FINAL MISSION

FINAL MISSION

Sergeant Casey stood at the open hatch of the B-17 and watched the landscape of England fly past his eyes at a dizzying speed. The B-17, also known during World War II as “The Flying Fortress” because of its size, was going down. Sergeant Casey was a side gunner on the B-17, but the entire crew knew that the plane would not make it back to the American Army Air Corps Base in Molesworth, England near London. It was going to crash before the plane got there, so everyone had to jump. Sergeant Casey was the first in line, but he froze when he got to the open hatch. It was to be the first time, and as it turned out the only time, he jumped out of a plane. But he hesitated to make the plunge into the British sky. For several seconds he just stood there and looked at the ground below.

            “Sergeant Casey!” Second Lieutenant Jackson Bohannon bellowed behind him, “if you don’t jump out of this plane right now, I’m going to throw you out!”

———————

Sergeant Casey was my father, Karl Carlson. People in the military love nicknames, and because of Dad’s initials he got stuck with the nickname KC or “Casey,” which is what his fellow crew members called him. (Dad’s middle name was William, and when he taught in the Electrical Engineering Department at Mississippi State University from 1962 to 1988, his initials KWC inspired the nickname “KiloWatt Carlson” from his peers.) Dad was 19 years old when he joined the army on September 24, 1942 (14 years minus a day before I was born). He spent a year and a half in training before arriving in England in May of 1944. He was a side gunner with a crew of 10 men on a B-17 that flew 12 missions to bomb Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe during the months of June and July in 1944, while the D-Day invasion of Normandy and the breakouts from those beachheads were occurring. There were actually 13 missions, but the one on July 8, 1944 was scrapped when the Pilot and the Navigator were unable to find the target. Their B-17 was named “Paper Dollie.”

Some of the crew’s missions were short and others were quite long, and all the targets were German military factories or strategic spots like bridges. Once airborne on the crew’s first mission and at such a high altitude that the temperature was well below zero, Dad was so nervous that he threw up his breakfast on the inside wall of the plane near where his machine gun protruded to the outside. He was embarrassed about it and was glad no one noticed. He quickly pulled out his knife and scraped it off, throwing the frozen vomit out the gun’s opening.

The low temperatures on these flights caused unusual problems for the crew. On one occasion Dad’s oxygen mask iced over, and he had to break the ice by pounding it on the floor while holding his breath. From then on he took an extra one, which came in handy during a later mission when he couldn’t unclog the mask he was using.

The Germans’ reputation for efficiency is well earned. Of the 12 missions flown by Dad’s crew, 5 of them were to bomb the same ammunition depot in Munich. The Allies would send sorties to blow it up, and the Germans would rebuild it in days, causing the Allies to bomb it again. These were the longest missions Dad’s crew had, each round trip lasting 12 hours. The planes flew at high altitudes to avoid flak, which were bursting shells from German anti-aircraft guns trying to bring down the Allied planes. The men in the Army Air Corps (the Air Force did not become a separate branch of the military until after World War II) had a saying, “The flak was so thick you could walk on it,” because the black shells and the smoke when they burst made it look like there was a solid surface made of tar from the perspective of those in the planes looking down. Enemy anti-aircraft guns and German fighters were the two biggest dangers on these missions, and even after the Allies achieved air supremacy the big German guns still peppered the skies.

On one of the bombing trips to Munich, the Paper Dollie had dropped its load on its target, the ammunition factory, and had just begun its return trip to England. But Dad had to go to the bathroom—bad. And it was number 2. As everyone knows, “When you gotta go you gotta go.” So Dad told the bombardier to lower the bomb bay, which was empty since the bombs were gone. Dad took off his pants and straddled the bomb bay, and then he proceeded to bomb Nazi Germany in his own special way. We can only hope it landed on the head of a short evil man with a goofy-looking mustache. And by the way, if my memory serves me correctly from when Dad told me about this, they were flying at 35,000 feet and the temperature was 55 degrees below zero!

There was a third danger on these missions as well, and it didn’t have anything to do with the enemy. The B-17 required that the Pilot correctly mix the gasoline from two separate tanks. On one mission, the Pilot of the Paper Dollie mixed the gasoline incorrectly and the plane almost ran out of gas. Upon returning to the air base, the Commanding Officer (CO) gave the Pilot, Captain Cecil Miller, a long and harsh reprimand, which my Dad overheard. Although Dad felt sorry for his friend and fellow crew member, he was also relieved that the CO took the problem seriously.

But it happened again. On the crew’s final mission on July 23, 1944, they were assigned a rather easy bombing target. The crew’s mission was to cross the English channel and bomb a bridge in Creil, France to keep a division of the German army from escaping the advancing Allied armies. The bombing run went without a glitch, but Captain Miller had mixed the gasoline incorrectly again. The plane was going to run out of gas long before it reached the air base at Molesworth. Captain Miller and the Navigator searched for a small runway or a flat strip of land or a long stretch of highway to land on, but they couldn’t find one in that part of the countryside where they had crossed the channel back into England. So Captain Miller ordered all the crew, which had been reduced to nine men by this time of the war, to jump.

———————

“Sergeant Casey!” Second Lieutenant Jackson Bohannon bellowed behind him, “if you don’t jump out of this plane right now, I’m going to throw you out!”

            Sergeant Casey jumped. After doing so, he immediately looked up at the plane to make sure he was clear enough and then pulled his rip cord. The Paper Dollie was only a mile off the ground by this point, and Sergeant Casey watched in fascination as one after the other of his crew members jumped out as well. He hoped they all made it, but he only counted six more to jump out after he did.

            Sergeant Casey was so enthralled by watching the scene above him that he neglected to notice that the land was fast approaching from below. He landed with a surprising jolt flat on his bottom. All seven who jumped survived without serious injury, though First Lieutenant Saul Cooper sustained a broken ankle. Sergeant Casey and the other six crew members got out of their parachutes and found the highway nearby, so they hitched rides with some nice English citizens back to the air base. They found out upon arrival that the Pilot and a tail gunner didn’t survive the crash. Captain Miller jumped out at the last second and was killed on impact—his body was actually found under the plane. Sergeant William Zweck, a tail gunner, was found on the plane. His parachute got caught on something inside the plane and he never had a chance to jump.

            The crew had lost its Pilot and a tail gunner . . . and its plane. The Paper Dollie had survived a crash landing at the Molesworth air base on May 24, 1944, but the damage was minor. The repairs were made in a month’s time and Dad’s crew was then assigned to it. But after the crash of July 23, the Paper Dollie was good for nothing but scrap metal and spare parts. The seven survivors were sent back to America for some R&R in September, and then they were shipped to Las Vegas, Nevada in February 1945 for training on B-29 bombers in preparation for the invasion of Japan. But the Japanese surrender the following summer made that unnecessary.

            Sergeant Casey was honorably discharged from the American Army Air Corps on October 25, 1945, after three years and one day of service.

———————

I had several reasons for writing this account of my Dad’s experiences in World War II. First, today is June 20, 2014, and Dad died 10 years ago today at the age of 81 years, 8 weeks, and 1 day. It was poignant because in 2004, that date was also Father’s Day. This is the reason that I waited five days after Father’s Day to post this blog. Second, we have just had the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944. The success of the greatest amphibious operation in military history marked the beginning of the end for Hitler and his Third Reich. I am proud of the part my Dad made toward the defeat of Nazi tyranny during the bloodiest war in human history. Third, Memorial Day was less than a month ago, and Dad was the war-time veteran that I knew best. Fourth, I have wanted to write an account of Dad’s war-time experiences for many years. This account is based on three things: (1) my recollection of the many discussions I had with Dad about these events; (2) Dad’s recollections that he documented in writing and on video; and (3) internet research about the crew of Paper Dollie and their missions in June and July 1944.

Tom Brokaw referred to the Americans who fought in World War II or served in other ways, such as in the assembly lines state side, as The Greatest Generation (New York: Random House, 1998). But I must agree with Yale historian Joseph Ellis who said that the Revolutionary War generation deserved this title more. However, there’s no doubt that my Dad’s generation runs a close second.

Thank you, Dad, and thanks to all the great men and women of your generation for what you did for our country and for the world.

I love you, Dad, and all of us who love you still miss you very much.

 

Dad's B17 Crew

This is the crew of the Paper Dollie with the B-17 in the background. Dad is on the front row, far left. The Pilot, Captain Cecil Miller, is on the back row, far left. First Lieutenant Saul Cooper is on the back row, second from the left. Second Lieutenant Jackson Bohannon is on the back row, far right. Sergeant William Zweck is on the front row, third from the right. Sergeant William Robertson, kneeling next to Dad, was not on the final mission.

pp-42-97622-crash

 

The Paper Dollie shortly after the crash landing on May 24, 1944 at the air base in Molesworth, England. Just 60 days later it crashed again, in the crew’s final mission on July 23. Seven of the nine crew members survived. I am so grateful to God that my Dad was one of the seven!

 

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