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Group History

Brown's Clowns - The History of a B17 Bomber Crew Page 3

by Bud Vieth

Jerry Brown recommended Walter Peters for a Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts on this mission. We were all delighted that Pete was awarded this medal. Our crew visited downtown Brussels that night. The populace were still celebrating their liberation, and we were treated royally -- had a great time. Enjoyed our first ice cream in a long time. Also drank more than our share of the local liquor. Several other B-17s had made emergency landings at Brussels. The next day we were assigned to one which had been repaired and ferried it back to Thorpe Abbotts.


Mission 12. November 26. 1944 - Hamm, Germany.

Bombed marshalling yards using the mickey through the clouds. Temperature outside the plane mighty cold --minus 56°F. B-17 #379.

The book The Mighty Eighth describes a mission under such extremely cold conditions (p. 101):

“The cold on this mission was intense--as it had been on most missions of the month--the temperature at operating height descending to--50° Fahrenheit of frost and caused ice formations nearly two inches thick on windows. Frost bite struck in a matter of seconds if gloves were removed, oxygen masks iced and made breathing difficult and the icy gale sweeping open gun positions made the rear gunners' lives particularly miserable."

Mission 13. December 2, 1944 - Koblenz. Germany.

Headed for a marshalling yard but had to be recalled three minutes from the target. Front extended up to 30,000 feet. B-17 #379.

Mission 14. December 4. 1944 - Friedberg, Germany.

Our briefed target was Giessen, but weather prevented our hitting this target. Group then took a cook's tour of Germany, looking for a target of opportunity. Finally bombed marshalling yard at Friedberg.

In December 1944, our navigator Ralph Bayer was reassigned. He was replaced by Leo Kimball, who came to us from the J. L. Gay crew.

Lt. Ralph Bayer

Ralph Bayer was then assigned to the crew of John Dodrill. Dodrill's crew was lost on the January 10, 1945 mission to Cologne. According to Century Bombers :

“The Hundredth also lost John Dodrill, who at nineteen, was ' the youngest first lieutenant in the Third Division.'

"With 'one engine' out on B-17 42-37936, ' he flew down through the clouds' and was never seen again.'

“All nine men aboard were killed, including the co-pilot David Williams, navigator Ralph Bayer, from the crew of Gerald Brown, and replacement David Pitman, who flew 'as nose gunner.' All are memorialized on The Wall of the Missing at Cambridge." Century Bombers, p 175.

Mission 15, December 5, 1944 - Berlin

Finally the”Big B." Bombed a tank factory at Tegel, a Berlin suburb. B-17 #009. All the missions now are deep into Germany. They are quite long and we are exposed to enemy fighters. Pete wrote in his diary: “We were lucky on this one -- P-51s drove off enemy fighters which tried to get to our formation -- saw numerous dog fights in and near target area." Vieth diary notes;”Don't know what we'd do without those P-51s, P-47s and P-38s. Can't give them enough credit.

We were leading a squadron and when the group leader aborted, we took over the lead of the group.

Capt. Leo J. Kimball, Navigator

Mission 16, December 16, 1944 - Mainz, Germany.

100th Group assigned to bomb marshalling yards in Mainz. Some squadrons got through. But weather was terrible, and our radar (Pathfinder) equipment failed, so we had to return with our bombs still aboard. Our plane was #209, the one we had landed in Brussels with two engines out on Missions 11. It had been repaired and flown back to our base at Thorpe Abbotts.

Christmas Eve 1944

In mid-December 1944 German Field Marshall von Runstedt initiated the Ardennes counter- offensive, otherwise known as the Battle of the Bulge. His offensive was achieving significant success.

“The war which many had thought would be over by Christmas now looked like enduring for many month. The Allied advance had succumbed to the grip of winter. Then on December 16th von Rundstedt launched his surprise offensive in the Ardennes, the last Nazi gamble, aimed at cutting the Allied front in two and reaching the channel. The Germans had also chosen a period of bad weather when they knew the Allied sir support would be minimized. While von Rundstedt moved, the airfields in England and France were mostly shrouded in fog." The Mighty Eighth, p. 183.

“The German meteorologists had done their work well and had chosen a week when Allied Air power could not operate. The Americans bent and gave ... and the Wehrmacht poured through a sixty-mile gap.'“The enemy 'caught almost everyone by surprise ...'“ Century Bombers p. 168.

For a solid week the Eighth Air Force could not fly, and the Germans were making significant gains. Finally, on Christmas Eve, December 24, the skies had sufficiently cleared to enable the Eighth to launch a maximum effort aimed at relieving the pressure on the American troops trapped in the Bulge.

“The Field Orders that came chattering out of the bomber station teletype machines in the small hours of Christmas Eve 1944 listed an unusual requirement. A total effort, with every serviceable B-17 and B-24 participating. The vast overcast shrouding Western Europe for a week had begun to lift on December 23rd allowing the Eighth's heavy bombers to play some part in the critical situation that had developed since von Rundstedt launched his offensive in the Ardennes. Their aid was of limited scope, as the damp vapors had only partly cleared, but the signs were there and weather men predicted clear skies for the 24th. Eighth Air Force moved to bring about the maximum bombardment of airfields from which the Luftwaffe might operate in support of the Wehrmacht, and places through which supplies and reinforcements would pass to the front." The Mighty Eighth, p. 201.

“All the bomb groups operated and 2,046 B-17's and 24's, including a number of gaily colored assembly ships and war weary hacks, were dispatched into 'the freezing fog.' Of these 1,884 released 5,052 tons of bombs.

“At Thorpe Abbotts, sixty-two planes and 556 men set out from Runway 10, 'in the greatest display of strength since beginning combat operations.'

“The formations were led by Captain Neal Scott and Donald Jones ... by Captain J. Robinson [command pilot] and Gerald Brown ... by Captain E. Wooten and Jean DePlanque ... by Captain J. Gibbons and Captain John Ernst ... and by Captain J. Ricker and F. Craft ...

“Arthur Juhlin recalls: 'First day we were able to fly since the Germans began their big counter-offensive and everything flyable in the Eighth was airborne." Century Bombers, pp. 168-69.

“556 men flew against Germany from Thorpe Abbotts as navigators Lts. E. Wilcox, L. Kimball, L. Chappell, J. Krepismann, A. Juhlin and F/0 C. Benyunes led the formations. Bombs were dropped by Lts. E. Lockhart, W. Titley, A. Tong, C. Svendsen and T. Barrett with excellent results on the Biblis and Babenhausen airdromes and on the Kaiserslautern marshalling yards." Contrails, pp. 90-91.

Mission 17. December 24 1944 - Kaiserslautern Germany.

The Brown crew's contribution to this massive Christmas Eve effort was to bomb the marshalling yards at Kaiserslautern in B-17 #379. We had overrun our primary target Biblis. Vieth diary notes:

“Finally had our chance to hit back at the German counter-offensive after six days bad weather Quite a thrill to participate in the largest single air operation of the war -- 2000 heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force. Hit many airfields and marshalling yards directly behind the lines. Visual conditions made for excellent results."

The Brown crew lost one engine to flak over the target and, as we discovered later, flak had also blown out our left tire. Eight of our bombs hung up in the bomb bay. Tony Lentz tried kicking them out but could only kick out four, so we landed with four. Upon landing at Thorpe Abbotts, our flat left tire caused our plane to cartwheel into the mud where the B-17 became struck with a

wing still across the runway.

All of us on the crew jumped out and we were joined by others on the ground, all attempting to push our plane out of the way. The planes behind us were diverted to an alternate runway, but shortly another plane had a mishap there and it became necessary to use the runway our B-17 was partially blocking. The next plane to land on our runway struck the wing of our plane and almost tore it off. This at least cleared the runway and the rest of the planes in our group were able to land.

“Winter now had most of Western Europe in an unusually icy grip. Freezing fog clung to the East Anglian countryside. Even at mid-day the sun was unable to diminish its persistence. Thin films of ice formed on everything, coating the surfaces of aircraft and building up inside stilled engines. Such severe conditions had never been experienced at Eighth Air Force bases during either of the previous winters and during this spell the number of take-off accidents rose alarmingly. At 08.40 hrs on the morning of December 27th, a 390th Group Fortress rose from the east-west runway at its base, gained fifty feet and then started to drop away following the fall of the countryside to its limit before plunging into a roadside bank in the center of Parham village. The crew perished but despite the explosion of fuel and some of the bomb load, the local inhabitants were uninjured, although every house in the vicinity was blast damaged. Icing was the suspected cause of this, and many other crashes that pushed the accident rate to its highest point, often claiming more victims than the enemy. Many crashes occurred during take-off in poor visibility and adverse conditions, ...." The Mighty Eighth, pp. 202-03.

Mission 18. December 27 1944 - Fulda, Germany.

Bombed these important marshalling yards. B-17 #209 again. Flak knocked out our mickey (Pathfinder). But weather was good so we bombed visually.”The bombs were released 'with very good results,'... The Eighth Air Force is doing its best to throttle supplies for the German salient at every possible point." Century Bombers, p. 169. Mission 19. December 29 1944 - Frankfurt. Germany. Brown's crew leads the entire Eighth Air Force for the first time. B-17 #696. Our bombardier did an excellent job and we plastered the marshalling yards.

Vieth diary notes:”Think the bombardier Willy Titley will end up with a D.F.C. for this fine job."

Century Bombers (p. 170) describes the mission:

“... the Group, led by Major John Wallace [command pilot] and Gerald Brown, set out for Frankfurt, where at 13.18, the 'lead bombardiers, William Titley, Eugene Lockhart and Thomas Barrett, put the bombs squarely on the marshalling yards."'

Our bombardier Bill Titley received some well-deserved recognition for this mission. He was dispatched to London to appear on an Armed Forces radio interview to be beamed to the folks back home. Our navigator Leo Kimball also was appropriately recognized, with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Kimball was now a lead navigator and was occasionally assigned to another lead crew.

On these missions, where the Brown crew led the 100th Group -- and sometimes the entire Eighth Air Force -- we always had a lead navigator, and sometimes a squadron or group navigator. Julius Krepismann, the 100th Group navigator, was assigned to our crew on several missions.