Introduction -- "The barracks are kind of empty tonight. The kid
that sleeps next to me won't be back...Today was a sad one. Our radioman,
Charley Gunn, went on his first raid with another crew and all hands failed
to return. There was a cable waiting for him-his wife gave birth to a baby
boy. He'll never know."
This was the daily experience of a twenty-three-year-old staff sergeant
from Brooklyn named John Gabay. A tail gunner on a B-17, he saw worse in
the air: bunkmates bailing out in a ball of fire, planes carrying friends
going down in a fatal spiral. Gabay belonged to the 94th Bomb Group, 331st
Bombardment Squadron, of the Eighth Air Force. He was stationed at the
Rougham base, just outside the English town of Bury Saint Edmunds in East
Anglia. In the fall and winter of 1943-44, Gabay, a former high-school
swimming champion, kept what he called his "little black book."
After each mission over German-occupied Europe-he figured that they averaged
eight hours and forty minutes-he would return to his barracks and, sitting
on his bunk, write down entries while the harrowing events of his day were
Some years ago, Gabay's son, Thomas, showed up at the MHQ offices with
a large loose-leaf notebook crammed with memorabilia, records of the 94th
Bomb Group, and, most important, the typescript of John Gabay's diary.
What follows is a mission-by-mission account, twenty-six in all, of a period
in the air war against Germany when results did not yet balance against
the terrible costs.
John Gabay returned home a hero, with a Distinguished Flying Cross and
three Oak-Leaf Clusters. In April 1945, he learned that his twenty-one-year-old
brother, Eugene, also a tail gunner in the Eighth Air Force, had died over
Germany: In the last month of the war, on his twenty-seventh and last mission,
flak killed him. Gabay worked twenty years for the New York City Sanitation
Department. He married and had twelve children. He died on June 8, 1986,
just short of his sixty-fifth birthday.
1. GELSENKIRCHEN, GERMANY
November 5, 1943 (B-17 382-"Horrible
Hanks") TARGET: Synthetic-oil refineries in Ruhr Valley TEMPERATURE:
-43º F.T. (FLIGHT TIME): 5:15 E.T. (TIME OVER ENEMY TERRITORY): 1:35
ALTITUDE: 28,000 feet BOMB LOAD: 10 500-lb. HE (HIGH-EXPLOSIVE BOMBS).
Today was my first mission. Our group (the 94th Bomb Group, with twenty-four
planes) made the run on the target first. We went over Holland and immediately
saw three Me-109s. Later on we saw ten FW-190s, two Ju-88s, one Me-110,
and several more 109s. I fired at a 109 coming in at 6 o'clock. I must
have come close as he peeled off and dove away quickly. Flak was very intense
and pretty accurate (fourteen solid minutes). Our ship was hit several
times (two holes in left wing flaps, several in fuselage, severed oil line
in number three engine and bent the prop). Oil covered ball turret and
wheels. I could hear the pieces of flak hit-concussion driving the ship
several feet upward. We were very lucky to get out of the Ruhr Valley.
One of the waist gunners got the bends. He screamed a lot with the pain.
Now the 109s moved in for another battle. My guns worked perfectly. I was
holding them off pretty good. As we crossed over Belgium, our P-47s met
us and scattered all the enemy fighters. We lost one bomber in that last
fight. Bombs went through the wing of another ship but they made it back
This was my first raid and it was with an old crew. They had twenty-four
missions and were uneasy to have a rookie flying tail gun. But when we
landed, they all came back and shook hands with me and said I did OK.
2. MÜNSTER, GERMANY
November 11, 1943 (B-17 846-unofficially
called by the ground crew "Lucky 13") TARGET: Marshaling yards
in heart of city TEMP.: -28º F.T.: 6:00 E.T.: 1:55 ALT.: 24,000 BOMB
LD.: 2 tons incendiaries
It seemed at first to be a pretty easy mission. As we entered the Dutch
coast we were met with light flak. Then our P-47s showed up and we had
no trouble at all till we reached the target. Flak wasn't too heavy, but
our bomb-bay doors wouldn't open. We finally got them open and got rid
of the bombs in Germany. Our escorts stayed with us as long as they could-engaging
in several dogfights. They had to leave us over Holland and then the fun
began. About 50 FW-190s and Me-109s attacked us from every direction. We
couldn't close our bomb-bay doors so they picked on us thinking we were
crippled. One FW dove straight down from 1 o'clock high and let go with
his cannons. He put a hole in our left wing big enough to crawl through.
He also blew off a piece of the vertical stabilizer over my head. The Fort
[Flying Fortress] on our wing burst into flames and only five got out-one
chute was on fire. They were from our barracks. A 109 came directly at
me and I know I hit him as he rolled over in a dive and disappeared. Another
one came in low at 8 o'clock and Chauncey [the nickname of Ben Carriere],
our ball gunner, hit him and he burst into flames and went down. Several
FW-190s kept coming in at the tail and I hit one; he rolled over and I
lost him. The Fort on our other wing burst into flames and went into a
spin. Didn't see any chutes. Flak burst under our ship and concussion knocked
us up about fifty feet. As we reached the Channel an FW-190 followed up
low at 5 o'clock and Chauncey knocked him into the water. We made it back
OK-but our new ship was a wreck.
This was our crew's first raid together. Got back OK.
3. RJUKAN, NORWAY
November 16, 1943 (B-17 012-no name) TARGET: Power
station (world's largest heavy-water plant) TEMP.: -45º F.T.: 10:05
ALT.: 12,000 BOMB LD.: 5 1,000-lb. HE
A very long dull uninteresting mission over the North Sea. It was intensely
cold. My heated gloves and boots went out shortly after takeoff and I had
to keep banging my hands and feet for about nine hours to keep from getting
frostbite. As it was, the tips of the fingers on my right hand were frostbitten.
Saw some fishing boats as we approached the Norwegian coast. A very picturesque
scene. Then we flew over the icy mountaintops-up through the fjords-very
pretty. We had to make two runs on the target as we got there a little
early. After we dropped the load, we turned right and passed along a valley.
On the top of the mountain I saw several men shooting at us with rifles
and machine guns. As we left the coast we were met with light inaccurate
flak. One FW-190 made a feeble pass at us, then called it a day. We made
it back OK-not much gas left.
4. PARIS, FRANCE
November 26, 1943 (B-17 798) TARGET: Ball-bearing
factory on the Seine River TEMP.: -36º F.T.: 6:30 E.T.: 1:35 ALT.:
24,000 BOMB LD.: 3 tons demolition bombs
Five minutes after crossing the Channel, we saw our escort-eight P-47s
and eight Spits [Spitfires]. Number four engine was going bad and had to
be feathered but we continued on anyway. We were twenty minutes from our
target when we ran into heavy cloud formations, which meant we couldn't
see our target. As we got closer to Paris, the flak batteries sent up very
heavy flak. They couldn't see us but they had our altitude right on the
nose. We made a run on the target but couldn't see it due to the heavy
cloud cover. That meant we couldn't drop our bombs on Allied territory
unless we could see and pinpoint the target, and the target must be military.
We got a big flak hole in the tail coming out of the target area. One ship
cut through our formation and almost hit us. I called the pilot and he
dropped our ship and then pulled up quickly. It was quite a jolt-our radioman
almost went through the top hatch. The waist gunner floated through the
air and both landed on the ball turret, disconnecting their oxygen hoses.
The ammunition in all the gun positions was upset; mine came out of the
boxes and hit me in the head. I had about 100 rounds in each gun that were
We could no longer keep up with the formation so we had to leave and
go down. Our low group got hit hard by several FW-190s and Me-109s. Our
escort was too high to see it. It was the British Spits. There were several
dogfights later on-one B-17 got hit and was burning badly. He left the
formation, then blew up-bombs and all. The crew were good friends of mine.
By this time we were all alone over enemy territory, and our number one
engine started to go bad. We were struggling to reach the Channel with
the probability of ditching as close to the English coast as possible.
Meanwhile seven FW-190s came out of nowhere and began to stalk us. They
stayed just out of range, then broke off as we reached the Channel. They
must have been out of ammunition. We dropped our bombs in the Channel.
A little later we saw the White Cliffs of Dover, then our number one engine
died. But we made it on two engines. My face and chin were frostbitten.
We got back OK.
5. BREMEN, GERMANY
November 29, 1943 (B-17 846-"Lucky 13")
TARGET: Heart of city-docks TEMP.: -64º F.T.: 7:45 E.T.: 2:20 ALT.:
28,500 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons mixed
After [I finished] cleaning and checking guns someone stole the bolt
from one of my guns and I had to get a new one at the last minute. Hard
When our formation was completed, we went up through the North Sea,
then came down right over Bremen. Flak was very heavy. Ship on our left
had its wing blown off. Didn't have time to see if anyone got out as fighters
hit us hard. Our P-47 escort jumped on them and the battle began. I called
out an Me-210 at 5 o'clock low to Chauncey and he almost got him. I fired
at an FW-190 and saw him blow up just as a P-47 pulled over the tail. I
figured he might have got him first. There were dogfights all over the
sky. Vapor trails were heavy and broke up our formation. We ended up in
two different groups, which weakened our firepower. Our escort of P-38s
and Spits never showed up-again. Our Cq [communication] equipment and radio
compass were shot out. I never saw so many different types of enemy fighters
trying to get our group. There were Me-410s, 210s, 110s, 109s, FW-190s,
Ju-88s and 87s. About 150 in all, and all of them trying to outdo each
other. It must have been an Iron Cross day. Ju-87s tried dropping parachute
bombs. All our guns were going at the same time. It felt like the ship
would come apart. I fired at anything within range. I know I hit a few
as I saw several break off and dive. We made it back OK, but I had frostbite
on my face, chin, and knees. They wanted to put me in the hospital but
I went into a fit and got off with only one day grounding. Went to confession
before takeoff. It made the raid easy.
6. BORDEAUX, FRANCE
December 5, 1943 (B-17 846-"Lucky 13")
TARGET: Focke-Wulf Airdrome and Repair Plant TEMP.: -27º F.T.: 9:45
E.T.: 4.30 ALT.: 21,000 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons HE
For a change I was pretty warm on this mission. I always wanted to see
the south of France but the cloud cover was so great that I couldn't see
much-in fact, it was so bad we couldn't drop our bombs. We had P-47 and
P-38 escort cover over the Brest peninsula. We circled our target outside
of Bordeaux and a bunch of 190s came at us through the clouds. They hit
the last Fort in our group. It caught on fire, pulled out of formation,
rolled over on its back, went into a dive, and exploded. Nobody got out.
We had several attacks at our tail. I was beginning to think the Jerries
knew me. We used plenty of evasive action and it worked pretty good. One
Focke-Wulf came in so close, I could see his face. I poured it to him and
he rolled over burning, ending up outside of Bill's window. He poured it
to him and when he started to slip lower, Chauncey in the ball blasted
him, and as he went down everybody was hitting him till he blew up. He
must have misjudged his attack and found himself too close and panicked.
Our two groups were too close and fighters flew in between them, which
made it difficult to fire at them. We had a small fire in the bomb bay
but Bill put it out in a hurry. We were within seventy-five miles of Spain
and over seven hours on oxygen. Got back OK.
7. KIEL, GERMANY
December 13, 1943 (B-17 846-"Lucky 13")
TARGET: Heart of city TEMP.: -28º F.T.: 8:10 E.T.: 0:56 ALT.: 24,200
BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons HE
We flew up through the North Sea and just as we entered the enemy coast,
about forty Ju-88s appeared out of nowhere. They flew alongside our formation
on both sides, but just out of range. After several minutes of this, they
began to peel off and four of them attacked our ship from the tail. They
came in close, one at a time. The flame from the cannons, tracers from
their machine guns, and rockets from under their wings made the situation
a bit hairy. All I could do, besides being scared, was to spray each one
as they came in and call for evasive action. I hit the second one and he
rolled over and burned. I saw my tracers slam into the cockpit of the third.
I may have hit the pilot, as the ship started to go out of control. I poured
more into it, knocking off the canopy under the nose. It looked like a
leg hung out of the ship for an instant, then fell out. Then the ship went
into a spin. More Ju-88s flew alongside of us, out of range. Some of them
waved to us. It was shaky waiting for them to attack. Then they came at
us. Our pilot used plenty of evasive action and all guns were firing. The
ball turret in the ship next to us was blown out. Several ships were hit
hard. We had several flak holes, machine-gun holes, and a couple of 20mm-cannon
holes in the right wing. A squadron of P-38s showed up for a change and
the bandits scattered. One bomb got hung up in the bomb bay but C. L. [Claude
Chambers, the bombardier] managed to dump it after a few minutes. Leo was
annoyed that I didn't put in any claims. I don't like the hassle.
Today-December 13th; Our Crew-#13; Bombs Away at 1300-Another Lucky
8. BREMEN, GERMANY
December 16, 1943 (B-17 037) TARGET: Docks-heart
of city TEMP.: -38º F.T.: 8.30 E.T.: 1:30 ALT.: 24,000 BOMB LD.: 3
We were supposed to have plenty of escort-P-38s, P-51s, and P-47s-but
we were late and missed them. When we saw the P-38s they were passing us
on their way home-not a nice feeling. Flak over the target was extra heavy.
The sky was black with flak-burst smoke and I could smell it through my
oxygen mask. The noise was cruel and the concussions were murderous. Every
ship in the group must have had flak holes-we had plenty. When we came
out of the target area, the fighters were waiting for us. I never saw so
many. They were hiding over the stale flak smoke. Our crew led the Eighth
Air Force on this raid. We had two direct attacks at the tail but they
didn't press them. The low group in our wing got hit very hard. One of
the Forts blew up. The Jerry that got him gave some exhibition of flying.
He was something special. We had a British radar officer on board. His
job was to confuse the German radar [by throwing bundles of aluminum foil
out the waist-gun windows]. It didn't work. The weather over the Channel
was bad and especially over our field. We made the landing on the first
try but nearly collided with another Fort. There were two crack-ups later
on. Our ship was a mess-full of holes. I thought the crew chief was going
to cry. We were told at interrogation that Bremen put up more flak today
than any city up to now. Big Deal! Got back OK!
9. BREMEN, GERMANY
December 20, 1943 (B-17 212) TARGET: Heart of
city-docks TEMP.: -42º F.T.: 6:30 E.T.: 1:55 ALT.: 24,000 BOMB LD.:
3 tons HE
It's Flak City again! Today we took a cameraman with us. He got some
good shots-he also got frostbite. P-47s escorted us for a while, then we
picked up P-51s. Saw several dogfights around us. Our escort did a good
job. Saw them knock down a few Focke-Wulfs. Flak over target was extra
heavy, as usual. It knocked out our number one engine so we had to leave
formation and hit the deck and try to make it back alone. We had a few
attacks, but two P-51s saw us all alone fighting off two FW-190s and down
they came and scattered the bandits. By this time we were passing over
Wilhelmshaven and heading out over the North Sea, but not before running
into some very accurate flak. We made it back OK. Had several holes in
fuselage, nose Plexiglas, vertical stabilizer; number three engine quit
just as we touched down.
10. SAINT-OMER, FRANCE
December 24, 1943 (B-17 846-"Lucky 13")
TARGET: Rocket-gun sites and factories TEMP.: -28º F.T.: 5:45 E.T.:
0:23 ALT.: 18,800 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons HE
This was a most secret briefing. We were told it was a most important
raid. Everything that could fly was in the air. We were to try and hit
scattered rocket installations, which meant we had to do individual squadron
bombing. Flak was light and there were no fighters. This was hard to believe.
As we had our bomb run, flak started to get a little heavy but not too
accurate. Still no fighters! This was truly a milk run.
(SAINT-OMER is just south of the Belgian border, close to the English
Channel. The installations, which looked like ski jumps, were for the not-yet-operational
V-1 "buzz bombs.")
NEXT SECTION - Missions 11-20
Excerpted from "No End Save Victory : Perspectives on World
War II" by Robert Cowley (Editor). © March 29, 2001, Putnam Pub.
Group used by permission.