On May 15, 1943, the 305th Bomb Group was dispatched from its base at Chelveston, UK, as part of a strike force against military installations near Wilhelmshaven on Germany’s northwest coast. The 305th was one of the earliest B-17 groups to arrive in England, flying its first combat mission on Nov. 17, 1942. Under the leadership of Col. Curtis LeMay, the group had risen from the status of combat novices to one of the premier veteran outfits. It had been a costly, often painful learning process.
Old Bill, a B-17 from the group’s 365th Squadron, was piloted by Lt. Bill Whitson on the Wilhelmshaven mission. Whitson knew that neither the AAF nor the RAF had fighters with enough range for escort into Germany. Enemy fighter attacks were inevitable as the squadron approached the target. Some distance short of Wilhelmshaven, bombardier Lt. Robert Barrall reported that the target area was blanketed with clouds. The group would proceed north to the island of Heligoland, an alternative that would not be uncontested. Already there were contrails several thousand feet above them. Seconds later, a swarm of FW-190s launched a head-on attack.
Closing at nearly 600 miles an hour, the -190s raked Old Bill with 20-mm cannon fire. Shell fragments cut deep into Whitson’s legs and severed oxygen lines to the flight deck. Dragging himself painfully from his seat, Whitson staggered to the rear of the aircraft to assess damage and gather walkaround oxygen bottles. When he returned to the cockpit, copilot Lt. Harry Holt was suffering from severe anoxia. A revived Holt took over while Whitson’s wounds were being cared for.
Returning to the left seat, Lieutenant Whitson was able, with difficulty, to hold formation as fighter attacks continued. The FW-190s concentrated on Whitson’s bomber, which clearly was in trouble. Another 20-mm shell exploded in the cockpit, fragments hitting the injured pilot and wounding Lieutenant Holt so seriously he could no longer help control the B-17 and had to be carried from his seat.
Almost immediately, 20-mm shells tore the Plexiglas nose completely away, killing navigator Lt. Douglas Venable and wounding bombardier Barrall. The top turret was shattered, leaving Sgt. Albert Haymon bleeding from head and arm injuries. Haymon stayed in the useless turret, hand-cranking the silent guns to a forward position that might discourage Luftwaffe fighter pilots. He then climbed down to help wounded radio operator Sgt. Fred Bewak.
With one engine out, a wing buckled, and hydraulics gone, Whitson could no longer stay with the formation. Checking with the crew, he found only two of his men uninjured. Those gunners whose weapons were still operating continued firing at enemy fighters as Whitson dove for cloud cover 5,000 feet below. The gunners claimed seven fighters destroyed during that screaming descent.
Exhausted from loss of blood and the strain of evasive maneuvers, Whitson was barely conscious. Seeing the pilot’s condition, Sergeant Haymon slid into the copilot’s seat and flew the plane while Whitson regained some strength.
When the bomber broke out of the clouds, Haymon saw an Me-210 peeling off to attack Old Bill and alerted the crew. Twice-wounded Lieutenant Barrall climbed into the shattered nose section and manned the cheek gun, buffeted by a 150-mile-an-hour wind that blasted in through the open nose. Barrall kept firing until one of the -210’s engines exploded and the enemy plane plunged into the sea. He then climbed up to the flight deck and relieved Whitson, who would have to land the plane if they made it to Chelveston. Tailgunner Sgt. Kenneth Meyer, one of the two uninjured crew members, replaced Sergeant Haymon in the copilot’s seat. He and Barrall managed to maneuver the stricken bomber into the protection of a formation of B-17s returning to England.
Once they reached the coast they were on their own. With a dead navigator, a copilot out of action, a wounded radio operator, and a barely conscious pilot, finding Chelveston among the welter of airfields dotting the Midlands was no small achievement. As they approached the field, Whitson took over the controls, shaking his head to clear his brain and retain consciousness. Because the plane lacked flaps and brakes, he flew the B-17 onto the runway far above normal landing speed and ground-looped when it ran out of runway. He then collapsed over the control column. No 305th B-17 had ever survived such a beating. It had been an ordeal for the record.
Lieutenants Whitson and Barrall were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, all other crew members the Silver Star, and eight of the 10, the Purple Heart to become the most decorated crew of the 305th Bomb Group.
Published June 1993. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.