A Tribute to
James William Kerr
1922 - 2006
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A Pilot's Story

My father was a proud B-26 pilot and this is the story of one of his missions
with thanks to 386th Bomb Group historian, Chester P. Klier




Saturday, September 23, 1944
386th B.G. Mission Number 283.
Target: Marshalling Yard at Venlo, Holland.

The Group started engines at 1605 hours and began to taxi out ten minutes later. First box leader Lieutenant Duane Petit was airborne at 1620 hours, the remaining thirty-four planes followed in rapid succession. Each plane carried sixteen 250 pound demolition bombs. Lieutenant Sentner in ship 131823 AN-X did not take off due to mechanical difficulty.


The two box formation made landfall at Nieuport, Belgium on schedule and headed in a direct line to the I. P. at Roermond, Holland. Just after crossing the north-south bomb line the Group made a northeast dog leg as they approached Roermond. Heavy type flak came up at the formation, it was moderate in amount but very accurate for altitude and position it rocked the first seventeen bombers as they neared the I. P. It continued as the Group made a slight dog leg left to commence the bomb run at 11,500 feet. The Lead Navigator Lieutenant Dennision along with Lead Bombardier Lieutenant Pomerance had difficulty picking out landmarks due to eight-tenths cloud cover which topped out about 10,000 feet—as a result the leader did not drop his bombs on the Venlo marshalling yards which was situated next to the German border.

Lieutenant Tomasello pilot of ship 131812 RU-J flying in number five position of the lead flight, saw Lieutenant Kay’s ship "PRIVY DONNA" 131658 RU-A receive a flak hit. The right side engine began to trail smoke! Lieutenant Kay continued on the bomb run as all planes closed bomb bay doors at 1750 hours while making a steep left turn off the target. The flak guns pounded away as eight Marauders were struck by shrapnel.

Low flight leader Lieutenant James Kerr’s ship "LITJO" 131622 RU-D was also struck in the nose section, tail area and wing. His bombardier Lieutenant Noll and tail gunner Staff Sergeant Louis Cubba were wounded, the latter critically in the stomach by flak. Lieutenant Kerr called his deputy lead pilot Lieutenant Marquis in number four position to take over the flight lead because he had two wounded men and was heading for an emergency landing field located at Chievres, Belgium. The pilot called Sweepstakes at 1820 hours for a homing on Chievres Airdrome. Sweepstakes instructed him to fly to Charleroi, Belgium instead!

Near Antwerp, Belgium Lieutenant Kay had to shut down his right engine as his crew jettisoned their bomb load in an unarmed condition. All flight instruments had been shot out on the bomb run. With "PRIVY DONNA’s" right engine still smoking with a feathered propeller Lieutenant Kay spiraled down steeply through breaks in the heavy clouds. The aircraft broke clear of the overcast at 2,000 feet and its pilot headed for Charleroi after calling Sweepstakes for a heading.

Colonel Kelly flying as co-pilot with the second box leader Captain George Howard made a decision not to continue the bomb run because of the heavy cloud cover. The formation made a sharp left turn away from the target area, thus avoiding a major portion of the flak barrage! Lieutenant Ford flying "HELL’S BELLE II" 131789 YA-A, took a hit in his right engine oil cooler, his was the only plane the flak reached in the second eighteen. The Group took up a return leg just south of Eindhoven and west of the bomb line—then headed for Ostend, Belgium on the coast.

Meanwhile Lieutenant Kerr had reached the P-51 and P-38 Base of the 76th Tactical Photo Reconnaissance Group at Charleroi. It was a grass strip only 3600 feet long. He flew a left hand pattern and landed. Upon touch down he noted the grass was wet and slippery. Because of the poor light conditions he could not see the far end of the runway, and his brakes would not stop the aircraft. Seeing there was danger of overrunning, he hit the landing gear release, pulled up wheels and the aircraft slid on its belly. The plane struck a revetment and crashed into 9,000 gallons of gasoline stored in five gallon cans that had been temporarily stacked up at the end of the runway. The aircraft and all of that gasoline caught fire at once!

Lieutenant Kay’s "PRIVY DONNA" appeared over the field as the flames shot skyward. He prepared to make a single engine landing, realizing the shortness of the runway he pulled up and went around. On his second try he decided he could not land without overrunning, so he pulled up and went around again; his third approach was angled away from the fire on the field, he retracted his landing gear, pulled up flaps and came in on the belly. None of his crew were injured, and no major damage to the aircraft in the landing.

At this point Lieutenant Kerr picks up the narration after his crash landing into the fuel storage: "We collided with the gasoline cans and caught fire, the co-pilot and I jumped out of the hatches above our compartment. The fire was mainly on the left side of the airplane, so we ran around to the right side. The right wingtip was almost touching the ground. A crew member (later determined to be Bucky Noll, the bombardier) was on fire and running down the wing. I saw someone grab and cover him to extinguish the flames, put him into an ambulance and leave the scene.

I saw someone standing under the front part of the right wing near the fuselage. It was getting dark—with the fire still mostly on the other side I could not tell who it was, but thought it might be Louie Cubba. I ran toward him yelling, come this way, or something like that. The noise of the fire was very loud—whoever it was ran back toward the rear of the airplane.

I ran to the back and someone was on the ground near the right waist window. It was Pat Patras, the radio operator, I helped him up and asked if Louie had gotten out. He said that he had, about that time machine gun shells began to explode. We ran to a jeep that was waiting there to help us. Then a bomb exploded, at first we took cover behind the jeep. After a second bomb went off we decided to get into the jeep and get away from the danger. As I talked to Pat, I realized that he was pretty shook up and did not really know what had happened for the moment. We must have all been in a state of shock! Pat had a dislocated shoulder, we took him to the base hospital where I found Bucky Noll—his face was so charred I had to ask if it was he. He was certainly in severe pain but was rational.

My left hand and left side of my face had been burned, probably when I jumped out of the airplane. They treated the burns, bandaged my hand quickly, and continued searching for my crew members. About a half hour later, with the much appreciated help of the man with the jeep, we found the co-pilot; he was okay. That accounted for all of the crew except Louie Cubba. Continuing to tour the field and asking questions, eventually concluding that Louie must have died in the fire!

Another B-26 which burned landed ahead of us, folding the nose gear while trying to avoid the gasoline cans. It skidded sideways until the tail knocked over some of higher piled gasoline cans, but there was no fire. After I hit the revetment and then the gasoline, we ended up a little to the right of the tail of that airplane.

The revetment turned out to be an old German bomb storage area. I don’t believe it was very high, but it was probably the collision that caused Patras’ dislocated shoulder and Smith’s broken ankle. We were taken off the base for the night to a Belgian home. Our sixteen 250 pound bombs, the other B-26’s eight 500 pound bombs, along with all the underground German bombs—we heard them exploding way into the night. The next morning there was nothing there but a big hole in the ground!

A note of irony: We later discovered that about half the 90 mile distance from Venlo to Charleroi there was a concrete runway over a mile long at St. Trond, Belgium. It was occupied by the Allies and available for use. That field eventually became the final base of combat operations for the 386th Bomb Group!"


More From Jim Kerr

There were three B-26 fields within about eight miles of Great Dunmow.  We rarely went by the names of the planes.  We called them by the last three digits of their serial number (on the tail) and the letter on the side.  For example, the one I really liked to fly, and flew on a lot of missions, was identified in normal conversation as 658-A, and "six-five-eight A-Able" on the radio.



Since I was a replacement, I didn't have an my own ship (or even a regular crew) until pretty late in my tour, when I was assigned an airplane, strictly as a gesture and a favor to me.  The name was "Texas Tarantula", and it had originally been the plane of Col. Lester J. Maitland, first C.O. of the group, and he had led the group's first combat mission in it about seven months before I got over there.

In 1922 (the year I was born) he had been the first person to fly over 200 miles per hour, and in 1927, the first to fly from the U.S. to Hawaii, and for that, he was the second person to receive the  Distinguished Flying Cross...Lindbergh was the first. They painted my name under the pilot's window right along with his...and I was proud.

In addition to Texas Tarantula, here are some airplane names I was able to read from photographs in a book about the 386th Bomb. Group. These are for the whole group: 
(the planes he flew are highlighted)
 
Incendiary Mary, Yankee Guerrilla, Geronimo, Deacon, Crescendo, Hot Pistol, Sixovus, Our Baby, Blazing Heat, Crime Doctor, Touch O'Texas, Bomb Boogie, Rat Poison, Blue Blazer, Miss Mary, Thumbs Up, Lady Luck, Bar Fly, Bad Penny, Smokey, Cloud Hopper, Litljo, Pay-off, Honey Chile, Good Buddie, Lethal Lady, Son of Satan, Privy Donna, Man-O'-War, Hell's Angels, Butch, Loretta Young, Stardust, Perkatory, Mr. Five by Five.