Monday, September 17, 2007
The ‘flying mechanic’ (MNA Aug. 07)
By CEAN BURGESON
“Many times I feel that the Almighty had his hand around my shoulder, or I wouldn’t be here,” says Carl Carlstrom, who served as a flight engineer aboard a B-17(G) Flying Fortress over the skies of Europe during the second world war.
As an enlistee in the Army Air Corps at the age of 19 in 1942, Carlstrom said “that’s what I wanted — I wanted to fly.”
He had no idea that this choice would eventually find him 30,000 feet in the air, amid 1,000 pound bombs — one of them “hot” or armed — while he manually cranked open the airship’s malfunctioning bomb bay doors.
“I had gone back through the ship to check everything over, and went back through the bomb bay. There was an air leak in the bomb bay, and one of the propellors (on the bomb) had backed itself off. I immediately got back to the flight deck and called the pilot and bombardier and said, ‘we’ve got a hot one aboard.’ If nobody touches it, everything’s okay, if anyone touches that fuse, it’s bye-bye blackbird,” said Carlstrom.
“We hit the IP, that’s the initial point where you begin your bomb run, and the bombardier called and said, ‘bomb bay doors coming open.’ I said bomb bay? They’re not opening. He said, ‘the indicators say they’re open.’ I told him, ‘I don’t give a so-and-so what the indicator says, they’re not opening. I’ll have to get out and crank ‘em open.’”
So, Carlstrom stood, one foot on either side of the slowly opening bomb bay doors, the bombs behind him, a hot fuse less than two feet from his back, while he cranked open the doors by hand — with nothing but clouds between him and the ground, 30,000 feet below.
“All I could think is that if the ship lunges and I come back and hit that fuse, we’re all history.”
Carlstrom, nicknamed “Swede” by his fellow crewmembers, performed this death defying feat without a parachute — he was too big to fit into the cramped space while wearing one — and with a thick carpet of enemy flak blanketing the skies around him. He described what the flak was like at times.
“Going over Vienna, that was one of the toughest targets in Europe, Vienna had 1,100 and some odd 88’s settin’ there, and they could bring them all to bear at one time. They put up a wall of flak that looked like you could walk on it. You’d see that formation in front of you going into that wall of flak and you’d know that’s where you’re going — because you gotta get through there to drop those eggs.”
The flak wasn’t the only problem to contend with as Carlstrom labored with the malfunctioning bomb doors.
“So the bombardier called ‘bombs away’ and he said ‘bomb bay doors coming closed.’ I looked back and said, ‘they’re not coming closed.’ So, I got back out there and started cranking them shut, and I felt something hit my arm. I paid no attention and kept cranking, and something else hit me again. I turned and looked back and the radio operator was throwing spent 50 caliber brass at me and motioning for me to get back.”
While Carlstrom labored to close the doors, he had expelled hot breath from the discharge port of his oxygen mask. Mixed with the cold, thin air at bombing altitude, a beard of hoar frost had formed on Carlstrom from his chin to his waist. “The radio operator was afraid I was freezing up. The average temperature at that altitude is 70-80 degrees below zero,” explained Carlstrom.
Once the doors were cranked shut, and he returned to his station on the flight deck, the crew of the B-17 still wasn’t in the clear. “I looked, and four of the (oxygen) indicators had dropped to zero. I called the pilot and said, ‘Hirsch, you and I are the only two that have got oxygen, we just took a hit in the junction box.”
The crew now concentrated on getting back home alive and in one piece.
“Once the bomb run was over, the pilot would say, ‘we’re done working for Uncle Sam, now we’re working for ourselves.’ So he dropped down to 17,000, where you can live a long time without any oxygen. We had no more than leveled off, than our gunner called, ‘two unidentified fighters at nine o’clock.’”
Besides being briefed that there would be heavy flak on the mission, his air group — the 15th Air Force, 301st Bomb Group, 352nd Bomb Squadron — had been told there would be heavy fighter opposition. “I picked up the glasses off the flight deck and looked out, and said, ‘well fellas, its a couple of P-51’s, but keep your eyes on ‘em.’
Carlstrom knew that the Germans had taken Allied planes which had been forced down, rebuilt them, and used them to sneak into formations and shoot down bombers before. To their relief, this time, the P-51’s were friendlies who had heard about the B-17’s problems and came to escort her home.
“It’s a wonderful feeling when those ‘little friends’ come out to help you,” said Carlstrom.
He was recommended for the distinguished flying cross (DFC) for his efforts that day.
“You’re a flying mechanic, you do what maintenance you can in flight,” said Carlstrom. “You’re responsible for the welfare of that airplane.”
More than 60 years later, Carlstrom can still tell you how many gallons of fuel or oil the old girl took, how many RPM’s (revolutions per minute) the props would spin up to on take-off and in flight, and what the mercury readings, or atmospheric pressure was on the aircraft during different portions of the flight. “When you’ve done something 1,000 times, you remember it,” he says.
Some of the targets his group bombed were in Vienna, as well as other Austrian targets, and some in Hungary, Checkoslavakia, Yugoslavia, northern Italy, and southern France. Over the course of 16 official missions aboard the “Miss Enid” and other B-17’s, the flight engineer worked to hold his aircraft together while bombing targets such as bridges, airfields, aircraft factories, ball bearing factories, and refineries.
Out of all those missions, living in tents and taking off from pre-fab airstrips in Foggia, Italy, Carlstrom only had an ominous feeling about one.
“I got up in the morning with the feeling I didn’t want to fly, there was something wrong,” he says. “It’s the only time it ever happened. We were going to hit a railroad bridge in Austria, and we got up a little over 10,000 feet, and one by one, three of our turbos — thats our superchargers — started to malfunction, so we had three engines that weren’t puttin’ out what they should.”
They fell out of formation in an attempt to jettison their bombs in the snow-covered Alps, but decided to keep their payload and continue, since they were only 45 minutes away from their bombing run.
“By then we were a mile behind the formation,” Carlstrom says. ”And we had been briefed on heavy fighters and flak. On that mission we didn’t have a bombardier, we had a togglier aboard. And that togglier was good. He laid five of ‘em right right down the length of that bridge — five 1,000 pounders.”
“We were also camera ship that day, so we got a good picture of where those bombs hit.” Coming in alone, and after the rest of the formation had already made their bomb run, Carlstrom’s plane didn’t have the protection of the rest of the air group or any fighter escort.
“The rest of the formation got the devil shot out of them, and we never saw one puff of flak, because as soon as the formation was gone, the gunners packed up and went home. We were so far behind, we had no opposition. They hit it — but they didn’t get the hits that we did.”
“Being camera ship, just before we hit the Adriatic Sea, we broke formation and started dogging it for home to get those films in. A couple of 38’s (P-38’s) came in to follow us in. They had been hearing about our problems. All of the sudden they rolled, and I could see a freight train. They strafed that train, and here and there another car would blow up. When they got to the engine, it was one big puff of steam — and that’s all she wrote. Twenty minutes later they were sitting back up on our wing, giving us the sign — scratch one freight train.”
Years later, someone asked Carlstrom, “weren’t you worried?”
“Don’t pay to worry,” said Carlstrom. “Either they’re gonna get you or they’re not. We had ships come back with their whole vertical stabilizer shot away, so they had no rudder and the pilot was steering with his engines. They were a rough airplane — they took an awful lot of punishment. We came back one day with 200 and some odd holes in one ship, and not a man scratched.”
His survival against unfavorable odds is why Carlstrom, now 85-years-old, feels he had the arm of the Almighty around his shoulder, and why he is so modest about his time in the service.
“Some say we’re heroes, but I say ‘no.’ We were just a bunch of highly trained kids trying to get a job done and trying to stay alive doing it.”