The U.S. Army Air Forces planned to use daylight strategic bombardment to cripple the Nazi war effort in Europe, and the bloody campaign started in earnest in early 1943. Quickly, the courage and willingness of American Airmen to sacrifice all to defeat a determined and dangerous enemy was put to the test. On March 18, 1943, 1st Lt. Jack W. Mathis took that test and answered with his life.
Destruction of German submarine production was the AAF's highest priority. Mathis was the lead bombardier of the 359th Bombardment Squadron's (303rd Bombardment Group) attack on the submarine marshalling yards at Vegesack, Germany. The accuracy of the lead bombardier was crucial to the mission's success. If Mathis' aim was off, all of the following bombers would also be off target.
As the American bombers approached the target, Mathis took careful aim at the target 24,000 feet below and opened the bomb bay doors. With his eye pressed to the Norden bombsight, Mathis was less than one minute away from releasing his bombs when an antiaircraft shell exploded near the right nose of his B-17, named The Duchess. Fragments from the shell shattered the Plexiglas nose, nearly severed his right arm above the elbow, and caused deep wounds in his side and abdomen. The concussion threw him to the rear of the nose section. Nevertheless, Mathis went back to his bombsight and accurately dropped his bombs before collapsing dead over his bombsight.
Reconnaissance photographs later revealed that seven submarines and two-thirds of the shipyard had been destroyed. For his extraordinary effort, 1st Lt. Jack W. Mathis posthumously received the Medal of Honor, the first awarded to an 8th Air Force Airman.
In warfare, irony can often be terribly bitter, and such was the case with Jack Mathis. His brother Mark, also a bombardier, was visiting the airfield when The Duchess landed with Jack's dead body. At Mark's request, he was soon transferred to the 303rd Bombardment Group, only to be killed later on his fourth combat mission. The Duchess completed 59 missions before being retired from combat, and Jack Mathis was the only casualty its many crews suffered.
Deadly Skies over Europe
The term "flak" was the German abbreviation for the term Fliegerabwehrkanone, which meant antiaircraft gun, but Allied aircrews used the "flak" as a slang term for the exploding antiaircraft shells. An 8th Air Force study of Airmen wounded in action found that fragments from flak accounted for 71 percent of the wounds during the war.
The lethal burst for the 88mm, the most common German heavy antiaircraft gun, was about 60 feet in diameter, and it could be fired at a practical rate of 15 rpm. To drop their bombs accurately, American bombers had to fly straight and level over their target, making them easier targets for German flak guns clustered around important targets.