Somewhere on the bottom of the English Channel, "wreathed in weeds," the corroded, silted-in hulk of 34,000 pounds of a B-17F bomber named Tondelayo remains, a sepulcher vibrating and pulsing in the memory of the only navigator she ever knew, "Benny", the last to leave her before she slipped beneath an angry sea on a September afternoon in 1943.
To Elmer Bendiner, tagged Benny by the crew, Tondelayo seems a not-yet-finally buried reminder of his own anger about having endured, perhaps needlessly, some of the most horrifying aerial battles of World War II, battles which the author, more than three decades later, found it necesary to reassess, question and in some ways condemm as misguided at best. There is also the guilt and wonder of having enjoyed death as a 11th crew member on his missions, the shame of knowing that bombs were accidentally dropped on allies and children and the never erasable memories of bodies and planes suddenly ripped to fragments.
Although Tondelayo did not survive the mandatory 25 missions required of her crew members before they could retire from combat, she did rather well for a sitting duck, seemingly parked in the skies over Europe at a modest 150 mph at Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulf-190s flying 400 mph spit 20 mm explosive shells through her skin time after time, mission after mission. Tondelayo finally fell prey not only to German fire but to the myth, not tested before World War II, that hundreds of strategic bombers flying in close disciplined formation were not only Flying Fortresses themselves, but a collective fortress capable of their own defense without constant fighter support.
Bendiner joined a mixed bag of nine other crew members in the belly of a bomber the Germans had called, in a slightly earlier version, a "flying coffin," a bucket of rivets that even skilled Royal Air Force pilots had nicknamed a "flying target."
But like other warriors at other times, this sensitive, charming, caring, even humble man named Bendiner got high on close proximity of death in the flying coffin. "With death visible and audible, creating a taste in my mouth and a flatus in my belly, I was undeniably alive in battle. . . This was not the war of boredom and vermin we had read about in the tales of our fathers' agony. This was a frenzy in which i heaved and sweated but could not stop because, shamefully, my guts loved what my head hated. . . i exulted in that parade of Fortresses forming for battle. I confess this as an act of treason against the intellect, because i have seen dead men washed out of their turrets with a hose. But if one wants an intellectual view of war one must ask someone who has not seen it."
To some extent Bendiner would insist that survival in a bomber with an accepted casualty rate of 30 percent on some missions was luck. But except for Tondelayo's first pilot, who until he was removed from his position, tended to panic in bad circumstances, the crew seemed to be a balanced blend of the guts, outward casualness and determination necessary to survive.
Bendiner does not remember every crew member of Tondelayo, although the detail of his recollections of what mattered and his research into American and German records of his missions was as thorough as conceivably necessary. There was a bombardier who had washed out of pilot school and whose response to war was often repressed rage; a radio operator with "style" who was "the soul of urbanity"; a quietly expert copilot whose closeness to the Fortress was almost symbiotic, and a "street-wise Ulysses" tailgunner. t
There was, too, the luck that Bendiner thanked heaven for: 11 explosive 20 mm shells that didn't explode were dug out of Tondelayo's wing gas tank by intelligence experts who found inside one shell a note, written in Czech, that translated as, "This is all we can do for you now."
There was also the luck of being in the right place at the right time. It was all too frequent that the plane next to Tondelayo was dismembered, sent spinning in wildly gyrating pieces to the earth, her last moments dutifully recorded in Bendiner's log. "in the morning I had been over Germany watching Tondelayo's sister plane through my port window. Along the fuselage to the tail ran a scarlet streak. It had taken me a moment to understand that there was no top turret and that fuselage was painted with the blood of a gunner who manned it before it was blown away."
The touchstone of the account of Tondelayo and her navigator is the two masive daylight assaults of Flying Fortresses launched on Schweinfurt, Germany, in August and October of 1943, assaults which war planners and politically motivated generals, concerned about demands that all bombers be sent against the Japanese, had determined would neatly end the war within a year by wiping out the Reich's major ball-bearing plants. Without ball-bearings, they too simply determined, German props could not spin and trank treads roll. Bendiner indicates, based on military reports, that the idea may first have been suggested by the Swedish minister's son-in-law at a Washington cocktail party on Dec. 20, 1942. Albert Speer, interestingly enough, said years later that the damage the Reich suffered at Schweinfurt was in part offset by ball bearings produced in Sweden.
Either assault might have seriously undermined the German effort, had they been followed up within weeks by other bombing raids. But the horrifying losses of the American forces in the raids so devastated the fleet that follow-ups were impossible. At one point Bendiner notes that he never returned from any mission without at least, at the very least, some flak holes in the aircraft. He unintentionally seems to suggest that navigators might have been superfluous on the flights home from the targets. Returning bombers could simply follow the fires of shot-down fortresses: "All across Germany, Holland and Belgium the terrible landscape of burning planes unrolled beneath us. It seemed that we were littering Europe with our dead. . ."
In the first raid the losses were: "60 aircraft, 552 men missing, 21 brought back wounded, 8 brought back dead, 17 returned planes inoperable, many others heavily damaged."
In the second assault on Schweinfurt in October, only three or four of the 18 planes in Bendiner's bomber group returned to base the night of the raid. "Of 291 crews that crossed the Channel, 29 wwere lost before they reached the target, another 31 fell on the way home -- 60 in all, 600 men missing out of a force of less than 3,000."
The people who were running this European precision-bombing show were in many cases disciples of the court-martialed martyr Bill Mitchell who had insisted that such stategic, rather than troop-support, bombing would decide wars in the future. Bendiner tries desperately to find credence for strategic bombing, such as the Schweinfurt raids, and notes in a strange rationale that the missions, even if not directly sucessful as bombing raids, tied up so many Germans they created a second front -- in the air -- which kept the Germans from overrunning the Russians. But he is a lot less than certain:
"We were sent on a hazardous mission to destroy in a single day an objective that was vulnerable only to repeated assaults for which we had not the strength. Those objectives could not wait for the arrival of more bombers, of the promised Mustangs, of belly tanks [which would have allowed fighters to escort bombers into Germany itself], because we had to dramatize the importance of air power in the European Theater for the benefit of the public and the Navy.
"If that is a fair reading of our commander's thought processes, then Schweinfurt's ghosts must ride with those of the Light Brigade at Balaklava -- brave soldiers forever charging to their deaths in gallant absurdity."