Editor's note: The following is from a letter written by Art Livingston and sent to the brother of Alva Hood, who was killed during this mission along with his entire crew. Hood and his crew shared a hut with the author. The letter begins with a very brief introduction; we skip to the day of the mission.
Now to the day of the crash, March 8, 1944. We were awakened about 3AM and each of us would have gone to the latrine to shave as whiskers didn't allow the oxygen mask to fit tightly. Then back to the hut and dress for the mission. Most of us would have put on our long-johns, wool shirt, and pants, gabardine flying suit and flight jacket. Two or three pairs of socks. Then we would have walked to the mess hall at about 4AM for breakfast. We always got a good breakfast of real eggs cooked any way you liked them, cereal, and meat of your choice. Always an orange you would take for after the mission or to take into town to give to a British kid, some whom never even saw an orange before. Leaving the mess hall you would walk with your crew or others to the briefing room.
There were guards there to see that no outsiders could get in and find out the mission and tip off the enemy. When you came in it was like a large theater with a stage and we sat on wooden benches. On the stage was a large easel about 12 X 8 feet. It was covered over so you could not see what was under it. After the room was full someone called "tenshun" and we all stood up as the Commanding Officer walked up to the stage. Then the cover was removed and you saw a map of Europe. There would be a red ribbon extending from England to the intended target. If the tape was long, a large groan went up from each man in the room. If short, a sigh of relief. This day the tape was long and went all the way to Berlin.
This was only the second time the 8th AF bombed Berlin. We were briefed as to the route that would take us through the lightest flak concentrations, where we could expect to be jumped by the GAF and what our escort would be. Then the weather officer would advise the cloud conditions and whether we could bomb visually or drop on a flare furnished by a pathfinder ship that had radar that could penetrate the clouds. Then the navigators would be briefed as to the headings we should take and the times it should take to get to the target. Then the bombardiers would be shown photos of the target that were flashed on the screen and how to get his Norden bombsight to get the best results. Now we went to the dressing area where we dressed for the mission.
I put on the light blue electric suit that was cut like a large pair of long-johns. It was wool and had hundreds of wires going thru it like an electric blanket. At the wrists and ankles, wires protruded so you could attach the electric gloves and boots. Then I put the A2 jacket on and over the sheepskin leather jacket and pants. Then the fleece lined flying boots and we were ready to go. On the way out of the dressing room, there was a table where you turned in your wallet and anything that would aid the enemy in case you were shot down. Also at this time you were given your escape kit. It was a plastic bag about 10 X 10 inches and quite flat, so you could tuck it under your clothes. In it were silk maps of any country you were flying over as well as currency for those countries so you could bribe your way out. Also a photo of yourself in shabby clothes and needing a shave that would be used to make you a false passport. This later turned out to be a joke, as the Germans noticed each guy was dressed out in the same old suit and they could even tell you what group you were from. There was a small compass the size of a pencil eraser, water purifying pills, and pep pills to get you off to a flying start after you hit the ground and buried your chute. There were a couple of pieces of British chocolate so horrible we didn't even steal it. And there were a few first aid items.
The last thing we picked up was our parachute bag that held it and it's harness and we stored our shoes in it in case we had to bail out with nothing but our flight boots which were no good for walking. We went out to the building where the trucks were parked. When we got there it was probably about 6AM and still dark, but the ground crew was working on the ship all night loading bombs, gasoline, and running up the engines to make sure they were perfect. They had various lights on around the ship so we could see. Each crew position went about checking it's own area. The pilots and engineer checked the engines, controls and instruments. The radio man checked his set and changed the crystal to the one that would be used that day. The navigator laid out his charts at his position next to the bombardier who was hooking up his secret Norden Bombsight that was removed from the ship after each mission and stored in a vault for security reasons.
My job as armorer/gunner was to inspect the bombload to see if it was done correctly. It always was, but we had to be certain. Each bomb had 2 fuses to be certain it exploded on contact, one in the nose and one in the tail. For safety reasons, the bombs had to be safe while on the ground and only armed when we got in the air. This was done by installing a small aluminum prop that would spin off the fuse as it went toward the ground. To hold the prop in place so it wouldn't spin off accidentally, there was a cotter pin that held it in place. After we became airborne, it was my job to enter the bombay and remove the pins. To make sure this was done, I had to report to either the pilot or bombardier for them to count the pins I removed, 2 for each bomb. The worst thing for a bomber was to go all the way to a target only to have the bombs fail to explode. I also had to check each turret position to see if it had been restocked with ammo and made sure the turrets were in working order.
By now it's near seven, which was usually the time for take off. The pilot got us all into our positions for take off. The planes all lined up at the end of the runway waiting for the signal from the control tower. The first ship got the flare and started down the runway followed by the rest of us at thirty second intervals. There was s strict procedure what a ship had to do when airborne so they wouldn't crash into each other. Each group had a war weary B-24 painted up in outlandish colors that was the formation ship. Ours was yellow and black and was called "Fearless Freddie". It took about an hour to get the group formed and then we formed on the lead group that led us to the bomber stream that was made up of about a dozen groups of 48 ships each. The lead group led us all to the target. They dropped their bombs first and we all dropped on their bombs as we got over the target.
This day it was clear and you could see the ground all the way to the target and back. Over Berlin the town looked unhurt as the bomb damage wasn't apparent from about 28,000 feet. I saw the stadium where the 1936 Olympics were held and Hitler showed off his supermen. We neared our target area and got on the bomb run. This is when the bombardier is steering the ship by the bomb site. He opens the bay doors and salvos the bombs when on the target. The ship leaps up when that weight is gone. I watch the bombs go all the way down and hit the target. This day we hit it well and then we turn for home.
As we were flying to and from the target we were set upon by various fighters at different times. They would come at you one after another from all different angles and usually each gun position would get a chance to hit one. While this was going on our friendly fighters tried to keep them away. The dog fights were very interesting and you cheered when one of theirs went down and sorrowed when it was one of ours. Ours usually had the upper hand as we had more and and a little better planes. I saw 5 B-24's go down. This was not all at once but throughout the mission. As you saw a ship go down you would call the navigator so he could log the exact area and whether there were any chutes exiting the doomed ship. This way headquarters could check out the crash and notify the families whether it was KIA or MIA. I know 2 of the downed ships were from our group but didn't know which ones till we got back down.
We made it back to base and went into interrogation where the interviewers asked about all phases of the mission. Usually a bottle of spirits sneaked it's way to the table to loosen up the tongue. At this time each person told what he had seen and the number of planes shot down, the type and chutes if any. Also the damage to the target if you could see where the bombs landed. This is where I learned one of the missing planes was your brother's. All of us were stunned by this news. We left the interrogation and walked back to the hut.
All of us were a little shaken and it was eerie walking into that hut and looking down to the other end of it and knowing it would be empty. All of that crew's belongings were just where they left them that morning. All the uniforms hanging in a row, pictures of their families on display, shoes lined up under their bunks, and all the items they enjoyed.
My crew just fell on their bunks and each had a thought about why them and not us. We were very quiet. By now it was about 4 in the afternoon. The door to our hut opened and 3 men we didn't know entered and asked where the Helfers crew slept. We pointed out the location and and they started to lay out the men's belongings in 2 piles. One for government issue which would be recycled and the other pile of the men's personal belongings that would be sent home to the families. Each item was recorder and packed into various bags. When all the items were packed they took off the blankets and mattress covers from each bunk, folded up the mattresses, and left with all the bags. That was the end of that story.
In a day or so a replacement crew appeared and took over the bunks and hung up their clothes and pictures and it started all over again. It was said you didn't want to make too many friends in the army. Then you wouldn't miss them so much if they were killed.