HELL FROM HEAVEN
Mission 31 - Pilsen, Czechoslovakia
Our Last Combat Mission - April 25, 1945
By Leonard Streitfeld, Bombardier, 600th Squadron
Almost a week went by since our 30th mission and all of us felt that we might have flown our last one when we bombed Munich.
We watched the map in the Officer's Club and could see the front lines just about touching. It seemed that the war could end at any time with some German armies surrendering throughout Europe. Although the war was rapidly drawing to a close, there were still battles going on and it became apparent that the final days or weeks were going to be a fight to the finish.
I had a strong feeling that we would be going on another mission and it wasn't going to be easy. It was almost a premonition that we would lose some planes. On Wednesday, April 25, 1945 we were awakened at 3:00 AM by the usual, "You'se eat now and brief in three-quarters of an hour". I knew it was going to be a long one.
At the briefing we were told of the target. It was the great Skoda Armament Works in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. This was the last and largest remaining sources of arms for Germany. For us it was hard to believe that with the war so close to an end, we had to go on this mission. However, there were reasons we were to find out later as to why this mission was planned.
The Russians were quickly advancing and it was evident that they could capture the plant before our troops could occupy Pilsen. President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill did not want this armament plant in Russian hands and so it was decided to have it bombed by the 8th Air Force before the Russians captured it.
The mission was to be "Visual Only" and clear skies were expected. Alternate targets were always given to us in the event we couldn't drop our bombs on the primary target. The only time I recorded the secondary target in my diary was when we went there instead of the primary target. According to Lt. James Hanauer, who lead the 603rd Squadron," It was emphasized that the bombing was to be "Visual Only" and there were no alternate targets given." Those were also my recollections regarding the target for the day by 398th Bomb Group and nothing in my diary tells me otherwise.
The primary target was the Skoda Armament Works in Pilsen and every attempt would be made to destroy it once and for all. The following Bomb Groups were assigned to fly this mission: The 92nd BG, 303rd BG, 305th BG, 379th BG, 384th BG, 398th BG, 91st BG and the 381st BG.
For the record, other targets for the many aircraft that participated in this raid by all Bomb Groups and Fighter Groups were the marshalling yards in Munich, which our Bomb Group went to a few days earlier, the airfield in Pilsen where about 80 aircraft were concentrated and the airfield in Prague where the ME 262 jet fighters were stationed.
These targets were to be attacked simultaneously by many aircraft. In the attack on Pilsen there were 276 B-17's of which 198 were to bomb the Skoda Works and 78 to bomb the airfield. The bombers were to be accompanied by 188 P-51 fighter planes. A part of these fighters were to attack the airfields in Prague.
The 398th Bomb Group was asked to lead the 1st Combat Bombardment Wing, 1st Air Division of the Eighth Air Force. This Wing consisted of the 398th, 91st and 381st Bomb Groups. Each Squadron was to consist of ten B-17's instead of the usual twelve and each of our squadrons were scheduled to fly this mission for a total of 120 planes.
Unbeknown to us at the time, during the night and early morning when all the planes were airborne well on their way, General Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, broadcast the following statement over the BBC to the people of Czechoslovakia. "Allied bombers are out in great strength today. Their destination may be the Skoda Works. Skoda workers get out and stay out until the afternoon."
This was the first and only time that a warning naming the target had been broadcast ahead of the American heavy bombers.
Of course, the Germans were able to intercept the broadcast at the same time and prepared to greet us with all the anti-aircraft guns they could muster and they were waiting for us.
We were flying at about 25,000 feet and it was clear with no cloud coverage or con trails. The bomb load for each plane was the usual 5000 pounds of either ten 500 or five 1000-pound bombs.
As we turned on the IP and approached the Skoda works it was obvious that the weather report was erroneous since we could see there was cloud coverage ahead that obscured the target. The Lead Bombardier, consequently, could not synchronize his bombsight on the target in time and decided to make another pass over it by making a 360-degree turn around the target. As I stated before, we never liked this since the risk of increased flak to us was much greater and it proved to be the case in this instance.
Our 360-degree turn had to be wide to make room for the other Bomb Groups that followed us. This maneuver moved us from first to last place bringing up the rear of the 8th Air Force. As a result, this made our 398th Bomb Group the last ones to drop bombs by the 8th Air Force during WWII.
On the first run there was moderate flak but on the second run the Germans were more precise with the flak that was intense. There were seventy-eight anti-aircraft guns in range and we must have caught flak from all of them.
Two planes in the High Squadron (602) were hit by flak and started to go down. The pilot of the first plane to get hit was Lt. Allan Ferguson and as his plane left the formation and starting to spiral out of control, three men managed to bail out. They landed several miles from the bomb strike.
Two of them were captured by the Luftwaffe and became prisoners. One of them was Harry Mazer, a waist gunner, who later wrote a book about this experience. The second one was the ball turret gunner William O'Malley. The third one, Michael Brennen, was later found shot to death.
The other members of Ferguson's crew, Co-Pilot Lt. John Halbert flying his first mission, Navigator/Bombardier Lt. Howard Feldman and Engineer Joseph Hostess had another fate. The plane crashed and according to some witnesses, one of whom was a French prisoner, claimed that the Germans executed four of them. An eighth crewmember, Tail Gunner Byron Young, was found dead in the vicinity of a town called Lhota. No other bodies were found.
There was one other person on the Ferguson crew by the name of Harry Gray who by an unusual twist of fate was not on the last mission. Harry had been wounded on a mission to Berlin the previous month and was in the hospital. The day before he was to be released, a patient was brought into his room that had appendicitis. When the doctors examined him they discovered he also had Scarlet Fever. It was fortunate for Harry, as you will see; the room with him in it was quarantined for ten days.
On April 25,1945, the quarantine ended. Harry was released and when he went to report in, the orderly told him he was going to have a lot of room in his barracks. Harry looked at him funny and asked," Why?" He was then told that the Ferguson crew had been shot down over Pilsen.
Shortly after Ferguson's plane was hit and going down, just after the bombs were released, another plane was severely damaged by flak. The Pilot of this aircraft was Lt. Paul Coville.
Waist Gunner, Sgt. Harry Overbaugh on Coville's crew recalled his experience that was very dramatic. Coming in on the bomb run they saw Ferguson's plane get hit and start to spiral down. Just after "Bombs away" as the squadron started to slowly turn to a westerly heading, Coville's plane was hit. Overbaugh felt the plane shudder and looking out of the right side window; he saw a large hole behind the #3 engine. The Ball Turret Gunner, Charles Walker reported the same thing to Coville. With smoke coming out from a fire around the #3 engine, Coville reports to the lead that the he is going to leave the formation and take his B-17 as far west as possible in order to reach friendly skies.
The plane was alone in the sky and descending when there was then a small explosion, the flaps hung down, the wing ripped up to the back of the engine and everything was on fire. Overbaugh threw a screwdriver into the radio room to warn the Radio Operator, Norman Marcel, and at the same time hammered on the ball turret to get Walker out.
When the #4 engine caught fire and the wing buckled, Coville instantly ordered his co-pilot rookie Lt.Robert McLaughlin to bail out along with other members of the crew, Bombardier/Navigator Neil Bartimus, Engineer Vincent Ferraro, Radio Operator Norman Markel and Tail Gunner Charles Rawlins.
Before Markel bailed out he attempted to help Walker put on his harness and chute. Overbaugh kicked out the back door while Markel was helping Walker. There was another explosion and a ripping sound as the plane started to go into a spin. Overbaugh at this time went out the waist door and into a free fall with Markel following. Walker was still frantically trying to put on his chute and as Overbaugh turned around he had a last glimpse of the plane when it blew up. Walker never made it out.
While in the free fall, he saw the dorsal fin going down along with 5 chutes in the distance. He then pulled the ripcord and the chute opened. He became aware that he lost his boots, had no helmet or gloves and just his 45-caliber pistol.
As Overbaugh was floating down he saw a lot of woods, fields and a crossroad. He noticed a soldier in a dark uniform with little puffs of smoke coming from him.
When he turned up to look at his chute, he noticed holes in it probably coming from the soldier shooting at him. Drifting closer to the ground again looked up and saw a long rip in the chute he hadn't noticed before. He was close to the ground and shortly landed backwards with a bump, rolling up into his chute. He stood up, his head hurt, his eyes burned and he was covered with blood and oil.
Then all hell broke loose. He had landed in the middle of a battle between the Germans and the Americans. He was caught along with the rest of the crew in mortar fire from both sides. He heard machines on the other side of the woods moving around. It was then he noticed two Germans hiding on the edge of the woods and clearing.
When the firing and shelling stopped, the two Germans who had noticed him started to come towards him. One of them had a .38 Caliber gun and when they approached, Overbaugh took out his .45 Caliber gun. They had bloodstains on their uniforms and as they got closer he ordered them to halt, which they did. They surprised him by suddenly holding up their hands in surrender and handed him their gun.
Overbought noticed that one of the Germans had on a pair of classic black officer's boots. He pointed to them and said "Der Boots." The German said "Nein, Nein" and when he pointed the gun at his head, this elicited a more reasonable response and soon the boots were Overbaugh's. They started to march west towards the American army with the two Germans leading the way. Soon they were met by a patrol and Overbaugh was relieved of the prisoners.
One interesting aspect of Overbaugh's experience is he found out that the two German soldiers he was with were not really soldiers at all. They were Jewish escapees from a nearby German concentration camp who were scheduled for execution when they escaped. They had put on the uniforms of two dead German soldiers. Harry Overbaugh still has the .38 Caliber gun, the boots and the pilot chute, which he managed to save, as part of his memorabilia collection.
The pilot Paul Coville had a similar experience when, while hiding from the mortar fire, two Germans came along with a gun. Coville lost his gun on the plane but put his hand in his pocket as though he had a gun that took a lot of nerve, and low and behold, the Germans held up their hands in surrender. They walked about a mile when they came upon an American tank where Coville was relieved of his prisoners.
This mission was not without the loss of several B-17's. There were six in all that were shot down that day with two of them being in the 398th Bomb Group which I was in. The following are the names of the Bomb Groups that had planes shot down on the last mission to Skoda on April 25, 1945:
- 92nd Bomb Group lost one B-17, 6 KIA, 1 POW
- 303rd Bomb Group lost one B-17, 3 KIA, 1 POW
- 305th Bomb Group lost one B-17, 8 KIA, 1 POW
- 384th Bomb Group lost one B-17, 3 Evd, 5 POW
- 398th Bomb Group lost two B-17's, 7 KIA, 2 POW, 7 RTD
There were two other planes lost from the 379th Bomb Group when there was a mid-air collision with 9 KIA. It was an unfortunate event that brought the total number of airmen killed on the last bombing mission by the 8th Air Force during WWII to 33. To the best of my knowledge, all the POW's were returned to England and sent back to the United States.
I was happy to have gotten through this last mission in one piece but I did have one regret. I did not fly with my regular crew on this mission but flew with a crew whose Pilot was 2nd Lt. Alois Beck. I have always been grateful to this crew for making my last combat mission a success and bringing me safely back to our base.
The results of the raid on the Skoda Works were as follows: Due to the accuracy of the bombing, the Skoda plant was seventy percent destroyed. The workshops were hit by 430 fragmentation bombs and many incendiary bombs, leaving only 13 buildings unscathed. Twenty-eight buildings and workshops were completely destroyed, 33 heavily damaged and 49 slightly damaged. The fully destroyed objects were the company headquarters, Engineering Workshop for assembly and repairs of tanks, the Locomotive Hall, the Vehicles Department, Steel Plant, Power Plant I, the patterns Storehouse, Central Materials Stores and others. The works housing colony Karol and the company premises west of the main plant suffered heavy damage. The premises of the Electrical Engineering Plant (ETD) at Doudlevce were also damaged. The mission served its purpose.
The unfinished products for military purposes located at the workshops on the day of the air-raid included 332 anti-aircraft artillery pieces, 625,000 pieces of gun ammunition, approximately 150 Jagdpanzer 38 (t) tanks, electric motors for aircraft, spare barrels for guns of various calibers etc.
We had a long flight back and were thinking of the two planes that were lost along with their crews. When the planes arrived at our base in Nuthampstead after a ten-hour flight, everyone was tired and apprehensive about whether we would fly another mission in the coming days.
As I recall, we were not notified immediately but in a day or so, word got out that we had flown our last combat mission. Everyone was elated that we survived the war and would be going home soon.
The 8th Air Force flew it's last official bombing mission in WWII on April 25,1945. The 398th Bomb Group had the distinction of losing the last two B-17 bombers in the War since we were last Bomb Group over the target in Pilsen.
Personal History Information
- Veteran: Leonard Streitfeld
- Bombardier, 600th Squadron
- Date of Personal History: January 2004 Web Page submission. Excerpted from HELL FROM HEAVEN by Leonard Streitfeld.
- Author: Leonard Streitfeld
- Submitted to 398th Web Pages by: Leonard Streitfeld