January 6, 1945, 12:30 PM, 60 miles south of Cologne, Germany, 25,000 feet altitude. An 8th Air Force strike force of 286 B-17, Flying Fortress, heavy bombers from the 1st Air Division is returning to home bases in England following a bombing run on the marshalling yards and the Deutz and South Bridges at Cologne. The strike force is leaving the Cologne flak defensive perimeter. Suddenly, B-17, No. 44-8501 ('Jeanie'), in the 323rd Squadron of the 91st Bomb Group takes an almost direct flak hit. The No. 3 engine immediately begins smoking. Within two minutes the No. 3 engine, right wing and interior of the fuselage are engulfed in fire. Jeanie begins to slip away from the formation and drops about 4,000 feet. A crewman bails from the tail gunner position. He free-falls for several thousand feet, his chute opening about a thousand feet above the clouds. He is followed by three other crewmen, who leave by the waist door, their chutes opening immediately. Three more men leave through the bomb-bay door and nose hatch, their chutes opening as soon as the falling men clear the aircraft. A body falls from the aircraft and disappears into the overcast below. He, too, appears to be making a delayed fall to reduce the probability of being shot in his descending chute. Jeanie slips over and begins a steep downward spiraling dive at an angle of approximately 60o. As the aircraft starts its dive, two crewmen appear from the nose hatch, their chutes opening. The last two crewmen falling from the plance are the copilot, 1Lt Warren T. Smith, followed by the pilot, 1Lt Cecil G. McConnell. All ten of the crewmen appear to have left the falling aircraft, which continues to spiral downward to crash in a fiery explosion 1/4th mile west of Eilscheid, Germany.
The loss of an aircraft and its crew is a frequent occurrence, even this late in the war. Flak and German fighters continue to take their toll on the American bombers. Thousands of heavy bombers have been lost over the continent in the previous 29 months of the war. Another 381 8th Air Force heavy bombers will be shot down during the 108 days left in the air war over Germany. Thus, there is nothing unique in the loss of Jeanie and her crew. However, that Lt Smith is a part of this crew today is especially ill-fated. His 'war' could have been over weeks ago and by now he could have been safely back home with his family in Rapid City, South Dakota. Because of his commitment to his country, to his crew and to his personal honor, Lt Smith was in harm's way this 6th day of January 1945.
The following account traces Lt Smith's journey to this place and time. Throughout the rest of the account I will use the name 'Warren', even though he was known to his crew as 'Smitty.' Personal names the heavy bomber crewmen used for each other should be considered sacrosanct, for use only among their fellow crew-mates. The manner in which they referred to each other was part of the bond that held the crews together. Outsiders should not infringe upon that bond.
Warren was born on 8 August 1919, in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, the son of Roy and Faye Smith. He graduated from Rapid City High School in 1937 and attended the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, where he was an outstanding basketball and football player. Warren received his degree in civil engineering in 1941. Following graduation, Warren worked for the Northwestern Engineering Company in Great Bend, Kansas, until he enlisted in the Army Air Corps on 27 January 1943. On 27 December 1941, Warren and Mary Virginia Carey were married in Rapid City, South Dakota. They had one child, Sally Ann, born on 7 June 1943.
Upon completion of his Army Air Corps flight training, Warren was sent to Salt Lake City, and on 27 February 1944 was assigned as copilot in 2Lt Cecil G. McConnell's crew. From Salt Lake City, the crew was sent to the Combat Crew Training School at Sioux City, Iowa. The combat training course completed, McConnell's crew left Sioux City on 10 June for Kearney, Nebraska, where they picked up a new B-17 Flying Fortress and began their long trip overseas. With stops at Griener Field, Massachusetts, Bangor, Maine, Goose Bay, Labrador, and Rekykjavik, Iceland, Warren and the crew eventually landed at the Nutts Corner Modification Center at Belfast, Ireland. From there McConnell's crew was shipped to England for a few days of training near the North Sea. On 19 July, the crew was assigned to the 323rd Squadron of the 91st Bomb Group (H), flying out of U.S. Air Force Station 121 at Bassingbourn, 11 miles SW of Cambridge.
The McConnell crew, with Warren as copilot, flew its initial combat mission on 31 July 1944, to Munich, in B-17 No. 42-31579, 'Betty Lou's Buggy.' The strike force encountered moderate, but accurate, flak over the target. There was no German fighter activity. Betty Lou's Buggy was not damaged. Another 323rd B-17 (No. 42-97304,'Priority Gal', flown by Henry W. Supchak's crew) was hit by flak over the target and went down, its crew bailing out to become POWs. Warren's second mission, as copilot of McConnell's crew, was to Mulhouse, Germany on 3 August. Again, their B-17 was not damaged. There followed nine more missions through 7 October, during which their aircraft received only minor damage. Warren flew as copilot for McConnell's crew on all these missions. On the 16 August mission to Halle, Germany, the 91st was hit by a large number of German FW 190 fighters. McConnell's crew was flying in No. 42-97276, 'Sweet 17 The Spirit of St Louis', in the Number Two position (on the right wing) of the Second Element of the Lead Squadron. The German fighters came down on the 324th High Squadron, taking out six B-17s in one 40-second pass. All six aircraft exploded in black and red fiery balls. The FW 190s continued on down through the 91st formation, damaging a few planes as they went through the Lead and Low Squadrons. No. 276 was not damaged. She continued on to the target and returned to Bassingbourn without incident. On 14 October, Warren flew copilot for 1Lt Edward M. Corman's crew on a mission to Cologne. That day, Lt McConnell flew as copilot in the lead aircraft, while being checked out as a squadron lead pilot. The rest of the McConnell crew was stood down for this mission.
The 30th of October was an eventful day for Warren. He flew in No. 43-38379, 'Margie', in the No. 2 position of the Fourth Element of the High Squadron. That day, 1Lt Edward W. Splawinski was on the loading list as first pilot, in place of Lt McConnell. The rest of Lt McConnell's crewmen were listed in their normal positions, including Warren as copilot. However, he did most of the flying on the mission, in effect, serving as first pilot. On this mission, Lt McConnell flew as copilot with Capt Sidney R. Maxwell in the Squadron Lead plane, No. 44-8145, 'Tailor Maid', obtaining additional lead pilot training.
Immediately after bombs away, 'Margie' took a direct hit in the right wing, between Nos. 3 and 4 engines, knocking out No. 4 and reducing power from No. 3. T/Sgt Frank Panek, in the top turret, was hit in the leg tearing away his kneecap and puncturing his lower leg. The oxygen system went out and Warren had to drop 'Margie' down to 10,000 feet so the crew could breathe. Because of loss of power, the crew jettisoned all the guns and excess equipment to lighten the load. As they skimmed low over the German country-side, fire from the ground resulted in more damage to the plane. Warren and Lt Splawinski managed to keep 'Margie' in the air across the rest of the continent and over the Channel. With insufficient power to clear the radar towers on the Dover cliffs, they had to skirt around the towers as they flew up the coast towards Bassingbourn. Before reaching Bassingbourn the No. 1 and 2 engines began to cut out because of fuel flow problems. The aircraft obviously would not make it to Bassingbourn, so Warren headed for Wormingford, a P-51 fighter base, 6 miles NW Colchester. Even though she clipped the trees at the end of the field, he put 'Margie' down in a perfect 3-point landing on the grass. Warren brought 'Margie' and her crew home safely. But, it had been a close call and a scary ride for all.
On his next mission, on 6 November, Warren was assigned to the Tail Gunner position on the Group Lead aircraft, No. 44-8135, a 324th Squadron Mickey (Radar Bombsight) plane on loan to the 323rd that day. The target was industrial plants in Hamburg, Germany. Warren served both as tail gunner and as formation coordinator. The Lead Pilot was the 323rd Operations Officer, Cpt William E. Reid, flying the second mission of his second tour as a pilot. Maj Willis J. Taylor, the new 323rd Squadron commander, was the Group Leader, flying as copilot for Cpt Reid. Warren was responsible for keeping Maj Taylor informed of straggling planes, those with engine problems and general condition of the Group formation.
Because of high head winds, the bomb run seemed to take forever, actually eleven minutes from the IP ('Initial Point', beginning of the bomb run) to the target. This gave the German anti-aircraft gunners plenty of time to zero in on the formation. No. 135 was hit hard just before bombs away. An 88 mm shell burst below the plane and took out the No. 3 engine. A second shell went through the right side, exploding in the radio compartment and blowing away the left side of the fuselage. The radioman, T/Sgt John N. Cardiff was hit in the abdomen, chest and left arm. The waist gunner, S/Sgt Joseph Uhrick received wounds in the abdomen, right leg, left thigh, and back. Both were killed instantly. A piece of flak in the radio room smashed into the left leg of the Mickey (Radar Bombsight ) operator, 1Lt Jordan D. Cannon, causing compound fractures. He survived, but eventually lost his leg. The flight engineer, T/Sgt James R. Kilgallen, was blown from the top turret down into the nose compartment, but was not injured.
Cpt Reid kept No. 135 in formation, dropping the bombs on target. However, with one engine out and a gaping hole in the fuselage, it was obvious No. 135 could not lead the Group home. All radio contact with the Group was out and the Deputy Lead, 1Lt Arvin O. Basnight, in No. 44-8431, 'Cheri II', did not understand Cpt Reid's hand signals to take over. Each time Cpt Reid attempted to move out of the Lead, the Group followed him. Finally, he simply rolled No. 135 up on one wing and peeled off. So much of the structure of the fuselage had been blown away that when he banked sharply, the plane twisted in the middle. The tail continued to fly level for a few seconds, before twisting into alignment with the rest of the aircraft. Lt Basnight then took over the Group Lead for the trip back to Bassingbourn.
After they had leveled off, Cpt Reid asked Maj Taylor if he would go back and see how bad was the situation in the radio room. Maj Taylor said 'I can't.' He was new to combat and the events were proving unnerving to him. Cpt Reid then asked him to take over the controls while he went back. Cpt Reid saw there was nothing he could do for Sgts Cardiff or Uhrick and that Lt Cannon was being tended to. When he got back to the cockpit, Cpt Reid saw the plane was out of the bomber stream. He asked Maj Taylor where they were going. Maj Taylor answered 'To Holland.' Cpt Reid told him 'Not over Germany, alone.' He explained that there were a large number of German fighter bases between them and the nearest Allied field in Holland. Cpt Reid took over the controls and moved back into the safety of the bomber stream. Planes of the P-51 fighter escort kept flying up alongside No. 135 to get a close look at the gaping hole in her side. The pilots wondered what kept her together.
Upon reaching England, Cpt Reid headed for the nearest airfield, Rackheath, 5 miles NE from Norwich. Although No. 135 was held together by only a few longitudal stringers, she remained in one piece when Cpt Reid put her down. When the surviving crew disembarked, Warren discovered that his chute had been shredded by flak. Had the plane broken up in the air, he would not have survived. A second scary close call for him.
Warren flew as First Pilot on 16 November (2Lt John W. Barczak, copilot), 25 November (FO Rocci Grimwaldi, copilot) and 26 November (2Lt Earl W. Scofield, Copilot). On the latter mission, Warren was in No. 42-107069, 'Round Trip Topsy', a 401st aircraft on loan to the 323rd for the mission. He flew 'Topsy' in the No. 3 position (on the left wing) of the Third Element of the High Squadron. About half an hour before the target, the formation was met by German fighters. 'Topsy' took a number of 20 mm cannon hits that damaged the No. 2 engine, caught the left wing on fire, shredded the tail surfaces, cut off oxygen to the rear of the plane, knocked out much of the instrument panel, jammed the ball turret and tail guns, and sprung the bomb bay doors open. In spite of all this, Warren held "Topsy" in formation as they flew on to the target (the Leuna synthetic oil plant at Mersberg, Germany), with the rear crewmen relying on 'walk-around' oxygen tanks. As they went over the target, the togglier, S/Sgt James L. Matthews, found the bomb releases were jammed and the bombs would not drop. By tugging and kicking at the shackles, Sgt Matthews was able to jettison the bombs on the way back to Bassingbourn.
For three hours the crew fought the fire, but 'Topsy' continued to burn, eventually stopping the No. 2 engine, causing the aircraft to start losing altitude. Still, 'Topsy' was flying and the fires did not seem to be spreading. Warren followed at a safe distance behind the 323rd Squadron formation so as not to take out any other planes should 'Topsy' blow up. Over the Channel 'Topsy' picked up an escort from a flight of P-47s. When they reached England, Warren headed for the first landing field he could find, barely making it to the 56th Fighter Group base at Halesworth, 15 miles SW of Lowestoft. The windshield was iced over and a landing flap was jammed, causing "Topsy" to swerve off the runway and pile into two trucks and a concrete mixer. 'Topsy' immediately became a flaming inferno. The crew scrambled out safely. In a few minutes, only the tips of the wings were left. But, Warren had brought his crew home safely again. This was his third close call. For his action that day, Warren was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After the mission of 26 November, Warren went to the 323rd Squadron Operations Officer, Maj Reid (who had been recently promoted to Major), and told him he did not want to fly as first pilot any more. He said his missions as first pilot had been rough and he wanted to fly only as copilot. Warren and Major Read were good friends, often playing bridge together at night. After some discussion, Warren finally admitted that he had the premonition he was going to be killed and did not want to take any of his friends with him. He requested that he be assigned to fly as copilot with new crews, he did not know, arriving at Bassingbourn. Maj Reid told him he could not break up new crews on their first missions by honoring his request. This would be bad for the morale of crews who had trained together in preparation for combat. Maj Reid gave Warren a three-day pass to go to London with a friend to get his mind off the war. He was back the next day asking to fly. Warren said he did not want to be seen as a slacker by not flying missions. Maj Reid then offered to let Warren fly either as his copilot or tail gunner and formation coordinator, when he was flying Group Lead. Or, he would allow him to cut short his combat tour and return home. All Warren had to do was spend a week in a 'flak house', civilian estates where crewmen who were suffering from severe combat fatigue were sent to calm their nerves before returning to flight status. Such a stay would provide sufficient justification for Maj Reid to place Warren on orders back to the States. Even though he was extremely attached to his family, wife Virginia and daughter Sally Ann, back in Rapid City, Warren refused to be relieved of flying before finishing his tour. He told Maj Reid he did not want to shirk his duty and wanted to complete the full tour of 35 missions. When Lt McConnell learned of what was being discussed, he asked Warren to reconsider and fly as his copilot. Lt McConnell said he would pass up being a lead pilot, if Warren would stay on as his copilot. Warren finally agreed to this and went back to flying as copilot with Lt McConnell and his original crew.
Lt McConnell's crew, with Warren in the right, copilot's seat, flew three relatively uneventful missions through 1 January 1945. On 6 January, Lt. McConnell's flew in the No. 2 position, on the right wing, of the Group Lead Element, on the mission to the bridge over the Rhine River atCologne, Germany. They were flying in No. 44-8501, "Jeanie", a 379th Bomb Group "Mickey Plane" on loan to the 91st for the day. Warren flew as copilot, his fourth mission after refusing the offer to return home safely to his family. When the strike force arrived at Cologne, some of the Groups bombed the bridges over the Rhine, the other Groups the marshalling yard in the city.
The Group Lead for that day was Maj Reid of the 323rd Squadron. All went well as the Group formation went from the IP to the target. Flak was heavy over the target, but Jeanie was not hit. Following 'Bombs Away' the Group headed straight south of the city to the Rally Point for the return to England. Jeanie was nearly out of the flak zone when everything fell apart for her and Lt McConnell's crew.
It was Maj Reid's policy, when the returning from the target over lightly defended areas, to trail the Group ahead with his Squadrons following in file, so he could observe and try to avoid any flak coming up at the bomber stream. As there was only very light and scattered flak beyond the target, Maj Reid took no evasive action. Ten minutes off the target, four isolated tracking bursts of four shells, each, erupted within the 91st Group formation. Unfortunately, one of the bursts in the last group of four was almost a direct hit on Jeanie. It exploded near the right side of the fuselage, slightly behind the right wing. The number 3 and 4 engines were knocked out and the hydraulic system damaged. The No. 3 engine began smoking and then burst into flames, as the right wing became engulfed in fire.
Both Lt McConnell and Warren were stunned by the explosion. Lt McConnell recovered first. As Warren regained consciousness, he started motioning downwards with his hands that something was wrong. He appeared to indicate he was hit in the chest by flak, but Lt McConnell could not contact him over the intercom, nor could he communicate with Warren by yelling across the cockpit. Lt McConnell fought to keep the aircraft under control. Someone yelled over the intercom 'We're on fire', just as the flames burst into the cockpit. Immediately, the entire fuselage from the nose to the radio room was a blazing inferno. Lt McConnell gave the order for the crew to abandon ship. Lt McConnell looked down to see the bombardier and navigator bailing out the nose escape hatch. He stepped down and back between the two pilot seats, reaching up and switching on the autopilot as he did so, hoping it would keep the plane flying level long enough for the men from the radio room back to bail out. Because of the raging fire, Lt McConnell could not check their condition or even know if they had heard the bailout bell. He looked up in time to see Warren collapse over his control column. He reached up and grabbed Warren under the arms and pulled him from his seat. Just then Warren recovered. Lt McConnell pushed him down through the fire and into the nose where he bailed out, head first, through the escape hatch, followed immediately by Lt McConnell. Both made it safely to the ground.
All ten of the the crewmen (Navigator, F/O Donald E. Williams; Bombardier, 2Lt Alan G. Hillman; Radar Navigator, F/O Donald C. Burkness [from the 379 BG]; Radio Operator, T/Sgt George F. Merritt; Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner, T/Sgt George G. Turner; Ball Turret Gunner, S/Sgt Alfas R. Nichols; Waist Gunner, S/Sgt Rheinholtd Strecker; Tail Gunner, S/Sgt Marion C. Hoffman) appear to have parachuted safely to the ground. The Germans reported that T/Sgt Turner, had been killed in the air, his body remaining in the falling aircraft. That crewmen in nearby aircraft had reported seeing a body falling, apparently in free-fall, into the overcast below and that two of the crew of Jeanie (S/Sgts Hoffman and Strecker) reported seeing an empty chute floating down, he may have slipped from the harness of his chute when it opened and fallen to his death. The surviving crewmen suggested that the Germans may have placed his body back in the wreckage.
F/O Williams and 2Lt. Hillman were both killed on the ground by angry civilians. The other seven crewmen were captured by the German military to become POWs. Unfortunately, Warren died of his wounds the next day in a military medical station in Schonecken, Germany. Warren would not again see Virginia or Sally Ann. After the war, Warren's body was returned to Rapid City on 14 August 1948, where he now rests in Mountain View Cemetery, Block 81, Lot 1060, Grave 2/3.
Warren's death was no more, no less tragic than that of any of the more than 30,000 other crewmen from the 8th Air Force who lost their lives during World War II. All had parents, many had wives and children, for whom the war would never end and whose lives would never be the same. How Virginia and Sally Ann endured their loss is not for us to pry into. It is for them and them alone to know. Warren's death, however, was especially poignant in that it need not have been. He had been given the option of returning to Rapid City. No one would have thought any worse of him, had he done so. At the time Maj Reid gave him the opportunity to return home, Warren had flown 20 combat missions, during two of which he displayed exceptional skill and courage in bringing his crew back safely to England. Even with the premonition that he would be killed, a not uncommon sense among the airmen, owing to the constant death potential on every mission, Warren would not consent to opting out of his obligation to his country, to his crew and to himself. Because of this, he died.
If Warren had elected to return home, most likely the copilot who would have been in his place, would have been killed. He, too, would have had parents, and perhaps a wife and children, whose lives would have been forever changed. But, he lived. Such were the fortunes of those who flied and died in the air war over Europe.
In researching the missions flown by Warren, I used records obtained from the National Archives at College Park, MD and the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, AL. I thank the late William E. Reid, for relating to me the details of the 6 November 1944 and 6 January 1945 missions and of his discussions with Warren regarding completion of his combat tour. Before he passed away, Cecil G. McConnell provided me information regarding his interactions with Warren. I also relied heavily on a letter Cecil placed in the Missing Air Crew Reports, describing in detail the events of the 6 January 1945 mission. Marion C.Hoffman, the sole living survivor of the McConnell crew permitted me to use information in his book, 'A View From The Tail//The Last Mission.' Marion also reviewed the manuscript and provided additional information and corrections that added to the accuracy of the events described in the account. Jane Heck provided information personal information prior to Lt Smith's entering the Army Air Corps.
31 McConnell 1579 Munich
3 McConnell 42-97504 Mulhouse
4 McConnell 42-31636 Pennrmunde
7 McConnell 44-6308 Tactical support for Patton, SE Paris
9 McConnell 43-37887 Elsenhorn
14 McConnell 42-32116 Metz/Frascaty
16 McConnell 42-97276 Halle
27 McConnell 42-97594 Heligoland
30 McConnell 42-97594 Kiel
13 McConnell 42-38379 Lutzkendorf
25 McConnell 42-38379 Frankfurt
28 McConnell 43-38379 Madgeburg<
6 McConnell 42-97956 Neubrandenberg
7 McConnell 42-31909 Frieberge/Wurzberg
14 Edward M. Carman 42-32116 Cologne
30 Edward W.Splawinski 43-38379 Hamm [Warren flew as first pilot most of mission]
6 William Reid, 44-8135 Hamberg [Warren at TG, as; formation coordinator]
16 Warren T. Smith 43-38083 Aachen [Tactical Mission] [John W. Barczak, CP]
25 Warren T. Smith 43-38806 Merseberg [Rocci Grimwaldi, CP]
26 Warren T. Smith 42-107069 Altenbeken [Earl W. Scofield, CP]
15 McConnell 43-38379 Kassel
24 McConnell 43-38379 Kirch-Goins (Dep Grp Lead)
1 McConnell 43-38379 Kassel (Dep Grp Lead)
6 McConnell 44-8501 Cologne
42-97504 Mary Lou
42-31636 Outhouse Mouse
43-37887 Old Battle Axe
42-32116 Hi-Ho Silver
42-97276 Sweet 17/Spirit of St. Louis
42-97594 (No Name)
42-31909 Nine O Nine
43-38083 Happy Valley Express
42-107069 Round Trip Topsy
44-8135 (No Name)
43-38806 (No Name)
44-8501 Jeanie (379 BG)