Times Past

'I wasn't sure I could make 30': SLO County WWII aviators tell harrowing tales

Sgt. Albert Lee Findley with his B-24, taken in 1944.
Sgt. Albert Lee Findley with his B-24, taken in 1944.

“I saw a lot of silver things floating out of the air, and I thought, ‘If that’s flak, it’s very lovely.’ Shortly after that, I saw the flak, big black bursts, and it shook the airplane. The silver things I saw were chaff that some of the airplanes dropped to foul up their radar. It didn’t work that day, because a lot of the aircraft were hit over the target, including us.”

Albert Lee Findley of Los Osos was flying his first mission as a radioman/gunner in his B-24 on Sept. 5, 1944. It seemed magical at first. However, as Jim Gregory writes in his newly published “Central Coast Aviators in World War II”:

“Findley’s bomber was so badly damaged by flak—radar-directed ground fire from German batteries (the chaff he’d seen was made up of slivers of aluminum foil)—that the pilot had to crash land the plane in France and, fortunately for Findley and his aircrew, on French soil that had just been liberated by American ground forces. ‘If this was the first mission,’ a smiling Findley remembered decades later, ‘I wasn’t sure I could make thirty.’"

“Flak,” from the German word Fliegerabwehrkanone, literally “Airplane Defense Cannon,” or “antiaircraft cannon,” was in Gregory’s description “psychologically devastating to … fliers, because, unlike their encounters with fighter planes, there was simply nothing they could do to fight back. The twenty-pound enemy shells, fired from ground batteries that were dense around key targets, exploded in angry black puffs that sent steel fragments slicing through wings, fuselage and crewmen.”

“Flak” was fired into high-altitude bomber formations by the notorious German “88s,” a device that my mentor, the late Paul Fussell, described as being second only to the Atomic Bomb as “the greatest single weapon of the war.” The 88’s high velocity and straight trajectory made it ideal both as an antiaircraft and antitank weapon.

The legendary Arroyo Grande High School shop instructor, Al Spierling, was a flight engineer on B-17s. Following a mission, he counted more than 100 holes in his aircraft. Gregory recounts that “on another, shards of flak sliced the oxygen lines necessary to survival at twenty-five thousand feet; the waist gunners and tail gunner in Spierling’s ship kept passing out- symptomatic of anoxia - until he could repair the system.”

Sgt. Al Spierling atop turret gun on B-17.jpeg
Sgt. Al Spierling atop the turret guns on his B-17. Courtesy

“Bomber crews could hear the flak fragments hit as the shell exploded close by, like gravel scattered on a tin roof. They would watch in amazement, as Spierling did on several missions, as gaping holes appeared in the airframe or, in Albert Findley’s case, as an engine caught fire from a flak hit.”

Then there was the frigid air at high elevations. Findley recalls: “temperatures at forty below zero— impinged on breathing, as well; any moisture inside the oxygen mask froze, blocking the air supply, something a crew member might not notice until one of his comrades lost consciousness.

“(Urine froze as well, so the ‘relief tube’ provided each bomber crew frequently proved useless; veterans used buckets or just relieved themselves inside their clothing.)”

In a future Times Past, we will be recounting the stories of other B-17 crew members like 101-year-old Richard Blomquist of Paso Robles who served in the Army Air Corps in WWII. He piloted the B-17 and was credited with 50 missions.

Howard Snyder, like last week’s column subject, Everett Blakeley, trained at the Hancock College of Aviation in Santa Maria. You can read more about Snyder in a book authored by his son, Steve Snyder, titled “SHOT DOWN: The true story of pilot Howard Snyder and the crew of the B-17 Susan Ruth.”

Gregory’s book will be released May 14 and available at bookstores throughout the area.

This column is by Dan Krieger. Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, he is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.