Book: Hell's Angels

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“HOW ABOUT HELL’S ANGELS?”

JACK MATHIS APPROACHED ROBERT YONKMAN on March 17, 1943. Both men were bombardiers with the 303rd’s 359th Bomb Squadron. “Jack’s brother Mark, who was a B-26 bombardier [and a veteran of combat in North Africa], came to the base to visit Jack,” said Yonkman. “They would have a couple of days to visit together. Jack came to me bearing a bottle of rum and asked me if I would take his mission for him so he could be with Mark.” Yonkman agreed and went to bed. A short time later Mathis woke him up with news that the squadron commander promised him a few more days with his brother, so long as he went as the lead bombardier on the next day’s mission. Mathis thanked Yonkman and retrieved his bottle of rum.

The next day’s mission was to the submarine construction yard at Vegesack, near Bremen. Heavy flak burst among the B-17s of the 303rd’s formation as they neared the target. Jack Mathis was bent over The Duchess’s bombsight when an enemy round shattered the nose, blew him away from his position and ripped his body with great, mortal wounds. Seconds later Mathis got to his hands and knees and—in the bitter cold cyclone of glass and debris—single-mindedly crawled back to his undamaged bombsight. Once there, with one good arm, he fine-tuned The Duchess’s course and at the correct instant released the big ship’s bombs. Rather than “Bombs away,” the crew heard Mathis utter, “Bombs . . . ,” over the interphone. And then nothing else.

Eldon Audiss was the crew’s engineer. Following a fighter attack, Harold Stouse, The Duchess’s pilot, sent Audiss to check on Jack Mathis. Audiss found Jesse Elliot, the navigator, wounded and white with shock, but alive. “I rushed to Jack,” Audiss said, “rolling and lifting and with my knife, cut as necessary his parachute harness that had pulled into the bombsight mechanism. I checked for [a] pulse. There was none. I opened his jacket and found the wound on his side, four to five inches across that was full of clotted blood.”

The target was smashed. Mathis—seconds from death—had performed his duties to a degree that was nearly beyond credible. And The Duchess survived the mission. “When we returned to Molesworth,” Audiss said, “we shot a red flare over the field and landed. We were greeted by Jack’s brother Rube [Rhude Mark Mathis] who was waiting anxiously to greet him. It was a bitter welcome.”

For his heroism, Mathis was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. His brother, Rhude Mark Mathis, asked for and received a transfer to his dead brother’s squadron. Tragically, he was also lost after flying only five missions, when FDR’s Potato Peeler Kids was shot down on May 14, 1943.

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The Memphis Belle and the Robert Morgan crew of the 91st Bomb Group are popularly commemorated as the first bomber and crew of the Eighth Air Force to achieve the seemingly unachievable goal of twenty-five missions. Morgan reached the mark on May 17, 1943, and the Memphis Belle did so two days later on May 19. The milestone was celebrated with great fanfare and a certain amount of relief by Eighth Air Force headquarters. It was a boost to morale as the casualty rate during that period was such that many men believed the goal was impossible.

The Eighth, which was desperate for positive news, sent the men and their aircraft home on a public relations swing that canvassed the United States. The results were spectacular; war bonds were sold in unprecedented numbers, and the boon to the USAAF’s recruiting effort was palpable. It was a public relations home run.

But, as is so often the case with promotional extravaganzas, everything was not as it seemed. In fact, the Memphis Belle was not the first Eighth Air Force bomber to complete twenty-five missions. Neither was Morgan or his crew the first to reach that goal. The truth was that the 303rd’s Hell’s Angels reached the mark on May 13, six days before the Memphis Belle. Indeed, by the time the Memphis Belle completed twenty-five missions, Hell’s Angels had notched twenty-eight. And the 303rd’s Irl Baldwin reached the magic number on May 14, three days before Morgan.

So why did the Memphis Belle get all the publicity? It’s difficult to say with certainty. It seems hardly likely that Eaker’s staff did not know of the Hell’s Angels and its record. In fact, the 303rd aircraft’s mission count never trailed the Memphis Belle’s after February 26. Likewise, Baldwin’s number of combat sorties surpassed Morgan’s beginning on March 8. So, the Eighth’s public relations machine had plenty of time to prepare for the crowning of the eventual “winner.”

The true reason was probably the fact that the Memphis Belle and the admittedly quite capable Morgan had been the subject of a documentary film by William Wyler since February. Wyler—serving as a major with the First Motion Picture Unit—was a veteran Hollywood producer and director whose works to that point included Wuthering Heights, Mrs. Miniver, Dodsworth and The Little Foxes. Wyler’s film crews actually flew at least six missions with the 91st, several of them aboard the Memphis Belle.

The documentary, eventually named The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, had been ordered by Arnold and was intended to convey to the public the bravery of the USAAF’s airmen in the savage skies over Europe. The fact that Wyler, who had actually visited the 303rd, chose the 91st and the Memphis Belle, might have been influenced by the fact that the 91st’s base, Bassingbourn, was built before the war. Accordingly, it was not built in a hurry and featured permanent brick structures, groomed grounds and other amenities. It was much more comfortable than Molesworth, which was widely derided as “Mudsworth.”

So then, although no one denied that the 303rd’s Hell’s Angels and the Irl Baldwin crew were the first to fly twenty-five missions, neither was the fact widely trumpeted. Instead, it actually made sense from a publicity perspective to send the Memphis Belle, Morgan and his crew back to the States. There they could tour as the stars of an upcoming motion picture that would show the American public just what their sons and brothers and husbands were enduring over Europe. And if people believed that they were the first to reach the twenty-five-mission mark, well, what harm did it do?

Essentially, the accomplishments of the 303rd’s Hell’s Angels and her air and ground crews were strangled at the altar of public relations expediency.

The ship actually began its combat career without a moniker. It wasn’t until its fourth or fifth mission that the crew agreed upon a name when, during a slow period, Baldwin asked, “How about Hell’s Angels, after the movie?” He referred to the Howard Hughes World War I epic of the same name, which was released in 1930. Eventually, after flying forty-eight missions, the aircraft and its ground crew were in fact sent back to the States to fly a bond-selling tour similar to what the Memphis Belle had done earlier. The results were also similar.

It is worth noting that the nature of the bombing missions throughout the war was such that no one crew flew the same bomber on every mission. Aircraft often needed extensive maintenance and so were not continuously available. Likewise, every crewman was not available for every mission, and so the compositions of the crews—and the numbers of missions flown by various individuals—varied. Accordingly, neither Baldwin nor Morgan was the pilot on every one of the missions flown by “their” aircraft, although Baldwin flew all but one mission at the controls of Hell’s Angels. This was, in itself, a remarkable achievement and one that likely was never equaled.

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THAT THE EARLY FIGHT was a meat grinder was borne out by the 303rd’s losses. Of the original forty pilots, fully 45 percent, or eighteen, were killed. And an additional seven, or 17.5 percent, were shot down and made POWs. Of those original pilots, fewer than four of ten men completed their twenty-five-mission tours.

Indeed, the losses during that first year were terrible for all the crewmen, original or not. The casualty statistics can be spun, ciphered, diddled, qualified and asterisked, but the awful truth was that a bomber crewman in the Eighth Air Force stood about a 50 percent chance of being shot down during the period from the beginning of operations in 1942 to at least the early part of 1944.

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THE EIGHTH AIR FORCE and RAF’s Bomber Command essentially pursued their own goals in their own ways during the several months following the Casablanca Conference. Nevertheless, Allied leaders recognized that more dogmatic and focused air operations were essential to winning the war. And that the war could not be won until Europe was invaded. And that Europe could not be invaded until the Luftwaffe was destroyed, or at least neutralized. Accordingly, after a great deal of collaboration and coordination—much of it led by Eaker—the POINTBLANK directive was issued on June 10, 1943.

POINTBLANK mandated attacks against seventy-six different targets making up six different systems or sets. Submarine targets were still part of the mix, but there was more emphasis on other target types, to include the aircraft industry, oil production, and ball-bearing plants. The target selection was biased not only toward those that were related to the aircraft industry, but also toward those that the Luftwaffe was expected to defend with vigor. After all, if Germany’s airmen rose to fight, they could be killed. And if enough of them were killed, the Luftwaffe would crumble.

The Eighth Air Force started to hit its stride during the summer of 1943 as POINTBLANK was planned and executed. Enough crews and aircraft were in place to launch more than three hundred bombers—B-17s and B-24s—on thirteen different missions beginning in June and continuing into mid-August. These were in addition to many smaller raids.

But as much as the Eighth was growing, it was doing so behind schedule and not nearly fast enough for Arnold back in Washington, or for Roosevelt and the American public. Arnold constantly badgered Eaker to put more bombers into the air, and to do it more often. Arnold’s zeal and dedication came at the price of great impatience—especially with Eaker, who was running the biggest show in the USAAF. And although direct attacks by the press were rare, there were great expectations for the men and equipment the nation was sending to England.

Eaker, for his part, was doing the best he could with the resources he had. Although more men and aircraft were pouring into England, the skilled technicians, the parts and the material to maintain them in operational status—especially heavily damaged aircraft—lagged. Eaker’s staff found that only one of every 2.6 bombers was ready for a mission at any given time. Accordingly, although the Eighth had approximately eight hundred heavy bombers on hand, it struggled to sortie more than three hundred on a raid. And following those raids it took time to reconstitute the resources necessary to mount subsequent missions. Moreover, maintenance and material and manning issues aside, the weather continued to be a factor in the Eighth’s operations, although it was less perverse than it had been during the previous winter.

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