Every picture has a story behind it and this one is no exception. In fact, it has more than one story.
“”Black Cat”” by William Phillips is one of 10 paintings the artist did for the United States Postal Service for a series of stamps that depict “”American Advances in Aviation.”” A series of stamps issued in 1997 that featured “”Classic American Aircraft”” proved to be so popular that the Post Office decided to do this second series. Aircraft chosen for this series illustrate American innovations and technological contributions to military, commercial and general aviation during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.
The aircraft were chosen by the USPS and, after I contacted them, it became obvious that the Postal Service had done its homework because each painting has a story behind it.
The description on the back of each sheet of these stamps simply states “”B-24 Liberator – Designed as a heavy bomber. The Consolidated B-24 Liberator – with its great range and payload/cargo capacity — proved highly versatile during World War II. High-lift wing airfoils and retractable ‘roller-type’ bomb bay doors were B-24 innovations.””
More than 19,000 Liberators were built during World War II and served in every theater of operation – European, the Mediterranean, CBI and the Pacific, as well as coastal patrols. So why was the “”Black Cat”” chosen as the one to be depicted on this stamp? There were other, better known, B-24s, such as those that participated in the 1943 raids on Ploesti.
The “”Black Cat”” was assigned to the 784th Bomb Squadron, 466th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force and was based at Air Station 120 near Norwich, England. It had the dubious distinction of being the last American bomber shot down over Germany in World War II. What happened to it and its crew is a story that was not fully told for another 50 years — not until Thomas Childers researched it for his book “”Wings of Morning.””
On the morning of April 21, 1945, the “”Black Cat,”” Liberator serial number 42-95592, carrying a crew of 12, took off for a mission to Salzburg, Germany. The mission was supposed to be a milk run, but a wrong turn following the bomb run took them over a known flak battery instead of to safety. A lucky hit by the first salvo from the flak battery brought the “”Black Cat”” down. Ten crewmen never came back, but the reason only two of the crew returned, instead of more, was buried in classified files until Childers was able to pry them open. Childers, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and nephew of the “”Black Cat’s”” radio operator, reconstructed the lives of the crew from their training days, the missions they flew, and the plane’s last mission. He did extensive research and even visited the crash site and was able to find and talk to residents who remembered the crash. Amazingly, he was able to bring closure to questions that had remained unanswered for decades.
Childers dedicated his book “”for all those who did not come back, and those who miss them still.””
So what did he uncover about the fate of the 10 crewmen who didn’t return? It’s his book, so I won’t spoil it for you, but I found it a story that needed to be told.
The USPS B-24 stamp commemorates the more than 19,000 Liberators that were built during World War II and the crews that flew them. The bombers that survived the war were chopped up and turned into pots, pans and beer cans. Only a handful survived this mass destruction, which was tragic, but not as tragic as the loss of lives.
So why was the “”Black Cat”” chosen for the stamp series? There were several people involved in the creation of this series and in the selection of aircraft depicted. I’m sure they had a tough time narrowing it down to just 10 and then deciding which specific aircraft to depict. Working behind the scenes were several squadron mates from the 466th Bomb Group. They lobbied to have that aircraft featured in this series of stamps in honor of the “”Black Cat”” crew and all crewmen who gave their last full measure for our country.
Larry W. Bledsoe is an avid aviation historian and writer. He can be reached at 909-986-1103 or BledsoeAvArt.com.