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'I hate war' 60 years after waging it

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

Like many other war veterans, Milton Audett’s memories of his time in the Army Air Corps during World War II are funny times punctuated with the scary, the gruesome and the regret.

Audett, 81, was the technical sergeant on a B-17 during the war and flew from Great Britain to Germany bombing war production plants, railroad yards and anything else that Nazi Germany was using to keep its war machine going.

He had been out of high school for little more than a year when he was drafted in 1943. The Washington native eventually found himself in England as part of a B-17 crew. He was responsible for making sure the airplane’s mechanical and electrical systems were in working order.

The four-engine aircraft was one of the most famous planes during the war and earned the nickname “Flying Fortress” after its debut. It was a “marvelous airplane” in Audett’s estimation. It could carry a large payload of bombs and it was hard to knock from the sky. If one of the in-board engines was still working, the plane could keep its altitude. Crews knew their planes were tough, could take a lot of damage from enemy fire and still get them home.

While dependable aircraft, conditions on the ships –– as the crews called them –– were not ideal. Flying at 20,000 feet or higher, the crew carried oxygen bottles in the pockets of their flight suits. It was well below freezing and they tried to stay warm. Usually any discomfort left a bomber’s crew when the enemy planes came roaring in with guns blazing and the anti-aircraft fire brought exploding shots of hell from the ground.

It was on a mission before D-Day that for Audett and the rest of the crew was worse than usual.

They were to fly into Germany to bomb manufacturing plants that made ammunition and aircraft parts and “anything else we can find,” Audett said.

The crew was flying its 26th mission –– making them veterans of such runs –– and were supposed to be rotated out, Audett said.

After dropping their bombs, the plane turned back to England. It wasn’t easy. German fighter planes, especially the ME-109s, were constantly firing on the B-17 formations, trying to pick off the bombers before reaching the target. There was also anti-aircraft fire, and that was what brought down Audett’s plane.

Nearly 60 years later, it’s difficult –– emotionally and because of time –– for Audett to remember all the events. However, he believes a shot ruptured the underside of the plane, spraying shrapnel everywhere. He was hit in the back and legs, but not seriously enough to put him out of action.

A waist gunner from Connecticut tore several of the muscles in one arm, but continued firing his machine gun.

The radioman and tail gunner were killed.

Audett stopped firing from his top turret because the shrapnel had also blown out most of a small seat he sat on to fire the guns. As the technical sergeant, or engineer, he helped the pilot and co-pilot keep the plane in the air.

The ragged hole in the bottom of the plane created a lot of drag, slowing the aircraft down. Soon the starboard interior engine lost power as the crew neared the coast of France. Then the port outboard motor lost oil and shut down.

The plane wasn’t going to stay up for much longer. The pilot brought the craft into the English Channel, touching the tail three times before landing the Flying Fortress.

“He did a beautiful job,” Audett said.

The surviving crew members climbed onto the wings. They pulled life rafts from the plane and took turns rowing toward England. One of them said prayers for the group while they rowed, Audett recalled.

While it seemed forever, he reckoned the crew was in the water for about eight hours before an American PT boat rescued them and brought the men home.

Returning to their base in England, the men recuperated from their wounds and instead of being rotated home were assigned a new B-17 and flew several more missions.

Not all of Audett’s time was so harrowing during the war. Once they had leave and went to London. While marveling at the chalk art Londoners were doing on the sidewalks, one of the artists asked the Americans if they had access to chalk. For some reason England was using it for the war effort, Audett figured.

After saying he would help, Audett telephoned a friend in Chicago who had several businesses and asked the man for chalk. Sure, the friend said, how much is needed. Not knowing, Audett told the friend to send all he could. A few weeks later the order was received –– a new B-17 loaded with chalk. It took Audett and his friends several truck trips to bring all the chalk to the artists.

Audett was eventually transferred with most of his crew to Pratt, Kansas, where they started learning to fly and operate the new B-29 SuperFortress. The war in the Pacific ended before Audettcould get into the action, but it didn’t stop he and his crewmates from plotting a mission to the outskirts of Chicago and loading their plane’s bomb bay with beer and alcohol. Pratt was a “dry town” in those days, Audett recalled, and they returned with the booze and sold it to people in the community.

With the war over, the Army let Audett leave three years after being drafted and he became a self-professed ski bum with his brother. He graduated from the University of Washington. He wanted to work in radio and television as an announcer, but after a stint in Texas, came back to Washington where he met his wife at a dance hall in Kenmore.

Audett married Aloise Magnuson and they had three sons and two daughters. She died in October after 55 years of marriage to Audett.

His children know he was in the war and generally of what he did, Audett said. Talking about it a lot still brings up painful memories.

“You’d think after all these years I’d be callous enough,” Audett said between pauses and some tears.

Looking back, Audett said his frame of mind was different.

“I was pretty eager to get at (the enemy),” he said. They weren’t people he knew, but they were hurting and could hurt people he did know. That made him mad and he wanted stop the Axis countries.

While he is proud of his service, Audett said, he’s not proud of what he did then. In his opinion, he killed thousands of people by being in that bomber.

“At this point, I hate war,” he said.

And he doesn’t support the war in Iraq, saying it isn’t the business of the United States.

“Is Iraq that much of a threat to us?” he asked.

Audett said he had never spoken publicly about his experiences during the war, but wanted to now see if he could do it. It still hurts.

“I didn’t do any more than others did,” he said. “There are others who did a hell of a lot more than I did. They gave their lives.”

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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