The Legacy of a Lost WWII Bomber Crew

11 minute read

This post is in collaboration with The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, which brings together scholars and researchers from around the world to use the Library’s rich collections. The article below was originally published on the Kluge Center blog.

Author and journalist Gregg Jones spent four months at the Kluge Center researching the American bombing campaign during World War II in an effort to better understand the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the “Jerk’s Natural” over Austria in October 1943. The Black Mountain Institute-Kluge Fellow for 2015-2016, Jones sat down with Jason Steinhauer to discuss his project, his family connection to the tragedy, and the legacy of the lost WWII bomber crew.

Hi, Gregg. Thanks for joining us. Let’s start at the beginning: how did this project originate?

This project grew out of my childhood memories of a photograph that my mother kept on her dresser. The black and white image showed ten men posing before a U.S. Army Air Forces B-24 Liberator at an airfield in England in August 1943. One of the men in the photograph was my mother’s oldest brother, Technical Sergeant L.H. White (bottom left). My mother told me that the crew had disappeared during a mission over Austria in October 1943. It devastated her family, and the unanswered questions continued to haunt them for decades.

How did those childhood memories lead to a larger investigation and a book project?

Initially, I wanted to answer the fundamental questions my mother had about her brother and his loss. As I would discover, the other families who had loved ones on this crew had similar questions. Beyond those questions, I wanted to know what these men were like as people. I wanted to know about their lives. What did they experience in the skies over Europe, and on the ground in their deployments?

How did the investigation unfold?

I was visiting my parents in Missouri in 1990, and my mother still had the photograph of the crew on her dresser. So I got a box of my uncle’s personal effects from my mother’s closet and went through it. I started to take notes, build a timeline, and list all the facts that I could glean from the documents. I also found a sheet of addresses of the next-of-kin of all the men. I had no idea how many of these people were still alive, or where they lived after so many decades, so I wrote letters to the hometown newspaper of the men, explaining that I was looking for family or friends of a certain airman who had disappeared over Austria on October 1, 1943. I filed Freedom of Information Act requests and I began writing newspapers in Austria. I began to hear from people within days. Piece by piece, a fuller portrait of the crew and their families emerged.

So when was the crew formed and when did they go into combat?

The crew came together in January and February 1943 at Alamogordo Army Air Base in New Mexico. Their pilot was Lt. William F. Stein, a Brown University graduate, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, from Naugatuck, Connecticut. They were assigned to the 328th Squadron of the 93rd Bombardment Group (or 93rd Bomb Group), part of the 2nd Air Division within the 8th Air Force. Overseas they flew out of the East Anglian village of Hardwick, near Norwich, England, and completed their tactical training school course in mid-June. A few days later, secret orders were issued—Special Orders No. 174—and the crews of the 93rd Bomb Group packed their gear and prepared to head to an unknown destination for an operation known by the codename ‘Soapsuds.’ The codename was soon changed to Tidal Wave. Several weeks would pass before the crews were told they were going to make a daring low-level raid on Hitler’s oil fields at Ploesti, Romania.

What do you know about the crew’s participation in the famous Ploesti raid?

The Stein crew and other B-24 crews from the 93rd and 44th Bomb Groups flew through the Straits of Gibraltar and then across North Africa, to former German airstrips in the Sahara Desert outside of Benghazi, Libya. Starting in early July 1943, the crews flew several missions against targets in Sicily and the Italian mainland to support the Allied invasion of Sicily. Then they took part in a massive raid on railroad yards around Rome on July 19. After that mission, they spent the rest of the month practicing low-level flights and mock raids on targets laid out in the desert.

By this time, the Stein crew had taken custody of a storied 93rd aircraft, Jerk’s Natural. William Stein’s co-pilot had fallen ill, and for the Ploesti mission Stein took the co-pilot’s seat and Lt. Cleveland Hickman took command of the aircraft. The Hickman/Stein crew bombed Ploesti with a small group of 93rd aircraft commanded by Major (later General) Ramsay Potts. The Stein crew was lucky at Ploesti: they sustained damage to two of their four engines and were losing fuel, but they escaped the enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire. After more than twelve hours in the air, they made an emergency landing on Sicily, at an airdrome held by British forces. Jerk’s Natural was patched up by British mechanics and my uncle and his crewmates returned to their base outside Benghazi the following day, where they learned the full scale of the losses over Ploesti: Of the 177 B-24s that took off from North Africa, 53 were destroyed and 55 damaged; 440 men were killed and 220 captured or missing.

What happened next?

The 93rd and 44th B-24 crews flew a few more missions from North Africa against Italian targets, and returned to England on August 27, 1943. The Stein crew and others enjoyed passes to London. The Stein crew’s bombardier, John McDonough, wrote home to his parents in Oakland, California, that he had stayed in a Red Cross Club, near the heart of Picadilly Circus.

After a few missions against targets in Nazi-occupied France, the B-24 crews were ordered back to North Africa in mid-September, to support the imperiled Allied landing on the Italian mainland at Salerno. By the time the crews arrived at their temporary base outside Tunis, the Salerno beachhead had been secured and Allied forces had pushed inland. The Stein crew and their comrades flew a few missions against rail marshalling yards and other targets on the Italian mainland. Then they were briefed for one more mission, a long raid to Wiener Neustadt, Austria, to strike a German factory that was Hitler’s second largest source of Me-109 fighter planes. The Stein crew was the only 93rd aircraft lost that day: October 1, 1943.

What were the families told after the plane disappeared?

The crew was initially listed as “missing in action” and the families received MIA telegrams on November 3 and 4, 1943. One week later, one of the ten families received a telegram informing them that the Germans had listed their son as a prisoner of war. This was Lt. William W. Sykes of Audenried, Pennsylvania, the crew’s navigator. He was taken to the German prison camp, Stalag Luft III, the place where the “Great Escape” occurred in the spring of 1944.

After a year without any news, the War Department declared my uncle and the rest of the crew as “presumptively” killed in action. When Germany surrendered in May 1945, Lt. Sykes returned home. He told the other families and the Army Air Forces that he believed his nine missing crewmates were dead; he said the Germans had told him an American bomber had crashed outside the Austrian village where he had parachuted to safety, and there were nine bodies in the wreckage. Lt. Sykes never saw the bodies, but he said the Germans had showed him watches and rings that he recognized as those of his crewmates. It wasn’t until the fall of 1949 that the Army Quartermaster Corps’ Memorial Division informed the families of the nine missing Stein crew members that remains recovered in Austria and reburied in a U.S. military cemetery in France as “Unknown X-7611” were those of the nine missing men of the Stein crew.

The families later received telegrams informing them that there would be a funeral for their loved one at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, on the afternoon of March 13, 1950. The families showed up at the designated place to find one coffin. They were never given much information about why. Many of the families continued to have doubts as to whether the men had been found, and what had really happened to them. The parents of all these men went to their graves with these unanswered questions.

Your research at the Library has extended beyond this particular crew to the the air war in general. How is your project going to break new ground?

My interest all along has extended well beyond the combat experiences of this particular crew and has encompassed the impact on the families of these men. My examination of this stretches over decades. How does a single mass-casualty incident in war reverberate over decades? It does so in many different ways—some poignant, some inspiring, some tragic, some humorous, some strange and even bizarre.

Secondly, my project examines Henry “Hap” Arnold and the decision to pursue the daylight bombing campaign without fighter escorts through the late summer and autumn of 1943—a decision that cost the lives of thousands of men. American bomber crew losses in Europe were starting to soar when my uncle’s crew flew to England in late May 1943 to begin their combat tour with the 8th Air Force. I believe Arnold’s failure to make a long-range fighter escort a priority earlier in the war was a significant error, one that he glosses over in his memoirs. If the United States had lost the war, I believe this error would have received far more attention from historians. I also believe that Arnold was motivated at least in part by his all-consuming desire to prove the viability of the air doctrine that he had helped develop in the 1920s and 1930s. So, I believe a strong case can be made that some Arnold’s critical decisions in 1942-43 were driven by hubris, national pride and the dream of creating an independent United States Air Force free of Army and Navy control.

As you continue to piece together this story, an investigation that began in childhood, what do you see as the crew’s legacy?

It has taken me many years and much thought to understand the legacy of this tragedy. For the longest time, I couldn’t see past the trauma the families had suffered. But there was so much more that I had missed—the love and devotion, the acts of remembrance and the inspiration drawn from the tragic act of young lives cut short. The families made extraordinary efforts to find out what happened to their loved ones after they went missing. This quest continued for many years, and in some ways never ended. Sometimes, this urgent need to know and understand what had happened caused great strains in the families. All of the families demonstrated extraordinary love, devotion and determination to remember and honor their lost boys. That was—and still is—the ultimate lesson for me after all these years. The human spirit, at its finest, is a wondrous force: vibrant, strong, resilient, capable of so much good, so much love and joy, even when tempered by tragedy. The “last mission” of the families of this lost bomber crew was to honor and cherish the memory of nine souls they lost too soon. And this they have done.

Gregg Jones is the Black Mountain Institute-Kluge Fellow for 2015-2016. He is working on his fourth nonfiction book, about the multigenerational legacy of a lost World War II bomber crew.

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