Fallon’s Cecil Quinley completed 13 successful missions but on the 14th, German fighters shot down his B-17
From “Forever, A True Story of Love and War”
The air was crisp and clean as the formation climbed through the clouds over the North Sea. Contrails formed behind the mass of B-17 bombers that were struggling higher with their heavy loads. A deadly giveaway to the enemy that would see them because of it. Higher and higher they climbed as they made their way toward Germany and their destiny.
The day started like any other when we had a mission to fly; it began the night before. We knew that a mission was called for October 8th, but we didn’t know where we’d be going, or any further details. Our destination was always a closely guarded secret. Although our enemy always seemed to know more than we did, it was about 0400 hours when I woke up with a light shining on my face. I say woke up, but there was no real sleep the night before a raid, not for the veterans who already knew what to expect, not for the sober. October 8th would be my 14th mission. Some of the crew had more mission credits than I did, so we all knew what we’d be doing in a few hours that made sleep harder to come by. The man holding the flashlight was Lieutenant Robinson, the 532nd Squadron Operations Officer. His flashlight scanned each bed in our Nissen hut as he called out each name when the light hit our face.
“Lieutenant Pry, Lieutenant Quinley, Lieutenant Burwell, Lieutenant Snyder, wake up, you’re flying today! Briefing at 0600!”
He did the same to Captain Baltrusaitis’ crew, with whom we shared the hut. We’d been flying a pretty light schedule for the last part of September because of the Schweinfurt and Stuttgart losses, so we knew our luck would be running out soon. I stayed behind on the October 4th mission to Frankfurt because our ship was flying deputy group lead. Lt. Colonel Hall flew in my seat. During the flight Jack lost the number two engine to a mechanical failure and barely made it back to Ridgewell by diving and cloud hopping to dodge German fighters that were trying to get at him. He and Lt. Col. Hall would have been safe to stay with the formation even with only three engines, but the colonel ordered him under threat of court martial to turn around. So instead of having the safety of the formation, they had to run from fighters by themselves all the way back to the channel.
Jack was considered one of the best pilots in the 381st. He was a perfectionist and knew just about everything there was to know about a B-17. Jack Pry entered the service as an enlisted man and worked his way up. He was a sergeant and aircraft mechanic before he went to cadet flight school, and he had become a B-17 instructor at one point.
The engine problem Jack encountered on the way to Frankfurt had been fixed and the ship was ready to go, so we figured we’d be flying today. The first order of business was to get cleaned up, shaved, and dressed. We shaved before a mission because it made our oxygen masks seal better on our faces. Long johns and two pairs of socks were typical. Coveralls and a jacket would go over our regular clothes, but not until shortly before takeoff. If we bundled up too soon, we’d begin to sweat, then the sweat would freeze when we got up to altitude where the temperature could reach 30 to 50 below zero.
There was an uneasiness about the morning. An unspoken anxiousness that wasn’t usually there. Normally, we were all a pretty sad bunch trying to wake up. Today, everyone was quite chipper, chatting nonstop, making nervous gestures and talk. It doesn’t sound alarming to the casual observer, but it wasn’t normal, not for us, not before a raid. If you weren’t superstitious when you arrived in England, you soon were. It could be a distraction, or it could be something to hold on to when you needed it. A false sense of security, I suppose, but it was what we had. After breakfast, with my Chesterfield smokes in hand, we made our way to the briefing, chain-smoking the entire way.
Jack, Ted, Roger and I took our seats in the mission briefing room. Colonel Nazzaro, the 381st Group Commander, walked through the door and the room was called to attention. He advised us to be seated, and he stood there on the stage for several moments looking around the room. That was unusual too. He exposed the large map on the wall at the head of the room. When he did so there were the usual collective moans and groans from all in attendance. The moans were a normal reaction, but today they were louder and longer than usual, reflecting the distance and increased dangers of today’s raid that was now in full view of us on the map. There were long pieces of string indicating our route into and out of Germany. Our minds were still fresh with the memoirs of the disastrous Schweinfurt raid where we lost so many ships and friends. Colonel Nazarro spoke:
“Gentlemen, our target today is Bremen, Germany.”
ORDERS TO BREMEN
We were going all the way to Bremen, where the city is surrounded by some of the heaviest concentrations of antiaircraft batteries in Germany. It had all the makings of another Schweinfurt.
Since arriving in England, I tried hard to write to my wife every day. It was a tradition we’d started even before we were married. It was tough to do sometimes because I was so limited on the information I could share from the war zone. I wouldn’t have to write before leaving today, but I’d finished one letter yesterday and it got mailed off just in time. It was just a short letter that I’d planned on adding to, but something told me to just seal it up and drop it in the outgoing mail. It was on my mind as we left the mailing.
Hello again, darling! Here it is another night, so I’ll tell you once again that you are my sweetheart and that I’m still in love with you an awful lot. Even if I didn’t get any mail from you again today because I know that it isn’t any fault of yours. Although I wish it was your fault, because then I know it would be remedied right quick, but probably tomorrow I’ll get some. Sure haven’t had news again tonight, so this will naturally be another short note. Just got in and had chow and it’s already time to get myself into bed just in case I have to get up before breakfast. I sure did have a dream last night. I dreamt that it was Christmas day and I came flying into Sacramento and you were down in Ceres, so I went out and hitchhiked down there. Then I came walking in and you greeted me with open arms. That’s when I woke up, but it was swell while it lasted. No fooling, wish it would all come true. I’ll say goodnight now darling, much as I hate to, but I don’t have any news, anyway, except that I love you, and I said that once, but it’s still very much true. Also, naturally, I sure do miss you too. God bless you darling. Love and kisses, Cecil.
After getting the rest of our gear we hopped a truck out to the hardstand where we found the enlisted members of the crew readying their guns. Jack briefed them as I performed a walk around inspection of our ship, the “Feather Merchant.” She was one of the original ships of the 381st Group that came from the states. With all the groups combined, our force numbered just under 400 B-17 and B-24 bombers and about 250 P-47 fighters. On today’s mission the fighters would stay with us to the border of Holland and Germany, probably farther than they’ve ever escort us before.
Our squadron would be flying low formation at about 26,000 feet, and we’d be carrying 12 500-pound bombs. Low formation made us easier targets for the flak gunners. I was assigned left seat on this flight because we’d be flying the second flight lead. Jack had to fly right seat so we could keep proper position from the squadron lead plane.
I was thinking what a beautiful day it was as we climbed out over the English Channel. We were flying at an indicated 160 knots or about 185 miles per hour. The colors were amazing and were the bluest I’d ever seen. Once we reached land the sky was contrasted with the lush landscape below us. The white contrails were amazingly beautiful and there were even circular contrails coming off the props of the ships around us. It was magical, even mesmerizing, and hard to imagine that soon there would be a sky full of enemy fighters intent on killing us all.
Today … I was reading the last letter I received form Margaret. My mind drifted back to it as I stared out the window at the rest of the squadron.
Hiya Honey. Greetings on our 53-month anniversary. I still love you darling, very-very much, and miss you as much, or more (if possible) than ever. But there is some consolation in the realization that these past few months apart are that much closer to the day when you’ll be home again. Sure hope it will be real soon too, because that would really make me a happy gal.
I didn’t get a letter from sweet you again today. Darling. I know this isn’t much of a letter, but I’m awful lonesome for you tonight. Darling, I know this isn’t much of a letter, but I’m awful lonesome for you tonight. So much so that I can’t think of anything but you to write about. I sure hope and pray that this old war will end in a hurry (now) so that you and a lot of other boys can come home. Things look good in the news tonight. At least we’re holding our own against the Germans, and Japs, too. You boys did another nice job over France last night. Congratulations and stuff.
My daydreaming was interrupted as a few enemy fighters showed up over Holland and tried to get to us, but our P-47 little friends kept them away. As we approached the German border, however, our little friends reached the limit of their fuel supply. If they were safely to make it back to base, they’d have to leave us, and just like that, they were gone. Now, every eye in our ship scanned the sky intently looking for little black specks that would turn into enemy fighters hoping to chalk up another B-17 kill for their Fatherland.
Just as we were afraid of , though, as soon as the P-47s left, the Jerries were all over us. There were twin engine ME-210s and JU-88s firing rockets at us from our six o’clock, just out of gun range. Tex, our tail gunner, was swearing up a storm because the Jerries were too far away to hit with his twin .50 caliber machine guns. It was frustrating for the gunners.
The FW-190s and ME-109s finally hit us from every direction. The yelling on the intercom was intense but determined and reflected how this once rookie crew had become veterans of these raids.
Deadly puffs of black smoke were all over the sky. They contained shards of metal fragments. Shrapnel that could tear through a human like a hot knife through butter. So far so good, but bumpy as hell. You could hear the shrapnel bouncing off the plane or scraping down the sides of the fuselage as we flew through it. If a shell exploded under us the ship would lurch up violently from the shock wave.
“Bomb bay doors open,” Ted announced.
We had our eyes fixed on Baltrusaitis’ plane as we made the run into the target. It only took a few minutes, but it seemed like an eternity when death was exploding all around us. A short time later Ted said,
We saw Lt. Arthur Sample’s plane, our old ship, “Ole Flak Sack,” get hit. He was still flying with us, but it looked bad. She was smoking heavily out of the open bomb bay doors and waist windows.
Then a deafening explosion rocked our own “Feather Merchant.” I scanned the engines in the direction the nose came from and I could see we took a direct hit on our number two engine. The number two engine was right next to my seat and there were holes in the side of the cockpit now with cold air whistling through. There was burning and tearing pain in my leg. Some red-hot shrapnel went into my lower right leg above the ankle. I felt it travel upward and settle just below my knee. It hurt like hell but I didn’t have time to worry about it. The good news was that the freezing air would go through the same hole on my trousers that the shrapnel made and it would stop the bleeding, hopefully.
There was oil flying everywhere out of the number 2 engine cowling and splattering over the wing. I told Eddie, our flight engineer and top turret gunner, to check for fire and other damage. It was smoking but at least there wasn’t any fire showing. This was the beginning of the end for the “Feather Merchant.”
The high pitched whine that was coming from those blades hurt our ears, even over the other sounds of the engines, exploding flak and Eddie’s twin .50-caliber machine guns that were blasting away again right behind and over our heads. Then the inevitable happened. The engine flew apart, tearing itself from the mounts as it separated from the aircraft.
We slid out of formation and things were looking pretty grim. A lone B-17 was a sitting duck and a golden invitation for the Jerry fighters to cut to pieces. We were being shot all to hell as those fighters were coming at us in swarms and from every direction. They knew we were hurt, and they were like sharks after blood. It all seemed like an eternity but was only a matter of minutes.
Quinley described their capture in a September 2007 story in the Lahontan Valley News: “Eight of us bailed out, but I don’t know what happened to the other two. The ball turret gunner must have been hit … and another was reluctant to parachute out.”
One by one, the crew bailed out of the plane into enemy territory. When Quinley began his descent, a bullet pierced his right leg.
“I didn’t know where the ground was. I landed near some barbed wire. I missed the fence, but I came down in the middle of a ditch.”
As Quinley sat in the ditch, he saw two figures walking toward him in single file.
“This farmer came over with a Russian POW who was working with him.”
But the next two weeks were no laughing matter for Quinley. He spent one week in the hospital because of his injured leg before moving to solitary confinement at an interrogation camp. Then, the Germans transferred him to Stalag Luft 3 for the next 15 months. Although conditions were harsh at the prison camp, Quinley said pilots were treated well.
Located 100 miles southeast of Berlin in what is now Poland, Stalag 3 was one of six used for downed British and American airmen. Because the Luftwaffe ran it, Stalag 3 became a model camp.
Quinley’s health deteriorated at the beginning of his confinement when he almost died. Doctors accidentally overdosed the aviator with immunizations, specifically tetanus, but they discovered their mistake and nursed Quinley back to health.
A PILOT’S MISSION
Cecil Quinley flew 14 missions in a B-17 before his “Flying Fortress” was shot down over Germany in 1943. Quinley and other airmen then spent the rest of the war as prisoners. In his book “Forever, A True Story of Love and War,” Daniel J. Quinley tells of his father’s distinguished military career aboard the “Feather Merchant” as well as his love affair with Margaret that began in the late 1930s and continues today. Recently Cecil and Margaret Quinley celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. This condensed excerpt from the first two chapters gives our readers a glimpse of the preparation a B-17 crew undertakes and the dangers they faced when flying over enemy territory. This is a very riveting account, an intense recollection of the war in Europe and a romantic story that gives credence to our greatest generation. “Forever, A True Story of Love and War” is available through Amazon and is a must read for anyone who enjoys a good war story dashed with love letters from both sides of the Atlantic.
Steve Ranson, editor.