22 February 1945 — Pfaffenholfen an der Roth, Germany
The 452nd Bomb Group, 731st Bomb Squadron of the Eighth Air Force was based at Station 142, Deopham Green, England. Deopham Green was located 1 ¾ miles north of Attleborough in the forested and heathland area of Norfolk. The sign at the right was located at the entrance to Deopham Green. There was a 2,000 yard main runway with two intersecting auxiliary runways. Two large hangers, fifty hardstands and temporary housing for 2,900 men of the 452nd Bomb Group, was the home of the groups B-17 Flying Fortress’. The group flew 250 missions during the course of the war, losing 110 of the bombers.
In early September 1944, the William T. Emmet crew was assembled and trained for three months at El Paso Army Airfield, TX. The crew was sent to Lincoln Army Airfield in Nebraska on 4 December 1944 for final processing for overseas duty. After being granted a short leave to home, the Emmet crew left Lincoln, NE on 1 January 1945 on a troop train to Boston. At Boston, the men boarded the SS Ile de France for an 11 day journey across the Atlantic Ocean, arriving in Glasgow, Scotland on 17 January 1945. Again traveling by train, the crew finally arrived at their final duty station at Doepham Green.
After only a couple of weeks at Doepham Green, the Emmet crew flew their first mission on 15 February 1945. The mission that day marked the 200th mission flown by the 452th Bomb Group. 435 B-17’s took off that Thursday to bomb the Cottbus oil refinery. Despite the groups lead plane being shot down and their aircraft being hit by flak, the Emmet crew returned to base. There second mission to bomb the Hamm railroad marshaling yards resulted in being hit by flak again. No one was injured. Bad weather conditions the next couple of days cancelled many missions. Emmet, Hoffman, Ewen and another pilot, Dick Quinton, were given a two day pass to London. Staying at the Red Cross Club, the four celebrated Quinton’s 22nd birthday and hired a cab to see the sights of London. They returned to base about 10:30 on Tuesday night, 20 February. They were awakened early the next morning at 3:00 AM and told to be ready for another mission. After chow and a briefing, the B-17s of the 731st Bomber Squadron took off on their bombing mission. The Emmet crew were now going on their third mission and in a third aircraft. Joining the 1,661 other B-17s that left England that Wednesday, Emmet and crew were to bomb the Nurnberg rail hub and adjacent tank factory. Shortly after take-off, one engine caught fire but after feathering the engine, they continued on. Somewhere over France a second engine caught fire. Informing the lead plane of their troubles, Emmet was told to use his own judgment. Emmet and crew managed to target Merseburg, just over the German border, drop their bombs and return to Doepham Green. Landing with one engine still on fire, the crew was forced to run for their lives away from the burning plane. Next day they would fly their fourth mission in a week and with a different plane.
On Thursday, 22 February 1945, Mission #206 was scheduled to bomb the region near Freilburg/Ulm, Germany. This mission was part of the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces “Operation Clarion.” According to Bill Yenne’s book B-17 at War, “Operation Clarion – an integrated effort to shut down the already devastated German transportation and communications network by attacking network hubs that had not previously received much attention. In a matter of two days, the Eighth launched a crushing 2,702 bomber sorties and 1,567 fighter sorties. The former included 1,882 Flying Fortress sorties, with minimal losses from the exhausted German defenses. The list of targets struck by the B-17s during those 48 hours was like an encyclopedia of largely ignored German Reichsbahn rail hubs, as well as a few familiar targets.”
That morning a group of 77 aircraft headed to Ulm to drop 323.5 tons of bombs. Pilot 2nd Lt. William T. Emmet II and his crew from the 731st Bomb Squadron were assigned to that mission. The 10-man crew that day included pilot Emmet, co-pilot 2nd Lt. William F. Hoffman, navigator F/O Clinton W. Ewen, bombardier Sgt. Warren L. Holt, engineer Sgt. Sidney Mason, radioman Sgt. George J. Benedict, ball-turret gunner Sgt. James E. Moss, waist gunner Sgt. Francis (Jerry) G. Adkins, tail gunner Sgt. Deane P. Clementson and radar man Staff Sgt. William M. Lorig.
Emmet, flying his fourth mission, was piloting a B-17G “Flying Fortress” with serial number 44-8015, nicknamed “Johnny Reb”. This plane was a B-17G-45-VE Pathfinder model with advanced H2X radar technology and built by Lockheed Vega in the spring of 1944 at Burbank, CA. According to the Individual Aircraft Record Card for 44-8015, the aircraft was delivered to the USAAF on 12 May 1944. It was first ferried to the Dallas Modification Center in Texas for about a month. On to Langley AFF base in Virginia before departing from Dow Field, Bangor, ME on 14 July 1944. The aircraft arrived at Deopham Green airfield on 16 July 1944 and immediately put into service. An odd entry into the individual aircraft record card states that on 20 January 1945, the “Johnny Reb” was declared not airworthy and condemned to the salvage yard due to non-battle damage. It is not clear what damage occurred to 44-8015. However, the plane was patched up and available this day.
That morning the Emmet crew was flying the number three position in the low box of the formation. Around noon and after being in the air about five hours, the plane began to have trouble. Late in the morning, the tail gunner’s intercom was not working properly. Radio operator Benedict crawled back to see if he could repair the problem. He returned to his station but was not wearing a parachute.
Before the aircraft made it to the target, it entered heavy white clouds and started to break in half. According to The Roll of Honor: St. Paul’s School in the Second World War: With visibility zero, Emmet, on the extreme left of the formation, steered still further to the left to prevent collision. Soon his plane was bucking and rolling in the “prop wash” of the plane immediately ahead and to the right, which had evidently also moved over to its left. Then there was a crash, not due to collision as the men for a moment thought, nor to enemy action. Overstrained, the B-17 had broken apart in the middle.
In a letter dated 16 August 1989, Jerry Adkins, the waist gunner, remembers what he experienced during the crash: We were descending from 25,000 feet and hit heavy white clouds at 19,000 feet, so thick that we couldn’t see the other planes in our formation. At about 17,000 feet, I think we got in prop wash from the ship in front of us. Our pilot had let the landing flaps down and throttled down to nearly stalling speed. We broke in half. The three of us were able to parachute to safety and the rest of the crew (7) were killed.
In another letter, Adkins gave other details of crash: We were quite close formation, and since we couldn’t see, our pilot was afraid he would chew the tail of the plane in front of us. We started to vibrate from prop wash meaning we were pretty close. In trying to turn up and left sharply, our plane broke in two in the middle, right between the ball and radio room bulk head.
The front end went down like a rock and our radio man was thrown out without a chute. The ball gunner and myself bailed out and were captured right away. The tail gunner and everybody in the front were killed in the crash.
Another eyewitness of the event was provided by Dick Quinton, also a pilot with the 731st Bomb Squadron and a good friend of co-pilot William F. Hoffman. Quinton stated: Our group was led by a new man, Major William P. Middleton, a former cadet commandant from Thunderfield Field at Phoenix with no combat experience. Man, what a struggle. Still going in toward the target, we could see ahead towering cumulus clouds above us. As new as we were we wanted to turn aside and get some more altitude, since we were still climbing to reach our assigned bombing altitude. As new crews, we were both at the rear of the whole formation in coffin corner. Bill (Hoffman) in #3 and myself #2 on our element lead ship. Suddenly, the group lead ship made a sharp bank and turn to the left. At the rear, we had to throttle back to keep from overrunning the ships in front of us. At this moment, we went into the cloud bank and zero visibility. I could feel our heavy ship shuddering into a stall and we immediately poured on full emergency power and climbed back straight ahead to avoid all the mass of 36 loaded B-17s in front of us. I know Bill and Emmet had to stall out and roll over on their back and break in two. Bill was a better pilot than Will Emmet, who was rather slow and measured in everything he did, especially in athletics, which we had done a lot of together for months. Of course, we couldn’t see visually, but were so close to it that I know exactly how it happened. We finally broke out on top and there were scattered airplanes everywhere. We hooked onto a ship with a radar box showing and dropped our bombs when they dropped theirs.
Back at debriefing that evening, we all went through the debriefing procedure and Major Middleton caught hell from Col. Bernie Batson, our commanding officer, a West Point graduate, only 28 years of age, but a real sharp veteran. I was at his office when Major Middleton came out and the man was actually crying, tears running down his dirty cheeks. Of course, we only knew that Bill and Emmet didn’t make it back that night. Bill and I had adjoining cots in the same Nissen hut and we shared everything. By the 26th, on Monday, their crew was declared MIA. On the 28th, I packed all of Bill’s personal effects and took them over to personnel effects office to be sent to Leavenworth, Kansas after a certain period of time. It was a very emotional time for me and it was well that I had to fly almost every day as a new crew soon moved in (after) a few days.
In an interview later, one of the survivors considered their pilot one of the finest, not at all inclined to take chances, and said the co-pilot was steady as a rock. He also mentioned that Ewen was a fine navigator.
Lorig and Benedict were thrown from the aircraft as it broke apart. The plane began to spin and Adkins and Moss were able to bail out. All of the others on the crew were not able to bail out, trapped by centrifugal forces. As the aircraft was going down, three bombs came loose and exploded. The aircraft crashed in an open field near Pfaffenhofen an der Roth, south of Ulm, Germany. The craters are still visible today. Other parts of wreckage crashed near the present day street Zur Birkenalle. About 50 years later, a local resident who lived on Hermann-Köhl-Straβe was digging at the edge of his garden and uncovered part of a propeller from the “Johnny Reb”. Close by were found an aluminum plaque with English text from an oxygen tank and several rusted steel helmets.
One of the survivors had a Colt .45 revolver (possibly Lorig) and the airmen were able to stand off a crowd of angry civilians. But finally German police arrived and took Lorig, Adkins and Moss prisoner. Adkins later said that police were shooting at his parachute as he descended and he found two holes in the ‘chute. An elderly lady resident of Pfaffenhofen recently remembered that “My father told me that there is something happening.” As was customary, she ran as a seven-year-old with other children to the crash site “It was a terrible sight.” The next day the girls saw the survivors. The airmen stood at the site of a former gas station (where the post office is now located), waiting to be transported to a prison camp.
All three were sent to the German interrogation center at Dulag Luft-Oberrursel. After about a week, the prisoners were sent by box car to Stalag 13d Nuremberg, then forced to march by foot for over 100 miles south on a ten day journey to Stalag VIIa-Moosburg. They were finally liberated shortly after noon on 29 April 1945 by the Fourteenth Armored Division, part of General George S. Patton’s Third Army. Patton was reported to have declared, “I bet you sons-of-bitches are glad to see me!” The next day, the New York Times reported “Huge Prison Camp Liberated...27,000 American and British prisoners of war at a large camp at Moosburg.” However the following day, the Times had to make a correction. There were not 27,000 but 110,000 POWs, making it the largest camp in Germany.
The dead crewmen were initially buried in a local cemetery in Pfaffenhofen. A marker over the grave stated, “Here sleep seven American soldiers.” The bodies were later moved to a small cemetery at Rentil, eight kilometers south of Ulm. Missing Air Crew Report 12657 was filed after the aircraft failed to return home to base. Discovered by advancing American troops on 8 June 1945, the bodies of the seven killed airmen were moved. Five were later interred at the Lorraine American Cemetery in Saint-Avold, France and two were sent home to be buried in their hometown.