On 15 August 1944, 2,000 U.S. Eighth Air Force and Royal Air Force heavy bombers, supported by hundreds of fighter escorts, lifted off to strike 11 Luftwaffe bases in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. One of those targets was Fliegerhorst Weisbaden, which would become a U.S. Air Force base during the Cold War. Intense enemy flak damaged 11 aircraft, but 39 Hell’s Angels B-17s were soon over the enemy airfield, dropping 164,000 pounds of explosive and incendiary ordinance on the runway and its facilities.
Approximately 45 miles away from Weisbaden on their return trip, shortly after the fighter escorts left, a flight of two dozen Focke-Wulf Fw-190s and Messerschmidt Bf-109s fighters flew out of the sun and pounced on the bombers. In moments, enemy pilots had shot down nine aircraft.
On paper the 303rd Bombardment Group’s Combat Mission No. 229 looks like just another operation — one of many thousands of such missions during the war. Mission reports have this great way of stripping out the human element of combat, filtering out countless compelling stories of how our airmen lived or died during that six-hour mission. All we are left with 75 years later is numbers on a typed piece of paper. Aircraft classified simply as lost or damaged. Men listed as missing, killed, captured or wounded. But how can we begin to wrap our minds around how great and terrible the experience of being on one of these B-17s must have been? Just working with open sources, we don’t know a great deal more about Combat Mission No. 229 than we do about the Greeks that infiltrated Troy by hiding in a giant wooden horse thousands of years ago. It is impossible for us to properly understand the experience of strapping into that lonely, exposed ball turret, fly through enemy anti-aircraft fire, enemy fighters, attack your target, then fly back through the flack and fighters, and hopefully have enough aircraft left to land in one piece.
And if you’re “lucky,” you go back out again and again and again. Continue reading “Real American Heroes: The fallen HELL’S ANGELS of the 303rd Bombardment Group”
Before dawn on 14 August 1942 a lone B-17 Flying Fortress taxied to the end of the runway at a remote jungle airstrip seven miles from Port Moresby, New Guinea to scout for Japanese shipping. Aboard are four veterans of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Royal Australian Air Force copilot, a former cavalry trooper, a Scottish gunner, and a navigator that, despite having just turned 21, was already a veteran of 45 sorties. The pilot runs up the throttles and the bomber disappears into the pre-dawn sky for a nine-hour reconnaissance patrol.
The crew will never be seen again.
Back on 6 December, Gen. “Hap” Arnold personally met with 16 B-17 crews that were departing Hamilton Field (Calif.) on a 2,400-mile leg to Oahu before reaching their final destination in the Philippines. He told them “War is imminent. You may run into a war during your flight.”
Hap was right. First to reach Hawaii was the San Antonio Rose, and copilot 2nd Lt. Wilson L. Cook quickly discovered they had flown into a hornet’s nest. They could see ships ablaze in Pearl Harbor and were receiving ground fire. Unarmed, they had to shake off nine Zeroes and by then were nearly out of fuel and badly shot up. Everywhere they tried to land was swarming with enemy fighters, so the pilot (1st Lt. Frank P. Bostrom) landed on a fairway at Kahuku Golf Course.
Aviation Cadet Hubert S. Mobley and Sgt. Irving W. McMichael crewed Naughty but Nice, which was another B-17 that arrived during the Japanese attack. Their pilot landed on a small, unpaved emergency fighter strip, where they loaded fuel, guns, and ammunition before flying to Hickam Field.
Sgt. Elwyn O. Rahier was on the ground when the Japanese attacked; his plane was undergoing repairs at Hickam when an enemy bomb hit their hangar. The bomb blast killed two soldiers and wounded four, including Rahier.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the citizens of Seattle, Wash. raised over $280,000 during a war bond drive to purchase a B-17E, which was named Chief Seattle from the Pacific Northwest. The nearby Boeing plant completed assembly on Chief Seattle and it was delivered to the 435th “Kangaroo” Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 19th Bombardment Group (Heavy), Fifth Air Force on 5 March 1942. On 9 August the plane flew its first combat mission, an eight-hour patrol over Rabaul and Kavieng, which Japanese troops had recently captured. Chief Seattle had to abort a second similar patrol two days later when it developed engine problems while enroute. Continue reading “Real American Heroes: the lost crew of CHIEF SEATTLE”