BY EDWARD H. HOLLINGSWORTHF
From Aviation History Magazine, May 2003
‘The Focke Wulfs came at us in pairs,’ recalled Boeing B-17 pilot Roger Drinkwalter, ‘and they got 12 of our guys in about 10 minutes.’
Roger Drinkwalter flew with the Eight Air Force’s 390th Bombardment Group, the “Square Js,” based in Framlingham, England, during World War II. Piloting a Boeing B-17G dubbed The Belle of the Brawl, he flew 10 missions before being shot down over Germany and captured during a raid on rail yards near Frankfurt. He spend five months in a German prisoner-of-war camp that was liberated in May 1945. Drinkwalter was interviewed in California, where he now lives, for Aviation History by Edward Hollingsworth.
Aviation History: Tell us about your background.
Drinkwalter: I came from a little town in Minnesota. I’ll be honest with you, I came from the business end of a milking stool. My dad had a little farm that he had inherited. I attended two years of college at the University of Minnesota, majoring in dairy bacteriology, dairy industry and so on. I was working in Chicago for the Borden Company during a three-month summer vacation period when all of a sudden I got a notice that the draft board was looking for me.
AH: So instead of waiting for the draft you enlisted. But why the Army Air Forces?
Drinkwalter: Well, the draft board in wartime means business. Not next week, not next year, – now! I didn’t want to go into the infantry. People get shot dead in the infantry. In the Chicago Tribune there were articles every day about enlistees signing up for the Navy Air Corps and the Army Air Corps. I immediately thought, “Boy, the Army Air Corps is what I’ve got to do !” because I didn’t care for the water. I took the exam and, by golly, I passed it. There was a whole auditorium of men, hundreds of men. I was told to come back in a couple of days for a physical. I think there were two doctors. One looked in one ear and, hopefully, couldn’t see the one on the other side. The exam didn’t amount to much. Two weeks later, I was in.
AH: When did your training start and what did it entail?
Drinkwalter: In February 1943 a whole group of us – several thousand men from the Minneapolis area – were sent to Jefferson Barracks, Mo. That’s an old, old Civil War days fort. Pneumonia was rampant on the base, but we were only there two weeks, so it wasn’t too bad. We were sent on to a teacher’s college in Eau Claire, Wis., for just a couple of months. They wanted everybody to kind of be on the same page.
We took mathematics and history and classes of that type. Then we got 10 hours of training on a Piper Cub. That little Cub would bounce all over the sky. I thought that if this was the way it was going to be maybe I’m not so hot to be a pilot. Then we were sent to Santa Ana, Calif., where we had seven days of mental tests, psych tests and a lot of coordination tests. That was my first sample of good living in California. I graduated from cadet training in Pecos, Texas.
I graduated from the trainers there to Boeing B-17s in Roswell, N.M. That was in 2 ½ to three months. At Lincoln, Neb., I was assigned a brand new B-17. I had to sign for it, just like buying a new car. The officer said , “Drinkwalter, take care of this airplane. It’s worth $300,000.” From that point I was transferred to Rapid City, S.D., for another three months for combat crew training. This was mostly flying in formation. We flew all over North Dakota and South Dakota, up one side, down the other. I had been only 21 ½ when I enlisted, and here I was at 22 ½ flying a B-17. My tail gunner was 26 or so. It seemed a little bit awkward to me, giving him orders, but he was a good guy. The other guys were closer to my age.
AH: Once you were flying missions, which gave you more problems, enemy fighters or flak?
Drinkwalter: Flak was a major worry – very, very serious. Fighters were frightening, but I didn’t make it over there until relatively late in the war. I was sent overseas on November 10, 1944. They gave me a few practice missions over France, about six or eight of us. My first mission wasn’t until November 30, 1944, to Merseburg. So you see, that was pretty late. By that time our own Army Air [Forces] fighters – we had a lot of North American P-51s and Republic P-47s – had taken on the Focke Wulfs and Messerschmitts.
We saw very few enemy fighters. I saw one German jet, a Messerschmitts Me-262, near Christmastime in 1944. When you’ve got 36 B-17s, your formation spread is about two miles wide. They would just shoot up the flak, and they were apt to hit something. That was a big concern, yes.
AH: Do you remember the defenses of any German city in particular?
Drinkwalter: Hamburg was really a tough one. They’d send us way up over the North Sea, and then we came down at an angle. You know. Hamburg is up at the northwest corner – a big shipping center, and they were manufacturing fighter planes. The 100th Bomb Group went in ahead of us. The Focke Wulfs came at us in pairs, and they got 12 of our guys in about 10 minutes. It was a clear day, and we could see them plain as day. They would dive in on our guys, and on the leading edge of their wings you could see al little sparkle. Of course, that was the guns firing. Then a plane would go off, smoking down or else it would blow up. The German fighter pilots were very good.
AH: Tell us about your crew.
Drinkwalter: They were all great. My navigator, Roy Dickson, was an engineering student at Cal Tech. He got home all right. He worked for Standard Oil for years, a real intelligent kid. Believe me, you really get to know people when you’re in a crew.
AH: What happened during your first mission?
Drinkwalter; Here we are, it must have been 5:30 in the morning, still dark, and I was getting ready to go. As you can imagine, there was quite a bit of emotion involved. Thirty-six B- 17s are all getting fired up and ready to take off. All of a sudden the major turns up and says to me, “Drinkwalter, I want you to exchange co-pilots with the crew next door. That way you’ll get a man that’s had five missions , and your co-pilot will get some experience.” Of course, the first mission is kind of the toughest. “Yes, sir,” I said. So they sent their man over, and I sent this fella over there, and, by golly, when we got home that night the co-pilot that I had went to find his crew, but they didn’t come back. On the bomb run they had taken a shot right in the bomb bay. The place blew up. He was killed on his very first mission. He was a fella named Randolph Martin, from Texas. He was a great guy.
AH: How did each mission start? What was said and done to prepare you for the mission?
Drinkwalter: We would be up by 4 a.m. and meet at 5:30. The colonel would speak, saying something like, “We think we got it worked out. We’re going to avoid some of the flak towers. Don’t worry too much. We’ll do our best to get you off. You’ve got a full load of gas, 3 1/2/ tons of bombs, 2,700 gallons of gas.” The weather officer is up next, and he says, “Well, fellas, there’s about a 50-50 cloud cover over the target right now, but hopefully by the time you get there it will be cleared.” He’s just guessing, he doesn’t know. Sounds good, anyway.
The next fellow’s the engineering officer: “Well, fellas, we’ve worked all night on those planes.” And really, the engineering fellows were very very good. Each plane was assigned, I don’t know, five or six men. They had been over the airplanes from one end to the other and back again. The engineering officer made a point of telling us “If you see smoke or flame around the propeller, don’t worry about it, ’cause there’s a fire wall in there. Chances are it will snuff itself out.” So OK, he seems to know that he’s talking about. “but,” he adds, “if you notice smoke on the trailing edge of the wing, you’ve got a problem, ’cause it’s bound to burn through the gas tanks in the wings.”
The gas tanks were rubberized and supposedly puncture-proof. They tried to give you clues as to what you might encounter at 27,000 feet. Taking off in the morning, we’d gather, and each plane would have an assignment, a certain place in the formation, so we would fly around a marker beacon just off the coast. We would circle, and it would take at least an hour to get everybody in place. Then we would start for the Continent. By the time I got overseas, France was already occupied [by Allied Forces], but the minute you got over Germany the flak would start up. The Germans would try to figure out where you were going. Of course, we would be sent in one direction and then come back toward our intended target. It was kind of a game. You just did the best you could.
AH: When and how were you shot down?
Drinkwalter: It was on our tenth, on January 2, 1945. We were flying to Frankfurt that day to hit the railroad yards. Incidentally, this was during the Battle of the Bulge. We had dropped out bombs when I felt the place shudder. The co-pilot looked out the right side of the place. An 88mm shell had passed through the wing without exploding. Without a word, my co-pilot was out of his seat and on his way to the emergency exit.
I waited an eternity, maybe 10 seconds, before I looked over at the wing. In my mind I thought, “What did he say?” trying to remember exactly what the engineering officer had said. I waited another eternity, which was probably 30 more seconds, then I called over the throat mikes to bail out. They could see it anyway – by that time there was a lot of smoke and we had lost an engine.
If you don’t have all four engines, you lose altitude, you can’t keep up with the group. Of course, you can’t expect the main part of the formation to stay with you. They have to keep on to the target. I thought about it another 20 seconds. Believe me, it was a short sequence of events in my life. By this time we’d lost altitude, and I remember glancing at the altimeter and noticing that we were at about 17,000 feet. So that’s 3 ¼ miles up anyway, and really, altitude is like money in the bank, the more of it you have, the more time you’ve got to figure it out.
At that level you can live without being on an oxygen mask. At 27,000 feet you have to be on oxygen. You’d be unconscious in two minutes without it. At 17,000 I didn’t worry about it. We did have carry-around bottles in the airplane, but I didn’t use them. We all wore a harnesslike affair. The straps were between your legs, with two great hooks on the front side. Underneath was your Mae West life preserver, in case you went down in the sea. Anyway, I went down in this little hatchway, and the door. see, when the co-pilot went out, he had pulled the emergency latch on it and the door had just dropped off.
That’s the way it is designed to operate. What you had to worry about was getting hung up, and that happened to countless fellas. They would panic and pull the ripcord before they were out of the plane, then ride it all the way in. But I didn’t have any problem. I sat down and looked down, and I could see a little village way down in the valley. This was about 12:30 p.m. It was nice, bright, sunny day. A good day for the beach, but here we were, sitting here, and the airplane was listing off to the right. So I plunged out headfirst.
AH: Did you have any thoughts of staying with the airplane?
Drinkwalter: After the war, I got an official review of the incident from the War Department. I knew I’d done the right thing. That’s the thing that worries you. You see, I wasn’t even 25 years old. You always wonder if you’ve done the right thing. We had been told countless times about planes being damaged and the crew bailing out, and the plane flying on until it ran out of fuel. After we bailed out, our plane blew up.
AH: What happened next?
Drinkwalter: I waited another eternity before I pulled the ripcord, which was probably 40 seconds. Incidentally, the last thing I had heard on the radio was, “Bandits in the area,” meaning that there were German fighters nearby. And, of course, they wouldn’t hesitate to shoot at you or shoot at your parachute. But I didn’t have any problems at all. Nobody shot at me. Finally, about five seconds after I pulled the cord, the chute blasted out. At that moment, when you’re in the air, there is no reference point. It was hard to tell if I was flying fast or drifting of what was happening, but I knew I was going down. At any rate, I ended up in a second-growth pine forest. We were pretty near the lines, and I was picked up by German infantry. They got me right away, fortunately.
AH: Why fortunately?
Drinkwalter: Some fellas were very unfortunate. They were picked up by German civilians, who would work them over with pitchforks and hammer handles and everything else. Oh, you couldn’t blame them. Here we were bombing their homes and villages one day, and 15 minutes later we’re on the ground. [Nazi Propaganda Minister] Josef Goebbels had ordered German police not to intervene.
AH: As a prisoner, where were you sent?
Drinkwalter: I was taken first to Frankfurt, to an interrogation center. I’ll never forget – the German corporal said to me, “For you duh war is over.” They put us in solitary confinement for two or three days. You know, you wondered, “Now, what are they going to do with me?” I’ve got to say this. The Germans were reasonably humane, whereas the Japanese, that was a different story. They didn’t work me over.
The food was terrible, and there was very little of it. Then I sat down with the corporal, and he gave me a long form to fill out. I did what I was told by the officer at our home base: I just put a big X through it. I gave him my name, rank and serial number. “Oh, this isn’t adequate,” he said. “You’ll be here a long time in solitary. You’ve got to give us more about your base, about your mission.”
You know, the German air force knew more about it than I did. Honestly, none of the fellas that flew with me, we were never cut in on the inside information by any means. The Germans had a very good intelligence service. Two or three days later they put me on a train with about 25 other guys, and we were taken way up to Stalag No.1, way up on the Baltic Sea. It was right across the strait from Danzig. There were 10,000 of us. Hubert Zemke was the officer in charge for us.
He had been a full colonel in charge of a group of fighter pilots called Zemke’s Wolfpack. I was in Compound No.3. We had guard towers around, with machine guns and huge searchlights. I never knew of a single attempt to break out. When we pulled into the freight yard up there, while we were being taken from Frankfurt up to the Stalag, about five German guards came out with five big police dogs. Jeez, they were big. The men had sidearms as well as rifles.
The head honcho of the group said: “Now look. This is no Boy Scout outing.” He spoke really good English. “Anyone of you found outside the camp will be shot.” Well, that doesn’t leave much to the imagination, Another thing about it, I have to be honest with you, one afternoon some guys found a spot in a back barrack and started digging. They got about four feet down and water came pouring in. We were so close to the Baltic Sea, and the water table was so high, we couldn’t dig. Also, we used to get a message from new men coming in. Major General Ira Eaker in London sent messages like: “Stay where you are. We’ll come and get you.” Everyone, including the Germans, knew the war was almost over by February 1945.
AH: What was life like in the camp?
Drinkwalter: You can imagine a prison camp, 24 to a room. We were so crowded everyone couldn’t stand at the same time. Half the guys would have to be on the bunks. The bunks were stacked three high. I was smart enough to get a high bunk, because I knew heat radiates up. Our heaters weren’t much good, but there were so many of us that it helped. Men on the lower bunks got [hit by] drops of sap from the pine slats of the bunks [above]. When we first moved in, they gave us some straw, but the straw was damp. The smell was awful. They also took our American shoes and issued us German shoes. Some English doctors figured out we were getting 800 calories a day. In five months I lost 30 pounds.
AH: What happened when you were liberated?
Drinkwalter: The war ended on May 7, but we weren’t released until May 12 or 14. There was an anti-aircraft training school nearby. Believe me, we ransacked it. You know, you have to give vent to your emotions some way. I acquired a real nice pair of German boots, obviously intended for an air force flier. The first afternoon they brought in some B-17s and took out 6,000 men. Boy, they were really organized. It was a huge place. There were tents as far as you could see. By this time of year it was warmer, so it wasn’t so bad. The wounded personnel had first priority to leave. We were told we might as well see Paris. We went to an office where we got $125 in French money that lasted all of two days. We got back to camp and were told we might as well go back to Paris. So we went back and got another $125. When we finally left Le Havre, what a grand, grand feeling. There were 5,000 of us on this French vessel. It took five days to cross the Atlantic to New York. I had a 60-day leave, and then they sent me to Miami Beach — rest camp, they called it. That’s one thing about the Army Air Forces, they did things up right. I was discharged in Wisconsin and returned to school under the G.I. Bill. I stayed in the reserves and retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Published with permission of PRIMEDIA Enthusiast Publications on behalf of Aviation History Magazine, May 2003.
Edward H. Hollingsworth is a high school teacher who writes from La Mesa, Calif. For additional reading, try: Flying Fortress, by Edward Jablonski; or The B-17: The Flying Fortress, by Martine Caidin.