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"17 1/2 Minutes - An Eternity"
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17 1/2 Minutes - An Eternity
by Al Dussliere

January 22, 1945 the G. N. Smith Crew was scheduled for a mission. This would be our first mission after spending ten days on the continent in Luxembourg and Paris. January 10, 1945 our plane was involved in a collision with another B-17 over Bonn, Germany. We made a forced belly landing on an airfield in Luxembourg. Our 14th mission was approached with a great deal of apprehension. Less than two weeks before we had lost two of our buddies, Ed Gardner, Navigator and Bill Dohm, Bombardier, when they were forced to bail out over enemy territory. We did not know then if they were still alive. Now we were scheduled to fly again. With 13 missions under our belt and the experience of the last mission we had lost our youthful innocence and faced the stark reality of what our job really entailed.

The target for the day, our 14th mission and number 306 for the Group, was a synthetic oil plant located at Sterkgrade, Germany. The town is located near Essen and Oberhausen. Our plane assignment was #43-38734, "Cheshire Cat". After briefing, I went to our Catholic Chaplain, Father Skoner, received Holy Communion and a blessing. One of my better recollections of Father Skoner was what he said to us on most occasions after the blessing when we were leaving on a mission. He gave us a pat on the cheek and said, "Give 'em hell". It was a somewhat different parting word from a man of the cloth, but we all knew it was in the context of our reason for being where we were, what we were doing and where we were going.

Take-off for the estimated 6-hour mission was between 10:00 and 10:25. The sky was relatively clear and assembling was accomplished with no major problems. Twenty-six aircraft were dispatched from the 303rd Bomb Group. No enemy planes were sighted, possibly because we were very well protected by many of our "little friends" P-47's and P-51's.

As we approached we saw no clouds over the target. This setting was perfect for German anti-aircraft defenses and one, which made it a bit more uncomfortable for us. Flak appeared, and the closer we got to the target the more intense and accurate it became. There was so much flak that the smoke from the bursts partially darkened the sky. We could hear the flak hitting and going through the plane. Never before had we encountered flak like this that we were flying through. Suddenly, Mel Howell, tail gunner, called out; "I'm hit". Within a few seconds we heard the same words from P.G. Gray, togglier. In the waist I thought, first the tail, then the nose. I'll probably get it next. About that time the plane lurched from a very close burst of flak and I pitched forward and down toward the bottom of the waist window. As I pulled myself up to an upright position I stood directly in line with a good-sized hole in the plexi-glass where I had been standing. This was one time being short in height was a great asset. That burst could have wounded me or even taken my life.

The heavy anti-aircraft fire continued throughout the bomb run, the drop of the bombs and as we pulled away from the target. We didn't think it would ever quit. Number 3 and 4 engines were knocked out. With two engines out we could not keep up and fell away from the rest of the formation. For 17 1/2 minutes we were in the intense and accurate enemy fire. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity the flak ceased. We lost altitude steadily. It became mandatory to lighten the load in the plane. The Pilot, G.N. Smith and Co-Pilot, Melvin Alderman ordered Ray Miller, Ball Turret gunner out of his position. He assisted George Parker, Radio Operator and Al Dussliere, Waist Gunner in throwing out everything that wasn't fastened down including guns and ammunition. Still unable to maintain altitude it was necessary to drop the ball turret. This was no simple task and when all the attaching hardware was removed the turret started to move and then lodged in the opening. Someone found something to pry the ball loose and finally it dropped out of the plane somewhere over Holland. With that heavy weight gone Smitty and Alderman were able to hold the altitude at near 6,000 feet. In addition to the lost engines the plane had incurred considerable other damage. With two wounded, Howell and Gray on board, unable to maintain altitude and the fuel supply running low it was imperative to find a place to land. Finally we reached Belgium and were able to make it to the City of Ghent.

It was absolutely necessary to prepare the wounded, Howell and Gray, for the landing. The space constrictions in the tail and the narrow opening by the rear wheel well made it necessary for Howell to move toward the waist as best he could by pushing himself along in a sitting position. With a badly damaged leg he made it to the rear wheel well where we were able to assist him into the waist area by lifting and bracing his leg as he propelled himself forward using his hands. We decided that it would be too difficult, with the possibility of doing more damage to the injured leg, to try to get him into the radio room which is the most structurally sound area in that part of the plane. It was becoming more urgent that we land as soon as possible. The landing would be extra precarious because two engines were gone. We prepared a place for him in the waist. I laid next to him bracing his wounded leg against my leg for support and hopefully prevent his moving forward when we landed. The Navigator was taking care of Gray in the nose. D.I. Massengill, Engineer was at his position. As the plane set down and we were traveling down the runway the right tire blew out. Lucky for us we had gone far enough on the runway and slowed down sufficiently that when we ground-looped and swerved off the runway the plane remained upright. Once again the excellent skill and dogged determination of Smitty and Alderman brought us to a safe landing under extremely hazardous conditions.

Emergency personnel at the airfield were at the ship as we came to a stop. Howell and Gray were immediately removed from the plane and taken to a hospital. We all were confident they would be well taken care of. At this time we began assessing the damage to our aircraft. Quoting from the diary I kept while a member of the 303rd, "the Cheshire Cat was a mass of holes". "Gas and oil tanks punctured". Later we determined there were hundreds of holes in the plane. In spite of the damage I think the plane was salvageable.

The wounded were taken to a British hospital. We were able to visit them later and were confident they would be well taken care of. The next time some of us saw them was in an American hospital in England when we received a 3-day pass.

The rest of the crew was taken by truck to small suburb outside of Brussels to await transportation back to England. While on our way to Brussels I told the members of our crew that because of my Belgian heritage I knew a little bit of the language. This, I suggested, should enable us to get along very well. When we had our first encounter with Belgian civilians we immediately discovered the popular language in that area was French not the Flemish I knew. My knowledge of the French language was zero. I don't think I will ever live that down. Some of the crew used to say, "Stick with Deuce, he'll take care of us".

We were temporarily quartered in a schoolhouse located near an airfield that was surrounded by a number of small villages. Directly across the airfield from where we were staying was an old church with a tall steeple. After the war I learned that a family friend who had lived with us for a short time when I was a child lived near that church. He and his family had returned to Belgium shortly before the war. Later we learned that this family friend was deeply involved with the Belgian underground and had assisted many allied fliers by shielding them from the Germans and helping some of them return to safety. After the war this family friend visited us. When he learned how close I was to him he broke down and cried. I still recall seeing that tall steeple when we took off later on our return to England.

There were so many things to remember about my short visit in the land of my forefathers and a few still stick out in my mind. I remember the first time we had a meal at the school where we were quartered. As we left the building and went outside to deposit what remained on our trays in containers we saw a number of civilians standing nearby. Before we could clean what scraps remaining they scraped them into containers of their own. I did not realize that people could be so hungry. After that we managed to have leftovers on our trays without being obvious about what we were doing. I don't think we fooled anyone.

Whenever I hear the song, "I'll Be Seeing You", a popular wartime tune, I am reminded of the time we visited a nightclub in Brussels. The female vocalist, a somewhat buxom person, sang that song in her broken English. The music was great but the lyrics, because of her way of articulating them, were somewhat comical. But who am I to criticize someone for the manner in which they spoke or sang my language when I didn't know a word of theirs. I still have drink coasters from that nightclub in my scrapbook.

While we were at the nightclub some young ladies came over to our table. We asked them to join us. They looked as if they were very young even compared to our tender years but it was refreshing to have some of the opposite gender to talk to. They knew enough English to make conversation possible. We soon realized how young they were when we offered to buy them a drink. Instead they requested ice cream. The concoction was not what we considered ice cream but it was cold and sweet.

That nightspot in Brussels provided another incident, which remains with me. One of the other members of the crew and I went to a restroom. We guessed we were going to the correct one until we entered and saw an older lady standing there. Red-faced we immediately turned around and departed. As we were leaving we saw other men entering. When they were leaving we asked them if that was the men's rest room and if so, why was there a lady in there. They laughed and told us having a female valet was an accepted practice. Hesitatingly we re-entered but were very careful accomplishing our tasks privately as we could.

We returned to the 303rd January 29 after an overnight stay in London. We rested on the 30th and 31st. The crew was scheduled for a week at a "Flak Home", but because there were no openings we were given a seven-day furlough. Some of us went to Scotland to get as far away from the war as we could.