Thomas Calabrese — Three 800 mm (31.5 inch) Heavy Gustav Cannon Guns were located inside Palamone Mountain on Leros in the Doecanese island group located in the southeastern Aegean Sea. They were strategically positioned inside a horseshoe canyon that gave the German gunners an unobstructed 180 degree field of fire over the Straits of Portolago. The island of Leros, with its excellent deep-water port was transformed into a heavily fortified aeronautical fortress. Benito Mussolini boasted, “The Allies will never take Leros!” His words proved prophetic when an attempt by British Commandos, codenamed Operation Abstention failed and every member of the elite team was killed in the operation or executed afterward. Bombing raids proved fruitless because the massive arsenal was located in the middle of the mountain and any ordnance dropped on top had no effect on the Germans located hundreds of feet below the surface in reinforced caves. To send planes into the canyon was not a viable option either because they would not have enough time to reach sufficient altitude and clear the sheer rock walls after dropping their bombs.
The Gustav cannon had two types of shells; the armor/concrete-piercing round weighed 7.1 tons (7,100 kilograms) and could pierce 22.9 feet (7 meters) of reinforced concrete or 3.3 feet (1 meter) of rolled steel armor. The high-explosive option weighed 4.8 tons (4,800 kilograms) and left a 30 foot (10 meters) wide crater. 9,500 slave laborers cut several tunnels through Palamone Mountain and laid the four parallel rail tracks that the cannon needed to be mobile and 5,000 men were attached to operate the weapons. Two giant cranes were shipped by Krupp Industries from Essen, Germany and used to help assemble the cannons on the island of Leros. The Krupp family was one of the most powerful dynasties in European history and the premier weapons manufacturer for the Third Reich. When it became time to fire the cannons they would be pushed to the edge of the cave openings by powerful locomotives as their barrels extended 50 feet. When they weren’t being used, they were pulled back into the mountain and thick metal doors closed behind them.
Allied commanders were desperate to find a plan to neutralize this German stronghold. Supreme Commander General Dwight Eisenhower emphasized the seriousness of the situation, although it was like preaching to the choir when he met with his top generals at the Allied Expeditionary Force headquarters at Camp Grifiss, Bushy Park. “We must destroy the German installation on Leros before we can even think about planning our invasion of Sicily.”
General George Patton boasted, “Give me ten thousand men and I’ll send those Nazis to hell!”
“Calm down George, I’ve looked at our Intel reports of Leros. There is no way you’ll ever get close enough to the island with that many men without getting blown out of the water by the Gustavs,” General Omar Bradley said calmly.
British Lieutenant General Sir Frederick E. Morgan interjected, “We could send a larger commando force, but I fear it would end the same way as our first attempt.”
“So far all we’ve been able to come up with are the things that we can’t do or have already failed at. It is our duty to find answers and not knowing what to do is unacceptable. Since I am in command, the buck stops with me,” General Eisenhower slammed his hand down on his desk in frustration.
Major General Henry H. (Hap) Arnold, Chief of the Air Corps stood up, “I have an answer sir, but I’m not sure you’re going to like it.”
“There is not much about this war that I do like, tell me what you got Hap,” General Eisenhower sighed.
General Arnold walked over to the map of Leros and pointed to Palamone Mountain, “We know that our bombers can’t hit the targets and still return, but what if they didn’t have to worry about returning?”
At first the men at the table didn’t know exactly what Hap Arnold was talking about and then they grasped his meaning at almost the same time, “Are you talking about a suicide mission?” General Omar Bradley asked.
“We send men on missions that are almost certain death on a daily basis,” Hap shrugged.
“There’s a big difference between asking men to fight to the death and sending them to kill themselves,” General George Patton said.
“I must concur with General Patton, I know the end results might be the same, but there is a distinct difference,” Lieutenant General Morgan voiced his opinion.
“You were right Hap, I don’t like it. We will meet again day after tomorrow and hopefully we’ll have something else by then,” General Eisenhower said, “Dismissed.”
While waiting to reconvene with his commanders, General Eisenhower received a call from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who voiced his opinion about the area in question, “Going back as far as the Gallipoli campaign of World War I, I’ve had a deep interest in the Dodecanese and the island of Crete. If we can deprive the Germans control of these islands, our convoys could go through the Dardanelles to Russia instead of using the Arctic supply route.”
“Are you aware of the problem that we currently have on Leros?” General Eisenhower inquired.
“I thought that had been resolved,” Winston Churchill countered.
“No sir, it has not, but I intend to resolve the issue as expeditiously as possible. Rest assured Mister Prime Minister, I am aware of your preferences for they are mine as well,” General Eisenhower promised.
“War is like life, it is often necessary that when one plan has failed, to take the best alternative open and work for it with all of our might, instead of dwelling on the first preference,” Winston Churchill suggested.
General Eisenhower did not wait for the next meeting to speak with General Arnold, “I’m not saying I’m going to authorize the mission, but go ahead and put it together just in case.”
Colonel James Doolittle was commander of the 97th Heavy Bombardment Squadron and his pilots were the best in the European theater of operation. He was sitting in his office next to the landing strip at the Royal Air Force base in Polebrook, England when General Arnold entered with a scowl on his face. Colonel Doolittle immediately stood up and snapped to attention.
“Take it easy, Jimmy,” General Arnold sighed, “You’re going to want to sit down when you hear what I have to say,” then methodically explained every detail of the Leros situation and what he had proposed to General Eisenhower.
“Permission to speak freely?” Colonel Doolittle requested.
“No offense General, but I feel like kicking your butt for coming to me with this,” Colonel Doolittle snarled.
“It was my idea and even when I was suggesting it to Ike, I didn’t like it either so no offense is taken. He turned it down and I thought I was off the hook, then he called me the next day and told me to put the mission together as a contingency. That tells me how desperate this situation has become,” General Arnold answered.
“Why my squadron… there’s a lot of other aircraft commanders that you could have brought this to. What makes me the lucky one?”
“Because I knew that after your initial emotional response, you’d see the facts and do whatever was needed to complete the mission like you always do,” General Arnold continued.
“You’ve over-estimated me this time,” Colonel Doolittle grumbled.
“I need three pilots,” General Arnold left the office, “I’ll make a deal with you, Jimmy. Take a look at the intelligence reports and maps and if you can honestly come up with a better plan to take out the Gustavs, then I’ll gladly bring it to Ike…fair enough?”
“Fair enough,” Colonel Doolittle spent the next two hours studying the German fortifications on Leros and reluctantly came to the same conclusion as General Arnold.
He took a few minutes to compose himself then wrote something down on a sheet of paper and called Sergeant Avery into his office. “You wanted to see me, sir.”
“Affirmative, Sergeant. I have an assignment for you, one more thing, this is just between you and me, understand?”
Colonel Doolittle handed Sergeant Avery the sheet of paper and the enlisted NCO read it, “How fast do you need this, Colonel?”
“An hour ago.”
When Sergeant Avery returned 45 minutes later, he was holding three service record books. He handed them to Colonel Doolittle who opened each one and then unleashed a dozen expletives before responding, “This just keeps getting better and better; these are my three best pilots. Where are they right now?”
“On a bombing mission,” Sergeant Avery looked at his watch, “Right about now they should be over the Railway Yards in Cologne.”
“Flight leader to formation, we are over the IP (initial point run on target) lead bombardier has command of the plane.”
As the B-17’s approached their target, German anti- aircraft batteries filled the skies with deadly flak and three planes were hit. The crews bailed out and the planes crashed to earth.
“Roger,” The bombardier looked through the Norden Bombsight, “Bombs away.” then used toggle switches on the control panel to send an electric signal to the rest of squadron so that they would drop their bombs in the same pattern. The railyard was destroyed and the bombardier relinquished control of the B-17 back to the pilot who radioed the remaining aircraft, “To all airplanes, take a heading of two three zero and stay in tight.” No sooner did the American bombers come out of the flak storm that a dozen Messershmitt Bf 109 fighters from the Luftwaffe 54th Fighter Squadron dived out of the clouds above. Five American planes were hit and two exploded in the air before the crews could bail out. The other three were riddled with bullets, but the pilots were able to keep them airborne until they reached the English Channel where they parachuted out.
Upon landing at Polebrook, Sergeant Avery drove up in a jeep as the flight crews exited their aircraft and called out, “Captains Stoddard, Dutton and Lieutenant Ericson, report to Colonel Doolittle’s office after de-briefing!”
The three pilots were all in their early twenties and they were much older than the accumulation of their years, war does that to a man. Captain Stoddard knocked on their commanding officer’s door.
The three pilots came in and stood at attention, “Reporting as ordered, sir,” Captain Dutton said. “Have a seat gentlemen,” Colonel Doolittle poured four glasses of whiskey and handed three to the men before him and proposed a favorite military toast, “To those who do not fear their fate or lament that their rewards are too small. To those who do not pull away from the reaper’s touch and know that to win, you must willing to lose it all.” The four military officers downed their drinks and Colonel Doolittle spoke to the three young men, not like a commanding officer speaking to his subordinates, but more like a father conversing with his three sons. After a few minutes of discussing the mission they just completed he said, “Personnel was going through everyone’s service record book and they noticed that you didn’t put down your next of kin.”
Captain Stoddard responded, “I grew up in Boy’s Town and I didn’t know who to put down for my next of kin.”
“Captain Dutton explained his situation, “I was the youngest of four sons and had a mean father who liked to drink too much and take it out on my mother and us. My three brothers left as soon they were old enough and when Mom passed away I left too. When the war broke out, I joined up. The last that I heard, two of my brothers had been killed in the Pacific and I don’t know where the other one is.”
“I was away on a school trip when the boiler in our house exploded,” Lt Ericson voiced trailed off as the unpleasant memories came rushing back, “No next of kin for me either.”
“So it wasn’t a clerical oversight, I’ll make a notation that everything is in order,” Colonel Doolittle commented.
The three young pilots looked at other, “What’s going on Colonel?” Captain Stoddard asked.
“What do you mean?” Colonel Doolittle feigned ignorance.
“Making notations in service record books is below your pay grade,” Lieutenant Ericson commented.
“I’m not very good at being subtle, I guess I need more practice,” Colonel Doolittle poured himself another drink and gulped it down, “Here’s what this is all about.” This time he was completely honest and up front with his pilots…of course he left out one very important part.
The three young aviators knew that their commanding officer was a straight shooter so to watch him dance around the issue was both obvious and uncomfortable so Captain Stoddard said, “You’re going to need pilots to fly the planes?” Captain Stoddard’s response was more a statement as a question.
“And the reason you were asking about our next of kin is that you’re looking for men who don’t have family waiting for them back in the states,” Captain Dutton added, “Is that right?”
“Let me make this very clear, I would never order or even ask you to do a mission like this,” Colonel Doolittle said emphatically, “You got my word on that.”
The tension was thick and heavy that the four men in the room felt its ominous weight on their shoulders so Lieutenant Ericson made an effort to take the pressure off a little, “Considering how many lives are at stake and how it could affect the outcome of the war plus the fact that I’ve been living on borrowed time since the accident that killed my family, I’d be honored if I was one of the pilots.”
Captains Stoddard and Dutton immediately picked up on their comrade’s intent and took their own lighthearted almost frivolous approach to the deadly situation.
“With every bombing mission that I go on, I never expect to make it back. This time I’ll know for sure,” Captain Dutton said matter of factly.
Captain Stoddard was next to express his opinion and what he said pretty was much what his two friends were feeling as well, “We’ve been in this war long enough to see better men than us die for a whole lot less.”
“I know what you guys are doing and I appreciate it” Colonel Doolittle looked at his men with a mixture of admiration and affection. “This is not a decision to make without thinking it over.”
“We don’t need any time sir,” Captain Stoddard said.
“Let me put it this way, I’ll feel better if you think about it,” After the three aviators left the office, Colonel Doolittle called General Arnold, “Why don’t you let me do this, I can’t ask my men to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.”
“I can’t afford to lose a commander like you. This war is going to last a while and we’re going to have to ask our men to do things that we’d rather not. Sorry Jimmy, no can do.”
The three pilots and close friends went back to their quarters, none of them were in a talkative mood and they sat in silence for several minutes until Captain Dutton finally spoke, “If I’m going to die, I can’t think of anybody else I’d rather be with then you two mugs when that time comes.”
“Now I know how those kamikaze pilots feel,” Lieutenant Ericson added.
“Don’t even put us in the same breath with them, there’s a big difference with us and them,” Captain Stoddard vehemently disagreed, “If we say no then nobody is going to force us. You saw Colonel Doolittle’s face, do you think he wanted to ask us…hell no!”
America’s greatest generation went off to fight a vicious enemy bent on world domination and to protect our freedom and liberty. They asked for nothing in return except the opportunity to do their duty. In the process they shed blood on foreign soil and made the ultimate sacrifice to accomplish their noble mission. This was a time in history when patriotism was commonplace and losses were profound and staggering.
Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II was turned down by the Marines and Navy for being underage and underweight. He refused to take no for an answer and had his sister falsified his birthdate so he could join the Army. Calvin Leon Graham was only 12 years of age when he enlisted in the Navy and the Sullivan family lost five sons; Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George at the same time when the light cruiser, USS Juneau that they were serving aboard was sunk on Nov 13, 1942. These three B-17 pilots were part of this elite group of Americans.
Captain Stoddard, Dutton and Lieutenant Ericson were waiting outside Colonel Doolittle’s office at sunrise. When he saw them, he had his answer, no words needed to be spoken.
A normal B-17 armament consisted of thirteen M-2 .50 caliber machine guns and a 4,800 bomb payload. Its fuel tanks held 1700 gallons with a range of 1,850 miles. The retrofitted aircrafts were stripped bare; the machine guns were removed and only had four hundred gallons of fuel in the tanks, allowing the bombload to be increased to 12,000 pounds. The three aircraft were loaded onto the HMS Glorious, a converted British aircraft carrier and when the vessel got within 100 miles of Leros, it turned into the wind and the three American pilots boarded their aircraft. At sunrise they were given permission for take-off as Colonel Doolittle stood on the bridge and saluted each pilot as they took off. After the three planes were airborne, he walked to the edge of the flight deck, fell to his knees and broke into tears.
The three B-17’s flew side by side at an altitude of 200 feet over the Aegean Sea to avoid radar detection by the Germans. Once they saw the shoreline of the island of Leros, Captain Stoddard radioed, “Let’s do this.”
The planes changed formation with Captain Stoddard rising to one thousand feet, Lieutenant Ericson went to 500 feet and Captain Dutton move slightly to 250 feet and they positioned themselves so that that they were stacked on top of each other. This would allow them to enter the canyon and strike Palamone Mountain at three different locations for maximum destructive power.
When they saw the mountain before them, Lieutenant Ericson commented, “See you on the other side, wherever that is.”
At the precise moment that the bomb laden B-17’s struck the sheer rock face, three male babies were born at various locations in the United States. The simultaneous explosions of the three aircraft totally destroyed the infrastructure of the German stronghold and the massive Gustav cannons were entombed under tons of rock and steel. The skies cried out in anguish at the death of these three valiant warriors; thunder rolled and roared like a wounded animal as lightning flashed from one corner of the horizon to the other and then back again.
Two weeks later, the invasion of Sicily commenced and without the Gustav cannons to blow the Allied ships out of the water, the Germans were overwhelmed and thousands of lives were saved. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle was forever haunted by that day, but never discussed it with anyone. He flew back to Washington to attend the ceremony at the White House where President Franklin Roosevelt posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to the three American aviators.
Right afterward he left for Naval Air Station Alameda, California to start preparing for the raid on the Japanese homeland.
Twenty-five years to the precise moment that Captains Stoddard, Dutton and Lieutenant Ericson perished on the island of Leros, three Marine Corps commanders who bore an uncanny resemblance to the heroes of World War II led their platoons against overwhelming North Vietnamese forces in the Battle of Hue during the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of South Vietnamese civilians were trapped inside the Citadel and would have faced certain death unless three of America’s finest didn’t charge into harm’s way to save them.
As he looked down at the battle from his celestial throne, God turned to Captains Dutton and Stoddard and Lieutenant Ericson “There will always be a place in heaven for brave men because courage and sacrifice never dies.”