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Flying U.S. B-17 Bombers over Nazi Germany Was Nearly a Death Sentence

July 14, 2019 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Nazi GermanyAlliesB-17Allied BombingBombers

Flying U.S. B-17 Bombers over Nazi Germany Was Nearly a Death Sentence

Here are the odds they faced.

In almost daily letters to Gladys, Hardwicke has, with unshakable faith, assured her that, no matter what she may hear, he will return to her as soon as the war is over. 

When the call came that morning, it was not unlike the 25 times previously when they had flown, or all those other times when weather intervened and postponement was ordered.

The door to the Nissen hut bangs open, the dim center-ceiling bulb winks to life, heavy footsteps, a grasp and shake of the shoulder, “OK, sir, mission today, you’re scheduled to go, breakfast at 0500, briefing at 0530.” Hugh Hunter Hardwicke, Jr.’s, leaden eyes open imperceptibly, and to the figure silhouetted against the eerie glow he responds with the traditional, “Go away, just go away, OK.” Nonetheless, he sits up, stretches, scratches, yawns, slides from under his double thickness of wool blankets. He sort of scurries, perhaps shuffles, across the cold, wooden floor, stokes what remains of the fire, barely alive within the cast-iron relic cleverly disguised as a stove, and calls to his co-pilot, “Roll out, Flick, we’re on.”

“OK, Guys, Up, Up … and Away”

Gordon (Flick) Flickema’s first task of this new day is to rouse the other two officers of Hardwicke’s crew, navigator Moody (Jack) Jackson and bombardier Charles (Chick) Papousek, with his usual, dutiful, “OK, guys, up, up … and away.” They share this bleak, corrugated-steel, half-cylinder-shaped home with eight additional officers representing two other 568th Squadron crews, all of whom are grousing at the hour, the cold, the damp, the necessity of yet another mission. It is a little after 0400 when Hardwicke and others plod blurry-eyed to the nearby officers’ latrine and notice just a wisp of fog; not bad for late-November England, but that may change with inexplicable alacrity.

(Originally Published May 30, 2019. This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.)

The 568th is one of four squadrons, each equipped with Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress bombers and their nine-man crews, plus a multitude of support units that comprise the 390th Bombardment Group (Heavy), within the command structure of the 13th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division, Eighth Air Force. More than 1,500 officers and enlisted men, and a detachment of WAAFs (Women’s Army Air Forces personnel) share the base, officially Station 153, Framlingham, East Suffolk, East Anglia. The 390th acquired the facility, first used by the RAF, in July 1943. About a year later, Hardwicke and his “replacement crew No. 7” arrived and since then had acclimated themselves to the gently rolling farm country, fields neatly divided by hedgerows; here and there a square patch of woods, a shimmering pond.

Immediately to the west lay the railway station and quaint village of Parham; about three miles north, the larger village of Framlingham—imperturable tributes to a placid past, now juxtaposed with the tools and turbulence of war. Throughout, Station 153 retains a uniquely American flavor as recorded by a young English girl who lives nearby. “There are dogs everywhere, big ones, little ones, all colors, every kind, chasing trucks, riding in Jeeps, following the boys to eat, and always around somewhere.”

Hardwicke Dresses for Combat

There is little conversation as Hardwicke completes his early-morning ablutions and dresses: long johns, wool shirt, wool trousers, two pairs of wool socks, GI high-top shoes, and wool garrison cap with the silver bar of a first lieutenant pinned neatly on the left side. His A-2 leather flight jacket is complete with squadron insignia on the front, a snarling black panther riding earthward atop a bomb of burgundy against a white cloud/blue sky background. On the back are two rows of 10 bright yellow bombs and one of five, representing 25 combat missions, along with the name of their B-17, “Uninvited.”

As Hardwicke and other crew members emerge from the Nissen hut, canvas-draped heavy trucks are waiting to transport them to the combat mess. He clambers aboard and finds a place on one of the uncomfortable slatted wood benches that traverse the vehicle from front to rear. The truck lurches forward, and as the ride begins, Hardwicke is gripped by a rush of introspection.

He shares the universal conviction of all who face combat—he simply will do his job and return home unscathed. Yet now, right now, this sanguine notion is challenged by a cruel paradox not manifest in his Christian resolve and belief in a merciful God. He has seen B-17s disintegrate and fall from antiaircraft hits or incessant fighter attacks; he has mourned the dead, many of whom were his friends; and prayed for the missing and witnessed the empty cots, the vacant places at the combat mess and officers’ club. He has helped gather personal effects to be shipped home following the most dreaded of telegrams. He recalls the temporary shock when the number of missions needed for rotation Stateside was extended from 30 to 35, and the initial reaction of his crew. “We’ll never make it home now.”

The Many Ways To Die

There are so many ways to die. It could happen on the ground—a misplaced bomb, engine failure on takeoff, a blown tire. He has flown over the blazing remains of a B-17 whose crew did not have time to escape before disaster. It could happen during assembly over England, a slight miscalculation in blinding fog or heavy clouds and suddenly the plane above or below or on either wing is too close. There is no time to correct, a searing flash, a fireball, and pieces of airplane start to spiral into the English Channel, the North Sea, or the pastoral English countryside.

Once the bomber stream turns on its target heading, and today, thanks to the early call, it will be somewhere deep within Germany, safety resides only in one’s mind. Loss of oil pressure, oxygen malfunction, a runaway prop could lead to an abort, and not all aborts return safely.

Should these problems be overcome, or even better, simply not occur, there remains yet another factor, a hostile reception by the enemy, waiting to unleash its flak and fighters. Yet, as Hardwicke reflects, there are also many ways to live. The B-17G, modified to include a much-needed forward-firing chin turret, an improved tail gun and enclosed, staggered waist-gun positions, much greater ammunition capacity, and enhanced turbo-superchargers to increase high-altitude performance, is perhaps the most advanced and durable of all four-engine bombers in Europe. Its combat record and the battle damage it can sustain are the stuff of legend.

Hardwicke had come home on three engines after a flak hit over Zeitz in August and was forced to land in Italy about a month later when an antiaircraft shell cut a main fuselage spar just forward of the ball turret. In one of the most celebrated incidents, a B-17 was cut almost in half when it was rammed by a German Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter aft of the waist-gun positions. Miraculously, the “All American” made it home. Many B-17s that did survive were consigned to the graveyard. Their crews, those able to walk at least, returned to duty.

Commanding a Skilled, Able Crew

Hardwicke is quietly confident in the abilities of his crew. Each man is a skilled professional with a specific responsibility, part of a smoothly functioning team. Flickema, Jackson, and Papousek are seated next to him on the truck. Soon to join them will be Dale Weaver (radio operator/gunner), John Hammond (waist gunner), Denver (Pappy) Grogg (tail-gunner), Tom Downham (ball-turret gunner), and Waymon Avery (engineer and top-turret gunner). These fliers are from Texas, Maryland, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, California, Illinois, and Hardwicke, Virginia. Their average age is 23, and Pappy Grogg, as his nickname suggests, is an elderly 29.

Hardwicke and his crew have trained and flown together for nearly a year and for the combat airman to shirk his duty, to fail a buddy, is unthinkable. Hardwicke, as commander, believes the least discipline is best. Treat the men fairly, and they will respond accordingly. Today, November 30, 1944, marks their 26th combat mission together.

As the truck bounces to a halt, Hardwicke’s sense of foreboding is crystallized by the date. Today is his second wedding anniversary. Not only that, but two months earlier, almost to the day, he turned 23. His grim speculation suddenly takes form, and for an instant he struggles with the very real possibility that he may not celebrate a 24th birthday or a third wedding anniversary. He and Gladys, his hometown sweetheart since spring 1941, had discussed and accepted the risk of wartime uncertainty. He had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September 1942 and been told to await the call.

Meanwhile, the couple was wed on November 30, 1942, at Richmond’s Barton Heights Baptist Church and enjoyed their honeymoon in New York City. The call and his opportunity to fly—an abiding passion since childhood—came in March 1943. For the next 10 months, Hardwicke applied himself with purpose and tenacity to become an Army Air Corps pilot. In December, he was commissioned a second lieutenant, presented silver wings, and assigned to fly B-17s.