Shot down 19 May 1944 in B-17 #42-97290 'Smiling Sandy Sanchez'. Crashed in Sweden. Interned.
Russell (Russ) Brainard
Ball Turret Gunner, 95th Bomb Group; Horham, England
I first met Russ when he and some family members came to the Vintage Flying Museum for a tour. The museum’s B-17 did not have a ball turret installed, but we had one mounted on a stand next to the plane so visitors could see into it. As I was explaining the function of the ball turret to the group, a young woman asked the older gentleman “How did you ever get into this thing”? It suddenly occurred to me that the gentleman in the group, who stood about five foot tall, would have been a likely candidate for a ball turret gunner. When asked about his service role, Russ confirmed that he was indeed a ball turret gunner in the 95th Bomb Group. What follows is the story of Russ’s last mission.
When the men of the 95th Bomb Group heard that the 8th Air Force was finally going to hit Berlin, they undoubtedly had mixed feelings. The German capitol was a target that they had long awaited, but they also knew it would be the most heavily defended target they’d ever faced. “Big B” as it was known to the allied airmen, was surrounded by thousands of anti-aircraft guns and protected by hundreds of fighters. This would be a “maximum effort” mission for the 8th. They would put up every available bomber and fighter. At this point in the war the 8th could field well over a thousand bombers and an equal number of fighters. It was hoped that such a huge force would overwhelm the German defenses. It would be a battle of epic proportions.
Like everyone else, the 95th bomb group had to fight its way to and from the target, but being part of such a huge formation, the fighter attacks were spread over many other groups. Russ’s crew made it to the target and were headed home when several twin-engined German bomber destroyers pulled up behind them. The enemy aircraft stayed just out of range of the B-17’s tail gunners. The gunners noticed large cylinder-shaped objects under their wings, resembling neither fuel tanks, or bombs. Their purpose became clear when they saw smoke trails from the cylinders streak into the formation. The Germans had developed small air-to-air rockets. These rockets were set to explode at a pre-set distance so the bomber destroyers just had to position themselves so the rockets would explode in the American formation.
When a tail-gunner reported rockets heading their way, a bomber pilot could only take limited evasive action without risk of colliding with others in their tight formation. Russ’s plane managed to dodge several incoming rockets, but one exploded just under the right wing taking out both engines on that side. His bomber dropped out of formation in a long slow arc to the right. The crew prepared to bail out, but the pilots regained control of the plane and leveled out. Initially, two single-engine German fighters made a pass to finish them off. However, one didn’t fire on the 2nd pass, most likely out of ammunition. Both banked off and left them. Several more German fighters were sighted but didn’t press an attack.
With the plane under control and a fire in the right wing extinguished, they had to make a decision. Returning to England was not an option, and bailing out over Germany was not a very appealing one. While German troops would generally try to capture you if you didn’t resist, civilians often did their best to kill downed airmen before the soldiers arrived. Even if captured, the thought of spending the rest of the war in an over-crowded prison camp with little food, and the possibility of being killed before they could be freed, was not a pleasant one.
There was one other option, but it was a huge gamble. If they could make it across northern Germany without getting shot down, and across the frigid Baltic Sea, they might be able to land in Sweden. Countries neutral to the conflict were required to intern such airmen and hold them until the end of the war.* They would still effectively be “prisoners” but would likely be fed well and treated humanely. The navigator calculated their rate of descent and the distance to Sweden. The news wasn’t good, they’d be short. Even though still over enemy territory, the pilot made the decision to lighten the plane by jettisoning all unnecessary equipment. This included all guns and ammunition. Unlike many ball turret gunners whose planes were badly hit, Russ had time to crawl out of his small glass globe and into the plane.
He then unbolted the turret’s frame and used a crash axe to chop the ball loose from the pole which suspended it from the top of the B-17. He watched as it dropped and saw it land on the runway of what appeared to be a German fighter base. They were low enough for him to see planes lined up for takeoff. Russ wondered if enemy pilots must have thought the object crashing into their base was some sort of secret weapon as they did not proceed to take off and intercept them.
Thus lightened, the navigator said his calculations showed they might now make it. They left the coast of Germany and continued out over the Baltic. With the plane still losing altitude, Russ said he feared they would make it within sight of Sweden only to have to ditch in the Baltic. Life expectancy in its fridge waters was just minutes and the chance of rescue was virtually nil. The two remaining 1,200 horsepower Wright Cyclone engines were designed to operate at max power only for a few minutes at takeoff, not continuously for hours. Russ and the radioman watched the two engines from the window in the radio room looking for any sign of failure. Both were blowing some oil out, which was normal at that power setting but each had a limited oil supply. The number 2 engine vented a wisp of smoke occasionally. Not something they would normally be concerned about, but under the circumstances, it seemed potentially catastrophic.
Now very low, the navigator called out that the coast of Sweden was in sight. Someone reported that a Swedish anti-aircraft battery was tracking them. Normally, the procedure would be to lower your landing gear to show that you were surrendering, not attacking, but Russ’s pilot feared doing so would drop the plane below stall speed and cause them to crash. He ordered the crew to prepare for a belly landing, so they piled into the small radio room. Just clearing the rim of the cliff facing the Baltic, the pilot guided the ailing bomber into a safe belly landing in a Swedish field. They had made it to Sweden, but only by about 100 yards!
They all piled out of the plane and waited to be captured by the Swedes. Shortly, a truck arrived with a detachment of Swedish soldiers from the anti-aircraft battery that had tracked their approach. Russ and his crew all lined up next to their plane and put their hands up. The officer in charge went from man to man repeating what seemed to be the only words he knew in English. “Forty-five?, Forty-five?, Forty-five?" He was of course looking for the .45 caliber pistols that airmen were often issued.
Collecting the guns from those who had them, he and the rest of the detail gathered to examine their highly prized souvenirs. Using hand motions, the officer then indicated that they should stay there and wait. The entire detail then left.
It was getting late, and cold when another truck finally arrived to pick up Russ and his crew. They were taken to a town, fed and quartered for the night. Russ noticed that they were left unguarded much of the time and when they were, it was a single teenaged rifleman who looked as though he’d been assigned the duty as punishment. They were later transported to a camp deep in the forest near Locka Bruin. The facility, which appeared to have been a youth camp, had bunk houses, a dining hall, recreation center, swimming docks, canoes and sail boats.
Russ was amazed to learn that as long as they didn’t try to leave, they pretty much had the run of the place. One of the two camp guards explained “The Germans occupy Norway to the west, they are also in Finland to the east fighting the Russians. To the north is the artic, the south the Baltic, where are you going to go? Just stay here, you will be safe, and well fed. Besides, I don’t want to chase you”.
Russ later learned that he could even sometimes get a “pass” to visit town and local sporting events. One day the ranking America officer in the camp called him in and asked if it was true that he could operate a teletype machine. Russ confirmed that this was what he had done before the war. The officer then told Russ that he was being transferred to the US consulate to work in that role. Russ worked for a while for the consulate and was given a German-made camera and told to take pictures of the internment camp and other things that might be considered “intelligence gathering”.
Eventually, Russ received notice that he would be repatriated as part of prisoners-for-petroleum exchange. The nerve-wracking part was flying between German occupied Norway and Denmark to reach England. In his later years he became a faithful volunteer at the Vintage Flying Museum, giving tours through the B-17 and of course telling war stories standing next to the museum’s ball turret. He also permitted the museum to scan many of the photos that he had taken in Sweden.
*The treatment of American flyers downed in neutral countries varied considerably. The Swiss had close ties to Germany, and American internees were sometimes treated harshly there. Spain and Sweden on the other hand, had roughly equal ties to both America and Germany. As a general rule, internees were treated well and considered an economic commodity as they could be traded back to their home county in exchange for American food products or petroleum.
Units served with
The 95th Bomb Group was the only Eighth Air Force Group to be awarded three Distinguished Unit Citations. The first, shared by all four Bomb Wing Groups, was for the bombing of an aircraft factory under intense enemy fire at Regensburg on 17 August...
B-17 Flying Fortress
Delivered Cheyenne 15/2/44; Kearney 27/2/44; Presque Is 11/3/44; Assigned 398BG Nuthampstead 22/4/44; transferred 334BS/95BG [BG-H] Horham 28/4/44; 23m Missing in Action Berlin 19/5/44 with Capt Bill Waltman, Co-pilot: Wayne McCallon, Navigator: Henry...
Military site : airfield
Horham airfield was planned and built for RAF use, but handed over to the Eighth Air Force and used initially by the 47th Bomb Group. When they joined the Twelfth Air Force in January 1943, it became home to the B-26 Marauders of the 323rd Bomb Group....
||19 May 1944