24 March 1943

24 March 1943


Battle for Okinawa, 24 March -30 June 1945

Recollections of Commander Frederick Julian Becton, USN, Commanding Officer of the destroyer USS Laffey (DD-724) which, despite being struck by eight Japanese suicide (kamikaze) aircraft on 16 April 1945, did not sink.

Adapted from Frederick Julian Becton interview in box 2 of World War II Interviews, Operational Archives Branch, Naval Historical Center.

Battle for Okinawa, 24 March -30 June 1945

I am Commander Frederick Julian Becton, Commanding Officer of the USS Laffey. The Laffey was built in Bath, Maine and was commissioned in Boston, Massachusetts, at the Navy Yard on February 8th, 1944.

After a brief shakedown period, the ship participated in the Normandy Invasion in June 1944, after which she took part in the Cherbourg [France] bombardment on June 25th, 1944 and suffered an eight-inch [German artillery shell] hit which fortunately did not explode.

Upon returning to the States for repairs and alterations, the ship proceeded to the Pacific and joined Admiral [William F. 'Bull'] Halsey's Third Fleet in November, 1944, for strikes against the Philippine Islands during the month of November.

The ship joined the 7th Fleet under Admiral Kinkaid at Leyte Gulf [Philippines] in early December, 1944 and took part in the landing of the 77th Division of the U.S. Army at Ormoc Bay, on December 7th, 1944. This was our first experience with the Kamikaze Suicide Corps [units of Japanese aircraft turned into flying bombs intended to be crashed by their pilots into U.S. Navy ships to sink or severely damage them]. The ship and the whole convoy were under incessant attacks from about 10 o'clock in the morning until dark that evening.

The next landing the ship participated in was at Mindoro on December 15,1944.

The next landing was about two weeks later when the ship left Leyte Gulf on January 2nd, and proceeded to Lingayen Gulf [also in the Philippines] to assist with the softening up activities and bombardment prior to the Army landing on January 9th, 1945.

We remained in the Lingayen Gulf area until about the 22nd of January and then proceeded to join Admiral Mitcher's task force at Ulithi.

Participated in Tokyo Strikes.

The next operation in which the ship participated was the strikes on Tokyo in mid-February 1945, after which the carrier task groups headed south to support the Iwo Jima landing. We went back for the second strikes on Tokyo about the 24th of February, and returning from that, went into Ulithi where we remained until we were ready for the Okinawa operation.

We departed Ulithi for the Okinawa landings on the 21st of March, arrived at Okinawa the 24th of March, and performed screening duties with the battleships and cruisers [protecting them from Japanese aircraft and submarines] who were bombarding the beaches until the major landing on April 1st, 1945. Thereafter, we took up station to the north of Okinawa at radar picket station number one about 35 miles north of Okinawa [these picket stations gave advance warning of the approach of enemy aircraft or ships].

Our tour of duty on this picket station was uneventful until the morning of April 16th, when we underwent a concentrated attack by Japanese suicide planes. The attack commenced about 8:27 [a.m.] when we were attacked by four Vals [single-engine Japanese Aichi D3A naval dive bomber with a 2-man crew], which split, two heading for our bow and two swinging around to attack us from the stern. We shot down three of these and combined with a nearby LCS [support landing craft] in splashing the fourth one. Then two other planes came in from either bow, both of which were shot down by us. It was about the seventh plane that we were firing on that finally crashed into us amidships and started a huge fire. This marked us as a cripple with the flames and smoke billowing up from the ship and the Japs really went to work on us after that.

Two planes came in quick succession from astern and crashed into our after [rear of the ship] five-inch twin mount. The first one carried a bomb which exploded on deck. The second one dropped its bomb on deck before crashing into the after mount. Shortly thereafter, two more planes came in on the port quarter crashing into the deckhouse just forward of the crippled after five-inch mount. This sent a flood of gasoline into the two compartments below the after crew's head [bathroom] and with the fire that was already raging in the after crew's compartment just aft of the five-inch mount number three, we now had fires going in all of the after three living spaces, besides the big fire topside in the vicinity of the number four 40 mm [antiaircraft gun] mount.

The two planes. no, the next one was a plane from our port quarter that dropped a bomb just about our port [left] propeller and jammed our rudder [steering mechanism] when it was 26 degrees left.

Strafed by Approaching Plane.

The next plane came from the port bow, knocked off our yardarm [a horizontally-mounted spar on the radar/radio mast], and a [F4U] Corsair [single engine US fighter with a 1-man crew] chasing it, knocked off our Sugar Charlie [SC air search] radar. Then a plane came in from the port bow carrying a big bomb and was shot down close aboard [in the water near the ship's side]. A large bomb fragment from the exploding bomb knocked out the power in our number two five- inch mount which is the one just forward of the bridge. Shortly thereafter this mount, in manual control, knocked down an Oscar [single-engine Japanese Nakajima Ki-43, Army-type fighter with a 1-man crew] coming in on our starboard bow [from the right-front of the ship] when it was about 500 yards from the ship. At the same time the alert mount captain of number one five- inch mount sighted a Val diving on the ship from the starboard bow, took it under fire and knocked it down about 500 yards from the ship using Victor Tare projectiles. The next plane came yardarm as it pulled out of its dive. It was shot down by the Corsairs ahead of the ship.

The next plane came in from the starboard bow strafing [firing its machine guns] as it approached and dropped a bomb just below the bridge which wiped out our two 20 mms [antiaircraft guns] in that area and killed some of the people in the wardroom [officers' dining and social compartment] battle dressing station. This plane did not try to crash either, and was shot down, after passing over the ship, by our fighter cover.

The last plane that attacked the ship came in from the port bow, and was shot down by the combined fire of the Corsair pilots and our own machine guns, and struck the water close aboard and skidded into the side of the ship, denting the ship's side but causing no damage.

The action had lasted an hour and 20 minutes. We had been attacked by 22 planes, nine of which we had shot down unassisted, eight planes had struck the ship, seven of them with suicidal intent, two of these seven did practically no damage other than knocking off yardarms. Five of these seven did really heavy material damage and killed a lot of our personnel. We had only four of our original eleven .20 mm mounts still in commission. Eight of the original 12 barrels of our .40 mm mounts could still shoot but only in local control, all electrical power to them being gone and our after five-inch mount was completely destroyed. Our engines were still intact.

The fires were still out of control and we were slowly flooding aft. Our rudder was still jammed and remained jammed until we reached port. We tried every engine combination possible to try to make a little headway to the southward but all no avail. We had lost 33 men, killed or missing, about 60 others had been wounded and approximately 30 of these were seriously wounded.

The morning of our attack off Okinawa we had a CAP [combat air patrol] of about 10 planes over us. It was entirely inadequate for the number of attacking Jap planes. Our own radar operators said that they saw as many as 50 bogies [Japanese aircraft] approaching the ship from the north just prior to the attack. Many more planes were undoubtedly sent to our assistance and quite a large number of Jap planes were undoubtedly shot down outside of our own gun range and to the north of us that morning. When the attack was all over we had a CAP of 24 planes protecting us.

Threw live bomb over the side.

One of the highlights of the action occurred when Lieutenant T.W. Runk, [spelled] R-U-N-K, USNR, who was the Communications Officer on the Laffey at the time, went aft to try to free the rudder. He had to clear his way through debris and plane wreckage to reach the fantail [rearmost deck on the ship] and, on his way back to the steering engine room, saw an unexploded bomb on deck which he promptly tossed over the side. His example of courage and daring was one of the most inspiring ones on the Laffey that morning.

Another example of resourcefulness exhibited that morning came when two of the engineers, who were fighting fires in one of the after compartments, were finally driven by the heat of the planes [flames] into the after Diesel generator room. The heat from the burning gasoline scorched the paint on the inside of the Diesel generator room where there was no ventilation whatsoever. The acrid fumes almost suffocated these two men but they called the officer in charge of the after engine room, which was in adjacent compartment, and told him of their predicament. He immediately had one of the men beat a hole through the bulkhead with a hammer and chisel and then, with and electric drill, cut a larger hole to put an air hose through to give them sufficient air until they could be rescued. At the same time other engineering personnel had cleared away the plane wreckage on the topside and with an oxime acetylene torch cut a hole through the deck which enabled these two men to escape. Upon reaching the topside, both of them turned to fighting the fires in the after part of the ship.

The morning after the action we removed one engine from the inside of the after five-inch mount which had been completely destroyed and which had had its port side completely blown off by the explosion of the initial plane, which was carrying a bomb when it crashed into this mount. The second plane which crashed into that mount had also done great damage to it. And the next morning we pulled one engine out of the inside of the mount and another engine was sitting beside the mount with the remains of the little Jap pilot just aft of the engine. There was very little left of him, however.

We transferred our injured personnel to a smaller ship that afternoon, which took them immediately to Okinawa. We were taken in tow by a light mine-sweeper in the early afternoon, about three hours after the attack and the mine-sweeper turned the tow over a short time later to a tug, which had been sent to our rescue. Another tug came alongside us to assist in pumping out our flooded spaces and with one tug towing us and the other alongside pumping us, we reached Okinawa early the next morning.

Put soft patches on hull.

After reaching Okinawa and pumping out all our flooded spaces, we put soft patches on four small holes we found in the underwater body in the after part of the ship. It took about five days to patch the ship up sufficiently for it to start the journey back to Pearl Harbor.

After leaving Okinawa we proceeded to Saipan and thence to Eniwetok and from Eniwetok on to Pearl Harbor.

About the seventh plane that attacked us, it came in on the port bow and he was low on the water and I kept on turning with about 25 degrees left rudder towards him to try to keep him on the beam. He swung back towards our stern and then cut in directly towards our stern and then cut in directly towards the ship. I kept turning to port to try to keep him on the beam and concentrate the maximum gunfire on him and as we turned, we could see him skidding farther aft all the time. I finally saw that he wouldn't quite make [it to hit] the bridge but then I was afraid he was going to strike the hull in the vicinity of the engine room, but about a hundred yards out from the ship, he finally straightened out and went over the fantail nicking the edge of five-inch mount three and then crashed into the water beyond the ship.

Of course, many people have various ideas about how to avoid these Kamikazes but the consensus of opinion, so far as I know, to try to keep them on the beam [i.e., coming in on a 90- degree angle to the long axis of the ship, or directly from the side] as much as possible or one reason to concentrate the maximum gunfire on them as they approached. And another reason is to give them less danger space by exposing just the beam of the ship rather than the quarter of the bow for them to attack from. The danger space is much less if they come in from the beam than it would be if they came in from ahead or from astern and had the whole length of the ship to choose in which to crash into. High speed and the twin rudders, with which 2200 ton destroyers are equipped, were believed to have been vital factors in saving our ship that morning off Okinawa.

Interviewer:

Captain Becton, were you on some other destroyer in the early part of the war?

Commander Becton:

Yes, I was in the [USS] Aaron Ward [DD-483] in the early part of the war. I was in the [USS] Gleaves [DD-423] when the war was first declared, but went to the Aaron Ward a short time after that as Chief Engineer, fleeted up [was promoted] to Exec[utive Officer - second in command] and was in there when she went through that night action off Guadalcanal the night of 12-13 November 1942. We were hit by nine shells that night, varying between 5 and 14 inches, but fortunately they were all well above the water line. We were towed into Tulagi [an island near Guadalcanal] the next day and later repaired.

Interviewer:

Were you also on board when the Ward went down?

Commander Becton:

Yes, I was on board the Aaron Ward when she sank off Guadalcanal in April, 1943. After that I went to the squadron staff of ComDesRon [Commander, Destroyer Squadron] 21 and went through three surface actions in the [USS] Nicholas [DD-449]. The first of these was the night of 6 July, in the First Battle of Kolombangara or Kula Gulf when the [light cruiser USS] Helena [CL-50] was sunk. The Nicholas and the [destroyer USS] Radford [DD-446] stayed behind after the cruisers and other destroyers retired to pick up the Helena's survivors and fight a surface action with Jap ships that were still there in Kula Gulf.

The next surface action we were in came a week later when the same outfit of destroyers and cruisers attacked some more Jap cruisers and destroyers that were coming down from the northwest. We operated under Admiral Ainesworth that night. The destroyers were under the overall command of Captain McInerney.

After that the next surface action we were in was after the occupation of Vella Lavella, in which we took on some Jap destroyers and barges [towed craft carrying troops or cargo] to the north of Vella Lavella in a night action. The destroyers turned and ran and left their barges and we couldn't catch the destroyers. We did some damage to them, possibly destroyed some, but the major damage was done to the barges which they had left behind and many of which we sank.

Note: USS Laffey survived WWII and is now a memorial ship which can be visited at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.


Auschwitz gets a new doctor: “the Angel of Death”

Born March 16, 1911, in Bavaria, Mengele studied philosophy under Alfred Rosenberg, whose racial theories highly influenced him. In 1934, already a member of the Nazi Party, he joined the research staff of the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene.

Upon arriving at Auschwitz, and eager to advance his medical career by publishing “groundbreaking” work, he began experimenting on live Jewish prisoners. In the guise of medical “treatment,” he injected, or ordered others to inject, thousands of inmates with everything from petrol to chloroform. He also had a penchant for studying twins, whom he used to dissect.

Mengele managed to escape imprisonment after the war, first by working as a farm stableman in Bavaria, then by making his way to South America. He became a citizen of Paraguay in 1959. He later moved to Brazil, where he met up with another former Nazi party member, Wolfgang Gerhard. In 1985, a multinational team of forensic experts traveled to Brazil in search of Mengele. They determined that a man named Gerhard, but believed to be Mengele, had died of a stroke while swimming in 1979. Dental records later confirmed that Mengele had, at some point, assumed Gerhard’s identity, and was in fact the stroke victim.

A fictional account of Josef Mengele’s life after the war was depicted in the film Boys from Brazil, with Mengele portrayed by Gregory Peck.


The Sad Fate of a Remarkable B-24

A Western Union telegram was enough to strike fear in the heart of any parent with a son in the service. “There never was a moment when the sight of a telegram didn’t make me jumpy,” said Ralph E. Shannon, a 55-year-old newspaper publisher in Iowa. Telegrams often brought bad news, and Shannon had reason to worry: his 27-year-old son, Bob, was a bomber pilot in England, flying combat missions with the U.S. Eighth Air Force.

When Shannon received a telegram on May 5, 1943, however, he expected the best of news. Just two days earlier, on May 3, Shannon had received a letter from Bob saying he had finished his combat tour—31 missions—and was on his way home. Shannon expected the telegram to announce that his son had arrived safely in the States. But when he opened the envelope, he read:

The Secretary of War desires that I assure you of his deep sympathy in the loss of your son, Captain Robert H. Shannon. Report just received states that he died May 3, 1943, in European area…

Shannon stared at the telegram in paralyzed disbelief. He tried to convince himself it was all a misunderstanding, that the army had fouled up royally. But he knew better. “The War Department doesn’t often make mistakes like that,” he admitted to himself, his hopes for his son’s return dashed. “It’s a long drop from the mountain top…to the very bottom of the abyss,” he thought as he mustered the strength to tell his wife, Fannie, that their son wouldn’t be coming home after all.

The Shannons were far from alone: during the war, more than 400,000 American families received similar heartbreaking telegrams. But while the Shannons’ grief was common, the circumstances of their son’s death was anything but ordinary. He had beaten remarkable odds and survived more combat missions over Europe and Africa than any other bomber pilot at the time. In a cruel collision of fate and chance, his luck ran out after his war seemed to have ended safely.

BORN IN 1916, Robert “Shine” Shannon had dreamed of flying. After attending Iowa State University, he enlisted in the army on July 11, 1941, and earned his wings. He was assigned to the 330th Squadron, 93rd Bombardment Group, and given command of a 10-man crew that included copilot John H. Lentz, a 23-year-old Chicago native bombardier Robert T. Jacobson, 26, from Cedar, Mississippi and George A. Eisel, a 32-year-old tail-gunner from Columbus, Ohio.

In August 1942, Shannon and his crew headed to Grenier Field, New Hampshire, for shipment overseas. They received a new plane, a B-24D Liberator heavy bomber, serial number 41-23728. With four 1,200-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines, the Liberator had a maximum speed of 303 miles per hour and bristled with 11 .50-caliber machine guns. It had a range of more than 2,000 miles and could carry four tons of explosives. Proud of their new ship, Shannon and his crew named it Hot Stuff and adorned it with a painting of a nude woman straddling a falling bomb. They put their plane through its paces and flew across the Atlantic to their outfit’s new base in Alconbury, England, on September 5, 1942.

That fall, the Eighth Air Force was beginning its offensive against Germany, with B-17 and B-24 bombers based in England attacking military targets on the Continent. To the public, air combat held an aura of glamour foot soldiers envied the airmen’s warm beds and hot meals, but the fliers knew the score. “Air combat spells romance, but it makes me piss my pants,” they sang in a barracks ballad titled “I Wanted Wings (‘til I Got the Goddamn Things).” Flying combat was a dangerous way to earn a living.

Liberators flew at altitudes higher than 20,000 feet, with temperatures hitting 50 degrees below zero and air too thin to breathe. Airmen relied on bulky clothing and heated flying suits to ward off frostbite, while cumbersome masks supplied oxygen. Mechanical failures were a fact of life even a momentary lapse by a pilot on takeoff could turn a plane loaded with gasoline and bombs into an inferno.

Cannon and machine-gun fire from Luftwaffe fighter planes took their toll, too—but antiaircraft artillery was even deadlier, accounting for more than 85 percent of all in-plane casualties. In 1942, when Shannon began his tour, 310 American fliers were killed in the European Theater. The death toll rose to 4,637 the following year and to 12,845 in 1944. Plane losses rose correspondingly, with 50 heavy bombers lost in 1942, 1,183 in 1943, and 3,949 in 1944.

Due to these casualties and the stress of combat, the Eighth Air Force set up a rotation policy, sending airmen home on leave after completing a specified tour of duty and giving them hope for survival. On July 1, 1942, the War Department set a tour at one year. That was too long, Eighth Air Force commander Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker soon realized, as he saw his men become increasingly “tired, war-weary, and punch-drunk.” In January 1943, he unofficially reduced a tour to 25-30 missions by late spring of 1943, 25 missions had become the accepted standard.


Heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force—like these B-17s over Berlin in 1945 (above)—took the war to Germany in the face of Luftwaffe fighters and constant flak, making the 31 missions Hot Stuff (below) completed all the more impressive. (U.S. Air Force)


(National Archives)

HOT STUFF AND ITS CREW saw their first action on October 21, 1942, in a 90-plane raid on U-boat pens at Lorient, France. Clouds ob-scured the target, and Hot Stuff wound up dumping its bombs in the English Channel. German fighters downed three other bombers, and Hot Stuff returned with its fuselage pockmarked with bullet holes. Throughout October and November, the B-24 flew a variety of missions: antisubmarine patrols over the ocean and bombing raids on U-boat bases at St. Nazaire, Brest, and again at Lorient. Patrols could be just as dangerous as bombing missions. On November 11, 1942, five enemy fighters ambushed Hot Stuff over the Atlantic. Machine-gun fire peppered the Liberator, but its crew downed three—possibly four—of the fighters. By the end of November, Shannon and his crew had racked up 10 missions.

In December 1942, the 93rd Bomb Group was sent south for a 10-day assignment in North Africa, where it earned the nickname “Ted’s Travelling Circus” in honor of group commander Colonel Edward J. “Ted” Timberlake Jr. Hot Stuff’s first base was a primitive airfield at Tafraoui, Algeria. “Tafraoui,” the men griped, “where the mud is always gooey.” Shannon and his crew were soon transferred to Gambut Main, a remote airfield in the Libyan desert, and their 10-day assignment stretched to three months.

Hot Stuff flew 17 missions from Tafraoui and Gambut Main, hitting targets in Africa, Sicily, and Naples, Italy. The crew’s luck held. While Hot Stuff often returned with battle damage, no crewman suffered even a scratch, plus tail-gunner Eisel was building a reputation for his deadly aim. Bombardier Jacobson estimated that Eisel had shot down two dozen enemy fighters. The total was unofficial, however, because Eisel was so busy shooting that “he doesn’t have time to watch them crash…(and) doesn’t get credit for them,” Jacobson wrote to his parents.

In late February 1943, the 93rd Bomb Group returned to England. Hot Stuff’s crew welcomed the tastier food and more comfortable quarters at Hardwick, their new base. Jacobson told his parents he was even gaining weight, “mostly around the waist.”

On March 17, 1943, Hot Stuff went back into action, flying a diversionary mission to draw fighters away from a raid on the marshalling yards in Rouen, France. The next day, Shannon and his crew hit Germany for the first time, bombing a submarine base near Bremen. “It was the hottest that we have been in,” Jacobson noted. “But we really plastered that place.” Ninety-seven bombers hit the U-boat base, but two planes and their crews were lost, 24 planes were badly damaged, and 16 airmen were wounded.

Hot Stuff flew its 30th mission on March 22, 1943, part of a 100-plane attack against the U-boat yards in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. Among the planes flying with Hot Stuff that day was a B-17 named Memphis Belle on what was its 16th mission. Three planes and their crews were lost, 22 planes were badly damaged, and 18 crewmen were wounded. Hot Stuff, however, came through unscathed, becoming the first heavy bomber in Europe to complete 30 missions.

On March 31, 1943, Hot Stuff flew its 31st and final combat mission in a 102-plane attack on shipyards in Rotterdam, Holland. If 25 missions were now considered a full tour, as the Eighth Air Force was in the process of confirming, then 31 missions were seen as more than enough. Shannon and his crew had survived. They had completed their tour, and their future looked bright. They’d rest in England for a few weeks and then fly back home to family and friends in America. The War Department planned to display the plane and its crew on a tour of the United States to boost morale and promote war-bond sales. The men didn’t know about the planned publicity, only that they were finally going home.


Lieutenant General Frank M. Andrews (here a brigadier general in 1935) led all U.S. forces in the European Theater from January 1943 until his death. (National Archives)

ON APRIL 27, 1943, Shannon received orders for Hot Stuff and its crew to report to Bovington, England. As a reward for completing 31 missions, Shannon and Hot Stuff would have the honor of flying Lieutenant General Frank M. Andrews to Reykjavík, Iceland, on their way home. The 59-year-old Andrews, described by the Washington, D.C., Evening Star as a “square-jawed, deeply tanned, and hard-fighting man,” was commander of all U.S. forces in the European Theater.

Officially, Andrews’s trip was billed as an inspection tour of American bases in Iceland. But Iceland was also a stepping stone for trans-atlantic flights—and Andrews seemed to be in too much of a rush for a routine inspection. He was a rising star in the army many historians believe its chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, had called him to Washington to be groomed to command the planned invasion of France. The timing was right because the Trident Conference, where concrete plans for invasions of the Continent were to be discussed, was scheduled to begin in Washington on May 12. Copilot Lentz later said he and Shannon were told that Andrews was heading back to the United States, with Iceland only a fueling stop.

General Andrews had been piloting planes since 1918. Rated a command pilot, he still liked to take the controls, and he would make the trip to Reykjavík as Shannon’s copilot in place of Lentz, who stayed behind in England. The general’s friends and colleagues had suggested he stay out of the cockpit, as they considered it an unnecessary risk for such a high-ranking officer, but he refused. “I don’t want to be one of those generals who die in bed,” he joked. Andrews’s party—an eight-man entourage that included members of his staff plus Bishop Adna Wright Leonard, whom President Franklin D. Roosevelt had sent to England to assess army chaplaincy operations—bumped bombardier Jacobson and gunners Joseph L. Craighead, Grant Rondeau, and George D. Farley. Of Hot Stuff’s regular crew, only Shannon, navigator James E. Gott, radio operator Kenneth A. Jeffers, gunner Paul H. McQueen, and tail-gunner Eisel would make the flight.

Air Transport Command (ATC) regulations required all flights to Iceland to depart from Prestwick, an airbase in Scotland. There, crews got the latest weather reports if the forecast in Iceland was dicey, planes would not be cleared for departure, which could mean a long delay. Andrews was in a hurry his staff told ATC that the general wanted to “avoid the delay involved by staying to brief and refuel” at Prestwick and instead fly directly from Bovington to Reykjavík. But when ATC pressed the issue, Andrews reluctantly said he would stop at Prestwick.

At 7:22 a.m. on May 3, 1943, Hot Stuff took off from Bovington with Andrews at the controls. But it didn’t stop at Prestwick. At 10 a.m., crewman Jeffers radioed, “Proceeding Reykjavík. Assuming weather O.K. unless notified differently.” The weather report was radioed to Hot Stuff, and it showed conditions unfit for flying: solid cloud cover at 800 feet, rain, poor visibility, and ice forming at 1,000 feet. Hot Stuff acknowledged the report and continued, reaching the coast of Iceland at 1:49 p.m. The weather was as bad as predicted. To make matters worse, the plane’s radio stopped working—possibly from ice accumulating on the radio antenna—and Hot Stuff lost all contact with ground bases. Landing at Reykjavík was out of the question, so Shannon and Andrews flew below the clouds at 40-200 feet, looking for a suitable airfield.

At 2:38 p.m., the plane reached the British air base at Kaldadarnes in southern Iceland. The bomber circled the field five times and requested permission to make an emergency landing by dropping red flares. Kaldadarnes shot up a green flare, signaling permission—but Shannon and Andrews didn’t see it and flew west, hugging the coastline. A half-hour later, personnel at Meeks Field, an American airbase fewer than 30 miles from Kaldadarnes, heard Hot Stuff’s engines, but Shannon and Andrews apparently couldn’t see the field and headed back toward Kaldadarnes. Eisel, riding in the tail section, recognized the distinctive flying style of Shannon, who had started his career as a fighter pilot he knew Shannon had taken the controls from Andrews.

A short time later—at about the same time an elated Ralph Shannon was reading that his son would soon be home—Hot Stuff crashed into 1,100-foot-high Mount Fagradalsfjall, near Iceland’s southern coast. The ship had encountered a low cloud formation that had blinded Shannon. Thirteen of the 14 onboard were killed instantly. The bodies of Shannon and Andrews were hurled from the wreckage, still strapped to their seats.

Only Eisel survived the crash, and his situation was precarious: The plane was on fire, and he was pinned in the wreckage. But he got a break that saved his life—the driving rain soon doused the flames, and only his eyelashes were singed.


Wreckage of Hot Stuff lies scattered over the slope of Mount Fagradalsfjall in southwest Iceland. The B-24 crashed in bad weather while searching for a place to land. (National Archives)

WHEN HOT STUFF DIDN’T ARRIVE at Reykjavík, search teams combed the Icelandic countryside and shoreline in planes and ships. The next day, May 4, 1943, dawned sunny and clear—perfect flying weather—and a search plane spotted the wreckage at 9:45 a.m. Only the tail section was recognizable debris scattered about made it appear unlikely anyone had survived. A rescue party navigated the difficult terrain and reached the wreckage hours later. The rescuers were shocked to find Eisel still alive, 26 hours after the crash it took an additional hour to extricate him and carry him to an ambulance waiting a mile away.

No one was to blame for the crash, military investigators concluded. Bad weather and the loss of radio contact had doomed Hot Stuff. They found that Andrews had known the weather in Iceland was bad before he reached the coastline. As for bypassing Prestwick, the investigators determined that, as theater commander, Andrews had the authority “to exercise his prerogative to proceed to Iceland, a part of his Command, without landing at Prestwick.”

Two weeks later, on May 17, B-17 Memphis Belle flew its 25th mission, a raid on the submarine pens at Lorient—a target Hot Stuff had hit twice. On June 16, 1943, Belle returned to the United States, landing in Washington, D.C., to great acclaim. Hot Stuff had completed its combat tour six weeks before Belle did news accounts accurately called Belle the first combat bomber to come home after 25 missions, not the first to complete 25 missions. But Belle became the bomber of legend when the plane and its crew embarked on the publicity campaign and bond tour originally planned for Hot Stuff.

Lentz couldn’t help wondering if Hot Stuff’s final flight might have ended differently if he, not Andrews, had been sitting alongside Shannon. He and Shannon had been a good team. The copilot returned to the United States in December 1943 and was assigned to ferry cargo across the country. After 31 combat missions, his most perilous flight came far from a battlefield. On March 24, 1944, while flying a B-24H from Romulus, Michigan, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, an engine caught fire and his plane began losing altitude. He ordered his crew to bail out, but he stayed with the plane “to keep it from going wild in the sky and cracking into somebody’s house and perhaps killing someone,” he later said. He crash-landed near Birmingham, Alabama. Although seriously injured, he survived, and no one on the ground was hurt.

Bombardier Jacobson, too, returned home. Later assigned to the Pacific Theater, he flew 14 combat missions over Japan as a B-29 bombardier. His final flight was on August 14, 1945, as part of a 752-plane raid—the last bombing mission of the war.


Fans of Memphis Belle, many using lipstick, sign the B-17 on the U.S. tour originally intended for Hot Stuff. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

IN IOWA, Ralph Shannon struggled to come to grips with his son’s death. “Bitterness and self-pity look pretty attractive, and it would be easy to yield to them,” he thought. He knew that losing a son in war is “as old as the human race,” but he still grappled with the unanswerable question: “why did it happen to us?”

Every memory of Bob hit his father with “surges of grief as overwhelming as they are unexplainable.” As a form of therapy, Shannon wrote letters to his late son. “You have given your life, yes,” he wrote in one. “But you gave us 20-some years of it, and we are deeply grateful for those years. The balance went for your country and to those who are groping for higher ground in his war-racked world.” The ultimate goal was lasting peace, Ralph continued, and “yours may be one of the threads needed to complete that glorious legend. Goodnight, Son!” ✯

This story was originally published in the October 2019 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.


World War II Today: March 24

1941
Berlin suffers its first raid of the year by the RAF.

German troops on parade in the city of Cherbourg have their show spoiled when British bombers hit the parade ground in the middle of the event.

Rommel conducts a limited offensive to recapture El Agheila from the British, which succeeds with startling ease. This encourages Rommel to push forward towards Mersa Brega. British Somaliland is now clear of Italians.

1942
The British Government refuses to hold an inquiry into the loss of Singapore during a Lords debate.

The start of deportation of Slovak Jews to Auschwitz.

The Japanese begin an intensive bombing campaign of Bataan and Corregidor. General Homma’s 14th Army receives reinforcement ready for its final offensive against the Bataan and Corregidor. This takes the form of the Japanese 4th Division, which has been shipped from Shanghai.

1943
In the Yellow Sea near Port Arthur, US sub Wahoo sinks 3 Japanese cargo ships.

The first Chindit Raid ends (British/Indian raids in Japanese-occupied Burma) although one-third of men were lost, raid raised morale.

1944
The US Fifth Army’s bridgehead at Anzio is bombarded by German heavy long-range guns and Luftwaffe aircraft using guided bombs, causing severe casualties in men, ships and equipment. Persistent US and British attacks against the Gustav Line at Cassino are repulsed by the German defenders. In response to the killing of 35 German soldiers in Rome by the Italian resistance, SS Colonel Herbert Kappler orders the execution of 335 Italians, at least 255 of whom are civilians in reprisal. All are shot by German troops in the Fosse Ardeantine caves outside of Rome.

A Russian tank army crosses the Dnieper near Czech border. Malinovsky makes crossings of the Bug near the Black Sea.

The Luftwaffe attacks London with 90 medium bombers (He-111s and Ju-88s), while the RAF bombs Berlin with 810 heavy Lancaster bombers. The RAF loses 72 bombers in this, the 16th and heaviest raid of war on Berlin. The ‘Battle of Berlin’ is now over.

Wingate, leader of the Chindits is killed in plane crash.

The Japanese counter-attack on Bougainville is decisively beaten.

President Roosevelt issues a statement condemning German and Japanese ongoing “crimes against humanity.”

In response to the killing of 35 German soldiers in Rome by the Italian resistance, SS Colonel Herbert Kappler orders the execution of 335 Italians, at least 255 of whom are civilians in reprisal. All are shot by German troops in the Fosse Ardeantine caves outside of Rome.

1945
Montgomery’s 21st Army Group attacks across the Rhine, 15 miles North of Duisberg in the Wesel area, after 3,500-gun barrage. 16,870 paratroops land across the river Rhine in Operation ‘Plunder’ and succeed in linking up with advancing British troops and establishing four bridgeheads. The US Third Army captures Speyer and Ludwigshafen on the upper Rhine.

US Fifteenth Air Force based in Italy sends 660 bombers to Berlin for first time as a diversion for Rhine crossings. The escorting 332 nd Fighter Group (the African-American Tuskegee Airmen), shoots down 3 German Me 262 jets and earns Distinguished Unit Citation.


On This Day in History, 24 март

The military alliance bombed Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War - without a UN mandate.

1989 Oil tanker Exxon Valdez runs aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska

The mishap resulted in one of the most devastating environmental disasters in history, killing up to 250,000 seabirds and other wildlife.

1965 Millions watch NASA spacecraft Ranger 9 crash into the Moon

The U.S. space probe broadcast live pictures back to Earth, enabling TV viewers to follow its approach to the Moon and its controlled crash.

1896 Aleksander Popov achieves the world's first radio transmission

The Russian physicist transmitted the words “Heinrich Hertz” from one building of St. Petersburg University to another.

1882 Robert Koch discovers the bacterium responsible for tuberculosis

The German scientist, who is regarded as the father of modern bacteriology, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1905.


Pick a Day

1984 Toby Keith marries Tricia Lucus. The country star first laid eyes on his future wife at an Oklahoma nightclub in 1981.

1975 Lynyrd Skynyrd follow up Second Helping with their third album, Nuthin' Fancy.

1975 Rush are named Most Promising Group at the Juno Awards. They fulfill that promise, winning Group Of The Year in 1978 and 1979.

1975 Paul McCartney throws a party on the Queen Mary to celebrate the release of the Wings album Venus And Mars. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell are among the guests their conversation about painting leads to Dylan's song "One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)" and Mitchell's "Paprika Plains."

1974 Chad Butler (drummer for Switchfoot) is born in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

1973 With Soul Train gaining in popularity, Dick Clark Productions airs a competing show called Soul Unlimited, which lasts just one episode as it caves to pressure from black leaders. Gladys Knight and Rufus Thomas are the guests.

1970 P.A. Pasemaster Mase (of De La Soul) is born Vincent Lamont Mason Jr. in Brooklyn, New York.

1970 Sharon Corr (of The Corrs) is born in Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland.

1965 Bobby Darin, Harry Belafonte, and Peter, Paul & Mary take part in a protest against voter discrimination in Montgomery, Alabama.

1965 Freddie & the Dreamers release "Do The Freddie."

1964 Steve "Zetro" Souza (of Exodus) is born in the US.

1962 Mick Jagger and Keith Richards perform their first paid gig when they appear as Little Boy Blue & the Blue Boys at a club in Ealing, England.

1960 Nena is born in Hagen, North Rhine-Westphalia, West Germany.

1958 Perry Como appears on the cover of Newsweek magazine.

1956 Billboard magazine debuts their first weekly chart ranking the top albums as measured by sales. Topping the first chart is Belafonte by Harry Belafonte. The chart lists anywhere from 15-30 spots, but is gradually expanded, and in 1967 it grows to 200. The chart goes through several name changes before settling on The Billboard 200 in 1992.


Featured Events

2008 Britney Spears makes the first of two appearances on How I Met Your Mother, playing a receptionist smitten with Josh Radnor's character, Ted.

2000 Jack and Meg White of The White Stripes get divorced three months before releasing their second album, De Stijl. Despite the split, their musical partnership continues until 2011.

1979 Disco is still going strong as the Bee Gees' "Tragedy" hits #1 in the US.

1973 A fan shouting "Leather!" jumps on stage and bites Lou Reed in the butt during a concert in Buffalo. The fan is ejected and Reed is left with a sore posterior.

1972 The Godfather opens in theaters. Musically significant because the character Johnny Fontane is supposedly based on Frank Sinatra, and because "Godfather of. " becomes a common musical honorific. More


March 24, 1913

Between March 21-26, 1913, the Great Flood of Dayton marked the greatest natural disaster in Ohio history. The first of three major storms arrived on Friday, March 21, 1913. Strong winds and a temperature of 60 degrees marked a typical early spring day for the area. The next day, a second storm arrived along with a dramatic shift in temperatures. As the region plunged back into the 20s, the water-soaked ground froze.

The following day, Sunday, March 23, 1913, also happened to be Easter Sunday. The bulk of the Miami Valley, as well as other locations throughout the state, was hit with a third storm, pouring rain over land that was already saturated and now frozen. With the rivers swelling, Dayton and the entire region still didn’t know exactly how bad the situation was going to get. By early in the morning on March 25, the water in the Great Miami and its tributaries had reached the top of the levees and was flowing at a rate of about 100,000 cubic feet per second. By 6 a.m., the water breached the levees causing them to fail by 8 a.m. as flooding began downtown. On March 26, the extreme flooding triggered a gas explosion causing fires which destroyed several blocks of downtown.

Nearly a century later, the Great Dayton Flood remains a powerful event in the history of the region. High-water marks on some downtown buildings give a sense of perspective. The available pictures of the event are astounding as they document the extent of the destruction and the ingenuity and resilience of the people who experienced it.

Special Collections and Archives is home to many materials concerning the Great Dayton Flood of 1913. One of the most remarkable is the journal of Margaret Smell, a young girl from Michigan who had arrived in Dayton on March 20 for a visit with friends. Here is an excerpt from her diary, which is available online in CORE:

Tuesday morning between 5 and 6 o’clock we were awakened from our slumbers by the shrieking of whistles, the like of which we never heard. Before we could dress ourselves and reach the window the flood of water came rushing down the street. Every moment gaining power and drawing nearer. We soon escaped to the second story of the house carrying all the available articles, especially the eatable things we could carry with us. The dark, mudy water grew higher and higher as the day advanced. Ere night came we were privileged to seek further safety by a temporary bridge from window to window built of door shutters to a more substantial house with an attic. When we escaped we found there were 23 of our party that escaped to the attic. And now the darkness of night came upon us and the crucial water drawing nearer and nearer. We saught our hard bunks being the only thing we could do, as we dare not strike a match or have a bit of light, except a flashlight, on account of escaping gas and fear of explosion which really were occurring not far from us. But alas, we did not seek our bunks expecting to sleep and rest, but rather to bear the horrible strain of perhaps our fatal doom, as best we could, and to listen to the heart rending cries for help – help of many others, near us – but not so fortunate as we were, then we heard them franticly chopping through the roofs there seeking safety on the roofs, facing a cold pitiless rain but many houses were swept from their foundations carrying their human frate with them down through the cold waters of death without a days warning to meet their God.

If you’re interested in learning more about this historic event, be sure to check out other materials we have here in the Archives, including a series of oral history interviews with flood survivors (which will soon be available online in CORE, our campus repository) and the Miami Conservancy District Records, which contains more than 3500 photographs of the flood, its aftermath, rebuilding efforts, and the construction of the flood prevention dams. Also, Dayton’s PBS channel, ThinkTV, will be reairing its documentary Goodbye, The Levee Has Broken today through next Thursday. The program is also available for viewing in its entirety on the ThinkTV website.

Stay tuned for more information about this time next year, too, as a variety of institutions, including Special Collections and Archives, are planning a special commemoration for next year’s 100th anniversary of this historic event.

Downtown Dayton, March 1913. MS-128, Miami Conservancy District Records, Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University Downtown Dayton, March 1913. MS-128, Miami Conservancy District Records, Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University Downtown Dayton, March 1913. MS-128, Miami Conservancy District Records, Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University
Downtown Dayton, March 1913. MS-128, Miami Conservancy District Records, Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University Downtown Dayton, March 1913. MS-128, Miami Conservancy District Records, Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University