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Monday, Feb. 8, 2016

Willis' 14th bombing mission

Monday, June 6, 2011

Lt. Willis and Lucille Jones.
(Courtesy photo)
Willis Jones, a member of the 96th (B-17 Flying Fortress) Bomb Group in World War II, suffered through great adversities during the war, including being shot down (on his 26th mission) over Augsburg, Germany, and surviving 13 months in a German POW (Stalag). As bad as being shot down and being a POW was, his 14th mission was worse.

The 14th bombing mission was thought to be relatively easy, in that the target was in a relatively close part of occupied France, and the crew fully expected to be back at the base in time for lunch. That turned out to be a very faulty supposition.

During the air war over Europe it was the custom of the RAF bombers to make their runs at night. The American bombers, with their superior Norden bombsight, and large tight formations of B-17s, made their runs in daylight. These bombing runs, from English bases, often were very long, sometimes even to occupied Poland. On these longer raids the squadrons were beyond the range of their fighter escorts and had to depend on the strength of numbers and the firepower of the B-17 Flying Fortress.

Before take-off on Willis' 14th mission, their target, a V-2 factory, had not been revealed to the crew. It was a giant raid, with planes from all of the squadrons of the 96th BG taking part.

As they neared their target, Willis, the co-pilot, was at the controls. Since the formation was so large, attacks from German fighter planes were much fewer than on previous raids, but flack from anti-aircraft guns was intense. Before Willis and his crew had a chance to drop their two 2,000-pound bombs they suffered a direct hit amidships, knocking out the controls on the co-pilot's side of the plane. First pilot Lee Beaver still had some control of the plane from his station and prepared to return to their home base. Willis left the cockpit to assess the damage to the plane. What he discovered shook him to the core.

The burst had struck the rear of the bomb bay, blasting the entire bulkhead into the radio room. All controls of the plane were destroyed except the aileron and elevator. Flying the plane was extremely difficult. The I-beam running the length of the plane, onto which everything was attached, was broken in half. Only the metal skin of the plane was holding the ship together. It seemed a miracle for the plane to fly at all.

One 2,000 pound bomb was knocked from its rack by the blast (note: men from neighboring planes later said that the bomb looked like it had been skinned, like a banana, with the inner workings of the bomb exposed). The other bomb was dangling off its rack in the bomb bay at a strange angle. With considerable effort one of the crew managed to kick loose the dangling bomb, to fall harmlessly into the English Channel.

Only two of the crew, Sgt. Fleming and Sgt. Collier, had been wounded, but their wounds were severe. Sgt. Collier, who had been assigned to the radio room because of the presence of an Air Force photographer on board, lay on the floor of the plane. Willis could see that it was very bad. He knelt beside his friend and lifted his head. "Jonesy," Collier said, "Can you give me a cigarette?" Willis' reply, "Collier, I just can't do it. There's gas fumes all over the place. It's just too dangerous." With that Collier just closed his eyes. When Willis returned a few minutes later he was dead.

When the B-17 finally reached English Capt. Beaver determined that they would not be able to land the plane and ordered the men to bail out. They would attach the parachutes of Collier and Fleming to the static line and push them out of the plane, then hope for the best.

When Willis relayed the orders to Fleming, the gravely wounded man begged him to reconsider. "I just can't do it," Fleming said. "Let me go down with the plane." That was enough for Willis, who had already had doubts about Fleming's being able to survive a bailout. "Lee," he said to the pilot, "you go ahead and jump. I'm going to stay with the plane and try to bring her in." Evidently Capt. Beaver was of the same opinion as he gave the orders for all the able bodied men to prepare for a parachute jump. He and Willis would do their best to bring their plane to a safe landing, with Sgt. Fleming and the body of Sgt. Collier.

Coaxing the wounded plane to stay in the air was a chore, but Capt. Beaver was up to the task, and kept the plane in the air until they sighted the nearest airfield, which proved to be a British Spitfire base, with grass runways. Seconds before they touched down Beaver ordered all electrical switches to be turned off, ever fearful of a spark igniting the gas fumes that were very apparent in the plane.

The actual landing of the plane was quite uneventful, and entirely successful. Since all electrical switches were off, and they had lost hydraulic power, they had no brakes, so the plane rolled and rolled to a stop at the very end of the runway. It was battered, but thankfully, still in one piece.

The standard practice for American planes was to fire hand-held rockets into the air as a signal that there were wounded aboard an incoming plane. Evidently this practice was not observed by the British and it was some time before an ambulance arrived at the airfield. Nevertheless, British Air Force personnel quickly arrived to remove the wounded Flemming and the body of Sgt. Collier from the plane. They worked with great haste, as there was gasoline from the plane's ruptured fuel tanks soaking the ground. Fortunately, there were no sparks to set the gasoline ablaze.

On the ground Willis was amazed anew at the damage of the plane. Besides the massive hole in the side of the plane, there was damage to the tail section, and a hole completely through one wing, the result of an antiaircraft shell, which had gone through but had not exploded. The plane's four engines were apparently in good working order, but Willis is sure that the rest of the plane was scrapped -- there was just not much left.

Ambulances finally arrived to take Sgt. Fleming to the hospital. He eventually made a full recovery from his wounds and over the years was a regular at frequent reunions of the members of Willis' crew.

Crew members who had made the parachute jump were reunited with Beaver and Jones at the Spitfire base. The next day American planes arrived to take the men to their home base, where they were assigned a new B-17 and were soon back in the squadron's bombing rotation roster, to fly 12 more missions before their plane was shot down on the 26th mission and they spent a year in a German POW camp -- but that's another story.

Later, when the men were debriefed by a munitions expert, they learned that the outcome of their mission could have been a great deal worse. They were told that the chances of the "skinned" bomb failing to explode were somewhere between slim and none.

Had that bomb exploded while still in the bomb bay it would not only have destroyed their plane, it would have taken out most of the planes in their formation as well. Strange things happen in a war.

-- Source: Interview with Willis Jones (Willis' entire interview can be viewed at the McCook Public Library)

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By