In the Mu­seum 207-mis­sion bomber

STOPS ON A TOUR THROUGH AMER­ICA’S HANGAR The con­ser­va­tion of a record-set­ting bomber will pre­serve ev­ery bat­tle scar.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY TOM JONES

The ship re­turned State­side in crates, and spent decades scat­tered through the re­cesses of the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum’s stor­age fa­cil­ity out­side Wash­ing­ton, D.C. In 1976, Flak-bait’s nose and cock­pit emerged to be­come a high­light of the World War II gallery in the Mu­seum on the Na­tional Mall. Now, some seven decades after ser­vice in World War II, the iconic bomber is be­ing made whole by Mu­seum con­ser­va­tors and restora­tion ex­perts.

Flak-bait rep­re­sents the fleet of 5,157

THE MARTIN B-26 MA­RAUDER FLAK-BAIT sur­vived two years of the most in­tense aerial com­bat of World War II, tak­ing ev­ery punch Ger­man gun­ners and fighter pi­lots threw at it. Though bul­lets and shell frag­ments rid­dled the air­craft, ground crews re­peat­edly put the B-26 back in the air. By V-E Day, Flak-bait had racked up more mis­sions than any other U.S. air­craft.

B-26 medium bombers pro­duced by the Glenn L. Martin Com­pany from 1940 through 1945. Martin de­signer Pey­ton Ma­gruder’s pow­er­ful, twin-engine de­sign won a 1939 Army Air Corps com­pe­ti­tion for a fast ma­chine ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing 4,000 pounds of bombs at more than 300 mph over a range of 2,000 miles. With con­flicts emerg­ing in Asia and Eu­rope, the Air Corps wanted the new B-26 badly enough that it skipped the pro­to­type stage and or­dered 201 Ma­raud­ers be­fore the first one rolled off the pro­duc­tion line.

Jeremy Kin­ney, the Mu­seum cu­ra­tor re­spon­si­ble for Flak-bait, says the B-26 pioneered a num­ber of ad­vances later em­ployed widely in U.S. com­bat air­craft, in­clud­ing self-seal­ing fuel tanks, a power-op­er­ated gun tur­ret, and a low-drag, high-speed wing. “Martin pushed the state of the art in air­craft man­u­fac­tur­ing,” says Kin­ney, “in­tro­duc­ing the first all-plas­tic air­craft nose, heat treat­ment of alu­minum sheets, and a method of pro­ject­ing part di­men­sions di­rectly onto pho­to­sen­si­tive alu­minum stock to en­sure ac­cu­rate cuts.”

The first flight was made in No­vem­ber 1940; just three months later the Ma­rauder was on its way to the 22nd Bom­bard­ment Group at Langley Field in Vir­ginia. But in the rush to get the air­craft into ser­vice, a num­ber of se­ri­ous prob­lems emerged: Nosegear struts broke un­der heavy take­off or land­ing loads, and leaky hy­draulics led to a rash of gear fail­ures. Had the air­craft un­der­gone more ex­tended test­ing, these might have been dealt with be­fore wide­spread op­er­a­tions be­gan.

Most wor­ri­some was that the young pi­lots pour­ing out of flight schools in 1941 and ’42 were ill-equipped to han­dle the B-26’s high ap­proach and land­ing speeds. Unsea­soned pi­lots had sur­prises: Get slower than 145 mph on fi­nal and the Ma­rauder would stall. Lose an engine on take­off or in a traf­fic­pat­tern turn and the bomber would roll and plunge earth­ward.

By 1943, Martin ad­dressed the B-26’s ap­proach and sin­gle-engine han­dling chal­lenges: The com­pany length­ened the wing from 65 to 71 feet, and stretched the ver­ti­cal sta­bi­lizer’s height by nearly two feet to in­crease rud­der con­trol.

An in­ten­sive train­ing pro­gram ini­ti­ated by Gen­eral Jimmy Doolit­tle, and im­ple­mented largely by his aide, Ma­jor Vin­cent “Squeek” Bur­nett, raised pi­lot skills.

In the grim months after Pearl Har­bor, though, Ma­rauder crews went to war with what they had. They at­tempted to hit the Ja­panese fleet at Mid­way, and in the south­west Pa­cific at­tacked Rabaul from bases in New Guinea. Soon after, the B-26 fought against Rom­mel’s forces in the North African cam­paign. In Eu­rope, its ini­tial low-level at­tacks against Ger­man coastal tar­gets proved dis­as­trous. On a May 17, 1943 raid against a power sta­tion in Ij­muiden, Hol­land, lethally ac­cu­rate anti-air­craft fire and Luft­waffe fight­ers downed all 10 Ma­raud­ers that

reached the tar­get, killing 34 air­men.

The Ma­rauder fleet’s com­bat des­tiny thus hung in the bal­ance when Martin B-26B-25-MA, se­rial no. 41-31773, rolled off the assem­bly line at Martin’s Plant 2 in Mid­dle River, Mary­land, just northeast of Baltimore, on April 26, 1943.

When 773 and its crew ar­rived in Eng­land in late May 1943 to join the 449th Bom­bard­ment Squadron of the 322nd Bom­bard­ment Group, the shock­ing losses at Ij­muiden had forced a reeval­u­a­tion of B-26 tac­tics. Eighth Air Force com­man­der Gen­eral Ira C. Eaker or­dered the 322nd and other ar­riv­ing B-26 groups to em­ploy the air­plane’s strengths: speed, fire­power, and rugged­ness. Here­after, Ma­raud­ers would de­liver their bombs in tight for­ma­tion and from 8,000 to 12,000 feet, in­stead of from 100 feet. On July 16, B-26s es­corted by Spitfires struck the Luft­waffe air­field at Abbeville, France, and didn’t lose a sin­gle air­plane.

B-26 773 was flown that sum­mer by Lieu­tenant James J. Far­rell and his five-man crew: copi­lot, bom­bardier, ra­dio op­er­a­tor/gun­ner, waist gun­ner, and tail gun­ner. Seek­ing a wor­thy ap­pel­la­tion for their new Ma­rauder, Far­rell re­mem­bered his brother’s nick­name for his dog: Flea Bait. In light of their B-26’s seem­ing ap­petite for Ger­man anti-air­craft bursts, the men thought Flak-bait sounded just the right devil-may-care note.

Far­rell and his crew flew 70 of FlakBait’s first 130 mis­sions, mostly in six­ship for­ma­tions as part of 54-air­plane at­tacks against air­fields, mar­shalling yards, bridges, high­way junc­tions, sup­ply de­pots, and coastal guns. On 180-mph bomb runs, the squadron’s lead bom­bardier would pin­point the tar­get with his Nor­den bomb­sight, the pi­lot fol­low­ing the Nor­den-driven pi­lot di­rec­tor in­di­ca­tor, or PDI, on his in­stru­ment panel. When they saw the lead ship’s bombs fall, the en­tire squadron would re­lease their bombs. Each bomber’s 4,000-pound load, usu­ally 500- or thou­sand-pounders, would con­trib­ute to a tight clus­ter of hits on and around the tar­get.

That was the the­ory, but in prac­tice, the Ger­mans threw flak and fight­ers up to dis­rupt the Ma­raud­ers’ aim and ex­act a deadly toll. The B-26 crews were well within the lethal range of high-ve­loc­ity 88mm guns, each of which could fire 15 to 20 twenty-pound shells per minute, each shell ca­pa­ble of de­stroy­ing a bomber. Near­ing their tar­get, Flak-bait’s crews were of­ten forced to pen­e­trate storms of flak bursts.

To avoid the 88s, pi­lots could take eva­sive ac­tion dur­ing all but the last few sec­onds of the bomb run. Said Far­rell in a 1978 in­ter­view in magazine, “We fig­ured it took the flak gun­ners 17 sec­onds to tar­get us, and an­other 13 be­fore the shells

FAST FACT: FLAK comes from the Ger­man word Flugzeu­gab­wehrkanone, for air­craft de­fense can­non, or anti-air­craft gun. Flak-bait’s Air­power

started burst­ing. For that rea­son, we wouldn’t go 30 sec­onds with­out do­ing some­thing—climb­ing and turn­ing to the right, de­scend­ing and turn­ing to the left, etc.”

That helped, but for the fi­nal 20 or 30 sec­onds of the run, the pi­lots had to fly straight and level, cen­ter­ing the nee­dle on the PDI. Here the B-26 was most vul­ner­a­ble. Stan Walsh was a bom­bardier with the 397th Bom­bard­ment Group on Christ­mas Day in 1944, at the height of the Bat­tle of the Bulge. On the bomb run, his ship was tucked in just be­low and be­hind the lead Ma­rauder when “there was a flash of fire and Lead dis­ap­peared. As he fell down and back to­ward us, we were nearly hit on the ver­ti­cal fin. We dove out of for­ma­tion with a per­fo­rated tail; the pi­lot barely re­cov­ered us­ing el­e­va­tor trim alone.”

Flak-bait be­gan to live up to its name. On al­most ev­ery mis­sion, it took a hit from 88mm shrap­nel.

Ev­ery con­trol sur­face was re­placed at least once. The hy­draulics were shot out once, the elec­tri­cal sys­tem twice. It came home sin­gle-engine twice, once with the dead engine on fire.

Although most of the dam­age was in­flicted by the heavy Ger­man guns, B-26 crews also faced Luft­waffe fight­ers. “We had so many en­coun­ters with them early in the war, and my feel­ing is we be­came too tough for them. We were knock­ing down more of them than they were of us,” said Far­rell in 1978. The Amer­i­cans were get­ting tougher, but at the same time the Luft­waffe was get­ting weaker. Most fight­ers had been with­drawn for use in coun­ter­ing the heavy bomber as­saults on the Nazi home­land and were sel­dom seen over oc­cu­pied France. When Flak-bait did en­counter en­emy fight­ers, the crew had the ad­van­tage of as many as 11 Brown­ing .50-cal­iber ma­chine guns.

On Septem­ber 6, 1943, Flak-bait was part of an at­tack on rail mar­shalling yards near Amiens, France, when Far­rell’s for­ma­tion was hit by a swarm of Messer­schmitt Bf 109s in a head-on at­tack. A 20mm can­non round tore through the clear nose and ex­ploded on the front of Far­rell’s in­stru­ment panel, Plex­i­glas shards and shell frag­ments wound­ing him in the leg and hit­ting bom­bardier Owen J. “Red” Red­mond front and back. Mirac­u­lously, Red­mond, clad in heavy leather fly­ing gear, was only slightly hurt.

Far­rell, with only an air­speed in­di­ca­tor still func­tional, nursed the B-26 back to the base at Brain­tree in Eng­land.

Far­rell’s crew took Flak-bait up the morn­ing of June 6, 1944. “D-day was a rainy, rot­ten day, and we went out about four-thirty in the morn­ing. We got up to high alti­tude, and even though it was June, there was a lot of ice. There was a mis­er­able cold wave that came through there…. We had the whole group and I was a squadron leader.”

Only a half-dozen Ma­raud­ers made it up through the thick weather to the ren­dezvous. Far­rell hung in for a cou­ple of long, nerve-wrack­ing bomb runs. “Fi­nally we dropped our bombs and went home. From there on, the weather was a lot bet­ter…. The sec­ond raid we went on that day was clear. You could see the beach, ships all over. I saw one Ger­man fighter that made the run down the beach, saw the run be­ing made and saw the fire go­ing at him.”

Sher­man Best logged a year in com­bat as a B-26 pi­lot and flew 14 mis­sions on Flak-bait. He re­mem­bers that “the Ma­rauder was a good plane to fly, but it re­quired your full-time at­ten­tion, but as time went by, I grew to love that air­plane—it was very well-built and could take a lot of bat­tle dam­age.”

Far­rell’s crew ro­tated home in July 1944, and others took Flak-bait through the Nor­mandy break­out and deep into Ger­many. On April 17, 1945, nearly two years after her birth in Mid­dle River, Flak-bait notched her 200th com­bat mis­sion, top­ping other U.S. bombers.

The war in Eu­rope ended with Flak-bait’s mis­sion to­tal at 207; the B-26 fleet was re­tired in fa­vor of the Dou­glas A-26 In­vader. At two lo­ca­tions in Ger­many, de­pot work­ers dy­na­mited the re­main­ing Ma­raud­ers into scrap alu­minum. That sad end saved the ex­pense of fly­ing ob­so­les­cent air­craft home and helped re­vive the in­dus­trial economies of war-torn Eu­rope. To Ma­rauder crews, how­ever, it was

a cruel, un­de­served in­sult to their air­craft’s proud ser­vice.

Flak-bait was spared this fate: Be­cause of its 200 mis­sions, which in­cluded two mis­sions on D-day and 21 mis­sions against V-1 fly­ing-bomb sites in France, Gen­eral of the Army Henry “Hap” Arnold se­lected the air­craft to in­clude in a col­lec­tion of dis­tinc­tive ex­am­ples of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ war-win­ning com­bat air­craft set aside for the Na­tional Aero­nau­ti­cal Col­lec­tion. On March 18, 1946, Ma­jor John Egan and Cap­tain Nor­man Schloesser flew Flak-bait one last time, to an air de­pot at Oberp­faf­fen­hofen in Bavaria. There the famed bomber was dis­as­sem­bled, crated, and shipped to a Dou­glas fac­tory in Park Ridge, Illi­nois.

In 1960, Na­tional Air Mu­seum di­rec­tor Paul Gar­ber moved the crated Flak-bait to the Mu­seum’s Sil­ver Hill, Mary­land ware­house com­plex. Only the cock­pit sec­tion made it into the Mu­seum on the Mall in 1976.

Last Au­gust, the Mu­seum’s restora­tion team be­gan the process of res­ur­rect­ing the bomber. They shifted Flak-bait’s nose, bomb bay, and tail sec­tions, along with dozens of ma­jor com­po­nents and crate after crate of smaller parts, to the Mary Baker En­gen Restora­tion Hangar at the Steven F. Ud­var-hazy Cen­ter. The team has as­sessed the air­plane’s con­di­tion, and treat­ment has be­gun.

Says Kin­ney, “It’s the orig­i­nal­ity of the ar­ti­fact that’s so strik­ing. What’s amaz­ing is that the air­craft is pretty much as it was in 1945. It shows dust, scratches, and lumps, but it’s the ‘barn find’ of our dreams.”

Even in pieces, Flak-bait in­spires awe. The ship’s bat­tle scars are re­vealed by dozens, if not hun­dreds, of riv­eted alu­minum and fab­ric patches, daubed with olive drab and ap­ple-green zinc chro­mate. “There are two patched holes in the wings in ex­cess of 16 inches wide,” says Pat Robin­son, one of sev­eral re­stor­ers as­signed full-time to Flak-bait. On the land­ing gear door are pen­ciled dozens of sig­na­tures of the air­men who dis­as­sem­bled the ship at Oberp­faf­fen­hofen. The engine oil cool­ers were still full of oil from the fi­nal flight. Hy­draulic lines drip red fluid, seem­ingly fresh enough for an­other com­bat sor­tie.

In­side the fuse­lage, con­ser­va­tors found spent .50-cal­iber shell cas­ings, live rounds, cig­a­rette butts, wooden matches, and hand­fuls of “Win­dow,” or chaff, fine alu­minum strips used to evade en­emy gun-lay­ing radar. The team con­tin­ues to find bits of Ger­man flak em­bed­ded in the wings and struc­ture.

“We want to sta­bi­lize and pre­serve,” says Kin­ney, “rather than re­place and re­store.” The team wants vis­i­tors to see Flak-bait not fac­tory-fresh but as she was at war’s end, with the bat­tered paint and patched bul­let holes record­ing her ser­vice.

Pat Robin­son is clear-eyed about the chal­lenges of work­ing with “an ab­so­lute time cap­sule.” Con­trol sur­face fab­ric is fall­ing apart. Rub­ber seals and wire in­su­la­tion are crum­bling. Cor­ro­sion has at­tacked mag­ne­sium parts built for a cou­ple of years of front­line ser­vice, not 70 years in stor­age. “There are some tough choices to make,” Robin­son says. “We can’t save ev­ery­thing on the air­plane.”

Robin­son is clin­i­cal when talk­ing about the work ahead, but the air­plane has its ef­fect on even him. “Yes, it’s a piece of metal. But the Martin men and women in Baltimore built that air­plane when the war’s out­come was very much in doubt. They put their hearts into it. It was over Utah Beach twice on D-day. What did those crews feel and think about when they took Flak-bait into bat­tle? This is a once-in-a-life­time pro­ject.”

To Kin­ney, Flak-bait is “a cen­tral ar­ti­fact of our col­lec­tion of World War II air­craft, one so im­por­tant to pre­serve and dis­play. One glow­ing in­di­ca­tor of the pub­lic in­ter­est in Flak-bait is the paint that’s been worn off the nose and bomb bay bulk­head by vis­i­tors, who wanted to ‘touch his­tory.’ ”

In a larger sense, says Kin­ney, “Flak-bait is an ex­am­ple of the weapons Amer­i­cans needed to win World War Ii—build­ing the M1 ri­fle, the Sher­man tank, the LST [land­ing ship, tank], and the B-26 by the thou­sands. Here is a plane that dozens of Amer­i­cans flew to war, and to vic­tory.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.