Steeple Morden, England is where the story starts more than 77 years ago. It’s the place where two wingmen were stationed together and left their mark on history. They served as P-51 Mustang pilots, escorting B-17 Flying Fortresses over Europe during World War II.
The two veterans were 1st Lt. Robert Delhamer and 1st Lt. William “Bill” Lyons, both were assigned to the 357th Fighter Squadron which fell under the 355th Fighter Group.
“Delhamer and I flew many missions together,” said Lyons, one of the last World War II pilots from the 357th FS.
Their story came alive when the 355th Wing’s historian opened a box from Lyons and Delhamer. What was inside the box is a historian’s dream come true.
“I immediately got goosebumps when I saw what was inside the box, and the more digging I did, the more personal World War II artifacts I found,” said George Tinseth, 355th Wing historian. “There were photos of Delhamer and the 357th FS, as well as a “TS” ticket, aerial maps, and an Officers’ Club book with both Lyon’s and Delhamer’s names listed.”
The box contained over 50 different, well-preserved World War II artifacts from Delhamer’s and Lyon’s time at Steeple Morden. From maps, to personal photographs, aviator goggles, and more, each artifact told a story and provided a glimpse into these pilots’ lives and what they had to endure during World War II.
The artifacts showed a snapshot into what the pilots did prior to being sent on missions, particularly the stack of small pieces of brown notepaper covered in Delhamer’s handwriting. These were his notes from pre-mission briefings detailing call signs, rally points, geographic references, timelines, and radio frequencies. The notes are a testament to the information overload pilots needed to detail and keep track of, as well as the grueling mission tempo Delhamer and his squadron maintained.
In mission briefs, the pilots were provided aerial photographs showing targeted areas in eastern Germany for the B-17s. After they were briefed, the pilots would grab their gear and be ready to go to escort bomber aircraft.
Personal photos showcased several pilots from the 357th FS posing with their beloved aircraft. Lyons even named his P-51, “Tiger’s Revenge.”
The 355th FG was activated in November of 1942 in Orlando, Fla., and moved to their new home in Steeple Morden, England, July 1, 1943. The group became fully operational by Sept. 9 and flew their first combat mission with the Eighth Air Force on Sept. 14, 1943. During the 355th FG operations in the European Theater, they flew both the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang, conducting more than 17,000 sorties and shooting down over 860 enemy aircraft. The group was tasked with escorting bomber missions over Germany, protecting them from enemy aircraft, as well as attacking enemy positions on the ground whenever possible. Although performing both tasks bravely and proficiently, it was their exploits in the latter which earned the 355th FG the nickname of the “Steeple Morden Strafers.”
During Lyon’s and Delhamer’s time in Steeple Morden, the 355th FG destroyed more enemy aircraft by ground strafing than any other fighter group attached to the Eighth Air Force. Their efforts severely crippled the enemy’s ability to field them against allied aircraft and ground troops, and contributing greatly to obtaining air superiority. The 357th FS was also proficient at dispatching enemy aircraft they encountered in the air as well, downing more than 280 of the 860 total enemy aircraft destroyed by the group.
“The 355th FG was an extraordinary group,” said Lyons. “Our squadron had the most strafing, but we also lost the most pilots of all the groups. Strafing was particularly dangerous in the airfields deep inside Germany.”
Within the group, there were 80 members killed in action, 58 taken as a prisoner of war, and 14 missing in action, with a total of 183 total aircraft lost. Of those losses, the 357th FS accounted for over a quarter of the 355th FG pilots killed in action with 27, 21 taken in as a prisoner, three missing in action and 65 aircraft lost.
Delhamer took a picture of the German Me-109 and kept plates from the aircraft, another WWII artifact he shared with the 355th Wing.
“These artifacts gave us a glimpse into the lives of those who served before us and showed us the significance of the missions both Delhamer and Lyons contributed to,” said Tinseth. “It’s nice to be able to share their stories.”