Glen Michael Hotz, born in 1921, flew roughly 30 missions as a radio operator in Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers over Germany and occupied Europe between December 1944 and April 1945. He was stationed in England, near Norwich in East Anglia at the Old Buckenham Air Base, with the 734th Squadron, 453rd Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force. At the time, he was 23. Several decades after the war, he wrote an account of his experience printed in pencil, filling 119 yellow-pad sheets. Hotz died in 1986, a year after he retired from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The following article, which describes a raid in early 1945, is excerpted from Hotz’s unpublished book, edited by Gary Rosentrater.
My deep, sound sleep is disturbed by the air-raid siren. Mixed with the low moan of the siren comes the heavy rumble of many engines; Jerry is active tonight. The question now is, do I get dressed and go to the shelter or do I just stay in bed? ‘Nuts,’ I say to myself, ‘I guess I’ll stay where I am, and at least I’ll die warm.’ In about 30 minutes, the all-clear sounds and I’m back in dreamland.
The door to the hut opens and closes quietly. The figure with the flashlight consults his clipboard and asks in a low voice, ‘Feldman’s crew in here?’ I mumble something, and he says, ‘You are scheduled to fly.’ I ask, ‘How is the weather?’ and his reply is ‘Clear and cold.’ ‘What is the gas load?’ ‘Twenty-five hundred gallons, topped off.’ ‘Thanks,’ I say.
I realize then, given that amount of fuel, that our mission will probably involve a deep penetration into Germany. Topping off the tanks means that after the engines are run up and checked by the ground crew, they are shut down and the fuel tanks are refilled to the necks, usually giving us an additional 200 to 300 gallons of fuel. I crawl out of the old sack and put my feet on the cold concrete floor, which jars me into total consciousness. I grab some heavy socks, pull on my wool pants. Then I’m startled by a noise on the shelf above my head. I shine my flashlight at the shelf, and a pair of eyes look back at me from behind my girl’s picture. It’s the ferret we keep in our hut to prevent the rats from invading our quarters.
I remove my personal belongings from my pockets and place them in my footlocker, grab my toilet articles and head for the latrine. I return to the Quonset hut and grab my heavy flight jacket and mess gear; no one else on my crew is yet stirring. I walk over to the engineer’s cot, pick the end up about 12 inches off the floor and let it go. It lands with a loud thud — minor compared to the noise that comes from the engineer. I hastily retreat, followed by a verbal barrage of typical GI language.
The walk to the mess hall gives me an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts. The early morning sky is filled with stars. Right now, I’m at ease and unafraid of what the day might bring. If I do not survive the day, at least I will be prepared and have all my faculties. I will not let fear enter my thoughts!
I arrive at the mess hall, greeted by its familiar warm, steamy atmosphere. I stop at the coffee can, draw a cup of coffee and add powdered milk, then walk to the serving table, where the cook asks, ‘How do you want your eggs?’ with a big grin on his Irish kisser. I laugh at him and say, ‘Sunny side up with bacon and toast.’ I hold out my metal plate and he places on it three fresh eggs, fried as I requested, with bacon and toast. I am so amazed that I almost drop the plate. Still muttering in disbelief, I sit down and enjoy the best breakfast I’ve had in months. Boy, what a morale booster! I even have applesauce on my toast.
Content and warm, with my stomach full, I amble outside to wash my mess gear. There’s still no sign of the rest of the crew. Oh, well, it’s not my rear end that’s going to get chewed if they are late for the briefing. I take a bus to the flight building, where I go directly to the equipment room, get my electric heated suit and return to where my flight gear is stored. I get dressed and go to the briefing room and take a seat with the navigator.
‘Ten-hut!’ comes the call, and everyone pops to attention. The commanding officer enters with the briefing officer. ‘As you were,’ he says and turns the meeting over to the intelligence officer. The curtains are pulled back, revealing a big map of Europe with red ribbons leading to our target — the synthetic oil refineries near Magdeburg, Germany. There is a low murmur among the crew members as the target is announced. We are briefed on where to expect the heavy flak and possible fighter opposition, also the altitude from which we are expected to drop our bombs. Then the weather officer takes over, a close friend of mine. I often kid him about how accurate his reports are. He is right 50 percent of the time. I call him Lieutenant Maybe. Today he says the target area will be under clouds and we probably will not be able to drop our bombs visually.
Once the briefing is over, I get my first-aid boxes and radio logs with my assigned frequencies. I also pick up my escape kit and maps. The navigator and I are standing together, waiting for transportation to the plane, when two enlisted flight personnel come up to us and introduce themselves. It turns out that today we are flying in the lead group, not in the capacity of a lead crew but in a special plane, a Consolidated B-24 with a ball turret and a radar set — called a ‘Mickey set’ — that is used for bombing in bad weather. The aircraft will be heavier because of the additional gear, the ball turret and the two extra crew members.
About that time, the rest of the crew shows up and we catch a truck out to the plane. The B-24J — a plane that I’m not familiar with — is equipped with several other goodies, such as a formation stick that enables the pilot to fly the plane with his left hand. This control is hooked into the C-1 autopilot. Earlier in the European theater, quite a few B-24s had ball turrets, but as enemy fighter attacks dwindled, the turrets were removed. Now Jerry is beginning to attack from below once again, so the turrets have been reinstalled in selected planes. As a result, we have 12 men in our crew on this mission.
We arrive at the plane at 5:30 a.m., with a scheduled time of 6 to start our engines and 6:30 for departure. I stoop down low under the bomb doors next to the catwalk and heave my parachute and gear up on the flight deck, then kneel in front of the auxiliary power plant (APU), turn on the fuel and hit the starter button. The APU shudders a few times and comes to life. Lights began to appear in the aircraft as the co-pilot turns on the master switch. I verify that the auxiliary hydraulic pump is on. The plane quickly becomes a beehive of activity, with many checkouts going on all at once.
The navigator and bombardier crawl under the flight deck through a small tunnel covered with thin aircraft plywood to the forward part of the plane. They complete their checks, carrying their parachutes with them, and go to the waist positions for takeoff. The bombardier says that our bombload is 10 500-pound bombs. We are light. The engineer checks his slip stick for weight and balance, to verify where the crew should be placed for takeoff. Normally, the navigator and bombardier would be on the upper flight deck for takeoff, but not today. The radar set and its operator will occupy the whole left side of the flight deck directly behind the pilot. The viewing tube of the set is a large cathode-ray tube, resembling an early television set.
By now, the flight engineer has completed his weight and balance calculations and has verified them with the aircraft commander. My checkouts are complete, as well. I leave the plane to make a last-minute pit stop, consult with the armorer and get three empty fuse cans, which I stow alongside my seat. I see the double-green flares are in the sky, signaling us to start our engines. The pilot leans out of his window and yells, ‘Clear left!’ The co-pilot does the same for his side and yells, ‘Clear right!’ The flight engineer verifies that fire guards (ground crewmen) are in place, and the pilot says, ‘Start No. 3!’ I hear the thud of the inertia starter and the whine begins; the co-pilot holds the button to the ‘energize’ position and the whine increases to a high-pitched scream. The co-pilot adjusts the magnetos, yells, ‘Contact!’ and the propeller blades begin to move slowly. The engine backfires, belches smoke and fire, then the blades turn into a blur with a yellow ring around the outside.
The procedure is repeated until all the propellers are turning. The ground crew removes the wheel chocks, and after some more checking, a blast of the engines gets us moving. We assume our place in line, lurching and waddling along like some prehistoric, noisy, fire-belching dragon. The brakes hiss and squeal like an old, worn-out Mack truck in need of a brake job. The noise level in the cockpit is so high that we find it necessary to use the intercom for all communications. We finally reach the run-up area, angle away from the plane astern of us and perform the engine checks.
When we are finally ready to leave the ground, we go through the usual takeoff procedures. Once we’re airborne, the wheels are retracted, and we verify that all wheels are up and locked and their doors are closed. We are soon at 2,000 feet and climbing at the rate of 200 feet per minute. I remember my flight instructor telling me that the engines should not be worked more than necessary in order to reduce the chance of engine failure. This point in the mission, outside of actual combat, is one of the most dangerous. Many planes are climbing to formation altitude, and when we enter clouds at about 10,000 feet, we cannot see the aircraft around us. I know there have been incidents where two planes have collided, and I am relieved when we are above the clouds. We reach 20,000 feet, the assigned formation assembly altitude, and move into our position. All the gunners move to their positions and check their weapons.
Flying a B-24 is not particularly difficult, but formation flying is a whole different story. The plane is a bear to handle, and depending on its position in the formation, either the pilot or co-pilot must look across the cockpit to monitor the ship off the wing. You fly with one hand on the throttles and the other hand on the wheel. About a 20- or 30-minute stretch is all the average pilot can stand. The aircraft is equipped with what is called a formation stick. The pilot engages the autopilot and then uses his left hand to move the short control stick — the same as moving the joystick in a single-engine fighter. Pilots say this takes a lot of burden from formation flying. It is a great device as long as the C-1 autopilot operates correctly.
‘Navigator to crew, Dutch coast coming up.’ We skirt the German-held island of Helgoland because it is heavily fortified with anti-aircraft batteries. I see some telltale black bursts off our wing, and one of the waist gunners sings out, ‘Two planes have taken hits.’ I wonder why our lead crews don’t give that darned island more leeway.
‘Right waist gunner to pilot, one Liberator is in trouble.’ We count three parachutes; there goes the plane — it has fallen into a spin. We are at 26,000 feet, so I calculate 1 1/2 minutes to eternity for the remainder of the crew on the doomed plane. Once a plane has fallen into a spin, escape is just about impossible for the crew in the forward part of the plane. Imagine yourself trying to crawl up a vertical wall that is spinning around — that is what the crew is trying to do. Our tail gunner advises that the plane has crashed into the North Sea. A sight like that is not exactly a morale booster.
The nose gunner calls for an oxygen check. All the crew members respond in sequence, indicating that everyone is OK. We are flying in a cloudless sky and will be approaching our target from the north. Clouds are beginning to build ahead of our formation. The weather officer appears to have been right. Our Mickey operator will earn his keep today if we have to deal with clouds. I glance over and notice that his eyes are glued to his screen, monitoring our progress.
After our brush with anti-aircraft batteries on Helgoland, the mission has settled down to almost a milk run, with very little enemy opposition. The second cup of coffee that I enjoyed for breakfast has made me glad to have my fuse cans next to me. I glance up and see the pilot climbing out of his seat. Directly behind his seat is the relief tube, and he uses it. The tube drains along the bottom of the aircraft, and at our speed of 180 mph, creates a spray that freezes all over the ball turret. Forgetting that we had a ball gunner today, the pilot neglected to call the waist gunners and tell them to wind up the ball turret. As a result, I get a call from one very angry ball-turret gunner wanting to know who was pissing in his face. It is all I can do to keep from laughing. A glance at the free air temperature gauge indicates minus 40 degrees. Who says this is a glamour service?
The ground is now completely obscured by cloud cover, but we are flying in brilliant sunshine above the clouds. The weather officer was right. It is a plus for us that we’ve had no fighter opposition. Jerry is grounded due to bad weather. It is now 10 a.m. — two hours to the target.
‘Upper turret to pilot, B-24 off our left wing just feathered No. 1 engine. He is dropping back and losing altitude.’ The tail gunner calls and says the plane has just jettisoned its bombs. A few moments later, the tail gunner calls, ‘He just feathered No. 4 engine; he is changing course.’ Then we hear, ‘Pilot to crew, the B-24 that lost Nos. 1 and 4 engines is going to Sweden.’ The Swedes and the Swiss will let Allied planes land if they are having mechanical trouble and cannot make it to their home base. The plane and the crew will be interned for the duration of the war. Not a bad choice — better than going down into the North Sea. I understand that Sweden is the land of blondes. The thought crosses my mind that maybe there was nothing wrong with that plane, maybe the crew decided that they had had enough. This is not the first time that the Army Air Forces has had planes leave formation for an unknown destination. If the crewmen decide among themselves that they have had enough, or even if the pilots make such a decision, it is not a difficult job to fake mechanical trouble or sabotage the plane and enter a neutral country.
There is a great deal of boredom in flying combat, almost a lull before the storm. Then the navigator calls out to the pilot, ‘Thirty minutes to target.’ I look out my window — complete cloud cover. Just a sea of white below us. Without the Mickey operator along today, we would have to scrub the mission because of inability to see the target. The bombardier and radar operator are engaged in a discussion about the target. I’m on my assigned radio frequency, a direct contact with the base. However, I only listen; I do not acknowledge any radio contact. I’m in my own little world as we drone along.
‘Radar to pilot, I have identified the target. We are about 10 minutes out.’
‘Pilot to radio, get ready to open bomb doors.’
‘Radio to pilot, how about flak suits?’
‘Pilot to radio, never mind the suits.’
I descend to the lower flight deck next to the bomb-bay door lever and crouch next to the bomb doors. The call comes over the intercom, ‘Open bomb doors,’ and I press the lever. The four big doors roll up the sides of the plane like the lids of roll-top desks. All I can see below are clouds. The radar operator is in direct contact with the bombardier; I hear his voice as the radar operator gives instructions to the bombardier. The bombardier is making cruise corrections — flying the plane with his control. The radar operator stays steady and clear on his directions. I hear him say, ‘Steady now,’ and his next words are ‘Bombs away!’ I feel the plane lurch upward, then I verify all bombs have been dropped and reach for the door lever.
‘Tail to pilot, flak directly astern of the plane.’ We are diving and turning away from the target; the flak stays with us. The German gunners are good. They know our action after bombs away and have compensated for it. With the next flak burst, it feels like something has lifted the tail of the plane. The next burst is a loud ‘Ka-blam!’ The left wing goes up to about a 45-degree angle, and the pilot corrects to bring the wing level.
‘Waist to pilot, No. 2 engine smoking bad.’ ‘Top turret to pilot, what’s our oil pressure on No. 2?’ ‘Co-pilot to engineer, oil pressure is a little low.’ ‘Engineer to pilot, we’ve been hit in the oil system on No. 2 engine. Continue to operate the engine, monitor the oil pressure. When the pressure begins to fluctuate, feather the engine.’ The smoke from the engine comes from a leak that is hitting the exhaust collector ring. ‘Engineer to co-pilot, does the engine check out OK otherwise?’ ‘Co-pilot to engineer, manifold pressure is down about 10 psi, rpm is down about 400.’ ‘Engineer to pilot, my advice to you if it means anything is to continue to run the engine as I suggested; the decision is yours.’ ‘Pilot to co-pilot, feather No. 2 engine. Give me a little more boost on the other three engines. We’ll see if we can stay with the group.’ ‘Pilot to crew, damage reports.’ ‘Tail to pilot, the whole top is gone from my turret.’ ‘Left waist to pilot, left vertical stabilizer is damaged extensively, additional holes in fuselage.’ ‘Top turret, no further damage visible up here.’ ‘Engineer to pilot, no further oil smoke from No. 2 engine.’ ‘Radio to pilot, several large holes in the bomb bays, holes in the lower flight deck.’ ‘Pilot to navigator, any further damage?’ ‘Navigator to pilot, no damage up here.’
Despite the battle damage, the aircraft is performing OK. We are pulling a lot more power from the remaining engines and maintaining our position in the formation. The whole formation is beginning to descend to lower altitudes. I can see that the cloud cover is just below our plane now. The fact that the formation is losing altitude as a group enables us to keep up easier. ‘Engineer to pilot, fabric is tearing on left rudder; how is rudder control?’ ‘Pilot to engineer, no loss of rudder control that I can feel.’ The formation is spreading out before entering the cloud cover. That stuff looks like pea soup. Once we enter the clouds, the pilot and co-pilot are on the gauges, maintaining a constant rate of descent until we get out of the thick clouds. Everyone stays alert. I have left my position and am standing between the pilot and co-pilot, to provide another pair of eyes watching for aircraft. We finally break out of the cloud cover and I see the French landscape. We are at 14,000 feet and still descending. The three remaining engines are running well — a fine compliment to Pratt & Whitney engineering.
I realize that I’m cold, even though my heat control is at ‘maximum.’ I guess my electrically heated suit has failed. ‘Radio to co-pilot, is your heated suit working?’ ‘Co-pilot to radio, negative, I’m froze.’ ‘Top turret to radio, I have no heat either.’ I’m silent for a moment. ‘Radio to engineer, does the generator on No. 2 engine supply current to our suits?’ ‘Engineer to radio, you are right — loss of No. 2 engine means loss of electrical power to some positions on the flight deck.’
I go back to the liaison position on the intercom and continue to monitor my assigned frequency. In some ways, this is the loneliest job on the crew most of the time. You are completely unaware of intercom chatter. When anyone wants me, he must turn the control on the intercom box to ‘call’ in order to override anything that I’m listening to. The altimeter indicates 12,000 feet, and I remove my helmet and oxygen gear, don my cap and headphones, snap a throat microphone around my neck, plug in my gear and continue to monitor the assigned frequency.
The free air temperature gauge indicates minus 16 degrees. It is now 3 p.m., three hours since we left the target. The lack of heat is beginning to affect me — I’m darned near frozen. All I can think about is, ‘How can I do my duties for another two hours?’ A glance out the window reveals the beautiful French landscape. We continue to descend at a gradual rate, still free of any enemy opposition. I’m daydreaming when I get a call from the pilot, requesting a weather report. We are over the Normandy coast. I break radio silence to ask for the base weather report. I change frequencies, snap on the transmitter and ask Old Buckenham Tower for the weather. After I answer questions about the challenge of the day and colors of the day, I receive the report — which, as usual, is terrible. Visibility is down, with light blowing snow. I copy the report and forward it to the aircraft commander, then change back to my assigned frequency and continue my boring assignment.
Soon we are down to 4,000 feet and over the English Channel. The background static in my headphones is broken up by a loud, clear distress signal. I’m alert to the message — a CHIPP call sent twice, followed by a loud, steady signal. A Boeing B-17 radioman has locked in his key. I forward the message to Air Sea Rescue, then give the downed plane’s position to our navigator, who plots a course to the position given. Our B-24 banks away to a new course, and in a few minutes we spot the downed plane’s crew getting into rubber rafts. We continue to circle for about 15 minutes, until we spot the Air Sea Rescue boat. When the boat arrives, we set a course for England. I feel good about our part in the rescue because, after all, we are flying a battle-damaged B-24 with only three fans turning.
In about 30 minutes we spot the English coast. Our base, Old Buckenham, is the first field in from the Channel. The rest of our group has already landed. We enter the pattern and start the normal prelanding checklists. We will come in with a little higher approach speed, due to one dead engine. The co-pilot makes contact on the 274N command set: ‘Flame Leap, this is Army 217 requesting landing instructions, over.’ ‘Army 217, this is Flame Leap, you are cleared to land.’ I hear the high-pitched whine of hydraulics as the landing gear comes down and is verified as locked; the flaps are coming down, too. I leave my position, start the APU, reach over the bomb doors and switch on the auxiliary hydraulic pump. Now I can see the end of the runway. The throttles come back, the gear touches, and we bounce once and touch again, but the nose wheel is still off the runway. Finally, the nose wheel is down, and the pilot gets on the binders hard. The Liberator slows down, and after one more hard brake application we slow enough to enter the taxiway.
The top hatch opens. The engineer is standing on the seat back of the radar operator’s chair with his head and shoulders out of the hatch. He is in contact with the pilot by intercom. The ends of other wings are about 65 feet away. It is easy to misjudge the distance between our wingtips and those of other aircraft. We are following a jeep with a sign on the back that reads ‘Follow Me’ to our hardstand. We obey the crew chief’s signals that tell us where to park. The plane shudders as the three remaining fans come to a stop. The pilot and co-pilot complete their checklists, and the wheels are chocked by the ground crew.
The free air temperature is 20 degrees, but six hours with no heat is really a long time. I gather my gear into my flight bag while the pilot completes the required form and slides it into its metal container.
The postflight inspection reveals that the plane has suffered a lot more damage than I had imagined. We throw our flight gear into the back of a waiting transport and ride the mile to the flight building for the debriefing. By the time the debriefing is over and I’ve returned and stored my gear, it’s 6 p.m., and I grab the field bus to go to the mess hall. There is no line, so I get a cup of tea, some dark bread and marmalade and a plate of something that resembles beef stew. The unappetizing mess tastes good — I must be getting numb or something. I’m still cold from the flight. After eating, I walk down the path to my hut, get a towel and head for the shower.
When we arrived in England, previous crews had set up a shower building. There were about 10 showers inside the building, with a separate stall at one end that housed a coal-fired hot water boiler. We hired an English farmer to fire the boiler and provide hot water for the crews, chipping in one British pound per week to pay his wages. He thought most Yanks were nuts because we showered so often. The old Limey just stank.
I enjoy the luxury of a glorious, hot shower and walk a mile back to my Quonset hut. As I enter the hut through the double doors, a card game is in progress. The hut is about 15 feet wide and 30 feet long, heated by one small coal stove. Every inch on the inside of the hut is covered with pictures of good-looking women. Most of the popular movie stars are posted.
I sit down on my cot and get my writing gear out. I have my most welcome daily letter from my dad and letters from several girls. I settle down and answer all of the letters. By the time I finish, it is 10 p.m., and I’m really bushed. I make a fast trip to the latrine, then crawl into my nice warm bunk, lie there for a few moments thanking God for my safe return, and go to sleep.
This article was written by Gary Rosentrater, who transcribed and edited this article from one-time Liberator radio operator Glen M. Hotz’s unpublished memoir. For further reading, try: The Mighty Eighth, by Martin Caidin; and the Mighty Eighth: The Colour Record, by Roger A. Freeman.
This article was originally published in the September 2001 issue of Aviation History. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!