Wednesday, February 27, 2013

To Die 10,000 Miles From Home

The Legacy of Sgt. Robert Alvin French
by Robert A. Waters

My father, John Waters, was born and raised near Ocklawaha, Florida.  He attended East Marion High School with his best friend, Robert Alvin French.  In 1942, French, a gunner in the USAAF, was killed in action.  Here is the story of my namesake, as best as I can piece it together through scattered military records and memoirs.
Robert Alvin French was born August 23, 1922, in Elmore County, Alabama. His father, Thomas G. French, and mother, Leona, moved to Ocklawaha, Florida where French attended East Marion High School.  Fourteen students graduated with the class of 1940.  These included Robert French and my father.  French, the class secretary, was voted “Best Sport.”  The class motto read: “It is the Set of the Sail, and Not the Gale, that Determines the Way We Go.”

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.

NOTE:  If anyone has additional information about Robert Alvin French, please contact me.

Hello Mr. Waters,

I came across this interview while working on research about the 19th BG in WWII and thought it would be of interest to you.


Edward Rogers

Crash of 93rd Squadron B-17E near Hughes Airfield, NT on 30 June 1942

B-17E #41-9014  Red "A" Baby
93rd Squadron / 19th Bomb Group
Capt. Weldon Smith        Pilot                       WIA
Sgt Robert A. French                14025963      DOW
Pvt. Russell C. Thompson     Gunner             WIA

Interview of Pvt. Russell C. Thompson by T/Sgt T.A. McCulloch at Hollandia 13 October 1944 (Walter Edmonds archives - Historical Research Agency - Maxwell Air Force Base -Maxwell, AL

"Story of Unlucky Bombing Mission from Australia to Celebes, Which Ended in Crack-Up of Plane, and Deaths of Three Crew Members"

    “That was an unlucky flight, from start to finish.  We flew from Longreach to Batchelor Field, and took off from there 30 June 1942 on a bombing raid over Kendari.  It was the long distance flight record for the Southwest Pacific for a time, until Maj. Felix Hardison, C.O. of the squadron, a short time afterward made an approach flight on Rabaul from the north, besting us by 200 or 300 miles.

     Our flight of B-17E's went on up to Kendari (Celebes).  We made our run all right, but we got a call on the interphone that one plane hadn’t dropped its bombs, so we dropped back to protect it while it made a second pass.

     We were coming over the top on 2nd one when in come the Zeros.  The other guy beat it into a cloud, and there we were, sitting out in the bright sun.

     There were eight or nine Zeros, all over the place.  Maj. Smith, trying to maneuver, discovered our right aileron had been shot off. 
(NB citation says two engines were put out of commission by ack-ack).

     We limped back 800 miles over the open sea to Batchelor Field.  Maj. Smith called to the field to turn on the landing lights.  But the Aussie and the Americans both had a different I-F-F (Identification-Friend-or-Foe) code numbers at the time, and they wouldn’t turn on the lights.

     We were down close to the tree tops, and running out of gas.  Smith called us that he was going to have to make a crash landing.  The tail gunner never did know we were going down.  It had been a 11-hour flight, and he and I were asleep.  They woke me up and told me.

     Three of us got into the radio compartment.  Frenchie and I stood face-to-face hanging on to the bars overhead.

     We were approaching a fighter strip for a belly landing, when our left aileron broke.  We dropped down and hit the tree tops, and the plane broke in half, right in the radio compartment, where we were.  Frenchie was killed [mortally wounded], West and Burke were killed (Cpl. Robert A. French, Cpl Bryson West and Sgt. Glover J. Burke).

     I didn’t know what happened.  I was pinned down under, heard a crash and went ‘out’.  I came to and realized that the plane was afire above me.  Boy did I holler bloody murder.

     Major Smith came back and dragged me out, altho he was hurt so badly that one arm was useless, gashed from shoulder to elbow - - and cut badly on the top of the head.  I don’t remember any more until I woke up in the hospital.

     Burke was killed instantly, and they never found anything of West but ashes.  Frenchie and I were given a 50-50 chance at the hospital.  My face was badly cut, I had [a] concussion, crushed ribs and a punctured lung.  I was in the hospital five and a half months.

     Every man on the crew was hurt.
(NB - Sgt. John M. Diehl also listed as receiving Purple Heart)

     Later we learned that both Major Smith and I had been promoted the same day – he to Lt. Col. and I to Corporal.  I was in no shape to be told until a couple days later.”



MHN said...

Every single story that passes-on the memory of these men of remarkable heroism is to be treasured. Thank you for sharing this, and may all our brave dead rest in peace.

Bill Bartsch said...

French was not an original member of the 19th Group that fought in the Philippines, but rather a gunner on the B-17E of Lt. Coleman Stripling that left MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, on February 1, 1942 and arrived at Singosari field, Java, on February 17th. However, the runway was wet and Stripling overshot the field and crashed at the end of the field, heavily damaging his B-17E. The crew was left without an airplane for the remainder of their time on Java. On February 26th, French was evacuated to Australia with others on board two B-17Es flown by Ed Teats and Fred Key.

Hope this clarifies his experience pre-Australia.

William H. Bartsch
October 18, 2020

Robert A. Waters said...

Thank you, Bill Bartsch. More information about my namesake.