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1,994 No. 9
9 1,994

 

Valor





Valor: Victory From the Jaws of Defeat

Seconds before "bombs away," the battered B-17 was without a bombardier. Only one man, gravely wounded, could save the mission.

The 305th Bomb Group, based at Chelveston in the UK, was one of the four pioneer B-17 groups assigned to Eighth Air Force. It was commanded by Col. Curtis E. LeMay, a tough, no-nonsense leader and a tactical genius. All of the groups arrived in England without combat experience and faced a steep, perilous learning curve. They entered combat in the autumn of 1942.

It was obvious to LeMay that two major deficiencies of the bomb groups were formation flying and air discipline. He experimented with various formations to give maximum mutual protection against enemy fighters. To improve bombing accuracy, he had all B-17s in a group formation drop on signal from the bombardier of a select lead crew.

Because of the short range of escort fighters at that time, most early targets were in France or the Low Countries. The first penetration of German territory came on Jan. 27, 1943, when LeMay's group took part in an attack on the port of Wilhelmshaven. Then it was back to targets in German-occupied western Europe for the most part.

On March 8, 1943, Eighth Air Force launched 67 B-17s, a large force for the time, against railyards at Rennes, 190 miles southwest of Paris at the base of the Brittany peninsula. Sixteen of the B-17s were from the 305th Bomb Group. They suffered heavy fighter attacks before reaching the initial point to begin their bomb run.

One B-17 from the 305th's 422d Squadron, commanded by Lt. Albert Kuehl, bore the brunt of enemy attacks. It started its run with the No. 3 engine out, a fire in the radio compartment, and damage to the control cables and hydraulic system. The crew had been decimated by enemy fire. Both waist gunners, the top turret gunner, and the radio operator were wounded. A head-on attack had critically wounded the bombardier, Lieutenant Spatz, who lay unconscious over his bombsight. The navigator, Lt. Raymond Rahner, was severely wounded in the thigh.

Despite major damage to the aircraft, Lieutenant Kuehl was able to stay in formation on the bomb run with the help of copilot 2d Lt. Floyd Truesdell, who had recently transferred from RAF Coastal Command and was on his first B-17 mission. The wounded gunners all remained at their positions, but the crew was without a bombardier. Only minutes from "bombs away," navigator Rahner, suffering from painful injuries, lifted the unconscious bombardier from his bombsight and carried him to the rear of the nose compartment. He quickly applied compresses to stop the flow of blood and attached a walk-around oxygen bottle to the bombardier's mask.

The time to "bombs away" now was measured in seconds. Unless someone replaced the incapacitated bombardier, all the damage and suffering would be for naught. Only Lieutenant Rahner was in a position to do it. He resolved that their mission should not fail. He crawled painfully back to the bombardier's position, opened the bomb bay doors, released the bombs on signal from the lead bombardier, and buttoned up the doors. He then returned to Spatz's side and continued first aid, undoubtedly saving the critically wounded man's life.

As the formation turned off target, fighter attacks on the damaged B-17 resumed. Alternately manning the two guns in the nose, Lieutenant Rahner drove off several head-on attacks. One of the waist gunners, SSgt. T. E. Johnson, wounded by 20-mm fire in both legs, one shoulder, and his right eye and with his electrically heated clothing inoperative, shot down a Bf-109 confirmed. A second gunner, Sergeant Johns, probably downed another. Three more fighters were known to have been damaged.

Heading north over the comparative safety of the English Channel, 60 miles wide at that point, Lieutenants Kuehl and Truesdell could no longer keep the aircraft with the formation. Lieutenant Rahner left the nose guns long enough to give the pilots a course to an RAF base in England, where they landed safely.

The valiant men aboard that B-17 salvaged what almost certainly would have been a failed sortie but for their heroism and teamwork. For his extraordinary performance as navigator, bombardier, gunner, and "flight surgeon," Lt. Raymond Rahner was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Pilot Albert Kuehl received the Distinguished Flying Cross and copilot Floyd Truesdell the Air Medal. The Purple Heart went to all six wounded members of the crew. They had written an early chapter in the long and gallant history of Eighth Air Force.

Thanks to George H. Collins for bringing this story to our attention.

Published September 1994. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.