Luftwaffe Training Airbase--Pau, France
Bradley's third mission on March 26 was one the airmen termed a "milk run." It required a flight of only four hours and thirty minutes to attack the V-2 site at Domart on the coast of France. One can assume that the Jones crew congratulated themselves on having drawn that one, yet they were surely apprehensive of what would come next. The "next time" came at once. Captain Robert D. Coggeshall, now the 733rd Squadron CO, sent word to pilot Jones that his crew was "on alert" for a mission the next morning--March 27, 1944.
Morning came. The call came. The 230 airmen of the 23 combat crews to fly this mission began what had become the mission ritual: breakfast, briefing . . . and the rest. Characteristically, the English weather was bad--cold, unpleasant wind-chill, and some snow. The weather experienced by the Eighth Air Force in March had reduced the number of missions it could mount to a total of only fifteen.
After breakfast the airmen made their way to the briefing. The new Group CO, Lt. Col. Ramsay D. Potts, who had assumed command the day after Col Joseph A. Miller was lost, was present, as was Major Curtis H. Cofield, Group Operations Officer, and the usual briefing staff. As the briefing proceeded, the crews learned that this would be no "milk run"; rather, it would be a long, grueling eight--or nine-hour flight. The target which "PINETREE" had selected was an important Luftwaffe training base and airfield at Pau, France. Pau was located in southeastern France on the Spanish border--more than 600 miles from Old Buckenham. It was in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, about forty miles inland from Biarritz on the Gulf of Gascogne. The German Air Force would surely have time to assemble their fighters and the ground defenses of anti-aircraft guns would be ready to greet the Americans.
At the briefing, Major Cofield announced that he would fly lead with Lt. Alvin Lien, pilot of CABIN IN THE SKY. Lt. Lien had been pilot for Captain Andrew S. Low on the March 18 mission when Group Commander Col. Joseph A. Miller's plane went down.
As the briefing continued at that early morning hour, Colonel Potts continued to receive reports of the weather there at Old Buckenham. The snowfall was increasing. Potts was a veteran pilot with experience gained from 32 missions. Apparently he didn't like the worsening weather--so much so that he delayed the time set for take-off. Perhaps he hoped for clearing weather and thus for safer take-off and assembly. But then, after some time had elapsed and the crews were waiting, the young Colonel got a rude awakening to the burden of command. Jones tells it this way, "The Colonel had been holding us back for some time. A phone rang, an orderly to the Colonel answered it and, after a pause, turned to the Colonel and with some surprise evident in his voice, said, 'Colonel, it's for you--it's the General, it's General Spaatz!' Our CO took the phone and we heard him say, 'Potts here', to which the General is said to have replied with some heat 'Well, Potts, this is Spots! Why aren't your planes in the air?' To this, after some hesitation, Potts replied, 'Well, General, it's snowing here!' The General's immediate terse order was, 'Well, Potts, it isn't snowing here! Get those planes in the air!' Duly chastened by no less a superior officer than General Carl Spaatz, Commander, USSTAF--U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe--our Old Man ordered the mission to go!"
That morning the 23 planes under Major Cofield's command and lead would join Colonel "Ted" Timberlake's 2nd Combat Wing and the Wing would then join Major General William E. Kepner's 2nd Air Division. The 2nd Air Division B-24s would then number 168 bombers. They would come from seven bombardment groups and would carry as heavy a load of bombs as was possible for a flight of this length. The fuel requirements and weight of the fuel would have to be balanced with the weight of the bomb load. The take-off of such heavily-loaded planes would present a real challenge to the pilots.
Kepner's force of 168 bombers would split up and attack three German airfields in occupied France. The Pau/Pont Long Airfield would receive the heaviest attack-72 planes would drop nearly 400 tons of high explosive bombs and incendiaries. The airfields at Biarritz and Mont de Marsen would also be attacked--by 49 and 47 bombers respectively. Meanwhile the 1st and 3rd Air Divisions would send 546 B-17 bombers from 19 groups in attacks on seven airfields and two air depots--all in occupied France. VIII Fighter Command would send escort of 960 fighters (312 P-38s, 706 P-47s, and 122 P-51s) from 18 fighter groups.1
It is well to report here on some changes that were taking place among the 2nd Air Division planes at this time. A bomber formation would now have B-24 models varying from aging veteran battle-scarred D models through the new Neutral Metal Finish (NMF) J models then being received in large numbers. The Jones crew had flown overseas in a J model aircraft. They turned it in for theater modifications. They were flying B-24H model Liberators at the time of their early missions. They would fly the B-24J on mission for the first time on April 9, 1944.
It was during this period, too, near the end of April 1944, that the Groups started the change-over to new tail markings on their bombers. Hoseason says the markings were deliberately designed to be very conspicuous to improve identification at long range in the air. (One wonders if this may not at times have helped the German fighters to locate a Group with which it had a score to settle!) The 2nd Combat Wing in which Bradley flew painted the whole of the outer side of the vertical tail members of each plane black. Each Group within the Wing was then identified by a broad white band superimposed on the black background, and upon this band a black letter: J for the 453rd, F for the 445th, and C for the 389th. The white band was diagonal for the 453rd, horizontal for the 445th, and vertical for the 389th. The letter J, F, or C was also painted in white upon a black circle on the top of the right wing tip. Large-size letter Squadron Codes were continued on the side of the fuselage. The 733rd Squadron code letters were F8. Squadron symbols were also painted on the fin. All of this made ground control and formation by the squadrons a much easier and safer proposition.2 Pilot Jones surely had a sharp eye for all of this and a firm hand and head, given the difficult assembly and formation maneuvers he accomplished throughout his tour, with the assistance of co-pilot Croft, engineer Fried (later engineer-top-gunner Ernest Finocchio), and navigator Stein.
Mention was made heretofore of WHAM BAM, the Group's formation ship. Hoseason has this to say of these planes which were up there for formation chasing and shepherding purposes, "Groups had formation ships, usually some war--weary plane from some bombardment group. WHAM BAM had belonged to an original crew of the 735th Squadron. There were lots of flare ports in her fuselage for firing colored flares for Group identification. The formation plane was to fire green flares continuously during Group assembly. Once assembly was completed, the plane would return to its base and the assembled bombers would depart. The assembly ship often doubled as the Group weather ship, going out to check the weather prior to missions."3
Take-off and assembly, even with the help of the formation ship, was not for the faint-of-heart. The pilot was never certain that his heavily-loaded or over-loaded plane would be successfully airborne. There were many that were not--and with fatal consequences. Bradley and this author had a close friend from their high school days, Frank Mailander of Monticello, Illinois, who was one of those who did not make it.4 Even when take-off was achieved, there remained the danger of collision or other mechanical or man-made failure during assembly. One has only to try to visualize 1,000 bombers (later as many as 2,000) rising over southeastern England and forming a bomber stream many miles long, to appreciate the difficulty and danger.
The formation for the mission of March 27, sadly, was not accomplished by the 2nd Air Division without loss. Hoseason, again, is the source of the story. Twenty-six Groups from 26 bases put up their planes on this morning. For many, the weather was bad and the danger of collision was ever-present. For some, it became a reality. Two B-24s of the 466th Group from Attlebridge collided shortly after take-off and 24 airmen plunged to their deaths in a field at Hoe and Gressenhall, only a few miles from the base runways. This was the 466th Group's third fatal collision in five days--a loss of six planes and crews. Hoseason, writing of the 466th Group's bad luck, noted, "A new arrival on a recently outfitted airfield was the 466th Group at Attlebridge. The flying capability and experience of the Group suffered setbacks right from the beginning, involving casualties that the unit simply could not afford. On the first mission, two of its B-24s collided on the way in, and the next day, two more slammed into one another near Osternburg over Germany. Then on March 27, two more of its B-24s collided in cloud while assembling over East Anglia, bringing the Group's losses through collision to six Liberators in five days. Too often the novice crews had been given too exacting a task of being required to direct their bombers into formation in brutal weather with low visibility. Training had not prepared them adequately for these conditions. It was a situation that couldn't be allowed to continue."5
Yes, accident was an ever-present danger. Roger Freeman writes in his Mighty Eighth War Diary on this matter: "During the period of the Eighth Air Force's stay in the U.K., accident accounted for one in six of the 6,500 total heavy bomber losses. These losses were attributed to many factors. The major cause was human error with machines that allowed little margin for error, particularly when operating fully loaded or overloaded."6 It should be remembered that each collision involved at least two aircraft and usually ten airmen in each!
And how did things go for the 453rd? Take-off, with a bit of prodding from the General, was at 0950 BDST. Cofield's 23 ships rose from Old Buckenham, found WHAM BAM and successfully formed up with the other sections of their combat wing. The wing then joined the division.
As the miles-long bomber stream entered the air space of the continent on the morning of March 27, it is certain the German Air Force defenses were being readied with fighters and for flak attack. They would not have known that segments of this force would break off from time to time to follow their briefed routes to the airfields and air depots they were to bomb. Nor could they have known the strategy for the day of VIII Fighter Command's nearly 1,000 P-38, P-47 and P-51s that would rendezvous with their assigned Combat Wings at specified times and places. Very likely they would also not have known that many fighter elements would seek out German planes in the air and on the ground. Doolittle's orders were to seek, find, and destroy the Luftwaffe!
The results for the 453rd can be viewed first from the perspective of the one B-24 of which this book is an account--the Jones ship and crew. Of it, Stein wrote in his diary, "Pau, located near the Spanish border, advanced training field, was covered with direct hits. Blew it all to pieces! . . . Good visibility nearly all the way. Several ships fired inaccurate flak at us. Picked up several flak holes." The briefed route to Pau was over land, return was west over the Bay of Biscay where ships fired on them
But there is more in Stein's account of the outcome of this mission for disaster struck their lead ship, CABIN IN THE SKY. Group Operations Officer Major Curtis H. Cofield as Air Commander and Lead of the 453rd, with Lieutenant Lien and his crew were lost. Freeman reported, "Flak at Pau was moderate but one shell made a direct hit on the lead B-24 . . . there were only three survivors."7 The 453rd Unit History reported, "Bombing results were good, but the Group paid dearly in the loss of Major Cofield and young aggressive Lieutenant Lien."
Navigator Fred Stein was not too charitable in his diary report of this loss. He wrote, "Lost our lead crew with Sammy Borenstein, Squadron Navigator. Bailed out. His own fault--he took a short cut and went directly over known flak area."
There is no certain record of the 453rd's return to Old Buckenham upon completion of the mission, long in distance and in time. Hoseason reports that for the 458th Group of the 96th Combat Wing, based at Horsham, about 20 miles northeast of Old Buckenham, "Weather was bad at take-off and had worsened upon return. They (the 458th) were diverted to other airfields in the region." And so it may have been for the 453rd.
And thus ended 8AF mission 282, 453rd mission 26 and Bradley mission 4.
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The Burden of Command. At the briefing for the Pau mission, young Lt. Colonel Potts, the newly appointed CO of the 453rd, learned from his superior officer, General Spaatz, that there was a burden of command. He learned it when Spaatz ordered him to "get those planes in the air!" No doubt he felt the burden many times.
And so it was for Lieutenant Jones following the Pau mission. As the pilot, he was the plane commander--responsible for the bomber and its crew. The crew had been together since their first meeting at Biggs Field, they had made the overseas movement together and as they began their missions all seemed to be going well.
But it was not always possible to know each airman's view of his assignment and role or what inner turmoil he suffered. Fear was a common experience of these young men but they differed in their ability to cope with it. For one of Jones' crewmen, things came to a head on the Pau mission and Jones had to deal with it. In this instance, Sgt Hoy Seay, the ball gunner, found his assignment one he could no longer accept. He refused to enter the ball turret as they neared the target area. It is not known now, how or why he came to this decision at that moment One can speculate that he feared being trapped in the turret when the plane was under attack-perhaps even when it had been hit and was going down. Perhaps for the ball gunner, hanging out under the fuselage, alone, in a tight cramped position without assurance of being able to retract the turret, was simply too much for him to take. Perhaps he had seen other ball gunners go down. Perhaps German fighters had attacked his position, coming in from below. Perhaps he foresaw that his fate could be like that of the ball turret gunner Andy Rooney remembered. Rooney was a young reporter for the Army newspaper, The Stars and Stripes, in April 1943, when he witnessed a badly
damaged bomber returning from a mission deep into Germany, with dead or dying airmen aboard. Of this, Rooney wrote, "One of the pilots had radioed in that he was going to have to make an emergency landing. He had only two engines left and his hydraulic system was gone. He couldn't let the wheels down and there was something even worse. The ball turret gunner was trapped in the plastic bubble that hung beneath the belly of the bomber." Later, Rooney talked with the crewmen who survived that landing. "Their friend in the ball turret had been calm, they said. They had talked to him. He knew what they had to do. He understood. The bomber slammed down on its belly . . . and on the ball turret with their comrade trapped inside it."8
Whatever may have been Seay's problem, Jones was faced with a burden of command--crew discipline and morale depended on the action he would take. He had the ball gunner removed from his crew. Thereafter, nine airmen flew together.
It is ironic that not long after this incident, the Eighth Air Force discontinued installation and use of the ball turret--reportedly because the turret adversely affected speed and range of the plane.
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The 453rd Unit History reported: "On March 30, Major James M. Stewart, the well-known screen actor, became Group Operations Officer, filling the vacancy left by Major Cofield. Major Stewart had previously been Commanding Officer of a squadron of the 445th Group." More will be written later of Jimmy Stewart
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On April 1, 1944 the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) against Germany, which had been set in motion following the Casablanca Conference of January 1943, was officially ended. On that date, General Eisenhower, who had arrived in England on January 14 as Supreme Allied Commander, took control of the U.S. Strategic Air Forces and RAF Bomber Command. Thereafter, bomber operations were increasingly directed to operations in support of the forthcoming invasion. Some two-thirds of the bombing effort during the immediate pre- and post-invasion periods would be directed principally at communications targets in occupied countries--at marshalling yards, rail and road bridges and facilities supporting the railroad operations. Called the "transportation plan", this strategy was approved by Eisenhower as a means of isolating the invasion area. This is not to say that General Spaatz and the 8th Air Force gave up on strategic bombing missions deep into Germany. POINTBLANK, the destruction of the German Air Force, remained a continuing objective. These developments, of course, determined Bradley's role in the air war, as will be seen in the accounts which follow.9
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