I have never gone back to check, but I think that in a 1938 issue of “The Reader’s Digest” there is an article entitled “How I Won The World War”. We had only had one World War at time, and it had all been fought in Europe, so the title could be that much shorter. As I remember it, the writer had been on patrol on a beach one night in Belgium and had discovered that the German army was just about to creep around the Allied lines, which would have meant total disaster. Evidently, his presence queered the deal and saved THE world to be free for democracy. I remember being impressed that he had waited some 20 years to tell his story. Now I find that I have waited 55 years.
The German Ardennes Offensive began in mid-December, 1944. They poured across the Rhine River and drove across Belgium toward the English Channel. I was a lead navigator with the US Army Air Force 93rd Bomber Group (B-24s). For something like 15 days, the bad weather kept us from flying. Finally, around Christmas, we were able to get off the ground. One of the major goals of the Eighth Air Force was to cut off the supplies coming over the Rhine River bridges. The target given to our bomber squadron was the railroad bridge at Remagen. I sat in the nose turret of the B-24, as we led three squadrons- 36 planes in all- down the Rhine River. We were flying at about 10,000 feet- low and slow. I could see the river clearly and easily picked up the bridge. I pointed it out to the bombardier. It was as perfect an air strike as any, anywhere, anytime. We hit the center of the bridge and the left and right squadrons hit the ends. That bridge was gone.
We had a camera in the rear of our plane, so that the gunners could take strike photos. When we had returned to base and these were developed, it was abundantly clear that we had destroyed an autobahn bridge, some 200 yards north of the railroad bridge. In fact, in the corner of one picture, you could see a small piece of the real target. I didn’t remember anybody telling me about an autobahn bridge before take-off, but who can keep track of all that information being called out at 4 A.M.?
About a month later, shortly after a significant number of our troops had crossed, the railroad bridge did collapse. Some blame the collapse on infantry fire and a German attempt to destroy the bridge before it fell into US Army hands. But I am certain that we at least weakened it. Came pretty close.
In his book, “Panzer Leader”, the German General Heinz Guderian says that if it had not been for the railroad bridge at Remagen, over which our troops crossed, Germany could have held off the Allies indefinitely. And, of course, my missed bridge became the subject of a major motion picture.
Perhaps that was the total purpose in the series of illogical events that led to my being in that nose turret. By a reverse Catch-22 of the rules as interpreted by the Army, I was graduated from college at age 19, having only completed 2 1/2 years of school. Thus I was the only college graduate in navigation school. And thus I was assigned to a lead bomber crew. Never mind that I was constantly airsick and constantly lost in the air- I did fine in tests on the ground. In Navigation School, they took my air marks (45) and ground marks (95) and divided by two (70). Also, I was, and still am, terrified of height. I found that if I looked straight ahead for long periods of time, I could forget that I was up in the air. This helped my composure, but was hell on my navigation. Not only did I not know where we were many times, but I had a special difficulty in judging distance from the air. I could not tell whether we were two miles or ten miles away from a German city-, which made a difference in terms of anti-aircraft gun range. Lastly, I do not know left from right- a considerable handicap in giving directions.
Since we had to turn in a log at the end of each mission, I would visit the other planes before reporting in, to make sure that my notes agreed with those of the navigators in the planes following me.
The only consolation to all of this misery and deception was that it had to be better than walking in the infantry. President Roosevelt was right. God was on our side.