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.
“Well, fellas, here she is.” Harold, Kelley, and crew all stood before their new slightly beat-up B-17, Classy Chassis. It was originally operated by a pilot, Alexander, who was to replace Topin as co-pilot while Kelley took over his seat as the captain. Jack and Ned gandered at the damaged Shack Up.
“Good job, boys. You broke your new plane.” Jack stood with his hands on his hips and cocked his head dramatically to the side. It reminded Harold of his mother when he and his twin brother Arthur would get in trouble as young boys. She would reprimand Harold for something his brother had done, and vice versa. Harold would defend himself and then ask his mother to dress them differently. The group laughed at Jack’s comment because it was funny, but also because they were still in shock that they managed to land the plane.
“Where’s your digit?” Jack pointed to Harold’s bandaged hand.
“Somewhere near Dusseldorf, if I had to guess,” Harold, who had lost his finger during their previous bombing mission, replied.
Jack laughed, “You boys ready for this one we got coming up? Dropping in on Kassel. Going to give those Jerry’s a nice wake-up.” Jack and Ned were set up to fly into Kassel and drop several tons of bombs in their wake; each B-17 was capable of carrying up to three tons. They hoped to be home that afternoon. Harold had a letter to write back home to Loretta.
Several days prior, the Allied forces had begun an operation against German ball-bearing and aircraft factories. Ball-bearings were vital to the aviation industry and used in just about all machinery. This factory in particular was assembling FW-190s. It was speculated that the Focke-Wulf was the best single-engine fighter aircraft of the war.
The FW-190 took its first flight in 1939, and since then its appearance over the skies always left a little extra tension in the already strung-out airmen. If they successfully destroyed these, they could begin the process of sweeping out Germany — at least in the sky. By 1943, Germany was already wavering on its pedestal, with more and more propaganda highlighting Hitler as unstable, his people starving — and as a result more and more Jews and minorities were unjustly punished. The killing of innocent people only increased as the end of World War II was — hopefully — approaching.
A risky daylight bombing mission
The aircraft took off out of Ipswich in the early morning of July 30. Kelley and his crew departed for Germany just after eight in the morning. The low roar of the plane shook Harold with a slight unease — the same unease he felt each time he went up in the sky. It had only been a couple of days since their previous plane had gone down — but this was war and a job had to be done. If they were successful in their mission, there wouldn’t be so many planes to worry about shooting them down, he reasoned. It would get done.
Jack and Ned flew close by to Classy Chassis — two of over 100 bombers set to destroy the Junkers and Fieseler aircraft factories that sat just outside of a small village called Dorla. The B-17s did not have the protection of the Mustang fighter planes this time, and were resolved to defend themselves as well as each other. Daytime missions were always a risky run, sure, but they had luck on their side — especially following the July 28th mission when their previous plane was downed.
After flying into Germany, Classy Chassis began its mission. They turned north. These bombers moved so smooth and elegant, Harold thought, as Kelley maneuvered Classy Chassis effortlessly to the drop location. The sinking feeling in Harold’s stomach came back, knowing the crew would have to fend for themselves while being unreasonably deep in enemy territory.
They were over the town of Bebra when suddenly an explosion rocked the left side of the Fortress. Harold was thrown to one side and the ball turret gunner ran to his station without saying a word. Through the 10-panel plexiglass, the men saw fighter planes bob and weave about their formation. From below, German anti-aircraft weapons blew a hole straight through the wing of the plane. Engine number four was completely shredded and replaced only by smoke and flame. Flak pierced the metal and the crew screamed out in confusion and fear. The sound of metal ripping from the fuselage and wings was as if every train scheduled to pull into Jamaica Station back home came in at once without stopping.
The men tried to steady themselves and Kelley fought to keep the nose even as thick, black smoke poured from the portside of their aircraft. Harold felt a deep, burning pain in his back but continued to look for something to shoot at. He jerked his wrists forward to choke up the sleeves of his bomber jacket and get a better grip on the turret gun when he noticed the gash on his arm. He gritted his teeth at the pain and yelled for direction, not knowing how many of the crew were still present.
More smoke filled the B-17. Sparks flashed and Harold began to find it difficult to see. Things looked grim; they still had a full bomb shaft, and it was confirmed that two engines on the wing were torn clean off. Harold tried to desperately see if there were any other planes around them caught up in the mess. He wanted to see if Jack was out of harm’s way and on his route back to England.
Again, another explosion. A shell effortlessly ripped through the cockpit and the oxygen systems engaged. Electric was now completely lost and Kelley knew then that there was no hope of getting this plane back to England. They had been in the sky for just over an hour, trailing smoke like a bad omen across Germany.
The B-17 goes down
The controls were so damaged that they were flying a ticking time bomb if they stayed. Thinking quickly, Adams jumped into the bomb bay and used a large screwdriver to wedge open the bomb shaft. All at once, the bombs dropped from the underside of the plane with no target in mind — the only goal was to lighten the load and give the crew some more air time as they thought about what to do next.
“Bail out! Bail out!” Kelley called from the cockpit as he made his way to the bomb bay. It seemed obvious at this point. He knew their situation was making them nothing more than an easier target for German fighter pilots. Jones ran over to radio an emergency message. By the time he returned to the front of the plane, the cockpit was empty — the rest of the crew had bailed out. Papers and wiring flew around and were sucked out into the sky as pieces of metal ripped from the fuselage. Jones found his way to the bomb bay and jumped.
One by one, the men descended onto Germany in different locations.
They were separated, wounded, and far into enemy territory.
Jack and Ned watched helplessly from the B-17 in front of Classy Chassis, their own crew avoiding flack and bullets from the Germans, and returning fire when they could.
The parachutes disappeared among the trees as Jack counted and recounted how many he saw leave the Chassis, telling himself over again that Harold had made it.
August 1, 1943
RETURN TO SENDER
My darling, I’m home now. I was over your house today and your mother is feeling very well and cheerful. Erwin and Frances too. Bob, Irene, and the children were there also. They are well too and Diane is a little devil. God! She’s so cute when she’s naughty. She makes you laugh. I left your house around 8:30, bought an ice cream and moped home. The sky is very beautiful tonight and its countless stars are shining away. Several planes flew overhead and I tried to visualize my honey in one. Honey, I love you very, very, very much. I really think about you all the time darling, you are so nice.
Honey, take good care of yourself as you belong to me. If you don’t get good meals, step out and buy one that is good. Keep well and don’t ever change.
Enclosed is the card where my place was at Erwin’s reception. I love the way that looks, my Mr. Schwerdt, don’t you?
Annamae Hennesey had a 9lb, some-odd ounces – baby boy. I’m so glad everything turned out so well for her!
I’m sorry this letter is in pencil, Ha. Gosh! I’m always apologizing huh! But I love you.
My regards to Jack and Ned.
Be good honey, I love you lots and lots.
Feature Image: A U.S. Army Air Forces Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress flying through flak over a target. The plane could be from the 452nd bomb Group, which had “L” in a square as tail code. (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)