The Most Famous Heavy Bomb Group of World War II
by Dewey Christopher
The 100th Bombardment Group had Fort Worth as it’s 1995 Reunion target. They were not dropping bombs as they were some fifty years ago when assigned to the 8th Air Force. Hopefully Fort Worth found them as welcome as the English did after hearing the words of General Ira Eckar, the first commander of the 8th Air Force. in a speech to the British Royal family in 1942 “…. we hope when we leave you will be glad we came.”
The Group arrived in England in late May of 1943. Heavy losses early in June through October 1943 earned them the sobriquet “The Bloody Hundredth”. No combat unit sustained such heavy losses as the Group’s original flight crews, only four of the original thirty-eight co-pilots completed their combat tour of twenty-five missions, in fact three Flying Fortresses were lost on their first mission on June 25, 1943.
The 100th was made up of swashbuckling men, from their Commanding Officers down through the ranks of both the flight and ground personnel, proud to be recognized as a member of the “Bloody Hundredth” yet a little fearful. They drew the dreaded “Tail in Charlie” position on the terrible Regensburg shuttle mission of August 17, 1943 and were the high group on the October 8, 1943 Bremen mission and again two days later at Munster. If enemy fighters were encountered, as they were on these missions, the positions the 100th occupied were certain to be the focal point of their attacks. These three missions cost the group 28 Flying Fortress shot down. On the Munster mission only one 100th aircraft returned to their base at Thorpe Abbotts, England. Such is the stuff legends are made.
The Group was the subject of the 1949 movie Twelve O’ Clock High starring Gregory Peck. The airplane most often seen in the movie was The Piccadilly Lily, a 100th B-17 that was lost at Bremen on the 8th of October, 1943. The co-author of the book and screenwriter for the movie, Colonel Bernie Lay from Wing Headquarters, High Wycombe, England often visited the 100th and flew the Regensburg shuttle mission with them in The Piccadilly Lily. Many of the characters in the movie are recognizable to members of the Group.
Why is the 100th so well known — fifty plus years later? They were not the first group to arrive in the United Kingdom nor did they fly the most missions, drop the most bombs or, as is almost universally believed, incur the most casualties. They won two Presidential Citations, but other groups won more. They did have eight dreadful missions the last coming on New Year’s Eve 1944 when they went to Hamburg and lost twelve, some say thirteen airplanes. Their losses came in bunches. Statistics alone did not make them the most famous combat unit in the history of the Unites States Air Force.
The Group was filled with personnel from all over the Unites States, many were very colorful and fulfilled the popular concept of airmen. Rosie, Ev, Murph, Cowboy, Bubbles, Big Frank, Col. Jeff, the two Harry’s (Cruver and Crosby), Handlebar Hank, Sammy Barr, Big Joe Armanini, Four-Mile Drummond, Lucky Luckadoo, (Drummond & Luckadoo were two of the four original co-pilots to complete a combat tour), three Buckys (Cleven, Egan, and Elton), Veal, Kidd, Wallace, Col. Harding, Jack Swartout, said to have been their best air boss and whose health prohibited him from attending the reunion, Carleton and a host of others. Five of their number (Jeffrey, Kidd, Wallace, Veal and Bennett) were to rise to the rank of General in the post war USAF.
There was a bond between the flight and ground crews not general found in the 8th Air Force. Christopher, Morton, Skiba. Dean, Picard, Meyers. Lemmons and many others set high standards for themselves. Their dedication enabled the Group to set an amazing record of missions flown between mechanical failure. They, along with many others, were honored with several Citations from 8th Air Force Headquarters.
Then there were several incidents which fueled the legend of “The Bloody Hundredth”, some serious and others the veterans find amusing a half century later. On the serious side they were involved in what is known as the “Piggy-Back” incident in which two of their planes actually joined in the air, the pilot flying the top plane cut his engines as they were chopping up the lower aircraft and using his flight controls and their engines, managed to land in occupied Holland. Their esteemed Flight Surgeon, Doc. Kinder, extracting a wounded gunner from the tail of a 100th plane with a live bomb wedged between the gunner and the fuselage. These, however, were not the incidents most talked about at the reunion.
Rather of Rosie (Robert Rosenthal) bailing out over Berlin and being picked up by the Russians, his travels to Moscow where he was entertained by our Ambassador and Soviet brass. He had already flown fifty-two missions and intended to fly more until the Commanding Officer, Tom Jeffrey, informed him in words he could understand that he was through with combat for one ‘damn war.’ The story of Cowboy (Owen D. Roane) and Mo, the African donkey who has credit for one combat mission. She was flown back from Africa, bombing Bordeaux, France on the way, with Cowboy’s crew. It is said that he fired flares and radioed the tower at Thorpe Abbotts that he was coming in with a frozen ass!! No one but Cowboy knows what Doc McCarty said when he discovered he was referring to a very cold donkey. Big Frank Valesh and his aircraft, all seven named “Hang the Expense” was remembered warmly. There was mention of his crash with the Red Cross girls, where he hit Drapper’s barn and nearly exposed Bill Carleton’s stock of ‘extra spare parts’ for the 351st Squadron. It was long after the war before they were to learn Big Frank was not at all the swashbuckling pilot he appeared to be. He was in fact, a gentle man, a poet — some of his poetry is very moving. Valesh died ten years ago but remembering him brings warm feelings to his old comrades, Big Frank would have wanted it so.
There are hundreds more that could — should be named. Richard Kiern, who was a POW in two wars — 19 months in WW II and seven years in Vietnam, Fory, Sammy Barr, Jim Brown, Scotty (Neal Scott), Dick Johnson, Urich, Carbone, Booth, Yevich, Vieth, Beck, Fuller, Bruce Alshouse, the out going president of the 100th Bomb Group Association. Launtenschlager, Ed Stern, the quite, dignified son of German born Jewish parents who refused to be intimated by his Nazi interrogators after his capture, Chuck Harris, the incoming president of the Association, John Brady who crashed the first 100th aircraft in the European Theater of Operations making a forced landing in England after crossing the North Atlantic. They were to lose 228 more. John was to go down at Munster and remained a POW for almost three years. In 1995 he was one of four 100th veterans so honored to lay the Group’s wreath at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns. Charlie “Hong Kong” Wilson who came to the 100th from the RCAF, this Fort Worth native couldn’t wait for the US to get in the war and went to Canada to enlist. Colonel Tom Jeffrey, more than a Commanding Officer to the Group, the model for Gregory Peck’s character, “General Savage” inTwelve O’ Clock High and a host of others.
Maybe some of the people who saw them around Fort Worth the pleasant October weekend of the reunion will remember that once they were eagles.