War and History Non-Fiction posted March 26, 2024


The crew of a B-17 bomber. Together in War. Together forever

The Forever Crew

by Richard Frohm

Nonfiction Writing Contest Contest Winner 

Millions of Americans served in the armed forces during World War II. They have been called the Greatest Generation. The following is the story of one such man from that generation and his B-17 crewmates.

Staff/Sergeant Jack Flynn’s wartime story started like any other Sunday for a seventeen-year-old in December 1941. However, this Sunday was December 7th. Along with his buddies, Jack was playing basketball at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea school gym on City Island, Bronx, New York. Their basketball game stopped when a friend rushed into the gym, telling them the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The boys all went back to their homes to find their families. Their world forever changed that afternoon. War with Japan was declared the following day. On December 11th, just three days later, Germany declared war on the United States. Jack, like so many young men, would soon fight in the Pacific or Europe. Jack graduated in June 1942 from Cardinal Hayes High School. After graduation from high school, he worked for his father. He owned and operated a supply boat that provided fuel for the many ships that moored off City Island in the Long Island Sound.

Turning eighteen in August, he became draft-eligible. Knowing that he wanted to join the Army Air Force rather than being drafted. Jack and his good friend Wyatt Pick had, for some time, been talking about enlisting.

On Wednesday, November 25th, 1943, the two childhood friends walked into the Army Air Force recruitment office in the Bronx and enlisted in the Army Air Force the day before Thanksgiving. That year would be a Thanksgiving the Flynn family would never forget.

Jack entered the Army Air Force that December and immediately began training. Over the next nine months, Jack received extensive and specialized training in all areas of a B-17 bomber operation. During that time, they promoted him to the rank of Staff/Sergeant and selected to be a Flight Engineer / Top Turret Gunner on a B-17. Ultimately, he was assigned to a bomber crew at Drew Army Airfield, Tampa, Florida. Before completing their training, the bomber crews’ pilot, Lt. Levine, was replaced by Lt. Raymond Buthe. This could have been a problem. The crew had been together as a crew for some time. However, Lt. Buthe seemed to fit in perfectly with the crew. He was outgoing and described as a “talker.” Although only a few years older than the crew. They considered him the old man, married, and one child.

They completed their final training in early October 1943 and were ordered to Hunter Army Airfield near Savannah, Georgia. The ten-man crew, led by pilot Lt. Raymond Buthe, co-piloted by Lt. Charles Norris, left Hunter Army Airfield near Savannah, Georgia, on October 17th, 1944. They were ferrying a new B-17 loaded with spare parts and headed to England. Their flight route took them near New York City. Lt. Buthe said to the crew, “Let’s go take a look at the Statue of Liberty.” The crew shouted they would get shot down. Lt. Buthe circled the Statue of Liberty.

From there, they made one stop at Grenier Field, New Hampshire, for fuel. Their next stop was Iceland, where they would spend the night getting some badly needed rest and fuel for their bomber.

Leaving the following day, they flew to an airfield at Valley, Wales. Here, another crew would fly their B-17 to the Army Air Force base in Burton Wood, England, for modifications. Jack and his crewmates left Valley, Wales, traveling by train to an Army Air Force base for incoming aircrews in Stone, England.

Here they spent a few days awaiting assignment to a permanent base. On October 24th, they were ordered to report to Rattlesden Army Air Force Base.

They would join the Eighth Air Force 708th Bomber Squadron which, was part of the 447th Bomb Group.

Before their first combat mission, the crew, like all other newly arrived aircrews, needed to complete a concentrated ground school introducing them to Eighth Air Force and air combat against Germany. It ensured aircrews learned everything they would need to be ready before actual air combat. Aircrews also had to complete the required practice missions. No one could fly until they met all the mandatory training.

This ten-man crew was ready for combat. Each man knew they could count on the other, with a B-17 that was extremely important. One thing about this crew was the closeness between the officers and the enlisted men. On November 21st, they were all woken up at 3 am. The crew got the word they were going on their first combat bombing mission. Their training was over; this time in the air, they would be together as an actual combat crew. Each man knew they needed the other if they were going to make it. The other planes in their bomber formation would depend on this inexperienced crew.

 

They had enough time to get dressed, go to the mess hall for breakfast. Those Catholics would receive communion and a blessing from a priest before the mission briefing. Even non-Catholics would seek a blessing of forgiveness for all their sins from a priest. After the mission briefing, the crew drove together out to their plane. Once they took off, each bomber would circle until all the aircraft were in the air.

That could take anywhere from one to two hours, sometimes longer, depending on the number of bombers going on the mission. When all planes were in formation, the lead pilot would say “go,” and the bombing mission was underway. 

Their target that day was the oil refinery and marshaling yard in Koblenz a German city, located approximately 200 miles from the Belgium border. The young crew got through both the German fighters and heavy flak to drop their bombs on the target and safely return to England.

Their next mission was on November 26th, with the target being the railroad marshaling yards in Hamm, Germany, located northeast of Cologne. This time they made it back to their base at Rattlesden, a lot more aware of the danger to their job.

 

In a letter to his family after their second mission, Lt. Curtis Chapman, the bombardier, wrote he felt like a veteran now. He also wrote of their bombing mission: the squadron had been shot up considerably, but he and the crew returned home safely.  

Their next bombing mission was November 30th. This began as the ones before, up at 3 am, the mess hall for breakfast, church, briefing, take-off, and formation. Their target that day was the Lutzkendorf Oil Refinery near Merseburg, Germany. However, they would be one crewman short that morning when they found out their waist gunner, Sgt. Douglas Aldrich would fly with another crew. That would be a blessing for Sgt. Aldrich. He would finish the war and return home.

The flight across the English Channel and France was uneventful. That changed as they neared their target. German anti-aircraft became intense. All bombers had to maintain their positions as they were minutes from the bomb drop.

At approximately 1318hrs. Only one minute from the Lutzkendorf oil refinery, it horrified Jack when he saw the tail section with Sgt. Ralph Corning, still inside, explode from his top turret position.

Sgt. John Lafferty, the waist gunner, later reported that they had been receiving flak and set afire. Fortunately, he had one side of his parachute fastened.

There was another explosion that blew him out of his gun opening. The force of the tail section exploding knocked S/Sgt. Jack Flynn out of the top turret.

He landed behind the pilot, Lt. Raymond Buthe, and co-pilot Lt. Charles Norris. Since the top turret was too small to wear a parachute, Flynn was not wearing his.

Miraculously, he landed on top of his chest parachute and could hook one strap to his harness. The plane then turned almost entirely upside down into a downward spiral. Flynn looked up and saw Lt. Buthe and his co-pilot, Lt. Charles Norris, struggling frantically to get out of their seats.

Suddenly, the plane was ripped by another explosion. This one blew S/Sgt Flynn through the open bomb bay doors. The bombs were still in place, leaving only a small space for him to fit through, making his escape miraculous. Flynn would later write, “Don’t tell me there is no God.”

As he headed downward, he was able to pull the ripcord on his parachute. To his horror, the chute did not fully deploy.

With only the one strap hooked on, he was spinning and making things worse. When he looked up, he could see falling pieces of plane debris. 

With only one strap on and falling debris coming down all around him, he thought he would not make it. As he headed downward, his major concern was his crewmates. Was he the only one to escape? Finally, he saw two parachutes and knew at least two of his crewmates had made it out.

Small pieces of debris from his plane pierced his parachute. This made his descent fast, and his landing hard. He was knocked unconscious for a short time.

When he came to, he began to hide his parachute when a shot rang out over his head. He looked to where the gunshot’s sound had come from and saw German soldiers with their rifles running towards him. Flynn knew that his only option was to surrender. The soldiers grabbed him and brought him back to a vehicle where they kept him under guard.

As he stood next to the truck, he noticed other German soldiers heading towards him with two American fliers. It was Sgt. Lafferty and Lt. Chapman.

Jack learned from Lt. Chapman that he had been in the nose, preparing to drop the bombs when there was an explosion. Lt. Marvin Brawer, the navigator who sat only a few feet away from him, was killed. Lt. Chapman knocked unconscious but fortunately came to and found himself free falling from the plane. He had just enough time to pull the ripcord on his parachute.

Like Jack and John Lafferty, German soldiers caught him as he was attempting to bury his parachute. They captured the three near the German town of Zeitz. From what each saw they knew that Lt.’s Buthe, Norris and Brawer were killed along with Sgt’s Anthony DeMarco, Corning, Agantovich and The Germans put them in the back of one of their vehicles. As they drove, they passed through a city still on fire from the bombing. A German soldier sitting in front of them turned around and spit on the three. They immediately knew they were in trouble. They transported the three to Frankfort, arriving the following morning around 8 am. From there, they were then taken by train to Oberursel and held at Dulag Lüft (Durchgangslager der Lüftwaffe), a transit camp for captured members of the Army Air Force. The primary purpose here was to be a collection and interrogation center for newly captured aircrews before being transferred in groups to permanent Prisoner of War camps.

They separated the three when they arrived. After being photographed and fingerprinted, Jack was taken and put into a windowless cell. He would spend the next ten days in solitary confinement. He described those ten days as horrendous. “You start to go out of your mind.” The Germans would do things to him, such as turning on the cell lights at midnight, and three soldiers would come in and make him get up and stand. He said this was to exhaust him and make any interrogation easier for them. The Germans would not take him to the bathroom, so all he had was a bottle to use in his cell. His German capturers gave him little water, and when his thirst became unbearable, he had no choice. He had to drink his own urine to survive. During those ten days of confinement, the only food he received was bread.

Jack Flynn was the type of man who would say nothing about being abused by the Germans for information. However, since the end of the war, many POW’s have come forward to talk about the physical abuse they suffered during interrogations by the Germans while in the Oberursel Dulag Lüft. After his tenth day of being held at Dulag Lüft, Jack, along with a small group of other Americans, were transported to the Dulag Lüft near Westlar, Germany. Here Jack was able to locate Lt. Chapman and Sgt. Lafferty.

The three crewmates were all that was left from a crew of nine. They were not together long before they were each transported to a different Prisoner of War (POW) camps. That would be the very last time the three sole survivors would ever see each other. Lt. Chapman went to Stalag Lüft I, while Sgt. Lafferty to Stalag Lüft III and Jack was transported by train to Stalag Lüft IV near Gross Tyschow in eastern Germany. Now part of Poland. This prisoner-of-war camp held over 8,000 American airmen, along with several hundred prisoners from other countries. It was overcrowded, barracks were in poor condition, little if any heat, inadequate food, clothing, and medical supplies. An International Red Cross report from October 1944 described the camp conditions as bad. Jack arrived at the camp in mid-December. At age twenty, Jack would find himself away from his family for the first time at Christmas. His future was uncertain. Would he live to see the end of the war? Would he come home to marry his fiancee?

Jack, after the war, would attribute his survival to his faith in God and his desire to get back to Dolores and his family.

 

 

By early February 1945, the Russians were advancing from the east and a mere 40 miles away from the camp. With the Russians closing, the Germans abandoned Stalag Lüft IV. Trains transported the sick, injured, and disabled prisoners to prison camps in western Germany.

Prisoners such as Jack considered fit to march left the prison camp on February 6th, 1945, on what later would be called the “Death March.”

They had the clothes on their backs and a Red Cross food box. Their German captors said the walk would last only three days, the march would eventually cover over 600 miles and last 86 days, in some of the worst weather seen in years.

About the 86 days, Flynn later would write, “If we were fortunate, we spent a night in a barn giving us shelter from the cold, snow or rain.” But most nights, they had no shelter at all and were forced to sleep on the ground. Jack contracted dysentery, diarrhea, along with trench foot, as did most of his comrades. Since no medication was available, Jack, like his buddies, ate charcoal from the bonfires they had the night before to battle dysentery and diarrhea.

They helped those prisoners who could not walk for themselves or were too ill by those healthy enough to care for them. Food was minimal, mostly potatoes or a vegetable.

Malnutrition was the norm. Jack, who was thin, to begin with, was extremely fortunate to survive. Exhaustion, exposure, and other illnesses took their toll on the prisoners. The fates of those who fell behind were in the hands of their German guards. 

At one point, they placed the prisoners into boxcars, ninety men per car. All the men had to stand, except for the seriously ill. There was no water and only one small hole in the floor to use as their toilet.

Prisoners believed their German captors were using them as targets for allied fighters. In fact, during the approximately 30-mile journey, the train came under attack from allied fighter planes with several of the boxcars hit, leaving an unknown amount of prisoner’s dead. There was no doubt in their minds the Germans had been using them as targets.

For Jack and the surviving members of the “DEATH MARCH” the nightmare ended on May 2nd, 1945, near Lübeck, Germany. Their German captors fled the day before. The group of surviving prisoners sat exhausted and ill, waiting, not knowing what was next for them. Off in the distance, they could hear military vehicles. To Jack and the rest of the prisoners’ joy, it was British and Canadian soldiers. Like most of his comrade’s, Jack was paper-thin, exhausted, and ill. The sight of the Brits and Canadians made them all realize that their nightmare was over; they would go home.

Eventually the liberated airmen were able to shower and received new uniforms courtesy of the British and Canadian’s. On May 8th, Jack and a large group of former prisoners were transported to Brussels, Belgium. From there, they traveled by train to Camp Lucky Strike northeast of Le Havre, France, where they were processed and waited for a liberty ship to return to the states.

Like so many veterans, Jack came home from World War II, buried the memories of the horrors he suffered, he witnessed, the friends lost, and the pain he endured.

He had a life to live again. He married the love of his life, Dolores McGrail. Together, they had four children. Jack went to work for the New York Police Department’s Emergency Services Unit in the Bronx. Although over the years, bits and pieces of his story would slip out of him.

It was only later in his life when his children sat down and spoke with him about his wartime years; they found out about his miraculous story of survival.

Even though six decades had passed since the war ended, three words he spoke during his 2005 interview with his children said it all, “You never forget.” Jack joined his crewmates in 2009.

Like Jack Flynn, Lt. Curtis Chapman returned home, married, and would raise a family. Sadly, he died in July 1963 at 43. Sgt. John W. Lafferty Jr. would return home as well, marry, and raise three children. He passed away in 1995.

The Germans recovered the remains of Lt. Buthe, Lt. Norris, Lt. Brawer, Sgt. Corning, Sgt. Agantovich and Sgt. DeMarco shortly after the crash. The German military buried them in the Michaelis Cemetery in Zeitz on December 2nd, 1944. After the war, they were disinterred by the Army’s Graves and Registration Unit. The remains of Lt. Marvin Brawer and Sgt. Anthony DeMarco were positively identified and subsequently returned to their families.

 

However, the four other remains were not identified. In defense of Graves and Registration, Zeitz was in the Russian sector. Any chance of searching for additional identifiers was not possible because of Russian pressure.

The suspected remains of Lt. Raymond Buthe, Lt. Charles Norris, Sgt. Ralph Corning, and Sgt. Agantovich were buried at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Hombourg, Belgium.

Through continued research, I discovered additional evidence in July 2022 concerning the four men listed as unknowns. I forwarded this information to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Washington, DC. This government agency responsible for locating and identifying the remains of our military personnel. The University of Wisconsin conducting research on Sgt. Ralph Corning, a Wisconsin native, provided the DPAA with additional information.

This story is more than about one man. It could have been written about thousands more American military servicemen. Their generation is leaving us daily, and soon there will be none of them remaining to tell their stories.

 

That is why we must preserve and pass onto current and future generations of Americans the accounts of Jack Flynn and his comrades. Young people need to know of the sacrifices of the men and women of that generation. The Greatest Generation paid for the freedoms they enjoy today.

 

 

 

 

                                                         NOTE

To show you the type of man Jack Flynn was, he kept his story inside. He did not want to burden his wife and children with the horrors he suffered then and during his life.

My wife was born on November 30th. Can you imagine every birthday she and the family celebrated was a constant reminder of that day in 1944. Yet, he NEVER let on. He kept his thoughts to himself. Not wanting to take away from his birthdays.

                                                

                                                        UPDATE

Over the past two years I have been looking into the where abouts of the four crewmen killed on November 30, 1944 that were not identified. Each currently buried at Henri Chapelle Cemetery in Belgium. I decided to search for information that would convince the government agency responsible for identification of our war dead. Department of POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) that I had not only the correct location but accurate information to burial sites.

On February 29, 2024, I submitted a detailed report laying out the details of my findings. These were supported by documents, newspaper stories and German military documents.

I believe there is enough material for them to pursue the disinterment of four sets of remains.

                                    Pilot: Lt. Raymond Buthe

                                    Co-pilot: Lt. Charles O. Norris

                                    Gunner: Sgt. Charles Agantovich

                                    Gunner: Sgt. Ralph Corning

                                          

                                          ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I wish to thank Amy Baker, Donna Buthe Schick, the family of Sgt. John Lafferty Jr., Lt. Marvin Brawer, Debra Kujawa and Amanda Jentsch, a graduate student from the University of Wisconsin. Without their help, many details or photographs would not have been possible.

I would especially like to thank Amy Baker, the daughter of Lt. Curtis Chapman, the planes Bombardier and Cheryl Seeley, the niece of Sgt. Ralph Corning the tail gunner.

Amy and Cheryl supplied many details, letters, and photographs that helped make this story possible. However, it was their never-ending encouragement of my efforts to see this story told that helped me continue my research efforts.

I want to recognize Amanda Jentsch. Her efforts in the researching of Sgt. Ralph Corning greatly aided in the decision of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in going forward with the disinterment of the possible remains of Lt. Raymond Buthe and Sgt. Ralph Corning.

Last, but certainly not the least is the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. From Mr. Rob Goeke who has been extremely understanding and helpful in our quest. Finally, all of the people at the DPAA whose tireless efforts does not get the recognition they truly deserve. Without them thousands of families would still not have their family member home with them.

 

 

 




Nonfiction Writing Contest
Contest Winner

Recognized


Winning this contest is not as important as telling Jack's story and his crewmates. These men have become family to me as have their families.

All I ask is those who read it share it with others. My goal is to have as many people as possible know their story, know their sacrifices.
Pays 10 points and 1.11 member dollars.


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© Copyright 2024. Richard Frohm All rights reserved.
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