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Memorial marks lives lost 70 years ago at RAF Alconbury

RAF ALCONBURY, United Kingdom – Two of the B-17 Flying Fortresses that were damaged by an explosion at RAF Alconbury on May 27, 1943, sit on the flightline. Nineteen United States Army Air Force 95th Bombardment Group Airmen were killed and 21 others were injured when a 500-pound bomb detonated on the flightline. A memorial plaque was placed in their honor at Alconbury Airfield May 27, 2013. (Photo courtesy AFRA)

RAF ALCONBURY, United Kingdom – Two of the B-17 Flying Fortresses that were damaged by an explosion at RAF Alconbury on May 27, 1943, sit on the flightline. Nineteen United States Army Air Force 95th Bombardment Group Airmen were killed and 21 others were injured when a 500-pound bomb detonated on the flightline. A memorial plaque was placed in their honor at Alconbury Airfield May 27, 2013. (Photo courtesy AFRA)

RAF ALCONBURY, United Kingdom – A damaged B-17 Flying Fortresses sits on the flightline of RAF Alconbury on May 27, 1943, after an explosion. Nineteen United States Army Air Force 95th Bombardment Group Airmen were killed and 21 others were injured when a 500-pound bomb detonated on the flightline. A memorial plaque was placed in their honor at Alconbury Airfield May 27, 2013. (Photo courtesy AFRA)

RAF ALCONBURY, United Kingdom – A damaged B-17 Flying Fortresses sits on the flightline of RAF Alconbury on May 27, 1943, after an explosion. Nineteen United States Army Air Force 95th Bombardment Group Airmen were killed and 21 others were injured when a 500-pound bomb detonated on the flightline. A memorial plaque was placed in their honor at Alconbury Airfield May 27, 2013. (Photo courtesy AFRA)

RAF ALCONBURY, United Kingdom – Col. Brian Kelly, 501st Combat Support Wing commander, and Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Clive Wood, RAF Alconbury RAF commander, stand next to a memorial in honor of 19 United States Army Air Force 95th Bombardment Group Airmen killed when a 500-pound bomb detonated on the flightline May 27, 1943. The memorial plaque was placed in their honor at Alconbury Airfield May 27, 2013. (Photo courtesy Tim George)

RAF ALCONBURY, United Kingdom – Col. Brian Kelly, 501st Combat Support Wing commander, and Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Clive Wood, RAF Alconbury RAF commander, stand next to a memorial in honor of 19 United States Army Air Force 95th Bombardment Group Airmen killed when a 500-pound bomb detonated on the flightline May 27, 1943. The memorial plaque was placed in their honor at Alconbury Airfield May 27, 2013. (Photo courtesy Tim George)

RAF ALCONBURY, United Kingdom -- Nineteen members of the "Mighty Eighth" Air Force's 95th Bombardment Group, United States Army Air Force, who lost their lives 70 years ago where honored during the dedication of a memorial plaque in their honor at Alconbury Airfield May 27.

The event commemorated the day when, at about 8:30 p.m. May 27, 1943, USAAF ground personnel were arming B-17 Flying Fortresses and a 500-pound bomb detonated on the flightline. The explosion set off several other bombs. The sky rained debris from the blast. The shockwaves travelled hundreds of feet in every direction, and in an instant, 19 Airmen were killed and 21 others were injured. The explosions destroyed four B-17 Flying Fortresses and damaged 11 others.

"We were loading fused bombs onto our B-17s, which was the procedure then because it was fast and easy to fuse the bombs on the ground where we could easily reach them," said Harry Conley. "This was the last time we loaded fused bombs ... this was a tragic and expensive lesson."

Eyewitnesses from the time reported seeing an engine from the exploding bomber fly through the air, punch through another B-17 and finally come to rest wedged beneath a third parked over 600 feet away.

"My crew was sitting on blankets and the gunners were cleaning their guns," said Gale House, a pilot at the time. "Lieutenant Frank Metzger, the navigator, and I were sitting on a separate blanket. The explosion took place in the B-17 about 70 feet away from us. Metzger was killed instantly. I suffered cuts from bomb fragments. Members of my crew were all injured in some manner or other.

"We tried to get up and run away from the site at the instant of the explosion, but heavy clods of dirt kept pounding us to the ground. It destroyed the B-17 - blowing a hole in the ground about 6 feet deep and 30 feet in diameter," he continued. "My ship suffered a glancing blow from an engine from the exploded airplane and the fuselage was punctured with holes throughout. Sgt. Cords was in our airplane when the explosion happened and he came out of the ship with multiple bleeding wounds and was a yellow ghost. Apparently, a fragment had disintegrated a package of sea marker we always carried on the ships and this powdered dye had him completely covered. It was a rough beginning for the group."

Off-duty Airmen from the unit at the movies in Alconbury heard and felt the explosion, rushed out of the cinema to find a truck and drove it back to the base to help their comrades.

"Pilot Johnny Johnson, navigator Tommy Lees and I were sitting in the balcony of a movie house in the town of Alconbury," said Leonard Herman. "The shock wave of a giant explosion reached us. We jumped out of our seats and ran out of the film house. We caught the first Army transportation back to Alconbury Air Base. When we got there, the place was in turmoil. There was a big hole in the ground. As we walked across the field, occasionally you would stub your toe or trip on a piece of human anatomy. Mostly it was elbows, or arms, or parts of a leg, it really was an absolute disaster. Not only did it kill a lot of our men and destroy a number of planes, it also brought home to us what our bombs were doing to the Germans when we got a good hit."

The airfield is no longer part of RAF Alconbury and the memorial was brought about through collaboration between the owners and developers of the site, Urban & Civic, and the Airfield Research Group, who are working to capture the historic use of the former airfield during the Second World War and Cold War.

"When we were working through the history of the airfield, we came across a small reference to this incident, which we think is the biggest single loss of life on the airfield throughout its history," said Rebecca Britton, from Urban & Civic. "We discussed it with the Airfield Research Group who carried out additional research which helped us pull together pictures, eye-witness accounts, and crucially the names of the men killed. From there, it just felt like the right thing to do was have a memorial to mark the incident."

"What struck me most about this incident was that the 95th Bombardment Group had only been on base for just a few days, and it must have been devastating for all of those involved, and for their families back in the States," said Col. Brian Kelly, 501st Combat Support Wing commander. "As we also mark 70 years of the U.S. Air Force coming to Europe to join the war effort, it was very moving to be a part of acknowledging this loss, and knowing that our British allies will carry on remembering the sacrifices both countries made in the name of freedom."

It is not always easy to find out more information about events that happened 70 years ago, but through perseverance the team was able to account for all 19 air and ground crewmembers killed in the incident.

95th Bombardment Group Airmen killed in the May 27, 1943, accident:

412th Bomb Squadron
PFC Frank A. Baldassaro, ordnance section
Sgt. Stanley B. Banks, mechanic
Sgt. Frederick W. Briske, mechanic
Cpl. Byron A. Carroll, crew chief
M/Sgt. Thomas F. Cunningham, radio maintenance
Sgt. Sam P. Eliah, mechanic
PFC Albert E. Finn, ordnance section
M/Sgt. John F. Gira, aircraft inspector
Cpl. Wallace F. Henderson, radio maintenance
Sgt. Clinton L. Lewis, mechanic
Sgt. Alvis W. McCool Jr., ordnance section
1st Lt. Frank A. Metzger Jr., navigator
Sgt. Earl C. Rogers, armament section
Sgt. Glen W. Swarts, armament section
Sgt. Jack S. Twiford, armament section
Sgt. Howard R. Welch, armament section

334th Bomb Squadron
Pvt. John E. Carlisle, radio maintenance
T/Sgt. Louis Palmer, radio maintenance

335th Bomb Squadron
2nd Lt. Harry Irwin Jr., ordnance officer