Just about midnight, he and his crewmates were stirred roughly from a much too short sleep and told to get ready for what would be Mission #10 of the 25 expected for their B-17 bomber.
The time alone was a signal that this might be the day most of their base at Nuthampstead — indeed most of England — had been waiting for. Their mission the morning before, on June 5, had been bombing German placements along the coast, instead of deeper into France or Germany — a pointed hint that the big show, the Allied invasion of Europe, was due any day.
After they had returned on June 5, they found their plane’s name on the list — a crowded mission list — for the next morning. Like most young men of that time, the fliers of the 398th Bomb Group — one of the B-17 bomb groups stationed in England and part of the 8th Air Force — had signed up to serve their country in what they understood was a war for the survival of freedom. It wasn’t a sophisticated or complicated choice they were making; it wasn’t even really a choice. It was a duty.
The men in the infantry who had been massing on Britain’s coast felt the same way. Young lives, lives just beginning, would be lost, they understood and accepted, simply and honestly. These days we look at these men as heroes. They never thought of themselves that way. They were just Americans, ready to do what was necessary to accomplish a goal they never questioned.
By the time the crew made it to the briefing room on June 6 it was about 1:30 am. The sprawling briefing area was filled as always with tense, sweaty airmen — boys really. The 398th Bomb Group was made up of guys from every corner of America, all in their late teens and early 20s. Dad had turned 20 four months earlier, while still in training, learning his job as radio operator.
The intelligence briefer quickly confirmed the obvious on the big wall map: The invasion of France was about to commence. The men of the 398th were tasked with softening up German beach defenses before the infantry ran headlong into their hostile fire. The target was a French coastal village called Courseulles-sur-Mer. The group would be flying in advance support of a Canadian force that would be landing on Juno Beach.
Dad’s plane: “Madame X”
At about 3:30 am, a cargo truck deposited the men, now in battle gear, outside their plane, number 42-97374 — the “Madame X,” named for a reason dad never knew. The morning was typical of Britain, even in June: cold and damp.
For the fliers, the weather always brought hope and despair in equal measure: bad enough and a mission could be scrubbed, a reprieve from the gut-wrenching anticipation of another flight into the path of deadly flak and German fighters; but at the same time a missed chance to knock one more mission off the path to 25 and ultimately escape back home.
The men climbed aboard their familiar bird, a machine they had come to believe in and love, most pulling themselves up through the open bomb bay. Inside, quarters were tight, not unlike a submarine, crowded with deadly equipment, the heavy machine guns and boxes of ammo, and the racks of 1,000 pound bombs.
The officers made their way into in the nose, pilot and copilot up in the cockpit, bombardier and navigator at their posts forward and below them. The gunners — all sergeants — took up positions in the tail, the open waist windows, the top turret, and down below in the revolving ball turret. On the plane’s left side, dad had his own desk with his mounted radio above him.
Above his post was a window with his own .50 caliber machine gun, pointed rearward. In a fight, every position was expected to be up and firing. The multiple firing positions were what made the B-17 a fortress, a creature German fighter pilots had learned was lethally dangerous.
The men who flew them almost universally believed the lumbering B-17 was a beauty to behold. No one really addressed the female nature of the machine carrying them into combat, but every plane was a she, no explanation needed. Of course, when they took flight, ready to fight for their lives, these men found themselves encased in a womb of safety. As long as they remained airborne, they had confidence it would deliver them home.
Starting the engines
Just after 0400, the planes started up their engines. By 4:15 they began to roll slowly down scarily short runways, a long procession taxiing into position. The plane at the front of the line got the go signal and took off about 4:30.
Because it was still dark and the conditions murky, dad and the other radio operators were tasked that morning with positioning themselves at the tail gunner’s post, sending off a radio code signal to the next plane in the line. This enabled the group to assemble at the prescribed altitude, creating the formation, two groups of 18 planes. The formation derived its strength from its combined firepower and the discipline to hang together through sometimes ferocious and terrifying combat.
The “Madame X” flew that morning as deputy leader in Squadron 5. If anything happened to the lead plane, it would assume leadership. That position of importance reflected the confidence the wing command had in Lt. Roderick, a young man of 23 who simply took to flying as though born to do it.
But as much confidence as leadership had in him, his crew had far more. Most of the men who flew in the 8th Air Force understood their lives depended heavily on the man in the cockpit. The pre-dawn hours of June 6 were still cloudy, which limited visibility.
But as the phalanx of planes reached the coast of England, the skies cleared enough for the light of the dawning sun to reveal the vast armada arrayed below them. Dad could just make out the long gray line of vessels. His thought was how impressive and formidable they were, and how powerfully they would hit the entrenched Germans; but also of how many of the ships, and the men in them, would not be coming back.
The assignment that morning was simple: Fly ahead of the landing craft and hit the Germans quickly. If the bombs could not be dropped for any reason, they could not be jettisoned into the Channel on the way back, as was normal practice — not with all those Allied ships down below.
But by this point in the war, the Luftwaffe had been decimated by the relentless attacks of the Army Air Corps and Royal Air Force. There was no fighter opposition, and over Courseulles-sur-Mer there was no anti-aircraft fire that morning. Dad’s squadron got into its run and dropped its bombs just minutes ahead of the Canadians landing on Juno Beach. It was, in the jargon of the time, a “milk run.”
It was also a stark contrast to Mission #4, when an effort to bomb German naval vessels at the Kiel Canal on May 22 forced the “Madame X” into a wall of flak denser and more lethal than anything they had seen or would see again. A direct hit set an engine on fire. Losing power, the plane fell out of formation, an inviting target for Focke-Wulf fighters.
After a vicious fight, the “Madame X,” damaged and shot up, rattled home to the base at Nuthampstead. The crew was limp from exhaustion and mortal fear.
On June 6, the same plane landed smoothly only five hours after they had taken off. Though still breakfast time, the men were offered their routine shot of whiskey to calm nerves after a mission. Some of the men went immediately back to bed. Not dad, who was keyed up after every mission and especially this one, knowing what was taking place back where they had just been.
It would be many days before dad and his mates knew the fate of the invasion. In the meantime, they continued to fly. The next morning, it was on to Mission #11, submarine pens in the French town of Lorient on the Atlantic coast.
An increase in missions
The “Madame X” flew missions through the summer of 1944, and though planes continued to be shot down by flak, none in dad’s 602nd squadron was lost in combat. Because the danger had lessened, and because command wanted to push toward German surrender, the number of missions increased from the expected 25, a decision my dad long remembered as maddening. Every combat mission was a test of mental strength and internal courage; nobody needed extras.
Eventually, he and his crew flew 32 missions, wrapping up in September. None was ever wounded, though there were close calls. On the mission to Kiel, flak tore through the desk of the navigator, Frank Scribner, coming within inches of killing him. On another mission, a piece of flak about the size of a quarter flew through the floor of dad’s radio compartment and hit the heel of his boot knocking him off his feet. He kept it as a souvenir, and later gave it to my son.
That was on the occasion of our visit to an actual B-17 in 1995, when one was being demonstrated at the old Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. Dad and I and my son Dan, then 11, got the chance to climb into the plane. Dad sat at what would have been his desk; Dan pretended to fire what would have been his machine gun. A crowd gathered around dad, fascinated to listen to someone who really was there, in the air, when it all happened.
That plane was not the “Madame X” of course. That would have been impossible. She continued to fly with a new crew until Christmas Eve of 1944. That morning, upon takeoff, the X accidentally collided with another plane, crashed onto the snowy runway and was destroyed.
I learned that later. Dad had told me she was shot down after he left England. The fate was the same, but it wasn’t hostile fire that claimed her.
Dad passed away in a later December, in 2007. He was 83. On his last car, a used, white El Dorado Cadillac, for the only time in his life, he splurged on a vanity plate: “DFC 1944.”
Here’s to all the boys who put their lives on the line 75 years ago.