Guardian Angels on Overtime

Robert W. Browne

“Take heed … in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father” (Matt. 18:10).

Rufus Perry and I were playing marbles in the shade of a large pecan tree. I should have picked another of the 10-yearold boys as an opponent. Rufus was an expert—he already had a pocket full of my marbles he’d knocked out of the ring drawn in the red clay. On this summer of 1934, at the Baptist Orphanage in Troy, Alabama, we were completely absorbed in the game at hand.

Suddenly, the sky above the pecan tree seemed to explode around us! Awestruck, Rufus and I watched as a large biplane roared over at treetop level and slowly disappeared over the horizon.

I turned to Rufus and excitedly said, “Rufus, I’m going to fly one of those some day!” I guess that biplane had about a 500-horsepower engine. Little did I realize that just ten years later I’d pilot a large four-engine bomber with about ten times as much horsepower as that noisy biplane.

I praise God for the good Christian leaders at the orphanage who led me to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and taught me that prayer (talking with God) and Bible study (God talking to me) were essential for victorious Christian living.

After high school graduation in June 1942, six months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, one of the very kind matrons at the orphanage lent me a small sum of money to go to Mobile, Alabama, to seek a job. I was 18 years old. I’d heard that the Mobile shipyards were desperately seeking workers.

About a week later, I was still waiting for word from the shipyards. My money was gone. Seated on a bench in Bienville Park in the heart of Mobile, I was in despair. I had eaten only a Hershey chocolate bar in three days. I bent my head in fervent prayer to my Lord.

An elderly man was seated on a bench nearby, feeding peanuts to squirrels. I recall thinking, I’ll watch where the squirrels bury their peanuts and dig them up when the old man leaves the park. He never left.

I could wait no longer. I finally walked across the park to one of the storefronts where a large red, white, and blue sign stood. It boldly proclaimed, “Uncle Sam Needs You,” emphasized by Uncle Sam’s long bony finger pointing straight at me.

Just inside the storefront a smartly dressed sergeant sat at a large wooden desk. With a kindly voice he said, “Son, you look hungry.” That had to be the understatement of the year! “Come on in.”

The sergeant soon handed me a bologna sandwich and a paper cup full of milk. The way I devoured the food no doubt prompted him to offer me seconds. I earnestly thanked the good man (and the Lord!).

Then the sergeant said, “Son, your draft board will be looking for you soon, and they will put you anywhere they wish. But if you enlist now, you can pick any one of many schools the Army has to offer.” He opened a large three-ring binder as he spoke. My eyes were quickly riveted on one of the school titles: Aircraft Mechanic. I signed the paper thrust at me and was informed that I was now in the Army Air Corps and destined for the school the next day.

After graduating from the Aircraft Mechanic School, things really started popping: I was accepted in the Aviation Cadet Pilot Training Program—12 months, four locations for preflight, primary, basic, and advanced flight instruction.

Those 12 grueling months of ground and flight school finally paid off—on May 14, 1944, I received my silver pilot’s wings and gold second lieutenant’s bars—a very exciting moment!

Soon after my graduation from advanced training, I was assigned to the B-17 “Flying Fortress” Combat Crew Training Center at Ardmore, Oklahoma. Three months later I was assigned to the Eighth Air Force, 487th Bomb Group, at Lavenham, England.

I flew 35 combat missions with the 487th Bomb Group. On many of the missions my “Fort,” named Fearless Fosdick,[1] received battle damage, but none of the damage was serious and none of the crew was injured. The following is an example of how the awesome hand of God worked on one of my missions.

The target on November 30, 1944, was the oil refineries in Merseburg, Germany, a target we knew would be well-protected by enemy fighters and antiaircraft guns, which we referred to as “flak.”

We made several course changes on the way to our target in attempts to confuse enemy fighters being directed to attack us. After what seemed an eternity in enemy territory, we heard that ominous voice from bomber command, “I. P. five minutes.” I. P. stood for initial point, at which all bombers turned toward the target ten miles away.

When I completed the 90-degree I. P. turn, I looked ahead in awe. The sky was almost obscured with the density of flak bursts! And through the black 88mm bursts ahead, getting closer by the second, a literal curtain of B-17s could be seen going down in flames! During that ten miles, I prayed as I never had before that God would deliver my crew and me from the carnage I saw ahead.

One flaming bomber after another left our formations. Flak tore apart men and machines. Both enemy and friendly fighters steered clear to escape the flak the bombers must endure to release bombs on the refineries below.

“Bomb doors open!” came the command. Ugly black bursts were now all around us. I sat with every muscle tensed, expecting searing hot pieces of steel to tear into me at any moment. Suddenly our orderly formations turned to chaos! The Fort on my left wing turned away, its number three engine flaming all the way to its tail. A Fort from a squadron high above went straight down in front of us, both wings on fire. Another Fort ahead went into a steep dive. Probably both pilots were killed by shrapnel. Many parachutes could be seen below on both sides of us. Most would live to become prisoners of war. A Fort on our right pulled away from formation, trailing smoke. He dove at about 45 degrees with cowl flaps open, the standard procedure to put out a fire forward of the engine firewall. The white trail of smoke suddenly became a huge white cloud. The Fort had exploded. The pilot must have misjudged—the fire had to be behind the firewall, adjacent to the main fuel tank. There were no survivors.

An upward surge of Fearless Fosdick indicated that our bombs had been released. All around us Forts were releasing their bombs. But there were many gaps in our formations where Forts used to be. Perhaps even more conspicuous would be the empty seats at the officers’ mess where the aircrews always dined at the same table.

Over Merseburg, lead Forts began making steep turns to the left. Then our turn came. From our group’s lead Fort came the familiar voice, “Let’s get out of here!” We banked steeply as we followed the leader.

Suddenly we were in an unbelievably serene sky, heading home. The “second shift” of our fighters, “little friends,” arrived to protect us from enemy fighters. The German Focke Wulf-190s (FW-190s) and Messerschmidt-109s (ME-109s) had circled around the massive flak concentrations to wait for us on the other side. Our escorting P-51 and P-47 fighters kept the enemy fighters too busy to inflict damage except on a few unfortunate damaged Forts that could not keep formation. Ball and tail gunners were excitedly reporting that great billowing columns of smoke were pouring out of Merseburg.

We received reports that 63 Forts and 34 of our fighters were lost. Some 80 percent of our bomber division aircraft that managed to return were either scrapped or required weeks of repair. I reflected on the fact that my bomber had not received even one scratch! Often I’ve talked with my Heavenly Father with much rejoicing and thanksgiving because of His great love, mercy, and amazing grace shown in sparing my life when so many others perished.

There were numerous occasions during flight training and in combat when I sought wisdom and safety through our awesome, loving Father in Heaven. Providential help was always there! God never failed! “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Heb. 13:5). “The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth” (Psa. 145:18).

After World War II Robert W. Browne became an aerospace engineer and artist. He retired in 1992 and at time of original publication was a freelance writer living in Georgiana, Alabama.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Fearless Fosdick was a character in a well-known cartoon strip. []