A certain picture hung in a black frame, in the back bedroom of Granny Jessie’s house in Pasadena for many years, a black and white photo of four graves piled high with flowers. Only recently did my mother realize, upon looking closely at it, that the flowers were carefully tended hot-house chrysanthemums, and even more fabulously expensive in 1943 as they are now. The grave markers in the picture are plain wooden crosses, painted white and the names just barely visible, for the picture was taken in haste and surreptitiously, smuggled out of Occupied France during World War Two.
“James Menaud” is one of two names which can be clearly read; a misspelling of “James Menaul” who was my mother’s older brother, “Jimmy Junior” who was a tail gunner on a B-17 and died in the war. There was a badly-tinted portrait-photo in Granny Jessie’s living room, a young man awkward in a hastily fitted set of woolen class-A’s, smirking uncomfortably at the camera, frozen forever at 19. Our curiosity about him was never rewarded. Mom had been only thirteen at the time. Fifteen years ago, when my father found a picture of Jimmy Juniors’ crew— ten young men on the tarmac in front of a B-17, awkwardly solemn or cocky and smiling— everything had faded from memory except for the name of the aircraft commander, Lt. Sherman Dodge. We knew that only because his grave was next to Jimmy-Juniors’ in an unknown cemetery somewhere in France. The rest of what we knew fitted into one sentence: Sgt. James Menaul, Jr. was killed in action in the fall of 1943 on one of the raids on the Schweinfurt ball-bearing factories, and some of the other crewmen had survived and escaped into Switzerland. Dad finally asked me, as a persistent and inventive snoop, if I could find out their names and whereabouts, and what had happened to them.
I started with my uncle’s service number and unit of assignment, the 331st Squadron, 94th Bomb Group, Bury St. Edmunds. It was one of the units that had formed an association (since dissolved due to the age and infirmity of many of the members), and they replied promptly to my first letter of enquiry, confirming that Jimmy-Junior’s B-17, the “Lonesome Polecat II” was one of those lost on Black Thursday, October 14th, 1943.
60 8th Air Force B-17s, each with a crew of ten were lost in a single day, attacking the ball-bearing factories in two waves at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, running a gauntlet of German air defenses to and from the target. A report on the status of various missing crewman, sent from the Army Mortuary Affairs Office contained some riveting extracts:” …Flights of enemy aircraft stood of at 1,500 yards on both sides and tail of the formation to “lob” rockets or heavy cannon projectiles into the formation, while others attacked from the nose and top and bottom…Several enemy aircraft would dive through the formation from all angles, at times coming within four to six hundred yards… many that went down were hit by rockets or heavy cannon… whenever a Fortress was hit…it either exploded or fell apart… This aircraft was last heard on the ‘command channel’ and there were no eyewitnesses… This report showed no further information; the plane was simply missing from the formation…A total of 80 parachutes were seen in the vicinity of the target…the survivors were so busy avoiding enemy aircraft they were unable to observe what happened… Of the eighteen planes from this particular group which went on this mission, three aborted, thirteen failed to return and two completed the mission….Last seen at 1400 hours, just before it reached the target…Lost as a result of enemy aircraft.”
(Next: Part 2: Crew Pictures and Old Letters)