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5/29/16

Splasher Six

Splasher Six is the newsletter of the 100th Bomb Group Foundation.  It was also the assembly point for B-17's of the 100th over England in WW II.

   Robert L. “Bobby” Black was born in the sleepy little town of Alderson, West Virginia on September 7, 1923.  Standing on Main Street it’s not hard to imagine the Alderson HS Band leading the 4th of July parade down the street with their version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with batons and instruments flashing, followed by the fire truck and a few floats and cars sporting beauty queens and local dignitaries and sponsored by local businesses and clubs.   Aldersonians, like most Americans in most places in 1940, described their town as being in the middle of “God’s country,” and they were convinced they wouldn’t be happy living anywhere else.  It was an All-American place to grow up, an All-American place to live and an All-American place to be from when you went out into the world to defend your country from those that wished her ill.
    Bobby graduated from Alderson High School in June of 1941 with 31 of his classmates.  He had played baseball, played trumpet in the AHS band, and had been part of the group of four young musicians that won the AHS talent show with their version of “Dipsy Doodle.”  The $5 first prize sounded like a lot more then than it does now.  Bobby and his buddies all talked about whether to enlist or wait to be drafted and which branch of the service they preferred.  It was never a matter of whether or not they would serve, just a continuing debate about how.  He worked at Carbide and Carbon in Charleston WV, and in December 1942 went by the Navy recruiter’s office after work on Friday to enlist.  The secretary told him the recruiter had left for the day and to come back Monday.  That evening he rode the train back to Alderson, and walked in the door of his parents’ home, looked through the mail on the table in the foyer and found the yellow envelope with his name on the outside.  He knew what it was, and opened it to find:
December 18, 1942
ORDER TO REPORT FOR INDUCTION
The President of the United States,
To   Robert           Lee         Black
Order No. 709467
GREETING:
       You know the rest.
  Bobby began his career in the US Army at the induction center in Charlotte, WV.  in January 1943. He was assigned to the AAF, went through six weeks of basic training in Miami, Florida, sent to gunnery school at Laredo Texas, radio school at Sioux Falls, South Dakota and, upon successful completion in September 1943, was promoted to sergeant, and, best of all, received a 10 day furlough home.  After those few days at home impressing his relatives and friends in his Class A uniform, he was sent by train to Kearns AFB near Salt Lake City, Utah for an assignment to a crew.  Upon his placement as ROG to the crew of Lt. Clarke Johnson’s B-17 training crew, Bobby met his new best friend, waist gunner Bobby Brooks.  Now they had a complete crew, except for a navigator.  Lt. Hahn, the Bombardier, took on the task of navigation as well as his own duties.
    After a few weeks of flying together, the crew was transferred to Avon Park, Florida for more advanced training.  It seemed to Bobby they flew every day, and sometimes two or three times a day.  He filled in the times he wasn’t flying by replying to the constant stream of letters from his mother, and the occasional ones from his girlfriends, his brothers and his Dad.  He also continued to listen at every opportunity - and there were a lot of them - to the “Big Bands” that provided entertainment at training bases across the country.  He heard everybody from Glen Miller to the Dorseys, and loved every minute of it.
    After Avon Park, the crew was sent to Langley AFB in Virginia to train as Pathfinders.  They also got a new navigator, but he washed out.  Bobby and the officers on his crew flew a new plane to Scotland, and learned then that Lt. Johnson had volunteered them for the 100th Bomb Group based at Thorpe Abbotts.
    They were assigned a new plane upon their arrival at Thorpe Abbotts.  It was a shiny aluminum B-17G, #42-102624, and, after a couple of weeks of practice and watching other crews take off and come back from missions, they were assigned to fly their first mission on May 24, 1944.  Berlin was the target.
   The day they all had known was coming was finally here, and all the training seemed so far away now.  A short jeep ride to the hardstand where their plane was waiting and they began their pre-flight checks.  Bobby checked his radios, put the code book for the day on his desk and checked his oxygen bottle and the connections for his electrically heated flying suit.  His parachute and flak suit went on the fuselage floor by his table, and he checked the throat mike. He had done all this a thousand times before, but today it felt like everything was new.  He guessed it was because this was their first real mission; the first time when the bad guys would be shooting back at them. He saw the blue flare as it went into the sky over the airfield, and the relative silence was suddenly broken by the sound of the powerful Wright- Cyclone engines starting.  Every 60 seconds, a fully loaded B-17 roared into the air.  It was 5:30am, they were now the third plane in line for take off in the foggy, dark British morning just before sunrise when the waist door of the plane flew open, a guy in a flying suit and carrying a leather satchel climbed in and announced “I’m Lt. Thomas Tracy.  I’ll be your navigator this little trip” and started forward to the navigator's’ position in the nose of the plane. “Glad to have you on board” said the pilot.  “Let’s get this bird in the air and be on our way.”  It was evident Lt. Johnson had been expecting a new crew member for this mission but had not thought it necessary to mention it to the rest of the crew.  In about the time it took Lt. Tracy to find his position in the plane, Lt. Johnson pushed the throttle to rev all four of the engines to a deafening roar, released the brakes, and the plane rolled down the runway packed with 2,600 gallons of gas, ten men and 10 500 pound bombs containing high explosives.  The plane seemed to take a long time to reach the take-off speed, but Bobby finally felt the nose lift as the powerful engines pulled the heavily loaded plane into the air.     
    After a couple of hours, the bombers crossed into Germany.  The leader of the 100th on that mission was Major Fitzgerald, flying in the lead plane and on his first mission as Group Leader.  This lack of experience led directly to the delays in forming up in England and to the scattered formation as they crossed the Channel well behind their designated position in the bomber stream.
   The German fighters flew to confront the bombers as they followed the course of the river Elbe to Berlin.  The fighters approached the gap in the bomber stream from a height of 24,500 feet and headed directly for the out of position planes of the 100th.  The FW 190’s were flying toward the B-17 formation, and Bobby heard the call to his crew “German fighters, 11 o’clock high” but he couldn’t see them from his position.  The lead German fighter flown by Lt. Konig attacked the bomber of Lt. Hoskinson in the lead position of the low element of the 349th formation.  His fighter was either hit in the cockpit or his blindness in one eye did not allow him to see Lt. Hoskinson’s plane as he led the attack, and the two planes collided in mid-air.  Both seemed to disappear in a gigantic fireball and pieces of metal filled the air where moments ago there had been a B-17.  Only a few seconds later, Bobby felt his aircraft shudder violently from hits from the cannon of Lt. Schrangl’s FW 190.  The attack only lasted for a few seconds, but the plane seemed to shake uncontrollably as the FW 190 pilot “walked” his stream of fire down the entire fuselage of the bomber from nose to tail.  Lt. Schrangl had fired all his weapons simultaneously for a full three second burst.  That meant Bobby’s B-17 absorbed 30.75 kg. of metal ( 68 pounds) and 4.65 kg. of explosive (10  pounds) in one pass from the German fighter.  Pieces of metal and loose items bounced through the fuselage, and Bobby was thrown off his machine gun perch, hit the top of the cabin, bounced around and fell to the floor.  There was dirt, dust and clouds of white smoke in his cabin and in the bomb bay, and he didn’t hear anything in reply when he called for the pilot on the intercom.  He saw Dave Scofield cycle his ball turret, open the hatch and climb out into the fuselage. His hand, arm, shoulder and neck were bleeding profusely. Bobby did what he could to stop the bleeding with his emergency medical kit, gave Dave one of the morphine injections to help with the pain and looked around to assess what had, in the blink of an eye, become a desperate situation.
   The stricken bomber had quickly fallen out of formation and begun a long, relatively slow descent to the left.  The wounded B-17 was still making defensive moves in the air, indicating at least one of the pilots was still alive. There was no communication with the cockpit, so the lines must have been cut in the fighter attack.  The plane turned west, apparently on a return course for home, and continued to trail smoke and lose altitude.  One of the German fighters saw the wounded bomber as it continued down and away from the formation, opened the throttle and began to pursue the crippled bomber.  Whoever was controlling the flight of the damaged B-17 must have seen the fighter lining up for another attack and made another turn to the south.  The FW-190 attacked the bomber from the rear, and, intent on making what he thought was an easy kill, flew into a barrage of .50 caliber bullets from the tail guns of Larry Barger.  The German pilot saw his bullets hit the engines on the right wing of the bomber just as the big plane began another defensive circle, this time to the right, placing the cockpit in the line of the fighter’s fire.  Just as the bomber was taking heavy fire from the fighter, the FW-190 absorbed hits from the tail gunner of Bobby’s plane.  The fighter began to smoke profusely as the pilot pulled out of the attack and tried to make it back to his base.  The 2nd attack had started a fire in #3 engine, put more holes in the wings and put more rounds through the cockpit and nose area of the plane.  Lt. Hahn yelled over the intercom “I’m dropping the bomb load.”  Bob was amazed the bomb bay doors still worked.  He heard Hahn again yell “5,000 feet, get out! Get out!”  They headed toward the waist door and the tail gunner hit it with his shoulder and fell out.  Just then the plane broke in half at the bulkhead by the radio room and Bob found himself falling through the air.  His parachute didn’t open, so he started throwing it out of it’s bag with his hands.  It caught the air and opened, and he quickly found himself on the ground.  He was captured by two young German boys, and a squad of German soldiers saved him from being beaten to death by angry townspeople gathered near the burning wreck of his plane.  Seven of Bobby’s crew didn’t make it out, and his best friend Bobby Brooks died in the crash.
    Bobby was taken to a local jail, escorted to Dulag Luft for interrogation, and ended up at Stalag Luft IV near the Baltic Sea.  He and his buddies “walked the wire” for hours at a time, smoked constantly, were almost always cold and were always hungry.  They lived on potatoes, kohlrabi and Red Cross packages.  When the Russians got too close, Bobby and a few thousand of his best friends rode in a line of cattle cars to Nuremburg.  After a few weeks there, they were forced to walk the 100 miles or so to Moosburg.  On April 29, 1945 Combat Command A of the 14th Armored Division of General Patton’s 3rd Army approached the gates of the Moosburg POW camp.  “Better duck, boys.  In just a few minutes the war’s coming through” an officer told them.  They were liberated the next day, and spent several weeks in Camp Lucky Strike on the French coast before boarding a boat for home.
    Bobby insists he is not a hero, that the heroes are the guys that didn’t get to come home.  Like many survivors, he is puzzled about why he made it out of the plane and seven other guys didn’t, why he wasn’t severely wounded and the other two guys were, why he survived as a kriegie and others didn’t.  “It’s what anybody would have done under the circumstances” he once said.  I disagree.  It’s true that after being drafted he traveled to places he had never been, ate better food and had better clothes than at any other time in his life to that point and learned to be a part of a group of men that didn’t think it was unusual that they were going to war for their country because their country needed them.  Patriotism was taken as a given for these guys. I once asked Bob if he had ever been scared.  He thought for a moment, and replied “I really didn’t have time to be scared on the plane or when we were being shot at.  I was too busy trying to remember what I was supposed to do to help my crew to be scared.  Later on, in the camps and as a POW, I sometimes worried that I might be shot by an angry guard or accidentally bombed by one of our planes, but that fear was temporary.  My buddies wouldn’t let me be scared alone and I wouldn’t let them give up either.  We helped each other stay alive by preserving hope.”  Bobby and his buddies are American heroes in every sense of the word.  
    Bobby is 92 now, and lives in Hendersonville NC.  His wife passed away last year, but his son Bob Jr. lives next door.  He lives a quiet life, and still doesn’t think of himself as a hero.  Real heroes never do, do they?
Sgt. Black’s story is detailed in a book “It Seems Like Another Life” found on Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B012LEVB5K     



 

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