Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer
By Les Whittle
Sixty years after-the-fact, Erskine Arbeiter is finally being awarded his long overdue two Purple Hearts. The then Staff Sergeant Arbeiter, was a B-17 waist (side) gunner, with the 369th Bombardment Squadron, 306th Bombardment Group, 8th Army Air Corps during World War II from October 1944 until May 1945. On 1 February 1945 and 19 March 1945, Sergeant Arbeiter and his crew were flying combat missions over enemy-occupied Europe when their B-17 came under heavy artillery fire and sustained direct hits. On 1 February 1945 Sergeant Arbeiter sustained a head injury and on 19 March 1945 he received a foot injury as a result of flak from enemy fire. With each of his injuries Erskine refused to remain in the hospital and as a result, the doctor refused issue his two Purple Hearts due him at that time. Following Arbeiter’s discharge there were several attempts made to obtain his two Purple Hearts but for various reasons they all failed until this last try. A cooperative effort between Les Whittle and the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs met with success.
Erskine Arbeiter was born 1 November 1925 in Vancouver, Washington and graduated from high school in May 1943. Before his high school graduation he had already signed up for the Army Air Corps Cadet Program. He had wanted to become a pilot. Following high school Erskine entered the Army Air Corps Cadet Program but in the middle of his training the government cut the program. Still with a good sense of humor, even today, he said, “after cutting the program they gave us three choices: gunner, gunner or gunner. After thinking it over…I took gunner.”
According to Arbeiter, there is no doubt about the B-17 being the best plane ever to fly. “It was the most dependable airplane that was put into the sky, but I am a little prejudiced,” said Erskine. If he were to hear a B-17 today he would recognize the sound of the engines. There were four very powerful 9-cylinder rotary engines that carried the B-17 through all kinds of punishment. Even his plane had one of the engines completely shot off and they still made it back to their base. The old song “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer” was very true, many times, but some how the old B-17 hung together until it got back to home base.
Just about every piece of equipment had a nick name with a pin-up picture painted on it’s side. Erskine’s B-17 was no exception. It was known as “The Feathered Angel” with a pin-up of Betty Grable painted on the plane’s side. He said, “she was in the nude, leaning forward with feathers and two little props painted on her and you can guess where they were.”
The “Feathered Angel” took Erskine through 31 bombing missions over Europe and saw him through his fears. If anyone said they were not afraid they were just not telling the truth. In his 31 missions, nearly all were over Germany, except for one in Holland and one in France. Besides having his plane shot up and the engines fail due to combat, Arbeiter faced a number of close calls. Because the bombers flew so high, the crews wore heated suits. When he reached down to turn up the thermostat one day, he found that flak from German guns had torn it away. On another flight over Berlin, flak tore through the bomber hitting Erskine in the head requiring seven stitches. Erskine was wounded again on another mission when flak broke through the floor of the plane piercing his flight boots, oxfords and through his left foot. The hole in his foot was large enough that when a doctor poured medicine on the wound he realized the medicine was draining out the bottom of Erskine’s foot.
His 31st and last mission opened his eyes to where the war was headed. “German jets hit us on my 31st mission and I saw them at 2 o’clock high. I pressed the mike to tell the crew but they passed though our squadron so fast I couldn’t get the words out before they were gone. The German jets passed us up to get to a group of B-24’s behind us. I saw them knock out six of our B-24’s. The jet age was born in 1945 and that event changed the world.” Erskine realized he needed more training as a gunner against the much faster jets. The jets made it an all together different ballgame. He said, “there was no telling just how many planes he and his tail gunner downed…they just didn’t keep track.”
Erskine recalled a friendly fire accident when the plane overhead released it’s bombs and one went straight through a B-17 that was below. The bomb just barely missed the bombardier, wiping out his bombing sights just in front of him. The bombardier was so frightened that his hands froze to what was left of the bombsights and remained there until they safely landed.
Today the ranks of the World War II Veterans are rapidly thinning, and their stories are being lost forever. Young people today have a hard time recalling just who our enemies were during WWII and where is Pearl Harbor? It seems that history classes are circumventing a very important part of our U.S. History. Freedom is not free…someone has to pay the price for our freedom and lives will be lost.