The Christmas That Wasn't

The Christmas That Wasn't

No Christmas for 100 Christmas Eve warriors.

Christmas Eve — peace on earth and goodwill toward mankind. A time for family gatherings, joy and laughter, sharing, giving and religious observances. That was not to be on Christmas Eve, 1944.

Sixty years ago this Friday, the U.S. Air Force, then known as the U.S. Army Air Corps, suffered one of its most devastating combat days in World War II. Thirteen B17 bombers and 100 airmen of the Eighth Air Force, 487th Bomb Group, perished, including a newly promoted brigadier general who had held that rank for only 10 days.

After making extraordinary advances since the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944, Allied Forces found themselves stretched out along a vast front by Dec. 16, 1944. In the Ardennes sector, a single American corps held a 75 mile front.

The weather turned bad with heavy snow and very limited visibility. The ground troops were left without air cover. That's when Adolph Hitler's forces, 10 Panzer and 14 infantry divisions, made their final major offensive of the war. The Battle of The Bulge was underway.

ON THE MORNING of Dec. 24, 1944 the Eighth Air Force launched 2,046 bombers and 1,000 fighter escort to attack a wide range of German airfields and communication centers. As reported by Ivo De Jong in his book "The History of the 487th Bomb Group (H)," they were to lead the Eighth Air Force and make an individual strike on the airfield at Babenhausen, Germany.

As was the custom, their fighter escort would take off after the Bomb Group and rendezvous with them after they crossed into enemy territory. It was over enemy skies that the air battles usually took place. But on this day, fate was about to deal the 487th a double change-up that would leave many vacant seats at Christmas dinner the next day.

The Commanding Officer of the 4th Combat Wing was newly promoted Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle. Due to the significance of the operation, he decided to lead the attack himself. It was his 32st combat mission, "and he flew it with the crew of First Lieutenant Robert W. Harriman." It was the last for both men.

"I remember that mission like it was yesterday," said Henry Hughey of Decatur, Georgia, whose daughter resides in Alexandria. On that Christmas Eve, 60 years ago, it was Sgt. Henry Hughey, a bull turret gunner encased in the underbelly of a B17 flying on Castle's left wing. "The Germans pulled a smart one on us that day," he said.

"As a bull turret gunner you were never to stop revolving the turret when in a combat zone so that fighters couldn't sneak up on you. But, that day I'd never seen so many German fighters. They went right through our formation in a company front formation, wing tip to wing tip," Hughey said.

NOT ONLY HAD the Germans changed their attack strategies, they had added a heavily armored aircraft known as the Sturmbock FW190. The attack force recalled by Hughey was known as the "Sturmgruppen."

In his book, "Isaiah's Eagles Rising," Alexandrian Bernard T. Nolan, another member of the 487th, writes, "The Sturmgruppen took the gang attack techniques employed by the Luftwaffe to new heights. As many as 48 heavily armed and armored FW190's would close on our formation in waves of eight to 16."

Each Sturmbock FW190 was "armed with four wing mounted cannons -- two 20mm and two 30mm. There were two fuselage-mounted machine guns and a drop tank for extended range. Armor plate and bullet resistant glass ringed the pilot for protection from our guns," Nolan said.

Their only drawback was that due to the heavy armor and artillery they were slower than the regular Luftwaffe Me109's which always escorted them. However, neither was a match for the American P51. Therefore, their attacks were swift and deadly in an attempt to avoid tangling with the P51's, according to Nolan.

The Germans also capitalized on the element of surprise that Christmas Eve. They crossed into allied territory, which no one expected, and came in behind the 487th who at first mistook them for their own fighter escort catching up with them.

"THE GERMANS CAME to our side of the line and our fighter escort never had time to catch up with us. Then right after the fight they just disappeared. It all took place in 15 minutes, not like in the movies," Hughey said.

"When I looked over, General Castle's aircraft was on fire in engine number three. That's right next to the co-pilot's seat where he was sitting that day," he said.

"They had been hit hard by German fighters. He put down his landing gear and then pulled them back up and pulled out of formation. I figured their radio was dead and it was a signal for Major Shilling, who was flying deputy lead, to take over the lead."

Hughey speculated that Castle and Harriman where heading for the lower squadron for cover when they were attacked again by German fighters. Bomb Groups always flew is a pattern of high and low squadron formations. That day it was the low squadron that the German's attacked in full might, according to De Jong.

Hughey's speculation about the pounding being taken by the lead plane was verified by Paul Biri, the young first lieutenant who served as the bombardier on that plane. Now 86 and living in New Orleans, La., he was the last man to get out of the burning B17.

"It was Harriman, the plane's commander that gave the order to bail out. The commander is always in charge no matter who else is on board," Biri said.

"As the bombardier, I was in the nose and the plane was diving so it was difficult to get into the escape hatch due to the force. But, I finally made it. Harriman couldn't find his parachute but the last voice I heard was Castle on the intercom," he said.

"Our plane was hit by the Germans in their first pass because we didn't see them coming. There was no ball turret gunner on our plane. The lead plane used that location for radar equipment," he said.

BIRI IS THE LAST SURVIVOR from that aircraft on that fateful Christmas eve mission. He remained in the military for 22 years retiring in 1963 at the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Following his military career he went on to get his degrees in Education from Louisiana State University and taught social studies in a New Orleans High School. "I still have vivid memories of that day," Biri said.

A B17 normally carried a crew of 10. Hughey recalled seeing five bail out of Castle's plane that day. Four survived and returned to base eventually. The others died either as result of the attack in the air or when the plane exploded upon impact with the ground.

Thirteen planes and 100 men never came home from that mission. "There were a lot of empty chairs in the mess hall that Christmas day. And, we were all sort of numb," Hughey said.

"There was another mission scheduled for Christmas. But, the weather had turned bad again. It was snowing so hard they scrubbed the mission. So we walked silently back to the mess hall and had a second breakfast," he said.

As a result of his actions, in maintaining a flight pattern to enable his men to bail out and not endanger troops on the ground by releasing his bomb load to gain maneuverability, Castle was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He, Harriman, and radio operator T/Sgt. Lawrence H. Swain are buried in the American military cemetery Henri-Chapelle in Belgium.

As noted by Nolan, Castle is "hardly a household word here in the U.S. as the war fades from view." But, he is remembered in England. "In Lavenham's Guildhall museum there is a tribute to him, and the Swan's pub still honors his name. The USAF honored him after the war by naming an air base for him," Nolan states.

CASTLE WAS ALSO thought to be the model for authors Beirne Lay, Jr., who served with Castle in World War II, and Sy Bartlett, co-authors of the book "Twelve O'Clock High" and the eventual screenplay. Much of the story is based on Castle's handling of the 94th Bomb Group, according to De Jong.

Hughey continued to fly as a turret gunner. His plane was shot down on March 2, 1945, his 27th mission. "We crash landed with the gear down in a German mine field outside Warsaw, Poland. One of the guys on board spoke Polish and we were able to get out of the field. If we hadn't come in with our gear down I wouldn't be talking to you now," he said.

Hughey flew five more missions after that. His last was on April 21, 1945.

The Eighth Air Force flew their last combat mission on April 25, 1945.