“Pure Luck:” Surviving the Air War against Nazi Germany

Photo credit to Lowell Silverman

This is an interview of my friend Paul Collins. Paul grew up in Wilmington and attended St. Peter’s Cathedral grade school and Wilmington High School. Upon graduation he became a member of the US 8th Airforce in England that fought the critical and extremely dangerous air war against Germany. Unlike more than 400 of his fellow Wilmington residents, including several friends, he survived his 35 missions and returned from the War.

Paul remained in the Delaware Air National Guard for many years and retired as a Major. A life long student of history, he lives today in New Castle and remains active in the community as a volunteer with the St. Vincent De Paul society. This is a condensed interview covering an extended ongoing discussion about World War Two and local history. Nathan Field

You grew up in Wilmington in the 1930s, the heart of the Great Depression. Give us some perspective on what it was like compared to today.

We grew up poor but we didn’t realize it because everyone was in the same boat. Times were very tough during the 1930s. The first several years of my life we lived at 614 West 8th Street and had no indoor plumbing. We had no heating. I remember having to scrape ice off the inside of the windows.

We walked everywhere. And public transportation was great.  The trolley system was excellent.  I don’t understand why they stopped it. 70 years ago public transport was much better than it is today!


Let’s jump to the War. What’s your assessment of Allied air strategy against Germany during World War Two?

Despite our raids [on industrial targets], the Germans actually increased their overall factory production during the War. We should have focused primarily on Oil. That would have more effectively strangled the Nazi war machine.   

I did not like Eisenhower’s tactical use of bombers. For example, there were many missions where planes were assigned to bomb submarine pens. This may have been under orders from FDR but it was a terrible idea. German U-boat pens were so heavily fortified that I don’t even think an atomic bomb would have knocked them out. Many many planes were lost trying to knock out submarine pens.

What were you most afraid on missions?

Flak from anti-aircraft guns was the most dangerous. After August 1944, during the battle of Arnhem as part of Market Garden, we attacked with 1,000 planes and we watched parachutists getting machine gunned in the air. That’s how thick the flack was.

Assembly of bomber formations for bomber raids was quite dangerous. It took close to two hours to assemble 1,000 planes into formation, so they had to circle. And I always wondered when I came back from a mission if we lost any planes due to collisions while getting into formation.

Our maintenance crews were incredible.  On one raid we came back with 110 holes in our plane.  They patched it up and it was ready for the next raid.  They were as important as the pilots.


B17s flew in tight groups of 30 or so planes. To what extent did this provide safety in numbers versus German defenses?

I’m going to describe something to you, that will be difficult for you to picture, because it was just as difficult for me, and I couldn’t believe it was happening when I saw it first hand.

All the sudden masses of German fighters would appear and fly right through our formation.

On one mission outside of Leipzig, we were hit by a wave of maybe 100 or 120 ME 109s, FW 190s.  One guy came in like this [motions with hand], he was close enough I could see his face and oxygen mask. 

They try to break you up. You either move or die.



Let’s take a hypothetical situation where the German fighters as described above break up the formation and isolate a B17. How does the stray B17 fare versus the German fighters that inevitably will try to attack it?

The German fighter will win most of the time.  They can maneuver and pick spots.  If you were a straggler, there’s a good chance you are going to go down.


Help me understand why an isolated B17 would be an automatic underdog vs a German fighter. When we visited the B17 at Dover Air Force Base in November it became immediately clear to me why they called it the “Flying Fortress.”

With 5 heavy machine guns, the B17 has massive firepower, more than the German fighter… so surely an advantage?

The German guy is flying a very light plane, designed to go 340-400 miles per hour, and they are very maneuverable. The other guy is flying 65,000 pounds, driving a truck, no power assistance.  I had a hard time steering the thing.

However, the extent of the danger to the isolated B17 depends on a variety of factors. How much fuel did the German fighter have, how many passes could it make at you? It might not get you on one pass, but it might come around again.   As I keep mentioning, the Germans key weakness was their lack of fuel.


Late in the war the Germans introduce the world’s first Jet fighter, the Messerschmitt 262. How would the ME262 have fared versus the stray B17 compared to more standard German fighters?

A lone B17 would be in very big trouble against an ME262.

We were attacked by a ME 262 on a mission.  We didn’t even know they had one. Our Intel knew it but they never told us. 

My crew was flying over the North Sea coming back from outside of Bremen.  We were 20,000 feet up.

Suddenly,  our ball turret gunner who was a pain in the neck [laughing] …of course if you weren’t a pain in the neck at first, you start flying the ball and you become a pain. ….he starts yelling over the intercom, and I mean hollering “somebody just shot at us.”

I was in command of the intercom, I yelled back “get off the intercom, we’re overseas, they don’t have submarines that can shoot rockets.” 

This thing was going about 500 miles per hour. We were going 170 to 180.  It made one pass and went by and left us.

Once again because of fuel. The fellow flying that ME262 was far from his base and only had enough fuel to do one pass at us. 

If the Germans had been able to mass produce the ME 262, what’s the impact on the air war?

It would have been night and day. ….

The biggest problem for the Germans at the end of the war was that they had run out of experienced pilots and fuel. So even if they had been able to produce the ME262 in large enough numbers they would have great difficulty exploiting that to change the outcome on the battlefield.

That’s why I keep returning to the issue of oil. And I keep saying if we had different leadership, someone like General Lemay from the beginning, we’d have bombed the oil.  We wasted so much time bombing submarine pens.  What a waste!


Norden bombsite at Dover Air Museum

As a bombardier,what did you think of the Norden Bombsight (a vaunted new technology at the time) that was supposed to increase the accuracy of bombing?

It was a joke.  It was commissioned in 1927.  The Germans knew all about it. There was one called Honeywell that I thought was better. 

The Norden Bombsight was great only if weather conditions were perfect and if there was no turbulence.  I did a demonstration in Texas and under perfect conditions put a bomb in a 12x 12 foot shack at 10,000 feet.




DODGING “FLAK” ON THE BOMB RUN

Was Flak as terrifying in real life as it looks in the movies?

No question. We were terrified.  And nobody in the plane had a better picture than myself as the bombardier.  From my seat, I had a full view of everything. Whereas the Pilot and the gunners only had single, small windows and only a limited view.   

If we’re headed to a big target, like Berlin, Leipzig, Hamburg, I could see the flak from 50 to 100 miles away.

You’re ten minutes away, you try to fake them out.  You pick a little town, maybe you’re going to bomb Manhein, and you want to make them think you’re going to bomb Ludwigshafen…twin cities.

It would be like a big thundercloud. Black smoke from the shells that exploded, You could tell how close they were by the color, first of all, if they were dissipating, really black 5 to 10 second, ….pink…really close.  Pinkish red….than  have you heard the hail, a piece hitting the plane.  And when you heard the “whooh” that was bad.

Then you enter the Bomb Run which was on average about eight minutes….

Once the bomb run begins, is it safe to say that your fate is cealed? Whatever’s going to happen to you is going to happen to you?

That’s right. That’s tough shit.  Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen.

I started praying twice as hard and I’d already been praying.  I sang all the songs, Blessed Mother, Sacred Heart, you name them, I used to be in the choir, so I knew them all.  Begging God, to get me through this.  

You look that way and a plane goes down, just so gracefully.  You look and see how many got out, see if you see any chutes.  We’d record that.

I can see why they didn’t want officers over 27.  They wanted you young and foolish!


Was there ever an acceptable point where a mission could be aborted because the leader in the air decided the danger was too high? I.e too much flak?

No! Some individual pilots turned back before they got to their target, but that was frowned upon.  We had one guy that did it twice. 

There was a line on the map. You do not get credit for a mission if you don’t pass that line.  This guy turned back right over the line. 

First time he said that he could hear something wrong with one of the engines.  I had as good a hearing as anyone on that plane and didn’t hear anything wrong with the engine.  

The 2nd time he did it, I told him “you do that one more time I might not be able to beat the shit out of you, but I’ll shoot you.”  He ended up getting demoted to Co-pilot.   

The reason I got so angry about this was because taking off and starting out on missions was very dangerous.   It’s almost as dangerous as the missions themselves. 

England is a very small country geographically so there isn’t alot of air space and you rarely had a nice clear day.  Planes collided quite frequently. When you’re carrying 3-4 tons of bombs you never know when they’re going to go off.  We had spontaneous combustion on a number of planes.

So individual planes aside, no matter how strong the German defenses were, nobody up in the air had the authority to call of the overall mission?

No way! Even if we lost 60 planes on a mission like we did in the Ploiesti raid we still, completed the mission.  

I was very proud, and this is a matter of record, the 8th Air Force was never turned back from a mission because of combat, only weather.


THE DOWNED AIRMEN’S CALCULATIONS FOR SURVIVAL

Throughout the war, several thousand Allied fighters go down via parachute over Nazi Occupied territory. Your plane even landed due to mechanical issues in a combat zone in July 1944. 

What are the considerations of the Airmen once he bails out if he wants to make it home?

First of all, it’s not easy to get out. As you saw in Dover, The B17 was very narrow. Very tight quarters and it was no guarantee you could get out.

You get rid of the parachute. Try to hide it. Start looking for cover. We had maps. We had an escape kit and had a map of the territory you were going to go in.  You knew about right where you were…

You had clothing on underneath that resembled something like local clothing.  We had learned how to tie the European knot that was distinctly different than the English or American knot. If you landed you didn’t want to be caught wearing sheep skin, so you got rid of that.

Would try to head in the direction of safety…hope to run into somebody…..

Who do you want to run into to maximize your chances of survival?

You want to try to reach the Underground. Or they reached you. 

Often times your best bet for survival may have been capture by the German military. Because if the civilians got to you, especially over Germany, there’s a good chance you might get killed.

Can you blame the locals that executed downed Allied airmen considering that they were being bombed?  

No, you can’t blame than.

I do blame the people that crucified some of the guys that were on the plane that my buddy was on….he was shot down over Munich in the suburbs. He was in the bushes and he saw three of his crew captured and crucified and nailed up to a telephone pole. He got away 3 days later when the farmer that he contacted turned him over to the Luftwaffe who put him in a camp.

How could you determine the difference between the Underground looking to help you and angry civilians looking to kill you in revenge, given that they looked and dressed the same?

Luck!  It also depended where you were, in Germany, there was no underground.  France and Italy, yes.

You’d try to get away from the cities and find the farmers. They knew who the underground were and they’d contact them.

Let’s return to your comment above that the downed airmen’s best bet for survival was often capture by the German military.

What about within the German military? Would it be worse to be caught by the SS given their pure evil?

You wouldn’t be “caught” by the SS.  You would be referred to the SS.  They were an elite group.  They did not run around the streets looking for downed airmen.  

If you were caught it would be by the Army or the Luftwaffe. They would then call the SS to come in and the SS would interrogate you, and you were supposed to stick to Name Rank and Serial number. We were supposed to die before giving up any secrets.  I think most of the fellas…..from what I’ve heard they did not torture. 

If they did it was according to how mean the guy was that ran the base.

Does that equation differ if the airmen was Jewish?

Yes. My friend Louis Beckman, was not Jewish but because his name sounded Jewish he was terrified that he would fall into German hands and they would think he was. He did get captured and was assumed to be.  He was roughed up for several days and had a tough time convincing them he wasn’t Jewish.

However, I am not aware of any widespread pattern of American Jewish airmen that went down being executed or systematically treated differently.

Again it also depended on the nature of the individual German commander on the base in charge.


THE HOLOCAUST

Based on your WW2 experience and knowledge of aviation, would it have been plausible to have bombed the concentration camps? In terms of stopping what was going on?

In terms of stopping what was going on, I don’t think so.  There were too many of them.   There were huge outfits, you’re talking 20,000 to 30,000 people. 

But we did not do everything we could.

As I’ve told you before, during the Warsaw Revolt, we were lined up for one mission, not to bomb concentration camps, but to drop supplies in Warsaw to aid the rebels against the German Army.  There’s over 100,000 people hiding in those sewers, a great many of them Jews. We were literally lined up with the props turning and we’d gotten shots for the bubonic plague and cholera. 

They called it off because Stalin was opposed to us landing in Russia.  Poland was too far for one mission [to and from England] so we would have had to land in Russia. Stalin calls Roosevelt and says your planes can’t land in Russia.  The Russians sat outside the city and waited for the Germans to kill everyone off.

There was a purchasing agent down at Christiana Hospital for many years, he got his leg cut off during the Warsaw revolt, that I knew well.  


THE HUMAN IMPACT OF WAR

Did you know James Connor [Wilmington resident, from East Side, St. Mary’s grade school) the lone local resident to win the Medal of Honor?

Yes.  I knew him well.  Before the war he was a big fighter and was always getting into fights.  But when he came back he was quite subdued.  They gave him a job working at the VA Hospital that opened around 1950 or so and I sold him supplies…..was very subdued.  The opposite of what he was like pre-war.

That’s how it was.  Guys either became very subdued.  Or they went crazy.  I think the being subdued part is worse, more dangerous because if someone Is openly crazy at least you know what they’re dealing with.  But the quiet ones, something can be simmering under the surface and you really don’t know, they can just explode.

How did participating in World War Two effect you, despite the horrible things you experienced?

World War Two war made me.  Before the war I had something of an inferiority complex. Without the war I would have spent my life as a low-level clerk at Dupont’s.  The kinds of things we were called to do, gave us a level of confidence to do things we previously thought impossible.

Here is a story to illustrate what I mean by this.

On one of our missions, two bombs got caught in the bomb bay.  They did not release and were banging against the bomb bay door and were timed to explode. Somebody had to crawl back there and kick them out.

AT left Paul explaining the bomb bay at the B17 at the Dover Air Force Air Command Museum. Right: a few minutes later, the view above from the door to the bomb bay and the ground would have been 20,000 feet down. Photo credit: Lowell Silverman

The bomb bay is very narrow.  To do so I had to take off my parachute and other equipment so I could move around.  So here I am crawling back there, in 30 degrees below freezing, over this hole looking down 20,000 feet. If the plane hit turbulence, I would have fallen.  I released them manually.

After you’d done something like this, you feel like you can do anything.

To what extent was your view that the war “made you” true of everyone that participated in the war? 

I think that was true of 80 to 90% of the people I knew.  The ones that were hurt – were ruined by the war, some of them may have been ruined and I didn’t know it. Just in terms of turning into an alcoholic or a psychopath…..only a few. 

The issue was often with the drinking and in terms of marriages.  Two of my close friends turned to drink and couldn’t handle what they saw, ended up dying very young.

Was it difficult for you to do what you were asked to do?

In terms of killing it was easy [at the time].  It was a job we were asked to do. The hard part for me was the temptation in terms of what was was available on leave or elsewhere.

One time our planed was forced down because of engine trouble near Amiens in France. We thought we were closer to Belgium but we landed in the wrong area. 

We landed in the middle of a fire fight between the Germans and the French Maquis.  The Maquis came to our plane and wanted to take our parachutes for the silk and our machine guns.  We said no.  I did blow up the Norden bomb site as I was supposed to do. Although blowing it up was pointless since the Germans already had access to the Norden bomb site and had for several years. 

News Journal article written on “some” of this incident during the War

To hide us, the Maquis put us up in a local “house of ill repute.” They told us “if the Germans come back, just get under the covers.”

That night we got absolutely bombed from champagne.  And everyone on the crew except for myself and one other partook of the women. When we woke up, everyone was so intoxicated we had no idea where we were and could hardly remember the previous night. 

If your crew was so drunk that you didn’t even know what day it was, how were you going to fight if the Germans came looking for you? Weren’t you worried about that?

No! We were living moment to moment.  We could have died bringing down the plane.  We could have died at any moment on any one of our missions. 

The British troops were advancing in this sector and a British captain came to the house of ill repute looking for us. They let us use their radios and we got in contact with our base back in England.  A day or so later they sent a C-47 with mechanics and fixed our plane, and we then flew it back to England. 


BOUNCING BACK AFTER THE WAR

What was the transition back to civilian life like?

It was very difficult getting back into a normal life after the war.  Back home in Wilmington I was doing lots of drinking and fighting. I could have gone down a bad path.

What was the key to turning things around?

One day I got a call from a friend.  A big Irishman.  He told me “you have a date tonight.”  I told him no I don’t, I’m hungover from last night and tired and spent all my money. He said I don’t want to hear it, you can borrow some money and use my car. 

So I put on a suit.  And picked her up.  I noticed immediately that she gave off an aura of serenity and she was beautiful. She was living at the end of 5th St.  Her family had gone through exactly the tough times in the Depression I had.  Her dad died, leaving 3 children to a mother who spoke not a word of English. 

On our 3rd date, I took her to a formal dance at the Hotel Dupont that was being thrown by the National Guard unit I was part of to celebrate the creation of a Separate Air Force. 

I’m in the bathroom and a couple of guys start making fun of my medals. So I punched one of them and took them on. The police came and it turns out it’s a guy I knew from Wilmington High School.   He says “Collins, what are you thinking?” 

The officer brings me back to my table and tells her “this guy is done here tonight. Take him away from here.”  

She was mortified.  And turned to me and said “If you EVER get in a fight again, we’re through.”

 I never got in another fight.  I held my tongue many many times! We lived a wonderful life together.

You were honored with a ceremony at the French embassy in 2015 and that had a cathartic effect on you.

About 3 years ago, myself and others from the Army Air Corps were selected for a special honor from the French Government.  I even personally got a phone call from the French Minister of Defense himself.  They invited us down to the French embassy.  I went down there with about 20 of my family members.  There was about 20 other veterans.  They went one my one giving us the medals and I was awarded the Legion of Honor.

Afterwards, a French general comes up to me….and says Mr. Collins I want to thank you on behalf of my father for what you did on that mission where you dropped supplies near his village….he was there.  This French general had taken the time to research each of our backgrounds.  That was very special. Of all the other missions we went on, it had been all about killing.  That made me feel like had done something special.

So….luck….it’s pretty important in life?

Very important.  I could have died on any one of those missions….I could have married the wrong person…..I have lived a very lucky life.  Three great kids.  I had a great company and I was able to operate the St. Vincent De Paul Society for many many years and to this day am involved in a Prison ministry.  I have been very blessed.