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High Squadron Gone

Returning to Base


[Annotators Note: Robert Shoens and the interviewer start the interview with some small chat about experiences both men had flying in B-17s.] Robert Shoens has flown in different types of B-17s, even after the war. One of the planes he flew in after the war was called Yankee Girl. The interviewer notes that sometimes these traveling air show groups come to the New Orleans lakefront to provide flights to the public. Shoens has participated in a few other interviews. Shoens has been interviewed in England. He went to England a year before the interview. He got the chance to see the air base from which he flew his missions. Shoens and the 100th Bomb Group Association are currently looking for people to help in their fundraising effort. They have second and third generation relatives helping to keep the memory of the 100th [Annotators Note: 100th Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force] alive. Shoens joined the Army Air Corps because he always wanted to become a pilot. His love for flying started in school. He graduated high school in 1939 and then went to a community college for two years in Dearborn, Michigan. While he was there the government announced the CPT [ Annotators Note: Civilian Pilot Training Program, or CPTP]. Shoens got about 40 hours of training with the CPT. After junior college he came home and went to work. His mother was on the draft board so she told him to make up his mind soon. Shoens' dad was in the navy in World War 1 so he tried the navy. The navy told him he was one credit short. Shoens signed up in April 1942. He was home sitting next to the radio when Pearl Harbor happened. Shoens did not expect Pearl Harbor but he had been following world events. He had one sibling, a younger sister. For the first six months he did no training. Shoens was told after signing up to return in 30 days. He returned in 30 days and they told him to wait another 60 days. Shoens and his family were on vacation during his leave. The day before Shoens was ready to come home the state police showed up and told him he had to report. His first stop was the Santa Ana Army Air Base but they had no airplanes. It was basic training. They marched and read books on airplanes. Shoens thought he had a leg up because of his 40 hours of experience. They informed Shoens and the men he was with that having a pilot’s license meant nothing and that they were going to learn everything from scratch. Shoens trained on the PT-22. It was an open cockpit aircraft with a radial engine. The instructor sat in the front. The army way taught more precision then what he learned in the CPT. A lot of guys washed out. In primary training Shoens went up one day with a check pilot. Every ten hours of training they had you fly with a check pilot. The first time Shoens flew with a check pilot he got a warning for not using the rudder. Two warnings total during the training and you were kicked out. On Shoens' last training flight he was given a warning for using the rudder too much. This would have gotten him disqualified but he was able to argue that since his previous citation said he had not used the rudder enough he should not be punished.


The Army Air Corps knew that they needed to get the best pilots. Robert Shoens took his training in January of February of 1943. He had no idea what kind of losses the 8th Air Force was incurring. Shoens graduated and got his wings in New Mexico on 20 May 1943. He transitioned to B-17s in New Mexico then they went to Moses Lake, Washington. The base was under construction when he got there. They had two barracks and one runway. Shoens got two flights in at night and they were useless. Shoens started picking up crew members there. He got his copilot and radioman at Moses Lake. Some guys wanted to fly fighters but Shoens did not really care. He just wanted to fly. In his mind he was not good enough to fly fighters. Shoens met Hubert Zemke after his tour in Europe was over. Zemke told Shoens that he had received many bomber pilots who wanted to be fighter pilots and it did not work out well for those guys. Shoens figured it was just as well that he did not get into flying fighters. Shoens just wanted to fly. Shoens enjoyed the B-17 because it was the biggest thing he got to fly. The B-17 was easy to fly and incredibly stable. Shoens went from Moses Lake to Kearney, Nebraska. Shoens had his entire crew by the time he was done at Kearney. His crew went overseas on the Queen Mary in the first part of October 1943. Shoens was put on a train to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey and was there for a couple of days before he went to New York and got on the Queen Mary. Shoens has no idea why his crew did not have to fly their plane overseas. The trip overseas was good. They got to England in four days which was a record for the Queen Mary. Shoens never saw any submarines during his voyage. They landed in Scotland then went to Tillshead, England where they sat in tents for two weeks. Shoens had no idea about the groups. Nobody told them anything. Shoens arrived at Thorpe Abbotts in November 1943. The second Regensburg raid occurred while Shoens was on the Queen Mary. It turned out that they were replacement crews for the crews lost over Schweinfurt and Regensburg. The 100th [Annotators Note: 100th Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force] was glad to have replacements. Shoens got placed in a barracks that only had two crews in it. There were a lot of empty beds when they got there. It made Shoens wonder. Shoens never received any hints that it was going to be a tough go. Some guys did a lot of crazy things on liberty. Shoens was intrigued by London. He hung around Picadilly Circus a lot. There were a lot of good bars and theaters.


The English were incredibly grateful for the American presence. Robert Shoens and his crew stuck together when they got overseas. Sometimes crews that went overseas together would be separated based on needs. Shoens picked up a ball turret gunner in England who did everything he could to not fly combat. Shoens protested and the man was taken off of his crew. Shoens was placed in the 351st Bomb Squadron [Annotators Note: 351st Bombardment Squadron, 100th Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force]. He got his own airplane after 11 or 12 missions. The name of their plane was Our Gal Sal. One of Shoens’ crewmen painted the girl. Shoens came out one day and it was all done. He had the nose art done by the second mission. Our Gal Sal's nose art originally had no clothes on but they were asked to dress up the nude girl with a dress. Shoens was not able fly his own plane every once in awhile when it was down for routine repairs. They flew other planes five or six other times. All the way through December they flew training missions. The weather was not great that winter. Shoens flew his first mission on 4 January [Annotators Note: 4 January 1944] to the Ruhr Valley which the guys affectionately called Happy Valley. There were a lot of stories going around about the different targets in the Ruhr Valley. There was a lot of flak on their first mission [Annotators Note: Shoens makes a gesture with his hands indicating that on his first mission they were incredibly wide eyed and alert to what was going on]. The flak in the Ruhr Valley was tough but it was not that hard to get through. The geographical area of the Ruhr was not that big so they were not under fire from flak batteries for long. Shoens flew to Berlin on his 16th mission. He went on all three missions to Berlin. The third mission was when everybody turned back except one group. On that mission Shoens’ best man from his wedding was shot down. The man’s name was Stanley Seton. He was a prisoner of war but he did make it alright. The second raid was scrubbed entirely. There was a lot of moaning and groaning when they announced that they were going to Berlin that day. Everyone knew it was coming because by that point they had bombed almost every city in Germany except Berlin. Shoens knew it was going to happen sooner or later. It was an outstanding target and they knew it was going to be well defended. The guys were worried about escorts. The P-51 Mustang had gotten overseas almost when Shoens got there. Berlin was the furthest Shoens had personally flown up to that point. Shoens ended up flying a few missions to Poland which were longer.


Robert Shoens was told what the plan was going to be for the Berlin raid. They went over specifics regarding flight plan fighter escort and the target. On the sixth [annotator’s note 6 March 1944] Shoens was the number three plane in the second element of the lead squadron. Shoens was in the lead squadron on the left side. Whenever you awoke on the day you were flying on a raid you got dressed and ate breakfast. The breakfast was always a treat. Everything was fresh. After breakfast you picked up your equipment such as oxygen mask. Once the gear was squared away the guys would go into the briefing room and from there guys were put in trucks and sent out to their aircraft. Shoens got to his airplane about 20 minutes before takeoff. Shoens went in with the ground crew and they did all of their pre flight checks. When the time came they got in the plane and got everything ready. When the green flare went off from the tower it was time to go. None of Shoens guys utilized the available religious services. Shoens stomach was uneasy the morning of March 6th. Everything was automatic though because of the training. Shoens notes that the month he had to fly practice flights in England really helped. If he had been thrown into combat with no practice things might have turned out differently. Shoens had a lot of hours under his belt. Their B-17 carried ten 500 pound bombs to Berlin. Takeoff was always rough because a B-17 fully loaded was basically a flying bomb. The B-17 was not hard to get off of the ground even with the weight. 6,500 feet was more than enough distance to get the B-17 airborne. Forming up takes awhile. It took at least an hour to form up. The standard procedure was 300 feet per minute. The lead airplane shot flares so people knew which plane to follow. Most of the time it took two hours. For the eight guys on the plane who were not flying it was rather boring waiting to form up. They never left England until they were formed up and ready to go. Formation flying is work. The lead airplane has the easiest part. Further back in the formation it is a little bit tougher. Over the Channel the guys in the plane would be getting ready. Gunners would charge their guns by firing off a few rounds. If they received good intelligence on where to hit land across the Channel they usually received minimal flak. On March 6th there was no flak. They got to 24,000 feet by the time they were over France and the flight was smooth with no interruptions up until that point. Shoens noticed shortly after that there were German planes heading in their direction. Shoens also noted that there was lack of fighter support on this particular mission. A few minutes before the German planes began to bear down on the formation someone in the back of Shoens plane came over the radio to ask if anyone had seen the fighter escort. Everyone looked around and realized they did not have a fighter escort. There were a few P-47s scattered around. By the time the fighter escorts got back all they had left to protect were puffs of smoke in the air and fires on the ground from all of the B-17s that had been shot down.


Robert Shoens knew that the planes coming towards him were not the much hoped for escort. In the briefing room after the mission Shoens indicated there were 200 planes. There were actually around 140. Shoens was mesmerized for a second. The closing rate of speed is 500 to 600 miles per hour. Shoens' airspeed was usually about 135 miles per hour. The planes went by their plane so fast they did not have time to think. On the first pass, the first squadron flying high was almost wiped out completely. Shoens had to shift to the number two position because someone dropped out. The Germans flanked his squadron and ended up going through Shoens' squadron three times before it was all said and done. The intercom was loaded with conversation. There is a constant flow of information up front. The gunners are constantly calling out targets. Crew members also call out when someone was shot down. Shoens' plane got credit for two kills. The waist gunners had credit for both kills. Shoens believes that if he could do it again he would not have waist gunners. He believes that there were many times when the waist gunners shot their own plane. The positioning of the guns was not advantageous especially in a firefight. When they saw the German planes coming they tightened up their formation. Two or three of the crews flying near them lived in Shoens' barracks. His job when under attack first and foremost is to keep the plane on track ready to bomb. You cannot do a damn thing about it if you get hit. Shoens often thought about having the ability to shoot back. A misnomer about the turrets in the B-17 is that they can move fast to shoot when in reality the turret moved quite slow when trying to catch up with the closing speed of a German plane. Shoens saw fires and junk when he was flying in the Berlin raid. The guy on his right was hit at one point and his wing caught fire. The plane blew up. Fortunately, some of the guys actually survived. The whole wing was aflame. It can happen very quickly. It did not take long but eventually Shoens figured out that he could not dwell on the guys that went down in flames. If he did he would end up crazy. Shoens' plane did not get a scratch. They were still in the air so all they could do was keep flying. Shoens recalls getting word that the Germans were coming back for a fourth pass but nothing happened.


Robert Shoens notes that they used to argue about certain things at their reunions. There were other missions when other groups got it worse then the 100th Bomb Group [Annotators Note: 100th Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force]. On one of the Schweinfurt missions the 100th did not lose a single plane. They went back to Berlin on 8 March [Annotators Note: 8 March 1944] and did not see a single fighter. The German radar was able to pick out breaks in the American formation. This worked to their advantage on multiple occasions. Shoens' squadron lost 12 aircraft in three passes. The Germans would attack in packs. All a pilot can do is grip the wheel and ensure that the plane remained stable. It happened to fast. No matter what they needed to keep the plane flying upright. The German fighters would peel off at the last second and it was a miracle that none of them ran into Shoens' plane. Shoens met a few German fighter pilots after the war. He met with the German pilot at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. They were all brought together to sign a painting. The German pilot that ended up coming was initially nervous to come because he did not know how the American public was going to receive him. He was a nice guy. Shoens met the German pilot in the 1980s. The trouble with the Germans was that they eventually ran out of good pilots. Shoens saw many B-17s go down in a multitude of ways. The 6 March Berlin raid was an exception because there were a lot of planes going down. On nearly every raid someone got shot down. Shoens notes that they got so tuned in to what they were doing that the routine sets in and it becomes automatic. It gets scary but something in the back of your mind says at least it was not me. There were no planes left in Shoens' squadron. When he flew back he was literally alone. When the Germans came back for their last pass they were by themselves. Immediately Shoens attempted to get back with any B-17. His concern was to find someplace to hide. Shoens folded in with the 390th Bomb Group and they dropped their bombs. They were able to catch up with them. A flak battery was following their plane. Shoens was able to cross the correct way on the trajectory of the flak battery. This allowed his plane to avoid flak.


Robert Shoens felt that the flak was limited on that mission [Annotators Note: the 6 March 1944 mission to Berlin]. It was bad for a little while but after they got through the flak it was not bad. Shoens was not able to assess the damage done on Berlin. He recalls seeing the flashes from the flak batteries below. Flak was more terrifying than fighters in Shoens' opinion. Flak was pervasive. The fighters were hit or miss. Sometimes they did not see fighters. Shoens was aware that the Germans had their own B-17s that they had repaired and made flyable. When Shoens was alone and then joined the 390th it was something he had to think about. The ride home after the Berlin raid was nice and quiet. Nothing happened. They passed different escorts that were going to and from different groups of B-17s. When they left the coast of France they dropped away from the 390th and headed to their own base. Shoens recalls reflecting on what had just happened and all of the guys who were shot down. Shoens was able to tell coming into base that no airplanes had landed. It began to dawn on the crew that they had just been through a very serious mission. When they landed Shoens had to taxi to his stand. All of the crews were standing waiting for their planes to get back but when they only saw Our Gal Sal they were obviously concerned. Usually the crews came out to congratulate everyone but this time everyone was stunned. Normally a jeep would pull up and take them back for debriefing but this time two jeeps came up and one of them contained the squadron commander. He waved Shoens over and asked what happened. Shoes said that he did not know. The commander had tears running down his face. They lost 15 aircraft that day, 25 percent of all losses on that day. Shoens had the only crew in the debriefing. Every debriefing officer in the room got up and came over to Shoens crew. Shoens was telling them what he knew. They always held out hope that someone landed at another field. They had a specific field set up for crash landing. It really hit Shoens hard when he realized the stand and barracks were empty. Shoens stood down that day. They might have gotten a couple of drinks at the officers club but they did not get drunk. On 8 and 10 March they went back to Berlin. Shoens realized there was no point in groaning or complaining because he had to go.


Robert Shoens' squadron had about four to six planes available. When they went back to Berlin on the eighth [Annotators Note: 8 March 1944] they were not at full strength but they were able to put one group up. Sometimes they had crews and no airplanes and other times they had airplanes and no crews. Shoens notes that on base they did not mingle with other crews. He always made sure his crew was ready and on top of what they needed to do. They developed a pattern. One of Shoens' friends who got shot down ended up going down in Sweden. Shoens found out that he was in Sweden and sent a telegram to his wife to talk to the wife of the man who was shot down. It was good news for the wife to find out that he was alive. Shoens would assume that they were either prisoners of war or dead. Sometimes he would hear his crew shouting out parachutes. It was something that he hoped to never experience again. Shoens' tour was still 25 missions at that point. He flew 28 missions. They prorated the missions. If you had 22 missions you did 28 total. Shoens was ticked off that they changed the quota and his 25 missions were prorated to 28. Shoens' last mission was to bomb a buzz bomb site in France. It was just their group. They bombed from 16,000 feet. Flak was rough. They ran into low cloud cover so Shoens had to turn around past the target and hit it from a different angle. Shoens’ bombardier struggled to find the target. Shoens returned with his bombs in his bomb bay. It was pretty nice to land the bird for the last time. The next day Shoens took a few pictures with his air and ground crew. He did not have to wait long, maybe a week, before they signed him off to leave. Shoens was offered the chance to fly five more missions to make major. He was assigned to a ferry squadron in Northern Ireland. Shoens took a train to a base down in London. There were four or five other pilots with him who had to do the same thing. Shoens was promoted to captain before he went home. Shoens flew all 28 missions as a lieutenant. He does not believe anyone got higher than captain unless they volunteered for extra missions. Shoens flew from an old aircraft company’s modification airfield. He was ferried to Liverpool to pick up his airplane. Shoens finished all of this in August of 1944. Shoens was at a reassignment base in England. They ended up going to a place called Valley in Wales. There was a DC6B [Annotators Note: Douglas DC-6 transport aircraft] waiting for them and they went home. They landed in Maine.


Robert Shoens sent a telegram to his wife in Maine to let her know that he was coming home soon. There were a bunch of guys waiting to go home. He told his wife that he would get home in a week or so. That night a C-46 flew to Newark, New Jersey. Two guys were put on that flight. The plane was empty. They got to Newark that night between ten and midnight. They went to New York City’s American Airlines office. They got tickets for a flight to Chicago. Then they went to a hotel where they took showers and freshened up. They got a taxi back to Newark airport and got on a DC-3 to Chicago. Shoens and the other captain got to fly at the front of the plane. They were given a Class B priority which was usually reserved for diplomats. They were flying over Ohio and they hit some bumpy air. All of a sudden the airplane dropped about 300 feet. The galley exploded with silverware flying everywhere and it kind of scared them. Shoens actually beat his wife to Chicago. He was sitting on his wife’s mother’s porch when she got home. Shoens had been married for just over a year at that point. He believes it is hard to say whether or not the Berlin raid was worth it. For the amount of effort it was hard to tell if they made an impact. It was the best they could do. Shoens would go back and do it again if he was the same age and the circumstances were right. The 6 March [Annotators Note: 6 March 1944] Berlin raid was the worst experience Shoens had. Regensburg and Schweinfurt were also very tough places to bomb because they were well defended. Shoens never had any major damage to his airplane. On one particularly tough mission to Rostock, the ground crew checked the airplane after they landed and they had a few huge chunks of flak in the plane. Their crew finished mostly intact. Shoens’ top turret gunner left early because when they were on stand down he flew a few missions and got ahead. The 100th Bomb Group [Annotators Note: 100th Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force] had an eclectic group of characters. They had a big discussion when Shoens got his airplane. He was told that he could have a new airplane. They all looked at it. There was a pilot named Frank and he was worried that he was going to lose his ground crew. Frank was transferred later that day. Bucky Elton was another guy they flew with but Shoens only knew of him. Shoens got to know a few of these guys after the war. One day Shoens was assigned to be the officer of the day. The job required going to headquarters and receiving and processing orders. The day Shoens had to be officer of the day there was a mission going on. Shoens had to keep track of all of the crews and who was flying. He has a lot of vivid memories from his time in the war. Shoens recalls the excitement of being on a train and not knowing where they are going. It was all very stunning. Shoens’ worst memory of the war is the raid to Berlin.

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