Mission #6 - May 29, 1943
As their first month of combat drew to a close, 96ers considered the month anything but the proverbial "merry, merry month of May." Besides tensing needlessly for combat (as they did on the 27th when a mission was abandoned) the Group was expected to be ready for combat while simultaneously making the transition to a new airfield. The 819th Engineering Battalion had just completed Andrews Field. Named after Lt. General Frank Andrews, who had been killed in a recent flying accident over Iceland, this new base was the very first Class A airfield to be constructed by Americans. Originally the base was named Great Sailing after the local village; but on May 21st the British Air Ministry had officially changed the name to honor General Andrews.
And so although the possibility of having to join a raid against Germany hovered over their heads like the Sword of Damocles, members of the 96th air echelon scrambled between the 21st and the 27th to join up with their most welcomed ground personnel at Andrews Field.
No sooner were the two partners finally together when the 4BW responded to another call against Nazi sea power. Led by Captain Vernon Iverson in A/C 42-29914, Mischief Maker, the 96th set out for the Nazi naval storage warehouse complex at Rennes. Flying as observers in the lead aircraft were Lt. General Fred Anderson and, naturally, the Group's feisty commander, Lt. Colonel Archie Old Jr.
Enemy aircraft opposition was heavy. There were few attacks from above due to good fighter cover. But the Luftwaffe was developing new tactics. Most attacks were against the low squadrons in the wing with frontal attacks by FW-190's coming in line astern and in pairs.
There were some American "firsts" too. It was the first time that the 96th held a majority in a Composite Group -- ten 96th aircraft flew in a mixed group with some 94th and 95th A/C. And it was the first time the American formations were accompanied by the infamous YB40 gunships.
Flak was intense over the target on the way out, especially from the batteries at St. Maloon. Flying in a ship called The Duchess which was borrowed from another squadron (338th), Lt. Stephen Hettrick of the 337th returned with two engines out, right wheel destroyed, hydraulic system unusable, radio ruined, control cables hanging by a thread and the right wing buckling. This is not to mention three direct .20 mm holes through the fuselage and a large flak hole in the wing. Hettrick skillfully landed the ship on the brand new runway and slid off onto the grass. There were no serious injuries although during the raid S/Sgt. Clifford F. Kinney continued pouring lead at the enemy even though his left eye had been injured by flying plexiglass when the Germans hit his ball turret. Top turret gunner, T/Sgt. William J. Connell, shot down two enemy planes. The Duchess was
flying "Tail-end Charlie" when Connell scored.
"I got one coming in at five o'clock," he said. "I let go about 15 rounds at him and saw pieces fly off. Then it suddenly dived in flames. Another came in directly on our tail and I got a burst into his engine. He went down burning a few feet from our tail."
There was a casualty, however, during this last mission of the 96th's first month in combat. Failing to return from Rennes was the 337th crew of 1/Lt. Bob McMath in A/C 42-3042.
McMath had been flying number 6 position in the Lead. Just after "bombs-away" observers saw his plane dive out of formation losing altitude rapidly. Not long afterwards however, Lt. McMath brought his aircraft back into position. But shortly A/C 42-3042 began to manifest distress symptoms again. The plane was last observed at 1745 on a 30 degree heading which would have brought it to the southeastern coast of England. Neither smoke nor flame were observed; but neither were parachutes. Fading from sight, Lt. McMath's crew had descended to 6000 feet. They are listed as KIA.
One week ago Lt. Reuben Neie's plane had been damaged beyond repair trying to return from its 4th mission. Today diarist waist gunner Leo Laky records how the crew of Kipling's Error fared on their 5th raid.
"Fired 700 rounds! Hit two. FWs gave us hell. Saw several E/A burn up and go down. Our ship hit all over #3. Knocked hole in #4. Other holes #2, left wing, nose, radio room, tail and right wing. This ship, our second, out of commission. I burned out my barrel!"
When any gunner burns out his barrel with 700 rounds you just know the battle was furious. But burning out a barrel was nothing.
Just think, in two consecutive missions, Lt. Neie's crew lost two Flying Fortresses to battle damage!
Kipling's Error III was to be next and it would prove an awesome weapon against the Reich.
James Attaway and his gunner, T/Sgt. Robert P. Woods of the 339th made their first mission today. Aside from a flak hole in the left stabilizer, they escaped further harm. But sirens awoke them from sleep on the first night after a first mission at a new field. German bombers were overhead again but no bombs fell. On the very last day of the month, Bill Thorns' diary records that his crew, that of the 338th's Major Tom Kenny, relinquished Fertile Myrtle I for A/C 42-29999 which they promptly named Fertile Myrtle II.
The ground echelon accepts the transfer of Andrews Field from the RAF at Great Sailing.