Laurence Rees: Clarence Roundtree was an American who served in Britain with the US Eighth Army Air Force – the bomber group that made hazardous daylight raids on enemy targets. He joined them in 1944 and on his very first mission came under heavy enemy fire.
Words of Clarence Roundtree: My goodness, they whacked at us with that first bunch of flack and we knew without anybody telling us the next was gonna be bad. And so the next burst of flack, they knocked out the supercharger on number three engine. And it started coming to pieces, the supercharger did, and it was flying all through the plane. And this guy, this is his first mission after he’d been shot down. Well, he just went absolutely to pieces, he was running around and just going screaming and everything. So, of course, you know, I was just terrified, this was my first mission, and I finally crawled up, I crawled up to the cockpit and said, ‘He is just going crazy down here.’ So the co-pilot came down and he crawled in under there and got hold of him, straightened him out, and he quietened him down then. But that was the most terrified I ever was. Of course you’re scared anyway most of the time and you don’t know what to expect. So really, we came through it alright and so we actually, we had to turn back because we couldn’t stay in formation.
Laurence Rees: After that dangerous incident, the crew that Clarence had trained with were split up and used as relief crew for other bombers.
Words of Clarence Roundtree: Well, we sure didn’t like flying with strangers all the time. We had trained together, we were closer than brothers, and here we were, flying with different people. And, you know, you feel after a while, you get resigned after a while, you say, well there ain’t no way we’re gonna get out of this anyway, so you just fly with anybody that comes along, any crew that needs you, you fly with them. There were so many men getting killed, injured in one way or the other you really didn’t want to get too close to anybody. Sometimes some of your friends get killed and it would hurt you so bad. We don’t know from one day to the next whether this guy that I’m playing poker with is gonna be here or not, so we don’t really want to get too close to anyone. You had to keep a certain distance from them.
Laurence Rees: Clarence Roundtree’s own next narrow escape came just a few weeks later.
Words of Clarence Roundtree: I was flying tail gunner, I think, that mission, but I did hear an explosion, and I was busy, you know, looking around and everything and I felt the plane go crazy, and seemed like there was an awful draft coming in there on me, you know, and it took me quite a while to feel safe enough to turn around and look. And there was a hole there on the right-hand side of that plane that somebody could crawl through, and it was down low, kind of took off part of the walkway, crawl way, and part of the side of the plane. My goodness, when I saw that I knew I was lucky. And the co-pilot came back there, and he was afraid for me to unhook from my oxygen and crawl back past that hole. So we got back, I think we probably got back over the English Channel and I stayed in my position. And then the co-pilot came back there and he cries to me, ‘Go past this hole and get on back this side.’
Laurence Rees: Clarence survived that brush with disaster, and carried on flying. And he always felt fortunate that, unlike the crews of British Bomber Command, the men of the American Eighth Army Air Force were only occasionally called upon to attack non-military targets.
Words of Clarence Roundtree: I heard how they bombed Hamburg and they burnt it out, and they did the same thing with Dresden, and I thank my lucky stars that I wasn’t on one of those missions that bombed those towns. Every mission that I had flown had been a military target. I think that was the most horrible, horrendous thing I could imagine where you just set a town on fire.
Laurence Rees: But then, in the summer of 1944, came the worst moment of Clarence Roundtree’s career as an airman. Flying over France, his bomber came under attack.
Words of Clarence Roundtree: We got shot up pretty bad, we had quite a few German pilots fire. But they kept right after us and then after we dropped our bombs we were down to two engines. And we were headed back, you know, we were headed back towards Paris, we were trying to get home, and the fighter pilots, they swarmed us pretty bad and we were pretty well shot up. But I think that we had some air cover that helped get some of those fighters off of us, and we more or less had it by ourselves. And, of course, we couldn’t fly at any altitude like that, and we were burning up those engines. We were pulling 47 inches of mercury and 2500 RPM and we actually burned up one of those engines, caught on fire.
And we got back within 40 miles maybe of Paris and we just couldn’t go any further, and so we threw out everything we could throw out of that plane and we even threw out our parachutes because we were so low they couldn’t open in time. So we took everything we could out of that plane to try to make it a little lighter, and finally we just, you know, couldn’t go any further. So the pilots picked out a pretty good place there, it was hedgerow country. So they set that sucker down and, oh, I don’t know how far we skidded, probably half a mile, something like that, and we were all piled up, except the pilot and co-pilot, all piled up in the radio room. And we sat it down. It didn’t come to pieces or anything like that. They’re pretty tough planes, they’re not like a Sherman tank but they hold together real good. So we got out of that thing and nobody got hurt. Some of us had cuts and bruises or little things like that, not amount to nothing, and we knew we had to get away from there because the Germans had a reward on our head. So, boy, we ran, we got away from that plane just as quick as we could because the smoke would pinpoint us. So we ran probably a half a mile, got into some woods, and we were hiding out in there.
Laurence Rees: Clarence Roundtree survived that potentially deadly experience, and went on to live a contented life after the war. But he always remembers just what it felt like to serve in the Eighth Army Air Force.
Words of Clarence Roundtree: I was scared on every mission that we flew, but I just got to the point where I could handle it. ‘Cause anybody that says they can fly in those old things and not be afraid is a darned liar or crazy, or both.