This was our most difficult and tragic mission. We got a nice new airplane for this raid, it was a beautiful day with clear weather predicted for the flight to and from the target. We got to the target without incident and made our bombing run.
Some explanation of the situation under which this raid took place is appropriate here. This was perhaps the biggest raid of the war, the 8th Air Force had about 1500 heavy bombers in the air, our fighter escorts were darting to and fro in the sky, the Germans had everything that would fly defending the city and the Russians on the Eastern front were close enough to Berlin that there were also Russian fighters flying in the area. Unoccupied Germany had been getting smaller and smaller and the majority of the German antiaircraft guns were known to have been withdrawn to the Berlin area and concentrated there for the defense of the city. Post war German accounts of this raid by fighter pilots of the German Air Force reveal that this attack on their capital city was the most fearsome they had experienced through the entire course of the war.
Once above the target, our lead pilot decided not to drop the bombs but to do a three hundred and sixty degree turn over the target and repeat the bombing run. He led the squadron in a slow turn to the left, directly over the area of the greatest concentration of AA batteries and over the region that we had been briefed by our intelligence officers to avoid. The sky was black with flak and fighters could be seen maneuvering in the distance. Aboard our airplane, the drama in the pilots's compartment and that in the gunnery part of the rear of the plane were like two different scenarios.
To understand what happened in the rear of the aircraft as we flew through this hail of flak, I quote from the diary of the waist gunner, Doug Mann.
"Everything went well until about five minutes before we dropped our bombs. I heard one piece of flak hit somewhere in the tail so I called Tex who replied that he was OK. A few minutes later we heard another burst of flak hit the airplane, I called Tex again and got no answer. By the time I crawled back to his position to see how he was, it was too late. A piece of flak had hit him in the back of the head and he must have died instantly. I dragged him from the tail to the waist of the airplane where I worked on him until I was sure that there was nothing more that could be done."
The ride back to the U.K. was the longest ride I have ever had. Flak was accurate and intense and although I was busy most of the time, I thought our number was up and this would surely be our last mission. This was the biggest raid of the war on Berlin but it wasn't worth the price we paid. I brought an entry in my diary to a close with a heavy heart, "Tex, we will try to pay them back a million times over. May God bless you as you rest in peace". To this day I don't know how Doug got back to the tail and brought Tex out without dying himself from loss of oxygen. That was the bravest act I can imagine and I have always admired Doug for his nerve and for his heroism.
While all this was going on in the back, up front we had our hands full with a different set of problems. As we approached the target Tex initiated an oxygen check (this was done every five minutes to be sure our oxygen supply was functioning correctly), I responded, "Pilot OK". This was the last time I ever heard his voice. Just about this time the vertical control column went slack. How can I describe this moment that is still so crystal clear in my memory? I knew that the control cable to the elevators had been severed. If the break was between the automatic pilot servo motors and the elevators, the plane would be out of control in seconds. I was all too aware of the "H" on my dog tags that would reveal my Jewishness to any German captors should I be lucky enough to get out of the airplane and survive a parachute jump into the battleground below me. How could we have been so stupid in flying over the worst of the AA concentrations?
All these thoughts were tumbling through my head in the fraction of a second it took for me to reach down to the automatic pilot, wonder if the automatic pilot was working and flip the toggle switch that engaged the elevators with the index finger of my right hand. Miracle of miracles, the vertical control engaged! We immediately dropped our bombs and closed the bomb doors. Meanwhile I had to drop down below the formation since by using the autopilot I had only enough control of the aircraft to keep it flying but not to maneuver it. During all this I was aware that Tex had been hit by the same burst of flak that cut the control cables but until we turned away from the target and the squadron headed west, I didn't know that he had been killed. My initial reaction was one of rage. If I had had only myself to think of I believe I would have taken my chances and just taken my airplane to the ground where I could have the gunners strafe the streets of the city with their 50 caliber machine guns.
After a few minutes I began thinking rationally again and focused on the problem at hand, that of landing the aircraft despite the damage the airplane had sustained. The plane could not be landed using the automatic pilot controls, trying to do so would only guarantee killing us all. Once we flew west far enough to be out of enemy territory and we dropped down to about 12,000 feet, Ellis took his oxygen mask off and located the exact break in the control cables. As we descended slowly on our way back to our home airbase, Ellis rigged a temporary connector between the two severed ends of the elevator control cable. This was done by taking a piece of heater cord (much like the toaster cords of the 50s) and tying it to the broken cables. We discussed the tactic to be adopted in trying to land the airplane. Ellis thought that once I got the airplane on the landing approach [which I could do using the autopilot] the only maneuver needed to be made was to gradually pull on the elevator controls in order to pull the nose of the plane up for landing as we lost speed, he could tighten the heater cord connection by twisting it with a 50 caliber shell and give me the needed control until we landed. We tried this while on the flight back and the makeshift connection seemed to hold, so this was the plan we adopted. We were a little nervous about this since if the heater cord broke at the wrong time, it meant a dangerous and disastrous crash.
I contacted the tower and had the field cleared for our landing which Ellis and I effected as planned, smoothly and without incident. After we had parked and Tex's body had been removed, the engineering officer for the 398th got on board to see what our problem was. I described the battle damage and the flight home using the automatic pilot controls and Ellis explained how he had made and tensioned the cable connection so that we could land. The reply of the engineering officer was astounding. "Can't be done," was all he said as he left the aircraft.
Today this experience is as vivid to me as it was all those years ago, I dream about it, I wake at night wondering if the automatic pilot will work and I dream of having the makeshift control cable break at the moment of landing and having the aircraft crash and burn.
From "The Youngest Crew" by Paul Wagner
Lagumo Press, Cheyenne, WY, 1997, ISBN 1-878117-18-1