When the Weather Won. Story by Bob Mynn

[Note: This is a copy from a defunct website]

24th September 1944

Right now, as the rain beats down on the roof of the "sunroom" where I sit, and the grey clouds scarcely seem to clear the TV aerials, I am led to recall how, on such a day as this, eleven young fliers died searching for salvation and cursing the luck that left them poised above a streaming English landscape, unable to see it or to reach it, desperate, yet beyond help and with few options.

The date was September 24, 1944 and the 391st Bomb Group was in the throes of moving house. The Group had occupied the airfield at Matching since January that year and in company with the other Marauder and Havoc groups based across Essex, it was preparing to move to France. Since September 19 the Group's Marauders had served a dual bomber/transport role, a reduced program of bombing missions was being flown (due to the appalling weather), coupled with daily flights hauling equipment and the personnel who would prepare the Group's new base at Roye- Amy (A-73) in France for the final transfer. The mission flown on the 23rd to Duren in Germany had been an indicator of how bad conditions were. On that mission, all flights of the 391st BG formation had failed to bomb because of weather. 9 Marauders were forced to land at other bases and one was wrecked in a crash-landing at Charleroi in France, fortunately, without any injuries.

September 24 offered weather that was considered "flyable" so far as the limited penetration that transportation flights to A-73 required, flights which had achieved an additional degree of priority, in view of the enforced reduction in attack missions. The loads this day were to include the personnel of the Group's security section and other non-combatant personnel.

Take off was normal and, led by Col. Ernie Ljungren, 575th BS Commander, the 391st BG aircraft formed up and made their uneventful way over the Channel, to arrive at A-73 one and a half hours later. It was late afternoon before the aircraft were ready for the return trip and, by that time, a very serious-looking cloud bank was visible to the north-west and, soon, concern grew as to the advisability of taking-off for the return flight into the steadily blackening sky.

Col. Gerald Williams C.O. of the 391st BG, was anxious that his B-26s return to Matching so that they would be available to participate in any mission that was in line for the Group the following day. He ordered his Operations Officer, Major Herschel S. Harkins, to take off at his discretion.

Harkins was one of the most experienced officers in the group and was to lead the returning aircraft. An outstanding pilot and one whose judgement had proved, on previous occasions, to be a competent blend of courage; sound judgment and good sense. Harkins taxied the first flight out, reconsidered, and returned to the flight line. Here some very harsh words were exchanged between Col. Williams, Harkins and Ljungren, an argument in which Col. Ljungren took the side of Harkins. The argument was ended when Williams ORDERED Harkins to take off.

The returning aircraft flew with navigation lights on, keeping just above the solid cloud formation. The let down to the base was extremely risky, with so many planes floundering around in minimal visibility. Through occasional brief breaks in the cloud, pilots could see fires burning on the runways of the base, some took them to be burning aircraft and gave up on any likelihood of putting down there, deciding to set about finding an alternative field at which to land. The fires had actually been lit as a guide to the 391st BG planes, some thought the worst, however, and "got the hell out of there.'' Others, decided to stick it out, stooging around in the hope that the conditions would improve. Time began to work against these circling Marauders as fuel gauges predicted the potential disaster which lay ahead.

Flying B-26B-50-MA, 42-95853, coded 08-F and known as "Miss Laid", 2nd Lt. Howard H. Noland was a recent replacement pilot on his first sortie for the 391st BG, he was accompanied on, what should have been merely a satisfying "nose" at the new base in France, by S/Sgt. E. Crider serving as Engineer, and Cpl. Warren E. Terrian, filling in as radio Operator.

Completely lost, flying on instruments, and with no co-pilot, poor Noland had no experience of difficult approaches into his British base and one can only imagine the desperate thoughts that passed through his mind as his fuel supply ran out.

From only a few hundred feet the aircraft glided silently down towards the village of Hatfield Heath, a mere mile from the runways at Matching, it collided with the top of a tall elm tree, and then another. These impacts slowed the plane considerably so that when it took the roof off a bungalow, slid across the main Sawbridgeworth to Chelmsford road and into the front gardens of two bungalows on the other side, its speed was only enough to allow it to bury it's nose in the front of the buildings, though considerable structural damage was done.

A local newspaper later reported that the two bungalows were occupied at the time and, remarkably, none of their elderly occupants suffered more than shock. The bungalow which was struck first was occupied by another elderly couple, again, neither suffered anything worse than shock. The aircraft was completely wrecked and although it did not burn all three on board were killed. They lie in the American Military Cemetery at Madingley.

During the same time scale, B-26B-55-MA, 42-96102, coded T6-X was also desperately short of fuel and unable to locate the base. The aircraft was named "Lilly Commando" in honour of the Piccadilly "ladies" who were one of London’s less classy attractions, and single-piloted by Lt. Jack T. Hanlon, who had over 1000 hours on Marauders. Searching for anywhere to put down, the plane was in the vicinity of Rochford when the fuel ran out. The Marauder's well-known gliding qualities ensured that the end would be quick.

Curving in over the narrow Ashingdon to Canewdon road, the plane struck the roof of a cottage bordering the road, before impacting heavily in a field behind the cottage. Lt. Hanlon, Lt. Jay M. Sink (who was flying as Navigator), S/Sgt. William L. McCarty (Engineer), and Cpl. Gerald F. Smith (Radio Operator), were all killed in the crash. S/Sgt. William McCarty lies in the American Cemetery at Madingley.

The final casualties of the night were in 42-95823, a B-26B-45-MA, coded T6-N and named "Baby Doll." Lt. Richard E. Baehr who was also flying without a co-pilot, had Lt. Frank I. Yawitz along as Navigator, Cpl. John M. Myers as Radio Operator, and S/Sgt. Edward G. Demyanovich as Engineer. Lt. Baehr was an experienced pilot with over 1111 hours on Marauders, yet his skill was no match for the appalling conditions which left him helpless to prevent his plane, out of fuel and beyond his control, crashing to earth in open country at Blackmore, with the death of all four on board. Both Cpl. Myers and S/Sgt. Demyanovich lie interred at Madingley.

Essex like the other East Anglian counties, was festooned with airfields, yet the weather had ensured that none were visible to the desperate aviators on that night. Eleven men died, several had only gone on the mission to break the boredom of waiting for a passage home after completing their combat tours. For many years, right up to today, some members of the 391st BG have retained a degree of bitterness towards Col. Gerald Williams for insisting that his men return to Matching that night.

Command is never easy and we can never know how painful that decision may have been for the man who, up to then, had enjoyed the utmost respect from his men because of his experienced, able, leadership. We can never know, because soon after the end of WW2, Gerald Williams in control of a DC3 in which his wife was a passenger, flew, in poor visibility, into a mountain in South America.

Originally published in BOTN Vol 12 No 3 September 1998

Copy of part of a letter from Warren E. Peterson to R. B. Mynn (Courtesy of Mark Ratcliff)

As to Miss Laid. Howard Nolan was a replacement pilot that had not yet flown a Sortie (I did not know him). As I recall, he was flying Sept 21 on the ferry mission to Roye Ami, with only an Engineer/Gunner, no co-pilot. He must have picked up somebody else at the other end of the new field. Col. Ernie (Ljungren) led the formation. Col. Williams was apparently already there. Once our properties were unloaded the evening grew pretty "grismal" with an extremely black sky. Williams assigned the return flight to Harkins and if my memory serves me right there was considerable concern about the weather and black sky, so Williams advised Harkins to take off at his own discretion. The flight taxied out but Harkins apparently used good sense and returned to the flight line. Ernie told me that Williams then ordered Harkins to take off. Ernie and Williams then had a nasty turn of words, with Ernie accusing Williams of trying to kill our own people. The rest is history. Our people lit a dozen or more 55 gal drums of gas along the sides of the runway for guidance. Some landed safely and we lost the others, one of which was Miss Laid.

The following day, as I headed for London via Sawbridgeworth, we saw Miss Laid, she was twisted and broken but her Miss Laid's picture was fine, with her beauty unblemished. A single MP stood guarding her lost chastity. The guard told us that the homes were not occupied. Will you please convey by regrets for my planes quiet arrival which must have been a terrible experience.

After returning to base from any leave, I learned that Nolan had a Vertigo problem and we all assumed that this was the cause of the accident since he was without the ever-present co-pilot. Now with the knowledge that he ran out of petrol perhaps I feel better, but the result is still the same.

A couple of months later we were all advised of the need for tighter security regarding letters sent home and Nolan's case was cited. It seems that some Sgt had written hone telling his wife of Nolans crash. She in turn was sitting in a diner in Oklahoma and was reading the letter to her girl friend. Next to them and overhearing the letter read was Nolan's wife, who immediately inquired for more information. It was useless however, as Mrs Nolan had not yet heard from her husband and did not know his APO number. She spent much time trying to learn if this was her Howard Nolan and was advised that it was not. Three weeks or so later the telegram arrived confirming her worst fears. Mrs Nolan was from California I believe, and in that particular city only to visit with her family.

I am happy that some part of the old girl exists to be shown in your museum. Any spare crumbs that exist would be most welcome if they do not detract from your display.

The "regular" crew of Miss Laid was as follows;

Capt. Jim Ruble. Deceased, killed participating in an air show. 1st Pilot.

1st Lt. Clark Tavener. Killed Dec 23. 1944. Co Pilot.

1st Lt. Warren E. Peterson. Growing older. Bomb/Nav.

M. Sgt. Glenn Burgess. Living in Gilford, ME. Tail Gunner.

T. Sgt. Forrest Sheves. Not located. Waist Gunner.

S. Sgt. Miller. Killed in auto crash. Engineer Gunner.