The Story Behind This Iconic World War II Photograph Is Astonishing

On November 20, 1944, 400 bombers escorted by 300 Mustang and Lightning fighter planes set off on a vital mission. Hitler’s defeat was still nearly six months away, and fighting in Europe was still fierce and deadly. The planes set off from Pantanella airfield in southern Italy, and their target was Blechhammer, some 600 miles to the north in modern-day Poland.

The object of this U.S. Air Force mission was to destroy a synthetic fuel plant. Denying the Nazis the resources they needed for their tanks, planes and trucks was a key strategic aim. Fuel in particular was vital for the Germans to resist the Allied invasion of Europe. The Blechhammer refinery processed coal to make synthetic oil and was therefore an important target.

Leading the flight of bombers was a B-24 Liberator commanded by Lt. Col Clarence “Jack” Lokker. Lokker and his crew knew that this mission would be no cakewalk since the plant they planned to bomb had exceptionally strong batteries of anti-aircraft artillery. Clearly, the Germans were determined to protect this crucial resource.

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Lt. Col Lokker was a highly experienced pilot and leader. A graduate of West Point, Lokker had qualified as a pilot in March 1942. When he passed out of flying school, he married his college sweetheart, Sybil Bralley. They had one child together, David, a son Lokker spent just three days with before he was posted to Italy.

Once in Italy, Lokker flew some 40 missions over enemy territory in a range of European countries including Germany, France, Hungary and Yugoslavia. His exceptional bravery was recognized by a Purple Heart, an Air Medal and a Distinguished Flying Cross. His November 20 mission was to be another extremely dangerous one.

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That day, Lokker’s B-24 had a larger crew than normal because the plane was leading the attack on Blechhammer. The crew’s numbers were swelled to 11 with the addition of a lead navigator and lead bombardier, officers with responsibilities for the entire mission.

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Lokker’s unit, the 465th Battle Group, set off at 7:42 a.m. on that Monday in November. The bombers organized themselves into formation at 5,000 feet and headed for their mission objective. However, poor visibility meant a decision was taken to re-route and head for an alternative, back-up target.

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But visibility unexpectedly improved and suddenly the fuel plant came into view. The decision to head for the secondary target was reversed. As a result, the bomber formation banked and headed once more for their original target at Blechhammer. Lokker, wary of the intense anti-aircraft fire he knew his planes would face, ordered the formation to increase its height from 22,000 to 23,000 feet.

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Now the formation was heading towards its bombing run. That was when disaster struck. An anti-aircraft shell hit Lokker’s plane on one of its wings, between the fuselage and one of the engines. The wing parted company with the plane, rendering it unnavigable. That was the very moment that this dramatic photograph was taken.

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Sitting just to the rear of Lokker, navigator 1st Lieutenant Joseph P. Kutger could see through a side window that the wing had been smashed off the plane. There was likely only a matter of seconds to escape the stricken aircraft. Just beside Kutger was 2nd Lieutenant Joseph S. Whalen, the radar bombardier. Kutger shouted at him, but as there was no reaction and he assumed he must be dead or wounded.

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Kutger now released the plane’s bombs and snatched his own parachute. He jumped out of the bomb bay, still struggling to get his chute on, and is said to have fallen some 20,000 feet before managing to release the canopy. Unaccountably, though, Kutger survived. On the ground, he believed himself to be the only one who had.

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Meanwhile, Lokker, realizing the plane was doomed, had also made it out of the aircraft by escaping through the top hatch. His co-pilot, Captain Milton H. Duckworth tried to get out of a side window. But as he did so, the plane went into a spin. Nevertheless, he managed to scramble to the top hatch and bail out.

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As Duckworth escaped, he saw that Robert M. Hockman and Grosvenor W. Rice, both 1st Lieutenant bombardiers, were still in the nose section of the plane. Hockman crawled out of a wheel bay and parachuted safely to the ground. Rice wasn’t so lucky: he perished in the plane.

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Three more of the crew, James A. Bourne, Lee R. Billings and radio operator Edmund J. Miosky, were at the rear of the Liberator. Miosky was killed as the plane exploded in an intense ball of flame, but Bourne and Billings were more fortunate. The force of the explosion threw them clear of the aircraft.

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Afterwards, neither Billings nor Bourne could recall their involuntary exit from the plane, but both suffered severe burns. Bourne’s rough landing also resulted in a broken leg and the loss of an eye. In a cruel twist of fate, he’d landed smack bang in the Blechhammer plant, the mission’s target. The airman was captured and spent the rest of his war in hospital.

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Gunner sergeants Jack Rabkin and Paul H. Flynn were also killed as the plane disintegrated in the explosion. Rabkin had been manning the top turret, while Flynn took control of the rear. From the 11 crew of the Liberator, then, six had survived. That’s pretty miraculous when you look at the photo of the plane being hit.

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But two of the crew who had escaped the inferno of the plane still faced great peril. Lokker and Duckworth had landed more or less together and had been detained on the ground by a German farmer. The farmer left his wife to keep an eye on the airmen while he set off to search for more of their fellow crewmen. For some reason, though, his wife allowed the two to escape that same afternoon.

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Lokker and Duckworth set off for the river Oder, hoping they might make it to Poland and get help from resistance fighters. But instead they stumbled into some German troops who chased them, firing as they went. Duckworth was taken alive. He last saw Lokker running into undergrowth. That was the last time anyone saw this brave man alive.

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The Liberator’s crew was not the only one to suffer losses that day. Pilot Ernest Taft was flying wingman to Lokker’s aircraft and was hit a little later. Only Taft and his navigator survived. Meanwhile, the bomber directly to the rear of Lokker’s plane was damaged as it flew through the lead aircraft’s burning wreckage. Incredibly, Taft managed an emergency landing at a Russian-held airbase in Poland.

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For most of us, the horror of fighting in a war, with the enemy actively trying to kill you and your friends, is an experience we’ll never have to live through. For that we can be eternally grateful. But this incredibly rare photograph captures a moment which graphically illustrates the reality of armed combat, bringing us uncomfortably close to the sheer terror of war.

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