I never slept after learning I would fly the next day. Those of us who were chosen usually turned in early. Wake-up call might be at two in the morning or even earlier, depending on the target, and on those nights I’d turn my face to the wall and close my eyes, trying to block out any ill thoughts or omens. In the best of times I would doze off, but usually I just lay there stiffly, waiting for the orderly to come in and tap me awake. “Time, Lieutenant,” he would whisper, so as not to wake the others. None of us slept well when we knew we had to fly the next day. At least when we did get called up we had the great relief of fighting from the air, of not being foot soldiers on the front lines, the way my brother was. I knew that was one place I did not want to be: on the ground.
For me, the level playing field was the sky, and my weapon was the radar. Crossing the North Sea, I could see a hundred miles as the beams swept the terrain and marked out the cities. We had flown these skies frequently, so we were already familiar with the cities as they came onto the scope. As navigator, using the radar I could correct the pilot as we followed the routes mapped out before each mission. When flying lead or flying wing to the lead my attention was constantly riveted on that scope, for every other plane in the formation depended on the lead plane; the moment it dropped its bombs, all other planes would trip their bombs as well. I never got to use my sextant to take readings of the stars, though I had trained with it endlessly in navigation school.
Nighttime flying as a cadet had been thrilling, encompassing the great romance of being at one with the stars—the beauty of looking down on the clusters of light, the patterns of the cities surrounded by darkness, and the Big Dipper, which led us by the tail to the North Star. From the cockpit there were only countless numbers of stars on every side of you. Back then, I had felt an enormous pride gazing out at that sky, feeling I was part of a great adventure, one that would hurl me out of my small Jewish world in South Philadelphia where I was born and raised, and into the heavens. It was the different life I had imagined, back when we wore sweaters at night, back when my brother and I scoured around the stores on Seventh Street—the delicatessen, egg store, or hardware store—for wood or cardboard boxes. It was a richer, more colorful life of heroism and adventure, or so I had thought.
But diaries of flyers are seldom exciting, and fighting a war is often monotonous: a lot of waiting, a lot of small talk, sometimes a lot of drinking and womanizing, bridge or poker at the officer’s club, or hanging out in town with a girlfriend, waiting for a buddy to call and say, “We’re flying tomorrow, come on.” Other than that, we had far too many hours with nothing to do but count the missions we had flown and torment ourselves with thoughts about the ones we still had to fly. The worst time was when you got into the twenties— when you had flown that many missions—for then everyone began to sweat it out, hoping for milk runs, the easy missions with light flak not too far inside Europe. For, according to our calculations, a flyer was not supposed to make it past the twenties. But no one could tell; any day we might be sent to the Ruhr or to Berlin, with its six hundred guns—.88s, those enormous guns that could find us at thirty-five thousand feet, and wound or kill us. You just tried not to think about it.
On March 19, 1945, I was awakened early, and silently put on my flight jacket, green officer’s pants and high government-issue boots. It seemed a normal day. As usual, I packed a toothbrush in my pocket. I piled some wood chips in the little space heater—we took turns doing this—and left the cold Quonset hut. Then, down to the mess hall, by now crowded with fellow officers. There were something like six hundred men packed into the hall, and the atmosphere was noisy and boisterous. We had enough time to order anything we wanted. Those flying had the best food available in the world, and I ordered my favorite, a stack of pancakes with eggs over easy in between each pancake, muffins, a glass of milk—powdered, of course—and coffee, then sat at one of the long, cafeteria-like tables with a group of men I had flown with in previous missions. A kind of nervous anticipation permeated the room, and no matter what we talked about—the mission, what we had done the night before—the talk was slightly hollow, as if each man was already withdrawing into himself, preparing for war.
After breakfast we walked to the war room, where the mood shifted to one far more sober. No one spoke now. We took our seats and waited, staring at the covered board until the colonel walked in with his staff. And then the mission was unveiled—a line drawn across the Channel in red string to the target: the point of departure, the flight path, which included the turns we would make to the I.P. (Intercept Point)—the point at which the formation would turn to the target itself, usually a distance of some twenty-five to thirty-five miles. We were also told at what intervals, and in what angles and positions and altitudes we would peel off, since we always flew in formation. Everything had to be done in synchrony. Every man listened to the colonel intently, knowing his life depended on it.
This mission was deep in Germany—Ingolstadt. The colonel briefed us on the target and its importance: German jet fighters were made in Ingolstadt, so the goal of this mission was to destroy the factories and prevent these German fighter planes from coming up against our slower fighter aircraft. The colonel described the Nazi antiaircraft guns and the fighter aircraft we would most likely encounter, and he talked about our own support fighters who would not be able to accompany us all the way there and back. Earlier in the war our support fighters were not able to follow us very deep into Europe, but by this point American ingenuity had found a way to mount auxiliary gas tanks on them, allowing them to fly deeper into the Continent—though not as far east as Ingolstadt. We loved these “little friends”; when a target was near they would stay out of range of any flak coming from the ground, and circle around, waiting to shepherd us home.
We left the war room, picked up our parachutes, and made our way to the jeeps lined up outside. My parachute was usually a chest pack that I clipped on, and this day I received it with a good luck, Lieutenant, let’s hope you don’t have to use it. The jeep dropped me off at my plane, where the crew was gathering, and I met the two pilots; this was my first mission with them. Very young, I thought, and began to feel uneasy. I understood that they were being groomed to fly lead, so in this mission we flew in number two position, to the right of the lead plane. As we entered the plane and prepared for takeoff, my misgivings grew. The young men crackled with the enthusiasm of the uninitiated, and their bonhomie with each other only annoyed me, but I could not show this. I did my job, and spoke when it was necessary to do so. I knew I could not let my feelings of increasing dread affect the others. My other lead crew members would have noticed immediately that something was wrong. I remained calm as I met the chief engineer, the navigator, the bombardier, and the radio operator. I did not meet the waist gunners or the tail gunner.
In due time we strapped ourselves into our seats, the engines warmed up, and the plane trundled into position. I had never experienced this feeling of alarm with any other lead crew, even at the Ruhr with its six hundred guns. Germany protected the industrial Ruhr very well, and no one felt good about flying into that valley of death. As we took off I readied my equipment and maps and checked out my oxygen line. I made sure that I had at least two flak suits— one on my seat and one around my shoulders to deflect anything coming in from the left side, since my seat was behind the pilots and the navigator was to my right, across the aisle. There was nothing else I could do.
Mounting an airborne attack was no easy task. Gathering into formation took about two hours, and as the huge birds circled I pored over maps, memorizing landmarks, trying to keep my mind focused. We were going to enter Germany from the north and fly south. I recognized many of the names on the map from prior missions, having flown to Bielefeld, Braunschweig, Schweinfurt, Kassel, Regensburg, and so on. These names were familiar to all of us flyers, especially Magdeburg, where we had gone three days in a row. There was nothing left of the city, and today I do not even know why we leveled it; nor do I know why we went to Dresden unless it had been a last-minute alternative target. We swept that city, and it was a very, very long mission. I think we all tried to keep the people out of our minds, those who were victims of it all.
We were crossing the North Sea when the pilot gave the gunners permission to fire their guns, and we could hear the clatter coming from behind. It was something they enjoyed doing, a necessary job because they had to make sure the guns were working in case they had to use them. It was something to do. I was lucky, for I had a great deal to do, making sure the lead plane was on course in accordance with the lines drawn on the map in the war room. I concentrated on my job, and willed the mission to go smoothly.
I did not feel any more at ease as time went on. I rarely spoke to any member of the crew, except when the pilot would ask, from time to time, where we were. I would say something like, “Now we are here, three hundred miles from the target and on course.” There was nothing to do but wait. The gunners scanned the skies, and our “little friends” swept on ahead, to our flanks and above us, to ensure there would be no sudden attacks, especially from the dreaded new German jet fighters. American engineering was behind here, as we were in rocketry, at which the Germans excelled.