Mission

A behind-the-scenes view of a bombing mission, with the crew members telling their own story.

A large part of the world, from the continent of Europe to the farthest Pacific isles, will for long bear testimony to what the term "mission" means to American airmen. In its narrowest sense "mission" means that these boys have carried out orders given them in a briefing room. In its wider sense it means that they are accomplishing the task in war for which they have been trained for many long months and for which their equipment and tactics were developed over many long years.

For the entire development of the big American bomber, its medium-sized sister and the fighter planes that protect their bases and escort them in the air, has been aimed at the accomplishment of these precise missions. And they are precise missions. The men and the equipment are too valuable to risk on objects of frivolous selection or on any mere effort to terrorize or injure civilian population. Every mission must be an integrated part of the whole strategy of the war.

In the Pacific, so far, most missions have been aimed at Japanese shipping and the centers in which it gathers to distribute arms and supplies to the widely scattered Japanese ground and air forces. In Europe the mission is also aimed at centers of production. But in each instance it may be confidently assumed that the target has been chosen for a special reason, widely scattered and variously assorted as those targets may appear to the layman.

For instance the battle of Tunisia was being fought 15 months before the first shot was fired on Tunisian soil. When the RAF blasted the Renault works near Paris it cost the Afrika Korps enough tanks and trucks to equip two and a half armored divisions. When the Matford works at Poissy were bombed in April, 1942, the Germans lost an estimated 4,660 trucks that might have been very useful in hauling up supplies to Rommel. The destruction of the Schiess Defries machine tool works at Dusseldorf last year delayed the whole German war production for many months. So, just as the battle of Tunisia was being fought in the months that saw RAF and American raids on Rostock, Essen, Cologne, Osnabrueck, St Nazaire, Bremen, Duisberg, Rouen, Lille and Hamburg, so the battle of Europe is being fought today as the big fleets roar over their selected targets — and hit them.

These missions, in short, are the precise long-range counterpart in actual combat to the hand grenade that knocks out a machine gun and enables infantrymen to take the post it holds. The long-range bomber just as surely removes a weapon from the hands of an enemy.

How conscious our men are of the importance of these missions is revealed in transcripts of their conversation while on the job. Bombardiers say they sometimes feel terribly alone out there in the Plexiglas nose of a Fortress or Liberator. But they add that when the bombing run comes they are so concentrated on their task that they know nothing else. There is even the story of Lieut Jack Mathis who was struck full in the body by an antiaircraft shell. The doctor said afterwards that he should have died instantly. Yet the navigator saw him, after he had been knocked from his chair, crawl back over his bombsight, aim and release his bombs and throw the switch that closed the bomb bay doors before he fell.

The navigator's job is to bring the plane to its target. But the bombardier takes over when the target is reached. Here is how he generally sounds. This is a record of the conversation of Lieut Robert G Abb, of Stevens Point, WI, during a recent raid over Germany.

"Target below … 'bout 15° left … maybe six miles … watch that formation, George … stay in there tight and when I call for a level, that's what I mean … quick … watch toward the sun for fighters … lead group is going in now…. Top turret! fighter at 11 o' clock our level … they look like Focke-Wulfs at four o' clock …. Get that so-and-so, Remmell … flak closer … start evasive action, George … here he comes, top turret … c'mon, Remmell, hit him! … nice shooting … think you got him ….

"Give me a level, George … start the camera, Beezy … hold that level … watch the air speed … bomb bay doors open … steady, steady, just a little longer now … level, dammit, level … hold 'er level … level! … Steady! … bombs away! … let's get the hell outa here!

"Flak on the other side now … there goes a Fort out of formation ahead … watch him, ball turret … . Get that guy at 11 o' clock, Ernie … come on, you're shootin' too low … you're under him … bring it up! … bring it up! … bomb bay doors closed … camera off, Beezy …. Boy, the eggs were right in there, gang … swell bombing … look at that smoke down there … wotta mess! … Any sight of that Fort that went down?"

And the pilot takes over for the flight home.

Lieut Olan L Hubbard of Dallas, TX, a group bombardier, made these notes on his way home from a raid on the Renault works at Paris.

"As we go out, we have just crossed the French coast. It is only a few minutes now until we reach the target outside Paris. I can see the river Seine over to our right as it makes its turns and curves. From here it looks like a silver snake in the sun's reflection. I hope I can follow it all the way because our target lies just in the middle of the second big bend it makes after it enters the suburbs of the city.

"I already have figured the bombing conditions three times but will do so again. I can't afford to miss today. If I do, I'm sunk."

Then follows his conversation as he took over:

"Okay, Bill, turn on the target now … back to the left about 5°… okay, we' re perfect now … everything's set … good grief! … the squadron ahead's tearing hell out of the place …. Boy! I can see their bombs through my sight …. Check, check, check and recheck …. all okay … Lammers, stand by the camera … level, now … level … just a few seconds and we can turn … here they go … camera! … bombs away!

"Okay to turn now … fighters coming up at three o' clock. Boy, those bombs had to be in there because I had it perfectly synchronized … fighters at 11 o'clock and at three o'clock … seem to be attacking the low group …. Look, Jim, a B-17 in trouble … look at those fighters swarm him … . There he goes now … . Poor devils in chutes going down through that flak! … Here come the Spitfires!… Are they Spits, Bill? … Do they look like Spits to you? … Yes …. Okay, taking no chances ….

"There's Rouen …. Looks like a graveyard … no trains … no tracks … burnt out … Wish I could see the Renault works tomorrow …. Bet it looks like Rouen does now."

Lieut Philip T Palmer, of Wellington, KS, says: "The greatest tension is just before you start to work on the sight. Once you're started, you don't have time to think. It has to be automatic. You have to know your job almost subconsciously — and do it quick."

Capt. Leonard V Santoro, of Kansas City, MO, says:

"On your bomb run you have to concentrate until your first natural instinct, fear, is out of your mind. You have to ignore the fighter attacks and the flak that mushrooms in front of you."

To this, Lieut Steve H Lindley, of Gatesville, TX, adds, "the bombardier is in a position to see the flash of the ack-ack guns on the ground and he has to sweat it out while he waits for it to burst."

Capt Dean W Boylan of Rantoul, IL, describes those last few seconds this way:

"You are making your adjustments, and then you hear the flak. It sounds like someone ripping a hole in a bass viol. You look ahead and see one or two fighters barreling in as if they were trying to beat their own bullets to you. You can't dodge. You just pray they' ll miss you. Next come the minute adjustments, and then — bombs away!"

"And when the bombs are away," adds Lieut John W Beauchamp, of Coolidge, AZ, "You're mighty ready to grab yourself a handful of gun and start shootin'. And when those bombs hit the target, a grand and glorious feeling runs up and down your spine, and the world looks brighter, even through a gun sight."

"A lot of things go through your mind during those seconds the bombs are dropping," says Lieut Maurice J Sullivan, of Burlingame, CA. "You think about all the training you've had. You wonder if any of it did you any good. And then you see them hit, and you know everything is okey-dokey. You grab your guns and fire — but somehow you don't worry so much about flak and fighter attacks any more with those eggs laid. You know your training worked."

The missions of these boys began way back when they were selected for bombardment after their initial training, and got started working together as a crew. They were put together perhaps first in an advanced trainer such as the Fairchild AT-13, a plywood job with all of the facilities of the big metal combat planes.

There each learned his particular job as pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, radio man, flight engineer — and gunner. But more important than any of these, they learned that no one man could do his job well unless he was perfectly coordinated with every other man in the crew. All-star teams just thrown together cannot beat a tried and true combination on the baseball diamond, the football field, or in the air.

So they go through everything together from those first trainer operations until, in actual big bombers, they fly practice missions on vast ranges where every possible battle condition is simulated. Some of them are in the heat and dust of the southwest deserts. Others are up over the snow-capped mountains of the north. Some of them are over permanent waste lands where operations are carried on the year round. Others, simulating more closely actual battle scenes, are over sheep and cattle ranges or over wheat farms where no bombing or firing can take place while the animals are grazing or the crops growing.

But all of them are far enough away from the bomber training bases to require extensive skill to find the target area in the first place and further skill to hit it, either with guns or bombs. That is the development of a combat crew. As a unit, all of its activities must be disciplined. Yet its individual responsibilities are delegated. Each member commands, but all are subject to obedience. The group is what counts.

The pilot and co-pilot fly the ship. But they take their directions from the navigator. For he alone knows how to reach the objective. Arriving at the target, the bombardier takes command. It is his "bombs away!" which determines success or failure of the mission. The radio operator is the voice and ears of the plane. It is he who establishes contact with its squadron, its base. Throughout the flight it is the engineer who watches over the engines, listening for the slightest indication of failure. Upon the aerial gunners rests the responsibility for the defense of the plane and the safety of its crew. The sharpness of their eyes, the coolness of their judgment, the accuracy of their gunnery, will determine in no small measure whether ship and men return to their base alive.

But mere understanding of the mechanical problem of the other members still will not produce a bomber crew. The peculiar chemistry of personality must blend and fuse. They must have implicit confidence in each other. When life depends upon split-second timing, each member of the crew must know (without ever having to give it conscious thought) what he may expect from every other man on board. Precision bombing involves something more than the employment of a remarkable bombsight, or even the correct application of strategic aerial principles of warfare. It is all this and something more. It is the realization that a bomber crew is not an improvised assembly of technicians.

It takes three months to whip a heavy bombardment crew to the standards of proficiency required for combat duty. The training of the Army Air Forces heavy bombardment crews rests with the Second Air Force under the command of Maj Gen Davenport Johnson.

The training is divided into three phases. During the first phase of training, the individual technicians — the pilot, co-pilot, navigator and bombardier (commissioned officers), the flight engineer, radio operator and the aerial gunners (generally non-commissioned officers) — are assigned as the respective members of a crew. Under the close observation of the commanding officer, "personality kinks," if any, are quickly ironed out. The individual training of the crew members is continued. They become familiar with their equipment and each other. During this period, the individual crews are watched over by a parent group composed of experienced flight and ground personnel whose experience (constantly being enlarged through returned combat crews) is utilized for instructional purposes.

At the end of the first month, the recently formed crew is ready to start "on its own." It leaves its parent group and departs to a new base. For the first time the crew — now part of a new group — is joined by its own ground and administrative echelons. Key personnel, who have received specialized training at the Army Air Forces School of Applied Tactics, also join the newly-formed groups. For the first time, the individual crews meet their squadron commanders.

Now the training of crews as combat teams commences in earnest; operational teamwork among crews as flights, squadrons and groups is undertaken. During this second phase of training the crew will fly "model missions," each progressively more difficult, some by day — others by night. A typical mission of a three-plane day flight formation with the general duties expected of the combat crew follows:

"Individual take-off, defensive formation, formation air-to-ground gunnery, triangular navigation, medium-altitude formation combine, separate instrument approaches.

General Duties Of Combat Crews:

The third phase of training is designed to put the finishing touches on the group as a whole. Now the group receives training in flying long missions involving over-water flights as well as training in current tactical problems. As nearly as is possible combat conditions are simulated. The crews are alerted. Prior to each mission they are briefed by the squadron commander or the intelligence officer. The target is announced. The approach to the target is suggested. Particulars, based on the "opposition map," are given as to what "enemy" defenses may be encountered — fighter opposition, antiaircraft guns and balloon barrages. The bombardiers are issued their target maps. Meteorological conditions to be encountered on the mission are presented. Upon completion of the mission, the crew will be interrogated.

There no longer is an atmosphere of "make-believe" surrounding the training flights. For each crew member knows that the end of the three months' training period is in sight. Each crew knows that before long the briefing may take place on an airport of the Eighth Bomber Command somewhere in England. Before long, they will play for keeps.

They do automatically the things which have come so laboriously during the long, arduous months of training. These crews are working crews now. They know their jobs. They know each other. They know their ships. Each crew has christened its own plane with a special name, which seems to breathe life and individuality into that great mass of aluminum, instruments, wiring and driving power; a name which transforms their plane into a warm, vibrant personality. Bomb Boogie, Axis Nightmare, Eager Beaver, D-for-Dog — John Steinbeck has called it the best writing of the war. The American public has become familiar with these nicknamed bombers through the return to this country of such famous planes as the Memphis Belle and many others similarly "personalized."

During these final weeks, the whole tempo of training becomes accelerated. The squadron CO is critical of anything short of perfect bombing. Everything now is pyramided to the day of departure — the real mission. And it is for this day, this mission, that the most thorough operational training yet designed by any Air Force has been given to the heavy bombardment crews of the AAF.

And back of those months of training lie the years of development of the American big bomber — at Wright Field and in the factories — that enable these trained crews to fly the missions which are adding the decisive third dimension which will win the war.

This article was originally published as part of the October, 1943, "Special Issue US Air Forces At War" issue of Flying magazine, vol 33, no 4, pp 78-79, 224, 228.
The PDF of this article [ PDF, 7.5 MiB ] includes a photo of crew in front of a B-17F and aerial photos of St Nazaire during an attack and of a Japanese carrier avoiding bombs.
Photos credited to Army Air Forces.