War Story: A WWII B-17 Pilot Attacks Over Germany

Profile: A WW II B-17 pilot shot down over Germany

\*\*\*By Steve Snyder - Author of SHOT DOWN - Warrior Maven contributor\*\*\*  

Growing up, I knew the basics about his father’s war history. He was a B-17 pilot and stationed at Thurleigh, England with the 306th Bomb Group His plane was named the Susan Ruth after my oldest sister who was one year old at the time he went overseas. He flew combat bombing missions over occupied Europe and Germany and was shot down over Belgium. He was missing in action for 7 months but evaded capture. He then joined the French Resistance sabotaging German convoys and was finally liberated when Patton’s 3rd Army came up through France after D-Day.

However, it wasn’t until I retired in 2009 from a 40 year career in sales and sales management that I had the time to really delve into my father’s war experiences in greater detail. I had no intentions of writing a book. I just wanted to go through all the material my parents had kept from the war years to learn more.

Two items were most significant. One was a diary that my father had written while he was missing in action about his plane being shot down. It was absolutely riveting, So much so that it was included in 2 books that were published; The Mighty Eighth by Gerald Astor and First Over Germany by Russell Strong. The other item was all the letters my father had written to my mother while he was stationed in England. In them, he talked about flying combat missions, life on base and in the surrounding villages, trips into London, and adventures of his crew. Reading those letters was fascinating, and I became totally fascinated with the story of my father and his crew. In fact, it became my passion.

I went on a quest to find relatives of the crew members and asked them for information. I read book after book about the air war over Europe, spent countless hours on the internet doing research and downloading declassified military documents, and started attending reunions of various WW II organizations listening to veterans tell their stories. I am currently president of the 306th Bomb Group Historical Association.

Finally in 2012, I decided to write a book. After my years of research, I came to the conclusion that the story of my father and his crew was so unique and so compelling that it just had to be told and people needed to read about it. From the time I stated my research until the time the book was published was 4 ½ years. It took me 12 months to actually write the manuscript and another 8 months to publish it. I formed a one person limited liability company, Sea Breeze Publishing named for the street I live on in Seal Beach, and contracted with independent professionals for all the necessary services; such as editing, graphic design, interior layout, printing, and fulfillment. It was released in August of 2014 and has received over 20 national book awards.

However, I’m not sure if I would have even written the book if it weren’t for two Belgian gentlemen, Dr. Paul Delahaye and Jacques Lalot. Both were young boys during the war and were greatly affected by it. They witnessed first-hand atrocities committed by the Nazis against their families and friends. Later in life, they became local historians and interviewed citizens and members of the Underground; recording their testimony about events that took place involving my father and members of his crew. They provided me with a tremendous amount of detailed information that would have been lost forever without their extensive research and documentation. I owe a great debt to these two wonderful men.

Although SHOT DOWN is centered on Howard Snyder and his crew, it also contains detailed information about the B-17 Flying Fortress, and the combat crews of the Eighth Air Force. The first half of the book leads up to the day the plane was knocked out of the sky on February 8, 1944 by two German Focke-Wulf 190s. It includes following my father through pilot training, the crew’s journey to England, what life was like both on base and in England, and descriptions of perilous combat missions from take-off to landing. The second half is about what happened to each member of the crew after that harrowing day (five of the crew made it back, and five did not) and about all the courageous Belgian people who risked their lives to help them.

Everything in the book is factual and based on first hand testimony by the people who were involved in the events that took place. This was acquired from personal letters written by crew member and their family members, oral and written accounts by crew members, declassified military documents, and the research conducted Dr. Delahaye and Jacques Lalot. To complement the story, SHOT DOWN contains many excerpts from my father's letters, and the print book includes more than 200 time period photographs. To add background and context to the story, many historical facts and anecdotes about and surrounding the war are entwined throughout the book so that a reader has a feel for and understanding of what was occurring on a broader scale.

Initially, my father did not join the Air Force. As a result of President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) implementing the first peacetime draft in U.S. history in September, 1940, my father joined the Army in April, 1941 and was stationed at Ft. Lewis, Washington. At the time, the U.S. military was woefully weak. In fact, it only ranked 18th in the world in military strength behind Romania.

Three months later in July, my father married Ruth Hempel and after a visit to see Howard over Christmas Susan Ruth was conceived. Well having a new bride and with a baby on the way, my father was worried how he was going to support his new family. He didn’t think he could do it very well on a private’s pay in the Army so he decided to volunteer for the Air Force, Army Air Corps if you will. The pay was better, especially if he could make it through pilot training and become an officer.

In June 1942, he began Pre-Flight Training at Santa Ana, California and then went through the three stages of Pilot Training.

Primary Pilot Training was at Hancock College of Aeronautics in Santa Maria, California, Basic Pilot Training was at Lemoore, California and Marana Army Air Field, Arizona. After graduating from Basic PilotTraining, pilots were separated going into Advanced Pilot Training. They were assigned to either flying single engine planes (fighters) or two-engine planes (bombers or transports). Typically, shorter pilots were assigned to fighters because the cockpits were so small. However, personality was also a determining factor. Fighter pilots tended to be more individualistic, reckless, risk takers, cocky, and have larger egos whereas bomber pilots tended to be more level headed and team players. My father was 6-3 so he went to 2-engine Advanced Pilot Training at Douglas, Arizona where he graduated on April 12, 1943 as part of Class 43-D and received his pilot’s wings and commission as a 2nd Lieutenant.

After graduating, he went to Transitional Pilot Training at Pyote, Texas where he learned how to fly a 4-engine B-17 bomber and then to Operational Combat Crew of PhaseTraining at Dalhart, Texas where the various members of a crews came together and learned to operate as a team. Once they were deemed ready, the crew went on Active Duty and was assigned to the 8th Air Force and the European Theater of Operations.

On October 21, 1943, Howard and his crew reported to the 306th Bombardment Group based at Thurleigh, England in Bedfordshire about 60 miles north of London in a region called East Anglia. The 8th Air Force was made up of 3 Air Divisions. The 306th was in the 1st Air Division which along with the Third Air Division flew B-17 Flying Fortresses so named because of the firepower on the plane. They had 12-13 50 caliber machine guns on each plane and carried about 5,000 rounds of ammunition on each mission. They could also sustain a tremendous amount of battle damages and still keep flying. The Second Air Division flew B-24 Liberators.

The 306th's motto or slogan was “First Over Germany” because it was the first bomb group to hit a target in Germany (Wilhelmshaven on January 27, 1943). The 1949 movie Twelve O’clock High staring Gregory Peck was based on a true story about the 306th Bomb Group. The fictitious 918 Bomb Group portrayed in the movie was derived from multiplying the 306 by 3.

Howard Snyder’s first mission was on November 3, 1943 to Wilhelmshaven. It was the first time that the 8th Air Force flew 500 bombers on a mission. Flying combat was a brutal undertaking and extremely dangerous. 26,000 men died while serving in the 8th Air Force which is more than the entire Marine Corps lost fighting in the Pacific. Another 28,000 men became prisoners of war after their planes were knocked out of the sky.

On February 8, 1944 on a mission to Frankfurt, Germany, my father’s plane dropped its bombs successfully, but the bomb bay doors were hit by anti-aircraft fire (flak), and they couldn’t get them back up. That caused a drag on the plane, and it lost air speed. As a result, the Susan Ruth fell behind the formation heading back to England, and it was singled out by two Focke-Wulf 190 German fighters who swooped in for the kill. During the ensuring air battle, the Susan Ruth was shot down. Two crew members were killed in the plane, and the other eight were able to bail out. However, both German fighters were shot down as well. One piloted by Siegfried Marek crashed, and he was killed.

The other was piloted by Hans Berger who was able to bail out and make it through the war. One day while I was doing my research, my wife asked me, “Why don’t to try to find the German pilot who shot down the plane.” which I thought was a ridiculous idea. However, like a good husband, I did what my wife told me, and lo and behold, I found Hans Berger. Fortunately for me, he became a translator after the war so he speaks fluent English. Through email and telephone conversations I interviewed him for the book, and he provided me with some wonderful information about what it was like to go up against the 8th Air Force.

My father came down a couple miles from the plane. His parachute got hung up in the tress, and he was dangling 20 feet above the ground and couldn’t get down. Fortunately for him, a couple young Belgian farmers came to his rescue before the Germans got there. After that, my father was moved from place to place. How long he stayed depended on how brave the people were who lived there, and how dangerous the Underground thought it was for him to stay there; it might be one night or up to 6 weeks. Finally, my father got tired of hiding and joined the French Resistance, called the Maquis. Besides tired of being hunted, he heard that the Allies had invaded Normandy and wanted to join in the fight. Plus, he had a year’s infantry training at Ft. Lewis, Washington so he knew how to fight on the ground. The Maquis were made up of small, independent groups of guerrilla fighters located all over France.

On September 2, 1944, 7 months after the Susan Ruth was shot down, word came that American troops were in the nearby village of Trelon. It was the 3rd Army of General George S. Patton which had come up through France after D-Day. Walking into the town square, my father went up to a major, identified himself, got back to England, and then home to the U.S.

I have visited Belgian four times. The first was with my parents in 1994, and that is when it became personal to me. On my last trip in May 2016, I filmed all the locations mentioned in the book. I then went to Munich, Germany to film an interview with Hans Berger, now 93 years old. I plan to make a documentary.

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--- This Originally Appeared in The National Interest ---

​This was posted on December 2013 and is being reposted due to reader interest.

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