Americans, Germans recall deadly WWII raid
SCHWEINFURT, Germany — By all rights, Arvid Dahl and Kurt Mohr should never have met.
One fall afternoon long ago, Dahl — then a U.S. Army Air Corps officer in the 524th Bomb Squadron of the 379th Bomb Wing — led his squadron of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers across hundreds of miles of enemy territory and dumped his load of bombs on the ball-bearing factories of Schweinfurt.
Beneath the factory where he worked, the 15-year-old Mohr lay huddled and frightened in a storage tank. At the end of the half-hour raid, during which more than 3,000 bombs were dropped on the industrial city of 50,000 residents, he ran through the burning wreckage of the building.
Unlike many of his co-workers, he got out alive.
They should have been enemies. But last week, 61 years after the day now called “Black Thursday,” the two men embraced and cried at a ceremony in Schweinfurt commemorating the friendship of Germany and the United States, and the hundreds of people on both sides who died that day.
“While this memorial recalls a darker time in history, when men as enemies fought for the cause,” John Noack, a veteran of the raid, said in his speech, “it serves as a challenge to find a better way to solve our differences.”
Noack and Dahl were two of the 62 Americans, including 14 veterans of the raid, who traveled to Schweinfurt last week for a week of commemoration and sightseeing. On Thursday, the anniversary of the raid, they attended a memorial church service and laid a wreath at a monument built jointly by Americans and Germans.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Feldman and Command Sgt. Maj. Jesse Legette of the Schweinfurt-based 280th Base Support Battalion led a small group representing the active-duty U.S. Army.
Those who lived through “Black Thursday,” whether on the ground or in the air, remember it as a day of terror.
“The floor was filled with petroleum products. Everything was in flames,” Mohr said through a translator, tearfully recalling how he escaped that day.
Gerhard Bellosa, then 15, had been conscripted as a “flak helfer,” one of about 2,500 German students ordered to man anti-aircraft batteries around Schweinfurt. The city’s status as the center of German production of frictionless ball bearings, a key component in many military vehicles, put it near the top of the Allied target list.
Two months earlier, Bellosa had been at home with his motherwhen a 500-pound American bomb had leveled their house and destroyed all their possessions. They had survived in a bunker underneath.
The family moved to a new house, and Bellosa was home again on Oct. 14. They hid in the bunker.
“The house was shaking when the bombs fell,” he recalled, “but the house was only partially destroyed.”
After leaving his base that morning in Kimbolton, England, Dahl and the pilots of 290 other B-17s had endured wave after wave of attacks from Luftwaffe fighters. The Luftwaffe fought more fiercely than anything the bomber crews had seen before.
“I was concentrating so much on flying in formation,” Dahl said. “When I’d look up, the sky would be loaded with six or eight fighters coming at us.”
Over Schweinfurt, even flying at 25,000 feet, the bomber crews braved what seemed like a solid wall of flak to drop their bombs. After the first bombing raid in August, the Nazis had beefed up anti-aircraft defenses around the city.
Those crews fortunate enough to have reached the target found themselves chased by fighters for hundreds of miles home, across Germany, Holland and Belgium.
The Germans shot down 60 Flying Fortresses that day, killing or capturing 639 airmen. An additional 121 had been damaged so badly they needed major repairs before they could fly again.
Dahl’s crew lucked out; it brought its aircraft home with only one bullet hole.
“It surprised me,” he said. “I expected to be full of holes. We were constantly being shot at.”
The bombs took a fearful toll in Schweinfurt, killing 276 Germans, mostly civilians. All five ball-bearing factories had been hit, and Allied commanders at first labeled the raid a success. Only after the war did they learn the damage to the machines producing the bearings had been limited, and production quickly bounced back. The Nazis scattered the factories around the country, so there would be no crippling blows in the future.
In the postwar years, U.S. veterans of the raid formed the Second Schweinfurt Memorial Association, which holds regular reunions. On the German side, the city’s defenders formed the Luftwaffenhelfer Der Schweinfurt Flakbatterien (Air Force Helpers of the Schweinfurt Flak-Batteries).
In 1996, the Americans contacted the Germans about a joint reunion. Together they erected the peace monument, which stands in a little downtown park, next to what was Schweinfurt’s largest air-raid shelter. Since then, the groups have met on both sides of the Atlantic.
“All these guys are just so close,” said Dick Fox, the son of a “Black Thursday” pilot and an officer in the Second Schweinfurt group. “The American guys are close, the German guys are close, and they have a lot in common.”
“‘Black Thursday’ was a fatal day, for you as well as for our town,” Gudrun Grieser, the lord mayor of Schweinfurt, told Americans at the ceremony, “but now it is your home, too.”