This story was submitted by the grandson of Roger Kanten and written by a family member. We were happy to be able to share his story so more people can see what a brave guy he was. Roger was a ”heavy bomber” pilot over Europe in 1944.
“Back in the early months of 1942, there was a shortage of aviators. That’s why I joined the Army Air Force. My classmates and I knew that if we didn’t aspire to complete the pilot training program, then who would?” I’m sure that Roger Kanten never realized that that was one of the most patriotic statements an individual could make.
In June of 1942, Roger began flight training at San Antonio, Texas. As each phase of training was completed, Roger graduated to the next class location. These were held in Texas at San Angelo, Lubbock, Fort Worth, and finally on to New Mexico at the Alamogordo base. Along with the pilot training, the cadets also learned meteorology, navigation, formation and pattern bombing, air-to-ground and air-to-air gunnery. A four year flight program had to be accomplished in only 11 months.
The Army Air Force had three types of bomber aircraft. The light, medium, and heavy. Roger graduated as a heavy bomber pilot, planes designed with four engines and longer range. Most common in this group were the B-24, B-17, and the B-29 produced later in the war and used exclusively in the Pacific. Roger was teamed up with his flight crew while still in the States. These individuals included gunners, a bombardier, copilot, flight engineer, radio man, and navigator. A total of 10 men were required for each heavy bomber.
In the spring of 1944, Roger and his crew were assigned to the 15th Air Force based in central Italy. From that point, the bombers could strike anyplace in Europe. Germany has few natural resources of its own. The Axis war machine relied on the neighboring countries it occupied for materials such as iron, copper, and oil. The objective of the 15th Air Force, combined with the strength of the 8th Air Force based in England, was to knock out the production and transportation of these materials as well as bomb the factories and manufacturing plants that supplied Germany’s military.
One of the targets singled out by U.S. Bomber Command was the German occupied oil fields at Ploesti, (Play-estay) Romania. Germany received about one third of all its oil from this location. Ploesti was actually many oil wells and refineries covering about 40 square miles. The U.S. Air Force had conducted less than successful bombing raids in 1943. By 1944, the Germans had fortified Ploesti with ample anti-aircraft guns and airstrips for launching swarms of German fighter planes. U.S. Bomber Command realized the only way to stop the flow of oil was to hit Ploesti with massive bombing attacks as many times as necessary until the job was done. “We were there to put the Germans out of the oil business.” Roger said. Throughout the spring and summer of 1944, Roger flew 51 bombing missions. Eleven of these were over Ploesti.
From here, Roger continues his story.
“I flew B-24s during my four engine flight training in Texas. That was the only time. In Europe I flew B-17s, which I preferred by far. The ’17 was a real life saver. The major fault of the B-24 was its air foil. The wing design was one known as the ‘Davis Wing’. It provided a lot of lift and a plane could carry more weight. But that was at lower altitudes where the air has more density. As the war progressed, we had to fly at higher altitudes so that anti-aircraft fire on the ground would lose a greater degree of accuracy. Up there, the Davis Wing design was less stable. Bombers flew in tight groups as protection against enemy fighters. The B-24 groups had to spread out, keeping a fair distance from one another to allow for the instability of the craft. Invariably, if we were jumped by enemy fighters they would go for the loose bomber formations because those planes couldn’t concentrate their firepower as well for defense. I saw time and again the German fighters work over the ’24s until they were chopped up so bad they couldn’t stay in the air anymore.
“The most damage my B-17 suffered was on a raid to the Ploesti oil fields. Ours was one of some 220 bombers that day. My ’17 was on the receiving end of a head on attack from a German Messerschmitt 109. We knew there was an element of 109s in the air waiting for us that day. After we unloaded our bombs, I followed the preflight instructions to turn right. When I did this, I was looking into the sun. During the course of the turn I happened to see a flash up near the sun. I knew what that was. I pushed the right rudder pedal as hard as I could and called the navigator to train his machine gun up towards the sun. The rudder maneuver skidded the airplane to the right As soon as that happened a burst of 20 millimeter shells zipped through our left wing. You see, a 109 was hiding with the sun at his back. He had the cockpit, and me in his sights. The flash I saw was him firing. I was lucky enough to be able to get out of the way. The shells turned our left wing fuel tank into scrap iron, but the tank had been emptied from the trip over and there was no fire. My plane was not attacked again and we flew home with no problems.
“The B-17 was designed to take an incredible amount of punishment and still bring you home. Certainly, many were shot down. But a very large number also returned with so much damage, you’d think they had no business being in the sky. A pilot in my squadron had all his manual controls busted up by enemy fire, but the auto-pilot was still serviceable. He flew all the way back to base using the outboard engines to control direction. Unfortunately, he had no control of his landing flaps. To get down he flew low over the runway and cut the engines. The plane flopped down like a pancake and the tail broke off. No one was hurt in the incident.
“Throughout my tour, my plane always came back with all four engines operating properly. The ground crews were always confident I would return every time I went up. Those bomber engines were pretty high tech items then. They used recently developed superchargers that were constantly being refined as performance problems were discovered. We had newly developed propellers too that were a variable pitch type, also subject to performance problems. But everything in my plane always worked perfectly. One time, our squadron was ordered to transfer to a new base in France. The ground crews and mechanics loaded all their tools and equipment into the bombers for the move. Before starting up the engines I walked through my plane as part of the preflight inspection. I saw that it was loaded up with nothing but beer. I learned later that the ground crews had voted my plane most likely to reach its destination.
“All of our bombing was from high altitude. Bombing wasn’t as accurate up high, but it was safer. Anti-aircraft guns firing from the ground weren’t as effective that way. My only low level mission was a secondary target, a German submarine pen on the west coast of France. The primary target was socked in by weather. On that low level attack, our bombers lined up end to end and we bombed in what was termed a “trail pattern”. My bombardier claimed he zeroed in and dropped on a surfaced submarine trying to run for open water. I don’t know if we actually hit it though. I never saw any of our bombs hit. A pilot can’t see directly below or behind without hanging his head out the window, and that would be impossible.
“Bombing for me was an impersonal thing. I only saw cities and factories. I never saw people on the ground. On the other hand, those people on the ground answered our bombs with anti-aircraft and flak guns. I saw a lot of flak. It began just before, or right after we started our final bomb run. It scared the hell out of me the first few times I saw it. Flak shells would be exploding in an area just ahead of us so that we would have to fly through it. The enemy could gauge our altitude and set their shells to explode at that height. The explosions left a small black oily cloud in the sky. I quickly learned that the flak wasn’t as effective as it looked. Of course, a direct hit was fatal, and I saw many planes go down. However, my ’17 never got any closer than 100 to 150 feet from an exploding shell. At that distance, the effect of the shell was already spent. The shells carried shrapnel fragments, each about the size of two fingers. Sometimes the shrapnel would break glass, or we’d find it stuck in the (aluminum) skin of the plane after we got back to base, but nothing more serious than that.
“I got shot up a few times, but never shot down. There was one mission where we were flying into Czechoslovakia. It was July 21, 1944. On that mission we carried four green gunners to give ’em some combat experience. That day there were two layers of cloud with a couple thousand feet of clear sky in between. We were flying in the clear sky. On the way to the target, the waist gunner and the tail gunner, both green, called out we had friendly fighters escorting at 5:00 (A position location). They said they were P-38s. As we got closer to the target we dropped down through the cloud layer to see the drop zone. As soon as we did that, those friendly escorts also came down and began firing at us. We had been caught by surprise. I saw two planes in my squadron, and two planes in the lead squadron go down. My ’17 received a few hits. Those escorts weren’t P-38s, they were German JU-88s. That was a very costly lesson in aircraft identification.
“After I completed my 51 missions, I was transferred back to the States to be a B-17 instructor and train new pilots. I had a cadet in the pilot seat once while I sat in as copilot. I instructed him to first make a 20 degree left bank followed by a 20 degree right bank. There was a breakdown with his understanding, and in a moment the 20 degree left bank was becoming a 40 degree bank. Something a plane that large can’t do. The plane fell off on its left wing and began rolling over. I took the controls and allowed the plane to complete the roll-over, then brought it back to normal flying attitude. I never heard of anyone rolling a B-17 before. It was designed to fly straight and level and carry a lot of weight, not to perform violent maneuvers. During our roll-over we lost 5,000 feet of altitude, but the plane held together just fine.
“The B-17 was over built and very durable. It was also very forgiving at the controls. In combat, I flew my ’17 with holes in it, pieces missing, and the wind rushing through the fuselage. And it always brought us home.”