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Unsolved Mystery…Solved!

The French village of Saone-et-Liore enjoyed the peaceful interlude of a cold February afternoon, appreciating a day that seemed far removed from the violence of the way that had ravaged Europe for the past several years. As grassy fields swayed in the stiff breeze, a shadow fell across the town causing those below to gaze nervously over their heads. Usually only visible to the townspeople by a glowing contrail far above, the familiar outline of the giant warbird skipped easily over the rooftops and swooped gracefully across a field to a gentle landing. As it rested in eerie silence, the startled villagers rushed to render assistance to what must surely be injured crewmen. They were astonished to find the plane completely empty! The only clue to its incredible journey lay in the numbers 338397, and the big Square D painted on its tail…

Fifty-two years later, in 1997, Grant Fuller, Executive Vice President of the 100th Bomb Group Association, received a letter from Serge Blandin, an air researcher and founder of the Air-Britain Historians. Blandin explained he had traced a plane, which landed near Lyon, to the 100th Bomb Group, 349th Bomb Squadron, and asked for Grant’s assistance. Fuller immediately contacted Jan Riddling, 100th BG Association Membership Chairman and 100th aircraft authority. Jan started to work on the project in November of 1997.

After reviewing all the records at her disposal, Riddling hit a brick wall. 100th records from 1945 are incomplete and information on this particular aircraft was sketchy at best. Riddling turned to her old friend and fellow researcher Mike Howell, of the 390 Memorial Museum Foundation for assistance. (The 390th Bomb Group, along with the 100th Bomb Group and the 95th Bomb Group, comprised the 13th Combat Air Wing of the 3rd Air Division, 8th Air Force, and share some records.) With the resources available, Howell was able to plug the missing information and shed new light on the long-standing mystery.

Aircraft 43-38397 was manned by the Lt. Jerome S. Garrison crew of the 351st Squadron. This crew had not received a permanent aircraft assignment. On February 6, 1945, they flew a plane with the markings of the 349th Squadron. They crew comprised Pilot Jerome S. Garrison, Co-Pilot Warren A.Storz, Navigator Fransis J. Dolon, Bombardier George Yee, Top Turret Engineer Harold F. Castaldo, Radio Gunner Steve J. Kowalski, Waist Gunner William H. Andrews, Waist Gunner George F. Miller, and Tail Gunner Robert J. MacKeigan.

Riddling checked the membership of the 100th Bomb Group Association and found only George Miller as an active member. She called him and inquired whether or not he had flown the Chemnitz mission of 6 Feb 45. Miller confirmed that Chemnitz had been his first mission and that he and his crew had bailed out over France. He assumed his aircraft had crashed, and was quite surprised and thrilled to learn that his plane had flown on and landed near Saone-et-Loire. When I talked to George, he was able to provide some more information on the “mystery” aircraft.

“We abandoned ship because we were out of fuel after becoming hopelessly lost and wandering around all day after leaving the target area. We had lost an engine while still over the English Channel on the way to the target. Garrison elected to continue on to the target by drifting back successively to the groups behind us in the bomber stream rather than about this, our very first mission. Shortly after bombs away we ran out of trailing groups and had to start descending in order to keep the last group in sight. Eventually, we entered the undercast where we became lost. The weather was bad and the headwinds were very high. (Page 182 of Century Bombers states that only half of the ships made it back to the base due to these winds.)

“We were finally ordered to bail our, but we did not have the slightest idea where we were. Fortunately for us, we were in a liberated area of France. We were rounded up by French civilians who treated us royally once they were convinced that we were Americans. The entire crew got together the next morning and was taken to Lyon by American MPs. We eventually returned to Thorpe abbots to continue our tour of duty.

“I had always assumed that the ship had crashed and been demolished, and first heard otherwise from Jan Riddling in November, 1997,k more than a half century after the fact. It was her good detective work in following up on Serge Blandin’s 6/12/97 letter, which made me aware of the ultimate fate of my ship. I think it is a rather amazing story to have learned after all these years. I have corresponded with Serge Blandin, who was hoping to try to locate people in the village who may have helped us on that day.”

William H. Andrews, Waist Gunner on the crew, was also surprised to hear that his ship had survived, because he had landed in a fairly rough terrain. “In fact, it was kind-of snowing…kind of a bad day. After I’d gotten out I could see that I was coming down in some kind of farm field surrounded by trees. How that airplane made a perfect belly landing without being completely demolished is beyond me. So many planes from the 8th ended up lost that day because we had about a 150-knot crosswind.

“I was alone and didn’t see any of the rest of my crew. I knew that everybody had gotten out. The pilot and flight engineer were the last two to leave. Following procedures, I hid my chute in a streambed and was heading up to the barn. The area was hilly, and I came across a bunch of children at the top of a hill. They came tome, and I was able to use some of my high school French to talk to them. There was a GI truck down the road at a farmhouse, so I went down there with the children. A man with the Free French came out and took me prisoner until I could prove I was American. They put me in the back of the jeep and took me to the police station. Miller, Dolan, and several others, were there. MacKeigan had hurt his leg and was in the hospital. It was a terrible way to start our first mission. We were kept in Lyon for several day s before being taken back to Thorpe Abbotts.”