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”
In April 1972, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched its Easter Offensive — the largest military invasion since China crossed the Yalu River during the Korean War. American military presence in Vietnam had largely been reduced to air power, and the 5th Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam'(ARVN) was soon surrounded by three enemy divisions at An Loc, the capital of Binh Phuoc province. The only shot the defenders had at victory would be through the devastating firepower of U.S. Air Force B-52s and AC-130 gunships, but in order to survive, they would need the unsung heroes referred to as “trash haulers” — C-130 crews flying in ammunition and badly needed supplies.
The roads to An Loc were cut so the defenders had to rely on aerial resupply. The drop zone was in such a small area (a soccer field), in close proximity to what one crew member described as the “deadliest concentration of antiaircraft fire ever seen in South Vietnam.” Vietnamese Air Force C-123 pilots, used to daylight drops in far less challenging situations, couldn’t put the supplies on target, so the job went to the better trained American crews.
Two Vietnamese C-123s were shot down and several American C-130s were badly damaged during the campaign. NVA gunfire was so deadly that air crews began building custom armor to improve their chances of surviving the flight. On 15 April, the enemy guns tore through the belly of a C-130 flown by Capt. William Caldwell, killing the engineer, Tech. Sgt. Jon Sanders and wounding two crew members. Also hit was the 27,000-pound load of ammunition, which caught fire. Loadmaster Staff Sgt. Charles Shaub quickly jettisoned the pallets, which exploded almost instantly after leaving the plane, then fought a raging fire which burned him badly. Although two of the Hercules’ four engines were no longer operable, Caldwell limped the broken bird back to Tan Son Nhut Air Base. The landing gear had to be extended manually and the C-130 lost one of its two functioning engines just before landing. Caldwell and Shaub were both awarded the Air Force Cross for their superb airmanship.
55 years ago, Capt. Roger H.C. Donlon’s Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 726 manned a camp at Nam Dong, situated just east of the Laotian border and 30 miles west of Da Nang. Accompanying them was a few dozen Nung mercenaries, a team of South Vietnamese Special Forces, an Australian advisor, and a civilian anthropologist who was an expert on Vietnamese mountain tribes. For the last month, the team used the post to protect the locals and train fighters. The base was also a thorn in the Viet Cong’s sandals, as it was situated on Ho Chi Minh Trail, the communist infiltration route that ran from North Vietnam through Laos.
By the evening of 5 July 1964 all signs pointed to a battle at Nam Dong. Patrols discovered that the VC had assassinated two local chieftains friendly to the Green Berets. Locals were clearly on edge and wouldn’t say why. The trainees began fighting with the Nung (it was suspected — and later confirmed — that a large percentage of the locals were VC sympathizers). Staff Sgt. Merwin “Woody” Woods wrote his wife that “All hell is going to break loose here before the night is over.”
Woods was right; by nightfall, a reinforced VC battalion — nearly 900 guerrillas — massed around the American outpost for their pre-dawn assault. Continue reading “Real American Heroes: Special Forces Operational Detachment A-726”