There it is, an X marking the target!
“VISUAL CONFIRMATION OF THE TARGET, 11 O’CLOCK,” the bombardier calls out on the plane’s comm.
“CONFIRMED, TARGET IN SIGHT,” the pilot, Bickler, calls back instantly.
Yes, I did it. My second successful night navigation and this time as a temporary sit-in for the crew’s normal navigator. I wasn’t so sure we were in the right place. Thank God, we found the training target.
Our lumbering B-17 slowly banks to the west, lining up the nose of the aircraft so that it is aimed directly in the middle of the four lights marking the desolated target area.
“WE’RE LINED UP,” Bickler shouts.
“TAKING OVER,” the bombardier, whose name I can’t recall, replies.
Settling into a straight and level course, the plane feels like it’s released from all of nature’s stresses. No longer are our four supercharged turbo Curtis-Wright Cyclone engines straining to turn this mighty machine against the forces of wind and gravity. Instead, their purr reveals a comfort in place and time, as if they are taking a break, sitting down, and relaxing now that they simply have to keep the plane airborne.
“ONE AWAY,” the bombardier calls out.
The engines rev up, straining to restart their laborious task, as Bickler yells, “CIRCLING FOR A SECOND PASS.”
We’ve dropped one 100-pound training bomb, presumably on the target. Over 90 pounds of sand and four pounds of dynamite to give us a sense of what it will be like to drop a real bomb on the Nazis.
Shouldn’t the wind be coming from the west? Why were the engines easing up when the plane was heading west?
“WE’RE LINED UP,” Bickler shouts again.
“TAKING OVER,” the bombardier calls back.
Again, the plane settles into a comfortable flight along the same path as the wind. I check my compass and readings.
We should be heading into the wind tonight.
“TWO AWAY,” the bombardier gruffly barks into the comm.
Bursting back to life, the engines yank the plane east, fighting the wind as we turn for another pass.
“CIRCLING FOR A THIRD PASS,” Bickler offers.
The wind is going the wrong way. Why is the wind going the wrong way? Can we be in the wrong place?
“WE’RE LINED UP;” Bickler calls out for a third time.
“TAKING OVER,” the bombardier replies.
As we settle into this third bomb run, I run some numbers.
We arrived at the target 10 minutes later than I thought, but there was a headwind and almost complete pitch-blackness since leaving Dalhart. We had banked west upon getting airborne, flew at 300 miles an hour for 25 minutes, and...
“THREE AWAY,” the bombardier perfunctorily calls out, as if bored by the experience.
For a fourth time, the engines begin to strain.
“CIRCLING FOR A FOURTH PASS,” Bickler calls back.
“DALHART ON THE PIPE, ASKING WHERE WE ARE?” the radio operator, Goeringer, yells above the din of the engines.
Bickler yells back, “TELL THEM WE’RE OVER THE TARGET, CIRCLING FOR A FOURTH PASS.”
“YES SIR,” Goeringer shouts.
The airbase is asking questions. How can it be that the math doesn’t add up, the airfield is concerned, but yet the target is right here?
“WE’RE LINED UP,” Bickler calls out for a fourth time.
“TAKING OVER,” the bombardier replies.
“DALHART SAYS SOMEONE IS DROPPING ON A TOWN!” the radio operator yells.
“FOUR AWAY,” the bombardier calls out again.
Can we be bombing a town? Are there people down there?
“DALHART IS ORDERING US TO RETURN TO BASE!” Goeringer belts out.
“WORKS FOR ME,” Bickler replies with a slight crackle in his voice.
There were three other bombers on our mission. Maybe one of them got lost. Maybe it was one of them accidentally bombing a town.
“GET US HOME TEMP,” Bickler orders.
“YES SIR,” I reply, knowing full well that I’ve no definitive idea where we are.
Somebody’s going to be in big trouble. Could it be us?
Boise City, Oklahoma, holds the distinction of being the only mainland U.S. town bombed during World War II. This event was not the result of any German, Italian, or Japanese attempt to break through U.S. defenses. On July 5, 1943 a U.S. Air Force B-17 bomber on a training mission from Dalhart, Texas, knocked out the local Baptist church and some storage buildings over forty miles from its intended target. Navigated by a temporary navigator who was not part of the regular crew, the bomber became lost in the night. Somehow, after leaving the Dalhart base, the temporary navigator made a 45-mile mistake: he mistook the four lights centered on Boise City’s main square for the intended practice target. No casualties resulted in Boise City, but the future flight status of the pilot and crew were seriously questioned. As it turned out, this B-17 crew became one of America's most highly decorated in World War II. Not only were its members each awarded nearly a dozen medals and citations, but they also were chosen to lead 800 planes from the 8th Air Force on the first daylight bombing raid of Berlin in March 1944. Shortly after the accidental bombing of Boise City, someone posted a sign at the base that read: "Remember the Alamo, remember Pearl Harbor, and, for God's sake, remember Boise City!" In a move that reflected the patriotic fervor of the times, the next morning, the town's mayor issued a statement praising the bomber for its accuracy. All but one bomb landed within 93 feet of the courthouse. One crewmember even went on to marry a Boise City Girl. The temporary navigator was assigned other duties than navigation even though an inquiry into the bombing revealed that airborne night images of the city and the intended target were identical.