The B17 Flying Fortress Crash - 15th December 1944
The second part of the Memorial
Two B-17 Bombers from the 368th and 423rd squadrons of the 306th Bombardment Group were returning from a tough mission in the German industrial heartland of Kassel on December 15th 1944 when a tragic accident occurred, killing all but two of the 18 American airmen.
Engineer/Top-turret Gunner Staff Sgt Wayne F. Laubert wasn't with his regular crew that day when the message came through to make for Station 486, as Greenham was then known. S/Sgt Laubert, aged just 21, was days from returning home to Missouri after completing 32 sorties of the 35 missions required to complete his Tour of Duty with his Eager Beaver squadron. He had replaced another airman who had appendicitis.
The crack aircrews of the 306th Bombing Group, known as the Reich Wreckers, were some of the most experienced in the US Airforce but the whole of northern Europe was enveloped in fog and the target in Kassel was so completely obscured that the bombs had to be dropped by radar. The weather worsened on return to England and the two bombers, leading the formation back to their US Eighth Air Force base at RAF Thurleigh (headquarters for the 40th Combat Bombardment Wing of the 1st Bomb Division) had to be diverted to Greenham.
However, at about 2,100 ft the 368th B-17G of 2nd Lt Charles A. Crooks collided with the 423rd B- 17G of 2nd Lt Lorn A. Wilke.
Both planes crashed near Greenham Common, killing all but two of the 18 crew. 2nd Lt Wilke remembers hearing a loud noise, followed by an explosion. His plane blew apart at the cockpit and he and his co-pilot, 1st Lt John A. Murphy, were able to bail out, deploy their parachutes and escape. 2nd Lt Charles Crook and the entire crew of the 368th plane were killed. Because of the bad weather, the collision was unobserved by other flyers in the formation.
Both Flying Fortresses ended up roughly two miles apart from each other. 43-37633 (368th plane) near Bishops Green and 43-38019 (423rd plane) near the Swan Roundabout, Newtown, to the west.
An engine of one of the B-17s remained visible for a number of years afterwards, but it has since sunk underground. No visible wreckage of either plane remains.
Per USAAF Accident Report dated January 1945: "Accident was unavoidable. The formation ran into conditions of extreme poor visibility, and it is apparent that neither pilot saw the other aircraft."
After being interred at the US Military cemetery at Madingley, Cambridge, S/Sgt. Laubert was flown back to his home town of Vienna, Missouri, in 1948 to be buried at Visitation Catholic Cemetery.
S/Sgt Laubert was decorated with The Purple Heart, Air Medal and four Oak Leaf Clusters, Bronze Medal, Good Conduct Ribbon, European Campaign Ribbon, two Silver Stars with 3 ratings, and Victory Medal.
His funeral cortege comprised nearly 300 cars and 1,000 mourners. S/Sgt Laubert's family still proudly displays the citation received from President Franklin D Roosevelt:
"In Grateful Memory of Staff Sergeant Wayne F. Laubert, who died in the Service of His Country, in the European Area, December 15, 1944. He stands in the unbroken line of Patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom Lives. And through it, he lives - In a way that humbles the undertakings of most men."
Roll of Honour:
43-37633 : Model B-17G-65-BO 306th Bombing Group 368th Squadron -
2nd Lt Charles A Crooks
2nd Lt John P Mockus (Co-Pilot)
2nd Lt Elija B Slocum
T/Sgt Harold A Polderman
S/Sgt Wayne F Laubert
Sgt Albert W Seaberg
Sgt Joseph M Mandula
Sgt Richard W Miller
Sgt Lloyd Cain
43-38019: Model B-17G-75-BO 306th Bombing Group 423rd Squadron -
F/O Edward S Smolenski
1st Lt Richard E Gard
T/Sgt William R Farrell
T/Sgt Robert K Reis
S/Sgt Walter E DeHoff
Sgt William J Boyle
S/Sgt Gail W Pashon
2nd Lt Lorn AWilke - survived. Transitioned to B-29s Pacific Theater.
1st Lt John A Murphy - survived.