Granddaddy's War Stories
These letters, journal entries, stories, and pictures are from my grandfather, Henry Murray Huffman (1919-2011), who was a B-17 copilot in WWII. [The pictures are in no particular order. The stories are from a 2007 interview.]
Letter: Army Air Base, Salina, Kansas
[To his wife, Sue, and son, Murray]
Hello again Angel:
I’m fixing to go to bed now. It’s practically 12:00 o’clock and I will have to get up about 7. Honey you sounded like you were worried when I said I was leaving Salina soon. I didn’t intend to alarm you but even if I should go straight on over which I will be doing soon there’s nothing to worry about. God has always done such a wonderful job of leading & directing our steps that we should have no fear of this at all. I don’t have. I am really anxious to get under way so I can start looking forward to the time we can be back together & it will all be over. I know how you feel and I don’t blame you but when you look at it in the way it should be it’s not bad at all. There’s hundreds of things that could be worse. & God is fully as able to watch after me over there as he is here and if it wasn’t for his watch & care I know of several times I could have been killed easily and it was purely his care that kept me from it. Those times I mentioned were the obvious times he has intervened. Of course we all know he has the power to take or keep us according to his will.
Honey I must go now. Write soon. & very often. Kiss Murray & yourself for me and I sure enjoyed talking to you.
All my Love.
P.S. I’ll have to send this free as I’m out of stamps.
Journal Entry: Aug. 12
I don’t remember much about this because I didn’t write anything at the time and it’s now 3 weeks later. We hit our target which was the City of Bonn. It was quite cloudy that day and we had worlds of flak and fighters but we came through O.K. One tail gunner got hit by flak which by the way received a purple heart for yesterday. He came within an inch of his life when a plane above his dropped their bombs and tore the tail right off from in front of him. That raid was down in the Ruhr Valley. We picked a tough place to go for our first raid. A couple of days later we went to some air-dromes in France. I don’t remember the name. We really put our bombs on the target and ... [remainder missing].
Journal Entry: Tuesday Aug 11, 1943, Regensburg Raid
We got up early this morning about a quarter of 1 I believe. We ate and went to the briefing room and to our surprise found our route stretching from top to bottom of our big map and about 6 ft. more winding across a map on the side of the building. Before it was uncovered to where we could see our target everyone was guessing where and what it could be. Holloway was very happy because he was going to get to go as they had been using them for spares on some previous raids. Old Hinckly was quite restless because he was listed as a spare this morning and he was afraid he wouldn’t get to make it. There were 4 spares and two of them were late for briefing so the Col. told them they would be the last to fill in an abortion. So Hinkley felt a little better. When the briefing was over we went out to the plane & made sure everything was ready. It finally came time to start the engines. Just as we had the 4th started the tower shot a double red flare, telling us it was postponed for a while. Soon someone came around and gave us a new take-off time. The clouds were right down on the ground by now. Pretty soon tho we got word to start our engines again and get ready to take off. We had to climb through the overcast and assemble above it. We assembled with our group with no delay but the wind and air division weren’t where they were supposed to be & when. We circled the area where we were supposed to meet them and sure enough here they came after they were an hour or more late. As soon as we got in with them we set out on course immediately because we had already burnt up so much of our precious gas that we were in doubt where to try it or turn back. I believe most of the crew wanted to turn back but Bruce & I were practically sure we could still make it and we were sure we had as much as anyone else in the group so we went on. The fun started by the time we hit the Belgium Coast. You never saw so much flak & so many fighters in your life. That’s what we put up with for the next 3 hrs. The tail gunner would call out every very few minutes another B-17 going down. He finally quit calling them. Out of our Group we only had two that we couldn’t account for. And poor Hinkley was one of them. However 10 chutes were seen to have opened out of his plane so I guess he is a P.W. Holloway was forced down in Switzerland. Two ditched for lack of gas. Some made forced landings wheels down in N.A. [North Africa] Ten landed at another air field and believe it or not, we were the only ship of our group to go on and land where we were scheduled.
Journal Entry: August 24, 1943, Bordeaux
We have been in N.A. [North Africa] for a whole week now and the day has come at last when we can go back. We have been messing with our bomb loading now nearly ever since we have been here. No facilities for anything on the base, and about 120 B-17’s with two Bomb hoists between them. We only got one flak hole in our wing and someone temporarily patched it until we got back here. You never saw so much dust in your life as there was when we started taking off from down there. We practically left there on instruments on a perfectly clear day. There was no breeze at all to help blow the dust away and it just hung there. On one runway they were using it took 1 hr 40 minutes to get 40 planes off when ordinarily it would have taken roughly 20 minutes. The sand was terrible on the planes. I guess that’s why we had 11 abortions on the way back before we reached the Coast of France. Our Bombing wasn’t as good on the way back but I’m sure we did OK. We blew the other place to Kingdom come. I never saw anything so pretty. I got to go to Constantine while I was there. I also got a big kick out of the little Arabs.
Journal Entry: 9/16/43, Bordeaux & Lopoliece
We didn't have much time on this mission from the time we heard about it until take off time. I went out to the plane to see that it was all ready before briefing was over. We finally got all the fuel and oxygen we needed so we started out. The mess officer met us at the end of the runway with a box of sandwiches and some gum & a bar of candy. That's how near we came to getting off before they were ready. The weather was very poor around here and was hard to stay in sight of each other. We took off at eleven A.M. and at 5:30PM we were over the target. Flak was pretty bad around Lopoliece, in the group ahead of us a B-17 was hit and set on fire. I saw him from the time he pulled out of formation until he passed out of my vision going down he made a dive right in front of our formation with flames extending at least 100 ft. behind him. One chute was out by then. At the end of his dive he did a half roll and started spinning. I saw two more people come out while he was in the spin but there's where I lost sight of it all. They say it got out of the spin and 6 chutes were seen in all. Lt. Turner was flying no. 3 man in our element and his no. 1 engine was hit by flak and caught fire also. He feathered his engine and it went out. He made it back to England fine but all in rain. The weather was bad and he was probably low on gas but anyway he cracked up in England killing all on board. I felt worse about that than anything that has happened so far. I guess it was because we all knew them so well. The rest of our group was O.K.
(Bombs Exploding on Regensburg)
Journal Entry: August 27th or 28th
We started out for an aircraft factory somewhere in France. But on getting there we found 10/10ths coverage with clouds so naturally we had to bring our bombs back. We didn’t see any fighters or any flak until we got back to the French Coast, Dieppe to be exact, and boy we had some flak there that really knew where it was going. It was bursting all through our formation. That’s the first time it had been close enough to hear the explosion but boy it was then. It sounded like blasting or something, and the flak hitting our ship sounded like hail or something. It counted as a mission altho we did bring our bombs back. We have been on 4 attempts since but no missions. The first time we went as a spare and there were no abortions. The next time we went Norton got the cramps so bad we had to come back. The next time we got as far as the end of the runway and the mission was scrubbed, and this morning Sept 6, we got as far as the English Coast & lost our oxygen so we had to come back.
Journal Entry: September 22, 1943
We had an early take off about 5 o-clock practically one hour before daybreak. Everything went off pretty nice that morning. We had short range P 47’s escort in to part of the way to the target then long range picked us up and went the rest of the way and out most of the way with us. Flak wasn’t too bad. We only got 3 holes in our plane, one of them was pretty good sized. Fighters didn’t bother us much this time. We hit an airfield at Mencon France. It was a beautiful job. About all of our bombs went on the target. We were carrying 12 500’s.
(Over the Alps)
Journal Entry: No date
We got it very unexpected. We had an air division practice mission and it went off well until we were within about 30 miles of England on the way back. We were minus 3 gunners due to the fact it was a practice mission and wasn’t expecting any opposition. But suddenly from nowhere we were swarmed with FW 190’s. No one’s guns were loaded but it took about 2 minutes to fix that. They set a plane on fire just to the right and above us. I think after it left the formation it blew up. But due to enemy opposition it counted as a sortie.
(Over the Mediterranean Sea)
Story: Enlisting in the Air Force
We joined Aviation Cadets because I would have been drafted to join something later I’m sure, and I thought I would enjoy flying more than I would foot soldiering. It was quite an ordeal before it was all over. I know Sue went with me down to the place where I signed up to be an Aviation Cadet, and she approached some recruiter or someone standing there advertising the war and asked, 'Aviation Cadet is not as dangerous as foot soldier is it?' He said, 'Lady, it’s all dangerous. I’m not going to lie to you. I’m not going to have any widows crying on my shoulder.'
Story: Regensburg Raid
I think it was my third mission that we did a shuttle mission where we bombed Regensburg which is deep in Germany. Then [we] cut off towards North Africa and went inside Italy and flew beside the Alps there to try to avoid the fighter aircraft. They always had an awful lot of them on a return trip from target. I hope it was a surprise to them. I think it was; we didn’t encounter much there. It was about a twelve hour flight, and that was about maximum for the B-17. An awful lot of people started to run out of fuel over the sea there. You could see them ditch and land in the water quite often. ... We were short too, shorter than some [because] we got off a little early due to missing an extra field order. We were in the air thirty minutes before an awful lot of other people were. We knew we were in trouble so we cut our fuel mixture back to the red line till it was practically unsafe to run any leaner. We had enough fuel to get into the pattern but didn’t have enough to go around again. We just landed, and the runway was there, and we just dove into the landing area and made it alright. ... Everybody threw their guns away to lighten the planes.
Story: Munster Raid
It was October 12, 1943. ... It was about the 10th mission. ... Yeah, it was flak I think, anti-aircraft bursts that come from the ground that came up and you could just see big black bursts everywhere. The ones you could see missed you, and I was always happy for that. One came through our wing and just took the oil tank. The flak burst - I don’t know if it was in it or barely under it or what - it just emptied our oil tank on number three engine, and the engine props feather with oil pressure to stop them from turning. They’d turn the blades into the wind so they don’t windmill. Trying to feather that one just did not work because the oil was all gone. Of course we knew we were going to have problems because the prop was running away. It also controlled the pitch of the prop. It was turning - I think we were trying to run about twenty-eight hundred rpm or so and it was up about five thousand rpm back of the red line. [There was] no oil to lubricate it, and I knew something was going to happen. Pretty soon the prop just started leaning back and chewing into the cowling and moved into the number four engine. It knocked the prop real crooked; the bouncing was so bad I didn’t think we had a chance at all of surviving it. But the oil was there, and it feathered, and we stopped the vibration. We just had two engines, and they were on the same side. One had about half power because the turbo charger was frozen up on it or something. We made it alright on everything except fighters were sticking on us until we picked up our fighters. They looked like they were amazed at our damage. They flew along beside us and looked at the bad side, and [the fighter pilot] shook his head and pulled ahead of [us] to look at the other side, and his prop wash nearly downed us. ... We didn’t have much more flying speed anyway. But it worked out alright, and he and another one stayed with us all the way there. We got to England, and it was fogged in, and you couldn’t see anything. It was fog, fog, fog. We didn’t know really quite what we were going to do with that. We knew we had a good navigator, and he kept us in the direction of the field. When someone said 'there’s the Fernlinham Castle,' and we knew then we were right at it. We were familiar enough to know what course to take from it to hit the field. When we saw the field it was half covered and half not covered. We didn’t even look for the runway; we just landed crossways and rolled to a successful stop. We ran over a power plant out near an intersection of the runway, but it didn’t hurt anything. We had one man injured, and he wasn’t seriously injured, but he never fought again. We got him off to help, he was tail gunner. That plane was shot up so bad they considered not putting it back in service. ... They worked on that thing about three weeks and sent it up, and it didn’t come back.
(3rd Engine after Munster - No Propeller!)
Newspaper article about Regensburg raid: