Chapter 9: Air Raid
Chapter 9: Air Raid
It was ten to four in the morning on August 24 when 2nd Lt. M. M. Kain, pilot of the B-17 named “Carrie B II,” heard of the bombing mission of the day. While still dark, the day promised to be another warm, late summer day with light haze. For Lt. Kain and his crew of eight other young American flyers, this mission would be their sixth together as a crew and the 132nd mission of the 401st Bomber Group. The 401st was part of the Eighth Air Force commanded by General James H. Doolittle who won fame and the Congressional Medal of Honor for leading the surprise bombing raid on Tokyo in 1942. Lt. Kain’s group was stationed at an airbase near the town of Deenethorpe in England, about sixty air miles northwest of London.
As Lt. Kain sat in that briefing he learned that on that day, August 24, the Eighth Air Force would send up over 1300 bombers to targets all around Germany and occupied Europe. The 401st would contribute 39 planes or three flights of twelve B-17s each, with three spares. These 39 planes would join the attack on a factory known to be building war materials and equipment; a total of 129 planes or almost 10% of the total Eighth Air Force complement that day would be attacking this strategic target. Reports had it that these factories were building parts for the V-2 rocket, radio equipment and ammunition. There were two factories to attack, both located a little north of the town of Weimar and believed to be part of a sprawling prison labor camp. Bombing would need to be precise in order to avoid unnecessary casualties among the prisoners in the camp.
It was our fourth morning in Buchenwald. We woke again with the sun just rising and the shouts of the kapos, or inmate leaders who served the SS as our primary guards, calling us to appell or roll call. We had no idea that in England a target had been unknowingly placed on our heads and that suddenly we were caught up in the vast air war that was going on in the skies all over Europe. Certainly we knew all about the air war and I had been a very active part of it until just ten days before. But being under the bombs as they were falling was a far different and more terrifying experience than flying above them as a fighter pilot escort our big buddies, the bombers. I was about to find out just how terrifying that experience could be.
One by one the crew of Carrie B II climbed aboard their big bomber. The B-17 wasn’t called a Flying Fortress for nothing. It sported 11 heavy machine guns. Sgt. R. E. Barron climbed aboard through the small hatch in the bottom of the plane and made his way past the full bomb load into the ball turret. This was the machine gun located on top of the plane just behind the cockpit. The turret would spin around and he had a 360 degree view of trouble coming, as long as it came from above which it almost always did. He wondered, as did the other crewmen, if this would be a quiet and uneventful flight or if they would face mortal danger. It was a long flight deep into Germany so it was more likely that there would be trouble and not just from the anti-aircraft guns but from fighters looking to pick off the wounded, vulnerable and the strays.
A little after eight in the morning, the 39 B-17s of Lt. Kain’s group taxied out from their revetments, then with the throaty roar of the four big rotary engines, lumbered into the air each carrying up to 16,000 pounds of bombs. Although it was the sixth mission for this particular flight crew, this bomber, B-17G serial number 42-97344 had already completed 31 combat missions with only one aborted mission. The plane had been built in Seattle, just 80 miles south of where I grew up, and the 401st Bomber Group had originated at Ephrata Air Base in 1943, in eastern Washington state, only about 150 miles over the Cascade Range from my home in Ferndale.
The sun was begin to warm the air and the camp in the central German woods, and the thousands of prisoners who found themselves caught up in Germany’s plan to dominate the world and exercise their hatreds freely. By the time Lt. Kain’s bomber was flying over the English Channel on its way to Buchenwald, the nine thousand or so prisoners assigned to the German Armament Works or the Guftloff Works factories were already at work. Many thousands more were hard at work at the quarry—the most brutal and dangerous of all work sites, or at other work sites around the camp including gathering up those who had died during the night and delivering them on carts to join the stack by the crematorium.
For us it seemed to be the start of another day of idleness, limited exercise, and lots of talk about home, food, what would happen to us, food, thoughts of escape, food, war experiences, food, and more. The bombers from Deenethorpe all took off successfully and strained with their heavy loads to gain altitude. The 39 planes from the 401st Group were to form up after crossing the channel over northern France. Ninety B-17s from other Groups part of the Eight Air Force would be on their way to the target already. The bombers were to have fighter escorts over the entire mission. This kind of protection from the “little buddies” was critical to reducing the number of bombers lost due to enemy fighter attacks. The attacks deep into German territory such as Weimar were extremely dangerous prior to the arrival of the long range fighter, the famed P-51 Mustang, because the other major fighters such as the P-47 Thunderbolt and my own twin-engine P-38 Lightning did not have the fuel capacity of the P-51.
The German Air Force, the much vaunted Luftwaffe, had been dealt a severe blow in the attacks on England when Hitler was planning to invade England in 1940. In the four years since that, and particularly in 1944 when the American presence in the air war became dominant, the Luftwaffe had continued to bleed. It was hampered by the effectiveness of repeated bombing attacks on aircraft factories, ball bearing plants and oil refineries, but also increasingly losing their best and most experienced pilots in the vicious dogfights going on continually in the skies over Europe. But, in August 1944 they were down but far from out or defeated. They could still put up strong numbers with excellent aircraft and well trained pilots.
Lt. Kain was nearing the assigned altitude of 20,000 feet when the German fighters attacked. They had learned of a gap in fighter escort coverage. When the bombers were still forming up into boxes of twelve bombers each and with fighter escort five or ten thousand feet above them, they could be more easily attacked. Escorts may or may not be present and stragglers struggling to catch up and find their place in formations could be found and picked off. The ME-109s of the Luftwaffe fighter groups located in northern France spotted an opening and attacked. Soon three of the lumbering, powerful Boeing giants fell to the diving planes with their powerful machine guns. Lt. Kain’s “Carrie B II” was one of those which dropped out of formation, slowly rolling over and heading for the farmlands of the Dutch soil below. Seven parachutes emerged from the ill-fated bomber including that of Second Lt. Kain and co-pilot Second Lt. Henderson. But Corporal Byers, the planes Bombardier, and Ball Turret Gunner Sgt. R.E. Barron were killed. The seven who survived served out the war as Prisoners of War.
The two spares sent up in case of early mechanical problems had already returned to Deenethorpe along with one B-17 that had to abort because of mechanical problems. With the three downed bombers, the remaining 33 heavies from the 401st Group formed up and headed over the dappled country side of occupied Europe.
It was a little after noon on that hot and humid August afternoon when I first heard a very distant rumble. We had already eaten our total ration for the day of cabbage-worm soup and black rye-sawdust bread. We knew with this kind of nutrition we needed to conserve our energy as much as possible. Our lives depended on not getting too weak from starvation. So we were sitting or lying in the hot sunshine on the pile of gravel and rocks we called home near the north end of Little Camp. The rumble had a familiar sound to it, but in these circumstances the familiar sounded vaguely wrong and disturbing. I turned over and saw some of the guys standing and looking up at the sky to the northwest.
“What is it?” I asked, although by this time I could guess myself.
“Sound’s like B-17s to me,” said one, no doubt a B-17 crewman himself. The sound each aircraft made was distinctive and we knew these sounds like I knew the spots on each cow back on the farm.
“Wonder where they are headed?” I asked casually.
“There they are!” someone shouted. “They’re headed this way.”
Most airliners these days fly at about 35,000 feet and they are barely visible specks, usually made visible by the contrails. The bombers were flying at 20,000 feet and we could see the contrails of the bombers clearly now, with little black specks in front of them. The formation they were flying in made them instantly recognizable even if the planes were too far distant to clearly see—these were American B-17s, no doubt.
Then we noticed a single bomber ahead of the rest. That plane was nearly overhead. One of our group, a bombardier from one of our American bombers, was saying that it looked like a pathfinder. Pathfinders, created by the RAF, were elite crews developed for daylight bombing raids that dropped a flare bomb on a target, clearly marking it for the main force following.
“A bomb!” someone shouted, and suddenly we saw it. Dropping far below the pathfinder plane was a single bomb and it was heading right for us. I mean right for us. I turned to run and saw my fellow prisoners trying to find a direction to run to. We were completely enclosed. Barracks to the west, electric barbed wire fence to the north and east and completely surrounding the camp. The bomb screamed down. We hit the dirt, covering our heads with our hands as best we could, each of us trying as hard as we could to make ourselves as flat and as small as we could. The bomb hit south of us, about a quarter mile away directly on the German Armament Works. It was not a huge concussion and we could see the thick red smoke rising up into the still, humid air. It was the marker flare bomb which explained the small explosion.
But, when we dared raise our heads again we saw many more bombers over head. And then we saw their loads of 500 pound high explosive bombs coming down. I looked up and I knew at that point that I was dead. In mere seconds there would be bombs falling all around us. I had seen enough from the air and from briefing photos of what damage these could cause and always hoped I would never be under one. Now I was not only under one, but thousands and they all seemed headed right for my head.
“Mother of God,” I prayed, and I knew that in mere moments I would be in her presence. There was no doubt.
We were flat as could be on the rocky ground we called home when the bombs hit. We could see nothing now as our eyes were closed as tight as we could make them and our arms pressed our heads into the hard ground. But the concussions rocked me with such violence that I swore I was being picked up and thrown against a barrack. It started as one or two eruptions that seemed strong enough to rip our guts out of our bodies, but then rolled into an almost continuous explosion. I felt as if they were landing right on top of our group and it seemed I was pushed and rocked from all directions at once. The debris was flying in all directions and now I could feel things hitting my body.
What does it feel like to be dead? I thought. I was not afraid of pain, but now I was glad that this would be quick. Still the explosions rocked and the force of the concussion waves continued to beat on us as if we were in a typhoon. The heat from the explosions rolled over us in intense waves and was just one more element of the mix. I prayed to be welcomed into those holy gates but knew there was nothing more I could do to prepare. No last rites, no more confessions. What was done was done and what would happen to me was determined. This story was over, of that there could be no doubt.
It seemed like hours that the explosions continued, occasionally slowing down and then starting again with a huge roar. Only once in awhile, when things seemed to have quieted down, did I lift my head and saw that my buddies were also lying with heads covered or peeking out cautiously. We would see another wave of bombers headed right for us and push our heads down again.
The different groups of bombers, of which the 401st was one, arrived in waves over Buchenwald and delivered their loads box at a time. A total of 175 1000 pound high explosive bombs were dropped plus 583 500 pound high explosive bombs. That is 466,500 pounds of explosives. But that was not all. After the high explosive bombs were released, the Allied planners followed this deadly barrage with incendiary bombs. 279 bombs, each 500 pounds each, of material designed to light and stoke huge fires were dropped after the high explosives. The strategy was more than effective. The targets were not only reduced to rubble, but now set ablaze to further wreak havoc. That makes a total 605,000 pounds of destruction dropped for all intents and purposes on our very heads.
Finally, it stopped. We could smell the acrid smell of high explosives mixed with smoke of burning wood and equipment. We could hear the roar of the fire. For once, the fires and smells of the crematorium were overtaken by something much stronger. We slowly raised our heads. I wasn’t certain at first if I was still alive, but after looking around I certainly hoped I was because if I wasn’t, my sins had surely caught up with me. The hell I thought I was in when arriving here appeared to have turned out to be more reality than I thought. It was with increasing relief that I discovered I was still alive, and amazingly, so were all my fellows.
My respect for the skills of our bomber crews grew immensely that day. The targets were the two factories—one of which was at the edge of the enclosed camp. The other, Gustloff Works, was on the other side of the railroad station. Both of these factories were almost totally destroyed. There would be no further contribution from the slave labor of Buchenwald to the German war effort from these plants—they were knocked out for good. But there was more good news. The bombs had also landed on the SS barracks and officers’ homes south of the camp’s main gate. Remarkably, only as few as three bombs fell on any of the prisoner barracks and none on Little Camp, the northern part of the camp where we were located. We were within a half mile or less of the bulk of the barrage but not a single one of our number sustained any injuries—other than to our nerves, of course.
On August 27, the senior SS medical officer of Buchenwald sent a casualty report to his headquarters in Oranienburg. He reported 80 SS members were dead at that point including 30 Buchenwald camp guards and 50 from the SS Transport Unit. There were 65 SS members missing. 238 were reported in the hospital with injuries including 75 SS and 163 others.
In addition, there were 24 family members or dependents of SS members who were also killed.
Five were reported dead from the Fichtenhain VIP Special Complex, with one missing and 37 wounded. As for prisoners, 315 were reported dead, 525 seriously wounded and 900 slightly wounded. The report was signed by SS Captain Schiedlausky, SS Medical Officer.
According to The Buchenwald Report, a total of 384 prisoners died with over 600 wounded. The prisoners killed and wounded were primarily working in the factories or in the notorious rock quarry. A bomb intended for SS housing had fallen on the quarry with devastating results on the prisoners. Although many of them in the factories escaped from the buildings in the early stages of the bombing or even prior to the first bombs hitting as a result of air raid warning, they had no place to go as the fence and sentry lines prevented them from leaving the area. It is not known how many of the prisoner casualties were from the very few bombs that landed on the barracks.
Among those killed in the attack were the wife and daughter of the camp Commandant Pister. This camp commandant had replaced the extremely cruel Commandant Karl Koch in early 1942.
One special building was also destroyed by an American bomb. This was the Isolation Barracks, or so-called I Barracks. It was a large stone building across from the SS officers houses, surrounded by a ten foot high stockade and guarded continually by 12 SS men. This is where celebrity prisoners were kept and those the Germans did not want to mix with the rest of the prison population. Prominent prisoners held included leading German politicians who had opposed Hitler including Reichstag Deputy Rudi Breitscheid and his wife. Princess Mafalda, the daughter of the king of Italy, was held here as was the former heads of government of France before that nation’s fall to the Nazis. Members of the Stauffenberg family involved in the July plot to kill Hitler were held here, as were other German generals and leaders who had fallen foul of the Nazis. In the bombing, Breitscheid was killed and Princess Mafalda was severely wounded. Her arm was amputated by the same doctor who signed the above casualty report, but according to reports it was so badly botched that she died from loss of blood the next day. I Barracks was rebuilt and continued to host celebrity prisoners including Schussnigg, the former Chancellor of Austria, until the camp’s liberation in April.
After the bombing we just sat and tried to get ourselves calmed down. People react differently to such events and some were talking excitedly while others, like me, were mostly quiet, contemplating the experience of coming so perilously close to death. At first the conversations were mostly about the amazing display of bombing accuracy we had seen and how we had been the beneficiaries of the training and hard work that we ourselves had participated in such a short time before. But it wasn’t long before a new thought occurred to us. What would our German captors think of us now, we Allied flyers? They could not take revenge or their anger out on the aircrews above them who had dropped the deadly load. But, we were there compatriots. What might they do to us?
We did not have long to wait to find an answer to that question. In less than an hour after the bombing, and while the fires in the factories and SS housing were still raging, SS guards came into Little Camp in search of us. The ordered us to Roll Call Square. Not the other prisoners. Just us. We looked at each other with deep concern. We formed into our units as we had now become accustomed and marched toward the square. I was still shaking from the bombing and what I thought was certain death at the hands of my fellow American flyers, but now my legs felt weak and uncertain from an additional fear.
When we marched into Roll Call Square, it seemed our worst fears were to be realized. The MG-42 machine gun that was placed near the front of the square was fully manned. And they seemed serious and purposeful. We were instructed to line up. We stood at attention. My heart was pounding heavily and again my thoughts went to my family, my all-too-short life, and the welcome I hoped I would receive in the next world. I expected the bullets to start flying any second as we stood and faced that machine gun. When they started, would I run? Yes, but where? There was no escape route. Running would result in bullets in my back or worse, whipping, beating and torture until I was dead and dragged into the crematorium. It was better to take the bullets in the front and hope they were mercifully quick and accurate. The German who greeted us as we came into camp was right. I would not leave here except as smoke.
The officer who stood in front and spoke to us was clearly furious. But instead of receiving the bullets from the machine gun, we were given orders to go into the factory building and help fight the fires. We were told to find anything that could be salvaged and take it out of the burning buildings. I felt immense relief—at first. Then I thought, how can I fight a fire with bare feet? We were not given any tools, or hoses, or any equipment. Just told to go into the buildings and salvage equipment and tools. A few of our group had been given clogs, wooden clogs like the Dutch wooden shoes. But most of us were barefoot. Still, it was better to go fight the fire than face the fire of the machine gun and it appeared those were our options. Colonel Lamason gave the order and we marched as a unit past the crematorium toward the now destroyed German Armament Works.
With our bare feet and pajama-like uniform, it seemed there was little we could do. We had no desire or intention to help out the German war cause in any way, so like many of the prisoners forced to work in the factory, we found ways to sabotage the effort. I went into a building that was only partially destroyed and found some machining equipment and tools that were undamaged. I picked up the heavy gear and made my way through the rubble back to the outside, as did several of my fellow prisoners. When we were outside, we looked at each other and I saw they had the same thought I did. No guards were around and we were the only prisoners forced to work in the salvage effort so we weren’t afraid of kapos who would report our activities. I picked up the same heavy equipment and carried it back into the shop building. I would always be seen carrying something heavy and if it looked like I was going the wrong direction when spotted by a guard I could just pretend that I was maneuvering around the rubble.
And so we carried equipment for the next several hours. Pick something up, haul it outside with much show of exertion, then pick it up again and bring it back into the factory. Over and over and over. The work felt good and the almost meaningless effort to contribute to the damage caused by our fellow warriors from above gave our morale a huge boost. We continued the charade until we were called for the evening appell.
While we were busy at work “salvaging” equipment from the factory, the airfield at Deenethorpe began receiving the bombers it had sent off that morning. At 1548 hours, about ten to four that afternoon, the empty bombers with their tired crews returned. One after one they circled and then touched down on Runway 23. Eight planes suffered damage from the anti-aircraft barrages known as flak, four of them seriously damaged. But three B-17s did not return. Lt. Kain’s Carrie B II was missing along with “Down ‘n Go” piloted by Lt. Finney, and “Jill’s Jalopy” piloted by Lt. Fish. Nine flight crewmen from the 401st died on that day bombing Buchenwald and eighteen more were added to the growing list of American Prisoners of War.
Appell that night was especially long as the camp commanders were trying hard to account for all of their missing, dead and wounded as well as the missing, dead and wounded prisoners. As we stood in the square while the sky darkened with the smoldering ruins of the Buchenwald, we waited patiently. We stood together, as stiff and military-like as our weakened and tired bodies would allow. We were Americans, and Britons, and Canadians, and Aussies and New Zealanders and more. We would win this fight. We might no longer be able to contribute much, but by God, we would do all we could. They could starve us, treat us like dogs, humiliate us and torture us, but they could not break our fighting spirits. And they could not take away our hope or love of freedom.
(from Eighth Airforce historical website)
STRATEGIC OPERATIONS (Eighth Air Force): Mission 568: 1,319 bombers and 739 fighters are dispatched on visual attacks on strategic targets in Germany with some PFF on targets of opportunity; 26 bombers and 4 fighters are lost; targets are (numbers in parenthesis indicate bombers attacking):
1. 433 B-24s are dispatched to attack aviation industry targets at Brunswick/Waggum (125), Brunswick/Querum (99) and Hannover/Langenhagen (72) and an oil refinery at Misburg (88); 5 others hit targets of opportunity; they claim 0-0-1 aircraft; 5 B-24s are lost, 1 damaged beyond repair and 183 damaged; 1 airman is WIA and 54 MIA. Escort is provided by 248 P-38s, P-47s and P-51s; they claim 2-0-0 aircraft in the air and 8-0-0 on the ground; 2 P-51s are lost and 2 damaged; 1 pilot is MIA.
2. 451 B-17s are dispatched to hit Merseburg oil refinery (185), Weimar (129) and Kolleda Airfield (30); targets of opportunity hit are airfields at Goslar (37), Nordhausen (11), Vorden (11) and Stade (2), and Leipzig (10) plus 7 others; they claim 10-3-3 aircraft; 16 B-17s are lost, 2 damaged beyond repair and 189 damaged; 3 airmen are KIA, 39 WIA and 148 MIA. Escort is provided by 121 of 152 P-51s; they claim 4-0-1 aircraft without loss.
3. 383 B-17s are dispatched to hit oil industry targets at Brux (139), Ruhland (135) and Freital (65); 15 hit targets of opportunity; 3 B-17s are lost, 1 damaged beyond repair and 143 damaged; 1 airman is KIA, 5 WIA and 18 MIA. Escort is provided by 240 P-47s and P-51s; they claim 4-0-0 aircraft in the air and 6-0-0 on the ground; 2 P-51s are lost (pilots are MIA) and 1 is damaged.
4. 43 of 52 B-24s hit Kiel/Walther; 3 others hit Hemmingstedt Airfield and 2 hit targets of opportunity; 2 B-24s are lost, 1 damaged beyond repair and 32 damaged; 27 airmen are MIA. Escort is provided by 17 of 17 P-51s without loss.
Mission 569: 1 B-17 drops leaflets on Brest, France during the night.