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Tragedy at Fulbeck - 2 September 1944

There was a lot of activity going on at the US Air Force Base in Exeter (England). The C-47s of the four squadrons from the 440th Troop Carrier Group received a new identity. The ground crews and crew chiefs received pots with white and black paint and were busy to mark all planes with three white and two black stripes. The so-called invasion stripes were painted around the fuselage near the tail and on the upper and under surfaces of both wings.  The stripes were meant for identification. All airplanes without these markings were considered to be flown by the enemy and had to be shot down.

The planes were also inspected for the last time to participate in Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of Normandy. Soon the paratroopers arrived at the field. During the night of 5-6 June 1944 both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were dropped from 821 planes from the 9th Troop Carrier Command in the area between Sainte Mère Eglise and Carentan. 

One of the planes was the "Bama Belle", a C-47 with tail number 43-15067. Behind the cockpit the Squadron Identification 6Z was painted.  This was the marking for the 96th Troop Carrier Squadron. The other Squadrons in the 440th were the 95th, the 97th and 98th Squadrons, respectively with the markings 9X, W6 and 8Y.

To Fulbeck.

After the Normandy invasion, the 440th moved to their new base at Fulbeck.  Soon the ground crews followed.  The base was known as USAAF Station 488.  The planes flew daily to the mainland of Europe to deliver the urgently needed supplies. On the return trip wounded soldiers were taken back to England.  New operations were planned and canceled.

One of these missions was  dubbed operation Comet, planned  to drop paratroopers near Lille-Roubaix.  Paratroopers would be dropped in front of General George Patton's ground forces.  The first paratroopers of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, began to arrive on the base.  All the planes  were refueled and inspected.  The paratroopers started to pack their heavy equipment and ammunition in the so-called parapacks.

Several of the paratroopers were ordered to take the heavy parapacks to the airplanes.  Trucks were used to transport the bundles.  In one of the airplanes, nicknamed 'Toni', were Irving Brezack and Raymond Clark.

In several other planes were also men, 'guarding' their planes.  Brezack and Clark were sitting in the cockpit, when suddenly the plane was rocked by a heavy explosion.  They climbed out of their plane, taking a small fire extinguisher with them.  The "Bama Belle", parked next to their plane, was on fire.  The fuselage looked as if someone had used a can opener.  The left wing was almost severed from the fuselage.  It was a mess.  Debris started falling from the sky.  Ambulances and fire trucks came speeding with their sirens on.

A detail of paratroopers from I Company, 508th, stopped their truck close to  the "Bama Belle" and started to unload six parapacks.  The packs were heavy.  One pack contained 28 land mines.  This pack was dropped on the ground and exploded on impact.  Later it turned out that one of the mines had a defective detonator.  The explosion caused a chain of explosions and all 28 mines blew up.  It caused a crater of 9 ft in diameter and 4,5 ft deep.

Staff Sergeant Robert W. Shearer, Private First Class William R. Mitchell and Private Louis N. Spera were killed in the blast.  Their remains were taken to the morgue and identified by Lieutenant Fran Mahan, I Company.  The men were buried in the temporary American cemetery at Cambridge.  S/Sgt Robert W. Shearer found his last resting place in the permanent American cemetery at Cambridge in plot/grave number E-3-43.  The remains of PFC Mitchell and PVT. Spera were repatriated and buried in  cemeteries in Ohio and California.

Crew chief Roland Dahlberg was on board of the "Bama Belle".  He had to look after the plane, while the other crew members were having their lunch.  They would relieve Roland as soon as possible.  When the mines exploded Roland was standing in the door with his back turned to the outside of the plane.  He was severely wounded.  An ambulance rushed him to the 348th Station Hospital, where 165 pieces of shrapnel were taken from his body.  It took a while to recover.  Two paratroopers were also wounded in the blast.

The truck and the "Bama Belle" were destroyed. The 42-100821 was also severely damaged. Neither of the planes ever flew again.  The "Bama Belle" (construction number 19533)  was delivered to the USAAF on 31 January 1944 and was less than 9 months old.   On 14 April 1944 the plane was transferred to the 9th Air Force.  The slightly older 42-100821 (construction number 19284) had been delivered on 16 December 1943.   Two other C-47s were damaged, but were repairable.

Patton's ground forces overran the drop zone and the mission was canceled.

[This untold story of the 440th Troop Carrier Group comes from Jan Bos, a Dutch Airborne Troop Carrier Historian.]

(as posted on http://www.aircareintl.org/history/tcc020124.htm)

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