On Sept. 28, 1944, a “progress report” telegram arrived at the home of Richard Timberlake updating his family on the condition of their wounded 22-year-old son: AM PLEASED TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON SECOND LIEUTENANT RICHARD H. TIMBERLAKE JR. RETURNED TO DUTY ELEVEN SEPTEMBER.
Timberlake recalled, “Maybe the war department was ‘pleased’ that I had returned to duty, but I sure wasn’t. War, for me, had become a terrifying reality. ‘Why me’, I thought? I’m a 22-year-old kid, too young to die … I had not even begun to live, to paraphrase A. E. Housman.”
He was also returning to duty with a piece of flak embedded in his right leg. Timberlake had wanted the piece of flak as a war souvenir, as was the custom when flak was removed from 8th Air Force flyboys, but, according to the medical staff, the piece of flak had mysteriously disappeared after surgery. Fact was, the flak was either too deep to remove, or, they were not able to find it during their probing; Timberlake was never told the reason, nor the truth.
NOTE: Embedded flak or shrapnel in a combat veteran is not unusual. Iwo Jima veteran Gerald Hipps was denied benefits related to his combat wounds due to “no documentation” until after his recent death. The crematorium discovered shrapnel in his ashes. When President Ronald Reagan awarded the Medal of Honor to Vietnam War hero and veteran Roy Benavidez, who was wounded 37 times in one engagement, Benavidez still had two pieces of shrapnel logged in his heart and one punctured lung. Shrapnel or flak will sometimes work its way to the skin surface years after a veteran suffered the wound, where it can be removed by a doctor, or many times, by the veteran.
Timberlake continued, “During my hospitalization, two of the crews we had trained with at Drew Army Air Field in Florida (now Tampa International Airport) had gone down. One was hit by flak but the crew managed to bail out and all survived. A second B-17 was cut in half by a diving B-17; all but two of the crew were killed. After my hospitalization, I got a week’s leave in London. While in London, my unit lost nine B-17s out of 36 over Merseburg. Two went down because of a collision after dropping their bombs. One of the two, piloted by a friend of mine, last name Lord, took a direct hit in the nose of his B-17, which killed the navigator and bombardier. Then once they dropped their bomb load, the formation went into a sharp dive to avoid the flak. That’s when the lead plane collided with Lord’s plane, and they both went down. Another pilot, named Michaels, was blinded by flying glass so his copilot took control of the plane. Two engines were out, one worked periodically, so the B-17 was flying on one good engine, but although it was steadily losing altitude, it was still flying and controllable. Then over a big city, which ironically the navigator couldn’t identify at 5,000 feet, the decision was made to ‘bail out.’ Big mistake. You do not bail out of a plane still under control. France was 50 miles away and mostly liberated, but the crew was actually still over Germany and bailed out over a German city. The citizens, most likely upset from recent bombings, were taking pop-shots at their parachutes. All made it to the ground, all captured, and luckily all made it home.”
THE VOERTMAN CREW AND THEIR OCTOBER 1944 TARGETS:
Assigned to another aircrew, Timberlake joined the Voertman Crew, piloted by Bob Voertman: “I knew these guys from my training in Florida, so at least I was familiar with the crew. Doc Yoder, our armorer, was the oldest, a ripe 30 years old. Two of the gunners were teenagers; I was 22, and Bob Voertman, the pilot, was 21.”
Oct. 7 — Their target: the synthetic oil plant at Bohlen, a few miles from Merseburg. According to Intelligence, at least 1,000 flak guns defended the area. Twenty minutes before the IP, the bombardier, Algie Henderson, an experienced airman, spotted a group of fighters. “Those aren’t ours,” he stated tensely over the intercom. A flight of 30 to 50 Me-109 and FW-190 German fighters was ready to pounce.
Timberlake’s 388th group was directly behind the group to face the fighter attack, the 452nd. Timberlake recalled, “The fighters dove through the 452nd then came around for a second attack. B-17s were falling out of formation, many with engines on fire, heading to earth 5 miles below. Thankfully, our P-51 escort pounced on the German fighters and kept them busy. In fact, after the Germans took several losses, they bugged-out. We made the target OK, bombed through thick cloud cover and made it back to base without a loss. The 452nd Bomber Group wasn’t so lucky; they lost 12 bombers.”
Oct. 9: The 388th bombed Mainz through thick cloud cover. The crews saw nothing but clouds and inaccurate flak over the target.
Oct. 13 — CONDITION PURPLE: Timberlake recalled, “It was Friday the 13th, a good day to be on guard. We were sitting around the barracks gossiping when suddenly the base Tannoy system (PA system) blared out, “Air raid alert, Yellow!” That’s a precautionary warning, so we kept on talking. Within minutes, the Tannoy blared out, “Air raid alert, Red!” Well, that got our attention because ‘Red’ meant something was in our area. We stopped talking. Then suddenly, “Air raid alert, Purple!” That meant something was on top of us. Then we heard it….a V-1 buzz-bomb, with its jet exhaust pulsating, sounded like it was coming right at us. Well, some of the guys ducked under bunks while others, including me, ran for the door and a nearby bomb shelter. But at the door, we immediately stopped and watched a V-1 buzz over our base at less than 200 feet. It didn’t drop; it just kept on going. I never heard an explosion, nothing, it just disappeared. From then on, we took the Tannoy system a bit more seriously.”
Oct. 17: Timberlake’s crew was part of a mission to bomb marshaling yards at Cologne. They encountered intense flak and lost one plane.
During late October, Timberlake was checked out and provided the opportunity to fly as first pilot, meaning he’d receive his own crew. He turned it down. Timberlake said, “I was familiar with the Voertman crew; they knew me and I knew them, so I figured my survival chances was better with them than a new crew and the related worries.”
Oct. 30: Another mission to Merseburg. Timberlake’s B-17, climbing at 150 feet per minute to the assembly area, took an hour and a half to reach 14,500 feet. Normal assembly time for 1,200 to 1,400 heavy bombers took up one-third of the mission. Timberlake recalled, “The sight and sound of over 1,200 four-engine heavy bombers from the ground is beyond description. No one who witnessed these huge formations will ever forget it.” Flying over Holland from their approach altitude of 27,000 feet, thick clouds reached much higher than 28,000 feet. At that altitude, even with oxygen masks in use, oxygen becomes a big problem, basically, a mission impossible. The mission was scrubbed, but the crews were credited with a ‘mission’ due to the time spent aloft.
THE MISSIONS OF NOVEMBER 1944
Nov. 2: Back to Merseburg, and for the Voertman crew, their first encounter with enemy jets. Timberlake said, “They were Messerschmitt 163 ‘Komets’, more of a rocket plane than a true jet fighter, like the ME-262. The ‘Komets’ attacked the formation behind us, but no enemy firing was reported, plus our fighter escort had disappeared. We thought, ‘what in the world is going on?’ The ‘Komets’ turned out to be bait, to lure our fighter escort from the First Division’s B-17s behind us so they could use their conventional fighters, ME-109s and FW-190s, to attack the unprotected groups. Somehow, fighter command had figured this out and didn’t fall for the deception. Our fighters and their fighters fought one of the biggest aerial battles of the war directly behind us.”
Once over the Merseburg area, Timberlake’s unit made their final approach to the Leuna synthetic oil plant, notorious for their deadly flak. Then a glitch appeared: instead of a front-to-rear bomber chain, another group was now side-by-side with Timberlake’s group. He recalled, “I saw one plane fall out of formation with its number two engine on fire. It spiraled out of control and disappeared. The ‘kink’ in the bomber chain had thrown us off course and into heavy, continuous flak. Not a good bombing day; we dropped our bombs on Leipzig, more than 20 miles from Merseburg. Luckily, even with damage to a lot of our planes, we made it back to our base at Knettishall.”
Nov. 5: A “milk run” to bomb in front of advancing allied troops near Aachen. Timberlake recalled, “Well, the ‘milk run’ target was obscured by clouds and we couldn’t bomb without visual because our troops were below us. We diverted to our secondary target, the synthetic oil refinery at Ludwigshaven on the Rhine River. The flak was horrendous. Flak damaged some of the electrical circuits to the bomb release mechanism. Over the target, our bombardier hit his toggle switch and as usual said, ‘Bombs away!’, to which the radio operator responded, ‘They didn’t go; they didn’t go!’ Our bomb load was hung-up in the bomb bay.”
THE ‘OLD MAN’ TO THE RESUE: “Doc Yoder, our 30-year-old armorer, walked out on the catwalk in the bomb bay (catwalk was a heavy steel beam, the backbone of a B-17) to attempt a release of the bombs by using a screwdriver. There he was, 5 miles above Germany with 40 below zero air rushing over his body, flak still coming at us, releasing the bombs one by one with his screwdriver. With the last bomb gone, Doc got back into the waist of the ship and we skedaddled for home.”
Nov. 9: Two B-17s go down over the marshalling yards at Saarbrucken. And the freezing cold took its toll. Timberlake recalled, “The high cloud cover above use filtered out the sun, so we didn’t get its usual ‘warming’ effect. The pilot and I were chilled to the bone. By the time we landed back at base, the big toe on my right foot was frostbitten. I spent the night in the infirmary only to be awakened at midnight by a mental patient that had turned violent. The orderlies forced the poor guy into a straitjacket. You know, many of us were near that breaking point, too, and just barely holding on.”
Nov. 16: “Once again our mission was to bomb in front of our troops around Aachen. We bombed from 23,000 feet. I felt sorry for our guys below us, the ground-pounders, and we hoped for the best. Our base at Knettishall was covered in fog, so we were diverted to a Royal Air Force base near Bristol. It, too, was foggy, but we eventually got down and had a chance to bob-nob with our English allies. Oh, I also saw my first lady pilot. British women, just like our American ladies, flew non-combat missions ferrying aircraft from base to base. She was behind the controls of a Spitfire fighter.”
Nov. 30: The next mission from Knettishall bombed the synthetic oil plant at Lutzkendorf, another small town in the notorious Merseburg area. Timberlake’s group was chosen to be the last one over the target. The mission of 1,200 bombers was escorted by 1,000 fighters. The bombers alone burned up over three and a quarter million gallons of 100-octane gasoline. The weather was CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited).
Timberlake: “We didn’t like the idea of our group being the last one over the target, since the first group would hit Lutzkendorf an hour before our group made the target. We expected heavy flak and heavy losses. However, by the time we got there the bombardiers had to aim through dense contrails from the first groups of B-17 and smoke from previous bombing obscured the target area. We missed the assigned target and hit an electric power plant 5 miles from Lutzkendorf.”
The following day, the U.S. Army’s official newspaper, the Stars and Stripes, ran the headline: Fifty-Six Heavy Bombers Lost. By 1944, those losses did not reflect the same magnitude as the losses over the ball bearing producing plants at Schweinfurt and Regensberg earlier in the war when a raid usually put 300 to 400 planes in the air. Too, by late 1944, much of France had been liberated and a “downed” bomber may have crash-landed in friendly territory and not accounted for until a few days later. Nevertheless, our flyboys were still going down. And suffering “light” losses on any mission was not “light” to the families back home.
Next week, Part III, the final chapter: December, 1944, missions on Christmas day, more planes spiraling out of control, crews lost, and Timberlake’s 26th mission, his last mission, in January of 1945. Flak through the windshield, flak through the cockpit floor, two more Purple Hearts, and Timberlake’s war is over.