The seemingly cold telegram reflected the cold realization that, in 1944 alone, enemy antiaircraft guns destroyed more than 3,500 American aircraft over occupied Europe and Germany, about 600 more than lost to enemy fighters. B-17 copilot, 2nd Lt. Richard Timberlake, was 22 years old when he received his first of three Purple Hearts. The pilot, navigator and bombardier, all officers, were approximately the same age. An engineer/top turret gunner, an armorer/waist gunner, a tail gunner, second waist gunner, a ball turret gunner and radio operator, were all enlisted men. Most were in their teens.

By 1944, 8th Air Force in England could put 25 to 40 air “groups” into a mission, meaning 900 to 1,400 heavy bombers. The B-17 carried 2,700 gallons of 100-octane gasoline and around three tons of bombs. A normal mission by the 8th Air Force burned up approximately 3,000,000 gallons of gas. Fully-laden, the takeoff weight of a B-17 was about 33 tons. Relatively easy to fly and land, the takeoff could contribute to deadly statistics when the pilot attempted to lift a Flying Fortress off the ground before an indicated speed of 115 mph. Once airborne, the hundreds to thousands of bomb-laden heavy bombers had to maneuver into flying “formations,” a tricky task that sometimes caused mid-air collisions. Powered by four 1,200 horsepower Wright Cyclone engines, if mechanical trouble developed, the bomber was forced to return to base. However, if all went well, then the formation headed for their target, amid deadly enemy flak and German fighters that managed to avoid 72 .50-caliber machine guns in a “tight” formation of just 12 B-17s. German fighters always looked for “sloppy” formations of inexperienced or careless B-17 pilots.

A sprightly and astute 97-year-old Timberlake recalls that on Aug. 11, 1944: “It was a beautiful, clear day for our first mission to the railroad marshaling yard at Mulhouse, near the borders where France, Germany and Switzerland meet. The deadly flak from antiaircraft guns that we were briefed on was nonexistent, or at least we didn’t notice any. It was like a ‘scenic tour of France’ rather than a combat mission, what we flyboys called a ‘milk run.’ Once back at base, I asked an experienced crew if that’s what we should expect on every mission. The reply was an unequivocal ‘No’!”

Aug. 14, 1944: “Our second mission was to Ludwigshaven, a synthetic oil refinery, on the Rhine River. Our group was in the middle of a ‘bomber chain’ of about 1,200 planes. The ‘chain’ was so large, we could see the lead group heading back to the base in England before we ever reached the target. Up ahead, we saw a huge black cloud, thousands of spent flak (bursts); we wondered how we’d get through all that. We reached the IP (Initial Point) and turned left 90 degrees, straight into the flak field. We were part of a 36-plane chain in three squadrons, high, medium and low. All the planes flew off the ‘lead’ plane, with a ‘deputy lead’ behind the leader in case he was hit.

“We could hear flak blasts above the roar of our four engines. I thought we were doing OK, then the pilot suddenly yelled into the intercom, ‘Help me hold this thing!’ Flak had cut the elevator trim tab control cable in the waist of the airplane, in fact, the cable was hanging down in the waist. I put my hands on the control wheel and could feel it pushing back against me. It took the two of us to hold it back. I reached down to switch on the elevator control on the automatic pilot, which took the pressure off. I controlled the elevator by the automatic pilot while the pilot flew by the ailerons and rudder. We took a lot of hits on that mission … don’t know why we didn’t have more damage. We heard ‘bombs away,’ then the entire formation immediately dove to the left and dropped a thousand feet to get us out of the flak. We struggled all the way back to base, but made it OK. The B-17 was a rugged aircraft.”

Aug. 16, 1944: “We were approaching another synthetic oil refinery near Zeitz, when I saw the left-wing plane of the lead element suddenly start drifting down into our airspace. It just kept coming. I jerked the controls out of the pilot’s hands and dove hard left to avoid a collision. The rogue plane drifted into the space we just vacated and sheared off the fin and rudder of another plane. The rudderless plane spun down in a flat spin. I didn’t see any parachutes. That rogue plane was shot down a month later, but the crew survived. We never found out why the rogue plane drifted out of formation and cut the other B-17 in half. Our tail gunner later told us, ‘I was wondering what had happened when we pulled out of formation, then I saw a fin and rudder fly off by itself.’ We found out later the crippled B-17 went straight in and blew up into pieces.”

A three-day pass: “We got a three-day pass after our mission to Zeitz. It was my first trip to London, and I really enjoyed it. I ate fish and chips, visited the Tower of London, and a British officer introduced me to scotch ale while in the Piccadilly Hotel bar at Piccadilly Circus. I heard Big Ben chime, I saw the Houses of Parliament, a black market flourished, and soldiers and women were everywhere. But, war beckoned.”

Aug. 24, 1944: “We were back bombing synthetic oil plants, this time near Brux, Czechoslovakia. The skies were clear with unlimited visibility. The flak was the heaviest we had seen up to that point. Again, the flak was so close we could hear the shell bursts. We all wore 24 pounds of armored flak vest and a flak helmet. I guess wearing that gear gave us some sense of comfort, but I had this weird feeling over Brux as we jerked and bounced around from all the flax bursts that, ‘Wow, I’m really in the thick of things.’ One plane in our formation was literally blown out of the sky. We incurred a lot of battle damage to our plane, and I think we all were wondering how in the world we could survive another 20 or 30 missions.

“Surviving flak is a terrible ordeal. Most of it came from the dreaded 88mm antiaircraft gun, a fearsome weapon. It took a shell 25 to 30 seconds to reach our bombers, normally flying at 25,000 to 30,000 feet, so we could avoid most of it by changing our direction or altitude every 20 or so seconds, but not over a target. That was straight and level flight, and at 25,000 feet doing 180 mph, we seemed like sitting ducks. Plus our contrails from engine condensation pinpointed our position.”

NOTE: After returning to base, the crews would check the flags over the Officers’ Club bar. A red flag meant another mission was scheduled for the next day. A yellow flag meant, maybe yes, maybe no, depending on the weather. A green flag meant no combat mission was scheduled. For Timberlakes’ crew, the red flag was flying. Another mission come morning.

Aug. 25, 1944: “It was the pilot’s birthday, so I volunteered to fly most of the mission, sort of a birthday present. Our target, once again, was another synthetic oil refinery near the town of Stettin, northeast of Berlin, about as far as a B-17 could make it from England. The flak over the target was very heavy and very accurate. I’d venture a guess there were several hundred flak guns firing at us. The pilot was flying the plane; I’m watching all the gauges in front of me, when suddenly my right leg, from hip to toe, goes numb. It felt like someone had hit my leg with a baseball bat. You can’t take a piece of high velocity metal with ease unless it kills you. I’m thinking, ‘how bad am I wounded?’ I yelled into the intercom that I’d been hit. Fearing the worst, I reached down to my right thigh where the flak had hit me. Of course, blood stained my hand. Feeling started coming back in my toes, my leg, and I could bend my knee normally. The top turret gunner had been hit in the foot, but the flak had not penetrated his flying boot.”

NOTE: A piece of flak about the size of a .32 caliber bullet had gone through the plane’s aluminum skin and embedded in his right leg, along with aluminum shavings. With assistance from the navigator, they got the bleeding under control, completed the bombing mission, and headed for home.

“I knew I could still fly so I stayed in the copilot’s seat. I even managed to fly the plane a bit. It was a long mission, nine hours and 10 minutes. Our group leader called ahead and got landing instructions, and we and another B-17 got top priority because we had wounded aboard, this time, me! As soon as we landed, the pilot taxied up to the waiting ambulance and I managed to get out the forward escape hatch on my own. I got in the ambulance and they whisked me off to the Army’s 65th General Hospital near Diss. Shoot, I got immediate attention at the hospital, examinations, X-rays, and given a really wonderful substance called sodium pentothal. A nurse told me to start counting … I didn’t get very far.”

NOTE: The next morning Timberlake woke up in the officer’s ward. Normally, when flak was removed from a wounded flyboy, the medical staff saved it for him as a souvenir. Not this time. Nobody, including the nurses and surgeon, could account for the piece of flak. It had been misplaced, lost or accidentally discarded. Fast-forward 56 years: Because of recurring pain in his hip and pelvic area, a radiologist friend of Timberlake took a look at his X-rays and said, “Well, lookie here. That, my friend, is a piece of flak!”

Next week, a new crew, new missions, survival doubts, human fear, and the final mission.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran. For story consideration, visit his website at veteransarticle.com and click on “contact us.”