Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Returning to the Pack 
My grandfather, William Arnold Van Steenwyk, was a veteran of the 94th Bomb Group, which flew B-17s in the air war against Germany in World War II. He was a photographer/gunner, and flew a number of combat missions over occupied Europe in 1943. His job was to take photographs of the mission, including bomb damage assessment photographs, which the G-2 section used to determine if the target was sufficiently destroyed or a follow-up mission was called for.

One of the missions he flew on was the Regensburg/Schweinfurt shuttle. He was assigned to a plane called the Dear Mom, piloted by a Lt. Nayovitch. But when he arrived on the flightline before dawn on August 17th, 1943, the crew of the Dear Mom informed him that they didn't have enough oxygen aboard for a photographer. So my grandfather grabbed what gear he could and climbed aboard the next plane down, Little Minnie II, piloted by Captain James Kirk. And that's no shit!

The crew of the Little Minnie II was no doubt happy to have another gunner aboard, as an excited gunner in an adjacent ship is a clear and present danger to every bomber in the formation except itself.

I remember being at my grandparents' place in Arcadia, California, on 17 August, 1983. I had just turned 14 and was visiting for the summer. My grandfather told me "Jason, today is the 40th anniversary of the worst day of my life."

On that day, over a glass of good scotch -- well, maybe over a couple of glasses of good scotch, he told me the story of Lt. Nayovitch, and what it was like coming under attack from the Luftwaffe fighters. They'd come in and attack the bombers head-on, and zipping through the formation at terrific closing speeds, with the machine gunners on the bombers trying to track them in their iron sights. Only the tail gunners would have gotten a decent shot -- it's almost impossible to lead a plane with machine gun fire at an oblique angle traveling at full speed, while trying not to hit friendly craft flying in formation. (Waist gunners probably hit more friendly bombers than Luftwaffe planes!)

Sometime during the fight, the Dear Mom gradually fell out of formation and fell to earth...slowly at first, then it picked up speed and flipped over. My grandfather watched his friends - his crew - the bird he was supposed to be on, but for a small quirk of fate - fall from the sky. The nose exploded, and the plane split in two. He described counting parachutes - all of them coming from the tail half of the aircraft. I think he counted four parachutes. There should have been six more.

That day was to become the single costliest day in the history of the U.S. combat aviation. The Luftwaffe and German anti-aircraft defenses shot 55 B-17s and their crews out of the skies that day. 552 men. Half of them were taken prisoner. 20 more were interned in neutral territories. The remainder lay somewhere in Europe.

Seven more crewmembers were killed aboard aircraft that made it safely to Africa.

Some aircraft were ditched over the Mediterranean ocean, with battle damage crippling the aircraft or with fuel running low. If you lost an engine, you probably didn't make it.

Some of those crews were rescued at sea. Some weren't. In a grimly amusing side note, B-17 gunners claimed 288 of the 27 Luftwaffe aircraft shot down that day.

To the end of his life, my grandfather had recurring dreams that he was supposed to be on a certain mission, that he was walking up and down the flight line, looking for his crew.

On September 8th, 2001, he found them.

Splash, out


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Jason -

A pilot friend of mine, this past spring, took his father over to the town in Germany where he was captured after bailing out during the Schweinfurt raid. He wanted to see the field where he landed, and also where his B17 went down, with (from what I recall) most of the rest of the crew.

Also visited the hospital where he was taken and spent time there before he was interned. While at the hospital, they got talking to one of the staff there, who mentioned that her mother was a nurse at the same hospital, and had often spoken of taking care of some WWII airman.

Yep, she was still alive and they went to visit.

And she still remembered my friends father.

Still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

What a great heritage you've continued with. They are all so proud of you, both your military service and your civilian service to your military bros, & sisters.
In the same remembrance, I hope you'll want to read:
With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa - A Book Review
Don, with such a great story, why would you want to be anonymous?
My father was a B-17 bombardier (30 missions; one to Schweinfurt, though much later than the "Double Strike"). Honor them all.

BTW, I've read a book on the Regensburg/Schweinfurt raid: a battle five miles in the air and a thousand miles long.
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