A Duty Greater

I walk along an old concrete runway, fine tufts of grass peaking up between the cracks. Vintage aircraft, parked diagonally, line both sides of the runway. Two men and a woman walk ahead of me. One of the men wears a white cap and gestures toward one of the planes; I figure he’s conducting a tour, so I wander close to listen.

The patch on his cap reads, “Distinguished Flying Cross Society.” His name is Ed Klein, the other man is Ben Klinger, the woman is Ben’s wife, Norma. There’s no tour, just three friends visiting the U.S. Air Force Museum on an overcast, blustery day in Dayton, Ohio.

Ed Klein flew in B-17’s during World War II. As part of the 381st Bomb Group he flew 25 missions over Europe from Ridgewell Airfield, in Essex, England. If you were fortunate enough to survive 25 missions you were sent home. Ed was one of the lucky ones. Surviving 25 bombing missions was no easy feat.

The B-17 Flying Fortress bomber carried a crew of ten. Ed was a bombardier. As bombardier you’re sort of the point man. The bombardier sits out front in the nose of the aircraft. He also operates the chin turret guns below.

As Ed talks, I look up at the nose of the B-17 pictured here and imagine myself sitting up there at 20,000 feet, surrounded only by clear Plexiglas, completely exposed. The muscles in my back tighten as I consider the concentration and courage necessary to perform this job; operating that bombsight with anti-aircraft fire exploding and fighter planes swarming all around you.

Ed, pictured here, gives me a basic lesson in the operation of the Norden Bombsight. In 1943, the Norden Bombsight was a top-secret device that determined an exact release moment, enabling bombs to accurately hit their designated target. To guard the secrecy, the sight was loaded aboard the aircraft under armed guard just prior to takeoff, covered from view until in the air and immediately removed, again under armed guard, after landing. “They liked to say bombardiers could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet with that thing, but in combat it wasn’t that easy,” Ed smiles.

As the Flying Fortress withstood heavy flak, the bombsight helped compensated for crosswind, but the weight of the mission fell directly on the shoulders of the bombardier. Should the plane be shot down, he was responsible for destroying the bombsight in order to protect its secrecy. Bombardiers took an oath, swearing in part, “in the presence of Almighty God to keep inviolate the secret of all information revealed to me, if need be, with my life itself.”

Once over the target area the plane would be switched to automatic pilot. Crouched in the Plexiglas nose of the plane, breathing pure oxygen and peering into the rubber eyepiece that left a black circle around your eye like ‘Petey’ the dog in the Our Gang comedies, Ed would maneuver the plane’s course using small knobs on the side of the bombsight. He wore silk gloves to keep his skin from freezing to the metal knobs. Temperatures of nearly 40 below zero were common, as was frostbite.

As Ed neared the correct coordinates he would announce into the radio, “Bomb bay doors open.” When the doors were fully open the ball turret gunner, suspended from the belly of the aircraft with a clear view of the bay directly in front of him, would reply, “Doors open.”

Ed would then lock on the target, setting the coordinates. The floating cross hairs in the sight made of spider's webbing would then automatically move. When they fell into perfect alignment over the coordinates, Ed would hear an electronic click sound as the sight released the lethal cargo. “Bombs away,” he’d call out. “You never pushed a button to release the bombs like in the movies, I set it and the bombsight did it automatically, but when I heard that click I knew.”

Once the bombs were released Ed waited for the ball turret gunner’s important three word reply, “bomb bay clear,” the signal that all the bombs had fallen clear of the plane.
“It was always a nervous wait,” Ed recalls. “One time he didn’t get back to me and I repeated ‘bomb bay clear,’ and all I heard was, ‘No.’ One bomb was hung-up in the bay, a pretty dangerous situation.”
Ed’s eyes grow quiet. I watch sixty years evaporate. Ed shakes his head and his friendly smile returns, “We got lucky. The wind evidently caught the bomb just right and freed it up. I was never happier to hear, ‘bomb bay clear,’ in all my life, I can’t begin to tell you how happy.”

I look at Ed and Ben and realize they were barely twenty, “Just boys,” a voice whispers in my head. “No, hardly boys,” I mutter correcting myself, “just everyday men committed to a duty greater than their own existence.”

Part II of this chance meeting next time, From The Road.

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