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‘Masters of the Air’ Part Three: A genius plan

Did you know Eighth Air Force airmen had a 75% chance of being wounded, captured or killed? Don't miss Episode 3 of Masters of the Air.
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German fighters were particularly tenacious in their defense of the skies over the Fatherland. During the day, they would get as close as possible to American bombers before unleashing their deadly barrages of machine gun, cannon and rocket fire. Combined with the lack of long-range fighters that could escort the bombers into Germany and back to England, Eighth Air Force airmen had a 75% chance of being wounded, captured or killed. In an effort to increase survival rates and strike a massive blow to German war industry, the Eighth planned a combo punch with the Regensburg-Schweinfurt mission.

The Regensburg group would take the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s air defense en route to the Messerschmitt factory. While refueling and rearming to hit the Regensburg group on their assumed return to England, the Luftwaffe would be unable to engage the Schweinfurt group as it bombed the ball bearing facilities. As described by Major Marvin “Red” Bowman, the mission required precision timing and execution. With such an audacious and historic mission, flown on the anniversary of the Eighth’s first combat mission, air exec Maj. “Jack” Kidd flies as the 100th’s command pilot with Bucky’s 418th Squadron. Not wanting to miss the action, Bucky flies as “reserve command pilot” in Shank’s Fort, leaving Shank as a “passenger.”

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As characteristically poor English weather delays the mission, “Ev” Blakely helps the crew of the lead Fort pass the time with the “two-door” riddle. Meanwhile, the crew of Alice from Dallas debates the survivability of their Fort against an English cow during takeoff. Radio operator Sgt. Bill Quinn argues that the plane would crumple like a tin can. Waist gunner Sgt. Chas Bailey’s counterpoint is to turn the cow into ground beef with a burst from his .50-cal; “peanut butter, peanut butter, peanut butter, jam,” was the diddy used by aerial gunners to deliver effective bursts of fire.

With daylight burning away, the Eighth’s bombardment commander decided to send up the Regensburg group ahead of the Schweinfurt group; otherwise, the Regensburg group wouldn’t arrive in Africa by nightfall. Unfortunately, this meant that the Luftwaffe would be able to hit both groups. The Schweinfurt group would even get hit twice; once flying into Germany and again on the return.

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Over Belgium, the Regensburg group lost their P-47 Thunderbolt escorts who had to return to England. Just after, the Germans pounced. While the Mighty Eighth sent up its largest maximum effort to date of 376 bombers, the Luftwaffe responded with its own maximum effort of 400 fighters. Hundreds of fighters, redeployed from the Mediterranean and Russian fronts, struck hard to turn the Boeings back. As depicted in the episode, Bucky spent most of the mission firing a .50-cal. Before long, the 100th’s Forts were full of shell casings as the gunner’s nearly melted their barrels.

Lt. Col. Beirne Lay, Jr., one of the Eighth’s founders, was supposed to fly on Alice from Dallas as an observer. However, Alice‘s exposed position in the formation led Buck to suggest to Kidd that Lay fly in another Fort, Piccadilly Lily. In the book, Donald Miller notes that Lay saw Alice “explode and disappear in an orange ball of flame.” Bailey and Quinn successfully bail out, but Quinn is unable to free Sgt. William “Babyface” Hinton from the ball turret. In reality, it is reported that Hinton may have stayed behind to help free waist gunner Sgt. Edmund Musante, whose parachute caught on the horizontal stabilizer. Neither Musante nor Hinton survived.

Although the 100th took a beating, the men pressed on. Following repeated hits, the pilot in Buck’s plane asked multiple times to bail out. Lay later reported Buck’s response: “You son of a bitch. You sit there and take it.” This assertion of duty was heard by the crew which brought them together to focus on completing the mission. It also led Lay to recommend Buck for the Medal of Honor, Buck’s words being recorded in Lay’s recommendation.

Major Gale “Buck” Clevens. USAF photo.

Of the 21 Forts sent up by the 100th, nine were lost including “Curt” Biddick’s plane. Many of the men bailed out and survived, but Biddick, Hinton and Musante were not among them. The Regensburg-Schweinfurt mission managed to strike heavy blows to both production facilities. However, the losses suffered by the Eighth prevented a follow-up raid that could have knocked them out completely. Instead, Germany was able to repair the facilities and production actually increased. Despite the mismanaged execution and lack of lasting effects of the mission, the Bomber Boys of the 100th and the Mighty Eighth executed it with valor and commitment. Now, we’ll see a new angle of the war through Sgt. Quinn’s story on the ground.

Also, the answer to Blakely’s riddle is to ask either guard, “Which door will the other guard say leads to heaven?” The truthful guard will tell you the truth and say that the lying guard would point to the door that leads to hell, and the lying guard will lie and tell you that the truthful guard will also point to the door that leads to hell. Either way, go through the other door.