Life History of Ralph Julius Lauper

Chapter 6d

You Fly One!

By this time you know all about flying in combat. At this point I plan to take you through a mission, from start to finish. From the wake-up call to hit-the-sack time. I have selected a mission which includes just about all the drama, tension, and action to which a pilot could possibly be subjected. Better yet, you be the pilot!

May 10, 1944 --The Night Orderly shouts wake up time through the open flap of your tent. You rollout of your bunk, wash up in a small bucket of water, dress and head for the mess hall accompanied by your tent mates (Co-pilot, Navigator, and Bombardier). After a glance at the "menu" you walk out, you never did like breakfast anyway. A couple of the guys stay as you go back to the tent and putter around for a few minutes before making the short walk to the Briefing Room. You dropped by your Squadron's Operations Office on the way and saw by the schedule posted on the wall that you were leading your squadron (775th) that day.

As you enter the Briefing Room you spot Stan Dwyer, who is the best and closest friend you will ever have in the army. You sit by him and the two of you engage in some small talk between yourselves and a few others nearby. Neither one of you have any inkling that you are having the last visit you would ever have together.

Briefing begins shortly and soon the map is uncovered and groans accompany the appearance of a line showing from where you are, straight to your destination. Target, Munich. A dreadful place to go in wartime. Your stomach churns and adrenalin flows but you don't say much. As the group's watches are synchronized with the official time, received from headquarters in Bari, you notice that it is a few minutes past 0500 hours. Take-off time for you is to be 0615, with each plane following at 40 second intervals.

During the short ride to the flight line in the troop carrier truck no one says much. For the most part even the occasional attempts at sardonic humor fall pretty flat. You alight from the truck and hold a brief meeting with your crew - all of whom have completed their briefings, picked up their equipment and are awaiting your arrival to give them any needed instructions. Most of all, they want to know the target. Today's target evokes more than the usual comments and curses.

The Gunners check their guns and ammunition supply, the Radio Operator his radio and gun, the navigator his gun and equipment and the bombardier checks his bomb load, his guns and finally he plugs in his precious bombsight and sets it for action. The Flight Engineer checks them all and will report to you when you return from the equipment barn to which you have walked with the Co-pilot to pick up your equipment.

Your path takes you right past the flight line latrine. It's a 10-holer sitting without walls, astride an open trench. The prospects of a rough day have made the boys nervous. All seats are occupied with an S.R.O. line waiting. A couple of Italian women walk by on their way to morning work somewhere on the base. Neither they nor the sitting airmen pay the slightest attention to each other.

You arrived at the flight line wearing a wool-lined set of coat, pants and boots over your heavy shoes and brown zip-up coveralls, like the ones worn by flyers in 1991. At the barn you checkout a parachute, Mae West Life preserver, oxygen mask, flak jacket, plastic box containing a first aid kit right down to the vial of morphine with needle, and the escape kit. It contains maps of the area where you are going and also contains $50 in American currency. A throat microphone completes the list. You should already have your 45 caliber revolver and knife on your belt. A pair of tinted goggles, good ones, should be in your breast pocket.

The throat mike is actually 2 small mikes mounted on a loose-fitting but snug necklace which you will snap around your neck. A thin cord on the neck piece can be plugged into the plane's radio system. By then depressing a button on the steering wheel your voice sounds will come out loud and clear. Your beat up pilot hat tops off your sartorial eloquence. You are really loaded but airworthy and ready to fly. All items checked out are signed for, and checked back in at the end of each mission.

At the plane you walk around the outside, checking everything about it, listening to the Ground Crew Chiefs comments and asking questions as he walks around with you. The Chief has already seen to the filling of the gas tank, engine oil, oxygen, tire pressure and de-icier tank. He has also started and listened to each engine long before you arrived. At ten minutes before taxi time you and the Co-pilot run through the check list, with him reading every single line on the pre-flight card which hangs by his seat. You both listen to the engines very carefully to spot any potential problem.

At 0555 you enter the crowded taxi ramp leading to the head of the runway. Your squadron will be the third one of the four in the group so the taxi is slow. You still get to the runway at 06:12, where the Squadron in front of you is nearly airborne. You run the engines once more, at full speed with brakes on, before pulling onto the runway with 40 seconds to spare. You notify the tower that "Army 809 is ready for takeoff." You then begin to slowly inch the throttles forward with the brakes locked. The plane is jumping, shaking and roaring as the tower calls "Army 809, cleared to go!" "Roger and out," you reply as you release the brakes. The plane lurches forward and is soon in the air.

The rendezvous of all units is smooth, the day is bright and clear as the climb begins toward Munich, the 3rd most heavily defended target in the German Reich. At 10,000 ft you issue orders for the crew to don oxygen masks. Your mind drifts to thoughts of home, wife and family. After running around awhile it comes back to rest on the deadly preoccupation, occasioned by this mission and about what it will take to get there. You don't yet know the answer. Plenty!!

For diversion you listen to Axis Sally harangue for awhile. Radio silence is broken when someone yells over the airwaves, "Enemy at 5 o'clock high! Seven or eight of them." They make a couple of passes from too far away to do any harm. The P-51s arrive about that time, and the enemy head back in the general direction of Munich. In the Munich area they are joined by a large force of fighters. You see some bombers going down. The war is on!

Closer in to Munich the flak starts. The enemy is losing some planes but so are you, both fighters and bombers. In the next few minutes the 15th will lose 100 bombers. One thousand highly skilled airmen will be dead or captured and you will narrowly escape falling into one category or the other. As you start on the Bomb Run the flak becomes even more intense. You are running at 27,300 feet. Some groups are higher, and some are lower.

A few seconds later your plane shudders and behaves as if it had just slammed into a brick wall. It becomes sluggish and hard to handle. You must get damage assessment and fast! You feel certain that the nose has been hit and that those 2 guys have been wiped out. You call there first! Doc Evans, the Navigator comes on and says, "Bill is setting up the bombsight and they are O.K. Jack Haymaker leans over and taps you on the shoulder from his swivel seat right behind and gives his O.K. signal. The Radio Operator, the Turret Gunner hanging below the belly of the plane, and the two Waist Gunners all check in and give reports of some small holes near to them. That leaves only Little Louie Munoz from Fresno, CA who occupies the Stinger, sticking out the tail end. The Stinger is about 8 feet long and extends outward from a point directly below the tall vertical tail section (shark fin) and between the horizontal stabilizers. From his position Louie lies on his belly, fully prone atop comfortable installed pads and arm rests, firing his 2 guns nearly 90 degrees from side to side or, up and down.

Your calls to Munoz go unanswered. Whitey Kurowski, one of the Waist Gunners, cuts in, "Louie taint here no more!"

"Go back and look at the damage," you tell him in a calm voice. He straps on his little emergency walk-around oxygen bottle, good for about 15 minutes. He will report to you in a couple of minutes and tell you, "The tail is shot off. Some cables and lines are flying around. Everything is all twisted up back here. Louie's gone and you can crawl right out the back end!"

Much of what he tells you already knew. The Radio System is gummed up, the oxygen supply gauges on the instrument panel confirm that both lines have been severed and pressure is falling rapidly. The absence of fire on board surprises you somewhat. All the oxygen floating around and no fire, it's miraculous. More pressing than all the rest is the problem of control of the plane itself. The rudder and elevator are damaged and have some chunks torn out of them. One elevator control cable is shot away, soon you will have to slow down to prevent its complete break-up.

Weird things happen before and during the drop. Despite many problems your trained eye catches too much of the drama. Planes are blowing up. Some are afire, others are leaving the formation or going down for anyone of a dozen reasons. So many parachutes falling give the appearance of a snowstorm. One guy has a big fire at the back end of the cockpit. By the time he gets his crew out the only escape route left open to him is through his window. He smoothly negotiates the exit and stands there on the wing while holding on to the window for dear life. He had it made. A few seconds pass and he jumps. He then goes counter to all his training and makes a fatal mistake. Instead of waiting 20 seconds to pull his rip cord he pulls it as he jumps. His chute billows over the top of the horizontal stabilizers, his body passes beneath. He is beaten to death instantly, his body flapping leaf like against the planes elevator.

There develops a traffic jam over one area of the target and you witness one plane being blown up by the bombs dropping from a plane above it. Though some distance away, the explosion rocks your already troubled craft.

A saddening event occurs just before your group hits its' drop point. Stan has been hit! His plane is burning! He jettisons his bomb load and dives out of the formation in a wide sweeping turn. You remain outwardly calm and business like as you fight the plane through and past the drop point and then you go to work. You are only part way through this one and you know it.

By now your oxygen is barely flowing and you are starting to feel the effects of it. One engine oil gauge shows loss of pressure. Its heat gauge is rising to the danger point and you'll soon have to feather the prop and shut off the engine. Feathering is done by turning the prop blades to the front, to stop it from wind milling. You call your Deputy and Squadron Leaders to advise them of you leaving the formation due to severe damage. They both acknowledge, you now feather the No.2 prop and dive out of there.

Some enemy fighters had come right through the flak. The last thing Louie said on this earth was when he said there were 5 enemy fighters coming up from the rear. You know that they, in all probability, had seen what had happened and would come looking for you. Just imagine! A bomber with no tailguns! All shot up, on three engines and flying below normal speed! What a picnic!

They do come and they do find you but in the confusion they don't show up at 6 o'clock level until you get down to breathing level, around 14,000 ft. They come in on your tail in a line, peeling off and down. They are a flight of the famous "Yellow Noses." Their tactic is to allow only Jack's guns up in the top turret, and Joe Russos' guns down in the ball turret to get a clean shot at them. The B-17 is a tough airplane and just won't go down.

The Germans grow bolder. They split up and start hitting you from all angles. You know you must come up with something and quickly or it will all be just a question of time! You stumble onto a strategy which will prove to be a lifesaver. Some big white puffy clouds have formed up ahead. In desperation you head for the nearest one and plough right into it. After completing a few turns you come out the other side. You dive into the next cloud before the Germans can get off many square shots. Their next counter in the deadly chess game is to spread out and "cover the exits."

War, like chess, is a thinking mans game and you are thinking. You are trying to buy some time. Right now you are buying huge chunks of it. Even with the increased RPMs needed to sustain flight on three engines you calculate that you'll outlast those guys in those fighter planes by a big margin.

The fight continues down the Rhine into Yugoslavia. You can't speak German but you've been around long enough to learn that the man who is leading that Squadron is a Colonel. He is smart and is calling for help. He says they're running low of both fuel and ammunition. The main action is so involved elsewhere and so far way that he doesn't fare any better than you did when you called.

Your Gunners achieve notable success during the next half hour. You'll have a soft spot in your heart for big marshmallow clouds for the rest of your life. They only let you down one time, and it becomes near fatal. The cloud cover suddenly gives way and several of them jump you at close range. During the furious exchange of fire which ensues one fighter blows up while another falls back trailing smoke. The pilot flips the plane over onto its back, slides his canopy open, drops out and opens his chute. You think of your success as a mixed blessing. It makes the Colonel angry and frustrated. He heads straight for you and with his last two 2 buddies flying on his wings, comes right after you into the next clouds, with all three spraying lead from all of their guns. They set fire to the disabled engine but it extinguishes itself in 10 seconds or so.

You are thinking, "He almost got me!" You feel that he probably still may. One by one your crew reports, "Out of ammo!" Then a couple of wonderful things happen. Both of his wing men report that they are low on gas, he sends them home. You soon detect that his last pass was a desperate bid for him. It failed! He too ran out of ammo. He realized you don't have any firepower left. He slides up about 300 yards off, to test the water. He keeps sliding in closer until he's flying formation with you, right inside the bombers long wingspan. He's checking on the damage to your ship. He's out of ammo, but being a smart guy he's still got fuel and hopes to film your crash with his gun camera.

You watch your enemy lift his mask occasionally, to puff on his cigarette. Soon you are low enough and he takes his mask off. He's an extremely handsome young man. You judge him to be less than 25 years of age. He removes his cap, and you even admire his straight, blond hair.

In spite of the terrible circumstances which have briefly connected your two lives, you find yourself wishing you could shake hands, chat and exchange compliments. Instead, you both sit there, exchanging hand signals, he suggesting that you would eventually have to bailout, and you protesting in the negative and pointing to the bullet holes in his engine cover. You also point to the panel where his gauges are located. He is aware of that already, but this trophy is just too big to pass up. A clear picture of you going into crash would mean an Oak Leaf Cluster on his Iron Cross.

You reach down on a whim, pullout your 45, open your window and point it directly at him. You want to get his reaction. He doesn't even make a mock protest. He just throws his head back and laughs, which as about what you expect of him. There's no Rambo in either of you. You have absolutely nothing against each other personally, so why try to make something personal when it isn't? You toss your gun over your shoulder onto the floor of the catwalk.

Your friend has been growing increasingly concerned with his dwindling supply of fuel. A couple of times he drops back and inspects your plane from various angles. Each turn of the propeller means that much farther from home for him. The same turn of the prop means that much closer for you.

After one more short battle of hand signals, he whips the fighter out in a wide turn and comes up behind you. The crew has been advised to report his every move. Suddenly one of them calls, "He's coming underneath like a bat out of ---!" He quickly appears in front of you, full throttle, pulls his plane into a straight vertical climb, looks back over his shoulder from less than 50 feet ahead and gives you a salute! You return it and the private war is over as he heads back to his base.

Now to get home. Doc Evans works a few minutes and comes up with a heading of 272 degrees --almost due west. Given the general circumstances plus the uncertain condition of your plane you feel that prudence dictates the need of every precaution possible to you. You switch on your VHF (very high frequency) radio and call the International Distress Signal, "Mayday--Mayday--Mayday!" A British Rescue Station at Malta picks up your signal and responds. You relate your problems. You may have to jump at any moment! In less than a minute he and two other tracking stations, hundreds of miles from you and each other, have radared in on you and have drawn lines from you to them. Your exact location is where those 3 lines meet. He gives you the heading to the base as 273 degrees. Doc was right, you keep his figure!

To make a long story a bit shorter you do make it back by nursing things along. You cross the Adriatic Coast of Italy at 100 feet, calling the tower and requesting a cleared runway for a straight in approach from about 30 miles distant. All the others have long since landed. At least all have who were going to land there on that day.

As you run through the landing checklist you discover one of the tires has been shot out. You relay that news to a still surprised tower crew, all of whom had expected you to be M.I.A. (Missing in Action).

You land, nearly out of gas, on three over-heated engines, tail shot off, controls badly damaged, multiple machine gun and flak holes, and now a flat tire! This is not the first nor will it be the last tire failure you have, or will become subjected to. You can take this in stride. After all that has happened today, it's going to take a whole lot more than a shot-out tire to shake you up.

Siren screaming ambulances and fire engines follow you to your stop--midway down the runway and 100 yards off to the side. No further damage to plane and crew. It will require two full days and nights to get 809 back in flying condition.

In the mess hall you find a good supply of Spam and Fruit Cocktail. You wash your atrabine pills down with about a gallon of water. That will represent your body's total food and liquid intake for the day. Perspiration has been pouring off your body nearly the whole day. Your coveralls are wet and you must have dropped at least 15 pounds. As you enter your tent your blood pressure rises about as much as at any time during the mission. War makes people hard and a bunch of ghouls have gathered already to divide up the spoils. They have created several neat little piles of your clothing and some personal effects. They insist it is a joke. As they start to leave you remind them that you weren't supposed to be coming back so who was the joke supposed to be on? As a parting shot you add that you find their humor to be of the worst possible kind, at the worst possible time, and in the worst possible place.

You will soon get over it. You have flown a pretty rough mission. You have to wonder why many pray as you do, and they die. Many have loved ones, who have faith and pray for them as yours do for you, yet you live and they die. You have this day witnessed great destruction and loss of life. You can only suppose that your actions have caused many, perhaps 1,000s to die today. They all tried to live. Some may have even been LDS and you could have killed some of them. People you would have loved to sit beside, in Sacrament Meeting, and they died.

For your day's work, you will be decorated with the highest Air Force Medal: "The Distinguished Flying Cross". The citation will read, "For bravery and meritorious achievement against the enemy in intense combat. For completing an assignment, despite great and crippling damage to your aircraft, and exhibiting personal courage, without suffering further loss of life, or damage, to your plane." And all you wanted to do in the first place was to stay alive!

By 9 o'clock you are in your bunk, bone weary, and sleeping like a baby.

Come Again!

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