of the 99th Bombardment Group
and Training: On September 25, 1942, the 99th Bombardment
Group (Heavy) was activated at Gowan Field near Boise,
Idaho. Colonel Faye R. Upthegrove was designated as the Group
Commander, and Lieutenant Colonel Leroy A. Rainey was designated
as the Deputy Group Commander. The
99th consisted of the 346th, 347th, 348th, and 416th Bomb
to congestion at Gowan Field, the 99th immediately relocated
to Walla Walla, Washington. During October the 99th received
twelve flight leaders with crews, and four B-17 Flying
Fortress bombers. During the first phase of training, the 99th
received six more B-17s. The winter weather in Washington was
not favorable for flying, so the 99th relocated to Sioux City,
Iowa for the second phase of training. By the middle of
November, the 99th had acquired about seventy five percent of
its ground and support personnel. The third phase of training
took place at Salina, Kansas in mid January of 1943. After completion
of training, the 99th departed the United States at Morrison
Field, Florida in February. The 99th B-17s flew the southern
route via Boriniquen, Puerto Rico; Georgetown, British
Guiana; Belem, Brazil; Bathhurst, Gambia; to their destination
at Marrakech, Morocco. The ground and support personnel and
equipment made the journey by ship.
99th was attached to the 5th Bombardment Wing of 12th
Air Force, stationed in North Africa. Also in the 5th
Wing were the 97th and 301st Bomb Groups. The 2nd Bomb
Group would arrive from the United States in April of
1943, to be assigned to the 5th Wing. The 99th was stationed
at Navarin, located near Constantine. The 99th flew its
first combat mission on March 31, 1943. The 99th came
to be referred to as the Diamondbacks, due to a diamond
insignia painted on the vertical stabilizer of their
B-17s. As Allied ground forces forced the German Afrikakorps
to retreat into Tunisia, the 12th Air Force flew missions
to cut off German supplies coming from Italy and Sicily.
For the rest of 1943, the 99th flew missions primarily
across the Mediterranean Sea to bomb targets in Sicily
and Italy. In June, news of a possible Arab uprising
had the men of the 99th nervous and wearing side arms
at all times. Although a major uprising never occurred,
there were acts of sabotage; includng a smal night time
German paratrooper drop over Oudna Field, Tunisia taht
resulted in the capture of three Germans. Summer dust
storms made life miserable. On July 5th the group bombed
an airfield at Gerbini, Sicily. An estimated one hundred
enemy fighters made repetitive and fierce attacks, trying
to turn the 99th back. The group however penetrated enemy
defenses, and destroyed the airfield. For this mission,
the 99th received its first Distinguished Unit Citation.
On July 9th, the group flew missions in support of the
Allied invasion of Sicily. The first Allied air attack
on Rome took place on July 14th. Great care was taken
by the 99th to avoid
dropping any bombs on the Vatican City.
to Italy: On November 2, 1943, the four B-17
groups of the 5th Wing and two B-24 groups of the
9th Air Force were combined with two fighter groups to form
the new 15th Air Force. On its first day of existence,
the 15th flew a 1,600 mile round trip to bomb the Messerschmitt
aircraft factory at Weiner Neustadt, Austria. Also
in November, Colonel Upthegrove left the 99th, having completed
his combat tour. With the Allied advancement up the boot
of Italy, it was decided to relocate the 5th Wing there
in order to bring more Axis targets within reach of the
bombers. Each group was assigned a base on the Foggia plains,
the 99th being stationed at Tortorella. The planes arrived
at Tortorella in December of 1943. Living conditions
at Tortorella were very harsh. The summers were hot and
dusty, the winters cold and wet. Buildings were few, and airplane
maintenance crews worked out in the open. The men
lived in tents using homemade gasoline stoves for heat. The
men constantly had to struggle through mud and water, snow
and ice, or choking dust, depending on the season.
New Commander: After Upthegrove's departure,
the 99th went through temporary commanders until
Colonel Ford J. Lauer assumed permanent command of
the group on February 15, 1944. Lauer came to the
99th from 15th Air Force Headquarters. Throughout
1944, the 99th bombed targets in German occupied
Italy, Germany, Austria, Greece, Bulgaria, France,
Rumania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.
Two more B-17 groups, the 463rd and 483rd, would
be added to the 5th Wing in March of 1944. On April
23rd the group, led by Colonel Lauer, bombed an aircraft
factory at Weiner Neustadt, Austria. The 99th was
the lead group on this mission. The flak was intense,
and aggressive fighter opposition was encountered
but no planes were lost. Despite the heavy opposition,
the 99th made a highly successful bomb run. Thirty-one
of the groups airplanes returned to base, riddled
with flak and bullet holes. For this mission, the
99th received its second Distinguished Unit Citation.
Argument: Operation ARGUMENT was a planned
series of coordinated precision attacks by 8th and 15th
Air Forces, supported by RAF night attacks. These attacks
were designed to target the German aircraft industry.
ARGUMENT began on February 20, 1944, and came to be known
as "Big Week" by
the bomber crews. The German war machine got no rest
during ARGUMENT, however the cost was high in Allied
Frantic: During the last half of May, rumors
were going around that "Something Big" was in the works.
The rumors became fact at 2:00 AM on the morning of June 2nd.
Colonel Lauer revealed that the 99th was going to bomb a railroad
yard at Debrecen, Hungary, and fly on to land at Poltava, Russia
in the Ukraine. At the briefing, Lauer told the men that "One
hundred thirty-million Americans will look upon you today and
you are their representatives in a land where you will be the
first American combat men." The bombing that day
was excellent, and no flak or enemy fighters were encountered.
The 99th became the first task force of the USAAF to land on
Russian soil. The first three days in Russia were non-operational.
The men of the 99th spent their time sightseeing and making
friends with the Russians. The Russian civilians cheered and
saluted the "Americanyetts." On
June 6th, the 99th flew a mission from Poltava,
to bomb the German airfield at Galati, Rummania.
After landing back at Poltava, the men of the
99th learned that the Allies had invaded Europe
on the beaches of France. On June 11th, the 99th
took off to bomb a German airfield at Focsani,
Rummania. They continued on to land back at Tortorella.
The first shuttle mission to Russia was deemed
to be a success.
Dragoon: The invasion of Southern France
occurred on August 15th. The 99th flew missions
on the 13th and 14th, destroying German gun emplacements
and lines of communication near Toulon, France.
The mission of the 15th, was in direct support
of Allied invasion forces. The invasion of Southern
France got little media attention because it
had been overshadowed by the Normandy invasion
on June 6th.
Lauer Departs: Colonel Lauer flew his last
combat mission, leading the 99th on December 26th. The
target was Blechhammer, Germany. The German flak and
fighters were both fierce. The Germans gave Colonel Lauer
a gift to remember by peppering his airplane. Lauer departed
for the United States on January 1, 1945.
Schwanbeck: Colonel Ray V. Schwanbeck
assumed command of the 99th, and led it through
to the end of the European war. During April,
twenty-three missions were flown, primarily in
support of Allied ground forces. The 99th flew
its 395th, and last, combat mission on April
26, 1945. Heavy clouds prevented the target from
being sighted so no bombs were dropped. The group
flew a total of 10,855 combat sorties.
was accomplished: In eighteen months
of operation, the 15th Air Force destroyed half
of all petroleum production in Europe, a good part
of German fighter production, and had crippled
the enemy's transportation system. The 15th dropped
a total of 303,842 tons of bombs on enemy targets
in twelve countries. In all, 148,955 heavy bomber
sorties were flown. The 15th, an outfit that the
8th Air Force referred to as "minor
leaguers," had done a major league job. This in spite
of the fact that the 15th had many fewer groups than the 8th.
It is unfortunate that the 15th Air Force has received virtually
no historical recognition. Almost all books, movies, etc.,
have focused on the 8th Air Force. Many people who study B-17s
are surprised to learn that there even was a 15th Air Force
operating from Italy as the 8th operated from England. The
Axis countries had no doubts about the existence of the "Thunder
From the South."
Written by Ford J. Lauer III
Airplane Sketches from the 99th BGHS