Note: This article has been excerpted and adapted by the author from her book “My Father, My Friends ~ Memories of World War II,” which is based on her interviews with World War II veterans.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, native Iowan and farm boy Chester Peek knew his life was headed in a direction he’d never imagined. An engineering graduate, Peek also had a commercial flying license by the time he joined the 95th Bomb Group in October 1942.
Peek shipped overseas to England as part of the 336th Bomb Squadron.
While he was stationed at the temporary base of Parham, there was an accidental, disastrous explosion of the 412th Bomb Squadron’s B-17s at Alconbury.
The tragic loss of a large number of ground crewmen and aircraft on the evening of May 27, 1943 (19 men killed, 21 injured, four B-17s destroyed, and 11 B-17s damaged) was a serious blow to the 412th.
Just four days later, Peek was transferred to the 412th Bomb Squadron as its Engineering Officer.
On July 1, the remaining B-17s and ground crews moved to their permanent base at Horham Airfield.
“Since I was assigned to the unit that was decimated, it meant I had some rebuilding to do. No missions were flown for almost two weeks,” recalls Peek, “and for about a year afterward, we would get people back who had been wounded in that terrific blast.”
Peek, 22, was promoted to captain on Nov. 8, 1943. He had many opportunities to fly along as copilot when the B-17 engines were being slow-timed (operated at low rpms) after initial installation. Occasionally, he’d ride along on a short mission, usually in the nose of the airplane.
“I particularly remember one mission I went on,” Peek says, “we went in low, around 16,000 feet, and heavy flak from an 88mm antiaircraft gun burst under our number three engine and peppered the plane thoroughly. We lost our oxygen supply, but at 16,000 feet we managed without it. A fairly large chunk hit the ammo box I was using for a seat, and for a minute I thought I was hit, but it had just spanked me a bit. I have kept the shrapnel as a souvenir.”
“Keep ’em Flying”
Peek’s role as engineering officer was to “keep ’em flying,” regardless of battle damage that the B-17 Flying Fortresses may have incurred.
“When the B-17s came back from their bombing missions, they taxied off the runway to the ‘hardstands’ (large circular concrete parking pads), and I’d go out and talk to the pilots and inspect the airplanes for damage. I’d coordinate repairs if necessary, or get the airplane ready for the next day’s mission,” says Peek. “We worked outside, and could do engine changes in 10 hours or so. If there was much wrong with an engine, we changed it because it was quicker, and we didn’t have the space or tools to work on things. Our sub-depot would take care of the intricate overhaul work. Our maintenance was surprisingly routine, partly because the war went on so long. We had 300-and-some missions, and you get good at anything you do a lot.”
Peek remembers that “if the B-17s had wounded aboard, they would fire red flares when they were above the airfield. Then they would roll from the end of the runway right off into the taxiway, and the medics would go to them.”
“Of course, we never saw the worst battle damage — those airplanes didn’t make it back. We saw some of the gruesome stuff — one of the planes came back with an 88mm hole through the waist of the airplane,” recalls Peek. “The shell punched a round hole in the bottom of the fuselage and another one through the top as it exited the aircraft. The shell didn’t explode, but it went right through a gunner.
“We saw damage to the airplanes all the time,” he continues. “If an airplane was heading back to the field and the pilots were having trouble controlling it — for instance, if some of the flight-control cables had been shot — they were directed to a special runway down at Woodbridge, which was about 10 miles south of us. That concrete runway was a half-mile wide and three miles long.”
There was a cohesive sense of family within the 95th, and events that affected one unit were felt by all. In light of this, Peek shares his perspectives regarding several bombing missions.
“Bill Lindley’s B-17 was one that survived the Group’s infamous bombing mission at Kiel, Germany, on June 13, 1943; that was the worst day of the war for the 95th,” he recalls. “We lost 10 of the 24 planes sent out, and the 100th Group lost all but one of theirs. After we had run 25 missions, we had lost 32 planes of the 36 that we had flown to England from the States. The next day, we only had one plane ready to go out and fly.”
“Our 26th mission was Regensburg-Schweinfurt. It was the first of our shuttle missions; the 3rd Air Division, led by General Curtis LeMay, took off at dawn, bombed the Regensburg Messerschmitt factory and flew on to North Africa, thus confusing the enemy,” says Peek. “The 1st Air Division was scheduled to take off an hour later and bomb the ball bearing plants in and around Schweinfurt, but their takeoff was delayed. LeMay led 146 B-17s to the target; 24 planes were lost by the 3rd Division, and 36 were lost by the 1st Division. Strike photos showed the Regensburg results to be excellent; fighter production would be significantly reduced.”
The 412th Bomb Squadron of the 95th Bomb Group (H) was part of the 3rd Bombardment Division of the 8th Air Force. The Division received Battle Honors, and was cited for “outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy on Aug. 17, 1943.”
Occasionally there were mishaps at the airfield, well before an airplane departed on a mission. Tragedy struck on Nov. 19, 1943, at Horham, when a B-17 banked left and stalled after takeoff.
“I remember the crash quite well,” Peek says, “it was the only one that caused fatalities that I recall. I was sitting in my jeep near the end of the runway, and the planes were taking off to the west. One plane looked troubled from the start. It couldn’t climb, and as it made a slow turn to the left, about 90° or so, it finally stalled and fell. There was a huge explosion, but we couldn’t do anything for the crew. There were no survivors.”
Although the 95th Bomb Group suffered grievous losses early on, they became the most decorated group in the European Theater. Now, 70-plus years later, Peek is a robust 95-year-old, and remains steadfastly proud of the Mighty Eighth Air Force.
Though he doesn’t readily mention it, he received a Bronze Star and citation for “meritorious achievement in connection with military operations against the enemy as squadron engineering officer in the European Theater of Operations from June 1, 1943, to June 12, 1944.
“Captain Peek has so thoroughly trained his men that the aircraft supervised by them have established outstanding records in combat. During the first days of the invasion when the entire undertaking depended immeasurably on assistance from the air, his squadron achieved a perfect operational record. His leadership and superior technical knowledge reflects the highest credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United States.”
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