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The First B-17 To Bomb Berlin

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 7, 2022 3:20 am

The First B-17 To Bomb Berlin

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 7, 2022 3:20 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, it was never supposed to be them...but through an extraordinary chain of events, Lt. Bill Owen's crew managed to become the first B-17 crew to drop bombs in the heart of the Third Reich. 

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INTRO MUSIC The experimental B-17 that became the first American plane to bomb Berlin. All by some extraordinary chance.

Here's John with the story. In 1943, the United States Air Force had one problem. Weather was hampering operations. The British came over and said, look it, we need the real hardware, guns, boats, ammunition. We have some secrets that we're willing to trade for those. One of them was radar. The United States was so far behind in radar, the British were so far ahead.

So when Roosevelt heard that, he said, give them what they want. We want their information because the Germans had radar. They knew when bombers were coming over and where they were crossing. MIT, 3,000 scientists, took this information and built the first operational United States radar sets to be put in specially equipped B-17s.

All top secret. They could literally do navigation and bomb through overcast. My father's friend, Major Fred Rabo, was tasked with bringing these 12 B-17s from Boston, what's now Logan Airport, with the first radar sets in them. So they brought those over in 1943 and they formed a bomb group called the 482nd Bomb Group out of Alcanbury. They took crews from every one of the bomb groups and they trained them how to use radar. The very best navigators, the very best pilots, the very best crews were tasked with this. So the first operational radar mission. So these guys would get up the night before. They were told, you're going to lead the 100th Bomb Group. So these special planes would fly the night before to a base, park there.

The next day, they would work with the lead ship who was doing dead reckoning navigation and provide them radar fixes. So nobody knew. They couldn't name their planes.

Most did. You know, the guys would take a lot of pride in putting their nose art on. But there were these contraptions sticking out from underneath the plane, either under the nose if it was an H-2S set, or underneath the ball turret or underneath the front of the nose if it was an H-2X Mickey set.

Very top secret. And they were called the Pathfinders, the 8th Air Force Pathfinders. My father's patch on his jacket is of a lightning bug with the light on the tail lit up holding a bomb. So it was basically that the lightning bug would light the target and when they were over it, they would drop the bomb.

So all the different four squadron patches had very similar type. Either it was an eagle holding a bomb with a flashlight, but they were called the Pathfinders. We wanted to reach Berlin going back to November of 43. And there were attempts to reach it because remember now we had the long range P-51. They also thought it was a great target of morale boost. Because remember, we hadn't landed on the beaches of Normandy yet. So they wanted to send a message that Hitler's capital could be reached.

So they tried six times starting in November of 1943 and each one of those missions was scrubbed. Fast forward, March 4th, my father's ship is sent to the 95th Bomb Group the night before at Horen. They were going to lead the 13th Combat Wing to Berlin. Maximum effort mission, 750 B-17 and B-24 bombers are to leave for Berlin. Fighter escort all the way to the target and back. The target is the Bosch Electrical Components Factory in Mein Klinkau, a suburb of Berlin just on the southeast. They're going to hit that target because they make the fuel injection systems for the Heinkel bomber and the Luftwaffe's Messerschmitt and also the Focke-Wulf 190. They get up that day, they pull the curtain for the briefing and they see the map of Europe and they see the string which would take them to the target. Everybody sees Berlin. My father's waist gunner, a guy named Beans from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, leans to my father and goes, Well, we're dead.

Make sure you get everything to my parents back in Pittsburgh. Now, of course, Beans would say that if they were going on a training mission. He was like the Eeyore of the crew.

So every time they would go anywhere, but he says, No, this time I really mean it. They called my father Oni after O'Neill. It was like the short name Oni. They all had shortened names. The other waist gunner was Hoppe. The top turret gunner's name was Don White. It was Whitey. So they all had these names.

Moffett was the ball turret gunner. So Beans says, We're not going to come back from this. We're not going to come back from this. They take off for Berlin. Maximum effort. Entire eighth Air Force is going.

Weather's real bad. Delayed in takeoff. I mean, we could talk about formation flying and how long it took. Imagine 750 planes trying to get in formation with no anti-collision radar on their ships. It was all by sight. You'd get into clouds.

You couldn't see. There were so many collisions. And when you collide two B-17s or two B-24s together with 2,000 gallons of high-octane aviation fuel, 7,000 rounds of.50-caliber ammunition, and a 12,000-pound bomb load, they would just explode.

And bodies would just never be recovered. So anyway, they get over the continent. There's a radio recall issue. Weather target obscured. Too much weather returned to base. My father said we had gotten a really good position in the formation. We were in the middle of the 750 bomber streams. So there were squadrons in front, squadrons in back, and this whole armada is headed to Berlin. They're in the middle. Why the middle was important or why it was considered safer, the Luftwaffe would come up and try to wipe out the lead squadrons in front. Then they would have to go down and refuel. So the front squadrons usually took the brunt, and then the tail end squadrons, the low squadrons, would take the brunt. All of a sudden, they start seeing these B-17s turning around. My father's lieutenant gets on the radio.

He's the pathfinder ship. He's given the course corrections. He says, sir, radio recall. Maintain radio silence.

We will continue that a target is briefed. That was it. And then crew conversations were, has the colonel gone mad?

So he's a 95th colonel. Anyway, long story short, the mission commander, Griff Mumford's plane, was using dead reckoning. They were drifting further and further off course. So they weren't taking the fixes that the radar ship was giving them. So finally they get on the radio and said, if you do not allow us to course correct, you're 49 miles off course right now. We're not going to have enough fuel. We're not going to hit the target, and we're not going to get home. So at that point, Mumford says, take the lead. So of the 750 bomber stream, 39 bombers continued to the target.

It was the charge of the light brigade. They get to the target. The 51s are there, including Chuck Yeager, who had his first shoot down that day.

If the P-51s weren't there, 39 ships would have gone down wiped out, no doubt about it. They get to the target. The colonel wanted to be the first one to bomb Berlin.

It was a huge prestige thing going back to the States. He says, back off to the deputy lead position. So he begins to back off. The colonel gets on the IP or the final bomb run. Can't open his bomb bay doors. They're frozen shut.

Bad weather. He says, take the lead. We'll bomb on the Pathfinder. They bomb, they shoot a flare, open the bomb bays. My father's crew is the first United States Army Air Force B-17 to reach, gets credited. They thought for sure that he was either going to get the Silver Star or court-martialed for disobeying a radio recall order. Their explanation was that their radio man on the I'll Be Around B-17, that was the name of it, who was the lead ship, was interpreted as a false radio recall sent up by the Germans. My father's radio operator, who I had the opportunity to talk to, said, that radio recall was as real as they got. That was no thing, because they had special codes they were given before every flight.

And he says, I verified that. But they stuck with, they didn't divert. They stuck with them all the way to Berlin. But the P-51 saved them. Four 17s were lost over the target. 35 of the 39 got home. They flew over Horem. They landed. My father's crew went up to Altenbury, which was about another 25 minutes near Cambridge. They got out of the plane, exhausted.

It was like 12 hours in the air, combat, cold. And they were met by one press person. Meanwhile, there was a huge Life magazine, Andy Rooney, Walter Cronkite, all these famous journalists were there at the base at the 95th.

They got all the credit in the world of the newspapers, except for one guy from the New York Herald Tribune was at Altenbury. And he heard the story and he interviewed the crew. They were ordered to meet with this guy after their mission debrief. And he told him the story and he hands him a copy of a teletype. He's typing it out on a special typewriter because it went across a transatlantic cable back to New York and it was kind of in a code. And he hands it to my father's pilot.

He says, hold on to this. This is the true story of the mission to Berlin, because he let him. My father's pilot would only talk to them if he was allowed to tell them who the crew was. But the original transatlantic cable was sent to me by my dad's pilot. He said, hold on to this for history. And I have the original navigation maps that were in the B-17 that Al Engelhardt, the Mickey operator, had made all the times, the chart courses, how far off target they were, and how they ended up being the first B-17 to bomb Berlin. And a special thanks to Monty for the great job on the production. The story of John O'Neill as told by his son here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 17:43:09 / 2023-02-17 17:47:48 / 5

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