Our 384th Bomb Group motto is “Keep the Show on the Road.” But it was not the original motto. Early on in the group’s history, the motto was “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (I Came, I Saw, I Conquered), as seen on the jacket patch in this photo of the 384th’s first Commander, Budd Peaslee.
But a loss on the group’s second mission led to the Group’s new motto. The Group’s Deputy Commanding Officer, Major Selden L. McMillin, was shot down on June 25, 1943 on the group’s mission to Hamburg, Germany. McMillin, known as “Major Mac” managed to crash land in Holland. The Engineer/Top Turret Gunner was killed and the remainder of the crew was taken prisoner.
Major Mac sent a postcard to his commander, Colonel Budd Peaslee, telling Peaslee to “KEEP THE SHOW ON THE ROAD.” The 384th adopted McMillian’s message as their motto and it remains our mantra to this day.
Keeping the Show on the Road is what we NexGens (Next Generation) strive to do, meaning it is our job to keep the history of the 384th Bomb Group alive.
NexGens research the men of the Group, the aircraft, the missions, and every other thing that is 384th Bomb Group related. We help relatives of the men of the 384th discover the part their airman played and the sacrifices they made in WWII. 384th Bomb Group webmaster Fred Preller and his band of researchers make sure that information is readily available for those seeking it through the Group’s website and photo gallery.
NexGens meet at reunions. The next reunion of the 384th Bomb Group is in conjunction with the 8th Air Force Historical Society’s reunion in New Orleans at the end of September. For more information, click here.
NexGens take our Commemorative Wing Panel (affectionately known as Wingy) to veterans of the 384th all over the country for their signatures. Edward Field was the most recent to sign. For more information on the wing panel project, click here.
Christopher Wilkinson, instigator of the Commemorative Wing Panel Project, says it best.
One of the things we learn as we host the wing panel for our veterans is that each man came to their own understanding of their part, and so each brings something unique to their own story of what they did and saw. This opens new understandings for us as well, and in turn helps us to convey in a more personal way to younger generations what happened during the war.
All of us who lend a hand to the cause of keeping the history of “Our Group” alive want the same thing. We want current and future generations to remember these men. We want our children and their children to know the part these men played in one of the most critical periods in the history of our country. We want them to know what these men did for us. At the time, these brave young men of the 384th were fighting for their mothers and fathers, their brothers and sisters, their young wives, and of course, their countrymen. Most of us weren’t even born yet, but they were doing it for us, too.
Remember these men and when you meet one, thank him for his service. They deserve your thanks and much more. And whenever possible, share their stories and Keep the Show on the Road.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017
If you recall my post from last week, I recently spent an enjoyable weekend in Savannah with my three Stalag Luft IV sisters, Ellen Weaver, Candy Brown, and Laura Edge, and 384th Bomb Group veteran, John DeFrancesco. The better I get to know John, the more I am in awe of him and the other boys who served in the 384th and other Bomb Groups of the 8th Air Force in WWII. Most of the boys were just that – boys who had just finished high school or maybe had a couple of years of college. And here they were, fighting a war on foreign soil, defending our freedom, some of them dying for us. A very big responsibility for such young men.
John Joseph DeFrancesco enlisted just a couple of months after graduating from high school. He was just eighteen years old when he enlisted, but despite his young age, he was selected for the aviation cadet program and was soon on his way to becoming a pilot. No, he had never flown before, but growing up he loved looking up to the sky when he heard the sound of an aircraft engine overhead and delighted in watching them in flight. That led him to choose the Army Air Forces for his military career.
At the completion of his training, John was assigned a crew and they were assigned to the 544th Bomb Squadron of the 384th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force (a.k.a. “The Mighty Eighth”) and were stationed in Grafton Underwood, England. The 384th Bomb Group’s website displays John’s personnel data:
John does not possess a full crew photo, but he does still have the escape/evasion photos of most of his crew. Escape/evasion photos were taken to assist a crewman who was able to escape or evade capture in the event he found himself bailing out of his B-17 and landing in hostile territory.
John Joseph DeFrancesco, Pilot
Robert Edwin Simmons, Co-pilot
Jerome Calnitz, Navigator
William C. Brown, Bombardier
No photo available
Ira J. Bias, Jr., Radio Operator/Gunner
Evan L. “Dixie” Howell, Engineer/Top Turret Gunner
Charles J. Doleshal, Ball Turret Gunner
Harmon C. Hastings, Tail Gunner
Ferris J. Walker, Tail Gunner
John Allen Williams, Flexible Gunner
There were a few other men who John DeFrancesco served with on a number of missions. He flew with William E. Moon (no photo available) of the James W. Orr crew on twenty-one missions. Moon was originally a bombardier who retrained as a navigator.
John flew with Homer L. Lott of the James Robson Gilmore crew on eleven missions. Lott was a flexible gunner turned togglier and flew with John on the January 8, 1945 mission on which both me became POWs.
John DeFrancesco’s sixth mission on October 18, 1944, target Ford Motor Works in Cologne, Germany, was a memorable one. As the bombardier bent over the bomb sight, a piece of flak smashed through the Plexiglass nose of their B-17. It flew over the bombardier’s head and struck the navigator on that flight, Jack Lyons, in the arm, tearing away a large chunk of flesh and shattering his arm.
The piece of flak continued through the aircraft and came through the floor of the cockpit, lodging under his pilot’s seat. With other crew members unsuccessful in their attempts to aid Lt. Lyons, John turned the controls over to his co-pilot and went to Lt. Lyons’ aid in the nose. He cut the sleeve off Lt. Lyons’ jacket, formed it into a bandage, and applied it to the wound to stop the flow of blood.
John’s actions saved the life of Jack Lyons, as without John’s help, Jack would have bled to death before they returned to their base at Grafton Underwood. With Lt. Lyons stable, John returned to the cockpit and assumed the controls of the aircraft, bringing navigator Jack Lyons home alive.
John DeFrancesco became a POW on his thirty-fifth mission and served 144 days as a POW in Germany in the prison camps Stalag 13D (Nuremburg) and Stalag 7A (Moosburg). The story of John’s thirty-fifth mission will be the subject of a future post.
John DeFrancesco received the following medals for his WWII service:
- European-African-Middle Eastern Service Medal
- Air Medal with 5 Oak Leaf Clusters
- Victory Medal
- POW Medal
After WWII, John DeFrancesco served in the Air Force Active Reserves from 1945 until the late 1960’s when he went into the Inactive Reserves. In 1984, John retired from the military as a Lieutenant Colonel.
In 2014, John DeFrancesco signed the 384th Bomb Group’s Commemorative Wing Panel. I was honored to attend his signing and meet him and 384th Bomb Group armorer Paul Bureau that day.
To be continued in a future post…
John’s thirty-fifth mission with the 384th Bomb Group and his time as a prisoner of war in Germany.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017
The March 2017 issue of the 8th AF News contains a wonderful story, “Band of Daughters.” The story is about two women, Ellen Hartman and Laura Edge, and their adventure together to visit the WWII prison camp, Stalag Luft IV, where their fathers and my father, were held as prisoners of war. You can read the story here.
Laura holds a Masters of Social Studies Education degree and wrote the book “On the Wings of Dawn: American Airmen as Germany’s Prisoners – Their Story of Courage, Sacrifice, and Survival.” Ellen owns her own public relations agency in Atlanta and is just beginning to research her father’s service in WWII. You can read the post I wrote about Ellen’s father, Joe Weaver, here.
I contacted both Ellen and Laura and learned that they had big plans for this year’s Fourth of July weekend in Savannah. They would be visiting the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force. Joining them would be Zygmunt Wujek, a Polish sculptor, and Jupi Podlaszewski, head of the English School of Koszalin. Zygmunt created the memorial sculpture at the site of Stalag Luft IV.
Zygmunt Wujek has created more than two hundred memorials in his native Pomerania including monuments commissioned by Lech Walesa to mark the entrance to Stalag Luft IV. Zygmunt also created a bronze bust of an American airman from a photograph of Stalag Luft IV POW Joseph O’Donnell, author of the book “The Shoe Leather Express.”
Also joining the group as the third Stalag Luft IV daughter would be Candy Kyler Brown. Candy wrote the book “What I Never Told You: A Daughter Traces the Wartime Imprisonment of Her Father.”
A WWII veteran of the 8th Air Force, Walter Grotz, was to join the group. Walter, of the 445th Bomb Group and his wife, Mary, sponsored the Polish dignitaries’ journey to the US. Walter and Mary had a B-24 propeller blade to donate to the museum and wanted Zygmunt to see his American Airman’s home in the museum. Walter became a prisoner at Stalag Luft IV when he had to bail out of his B-24 on the November 26, 1944 mission to an oil refinery at Hannover, Germany. Sadly, Walter Grotz died in May, but his wife, Mary, carried on Walter’s wishes and joined the group in Savannah.
Walter’s B-24 Propeller Blade
Zygmunt Wujek’s bronze bust of the American Airman in the Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force
The American Aviator bronze bust (as described in the accompanying plaque) …
is the only exact copy of the “American Aviator” in the 1992 memorial at Stalag Luft IV, the WWII prison camp for enlisted American airmen in Poland. Wujek used a photograph of Joseph O’Donnell, a POW at Stalag Luft IV, as his model. At the 2006 dedication of the site as a Polish War Memorial, Wujek gave this bust to former POW Walter Grotz. It took Grotz five years to make the necessary import arrangements, and in 2011 he delivered the bust to this museum which will be its permanent home. Wujek presented it on behalf of the people of the Pomerania region of Poland as a Thank You to Eighth Air Force Veterans, all Veterans and the people of the United States.
Zygmunt Wujek and Mary Grotz admire Zygmunt’s work.
The organizer of the Savannah group, Ellen Hartman, was kind enough to invite me at join them as the fourth Stalag Luft IV daughter. And I, knowing that a WWII veteran living near me, John DeFrancesco, had a great desire to see the Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, invited him to go to Savannah with me. John had been a POW in WWII, but not in Stalag Luft IV.
John was a pilot with the 384th Bomb Group, 544th Bomb Squadron, the same group and squadron in which my dad served. John was on his thirty-fifth mission on January 8, 1945 to a railroad line in Kyllburg, Germany when two of his engines exploded and his B-17 caught fire. After bailing out of the crippled aircraft, John was a POW at Stalag 13D Nuremburg (Oflag 73) Bavaria, an officers’ camp, and later after a forced march, was held at Stalag 7A (Moosburg).
Our experience at the Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force was extraordinary. In addition to touring the museum on our own (we took advantage of every free moment in our schedule to see as much as we could), we had two excellent guided tours.
Our first tour was led by 384th Bomb Group, Inc. Historian and NexGen Research Director John Edwards. John was one of the original nine who started the Museum of the Mighty Eighth. Between John’s history with the museum and his interest in aviation research, John’s tour offered our group a unique insight to the museum and the WWII history of the 8th Air Force.
Our second tour was led by Al Pela, museum docent and son of Stalag Luft IV POW Albert Pela who was a flexible gunner with the 100th Bomb Group, also known as “The Bloody Hundreth.” Albert’s B-17 crashed at Gottesgab (now Bozi Dar, Czech Republic) on September 11, 1944. Al’s stories of his father’s experiences at Stalag Luft IV added another perspective to our museum experience.
Just past the POW exhibit in the museum is a display case in which the vest that Candy Kyler Brown’s father, John Roland Kyler, made while he was a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft IV. Candy proudly shows her father’s work to the group. Kyler knitted the vest from a Red Cross-provided kit and he was able to bring it home on his trek across Germany in the Black March.
The museum is full of wonderful displays. John DeFrancesco stands in front of a memorial to the 384th Bomb Group complete with a model of a B-17.
Past a set of glass doors at the back of the large space housing the B-17 and other aircraft is the museum’s memorial garden. The garden is a beautiful, peaceful place full of memorials to groups and members of the 8th Air Force and the Chapel of the Fallen Eagles.
Inside the chapel are a multitude of stained glass windows…
… including a replica of the one honoring the 384th Bomb Group in the Church of St James the Apostle in Grafton Underwood, England.
John DeFrancesco stands in front of a replica of the 384th Bomb Group Memorial in Grafton Underwood, England, where the group was stationed during WWII.
After some help from Al Pela, I was able to find the memorial to the Brodie crew of the B-17 Lazy Daisy which collided with the B-17 Lead Banana on which my dad was the waist gunner on September 28, 1944.
To end this wonderful weekend, our group was honored at the American Legion Post 135 which is housed at 1108 Bull Street in Savannah, where on January 28, 1942, the Eighth Air Force was activated.
In addition to honoring the WWII veteran of our group, John DeFrancesco, the American Legion also honored Zygmunt Wujek, Walter Grotz, and each of the Stalag Luft IV daughters’ fathers.
Following the ceremony at the American Legion, our group enjoyed a spectacular dinner right next door at the restaurant Local11ten. It was the perfect ending to the perfect adventure for this group which was brought together because of a shared history in WWII. That adventure ended, but I suspect a new journey is just beginning.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017
My dad flew sixteen missions with the 384th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force in WWII, but the only mission location he marked on this Invasion Map of Europe in his World Atlas was Magdeburg, Germany. It was the only mission he told me stories about, the one where another B-17 collided with his and he lost all of his fellow crewmates on that ship that day.
In a report to the military after his return to the States, he wrote:
Am very sorry I can’t give more information, but our ship was hit by another B-17 from our group. The other ship must have hit right in the center of our ship, as we were knocked half in-to. At the time we were struck I was knocked unconscious, and fell about 25,000 feet, before I knew I was even out of the ship. Never saw any of the other boys. I received a little rough treatment from the Germans when I hit the ground, and was unable to tell where I was.
He also marked Magdeburg on another map in his World Atlas and wrote “Belgard” in the top margin. Belgard, or Bialogard, is the county in which Gross-Tychow (now Tychowo), Poland lies, home of Stalag Luft IV.
Stalag Luft IV in Gross-Tychow was where Dad spent the darkest days of his life. It was one of the worst WWII prison camps in Germany, where prisoners were mistreated and underfed. It was the camp from which prisoners were marched in early February 1944, in one of the worst winters in Germany’s history, until their liberation in late April/early May.
These places, Magdeburg and Belgard, these two places on his map, would be burned into my father’s memory and soul forever. He would never return to those places for the rest of his life, but the memories of them remained with him every day and every night.
I am drawn to these places and I hope one day I will visit both. Neither look the same today as what Dad experienced in 1944, but I wish to stand on the soil where he hit the ground in his parachute, where his B-17 crashed to earth, and where he was held a prisoner behind barbed wire. I would like to walk the roads he marched as a prisoner of war by day, and see the barns where he slept in the hay at night.
Why do I want to visit these sites? Dad would probably not want me to see these places he would like to have forgotten, but they were an important part of his history and that makes them an important part of mine. I imagine seeing these places will take my breath away and bring me to tears.
I lost Dad almost thirty-five years ago. He died at the age of sixty-one. His heart gave out when he was too young to leave us. The mid-air collision and his subsequent time as a prisoner of war are what killed him. But he was tough and it took him another thirty-eight years to die. I would like to have had him around for another thirty years or more, so he could watch my sister and me mature, walk us down the aisle, and hold his grandchildren. But I understand now that the only way he found peace from the war was to leave this life and those horrible memories behind.
Rest in peace, Dad. I will never stop loving you.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017