By Jim O'Leary
An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.
July 22, 2002
The following is written by John O'Leary. There are three parts to this story, so you can think of it as a reading mini-series. This is part three of three.
The next day turned out to be one of those long flights into Germany - far beyond the range of our own fighter support. The target was to be Leipzig, just south of Berlin.
Not only was it a long way in, but we wouldn't be taking the safer Baltic Sea approach. We were to be routed straight in across the Zuider Zee over the coast of the Netherlands.
That would mean the German radar could pick us up at the enemy coast and they would know we weren't going to be on a milk run down the coast.
We did much of our climbing over England and were at about 18,000 feet over the English channel where we test-fired our machine guns. This route had us crossing the German border just north of the heavily flacked Ruhr valley.
By then, our low group leader began dragging behind the formation. Our wing was lead wing for all three bomb groups, and German radar watched lead wings closely.
They must have spotted our sloppy formation very early. Our wing leader broke silence to tell his low group he would lead the wing back and forth in a wide S so they could catch up. Then, the low group leader made a fatal mistake - he S'd with the lead wing and never caught up.
The German radar operators were certain to have seen that stupid blunder. They knew a tight B-17 formation had potentially massive firepower.
Each bomber carried twelve 50 caliber machine guns. With our low group dragging behind we had only a third of the firepower of a tightly packed wing. My pilot, Langford, knew what was happening, but as leader of the high squadron, he had no way to change his group leader's course.
We were approaching the flak at Leipzig when one of the gunners saw the black dots above us - there wasn't five seconds from his call of "Bandits at 12 o'clock high" until they were coming through us.
There must have been a hundred ME-109's and FW-190's. They took six ships out of the low squadron on their first pass. Our low group leader exploded on the second pass.
The first waves didn't hurt us because we were high squadron of the low group, we were flying tight and the gunners on our crew were the best shots in the whole 91st Bomb Group.
Johnny Green, who had taken over as pilot for my original crew, was flying off our left-wing. As the third wave hit us, I saw a fire break out in Johnny's right outboard engine.
He began making a steep banking turn down into the clouds with his right wing a solid flame. I knew he was gone, although he had gotten into the clouds without exploding. This meant all my original crew - the guys I had been living with the whole last year, were down with him.
By that time, we had a few holes - a 20mm had blown big hole in our vertical stabilizer and our radio operator had been hit in his left leg when another 20mm blew a hole in the radio room.
By then we were all alone and losing altitude. Our right outboard engine was shot out and feathered, while the right inboard was already leaking oil.
Our tail gunner reported two more fighters far out at 5 o'clock on our tail, so Langford told our bombardier to jetisson our bomb load while he headed our crippled ship into the flak at Leipzig. He knew German fighters wouldn't follow us into their own flak.
We were coming out the other side of the Leipzig flak when we saw three more fighters in the distance. Even one fighter could easily knock down a lone bomber - all it would have to do is stay outside our 50 caliber range and lob in 20mm cannon shells.
As the three fighters came closer, they all did a half roll, laying up their twin booms so we could see who they were - they were US P-38's - the only fighter with a twin fuselage in the European theater.
A P-38 also carried cannons which could make the German 20mms look like peashooters. We had no idea any American fighter could get in that far.
It turned out these P38's had the new gasoline wing tanks, which extended their range all the way to Leipzig. Their lead pilot broke into our radio frequency with "Big brother, do you have problems?"
Then he said, "We can't fly slowly enough to bring you all the way home, but we can slow down enough by feathering one engine to escort you to the clouds."
Just as they were leaving us at the clouds, our right inboard engine went out and had to be feathered. When that happened, Langford got on the intercom to tell the crew that it would be pretty hard to make it back on the two remaining engines and to ask how we felt about going on down.
If he did drop his landing gear, that was the international sign of surrender and the Germans would have let us land safely. But, if we did surrender, we would be POWs for the rest of the war. When the vote came around to me, I suddenly remembered the bloody pajamas.
Now, when someone gets shot down, they send a personnel officer around to pack up his foot locker, remove anything like girly pictures, and send the rest of the contents back to his parents.
I knew I'd wrapped the pajamas pretty well so the personnel officer wouldn't notice the bloody crotch, and they would send those pajamas back home to my folks.
I told Langford I had personal reasons for wanting to get home and, if he could possibly make it back, I'd appreciate it. He said "OK" and had us throw out everything that had any weight, including the machine guns. I'll never forgive the bombardier for throwing out a good pair of binoculars.
Langford kept us in the clouds so the fighters couldn't see us so easily, and for some reason, the German radar hadn't picked us up. Langford was fantastic. It is hard to turn into two dead engines without spinning out, so he got us home making very gentle turns, while I gave him headings to miss any cities.
When we got to enemy coast out, we were at 5,000 feet, and by the time we made landfall on the British Coast, we were down to 3,000 feet.
We still had some hydraulic fluid, so Langford was able to get the landing gear down. We landed at Bassingboume just behind Johnny Green and my original crew - they weren't dead.
That steep turn I'd seen wasn't Green spinning out, he was just doing a side-slip. He had turned on the fire extinguishers and slipped the fire out. He came back on the deck, hiding inside the low clouds, just as we had done.
Langford's B-17 was named "The Peacemaker." Just about a month ago, I met a veteran who had been a mechanic in our 91st Bomb group. He knew I had been in that group but didn't know I had flown the Leipzig mission. He asked me if I remembered when the Peacemaker came back to Bassingboume so shot up. I didn't tell him I was on it and I sure didn't tell him about the pajamas because I knew he'd never believe me.
So that's how I came back from the war. It would have been nice to have been some sort of a war hero instead of a guy from Waverly, Minn. who didn't know too much about what happened to girls each month, but, what the heck, I got home
John B. O'Leary, M.D.
21729 Holman Pt. Dr.
Nisswa, MN 56468
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