By Philip P. Dreiseszun, Navigator, 532nd Sqd
On July 25, 1943, I bailed out of a burning B-17 Flying-Fortress bomber over Germany, from 27,000 feet altitude with a parachute riddled throughout by shells and shrapnel.
The 381st Bomb Group had returned a few short hours before from an 11-hour mission, a raid on an aluminum plant in Heroya, Norway. I had flown as navigator with another crew as a substitute for an ill crewman. We encountered little opposition that day, but the long flight time took its toll in weariness and in the stress from being ever on the alert for enemy attack. After debriefing by Intelligence personnel, I made my way to our quarters, hit the bunk and promptly fell asleep. It seemed that only minutes passed before I was awakened for another mission with my regular crew. I doddered off to breakfast. At least, we would usually have fresh eggs on days we flew instead of the powdered type.
Later on that morning we assembled for crew briefings. This was the 38Ist Bomb Group's 12th mission and my 11th. The mission board was covered during the gathering of crews and relevant personnel. We gave our attention to the briefing officer. Then came the moment of revelation! The board cover was removed as we heard the words, “Gentlemen, the target for today is Hamburg!” A stunned silence gave way to utterances of dismay and alarm. Our Combat Wing target was Klockner Aero-Engine factory; our wing also included the 9lst and 351st Bomb Groups. Several pronged attacks on various targets were also scheduled. Two Combat Wings would bomb Hamburg; the other Wing's target was a U-boat yard. A deeper penetration into Germany! There were always instructions for secondary targets when the primary target was unattainable and for targets of last resort when secondaries were unattainable.
The weather looked good. Courses were plotted for directions to friendly countries in case of emergencies. At this time we did not have flak suits, no protective armor. I remembered a previous mission where the flak was so thick that I held my helmet between my legs for protection.
At this time the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter began arriving in Europe to provide fighter support for the bombers. During this period their range was limited; they could not yet accompany us to our target destinations because they lacked the fuel capacity. What a forlorn feeling it would be to see them leave us just past the North Sea entry. Later, they were supplied with tip tanks for additional fuel.
Our bombardier, James H. Houck, gloomily expressed feelings of foreboding. The rest of us, I believe, were in a state of numb awe, of mixed feelings of fear and wonder, and facing unknown qualities in ourselves. How would we react in confrontation with the might of the German Luftwaffe and the formidable anti-aircraft fire we surely would meet? The bonds, fortunately, that held a crew together were a subconscious factor in helping us set individual concerns aside long enough to concentrate on the tasks that lay ahead. Our pilot, William R. (Bob) Moore, was a steadying influence, an excellent commander and aviator.
After lunch, we were taken to our planes. Our preparations were completed. We waited for the signal to board. There were several delays. Houck became more apprehensive and pessimistic. It was after 1:00pm on that sunny Sunday when we finally boarded and started engines. Finally... take-off!
The next phase was assembly of the Group, then of the Group into the Combat Wing. Assembly into the Wing became an urgent problem. There was trouble forming. We were ahead of the other two Groups. Circling to get into proper Wing formation, our Group ended up well behind the other Groups as we flew in the haze over the North Sea in a climb on the way to Hamburg.
The planes were seemingly more difficult to control in the higher altitudes. We had donned oxygen masks prior to 10,000 feet. This gear and attendant hook-ups somewhat limited movement in the nose. The bombardier primarily monitored the forward nose guns, and I monitored each gun on the left and right sides. We always fired a few rounds into the air, testing to ensure that our equipment was clear and operating properly. Now we were falling further back, a dangerous situation, indeed, in light of the opposition that was surely to come. Moore exerted himself extraordinarily in the attempt to get together, but as we crossed the German coast, in approximately 90 minutes, good formation had not been achieved by our Group. Our Squadron aircraft kept losing ground; on some turns the planes in front of us may have picked up some tail wind. By the time we arrived at the turn point, the leaders were still further ahead. We saw the danger all too clearly. In a tight formation, our wing was a formidable target; as stragglers, individual aircraft were an easy mark for destruction by fighters. The flak became intense. We flew through such heavy, boxed barrages that the plane shook convulsively from the reverberating effect of exploding shells, and we sustained heavy damage.
It was slightly after 4:30pm when our Group approached the target area. We still had not closed with our wing. Now it also became evident that the target area was completely invisible to us, covered by smoke. The Royal Air Force had done extensive bombing the night before; myriad fires created palls of dark smoke that carried in all directions for many miles. Our Wing did not bomb the Klockner factory. The mission now was to find another suitable target as reassembly of the Wing was attempted, and return to the German coast and home took place. It was not to be for our crew!
The onslaught came down on us in the shape of Messerschmidt 109 fighter aircraft with 20-millimeter shells. The enemy swarmed at us from all directions. Our gunners, and Houck and myself were all firing; new belts of ammunition were hurriedly installed as rounds were expelled. My arm jerked suddenly, but went unnoticed in the heat of combat. Relentless flak barrages, black and thick, further darkened the afternoon sky. Houck and I leaned against each other to brace ourselves as we fired our guns. Several planes of our Group were now in desperate, still straggling positions.
Our plane lurched, shuddering heavily as 20-millimeter shells tore through the fuselage and Plexiglas windows. Houck spun around from his front firing stance, sinking to our little deck in a sitting position. I was slammed against the worktable but felt no pain. The attack ended, and I turned my attention to Houck. Above his chest-pack parachute was a gaping hole in his chest, which spurted blood. I grabbed the first-aid kit, ripped out packets of sulfa drugs and poured the medication into the gushing wound. I prayed for some sign of life; there was none. The tail gunner, John M. Watkins, had also received a fatal wound in this attack. There was a fire in an engine area, and some flight controls were damaged. The pilots were having difficulty controlling the plane.
Some gunners were still firing. The signal to abandon the airplane sounded! I left Houck's side... dashed up to the cockpit to see if help was needed. Lt. Moore motioned for me to go back and bail out. I paused at the nose hatch. The decision had to be made at that moment whether it was feasible to get Houck's body to the escape hatch, pull his ripcord and eject him from the plane, so he could be recovered for burial. But opening the chute as it left the plane could hit the slipstream and cause an entanglement and endanger other crewmembers as they bailed out. It was an agonizing decision. I left him in the plane. There were many tears for these losses, these deaths as the events occurred. I pulled the emergency cord on the hatch door and sharply kicked it off. On my knees at the hatch's edge, I looked out at 27,000 feet of cold space and nothingness. I rolled out headfirst wanting to make sure I cleared the aircraft and not become entangled. I let myself fall free in the awesome quiet. I estimated about 2000 feet and then pulled the ripcord. The chute jerked violently as it unfurled buffeted by the strong wind at that altitude. The leg straps tightened painfully in the groin area. On seeing the 'chute unfold, I knew I was a goner! It was full of large holes, small holes, and many tears. How it kept me afloat... I'll never know. During the attack, a 2O-millimeter shell had evidently made a direct hit on my parachute.
The winds carried me to an almost horizontal position, then horizontally to the opposite direction as the winds shifted in the descending altitude. The fear that the chute's canopy would collapse from the strong winds prevented me from trying to keep the chute in a righted, vertical path by manipulating the shroud lines. I let the wind and chute carry me as they would; I remember curling up, trying to become as small as possible. Remembering cautionary briefing from the S-2 (Intelligence) division, I removed my high school gold ring and tossed it away. If captured, the enemy wouldn't know where I was from originally, although I was not sure of what use that information would be to anyone. More importantly, I threw my dog tags away. They identified me as a Hebrew, and I feared a confrontation or the consequences of being at the mercy of Nazi Jew-haters!
While trying to assist Jim Houck, I had removed my gloves in extremely cold temperatures and had never replaced them. My fingers had become chillblained. Now, in the descent, they were warming ... and hurting. The rocking motion of the chute lasted for several minutes. The winds decreased and I began to fall straighter and faster. There was not enough buoyancy to easily float down ... just enough to prevent a free drop. The rate of closure between the ground and myself increased frighteningly. I made out a closing circle of people rushing towards the point at which I would meet the ground. I had been falling about 25 minutes. Training lectures and instructions came to mind: land on the balls of your feet, let your knees give way and roll. The final 6000-7000 feet were like a free fall. I hit the ground with such a jarring impact; it felt like every bone in my body had shattered. I lost consciousness. I imagine that lasted about two minutes. My eyes opened to see a German soldier sitting on me, searching for a weapon. Angrily ... hurting from the loss of comrades, the ordeal of the jump, the pain in my body ... I put my hand to the chest of the soldier and pushed him off me. I raised to a sitting position, then reached for the knee pocket of my flight coveralls where I kept cigarettes and a lighter. My hand stopped as though frozen as several soldiers raised their pistols, pointing them straight at me. I raised my other hand cautiously and withdrew the one from the pocket ... saying “cigarettes.” There were no zippers on pockets then, and I had lost any items in there on the way down.
The German civilians in the group that confronted me were hostile. The propaganda was that we were gangsters from Chicago... luftgansters (air gangsters / mercenaries) ... and that we were being paid handsomely to fly over and bomb their cities. Two soldiers hoisted me to my feet; I could hardly stand. I soon discovered that l had some flak shards in my arm and leg. I placed my arms around their shoulders, and they helped me to the nearby village, finally into what was evidently the town hall. There were several other captured airmen seated in a large conference-type room. On the wall, at one end of the room was a large portrait of Adolf Hitler flanked by Swastika flags. A lot of ranting and raving was going on. One of my crewmates was brought in, Edgarton Philip Zahm, our ball turret gunner. I was impressed by his stoical responses to questions: “I can give you only my name, rank, and serial number.” After the war I forwarded a letter of commendation for him to our headquarters. I later heard that our co-pilot Dale E. Wendte, and one of our waist gunners, Joseph G. Kralick, were killed by civilians as they landed in their parachutes.
The radio operator, Edward W. Usher, from Chicago, had parachuted from 15,000 feet, had hurtled through the branches of a tree and landed in a hay storage area. He said that after being captured ... the wagon, on which he was transported to a holding area, had also carried Kralick's body. The top turret gunner, John R. Ivey, who flew as a substitute that day, bailed out safely. So did waist gunner William L. Fortier, and pilot, Bob Moore. Tail gunner, John Watkins, went down in the plane. Our B-17 “LethaI Lady”, with its full load of ten 500-pound bombs floated down. I believe that it went into the Baltic Sea.
Those of us that survived were sent to German Prisoner-of-War camps. After I was captured near Lubeck, I was taken to an airfield and detained in an under-ground dungeon-like cell provided with palliasses of straw. Three or four days later, I was sent to an interrogation center for the “name, rank, and serial number” routine. Moore and I went to Camp Stalag Luft III; others in the crew went to Camp Stalag XVII-B.
En route to the camp we were taken in-groups escorted by armed guards. As we passed through a Hamburg train station ... we encountered an enraged citizenry who were prepared to lynch us. Our guards cleared the way for us ... shoving Germans aside and fending off those more belligerent ... trying to reach us. We made it to a siding at the edge of the station, where prisoners and guards both were vigilant until our transportation came. We were to spend 22 months as prisoners-of-war. And what of the camps and what ensued there in terms of hopes, fears, regimentation, and survival? Well, that's another story.
Fifteen B-17 aircraft out of 123 scheduled to fly to Hamburg were lost that day, including three from the 532nd Squadron of the 381st. I was fortunate, indeed, to have lived through the nightmare of Hamburg.
By Philip P. Dreiseszun