Editor’s Note: Sandboxx News presents a World War II series by Kaitlin Oster on the power of hope, letters, and love in seeing us through the terrors and agony of war. You can read the other installments here and listen to Kaitlin’s radio interview about the series here, or visit her website here.
The Shack Up — or Kelley’s crew, as they were known — had already completed a handful of bombing missions over Germany throughout the month of July. Harold, a technical sergeant, gunner, and sometimes radio operator, began to live for the rush of a mission.
The men would hustle into position and impatiently wait as they were cleared for take-off. He loved the power of the B-17, the Flying Fortress — the Ship — as she effortlessly maneuvered down the airstrip and glided up into the sky, swimming into the clouds in a graceful climb before dropping bombs on Axis forces. It was a beautiful dance.
When he was training and flying over Kansas and Oklahoma, Harold often felt bored seeing the same flat, monotone land. He hoped for ground crew assignment because at least he’d have things to work with. Then, up in the sky on his first mission, he saw the unfortunate beauty of a war-torn Europe. He saw mountains, rivers, and bodies of water that all moved their own way, that all had their own shade of blue. He saw rolling plains — and he saw destruction. He bore witness to villages that were decimated, and cathedrals and synagogues reduced to nothing more than smoking rubble. He saw people running for their lives in unknown directions — trains taking innocent men, women, and children and transporting them away to far, unknown places from where they would surely not return. It was absolute chaos — beauty and chaos.
On July 28, the Shack Up went out for its sixth mission. They followed close with other Fortresses manned by men such as Jack and Ned.
After they had completed the mission, high on victory, the group of Airmen encountered fire from three German fighters, armed and intent on damaging and destroying whatever B-17s they could. The men quickly went to battle stations as they already began to feel the piercing of metal by the fighter plane’s guns.
Related: How big are the guns on America’s fighter jets? BIG.
Harold went to his position at the turret when he noticed one of the German fighters wasn’t firing at them. Instead, it was climbing and descending, matching the altitude of the Shack Up and then pulling away to circle back. He watched the plane disappear to the aft of the aircraft and looked down, knowing what his eyes would already be met with — flak. These 88mm anti-aircraft cannons were waiting for the Fortresses, and the German pilot was radioing the altitude of the B-17 so they could get a more accurate shot on Kelley’s boys. This momentary distraction was interrupted when Harold heard the pang pang pang pang of bullets getting louder and closer to his turret. He heard a bullet whiz past his ear and hit the inside of the plane close behind him. Then, he felt a white-hot pain in his right hand. Harold looked down and was met only with blood. He gnashed his teeth at the pain. Harold picked his hand up to see his pinky had been shot off.
A loud explosion rocked the Fortress and his attention went to Kelley’s shouts from the cockpit.
“They hit the goddamn wing again! Engine out!” Kelley struggled with Topin to keep the plane aloft as it violently shook in the sky. Ping ping ping ping ping came back around and Harold quickly realized he could no longer move the turret gun automatically. When the 88mm ripped through the wing it must have blown out part of the electrical, he thought. There was fire and smoke as the flak ripped the wing like paper. He knew his right hand was no good for firing, so he swallowed the pain and began to manually crank the turret as he followed a German fighter through the air, squeezing the trigger with his non-dominant hand, and returning fire with a 50 caliber.
Pop pop pop pop pop!
Black smoke began to billow out of the German plane and Harold felt relief once he saw flames engulf the wing of the aircraft. It sputtered and screamed as it jolted around in the sky — victory for Harold. The plane began to nosedive for the ground.
“We gotta get the hell out of here!”
Related: Letters to Loretta: Falling in love with the B-17 Flying Fortress
They continued on the best they could, pursued by the last remaining German plane. Three of the four engines were out. Kelley managed to stabilize the plane long enough to land in Allied territory. All 10 of the men bailed out, unaware of the extent of the damage or whether or not the Fortress would explode. As they ran, they heard the scream of the fighter above them as it doubled back over their heads. Harold looked up to the sun, ready to fight — or face his death. Shot out of the sky and then killed on the ground; he thought to himself this would be such an ironic way to die. The German dipped low. Then, reflecting in the summer sky, the pilot waved the wings of his plane — portside down, then starboard, righting himself once more to fly off back to his own base.
“I’ll be damned,” Kelley breathlessly said, “did he just wave goodbye?”
Harold stood a moment in shock, “Gee whiz!” Kelley brought attention to Harold’s bloodied hand. The other men took notice to check themselves over for any serious injuries. Luckily they were all intact; all the other men had 10 fingers each. Harold then remembered the pain in his hand and grasped the missing finger. “It’s lost somewhere in Germany now.” He winced for a moment. The crew took off on foot to be intercepted by an emergency response crew that would take them back to their base in Knettishall. They walked with a purpose, breathless and coming down off the adrenaline of an air fight.
“Close call boys.”
The men later went and assessed the damage to the Shack Up. There were at least 60 flack holes that ran along the side of their pride and joy. Both wings would have to be replaced, and the back of the plane was almost completely blown off. The tail gunner sighed in his own disbelief, “I can’t believe I didn’t get blown right out of the sky!” Harold and the other waist gunner shook their heads, “She’s going to be out of commission for a while, huh.” The wings were relatively simple to replace, but they had other missions that needed to be carried out and the Shack Up wouldn’t be done in time for their next run on the 30th.
Kelley shook his head.
“Looks like we need a new set of wings.”
Related: Watch this rare combat footage of B-17 bombers raiding Germany
July 7, 1943
My Darling Wife,
I love you with my whole heart and soul. If, by shining its light, the sun could express my love for you, you’d never see darkness. And if the tide would come in every time I think of you, the ocean would be constantly overflowing. Honey, I’m madly in love with you.
I completed the gunnery course and received my diploma yesterday. If we don’t have anything else honey, we’ll at least have enough diplomas to wallpaper our house with.
Today, I arrived at my base, and immediately dashed off to the mail room. The last time I received mail was May 28. That’s some time ago, so you can imagine how much I appreciated your letters. I got 11 from you, 2 from Erwin, and 1 from Arty dated May 20. Honey, [you’re] swell for writing me so much, and I love you for it. I enjoyed your mail and consider every letter a treasure in itself.
I knew about the shower the girls were going to give you that Saturday and am very glad to learn you had a swell time. The presents we got interest me a great deal, and is the start of a new cottage whose occupants shall be none other than Mr. and Mrs. H.P. Schwerdt. Then, after a while, I hope the stork pays us a visit and leaves a baby Loretta. Gee honey, I love you.
Honey, [you’re] swell for taking care of the cards and etc; anniversaries and buying presents for Father’s Day. [You’re] just wonderful sweetheart, and I think [you’re] the best wife there is.
I have $100 on me, and will get a money order and send it to you tomorrow. I’d like to [enlighten] you as to my financial status, and think it best if we keep it a secret. I thought you knew, so here it comes. First of all, my base pay is $114. Then, I get $57 for flying, then, $22.80 for overseas duty, and for being married, I get $37.50. It comes to a total of $231.30 a month. From that, you get $100, my mother gets $25, and the government keeps $7 for insurance, which leaves me a total of $99.30. I’ll be able to send you a money order for $50 (I hope) every month. You should get $100 from the government about the middle of every month beginning with July. I hope this money situation pleases you and that you’re satisfied with it.
I’m sending you all I can cause I’m all out for a little cottage for two; or three, or four or more.
My Darling, I love you lots and lots. I think of you all day and dream of you all night.
It’s [goodnight] sweetheart.
Your Honey and Husband
All my love, Ha xxxxxxx
P.S. I love you. Regards to all. Nite Wifey. Love
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