Daylight came to central England that morning through a filter of fog and low clouds, but with weeks of bad weather finally breaking, hundreds of young Americans awoke with a reasonable expectation that they might die before nightfall.
The day proved them right. Earl Baker survived by the narrowest of margins. Today he is among the few remaining who can recount a particularly dreadful turning point in the skies over Europe.
And he knows that as World War II becomes compressed over time into the historic tableau of the 20th century, Oct. 14, 1943, will be relegated to a footnote.
“The children need to know,” Baker said. “I want them to know.”
On Thursday, Baker, 89, drove up from his lifelong home outside Roanoke to fly aboard the same type of airplane — a B-17 bomber — that he climbed aboard on that morning almost 68 years ago.
“It was great,” he said after landing in Leesburg. “But over the river, we hit an air pocket, and it just brought it all back home — so many memories.”
That day in Baker’s war, when men just figured that it was probably their time to die, stands in stark contrast to 21st-century warfare, when conflicts can be wrapped up in a month or can last a decade, with the loss of American life counted by twos or tens, and when bombs are unleashed from drones by pilots sitting 7,000 miles away in Nevada.
In the early years, the survival rate among Eighth Air Force crews was 15 percent. With better fighter protection, it later climbed to 25 percent.
“You got where you didn’t want to know anybody,” Baker said. “You’re afraid you’ll get too close and then you’ll lose them. The guy in the bed next to me went down, but I couldn’t tell you his name. In three years, we lost 26,000 dead.”
The assault that day was huge, and the enemy knew it was coming. Flying in a massed formation from England, 291 B-17s were sent against a factory complex in Schweinfurt that made ball bearings essential to the German war effort and, in particular, to the manufacture of fighters and bombers for the Luftwaffe.
“The Germans picked us up at the coastline. They knew we were coming,” Baker said.
The B-17s were met by German bombers and all available German fighter planes, which fired rockets into their midst. About 300 of them began the attack over occupied France, assaulting the B-17s evermore fiercely as U.S. fighters reached the limit of their range and had to turn back.
“It was planes blowing up. Guys jumping out with or without parachutes,” Baker said. “One of them went out the bomb bay, and his chute hung up on the bomb shackles. It was at 28,000 feet, so he didn’t feel anything. He either froze to death or died of anoxia,” oxygen deprivation.
Only 222 of the B-17s reached the target.
“Normally, the German pilots would follow you to the target and then back off, and their flak would take over, but this target was too vital to them,” Baker said. “They flew right into their own flak, they were so determined to get us.”
As Baker fired his .50-caliber machine gun in the waist of the plane, searching out one target after another through the open rectangular portal, enemy flak and machine gun fire was chewing up the B-17.
He noticed that something had blown a 20-inch hole in the hull beside him, and the fighter planes continued to attack after the B-17 dropped its bombs and turned for home.
The pilot skimmed low over the English Channel so that the German fighters could not dive on the B-17 without crashing into the sea.
But the plane became difficult to fly, and he realized it would be impossible to land.
Bullets had hit some steering cables and shot off other controls.
“He said, ‘I can pull it back up to 5,000 feet, and we can bail out,’ ” Baker said of the pilot.
It was still light when the B-17 climbed above the clouds.
“It was 10 minutes after 7 when we bailed out. I pretended I was jumping into a snowbank because it helped me mentally. I had never bailed out before,” he said. “Then, right away, I was in the clouds, and I came out the other side in the dark.”
He landed on his back in an English cow pasture.
The day came to be known as “Black Thursday.” It was a costly success. The target factories were badly damaged. But 60 of the B-17s went down over Germany; five crashed on the trip home; 12 limped back so riddled that they were scrapped; and 122 needed repairs. About 650 of the 2,900 crew members didn’t return.
“When we finally got back after that night, you could count the empty bunks in the barracks, and you knew who went down,” Baker said.
By war’s end, Baker had flown 28 missions. For decades, there were nightmares, but not so much anymore.
“I can remember it all, but I don’t like to talk about it,” he said. “And I don’t like to talk about it at all at night because then I can’t rest easy. I think I take it to bed with me”