Ringmasters

By Allan G. Blue (Summer, 1964)

A History of the 491st Bombardment Group (H)



PART V  •  Dec. 1944- VE Day


Weather was the greatest foe of successful missions during December and January, holding the total for each month to thirteen. On 11 December, for example, of the 43 aircraft that took off, only six were able to assemble in the Group formation. Twenty could locate no formation at all and were forced to abort, while the remaining 17 tacked onto other groups and flew with them. It was in this confused situation that two 491st aircraft literally dropped out of sight. Lt. Fandell in 44-40232 and Lt. Meyers in FOUR-FIVE-TIME (41-28820) went into the records as MIA with absolutely no details known. (Later it was learned that Fandell had crashlanded near Verdun. The writer has been unable to uncover any facts whatsoever on the fate of Lt. Meyers and his crew.) The bad weather got worse and the following day's mission left so many of the Group's aircraft at other airdromes that trucks had to be sent out to bring back enough crews to fill out the loading lists for the next day's mission -- which was scrubbed at 0930 the next morning anyway. Scrubbed missions (or recalls), in fact, became the order of the day for the next ten.

If the 491st had any kind of target specialty, it was bridges, and over the months good proficiency had been developed in attacking this type of target. On the 29th of December the Group drew another, a railroad span across the Rhine. However, a 9/10 undercast prevented a visual sighting and the 29 attacking aircraft bombed by HG with unobserved results. Later events showed that no bomb had found the target, but by that time nobody blamed the 491st for failing to destroy the railroad bridge at Remagen!

As an interesting statistical sidelight on December activities, records show that, in addition to the two aircraft lost, nearly four out of every ten planes attacking targets were damaged to some extent by flak.


RAGE IN HEAVEN, 44-40165, was retired from operations with the 852nd Squadron (note "WW" for War Weary following serial on fin) and served as 491st forming aircraft. The zebra stripes around outer wings and rear fuselage were green. This plane crashed at the start of the tragic mission attempt of 5 January 1945. (Photos - Godshall, Winston)
Rage in Heaven Nose art Rage in Heaven

In the semi-darkness of early morning on 5 January the 491st attempted a mission that was designed to relieve pressure on ground troops engaged in the Battle of the Bulge. Again the weather was miserable and it was snowing badly as the ungainly Liberators slowly marshalled into position around the North Pick perimeter track. A green light from the tower and the first B-24, the forming aircraft as usual, took off and bored into the storm. Minutes later it was a torn and twisted, completely ice-covered coffin for ten men. Another green light and another B-24 began to roll forward, already bearing a load of ice accumulated during its wait on the ground. It never gained over fifty feet of altitude, crashing just off the end of the runway.

For the third time, the tower signaled and a B-24 responded. You wonder why. But this one made it, and the next one also. Before any more could take their turn at this particular game of Runway Roulette, the mission was scrubbed.

On 17 January a single shell dealt the 491st another severe blow. B-24 #42-51481, the Wing Lead aircraft for the mission, took a flak burst between the #3 and #4 engines. The wing broke off immediately and the bomber spun down carrying seven officers and five enlisted men to their deaths. The pilot, Capt. Dean B. Strain, was one of the last original Group pilots still flying missions. Cameras being readied for the strike photos followed the spinning aircraft down to the hard ground of Harburg.

Enlargement from strike photo shows the lead aircraft of 17 January 1945 mission spinning down with the right wing blown off by flak. (Photo - Dan Winston)
 481 - Strain

It was during January also that the Group lost 74 men from the ground echelon -- "hurriedly packed up and shoved off" to augment the ranks of a sister service, the U. S. Infantry. Although volunteers were called for -- and a few stepped forward -- "the vast majority felt little appetite for leaving. Quite suddenly those minor discomforts and faults which heretofore formed sources for constant, energetic bitching, seemed to become conspicuous by their absence...." It was also observed that the knowledge that more such drafts might be forthcoming caused " ...a noticeable improvement of military courtesy and discipline" among the unchosen.

BI-U-BABY, 42-95619, was delivered to 491st as a PFF aircraft on 18 August 1944, pre-lettered L+; assigned to 853rd and re-lettered -A; transferred to 855th and made Z+; damaged in emergency landing on 8 September 1944 and returned to Group on 1 October, it was re-assigned to 853rd and re-lettered -L. (Photo - USAF 62404AC)
 Bi-U-BABY

On the 9 February mission to Magdeburg, 2nd Lt. Kenneth A. Rowe and crew successfully abandoned MISS FRANCIA (42-51267) after it lost two engines on the way to the target. On his way back, Lt. Schmitt lost two of his crew through a misunderstanding. Over occupied Holland, Schmitt's aircraft suddenly developed a runaway prop that resisted all attempts to get it feathered. Losing altitude and still trying to get the propeller under control, the pilot ordered the first 4-bell "prepare to bail out" signal. The copilot pressed the button in once -- where it stuck. The engineer scrambled through the plane yelling above the terrific noise of the runaway prop that it was only the first alarm. However, there are always some who don't get the word and in this case it was the navigator and tail gunner. Assuming the bell was the final one-ring bail out order, both men jumped and were last seen floating down into enemy territory just as Schmitt got the ailing prop feathered.

A 491st loss that still remains somewhat of a mystery, is 2nd Lt. Howard T. Graham's on 22 February. Graham's aircraft, 42-50462, was last seen at 1340 hours as it disappeared into an undercast ten miles south of Hanover, one engine feathered and the copilot calling for fighter support. It is known that all nine aboard survived, probably as POWs, but no member of the crew could be located by the writer to provide additional details.

Over Berlin on 26 February aircraft 42-50680 was seen to feather #3, drop out of formation, and take up a due east heading. 2nd Lt. Frank M. Jensen and crew were about to become the Group's first (and only) wartime ambassadors to Russia. "We figured we had enough altitude to make the Russian lines and when we thought we had come far enough we all bailed out at around 4000 feet." (Gamrat) After getting together on the ground, the crew found they had made their objective with 20 miles to spare. The Russians took them to Odessa, where U.S. representatives took over. All returned to North Pick via ship to Naples and plane to England.

Diary note for February: "The plethora of frankfurters and corn-willy continues unabated. And what in hell are those frankfurters made of, anyway?"

Operations during March were many and varied. The 26 mission total was more than any month since June 1944, and included marshalling yards, airfields, oil refineries, an armament factory in Berlin, a tank factory in Brunswick, naval installations at Wilhelmshaven and Kiel, Neuburg's jet aircraft assembly plant, and the "seemingly indestructible railroad viaduct at Bielfield." The Group also attacked the Headquarters of the German General Staff at Zossen, flew a screening force for the entire 8th AF on a mission to Osnabruck, and, on the 24th, flew another unforgettable low level supply mission. On that date the Second Air Division again was called upon to load its cavernous B-24s with supplies for special, low level delivery to U. S. and British troops which were to be dropped across the Rhine the same day. The 2nd AD responded with 240 aircraft, 27 of them from the 491st Group. "The accuracy of the drop was extraordinary. Only three aircraft (assigned to the British Zone) dropped west of the Rhine so that 86% fell in the assigned area and another 10% so close they were retrieved with little effort." Part of this achievement was due to the use of ground-positioned electronic equipment to signal the aircraft that they were passing the drop release line, equipment developed after the unfortunate "short bombing" at St. Lo.

As usual, however, these results were not achieved without a price; fourteen Liberators were lost, including three from the 491st. "I was flying next to Brown (1st Lt. James W. Brown) and noticed his #3 engine was on fire. I called him and told him about the fire. Brown answered 'Roger' and seemed completely cool as if he had the situation under control. Then a second or two later his ship (42-50749) blew up with a sickening explosion. He wasn't more than 50 feet off the ground at the time." (Kohl) Lt. Paul Fox's plane (44-40162) was seen to pull up into a steep climb with its bomb bay on fire. The pilot was evidently trying to reach a safe bail out altitude, but the plane went out of control, rolled over on its back and crashed hopelessly in an ugly burst of black smoke and orange flame. First Lt. Andy T. Wilson reported his GREEN HORNET (44-40286) was severely damaged by ground fire and he was going to crashland approximately ten miles west of the Rhine. No one escaped from any of the three crashes.

As with the previous low level mission, battle damage of the returning planes was severe, causing many of them to land at the first available field.

On a second mission the same day, 2nd Lt. Richard P. Rice returned over the U.K. with THE FLYING JACKASS (44-40239) badly shot up and the hydraulic system out. He landed at Marston without incident, but the next day a Lancaster came down on top of the parked #239, putting it out of the running for good.

The Group's last operational loss occurred on the 30 March mission to Wilhelmshaven. 2nd Lt. Robert H. Siek, flying the venerable HEAVENLY BODY (42-110155), had been losing altitude constantly on the trip home with an engine out. Ditching finally became inevitable, and the radio operator sent out the word. An Air-Sea Rescue unit was standing by when the plane hit, but the icy North Sea waters took a heavy toll. Only two men were saved.

The end of the month saw another milestone reached by the 491st. Ever since its operational debut the Group had been moving up the list in bombing efficiency, a kind of batting average that was compiled monthly for each group in the Eighth. During the period September through December 1944 the 491st had led the Second Air Division with 62% of its bombs striking within 2000 feet of the MPI. When the March figures were posted, however, it was found that the 491st had come all the way. For the period January through March 1945, with 91% in the 2000 foot circle, the 491st led the entire Eighth Air Force.

The Group racked up only thirteen operational missions during April, including two tactical strikes with napalm. Total air activity for the month was plentiful, however, as the Group's B-24s were pressed into service for flying supply missions to France and the practice mission schedule was stepped up. A strange outbreak of nose wheel failures which had begun in March continued during April and several B-24s went into the salvage column via this route. A few of the Group's aircraft, however, seemed indestructible and during the month General Johnson came down from Wing to present the Bronze Star to Master Sgt. Randolph H. Baker of the 855th Squadron, Crew Chief of 44-40204. Sgt. Baker had taken charge of the unnamed "204" when it arrived at Pueblo and it had now completed some fifty-plus missions without an abortion. Several other Pueblo flayaways were approaching similar records.

The last Liberator lost by the 491st was RUTHLESS RUTHIE, 44-40317. RUTHIE blew a tire as Lt. Fuller began takeoff for mission of 16 April 1945. There were no injuries and the aircraft wsa salvaged.
(Photo - USAF 62415)
 Ruthless

The day was April 25th, 1945 -- exactly one year to the day since Capt. Shy's encounter with General Longfellow as the last 491st Liberators left Pueblo for England. Shy was again aboard (one of two original members of the Group to fly the mission -- the other was Lt. Col. Parmele) as 29 491st B-24s cleared the runways of North Pick for their last operational mission over Europe. Strategic targets were few and far between in late April, and today the Group would range to the Czechoslovak border to find theirs, a rail equipment factory at Bad Richenhall.

An hour after takeoff old faithful PADDY'S WAGON came back with #1 feathered, but BACK TO THE SACK, MAH AIKIN BACK; Sgt. Baker's "204" and three other original Pueblo flayaways droned on with the formation.

In general, the mission was uneventful -- CAVU weather, meager and inaccurate flak, no losses, A half dozen Me 262s nosed around but thought better of tangling with the escort of 203 Mustangs. One Ar 234 was encountered near the target and destroyed by the P-51s. A few of the boys toggled late and hit a forest instead of the factory, but the error couldn't have meant less, for when the last Liberator touched down at 1642 hours that afternoon, the war was over for the 491st Group.

Beginning on 1 May (i.e., before VE Day) a series of so-called "Trolley" missions was flown to give Eighth Air Force ground personnel a chance to see the results of their contributions to the strategic air war against Germany. No short hops, the six hour flights arranged by the 491st took their passengers all the way to Ludwigshaffen, Aschaffenburg, Frankfort and Bingen, then down the Rhine to Dusseldorf before returning via Brussels and Ghent. The missions were popular ones, with over 74% of the 491st ground echelon choosing to participate. As a result, the 491st put up some of their largest efforts of the campaign -- including 52 aircraft on 7 May and 51 the following day. As usual on missions of this magnitude there were some forced landings in France and other operational difficulties. One of the latter is reported in the following Control Tower Log excepts for 14 May:

0600 Briefing for trolley mission.

0730 Ten A/C off on trolley to Bassingbourne to pick up passengers.

0807 Eight more A/C had taken off on trolley when Wing called and scrubbed mission.

0834 Eight A/C landed. Bassingbourne A/C recalled.

1100 Smoke from plane crash seen ENE of field. Ambulance, fire truck and MPs dispatched.

1145 Wendling informs us one pilot and one A/C found. Pilot from Foulmede is OK.

1220 Lt. Edwards, Provost Marshall, says at least two A/C involved in crash.

1250 Second Air Div. Flight Control says that our #519 -G left Bassingbourne at 0837. There has been no report on him since. Overdue action being taken by them.

1705 #519 -G landed.

1730 Lt. Shaw, pilot of #519 -G gives following account of his flight; took off from here 0720, landed Bassingbourne 0750, departed 0837 with 10 passengers, flew Trolley, landed Bassingbourne 1618, departed 1638, arrived base 1705. Did not know mission was scrubbed.

On 1 June 1945 the 491st was alerted for Pacific redeployment. After reaching the Zone of Interior, personnel were to be given 30 days leave after which the Group would reassemble, go through transition to B-29s, and join in the war against Japan.

Preparation for movement to the ZI was under control of the ATC, which laid down strict rules for crews and aircraft involved. The former were required to take additional instrument and night flying training which, though dull, kept the crews occupied. As for the aircraft, all reconditioned engines having over 250 hours and all new engines having over 520 hours had to be changed, which meant a total of some 80 changes for the 491st. In one period of six days the men really worked up some steam and finished 65, which they figured was something of a world's record. Next, all red-bordered Tech Order compliances had to be brought up to date, including 40 rudder changes and 30 vertical stabilizer changes, 75 ring cowl changes and many other small modifications. Theater compliances then took the stage; 25 in all had to be brought up to date. The majority concerned ditching provisions -- 49 ditching belts were added, plus eight command deck ditching stations and eight escape hatches. Two hundred hour inspections also consumed much labor. Finally, there followed a variety of detailed musts: oil and fuel consumption tests, weighing of each plane, thorough washing and interior cleaning, installation of cargo floors in all bomb bays, completion of all forms and, finally, lashing down all loose equipment such as baggage, life rafts, K-rations, tool kits and wheel chocks. Over 10,000 feet of rope went into the last job. Each plane had to be put through a final inspection and no more than seven days or 20 hours of flight could ensue between the date of inspection and the date the plane departed. This resulted in the various groups "trading around" to maintain eligible aircraft for the flight home. The 491st watched this quite closely, as it possessed about half a dozen "hangar queens" that it wanted to pass along as a gift to some other unit. The opportunity arose when Lt. Col. Jack Merrell's group needed a few planes to fill out a shipment. Merrell had been the 491st Deputy CO from Pueblo on through almost to the end of hostilities. The men all had hoped that he would inherit the 491st, but he was given command of the 389th on 13 April 1945. After smugly delivering their "gifts" to Colonel Jack and returning to North Pick for a celebration, the Group found that he had taken one look and screamed so loudly that the division commander made the 491st take them all back.

A few of the crews "shook hands all around' before climbing aboard these aircraft, muttering things about embarking on their most hazardous mission of the war. The planes were really not that bad, but had more than the usual number of patches in sight.

On the 17th, 18th and 19th of June, 81 Liberators bid final farewells to North Pickenham as they departed enroute to the U. S. The ground echelon remained for a short time to tidy up a few loose ends (including the disposal of over 12 tons of classified waste paper!) but on 4 July they, too, left for home via Scotland and the Queen Mary.

Reassembly took place at McChord AAB, Washington , in mid-August. A few days later the capitulation of Japan made the Pacific trip unnecessary, and on 8 September 1945 the 491st Bombardment Group (H) was inactivated. Its career had been relatively short in duration, long in achievement and succinctly summed up in the following quote from the files of the Eighth Air Force:

"NO OTHER GROUP WAS EVER COMMITTED TO ACTION SO FAST AND FLEW SO MANY MISSIONS IN SO SHORT A TIME, ACHIEVING SUCH FINE RESULTS."

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