by Irv Pliskin
If you fly any distance today, to Europe from the United States, or to South America, the airplanes cruise at 30,000 feet, more or less. If you are like me, you sit in your seat and watch the flight statistics rather than the movie, which is usually one I would not want to see, in any case.
And compared to my active flying days, the statistics are impressive: 30,000 feet altitude--that’s almost six miles above the earth, 450 or 500 knots air speed, and the outside temperature may be as low as minus sixty degrees, centigrade.
I sit there, warm and comfortable and remember how it was some sixty years ago when the airplanes we flew in had no pressurization, no heat, and no breathable air.
It was a different world for us intrepid young men flying combat aircraft during World War 11.
We had to deal with the numbing cold, we had to deal with the lack of breathable air (oxygen), and of course the terror---which is the one thing you never acknowledged or let people know about. Acknowledging fear or terror would not be ‘manly’. All of the photos we took showed us completely casual, controlled, unconcerned. We tend to be well dressed, in our dashing flying uniforms.
The pictures you see of the foot soldiers of that time show them, generally in their fatigues, their tin hat on their heads, their packs on their backs laden with canteens, mess kits, weapons and ammunition. That was the uniform of the day for the fighting man. Actually, to the foot soldier we airmen were dressed for a fun ride, a joy ride in the comfort of the sky.
If you were to ask infantrymen, they might tell you that the aviator had it ‘knocked’ with no need for anything and nothing to worry about. “The ‘blanking’ fly boys, they got it made, but good. Shoot, they got a great deal.” They might go on to say something like this: “They fly for a while and then they go home to a warm bed and steak and spuds. Boy, do them sobs have a deal! “
Just the other day, I met a Marine Veteran of Guadalcanal. He said it too, “You fly boys had it good. Fly and go home to steak and a warm bed.”
I did not argue: If I tried to tell him what it was like, he would not have believed me, anyhow.
Getting ready to fly combat in a B-17 was not a piece of cake. It was an involved process. Let’s start with the clothes. Here is what it took: First, we wore Government Issue long johns, wool underpants that went to the ankles and fit tightly. In many cases, they were pulled up over our normal boxer shorts underwear. The long john top was not a pullover. It was a shirt that buttoned down the front, and it had long sleeves that were tight around the wrists. Over this outfit, we pulled on an electrically heated flying suit. The suits, made by GE, were a green fabric in which small electrical strands had been sewn. It worked off the plane’s electrical system, plugging into an outlet in the ceiling near each aviator’s compartment. It was, in effect, much like the electric blanket we use today, but it was portable, light, and somewhat effective in helping us keep warm.
Over that, we put on a standard, wool olive drab uniform. We wore button fly trousers and button front shirt. The zipper had not yet become the standard closing for men’s pants in the 1940’s. The shirt usually had our wings pinned above the pocket, and our rank insignia on the collar points.
I addition to these layers of clothing we wore a flying suit that looked like a mechanic’s coveralls would today. And as a final touch, we donned the standard high altitude flying gear: sheepskin lined pants and jacket. Some of us were issued leather. I was issued the newer, not so desirable or dashing, cloth flying jacket: the fur lined B-12. The cherished leather flying jacket-the A-2- is the one you see in museums or flying shows. We were never issued that.
That was not all, of course. We had the leather flying boots, leather sheepskin lined gloves, a leather helmet with earphones built in, and goggles to wear to protect the eyes from possible flash fires.
This was a heavy load of clothing. We adjusted a parachute harness, and since we were flying over water to cross the channel, added a Mae Wet. We gave this name to the yellow flotation vest. It was well earned, because when the vest was blown up to create buoyancy it made a fellow look like he was well endowed with gigantic bosoms.
The pilots, who sat at the controls during a mission, wore parachute seat packs, which they actually sat on in their seats. The rest of us, who were more mobile then they while doing our work, wore chest packs so we could walk around the aircraft, and stand at our positions without being encumbered during the flight. The chest parachute was snapped onto the front of the parachute harness, with a spring-closed hook. It was held there by very strong and sturdy “O” rings. The chest pack was ungainly. We wore it only when we had to...on the bomb runs and when we were under attack by fighters or flak.
Since walking, or even standing in the fur lined flying boots was not particularly comfortable, I managed to find a pair of British Flying boots. These were soled boots made out of a felt of some sort and they kept the feet warm and made it easier to walk around. Although I never expected to be called upon to walk very far, I also arranged to have a cobbler sew clips on the top of a pair of high top shoes, the standard GI issue that we called Clod Hoppers. During most of my combat flights, I wore them hanging from “O” rings on the back of my parachute harness. Should I ever need them, I reasoned, I would have perfectly fine shoes in which to walk.
This was our normal fighting outfit. It was not as utilitarian as an infantry soldier’s was, but it was designed to keep an airman somewhat warm at high altitude. Many flyers have had foot trouble since the war because of what the VA now designates as “Cold Weather Injury”.
Once we were dressed for flying, we were ready to start our day. We started with a hot breakfast. On the days we were scheduled to fly we got fresh eggs. Other days we got powdered eggs, if we got eggs at all. After breakfast of fresh eggs, bacon or ham, toast and coffee--or in my case milk (I didn’t drink coffee in those days) most of the men would relax with a cigarette before going to the briefing room.
I just sat around and waited, since I did not smoke at all.
As crews we walked into the briefing room, which was a huge hall lined with benches. We took our seats and waited for everyone to be there. Up front, there was a stage, and behind the stage, there was a thick curtain, drawn over the wall.
When everyone was assembled, the briefing officer, usually the colonel climbed up on the stage and said a few words designed to build us up and give us courage. Then the briefing officer got on the stage and said in effect: “Men your target today is -----------------”
There was a time he used to say, “Our target today is, or We are going to go to--------------------.”
But in my group, they stopped saying “We” when someone in the audience shouted, “Where do you get that WE stuff? You ain’t going...”
The curtain was drawn back, and there on the wall was a huge map of Target Europe. The target was highlighted with colored tape, and the line of flight was carefully pasted to the map. We could see where we would cross the channel, cross the coast of Europe and how we would fly to the target area.
Once we knew where we were going, we would then get as complete a briefing as possible. They covered everything from winds at altitude, fighter coverage, theirs and ours, possible 88 millimeter enemy anti aircraft gun emplacements, railroad guns that could be brought to bear, and the number of guns to be expected over the target. We got a strong assessment of the density of the expected flak. We would be told bombing altitude, target specifics and routes there and home. Our life was being defined for us in that briefing room.
Once the general briefing was over, we broke up into specific groups. Pilots went to one briefing room, for their instructions, Navigators to another. Bombardiers and crew to yet another. As we finished we climbed onto the trucks and were driven to the hard stands where the planes were parked.
Navigators had long briefings, many details were covered and so we usually arrived, navigation brief bags loaded with charts and instruments in hand, late to the hardstands.
By the time we arrived most of the crew was aboard. The gunners had checked their guns, the turrets had been worked, and the men were at their stations waiting to get going.
When we navigators got to the airplane, we went to the front of it where there is a hatch about eight feet off the ground just beyond the nose compartment of the 17. To get in that way, one grabs the top sill of the door with gloved hands, lifts himself up and throws his feet into the airplane. Then he moves from the sitting position to his knees, closes the hatch and stands up. One has to bend practically double to go through the opening in the forward bulkhead to get into the navigator/bombardier compartment. The bombardier sits on a small stool in the very front of the airplane; the navigator stands, generally, leaning on the bulkhead behind him. There is a small desk to the left side of the airplane where the navigator can make his notes: he needs a level surface on which to write; he writes all the time making notes and notating time, temperature, heading, etc. Throughout a mission, navigators must work constantly, recording everything that happens.
Once in the airplane, and in position, it was my responsibility on our flights to run the various crew checks. I made sure that everyone’s intercom was working and that everyone could get and hear intercom messages. I had every man check his oxygen to make sure it was working and his heated suits to make sure it was okay.
As these checks were taking place, the pilots were beginning to start the engines and do their checks as well. They checked all the instruments to make sure that everything worked properly.
By now, it was about 6 AM and we had been awake for several hours. It was still dark, as the B-17’s began to waddle from the hard stands to the runway and take off position. One at a time, at intervals of about thirty seconds the big birds lined up, the pilots put on the brakes, ran up the engines, checked the magnetos one last time, and with the engines in full take off power took their feet off the brakes and we began to roll.
We rolled slowly at first, and then began to pick up speed. At about 100 knots, the tail came off the ground, and then we were air bo n.
Getting it aloft was a job. We carried at least l0, 000 pounds of bombs (not much of a payload today, but in 1944, it was a hell of a load) and enough fuel to take us over 3000 miles. It was a lot of weight for those gasoline driven engines to move, a lot of energy expended.
Sometimes a plane couldn’t make it, and would crash at the end of the runway. run into the fields or the trees. That was a disaster for the crew, and would slow up the entire process of getting ready for our missions. Generally, very few aviators survived those kinds of crashes.
Once we were air born, we flew to assembly altitude, which was about seven or eight thousand feet and then began assembling. It was still dark, in most cases, and we made big circles with wing lights flashing as we got into position. It could take several hours for us to get ready. The pilots worked hard at this, the crew would stand or sit at their positions and peer out at the darkness looking for potential problems from other B-17’s, and hoping we could avoid collisions. Fortunately, we did, but it was a hairy time for all.
Eventually we would be assembled.
First, the planes in the squadron would get together, then the squadron would assemble with the group, then the group would line up with the other groups until the entire strike force was assembled and we were on our way. This process generally took several hours, maybe more, and by the time we were headed east over the English Channel, it was beginning to be light.
We were climbing now, starting to get into the higher altitudes. I ordered the men to put on their oxygen masks: although the Air Corps recommended that we wear them from takeoff, no one ever did. But you needed them at altitudes above l0, 000 feet: so we started to put them on and check them out as we started our upward climb over the English Channel and the coast of Europe.
Once over the channel, we charged our machine guns and fired a few rounds from each weapon into the water. As navigator, I had two fifty caliber machine guns, one on either side of the plane. These guns went through holes in the fuselage, and were supported by springs mounted into the ceiling of the airplane. I could move them about 150 degrees; they were designed to fire to the side of the airplane and to the front. I could not go beyond a certain point, if I did, I would be shooting at my own wings and engines.
We all test fired our weapons. Every crew did. On most of them, the enlisted men cleaned all of them afterward, but on our ship, I had to clean my guns after every mission. I don’t remember if my bombardier had to clean his own guns: I don’t think he did.
Irv Pliskin is a retired advertising agency owner. He is a combat veteran of World War II and an Ex Prisoner of War of the Germans. Married, with three kids, and four grandchildren he devotes his time to writing flash fiction. He hopes, that someday, he may become the Grandma Moses of flash fiction. He lives with his wife of 57 years in Cherry Hill,NJ.