91st Bomb Group—Bassingbourn

By pure happenchance the Bishop Crew ended up being assigned to one of the most, if not the most storied USAAF bomb groups in World War II, and within that group to a very famous squadron; famous because it had been honored by the King and Queen of England and because it had been singled out and publicized by Hollywood. In the latter stages of the war this squadron achieved additional fame in the person of its commander, who would become an Army Air Forces legend.

In addition to the accolades, the 91st Bomb Group also had the dubious distinction of having experienced the largest number of losses of any heavy bombardment group in World War II.1 With this distinction, however, came a special form of recognition—“. . . more Distinguished Service Crosses and Silver Stars, a measure of high valor of its combat crews.”2

Two years before the Bishop Crew arrived, the 91st Bomb Group landed in Great Britain on October 3, 1942, becoming the first American bomb group into the fray. On their initial ferry trip over the Atlantic, one of the original 91st bombers was lost, crashing in the fog.

The 91st started offensive operations on November 7, 1942 by sending 14 bombers to attack a German submarine base in France. Missions continued regularly after that date, and by mid-1943 the USAAF felt confident enough to attempt something really bold. The U.S. was determined to prove the efficacy of deep-penetration daylight bombing of military targets. The British had eschewed daylight bombing in favor of nighttime carpet attacks, claiming the latter achieved satisfactory results at much less risk to bomber crews.

The seminal test came on August 17, 1943 and the 91st Bomb Group was in the thick of it. The Eighth Air Force sent 230 U.S. bombers on a 1,000-mile round-trip mission—a force that included 24 B-17s from the 91st, with the 91st commander in the lead.

They headed for Schweinfurt, in central Germany, to destroy three ball bearing plants critical to the Nazi war effort.

The Americans made mistakes during the raid.

Strike timing was not coordinated with a separate U.S. attack that day on a Me-109 fighter plant at Regensburg. As a consequence the Luftwaffe was given time to attack the Regensburg raiders, land, refuel, rearm and rise again to attack the incoming Schweinfurt raiders.

Going in, the U.S. commander for the Schweinfurt raid chose to fly below a cloud cover ranging between 17,000 and 21,000 feet, “which showed the Fortresses up beautifully and made them easily visible for fifty miles.”3 The Luftwaffe, however, effectively used this same cloud cover to mask its attacks.

At day’s end, the Schweinfurt mission cost 36 B-17s. The 91st, flying the always-dangerous lead position, lost 10 bombers, a loss rate of 42%. Thirty-six airmen from the bomb group were killed. The ball bearing plants were damaged but soon repaired; German war production was not seriously interrupted. News releases touted the raid a success; the reality was otherwise.

After the war, Gregory Peck starred in the popular film Twelve O’Clock High. A work of historical fiction, it was loosely based on the early days of a U.S. bomb group stationed in Great Britain and focused on the introduction of strategic daylight bombing. The film’s major raid was based on the real Schweinfurt mission and the B-17 bombers in the film had a large and distinctive “Triangle A” painted on their tails exactly as the planes flown by the 91st.

After the devastating results of the Schweinfurt raid, it took the 91st over a month to recuperate in terms of men, material and morale. When it did recover it came back with what one might characterize as an attitude. On October 9, the 91st participated in what would become known as the Battle of Anklam. The name “battle” derived from the fact that so many bullets were fired. Again trying to prove American daylight air superiority, six U.S. bomb groups, comprising 115 B-17s (including 17 from the 91st) faced-off against approximately 300 German fighters. Anklam, a good-sized city approximately 90 miles north of Berlin near the Baltic Sea, was a deep penetration mission for the attackers and beyond the range of U.S. fighter support. This time the 91st flew tail-end Charlie, another dangerous position in a bomber formation.

What made this raid tactically different was the fact that it was a diversion. Ostensibly sent to destroy an aircraft components plant in the city, the real intent of the mission was to serve as a ruse to draw off German fighters from a much larger U.S. attack planned for eastern Germany via the Baltic Sea coastline. A commentator wrote: “As an additional temptation to the Luftwaffe they [the Anklam attackers] would fly at only 12,500 feet.”4

Bomb-laden heavy bombers usually operated at high altitude, often at 24,000 feet, for two reasons: one, planes flying at high altitude were more difficult to shoot down from the ground; and two, enemy fighters were less maneuverable and effective at higher altitudes. In going into Anklam the way it did, the Eighth Air Force issued a special challenge to the Luftwaffe: “We are willing slug it out in the airspace favorable to you.”

The Germans pilots took the easy offering and allowed the larger more destructive main U.S. force to proceed unopposed.

Aerial combat in the Anklam battle was fierce.

The Luftwaffe came on aggressively with repeated head-on attacks followed by hits from all directions. German fighters attacked singly and in groups of two or four. The B-17s held to a tight formation that optimized the many gun stations on each ship. Several U.S. gunners were severely wounded but stood to their posts and continued firing. The Luftwaffe flew through its own rocket fire and flak to get at the U.S. bombers. Planes on both sides ran out of ammo. Eighteen of the 115 B-17s that started out that day were lost, including 5 from the 91st. Thirty men from the 91st were killed.”5 The contest had been waged in perfect visibility.

As for Anklam itself, the city was seriously damaged. A German woman would later write about her experience on the ground. This had been the first bombing of her city. She reported that the attack lasted only four minutes and that most of the city center was destroyed. “The sky darkened into night and 350 civilians died.”6

The raids at Schweinfurt and Anklam set into play what would become a tradition for the 91st—an aggressive eagerness to engage and a willingness to sacrifice to obtain victory. The bomb group would both lead from the front and defend from the rear. Casualties or not, this bomb group was unstoppable. The press said as much and a reputation came into being.

The 91st had completed some 250 missions when the Bishop Crew arrived at Bassingbourn in late October 1944. When the crew started flying combat approximately a month later, there remained another 82 missions for the 91st to fly before the Nazis would capitulate. Addison Bartush would fly 31 of these 82 missions—representing a normal combat rotation for a pilot at the time.7 Paul Lynch would fly but once.

Being the first U.S. heavy bomb group to arrive in Great Britain in 1942, the 91st had dibs on available airfields—well sort of dibs, anyway. The commander of the 91st, Col. Stanley Wray, whose bomb group had been billeted at Kimbolton (a less-than-desirable metal shack kind of a facility), had been ordered to inspect and report on an air station at Bassingbourn, near Cambridge and not far from London, for a possible move of the 91st there. Seeing the pristine, fully completed permanent structures at Bassingbourn, Wray ordered his men to immediately truck in everything they could in order to take squatter’s possession! The reputation for aggressiveness of this bomb group started right then and there. After “occupying” Bassingbourn, Wray pleaded for, and begrudgingly obtained, forgiveness from a frosted USAAF brigadier general.

Wray chose Bassingbourn, a base built by the RAF before the war, because it had a large number of hangers, well-built permanent brick buildings (no cold-water-only Nissen huts or out-houses that would become the bane of later arriving USAAF operational groups) and perhaps, most wonderfully, per Addison, concrete sidewalks. “There was no mud!” Addison exclaimed. “We were the country club of air stations! The dance floor at the Officer’s Club was made of real wood,” he effused. Officers lived in one area of the base and enlisted men in another; both had it as good or better than their USAAF counterparts elsewhere in the ETO. Bassingbourn’s close proximity to London did not hurt 91st morale, either.

Paul and Addison’s squadron, the 324th, was one of four squadrons comprising the 91st Bomb Group—the others being the 322nd, the 323rd and the 401st. The 324th was the unit made famous by the bomber Memphis Belle, whose crew, on a 1943 cross-country promotional tour, had visited the University of Pittsburgh when Addison and Dave Bishop were student cadets there. “I remember meeting them,” Addison said. This had been a big deal for Addison, Dave and all the cadet-students.

Under Eighth Air Force rules in effect in 1942, when the U.S. air war started, a bomber crew had to complete 25 combat missions, referred to as a “tour,” to be eligible to return to the United States. At that time, many knowledgeable of German air defenses thought that surviving 25 missions was not statistically possible. On May 17, 1943, the crew of the Memphis Belle proved them wrong; they were the first crew to accomplish this feat. An elaborate ceremony was held at Bassingbourn to mark their success— one that included a visit from the King and Queen of England.

Memphis Belle proved to be a big morale boost for the Eighth Air Force and the event was made famous in a documentary by Hollywood director William Wyler. The movie proved to be a huge hit stateside and in the United Kingdom. “I knew about theMemphis Belle, of course,” Addison said. “But I didn’t know it belonged to the 91st.”

By the time the Bishop Crew arrived at Bassingbourn a year-and-a half later, the war was going much better for the Allies. The odds for bomber crew survival were better in large part because U.S. fighter planes, flying from forward bases in liberated France and carrying external fuel tanks that extended their range, could, for the first time, escort heavy bombers all the way to their targets and back. When Addison and Paul and the others arrived on the scene, a “tour” had been upped to 35 missions. Although the survival odds had considerably improved by late 1944, flying combat missions was still extremely dangerous work. “Flak,” or anti-aircraft artillery fired from ground stations, accounted for the majority of bombers downed—even early in the air war—and flak could not be stopped.

Upon arrival, the Bishop Crew was put to work almost immediately, but not at flying combat. Things were going so well for the USAAF at this juncture that it had the luxury of training newly arrived crews for approximately a month before exposing them to harm’s way. “We had to fly around the area to get used to the local topography,” Addison explained. “We flew a lot.”

The Bishop Crew had barely settled in when major tragedy struck on November 2, 1944. The 324th Squadron was idle that day, but the other three squadrons of the 91st put up 37 bombers and flew to Merseburg. Only 24 returned. Eighth Air Force-wide, a total of 38 B-17s were lost on the mission.8 Several B-17s belonging to the 91st went down because of flak damage taken during their bomb runs. After “bombs away” things became far more deadly. The Luftwaffe, that had not been active for some time in order to conserve fuel, came out with 500 fighters and sandbagged the returning American raiding force. The 91st happened to be in the always vulnerable tail-end Charlie position and consequently absorbed the worst of the attack. In its largest single-day loss of the war, the 91st suffered 49 members killed and 5 wounded; another 68 were taken prisoner of war.9

Addison had been away from the base when this happened, but Paul Lynch was at the field when the shattered bomb group limped home. “I recall watching those planes return with all their structural damage and wounded,” Paul remembered. “This was my first real exposure to the fact that war is hell and I soon would be right in the middle of the whole mess.”

Thinking back on this event, Addison recounted a similar event that later affected him: “I once saw a plane pull-up and a body removed from a ball turret. The sight made me grow old quick.”

The November 2 Merseburg raid dispelled any thoughts that Bishop crewmembers may have harbored about the air war winding down, or that it was becoming relatively safe to fly combat. True, at this stage of the war the casualty percentage rates for bomber crews were not nearly as high as it had been previously, but there still remained a present and real danger. “When I flew combat, enemy fighters were few and far between,” Addison remarked, “but they could always surprise you.” In the lore of the 91st Bomb Group, November 2, 1944 would become forever known as theMassacre at Merseburg.10 That the 324th Squadron did not fly that day was purely a matter of chance. Unless the Eighth Air Force had a “maximum effort” on, it was customary for bomb groups to send out three squadrons on any given mission day, allowing the fourth squadron, on a rotational basis, to stand down for a day of rest. It simply happened that the 322nd, the 323rd and the 401st Squadrons were assigned to fly on November 2, 1944, and not the 324th.

Paul had a thought-provoking reaction to what happened on November 2. As bad as the Merseburg raid had been for his bomb group, he felt America’s conduct of the war was the proper approach. He said: “U.S. airmen had a certain pride that we bombed only military-specific targets and in broad daylight. The British bombed whole cities at night. There was an undercurrent among U.S. airmen that the British raids were revenge for the German blitz over London that killed thousands of civilians, and that this was wrong. The 49 U.S. airmen from the 91st who died over Merseburg that day were trying to knock out a Nazi fuel-making plant. This was a right thing to do.” The Blitz lasted from September 1940 through mid-May 1941 and witnessed the Nazis attacking many UK cities, including 71 assaults on London. Approximately 60,000 British civilians were killed during the Blitz, and a majority of those perished in London.11

During late November Paul recounted a training mission to Paris where communications were lost on the way back resulting in an emergency landing. Addison described it this way: “We couldn’t get back because the weather had gotten so bad. We passed over a small RAF fighter base and circled several times while Dave initiated radio contact for permission to make an emergency landing. They granted us permission and the landing wasn’t easy because of the short runway. We spent the night there and the British were very, very helpful. When the weather finally cleared, we flew back to our base.”

“We were fortunate for that one-day emergency layover,” Paul recounted. Had we made it back to Bassingbourn, at least some of us would have flown combat the next day on a B-17 that ended up being shot down.”

The commanding officer of the 324th Squadron who was responsible for training the Bishop Crew, Lt. Col. Immanuel J. Klette, had a real persona. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor who detested the Nazis, and “Manny” Klette vowed to continue flying combat until the Third Reich was smashed.12 To him the war was personal—he abhorred “a totalitarian government headed by a megalomaniac racist.”13 Klette took command of the 324th Squadron on July 30, 1944. By the end of the war he would hold the Eighth Air Force record for most heavy bomber combat missions flown— coincidently the same number as his bomb group—91.

“He was a disciplinarian,” Addison said without hesitation. “You had to obey the rules and always be a good pilot.” The manner of Addison’s delivery left no doubt about what he meant to say: Klette was a CO who commanded respect.

Like Addison, Klette started flying combat as a co-pilot. Blond, handsome and 27 years old, Klette was the first known B-17 pilot to pull out of a spin with a full bomb load.14 When he was climbing at near stall speed through clouds he had to maneuver sharply to avoid a collision. The sudden veer caused him to lose air and put him out of control. Somehow, miraculously, he was able to re-stabilize his airship. Another first was a crash landing under instrument conditions in the woods near an RAF base with only one engine and a flat tire.15 Although there were miraculously no crew fatalities, this flak-caused downing put Klette in the hospital for five months with a fractured pelvis and leg injuries. After he was released he was selected to command the 324th. Addison told of a social event involving his commanding officer where Klette’s human side came out. “We really got to know him when he married,” Addison offered. “He married an American nurse, I believe, in a church at Cambridge and we all attended.” He added, “She died young and he remarried.”

Asked if Klette had a sense of humor, Addison replied, “I think he did,” then smiled wide at the memory and qualified his response. “Later in life,” he chuckled, meaning only after the war. As a combat commander, Klette had been all business but also not a vainglorious, strutting peacock militarist. “We all wore crush hats and walked around with our hands in our pockets,” Addison confessed, looking positively refreshed at the recollection. “Klette did not swagger or project hot pilot.”

“He was shorter than me,” Addison observed. “But not a whole lot.” Addison stood at about 5’ 9” and readily agreed that in the air combat profession it was an advantage to be of modest stature. “It helps when exiting an airplane with a parachute,” he observed smiling wryly. It was telling, when reminiscing so many decades after the association, that Addison could not bring himself—not once—to refer to his former commander as “Manny.”

Klette could be very aggressive. On one occasion while in the lead he dove the bomb group from a perch of27,000 feet with no visibility to a position at 17,000 feet with clear skies and did so through a major flak barrage. Some of his airmen felt this dive was foolhardy, exposing the group to flak at the much lower altitude, but the 91st hit the target and Gen. Doolittle gave Klette a letter of commendation for the result. Only one B-17 was lost.16

“Klette was a tough guy,” Addison remembered. ‘Aggressive is right.”

At the time the Bishop Crew arrived on the scene, Klette had completed 32 missions as squadron commander of the 324th—this, in addition to 28 earlier missions. With such a combat record any crew, rookie or not, would have looked upon him with veneration.

By the time Klette finished flying combat with the 91st he had led “either group, combat wing, division, task force or Eighth Air Force” on 30 missions.17 This was a remarkable accomplishment. More astonishing however, was the fact that during these missions, the 91st Bomb Group lost only two aircraft.18

Safe as it may have been to fly with Klette in the lead, one had to be on his guard. “He had a real temper,” Addison said. “All of us were aware of this.” Addison would later relate an incident that occurred on the last mission of the war that sparked this temper.

“There is always someone giving you the, ‘go, go, go, go out and fight’ pep talk,” Addison observed. Klette’s passion for the righteousness of the Allied cause was well known, Addison admitted, but he also indicated his commander led more by example than rhetoric.

Addison told of another leader at Bassingbourn who made a huge difference: an American chaplain named Father Michael Ragan. “He gave comfort and support to Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” Addison related. “He really cared.”

“He was a character,” Addison continued. “Everyone loved him.”

What Father Ragan did that so endeared him to the 91st was to always be at the airfield in the early morning to give the combat aircrews a group blessing and to offer communion for Catholics like Addison who wanted it. When the mile-long procession of bombers rolled around the airbase perimeter road, queuing up for an operation, Father Ragan would stand on the grass next to the runway at the spot where they would start the take off. He held up a horseshoe as a symbol of luck. As each bomber accelerated, he blessed it. For a number of these airmen who saw him do this, either though a plane window or out of a waist port, it would be their last sight of a man standing on the earth.

While the bombers were gone Father Ragan made the rounds of the ground crews and chatted amicably about anything they wanted to talk about. He thanked them for the invaluable service they performed and the long hours that they put in doing it; he also invited them to come and see him at any time and for any reason. It did not matter what religion someone observed or even if the person had a religion: Father Ragan viewed his job as listening, spiritually consoling and advising—not converting.

When the bombers returned in the afternoon, he would always be there with hot chocolate at the ready, enthusiastically waving them in. Father Ragan appreciated the stress these warriors endured, and their need to be assured that God flew with them; that faith would save their soul even if the worst should happen; that the war they fought was just and needed to be prosecuted; that Nazism, with its penchant for military aggression, was an abrogation of God’s law and the teachings of Jesus Christ.

He even blessed B-17s on the tarmac and sprinkled holy water on them; he was known to talk to birds. He was not, however, lacking something those of Irish descent cherish most: a solid sense of humor. He was in the habit of concluding Sunday worship service by removing his habit, one sacred vestment at a time, and trying to explain its meaning and history within the Church. When an airman invariably yelled, “Take it off!” (as happened every week) he did so—right down to his army uniform. No one laughed harder at this pretend strip tease than did Father Ragan.19

“He really cared,” Addison elucidated, tearing up. “He was from Youngstown, Ohio, and got killed in an automobile accident in the summer of ‘49.” One of the regrets in Addison’s life was not learning of Father Ragan’s death in time to attend his funeral.

Paul Lynch was not at Bassingbourn long enough for Father Ragan to make an impression. In Addison’s case the priest’s contribution was cumulative, starting in earnest when he commenced flying combat. When the going got really tough, and it did, it was Father Ragan who more than anyone else held Addison together. “He was always there,” Addison exclaimed, emphasizing his lifelong appreciation. In a bitter comparison he blurted: “One rarely saw the Protestant chaplain.”

“I had a couple of Jewish friends,” he said, wearing his trademark grin, the one that foretold a punch line coming. “One arrived, I think in January, and I had lunch with him. He was from Detroit and that’s how we got acquainted. Anyway, at our first lunch together we were having pork and it was the first time he had ever eaten pork, so I said to him, ‘Well, this is the first time I ever ate meat on Friday.’”

Addison’s friend was pilot Lt. Marvin Goldberg, and they maintained their friendship after the war. “He was very religious,” Addison held, “Although not a rabbi, he conducted Jewish services at Bassingbourn for his fellow Jews.” Addison later related how poorly some members of his squadron treated him simply because he was Jewish.

At the end of November, Bishop crewmembers started flying combat missions, but not as a team. “They broke our crew up at the start so that we could gain experience working alongside seasoned airmen,” Addison explained. “Dave Bishop flew his first two missions as a co-pilot before I flew my first mission, and of course my first mission was with someone other than Dave.” After flying five or so missions with other crews, the 91st plan called for the full Bishop Crew to reunite and fly combat together.

At the time their combat duty began, Addison, Dave and RJ lived in a bunkroom with several other officers. Conditions were spartan, but the building was made of brick, not corrugated metal, and was well insulated and heated. It had sashed windows that opened and closed. The men slept on army cots with a footlocker nearby for uniform items, toiletries, stationary, photographs and personal effects.

By this time in the war, U.S. mail arrived regularly. At mail call Addison received more letters than the others; in addition to the usual letters from family and friends, he received correspondence from his father’s business associates and letters from some of the 4 M’s.

Addison and Paul wrote home frequently, as surely did the others.

On the night of November 24, Addison turned in early. “Good luck, tomorrow,” Dave said to him, and RJ echoed the same sentiment.

“Thanks, guys” Addison replied. “I’ll try not to make too much noise when I get up.”

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