WWII gunner recalls missions over Europe
By MARYLOUISE SMITH | Lebanon Daily News, Pa. | Published: September 1, 2013
LEBANON, Pa. — Paul Albert's journal from 1944 is filled with terse entries that sound like nightmares, but these were his daily routine, reminding all who read them of the horrors of war.
Like this one, from Thursday, March 16:
"Target — Augsburg, Germany. Deep penetration into Germany that took nine and a half hours with losses again totaling 23 planes by the Eighth. The 95th lost six planes and had much battle damage. ... We saw a ME 110 blast a struggling B-17 with rocket fire and sending it straight down with no chutes escaping, a horrible sight. We thought we had 22 more missions to go, but were informed that the tour was upped to 30 missions."
And this one, a month later, from Thursday, April 13:
"The Eighth totaled losses of 33 bombers on this one mission. ... Our third trip into the heavy fighter belt of southern Germany. ... We had damage to the No. 2 and 3 engines that caused us to fall back from the formation, always a scary situation because you become prey for the vultures of the Luftwaffe. ... Our squadron lost one plane flown by a new crew."
Another, the next week, Tuesday, April 18:
"My 21st birthday. Target — Berlin. When the target was revealed at briefing, it provoked a lot of groans. ... Heavy flak and fighter protection made it an undesirable place to visit. ... Heavy cloud coverage caused us to hit a secondary target at Brandenburg. ... Practically all of the group saw fighter action with the total force suffering heavy losses ..."
In all, Staff Sgt. Paul Albert flew 35 missions over Germany, France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Poland from his base in Horham, England. It was quite a journey for a Lebanon kid who had quit high school and didn't know what to do.
At the time, Albert saw a poster in the Lebanon Post Office stating: "Be a sergeant in six weeks. Join the US Army Air Force and be an aerial gunner."
That was all the direction he needed.
"So I signed up for it, and in a few days I was in Harrisburg, being
inducted," Albert said, reminiscing from his home in Lebanon's Woodland Estates, which he shares with Betty, his wife of 64 years.
Basic training was in Miami Beach, Fla., and gunnery school was in Las Vegas, he recalled.
"It was not exactly a hardship," Albert, now 90, said of those beginnings.
After six weeks of training in March 1943, Albert graduated, received his "wings" and was indeed promoted to the rank of sergeant.
Shortly thereafter, Albert and his group flew over the North Atlantic to Horham, about 100 miles north of London, where he was assigned to the air base of the 336th squadron of the 95th Bomb Group of the U.S. 8th Air Force. There he was, a gunner on the famous B-17 "Flying Fortress."
Albert was originally assigned to be the ball turret gunner — suspended from the underside of the plane — but his 6 foot 1 inch frame made it nearly impossible to get into the small area, so a crew mate switched places with him, and Albert acted as the waist gunner, situated toward the center of the plane.
Waist gunners were exposed to cold temperatures, which fell as low as 50 degrees below zero, and wore special suits with an electric heating system wired through them, Albert explained. Even so, frostbite was a continual problem for the flyers.
"Our first mission was a 'milk run' across the (English) Channel, and we bombed some sub pens," he said. "It was an easy mission because we saw no German fighters, and that disappointed some of the guys."
They weren't disappointed for long. A few days later, Albert and crew flew a mission into southern Germany, to Augsburg, a nine and a half hour flight.
"We lost 23 planes that day; there was a lot of shooting by the Germans," he said. "As I recall, it was an aircraft factory (they were bombing)."
The 8th Air Force had 10 percent of all casualties in World War II, Albert said, because its members were on the forefront of the fighting and regularly were sent on dangerous missions.
On April 9, 1944, Easter Sunday, Albert's crew was scheduled to go on a mission to Poland, but bad weather forced its cancellation after the craft was already in the air.
"We went up to 32,000 feet to get out of the cloud cover — the highest we had ever been — the pilot found a hole, but we crashed at the end of the runway," he said.
As the pilot tried to land on a short runway, the plane was still going about 50 mph when it hit a construction ditch, nosed over and caught fire immediately, he added.
The navigator and the bombardier at the front of the plane were injured but survived after being pulled from the wreckage by other crew members, Albert recalled. When it was all over, the plane was a pile of molten metal.
"During actual combat — or an incident like that — you weren't frightened," he said. "It was your job. But you thought about it more after the fact."
There were not many heroes during the war, he added, just people doing their jobs.
"Doesn't matter which service they were in," he said. "I don't think heroes think about what they're doing — they just do it. It's later when you think about what could have happened."
Eventually, the pilot of one of Albert's B-17s "showed the effects" of too much combat flying and had to be removed from duty.
In May 1944, Albert and crew bombed a synthetic oil refinery in Czechoslovakia. Smoke and flames rose 15,000 feet in what was an amazing sight, he said.
"It was one of those things you saw, and knowing it was hurting the German war effort, you felt good about it," he said.
Another day brought a mission of mercy, when the B-17s dropped supplies — food, medicine and ammunition — to French freedom fighters hiding in a wooded area.
"We could literally see those French people coming out of the woods to get the supplies," he said.
After bombing an airfield in Romania, the crew landed in Poltava, Ukraine, about 40 miles from Kiev, Albert recalled.
"Conditions there were very rough; the town had exchanged hands about four times, and even though it had been a sizable city, only one or two buildings was left standing," he said.
June 6, 1944 — D-Day — is a day Albert said he will never forget. His crew was told the night before that the Allied invasion would occur on the coast of German-occupied France. Nothing prepared the men for the sight of hundreds of ships in the English Channel.
"It was an awesome sight," Albert said. "When we flew over the Channel, everywhere you looked, you saw ships. We were to bomb the estuary of the River Orne, and we were only 700 yards ahead of the landing craft; luckily, we didn't hit any of our troops. We got our target."
The pilots were told not to turn around if they developed trouble because they would be shot down if they attempted to do so, Albert said.
The Lebanon man said the English people treated the American troops well, adding that he has a lot of respect for the Royal Air Force fighters, their compatriots.
Albert recalled how affected he was by seeing so many people, and so many children, sleeping in the London subways at night, seeking protection from the bombings by German aircraft.
"They lived a very austere life during the war; I've got to give them credit," he said.
During his service, Albert received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with oak clusters.
After he returned to the States, Albert took advantage of the GI bill and graduated from Lebanon High School, as well as Penn State, East Stroudsburg University and Antioch College in Ohio. After obtaining two master's degrees, he taught for many years on Long Island, N.Y., served as curriculum coordinator for math and science, and coached basketball and football before retiring to Lebanon.
"The GI bill was just what we needed (after the war)," he said. "Without it, we would have had a serious shortage of professionals."