Flight to Poltava

By Lieut Robert E Johnston
Navigator, 8th Air Force, now assigned to AAF Navigation School, San Marcos, TX.

This is a condensed version of an article entitled "Shtoy", published in the Log of Navigation, house organ of the AAF Navigation school, Ellington Field, TX.
Nazi bombs made the 8th Air Force's first shuttle mission a one-way trip.

Early in June, 1944, the words "top secret" clamped down on our base like an English fog. "Top secret" is a tough phrase in the Air Forces; it means air-tight, talk-tight security and nothing less. To us, it also meant confinement to the base and tightening anticipation of a big job coming up.

Then came a closely-guarded meeting of air crews in the oversized Nissen hut we used for briefing. But still we kept our mouths shut. We were one of the oldest Fortress groups in England and we knew that security means lives. On the evening of June 20 we were alerted as usual but this time we had orders to pack B-4 bags with Class A uniform and an issue of special escape kits and identification cards. Very early the next morning we were tense but not surprised when the big map at the front of the briefing room was uncovered and showed the route running endlessly across Europe.

Russia! Once before the 15th Air Force had run a shuttle mission from Italy to Russia and now we were to make further history by a shuttle across all of occupied Europe, bombing deep in Germany and going on to bases in the Ukraine.

The mission started in the routine way except that the preparation of the navigators was an epic of its kind. The flight plan covered two large sheets. We drew courses on some eight mercators extending from 0° to beyond 32° east longitude. To cover pilotage requirements we carried a roll of maps about eight inches in diameter in reserve for missions out of Russia. It was a wearisome load and as I moved slowly out from our locker room to the trucks bearing flying clothes, briefcase, sextant, map-rolls, HO-218 books, musette bag and canteen, I felt like a pack mule and probably sounded like one to my long-suffering pilot. When we got out to the planes we found that one gunner in each bomber had been replaced by a Mustang mechanic who had been flown up the night before. It would be the first mission for any of them and they were even more excited than we were. It would be their job to service our Mustang escort planes while in Russia.

With the navigators safely stuffed into their planes, we took off. Our target was Ruhland, a large oil refinery northeast of Dresden. As we moved into Germany, towns ahead of us began to put up smoke-screens, while far to our left we could see the Berlin barrage pounding at other groups and wings assigned to tougher but less spectacular jobs. The day was clear and we bombed visually through an ineffective smokescreen. As we came out of the thick flak, which quite reasonably had upset our mechanic guest-gunner, smoke rose behind us in tremendous billows and we knew we had put them in there solid. Tension relaxed a little but there was still a long way to go.

Map after map came off the roll. All around us our far-flying Mustang escort rode steadily. Over Poland everyone was taking things easy and a little bull began to flow on the interphone. Then it happened. Over Brest-Litovsk, cloud cover gave the Germans their tactical chance and like a flash the Me-109s were coming through at us. The first attack was so sudden I found myself shooting a nose-gun from the hip. My bombardier and I hit one, heard the ball turret man say he was spinning in, and as quickly as that the attack was over. But 20-mm armor-piercing shells had hit us solidly and one of them, coming in over the bombardier's head, had zipped in back of me, demolished my interphone jackbox and the hydraulic lines in the dashboard, pierced a rudder pedal and torn a six-inch piece out of the leg of Hooper, our pilot. Croce, the belly gunner, came up and administered first aid and morphine. We wanted Hooper to let us put him in the radio room but he insisted on keeping his seat and he was boss.

Soon we were past the front lines in Russia and the navigation grew tougher. The Ukraine is a vast ocean of checkpoint-free forms — similar to our Middle West but with far fewer cities, towns or railroads. Radio aids are almost non-existent; the strange navigator comes down to the bedrock of dead reckoning (DR). The maps we had, too, were far from complete as we regard maps. We let down slowly and soon Russian peasants could be seen, pausing in the work of re-tilling their scorched earth to wave at the "Americansky" formations.

Everywhere farms and small towns were blackened ruins. We were passing over country that had known war in its most terrible aspects. Here and there huge banks of cumulus barred our way; we DR'd and DR'd again. Then at last, after some 11 hours of flight, our Russian base rose from the vast plains. Since the steel-mat runway was short, the tower— hardly a tower at all, as we know them — decided we should land last despite our wounded pilot, because we had no brakes.

At last everyone else got down and we circled over the war-blasted town of Poltava and came to land. I stood behind the pilot, my arms across his chest, as Jack Knight, our co-pilot, dragged her in, killing every possible bit of speed as we hit nicely on the near end of the runway. In spite of the morphine, Hooper helped out. The runway looked all too short and the tent area too near, but as we ran out of runway we ran out of speed and with relief we ground-looped gently and taxied, awkwardly without brakes, into a parking position.

As we lowered Hooper out of the escape hatch an ambulance drove up and just then the Russia antiaircraft opened up around the field. We looked up and far overhead was a German recco plane. This was no rest camp; that was sure.

We were interrogated in the open on the cement floor of a ruined building. Then we were assigned tents and started to settle down. The base was a big one with somewhat crude facilities. There was a large complement of American ground crewmen with Russian helpers, KPs and guards. The KPs were all girls, built to operate at either end of a plow but they were bright and pleasant. They didn't know any English except odds and ends they had picked up. One day, on the outdoor mess-line, I remarked to the man ahead of me that the C-ration stew looked pretty good, whereupon the girl KP added, "You ain't just a-woofin' (she really said something excretory), bud!" That was all the American speech that she knew.

These girls lived in old railway cars on a siding. Nobody bothered them. One day I came upon one breaking up boxes by smashing them on the ground with one hand. She gave me a big smile and it suddenly occurred to me that she might play pattycake with her boy friends like they were boxes. I walked away.

We were just about getting to sleep that night when somebody began to bang furiously on pans. Somebody else hollered, "Air Raid!" We never paid much attention to alerts in England so there were a few cries of "Blow it out!" and "Go away, lemme sleep!" Then bombs began to strike and we all got serious in a hurry. I jumped into my shoes and trench coat, picked up my flak helmet and looked out. Big white flares were drifting down. Searchlights crisscrossed the dark sky and streams of tracers spouted up all around us. I hesitated — not sure whether to see if any detail was being formed to go out on the field, go to the hospital to see about Hooper, or seek shelter. Several sticks of bombs made up my mind for me.

I ran out into a field beside the tents. The slit trenches were bulging so I lay down beside a small mound of dirt and watched the raid. Although the Russian antiaircraft was going strong they had nothing heavier than 40-mm and the Germans seemed to stay just above their range. The bombing was vicious and accurate; not more than six or seven sticks fell outside the runway and parking area. For most of us it was our first plastering on the ground and we were pretty scared but not panicky.

At the height of the raid a wag near me stuck his head up and with newspaper-headline accents, asked, "Vere is der Luftwaffe?"

It was the biggest and most terrible fireworks show I'd ever seen. Bombs were splashing in great bursts across the field; searchlights groped; orange flak tracers streamed up in every direction; planes were burning and exploding; ammunition and flares going off; black smoke drifting across the field, red underneath and glaring white from the flares above. One of our boys hid snugly beside a big pile of boxes. When daylight came he stretched and looked around. He almost took a dive again for the boxes were all brand new bombs.

The raid ended a little while before dawn. No German planes were shot down over the field. As it grew light we looked out over a scene of sickening destruction, Many of our Forts that had floated so beautifully in their tight formations against the giant Russian cloudscape the day before were blasted wrecks — some of them nothing but tails. The Germans had sowed the field heavily with butterfly bombs and small aerial land mines so we couldn't go out to our planes until Russian demolition squads had cleared the field. They started on the steel-mat runway, now tangled in fantastic shapes, and all day explosions boomed and pieces of shrapnel whined overhead.

All of us found ourselves respecting the Russians for their courage just as we had liked them for their friendliness. During the raid a detail of 96 Russian soldiers, men and women, went onto the field and tried to save burning Fortresses with hand extinguishers — a brave but futile gesture. All 96 were killed.

Behind where I lay in the field a flak battery "manned" by six girls stood up under the bombing, firing steadily until a heavy bomb hit their gun directly. Next morning a huge crater with a hand and a few bits of flesh in it was all that remained.

That night the German radio announced the raid and told us they would be back for the tent area. Meanwhile, however, we were folding our cots and moving in trucks out to a wood a few miles away where we bivouacked and caught up a little on our sleep in spite of a light rain that fell toward morning. The next day we had a look at our plane. From a distance it seemed all right but when we came close we saw it was riddled with shrapnel, a salvage job.

The next morning we hopped into trucks and left for Mirgorod where we were to help load bombs. The groups landing at Mirgorod had managed to move their planes before the attack there and so saved most of them. Our trucks were all American; almost all the trucks we saw in Russia were Lend-Lease. Our Russian drivers loved to race and blow the horn. The road was supposed to be a big highway but it was plenty rough. The 110 kilometers [about 69 miles] took us five hours. All along the way people were rebuilding their houses and working on the first wheat crop since the Germans had been swept out of the Ukraine. Most of the people we saw were old, crippled or very young. There weren't many pretty girls; the Germans had taken them with them.

Everywhere along the road people recognized the "Americanskys" and waved enthusiastically. Nowhere in Europe or North Africa have I felt the liking and admiration that Russians extend to Americans. I have yet to meet a more likable people, Wherever we went smiles and enthusiastic greetings met us and a friendliness that had nothing of politics in it.

At Mirgorod we stayed in a big school building converted into a barrack. The Germans had lived in the same building and they reminded us of this in nightly radio threats of further bombings. None came, however.

While surveying routes for a possible emergency two-mile sprint out of town, my co-pilot, another co-pilot named Young, and I struck up a conversation of sorts with some guards at a Russian motor pool. In a few minutes three Russian panzer officers came along and in no uncertain terms racked back the guards for inattention to duty. This formality attended to, officers and men joined in the conversation, accepted cigarets and became friends all around, Shortly we found ourselves in the officers' billet, a low-ceilinged, candle-lit house. A bottle of vodka appeared and after the first shot I decided that Kentucky moonshine was sissy stuff.

My co-pilot, later our first pilot, was a solid boy in all respects but as a would-be student at Yale Divinity School he naturally found little time, or taste, for hard spirits. He sniffed at his and I had to put it away as well as my own but the Russians noticed it and took an hour of tangled talk and gestures to explain why. Their idea of a pilot is a flying sandhog who drinks straight anti-freeze to steady him for combat. The next day Young and I sold our throats and heads to a local merchant who handled furs and bells.

Almost all the buildings in Poltava were unoccupied — burned, bombed or mined. The park had a monument in its center and the usual park business went on — boy eyes girl, and go on from there — just like in America.

Everything from old locks to old cows was sold in the market place there. American cigarets were great trading items and were worth up to 60 rubles a pack. Soap was about the same but there was almost nothing we could buy although we all tried to get some money for souvenirs. I got some brand new money that evidently had been cached in a stable. A woman photographer with equipment of a sort usually found in public parks in America wanted to take our picture. We thought she wanted three rubies or 60 cents but actually she wanted 300 rubles or $60 for a dime portrait. She was highly insulted when, after all the conversation, we said no; but the crowd that had gathered thought it was very funny.

Mirgorod was full of Russian wounded. Their hospitals weren't as good as ours generally but the doctors and operating equipment were. When you see a few of their hospitals you get a better slant on their huge casualty figures which read so matter-of-factly in print.

The Russian guards, when changing men on posts, always fired the rifle to see if it worked, a disconcerting habit if you happened to be close. They were trigger-happy in a serious way, If they called "Shtoy!" (stop) and you didn't freeze, they'd fire immediately. My bombardier was almost drilled that way in Mirgorod, but then bombardiers don't pick up languages very easily.

After 10 days our turn came to leave and we took off in a Skytrain for Rostov on the sea of Azov at the mouth of the Don. The Skytrain had an American crew but a Russian navigator. This is true of all ATC planes operating into or out of Russia. I tried my smoothest but the navigator wouldn't give me one of his log forms. He spent most of his time flying the plane and while his dead reckoning was very loose his pilotage was letter-perfect. His maps were better than the ones we had of Russia. There was no evidence that he ever used celestial — he just knew the route.

At Rostov we stayed overnight at the Russian base. They gave us quarters in a sort of apartment house badly beaten in the war but fixed up. The cots were iron, narrow and close together; some had to sleep on straw ticks on the floor. Women orderlies made us wonder humorously what sort of house we were in.

We weren't allowed in town but a bunch of soldiers — men and girls — entertained us royally. This included a Russo-American volleyball game in which they outclassed us but threw the game for hospitality's sake. Later they played and sang Russian songs for us under a cool moon, and we reciprocated with a few barroom ballads. It is a wonderful thing in Russia to hear their soldiers sing on the march or in their barracks. The depth and harmony of their voices and the strange sadness of their songs are unforgettable.

The next morning we rounded up the hangover victims and left for Teheran. The trip to our home base in England via Teheran, Cairo, Tripolitania and Casablanca extended over 8,000 miles and produced a whole book of experiences in itself. Back in the tight little isle we got a new airplane and went right back to our knittin'. My pilot went to the hospital in Teheran and got back to the states well before us.

This article was originally published in the July, 1945 issue of Flying magazine, vol 37, no 1, pp 24-25, 88, 90.
The PDF of this article [ PDF, 7 MiB ] includes a thumbnail portrait of Lt Johnston, a flight shot of two B-17s (in 15th AF markings), a map of the route taken by the airmen in the article, and two photos of activities at the base in Russia.
Photos credited to AAF, Sovfoto; map by Hal Morris.