A “Wing and a Prayer”
– Fighters, 12 O'clock High –
Thanks To Terry Janes, former 2nd Lt. David Adams, former Staff Sergeant Carlton C. Jones and Konrad Rudolph for their assistance in telling this story. Photos copyright of Konrad Rudolph and a friend.
July 30, 1943, was a nice summer day in central Germany. German, Polish and French fieldworkers worked in the fields. Most of the German farmers and farmhands served in the German army and were far away. During the harvest time, POWs from France and Poland were helping to bring the corn in from the fields. The small village of Dorla is located 25-kilometers southwest from the town of Kassel and 3 kilometers from the town of Gudensberg. (Note: In the cemetery of Gudensberg, two fliers of the B-17 "Liberty Run", Joseph J. Doyle and Henry C. Mathis Jr. were buried, from mid September 1944 until the early days of 1946). Then, the people heard the sound of many aircraft engines, the thunder of the flak and the explosions of bombs. Between 8:50am and 10:44am, 134 American bombers attacked the Junkers and Fieseler aircraft factories in the city of Kassel. In these factories, FW-190 fighters were built and ME-109 fighters were modified. (Note: During this raid, 157 residents and factory workers were killed. Two days before, on July 28, 100 American bombers tried to bomb the same targets, but navigation problems occurred and most of the bombs hit the houses of the residents and factory workers in the "Fieseler" and "Eichwaldsiedlung" of Kassel. 45 residents lost their lives during the July 28th bombing raid).
The "Bick-Mill" in the village of Dorla, Germany
A few moments later, the people of Dorla saw a B-17 near their village. The aircraft was burning and smoking and came from the north, heading south at a very low altitude. It had a big "H" on the tail (Note: It was the marking of the 388th Bomber Group). The fuselage of this plane was nearly touching the ground. It passed very closely to the "Bick-Mill" outside the village of Dorla and touching the ground, it slid over the road from Dorla to Wehren and the small creek Ems, hit a gap in a row of trees and came to a rest smoking and burning in the meadow. (Note: The gap in the trees is still there today.) A photo was made showing the smoking aircraft. The fieldworkers were shocked. No one wanted to go near the burning wreck because it was possible that ammunition, bombs and fuel could explode at any time. This aircraft hit the ground only 3 kilometers away from the place where "Liberty Run" (another B-17 bomber) had crashed a year later.
The gap in the trees near Dorla, Germany where "Wing And A Prayer" crashed
After a short time, a group of soldiers from the nearby airport of Fritzlar arrived. They guarded the wreck. In the afternoon, officers came with a Fieseler Storch observer aircraft and landed nearby. They checked the wreck. It was not possible to say if flak or fighters downed this plane. The crew from this plane was not located and the aircraft itself was damaged too badly.
Over the decades afterward, no one really knew whose this plane this was, and where it came from. The German researcher Mr. Rudolph solved the mystery in the early 1990s. He got a copy of the extremely rare photo that shows the burning wreck of an aircraft on the meadow near Dorla. With a magnifying glass, he could see the number on the tail of the aircraft. Now, it would be possible, to locate the crew of this plane...
On July 30, 1943, a B-17 bomber with the nickname "Wing and a Prayer" took off to fly a mission against several aircraft factories in Kassel with other planes of the 388th and two other bomb groups. The 4th Bomber Wing sent three groups for this mission against the targets in Central Germany. (Note: In 1943, it was more dangerous for the bomber crews to reach their targets and return, than in the last 12 months of the war, because in 1943 over German territory, they were not protected by their little friends, the Mustang fighter planes. They must defend themselves, more or less successfully).
The bombed-out Fieseler Aircraft Factory
The 388th bomb group was in the 45th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division, 8th US Army Air Force. Squadrons of the 388th were the 560th, 561st, 562nd and the 563rd. Home base was Knettishall in England. There, they stayed from June 23rd 1943 until August 5th, 1945.
On July 30, 1943, crewmembers of "Wing and a Prayer" were:
Pilot – 1st Lt. Frank Forrest Kelly
Copilot – 2nd Lt. Kenneth W. Alexander
Navigator – 2nd Lt. Carl Rex Alexander
Bombardier – 2nd Lt. David B. Adams
Engineer – T/Sgt. Harold Schwerdt
Radio Operator – T/Sgt. Carlton C. Jones
Ball Turret Gunner – S/Sgt. Joseph V. Marchinski
Door Gunner – S/Sgt. Randall Ryals
Door Gunner – S/Sgt. Joseph W. Maschke
Tail Gunner – S/Sgt. Alexander W. Milligan
The aircraft they flew on July 30th was not their original aircraft. Two days before, Kelly’s crew came back with "Shack Up" from a mission against the German town Aschersleben. This was their original plane. They came back, but the plane was heavily damaged. German fighter planes had pierced the wings of "Shack Up" with bullets and 20-millimeter shells. Both wings had to be changed. This was no big problem. New wings had come with the latest transport from the States, but they couldn’t be changed quickly enough for the plane to be used on this mission.
The commander gave the order to Kelly’s crew to fly the next mission with "Wing and a Prayer", but the former pilot of this plane, Ken Alexander, would be switched to Kelly’s crew as a copilot. For this mission, they had to leave their own copilot 2nd Lt. W. M. Topin back at the base. This aircraft was brand new. (Note: D. Adams wrote later to the researcher K. Rudolph that the former pilot and now co-pilot Ken Alexander was a loser. No one in the camp liked to have anything to do with him).
The pilot 1st Lt. Frank Forrest Kelly was born in Chicago. He was 28 years old. First, he was an officer of the Army, and then he switched to the Army Air Force. In his squadron, he was the only one of the rank of 1st Lieutenant.
Over German territory, "Wing and a Prayer" and his group flew heading west. Near the mountain Knuell, in central Germany, they changed direction. Now, they were flying north, in the direction of Kassel. As they passed the big railroad center in the town of Bebra, "Wing and a Prayer" got two direct hits by flack. The left wing had a huge hole in it. Two engines of this wing were knocked off. Another shell damaged several controls in the "office", or cockpit. The oxygen-system went off. The bomb controls of the bombardier were also damaged and lost electrical power. It was not possible to follow their group with two damaged engines. The crew threw all loose equipment overboard to lighten the plane. The 23-year-old Bombardier 2nd Lt. David B. Adams climbed into the bomb bay and opened the doors of the bay manually. He released every single bomb with a screwdriver, one after another. Adams did not close the bomb bay. At this moment, "Wing and a Prayer" was the target of a group of German fighter planes. They attacked the plane several times. They damaged the two working engines as well. Now, it was time to leave the aircraft!
Kelly knew that everything was lost. He gave the order to bail out. Over the next few miles, one after the other of the crew bailed out. The two pilots and the engineer used the open bomb bay to bail out.
Witnesses on the ground saw this and reported later about a B-17 with a huge hole in the wing. Over the town Altmorschen the first fliers bailed out. S/Sgt. Alexander W. Milligan bailed out successfully, but a big part of the aircraft fell together with him to the ground. After the parts of the aircraft had passed him, he opened his chute. This was at the very last moment. The aircraft did not change direction and was still flying north. Near the town of Melsungen two more fliers left the plane. They landed between the small villages of Kehrenbach and Kirchhof. One flyer hit a tree that cut his chute; the other landed on a field near the village of Kehrenbach. Shrapnel had wounded his arm and back. After his landing, he went to the tiny village nearby. On his way to the village, he gave his chocolate bars to the children who had come running and followed him. A landjaeger” (policeman) from the village of Kirchhof arrived too. The flyer was wounded and was in terrible pain, but the landjaeger bound his hands behind his back. Meanwhile, the Buergermeister (mayor) and his wife from the village of Kehrenbach had come there and tried to help the flyer, and began to protest against the landjaeger. The landjaeger had no interest in discussing the matter. He said: "If somebody tries to stop me, I will use my gun".
The village of Kehrenbach, Germany
The Welcome sign for the village of Kirchhof, Germany
Near the village of Eubach, two more fliers landed. Lt. Frank Kelly landed in a forest and the 22 year old Lt. Carl Alexander on a field. Flak shrapnel had hit Carl Alexander's leg and he had broken his foot as he hit the ground at high speed. Farmers and fieldworkers helped the wounded Carl Alexander. (Note: A photo was made and shows the situation after the landing. Mr. Groh, a farmer from Eubach, was holding the boots and parts of the parachute of Carl Alexander. Mr. Groh was a soldier in the German army. He was home on vacation for a short time for the harvest time.).
The village of Eubach, Germany
All crewmembers were arrested, except bombardier Adams. He had landed in a forest. The search parties tried to locate him, so he left the forest and crawled to a potato field to find cover. In the night he was walking, heading west trying to find people of the underground in France or Belgium. After 3 1/2 days, his journey was over. He was captured near the old university town of Marburg. Adams was arrested at the airport Fritzlar, near Kassel. In the interrogation center of Oberursel, the whole "Wing and a Prayer" crew was there, except Navigator Carl Alexander. No one knew what had happened to him.
Carl Alexander was wounded, as reported. He had to stay in a German hospital for a few months. There, he was treated very well, as D. Adams wrote to K. Rudolph. One day, a very angry German civilian came to visit him in the hospital. He was the manager of the railroad center near Bebra. One of the bombs Adams had released with his screwdriver hit the station of this manager. The station manager wanted to know why he had bombed his station. (Note: The crew of "Wing and a Prayer" had to lighten the damaged plane, so they dropped the bombs too. And those bombs just happened to hit the railroad station).
The wounded Carl Alexander, being supported by German citizens
Before Kelly had bailed out, he had activated the autopilot to stabilize the aircraft, but "Wing and a Prayer" was too badly damaged. Without the pilot at the controls, the aircraft flew a curve, gradually lost altitude over the next few minutes and landed softly without the crew a few kilometers away on the meadow near the small village of Dorla.
The officers became POW's in Stalag III in Sagan near the Baltic Sea. The other crewmembers were kept in Stalag VIIA before later being transferred to Stalag Luft XVII-B, near Krims.
The Kassel raid from July 30, 1943, was the 7th mission of this bomber group. They took off in England between 5:29 and 5:38 hours. From the coast to the target and out, the groups were attacked by up to 75 fighters. The flak over the target was intense and accurate. On this mission, the group lost three aircraft by flak. The planes that returned to the home base had all suffered battle damage.
Two more aircraft of this group were lost:
F/O Earl Eugene Pickard in A/C 42-30202 bombed the target, but was hit by flak on the way back to the base over Antwerp/Belgium. Engine No. 2 had caught fire and the crew bailed out successfully. All the crewmembers became POWs in Stalag VII-A and XVII-B.
2nd Lt. C. H. Penn in A/C 42-30210 was hit by flak near the target. Two engines caught fire. They left formation and were attacked by fighters. 7 crewmembers bailed out successfully. Copilot 2nd Lt. Washburne, Navigator 2nd Lt. Berry Hill and Radio Operator T/Sgt. W. D. Nadler went down with the aircraft. The surviving crewmembers were also kept in Stalag VII-A and XVII-B.
After the war, David Adams and his buddy Frank Kelly did not travel home immediately, but visited several places like the town of Munich, Dachau and Rheims, France. From Le Havre, France, they traveled back home to the States.
Frank Kelly, Carl Alexander and David Adams were the best of buddies. The stayed together at the home base and later, in the POW camp too. David Adams wrote to Mr. Rudolph, that his former pilot and friend Frank Kelly was terribly ill and that he committed suicide in July 1991. The former navigator Carl Alexander had also bad health problems and died in the early 1980's. He was buried in a cemetery for veterans near Los Angeles. Carl Alexander has three children, one daughter (Pricilla) and two boys (Glenn and David). His daughter died after an accident in 1954. Carl Alexander gave one of his two sons the name of his best buddy: "David".
Adams did not know the other crewmembers very well, so he could not tell much about them. In 1993, he wrote, that he remembered every single moment of the day his plane went down 50 years earlier. For him, it was as if it was yesterday that all these things had happened.
At a later reunion the former crew of "Wing and a Prayer" met their former 1st Ground Engineer, Frank Grover. Adams asked Grover if he still remembered their original aircraft "Shack up". Grover still remembered it. He told Adams, that he had located two unexploded 20-mm shells from a German fighter plane cannon in the wings. He opened the shells and found a piece of paper in each of them. On the papers, the following words were written in the Czechoslovakian language: "This is all we can do for you way over here".
A few years ago, a piece of black burned metal was found in the mud of the meadow near the village of Dorla where the mission of the "Wing and a Prayer" had ended 60 years earlier. The last pieces of a mighty aircraft that never came home….
"Wing And A Prayer" burning in the meadow near Dorla, Germany
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