On the 20th December the USAAF went back to Bremen to hit another Focke Wulfe plant. The campaign against German aircraft factories was gaining ground. It had to be successful if the Allies were to achieve air superiority prior to the opening of the Second Front – Overlord was now only months away.
The air battles that developed as the bombers travelled to and from the target were equally part of the campaign – not only was the attack aimed at destroying fighter planes – it was also aimed at the German fighter pilots. During the next few months their ranks would be decimated as the 8th Air Force took the fight to them with aggressive new tactics from their escorting fighters.
The fighter pilots and the bomber crews were mortal enemies. So one incident that took place on the 20th has been singled out for special attention, an extraordinary exception to the cruelties of combat.
B-17F ‘Ye Olde Pub’ from 379th Bomber group was damaged by flak going into the target and then drew the attention of the Luftwaffe fighters as a weakened aircraft. There were as many as fifteen fighters trying to get into position with it at one stage. This is part of the account given by Charles A. Brown, the pilot:
At some point during our continuous twisting, turning, climbing and diving manoeuvres, the attacks finally ended and the fighter escort of P-47s reappeared. We had not seen friendly fighters since just prior to bomb release. During a few minutes of normal ight, I attempted to ascertain the casualties and full damage to the aircraft.
Somewhat later, as I looked out the right window, there, flying very close formation with his wingtip only about three feet from our wingtip, was an Me 109. For a moment I thought that I had lost my mind and if I briefly closed my eyes it would disappear. I tried – he was still there. I later pointed him out to Pinky who had returned from the rear.
The German pilot nodded but Pinky and I were in a state of shock and did not return the greeting. Although the German pilot appeared relaxed, I was most uncomfortable and felt that at any time he would unleash some type of new German weapon to destroy us and our aircraft. Somehow, all of the briefings and combat training sessions had omitted to inform us as to the proper protocol or reaction when a German fighter pilot wanted to fly close formation with us.
I finally surmised that he was probably out of ammunition, but I was amazed at his curiosity and daring in flying that close to even a badly crippled enemy bomber.
At that point, only a single gun in the top turret was functioning out of the original eleven guns on the B-17F, with the other weapons in the ‘guns down’ or inoperable condition. I was also able to get Frenchy to return to the cockpit and join Pinky and myself in observing the audacious German pilot.
Now we had three wide-eyed American airmen in the cockpit plus Blackie in the ball turret going eyeball to eyeball with one German pilot.
(Blackie adds: ‘He was closing in at a very slow rate from the low rear. Finally, he came up on our wing, so close that his wing actually overlapped ours. I kept my dead guns trained on him. We looked directly at each other. He was also looking inside the plane. The pilot motioned with his right hand as if to say, “I salute you. I gave you my best and you survived.”
With that he went into a dive down to his right and disappeared. There was something different about this fighter. First of all it was quite dark in colour. There was also quite a large round bulge just to the left and in front of the cockpit area, which about a month later intelligence personnel at the 379th identied as a new supercharger installation.’)
After a few more seconds, my nerves could stand it no longer and I asked Frenchy to get back to his turret and point his guns at the German pilot. When the fighter pilot saw the engineer’s head appear in the top turret, he saluted, rolled over, and was gone. An abrupt end to one of the briefest, but most unusual encounters in the short history of the heavy bombardment as a major weapon of war.
An assessment of casualties indicated that Eckenrode was dead, Yelesanko was in a critical condition with a major leg wound (which later required amputation), Blackie was unable to walk because of frozen feet, and Pechout could not use his hands. The decision had to be made as to the possibility of trying to limp back to England or bale out.
A crash-landing was never seriously considered since we were under strict instructions that if a crash-landing became necessary as a last resort, we were to destroy the aircraft and activate the explosive charge in the SECRET Norden bombsight. Since it appeared that in addition to Eckenrode, three more of the crew would not survive a parachute jump into northern Germany in the winter, and possibly all of us would perish in a crash-landing, I decided I would fly back over land to let any of the crew bale out who wished to do so, and I would then try and fly the aircraft back to England.
The whole of Charles A. Brown’s account of the mission and how they got back to England can be found in Martin W. Bowman (ed) Raiders Of The Reich .
The incident has subsequently attracted considerable attention. It was not until 2001 that the two pilots finally met and a little more was learnt about what happened, the Daily Mail is amongst several newspapers with a full account.