Unit History 401st Bomb Group

8th Air Force, United States Army Air Force

   The 401st Bombardment Group (Heavy) was activated on 1st April 1943 at Ephrata Army Air Base, Washington. At the time of its activation the Group was comprised of the 612th, 613th, 614th, and 615th Squadrons (Heavy). When the B-17s arrive at Ephrata the Group received orders to transfer for Geiger Field, Washington, for aircraft familiarization training. This was on 15th June 1943. At the completion of this training the Group was then transferred to the Great Falls Army Air Base, Montana, for advanced combat training. The date - 8th July 1943.

   On 19th October 1943, the B-17s flew to Newfoundland, Scotland, and then on to Deenethorpe, England. The ground element sailed on the Queen Mary and arrived at Deenethorpe on 3rd November 1943. Colonel Bowman and his staff quickly set up headquarters under the direct command of the Eighth Air Force, and were soon ready for combat operations.

   The 401st Bomb Group (H) flew its first mission on 26th November 1943. 24 aircraft were briefed to attack the German port of Bremen, which, because of heavy overcast. was made by radar techniques. On this first mission the Deenethorpe mud took its toll on the B-17s and four of them became bogged down. Over the target a B-17 of another group struck the underside of Lt. S. C. Dailey's "Fancy Nancy", cutting off the ball turret with a gunner inside it. Sergeant Birranick became the first of the many 401st men to be lost in action. "Fancy Nancy" was so badly damaged that it never flew again, and, within a few weeks, "Fancy Nancy II" and "Fancy Nancy III" had been wrecked and "Fancy Nancy IV" began its very long list of missions.

   The Group went on to attack targets in France, Germany, Holland, and Luxembourg, composed primarily of port installations, submarine pens, V-1 and V-2 rocket sites, power stations, factories, airfields, marshaling sidings, bridges, oil plants and refineries, oil storage areas, coastal gun batteries, and enemy ground positions.

   On 11th January 1944 the Group won its first Distinguished Unit Citation for its part in a major attack on Oscherslaben, Germany, near Berlin. The mission was lead by Major (now Maj. General) A. Brooks. As the Groups formed up over East Anglia the German radar controller made a guess at the target and came up with Berlin, which in fact was in the same direction as Oscherslaben, and Berlin was to be defended at all costs. Before the formations had reached the Dutch coast the Luftwaffe fighter formations had been moved from all over Europe to intercept them, and they fought a bitter three hour battle to the target and back to the North Sea. IN-B (0-33). IW-K (969). II-G (809) and IY-O (893) did not return from this mission and many other B-17s were badly damaged. Because of bad weather over Deenethorpe all the returning aircraft were diverted to other bases and it was a couple of days before they were all back at the base.

   The 401st earned its second citation for a raid on the Erla Maschinenwerk aircraft assembly plant in Leipzig on 20th February 1944. This mission was lead by the 401st. Commanding Officer Col. H. W. Bowman, with the loss of one B-17 out of a total of 41 that took part. The plane that went down was IY-G (42-31518). The Group encountered heavy flak, but pressed on to deliver all its bombs within one thousand feet of the aiming point, and the plant ceased operations.

   For leading this very successful mission, Colonel Bowman was awarded the Silver Star.

   After a long series of attacks on Berlin and the surrounding areas, the Group was diverted to bombing the coastal batteries and the road and rail areas that would block the traffic. This was around the area approaching Normandy, to soften up the defenses in preparation for the invasion. On D-Day, 6th June 1944, the 401st lead by Major A. Brooks bombed gun fortifications within a thousand yards of the landing beaches five minutes before the first troop waded ashore.

   During the next several months the Group supported operations to aid the breakthrough at St. Lo in July, the siege of Brest in August, and launched an airborne attack on Holland in September, concentrating primarily on oil reserve sites. During the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944 to January 1945, the Group flew missions against transportation targets and communication centers in the battle area and flew in support of the airborne attack across the river Rhine in March 1945.

   Mission No. 154 to Politz on the 7th October 1944 was the thirteenth mission of a crew who are of special interest to the 401st Historical Society. The aircraft was named "I'll Be Seeing You", piloted by Lt. Joe Cromer and Lt. Ralph Trout, who went on to complete 30 missions without a change of crew. The mission was led by Major William T. Seawell, later to take over the 401st Bomb Group (H). as commanding officer. The Group attacked on a line heavily defended by flak batteries and suffered very badly. Four 401st B17s were shot down and many others badly battered by extremely accurate flak, "Boche Buster" (SC-K 42-31087) a veteran of 75 missions, attempted to make the trip back to Deenethorpe but was forced to turn back to Sweden where it landed and the crew were interned. The crew of "I'll Be Seeing You" watched it drop out of formation and make for nearby Sweden, but they had troubles of their own. In the port wing was a hole between the engine and the fuselage made by a flak shell that had passed right through without exploding, either a dud or one set to explode at a certain altitude.

   The honour of leading the final 401st mission went to Lt. Col. Eric T. de Jonckheere, the 613th Squadron Commander. This was Mission 254 on 20th April 1945, and the target was Brandeburg near Berlin, At 24,000 ft. over Berlin Lt. Bradley's B-17 IN-M (43-39125) was hit in the wing and its engine set on fire. The plane pulled out of formation the wing burned off, the plane rolled into a spin and blew up several thousand feet below the other planes. Sgt Fred C. Nachtigal, waist gunner, bailed out with two other crew members before being trapped by the spinning of the aircraft. The plane, when it did break up, appears to have parted just behind the cockpit, sucking out the pilot, co-pilot and Sgt. Benson, the bombardier. The pilot and co-pilot were wearing their parachutes and landed safely. Sgt. Benson had not had time to put his on and fell to his death and was buried with two of his crew in a small village near Brandenburg.

   On 30th May 1945 the aircrews began "Home Run", flying the B-17s back to the United States via Valley, Anglesey, Iceland, Greenland and then into Sioux Falls Army Air Field, South Dakota, where it began to convert to B-29 aircraft for deployment in the Pacific Theater. The ground element crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth. On 4th June the last of the 73 B-17s left Deenethorpe, including "Betty J", IN--K (42-31072), the last of the original 401st aircraft.

   Before the Group could get into action in the Pacific the war had ended and the unit was deactivated on 28th August 1945.

----- Supplied by Thomas R. Cushman


Thomas R. Cushman, Captain, 613th Squadron, 401st Bomb Group, 8th AF, USAAF


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