Former B-17 pilot recalls dangerous missions near end of WWII – Combat flight over Cologne, Germany, most hazardous

Second Lt. Bill Haase, left, stands in front of a PT-19 biplane with his instructor and another student pilot at an Army airfield near Lubbock, Texas, where he first learned to fly. When this picture was taken he had logged 60 hours of flight time. Photo provided.

Second Lt. Bill Haase, left, stands in front of a PT-19 biplane with his instructor and another student pilot at an Army airfield near Lubbock, Texas, where he first learned to fly. When this picture was taken he had logged 60 hours of flight time. Photo provided.

By the time Capt. Bill Haase reached England and the 8th Air Force during the last half of World War II, he was an experienced aviator with 15 months under his belt flying new bombardiers on practice bombing missions stateside.

The 85-year-old Punta Gorda, Fla. man, a former B-17 “Flying Fortress” pilot, arrived at the 306 Bomb Group, 369 Squadron based near Churleigh in Bedfordshire north of London in August 1944.

Haase flew his first combat mission on Aug. 30 against the German submarine pens at Kiel, Germany. It was the first of 30 missions over enemy territory that ended the day the Germans unconditionally surrendered on May 8, 1945.

“The mission I remember best was the most hazardous one we flew on Jan. 10, 1945, to Gymnich, Germany, near the end of the Battle of the Bulge. Our target was a ME-262 jet base the Germans were carving out of the forest,” he said.

“Our weather ship, a P-38 Lightening, called in and said our target was obscured by fog. So we diverted to our alternate target — Cologne, Germany. Cologne was heavily defended by 88 antiaircraft guns.

“I made a wide turn over the city and we got pretty well shot up by ground fire. We took a heavy hit and sustained a big hole in our left wing. I lost an aileron and all our hydraulics,” Haase said.

“Our radio operator reported we had a gaping hole in the wing and we were losing gasoline. I decided to abort the mission and make an emergency landing at an airfield outside Brussels, Belgium.

“We landed with our bombs still in the racks. When the plane touched down, I discovered we had lost our brakes, too. I had to ground loop the B-17 into a snow bank to stop the plane.

“We had an waist gunner who had sustained a serious leg injury from flak, so we were glad to get down in a hurry. It was the only injury my crew suffered in all 30 combat missions. We were lucky,” he said.

Haase's Mission Log lists 30 bomb runs his B-17 crew made beginning on Aug. 30, 1944 and running until May 1945 over Germany, Holland and France.

Haase’s Mission Log lists 30 bomb runs his B-17 crew made beginning on Aug. 30, 1944 and running until May 1945 over Germany, Holland and France.

“On a mission coming back from Amsterdam, Holland, on Sept. 17, 1944, a German rocket came right up under us. We’d seen stuff like this before. But this time we were flying at 30,000 feet and the German rocket kept right on going,” Haase said. “When we got back to base, we learned that a German V-2 Rocket had hit London for the first time.”

Because Haase had more flying time than most of the other pilots, he was made lead pilot. A radar unit was installed in the belly of his B-17, where the ball turret gunner would normally man twin .50 caliber machine guns.

Like most of the other bomber pilots who flew against Hitler’s “Fortress Europe,” their primary problem was flak from German 88 antiaircraft guns 30,000 feet below.

“It usually came up in clusters of five flak bursts. If the first five bursts were right in front of you, you knew you were gonna get it from the 88s. It was a little scary, but we survived,” he said.

Because he was lead pilot, Haase and his crew were picked to do a lot of strange things.

“We tested a special 19-foot rocket bomb that was designed to knock out the almost impenetrable concrete sub pens that were always heavily defended,” he said. We flew a couple of test missions with the bomb attached to the underside of one of our wings. We dropped the bomb at 30,000 feet and it would come down to 8,000 or 10,000 feet and the rocket would kick in. The speeding rocket bomb would penetrate the concrete submarine pens and then explode.”

Apparently it worked, but Haase didn’t fly the special bomb in combat.

His most interesting mission may have been his next to last flown on May 7, 1945, simply listed on his flight log as “SPECIAL MISSION.” It was a mission to drop a leaflet bomb over Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

“The bomb looked like a garbage can. It was filled full of thousands of leaflets in a half-dozen languages. The bomb was designed to explode over the concentration camp at 6,000 feet and the leaflets would rain down on the inmates,” he said.

“The leaflets told those in the concentration camp to stay put because help was on its way. After dropping the leaflet bomb, I circled low over the camp at tree-top level.

“It was 10 a.m. and I could see the dead and the dying below as we flew over Buchenwald. Someone had taken a bulldozer and cut a big trench 15 feet wide and 10 deep and they were throwing thousands of bodies in there like cord wood. It wasn’t a pretty sight,” Haase recalled.

“If anyone tells you Buchenwald didn’t exist, I can tell them it did,” the old aviator said with conviction.

On May 8, 1945, Haase flew his last B-17 combat mission over Dunkirk, France.

The day 2nd Lt. haase received his wings he married Jean. The couple walks down the aisle in a brief wedding ceremony on Oct. 9, 1941. This year they celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. Photo provided

The day 2nd Lt. Haase received his wings he married Jean. The couple walks down the aisle in a brief wedding ceremony on Oct. 9, 1941. This year they celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. Photo provided

“The British army bypassed little pockets of German resistance when they first invaded France. The Germans at Dunkirk were one of those pockets that had survived for more than a year surrounded by Allied forces,” he said. “They had been cut off but they were still fighting with their antiaircraft guns. We flew over Dunkirk on May 8, 1945, and dropped leaflets telling the Germans the war was over, so knock it off.”

At the conclusion of the war in Europe, Haase and the 306 Bomb Group were sent on a special aerial mapping mission that began in Europe.

“We mapped all of Europe for three-dimensional aerial maps. Then we were sent down to the Mediterranean Coast to map the coastline and from there to North Africa, where we finished our mapping,” he said.

Haas at the time of interview at his home in Punta Gorda Isles, Fla. Sun photo by Don Moore

Haas at the time of interview at his home in Punta Gorda, Fla. Photo provided

When Haase got out of the Air Force in January 1946, he took the G.I. Bill, spent the next 2 1/2 years going to engineering school, and graduated with a engineering degree. He went back to work for Wisconsin Bell where he worked before the war. He retired after 44 years with the phone company. He and his wife, Jean, moved to Punta Gorda in 1995.

His commendations

Bill Haase of Punta Gorda flew a B-17 “Flying Fortress” on 30 combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II as part of the 8th Air Force. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters. He was also awarded four battle stars for participating in four major conflicts: Northern France, Ardens, Rhineland and Central Europe.


This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Dec. 16, 2007 and is republished with permission.

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Comments

  1. Certainly hats-off to someone who flew these planes. I went to a WWII show at Boca Airport last week and was amazed – could not imagine flying in one these and fighting at the same time.

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