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5 December 1943 Mission #13 Target: Cognac
The 576th led this mission with twenty-one (21) aircraft taking off and (19) crossing the target. Two aircraft were forced to abort early because of mechanical malfunctions and the remaining did not bomb because of poor target weather when the PFF aircraft was not available. Flak damage was sustained to (2) aircraft, but no ships were lost and the Group had no casualties. Enemy fighters were not encountered. The unit aircraft returned to base with 8:30 hours flown.
At about 2300 hours on 4 Dec 1943, the 579th Sqdn was put on alert. At 0030 on 5 Dec, twelve 500-pound M43 demolition bombs were delivered to B-24 #42-7556 in dispersal No. 41. They were placed in two areas under each wing. Sgt James D. Wyllie, Cpl Alvin Ottenstein, and another armorer then began installing the plane's ball turret guns.
After that, Cpl Ottenstein went to a/c 42-7529 in dispersal 41-A and got half a can of gas from M/Sgt Morris Golub. He re-fueled the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU, or putt-putt generator) for #556. Sgt James D. Wyllie started the putt-putt and the men resumed getting #556 ready for its mission to Cognac.
At about 0130, the fuel tanks on the right side of #556 suddenly blew up. Bullets in the plane exploded; one tracer hit a fuel servicing unit which caught fire.
Cpl Allen C. Jacobs, fireguard for #529, ran towards #556. When he was about 50 feet away, he "met a man who was running from it and was on fire. I grabbed him and smothered the flames with my jacket. I then took him to a nearby hole full of water and completely extinguished his clothing." The man, Cpl Robert Shockley, had been in the left rear bomb bay when the fuel tanks exploded.
Three other men were also seen running from the plane, no doubt Sgt Wyllie and the armorers.
Sgt Lee A. Doolittle was a member of the 392nd's crash crew, which was on standby every time planes took off or landed. When #42-7556 caught fire in the early morning of 5 Dec 1943, his crew quickly arrived with tankers, foam makers, and other gear. The heat was so intense, though, they had no chance of putting the fire out right away. Instead, their main objective was to keep the planes nearby from being damaged.
Another concern was to keep a small fuel dump, about 800 yards to the southeast, from catching fire. The threat was quite real, as the pump engine in a gas refueling truck parked about 300 yards from the plane was already on fire. While the crash crew was spraying foam onto the refueling truck, the bombs near #556 exploded. Even though Doolittle was 6 1/2 ft tall, the concussion from the blast blew him down into the mud. Shrapnel whizzed just above his head, putting big holes in the top of the gas refueling truck.
Flying Control personnel notified the Hospital and Group Operations and dispatched crash trucks. Men in the ordnance shop were told to go to the bomb shelter. 579th Sqdn Engineering Officer 1/Lt Walter Giesecke had a nearby oil truck and both Cleotracs (tractors) driven away.
A second explosion occurred at 0145. It ignited a gas trailer and an oil truck parked about 35 yards away in dispersal No. 43. Debris was scattered in all directions, damaging the a/c parked in dispersals 40 (#42-7510) and 41-A (#42-7529). Buildings and ground crew tents in the area were also damaged. When an adjacent B-24 looked like it would catch fire, Doolittle took action. He boarded the a/c and worked to start the two inboard engines. He was soon joined by 578th Sqdn pilot 1/Lt Robert E. Fletcher and they taxied the plane to a safe place in the weeds.
Another explosion followed at 0148.
Over the next half hour, the gas truck fire was put out and an effort was made to keep the other bombs from exploding. 579th Sqdn Ordnance officer 1/Lt Pendleton had the Control Tower announce that all personnel should remain at least 2,000 yards from the fire. He then returned to the fire site and had the guards on duty move everyone farther back.
A few minutes later, at 0220, the fourth and final explosion occurred. Again, debris and fire were flung in all directions.
It was decided that the bombs should be moved from the adjacent a/c, #510; this was done by 1/Lt Wilbur Metz (Group Ordnance Officer) and T/Sgt James Switzer and Sgt Jack Truesdell of the 579th. As they worked, the fire near that dispersal was put out.
At 0730, crews aboard 21 a/c started engines; they began to taxi ten minutes later. As the first plane took off at 0756, ground support personnel were just minutes away from extinguishing all the fires.
When 1/Lt Giesecke inspected the two planes that had been nearest to #556, they both seemed "pretty badly damaged, having their fuselage warped and tail assemblies twisted." #42-7510 didn't fly again until 20 Dec while #42-7529's next mission was on 22 Dec.
Despite the fires and bomb detonations, only two men were injured. Sgt Wyllie sustained lacerations in his scalp and cheek and lost his left middle finger. Cpl Shockley suffered severe burns on his scalp and other parts of his body.
It was believed that the initial explosions were fuel tanks (first the right side, then the left side) while the other two explosions were from the eleven bombs under #556 that had detonated.
In his testimony, Cpl Ottenstein stated, "I put the fuel in the putt-putt, which was not running, and did not spill any." M/Sgt Glenn Engelhardt and M/Sgt Theodore Ritland also testified that they had been in and out of a/c 556 several times before the explosion and neither had detected a gas leak or smelled gas fumes.
The investigating board believed that when the putt-putt was refueled, some gas was probably spilled and then sparks from the APU ignited the fumes or fuel, causing the initial fire. It was recommended that all possible precautions be taken not to spill fuel when servicing the APU, and if fuel were spilled, "that power unit will not be operated until thoroughly dried and with fire extinguisher in hand."
The burning plane and bomb explosions made 578th Sqdn tail gunner Joe McNiel think they were under attack. His barracks rapidly emptied as the occupants (including several women, McNiel says) ran for cover. Some newly-arrived crewmen jumped into a slit trench behind the barracks, only to land in two feet of cold water. Much yelling and cursing promptly followed.
Tom Perry was in the 576th Sqdn bomb service truck when he saw #556's left wing burst into flames. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran toward the burning plane. Suddenly, the first bombs exploded. He quickly executed a smart "to the rear, march!" with the blast concussion pushing him along. Realizing there was absolutely nothing he could do, he resumed loading bombs into the seven 576th Sqdn planes being readied for the mission. He remembers hearing RAF Spitfires circle overhead, perhaps to protect the base if any German planes were attracted by the fire.
578th Sqdn Crew Chief Ernie Barber was asleep when what the noise woke him up. He went to the window to see what was going on; a blast concussion knocked him back a foot or so. Things started falling off the walls inside the barracks. Everyone was grumbling because no air raid alarm had been sounded. Someone then came by the barracks, told them a 579th Sqdn plane had caught fire, and not to get in the way. They stayed inside until it was time to work on their own planes.
Damage was not limited to just the dispersal area. Local Beeston resident Ernest Parke lived about 1/4 mile west of the dispersal. He was awakened between 1 and 2 a.m. on 5 Dec by a loud bang, then a big thud as the roof in one of their bedrooms collapsed. Luckily, it was not occupied.
The next morning, he and his father cycled over to look at the devastation. They saw that many of the tiles on the roof of the barn at the Home Farm (just on the east side of the fuel dump) had been broken by the blasts. Soon after, "the Yanks" replaced the tiles with a piece of corrugated metal, which is there to this day.
At the end of the long night, everyone in the crash crew was wet and muddy, but no one had been injured.
Cpl Richard A. Holevoet, a member of the base fire fighting platoon, later told family members that no one in his team was injured because they were so close to the fire that the flames went up and over them. He described the crater that remained after the explosions as "deep enough to throw a dead cow in."
For their heroic actions during this event, eleven men from the 392nd BG were awarded the Soldier's Medal. This is a non-combat award given to any person who, while serving in any capacity with the army, displays heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy. It is a highly respected sign of personal bravery usually indicating risk of life. Those brave men were:Sgt Lee A. Doolittle
1/Lt Robert E. Fletcher
Cpl Richard A. Holevoet
Cpl Allen C. Jacobs
1/Lt Wilbur H. Metz
Sgt Vernon L. Olson
1/Lt Brooks Pendleton
PFC Emil J. Ribar
T/Sgt James W. Switzer
Sgt Jack L. Truesdell
Tec5 Finney D. Voelkel
No matter the cause of the incident, the 579th was able to put three of its remaining four ships in the air that morning: #135, #599, and #626. Ted A. Bailey, a 579th ground crew chief, said he was so busy getting his plane ready that he wasn't even aware of what was going on until later.
This map of the dispersal area shows where the planes were parked when the fire started.
By the time the fire was extinguished, little was left of a/c #42-7556.
After the fire was put out, Group Ordnance Officer Capt Wilbert H. Metz surveys the damage.
Sgt Lee A. Doolittle was transferred to the 453rd Bomb Group in January 1944. He was presented the Soldier's Medal there by Maj. Hamilton on 22 Feb 1944.
5 Dec 1943 576th Sqdn.|
CA Nitsche, J.E. Lt. Col.
P Ford, J.H. 2nd Lt.
P Becker, J.R. 1st Lt.
P Rouse, M.S. 2nd Lt.
P Connery, W.R. 2nd Lt.
P Johns, M.T. 2nd Lt.
P Miller, H.W. 1st Lt.
5 Dec 1943 577th Sqdn.|
P McNichol, T.F. 2nd Lt.
P Peterson, L.G. 2nd Lt.
P Copp, R.D. 1st Lt.
P Egan, R.L. 2nd Lt.
P Tiefenthal, D.E. 2nd Lt.
P Usry, W.F. 2nd Lt.
5 Dec 1943 578th Sqdn.|
P George, F.A. 2nd Lt.
P Lishka, A. 1st Lt.
P Reade, J.J. 1st Lt.
P McKee, T.R. 1st Lt.
P Sooy, B.L. 2nd Lt.
5 Dec 1943 579th Sqdn.|
P Everhart, W.C. 1st Lt.
P Kubale, E.W. 2nd Lt.
P Hull, R.L. 2nd Lt.