1Lt Eldred “Jack” Whipple: Montello, NV Hero
In June 2003 there was a Montello, Elko County, Nevada town reunion. Those forty plus natives who returned for the reunion shared in the rich small town Americana experience that is emblematic of America’s World War II evolution from isolationism to international superpower. One of the most poignant memories for some was a July 4, 1944 picnic at Bowers Mansion, the historic Comstock era site between Reno and Carson City. Several families that had relocated from Montello to Reno and Sparks, were gathered there to celebrate Independence Day.
That day word arrived that Montello native, Lieutenant Eldred “Jack” Whipple, was killed in action. Word that his status had been changed from MIA to KIA spread fast across Nevada within the closely associated diminutive number of Montello natives.
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In June 2003 there was a Montello, Elko County, Nevada town reunion.
Those forty plus natives who returned for the reunion shared in the rich small town Americana experience that is emblematic of America’s World War II evolution from isolationism to international superpower.
One of the most poignant memories for some was a July 4, 1944 picnic at Bowers Mansion, the historic Comstock era site between Reno and Carson City. Several families that had relocated from Montello to Reno and Sparks, were gathered there to celebrate Independence Day.
Rest In Peace
1Lt Eldred Whipple’s gravesite at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Neupre, Belgium.
Image courtesy Vincent Joris, Cemetery Associate, American Battle Monuments Commission-Ardennes American Cemetery
"...Failed To Make It Back..."
That day word arrived that Montello native, Lieutenant Eldred “Jack” Whipple, was killed in action.
Word that his status had been changed from MIA to KIA spread fast across Nevada within the closely associated diminutive number of Montello natives. He had been listed as missing in action since late March 1944 when the B-17 Flying Fortress he was piloting “failed to make it back” from a bombing mission to Berlin.
With the population of Montello never more than a few hundred, everyone was Jack’s neighbor. Most of the adults at the picnic had grown up with Jack and knew him as both a friend and a schoolmate. When the news that he had been killed in action reached the picnickers all hope was dashed that he was still alive as a prisoner of war and devastated the small holiday gathering.
Jack was born in Montello on May 21, 1916; grew up there and graduated from Montello High School where all grades from first to twelfth were in the same school building.
Graduating from Montello High School he attended what is now Utah State University and then went to work for the Kennecott Copper Corporation. He entered the Army from Ely, White Pine County, Nevada, on July 4, 1942.
Montello Unified School circa 1939, and a typical Montello unpaved street.
Jack is second from the left in this picture of the 1934 Montello High School basketball team.
Attending flight school at Marfa, Texas, he graduated and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant May 22, 1943, and sent to multi engine aircraft transition training at Hobbs Army Air Field, New Mexico.
Betty Lee Perry from Ely, Nevada and Jack were married at Hobbs on June 12, 1943. In his July 26, 1943 inventory of personal information he wrote that his greatest ambition was to become the “oldest living pilot.”
From Hobbs Lt. and Mrs. Whipple moved to Spokane, Washington’s Geiger Field where Jack and his crew came together and began training as a B-17 Flying Fortress combat team.
Engagement picture of Lieutenant Eldred “Jack” Whipple and Betty Lee Perry, Ely, Nevada, 1943. (Beverly Barker)
Sergeant Virgil Moore
The last member of Jack’s crew to arrive at Geiger Field was Sergeant Virgil R. Moore from Columbia, Missouri.
Sgt. Moore had just finished gunnery school at Kingman Army Air Field, Arizona - the same place that after the war was used to collect and dispose of surplus B-17 aircraft. Upon graduation from gunnery school Virgil was immediately sent to Geiger for crew assignment.
On his first day he was called out for assignment to Lt. Whipple’s crew. Reporting to Jack, Virgil was told that as the tenth and last man to report for crew assignment, he would be the ball turret gunner – generally the most undesirable position in the aircraft.
The crew flew day and night at Geiger Field preparing for its overseas assignment.
With the consolidated mess hall open 24 hours a day the flight crews and ground personnel could eat whenever their training schedule provided an opportunity.
The crew honed its skills and waited for its overseas assignment. It came in October 1943. Betty returned from Spokane, Washington to live with her parents Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Perry in East Ely where she soon began working at the Steptoe Valley Hospital.
Handsome Young Cadet
Cadet Eldred J. Whipple, Marfa, Texas, spring 1943.
Jack’s deployment orders were to fly a B-17 to the 2nd Air Force’s Grand Island Army Air Field, Nebraska facility, pick up a new B-17, and fly it to England.
On the flight from Spokane to Grand Island Jack headed southeast and buzzed Montello to show the crew his hometown and then turned south to do a repeat performance over the Perry residence in Ely.
Only this time, Jack had prepared a small parachute and attached a letter to Betty.
Virgil watched out the left waist gun window as they flew close to the ground along the Steptoe Valley with a bordering peak of over 9,400 feet.
Just when Virgil thought they would fly into Garnet Hill at almost 8,000 feet, Jack pulled the B-17 up into a sharp left turn then dropped down almost 3,000 feet to fly over Betty’s house and threw the parachute out the window while people on the ground scattered in fear, and his aircrew held on.
This picture taken from the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) water tower includes a large portion of Montello to include its main street, State Route 233, the town’s only paved street.
The school is in the center with Jack’s house in the center right area. SP facilities are in the foreground.
Jack touched down in Nebraska only to learn there was no new airplane available for the Trans Atlantic flight to England.
The crew took a train to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey where they waited for transportation to England. On Armistice Day 1943 they were convoyed on Army trucks with other GI’s to New York.
That night they boarded the SS Andes, a British ocean liner conscripted by Winston Churchill’s government for wartime troop transport work. In the early morning of November 12, 1943 the SS Andes sailed by itself past the Statue of Liberty to a destination undisclosed to the thousands of GI passengers that included a total of ten B-17 crews.
Like other conscripted wartime ocean liners such as the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, speed was the SS Andes’ defense. It needed no escort to protect it from German U-Boats as it zigzagged alone at high speed across the Atlantic Ocean.
Jack and his crew arrived at Liverpool, England on November 20, 1943, and traveled by train to the 8th Air Force Combat Crew Replacement Center at RAF Bovington.
Being the nearest Army Air Force facility to the USAAF 8th AF and other US Army headquarters, one hangar at Bovington was home to General Eisenhower’s personal B-17. There the crew spent Christmas before being assigned to the 1st Bomb Wing’s 305th Bomb Group at RAF Chelveston, about 70 miles north of London.
Upon arrival at Chelveston they were assigned to the 366th Bomb Squadron of the 305th Bomb Group where they were given their own B-17.
The Original Crew
Lt. Whipple and original aircrew beside a B-17 at Grand Island Army Air Field October 1943.
Top row, left to right, T/Sgt Alexander Grant, S/Sgt Dick Wilson, T/Sgt Frank Ward, S/Sgt Virgil Moore, and S/Sgt Dan Tremitier. Front Row left to right, Lt. Michel James, Lt Eldred Whipple, Lt. John Murphy, and Lt. Oscar Leibowitz; Grand Island, Nebraska, October 1943. Radio operator Harry Hawkins is not in the photo.
Joining the 305th Bomb Group, Jack and his crew found themselves in hallowed company.
Activated on March 1, 1942 at Salt Lake City Air Base, Utah, the Group arrived in England in October 1942. The 305th Bomb Group, known as the “Can Do” group, led the second of the famous raids on the Schweinfurt ball bearing plants on October 14, 1943. The raid cost the 8th Air Force 60 bombers and more than 600 aircrew killed, wounded or missing.
The Group was all but wiped out; losing 13 of 16 aircraft dispatched; the heaviest loss by any Group on the Schweinfurt mission. For this reason the Group was given the Nazi flag found flying in the city when it was captured by the US Army in 1945.
Colonel "Iron Ass" Curtis LeMay
In 1943 the 305th Bomb Group was commanded by Colonel “Iron Ass” Curtis LeMay who later became the 20th Air Force commander in the Pacific campaign responsible for B-29 Superfortress units bombing Japan.
In their dispatches home, American correspondents softened the term to "Iron Pants,” only to be scorned by LeMay because they feared "offending some delicate old - maid type readers.”
Years later, during the cold war, General Curtis LeMay became the commander of Strategic Air Command’s nuclear missile and bomber fleet, and in 1961 became the fifth Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force.
A B-17G ‘Flying Fortress’ camouflaged in olive drab and neutral gray.
The Betty Lee
Jack was aircraft commander of B-17, Tail Number 42--37957, and named the airplane, “Betty Lee,” after his wife.
The name had not yet been painted on the airplane by March 22nd. Rapid expansion of the 8th Air Force and replacement of its combat losses made for a long waiting list for the limited number of servicemen who were sufficiently skilled artists to fulfill the demands for “Nose Art”.
Original Officers of the "Betty Lee"
Pictured left to right are the original aircrew officers of the “Betty Lee”, England in 1944.
Lt. “Whip” Whipple, pilot; Lt. Oscar “Ozzie” Leibowitz, copilot; Lt. Michel “Mike” James, bombardier; and John “Big” Murphy”, navigator. Due to the illness of Lt. James on March 22, 1944, Lt. Glenn Freeborn replaced Lt. James who later completed his 8th Air Force tour of 30 missions.
However, there were rumors that Lt. James was involved in mission planning on some upcoming targets and was pulled for security reasons. (Beverly Barker)
Regularly returning to RAF Chelveston with holes in the “Betty Lee”, Jack’s crew rapidly became used to the realities of war.
On their 17th mission they returned with one engine dead. The loss in power meant they could not keep up with the Group and arrived well after the rest of the aircraft. After a low level pass over the airfield followed by a 180 degree picturesque B-17 banking turn onto final approach, Jack made one of his customary perfect landings.
Taxiing towards the battle damaged airplane’s hardstand he leaned out the cockpit window and smiled at the anxious but relieved bystanders.
Final Mission Of The Month
The 305th Bomb Group was headed to Berlin on March 22, 1944 for the fifth and last time that month. March 1944 was the first month that the 8th Air Force attacked Berlin.
The mission of March 22 was Jack and his aircrew’s eighth mission that month; including all five of the 8th Air Force trips to Berlin. The Group’s primary targets were the Heinkel Plant at Orienburg and the Bayerische Molardwerke at Bosdorf. Its secondary target was the Friendrichstrasse Section of Berlin.
A B-17G in natural aluminum assigned to the same unit as Jack; the 305th Bomb Group, 366th Bomb Squadron.
The mission to Berlin on March 22, 1944 was an 8th Air Force “maximum effort”. Over 1,500 bomber and fighter aircraft participated.
Twenty eight Bomb Groups and eighteen Fighter Groups launched 474 B-17 Flying Fortresses, 214 B-24 Liberators, 125 P-38 Lightnings, 496 P-47 Thunderbolts, and 196 P-51 Mustangs. Lieutenant Whipple was flying his twentieth mission.
Less than one hour from Berlin the number one engine, the most outboard engine on the port side, was damaged by antiaircraft (AA) fire. The propeller could not be feathered so it ‘wind milled’ causing tremendous drag that made the aircraft difficult to control and maintain altitude.
Jack had the bombardier, Lt. Freeborn, jettison their bomb load through the cloud cover in an attempt to maintain Group airspeed and altitude. Still the loss of power and tremendous drag kept “Betty Lee” from maintaining position with the rest of the bomb group.
Jack turned the aircraft back towards England with one P-51 “Mustang” as escort.
Jack flew just above the cloud cover to use the clouds as an aid against attack by German fighters from below the injured B-17. But struggling to fly the airplane back to Chelveston, strong shifting winds caused the B-17 to drift over Bremen, an anti aircraft defensive bastion, where the airplane was again hit by AA. This time the blasts were fatal.
An AA shell exploded near the front of the airplane where the Bombardier, 2Lt Glenn N. Freeborn; Navigator, 2Lt John T. Murphy; and Copilot 2Lt Oscar Leibowitz were killed. Also killed in the AA shelling was the left waist gunner Staff Sergeant Dan W. Tremitier.
Lt. Whipple’s left leg was mangled, but he continued to fly the airplane in order that the surviving crewmembers could bail out.
Last Man Out
Sergeant Moore crawled out of his ball turret, grabbed his parachute, strapped it on and jumped out the bomb bay.
Vaguely remembering events for the first three weeks after he pulled the rip chord, he ended up in a POW hospital to find himself being treated by British doctors who were also Prisoners of War.
In trying to assist tail gunner Staff Sergeant Alexander Grant to exit the dying bomber, Sergeant Ward found that Sergeant Grant’s parachute had been damaged in the AA explosions. He found another and helped Sergeant Grant into it and they jumped. Sergeant Richard Wilson was the last man out of the airplane. He swung only twice after his chute opened before he hit the ground.
Lt. “Whip” Whipple, Lt. Oscar “Ozzie” Leibowitz, Lt. Michel “Mike” James, and John “Big” Murphy. (Beverly Barker)
Lt. Whipple was killed in the immediately ensuing crash of the “Betty Lee”.
She was the only aircraft lost of the nine aircraft launched from the 366th BS on that date, one of two lost from the First Air Division.
A close relative of Jack’s had an amputated leg (This may actually have been his dad who had lost his arm in an industrial accident). Jack said he would, “never live like that”, and although he had always maintained that he would not bail out if he had a leg injury, he may have been so badly injured that he could not bail out.
As it turns out he could not have maintained the aircraft in flight so that the other five crewmembers could bail out and still save himself. Lt. Whipple, recipient of the Air Medal and Oak Leaf cluster, perished while saving the other five still living members of the crew.
The five crewmembers who bailed out became Prisoners of War; radio operator Harry Hawkins, top turret gunner Frank Ward, ball turret gunner Virgil Moore, right waist gunner Richard Wilson, and tail gunner Alexander Grant.
Some of their prison camp mates were Colonel “Hub” Zemke, the famous commander of the 56th Fighter Group, and Lieutenant Colonel “Gabby” Gabreski, also of the 56th Fighter Group and with 32 “kills”, one of the highest scoring aces of WW II. He later became an ace in the Korean War.
Here Lie The Fallen
All five POW members of Jack’s crew survived WW II and returned to the United States after the war.
Jack and the other crewmembers that lost their lives were buried on April 3, 1944 in a new cemetery the Germans had established for allied causalities at Oldenburg, just west of Bremen.
After the end of the war in Europe their remains were moved to the Ardennes American Cemetery in Neupre, Belgium. 1Lt Eldred Whipple is buried in Plot B, Row 36, Grave 4. The bombardier, 2nd Lt Glenn Freeborn, is buried in Plot A, Row 22, Grave 18; the navigator, 2nd Lt John Murphy, Plot D Row 10 Grave 15, and the left waist gunner, SSgt Dan Tretmitier, Plot C Row 22 Grave 11.
Plot B, Ardennes American Cemetery in Neupre, Belgium
There is no record of the colorful copilot, 2nd Lt Oscar Leibowitz.
Although his German capturers said they had found the remains of the other five crewmembers at the crash site, Virgil Moore states that he understood Lt. Leibowitz was “blown to bits”.
On December 24, Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle was also killed when he stayed at the controls of a dying 8th Air Force B-17 so that the rest of the crew could bail out. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for this action. Castle Air Force Base near Merced, California was named in his honor.
8 To Tell The Story
Months later than the 'Betty Lee', General Castle was shot down over Belgium on December 24, 1944.
Only one airman who was already dead was in the plane when it crashed. The other eight men parachuted safely into allied occupied territory. He had eight men to tell his story. None of the 'Betty Lee' survivors surfaced until after the war. They just went home like thousands of other freed prisoners.
Virgil Moore suffered permanent disabilities from frost bite and a serious concussion caused by the anti aircraft fire that brought the “Betty Lee” down.
After the war he returned to his Columbia, Missouri hometown and married his high school sweetheart, Hilda.
In 1947 Betty Whipple married Jessie Barker, a naval aviator from Utah who flew SBD Dauntless dive-bombers and F6F Hellcat fighters in the Pacific during WW II. Retiring after 32 years of Navy service, Jessie and Betty settled in the San Francisco Bay area.
Lt. John “Big” Murphy, Lt. “Whip” Whipple, Lt. Oscar “Ozzie” Leibowitz, and Lt. Michel “Mike” James.