The Freedom Line

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EXCERPT

Bob Grimes awoke in a hedge with branches and brambles poking and scratching at him. He had been dreaming.

Then he recalled the sound of metal popping, like somebody throwing pebbles at a window; he heard the whir of the engines. He was sucked forward to the ground and the torrent finally hurtled him awake.

He heard the barking dogs again, closer perhaps. It was a wrench in his stomach.

“Deutscher, Deutscher,” the old man had said. The parachute brought him down near a road and the man and the boy came running. It was all confused.

Where was he? At first he thought the plane must have been over Germany. But they were speaking French too. He pulled the silk map from the escape kit in his flight suit. The old man plopped his finger down on Belgium.

Now hidden in the bramble hollow of the bushes, Bob realized the boy and the old man were warning him about German patrols. He must have passed out. How much time had gone by? Bob looked down at the torn left leg of his flight suit and saw that it was wet with blood. He took note of it, didn’t feel anything. He was not cold, felt okay. It never occurred to him to eat or drink anything; he hadn’t gone to the other items in his escape kit. There were Horlick’s Malted Milk Tablets, cigarettes, Benzedrine, water purification powder, first aid items, money in different currencies, a compass, and passport photos for false ID cards. He forgot it was there.

He fiddled with his watch. It stopped at 3:15. The stem must have popped out when he jumped. He pushed it back in. He didn’t know how much time he’d lost, but he could at least measure the hours from this point forward.

Bob’s thoughts were like the tattered fragments of his flight suit, disconnected from the rest of him. Pure will to survive brought him to assess where he was and what had happened: this surely was not heaven, more like somewhere in between. The boy said he’d come back after dark. Bob would sit tight. He had trouble making it this far, dragging himself to these hedges over the rolling grassy field, half crawling. His leg was stiff. In daylight, he certainly would be captured.

Lt. Robert Grimes, 20, was on his fifth combat mission over occupied Europe. He arrived in England on August 7th and was assigned to Snetterton Heath, the 8th Air Force 96th Bomb Group based in East Anglia, 100 miles northeast of London, between Cambridge and Norwich.

October 1943 was shaping up to be the most intense month of the air war over Europe. This past week there were so many losses that Allied Command was even considering the elimination of daytime U.S. bombing. A week before Bob’s fifth mission, 60 B-17s were lost in a bombing run over a ball bearing factory and manufacturing complex over Schweinfort, Germany. It was considered a crucial operation, but 600 men were on those airplanes. Bob and crew were on leave for that one.

Bob went from Norwich to London on a three-day pass, leaving early Friday morning to make full use of his free time. The train deposited him at the Liverpool Street station. He took a cab to Piccadilly for a shilling or two and checked in at the officers’ hotel to drop off his things. He went over to his girlfriend’s house for a while. She wasn’t a serious girlfriend, but she was good company when he was in town. They had lunch and he left a carton of cigarettes for her father—Bob didn’t smoke.

It was an easy time. Everyone loved the Americans. The girls, shopping for souvenirs, the taxi rides, the people on the street. What a great city! Americans on leave didn’t see the worst of the damage. Thousands of people had died, fire burned for days in the rubble. Now the pace of the blitz receded; some evacuees were coming back to the city. London was determined to carry on.

At night, even with the air raids it was the same. The streets were black. You could smell the diesel and the smoke more than you could see the red buses come around the circles with their headlights blotted out. At night, there were prostitutes waiting at darkened corners, and there were men strangely and openly hawking their wares in the accent that sounded so out of place for what they were saying. “Condoms,” they called, “condoms for sale,” with the same fine tone they might use to offer tickets to the opera at Covent Garden.

Bob bumped right into the nose of an old lady wearing a hat. They hadn’t seen one another; she just smiled and said, “Pardon me.” In the Tube stations, the American saw people, whole families setting up little homes, or just sleeping on pillows and blankets, oblivious to the sounds and the filth. There still were air raids almost every night.

The first night of Bob’s leave, Oct. 15, five Luftwaffe Junkers 188s left Chievres, Belgium to attack London in the dark. They followed an erratic course to evade British night fighters and arrived at the coastline undetected. The Home Guard spotted them at Harwich at 20,000 feet.

Sirens blared in London. Searchlights crisscrossed the sky; they cast a familiar glow and created wispy patterns on the clouds. Bobbies would try to corral unenthusiastic passersby into shelters, “In you go, then,” they would say. “Off the street, please.” The Underground smelled of humanity and grease and ozone, and the odor wafted from the great entryways that led far beneath the city, pungent and choking enough to remain in one’s memory.

The five German planes reached their target; each added three more tons to the hundreds of thousands of pounds of TNT that already had fallen on London.
Bob heard the low rumble of explosions, saw both lightning in the distance and the searchlights seeking the invaders. British Mosquito fighters shot them down, amid flak and cannon fire. One of the Junkers crashed and burned near Birchington in Kent. The pilot, Karl Geyr, was alive and taken prisoner.

Life continued, except that here and there would be the whistle of a bomb. People scurried out of the streets, praying nothing would fall close to them.
Deep underground, in places like Camdentown and Belsize Park, there were dank, smoky nightclubs that were comfortable hangouts for soldiers. The airmen would hop from one underground club to the next, drinking scotch and shooting the breeze with the girls. Sometimes there’d be a comedy show and the Brits would tease the Americans, laughing at the way they talked and acted. It was all good fun, meant to take your mind off what was going on. That never worked, but you pretended it did.

When Bob got back to the hotel, the windows rattled but he was so tired that the sounds and flashes did not keep him awake. His friends always teased him about being able to sleep through anything.

Art Pickett, his co-pilot, was a lot wilder, or at least talked it up a bit more. Art and Bob met in 1943 during combat crew training back in Washington State. They’d spend their off time fooling around with the motorcycle Art had scavenged. It was an ancient piece of junk, but they got it working. They conned a gallon of gas from a private down at the motor pool and snuck off base to race the thing. Art would drive and Bob would hang on for dear life on the back of the seat. They had a swell time.

Art was always bragging about his time on leave. He was funny, talking about all his girlfriends. “This gal that I am going with in London is really on the neat side,” Art said. “She’s a real gal and not any of the usual English cheap stuff..You ain’t never seen a real jit buggin’ till you see these English gals. There are no cars to go park in and nothing to do but dance so I reckon that’s one reason they are so much better dancers.”

Bob and Art heard about the mission to Schweinfort when they got back to Snetterton after the weekend. First, there would be scuttlebutt, and then command would send somebody from the adjutant’s office to pack up another guy’s gear. That’s how you knew they weren’t coming back. Luck of the draw. You didn’t know if they were missing in action because they were captured, or hiding, or maybe they just didn’t make it. The flyers didn’t talk about it. But Bob didn’t see too many people come back, very few in fact. They said that you were supposed to fly 25 missions and then you went home. He didn’t know anybody with half that many.

The last time out, it was his fourth mission and he counted every one, they flew almost as far as they could range, from England up into Poland over the North Sea, and then straight back over Germany on the way home again. Bob remembered looking down as they passed close to Berlin from 30,000 feet. FW 190s attacked the squadron over Essen. A shell blew out the waist gunner’s window, and Jerry Nawracaj ended up with the 50-caliber machine gun sitting in his lap. There was shrapnel damage, but they were able to get back to base without serious injuries. No one spoke about the fear and the feeling in the pit of their stomach that that mission, any mission could have killed them. Bob went to look for the chaplain, just to talk, he didn’t know about what. The chaplain wasn’t around, though. He was out at the officer’s club getting drunk.

The morning of October 20, 1943 started routinely after daybreak. The weather was good and the mission would go as scheduled. After breakfast, they went to a briefing, got suited up and headed to the airplane.

This was supposed to be a milk-run, easy in, easy out, back in time for beer. They were headed for Aachen, right over the German-French border. They were told to expect a little bit of flak action in anti-aircraft range, maybe some German fighters, but not much to worry about if they stayed in formation.

Because of the damage last time out, they got a replacement aircraft with the nickname Shack Rabbit II. It was one of 3,400 identical B-17, F series bombers built by Boeing. The B-17 was the workhorse of the air war over Europe. Known as the Flying Fortress, it had four Wright R-1820-97 Cyclone 9 cylinder radial air-cooled engines, rated at 1,200 horsepower each. That translated to a cruising speed of around 165 miles per hour and a maximum airspeed of 287 miles per hour, a range of 3400 miles – good for a roundtrip deep into Eastern Europe to drop a payload of up to eight tons of bombs.

It sounded easy. But Allied fighter planes did not yet have the cruising range to provide protection for the bomber wings as their Delta formations—three levels of 21 planes–advanced over Nazi territory. The fighters peel off when the formations reached the coast. The slower speed of the B-17s would be counteracted by the fact that any approaching German fighter would find a closed rank of 63 planes. Each plane had at least 6 machine gunners—the formation could blanket the sky with gunfire in all directions as enemy fighters approached.

During the day, the flak was like a black cloud with razor death in it. You flew right into it because it covered the sky, kept flying and hoped for the best. Everybody was scared. You controlled it and pushed it away and acted brave for one another.

The best German fighter in October 1943 was the Focke Wulf FW 190. It could fly more than 200 miles an hour faster than the B-17. Its 20-millimeter cannons had more range than the B-17’s guns.
Sometimes, the FW 190 pilots would actually fly in the wake of a bomber returning home at night after a mission, waiting for it to turn on its landing lights, blast it and take off. Another favorite tactic was to fly under the bomber formations and look for stragglers.
You didn’t think about it. You kept busy. The rest of the men are busy doing radio checks, prepping their guns, mostly waiting for their pilot, Bob, to take them into battle. And the pilot had his pre-flight list.

The bomber checked out just fine, on the ground anyway. Bob ran up all four engines and they sounded good, the manifold pressure was fine. Then it was a question of waiting for the guy in front of you to roll. Bob must have started down the runway at about noon. Radio silence was maintained from start-up time; the Germans were good at listening in and providing a welcoming party. Even intercom chatter was kept to a minimum. They rolled into position on the tarmac, and Bob played follow the leader, using every bit of the runway to lift the 26 tons of metal off the ground at about 110 miles an hour, practically skimming the tree tops in its slow climb.

The idea was to start making formation at about 1,000 feet and to form up as close as 10 feet apart. Bob took his place on the right flank, second position to the squadron leader and they started to climb. Keeping formation was an exacting job.

By 12,000 feet, things weren’t looking so good. The supercharger on engine number four, outboard right, was malfunctioning. The higher they went, the worse it was getting, the engine was losing power as they climbed. Bob fell behind from the pack, which was still climbing.

On three engines, he could compensate and reach the group when they leveled off at 22,000 feet by increasing power, knowing that extra fuel consumption on the shorter trip wouldn’t be a problem. He pushed the throttle and fought his way back to the end of the line, “tail end Charlie,” they called that spot, bottom and back of the delta. At that point, everything looked okay. But as they passed over Belgium, the group hit bad weather and the leader began to climb again up over the top of the clouds.

Bob’s plane couldn’t climb any higher. He was stuck below the clouds, a straggler and easy prey that German fighter pilots like to dine on. The crew counted between six and 12 FW 190s pouncing right after them. Pickett could see what was happening. So could Ted Kellers, standing up in the bubble in the top turret. Their machine guns were blazing and the plane buffeted as Bob tried to make it to a low patch of clouds. It wasn’t enough….

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