Over Exposure was a sturdy old bird, and she had a lucky crew, unscathed through eighteen missions over Germany. On today’s mission however, it seemed as if every German gunner was intent on ruining that streak of good luck as unrelenting flak exploded around the plane while it made its final approach to the heavily defended marshalling yards near Karlsruhe. Lieutenant “Freddie” Forshay had just made the final turn along with the rest of the B-24’s from the 577th Squadron of the 392nd Bomb Group.
It took steady nerves and a willful determination not to yank the controls back from the bombsight-interfaced autopilot as the bomber sheared its way through the barrage of exploding bits of rock and metal. No one in the crew ever got used to it. They just held on for dear life, as they had done so many times before even while watching other ships take direct hits and plunge from the clouds to the oddly and randomly shaped fields spread out far below.
Maddy Schweitzer often wondered what it would be like to fall from the sky, plane parts and other crew members falling with him, returning the hard way to his parent’s homeland. A year older than Fred, he’d grown up in the Bronx as Meinhard Schweitzer but none of the neighborhood kids liked saying his name so they simply called him Maddy. When the country was drawn into war, he insisted on using the nickname instead of his German-sounding given name. As the Over Exposure co-pilot his idle thoughts rarely lasted more than a moment, and in this particular moment he yelled over to Freddie to put on his damned helmet.
Freddie Forshay sported a clipped moustache that framed a bright smile and he had a confidence that was infectious; thoroughly unexpected from a young, twenty-two-year-old pilot. They were all young, some as young as eighteen, and the old man of the crew, Gus Fletcher was just thirty-one.
Gus was the flight engineer, and a good one, who kept an eye on all the instruments and made patchwork, in-flight repairs the best he could to keep the heavy bird in the air as it suffered through puffs of German flak and bullets from marauding German ME-109s and FW-190 fighters. He was an avid photographer and camera collector, the proud owner of an Argus C3 “brick” camera. In fact, the aircraft name Over Exposure came from Gus, with artwork featuring an exposed female hiding behind a film strip. The name also reflected the crew’s feelings about being exposed to flak and fighters.
Since there were no fighters over the target area today and none likely, Freddie exercised his discretion as commander and called the ball turret gunner up from his squatting position in the glass-encased turret hanging below the lumbering B-24. No need to directly expose Gene to more flak than necessary. Gene Jordan was a tough little SOB, and in spite of his short stature and young age had a strict policy of not taking shit from anyone, officer or enlisted. He scrambled along the narrow catwalk in the bomb bay and with nothing to do other than call out oxygen checks, Gene plopped down next to Technical Sergeant Withers, the radio operator. Why not put some equipment between the flak bursts and the flesh and besides, he could certify the bomb drop from here just as easily as from his turret.
Freddie eschewed wearing the leather helmet, figuring the rather thin layer of material between his head and any stray bullets or flak fragments would do no good anyway. He didn’t sweat the flak much; if it was going to kill him, so be it. He’d already become tough as nails years earlier at the heel and belt of his father.
Growing up in little Georgetown Connecticut, Fred Forshay was the oldest of eight children, born to a scowling French father and winsome Finnish mother, both immigrants as young children, settling in Connecticut after briefly living in Brooklyn. They met and married young, and Fred was their first child, born in the spring of 1922 on a warm, sunny day.
Jack Forshay was mostly uneducated, a plumber by trade and a master disciplinarian, especially to his oldest son. By the second generation, ushered in with the birth of Fred, the Faucheux name, Americanized to Forshay at Ellis Island back in 1903, was already lost to history. Young Jacques Faucheux had become Jack Forshay by the pen of a surly immigration clerk. It mattered not to Fred who was not a rebellious sort but he didn’t have to be – his father found fault in him for the slightest reason, and took out his own demons on Fred almost daily at the end of a belt strap.
Fathering eight children, Jack found it impossible to make ends meet on his salary and so after attending nearby Henry Abbott Technical High School for only a couple of years, Fred was forced to quit school and became a laborer to help pay some family bills.
An excellent student, it was an indignity that burned deeper and hurt more than any physical punishment his odious father ever dispensed. However, Fred rose to the need, mindful of his seven siblings who needed food and clothing. He worked long and hard to supplement the family income, concealing a smirk as he thought about his father who was unable or maybe unwilling to fully provide for his family through his efforts alone.
With that toughness embedded, Freddie was not as interested in protecting his noggin as “Mother” – Fred’s endearing term for Maddy, but he relented to his co-pilot’s whining voice and doffed his uniform cap, replacing it with the tight-fitting leather helmet.
Anti-aircraft fire was moderate but accurate on the bomb run and almost immediately, flak exploded quite near and slightly above the left wing of the plane, shooting hot metal shards in all directions, including towards the cockpit of Over Exposure. The sound was instantaneous with the burst, and to his horror, Maddy saw Fred’s head snap to the right. He thought the worst.
It was like being smacked with a ball-peen hammer, Fred recalled, thinking about the piece of hot metal that struck a glancing blow to his helmeted head and bounced to the cockpit deck. It was painful and it nearly knocked him unconscious, but he’d felt the same if not worse at the end of his father’s belt.
“Jordan, get up here with the first aid kit – now!” Maddy shouted over the interphone. Gene grabbed the kit and lurched the few feet forward and up to the cockpit, but Lieutenant Fred was already shaking it off and there was no blood. The sergeant eyed the horrified face of the co-pilot while Freddie tried to overcome the sharp pain. The young sergeant picked up an acorn-sized piece of metal from the deck with his gloved hand.
“Here’s a souvenir for you, Captain!” Gene referred to his Lieutenant as “Captain” as in the captain of a ship. Fred managed a half-smile through the intense pain and reached back with his right hand, pointing to a small gap between the tubular frame and the back of the pilot’s seat. Gene tucked the still-hot metal in its place for safe-keeping.
“I think you saved my life, Mother.” Fred eventually smiled weakly as the flak continued to explode around them. Maddy just shook his head slowly, back and forth, relieved that his pilot and friend was still with him.
The twenty bombers in the attack group dropped two hundred twenty-four bombs through the overcast sky, ostensibly on target, but results were barely visible through the cloud cover. Returning to Wendling, the nine-hour mission was a tough one with seven B-24’s seriously damaged by flak resulting in the need for nine engine changes.
Fred, Maddy and navigator George Feinstein along with bombardier Robert Roberts headed off to their small Quonset hut to rack out, the pain in Freddie’s head still throbbing, but not enough to warrant a visit to the infirmary. Maddy would have insisted on it, but he knew Fred would rather bunk with the cooks than see an Army doctor.
The little hut, also known locally as a Nissen hut housed the four officers of Over Exposure in what can only be called basic living conditions. The hut mostly kept them dry and a small wood stove offered some meagre warmth. For sport, and much to the displeasure of their commanding officer, the officers would fire their sidearms at the rats who routinely invaded their space. The hut offered a bed to sleep in, something that could not be said for the dog-faces pounding through the hedgerows a few hundred miles away in France.
Fred tossed his flight log into his foot locker along with the little metal souvenir from today’s mission. He vowed to carry that hunk of shrapnel as a reminder of the day he was nearly killed, if indeed he survived the next few missions at all. In fact, the lucky shrapnel piece rode with Fred the next ten missions or so as he and the crew continued their streak of good luck, even as Over Exposure received more damage from flak and fighters as the missions piled up, summer into fall.
Getting his hands on a Norden bombsight was of the utmost priority for General Rostislav Kaminsky and of course for Josef Stalin. With it, the Soviets could readily copy the technology and build up their own deadly bomber force for the remaining and future war ahead. Little did he know the Americans would virtually hand it to him on a silver platter.
Oberleutnant Adolf Schuck flew cover while his unscathed jet fighters landed at Achmer, each pilot hastening his approach, knowing that he could be blown apart at any minute during the vulnerable landing. Approaching from behind Schuck’s ME-262, Captain Howard Stanley of the U.S. Army Air Corps prepared to register his fifth kill in a month of duty. He’d be an ace, with a jet kill no less, if he could only get a few seconds of quality shooting behind the circling Messerschmitt.
Fred thought about the risky mission he’d been briefed on. Although he wasn’t told much at this point, he’d have to lead his plane and crew along with his unknown precious cargo, all alone after faking a crash during a regular mission, past Germany to some far-flung airfield in Ukraine. That’s where the Russians were. What the hell?