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The Bomber Boys’ Bombers

Three hundred forty-five (345) B-17 heavy bombers were assigned to the 384th Bombardment Group (Heavy) of the 8th Army Air Forces in WWII during its service at Grafton Underwood between 1943 and 1945. One (1) was a B-17 model E, one hundred fourteen (114) were model F, and two hundred thirty (230) were model G.

The 384th BG Aircraft page of the 384th Bomb Group’s website contains a list of them all. Links on the page will lead to (1) mission information for each aircraft, and (2) any existing photos of each in the 384th Bomb Group’s photo gallery.

While traditional lore reflects that each bomber crew had their own plane that they used exclusively on their missions, that was not always the case. Most of the crews flew their missions in whatever aircraft was assigned to them for the day’s mission.

For instance, my father, George Edwin Farrar, flew in thirteen different B-17 heavy bombers in his sixteen combat missions of WWII.

When I look at the significance of the various ships to my father’s military service, I find that two of the thirteen in which he flew missions and two others he didn’t fly aboard were important players during his combat tour. These are the four that I believe were the most significant in his war service, and determined his future.

(1) Dad’s Ship. Although Dad flew aboard thirteen different B-17’s in the war, he only spoke one name, Tremblin’ Gremlin, in the telling of his war stories. Growing up, I thought Tremblin’ Gremlin was “his crew’s” plane and thought it was the ship of the mid-air collision in which he was involved. I did not learn until adulthood that it was not the ship of the mid-air collision.

Tremblin’ Gremlin, B-17 42-37982, was a new replacement aircraft assigned to the 384th Bomb Group on 21 January 1944 and put into service on the 384th’s Mission #55 on 29 January 1944 to Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

It was the ship of my dad’s first mission on 5 August 1944 and on that date it took a pounding from flak which injured several of the crew including my dad, killed the bombardier, and left the ship with 106 flak holes. It made it back to England, but took over a month to repair, and didn’t fly its next mission until 8 September.

On the 19 September 1944 mission to Hamm, Germany, Tremblin’ Gremlin was so badly damaged, the crew had to bail out over Belgium and the Gremlin was left unmanned to crash to earth alone. Thus ended Tremblin’ Gremlin’s eight month career with the 384th.

Tremblin’ Gremlin was assigned to 73 missions and earned combat credit for 61.

Regardless, I still think of Tremblin’ Gremlin as my dad’s ship. The stories and the name learned in childhood are too ingrained to think and feel otherwise.

(2) The One in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time. On 28 September 1944 my dad was aboard the unnamed B-17 43-37822 flown by Lt. John Buslee. Coming off the target at Magdeburg, Germany, Lt. James Brodie lost control of his aircraft and it collided with my dad’s.

Brodie’s assigned aircraft had a long history of problems and I suspect one or more of them were responsible for Brodie’s loss of control or at least contributed to the collision, as likely also did flak at the target and the rush to get out of the path of another group coming in to the target area.

Aircraft 43-37822 was a new replacement aircraft assigned to the 384th Bomb Group on 29 June 1944 and put into service on the 384th’s Mission #162 on 20 July 1944. It was the aircraft in which my dad flew the most missions in the same aircraft, for a total of three – on 5 September, 9 September, and the last on 28 September.

At the time of this aircraft’s demise on 28 September 1944, it had been assigned to 34 missions and completed only 28. It met a horrible death, like all of the crew aboard except for my father, by exploding and falling to the ground after the mid-air collision.

If this aircraft had been named, I imagine it would have been the aircraft name my dad would have used in his stories instead of Tremblin’ Gremlin, in which he only flew once.

(3) The Other Ship. On 28 September 1944, Mission #201, B-17 42-31222, Lazy Daisy, flown by the Lt. James Brodie crew, careened out of formation and collided with the B-17 flown by Lt. John Buslee with my father aboard.

Lazy Daisy was a new replacement aircraft assigned to the 384th Bomb Group on 23 November 1943 and put into service on the 384th’s Mission #40 on 5 December 1943. Daisy experienced mechanical failure after mechanical failure and was out of service for long periods at a time, but was always patched up and sent back into the fray.

In Daisy’s eleven month career with the 384th, the ship was assigned to only 64 missions and completed 49, not many missions for a combat duration of 299 days from the ship’s first mission to its last. I never heard this ship’s name growing up. It was just “the other ship” that had wreaked such havoc, that had caused so much death and destruction by careening off course into my dad’s ship.

(4) The Century Bomber that might have made all the difference. Bombers reaching one hundred (100) completed missions during the war received the status of “Century Bomber.” Only thirteen B-17’s, or 4% of the Group’s three hundred forty-five (345) bombers, reached the status of Century Bomber.

At the low end of the 384th’s Century Bomber list sits The Challenger with 100 missions, lost in the North Sea on 3 February 1945 with the Robert Long crew aboard, including navigator Edward Field. After the war, Field became a poet and years later told the story of the mission in his poem, World War II, which has been made into an animated short film, Minor Accident of War.

Topping the Century Bomber list, with 136 completed missions, sits B-17 42-102518 Damn Yankee, probably the most talked about flying fortress of the Group. A long list of 384th Bomb Group pilots considered Damn Yankee “their ship.” (Note: three different ships of the 384th Bomb Group were named Damn Yankee, and the one that achieved Century Bomber status was 42-102518).

Damn Yankee is also the name of the song Todd Touton, son of 384th pilot William Touton (one of Damn Yankee’s pilots), and Todd’s friend Evan Wallach wrote to honor Todd’s father’s service in WWII. It is the music that accompanies my video, A Tribute to the 384th Bomb Group in WWII.

Between the bottom of the list and the top, sit eleven Century Bombers, of which my dad flew missions in three – Nevada Avenger with 104 completed missions, Hotnuts with 105, and Big Dog with 109.

But another Century Bomber that sits in the middle of the list, B-17 42-97309, Kathleen Lady of Victory, at 106 missions, is the one that could have changed the history of 28 September 1944 and the future of eighteen airmen of the Buslee and Brodie crews. Kathleen was a new replacement aircraft assigned to the 384th Bomb Group on 6 April 1944 and put into service on the 384th’s Mission #88 on 11 April 1944.

Kathleen Lady of Victory was the Brodie crew’s aircraft of choice, “their ship” at the time they served in the war, and the ship they likely would have been assigned on Mission #201. But on the previous day’s Mission #200, Kathleen Lady of Victory was damaged by flak and suffered a slew of mechanical failures, and was apparently not ready for service for the Brodie crew come 28 September.

The Brodie crew had flown Kathleen on Mission #199 (their eighth mission aboard the ship), but they didn’t participate in #200. The Robert Leslie Farra crew flew Kathleen on Mission #200. The Farra crew was flying spare, but joined the formation and completed the mission.

In the Mission #200 post-mission briefing, Farra reported several technical failures including two broken rheostats, a broken gas gauge, an improperly installed pilot’s mike switch, and most notably, the continuous running away of the #2 prop. Farra also reported battle damage received at the target, with the right aileron, horizontal stabilizer, fin, and rudder hit by flak. Repairs to the ship were going to keep the ground crew busy for several days.

Had this Century Bomber been ready to serve the Brodie crew, the mid-air collision may have never happened. I can’t say if or how things may have worked out differently, but it gives me pause to think that Kathleen Lady of Victory might have made all the difference in the lives of eighteen men.

When the Brodie crew, who had been aboard Lazy Daisy instead, didn’t return to base after Mission #201 on 28 September 1944, Kathleen Lady of Victory became Farra’s ship until he completed his tour the next month and then it began a rotation between many crews.

In her 380 day combat career with the 384th, Kathleen was assigned to 129 missions and completed 106 of them.

Kathleen Lady of Victory served the 384th Bomb Group until their very last mission, #316 on 25 April 1945 and was transferred with the Group to Istres, France for mapping duties after the European Air War ended. Dave Osborne’s Fortlog notes her End Date of 31 October 1945, salvaged 9th AF, Germany. A sad end for a beloved Century Bomber.

Resources

384th BG Aircraft page

384th Bomb Group Website Group Statistics Page, Aircraft Section

Dave Osborne’s Fortlog

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2021