My Dad, the War Hero

It’s a hard act to follow…

Napoleon once said that “soldiers win battles and generals get the credit.” And it is true that many times the outcome of history is guided or changed by one man. I believe my father to be such a man.

“Joe Baggs 2”

In 1938, Adolph Hitler annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia, then allied with Russia in 1939, which forced Great Britain and France to ally with Poland, Hitler’s next target. These actions set the stage for World War II, when on September 3, 1939, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. A few weeks later, Poland surrendered to Germany, having suffered savage bombardment by both Germany and Russia. Hitler went on to attack Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and France. He then set his sights on England. All-out war ensued, mostly in the air, with Britain attacking Germany and in turn, Germany attacking England. The Royal Air Force (RAF) was able to successfully defend Britain against Hitler’s air forces, the Luftwaffe, with the help of the weather. By November of 1940, the Battle of Britain, the first major battle fought entirely in the air, was over, with England victorious, but both sides sustained tremendous losses.

Consider this: the United States, a relatively young nation, had its roots, personality, and much of its soul built upon the toil and hardship of many Europeans who had come over in the 1800s to build a new life. These were my ancestors. Both sides of my family came over in the 1800s from Germany, Scotland, Ireland, and France. Some were farmers, some were craftsmen, most ended up in Western Pennsylvania. In the 1930s and ’40s, many Americans of the northeastern United States had been born across the Atlantic, were first generation Americans, or still had relatives in Europe. The threat of Hitler was very real. It was different from subsequent wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf. This time we weren’t fighting for money, or oil, or God knows what. Hitler was slaughtering people and single-handedly changing humanity as we know it, and he was getting mighty close to home.

“War Hero Montage”

In the fall of 1940, England found itself to be the last nation in Europe against Hitler’s mighty war machine. After action in North Africa began, Hitler turned his sights to Greece, Yugoslavia, and then invaded his ally, Russia. A few months later, Churchill urged Roosevelt to bring the United States into war. FDR offered a guarantee that he would take counter action if Japan attacked Malaya (now Malaysia), the Dutch East Indies, or Singapore. On December 5, 1941, the Japanese informed the Americans that their troop movements in Indochina were purely cautionary, which prompted FDR to immediately dispatch an appeal directly to the Emperor of Japan for peace. Two days later they attacked Pearl Harbor, and on December 8, 1941 Roosevelt announced to the world a declaration of war against the Japanese, and on the 11th, the U.S. Congress officially declared war on Germany and Italy.

During the bombing raids between Britain and Germany, the RAF and Luftwaffe concentrated on night bombing, since daylight attacks could not be executed without incurring heavy losses from ground-based anti-aircraft defenses. The U.S., however, stressed high-altitude strategic bombing during daylight hours as their offensive tactic, totally disregarding the lessons learned by Britain and Germany. The first bomber aircraft designed by Boeing, the B-17, was built upon the concept that strategic bombing from very high altitudes in formations would be self-defending against enemy fighters. The B-17 Flying Fortress could fly at higher altitudes (30,000 feet) than Germany’s bombers, which turned out to be a costly, yet important strategy in the air war.

While an Aviation Cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps (the United States Air Force did not yet exist) at Maxwell Field in February 1942, a young 21-year-old Joe Baggs was first classified as a pilot trainee. He immediately asked to be reclassified for training as a bombardier, saying, “Hell, if I’m going duck hunting, I don’t want to row the boat. I want to shoot the ducks!” This is how my father started his career as a bomb dropper, or bombardier. During strategic bombing missions over Europe, the lead bombardier, the one in the front plane of the entire formation, calculated when to drop and then alerted the rest of the formation to drop their bombs. My father was usually either the lead or wing bombardier on his 28 missions over Europe. The success of these missions depended heavily on the accuracy of the lead bombardier.

In 1942, the British Air Ministry issued Directive Number 22, proclaiming 21 strategic targets in Germany and Nazi-occupied territory that should become high priority targets for the joint Air Forces. One of the targets, Schweinfurt, was Germany’s largest ball bearing manufacturing complex, with a total employment of over 17,000 workers, many of them engineers and designers. Ball bearings were a big part of Hitler’s war effort, as they were a part of the manufacture of all types of weapons and war machinery, including cannons, planes, and tanks. My father was the lead bombardier for the 384th bomb group, one of the groups chosen to train for and bomb Schweinfurt. Several weeks before the mission they were ordered to “stand down,” or stay on the ground to study the targets and the route to them. Finally, the day to bomb Schweinfurt arrived. After the special briefing, which Joe had to hold for the groups’ bombardiers, he went and got his bombsight and along with his briefcase full of his maps and pictures of the targets, he headed for [his plane], the Natural. The crew climbed aboard and awaited further instructions from the tower.

It was an unbelievable five hours of waiting before they were given the order to “start engines.” Just prior to takeoff, a jeep pulled alongside and gave Joe a change order folder reflecting an in-flight change of plans for him: a route change into the target resulting in a 180 degree change in the approach, due to the five hour take off delay and resulting position of the sun.

Finally, one after the other the B-17F’s of the 384th took off and began their assembly over the wash. Meanwhile the Germans, while monitoring England via radar, reported unusual activity on the airfields of the American Bomber Command, portending a major operation. The Germans were alerted and would be ready. After an initial force was sent in, which lost 24 B-17’s, the Schweinfurt force with the 384th was dispatched. Just ten minutes into enemy territory, the Natural took a hit: a 20mm shell tore into the cockpit area, missing the pilot and co-pilot, but hitting an oxygen tank and severing some rudder cables. The 384th, along with most of the other bombing groups, were under continuous attack for almost four hours, and since the return route was almost identical to the route taken into the target, the Americans would be easy prey. As Johnny Butler, the Natural’s pilot quipped: “navigation on the return would be easy, just follow the path of the burning B-17’s and fighters laying on the ground.”

About ten minutes before the Initial Point [the target], Joe stored his guns and put the fighters out of mind as he began to study his maps and pictures and started to pick up identifying features on the ground. All check points had been changed due to the reverse course change. Finally, at the Initial Point, Johnny turned the B-17 over to Joe and he began his run. Joe opened his bomb bays and the smoke and haze made it difficult to pick up his aiming point. After spotting the target point and making a violent correction to his left and leveling out, he got a perfect synchronization on the target. The indexes on the bombsight crossed, the bombs were released and Joe sounded “bombs away” over the intercom to signal to the rest of the formation.

Although thanks to my father, the Germans suffered a heavy barrage at Schweinfurt that day, it was a black day for the 8th Air Force, having lost 22 out of 54 aircraft in the first wing alone. 230 B-17F’s took off that day and were credited with shooting down 148 enemy aircraft. However, the Americans suffered heavy losses, losing 36 B-17’s and 360 flyers to Hitler, mostly due to bad decisions made by the brass, like the five hour delay, one wing which followed the other in, and an identical return route, all giving the Nazi’s a tactical advantage.

Ten days earlier, my father had turned 23. After the Schweinfurt Mission, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his contribution under the most adverse conditions in the destruction of a most important target deep in Germany. The Schweinfurt mission was recorded by historians as being the most important mission flown during WW II by the U.S. Air Force. In his book titled The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission, English author Martin Middlebrook writes:

“On August 17, 1943, the entire strength of the American heavy bomber forces in England set out to raid two important targets deep in southern Germany. For American commanders it was the culmination of years of planning and hope, the day when their self-defending formations of the famous flying fortress [the B-17] could at last perform their role and reach out by daylight to strike at targets at the deepest corners of industrial Germany… Thanks to the courage of the aircrews, the bombers won through to the targets and caused heavy damage, but sixty bombers that were shot down shattered the hope of the American commanders. Historically, it was probably the most important day for the American Forces during WW II.”

After Schweinfurt, and determined to make the 384th the top bombing group in the 8th Air Force, my father began reorganizing the Staff Bombardier’s office and functions. He started a rigorous training program for the group’s bombardiers, including ground school and additional flight training. He required all bombardiers to take their bomb sights with them whenever they entered a B-17, and to simulate bombing runs and drift and wind checks. He developed new standards for evaluation of all bombardiers, and graded them in order to establish an elite group designated as lead bombardiers, the only ones qualified to lead missions, and like Joe, they were forced to “stand down” when not flying as leads. Additional standard operating procedures were established under Joe Baggs, which outlined the responsibilities of the Group Bombardier and provided great detail and guidance for every aspect of a mission, from beginning to end.

For his efforts in World War II, my father received a number of decorations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, four air medals of valor, a Presidential Unit Citation with Oak Leaf Cluster, the European Theater of Operations with 4 Battle Stars, and a World War II Victory Medal.

Today, when people talk about war, or courage, or bravery, or heroes, it’s often attached to a story relaying a boy rescuing a dog, or a celebrity’s charity fight against AIDS, or to the people who fight the cruel governments in Africa and the middle east. Heroic stories are often watered down and blend in with the rest of the media or are fed to the public as feel-good stories, as the truly worthy aspects of human nature are rarely stressed or exemplified. Honor and integrity are measured in what I believe to be weaker terms than they were in times like the ’30s and ’40s, when the history and future of the world as we know it was in the hands of an insane German madman. Back then, most of the world didn’t know about the real atrocities going on at the concentration camps. Hitler as an enemy was ill-defined and feared mostly out of his conquests and threat to home security. Superficial entities like money and oil were not part of the equation. Young men like my father, who sacrificed everything and showed a courage and bravery so rare today, were the guys who altered the course of history. Not a bad legacy, given the blood that was spilled.

Today, my dad is a persnicketty old fart sometimes. He’s got the gout, congenital heart disease, ulcers, has had two open heart surgeries, and is now fighting prostate cancer. He’s lost a son and a daughter, his mother committed suicide over 45 years ago, and he’s had to fight for everything he’s ever had. Yet he’s a loving man, has lots of good memories and stories to tell, and has one hell of a sense of humor. He wears a sort of integrity and pride that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in another man. He’s the kind of guy who used to fight barroom brawls routinely over my young beautiful mother just after the war when they would go out and about, some fifty years ago. He’s got, ya know, cojones.

And, oh yeah, he’s a war hero. ◼

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