Black Thursday, Richard Spellerberg

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When I wrote about George Ott and his story about flying Deputy Lead to Schweinfurt, I put the story on this web site.  Out of the blue was contacted by the great nephew of the top turret gunner/engineer that was on George’s plane that day when they were shot down.  His name is Richard Spellerberg.

 

 The last time George had seen Richard Spellerberg was when he had bailed out of their burning plane.  After over 63 years I was able to get them reconnected and they were able to talk on the phone several times.  On April 9, 2007 they were able to get together in person in West Fargo ND during the POW/MIA Awareness Project.  Coordinator, Lyle Wells of Fargo had flown Richard up from Illinois for the meeting and several papers and TV outlets recorded the event.

 

Richard had a very interesting take on the Schweinfurt mission and had written it up for a publication several years ago.Here it is…………

 

Written by Richard Spellerberg for the 7th Photo Recon Group Journal back in 1991.

 

In the spring of 1943 I had a steady job as a radio technician, along with a couple of stripes and rockers, in the 7th Photo Group of 8th Army Air Force, based at Mount Farm.  I guess that like many another G.I. yardbird I had a hard time to feel that I was doing much toward making the miserable war a thing of the past, or to counter the uneasiness of feeling safer than a London housewife, and I was restless.

 

There was no way I could just jump into one of those F-5 recon planes and start winning it, but it did seem there could be some chance that I could become a radio operator on a bomber.  I took my problem to the orderly room but as with all its people in such jobs, the organization needed its radio techs too in those days, and after advising me that this made it a matter of “The good of the service” catch, which even commanders found very hard to buck, the staff assured me that they would see what they could do.

 

     After a lapse of a considerable time of no visible action on it, I inquired again, only to be told regretfully that their effort seemed to have died the death of a rag doll, and I would just have to stick to the job.  But it so happened that I was eligible for a short furlough at the time and they agreed that is would be O.K. if I use it to see what I could do on my own.  My hope was to find a bomber base somewhere in the East Anglia region where they were in need of radio operators and to see if the command there could get me transferred.

 

     Unaware at the time of the British railway accommodation by which a passenger could have his bicycle tagged as baggage and travel with him, I just set out to do it all by bike, heading first for a base the location of which I already knew, and just followed my nose from there.

 

     The trail led to Alconbury, Lincolnshire, where the 92nd Bomb Group, flying the B-17 was based.  Alconbury was in fact only about the third or forth base that I had touched, but by that time it had begun to become evident that my question “Could you get me transferred?” was certain to be countered with their question, “If we do such a thing, will you prove equal to the challenge?”  Daylight bombing operation in the teeth of the Luftwaffe defenses were still on a tentative basis.  Some groups had on occasion already seen a few crewmen who had flown one or two of those missions and then decided that yardbird service wasn’t quite so unheroic after all.  Technically it was all a voluntary service.

 

     Here too I obtained an interview, and while I was doing my best to present my case, all of a sudden one of the questioners jumped up to demand, “Are you the guy on the bicycle?”.  At the moment I was totally at a loss for the meaning of it, and only later did I realize that “the guy on the bicycle”, who thought that he wanted to become a radio operator, had become a topic of mention on interbase telephone conversations.  I can’t any longer recall the final conclusion of the interview there at Alconbury, but I do recall that I left the base convinced that my best chance was to leave “so far, so good” alone, and spent the rest of my leave in London.

 

     Back at the 7th P.R.Grp., things just went on as usual until one afternoon late in July when I was called into the orderly room, handed a piece of paper, and advised unceremoniously to “Be out of here by tomorrow afternoon”.  The order had been cut weeks before, and there was barely one days time left on it for me to pack and get to Alconbury.  It was for the good of the service.

 

     The first couple of weeks there were occupied with orientation and practice operations, but pressure for maximum possible effort was considerable at the time, and by 15 August I found myself slated for the real thing.  One that day and another on the 16th proved to be short and, for the more seasoned, rather easy ones, but a third one on the 17th proved to be my first taste of a real air battle.

 

     We were part of a four wing, three groups per wing, force targeting the ball bearing works at Schweinfurt, while a force of seven groups made a simultaneous strike on the Messershmitt factories at Regensberg.  We were under continuous and sever fighter attack for a solid three hours and fifteen minutes.  Other groups in the formation got it far worse than ours did, but still we lost two of our 22 planes.  Then the weather shut us down for a time, and while off on a short pass a few days later, I paid a visit to the yardbirds at Mount Farm.
     On my first few sorties I flew as fill-in on whatever airplane and as part of whatever crew, but soon I was made a regular member of Squadron 326 and assigned to the crew of Capt. John Foster, most of whose members were about two numbers ahead of me in the sortie count.  We were also assigned our brand new airplane.
     On 15 September, by which time I had accumulated a total of about 11 missions, the group was moved for strategic reasons from Alconbury to none other than Mount Farm.  The 7th P.R.Gp. had been bumped to Chalgrove.
     By 10 October I had flown a total of 14, a few of which had involved only shallow penetration of the Continent and had been little more than airplane rides, and some of which had been long and tough, involving such further targets as Stuttgart, Emden, and Bremen.  There was also one marathoner to Gdynia (Gdansk), Poland, done via a route out over the Baltic sea.
     One on 14 October was to be my fifteenth, a return to Schweinfurt.  The raid was assigned to Col. Budd J. Peaslee, who was commander of the 384th Group but who, due to a combination of circumstances was in the vicinity of Mount Farm at “H-Hour”, and so decided that he could take the lead from there.
     The Briefing laid it all out for us.  Once again bomber command wanted a maximum effort, hoping to put about 420 planes into it, but when it came to the actual numbers that could be considered battle worthy, the total was more like 383.  Of those, 1st and 2nd Divisions, totaling 320 were committed to Schweinfurt.  Of course Col. Peaslee’s decision had made the 92nd the lead Group, and by one process or another our squadron, the 326th, was chosen to lead the group.  Peaslee would command the operation from the copilot position of the lead ship, that of Capt. James K McLaughlin.  Our formation position, with Maj. George L. Ott replacing Capt. Foster, was (right) wing.  This made us the number two airplane of 320 World War II heavies about to go hammering for Hitler’s marbles that day.  My orders, like those of the radio operator in the lead ship, were to leave the radio gun stowed and do nothing but monitor Wing at Thurleigh for any possible late advisories.
     After a take-off made hazardous by ground fog, assembly almost thwarted by cloud, and crossing out over the channel for what we all knew would be a long, tough one, abortions due to various problems had whittled our number down to 291, of which three were from our group.
     On the first leg of the long part of the route that lay over the continent, our Thunderbolt escort kept the Luftwaffe too busy to have much left over for us, but that of course was only to the limit of its own range about all the Ruhr.  From that point nobody had to tell you that our own guns were what were busy.  I stuck to my post, but I was scared.
     In such a situation I had a habit of flipping the intercom switch onto the “Call” position for a couple of quick seconds every few minutes, just to see if everything seemed to sound OK.  One of those times it was instantly plain that we were in big trouble.  I switched to straight intercom and jumped up to look around.  It looked like jerry had decided that he could settle this daylight bombing question once and for all.  He had managed to put up somewhere between 300 and 400 fighters, including every type and employing every technique imaginable.  Some were dropping aerial bombs on us from above.  Some were equipped with rockers which they launched from behind, and the more usual types were just blazing in on us from every direction in swarms of up to 60 at a time.  Our bombers and their fighters were going down whole and in pieces all over the sky.
     As for us, an ME-109 had come down out of the sun and knocked out our number 3 engine.  We had fallen behind, and had managed to get back up more or less into formation by having already jettisoned the bombs.  Ott decided to move out again in order to avoid knocking the whole group formation apart.  One awesome part of the damage was a hole in the left wing between the two engines that could only amaze you that the wing hadn’t folded.  I looked out at the tip and saw that the aileron was up what must have been all the way and the trim tab was up even more.  By now our number 1 was visibly afire, number 4 was trailing smoke, and again we were falling behind.  We managed to sit atop a following group for a short time, but meanwhile we had been jumped once more by everything in the nearby sky, and again we couldn’t hold that very long either.  Then for a short time we were part of a scattering of bombers which were falling behind just like we were and were being taken out one by one.  Finally, except for the ME-109, still with us and an element of three ME-210s, now empty of rockets but still aiming to loose their 30 calibers on us, we were in a sky all our own.
     Tail gunner James Proakis sent one of the ME- 210s down with one of its engines trailing smoke, and by this time I had my radio gun unpacked, but without prospect of much effect.  On recent sorties I had experienced firing stoppages that had something to do with the ammunition feed.  I had approached the armorers for help with it, but like the rest of the ground forces, they were working day and night under pressure to get on with bigger things.  Some general modifications were always being tried on an urgent basis.  This time it was just no-go with this gun from the start.  After repeated attempts, I pulled around right at the breech and bypassed the chute completely, feeding the belt back in over the top.  This allowed me to get in bursts of about ten or twelve rounds before the gun would short round and I would have to hand feed and hand charge it in hope of getting it going again.  Meanwhile Jimmy Proakis had burned his guns completely out of action and he came scrambling out of his position looking for some place to go, and whenever the two remaining ME-210s, still flying as lead and chain dog, though they had it back there, they would close in almost point blank range and resume the business of making a sieve out of us with their 30 calibers.
     The ME-109 was now repeatedly upper cutting us from the front, raking us from nose to tail with his 20 mms in the process.  The men in the nose, bombardier Lt. Jerome Tiger and navigator Lt. Malcolm Champgne, were still getting their shots at him, as was ball turret gunner John Benson, and I believe that he was what top turret gunner Raymond Hottenstein was still shooting at intermittently.  On one such pass, I saw, by pieces flying past the radio hatch, that we had taken another hit up front and a few seconds later Chamnpagne came on the line to tell us that our bombardier had been killed.
     In my own arena, I attempted to concentrate on the lead ship, and it was plain that I had little choice but to keep charging the gun and then to hold my fire until those 210s were close enough again that I could feel sure of making my bullets count-or should I say until I started just sweating the tracers at them?  It seemed to be turning into a game of chicken, perhaps aided by possibility that they were nearing the end of their ammo, but to this day I still can’t understand how at that range some of my 50 calibers, few as they were bound to be, didn’t take out a pilot or hit pay metal, but obviously I just didn’t manage to pull it off.  Maybe I was at least coming close however, because as soon as I would cut loose with another burst, they would haul back on those throttles and get the hell out of there fast.
     There wasn’t any help in the fact that after one of those bursts, when I went to charge the gun again – this is true – the charging handle came right off the gun bolt in my hand.  The fact that the burst had caused them to drop back once more was the only thing that gave me time to take a breath on it.  I took a quick combusted look at the bolt part of it and saw that the threads were all scrambled.  It had never been turned in more than half a turn.  The spinner part I just threw away.  Then I turned the bolt back in that precious half a turn, and from that point every time I pulled I twisted.
     I didn’t have to pull and twist much longer however.  We were deep into enemy skies, the three planes were still dogging us, the fires seemed only to be getting closer to the tanks, and of course we were still losing power and losing altitude.  What course we were on by this time I’m sure I don’t know.  It seems that nobody could think that there was still any chance to save the ship, and with some encouragement from Lt. Champagne, Maj. Ott decided that it was time to chuck it and go.  Once they saw us begin to take to the silk, the 210s just stood back and watched.
     We were one of six ships from our group lost to the enemy that day.  Of the entire force, we were one of 60.  For daylight bombing advocates it was a sobering day.
     For me the “caterpillar” part was another little episode in itself, but to keep it short, I landed unskillfully in a tilled field and broke an ankle, and I was soon corralled.  After a relatively short stay in a P.O.W. hospital at Overmassfeldt, I was reunited with my inlisted crewmates at Stalag Luft 17-B near Krems, Austria.  Only a short time later, Jimmy Proakis made an Ill-conceived move toward escape and was gratuitously shot to death by a Luger “happy” guard.  Prison camp was an ordeal for me.  If one of life’s disguised opportunities is to discover that there are ways in which you need to get wise to yourself, I can recommend the prison camp experience as something that might push the button for you.  I sweated it out shook to my eyeballs and fully aware that I was no great shakes as a warrior, no Socrates at Patidaea.
      By March of 1945, when we would venture outside of the barracks before taps in the evening and look toward the eastern horizon, we began to see occasional flashes of fireworks from the action of the Russians coming up the Danuve valley.  On 5 April, the entire G.I. complement herded by the camp guard force, began an intermittent march up the valley to keep ahead of them.  On 3 May, while bivouacked in a wooded area near Hitler’s home town of Braunauan-Inns, we were freed by a detail from Gen. Patton’s 3rd Army.
Claims to fame?  Not one, but two:
  1. The guy on the bicycle.
  2. The minutest wound in the 8th Air Force.
One of the ME-109’s 20 mm shells busted close enough that a piece of the flack took off the tips of the fingers of the heated glove-outer glove combination of my right hand.  By way of a quick look I could see my fingernails sticking out, so I knew that it couldn’t be too serious a hit, although I knew that if this affair should go on long enough I would sooner or later have icicles for fingers.  As it turned out, it all proved to go a different way, and in the end I was able to consider myself pretty darn lucky.  A few hours or a couple of days later – I can’t any longer remember exactly – I noticed a tiny black and blue spot on the outside near-tip of my little finger.  I checked it with the index finger of my left hand, and sure enough, there was a tiny little speck of flack embedded there.  It was so insignificant that it was more fun to leave it there than to dig it out.  For a couple of years afterward, it served as a conversation piece once in while, but in a couple of more years it worked its own way out.  I must have been scratching an itch at the moment, because I felt it come loose, and by the light from the window I saw it fall to the carpeted floor.  I made a valiant effort to retrieve it, because I wanted to put it into a little bottle in order to make it the prize item of my war memorabilia, but I was just unable to find it.  Eventually even the “wounds” discoloration disappeared, and I suppose I should then have been able to say that for me the war was over.
     If anyone can locate anyone who earned a tinier Purple Heart than that, I will immediately relinquish the crown.

See the Story: BLACK THURSDAY