WWII Fighter Pilot: TAILBONE GLOW by Lee Rorex

This is the 4th of 6 autobiographical accounts by a P-47 pilot in the 366th Fighter Group of the 9th Army Air Force in Europe in 1944-45. Lee Rorex, the author, sent them to me in 2001 shortly after my dad passed away. He and my dad had flown together, and in many ways these essays tell the story my dad rarely talked about. I didn’t want the stories to be forgotten, so I decided to put them on my website and give them to the world. —Gary Lee Todd (and this is where I got my middle name, Lee)

Pilot Log Entry: 2/2/45 Dedenborn (Germany). Time 1 hour 15 minutes. Had 50 mile winds. Bombed bridge and missed.

In the mission briefing that morning, the Colonel had been very specific about getting that bridge.

“Gentlemen, this bridge supports a double railroad and a paved highway. Now, the Germans are moving tons of frontline supplies across it every hour, every night. Those supplies have to be stopped! Allied lives and the success of the entire war effort in this sector depend on your success!”

The sky was cloudy; there was frost on the ground and the crisp air was cold. A mean wind whipped from the east and boded trouble from the start. A twelve ship squadron went out, unloaded twenty-four 500 pound bombs on that bridge and returned, never having hit that bridge once!

“There are no excuses, Colonel, “ Lt. Bates said in the debriefing, “but, one good reason; that damn wind, forty to fifty miles an hour, and ninety degrees cross the bomb run!”

Try hitting any target when your bomb platform is screaming down at 300 miles an hour; shoved to the left by an irresistible wind force; skidded back to the right by an overapplied foot rudder, fifty caliber guns blazing.

“And, man,” Blaker piped up in his tenor voice, “you should have seen the flak out there! And the smoke! Black as the front hinges of Hell!”

Yeah, flak. Unseen thousands of pieces of jagged metal, produced from shell explosions, seeking to tear the airplane and the pilot apart! Shot up from the ground, it’s called flak. Well, we just didn’t get the bridge, that’s all!

Pilot Log Entry: 2/8/45 Dedenborn. 1 hour 20 minutes. Bombed RR bridge and missed!!!

Yep, same bridge, same place, same results! Flak? The sky was black with the smoke. One flight came in high and unloaded; one tried it from down low. The third flight defied all the rules of safety and flew parallel to, and directly over the tracks! Right down the throats of those huge guns! Cut the rails on both ends of that bridge and never hit the bridge itself once!

Our debriefing that day was a brooding affair; our only consolation being that another squadron had given that same bridge a good old Yankee try that same morning without any better luck.

I was incredulous! How could I have been so close and miss? And twelve of us? The location had to be protected by one of those bomb-proof umbrellas we suspected the Germans had invented!

My sense of failure that day was a curious mixture of chagrin, disbelief and disgust, leavened by an hour and a half of gut-wrenching fear of death, ever present when in the company of a P-47 Fighter-Bomber engaged in the job of war! And the Colonel’s butt-slashing comments hadn’t added anything nice to the day.

Pilot Log Entry: 2/13/45 Dedenborn. 1 hour 15 minutes. Bombed RR bridge. Kaput. Barkley hit. Price bailed.

Yep, same bridge, same place. But, this time, results different! Kaput – that’s German for finished, wiped out, the end.

The poor Colonel, he wasn’t getting off scot-free, either. Some General up there was on his back. His Big Brass butt wasn’t in any better shape for sitting than was my Little Brass butt. So, he had a plan, brought into being by the General’s last and final admonition, I’m sure, to get that damn bridge, or “I’ll find someone who can!” – or something to that effect.

“Men,” said the Colonel at the briefing, “all of you are seasoned combat pilots. That’s why you’ve been picked for this mission.” A curious predictive feeling began a warm sort of glow down in the region of my tail bone. “Today, we’re going to GET THAT BRIDGE!”

How, today? All minds signaled. The Colonel answered the unvoiced question, “We’re going to skip bomb it!”

No, the Colonel wasn’t crazy! No, skip bombing wasn’t unheard of; just the most dangerous tactical bombing maneuver known to man! The Colonel continued, “I’m sure each of you will remember how the river comes toward the bridge from the east. Just a few hundred yards away, it curves to the south, passes under the bridge and wanders off to the southwest.” He was right, we remembered. I could close my eyes and see every detail of that terrain plain as day.

“Now then,” this was his way of saying FOR THE LAST TIME – the warm spot on my tailbone got hotter -“we’ll take two flights of four planes each. Red Flight will stay high as top cover. Yellow Flight (that was me) goes after the bridge.” Still hotter. “Yellow Flight, you men will let down to the ground about ten miles east. You’ll fly up the river just above the water. At this point, (stabbing the map), you’ll do a turn of about thirty-five degrees right. You’ll straighten out; in about one minute you’ll be over the bridge. As you approach it, you lift your nose, release your bombs, break right and up fast (yeah, fast) and get the hell out of there.” He was stealing my lines. But, there it was; sounded simple enough?

Well, consider: here are four airplanes as described earlier; I’m in one of them. Along with my three cohorts, I fly out into enemy territory; let that thundering ball of steel and explosives down to within ten feet of the ground. How’s that for a Sunday A.M. stroll? At that height you rise for fence posts, let down for potholes and hope that the frogs aren’t jumping today! It’s called CONTOUR FLYING.

Now, there’s a small complication. As I make my turn into the target, I’ve got sixty seconds to spot the bridge and release my bombs, right? But, the Colonel didn’t mention that other guy, the one in front of me whose bombs will be exploding under the bridge just as I come thundering in! And the pilot behind me? And behind him?

This is taken care of by spacing, right? If I’m spaced back far enough behind the guy in front of me, his bomb blast won’t hit me. Fine. But, suppose he makes a perfect hit on that bridge? Up in the air will be parts of everything! Bridge! Trucks! Concrete! Rocks! You name it! — How high do they go? — How long to get back down before I thunder in?

But, all the logic is on our side. By coming in so low to the ground, the Germans won’t be alerted. We’ll surprise them. Besides, we’ll be flying so low to the ground that they can’t depress those big guns low enough to hit us. Besides, our speed will be such that they won’t have time to fire at us anyway. Piece o’ cake! Besides, even the Germans wouldn’t believe that any American would be fool enough to try a stunt as dangerous as this! Besides, it’s Sunday.

For some curious reason, we always hurry out to the planes as though on the way to Coney Island instead of a death circus. I get a quick look at the weather and climb in. The roar of that huge engine tends to quell the small fingers of fear which have replaced the warm glow around my tailbone. Red Flight gets off first and Yellow Flight rolls out in order. I am number three man. That means that out of four planes, I’ll follow two into that bridge. The leader will follow no one; the number two man will follow one; the number four man will follow three. Do I ever calculate whose chances are what? Only about a hundred times!

Red Flight takes off and goes high. That’s where you go to look for enemy planes looking for you. Yellow Flight takes off and stays low. That’s where you go to search out a Sunday morning’s sport. It occurs to me that as soon as we are back, I must hurry over to the Chaplain’s tent for late services. Perhaps, with his connections, he can arrange a pardon for all of us who are out killing Germans this Sunday A.M.

Scared? No, that’s not the name for it. My mind is working too fast to absorb fear. Tense? Yes, but mainly in the stomach; good training has taught the arms, hands, legs and feet to perform without thought conscious directions. A little fear nibbles away at the back of the mind; fear of death perhaps, but not enough weight behind it to be distracting. Mostly, just absorbed; fly this beast right every minute; every moment look for those bogeys; they can jump you, shoot you down and be gone in less than a minute flat. Hope old Red Flight is on the ball today.

“Yellow Flight, this is Slipshod Red Leader. Time to hit the deck. We’ll be watching you all the time. We’ll keep the Jerries off your backs. Good luck.” The radio lapses into silence.

Who has anything to say?

Yellow Leader signals for a left echelon formation by a dip of his left wing. All of us take up a position on his left, stepped out and away. Here is that SPACING. All of us have the bridge in sight, again! We see Yellow Leader nose over and start down. We follow in order. The ground comes up fast. Part of the maneuver is to come down with close to full throttle to gain speed. At ten feet above the river we level out. Or is it eight? We push the throttle to the firewall and wish for more power. A minute and a half to go.

All thinking of a superfluous nature stops here. Concentration, that’s the name of the game. Flip on the gunsight and firing switches; flip on the bomb-ready switch; push the bomb ARM button. I am now a parcel of steel, oil, gas, death-spewing guns and totally destructive explosives, streaking along at three hundred miles an hour, ten feet off terra firma, a blur of indistinguishable objects. Only up ahead can I see. And, I see Yellow Leader lean his right wing over, ever so slightly, as he starts his bomb run. For him, sixty seconds now.

As Yellow Two turns in, I am aware of blast flames and black smoke up ahead. For Yellow Two, sixty seconds now.

With hardly a thought as to the bunch of trees that mark the turn point, I bend my right wing over and start my own bomb run. For Yellow Three, sixty seconds now. Flames, smoke and dirt fill the air in front of me.

The smoke is already a hundred feet in the air. My mind, wholly on the task of execution, nevertheless registers objects other than smoke in the air – solid objects, flying. THERE IS THE BRIDGE! Or, part of it. Nose up slightly. Press the bomb release button and then start fighting for my life. Bend that right wing over; pull back on the stick and go up, up, the sudden G Forces forcing my body down into the seat, my breath momentarily crushed to a standstill; rock the wings back and forth; skid right, left, right; that’s just in case some smart jasper on the ground has figured out how to shoot at me as I leave the target. Roll out left, look back and down. There comes Yellow Four up off the bridge. Hey, NO BRIDGE!

“Red Leader, Yellow Leader here. I’m hit bad! Gotta go quick! I’m bailing out!” SHOCK! I look ahead, but can’t spot my flight leader. Nerves screaming for relief, I force myself to pull back on the throttle and slow down that overworked engine. The flak is no longer bursting around me. I start a lazy circle to allow Yellow Four to catch up. Look! Look, damn you! Yellow Leader’s out there somewhere.

“Red Leader, Red Three here. Look to the south, just over those trees and you’ll see a parachute. Over.”

“Roger.”

All of us are looking! And, there he is! And, alive! Good old Price, from Indiana, they couldn’t kill him!

“Red Leader, Yellow Four here. I’m hit bad! Still flying, but my engine is running rough and I’m losing oil pressure. Over.”

SHOCK!

“Roger, Yellow Four (he’s right behind me), do you think you can get all the way back? Over.”

“That’s Roger, Red Leader. I’ll be show, but I believe I can make it.”

Those bogeys can still be up here. Yellow Four is now a sitting duck. Yellow Two and I drop back, one on each side of wounded Yellow Four. Old buddy Barkley is just a black helmet and a pair of dark goggles to my vision. But I experience the condition of his body and mind. My frustrated desire to lend help forces a near scream from my lips. After all, it has been only two minutes since I flew through that killing hell down there. But, aside from heart palpitation, gut strain, post bomb-run terror and the bogey threat, all of us make it back to the field and land safely.

“General,” the Colonel said into the phone, “we got that bridge. (Pause) Thank you, sir.” He hung up, and smiled as he looked at the rest of us.

Three days later, old buddy Price walked back into our ready room, the same big grin on his face. When he landed in his chute, he had shed it and started running. His senses were good because he ran smack into a camp of the French Infantry. They had watched the whole show as Slipshod knocked out the bridge, the one that had supplied the German ground forces opposing them for the last eleven days. The Frenchmen were so thankful for the help that they kept Price drunk for two days toasting the American Air Forces. And, all this as they moved up to rout the Germans.

What does it all mean to me, forty years later? Well, I don’t know, but for sure, that gutwrencher is still a permanent part of my psyche. And, the pictures are just as clear; the feelings just as real; the destruction just as numbing; and the death? Well, I was too late to make that late church at the end of that mission. Oh, God, where is thy forgiveness?

**********          **********          **********

Just an ordinary guy doing a job. But then, all jobs that big are done by ordinary guys. And each one, like the pilot, expending that Universal Spiritual Soul which all of us share. Martin Buber called it THEOPHANY – the meeting between man and God.

 

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