The Harsh Reality of War for Bombardiers

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An excerpt from "The Bridgebusters: The True Story of the Catch-22 Bomb Wing" by Thomas Cleaver.

As bombs began to fall from the lead plane, the other bombardiers triggered their own and turned to check the intervalometer that recorded the release of each bomb to insure the bombs were indeed falling as they should. When the fourth light blinked, the bombardiers hit the door control to close the bomb bays and reported on the intercom, “bombs gone—doors closing.” Suddenly one of the bombers was bracketed by three close bursts of deadly “88” flak, the explosions outside so close and so loud the bombardier could hear them even with his radio headset over his ears and over the roar of the engines. Chunks of deadly shrapnel rattled against the Mitchell bomber’s thin aluminum skin like a barrage of rocks on a tin roof, penetrating the airplane to strike instruments, gear, and human flesh.

With bombs gone, the pilot commenced immediate evasive action and banked away to the right. At that moment more flak exploded outside and the right wingtip of the plane was blown off, fluttering away into space. The co-pilot, transfixed in his seat with nothing to do but observe the terrifying moment, gave in to his terror as a voice shrieked over the intercom, “Help me! I’m hit.” He reached out, grabbed his control yoke, and whipped it over hard to the right as he pushed forward. The left wing came up at a steep angle as the nose turned down and the plane banked into a wild dive.

“Help him! Help him!” the co-pilot cried into the intercom.

Suddenly the bombardier found himself staring out the front of his greenhouse at the earth below rushing toward him as he was thrown around by the rapid wingover and dive. He was pinned by his head to the bulkhead at the rear of his compartment by the G-force, his feet thrashing the air above the .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the nose. He grabbed at the ammo box to the side and steadied himself, then readied for the pull-out. But there was no pull-out. Over the radio the voice shrieked again, “I’m hit! I’m hit!” just as the bombardier’s headset wire was pulled out of its jack by his sudden movement.

In the cockpit, the pilot fought with the co-pilot for control of the airplane. The navigator left his position and tried to restrain the co-pilot, but the man shoved him aside. The pilot took the moment to grab the throttles and pull them back to slow the dive. A lucky punch from the navigator caught the co-pilot on the chin and knocked him back in his seat.

The pilot grabbed the controls and began to pull out of the wild dive, momentarily squashing everyone inside with the G-force of the pullout. The terrified co-pilot recovered, grabbed his set of controls again, and—in his panic—fought the pilot until the flight engineer threw his arms around him and held him tight. The plane bucked and reared as the pilot fought to prevent a catastrophe.

Finally, several thousand feet below the rest of the formation, the B-25 pulled level, bracketed by light flak as it banked and turned sharply to get away.

With the plane now level, but lower and hence in the midst of more dangerous bursts of flak, the bombardier grabbed hold of the big .50 machine gun in the nose to steady himself and plugged his headset back in. “Help who?”

“Help him! Help the bombardier! He doesn’t answer!”

That brought the bombardier up short—had he been hit and not known it? How could the voice know? A quick once-over revealed he was unhurt. “I’m the bombardier! I’m OK! I’m OK!”

“Help him! Help him!” the voice cried.

The bombardier shoved himself through the narrow tunnel that separated him from the rest of the airplane and stood up behind the pilots. The turret gunner and navigator now had the co-pilot restrained as the pilot concentrated on making an escape. Then bombardier climbed into the narrow space between the roof of the bomb bay and the top of the fuselage and squeezed through to the rear of the plane.

The radioman and the tail gunner were there together—the radioman on the floor with a large oval wound in his thigh; there was a hole in the side of the plane just behind the waist window where the piece of flak that had hit him had entered the plane. Fighting nausea at the sight of the bloody wound, the bombardier tore open the first aid kit, ripped open the package of sulfa, spread it over the wound, then bandaged the leg and gave the radioman a shot of morphine. Then he pulled himself back up into the passageway over the bomb bay and returned to the cockpit.

As they flew back toward Corsica over the deep blue Mediterranean, the co-pilot regained his composure. None of the others thought badly of what he had done or the fear he had given in to. They’d all been there themselves, so terrified they were “all up in the top of my flak helmet,” as the bombardier had put it in a letter home, paralyzed by the fear of death. The distance between what each man had experienced himself and what had happened to the co-pilot was so short it couldn’t be measured. The entire event, which had seemed to last for hours as their minds entered what other combat veterans have termed “the fifth level of the brain, where time is irrelevant,” had actually taken only two or three minutes.

They were minutes the bombardier would never, ever forget.

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