91st Bomb Group  

My service in the 91st Bombardment Group, though less than five months in length, was one of the most memorable and significant chapters in my life. Several factors made it so: I was in the service of my country in the great World War II, the most massive and far-reaching conflict in the history of the world. I was 20 years old, an age of transition between boyhood and manhood when experiences are etched deeply into memory. I was wounded in action—shed blood for my country—which is a dramatic event, even though my wound was slight and put me out of action for only about three weeks. Finally, my airplane was shot down—another dramatic event—and I became a prisoner of war for the duration of the European war.

I flew 17 missions, a few of which stand out in my mind in sharp relief. These involve the following missions: The first was a long trip to Munich, when our airplane hit violent prop wash and almost flipped over in the air. The second mission, an attack on a German air field near Chartres, France, is memorable because our airplane took a major hit from anti-aircraft fire (over 70 holes in our plane), and I was hit by a piece of flak.

My fifth mission was to Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr Valley, so infamous for heavy anti-aircraft fire that we called it Happy Valley. The most accurate flak I remember was thrown up at us that day. My plane, flown by Lt. Louis Starks, took several hits, include a big hole in the leading edge of the left wing. I counted 13 feathered engines in our group that day, and there may well have been more. A feathered engine means an engine whose propeller had been adjusted so as to present a sharp edge to the wind to reduce drag. An engine was feathered when it was damaged or otherwise unable to function.

The sixth, a raid on a synthetic oil complex in Ludwigshaven, I remember because the flak was so thick and terrifying. My plane, flown by Lt. Hubert Donahue, was not damaged, as I remember, but at least one ship of our group was lost that day.

I have forgotten which mission it was, with my regular pilot Val Maghee at the controls, when our entire wing (three groups, nine squadrons) was lost temporarily in bad weather and headed for a heavily defended area in the Frisian Islands. If I was not the first navigator in the wing to figure out where we were, I was at least the first to tell my pilot, who immediately called our group lead on the radio to give them the heading I said we should take. It was sobering to see the whole wing wheel around to the left to take up my heading. What, I wondered, if I had been wrong?

The 14th mission was flown with Lt. Hanford Rustand. It was his crew's first combat flight, and I as a veteran navigator was assigned to fly with them to lend stability. It was common practice for an experienced officer to fly with a new crew for that reason. When we returned from the bombing mission, the sky over England was all but obscured. Imagine hundreds of B-17s from many different groups flying around in murk where visibility may have been as little as two miles. Using a piece of electronic equipment called the Gee, which had been developed by the British, I was able to navigate through that frightful soup so accurately that finally I was able to say, Rusty, you should be able to see the runway just ahead. And there it was! That performance earned a cheer from Rusty's crew and made me one proud navigator!

My 17th and final mission was to the Luna Synthetic Oil Refinery near Merseburg. Enemy fighters hit us hard, setting our plane on fire and forcing us to abandon ship. The climax came when I pulled the rip cord and my parachute failed to open. I was able to insert a couple of fingers into the opening from which the rip cord came and pull enough of the chute through—probably a little pilot chute—so as to catch the wind and open the main umbrella. Succeeding events are described in my first book, P.O.W. —A Kriegie's Story. My second, B-17 Navigator, tells of my induction into the service and my training which led eventually to my graduation from Aviation Cadets as a 2nd Lieutenant and aerial navigator. A third book will fill the gap between those two and tell of my combat experiences flying out of England.

A beautiful website offers photographs and a wealth of information about the 91st Bombardment Group. Constructed and maintained by Jim and Suzi Shepherd, the site can be accessed at www.91stbombgroup.com.



  copyright© 2006 | February 28, 2010