Tag Archives: 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy)

18 March 1943

1st Lieutenant Jack Warren Mathis, United States Army Air Corps

MEDAL OF HONOR

FIRST LIEUTENANT JACK WARREN MATHIS

Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps, 359th Bomb Squadron, 303d Bomb Group.

Place and date: Over Vegesack, Germany, March 18, 1943.

Entered service at: San Angelo, Tex. Born: September 25, 1921, San Angelo, Tex.

G.O. No.: 38, July 12, 1943.

Citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy over Vegesack, Germany, on 18 March 1943. 1st Lt. Mathis, as leading bombardier of his squadron, flying through intense and accurate antiaircraft fire, was just starting his bomb run, upon which the entire squadron depended for accurate bombing, when he was hit by the enemy antiaircraft fire. His right arm was shattered above the elbow, a large wound was torn in his side and abdomen, and he was knocked from his bomb sight to the rear of the bombardier’s compartment. Realizing that the success of the mission depended upon him, 1st Lt. Mathis, by sheer determination and willpower, though mortally wounded, dragged himself back to his sights, released his bombs, then died at his post of duty. As the result of this action the airplanes of his bombardment squadron placed their bombs directly upon the assigned target for a perfect attack against the enemy. 1st Lt. Mathis’ undaunted bravery has been a great inspiration to the officers and men of his unit.

The Medal of Honor and Purple Heart awarded to 1st. Lt. Jack W. Mathis are displayed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Jack Warren Mathis was born 10:30 p.m., 25 September 1921, at San Angelo, Texas. He was the second of three children of Rhude Mark Mathis, a salesman, and Avis Cannon Mathis.

Mathis enlisted as a private in the United States Army, 12 June 1940, at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas, and was assigned to the 1st Field Artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. After six months service, he was transferred to the Air Corps as an aviation cadet and sent to Goodfellow Field, southeast of his hometown of San Angelo. He trained as a bombardier, as did his older brother, Rhude Mark Mathis, Jr.

Jack Mathis was commissioned as a second lieutenant on 4 July 1942. He deployed to Europe in September 1942. Mathis was promoted to first lieutenant in January 1943.

Capt. Harold L. Stouse’s combat crew, June 1942. 2nd Lt. Jack W. Mathis is in the back row, far right. (U.S. Air Force)

Lieutenant Mathis was assigned to the combat crew of a Boeing B-17F-25-BO Flying Fortress, 41-24561, of the 359th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 303d Bombardment Group (Heavy) at RAF Molesworth. The ship, named The Duchess, was under the command of Captain Harold L. Stouse. It carried fuselage identification markings BN T.

Because of the severe effect that German submarines were having against transatlantic merchant convoys, U-boat pens and construction yards were a high-priority target for bombers of the 8th Air Force.

On 18 March 1943, the 8th launched Mission No. 24 against the Bremer-Vulkan-Vegesacker Werft submarine construction yard on the River Weser at Bremen-Vegesack, Germany. The attack force consisted of 76 B-17s and 27 B-24 Liberators. Each bomber was loaded with six 1,000 pound (454 kilogram) M44 high-explosive bombs. The plan called for bombers to drop from 24,000 feet (7,315 meters). Each squadron would release their bombs simultaneously.

Mission No. 24 was Jack Mathis’ fourteenth combat mission. He was the lead bombardier of the 359th, the second element of seven B-17s of the 303d Group. The bombardier controlled the heading of the B-17 through adjustments to his Norden bomb sight. The squadron’s bombing accuracy was dependent on the skill of the lead bombardier.

As the American bombers approached the target, Mathis took careful aim at the target 24,000 feet below and opened the bomb bay doors. With his eye pressed to the Norden bombsight, Mathis was less than one minute away from releasing his bombs when an antiaircraft shell exploded near the right nose of his B-17, named The Duchess. Fragments from the shell shattered the Plexiglas nose, nearly severed his right arm above the elbow, and caused deep wounds in his side and abdomen. The concussion threw him to the rear of the nose section. Nevertheless, Mathis went back to his bombsight and accurately dropped his bombs before collapsing dead over his bombsight.

—Excerpted from A Test of Courage: 1st Lt. Jack W. Mathis, an article from the National Museum of the United States Air Force, 1 May 2015

Reconnaissance photographs later revealed that seven enemy submarines and two-thirds of the shipyard had been destroyed in the attack. For his extraordinary effort, 1st Lt. Jack W. Mathis posthumously received the Medal of Honor, the first awarded to an 8th Air Force Airman.

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers leave contrails at high altitude. (United States Air Force)

Jack Mathis’ older brother, Lieutenant Rhude Mark Mathis, Jr., was at RAF Molesworth awaiting his brother’s return from the mission. He was present when The Duchess landed. Mark Mathis requested a transfer to the Captain Stouse’s crew with 359th to take his brother’s place. Tragically, on his fourth mission, he too, was killed.

First Lieutenant Jack Warren Mathis was buried at Fairmount Cemetery, San Angeleo, Texas. His brother, First Lieutenant Rhude Mark Mathis, Jr., is buried at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial, Margraten, Netherlands.

Mathis Field (San Angelo Regional Airport, or SJT) was named after the two Mathis brothers.

Lieutenant Jack W. Mathis’ Medal of Honor is displayed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

The Duchess survived 59 combat missions. It was returned to the United States after the war in Europe came to an end. It was scrapped in August 1945.

Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress

© 2017 Bryan R. Swopes

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20 December 1943

Technical Sergeant Forrest Lee Vosler, Air Corps, United States Army. (U.S. Air Force)

MEDAL OF HONOR

VOSLER, FORREST L.

(Air Mission)

          The President of the United States takes pleasure in awarding the MEDAL of HONOR to

STAFF SERGEANT FORREST L. VOSLER,

AIR CORPS, UNITED STATES ARMY,

for service as set forth in the following

CITATION:

         “For conspicuous gallantry in action against the enemy above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a radio operator-air gunner on a heavy bombardment aircraft in a mission over Bremen, Germany, on 20 December 1943. After bombing the target, the aircraft in which T/Sgt. Vosler was serving was severely damaged by antiaircraft fire, forced out of formation, and immediately subjected to repeated vicious attacks by enemy fighters. Early in the engagement a 20-mm. cannon shell exploded in the radio compartment, painfully wounding T/Sgt. Vosler in the legs and thighs. At about the same time a direct hit on the tail of the ship seriously wounded the tail gunner and rendered the tail guns inoperative. Realizing the great need for firepower in protecting the vulnerable tail of the ship, T/Sgt. Vosler, with grim determination, kept up a steady stream of deadly fire. Shortly thereafter another 20-mm. enemy shell exploded, wounding T/Sgt. Vosler in the chest and about the face. Pieces of metal lodged in both eyes, impairing his vision to such an extent that he could only distinguish blurred shapes. Displaying remarkable tenacity and courage, he kept firing his guns and declined to take first-aid treatment. The radio equipment had been rendered inoperative during the battle, and when the pilot announced that he would have to ditch, although unable to see and working entirely by touch, T/Sgt. Vosler finally got the set operating and sent out distress signals despite several lapses into unconsciousness. When the ship ditched, T/Sgt. Vosler managed to get out on the wing by himself and hold the wounded tail gunner from slipping off until the other crewmembers could help them into the dinghy. T/Sgt. Vosler’s actions on this occasion were an inspiration to all serving with him. The extraordinary courage, coolness, and skill he displayed in the face of great odds, when handicapped by injuries that would have incapacitated the average crew member, were outstanding.”

/s/ Franklin D. Roosevelt

Technical Sergeant Forrest L. Vosler, United States Army Air Corps, is awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington, D.C. (U.S. Air Force)
Technical Sergeant Forrest L. Vosler, Air Corps, United States Army, is awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington, D.C., 31 August 1944. Shaking Sergeant Vosler’s hand is Under Secretary of War Robert Porter Patterson, Sr. (U.S. Air Force)

Staff Sergeant Forrest Lee Vosler was the radio operator/top gunner aboard the Boeing B-17F-65-BO Flying Fortress 42-29664, Jersey Bounce, Jr.,¹ one of 21 B-17s of the 303rd Bombardment Group, Heavy, sent on Mission No. 90, an attack against Bremen, Germany. The bomber was under the command of 2nd Lieutenant John F. Henderson. Captain Merle R. Hungerford, an instructor pilot, acted as co-pilot. The bombers encountered heavy antiaircraft fire over the target, and were attacked by as many as 125 enemy fighters. Bombing from an altitude of  26,200 feet (7,986 meters), the B-17s dropped 24 tons of incendiary bombs.

Staff Sergeant Forrest Lee Volser was the radio operator on this Boeing B-17F-65-BO Flying Fortress, 42-29664, the “Jersey Bounce Jr.” (U.S. Air Force)

Jersey Bounce, Jr. was hit by anti-aircraft artillery just after its bomb load was released. The number 1 engine, outboard, left wing, and the number 4 engine, outboard, right wing, were damaged. When the B-17 slowed and dropped out of its formation, it became a target of opportunity for the Luftwaffe fighters.

The crew reported that as many as ten fighters attacked, one after another. Flight engineer and top turret gunner Staff Sergeant William H. Simpkins, Jr., was credited with destroying a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter, and right waist gunner Sergeant Ralph F. Burkart shot down a Messerschmitt Me 210 twin-engine heavy fighter. Sergeant Stanley E. Moody, the left waist gunner, destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and probably shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engine fighter.

The heavily-damaged bomber flew at low altitude as it headed for the North Sea, and then toward England. Vosler sent repeated distress signals which allowed search and rescue aircraft to locate the B-17. Lieutenant Henderson ditched 42-29644 within sight of land. The crew were quickly rescued by a small coastal freighter, MV Empire Sportsman.² The bomber crew was then transferred to a British air-sea rescue boat.

Forrest Lee Vosler was born at Lyndonville, New York, 29 July 1923. He was the son of William I. Vosler, a farmer, and Lottie I. Furness Volser. He attended Livonia Central High School, Livonia, New York, graduating in 1941. He was employed as a drill press operator by General Motors at Rochester, New York.

Forrest Lee Vosler enlisted in the Air Corps, United States Army, at Rochester, 8 October 1942. He was 6 feet, 1 inch (1.854 meters) tall and weighed 147 pounds (66.7 kilograms). After completing basic training at Atlantic City, New Jersey, Private Vosler trained as a radio operator at Scott Field, Illinois, and as an aerial gunner at Harlingen, Texas. After completing training Private Vosler was promoted to Sergeant, 25 May 1943. In August 1943, he was promoted to Staff Sergeant. Deployed to the United Kingdom, Staff Sergeant Vosler was assigned to the 358th Bombardment Squadron, Heavy, of the 303rd Bombardment Group, Heavy, at RAF Molesworth (AAF-107), Cambridgeshire, England.

Technical Sergeant Vosler was the third of only four enlisted airmen two be awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II. Vosler was hospitalized for the next 12 months. After recuperating from his wounds, Vosler was discharged from the Army Air Corps, 17 October 1944. In addition to the Medal of Honor, Forrest Vosler had been awarded the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, Air Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one bronze service star, World War II Victory Medal and the Presidential Unit Citation.

Following the War, Forrest Volser was employed as an engineer at radio station WSYR, the oldest continuously operating radio station in the Syracuse, New York, area. He attended the College of Business Administration, Syracuse University, at Syracuse, New York. He was a member of the Sigma Chi (ΣΧ) fraternity.

Forrest Vosler married Miss Virginia Frances Slack, 28 October 1945, at the Grace Episcopal Church, Syracuse, New York. The ceremony was presided over by Rev. James R. Rockwell. They would have a daughter, Sondra Lee Vosler, and a son, Marcellus Vosler.

Vosler had lost one eye and found that blurred vision in his remaining eye made it impossible to keep up with his studies. He dropped out of college at the end of the 1945 fall semester.

“Woody” Vosler worked for the Veterans Administration for thirty years.

Forrest Lee Vosler died at Titusville, Florida, 17 February 1992 at the age of 68 years. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Forrest L. Vosler Noncommissioned Officer Academy and the Forrest L. Vosler Veterans Memorial Park at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, are named in his honor.

A Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress (B-17F-95-BO 42-30243). (U.S. Air Force)

Boeing B-17F-65-BO Flying Fortress 42-29664, Jersey Bounce, Jr. The bomber was on its 32nd combat mission. It had been flown by at least nine different pilots and with different combat crews.

42-29664 was delivered from the Boeing plant in Seattle, Washington, to Denver, Colorado, 30 January 1943. It arrived at Salina, Kansas, 12 February 1943, and was sent on to Morrison, New Jersey, 28 February 1943. It was then flown across the north Atlantic Ocean to England. The new B-17F was assigned to the 358th Bombardment Squadron, 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), at RAF Molesworth, Cambridgeshire, England, 21 March 1943. It carried group identification markings VK C painted on its fuselage.

The Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress was a four-engine heavy bomber operated by a flight crew of ten. It was 74 feet, 9 inches (22.784 meters) long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9.375 inches (31.633 meters) and an overall height of 19 feet, 1 inch (5.187 meters). Its empty weight was 34,000 pounds (15,422 kilograms), 40,437 pounds (18,342 kilograms) loaded, and the maximum takeoff weight was 56,500 pounds (25,628 kilograms).

Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress. (U.S. Air Force)

The B-17F was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged, 1,823.129-cubic-inch-displacement (29.875 liters) Wright Cyclone C9GC (R-1820-97) nine-cylinder radial engines with turbochargers, producing 1,200 horsepower at 2,500 r.p.m. for takeoff and 1,000 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. at Sea Level. War Emergency Power was 1,380 horsepower. The Cyclones turned three-bladed constant-speed Hamilton-Standard Hydromatic propellers with a diameter of 11 feet, 7 inches (3.835 meters) though a 0.5625:1 gear reduction.  The R-1820-97 engine is 47.80 inches (1.214 meters) long and 55.10 inches (1.399 meters) in diameter. It weighs 1,315 pounds (596 kilograms).

These engines gave the B-17F a cruising speed of 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour). The maximum speed was 299 miles per hour (481 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet, though with War Emergency Power, the bomber could reach 325 miles per hour (523 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet for short periods. The service ceiling was 37,500 feet (11,430 meters).

With a normal fuel load of 2,520 gallons (9,540 liters) the B-17F had a maximum range of 2,880 miles (4,635 kilometers). Carrying a 6,000 pound (2,722 kilogram) bomb load, the range was 1,300 miles (2,092 kilometers).

358th Bombardment Squadron flight crew. Most of the men in this photograph were aboard "Jersey Bounce Jr.", 20 December 1943. Front, left to right: Sgt. Edward Ruppel. ball turret gunner; T/Sgt. Forest L. Vosler, radio operator; S/Sgt. William H. Simpkins, Jr., flight engineer/top turret gunner; Sgt. Gratz, tail gunner 9replaceing teh critically wounded Sgt. George W. Burke, who was rescued by Vosler); Sgt. Raaplh F. Burkhart, waist gunner. Rear, left to right: 2nd Lt. Warren S. Wiggins, navigator; 2nd Lt. Woodrow W. Monkres, bombardier; 2 Lt. Walter J. Ames, co-pilot; 2nd Lt. John F. Henderson, aircraft commander. (U.S. Air Force)
358th Bombardment Squadron flight crew. Most of the men in this photograph were aboard “Jersey Bounce Jr.”, 20 December 1943. Front, left to right: Sgt. Edward Ruppel, ball turret gunner; T/Sgt. Forest L. Vosler, radio operator/top gunner; S/Sgt. William H. Simpkins, Jr., flight engineer/top turret gunner; Sgt. Gratz, tail gunner (replacing the critically wounded Sgt. George W. Burke, who was rescued by Vosler); Sgt. Ralph F. Burkhart, waist gunner. Rear, left to right: 2nd Lt. Warren S. Wiggins, navigator; 2nd Lt. Woodrow W. Monkres, bombardier; 2 Lt. Walter J. Ames, co-pilot; 2nd Lt. John F. Henderson, aircraft commander. (U.S. Air Force)

The B-17F Flying Fortress was armed with up to 13 air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns. Power turrets mounting two guns each were located at the dorsal and ventral positions.

The maximum bomb load was 20,800 pounds over very short ranges. Normally, 4,000–6,000 pounds (1,815–2,722 kilograms) were carried. The internal bomb bay could be loaded with a maximum of eight 1,600 pound (725.75 kilogram) bombs. Two external bomb racks mounted under the wings between the fuselage and the inboard engines could carry one 4,000 pound (1,814.4 kilogram) bomb, each, though this option was rarely used.

The B-17 Flying Fortress first flew in 1935, and was was in production from 1937 to 1945. 12,731 B-17s were built by Boeing, Douglas Aircraft Company and Lockheed-Vega. (The manufacturer codes -BO, -DL and -VE follows the Block Number in each airplane’s type designation.) 3,405 of the total were B-17Fs, with 2,000 built by Boeing, 605 by Douglas and 500 by Lockheed-Vega.

Only three B-17F Flying Fortresses remain in existence.

This restored Boeing B-17F-70-BO Flying Fortress, 42-29782, is on display at The Museum of Flight at Seattle's Boeing Field. (Boeing)
This restored Boeing B-17F-70-BO Flying Fortress, 42-29782, is on display at The Museum of Flight at Seattle’s Boeing Field. (Boeing)

¹ “Jersey Bounce” was a popular song of 1942.

² M/V Empire Sportsman was built by Richards Ironworks Ltd., Lowestoft, Suffolk, 1943. 325 Gross Registered Tons.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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4 May 1943

The crew of The 8 Ball Mk II, a Boeing B-17F-27-BO Flying Fortress, serial number 41-24635, 359th Bombardment Squadron, 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), following an attack against Antwerp, Belgium, 5 April 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
The 8 Ball MkII #41-24635 (359BS) BN-O
102nd PBCW Lead.  Aircraft Commander/Pilot Captain William R. Calhoun, Jr. / Co-Pilot Lieutenant Colonel William A. Hatcher, commander, 351st Bombardment Group. Left to Right: Staff Sergeant Willam C. Mulgrew, Ball Turret Gunner; Staff Sergeant Richard C. Fortunak, Left Waist Gunner; Technical Sergeant Roman R. Zaorski, Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner; Staff Sergeant Murel A. Murphy, Right Waist Gunner; Captain Robert J. Yonkman, Bombardier; Lieutenant Colonel William A. Hatcher, Co-Pilot; Captain William R. Calhoun, Aircraft Commander/Pilot; 1st Lieutenant Joseph M. Strickland, Navigator; Technical Sergeant Charles R. Terry, Radio Operator; Staff Sergeant Willard W. Stephen, Tail Gunner; Captain Clark Gable, Top Gunner. (U.S. Air Force)

4 May 1943: VIII Bomber Command Mission No. 54 was an attack on the Ford and General Motors assembly plants at Antwerp, Belgium. 79 B-17s of the 1st Bombardment Wing were assigned, with another 33 bombers staging a diversion off the coast. Each B-17 was loaded with five 1,000-pound (453.6-kilogram) high explosive bombs. Between 1839–1843 hours, 65 B-17s had reached the target and dropped 161.5 tons (146.5 metric tons) of bombs from an altitude of 23,500 feet (7,163 meters). Results were considered very good.

Sixteen B-17s were damaged by anti-aircraft artillery and German fighters, with 3 American airmen wounded. Gunners on board the bombers claimed ten enemy fighters destroyed and one damaged. They expended 21,907 rounds of .50-caliber machine gun ammunition. The total duration of the mission was 4 hours, 30 minutes.

The lead ship of a composite group made up from squadrons from the 91st, 303rd and 305th Bombardment Groups, was Boeing B-17F-27-BO Flying Fortress 41-24635. It had been named The 8 Ball Mk. II by its crew, led by Captain William R. Calhoun, Jr. (Captain Calhoun’s first The 8 Ball, 41-24581, had been damaged beyond repair, 20 December 1942.)

The The 8 Ball Mk. II was assigned to the 359th Bombardment Squadron, 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), at RAF Polebrook (Air Force Station 110), in Northamptonshire, England.

For Mission No. 54, Captain Calhoun was the aircraft commander while Lieutenant Colonel W.A. Hatcher, the newly-assigned commander of the 351st Bombardment Group (Heavy), flew as co-pilot.

Strike photo, General Motors plant, Antwerp, Belgium. (U.S. Air Force)
Strike photo, General Motors plant, Antwerp, Belgium. (U.S. Air Force)

After the mission, Captain Calhoun said, “It was a good mission as far as I am concerned. My bombardier, Captain Robert Yonkman, told me that the bombing was really something.”

Lieutenant Colonel Hatcher said, “It was my second raid and it was a hell of a lot better than the first one which was Bremen. They tell me that the bombing was perfect. I am learning a lot each time.”

The 8 Ball Mk II was slightly damaged on this mission. Navigator 1st Lieutenant Joseph Strickland reported, “A 20 mm shell cut my flying boot almost in half. . . I believe it was as good bombing as we have done. Never saw so many fighters in my life. Both ours and the Germans.”

Captain William C. Calhoun, Jr. and Captain Glark Gable after the mission to Antwerp, 4 May 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain William R. Calhoun, Jr. and Captain Clark Gable after the mission to Antwerp, 4 May 1943. At the age of 23 years, Captain Calhoun was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. The silver oaks leaves, insignia of his new rank, were pinned on by Captain Gable. (U.S. Air Force)

Also on board The 8 Ball Mk II was Captain William Clark Gable, Air Corps, United States Army. After his wife, Carole Lombard, had been killed in an airliner crash, 16 January 1942, the world-famous movie actor enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, intending to become an aerial gunner on a bomber. Soon after enlisting, though, he was sent to Officer Candidate School and after graduating was commissioned a second lieutenant.

Mr. and Mrs. Clark Gable
Mr. and Mrs. Clark Gable

Lieutenant General Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General, U.S. Army Air Forces, assigned Lieutenant Gable to make a recruiting film about gunners in combat. Gable was then sent to aerial gunnery school and following that, to photography training. He was placed in command of a 6-man film unit and assigned to the 351st Bombardment Group (Heavy) as they went through training and were sent on to the 8th Air Force England.

Lieutenant Clark Gable with a belt of linked .50-caliber machine gun cartridges.
Lieutenant Clark Gable with a belt of linked .50-caliber machine gun cartridges.

Clark Gable, now a captain, wanted to film aboard a bomber with a highly experienced combat crew, so both he and his group commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hatcher, flew with Captain Calhoun’s crew.

The mission of 4 May 1943 was Gable’s first combat mission. As a qualified gunner he manned a Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine gun.

Gable’s recruiting film was completed several months later. It was titled, “Combat America.”

Captain Clark Gable manning a .50-caliber Browing machine gun in the waist of a B-17 bomber. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Clark Gable manning a Browning Machine Gun, Caliber .50, AN-M2, in the waist of a B-17 bomber. (U.S. Air Force)
Poster for Gable's production, "Combat America."
Poster for Gable’s production, “Combat America.”

Colonel William Rodwell Calhoun, Jr., United States Air Force, was born at Birmingham, Alabama, 10 November 1919. He was the son of William R. Calhoun, a proof reader, and Mabel Lee Ferguson Calhoun.  He graduated from Howard University, Birmingham, Alabama (now, Samford University) in 1941 with an A.B. (Bachelor of Arts) degree.

William Calhoun entered the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet at Montgomery, Alabama, 26 August 1941. At that time, Calhoun was 5’7″ inches (170 centimeters) tall and weighed 136 pounds (61.7 kilograms). He trained as a pilot at Brooks Army Airfield, Texas, as a member of Class 41-I. Calhoun completed flight training and was commissioned a second lieutenant, 12 December 1941. He was promoted to first lieutenant, 1 February 1942.

Lieutenant Calhoun was assigned to the 359th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) as a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot. He was promoted to captain, 22 September 1942. He and his crew arrived at Station 107 (RAF Molesworth, Cambridgeshire, England) 20 October 1942 aboard their Boeing B-17F-25-BO Flying Fortress, 41-24581, The 8 Ball.

The 8 Ball, Boeing B-17F-5-BO Flying Fortress 41-24581 (303rdbg.com)
The 8 Ball, Boeing B-17F-25-BO Flying Fortress 41-24581, BN-O (U.S. Air Force via 303rdbg.com)

Two months later, 20 December 1942, during a bombing mission to Ronilly-sur-Seine, France, The 8 Ball was heavily damaged. Arriving over England, Captain Calhoun ordered the crew to bail out, then he and co-pilot Major Eugene Romig crash landed the bomber at RAF Bovington, Hertfordshire. The airplane was damaged beyond repair.

Captain Calhoun commanded the 359th Bombardment Squadron from 6 March to 22 November 1943. He was promoted to major, 5 June 1943. He was next assigned as Director of Operations and Executive Officer of the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing (Heavy).

Major Calhoun completed his 25-mission combat tour on 19 August 1943. He then volunteered for a second tour. His final combat mission of World War II, his 32nd, took place 28 July 1944.

Calhoun was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, 28 December 1943, at the age of 23 years. The silver oak leaves, insignia of his new rank, were pinned on by Captain Gable. He remained at the 41st Bombardment Wing until 23 December 1944.

Major William R. Calhoun checks a repair on his B-17F bomber, The 8 Ball. (Planet News Ltd.)
Major William R. Calhoun checks a repair on his B-17F bomber, The 8 Ball. (Planet News Ltd.)

Following World War II, Lieutenant Colonel Calhoun commanded the 6th Troop Carrier Squadron and the 374th Troop Carrier Group. On 5 December 1948, while flying a Douglas C-54 Skymaster from Okinawa to Spokane, Washington, Calhoun was forced to ditch the airplane in the Pacific Ocean, about 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers) southwest of Hawaii, when two of the airplane’s engines failed. 33 of the 37 on board the transport survived. Colonel Calhoun and his crew spent 40 hours in two life rafts before being rescued by the U.S. Navy escort carrier, USS Rendova (CVE-114).

Colonel Calhoun married Dondena Hardin, 17 November 1950. They had two children, but divorced in 1974. Colonel Calhoun married his second wife, Virginia Ruth Smith, 14 May 1983.

Colonel Calhoun served as deputy commander of the 11th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and commander, 26th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy). He was then assigned as Director of Operations 19th Air Division; Director of Operations Eighth Air Force; and served in the Directorate of Operations, United States Air Force.

Colonel Calhoun was the base commander of Larson Air Force Base, Moses Lake, Washington, and vice commander of the 4170th Strategic Wing. He next commanded the 4128th Strategic Wing, later redesignated the 461st Bombardment Wing (Heavy), at Amarillo, Texas, followed by the 379th Bombardment Wing (Heavy).

Colonel William R. Calhoun, Jr., U.S. Air Force, commanding the 461st Bombardment Wing, circa 1963. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel William R. Calhoun, Jr., U.S. Air Force, commanding the 461st Bombardment Wing (Heavy), circa 1963. (U.S. Air Force)

During his career with the United States Air Force, Colonel Calhoun was awarded the Silver Star with oak leaf cluster (two awards); the Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters (four awards); The Air Medal with four oaks leaf clusters (five awards); The Purple Heart; the Presidential Unit Citation; and the Croix de Guerre.

Colonel William R. Calhoun, Jr., United States Air Force, died at Fort Worth, Texas, 20 March 1991 at the age of 72 years. He was buried at Greenwood Memorial Park in Fort Worth.

The bomber flown by Colonel Calhoun 4 May 1943, Boeing B-17F-27-BO Flying Fortress 41-24635, The 8 Ball Mk. II, was scrapped 8 February 1945.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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