In the raging skies of WWII, airmen faced not only the menace of enemy fighters, but also anti-aircraft artillery (AAA, or Triple-A), notably the dreaded German “88,” a powerful and accurate weapon that hurled deadly flak into the air and brought down aircraft either by an explosion in close proximity or by a devastating direct hit, which usually resulted in death for all those inside the bomber. There is no shortage of dramatic photographs of bombers being transformed into wheeling masses of flaming wreckage, and this photograph of B-17F Flying Fortress Whizzer II, caught by another bomber flying in formation, is no exception.

The moment that Whizzer II is struck by flak over Yugoslavia (US Air Force)

Whizzer II (42-5786, 840th Bomb Squadron, 483rd Bomb Group, 15th Air Force) was on a bombing mission over the rail yards at Nis in the former Yugoslavia on 15 April 1944 when it suffered a direct hit by AAA. The shell detonated the main fuel tank between engines 3 and 4 while the bomber was flying at 21,000 feet. The round ignited the fuel into a raging inferno, the outer portion of the wing broke off, and the bomber, with its entire crew trapped inside, spiraled into the ground. The destruction took place in a matter of seconds. With no opportunity to bail out, the entire ten-man crew was killed.

Whizzer II plummets to the ground. The hand-written caption on the back of the photo reads: ‘15/4/44. 483BG, 15AF. Nis, Yugoslavia. 42-5786 Whizzer II has taken direct flak hit - all crew members were killed. USAAF 41.’ (US Air Force)

History tends to remember bombers by the nicknames given to them by their crew: Enola Gay, Memphis Belle, Bockscar. In many ways, that nickname came to symbolize the bomber and the mission while overlooking the fathers and sons and brothers who served inside them. We might remember Paul Tibbets as the commander of the Enola Gay, but few can name a single man who served on the famous Memphis Belle.

The Army, though, does keep records. These are the men who lost their life when Whizzer II was shot from the sky:

2LT James O. Preston, Pilot
2LT Harry L. Johnston, Co-pilot
2LT Jesse D. Gresham, Navigator
2LT Gordon G. Lindholm, Bombardier
SGT John C. Toutant, Engineer and top turret gunner
SGT James E. Cooper, Radio operator
SGT Harold J. Pierce, Ball turret gunner
SGT Albert H. Cline, Waist gunner
S/SGT John T. Cieslak, Waist gunner
SGT Jack Brown, Jr., Tail gunner


In all, the 15th Air Force lost 3,364 aircraft and 21,671 personnel killed, wounded or missing and taken prisoner. Of that number, 20,430 were bomber crewmen while the rest, 1,187, were fighter pilots. And the 15th was just one of four numbered air forces serving in the European and Mediterranean theaters. Thousands more airmen fought and died in the Pacific. Sadly, far too many to list here.

For more stories about aviation, aviators, aviation history, and aviation oddities, visit Wingspan.


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