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Saturday, September 4, 1943 - 386th B.G. Mission No. 12.
Target: Marshalling yard at Lille, France.

The Group was employing evasive action consisting of gentle turns of 15 to 20 degrees to both left and right of intended track. Lieutenant Aberson felt a strike somewhere in his ship "HELL’S-A-POPPIN" 131614 YA-X. The crew could hear close flak bursts exploding, whoomph, whoomph! The ship slid out of formation to the right briefly, but regained its number two position in the low flight of the first eighteen bombers. The right engine was emitting a thin streak of pulsating smoke which lasted only a few moments, then resumed normal operation. Almost as an act of mercy the 88mm flak subsided. Clouds were increasing high above Belgium as if stalking the thirty-six plane formation as it continued to fly on.

Approximately 15 miles inland from the French Coast heavy type flak blossomed within the formation, it was very intense, and accurate anti-aircraft fire! "HELL’S-A-POPPIN" lived up to its name one more time as Lieutenant Aberson’s ship bore the brunt of the attack. The co-pilot’s hatch was cracked, two large holes appeared in the left wing leading edge, two more holes in trailing edge of left aileron, and one hole punched through the fuselage in the navigator area. The aircraft shuddered when three pieces of flak ripped into the leading edge portion of the right-hand wing between the fuselage and engine nacelle, also puncturing a wing flap on that side. In magical disarray ten flak holes erupted on top of the right wing!

The right-hand engine trailed a gray-white smoke briefly, and then burst into flame. Tech Sergeant John Himelright in the waist informed the pilots via intercom as did Staff Sergeant M.W. Crawford from his top turret position. A manifold pressure drop and a fluctuating needle on the right-hand engine tachometer. Co-pilot James Snell could see a blaze sweeping under the engine nacelle, the flame appeared to be forcing out through the cowl flaps. Hearing of this situation, Aberson instructed his co-pilot to get into the bomb bay and shut off the fuel valve feeding that particular engine.

Unknown to the crew at that moment was the fact a chunk of flak had knocked a hole in one of the lower cylinders on the outboard side of the engine! It was pumping oil, the misty goo was carried aft by ram air entering the engine nacelle. All engine accessories and the firewall were covered with oil; that along with gasoline going to the carburetor at a rate of 1 and gallons per minute were ingredients for fire!

On his way to the cockpit Flight Engineer Crawford hurried by Lieutenant Snell who was still cutting off the fuel supply to the burning engine. The engineer fired the AN-M8 Pyrotechnic Pistol, mounted in the ceiling of the cockpit, which was located just aft of the now empty co-pilot seat. The red double-star distress flare was propelled about sixty feet above the aircraft, and then fell off in a elongated arch! Its red glow could be seen up to three miles in daylight during its ten seconds of life.

Having feathered the propeller, Lieutenant Aberson prepared to activate the engine fire extinguisher system that utilized CO 2 gas from a high pressure cylinder. He lifted the control box lid which is located on the floor, centered just forward of the nose wheel entrance—turned the selector handle to the right-hand engine and pulled the tee-handle in the box. A cloud of white smoked belched from the burning engine nacelle for nearly a minute, then cleared away, and the fire which had burned for almost four minutes, was finally out!

The co-pilot was back in his seat assisting his pilot by cutting off switches to the dead engine as Aberson trimmed his ship for single engine operation. They were able to hold altitude fairly well but slowly began to fall behind the formation. Six Spitfires swooped down around "HELL’S-A-POPPIN" providing a protective umbrella against possible enemy fighters wishing to seize upon the precarious situation!

Time was 1805 hours when more flak came up as the Group exited the enemy land five miles west of Furnes. One minute later a Spitfire was observed to go down smoking into the channel. Another fighter believed to be a Spitfire was seen going down trailing smoke into the water just off the coast of Ostend, Belgium at 1807 hours. No parachutes were noted in either case! The formation took up a heading of 280 degrees which carried them across the channel to English landfall at Deal. A short while later they gave way to the left because of another B-26 formation flying close by, then continued on to base where the first man landed 1831 hours.

In the meantime the Aberson crew had crossed the English Coast where four of the escorting Spits rocked their wings in farewell salute, then peeled off for home. Two other Spitfires continued to fly with the bomber, a few feet off each wing tip until the B-26 was on short final approach at its home airfield. Both fighter pilots lowered the noses of their ships, buzzed the field, and pulled up into a well executed chandelle, then flew off to their roost!

After making a perfect landing the Aberson ship was hooked up to a tractor and towed to its regular parking spot, because nobody does a very good job of taxiing a twin engine aircraft with only one fan running! The crew examined battle damage—the right engine and mount would have to be replaced. The outer skin on the right-hand landing gear door cover was burned off. The right wing flap actuating arm was damaged, along with many flak holes in other areas of the aircraft.

Returning crews were busy relating facts about the bombing mission, all agreed that fighter escort was excellent. Several crews reported seeing the Aberson plane get hit on two occasions. Also saw barrage balloons up over Lille. There was an unidentified single engine fighter seen to go down near the target area at 1757 hours. No chute was visible, and the plane was not seen the strike the ground!

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1943: Boxted Airdrome, Colchester, England

Returning from a mission 386th Bomb Group Martin B-26's are shown on the taxiway in daisy-chain fashion as they head for their respective hardstands. Note waist guns are protruding down from both sides of the fuselage.

A Westland Lysander can be seen parked just off the right wing tip of the B-26 in the foreground. The RAF used Lysander Aircraft during night time landings of intelligence agents in the occupied countries.

Photo Credit: E. Rowe Collection

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Chester P. Klier
Historian, 386th Bomb Group

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