Flying out of England in World War II, Eighth Air Force was the largest air combat organization ever assembled. Between August 1942 and April 1945, the Eighth lost more than 4,000 heavy bombers to all causes. Air combat losses were about evenly divided between enemy fighters and flak. One measure of combat violence over Europe is the toll of human casualties. In 33 months, nearly 44,000 Eighth Air Force bomber and fighter crewmen were killed or missing in action, compared to some 33,000 battle deaths for all US forces in Korea and 47,000 in Vietnam.
Most of the Eighth’s targets were guaranteed to be hot: Berlin, Schweinfurt, Merseburg, and Munich. Milk runs, on the other hand, were few and never guaranteed. The 44th Bomb Group’s mission of Jan. 21, 1944, looked like one of those few. Its target, military installations south of Calais, France, was only 120 miles from the group’s base at Shipdham, a few miles west of Norwich. Enemy opposition was expected to be light. As a result of this benign forecast, Lt. Keith Cookus, who led 12 B-24 Liberators from the 67th and 506th Squadrons, had aboard his plane, Liberty Belle, three extra crewmen: the group bombardier and gunnery officers and command pilot Maj. William Anderson, who was on his 25th and final mission.
Lieutenant Cookus’s formation, flying at the assigned bombing altitude of 12,000 feet, found heavy cloud cover over the target area. Regulations prohibited bombing any target in France under other than visual conditions. After five passes that failed to find a break in the clouds, the mission was aborted and the B-24s headed for home, still carrying their bombs.
A navigation error put the formation over Calais, where the Germans had covertly sited a concentration of mobile antiaircraft guns. Cookus’s lead plane, an easy target at 12,000 feet, took seven direct hits when the guns opened up. One shell burst inside the bomb bay, ripping out the doors and the catwalk. Major Anderson, navigator Lt. Franklin Campbell, bombardier Lt. Woodrow Cole, and tail gunner SSgt. Herman Becker were wounded. The radio operator, who fortunately was wearing his chute, was blown out of the plane. Blazing hydraulic fluid badly burned the ball turret gunner and one of the waist gunners. Seeing a large section of the fuselage gone, the group bombardier and gunnery officers bailed out, to become POWs for the duration, along with the radio operator.
Surveying the damage, Lieutenant Cookus found that the Nos. 1 and 2 engines had been destroyed, No. 3 was on fire, and the right landing gear had been blown away. All communications and hydraulics were dead. Cookus put the bomber into a dive as soon as he regained control and headed west across the English Channel. The burning No. 3 engine had to be kept running as long as possible, since Cookus would ditch with wounded aboard only as a last resort.
Over the Channel, bombardier Cole staggered onto the flight deck, covered with blood. Since the emergency bomb release mechanism was inoperative, he had crawled into the open bomb bay, where there now was no catwalk, and thrown out all the bombs he could release. He reported that some bombs were still hanging, then collapsed.
As Liberty Belle neared the English coast, barely able to hold altitude, the No. 3 engine exploded, leaving only one prop turning–not enough to keep the torn-up bomber airborne. Over land near Canterbury in southern England, Lieutenant Cookus cut his one good engine, turned everything off, and prepared to crashland. At 50 feet, in a final gallant maneuver that could have spelled the end for all of them, Cookus lifted one wing enough to clear a farmhouse. The bomber plowed into the ground, coming to rest in a ditch.
Fighting his way out of the wreckage, Cookus and other able members of the crew tried in vain to put out the fire in the No. 3 engine. Copilot Lt. Howard Holladay stayed in the plane, which he knew could explode at any moment, struggling to free four crewmen trapped on the flight deck. Of the four, Major Anderson and Lieutenant Cole did not survive. Lieutenant Campbell and Sergeant Becker were extricated three hours after the crash.
The 44th Bomb Group mission of Jan. 21, 1944, which began with the promise of a short, easy breather, ended, like so many others that penetrated the skies of Europe during World War II, in tragedy and heroism. There were indeed no guaranteed milk runs for the bomber crews of Eighth Air Force.
Published April 1991. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.