©2017 Tom Parks – All Rights Reserved
I’ve known Sam McMurray for twenty years. I’ve been a fan a lot longer than that.
From Kojak and The Jeffersons in the ’70s to Moonlighting and Raising Arizona in the ’80s… From The Simpsons, The Tracy Ullman Show, Pinky and the Brain, and Johnny Bravo in the 90’s to Friends and Breaking Bad in the 2000’s to Grey’s Anatomy and Devious Maids in this decade… Sam has done a lot of great acting. Check him out on IMDB.
These days, he and I are part of a ragtag group of actors, writers, producers, directors, and miscellaneous other members of Hollywood’s unsteadily employed who regularly get together to play golf and complain about the things men our age complain about. Which is pretty much everything.
Last year, in the middle of a round of golf, during a lull in the whingeing, I mentioned this blog and my father’s WWII experience as a B-17 pilot.
Sam said, “Hey, my father was a B-17 co-pilot!.“
I had to know more.
Sam knew his father’s bomb group, the name of the pilot he flew with, the name of one of the B-17s they flew, and a couple of stories. The internet provided the rest.
John “Richard” McMurray
Sam’s father was born in Pennsylvania in September of 1916. His given name was “John” but he preferred, “Richard” or “Dick”.
Six foot three inches tall and movie star handsome, after the war, Richard McMurray became an actor. The senior McMurray’s IMBD resume is every bit as impressive as his son’s.
As America entered WWII, Dick was living on the upper west side of New York City with his first wife, Beatrice, in a sixteen story brick apartment building at 201 W. 77th Street at the corner of 77th and Amsterdam Avenue.
Beatrice was a professional dancer, something Richard dreamed of becoming. While waiting for his big break, he worked as resident manager of the apartment building where he and Beatrice lived.
We don’t know exactly when Sam’s father joined the Army, however… we do know he arrived in England in May of 1944, as the copilot of a bomber crew..
Figuring backward, and using my father’s time in training as a guide, that would mean, Dick McMurray probably enlisted in late 1942 or early 1943.
In March of 1944, Lt. Marvin Abraham, the original navigator Dick flew with, was doing his final B-17 crew training at Alexandria Field in Louisiana.
That would mean, Alexandria is, most likely, where the crew of pilot, Richard D. McCord, assembled and trained before going overseas.
McCord and McMurray were an interesting pair.
McCord was a 6’3″ West Point graduate. Too tall to fly fighters, he chose bombers. Twenty-two years old, he was five years younger than his co-pilot.
McMurray was an aspiring dancer living in New York City whose widowed mother was a social worker in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Crossing the Pond
In those days, there were two ways for bomber crews to get to England and the war.
Most went by sea.
In August of 1943, about the time cadet McMurray was finishing his twin-engine advanced training, my father and his crew boarded a troopship at Hampton Rhodes, Virginia, and crossed the North Atlantic in a very slow moving convoy. They were at sea for two weeks.
The other way was to fly yourself over.
Installing a rubber auxiliary fuel tank in the bomb bay of a B-17, gave it the range to fly from North America to Great Britain.
Combat crews flew from Presque Isle, Maine to Goose Bay, Newfoundland. There, they loaded their bomber with as many spare parts as it could safely carry and took off for a cold, uncomfortable, 2200 mile, ten-hour flight to Prestwick, Scotland.
Some bomber crews flew direct but, because unpredictable weather conditions along the route often made non-stop flights impossible, there were airbases in Greenland and Iceland for refueling stops or mechanical emergencies.
It is likely, that the McCord crew was one of the 464 B-17s that flew the North Atlantic Route in April of 1944. From what Sam’s father told him about flying over rugged terrain, McCord and McMurray probably made stops in Greenland and Iceland before continuing on to Prestwick.
Once in England, the McCord crew (below) was assigned to the 401st Bomb Group.
The 401st Bomb Group
The 401st arrived at the RAF airfield near the tiny village of Deenethorpe in November of 1943.
Deenethorpe’s population had peaked in 1881 at a little over two hundred souls. Locals had been leaving ever since.
During WWII, less than 100 villagers would have had their early morning disturbed by the roar of large groups of heavy four-engine bombers lumbering into the sky from the nearby airbase.
The 401st was made up of four squadrons, the 612th, 613th, 614th, and the 615th. Each squadron flew up to fifteen B-17 Flying Fortresses. Each bomber had a crew of ten.
That’s 150 airmen per squadron. Multiply that by four squadrons and you’ve got 600 airmen… Add in ground support personnel, officers, and administrative staff…, there could have easily been a couple thousand young Americans living on the outskirts of bucolic Deenethorpe.
The 401st Bomb Group was the biggest foreign horde to descend on the local citizenry since the year 865 when a Viking raiding party lead by brothers, Bjorn Ironside and Ivar the Boneless, arrived in the area and decided it look like a good spot for a winter camp.
Fortunately for the people of Deenethorpe, winters and wars end.
In the spring of 866, Bjorn and Ivar left the area to inflict themselves on Northumbria and York.
After World War II, the Americans went home to create an entire generation of privileged, self-indulgent, pot-smoking, free love advocating, authority questioning narcissists.
In my defense, I didn’t smoke that much pot.
The 401st Goes to Bremen
The bomb group flew its first mission on Friday, November 26th, 1943.
That day, the 8th Air Force sent over five hundred bombers from twenty bomb groups to strike the naval installations at the German port city of Bremen.
My father was flying one of the forty B-17s from the 96th Bomb Group out of their base at Snetterton Heath. The village of Snetterton made Deenethorpe look positively cosmopolitan.
My father didn’t know it at the time but, the Bremen mission on the 26th would be the next to last one he would fly.
The following Monday, the 96th was sent back to Bremen. On their 2nd trip to the city in three days, Lt. Parks and his crew were shot down.
By the time F/O McMurray (F/O is Flight Officer, a rank just below 2nd Lieutenant) began flying missions the following May, my father and the nine men under his command had been prisoners of war for almost six months.
During WWII, the 8th Air Force flew over 900 combat missions. During those missions, 47000 airmen were wounded and 26000 were killed. Of the over 93000 American prisoners held in German POW camps, a significant percentage were from bomber crews of the 8th Air Force.
May 24th, 1944 – Mission #1
The McCord crew arrived at Deenethorpe in late May 1944. They were assigned to the 612th Squadron.
It had been almost exactly six months since the 401st arrived in England. They had already completed seventy-three missions.
Until very recently, crews that survived twenty-five missions were sent back to the States. Just before McCord and McMurray arrived at Deenethorpe, the magic number was raised to thirty.
For their first one or two combat missions, new bomber crews were assigned an experienced co-pilot. The McCord crew got 2nd Lt. Walter H. Beck, Jr. Walter had flown his first mission three weeks earlier. This would be his seventh. In war, “experienced” is a very relative term. However, I am sure McCord was glad to have 2nd Lt. Beck along for the ride.
F/O Richard McMurray would have to sit this one out.
We don’t know whether Dick was delighted or disappointed to be staying behind but, at the briefing that Wednesday morning, when the target was finally revealed, there were anguished groans. They were going to the capital of Nazi Germany.
Less than a month earlier, a thousand bombers from the 8th Air Force had gone to Berlin. Sixty three didn’t return. Two of them were from the 401st.
As the following battle damage report for the bombers that survived that mission indicates, flak (anti-aircraft artillery fire) was a problem over “Big B“.
For this mission, the 8th Air Force had cut back to 600 bombers. McCord was flying one of the twenty-one B-17s from the 401st.
At 6:30 in the morning, the residents of Deenethorpe were shaken from their beds by the soul-shattering sound of eighty four 1000 horsepower radial engines roaring to life. Fifteen minutes later, the group began taxing.
The first bomber took off at 7:00. By 7:30, the entire group was airborne.
For the next nine and a half hours, McCord and his crew were entrusting their lives and fortunes to 2nd Lt. Beck’s three weeks of experience and a Flying Fortress someone had named, “Red’s Rogues“.
“That Sweet Thing”
Berlin lived up to its reputation.
The 8th sent 616 bombers. The Germans shot down thirty-three. That night, at American air bases all over East Anglia, there were 330 empty bunks.
Ten were at the 401st.
2nd Lt. John Whiteman had flown his first mission the day before with an experienced co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Horace Shelton. Possibly because they were going to Berlin, Shelton also joined John for his crew’s second mission.
Whiteman was flying in the same eighteen plane element as McCord, a couple of hundred yards ahead of him off to his right.
Getting to Berlin was easy. Over Berlin, things got very difficult.
Enemy fighters were everywhere and the flak was intense and accurate. The American bombers were flying through a hot buzzing cloud of B-17 shredding, man-killing metal.
Just after releasing their bombs, flak found “That Sweet Thing” and took out two of her four engines.
If you’re over Berlin and you lose half of the things that are keeping your eighteen ton bomber from nose-diving into the middle of the Kurfürstendamm Strasse… That’s bad.
Things were hectic in the cockpit as Whiteman and Shelton struggled to keep “That Sweet Thing” flying. While they worked on the problem of two lost engines, the Germans got lucky again. Flak passed completely through one of the bomber’s wing tanks and 160 gallons of aviation fuel poured out into the slip stream.
As so often happens in war, things were going to hell in a hurry. A third hit caused one of the B-17s landing gear to lower and damaged her flight controls.
Shelton, the experienced co-pilot, pressed the button on his throat mic and ordered the crew to prepare to bail out.
Almost immediately, the rookie pilot told the crew to stay where they were.
I imagine Whiteman was thinking, his co-pilot might have more experience flying missions but when it came to getting shot down, their experience was exactly equal. And, as long as he was responsible for the crew, he would be making the decision to bail out.
After evaluating the damage, conferring with his navigator, and reviewing his options, Whiteman decided to turn north in an attempt to reach the island of Bornholm, just off the coast of neutral Sweden. Between “That Sweet Thing” and freedom were 100 miles of enemy territory and 90 miles of the Baltic Sea.
Crew members hand-cranked the landing gear back into place and “That Sweet Thing” headed north.
It was close but they made it to the island and, seconds after crossing the beach, 2nd Lt. Whiteman crash-landed his crippled bomber in a field.
As the crew celebrated and settled down to wait for the Swedish authorities, a local farmer came by to check out the scene of the crash.
At first, he was puzzled as to why the Americans appeared so relaxed. He didn’t speak much English but, eventually, he realized their lack of alarm sprang from a complete misunderstanding of where they were.
As best he could, the farmer urgently communicated to the crew that Bornholm was not, in fact, part of Sweden. Bornholm belonged to Denmark… Nazi-occupied Denmark. And, furthermore, the island was currently occupied by said Nazis. Nazis who were, undoubtedly, at that very moment, headed in their direction.
The Americans got busy.
After destroying as much of the B-17’s equipment as possible, they tried to set “That Sweet Thing” on fire. She stubbornly refused to burn. Having done all the damage they could, the Whiteman crew thanked the farmer, paired up, and scattered.
In spite of an intense search by the Germans, within a couple of days, the entire crew had crossed the remaining twenty-three miles of the Baltic to neutral Sweden.
Meanwhile back at Deenethorpe…
For the McCord crew, their first mission was pretty anti-climactic. They went to Berlin, they dropped their bombs, and they came home.
The debriefing had its moments. See if you can identify which pilot was most likely to get a promotion.
A) Lt. John Myrtetus, who reported the group was too far behind the rest of the formation.
B) Lt. John Lipka, who reported the group’s lead element didn’t hold its position and “made it tough for us“.
C) Lt. Robert P. Walsh, who reported the group leader’s evasive action over Berlin “caused confusion“.
D) Lt. Robert L. Fisette, who reported the group’s leadership and formation were “unusually good“… especially the evasive action over Berlin…
The correct answer is… E) None of the above.
The pilot who spoke up at the debriefing and went on to become a major, serving in Korea and Viet Nam was…
Twenty four-year-old, Lt. Edwin A. Post, from Oceanside, California, demonstrated the aplomb that comes with having flown twenty-two combat missions, by complaining to the debriefing interrogator that, in his opinion, the biggest problem with the bombing mission to Berlin was, the bag lunches provided his crew didn’t contain enough cookies.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a cool, calm, collected leader of men. I would follow Edwin anywhere.
The only thing Lt. McCord had to report in his debriefing was, that his bomber’s gyro compass wasn’t working.
As far as war stories go, McCord’s broken compass couldn’t shine the shoes of Whiteman’s, “we crashed on a Nazi island and escaped to Sweden“.
However, he had twenty-nine more missions to go. There would be stories.
May 25th, 1944 – Fécamp, France – Mission #2
The allied invasion of France was twelve days away.
In preparation for D-Day, the 401st was assigned to bomb coastal gun emplacements at the French town of Fécamp.
Dick McMurray was finally going to war.
As he awoke that morning, it must have been a great comfort knowing he was flying into combat with a seasoned pilot and battle-hardened crew who had survived a total of one mission… the day before… without a compass.
McCord and McMurray were assigned a B-17 named, “Ice Cold Katy“. She would see them through almost half their thirty missions.
They flew other B-17s, like, “The Shape”, “Boche Buster”, “Fearless Fosdick”, and the improbably christened, “Diana Queen of the Chase” . But Katy was the one McMurray would remember and tell his son about after the war.
That Thursday, the citizens of Deenethorpe got an early wake-up call. Take-offs began at 4:50 am. The group was back home by noon.
The mission was as easy as that.
The 401st saw no enemy fighters and the little flak they did encounter was described as “meager and inaccurate”.
The one discordant note came from the navigator on a B-17 named, “Be Coming Back“, 2nd Lt.James R. Howell.
After the mission, Howell reported, with just a slight touch of snide, that, “…the coordinates of target as given at the briefing were actually situated in the English Channel“. – Documents/401stbg.org
Now, I’m not saying 2nd Lt. Howell wrote down the wrong coordinates but… He flew to Fécamp in the middle of an eighteen-plane squadron. His pilot was following the planes ahead of him, and those planes were, in turn, following the plane at the head of the formation. The lead plane was being directed by the squadron lead navigator… The lead navigator who managed to get everybody to the right place with the coordinates “as given at the briefing“.
I’m just saying…
May 27th, Ludwigshaven, Germany – Mission #3
The McCord crew got Friday off. Saturday morning, they went back to work. This would be F/O McMurray’s first mission over the Fatherland.
Two hundred and seventy-five 8th Air Force bombers would hit two targets in Germany. Twelve bombers would get shot down and ninety-eight would be damaged.
Thirty-six B-17s from the 401st left Deenethorpe at 8:00 am. Five hours later, they were over the railroad yards at Ludwigshaven.
A lot of enemy fighters attacked the bomber formation but not where the 401st was. The flak was intense and accurate and twelve of the group’s bombers suffered damage. None of it was serious.
By four in the afternoon, the 401st was back at their base in England.
Their third combat mission was over and nobody got hurt. However, McCord and McMurray returned unhappy and at the debriefing, their interrogator got an ear full.
McMurray reported, “the latrine in the equipment room is filthy“. Documents/401stbg.org
McCord added, “men are laying around the equipment room and getting in each others way“. Documents/401stbg.org
I don’t know exactly what happened in the equipment room that morning before the mission but McCord and McMurray had obviously talked about it all the way to Ludwigshaven and back.
I think, if you combine the two statements, the McCord/McMurray message to the interrogator comes through loud and clear,…
“Maybe, if some of the goddamn bums laying around the goddamn equipment room would get off their lazy butts and clean the goddamn latrine once in awhile, combat crews would have a pleasant place to crap before flying off to risk their lives over Nazi goddamn Germany…”
Or something like that.
May 28th, 1944 – Desseau, Germany – Mission #4
Wars neither honor the Lord’s Day nor do they keep it holy.
This was going to be a bad day for the 401st.
The 8th Air Force sent 1341 bombers to various targets in Europe. Thirty-three didn’t make it back.
McCord and McMurry were flying the number two spot behind the leader of a twenty-one-plane element from the 401st. Seven of those bombers didn’t return. More than half of the seventy crew members in those planes died.
Before they reached the target, sixty enemy fighters jumped the formation. For forty minutes the fighters came at the bombers from all directions. The gunners in the surviving B-17s expended 67,000 fifty caliber rounds fighting them off.
In addition, the flak was intense and very accurate. Every bomber that made it to the target and back had battle damage. A number of crewmen were wounded and a ball turret gunner was killed.
42-97073 (No name)
1st Lt. Vincent Kaminski (26) from Minnesota was flying his 25th mission.
During their bomb run, enemy fighters zeroed in on the Kaminski bomber. Witnesses reported seeing the plane, with one engine on fire, peel off, roll on its back, and go down.
Inside the falling bomber, Lt. Kaminski gave the order to abandon ship and somehow, co-pilot 2nd Lt. Robert Enstad and navigator, 2nd Lt. Charles Manning got out.
They were the only ones who made it.
1st Lt. George A. West (28) from Salt Lake City was flying “Bonnie Donnie“. He and his crew were on his 27th mission. This one and three more and they’d be going home.
As the group left England, West was flying just behind McCord and McMurray off their right wing.
Over Dessau, “Bonnie Donnie” was hit by enemy fighters. With his controls badly damaged and one wing on fire, West ordered his crew to bail out. The navigator, top turret gunner, and bombardier, 1st Lt. Thomas Montgomery exited the forward escape hatch. Just before bailing out, Montgomery saw his pilot behind him. West motioned for Montgomery to jump.
Immediately after the bombardier cleared the ship, “Bonnie Donnie” went into a spin and blew up. Co-pilot, 1st Lt. Douglas McKinnon, standing in the open bomb bay, was blown clear of the plane along with four other crew members. The tail gunner, S/Sgt Lefkin died when his chute failed to properly deploy.
Waist gunner, S/Sgt. Hugh Russell and Lt. George West went down with the plane.
“BTO in the ETO”
On his fourth mission, 2nd Lt. Frederick H. Windham from Novice, Texas was flying “BTO in the ETO“.
A flak burst took out the #3 engine, destroyed their oxygen system, and killed the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Doug Ferguson, in his seat.
BTO pulled out to the right of the formation and quickly lost 3000 feet. Now, separated from the formation, they were under attack by enemy fighters.
Windham decided it was time to go. Right after he gave the order to bail out, his bomber blew up in mid-air.
Miraculously, the pilot and four others survived being blown out of the plane.
This was tail gunner, S/Sgt Floyd Miller’s first flight with the Windham crew. Miller had completed the required number of missions needed to go back to the states but had volunteered to keep flying.
That morning, while boarding the plane, staff sergeant Miller confided to crew members that he was still flying because of domestic problems at home. This couldn’t have made him popular with a crew on its twenty-seventh mission.
Miller died in the plane… as did four men so close to going home.
1st Lt. Paul F. Scharff (27) was flying “Lonesome Polecat“. Ludwigshaven was the Iowan’s 24th Mission.
Over the target, Scharff’s B-17 was in a particularly hard-hit location in the formation. The plane right in front of him went down as did the two immediately behind him.
“Lonesome Polecat” was getting shot to pieces but Scharff was confident in his plane, his crew, and his abilities.
“I’ll get you back, stay in your positions” he announced over the intercom.
Moments later an enemy fighter sprayed the cockpit with machine gun and 20mm canon fire. Both pilots were hit. Co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Charles Eckert from Kansas was less than a month away from his twenty-third birthday. He was killed outright.
Scharff called for help over the intercom saying his arm had been shot off and he needed a tourniquet. The top turret gunner, T/Sgt Richard Karl, left his position to help his pilot.
From this moment on, no one was flying the plane.
Karl dragged his 6′ pilot to the nose of the bomber where the navigator, 1st Lt. Bernard Schwartz tied off Scharff’s arm and treated his other wounds as best he could. He, then, attached a static line to the ripcord of his pilot’s parachute and prepared to push him out of the plane.
Schwartz was awkwardly between the semi-conscious Scharff and the escape hatch. Seeing he had little room to maneuver, the bombardier, 1st Lt. Robert Hoover motioned for Schwartz to go ahead and jump, indicating he would push their pilot out after him.
Schwartz hesitated a moment, then dove through the opening. Hoover, Scharff, and two other crew members never got out of the plane.
For the rest of his life, Schwartz regretted not making the bombardier go first.
42-102580 (No name)
1st. Lt. William Protz (26) from Wisconsin was flying right behind “Lonesome Polecat” off her left wing. This was his eighth mission. His nameless, brand new B-17 was on its second.
Over the target, their bombs failed to release. The bombardier, 2nd Lt. Sam Bennet, and the radio operator, T/Sgt Wayne Wicks were on the intercom discussing the problem when their Flying Fortress took a direct flak hit in the radio room.
Wicks was killed instantly. There was a tremendous explosion and the B-17 broke in two.
The four sergeants in the back of the plane managed to get clear and parachuted to safety.
Blown out of his bomber by the explosion. Protz was unconscious when his chute opened and did not come to until he was in German custody. His captors took him to the Dessau City Hospital where he spent a month recovering from his injuries. He was then taken to a POW camp where he spent the rest of the war.
The top turret gunner, the bombardier, the navigator, and the co-pilot never got out of the falling front end of the stricken bomber.
42-31557 (No name)
1st Lt. Walter B. Keith (24) from Missouri was flying alongside the Protz B-17 in another unnamed, practically brand new bomber. This was the Keith crew’s thirteenth mission.
During the attack over Dessau, fighters had knocked out their internal communications but the Keith crew fought on for another 30 minutes. Ultimately, an enemy round found their oxygen equipment. There was an explosion and a huge fire.
Keith ordered his crew to bail out and signaled for his twenty-one-year-old co-pilot, 2nd. Lt. John James Maloney to leave. As Maloney crawled forward toward the escape hatch, enemy fire raked the nose of the plane, killing him instantly.
As fire engulfed the cockpit, Keith followed his co-pilot forward and managed to bail out just before the bomber exploded.
Four of the ten members of Lt. Keith’s crew perished in the plane.
“Red’s Rouges” had carried the McCord crew to Berlin on their first mission. For Dessau, she was, once again, carrying a brand new crew with a combat veteran flying as second-in-command.
The rookie pilot was 2nd Lt. Gerald F. Carter. The veteran co-pilot was 1st Lt. Clayton Johnson. Johnson had a lot of experience. This was his twenty-second trip.
Over Germany, before getting to their target, the bomber’s #1 and #4 engines failed.
Engine failure in B-17s was a fairly common occurrence.
In November of 1943, my father wrote to his best friend who was an Army aviation instructor back in the States:
“(Over here)… All the emphasis is on formation (flying) so tell the boys to bear down on it. Also their engineering because these engines do quit now and then…” Lt. Parks Letter to Lt. Russ Dougherty – November 24, 1943
Unable to keep up with the formation, Carter and Johnson located a nearby target of opportunity, dropped their bombs, and turned “Red’s Rogues” for home.
Under powered and losing altitude, the pilots fought to keep the B-17 in the air. In the end, the distance was just too great.
Over the English Channel, 2nd Lt. Carter ordered his crew to prepare to ditch.
They gathered in the radio room and braced themselves as best they could. The radio operator sent an SOS and then taped the broadcast key down so the radio continued to send a signal.
The crash landing was by the book. Everyone evacuated the rapidly sinking B-17 in an orderly fashion, and after almost three hours and a half hours in rubber dinghies, they were picked up by a British launch.
The entire crew returned to Deenethorpe the following day. “Red’s Rouges” sank to the bottom of the English Channel.
The McCord Crew
As bad as this mission was for the 401st, fortune was still smiling on McCord and McMurray.
When they left England, they were flying in the soon-to-be hard-hit lead element just off the left wing of the squadron leader. Somewhere, on the way to the target, a cracked cylinder in the #4 engine began pouring oil onto the exhaust where it promptly burst into flame.
McCord ordered McMurray to shut down the burning engine, dropped out of the formation, and turned back for England.
They were home early and missed the shooting gallery over Dessau entirely.
When the rest of the group returned to Deenethorpe that evening, no one could have failed to notice the seventy empty bunks.
The next day, there was a celebration when the Carter crew returned and reclaimed ten of them.
May 29th, 1944 – Sorau, Germany – Mission #5
The 8th Air Force dispatched 993 bombers to various targets in Germany and Poland. Thirty-five planes and 35o airmen did not return.
The morning after the Dessau disaster, twenty-one bombers from the 401st joined twenty-nine B-17s from another group and headed for the aircraft assembly facility at Sorau.
McCord and McMurray were flying a B-17 named “Carrie B II“, a name that automatically raises alarms.
“What the hell happened to Carrie B I? No… Seriously… What happened?”.
This was going to be a long trip. The bombers left at 8:30 in the morning. They wouldn’t get back until after 6:00 in the afternoon.
For the 401st, the length of the mission was the worst part of it. There were enemy fighters over the target but, on this day, they concentrated on other groups in the formation.
There was flak but very little damage was done. No planes were lost, nobody got hurt.
The McCord crew was five missions in and on a roll.
May 30th, 1944 – Oscherslaben, Germany – Mission #6
D-Day was a week away.
For the McCord crew, this would be their sixth mission in seven days.
The 8th sent 928 bombers to various targets in Germany, France, and Belgium. All the bombers that went to France and Belgium returned to England. The groups that went to Germany lost twelve planes.
The Germans were ferocious in defense of the Fatherland.
The 401st put up twenty-one B-17s. They joined twenty-nine other Flying Fortresses to bomb another aircraft assembly facility… in Germany.
Breakfast was at 3:30 am. The briefing was at 4:30. The group was in the air at 7:30. By 2:00 in the afternoon, the survivors were home.
The mission went smoothly until just after they had dropped their bombs. A large number of enemy fighters jumped the formation. Two B-17s flying off McCord and McMurray’s left wing and a few hundred yards behind them went down.
42-107207 (No name)
This was 2nd Lt. Alpheus Kilmer’s ninth mission.
Shortly after dropping their bombs, his B-17 was hit hard by enemy fighters. 20mm shells tore through the aircraft, almost completely severed the tail section, and killed the tail gunner, Sgt. Angelo Manisi.
As his bomber went into a spin, the twenty-three-year-old pilot gave the order to bail out.
Ball turret gunner, S/Sgt. Edward Gormley was trapped in his position. The two waist gunners reported that, just before they bailed out, they heard Angelo calling for help but felt there was no time to go to his aid. One of the gunners reported seeing Radio Operator, T/Sgt. Robert Brooks clipping on his parachute and starting towards them just before they jumped.
Brooks would have had to step over the ball turret to get to the waist exit. It is likely he stopped to help his trapped crewmate. Neither he nor Gormley got out of the plane.
Lt. Kilmer and the six other members of his crew who did bail out were captured and became prisoners of war. A couple of weeks later, back in Elkland, Pennsylvania, Alpheus’ mother and stepfather, Frank and Lavinia, would get a telegram informing them that their eldest boy was missing in action.
“Flak Rat II”
1st Lt. Carleton Wilson, from Vermont, was flying just in front of the Kilmer B-17 in “Rat Pack II“.
The same fighter attack that took out Kilmer also got Wilson. Both bombers went down simultaneously.
As soon as they were hit, Wilson rang the emergency bell and everyone quickly exited the plane.
Ball turret gunner, S/Sgt. William Passeno’s parachute didn’t open.
When they landed, waist gunners, S/Sgt James McMahon and S/Sgt George Smith were executed by civilians.
The seven surviving Americans were taken prisoner. This was the Wilson crew’s twenty-seventh mission.
Flying “Ice Cold Katy“, McCord and McMurray returned intact but seven other 401st bombers were damaged. Two B-17s had wings that were so shot up, that they had to be completely replaced.
That night, the twenty empty bunks belonging to the Kilmer and Wilson crews offered another stark reminder that, until they were back on the ground from their thirtieth mission, none of them were going to be safe.
The McCord crew had the next two days off.
June 2nd, 1944 – Equihen, France – Mission #7
D-Day was four days away and, in support of the coming invasion, twenty-one planes from the 401st were going to bomb German gun emplacements on the French coast.
The McCord crew was assigned to fly as a spare. They would only participate in the mission if something happened to another plane before the squadron reached the halfway point over the English Channel.
While taxing into position for take-off, two B-17s collided. No one was injured but neither plane could fly. The McCord crew stepped into the breach and began their seventh mission.
The runway accident disrupted the usually smooth process of getting the group in the air. Things didn’t improve once they were all flying and the group assembly was a little chaotic.
The group leader didn’t make the rally point. After some initial confusion, his deputy leader began to get the 401st’s eighteen bombers in formation. Then, the group leader showed up. After a little more confusion, the formation finally got itself together and headed for France.
After the mission, during his debriefing, McCord let the interrogator know that, as far as he was concerned, “the Group assembly was poorly executed“.
It appears McMurray’s young pilot had no qualms about speaking truth to power.
When asked his thoughts on the mission, another pilot, twenty-three-year-old, Lt. George E. Bingham from New Hampshire took an entirely different tack when he stated, unequivocally, that the combat mess had shown “wonderful improvement“.
For the McCord crew, the next day, Sunday, was a day of rest.
June 4th, 1944 – Palaiseau, France – Mission #8
Two days before the invasion, the 401st was sent to destroy railroad bridges eleven miles from the center of Paris.
No enemy fighters. No flak. Everyone came home and the McCord crew got another day off.
June 6th, 1944 – The Beaches of Normandy – Mission #9
Crews were awakened shortly after midnight. Breakfast was at 1:30. The mission briefing was scheduled for 2:30.
The briefing room was jammed and everyone was wound up. The men of the 401st knew the invasion was at hand and everyone was wondering if this was it.
The Group’s commanding officer, Colonel Harold Bowman strode into the room. The entire command staff was already there. Something was definitely up. The crews fell silent as their leader stopped in front of the still-covered mission map.
After slowly scanning the crowd, Colonel Bowman pulled the cloth off the map and said, “Gentlemen, remember the date, June 6, 1944. Remember it, because your grandchildren will probably have to memorize it. This is D-Day.” – Documents/401stbg.org
The room erupted as the crews jumped to their feet and joyously began pounding each other on the back. It took a few minutes for the Colonel to get his men settled down and back to the business at hand.
The Group’s mission that day was to bomb the beaches near the center of the invasion at Ver sur Mer, France. McCord and McMurry were going to be dropping their bombs twelve minutes before troops were scheduled to come ashore.
The 401st was sending thirty-six bombers. They began taking off at 4:30.
When the group got to the French coast, the cloud cover was almost 100%. The bombers had to judge where their target was by flying a specific distance from a specific point on a specific heading at a specific speed for a specific period of time. A stopwatch would tell them when they were over the target. Out of an abundance of caution, the bombardiers then delayed their release by an additional 30 seconds just to make sure they were over land.
All bombs were dropped. All bombers returned.
June 6th, 1944 was the beginning of the end for the Third Reich.
Later that day, 675 miles northeast of Normandy, up on the Baltic, a homemade, clandestine, and very, very verboten radio receiver delivered the news of the invasion to the captives at the German POW camp, Stalag I.
My father and his fellow prisoners celebrated as quietly as they could.
June 7th, 1944 – Falaise, France – Mission #10
In an effort to disrupt enemy transportation, the 401st flies thirty miles inland from the invasion beaches to bomb the railroad center at Falaise. Clouds forced the group to make a second bomb run over the target.
No one liked making a second bomb run over a target but everyone returns with no damage.
Just another day at the office.
The McCord crew had been flying for two weeks. They were already one-third of the way to their thirty mission goal. Twenty more and they could go home.
They would have time to celebrate the milestone. The crew had four days off, over a weekend. London was seventy miles straight south.
It would be my guess, they were on the first available train.
June 12th, 1944 – Vitry-en-Artois – Mission #11
In continued support of the invasion, the 8th Air Force sent over 1400 bombers to destroy airfields and railroad bridges in France.
The thirty-six bombers from the 401st were assigned the German airfield at Vitry-en-Artois, sixty miles inland from the coastal city of Calais.
After four days off, the McCord crew had to get up early. Any discomfort they were feeling from the after-effects of their leave would have been tempered by the fact that they were going to France. If they didn’t get shot down, they would be home for lunch.
The mission went smoothly. Enemy fighters were seen but they never threatened the 401st. Lt. McCord was flying in the group’s lead element. Those twelve B-17s and the twelve in the low element dropped their bombs on target.
The high element was just about to release their bombs when planes from another group flew directly under them.
To avoid hitting the bombers below (which did happen from time to time), the high group did not release and, under orders to not make a second pass over the target, they brought their payload home.
While ground crews were unloading the returned bombs, one accidentally dropped onto the concrete.
The explosion killed seven and wounded eleven.
June 14, 1944 – Le Bourget – Mission #12
The McCord crew had the previous day off. It was a good thing, they had to get up before midnight on Tuesday for a briefing at 1:15 am Wednesday morning.
This was going to be another big mission. The 8th Air Force was sending more than 1300 bombers to targets in France and Belgium. Fourteen wouldn’t return. One of those took off from Deenethorpe.
Sixty bombers from the 401st would lead a formation of 134 B-17s to Le Bourget airfield near Paris. Seventeen years earlier, Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis at the same airfield.
Times had changed. Now, Le Bourget was a German fighter base.
McCord and McMurray were moving up in the world. They and “Ice Cold Katy” were assigned to fly on the group leader’s left wing.
As the 401st approached the target, German fighters hit the low squadron where 2nd Lt. Russell E. Schroeder was flying “Dry Run“. This was the twenty-seven-year-old Wisconsin native’s second mission.
After the mission, Lt. Post, the pilot who asked for more cookies after the Berlin mission, reported that four to eight enemy fighters targeted “Dry Run” and shot the right horizontal stabilizer off her tail.
The bomber immediately pulled up into a steep climb, rose 100 yards above the formation, then stalled and fell into a vertical dive with a slow spin.
Inside the dying B-17, Schroeder ordered his men to bail out as he and his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. William Mountain struggled with the controls.
The spin made getting out difficult but one by one the crew exited the plane. Schroeder told his co-pilot to bail out, indicating he would be right behind him.
Mountain and eight crew members survived. Their pilot got out but his parachute malfunctioned. French resistance fighters buried Schroeder in a village cemetery near where he fell.
During World War II, discovering the fates of soldiers and airmen who were killed in action was a slow, painful process. A year would pass before it would be confirmed that Schroeder’s wife, Meryl, was a widow.
The German fighters that destroyed “Dry Run” were, themselves, destroyed by American fighters. The rest of the group bombed Le Bourget and returned home.
McCord and McMurray’s luck was holding. They had two days off. That gave them 48 hours to think about the fact that their next combat mission was number thirteen.
June 17th, 1944 – Monchy-Breton, France – Mission #13
There was a German airfield, forty-five miles southeast of Calais, just outside the town of Monchy-Breton. The 8th Air Force wanted it bombed.
The 401st contributed eighteen B-17s to a combined force of fifty-two bombers.
In spite of an overcast, they got the job done. Two planes from other groups were shot down but everyone from Deenethorpe came home.
For McCord and McMurray, mission thirteen was over and done. They got three days off.
June 21st, 1944 – Berlin – Mission #14
F/O McMurray was finally getting his shot at “Big B“.
On their previous mission, the one to Monchy-Breton, McCord and McMurray were part of a task force of fifty-two bombers. Today, they would be flying in formation with 1233 Flying Fortresses… All with a single target, the seat of Hitler’s government.
The 401st’s forty bombers began taking off at 4:40 in the morning. By 1:00 in the afternoon, thirty-nine of them would be back.
The anti-aircraft fire over the target was intense and accurate and enemy fighters were up in force but so were American fighters. When the final tally was taken, the 8th lost sixteen bombers, including one from the 401st’s 612th Squadron.
Over Berlin, Sadie was on her thirty-fifth mission. Her pilot, 2nd Lt. Jack Atherton of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and his crew were on their twelfth. For all of them, it was their last.
Three weeks earlier, Jack had celebrated his twenty-third birthday. Now, he was getting shot down over Berlin.
Fighters hit the B-17 around 10:10 in the morning, right after they dropped their bombs. Sadie was in bad shape.
Someone in the center of the plane shouted that the pilot had been hit. Both waist gunners, the ball turret gunner, and the radio operator immediately bailed out over the German capitol.
Coming down in the neighborhoods adjacent to and immediately east of the current day Berlin- Tegel International Airport, all four American airmen were in custody by 10:30.
Later, they would be relieved and probably more than a little embarrassed when they found out that, back aboard “Salvo Sadie“, their pilot was uninjured. However, “uninjured” was about as good as the news got.
Jack knew they weren’t going home. However, bailing out gave the fighters who were still attacking them time to radio their position and have troops waiting for them when they got to the ground. So, Jack decided to get as far from downtown Berlin as they could, crash land the bomber, and… run.
His plan worked, sort of.
Jack put Sadie down in a field about fifteen miles northwest of Berlin and everyone scattered. Thirty-six hours later, they were all prisoners of the Third Reich.
The entire Atherton crew survived getting shot down over Berlin. They spent the remainder of the war as POWs.
The following document is a translation of a German inventory captured by the allies when after the war ended. It details some of the items of interest the Germans recovered from “Salvo Sadie“.
The third line of the document indicates the inventory was sent to the Evaluating Center West at Oberursel. This was where most allied airmen spent a week or two being interrogated before being sent to a POW camp.
In December of 1943, after being shot down over Bremen, my father spent some time at Oberursel. I will detail that experience in another post.
For a second time, the McCord crew returned from Berlin intact and Dick McMurray was finally a “Big B” veteran.
June 23rd, 1944 – Fienvilliers, France – Mission #15
The Germans were launching V-1 rockets at England from the Pas de Calais area of France. Ten days earlier they had launched ten of the notoriously inaccurate missals at England. Only one had any serious impact. It landed in London killing six people.
The unguided rockets had no real military capability. They were simply used to terrorize the population and they were very good at that. So, now, the 8th Air Force was sending 212 bombers to hit twelve V-1 launch sites in France.
The 401st put up twenty-six bombers and, for the first time, they left at a decent hour. Everyone was in the air by 11:00 in the morning.
There was no flak, there were no fighters, and, by 4:00 in the afternoon, everyone had landed safely back at Deenethorpe.
The McCord crew had the next day off.. They had been flying combat for exactly one month. Mission #15 was over.
They were halfway home.
June 25th, 1944 – Montbartier, France – Mission #16
The 401st was headed to the south of France. A fuel storage facility just north of Toulouse needed bombing. To get the job done, the 8th Air Force dispatched fifty-four B-17s, including thirty-six from the 401st.
The crew of 1st Lt. John Myretetus was squadron mates of the McCord crew. Both crews were assigned to the 612th at the same time and both flew that first mission to Berlin back in May.
Their mission count was nearly the same. The McCord crew had flown their fifteenth the day before. Montbartier was the Myretetus crew’s fifteenth. If they survived this one, they’d be halfway home too.
It had been almost three weeks since D-Day and the allied forces had moved less than twenty miles inland. On the way to the target, after flying over the invasion beaches, the Germans threw a heavy anti-aircraft barrage at the passing bombers.
The Myrtetus plane, “Slick Chick“, took a direct hit.
As she made a climbing right hand turn out of the formation, crewmen in other B-17s could see the Fortress was on fire. She, then, made a diving 180 degree turn back toward the beach.
Inside the plane, the intercom was shot out. Lt. Myrtetus rang the emergency bell and as he and his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Charles C. Davis, fought to keep the bomber from spinning out of control, his crew began exiting the doomed aircraft.
Eight of them got out. Myrtetus and Davis died when “Slick Chick” exploded in mid-air.
Seven crew members were captured and became prisoners of war. One of the gunners, S/Sgt Douglas Brotherton was executed where he landed.
The formation was still 380 miles from its target. The surviving crews of the 612th would have a lot of time to think about the fate of their friends before they got back to Deenethorpe.
The McCord crew made the trip, returned without incident, and got eight days’ leave.
July 4th, 1944 – Saumur, France – Mission #17
The German Air Force was rapidly being destroyed by bombing and overwhelming numbers of American fighters. Its effectiveness had been so impaired that, on this date, the 8th Air Force reduced B-17 crews from ten to nine men. From this day forward, the bombers would fly with one waist gunner instead of two.
On the McCord crew, waist gunner, S/Sgt. Pierre Peyreigne would fly and waist gunner, S/Sgt. Winfred Weatherbee would get the day off. Winfred would fly the next mission and Pierre would stay home.
The 401st’s target was a railroad bridge over the Loire River. The weather did not cooperate and France was completely overcast. When the bombers couldn’t find their primary target or any targets of opportunity, they returned to Deenethorpe.
They took off at 4:30 in the morning. They were back before noon and completely undamaged.
A milk run was just the kind of mission the McCord crew needed on Independence Day.
July 6th, 1944 – Rely, France – Mission #18
The 8th Air Force was heading back to bomb V-1 rocket sites in France.
By the time the thirty-six bombers of the 401st got to the target, there was so much dust and smoke from earlier bombs that, even after two passes, they could not identify land marks needed for an effective bomb run.
The twelve plane lead element returned to Deenethorpe. The high and low elements separated and went looking for targets of opportunity.
McCord and McMurray were flying in the high box. They found and bombed a V-1 site at Enguinegatte, France, and headed for England.
No 401st aircraft suffered any battle damage. However…
2nd Lt. William McKeon and his crew were somewhere over France in “D-Day Dottie” when a piece of another B-17’s engine struck one of the propellers on Dottie’s left wing. The prop threw the debris into the nose of their bomber, hitting 2nd Lt. Joseph Kozlowski. The twenty-three-year-old navigator from Buffalo, New York was killed instantly.
He was on his seventeenth mission.
July 8th, 1944 – Mont Louis Ferme/Belloy-Sur-Somme, France – Mission #19
After having Friday off, it was back to France to destroy more V-1 rocket facilities.
The 401st sent two squadrons of twelve B-17s each and, for the first time, the McCord crew would lead the way. This meant the Combat Flight Leader, Major Jere Maupin would fly in the right seat where F/O McMurray usually sat.
For the mission, McMurray chose to fly as his pilot’s tail gunner. This position gave him a bird’s eye view of the formation his pilot was leading and allowed him to provide McCord with valuable updates on how things were going behind him.
The group took off at 4:00 in the morning. They were back by 9:00 am.
They went. They bombed. They came home. Nobody got hurt. Just another piece of cake.
Eleven more to go.
July 16th, 1944 – Munich – Mission #20
The 8th Air Force sent a little over 1000 bombers to three targets in Germany. Thirty-six bombers from the 401st would join 407 other Flying Fortresses headed for Munich.
Awakened around 12:30 in the morning, the crews were briefed at 2:30 and in the air by 6:30.
On this day, McCord and McMurray were flying “Diana Queen of the Chase“.
They had flown Diana once before. Back in June, on the McCord crew’s tenth mission, they and Diana had spent five and a half hours together on a remarkably uneventful bombing mission to France.
On this mission, McCord and McMurray would be in the air for a little over eight hours. Their second flight with the Queen wasn’t going to end as well as the first.
There were a lot of ways to die in a B-17, several, totally unrelated to combat.
Although designed to operate at altitudes up to 37,000 feet, B-17s were not pressurized. Once the bomber was above 10,000 feet, everyone on board had to wear an oxygen mask.
Bomber crews were taught:
“The lack of oxygen, known as anoxia, gives no warning. If it hits you, you won’t know it until your mates revive you from unconsciousness, if they can. Therefore, you must check the condition and operation of your equipment with extreme care, and continue to check it regularly as often as possible during flight.” – B-17 Training Manual
At high altitude, a few minutes without oxygen and you’re unconscious. A little longer… you’re dead.
And then there was the cold.
At 30,000 feet, the temperature outside the aircraft could be forty or fifty degrees below zero. The waist gun positions were just two big openings in either side of the aircraft. To keep from freezing to death, gunners wore thick, fur-lined, leather clothing over electrically heated suits.
A malfunction in the oxygen system or the electrical heating system was a big problem.
Even if both systems work perfectly, the simple act of breathing was problematic. Moisture from their breath would freeze inside the tubing of the oxygen masks. If not attended to quickly and properly, the build-up of ice could produce a fatal blockage.
All of this was before anyone started trying to kill them.
Take ten men and put them in a forty below zero environment where they have to breathe from pressurized oxygen tanks, and then add bullets, cannon fire, and exploding anti-aircraft shells… Instantly, the probability of things going seriously wrong increases exponentially.
Aboard “Diana Queen of the Chase“, the flight in was fairly uneventful. There was a high, heavy, and persistent cloud layer over Munich. Worried about mid-air collisions with another group, McCord’s group turned for a secondary and much closer target, Stuttgart.
Yeah, that’s right… Mid-air collisions. That happened too. As I said, there were a lot of ways to die in a B-17 that didn’t involve enemy activity.
The cloud cover over Stuttgart was also heavy but they dropped their bombs and turned for home. They had encountered very little flak and no enemy fighters.
Thirty minutes after leaving Stuttgart, as they crossed the German border into France, McCord realized he hadn’t heard anything from his bombardier, 2nd Lt. Irwin L. Dobrow, since he announced, “Bombs away” over the target.
Unable to raise the bombardier or the navigator over the intercom, McCord sent his co-pilot to check on the two crew members in the nose of the plane.
McMurray donned a portable oxygen bottle designed to allow movement within the aircraft. He then dropped through the opening in the flight deck directly behind the cockpit that lead to a crawl space below the cockpit and provided access to the bombardier and navigator’s positions.
In the nose, F/O McMurry discovered both 2nd Lt. Irwin L Dobrow (23) and 2nd Lt. Marvin Abraham (25) had died from lack of oxygen.
There is not much information on this incident. The paperwork from the 401st states that, on group mission #110, two B-17 crew members died from anoxia.
That’s it. Case closed. In war, bad things happen.
Unfortunately, they happen to people like Irwin and Marvin.
Irwin L. Dobrow
Irwin’s father, Harry was born in Lithuania in 1884.
When he was twenty-one, Harry left the country of his birth and immigrated to the United States to pursue the American dream.
By 1940, Harry was a naturalized citizen and owned a stationery store in Teaneck, New Jersey. It was right around the corner from the apartment he shared with his wife, Rose, and their two sons, Jack and Irwin. Irwin, the Dobrow’s first born, was the store manager.
In 1942, Irwin joined the Army to defend the ideals that had attracted his father to America.
Marvin grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. His father, Bernard, passed away in the early 1930s. His mother, Selma, was left to raise their three children and take care of her elderly, German-born, father, Carl.
In 1940, Carl was ninety, all three children still lived at home, and Marvin was working as a pin setter in a bowling alley.
It is possible Selma’s youngest son did the math and figured joining the Army made a lot of economic sense. The family would have one less mouth to feed and he could contribute to their expenses from his military pay.
Whatever the reason, on July 15, 1941, Marvin quit setting pins and enlisted. Five months later, America was at war.
In my research, I came across Irwin Dobrow’s obituary. His Rabbi’s words are not only appropriate for both young men of the McCord crew, they describe everyone who has ever served this country in uniform… “the finest type of American youth…“
As for “Diana Queen of the Chase“, the B-17 in which Dobrow and Abraham perished… She survived 111 missions and returned to the United States.
McCord and McMurray never flew her again.
July 24th, 1944 – Saint-Lô, France – Mission #21
Seven weeks after D-Day, the allies held a sliver of the German-occupied continent approximately 60 miles wide and 20 miles deep. A breakout from this position was scheduled for July 24th near the French town of Saint-Lô.
The plan called for the 8th Air Force to send a little over 900 B-17s to bomb enemy troop positions… Troop positions that were just 1500 yards away from the American line. They were going to do this bombing from three miles above their target.
The surprise is not that it went so wrong… The surprise is, that no one stopped it from happening.
This was going to be the McCord crew’s first mission since the deaths of their crewmates. After a week off, they were going back into combat with a new navigator and bombardier.
On the 24th, McMurray and his pilot got up early. Breakfast was at 2:00 am. After the briefing at 3:00, the airmen headed for their planes.
The McCord crew was probably relieved to be, once again, flying “Ice Cold Katy“.
The 401st was sending three squadrons of twelve bombers each plus an extra element of four bombers under the leadership of Lt. McCord and F/O McMurray.
McCord’s four planes would join eight bombers from the 457th Bomb Group out of Glatton, England to form a composite squadron that would fly with the 457th.
Once fully assembled, the entire attack formation was almost five miles wide and two miles deep.
At 5:45 am, the forty Flying Fortresses of the 401st began taxing. Then, as often happens in war, plans changed. Take-off times were pushed back and then pushed back again. Eventually, the bombers were ordered to return to their dispersal areas and shut down their engines.
The mission hadn’t been scrubbed, so, all the crews could do was sit and wait. By the time they took off, it was almost 10:00. It had been seven hours since they had been briefed and almost nine hours since they woke up.
Forty-five minutes later, the bombers from the 401st were headed south. Passing west of London, they arrived at the coast and rendezvoused with 860 other B-17s from bases all over eastern England.
The four-plane squadron led by McCord and McMurray broke off and joined forty-four bombers from 457th for the thirty-minute flight across the English Channel.
At 12:02, the task force headed for France. Once there, they would pass just east of Cherbourg on the Normandy peninsula, fly over the American troops dug in just north of Saint-Lô, and begin dropping their bombs.
Somewhere over the channel, less than a half-hour from the target, “Ice Cold Katy” finally lived up to her name.
Without warning, an oil line in the #1 engine broke. The first indication something was wrong was when the protective cowling around the leading edge of the engine began to come apart.
McCord ordered McMurray to feather the prop to reduce drag and prevent it from windmilling.
The disintegrating engine would not cooperate. The propeller began to spin out of control. Within minutes, it melted off its shaft. The prop and the rest of the cowling tumbled into the water two miles below.
To reduce weight, McCord ordered the bombardier to jettison their bomb load. Thirty-eight hundred pounds of high explosives followed the missing parts of Katy’s #1 engine into the channel and “Ice Cold Katy” turned for home.
2nd Lt. R. C. Gibson, flying on McCord’s left wing in “Hell’s Angel Out of Chute 13” took over as leader of the, now, three plane element tagging along with the 457th.
As the bomber force flew on towards France, “Ice Cold Katy” limped home to Deenethorpe.
In France, just north of Saint-Lô, the 30th Infantry Division was dug in, waiting for the 8th Air Force to bomb a hole in the German line. At the appointed hour, American artillery stopped firing explosives and began firing special red smoke ordinance to mark the bombers’ target.
This is where the plan began to go horribly wrong.
As the smoke shells started to land on the German line, an unanticipated breeze from the south caused the red marker to drift northward, back toward the American troops.
Compounding the problem for the bombardiers, broken clouds and smoke from the American artillery barrage obscured important reference points needed to help them get their bombs in the right place.
Out of an abundance of caution, many bombers, including the thirty-six in the 401st main group, did not drop their bombs. However, 343 of the 909 B-17s flying to Saint-Lô that day, did complete their mission.
2nd Lt. Gibson and his three plane element flying with the 457th were the only B-17s from the 401st to deliver their payloads.
Twenty-nine American infantrymen were killed and 156 were wounded by 8th Air Force bombs falling short of their intended target.
The whole plan was such a disaster, the Army called off the planned infantry attack.
And then things really went to hell.
After discussing what happened at Saint-Lô that day, the Generals in charge decided what they needed to do the very next day was… the exact same thing… with more bombers.
July 25th, 1944 – Saint-Lô, France – Mission #22
The 401st, once again, sent three, thirteen plane, squadrons flying in lead, high, and low boxes. For this mission, the McCord crew would fly with their own bomb group.
“Ice Cold Katy” was still short an engine, so, McCord and McMurray flew “The Shape“.
Even though Katy would be back in combat in two weeks, the McCord crew had flown the last mission they would ever fly in their favorite B-17.
Take-offs began at 7:30. By 9:00, the thirty-nine bombers of the 401st were at 12,000 feet and in formation. “The Shape” was in the group’s low box as the 401st headed south to join 878 other B-17s and 664 B-24s at the English coast.
At 10:02, this huge air armada passed just east of Portsmouth and started across the channel. Thirty minutes later, they would cross the French coast. Eight minutes after that, they would be over Saint-Lô.
Once again, the American Army had been firing artillery at the Germans all morning. As the bombers closed in on Saint-Lô, the infantry, once again, began firing red smoke shells to indicate the enemy lines. And, once again, a northerly breeze blew the smoke back towards the American troops crouching in their foxholes awaiting the signal to advance.
Of the 1581 bombers on the mission, 101, including the thirteen in the 401st’s high box, could not adequately identify their target and did not release their bombs.
1480 bombers did drop their bombs.
At 10:40, the bombardier for the 401st’s lead box found identifiable landmarks and locked in on the German position. Toggling a switch, he announced, “bombs away“. Thirty seconds later, “The Shape” and the twelve other B-17s in the group’s low box dropped on the same spot. The bombs from the 401st rained down on their intended target.
However, thirty-five of the aircraft that attacked Saint-Lô that day, once again, dropped their payloads short of the German line. Four hundred and ninety American soldiers were wounded. One hundred and eleven were killed including sixty-one-year-old Lt. General Lesley J. McNair, who had recently arrived to observe his troops in action. He died when one of the errant bombs landed in his foxhole.
In losing his life at Saint-Lô, General McNair gained the distinction of becoming one of the highest-ranking officers killed in action during WWII.
Because of the American casualties, General Eisenhower issued orders prohibiting the use of heavy bombers for close tactical support of ground troops for the rest of the war.
In two days, almost 2500 bombers had dropped around 9 million pounds of high explosives on a twenty square mile rectangle of France.
The German commander, Lt. General Fritz Bayerlein, wrote after the war, the bombardment was so fierce, the ground he was defending looked like the surface of the moon, and over 70% of his men were wounded or killed or simply went mad.
Statistically, less than 3% of the bombs dropped missed their target. Statistics are cold comfort to the dead.
The objective had been achieved. The German line was broken and American troops began spreading out across western France. Ten months later, Germany would surrender.
In war, assigning blame for this sort of thing is, generally, an exercise in futility.
The Army had anticipated what happened at Saint-Lô. To avoid it, they wanted the bombers to fly west to east or east to west, parallel to the German and American lines. The 8th Air Force felt that approach would expose their planes to more enemy fire for a greater period of time. For the safety of their air crews, they decided flying north to south across American lines was the best way to go.
That’s the problem with war… Almost every option you come up with is going to get somebody killed.
Back at Deenethorpe, McCord, McMurray, and their crew were given another eight-day leave. They were getting to know London pretty well by now.
August 3, 1944 – Strasbourg, France – Mission #23
In an attempt to disrupt the German supply lines to the invasion area of France, thirty-six bombers from the 401st joined thirty-two from other groups and hit the railroad marshaling yards at Strasbourg.
The briefing was at the very civilized hour of 8:30 in the morning. Take-off was at 11:00.
Major Silver was the flight leader for the 401st. McCord was deputy leader, flying just off Silver’s right wing in “Fearless Fosdick“. If anything happened to the Major’s plane, McCord and McMurray would take over as group leaders.
There were no enemy fighters and the bombing went as planned. The twelve planes in the high box took some anti-aircraft fire on the way home. As a result, six planes returned with minor damage and one with major damage. No one was injured.
August 4th, 1944 – Anklam – Mission #24
The 8th Air Force sent 425 B-17s to bomb various targets in northeastern Germany. The bomber force flew across the Baltic to avoid German air defenses. Their route took them almost directly over Stalag I, the German POW camp just outside the town of Barth on the Baltic coast.
Around two in the afternoon, air raid sirens in Barth began to blare and, as the McCord and McMurry flew toward their target, my father and his fellow prisoners rushed into the prison yard to cheer the American bombers as they passed overhead.
This kind of celebration did not sit well with their captors and, eventually, prisoners were forbidden to leave their barracks during air raids… on pain of death.
On March 18th, 1945, less than two months before Germany surrendered, one of my father’s roommates, 2nd Lt. Elroy Wyman from Berwick, Maine, inadvertently stepped out of the barracks during a raid. The young lieutenant immediately realized his error and turned to go back inside. He was shot dead in the doorway.
Elroy Frank Wyman was ten days shy of his 24th birthday.
But that was seven months in the future. Now, high above the cheering POWs at Stalag 1, McCord and McMurray were leading one of the three twelve plane squadrons the 401st contributed to the effort that day. Their target was the airfield and jet fighter plant at Anklam.
When the day was done, the 8th had lost fifteen bombers and their crews. Some of the survivors end up at the POW camp they had flown over earlier in the day.
Even though the 401st comes home intact, at least two pilots are a little out of sorts.
In the mission debriefing, Lt. William Mann, and Lt. Charles Maxwell reported that their crews both felt, “The potatoes served for breakfast were cold and the powdered eggs were swimming in grease and tasteless.“
The prisoners at Stalag I would have looked on cold potatoes and powered eggs swimming in grease as a kind of Thanksgiving feast.
The McCord crew was home safely, again. Amazingly, they didn’t fly another mission for thirty days… Seriously… an entire month. You can live a lot of life in London in thirty days.
The 401st would fly fourteen missions before McCord and McMurray returned to combat.
When they returned, they would only have six more missions to go.
September 3rd, 1944 – Ludwigshaven – Mission #25
The 401st sent thirty-six B-17s to join 305 other bombers in an attack on the I.G. Farben synthetic oil plant at Ludwigshaven.
Once again flying “The Shape“, McCord and McMurry led the group’s twelve bomber high box.
The entire group was in the air by 7:30 am. Everyone was home by 3:50 in the afternoon.
The bombing goes as planned and no enemy fighters show up but the flak is intense and accurate. Twenty-five of the 401st’s thirty-six B-17s suffered damage. Including “The Shape“.
McCord and McMurray’s bomber ends up with thirty-two holes in her but no one is injured and she makes the trip back to Deenethorpe without incident.
The McCord crew only had to do this five more times.
September 5th, 1944 – Mission #26
Two days after getting shot up, McCord and McMurray were, once again, settling into their seats for the mission briefing. The officer in charge walked to the front of the room and pulled the cover off the mission map.
They were going back to Ludwigshaven.
There were groans and after the briefing, more men than usual showed up for the chapel services that were offered before each mission.
Today McCord would fly the lead for the entire group. Thirty-six planes would fly where he flew and bomb where he bombed and the group commander, Major Jere Maupin would fly in the right seat next to him.
To hit Ludwigshaven, thirty-six bombers from the 401st would join 241 B-17s from other groups.
The bombing went as planned. Two 8th Air Force bombers were lost and, as on the previous mission to this target, twenty-five of the 401st’s bombers came home with flak damage. None of it was serious.
The McCord/McMurray B-17 only had two holes in it.
With four missions to go, they got five days off. During those five days, the 401st flew their 140th and 141st missions. The group loses two bombers and their crews.
On Saturday, September 9th, Dick McMurray celebrated his twenty-eighth birthday.
September 11th, 1944 – Merseberg, Germany – Mission #27
McCord and McMurray were up early for a 4:00 am briefing. By 8:15, forty bombers from the 401st were in the air.
The 8th Air Force was sending over 11oo bombers to strike oil refineries in Germany. Thirty-nine bombers and their crews would be lost.
The B-17s from Deenethorpe were joining 311 other bombers going to Merseberg. Over the target, the 401st was in the wrong part of the formation.
This was also 1st Lt. Milton R. Wingard’s 27th mission. He and his crew were very comfortable with “Maggie“. She had brought them home seventeen times.
Back in August, Wingard had celebrated his 23rd birthday by flying a mission to Neinburg, Germany. On that day, the group successfully bombed their target and encountered neither enemy fighters nor flak. In war, that’s a good birthday.
Shortly after noon, as the 401st made its bomb run over Merseberg, “Maggie” took a direct hit just below the cockpit. The flak ruptured the pressurized oxygen system and started a raging fire that was so hot the aluminum skin of the aircraft was burning.
Crew members from nearby bombers later reported that as “Maggie” dropped out of the formation, flames were billowing out of the co-pilot’s side window.
Inside the aircraft, the young airmen were doing their jobs. The bombardier immediately released the bombs to get them out of the burning plane. The navigator grabbed a fire extinguisher and did what he could to fight the flames.
1st Lt. Winard hit the alarm bell and set the auto-pilot as his co-pilot grabbed his parachute, dropped through the opening in the flight deck, and headed for the escape hatch in the nose.
His pilot was right behind him.
Flames were everywhere and Wingard’s face was getting burned. Squeezing his eyes shut, he crawled toward the nose. Not looking where he was going, Wingard later reported, he didn’t bail out as much as he just fell out of the plane when he encountered the open hatch.
The pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and tail gunner survived and became prisoners of war. The other five members of the crew perished three and a half missions short of the number needed to go home.
“Shade Ruff II”
In March of 1944, the original “Shade Ruff” had been shot down over Berlin on her 5th combat mission. Apparently, she was not carrying the crew who named her because now there was a “Shade Ruff II“
Over Merseberg, the second Shade Ruff was being flown by Lt. Garrett A. Filemyr.
Back in June, Filemyr was flying “Liberty Run” to Bordeaux, France when flak hit her tail section. The impact instantly killed the tail gunner and left the plane barely controllable.
The pilot assessed the situation and decided to try for the Spanish border, 115 miles to the south. It was a mighty struggle but Filemyr and his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Herbert Claxton, managed to keep the now prophetically named “Liberty Run” in the air until they were over free Spain.
Once assured they were out of enemy territory, 2nd Lt. Filemyr put his B-17 on autopilot and had the entire crew gathered at the aft exit. The enlisted men bailed out first, followed by the officers. Their twenty-three-year-old pilot was the last one to leave the plane.
After an interlude in Spain, the Filemry crew was returned to England. By the first of August, they were back at Deenethorpe flying combat missions again.
Now, over Merseberg, “Maggie” wasn’t the only 401st B-17 in trouble. “Shade Ruff II” also took a bad hit on her bomb run.
A round from a German 88mm anti-aircraft gun passed through the bomber’s right wing rupturing the main fuel tank. Gasoline fumes filled the interior of the plane and the ball turret gunner reported fuel approaching the super charger on the #2 engine.
Smelling gasoline and having witnessed bombers burning and exploding in mid-air, radio operator, T/Sgt James Parkes, and waist gunner, Cpl. Thomas Campbell immediately bailed out.
In the cockpit, Lt. Filemyr didn’t think things looked that bad. He dropped out of the formation, got to a lower altitude, and, somehow, managed to get his badly damaged bomber back to Deenethorpe in time for dinner.
Campbell and Parkes had “dinner” in a German detention facility and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.
Fosdick was on her 27th mission. The McCord crew had flown her once back in August on a completely uneventful trip to Strasbourg.
For Merseberg, the B-17 was under the command of 2nd Lt. Morris Mohler.
Over the target, they got badly shot up. Mohler turned his bomber toward England. It was a fight the whole way but they made it, barely. Over Deenethorpe one of their engines caught fire and could not be extinguished.
Mohler ordered the crew to bail out and everyone exited safely.
Fearless Fosdick’s war ended abruptly in a field near Leiscester.
McCord and McMurray came through their 27th mission unscathed. They had three more to fly. But first, they had five days off.
September 17th, Groesbeck – Mission #28
McCord, in “The Shape“, once again, leads the 612th Squadron with Col. Maupin in the right seat. McMurray flies in “Lady Luck” as co-pilot for Capt. Donald Currie on McCord’s left wing.
“Rosie’s Sweat Box”
Twenty-year-old 2nd Lt. Francis E. Cooke from Fonda, Iowa, had only been in England a few weeks. Groesbeck was his second combat mission.
Cooke and his crew were assigned a tried and true B-17 named “Rosie’s Sweat Box“. Rosie had successfully completed twenty-five missions .
The 401st’s target that day was a wooded area near Groesbeck full of enemy tanks and gun positions. Because they were going after troops, Cooke’s bomber was carrying approximately three tons of 260-pound fragmentation bombs.
It was foggy that morning as the group began taking off just before dawn.
At the north end of runway 23, 2nd Lt. Cooke advanced the throttles, released the brakes, and began his takeoff roll. As he approached the south end of the runway, the young pilot pulled back on the yolk, and “Rosie’s Sweat Box” struggled into the air. She never got higher than twenty feet off the ground. After flying a couple of hundred yards, the bomber stalled and crashed into a field.
The B-17 disappeared in the huge fireball created by the fragmentation bombs and fuel exploding all at once. Eight members of the Cooke crew perished instantly. The tail gunner. Cpl. Walter Ambrogetti was found alive but grievously injured. He died later that day.
The group flew to Groesberg and bombed the Germans in the forest. There was no flak and no enemy fighters. Everyone returned safely.
That morning, Capt. McCord in “The Shape” and Lt. McMurray in “Lady Luck” took off directly over the crash site. Below them, Rosie’s burning remains were another stark reminder that, in their current line of work, death was sudden, violent, and capricious.
They only had two more missions to fly.
September 19th, Hamm, Germany – Mission #29
This would be the 8th Air Force’s 642nd mission in the 25 months they had been flying combat operations over Europe.
They were sending 798 B-17s to bomb various railroad marshaling yards throughout Germany.
The 401st provided 36 bombers in three, twelve plane elements. McCord and McMurray were leading the high box in a B-17 equipped with rudimentary radar. They were joining a little over 400 other bombers headed for Hamm.
The weather over Germany was awful. Clouds obscured everything. Pilots were having a hard time seeing the planes flying 50 feet off their wing much less the rest of the huge formation. Eventually, the three elements from the 401st became separated.
The lead element located a secondary target. The low element jettisoned their bombs and headed home. McCord and McMurray located a target of opportunity and using their radar bombed it through the overcast.
No fighters were seen. There was a little flak over Hamm but, the entire group returned to Deenethorpe unharmed.
Shortly after the Saint-Lô missions, F/O McMurray had become 2nd Lt. McMurray. Around this time he was promoted to 1st Lt. McMurray.
September 28, 1944 – Magdeburg, Germany – Mission #30
All the McCord crew had to do was survive the day and they were done.
It is hard to imagine what a final mission must have been like. For that matter, it is hard to imagine what any of these missions were like.
Just before his eighth mission, in the same letter mentioning problematic B-17 engines, my father also wrote his friend about what it was like being the twenty-one year old command pilot of a Flying Fortress:
“I’m scared stiff all the time over here. I’ve got a damn good crew and it’s a wonderful feeling when the teamwork is clicking and the boys are all behind you.” – Letter to 1st Lt. Russ Dougherty – November 24th, 1943
It’s a pretty good bet McCord and McMurray shared my father’s feelings about combat and their crew.
For their last mission, Capt. McCord and Lt. McMurray would, once again, lead the twelve plane high squadron flying another radar-equipped B-17. This would be their third time in the lead position.
McCord and McMurray took off at 7:44 am.
The 8th Air Force target for the 28th was the oil refinery at Magdeburg. Their secondary target was the railroad marshaling yards at the same location. They sent 445 bombers.
There were a lot of enemy fighters up that day and thirty-three B-17s would be shot down. But, once again, they were concentrating on other bomb groups. In a single pass, a large group of enemy fighters would take out eighteen Flying Fortresses from the 303rd Bomb Group out of Molesworth.
There was also intense flak over the target. It would take one of the bombers from the 401st
Twenty-one-year-old 2nd Lt. Edward Daves grew up in Kingsburg, California where his father, Willie, was a laborer at a winery.
A year after finishing high school, Ed drove twenty miles north on Route 99 to Fresno and enlisted in the Army Air Force.
Two years later, Daves and his crew were setting out on their eleventh combat mission over Germany in a B-17 named “Little Moe“.
Over the target, flak hit the B-17’s #2 engine. It burst into flames and 2nd Lt. Daves gave the order to bail out.
As their pilot held the bomber steady, the Daves crew buckled on their parachutes and exited the plane. Everyone got out safely.
On the ground, they were all immediately captured. The sergeants were sent to a POW camp for enlisted men. Daves, his co-pilot, bombardier, and navigator ended up on the Baltic coast at Stalag I with my father.
The Bomb Run
I will let Captain McCord describe his bomb run on Magdeberg in his own words:
“Due to the undercast, the group leader announced a PFF (radar) run. The lead and low (elements) bombed on the lead ship. We bombed on our own “Mickey” (radar) operator. As we were approaching the target from the IP (Initial Point) we could see the trail of the smoke bombs of the groups in front of us. When the PFF operator called off the sighting angles in degrees, they matched with the drive of the telescope index almost exactly. As we neared the target and the Mickey called off his last reading, the bombardier was able to see the target area through the clouds. From the check points he was able to see through the smoke, we seemed to be headed for the northern end of the marshaling yards. It was too late to make a correction on course and keep the formation in tight. The bombardier looked through the telescope and saw that the rate hair was short of the yards. He made a correction to displace the rate hair on the target and dropped. The bombs started hitting somewhat short and “walked” up on the target. Due to the smoke, clouds and the turn after the release of the bombs, the actual results were not observed too accurately.” Captain Richard McCord – Mission Documents/401bg.org
That is a lot to concentrate on while a bunch of people are trying to shoot you out of the sky. But, they got it done and returned to England.
The McCord plane touched down at Deenethorpe at exactly 4:00 in the afternoon. They had been in the air for eight hours and sixteen minutes.
It was over. They would never have to do that again.
I believe the picture below was taken September 28th, 1944, immediately after the McCord crew landed.
The identification number (153), visible on the nose, corresponds with the number of the bomber they flew on their last mission. They had flown #153 once before but the crew roster on that mission was slightly different.
The only mission McCord and McMurray flew in this particular B-17 with this exact crew was their last.
As the lead pilot and lead navigator of the high element, Capt. McCord (standing, far left) and 1st Lt. Fishbeck (standing, center) are probably watching the rest of their element preparing to land.
Dick McMurray returned to the United States aboard the Queen Mary. Most likely, on the crossing that left Gourock, Scotland on October 22nd, 1944.
During WWII, the grand ocean liner had been converted for use as a troopship.
In peacetime, the Queen Mary carried up to 2149 passengers. On his crossing, McMurray would have been one of 3016 military personnel making the five-and-a-half-day trip to New York City.
However, sailing with 900 people over the Queen’s pre-war capacity was nothing in those days.
Two months later, my mother, Lt. Evelyn Cole would sail from New York to Gurock headed for France and the war. On her crossing, the Queen Mary was carrying 11996 troops. Grinning, she would invariably describe the accommodations as, “cozy“.
War profoundly changes everyone it touches.
The combat missions and the deaths of Dobrow and Abraham would stay with Richard McMurray for the rest of his life. It was a big part of the story he shared with his son.
Sam has every right to be proud of his father’s service.
None of them had to do it. Flying combat missions was voluntary. If an airman decided he couldn’t do the job, he would be reassigned to some other duty.
Every one of those young men who suited up, walked out onto the tarmac, and climbed into those planes, knew full well, that day could easily be their last. For too many of them, it was.
They knew what could happen and they went anyway.
They were all, “the finest type of American youth“…