(With the this year’s military ball theme, “A Legacy for the future: 452nd Bombardment Group,” and the ball only 11 weeks away, it seems appropriate to re-print an 11-part series tracing its lineage. The series was first run in the Beacon in 2007. Take this journey with us.)
The 452nd Air Mobility Wing started as an Army Air Forces bombardment unit that lost more than 450 men while flying 250 missions from an English airfield in World War II.
“The 452nd guys were typical, and typical was rather extraordinary,” said Dr. Vernon Williams of the Department of History at Abilene, Texas, Christian University. “It would be difficult to compare them to any other generation or any other war because wars are so different.”
Dr. Williams is head of the East Anglia War Project, a historical study of 8th Air Force bomb units such as the 452nd. In the past seven years, he and his students have interviewed more than 500 people connected to the air battle waged from East Anglia, the largely agricultural region northeast of London that was peppered with airstrips which sprang up after the U.S. entered the war in December 1941.
The group, with nearly 3,000 men assigned to it, flew B-17 Flying Fortresses from Deopham Green airfield. Each four-engine B-17 had a crew of 10: pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, radio operator, engineer and four machine gunners. That later dropped to nine.
The group contained four flying units: the 728th, 729th, 730th and 731st Bomb Squadrons. The 729th remains assigned to the 452nd today as an airlift squadron flying C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at March Field.
The 452nd was formed on paper in May 1943 and activated June 1. Its members trained stateside, coming together as flight crews before leaving for the battle in Europe.
The group started its move to England in December 1943 and served in the 3rd Air Division of the 8th Air Force, which was responsible for daytime bombing of German-held territory on the European mainland, while British aviators bombed at night. It was among 26 bomb groups that flew B-17s. Fifteen others had B-24 Liberators.
Members of the unit were part of the buildup of forces prior to the Allied invasion of continental Europe. Its first bombing missions were flown Feb. 5, 1944, and the 452nd suffered significant casualties almost immediately. Five aircraft were lost Feb. 8, 1944, including one carrying 452nd Commander Lt. Col. Herbert O. Wangeman, who was taken prisoner along with other crew members. During the war, the group lost 158 aircraft, 110 of them in combat.
The prospect of being shot down was on every crew member’s mind, but largely went unspoken, said Tech Sgt. Arthur Mills, 86, of Lawrence Park, Pa., who flew on Princess Pat.
“We made fun of it. We made bets,” said Sergeant Mills, an engineer and top turret gunner. “In eight missions, a German fighter had never attacked us and I kidded with someone, ‘I’ll bet you three English pounds we see fighters today.’ We did. We saw more than we really wanted to.”
Princess Pat was shot down that day in Germany. All 10 crew members made it out alive and spent the next year in captivity.
“(Before missions), we talked about anything except dying. I don’t think anyone really thought about being taken prisoner of war,” he said. “We thought about being killed or finishing up your missions.”
Going home, though, meant completing a set number of flights into battle. Early on, the maximum number was open ended, said Dr. Williams.
“You were just going to be there for the duration,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy to even think about that now.”
Eventually, a mark of 25 was announced. That grew to 30 and, finally, 35, the escalating number causing consternation among crew members. Getting there was the problem.
The men flew often and could reach all of those counts within three months, but it usually took longer, said Staff Sgt. Hank North, 84, of Columbus, Ohio, a tail gunner who flew 27 missions, most of them on Thunderbird.
The 8th Air Force suffered more than 47,000 casualties, half of the Army Air Forces’ total in the war. Among them were more than 26,000 deaths. The 452nd lost at least 450 men in 14 ½ months of flying from Deopham Green. Hundreds of other members of the unit were injured or shot down and taken prisoner. Four ground crew members died in the line of duty, according to Sergeant North, secretary of the 452nd Bomb Group Association, a fraternal group composed largely of World War II veterans and their family members.
Early in the European bombing campaign, 8th Air Force units flew mostly without escorts and suffered terrible losses. At that time, fighters were limited to flying with bomber formations over the English Channel to France, then returning to England while B-17s and B-24s continued alone to strategic targets such as oil refineries, ball bearing factories and railroad lines. External fuel tanks were later added to fighters to extend their range, allowing them to protect bombers deeper into German-held territory.
German fighter aircraft weren’t the only cause for concern: bombers were also blasted from below by antiaircraft artillery.
By March 1944, 8th Air Force aircraft were bombing Berlin. On June 6, the unit participated in the D-Day invasion by bombing coastal defenses in three waves of aircraft.
By mid-summer 1944, 8th Air Force had grown to more than 200,000 people and could launch raids of up to 2,000 bombers and 1,000 fighters, author Martin Bowman wrote in the book B-17 Flying Fortress, part of the Combat Legend series.
Dr. Williams said bomb crews exhibited amazing bravery each time they went into battle.
“They drew upon an extraordinary sense of courage and were reminded of the consequences every day,” he said. “When you went to chow in the early darkness of morning, you didn’t know if you were still going to be alive to eat dinner that night.”
Looking back on the European air campaign, Sergeant Mills admits he questions how much was truly accomplished.
“We bombed the hell out of Europe, but there’s always an argument as to whether it was worth it or not (because of) all of the men and airplanes and equipment that we lost,” he said. “There’s still a debatable thing about that.”
The 452nd’s final missions in Europe were flown April 21, 1945. Victory was declared there May 8 and 8th Air Force headquarters moved to Okinawa to train new bomber groups for the invasion of Japan. Some 452nd members were sent stateside to serve as instructors to new crews, but Japan surrendered following the U.S. use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945. The 8th Air Force never saw action in the Pacific.
The 452nd was inactivated Aug. 28, 1945, then brought back into service as a reserve unit in Long Beach, Calif., in April 1947, five months before the Air Force became a separate service from the Army. It has been based in California ever since.
(The author is Chief Master Sgt. Matt Proietti, a reservist with the Air Force Public Affairs Agency in San Antonio, public affairs manager of the Air Force Reserve Yellow Ribbon Program at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia and a former editor of The Beacon.)