Pas de Calais
It was the day before Christmas, Friday, December 24, 1943.
I woke up to the sound of a dog yapping and the voice of Sergeant Hartsacker as he made his way down the row of beds rousting us out. I dressed quickly amidst the yawns and groans and headed for the door. It was another cold wet morning at Molesworth. There was no rain but a mist hung over the base like a dark grey curtain. I hated the weather here in England and we never knew until the last minute if we were going to fly a mission or not.
It was 0300 hours when I entered the mess hall. I could hear the normal clatter of knives and forks and the muffled sounds of the others talking as those of us in line shuffled our way past the trays of food. I filled my coffee cup, scooped up some scrambled eggs, a couple pieces of fried spam, two pieces of toast, and made my way to the table. I spotted Riechter, one of the other gunners from our crew and sat down alongside him.
“Getting close eh Macgregor, what is it, 3 or 4 left now?”
“It’s 3 Riechter, 2 after we get back.”
“Man, I got 20 more to go yet; plenty of time for me to load up on those fucking powdered eggs and spam.”
“You know where we’re going today?”
“Who gives a shit, Macgregor? We go up, get shot at and come back…… if we’re lucky! We’ll find out soon enough once we get to the briefing room.”
“Ah, I was just curious. We got the USO on the base tonight and the odds of getting back are better if we don’t go deep into Germany.”
Something was bugging me about this mission but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was my 28th and I was on a really close count down. Two more after this one and I would be going back to the States. After mess, we all headed over to the briefing hut. The place was buzzing with chatter as usual but it came to an abrupt halt as Colonel Bray entered. Someone shouted out ATTENTION and we all jumped to our feet.
Riechter leaned over towards me, his hand concealing his lips and whispered, “What the fuck is he doing here.”
“Beats the shit out of me, Riechter.”
Colonel Bray quickly took control of the briefing showing us where we were going and why. As Lieutenant Bradley uncovered the flight plan, Colonel Bray began to speak.
“Men your mission today will be the V-Weapons Rocket sites in the Pas de Calais area of France. This is a very vital mission. According to our intelligence, these rocket sites are being set up along the French coast and could soon be targeting London and surrounding areas with flying aerial bombs. This is a new weapon being developed by the Germans and if allowed to continue un-interrupted, it could wield devastating results. These flying bombs are like a small aircraft with an engine and they fly at speeds of 300 miles per hour. They have a metered amount of fuel and the 1700 pound warhead they carry falls indiscriminately out of the sky when the fuel is exhausted. We must destroy as many of these launch facilities as we can. This will be the largest number of aircraft carrying out attacks of any 8th Air Force Mission to date and the first against these missile sites. In all there will be 526 B-17's and 196 B-24's from the 8th air force escorted by 459 P-47's, 40 P-38's, and 42 P-51's from the 9th Air Force.”
He talked more about the importance of the mission, the affects these rockets could have on the civilian population, and how every effort should be made to see that our bombs found their intended target. After the Colonel had finished, the room buzzed with chatter and Lieutenant Bradley took over outlining all the details of the mission; the flight plan, the formation, our bomb load, alternate targets, altitude and weather. He went on to explain that this mission would take approximately 4 hours.
“Well, there ya go MacGregor, just a short hop across the channel, drop the load, and we’re back.”
“Oh yeah, can’t you just see the Germans laying back and waving to us? I got a feeling this is going to be a rough one.”
As the 6x6 pulled up to our plane, there was a faint glimmer of sunlight barely visible on the horizon. I could just make out the words 'Delta Darlin' above the front gun turret. I was sitting at the rear of the truck and as we got closer, I could see the huge tail and my turret at the very end of the fuselage. The truck pulled to a stop and we all climbed out, each man struggling with his own thoughts about the upcoming flight.
The ground crew was having some sort of problem with the bombs or the bomb doors but they seemed to have it under control as one by one the bombs were ratcheted up into place and locked. It always seemed to take forever for the crews to finish their work and it was several more hours before they were done. Even though this was my 28th mission, I still had that same lump in my throat at the thought of going up and all I could do was pray that my luck would hold out. This feeling of being scared shitless went with me on each of my previous missions and this one was no different.
All of my gear seemed to be in order. My chute pack was right there to my side, my guns were fixed and checked out, and my turret was functioning properly. It was always a tight fit for me back in the tail gunner position and once airborne my only access to the others in the plane was to crawl around the rear wheel apparatus and then on up through the main fuselage.
Everything was ready to go except for some last minute trouble they were having with Riechter’s belly turret. They monkeyed around with it for about ten more minutes before we began to rumble down the runway. I could hear the tail wheel below me making a rough gravely noise on the uneven surface, followed by the thunderous roar of the engines as they were pushed to full throttle for take off. It wasn't long before we cleared the runway and climbed up through the clouds into the morning sky. It was daylight now and I had a bird’s eye view of the planes behind me, one by one taking off and leaving Molesworth behind. It seemed to take longer than usual to get into formation. I guessed because of the large number of planes involved in the raid. Once the formation was set, we began our climb and started across the channel to France. I kept checking my oxygen to make sure it was working and then the heater connections on my flight suit.
The crossing was uneventful and we reached our cruising altitude ok but as we proceeded inland over Calais, we started to get hit hard by enemy fire from German fighter planes. They seemed to be swarming everywhere. I could see three of them heading in from the rear with flames bursting from their guns and up above them, two P-47's almost upside down swinging around to come in behind them. I began blasting away on my twin 50’s and almost immediately, I hit one of the yellow nose German fighters right on and smoke started billowing out of his engine. I was trembling as he kept coming straight in at me. In a split second, he caught on fire and exploded right there in front of me. He just seemed to disintegrate as he veered off to the right and started to spin out of control.
We approached the target area at 1030 hours and at this point, the flak from the anti-aircraft guns was really heavy. The Germans seemed to be going all out to keep us at bay but we were in a tight formation as always and the engines just droned on moving us closer and closer to the target area. This was the most dangerous part and the guns below seemed to be aimed right on us. I could see black puffs of smoke from the flak everywhere; then I was startled by a few bursts that blasted a couple of small holes right through the tail.
At 1045, it was bombs away. About 3 minutes later we began our turn to go back. We had no sooner leveled out and we took a direct hit to the outboard starboard engine and there was no doubt in my mind that we were going down. I was terrified as the plane dipped hard to the right almost 90 degrees and I watched in horror as another direct hit tore one of the wings off and it went fluttering down like a leaf in the wind. I immediately grabbed for my chest pack and started to squeeze by the landing gear but as I started to work my way forward to put on my chute and bail out, there was a massive explosion followed by an enormous ball of fire that came rolling down the fuselage towards me. I thought for sure I would be killed but just as the billowing orange flames were about to reach me, the tail section of the plane ripped away from the main fuselage. I felt the enormous heat as well as the acrid smell of burning fuel and then the sounds of metal stretching and creaking and breaking apart. In a matter of seconds, the tail section had torn completely away from the fully engulfed main fuselage of the plane and began spinning earthward with me in it.
Because of the blast and the fire, I felt certain that everyone else on the plane was dead. We were at 18,000 feet when we took the hit and I tried desperately to get out of the tail as it continued downward. It kept spinning in circles hurling me from side to side and my chute was caught on something. I remembered tying my shoes to my chute and this was what was giving me trouble. Nothing seemed to be going in my favor and it took me forever before I managed to work myself loose and get it on. My only way out was to jump from the large opening where the tail separated from the plane but the way it was twirling about I was not sure if I could make it. I could feel the cold air gushing by as I struggled forward on my hands and knees towards the opening. There was a little more space to move about now but I felt very dizzy. I knew that I had to concentrate and not pass out. As I approached the edge of the opening, I could see the ground below spinning round and round in circles.
We had just had some training on bailing out and some of the figures were going through my head like a buzz saw. I knew that I only had about 3 minutes to get my ass out of this tail section of the plane before it became a heap of useless rubble on the ground below. I was unable to stand up and decided to just roll out of the opening. I grabbed for the rip cord as I went over the edge.
The next thing I felt was the chute plump open above me and the tug against my body as my descent slowed down very abruptly. The chute was spinning erratically at first but I was able to bring it under control fairly quickly. For a brief moment, I felt some relief to be out in the open. I could see a wooded area directly below me and was surprised that I was so close to the ground. I estimated it to be about 800 feet or less and the ground was coming up to meet me fast.
I never saw the tail or any other part of the plane again but I had a good chance to look around before hitting the ground and saw a dirt road and several farm houses to the right of the woods. There was not much wind and I landed without event in an open spot in the heavily wooded area. The jolt of landing sent me tumbling into the damp furrowed ground but I recovered quickly and got my chute off and untied the laces that had been holding my shoes. I sat there in the middle of the field somewhat dazed from the events that had unfolded so quickly. Sure as hell, Riechter and all the others were dead, why not me? Jesus, here I was all alone in German Occupied France. I knew that I was not far from the Rocket Sites so there had to be Germans close by. What next? I better get my ass into those woods and hide, then what? No time to think about it now, just get the friggin chute covered and hide somewhere.