Lowell Moore lay on his back, knees bent up near his ears. Two steel levers were gripped in each hand, cold against his palms, even through gloves. The world buzzed. Turbulence and the roar of the 1200 horsepower engines made his entire body vibrate.
Lowell pushed against the lever in his right hand and the man-sized ball he was hunched inside spun around.
Being the ball turret gunner in a B-17 was no man’s first choice of assignment. But when Lowell first met the pilot of Take It Easy, he knew what the officer was thinking. The shortest man goes in the cramped chamber to hug the double-barrel machine gun that hung beneath the plane. At 5’6″, Lowell got the short straw. Almost literally.
It was a terrifying duty for a boy just shy of 21 years old, but after four missions, he was starting to get used to it. The sub-zero temperatures; the hours spent breathing through his oxygen mask; the cramping in his muscles from sitting hunched in a fetal position. But none of that compared to the flutter in his stomach from flying unprotected above enemy territory, suspended in mid air.
As he looked out, a shake ran up his spine, an involuntary shiver. The heated suits the military provided rarely worked properly. Lowell resisted every natural urge to keep warm. He wanted to wiggle his fingers and toes…rub his hands together…anything to keep blood flowing. But each extremity was in use and on alert – his hands both gripped the joysticks that pivoted his ball and fired the deadly guns. One foot rested on a pedal that controlled the reflector sight, which hung suspended between his legs, and the other foot’s pedal ran his intercom – the only communication he had with his comrades back inside Take It Easy; the only thing that kept him from being truly alone at 27,000 feet.
It was always frigid at these elevations, especially in the ball turret, which had no insulation. But the last couple missions had been warmer than average, hovering only 10-20 degrees below zero; it made him soft. Lowell glanced at the improvised thermometer he had rigged on the glass. It read -41.
The one thing that made him feel less lonely in these long missions was the view. Lowell had only to look side to side to remind himself he wasn’t alone. The skies were filled with fellow allied planes, bombers and escorts both, all accompanying each other to their destination. Today, especially, they needed as many hands on deck as possible. This was no milk run. Today’s target: Berlin.
Truth was, even though he was a rookie, this wasn’t Lowell’s first raid on Berlin. Their crew had been part of a fleet that bombed the city once before, mere weeks ago, on his second-ever raid. That mission still chilled Lowell, and not just because it had been 40 below that day, too. Lowell’s first mission had failed; the plane had to turn around before reaching its target due to overcast conditions. American bombers don’t initiate unless they can see their target. So it was actually over Berlin – Mission Two – where his team dropped their first bomb. You don’t forget a first like that.
Now they were going back there, already. Hitting Hitler’s beloved capital city hard.
It’s astonishing how quickly a moment comes, how fast conditions change. One second everything was calm – noisy, of course, with the hum of a fleet of American planes – but somehow the air felt still as glass. Until a string of shots tapped through the air. His fellow-bombers just ahead opened fire, but Lowell couldn’t see their target. He lay alert on his back, guns next to his knees. His eyes darted back and forth, following the sparks from their tracer rounds. He swallowed hard to keep his breakfast down.
It didn’t take long for the German fighters to appear. First one row of them, then steadily more. Guns fired like popcorn. Lowell’s hands clutched the joysticks of his own guns like they were a lifeline. They were.
He pivoted his ball toward the approaching Nazi planes. Through the sight between his feet, Lowell marked an Me-109 Nazi fighter. He pressed the pedal at his left foot to adjust the sight and center the plane in his view. Too slow. By the time Lowell had aimed, the plane dropped altitude. Lowell tapped down the joysticks to re-position his ball and follow the Me’s location, but before he could re-aim, their ship’s fighter escort, a P-51 Mustang, appeared. He and the Me exchanged fire for only a moment before the Nazi plane lost part of its tail; Lowell watched the pilot bail out, his white parachute opening after several seconds. Before Lowell could so much as wave a grateful thank you, the Mustang veered left and looped out of sight.
As the fighting continued, Lowell watched several Nazi planes take hits – sometimes at the hands of B-17 gunners, other times the Mustang escorts. The escort near Lowell was especially skilled. Better than others he’d flown with. Lowell wanted to get assigned with him again.
Lowell kept shooting. Bullets fed into the gun so quickly, the barrel shook to a blur. Me-109s were thick in the sky. There had to be 50 at least.
Then, as quickly as they came, the Nazi planes dropped low and disappeared from the sky.
For a while, they flew through clear skies. But Lowell didn’t relax. He knew better. Then, up ahead, a puff of black smoke erupted like chalk dust. And another to his left. It was German flak, exploding shells that filled the air with shrapnel. The fleet took damage immediately. It was light at first. A few dents in the aircraft aluminum. But the flak kept coming.
Lowell grit his teeth and prepared himself. Flak was a regular occurrence. On their last mission, Take It Easy flew through four separate clouds of it, and only got hit once. A piece of shell casing tore a six in hole in her fuselage — her first ever battle damage. But it wasn’t always dangerous. The Nazis shot it from heavy anti-aircraft guns on the ground. The shells were slow, and the planes were high. The Nazi gunners had to guess at where the planes would be by the time their shells made to altitude. Sometimes they guessed wrong.
This wasn’t one of those times. This time, the flak was accurate. And dense.
A flak bomb exploded beneath Take It Easy. A few small pieces bounced off Lowell’s ball turret, but the worst of the shrapnel flew to his left, toward another B-17.
What happened next was like sitting alone in the front row of a horror movie. Lowell saw the debris make contact near the base of the plane’s right wing. Even over the engine noise, Lowell could hear the wing break off. Peeling metal sounds like a shrieking woman. The damaged plane was flung into a horizontal spin. Around and around. Like a top. Lowell watched intently, praying to see those buoyant white parachutes. Not one appeared. It wasn’t surprising. In a spin like that, centrifugal force would make it impossible for the crew to move, let alone jump.
He closed his eyes.
The fleet pressed on. The flak didn’t let up. Two more B-17s took back-to-back hits, these ones near the front of the group. Lowell counted parachutes. There were ten men in each crew. He counted eight chutes.
He stared through the glass, watching machines and men drop from the sky. Lowell had seen it before. But this many casualties…this was new. He turned the ball turret to keep his eyes on the descending wreckage — down and down. There was nothing he could do. At least with enemy fighters he could shoot back, distract himself from the reality of things. The knowledge that even if he survived, there would be more missions. Countless more.
In the flak fields, there was no distraction. He was helpless.
When the flak finally began to thin, then disappear altogether, Lowell took a deep breath. He reached for his oxygen mask to get some full breaths in. Only then did he remember that he was cold.
Soon they reached Berlin. Each crew dropped its bombs, then headed back to the base. They hit some Nazi resistance on the return ride, but nothing like before. As they got farther from Germany, the anxiety lessened. When they finally touched down, after a 10 hour trip, the Take It Easy miraculously had no battle damage.
That night, Lowell sat in his bunk and filled out his log book. He recorded all the necessary technical details – the temperature, duration, mileage, altitude, and weight of the bombs. Not given to grandiose description, he noted the things he had seen in spare, quick sentences, per usual. But today wasn’t usual. When he closed his eyes, he could still see his fellow airmen spinning dizzily toward death, pinned by a trick of gravity. So despite being a man of few words, he couldn’t help but scratch down a couple more for his fallen comrades: Poor Devils.