It was March 29, 1944, and the twentieth mission for our B-17 crew. We were assigned to the 401st Squadron of the “Mighty Eighth” Air Force and flying out of a former Royal Air Force base at Bassingbourne, England. On that day, we were to lead an attack against an aircraft factory near Brunswick, Germany. On previous missions to this area, we had encountered fierce fighter opposition and were briefed now to expect more of the same. At this point in the war, our strategy was to destroy the Luftwaffe-in the air, on the ground and in the factories-in preparation for the planned D-Day landings.
The ten members of our crew had grown accustomed to the nervous tension that built up in our bodies during each mission, because many crews were being shot down during this period. We were given a detailed briefing on the weather, expected opposition from antiaircraft fire and fighter aircraft, survival techniques, etc. Then we gathered up our parachutes, helmets, flak vests and guns before going to our aircraft.
The ball of apprehension in our stomachs grew during this takeoff in our overloaded aircraft. As we climbed up to our bombing altitude of twenty-six thousand feet, the other five planes in the squadron that I was leading joined us. Over the English Channel, the guns were test-fired and radio checks completed. We sped toward our target and dropped our load.
After completing the bombing run, the formation made a sweeping left turn toward home. A crew member called our attention to a group of about fifty fighter aircraft at two o’clock, ahead and to our right, and slightly higher than our formation. We were always suspicious of any fighter aircraft, because our crafty enemy resorted to all types of ruses to draw our gunners’ attention while others would then press in with an attack. Some familiar tricks were simulating friendly fighter tactics, mock dogfights, etc., while other enemy aircraft suddenly turned in to attack us.
However, these aircraft had the familiar P-51 black paint with white stripes on the wings and were equipped with the wing tanks for extra range. Suddenly, they dropped their tanks just off to our right, and we looked around for German fighters in the area. We found them, when the whole formation of “P-51s” turned out to be Luftwaffe ME-109s that turned in to us with their cannons blazing! We narrowly missed being rammed by two of them that just barely passed over us.
We couldn’t escape being hit, with two ME-109s firing at us point-blank. Looking out the left window, I saw the left wing covered with a sheet of flame from the cockpit to the wing tip. Frank, in the ball turret, called on the interphone, “We’re on fire!”
“Get out of there right away,” I responded. Then without thinking-and because in the Flemish farm community near Green Bay, Wisconsin, where I grew up, it was the custom to joke under difficult circumstances-I added, “Come up here, and we’ll have a wienie roast.”
I didn’t wait to hear if he was laughing, for I was watching the flames blow off of the back of the wing, except for those around the number-one engine, where they burned brightly around the cylinders. I immediately followed established procedures to extinguish the fire. If we didn’t control it, it would mean bailing out-a prospect I didn’t want to consider in this particular situation. It seemed to take forever, but the fire did go out. By then, friendly fighters had arrived to chase the enemy away, so we limped along safely behind the returning B-17 formations.
We “sweated out” the trip back home to England. Since our gasoline supply was low, we chose to remain near the surface to conserve fuel. We came over our home field at Bassingbourne at two hundred feet, made a tight pattern and were once again back on terra firma. The crew gave a huge collective sigh of relief.
The popular expression “There are no atheists in foxholes” applied to our B-17 as well. God spared us above Brunswick; I think we may have been the best-praying crew in the Eighth Air Force.
But it turned out that we had other help that day as well.
The flight surgeon grounded our crew for a week, because we had flown seven missions in the last nine days. Some of the crew spent this free time with the mechanics and armament specialists who were repairing our aircraft. They found that four cannon shells had exploded in the airframe, but they also found three more that, strangely, had not exploded. It gave all of us a nasty turn to realize what a truly close shave it had been. If any one of those shells had gone off, it could have been the end of us.
Two of the shells did not contain any explosives in them, but the third had some paper with a message where the explosives would have been. It took a while to find a translator to read the message; it was in Czech and was probably placed in the cannon shell in the Skoda armament plant in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The majority of the Czechoslovakian people resented German control, but many were forced to work in factories supporting the Nazi war effort. The message read, “THIS IS OUR WAY OF HELPING YOU.”
Dr. Lester F. Rentmeester
Condensed from an article in Voyageur
[EDITORS’ NOTE: The crew of the Jeannie Marie: Joe Ashby of Missouri, bombardier; Bob Roberts of Maryland, navigator; Les Rentmeester of Wisconsin, pilot; Bill Behrend of New Jersey, copilot; Elmer “Mickey” Diethorn of Pennsylvania, flight engineer; Ward Simonson of New York, radio operator; Frank Topits of Illinois, ball-turret gunner; Gordon Wiggett of Vermont, right waist gunner; Rudy Malkin of Maryland, left waist gunner; Philip “Flip” Lunt of California, tail gunner.]
Help from an Unexpected Source. Reprinted by permission of Dr. Lester F. Rentmeester. ©2000 Dr. Lester Rentmeester. Condensed from an article in Voyager magazine, Green Bay, WI, December, 2000.