Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Lieutenant Colonel James Wirth. Wirth served as a togglier in a B-17 bomber during WWII.
James W. Wirth:
Well, of course, the Eighth Air Force first got to England in 1942. Very small, flew a few missions into France early on in '42. Late '42, they finally went to Germany for a mission. Thought the possibility existed that when the force was finally assembled, that they'd be able to bomb Germany in daylight with precision methods, using formations of airplanes, and would be able to fight their way into the target and out of the target because of the armament that was in the airplane. After all, it was very heavily armed with at the least 10 .50 caliber machine guns. And they really felt in order to accomplish the daylight mission that they needed to accomplish, to compliment what the British were doing at night, and to prove daylight bombing as a strategy, they felt it was essential to assemble a mighty force, which they finally were able to put together by the 1st of January, 1944 when they were, the first time, able to launch what they call the thousand-bomber raids over Germany.
Deep penetrations into Germany were soon discovered to produce tremendous losses due to the coordinated attacks by German fighters, daylight fighters. Our own P-47s and P-38s, being limited in range, could only spend probably the maximum of 30 minutes over the continent itself, much less over Germany. And then in order to attack German targets, they realized that we're going to have to successfully build, produce in great numbers, a fighter aircraft capable of going all the way to the target, particularly when we started penetrating deeply into Germany.
The early missions, my squadron particularly had great success. At one period, they went six solid months in 1943 without losing an airplane. The other squadrons in the wing lost airplanes. And we had one squadron, the 367th, which we called Clay Pigeons, which had the reputation of losing airplanes on every mission no matter what. I ran a statistical analysis of it up through March of 1944, the only facts I had available, and I found that actually the 368th Squadron and the 369th Squadron, of which I was a member, had more losses of personnel than the 367th Squadron had over the period analyzed with the 423rd Squadron, the safest squadron to fly in. There was no general statistical difference in positions of the commissioned members of the crew, that's just casualties, from my analysis.
Typically for a new crew, the mission would start at three o'clock in the morning when the Charge of Quarters would wake up the various crew members and tell them that they were scheduled to fly on the mission. Get up, get dressed. I always shaved the night before because I found that if I shaved that time of day, by the time I'd had the oxygen mask on for eight hours or nine hours, my face was raw from it. But anyway, and we'd go out and get into a truck and they'd take us to the mess. Breakfast, which normally in those days in the fall of '43 would consist of spam, toast, coffee, and sometimes an egg, fried. And subsequent to the mission we always got two eggs. Then from the mess, we'd go down to briefing.
Now, there'd be a general briefing, which you've seen pictures of and that's covered exactly. They do just what they do in the movies. And then we'd go to specialized briefings, the bombardiers do a specialized briefing, navigators do a specialized briefing, gunners, radio operators, pilots and copilots all had their specialized briefings. Then we'd draw our personal equipment, our helmets, our flack helmets, our leather helmets, our oxygen masks, our flack suits and our parachutes and go out and climb in the truck and go to the airplane. The bombardier's job, when he got to the airplane, his first thing he'd do is position his equipment and the bombardier's seat. And then starting at the rear of the aircraft, he'd check all the oxygen connections, all the oxygen bottles and all of the ammunition cans all the way to the front of the airplane.
As he passed through the bomb bay, which was very narrow with bombs on both sides, he'd check the bombs to make sure they were were fused, had safety wires and safety clips in the fuses. Then into the nose where he checked the ammunition. And I had never flew as a lead bombardier, so all I flew as is a togglier. I checked my position, checked my oxygen, so on, so forth, the range hole, my equipment and then get out of the airplane and wait until the engine start time, at which time, five minutes before we'd climb back into the airplane, start engines, taxi out in order and we knew what our order was. Normally from our hard stand, we waited until the airplane on the right went out from their hard stand, and then we'd go out from ours and then take off.
New crews normally got to fly in the high right position or following the lead aircraft in the squadron or in the second echelon of the formation, high squadron or low squadron, depending on where their squadron was flying. We were toggliers, in effect. We'd have one bombardier in the group lead airplane would synchronize on the target and we would release when his smokes came out from his airplane, why, we would release our bombs before we saw his bombs leave his bomb bay.
Now, the worst thing about flying in the winter over there is you're in complete darkness until you're almost completely formed up above the clouds. And in England in the wintertime, there were always clouds on takeoff. We'd take off in order, one airplane after the other.
On the 5th of January, I believe it was, could have been the 7th of January, we had an airplane explode on takeoff ahead of us. He'd cleared the runway and then about a mile out in front, he exploded, hit the ground apparently and exploded. And when we flew through that mess of fire and stuff burning on the ground while the airplane just humped, like the updraft of it. We formed up first in squadron and then with the group. Of course, we had identification on the airplane. Each airplane had certain markings on it so that you could identify your squadron, could identify the group. And then we had flares and we'd fire flares. We'd get the group and the wing formed before we cleared out over the English Channel. We always cleared out over a marker beacon, they called it. And going to Germany, unless we went up to Northern Germany, Bremen, Kiel, up in there, we always cleared in over Holland and almost always the same route into Holland because we knew where their flack batteries were and we would go between flack batteries.
Normally going into a target, we'd go at 20,000 feet and the indicated airspeed was 150 miles an hour, which would give you about, at 20,000 feet and those weather conditions, probably 230 miles an hour true air speed. We'd go to a pre-IP, an IP and a target, release the bombs, turn back and come home. It was always a great relief to release the bombs, for some reason. I guess you figured the job was really done. You go in for the United States and come back for your own good. The way home was always a long, long trip. It took a long time to get from the target area home.
The most frightened I ever was, was coming out of Ludwigshafen. One day we went down over northern France and coasted out over Normandy, that area. And about halfway across France, out the corner of my eye, I saw an ME-109 flying formation with us and it just scared me to death and I looked out and it was a spitfire. But the most frightened, that's the most actual fright that I ever felt.
It was exciting and very boring most of the time. It'd be moments of tremendous excitement and noise and unbelievable sounds from flack hitting the airplane, from people screaming over the airplane, calling off fighters, from the machine guns going off, and then the odor of that cordite powder burning, and so it would get very exciting.
Oh, well, we used to say that we'd go into the flack so the German fighters would leave us alone and we'd do that. Really, the fighters would leave. They wouldn't fly into their own flack. But in those days, early on, because the flack guns were not as accurate, precise, or as masked as they were later on when Germany was shrunken out of France and out of the Eastern Europe, Russia and so on, while they were really able to concentrate their firepower and flack became the terrible danger. But to us, flack was an irritant more than a danger. The fighters would decimate formations if they got themselves coordinated properly because they had the advantage. They knew when they were going to attack. We didn't know when they were going to attack, what direction they were going to attack. Coming out of the target, going west into the sun, you knew they were going to come out of the sun. Going east, they loved to have tail attacks because the sun would be behind them then, see.
I remember going in the [foreign language], particularly into Ludwigshafen and those areas, the flack was really bad. That is, there were a lot of smoke in the sky from the flack. We were hit by pieces of flack, but never damaged by flack, damaged by fighters.
What happened was the target, the briefing, and the specialized briefing were normal. There was no difference. We pre-flighted our airplane got in and started engines and we couldn't get an engine started. So we went to the spare, which was ready with the engines running. We just took all of our equipment, threw it out on the ground, jumped out and grabbed it. Ran to the next airplane, jumped in, taxied out, and got in formation. We had very little difficulty forming up. It was a nice morning, not very many clouds, and the formation formed beautifully. And we started across the channel and coasted in over Holland at 20,000 feet. We were heading for Halberstadt. It was our target. And about 30 minutes in to just clearing the Dutch border into Germany, why, the gunners in the rear called off fighters attacking from the rear. ME-110s, and they seemed to not press the attacks. They would fire from long range.
I saw two or three instances, by looking out to the right, seeing their .20 millimeters busting, exploding out in front of us. The tail gunner would bounce the airplane. He'd call the pilot when he saw them fire, he'd say, "Bounce", and the pilot would take the airplane up 40, 50 feet or down 40, 50 feet. And amazingly enough, you could avoid being hit that way unless they pressed the attacks close, came right in closely. We got into the IP, turned IP, headed to the target. Sharky called off 25 fighters level at three o'clock flying parallel to us, opened the bomb doors, released the weapons. We turned off the target, turned west, still at 20,000 feet. And then I noticed that the lead aircraft in the squadron, his bomb bay doors weren't completely closed so that our squadron started drifting slowly back from the group. All at once, I heard the pilot call, "Fighters, 12 o'clock high, coming in." I had my turret pointed at 12 o'clock high. Before I even got the sight on a fighter, I squeezed the trigger and I saw an airplane and I started tracking him and firing, and this other one flew in to my cone of fire and exploded. It appeared to me when I first started hitting him that he released a whole bunch of water, a spray of water came off the airplane. Then it just swelled up. The airplane kind of swelled up, rolled over on its back, and then I noticed that the hole underneath of the airplane was burning and it went under the thing and apparently exploded behind us. But it exploded out in front of us too because we flew into its debris. Within 30 seconds, then we called off another group of fighters coming through. And before I could swing my guns around onto it, my turret went dead and I heard number three engines started screaming, noise, just horrible noise coming out of number three engine and then it exploded. And I looked out before it exploded and all the cowling was solid, scarlet red from heat, fire inside, and then the propeller came off. And just about the time the propeller came off, I felt this impact and I thought I'd been hit in the stomach. I knew I was hit, but I thought I was hit in the stomach. And then I thought, oh, I'm blind in the eye, because this flap of skin had fallen down over my left eye. And I reached out, grabbed my leg and put it back in place. It wasn't separated, bone was broken, so I put it back in place. And then that airplane went into a dive. He dived it to put out the fire, which was burning. And when he dove the airplane, why, my leg just got up and flew around in the air, I couldn't control it. I couldn't understand why I couldn't get back in my seat, but when that shell hit me, it broke the back of my seat right off. You know, one of those spring steel seats, broke it right off and I was actually laying against the navigator's table. We're in a dive, two ME-110s, There was an FW-190, by the way, that were making these attacks. Two ME-110s followed us down. We were in a high-speed dive and no communications at all. All of the electricity was shot out. He hit the alarm bell, but with no electricity, the alarm bell doesn't sound, so that's why nobody bailed out. We leveled off at 1500 feet, immediately went into a climb and stalled out again and dove again. He was having a little trouble controlling the airplane because of the excessive amount of damage to it. He had partial control of the elevators. He had no control of the rudder. In fact, he used the elevator trim tab to fly the airplane coming back.
We got stabilized at 1500 feet and the two ME-110s followed us for a while, but they didn't make serious attempts to attack, mostly because we were going home. We were badly damaged and the waist gunners were still firing whenever they'd come close. And maybe they could be trainees, you never know. In any event, I started hurting and Sharky, the navigator, got two morphine syrettes. They were frozen solid, so I put them in his mouth, cut some cables to the bomb bay door controls and put a tourniquet on my leg. He lifted the flap in my eye and he said, "Your eye is still there." And I could see, all it had done was just cut the skin here and it had fallen down on my eye. This tooth was loose from the piece of shrapnel that had hit my lip and bent this tooth back. And so I pushed it back into position with my tongue, almost fainted from the pain of it, and that bothered me all the way back. For some reason, that tooth loose, I said, "Boy, I'd sure hate to lose a tooth."
Okay, so we are about 1500 feet and we're flying at about 120 indicated. The only compass still operating in the airplane is the little pilot's manual compass that sits up there and spins like this every time you turn the airplane a bit. And they navigated and got us home with it. An hour and a half after I was wounded, why, we touched down at Andrews Field, gear up, beautiful landing. Airplane stopped, cut the engine, everybody piled out, except me, I couldn't get loose. They'd tied me into the airplane. Oh, by the way, going back to the syrettes of morphine, he put them in his mouth and then only place he could inject was in my wrist. The first one wasn't unfrozen when he squeezed it and it burst and sprayed his face with morphine. So he waited a few minutes and gave me a quarter grain of the other one. And within 10 minutes, why, I was completely out of pain, comfortable.
The bleeding had been stopped. They wrapped me in a parachute, drug me back into the passageway under the pilot and copilot by the automatic flight control equipment. Tied me to the stanchions in there with the parachute cords. And then everybody else except the pilot and copilot went into the radio room. And we crash landed in Andrews Field successfully. And the next thing I remember is that I was laying there and all at once, a fireman's ax came through the side of the airplane about six inches from my other leg. And so I opened the door, the escape hatch there, and I said, "I'm in here, don't do that anymore." And I closed the door again. A few minutes later, the medical officers, two of them, showed up. And I remember one saying, "Here he is." And a few minutes later he says, "He doesn't have a pulse." And the next thing I knew, I had two bottles, one in each arm. And then they got one of those tin things that they put cadavers in and tightened it down around me and said, "How are we going to get them out of here?"
And so being the smart guy that I was, I said, "Let's take a machine gun barrel and knock the nose of the airplane out with the barrel." It's all glass, all plexiglass, which they then carried me right through the nose into the ambulance. End of the adventure.
We had a system that when you approach the field, you fire red, red, the flare, two flares, one red and the other one red. That means that the airplane's damaged and you had wounded aboard, and so they'd send the fire trucks and the ambulances and they're always right there to meet you. When the airplane stopped, they were already squirting us with foam and the ambulance parked right in front of the airplane. It didn't take long to get me out, even with all they did, because it was dark when we landed, close to being dark, maybe 3:30 in the afternoon, and I could still see the airplane as they carried me away from it.
Did you have a lot of respect for the German pilots?
James W. Wirth:
Oh, yes. Typically, if you dropped your gear and your flaps, they'd leave you alone and escort you to the ground. You can surrender. In fact, I'll show you a picture a little later that I've got, a painting that's quite dramatic of an instance just like that.
I'm not following that. Are you saying that you could actually, if you were going to crash land on their turf? Could you explain that again?
James W. Wirth:
Well, what you do is drop your gear and your flaps, and that means I give up. I'm so badly damaged that I can't fight anymore and I'm going to crash, and they'd escort you to the ground. That was typical. Now, in the heat of battle, I understand that an incident like that occurred in the B-17 when the German fighter came up to escort him to the ground, why, they lifted their gear and lifted their flaps and shot him down. That was the 100th group did that. That's a story. Now, whether it's true or not, I don't know, but they called them the "Bloody Hundredth", so it could have been.
Typically, the ambulance would meet you on the ground. Quite a few airplanes came back very seriously damaged. And in fact, the B-17 had a reputation of being able to take a tremendous amount of punishment and still get home. The only complaint I ever had about B-17 is I didn't think the engines were as good as the engines on a B-24. They leaked oil and they caught fire easier. But as long as you could keep them running, they'd get you back.
They called it a combat box. And actually, to really describe what it was, the group was composed of three squadrons, normally three squadrons. And normally, seven airplanes per squadron would make up the group. The lead squadron would form a V. The first three airplanes would form a V, then another V. 1, 2, 3 airplanes behind him, and then another airplane behind to make a diamond. So it was a V followed by a diamond. Then that same formation that the lead squadron assumed, the high squadron, would assume in this position, and then the low squadron flying here would have the same formation. This was Tail End Charlie, the diamond closer back here and it was the worst position. You can see why. On a turn to the left, he has to slow down to stay in formation. On a turn to the right, he has to speed up to stay in formation. It's the hardest thing to fly, and that's where they put the most inexperienced crews. They learned quickly or they didn't come back, see. But you'd approach the target in that formation, a V of Vs with diamonds closing it. That was the formation that LeMay desired. Because if you look at it closely with the lead airplane and then the airplane on his right wing being a little bit higher, and the airplane on his left wing being a little bit lower, both behind, all their guns, clear, see. And then the same for the other V behind with the diamond. And then this high squadron was all higher and the low squadron was all lower, so all the guns, every gun in the formation had a cone of fire that was clear for it to fire in. And that's the way the formation went over the target and the closer you put airplanes into the formation and the better formation flyers, the pilots were, the more compact your strike, your bomb strike was, more effective it was, the better target coverage you got. Also, of course, the primary reason for that formation was self-protection and common protection of every airplane in the formation. The rule was you never left the formation to attempt to help a buddy who had lost formation because instead of losing one airplane, you're going to lose two then, and it weakens the formation. So we never left formation to assist anybody else there.
We turned back for weather, but never turned back for enemy action. In fact, the day I was wounded, weather turned back the Second and Third Bomb Division and all the fighters and the First Bomb Division went into the target alone, and that's why we suffered such high casualties in aircraft that day is because the entire German Air Force had been launched because they knew all of Eighth Air Force were going and they were therefore able to concentrate all their firepower on just one division. At first, I think we had 283 airplanes and had over 410 fighter attacks that day. Lost 42 airplanes.
You see, there's a story in my group. It was an easy airplane to fly too. Very easy airplane to fly. In fact, I could fly it with no experience whatsoever. My problem with the B-17 was I had trouble lining up on the end of the runway. You see, when you come up from small airplanes up into a big airplane, you overcome that through practice. But the first experience I ever had in handling the controls on airplane was a B-17, and I found that I had a terrible time on a landing approach to keep the airplane lined up on the runway with the drift killed.
I found out there was a trick later on, after a long time, all you had to do is point the nose at the end of the runway, just point the nose at the end of the runway and keep it pointed there, and you would fly a curve into the runway and that was sufficient to get you on the ground. We had a navigator in the group, pilot and copilot both dead, that successfully flew an airplane back and landed it. Now, it flew beautifully. You didn't have to coordinate your turns. If you turned the wheel, the turn would be satisfactory. You'd skid the airplane, but it would turn.
I personally have never seen an airplane come home on one engine, but statistics show that there were a variety of one-engine landings with the B-17. With one engine, it was difficult to keep it in the air with a lot of damage to the airplane. But with three engines on the airplane and running, you could literally almost blow that airplane to pieces. I saw one airplane land that had been run into by another B-17, and the fuselage was so badly damaged that the place where the wing of the other airplane had hit had completely destroyed the waist gunner's position and the airplane came home and landed. Normally when they'd land, if they put their gear down under those circumstances, the fuselage would break upon impact with the ground. So they more or less would always come in gear up, retract the ball turret and retract the gear because it had a good strong body on it.
The day I was wounded, our airplane had 210 impacts on it from enemy fighter aircraft. And it flew and flew well, it leaked all the way home. In fact, the upper turret gunner, the engineer told me that after we landed, he went out and stuffed his gloves in the fuel lines that were still leaking fuel to avoid starting another fire. The main wing spar was broken on our airplane when we landed. Horizontal stabilizer, left side, was almost blown to pieces. So they would take a lot of damage, they really would. I saw the airplane that came back with the nose compartment completely blown away, and the navigator and the bombardier both fell out or were blown out and they brought it back. I was in the hospital with a tail gunner that rode the tail down all the way to the ground when it came off of the airplane and landed and lived. Well, he had a broken leg, but he was in the tail all the way to the ground.
They were flying formation, practice formation mission, and ran into each other. And I imagine they were six, 7,000 feet when they hit each other. He couldn't get out of the tail. It was in a flat spin all the way to the ground, but he lived through it. He had a broken leg. He was bruised.
Survived a 6,000 feet fall?
James W. Wirth:
Without a shoot?
James W. Wirth:
Well, he had a chute on. And I know a case of another guy that bailed out, a tail gunner that bailed out of an airplane. His parachute didn't open and he hit the plowed field. It streamed behind him and slowed him down some, but he hit in the plowed field and lived through it. But that had nothing to do with the capacity of the airplane to take damage. But it was, it was a good airplane. It was a tremendous. It could ditch. Nobody was afraid to ditch a B-17. But you couldn't ditch a B-24 because that high wing, the fuselage would just dive into the water and sink. With the B-17, that low, broad, low wing. Well, it was just like having a boat underneath you when you ditched.
The engine fires were bad on the B-17. They were hard to get out. The fire suppression system was not good on them. And mostly the right whirlwind leaked oil, so if you got impacts on the engine, why, all that excess oil all over the engine would catch fire.
In the movie Memphis Belle, they show the old 1942 oxygen masks, but they show one crew member wearing the 1944 flack helmet. The flack suits, we checked out and checked in for every mission. They were actually a four-piece suit. They had an apron in front and then a flap here, and the same in back. They had part of an apron over your back, and then they had a little flap down on the back. But when you pulled the cord, they separated it and it would fall away right up here, see? So that you wouldn't have to carry them to the ground with you.
One piece of flack, or a piece of a shell hit my suit and I could see where it had ripped here, but I never felt it. It had just ripped the flack suit. Or maybe I'd caught it onto something, but I don't know. But anyway, it was ripped, I noticed that. Now, we didn't have those good form-fitting flack helmets. We took a GI helmet, the bucket, and we'd reverse it and then they'd cut a moon-shaped part of it out and we'd put it right over our helmet and wear that as a flack helmet. And they also made good urine dispose rubs. You could urinate in them and then when it froze, we'd just pound it out.
Well, the coldest I ever saw was 54 below centigrade, zero. I had a thermometer in the nose of the airplane. 54 below centigrade. We used that in computing, the downtime of the bombs in the trail. That's cold, so cold that you couldn't touch the side of the airplane with your hands and pull them away. You'd freeze, your fingers would freeze right to the side of the airplane.
Early on, they had trouble with frost inside and then they got so we could blow air on the glass surfaces to clear the frost away. But you see, they took all the insulation out of the airplanes when they got to England because it was weight, and we had electric flying suits we used. In the nose, we didn't have that problem because most of the time the sun was shining on me and it was normally very uncomfortable. Warm up there. If you had your electric flying suit on with canvas or a duck flying suit over it. I always wore my big sheepskin boots though to fly with. We always carried our leather shoes tied to our belt, take them off and tie the shoe laces around and carry them so we'd have something to wear on the ground because we'd bailed out. Your flying boots would leave when the parachute opened. We always tried to steal RAF crew boots if we could because they had a beautiful, beautiful boot. Leather, well-tailored.
Oh, well, I went through all the way from the B-17 to the B-52. I said, when they took me off a crew and put me in staff, I said, "The Air Force isn't any fun anymore. I would like to go back in the airplane." I realized, of course, I couldn't. You don't get any place staying on an air crew for your whole career. You got to get into staff and move up in staff work. I loved it, I really did. I loved flying in bombers. I never flew anything but bombers, really. It was hard work. Every mission was an adventure. No mission ever turned out the way it was planned. I mean, exactly the way it was planned. Pretty close lots of times. But there were always challenges, always surprises, jubilation when things went really great and lots of fun with the people. Great people, surprisingly wonderful people.
I lost Captain Bennett, who was a personal friend on Linebacker, was a personal friend, navigator of mine. Oh, what was the other kid's name? He was taken prisoner of war, and then was repatriated. Jim Conlin. Good friend. I'm still in contact with one of my target study officers, Bob Green. Lives in town here. He was one of my target study officers. That's about all, I guess.
That was CPT Captain Loran B. Morgan M.D..
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