The daylight bombing raids on Germany by units of the U. S. Army Air Forces' 8th Air Force, which intensified in early 1944, were becoming increasingly dangerous missions for U. S. bomber crews. Nobody knew this better than Lt. Dewayne "Ben:" Bennett, whose B-17G "Squawkin' Chicken" was the only survivor of the 545th Bomb Squadron after the raid on Schweinfurt on April 13, l944.
Ben who, along with his crew, had been assigned to the 384th BG came from Newton, Iowa. He had finished his flight training in the U. S., soloed, was assigned a copilot and in Ben's words, "Away we went." After arrival in Europe Ben first flew a few relatively uneventful missions. Then on April 13th came a day that he and his crew would remember clearly for a lifetime, for during the next hours they would experience horror unfolding all around them.
By this time the Germans had been refining their tactics in the destruction of the bombers. Although the jet fighters would not bother the bomber streams until November l944, the Germans were at an advantage fighting over their homeland enabling them to fly multiple missions in a single day. They could be shot down and still get back into the air with another plane in a matter of hours. The German flak guns were numerous and powerful and one shell hit in the right place could bring down a four engined bomber in an instant.
When the enemy coast was crossed at 1123 hours on this fateful April 13 the 384th Bomb Group had assembled 23 aircraft for a raid on the heavily defended target, a ball bearing factory in Schweinfurt. The Luftwaffe had abeen alerted that there was a bomber formation heading across France towards Germany. Coordinated by the radio bunker in Stade, the Germans assembled FW-190s and Me-109s of three 'Gruppen' of JG-1 to intercept the B-17s.
After the U. S. fighter cover had cleverly been drawn off by another small group of enemy fighters, the "Box Breakers" as they were called were forming up for the attack when it was less than 10 minutes to the target. An ideal time for the Germans to attack. These men were the best at their trade. Time had run out and as Ben recalls, suddenly all hell broke loose.
The box breakers came in from dead ahead and above with a closing speed of more than 500 mph. In the lead were three or four heavily armed FW-190s backed up by at least a dozen fighters of standard configuration. They came in at three or four abreast rolling over inverted while firing. Then they would split-S out, building up even more speed, get back into position for yet another head- on pass.
The bombers responded with a hail of fifty caliber guns firing in the few seconds they could see the enemy fighters. These attacks only lasted three to four minutes before the P-51 escort arrived back on the scene and broke up the attacks, but the damage had been done.
The carnage in the group was unbelievable. The German fighter planes had mauled the bombers with deadly accuracy. Many of the planes were in serious trouble or already plunging to earth.
Still the remaining heavies of the 384th BG pressed on, and the bomb run was made under good visual conditions with bombs away to hit the target at 1409 hours, while the flak fire came up intensely and accurately.
When they left the target area Ben noticed that there were no other planes left in his squadron. He still remembers the moment like a nightmare in slow motion. Everyone in his crew knew that the Germans would have time to land, rearm and refuel for another attack before the slower bomber could reach the coast. The trip would still take more than two hours over enemy territory.
The smell of cordite from the guns was even in the oxygen masks of the crewmen. It was now quiet except for the engines and air rushing past the plane and whistling through the openings where the guns were located. Burned into the minds of the survivors were the voices over the intercom of somebody being hit or going down, the calls to crew to bail out of a plane in its death throes, the counting of parachutes as they appeared behind a stricken plane. Each man was soaked in sweat even though it was below freezing at 21,000 feet. Everything still seemed so unreal.
Ben and his crew finally made it back to England, but not before more attacks had taken another heavy toll. Just shortly before they reached the coast, Ben's wingman, a survivor from another squadron who had moved into a position off of Ben's wing exploded in midair after a direct hit from a flak shell.
The artist, Heinz Krebs takes us right into the middle of the nightmare situation shortly after Ben's "Squawkin' Chicken" finally reaches the English Channel. The drama and action unfolding with the B-17 badly battered and the top gunner firing at the enemy fighters while the air battle between the P-51 escort and elements of JG-1 is in full swing is set against a masterfully lit deep background. This is without a doubt aviation art at a standard second to none. a true work of art.
The Dewayne Bennett crew all survived their missions to come home. Today, Ben works for the Pima Air and Space Museum and is a volunteer helper with the 390th Memorial Museum in Tucson, Az. He has signed each print of this edition. together with three German fighter pilots who took part in this epic struggle.
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