Budd Peaslee – Part 4 was published April 5, 2017 here. (Scroll to the end of this post for links to the entire series).
Almost a year before the 384th Bomb Group arrived at their home base, the initial air strike of the 8th Air Force was launched from the Grafton Underwood airdrome on July 4, 1942, American Independence Day. It was carried out by a light bombardment squadron, the 15th, using aircraft borrowed from the RAF. Six American crews were led by six British crews and they attacked airdromes in Holland.
The next year, the B-17’s of the 384th Bomb Group moved in. This new home of the 384th, Grafton Underwood, was in rolling wooded hills in the English Midlands. The airdrome site was previously a treeless meadow in a game preserve with private herds of deer and owned by an English nobleman. His family castle, which dated back to the days of Robin Hood, stood a short distance away.
The base was originally built by British Bomber Command and had been operated by the RAF. The formal transfer from the RAF to American ownership was scheduled to take place on the one year anniversary of the July 4 mission.
The airdrome was made up of two crossing runways and the end of each was connected by a circular taxi strip. From the taxis strips, about fifty short strips led to the concrete hard stands, or parking areas, for the Group’s B-17’s. There were several buildings: a small two-story control tower, operations and intelligence buildings, and a hangar and shop area. Other buildings, such as administrative headquarters, the bomb and fuel dumps, and squadron living quarters were scattered in the surrounding woodlands.
Two narrow paved roads led from the airfield to the living areas, but the remainder of the roads were gravel or dirt which would turn to mud for the majority of the time. Grafton Underwood was nicknamed “Grafton Undermud” due to the usual condition of the roads. The base had three exit roads which led to neighboring villages. The closest cities were Kettering, about three miles from GU, and Northampton, about six miles from the base.
Once the 384th moved in to GU, they were given only two weeks to get organized and establish their routines. The flyers also took flights over the English Midlands to familiarize themselves with the countryside and learn how to find their way back to base. There were many airdromes that looked similar from the air.
The 384th waited for their moment, their debut, through a week of poor weather conditions after being declared combat-ready. Finally, on June 21, the message came across the teletype machine: ATTENTION, ATTENTION ALL BOMBER GROUPS: ALL GROUPS ASSUME A CONDITION OF ALERT FOR PROBABLE FIELD ORDER FOR JUNE 22, 1943.
With the receipt of this message, all passes were canceled and the gates were closed to all but specially authorized outbound traffic. The bar in the Officers Club was closed. The waiting began for the call that the field order was in. The 384th’s Mission #1 would be the 8th Air Force’s Mission #65. Take-off, or H hour, was set at 0700 hours, briefing at 0500, and breakfast at 0400. The crews were called at 0330.
At the combat briefing, Intelligence Officer Major William Edward “Pop” Dolan told the crews that the main force would strike the synthetic rubber industry at Huls. But the 384th’s part in the mission would be to confuse the German fighters by making themselves obvious while the main force climbed in altitude in secrecy over the North Sea before turning inland toward the Ruhr Valley. The 384th’s target would be the Ford and General Motors factories at Antwerp, surrounded by flak guns. The 384th was selected to lead the attack with the 381st Bomb Group trailing them. Their attack on Antwerp would divert the German fighters from the main force heading to Huls. They were told to expect an air battle. Other speakers at the briefing covered the various phases and data for the mission.
The last speaker of the briefing was Group Commander Budd Peaslee. Peaslee reminded the air crews of their responsibilities, the importance of holding their close defensive formations, and warned them about the tactics of the enemy fighters and that they should remain calm when shooting at the enemy, holding fire until the target was within range. He said they were “each their brothers’ keeper aloft in a hostile sky” and that he would lead them to success on this mission.
The 384th Bomb Group’s web site records the following information for this first mission of the Group:
Col. Budd J. Peaslee led the 384th Bombardment Group (H) on this mission aboard 42-30043, Ruthless.
Combat Chronology: VIII Bomber Command Mission Number 65: In the first large-scale daylight raid on the Ruhr, 235 B-17’s are dispatched to hit the chemical works and synthetic rubber plant at Huls in the main attack; 183 bomb the target; we claim 46-21-35 Luftwaffe aircraft; we lose 16 and 75 others are damaged; casualties are 2 KIA, 16 WIA and 151 MIA; this plant, representing a large percentage of the country’s producing capacity, is severely damaged. 11 YB-40’s accompany the Huls raid; 1 is lost.
In a second raid, 42 B-17’s are dispatched to bomb the former Ford and General Motors plants at Antwerp; 39 hit the target; they claim 1-2-9 Luftwaffe aircraft; we lose 4, 1 is damaged beyond repair and 17 others are damaged; casualties are 1 KIA, 3 WIA and 40 MIA. An additional 21 B-17’s fly an uneventful diversion.
Two of the 384th’s B-17’s failed to return from this mission. The Frederick Disney crew aboard 42-5853, Salvage Queen, was damaged by enemy aircraft and ditched in the English Channel. The Robert Oblinski crew aboard 42-30076 was shot down by enemy aircraft and crashed near Wilhelminadoorp, the Netherlands.
The 384th Bomb Group had officially entered the war.
To be continued…
“Heritage of Valor” by Budd J. Peaslee.
Budd Peaslee – Part 1 was published January 4, 2017 here.
Budd Peaslee – Part 2 was published February 1, 2017 here.
Budd Peaslee – Part 3 was published March 1, 2017 here.
Budd Peaslee – Part 4 was published April 5, 2017 here.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017
Excerpts from Heritage of Valor by Budd J. Peaslee, © Budd J. Peaslee, 1963