|The plotting of courses to and from the target and the responsibility
of bringing the formations to the targets was the work of the navigators.
The 387th was fortunate in having capable men to handle this job. Some
had graduated as bombardiers but had been pressed into service as navigators.
In this new role they performed excellently. Among the navigators who guided
entire formations are Major William V. M. McBride, Captain Henry Jones,
Captain Howard E. Tolley, Lieutenant Leonard H. Steinhart, Lieutenant Fred
H. Pankin, Lieutenant A. D. Oldham, Lieutenant R. O. Stone, Lieutenant
Paul J. McCabe and Lieutenant Joseph E. Genone.
Much credit in any medium bomber crew is due the gunners—those men who
rode the missions in the turrets, the waists and the tails of the planes.
Besides the threat of flak, the planes were always subject to attacks by
enemy fighters. It was the business of these men to be always on the alert
and to hold off the FW-190s, ME-109s and ME-262s and if possible to shoot
them down. In addition the gunners acted as scouts and observers, reporting
enemy concentrations and movements. Certain gunners also acted as togglers,
sometimes with sensational results, as in the case of Technical Sergeant
Petereson. The record of the 387th gunners was outstanding.
|Soon, the enemy had again been pushed to the limit of our effective
range and on or about the 1st of November 1944, we moved to a base in northern
France, near the city of St. Quentin. Each crew loaded their tents, stoves
and personal baggage into the bomb bay of a B-26 and flew in a group formation
to our new home. We landed in a light drizzle that persisted as we set
up our tents. The campsite was in an alfalfa field close by the aircraft
parking area. By the time that we had put up our tents, we and our belongings
were thoroughly soaked. The weather was cool and we were several days drying
In the meantime, we were flying missions and when we finally had time to improve our living quarters, much of the available materials suitable for tent flooring had beer) already nailed down. Fortunately, another German bomb dump was located in a nearby woods. The bomb crates were fastened together with screws and dovetailed joints so we had to sift through charred ruins of a German hanger to recover some nails.
We didn't realize it at the time, but the remainder of the missions which the 387th would launch for the duration of the war would be from this base. For the aircrews, such a mission would usually begin with an early breakfast followed by a truck ride to the operations briefing tent near Group headquarters. The tent was furnished with wooden benches and a large map of Western Europe, complete with a grease pencil Bomb Line which depicted the most advanced positions of Allied ground forces. The course to the target was designated by a colored string, stretched between pins on the map.
Targets including railway marshalling yards, German troop concentrations or fortifications, bridges, fuel storage areas and of course, enemy airfields. An officer from Group Operations would describe the importance of the target and any deviations from standard procedures. He would also announce start engine times, taxi times etc. A mimeographed formation diagram, complete with aircraft tail numbers and pilots' names, was distributed to each crew and provided other essential information.
A group intelligence officer would point out known flak positions en route and near the target and emphasize how skillfully the courses had been plotted to keep the formation beyond the range of guns. The weather officer was next and usually provided more accurate information. Following a "time hack", wherein all watches would be synchronized,, the briefing would be concluded. The chaplains were always available for those who desired spiritual reassurance for the upcoming flight.
Thirty-six B-26's were normally scheduled for a mission. The formation was divided into two combat boxes, each made up of three six-ship flights. The flights within each box flew in a "V'' formation - the second flight or "high flight" to the right and stepped up in altitude from the lead flight; the third or "low flight" to the left and stepped down in altitude. Whenever the box leader turned to a new heading, it was necessary for the high and low flights to maneuver in such a way as to preserve their relative relationship with the leader. The variations in altitude between flights made it possible for them to slide behind the leader when necessary without being buffeted by prop wash or turbulence.
The second box trailed the lead box at a slightly higher altitude. When a "maximum effort" mission was launched an additional eighteen aircraft formed a third box, which trailed the second. The high and low boxes would maintain spacing with the lead box on turning maneuvers in a manner very similar to that employed by the flight leaders within each box.
As the formation approached the target, the flight leaders would maneuver into an in-trail position. Again, the differences in altitudes between flights theoretically provided undisturbed air for the bomb sighting operation. After the drop and the turn away from the target, the original formation would be reformed.
Each flight of six aircraft within the box consisted of two three-ship elements flying a "v's" intrail formation with the second element close behind the lead and slightly stepped down to avoid turbulence. This six-ship flight was the basic bombing formation and each lead aircraft carried a bombardier and was equipped with a Norden bombsight. When the bombsight mechanism automatically released the bombs from the lead ship, the bombs in the other five aircraft within the flight would be released manually. The quality of the resulting pattern of bombs in the target area was dependent upon the position of the aircraft in the formation at the instant of bomb release. Overlapping wing tip formation, with the second element tucked tightly behind the first, was desired on the bomb run.
The assembly of a formation of thirty-six or fifty-four B-26's was a spectacular operation—something like an air show, a dress parade and the start of the "Indianapolis 500" all rolled into one ear-shattering event. For the ground crews and other support personnel, it was the culmination of long hours of tedious labor and they would stand near their tents or work areas to watch the "Marauders" roll by on the taxi ways. As one a/c member so aptly phrased it, "A guy would have to be a coward and a slacker to turn back before such an admiring audience."
The entire operation was commenced in absolute radio silence. Start engine and taxi times were strictly adhered to. The leader with as many of the lead box as possible would crowd onto the runway. Other aircraft filled the adjacent taxiway. A green flare would signal "takeoff" and the B-26's would hurtle down the runway at exact twenty-second intervals. Flight leaders would fly precise headings, airspeed rate of climb, altitude and rate of turn. The wing ships would cut off the leaders on the assembly turn and take their positions within each flight. Twelve minutes after commencing take off roll, the lead flight would sweep back across the field with most of the formation in good position and the number six a/c of the last flight just breaking ground.
The timing on most missions was extremely important. More than one group was often assigned to the same target and proper sequencing was essential. Reaching the fighter rendezvous point on time was also critical. Because of fuel limitations, neither the fighters nor bombers could wait long for the other. One four minute, 360-degree turn was standard. If the fighters had not arrived by then, we reluctantly departed on course, feeling very vulnerable and insecure. At one time or another, we were escorted by formations of each of the leading Allied fighters—P51's, P47's, P38's and occasionally, British Spitfires.
Once over the Bomb Line, the formation leader set up a pattern of turns known as evasive action to reduce the effectiveness of en route flak batteries. As the formation approached the target area, the flight leaders maneuvered into their "in trail" formation and the bombardiers anxiously scanned the target area for, their designated aiming points. Some one minute out from the target, the flight leaders were supposed to level out from their evasive action and fly on the headings prescribed by the bombardier.
After the bombardier had located his aiming point and clutched in the sight mechanism, the heading corrections were automatically transmitted to the pilot through the PDI, or Pilots Direction indicator, mounted on the instrument panel. This was the phase of the mission in which each a/c was most vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. For at least one minute, each flight flew straight and level at a relatively constant heading. The German anti-aircraft gun directions must have looked forward to this period with great anticipation. If the flak batteries were good, the shell bursts would come progressively closer until the concussions would bounce the a/c and the explosions could be plainly heard above the roar of the engines. The B-26 could absorb an amazing number of shell fragments without serious damage. Strategically located armor plate, flak vests and steel helmets offered some measure of protection to the crew. Most pilots routinely placed at least one flak vest beneath their seat cushions.
After the welcome "bombs away" announcement by the bombardier, each flight leader would make a prescribed turn, lose altitude to increase airspeed and resume normal spacing within the combat box. Evasive action turns were still in order until the group was safely back across the Bomb Line, at which time, the leader would usually initiate a gradual descent to the home field.
As the group approached the base, a/c with wounded on board were directed to land first. The Group leader then led the formation across the field and initiated the landing procedure. Each flight, in turn, would echelon to the right on the downwind leg of the landing pattern and a/c would peel off at three second intervals to establish a 20-second spacing for landing. Battling the turbulence of preceding a/c on the approach to landing was a final test of skill and courage for the pilots.
The Squadron Intelligence Officer would carefully debrief the crewmen after each mission for observations of bombing results and indications of enemy activity. Supposedly, these often fragmentary reports, when pieced together, could provide important information.
The foregoing has been a description of a mission flown under favorable weather conditions. During periods of low ceilings or visibility, the a/c still maintained their 20-second take off intervals but established a constant heading, airspeed and rate of climb up through the clouds on instruments. Above the overcast, the flights were joined and the formation assembled as before. When an overcast condition was encountered during the en route climb, the leader would fire a flare to signal that a weather ascent would be executed. Each flight, and then each aircraft in turn, would follow a procedure which would establish a lateral separation between a/c as they climbed through the clouds, individually, on instruments. Once on top, the flights and boxes would reform on the leader and the mission could continue.
If the cloud deck persisted, a similar weather descent procedure was executed on the return to base. In some instances, this resulted in the formation being reformed at a relatively low altitude. On one particular afternoon mission, flown late in November of 1944, by the time we had descended below the clouds, we were at less than 500 feet above the ground. It was dark and raining and a/c from the 387th became intermingled with another Group from a field at nearby Laon. Since most of us were trying to find and follow a leader, much confusion resulted and few flights had reformed by the time the Laon Field runway lights appeared below us. Many 387th aircrews did not realize this was not our home base and we joined a wide circling pattern while waiting our turn to land. To add to the excitement, at least two a/c collided with nearby hilltops and exploded. Most of us never realized that we were on a strange base until we attempted to taxi to the hard stands.
Cloud cover provided no protection for German targets. If conditions were such that a formation could be launched and recovered, a pathfinder mission would be scheduled. A specially trained crew in a B-26 with highly sensitive radio navigation equipment would assume the Group lead at a predetermined number of minutes from the target and the entire Group would tighten formation and follow them on the bomb run. When their bombs released, all thirty-six aircraft would simultaneously drop their bombs through the cloud deck.
On other occasions, we would bomb through the clouds with the Group leader utilizing the "G" equipment installed in the lead a/c. This usually occurred when unexpected cloud cover obscured certain targets, precluding visual sighting. This system was obviously not used on targets located close to the Bomb Line.
Fighter opposition was sporadic during the period that we were in France. During 63 missions, I personally observed German fighters on just two occasions. This does not mean that the Group or flights within the Group may not have been attacked at other times when I was not on the schedule. My first view of the Luftwaffe was in December on a day when the Germans had everything in the air that could fly. A flight of ME-109's, going in the opposite direction, passed us as we were returning from a target. They ignored us and we tried to remain as inconspicuous as a formation of thirty-six B-26's could.
The second instance occurred in the spring of 1945 when we were attacking a target near Nuremburg. A ME-262, a twin engine jet fighter, scored hits on a B-26 in the flight ahead of us, zoomed upward and seconds later, attacked our flight head on. Cannon shells were seen to explode in the cockpit of the aircraft on our right wing before it plunged out of formation. I was very pleasantly surprised to encounter one of the pilots, while on my way home in June. They had parachuted to safety, been treated in a German hospital and released when the war ended.
The quality and quantity of anti-aircraft fire depended to some extent upon the target. In some cases, it was intense and accurate right up until the end of the war. When the German ground forces were forced back across the Rhine, they set up a belt of flak batteries that fired at us routinely on the way in and out. At other times, we were only fired on at or near a target. A few targets were undefended.
Bomb sizes and fuse settings were dependent upon the targets being attacked. The standard load was 4000 pounds; two 2000-pounders, four 1000-pounders, eight 500's, sixteen 250's or thirty-two 100-pounders. On occasion, we also dropped bundles of incendiary bombs. Late in the war, our 100-pound anti-personnel bombs were sometimes fitted with newly developed radar proximity fuses set to explode the bombs above German foxholes. We viewed this advanced technology with some degree of skepticism; particularly so, when we were directed not to land with them on board once they had been armed. If, for some reason, they were not released on target, they were to be salvoed into the Channel.
Bombs could be released inadvertently in a variety of ways and frequently were. When this happened in a lead ship close to the target, the other five aircraft in the flight would dutifully compound the error.
An accidental release in a wing ship would occasionally occur when the bombardier with the manual release switch in one hand and his intercom switch in the other would press the wrong button when communicating with the pilot.
At other times, bombsight malfunctions or human error would result in the bombs of a lead ship failing to release. This meant a second run over the target for that particular flight with the lead bombardier anxiously checking his switches and the German flak batteries giving the lone flight their undivided attention.
The position of the aircraft in the formation determined the number of crewmembers. The crews of lead aircraft were augmented with a navigator and a "G-box" operator. Since bombardiers would often be assigned as navigators on these augmented crews, aircraft in the wing positions of the formation would frequently carry an airman in the nose position. We had been trained to arm the bombs, set the intervalometer and manually release the bombs when the lead aircraft dropped.
The lead crews developed a high degree of coordination and teamwork in their combined efforts to improve their C.E., or circular error. New and less experienced crews were generally assigned to the wing positions in the formations.
Early in 1945, 1 had absorbed sufficient "on the job training" to be
considered a qualified First Pilot. By this time our crew had been designated
as a lead crew and was only scheduled to fly every third or fourth mission.
This meant that I could fly additional missions on the "off" days with
so called "make up crews", while continuing to fly as a co-pilot on the
|The Squadron Monthly Reports do not list the names of airmen as members
of crews, but individually. Aircraft losses, whether by accident or due
to an operational mission, are also omitted from the MR's. Another practice
that the researcher of today finds troublesome was the habit of the squadron
clerks to use an airman's initials, rather than his full first name when
the airman becomes a casualty; i.e. KIA, MIA, or WIA. In several instances,
these casualty lists were the only M/F records that the airman was a member
of the squadron.
A further complication was the practice of using volunteer ground personnel as replacements for an absent aerial gunner. These volunteer GP's (ground personnel) were mostly unrecorded and unknown, unless they became a casualty (as was the case with one assistant crew chief). Many of these unsung replacement gunners may have earned Air Medals, left unclaimed because of the spur of the moment need for their services that was not recorded. These GP's took over vital gun positions on short notice, and allowed the assigned crew to complete its sortie, rather than abort because of the sudden absence of one of the crew's gunners.
At other times, technically unauthorized ground personnel were assigned as "crew members" (sightseers) to fulfill their desire for the coveted Air Medal; awarded to the airman who participated in five combat sorties. On several occasions, the GP's involved in these technically unauthorized flights paid the supreme price. In almost every instance of T.U. participation in combat missions by these "crew members", once they were awarded the Air Medal, they did not "volunteer" for additional missions. A luxury the qualified airman, whose skills were required to man the B-26 in combat, did not have.
– Peter Crouchman, Alan Crouchman, Robert C. Allen, William J. Thompson, Jr., 556th Bomb. Squadron, B-26 Marauder Reference and Operations Guide, p. 46.
|Continual training was part of the airmen's life under Colonel Grover
Brown, C.O. of the 387th BG. He introduced a rigorous schedule of training
to improve all phases of the airmen's efficiency; i.e. bombing, navigation,
night flying, refesher courses in gunnery, radio, GEE procedure's, etc.
Colonel Brown's programs led to marked improvements in the Group's operations.
– Peter Crouchman, Alan Crouchman, Robert C. Allen, William J. Thompson, Jr., 556th Bomb. Squadron, B-26 Marauder Reference and Operations Guide, p. 50.
|Most replacement aircraft were usually given names by the pilot--and
his crew--that the plane was assigned* to, but seldom were these names
painted on the ship. This was always a mystery to me? Thinking back, I'm
inclined to believe that the ground crew that maintained the aircraft had
a big influence on whether the ship was adorned with the name chosen by
the pilot, or one that they preferred.
By the time the 387th BG moved from its original overseas base at Chipping Onger, to its transitory base at Stoney Cross, the turnover in veteran air crews had begun. The close knit ties that had been woven between air and ground personnel, during the founding and training days of the squadron and Group, were being broken up by the influx of "the replacements."
For most of the ground personnel, whose skills were required until war's end, this transition was taken in stride. But, for others, it took much longer to accept the "new men." This was understandable. I do believe, however, that by VE-day even the most dubious veteran became convinced that "the replacements" were indeed "satisfactory."
(*) No air force could, or can, afford the luxury of one aircraft for the exclusive use of one pilot and crew. Being "assigned" a plane meant it was usually yours to name, and your preference to fly on missions, if available. Having a aircraft "assigned" to your crew was a big morale booster, a status symbol as a squadron veteran. In the early days, the pilots and crews did pretty much fly their own planes during combat missions, but the constant repair and maintenance required to the planes, plus the strain on the air crews of daily sorties, soon made this practice nonrealistic.
The early B-26B's in the 387th BG were the original planes flown overseas by the cadre of the flight personnel. These planes were picked up at Selfridge Field, and for the most part, the ships were adorned with their new names at that time. Overseas, as the deadly business of air warfare progressed, getting the planes airborne, and on target, became top priority, regardless of who flew them.
– William J. Thompson, Jr., 556th Bomb. Squadron, B-26 Marauder Reference and Operations Guide, p. 67.
| The aircrews hated the weather
over England and the Continent. The first task that confronted everyone
was that of insuring that the aircraft were free of frost and ice and that
they stayed that way until take-off. Once airborne, there ususally was
an instrument climb through a heavy overcast to form up "on top." The climb,
itself, was usually hazardous as the freezing level normally extended from
close to the ground to well up into the clouds where heavy snow might be
encountered. Adding to the dangers in the climb out, aircraft often overtook
other aircraft of its own unit or encountered aircraft of other units descending.2
It was truly amazing that more mid-air collisions were not encountered.
The statistics, although good under the circumstances, were hardly comforting
to the aircrews as they blindly "bored up through the shit." Typical of
these climb-out problems, on March 11th , S/Sgt Eulon C. Bell, Tail-Gunner
on Capt. Clifford D. Gohdes' aircraft, "hit the silk" when he thought his
ice-covered Marauder had slopped into a spin as it nosed down north of
Once on top, the Pilot and
aircrew had to find the leader in a sky that could be filled with hundreds
if not thousands of aircraft milling around and filling the sky with identification
flares. Making the "on top" rendezvous especially hazardous was usually
poor visibility, coupled with intermittent layered clouds or cloud build-ups.
More often than anyone liked, aircraft would arrive on top and then not
be able to locate their unit and have to return to base.
2In early March , both the 344BG and 387BG had weather related mid-air collisions.
– John O. Moench, Maj. Gen., USAF, Marauder Men, p. 152.
|By the end of August, four Marauder Groups were operating out of England:
the 322nd, the 323rd, the 386th and the 387th. Arriving with the worst
of reputations and a skepticism that the aircraft would never make it in
the rough northern European combat environment, the experience to date
was leading to a reassessment.
To the south, Gen. Brereton was secretly advised that the Ninth Air Force Headquarters, including the bomber and fighter commands, were to be transferred to England to take command of the tactical air elements of the Eighth Air Force. Marauder operations were obviously heating up.
In the meantime, those who kept and pondered over statistics were now calculating that the survival rate for a B-26 aircrew was 37.75 missions compared to 17.74 for a B-17 aircrew. Contributing to these differences were the enemy tactics that led to a concentration of fighters on the heavy bombers while, in most cases, avoiding Marauders. On the other hand, the B-26s, flying at much lower altitudes than the heavies, were better targets for the German flak gunners, particularly those fierce 88 MM guns whose most effective zone of fire was considered to be between 10,000 and 20,000 feet. (Many aircrews of the heavies would hold to just the reverse, alleging that their higher damage to flak resulted from their higher altitude making them a better target.)
– John O. Moench, Maj. Gen., USAF, Marauder Men, p. 60.
[Comment on this passage: The Marauders didn't penetrate as far as the heavies and so were over enemy territory for less time per mission; comparing survival rates on a "time over enemy territory" basis eliminates much of the difference. As to the concentration of fighters against heavy bombers: shorter penetrations also meant that there was less time for enemy fighters to respond and that it was very difficult to send the same fighters against the same mission twice, as was done for the heavies (once on the way in, once on the way out). Shorter penetrations also meant better escort coverage. Finally, the B-26s were smaller and faster; the handling characteristics that made them harder to fly also made it harder for an individual fighter to make as many passes against them (although the lower altitude of the mediums did give the fighters an additional advantage on their initial attack).]
| By the beginning of 1945 most
of the Ninth Air Force was stationed in France. To keep the Marauders flying
over targets in Germany even in bad weather, the airmen adopted a technique
first used by the Germans for night bombing of London during the Blitz.
Specially equipped Pathfinder planes would lead the B-26s. The Pathfinder
would follow a radio beam that would take it to the target. Along the way
various radio signals from other stations in France told the Pathfinder
where he was with respect to the drop point. It made fairly accurate bombing
possible--when everything worked--but it had disadvantages. As Lt. Ned
Grubb explained it, "The IP was located 25 or 30 miles from the target
in order to allow time for the Pathfinder pilot to 'bracket' the beam and
nail it down for an accurate run. This resulted in a much longer-than-usual
straight flight path to the target, which was most unpopular with the pilots
behind as it provided a better-than-usual opportunity for the enemy gunners
to set up their flak patterns.
But it also allowed the Marauders to bomb through snow and cloud, so as Grubb pointed out, "The enemy now had to worry about bombing attacks during rotten weather--a time that up to now was a period of relative relaxation, when they could attend to the maintenance of flak guns, aircraft, etc., and possibly get some rest." If everything worked--of course it seldome did--the system was amazingly accurate. The circle of error was only 300 feet.
When the skies were clear enough, the P-47s stationed in France provided fighter escort for the B-26s. Prior to the bomb run, half of the escorting force would orbit above the bomber formation as top cover, while the other half peeled off to dive-bomb the 88mm batteries. At first this was successful, but the Germans adjusted. They held their fire until the bomb run had begun. The P-47s then had no way of knowing the exact location of the 88s, because of smoke, and they couldn't risk getting hit by the falling bombs, so they had to wait until the bombs had hit. Then they would go in again. B-26 pilot J. K. Havener commented, "The courage of these fighter jockeys diving right into the maws of 88s spewing out lethal shells is beyond description."
– Stephen E. Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers, pp. 304-305.