by Ralph Nichols, with photos by Michael Brunk
“It was a lot of fun until they started shooting at us.” So quipped John Hauff, a World War II veteran of the U.S. Army Air Force – when I asked him what it was like up there.
We were talking before our flight aboard the Aluminum Overcast – the Experimental Aviation Association’s vintage B-17 that recently visited the Museum of Flight – from Boeing Field last week.
A P-51 fighter pilot, Hauff escorted B-17 “Flying Fortresses” and B-24 Liberators on bombing runs over Nazi Germany and occupied Europe, from February to October, 1944.
A member of the 339th Fighter Group, 503rd Squadron, Eighth Air Force, he flew 75 missions. “When the bombers told us they were done,” Hauff added, “then we cut loose and had fun and strafed targets on the ground.
A native of New Jersey who today lives in Lakewood, south of Tacoma, Hauff tells the rest of the story in recollections of missions that he’s written.
Close Enemy Encounter
Like a close call while flying support for Operation Market Garden – an ill-fated airborne allied attempt to encircle Germany’s industrial heartland – on Sept. 23, 1944. His squadron was attacked by “40 or more” Focke Wulf 190 fighters that shot down two American pilots, who bailed out and were taken prisoner.
“Suddenly – after the enemy planes were sighted above them – “the front of my bird was enveloped by a white flash and jumped violently,” Hauff wrote. After regaining control, he found himself “alone in enemy territory [which] is a b-a-a-a-d thingâ€¦.
“It crossed my mind that the Jerry had come within inches of putting a cannon shell into my cockpit and me!” He returned to England “both disappointed and angry that due to being one of the first two hit by the 190s I was put out of action early and not able to join in the ensuing combat.”
Hauff has also written about the side of war we all need to remember today – those who didn’t come home.
In June 1944, two weeks after D-Day, his squadron was to escort bombers on a mission into occupied France. Flying into “snow, sleet and icing conditions,” the fighter pilots lost control of their planes.
“There was no thunder of guns, no ugly, oily black patches of flak, or enemy aircraft spouting fire at us. There was only clouds, ice and snow, but two men died in fiery crashes alone in their out-of-control fighters. Ironically the bombers scrubbed the mission because they caught not see to bomb their targets.”
Hauff said his “official report does not mention the moments of fear and doubt” in the split seconds he had to decide whether to bail out over enemy territory “or stay with the plane and regain control or not regain control and die in a fiery crash when I ran out of altitude.
“Those few moments in that out-of-control Mustang terrified me more than all the flak and machine gun fire encountered in any actual attack on enemy forcesâ€¦.
“Previous losses in my flight [group] had left only four of us in the flight at the time on the mission. I believed that the other three had died that day. I had the unenviable job of inventorying their personal belongings â€¦ and I slept alone in the Quonset hut until the next batch of replacements arrived.”
He would learn years later than one of the others survived after bailing out and spending the rest of the war in a German POW camp. But “by the time I finished my tour and returned to the States eight months later, we had lost thirty-one pilots.”
A Prisoner of War
Back at the Museum of Flight last week, also waiting for the same B-17 flight, was Alfred Soo of El Cerrito, California. Soo, who grew up in Berkeley, Calif., was a B-17 navigator with the 388th Bomb Group, 563rd Airborne Squadron, Eighth Air Force.
But his combat experience ended after two and a half missions. On Nov. 26, 1944, “we were blown out of the air” when we were hit by flack just before reaching our target,” Soo recalled. He parachuted safely and after reaching the ground became a POW for the rest of the war.
There was no time to talk to Soo about life in the POW camp. But, generally, prisoners of war from western allied nations were not treated badly by their German captors – unless they were Jewish, in which case they were shipped to concentration camps.
And it is possible that when he was captured, Soo, like many other American soldiers who shared this fate, was told by a German officer, “Congratulations. For you the war is over.”
Sixty-seven years after it ended, we continue to focus to a great degree on World War II. And with little wonder. This epic struggle ended, as Stanley Weintraub describes its final months in his comprehensive history, The Last Great Victory.
That victory, of course, was swiftly followed by the Cold War, which lasted almost 50 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union. And America’s military men and women been standing guard – and fought and died in smaller “hot” wars – since World War II.
Today We Remember
These soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, women as well as men, valiantly defended freedom at home for the rest of us, in battles in South Korea and in Vietnam – wars in which they fought courageously and prevailed militarily.
Today their same traits of duty, of honor, of heroism, continue against an unrelenting enemy in a different kind of war against terrorism.
On this Memorial Day, then, as we honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in all of America’s wars, let us also take time to thank not only our remaining World War II veterans but all living veterans and those still in uniform for America.
Footnote: In doing online research about the B-17, I came across “World War II Story – This is It!“, stories of a B-17 crew member written to family members 50 years later. Unedited, it is a compelling look at what life in the air war over Europe was really like.]]>
by Ralph Nichols, with photos by Michael Brunk