Recrossing the Rubicon
I wish to express another viewpoint on the European theater’s terror-bombing issues touched on in “Crossing the Rubicon,” the interview with author Donald Miller in the December 2006 World War II.
For most civilian victims — particularly the Poles, the first and most thoroughly brutalized victims of Nazi Germany (and the Soviet Union) — the moral issues the Allies wrestled with were moot. To start, the Germans had crossed the Rubicon immediately upon invading Poland on September 1, 1939 (with their Soviet allies following suit on September 17).
Because daily life in Nazi- and Soviet-occupied Poland brought more beatings, torture, starvation, slavery and death, by 1944 the bombing of any German target meant only one thing to the Poles: hope. Considering their own huge and ongoing losses at the hands of barbaric invaders, how could Poles have possibly cared that a few German civilians were being killed? The only regret would have been that some of the millions of Polish and non-Polish slaves working in the Third Reich would have been killed along with them. Those Poles forcibly deported to Germany would have included not only those slated for farm or industrial labor but also young girls for the brothels and some 200,000 children with sufficient Aryan features to be taken from their mothers and adopted by German families.
My mother was a slave laborer in Chemnitz, Germany, when an Allied air raid in the spring of 1945 almost killed her and her siblings. Death would not have been a big deal, since they were almost dead already. With the guards scattering and bombs exploding all around, she managed to escape to Italy and joined the Polish army there.
Even if the consensus is that the terror bombing of civilians serves little strategic purpose, any strikes that bring the war home to the aggressor nation do have significant impact on both the enemy (realization of vulnerability or that the tide of war might be turning) and ally. For the ally, the ability to strike back, whether in the darkest early days of a war or in the later years when there seems to be no end in sight, provides an incalculable psychological boost to one’s spirit of fight and survival.
The exception to the idea that terror bombings do not hasten the end of a war would be the case of the two atomic bombs dropped on civilian populations in Japan, which, at that late stage of the war, certainly brought things to a quick end.
Americans derived a much-needed boost in morale from the first air strikes on Japan. The impact of the first bombing runs on Germany, however, were of far greater importance to the occupied peoples of Europe, who were able to enjoy a small measure of payback when the horror of war was finally brought to the German civilians.
Donald Miller provides an accurate account of the air war fought by the Eighth Air Force in “Crossing the Rubicon.” I was with the 365th Squadron, 305th Bomb Group, from September 1942 until October 14, 1943, when I was shot down over Schweinfurt in my 23rd air battle.
Flying deep into German air space without fighter escort was indeed a stressful experience, to say the least, and resulted in heavy losses. Sixty bombers were shot down on the Schweinfurt mission.
The operations portion of the interview is dead-on as to what actually took place. The only criticism I have is not directed at the author but to the photo on P. 48 showing a waist gunner in action. By this time, we finally had been issued electric heat suits to replace the bulky flying jackets and pants we previously wore. However, I was never issued a flak jacket and never saw one in my bomb group, up to and including October 1943.
Victim of the Sturm
I would like to add some information about the September 27, 1944, raid on Kassel in which the Eighth Air Force suffered its greatest single-group loss (“Perspectives,” December 2006). I was a pilot on a similar raid on Magdeburg the next day, with similar losses.
The Luftwaffe had taken such a terrible hit in the spring and early summer of 1944 that it had to regroup and try something new. The result was the A-8 model of the Focke Wulf-190, which, in addition to its existing two 12.7mm machine guns and two 20mm cannons, often had a pod under each wing in which a 30mm cannon was mounted. It had an uprated Doppelstern BMW twin-row radial engine and some added armor protection. These A-8 models were assigned to units called “Sturmgruppen,” which destroyed all those B-24s at Kassel. In fact, the FW-190 Sturm variants were considered too heavy to dogfight with the P-51s and P-47s, so the Luftwaffe planned to deploy Messerschmitt Me-109Gs to tangle with our fighters.
It also devised a new attack tactic. Instead of coming up a few at a time, the Sturm units flew in formations of approximately 16 planes, coming from 6 o’clock low and perpendicular to the bomber stream. Then they all turned together and attacked line abreast so the bombers’ machine guns could not focus on one fighter at a time, and the fighter only had to face the tail and ball turrets of the bombers.
Those 30mm cannons that impacted the fuel tanks set B-17s on fire, and they started rolling out of formation and exploding, obviously with few survivors. From our formation of 12, we lost 10 in a few seconds. I have a copy of the German gun camera film shooting me down (courtesy of the British Imperial War Museum), and some details about how it happened and who did it.
The New York Times reported that we had lost 49 B-17s and had downed 36 German fighter planes, so it had to be one of the better days for the Germans. Six of my crew were killed, three in the airplane and three on the ground. I was almost killed by a very irate civilian armed with a Luger but was saved by a German soldier. But that’s another story.
William F. Miller
Corpus Christi, Texas
Hard Times in Hürtgen
I enjoyed reading the article on the Hürtgen Forest and the 9th Infantry Division (“A Warning From the Woods,” December 2006). I was in the reconnaissance company with the 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion attached to the 9th. The Hürtgen Forest was a dark, cold and dangerous place. I would routinely go out on patrols, and one day our company captain asked if he could tag along.
I had acquired some captured German army maps of the area that showed where the pillboxes were. You could almost get right on top of them without knowing it because they were camouflaged so well. And for many of our soldiers it was too late when they realized it.
The captain and I were moving along a narrow trail in the woods when I spotted a pillbox. Sure enough, it was marked on my captured map. I pointed it out to him, but he couldn’t see it through the thick brush. I told him not to worry because we wouldn’t get fired on since the enemy didn’t want to expose themselves just to pick off two soldiers. Bewildered, he turned white as a ghost. He then said that he had seen enough and it was time to go.
As we started back, the Germans began shelling the entire area with their infamous 88s, which would explode about treetop level. We got out just in time, but others were not so lucky. We had no idea so many of the enemy were entrenched in the area. For all of October and November it seemed we rarely got any rest. And as soon as things in the Hürtgen Forest started to wind down, wouldn’t you know it that the Germans launched their offensive in the Ardennes. Hard times indeed!
Sergeant John Migliaccio (Ret.)
As I read “A Warning From the Woods,” by Mark J. Reardon, it let me know what it must have been like for my dad, Tech-3 Sgt. Gardner T. Wheeler, and his comrades in arms at that point in history. My dad was a rifleman squad leader in Company C, 112th Regiment, in the 28th “Bucket of Blood” Infantry Division. I know from an old map he left behind that he was at St. Lô, France, on July 28, 1944; Paris on August 29; Luxembourg on September 11; Yossehach and Schmidt and Aachen on November 1; and somewhere around Ouren on December 16. But the 112th was pushed all the way back to Verdun after abandoning St. Vith on December 23.
My dad didn’t talk much about the war, and I have tried hard to find out where he was and the battles he was in. The U.S. Army Center of Military History and the Army Heritage and Education Center have helped me a great deal with that.
Yes, war is hell. Division after division tried to breach the line, and the Germans fought hard to keep us out of the Third Reich. I can see now why my dad and many others never really talked about it after the war. They got on with their lives, but never forgot. How could they? It is so easy now for us to look back and see all the mistakes made, on both sides.
My dad was just one of the lucky ones to make it back. You would think we would learn from history and stop making the same life-ending mistakes, but we still do. Someday, maybe — someday.
Bruce A. Wheeler
I was aboard the U.S. transport Joseph C. McAndrew the night it collided with the French aircraft carrier Béarn, as described in the October 2006 “Armament” column. The article states that Béarn’s steering malfunctioned, but it did not mention there was a terrible storm brewing. The No. 1 hold was hit, and all GIs in that hold were lost overboard. I was in the No. 2 hold when Béarn struck our transport. Two feet more to the stern would have wiped out the No. 2 hold and sunk the ship. The article stated that 60 officers and sailors were killed. We were told that 65 enlisted soldiers were killed, all from No. 1 hold.
Above us were latrines for the entire ship. All came down and sickened others who were not already sick from the storm. We sat there for 10 minutes until they gave the order to get out. To this day I marvel that no one panicked throughout the ordeal.
I was the first one out of No. 2 hold. The staircase collapsed, and it was difficult escaping. Only those who were not sick could get out. I saw the airplane on our deck and the bow of the French ship stuck to the side of the transport. Then Béarn backed out and was gone.
At that point the transport was without power, and a wave picked it up and started to turn it over. I was leaning against a bulkhead when it tipped. The wall on the opposite side was above me like a ceiling. The captain said later that we were one degree from not being able to return and capsizing. We got our power back then and were able to control the ship.
The destroyer escort turned on all its lights searching for those overboard. The other DE circled to keep subs away. They picked up 13 GIs from the No. 1 hold. That was truly a miracle — none had life preservers or flashlights. Those were issued to all the next day. Typical Army.
We then headed for the Azores. We could only do 5 knots or less and relied on two destroyers to protect us. After sundown we could hear depth charges going off in the distance.
After two days in port, the GIs in hold No. 2 were loaded on tugboats, taken out to sea and put aboard an English ship from Australia. We had to climb on board on rope nets — a really scary move at sea.
Joseph M. Soravilla
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