base, so we maintained radio silence. The navigator brought us over the coastline and I spotted a landing field that was very similar to ours, but it just didn’t seem right. After flying for several thousand miles in one direction and then going back, it’s very easy to be [p. 93]off a couple of miles. So I flashed the landing lights of our bomber, which was the signal to land, and we got a green light from the tower, but it still didn’t seem right. So I turned away from the runway and had the navigator and the radar man recheck. It just didn’t pan out. Unless my compass was off, there had been a change in direction of the runway. So, we went down the coast and found our base. We’d almost landed on a Japanese runway. On one of our first combat missions, we almost ended up as prisoners.
On another occasion when we were leading a flight of three aircraft in a group formation, the squadron had just left the target located on north Formosa. There was a fair amount of anti-aircraft fire over the target; in fact, one burst put a hole in our B-24. The number four engine stopped about the same time. It was very close to us and made a terrible noise—the co-pilot jumped about a foot out of his seat. Of course, we still had three engines, but the big problem was we couldn’t keep our formation speed. So my flight began to fall behind the squadron formation. Instructions said we were never to stay with a “wounded duck” because that meant you jeopardized other aircraft. If we were going to get picked off as a straggler, don’t take others down too.
Despite this, my wingmen stayed right with me. Finally I told them that I couldn’t stay up with the formation and they were to go join the rest of the formation. I thought that was the end of our crew. All this time the co-pilot kept insisting that I try to start the dead engine. That seemed a really stupid thing to do, because you don’t try to start a torn-up engine that might blow up the airplane. He never explained why he kept insisting that I try to start the engine. He finally said, with a plea in his voice that rang with sincerity, “I’d try to start that engine if I were you, Johnson.”
So I relented, “All right, I’ll just try to start it once.” We were far behind the other bombers, and there were fighters in the area. It started right up—what a wonderful, amaz-[p.94]ing feeling. The squadron reduced speed, allowing us to pull up into formation. My wingmen formed on us again. After we landed at our Philippine air base, I asked my co-pilot, “How did you know to start that engine?”
And he said, “Well, I might as well admit that when I jumped up in the air, I came down and kicked off the magneto ignition switch with my foot, and that’s why it went off.”
That really made me angry, because such a mistake could’ve killed the whole crew. To me, who’d always been told to be forthright, it seemed that he should’ve grabbed me and said, “Hey, I did that. Let’s just start it right up.” It’s somewhat humorous to recall, but it was deadly serious then.
Richard A. Baldwin,7 Air Force fighter pilot, Korea and Vietnam
In Korea one time we were dropping napalm, which is a jelly that explodes when ignited with certain fuses and charges. I remember sometimes the canisters would sit out in the rain and water would get down in the jelly and some of the fuses wouldn’t fire off when we dropped them. On a particular day I was following one of our aircraft on another course to protect him, but when he dropped his napalm, it didn’t explode. So I hopped down very low trying to do a polo mallet-type thing. I followed the napalm and kept it [p. 95]in sight. You were only about fourteen feet off the ground when you’d release them. I got right on the ground and could see them, so I pushed my nose over and put a .50 caliber machine gun through both of them. I was very lucky, more luck than skill I’m sure, that they exploded. But they exploded right in my canopy, right in front of my nose.
Of course, the great fireball that resulted consumed all of the oxygen that my airplane needed to keep combustion in the back. Going through it, I flamed out—I lost the fire in my engine. I was only fourteen feet or so from the ground and pulling up by this time. I had no life in the thing.
I just did all of the things naturally that you’d do through years and years of combat training. I didn’t even think about them. Hands went to switches, throttles came back, emergency fuels went on, emergency ignitions went on, back came the throttle, up went the throttle, and all of a sudden I got a start, which no one had ever done before like that. I got this start, and it almost shook all of the buckets off of the compressor, but I was able to get back home.
Werner Glen Weeks,8 Army helicopter pilot, Vietnam
Flying during a combat assault mission in the Ashau Valley, my ship was second in a daisy-chain of five helicopters that were taking combat troops into a very tight landing zone, or LZ. The LZ had space for only one aircraft and was in the middle of triple canopy jungle that had been blown away by artillery and bombs sufficient to make a “hover hole” into which we could descend.
[p. 96]As we strung our formation out to allow time for each aircraft to descend, drop its load, and climb back out, the lead aircraft reported it had a major malfunction. It had to land as quickly as possible. As the second aircraft of the formation, we now became lead-the first ones to test the flight conditions of the LZ.
Flying under combat conditions always required us to operate our helicopters close to the upper limits of their performance capabilities. Our weights were always near maximum, and we were constantly required to monitor atmospheric conditions to ensure there was sufficient lift to keep us in the air.
As we approached our “hover hole” in the trees, I monitored the gauges while the other pilot flew. We seemed to have enough power to make the two hundred-foot vertical descent to drop off our troops. As we descended below the tree tops we lost that bit of lift the wind had provided, and at maximum power we found ourselves short of sufficient power to remain airborne. In short, we began to fall out of the sky as the RPM began to bleed on our engine and main rotor system. The effect can best be described as similar to the experience of going up a hill in a cairn third gear and feeling the power wane until a shift to second is required to clear the crest of the hill. In this case, the lower our rotor RPM became, the more our blades flexed upward and the smaller the rotor disk became. Effective lift was decreasing until we reached a point that a crash was inevitable.
Our operating RPM normally would be 6,600. As we fell through 5,600, I knew we were incapable of sustaining flight. I left the gauges inside the aircraft and looked outside to find a place to crash “softly” in hopes of preserving all lives on board.
At that moment, when I knew death was possible, suddenly a voice came to me. I could hear it very audibly say, “Glen, let your heart be at ease, and watch.” My terrified heart was suddenly calm. My spirit became very meek.
[p. 97]With both feet on the floor of the aircraft and releasing my grip on the seat, I folded my arms and watched.
There was nothing I could do to aid the other pilot. His hands were full trying to maintain aircraft control. Then, not only did we stabilize, a miracle in itself, but we climbed. Coming up out of the hole and on our way, I knew that he understood the extent of the divine help we’d received to get out.
We relayed by radio the conditions we’d encountered, warning the other aircraft of the dangers. But the seasoned veterans who followed us went into the same landing zone, and all suffered damage for their decisions. That day my aircraft was the only one that came back undamaged.
Grant Warren,9 Air Force rescue, Vietnam
There was a naval lieutenant-commander stationed on a carrier out in the gulf off Saigon. We went in and pulled him out. This guy was as fast as you’ve ever seen. He must have set a record for the fifty-yard dash when he saw us. We picked him up and hauled him up right out of the clutches of the VC. He was a crazy guy. He was jumping for joy and hugging us.
We flew to the base and dropped him off. We called the carrier and a navy chopper came and got him. About three or four days later, here was this naval chopper sitting [p. 98]down on the runway. Our commanding officer said to me and the other guy I flew with, “That’s for you guys. You get out there and get on that.”
They flew us out to the carrier. The guy we rescued was waiting for us there with champagne. He said, “Come out here, guys.”
It was embarrassing being LDS. I said, “Well, sir, I don’t drink.”
He said, “What do you want? Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up, water, anything! I’ve got it.” He had this ice chest on his helicopter with all of this stuff in it. “You guys are great,” he said. We had T-bone steaks and baked potatoes and saw a movie and sat in air-conditioning, which was the greatest. That guy was eternally grateful to us.
Dennis E. Holden, Marine infantryman, Vietnam
We were flying back by helicopter to main camp. We passed over the Arizona territory, which was Indian country-it was where all the bad guys were. We were hit with machine-gun fire. That put the helicopter into an auto rotate spin, which means it was going down to crash. That was probably the most vivid thirty seconds of my life. A lot of panic goes on in front of your eyes. I remember I was sitting next to a Catholic chaplain who had his rosary out during all the panic and screaming. It was like a slow-motion movie. The priest was praying and crossing himself. I reached over and grabbed the rosary and tried to cross myself, and I wasn’t even Catholic.
The helicopter was burning when we crashed into the river and it immediately sank. As far as I could tell, I was the only survivor. I was able to make my way to the nearest bank that had a grassy over-hang. I knew the VC would be looking for our helicopter and any survivors. I lay in the water, completely concealed under this bank, and waited for the VC to arrive. Within an hour, the entire area was being combed by VC looking for survivors. The second day they began salvaging the helicopter ammunition and sup-[p.99]plies from the wreckage while they continued to search for survivors. I didn’t move for two days out of fear for my life and fear of being captured. On the second night the VC left, and I climbed out of the river and started working my way south, hoping to run into friendly troops. I spent the next two days hiding in the jungle during daylight and moving slowly at night. On the fourth night, an area to the west was bombarded with mortar fire. My instincts told me this was enemy fire and that there must be friendly troops in the area. At first light, I moved to the shelled area and, to my relief, found a patrol from the Second Infantry.
Ted L. Weaver, Army Air forces bomber pilot, World War II
When I first got there, 25 percent of our aircraft were lost every mission. This meant that after I flew four missions, as long as I kept flying, someone had to go down in my place. This made the odds seem a little bit tough. We were told by the army that if we dropped two successful bomb loads, we’d paid for our training and our ship. Therefore, anything we dropped after that was on the black side of the ledger. It wasn’t very encouraging to feel like you were that expendable.
At the time, we were required to fly twenty-five missions to fulfill a tour of duty. If 25 percent were being shot down each mission and you fly twenty-five missions, you don’t have a very good chance of getting through.
Richard A. Baldwin, Air force fighter pilot, Korea and Vietnam
We had what we called purple routes. They were the most deadly of all of the combat assignments. We were on a purple route, and I was the number four man of a crew of four because I was new. The flight leader and his number two man—his “element”—were flying at about two hundred to five hundred feet, whatever altitude it took for them to see what they could. They were cleared to use rockets, bombs, napalm, and .50-caliber machine guns.
They were down there for a little while, and then [p. 100]all of a sudden I felt the strangest thing come over me. I had this premonition. I looked up over my shoulder and I saw twenty-four planes bearing down on our group, but they hadn’t seen me. I did what any fighter pilot would do. I yelled into the microphone as best I could, “MiGs at three o’clock. “They were coming right down on my flight leader and his element. “Break, break!” I yelled.
At the same time they did this, I broke right into the center of their formation, firing my guns, forgetting at that moment I needed to try to get rid of my tip tanks. I was firing and flying, trying to dip my tip tanks; I couldn’t get them to drop. There I was, sitting with four hundred gallons of fuel on the end of my wings, which were absolutely an albatross around my neck. For some reason or another the device that blew them off wasn’t working.
So I took the aircraft and just put torque one way and the other, big heavy wing drops over and under, and literally threw them like a slingshot as far as I could until they finally came off and I registered the maximum G-forces. I looked out, expecting to see my wings all crooked and warped where these tanks came out. But they were okay, and I was able, then, to fly. But this caused me to lose my leader, my element leader, who was the number three man in the flight. I told him, “I’ve lost you. I’ve got my tip tanks off now. Have you?”
He said, ”Yes.”
I said, “I’ll try to join up with you where I can.”
I just took off after the MiGs. The one thing about the MiGs was that we could turn inside of them in a slower airplane, which gave us the advantage. We went at them and fought them. I got very lucky and got a couple of them. That night it came over the national news that our flight had been shot down by the MiGs.
[p. 101]LaVell Meldrum Bigelow,10 Navy fighter pilot, World War II
One of the initial strikes of the battle of the Coral Sea came after we sighted the Japanese carriers as they were coming down from the north. This carrier force was well protected by fighters and anti-aircraft fire. Our group of eighteen dive bombers approached the Japanese ships at an attack altitude of fourteen thousand feet. Just as I was nosing over into my dive, a Japanese Zero came up on my tail. This was going to be a very hairy attack with this Zero on my tail and with the anti-aircraft fire. I had to make an immediate decision whether to continue down in a steady dive or to take evasive action, which would ruin my aim and probably force me to miss my target. So while I was in this dive I thought, “I’ll continue my dive and rely on the Lord to protect me from being injured.” So I persisted in my dive and held it steady. As far as I know, that Japanese pilot didn’t fire one shot. If he did, I didn’t see it, and nothing hit my plane. He followed me all the way down through the dive without shooting, and my plane wasn’t hit with anti-aircraft fire either. My bomb struck the Japanese carrier. After I pulled out of the dive, he went his way and I went my way. For that particular attack I was awarded the Navy Cross. But it was also a lesson to me that I needed to rely on the Lord and put my fate in his hands. I went through the entire war without being injured or having my plane hit.
[p.102]John A. Duff, Army helicopter pilot, Vietnam
I was shot down a total of four times. Two of the times I was shot down because I made dumb mistakes. The other two times I was shot down just because I got trapped—no fault of my own, but because we were outgunned.
The first time I was shot down was one of those late afternoons when the VC started to shoot at us. Out my right hand door I could see where “Charlie” was. I could see the muzzle of his gun flashing. I kicked in the right rudder pedal and took it into a very tight turn to be able to bring my guns around to bear and let the door gunners and crew chief fire at the VC. But in so doing, I lost all forward momentum and made myself almost a stationary target in the air. So even those poor slobs down there who didn’t know how to shoot at helicopters could shoot at us, and they poked several great big holes in the aircraft.
Of course, all the caution panels came on, the engine quit, all the beepers started flying, everybody started screaming. We were leaking fuel and hydraulic fluid, and we were about 150 feet in the air. All I hoped was that I could just get it on the ground in one piece, hopefully without getting everybody killed. So I straightened it out and brought it over. I knew where the bad guys were, and I didn’t want to land next to them. But I didn’t have too much of a choice, because we were practically on top of them when they hit us. So I just put it down out in the middle of a rice paddy, which happened to be right between the good guys and the bad guys; right in the middle of the firefight. As we touched the ground, we jumped out into the rice paddy, which was about two feet of water and about a foot-and-a half of mud. Fortunately, no one was wounded. We were up to our necks and hiding behind rice stacks. Then we just slithered on away from the ship back over toward the good guys.
When we were hit, they brought in the air force and began air strikes, and it got dark, and “Charlie” went [p. 103]away. The big Chinook helicopters came in and lifted out the broken aircraft and us and took us home. Fortunately no one was wounded. As for the aircraft, the only damage was where a bullet had penetrated the transmission. The next day, it was up and flying.
The second time I was shot down, we were flying in support of a ground operation due west of Saigon in an area notorious for having people in concrete bunkers who would shoot at anybody. So they sent in the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] ground troops to try to root them out of there, and I had my fire team flying fire support for it. But the enemy was shooting back, and I should’ve been smart enough to see that our suppressing fire wasn’t doing any good. The big orange balls were coming up faster than ours were going down, and one of them hit the ship. It killed the door gunner, wounded the crew chief, blasted me with shrapnel in the arm and side, and blew Plexiglas all through our faces. Fortunately the co-pilot wasn’t injured and the airplane was still flying. So I gave control to the co-pilot, and we broke off and got back to the aid station.
The third time I got shot down was when we had to patrol the water one night. We had .50-caliber or 12.5-millimeter shells hit the gun ships we were flying. This blew them all to the devil—blew the front canopy off, hit the transmission, put two 12.5s through my instrument panel, blew all my instruments away. The gunner up front was wounded, and the bird was pretty well worthless. All we could do was just set it down in the jungle in bad guy territory. As soon as we hit the ground, we were under fire constantly from all sides. I pulled the gunner out and brought him down to the dry paddy. I applied the tourniquets as best as I could with belts and a first-aid kit. Then we waded through the rice paddy over to the canal.
The bad guys searched the canal, but somebody was watching over us, so they didn’t find us. We stayed there until the next day. With the battle still continuing, I crawled up a side-running ditch and got the gunner out of the wa-[p.104]ter. I could see that he was dead, so I put him underneath some bushes. Finally a good guy helicopter arrived and pulled us out.
The fourth time I was shot down, I was flying cover for a small operation up along the border of Cambodia. I didn’t realize the bad guys were there. We were flying very close cover for “families” as they were walking through the tall elephant grass, and I was keeping visual contact with them because we didn’t want to shoot the wrong people. What I thought were good guys turned out to be bad guys, and they caught me in a crossfire. They had a habit of setting up three .50-caliber machine guns in a triangle as a helicopter trap, and sure enough, they trapped me in a crossfire among those three guns. They literally blew us out of the sky. The tail rotor came off. We crashed to the ground and the ship rolled over on its side, tearing the lead rotor blade off and breaking the canopy. We moved back away from the bad guys and hid in the elephant grass until the good guys got to us and took us out.
Ray T. Matheny, Army Air Forces flight engineer and gunner, World War II
Within about five miles of the target area I saw a B-17 on our left coming opposite our path. Harper called out the B-17 on the intercom as a “friendly” passing by. I thought it was mighty peculiar that a B-17 crew would fly in that direction. I adjusted the reticles on my gun sight to seventy-five feet for a fuselage length. I waited. Then suddenly bright flashes appeared at the port gun positions. “I knew it,” I exclaimed. “He’s a Nazi!” I brought the gun sight down and framed the fuselage. I could now see an Iron Cross painted on the fuselage where the American star insignia was supposed to be. I fired a long burst as he passed but quit firing because in tracking him I risked hitting other B-17s that were nearby. Harper let out an oath over the intercom and said it was one of our ships. I yelled back that it had Iron Crosses on it. Dunning said that my guns had bro-[p.105]ken his windscreen because I’d fired when my guns were angled over this head. I was disappointed when nobody else fired on the enemy B-17, and I still had a running argument with Harper.
Richard A. Baldwin, Air Force fighter pilot, Korea and Vietnam
I had a good young friend when I first arrived in Japan. I was on my seventh mission and he’d already finished his tour of duty. He was a second lieutenant, a bright eyed fellow, as I remember him. I was living in the same tent with him. He had his bags all packed and his orders to go home. He was just sitting waiting to leave the next day. A call came down for a pilot. They had someone drop out and they needed a spare. Someone couldn’t fly for some reason.
So this young man, against orders, jumps into a flying suit, runs up to operations, gets in the airplane, and flies up to Taegu, which was where we operated out of for our fuel and our rearming. Then he flew all the way up to the Yalu. There were MiGs there that day and he caught a MiG between a cloud level of about thirteen hundred feet. This MiG was just cruising along, not doing anything. He didn’t think anybody would be up there flying. He was just getting a little good weather time before he went back down to the Yalu and landed.
This young fellow was in a flight off our airplanes. We had a problem with our guns. If we didn’t get the gun heaters on soon enough or if they weren’t working right when we pushed the button to fire them, the bullet just kind of went out the end of the gun. We couldn’t shoot them. It was really a bad situation for us. It was cold up there, so we had to make sure our gun heaters were on before we ever left the ground so that they’d be warm by the time we got up.
So here’s the flight leader of that airplane getting behind this MiG and trying to squeeze him off. He said, “I can’t shoot. My gun heaters are acting up.”
[p.106]This young lad said, “Move out of the way and I’ll come in and I’ll get the MIG.”
The MiG hadn’t seen them yet, and the number one leader didn’t want to lose the chance to shoot down that MiG. He said, “No, give me a little while, give me a little while.” They were arguing in the air. We could hear them.
Finally the leader laid out. He couldn’t play it much longer because they were getting too close to that MiG. This young fellow said, “I’m coming in, get out of the way.” The MiG was up in front and the flight leader was just closing in on him. He pulled way inside the flight leader, and of course he was now more visible because he was more up front and off to the side of the MiG. The MiG pilot evidently looked over his shoulder and saw this airplane coming. He broke back to the left and had a mid-air collision with this young pilot who had flown his last mission and was on his way home.
He’d written home and told them he was coming and was all packed. Then he flew one more mission. He finally got his MiG, but the MiG got him, too.
C. Grant Ash, Army Air Forces bombardier, World War II
I remember seeing bursts of flack above us. “Hey,” I said, “these guys are not very good.” Then somebody said, “They aren’t, are they? They’re even bursting below us now.” The next burst went right through the middle of us. They cut us in half.
I thought the boy in the turret was dead. He didn’t move. I could see him through two small windows, but I had to open two doors to get to him. He was facing straight forward, so I couldn’t see his face. He didn’t move. I watched him while I put on my parachute.
But he wasn’t hurt. He was just sitting there. The explosion hadn’t left anything around him. All he had were the handles on his turret and the freezing cold air at eighteen thousand feet blowing in his face. I remember one .50-caliber machine gun was bent like a pretzel off to the right [p. 107]and the other one off to the left and down. I pulled him back in and closed the doors. I snapped his chute on him and opened the nose-wheel doors. I said to him, “Are you ready to go?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “Follow me.” I bailed out. I turned around and saw him bail out after me.
Ray T. Matheny, Army Air Forces flight engineer and gunner, World War II
The weather was miserable, with a scattered ceiling around twelve hundred feet. It was pitch dark when we took off. Airplanes were trying to find each other and to avoid the low-lying clouds. There seemed to be more confusion than ever, and our crew kept calling out nearby planes to avoid a collision. We’d gotten to about two thousand feet when I saw planes blinking their taillights in code and using their wing position lights. My adrenaline output sped up as the encircling lights and dim, ghostly outlines of ships in the changing light milled close to each other. Then it happened.
I saw two sets of lights and the faint outlines of two B-17s going in opposite directions. I tapped Dunning on the shoulder and pointed, saying nothing. The two sets of lights then swiftly came together, culminating in a huge fireball, and then the fiery wreckage of both airplanes separated and dropped to earth, where there were more explosions and fires. ”
God!” exclaimed Harper.
“Oh, Jesus,” gasped Dunning.
I thought of the twenty men who had just died instantly, without a chance to escape the holocaust. We saw other planes veer away from this deadly course. It was an accident we’d feared many times. Our flight was to take us over the North Sea, and I thought of another B-17 that looped three times before plunging straight down and the men who bailed out over [p. 108]that deadly cold water. I didn’t like any part of these flights, but there remained a sense of duty and the righteousness of our involvement.
The Friesian Islands appeared. This coast had become familiar to me these past two months. There was always a feeling of anticipation when we entered airspace over German-controlled land. No enemy yet.
North of Hamburg I got the urge to go to the bathroom. The pains were persistent, but the only thing I could do was grit my teeth. Finally we were over the Baltic Sea going northeast, then we began the slow left turn over Kiel Bay. The urge to go became more painful. I tried concentrating on the unusual condensation trails that floated in the rarified atmosphere for hundreds of miles. I looked at the free-air temperature: it was minus fifty-six degrees centigrade. That was terribly cold and required me to cycle the propellers every fifteen minutes. I checked on everyone’s electrically heated underwear to see if anyone needed the shorting wires I had ready. All were okay, but the pains persisted. I began to fantasize about G-S and his Battle Aces and the stories of Spads11against Fokker D-7s12in World War I. The pulp magazine of G-S had been one of my favorites through high school. The pain in my bowels persisted.
Now near the target came the first flak. Our group flew the low position in a combat wing staggered laterally and stacked at about three thousand feet in three groups. Our ship was the last and lowest airplane of the combat box. There were about forty planes in this mighty armada, each streaming lazy contrails of ice crystals. The flak wasn’t accurate enough to bring any ships down, but the black puffs were pretty close.
No fighters. Perhaps our diversion tactic had worked after all. The bomb run was made in clear weather and the bombs got away without serious detriment. Now we’d head for home. “One-oh-nines high at six o’clock,” came Bigner’s voice, followed by a call of more from the east.
“Where’s the famous fighter cover?” I wondered as I cranked the fuselage dimensions of the Messerschmitt-109 into the gun sight. High above us, at about thirty-five thousand feet, I judged, were contrails made by planes flying in slow circles. I kept my eye on these distant planes. An Me-109 came from abeam and I was ready, tracking and firing short bursts. He did a split S and dove away, but no smoke. Another came in high astern. I switched the sight to wing dimensions of thirty-two and one-half feet. The fighter’s nose showed sparkles of fire from its two thirteen millimeter machine guns. The pilot would use the tracer bullets to range the target. Then as he drew closer, both wings near the roots lit up—the cannons were firing their deadly load. I could see thin smoke streamers overshoot our right wing. I fired and tracked as quickly as I could. The fighter disappeared but would attack again.
I glanced upward to keep track of the high flyers. They were in close enough for me to see that they were American P-51 and P-38 fighters. I announced the good news over the intercom. I looked at my faithful Piccard watch: it was 1130 hours. The escort would be with us until we left the coast.
The fight continued. “Why don’t the fighters come down here where the enemy is?” I mumbled. Then I noticed Bigner’s guns firing astern. The burst was long. I glanced back in time to see his gun barrels come to rest pointed upwards. He’d dropped his guns. Why? My turret was swinging around when I saw the Me-109 bearing on the tail and firing all guns. The Me-109 pilot had shot our tail gunner and was still coming. I was trying to get my sight on him when I saw Smith’s radio post gun barrel suddenly go up to the rest position. “Smith’s got it too,” raced through my mind. “I’ve got to get that Jerry.” I was about to press the [p. 110]triggers when the Me-109 disappeared into our contrail. “So that’s his game,” I thought. “I’ll be ready next time.”
My sight was set on the dimensions of the Me-109’s wings and I’d cranked in a range of about two hundred yards in anticipation of a renewed attack using our contrail as a screen. We were the lowest ship and had no protection from the others. I called Tex in the ball turret to alert him to the Me-109’s tactic. He was busy and didn’t answer.
I hadn’t long to wait. The nose of the Me-109 came up suddenly, and as the pilot was leveling off, I was adjusting the reticles of the turret sight to fit his wing span. This target was changing speed, and as he drew closer I had to move the bicycle-type controls to properly frame him. I began firing at about the same time he did. I could see the flashes of his guns so close now, maybe seventy-five yards away. I fired a long burst. The right gun quit firing. I kept firing the left gun. I saw smoke streamers from twenty or thirty-millimeter cannon shells passing a few inches over my turret. It was a duel now, both of us firing point blank.
The Me-109 was close when I saw pieces of the engine cowling fly off. The 109’s guns quit firing, but the plane kept coming. I saw the propeller of the 109 almost stop as I poured steady fire into it. The 109 was now about thirty feet away and had coursed slightly up and to the right. “I killed the pilot,” I thought, “and he’s going to crash into us.” I yelled into the intercom, “jump it,” for evasive action. The maneuver command was for both pilots to pull back suddenly on the control column, then push down to avoid crashing into planes above and to miss an oncoming aircraft. I anticipated the maneuver by placing my forehead solidly against the gun sight, hunching down, and throwing both arms up over the tops of the ammunition cans to keep the ammunition from being thrown out through the top of the turret when the pilots would push down on the control column.
I wasn’t surprised when the explosion knocked me [p. 111] out of the turret onto the floor. I thought, “God Almighty, he rammed us. The ship’s going down.” Our ship rolled onto its back, then came around right side up. I grabbed my parachute, which I’d attached to the longerons with break-away safety wire. I quickly fastened the right hook of the chest pack onto my parachute harness. Then, to my amazement, the parachute was drawn out of my grasp. I began to be pushed to the floor as G-forces started to build up. We were in a flat spin. I rolled onto the floor and tried to get the left parachute hook snapped on. I glanced up and saw Harper trying to reach his parachute, which was hooked to the back of his seat. I saw Dunning vainly trying to control the plane so the others could bail out.
The long oxygen hose I’d installed earlier kept me alive as I struggled on the floor. I rolled again, this time into the crawl way joining the nose section with the cockpit. I crawled forward on my belly through control cables and wires that were drawn out of place by the centrifugal force of the flat spin. Black smoke obscured my vision. With great effort I crawled up to the little escape hatch on the left side of the fuselage next to the number two propeller. It would’ve been so simple just to lie there and die, but some force within kept me struggling, like a dying animal in a trap. I saw Doty lying on his back, wearing his steel helmet, flak suit, Mae West,13 and flight gear, with one hand stretched out trying to reach the hatch handle. I couldn’t help him. His long-standing premonition that he wouldn’t survive combat was being fulfilled.
I grabbed the red handle of the escape hatch and pulled the hinge pins out. The door should’ve flown off into space, but the twisting of the fuselage in the spin must have held it in place. I had no thoughts of helping Doty; it was a case of putting all my remaining strength into saving my own life. The last thing I remember was pulling down the hatch latch handle and beating my fist on the door.
My next conscious moment I was free-falling, and my chest pack, still hooked only to the right side, was beating me in the face. I knew that I was falling and free of the airplane. I pulled at the D-ring without regard for how high I was. The twenty-four-foot canopy spilled out with a shock that hurt my chest. As it turned out that day, Nelsen had gotten my chute harness and I’d gotten his. Nelsen was about twenty-five pounds heavier than I and his harness was loose on my body. Also, the single hook on the right side of the harness pulled it sideways, displacing all of my left front ribs when my chute opened. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful sight to see the white silk canopy of the parachute.
My consciousness of what was happening came in stages. First, I noticed that I could no longer hear the roar of the bombers. A few seconds earlier, I remembered, there were forty bombers in the heat of battle, each spitting out an awful noise of engines and propellers, plus the chatter of guns. Now all was silent, and I looked up in vain for the bombers. They were gone! Then I realized that my free fall had been a long way—thousands of feet—and that the bombers and fighters were traveling away at 250 miles per hour while I was going down. But I could still hear my plane making the terrible sound of over speeding propellers and I saw the flaming wreck gyrating down. I let out a choked, painful cry, “Please, God, let them live.” But I knew that it was too late; the crew was dead. That was my first plea to God for anything and I didn’t expect a response; I only hoped for one.
I saw a spinning, smoking fighter plane crash in the distance. It looked like an Me-109, but I couldn’t be sure. Then it began to rain small pieces of airplane. I could see the pieces hit the silk canopy, then slowly slide off the rounded surface past me. One side of the metal was o.d. [olive drab] war paint and the other was light green, zinc chromate. I became aware of a piece of burning wing drift-[p.113]ing away from me as it flipped over and over. It looked like the outer panel of a B-17 wing. In what sequence all of these events took place I don’t know. Undoubtedly several were going on at the same time, but my consciousness would only let me focus on one at a time.
I looked below me. I could see about four to six power lines and figured they each carried high voltage. I thought, “How did they teach us back in Texas to guide a parachute? Oh yes, we had fifteen minutes of parachute instruction that day. Let’s see, the instructor said something about pulling on the risers.”
I pulled on the left riser and the chute responded by swinging me like a clock pendulum. I tried again, but with the same result. The wires were getting closer.
I could see a small village strung along a road made up of eight to ten houses. A few people were moving toward where I figured to strike the high-tension wires. There was another road below me covered with snow. The wires came up fast, and in desperation I pulled down on the left riser until the chute collapsed. The parachute let me straight down, past the wires. I let go of the risers and the parachute popped open just in time to break my fall. I landed in a canal and broke through the ice. The canal apparently had been nearly drained for the winter and had only about two feet of water in it. I lay there on the ice with my legs submerged in the water, greatly relieved but with a sense of burden—a burden I didn’t understand. This ended my short career as a combat flyer in the Eighth Air Force.
Grant Warren, Air Force rescue, Vietnam
I really hadn’t given much thought about fear or anything until I actually got there and went on my first mission. I went with a brand new pilot, a first-lieutenant air force pilot, and two other fellows.
We went out and we picked up this navy pilot. We’d identified where he was. I saw him running to the bushes as he was being chased by several Viet Cong. We lowered [p. 114]the hoist collar. He came running and dove at the hoist collar. We immediately started the hoist going up. As we were bringing him up, he was shot several times. He took about eight rounds of AK-47.
When we got him in the chopper, I immediately started intravenous fluids. By the time we got back to the base he was dead. I was the medic in charge on the chopper, and the pilot and I had to get the dead pilot’s identification so we could officially transfer the body to this army doctor, who would send him to the morgue. I reached into this guy’s pocket and took his wallet out. As I took his wallet out, a fold-out picture album dropped out. I can still remember the picture of him standing there with his really nice-looking blond wife and his blond little girls. It blew me away. That was my first mission. I immediately got all shook up and vomited all over the flight line. The lieutenant also vomited all over the flight line. I was a non-drinker, but I’m sure that the lieutenant went out and got thoroughly smashed to forget it. I didn’t have anything to do, so I went back and just tried to forget it and tried to talk to some people about it.
2. Ray T. Matheny was born 15 February 1925 in Los Angeles, California. Matheny graduated from John C. Fremont High School in Los Angeles. At eighteen he entered the U.S. Army Air Forces to prepare for his service in World War II. For Matheny, who joined the LDS church in 1951, aviation has been a career occupation. In addition, in 1968 Matheny received a doctorate in archeology; he is currently a professor of archeology and anthropology at Brigham Young University.
4. David I. Folkman was born 9 March 1929 in Elyria, Ohio. He graduated from Ogden (Utah) High School. Folkman earned an associate’s degree in civil engineering from Weber Junior College (now Weber State University). He then attended Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, earning bachelor’s, master’s, and doctor’s degrees in history. When he was forty years old, married, and had three daughters (ages fifteen, eleven, and seven) and two sons (ages ten and five), he left his teaching position at the Air Force Academy to serve in Vietnam. After retiring as a major from the Air Force, Folkman worked as a real estate developer for eighteen years. He now teaches history at the Utah Valley Community College in Orem, Utah.
5. John A. Duff was born 16 December 1936 in Paul, Idaho. Following his graduation from high school, Duff attended Idaho State University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in architecture. Duff was married and had two boys (ages six and four) and a daughter (three months) when he began his first tour of duty in Vietnam. He had two tours: the first in 1965-66 and the second in 1968-69. Since his retirement from the army as a colonel in 1984, Duff has been a financial planner in Fairfax, Virginia.
7. Richard A. Baldwin was born 21 February 1923 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Baldwin graduated from East (Salt Lake) High School, studied political science for three years at the University of Utah, married, and had a son (1948) before going to Korea in 1950. He had a second tour of duty in Korea in 1953. Prior to his 1970-71 tour in Vietnam, Baldwin earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Syracuse University in 1959, a master’s degree in public administration from American University in 1968, and a master’s degree in educational administration from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1969. He was a professor of aerospace studies at Brigham Young University from 1971 to 1973. Baldwin retired as a colonel from the air force to pursue business development interests.
8. Werner Glen Weeks was born 8 September 1945 in Woodland, California. After graduating from Provo (Utah) High School and studying business at Brigham Young University for three years, Weeks joined the army. He was twenty-four and single when he went to Vietnam. Weeks retired as a major from the Utah National Guard in 1989. He is a home preparedness and financial consultant in Salt Lake City.
9. Grant L. Warren was born 12 September 1947 in Southgate, California. Before Warren’s service in the U.S. Air Force began at age twenty, he graduated from Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado, joined the LDS church in 1964, and earned an associate’s degree from Chaffey Junior College in Alta Lorna, California. After his Vietnam experience, Warren worked for some time as an executive for the Boy Scouts of America. He currently owns and operates a Lacey, Washington, business that provides community-based residential services to developmentally disabled adults.
10. LaVell Meldrum Bigelow was born 12 November 1917 in Provo, Utah. After attending Brigham Young High School, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in physics and geology from Brigham Young University, and marrying, Bigelow joined the U.S. Navy following the United States’s entrance into World War II. After his combat experience he earned a doctorate in business administration. Bigelow retired as a captain from the U.S. Navy and now works as a business consultant, a part-time university teacher, and an organ builder.