Sample Chapter: Tales of War

Ralph Brighton: Flying Missions

There is a lot more involved in a flying mission than jumping in a plane and taking off. We had to get up around 1 a.m., have breakfast, gather our equipment and go to the briefing room to get informed about our target.

The officers would fill us in on all the necessary data such as the target, how many miles to the target, the route to take, how high to fly, the opposition to expect, the weather going in, the kinds of bombs we carried and take off time. We then had to go to the "gun shop" and pick up our machine guns and install them in the planes. We had to inspect the plane and the gun stations and check with the ground crews to be sure our planes were fully fueled. We then had to wait our turn to take off. Take off time could be from 0800 to 1000, depending on weather and length of the mission.

Breakfast time before a mission could kind of be a treat (if one could eat). The night crews stood by their planes and only the flyers going up on missions were in the Mess Hall to eat early. We missed the rush and didn't have to stand in line long. The Mess Hall cooks would be waiting and it was first come, first served basis. We also had the luxury on mission mornings, to stand by the cooks and tell them just how we wanted our fresh egg cooked. Fresh eggs were a special treat; that's the only time we got fresh eggs, and they were for the flyers only.

On January 4, I went on my first mission over Germany. The target was Kiel Harbor installations. We carried 6000 pounds of demolition bombs. The take off time was 0800 and we got back to the base without problems at 1450, six hours and 50 minutes. My second mission was the next day on January 5, and the target was the same. The first mission was flown at 27,000 ft. altitude and the second mission at 24,000 ft. These first two missions I was really jittery, and by the third mission I felt more at ease.

January 11th was my fourth mission and what a mission it was! The target was Halberstadt, Brunswick, Osnsbruck, Germany. The take off time was 0810 and the pilot was Lt. Campbell and co-pilot was Lt. Leaguens. The bomb load was 6000 lbs. demolitions. The weather was clear. It was time to take off and each plane went according to its place in the formation. Our plane had the lead position on this mission and we started the climb to 19,500 feet. I remember looking back to see how many planes were up and it was quite a sight. There were planes strung out for miles.

Soon we were over Germany. The Air Force was called back for some reason but the first and lead division did not pick up the call and we kept right on flying to the target. This left just one division, and all the fighter planes that were escorting the bombers went back to England with the bombers. One division has anywhere from one to several hundred bombers in it, so now the German fighters could concentrate on perhaps as few as 300 bombers. I don't remember how many bombers were left in our division.

As we got closer and closer the opposition got thicker and thicker) but on we went to the target of the day. The anti-aircraft was intense and accurate and had a good day knocking down bombers. After we left the target area and headed for home, the fighter planes took over and the battle was on. It was estimated 200-400 German fighter planes attacked the bombers. The attack lasted for about two hours and kept us gunners quite busy. Many planes were shot down on both sides.

After the battle ended, it was time to see how much damage we had. The pilot of our crew started checking on the gunners to see if any of us were hurt. No one was hurt, but when the pilot called the ball turret gunner (that was me), he said I did not sound right. He asked me if I was out of oxygen) so I looked at the pressure gage and it read 400 lbs. I told him I had lots of oxygen. He said, "Have you been hit?" I told him no and that I felt fine. He didn't say another word to me at this point but he then called to the two waist gunners to get me out of the ball turret. I turned the turret so they couldn't get the door open and I kept right on looking for any stray German fighter planes. I thought I felt real good. After a few minutes the pilot called again to me to tell me that I only had about three seconds to live. I didn't answer him and I thought to myself that if I do only have three seconds to live I would turn the turret and look at Mother Earth one more time.

When I got the turret turned around to look straight down, my oxygen hose from the supply tank fell out of the window that I was looking through. I had just enough strength to reach down and pick it up. I then hooked it up to my face mask and turned the pressure gage to 100% oxygen. WOW! What a funny feeling that gave me! I tingled all over my body. The pilot was right, I was very close to dying and I wasn't even shot at. I said a short thank-you prayer to God and then called the pilot to thank him for keeping after me. The crew was very quiet the rest of the way home. They were glad I was still alive and I was thankful we all made it back to base in one piece. I was a member of a very good crew and we flew many missions together. As we were getting close to the English Channel, we were slowly losing altitude, so now we could all remove our oxygen masks. It always felt good to take them off and we had been on oxygen for five and a half hours. We would soon be back to home base.

After landing, we all took a good look at our plane to see how badly we were shot up. We had nine big holes in our plane and lots of small ones too. We were glad no one was hurt and maybe it was just luck. The work isn't over just because we landed. We have to pull the machine guns from the plane and there were a lot of them that day. A truck arrives to pick us up along with the guns and parachutes to take us to the proper shops to store them in. From there we all go to the debriefing room to tell about our recent mission. We tell our story and each crew member has separate interviews with ground personnel. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes. We also got all the information from other crews that were there before we got back. Now we hear the larger story of what took place that day, 210 German planes shot down 60 B-17 bombers.

After the briefing was over, we had to go back to the gunnery shed, break down the guns completely, clean, oil, and examine them and put them back together again and store them in wooden boxes. The guns were now ready to go for our next mission. When the briefing and gun cleaning were done, we were finally allowed to go to the Mess Hall and get something to eat. It had been a long day and a long mission. The next day we recovered from Mission #4 and started getting ready for the next trip into Germany. The number of our plane was 174. Number four was called that in this account because it was my fourth bombing mission. I was very proud to have been a part of this fight and very happy and thankful to go on Mission #5 soon. All of my other missions were with a full air force and we hit many different targets. Most of the bombing missions were pretty much routine so I will not go into great detail about all of them. Mission #15 was different in a couple of ways. First, we did not go in big formation, instead each plane was basically on its own. This was called a shuttle mission. Our shuttle mission was to the coast of France to an area called Rocket Coast. It was named this because this was where the German rockets we set off across the English Channel. The target was London and it occurred mostly at night. Since the distance across the English Channel was a short one, and there were not any German planes or crews, the shuttle missions were used. Each fighter plane had to make two shuttle runs to get credit for a mission.

Our take off time for Mission #15 was 1220. We were loaded with 6000 lbs. of demolition bombs. As we approached the coast of France, we quickly got into the bombing pattern. The bombardier called me on the radio and stated he was going to open the bombay door and advised me to watch to make sure the doors opened. I turned my turret around so I could make sure the doors opened. Sure enough the doors opened but instead of just one bomb falling out, we dropped our entire demolition load at once! I immediately notified the bombardier of what happened and proceeded to tell him where they landed. I watched all of the bombs fall to the ground right in the middle of a farmyard. How lucky that farmer was. The bombs fell right in between his buildings and not much damage was done except for the loud explosion.

We were not much of a fighter plane without bombs so we went back to England and got another load. The second time we dropped the bombs and everything went as it was supposed to.

After these two runs, 1 was awarded the second Oak Leaf Cluster to my air medal. Two days later I was promoted to Staff Sergeant.

Mission #28 was a very successful one. It lasted seven hours and we were sent deep into France to an air base at Nancy, France. This air base was very sophisticated and nice and it was used to train German pilots. It was a shame to mess it up as we did, but when we got done bombing it there wasn't much of it left. Mission #28 was completed on April 25, 1944 and it was to be my last combat trip. When we returned, we were informed our squadron had now completed 47 missions without loss of men or planes. We were commended for a job well done.

After all reports were completed it was customary for the flyers to be taken into a little town near the air base for a night of celebration by his buddies to celebrate the end of the tour. I knew it was going to be a good night. We got an early start on the night of celebration and were back to the base by midnight. When we returned, we ran into our gunnery officer. He happened to be walking a nurse around the Headquarters Arch and they decided to join in on the celebrating. Our little party was short lived as the major's sleeping quarters were close by and I guess we got a little carried away with the noise. The major appeared in the door of his hut and said "why in the hell don't you guys go to bed". The major had been experiencing a lot of sleepless nights lately as a lot of the men were completing their tours of duty and celebrations were occurring quite a few nights.

On May 4, 1944, I was shipped to a debarkation center to await transportation back to good old USA. I received some very sad news also on that day. My remaining crew were sent to Frankfort, Germany, on a mission by a new general on his second flight. It was reported to be cloudy over Frankfort and they could not see the target, so Mr. Smart General led the air force around to the target again at seventeen thousand feet. They still could not sight the target and lowered the plane to fourteen thousand feet. They could see the target just fine at this altitude but the Germans could also see the bombers now. The Germans shot the "Hell" out of them. My crew and many others were shot down including the general. My best friend bailed out with his parachute but it didn't open.

Copyright © 2001 by George Brighton All rights reserved.

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