Google is reindexing search results for our new site. We appreciate your patience during that process!

Sweater Girl -Lt Richard B. Atchison Crew

Stories from-“B-17 Memories From Memphis Belle to Victory”

By T/Sgt. James Lee Hutchinson

Pages 56 – 82 The “Bloody Hundredth”

Sweater Girl of the 100th BG

The replacement crew of Lt. Richard B. Atchison arrived at the 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbot’s airbase August 25, 1943, and was assigned to squadron 418. The “Bloody Hundredth” had recently lost men and bombers to German fighters and flak in the August 17, 1943 missions when the Mighty Eighth attacked two high priority targets: a Messerschmitt aircraft factory at Regensburg and ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt. Both targets were in the Ruhr Valley and heavily protected by fighters and anti-aircraft batteries. Bomber crews dreaded missions to this area, also known as “Flak Alley.” That fear was well grounded because German fighters and flak brought down 60 of the 387 American planes that day! The “Bloody Hundredth” was in desperate need of replacement crews!

Heavy bombers flew long and often early in the war and were punished during long flights and flak over critical targets. Maintenance and repair were very important to keeping planes in the air. Bombers were in short supply and pilots were wary of engine problems which might keep them from returning home. Pilots had the option of “aborting” a mission after take-off if the plane developed problems, but they had better have a good reason for dropping out of the formation. The B-17F bomber, “Sweater Girl,” had four REM s (returned for mechanical problems) and one failure to take off ranging from prop trouble to a booster pump failure between July and October 10, 1943. The last failure was September 27th, two weeks before it was lost on a mission.

The Lt. Atchison crew was flying “Sweater Girl” instead of their own bomber, “Terry and Ten” when they went down on the mission to Munster, October 10, 1943. The official MACR lists four of the crew as killed in action and six as Prisoners of War. “Sweater Girl” had severe damage from flak and the fighters and before it went down. Two of the six airmen who survived, tell their stories. Navigator, 2nd Lt. Kenneth Baron and tail-gunner, S/Sgt. Van T. “Ike” Wright bailed out and were captured when they landed. Like many airmen who survived bailing out, both finished the war in a POW camp.

Lt. Kenneth Barron – POW – Lt. Barron said the formation was hit by heavy flak during the bomb-run on the target at Munster. After they had dropped their bombs and left the flak area, they were attacked by a large number of Luftwaffe fighters. During the running battle, Barron was hit in the right thigh which broke his femur. As the fighter attack continued, a damaged ME-109 crashed into left wing of the B-17 of the bomber flying beside them in the formation. The doomed plane burst into flames, went into a steep spiral and exploded in mid-air. Meanwhile, Lt. Atchison’s aircraft suffered severe damage from the flak and fighter attacks. The wounded navigator said, “Our plane was hit in the # 2 engine, probably an oil line, and oil was pouring out. “Sweater Girl” was severely damaged before we were ordered to bail out. I was dazed and in great pain but I crawled to the lower nose exit, pulled the emergency release handle. I remember the bombardier was just behind me before I bailed out, but I never saw him again.”

S/SGT. “Ike” Wright- POW – of Bloomfield, Indiana was tail gunner on the Lt. Richard Atchison crew when the “Sweater Girl”, was shot down over Munster on his eighth mission, October 10, 1943. Ike bailed out and became a POW in Stalag 7A. He eventually ended up in Stalag 17 B at Krems, Austria. This was the same POW camp where T/Sgt Robert Stahlhut, engineer on the Lt. McMahon crew of the 384th Bomb Group and 2nd Lt. Corbin Willis, Jr., co-pilot with the 486th Bomb Group were also prisoners of war! Their stories, in previous books, report many of the same terrible treatment endured by prisoners of war.

Ike said the Lt. Atchison crew was approved for combat after only five training flights. Their first mission was to Paris on September 15th. The second was a low-level night raid on the La Pallice submarine pens followed by missions to Paris and Emden, Germany. Ike and his twin tail guns received credit for shooting down an ME-109 on their fifth mission. Missions six and seven were in heavy flack over Hanover and Mariensburg. Their plane had to abort the eighth mission to Bremen because of engine problems (the 100th lost eight planes on this raid). The next raid was to Munster, near the deadly Ruhr valley, it was the target for October 10th. The Lt. Atchison crew was flying its ninth mission in less than a month.

“At briefing, we were told that we were headed for Munster and we could expect at least 450 German fighters and very heavy flak. We took off late because of a heavy ground fog and met our British Spitfire fighter escort over the English Channel. We knew they could not take us all the way to the target. Sure enough, we were hit by swarms of Luftwaffe fighters as soon as our escort left us. Our formation flew on towards Munster. I could see bombers exploding and going down. Then we hit the flak area over our target, and, as the saying goes, the flak was so thick you could walk on it. At the time I didn’t know if we had reached the assigned target and dropped our bombs. Later on, I learned we had fulfilled the mission. We had made it to the target and turned back north when we were hit by fighters again. The ME-109 Messerschmitts and JU 88 Junkers came at us high and low from all directions. The Junkers stayed out of the range of our 50 caliber machine guns and fired rockets into the formation. One rocket exploded above my left shoulder. Someone must have been looking after me, because it created a hole I could have crawled through. I knew we were in deep trouble, the intercom was gone and our guns had quit firing. I crawled from my tail-gun position up to the waist. I saw both our waist gunners, Fields and Preble, were down. Fields was not moving. Preble got to his feet and he was bleeding at the mouth. I crawled on to the ball turret gunner’s position, but it was not moving. The B-17 began to lurch and weave. I opened the waist door and motioned to Preble that we had to jump. He nodded and pointed for me to go ahead. I jumped, but never saw him leave the plane.

I was very dizzy and light headed (off of oxygen too long), but I counted to 100 to get out of the flak area before I opened my chute. I figured I had left the plane at 20,000 feet. I saw our bomber dive, level off and dive again. I saw no chutes of my crew members. On my way down, I was buzzed by two ME-109 fighters. One came close enough to almost collapse my chute before he went back up to the battle.

I hit the ground safely, gathered up my chute and concealed it as quickly as possible. Then I hid in tall weeds in a ditch close to a road until dark. Five German soldiers passed, but didn’t spot me. After dark, I moved out and headed north until almost dawn. It was cool so I found a haystack to sleep in, but not for long. Dogs found me and alerted two farmers who came running. Both had pitchforks. Soon, German soldiers on motorcycles came, handcuffed me and took me through Munster. The dirty looks and gestures I got from the civilians we had just bombed made me think this was it. An officer and soldier took me by train to an interrogation center at Frankfort on the Main. I saw other American prisoners at the train station, but we were forbidden to talk to each other.

They put me in a three by six foot cell overnight with a cot and bucket. The next morning I was taken before a German officer for interrogation by a German officer who spoke better English than I did. He said he was from Philadelphia. I only gave him my name, rank and serial number. I guess he must have thought I was too dumb to know anything else and he sent me back to my cell. The three days I was there, they gave me water, Black Bread and a small bowl of soup. The fourth day they took me to a “holding room” with seventy-five or more other prisoners. All had been shot down over Munster on the Oct. 10th or on the Schweinfurt raids on the 14th. I heard that the 100th had lost 13 bombers on our Munster mission.

Next, they took us down to the train station and loaded us into a boxcar. We were packed in so tightly that we could hardly sit down. There was no water or food until they made a stop. Then we got water, weak soup and the everlasting Black Bread. We were in that boxcar for the better part of three days until we arrived at Krems, Austria. From there, it was on to a fenced compound and barracks number 34 B in the prisoner of war camp, Stalag XVII-B. Prisoner of war camps for military prisoners were not the same as the Concentration Camps for Jews and political prisoners.

Our compound consisted of dozens of barracks surrounded by twin ten foot fences with a walkway between on all four sides and four guard towers. In front of the inside fence was a ten foot area known as the ‘trip-wire area. The trip-wire was a knee-high wire inside of our compound to keep us away from the first ten foot fence.

We were warned this was “Verboten” territory and anyone crossing that trip-wire would be shot. During my stay, I saw a Russian and an Italian killed inside the trip-wire area. Later, one of the guys in our compound tried to escape. We heard him yelling “Kamerad”, (I’m a friend), but he was inside the “Verboten” area and the German Kommandant showed him no mercy as he shot him in the head.

I estimate that we had at least 50 to 60 men cramped into our barracks. Our bunk bed consisted of wooden slats, a thin straw tick mattress or pad and one blanket. The barracks was unheated and cold all the time. Chilblains (itching on hands or feet due to prolonged exposure to cold) and frostbite were common, as were coughs and flu-like symptoms. They had taken away our shoes and given us wooden clogs; just wood soles with cloth straps. We stood roll call out in the exercise yard each morning and evening and were often made to stand in the snow, mud or rain until the guards saw fit to let us go inside. As I said, frostbite was very common.

Food was scarce, our menu consisted of “ersatz” coffee, barley soup (no meat) and Black Bread for about six months until the Red Cross parcels started arriving once a month. Each “one for two” package would serve two men. It contained crackers, jelly, cheese, a chocolate bar and cigarettes. A lot of the men didn’t smoke so we played poker for the “cigs” or traded them for potatoes, onions or anything else available from the camp guards.

Stalag 17B was a big camp and had different area for its prisoners. There were men from Russia, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Serbia and a few English soldiers. Many of the English soldiers had been captured at Dunkirk early in the war. There were a large number of Russian prisoners and they fared very badly. They died daily and the wagon carrying the dead would pass our compound. The men in our compound were a tough lot and there was not a lot of complaining. We had been in the camp for over a year and a half when our guards told us we were going to move out. We knew something was going on because we had been hearing cannon fire in the east towards Vienna and Plauen. American fighter planes were sweeping the skies over our compound more often. Our bombers were hitting Krems, only a few miles from our camp and British RAF bombers were overhead every night. The allied armies were getting closer, so one day our guards herded us out of the POW camp and we started on a long march. There was little food. They fed us weak soup with Black Bread once a day. We stopped at farm houses each night and often slept in the barns with the cattle. We were “buzzed” by ME-262 jets a couple of time, but we didn’t know what they were at that time.

One day on our march across Austria, we met a long column of Jewish prisoners, or slave laborers, headed in the opposite direction. They were so starved and emaciated I couldn’t see how they kept going. The men in our group passed them what little food we had, which was mostly Black Bread. Their German guards were driving them on with bayonets and gun butts. They were in a hurry to take those poor souls somewhere. One prisoner fell and tried to rise, but a guard beat him to death with his gun butt and left him lying in the road. We saw more bodies as we moved on down the road they had just traveled, most were bloodied. It was evident that prisoners who couldn’t keep up the pace were beaten to death. Our plight was very minor compared to those poor Jewish prisoners.

The long march was approximately 300 miles to Braunau Austria, where we were held in a forested area for two days. During this time, we heard gunfire in the distance and saw German soldiers retreating through the woods. Before long, our guards joined them. What a wonderful sight!

We stayed put and before long a group of American troops came along and told us we were free. They said to stay in a group until the army trucks picked us up and took us to a camp far behind the battle lines. Now we would be protected and transported by GI s of the U.S. Army. Once we got behind the lines and off those trucks, we were de-loused. and issued new uniforms. Later we took showers, and ate real food. Of course, we couldn’t eat too much at once. It took a while for our stomachs to come back from the edge of starvation. I had been a POW from October 10, 1943 to May 3, 1945. Germany surrendered five days later. At last, I was safe and free!”

About the Author:

T/Sgt. James Lee Hutchinson served 20 missions as radio operator/gunner on the Lt. William D. Templeton crew of the 490th Bomb Group (H), Squadron 848 at Eye, England. He writes to record and preserve veterans’ memories which would have been lost. Eighth Air Force combat in 1942-45; the survivors, POWs and the boys who died — too young to vote, but old enough to fight!  Numerous photos and stories tell of young airmen flying 25,000 feet on oxygen at 40 degrees below zero to face enemy fighters and flak over the target! The black smoke of exploding 88 mm shells looked harmless, but filled the sky with shrapnel like a giant shotgun shell. A direct hit knocked bombers out of the sky; a lost engine or fire meant dropping out of formation to face enemy fighters alone or bailing out to become German prisoners of war (POW.)

You can purchase James Hutchinson’s

Online at:  “ Barnes &Noble-James Hutchinson”          “Amazon-James Hutchinson”

Liberty Belle Foundation               Authorhouse  1-888-280-7715

Prices reduced: Autographed copies- $17 + $5 postage       Four books $64 +$12.50 postage (james_hutchinson_693@comcast.net   or 331 Boyd Lane Bedford, IN 47421       812-275- 4308

Lt Richard Atchison Crew Page