The air war had been raging over Europe for two years by the time our elements of the Eighth Air Force began to arrive late in 1942 and deploy across the misty English countryside. With Hitlers tanks and massed infantry bogged down in the Soviet Unions maw, it was about the only active form of combat going. As it raged, it kept on creating and re-creating itself in a furious upward curve, attackers and defenders alike improvising tactics on a round-the-clock basis, ransacking science and engineering for new technology, any kind of edgenew bomber specs and new fighter-plane wrinkles, new calibrations and ever-higher ranges in antiaircraft fire, radar, rockets, machinegunnery. It was a Buck Rogers serial playing at high speed up there, except the gadgets and the death were real.
In early June the Royal Air Force had launched its first thousand-plane assault, a raid on the west German city of Cologne. Most of those planes were two-engine jobs with limited range, and many of them were scrounged from civilian and training stock. The damage was relatively light, but with that strike and a couple more like it at Bremen and the Ruhr, the British flyers were at least delivering some payback for that horrific summer of 1940. They scored a psychological point with the strutting Luftwaffe chieftain, Hermann Goering, who had sneered that if any enemy aircraft ever showed up over Germany, his colleagues could call him by a Jewish name.
Still, the British experience with aerial warfare had so far been mixed, at best. As we were getting used to our Spam-and-powdered-egg mess-hall breakfasts and tepid English beer, a high-level controversy was crackling over how we were to be used in the bloody months just ahead of us.
No one disputed the urgent need for a strategic bombing campaign of unprecedented scope, targeting Nazi war factories, submarine pens, and transportation centers. The Allies would have to depend on this kind of counterthrust to blunt the powerful Wehrmacht until the West could mobilize and mount a massive land invasion of Europeat least a year in the future. The English landscape, or vast stretches of it from north to south and east to west, was in the process of being given over to the rapid construction of landing strips, hangars, barracks, and officers quarters.
The issue that divided the American and the British bombing commands centered on the prickly question of daylight bombing as opposed to nighttime raids. The RAFs debacles at Brest and Wilhelmshaven had soured their faith in daylight missions, not to mention the B-17 itself. The Army Air Forces, commanded by Gen. Ira Eaker with Gen. Carl Spaatz as his deputy, had analyzed those debacles and spotted the flaws that led to them. They were convinced not only that higher-level, skillfully executed daylight raids could work, but that night bombing, with its notorious imprecision, would be a catastrophic waste of materiel and energy.
On that matter of precision, we Yanks had a piece of technology that, we were convinced, would let us lay our bombs down as accurately as Bob Feller painting the corners of home plate with his fastball. It was the Norden bombsight, named for its inventor, Carl Norden, back in 1931. The Norden made use of a gyroscope to stabilize the bombardiers telescopic sights and neutralize the airplanes pitches and rolls. It employed a clockwork-like mechanism to synchronize data fed into it by the bombardieraltitude, speed, drift, the weight of the bombsand signal the exact moment for optimum release. The RAF had not had access to the Norden, and the Germans were licking their chops to lay hands on its makeup. Meanwhile, the Army Air Forces had it and we were itching to show our British friends how it could "drop a bomb down a pickle barrel."
First we had to make a critical adjustment in our bombing-run technique that would allow us to maximize the Nordens potential. Then we had to persuade the British to let us do our stuff, which entailed warding off a subtle campaign to fold the Army Air Forces into the command of the Royal Air Force.
As these debates swirled above us, we boys whod carry out the eventual plan were concerned with far weightier questions. Where should we drop our bags? How do you drive on the left? Are English girls prettier than American girls?
The search for billeting turned up a lucky strike for the 91st.
Assigned to a drab, newly built air base called Kimbolton when we touched down, we resigned ourselves to a barracks routine of damp, sterile Quonset huts and scrubby surroundings far out in the countryside.
Then our pilots encountered a happy problemthe runways on this base had been built for fighter planes, not 60,000-pound B-17s. Our big planes were tearing up tarmac as they dropped heavily out of the skies. I say happy because that problem led the 91sts Group Commander, Col. Stanley Wray, to look for more suitable digs for us. He was ordered to do so by none other than General Eaker himself. And Colonel Wrays dutiful search turned up a site that, once we pounced on it, made us the envy of every other group on the whole island of England.
It was all the more delicious for us because technically, we had no business being there.
The place was called Bassingbourn.
The Colonel stumbled across Bassingborn in mid-October. Bassingbourn was as far from a cookie-cutter, built-from-scratch base as you could imagine. It was in fact a delightful, improbable remnant of medieval England. This tidy little parish and village sat toward the western end of Cambridgeshire, near the village of Royston in the ancient kingdom north of London known as East Anglia. The old stone libraries and gaunt towers of Cambridge University, founded in the twelfth century, were just a medium-range bicycle ride away.
Clustered on Bassingbourns flat green pea-and-barley fields, where sheep grazed in the fine rain and 500-year-old cathedral spires dotted the horizon, were three spacious old redbrick estates, well restored and set behind hedges and flower gardens. They were Bassingbourn Richmond Manor and Castles Seymours and Rowsey. Brooding over this peaceful scene was the gothic Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, built in the fourteenth century and housing a register that dated to 1558.
It wasnt the Vanderbilt Estate, but it was a lot closer to that than Id ever expected to come in the middle of an international shooting war.
In the late 1930s, as England warily viewed the remobilization of its Great War enemy on the Continent, the trustees of these estates had permitted the Royal Air Force to build a spacious airfield, complete with hangars and outbuildings, on the village grounds. This was the enchanting enclave that Col. Stanley Wray came upon in what had been merely a humble search for an adequate airfield.
There were some knotty details to unravel. The most vexing was that the RAF had already laid claim to Bassingbourn. This is what General Eaker informed the Colonel, in no uncertain terms, as soon as he had located the site on a military map. "You cannot take over a British base without their permission," he admonished Colonel Wray sternly by telephone, "and I dont have their permission."
Colonel Wray demonstrated exemplary resourcefulness under fire. "Well, Sir," he responded, "we are already moved in here."
"You mean," said the General, "that youve already moved your entire group into those buildings? The planes? Everything?"
"Yes, Sir," said the Colonel.
This was not great news to General Eaker, who already had his hands full trying to soothe the RAFs rancor over the upstart Yanks determination to run the European bombing campaign from British soil. Something about the Colonels audacity must have appealed to him, because he refrained from a direct order to move out. "You may have to move again," he warned the group leader. "Ill look into this, but I dont know exactly what we can do about it. Well see."
Whatever the General said worked pretty well. We stayed there for the duration. Bassingbourn became known as a showcase, the base for billeting and entertaining visiting dignitaries both military and civil. Politicians came there. Generals. Bob Hope stayed overnight en route to Europe and we did our best to trade wisecracks with him. A waistgunner/trainer named Clark Gable passed through, as did a pretty, young war correspondent whom I escorted to London a couple of times during her stay there.
My three officers and I dived into our new quarters. We claimed the upstairs suites of one of those old estateswarm, comfy bedrooms, good baths, a lounge, even a kitchen in case we needed one. I doubt we could do as well these days if we went through a travel agent.
Both sides might have been improvising this air war as it went along, but everybody played by one rule, the oldest in the history of organized killing. Sheer numbers usually win. In the fall of 1942, England had more or less turned into one big tarmac. Some 55,000 American servicemen and women of the Army Air Forces had arriveda fraction of the 350,000 who would pass through by wars end.
An appalling percentage of these young men were headed for disaster. The toll on those who flew aloft was horrific. More than 30,000 fliers would be killed or missing, and another 30,000 ended up as prisoners of war. Two out of every three boys who flew missionsand by "boy," Im talking about an average age of twentywere killed. The Eighth Air Force took more casualties in World War II than the Marine Corps and the Navy combined.
East Anglia alonean area about the size of Vermontwas the site of 130 bases. The average population was about 2,500, consisting of pilots and crews, maintenance and repair people, radiomen, cooks, clerks, and medical staff.
Let me tell you about one small group of them. The crew of the Memphis Belle.
Capt. Jim Verinis, my "second" pilot, I already mentioned. At twenty-four, he was one of two guys older than meI was twenty-three then. Jim would be with us only for our first five missions before he got a plane of his own, but Ill always think of him as the copilot of the Belle.
Jim was an all-state basketball player from Stamford, Connecticut, where hed developed a deadly two-handed set shot. He went on to the University of Connecticut, and thats where he must have developed his deadly skill at poker. I never saw a man who played a hand better than he did. After the war I went into business with Jim, and at this writing he is still my best friend in the world, closer to me than my blood relatives.
Staff Sgt. Quinlan I mentioned toothe tailgunner. He could sing "The Wabash Cannonball" better than anyone I ever met, he was the guy who swung the Belles naming vote for me, and now hed have to keep those Focke-Wulf 190s from running up on the Belle from behind with the twin machineguns of his that he called Pete and Repeat. J.P. was born for that taskhe loved to shoot. Hed honed his skills potting squirrels and deer on his homestead farm outside Yonkers, New Yorkland long since swallowed up by suburbia. He used up more ammunition than anybody else on the plane. Hed rack up two confirmed kills during our missions and many more that were not confirmed only because the necessary witnesses were busy fighting. Quinlan was a Jimmy Cagney look-alike with those deep eyes and that tight mouth set high above his chin. "Lucky Horseshoe," I came to call him, because of his way of ducking his head just as a round would pass where it had been an instant ago. He saved the plane a few times, too, with that trademark cry of his"Dive, Chief, dive!"
Our ball turret gunner, the guy down below the fuselage, was Staff Sgt. Cecil Scott, from my home state of North Carolina, a town called Arapahoe that wasnt even on the map. Scotty had the last job Id want on a bombing crew, hanging down out of that airplane over a combat zone, watching the flak spiral upward and the fighters zoom by, maybe looking to shoot some holes in the nearby bomb bay. But Scotty handled it like the hero he was. A quiet and kind man on the ground, he was the oldest at twenty-six, and also the smallest. Had to be, to curl up inside that little capsule. "Best position on the airplane," he liked to say. "You get to see a lot of action, youre always busy." He had another reason, too: "If the plane catches on fire you know it first because you can see all four engines." I liked a fellow who was able to look at the bright side of things.
Capt. Vincent Evans was our bombardier. Vince was a pure life-force, always into something. If he had his way, thered be a female involved. The British women loved those babyface Yank features and that sly Texas drawl of his, and married though he was, Vince could seldom resist returning the compliment.
Vince lived out one of the biggest and most glamorous lives I know of before his death in 1980 inof all thingsan airplane accident. Several times married and divorced, a courter of singers and movie starlets, he gravitated to Hollywood after the war and struck up friendships with Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, and June Allyson. He acted a little and wrote the screenplays for two Air Force adventure moviesChain Lightning, starring Bogart in 1950, and Battle Hymn, with Rock Hudson, in 1957. He drove race cars, ran a cattle ranch and then a famous restaurant and generally reigned as a Southern California legend of the early postwar years. "Kid Wonder," his sister Peggy called him.
More important than any of the glamour, Vince was one of the best bombardiers I have ever seen. How he got to that level at age twenty-two, from running a fleet of trucks in Fort Worth before enlisting, Ill never know. Vince was the man in charge of making the B-17 do what it was made to do, and he did it as well and as precisely as anybody who ever flew over Europe.
Ever know anybody who never seemed to make a mistake? I did. I knew Capt. Charles Leighton from Flint, Michigan, our navigator. A twenty-three-year-old chemistry student out of Ohio Wesleyan, Chuck ran the maps and charts and compasses on our missions, and he never got us lost using that primitive, sun-and-stars-based equipment. In fact, he saved us twice from drifting off course and back into enemy territory. If that sounds like nothing more than the minimum job description, try factoring in these elements: a sky filled with black smoke from bursting flak and whizzing aircraft both enemy and friendly, fierce blasts of wind and weather, false navigational beams being thrown up by the Germans on the ground, voices screaming through your headset phones, and the superhuman need to keep concentrating, concentrating, concentrating after seven to eight hours of trauma-filled flying. Oh, yes, and the need to lend a hand with the machineguns from time to time.
All this from a guy who overcame chronic airsickness so intense that he never flew without an empty milk carton throughout basic training. The carton nearly always filled up.
Boyish, but quiet and scholarly, and always faithful to his young fiancée Janehe became a teacher and counselor after the warChuck had trained to be a pilot, but took up navigating to get to the war sooner. His hallmark was constantly checking and rechecking his configurations. He still found time to prepare for emergency duties outside his area. Never trained in gunnery, hed fire his machinegun at waves in the Atlantic to improve his aim, and it paid off the day he shot down a German fighter over Wilhelmshaven.
Technical Sgt. Harold P. Loch, a twenty-two-year-old stevedore out of Green Bay, Wisconsin, would have been happy to spend his life up in the north woods hunting and fishing, which he did, after helping win World War II as our engineer and top turret gunner. In addition to trading machinegun fire with swooping German fighters, Harold was our gauge-switch-and-fuse man, the guy who knew the Belles innards like a surgeon knows the human body. If something went wrong with a B-17 in the midst of a missionand you could count on several somethings going wrongyou needed a guy who could get the wires reconnected and make the lights go back on in the heat of combat. All this while keeping his gunsights trained on attackers coming in from any direction.
Our radio operator was Technical Sgt. Robert Hanson. Twenty-two, married, a construction worker from Spokane, he held down another key job that called for concentration and precision under pressure. Besides keeping in touch with our command back at the base, Robert was the communications link with all of us inside the plane. He let us know what was going on from his vantage point, he worked in close tandem with the navigator, and he even doubled as the crews amateur psychologistkeeping everyone relaxed en route to the target with his occasional low-key remarks over the phones.
The "kid" of our crew, the scrubbed teenager with the shy choirboy grin, was Staff Sgt. Casimir Nastal. Less than a year earlier, "Tony" Nastal was trying not to nick himself while shaving, and working at a washing-machine repair shop in Detroit. Now he was a waistgunner, shrewd and cool, and a deadly shot from the midsection of the plane. Conscientious, toohe took care of those guns of his like a guy with a shiny new car.
The other waistgunner was Staff Sgt. Clarence Winchell, twenty-five, a chemist for a paint company in Chicago before joining up. "Winch," or Bill, as we usually called him, was small and frail, but he had a lions heart and a kind of serenity about him, bolstered, I guess, by the Bible he always carried. The enlisted men all looked up to Winch, and he had a good influence especially on young Tonyhe could calm the kid and give him confidence.
There is one other fellow that I have to list as a member of the crew, although he never once left the ground inside the Memphis Belle. All he did was keep her flying.
This was a dark-eyed, cloth-capped, gap-toothed, grease-stained, wrench-wielding nonstop miracle-worker from Hulneville, Pennsylvania, named Joe Giambrone. Joe was the Belles ground-crew chief. If Joe got a nights sleep during 1942 or 1943 Im not aware of it. He was too busy bringing the Belle back from the dead time and time againhe and his crew of ten fanatical bomber-jockeys.
Joe and his crew were the first people wed see each time we touched down at Bassingbourn after another mission, running pell-mell across the tarmac for the spot where Id bring the Belle to rest. Almost before the propellers stopped turning, these guys would be swarming over the planecounting flak holes and then caulking them up, assessing wing and motor damage, calculating where they could go to sweet-talk or barter or swipe whatever spare parts were needed to get our increasingly battered plane up in the air one more time.
The Belle was the only plane Joe and his boys worked on, and they knew her like a concert violinist knows his Stradivarius. They could change a shot-up engine in four hours. Most crews took the better part of a day. Joe was the best cannibalizer I ever methe could descend on a grounded or disabled plane, rummage through it and find exactly the gizmo or piece of wiring that had been torn up in our last mission. Sometimes he had to cajole people. Sometimes he had to make deals. He probably had to do things I wouldnt even want to know about, but when he said the plane was ready, it was ready. Hed never lie to us, never cut corners. We knew that every time we took off for another sortie in our bomber, it was as airworthy as the day it rolled off the line.
In the six months that the Belle saw combat, Joe Giambrones crew replaced nine engines, both wings, two tails, both main landing gear and a lot more, not to mention caulking up hundreds of flak and bullet holes. It took him forty-five years to confess to me how hed solved one crisis, an over-inflated de-icer on my right wing. "Bob, I took an icepick and stabbed it full of holes," he admitted to me over drinks in a bar in London during a reunion one time.
I guess I even got a little spoiled by how good he was. Our B-17s three-bladed propellers were driven by Wright engines, and they were superb. As the losses and damage mounted up in early 1943, we started to get replacement engines made by the Studebaker automobile company. I didnt care for the Studebakers. I would tell Joe, "If its the last thing in the world you do for me, dont put a Studebaker engine on my plane." Every time, he somehow came up with a Wright.
He never once complained about the damage hed have to somehow make right. "Gave her a fit today, didnt you, Chief?" was as close as hed come to assessing the challenge before him and his boys.
When the Belle was dedicated and placed in its Mud Island museum in 1987, I took a commercial flight to Memphis for the ceremonies. There to meet me when I stepped off the plane was a familiar-looking figure in a cloth cap, grease-stained work clothes and a bright gleam in his dark eyes. Joe Giambrone had showed up in the same outfit that hed worn at Bassingbourn.
A few other good men rotated in and out as sometime members of the Belle: Leviticus "Levy" Dillon, who flew several missions for us as a top turret gunner; E. Scott Miller, who flew with us on fifteen missions as a waistgunner and then dropped out of sight after the war, for which he gained the nickname "The Lost Crewman;" Eugene Adkins, who flew a few times at top turret before suffering severe frostbite on our tenth mission; the several officers who did turns as copilot after Jim Verinis left.
This crew called me "The Chief." I took that as a point of honor. It meant that they trusted me unconditionally as I piloted them into war.
I trusted them. These boys Id be flying with were something special, and it didnt take them long to start proving that.
We couldnt have been on the base more than a couple of weeks before Vince Evans started showing us how he could make fresh eggs appear out of thin air. Or out of somewhere. Sure as hell wasnt the mess hall kitchen. Vince had started to explore the countryside around Bassingbourn in his free time, but I can guarantee you he wasnt out there taking pictures of cathedrals or doing rubbings of tombstones. He was making the rounds of the local farms. The farms, you see, had chickens that laid eggs. Some of the farms also had farmers daughters. Well, our Vince explored these farms until he found just the right combination of the twoa cute farmers daughter on a farm with chickens that laid eggsand when hed reconnoitered that site, he switched on the old Vince Evans crooked-grin charm. From then on, we crewmen of the Memphis Belle had fresh eggs for breakfast. Vince would bring a sack of eggs home after every visit to that farm. We had more damn eggs than you ever saw in your life. We had so many eggs that when we would go to London we would take a bunch of eggs down to the restaurants and get them to make us a batch of omelettes. And hold the Spam.
While Vince was flirting in the neighborhood barnyards, I was composing my first letter to Margaret from across the ocean:
I sit here so many miles from you and write you my first letter from England. It is quite hard to write, darling, for there is so much in my head and it is so hard to put it on paper. Youll no doubt get bored with my letters, but try to understand that I must be careful what I write.
You must always have faith that Ill be back one of these days. You and I have a wonderful life ahead of us and I am sure we will both dream of it much in the near future. Our life was meant to be and it will be, my love . . .
You will love it over here and someday well return together, my love.
The "Memphis Belle" will always stick by us and it will make our future secure.
All my love to you, my darling, forever.
We kept on flying practice missions through mid-October. I had now logged 917 hours and 25 minutes of flying time and had been named a flight leader, but I was stuck in my rank of second lieutenantthe only flight leader in our group with that low a ranking. The general whose beach party Id buzzed back in Florida apparently had let the chain of command know of his wish that I was not to be promoted. Someone was enforcing that wish. Someone who carried a swagger stick, maybe?
It didnt bother me. I was flying a B-17, and itching for combat. Gung-ho. Ready, eager, willing, and able, second lieutenant or not. I had a good group of pilots on my wing. We had committed ourselves to mastering the hairs-breadth skill of tight formations, wingtips literally inches apart up there. Wed been told that tight formations were going to be the secret in combat, giving us that tight cluster of concentrated fire outward toward the enemy fighters. We worked at tight formations, and by God we achieved tight formations. Of course, all this was still pure theory to usnobody had yet taken a shot at us; well, nobody except for that fisherman in Maine, and wed never had to fire back at anybody. In fact, at this stage the General himself didnt know any more about the realities of combat than we did. Our training was all trial-and-error. Now we were ready for the next steptrial-and-error combat.
We took that step on November 7, 1942.
It was a propitious moment in the war. Six days earlier Allied tanks and troops under British General Bernard Montgomery had at last broken through Erwin Rommels meatgrinder lines at El Alamein, in North Africa. Operation Torch, the U.S. invasion of that territory, would begin November 8. In Russia, Hitlers legions were bogged down in the mutual slaughter that was the Battle of Stalingrad.
And now the 91st was going to raise some hell of its own.
One other bomber group from the Mighty Eighth had already flown sorties over France by this time. Our first mission would be to Brest, on the tip of a peninsula on the French coast below the English Channel. The Nazis maintained a huge system of submarine pens there, and knocking them out would help reduce the enormous toll the U-boats were still exacting in the North Atlantic.
Mission Number 1. What a fragile, first-day-of-school sound that phrase had! Number 1 out of how many?
We were subdued on the evening of the sixth. The usual horseplay was missing. We ate quietly. My officers and I dined together, and the six enlisted men ate with one another. No one was looking much at anyone else. I guess nobody was too eager to say what was on his mind, or to hear what the other fellow was thinking, for that matter.
In a lot of ways it was like the night before your first varsity football game. None of us had any idea, really, what to expect, no concept of what it would be like to be shot at. Wed heard all the stories about the losses the RAF had takenwed heard the statistics. Still, it was a kind of void for us, a vacancy of specific images or expectations that each of us filled in as best he could. In solitude.
We turned in early. Busy day tomorrow.
A drizzly English sky greeted us the next morning. Clear enough for flying, though. And so this was it.
As soon as we awoke, it was as though wed all stepped onto some invisible conveyor-belt. Every move we made now, everything we did was drawing us inexorably toward that moment when we would board the Memphis Belle and take off into enemy skies that held the prospect of terror, destruction, pain, and violent death.
We assembled in the briefing room as soon as we were dressed. We sat in wooden chairs, our leather flight jackets zipped under fleecy collars, and watched Colonel Wray as he strode back and forth in front of a map of western Europe, brandishing a pointer, revealing to us what our mission was and what we could expect. A big, hearty man, a West Point graduate, he had a way of giving it to us straight, no sugar-coating, no under-estimations of the odds against us to make us feel good, but all leavened with a rough sense of humor.
Colonel Wrays most famous device for getting laughs was the Rigid Digit. If somebody taxied wrong or racked up a slight error on a practice mission or screwed up some minor task on the base or got back late from London, Colonel Wray would point the culprit out at the next briefing and growl, "Okay, pilot, youre awarded the Rigid Digit for that!" Later on, some of us presented him with a glove that had its index finger stuffed so that it stuck straight up. He took it pretty well.
Anyway, Colonel Wray gave us all the intelligence information he could about the target and ground defenses and likely tactics. The Germans would likely put up a smoke screen to cover the target area, he said, if the wind was blowing in the right direction.
Then the weather officer got up there and told us what to expect in that areaclear skies and low winds. Weather information was vital to us, but it was not always reliablewe didnt exactly have a lot of input from the folks we were about to bomb. The French Underground sometimes came through for us, Allied sympathizers in the French countryside communicating by code, and since weather generally moved from west to east, we had the benefit of some pretty educated guesses.
Then Colonel Wray took the stage again and reminded us of the fundamentals. You flight leaders, keep your formations tight; you bombardiers, keep alert to the lead plane, know where it is, youre going to be toggling your bombs out on the lead planes release. By that he meant that the lead bombardier in each group would be operating the Norden bombsight, which would trigger an automatic release when its horizontal and vertical hairs crossed on the target site. Everyone behind him would then manually jettison via the "toggle" switch. If the lead plane is not there, the secondary lead will take over.
Bombardiers, if you cant see the first target, go to the second. If you cant see the second, go to the third. But dont drop your bombs indiscriminately. If you cant bomb any targets, dont jettison on open cities. Bring your bombs home.
You gunners, dont get caught sleeping. If you think you scored a hit, dont watch him fall. Therell be others coming at you.
You navigators and radiomen, stay in contact with one another. Be ready to take over a gun if somebody gets hit.
All you menthis is your first mission. I expect you to do a good job. I wish you all the best of luck. Keep your intercoms clear. Dont break radio silence unless absolutely necessary.
Thats it. Synchronize your watches.
Colonel Wray put down his pointer and left the briefing room with the rest of us. He was no armchair commanderhe would personally lead us into our first action, flying copilot with Lt. Duane Jones in the first plane off the ground, Pandoras Box. The Belle was slated to lift off second.
Breakfast, then, for those who wanted breakfast. A consultation with a minister or a priest or a rabbi for the guys who felt the need for that.
Then we waited.
There was usually an interval of an hour, or an hour and a half, between the briefing and taxi time. On this first morning, the crew of the Memphis Belle did what wed do on each of our succeeding missions. We gathered quietly and ran down the list of each of our duties. It was all low-key and professional. These young men around me, these working-class guys from several corners of America, who liked to drink beer and play cards and flirt with girlssuddenly they had the solemnity and the level gazes of men twice their age. It wasnt fear, although we were all a little anxious. It was ten minds coming into acute focus.
Half an hour before taxi time, all the members of all the crews got into jeeps and made that sobering little ride to the waiting airplanes. If its going to hit you, its going to hit you thenwhatever peak of fear, anxiety, or urge to turn back, that youre going to feel. Quinlan used to spend those rides fantasizing about ways out. A bomb-hauling truck would hit the jeep, hurting him just badly enough that hed have to stay home. The plane would veer off the runway and get mired in the mud. Once youre under way, your mind can finally attach itself to the routine tasks at hand, and push the terror deep into the background. Being under way is actually a relief. Its that damn ride to the planes that nearly kills you.
At the last minute before takeoff on that first mission, I rounded my crew into a huddle at the base of the Belle. We put our arms around one another, and I talked to them quietly for a couple of minutes.
I cant recall the words I said. The important thing was that this was our huddle, our moment to come together among ourselves. To hear one anothers breathing, feel one anothers hands on our shoulders. To experience that instant when we stopped being ten separate entities, and became one.
At 10:22 a.m. a signal rocket from the Tower arced into the air and burst, and the 91st flew to France.
The best thing I can say about that first mission is that it was a valuable learning experience. We didnt lose a single plane to the enemy, and we didnt even suffer much damage. We only saw one Nazi fighter plane, and he was too far out of range to even bother shooting at. Quinlan shot at him anyway.
We didnt do much damage ourselves. But we learned. We would keep on learning.
What we learned mainly on this first mission was how cold it was up at those altitudes. Cruising at 21,000 feet, we discovered that temperatures of minus 40 degrees could freeze our guns if they werent properly checked and lubricated. Only the front part of the airplanethe areas where the pilot, copilot, flight engineer, navigator, and bombardier satwas wired for heating on the B-17, a design shortfall that the gunners did not appreciate! We learned how valuable an oxygen mask was, and what frostbite felt like. Fourteen bombers had taken off from Bassingbourn, each carrying ten 500-pound bombs. Six had to abort the mission because of equipment problems and chilled, oxygen-deprived crewmen. The eight remaining planes mostly missed the submarine pens. The lead bombardiernot our Vince Evans, by the wayhad trouble calibrating through the cloud cover and let loose at the wrong time. Everybody else followed suit and made the same error.
None of us knew that at the time, of course. We made our return to Bassingbourn in a pretty cocky mood. Wed bombed Brest, we were in it now, wed gotten a lick in at Germany. The flak was bad, but we didnt have to deal with any fighter attacks. Hell, if things kept going this way, it looked like a pretty good war.
The aerial photographs, when they were developed, supported our illusion for a little while. Colonel Wray reviewed them and was impressed. Then the Intelligence guy took a closer look and said, in effect, "Dont start bragging yet." He was right. When the photos were reviewed at General Eakers office, the word came down. You guys did not do much of a job today. Were not putting this out for publication, but you basically screwed up.
Reality had not set in for us yet. On that first mission we must have been like those raw Yankee troops heading down to Manassas, Virginia, for the Battle of Bull Run, full of youthful exuberance. One of our airplane crews even claimed theyd shot a German fighter down. What the hell? Why not? That sort of claim became a sort of joke in those first weeks: Everybody would come back reporting a fighter shot down. Our generals figured out pretty quick that if wed really shot down all the fighters we claimed, the Luftwaffe was damn near wiped out already. So the generals made it tough. If you wanted credit for shooting down an airplane, it had to be confirmed by two observers. One of them could be on your own plane, but the other had to be from somewhere else in your formation. Well, naturally, most crewmen had other things to do on a mission besides keep tally of Nazi planes falling out of the sky. Thats why a lot of good gunners, including several in my crew, didnt get as much credit for kills as they deserved.
For me, that first sortie was about like any practice run. From where I sat in the cockpit, I could not see anything except what was straight in front of me. Im mostly looking at the instrument panel anyway, or over at the planes on either wing. It was an irony of design, I guess, but in that type of bomber the pilot could see lessat least, of combatthan any other crew member. The best front views on a B-17 bomber belong to the bombardier and the navigator, because they are right in the nose of the plane, surrounded by glass. Me, I just kept my hands on that yoke and my feet on those rudder pedals, and I concentrated on flying straight and level, in tight formation.
Our crew had two days to rest up from that first taste of World War II, and then on the ninth we were in the air, headed for France again, one of five groups. This time our destination was St. Nazaire, a coastal city farther south than Brest, and the site of another huge cluster of German submarine sheds and pens. This time each plane carried five thousand-pound bombs.
What a different mission from Brest this turned out to be. It was our true indoctrination into the realities of combat, into the realization that people could get killed doing this kind of thing. Could get killed and were getting killed.
On our sortie to Brest, we had flown at 21,000 feet. This time they stacked us vertically. Two of the groups went in at roughly the same altitude18,000 and 27,000 feetwhile the other three swooped in low. The higher groups were decoys, flying about where the Germans expected them to be flying. If the plan worked, they would draw the fighters fire as they came screaming and chattering downward out of the sun. Meanwhile three lower groups would be unnoticed as they stole toward the target.
The Belle led the lowest of the attacking groups. We pilots went in at treetop level till we reached the French coast, hanging on to our rudders and throttles for dear life, and then we kicked it, climbing abruptly to 9,000 feet, our bombing altitude.
True to the plan, we found little fighter opposition. The boys above us were catching all that hell, as the Allied plan coldly anticipated. Our top turret gunners had an unobstructed view of their fiery ordeal as the Nazi hornets converged. Three bombers paid the ultimate price from one group, and one bomber from another. Many more were damaged as the Focke-Wulfs flew wild.
What we did find down there was flak.
It must have been Flak Day in Occupied France. The antiaircraft fire blossomed out as we crossed the coast and gunned into our acceleration, and it never let up. A vast black blanket opened up beneath our wingtips, accented with blazing orange. Not one of our planes escaped damage. A crewman was killed and nine others wounded by exploding fragments. Astoundingly, not one of our planes was lost. We felt the Belle shake with two or three concussions from antiaircraft fire. Joe Giambrone counted sixty-three holes when we got back.
Our bombing was good that day. Not outstandingthis would not be our last visitbut enough to leave a pretty good mess amidst those pens and the U-boats trapped inside them. We got congratulated by everybody from Colonel Wray all the way up the chain to Bomber Command headquarters.
Maybe it was the adrenaline still pumping through my system on the way home that led me to take one of the craziest risks I ever took or even heard about in that war. Maybe I was just girl-crazy.
En route back to Bassingbourn in the late afternoon, entertaining myself with thoughts of a certain cuddly young agent from British Intelligence awaiting me in London that evening, I heard the urgent voice of Levy Dillon, our flight engineer that day, on the intercom. Hed discovered an oil line that had been punctured by flak. "We better put her down as soon as we can, Chief," he warned.
I had Bob Hanson radio the RAF base at Exeter, at the edge of Dartmoor just north of the English Channel coast, that we were coming in for an emergency landing. The control tower was all British hospitality.
Once on the ground Levy caulked up the leaky line in no time, but when I went to fire up my engines again for takeoff, a real crisis developed. Engine No. 3 on my right wing refused to start.
I radioed the control tower for help. This time they were a little too British for my tastes. Back came the reply: "Sorry. Tea time. Wont be able to help you out the rest of today, actually. Wouldnt you chaps like to billet here and get a fresh start tomorrow?"
The hell we would. My North Carolina dander was up. It was one thing to fly through the fury and hot steel of the German occupation forces in France and expect that at any moment you might get blown to smithereens. But what really turned my crank that day was the idea that Id have to miss a hot date in London.
"Everybody out of the plane," I snarled through the intercom. "Im gonna take her up and get the propeller windmilling. Then Ill come back and get you-all." There was silence and disbelief from the crew as they started moving toward the hatch.
Then the rational part of my brain regained control. "Ill need a volunteer," I said, "to help me hold the rudders steady on takeoff."
More silence. Even from Verinis, who was supposed to double-date with me that evening. Finally, Levy Dillon spoke up. "Ill go with you, Chief."
With three of our four engines purring and Levy staring ahead wide-eyed in the seat next to me, I aimed the nose of the Belle toward the runway. The RAF guy in the control tower looked out his window and immediately put down his teacup.
"Tower to 24485!" he yelled into his microphone. "You cannot take off from this base on three engines! Repeat! Permission to take off is denied! Repeat . . ."
Its amazing how much a pilot can improve his concentration on the task at hand sometimes by placing his headset on the floor.
We throttled up and went weaving and fishtailing down the runway, Levy and I bracing the yolk and rudders with all our might to keep the Belle from veering off the side, and before you knew it we were in the air. Just as Id hoped, the force of the air rushing at us started the prop on No. 3 churningwindmillingand that action ignited the engine.
I stabilized the plane, looped around, landed again, picked up my crew and headed north for a pleasant social evening on the town. To show what a reasonable guy I was, I even refrained from buzzing the Exeter tower.
Verinis and I enjoyed our double-date that night. My dreams, when I finally got to sleep, were rich and vivid.
It wasnt the cuddly Intelligence agent next to me that I was dreaming of. Nor even Margaret, back in Memphis. It was flak.
Reprinted from The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle by Col. Robert Morgan, USAFR, Ret., with Ron Powers by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © Robert Morgan and Ron Powers, 2001. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.