A Duty Greater
Part II


October 8, 1943 was a difficult day for the 381st Bomb Group. Twenty-one B-17’s took off from Ridgewell that day, seven failed to return, many others were so badly damaged they barely made it back. The target was the industrial northern German city of Bremen.

Bremen and Berlin were the most highly fortified cities in all Germany. Berlin alone had 6,000 anti-aircraft guns amassed over 600 square miles. Ed Klein’s eyes narrow when he mentions the names of those cities. Ed’s plane lost a crewmember that day, their tail gunner Steve. Steve and Ed were best friends and it hit him hard, but he went out again the next day.

Standing on that abandoned runway at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, Ed tells me, “March 6, 1944 we went into the briefing room and learned our mission would be over Berlin. When I learned my last three missions would all be over Berlin my heart sank.” The odds were bad, but providence smiled on Ed.

On March 9th 1944, 1st Lt. Edward A. Klein completed his 25th bombing mission over enemy occupied territory and went home with the Air Medal, 3 Oak Leaf Clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Ben Klinger had an older brother Stephen who was killed in action in the war, but the family never learned the details surrounding his death. Ben became a pilot and in 1944, shortly after Ed returned home, wound up in England flying bombing runs with the 381st.

Fifty years later at a 381st reunion, Ed was introduced to Ben. As it turned out, it was Ben’s brother Stephen who was the tail gunner on Ed’s crew October 8, 1943. Ben finally learned the circumstances of his brother’s death. Ed and Ben have been good friends ever since.

Because of the high level if intensity, of the horror that accompanies war there is too, an equally high level of mischievousness play, a necessary release.

“Planes were often named for former girlfriends,” Ben chuckles lightly, “My co-pilot drew a picture of a nude woman on the nose of our plane, the commander wouldn’t allow nudes, so we glued colored cellophane over her private parts.”

Reaching your 25th Mission was a high watermark and crewmembers often did curious things to commemorate the event.

“One guy had a bicycle he rode everywhere on the base,” Ben recounts. “On his 25th he took the bicycle along. After the bomb release he said, ‘I won’t be needing this anymore,’ and tossed the bike out over Germany.”

There were other rather bizarre tossings. One crewmember found several mannequins somewhere and dropped them out. Another fellow, having nothing to toss out, unhooked a sink in the barracks, took it along and dropped it out over the Hitler’s head.
As we chatted on the windswept runway two men pushing another man in a wheelchair stopped. The man in the wheelchair was Lou Kittle. Lou was a P-38 pilot in the South Pacific during the war with the 339th Fighter Squadron from Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field. Lou flew the “Yamamoto Mission.”
Japanese Imperial Fleet Commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the mastermind behind the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. American code breakers intercepted a message revealing plans for Yamamoto’s 9:30 a.m. arrival on April 18th 1943 at Bougainville Island.

“One of our boys had been Yamamoto’s roommate at Harvard, told us he was a stickler for punctuality, so we knew he’d be on time,” Lou explained. “We flew 400 miles, dangerously low that morning at 50 feet above the Pacific in order to fly under the radar. We were flying so low you could see the prop wash on the water.”

They arrived on schedule and at 9:34 sighted two Betty bombers and six Zero fighter planes. A brief air battle ensued resulting in Yamamoto’s plane crashing in flames into the Bougainville jungle.

The incident was a crushing blow to the Japanese and had a powerful morale boosting effect on American troops everywhere; they’d gotten the man responsible for the attack on Pearl. I saw that effect, still evident in Ed’s eyes these many years later as he leaned forward toward Lou. Ed held out his hand, “I want to shake your hand, sir. Thank you,” was all he said.

I felt my throat tighten, as it tightens now putting these words on the page. I doubt I’ll forget the look I saw in Ed’s eyes, the honor, the respect.
I was humbled and privileged to witness this chance meeting, to be in the company of men who possessed such enormous character. They were modest, quiet men, no bragging here, just truth. I was in the company of men who did what was asked of them to the best of their ability without question and when it was over, they simply got on with their lives.

This Thanksgiving day take a moment to think of Ed and Ben and Lou and the thousands of others who selflessly sacrificed, who in the line of duty faced fear and horror preserving individual freedom for each of us. Quietly say thanks, I know they’ll hear.

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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