‘The flak can’t always miss. Somebody’s gotta’ die’

by Vern Evans

The German anti-aircraft guns had a hold on the Eighth Air Force. The Eighth issued flak reports that sounded like weather forecasts. Here’s the flak report for September 10, 1944, when my father flew to Ulm in southwest Germany:

Ulm — meager, fairly accurate.

Heilbronn — meager, fairly accurate.

Furth — meager to moderate, inaccurate.

Sindelfingen — moderate to intense, accurate.

And so on through another eighteen cities and towns with reported flak varying from light to heavy, meager to moderate to intense, inaccurate to accurate.

The reported intensity and accuracy of flak varied from man to man in the same crew. There were no standards. How do you measure flak? In some ways the reports may have been a psychological portrait — whoa that was close. When one shell burst right under his plane, a navigator reported, “I thought someone hit me with a baseball bat. The concussion was so terrific.” And a waist gunner, riding through another attack, said, “At 40 degrees below zero, you can sweat.”

Flak hit the big bombers in a rain of steel pellets. It sounded like hail on a tin roof, like BBs rolling around, said the airmen. It could tear into the bomber’s aluminum skin with a “shriek” or a “hissing.” It could splatter the head of your pilot or miss by an inch. Loose, hot steel rattling around, as if your anxieties had taken shape. It was lethal with a randomness that was cruel. They could smell the flak through their oxygen masks.

The German anti-aircraft gunners filled the sky with explosions and steel. Nearly a million men and women were committed to the guns. In the last years of the war, the 88mm guns were grouped in Grossbatterien of twelve, sixteen, eighteen, or twenty-four — a huge shotgun firing thousands of rounds — tons of explosives a minute — four or five miles high. Major targets were surrounded by two hundred guns; oil refineries by 450 guns, and so many guns guarded the factories in the Ruhr Valley that it was known as Flak Alley. The guns had an effect; the Air Force found that flak reduced bombing accuracy by 10 to 20 percent. The big guns rattled the fliers; they were missing their targets.

Each exploding shell launched about 1,500 metal fragments. Some would pass right through the plane, or explode inside, and some shells brought a rain of fire. If they were close enough to see the red center of the dark cloud, they expected to be hit. This could be what hell looks like, thought George McGovern, a B-24 pilot who flew thirty-five missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. “Hell can’t be any worse than that.” An unnamed crewman, in another battle, was more direct when he said over the plane’s intercom, “Mary, Mother of God, get me out of this.”

The bombers sometimes returned with hundreds of holes, with engines out or on fire, with ruptured fuel lines and cut rudder cables, with men wounded, maimed, and bleeding to death. On “good missions” with “meager flak” and few of the Luftwaffe’s fighters attacking, bombers and fighters could still be lost or “missing in action.” Seven bombers and four fighters on one mission, nine bombers and three fighters on another “good mission,” as many as ninety-three men “missing.” Telegrams sent to Ada, Oklahoma; Palo Alto, California; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Hillsboro, Texas: “We regret to inform you . . .”

The flak-filled skies followed the bomber crews back to England. When the airmen were flak happy (shaken up), they were sent to flak homes or flak farms on flak leave for a week’s “R & R” (rest and relaxation). At briefings they studied the Flak Zone over a target, looking at the Flak Maps. They carried the word into battle flying B-17s named: Flack Alley, Flack Alley II, Flak Alley Lil’ (2 of those), Flak Alley Lil’ II, Flack Buster, Flak Dancer (2), Flak Dodger (4), Flak Eater, Flak Evader, Flak Fed Gal, Flak Flirter, Flak Fobic, Flak Hack (2), Flak Happy (8), Flak Happy II, Flak Happy Pappy, Flak Heaven, Flak Hopper (2), Flak House (2), Flak Magic, Flak Magnet (2), Flak Magnet II, Flak No. 2, Flak Off Limits, Flak Palace, Flak Plow, Flak Queen, Flak Rabbit, Flak Rat, Flak Rat II, Flack Sack, Flak Sak, Flack Shack (2), Flak Shack (3), Flak Shy, Flak Shy Lady, Flak Suit, Flak-Wolf, Flakstop, Mac’s Flak Shak, Miss Flak, Old Flak Magnet, Ole Flak Sack, Ole Scatter Flak, and so on.

They parodied their fears by singing tunes like As Flak Goes By:

You must remember this

The flak can’t always miss

Somebody’s gotta’ die.

And they carried their fears into their sleep. They had “flak dreams,” said Bud Hutton and Andy Rooney in a wartime book. “You doze off in your sack and pretty soon the F-Ws begin to bore in at you, cannon flashing, and the flak begins to come up in close black puffs; or maybe you find yourself endlessly falling through space, tearing at a parachute which never opens.”

The stories of flak are a literature of near misses, of geometry, chance, and luck. It was a universe in which an inch or two separated life and death or injury.

The Eighth Air Force fed quotes to the press from the pilots and crews of the bombers. The quotes usually said: flak was everywhere, but it missed us. Flak was so thick you could walk on it; the sky was black with flak; we were shot up, but we made it back. Flak grazed my face, my leg, sliced my sleeve and glove to ribbons, but I’m OK. It ripped off my oxygen mask, just missing my Adam’s apple. I can’t figure out how it missed me. It tore a hole in the map I was reading but didn’t touch me.

Kurt Wolf was a tail gunner on a B-17. He was part of the 452nd Bomb Group based just seven miles from the 453rd at Old Buckenham. Wool socks saved his life. He had gotten a pair sent from home. Wool socks were scarce. He was sitting at his gun in the small glass canopy on the tail of the plane when he felt that his right sock had fallen. It had “crawled down in my boot,” he said. At 35 below zero, this could be serious. “I leaned down to pull that sock back up and just as I leaned down . . . a piece of shrapnel took out both those windows where my head was. So that pair of socks saved my life.” That’s how he told the story when he was 87 years old.

The flak stories are like that tale of a fallen sock. The flak was heavy, was accurate, was moderate, light, inaccurate, was everywhere. There was no empty air. The sky was a maze of thick flak smoke. But I’m alive — that was the unstated refrain. And unspoken — for now.

Chance, fate, luck, and near misses live in the vets’ stories — the pilot assigned to the squadron’s “coffin corner” of the formation whose position is switched at the last moment and is saved, the shards of flak twisting through the airplane cockpit missing by an inch or less, the navigator pulled from the English Channel by an RAF rescue launch seconds before he drowned.

Minutes. Inches. Banal changes that meant life or death. Back in the peacetime world — working nine-to-five, taking children to get shoes — how could the veterans explain that they were only in this life by a few inches? It was as though they’d realized, years before the physicists’ theories, that many universes exist side by side — the world with them and the world without them. They saw it and they had no words for it.

The airmen would be woken up at 3:00 a.m. for breakfast — fresh eggs on mission mornings, “combat eggs,” instead of powdered “square eggs.” Some men didn’t eat a thing, and others ate like it was their last meal. “You could hear a pin drop,” a crewman remembered. “You had a 50 percent chance of returning. You don’t want to think about it, but it’s there.”

My father recalled one morning like this. “They woke us at 3:30 in the morning and told us to get on down to the mess hall. A Maximum Effort has been called. That means any airplane that could fly was going to be in the air. So we all got on our bicycles and went over to the mess hall and got on line. And when I got to my turn to tell the cook what I wanted, he said to me, ‘How do you want your eggs? Scrambled or over easy or what?’ The guy behind me says, ‘I think we’re getting killed today because they never ask us how we want our eggs.’ I thought that was funny, at the time anyway.

“On our way over to the mess hall we saw Royal Air Force bombers returning from missions. They returned and flew over our base. The Royal Air Force bombed the enemy at night. We bombed them during the day. How effective this all was has been written about by many people and nobody really knows. I just know it killed a lot of people.”

The pilot and copilot started the four engines about twenty-five minutes before they took off, running through the checklist. This was a “two-man job,” said B-24 pilot Lieutenant Colonel William E. Carigan Jr. “Both pilots are busy with both hands; the copilot with all the mechanical things — sequences of fuel boosters, primers, energizing and meshing starters; the pilot with mixtures and throttles, which require some touch.” After that, the B-24 required “considerable muscle,” said Carigan. It called for “more muscle to fly than does any other airplane.” It was “sternly unforgiving and demanding.”

As they taxied, the bomb bay doors were open to vent fumes. The lead squadron went first. The control tower fired a flare and the big bombers — thirty-five tons at their maximum “war emergency” weight — began moving down the runway toward take-off speed — 160 mph — just seconds apart, closer than at any airport today. “What sounded like a charging bull was actually more akin to a duck beginning to waddle. It was agonizingly slow,” said pilot Eino Alve. “So, you hunched and rocked back and forth in your seat, in a futile attempt to nudge the plane forward faster. Standing behind you and to your right, the engineer watched the engines’ health on the instruments. The co-pilot watched the airspeed indicator, calling out its advancing numbers: 70, 80, 90 . . . and then you were committed. Even if you lost an engine, you’d have no choice but to try to take off.”

“The doors to the bomb bays close behind you, and you know that you are a prisoner of this ship,” said a reluctant reporter for Yank, the Army’s weekly magazine. “That imprisonment can be broken only by three factors, and they are in order: Disaster by explosion and parachuting to another prison, death, or a safe return.”

This was the life my father lived as a teenager — up at 3:30 a.m., breakfast by 4:00, a briefing at the plane to get the target for the day, long hours in flight, the Luftwaffe sometimes attacking, flying through flak over the target, watching the bombs drop, flying home through more flak and possible fighter attacks, landing to be met by the Red Cross girls with sandwiches, doughnuts, and coffee, and then a shot of whiskey at the “interrogation,” the debriefing. And up again to do it the next day.


Excerpted from “I Will Tell No War Stories” by Howard Mansfield. Copyright © 2024 by Howard Mansfield. Excerpted with permission by Lyons Press.

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