By Jennifer Petkus
By the time Robert Bates joined the 303rd Bombardment Group at Molesworth, England, the chances of surviving 25 combat missions had improved considerably, which might not have been much comfort to the 21-year-old from Hingham, Massachusetts, considering he’d already experienced a crash landing after crossing the Atlantic.
Twenty-five missions was the minimum required before a B-17 crew member could return home to the States and in the early days of the bombing campaign against Germany, it seemed an almost impossible yardstick. Fortunately, the 303rd BG had proved it was possible when Hell’s Angels was the first B-17 in the 8th Air Force to complete 25 missions on May 13, 1943.
There are several competing claims to first, when it comes to heavy bombers of the 8th Air Force. Hot Stuff, a B-24 of the 93rd BG, was the first heavy bomber to complete 25 missions on Feb. 7, 1943. Unfortunately it crashed landed in Iceland when returning to the States for a War Bonds tour. Hell’s Angels was the first B-17 to complete 25 missions on May 17, 1943, and the crew of the Memphis Belle was the first B-17 crew to complete 25 missions (although that crew sometimes flew other planes).
There were several factors that improved my father-in-law’s odds of surviving his tour of duty: strategic daylight bombing had crippled Germany’s aircraft production; skilled German pilots were scarce; long-range fighter interceptors like the P-51 were providing escort all the way to the bombing site; and he flew in the B-17G with its improved forward armament—the chin turret and cheek guns.