Editor's note: This letter was written by S/Sgt. Lewis Phillips from a base near Bungay, England, and received by his mother late in 1944, after Sgt. Phillips, left waist gunner S/ Sgt. Noel Douglass and other members of their crew were killed in the crash of their plane near Bungay on 27 April 1944. All were buried at 3 p.m., Saturday afternoon, 29 April 1944, in the American Military Cemetery at Cambridge, England.
To My Darling Mother,
I am praying at this time of writing that you did not have to open this letter, as it means that I am missing in action. Through the kindness of a boy from my home town, this letter will reach you uncensored; therefore, I can say many things that otherwise I could not.
For security reasons, I must not tell you my exact route to the United Kingdom. However, it was the long ocean leg of our flight from Natal, Brazil to Dakar, French Maurakash in Africa that I wrote you that we thought we were going to have to "ditch - (that is, land our bomber in the sea). In crossing the equator, we ran into one storm after another. Our No. 2 engine began to throw oil badly, until we had to "feather" the prop: that is, turn the edges of the prop blades toward the front, to eliminate drag and vibration. At this time, our No. 3 engine began to "miss- fire" - we lost a thousand feet altitude before you could snap your fingers. That is when, at the order of the pilot, we threw all our luggage overboard, for there were fourteen of us aboard: our regular ten members of the crew, plus four passengers, so we had to lighten our load; - we even threw our machine guns overboard. We were finally able to maintain our altitude (7000 ft.) until two hours later, we sighted the small jutting peninsula on which Dakar is located.
From Dakar, we flew to Maurakash, French Morrocco, where we had to wait ten days for weather before we could take off for the United Kingdom. We passed fairly close to the coast of Portugal, for at 1:05 a.m., I saw the lights of Lisbon - then out to sea, and finally back east again until we could sight the coast of Southern Island and on to Land's End here in Britain; - from there to our present base.
At this writing, I have lived two months in a camouflaged Nissen hut; it is not too bad: the roof is of corrugated curved tin - the floor is concrete. What makes it bad is that the floor is concrete, and always outside there is mud; always we bring it in on our feet, and of course, the heat and warmth turn it into dust, and we can never keep our barracks clean, no matter how hard we try.
It is very difficult for me to try to describe to you the feeling we have for our buddies who have been killed in action. I was with them through all the long months of training; we all ate breakfast that morning of Dec. 22nd, at 3 a.m. together - the six crews that sleep and live here together in this barracks then to the briefing room and out on the line at 6 a.m. - take-off time is 7:30 a.m. in the cold, gray, misty morning. Our target is Osnabruck, Germany - the marshaling yards - a great railroad center my first raid.
The bomber we use today is a B-24 - the Liberator - she is 32 tons of mighty warrior: a power gun turret in her nose, a belly turret, a top turret, a tail turret, and two waist guns which, boiled down, means ten 50 caliber machine guns for protection. In her bomb bays hang 8000 Ibs. of high explosive demolition bombs. Her name is Princess O'Rourke. Didn't think she was ever going to leave the runway we were so heavily loaded: we had 2,300 gallons of high octane gas aboard in our wing tanks - we finally were airborne. The forming plane with neon lights was already up, shooting flare signals by shooting pistols; finally, we fell into formation: 26 planes of our group. We head east by northeast. In my heavy leather trousers is a prisoner-of-war pocket, Belgian and Dutch money. I have on a heated suit, gloves and shoes, and on top of this, my heavy fleece-lined leather flying clothes, my Mae West, and parachute harness.
We move over the English countryside and out over the Channel, climbing, climbing slowly and steadily climbing. The eardrums "pop" every now and then. Then at 12,000 feet, the pilot calls over the inter-phone to put on oxygen masks. We cross the coast of Holland and, at a rendezvous point, other bomber groups join us: B-24's and B-17's group after group until it is a wing; and finally our wing is joined by another wing, and by the time we are over Germany, there must be between 700 - 800 bombers together on this mission - we are at 23,000 ft. now and it is cold: 45 below zero, but these heated suits are wonderful, and you don't feel the cold except that little bit of your face that your helmet and oxygen mask don't cover. Over to the right and about 3 miles away is our fighter escort - P-47's - the Thunderbolts - and are they beautiful! The sky is literally black with planes - our planes. Just inside Germany, "flak" begins to come up - not bad - but gradually increasing as we drive deeper toward our target. Finally, we open our bomb-bay doors - I see a B-24 off to my right going down in a slow spin - must have been hit by flak. Later, I was to leam that this was one of our squadron. Another 24 on my left had it's wing sheared-off because it was directly beneath another of our bombers as the bombs were dropped -another of our squadron. The flak really gets bad now, and there are black bursts throughout the sky. There is no turning back now. And then, "bombs away." There are no words to describe a scene at 25,000 ft. with 800 bombers all releasing their bombs within two minutes - the sky - the heavens were raining bombs - the city is approximately the size of Columbia, and later reconnaissance photographs showed it to be a rubbish heap.
Well, it was after we dropped our bombs that the Messerschmidts and Focke-Wulfs started to move in on us. I saw five fighter planes circling at our level, gradually widening the circle, and slyly slipping closer and closer to us until one peels off and heads directly toward us - funny thing, I wasn't scared - had been eying him and tracking him with my machine gun sights so that when he made his attack, I was ready and drew a good cool bead on him - I let him have between 175 and 200 rounds of 50-caliber steel jacketed bullets - he went down burning and out of control, and the others did not come into attack when they saw him go down.
Anyway, we came back after that raid, but there were quite a few bunks empty in our barracks that night. We "sweat-out" the mission from the time we know we are going the night before until we land, late that afternoon.
There is no turning back from a mission, no matter how bad the flak or fighter opposition. I have been scared - plenty scared - and anyone who has been on combat operation missions has been; and anyone that says he hasn't, lies. But let me say, that even though I have been scared, I have not failed in my duties while in combat. Now, if you feel that the shock is too great for you and you cannot go on living - then you defeat the very purpose for which I died.
I would not encourage any fake hopes, but a small percentage manage to bail out and it may be that I did. It all depends on what kind of message you receive about me.
I have completed three missions at this writing. The one I told you about, one over a rocket field in France, which we completely demolished; also a training field in France. I say to you that what I am doing is a most dangerous business, and I suppose that there is some means by which I could get grounded, but then, you wouldn't want a son who is yellow - and I could never live with myself later on, if I had done this. Let me tell you that I have called on Him up there in the vast stretches of the blue, four and five miles high, when the going gets tough, and He has never let me down, and I tell Him how much I appreciate it, even before we land back here at our base. God is my Pilot.
We will meet again - in the promised land -I am gone before you and await your coming. Now, I put my arms eternally about you and hold you close to my heart.
Your devoted son, Lewis.
Reprinted from the Beachbell Echo, Dec 2000