My Nightmares of War

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic

After 69 years of enduring nightmares and flashbacks. A great-grandson is able to get him to open up and tell his wartime story. What they hear will live with them forever.

 

It was at my ninetieth birthday and there I sat at the dining room table, surrounded by my family. When my great-grand son asked me about the war. “Papa, my dad said you flew in a bomber. Did you?” I looked at his little face. “Yes, Papa, flew in a bomber.” Suddenly, the memories I had buried flooded back into my mind. Sitting in my chair, I reached for a napkin as I began to cry and then sob. My son and daughter both came over to me. Denise said, “Dad, are you alright?” “Yes, I will be fine in a second.” Both knew that I had never discussed my time during World War II. Their mother told them I did not want to relive those days. My son said, “Sorry, dad, he did not know about mom’s rule.” I stood up and looked all around the kitchen. “What I don’t know is how many years God will give me with all of you. I think it is time you know my story. Let’s go into the great room. There is more room for all of you, plus my chair.” As we walked into the room, Denise asked if I was sure I wanted to talk about it. I grabbed her hand and said, “Yes, I should have told all of you years ago, but the time was not right. You will see my story is not just about me.”

 

After everyone was sitting down. I asked Denise to go to my bedroom closet and bring the wood box on the top shelf. When she brought back to me, I opened it and told everyone. “The last time I opened this box was in 1946. It has remained on that shelf ever since.” I held it up and showed it to everyone in the room. Inside were medals, my bomber wings, photographs, and a few other things. It was your mother that saved all of that and put it in the box. I leaned forward and handed it to my great-grandson, who was sitting on the floor in front of me. “Mike, since you asked me about the war. I think you should be the first to see my memory box.” I cleared my throat and looked around the room. All eyes were on me. Especially my four kids. I knew while growing up they wanted to ask. My dear wife Dolores lived through those years right after the war. My nightmares, the flashbacks and the fear and the hate I had for Dobermans. She tried so hard to help me. My standard answer was, “I will be okay. Just give me time.” I lost my Dolores to cancer almost five years ago.

 

Before I started, I asked God to help me make it to the end without breaking down into tears. I asked everyone to just let me tell the story and then I will try my best to answer any questions you might have. I looked at the little ones sitting all around me on the floor. “As for my little hooligans, will you promise papa not to interrupt or ask anything until papa has finished?” I smiled as they all answered, “Yes papa.” As I looked at them, I thought they need to know what war is really like. It is not movies or computer games. It is brutal and destroys people. They live in a free country thanks to those young men buried in cemeteries in Europe and the Pacific. I took a deep breath. I was ready. I started by telling them about my training and then my transfer to England. By the looks on their faces, all were interested.

 

I closed my eyes and found myself back to the early morning of the 30th of November 1944.

 

There I was lying on my bunk, looking at a picture of my wife holding our baby daughter. I glanced at my wristwatch. It was almost 0200hrs. The day sergeant would be gently knocking on our Quonset hut door and as he turned on the overhead lights. Then in a soft voice say, “Gentleman would you mind getting up.” I held on tightly to my photograph. While I started thinking. Our daughter was going to be one-year-old that day. I had not seen her and wondered if I ever would. The Eighth Air Force stationed in England had suffered tremendous loses since joining the Brits in early 1942, with bombing German targets. The Army Air Forces suffered incredible losses. At that point in the war, over 40,000 men had been killed, missing in action, or prisoners of war.

 

The rumors floating around had us bombing either the railroad marshalling yards at Hamm, Germany, or the Lutzkendorf oil refinery near Merseburg, Germany. I was hoping for Hamm. With the Germans suffering severe shortages of fuel and oil. They had surrounded the oil refinery with a wall of flack. We had just bombed it two days earlier. We thought Charlie Ignatovich, our ball turret gunner, was going to lose it. I don’t blame him. He had the worst spot on our B-17. A turret mounted in the plane’s belly. Charlie could see the shells as they exploded. It was so heavy that day. It scared all of us. Poor Charlie in the ball turret pissed his pants when a shell exploded ten feet under him and blew two red hot pieces of German steel past his head.

 

Except for Lt. Booth, who was flying his twentieth mission. The other nine of us were on our third. Lt. Booth was flying with us because our pilot, Lt. Allen Johnson, had taken a large round in his left thigh from a German fighter on the last bombing mission over Merseburg. When it happened, Lt. Morris, our co-pilot, shouted for me; “Irish, Lt. Johnson’s been hit.” I dropped off my stand and saw blood all across the control panel. Lieutenant Morris was wiping blood from his face with his jacket sleeve. Lt. Johnson was shaking from the loss of blood. We had been together as a crew throughout training at Drew Airfield outside of Tampa, Florida. We were a close group. Our radio operator, Tony Marino, came up with the medical kit and stuck Lt. Johnson just above the wound with a morphine syringe. The lieutenant let out a loud scream. Seconds later, he was in la-la land. Tony and I got him out of his seat and carried him back to Tony’s area. We had to battle German fighters, but the worse was flack. They were shells set to explode at the altitude we were flying. The Germans had spotters that watched as we flew across their country. By the time we reached the target, they had our altitude perfect.I remember before I flew on a B-17; I saw the shiny metal and figured it was bulletproof. The reality was, the metal skin of a B-17 is just a little thicker than paper.

 

I caught a reflection on my watch and saw it was almost time for our wake-up call. Precisely at 0300hrs, the on-duty duty Sergeant flung the door of our Quonset hut open, flipped on the ceiling lights and yelled, “Briefing at 0500hrs, rise and shine you pups.” There were eighteen of us enlisted men in the hut. We were three crews of six men. It was an interesting scene. Watching guys not quite awake bumping into each other. The one thing special about bomber crews. Unlike the regular army or marines. Bomber crews were close and had a more relaxed relationship with their commissioned officers. This could be seen in the mess hall. We ate as a crew both breakfast and dinner. It was noticeable on the plane. For example, we usually called the pilot “Skipper”, Lt. Morris our co-pilot went by Mooretown, that was his hometown in New Jersey. Our group was Sgt. Tony Marino (radio operator), Sgt. Charlie Ignatovich (Ball Turret) Our waist gunners were Sgt. John Laughlin, Sgt. Doug Aldrich and last but not least, our tail gunner, Ralph Dorning. Me? I was the top turret gunner and planes flight engineer. I helped the pilots during takeoff by monitoring the gauges. If anything went wrong when we were flying. I was the guy to fix it. Ralph was the oldest at twenty-three. Tony was the youngest at eighteen. We made it to the mess hall and knew instantly it was Merseburg. The cooks had made real eggs, not the powdered egg crap. Whenever they served us real eggs, that told us it was going to be bad bombing run that day. Our commissioned officers sat down with us. They were an excellent group, Lt Charlie Morris (Co-pilot) Lt, Curtis: “Chappie” Chatman our bombardier, Lt Marvin Brewer the navigator. Lt Ray Booth was unknown to us. The word around the base was he was cool as ice. Nothing threw him off his game. Breakfasts were very interesting. Newer crews like us were quieter. Because we worried. The veteran crews had reached the point where if it’s your time, there ain’t nothing you can do about it. So that sat around joking and laughing. As soon as I finished breakfast, Tony, Laffy, and me, the Catholics on the plane, made our way to the back of the mess hall. The Catholic Chaplain would say a prayer over us and give us each communion. The Chaplin served all religions. He absolved us of our mortal sins, so if we died, we would be allowed into heaven. I thought I could use all the help I could get to survive.

 

Next stop was the briefing room. Like the mess hall, it was loud until the commanding officer walked in. His adjutant would shout “ten-hut”. We would all stand at attention until he said at ease. They stood on a stage with curtains pulled together. Behind the curtain was the target for today. We all waited with great anticipation. Hamm or Merseburg. I pulled my wife’s and baby’s picture out of my jacket pocket. I whispered and pulled it up to my lips and gave the picture two kisses, one for each of them. Wishing my daughter, a happy birthday and praying for Hamm. The curtain was pulled back and everyone just sat there, stunned. It was Merseburg. The secondary target was the chemical plant in Zeitz. If the weather over Merseburg was bad, we would hit Zeitz. After the briefing, we made our way down to huts. The first stop we had to turn in all of our personal items. Such as wallets, rings, holy medals, money, everything we had on us, except for our dog tags. Command did not want any of us to have something that may aide the Germans. Then we picked up our chutes, heated leather flight suits, leather gloves. The last stop was at the crew chief's hut. This is where the gunners picked up their 50-caliber machine guns. To our surprise, Lt. Booth had acquired a Jeep for us to ride out to our bomber. How he got it, I will never know. We showed off our Jeep to the other crews. Those poor boys had to drive out to the tarmac in smelly, dirty, three-quarter ton Fords trucks. Once we got on the plane, every man had a job and got to it. The gunners put their 50-caliber machine guns in their holders. Fed the ammo belts in and locked. Lt Booth and Lt. Morris did the preflight check. Lt. Brewer got his maps laid out, while Lt. Chatman checked out the bombsight. Tony Marino checked the radio to make sure it was working by talking with the tower and “Painted Lady” the B-17, next to us.

 

Our plane was ready to go. Today’s raid had five hundred B-17’s. Coming from several airfields across England. We were in the air by 0715hrs. Over the next ninety minutes, we circled, as, one by one, each group joined us. We were the 447th bomb group and selected to lead today’s bombing run. At 0905hrs, everyone was in the assembly area. The lead plane radioed it was a go. Just before we hit the French coast, Lt. Booth turned around to me and said “Irish, I hear its someone’s birthday today?” “Yes, my daughter Denise turns one.” “I have a two-year-old. Her name is Donna. Look Irish, I know it sucks to be here on such a special day, but we need all of you here today. Merseburg, as you know, is going to be a living hell. In about ten minutes, our Luftwaffe buddies will pay us a visit. I want all of us to get back to the states. I have barely seen my Donna and I know you have not seen Denise.” “I hear you Lt.” “Alright Irish, time for you to get on your perch.”

 

Flying at almost 29,000 feet, it was brutally cold. The two in the worse position were John Laughlin and Doug Aldrich, the waist gunners. Their gun openings had no covering, so not only did they have the cold, but the wind to deal with. They wore electric heated flying suits, but still they would be freezing. They did not really design the top turret for the gunner to wear a parachute. It made it harder to move. So I left mine directly on the floor near my perch. I stood on a metal plate with a support post for me. I had two 50-caliber machine guns. The turret could turn 360° and controlled by my hands on the 50 cal’s. Lt. Booth got on the intercom and told us to watch out for the boys from the Luftwaffe. As I scanned the sky for German fighters. I saw a group of P-51’s at ten o’clock. I yelled to Lt. Booth, “We got a nice-looking group of mustangs at ten o’clock.” After seeing those fighters in action, I knew when the boys in the Luftwaffe showed up; they were going to get their asses kicked.

 

As I was watching the mustangs, they peeled peel off, going after a group of German fighters. From that point on, until we neared our target, it was chaos. Since the Lutzkendorf to the target was so important, the Luftwaffe had every fighter they had coming at us. Ralph Dorning took out a German Focke Wolfe. That was Corny’s sixth confirmed kill. He was the top gunner in our plane. Laffy and I each got one. Laffy yelled on intercom to Corny. “Irish and I are right on your ass.” “Corny shot back, “What do you city boys know about shooting?” The chatter on the intercom was non-stop. Iggy in the ball turret, shouting to the right waist gunner, “One just went under us and coming up on your side.” The closer we got to the target, the worse it got. John Laughlin, our right-side waist gunner, started screaming over the intercom. “I got hit.” Dougie Aldrich got on the intercom yelling. “Laffy looks bad, really bad.” I heard Lt. Booth tell Tony Marino to get back there and see what he could do for Laffy. Tony had to use the 50s while trying to help Laffy. As good as the boys in the P-51’s were doing. I saw the German fighters shoot down two of our 17’s. Finally, Tony got on the intercom. “I got Laffy all patched up. I hooked his chute up in case we need to bale.”

 

Iggie jumped on the intercom. “Hey, Babes Boys are dropping out of formation. Looks like they lost engines three and four. Oh shit, there’s two 190’s on them.” I yelled, “Where the hell are our mustang escorts?” Corny in the tail. “They left us a few minutes ago. I am guessing we’re nearing the wall of flack.” Iggie jumped back on the intercom. “Skipper, it looks like the 190’s got em. They are downward spin.” “Iggie, keep your eyes on them as long as you can. Let me know how many chutes you see.” “One, two, come on, boys, everybody get out.” All of sudden Iggie stopped talking. Lt. Booth said, “Iggie, what the hell is going on.” “Skipper, it blew apart. Nobody could have made it.” They were one mission away from going home. I whispered, “Those poor bastards.”

 

Right then I could see the German greeting, a sky filling with black clouds. Lt. Booth got on the intercom. “Boys, I believe they may outdo themselves today with the fireworks. Get your chutes on in case you have to bail.” As we entered the flack, I could see the LT was right on this one. This was worse than our last visit. When you are flying through flack. It is like riding in a truck with no shocks or springs and driving down a pot-hole infested street. As I spun my turret around, I saw “Painted Lady,” just as she exploded. “Skipper, Painted Lady just blew apart. No chutes.” Lt. Booth called Chappie our bombardier. “Chappie, this flack is going to kill us. How long to the target.” “Three minutes, bomb bay doors open.” As I turned my turret towards the tail. There was an enormous explosion in our midsection. As the force threw me backwards in my turret, I saw the tail section with Corny still inside separate from the plane. I fell off my perch onto my stomach, right behind Lt. Booth and Lt. Morris. Lt. Morris yelled, “There’s a hole in the right wing between engines three and four.” I grabbed the right hook of the parachute and hooked it to my harness. By then, the plane had turned nose to the ground. The centrifugal force was pinning both lieutenants to their seats. As I frantically tried to get the other strap hooked onto my harness. I looked back and watched as the two men tried desperately to get out of their seats. The last thing I heard was Lt. Booth shouting, “God let me out of here. I have a family.” Just then, another explosion threw me into the bomb bay and out through the open bomb bay doors. The fact the bombs were still in place, leaving a very small opening for me to fit through, made my escape miraculous

 

Later when I looked back on that day. I thought, “Don’t tell me there is no God.”

 

As I headed downward, I was able to pull the ripcord on my parachute. It didn’t fully open, I was coming down hard and with only one strap hooked on, I was spinning. Making things worse, when I looked up, I saw falling pieces of debris. I said a prayer and my goodbyes to my wife and daughter. I kept looking for chutes. Finally, I saw two just before I hit the ground. I hit hard and was knocked out. When I came too. I started to hide my chute. Just as I stood up. A shot rang out over my head. I saw a large group of German soldiers with rifles running toward me. I immediately threw up my hands. They brought me back to a truck. Inside were Lt. Chapman and John Laughlin. Laffy was lying on a carrier. A German medic was cleaning his wound. I asked Chappie if he knew where were. “Just out of Zeitz.” His survival, like mine, was a miracle. The explosion that knocked me through the bomb bay was a flak shell blowing the nose off the plane. The explosion blew him out of the plane. Sitting only four feet away was Lt. Brewer. Chappie was not sure what happened to Lt. Brewer. When the tail section separated, Laffy was sucked out. He had enough strength to pull the ripcord. Tony was still on the plane.

 

Our German guards drove us north to an interrogation camp. They separated us right after we arrived. I would spend the next ten days in a windowless cell. A dim light bulb was the only light. Over the next ten days, they interrogated me. The Germans had different ways. Sometimes they slapped me around or when I was asleep. They would come in and wake me and make sure I did not sleep. The interrogator’s must have thought I would talk if I were tired. They asked me all kinds of questions. Like how many planes do we have, men, what types of bombs, our morale. The worse was not giving me enough food or water. I was being starved. During the ten days, they gave me almost no food and so little water that I had to pea in a bottle and drink my urine. After all of that torture, I gave them nothing.

 

On the eleventh day, they transported me to Stalag Luft IV. It was December 10, 1944. I would spend the next two months in the camp with over eight thousand other P.O.W’S. It was overcrowded, with no heat, little food, and no real medical care. Added to that, our German guards enjoyed letting their Dobermans off their leads and attack one of us. They enjoyed listening to the screaming. I will never forget their faces. Smiling, laughing as their dog mauled a prisoner. I experienced that two weeks after I arrived. I was in a group of prisoners when the bastard released his Doberman. The group ran in different directions. I was the unfortunate one that he caught. He hit my back and knocked me to the ground. Then proceeded gnawing on my right arm. At first, his teeth could not get through my jacket. He finally ripped enough to get at my arm. I fought back and was bitten on both hands. When the guard finished having his daily fun. He called the Doberman off me. I was lucky in a way. When he called him off, the dog was trying to get at my face. The other prisoners had to watch. Because if one of them stepped in to help, the guards in the watchtower would open fire and take you, the guy being attacked, and anyone near. After he walked away, my camp mates picked me up and carried me back to our barracks. All they could do for me was wash my wounds and wrap some cloth around them. Just when I thought my life could not get worse.

 

In early February 1945, with the Red Army approaching from the east. The Germans told all of us we were moving to another camp. It was only a day’s walk away. They lied. Eight thousand of us would walk six hundred miles over the course of eighty days. Through bitter cold, with little food or water. We slept most nights on the frozen ground on blankets from the Red Cross. Occasionally, we found a barn to sleep inside. Those prisoners that fell behind never returned. Almost every man was sick. I suffered from dysentery and trench foot. My boots by the end had its seams split open and allowed water in which worsen my trench foot. I was nothing but skin and bone.

 

They say the mind is a powerful tool. When I thought I could not go further. I pulled out the picture of my wife and baby girl. Sometimes I cried, other times I just stared and dreamed I was home with them. Each time I promised, I would make it and come home. They gave me the strength to go on.

 

On the 2nd of May, near Lubeck, Germany. British and Canadian troops rescued all of us from what eventually would be called the “Black March”. Knowing the war was over for them. The rats had left us a few days earlier.

 

I returned home to my wife and child. Eventually, we had three more children. The New York Police Department hired me in 1947. I would spend the next twenty-five years working for them.

 

Lt. Chatman and Sgt. John Laughlin both survived their time as prisoners of war. Both married and had children. Sadly, Chappie passed away in 1963.

 

The remains of our seven crewmates lost on the 30th of November 1944 were never recovered. They listed their names on a memorial wall in Belgium.

 

I told them I was finished but needed a minute. I went back to my bedroom and took Dolores’s picture off my dresser. “Well, dear, looks like I finally feel free of my past. I can answer their questions now.” I kissed her picture and smiled. “I love you, my dear. See you soon.”


Submitted: August 19, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Richard Frohm. All rights reserved.

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Bert Broomberg

This is a great war story. Well done.

Thu, August 19th, 2021 9:35pm

Author
Reply

Thank you for reading this story. My thought is every time it is read, another person will understand the sacrifices made by these very young men.

Richard

Thu, August 19th, 2021 2:57pm

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