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Timeless attributes of Jolly Rogers Airmen

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Matthew Dillow
  • 321st Missile Squadron commander
As American Airmen, we each embody a cultural tradition epitomized by the Air Force core values, the Oath of Enlistment and the Oath of Office. These values connect us to the Airmen of the past and continue to guide us. This vital connection endures despite changes in technology, mission, weapon systems and Air Force Specialty Codes. In addition to the 500 aircrew members, there were 1,100 support personnel, medical personnel and maintainers assigned to the 90th Bomb Group in World War II, and they each have their personal stories of heroism, dedication to duty and sacrifice.

Below is the story of a relatively routine 90th Bomb Group mission from Oct. 25, 1943. The conduct of these Airmen holds lessons applicable to the Airmen of the 90th Missile Wing.

From "The Jolly Rogers: History of the 90th Bomb Group in World War II" by John S. Alcorn:

"[Lt. Col.] Harry A. Bullis, Deputy C.O. of the 90th, led a force of 50 Liberators and eight P-38s through the storm and into the clearing skies near Rabaul, where they were welcomed by some 60 fighters and a wall of flak. The eight Lightnings were relatively helpless against such odds, but weaved above in hopes of making the Japanese think they were out in force.

"[Lt.] Chuck Showalter's [B-24 44-40720] promptly suffered a 20 mm hit in its No. 1 engine, which burst into flames and quit. The fire was soon extinguished, but No. 4 also quit for a short time, and another prop was nicked and began to vibrate badly. The plane drifted out of formation and was of course descended upon like jackals to a stray. But [the B-24 44-40720] was a wounded bull, not a scared lamb, and continued struggling towards the target. The worse it looked, the calmer Showalter and his crew seemed to get, at least judging from the phone chatter. Finally, Bullis could stand it no longer, and with his wingman, [Capt.] Robert Sylvernale, dropped down and back to cover Showalter. It saved Showalter and his gallant crew, for which they were everlastingly grateful.

"Having done their good deed, Bullis and company turned their attention to the bomb run. At that moment, their plane shuddered under the impact of a flak burst below the bomb bay, which caused some frag clusters to fall prematurely and others to hang up in their racks. [Lt.] Tom Fetter, up in the nose, was the Lead Bombardier for the mission, so several others followed suit prematurely. Nevertheless, the target, Lakunai airdrome, was well blanketed with frag clusters.

"Fetter, realizing that some of the bombs had not released, quietly went aft to check them. He brought along the Flight Engineer, top turret gunner, [Tech. Sgt.] Oscar 'Slowjohn' Sjolin. Between them they gingerly defused two armed bombs, wired the fuzes of the rest and manually tripped the shackles whose electrical circuits had been knocked out - a tricky, tedious and strenuous chore which took them an hour to complete on the catwalk of an open bomb bay at 15,000 feet. To add to his discomfort, Fetter was still nursing a recently injured foot and leg, for which he was officially grounded. Despite the flattering attention, no Jolly Rogers were lost on this mission."

These Airmen displayed valor, dedication to the mission, service before self, resiliency in the face of adversity and true wingman spirit. From the Jolly Rogers maintainers who generated four squadrons of bombers in support of the raid to the aircrews who braved flak and fighters to strike the target, to the medical personnel who treated the injured and dying when the B-24s returned, these Airmen lived their oaths and sometimes died as a result.

The maintainers were the "unsung heroes of the 90th Bomb Group, the grimy, sweating, hard working and long serving maintenance crews. They won few honors, and their names rarely appear in any chronicle of aerial warfare. They were in a very real sense the base of the pyramid that comprised the Jolly Rogers."

The medical personnel dealt with the ugliest part of combat, patching up gravely injured young men where they could. They were essential to the morale of the unit, assessing operational fatigue, dealing with exotic tropical diseases and offering the occasional post-mission medicinal beverage, as required.

Other ground-based personnel "presided over the myriad administrative details of the squadron's existence; including base layout and movement, records, messing, payroll, and personnel matters. Their work was endless, tedious, and often frustrating, and not being on combat flying status, they remained overseas for the duration."

Decades separate the 90th Bomb Group of World War II from today's 90th Missile Wing, but the teamwork required to successfully execute a complex mission of vital national importance remains the same. As you carry out your daily duties, whatever they may be, think about those who blazed the trail before you. They are fellow Airmen and our brother Jolly Rogers; we are their legacy. Embrace this heritage with pride, and strive to honor their memory by endeavoring to match their endurance, their focus on the mission and their love of country.