Fish in a Barrel

Harold drifted down faster and faster until he hit land in the village of Kehrenbach, about 15 miles southeast of Kassel. The plane was long gone, as was the remainder of his crew. He landed in a field, cut his chute and began to look for cover in the trees of this small town. As he ran, he felt a sting in his arm and back. Harold looked down at his ripped sleeve of his bomber jacket and saw blood – definitely his. It was amazing he made it out of that plane, he thought. The last thing he remembered was smoke and heat, and jumping out of that damn bomb bay into nothingness. He was in pain, but alive – at least he had that to look forward to. 

Two little boys in the village saw the plane spiraling to its demise and noticed the red headed man with the parachute making his descent onto their town. As Harold reached this tiny village, the boys ran to him and followed him on his search for help. They spoke German at the man with the name “Schwerdt” on his jacket, but he couldn’t understand much of what they were saying. They pointed at his bloodied arm; he imagined he looked worse for wear and hoped they would be kind to him. He stopped before the two small boys and smiled. They looked up in wonderment at this dirty, injured American man who happened to land in their home. One of the boys approached Harold and tugged on the hem of his jacket and spoke at him in a pleading way. Harold didn’t understand much German, but he understood children.

His bomber jacket, although torn, still had intact pockets – one of which held chocolate. He reached into his jacket, broke up a bar, and handed pieces of the candy to the boys, who happily received them and continued to follow Harold as he searched for medical attention. Others in the town already gathered, drawn by the trail of smoke and crash. He smiled sheepishly and pointed to his arm and tried to draw some attention to his back. Sympathetic eyes of an old woman looked him over. The village’s Burgermeister and his wife arrived and approached the injured tech sergeant and offered assistance. The sound of barking dogs drew Harold’s attention to an official-looking group of armed men. A German police officer led them. He approached with reports that an American plane went down and there may have been survivors. 

“What are you doing with this American?” He un-holstered his firearm and aggressively waved it at the Burgermeister. The man was speaking German, but Harold knew he was the topic of conversation. 

The Burgermeister stepped forward and stood his ground between the policeman and Harold. “He is injured. He needs help. We can provide him help.” Harold stood, in pain, barely catching what words were said. “Hilfe, hilfe, hilfe,” he heard. “Help, help, help.” He remembered his mother asking for help with chores, or his father asking for help with handy-work. He thought to himself in that moment how he could have used his parents’ help by speaking more German in the house back in Jamaica.

The policeman didn’t care that the soldier was injured. He was American. “He must come with me,” the policeman insisted. He edged closer to the Burgermeister and lifted his weapon. “If you refuse, I will not hesitate to shoot all of you.” The Burgermeister, without lowering his head, stepped aside. He knew there was nothing more he could do for this injured American. Harold twinged in pain as the policeman bound his hands behind his back. 

“Schwerdt?” He gestured to Harold’s badge. “Do you speak German?” Harold shook his head no. The policeman mocked him. Surrounded by the villagers, and the Burgermeister and his wife, Harold never felt so alone. He was hauled off back through the town, the Burgermeister pleased with himself and his dog snarling at Harold’s feet. He was thrown into a vehicle and shut into darkness. Where would he be taken? Will he ever get to write Loretta again? 

Unfamiliar Territory

Unfamiliar Territory

Well, fellas, here she is.”

Harold, Kelley, and crew all stood before their new B-17, Classy Chassis. It was originally operated by a pilot, Alexander, who was to replace Topin as copilot while Kelley took over his seat as the captain. Jack and Ned gandered at the damaged Shack Up. “Good job, boys. You broke the plane.” Jack stood with his hands on his hips and cocked his head dramatically and comically to the side. It reminded Harold of his mother when he and Arthur would get in trouble as young boys; she would reprimand Harold for something his brother did, and vice versa. Harold would defend himself and then ask his mother to dress them differently. The group laughed at Jack’s comment because it was funny, but also because they were still in shock that they managed to land the plane. 

“Where’s your digit?” Jack pointed to Harold’s bandaged hand. 

“I dunno, somewhere near Dusseldorf, if I had to guess.” Jack laughed, “You boys ready for this one we got coming up? Dropping in on Kassel. Going to give those Jerry’s a nice wake-up.” Jack and Ned were set up to fly into Kassel and drop several tons of bombs in their wake; each B-17 was capable of carrying up to three tons. They hoped to be home that afternoon. Harold had a letter to write back home to Loretta. 

Several days prior the Allied forces began an operation against German ball-bearing and aircraft factories. Ball-bearings were vital to the aviation industry, and used in just about all machinery. This factory in particular was assembling FW-190’s. It was speculated that the Focke-Wulf was the best single engine fighter aircraft of the war. The FW-190 took its first flight in 1939, and since then its appearance over the skies always left a little extra tension in the already strung-out airmen. If they successfully destroyed these, they could begin the process of sweeping out Germany – at least in the sky. By 1943, Germany was already wavering on its pedestal, with more and more propaganda highlighting Hitler as unstable, his people starving – and as a result more and more Jews and minorities were unjustly punished. The killing of innocent people only increased as the end of World War II – hopefully – approached.

The ships took off out of Ipswich early July 30th. Kelley and his crew departed for Germany just after eight in the morning. The low roar of the plane shook Harold with a slight uneasiness – the same uneasiness he felt each time he went up in the sky. It had only been a couple of days since their previous plane went down – but this was war and a job had to be done. If they were successful in their mission, there wouldn’t be so many planes to worry about shooting them down, he reasoned. It would get done. 

Jack and Ned flew close by to Classy Chassis – two of over 100 bombers set to destroy the Junkers and Fieseler aircraft factories that sat just outside of a small village called Dorla. The B-17s did not have the protection of the Mustang fighter planes this time, and were resolved to defend themselves as well as each other. Daytime missions were always a risky run, sure, but they had luck on their side – especially following the July 28th mission. 

After flying into Germany, Classy Chassis began its mission. They turned north. These ships moved so smooth and elegant, Harold thought, as Kelley maneuvered Classy Chassis effortlessly to the drop location. The sinking feeling in Harold’s stomach came back, knowing the crew would have to fend for themselves, as well as being unreasonably deep in enemy territory. They were over the town of Bebra when suddenly an explosion rocked the left side of the Fortress. Harold was thrown to one side and the ball turret gunner ran to his station without saying a word. Through the ten-panel plexiglass the men saw fighter planes bob and weave about their formation. From below, German anti-aircraft weapons blew a hole straight through the wing of the plane. Engine number four was completely shredded and replaced only by smoke and flame. Flak pierced the metal and the crew screamed out in confusion and fear. The sound of metal ripping from the fuselage and wings was like if every train scheduled to pull into Jamaica Station back home came in at once without stopping. The men tried to steady themselves and Kelley fought to keep the nose even as thick, black smoke poured from the portside of their aircraft. Harold felt a deep, burning pain in his back but continued to look for something to shoot at. He jerked his wrists forward to choke up the sleeves of his bomber jacket and get a better grip on the turret gun when he noticed the gash on his arm. He gritted his teeth at the pain and yelled for direction, not knowing how many of the crew were still present. 

More smoke filled the ship. Sparks flashed and Harold began to find it difficult to see. Things looked grim; they still had a bomb shaft filled with artillery, and it was confirmed that two engines on the wing were torn clean off. Harold tried to desperately see if there were any other planes around them caught up in the mess. He wanted to see if Jack was out of harm’s way and on his route back to England.

Again, another explosion. A shell effortlessly ripped through the cockpit and the oxygen systems engaged. Electric was now completely lost and Kelley knew then that there was no hope for getting this ship back to England. They had been in the sky for just over an hour, trailing smoke like a bad omen across Germany. 

The controls were so damaged that they were flying a ticking time bomb if they stayed. Thinking quickly, Adams jumped into the bomb bay and used a large screw driver to wedge open the bomb shaft. All at once, the artillery dropped from the underside of the plane with no target in mind – the only goal to lighten the load and give the crew some more air time as they thought on what to do next. 

“Bail out! Bail out!” Kelley called from the cockpit as he made his way to the bomb bay. It seemed obvious at this point. He knew their situation was making them nothing more than an easier target for German fighter pilots. Jones ran over to radio an emergency message. By the time he returned to the front of the plane, the cockpit was empty – the rest of the crew had bailed out. Papers and wiring flew around and were sucked out into the sky as pieces of metal ripped from the fuselage. Jones found his way to the bomb bay and jumped.

One by one, the men descended onto Germany in different locations. They were separated, wounded, and far into enemy territory. Jack and Ned watched helplessly from the B-17 in front of Classy Chassis, his own crew avoiding flack and bullets from the Germans, and returning fire when they could. The parachutes disappeared among the trees as Jack counted and recounted how many he saw leave the Chassis, telling himself over again that Harold made it.

August 1, 1943

Sunday Night

RETURN TO SENDER

My Ha,

My darling, I’m home now. I was over your house today and your mother is feeling very well and cheerful. Erwin and Frances too. Bob, Irene, and the children were there also. They are well too and Diane is a little devil. God! She’s so cute when she’s naughty. She makes you laugh. I left your house around 8:30, bought an ice cream and moped home. The sky is very beautiful tonight and its countless stars are shining away. Several planes flew overhead and I tried to visualize my honey in one. Honey, I love you very, very, very much. I really think about you all the time darling, you are so nice. 

Honey, take good care of yourself as you belong to me. If you don’t get good meals, step out and buy one that is good. Keep well and don’t ever change.

Enclosed is the card where my place was at Erwin’s reception. I love the way that looks, my Mr. Schwerdt, don’t you?

Annamae Hennesey had a 9lb, some-odd ounces – baby boy. I’m so glad everything turned out so well for her!

I’m sorry this letter is in pencil, Ha. Gosh! I’m always apologizing huh! But I love you.

My regards to Jack and Ned.

Be good honey, I love you lots and lots.

Your,

Loretta

Welcoming Committee

July 7, 1943

My Darling Wife,

I love you with my whole heart and soul. If, by shining its light, the sun could express my love for you, you’d never see darkness. And if the tide would come in every time I think of you, the ocean would be constantly overflowing. Honey, I’m madly in love with you.

I completed the gunnery course and received my diploma yesterday. If we don’t have anything else honey, we’ll at least have enough diplomas to wallpaper our house with. 

Today, I arrived at my base, and immediately dashed off to the mail room. The last time I received mail was may 28. That’s some time ago, so you can imagine how much I appreciated your letters. I got 11 from you, 2 from Erwin, and 1 from Arty dated May 20. Honey, [you’re] swell for writing me so much, and I love you for it. I enjoyed your mail and consider every letter a treasure in itself.

I knew about the shower the girls were going to give you that Saturday and am very glad to learn you had a swell time. The presents we got interest me a great deal, and is the start of a new cottage whose occupants shall be none other than Mr. and Mrs. H.P. Schwerdt. Then, after a while, I hope the stork pays us a visit and leaves a baby Loretta. Gee honey, I love you. 

Honey, [you’re] swell for taking care of the cards and etc; anniversaries and buying presents for Father’s Day. [You’re] just wonderful sweetheart, and I think [you’re] the best wife there is. 

I have $100 on me, and will get a money order and send it to you tomorrow. I’d like to [enlighten] you as to my financial status, and think it best if we keep it a secret. I thought you knew, so here it comes. First of all, my base pay is $114. Then, I get $57 for flying, then, $22.80 for overseas duty, and for being married, I get $37.50. It comes to a total of $231.30 a month. From that, you get $100, my mother gets $25, and the government keeps $7 for insurance, which leaves me a total of $99.30. I’ll be able to send you a money order for $50 (I hope) every month. You should get $100 from the government about the middle of every month beginning with July. I hope this money situation pleases you and that you’re satisfied with it. 

I’m sending you all I can cause I’m all out for a little cottage for 2; or 3, or 4 or more.

My Darling, I love you lots and lots. I think of you all day and dream of you all night.

It’s [goodnight] sweetheart.

Your Honey and Husband

All my love,

Ha

xxxxxxx

P.S. I love you

Regards to all.

Nite Wifey.

Love 

The Shack Up – or Kelley’s crew, as they were known – already completed a handful of bombing missions over Germany throughout the month of July. Harold, a technical sergeant, gunner, and sometimes radio operator, began to live for the rush of a mission. The men would hustle into position and impatiently wait as they were cleared for take-off. He loved the power of the B-17, the Flying Fortress – the Ship – as she effortlessly maneuvered down the airstrip and glided up into the sky, swimming into the clouds in a graceful climb before dropping bombs on Axis forces. It was a beautiful dance; when he was training and flying over Kansas and Oklahoma, Harold often felt bored seeing the same flat, monotone land. He hoped for ground crew assignment because at least he’d have things to work with. Then, up in the sky on his first mission, he saw the unfortunate beauty of a war-torn Europe. He saw mountains, rivers, and bodies of water that all moved their own way, that all had their own shade of blue. He saw rolling plains – and he saw destruction. He bore witness to villages that were decimated, and cathedrals and synagogues reduced to nothing more than smoking rubble. He saw people running for their lives in unknown directions – trains taking innocent men, women, and children and transporting them away to far, unknown places from where they would surely not return. It was absolute chaos – beauty and chaos.

On July 28, the Shack Up went out for its sixth mission. They followed close with other Fortresses manned by men such as Jack and Ned. After they completed the mission, high on victory, the group of Airmen encountered fire from three German 187’s, armed, carrying the intent to damage and destroy whatever B-17s they could. The men quickly went to battle stations as they already began to feel the piercing of metal by the fighter plane’s guns. 

Harold went to his position at the turret when he noticed one of the 187’s wasn’t firing at them. Instead, he was climbing and descending, matching the altitude of the Shack Up and then pulling away to circle back. He watched the plane disappear to the aft of the aircraft and looked down, knowing what his eyes would already be met with – flak. These 88mm anti-aircraft cannons were waiting for the Fortresses, and the pilot of the 187 was radioing the altitude of the B-17 so they could get a more accurate shot on Kelley’s boys. This momentary distraction was interrupted when Harold heard the pang pang pang pang of bullets getting louder and closer to his turret. He heard a bullet whiz past his ear and hit the inside of the plane close behind him. Then, he felt a white-hot pain in his right hand. Harold looked down and was met only with blood. He gnashed his teeth at the pain. Harold picked his hand up to see his pinky had been shot off. 

A loud explosion rocked the Fortress and his attention went to Kelley’s shouts from the cockpit. 

“They hit the goddamn wing again! Engine out!” Kelley struggled with Topin to keep the plane aloft as it violently shook in the sky. Ping ping ping ping ping came back around and Harold quickly realized he could no longer move the turret gun automatically. When the 88mm ripped through the wing it must have blown out part of the electrical, he thought. There was fire and smoke as the flak ripped the wing like paper. He knew his right hand was no good for firing, so he swallowed the pain and began to manually crank the turret as he followed a 187 through the air, squeezing the trigger with his non-dominant hand, and returning fire with a 50 caliber. 

Pop pop pop pop pop! 

Black smoke began to billow out of the 187 and Harold felt relief once he saw flames engulf the wing of the aircraft. It sputtered and screamed as it jolted around in the sky – victory for Harold. The plane began to nosedive for the ground.

“We gotta get the hell out of here!” 

They continued on the best they could, pursued by the last remaining 187. Three of the four engines were out. Kelley managed to stabilize the plane long enough to land in Allied territory. All ten of the men bailed out, unaware of the extent of the damage or whether or not the Fortress would explode. As they ran, they heard the scream of the fighter above them as it doubled back over their heads. Harold looked up to the sun, ready to fight – or face his death. Shot out of the sky and then killed on the ground; he thought to himself this would be such an ironic way to die. The 187 dipped low. Then, reflecting in the summer sky, the pilot waved the wings of his plane – portside down, then starboard, righting himself once more to fly off back to his own base.

“I’ll be damned,” Kelley breathlessly said, “did he just wave goodbye?”

Harold stood a moment in shock, “Gee whiz!” Kelley brought attention to Harold’s bloodied hand. The other men took notice to check themselves over for any serious injuries. Luckily they were all intact; all the other men had ten fingers each. Harold remembered then the pain in his hand and grasped the missing finger. “It’s lost somewhere in Germany now.” He winced for a moment. The crew took off on foot to be intercepted by an emergency response crew that would take them back to their base in Knettishall. They walked with a purpose, breathless and coming down off the adrenaline of an air fight. 

“Close call boys.” 

The men later went and assessed the damage of the Shack Up. There were at least 60 flack holes that ran along the side of their pride and joy. Both wings would have to be replaced, and the back of the plane was almost completely blown off. The tail gunner sighed in his own disbelief, “I can’t believe I didn’t get blown right out of the sky!” Harold and the other waist gunner shook their heads, “She’s going to be out of commission for a while, huh.” The wings were relatively simple to replace, but they had other missions that needed to be carried out and the Shack Up wouldn’t be done in time for their next run on the 30th. 

Kelley shook his head.

“Looks like we need a new set of wings.”

Relay

Relay

June 4, 1943

My dear, 

I am mailing this note for your husband. He is here now at our flying field, and I work in one of the tool cribs in the big hanger. I waited on him and I offered to help him and he asked me to write you.

I have three boys of my own and I would want some other mother to help them. I wish I could do for all the boys and I do try as I see so many of them as they take off for some distant land. 

He told me something of himself and I liked him. I hope you can get a message to his mother – 

He takes off early in the morning for the far place – I guess you can guess. 

I shall always think of you both, and God Bless you.

Sincerely,

(Mrs.) Laura P. Bell

Odlin Rd. R.7.D.2.

Bangor, ME

P.S. He would like to have written more, but just ended it. 

Just as soon as he arrived in Maine, Harold got the call. On an early June morning, he was mustered from his sleep and ordered to pack his things and prepare to head out to the far lands. He, along with his buddies Jack and Ned, his pilot Frank Kelley, and the rest of his crew, was set to take up camp in England where the 8th Air Force impatiently waited. With the help of a woman working in the hanger, Harold dictated a note home to Loretta and boarded a plane. He was going to war. 

The plane that transported the soldiers was loud and hollow. Harold sat along one side and looked around him at the other men, all dressed alike – all with the same grievous look on their faces. A couple of soldiers bantered and laughed, but it was so loud on the plane that Harold didn’t bother to try and make conversation with anyone around him; Jack wasn’t seated next to him and he didn’t feel like raising his voice. He couldn’t see, but wondered what the Atlantic Ocean looked like from their altitude. When he was a boy, Harold dreamed of flying. And when he was in training, he longed for better scenery than the plains of Oklahoma. Now that it was finally happening, he regretted not having a window to look out of. 

The base was busy and filled with men who were ready for what seemed to be anything. Harold whirled around with his crew of nine others to prepare for what would be their first assignment. There was no room to rest, no room to write home immediately, just preparation for flight over Germany. He knew this was his time to prove himself to his country – and of course – his new wife back home; he hoped she got the letter from the secretary in Maine. 

The air base itself was massive, with one large runway that ran from East to West, with two smaller runways – one Southwest to Northeast, the other Northwest to Southeast. To the north of the airfield was the bomb dump, and Harold was set to do technical work on the southern point. 

Their first B-17 was named “The Shack Up.” Led by the pilot Frank Kelley, Harold – along with Topin, Carl Alexander, DB Adams, Carlton Jones, Marchinski, Ryals, Joe Maschke, and Alex Milligan – prepared themselves for what would be the first of hopefully many successful bombing missions on the Jerry’s. They were a family; Harold was very close with Jack and Ned, two other Flying Fortress crewmen. At night, they’d sing songs and tell stories about their girls back home, just waiting for the order to go up in the sky. 

“Write Loretta home a kiss for me!” Jack winked at Harold and he laughed.

“Hey, Schwerdt! Heard you’re pretty decent at engine repair.” Harold looked up and saw someone approaching him with a tool kit. He’d been at the camp for about a week, tinkering and training along with the rest of the new arrivals. 

“Sure, what can I help you with?” The fellow technical sergeant led Harold over to a plane he hadn’t worked on before and explained some issues that, although familiar-sounding, he was lost on. 

“So d’ya think you can help me out?” 

He hesitated. Then, grabbing the tool kit, Harold nodded and walked over to where the trouble was. After tinkering about for a while and going on a little faith, Harold closed everything up. “Should be good,” he said as he wiped some summer sweat off his brow. England was supposed to be cold and cloudy, he thought.

The other tech sergeant looked pleased. “Great! Let’s put her in the air!” He wiped his hands on his jumpsuit, threw up his arms and signaled the pilot. Harold panicked inside. What if he was wrong? He hadn’t seen an engine like that before – but most plane engines were similar, right? What if he did something improperly? He couldn’t tell them now.  

The engine, to his pleasant surprise, kicked on almost immediately and turned, nose towards the end of the runway. The pilot gave a thumbs up and Harold nervously watched as the plane picked up speed and grew smaller and smaller before his eyes. He felt his insides dancing while he hoped for the wheels to just lift off the ground –  even a little bit. Then, effortlessly, the plane took off! The pilot kept low and did some circles over the base. The technical sergeant clapped Harold on the back, “Hey would ya look at that! Swell job, Red. I think you’ll get on just fine here.” A tension lifted off Harold’s shoulders that he hadn’t noticed before that moment; he truly felt a part of a family in the 388th.

That night, the men gathered to play cards before it was time to turn in and go to bed. They were going to start running missions in a couple of days. Tensions were high but they all seemed to do a good job of keeping it under wraps with songs and games. Ned, Jack, and Harold reminisced about the ice cream shops on their block, the busy sounds of New York, and their gals. It was unfortunate for them to be so far from loved ones, but at least they had each other.

The men were called in for a briefing at one of the Nissen Huts to discuss their next missions.

“Daytime raids, boys,” the commanding officer began, “are going to be frightening for some of you. I know a lot of you fellas are still getting settled into the 388th station here – I get that. But, we have no time to waste. Everyday we spend on the ground is another day those Jerry’s advance around Europe.” 

He went on to explain the importance of the daytime raids. Before them on a table lay an aviation map, complete with a key and writing. The navigators all huddled around in one group and looked over the terrain. The pilots, in their own circle, went over the flying formation and what steps to take in order to look after each other. Harold, along with other technical sergeants and gunners, left the Nissen Hut to finish up some last minute maintenance on their fortresses.