A first person account from a B-17 bombardier, in his words:
On mission days a special mindset evolved, one that embraced a sharpened focus on detailed information supporting the mission. An awareness of the importance of the mission also became paramount in your mind. Hopefully today´s effort would bring victory one step closer.
The day began with an early wake up call followed by breakfast. I allways had 2 eggs ( fresh eggs) followed by the mission briefing.
The OP-officer made a cordial greeting and the proceeded to tell us the name of the target of today. The reaction from the crews was predictable, if the target was on of the dreaded ones like Berlin, the audible groans and moans could be heard in the next building.
The briefing continued with the lenght of the trip flak in the target area and all the other important details we had to know. Specialty officers provided complete details of the trip from start to finish. When the flak analysis officer spoke you could hear a pin drop. All present had become very serious in there demeanor by the end of the briefing.
Following dismissal of the briefing all headed for the operations area to dress for the flight. Our clothing and other equipment were stored in personal lockers.
Dressing for the cold altitude temperatures took some time. The layer system was used to achieve an acceptable level of comfort in the sustained -55 to -70 degree Fahrenheit temperatures (-47 to -56 Degrees Celsius).
I started with long underwear and heavy wool socks. Regular GI pants and shirts (no id.patches ect.) followed. Next came the electrically heatet suit components (flight boot inserts, trousere and jacket). The design and appearance of these items was similar of that of an electric blanket. The inserts snapped into the trouser legs and and the trousers plugget into the jacket to complete the electricial circuit. Heatet gloves with silk liners were added later on in flight. The gloves snapped into the sleeves of the jacket. A pigtail lead cord from the trousers plugged into a 24-volt rheostat controlled outlet in the B-17 aircraft. A one-piece garbardine flightsuit sealed the body cloting. Lined flightboots, leather helmet with googles, o2 mask and .45 Cal. Pistol in a shoulderholster became added fixtures. The 2 final items were life preserver vest and parachute harness with walking shoes tied to the back in case it bacame necessary to abandon the aircraft in flight.
I checked out a chest pack parachute. My flaksuit and helmet were stored in the aircraft.
The muted sounds of the APU (auxiliary power unit) from around the field greeted us on arrival at the aircraft. Bombs had been loaded during the night and the .50 Cal. Gun barrels were in a neat row on the ground.
The B-17G was motionless. On opening the nose hatch and pitching in my chute, bombardiers case. 2 gunbarrels then swinging up into the aircraft a few groans were forthcomming from my added weight.
On damp, cool, misty morning, the odor inside was like that of a museum being opened to the early morning fresh air. Other groans, soft voises and a slight movement of the airframe became prominent as crewmembers completed their pre-flight duties.
I operated the twin .50 cal. guns in the chin turret. I would install two of the barrels in my guns, through my gear in the nose. While the aircraft was still on the ground with bomb bay doors open, I would check the bomb fuses, armature wires and the fuse cotter keys to be sure they were straight so I could pull them once in the air.
“Walking trough the props” became the next crew task. This produced a low bearing noise. With the crew back on board the awaited “start Engines” command was received. The first sign of bomber life gushed forth with a belch of black smoke. The sleeping giant was alive and from that moment on it became a beehive of activity that continued until we returned and shut down the engines.
We took-off one squadron at a time each aircraft at 30 second intervals. A full squadron would total 10 aircraft. Following take-off each squadron would form in a predetermined area the form as a Group.This was done in the dark so it was a challenge. Each squadron lead aircraft fired assigned colored flares to help in the process.
While the formation process was under way, I was in the bomb bay pulling the fuse cotter keys, checking one last time the armature wires, bomb shackles and bomb release units to be sure they were set for an armed bomb drop. When finished I would return to my station in the nose.
By this time we were approaching the English Channel at an altitude of about 10,000 feet when we went on oxygen. Our guns were test fired over the Channel. Our Group had taken it's place in the bomber stream which generally numbered between 1,300 and 1,500 bombers. Our P-51 fighter support, numbering between 150 and 200 joined us on reaching the Continent.
The bomber stream rate of climb was set to reach a minimum of 18,000 feet when crossing the enemy lines. This altitude generally protected us from small arms fire from the ground. By this time I would have started crew oxygen checks. This was done every four minutes to be sure all were safe. On the intercom I would say, "bombardier to crew, oxygen check tail to nose". Starting with the tail gunner all would check-in. If one of the crew did not, I would send one of the other crew members located close by to check on him. If an oxygen hose came loose, the individual simply went to sleep without notice. If not corrected, he could lose his life in a matter of minutes.
The bomber stream continued it's climb until reaching the assigned bombing altitude then would proceed on a predetermined course to the target area. It your group position in the stream was near the rear, it was a breath taking sight to see all those aircraft, bombers and support fighters, ahead of you. It was like driving on a white highway of vapor trails. However it was always better to be near the front in order to clear the target before the enemy flak guns had a chance to sharpen their sighting on the aircraft. From the time of clearing the enemy lines until returning to that point on the return, all crew members diligent in looking for enemy fighters.
On reaching the Initial Point (IP), the point where you started the bomb run, the bombardier became commander of the aircraft and had complete control of actions to take place. This authority lasted until "Bombs Away". Following the drop, the pilot would make a sharp turn clearing the area for the following aircraft and take up a heading for home which generally parallel the inbound course.
I can remember being early in the bomber stream and seeing all those aircraft heading into the target while we were on our way home. My thought as we passed them,"we made it and you can too".
The routine on the return flight was similar in many ways. Oxygen checks every four minutes and a continued look out for enemy fighters by all members of the crew. Assuming we were not attacked by fighters or flak, it was a matter of time until we reached an area close enough to the English Channel when we could remove our oxygen masks. This was done at about 15,000 feet. Boy did that feel good. By this time they had become very uncomfortable. Ice around the outer edges etc.
Following our landing at Molesworth, we were picked up by a truck and taken to the operations area for debriefing. This was done crew at a time so often we had to wait our turn. The interviewing officer always had questions. Then we had a chance to reveal anything we saw that was unusual like fighter attacks, uncharted flak spots etc.
On one of my missions we lost number three engine over enemy territory on the way in, couldn't keep up with group so had to abort. Got rid of the bombs through a solid layer of low clouds and turned for home. A few minutes later, a V-2 rocket came up through the clouds about two blocks off our right wing tip. Needless to say, the interviewing officer became very interested in learning the location etc.
Following debriefing, we got out of our flight attire and turned in parachutes etc. then dressed in regular uniform and headed for the Mess Hall for dinner. Following dinner, a time of fellowship, I headed for the gun shack to clean the gun barrels I used in my chin turret guns. Then directly to the barracks hoping to find mail from home. We often were on flight duty three days in a row so there wasn't time for the Officers' Club, girls, and bars. What we really craved was a time of rest.
A first person account from a B-17 bombardier, in his words: