Bank Nite Betty and Hunconscious, 397th Bridge Busters

Bank Nite Betty and Hunconscious, 397th Bridge Busters


Bank Nite Betty and Hunconscious were Martin B-26 Marauder bombers of the Ninth Air Force’s 397th Bombardment Group, part of the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. The Ninth Air Force had been grounded due to serious snowfalls and cloud cover during the first week of Hitler’s massive Ardennes offensive -- what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge -- in the coldest winter in 20 years. When the weather cleared Dec. 23, 1944, Hunconscious (from the 599th Bombardment Squadron) and Bank Nite Betty (from the 596th Bomb Squadron) were soon airborne taking part in the 397th Bridge Busters’ attack on the rail bridge in Eller, Germany. Flak and fighters brought down 10 American planes. Bank Nite Betty (42-96144) and Hunconscious (43-34430) were the first. Within 48 hours of the incident, a Missing Air Crew Report, or MACR, was completed for each of them (Bank Nite Betty: MACR 11483 and Hunconscious: MACR 11985).

Stories about Bank Nite Betty and Hunconscious, 397th Bridge Busters

HRC FOIA helps ‘aviation archaeologist’ (unabridged version)

  • Allmuthen, Belgium

by Andrea Wales

Sgt. 1st Class Danny Keay is only one of the many individuals who submit Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. Army Human Resources Command FOIA Office every day, but he is part of a much smaller group that has made it their life’s mission to help recover the remains of those Soldiers who have been lost in action, an HRC FOIA official said.

“During World War II, over 400,000 American service members died; 73,000 still remain unaccounted for to this day. Many of the family members of those missing are still trying to piece together what happened to their loved ones, and that’s where Sgt. Keay and others come in,” Susan Kilianski said. “These individuals take their time, money and resources to help repatriate the missing to their family members.”

Keay is a Fort Campbell, Ky., Soldier, who refers to himself as an “aviation archaeologist.” He’s a counterintelligence noncommissioned officer with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, whose hobby is MIA recovery. In his off-duty time, he has most recently been assisting with the MIA recovery of an Army Air Forces Soldier whose sister lives in Kentucky -- Staff Sgt. Ward C. Swalwell Jr. of Illinois.

“People forget what these guys did for us,” <a>said Keay</a>, who is the author of the book “Roscoe Red Three is Missing” about another MIA recovery.

Swalwell was a radio operator/gunner on a Martin B-26 <a>Marauder</a> twin-engine bomber called Hunconscious in the 397th Bombardment Group’s 599th Bombardment Squadron.

The entire 9th Air Force had been grounded due to serious snowfalls and cloud cover during the first week of Hitler’s massive Ardennes offensive in the coldest winter in 20 years. The offensive, which came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge, began Dec. 16, 1944.

“For a week, we waited, and, finally, on December 23, the weather broke,” said William A. Hahn, 91, who was the pilot of Slightly Dangerous, the Third, a B-26 also in the 599th. “Our target was a railroad bridge at Eller (Germany) on the Mosel River at the base of the Bulge, about 50 miles inside German lines. We knew the Bulge was packed; we also knew the seriousness of the situation.”

The Germans had pushed west and broken through a weak point in the American lines, creating a German salient, or bulge, in the American lines. The fighting was fierce, but long-awaited American air support was finally on its way.

“As we approached the Bulge, we saw that, indeed, the flak was thick enough to walk on,” the Slightly Dangerous pilot said. FLAK is the German military acronym for Fliegerabwehrkanone, or anti-aircraft gun. American airmen adopted the acronym to refer to German anti-aircraft fire. Subsequently, it has entered the American lexicon to mean disproportionate criticism.

During the attack, 10 American planes were shot down.

“Will Cook, another of our buddies (1st Lt. William Cook, pilot of Hunconscious), his crew and his plane disappeared. No wreckage or bodies were ever found,” Hahn said. “One theory is that the plane crashed unseen in one of several lakes in the area.”

The Eller Bridge mission was successful. For its part in the battle that day, the 397th Bombardment Group received the Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy. It cited gallantry, determination and esprit-de-corps.

For decades, Hunconscious and its crew remained missing. A crash site in Allmuthen, Belgium, near the German border is where Keay determined they were.

Another <a>B-26, Bank Nite Betty, was also part of 397th Bomb Group</a> and flew with Hunconscious that day. They were both shot out of formation.

“The formation flew on for a short while when it was attacked -- from a mix of fighters and anti-aircraft (fire) – and lost another eight planes,” Keay said.

Within 48 hours of the incident, a missing air crew report, or MACR, was completed for each of them. Information like airplane serial number (Bank Nite Betty: 42-96144, Hunconscious: 43-34430), weapons, crew names and service numbers, unit take-off time and target were gathered on the MACR so that, when a search was conducted, officials would know what to look for, Keay said.

After the war, investigative teams were overwhelmed, however, he said.

The possibility that a bomber might have been shot out of the sky before it dropped its load made sorting out a crash site even more difficult.

Two teams thought the crater at Allmuthen was the impact site of the empennage, or tail section, of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine bomber, Keay said. It later turned out to be an impact site from a B-26.

In 2006, a German forestry worker found American plane parts and a piece of a leather jacket about the size of a business card that had a laundry mark with what appeared to be either the letter H or A with three numbers on it, Keay said. The laundry mark was found about 100 feet to 150 feet from the crater. The crater itself is 500 yards from where the front half of the Bank Nite Betty fuselage came to rest with the remains of four of its crew.

Bank Nite Betty’s seven-man crew was accounted for, and the four found in the fuselage were interred in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis while the others were interred individually elsewhere, according to Michael Mee, identifications chief at HRC’s Past Conflict Repatriations Branch under The Adjutant General Directorate, or TAGD.

PCRB works closely with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory to account for missing Army and Army Air Forces servicemembers, Mee said. Its employees maintain contact with and serve as Army representatives to the families of these unaccounted-for servicemembers throughout all efforts to locate, identify and return their loved ones.

In November 2006, Keay performed a site survey of the area where the laundry mark was found -- the purported crash site of Bank Nite Betty.

Using the information on related MACRs and upon closer inspection, Keay’s associate, German historian Hans Guenter Ploes, discovered that the numbers didn’t belong to any of the members of the Bank Nite Betty crew, but instead were the last three digits of the service number of Sgt. Eric M. Honeyman, a toggler on Hunconscious. (Using the bomb-release toggle switch, a toggler dropped his bombs when the lead plane dropped its bombs so that the bomb pattern was concentrated for maximum destruction. In these instances, only the bombardier of the lead plane used a bombsight.)

The pieces of the puzzle fit perfectly, pointing to the one plane that was never found, Hunconscious, Keay said.

Parts of boots, a piece of parachute and part of a pair of destroyed goggles were also found.

“We decided to stop any further excavation,” Keay said. “Our goal was to determine which plane it was, not to recover remains. We sent the records to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.”

Keay contacted the Forestry Office and the owners of the crash-site property, and asked them to keep an eye on the site and make sure no illegal digging occurred.

Keay hypothesized that Bank Nite Betty and Hunconscious crashed simultaneously: While still mid-air, Bank Nite Betty broke in two with nose and fuselage continuing forward to an Allmuthen field due to forward momentum and the pull of the engines while the tail section plummeted to earth more than two miles away. The crater, which had been thought to belong to the tail of Bank Nite Betty, in reality contained the remains of Hunconscious.

In order to assist in his investigation, Keay requested Individual Deceased Personnel Files using the FOIA process.

Once HRC FOIA received the request, it was placed into a tracking system called FACTS, Kilianski said. The request was researched, and the requested records were ordered from the National Archives and Records Administration’s Washington National Records Centerin Suitland, Md.

The IDPF contains a variety of forms to help identify remains. Most will include dental records, interment documents, disinterment documents and inventory of personal effects, Kilianski said. Not all the IDPFs will contain all these forms. The circumstances surrounding the individual’s death will dictate which forms are in the IDPF.

This past April, a Belgian group called the 99th Infantry Division MIA Project in coordination with an American non-profit group redid the site survey and did an excavation of the site, Keay said.

“They didn’t want to excavate or recover the whole plane; they just wanted to prove that there were human remains,” Keay said. “Once they found remains, they contacted U.S. authorities.”

Within 48 hours, JPAC sent an anthropologist and, shortly afterward, JPAC sent an entire team, he said.

“They’re digging right now,” Keay said. “JPAC is at the site and doing a really great job. The site is so big that they got 20 volunteers from Spangdahlem Air Base” in Germany about an hour from where the crash occurred.

The excavation must be completed, and remains must be sent to JPAC in Hawaii, Keay said. DNA analysis will have to be conducted.

“Once identification has been performed, the next step is interment,” Keay said. “For the family, it’s closure. A 60-year road will have come to an end.”

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