Tag Archives: 8th Air Force

14 October 1943: “Bloody Thursday”

B-17 Flying Fortresses attack Schweinfurt, Germany, 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

14 October 1943: A large force of 8th Air Force heavy bombers and escorting fighters attack the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt, Germany, for the second time. Five bombardment groups sent 291 B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bombers on the raid.

A B-17F Flying Fortress going down over Europe. The left outboard engine is on fire and the right wing has been shot off. There are ten men in this airplane. (U.S. Air Force)

60 B-17s were shot down by German fighters or anti-aircraft artillery (“flak”). Another 17 were so heavily damaged that they crashed on landing back at their bases, or were so severely damaged that they were beyond repair. 121 B-17s received lesser damage. 594 crewmen were listed as Missing In Action (presumably Killed In Action). 65 men were captured and held as Prisoners of War. Of the bombers that returned to England 5 crewmen were killed and 43 were wounded. B-17 gunners shot down 35 to 38 Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulk Fw 190s. Another 20 fighters were damaged.

A B-17G Flying Fortress with its bomb bay doors open. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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17 August 1942

A flight of Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress bombers forms up over England, 1942. “Yankee Doodle,” 41-9023, is just to the left of center. (U.S. Air Force)
Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker (Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE)

17 August 1942: Mission No. 1. The United States VIII Bomber Command made its first heavy bomber attack on Nazi-occupied Europe when eighteen Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress four-engine bombers of the 97th Bombardment Group (Heavy), based at RAF Polebrook, Northamptonshire, England, headed for the railroad marshaling yards at Rouen-Sotteville, France. This was the largest and most active railroad yard in northern France.

The group began takeoffs at 1530 hours. It was escorted by several squadrons of Royal Air Force Supermarine Spitfire fighters.

While six B-17s flew along the French coast as a diversion, twelve bombers flew to Rouen and were over the target from 1739 to 1746. From an altitude of 23,000 feet (7,010 meters), they dropped 39,000 pounds (17,690 kilograms) of general purpose bombs.

Accuracy was good. One of the aim points, the locomotive shops, was destroyed by a direct hit. The overall results were moderate.

Rouen-Sotteville target assesment photograph. (U.S. Air Force)
Rouen-Sotteville target assessment photograph. (U.S. Air Force)

All of the bombers returned to their base, with the first landing at 1900. Two B-17s had been damaged. American gunners claimed damage to one Luftwaffe airplane.

brigadier General Ira C. Eaker commanded the raid from this Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress, 41-9023, Yankee Doodle, here being serviced between missions. (U.S. Air Force)
Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker commanded Mission No. 1 from this Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress, 41-9023, Yankee Doodle, shown here being serviced between missions. This bomber survived the War. (U.S. Air Force)

The raid was commanded by Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker aboard Yankee Doodle, B-17E 41-9023, leading the second flight of six B-17s. The 97th Bombardment Group Commander, Colonel Frank A. Armstrong, Jr., flew as the co-pilot of the lead ship, Butcher Shop, B-17E 41-2578, with pilot Major Paul W. Tibbets, Jr. Major Tibbets was in command of the 97th’s 340th Bombardment Squadron. (He would later command the 509th Composite Group and fly the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay.)

Colonel Frank A. Armstrong in the pilot's position of a Boeing B-17 (Imperial War Museum, Roger Freeman Collection, Object Number FRE 890)
Colonel Frank Alton Armstrong, Jr., Air Corps, United States Army, commanding the 97th Bombardment Group (Heavy), in the pilot’s position of a Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress. (Imperial War Museum)

The Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress was a major redesign. A new aft fuselage was used, incorporating larger vertical and horizontal stabilizers. A tail turret was added. A power-operated gun turret was added at dorsal and ventral positions.

The Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress was a four-engine heavy bomber operated by a flight crew of ten. It was 73 feet, 10 inches (22.504 meters) long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9-3/8 inches (31.633 meters) and an overall height of 19 feet, 2 inch (5.842 meters). Its empty weight was 32,350 pounds (14,674 kilograms), 40,260 pounds (18,262 kilograms) gross weight, and the maximum takeoff weight was 53,000 pounds (24,040 kilograms).

Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress 41-2587, 97th Bombardment Group, photographed 17 August 1942. (Imperial War Museum, Roger Freeman Collection, Object Number FRE 4053)
Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress 41-2578, 97th Bombardment Group, photographed 17 August 1942. (Imperial War Museum)

The B-17E was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged, 1,823.129-cubic-inch-displacement (29.875 liters) Wright Cyclone G666A (R-1820-65) 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. 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-1820-65 was 47.59 inches (1.209 meters) long and 55.12 inches (1.400 meters) in diameter. It weighed 1,315 pounds (596 kilograms). 8,422 of these engines were produced by Wright Aeronautical Division and its licensees between February 1940 and August 1942.

The B-17E had a cruise speed of 195 miles per hour (314 kilometers per hour). Its maximum speed was 318 miles per hour (512 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). The service ceiling was 36,600 feet (11,156 meters).

With a normal fuel load of 2,490 gallons (9,426 liters) the B-17E had a maximum range of 3,300 miles (5,311 kilometers). Carrying a 4,000 pound (1,814 kilogram) bomb load, the range was 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers).

Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress 41-2578, lead ship on the 17 August 1942 air raid on Rouen-Sotteville, France. By the end of the war, this airplane was the oldest, longest-serving B-17E in the USAAF.
Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress 41-2578, the lead ship on the 17 August 1942 air raid on Rouen-Sotteville, France, flown by Major Paul W. Tibbets, photographed at RAF Bovingdon, 1943. By the end of the war, this airplane was the oldest, longest-serving B-17E in the USAAF. (Imperial War Museum)

The B-17E Flying Fortress was armed with one .30-caliber Browning M2 Aircraft Machine Gun and eight Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns. The .30 was mounted in the nose.  Power turrets mounting two .50-caliber guns, each, were located at the dorsal and ventral positions. (The first 112 B-17Es were built with a remotely-operated turret in the belly position, sighted by a periscope. A manned ball turret replaced this.) Two machine guns were in a tail turret, and one on each side at the waist.

The maximum bomb load of the B-17E was 20,800 pounds (9,435 kilograms) over very short distances. 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 1,000 pound (454 kilogram) or four 2,000 pound (907 kilogram) bombs.

The B-17 Flying Fortress first flew in 1935, and was in production from 1937 to 1945. 12,731 B-17s were built by Boeing. 512 of the total were B-17Es. The last one was completed 28 May 1942. Production shifted to the further-improved B-17F.

Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress 41-2509, flying over the Florida Keys, circa 1942. (Getty Images)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 August 1943

Consolidated B-24D-55-CO Liberator 42-40402, "The Sandman," takes off for Ploesti, 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
Consolidated B-24D-55-CO Liberator 42-40402, “The Sandman,” ready for take off at its base in Libya—destination Ploesti, Romania—1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

1 August 1943: Operation TIDALWAVE. 178 B-24 Liberator very long range heavy bombers bombers of the 8th and 9th Air Forces, with 1,751 crewmen, made an extreme low-level attack on the Axis oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania.

The mission was a disaster: 53 B-24s were lost, 310 crewmen killed in action, 108 captured, and 78 interred in neutral countries. The damaged refineries were repaired within weeks and their output was higher than before the attack.

Five Medals of Honor were awarded, three posthumously, the most for any single air action in history.

The following is from an official U.S. Air Force publication:

U.S. Air Force Fact Sheet

OPERATION TIDALWAVE, THE LOW-LEVEL BOMBING OF THE PLOESTI OIL REFINERIES, 1 AUGUST 1943

Prior to World War II, the U.S. Army Air Corps (Army Air Forces as of June 20, 1941) developed a doctrine of high-altitude, precision, daylight, massed bombing of selected enemy military and industrial targets. Combined with the Royal Air Force’s concentration on mass air attacks on industrial areas at night by 1943, this doctrine evolved into the Combined Bomber Offense featuring “around-the-clock” bombing of German targets.

Petroleum production and distribution systems were among the highest priority targets, and perhaps the most inviting of these was the concentration of oil refineries at Ploesti, Rumania, which according to Allied intelligence estimates, produced as much as one third of Germany’s liquid fuel requirements. One of the most heavily defended targets in Europe, Ploesti lay outside the range of Allied bombers from England but could be reached by Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers from the Middle East or North Africa.

Colonel Jacob E. Smart, left, with Lieutenant General Henry H. ("Hap") Arnold, in China, February 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Jacob E. Smart, left, with Lieutenant General Henry H. (“Hap”) Arnold, in China, February 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

Allied leaders determined to bomb Ploesti during the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 and Gen. Henry H.” Hap’ Arnold delegated the problem to Col. Jacob Smart of his Advisory Council. Smart, the principle architect and planner for Operation TIDALWAVE, proposed, in complete antithesis of USAAF bombing policy, a low-level massed raid on the nine most important Ploesti refineries by five B-24 bomb groups, two from North Africa and three borrowed from Eighth Air Force in England .

By July 1943, the five groups—the 44th, 93rd, and 389th Bombardment Groups from England had joined the 98th and 376th Bombardment Groups at Benghazi, Libya, where they made final preparations and conducted additional low-level training under the direction of Ninth Air Force.

Operation TIDALWAVE. (U.S. Air Force)
Operation TIDALWAVE. (U.S. Air Force)
Consolidated B-24D-155-CO Liberator 42-72772 and flight cross the Mediterranean Sea at very low level, 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
Consolidated B-24D-155-CO Liberator 42-72772 and flight cross the Mediterranean Sea at very low level, 1 August 1943. A gunner stands in the waist position. The bomber’s belly turret is retracted. (U.S. Air Force)

Commanded by Brig. Gen. Uzal G. Ent, the force of 178 B-24s took off on the morning of 1 August, followed a route across the Mediterranean, passed the island of Corfu, crossed the Pindus Mountains into Rumania, and approached Ploesti from the east. While over the Mediterranean the formation divided into two parts: the first led by Col. Keith K. (K.K.) Compton commander of the 376th, consisted of the 376th and 93rd Bomb Groups; the second led by Col. John R. (Killer) Kane, commander of the 98th, included the 98th, 44th, and 389th Bomb Groups. Mandated radio silence prevented the leaders from reassembling the formation. The goal of a single, mass attack disappeared.

Consolidated B-24D Liberator very long range heavy bombers attack the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
Consolidated B-24D Liberator very long range heavy bombers attack the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

Compton’s formation reached Rumania well ahead of Kane’s. It descended to low level and, in error, made its planned turn to the south at Targoviste, miles short of the correct Identification Point (IP). Compton led two bomb groups toward Bucharest. Col. Addison L. Baker, commanding the 93rd Bomb Group following Compton, saw Ploesti to his left, turned his group and led it into the target first. Meantime, Compton found that he was heading to Bucharest and turned, almost reversing course, and bombed Ploesti from the south.

As the two groups emerged from Ploesti and escaped to the south, the 98th and 44th Bomb Groups led by Kane plunged into Ploesti where they found many of their targets in flames. They sought alternate targets of opportunity. Far to the north, the 389th Bomb Group successfully bombed its target, a separate refinery at Campina, as planned.

In one of the most famous photographs of World War II, Consolidated B-24D-55-CO Liberator 42-40402, The Sandman, i sover Targer White IV, the Astra Romana refinery, Ploesti, Romania, 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
In one of the most famous photographs of World War II, Consolidated B-24D-55-CO Liberator 42-40402, “The Sandman,” is over Target White IV, the Astra Română Refinery, Ploesti, Romania, 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

Survivors of the attack fled south alone or in small groups trailed by Axis fighters which took a toll of the weakened force. Bombers crashed in fields or disappeared into the water; some diverted to Allied bases in the region; others sought sanctuary in neutral Turkey. Some 88 B-24s, most badly damaged, managed to return to Benghazi. Personnel losses included 310 airmen killed, 108 captured, and 78 interned in Turkey. Five officers: Kane, Baker, Col. Leon W. Johnson, Maj. John L. Jerstad, and 2nd Lt. Lloyd H. Hughes, earned the Medal of Honor; Baker, Jerstad, and Hughes posthumously.

Consolidated B-24D-55-CO Liberator 42-40402, The Sandman, clears the triple stacks at Astra Romana, Ploesti, Romania, 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
Consolidated B-24D-55-CO Liberator 42-40402, “The Sandman,” clears the triple stacks at the Astra Română Refinery, Ploesti, Romania, 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

Despite the extreme heroism of the airmen and their determination to press the mission home, the results of Operation TIDAL WAVE were less than expected. TIDALWAVE targeted nine major refineries that produced some 8,595,000 tons of oil annually, about 90 percent of all Rumanian oil production, and the attack temporarily eliminated about 3,925,000 tons, roughly 46 percent of total annual production at Ploesti. Three refineries lost 100 percent of production. Unfortunately, these losses figures were temporary and reflected much less than the planners had hoped for. The Germans proved capable of repairing damage and restoring production quickly, and they had been operating the refineries at less than full capacity, anyway. Ploesti thus had the ability to recover rapidly. The largest and most important target, Astro Romana, was back to full production within a few months while Concordia Vega was operating at 100 percent by mid-September.

The U.S. Army Air Forces never again attempted a low level mission against German air defenses.

Dr. Roger Miller, Historian, AFHSO.

Air Force Historical Studies Office Joint Base Anacostia Bolling, DC.

U.S. Army Air Forces B-24 bombers clearing a target at Ploesti, Romania, 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
U.S. Army Air Forces B-24 bombers clearing a target at Ploesti, Romania, 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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26 July 1943

Flight Officer John Cary Morgan, United States Army Air Corps, is awarded the Medal of Honor by Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker, commanding 8th Air Force, 18 December 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

MEDAL OF HONOR

MORGAN, JOHN C. (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps, 326th Bomber Squadron, 92d Bomber Group.

Place and date: Over Europe, 28 July 1943.¹

Entered service at: London, England. Born: 24 August 1914, Vernon, Texas.

G.O. No.: 85, 17 December 1943.

Citation:

Medal of Honor
Medal of Honor

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty, while participating on a bombing mission over enemy-occupied continental Europe, 28 July 1943.¹ Prior to reaching the German coast on the way to the target, the B17 airplane in which 2d Lt. Morgan was serving as copilot was attacked by a large force of enemy fighters, during which the oxygen system to the tail, waist, and radio gun positions was knocked out. A frontal attack placed a cannon shell through the windshield, totally shattering it, and the pilot’s skull was split open by a .303 caliber shell, leaving him in a crazed condition. The pilot fell over the steering wheel, tightly clamping his arms around it. 2d Lt. Morgan at once grasped the controls from his side and, by sheer strength, pulled the airplane back into formation despite the frantic struggles of the semiconscious pilot. The interphone had been destroyed, rendering it impossible to call for help. At this time the top turret gunner fell to the floor and down through the hatch with his arm shot off at the shoulder and a gaping wound in his side. The waist, tail, and radio gunners had lost consciousness from lack of oxygen and, hearing no fire from their guns, the copilot believed they had bailed out. The wounded pilot still offered desperate resistance in his crazed attempts to fly the airplane. There remained the prospect of flying to and over the target and back to a friendly base wholly unassisted. In the face of this desperate situation, 2d Lt. Officer Morgan made his decision to continue the flight and protect any members of the crew who might still be in the ship and for 2 hours he flew in formation with one hand at the controls and the other holding off the struggling pilot before the navigator entered the steering compartment and relieved the situation. The miraculous and heroic performance of 2d Lt. Morgan on this occasion resulted in the successful completion of a vital bombing mission and the safe return of his airplane and crew.”

Lieutenant John Cary (“Red”) Morgan, 482nd Bombardment Group, with a B-17 Flying Fortress. (Imperial War Museum)

John Cary Morgan was born 24 August 1914 at Vernon, Texas, the first of four children of Samuel Asa Leland Morgan, an attorney, and Verna Johnson Morgan. He was educated at the New Mexico Military Institute, and also attended Amarillo College, West Texas Teacher’s College and the University of Texas at Austin.

“Red” Morgan traveled to the South Pacific in 1934, working on a pineapple plantation in the Fiji Islands. He returned to the United States in 1937, arriving at the Port of Los Angeles from Suva, Fiji, aboard the Matson passenger liner S.S. Monterey, on 6 September, after a 12-day voyage.

One of Matson Lines’ “white ships,” S.S. Monterey, arrived at Sydney Harbor, 14 June 1937. (Royal Australian Historical Society)

Morgan married 20-year-old Miss Margaret Wilma Maples at the First Methodist Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 3 December 1939. The ceremony was performed by Rev. Lewis N. Stuckey. They were divorced, 1 May 1941.

Morgan registered for Selective Service at Oklahoma City, 16 October 1940. He was described as being 6 feet, 2 inches (1.88 meters) tall, weighing 180 pounds (81.7 kilograms), with red hair and blue eyes. Morgan had broken his neck in an oil field accident before the United States entered World War II, and had been classified 4-F by the draft board: “not qualified for military service.”

Morgan went to Canada and on 4 August 1941, enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. After flight training, he was sent to England and assigned to RAF Bomber Command. Flight Sergeant Morgan flew twelve combat missions with the RAF. He was then transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps with the warrant rank of Flight Officer. On 23 March 1943, Red Morgan was assigned to the 326th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 92nd Bombardment Group (Heavy), at RAF Alconbury (Army Air Force Station 102), at Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, England.

The original “Ruthie,” Lockheed Vega B-17F-35-VE Flying Fortress, 42-5910, 326th Bombardment Squadron, landing at RAF Chelveston (AAF Station 105), Northamptonshire, England. (Imperial War Museum UPL 19152)

The incident for which Morgan was awarded the Medal of Honor occurred during his fifth combat mission with the 326th Bombardment Squadron. He was the co-pilot of a Boeing B-17F-70-BO Flying Fortress, serial number 42-29802, named Ruthie II.

2nd Lieutenant John Cary (“Red”) Morgan being interviewed by Lieutenant Joe Graham, ETO Radio Department. (Imperial War Museum)

Promoted from flight officer to 2nd lieutenant, John C. Morgan continued to fly combat missions, now with the 482nd Bombardment Group (Pathfinder). On 6 March 1944, the H2X radar-equipped B-17 on which he was co-pilot, Douglas-Long Beach-built B-17F-70-DL 42-3491, was hit by an 88-millimeter anti-aircraft artillery shell and shot down. The aircraft commander, Major Fred A. Rabo, Lieutenant Morgan, and two others escaped as the airplane exploded. Six airmen were killed, including Brigadier General Russell A. Wilson.

Douglas-built B-17F-70-DL Flying Fortress 42-3491, call sign “Chopstick G. George,” was shot down near Berlin, Germany, 6 March 1944. The bomber exploded immediately after this photograph was taken. (U.S. Air Force)

The survivors were captured. Lieutenant Morgan spent the rest of the war as a prisoner at Stalag Luft I. He is the only Medal of Honor recipient to have been held as a Prisoner of War after being awarded the Medal.

Lieutenant Morgan was separated from active duty 29 January 1946, but remained in the Air Force Reserve. In the civilian sector, Morgan worked for the Texaco oil company.

Red Morgan married Chris Ziegler of Chicago, Illinois, who was a secretary for Texaco, in 1947. They had one son. According to an obituary in the New York Times, Morgan had a third wife, Gladys, at the time of his death.

Morgan was promoted to the rank of major in July 1950. Recalled to active duty during the Korean War (from June 1951 to August 1953), he was assigned to the Technical Training Command. Morgan was promoted to lieutenant colonel in August 1957.

Lieutenant Colonel John Cary Morgan, United States Air Force, died at Midlands Hospital, Papillon, Nebraska, 17 January 1991, at the age of 76 years. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Second Lieutenant John C. “Red” Morgan, USAAF, at Stalag Luft I, 1944.
“12 O’Clock High”

Authors Beirne Lay, Jr., and Sy Bartlett used Morgan as the model for the character of “Lieutenant Jesse Bishop” in their novel, Twelve O’Clock High, and the Academy Award-winning 1949 motion picture adaptation that followed. The Jesse Bishop character was played by actor Robert Patten, a USAAF navigator during World War II.

¹ “Although both the original fact sheet and the official Medal of Honor citation give the date as 28 July 1943, official records of the 92d Bombardment Group pinpoint it as 26 July.  See Memo, Lt. Col. Andre R. Brosseau, Operations Officer, Headquarters, 92d Bombardment Group to Commanding Officer, 92d Bombardment Group, subj: Report on Planning and Execution of Operations for Mission 26 July 1943, Hannover, Germany, 27 July 1943, Air Force Historical Support Division, Reference Branch documents.  The memo does not detail Flight Officer Morgan’s actions but does pinpoint the mission to Hannover on 26 July 1943.” —Air Force Historical Support Division

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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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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