30 January, 2015

Profile 101: START to FINISH— "Luck and Stuff!" as crewed by SSgt Jimmy Calhoun, 446th BG, 706th BS

Viola!  Another awkward moment is over—drawing semi-clothed women while maintaining an open-door policy with my kids can make for interesting times!   But you know what's really awkward?  Knowing that I'm drawing a family heirloom.  For a man the family has never met.

Yeah.  You read that right.  For a man the family has never met.

Have a look at "Luck and Stuff!" from the 706th Bombardment Squadron of the 446th Bombardment Group.

Rewind back to April 29, 1944.

According to the 446th Bombardment Group history, the day featured a 22-plane misson to Berlin. From their base in Bungay, England, the German capitol was pretty much a straight-shot East.  A thousand miles round trip and, counting forming up for formation and mission debrief, a full day's work.

If you've ever watched a "bomber movie" like the acceptable "Memphis Belle" or the far, far awesomer "12 O'Clock High," you've probably realized that it's impossible to convey the experience of riding a bomber into combat.  The hours of sitting, standing, looking outside...the drone of engines, the random shakes and mysterious metallic shudders are either hypnotizing or infuriating depending upon your temperament.

Here...watch the video below.  It was shot while sitting in the tail-gun position of the Commemorative Air Force's B-24.  Turn the volume up full-crank to really get the effect.  And listen to it 3,000 more times.  Thats the sound of about 7 hours of "bomber mission."

Now, would you mind watching it again? This time, pay more attention to the P-51, only imagine it coming in at 3x the speed.  And with a dappled green/gray paint scheme.  And big black crosses on the wings.  And the nose and wing guns ablaze...and you, firing back.  Not for fun, not for "high score," not even for God and Country.  Instead, you fire back because that's all your brain can process at the moment.

Hold that thought.

Here's what happened to "Luck and Stuff!" on that Spring day...

Inbound, the Luftwaffe kept their distance.  In fact, the only one that got too close, ended up as a funeral pyre thanks to an escort of P-38 Lightnings; a fairly routine flight. It wasn't until the last twenty or so minutes before the target that the monotony was broken.  As the Liberators puckered up for their bomb run, the flak began, peppering the sky with deadly smudges.

Suddenly—and it always happened suddenly—the No.2 engine was hit and began bleeding oil into the frigid slipstream.  In spite of the wound, Luck and Stuff! stayed in formation and completed the run.   Yet, 1,000lbs of bomb remained hung up in the bomb bay.  The added weight of the un-dropped bombs plus the reduced power caused the B-24 lag behind.  If you look at the map above, we're probably mid-way on the top red line, heading west...into a head wind.

Suddenly—and it always happened suddenly—at least three German fighters were spotted by tailgunner Jimmy L. Calhoun, coming in fast, guns sparkling.  According to crew testimonies, what happened next also happened fast; both engines on the starboard side (No. 3 and No. 4) were set alight.  Top Turret/Flt. Engineer SSgt Charles E. Hill was caught in the middle of a fuel-transfer (mid-fuselage) and the hot bullets burst the flammable lines creating a curtain of fire...

We can only imagine the chaos.  Groaning metal, shrieking wind, smoke, shots of flame, shakes, shouts; with three engines out, a fire inboard and a bomb bay full of explosive, the crew tumbled out into the blue.  Moments later, Luck and Stuff! blew apart, pieces tumbling earthward like hot embers from a just-spent firework.

Before the war's end, 1019 B-24s would be lost over Europe, many in the same fashion.  And that's not counting the B-17s, B-25s, B-26s, P-38s...in fact, 8th AF aircrew had a 12.38% KIA rate compared to the U.S. Marines of 3.29%  Put another way, the 8th Air Force suffered the highest loss rate of any American branch of service.*

And now you know why so many people are utterly fascinated by what happened in those bombers...

Ok.  Back to the drawing.  The graphic below is a quick time-lapse that goes from initial pencil sketch to completed illustration.  It's about 40 hours condensed into a few seconds.  It's crude but if you're really bored you can see a few fits, starts and corrections.

Is it perfect?  Probably not.   But I am hopping it's nearly-so because this piece will be going up on the walls of many homes as a memorial to the tailgunner, Jimmy.  He was the one who first spotted the incoming German fighters and, presumably, the first to fire back.  He was also the first to die.

For a man the family has never met.

You know, I've been consciously avoiding any cute references to the irony of this bomber's name in comparison to her fate.  Not that I'm pious or extraordinarily reverent (not even close).  Maybe I would have had it not been made clear, "This is for us to remember Uncle Jimmy."  On one hand, it's a drawing.  But when memories, family, life gets involved, things change.

Like I wrote at the beginning, it's awkward when a kid walks in: "Watcha doin' dad?  "Drawing a naked woman."  "Oh.  Who's it for?" "Tailgunner's family."  "Oh.  Cool.  See ya, dad."  "See ya."

But it's much, much more awkward  when I realize that compared to Jimmy's family, I have it easy.

To the crew of "Luck and Stuff!"

See ya.

Lt  Weems Jones, Pilot, POW (#9)
Lt  Joseph Kwon, Co-pilot, POW
Lt  Thomas Brigham, Navigator, POW
SSgt Charles Perry, Nose gunner, POW
SSgt Charles Hill, Top gunner/Engineer, KIA (#4)
TSgt Arnold Kaminsky, Radioman, POW (#2)
SSgt George Radle, ball gunner, KIA (#3)
SSgt William Ingraham, Left waist gunner, POW (#1)
SSgt Lester Baker, Right waist gunner, POW  
SSgt Jimmy Calhoun, Tail gunner, KIA.  (#5)

*This is a commonly understood figure and relatively easy to find.  But, the 398th BG Association makes it easy.  Go here: http://398th.org/History/KIA/index.html