I was the last one to bail out of our B-17 bomber alive that day. It was around noon on April 29, 1944 and our target was Berlin. "Big B," we called it. It was probably the most heavily fortified city in Germany, with thousands of accurate and deadly 88mm anti-aircraft guns pointed at the sky. Pointed at the Allied planes that came to drop their bombs on Hitler's glorious city. Pointed at my Bomb Group, the 447th. Pointed at my squadron, the 708th. Pointed at my plane, the Mississippi Lady. Pointed at...me.
This was a mission that I was not supposed to fly. If I had used the pass I'd been issued yesterday, I would have been in London now. But I'd opted to stay the night. Around 4 a.m. on April 29th, a Saturday, I was awakened by the sound of gravel crunching under the soles of G.I. shoes outside our Nissen hut. Our door was opened and a sergeant came in, shining a very bright flashlight on a roster pad. As he began calling out names for that day's mission, I pulled my blanket over my head and waited for him to leave, because I wasn't scheduled to fly. I had the weekend off.
The first time he called my name, I didn't answer. I felt that I had misheard him. Then, when he yelled "Bussel" again, I jerked my blanket down and shouted, “I'm not flying today! I got a pass last night to go to London."
"Then you shoulda gone to London last night,” he said. "All passes are cancelled. Everybody's flying today."
As I stood barefoot and shivering on the cold concrete floor and began to dress, I reflected that the sergeant's announcement was very ominous. "All passes are cancelled. Everybody's flying today." This had to be a damned important target if no one was excused from flying. I shoulda gone to London last night.
After the previous day's long mission, I felt I'd better eat a substantial breakfast, because there was no telling when we'd get back. Even though I wasn't very hungry at that early hour, I packed in the food purposefully. I prepared for a long day by downing cereal, juice, fried eggs (fresh, not powdered) toast, bacon, potatoes and black coffee. Actually, the food in our small messhall was better than that served on most bases in the States.
I met Daddy at the briefing center. "Well, this will be our first mission as a crew,” he said. "It'll be good flying on the same plane with you guys again."
There were two briefings before every mission. The first was a general briefing for the entire crew. Afterward, the pilots and co-pilots remained for additional instruction and navigators and bombardiers each met in separate rooms for specialized briefing on their positions. The non-coms suited up and checked out their equipment.
The general briefing room was very large and, wooden folding chairs were lined up in rows of ten, so each crew could sit together. There were no loud voices. All you could hear was a low murmur. There was a palpable air of tenseness as we waited for the target to be announced.
Finally a Lt. Col. climbed the four steps to the podium, holding a long wooden pointer in his hand. He walked over to a large wall map that had been covered with thick black cloth and pulled the cloth aside. We were seated too far away to see the markings on the map, but when he touched the end of his pointer to its face, we knew that it was resting on our air base. Slowly, the pointer followed a black line across the map and when it stopped, he turned to face us and said, “Gentlemen, your target today is...Berlin."
A simultaneous loud groan filled the room, then a muttering as crew members swore softly and talked with each other about the dreaded prospect of bombing "Big B." We already knew that Berlin was teeming with anti-aircraft batteries and in April 1944, the Luftwaffe could loft many fighter planes to attack our slower, heavily bomb laden B-17s. Our fighter escort was still quite thin compared with what it would reach in the coming months.
Our instructions from the podium continued. We were ordered to maintain tight formations so we would be less vulnerable to German fighters; we were advised that flak would be heavy over the target; we were told that there would be cumulous clouds at 14,000 feet over the city; and we were wished good luck. Dawn was just breaking as our crew boarded a truck to the flight line.
The mission started out very badly for my crew and continued to get worse as the day progressed. First, there was the problem with Sherry, his face was ashen as we rode out to our plane, and with good reason. The day before, Lt. Sokol, also in our bomb squad and a close friend and former classmate of Sherry's in navigation school, had been hit in the neck by shrapnel while on a mission. His crew was unable to stop the flow of blood and Sokol died on the flight back to Rattlesden.
I went to the radio shack with Benshit to pick up our crew's equipment. Hurriedly, I looped the ten headsets over my left arm, and grabbed the ten throat mikes with my right, while he signed out for them. When we reached the hardstand, our crew was standing outside the plane, and I began passing the headsets out to them.
When I handed Sherry his, I heard him gasp, "Oh my God! Oh my God!" What's wrong," I asked.Speechless, he could only point to one earpiece as he shoved the headset back into my hand. I saw that one of the wires had been cut and there was dried blood on it. Also, a name had been written on a piece of adhesive tape applied to the earpiece: Lt. Sokol.
I was horrified and Sherry was in shock. I grabbed the ground crewchief by the arm leading him over to his Jeep as I explained why I needed to get back to the radio shack in a hurry. The chief drove like a maniac and I picked up another headset. When we got back to the plane, I handed it to Sherry.
"How do you feel." I asked.
He was trembling. "Got to pray, boy," he said. "Got to pray."
When Daddy started the B-17's four powerful Pratt & Whitney engines, the tremendous force of the backdraft made it impossible to climb on board without holding onto the side door and pulling yourself inside. I was just behind Sherry and I helped boost him into the waist. His strength seemed to have been drained from his body. As Daddy gunned the throttle higher, the plane began to buck on the hardstand like a restrained animal and the roaring engines made me think of Pegasus as I imagined four huge, winged horses raring to break free.
Just before takeoff, the control tower told us by intercom that our group was early and we were ordered to take off and do a 360 degree turn. By the time we completed the turn, the tower said, we would in position to join up with the main formation.
As we taxied out to the runway, Daddy called Sherry on the intercom and asked him to direct us when we were airborne, so we could quickly form with the rest of our squadron. Sherry's voice was hoarse and scarcely more than a whisper. Daddy couldn't understand a word he said. I listened in anxiously for a while. I was familiar enough with Sherry's voice that I could make out what he was saying. Finally, I spoke up and offered to relay Sherry's instructions to Daddy. He agreed, and this was the way we managed to form with our squadron.
The plan to do a 360, turned out to be the second catastrophe. By the time we had completed our turn, the rest of the wing that we were supposed to join was minutes ahead of us and we never caught up with them. As a result, the fighter planes that were slated to escort us, ended up flying with the larger group and we were left to defend ourselves.
The B-17 wasn't named the Flying Fortress for nothing. We had seven formidable 50 caliber machine guns for defense, but the loss of our "Little Friends," as we affectionately called our fighter escort, would make the German fighters even more daring in attacking us that day.
Anyone who has fought in a war can think of many times when death was cheated, because of the slightest change in plans; in routines; in circumstances. I can recall scores of times when, had fate not intervened, my mother might have found an Army Chaplain ringing her doorbell.
Such an incident took place as we began our mission to Berlin. As we flew over the English Channel, Little Joe came into the radio room and sat on my chest chute, which was just in back of my chair. I could understand why he did it. It was a helluva lot softer than the hard, cold floor of the plane. I turned and said, "Little Joe, don't sit on my chute. What if I have to use it today?"
Annoyed, Joe tossed the chute across the radio room and it landed next to the door leading to the bomb bay.
"It won't hurt the damned chute to sit on it!" he said.
As it turned out, if Little Joe hadn't tossed my chute across the room, it would have been consumed by flames, because later, fire started in the exact spot where my chute had been lying, and I would have had nothing to bail out with. I never got to thank Little Joe for saving my life. A few minutes later, this sweet little kid from the Brooklyn was dead. He was just nineteen years old.
Flying over the English Channel, my radio suddenly came alive with the voices of pilots reporting that they were about to abort and return to base. Some claimed engine problems; some alluded to other mechanical malfunctions. I didn't count the number of reports I heard, but it did strike me as being quite disproportionate. I wondered how many of the aborts were legitimate; how many crews just didn't want to go to Berlin. As much as I dreaded this mission, I was superstitious enough to believe that the crews who avoided Big B that day were likely to get shot down on a milk run later on.
We didn't begin to encounter flak until we crossed the German border and then it was sporadic. When the flak increased, I opened a carton of "chaff" and began stuffing the silvery strips through the chaff slot in the radio room. Chaff came in small packages, open at both ends and looked like the tinsel used to decorate Christmas trees. As thousands of strands dispersed in our wake, it interfered with the radar that the Germans used to track us and to direct their anti-aircraft fire. It was too late to benefit our formation, but could help the planes following us. I hoped that the planes in front of us were pushing out chaff just as diligently.
As we flew deeper into Germany, the sky began to fill with black puffs of smoke as flak shells exploded all around us. Any idea that these bursts were innocuous was quickly dispelled with the occasional ping of shrapnel fragments bursting through the aluminum "skin" of the plane, with the sound of gravel being thrown against a tin roof.
Then, Bill reported incoming fighters and Daddy began to call each gunner on the intercom to check if he was firing at the attacking ME 109s. I was shooting my overhead gun in the radio room when Daddy called for me to report. I got out two words, "Yes, I-- " when a burst of flak that must have been right on top of us, blew a huge hole just above the desk where I had been sitting and fragments splattered over my body, knocking me down and ripping off my throat mike.
When I abruptly stopped talking, Daddy knew that I was hit and I heard him yell, "Norm's hit! Somebody from the waist get in there and help him."
I could feel blood running down my face, my leg, and my ribcage, but I didn't believe that I was gravely wounded, so I snapped my throat mike back on as quickly as I could and said, "I'm okay guys. Repeat: I'm okay. Stay with your guns, I'm getting back on mine."
I had just started firing at another fighter, when our plane was rocked again and I was thrown against the side of the ship. As I stood up, I realized that I was no longer getting any oxygen and then I saw the flames behind my chair and the plane's skin began dripping molten aluminum. It was surreal to watch the aluminum skin, the metal that appeared to surround us so protectively, suddenly drip, drip, drip like soldering lead. My plane was melting before my eyes. Obviously, our oxygen lines were burning because the fire was so intense. I tried to use the intercom but it was dead. I never heard an order to bail out.
Flying at 28,000 feet, without oxygen, can do weird things to your mind. I seemed to be moving in slow motion. With the plane burning around me, I didn't feel rushed or afraid. Nor did I sense any danger. In fact, my impaired brain even flirted with the idea that the flames would go out and we would fly back to England. After all, our engines were still intact...still emitting their low, powerful, steady tone. I opened the door to the waist to see if I could help anyone back there and I was confronted by a solid wall of flame. I tried to peer beyond it but I could see nothing. As I slammed the door shut, I heard explosions inside the radio room and felt powder burns on my face as the raging fire caused my ammo to cook off. The blasting of the 50 caliber shells jerked my ammo belt violently and it danced like a large metallic snake writhing in the flames...contorted with anguish.
I still didn't think about bailing out. The plane was flying along on a smooth, level course. I realized that the intercom was out, but I never even heard the alarm bell. Daddy was still controlling the plane. What I didn't know was that the plane was set on automatic pilot and I was flying with four dead buddies as my sole companions.
I decided to head for the cockpit to see if anyone there needed help. First, I hooked on my chest chute, not realizing that only the right clip was engaged; the left was not completely locked. As I opened the forward door, I saw that the bombs had been salvoed and the bomb bay doors were wide open. I looked down, and far below I could see thick layers of clouds. I don't know why I noticed the large chocolate D-bar lying on my desk, the one I planned to eat as we crossed the English Channel on the way back to Rattlesden. I stared at it for a moment, my muddled mind trying to figure out why I was so enchanted at the sight of a chocolate bar, lying next to my radio, in the middle of our burning plane flying high over Berlin. I made no move to pick it up, but I sensed that something was missing. It was. I had forgotten to bring LaVerne’s bra. It was back in Rattlesden in my footlocker.
As I stood in the doorway, I turned and looked through the huge hole in the left side of the ship and saw that flames had engulfed the entire wing. The wings, of course, are where the plane's fuel is stored. By now my clothing was on fire and I knew I'd never make it to the cockpit. I stepped out onto the catwalk in the bomb bay and for a brief instant remembered my famous last words, "I'll never bail out. I'll go down with the plane first." Then I jumped.
I began a count to ten, delaying pulling my ripcord so my flying suit would stop burning. I was falling on my back and I could see the plane moving away. I reached the count of seven when the ship veered wildly, out of control--then exploded into a million burning pieces. I had been seven seconds away from eternity.
When I jerked the pull-ring on my chute, the unbuckled left side flew up and hit me under the chin, knocking me out. I came to, surrounded by a thick white mist. There was no feeling of motion and I figured I was dead. Then, I pondered the horrible boredom of going through eternity enveloped in this moist white fluff.
As I began to pray aloud, I recoiled in surprise at what I first believed to be the booming voice of someone else. Then, I realized that the shouting was coming from my own throat. The sudden change from being on a burning plane, with its engines roaring as it tore through the sky, to the ethereal quiet of this new, white, white world in which I now floated was so shocking, so breathtaking, that I was suddenly frozen into silence.
Then my face began to sting where I had suffered powder burns from my exploding ammo. I touched my face and it hurt like hell. I didn't have to be a scientist to realize that the dead feel no pain. When I burst out into the open and saw land beneath me, I remembered that at our briefing that morning, we were told to expect cumulus clouds at 14,000 feet over the target.
I was 14,000 feet over Berlin, but I was alive!
For the past several days, I had been having nightmares about being shot down and captured by the Germans. In keeping with my plan for survival, I reached up and pulled my dogtags from my neck, the newly issued tags with the telltale H pressed into them, and I threw them as far away as I could.
Wounded and defenseless, I drifted toward the ground. Toward a welcoming committee of hate-filled civilians who were hell-bent on killing me.
The 447th lofted 29 B-17s that day, seven of the crews were on their first mission and three were on their second. Eleven planes were lost, with one crew making it back to the English Channel where they ditched and were picked up by a British air-sea rescue unit.