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Hall, Eugene H. - S/Sgt

Page discussion for Hall, Eugene H. - S/Sgt
== My First Mission ==2015/08/18 02:43 by Allen Hall
Not the glamorous fighter pilot job he had hoped for ... and worse yet the survival rate for the aircrews were terrible. From "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner". This is a five-line poem by Randall Jarrell published in 1945. It is about the death of a gunner in a Sperry ball turret on a World War II American bomber aircraft.

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

A poem that speaks the truth of the gruesome reality. In my case they didn't do so well on their cleaning as I could still see bits of flesh imbedded in the cracks of the ball turret from someone who didn't make it through their 25 or 30 or 35 missions. With a 4% attrition rate in late 1943 your life expectancy for 25 missions was essentially zero... ... that's what the math shows you ..Yet this was a massive improvement in the odds from earlier in 1943.. as the tide of war in Europe started to favor the allies and we began to dominate the air-war the attrition or loss rate per mission improved . The leadership being aware of this had started to ramp up the war in the Pacific by drawing down resources in Europe. We were told our crew would drop from 10 to 9. The choice of who was to leave the crew left to us. We choose S/Sgt. Robert Milhone, who was then assigned to another crew. This was the reason I ended up in the Ball Turret, everyone else in my crew was bigger than I was. The other changes were that the missions for a tour of duty went from 25 to 35. This was to take advantage of the lower loss rate by extending the number of mission we saw in combat which kept the odds of survival just as ugly as they were in 1943. In late September of 1944, our crew assignment came through. We were to fly a new B-17 from Lincoln Nebraska to the UK as a replacement crew. Our route from Lincoln first took us to Grenier Field, New Hampshire. There were now a total of 59 B-17's and one B-24 that left that night as a heavy snow storm was arriving. Our next stop on the way was Goose Bay Labrador for refueling. The formation then flew out over the North Atlantic and over Greenland to our next destination, Meeks Field, Iceland where we would have a layover of a couple of days. Then from Iceland to Holyhead Wales where we would get final deployment instructions within the UK. Up until recently I had never even flown before, so you can imagine what a young boy was feeling, traveling to another country 1000’s of miles away from home and anything familiar. Flying in a brand new state of the art Heavy Bomber, a spectacular B-17. My confidence buoyed by the bonding and trust we shared between us as a crew. The past couple of months of working as a crew gave us all some sense of belonging. The truth was that it was a totally new experience for all of us, without a parallel to compare it to. It was an exciting and terrifying time all at once for all of us. The weather for our trip to Europe added to the terror, it was a rough ride. There was intense solar activity which made for amazing northern lights with some added St Elmo’s fire we could see dancing over the leading edges of all the aircraft in formation with us. There were nearly 5 dozen B-17’s in route with us, all flying in formation as we had been trained to do back in the states. Most of the crews we had never met before but there were a few friendly faces and even a couple of guys I now considered friends. Guys that I had spent a lot of time with prior to our crew assignments as we had shared a common course of instructions in our initial training and gunnery schooling. The new B-17’s were in great shape but we were warned that there had been some mechanical problems with the new planes in the past, they were making them like gangbusters, so not all of them got every bug worked out during their post-production flight testing. So we kept our eyes and ears open, and so far so good, we were on schedule with no surprises. Over Greenland we received a brief distress call from one of the aircraft in our formation. All we knew was what we heard briefly on the radio as they dropped from formation over Greenland at 29,000 ft. Total loss of power on all 4 engines, they were never heard from again. As the aircraft dropped from formation it immediately went silent. Some sort of catastrophic electrical failure is all we could figure, well that is what we were guessing. It was a tough way to start, we had lost one crew, and I had lost my first friend to the war, "Popolarian". He was a member of the ill-fated crew. This was my first taste of the cold reality of the war. It was the first of many tastes that would change me forever. We landed the Aircraft at Meeks Field incredibly hard, just about broke the new aircraft in half and us as well with it. The aircraft struts it seems had not been pressurized correctly, so we effectively landed the aircraft with the struts riding against their stops. The mechanics at Meeks Field couldn’t do anything about it. The required tools they needed were at the bottom of the Atlantic, the victim of a U-boat attack the week previous. So we had a rough take off from meeks and an even rougher landing to survive awaiting us at Holyhead. We arrived in Holyhead and received our instructions to report to Deenethorpe for our permanent crew assignment, we were told to hitch a ride on a military ground transport that was heading that way. Imagine my surprise when they took our shiny new B-17 away. I had thought that was our newly assigned aircraft, apparently we were just brief care takers in charge of its delivery. Once we arrived at Deenethorpe and had a summary introduction we were assigned sleeping quarters. I made the brief acquaintances of a seasoned crew who was enjoyed giving the new guy a friendly hard time. It was not unexpected as they pointed to the only bunk available, an apparently loathed top bunk..... They said all the new guys get the top bunks, you will earn the right to a lower bunk soon enough though. They were ok guys, I could tell I would like them and I felt comfortable with them almost immediately. Well at least as much as I could, having just arrived and still reeling a bit from it all while trying to shake off a nagging sense of shock that kept creeping over me at times. Apparently they were getting ready for a mission, they all had to be up at 3:00 AM, which was the routine. You could sense some apprehension in their manners and conversations between each other but I didn’t know them. I didn’t know how I would feel exactly before my first mission, but I that wouldn’t last long as my first mission was only a few days away. The next morning a lieutenant came in and informed me that I could pick a lower bunk now if I wanted to. The boys I had met the night before were all believed to be dead, lost over Germany, taking a direct flack hit, they dropped from formation on fire, spiraling wildly down through the clouds. The fire and smoke from the aircraft leaving an eerie glowing trail as they slowly disappeared from site.... no chutes were reported. Obviously I didn't see them myself, but in my 35 upcoming missions, I saw so many others, way too many others. I know what it was like for them, I know what it was always like for all of us. Quickly, it was becoming clear, things were not going to work out the way he planned. Instead of flight school to become a pilot he was directed to gunnery school where he learned the bare essential skills required to operate the twin Browning M2 .50 caliber machine guns found in the ball turret of a B-17. Not the glamorous fighter pilot job he had hoped for ...

42-39993 - " Hell's Angel Out of Chute 13"

My first mission was nearly my last.

It could have been right out of a Hollywood movie. A new crew on its first combat mission is accompanied by a seasoned officer flying copilot. In our case, it was Lt. Ralph W. (Rainbow) Trout who I met again at the 1980, 401st Reunion in Savannah, Georgia. Rainbow upon seeing our crew he exclaimed, "You almost got me killed on that mission!" Sunday, October 15th, 1944, my first mission…. and it scared the hell out of me. The mission briefing took place at 0300 hours, and all operational aircraft were airborne by 0704 hours. My crew was assigned to the Lockheed B-17G S/N 42-39993 Hell’s Angel Out of Chute 13. The target was the railroad marshalling yards in Cologne, Germany. The 401st provided three 12 ship squadrons to make up the 94th Combat Wing "A" unit. The Group also led the 1st Division on this mission, with Colonel Bowman as Air Commander. While the Lead and Lows Squadrons were forced to bomb using PFF (radar) techniques because of heavy cloud cover, but some of the crews were able to see and confirm the strikes on the Cologne marshalling yards through the occasional break in the clouds. As we approached Cologne with 10/10 clouds under us the sky filled with black puffs of flak, some so close by that the plane would buffet from the exploding flak with a loud WOOF! Our PFF (radar) told us that Cologne was hidden by the clouds below us. Suddenly the clouds opened and what I saw was an image from my 4th grade geography book at the Orange Township School in Waterloo, Iowa. An aerial view of the dark medieval twin towers of the Cologne Cathedral. Next to which was a railroad suspension bridge that connected to the railroad marshaling yards across the Rhine River.

As a ball turret gunner, I had an excellent view of the squadrons bombing runs. Being strapped in a glass ball on the underside of a B-17 gave me a unique vantage point and a very unnerving one when being fired upon from below. I could see the bomb bay doors open on my aircraft with all the details intimately and to a lesser degree I had the same view for all the aircraft in the squadron. At the bombardiers cue all the aircraft would release their bombs onto whatever doomed target we had been assigned. Below me now I could see enormous clouds of spray ensuing as the bombs did their damage and the bridge came down into the Rhine. The flak began to intensify with notable accuracy as the plane lurched suddenly. We had taken a direct hit in the number 3 engine. Looking from my vantage point, I could see the underside of the wing was coated with oil. Now smoke and oil were increasing and then fire started streaming from the engine as we dropped like a rock out of formation at 25,000 feet down through the clouds below. We managed to regain control and leveled off at 5000 feet, a bit too close to the now clearly detailed farmland below us. First Officer Knuese, our navigator, announced that we were over unoccupied France. With that relief and the reduced altitude we removed our oxygen masks and started to tour the damage. Then, a few minutes later, a somewhat more excited First Officer Knuese announced that he had made a mistake – we were not over France, but instead we were heading back into Germany! Our wounded B-17 labored to make a U-turn, we were losing altitude. We had to make the aircraft lighter, so anything that could be thrown out of the B-17 was thrown out onto the fields below. If we were lucky and did not get shot down in the next few minutes, we might make it all the way back ... across the English Channel and back to Deenthorpe. We arrived, hours after everyone else, noting that our crew was reported as shot down over the target – no parachutes. A tradition at our airbase and as well at many others, was to give each man was a shot of whiskey to help settle our strained nerves before we were debriefed. With the whiskey’s warmth still soaking into me, I reflected upon the events of the day. I was just 19 by 2 months and found myself facing my own mortality for the first time. At that moment a chilling awareness crept over me... "I didn’t think it was possible for me to make it through my tour of duty alive.”

Excerpts from crew Commander Julian Roadman’s account of the mission:

“No. 3 engine was struck by flack and caused a massive oil leak. The oil flowed to the rear and down onto the red hot super charger and caught fire, I shut off that engine's ignition and fuel and pushed the feather buttons however there was insufficient oil left to feather the propeller. The prop wind milled at dangerously high speed while the oil pressure slowly dropped. Fearing that the engine would seize from lack of oil, I ordered everyone into their parachutes and the navigator and bombardier to the rear of the ship. I then attempted to force the over speeding propeller to break away from the ship by diving and putting the engine back into operation, but the engine did not seize. We were flying alone and returning to England in a strong headwind. I was flying the ship at 115MPH (just above the stall speed) because of the over-speeding propeller. Our experienced co-pilot, Rainbow Trout recommended that we bail-out, as we were in jeopardy of being intercepted by enemy fighters at any time. However there were no enemy aircrafts in sight and we were heading for friendly lines. The ship was holding together and maintaining altitude albeit at a minimum speed and we had sufficient to fuel to reach England. Hence I reasoned that we were not yet in sufficient danger to abandon ship. Conditions did not deteriorate further and we landed at Deenthorpe an hour after the rest of our formation. I was told the ship's damage included about 400 flack holes.”

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