Eugene Spearman, radio operator with the 384th Bomb Group, shares the last of his great stories of life in the 384th Bomb Group during WWII. He starts with the formation of his crew at Avon Park, Florida, and ends with his return trip to the United States. In between, Eugene revisits some of his previous stories and shares some new ones.
The four giant engines roared as we raced down the runway. This runway ended at the very edge of the lake. It was September 1944 and crew 56 was taking off on their first flight since they had banded together as a crew in Avon Park, Florida. Lt. Edwin Nicolai was the pilot and Lt. Ross was the copilot. All knew that we had four or five months of operational training to complete before we would be sent into combat. During that four months we made practice bombing runs, checking the skills of our bombardier, Lt. Robitzki, as well as cross-country missions testing the skills of our navigator, F/O Gilbert Parker. Also, practice missions were made where the accuracy of the gunnery crew could be checked. Under the leadership of our pilot, we were inspired to do our jobs so that the missions would be successful.
In January of 1945, we arrived at Hunter Field, Georgia, where we were given a new B-17. We flew from there to Dow Field, Maine, after buzzing the home of Lt. Robitzki on Staten Island; then on to Goose Bay, Labrador. There the snow was so deep that we had only a few inches of light above the top of the outside windows. Canadian ski troops dressed in white operated around the air base.
After a few days we took off on the snow-cleared runway, only to have a wing tip hit the snow bank on the edge of the runway. We made it into the air, but had to land again to check for structural damage. After a couple of days we again took off and headed to Rekyavick, Iceland. There I was assigned guard duty on the cold, damp, rocky side of the airport near the ocean, to guard our plane. There were no trees or grass anywhere in sight. Next we flew on to Edinberg, Scotland, where we left our new B-17 and took trucks on a long, cold ride down to a distribution center near Birmingham, England, called Stone, England. After a few days we were assigned to the 384th bomb group and 544th squadron base 106, at Kettering, England near Northampton in the Midlands.
We enlisted men were assigned to a little quonset hut where other crewmen were assigned. Some of the other crewmen in the hut had flown from one to 34 missions and had plenty of stories to tell about different targets in Germany that they had bombed and about flak and fighter planes they had faced in bombing the target.
Our trips to the flight line and mess hall were made on little English bikes. These we acquired by going down to the flight line and getting one that a previous crew member who failed to make the return flight from over Germany had left.
One crew member near my bunk was superstitious and wore the same socks on every mission. Another also wore the same overalls. Another insisted he had completed his required 35 missions, but operations personnel records showed he had only completed 34, so when he refused to fly the next mission, he was put on AWOL, and was assigned to garbage detail at the base.
It seemed like the weather was always rainy and cloudy. This made the take off and getting into formation a real challenge. On our first attempt we were unsuccessful and had to abort the mission and drop our bombs in the North Sea.
By early February the missions came real often. Early in the morning, an operational sergeant would come into the little quonset hut and say, “Wake up, Spearman, you are flying in the Nicolai crew today. Be down at briefing at 4:00 am.” After the mission, we would be debriefed. There we were given a small glass of cognac to unwind and asked to tell about any unusual event we saw on the mission, such as enemy fighters, V2 rockets, B-17s falling, etc.
One thing that I was thankful for was that a minister or priest stood holding a Bible beside the runway just before we released the brakes and raced down the runway on every mission, rain or shine. On every mission there was flak, but as the missions added up, the sighting of enemy fighters seemed to decrease. Fighter escort by the P-51’s and P-47’s was always a welcome sight, but one friendly P-51 just got real close and slid almost into the space between the right wing and tail to wave at me. I was glad to see him move out a few feet. Most of the flak were dark puffs in the sky and especially over the target, but occasionally the white tracking flak would start closing in on us. This would cause the tail gunner or ball turret gunner to yell for me to throw out more chaff. Chaff was a bundle of little eight-inch aluminum strips that looked like more B-17s on the German radar.
The ball turret gunner, Pete Bongiorno, credited this chaff for saving my life over Dresden once. Most of the missions we received flak holes somewhere in the plane, but until the 3-19-45 mission to Plauen, our crew remained safe. On this mission, Lt. Robitzki, our bombardier, was asked to fly with the Lt. Kramer crew as lead bombardier. (Lt. Kramer’s plane was sighted over Belgium at about 11,000 ft. headed back to England after the mission. His plane never did get back to the base, and is presumed to have gone down in the English Channel).
On our 25th mission on an attack on the submarine pens at Bremen, the flak seemed to zero in on our plane, No. 42-32106. First one engine went out and then another. Flak hit the cockpit and slightly wounded the pilot and shatttered the plexiglass windshield. It would have wounded the copilot if he hadn’t just relinquished control of the plane. Flak struck the tail of the B-17 killing Sgt. Bill Pleeler, and knocked the waist gunner down and backward. Some two hundred holes were counted in the plane. One unexploded shell went throught the left wing just outside my station. The fabric was ripped off the trailing edge of the left wing. Later the waist gunner and I found the little piece of shrapnel that hit his flak vest on his right shoulder. Even though it was real small, Charles Whitworth kept it as a good luck symbol.
With two engines out, and losing altitude, our condition was extremely critical. Some of the control cables had been severed. Some thoughts were given of going to Sweden or Switzerland, but finally “Nick” dove the plane into some clouds and headed back toward England at an extremely low altitude. Since I grew up on a farm in Mississippi, I could relate to what I saw just below the crippled B-17. There was a farmer plowing two horses single file just below us and the plane had caused his horses to “run away” [made him lose control of them]. Except for the skill shown by the pilot and navigator during this mission, and the durability of the plane, we would have crashed. I had witnessed other planes firing the red flares on the return to the air base, but this time we were the ones firing the red flares to indicate killed in action or wounded on board.
On one of our missions we were to bomb an airbase in Germany at a lower than usual altitude, around 19,000 ft. Since they, at briefing, had told us there was to be no flak, I decided to remove my flak suit and stand up and watch the bombs fall on the target. Just as we released the bombs, several big black clouds of flak appeared and shook the plane. I immediately sat back down and put the flak suit on, resolving to not believe those briefing officers again.
I, along with the pilot and copilot, always wore a back parachute. The rest of the crew wore a front chute that snapped on when you got ready to jump out of the plane. After the morning briefing, you always were asked to pick up your parachute as you went out to the plane. On my last mission, when I was asked which chute I wanted, I requested my back chute and asked for and was given a front chute also. I really wanted to be prepared on that last mission.
After the morning briefing, we were given a chance to pick up a candy bar. I always chose a Milk Way candy bar and placed it on my radio table to eat only after the wheels touched down on the return to home base. On one mission just after we too off, the ball turret gunner, Peter Bongiorno, came by my station and before I could stop him, ate my candy bar. This was a major disaster to me, and I was afraid my luck had run out. I sure was glad when that mission was over.
After my missions, the pilot “Nick” and I were given orders to fly back to the States. After we had flown about eight hours, and while others on the flight back home were up near the cockpit, leaving me alone in the radio room the plane suddenly dropped violently and bounced me all around the radio room. My thoughts were that I had survived all those missions and now I would be killed returning home. Then the plane settled down and I made my way up to the cockpit, where they were laughing and celebrating because they had sighted the good ole USA.
Two of the original crew 56 members had made the round trip.*
- Edwin Nicolai, Pilot
- Eugene Spearman, Radio Operator
* Other members of the original crew came back to the States later in 1945.
© Eugene Spearman, 2016
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016