My paternal grandmother, known as "Mom" to her grandchildren, had all four of her sons sign up for duty with the armed forces in World War II. One of them didn't make it home. I am his namesake.
On Oct. 17, 1943, my uncle Frederick Boyd Ward climbed into his B-17F bomber for another mission leaving from Norfolk, England. This time, they were heading out to bomb an industrial area in Düren in western Germany about 350 miles away. Uncle Boyd was the co-pilot of this plane, named "Rum Boogie III" by its crew after a famous boogie-woogie song of the era.
I imagine him checking the outside of the airplane carefully, along with the pilot and his ground crew in the pre-dawn light. All aircraft have to be cleared to fly by the chief mechanic, but they would give it one more checklist. Then, for several minutes they would start each of the four engines one by one, revving them loudly with the wheel chocks in place and the brakes on. All around them dozens of planes were doing the same thing.
Once the engines were warmed up and they were sure there were no failures, they would sit at their spot on the runway and wait. The takeoff of dozens, if not hundreds, of the large bombers was a delicate, choreographed air ballet and was one of the most dangerous parts of the mission. Air collisions, engine failures, and pilot errors contributed to the crash of many a B-17 before they even got to Europe. Gradually, plane by plane, the bombers would taxi to the main runway and begin to take off at about 45-second intervals. They would then achieve a high altitude and circle while waiting for every aircraft to get in line.
Eventually, there might be 100 or even 200 planes peeling out of the circle and falling into each one's designated place, keeping a watchful eye for a plane that moved within collision range. Just imagine being in a group of 100 cars circling a Walmart parking lot looking for a space to park and you might get a small sense of the nerve it took to pilot one of these B-17s on such a mission. And that is all before the enemy flak guns and fighter planes start shooting at you.
None of these planes were heated. At the high altitudes they flew, ungloved fingers would literally freeze to the windows and become frostbitten within minutes. This was a constant risk to the gunners when the machine guns jammed in a firefight and had to be cleared by hand.
The weather that day was bad. Visibility was very limited due to a dense and very high cloud cover. The ceiling was not quite zero, but not far from it. By the time the forward section of bombers reached the European continent, the entire mission was scrubbed and the planes ordered to turn around due to inclement weather.
Every plane that day returned safely--except Rum Boogie III.
Researching the after-action reports does not reveal exactly what happened to my uncle and the nine other crewmen with him. Officially, the plane (#42-30365) is listed as "crashed in the North Sea" with no survivors. However, a detailed report filed Dec. 23, 1948, years after the war ended, states, "Further information concerning the whereabouts of this Crew of the circumstances under which they failed to return to this Station is unavailable and it is therefore impossible to determine whether or not any of said Crew survived. In a word, the Crew simply disappeared."
In the same report, it was noted that Mrs. Floyd J. Lee, mother of Sergeant Lee who was on board, had been informed that a lieutenant who was flying as wingman by the Rum Boogie had seen it leave formation and go down. The war department final report discounted this anecdotal report due to the extremely poor visibility which would have prevented this officer from observing the Rum Boogie III fall from the sky.
I found two different detailed reports after an online search which took me hours. The first one was filed not long after Uncle Boyd's plane went missing and the second one, more detailed, was filed in 1948 in response to Mrs. Lee's inquiry about the fate of her son. The list of airmen typed out in these reports includes one 2nd Lt. Frederick Boyd Ward, and that is how I know this much about what happened. The War Department even researched captured German records to see if there was any mention of shooting down a B-17 or finding wreckage of one on Oct. 17, 1943. German records were notoriously meticulous and accurate. Nothing was found that would explain what happened to the Rum Boogie III that day.
Perhaps my uncle's plane caught an unlucky burst of flak over the Dutch coast just before turning for home. Perhaps there was an unrecorded collision with an enemy plane in the dense clouds. Maybe the battle-worn B-17F succumbed to metal fatigue or suffered a loss of flight control due to an unknown cause. I will never know.
I started on this search after viewing recently produced documentary The Cold Blue. Film footage from combat photographers on actual missions was used. It is as close as one can come to actually experiencing the terrifying air war over Germany in World War II. According to this film, there were more American airmen killed in these bombing campaigns that all of the Marines killed in the entire war.
And my uncle was one of them.
Boyd Ward, who lives in Mayflower, is a novelist and author of the blog A Yellowdog Takes Aim.
Editorial on 11/11/2019
Print Headline: His last mission