Seconds after “bombs away” over Berlin, 1st Lt. Lewis K. Cloud hauled back on the control yoke, applied rudder, and peeled away from his target. It was 11:43 a.m. on Saturday, February 3, 1945 and the German capital quickly fell behind as Cloud formed up for the flight home. Cloud’s B-17 Flying Fortress, called BLUE GRASS GIRL, was in perfect working order.
Cloud’s aircraft was in fine shape. Not a nick, not a scratch, spoiled the smooth natural metal skin of the Fortress. BLUE GRASS GIRL’s four 1,200 horsepower Wright R-1820-97 Cyclone nine-cylinder, air-cooled radial engines and its three-bladed, 11-ft 7-in propellers were purring. The electrical system, which had been cantankerous on earlier models of the Fortress, was functioning to perfection. Cloud had just taken the Fortress through a storm of flak over Berlin and was untouched. The aircraft undoubtedly had a very clean look, unvarnished, unblemished. We cannot be certain because no photograph of BLUE GRASS GIRL is known to exist.
Cloud was at the controls of a B-17 Flying Fortress, identified in a nationwide U.S. poll as among the “most recognized” aircraft in history, right up there with the Wright Flyer, the DC-3, the Spitfire and the Boeing 747.
To be specific, Cloud’s BLUE GRASS GIRL was a Boeing B-17G-75-BO Flying Fortress (43-38031/3R-V) of the 832nd Bombardment Squadron, 486th Bombardment Group, operating out of Sudbury, England – typical of the four-engined heavy bombers darkening the skies of the Third Reich in the final months of World War II and emblematic of more than a decade of progress with the Fortress’s basic design. Cloud had an updated set of controls that were simpler and handier than the original. Tail gunner Staff Sgt. Frank T. Chrastka looked rearward from a “Cheyenne Turret,” developed by the United Air Lines facility in Cheyenne, Wyoming, that offered greater comfort, bigger windows, and better vision than the tail gunner’s perch on early B-17Gs and previous models.
On this day, the Eighth Air Force dispatched 1,003 Fortresses to Berlin and 434 B-24 Liberators to attack synthetic oil targets at Magdeburg escorted by 904 P-51 Mustangs And 44 P-47 Thunderbolts. The Luftwaffe did not rise to defend the Reich but flak over Berlin was intense.
The division of labor between the two bomber types reflected Eighth Air Force commander Lt. Gen. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle’s contempt for the B-24 Liberator. The Liberator was manufactured in greater numbers than the Fortress (19,526 to 12,731), and could fly faster and farther with a heavier bombload: A Liberator flying on three engines could easily overtake and pass a Fortress chugging along on all four. But the Liberator could not fly as high, was less survivable, and was dangerous in a ditching. Doolittle was reluctant to commit his B-24s to flak over Berlin at an altitude some 3,000 feet below the average height of 26,000 feet where Fortresses operated.
On the mission, two dozen Fortresses were lost, including two that collided, two that diverted to Sweden, and the remainder claimed by flak. Half a dozen more diverted to Soviet lines in Poland. An official report on BLUE GRASS GIRL’s journey to Berlin called casualties “light.”
We do not know about all of the conversations that transpired aboard BLUE GRASS GIRL but it is likely that as Cloud’s bomber headed for home, someone shouted: “Let’s celebrate!” The crew was in a festive mood. They’d finished their missions. Their war was over. They had made it because their splendid Flying Fortress was shining evidence of the old adage: If it looks right, it must be right.
Boeing’s B-17 Bomber
When Boeing unveiled its silvery Model 299 prototype in 1935, the best American bomber, then, was an inadequate, twin-engined adaptation of the DC-3 transport, the B-18 Bolo. When Boeing’s behemoth first flew on July 28, 1935, no other bomber offered its size or range. In a stroke of genius, Seattle Times reporter Dick Williams dubbed it the Flying Fortress. Ten-cent pulp magazines of the late 1930s added parapets and cannons to help the Fortress live up to the appellation.
Despite its lofty name, the early B-17 was not ready for modern warfare. B-17B, B-17C and B-17D models, easily recognized by their unbroken smooth lines and small vertical fin, lacked a tail gun position. On the eve of US entry into hostilities, the Army Air Forces, the AAF, began receiving the B-17E, which introduced a broader fin and a tail gun position.
Seen at first as a guardian of the ocean approaches to an isolated North America, the B-17 was placed into production. Anticipating war with Japan, the AAF had a plan to place four bomber groups in the Philippines by April 1942 to deter Japanese aggression. Unfortunately, the plan was four months out of kilter: A dozen B-17s intended for this purpose departed California for a transit stop in Hawaii on the night of December 6, 1941 – and arrived 12 hours later, in the midst of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Six hours after that, a Japanese attack decimated the B-17 force already in the Philippines.
B-17s fought in the Philippines and Java in 1942. Throughout the war, B-17s served in the Pacific, but the ocean expanses favored the longer-legged B-24 Liberator, used there in greater numbers.
In Europe, it was different. The Eighth Air Force built up its early strength at bases in East Anglia and flew its first combat mission on August 17, 1942, when twelve B-17s from the 97th Bombardment Group struck marshalling yards at Rouen, in German-occupied France. “Ruin Rouen!” read a sign posted in the grass at an airfield.
It was a hard, difficult beginning. In the first big raid on Berlin on March 6, 1944, the number of crewmen killed aboard B-17s was about the same as the number of fatalities caused by the bombs dropped – about 300 of each.
Once escort fighters were available, B-17s led the three-year campaign in Europe and dropped 640,036 tons of bombs on German targets.
The B-17 evolved over time. On May 30, 1942, Boeing first flew the B-17F model, which was heavier and carried more bombs than earlier B-17s.
Soon afterward came the B-17G, the definitive Fortress, with a chin turret in the nose, a total of thirteen .50-caliber machine guns, and R-1820-97 engines. The B-17G had enclosed waist positions, greater ammunition capacity, and paddle-blade propellers for improved performance.
On a typical mission from a base in East Anglia to a target some 550 miles away, a Fortress carried about 4,000 pounds of bombs (although bombload could reach 7,000 pounds) that were aimed and dropped by the bombardier in the nose using a Norden bombsight. The pilot in the front left seat commanded the crew and confronted the difficult choices arising from the need to remain in formation but, also, to survive slashing frontal attacks by Luftwaffe fighters.
Pilot 1st Lt. Truman Smith liked the B-17 he flew in combat but acknowledged that it was “a 1930s aircraft” in many respects. “There was a weakness [in the B-17 fuselage] just aft of the radio room, where the ball turret is. With certain kinds of battle damage, the fuselage would twist in two because the structure wasn’t strong enough at that point.
“Another fault with the B-17: the last ones able to get out of the airplane were the pilots. When you’re hit and going down, you have to stand up, go a couple of steps back, and descend into the tunnel that goes forward into the nose. You use a door on the floor in the nose. That’s too much knee jerking and flapping about.”
The war over Europe might be broken into two phases – the first when aggressive Luftwaffe pilots sought to blast Fortresses out of the sky and bomber crews had only a small chance of completing the required 25 missions (later 30, later still 35), and the second phase when the Luftwaffe was largely neutralized. During that first phase, Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190 pilots perfected the technique of attacking head-on, at ten degrees above the centerline of an approaching bomber – the position the Americans called “twelve o’clock, high.” The German fighter pilots saw this technique as the best way to bring down a Fortress by killing its pilots. Ironically, as the war progressed, Allied airmen defeated the Luftwaffe not by halting German aircraft production nor by attacking petroleum targets but by killing German pilots. By 1945, when BLUE GRASS GIRL’s crew was on its 35th mission, flak continued to be heavy but most of the Luftwaffe comprised fledgling trainees.
Before moving to the Pacific, a young Curtis E. LeMay almost single-handedly crafted Fortress tactics. LeMay devised the “box” formation that enabled bombers to concentrate their defensive gunfire. LeMay invented the idea of a lead bombardier aiming bombs while men in other aircraft – often, toggliers, who were not full-fledged bombardiers – dropped theirs following the lead’s cue. LeMay insisted that bombers proceed in a straight line from the initial point to “bombs away,” neither altering course nor dodging flak. It was counter-intuitive but LeMay was right: Flying straight and level through a storm of flak was safer than taking evasive action.
LeMay bristled with anger when his bomber missions were called “raids.” They were, LeMay insisted, “full-scale battles, fought in the thin air, miles above the land.”
Bomber crews fought at heights where no men had ever before waged war. It was cold up there, but it was always cold, and they were cold even in their bunks in Nissen huts. It was so cold that for the only time in warfare, Americans were awarded the Purple Heart for wounds caused by frostbite. Early versions of their electrically heated flying suits had a tendency to fail or, worse, to catch fire. The oxygen system was always a challenge whilst fighting above the height where there was enough air to breathe. In the beginning, the men had white silk gloves that went up to their elbows but they gave too many of those to English women.
On February 15, 1944, Lt. Gen. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle replaced Lt. Gen. Ira Eaker as commander of the Eighth Air Force. Because Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted him as his principal air commander, Lt. Gen. Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz returned to England and became Doolittle’s boss as head of the new United States Strategic Air Forces (USSTAF).
Doolittle was an aviation pioneer and hero who’d skyrocketed to the top of the ranks. Following his April 18, 1945 attack on Japan with B-25 Mitchells launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV 8), Doolittle went from lieutenant colonel to brigadier general without ever being a colonel and was awarded the Medal of Honor. Doolittle was the highest-ranking reserve officer in history – distrusted by old boys from West Point – and was the most moral of American generals. He protested to his bosses about the Berlin mission that BLUE GRASS GIRL and other Fortresses flew because the aiming point was the city center. Although British bombers attacked cities by night, American daylight missions were meant to be precision bombing of industrial and military targets.
“We will,” Doolittle wrote, “in what may be one of our last and best remembered operations regardless of its effectiveness, violate the basic American principle of precision bombing of targets of strictly military significance for which our tactics were designed and our crews trained and indoctrinated.”
Doolittle had already been to Rome in a bomber and wanted to go on the Berlin mission – making him the only Allied flier to bomb all three Axis capitals. His boss, Lt. Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, forbade it.
By the time BLUE GRASS GIRL went to Berlin on February 3, 1945 – again, as one of 1,003 Fortresses launched in twenty-six bomb groups that flew in a bomber stream 500 miles long – most of the key issues in the war over Europe had been resolved. This was the second largest mission of the war (when counting the 434 Liberators visiting Magdeburg that day, plus 948 escort fighters in the air) and the largest ever directed against a single target (the Berlin portion). It was nowhere near as frightful as missions flown earlier in the war. Still, trouble can happen at any time.
Before returning to BLUE GRASS GIRL happily on her way home, this narrative will touch on other events during the mission.
At a wartime operating weight of 65,500 pounds with up to 1,600 U.S. gallons of fuel on board and a broad, 103-ft, 9-inch wing, a Flying Fortress cruising at 170 miles per hour and carrying about 4,000 pounds of bombs was a relentless force that could crush any object in its path – even if that object happened to be another Fortress.
Over the Netherlands long before they could reach Berlin, two Fortresses slammed together in mid-air. Only three men out of eighteen bailed out successfully. Among them, one – Staff Sgt. William G. Logan – would later die when strafed by Allied warplanes while being held as a German prisoner of war.
The two Fortresses lost in the collision included a Boeing B-17G-90-BO Flying Fortress (43-38697/N7-M) of the 603rd Bombardment Squadron, 398th Bombardment Group, which had not been given a name and was piloted by 1st Lt. Perry E. Powell. The other Fortress was a Boeing B-17G-45-BO Flying Fortress (42-97387/K8-H) named MAUDE AN’ MARIA, of the 398th group’s 602nd squadron, piloted by 1st Lt John McCormick.
As if ripped open by a can opener, the left front side of MAUDE AN’ MARIA’s fuselage was suddenly lacking a twenty foot-long slice of metal skin. Crewmembers of other Fortresses watched as McCormick’s navigator, 1st Lt. Ray R. Woltman, was catapulted into the high, cold emptiness and actually went upward for hundreds of feet before starting down. As Woltman plunged, onlookers saw that he was not wearing a parachute.
On the flight deck of MAUDE AN’ MARIA, with a large part of his aircraft torn away behind him, McCormick tried to help co-pilot 1st Lt. William Feinstein to dislodge the entry hatch. The parachute belonging to engineer-gunner Tech Sgt. Marvin Gooden had opened inside the Fortress and was impeding movement on the floor and billowing around the men as they struggled to bail out with winds howling around them and debris flying. Once the hatch was gone, the Fortress bomber careened abruptly to the left and threw Feinstein out – and into the number two propeller.
In his memoir Hell from Heaven, 1st Lt Leonard Streitfeld, a bombardier on a nearby Fortress, wrote of what happened to Sgt. Joseph D. “Dave” Bancroft, the third man – out of eighteen aboard the two Fortresses – who survived the collision:
“Dave Bancroft, tail gunner on the Perry Powell plane, was alone in the tail section at the time of the collision and when the plane broke in half and was still fused to the front half, he saw a pair of hands, probably the waist gunner, reaching through the opening,” Streitfeld wrote. “Although Bancroft tried to pull him through, the opening was too small. Then the front part of the plane broke away and the hands disappeared. He found himself floating down, alone, in the tail section. He struggled to open the tail hatch door but it was jammed. He kicked, wrested, pushed and, after almost giving up, the door suddenly fell off and he bailed out.” Weeks later, he watched his best friend Logan die in a hail of fire from strafing Allied aircraft.
Marvin D. Lord
There was another painful loss of a Fortress, right over Berlin.
The 91st Bombardment Group was being led by a crew that usually flew with Major Emmanuel L. “Manny” Klette, the most experienced Fortress pilot of the war. On today’s mission, Lt. Col. Marvin Lord replaced Klette. Klette was loud and serious and grim, Lord quiet, always grinning with an impish smile. Lord was the father of a baby daughter and was known for his happy disposition, even when flying into flak. Although Lord had logged fewer sorties than Klette, he’d already been a squadron commander twice and held a Silver Star award from an earlier mission.
Seconds after “bombs away” over Berlin, a 120-mm flak shell struck the Fortress dead-center, killing Klette’s crew and Lord instantly. The Fortress fell apart in flaming pieces over Adolf Hitler’s capital.
The Klette-Lord aircraft had not been given a name. It was a Vega-built B-17G-20-VE Flying Fortress (42-97632/DF-R) of the 91st group’s 324th Bombardment Squadron. Group air commander Lord sat in the right seat; the pilot was 1st Lt. Frank L. Adams.
It was a bad day for the 324th squadron, which lost a second Fortress to flak over Berlin only seconds after Lord’s went down. The second aircraft was a Boeing B-17G-35-BO Flying Fortress (42-32085/DF-H). The pilot was 1st Lt. George F. Miller. Luckily, Miller’s crew was able to bail out. All became prisoners and all survived the war. Their aircraft was later observed in a Berlin city street, shattered and burnt.
Lewis K. Cloud Crew
We return now to BLUE GRASS GIRL. At the pilot’s controls, Cloud was very much in control as the bomber stream exited Germany, cut across the Netherlands and reached the North Sea, heading home. From the ball turret gunner’s position, Staff Sgt. Johnnie L. Jones must have had a spectacular view.
Jones and Chrastka were the two odd ducks aboard BLUE GRASS GIRL. Until recently, they’d belonged to another Fortress crew, headed by pilot Capt. Ronald Bereman. Today, Bereman’s unnamed Fortress was information with them. Tech Sgt. Daniel C. “Clint” Pentz of the Bereman crew, Chrastka’s best friend, was watching from the Bereman aircraft. Everyone felt happy for the nine men aboard BLUE GRASS GIRL – months earlier, by deleting one waist gunner, the Eighth Air Force had reduced B-17 crew size from ten – because all of them were completing their 35th mission over Adolf Hitler’s Reich. All had earned the “Lucky Bastard Club” certificate given to a crewmember who completed his missions. For them, the war was over. To celebrate, Jones had brought a British girl down from London and parked her in a hotel in Sudbury to await his return even though it was Chrastka, not Jones, whom everyone regarded as a ladies’ man.
Even homeward bound, even safe from flak over the North Sea, BLUE GRASS GIRL’s crew was still dealing with the discomforts of a new kind of warfare, a kind that had never been waged before and never would be again. The men were cold. They were always cold. They were inside an unpressurized metal tube at an altitude where oxygen was needed to keep them alive. They wore heated clothing that, in earlier versions, had been susceptible to failure and even to electrical fire. In all of history, no men had ever fought at such heights, in such cold, in such vast numbers.
In all, about fifteen thousand Americans were waging war over the Reich today.
“Let’s celebrate!” someone aboard BLUE GRASS GIRL surely must have said. Certainly, the men wanted to celebrate. The men in the rear fuselage including Chrastka, Jones, and possibly engineer-gunner Tech Sgt. Richard H. Warlick whose duty station was forward of the bomb bay, gathered in the radio compartment just aft of the bay.
BLUE GRASS GIRL descended over the North Sea and made landfall at the British coast. Pilot Cloud set course to travel southwest across East Anglia toward a landing at Sudbury.
Someone who wasn’t aboard BLUE GRASS GIRL, Tech Sgt. Daniel C. “Clint” Pentz of the Bereman crew – and Chrastka’s best friend – would later spend plenty of time thinking about how Chrastka left his tail gun position and made his way forward through the cramped fuselage to the radio room, which was just behind the bomb bay. “I guess he would have left his parachute in the tail,” said Pentz. “Or, more likely, he started forward and left his parachute in the waist gunner’s position.” That meant the chute was between eight and twelve feet behind Chrastka. Others gathered in the radio room, also without their chutes.
A brief transmission from the radio room hinted that some kind of celebration was taking place. And why not? It was, after all, a big deal to finish off a tour of duty by escaping flak high over Adolf Hitler’s capital, to have the day’s work done, and to be bound for home.
Veterans who remember BLUE GRASS GIRL will argue forever about what happened next. No one will ever be able to say with certainty.
No one really knows how the fire got started.
Flames Raging Furiously
In later years, men would hold different recollections. Those differences would rise to the level of controversy and would evoke high emotion. The men best equipped to know what happened were not part of those strong-willed discussions that came later. They were not around to excuse, to explain, to defend. Without them, we may never know the answer to the question: What happened to BLUE GRASS GIRL?
Co-pilot 1st Lt. John Udrowski of the Bereman crew – holding formation nearby –observed BLUE GRASS GIRL flying normally. Earlier, he’d watched the Cloud crew drop its bombs normally before turning for home. He often used the word “normal” in describing what he witnessed – right up to the instant when nothing was normal any more.
“I had seen bombers hit by flak,” said Udrowski. “I had seen bombers suffer damage. But I never saw anything quite like this. Usually, when there’s a fire, there’s smoke. But I did not see any smoke. One minute, everything was the way it was supposed to be. The next minute, there were red-orange flames lashing out of the rear of the fuselage.”
Crewmembers aboard at least half a dozen bombers – including Bereman’s – saw flames lapping upward and increasing in intensity at the BLUE GRASS GIRL’s waist windows. In the air, nothing was more terrifying than a fire and this was a big one with long tongues of flame pouring back from the waist gun position.
Within a minute, most of the fuselage of Cloud’s Fortress was engulfed in flames. White-hot fire washed back into the bomber’s slipstream. Initially, there was little or no smoke. But soon, black gouts of smoke were leaving a distinctive trail behind the Fortress.
Aboard BLUE GRASS GIRL, the first to become aware of the fire was engineer-gunner Warlick, who had apparently left his position in the forward fuselage to gather with crewmates in the radio room. Warlick believed the fire had begun directly behind the ball turret. He worked his way forward through the bomb bay and leaned over the pilot’s seat to tell Cloud. He grabbed a fire extinguisher. Apparently at Cloud’s direction, he returned to the radio room and handed the extinguisher to Jones. Warlick said he didn’t think it would do any good to try to put the fire out. It was, Warlick said, now completely out of control. The wooden floorboards of the B-17 were ablaze for quite some distance back. Even the metal interior of the fuselage was burning.
The celebration was over. Cloud put the Fortress into a gradual bank and turned out of the squadron formation. “I’ll take a look,” he said. He handed the controls to co-pilot 1st Lt. Frederick T. Stehle, stood, and went some distance back in the fuselage to get a look at the extent of the fire. At this point, it was no longer possible to continue backward through the bomb bay to the radio room. The fire was too intense, the heat too great. Except for ball turret gunner Jones who was separated from the others by the location of his crew position – he apparently had not gone to the radio room to celebrate – it’s likely that by now all of the men in the rear of the Fortress were gone, consumed within a storm of raw heat.
Warlick notified navigator 2nd Lt Charles N. Scott and bombardier Capt. James J. McDermott of the fire and of the need to abandon ship. As McDermott recounted it later, he went back and looked at the fire, possibly looking over Cloud’s shoulder during Cloud’s brief period away from the pilot’s seat. McDermott apparently saw a solid wall of flame and was nearly overcome by the heat. McDermott turned to go forward and now, with first-hand knowledge of the extent of the fire, Cloud returned to the pilot’s seat and told copilot Stehle: “Get out of the aircraft!” Those were the last five words of Cloud’s life.
Later, legend held that Cloud gave his parachute to another crewmember. That does not appear to be the case. Stehle, who might have been able to confirm it, never did. The only certainty is that Cloud, who was of course in charge, never bailed out. Warlick, the only witness to events in the rear fuselage of BLUE GRASS GIRL, was first to leave the aircraft, followed by Scott, McDermott and Stehle. Ball turret gunner Jones also wriggled his way out of BLUE GRASS GIRL, but by then the bomber was too close to the ground and Jones’ parachute did not open. Among those who did not escape from BLUE GRASS GIRL were Cloud, radio operator Staff Sgt. Arnold R. “Ray” Welch, waist gunner Staff Sgt. Gus T. Hodge, and Chrastka.
Bombardier McDermott, a “strapping young man with a ‘devil may care’ attitude, cocky and full of life,” later described his bailout to his son, John M. McDermott. “They were on the return leg of the mission, crossing the Channel, when news came from the rear of the aircraft that there was a fire,” the younger McDermott said. “My father told me that when he looked back – I think he said thru the doors – the whole back end was raging.
“My father was deathly afraid of the water. He couldn’t swim at all and was deeply concerned about the aircraft making it back over land before they had to bail out. By the time my father exited the aircraft they were over England. He was falling and his chute didn’t immediately open. He told me he was looking down and he saw a marshy area below. He told himself, ‘Jimmy, you’re going to land in that marsh and it’s going to be soft and you’re gonna get up and walk right out of it.’
“About that time, his chute deployed and slowed his descent. He did, in fact, land in the marshy area. A local gentleman helped him out (‘an old man with a bike’) and let my father borrow the bike to ride to the place the plane itself had crashed. He got there as fast as he could and was trying to get to the plane, but the locals stopped and held him back, insisting he couldn’t do anyone any good.”
Destroyed and Debated
There was no way anyone was going to be rescued inside that burning wreckage. McDermott watched the aircraft consume itself in flames, knowing that those still aboard had already perished. He was able to see Cloud’s remains as the Fortress burned.
The official report was damning. Investigators made it clear they were accepting engineer Warlick’s account only begrudgingly and only because “he is the only person that escaped that saw the fire close enough to have knowledge of the exact location and possible cause thereof.”
Once begun, the fire may have been fed by a broken oxygen connection, the report concluded. “The fire burned with such an intensity that the control cables evidently were severed and caused the aircraft to go out of control.” The report continued:
“Crew discipline aboard the plane was very poor just before the fire was discovered. Part of the crew being in the radio room with no men in the waist or tail section is definitely against S.O.P. [standard operating procedure]. Had there been member or members of the crew in the waist, the fire could have been noticed sooner and could possibly have been put out. At least enough warning could have been given to allow all the occupants to escape. Also, it is believed that at least two members of the crew [left] their parachutes in the waist section and could not get to them because of the fire.” Those two crewmembers would have been waist gunner Hodge and tail gunner Chrastka.
The official finding was that the cause of the loss of BLUE GRASS GIRL was “50% material failure and 50% personnel failure on the part of the crewmembers who were not at their proper stations.” The report said the responsibility rested on the pilot, Cloud.
Left out of all of the official documents was what many crewmembers in nearby Fortresses thought they knew: BLUE GRASS GIRL’s crew had been celebrating by firing flares out the waist window using a Very pistol. Bereman said he observed this. Others aboard Bereman’s plane also said they observed it. Bereman wrote:
“We were returning on a mission to Berlin and had crossed over the English coastline at an altitude of around two thousand feet. We did not know at the time that it was BLUE GRASS GIRL nor who was flying it. We found out at debriefing that two of our gunners [Jones and Chrastka], due to return to the mainland the next day, were on the plane and killed in the crash. When we first noticed the plane [it was] firing Very Pistol flares out the waist windows but shortly [it] stopped firing and smoke was pouring out the rear of the plane. For a few seconds we saw the smoke stop and then start again. Then we observed four chutes followed by the plane pitching over and straight down and exploding when it hit the ground.”
Wrote Bereman: “It is mine and [my] crewmember opinions that a Very Pistol flare somehow got shot inside the plane and set it on fire.” Of Cloud, Bereman wrote: “The pilot can certainly be commended for staying with the aircraft in an attempt to somehow make a belly landing to save the crew, but it was not to be. He paid the price and is a hero in my eyes and deserves the highest praise.”
But were BLUE GRASS GIRL’s crewmembers playing around with a Very pistol and shooting flares into the air to mark the completion of their tour of duty? Other crews had done this from time to time but it was a breach of safety rules and perhaps of common sense. Bereman’s co-pilot Udrowski later said it was possible he simply wasn’t sure he ever saw any flares come flying out of the aircraft. Of course, no one would have seen a flare that detonated inside the plane.
One member of Bereman’s crew, radio operator Tech Sgt. Daniel C. “Clint” Pentz isn’t buying it. Pentz was Chrastka’s best friend, going back to shared experiences when they trained together stateside. “The idea that they were fooling with flares makes no sense to me,” said Pentz. “The flare pistol was up front, forward of the bomb bay, in the flight engineer’s [Warlick’s] position. How would it have gotten to the radio operator’s [Welch’s] room? I do not believe flares had anything to do with it.” The problem with Pentz’s conclusion: We already know that Warlick traveled back to the radio room and Warlick was the custodian of the Very pistol.
British Police Superintendent William Franks saw BLUE GRASS GIRL on fire and the crew bailing out while he bicycled through the village of Wrentham near the larger town of Reydon just a few miles from the Sudbury airfield. It was 3:10 p.m.
BLUE GRASS GIRL was engulfed in flames and, yet, for a moment, seemed still to be under control. And then, the bomber veered downward. According to the official report, “The aircraft was seen to go into a steep turn and crash to the ground, explode and burn.” An observer on the ground said it crashed with a heavy thumping sound near Church Farm, Reydon, near Southwold, Suffolk and was consumed by flames. It was 3:14 p.m., British Summer Time.
The loss of Cloud’s crew was a devastating blow to the morale of the 486th Bombardment Group. It didn’t seem fair. The men had survived a final mission to the heavily defended German capital. And fire had intervened after they were supposed to be safe.
So far as is known, no Fortress crewmember went to the inn in Sudbury to tell Jones’ girlfriend that Jones had been lost. When and how she learned is unknown.
The material in this article is adapted from the book Mission to Berlin, by Robert F. Dorr, to be published by Zenith Press in April 2011. If you wish to contact Dorr, or would like to purchase a signed copy of Mission to Berlin, email him at Robert.F.Dorr@cox.net