Last modified on August 18, 1998 (Link to 303rd Bomb Group)
On July 13, 1944, I was awakened early by someone from 360th Squadron Headquarters telling me that I had been scheduled to go on a bombing mission. At that time, as far as I knew, my own crew (Hector Vitale, pilot) was not scheduled that day. I was also informed that I would be substituting, on a crew strange to me, for a bombardier who turned down the assignment. The flight would take about 9 1/2 hours at high altitude and on oxygen.
I met only the officers of my new crew at the briefing that followed: Lts. Paul Long, pilot; Harold Carlman, co-pilot; Marvin Shaw, navigator. I assumed that the party whose place that I was taking was of Long's crew, but it was something that was never talked about in the months that followed. The bombing target was again Munich in Bavaria, southern Germany. Our group, the 303rd, had already bombed Munich twice that week -- on the eleventh and the twelfth. I had been there with Lt. Vitale's crew on the eleventh.
After fifty one years I don't remember much about the assembly over England, but I suppose, as usual, we climbed through 20,000 feet of clouds where the group assembled as a unit above the clouds.
The flight to the target area at an altitude of between 16,000 and 20,000 feet was ordinary and without opposition except for some bursts of flak when small airfields in France were passed.
As we neared the German border we began to climb. (Official records state that the average altitude of the flight was 23,000 feet; my altimeter showed nearly 30,000 feet at bomb release time).
I think that our group was tail-end Charlie that day, because as we neared the target it appeared to me that the sky became blacker with bursting flak. (Maybe it was imagination). I had a bombsight and put all of the data into it, but there was complete cloud cover and neither the city of Munich nor the target could be seen. The bombs would be dropped when the group's lead aircraft, equipped with Pathfinder equipment released its load. (For those who have no knowledge of U. S. World War II bombing procedure in the European Theater, it was this: Bomb groups flew as a unit with as many aircraft as a group could get in the air. Usually this was in the thirty something range. Aircraft stayed in formation unless something untoward happened. Over the target, the bombardier in the group lead ship, using, usually, the Norden bombsight, salvoed his bomb load at zero hour. All others salvoed their loads when the bombs fell from the lead aircraft. Following this procedure, all bombs would arrive at the target simultaneously and in pattern.)
We made what seemed like an interminably long bomb run, the skies still black with flak, but no enemy fighters.
As we neared what we assumed was the target area, I opened the bomb doors and when the bombs from the lead aircraft went away, I salvoed ours. At that instant our plane lurched and jumped. I looked out and saw that there was a gaping hole in the left wing. I judged that the hole was six feet long and about three feet wide; the smell of gasoline filled the airplane. The top of the left wing was blackened; I supposed that it was from exhaust smoke of the projectile that went through the wing following its explosion. (I think that when the projectile went through the wing causing the gasoline loss, the rapid movement through the air caused total and rapid evaporation of gasoline and total dissipation of the fumes because there was neither explosion nor fire within the aircraft. I do not let my mind dwell on what would have happened had the projectile exploded a tenth of a second sooner).
Because gasoline fumes were still present in the airplane, the bomb bay doors were cranked shut manually to eliminate a possible explosion from an arcing electric motor; nor did we know what other electrical equipment might malfunction. This all took place within seconds after bomb release. Immediately following the bomb release, Lt. Long made a sharp right turn to get out of the German line of anti-aircraft fire and on a heading for England. I think that the inboard engine on the left wing had been feathered; on the turn we lost several hundred feet of altitude. Suddenly we were alone in the sky; our group was gone. As we were lumbering along on a homeward path shortly after the turn, two P-51 Mustangs dropped down from somewhere above. I am happy that they were not ME-l09s because no one had reported seeing them. They turned southwest and waggled their wings. Lt. Long knew immediately what they were signalling and made a correction to the same direction, toward Switzerland. The P-51s stayed with us until we reached the Swiss border where two German built ME-l09s of the Swiss Air Force met us. Whether our fighter pilots had a system for contacting the Swiss, or whether they were patrolling their border, I never found out. Prior to arriving at the Swiss boundary, I had torn the bombing tables into shreds and when we reached Lake Constance, I threw the pieces out. (Tables were used to set bombing information into the bombsight).
The two ME-109s took us to a landing field at Dubendorf near Zurich. We landed on a seemingly short runway, without flaps, (possibly on only two engines) ran over a ditch at the end of the runway and into a small grain field. Immediately a truck loaded with armed Swiss soldiers was upon us. As we filed out of our B-17, someone on the truck shouted, "Don't burn the airplane!" We did get a chance to look at the airplane before we were taken away. In addition to the large hole in the left wing, there was damage at the end of the right wing and to the rear gunner's area. The aircraft was full of smaller holes. The interning Swiss captain told us that the airplane had over a thousand holes in it. The only wounds suffered: Flak had lacerated the end of one of the engineer's fingers and Lt. Shaw, the navigator, while over the target, had a piece of hot flak lodge in his shirt collar which singed the nape of his neck. Our knees might have weakened when we looked at the B-l7 on the ground, but in the air no one panicked or became excited; everyone took care of assigned jobs and Lts. Long and Carlman did a masterful job of landing the aircraft without flaps, and nearly out of gasoline. Look at our B-17.
The crew was taken to what appeared to be a permanent military barracks, well built, and if memory serves correctly, of stone. Our escape kits were confiscated; we were fed and allowed to take showers ... in cold water.
I do not recall any interrogation; there were probably some questions asked, but I am certain that the interning army knew where we had been, and it was obvious where we ended up. From Munich to Zurich is a little over one hundred miles and the bomb explosions could be heard from that distance. Later, while in quarantine in Neuchatel canton, we frequently heard the sound of bombings.
The crew was separated within a short time. Long, Carlman, Shaw and I were put on a train destined for Neuchatel in the section of Switzerland bordering France. Arriving there, we were taken by funicula to the top of a heavily wooded mountain.
(A funicula is a cable car used to ascend or descend a slope; there is one cable car moving up over rails as another cable car is descending over the same rails, bypassing each other in the middle of the grade on an oval shaped switch; since they are both hooked to the same cable, they counterbalance each other. At the top is an engine house with a drum and hoisting motor that wraps the cable of the ascending car and unwraps the cable of the one descending. I had never seen one before.
The four of us were guarded by one Swiss soldier named Schell; at the top of the mountain, we were taken to a large chalet style lodge, not far from the funicula. Here we would spend our three week quarantine period. The area, called Chaumont, overlooks the city of Neuchatel and the lake of the same name. It is probably about three thousand feet above the city. There are single lane, unpaved roads snaking through the trees of the heavily wooded mountain. Having complete freedom, we walked the roads frequently. Wild strawberries grew in profusion in the grass on Chaumont. It was here, one day while walking, that I saw my first combined house-barn, a long single story stone building with a gable roof and small windows. At one end of the building was the dwelling; at the other end a double style barn door and a cow's head poking out. I suppose that when the price of fuel is considered, it is not a bad idea to utilize the heat that animals emit. Neuchatel is where the Lake people of pre-history lived. Visit Chaumont.
On Sundays, those of us who wanted to go to church were taken down by funicula to Neuchatel to attend services. On the first Sunday we were in Chaumont, we were taken by the townspeople to a cemetery where a memorial service dedicated to the memory of French people killed by Germans was held. I think this was July 16, l944. Other than that occasion we did not associate with local people. (This service also commemorated Bastille Day which is on July 14th).
When our quarantine was over, we were taken by train through Bern to Davos. Going through Bern, the train skirted the Aare river. The river, on our left, separated the rails from the city, also on our left. I suppose that there was city on our right, but have no recollection. Davos, south of Liechenstein, and not far from the Austrian border, is in the Canton of Graubunden. Chür is the capital of the canton and St. Moritz is only about twenty five miles distant. We were lodged in the Rhätia hotel; Shaw and I roomed together and Long and Carlman, in another room. The hotel had a kitchen and dining room; we ate there courtesy of the United States government. We were attended, during the dining session, by a dour headwaiter in formal attire by the name of Otto, and a fifteen or sixteen year old boy named Fritz. The meals were probably as good as any that the Swiss people were eating when war-time scarcities were taken into consideration.
I don't know how many American flyers were in Davos; most where lodged at the Palace hotel, up the street from our lodging. Sometime later we were moved to the Palace, which was directly across the street from the German embassy. Over the front door of the embassy hung the German eagle and swastika. One night, after we had moved to the Palace, the emblem disappeared. Naturally suspicion fell on the Americans so we were confined to quarters until the emblem re-appeared. I never found out who had taken it, but my suspicions were the same as those that the Germans held.
We had our freedom as long as we were present for bed check. Several times, to break the monotony, we hiked through the valley and over the pass to Klosters about three kilometers from the Austrian border to eat at a small cafe. The little restaurant had, inside the premises, a tank with fish swimming about. One could choose the fish for dinner that was desired.
Tours to various places in Switzerland were to be had; we were free to go if we would sign a parole. I never went on one because I would not give a parole since I had my mind set on escape at first opportunity. Prior to this we had been told that anyone escaping after giving a parole would be returned to Switzerland by U. S. authorities.
While living at the Palace, on one occasion, the desk clerk, a man much older than we were, but much younger than we are now, called us over to the desk and said that he had something to show us that might interest us. Being young and always curious, we went to the desk. The clerk opened two heavily bound books containing names of those who had stayed there over the years. He pointed to the names of two guests who had roomed at the Palace in the nineteenth century: A. Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson. At that time there were tuberculosis sanatariums in Davos, so I suppose that is the reason that Stevenson was there because it was this disease that finally caused his death while living in the south seas. I do not remember the names of other noted persons who may have been in the registry book.
Because Davos is a winter resort, with skiers and skaters coming from all over the world, most people living there are conversant in at least two languages. English, German and French are spoken by most people who are in business. In some of the valleys of Graubunden there is another language, now dying out, that is used by a few people: Romansh or Romansch. It is an old language based on Latin, and has been in use there since the Roman Legions were stationed in the area....about the year 15 B. C. I tried to find books about the language, but was unable to; since the language is declining in use, there are probably none.
Davos is divided into two cities: Davos Platz, where we were living, and Davos Dorfli or Dorf. Davos Dorfli, located above where we lived has a beautiful small lake, the Davoser See, on its topside. The lake, with many types of recreational equipment, was in heavy use by the local people while we were there. Scenes of Davos.
Our eating habits changed after we arrived in Switzerland. Having been used to plenty of everything, we were now in a countrv that was raising what it was feeding its own population plus very many displaced people from countries over run by war. Thus, our rations decreased. We had plenty to eat, but being bored from not doing very much of anything, we imagined that we were hungry all of the time. However, we did not seem to lose any weight. The food was pretty basic: brown bread, home grown vegetables, Swiss cheese, butter, not too much meat, and ersatz coffee, which was very good.
Smokers suffered - at least those used to American tobaccos and cigarets. American tobacco products were difficult to come by, and when available, extremely expensive - but only about one fourth of what they are in our country today. Pipe smokers did not suffer as much because there were some good pipe tobaccos.
The beer was good. There were two types of beer that I was acquainted with, both made by the brewery in Chür: Dunkel, a dark beer, and Hell, a light. I preferred the light colored beer, but only one bottle at a sitting because it was potent. Not knowing much about wines at the time, I cannot judge, but once, when we were at Chaumont, we bought a bottle of white wine for one franc, about twenty five cents U. S. I didn't care for it, and also got a headache from it.
I believe that it was sometime in September that Brigadier General Legge, the United States Military Attache in Switzerland, called a convocation of the Davos internees. It was held in the meeting room of the Palace, where at that time, we were living. The general was spit and polish and very dapper in a well tailored uniform, albeit pre-World War II, and with, as I remember, leather leggings or puttees. It was in stark contrast to the manner we were clad. The general addressed the troops, telling us that it was time to leave Switzerland ... on our own. (Breaking internment, if caught by the Swiss, was punished by a stint in one of their detention camps, called hellholes by some who have been in them.) After hearing General Legge, I assumed that there was a tacit agreement between the Swiss government and our country that it was time for us to go. The allied armies had control in much of France, and in the south, where we would go out, there were only scattered pockets of German resistance. I think the drain was becoming too much for Swiss food resources with an ever increasing horde of refugees entering the country---but this is only a surmise on my part. Internees caught in escape attempts still went to prison camps, and Swiss civilians caught assisting them were subject to treason trials.
Sometime in late September, or early October, I began gathering civilian clothing - Extreme care had to be used when doing this. I was able to get a second hand pair of shoes in good condition, but at least one size too small or narrow. I think that most of the clothing that I was able to obtain was second hand, and of rather scruffy appearance.
Since the only language that I spoke was English, I was certain that if I went to the train station, guarded by Swiss soldiers, to attempt to buy a train ticket to Lausanne or Geneva, I would be arrested immediately.
I do not know how I became acquainted with a Yugoslavian soldier who had been incarcerated in a German prison camp since the Nazis had overrun Yugoslavia. Apparently it had been for some time because there is a photograph of him with us. His name was Sasson or Sasoon; he had escaped from the camp, killing a German guard while doing so. (I have wondered how many of his countrymen, prisoners, were shot by the Nazis following his escape. The Germans were extremely brutal to the prisoners of Slavic extraction, murdering many of them). More Davos.
Escapees from prisoner of war camps had free rein to come and go anywhere in Switzerland and as Sasson had a girl friend in Lausanne, he made frequent trips there. He could speak German and his own language(s), but no English. Arrangements, apparently through a middleman, were made for him to purchase my tickets for me, as he was going to go to Lausanne again. He would also be my guide. I do not recall, but we must have had some direction, from above, on what to do and where to go, and Sasson had this information as well as I. (Another interjection: Prior to going overseas, I had allotted all but $50 of each month's wages to the bank at home, so while I was overseas I received $50 monthly, even while in Switzerland. This was 200 francs Swiss money.)
In the evening of the day we left Davos, tickets in hand, we waited in the shadows of the train station as the guards checked the papers of those boarding the train. Since the coach did not have steps that turned up after passengers were on, we waited until the train began to move before darting out of the background and boarding. The Swiss soldier reached for and grabbed my sleeve, but I jerked loose. The train was moving and we were on. I was certain that the guard was a summer soldier and would not report the incident, thereby keeping himself out of hot water. (Swiss men who are physically able, between the ages of nineteen and fifty-nine(?), must spend so much time each summer in military training. I am not certain of the age figures, thus the question mark, nor do I remember how long the training period is. Because of this, Switzerland has a large standing army).
Sasson, with me trailing, picked a small compartment, with a table, in the middle of the coach. Nothing eventful happened until we arrived in Zurich. There, military police boarded the train and began to check papers, of which I had none. We could hear them coming up the aisle, demanding papers at each compartment. I laid my head and arms on the table and pretended to be asleep. What my guide told them when they stopped at our compartment, I do not know, but after checking Sasson's papers, they moved on.
We arrived in Lausanne early in the morning, still dark. I remember this clearly, because while wandering around awaiting daylight, I saw mercury vapor lights for the first time; they were on a long, nicely built concrete bridge and emitted a pale, sickly yellow light.
Sometime after nine or ten in the morning, Sasson took me to the English Library - the place that we had been directed to go. The librarian, an English woman, when I introduced myself, said, very dejectedly, that she had told them not to send any more evadees. She did not mention who "them" were, but she made arrangements for me at a private home of an older couple who were in the business of human ferrying, of which at that time in Europe there was brisk business. Their son, about nineteen years old, had made several treks across France into Belgium and had whisked persons wanted by the Germans to safety in Switzerland. He was fluent in French, English and German; he would be our guide to Geneva, and would make contact with the Maquis, one of the groups of French resistance fighters.
A day or two after I arrived in Lausanne Paul Long, pilot, and Marvin Shaw, navigator, showed up. How they made their way to Lausanne, I don't know, nor do I remember if I ever did know. With people coming and going, all strangers, the subject was probably not discussed. In retrospect, I think that we were safe, but a closed mouth makes safe things safer.
Several days later we made ready for the crossing into France. One evening, after dark, some type of covered lorry took us to Geneva. By this time, there were two others in the party: Two British soldiers who had escaped from a German prisoner of war camp where they had been held since the debacle at Dunkirk. There may have been more than the five of us, and the guide, but I think not. We disembarked from the lorry near a small stream. By this time, my newly bought shoes, too small for me, were causing great discomfort to my feet. We waited for the return of the guide who had gone to make contact with the Maqui who would take us back to the American lines. And we waited. After what seemed like hours, but still dark, the guide returned and we waded across the stream, shoes on. On the far shore our guide turned us over to the Maqui, eight or ten strong and all armed. I believe at this point the guide left us. We walked some more until we came to a ramshackle, deserted house where we holed up and again waited for some purpose or other. After this delay, we were taken, still on foot I think, farther up into the mountains until we came to a place that appeared to be a barracks. There were cots and beds in the building -- some beds without mattresses but some probably had straw ticks in place of mattresses.
Inside, where there was some light, we looked around, and I began to wonder if our venture had been wise. Never in my life had I seen such a rough looking bunch of men -- killers all. In later years, if I would have stumbled on a group with such visages, I would have run as fast as possible -- away. We slept after brief introductions. Upon waking, doubts again plagued us, but since we could do nothing about it, those doubts were put behind. But cigarets, even the poor ones that we had, are a door opener toward making new friends, especially with those who have had few or none for so long. If I had this to do again, I would load up with cigarets before venturing out. Escape from Internment.
I do not remember how we got to Annecy, but get there we did. This city is due south of Geneva about twenty five miles and is in the province of Haute Savoie, it has much history. On the south side of Annecy is a long mountain lake which in peace time must be a resort because the large hotel, as well as the surrounding area, had all of the earmarks of a summer resort.
We reported to this hotel, out of the city, where there were several American military personnel, probably stationed there to see that evadees and escapees were transported back to their units or armies. We were outfitted with new clothes; I received a pair of six or eight inch high, metal studded boots and my sore feet suddenly felt good again.
How long we were billeted at this place I do not remember, but, perhaps a day or two. As it happened, this was the last place that I was ever bitten by bedbugs.
While there, the captain in charge told me that an invitation had been received from the Maquis inviting roomers at the hotel to come to the execution of some Germans. The captain stated that the invitation was declined.
From Annency we were taken by U. S. Army truck to Lyon. Driving through the devastated countryside we met a hay wagon being towed by eight or ten German military prisoners. Poetic justice in action, since the Germans had confiscated the draft animals in the area. The German army, or more probably, the SS troops had committed many atrocities in this area of France. In one small hamlet, the SS troops had herded women, children and old people into a church and set it afire. Perhaps this, or some other atrocity, was the justification for the execution mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
I do not recall how long we were in Lyon, but soon we were flown to London.
Arriving in London, we were taken to the SHAEF headquarters at Grosvenor House for interrogation. I believe that it was at this point that we were separated from the two British soldiers.
From London we went back to the 303rd Bomb Group (Hells Angels) at Molesworth.
We were able to obtain the use of a B-17 to fly to Liverpool to pick up our footlockers, in storage there. The large storage structure housed the belongings of airmen who had been killed, prisoners of war, and those missing in action. There were thousands upon thousands of footlockers. At a place such as this, the grim reality of war is starkly revealed. Procedures for filing and storage must have been efficient because we were there for only a couple of days. Breakfast, either at the Red Cross or the USO, consisted of powdered eggs which had been prepared so that they actually tasted good.
From Liverpool, we flew back to our group. Lt. Vitale's crew, my original crew, had already gone back to the States; I did have a pleasant visit with Major Barrett, the Group Intelligence Officer of the 303rd.
It seems to me that we went back to London from our base one more time. What I am about to relate could have happened after we had returned to England from France and before we went back to the base for the first time since July 13th. We were in London on Armistice Day, l944. While there, we attended an Armistice Day memorial service in Westminster Abbey. Also, at this time, I received my first acquaintance with the German V2 aerial rocket bombs. They would come in silently or with a slight whistle and then the loud explosion. These bombs, I think, came from sites in Germany. They were different from the flying buzz bombs (V1 ?) I had experienced on my first visits to London. The first versions had an engine or motor that sounded like a 1 cylinder gasoline washing machine engine. When the "putt putt" ceased, the explosion would come in seconds. Most of the buzz bombs came from France, and many of our first bombing raids were made on these bomb launching sites that looked like ski ramps.
Shortly after going back to the 303rd base at Molesworth, we entrained for Prestwick, Scotland. At Prestwick, we boarded a military C-54 cargo airplane with bucket seats, no backs, for the seventeen hour (?) trip back to New York. Our first stop, in the dark of night, was for refueling at Reykjavik, Iceland. The next stop, probably again for refueling, was at Stevenville, Newfoundland. The next stop was La Guardia airport in New York City, on November 18, 1944 - I think. And then we were on our own.
I had been overseas for six months, and in combat for less than one month. My brief combat career ended on July 13, l944 on my thirteenth bombing mission. Our B-17 was the only loss from our group that day.
Combat Missions flown by me:
The first twelve missions were flown with my own crew, Lt. Hector Vitale, pilot; the thirteenth and last was flown with Lt. Paul Long's crew. After retiring from an Air Force career as a Lt. Colonel, Paul Long died in August, 1993. Lt. Vitale's plane and crew.
On June 20, l944, the 303rd was scheduled to go to Hamburg, Germany, a port on the Elbe river about seventy miles inland from where the Elbe flows into the North Sea. The B-l7s of our group were loaded with the type of incendiary bombs which, when they began to burn with a temperature exceeding 2,000 degrees F., were virtually impossible to extinguish, even in water.
Each bomb was composed of many long, thin tubes banded together - cluster bombs. Our bombays were full to brimming with these clusters. The theory was this: After the bombs were dropped, but before they reached the target area, an arming device on each cluster would spin loose cutting the bands holding the cluster together and the tubes would drop helter skelter.
Inland over Holland, but at quite a distance from the target, our aircraft developed an oil leak in one engine. The pilot, Lt. Vitale, realizing what this dangerous situation could lead to, decided to abort the mission. We turned back, on a heading toward England; we could not land with incendiary bombs on board so I dropped them in the Zuider Zee. It bordered on the miraculous that we were not attacked by German fighters because a lone bomber was considered a sitting duck.
The next day, June 21st, our group was sent to Berlin via the North Sea route. We were probably flying at 20,000 feet far out at sea with a heavy, steady cloud cover below us. When we drew abreast of Hamburg still far out at sea, we could see, on our right, a thick column of black smoke rising through the clouds and extending into the sky as far as eye could see - the result of the previous day's firebombing.
Many years later, our school had a superintendent who was married to a lady from Hamburg. Her father, the city's official bandmaster, was killed in the fire bombing that day when he attempted to get to the band's headquarters to save the musician's uniforms.
The Germans coined a verb for the type of destruction that befell Hamburg that day: "Hamburgerzieran".
The Hamburg mission was my crew's only abort. See Glossary.
Everything written in the text is as I remember it fifty one years later. There are probably some discrepancies due to a lack of memory. I have never kept a diary, but when I began to piece this narrative together, I was wishing that I had. As I wrote it in longhand, more things would come to mind, so countless times I had to begin again.
I have included a glossary of terms so that if anyone, years from now, reads it, they will have some understanding of terms used.
I also hope that anyone reading this will overlook anything he/she feels is an attempt to editorialize.