Key Point: Figures differ, but one authoritative source says that the Eighth and Ninth U.S. Air Forces in Europe had a combined death toll of 24,963, including 510 who died of wounds and 537 declared dead. Inscribed on the Wall of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery, Cambridge, UK, are 5,127 names. More than 500 Eighth Air Force bombers and fighters were lost to antiaircraft fire, enemy aircraft, and “other causes.” It was a heavy price to pay for victory.
“Our mission was Berlin. We flew in that dreaded position—last and lowest in the squadron.”
Archie Mathosian, B-17 Radio Operator, A/C #521 (Skyway Chariot), 100th Bomb Group (H), USAAF
“Last and lowest in the squadron.”These words may not mean much to most readers, but to the crew of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress flying over enemy territory during World War II, they meant almost certain death at 20,000 feet above the ground. Flying in the dreaded “Tail-End Charlie” position meant your bomber was at the end and bottom of the heavy bomber formation and extremely vulnerable to attacks by swift enemy fighters bearing down for a kill.
The German Luftwaffe anticipated when and where strategic bombers would drop explosives and anxiously planned for their arrival. Odds were good that they would destroy at least a few B-17s even though they would also suffer injuries and death.
On Sunday morning, March 18, 1945, under an unusually clear sky, the U.S. Eighth Air Force mounted one of its largest air raids against Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. The target was Berlin, capital of the Nazi regime. More than 1,300 heavy bombers from the Eighth Air Force, escorted by more than 600 fighter planes, departed their bases in East Anglia and flew eastward over the English Channel toward Germany. The payload that morning was more than 650 tons of 1,000-pound bombs.
Major Marvin Bowman commanded the 351sr Bomb Squadron, 100th Bomb Group, on its final mission to Berlin.
In one of those 72 B-17s, named Skyway Chariot, was my uncle, Archie Mathosian. Archie had volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) in January 1943. The next month he received basic training in Miami, Florida, followed by radio operator school in South Dakota and gunnery school in Yuma, Arizona.