During World War II I flew B-17 bombers out of England, performing 30 missions bombing Germany. The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was a very good four-engine plane and 12,000 of them were built. I was in the 547th squadron of the 384th Bomb Group in the 8th Air Force under General Jimmy Doolittle. We were based 90 miles north of London at Grafton-Underwood, a former Royal Air Force Base, near Kettering in Northampton County.

On bombing missions we put up what was called a group, consisting of three six-ship squadrons and usually had 20 or 21 planes take off, providing spares in case any had to abort and come back to base.

B-17 crew in front of airplane

At 24, the author was “the old man” on board.

On the 24th of April, 1944, we flew a mission to Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, a suburb of Munich. Our target was a large ball bearing plant and a fighter factory both vital to the German war effort. The flight was rather uneventful until near the target. On a mission this long, our fighter escort could not go the whole way with us and just before the target we were attacked by German fighter planes (Bf-109s), a formidable machine. Mostly their attacks were head-on and their guns going off was like photoflashes going off.

Some as they whizzed by would be shaking their fists at us. Some would roll over just before reaching us and I could see our tracer bullets bouncing off their bellies, as their underside was armor-plated. (About every tenth round from our machine guns had a smoking so-called tracer bullet so the gunner could see where they were going.)

There were scores of B-17s and due to some mix-up in turning toward the target, groups ran together resulting in several mid-air collisions. My flight engineer in the upper turret just behind the cockpit would yell push down! Next thing it might be the ball turret gunner hanging under the belly yelling pull up!

We had already had one engine disabled by fighter fire and over the target about the time we had released our bombs the number three engine was hit by flak from the ground batteries and immediately was enveloped in flames. My co-pilot, usually a cool soul from Colorado, yelled over the intercom, “Bail out, bail out, we’re on fire!” As plane commander I got on the intercom and said, “You’d better stay in this plane until the old man tells you to bail out.” (I was all of 24 years old.)

My reason for this was Broullard in a plane ahead had been hit and had headed southeast toward Switzerland and refuge. Broullard was a longtime friend, a big Cajun from Louisiana, who had been with me throughout most of our training. He had gotten no more than three miles from us when the 109s swarmed on him like martins attacking a hawk. They got him, there was a tremendous explosion, and when the smoke cleared there was nothing to see: no airplane, no parachutes, and we later learned none survived.

My navigator called and said the heading to Switzerland was 125 degrees and 65 miles, however, our real protection was to stay with the formation where the combined firepower was formidable to the German fighters. So these two factors caused my decision. After dropping our bombs and leaving the target, the group always slowed down so stragglers could keep up and we were lighter too. We had engine fire extinguishers so managed to put out the fire in engine number three.

Bombs away

Flak is not a B-17 pilot’s friend, no matter how high you’re flying.

Incidentally, we usually bombed from 20,000 feet or more. The air up there was anywhere from 30 below zero to 60 below. We managed to stay with the group until the bandits, which is what we called the German fighters, left. We had fought them off for over an hour and later received a commendation from General Doolittle.

Unable to stay with the group, we went down to treetop level going home. You did that so the German radar couldn’t pick you up and direct fighters to you. As we pulled out over the English Channel and felt relatively safe, the flight engineer (who was a former coal miner from southern Illinois) pointed upward and said, “You know, that Man up there decided we would come home today.” Wondered why he didn’t give me a little credit too.

Our aircraft had flak holes and bullet holes all over; all four engines had been hit and a gas tank. (Our tanks were self-sealing so only a big hole could possibly cause an explosion). The mission had been nine hours and fifty minutes long. It was also remarkable how much punishment the Flying Fortress could take and still come home. Our bomb group lost nine planes out of twenty we put up that day and we destroyed our target.

Our Group Commander, Col. Dale O. Smith, led us that day. He was a West Pointer, six feet seven inches tall and the finest commander I was ever under. He had guts. Some group commanders would pick the easier missions, but not him; he went with us on the rougher ones like Berlin, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, Schweinfurt, Hamburg, etc. He ended up a Major General. I still consider him a friend and we correspond.

Alfred Humbles

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