We used to watch these movies overseas and almost die laughing, filled at the same time as we watched with a sense of profound disgust. Van Johnson and a host of other curly-headed, bright-eyed, wiggly-hipped 4Fs commanded by Spencer Tracy used to emerge from these briefings, having just been sentenced to certain death…”
by moritz thomsen
In the Hollywood version of combat that moment when the fliers are gathered together in the ready room and told what target they will destroy is always a moment of high drama. We used to watch these movies overseas and almost die laughing, filled at the same time as we watched with a sense of profound disgust. Van Johnson and a host of other curly-headed, bright-eyed, wiggly-hipped 4Fs commanded by Spencer Tracy used to emerge from these briefings, having just been sentenced to certain death, and do everything but stick small waving flags in their ears. In the background a chorus of 3,000 joined with a couple of symphony orchestras and swung into a rising crescendo of “Off we go into the wild blue yonder.” Hooray!
In actuality, our briefing sessions were dramatic but also sort of sordid. All of us, for instance, had a superstitious dread of changing the clothes which had brought us back from our first combat experience. I wore the same shirt for 27 missions without daring to tempt fate and have it cleaned. By that time it was so black and stiff with the accumulated sweat of several hundred hours of increasing terror that it used to crack when I struggled into it. All of us had these blackened and disintegrating shards of clothing, and the rabbit-foot talisman that was going to save our lives. Gathering together in one small quonset hut was a breath-taking experience, since we smelled like a medium-sized herd of constipated goats.
In the front of the ready room, hidden from view by a curtain when we entered, was a map of Europe covering the whole wall. Our day’s mission had already been outlined on this map with a strip of red ribbon showing our routes in and out, and at the target a cute little paper bomb was pinned to our primary objective. At the proper dramatic moment, just as the commanding colonel was saying, “Men, your objective today is______,” the curtain was snatched away by a second lieutenant in intelligence, who had apparently in his youth dabbled in amateur theatricals. But we never heard the name of the target since at that moment the colonel’s voice was drowned in our groans and cries of lamentations.
Berlin was the target we dreaded. We hated them all, but Berlin was the one that froze the blood. The first sight of that red ribbon as it aimed its brave cellophane way into the heart of Germany was enough to set up a sort of violent repudiation which simply swept and convulsed your whole body. Immediately after every briefing when our target was Berlin the toilets were mobbed with the combat crews whose systems, in a terrible revolt of sickness and fear, turned themselves inside out in spasms of diarrhea and vomiting.
For a couple of months it seemed we did nothing but bomb Berlin. And every time we visited that dying pile of rubble the Germans had moved in another thousand flak guns. When we came in behind other groups the air above the city was visible 30 miles away, a solid island of black smoke at 30,000 feet, so thick you could climb out of the plane and walk on it.
I actually can’t remember much about being over the city; there are entire 15 and 20 minute periods that are gone out of my life, periods when the brain shut up shop and I existed on a crazy level of doing what had been drilled into me to do quite unconsciously.
One morning our group had its turn at leading the Eighth Air Force over Berlin, and since I was sitting in the nose of the first plane, for the tenth of a second that it lasted I was the only allied soldier in the world flying through German air. What a revoltin’ development that was.
I remember approaching Berlin that time and seeing far out ahead of us hundreds of fighter planes flashing in the sun above the city, waiting for us. They were P-38s, American planes, but I didn’t know it for another five minutes. That five minutes was a time of total certainty, when it was so obvious that we were all going to be killed. It seemed only sensible to remember the events of life as it drew to its close and make some sort of a peace treaty with the powers of heaven. But it didn’t happen that way. The body, in times of total fear, takes over and insulates the intellect against the present. One by one, my senses disappeared; it was like a ghost walking through a house and slowly snapping off the lights. By the time we were dropping bombs I was no longer even there; I don’t know where I was, but I know I wasn’t there. Leading the Eighth Air Force that day was a little mindless, gibbering idiot with my name but with none of my attributes.
After his discharge from the Eighth Air Force after World War II and before joining the Peace Corps in 1964, Moritz Thomsen spent 20 years as a farmer in Los Molinos, California, a small agricultural town near Chico and Red Bluff, in Tehama County. His first book, “Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle” was not published until 1969, but in 1959 and 1960 he wrote a column for his local weekly, the Los Molinos Sun. The paper was short-lived, but Thomsen saved clippings of his “Mill Run” column, as well as the notebook he used to write out his columns each week in longhand. The clippings and notebook, now in the possession of his niece, Rashani Rea, provide a fascinating glimpse into the life and thoughts of Moritz Thomsen, eleven years after his death in Ecuador in 1991. Smokebox has been granted permission by Rashani Rea to reprint selected “Mill Run” columns, seen here for the first time since they were published some 41 years ago. For more on Thomsen you can read Marc Covert’s excellent analysis of his published output in the 3 part Smokebox feature Howls From A Hungry Place.