Hitler was personally familiar with various types of Allied aircraft. In military staff meetings he frequently mentioned the RAF’s De Havilland Mosquito, a reconnaissance aircraft difficult to detect on radar because it was made of wood and speedy enough that it could overfly the Reich with almost total impunity. Hitler also knew a B-17 when he saw one.
Back in England, in the predawn hours of darkness, American-manned Mosquitos of the 653rd Bombardment Squadron, part of the 25th Bombardment Group, were flying weather- and target-reconnaissance missions ahead of Doolittle’s main force. The weather flights were identified by the code name Blue Stocking. While fog and murk shrouded bases in East Anglia until sunrise, Blue Stocking Mosquitos, flown by a pilot and a navigator trained in meteorology, reported correctly that the day was going to be largely clear.
Their work on this morning was part of 1,131 meteorological flights over the Continent, flown by the almost unknown 653rd that, at one time or another reached every target in the Reich. Only when they were finished with their recon would the B-17s enter harm’s way.
War in the Air
An early leader in Europe, and at 36 the youngest major general in U.S. history, Curtis Emerson LeMay was the architect of three tactics B-17 crews used over and over against Adolf Hitler’s Fortress Europe: (1) the “combat box,” a formation that concentrated the guns of the B-17s in a defensive screen; (2) the straight-ahead bomb run because, contrary to intuition, you were less likely to be hit by flak if you didn’t dodge; and (3) the concept of a lead bomber and bombardier to signal others when to drop their lethal warload. Bombers not flying lead carried a bombardier or, instead, a togglier like Fredette but no Norden bombsight.
No longer in the European Theater of Operations, LeMay was now managing an air war on the other side of the world, but it was easy to rile up his temper. Just utter the word “raid.” The legend lingered of the day a reporter walked up to him brimming with eagerness and said, “Colonel, tell me about today’s raid.”
LeMay jerked the unlit cigar from his mouth, adopted a stern look, and told the reporter never to use that word again. Almost three years before, in April 1942, Doolittle had led 80 men in 16 medium bombers flying from a carrier deck to bring the war to the Japanese home islands. “What Jimmy and his boys did, that was a ‘raid,’” LeMay said. The events unfolding now were not raids but “full-scale battles, fought in the thin air, miles above the land.”
Preparations by the B-17 crews continued. The preflight ritual was the same—walk-around check looking for obvious problems with the planes’ exteriors, turning through the props, manning the planes, completing intercom, oxygen and engine-start checklists. When Fortresses at RAF Mendelsham in Suffolk began starting engines on cue from a flare fired from the control tower, the sound grew to a thunder. The Eighth Air Force’s 122 combat stations were in close proximity, and when over a thousand bombers in 42 bomb groups started their engines, the sound reverberated across the land. Fredette’s diary shows a takeoff time of 8:07 am.
In the glass-covered nose of the Fancy Nancy, togglier Fredette watched one of the bombers in his combat box bouncing up and down. Turbulence was always a problem but Fredette saw this as “a case of a nervous pilot bouncing his crew around.”
Only hours after the mission, Fredette wrote, “As I went to load my cal. .50s in the chin turret I had quite a bit of trouble since the spring forming the bolt that guides the ammunition to the gun’s feedway was disengaged. I ripped up my B-10 jacket as I reached down in the turret to put my right gun in such a condition so that it would fire.
“After doing that, I discovered that someone had loaded the ammunition in backward with the single link of the belt on the receiver. My patience was almost at an end as I changed the ammunition and reloaded. When I found the ammunition for the navigator’s gun put in the same wrong way, I was raving mad. I assisted the navigator in changing his ammunition.”
Soon the massive armada became airborne. Fancy Nancy took off and crossed the North Sea in “an endless procession of planes neatly arranged in battle formation,” Fredette wrote. “The number of bombers was something beyond the imagination.
“We hit the Dutch coast at Bergen an Zee just north of Altmark, carefully flying the plotted course to avoid flak defenses in the vicinity.” In the front of the bomber, looking out at the entire world from the clear glass nose that surrounded him, Fredette had a spectacular view of the bomber formation, the European countryside, and—now—the first puffs of flak straight ahead, bursting in little black clouds that sent tendrils in all directions. It crossed Fredette’s mind that an infantryman would never charge into an artillery barrage, yet B-17 crews flew directly into exploding shells on every mission.
Even so, as in all air campaigns, about half of all aircraft losses were caused by something other than enemy fire. There were plenty of reasons, including the number of war machines occupying the same sector of the sky. Of all the things that scared the hell out of aircrew members like Des Lauriers and Fredette, none was scarier than a mid-air collision.
An almost unimaginable magnitude of sheer force kept a B-17 in flight, to say nothing of a formation of B-17s. Although the bomber stream was at 27,000 feet when it passed over Holland, a young Dutch girl watched her mother remove dishes from a shelf, wrap them in towels, and place them on the floor so they wouldn’t be damaged while their house trembled. It would take three hours for all the bombers to pass overhead. And with so many planes occupying so little space, there were more dangers than a few broken dishes.
High above the Dutch family, in a Flying Fortress formation of the 388th Bombardment Group—one of the components of Doolittle’s massive force—those forces came together to create a catastrophe. Think about air speed, velocity, mass, and temperature, and two heavy bombers coming together in mid-air possess as much kinetic energy as two railroad locomotives colliding head-on.
Battered by prop wash and turbulence, 1st Lt. Perry E. Powell’s B-17G-95-BO Flying Fortress (43-38697/K8-H)—one of the few planes in the 388th Group that hadn’t yet acquired a name or a caricature on its nose—slewed out of control. Veering off its flight path for reasons that were never learned, and untouched by any other object but pounded by turbulence, Powell’s heavy bomber broke in half. The two halves slammed into B-17G-45-BO (42-97387/also K8-H), with a semi-nude young woman and the name Maude Maria painted on its nose. Piloting the Maude Maria was 1st Lt. John McCormick.
As if torn open by a can opener, the left front side of Maude Maria’s fuselage was suddenly missing a 10-foot slice of metal skin. Others in the formation could see the inside of the aircraft. Many watched in horror as McCormick’s navigator, 1st Lt. Ray R. Woltman, was catapulted into the high, cold, open sky. He was not wearing his parachute.
Caught up in a struggle with the elements in the pilots’ compartment of Maude Maria, with part of his aircraft peeled away and gaping open behind him, McCormick tried to help co-pilot 1st Lt. William Feinstein dislodge the entry (and exit) hatch below them. The parachute belonging to engineer-gunner Tech Sgt. Marvin Gooden had burst open inside the Fortress and billowed around the men, impairing both vision and movement as they struggled to bail out amid howling wind and flying debris.
Once the hatch was gone, McCormick watched Feinstein thrown upward and out, just as the 30-ton bomber careened abruptly to the left. The number two propeller blade slashed into Feinstein’s body and threw him into the wing, tearing off an arm. Feinstein’s parachute never opened.
The violent motion of the aircraft tossed McCormick out of the open exit hatch; togglier Staff Sgt. William G. Logan went out of the aircraft through a door in the nose. McCormick and Logan got good parachute canopies and descended toward their fate as “Kriegies,” or prisoners of war.
Sergeant Joseph D. “Dave” Bancroft, tail gunner on Powell’s plane, was alone at the instant of collision. When his aircraft began to break in half, Bancroft saw a pair of hands, probably the waist gunner’s, reaching toward him just a few feet forward in the fuselage. Bancroft grabbed the hands but was unable to pull the other crew member back to his tail-gun position. The front part of the bomber fell away and the hands disappeared.
Bancroft, alone in the tail section, plummeted downward. He struggled against centrifugal forces to open the tail-hatch door but it was jammed. He kicked, wrestled, pushed and, after almost giving up, the door suddenly fell off and he bailed out. Bancroft was the sole survivor of his aircraft and among only three men out of 18 who survived the collision.