The Briefing - 16 June 1944
In the early morning darkness, with only a flashlight to help him illuminate his way through a maze of tents, he comes upon one of the many tents clustered within a group. It was a task that Corporal Vincent Johnson had done many time before during the last six months since last December when he and the rest of the ground contingent of the group arrived by ship in southern Italy.
Finding the tent he wants, he pulls open the tent flap and enters, stepping on a crudely built wooden floor where inside four men are sleeping on cots. Johnson shines his light on the closest cot nearest the door and wakes its occupant with his left hand shaking the sleeping man’s right shoulder.
“Lieutenant Fletcher, Sir! Wake up, Sir! The mission is on, Sir.”
Jesse Fletcher, a young man in his early twenties, slowly stirs awake. “Huh? What . . . oh, yeah, thanks, Johnson.” As Fletcher sits up and gathers his thoughts, Johnson goes to the next cot next to Fletcher’s cot.
“Lieutenant Gilbert, Sir! Wake up, Sir! The mission is on, Sir.” Another young man about the same age as Fletcher awakes with a moan and groan. With his eyes still closed despite the light shining on his face, he asks, “Ahhh . . .What time is it?”
“It’s Oh-Two-Thirty, Sir. Another big mission today . . . Briefing at Oh-Four-Hundred.”
Now slowly sitting up on the edge of his cot, Rob Gilbert asks, “What’s the load today?”
“Eight Mark-Forty-Threes, Sir. You give the Nazis Hell for all of us back here, Lieutenant.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Gilbert replies as he starts to get dressed grabbing his pants. The next man that Johnson awakens is Henry Sullivan. Gilbert overhears they’ll be carrying over 3500 gallons of high-octane gasoline, a full load for their bomber. Gilbert silently thinks that will mean a long 6-to-8 hour mission; no easy milk-run today.
The fourth occupant, Hal Butler, was not assigned today and was allowed to sleep in, if the noise of his tent mates didn’t already awaken him. As the three men begin to prepare for breakfast, Corporal Johnson, exits to find the next test with another four sleeping men to repeat the wake up process.
After showering, making a trip the outside latrine and putting on their uniforms, the three men began their slow walk to the group’s mess building. On their way the three talked about today’s mission, speculating where they could be going based on the fuel and bomb loads. From all points around the mess building, another 250 men are also performing this very same ritual as they make their way towards the mess building.
The mess building was already a buzz with activity. Mess sergeants and mess cooks were busy putting food on trays, cooking eggs to order, and pouring coffee. That was the first thing that Fletcher noticed right away the the aroma, an aroma he had not experienced since the day the group went to the Hell that as called Ploesti only two weeks ago. It was the coffee, wonderful fresh coffee. Today would be bad, very bad.
“Hey, they've got fresh coffee today,” happily announced one of the newly arrived replacement in line that Fletcher did not recognize. Little does he know thought Fletcher what they would be in for today. As combat veterans, Fletcher knew. So did Gilbert and Sullivan. As a further confirmation today’s mission would be tough, on the menu was fresh eggs, not the inedible powdered stuff, freshly made bread for toast with fresh butter, not the greasy ones like yesterday’s, and something no man had seen in a couple of weeks: fresh bacon and flapjacks. A good meal, thought Fletcher, fit for condemned men.
It wasn’t like this would be a suicide mission but Wing wanted their crews to have a tasteful meal just in case the crews were forced to bail out and captured. It was a thoughtful gesture the crew appreciated none the less.
After their enjoying the best breakfast in weeks, the men headed for the next stop in today’s mission evolution about a quarter mile away: the Briefing Huts. The main hut was a 30 foot tall Quonset hut large enough to hold 150 men. At the entrance, MPs were stopping everyone entering, checking their IDs against their roster. The one checking Fletcher was a gruff, no-nonsense sergeant named Baker. Fletcher had Baker check him in before: no pleasant conversations, no ‘How are you doing, sir’, just hand me your ID and if your name’s on my list, you can enter. A pure authoritarian type; he could have been a cop in his civilian life before the war.
After passing the check in, the men entered into the main area. There were no chairs, just rows and rows of long wooden planks about 25 feet in length supported on empty crates that had been previously used to ship spare parts and ammo from the states. There were two sections of seats, each section separated by the 5 foot wide walk way leading up to the front. At the front was an elevated stage area and on it, a map of southern Europe that was covered by a black velvet curtain, hiding their target for today.
In the rear near the entrance, was the group’s Aircraft and Mission Formation Assignments on a huge 20 by 30 foot blackboard. The board was divided into 4 equal sections, one section for each of the four squadrons. The three men scanned the board in the upper left corner and verified their squadron would be leading the group. Within a column marked ‘Aircraft’ written in yellow chalk was 43-45555, the serial number of a B-17G nicknamed Four of a Kind. The next column was the command pilot’s column and its pilot was their squadron commander, Daniel Tanner. The three had flown with Tanner before, and found him an excellent pilot and a good CO. In the far right column was reserved for ‘Remarks’ and it contained ‘Col. Lamb’ and ‘Crew 65’. Crew 65 was the crew that Fletcher, Gilbert and Sullivan belonged to. In the lead today, Fletcher knew with Colonel Lamb sitting the co-pilot’s seat, Fletcher’s seat, he’d be sent to the tail to serve as the formation observer. Knowing they were first in the formation, they then checked to see who else was assigned to fly in the other 8 rear positions.
Now filing in were some of the squadron’s first pilots that Fletcher still recognized: Loren Zurn and Bill Patrick, along with their crews. Each crew all checked the big board, just like Crew 65 had previously done. Nothing to worry about today as the leading squadron was considered the safest squadron for missions. At least today the 316th wasn’t assigned as the low squadron, the dreaded ‘Purple-Heart’ squadron. But the next mission would be their turn to fly in the low squadron as each squadron was rotated for every mission.
The crews now went to find their seats in the smoked-filled room. Except for the front rows which was reserved for the squadron commanders, the briefing officers and personnel, it was first come, first seated type of seating arrangement. For those who took their time getting to the briefing they would have to stand in the back. Walking along the center aisle, Fletcher spotted the squadron’s newest replacement crew sitting in one of the middle rows on the left: Andy Young, Chris Cox, Phil Croome, Johnny Tanner and their flight engineer, Paul Marlborough. They were replacements for Pete Paulini’s crew who were shot down over Munich three days ago. Paulini’s crew didn’t even make it through one full mission; it was their first and last mission. Fletcher didn’t even have a chance to get to know who they were; he could barely remember what they looked like. These new guys already did one better when they returned from Budapest two days ago. Fletcher hoped these new guys’ luck would last a while longer. Fletcher, Gilbert and Sullivan saw an open spot in the second row that was saved by their own flight engineer, Pete Sauer. It was one of the perks for being the lead crew for today.
Within 5 minutes the hut was filled up with over 150 men, the majority of them were crews who talking about where they would be going on today’s mission. Some were joking and horsing around attempting to relieve the tension of the unknown. Others were silently contemplating the situation. The remaining non-combat men consisted of the group’s briefing personnel. Soon a loud, “Ahhh-TENNNN-HUTTTTT!!!” was bellowed out from somewhere from the rear by one of the MPs. Simultaneously every sitting man stood up tall, while men who were standing remained where they were and froze at attention, every man stiff and unmoving as a statue. Only one man was moving, making his way along the center aisle towards the stage, his walk straight, upright, and confident. Medium in height at 5’6”, Lieutenant Colonel Lamb was the Commanding Officer of the group. He was the oldest a man in the group, in his mid-thirties, while most of the men under his command were barely in their early twenties. He had been with the group since its inception in the states, trained the group in South Dakota to be combat ready and lead it across the Atlantic last December.
Lamb climbs the short steps onto the stage area and turns to face the assembled men. “Good morning, men . . . At ease and take your seats.” The Colonel then begins the briefing with an overview on what the entire 15th Air Force will be doing along with how the group will contribute in today’s mission. It was going to be another huge effort with over 600 B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers along with 250 fighter escort. Then came the moment all the air crew were anxiously waiting for, and dreading, the order from the Colonel to Sergeant Walter Davis to remove the velvet curtain to reveal the target.
Hundreds of eyes quickly followed the familiar red string from its starting point in southern Italy, moving northward, across the Adriatic Sea, entering and then exiting Yugoslavia, continuing onward into south-eastern Austria, still moving northward until it almost exited northeastern Austria, but finally stopping short of the Czechoslovakia-Austrian border ending at its capital, Vienna.
Upon finally learning where they would be going, the entire hut erupted with groans, moans, and cussing. A few men sat silently looking at the map contemplating their fate. It was Vienna. Next to Berlin and the valuable oil fields of Ploesti, Romania, the Austrian capital was the third most heavily defended city in all of Europe. It was not the pre-war Vienna, birthplace of Johann Strauss and his classical Blue Danube Waltz, but the war time Vienna that was heavily defended by flak guns that there was a saying amongst the crews, “flak so thick you could walk on it”. That was their Vienna. The group went to Vienna two months ago. That day, four crews, forty men, didn’t return, plus one plane returned with six dead. That one crash landed with a massive hole in the waist section after taking a direct flak hit and it had to be written off as scrap. The war time Vienna, Bloody Vienna, was their Vienna.
The Colonel continued with his pep talk about the importance of today’s target, the oil refineries in Florisdorf district in the north part of Vienna. The Allies’ strategic plan was to deprive the Third Reich of oil that their U-Boats, tanks and airplanes needed. No oil, and the Nazi’s ability to conduct war would be severely impacted. But in order to accomplish that, the men of Fifteenth Air Force would have to fly into harm’s way.
Then the Colonel turned over the briefing to the group’s Operation’s Officer, Major Thomas Payne. Here the squadrons formations were specified, where and which other groups they would be rendezvousing with, the planned route, the check points and the mission’s procedures.
Next came the intelligence officer, Major Joe “Kit” Carson. Before going over in detail the target’s defenses, Major Carson reemphasize the importance of accurately hitting the oil refineries. In his distinctive way of speaking in a slow southern drawl, the Major mentioned that if we could knockout the refineries today, we could shorten the war by six months. Funny, Fletcher thought, every time a target was very important and it had to knocked out, the war would always be shorten by six months. Never nine, never three but always six. Fletcher was beginning to think those nitwits at HQ had no idea how eliminating some oil refineries would affect the overall war effort. Then the lights were dimmed and Carson using an epidiascope, showed target photos projected on the movie screen showing where the refineries and the flak defenses were.
The lights came back on and then the group’s weather officer, Major Jack “Stormy” Beckman, went over the weather conditions from start to finish. In typical military logic, no matter which base you were stationed, the weather officer would more often that not would have the nickname, “Stormy”. Today’s weather from Foggia, across the Adriatic Sea, all the way to Vienna was forecasted to be clear conditions. Good conditions worked both ways in aerial warfare. It was good for the Americans in order to do precision bombing and for their fighter escort to rendezvous with them. But it was also good for the Luftwaffe fighters to find the bomber formations.
After Major Beckman was done, Major Payne returned and held a quick final questions session. Then the final ceremony that ended the main briefing, Mayor Payne began “Time Hack”. Beginning a countdown starting at five, and ending on “Hack” on Major Payne’s mark all the watches of the crewmen in the room was now synchronized.
Forty minutes was all the briefing took. Now the men broke up for more specialized briefings; the pilots, the navigators and the bombardiers would separate into their groups to receive further information pertinent to their own duties.
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