Editor’s Note: To the young people of today World War II is not even a distant memory. It is something that is in books, and in old movies. To others, it is a very real memory. Sometimes painful. What follows are some of the memories of a veteran of WW II, Bob Hoffman, of Oceanside.
This is what it was like.
“WHAT'S UP DOC?”
By Bob Hoffman
March 28, 1943
“To all crews at Paterson Field, Colorado Springs, Colorado, who have completed their overseas training. You are hereby ordered to report to the 389th Bomb Group, Norwich, England. No later than April l, you are to leave in the B-24 Liberator bombers in which you have trained. Your present base commander will cut your orders.”
Major General Hamilton Sweetwater,
Commander, 2nd Air Force, Washington D.C.
We were finally going overseas after a year of training. What would the future bring? Would we come back unscathed? The last months had been grueling. We flew training missions almost daily. Sometimes our pilot would purposely cut one or even two of our four engines and land to simulate combat conditions. Our crew practiced bombing runs in every possible terrain and in many atmospheric conditions. Severe turbulence on several days made most of the crew sick.
I had trained, before this base, at the radio school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, celebrating my twentieth birthday en route. By constant repetition, I learned Morse Code and how to operate and repair radios in the planes that we would be in. Before that, I had been at the gunnery school in Harlingen, Texas. There I became proficient in firing of the 50 caliber machine gun and how to fix it if necessary.
Our ten man crew was quite a diverse group. There were four officers: a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and a bombardier. The remaining were all non-commissioned officers. Outside of me, their primary job was being gunners - two for the waist, or the middle of the plane, and the rest operating the three gun turrets.
We flew our plane to our combat base, stopping at several air bases for fuel, food, and sleep. Norwich turned out to be about ninety miles northeast of London. After a few days rest, we had several check flights. These were simulated flights supervised by senior pilots. Speaking to other crews, we often heard the Liberator referred to as “the flying coffin;” we learned that the British flew their missions at night, while we went on ours during daylight hours.
After dinner, our pilot came into our barracks and told us that the next day would be our first mission. He said, “I suggest you try to relax tonight, possibly see the camp movie, and turn in early.” This was easier said than done.
The next morning, at about 4:30, the barracks lights were turned on, and a cheery voice loudly said, “Rise and shine -- you can’t sleep the whole day away.” Someone threw a shoe at him but missed, and he left. I had a hard time getting to sleep and had been awake for perhaps two hours, worrying what the day would bring. My stomach was doing flip-flops. I joined the other zombies on their way to the latrine, or bathroom, outside our barracks. We eventually dressed in our flying suits and staggered to the mess hall. Surprisingly, there were fresh eggs, which were only served on mission days, bacon, juice, toast, and coffee. I could only force down some toast and coffee.
While this is not the original “What’s Up Doc” nose art it does give you an idea of what it would look like.
We then proceeded to our briefing. The commanding officer said, “Men, our primary target today will be the Ploesti Oil Fields in Romania.” He uncovered the map showing our route. “It is vital that we destroy this facility as it provides 35% of the fuel Hitler needs for the mobility of his war machine. To increase our bombing accuracy, we are going in at 14,000 feet as opposed to the usual 21,000 feet.” At this, the experienced crews gave out a collective moan.
Trucks transported us to our respective planes. We were surprised to see painted on the nose of our plane a humorous picture of Bugs Bunny with a carrot and the ship’s new name, “What's Up Doc?”
This had been chosen and painted on the plane by our pilot. After preflighting our B-24, we neophytes took our assigned places in our Liberator. When instructed to do so, the pilot started our engines, took off, and assembled at the right altitude. The gunners, when instructed to, test fired their guns.
Our flight path kept us away from anti-aircraft ground fire. The briefing officer told us we would have P-51 fighter support when we were over enemy territory. About thirty miles from our target, our pilot announced, “We’re at the I.P., bomb-bay doors open.” The doors opened. I. P. stands for initial point, or where we started our bomb run. A short time later he said, “Enemy fighters coming in from all directions. Gunners, wait until they’re close enough to hit. Fire short bursts so you don’t melt the barrels.” The sky was a beehive of enemy fighter planes making passes and shooting at our formation. Our gunners fired at them when they came close enough. One of our waist gunners shot down a fighter and yelled over the intercom, “I got one!”
We could see our fighter support planes attacking the enemy fighters. The ground anti-aircraft fire was very intense. When they burst, the flak looked like harmless black puffs of smoke, but they were destructive if they exploded close to a plane, as the shells contained scrap metal.
Radio silence was the rule over enemy territory, so I didn’t have much to do. If one of the gunners was hurt or killed, I would take his place. Another one of my jobs was to sit on the back edge of the flight deck, facing the bombs. My oxygen was supplied by a portable container, and I wore my parachute. I could see the ground as well as other planes around us. I was as nervous as a bride just before the wedding ceremony. I prayed that I would come back safely, even though I didn’t believe in a God. Maybe the saying “There are no atheists in a foxhole,” is a truism.
The B-24 off our right wing took a direct hit on its bombs and turned to dust. There was no possibility of any survivors. The ship to our left had a wing shot off and it spiraled toward the ground. I reported to our captain, “Charmed Life exploded - no chutes; Sin City going down, two chutes.” The reality of how dangerous these missions were exploded in my head.
A view of the ‘Top Gunner’ on a
Our bombardier electronically armed our 500 pound incendiaries, and in a short time, he released them using his Norden bomb sight. He reported “Bombs away.” To my amazement, one of them didn’t release. I reported that to our pilot and was told to release it manually. With my heart in my throat, I walked out on the one foot catwalk and was able to send it earthward. I was happy to get back to the flight deck, to watch where our bombs ended up. Some hit the oil storage tanks, causing fires. Bombay doors were closed, and our crew got back to our base safely.
On the ground, each of us was given a shot of whiskey and debriefed. We later found out that the 25% loss of planes and men for the whole 2nd Air Force participants was the highest ever reported.
Other missions followed. None were memorable, however, until two to Munich, Germany, on consecutive days. Because of the distance, our planes landed after ten hours, on fumes.
Our twentieth mission was to destroy factories in Berlin, known as “Big B.” We were told it had the biggest concentration of anti-aircraft guns surrounding any target. Fortunately, by now we had air superiority, lessening the danger from enemy planes. There was heavy cloud cover over all of England, which was supposed to extend to 18,000 feet. The assembly altitude was to be 21,000 feet. Our plane started up through the pea soup, and we finally broke through at 20,000 feet. Unfortunately, our ship was close behind another bomber. We got caught in their prop-wash of its propellers, and it threw us downward out of control. The co-pilot told us, “Get ready to jump if we can’t come out of this.” However, because of centrifical force, we could not possibly move to get our parachutes. Then at 10,000 feet, our pilot was finally able to get the ship under control. Shaken, he called the tower to report low oil pressure, and we were told to abort the mission. I never asked him if we actually had the problem.
All in all, we had completed 31 missions, and would soon be heading home.
The interior of a B-24
The flight crew of “What’s Up Doc.” T/Sgt. H. “Bob” Hoffman, is bottom row, second from left.
Bob Hoffman, with wife, Gloria, today.
Editor’s Note: Living in North San Diego County, we have a great many military families and a great many military tales to be told. We’d like to hear ‘em!
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