68 years ago: Snag gets his B-26

On October 19, the 379th Fighter Squadron, 362nd Fighter Group launched an escort mission, but when the medium bombers were recalled because of weather, the fighters went on a strafing mission, destroying five locomotives and damaging a barracks area. The 378th Fighter Squadron bombed the village of Vehe; the pilots spotted seven or eight tanks in the town, and the spotter said their bombing was very accurate. One of the 378th’s planes was hit by flak but it returned safely.

The same could not be said for “the Plastered Bastard,” the group’s B-26 Marauder. The Marauder had replaced a Cessna UC-78 as the group hack; it had been left behind by a bomber unit when it moved, and Col. Laughlin was told by Gen. Otto Weyland that it was his if the group’s mechanics could get it working. That they did, and for several months the B-26 (less guns and armor) was a reliable transport, hauling parts from Britain and taking personnel to and from leaves in London, Paris and elsewhere. This speedy air taxi made the group the envy of other Ninth Air Force fighter groups, especially the 406thFighter Group, whose commander, Col. Anthony V. Grosetta, made a point of how he needed a B-26 “like Joe has” at every Tactical Air Command staff meeting.

Grosetta, known by his nickname “Snag,” contended that the 406th should get its turn with the B-26, or that the 362nd should at least share.

In late October, with Maj. Tom Beeson at the controls, the B-26 made another run to England and back, but on his return, Beeson found the continent socked in. Controllers gave him a steer to Reims, but it was completely covered in cloud; they then helpfully suggested that he head for Mourmelon le Grand, where a C-47 had felt its way out of the murk and made a landing 20 minutes earlier. Mourmelon just happened to be the base of the 406th.

Beeson headed for Mourmelon, still in the thick of zero-visibility conditions. When he finally spotted the runway, he was over the very end, and he’d have to go around again, but fuel would permit only one more pass. He radioed that he’d try one more time and, if that failed, all aboard would be bailing out. He lined up and descended through the clouds, and touched down on the PSP field – but again, well down the runway. With only a few hundred feet of runway left, the B-26’s crew pulled the emergency brake handle, and the three wheels locked and dug into the PSP, resulting in several hundred feet of steel planks dragging behind the skidding bomber. The fuselage was bent, PSP planks had fouled the propellers thanks to the violence of the landing, and the engines’ planetary gears were now shot thanks to the props’ sudden stops. Beeson sheepishly walked to the 406th’s control building which was nearly empty thanks to the weather’s adverse effects on operations; he found a phone and called Col. Laughlin, asking if he should travel into town to find someone from the 406th.

“Tom, find a jeep and get the hell back here as fast as you can,” said Laughlin. When Beeson was safely back at Reims, Laughlin called Grosetta. “Snag, this is Joe,” he said. “You know, we’re grounded today too, and I’ve been thinking about how well our groups have done by cooperating and backing each other up. You know that B-26 you’ve been asking me about for so long? Well… Maybe I’ve been unfair to you, so I’ve decided to let you have it.”

“Joe, that’s a fine gesture on your part,” said Grosetta. “I might even let you use it sometime if you need it. When can we get it?”

“Well, Snag, as a matter of fact we’ve already delivered it. That B-26 is sitting on your field right now.” Grosetta was effusive in his thanks and went to see his gift; Laughlin told his staff to wait 15 minutes and be prepared to see “smoke curl out of the receiver.” Sure enough, the phone rang. “Joe, you lousy sonofabitch! Don’t you realize my airstrip is destroyed? How the hell am I going to explain to General Weyland why we can’t fly any combat missions?”

Luckily, the runway damage was less severe than originally thought and the engineers had the field repaired before the weather cleared enough for flying. The B-26 was hauled to the scrapyard; the next 362ndutility plane was a more sedate C-47A.

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