The surrounding air was splotchy with black patches as rounds of anti-aircraft fire, known as flak, exploded, hurling shards of jagged metal in all directions. “Target in sight,” the pilot calmly said on the plane’s intercom. Strewn across the German countryside behind them, the flaming wrecks of scores of their compatriot aircraft sent plumes of smoke into the sky. For the moment, the furious head-on attacks by Luftwaffe fighters had ceased, but the concussion of exploding enemy fire buffeted them.
The plane, a Boeing B-17 bomber, bore on both sides of its nose the word “Scarlet,” painted in red letters. The artist who painted it ran out of space and had to omit the final letter. Scarlett was the lead plane in the front formation of 230 B-17 bombers of the Eighth Air Force—their mission, drop hundreds of tons of bombs on factories producing ball-bearings, a vital component for the machines of war. The Allies had learned that German ball-bearing production was concentrated in Schweinfurt, and the attack was a dangerous gamble to significantly shorten the war and save millions of lives. Because of the young navigator’s remarkable skills, his commanders regarded him as one of the finest navigators in the Eighth. They entrusted him to lead what was considered the most important and dangerous mission to date in the European Theater of Operations.
On that fateful day, Scarlett had become the literal tip of a spear plunged deep into the heart of Nazi Germany.
After releasing their load of bombs, Scarlett and the planes following her turned to begin the perilous journey home to airfields scattered across East Anglia in England. To paraphrase a pre-mission statement made by Colonel Curtis LeMay, one of their commanders, they had shot their way in, now they had to shoot their way out. Enemy aircraft would return in moments, and the 10 crewmen carefully scanned the surrounding airspace—eight of them manning 50-caliber machine guns.
Their mission only partially succeeded. Significant damage had been done to German aircraft production, but at a terrible cost. Sixty American bombers carrying 600 men had been lost. Plus, scores of other planes that safely returned were too damaged to ever fly again. It had been the worst defeat ever suffered by the Army Air Forces, later to be known as the United States Air Force.
Two days later, the 23-year-old navigator who guided the fateful mission wrote a letter home but could not describe to his mother what had happened.
I received your package of gum today. I’ve certainly enjoyed all the cakes that you have sent me.
Shouldn’t be too long now before I’ll know whether I’ll be able to come home or not—my work here is almost through. Hope they don’t decide in about a month to keep me over here.
Should have a pass before long so will wire you. Nothing much to write about.
Love to all,
The letter writer, Second Lieutenant Otis Bert Tillery, was born in Tuscaloosa and grew up in York, AL. He attended the University of Alabama and majored in journalism. In 1941, before the start of World War II, he enlisted as an Air Cadet in the United States Army Air Corps and trained at Maxwell Field (later Maxwell Air Force Base) in Montgomery.
When America entered the war, Tillery and other cadets were deployed to various bases. He initially wanted to be a pilot but showed a great aptitude for navigation. After extensive additional training, he was assigned to an Eighth Air Force unit and dispatched to England on a ferry flight that spanned thousands of miles. Guided by Lt. Tillery, they island hopped the Caribbean Sea to the coast of South America. From a base in eastern Brazil, they crossed the South Atlantic to French West Africa and made their way to RAF Thurleigh near Bedford, England. Scarlett and her crew became part of the 367th Squadron of the 306th Heavy Bombardment Group—the first unit to bomb the German homeland.
Eighth Air Force losses in 1942 and 1943 were catastrophic. Often 10 percent or more of the bombers and crews were lost on each mission, a daunting hurdle for the airmen, since they were required to complete 25 missions before reassignment. Many of their targets were German submarine bases along the occupied French coast, transportation infrastructure, and factories producing military goods. Other raids were to the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany itself. Before the introduction of long-range fighter aircraft, missions reaching far into Germany were unescorted, and gunners aboard the bombers had to engage enemy fighters at close range. As navigator, Lt. Tillery often manned machine guns on either side of Scarlett’s nose.
Fortunately, Tillery and Scarlett completed 25 missions. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart, and other decorations. He rapidly rose in rank and became a major before leaving military service after the war. He married his high school sweetheart, Annie Ward Price, and they eventually raised five children.
The 306th Heavy Bombardment Group and its three squadrons became arguably the most famous Army Air Force unit of World War Two. War correspondent and later CBS television newsman Andy Rooney flew several missions with them, one of their airmen was awarded the Medal of Honor, and the one of their planes, The Rose of York, was christened by Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen. Her father, King George VI, visited on several occasions to present awards and meet the crews. The hardships and exploits of the 306th in 1942 and 1943 became the basis for the 1949 movie (and later television series) Twelve O’Clock High.
Jim Ezell is a retired engineer, historian, and author. His newest novel, Debris Cloud, was recently released. Debris Cloud is an adventure/crime novel set in Tuscaloosa. It is available on Amazon.