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Arnold Van Steenwyk

 

This story was brought forward by William Arnold's daughter, Nikkii Lynn Van Steenwyk

The Regensburg - Schweinfurt Africa Shuttle Mission
     Narrated by William Arnold van Steenwyk 94th Bomb Group

It was August 17,    1943 and the Photo Lab phone usually rang to inform us that we were to install our aerial cameras in the designated planes for the coming mission, this time however, it was Major Leonard on the line and he wanted me to come to the S-2 Office immediately.

The time was around midnight so I biked over to the Intelligence office and Major Leonard showed me orders that had come down from Division Headquarters...all Photo personnel who had aerial gunnery training were to be included in the roster of the coming mission.

 I was the N.C.O. in charge of the Photo Section and hadn't flown any missions as my primary duties were to run the photo lab designate the duty roster, work with the -photo officer and try and keep the guys happy. I had been the one N.C.O. in photo when the cadre was formed in Tucson, arriving there after graduating from gunnery school in Las Vegas so this opportunity, flying as an aerial photographer-gunner was going to be a new experience.

I had to hurriedly get checked out on the P.O.W. briefing and other last minute "must do" instructions. We were to bring toilet articles, winter flying gear, underwear, socks and mess kits and radio equipment, etc.

 Breakfast was to be at 1 a.m. A big topic of conversation was the "fresh eggs being served but the main conversation was trying to figure out where we were headed and for how long?

 At briefing we saw the ball of yarn on the map that dropped all the way down to the follor...where Africa would be and then the questions began. "Why are we going there?" "All the way without fighter support?" "What kind of target is so important?" and so on. And then briefing began.

 We learned that the target was Regensburg, Germany, a manufacturing plant for the ME-109. We were told that this plan furnished over 30% of all the Luftwafe Messerschmidts, and if we could knock it out we could significantly cut down the fighter action. After bombing we were to proceed to North Africa by way of Austria, Brenner Pass, Italy, Corsica, Sicily, flying over the Mediterranean and then landing on the northern African coast.

The plan was this. Our group the Regensburg flight was the 4th combat wing, consisting of 7 Bomb Groups. The Schweinfurt flight, called the first wing, with 12 Bomb Groups .

 The first wing would leave the English coast about in the same time frame as the 4th wing, both wings would converge around Leige, Germany, fly as one huge task force and then the first wing would make a 90 degree left turn and head up to their target Schweinfurt and the 4th wing would continue to fly south towards our target, Regensburg.

 The planners of this mission figured that this would confuse the Germans and it would split their fighter forces. Now we come to the element that could foul up the whole mission -and it did - the weather!

 Take of time had been scheduled for 5:50 a.m. Parts of England were clear but EVERY B-17 Base was covered by cloud cover, so the waiting began. At 6:40 there was some improvement at Bury St. Edmunds but not much.

 Finally, it was decided that if this section of the plan was to land in Africa, it would have to take of soon or it would be dificult to land in a strange environment without the use of daylight.

 The First Division could not take off but Col. Le May with his constant practice missions and instrument training for his pilots could get his men airborne,. The Schweinfurt Force was socked in and it would be hours before they could take off so the surprise element of the mission was ruined and the Fourth Division would have the entire Luftwafe on their backs all the way to Italy were there was supposedly another small force waiting.

We were driven to our designated planes. I was scheduled to fly with a ship called "Dear Mom" with Lt. Nayovitx and Lt. Jack Smith as co-pilot. This ship had been installed with our one (and only) k-17 camera which took a 12x12 with good definition.

As I was getting set up in the radio room, getting my gear hooked up and checking out the camera, I was informed that they didn't have enough oxygen for an "extra man". So I had to leave and find another camera ship near by and it turned out to be "Little Minnie II" being flown by Lt. Sweeley a 332nd pilot.

They welcomed me aboard with no problems. This ship was also equipped with a camera but a much smaller version taking a picture about 5x7. I got all of my gear settled down in the radio room. The aerial camera was mounted in a well underneath a trap door in the fore part of the room.

Take off time was finally set for 7:30. We broke through the overcast at around a thousand feet and started the long slow process of climbing and forming into the proper elements for the beginning of the mission over the English Channel.

This being my first mission everything was exciting and new and we crossed the Channel with no problem and then about ten minutes inside the European coast the Germans hit with their force of about 100 fighters. As we neared Antwerp a couple of B-17's headed home with enemy fighters chasing them.

 I looked througt-cjhe radio room window and saw Lt. Smith in "Dear Mom" tucked in closely to our left. We waved to each other and shortly ater that Lt. Sweeley swerved upwards to our left with evasive action.

 I fell over the radio desk and frantically checked to see if I was still plugged in with oxygen, radio and heated suit and then when things settled back down I looked out of the window again. It was "Dear Mom" on fire pulling out of formation to the left with a direct hit to the cockpit area.

 There was a big explosion, where the tail section separated and pieces were scattered all over the sky. Lt. Nayovitz, Lt Smith and the other two oficers and both turret gunners were killed from the burst of cannon fire. T/Sgt. A McDonnell, the radio operator was badly injured and was blown out of the plane. He managed to land but was severely injured and was taken prisoner.

 S/Sgt. B.C. Geyer escaped after the plane broke in two. He avoided capture and was returned to the 94th, received the DFC, and later a cluster for evading capture. He was a crack shot, shooting down 3 enemy planes in his first 10 missions. Well, hey now - we are just over Belgium, the plane I'm supposed to be in has been shot down in flames, we still have at least another 7 hours to go and at this point I'm not too sure about my future.

 We didn't have any let cover now and looking back I could see the groups behind us really taking a beating. I could see other B-17's on fire, pulling out of formation, some trailing smoke and still trying to hang in with their crippled condition.

 Through all this I failed to see any P-47's that were supposed to have flying with us but my vantage point wasn't the greatest in the radio room. The 94th, with it's good tight formation flying discouraged a lot of enemy fighters. They were going ater the groups ahead of us and behind us.

 Looking up ahead I could see another B-17 on fire . I checked my watch and it was now around 11a.m. I could see about 15 fighters lining up for a pass at the guys directly behind us and about 10 minutes later looking back I could see three B-17's on fire.

 We had another hour to go before reaching the target area and it was without a doubt the longest hour I have ever lived through. As we neared the target area with Col. Le May leading the Division and Col. Moore and Col. Castle also leading their respective units I opened up the camera bay doors.

 Flak had damaged on of the doors and I had a problem with it. As I looked down through the camera well, I could see the target area. The previous elements of the formation had clobbered the target very extensively and the last unit before us had dropped incendiaries so the entire area was covered with smoke. It had been mentioned at briefing that if the target area was abscured when we approached, perhaps a second run should be made.  

The lead bombardier couldn't find an opening and so the 94th made another run. Hey there was a lot of grumbling and swearing going on in a lot of planes that instant but we made another pass, dropping the bombs dead center in the middle of the smoked area.

Later recon photos showed that they were very effective. About now I was lying on my stomach in the radio room one hand on my intervolometer taking pictures as the bombs were released and following them into the target trying to get as many shots as I could of the group's bombs going in.  

At this time the ball turret pulled around to the front and fired a burst of shots directly underneath me. The vibration that bounced up on me felt like I had
been hit and when I wiped my faced with my gloved hand, which was a brown leather glove I looked and saw something wet...and with a good imagination and panic playing its role, I assumed that it was blood.

 I kept on taking pictures, waiting for some sort of pain to set in and again wiped my face with the same results! Finally I figured out that the moisture was from condensation from my oxygen mask. What a scare.  

Now, being relieved I closed the camera doors and hatch and looked out of the windows and noted that we were having a field day in aircraft recognition. There were ME-110's, ME-210"s, ME- 109's, an FW-190's and in the distance a JU-88 was lobbing cannon shells into the formation.

 The two engine fighters were also involved. They'd climb up and then come in on either side of the unit- one of them must have made a direct pass through because one minute I was standing looking out of the window taking pictures with my K-20 camera and the next minute I was on the floor. Lt. Sweeley made a dive during avasive action that upended me. He probably saved his ship with this action...he was a GREAT pilot.

 After evading fighters all the way to the Alps, the forward unit of the wing circled a lake waiting for stragglers to catch up (I think it was called Lake Garda.) and we were some of the stragglers.  

After the planes were all in a tight formation again, ready to take on a new grow up of fighters that were supposed to be in the area but never showed up, we headed out over the Brenner Pass, down over Italy, Sardinia, Scicily and over the Mediterranean. We still had nearly five hours of flying time left to go and more than 900 miles of enemy land and sea to cover before reaching the coast of North Africa.

We saw five B-17s ditch in the sea. By the time we reached Africa there were 24 B-17s missing out of the 146 dispatched and 122 over the target. Of the 230 B-17s sent to Schweinfurt, 184 bombed the primary target, 36 planes were missing. A total of 60 B-17s and their crews were either missing or killed in action.

After flying lower and lower and getting shorter and shorter on gas, we finally landed at a levelled off piece of land at Bertoux. After living through eleven and a half hours of pure terror for this GI, and six hours on oxygen, I could literally kiss that sandy, muddy African soil when we landed.  

After checking out my cameras, we had chow using our mess kits. The bread was terrific, unlike the English French style bread, this was sot and white, not unlike angel food cake - Spam and pickles and white bread, with canned fruit Cocktail on the side - after 11 hours it was feast! We were served by Italian POWs who were happy to be "out" of the war.  

After I took care of cameras, and met up with the other Group Photo guys. I got back to "Little Minnie II" around 2:00 am. The guys were sleeping on the wing and inside the plane. I was lucky to be able to sleep in the radio room. During the night some ground crews came around and pumped some gas from 50 gallons drums using hands pumps - giving us just enough to get to our next destination, the Telergma Depot.

We had the same chow for breakfast as we had the night before. The bread was still delicious. Later a chow truck came around with something more substantial, but I filled up more bread and beans (I skipped the sardine-onion-salad fare). The lima beans were great.

 

We had many little Arab visitors, and when I took the pictures of the entire

group in front of one of the B-17s on Sunday, a lot of them were included in the photo. They were good little guys but had to be watched.  

We had a little shower the next day, a muddy, sandy mixture, but everything soon dried of again and we continued on the trip to Telergma. Now the work began, cleaning guns, loading up gas with hand pumps, loading bombs, and preparing the planes for the return bombing trip home.

 Some of us visited the nearby village, others went to Constantine.

A truck was provided for a swimming party in some filthy, dirty muddy river. I took some motion pictures and still shots of this great event. By this time a lot of us were already victims of dysentery. I lost several pounds the week we were there. We also had a nice supply of watermelons, which we were eating when the sand storm arrived.

At Telergma we were furnished cots so we could sleep under the plane and wings, and someone lowered the flaps on "Little Minnie II" so that we could have a little more shade in the morning.

The morning we were preparing our planes for the return trip home, the flaps were going to be reset to their original position. Apparently the wrong lever was engaged and the landing gear collapsed. The plane broke its back over the ball turret, and it was impossible to move, so it was stripped of all of its good equipment for planes in need, and by morning it was a skeleton.

 Ater I took care of cameras, and met up with the other Group Photo guys. I got back to "Little Minnie II" around 2:00 am. The guys were sleeping on the wing and inside the plane. I was lucky to be able to sleep in the radio room. During the night some ground crews came around and pumped some gas from 50 gallons drums using hands pumps - giving us just enough to get to our next destination, the Telergma Depot.

We had the same chow for breakfast as we had the night before. The bread was still delicious. Later a chow truck came around with something more substantial, but I filled up more bread and beans (I skipped the sardine-onion-salad fare). The lima beans were great.

We had many little Arab visitors, and when I took the pictures of the entire group in front of one of the B-17s on Sunday, a lot of them were included in the photo. They were good little guys but had to be watched.

 We had a little shower the next day, a muddy, sandy mixture, but everything soon dried of again and we continued on the trip to Telergma. Now the work began, cleaning guns, loading up gas with hand pumps, loading bombs, and preparing the planes for the return bombing trip home.

 Some of us visited the nearby village, others went to Constantine.

 A truck was provided for a swimming party in some filthy, dirty muddy river. I took some motion pictures and still shots of this great event. By this time a lot of us were already victims of dysentery. I lost several pounds the week we were there. We also had a nice supply of watermelons, which we were eating when the sand storm arrived.

Most of Sweeley's crew ("Little Minnie II") were sent to Marrakech to await trans-portation home. I went back to Bury St. Edmunds with Capt. Kirk's crew on the "Shackeroo", who ended up leading the flight after the wing leader had to abort.

 William Arnold van Steenwyk died in September 2001.

 

This story was brought forward by William Arnold's daughter, Nikkii Lynn van Steenwyk.

 

 "The Lucky Ones - 8h Air Force Airmen" © 2002 Erik Dyreborg All Rights Reserved.