It may surprise some readers that Eighth Air Force Bomber Command did not begin operations against occupied Europe with B-17s or B-24s. The very first bomber unit to arrive in the UK and to see action, several weeks before the heavies, was the 15th Bombardment Squadron (Light), which had trained in twin-engine Douglas A-20s, designed as attack planes to support ground troops, not for strategic air warfare.
There were A-20s in the Royal Air Force before the 15th Bomb Squadron arrived in May 1942. Beginning in 1940, several hundred had been transferred to the RAF, some under Lend-Lease arrangements. Close support of armies on the Continent lay some distance in the future; the first RAF A-20s, called Havocs, were modified as night fighters. Others, known as Bostons. were used as low-level bombers.
It was expected that the AAF squadron would operate as a night fighter unit with RAF “Turbinlight” Havocs, planes equipped with powerful search-lights to illuminate enemy aircraft for the fighters. Plans change. Before the 15th arrived, the RAF had given up “Turbinlight” tactics.
Lacking operational experience, 15th Bomb Squadron crews, who had arrived without their A-20s, prepared for bombing operations under the guidance of RAF 226 Squadron at Swanton Morley That squadron had been flying against targets in France and the Low Countries for several months. The Boston’s small, 1,200-pound bomb load demanded very accurate delivery; hence missions were conducted at minimum altitude, where ground fire tended to be lethal.
By the end of June, 226 Squadron leaders judged most of the 15th’s crews ready for the war. On June 29, 1942, Capt. Charles Kegelman and his crew–2d Lt. Randall Dorton, TSgt. Robert Golay, and Sgt. Bennie Cunningham–flew the first combat sortie by a USAAF bomber crew in the European theater as part of a 12-plane formation of 226 Squadron Bostons.
Independence Day, July 4, seemed an appropriate date for the 15th to enter combat formally. Six American crews joined six RAF crews for a low-level attack on Luftwaffe airfields in Holland. Taking off early in the morning, the Bostons formed four flights of three aircraft each and headed east across the North Sea, skimming the waves. As they crossed the Dutch coast, greeted by heavy AAA fire, the flights separated to attack their respective targets.
The flight assigned to hit De Kooy Airfield was led by an experienced RAF pilot, with Captain Kegelman flying one wing and 2d Lt. F A. Loehrl the other. They approached the airfield through intense enemy fire. Near their target, Lieutenant Loehrl’s plane was hit and crashed in flames. Captain Kegelman’s took a direct hit in the right engine, shearing off the propeller and setting the engine afire. Simultaneously, the bomb load was released.
As Captain Kegelman fought for control, the lightened bomber surged upward, then settled back, its right wingtip striking the ground. Then the tail hit the ground, ripping off part of the lower fuselage. Jamming full throttle on the left engine, Kegelman pulled the bomber into the air and with his forward guns silenced a flak tower that had zeroed in on his battered Boston.
Through a combination of skill and luck, Captain Kegelman brought his crew home from their first brush with battle damage. Safely through the band of coastal flak and somewhere over that hundred miles of cold North Sea water, the fire in his left engine went out. Luftwaffe fighters, flushed out by strikes on three of the four intended airfield targets, failed to intercept Kegelman’s lone and limping bomber, which would have been an easy target for the crack German pilots based along the North Sea coast.
The 15th’s RAF tutors and Bomber Command were elated over the performance of AAF crews on their first mission. Captain Kegelman was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and its British equivalent for his valor on that Fourth of July mission–the first Eighth Air Force man to receive the nation’s second highest combat decoration. Promoted to major, Kegelman was later given command of the squadron.
In August, the 15th Bombardment Squadron got its own aircraft–former RAF Bostons and A-20s from the States. The squadron flew a number of missions with Bomber Command and in October was transferred to Twelfth Air Force for support of Allied landings in North Africa. Its crews were absorbed by the 47th Bombardment Group (Light), and the 15th was inactivated. Nevertheless, the 15th Bombardment Squadron and its last commander, Maj. Charles Kegelman, had earned a unique but sometimes forgotten place in Air Force history: the first AAF unit to bomb targets in Europe and the first Eighth Air Force man to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. After completing a tour in North Africa and being promoted to colonel, Charles Kegelman returned to the States to command a base in Oklahoma. He later was sent to the Pacific, where he lost his life in a flying accident over the Philippines.
Published May 1991. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.