- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The most vivid memory of my tour of duty is a brief but poignant incident that occurred at midday on March 18, 1945.

Our B-17 bomber crew was approaching the target over Berlin on the largest daylight raid of the war. During bomb runs, it was my job as a radio-operator-gunner to release, on instruction from the co-pilot, packages of tinfoil strips known as “chaff” through a chute behind the radio operator’s swivel seat. This was to throw off radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns by creating a blur on the sights instead of a precise target.

On the March 18 Berlin bomb run, 500 batteries of German guns were filling the air with exploding flak. The co-pilot said on intercom, “Co-pilot to radio, start tossing chaff.” Just as I turned to release the tinfoil, a piece of flak tore a 3-inch hole through the left side of the plane, chest-high, at the very spot where I had been sitting a second earlier.

That was quite a scare for a 19-year-old. Such a shot in my side would have ripped me asunder. Needless to say, I thanked the co-pilot for his timely command.

During our 23 missions, we flew through all kinds of flak and were challenged by German jets. We lost engines, had two forced landings and experienced other dangers, but that piece of flak on mission No. 8 over Berlin had my name on it. I thank God I am able to write about it.

* * *

My radio training really came in handy on one of our missions. After dropping our bombs over Germany, we were headed back to base when storm conditions and darkness threw us off course. The pilot was flying blind for almost an hour. The navigator reckoned we were out somewhere over the North Sea, but he could not determine our position. The crew was tense.

I sent messages in Morse code to three radio stations. Where the three lines intersected gave me the geographic location of our plane. I passed on the coordinates to the pilot, who set the course for home. We made it back safely with very little fuel to spare.

* * *

The nice thing about flying combat missions, as opposed to being in the infantry, was that life was fairly normal between flights. Unlike our ground-based brethren who were in constant danger, we were exposed only while flying over enemy territory. Consequently, after a tour of missions, our crew certainly was not shell-shocked and, in fact, felt pretty good about life in general.

We were told, however, that we had been under a tremendous strain, and so it was that in late April 1945 we were sent to a “rest home,” a beautiful English villa, for 10 days. Among other games, we played tennis, volleyball and craps. The local village was gifted with no fewer than 13 pubs. I was completely exhausted after the 10 days and still wonder why the villa was called a rest home.

While our crew was there, the war virtually ended in Europe. I was in London on V-E Day, May 8, 1945, watching the movie “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” In the middle of the film, an announcement on the public-address system proclaimed that the war in Europe was officially over. Hundreds of us rushed out of the theater into Piccadilly Circus and witnessed the wild celebration.

Thousands of people had filled the area, and some eager beavers were even climbing up the statue of Eros, the Greek god of love. That was a most appropriate spot, because girls young and old were chasing and hugging and kissing every military man on the scene. It was a miracle that I managed to escape - after about an hour.

For a number of reasons, it took from May to November to redeploy us to the United States. Perhaps the most significant explanation was that our navigator fell ill. We lost the plane to another crew and were unable to fly home.

For redeployment purposes, we had to compete with members of the infantry and other ground forces from the Continent, who had anywhere from 100 to 200 “points.” Being relatively short-term flyboys, we had fewer, around 70 to 80 of the go-home credits, so we had to sweat it out.

For most of the period, we stayed at a “reple-deple” - replacement depot - at Chorley, where living took on the truest form of democracy. That is, we had to wait on each other.

Combat-hardened tech sergeants and master sergeants found themselves lining up every morning and taking orders from a “permanent party” corporal who proudly wore ribbons for the American and European theaters of operation, the Good Conduct Medal and a sharpshooter award.

After a succession of crummy daily jobs, I - though only a lowly staff sergeant - was assigned as a semipermanent “block chief,” a title that gave me the privilege of performing the full range of duties as a barracks janitor. I pulled an inspection twice a week and took great pleasure in telling the two master sergeants in my charge that unless they kept their bunk areas neater, I would report them to the corporal.

Things got so bad during that period, I even took to writing poetry:

THE FORLORN SOLDIER

Here I sit overseas.
All I ask is one boat please.
And let me stow away upon it,
Lest I have a royal fit.

I miss my girl, I miss my home,
I miss a chocolate ice cream cone.
Though home and cone do not rhyme,
I’ll consider that some other time.

I long to ride in automobiles
And wear heel-plates on my heels.
But most of all I’d like to scrutinize
My gal-friend’s rootin’-tootin’ eyes.

Here’s hoping that my wish comes true
And that it doesn’t go askew.
My unhappiness would surely end
If some kind soul would condescend and kinda send
ME HOME.

MALCOLM LAWRENCE
Chevy Chase

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