THE MISSION ON CHRISTMAS EVE
By mid-December, Patton’s army had broken loose and was driving across France. To all
appearances the Germans were in full retreat and defeat appeared imminent. To everyone’s
surprise, just before Christmas the Germans mounted a major counter attack in the Ardennes
sector of Belgium, during incredibly bad weather. The attack, under German Marshal Von
Rundstedt, completely caught the Allies by surprise. Because of the Allied bombing of German
oil refineries, German oil was in critically short supply. While the Germans had ample mechanized
divisions of tanks and artillery, the high command of the Allies did not believe the German army
capable of a major counter attack due to a shortage of oil.
Unbeknown to the Allied commanders, the Germans had hoarded a substantial supply of the
scarce commodity in preparation for a major offensive which would, covered by extremely bad
weather grounding the Allied tactical air support, attempt to break through the thin Allied lines,
march to the coast of Europe and conquer Antwerp. This would surround all the Allied troops
north of Antwerp making the surrounded men easy prey to the German army.
The weather cooperated with the enemy and effectively grounded the Allied air forces’ tactical
air arm. For this reason the Eighth Air Force, the strategic arm of the United States Army Air
Force, was pressed into the tactical support of the front line soldiers. By the week before
Christmas, the German forces had broken through the thin allied lines and had surrounded
Bastogne on their way to Antwerp.. In Bastogne, the vastly outnumbered American troops were
valiantly holding the city and refusing to surrender, bringing to a halt the German army’s advance
England was also in the grip of the great storm covering the battle front. In an attempt to provide
our troops with every support possible, the Eighth Air Force was putting every available plane
in the air from bases so socked-in by bad weather that under normal conditions they would be
closed for take-offs or landings. Instrument flying in those days was hazardous under the best
of circumstances, but incredibly more so when fielding hundreds of planes within a small area in
These were the conditions at the 91 Bomb Group field at Bassingborn, st England, on Christmas
Eve, December 24, 1944. By the necessity of helping our surrounded troops at Bastogne, the
group was obligated to get its aircraft into the air for tactical support. John and I were both
alerted that we would fly a checkout mission on Christmas Eve in tactical support of our
beleaguered troops. This day we would both be flying in the same B-17, Ma Ideel, with Lt. Raisin
The fog was so thick, it was hard to see the second B-17 ahead of us on the taxi strip on the way
to the runway. When we pulled onto the runway for take-off the fog was so bad that the green
beacon light flashed by the control tower at the pilot to tell him to take-off was barely visible.
Lt. Raisin and I were doubly careful as we went through our pre-flight check list. He straightened
the aircraft as directly down the runway as was possible under the extreme conditions, made sure
the tail wheel was locked, the controls were unlocked and the flight instruments were uncaged,
opened the throttles to full military power and safely took off into the zero-zero weather. We
climbed through the fog to an altitude of about fifteen hundred feet and broke out into a
beautifully clear morning with the first light of dawn breaking in the east.
As I looked around for the two red and one green Very pistol flares, I saw several bright
explosions in the fog layer followed by a rising ball of flame that looked like a small edition of the
mushroom cloud we now recognize as the signature of an atomic bomb. There was no question
in my mind as to what I was observing. Each flash and ball of flame was a heavy bomber and
crew crashing on take-off.
When our squadron had formed, we had only twelve aircraft instead of thirteen. I was to learn
later that one of our aircraft, an unnamed B-17 piloted by Lt. Bowlan, had crashed#. Later I
learned from Seymour Gold, the tail gunner on Lt. Bowlans’s crew, that Elmer Gettis, the
navigator, had his leg broken and that Harold Burts, the crew’s bombardier, had his ear cut off
but Roy Bertrand, the ball turret gunner, found the ear in the wreckage and the doctor reattached
it. The rest of the crew was shaken up and bruised as the B-17 broke in half at the radio room.
They had crash landed in a farm near Shepworth and bombs were scattered all over the farm with
some broken in half.
After the take-off under impossible conditions with the loss of one aircraft, with one airman
wounded in action, the mission was a milk run. The return to base was a different story. On our
return to England, we were to discover that all bases were closed for landing because of zerozero
weather except three. The entire Eighth Air Force was forced to land all its aircraft on three
fields!* Each group had to await its turn in line to land at one of these three bases.
Our group landed at a base named Bury St. Edmunds. When we landed, we found B-17s lined
up wingtip to wingtip by the hundreds. The luftwaffe could have decimated the Eighth Air Force
by destroying three bases but fortunately their aircraft were also grounded by the fierce winter
We went to the mess hall as we were famished after the raid only to find that we had to wait in
line for hours as the cooks tried to feed over one hundred crews they had not expected. We
asked where we would sleep and were told there was no room for all these extra airmen and that
we should try to catch some sleep in our aircraft as a mission was scheduled for the next day.
The night was bitterly cold with temperatures in the teens, the coldest snap to occur in England
in years. Oh, how John and I wished we had worn our leather fleece lined flying clothes for now
they told us not to use the B-17s electrical system to heat our electrically heated flying suits.
Without the engines running, the electricity would be quickly drained.
In talking about that night later, John and I both agreed we had never in our lives been as
miserable as we were that night trying to sleep in the freezing weather because the thin aluminum
skin of the aircraft offered no insulation from the cold. I’m sure I didn’t sleep thirty minutes all
At dawn a staff car came up to the aircraft and told us to get breakfast as a mission was on for
Christmas day. I looked around and ice covered everything. The runway was iced over and they
were spreading sand and salt on it. The telephone and electric lines looked like mile long icicles.
The wings of the B-17s were completely iced over.
“How in the world are they going to de-ice all these aircraft,” I asked Lt. Raisin.
“Beats me,” he replied. “Let’s go to breakfast.”
When we got back to the aircraft after breakfast, the de-icer truck was moving from plane to
plane spreading about a pint of de-icing fluid on each wing. They didn’t have a sufficient supply
to properly do the job. “Well,” I thought, “after the first two or three B-17s crash on take-off
from icing on the wings, they’ll call this mission off.”
Fortunately, the brass saw that what they were trying to do was impossible and the mission was
scrubbed. Since the aircraft were not air-worthy till the ice had melted they brought dozens of
army trucks to take us back to our respective bases. Around noon of Christmas day we returned
to our barracks and John and I collapsed into our bunks and slept the rest of Christmas day. This
was our Christmas in England. A Christmas John and I would never forget.
While the group was at Burry Saint Edmunds, the base at Bassingborne, home of the 91st. Bomb
Group, was virtually deserted and those few men who had remained on the base wondered what
had happened to all the aircraft in the group that had taken off that morning. I was told by a good
friend, Dale Darling, who was on the deserted base that Christmas Eve, that men unashamedly
wept at the loneliness of being one of the few remaining on the base that night before Christmas
and not knowing what had happened to all their comrades.
CHRISTMAS, 1944, AT THE 91ST BG BARRACKS.
By Dale Darling and used with his permission.
November 1944, was a terrible month. I was the radio operator on the William Laws crew. By
November, I was passing my 20th mission. November 2, the 91st Bomb Group suffered the
greatest number of losses it sustained on a single mission during the entire war. Thirteen of the
thirty-six bombers sent to Mersberg that day failed to return. Then, on November 30, my copilot,
Bernard Goldstein, was flying with another new crew giving them combat experience. Knowing
which plane he had been assigned to, our tail gunner called over the intercom, "Berny just bought
it!" The B-1 7 he was flying had just received a direct flack hit and he was blown to bits. This
news completely devastated our crew. As all of us know, training and serving in combat with a
crew creates a bond that is of the strongest kind. Crews become very close. To lose a member
of our crew broke the circle and the circle could never be mended. His memory will remain in our
hearts for the rest of our lives. Berny was more than a copilot he was part of our family.
Now we move to Christmas Eve, 1994. This was at the height of the Battle of the Bulge. Weather
had grounded our tactical air arm. Our boys were surrounded at Bastogne fighting for their lives
with no air support. The Eighth Air Force was committed to get every heavy bomber in the
command into the air in spite of zero-zero weather. It was so foggy you couldn’t see across the
street. At dawn the 91st put thirty-six B-17s in the air. Two crashed on take off because of the
dense fog with the loss of nine men and one serious injury. The Eighth Air Force acted as the
tactical Wing of the Air Force that day hitting German air fields and oil supplies.
By Christmas Eve, I had flown twenty-seven missions. I had not been assigned to fly that day and
was sifting all alone in my room in the barracks feeling very sorry for myself and thinking about
my family back home and those poor soldiers surrounded at Bastogne. The radio which was
mounted above the bay door was playing Christmas carols from the AFN with Der Bingle singing
It was now getting dark and I suddenly realized that not a single plane had returned to base. I was
shocked and alarmed at what might have happened to them. Suddenly, the door to the bay flew
open and there standing in the doorway was a little guy who looked like he was too young to be
there. A short little toe headed kid!
"Where is everybody?" he blurted out.
I didn’t quite understand what he had said and asked him to say it again.
"Where are all the crews?" he repeated
I told him that I didn’t know any more than he did which was that none of them had returned
from the mission. I could see his eyes were welling up with tears. I stood up and we embraced
with tears flowing from both of our eyes.
Then I said, "Freddie," (He looked too young to be called Fred.) "Maybe next year this whole
thing will be over and we will be able to spend next Christmas at home."
I assured him that his crew was probably OK and that crews often were low on gas and had to
land elsewhere. We then talked about many things to get our minds off of speculating about what
had happened. We talked about what Christmas must be like back in our homes in the good old
U. S. A. We talked for about an hour cheering each other up and then little Fred left the bay. This
was the one and only time I ever saw Fred.
The next day, we found out that because of the bad weather the entire group had to land at Bury
Saint Edmonds. There had been no causalities except for the crashes on take-off. The mission had
been a milk run. A little after noon army trucks brought them back to Bassingbourn. Because of
icing on the wings due to the extreme cold the planes had to wait to return to base.
Forty-seven years later, I attended the 91st BGMA reunion at Oklahoma City and met Mike
Banta, Fred's pilot, and some of his crew. Mike made a video tape of his crew’s get together in
his hotel room where they spun stories of the funny and tragic things they had been through. He
sent a copy of the tape to me after I had returned home. During the round table discussion, I
noticed that little guy, Fred, among the members of his crew, who had spent that lonely Christmas
Eve with me in 1944. His crew had nicknamed him "Peaches" because while flying his missions
he still didn't shave.
I immediately called Fred and told him I had been looking for him since I had left service. Several
calls and letters flew back and forth between his home and mine. December 19, 1997, my little
buddy, Freddie, took his last long flight because of cancer of the lung and I still didn't have a faceto-
face meeting with him. I knew exactly how his crew was feeling. They had lost a beloved and
very special crew member. Mike's crew had that bond that so closely knits all combat crews
I'll never forget that Christmas Eve in 1944 that Fred and I spent together wondering what had
happened to all our friends that we had watched get up and get dressed for the mission that foggy
Mike Banta flew as Co-pilot onboard 43-37993 /DF-N as part of Raisin crew.
# This was B-17 43-38946/DF-H
* In the first story it is mentioned that the entire 8th AF landed on 3 airfields. This was not the case, all 2nd and 3rd Division A/C landed at their own base.
It was only the 1st Division which had most of their A/C diverting. "just" in between 500 to 600 A/C
381st BG landed at homebase (the only 1st Divisin group to land at their own airfield)
398th BG Diverted to Rattlesden & Ridgewell
91st BG Diverted to Burt St Edmunds
92nd BG Some A/C to Bury St Edmunds, others at Homebase
306th BG Diverted to Framlingham, Debach, Burt St Edmunds
305th BG Diverted to Horham, Westcott, Enstone, Great Ashfield
457th BG (afternoon mission) Diverted to Eye, Horham
401st BG Diverted to Lavenham, Deopham Green (flying with 3rd Div)
351st BG (Afternoon mission) Diverted to Ridgewell. others at Knettishall, Downham Market, Debach, Castle Camp
384th BG Diverted to Sudbury (flying with 3rd Division) and 4 A/C to Wratting Common, Ridgewell, Sudbury. Rest on Homebase
303rd BG Diverted to Snetterton
379th BG Diverted to Mendlesham