Wednesday, October 13th I got up and went to the armament shack and again checked my ammunition and weapons. As I was leaving the shack to go out to our airplane the ground maintenance officer collared me. He ranted and raved about my desecration of government property by painting a target on the side of our airplane.
We had a few words and I let my mouth overload my ass. I told him to go screw himself. He insisted I was going to clean the target off the airplane and I told him I would do so when he started to fly as a tail gunner and had the paintings taken off all the other aircraft. He presented his case to Dingle to no avail. The “artwork” remained and I never heard another word about it.
I was outside of our hut, working on my bicycle. It was in my mind to make a trip to the pub; Chuck Allred must have read my mind. He approached me and cautioned, “Wing Ding, don’t go anyplace tonight. We are getting up early tomorrow. They are loading extra fuel.” Chuck was right. We were up early. I looked at the crummy weather and thought the mission would be scrubbed. We had the usual breakfast of square eggs, Spam and SOS. I ate with caution. Being shot at was bad enough, but being in discomfort while being shot at did not make much sense. The word in the mess was the mission was going to be a long one. The answer came from the horse’s mouth when the briefing room curtain was pulled back.
Schweinfurt! “Oh, Jesus no, not again,” came from the back of the room. “Holy Mother of God, this is my last mission,” came yet from another corner. The line stretched on and on deep into the heartland of Germany. “This is a very important mission,” the briefing officer droned. “Germany’s ball bearing works must be destroyed.” He continued to deliver his message of what we could expect. He assured us we would have fighter escort almost to the border of Germany and they would pick us up again as we returned. However, we would be without fighter escort for over four hundred miles. There was minimal talking. Everyone knew it was going to be a rough ride. We were scheduled to put up twenty-two aircraft and be the low group of the lead Combat Wing of the 2nd Air Task Force.
The 96th Bomb Group would furnish the lead and high groups. The day started off poorly. There was a crash on take-off. Lt. Swift, pilot of Hard Luck, had almost reached flying speed when his No. 3 engine caught fire. Smoke came from the tires as he hit the brakes. A crash was eminent. Lt. Swift ordered, “wheels up.” The copilot responded and the take-off of Hard Luck became a controlled crash. With its full compliment of crew, bombs and fuel Hard Luck skidded onward with sparks flying. It came to a stop just short of a wooded area. The crew miraculously escaped their burning aircraft without injury. Take-off for the group was delayed until safety procedures could be applied. All aircraft were then diverted to another runway and the area cleared in anticipation of the explosion. When it came it was spectacular.
The formation climbed up through the cloud cover. We were in clear skies and out over the English Channel. However, with one take-off crash and five aborts for mechanical failure we were quickly reduced to a formation of sixteen aircraft. The air about forty-five minutes before I sensed a problem. I was busy checking my gear and test firing my guns. Something did not seem right. It was not. My parachute was missing. In my mind I visualized my parachute bag sitting on the ground at the hardstand! We were now 23,000 feet and over one hundred miles from our base.
I sat at my gun position trying to decide what to do. I knew if I reported my parachute as missing Dingle would turn back, probably abort the mission. It is not possible to describe my thoughts. Terror would be a grossly inadequate description. I could not bring myself to tell the crew. All I could do was hope for the best. I am sure I sneaked a few quick prayers in for good measure. I felt weak and afraid. Then I heard a female voice clearly state, “Trust me.” I quickly checked my oxygen to be sure I was not suffering from anoxia. My connection was in place. A sense of calm came over me. What would I do if we were hit and the crew had to bail? My plan was probably ridiculous but it was the only plan I could think of. I would try to make it to the cockpit and fly the crippled bird back to England or crash land. Good plan or not, there were no options. My basic thought was a simple, “Oh Jesus!”
We crossed Belgium, and near the German border our fighter escort gave us a final apologetic waggle of wings and turned back. The Luftwaffe arrived on the scene moments later. Obviously they had been waiting in the wings for our escort to depart. The Luftwaffe attack came with unbelievable ferocity. They outnumbered us at five to one or more. I watched in amazement as they lined up and barrel rolled through the other formations with guns blazing. I could only assume they were doing the same to our group as fighter after fighter went streaking past the tail. They offered no opportunity for even a quick shot. Others, JU88’s lagged behind our formation, out of the effective range of our guns and lobbed rockets into the formation. Again and again I watched the Luftwaffe line up on other groups and fly head on wing tip to wing tip. Their courage was unquestionable. They came in six at a time; diving and turning in attempts to draw fire while another fighter tried to make the kill.
From the beginning of the first fighter attacks the Luftwaffe stayed with us. Long before we arrived over the target the sky was filled with a host of bombers and fighters going down in flames. Some were falling out of control with crews pinned in by centrifugal force and still others were exploding with bodies and debris falling through the formations.
Parachutes were everywhere. Many were engulfed in flames and seemed to melt as the canopy blossomed over the jumper leaving him to become a free falling body. B-17's and Luftwaffe aircraft were going down and exploding. The ground below was marked with blazing debris and the black smoke from the rubble of aircraft wreckage. Through some miracle all sixteen of our aircraft made it to the target. The scene was one of carnage beyond imagination. It was strangely not frightening; the intensity of the action left no time for alarm. However, despite my calmness I was satisfied the end was near.
As we started our bomb run the fighter attacks eased and intense flak took over. To our rear and off to one side a B-17 took a direct hit. A wing came off and the airplane went into a flat spin. Although I knew my plea was without meaning and could not be heard, I found myself urging the crew to get out. There were no parachutes. Within ten to fifteen seconds after the initial hit the bomber was converted from what had been an airplane into thousands of particles as it exploded. We dropped our bombs and turned for home. The intercom was a constant chatter as the crew called out Luftwaffe fighter locations. I knelt in silence. I had nothing to say. My tail guns were doing my talking in short nasty bursts. No one had to tell me there were bandits at six o’clock and there was no need for me to report their presence. The Luftwaffe was all around us. I was up to my rear end in empty shell casings. We were being mauled. I watched the decimation of the formations below and around us. I could not see how we were going to make it home. There was however a strange calmness and a feeling of someone was watching over me.
When we reached the Belgium border I searched the sky for sign of our fighter escort. They were not to be seen. Our escort was weathered in, still on the ground in England. The Luftwaffe continued to have a field day. Shell casing piled deeper at every gun position. All gun positions were complaining about being short of ammunition. Although I had quietly carried extra boxes on board before takeoff each of my guns had fewer than one hundred rounds per gun remaining. Almost every round had been needed.
As we left the coast of Europe the Luftwaffe disappeared. I bent forward, rested my head on the window and began to shake and cry uncontrollably. I stopped long enough to take a deep breath and say, “Thank you God.” I could not tell to this day from where came the voice with the words, “Trust me.” But in my heart I knew I had not been alone in the tail. I regained my composure and my courage returned. I whistled and Ed Meginnies responded. “Damn you Wing Ding, I am going to tape your mouth shut.” No one else on the crew said anything. They were happy to be alive.
We peeled off and landed at 1830 hours. The ground never looked better. Three of our sixteen aircraft were forced to land at other locations. As I climbed out of Tiger Girl, M/Sgt. Paul Irelan our ground crew chief announced to everyone, “Wing Ding forgot his parachute.” Dingle asked me if I had known it was on the ground. I answered, “Yes sir.” He looked at me, shook his head and walked away, saying, “Now I know why they call you Wing Ding.” Chuck Allred, our engineer commented, “Wing Ding, you’re either crazy as hell or you’ve got balls.”