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With Help, WAAC Hunter Comes Home

By Ron Leigh
Splasher Six Volume 31, Winter 2000, No. 4
Cindy Goodman, Editor

In mid-August, 2000, a piece of B-17 wreckage was returned from Germany to the Control Tower Museum at Thorpe Abbotts. The five-by-three-foot wing section from the left wing was recently recovered from Burstadt, Germany. I became interested in this B-17 and crew during 1989 after reading Martin Middlebrooks excellent book, The Schweinfurt – Regensburg Mission. What intrigued me was that the crew was on their first mission and the aircraft was called the “Waac Hunter” so typical of the flavor of the nose art during the period. An E-mail to our wonderful historian, Jan Riddling, and the ever-busy Mike Faley indicated there was very little archived written or photographic information on this aircraft. Although over the years I have communicated with Charles Thompson, co-pilot, and RoyButler who was the right waist gunner, both have given me their stories as far as memory serves them, but a photo of this ship has eluded me.

Lieutenant Charles Thompson (later, Major, USAF retired) arrived at Thorpe Abbotts in July 1943. His ambition was to finish his tour of 25 missions and return home to his family for Christmas. He was the co-pilot on “WAAC Hunter” during the notorious Regensburg Shuttle mission, his first mission and certainly no milk run. During the flight over German territory, the Luftwaffe repeatedly attacked the 100th Bomb Group with unprecedented ferocity and determination. Following repeated frontal attacks by ME109s and FW190s, the vertical stabilizer was shot away, there was fire in the No. 2 engine and left wing, acrid smoke in the cockpit, jammed controls, and no intercom. The old story about the Luftwaffe singling out crippled aircraft was true and another particularly hard attack struck home “causing the aircraft to shudder and bounce like an auto hitting a ditch at high speed.” Twenty minutes from the target, the pilot, Lt. Shotland, ordered the crew to bail out. Eight other B-17s were lost from the 100th BG formation that day which makes it an even more poignant story.

Lt. Thompson and the engineer, S/Sgt. Lloyd Field, were at the front hatch looking down at the peaceful farming country 17,000 feet below. Neither one much liked the idea of jumping until S/Sgt. Field said to Thompson in a joking manner “Is this trip really necessary?” a quotation from wartime posters in England and the U.S. With that comment, the tension was broken and the two men jumped. Lt. Thompson recalls looking back up at his ship and seeing it explode in a big ball of flame. Pieces of debris were falling and barely missing him.

I was fortunate to meet the co-pilot, Charles Thompson and his wife, Jane, at the Thorpe Abbotts reunion in 1992. Through that miracle of communication, the Internet, I was also able to meet Roland Geiger of St. Wendel, Germany on the Heavy Bombers discussion board (no longer in existence.) I asked Roland if he knew anything about the “WAAC Hunter” which crashed at Roxheim near Worms. Three months later Roland replied saying, “Yes.” He had been to the crash site and had learned from a local researcher that part of the wing had been found by a local farmer, Herr Helmut Schader. Apparently the piece of debris was impaled on a branch high up in the canopy of a large tree. When the tree fell down in 1994, Herr Schader was able to recover the piece of wing and assumed it was very valuable. If the wing had not been lodged high up in the tree it is likely that the scrap kommando gangs would have taken the wreckage away completely.

Some people maintain that a B-17 had a spirit, almost a personality, and I wondered, “Did this B-17 want to make it back to Thorpe Abbotts, even in partial form?” Once this question occurred to me, I knew I just had to go to Frankfurt to check out the report.

On June the 23rd I was off, flying over the towns and fields of Germany. Viewing this scene gave me an eerie feeling and I thought of all the airmen who had flown in exactly this direction during World War II.

Roland Geiger met me and took me to Burstadt where we met with Herr Hans Held and Herr Edwin Hess – both local researchers into the many allied aircraft crashes in this area of Southwestern Germany during the course of the war. We met Herr Schader and he told me, “There is the wing.” And there, leaning against a wall, was a piece of the “WAAC Hunter” B-17 42-30002, radio call sign, F for Freddie, and once a proud member of the 349th Bomb Squadron, 100th Bomb Group (H). Now she leaned there – twisted, faded and forlorn in a German farmyard. The piece was dominated by part of the American blue insignia with the faint lines still visible where the white star had once been. I examined the piece with the same degree of excitement, as Dr. Ballard must have when he initially found the Titanic.

We were taken next to the crash site and, using the accounts of eyewitnesses, I was shown where the wing was found and also where the main wreckage was found – now overgrown with saplings. Apparently the body of tail gunner, S/Sgt. Foster Compton from Hartley, Kentucky, was found in his plane position, which had detached from the main wreckage. The remaining nine-crew members were able to bail out just in the nick of time and became prisoners of war. Colonel Bill Thompson (USAF Ret.), who was shot down on the 18 March 1945, provided me with the Missing Aircrew Report on this aircraft from his large database on missing crew members of the 100th BG.

Roland negotiated to give Herr Schader twenty German marks for the piece and I gladly paid it as I wanted to secure it for the 100th BG Museum where it would be cherished and displayed in a dignified manner. The farmer’s wife had urged him to throw away the piece of “scrap” in his yard so it was all the more important to obtain the wing. Roland just managed to fit it into his car and then we drove back to St. Wendel.

The next logistical problem was – How do I get it back to Thorpe Abbotts? Roland quickly suggested, “Why not ask the USAF from Ramstein to fly it to Mildenhall?” With that thought I contacted S/Sgt. Art Hoven, who was the liaison between the 100th Air Refueling Wing at Mildenhall and the Museum at Thorpe Abbotts. Art has put in many hours of dedicated free time helping the Museum out any way he could. He replied that he was leaving his job at Mildenhall with the 100th Aircraft Regeneration Squadron for a new posting in Nebraska but he kindly put me in touch with Capt. Chris Comeau who, luckily, had a proud interest in the history of the original 100th and was interested in helping get the wing back to England.

Following approval from the commanding officer of the 100th ARW, Colonel John Butcher, I asked Roland for one last favor – would he take the part to Ramstein to meet a 100th Air Refueling Wing KC135 that would come over from England? Roland duly obliged and met Capt. Shannon Yenchesky who was Commander of the aircraft. Roland expressed great respect that this lady was in charge of such a large craft and she promised to try to dip her wings as she flew over his home approximately 30 miles from Ramstein. Thus, on Friday, 14 July, Capt. Yenchesky and crew brought this piece of 100th BG heritage safely back to England. I contacted Carol Batley, who stated that Ron was very busy with the harvest but they certainly wanted the wing part for the 100th BG Memorial Museum. Chris Comeau and his wife attempted to deliver the part to Thorpe Abbotts, but almost tore their car upholstery to shreds with the sharp aluminum edges! Therefore, using a larger vehicle driven by Dan Yenchesky, the part finally made it back to Thorpe Abbotts on the 12 August 2000.

So, just five days short of the 57th anniversary of the “WAAC Hunter” roaring down the runway at Thorpe Abbotts on her first and last mission, part of her was back home – much to the delight of Jim Gintner and the many other tireless volunteers who make the museum what it is today, a proud symbol and a memorial to a fine breed of men and women who believed in a cause and gave their all to ensure that victory was achieved.

I was lucky enough to take my family to the home of Charles and Jane Thompson in Roosevelt, Utah at the end of July 2000. Our nine-year-old daughter, Megan presented Charles a plain brown paper package which I had taken off the wing. Charles opened the package and was visibly stunned. “Is this a piece of my plane,” he asked. We assured him that it was. Charles sat silent for a few moments while his memories reunited him with an old friend.

It was quite an honor for us to be able to do that and was, in a small way, our method of saying a profound “Thank you” to one of the many veterans who contributed to the hard-won freedom we enjoy today.

Without the help of Roland Geiger and his colleagues, the 100th Air Refueling Wing personnel, the 100th BG Historical Staff, and the volunteers at Thorpe Abbotts Museum, this recovery would not have been possible. I am indebted to them for their help. Oh, I guess I must thank that German tree that, for so long, kept a piece of the “WAAC Hunter” from the smelter!