WORLD WAR II COMBAT: THE FIRST MISSION
Samuel Warren Cochran
Installed as a webpage on Shade Tree Physics on 11 Sep 2016.
Latest update 07 Oct 2016.
Soon after arriving in England, we learned that not only was a war going on
but also that we were in a foreign land. When flying, few things outside the
cockpit were familiar--and that worried me a bit. The surface of the earth
appeared to be a green carpet with ravels. Even when flying at a thousand
feet, we were seldom out of sight of an air field (airdrome); and I wondered
how in the world air-traffic controllers could manage so many airplanes. But
I snuggled down inside the safety of the B-26, listened to those 18 cylinder
R-2800 engines run, and reasoned that what was now unusual, strange, and
mysterious would become friendly.
We had been in England only a few days before all combat aircrews started to
ground school, and our first lessons were on the English navigational and
communication systems. Wow!--our English maps started to make sense! One of
the first things I learned was that the ravels I had seen in my carpet were
roads; and almost before I knew it, other symbols on the map started to take
on meaning. Even radio procedures were making sense; and, after a little more
instruction and a few more flights, all the airdromes did not appear to be
clones. My alien world was reaching out to me with tender hands, and soon
it was about as easy to fly in England as it had been in the United States
when flying out of Brady, Ellington, or Lake Charles; however my green carpet
never lost its enchantment.
I was eager to start flying combat, but ground school continued. We learned
British air-sea rescue procedure, and I was impressed with their efficiency.
Aircraft recognition was a continuation of what we had been practicing in
the United States--but more interesting. I never had any trouble identifying
the P-38 (lightning), so always took this airplane as a given. When I put the
P-47 (jug) and the P-51 (mustang) side-by-side, I never had any trouble--
their names gave them away. However, the plot thickened. Both the American
mustang and the British spitfire had an in-line, liquid-cooled engine,
giving them a long nose and similar silhouette. But this did not worry me
since both were friendly. The Germans had two fighters that got my
attention--the Messerschmitt (ME-109) and the Focke-Wulfe 190 (FW-190). The
silhouette of the ME-109 had many of the features of both our mustang and the
British spitfire, while the FW-190 looked something like our jug. Horrors! It
made matters even worse when I realized I would have only an instant in combat
to recognize these airplanes. We had a good instructor, and he taught us to
identify specific features of each airplane--making them appear more unique
Ground school, and more ground school; there was little talk about our first
combat mission, but deep inside we all wanted to know. The 322nd Bomb Group,
another B-26 outfit, had preceded us to England, and we reasoned that by now
they should be flying combat. We were eager to learn how they were doing,
but no word came. Things were quiet, too quiet. Gradually we heard things
that were difficult for us to believe: their first low-level mission was a
disaster, and their second low-level mission was a double disaster. On their
first mission, the planes that did return to England were riddled with
bullet holes, and the base hospital was filled with battle casualties. Their
second low-level mission was even worse--not one airplane returned! The
Commanding General of the 8th Air Force ordered all B-26s grounded while a
method was found to use the airplane more effectively.
Within a few days, we learned the medium bombers, B-26s, would fly our combat
missions at altitudes from 11,000 to 12,000 feet, while the heavies; B-17s
and B-24s, would fly their missions between 18,000 and 20,000 feet. We would
fly our missions in formation, flights of six, and use the Norden bombsight--
rather than the D-8--a far cry from our combat training at McDill and Lake
Charles, where we skipped-bombed at treetop level and flew alone or in flights
of two or three. The enemy was on the east side of the English Channel,
a mere stone's throw away, and here we sat with a new battle plan.
Col. Lester J. Maitland was commander of the 386th Bomb Group, and Maj. Harry
G. "Tad" Hankey was the Group Operations Officer. On a day-to-day basis,
combat crews had more contact with Major Hankey than with Colonel Maitland.
First, we learned to fly formation in flights of six--timing was the key.
When the lead airplane took off, the pilot would hold a briefed heading and
airspeed, make standard turns at designated times, and climb at a given rate.
Using geometry, it was possible to plot the exact position of the lead
airplane every instant. The pilot in the second airplane started his roll a
given number of seconds after the first and intersected the leader at a
specific point in the sky. The same procedure was followed by all airplanes
in the flight. It dawned
First Mission, page 2 of 3
on me: we were employing the precision-flying procedures we had learned in
flying school using the needle-and-ball, artificial horizon, and stopwatch.
And before learning to fly, I played center, 1935 through 1939, on the Wayne
County [MS] Agricultural High School (WCAHS) football team. There I learned to
center the ball to a point in space--confident someone would arrive to catch
it, usually Abe Hutto. I was able to see it as clearly as I could see the sun
on a cloudless day; my philosophy of life was beginning to take shape:
everything that is ever learned is useful.
It was easy for me to think in flights of six: the lead airplane was number one;
the airplanes on his right and left wings were numbers 2 and 3, respectively. The
fourth airplane, called the slot position, flew directly behind and slightly below
the leader, with his wingmen--right and left--designated numbers 5 and 6. When 12
airplanes flew in a formation, the second flight--called the high flight--flew a
little above the lead flight, and slightly back. Building a formation of 18 followed
the same pattern, adding a low flight. Using this technique, a formation could
become as large as desired. After a few days of practicing formation flying, I made
another discovery: Fly you position! Fly your position!--do not worry about those
Next, we learned to use the Norden bombsight. Before joining the 386th Bomb Group,
555th Bomb Squadron, as a copilot, I had flown student bombardiers at Midland Air
Field, using the Norden bombsight. I was at home. The key point when bombing is to
maintain a constant airspeed and keep the airplane straight and level. The pilot
always flies the airplane; however, when on the bomb run, he receives instructions
from the bombardier to turn the airplane right or left. The bombardier relays his
message to the pilot through an instrument called the Pilot's Directional Indicator
(PDI), located in the cockpit. All bombardiers had graduated from the bombardier
school, and it was a matter of learning to bomb with a hotter airplane. After some
practice, we were ready to look at the enemy through cross hairs. The tempo was
increasing. Now we were learning more about bombloads, gross weight, take-off
distances, range of operations, armament, emergency procedure, radio procedure,
first-aid kits, mae wests, and color-of-the day.
We knew the theory of formation flying but needed practice, especially when flying
in huge formations--something that was unthinkable a few weeks earlier. Diversionary
missions were scheduled, and we performed every function of a combat mission--
except loading bombs. We attended briefings, were given codes for the day, wore
combat gear, started engines at briefed times, took off at designated intervals,
joined the formation, climbed to altitude, and set our heading for the enemy coast,
usually flying across the North Sea toward Holland. In my mind's eye, I could see
our formation appear on German radar, and it was easy for me to visualize what was
going on in the commander's mind. "Where was this formation headed?" "Should I
scramble my fighters?" Often, he would reason as a father, "The British bombers were
busy last night and my pilots were up there with them--my pilots need their rest."
And, with an extension of the same paternal hand, he would mumble to anyone
listening, but mostly to himself, "The same goes for those antiaircraft (flak)
gunners--those soldiers must get some rest."
Unwavering, we maintained our heading and, with each eventful second, approached
enemy territory. I could almost hear the German commander's order, "Attention!
Attention! Man your planes." The crack Luftwaffe pilots, aided by seasoned ground
crews, got their ME-109s and FW-190s into the air. Flak gunners also were ordered
to man their weapons and fire when the enemy came into range. Just before reaching
the enemy's coast, our formation did a "one-eighty" turn and headed for home. By
now the fighters' petrol was getting low, and they landed for fuel. With the alert
over, flak gunners headed for their barracks, expecting to get some sleep. Now the
way was clear for another allied formation to enter enemy territory and encounter
minimum resistance. Exactly like a game of football, or planning moves in chess. I
was intrigued. Wow!--I saw it for the first time! War was more than cold steel and
hot lead. Nations were organized and functioned according to traditions that, for
the United States, had been preserved in our constitution. Soldiers fight, generals
plan, and statesmen/philosophers direct the nation's course. I was confident that
I could function as a soldier and believed that I could learn to reason as a
general; however, the thought of becoming a statesman/philosopher was beyond my
We were gaining experience in assembling a formation, learning to maneuver it, and,
at the same time, playing tricks on the enemy. Our part of the war had started on
a good foot. Leaders in the 386th Bomb Group and the 8th Air Force were becoming
masters at planning, and I always believed Major Hankey played a major role in the
strategy. After several diversionary missions, we were ready for the real thing.
First Mission, Page 3 of 3
It was rumored that the first combat misson was on for tomorrow, and our crew was
scheduled. I was pleased that we were selected for the grand experiment at medium
altitude, but not surprised. I wondered what I was going to think about before my
first mission, and must tell you that my thoughts surprised me. I had precisely
the same feelings that I had before a big event: my first driver's license test;
the annual football game between WCAHS and Waynesboro; waiting to hear whether I was
selected for a scholarship to Mississippi College; my solo flight, my first
cross-country flight--it was all the same. On these occasions, my several "selves"
were fractionated and, more often than not, using the same information, reached
different conclusions. On the one hand, one of my "selves" would tell me, "You
have the ability to do the job and are equal to the occasion"; while an equally
valid "self"--behaving like a broken record--would keep asking,"but what if?" During
this period, I always left my "selves" alone to wage their battle--I turned my mind
to preparation. For the mission tomorrow, I contemplated the important variables. I
had confidence in the airplane and crew and, therefore, did not include these on my
worry list. In my mind, I went over the timing for take-off and the precision flying
to join the formation; and, once tucked on somebody's wing, my sole aim in life was
to stay there. If shot down, I was aware of my rights and responsibilities under the
Geneva Convention; I knew ditching procedure, escape and evasion procedure, and would
learn codes for the day at our briefing tomorrow morning. My "selves" never devoted
any of their energy to thinking about death--that was strange to me. If my "selves"
wanted to continue arguing among themselves, that was OK with me; but today had been
full, and tomorrow was going to be another red-letter day. I needed my rest to be
equal to tomorrow's
demands--I went to sleep.
Thursday, July 29, 1943. Combat! At the 5:30 a.m. briefing, we learned our
target was an airdrome at
Woensdrecht, Holland, where the Germans had stationed some of their fighters. We
were briefed on communications, ditching procedure, codes of the day, armament,
weather, take-off and join-up procedure, routes, evasive action, initial point (IP),
and bomb run and were shown photographs of the target. After each briefing officer
had finished, he would, more often than not, remember something else, then start again.
At first, I was annoyed with their redundancy, but then I was comforted when I realized
what was happening--anxious fathers were getting their sons ready for the first day of
school. Eventually, the briefing ended, and we made our way to the airplanes. For this
takeoff, the runway seemed shorter than usual; then I remembered--for the first time we
were loaded with bombs. The weather was clear as a bell, and we knew every eye on the
ground was on us as we climbed to altitude, then set our heading for enemy territory.
When over the North Sea, we loaded our 12-.50 caliber machine guns--forward, top, side,
and and tail. When we test-fired them, our spent shells rained down on the airplanes
behind us--an unanticipated event. Immediately after crossing the enemy coast, ME-109s
and FW-190s attacked our formation. However, I did not see all of the action because
most of the attacks came from the rear.
Soon the flak came, and we started evasive action--our first time to perform the
maneuver under fire. The timing of evasive action was a funciton of our altitude and
air speed. We calculated the time that it took a flak projectile to reach our altitude
after being fired from the ground. The trick was to hold our heading long enough for
the flak gunners to aim at us and fire; then, according to a predetermined plan, as
gracefully as ballet dancers, we changed our heading a few degrees. When the maneuver
worked, the flak exploded where we had been a few seconds earlier. All the time, the
formation leader was working his way toward a designated place, called the initial point
(IP)--some distance from the target. The IP signaled the start of our bomb run; and,
once on the bomb run, we flew to the target as straight as an arrow, making no
deviations in heading, altitude, or airspeed.
The target was bombed as briefed--the first mission of the 386th Bomb Group was
completed successfully! Practically the entire time over enemy territory, we were under
attack by fighters or bombarded by flak. We lost one airplane. After being damaged by
flak, it fell out of formation and was finished off by ME-109s and FW-190s. Two enemy
fighters were destroyed. No one on our crew was injured.
This day ushered in another world. "Look out, he's coming in at 6 o'clock low!" "Milk
those bursts off; don't let your gun barrel get too hot!" Enemy fighters can be
identified in a fraction of a second--and it took no time at all to learn the difference
between the rattle of a machine gun and a burst of flak. Flak smoke does not smell like
anything else in the whole wide world. I was 21 years of age--and growing.
San Antonio, TX 78245-3535
February 1, 1989