Mission #3 - May 17, 1943:
With good weather conditions, 20 aircraft, each loaded with two 1,000 pound bombs, took off at 0820 to strike the power station at Lorient. There were, however, 8 aborts which were quite embarrassing. Despite that, the 12 which did bomb in conjunction with the 94th and 95th did an accurate job.
But this time the Luftwaffe was waiting. Attacks were made on the three Groups of the 4BW (Bombardment Wing) when they were 30 miles out to sea on their way home. Unfortunately, the 96th had been late at arriving at the rendezvous point and thereby forfeited fighter protection.
Although flak was relatively light, the Germans claimed their first 96th victim when it hit A/C 42-29767, Boot Hill, flown by Lt. Louis L. Haltom of the 338th.
The flight engineer, T/Sgt. Marshall, named the plane. He once joked that if necessary, the crew would die with their boots on. Prior to crossing the Channel on the way to France, the #3 engine's supercharger went out. From then on it could register only 19 inches of manifold pressure. Lt. Haltom had already built up a reputation for flying tight formations, and to use his own words, "We stuck in there."
But this was only the tip of Haltom's iceberg. Just as they approached the IP (initial approach) and turned to make the bomb run, the oxygen system failed in the ball turret. Its gunner, S/Sgt. R.A. Martin had to abandon his position leaving the belly of the B-17 unprotected. At an altitude of 24,000 feet, Lt. Haltom continued the bomb run. Then no sooner had flak burst between the #3 engine and the fuselage when another burst hit the tail section and wounded the gunner, S/Sgt. A.L. Jorensey. With his co-pilot dazed and the aircraft becoming increasingly uncontrollable, Haltom continued on the bomb-run until bombardier Lt. Rawlings successfully contributed his load. As Haltom said later, "There had never been any thought of trying to save ourselves. We were there to bomb the hell out of the Germans."
Soon after leaving the target, the #2 engine began to lose power. It had to be feathered. Number 3 was so badly damaged it wouldn't feather! Even though the lead pilot slowed the formation hoping Haltom could catch up, Boot Hill continued to fall behind and lose height. The FW-190's were quick to assess the situation. Two engines out, a ball turret with guns hanging straight down -- these were symptoms of a crippled Fortress. The Germans came in -- straight on. Ten of them! They fired into the belly of the stricken ship. Rolling over and coming around for a second pass, they scored hits in the belly and on the wings. Time was running out for Boot Hill! Even though it was smoking both inside and out, even though radio operator T/Sgt. Glen Wells was wounded but still firing, even though the tail guns were silent and the gunner believed dead and both waist gun positions were shot up, Haltom's gunners still calculated that they destroyed 3 E/A.
With the rest of the Group yelling over the radio for them to bail out, Lt. Haltom realized that they wouldn't even make it to the coast for a ditching. "Sadly and reluctantly" Haltom recalls, "I rang the bell to bail out. We had hoped to fly 25 and return home together."
S/Sgt. Bill thorns in the top turret of Fertile Myrtle watched helplessly as the Luftwaffe claimed its first 96th victim. Later this night, Thorns would note the incident in his diary. "Lost one plane. Saw five chutes. It's an awful feeling to see pals go down while you're helpless."
It would take about forty years before Thorns would realize that the worst hadn't happened. Only one man was killed. Except for the accidental deaths of Captain Rogers and Corporal Willians, S/Sgt. Andrew Jorensey became the first of the Group to be Killed in Action.
In fact, Boot Hill broke the ice for the entire Group in that it became the first plane to go MIA while its crew registered the first war casualties; one KIA, six evadees and three POW's.
Unfortunately this book does not include tales of escape, evasion or imprisonment. Hopefully, such fascinating experiences will be the subject of another volume. Suffice it here to say that Lt. Haltom and five others evaded with the help of the French Resistance. Returning to England via a C-47 from Gibraltar, these six evadees were decorated by General Eisenhower. Haltom toured 8th Air Force bases for six weeks lecturing on escape and evasion. Dedicated to the overthrow of the Axis, Lt. Haltom transferred to the 49th Bomb Group and flew B-29's against Japan!
The Lead Pilot for this mission against Lorient was the 337th's Captain Gil Stephenson.