Among a long list of useful American English words “borrowed” from German is the noun gemeinschaft, a word which perfectly and economically fills a gap for which we have no equivalent denominator in our native tongue. It defines a human relationship arising from a spontaneously shared set of beliefs or experiences so powerful that the resulting sense of kinship can be stronger even than self-interest. This brief lesson in lexicography is important if readers are to understand what lies at the center of the following stories, including the one which introduced PART I of this series on January 9th, 2013.
The four-engine B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators which carried America’s WWII offensive against Nazi-occupied Europe and the enemy homeland itself from 1942 to war’s end in 1945 ordinarily carried crews of 9 or 10 men, volunteers who, for the most part trained, lived and fought their war-in-the-sky together, tied to each other in ways that will always be inconceivable to “outsiders”. Their missions were often 12 to 16 hours long, and at least 45,000 of them didn’t make it home.
On February 20, 1944, Walter E. Treumper of Aurora, Illinois was the Navigator on a B-17 of the 351st Bomb Group named “Ten Horsepower” on a mission to Leipzig, Germany.( This was “Big Week”, there were 1700 U.S.A.A.F. bombers in the air, and the price they were about to pay was staggering.) Sergeant Archibald Mathies, a Scottish-born coal miner from Pennsylvania was the flight engineer seated several feet away from Treumper when a squadron of German fighters attacked the B-17 head-on, blasting the bomber’s front end, killing and decapitating the co-pilot and leaving the pilot mortally injured and unconscious. Crew members crawled into the carnage and managed to bring the falling plane out of a 15,000 foot dive flying it with their hands working trim controls in the wind-whipped flight deck. Lt. Treumper and Sgt. Mathies decided they would attempt to keep the bomber flying across the channel so that the other crew members could jump over England. When the time arrived to jump over their home field, it was discovered that the pilot was still alive and breathing shallowly. When everyone else was safely out, Treumper and Mathis decided they could not leave their badly wounded Captain behind. Working together, they tried several times to execute a landing, but on the third attempt, they crashed and all three died. Treumper and Mathies received the Medal of Honor.
On an April 11th mission to Germany, Lt. Edward Stanley Michael of Chicago was piloting a B-17 of the 305th Bomb Group when it came under concentrated fire from a swarm of enemy fighters. Seriously wounded, and with a fire raging in the plane’s bomb bay, he ordered the crew to bail out. It was after 7 had done so that it was discovered that the parachute of one crewman had been shot up by the gun fire and rendered useless. Returning to the cockpit, Michael decided to try to get back to England. Bleeding badly and losing consciousness repeatedly, he and the co-pilot survived 45 minutes of sustained combat before entering the comparative protection of cloud cover. For much of the return journey, Michael was unconscious, but after they spotted a landing strip in England, Michael revived and insisted on making the crash landing. With both landing gear and flaps inoperative, the bomb bay doors stuck open and virtually all instrumentation including the airspeed indicator shot out, Michael made a successful controlled crash, bringing his remaining crew back home alive.
A recipient of the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry, Edward Michael would remain in the USAF after the war, retiring as a Lt. Colonel in 1971 and becoming a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1978. He died in 1994 at age 76 and is buried in Springville, Utah.
The Achilles heel of the Flying Fortress was its vulnerability to head-on attacks. Pictured here is the nose section of a B-17G, the latest version of the bomber featuring a remotely-operated “chin” gun and other features introduced in 1945. About 8700 “Gs” were produced.
Al Cooper photo
Lt. Colonel Edward Stanley Michael at the time of his retirement. He was one of 17 members of the U.S. 8th Air Force to receive the Medal of Honor. Another 220 received the Distinguished Service Cross while more than 7000 earned the Purple Heart. Total casualties for the “Mighty Eighth” reached 48,000.
U.S. Air Force photo