Copyright © 2001 Doug Johnson
[Club founder and member Doug Johnson was originally asked to write this for the newsletter of the 390th Bombardment Group, with whom Doug flew B17’s during WW2. I thought this would be an excellent addition to the AAC member pages — the editor].
ON A WING AND A PRAYER
D-day, 6 June 1944: 390th Bomb Group, 569th Squadron: My first mission was a disaster. Run away prop that we managed to feather but could not keep up with the formation even with full military power so we aborted the mission and returned to base. What a way to start a war! Later in the day we tried again (Group Mission 123, target-Falaise, France). This one counted, one down 34 to go-we were on our way.
Oct 15, 1944: My 35th and final mission started about like most of the others we had flown during the previous few months. Two of our earlier missions had extended all the way from England, over Germany landing in Russia for a short stay. Leaving Russia and bombing in Poland and Rumania before proceeding on to Italy for a couple days before our final leg back into Framlingham, England. But this time we were going on a relatively short mission to Cologne, Germany. We were to fly the lead position, high element of “B” squadron. Take off went according to schedule and we were airborne at about 0534. Climb out and assembly was simply routine. We reached the IP and turned toward the target area. No enemy fighters were sighted and it looked like the flak was going to be light and inaccurate. Hey, this was going to be a piece of cake.
Just before bombs away the flak became moderate and their gunners were beginning to home in on us. Suddenly we received a burst right under the right wing. We lost number 4 engine and Victor Rutkowski (my co-pilot) feathered it immediately then informed me that number three engine was on fire. Now things were beginning to get pretty tense. We attempted to extinguish the fire with no success and it’s about time for bombs away. We continued and dropped our bombs in the target area. We notified the squadron leader and immediately pulled away from the formation. I called out on the intercom that “we had better get out of here before this plane blows up”. Things looked pretty bad. I called back later to the crew but got no answer because all of them except the co-pilot, engineer and myself had already bailed out.
The fire continued in number 3 engine so the engineer bailed out and Victor followed him. I climbed down to bail out but decided to take one last look at number 3. The fire appeared to have gone out. The plane was in a slight dive as I climbed back into the seat. Upon returning the plane to level flight I noticed that the fire re appeared. I then put the plane in a fairly steep dive. I remember saying to myself “come on baby we’ve gotten this far, don’t blow up on me now”. The fire blew out shortly thereafter. My luck was still holding.
I was down to about 4000 feet by now and found myself flying through some more flak, and small arms fire. I didn’t realize at the time that I was flying directly over the ground fighting between our troops and the Germans somewhere north of Aachen. I really did not know who was shooting at me then but luckily I was out of it in a minute or so. I finally contacted a P-47 fighter pilot in the area who led me into St. Trond, Belgium (Site A92) where the landing was not the best I had ever made. A flat right tire that had been shot out by flak didn’t help. After exiting the plane and walking around to inspect the damage, I noticed that the tail gunner was still at his post. A flak burst had killed him. The plane had about 200 holes in it and the fuel was still leaking from the number 3 engine. I still can’t figure out why that plane didn’t blow up.
I later learned that my co pilot was killed on the ground by German civilians and that my bombardier had been wounded but evaded and my engineer also escaped capture and returned to base. The rest of my crew spent the balance of the war as POWs.
I got back to base on 17 October, my 24th birthday. After debriefing, I reported to the Group Commander where I got a royal chewing out. Apparently, I had screwed up radio communications for the whole group while desperately attempting to contact someone who could help me get back on the ground. Before dismissing me, he picked up the phone and said “put Johnson in for a cluster or something”. What a man!
Lt. Col. USAF (Ret.)
390th BG (H), 569th Sqdn
A/C 45-37513 (B-17G)
Johnson, D. L. — Pilot
Rutkowski, V.S.– Co pilot
Rudman, S. –Navigator
Francis, P. S. — Bombardier
Mc Laughlin, C. — Engineer
Ratz, W.F. — Waist gunner
Cowan, E.L — Ball turret
Pennick, A.A. — Waist gunner
Priest, C.M. –Tail gunner