The medium bomber ‘workhorse’ of the Ninth Air Force, the much-maligned B-26 Marauder, recovered from its poor start with the Eighth Air Force to go on and equip no less than eight bomber groups in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). Although initially dubbed ‘the widow maker’, a change of tactics from low- to medium-level bombing soon improved the crews’ chances of survival — indeed, by war’s end it boasted a lower loss-per-sortie ratio than any other twin-engined bomber in the USAAF.
The B-26 was one of the first American-manned combat aircraft to see action in Europe, with the first bomb groups arriving in East Anglia in the spring of 1943. From that point on, Marauders bore the brunt of the medium bomber effort in the ETO, proving particularly effective in the lead up to the D-Day invasion.
As told by Jerry Scutts in his book B-26 Marauder Units of the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces, in January 1944 an event of no small significance took place — a B-26 of the 322nd BG flew its 50th mission. Considering that six months previously most people would have viewed such an event as something dreamt up by a Hollywood scriptwriter, the fact that B-26B-25 41-31819, nicknamed MILD AND BITTER after the well-known British beer, had reached this figure was cause for celebration at Great Saling. And the air and groundcrews made the most of it.
Other Marauders, not to mention individual aircrew members, were also approaching the ‘magic 50’ mark. At around this time it was also decided that 50 missions would henceforth represent a tour for flight-crews in B-26 squadrons.
On May 9, MILD AND BITTER did it again by becoming the first B-26 to complete 100 missions from England. Great Sating went wild as the Marauder touched down after bombing Evreaux/Fauville airfield, near Rouen, that afternoon. At the controls for the 29th time was Paul Shannon, who had first flown this particular ship on Aug. 12, 1943. Ninth Air Force publicity was not slow to milk this success for all it was worth, and Shannon was called upon to do his bit;
‘All the flak missed us by a safe margin. MILD AND BITTER has often been called the “luckiest ship in the Ninth Air Force”, having collected less than 50 flak holes, most of them small ones. Only once has battle damage kept her on the ground – a few days ago, when repairs on an electric line required about four hours, which wasn’t enough time between missions.
`Her engines are the same ones that first were installed. Only a magneto change, a hydraulic pump change and a few routine spark plug changes have been made. She has lever made a one-engine return and never aborted a mission because of mechanical failure. `In her 100-mission career, MILD AND BITTER has flown 449 hours and 30 minutes, 310 hours and 40 minutes of that in combat. She has travelled approximately 58,000 miles — more than twice around the world — and burned some 87,790 gallons of gasoline. She has carried 166 crewmen into battle, yet never has a casualty been suffered aboard her.’
Shannon rounded out the glowing testimonial by giving a few details of the old ship’s combat achievements;
`Altogether she has hit military objectives in northern France 44 times, airfields 38 times (and) railway yards 14 times.’
Soon it became almost commonplace for groups to boast 100+ mission ships on their rolls. The second Marauder to reach this landmark after MILD AND BITTER was the 323rd’s B-26C-10 41-34863, named Bingo Buster.
A 322nd BG aircraft, the B-26B-25 41-31773 FLAK BAIT, was the third. The aptly-named FLAK BAIT however would go on to even greater achievement. Strangely ‘773 was not held in such high esteem as ‘819, although competition to reach the 100 mark first was keen. Part of the reason was that FLAK BAIT more than lived up to her name, for she collected the stuff like the proverbial magnet. MILD AND BITTER, incidentally christened by her Texan crew chief William Stuart only after the ship had flown about 40 missions, was definitely the all-round favourite. Nobody really knew why.
Then came B-26C-15 41-34951 Impatient Virgin II of the 322nd on Jun. 4, 1944. By the end of July, the 322nd had another ten 100-mission Marauders— that same month six aircraft of the 386th made it as well. Other B-26s in this group soon followed, the 387th announcing its first five ‘centenarians during the summer. Such records would continue to be made.
As individual aircraft neared the 100-mission mark, crews (air and ground) began to worry for their safety. ‘Lady Luck’ surely had much to do with whether or not the century was achieved, and that fickle mistress did not always play the game by callously striking down a few contenders just short of the milestone. But an impressive number of ‘centenarian’ Marauders came through — as many as 350 of them (in all theatres) by war’s end. The all-time B-26 mission record went to FLAK BAIT with no less than 202 sorties. It was more than fitting that the 322nd BC — the longest serving operational unit in the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces— was able to boast an aircraft with such an impressive record.
Most amazingly, despite all the ‘brickbats’ hurled at the B-26 during its short existence, the powers that be agreed to preserve FLAK BAIT when numerous other famous aircraft types took their combat record with them to the smelters. Even the 322nd’s greatly-favoured MILD AND BITTER did not finally make it. A clear candidate for preservation, the aircraft was sent home to the States, along with Bingo Buster, in July 1944, but was subsequently destroyed in a crash.
Today, the scars visitors see on FLAK BAIT’s flanks when viewing it at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum are real enough, and it is a no small irony that the one US aircraft to bear more genuine `battle honours’ than any other survivor of the mighty Army Air Forces in World War 2 should he a once much-maligned Martin Marauder!
B-26 Marauder Units of the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Imperial War Museum, U.S. Air Force and Elliottwolf Own work via Wikipedia
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