by Paul M. Andrews & David Aiken
After completing over on hundred missions in less than fourteen months of operations, Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker's Eighth Air Force stood very near the cusp of greatness. At Eaker's disposal were twenty bombardment groups, comprising 915 heavy bombers and 839 combat crews. Operations could now be conducted with increased confidence, in part, because established groups would no longer be transferred to other theaters of operation and because of the scheduled assignment of five new bombardment groups to be operational before the New Year.(3) Even without these additional bombers, the operational integrity of the Eighth remained viable because of a reliable flow of replacement aircraft, combat crews, and spare parts. In a pitched battle with Washington and London, Eaker had prevailed and received the men, equipment, and directive to conduct, without undue interference, a daylight strategic bombing campaign. Numbers alone, however, proved not to be the sole basic of Eaker's confidence.
Strategic planners were enthusiastic, if not overly optimistic, about the ongoing experiments in blind bombing techniques. If successful, weather and German smoke pots would never again force dispatched bombers of the Eighth to seek a secondary target or a target of opportunity because the primary could not be bombed visually. The introduction of CARPET, strips of aluminum discharged over the target area, promised relief from the increased accuracy of radar-assisted flak batteries. Finally, and most importantly, there was the knowledge that fighter groups stateside were training with the high performance, long range P-51.(4) Yet for all of its potential, the Eighth still had its share of managerial problems, not the least of which was the task of keeping the aircraft serviceable and the morale of the combat crews at an acceptable level. Still, Eaker understood correctly the enviable strength of his situation as compared to that faced by his German counterpart: "We must show the enemy we can replace our losses" because "he knows he cannot replace his."(5) Thus, the stage was set for the American contribution to the air war in Europe--the elimination of the German Air Force as a viable military force and the achievement of allied air superiority in the skies over Europe.
At first perceived to be an unstoppable offensive force, the Third Reich war machine by October 1943 had stumbled; North Africa was lost, Italy as an Axis ally proved to be more burdensome than expected, and the Soviets with their hard-fought victory at Stalingrad were on the counter-offensive in the east. To the very degree that the Eighth Air Force hovered near victory, Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering's German Air Force stood near the brink of defeat. Initially successful, its defeat in the Battle of Britain failed to alert the German High Command to the air force's structural weaknesses. (6) When 12 B-17s first appeared on August 17, 1942, over the Rouen/Sotteville marshaling yards, Berlin paid very little attention. Even as the number of bombers dispatched increased during the ensuing months, German policy makers, quite correctly, viewed these raids as being little more than a minor annoyance. They saw British and German failures in daylight strategic bombing campaigns being repeated by the Americans. In time, events forced Goering to scramble with directives to counter the American daylight presence. Goering's miscalculations forced him to react rather than anticipate American initiatives. The Reichsmarshall admitted that: "The chief thing I'm to blame for is not having given the Jagdswaffe heavy-caliber defensive weapons early enough and having failed to grasp the importance of the Flying Fortress."(7) This reflective smugness underscores a failure to recognize the degree to which poor judgment not only placed the German Air Force at a disadvantage but also poisoned its operational future.
On October 7th, Goering's patience with his fighter pilots snapped during a meeting at Obersalzberg, Hitler's "Alpine Fortress." Since July 1943, the Americans consistently dispatched over 300 bombers per mission, yet German air defence--flak and fighters--failed to meet this challenge. During the previous thirty missions, the Americans averaged a 3.5% loss rate of those aircraft dispatched and 5.3% of those bombers credited with effective sorties.(8) Goering did not accuse the Luftwaffe pilots of being cowards, but "I do reckon they've lost their nerve." The instructions issued from this meeting were clear and to the point: "The Jagdwaffe is going to give battle to the last man. . . .If it does not, it can go and join the infantry. The German people doesn't (sic) give a darn about the Jagdwaffe's losses."(9) Clearly, American aerial activities coupled with the nocturnal strikes of the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command were having the intended impact upon the German air defense establishment. The Luftwaffe's performance against the American heavy bombers to date impressed very few in the German High Command and provided little reason for the Eighth Air Force's strategic planners to reconsider their bombing campaign.
In the early evening hours of October 6th, bombardment stations throughout East Anglia received an alert notice for a mission. As each group's operations staff drew up the roster of combat crews and aircraft available for combat, ground crews swung into action servicing the bombers. So too, repair work on non-operational aircraft was accelerated in order to insure that each group dispatched its quota for the next day's maximum effort. Notified of the impending mission, each crew member dealt with the prospect of battle differently; some maintained an air of indifference, some were impatient about the lack of operations, while others turned inward for strength. Unfavorable weather conditions over the target route nullified all of this expended energy. Ground crews must have muttered under their breath when they heard about the mission's cancellation because they would have to unload the bomb bays and return the bombs, ammunition, and machine guns to the respective storage areas. Combat crews, who spent the night preparing mentally for battle, greeted the news with mixed emotions. To vent some of the anxieties and frustrations, a number of groups, including the 100th Bombardment Group at Thorpe Abbotts, took advantage of the local flying conditions to conduct a practice pathfinder mission.
Sometime during the late afternoon of October 7th, the 100th returned to Thorpe Abbotts from its practice mission. After Piccadilly Lily touched down, Captain Thomas E. Murphy, taxied the B-17 F in an easterly direction past the control tower and turned into the first frying pan style hardstand. As the last of the Wright "Cyclone" engines fell silent and the Hamilton Standard propellers whirled to a halt, Crew 22 disembarked from the bomber. The crew assembled at the hardstand bore only some resemblance to the crew that first came together on January 2, 1943, as part of the 29th Bombardment Group, an operational training unit located at Gowen Field, Idaho.(10) Of the ten original crew members, only Charles C. Sarabun, navigator; Floyd C. Peterson, bombardier; John J. Ehlen, flight engineer; and Gerald O. Robinson, left waist gunner remained. Two of the crew--Albert C. Davis, right waist gunner, and Emmett H. Evans, radio operator--completed their tour on the October 4th mission to Saarlautern. Injured in a June 27th accident at the base, Michael Rotz, tail gunner, was replaced by Aaron A. David. The ball turret gunner, Cleveland D. Jarvis, when not playing baseball, was often deep in thought. For Jarvis, the pressure of combat took its toll early on and after going AWOL, he was transferred in July to the group's armament section; his position taken by Reed A. Hufford. Finally, the crew had several candidates for the position of pilot and co-pilot before the assignment of Thomas E. Murphy and Marshall F. Lee prior to the flight overseas.
At the hardstand, Major Ollen Turner, Commanding Officer of the 351st Bombardment Squadron, greeted Murphy and notified the former commercial airline pilot from Waltham, Massachusetts, that he was to become the Assistant to the Group Executive. Other changes to Crew 22 were announced. Peterson and Sarabun, both known for the mastery of their respective duties as well as their dedication to the profession, would be transferred either to the 13th Combat Wing Headquarters at Horham or the 3rd Air Division Headquarters at Elvedon Hall, Camp Blainey, where they would assume yet to be specified duties. For these three, it was time to turn in their flying equipment.
It must be appreciated that what transpired between Turner and Crew 22 is significant for not entirely related reasons. The removal of crew members from operational duty, for other than medical reasons, was probably the exception rather than the rule. If wide spread, such a policy would only have reinforced the morbid thoughts shared by those who felt it unlikely that they would complete their twenty-five missions and earn membership into the "Lucky Bastard" club. Under such circumstances, morale, always a concern, would have eroded at an alarming rate. More importantly, High Wycombe--Headquarters of the Eighth Air Force--faced an uncomfortable reality about the stateside training program; not every pilot could lead, not every navigator could find the target, and not every bombardier could drop the bombs on the required mark. Even though the Army Air Force was seen by many as the glamour service, sparking the romantic in the warriors to be and accordingly attracting very capable men, officers with natural leadership qualities were difficult to find and even more difficult to keep from falling prey to German air defenses. Goering probably never sensed just how his less than effective defenses were in fact causing some concern at High Wycombe. While the loss rates for the Eighth were well within acceptable levels, an ever-decreasing number of experienced crews were unable to assume all of the critical leadership roles in the air and equally critical roles on the ground. By October 7th, someone in the chain of command felt that Murphy, Sarabun, and Peterson could no longer contribute in any significant way to the course of the war by completing, at this time, their tour of duty. The German war machine was not about to grind to a halt. Eventual victory rested more with their leadership capabilities and combat experience being utilized in critical administrative and managerial functions on the ground. Accordingly, Crew 22, awaiting replacements, took the opportunity to celebrate briefly the Promotions and transfers
Once again, the routine during the early evening hours at Thorpe Abbotts' operations room was broken by the clatter of the teletype machine--another alert. The flurry of activity of twenty-four hours earlier was repeated. The operations room at High Wycombe monitored a broad range of reports throughout the evening and early morning hours. As before, the principle concern was the weather conditions over the continent. Forecasters promised that the conditions to and from the target would improve by morning. Determined to dispatch a force to Bremen, at 0230 combat crews scheduled to participate were given their wake UP call.
"Briefing at 0330!"
After their customary pre-mission breakfast at one of the base's two communal sites, crew members drifted slowly to the briefing room located alongside the southern edge of Thorpe Wood. Passing through the blackout curtain, cigarette smoke swirled freely with muted conversations. The waiting, the forced laughter after hearing the same old, hackneyed jokes only increased the anxieties generated since the alert. Of those sitting in the room, Frank P. McGlinchey, a bombardier scheduled to fly in 230818, LN S, Salvo Sal, recalls "a few groans" as the white curtain covering the wall map of Europe was pulled aside and everyone traced the flight path marked out in red yarn to Bremen. To be sure, there were probably some audible gasps, if not the occasional expletive. This would be no milk run.
The crews filtered past the blackout curtain into the cool night air of early October; still no sign of the sun. They collected their flying equipment and hoisted their bulky gear into the waiting trucks for what would be a bumpy ride to their respective aircraft. Knowing where they were going and sensing what the German flak and fighters might have in store for them, as Albert Davis, one of the Lily's original waist gunners, remembers, filled the idle time before any engine start with "suspended reflection." To make matters worse for the crews this morning, the 0530 takeoff time was postponed twice by High Wycombe--the weather over Europe still had not lifted as had been promised by the forecasters.
While the crews waited at their hardstands passing the time as best they could, events elsewhere at the base forced Major Turner's hand. For circumstances that are not entirely clear, the replacements for Crew 22 scheduled to fly in 25864, EP A, as the lead aircraft of the low squadron were removed from operational status. Turner had no other experienced officers available to fill the lead position except for Murphy, Sarabun, and Peterson. The three were approached by the Squadron Commanding Officer and with little discussion or second thoughts they, after a belated breakfast and briefing, recollected their flight gear and rejoined Crew 22. It should be pointed out that sometime before Murphy completed his all too familiar "meticulous all-embracing pre-flight" inspection of the Lily, there was an addition to Crew 22--Captain Alvin L. Barker, the 351st Operations Officer. While other, more senior officers would participate on the mission to Bremen, Barker had no authority to fly because of his grounding for a depth perception problem. In fact, Barker's original crew was lost on the September 3rd mission to Paris and his last mission was sometime before the August 17th mission to Regensburg. It is not known exactly under what conditions Barker joined the crew, but whatever the arrangement, he became the Lily's eleventh passenger and assumed the co-pilot's seat.
At 1130, the crack of a flare pistol and the sight of the green flare arching from the control tower abruptly shattered the late morning stillness at Thorpe Abbotts. The whine of the fuel booster pump coupled with the electric inertia starter in the Wright "Cyclone" engine brought at first a hesitant cough and then, with a belch of bluish smoke, each engine, one by one, roared into life. As the pilots and flight engineers went through the engine starting procedure, the pulse of the base quickened. After two postponements, the mission to Bremen was finally underway, but not without a miscue that marred the takeoff. The standard operating procedure calls for the Group's lead aircraft, in this case Major John B. Kidd and Captain Everett E. Blakely's 23393, LD Y, Just-A-Snappin', to takeoff first, to be followed by the rest of the lead squadron. However, on this day, Major Gale W. Cleven and Captain Bernard A. DeMarco's Z3233, LN R, Our Baby, leading the high squadron, appeared first at the end of the runway. This mix-up, more of an annoyance than anything else, was corrected after some inflight maneuvering orchestrated by the lead navigator, Harry H. Crosby.
With the throttles of 23233 advanced at 1143, Our Baby, rambled down the runway, climbing ever so slowly into the air. At thirty second intervals, Cleven was followed by the rest of the high squadron. As 25997, EP F, Heaven Can Wait, accelerated slowly down the runway, Murphy, seventeenth in line, taxied 25864, EP A, Piccadilly Lily, into takeoff position and gave the engines one last runup while the brakes squealed in protest. For every crew this was yet another moment to sweat out. With thirty tons of men, machinery, and munitions accelerating down a concrete strip, it did not take very much--an engine misfiring here or a blown tire there--to cause a crash. It had happened before, it would happen again, but no one knew just when. There was little that those not directly involved in the takeoff procedure could do but sit in their appropriate positions and hope that the gremlins were not hard at work. Murphy released the brakes at 1152, with the four "Cyclone" engines at full power and the four Hamilton Standard propellers clawing vigorously at the air, slowly but surely Piccadilly Lily attained sufficient air speed to wrestle itself from gravity's grasp. Once the Lily's crew felt the lift off and sensed the motors for the flaps and landing gear activated, they relaxed and exchanged some intercom chatter until reaching altitude. Thirteen minutes after Our Baby's takeoff, 230088, XR W, Squawkin Hawk, a scheduled spare aircraft, was the last airborne. Relative silence returned to the country side surrounding Thorpe Abbotts, as those left on base prepared for lunch which included roast pork.
At eighteen other air fields in East Anglia Flying Fortresses and Liberators took to the air. Of the four B-24 equipped groups assigned to the 2nd Air division, the 44th stood down while the 93rd, 389th, and 392nd were assigned to bomb the Vulcan ship yards at Vegesack. B-17s of the 91st, 303rd, 351st, 379th, and 384th were given the task of bombing the Deutsche ship yards in Bremen while other 1st Air Division B-17s from the 92nd, 305th, and 306th were assigned to attack Weser-Flugzeugbau, an aircraft factory. Following the 1st Air Division came the 3rd Air Division, which was instructed to bomb the city proper. Led by the 388th and a section of the 96th, this formation was two miles ahead of the 94th, the second section of the 96th, and the 385th, which was five miles ahead of the 13th Combat Wing comprised of the 100th, 390th, and the 95th.
On this day, the armada's assembly proved to be uneventful and shortly after 1330 the last B-17 of the 13th Wing left the English coastline on a magnetic heading of 080. Most crew members had little time to wonder if they would ever set foot on English soil again and enjoy another pint of British ale or bitters because they were too busy making checks on their equipment and test firing their machine guns. Everything had to be in working order so as to give the entire crew the best chance of survival. An erratic interphone, a troublesome surpercharger, or a malfunctioning turret could, at a critical moment, bring disaster. Even with the best efforts of the ground crews, 49 out of the 413 dispatched bombers were forced to leave the formation and return to base. At this particular stage of the mission, the 13th Wing encountered a few anxious moments because within a span of eight minutes a six aircraft formation probably from the 351st, a three plane element probably from the 381st, and a B-17, 230008, PY T, of the 384th, having aborted from the 1st Air Division, elected not to fly clear of the Wing but rather threaded their way between the 100th and 390th. Despite the potential for mid-air collisions or disruption of the Wing's combat formation, nothing serious came of these incidents.
While over the North Sea, Crew 22 settled down to what had become a routine. Aaron David, the quiet small-frame cowboy from Oklahoma, sat on the bicycle seat located in the tail gun position and rechecked his machine guns; painted on either side of his station was a Star of David with the inscription "House of David" beneath it. Gerald Robinson, the square jawed, blue eyed, blond hair native of Hamtrammic, Michigan, who never was known to shy away from a fight, a drink, or a woman, manned his usual left waist gun position. His partner on this mission was the regular ball turret gunner, Reed Hufford. A native of a Pittsburgh suburb, Hufford still admired the ingenuity and common sense of Albert Davis, who on August 15th supervised the relocation of his waist gun mount forward of its usual location so that he could obtain a better field of fire and avoid bumping into the other waist gunner. As already noted, Marshall Lee's position as co-pilot was taken by Alvin Barker. For Lee, a mid-westerner whose youthful energy matched an intense desire to fly fighters rather than bombers, there was no difficulty in climbing into the cramped isolation of the ball turret. In the radio compartment, Derrel Piel, whose regular crew was lost on the September 3rd mission to Paris, operated the radio equipment and most likely Elder Dickerson, whose regular crew had completed their tour on September 16th, manned the radio hatch gun. John Ehlen, known for his strength and gentleness, was in his usual position as top turret gunner and flight engineer, while Murphy was in the pilot's seat sharing the piloting duties with Barker. In the nose compartment, Sarabun assumed his navigation duties and maintained a log of the mission, while Peterson, the bombardier, manned the nose guns until such time that his marksmanship had to be turned in for his bombing skills.
Once at altitude the interphone, except for the routine station checks, was silent. Throughout the airframe the pulsating vibration of the four "Cyclone" engines created a reassuring atmosphere. Everything was working perfectly. Admittedly for some, the alert notice unleashed a seemingly endless chain of anxious moments. What was the target for today? What were the fighters going to be like? How intense would the flak be? Time would bring the answers. It was the waiting, however, that seemed the most damning; even breathing and the pumping of the heart could become deafening to an airman's ears.
"Over enemy coast. Watch for fighters."
Though the haze and continued undercast of 2/10 low stratus clouds still blurred the horizon, the navigator's announcement served its purpose. The senses were further accentuated. A glance at a wrist watch confirmed what the combat crews' bodies were trying to tell them--1456. Over twelve hours had elapsed since the wake up call. In the distance some could see German single engine fighters dogfighting with the P-47 escorts. For the 13th Wing, however, the first ten minutes over occupied Europe brought only three attacks against the 390th--one from a ME 110 and two from FW 190s--causing no serious damage.
The life of any combat crew member was filled with seemingly endless days of sheer boredom tempered by occasional bouts of anxiety. But at any moment, this blend of boredom and anxiety would be shattered by sheer, unrelenting terror.
"Bandits! 11 O'Clock High!"
John Ehlen swung his turret into position and pulled the charging handles of his twin fifty caliber machine guns. His immediate attention was directed at the first FW 190 flying through the formation. Ehlen tracked Staffelfuhrer Lieutenant Hans Ehlers' red nosed FW 190 and, when in range, pressed the firing button for several short bursts. Undaunted by the hits scored by the Lily's top turret gunner, Ehlers, 29, assigned to the second staffel of 1 JG/1 continued on and passed from Ehlen's view. Seconds later the sky somewhat behind and below the Lily erupted in a brilliant orange.(ll)
"Was that the FW?"
"That was a Fortress."
David's dispassionate answer to Ehlen's question reveals more about the face of battle than could many passages of descriptive prose. One moment, there existed thirty tons of men, machinery, and munitions defying the law of gravity and in the next there was a fiery orange ball along with bits and pieces plummeting earthward; only a blackish smudge marking temporarily where gravity challenged successfully man's defiance.
Miraculously, Ehlers managed to extricate himself from the FW 190 after colliding with Raymond J. Gormley's 23386, EP H, Marie Helena, number 6 low squadron.(l2) However,this incident, which by no means had been the first witnessed by bomber crews, underscores a tactical problem facing the Luftwaffe. Head on attacks from 11, 12, and 1 o'clock positions, while achieving a recognized degree of psychological advantage over bomber crews and particularly inexperienced pilots, nevertheless, were conducted at the expense of accuracy. Closing at a rate in excess of 200 yards per second, the fighter pilot had slightly less than three seconds between the moment his 20mm cannons were in range and when a collision was all but unavoidable. Clearly, there was little room for miscalculation or for that matter any toleration for the lack of concentration. A momentary lapse, be it in reaction to possible damage inflicted by the bomber crews or a mechanical failure, could bring serious injury if not instantaneous death to the fighter pilot and the bomber crew.
Increased fighter activity prevented crews from dwelling upon the mid-air collision. As the 95th's R. J. Cupp, a toggler and nose gunner aboard 230325, QW U, Lonesome Polecat, number 1 low squadron, reported the incident during the debriefing session, the group was at 25,000 feet when two FW 190s at 11 o'clock passed through the 100th formation, which was ahead and slightly below the 95th. Cupp remembers the first German fighter crashing into Gormley and the other "passed over that formation and was crossing my path."(l3) The German pilot, probably Johannes Kreimeyer of the first staffel, 1 JG/1, was killed when his aircraft exploded as result of several short bursts from Cupp's gun. (l4) It should be pointed out that the encounter reports from the 95th and 390th reveal that between the collision and the Initial Point, a period of about thirteen minutes, these two groups were attacked by no less than 39 fighters, of which all but five were FW 190s or ME 109s. Also, from the perspective of the 3rd Air Division's surviving crews, the level of German fighter interception was more prominent than had been the situation through out most of September and early October, but did not match the vigor endured by the survivors of the August 17th mission to Regensburg.
Almost immediately after the collision between Gormley and Ehlers, another B-17, 230358, LN X, Phartzac, number 4 high squadron, exploded. Piloted by Frank H. Meadows, the exact circumstances of this aircraft's loss cannot be determined. It appears as though a fire in the bomb bay area triggered an explosion and possibly this is the B-17 that returning 390th crews reported -as having "exploded tearing the A/C apart with one wing and the tail going in opposite directions." Minutes later, Arthur H. Becktoft's 230154, XR H, War Eagle, number 9 high squadron, was seen by Owen "Cowboy" Roane and Robert N. Lohof leaving the formation under control with number three engine on fire. In less than four minutes, the Luftwaffe reduced the ranks of the 100th by three Fortresses. Maybe Goering's threat the previous day about the fighter pilots joining the infantry on the eastern front was having the intended impact.
At 1521, the 13th Wing turned to magnetic heading 046.5, the Initial Point had been reached. The 100th lead bombardier, James R. Douglass, pulled the bomb door control handle, opening the bomb bay doors. On this signal, the rest of the bombardiers and togglers did the same. The Wing had begun its bomb run. From this point until the bombs had been dropped and the formation reached the Rally Point, the bomber crews were exposed to a twentieth century version of running the gauntlet, a technological trial by ordeal. The next four to five minutes would be the most vulnerable period for the crews. Pilots could not take evasive action, they had to fly their aircraft in a straight and steady line. The target, Bremen, could be distinguished by an "intense black cloud" hanging over it. (l5) What the crews saw was the combination of smoke pots, fire and smoke from previous bomb explosions, as well as the dirty black splashes in the sky, marking where an 88mm or 120mm anti-aircraft shell had recently exploded.
Moments after Piccadilly Lily had lined up on the bomb run and while Peterson made the final adjustments to his equipment, the sky occupied by the 100th erupted from a massive flak barrage. The Lily shuttered from the flak hits to the nose and radio compartments; Sarabun and Peterson were shaken but uninjured. However Piel and Dickerson were killed outright. It appears that Robinson surveyed the damage to the Lily aft of the bomb bay and went forward to report directly to Murphy the extent of the damage and injuries. With this information in hand, there was some discussion in the cockpit about leaving the formation and returning to base. Though the aircraft had also suffered some damage to the oxygen system, Murphy overruled any such notion. All four engines were functioning and the Lily could remain in formation. Far more importantly, leaving the formation at this point would have provided the Luftwaffe pilots, eager to earn points with the Reichsmarshall, with an easy target.
At 1525, Douglass, flying in 23393, LD Y, Just-A-Snappin', number 1 lead squadron, released his load of 38 incendiaries onto Bremen. Peterson and the rest of the group toggled on the lead aircraft.
As the B-17 surged upwards from the sudden loss of 3800 pounds, Peterson leaned over to his left and pushed the lever closing the bomb bay doors. Within seconds, another flak barrage filled the lOOth's airspace. Inside the Lily, the surviving crew members once again felt flak striking the aircraft, but this time there followed a distinctive "thunk." The entire airframe began to shimmy. In the cockpit, both Murphy and Barker struggled with the vibration coming through the control columns. From the co-pilot's vantage point, Barker saw the right main landing gear in an extended position, flak had destroyed the linkage. Far more critically, the flak hit either ruptured the fuel lines or the oil tank, igniting a fire from behind the fire wall.
"Let's get the heck out of this crate, she's gonna blow."
Barker's comment over the interphone may not have been viewed as particularly endearing about the aircraft that had served Crew 22 so well. No matter, it alerted the surviving crew members about the gravity of the situation. Sarabun leaned over from his navigator's desk and confirmed what Barker had seen. Equally convinced of the Lily's fate, he pulled his service revolver and placed a bullet into the GEE navigation equipment, rendering it worthless should the plane fall intact into German hands. Murphy eased the Lily from the formation so that his crew would have the best chance of surviving the bail out. It was a feat in itself to get out of a crippled aircraft and Murphy's actions insured that those bailing out would not tumble through the rest of the squadron. Also, if 25864 exploded, the debris would pose no serious risk to the squadron.
From most accounts, it is thought that Aaron David bailed out successfully, but died as a result of his parachute not deploying. Reed Hufford left the aircraft without incident, while Marshall Lee, after collecting his parachute, went forward apparently to lend assistance to Murphy. At the same time, Sarabun pulled the release handle on the nose hatch and kicked open the door. Kneeling there for what must have been only a few moments, the navigator looked up towards the cockpit passageway and probably saw Robinson clipping on his parachute. Should he forsake bailing out and try to assist Murphy? Sarabun's mind was made up for him as Peterson, thinking that the navigator had frozen at the prospect of bailing out, pushed him through the opening. Immediately following Peterson's exit was Robinson. Ehlen, the top turret gunner, after making the final adjustments to his parachute, assisted Barker with his and then pulled the emergency release handle for the bomb bay doors, jumping clear of the burning aircraft. Meanwhile, Barker leaned over the co-pilot's seat and grabbed the control column so that Murphy could extricate himself from his seat. It was too late. The heat from the fire in number three nacelle triggered a spontaneous combustion. All that remained was debris. Murphy, Barker, and Lee, still inside the aircraft were either killed outright or never regained consciousness fromthe explosion's concussion.
As the group's estimated time of return approached, the activity at and around Thorpe Abbott's control tower increased. Crash crews and ambulances were waiting. The same questions which occupied the combat crews' minds were at least answered, but for those on the ground the waiting continued. All they knew was the contents of a message sent by Edmund G. Forkner, radio operator aboard 23393.
"The target was bombed at 1525."
No one knew about the harrowing return flight being experienced by the crew of Just-A-Snappin'.(16) No one knew about the mid-collision between Gormley and Ehlers. No one knew about the crews who would not return. Eyes kept searching for the first sign of the group. At 1712, nearly fifteen hours since the wake up call, Maurice P. Beatty brought Queen Bee in for a landing. Three minutes later, in rapid succession, Pasadena Nena, Heaven Can Wait, Sweater Girl, Holy Terror, Torchy III, Messie Bessie, Squawkin Hawk, Rosie's Riveters, and Sunny II returned. As Beatty taxied Queen Bee on the perimeter track and turned into his hardstand, the ground personnel, noticing the moderate flak damage, could only begin to sense the enormity of the day's battle. To be sure, the post-mission shot of whiskey would be welcomed by the surviving crews. Eight minutes after Sunny II touched down, Blivit landed. Still, ten aircraft were unaccounted for. This number was revised downward when Horny and Hot Spit returned at 1745 and 1813 respectively. So too, the RAF base at Coltishall reported the crash landing of Just-A-Snappin'. But there would be no others. Cleven and Demarco, Nash, MacDonald, Meadows, Becktoft, Gormley, and Murphy along with their crews would not return. All total the 100th lost seven Flying Fortresses, 72 crew members missing in action, of which 31 were killed and all but Carl Spicer, navigator aboard 230818, LN S, Salvo Sal, who evaded capture and returned to England, were taken prisoner. Of the returning crews, a further 13 were wounded, of which one died as result of his injuries.
At the hardstand where Crew 22 had left that morning in Piccadilly Lily, John Herrmann stood in quiet disbelief.
We are poor little lambs, who have lost our way, baa, baa, baa.
The lights in the movie theater came up slowly as the credits of the movie ended. The audience filed out quietly into the warm night air of a Miami winter. John Herrmann left his seat with his wife beside him. Deeply moved by what he saw and what he remembered, the former crew chief wrote to Beirne Lay Jr. asking many questions about his visit in August 1943 to Thorpe Abbotts. The reply, in part, read: "You're darn right the Piccadilly Lily in 'TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH!' was named after your B-17. I put it into the script for sentimental reasons. . ."(17)
It has been nearly forty summers since war disrupted the tranquillity of Thorpe Abbotts and altered forever the lives of its inhabitants. The sights, sounds, and smells associated with the men and equipment assigned to the 100th Bombardment Group left a permanent mark upon the landscape. Once unmercifully thrashed about by propeller wash from B-17s, now only a gentle summer breeze swishes lazily the golden grain surrounding either side of the remaining perimeter track and runway. Even after a late morning haze gives way to a cloudless, radiant blue sky, one senses an unquestionable eeriness. A walk through Thorpe Wood only reinforces the feeling that a hallowed ground is being violated. Those buildings surviving the torments of time and vandals are dusted with a distinctively brilliant lime green, powder-like moss. In a similar way, the huts located in the communal sites and barrack areas, a home away from home for many American servicemen, are overgrown with bramble bushes, whose prickly scales like a Roman phalanx dissuade those do not belong. Silence, once shattered regularly by the "Cyclone" engines, is this afternoon broken by pheasants and rabbits bolting from one clump of cover to another. From the vantage point of the control tower, now restored as a museum, the hardstand where Piccadilly Lily was assigned has long since been taken up. A keen eye, knowing where to look, detects a residual outline. Night fall brings a gentle breeze, temporary relief from the July heat, and with it a chilling shiver runs up the spine. This abandoned airfield, like the others dotting the East Anglian countryside, has locked within its innermost sanctums the collective experiences of men at war that cannot be reduced arbitrarily to a single mission, a single aircraft, or a single crew. Still Crew 22 and Piccadilly Lily, without deference to others, have unknowingly been given a permanent place within the air war's mythology.