by Robert A. Waters
French’s carefree school-boy days ended on January 5, 1941, when he enlisted in the army. Five days later, he began basic training, likely at the Southeast Army Air Corps Training Center at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama.
Assigned to the 93rd Bombardment Squadron, 7th Bomb Group, French received training as a gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress. Within months of his enlistment, he obtained the rank of sergeant.
On December 7, 1941, Japanese Zeros bombed Pearl Harbor.
Even before that “day of infamy,” 21 B-17s flew 10,000 miles across the vast ocean to their base at Batchelor Airfield in Australia. Robert French may have been in this group. Or he may have arrived with an earlier group of 14 Flying Fortresses that was sent to defend the Philippines. On March 11, 1942, waves of Japanese Zeros attacked the islands, destroying the entire U. S. Army Air Force there except for a small group from the 93rd BS which happened to be on patrol. This remnant escaped to Australia. Two planes from the squadron flew back to Mindanao and rescued General Douglas McArthur, who had fled the carnage in the Philippines. Before leaving, the general held a news conference and famously stated: “I came through and I will return.”
By now the Ocklawaha country boy, Sgt. R. A. French, a gunner in USAAF, found himself in the middle of some of the most savage aerial combat ever seen.
The B-17 Flying Fortress in which he was a crew member had been nicknamed “Red ‘A’ Baby.” Captain Weldon Smith, from California, piloted the plane until its final crash.
The American bombers were vastly out-numbered by the Japanese Zeros. By June, 1942, most of the B-17s had pretty much been used up. They were kept in the air only by the dedication and ingenuity of crew members who jury-rigged repairs on a daily basis. Few new parts made their way across the Pacific. All new B-17s produced were shipped to Europe – no reinforcements came to relieve the beleaguered 93rd BS.
Robert Alvin French died on June 30, 1942.
The following description of the dogfight and crash that killed him comes from Fortress Against the Sun, by Gene Eric Salecker:
On June 30 two Fortresses from the 28th BS and three from the 93rd BS flew “in the longest combat mission ever flown by the group with a return to the same base.” Taking off from Batchelor Field near Darwin, at 1:45 p.m., the B-17s bombed Kendari airfield on Celebes just before sunset from 8,000 feet through a heavy cloud cover. “Hit the field good,” Capt. [ John A. ] Rouse put in his diary. “Looked like about 150-200 Zeros and bombers on the ground. Figure we damaged or destroyed about 40 of them…” Turning from the attack, the three 93rd BS planes were suddenly jumped by a lone Zero. “He made six separate passes,” wrote Lt. [Edward C.] Teats. The crews from the three Fortresses concentrated their firepower and eventually shot the persistent fighter down but not before he had caused some damage himself. “Evidently,” Teats reasoned, “the pilot was killed or badly hurt and ‘froze’ to the gun triggers, but his last pass got one of Smitty’s [Capt. Weldon Smith] engines.” Throughout the flight, Smith had been losing oil on his No. 3 engine and had planned to feather the propeller after the bomb run. Now, hit in the No. 4 engine, Smith checked his gauges, found that No. 4 was still operating properly and shut down his No. 3 engine.
Having already feathered his No. 3 engine, Smith was coming in for a landing when the damaged No. 4 engine suddenly quit. At the same time, the contact cables on the right side of the plane, failed him, causing him to dive nose first into the ground. Three crewmen were killed in the crash and the other six were badly shaken and injured. Ignoring his own injuries, bombardier Everett “Stinky” Davis went back into the burning plane to save his fellow crewmen. Wrote a war correspondent, “While the ship blazed furiously, he fought his way through the confusion of twisted white-hot girders and roaring flames to pull out the tail gunner. He went back for a side gunner, [and] returned for the other side gunner. Finally, he even thrust himself into the center of the conflagration and struggled out with the radio operator.” A week later, his superiors recommended Lt. Davis for the Distinguished Service Cross.
Robert Alvin French suffered massive injuries and was transferred to a nearby Army hospital. He died there the same day. A military document sent to his parents after the war stated that he was “cut up badly.” It also called him one of the “heroic dead of WWII.” French was buried in the USAF Cemetery Rookwood, Sydney, Australia, next to Sgt. Burke Glover and Sgt. West Bryson, both of whom died in the crash.
After the war, in 1948, the remains of Sgt. R. A. French were exhumed and transported back to the states. He is buried in Longwood, Florida.