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Return to Molesworth: B-17 Flying Fortress Navigator Visits WWII Base
By CPT Frank Huffman, Joint Intelligence Operations Center-Europe
September 12, 2012
"When we got close to the target, I wondered what all of those black clouds were. I soon found out," recalled Albert Levin, a retired second lieutenant navigator of a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress bomber from the 303rd Bomb Group (Heavy) at RAF Molesworth, England. Levin served at the base during World War II and later had a career at DIA, retiring in1980. At 91 years old, this past August Levin returned to the base where he completed a 35-mission combat tour.
"Merseberg, Germany: that was my very first mission and a heck of a way to enter combat," said Levin. "We didn't encounter many fighters that day, but the flak was unbelievable. Very heavy and sustained throughout the time we were in the target area and especially heavy once we hit the IP – the initial point from where the plane's controls were turned over to the bombardier and the aircraft could not take evasive action."
Merseberg was one of the most heavily defended targets in Nazi Germany. The factories produced synthetic fuel and other petroleum-based products and were protected by hundreds of the feared .88-mm all-purpose guns, considered the best weapon by either side during World War II. Only targets Berlin, Cologne, Magdeburg, Munich, "We would be asleep in our Nissen huts, which can still be seen at various airfields across England, including Molesworth, and an operations sergeant would walk into the hut and call out the name of the pilot – then you knew you were flying that day," Levin reflected. "After a breakfast including the fresh eggs only served to aircrew, we would go into the operations building for our briefing, get our flight gear on and go to our assigned B-17.
"You walked in and there would be a curtain over the map and when they pulled it back, either a low-level sigh would be heard, indicating a 'milk-run' – a not so heavily defended target; or a loud groan would be heard when certain target cities were called out. Merseberg was definitely one of those," he added. Being his first mission, Levin didn't at first appreciate the groaning sound effect, but he soon joined the others after completing a few.
Levin came to Molesworth in July 1944 and was assigned to the 360th Bomb Squadron, 303rd Bomb Group (H), known as the Hell's Angels during World War II. Although maintenance issues and shortages of crewmembers occasionally separated the crew in different planes, the majority of Levin's flying time was spent in the B-17 Miss Umbriago.
"The B-17 was a wonderful plane and could take a lot of punishment. In my crew we only had one crewman injured," he said. "Once, a flak round hit the side of the plane and put a huge dent only a few inches from my head. Luckily, it didn't explode."
During lunch at Molesworth Levin was asked what his greatest memory of his time at there was. Levin's face visibly changed as the N.Y. native recalled Sept. 27, 1944, when his crew flew Mission #247 to Cologne in the B-17G "Flak Hack" bomber. It was a successful trip, but the next day, Sept. 28, was the worst, said Levin. "Eleven of our planes didn't come back from a mission to Magdeburg. Eleven! Including Flak Hack," he said. "Do you know what it's like to see all of those empty hardstands and bunks, realizing how many of your friends would never make it back?"
Wiping tears from his eyes and clearing a choked-up throat, Levin continued, "That was the worst day of the war for me and I wasn't even flying. To think of all of those men gone in one day was unbelievable."
The 303rd Bomb Group and Levin recovered from that tragic day and continued the fight against fierce German opposition throughout the remainder of the war. For Levin, his war finally ended upon completing the 35 missions that constituted a full tour of duty for bomber crews. Leaving Molesworth on a cold 1945 January morning, Levin hadn't returned to his old base until this past August.
Welcomed by Joint Intelligence Operations Center-Europe (JIOCEUR) Analytic Center Deputy Commander CAPT Gary Powers to what is today's Royal Air Force Molesworth, Levin noted, "It's nice being back after 67 years, but I honestly don't remember much. The base is certainly much different than when I flew out of here. It's been a long time, but I'm glad I made the trip.
"I do remember the people locally, who we traded various things with, especially to get fresh eggs and an occasional chicken," added Levin. "The English people were great to us and we certainly appreciated everything they went through during the war."
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This page was last updated March 21, 2013.