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The Black Swan14337 Reads  Printer-friendly page

World War II A week or so before the December 31, 1943, mission, my crew, the Mendelsohn crew, was breaking apart. Our navigator, Bill Borellis, was promoted to the exalted position of 91st Bomb Group navigator; our bombardier, Harold Fox, (later to be killed in action over Hamburg) had applied for special training as a navigator and was leaving the crew, and the pilot, Stuart Mendelsohn, had been designated, but not yet officially installed, as the new operations officer of the 324th squadron. And I had just been checked out as first pilot and was about to take over what remained of our original crew.

As the 324th operations officer designate, Stuart spent his evenings in the squadron headquarters office, and I usually dropped in on him to see what was cooking for the next day. On the night of December 30, 1943, I found him scheduling crews for the next day's mission. When I walked into the office, he looked up and said, "I don't have a co-pilot for you yet. Do you mind if I go along with you as your co-pilot?" So that's how Stuart came to occupy the right seat during the mission. The psychology of our reversed roles would have been awkward except for the fact that we were already accustomed to shared decision-making so nothing was really different.

The December 31, 1943, mission to the Bordeaux-Cognac area of France was a long one -- a scheduled eleven hours from take-off to landing. At the 5:30 a.m. briefing, we were told that it would be an easy milk run. Because our crew's regular plane, the Duke of Paducah, was in the hanger for flak hole repairs, we were assigned a replacement, a B-17F, The Black Swan.

The mission was flown at 21,000 feet. Over the Bay of Biscay, a strong tail wind took us to the Bordeaux area much sooner than expected. That same wind, however, would greatly retard our trip home. Immediately after crossing the French coast, we encountered unexpectedly heavy and accurate enemy flak. A loud and powerful explosion suddenly rocked our plane sending it careening dangerously close to another B-17. The flak burst, with its bright orange center, exploded directly above the right wing, the big black cloud enveloping us momentarily as we passed through it. Shrapnel tore holes in the aluminum skin near Mendelsohn but no one was hit. But a moment later the number three engine froze and we were unable to feather the prop. Manifold pressure of the number four engine dropped sharply, an indication that the supercharger on that engine had been damaged as well. Even at full throttle, we couldn't maintain altitude. We fell behind, seeing the formation our 91st Bomb Group B-17s stream off ahead of us.

We reversed course, turning northwest back out over the Bay of Biscay. There we opened our bomb bay doors and released our bombs harmlessly over the water. With greatly compromised engine thrust, we assumed a limping, solitary, northerly course that we hoped would take us back to England. Our progress was slowed by a strong head wind. We estimated that it would take us two hours to reach the Brest Peninsula. We were still gradually losing altitude and there was nothing we could do about it. But when we reached the denser atmosphere at about 14,000 feet our altitude stabilized as we had hoped it would. Soon afterwards, however, the temperature gauge on our number one engine began to creep up. We throttled back and as a result began to lose altitude once again.

The over-heating had resulted from the extra-lean fuel mixture we'd set for engines one and two in order to save fuel. A richer fuel/air mixture would lower the engine temperature, but at the expense of increased fuel consumption. The combination of the unfeathered prop on engine three and the yawing to the left due to unbalanced engine thrust had created a heavy, fuel-depleting drag. We feared that we would have to ditch the plane in the Bay. Mendelsohn and I debated the wisdom of turning east again where, if we had to abandon the plane, we could parachute over dry land. This extreme measure was ruled out because we knew that at lower altitudes reciprocating engines (unlike jet engines) are more efficient. Also, in the denser air of lower altitudes, engine cooling improves and we would then be able to get more thrust from our over-heating number one engine. It seems implausible, I know, but of all the besetting concerns facing Mendelsohn and me during that long homeward journey, the thing I most clearly remember now in retrospect is how Mendelsohn and I constantly adjusted and fine-tuned the air/fuel ratio of engine one.

At about 10,000 feet we again stopped losing altitude. Our concerns over fuel had so absorbed us that we had given little thought to the 40-minute transit across the Brest Peninsula and the possibility of a fighter attack awaiting us there. During the two hours over the Bay, Mendelsohn and I had ample time to weigh our various options. Should we follow recommended procedures whereby straggling planes, having left formation, are to hit the deck -- that is, to fly over enemy territory at a low altitude where detection and tracking are more difficult? Or should we maintain our 10,000 feet altitude? Several considerations led us to decide to remain at that altitude. We thought it probable that we would run out of fuel somewhere over the Brest Peninsula. If so, we would need a safety margin of about a thousand feet if we had to bail out. But the real reason that we decided to remain at 10,000 feet was because we needed the altitude cushion. Our crippled B-17 simply wouldn't climb. Once we lost a bit of altitude, we couldn't, even with the two and a half engines at full throttle, regain it. Later, of course, I was to rue the fact that we didn't follow recommended procedures whereby pilots of straggling planes are instructed to return at tree-top level.

Finally, we reached the Brest Peninsula. And immediately we were attacked. In spite of intercom warnings to the crew to be vigilant, no one saw the two FW-190s until they appeared suddenly right in front of us. They came from the classic twelve o'clock high position, in tandem, one after the other. I saw the exploding 20 mm shells, small black puffs of smoke, before I saw the two FW-190s -- the black crosses starkly visible on the underside of their wings as they made a diving split-S turn directly ahead of us. The FW-190 pilots seemed to be inexperienced. Both had fired their guns much too early, unlike the fighter attacks we'd been subjected to over Germany where pilots held their fire until they almost rammed you. After that first pass the crew watched (and reported on the intercom) as the two FW-190s circled back out of range on our right. On their second frontal pass, they again fired their 20mm cannons prematurely. Because of this seeming ineptitude, I was beginning to feel a little more confident that we might escape. Then on the third pass, the lead FW-190 held fire until the last second. I knew we were going to get blasted. And we were.

Two or three (maybe more) shells crashed through the right cockpit window tearing the frame away. Exploding in the cockpit, the shells killed Mendelsohn instantly. Blood was spattered everywhere. Seeing it on my jacket and flight gloves, I thought I was hit, too. The wind coming through the large gap on the right side of the cockpit was deafening. But the plane itself seemed to be flyable except that I couldn't correct for a shallow dive to the left. The rudder seemed locked tight. I pushed the panic button signaling everybody to leave the plane. At least I think I did, but I don't remember doing it. I tried to get the plane straight and level but was unable to correct for the jammed left rudder. The wind-noise in the cockpit was un believably shrill, but the engines were running fine. Then, at about 3,000 feet in a moment of sudden panic I decided that I'd better get the hell out. I switched on the automatic pilot (in accordance with procedures for abandoning planes) and left the cockpit seat. I was surprised to see Richard Hensley, the engineer/top-turret-gunner, still there, sitting on the pedestal of the top turret gun. He didn't seem to be hurt. I gestured toward the open front escape hatch from which the bombardier and navigator had already exited. I then picked up a parachute pack to give him, but he refused it. He acknowledged nothing that I did. Then I realized that the plane was about to crash at any moment. I snapped on the same parachute pack I had offered to Hensley and dived through the open hatch.

I pulled the cord, the parachute opened and the next second I was on the ground on my knees. A hundred or so yards away, The Black Swan hit the ground at about the same time. I knew that Mendelsohn and Hensley were in it. Heavy black smoke soon marked the impact point. Far downwind, still high in the sky, I counted five parachutes of crew members who had bailed out earlier. Where were the other two crew members? (They too had gotten out safely, I would learn much later.) The two FW-190s were no where in sight.

Note: by Verne Woods, 91st BG


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