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All the mental testing, physical training, and flight instruction on Stearman PT-17 biplane primary trainers, Vultee BT-13s, twin-engine Beechcraft AT-10s, and assignment for final training on Mitchell B-25 twin-engine medium bombers, an assignment soon canceled due to a critical need for B-17 copilots, culminated over Hohenbudberg, Germany on January 28, 1945. It was cloudy with sporadic snow squalls, the outside air 60 was degrees below zero, the windshield was icing up from water vapor given off by the pilot’s and copilot’s breathing, the edges of the plastic container that held mission details were used as an icy scraper, which caused man-made snowstorms inside the cockpit, and the protective goggles were frosting up so badly they had to be temporarily removed to give suitable visibility, and flak was coming through the windshield the moment the protective eyewear was no longer protecting eyes.

By December of 1944, 1st Lt. Richard Timberlake had flown 14 combat missions, received one Purple Heart, had seen friends and planes go down in flames, and considered the chances of completing his 35 required missions remote. During Christmas of 1944 in Europe, there was no Peace on Earth nor Goodwill toward Men. A Silent Night meant no shelling or bombing of your city, base, or ship, but it was indeed a White Christmas. The worst European winter weather in decades had given Adolph Hitler the idea of a winter offensive in the freezing cold and deep snow, known to history as the Battle of the Bulge. I’ll Be Home for Christmas was in the thoughts of young men fighting to stay alive in hopes that one day they would be home for Christmas, but there was no Joy to the World in 1944, even on a Holy Night.

Timberlake’s mission log tells the tale of Christmas 1944 and of early January 1945.

Dec. 4: Mainz, marshaling yard. Light flak.

Dec. 15: Hanover, marshaling yard. Light flak.

Dec. 24, Christmas Eve: Darmstadt, an airfield. Moderate flak. Largest mission in history of 8th Air Force. Some bombers did not have gun; others carried no bombs. The idea was to exhibit the specter of the Allies’ overwhelming armada of air power. More than 2,000 heavy bombers, 1,000 fighters, and thousands of medium and light bombers. One lost to German fighters was a lead plane flown by Brigadier General Frederick Castle. Awarded the Medal of Honor, General Castle was the last flyboy in Europe to receive the MOH during WWII.

Dec. 25, Christmas Day: Aroused from sleep for another mission, the mission was scrubbed before takeoff due to foggy and freezing weather conditions. A belated Christmas gift.

Dec. 28: Koblenz, marshaling yard. Light flak.

Dec. 30: Kassel, marshaling yard. Chaff ship. (Chaff was strips of aluminum foil thrown out of lead planes to jam German radar).

A New Year, 1945, and a Near Miss:

Jan. 5: Hanau, marshaling yard. Light flak. Assembling the formation at 18,000 feet, a lone B-17 appears through the clouds and crosses the path of Timberlake’s B-17 by less than 200 feet. The stray B-17 belonged to a group assembling 50 miles away. No explanation for the near-miss was every tendered.

Jan. 6: Ludwigshaven, marshaling yard. Moderate flak.

Jan. 13: Bischofsheim, marshaling yard. Moderate flak.

Jan. 15: Augsburg, marshaling yard. Light flak.

Jan. 20: Rheine, marshaling yard. Light flak.

Jan. 21: Mannheim, marshaling yard. Light, but accurate flak.

Jan. 28: Hohenbudburg, marshaling yard. Moderate, very accurate flak. Wounded twice. Landed at base of 100th Bomb Group (Thorpe Abbotts). End of missions. End of tour. End of flying career.

THE FINAL MISSION, IN TIMBERLAKE’S OWN WORDS: “It was supposed to be an easy mission, a so-called ‘milk run’, to bomb the marshalling yard at Hohenbudberg. I felt this mission was different, maybe because we were going into the Ruhr and we had no combat experience in that area. But I felt no uneasiness or fear like I normally did. Because it was a ‘milk run’? Maybe. But we were also getting close to the end of our tour, so perhaps I was easing up a bit. I didn’t like that feeling. I knew I needed to keep my adrenaline flowing and to keep my senses sharp. It’s 60 degrees below zero outside and we’re having to scrape ice off the windshield. Vapor from our breath was icing up everything. I’m flying, then suddenly there’s a hole in the windshield. A piece of flak had hit the windshield and put a jagged hole in the glass about the size of a fist. Small glass shards hit me in my left eye and other glass shards hit the pilot in his face, but not his eyes. I continued to fly, my vision was cloudy but the glass had sort of hit me gently.

“I looked out the window and noticed the #4 engine throwing oil out the hub. The oil is streaming out across the wing. I can see the engine has been hit by flak, which severed the oil lines. The navigator came over the intercom, ‘Look at that #4 engine!’ I told him, ‘I see it’, and hit the #4 feathering button. Then all of a sudden, my left leg is broken. A piece of flak had hit my leg right in the middle of the femur and broke it. The flak had come up my leg but didn’t go out my leg. It stayed, and once again, I’m going through that same devastating experience of being hit by flak.”


“No. It didn’t burn me at all. By the time it explodes, it’s cooling off very rapidly, traveling through minus 60-degree air. It came up just behind my right foot, scratched the back of my right ankle, hit the control stick (wheel or column) that comes up between my legs, ripped a 6-inch gash in the control column; ricocheted off the control column, hits me in the back of my left leg, breaks the femur, then stops. I’m numb from hip to toe, just like the first time I was wounded. This time when the feeling came back, I could move my ankle and foot OK, but when I tried to move my knee it moved in the wrong place, it moved halfway up my thigh. So I knew I had a broken leg. The question was, how much blood was I losing?”

“Surprisingly, I wasn’t losing much blood. The flak had bruised the top of my leg where it would have come out had it gone through. At least I wasn’t going unconscious. I tried to tell the pilot what had happened, but I couldn’t make myself heard because the flak had also cut intercom wire. I could hear, but not be heard. I took off my oxygen mask and shouted to the pilot, ‘My leg’s broken!’ and put my mask back on. He looked at me like, ‘you poor son of a bitch, I feel sorry for you.’ We were good friends, me 22 years old; him 21 years old and looked like he was 35. Thinning hair, puffy face, a beer type gut …. it wasn’t from the war, that’s the way he was, all his life.”

The pilot takes action: Timberlake recalls, “He called the lead plane and notified them that we had wounded on board, who it was, and told them we were headed back on our own, out of formation. We went back to England ahead of the group. The pilot put the B-17 in a hell of a nose dive, built up airspeed, and we’re heading back at about 200 mph. The feathered engine even tried to come back to life at that airspeed. We get back to base and arrive in a snow storm. The pilot kept banking, trying to find a hole through the snow storm. I grabbed the controls to prevent a fatal ‘slide’ and told the pilot we’d better find another base.”

The other base: “The pilot told the navigator to find another base close by. The nearest was the 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbotts, about 20 miles from our base at Knettishall, so we were there in just a few minutes. The 100th Bomb Group was known as ‘The Bloody Hundredth’ – enemy flak and fighters had wiped out the entire Group to a plane, on three different occasions. Our flight engineer, Sydney Clark, fired red flares out the top turret to announce ‘wounded on board’ and we landed in snow flurries with #4 engine still windmilling. It was a prefect landing, and the medical personnel were waiting for us at a designated area.”

The 65th General Army Hospital near Diss, England: “Once we landed, a flight surgeon and a couple medics came on board and immobilized my broken leg with splints. Then they maneuvered me out of the copilot’s seat and strapped me onto a stretcher between the pilots’ seats before easing me through the forward access hatch. I was amazed at their proficiency. The medics lifted me into an ambulance, the crew and I said brief ‘goodbyes’ and I’m on the way to the 65th General Army Hospital in Diss. Of course once there, they took X-rays, diagnosed the problems, I advised them of the glass in my left eye, then I was given that wonderful substance called sodium pentothal. It was lights out for this flyboy.”

Timberlake gradually gained coherence the next morning. With coherence came the reality of life in an orthopedic bed rigged up in skeletal traction. His left leg was at a 20-degree angle held in place by a supporting apparatus. A pin through his left shinbone below the knee was utilized as an anchor for a metal wishbone attached to each end of the pin, which was utilized to attach a single strand of rope to a pulley at the foot of the bed. The other end of the rope was attached to a 10-pound weight. A harness under his left hip, attached by another rope to a pulley and weight behind the head of the bed, also pulled on the broken femur to keep the muscles from pulling the leg together. He utilized a small trapeze on a chain above his head to pull himself up in bed. It was a lengthy recovery. Timberlake never flew again as a pilot; the horror of the air war in Europe blemished his aptitude for aviation.

Timberlake: “At least I got a piece of flak out of the deal. Major Julian Jacobs, the orthopedic surgeon, presented me with it a few days after the surgery. Later, I was also duly awarded four Air Medals with Oak Leaf Clusters and Oak Leaf Clusters to my original Purple Heart by the hospital staff, although with some administrative foul-ups.”

NOTE: The number of awards presented by the 8th Air Force ruled out formal ceremonies. On a given mission of 1,200 bombers, one-sixth of the personnel on that mission qualified for an Air Medal or an Oak Leaf Cluster, and with nine men on each plane, an average mission qualified 1,800 men for another Air Medal. In one month, an average of 14,400 Air Medals were awarded. Not the same for the Purple Heart and/or Oak Leaf Clusters. One Purple Heart was issued for every 20 Air Medals, many times posthumously. “The Mighty Eighth” lost nearly 5,000 planes endured more than 45,000 dead, missing, or wounded.

After the war, Timberlake earned an economics degree from Kenyon College in Ohio, attended graduate school at Columbia University, and earned his PHD from the University of Chicago under Milton Freidman, one of the most influential economists of the 20th century. Richard Timberlake spent 73 years teaching economics, the last 26 years at the University of Georgia. Since retirement, he has published four books, the last one “They Never Saw Me Then,” was published in 2019 at the age of 97 and relates his wartime flying experience. The last two paragraphs of “They Never Saw Me Then” are most fitting for the closing of his story:

“This brief account of my flying career, and especially the combat episode, comes, perforce, from one who survived. The events may seem dramatic and adventurous now, but the lad I was then felt anything but daring and confident in that grim fall and winter of 1944-1945. We lived with the dread that our lives on this earth were destined to end before they had fairly begun. Such an unsatisfying and undeserved ending! So, a reader who peruses these pages should not stop with my account. He should imagine to himself what the words would say if written by some of the men who went down.

“What, for example, would the men of Bernard Lord’s crew have written, if their words could come back to us, after flak and a mid-air collision over Merseburg on 28 September 1944 took most of their lives? Such stories cannot be written; the principals have no means to share their message. It is left to us who knew and endured to tell something of their suffering, inadequate and incomplete our descriptions may be.

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