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S/Sgt Doane Ervin
720th Squadron

Doane Ervin was was a Tail Gunner on Sleepytime Gal, shot down on 29th December 1944 on a mission to The Brenner Pass.
He was liberated from a German POW camp at Moosburg on 29 April 1945 by Patton's 3rd Army.

Excerpts from Doane Ervin's Memoirs

Friday, October 13, 1944 (mission #1)

We completed our first mission today. I'm not ashamed to tell you, I was scared and that's putting it mildly. The weather was not cooperative, but it was an easy assignment according to the more experienced crews in our 720th squadron. Escorted by B-17's, we hit some railroad communications, railroad bridges, and an industrial area near Banhida. I only remember that we left plenty of black smoke. So we must have struck oil. There was some flak over the last target, but none came close to Bad Bertha. It was too close for me. One of our ships was blown up by a direct hit, one minute they were there, the next gone. Bad Bertha dropped her load right on target.

The B-24s were not designed for comfort. At the higher altitudes the bone chilling cold was a constant companion, the ship felt like a flying sieve. It was not safe to walk around and there was nowhere to go, not even a toilet. The only provision for a nervous bladder was a "relief urination tube" that could be used if you could work through the difficulty of removing layers of clothing. Using this contraption created a profound string of profanity from the gunners in the turrets, myself included. The waste produced in the tubes would swirl in the slipstream then freeze on the turrets and obstruct the view of the gunners. The whole experience was not only embarrassing; it was necessary during long flights.

Saturday, October 14 (mission #2)

I thought the second mission would be easier on my gut, it wasn't. I prayed that it never gets easier to strap myself into the turret in front of those guns. The weather is bad again today. We're loaded with 3,200 pounds of ammunition and heading for Czechoslovakian railroad yards. Apparently, we hit the railroad bridge, for the smoke was really roiling up around it. Bad Bertha's engines were sputtering and she wasn't behaving. Something was wrong with the fuel line. Any B-24s out of formation would be an easy target for a gang of German "Jerries". She had our attention and our prayers.

Bad Bertha had taken a couple more hits with flak, but the B-24s further back in the formation were getting the worst of it. She was hanging in there. From my position, I had to watch another B-24 take on more flak after their engine conked out. The plane dropped altitude before it went into the side of a mountain. There would be no survivors. Poor guys had time to know what was coming. We were luckier; Bad Bertha dropped altitude and floated onto the airfield gasping for fuel fumes to get us there in one piece.

Sunday, October 15 (mission aborted)

Bad Bertha was in rougher shape that we thought. The mechanics would be able to repair her, as they were proficient at stripping and replacing parts from the plane "bone yard" in order to repair another plane. Those mechanics were amazing magicians and they would work day and night to get a plane ready for flight. Today it was the weather that kept the rest of the squadron home except for the reconnaissance missions over Italy.

Monday, October 16 (mission #3-#4)

Nearly 600 B-17s and B-24s, with fighter escorts hit targets in Austria and Germany. We headed for the tank factories in Germany. Our navigator and pilot grumbled about the lack of leadership from the lead plane in our squadron. There was no evidence, no roiling black smoke, that we hit our target. We seemed to be scattering bombs randomly over Germany. If there was a strategy in this operation, our crew was uninformed. The Germans threw up quite a bit of flak, but I don't know of any losses for either side.

Tuesday, October 17th (double missions #5-#6)

According to reports we got in some pretty good hits on a target that every one hates to start on: Vienna. The flak was thick as hell when we hit the tank and diesel works. We lost three planes. From the tail turret I had a clear view of one of planes go down after a direct hit. Only one of the crew had time to parachute out. The whole disaster seemed to be one of my nightmares reeling in slow motion. The plane seemed to float as it spun downward like a feather in a gentle breeze before the explosion. God help me, but I could see the expression of terror on his face as their B-24 dropped out of my field of vision.

October 18th 31st

The bad weather brought a stressful gloom over the airfield. Tension elevated to dangerous levels in everyone. Commanding officers had their arguments behind closed doors. Fighter pilots argued among themselves like a barnyard full of bantam cocks. Others physically fought over stupid games of poker or checkers. The rumors were flying about our troops being pinned down by the Germans without food or supplies.

November 1st - 5th

The weather continues to keep us grounded, occasionally the B-17 fighters and P-38's get out to do some damage. The recon flights don't seem to hold much hope for clearer weather. So we spent most of our days reviewing emergency procedures. No matter how well trained the crew is, the time will come when someone will forget something unless the crew is drilled over and over. We used to have repeated drills abandoning ship. We practiced both bailing-out and crash landing procedures. These procedures were reviewed in our dreams.

We've had some B-24s out of gas and crash land in the Mediterranean Sea, but that's difficult to practice before it happens. Theoretically, if a B-24 had to land in the water, success would depend on the condition of the waves upon the sea and how quickly the Allied speedboats could pick up the crew.

The pilot would have to maneuver the ship into the wind and be mindful of the swells. The usual procedure was to have the crew lie on their backs, feet fixed to absorb the shock. We had to lean our backs against the armor plate or some sort of padding to guard against any spinal injuries. Everyone one in the crew needed to be trained to handle the emergency radio, apply first aid and prepare the wounded for transporting. Every gunner had to be familiar with the others' gunnery positions.

The more we understood Bad Bertha's moods, the better the chases of using her attitude to our advantage. The tail turret will hold up against substantial direct hits from not more than 300-400 yard from behind by a 20mm shell. But the B-24's are the most vulnerable at the nose. A good pilot can fly in formation for five or six hours, but out of formation the crew can expect a nose to nose confrontation. At the very least, we would soon find a pack of Ju-87 Stukas or Wulf 190s coming at us. Our pilots had to have the skills to maneuver Bad Bertha into a steep dive and climbing turns, until a B-17 or P-38 came to the rescue. One saving grace was the fact that German fighters often ran out of gas or ammunition before the B-24s so they'd have to turn back if we could hold them off long enough.

Tuesday, November 6th (double missions #7-#8)

More than 550 B-17s and B-24s took advantage of the clearer skies to Yugoslavia and Italy. The flak around us seemed thick enough to walk on, and picked up two holes in Bad Bertha. We had a wonderful escort of P38's and P51's, and that was probably the only reason that we didn't lose a plane. When we got back, we found one of those holes in the back of left waist gunner's window and the other close to the pilot's head in the side window. That was the first time I watched Dan, our pilot, and Thomas hold each other up as they went in search of a couple stiff drinks to steady their nerves.

Thursday, November 7 (mission #9)

We loaded up with 10,500 pound of bombs and started for Yugoslavia and Greece. When we reached our target, a dense fog covered it. None of us could spot a break in the fog. Suddenly, one of the other planes was hit hard with flak.

The planes continued to fly in formation, but Bad Bertha suffered severe damage to her airfoil. We had no hydraulic system or an electric system, and the aileron cable was spliced. Bad Bertha was 800 miles from the nearest base. We made an emergency landing at 150 mph without ailerons, or brakes. Our prayers had been answered. Fortunately, only one of the crew was injured, and the plane was back in service in about three weeks. I suddenly remembered those awful unconventional landings that we had practiced back in the states. Thank Heaven and the pilot we did.

Thursday, November 8th - November16th (mission #10)

Our squadron was ordered back to Yugoslavia, Italy and Germany. The weather was often rough but we dropped the bombs to keep their attention. We didn't think the commanders could make up their minds about what they wanted to do. The orders changed more often than the weather.

Friday, November 17th (double mission #11-#12)

Our targets were the oil refineries in Vienna, Austria; the industrial areas in and near Vienna then on to the marshalling yards in Yugoslavia. Again we were bombing through the clouds and we could only estimate the damage.

Saturday, November 18th (mission #13)

We were thinking that we had been assigned a pretty good mission today: Aviano Air Port in Northern Italy. There was no sign of flak, so we circled and started back loaded with 40,100 pounds of bombs. We were to go between two gun positions to avoid getting hit by either one. The lead navigator in our formation took us right over both of them. There would be plenty of holes in most our B-24s tonight because of his poor judgment.

Sunday, November 19th (double missions #14-#15)

We hear "Vienna" again called out at the briefing. In the beginning the skies were clear. As we arrived closer to the first target, it was covered with fog. The formation in front of us drew fire and smoke. We went back again. They were throwing up a lot of heavy, accurate flak. I knew that the 47th wing lost ten planes that day maybe more. We got away with a few more holes in the fuselage. From the tail of Bad Bertha, I watched the black smoke rise for more than two hundred miles. The German took out ten B-24s planes. Again, there were no conformations that indicated we hit our targets. These were the most disappointing missions for Bad Bertha and the crew. After landing, the crew learned that our bombardier had taken two bullets in the chest. He didn't survive the night.

Wednesday, November 22nd (mission #16)

Despite our loss of a dear friend and crewmember, the crew of Bad Bertha would have a trained replacement. I've never been to Ferrara, in Northern Italy, but the members of the squadron "turned green around the gills". Could it really be worse that Vienna had been? We were sent to attack the bridge and all railroad lines. We weren't in the flak very long, and it was very accurate. Bad Bertha took three direct hits right off. Unfortunately, it was much worse for others. We lost seventeen crewmembers from our 720th bomber squadron today. They took direct shots from German fighters.

November 23rd Wednesday, December 6th (double missions #17-#18)

The weather finally gave us a break today, in a matter of speaking. Once the skies cleared a bit, we had orders to hit Sopron, Austria. Railroad yards again. Not long after passing over the target, we were attacked by a group of FW-190s and ME-109s. We had been caught without our B-17s or P-38s to help us out of a jam. The formation was most vulnerable. My limited view from my tail turret kept me ignorant as to how many enemy aircraft the nose gunner was fighting off.

The Germans fighters seldom attack the tail, but I had one in my sights now. I triggered a burst in his direction and he backed off. I turned the turret, elevated and lowering the guns to expand my range of fire power. I could smell leaking gas, however, that was not our only problem. We had been hit in a manner that caused the loss of electrical power. Suddenly we were dropping further behind the formation.

I needed power for the turrets, so I had to immediately convert to hand cranks and foot firing pedals. The less affective emergency procedure for maneuvering the guns and turret was extremely clumsy and far less accurate. I knew the other gunners would be having the same challenge of operating their guns and turrets manually and doing their best. The crew all knew that Bad Bertha was in trouble. Suddenly, we had shots fired from another source. I was confused. I hadn't realized that the formation had dropped back to help us. That wasn't textbook procedure. We couldn't have been any more grateful to see them. I heard cheers ring out above the noise of our engines.

It seemed like all of our guns in the squadron were firing to and from every direction. The first thought that came to my mind was that we could be shooting each other. It certainly looked that way from where I was perched. Then I realized some of our P-38s had arrived in time to clear the skies of enemy fighters. But our trouble weren't over yet. We needed more than an escort. Bad Bertha needed electrical power.

The heaters had already been considered too dangerous so they had been removed. The constant gas fumes; encounters with German flak, enemy fighters, and smoke from the bombed targets made heavy awkward gas masks seemed useless. Only when the bombing had quieted down did the bombardier have a few moments to check on the crew. If the oxygen system turns faulty or the oxygen hook-ups were fouled, it was possible that the bombardier would be found dead in his own turret. This could have been one of those times.

I couldn't breath and my chest ached. Between the smoke and gas fumes, I had a hard time focusing the targets in my gun sights. I was having a harder time breathing, when the thought came to me that Bad Bertha was in danger of exploding in her own fuel. I tried to talk to the crew, but they couldn't hear me on the radio. Suddenly, as they say in the movies, everything went black.

I had passed out from lack of oxygen. One of the waist turret gunners dragged me out of the turret. We were in the tail of Bad Bertha when the emergency releasing mechanism jammed. It opens the bomb bay door. The pilot and copilot were trying to lighten our load. The copilot was unaware that when he pulled the release, the bombs crashed through the door. Six thousand pounds of bombs were going through the door at once tearing and smashing Bad Bertha's belly. The right bomb bay door came off through the right wing, tore the flap loose, cut out the trailing edge of the wing in the shape of the corner of the door. Then the rear door hit the tail stabilizer. I could see the rubble flying around and we looked like a shell had hit us. This was all happening at 400 miles per hour. Our pilot kept her nose right down and leveled off sharply, which might have ripped off the remainder of the tail. It was a chance he had to take. He managed to keep Bad Bertha in the air, while the crew prepared to bail.

When he finally brought her back to the ground, we all tumbled out and kissed the dirt and hugged the pilot in that order. She didn't have any structural failure, but her belly and tail stabilizer were a disaster. Bad Bertha had kept her attitude all the way back to the airfield. I think we were all giddy with sudden relief and realization that we had survived. The ground crew just shook their heads in disbelief when our pilot asked when would she be ready to go again. Of course we sobered up when we heard how many other B-24s didn't have our Bad Bertha's attitude to bring them back to the base. In the meantime we would be assigned another B-24 when they had one to assign or until Bad Bertha had been assessed for scrap or repair.

Friday, December 15th, (double missions #19-#20)

Rosehime, Germany was the target today. The assignment was to take out their railroad yards and communications. There was some flak, but not the usual barrage. After unloading 10-500 pounders over Germany. It was a feel good day, until we got some rough news when we got back to the airfield: Bad Bertha wasn't likely to be on the mend anytime soon if at all. Seldom are they able to replace the belly of a B-24 with or without magic. We had begun to miss the ol' cow.

Saturday, December 16th (mission #21)

We had been assigned another plane name Sleepytime Gal; the old crate had already flown over seventy missions and had seen her share of flak. We stopped counting the bullet holes at 200. Almost 600 B-24s and B-17s targeted Czechoslovakia and Austria. Along with numerous other targets between our assigned destinations, and our airfield were additional opportunities to inflict destruction in German held strongholds. It was another a good day, not a single casualty.

We were alive, but chilled to the bone. The waist windows had been open the whole mission, the bomb-bay doors were wide open during then bomb run and the temperatures had varied from zero to 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Only the flight deck was equipped with heaters, if they had not been disconnected. I don't know how we managed to operate the guns.

Sunday, December 17th (mission #21-#22)

At this morning briefing this announcement had been read:

"On December 12, 1944, Major Glenn Miller gave his last concert at the Queensbury All Services Club in Soho, London. On December 15th, an American Dodge staff car, driven by Staff Sergeant Edward McCulloch of Oceanside, California, entered the small green airfield at RAF Twinwood Farm near London and deposited his two passengers near a waiting plane piloted by a veteran Flight Officer with twenty-five missions under his belt . His passengers were Lieutenant Colonel Norman Baessell (General Goodrich's Executive Officer) 2nd Lieutenant Don Haynes, the bands executive officer (there to see the plane off) and the American bandleader, Major Glen Miller. At 13:55 PM, the small C-64 Norseman plane with its three occupants took off on a flight to Paris. There has been no news or sightings of this plane since taking off. They are presumed to be missing in action."

We all enjoyed listening to his big band sound over the American airways. What impressed us most was the man, Glenn Miller. In the prime of his career, Glenn Miller stepped forward to defend of our country. Both at home in the states and on Allied bases his music provided a balm on the wounded souls of those of us who needed tending. His wonderful music provided us a brief furlough from our nightmarish thoughts.

December 18-Christmas, 1944

The rumors around camp were flying, and that was the only thing. The Germans were on the offensive. Before the winter winds, rains, and snow pelted the skies, the Allies had control on land and in the air. The German forces were faltering. Once again the weather in Europe had taken sides with the Axis forces. Apparently the German tank were still during the day and traveled at night; the deep snow muffled the sounds of their normally clanking treads. The German ground troops were forcing the Americans and British to retreat. Because of the bad winter weather conditions, our superior air forces could not support our own ground forces.

We were all aware of the gravity of the situation, but we couldn't take to the air. It was suicide to fly in the conditions. Our superior officers did their fighting behind closed doors, but the crew remained intent on getting airborne as soon as possible. If the resonance reports were correct, Hitler had a million men, almost two thousand heavy guns and a thousand tanks.

Christmas was approaching, but no one seemed interested. Their minds were on the battlefields in the Ardennes Forest, a lush pine forest that hid the newest and best German tanks that had been pulled out of Italy and Russia for this most important offensive. This successful counter attack engineered by Hitler was proving to be surprisingly affective. Furthermore most of our tank forces were stranded without fuel, supplies, or food. Nor were our Allied tanks designed for these conditions.

Ronald's parents sent some delicious Christmas fruit cakes, cookies, cranberries, and large needles and heavy thread and new wool socks for Ronald. Thelma had put in six extra pairs of socks for me. Everything was packed in popcorn. We strung the stale popcorn and dried cranberries and hung them around the barracks. And searched for some good old fashion Christmas music on the radio. Some of the men gave us a bad time; we knew they were just homesick too.

Tuesday, December 26 (mission #24)

Back to work! The weather had finally cleared; our orders covered a lot of enemy ground on this mission. We were to hit Poland oil refineries, a railroad bridge at Ora and a viaduct at Avisio, Italy, plus scattered targets of opportunity. It was a successful mission according to reports. The weather that held us to the ground, kept us safe, we all knew that our ground troops were in desperate for our aerial support.

Wednesday, December 29th (mission #25)

Nearly 450 B-17s and B-24s were on their way into the heart of Germany. We had orders to hit the railroad loop on mountainous Brenner Pass between Italy and Austria. We were flying at 21,500 ft. and the day was very clear. The pilot turned the plane for the bomb run. Without warning two B-24s were knocked out of the formation behind us. I had never seen flak so accurate. I could taste the bile roiling in my stomach. I had a bad feeling as we continued nearer the target. If we could just make it over the target, just a little further without being hit.

Flak patterns usually came in bursts of four. The first two shots were short of our plane, the third caught us in the right wing. The fatal blow knocked out the number three engine with a direct hit. In a split second our ship was a solid mass of flames, all coming from the nose toward me. I made it to the escape hatch on my hands and knees and bailed. Our rookie on the crew panicked and baled without his parachute. I learned later that angry civilians had shot three other crewmembers before or immediately after reaching the ground. Hearing the resounding explosion over head, I just knew the flying debris would kill me.

Her cargo had blown the plane apart in all directions. I was floating on my back, amidst the smoke before I popped the chute and with a quick snap. I was dropping downward directly to the tops of fir trees. Momentarily, I thought I was going to be fine. But there was very little space in which to hit the ground. My chute was caught on the snag of a wind bent treetop approximately at 21,000 feet in the Italian Alps. It had to be at least forty degrees below zero.

Link To Crew Picture

Information provided by Sharon Nicholson, Neice of S/Sgt Doane Ervin

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