The Arrowhead Club

Byron Laverne Atkins was a member of the 545th Bomb Squad of the 384th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force in WWII. Byron was one in a long line of Atkins’ from Union Township, Boone County, Indiana of which Lebanon is the county seat. Lebanon is located in central Indiana, about twenty-five miles northwest of Indianapolis.

Byron’s father, Verne Atkins, was born October 28, 1894 to Samuel Thomas (1863 – 1934) and Amy Golden (1868 – 1931) Atkins. When Verne was twenty-three years old, on May 2 or 10, 1918, he married Goldie Myrtle Jones. Goldie was barely sixteen years old. She was born April 8, 1902 in Virginia.

In 1920, Verne and Goldie lived in Union Township, Boone County, Indiana in the home of Verne’s parents, Samuel and Amy Atkins. Samuel was a grocer and Verne helped him run the family store. On October 9 of that year, Verne and Goldie’s first child, daughter Dorothy Evelyn was born. Four years later in 1924, their son Byron Laverne Atkins was born.

By 1930, Verne and Goldie had divorced. Goldie had left the family, leaving Verne to raise two young children alone, but with the help of his family. Byron, now age five, and his sister Dorothy lived with their grandparents, Samuel and Amy Atkins. According to the 1930 census, they were living at street number 123 (street name unknown). Byron and Dorothy’s father Verne was listed as living at street number 121. Verne’s brother William T. Atkins and his wife Blanche, their sons Samuel and Wendell, and their daughters Virginia and Marjorie were living at street number 120.

In 1940, at age fifteen, Byron was living with his aunt (Verne’s sister) and uncle, Orpha and Albert E. Delano, still in Union Township of Boone County, Indiana.  Orpha was a house cleaner and Albert was a farm laborer. Also listed as living nearby were Byron’s father Verne, and another aunt and uncle (Verne’s brother) William T. and Blanche, and their daughter Marjorie. Verne was now proprietor of the family grocery store and by the age of 45 had not remarried.

Byron’s sister Dorothy was now married and no longer living at home. She married Marion H. Swinford, who was a farm laborer like her Uncle Albert. By 1940, Dorothy and Marion lived in Clinton Township of Boone County, Indiana with their baby girl Phyllis Louise.

On June 17, 1943, Byron traveled to Indianapolis to enlist in the Army Air Corps. Byron was now eighteen or nineteen years old. At the time of his enlistment, he was single and worked as a sales clerk, likely in the family grocery store. Byron trained to fly B-17’s as a flexible gunner. He was assigned to Grafton Underwood, England with the 384th Bomb Group, 545th Bomb Squad on AAF Station 106 Special Orders #157 dated August 5, 1944, with the James Woodrow Chadwick crew.

By the time the ten-man Chadwick crew arrived at Grafton Underwood with two flexible gunners, they discovered that flight crews had been reduced to nine men with only one flexible gunner per crew. The Chadwick crew’s first mission was on August 14, 1944, but Byron Atkins did not fly with the Chadwick crew on that mission. The other flexible gunner, Louis Leonard Merfeld, manned the waist gun position with the crew.

Byron retrained as a ball turret gunner and didn’t fly his first mission until September 9, 1944 to a chemical plant in Ludwigshaven, Germany. Byron flew that mission and his next two missions on September 10 and 13 as the ball turret gunner for the Donald L. Hulcher crew.

On September 11, 1944, the Chadwick crew flew Mission #192B to an oil refinery in Merseberg, Germany. With the primary target obscured by poor weather conditions, the formation proceeded to a secondary target. Most of the formation, which included other bomb groups, broke off the attack, but the 384th continued on and dropped their bombs in the vicinity of the target, although results were poor.

Their group was attacked by an ME163 Komet rocket-powered aircraft, which made two passes at the formation. The Chadwick crew aboard White Angel received a direct flak burst in the bomb bay, releasing the bombs and catching on fire. They dove to 18,000 feet and leveled off, but were lost to sight. White Angel crashed near Halle, Germany, killing seven of the men on board, including flexible gunner Louis Leonard Merfeld. Only the navigator and tail gunner survived, becoming prisoners of war.

On September 11, the entire Chadwick crew, other than radio operator Lawrence V. Mulvey, and displaced flexible gunner Byron Atkins, was gone. Mulvey went on to complete his tour and return home. But unknown to Byron Atkins at this point, his days were numbered. He only had seventeen days and four missions left before his time was up, too.

On September 21, 1944, Byron flew as a togglier for the first time, with the James Joseph Brodie crew. A togglier was similar to, but not as fully trained as, a bombardier. A bombardier was an officer who went through extensive training in all technical aspects of determining the right moment to drop the bombs on their target. He sat in the nose of the aircraft and operated the bomb sight. He flew the aircraft during the bomb run, turning the controls back over to the pilot after bombs away.

Originally, each aircraft in a squadron formation had a bombardier in the nose of the plane, each determining the exact moment to drop his bombs. The 8th Air Force decided that instead, all planes in a squadron formation should drop their bombs simultaneously, which meant that only the bombardier in the lead plane needed to operate his bomb sight.

All of the other planes in the squadron needed only to release their bombs at the same time as the lead plane’s bombardier. This technique resulted in enlisted crew sitting in the bombardier’s position and tripping the bomb release switch at the appropriate time – when the bombardier in the lead plane dropped his bombs. On that September 21 mission, the planes successfully bombed the railroad marshalling yards at Mainz, Germany.

On his next misson on September 25, Byron returned to the Hulcher crew as a flexible gunner, the position for which he had originally trained. But three days later, on September 28, Byron was called to fly as togglier for the Brodie crew again. Original Brodie crew bombardier William D. Barnes, Jr. had recently left the crew for navigator training. Theodore Rothschild filled in for Barnes as a togglier on several missions, but on September 28, the job went to Byron Atkins.

On September 28, 1944, on Mission 201, moments after coming off the target at Magdeburg, Germany, the Brodie crew’s flying fortress, Lazy Daisy, collided with the John Oliver (Jay) Buslee crew’s fort, Lead Banana. It was Byron Atkins bad fortune to be sitting in the nose as togglier that day. Only three of the nine crew members aboard Lazy Daisy survived and Byron Atkins was not one of them.

Aboard Lazy Daisy, the navigator, George M. Hawkins, Jr., tail gunner, Wilfred F. Miller, and flexible gunner, Harry A. Liniger were the only survivors. Hawkins wrote what he knew of the accident after he returned home from the war in 1945. His account, as follows, is included in MACR9366:

Following “Bombs away” at our target over Magdeburg, Germany, our B17-G and another ship in our formation collided. At the time of the accident our plane was in good condition with nothing more than light flak damage. As far as I know, all men on board were uninjured.

At the time of the collision, the front section of our nose was carried away, and with it, the nose gunner, S/Sgt Byron L. Atkins. The plane seemed to be flying straight and level for a very few seconds and then fell off into a spin. I managed to break out of the right side of the nose just behind the right nose gun.

Floating downward I saw an opened but empty chute. Leading me to believe that Atkins’ chute was pulled open at the time of the accident or by him later. However, because of the position of the chute I think the chute must have been opened following a free fall of a few thousand feet and then, because of damage or faulty hook-up, failed to save its occupant.

Following my own free fall, our ship was circling above me. It was then in a flat spin, burning. It passed me and disappeared into the clouds below. When I next saw the ship it was on the ground. While floating downward, I saw one other chute below me.

I landed a mile or so from the town of Erxleben, Germany…west of Magdeburg. The plane landed within two or three miles of me. Many civilians and the military there saw the incident.

The following evening I met two members of the crew…the waist gunner, Sgt. Liniger, and the tail gunner, Sgt. Miller. Sgt. Liniger said he was attempting to escape through the waist door when an explosion threw him from the ship. At that time Sgt. Miller said the tail assembly left the ship and he later chuted from the tail section.

To the best of my knowledge, All other five members of the crew were at their positions on the plane and failed to leave the ship. All were uninjured up till the time of the collision.

In the Casualty Questionnaire section of MACR9366, Hawkins adds that Miller, the tail gunner, rode the tail down some distance following an explosion which severed the tail from the ship. Miller later bailed out of the tail section. Also, in the Casualty Questionnaire section, Wilfred Miller adds that he heard through Hawkins that the wing of the other plane knocked Atkins out the nose without his chute. On September 28, 1944, on only his sixth mission, and at twenty years old, Byron Atkins died serving his country.

Byron’s father, Verne Atkins died on August 24, 1945 in Lebanon, Boone County, Indiana, shortly before the first anniversary of his son’s death. Byron’s sister Dorothy lived to be eighty-four, dying in 2004, also in Lebanon, Indiana.

Byron is buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Lebanon, Boone County, Indiana, Plot: 151-30.

If any family of Byron Laverne Atkins finds this post and can share any additional information or pictures of Byron, please contact me.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2015

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