Thursday, April 2, 2015

Clues from Everybody's Sweetheart

Almost every photo has a story to tell, but getting it to speak is sometimes harder than at other times. Sometimes, a little bit of sleuthing can reveal a bit about a photo that initially looks like it contains no usable information, and that chase is part of the fun of finding and preserving these photos. Take, for instance, this group photo of at least some of the personnel from a B-24 Liberator squadron. Found in a pile of snapshots at an antique store, there is no information written on the back, so very little to go on, especially since the plane shown is seen nose-on. But if you look close, at the far right of the image, you’ll see a B-24 vertical stabilizer, and it’s lower than one would expect, meaning that it’s been removed from the aircraft.

While I can't say with 100% certainty, this is probably the 345th Bombardment Squadron at Lecce, Italy

The number on the stab, 264372, means that this came from aircraft 42-64372, a B-24J which was known as Everybody’s Sweetheart. After returning from a bombing mission against the Steyr Walzlagerwerke (or Steyr Ball Bearing Factory; this facility was responsible for 10-15% of Germany’s ball bearing production capacity, and thus was a critical target) in Austria on 2 April 1944 (yes, there’s a reason this post is running on April 2nd!), Everybody’s Sweetheart was shot up by ME109s and badly damaged, with four of the crew injured. The right tire had been hit, so the plane ran off the runway on landing.

There are two photos on the internet that show the wreck of Everybody’s Sweetheart, one here and one here. The photos show that the left vertical stabilizer had been pretty well shot up, but the right appears unscathed. Army records show that the plane was “salvaged” on 4 April 1944, and it would make sense, then, that the maintenance crews would save a perfectly good stabilizer and rudder that then might be able to be used on another aircraft, later.

Everybody’s Sweetheart was assigned to the 345th Bombardment Squadron, 98th Bombardment Group, 15th Air Force, and during this timeframe, the 345th was stationed at Lecce Airfield, Italy (way down in the “heel” of the country), so it’s likely that this is the squadron and location where our photo was taken.

There is also a first-person account of the landing by waist gunner Gene Robinson that has been preserved online, here.

Sadly, though, the identity of the main Liberator in our photo remains a mystery.

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