Sight of U.S. Bombs Dropping on Germany is Reporter’s Reward

Walter Cronkite

News-Herald (Franklin, PA)/February 27, 1943

FLYING FORTRESS BASE SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND, Feb. 27. It was a hell 25,000 feet above the earth, a hell of burning tracer bullets and bursting flak, of crippled Flying Fortresses and flaming German fighter planes.

I rode a Flying Fortress into the midst of it with the 5th U. S. Air Force on their raid on the Wilhelmshaven naval base in northwest Germany yesterday.

For two hours I sat through a vicious gun duel with twisting and turning Focke-Wulf 190 fighters and held tight while we dodged savage anti-aircraft fire. My reward was to see American bombs falling toward German soil.

Luck was with us and our Fortress came through the torrent without damage. Other formations caught the brunt of the fighter blows and we saw Fortresses and Liberators plucked from the flights around us. Altogether, seven planes are missing.

We knocked out our share of fighters, and as we swept back over the North Sea we saw great pillars of smoke pluming from the target area.

It was the first time correspondents had been permitted to accompany the Flying Fortresses or Liberators on any of their raids over Germany or occupied France. Eight reporters had qualified to go, but one was ill and another was aboard a ship which turned back because of technical difficulties.

We were skirting the Frisian Islands and still an hour from the target when our tail gunner, Staff Sgt. George W. Henderson, 22, of Columbus, Kan., sighted the first of the enemy fighters. Over the inter-communication system, he said:

“Six o clock” in aerial parlance meant directly behind the plane.

It didn’t take the fighters long to close in on us. Meanwhile, I was trying to scrape the frost from the windows in the plastic nose of the plane in order to see.

The fighters came toward us with guns spitting. We couldn’t hear them because of the noise of our own engines.

Our tail gunner was the first to open up. We could feel the vibrations set up by his rattling gun. Then the waist gunners, Sgt. Edward Z. Harmon, 33, of Talue Lake, Calif., and Staff Sgt. Duward L. Hinds, 23, of Los Angeles, Calif., took over.

Heck Balk, 22, of Temple, Tex., veteran of 10 missions, was banging away from the ball turret on the belly of the plane.

A spurt of flames immediately overhead disclosed that Tech. Sgt. Charles E. Zipfel, 22, of Sigel, Pa., had joined in from the top turret.

Then the enemy planes swept by and the bombardier and navigator in the nose of the Fortress began firing their guns. Clips of empty cartridges flew around the tiny compartment and the stench of burning powder filtered through our oxygen masks.

The bombardier, 1st Lieut. Albert W. Dieffenbach, 26, of Washington, D. C, turned around and lifted his thumb. That meant that our tracers had at least scared off the attacking enemy.

The anti-aircraft fire began as we started the bombing run into Wilhelmshaven and didn’t end until we had passed the last tiny peninsula of the continent.

The first flak broke some distance below and to the left of us. There were tiny bursts of flame and small puffs of black smoke that gradually grew larger as the wind dispersed them. It surprised me not to be able to hear the burst.

Then bursts appeared in front of us; then to the right and not nearly so far away.

The crew told me that there was not much danger that flak would knock down a ship by itself, but once a ship has been damaged and is forced to drop out of formation, the enemy fighters gang up on it and hit it like kids on a merry-go-round plucking for the brass ring.

I saw one bomber several thousand feet below, under control but obviously damaged by anti-aircraft fire. Seven enemy fighters circled it, giving it burst after burst.

We had our share of enemy fighters. About 10 were almost constantly within attack range throughout the two-hour fight. With scarcely a pause someone on the ship was calling out over the inter-communication phone the position of an approaching enemy.

“Six o clock low.” “Four o clock high.” “Two o’clock high.”

“The — — — is coming in.” “Get on him! Give him a burst. Keep him out there.”

As our guns shook the plane, the voice of the skipper. Capt. Glenn E. Hagenbuch, 21, of Utica, Ill., rang out:

“That’s scaring him off, boys. He won’t be back for a while. Nice work.”

Your first impression of an oncoming enemy fighter is similar to your first impression of flak—nothing much to frighten you. You can’t see his guns firing and you seldom see his bullets spurt by. You just know he’s firing on you.

Once I saw a budy plummet by. The parachute finally blossomed out below. Later I saw a Nazi pilot bail out and his Focke Wulf spiral down toward the sea.

We saw Wilhelmshaven through broken clouds. It looked like a toy village from 26,000 feet.

The, planes ahead were the first to drop their bombs. The “eggs” were plenty hideous looking as they began what appeared a slow descent to earth.

Then Dieffenbach’s left hand went out to the switch panel alongside him and almost imperceptibly he touched the button.

“Bomb away!” He said calmly over the inter-communication system.

That was it: Our mission had been accomplished.

It was a letdown. I couldn’t see our own bombs falling and even our ball turret gunner was unable to see them hit the ground because of our extreme height.

I did see some bombs hurtling down, however, from almost immediately above us from another formation. They came so close to our wings that I almost could read the inscription on them. The crew members bluntly expressed their opinions over the inter-communication phone.

The trip back borne was almost an anti-climax.

(Source: https://www.newspapers.com/image/53771204)

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