26. April 2005 · Comments Off on Old Pictures: Black Thursday · Categories: General, History

(Sgt. James Menaul, taken while on leave before going overseas)

My first letter to the 94th Bomb Group memorial association included a telephone number and address for James Becker. Later I located James Festa simply by calling the information operator for Brooklyn and asking of there were a listing for that name. From those gentlemen, the only then-living survivors of Crew #30, and a stack several inches thick of reports from various government archives, contemporary letters, and interviews with an assortment of special experts , I was able to trace what had happened to the Lonesome Polecat II.

In the second wave of bombers over the ball-bearing factories, they made the target, dropping incendiaries onto the wreckage, when they were hit by anti-aircraft fire. With an engine on fire, they dropped out of the protective formation heading west, and were attacked by German fighters. They were last seen by those who returned to Bury St. Edmunds about sixty miles southwest of Schweinfurt, still heading west under power, still fighting. But in a very short space— about fifteen or twenty minutes, they ran out of luck, ammunition and time.

Sgt. Buonarobo ran out of ammunition first, but refused an order to leave the now-useless ball turret, swinging empty guns to bear on attacking fighters. Lt. Dodge took the “Lonesome Polecat” down to the minimum altitude for a safe parachute dump, trying to discourage fighter attacks from below. Sgt Butterfield was killed at his position at the waist gun, and Jimmy-Junior disabled by a stomach wound, crawled back into the tail compartment and returned fire until struck again, probably mortally. Sgt McLendon and Lt. Dodge were also wounded, to a lesser degree. Flight engineer James Festa, in the top turret with an excellent view all the way around, would only tell me that the aircraft was terribly damaged: the tail section was in shreds and a wing well on fire. Sgt. Thomas, the surviving waist gunner, and SSgt. Mclendon then reported taking Sgt. Buonarobo out of the ball turret, also dead.

The intercom knocked out as well, James Festa never heard an order to jump until Lt. Chandler came back and told him directly to bale out of the crippled aircraft. Lt. Francis went to destroy the “G” box, a receiver which allowed a target to be identified when two beams intersected over it. James Festa, going towards the bomb bay to jump out, was blown out through it by an explosion on or near the craft. To the day I spoke to him he still didn’t know why he wasn’t killed by it. The other survivors jumped, the two pilots Dodge and Chandler together at the last, Dodge saying tersely “So long,” leaving the aircraft to crash two kilometers south of the village of Essey-et-Maiserais, near a country road at about four o’clock in the afternoon. Part of it caught fire. The Germans came at once and kept the curious away, while they gathered up the remaining ammunition and guns, and the bodies of the three gunners.

Lt. Dodge’s body was found later, probably a short distance away. His parachute had not opened. Lt. Chandler himself hit the ground hard, and broke three toes. Lt. Francis’ parachute also failed; he fell into woodlands near Flirey, and his body was not found until six months later. The villagers of Flirey, led by their mayor, defiantly held a funeral mass and buried him in their little cemetery. (After the war, the family wished that he could remain there, where people had been so kind and brave, but the War Department insisted on removal to a military cemetery.)

The survivors were scattered far across Alsace-Lorraine. Sgt. Thomas was captured immediately by the German authorities, but the others were luckier, thanks to Pierre Mathy, the restaurateur and innkeeper of Toul. A week after the crash of the “Lonesome Polecat”, Pierre Mathy received a cryptic message from a local farmer, who had a ‘bag of carrots’ for him. In actuality, Mathy was a Resistant, running an escape line into Switzerland, the farmer was one of his contacts, and the ‘bag of carrots’ was actually SSgt. McClendon, complete with two bullets in his leg. Two doctors in Toul secretly operated to remove them and McClendon was sent down the line to safety. Lt. Chandler crawled westward for three days, finally sheltering in a haystack near a farmhouse. He watched the farmhouse for three days more, waiting to see of Germans or French lived there. Desperation drove him to approach it: again, lucky— the farmer was another of Pierre Mathy’s contacts. Given clothes and false papers, he later wrote his wife that the hardest thing he had to do was cram his broken toes into civilian shoes and not limp as he walked by German soldiers in a small town. James Festa was picked up in the little village of Void, near Nancy, by the local policeman, who gave him clothes and food, and passed him from friend to trustworthy friend, hiding him in the house of a wealthy soap-manufacturer in Verdun, and a houseboat on the river before being smuggled over the border and reunited with the others in Swiss internment.

For months afterwards, stunned and grieving families wrote back and forth, first with dignified condolences, then sharing grief and what information they were able to find out. Mrs. Butterfield wrote stoically, “We can be thankful that they didn’t have to suffer long . . . we have our oldest boy in New Guinea and another boy in England with the 341st Engineers. So you can see we must carry on and be brave as we know not when we will have to face this sorrow again.” Mrs. Chandler, who had given birth to a daughter, two weeks before the “Lonesome Polecats'” first mission, and Mildred Dodge, Lt. Dodge’s mother, coordinated the letter-writing. First, all the ‘boys’ were reported missing. Weeks later, Lt. Dodge, Sgt. Butterfield and Jimmy-junior were reported killed, and Sgt. Thomas a POW. Lt. Francis and Sgt. Buonarobo remained missing until almost the end of the war, a matter of distress among the letter-writers. The four in Switzerland wrote to their families, who promptly wrote to Mrs. Chandler or Mrs. Dodge, who copied extracts and sent them to other families. A picture of the four internees, showing them safe and well, was circulated. Mrs. Dodge, whose grief in fifty-year-old letters was raw and lacerating, sent Granny Jessie a snapshot of her son and herself, taken on his last leave, and Granny Jessie sent one of Jimmy-Junior. They corresponded for years afterwards.

(Sgt. James Menaul, taken while on leave before going overseas)

Comments closed.