The ME 109 bore in from ten o’clock, slightly high. Each second, I suppose, my eyes got a little wider. At least it appeared that my vision was improving, because I was looking down the biggest gun barrels I had ever seen. That clown was aiming at me. He was making this a very personal war.
Brooks, you are the only one with a clean shot. What the heck are you waiting for? Brooks was the engineer and top turret gunner, who - - - My God! Just before we completed combat training, Brooks told me that he had what he termed a cold trigger finger and asked if I would prefer a different gunner. I wouldn’t trade Brooks for anyone. He was the best, and what’s more, we were the perfect team.
What a terrible time to think. What a horrible time to remember. I believed, incredibly, of course, that the ME 109 machine guns were six inches outside the pilot’s window, and all were aimed at my left temple. What a time for this Kraut to get made at me, and turn it into a one on one World War II.
Rat-at-tat, a burst almost that short came from a little high and to my rear. I glanced out to ten o’clock high and saw smoke, aluminum scraps and debris from what had just been a terrorizing ME 109.
We went down. Brooks bailed out. I crashed. The next day I saw Brooks in Wilhelmshaven. I didn’t say hello. I didn’t say how are you. I said, “Brooks, what the heck were you waiting for?” Brooks was a little guy, but with the smile of a giant he said, “Lieutenant, I was waiting for a good shot.”
Thanks, Brooks. On December 20, 1943, you became immortal to me.
By William L. Riley
October 28, 1985
I remember well the moment that the word heroism was defined to me. The 390th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force, United Kingdom, in December 1943, had just completed a very unusual mission briefing. To begin with, the bomb crews should have been alerted at an early morning breakfast. That morning we had fresh eggs, not powdered, and the rest of the breakfast was real too, not the usual ersatz.
The warriors, gangsters by German definition, took their places in the Operations Briefing Room. Inside the large Nissen hut which we called the Briefing Room, the maps in front were covered with paper and each crewman awaited the announcement of the target. Usually, the maps were hidden like this until the appropriate moment. The map was of Europe, and there were colored strings showing the route to the target, as well as the return. The Commander, the Intelligence Officer, and the Weather Officer gave their briefings, and explained the problems. A noisy reaction was S.O.P. when the map covers were taken down, and comments like “Milk Run” and “I’ve been there before” echoes through the hut. But not today.
When the covers came down, and the Commander, the Intelligence Officer, and the Weather Officer had finished, it was a very quiet room. This mission, of maximum effort, was Berlin. The Eighth Air Force had not yet hit Berlin and the outlook was bleak, with a capital D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R.
The odds of survival, as I recall forty-two years later, were one in ten. We would have no fighter protection, but there would be hordes of enemy defenders, protecting their homeland. Anti-aircraft opposition would be far beyond comfort. Bad weather weighed heavily against success. We were playing against a stacked deck.
There was no hesitance and no reluctance during our transport to the B-17’s. On the contrary, there was an almost cheerful air. Everything was go. Berlin would catch hell today. Forty-eight Aircraft were lined up for take-off, not counting a few spares in case of aborts. One hundred and ninety-two props were churning the air. The lead aircraft was in position, waiting for a green flare from the tower to start take-off. Minutes were hours.
Instead of the expected green flare, a red flare was fired from the tower. Mission cancelled! Under normal circumstances, the routine was to taxi back to the hard stands and leave the aircraft in an orderly fashion, born of experience and repetition. But not today.
The red flare signaled chaos. Crew men piled out of aircraft, engines were shut down, and the craft were left sitting on runways and taxiways with no thought of inbound or outbound traffic. Human figures ran from aircraft, heading for the bars.
While people ran and shouted for joy, spelled R-E-L-I-E-F, I sat quietly in the cockpit for a moment, thinking. Why did no one hesitate? Why, in spite of such great odds, were so many men ready and willing to go on that impossible mission? In that moment I understood the truth. Each one of those men believed that he would be the one out of ten to return.
By William L. Riley
October 28, 1985