Forward

This book is about the U.S. 8th Army Air Corps from 1943 to May 1945— more specifically, it is about the incredible B-17 bombers and the brave men who flew them. It is an attempt to put the B-17 into its proper place in history—and to bestow upon it the esteem it so richly deserves from our country.

The B-17 comprised two-thirds of the United States bomber force, and the men of the 8th who flew them suffered catastrophic losses, in terms of percentages. The crews managed to complete only 27% of their assigned missions before being killed, wounded, taken prisoner or suffering some kind of breakdown.

Both the B-17s and the B-24s were equally responsible for the success of America's bombing campaign that played such a major part in the defeat of Germany. However, the B-24, which was one-third of the force, should be covered in a separate publication—one that can do justice to the noble aircraft and its crews.

These stories are true accounts of actual combat missions, as told by the crews that flew them while stationed at the 385th Bomb Group in Great Ashfield, England. (There are also some accounts of missions flown by other groups.) The missions flown were from England to various parts of continental Europe.

Flack Trouble

"W hat'd you say, Dan? You want me to tell Ronnie he's going to die?

How the hell am I supposed to do that? Ronnie doesn't even know what the hell's going on; he's been in the turret for six hours." "That's not what I said," Dan replied matter-of-factly. "I said, establish some communication with him—shout, tap on the turret, or whatever. Find out if he's still alive and try to tell him what our problem is. Tell him we are doing all we can to get him out. Tell him to try to let us know how he is...is he injured? Does he have oxygen? Is his suit working?"

Dan Harding was our pilot and Ronnie was our ball turret gunner. Dan's day had started normally for a mission day. It's still unclear exactly what happened. It kind of snowballed. First, the flak hit, then the hydraulics went out and we were unable to crank the gear down when we checked it. The oxygen stopped flowing and we had this problem with the turret. All this, plus having two crewmen hit by flak.

We were flying our B-17 back from a raid in Germany when we took a heavy hit from flak, knocking out our hydraulic and electrical systems, including our landing gear, brakes and ball turret controls. The turret controls were so badly damaged that we could not open the hatch. The turret was locked in the "guns up" position, leaving the hatch down and impossible to open. The 50-caliber machine guns in the ball turret rotated in every direction except up; they shot from the horizon down, and you could shoot at the ground and every direction up to the level of the aircraft. The ball turret protected the aircraft from fighters below or on the same level as the bomber.

Dan was forced to make a decision over whether to ditch in the channel or crash land, wheels up, at our base in England. If we ditched in the channel, the ball gunner would be killed on impact or drown in the turret. If we crash-landed, he would also die on impact because the turret would be sheared off the aircraft when it hit the ground.

Mission of April 7th, 1945

Crews in the 385th Bomb Group (H), 8th Air Force, stationed at Great Ashfield, England, were awakened for the 285th mission of the group on April 7, 1945. Like all crews of the group, Lieutenant George F. Burich and his crew arose, dressed and ate breakfast, as they had done for seven previous missions.

By now, the war was going very well and the Luftwaffe was all but non-existent. No great opposition was expected as the crews were briefed for a bombing mission to an enemy airfield at Güstrow, Germany. True, enemy anti- aircraft fire (flak) was just as intense as ever, if not worse, because all the 90mm anti-aircraft guns had, by now, been squeezed into Germany proper.

Following the briefing, the crews took off and assembled in scheduled formation for the mission. Although the group was flying at only 15,000 feet, a bit lower than their normal 23,000 feet, the flak was light and the mission went according to the briefed plan. It was a successful mission and the bombs hit the target.

As anticipated, there was no fighter opposition; the group turned from the target and took up a heading for home. Suddenly, a lone FW-109 was seen making a pass on the rear of the formation. Lt. Burich's B-17, Serial No. 448744, was positioned in the "Tail-end-Charlie" spot, the rear-most position in the group's formation. Both Sergeant Charles J. Stewart, the tail gunner in Lt. Burich's bomber, and Sergeant Leroy Lancaster, the tail gunner in Lieutenant Crow's plane, which was just ahead of Burich's B-17, spotted the FW-109 and started firing at it with....