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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 384th Bomb Group flew seventy missions in 1945, with the last mission flown April 25. From January 1 to April 25, 1945, twenty-two crewmen were declared missing from four different missions with their bodies never recovered. Of the twenty-two, twenty of the missing composed two crews who seemed to disappear from the face of the earth, never to be seen again.
January 8, 1945
Harmon C. Hastings, tail gunner on his thirty-fourth mission with the John Joseph DeFrancesco crew aboard Fightin’ Hebe. The target was the railroad in Kyllburg, Germany. Prior to the Initial Point of the bomb run, the Fightin’ Hebe slowed up and dropped behind the formation due to flak damage to one or more engines. It was then lost to view in contrails and later crashed near Baasem, Germany.
The rest of the crew of nine parachuted to safety and became POWs, many of them close to the end of their thirty-five missions and completion of their tours. Hastings is said to have acknowledged the order to bail out and was seen leaving the plane. One of the crew’s theory was that Hastings fell into the hands of civilians or SS troops or failed to make good his escape.
The pilot, John DeFrancesco, related to me that he parachuted down unseen in the middle of a heavy snowstorm and evaded capture for a few days. Spying an empty jeep, he climbed in and attempted to drive away in it, but was captured before he could do so.
Harmon C. Hastings is listed on the Tablets of the Missing at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, Henri-Chapelle, Belgium.
January 10, 1945
The target was the railroad marshalling yards at Bonn, Germany. The Group Leader was aircraft 44-8216 which suffered flak damage and left formation twenty minutes prior to the Initial Point of the bomb run. They did not communicate any information regarding the abort. The aircraft was under control when it was last seen. The crash site and fate of the entire crew is unknown. Lost were:
- The Commander, Major Arthur Martin Stone, Jr. (thirteenth mission with the 384th Bomb Group, but twenty-five previous missions with the 92nd Bomb Group)
- The Pilot, Kenneth Delmont Hicks (sixteenth mission)
- Three Navigators
- William Rudisill Barry (twenty-seventh mission)
- Edward Joseph Kampel (twenty-third mission)
- Eugene Theodore Wilson (twenty-seventh mission)
- The Bombardier, Thomas Southern Fornear (thirty-first mission)
- The Radio Operator, George Frank Palecek (twenty-fourth mission)
- The Engineer/Top Turret Gunner, Lavern Frank Harfman (fifteenth mission)
- Flexible Gunner, James Kane Carter (twenty-seventh mission)
- Flexible Gunner, Robert Harwood Guider (twenty-ninth mission)
- An Observer in the Tail, Emil Edward Pluhar (twenty-eighth mission)
All are listed on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery, Cambridge, England.
February 3, 1945
Frederick Arnold Maki, radio operator on his third mission with the Robert Clax Long crew aboard The Challenger. The target was the Tempelhof Railroad Marshalling Yards in Berlin, Germany. The co-pilot, Ralph John Vrana, conveyed the details of the mission in a report which included the following information:
About a minute and a half before bombs away, the number three and four engines were hit by flak. With pressure dropping, they were forced to feather #3.
There were also flak holes throughout the right wing, the left Tokyo tank hit and drained, plexiglass in the nose broken, and several holes in the nose section of the aircraft.
No men were wounded by enemy action.
They had enough power to stick with the formation on into the target and dropped their bombs with the formation.
Following the group off the target, the damage caused them to drop behind. The co-pilot suggested going to Russia, but the pilot wanted to try to make it back to England.
They began losing altitude and air speed and lost the group, but followed the bomber stream back to the coast. They crossed the coast at about 17,000 feet, where they received more flak, but no further damage was inflicted on the aircraft. Losing altitude more rapidly, they jettisoned everything possible, and were even working on removing the ball turret, but were unable to get it completely off.
At 5,000 feet the crew prepared for ditching in the North Sea and threw out the rest of the equipment that they could. A B-17 flying alongside them likely radioed their position. The radio operator, Maki, sent out S.O.S.’s until about 500 feet, and everyone except for the pilot and co-pilot assumed ditching position in the radio room.
They hit the water at 1315 hours. The ship bent slightly in the middle. In the ditching, the togglier injured a leg and broke a few ribs. The navigator sprained an ankle and the tail gunner was bruised up. (See note below).
As soon as they hit the water, they got out, but the life raft handles wouldn’t come out. They got out on the wing and pulled the extra handle and the rafts came out. Only one of the life rafts would inflate properly. The other only half inflated. Some of the Mae Wests (life jackets) would only partially inflate also.
A big wave came along and carried off both rafts, so the men were forced to swim for them. [The average water temperature of the North Sea in February is about forty degrees Fahrenheit.] The pilot swam thirty-five to forty yards to reach the farthest raft, which was only partially inflated. The rest of the crew swam for the other, closer raft and the ball turret gunner – Jack Coleman Cook – who reached the raft first, helped everyone else in. However, Frederick Arnold Maki, the radio operator, never did make it to the raft. The crew saw him and tried to row over to him, but the waves were too high and they lost track of him as he drifted back towards the ship. Five men were in the raft with two in the water hanging onto the sides.
They rowed toward the pilot in the other raft. The pilot had lain down as soon as he had gotten into the raft and they hadn’t seen him move since. While the men rowed toward the other raft, the navigator, who had been in the water and holding onto the side for thirty minutes, got the cramps. Cook got out of the boat and got the navigator back up to the raft and they pulled him in. Cook stayed in the water and helped push the raft along by kicking his feet in the water. He was in the water about forty-five minutes before they reached the other raft.
Cook and Duncan got into the raft with the pilot when they reached him. The men bailed water out of both rafts, but the other raft seemed to fill up faster than they could bail it out. They were also unsuccessful in pumping up the other raft.
A B-17, three PBY amphibious aircraft, and later some P-51’s witnessed the efforts of the men in the rafts.
Long, the pilot, began to froth at the mouth and talk out of his head. The men doubled their efforts to bail the water out of the raft, but weren’t very successful.
At about 1715 hours, the men spotted two P-47’s and fired a flare. They dropped smoke flares and flew east to pick up an Air/Sea Rescue Cutter, which was about four miles from the men in the rafts. By the time Air/Sea Rescue arrived, Cook was talking out of his head and the pilot was perfectly still. Air/Sea Rescue took the men aboard and worked on the pilot until they docked, about four hours later. Vrana said, “There was no life in him at all. There was still a faint bit of life in Sgt. Cook and they gave him oxygen and artificial respiration, but he died on the boat.” The men were delivered into Milton Lodge.
The pilot, Robert C. Long, died in the raft. The ball turret gunner, Jack C. Cook, died after rescue. The radio operator, Fred A. Maki, never reached the life raft and was washed away.
Robert C. Long received a posthumous Silver Star for gallantry in action. Frederick Arnold Maki is listed on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery, Cambridge, England.
- The togglier, Marvin Irving Rudolph, who reportedly injured a leg and broke a few ribs, was able to return to duty after about six weeks.
- The navigator, Edward Field, who sprained an ankle (and who also provided the photos below), was able to return to duty after about six weeks.
- The tail gunner, Thomas Arnold Davis, who was bruised up, was able to return to duty after about four weeks.
- The remaining crew, who had no reported injuries – Ralph John Vranna, co-pilot; Howard Jasper Ogelsby, engineer/top turret gunner; and Donald Ramsey Duncan, flexible gunner – all returned to duty after four to six weeks.
March 19, 1945
The target was the Braunkohle-Benzin Synthetic Oil Plant in Bohlen, Germany. The Low Squadron Deputy of the “D” Composite Group, which was also the hot camera ship, was last seen over Ostend, Belgium on their return to England. They were observed under control and were presumed to have landed away on the continent. However, the aircraft and crew were never seen again. The crash site and fate of the entire crew is unknown. Lost were:
- The Pilot, William L. Kramer (thirty-first mission)
- The Co-pilot, Emmett Patrick Culhane (twenty-ninth mission)
- The Navigator, Charles Linwood Fell (fourteen missions)
- The Bombardier, Walter S. Robitzki (tenth mission)
- The Radio Operator, William R. Brooks (thirty-fourth mission)
- The Engineer/Top Turret Gunner, Dwight A. Scrivner (twenty-seventh mission)
- Ball Turret Gunner, Jack E. Pfeiffer (thirtieth mission)
- Tail Gunner, Keith A. Krauss, (thirty-first mission)
- Flexible Gunner, Francis J. Lukosavich (thirty-first mission)
All are listed on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery, Cambridge, England.
Radio operator Eugene Spearman, who was a crewmate of Walter Robitzki, tried for years to find out what had happened but was unsuccessful. Spearman said, “In talks with my pilot, copilot, and others in the crew, no one knew any more than I did. They just didn’t return. In 1993, when we dedicated the Heritage Museum, I asked a lady employee there if she knew or could help me find out anything about Walter’s MIA status. This employee was Mrs. Phyllis Dubois from Alysham, Norwich, England. She promised to try and find some information and write me. Later, she sent me a casualty report that showed that the B-17, No. 44-8008, was sighted over Ostend, Belgium, at 11,000 feet at 1655 hours with no apparent damage.”
Ostend, Belgium is on the coast, which leads to the assumption that the ship went down in the English Channel or the North Sea and whatever remains of the aircraft and her crew are still down there today.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016