I interviewed more than fifty survivors of the Linz mission of 25 April 1945, but I had to make some tough choices when it came to getting the manuscript for Bombing Hitler's Hometown to a manageable word count. Unfortunately, I had to cut some great material, including this passage based on a wonderful conversation I had with Bob Soutar. Bob is a hero, and his story deserves to be told and retold...
“I was born a Catholic and was raised on my knees,” Sergeant Bob Soutar remembered, so kneeling at his tail gun position in a B-17 Flying Fortress for the 99th Bomb Group was second nature. Soutar liked being a tail gunner, and all through training, it seemed that tail gunners always had the most fun. “We were lighthearted,” he recalled. “It seemed like we weren’t afraid to die.”
Soutar got more than two dozen opportunities to venture into enemy territory and put his supposition to the test. He flew with a crew who, like himself, had taken a winding road into the Army Air Forces (AAF). One crewman was a former military policeman, another was a radio school dropout, a third had transferred to bombers from an armored outfit. The pilot, First Lieutenant Robert W. Schuetz, had been a flight instructor for three or four years. And then there was Soutar, who had begun his military service in the infantry.
“It would’ve killed me if I couldn’t have gotten in (to the service),” Soutar claimed. “I wanted in so bad.” Growing up in the St. Louis suburb of Shrewsbury, Missouri, Soutar was one of a group of thirteen neighborhood boys who played at war whenever they could. They had old rifles and flags, and one boy even managed to acquire a bugle. The boys would stage mock parades and battles, the streets ringing with the sound of youthful aggression and a bugle poorly blown. As the boys advanced to high school, their thoughts turned more to sports and girls, but Soutar’s passion for the martial life never subsided. When America was catapulted into World War II, the young man enlisted as soon as he legally could. Called up in the spring of 1943, Soutar boarded a bus for his ride into the unknown. What he saw there made him both happy and proud. “It looked like my gym class,” he remembered. “I knew almost everyone.”
Almost a year into his stint in the infantry, Soutar found himself out on maneuvers in the dead of winter. He heard GIs complain that AAF personnel got to train in warmer climes, and that sounded good. Plus, his girlfriend, Dorothy, had always wanted a pair of silver wings. “Truth be told,” Soutar recollected, “that had an influence.” He put in his papers and transferred to the AAF. Soon, he was training in such sunny places as Florida and Arizona, and before long he earned his gunner’s wings.
By the time 1944 gave way to 1945, Soutar was a combat veteran, and, like so many in his shoes at that time, the Italian winter and long periods of inactivity were hard on him. One particularly cold night, the airman found himself looking longingly on a fire that blazed in a barrel about a quarter mile across Tortorella airfield from the Fortress he was posted to guard. Soutar couldn’t resist. He walked over and joined his fellow sentinels around the fire. They all knew each other, and the jokes and jargon of cold, bored GIs flowed freely. All too soon, the approach of a jeep in the distance interrupted the gathering. At that hour, it could mean only one thing. The sergeant of the guard was coming to check on the men.
Soutar and his merry band scattered, and the Missourian took off at a sprint for his aircraft, determined not to get caught away from his post. The jeep turned and headed away, but Soutar maintained his pace, just in case it circled back. As he reached the aircraft, his boot caught the edge of the pierced steel planking on which the B-17 rested. “Oh man, I really took a fall on my face,” he recollected. “My .45 was in my shoulder holster, and it came flying right out, and it must have slid fifty feet on that steel mesh.” Dazed, bleeding slightly, and panting from his run, Soutar just laid there for about half an hour. He was no longer cold, and he never saw the sergeant of the guard that night.
Staying warm through the winter was a constant struggle. There were five other enlisted men in Soutar’s tent, and they would make frequent trips to the fuel dump, each man lugging back one or two Jerrycans of aviation gas and stacking them outside the tent as fuel for their makeshift furnace. When their fuel stash started getting stolen, the men began filling their empty cans with water and placing them outside. Before long they were taking delight in the expletives unleashed from across the squadron’s tent area when the culprits found their furnace flames doused, not gorged, by the purloined liquid.
The men did what they could to make their tent homier. The radioman rigged a receiver for the dwelling and, in the dark of night, secretly tapped into the wireless set in the enlisted men’s club and ran a wire back to the tent. The men would take turns laying on their sides, one ear resting on the solitary padded earphone they possessed, listening to the Armed Forces Radio Services. Meanwhile, Soutar, a former Boy Scout, spent weeks stockpiling bricks to make a floor, and he also used wood from discarded bomb crates to make a table, a desk, and a four-foot extension for the tent. He even fashioned heavy cardboard into a functioning door.
On the ground, down time was tedious, but in the air it could be dangerous. “I was scared,” Soutar recalled of his time in combat, “but it was worse when nothing was happening, when you had time to think about it.” Perhaps it was out of a shared understanding of this phenomenon that, as their aircraft gained altitude early in the long voyage to Linz on 25 April in the squadron’s lead position, the radar operator called Soutar over to his position near the radio room. With the radar operator’s help, Soutar could make out ground objects on the screen. “I got a kick out of it,” he remembered. The monotony broken up, even briefly, Soutar returned to his position and resumed reporting over the interphone to Schuetz on the status of the formation behind them.
It wasn’t long before the guns of Linz reached out to touch the aircraft. The Fortress took a beating, bobbing through the man-made turbulence like a rubber duck in a child’s bathtub. Shrapnel holes sprouted in the tail all around Soutar, and the armor plate at the right waist gunner’s position took a serious blow. It was a close call for both men, but they, and all those aboard, made it unharmed.
That night in his tent, Soutar sat at his hand-made desk and jotted notes in the secret journal he kept of his missions. Though the AAF prohibited personnel from addressing the specifics of combat operations in any kind of unofficial written form, Soutar defied the order, writing seven or eight lines about each of his twenty-six missions in what he called his “Little Black Book.”
“Well, it looks like the old days are back, and I don’t like it one bit,” the entry for 25 April 1945 began. It was his fourth trip to Linz, Soutar told his diary, and the target was becoming as dangerous as Vienna had once been. “It was cold and we got shot up,” he continued. “We saw a few ships go down around the target. We could see all the flak and smell it. I thank God once again.”
The next day, Bob Soutar was promoted to Staff Sergeant. After the war, Dorothy got her silver wings, and, later, a wedding ring.
Source: Bob Soutar interview with Mike Croissant, 23 January 2015.