Close call over Germany

Jack Keller was gunner on a B-17 (see section ‘American Voices 6’)

“The day began at 4.30 am – wake up call. After ablutions and a hearty breakfast all crew members were on the way to operations and briefing which was located at the field. It was here that we learned that our target this day was the marshalling yards at Berlin in Germany….. This was not received by the crews very enthusiastically because we knew this was going to be very dangerous mission. Berlin was the most protected city in Germany with flak batteries (anti-aircraft) located all over the city.

Berlin was approximately 500 miles as the crow flies, east north-east of our base. However, our flight path would be extremely devious. The reason was that the least dangerous route had to be taken in order to avoid areas of flak batteries and enemy fighter plane airstrips.

Takeoff time was 7.30am. The 486th joined with all the other Groups and we were part of a mammoth armada of about 200 planes on the way to the target. The question was: would we return unscathed? An eerie feeling! The flak over Berlin was intense and as we were into the bomb run, we could see the puffs of flak ahead where we would be flying through. Flak bursts look like harmless puffs of smoke as they explode, but in actuality when they explode, hundreds of pieces of steel shrapnel are unleashed to disable or shoot down our bombers. I was flying (in) the ball turret.

As our bomb load was released I glanced to the right and found that the ships in our formation were passing us by as if our brakes were on. On the intercom I could hear that the pilots were puzzled as to what was happening, but at that moment, from my vantage point in the ball turret (suspended undeneath the fuselage), I observed that the flaps had dropped. I reported this immediately to the cockpit. Our flight engineer, Elmer Stegman, made his way back to the fuse box aft of the radio room to trouble shoot and solve the problem. Flak had hit the electrical system, and the trouble was temporarily fixed: the flaps stayed up until we returned to our base.

(Meanwhile their plane had lost the protection of the formation.) In essence we were like sitting ducks over Berlin! Fortunately, there were no enemy fighters in the area at the time but I exited from the ball turret POSTE HASTE; this was truly dangerous business! I took a waist position alongside Max LeBlanc, our other waist gunner. Right then, at that very moment, all hell let loose! A flak burst under the plane hurtled a large piece of shrapnel up through the waist between Max and myself, and up through the top of the fuselage. This piece caught a corner of Max’s boot but did not touch his body. We were both within an eyelash of being wounded or killed.

Our pilots finally regained our position in the group and squadron formation on the flight path back to England. When we reached our base, we counted 15 holes in our B-17 – but not one of our 10-man crew was hit or scratched, that is, except Max’s boot!”

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